Friday, February 24, 2017

The zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

So, America

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


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

So: Redeeming feature enumeration commences now:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

Rory Gilmore's writing career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2016

Bowled over

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2016

La femme tribecoise

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 13, 2016

My wonderful new bag, an escapist post

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 05, 2016


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

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

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

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

Friday, September 02, 2016

A lesson in decor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

I want to like it: Summer 2016 trend ambivalence

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


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

-Bucket bags

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


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


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


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

-Off-the-shoulder shirts

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

-Oh, and why not a food item? Bowls

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Single-process I think not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 08, 2016

Character-building, character-limits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 01, 2016

Ingrown branches

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 18, 2016

Foer days late to the most important story of all time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Edina Monsoon Syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 11, 2016

The long-anticipated Defense of Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now the handwringing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

T-shirts to blouses: In praise of the micro-makeover UPDATED

When I think of high school, specifically my time in high school, I think of gray t-shirts. V-neck, I believe. This wasn't like Mark Zuckerberg, with a gray-shirt uniform signaling a preoccupation with that which is more important. The gray t-shirt was, for me, a way of projecting invisibility. I wasn't making a thing of wearing gray t-shirts, and didn't only wear that color. It just seemed like the way to be clothed without endorsing a brand or asserting allegiance to a subculture (remember, these were the days when the worst thing ever was to be a poser). The gray t-shirt doesn't impose. It's so unimposing that it can go into the laundry with the whites or the colors. And you have to really try to find one that's expensive, which is another way of saying: they're cheap.

In more recent years - which is to say, I'm talking about items currently in my closet - I found myself intentionally embracing the same gray jersey-material garment. It seemed very Gwyneth Paltrow, or Parisian, or I don't even know, but it seemed not bland but classic, which is always dangerous to think when you're taking your aesthetic inspiration from GOOP, but there you have it. I would pair an Everlane scoopneck one (note the aspirational past tense) with some pale beige or pink nail polish, dark jeans, and ballet flats. A grown-up, sophisticated approach... that allowed me to wear the same boring shirts, but this time with narrow-cut jeans, rather than bootcut, because 2010s vs 2000s. Revolutionary.

(Crucial side note: While I've always owned a button-down or two for interviews and the like, I've never worked anywhere that wasn't gray-t-shirt-compatible, and between grad school and freelancing, have done a lot of work from home. And... maybe you shouldn't teach in gray t-shirts, in the abstract, but you can do things like pair them with black slacks and a fake-pearl necklace from the Kensington Market, or so I've heard.)

And then at some point over the last few months, it occurred to me: shirts. Blouses. I'm worth it! ("Worth" being key, as non-t-shirt shirts involve spending $30-plus rather than capping things at $20 but mainly staying at $10, as well as using the delicates cycle and line-dry approach; haven't quite made it to dry-clean-only.) While the same might not be true of Gwyneth Paltrow, who'd look good in an organic sweet-potato sack, I, at least, look a lot better in something dressier than a drab undershirt. It's the same level of improvement as lipstick or eyeliner. It's... effort. Which - and you wouldn't know it from the headlines - looks better than effortlessness.

I'm still experimenting with exactly which shirt-shirts this will be. In rotation - that is, on the days when I'm walking the walk - are the following:

-A blue long-sleeved Muji button-down with a white Peter Pan collar. Too warm for it now though.
-A white off-the-shoulder 3/4-sleeve from Zara.
-A pale-blue striped and slightly cropped (slightly) off-the-shoulder from Bershka at the mall in Rehovot.
-A sleeveless, also blue-and-white, part-peplum one that (bonus points!) buttons in the back, from Durumi, a Korean-brands boutique here in Toronto.
UPDATE: Forgot one! There's also a sleeveless white linen button-down, from Uniqlo.

As the limited nature of this collection would suggest, I have yet to truly take this plunge. But it's a start.

Monday, June 27, 2016


-In exciting personal-professional news, there's a cover

-And in also-exciting poodle news, "Cooking With Dog" (Chef, that is... or Francis) followed me back on Instagram and, like, knows about Bisou

-Here's something I wrote about stuff vs. experiences, and why the latter aren't necessarily superior. 

-Also from the New Republic: Suki Kim's fascinating/depressing account of her journalistic book getting marketed as a memoir. Fascinating, to me, at least, because of the autobiography angle - everything has to be about the self these days, especially when written by a woman, perhaps especially the more marginalized categories a person falls into. Maybe - I'm now thinking of Dwight Garner's recent review of Nancy Isenberg's book, White Trash:
Ms. Isenberg is a professor of American history at Louisiana State University. Her books include a well-regarded biography of Aaron Burr. Her own class background goes unmentioned in “White Trash.” This study does not require the emotional accelerant of memoir.
And it's unclear, there, whether the implication is that Isenberg is or is not from the background she writes about. Which is sort of the point.

(I now want to read both.)

I was also reminded of Jennifer Weiner's complaint about Princeton not appreciating her enough. There, though, I wasn't entirely convinced - I wasn't clear, that is, exactly what the complaint was, and that it wasn't just a humblebrag about having serious-person credentials and being a massively successful novelist. Put another way: It's the sort of complaint I could imagine sympathizing with - the silly and stereotypically-feminine gets derided! - but... she never quite convinces the reader (or at least, this reader) that she was doing something courageous by attending her own college reunion and having to confess to merely being the famous author of popular fiction.

(Now Weiner I have read, don't remember which, only that this was in a book-having Philadelphia coffee shop.)

With Kim's piece, though, there's something else going on. I suspect that her willingness to call out the marketing of her book relates to that book being, as she notes, a bestseller. A cynical response would be that the book succeeded at least in part because it was marketed as a memoir, but that hardly negates her main point, which is that the book became something different - and opened her as an author up to all kinds of irritating criticism - once it got framed as it did.

What's so interesting here is that this isn't a case - as we're so used to hearing about - of a woman selling her secrets or "identity" for like $5 (or $0), so that a corporation might profit. Instead, there's a different sort of loss: She became an expert in something really impressive (North friggin' Korea!) and sells books, yes, but in her capacity as - in these critics' view - "a memoirist treading on journalistic turf, a Korean schoolteacher who sold out her students for a quick buck." This wasn't - again, according to her take on the matter - a case of a woman getting criticized for choosing a conventionally feminine approach to writing. It was a case of... nothing a woman writes wouldn't sell that much better if it were made personal.

The seriousness credentials are always there, hovering just out of reach. If it feels that way to a journalist who went undercover in North Korea, the hope for those of us who merely wrote dissertations on long-dead French writers, while stuffing our faces with flan, is maybe not that great. Which makes me want to say, so screw seriousness, but it's not as simple as that.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Yes, still in Paris UPDATED

Today's the Day of Decadence - my husband's at his conference, it's not raining, and I've given myself permission to at least look at all the food-and-shoes-and-clothes that the city has to offer. Luckily, I don't generally swoon over the super-high-end. Less so: I'm fully capable of lusting after the midrange-for-Paris-but-still-inaccessible. The food bit kind of sorted itself out - Jo and I had maybe too much steak frites the other night, and my stomach now can't handle much more than bread (and, perhaps, flan; I felt well enough to buy it, at least), so the temptation to sit down to a 30 euro meal of confit of canard and a verre of vin is nil. I still like the idea of that, but... no.

But the stuff-and-experiences component - that is, the thing where you walk across Paris and take in the gorgeous scenery and every so often buy something whose gorgeousness you have to hope isn't just a matter of its environment (because it, whatever it is, will need to "spark joy" in Toronto as well) - is very much happening. I went into the heavily guarded Bon Marché and found - because Paris - a perfect bra that I've just currency-converted confirmed costs what I'd pay for a mediocre bra in Canada. And I flâneused around with the vague goal of finding non-Repetto (that is, non-200-euro) ballet flats. The fabulous, rose-gold André ones I found were 49 euros, which, fine, sounds better than $72, but this is still an acceptable price for shoes, and they give every indication of being comfortable, or as comfortable as ballet flats ever are, at any price.

The plan for the afternoon, then, is to visit the also-heavily-guarded Marais, and try to do as many husband-would-find-this-boring things as I can, so basically a mix of clothes-shopping and (more) French-Jewish-bookstore-shopping. (It can't possibly be that two new contemporary French-Jewish novels are enough...)


The Marais happened, but in a roundabout way involving a diverted bus and an inadvertent (but charming!) stroll across the Seine. No clothes-shopping, not for lack of trying. (All the chic Parisian women have these flawless blazers, but where are they buying them?) But what ended up happening was definitely more interesting! I wound up on the Rue des Rosiers, and passed a café that looked out of another era. A man of a certain age (as were all the other customers) beckoned me in, but not in a hitting-on way. In a way that said, yep, you're Jewish too, these are your people. And so I sat, beneath the gaze of a Herzl poster, and had a longish conversation with a woman about how she doesn't eat meat, kosher or otherwise, and a shorter one with a man who was sure he'd seen me that morning at the Marché d'Aligre, where, alas, I hadn't been. After a while there, the more strictly frivolous activities resumed, culminating in the purchase of 6 euro nail polish from a vending machine in the also-bomb-fearing BHV.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Paris, May 2016

It's as I remember it, except for a few things. The first I noticed were the vape shops and juice détox establishments, and the slightly greater presence of donuts and muffins. Not full-on Americanization, but always a notch further in that direction.

Then, the security. Not just at the Jewish museum (which had the usual pre-flight situation, not that I'm complaining), but at every museum. At the larger stores. Not unheard-of globally (see: Israel), but more than I remember from post-9/11 New York. Fewer flags, but more bag checks. And a lot of soldiers with machine guns. More depressing than frightening, I suppose, but I guess it depends where you're coming from and what, on that front, seems normal.

-Other, more personal, and less geopolitical observations: The best bakery is still there, and still has the best croissants (it was closed today, so I was reminded...), and still only hiring male models. Flan, meanwhile, is great everywhere, if not necessarily better than Toronto's Portuguese custard tarts.

-Oh, and chain stores - the French ones have come to the US and maybe Canada as well; the US ones are here if they weren't already; and then there are some international chains from elsewhere. Good in many ways (you can get cool stuff and not need to shell out for flights!), but definitely means there's zero point in going to the Galeries Lafayette if you live near Hudson's Bay/the Eaton Centre.

-And yet! Frenchwomen, super chic. Shouldn't be surprising, but... it had been a while. A cliché for a reason and all that. I'm trying to make a note of exactly why their outfits work (note: me and the rest of the anglophone world, and the answer is partly that they eat less pasta than I do, and I'm not prepared to follow up on that...), although I'm not sure if the necessary shopping will take place in Paris.

-The following two things - one great, one not-so-great - are probably related: So I'd last been to Paris five years ago, and due to various career-shift-type reasons, was unsure when I'd ever have a chance to come back. Things converged to make it possible and I'm beyond thrilled to be here. Like, ogling each and every apartment building and sighing over how beautiful everything is. The full tourist thing, in other words. But! Between my tourist vibe; my unwillingness, in my dotage, to dress as if I'm not American (fleece, jeans); and the fact that my spouse and I do - sorry - tend to speak to each other in English; I've had the very odd experience of speaking to people in what is without a doubt the best French I've ever spoken and getting responses along the lines of (and this was said in French!), would you prefer the English menu?

I don't take it personally, I don't think (these are tourist areas, in the sense that just about everything in central-ish Paris is, and I have French-Canadian friends who've gotten the English-response in Paris in these situations). Except maybe a little, considering that the $$ paying for this was primarily earned teaching French classes. And that one of the places where this happened, I was buying a French novel, and not some sort of leather-bound thing that could plausibly have been for home decor.

I mean, I can summon enough non-neurosis to realize that this is the default way of being welcoming to visitors - not just tourists, and goodness knows not just anglophones. (The Germans at the next table did want to do everything in English.) At any rate, the croissant situation and the sheer gorgeousness of this city make up for it.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Where Would Phoebe Go?: On the jet-setting lifestyle

Normally, to campus and back, and to various Toronto coffee shops. Next week, however, it's off to Paris and Rehovot, via New York. No, I'm not going on some sort of simulated French-Jewish aliyah tour, although I see why it might seem that way. All that's happening is, my husband has some conferences, and - as happens on the rare occasions when doing so is feasible - I'm going to tag along. Speaking of tags, I still need to get a Canadian flag one for my luggage.

I remember, when on research trips to Paris, being really miffed when people thought (or when I thought they thought) I was on vacation. In retrospect, the time I spent living there, where my only work responsibility was writing a dissertation, was a bit vacation-ish, at least compared with this past year, during which I taught full-time at a university; coordinated one of those courses; wrote regularly for a publication; and, aaah, wrote a book manuscript. Yes, all of that happened in the past year. I didn't really have weekends, or much in the way of evenings off. So you know what? I'm going to say, in full, unabashed delight, that this trip to Paris counts as a vacation. Yes, I'll likely do some work, but I'll also do a spot of croissant/shoe/book/clothes-shopping, or as much as the dismal euro-CAD exchange rate permits. And I'll have to see whether I now sound French-Canadian; if I get a chilly reception in shoe-and-croissant emporia, I won't know whether it's the old-new European anti-Semitism or the fact that I now may use the 'wrong' kind of French.

Rehovot, meanwhile, I know next to nothing about. Apparently there's really good hummus, some of which I'd like right now, please. (Maybe there's good Middle Eastern food in Toronto, but ingredient-wise, it doesn't seem possible.) It's also apparently 107 degrees these days, which, with it dipping to 37 today in Toronto, I'm having trouble even imagining. My plan is to go into Tel Aviv a bunch, assuming that's not incredibly complicated, and enjoy that which is non-Canadian (warm weather, a beach, amazing vegetables, and those sweet iced blended coffees...). Also to see Jerusalem, but in the way that doesn't involve swooping in and out, as I did on a tour when I was 8 (which I sadly remember none of) and, at 23, on Birthright (which I remember bits of, including the fact that I spent the group's big night out in Jerusalem in the hotel room, talking on the phone to my non-Birthright-eligible now-husband). Not quite sure what to do there, nor whether I own skirts long enough for it, but it seems ridiculous to be so close by and not have a look.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Urban micro-adventures

I could (and often, in my own head, do) compose tremendous lists of the superiorities of Toronto or New York (and, as much as I remember of it, Chicago) in various areas. But one place where Toronto always wins, and it's entirely subjective, is in the sheer fact that it's new. Walking-around season here only starts in May, both because of the weather and (again, subjective) because the grades are in, the semester finished. In Toronto, I can walk down a street for the first time. Not discovering it, not Columbusing it - I'm well aware that Toronto existed before I arrived, and all this new stuff is what makes it so exciting.

Re: "stuff," I mean... streets, coffee shops, and enormous, spontaneous Korean meals. I just look at Google Maps to see if there's likely to be anything on a particular block (often it's just residential or, more problematically, some kind of quasi-industrial park you have to exit via highway), and then see what's there.

This week alone, I've seen two whole new-to-me bits of the city. The first was Leslieville, which I'd been in part of and passed through by tram, but I had headshots done on one of the bigger side-streets (Carlaw), and then wandered around a bit afterwards. Got coffee at Te Aro, then regretted not leaving room for a further pastry at Bobette & Belle, which smelled amazing as I passed. There were also tacos that looked interesting, as well as a North Vietnamese restaurant that would have been my introduction to region-specific Vietnamese cuisine, if I hadn't already that day spent $90 on a professional necessity that nevertheless felt like vanity.

Today, after eating all the Korean food on Bloor, I decided to see what there is if you go north on Bathurst. And there's a bit, not a ton, but all new-to-me. Then I turned east on Dupont, the next big street. This is driving country (I'm in an incredibly posh coffee shop with ample parking and no listed prices, so I had to ask before ordering...), as well as the Ashkenazi restaurant strip - my people have a neighborhood, who knew? I don't know what this area is called, but would try some of that lox if (there's a pattern here) I hadn't just eaten.

It was between this coffee shop and another down the street. The flaw with that one was that it seemed as if it wouldn't have ice. This is where Toronto scores poorly: ice is a rare commodity, seasonally understandable, but my inner, not-so-hidden entitled American finds this incomprehensible.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A strong contender for most productive day ever:

-Did more grading than I would have thought possible when teaching one section of about 16 students, plus various other teaching duties where applicable. Anything's possible! After an iced cappuccino with two sugars.

-Booked a headshot appointment (finally).

-Set up a spreadsheet (as vs. a bare-bones Google Doc) for freelancing payments.

-Ordered the second Neapolitan novel. Ferrante... It took a while to get into Book 1, but then I couldn't put it down.

-Came up with a grand theory (actually, two) about why the neighborhood where Clinton did best is the good old Upper East Side. (If anyone should know...)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

April 15, 2016

Via John-Paul Pagano on Twitter, what is going on with this article? Why, in 2016, is someone writing this?

According to Federation CJA, only 15%-17% of Jewish Montrealers live in intermarried (or common-law) households. For those under-30 it’s still only a quarter. (In Toronto, where Canada’s largest Jewish community resides, the self-segregation is slightly less extreme.) 
Inward looking and affluent, the Jewish community is quick to claim victimhood. But, like an out of control child, the major Jewish organizations need a time out. Without an intervention of some sort, the Jewish community risks having future dictionaries defining “anti-Semitism” as “a movement for justice and equality.”
Intermarriage! Having written my dissertation on intermarriage and anti-Semitism in 19th C France, I'm well accustomed to treatises condemning Jews for marrying in. But this is something Napoleon was fussing about in the early 1800s, and that had become passé by the end of that century. This is well out of the realm of whether anti-Zionism is/can be/is entirely separate from (and "can be" is the answer you're looking for) anti-Semitism. Dude is basically like, look at my brilliant and unique intervention in today's intellectual landscape! It's as if he thinks he discovered something, but all that he's landed on is... really, really old-school anti-Semitism. Jewish in-marriage is what he picks? Insufficient assimilation? I mean, does the man have views on women riding bicycles or the benefits of railroad over horse and buggy? There's dated, and then there's producing text that could have appeared, with very few tweaks, in 1820.

But it's also really classic anti-Semitism, in that way where there's this smattering of correct observations, but arranged in a way to suggest something sinister. Are there Jews who think Jews have had it the worst of any people, ever, and who fixate on this in such a way as to ignore racism against people who, if nothing else, have it worse in certain areas, in recent years? Yes. Parochialism is a thing - not just among Jews, but not not among Jews. And are Jews overrepresented among the highly educated? Sure, but this is not a plot of some kind. And! Do Jews/Jewish publications sometimes refer to Jews as the "chosen people"? Yup, but this has a religious connotation that flies over the head of this charmer.

What makes the piece really strange, though, is the leap from the so-very-now, as well as the not-unreasonable...
While Canadian Jews faced discriminatory property, university and immigration restrictions into the 1950s, even the history of structural anti-Jewish prejudice should be put into proper context. Blacks, Japanese and other People of Colour (not to mention indigenous peoples) have been subjected to far worse structural racism and abuse. the borderline white-supremacist:
Even compared to some other “white” groups Canadian Jews have fared well. During World War I, 8,500 individuals from countries part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (mostly Ukrainians) were interned while in the mid-1800s thousands of Irish died of typhus at an inspection and quarantine station on Grosse Ile in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Canadian Jewry hasn’t faced any equivalent abuse.
Once you're heading down that road - that is, the Jews-have-it-easier-than-other-white-people boulevard - you've crossed over from extreme-left to extreme-right. There's also the "white"-in-quotes, suggesting, what, that Jews should be hated b/c insufficiently white? (As vs. because white-privileged?) Which... makes sense, in conjunction with the endogamy complaint, but not as a progressive argument.

Pagano, the writer who shared the piece (to condemn it, to be clear!) is, it's my sense, a few notches to my right, and, on Twitter, presented it as an example of left anti-Semitism. Which in a certain sense it is - "Dissident Voice," the publication, has the subtitle - all lowercase, because capital letters are for capitalists? - "a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice." But that particular essay strikes me as branching off entirely, into the realm of ideological ambiguity, where the only consistency is that Jews are to be imagined at the center of all the world's problems. There's nothing particularly left-wing - and lots that's right-wing - about maligning ethnic and religious minorities for not blending into the general (white) population.

Moving beyond that particular article which, while abhorrent, is not necessarily representative of all that much: Left anti-Semitism is certainly a thing, but I'm not convinced it's more of one than the right-wing variety. Or varieties - there's the white-supremacist version (apparently now called alt-right?), which, in its milder moments, seems as if it's merely an isolationist alternative to neoconservatism (see: the mistaken relief over Trump offering neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), but then you scratch the surface... But there's also the hawkish version, which involves being Rah Rah Israel, but hating actual Jews, none of whom will live up to the fantasy version. And then there's stuff like dude, where someone will ostensibly be coming from one or another point on the political spectrum, but this is clearly, if not his one issue, one of them, and he's coming at it from a perspective that's best described as anti-Semitic. Not left- or right-, just... that.

Monday, April 11, 2016

"Happy Valley" and the female gaze

The busiest year has quasi-ended with a mountain of dealing with everything practical that ought to have been dealt with months ago, but the whole three-jobs-ish thing got in the way. Fleeing this, I spent a good chunk of the decadently near-non-work weekend watching Season 2 of "Happy Valley" in its entirety. Spoilers below...

Monday, March 28, 2016

Open thread

Into The Gloss has an "open thread" about aging. As I type - and this is probably for the best, because I'd have trouble not responding to those - there aren't any comments yet.

When I learned of this thread-prompt, via their Twitter, I immediately knew the direction it would go in. Devil-may-care! Like, we all look forward to aging! Wrinkles add character!! From a site that specializes in (very seductively, and with gorgeous photos) explaining why you need to slather your face (and body) in stuff that goes for $100 an ounce at a French pharmacy. And why is that exactly, if not to stave off aging? Self-care, maybe, but isn't that more the thing where, as your big weekend outing, you go to the really nice coffee shop where the matcha lattes are $6 but worth it? No, it means slathering, and just as the unstated purpose of all fashionable dietary alterations is be thinner, so, too, is skincare a great big euphemism for look younger.

But sure enough, the open thread is introduced with a quote from a well-known fashion professional (middle-aged at most), announcing that she "'approach[es] aging with ice cream and a martini.'" Which is not the way any human being has ever approached anything ever, but which sounds relaxing.

There's also a well-lit photo of Jane Birkin and two of her daughters (whose names I'll pretend not to know, but please, I could name at least three Kardashians...), because... Birkin is by definition older than these two women, even though the three of them could pass for 15? More on that photo: The three are sitting in some sort of red-velvet-lined nightclub. There are cigarettes and a lighter on the table - as well there would be, in this martini-and-ice-cream fantasy. The only difference between Jane and her daughters is that whereas one daughter is carrying a very casual-let's-say tote bag, Jane has on her lap what appears to be a Birkin bag. That is, the Hermès one named after her.

How does anyone feel about aging? Some mix of grateful to not be dead, and annoyed at the closing-off of possibilities. For women: Some mix of relieved that the flow of unsolicited male attention has slowed down (from wherever it once was, which of course varies tremendously) and disappointed that the power that comes from being A 20-Something Woman (or 30-something, maybe...) has vanished. For everyone: Maybe you will write that novel, but no one will be in awe of you for doing so. No one will remark at how clever you are for having depicted the stresses of the adult world almost as though you'd actually experienced them.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A handbag post

There's this blogger cliché, or was when there were still bloggers: The apology-for-not-blogging. I've been so busy!, he says, he humblebrags, to the impatient horde... and his three readers (two of whom are immediate family members; the third is a long-forgotten ex) shrug and go about their days.

Well, my three readers, soon to be fewer still: Behold, the story of the least practical purchase ever made:

The backstory:

Long, long ago, when I lived in Frahnce, I spent far too many euros (for a grad student) on a bag. It was - it is! - gorgeous. Valérie Salacroux, you are a genius. And then wear, tear, and then-puppy poodle combined forces to make the bag... not what it once was. I went on to spend far too many dollars (US) on bag repair - in addition to an earlier repair job that added a discreet snap, so that the bag would stay closed. That helped for about five minutes, but now it's about back to where it was.

Slightly less long ago, while visiting my in-laws in the country that's not actually a failed state but never mind about that for the time being, we're talking about handbags... Anyway, in Antwerp, I spent a less-ridiculous number of euros on another bag. It was, I realized in retrospect, probably 'inspired' by a (more?) designer one, but it felt very glamorous to buy a bag in Antwerp. In any case, it had - has - two design flaws. Flaw 1, the easily-ignored: the hardware peeled or something, and looks as if it's rusted, even though I don't think that's it. Flaw 2, the crucial one: It has snaps, all right, but they take forever to align properly, so the bag is always flapping around open. Not ideal.

All of which left me in a place of quasi-needing a bag. A small, non-teaching bag; the big, laptop-and-papers-fitting one I've got covered.

The story:

I looked and looked and looked, which is to say, for however many minutes before realizing I was basically asleep, I scrolled around on the Matt & Nat website. Canada effectively has two bag brands - Matt & Nat for (vegan-leather) purses and such, Herschel for backpacks - so even though I'm still miffed at the former for that ad they had up a while back, looking for an unpaid copywriter, I had to admit that they make nice, reasonably-priced stuff, and... somehow, nothing in their current selection seemed quite right. One had potential, but didn't seem like it would close securely, and more to the point, I just wasn't excited about it. Valérie Salacroux I also considered, but those bags cost a lot more still than they did 100 years ago when I bought mine (but are, I suspect, still a good buy for the quality), plus the specific style I liked is - not surprisingly, given that it isn't 2010 anymore - no longer available.

And then, somehow, I remembered that there was a bag I'd always wanted. A hot pink one from the Cambridge Satchel Company. Or, if not that bag specifically, that brand. And sure enough, their website brought me to a bag that was gorgeous in a totally unanticipated way. Not what I would have said I was looking for, but also exactly what I needed - crossbody and with a definite clasp. Plus, free shipping! And, oh, some extra 10% off, for no apparent reason!

Now, I normally ponder purchases. For a long time. I spent a whole lot of living in suburban NJ unsure of whether it really made sense to get a car, and a lot of my first Canadian winter stubbornly resisting getting a proper winter coat. There's a $9 scarf I contemplated for a good long while as well. But this time, I was just like, this is the bag, and ordered it right away. I mean, what if it sold out???

The I-am-an-idiot part:

No sooner had an exciting email arrived about how the bag would be delivered the following day than... a second email, or maybe a voicemail, telling me that I would owe over $80 (Canadian but still) in duty. Duty! I may think of Canada as basically Britain, but the powers-that-be that handle irresponsibly-international handbag-shopping do not. (The government here is like, you will buy a Matt & Nat purse, or you'll pay.) But I figured, so, be it - if this will last me as long as the French one - both in terms of durability and in terms of Kondo-esque joy-sparking, it's worth it. (So much guilt.)

And then I opened the box, and there it was! Perfection. With a catch: My wallet's too big for it. Worse: it's the wallet I just bought - well, early fall, I think, but that's two minutes ago in wallet-years. I mean, it fits, but it's a challenge, and once you include keys and a phone (which... how to avoid this?), it was far too tight a squeeze.

The guilt. The guilt!

After several unsuccessful attempts in Chinatown (which has a corner on the neat $1 coin purse market - as in, the purses cost $1, although I suppose they'd also hold $1 coins) and the Kensington Market (which sold... a mini version of the Matt & Nat wallet I bought in the fall), I wound up with... a Herschel. A men's model, which a saleswoman warned me against (and which, alas, wasn't the shiny-silver model I thought they might sell, and that is indeed still sold, but that has nowhere to put coins and tokens), but sometimes, to have the conventionally-feminine-presenting handbag of your dreams, the only functional wallet small enough to keep in it is a utilitarian (or let's say minimalist-chic) one aimed at dudes.


Do I know what all this cost, all added up? That is, the bag and duty, plus the new, otherwise-unnecessary wallet? Plus the shame of it all? I do and I don't; I haven't done the $US to $CAD conversion necessary to put that figure in front of me. But the bag? It's gorgeous, and was, I suspect, entirely worth it.