March 08, 2007
Last weekend David and I rented American History X, a film about a former skinhead who tries to prevent his younger brother from following in his footsteps. It was a little simplistic but the basic message of the film -- hate doesn't get you anywhere -- was true enough.
From the very first shot, I could tell that the movie was set in Venice (or Venice Beach, as the film referred to it), California, one of my hometowns. The movie portrayed Venice as an actual city, but it is really just a neighborhood of Los Angeles, the part that borders Santa Monica to the south. Venice got its name from its developer, Abbot Kinney, a tobacco millionare who wanted to replicate Venice, Italy in California because it was his wife's favorite city. He did a pretty good job, too. There is a gorgeous system of canals flanked by posh houses, and when I went to Venice, Italy, I found myself in a piazza surrounded by buildings just like the ones on Windward Avenue in Venice, California. It was surreal to visit the original after having lived in the replica. Venice is probably most famous for its boardwalk, the strip along the beach where you can ogle all manner of humanity, purchase drugs and cheap sunglasses, participate in a drum circle, get a tattoo, have your tarot cards read, or receive an acupuncture treatment.
My mom and I moved to Venice in January of 1996. I was sixteen years old and my mother had just divorced my evil stepfather. We moved into an apartment in the now-infamous Lincoln Place housing project. Originally built in the late 1940s to house returning GIs, these were gorgeous, high-quality apartments, located about a mile from the beach (we called it "the beach house"). We had a light and airy second-floor apartment with windows on three sides. You can see a picture of it here (click on the third thumbnail photograph in the top row -- ours was the center building, upstairs left unit, behind the tree). We lived there until 2000, by which time I was in college; my mom moved out just before we would have been evicted for a massive renovation that has turned these affordable apartments into luxury dwellings.
I loved living in Venice and watching American History X made me amazingly homesick. The theme of the movie, however, puzzled me. It was about disaffected white kids in Venice who form a skinhead gang and go around terrorizing and victimizing Venice's black population. The film centers on Venice High School, and I really can't comment on the racial politics there because I never went to Venice High: my mom managed to exploit some loopholes in the districting system to keep me at Santa Monica High (affectionately known as "Samo"). So maybe I just missed something or had my head in the sand, but I really don't remember a whole lot of racial tension in Venice. And the film was made in 1998, which is when we lived there. This isn't to say that there aren't ghettos and gang feuds in Venice, but the movie just portrayed the whole city as a war zone, which it certainly wasn't. Overall, I feel lucky to have been able to live somewhere with such a notable roster of current and former residents, but Venice's glitz and notoriety probably helped contribute to making it such a desirable locale that the owners of Lincoln place could get away with evicting 795 middle- and working-class families to build luxury housing.
March 06, 2007
A Window on the English Class System
For the past week or so, David and I have been watching the "Up" series: a series of television specials produced in England that interviewed the same group of people every seven years beginning when they were seven. So far we have seen the first four films: 7 Up, Seven Plus Seven, 21, and 28 Up. The series is based on the saying, "give me a child to the age of seven and I'll give you the man." They never say where this phrase comes from, but the series continually questions whether, at the age of seven, you can predict how a child will turn out, or what kind of adult he or she will become.
In England, for the most part, you can tell what kind of adult a seven-year-old child will become because the class system basically determines it. For example, at the age of twenty-eight, the four children from the East End are still working class, while the three boys from the exclusive Kensington pre-prep school are lawyers and BBC producers. The two boys from the children's home are manual laborers. The kids who went to "public" (private) school plan to send their kids to "public" school, while those who went to "state" (public) schools plan to send their kids to "state" schools. There were, however, a few surprises: the poshest boy (who is already in boarding school at seven years old because his father lives in Rhodesia) ends up teaching school in the East End and living in a Council estate, but you can tell that he is headed there by the age of seven because he is super-sensitive and wants to help people. Another surprise is the Yorkshire farm boy who ends up becoming a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin, but again this isn't a real surprise because, at the age of seven, he has no interest in farming and wants to "learn about the moon." Some of the kids turn out just how you would expect. John, the smarmiest of the bunch, is already defending his privilege at the age of seven. When he and two friends were asked whether prep-school house captains should be elected or appointed, one of his friends says that it is fairer to have them elected. John agrees that it is fairer to elect them, but goes on to say that it is "better" to appoint them. Over the next three films, he continually defends the class system and the "public" (private) school system, having no qualms about getting advantages that the East End boy or the boys from the children's home didn't have. When asked if he wants to be rich when he grows up, he says no, he just wants to have enough money so that he doesn't have to work and can pursue other interests, like collecting art. If that isn't rich, then what is?
The first time I went to England, it was January 2000 and I was twenty years old. This class system was still firmly in place, and I was shocked and disgusted by the upper-crust among whom I found myself surrounded at Cambridge University. For the first time in my life, I was proud to be an American. When I expressed this view to my fellow Americans, they told me I was naive: the U.S. had just as much of a class system, they said, but it was more insidious because it was hidden behind a facade of supposed meritocracy. They are probably right, but at least we have an ideology of equality even if we don't have equality in practice. For me, the ideology provides hope. In England, the poor kids, even as adults, didn't have any sense of outrage at the system that had produced them and, for that reason, it will probably never change.
February 26, 2007
I should probably start this post by admitting that I didn't actually watch the Oscars last night. In fact, I haven't watched them since 2003, not for any good reason, just because David and I can't watch television at home, and I haven't had an invitation to watch them anywhere else. In 2003 I was at my friend Christina's in New York visiting grad schools, so I watched with her. In 2005 I was in London on Oscar night and wasn't about to stay up all night to start watching at 1am. This year I actually did have an invitation: my friend Allison had an Oscar party, which I missed for three reasons:
- The lateness of the hour. Having grown up in Los Angeles, I always forget that the Oscars start three hours later here than they do there. I was totally geeked to go to Allison's until I found out that the ceremony wouldn't even be starting until 8pm. On a work night.
- The weather. It had snowed quite a bit on Saturday night, and they were predicting more snow and freezing rain on Sunday night, so staying in seemed the safest option.
- General lameness. This is really just a summary of the first two reasons. I'm embarrassed to have even listed them because they make me sound like I'm about 80 years old, which I'm not, though I guess sometimes I act like I am.
In absentia, I was rooting for Little Miss Sunshine. David, on the other hand, doesn't "root" for the Oscars. He goes totally crazy over college football, but somehow can't get behind giving awards for movies. As an erstwhile Angelina, in my family, the Oscars are the Super Bowl. I reminded David that my mom was a good sport when she was here for the Rose Bowl (yes, she came from Pasadena to Ann Arbor and watched it with us on television), rooting for UM against USC, but he still couldn't quite bring himself to express support for Little Miss Sunshine.
This morning, however, when we heard on NPR that The Departed had won Best Picture, we were both a bit surprised. David thinks it was awarded as a recognition of lifetime achievement for Martin Scorsese because, while we both liked it, it wasn't that good. Certainly not better than Little Miss Sunshine! We were both pleased that Forrest Whitaker won Best Actor for The Last King of Scotland and, of course, bummed that Abigail Breslin didn't win Best Supporting Actress for Little Miss Sunshine.
We were also both disappointed that they didn't announce the winner for the Live Action Short Film category on NPR this morning. Granted, they didn't announce it because most people could care less about the short films, but David and I cared because we had actually seen them. On Saturday we joined our friends Josh and Sara at the Michigan Theater to watch the five Oscar-nominated short films. Some of them were really good -- Josh, Sara, and I liked The Saviour, while David's favorite was Eramos Pocos -- and a couple were pretty bad. We were all amused by West Bank Story, which did win the award. It was a hilarious musical takeoff of Westside Story, set at neighboring (and rivalrous) falafil stands on the West Bank: Kosher King and Hummus Hut. David predicted that it woud win because it would push all the right buttons among the Hollywood crowd, and he was right.
I was particularly bummed to have missed the Oscars this year because I had actually seen so many of the nominated movies. Maybe next year I'll be a little less lame. And maybe one of these years they will stop having the thing on Sunday nights!
February 23, 2007
I have discovered the world of podcasts, and have been listening to them at work. My work at ICPSR can pretty much be summed up as data work: my first job involved finding bibliographic data and then entering it into a database my boss had made; now I spend my days manipulating computer files -- converting pdf files into text files, editing them, and converting them into xml files -- and moving them from one part of the server to another. This is work I do on my own at a computer, and it really helps to listen to something while I do it. When I started back in 2001 my computer didn't have a sound card, so I just listened to CDs. When I got a computer with a sound card, I began streaming Michigan Radio, our local NPR station. But a couple of weeks ago, I came across a link to Stash and Burn on the blog Yarn-A-Go-Go, one of my semi-regular lunchtime reads (yes, I am one of those geeks who eats her lunch at her desk while reading blogs -- often knitting blogs). The idea of a knitting podcast seemed so novel when I discovered Stash and Burn, but after listening to episodes 2-4 (somehow episode one didn't make it to the archives), it began to occur to me that Jenny and Nicole probably didn't invent the knitting podcast. And, sure enough, I have slowly been finding many more. Here is the list so far, readers, in case any of you are dorks like me and want to listen:
I have to admit that I have become pretty obsessed with these, especially with Math 4 Knitters because it combines two of my very favorite things. The other day, David called me to ask if I was listening to Talk of the Nation. Normally, TOTN is one of my favorite shows, but that day I wasn't listening. When he asked what I was listening to instead, I answered, a bit guiltily, "podcasts about knitting." His reply: "I can't believe you just said you are listening to podcasts about knitting."
February 12, 2007
Back to the Movies
So now I have rounded out my moviegoing experience by seeing Pan's Labyrinth, the third of the recent trio of films by Mexican directors (the first two being Babel and Children of Men). I saw it with Elizabeth, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth's husband Henry. Three others were supposed to join us but stayed home in order to keep warm, finish reading for a seminar, and build a compost pen. All I have to say is that they missed out.
Pan's Labyrinth was fantastic, and I loved every minute of it despite the fact that I'm usually not into fantasy and I hate talking animals. What I loved about Pan's Labyrinth was that the fantasy was a perfect complement to the reality of the Spanish Civil War, the movie's historical setting. As Spain was going to hell (to the Fascists) all around her, Ofelia escaped into a world of peace and harmony, where she was a princess, along with her mother, father, and baby brother, innocents caught up in the conflagration. Henry remarked that all of the characters were totally believable, and I had to agree. Even El Capitan, the evil captain of Franco's army, was believably evil. He made a bone-chilling speech about wanting his son to grow up in a "clean Spain," in which the Republicans, with their "mistaken idea that we are all equal" had been defeated, which gave me insight into the thinking of our current Republican (but the other kind) administration. He was played by Sergi Lopez, who was also the bad guy in Dirty Pretty Things, and who does evil remarkably well. Pan's Labyrinth was fantastic, though also quite depressing, as we all know that the bad guys do eventually win. That is the problem with historical films: we know the end before we even go in.
It's now playing at the State Theater which tends to keep movies forever, so if you haven't seen it yet, there should be plenty of opportunities.
February 06, 2007
One Weekend; Two Movies
Last weekend I went to the movies for the first time in 2007, and I went twice: to Venus on Saturday and Children of Men on Sunday. Although the two movies were about as different as could be, there were some interesting similarities.
Venus was definitely the lesser of the two movies. I saw it with David and Ken, and it left us all a bit disappointed. Ken rated it "not bad," I said it was "pretty good," and David even went so far as to call it "good." Peter O'Toole was excellent, but the plot was a bit hard to believe. Why would an elderly actor fall in love with an 18-year-old girl with no redeeming qualities? About five minutes into the movie, I realized that I had seen a preview for it a while back, and had thought at the time that it looked pretty lame. Granted, the movie was better than I had expected from the preview, but still nothing to write home about (though I guess that is exactly what I am doing).
I liked Children of Men quite a bit, despite the over-the-top violence and the fact that I didn't entirely get the premise. It was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who did Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter #3, both of which were excellent. I didn't realize until the credits that Children of Men was based on a book by P.D. James. It is set in England in 2027, by which point all the world's women have become infertile and the world is suffering from a dearth of hope, which has led all governments to fall apart except Britain. Britain has instead turned into a police state, trying to protect its natives from the flood of refugees who have left other failed states. The plot centers on the first woman to become pregnant in eighteen years, a refugee who must be smuggled to "The Human Project," which may or may not actually exist.
What the two movies had in common was their English setting and the fact that both movies present England pretty realistically. In fact, the most chilling thing about Children of Men is that, even though it was set in a post-apocalyptic future, its portrayal of England was not very exaggerated. I remember the first time I was there, being appalled at the paranoia about "asylum seekers" and at their treatment as less than human. See Dirty Pretty Things for an excellent look at the desperate living conditions of refugees and illegal immigrants in Britain. The trash everywhere? Again, not so far from reality. And in one of the first scenes, a bomb tears through a coffee shop for no apparent reason, which again resonated with my own experience of England.
I appreciated both movies for not romanticizing England, the way that American movies tend to do. Watching Wimbledon and the two Woody Allen movies set in London just drove me crazy because they play right into American stereotypes about England and the English people. They portray London as clean, grand, and beautiful, and the English as uniformly wealthy, intelligent, and well-mannered. While the English upper class are very wealthy and intelligent (because only they can afford higher education), and live in posh, clean, grand environs, they make up probably less than one percent of the population. Everyone else lives in dirty, cramped housing with shared bathrooms and few proper kitchens. And nobody is well-mannered, with the exception of my dear friend Niall and his friends.
I can think of two reasons off the top of my head why Americans almost uniformly romanticize and glamorize England. First, we are obsessed with the royal family and assume that they represent the English people. Second, we see England as this Eden that we have been exiled from into the frontier wilderness of the New World. Granted, we claim that this frontier wilderness has ultimately made us better people (see Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis), but we romanticize the image of our "Motherland" as being everything that we are not -- ie clean, intellectual, and well-mannered -- even as we make fun of the English for being effete in contrast to our American ruggedness.
December 12, 2006
The Weaker Sex
An Ann Arbor News article reprinted from the New York Times revealed on Sunday that men are actually the weaker sex. Apparently, the male life expectancy is five years shorter than the female life expectancy for white men and over ten years shorter for black men. Men also suffer from higher rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
The article quotes Dr. Demetrius J. Porche of the Louisiana State University School of Nursing, who states that "we've got men dying at higher rates of just about every disease, and we don't know why," but the author of the article makes the why pretty clear: men don't take care of themselves as well as women do. Graphs in the article show that men have higher rates of smoking, drinking, and obesity. The three diseases -- heart disease, diabetes, and cancer -- are all linked to diet and exercise, and it does seem that men don't do as much cardiovascular exercise as women do and that they consume much less healthy diets. Men tend to eat more meat than women do (as meat has been associated with masculinity ever since hunter-gatherer days), particularly red meat, which has more saturated fat than chicken or fish. Women also eat more fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants that protect against cancer. Diabetes is related to obesity, which is much more socially acceptable for men than for women.
The charts also show that women are more likely than men to seek medical attention, to follow doctors' orders, and to take preventative health measures (such as getting a flu shot). Perhaps it is more socially acceptable for women to go to the doctor because we have always been considered the weaker sex, the ones more in need of medical attention. After all, it isn't manly to seek help.
While the article points out that men are more likely to suffer from these diseases than are women, it doesn't delve into the rates of death, aside from noting that "more women die of breast cancer than men do of prostate cancer." I have also heard anecdotally that, while men are more likely to have heart disease, women are more likely to die from it because they are less likely to know that they have it and get it treated. Because more men than women have heart disease, it has long been considered a male disease, even though it is the number-one killer of women. Furthermore, men and women experience heart attacks differently: men feel pain in their left arm while women are more likely to feel it in their back. But it is the male symptoms that get publicized, which means that a woman who is having a heart attack might not even realize it until it is too late. Furthermore, because medical research was, for a long time, carried out only on male subjects, treatments for these diseases may not be as effective for women as they are for men.
All this being said, I will admit that there is still an element of mystery. The article points out that male fetuses are at greater risk of stillbirth and miscarriage, and that male babies suffer higher rates of infant mortality. These deaths obviously can't be explained by lifestyle or socialization. Perhaps women are just stronger. That would explain why men have felt the need to opress us for so long!
December 07, 2006
A New Game
On the recommendation of both my father and David's Uncle Bob, David and I have been Netflixing the HBO series Deadwood. David likes it better than I do so far, but he is critical of the show's language. A lot of expletives get thrown around on Deadwood, which doesn't bother David in and of itself. Rather, he is concerned about the overuse of one word in particular, an adjective referring to male genitalia that all of the characters constantly use to describe all of the other characters. To David, this seems unrealistic. Perhaps it would be fine if it was just one character who used this adjective, but they all seem to use it way too much. As we watched last night, David proposed a drinking game: each time we heard this word, we lifted our glasses and took a slug. Fortunately, we were both drinking water -- otherwise we would have been under the table before the end of the first episode!
December 04, 2006
The Omnivorous Life
About two weeks ago, I promised a future post on the ethics of eating meat, based on my reading of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. I had just started the book when I made that promise, but over the past two weeks, David and I just gobbled it up (sorry, I couldn't help the obvious pun) -- we even fought over who got to read it when, as we only had one library copy between the two of us. We both finished it yesterday, David around 3am and I around 3pm. I predict it will provide a lot of grist for the blog mill.
The Omnivore's Dilemma explained in great detail what it means to be an omnivore, and how our bodies evolved to require the immense variety of animals, plants, fungi, and minerals we feed it. Over the course of the book, Pollan argues from biology to debunk just about every food fad that has ever come along. Further, he explains why we as Americans are so susceptible to food fads, which goes back to the eponymous dilemma: as omnivores, we can eat just about anything, and thus must learn to distinguish between items that nourish us (edible mushrooms, for example) and those that kill us (poisonous mushrooms). Human cultures have, over long periods of time, evolved complex rules to help us negotiate this dilemma, such as the laws of kashrut and national cuisines. As Americans, however, we lack this carefully evolved cuisine, the age-old traditions of what to eat and how to eat it that keep people in other parts of the world thinner and healthier than we are.
Lacking a time-tested alimentary path, our food habits have gone in two dangerous directions. First, toward capitalist cuisine. Pollan does not actually use this phrase, but he does describe how our diets have come to focus on corn (used in myriad ways, from a starch and vegetable, to feed for our animals, to sweeteners, binders, and fillers, to an ingredient in food packaging), which he argues is the perfect capitalist crop because it cannot reproduce on its own and because the varieties that have been engineered to have the highest yield don't produce their own seeds (which means the farmers need to buy expensive patented seeds each year). Capitalist cuisine privileges foods that are cheap for consumers, profitable for food manufacturers (but not farmers), and disastrous for our health and the health of our planet. The other direction is food fads. Capitalist cuisine clearly makes us fat and sick and, in an effort to combat our expanding waistlines and diminishing lifespans, people are quick to jump on the bandwagon of whatever quack has proposed a supposedly-better way of eating, which usually involves giving up one or more of the three macronutrients: fat, carbohydrates, and animal protein.
I have certainly been susceptible to such fads, going through periods of vegetarianism and even veganism in search of better health and a more humane way of eating (I'm not an animal rightist by any measure, but I was convinced by Frances Moore Lappe's argument in Diet for a Small Planet that meat production uses valuable resources that could more efficiently be used to feed the Earth's human population). Pollan, too, experimented with vegetarianism while researching his book, but ultimately went back to eating meat when he realized that, as omnivores, meat is part of the diet we evolved to eat. Furthermore, animals evolved to be eaten by us. While animal rights activists argue from the position that every individual animal has the right to life, Pollan argues from the evolutionary perspective that animal species fare better when we eat them. For example, an individual chicken would certainly live longer if people didn't eat chickens, but the species chicken would quickly go extinct if we weren't breeding them for food. In other words, it is in animals' best interest (evolutionarily speaking) to serve us with their eggs, milk, and flesh. Human beings also need animal products, though not in the quantities Americans are accustomed to eating them. We have incisor teeth and stomach enzymes that serve no other purpose than to process meat. Eating meat also allows us to obtain energy from plants that we can't eat ourselves: cows are ruminids, which means they have a stomach specially designed to digest grass, which is indigestible to humans. By eating beef, we get the protein and energy the grass soaks up from the sun. Furthermore, when beef is produced in environmentally-sustainable ways, its production actually makes the soil healthier. While humans can survive on an all-plant diet, such a diet would actually be more detrimental to the soil because it would use up soil nutrients without replacing them in the form of manure. There are also parts of this world that can't produce anything other than grass, which would be useless to us without animals to turn that grass into digestible protein. Granted, most of the meat we eat today is produced according to methods that are harmful and unsustainable (I'll describe this at greater length in another post), and this is a serious problem, but that doesn't mean we should throw out the cow along with the factory farm.
Finally, Pollan points out that the development of human brains occurred along with the expansion of our diet: the more different foods a species eats, the larger of a brain it needs. His tongue-in-cheek implication for food faddists is that, the more we restrict our diet, the smaller our brains will become.
December 03, 2006
Consuming for a Cause
I just discovered my new favorite online bookstore, Public Radio Booksource, a non-profit online store that sells books featured on NPR and gives the proceeds to public radio. Also check out the Public Radio Music Source to buy tunes heard on NPR. Now, if only these sites had a wish list function...
November 27, 2006
In the December issue of The Atlantic, Virginia Postrel sings the praises of chain stores. According to Postrel, chain stores such as Best Buy and Home Depot give shoppers in smaller cities access to the variety of products previously only available in large metropolises. She argues that the spread of chain stores from the coasts into the heartland only offends those coastal snobs who want other parts of the country to look different when they visit. The people who live in those other parts of the country, however, want to have access to the same stuff coastal dwellers get. As she suggests, we here in the Midwest don't appreciate our Starbucks coffee any less just because we know that people in the East, West, and South also have Starbucks.
While critics bemoan the fact that chain stores kill regional distinction, Postrel argues that the economies of scale enjoyed by chain stores actually allow them to offer shoppers more variety. For example, Best Buy can stock more models of refrigerators than the local Mom and Pop appliance store. In terms of hardware, appliances, and even clothing, I couldn't agree more with Postrel's premise. I don't think our country would be any less vibrant if everyone had the same microwave, the same door hinges, or even the same clothing. And, as Postrel points out, even these cookie-cutter stores aim to blend in with whatever area they move to by reflecting local architectural styles.
The problem with chains, however, is when they reach monopsony status, as Wal-Mart has done, giving them the power to dictate which products get produced. Again, in terms of refrigerators or blue jeans, I could care less. When bookstores achieve monopsonies, however, we get de facto censorship. Today, publishers are much less likely to publish books if they think Borders or Barnes and Noble won't stock them. Postrel, however, doesn't acknowledge this issue. In fact, she writes that
When Borders was a unique Ann Arbor institution, people in places like Chandler [Arizona]--or, for that matter, Philadelphia and Los Angeles--didn't have much in the way of bookstores.While I do agree that Borders (and especially Amazon) has made books much more accessible to most Americans, it certainly wasn't the first bookstore. Los Angeles had some really fantastic bookstores before Borders began to expand. We had Midnight Special, which couldn't keep up with the big competitiors; Dutton's, which is still squeaking by; and Vroman's, an independent bookstore that looks and feels much like the large chains. Even here in Ann Arbor, Borders isn't our only choice: Shaman Drum is an age-old fixture of downtown Ann Arbor that manages to stay in business through an intimate relationship with the University of Michigan.
Postrel accurately notes that "stores don't give places their character. Terrain and weather and culture do." David argued, however, that food is a big part of culture, and that chain restaurants (which Postrel also celebrates), undermine local culture. Postrel claims that, before chain restaurants, "one deli or diner or lunch counter or cafeteria was pretty much like every other one," which simply isn't true. A diner in Santa Fe, for example, would probably feature many more items containing green chiles than a diner in Boston, which might offer a certain baked bean dish. A pizza restaurant in Chicago would produce a completely different pie than a pizza restaurant in New York.
While I agree with the main premise of Postrel's article, I'm frustrated at how her insistence on the beneficence of chain stores blinds her to the products for which chain stores are not the ideal vehicles. It seems that, particularly among Atlantic readers, there is so much animosity toward chains that Postrel felt she had to exclude the anti-chain argument completely in order to write a convincing pro-chain piece. Her position might have been more credible, however, had she been able to capture these shades of gray.
November 26, 2006
Today on This American Life I learned that Warner Brothers Studios has made a movie of my childhood. Unaccompanied Minors is a fictionalized account of the 1988 snowstorm that stranded Susan Burton, her little sister Betsy, and several other "divorced kids" in the Chicago O'Hare Airport on their way from Denver to visit their father, who lived in Michigan. No, I wasn't there in O'Hare Airport with Susan and Betsy, but I easily could have been: I flew back and forth as an unaccompanied minor between my mom in Los Angeles and my dad in Boston twice a year from the age of eight until I was no longer a minor. Once I did get stuck on the runway in Los Angeles for two hours while snow was being cleared off the runway in Boston, but I never got stranded overnight.
As I listened to Susan's story on This American Life, I hit on the difference between her childhood and mine: she had a sister with whom to share the experience of being shipped back and forth across the country. What made my childhood so tragic is that I had to go through it all alone. As a child, I loved to read stories of parentless kids, like the Boxcar Children. In these stories, however, there are always siblings. There are no books about only children who are abandoned or neglected by their parents and have to make their way in the world. Susan recognized how important Betsy's companionship was to her as an unaccompanied minor and ended the story by acknowledging that "on these trips to visit our father, more than any other time, all Betsy and I had was each other" (Unaccompanied Minores). As a child, I always longed for a sibling, believing that, with a brother or sister (preferably a twin -- someone my own age!) one is never truly alone in the world.
November 25, 2006
Over the past few months, David and I have watched the television series Six Feet Under in its entirety, from pilot to finale. Six Feet Under was a truly fantastic television show because it dealt with death, something our society usually shies away from. Every episode began with a death: some tragic, some hilarious, some both. Viewers saw, sometimes in excruciating detail, exactly what embalmers do to get the bodies ready for viewing. We also learned that being a funeral director isn't just about selling caskets, but also involves a lot of grief counseling. The show focused, however, on the lives of the Fisher family, who live in the funeral home. The series begins with one family death, that of Mr. Fisher, and ends with another family death (I won't give it away). The dead Mr. Fisher is still a regular character, though, appearing to his wife and children, sometimes to mock them, and sometimes to give them useful advice. He helps the other characters deal with their problems in life, from his gay son coming out to his daughter deciding to go to art school. My favorite thing about the show is that, even though most of the characters are terribly repressed (beginning with the mother, Ruth, the craziest one of all), they often speak and act their minds, almost as if they just can't hold in their true feelings any more. Sometimes they only fantasize about the things they want to do and say, but I still found it immensely liberating to see these characters doing and saying things that I would never allow myself to do, even if only in a dream or fantasy. I also love that the show is set in Los Angeles, my former home, though I think the writers could have done more with that.
My main criticism of the show is that there is way too much substance abuse. All of the characters drink like fish, and most of them smoke pot pretty regularly, including the parents. Somewhere around season three, David commented that the show must be sponsored by the pro-marijuana lobby. At certain points when dealing with close personal deaths, some of the characters become raging alcoholics, but a few episodes later seem to just be drinking normally. Yeah right.
I must admit that I had never really thought much about death before seeing this show. I have been lucky to have lost no friends and only very distant family members. I have been to only one funeral (not including Bo's service at the stadium), which was for someone I had never even met -- I went to support a friend. Watching Six Feet Under has inspired me to start reading The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, a local funeral director who also teaches writing at UM.
November 06, 2006
Fishing for Spiders
October 29, 2006
My favorite essay in Before the Mortage is "Costco-Obsessive Disorder" by Carson Brown, who made me laugh out loud with her description of her mother's addiction to shopping at Costco. As far as large corporations go, Costco is a pretty good one. It is a socially responsible company that engages in fair labor practices. In fact, Costco's CEO has even been criticized (by shareholders) for caring more about employees than shareholders.
Furthermore, Costco does offer good prices -- if you are shopping for an army! Otherwise, shopping there falls into the category of "spaving" -- spending money in order to save money. At Costco, the unit price is much less than at the grocery store, but you have to buy much more of whatever it is than you actually need in order to get that savings. For example, if you buy a pound of salad at 3/4 the price of a pound of salad somewhere else, but you can only eat about half the salad before it wilts, you really haven't saved anything. Studies have also shown that if people buy food in larger quantities, they will eat the food in larger quantities because they don't want to feel as though it is going to waste. With Costco-Obsessive Disorder spreading rampantly, it is no wonder we have an obesity epidemic!
Of course, there are plenty of things that one can safely buy in large quantity, such as toothpaste, toilet paper, and paper towels. When Costco opened a store about twenty miles from us, David and I thought about joining for just this reason. But we quickly scotched the idea when we found out that they don't carry our favorite brands of toilet paper and paper towels (Kimberly Clark should really be paying me for this advertising).
Despite our distaste for spaving, however, David and I did spend one memorable afternoon at Costco with my friend Sara. Sara is a notorious spaver. I have seen her buy clothes several sizes too big because they were on sale but sold out of her size. Sara lives in West Lafayette, IN, and happened to visit us on about the worst summer day of 2005. Not only had the temperature topped one hundred degrees, but it was also thunderstorming. A proud Costco member, Sara suggested that we hang out there, where at least it would be air conditioned. Because David and I didn't have any better ideas, we agreed. And we had a marvellous time. The store is full of free samples. We all managed to eat lunch there without spaving a cent! I did, however, succumb to the spaving impulse by buying a case of Pepto-Bismol to take with me to Africa. I had heard from so many people how sick I would get there, and I wanted to be prepared. Eighteen months later, I think I still have about four packs left...
October 27, 2006
Over the past week or so, I have been reading Before the Mortgage, a collection of essays by writers in their twenties and thirties that describe the kind of extended adolescence we experience before settling down with a mortgage. Contributors discuss dead-end jobs, apartment/roommate living, dating fiascos, and the general woes of a very privileged youth. The BTM website describes this period as post-college and pre-picket fence.
As I personally am not "before the mortgage," I hesitated at first to read this book, but it got an excellent review in Bitch, so I thought I would check it out (from the library, that is). Overall, it was a fun read, but I'm a bit annoyed by the premise of the book. Its editors seem to think that one day they will get their s--t together, and that having a mortgage signifies adulthood. I can testify to the fact that having a mortgage doesn't necessarily make one feel like an adult, nor does it mean that I have my s--t together. David and I still experience financial anxiety, career uncertainty, relationship insecurity, and the fear of parenthood. We may have a mortgage, but we don't have it all figured out.
Ultimately, I think the phrase "pre-picket fence" summarizes the problem with the whole BTM concept. Its contributors and particularly its editors apparently were raised in picket-fence families -- wealth, suburbs, married parents, stability -- and they fully expect to someday have their own picket-fence families. They still have the illusion that "real adults" have their s--t together, and that someday they too will have it all figured out. Call me cynical, but I don't think anybody ever really does figure it out once and for all. I don't think anybody ever really feels like a grownup, and I know for sure that nobody ever really gets their s--t together. This used to bother me, but then I realized how boring life would be if we all had that picket-fence ideal.
October 25, 2006
On Saturday night, I was supposed to go to the Michigan Theater with Ken and a couple of other friends to see The Last King of Scotland, but I ended up staying home to read Dracula instead. I was, however, determined to see the movie, so David took me on Sunday.
It was an intriguing film, though hard to watch at the end, when things got really gory. The problem, however, was that it didn't teach me anything new about Uganda's history. My friend Susie said that she didn't know anything about Uganda when she went into the theater, and she still didn't know anything when she came out. The film told the story of Idi Amin's dictatorship from the perspective of Nicholas Garrigan, Amin's personal doctor. Garrigan was a Scottish physician who moved to Uganda in 1970 order to escape his father's medical practice. He had no particular interest in Uganda, he just spun the globe, determined to go wherever his finger landed. Garrigan arrived in Uganda the day General Amin took over the country in a coup and, after a chance encounter, Amin (who was obsessed with Scotland) seduced Garrigan into becoming his personal physician.
Through most of the 1970s, Garrigan was either innocent of or in denial about what was going on in the country. What was going on, exactly? Well, I don't know because the movie didn't say. We just see the British embassy getting really concerned (after they helped install Amin in the first place) and trying to get information about Amin from Garrigan, while people all around are complaining about how bad things are getting. Meanwhile, Garrigan is merrily going about his job and falling in love with Amin's third wife. Toward the end of the movie Garrigan gets scared and starts trying to leave Uganda, but it is still hard for the audience to understand why.
My main complaint about this movie is that it tells Garrigan's story, rather than the history of Uganda. Granted, the movie is supposed to be Garrigan's story, but a bit of contextualization would have made it a lot more compelling. The film could have shown the audience what Garrigan himself wasn't seeing (or wasn't admitting to having seen), thereby educating the audience about Uganda's history and emphasizing the extent of Garrigan's denial.
October 22, 2006
This week I have been reading Dracula for the class I'm teaching. I am embarrassed to admit that I haven't really gotten into it. Everyone in my department who hears I'm reading Dracula responds with, "I love that book!" which makes me extra-ashamed of my inability to quite dig it. I should love it, given that I am a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but maybe that is the problem. Buffy was too good and the original can't measure up. Plus, Buffy is all about female power and empowerment, while Dracula is one of the most sexist novels I have ever read. Furthermore, and I hate to admit this given my pretensions to being a historian, I just don't have much patience for nineteenth-century literature. Don't tell my dad -- he is an English professor!
As someone who took the bare minimum of English classes in college, I don't really feel comfortable teaching a novel. I guess the whole point, though, is that this isn't an English class -- it is a history class -- so I need to teach Dracula as a primary source. One of the things that I'm liking about it is that it is an epistolary novel; it unfolds as a series of letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings, rather than as a story told by an omniscient narrator. This allows Stoker to use many different voices and to let the reader see the action from a variety of perspectives. This also makes it a series of fake primary sources. After all, what do historians do? We read other people's letters and diaries to find out what their lives were like. In a sense, the novel encourages its readers to do the same kind of detective work that historians do as part of our profession.
The professor with whom I'm teaching assigned Dracula because, as she says, everything in late-nineteenth-century Britain shows up in this novel: sex, gender, science, anxiety, immigration, madness, class politics, and so forth. One of my students has a critical edition of the book, whose editor claims that the whole novel is an allegory for the system of land tenure in Ireland. When I heard this, I thought I had failed as a GSI: I'm the teacher -- if the book is about Ireland, I should have figured it out! As I researched this concept, however, I found that the "Irishness" of Dracula was first argued in 2002, by Joseph Valente in Dracula's Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood. Previous scholars had read Dracula as feminist, antifeminist, nationalist, antinationalist, colonial, anticolonial, and Marxist, which suggests to me that, in true poststructuralist Death of the Author fashion, readers have read much more into the novel than is actually there. This is a pulp novel, and prominent Dracula scholars have argued that its historical references are garbled and vague at best. My edition has an introduction by Leonard Woolf, who says that Dracula was penned without much though, and then developed a life of its own. This seems particularly apropos for a novel about rising from the dead!
The problem with teaching Dracula as a primary source is the fact that it has been read in so many different ways by so many different people at so many different times. This layering of meaning makes it particularly difficult to empathize with the reader of 1897, to try to understand how she might have read it and understood it, and how the novel might have jibed with and shaped her worldview.
October 02, 2006
Detention for Parents
This morning on NPR I heard that some upscale day school in Manhattan has started issuing detention slips to parents who bring their children to school late; parents and children then have to serve detention together! This made me smile. After all, parents have no incentive to get their kids to school on time, so this is a consequence for getting them there late. How I wish they had this when I was in high school! Halfway through eleventh grade, my mom divorced my evil stepfather and we moved out of district, so she started driving me to school in the morning. I had to be there at 7:20 for band rehearsal, which meant leaving the house at 7 and, let's just say, that was a bit earlier than my mom was used to getting out the door. I kept telling her that, if I was even a minute late, I would get an hour's worth of detention, but I don't think she quite understood. If she had to serve the detention, however, it may have been a different story...
And I will admit that I don't have much to complain about. After serving detention once, I realized that my school's record-keeping systems were pretty sub par, and that nobody would notice if I never showed up to detention!
August 18, 2006
Yesterday I finished reading Generation Me by Jean Twenge. Using psychological survey data from the 1950s through the present, Twenge argues that it basically sucks to be a member of Generation Me, which she defines as people born between 1970 and 2000. Why does it suck? To begin with, we have been lied to all our lives. As a result of the disastrously misguided self-esteem movement, we have been told that we are the best (just like the children of Lake Wobegon, who are all "above average"), that we could do anything, and that the most important thing in the world is loving and appreciating ourselves. As a result, we grew up thinking that following our (often unrealistic dreams) was more important than building solid and support-giving relationships with friends, family members, and significant others, leaving us feeling depressed and anxious. We also grew up in a world where, although there are more opportunities now for women and people of color than there were in the past, the cost of living has gone up and real wages have gone down. Families need two incomes just to get by, and it is much harder for us to buy houses than it was for our parents. So we were raised with unrealistic expectations, and are entering an adulthood in which these expectations are less likely than ever to be met. That would be worth drinking over -- if I could afford to!
August 17, 2006
Welcome to the Blogosphere, Ken
My friend Ken just started his own blog, which is just fantastic. He has an amazing flair for sarcasm. Keep it up!
I don't know why it took me so long to figure this out, but yesterday it finally dawned on my that the television show 24 is propaganda for Bush's "War on Terror." It should have been obvious: the heroes are federal counterterrorist agents; the villains are (usually -- in two of the four seasons I have seen so far) Islamic fundamentalists.
In any case, it became totally blatant in the two (season 4) episodes I watched yesterday. The counterterrorist agents apprehended an American citizen, Joe Prado, who was trying to help a known terrorist flee the country. They were fairly certain that he had information regarding the location of Habib Marwan, the lead terrorist who had just stolen a nuclear warhead, so they brought him into CTU (Counter-Terrorist Unit) for questioning. Marwan didn't want them to get any information out of Prado, so he called a lawyer from "Amnesty Global" to prevent Prado from being questioned (which would have involved torture), on the basis of his American citizenship. Just as the CTU agents are preparing to torture Prado to find out where Marwan is, a smarmy (Jewish) lawyer shows up to protect Prado's right to not be tortured.
In real life, I would say that torture is never acceptable, especially the torture of an American citizen who hasn't even been charged with a crime. In real life, I support Amnesty International. But, while I was watching 24 last night, I totally wanted them to torture the guy. The audience knew he had the information they needed and that torture was the only way to get it out of him.
In the next episode, the (new) President (who is, in fact, a complete weenie), refuses to let CTU torture Prado, but Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland -- our hero) does it anyway. He has Prado released and resigns from CTU, and then, acting as a private citizen, tortures Prado in the parking lot until he reveals Marwan's location. Jack is then reinstated at CTU to head up the tactical team to capture Marwan. When the President finds out what Jack has done, he orders Jack's immediate arrest, and sends the Secret Service after Jack, who is now about to capture Marwan. The arrival of the Secret Service tips off Marwan to the fact that CTU is about to apprehend him, and he gets away, effectively foiling CTU's mission. The President then admits that he totally f---ed up: he should have let Jack torture Prado to begin with, but in the actual event, even though Jack acted illegally, he should have just let it slide so that they could get Marwan.
These two episodes really bothered me. The writers and directors obviously wanted the audience to support CTU and to believe that torture was the right move in that instance. After all, the audience knew that Prado had the information CTU needed. We also knew that Marwan was in possession of a nuclear warhead, which he was preparing to use against the United States. The question is: was it acceptable to disregard Prado's rights in order to save countless American lives? One of the many recurring themes of the show is that one life is never more valuable than millions. Over and over we see people being sacrificed in order to save numerous others. So it seems that, according to the same logic, it would be okay to torture Prado in order to prevent a nuclear attack. After all, they didn't even kill him. But if we take this logic too far, how long will it take before we are living in Orwell's 1984?
The other thing I noticed yesterday is that all of the characters on 24 say "nucular" instead of "nuclear." My theory? The directors of the show hope that, if we hear "nucular" enough, it won't sound so wrong when President Bush says it. After all, the show is on Fox!
August 16, 2006
In the interview I posted about yesterday, Andi Zeisler of Bitch magazine and Deborah Solomon of the New York Times agreed that Chloe O'Brian, on 24 is the best female character on television. I was surprised to read this. Granted, I am only on season 4, but so far Chloe seems awkward, insensitive and, well, kind of bitchy. But she is also the most honest and down to earth character on the show, she does her work without taking or giving any bulls--t, and she is better at her job (which seems to have something to do with computers) than anyone else there. She is also totally candid about what she thinks and unapologetic about what she says. Maybe she takes on a larger role in season 5.
August 15, 2006
Yesterday my friend Shawn gave me an interview from the New York Times Magazine with Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch, my absolute favorite magazine. The interview was in honor of the magazine's ten-year anniversary and the publication of its anthology, BitchFest.
The interviewer asked Zeisler why they chose the word "bitch," which is usually considered an "unappealing female stereotype." Zeisler replied that the choice of name was partly to reclaim the word bitch for "strong, outspoken women," but that they were also using bitch as a verb, which means to complain or kvetch. The editors say more about the b-word here.
As a language geek, I love these multi-purpose words, words that can be nouns, verbs, or adjectives (bitchy), as is the case for most four-letter words. The most versatile word in the English language is probably the f-word, which can also be an adverb, as used by Mr. Biggs in Sex and the City ("absof--kinglutely"). Now if only I could use them in my academic writing...
August 09, 2006
The Devil and Academe
That's What a Hamburger is All About
The other day on NPR, I heard that the last living founder of In-N-Out burger died last week, and the story speculated that her death may allow the chain to expand beyond California, Arizona, and Nevada, currently the only states where one can experience the world's best fast-food burger. I won't say it is the best burger I have ever eaten -- that would be at Miller's Bar in Dearborn, MI -- but it certainly is the best fast-food burger I have ever eaten. David disagrees: he prefers Blimpy Burger here in Ann Arbor. I agree that Blimpy has a good burger, and that their menu is a lot more varied and interesting than In-N-Out (Blimpy offers blue cheese as a burger topping and deep-fried veggies as a side), but as far as just straight-up burger quality goes, In-N-Out is definitely a better burger. As someone on facebook said, you know you are an Angelino is if, "you know what In 'N Out is and feel bad for all the other states because they don't have any."
What makes In-N-Out so good? It is the freshness of their food. As I learned on NPR, they get the meat from live cow to burger in your hand within five days. The buns are made daily on-site, and I have also seen them cutting up potatoes to make fries. They are able to serve up such good food by keeping it simple -- the official menu only has three items: cheeseburger ("double-double"), fries, shakes. But In-N-Out has a cult following because of its lengendary secret menu. Vegetarian? Order grilled cheese -- a double-double with no meat. On Atkins? Order your burger "protein style" -- it will come wrapped in a lettuce leaf. Don't like cheese? Order double meat -- a double-double with no cheese. If a double-double just isn't enough for you, try a 3x3, 4x4, or even 5x5. "Animal style" will get you a burger with grilled onion instead of raw.
Another unique thing about In-N-Out is that there are references to bible verses hidden in their packaging. Having never read the bible, I didn't know what these meant, but this website explains it all. Kinda bizarre, actually.
I had only been to In-N-Out a couple of times until I went to college, where In-N-Out is a weekend ritual. The first time I went back to LA after David and I started dating, I brought back an In-N-Out t-shirt for him, though, having never been to In-N-Out, he didn't appreciate it and refused to wear it anywhere except the gym. So when he came along, I made sure to take him there, and then he started to understand the mystique.
In-N-Out is one of the two fast-food restaurants that Eric Scholosser does not disparage in his expose Fast Food Nation. The other is Hot Dog On A Stick, where I worked in high school. These restaurants offer clean and safe working environments, fresh healthy food, and better wages than most fast-food establishments. Hot Dog is even employee owned!
So why does the death of In-N-Out's founder suggest that the chain might expand beyond California, Nevada, and Arizona? Apparently, she was committed to keeping the chain relatively local so that they could use a single distribution center to get fresh ingredients to the stores quickly. Her granddaughter wanted to move into other states, but the founder doubted that they could uphold the same level of freshness and quality if they got too big. But with grandma out of the way, expansion is now possible, though it might mean selling out. I say, keep it local. Sure, I would love to have In-N-Out here in Michigan if it were as good as it is in California, but if expanding means selling out, we don't need another mediocre burger chain here. We have plenty of good local chains, such as Halo Burger, where you can get a burger with green olives. And I can always go to In-N-Out when I visit my mom!
August 07, 2006
Getting the Scoop
On Friday night, David and I saw Scoop, the new Woody Allen movie (or should I say vehicle?), with our friend Angela. I'll begin by saying that it was a really fun movie. We all enjoyed watching it, even Angela, who normally doesn't like Woody Allen. It helps that Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman are both absolutely gorgeous.
But "fun" is about the most flattering adjective I have to describe the movie. It doesn't go much beyond that. The plot was absolutely preposterous. The phrase "deus ex machina" comes to mind, but unlike the traditional deus ex machina plot device, where the supernatural intervention occurs at the end, to resolve the story, Scoop begins with a supernatural intervention: Scarlett Johansson, a journalism student, is visited by the ghost of a recently-deceased star journalist who has been tipped off to the identity of the "Tarot Card Killer," a modern-day Jack the Ripper, by a fellow traveller on the boat across the River Styx. Johansson then inexplicably employs the help of Woody Allen, who plays a third-rate magician from Brooklyn, to help her get the scoop on the Tarot Card Killer and, in the process, ends up falling in love with the object of her investigation. She actually comes across somewhat tartily (I'm not sure if that is actually a word, but I feel justified in using it since the film is set in London), as we learn at the beginning that she has a history of letting her sexual desires get in the way of her journalistic pursuits. When it appears that Hugh Jackman may propose to her, she gives up her investigation of him, and Woody Allen takes over, finding the real dirt. I won't spoil the ending by saying exactly how, but Johannson's character does come through, providing a pretty satisfactory ending, but leaving many of the details of the murder mystery up to the audience to figure out.
This was the second Woddy Allen movie set among London's upper crust, but it wasn't as good as Match Point. It was definitely less dark and more fun, but ultimately less satisfying. I find it frustrating to watch movies that are set in London, because I have spent a lot of time there and I find that films always make the city seem a lot more glamorous than it actually is. The most eggregious example of this misrepresentation I can think of was Wimbledon. If you just go by what you see in the movies, you would think that the city is sparkling clean and that everyone there is wealthy. In my experience, it is a dirty, cramped, and expensive city where most people have a very low standard of living. In the U.S., it is pretty much assumed that, when you rent an apartment, it will come with a shower and a kitchen. Not so in London. My ex-boyfriend Erik spent a fortune to rent a room in a house with no kitchen -- he had the English equivalent of a bunsen burner in his room, but no refrigerator -- and no shower -- only a bathtub shared by everyone in the house! And that was in Cambridge, where rents are lower than in London.
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 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 18, 2006
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.
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
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 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 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.
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?
June 30, 2006
I'm not usually a huge fan of Science Friday, but today I'm really enjoying hearing about climate change, the greenhouse effect, and electric cars. I have always been kind of an enviro-cynic: I recycled when it was convenient, but never went out of my way to curb my carbon emissions or limit my contributions to the world's landfills. I have even criticized the environmentalist movement for being racist and elitist. But as I have becoming more God-conscious lately, I have been coming to see environmentalism as one form of tikkun olam. The world does not belong to me, I belong to the world. I know there is still a lot of skepticism about the imminence of global climate change, but it seems that, if we know that carbon dioxide is toxic to humans, and we have ways to limit its production, we might as well do it. Environmentalism becomes problematic, however, when people place environmental imperatives ahead of human needs for such things as health, nourishment, and shelter, or when it is used as a front for NIMBY-ism, as it often is here in Ann Arbor.