Monday, July 17, 2017

Obvious in retrospect: Some things to know before writing a book

As with most life advice, this batch of highly subjective suggestions could readily be condensed to: we all care about our own stuff more than anyone else does. This (yes, clichéd) realization can be disappointing, or liberating, as in other arenas.

Below, a mix of what I wish I'd known, and what I had known but isn't self-evident. It's all in one way or another variants of the meta-advice above:

-If you're fortunate enough to have anyone other than yourself interested in your book, and for your book not to completely disappear into an abyss upon publication, you will be asked two questions most often: Why that title? Why that subtitle? Those are likely to be the two aspects of a book that had the most editorial and marketing input, meaning that the literal answer is a behind-the-scenes conversation of no interest to anyone outside publishing.

While it's certainly important to be able to explain (and to like) your title and subtitle, what you need to do find a way to turn the title question into a book question. Which is, after all, what it is.

-Writing a book doesn't change everything. You don't suddenly emerge in a black turtleneck, with a coterie of acolytes. No one is awestruck - or, if you've already been writing professionally for years, terribly surprised - that you're now an author. Unless you're 22, one of the main questions you'll get will be, "Is this your first book?" And this will be a reasonable question, not a prompt to dissolve into a puddle of self-criticism for having not published one while still in your 20s. But it is cool to see your book in a bookstore, and to have, you know, written a book. (Did I go visit mine at the Eaton Centre - again - over the weekend? Yes.)

-Here's one I was aware of (largely thanks to Emily Gould's essay on the topic), but that falls very much into the not-self-evident category: You will still need to work during and after your book's publication. Google your favorite (famous, even!) writers and note that they too have jobs, at the very least teaching writing at colleges. If your aim is to support yourself solely from writing, a book (or ten) won't hurt, but writing is unlikely to be your job.

-In addition to whichever paid work you're doing, you'll wind up engaging in mostly-unpaid work to promote the book. The more professional promotional help you have, through a publishing house - and I've been tremendously lucky in that department - or otherwise, the more such work you may wind up with. The work can be anything from radio and video/television appearances (which I've done, and which are terrifying at first but a lot of fun) to a self-funded book tour (which I did not have the self-funds for, but which could well be useful.) The part that is (generally) paid is if you do freelance writing related to the book. And on that note...

-Having a book out does not automatically equal leverage in the writing world. If you want a higher fee for a freelance piece than was your rate previously - if you want any fee for one - you still have to ask. If anything, unless you're super-famous, having a new book out might be that much harder on the freelancing front, with editors assuming book publicity is payment enough. (You know how everything costs more once the word "wedding" is uttered? It's kind of like that.) Be advised: Book publicity is not payment enough. 

-Criticism will be more memorable than praise. If someone writes on Goodreads that your writing style is awful (can you tell that I'm writing this item shortly after seeing that comment?) you will never be more convinced of the accuracy of anyone's assessment of anything, ever. Deal with it privately however you see fit, but take Goodreads's advice and don't, like, engage. It's for readers to decide what they think of your book! Probably best not to engage on Twitter at all, but I confess to not having always been able to restrain myself when it's along the lines of 'I haven't read this book, have no plans to, but it says X which is awful' and you - having written it - know it doesn't say X and... yeah. Best to just leave it, I think, even in a case like that.

-Whatever you imagined it would be like to have written a book, it won't be exactly that. My two big book-related fears - that the book would vanish unnoticed, and that it would be read as an Ann Coulter-esque right-wing tract rather than the intra-left critique it is - have, thankfully, not happened. Nor, I suppose, have any of the fantasy versions. One involved everyone with the means to do so buying ten copies and my retiring, at age 33, to a villa in Santa Barbara. Another, a reception that - I realize now but hadn't always - is reserved for the sort of non-fiction books where mere proximity to the tome makes a person seem cooler, more glamorous, more with-it in some informed but not too controversial way.

The other... is trickier to explain. It came from seeing how it goes for fiction-writers, where chances are, those around you will react positively or not at all. And yes, I'm going mainly by some anecdata-affirming advice given by Mallory Ortberg aka Dear Prudence: "Generally, if someone has written a bad novel/short story/fan fiction, they will not be told 'You have written something bad.' They will be met with silence, and politeness, and unreturned emails." If you write a novel - or, for that matter, a dissertation - you'll at the very least get responses along the lines of, 'that's nice.' If you write a non-fiction, opinion-driven book called "The Perils of 'Privilege,'" maybe you don't get quite that response. Which is a longwinded way of saying, I don't really know what it's like to have written A Book. Just to have written that one.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Settling in, déjà vu edition

Before moving from Toronto about a year ago, our big - as in, physically big - concern was our furniture. We didn't have much of it, and storing it would cost more than the furniture itself. So we sold most of it on Craigslist. We have now come full circle in that regard. 


While we did wind up back at IKEA for immediate needs (almost a year without a dining table makes me put that into the "need" category), we'd held off on bookcases because it didn't seem urgent, and seemed wasteful (environmentally if not cost-wise) to repurchase so much IKEA, so soon. And then... if you have books, and want access to them, you need a place to put them. A near-year without bookcases made me read... less? Differently, at least. The bookcase-less-ness was starting to really get to me. It just seemed wrong.

And so, what had at first seemed like an inessential, to deal with when we got to it, started to seem very, very urgent. A quick browse of a couple furniture shops on Queen West reminded me exactly why we'd wound up at IKEA the last time - behold, an array of $700 bookcases less attractive than the Billy. A halfhearted search for a Toronto version of Housing Works - that is, a thrift store with good, reasonably-priced furniture - led me to conclude that this is either not a thing here (so much "consignment") or not one you can just find with a few Googling attempts. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I am deeply acquainted with this website

So much Craigslist furniture! And at a certain point, so familiar. I know the teak bookcase in the storage unit. The table with the map painted on it. The various round-backed furniture, built for homes without corners, and thus unsellable. The name-dropped Scandinavian designers who maybe are worth knowing, but not when you're in shelf-desperation mode. Oh, and the bunk beds photographed in a room that strikingly resembles a prison cell. And how can I forget? The kitchen cabinets photographed with someone's 1970s dad in front of them.

Why were we even doing this? We don't have a car, nor interest in doing our first-ever Toronto driving as a first-ever U-haul rental. But on some level, I remembered the ottoman. The gorgeous velvet ottoman that an office across the street from our last place was for some reason selling on Craigslist, and that is the only furniture from then that we held onto. You really just need to be able to lift whatever it is, assuming two elevator buildings or houses near each other. (We did carry a street-purchased bookcase to the top floor of a Brooklyn walkup, but that was close to a decade ago.)

On the cusp of giving up, we saw a couple of bookcases very much like the ones we'd sold, but not so much so that they might be the exact same ones. They struck me as being a readily carry-able distance from our apartment. That they most certainly were not, but the seller kindly agreed to drive us-and-them, which meant we could buy both, which... We have bookcases! Two identical ones! This actually happened! 

An hour or so in, it of course seemed like the bookcases had always been there. Totally normal. Why wouldn't an apartment have bookcases?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Junior

When that much-mocked NYT Style article about Donald Trump Jr. - you know, the one with him looking wistful, in flannel, on a tree stump - appeared, I couldn't believe my luck. My book had just come out, and here was this perfect example of the phenomenon that motivated me to write the thing in the first place. For here was a man who had benefitted from absolutely everything - rich, white, male, etc., but also Trump's son, and the one who shares his first name at that - but whose self-conception was so thoroughly that of the underdog. A scrappy, misunderstood everyman. And how did he make that case? By presenting himself as uncomfortable with city life, preferring the simple country life. A preference that manifests itself as incredibly high-end-sounding hunting trips all over the world, the likes of which make the hunts the aristocratic families on British TV shows go on to seem positively low-key. But does Donald Jr. see it that way? Didn't seem like it:

“For some people — you see that in New York a lot — they go hunting once every other year and they talk about it at a cocktail party for the next two years until they do it again,” Mr. Trump said in an interview. “For me, it is the way I choose to live my life.”
Rather than (accurately) presenting his hunting hobby as a highbrow diversion, he uses it as evidence that he's a man of the people. That his Manhattan childhood was somehow authentically American, in a way that more typical middle-class urban childhoods (without second homes or even, in NYC, first cars) are not.

Donald Jr.'s self-presentation as Mr. Ordinary - set against a backdrop of millions of not especially posh Americans getting cast as out-of-touch elites, just for living in cities - struck me as the epitome of the right's embrace privilege discourse. To be privileged, for the right, isn't about being rich, white, male, and well-connected. It's about whether, on "Frasier," you'd be more a Niles or Martin Crane.

(I have an unfinished thought about the relative indignation caused by Donald Jr.'s safari slaughter and - sorry, I know I said I wouldn't bring this up, but here we are - Lena Dunham rehoming and still financially supporting a rescue dog she adopted but couldn't properly handle.)

All of this was back in March, before this summer's big Donald Jr. revelation. There's sitting on a stump like a decadent aristocrat and being generally unpleasant, then there's colluding with Russia to get your father elected president of the US.

When something is indefensible on that level, the excuses are bound to be pathetic. And the excuse that 39-year-old Donald Jr. is a "kid" is plainly ridiculous. (I'm about to turn 34, and while I wish youth extended that long, I'm confident it does not.)

The question I'm stuck on is how much the ridiculousness of the just-a-kid excuse is about white male privilege, how much Trump privilege, and how much the two can even be disentangled. And yes, I'm thinking of the Bustle piece headlined "The Defense Of Donald Trump Jr Reeks Of White Male Privilege." In it, Dana Schwartz writes:
Don Jr. might be, by all accounts, an idiot. But then he’s also a 39-year-old, grown-ass man idiot. This enormous benefit of the doubt is conferred upon him thanks to the tremendous privilege of being rich, white, and male.
Schwartz gives examples of white women and people of color getting torn apart for far less, and of young white men getting relatively generous treatment. All true, and all very important to point out. (One white man she mentions, Brock Turner, has long struck me as an unambiguous case of privilege in action.) My concern is that there may be a downside to attributing gentle treatment at the level received by Donald Trump Jr. to his broad demographic categories. Why a downside? Because most 39-year-old white men wouldn't experience anything close. They'd have it easier than their female and non-white equivalents, but not on that scale. If we instead limit this to rich white men, we're getting closer, but... I still think what Donald Jr. can get away with is closer to what Ivanka the First could, than to the experiences of rich white men generally.

My issue with the framing is, it becomes all too easy to point out - and be right! - that typical white men aren't quite as privileged as Donald Jr., and in doing so, to dismiss the very real injustices that exist in the general (non-Trump) population.

Then again, Trumpism is certainly about the fantasy of being the sort of white man who could get away with anything, and that's a fantasy with disproportionate appeal to white men, very much including ones for whom that'll never be the reality. So, who knows.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reports from the largest apartment in the world

Because I'm apparently a big fan of living in neighborhoods where I can't afford anything nearby, I'm now a resident of Toronto's Yorkville. It's Toronto's Upper East Side. Its 16e arrondissement. Its Gold Coast. Super duper posh. 


Despite this - or maybe because stodgy is less desirable than trendy - the rent in this apartment is lower than in the one from two years ago, in Toronto's hipsterfied garment district, as well as (apparently?) lower than the citywide average. The plusses of the area are grocery-shopping and a short walk as a commute. The minuses: restaurants are too posh for even special occasions, and this persistent sense that I've somehow returned to my childhood neighborhood, except in a (slightly) different country. 

The plusses of this apartment are, I mean, where to begin? It's huge! (OK, it's a large, well-laid-out one-bedroom.) It has new, working appliances! It doesn't have odd building rules like the last Toronto place. Fine, the downside is that laundry's down the hall, rather than in the unit, but... if you grow up in a NYC building where laundry's in the basement, and spend much of adulthood needing to go to another building to do laundry, down the hall is just fine. Did I mention I live in a palace? I live in a palace. 

*****

The main thing that strikes me about Yorkville specifically, on a day-to-day basis, is the sheer number of establishments dedicated to beautification of one form or another. Cosmetic surgery in so many varieties, including something called fat-freezing. Or of not cosmetic surgery, cosmetic dermatology. (Which, as 34 looms, I'm sure I'd benefit from, but I have neither the money nor the inclination.) If not that, then various forms of hair, teeth, and quasi-surgical facial refurbishment, at an above-and-beyond level. Everything, that is, but nail salons - those exist in Toronto, for sure, but seemingly not at the level they do in New York. 

What I can't figure out is whether there's especially a lot of cosmetic enhancement happening here, or whether it's just more out in the open. That is, big signs, big photos of the taut and line-free promised results. Is Toronto - where everyone's in a parka for much of the year, and where it never seems to go above 80 degrees - the butt lift capital of North America? Or do the US cities I'm familiar with (and to be fair, I've barely seen Miami or L.A.) take more of the Parisian discretion-but-it's-totally-still-happening approach? 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The hoagies of privilege

Now that I'm neither blogging professionally nor working on a book partly about internet controversies, I know I can skip stories of the moment. I can see that Lena Dunham (!) rehomed her rescue dog (!!!) and decide to just let that one sit. It's not that I don't have, within me, 7438297423 words on Lambygate. I've just made a conscious choice not to put my energies towards bringing that potential document into existence.

However! I can't let the David Brooks sandwich story be. Short version: People on the left - liberals, leftists, progressives - might be annoyed at Brooks here for the wrong reasons. Or not exactly the wrong reasons - more like, they're only annoyed, I suspect, because it's a David Brooks column.

Before I go further with why I think this, let me backtrack and remind/explain what I'm referring to: David Brooks's latest NYT column is a quasi-endorsement of the Richard Reeves argument that the trouble with America today is that upper-middle class people don't know they're rich. Brooks, like Reeves, is right that the wealthy but not super-rich try really hard to keep their kids at least as well-off as they are. And Brooks has been on the limousine-liberal-hypocrisy beat for ages, one for which there is always a steady stream of material, so he chose wisely.

Where things go wrong: Brooks takes the privilege-awareness aspect of Reeves's argument - the one that was, at least, only a framing devise in his otherwise reasonable op-ed - and insists upon it:

I was braced by Reeves’s book, but after speaking with him a few times about it, I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.
By "informal barriers" he means cultural capital. Taste, in the Bourdieusian sense:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
This is the passage that led to all the #trending mockery. Haha, said left-to-liberal Twitter, David Brooks thinks it's elitist to eat deli sandwiches! Or: David Brooks thinks elites know what striata baguettes are, when who knows what that is!

Here's Brooks's conclusion, which interests me more than the sandwich specifics:
We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible. The rest of America can’t name them, can’t understand them. They just know they’re there.
This is... a "privilege" argument. It is the "privilege" argument. Brooks is saying not just that cultural capital exists (which, yes), but that it is actually the most important form of capital. He's saying that the subtle (ahem) distinctions - "hav[ing] the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality" - are the stuff elite status is really made of. Which is - I believe, and argue in The Perils of "Privilege" - missing the point. In the absence of capital-capital, cultural capital doesn't do a heck of a lot. And insisting upon specific giveaways - especially food and drink - never works, because kale and lattes and whatever came after those have long since made it out of whichever Park Slope or Berkeley corridor of artisanal luxe. It's an appealing argument, because cultural capital is a thing, and feels like a revelation when you first learn about it. But ultimately, money - and race, gender, etc. - matter a whole lot more than ingredient expertise.

Where have we seen this flawed idea before? The left! On the left - except in some newly-prominent pockets of the socialist left - it's been one big mutual privilege-accusation-fest for the past decade. Everyone's secret, not-admitted, subtly-expressed privileges were forever being revealed by people just as privileged. That was blog comment threads! It happened offline as well! Until... I don't know, maybe until Trump, or maybe David Brooks's latest column, progressive discourse often involved fancy people accusing one another of recognizing gourmet ingredients, or making ostentatious statements about not recognizing them, so as to suggest a scrappy past. This certainly also existed on the right - Charles Murray's "bubble" quiz! - but it sort of was progressivism, in a much deeper sense.

So yes, it was some mix of a relief and just bizarre to see a progressive consensus around the notion that structural inequality matters more than cured-meat classification. I can only hope that sticks. I'd like to think this means (my fellow) progressives actually get why the salami argument was wrong, and weren't just mocking a David Brooks column for its own sake.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Can we *please* stop asking if Jews are white?: a ten trillionth blog-attempt at explaining anti-Semitism

Missed a whole lot of news cycles due to the move, but it seems the question of whether (pale-skinned, usually but not exclusively Ashkenazi) Jews are white has stuck around. Yes, I was weighing in on this before it was... not cool exactly, but you know what I mean. (It's in the book. It's in the WWPD archives. It's in the dissertation. It was, prior to this, already the subject of plenty of attention, scholarly and otherwise, from others.) For that reason, I feel a bit done with the topic. But... I'm not thrilled with how it's getting explained, nor with how I've previously explained it. So, here goes:

It's understood, on the left, that there are various axes of oppression. Yes, they intersect, but trying to superimpose one axis onto another doesn't work. That is: to understand sexism, you don't ask whether women - all women, as women - are disabled. To understand homophobia, you don't ask whether gay people - all gay people, as gay people - are women. You have to look at each form of discrimination in its own terms. Not in isolation - some women are disabled, some gay people are women, and this impacts how they experience sexism and homophobia, respectively - but in its own terms. By which I mean: It's not necessary to claim that sexism exists solely and primarily as a form of some other type of discrimination in order to believe that sexism is real and really a problem.

So. To speak of Jewish difference as a question of whether Jews - all Jews - are "of color" is to make an analogy. It's to insist upon an analogy. To do so is to be left with two answers: Either we're people of color, and therefore oppression against us counts, or we're white, so any claims we make of being oppressed - certainly in cases where the oppressors are themselves people of color - fall under the old "reverse racism" rubric, which is to say, don't count. Or maybe there will be some middle-ground position, where Jews wind up classified as not quite white. More nuance, same terms.

All these possibilities fail to get at the truth, which is that most American Jews are white, and anti-Semitism exists. Yes, there's such a thing as racial anti-Semitism, which overlaps in some ways with the racism that exists against people of color. (See also: Islamophobia, which ostensibly isn't racism, but which has a tendency to impact even secular people of Muslim heritage, or those of other faiths who are perceived of as Muslim.) But anti-Semitism can't be understood simply as bias against groups according to their relative non-resemblance to Scandinavians. Anti-Semitism is not now and has never been about Jewish non-whiteness, not-quite-whiteness, or even, as a 19th century European would have put it, Jews' "Orientalness." It's about Jewish Jewishness.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

A vivid imagination

There's a Twitter formulation that involves summoning one's followers' imagination: Imagine being so stupid/evil that you'd think this thing that I disagree with. This is not an Against "Imagine" Tweets post, so much as an attempt to figure them out.

Like any rhetorical strategy, "imagine" can be more or less helpful, depending the context. Some viewpoints really are incomprehensible, or so craptastic that calling them incomprehensible is basically a way of calling them evil and nonsensical at the same time. A recent clickbait trolling piece about how tough it is for white men - and about how white men specifically deserve credit for preventing Nazism from taking over the world (!) - got "imagine" responses on and off Twitter, which seems... more than fair. Bonkers plus hateful gets an "imagine." That seems right.

Still, "imagine" is not, in most other cases, a formulation I can get all that enthusiastic about. As a rule, why present regular-level wrongheaded opinions as inconceivable? They're just... wrong. Wrong, but not inexplicable. "Imagine" cuts off the possibility of an explain-but-not-excuse. Of a type of understanding that doesn't necessarily imply empathy. It puts up a wall, not simply against generous interpretations of dissenting viewpoints (which... not all viewpoints deserve generosity), but against the type of comprehension that can be helpful in arguing against an idea, or, say, useful for creating a fictional character.

Take the following "imagine" tweet:

"Imagine being so fragile that you're triggered by gender neutral bathrooms"


This is, on the one hand, an implied argument (one I agree with) that gender neutral bathrooms are necessary for many trans and gender non-conforming people, so cis people wary of them need to get over it. On the other, there's the "imagine" angle, which prompts the reader to... well, to do what, exactly? To divide the world into the good people, who can't even imagine how someone could think otherwise, and those other people, whose sentiment is not just wrong but unimaginable

Taken literally, if not as plausibly intended, the "imagine" formulation prompts... imagination. And yes, I could imagine a woman (cis or trans) not wanting to share public restroom facilities with cis men. I can even imagine - not support, not agree with, just imagine - a cis woman existing who did not want to share a bathroom with trans women, "imagine," again, being key here. To "imagine" not the same as 'I can sort of see their point.' It's not devil's-advocate. It's just... X is a view that's out there, I'm familiar with it, I can wrap my head around its existence. To imagine a view in no way precludes finding it misguided or even abhorrent. It's not neutrality. 

Let me put it like this: I can imagine that some people are anti-Semitic misogynists. I'm a Jewish woman. I'd obviously prefer it if anti-Semitism and misogyny didn't exist, but I've encountered both, including in the linked-up variety. I'd rather, frankly, if I could find the existence of people with those views unimaginable. Point being, I'm not trying to virtue-signal my own superior imagination (which I don't even think I have). I'm saying that I think it's a pretense that any of us can't imagine views we disagree with, or even despise. 

Imagines, to be clear, aren't necessarily progressive. They cover a wide range of topics and points on the political spectrum. A sampling:

"Imagine being religious unironically"

"Imagine fleeing to a country as a refugee, being taken in, set up and sent to college only to whine about how awful the country is online."

"Imagine giving a fuck about the founding fathers."

"Imagine being so USA-centric that the only form of slavery you accept the existence of is the kind that was made illegal in 1865."

Oh, and there's even an overtly racist variant:

"Imagine being such a brainlet that u believe 'Diversity is our strength' when literally all statistics, from social-economic prove otherwise"

"Imagine," then, is a way of implicitly faulting others, not for thinking something you don't think, but for being able to wrap their head around the existence of those who do. And... I'm not sure what to do with this.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Canada diaries: home decor edition

It's almost Canada Day! Canada 150, that is, as the ubiquitous paraphernalia reminds. With partial internet and a sort of eternal move in progress, I'm only partially grasping what this all means - why it's problematic (beside the obvious), why it's delightful, which events to attend, which to take note of because of public transportation diversions. I hear there's an enormous rubber duck, which sounds odd, and thus worth checking out.

What happened today, Day 5? Another round of practical matters attended to. A certain poodle had her annual checkup and vaccinations, culminating (I think?) in our dog being wished a happy Canada 150. We then went to a nice but very curated housewares store, where we bought a couple small items but not the $150 shoe rack, pretty though it was. Next up, if not immediately because who has the stamina: Canadian Tire. Thanks to that stop, we now have a lamp for the part of the apartment that needed one, as well as a vacuum that wound up being urgently needed to deal with the fallout from the world's worst-packaged - if otherwise perfectly adequate - lamp. (How a lamp could lead to a snowstorm of crumbled styrofoam, who can say, but it did.) Unfortunately they were sold out of most of the Canada-themed goods, so I will have to content myself with the keychain I got in Chinatown that has the flag on one side and a moose family on the other.

In further $hopping: Muji, because I have A Vision about clothes storage, one involving minimalist bins that also function as a nightstand. Wasn't sure how many to get, but think I'm now one further clear plastic bin away from perfection. I think they're meant to go in a unit of some kind, but not if you're going for the home decor look called dorm minimalism.

The best thing about the new place has to be that it's... livable. For too many reasons to get into, some more sensible than others, we never really settled into the New York apartment, nor put the time in necessary to find a fully furnished and dog-permitting and less-than-a-year-lease-allowing place, if indeed such a place existed in our budget. The fact that we can now both sit down in the living room, and not just on one small sofa, is helpful. As is having a dining table. (The New York place has/had a counter and admittedly very comfortable tall chairs.) The aim with this place - both in its splendid table-having-ness and its proximity to supermarkets - is to avoid the dreaded convenience eating out. And we're on the cusp of being at the point where we could (imagine!) have people over. Two dining chairs away, to be precise. We're getting there.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Two homes

Returning to Toronto what feels like months ago, but what was really just Monday afternoon, I wasn't sure what to expect. I only vaguely remembered what the apartment I'd been very enthusiastic about renting would be like. And the city itself had felt, while I was in New York, like a past life. One I was feeling sort of nostalgic for, so it's good to be back. New York and Toronto are both home. Temporarily in the literal sense of the two rents (not indefinitely, but for the moment, yes), but both also feel like home. I don't know if anywhere else I've lived ever did. Princeton, maybe, but only after I learned to drive. Maybe.

A diary of my re-emigration follows:

I couldn't sleep Sunday night because omg moving, so Monday's a blur. I remember purchasing and consuming some English muffins. That's very nearly it, which leaves several hours unaccounted for. Unpacking? But without a dresser to unpack into? Who knows.

Tuesday had more of an agenda, anchored by a much-anticipated IKEA delivery. We also went to Service Canada, which is like the DMV, except there's a screen playing that tells you, in English and French, that if you travel with your exotic parrot, this may pose bureaucratic obstacles. I had not anticipated a wait, nor brought reading material, nor set up internet on my phone, because who knows, so I'm now deeply acquainted with French instructions for not falling victim to phishing, or in Canadian French, hameçonnage. I think Tuesday was also the schleptastic visit to Bed Bath and Beyond, for, among other (unwieldy) things, a coffee maker still very much in the box. My arms are still recovering.

Yesterday, meanwhile, brought the not dissimilar experience of Service Ontario, which was so efficient that I was able to make it to a morning haircut appointment on time, which addressed a very fried ombré situation. While it was not the first priority, the haircut was about as urgent as anything of that nature ever can be. That plus painted nails and I feel fabulous. While I don't doubt that I'd benefit as much as the next person from the remarkable array of cosmetic enhancements on offer in downtown Toronto, I have the tremendous ~privilege~ of such a disheveled starting point that I can undergo beauty treatments so tame that an 8-year-old could undergo them without the NYT Style section writing about it, and still appear to have had A Makeover.

And boy did the makeover continue! Today I was interviewed about The Perils of "Privilege" for Canadian television, which was a lot of fun. While the morning began with a not especially glamorous bus ride, I was soon in a makeup artist's chair, for what I think was my first time ever. I think I now know how I should have been doing my makeup all along? (I should be wearing taupe eyeliner, not jet-black, I'm learning, some 15 years later than I should have.) More on the interview itself once it airs later this summer!

Oh, and somewhere in that mix, we set up a bunch of IKEA furniture. We must have done this, given that I'm typing from the small part of this enormous Ektorp that a miniature poodle has decided I should be allowed access to.

It feels good, so good, to be back. I'm not sure how much of the tremendous sense of relief I feel at this precise moment - and have, since arriving - has to do with knowing that I'm now a permanent resident of a country with universal health care and Trudeau rather than Trump, and how much is that I'm pleased to be, at last, staying put for the foreseeable future. I am preferring Toronto to New York more dramatically than I'd have guessed, but this may have less to do with one city versus the other than with my if I may say so myself brilliant idea to choose an apartment building largely on the basis of proximity to a supermarket. I may never get off this couch, now that the poodle has migrated back to her own bed, but if I do, it will almost certainly be grocery- or taupe-eyeliner-related.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Un-Wanty

Under normal circumstances, I make a point of being Team Stuff. I am principle-of-the-thing in favor of taking pleasure from browsing and god forbid sometimes even purchasing physical objects. Now, however, I'm simultaneously on the lease for two apartments, in two different cities. Having two homes is a glamorous situation when intentional. When unanticipated (long story involving American and Canadian logistics), it's more like an expensive, if temporary, pain in the neck. Not dire, thankfully, but not inconsequential, either. (My desire to take up kickboxing, say, fluctuates, but is, as I type, at maybe an all-time high.)

Various situational factors have combined to completely change my relationship towards stuff. On the one hand, I can't imagine even wanting new clothes. The mere thought of packing - and of two rents - leads me to enumerate all those items that seemed so necessary, and to which I so brattily, in some past version of myself, felt entitled: Four sleeveless blouses. A romper and a jumpsuit. A blazer and a trench coat. All purchased, needless to say, Before.

While I know I'm a quick Google search away from reminding myself that my clothes-purchasing rate is unimpressive cost- and quantity-wise by the standards of the average Western woman, and while some of these purchases (no, not the romper) were the pretty straightforward result of under-packing initially, the sense of shame I feel when thinking about having gone to stores and bought myself stuff is sort of intense. While I confess to having replaced an old and broken $50 pair of sunglasses with a new and not-broken pair of the same over the weekend, my impulse to treat myself is at nil, and has been for the past couple months. Which is bleak. Situational, which is something, but bleak all the same.

It's not, to be clear, that the inability to go and buy myself whatever Uniqlo has new for summer is the biggest problem anyone has, or the biggest one I have, even just as it pertains to this rather craptastic situation. But I am basic and ridiculous and it's something I notice all the same. I experience one kind of self-loathing for having shopped, and another for feeling even at all bad for myself for not being able to do so now.

On the other hand, I will soon - finally - be settled. Or settled-ish. Settled for at least a year in a specific apartment, and indefinitely in a specific city and country. Which means... I'm not even sure what to call it. Decorating? Me?

In the immediate future, it means assembling (helping my spouse assemble) IKEA furniture, and otherwise stocking a new apartment with such urgent home decor accents as olive oil and laundry detergent. But I can finally - finally finally - have a vision for a space. Ancient history for many 33-year-olds, I realize, but a first for me. All previous places I've lived as an adult have either had dorm furniture of one sort or another, or the haphazard result of Brooklyn street-furniture and panicked IKEA, which is, let me just say, a very different beast from thought-through IKEA.

I dream - dream! - of purchasing a jewelry stand, and knowing I won't have to find a way to bring it on an international move. (Of purchasing jewelry itself? Ugh, nope.) Maybe even clothing storage purchased with aesthetics a liiitle bit in mind. (It is for the best that there's no Container Store in Toronto, because if there were, oh boy.) The same don'tspenddon'tspend impulse guiding my current not-shopping will still be present, but balanced with the need to, you know, not have all my clothes on the floor. All sorts of decorating inspiration picked up, inadvertently, from Japanese and Scandinavian poodle Instagram, is going to be channeled into, I don't know, bins or baskets, or selection of armchair cover. (Oh, did I mention an armchair is finally happening?)

The not-so-distant-future-oriented shopping that, look, has to happen whether I enjoy it or not is the cheerier reason for aggressive non-shopping now. I'm really looking forward to checking out this shop on Queen West that sells practical items for apartments. So I guess this means I'm still Team Stuff. It just means the Facebook ads for cool-girl athleisure are wasting their time with my account.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The privilege books I didn't write

Maybe the strangest thing about writing a book on privilege is the passion with which some readers (or prospective readers) fill in the blanks with what they imagine/want/fear such a book to be about. Everyone has a novel in them, and so, too, it seems, a privilege book. To which I say, the more the merrier! I certainly did not intend for my book to be the only voice or angle on what is a fairly huge and abstract topic.

With that in mind, below, a mere handful of the books about privilege that maybe someone else will one day write - and some of which I'd happily read - but that The Perils of "Privilege" is not.

-A study of The Privileged, in which I delve into the lives of the rich and well-connected, using the weddings covered in Vogue as a starting point.

-A book uncovering privilege in its many facets, with the goal of making sure that those who may think they have it tough have properly reckoned with forms of privilege of which they may have been oblivious.

-A holding-forth about "SJWs" and Young People Today and anyone else who speaks out against injustice, informing the reader that Well Actually racism, sexism, etc., are simultaneously over and delightful, and also the real privilege is being American.

-An academic monograph on the detailed origins of how "privilege" is used in the social sciences and humanities.

-A guide, for those who see themselves as privileged, on how to avoid coming across as such.

-An activist instruction manual, teaching heirs how to leverage their inherited advantage for good.

-A memoir analyzing my own privilege, across the various axes (cis, straight, white, from New York, and with a doctorate in French for crying out loud), and delving deep into the history and significance of the neuroses and (symbolic) self-flagellations these inspire in me personally.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Counterpoint: Rich people know they're rich and wish to stay that way

Whenever I see someone arguing that the solution to inequality is for haves (in whichever area) to acknowledge their privilege, I have to see how they think this will play out. How is getting the beneficiaries of unearned advantage to admit to being advantaged ultimately anything more than an etiquette ritual, one that - like all posh etiquette rituals - winds up reinforcing privilege?

Richard V. Reeves's NYT op-ed, "Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich," is a request that attention be paid to the "favored fifth at the top of the income distribution," rather than just the One Percent. It's also a UK-US comparison, in which the UK's notoriously bonkers class system comes out ahead, because the British privileged have checked their privilege:

[M]ost of the people on the highest rung in America are in denial about their privilege. The American myth of meritocracy allows them to attribute their position to their brilliance and diligence, rather than to luck or a rigged system. At least posh people in England have the decency to feel guilty.
(Have white Brits checked their white privilege? A question for another time.)

Reeves's argument is that the annoying, hypocritical behaviors of the rich and upper middle class - things like preaching meritocracy but sending children to private schools - happen because "the people who make up the American upper middle class don’t just want to keep their advantages; armed with their faith in a classless, meritocratic society, they think they deserve them." He writes:
There’s a kind of class double-think going on here. On the one hand, upper-middle-class Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly engage in antimeritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up.
If only American fancy types knew they were fancy, problem solved!

So. I think Reeves has correctly identified several of the structural obstacles to social mobility in education, housing, and tax policy. He's completely right - not the first to point it out, but totally right - about a certain brand of liberal hypocrisy, especially where private education is concerned.

But I don't think he quite makes the case that "class consciousness" is what's lacking. And that's for a couple reasons. First, Reeves ignores the tremendous and obsessive rise of privilege-awareness in the US, during and since the 2008 recession. There's been this enormous expansion in the way liberal Americans understand privilege - and, yes, a parallel expansion in how it's understood by conservatives. On the left, there's now an understanding that privilege isn't just wealth, but also whiteness, maleness, cultural capital. On the right, it's about urban coastal elites, and anyone who finds Trump distasteful being inherently a posh snob. So when Reeves writes,
The rhetoric of “We are the 99 percent” has in fact been dangerously self-serving, allowing people with healthy six-figure incomes to convince themselves that they are somehow in the same economic boat as ordinary Americans, and that it is just the so-called super rich who are to blame for inequality.,
I'm not sure who's being addressed. Who has absorbed the notion that to be privileged is to be in the One Percent? Occupy Wall Streeters? A handful of socialists? Because this is not, I don't think, a mainstream view in liberal America. Americans don't have the same history of class consciousness as Brits, but Americans have embraced the notion of privilege-checking with newcomers' zeal. Americans frequently overshoot the mark and speak about huge swaths of the population as privileged that are not in any meaningful sense privileged. (As in, consumers of lattes, kale, avocado toast, and yes, I know the avocado toast dude's Australian.)

Second, then, there's the feelings-ish question of why, if American meritocracy's a myth, upper middle class parents are so fixated on their kids getting ahead. Is it, as Reeves argues, that they're unaware of their privilege?

No. A lot of it is that there isn't much of a safety net in the US, so if your offspring leave their schmancy class of origin, they don't just have to contend with not being as rich or posh as their childhood playmates. They might, for example, not have health insurance. (Where, one wonders, does the Struggling Millennials narrative fit into this?) It's not good enough, for them, to look at stats ("Most of the children born into households in the top 20 percent will stay there or drop only as far as the next quintile.") and assume their kids will probably be fine.

Then there's the fact that the US doesn't have an actual aristocracy, and has, at least, a history of mobility, such that today's fancy types, at least until recently, would very often have not-so-fancy parents or grandparents. (I'm guessing this is less true in the UK, Reeves's family history notwithstanding.) What Reeves calls "the American class reproduction machine" is the result of effort. It's not a passive maintenance of social hierarchies. It's precisely because American elites understand themselves as not "entitled" to their status that all this effort gets made.

Point being, the reason rich and upper middle class Americans are not acknowledging their status as an aristocracy is that they're not an aristocracy, but rather a precariously situated caste that needs to take active measures to hang onto its position. Or, rather than even looking at this as a caste, it's a bunch of individual families with shared interests where their kids are concerned.

The answer, then, is... more of a safety net. It needs to be not-dire if a rich person's kid doesn't wind up being rich. As for how to get rich people to go along with this, that's the tricky bit. But I see no reason how (further) alerting them to their privilege will inspire them to spontaneously give it up.

Friday, June 02, 2017

History's least-dramatic 'Why I'm Leaving New York' announcement

Hello, blog-readership. The rumo(u)rs are true: I'm returning to Toronto. And pleased, very pleased, to be doing so.

I had expected to arrive back in my hometown and never, ever want to leave. That didn't happen, for reasons I could pretend have to do with the new New York, with its craptastic subways and its current state of beyond-gentrification, but that only partly relate to anything that general or objective. Yes, the city's unaffordable, but when was it ever otherwise? More so these days, sure, but the principle's the same. (That said: the school fundraisers where you have to pay $35, $55, $700 to sample tiny portions of food from local restaurants, and, upon realizing this, shuffle quietly away from what you'd thought was just a street fair? Those are, for the record, Why I'm Leaving New York.)

It's also not because of the current sorry state of my nation's politics, but in some sense not not for that reason. I'm moving to Toronto for the usual work-personal reasons, and not - as is often assumed - Because Of Trump. I will say, however, that I was on the cusp of purchasing a couch - from a thrift store but still - the evening of the election, but woke up and, yeah, decided against. I never really got comfortable again here, literally. 

Mostly I'm just relieved: The bureaucratic complications of living kind of in Canada, kind of the US, are... far too boring to get into, but at any rate wound up sort of eating up much of the year. ("Bureaucratic" implies a lot of paperwork; this went beyond that.) While there are professional reasons for me to consider the time back in New York a success - I published a book! I got to work for a great publication! - it occurred to me, not infrequently, how much of this could have happened from Toronto.

But it's also that the New York I was picturing was some mix of one that no longer exists and one that never did. It was, in my mind, some mix of the best parts of late high school and the post-college years, crossed with the sheer exhilaration I felt, living in New Jersey, when I'd leave Penn Station and be in the city. In my mind, every friend I'd ever had in New York, every café I'd ever frequented, everything from categories Stuff and Experience alike, all was just there, preserved, unchanged, and awaiting my return. Clearly that did not wind up being the case, but I think there's more to it: A sense that I was probably-but-you-never-know going to leave in several months' time made me reluctant to really dive into life in New York. It made me wary of making choices that would make leaving too difficult.

Ultimately the city comparison question hardly enters into it. New York is bigger, but Toronto, not being my hometown, feels bigger. Toronto subways actually work; New York subways actually reach most of the city. Streetcars are lovely! So, too, traffic rules that don't encourage cars to park on the sidewalk. Both (now) have Uniqlo. Both are among the few places in North America that the likes of me - city-loving and driving-averse - is ever going to feel effortlessly at home. Both are great! I'm more than ready for Toronto.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

An essay, a moment

I've been thinking, thinking, and thinking some more about Aisha Mirza's Buzzfeed essay, "White Women Drive Me Crazy." I still can't decide what to make of it. Is it a "must-read," especially for white women, as some on Twitter would have it? (Maybe.) Is it racist, as some of the less-savory Twitter sorts would have it? (No. Geez.)

What it is, then, is both compellingly written and deeply of-the-moment. It involves feelings-projection journalism (and in a yoga class! yoga!): A white woman in Mirza's yoga class looked startled. Much of the essay is Mirza's interpretation of that woman's facial expression. It concludes with Mirza noting that she no longer sleeps with white women. Mirza approvingly quotes a friend: "'Black and brown men experience as much gender discrimination as white women.'" As much discrimination, if not more. But gender discrimination? To me, at least - insert requisite disclaimer about my own myriad identity categories here - this feels like the sort of thing it feels righteous to nod along to, but that neither makes sense nor leads anywhere especially progressive.

So it's a frustrating essay in many ways. And yet the issue at the center of "White Women Drive Me Crazy" - a society where white people act as if people of color are inherently dangerous - is an important one. Its implications - police brutality, racist 911 calls of the 'there was a black man in my general vicinity' variety - are plenty real. There's value in hearing about what it feels like to be someone who, by simply existing, is perceived as a threat in mainstream society.

If you're looking for a prime example of a 2017 personal-political essay, with all the strengths and flaws that entails, this could well be it.

Here's how the essay opens, and why I'm so stuck re: what to make of it:
Yesterday I stepped on a white woman’s yoga mat by accident and she looked at me like she had woken up to me standing at the foot of her bed, like I had just suggested we murder her husband and run away together. She looked at me like I had escaped from a zoo, like a hippo had found its way into this Brooklyn yoga studio and was casually waiting for the 8 a.m. class to begin. She looked scared, like she had just found out that the world really did end in 2012, and she had been going to yoga three times a week since then for no reason, because she is actually a ghost.
I'm torn. Torn between the competing impulses to just not question a marginalized person's experiences of oppression, and to push back against the impulse to attribute racist tirades to people who simply looked white and startled. Between recognizing the pain of through life in a body that white people (white women?) fear, and recognizing the general ugh-ness of confident assertions that anyone knows, just knows, what some perfect stranger is thinking.

While the internet outrage of yore the piece first reminded me of was, of course, the xoJane story by a thin white woman moved to tears by the presence of a fat black woman in her yoga class, because yoga, thought-projection... But upon reflection, it also recalls another one. One involving - sorry - Lena Dunham. Remember the time Lena Dunham got everyone angry (bear with me) by claiming an NFL player had called her ugly, except... he'd done nothing of the sort? For those whose minds are not compendia of the various Dunhamgates, here's the Dunham passage in question:
I was sitting next to Odell Beckham Jr., and it was so amazing because it was like he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards. He was like, "That's a marshmallow. That's a child. That's a dog." It wasn't mean — he just seemed confused. 
The vibe was very much like, "Do I want to fuck it? Is it wearing a … yep, it's wearing a tuxedo. I'm going to go back to my cell phone."
Because Lena Dunham is (rather famously) white, Odell Beckham Jr. black - and because of the "fuck" portion of her phrasing - this story quickly became one of Dunham engaging in, then apologizing for, racism. Which... yes. (Why exactly did she think Beckham was pondering her sexual allure?) But it was also, unavoidably, a story about life as experienced by a woman who does not look like a supermodel, but inhabits a world where basically all other women do. Dunham's feeling that people were looking at her like she was "a marshmallow" is unverifiable in individual instances, but absolutely based on the real phenomenon of ordinary-looking women in the public eye getting treated as if they don't count, don't belong. I'm sure it is tough for Dunham - yes, even with her success, her whiteness, her wealth - to have a significant part of the internet holding forth continuously on how they would not in a million years have sex with her.

It's difficult to talk about amorphous phenomena like how we imagine we seem in the eyes of others. If we're going to do so, it's certainly better not to name those others - that is, to avoid putting words into specific other people's mouths. Better still, I think, to make clear that what we're doing is saying what we think someone else is thinking, rather than presenting our own feelings as evidence of something tangible. (Even better: fiction! But that's even more difficult.) But given that Mirza's yoga classmate could be any one of the millions (?) of white women who do yoga, it's not a feelings-projection that crosses the line. No yoga-class White Ladies were harmed.

I suppose where I'm left is wondering whether to read the essay as an experience-testament piece, of value to the author and those who personally identify with her story, and in no way about convincing white people - white women - of anything in particular. If that's the case... then I suppose disregard all my thoughts on it, unless we're far enough into Trumpism that Ashkenazi Jews aren't white. If, however, there's an element of it that asks something of white women, what does it ask?

A generous interpretation would be that it asks white women to strive for a society where people of color are not treated as inherently dangerous, both out of anti-racist goodwill and so as to avoid having their startled expressions (maybe) misinterpreted. A less-generous one: it's asking for an eggshell approach to human interaction, in which white people (or just white women) second-guess their every facial expression, and just generally remain hyperaware at all times of the identity categories of everyone they meet, viewing every moment of human contact through the lens of, well, privilege. My interpretation, at the moment - very much subject to change - is that it's a bit of both.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

"The lady at home who watches it"

This is a makeup post. An intentionally subjective one, which maybe more makeup posts should be. It's about two products: one which works for me, one which works, but not for me. In that order.

-Charlotte Gainsbourg Nars Multiple in Jeanette

I will get the embarrassing bit out of the way first: I bought a nearly $40 makeup product named after Jane Birkin. Not as expensive as her namesake handbag, but this still makes me a victim of the Gamine Suggestibility Industrial Complex.

Now, the excuses-excuses part: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Birkin's daughter, as well as the celebrity behind this makeup collection, just happens to look more like me, coloring- and features-wise, at least on paper, as it were, than maybe anyone else whose face has ever been used to promote cosmetics. She also has a personal style in that enviable effortless-Frenchwoman realm, evoking those Parisian and now global boutiques (Sandro, etc.) where ordinary (but chic!) clothing costs ten times what you imagined it possibly could.

And on a more practical note: I'd been looking for a non-sparkly blush, and intrigued by the idea of lip tint, despite never quite figuring out which tint-marketed product would do what "tint" suggests. (I also had bought a different Nars Multiple that turned out to be basically glitter, and thankfully done so within Sephora's zone for returns.) This product is, on my coloring, absolutely correct in both of those functions. If your issue, beauty-wise, is looking washed-out and sickly even when feeling absolutely fine, this is your product.

-Glossier Boy Brow, Brown

I had, as readers know, been apprehensive about entering the Glossier store. It seemed too cool for the likes of me. I've read Into the Gloss basically since it started, and probably visit the site daily, which made visiting its shop this thing. But you know what? It's a store that sells beauty products. It's not showing up at a media office uninvited. (Something I did do in that very neighborhood, actually, en route to a different media office where I was expected, but the elevator didn't go to the floor I needed. Point being, this is a not entirely irrational fear on my part.) Yes, visiting Glossier involves taking an elevator to "penthouse" in a building that seems as if it would have a secret bar, and not a secret millennial-oriented version of a Clinique counter.

I say "secret" but the day I went, at least, there was a woman out front in a pink jumpsuit (think astronaut, not romper) waiting out front, directing in potential customers. The store, or "showroom," was also staffed by young women in that uniform. The space was too busy to be intimidating, and filled - as on some level I realized it would be - with readers of Into the Gloss, as versus the site's cool-girl staff (a couple of whom I did recognize on the street nearby) or the tastemakers who (I think?) get sent these products for free.

I'm reminded of that great line from "30 Rock," where Jenna's saying who would be which character from "Sex and the City." She says she'd be a Samantha, Liz Lemon "the lady at home who watches it."

Anyway, the other ladies at home who watch it (that is, envy-read ITG) were very cool, yes, as well as very... younger than millennial. Which I should not have found surprising, this being a brand that recently came out with a new lip gloss.

The product I was curious about, due both to the zeitgeist and their persuasive marketing campaign, was Boy Brow. The showroom is all-tester (if you like a product, a salesperson gets it for you at the register), and includes disposable tester wands and such, which is very wise, I think, where hygiene is concerned. I'm familiar enough with eyebrow makeup as a concept to know I would need ("need") the brown one, as the thing is to go a shade lighter than your hair, so as to avoid the Uncle Leo look. I put it on and... hmm.

Technically, kudos to the product. It worked, as in, it did what it's supposed to do to eyebrows. It made mine look naturally prominent, and even allowed for some shaping in ways that looked sort of high-fashion editorial. The thing is... I can now say, with confidence, that I look worse with more prominent eyebrows. It also just felt weird. (As would eyeliner or mascara, I'm sure, if you didn't get used to those at a young age.) The moment I was back home, I was swiping those waxy eyebrows with eye makeup remover, returning my eyebrows to their yes weirdly light for my coloring natural state.

I have a theory: I think the dark-bushy-brows thing took off as worn (are brows "worn"?) by women who are otherwise fine-featured (and, often, fair-haired), on whom this one stronger, perhaps sliiiiightly less gender-normative feature (thus, I suppose, "Boy Brow") adds an edge. That is, women who already met society's beauty standards to a T can add (or, in rare cases where this is what nature provides, choose not to remove) A Brow and thus have one of those imperfections that brings about perfection.

As a woman who resembles neither Cara Delevigne nor Natalia Vodianova, but is more (to bring things full circle) Tina Fey- or Charlotte Gainsbourg-like in appearance, thicker eyebrows added nothing. They made me look like a grown-up version of a girl who wants desperately to be allowed to tweeze her eyebrows but isn't permitted to do so by her, I don't know, eyebrow-fundamentalist parents. Yeah, I image-searched Gainsbourg and Fey just now and their brow game is, like mine, non-existent. Which, on them, works just perfectly.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Why I'm not moved by the plight of a theoretical sincere Rachel Dolezal. (Hint: note the word "theoretical.")

OK, so. I’m kinda-sorta up to date on the philosophy controversy over an article arguing that if transgender is fine, then so, too, is transracial. The article itself, that is, and some but not all of the heap of commentary the article has inspired. I come at the topic not as a philosopher, nor as someone with a team on the campus speech meta-debate. (For the long version of my thoughts on campus politics, yup, it’s in the book.) No, I come at this as someone who’s found something not quite right about the Dolezal-inspired “transracial” debate all along, beyond the obvious (it's offensive, yes, but why?) but who was only able to sort out, for myself, the… actually quite simply issue at hand this morning, while walking my dog podcast-free. 


To be clear, I’m addressing the topic, not the academic-politics angle. While the short version is, yes, that I think Tuvel’s argument (or, more to the point, premise) is way off, enough so that I do think there's value in people outside her field expressing opinions, my aim here isn't to protest the article appearing in the first place, a debate I think is outside my role to even have.

One more disclaimerish thing: If this overlaps with what any of the other 100,000,000 Dolezal takes have already argued, apologies in advance. I admit I have not read each and every one of them, and so can only say this isn’t one I can recall coming across. With that, here goes:

The problem - not just in Rebecca Tuvel’s article, but in the mainstream conversation about this topic - comes from looking at the issue too… philosophically, or just too much in the abstract, and missing key facts on the ground. In The Article, Tuvel “suggest[s] that Dolezal offers an important opportunity for us to think seriously about how society should treat individuals who claim a strongly felt sense of identification with a certain race. When confronted with such an individual, how should we respond?”

I’m suggesting, in turn, that we take a step back and ask: Are we, in fact, confronted with such individuals? Because if we’re not (and Tuvel admits as much), then we’re giving rather a lot of weight to the well-being of made-up, thought-experiment-inhabiting people, and putting their feelings above those of people who do in fact exist and do in fact make their wishes known.

Put another way: Transgender is a thing, transracial is not. There are people who suffer tremendously from being assigned a gender at birth that does not match up with who they are. These are real people who really exist. Are there people in the same boat where race is concerned? Well, there’s Rachel Dolezal, who seems, above all, a mess. There was a tabloid story a while back about a white man who’d had cosmetic surgery in order). Life, as Mallory Ortberg often reminds, is “a rich tapestry,” and if you comb the planet you can find everything. But it’s unavoidably the case that in the society where this conversation is taking place – and I avoid saying in our society, for reasons you’ll understand after reading philosopher Eric Schliesser’s post on this, which you should* – there is demand for transgender rights, while "transracial" remains an abstract concept, associated almost exclusively with one case, a case that, as Tuvel herself notes, may not even fit. 

There are certainly cases of racial identity being ambiguous, and yes, racial identity has margins. (Trust me, I’m an otherwise white person not considered white by white supremacists!) That, however, is something else. If margins and ambiguous cases were the topic at hand, there’d be intersex analogizing, not transgender.

So the question to ask is what the stakes actually are. If there aren’t – Dolezal aside – white people identifying as black, it makes sense to ask what it is white people do want when rooting for Dolezal (and theoretical other Dolezals) to get to count as black. What comes to mind: While there’s hardly a stampede of white people wishing to be black, there are a good number who wish to be able to say the n-word, or two wear blackface, or to engage in other, less overtly racist forms of (to use a term requiring more unpacking than there’s room for here) cultural appropriation. There are, in other words, plenty of white people who want to live in a society where they can be casually racist without consequences. That phenomenon – unlike transracial – is a thing.

Where transgender is concerned, yes, there are some (cisgender) women who take offense at the existence of trans women, and who feel that the phenomenon of a person assigned male at birth identifying as a woman is the appropriation of a marginalized identity. (That would be "TERFs", but also – and I say this anecdotally – some cisgender women who aren’t radical feminists of any kind.) There, however, the concerns of cisgender feminists – however legitimate in the abstract – tend to fall apart in the face of trans women’s actual existence and actual suffering.

With transracial, meanwhile, literally all that’s at play – again, where actual people are concerned – is, there are many black people who find “transracial” to be, well, racist. But there isn’t any competing concern of the transracial community because guess what? There isn’t a transracial community, let alone an oppressed transracial community. So what you’re defending, in effect, when you defend the non-existent transracial community is the right to be gratuitously offensive. Because that’s the demand white people – not all, but lots – are actually making.

*Schliesser – who also happens to have been my favorite college instructor – also says what’s needed to be said about Tuvel’s discussion of Jewish conversion.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Who is cool enough for Howard Street?

It's never a good sign when, upon entering a store, you hear two young French women discussing how a salesperson had told them (and for this one of them switched to English, presumably the language of the interaction) they didn't have whatever it was in big enough sizes. These women were, you know, slender. Were they talking about the store they were exiting, or another shopping experience? That I can't say.

What I can say is the store this was: Reformation, on Howard Street. This is significant because there's this stretch of southeast SoHo that has this aura of ultimate cool. While I'd like to think I've aged out of being too intimidated to enter certain stores, that part of the city sets off that old apprehensiveness. From Outdoor Voices (been inside) to Glossier (wouldn't dare), Opening Ceremony (dared, for fear-overcoming purposes, really), it's all just so cool. It gets a tiny bit less intimidating west of Broadway, for reasons I don't entirely understand. Agnes b. is expensive, yes, but is not, like, judging me. Oak and Fort might seem minimalist and daunting if I didn't know it from Toronto and, more specifically, from the mall in Toronto.

Anyway. This bit of the city is near the one store where I do actually shop - Uniqlo, still Uniqlo, plus Muji when that's open, plus Housing Works but not the Housing Works in that part of town for some reason - so I decided to take a look. I was feeling confident, for some professional reasons, but also because the trench coat I'd been considering had been on sale in my size and in the color I wanted. (I'd also had luck at a Cosabella sample sale, which makes me think of the lyric 54 seconds into this video.) Maybe these stores... had sale racks? Maybe I would see something gorgeous and splurge?

I started with Outdoor Voices and was reminded that it is - at least to my insufficiently honed tastes - meh, even if the space does look like one of my favorite Toronto coffee shops. (Specifically: Early Bird.) Glossier, sorry, way too intimidating, plus I've already spent too much on things I've heard about on Into The Gloss, so the danger was great that I'd wind up leaving with eyebrow mascara, which is not something I am in fact on the market for.

At this point I was thinking it was time to get food, but I was so close to Reformation and had this vague sense from online that it would be filled with clothes like that French Birkin-esque model-socialite wears/designs. (She'd done a collaboration with them. Why do I know this?)

I went in. And the stuff was gorgeous. On point is I think how I'd describe it if I were someone young and cool enough to shop there. And rich enough. The clothes are (unlike my $60 trench coat, if less than my similarly-priced Theory-via-Housing Works blazer) ethically produced, at least according to the website, which means I can't moan about the prices without either feeling guilty or launching into a rant about how ethical fashion as a concept seems (sometimes but not always) designed to make people who can afford to spend a lot on clothes feel good about themselves.

Who are the women who wear these dresses? This one, say? They're young (as in, I would feel, at 33, too old for that one specifically; this I think I'm just the right age for, but a foot too short), but they have $200 to spend on a dress they couldn't wear to work... or could they? What are their jobs, or are they just professionally fabulous? They're presumably not women who'd be too intimidated to go into the Glossier showroom/store/whatever it is, but I suspect they're so cool they're on the list to get sent the eyebrow mascara for free.

Wheels on Fyre

When I saw the vague social-media rumblings about a music festival gone wrong, my impulse was that this was one trending story I could easily skip. I don't go to music festivals (and was never tempted, even in my younger, occasional show-going days), and can't get up much excitement over controversies (or fashions) specific to music festivals.

Then I saw the viral photo of a cheese sandwich. The sandwich - ordinary if unappetizing, but still presented with fresh-enough-looking mesclun - embodies the story. The story being, as I understand it from copious explanations (and backstories), that a music festival promised a luxury experience (and more; more on that more in a moment) but delivered... a badly organized, music-less music festival. Standard-issue tents and food instead of yacht parties or jet parties or whatever. Something approximating a regular vacation for most people, but a mess, and tragic-feeling for those experiencing it because they'd paid up for something else entirely.

Now, as someone who as purchased unnecessary goods and services, who am I to laugh at others having been ripped off? I mean, I've spent $6 (CAD but still) on matcha lattes, and if one of those turned out to be a cup of lukewarm Lipton, I'd have been displeased. (Note: that has never happened. They're magnificent and worth every Canadian cent.) Does this mean I forfeit my right to cast stones?

Or... does the sheer scale of this spending (tens, hundreds, of thousands of dollars), and its ostensible purpose (avoiding the peasant experience of going to a regular-posh music festival) make schadenfreuding, in this case, acceptable?

Does it even matter what I publicly conclude here, when I can perfectly well find it hilarious in private?  

What struck me most was the movie trailer for the festival, which I watched via the Vox explainer while on the bus to the supermarket (this background, I think, is key). Yes, the video depicts luxury, but more than that, it shows... soft-core male-gaze fantasy. It's a bunch of beautiful (famous?) women, and only women, in bikinis, frolicking and not infrequently making playful physical contact with one another:


This is, in other words, a sort of conspicuous consumption where access to beautiful young women is a big part of what's being bought. And not even in the sense of sex work - no, it's about being seen, by others, as the sort of man who can get women who'd universally read as desirable.

So yes, some of the visceral fun of watching the Fyre story unfold is about my snobbish sense that the (unaffordable-to-me) thing a bunch of people had paid for was (or, well, promised to be) tacky, douchey, whatever. Some is also that the lack of an equivalent phenomenon wherein rich women pay up to watch beautiful men dancing serves as a reminder of just how sexist our society remains. The proverbial punch, then, goes in any number of directions, if mainly, on the whole, up. But is that even the issue? Is this even political? Or if so, is it even subtly political? Or is it just populist catharsis minus so many of the troubling elements that that can sometimes involve?

Friday, April 21, 2017

What I mean when I talk about "privilege" criticism

So. I have been a fan of Eliot Glazer for even longer than I've been one of his sister, Ilana Glazer. Which is to say, I was binge-watching "It Gets Betterish" prior to "Broad City." I am deeply pro-Glazer. However.

The A.V. Club HateSong interview with Eliot Glazer, about a Meghan Trainor pop song, but really Trainor more generally, put me off, and I'm trying to put my finger on why. With interviewer Marah Eakin's encouragement, Glazer explains, at length, why the 23-year-old singer is not just not to his tastes musically, but is - in her embrace of content-free "empowerment" - an anti-feminist villain of sorts:
[I]n a world where feminism needs to be taken seriously, in the wake of the election and how we felt such a blow to the cause when everything shifted, at that point, it does more harm than good to have a singer who I’m pretty sure also doesn’t like the word “feminism” tell little girls how to act.
Oh, and she's kinda-sorta to blame, apparently, for Trump:
Meghan Trainor is just terrible. She really is a reminder that it’s still possible for the patriarchy to take control of the White House, the way that her brand of watered-down feminism can still be equally as powerful as it was when the Spice Girls called it “girl power.”
I should say that I come at this with zero feelings about Trainor or her music. My brief stint as a car-having person means I'm familiar with her butt-positivity song, and I remember it falling very much into that category of songs where I'd neither be pleased nor feel compelled to change the station. I have no interest in coming to Trainor's defense musically or politically. And yet the interview left me feeling weirdly - and with important caveats - pro-Trainor. Why?

As is so often the case with cultural criticism these days (yes, there's a chapter on just this), an essentially aesthetic objection is phrased in political terms. Sure, the starting point is Glazer's assessment that Trainor is "such a lowbrow dum-dum." But that has the whiff of a punch down. Snobbish, maybe even... classist. So the rest of the interview becomes this painstaking attempt at explaining the social justice necessity of hating this random pop singer.

The problem with Trainor is that she's "a 23-year-old from Nantucket." (A Google suggests Glazer's background is at least as posh.) That she appropriates black culture in her use of language. More than the typical white pop star or, for that matter, comedian? More than Glazer himself? Unclear, but Glazer is not the first to raise this issue where Trainor's concerned. If this had been his central political complaint, we could have a discussion of whether criticism along those lines, and from that source, falls more into the helpful or virtue-signaling category (and I'd be persuadable that it's the former), but alas, that is not the main point of the rant.

The main gist is that according to Glazer - note, a man - Trainor's doing feminism wrong:
Her version of feminism is just a party favor. It’s a thing to rhyme words about. It feels like she’s never read a book about feminism in her life. And maybe that’s being 23, but also: Stop. Stop and write songs about jelly beans or something.
That's but one passage of a long-form complaint that Trainor is bad for feminism, bad at feminism, maybe not even a feminist at all. And why? Because her boy-centric, body-positivity-focused concerns are so last season. According to a critic who is, again, a man. (If he were a straight man, I guess it would be a notch worse, but, as Miss Tibbs remarked on "Fawlty Towers," in a totally different context, "a man is a man.")

This is peak "privilege" criticism. We have a man who's managed to frame a gratuitous takedown of a woman performer with particular appeal to girls as the true feminist act. It can't be that Glazer thinks a performer sucks because she "writes terrible basic bitch sock hop stuff," both because that would be purely aesthetic and because it would hint at unsavory (that is, sexist and classist) politics. It has to be that he came to his anti-Trainor stance for only the most impeccable political reasons.

I now feel about Trainor approximately the way I've felt for a while now about Chelsea Clinton, which is to say, anti-anti. Even if the individual criticisms add up, the thing where white men present ugh-that-gross-woman-I-don't-like-ism as a social justice project is just, well, ugh.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Nice things

I was feeling that hankering for refurbishment. Or maybe just a beauty treatment. The problem: I don't do any of these. I don't get massages, manicures, pedicures, or any of the pseudomedical options. I just never got into any of this. But I get the impulse.


So I was an easy sell, if you could call it that, when I saw Into The Gloss's video with French stylist Christophe Robin, promoting a pop-up he's doing in Tribeca. I clicked on "How To Wash Your Hair" with some skepticism, but by the end I was utterly convinced. 

While my first impulse was to go out and buy the eye shadow the model is wearing in the video (which, gulp, I also did, in silver, as per the details in the comments), I was too intrigued by the prospect of a (free! although in such situations I always tip or at least ask to) shampoo and blowout in a glamorous and fleeting Parisian salon within walking distance (very loosely defined) of my home. 

The salon itself was spectacular. Were there poodle figurines throughout? Yes, there certainly were.

Was the experience exactly like in the video? Not entirely - most obviously, I am not a model. And my hair issue is not and has never been greasiness, as a week in NJ without hot water once demonstrated.

While I met Robin (who's very charming and gave me not just samples but helpful explanations), a different (but also French) man washed my hair with an array of the special products. Then another stylist - a woman who is, much like yours truly, non-French - blowdried my hair... and made it look better than I would have thought possible. Was it the products? The use of an apparently $400 hairdryer? The (special, also-Robin-branded, I think) brush? Whatever it was, it was at least a good part her technique, which I did my best to file away for future reference. How? How did my hair go from a mix of frizz and straw to what you see below?

Yes, this is a selfie I took in a Pain Quotidien.

I was feeling splurgy so I asked the stylist which product would allow me to replicate this at home (leaving out the part about how I frequently fall asleep with wet hair). She said all the products were contributing, which is doubtless true, but I wasn't feeling quite that decadent. So I went with one, a leave-in conditioner (?) sort of product, which, fine, for all I know (having never done this) cost more than a blowout from one of those blowdry places. (I know it's googleable but I choose ignorance on this matter, because this was a lot of fun but not something I expect to repeat.) 

Also: I'm not sure how to balance use of this new product with the fact that I will now never wash my hair again. I have big plans that involve combining The Hair (now with DIY trimmed bangs) and The Eye Shadow and... The Navy Rayon Clothing From Uniqlo, I suppose.

The most surprising aspect of all of this is that I learned that the type of shampoo I'd used in high school, and later looked back on as an example of my hair-cluelessness at the time, is actually the sort I should be using. Clarifying shampoo! That was, all along, the way to go.

Conditions of production

For everything in the world, every good and every service, there's the behind-the-scenes. Others can only judge the final product, as is fair. This is no less true of writing. Below, then, is a behind-the-scenes account. A process post, of interest, I suppose, to other writers, and to anyone curious about writers' neuroses and work-related anxieties.


I'm thinking, first, of my dissertation. Once I knew I'd be writing on French Jews and intermarriage, I had this goal of covering everything. After all, this was a narrow topic! I was going to write the definitive work about every last aspect of it. Fictional and real-life cases! Actual rates across time and location! Comparisons with other times and places! I was going to cover everything from the French Revolution to World War II! I was going to visit different regions and find out everything!

In the end, I had to focus on what was possible given existing sources (and resources) and my own methodological limitations. I did research in Paris and New York, and not across France. I stuck with the 19th century. And - and here's the big one - I was never being able to ascertain how many French Jews married out across this period. France didn't keep records of marriage by religion. I spoke with established scholars who are experts in Jewish demography, and they confirmed that not only do figures not exist in published works, but there's no simple way, likely no way at all, of figuring this out. 

Now, to some doctoral students, this might have posed an exciting challenge. (And I hope someone gets to it!) For me, it would have been a prohibitive sidetrack. I was in an interdisciplinary PhD program, but trained primarily as a literary scholar, housed in the French literature department. If I was going to write the dissertation I needed to and felt passionate about, and to spend less than a lifetime doing so, I was not going to self-train as a demography innovator. I was going to have to state what was known or knowable to a scholar from an adjacent field, and focus on the questions that most centrally interested me, which related more to perceptions and anxieties at the time than realities. 

The interdisciplinary nature of the program I was in, and the project I was doing, was in some ways freeing - I got to work with historians and write scholarship of interest to people in a variety of fields - but it was also daunting. I felt - and still feel! - a certain amount of... regret? guilt? at having not written the work on French Jews and intermarriage covering every possible angle and discipline. Yes, even though my committee was pleased with the result. I did my best to - and this is always the trickiest - make sure my argument as presented at the beginning of the document matched up not with the one-time everything-covering dream project, but with what I was actually able to produce. Still. 

So. While my book is not in the least bit based on my dissertation (it's about the idea of privilege in contemporary American cultural conversations, not that of intermarriage in 19th century France, and is for popular audiences, not specifically academics), the thesis-writing experience prepared me for the fact that the book I'd wind up with was unlikely to cover absolutely everything on the topic. I knew - again, from that experience - that no project can use every methodology. I knew that at a certain point, I'd have to determine which paths served my argument, as well as which were beyond what my skills (or, really, contacts) would allow. I knew I couldn't do everything, just, you know, some things.

Writing a book wound up being quite different than writing a dissertation - more fun as well as more challenging. A dissertation feels like a solo slog, but I wrote my in a cohort. Not continuously surrounded by friends doing the same (except at the BNF!), but often enough that I never felt like I was doing it alone. A book, on the other hand... it's really just you writing it. Yes, instead of an advisor, you have an editor. But there aren't a whole crop of other writers who start and finish around the same time you do. Or maybe there are, if you do an MFA, but I did not, so there weren't. From college, from social media, I knew (and 'knew', respectively) a handful of authors, none of books similar to the one I was working on.

And then there's the structure question. I was lucky to be funded throughout my doctoral program, including long stretches where my only responsibility was to write. Paid to write! Not paid a ton, but enough, and with health insurance. Books - with rare exceptions, as I understand it - are not like that. I was tremendously lucky there as well - editor-wise, publishing-house-wise, and even advance-wise - but there was never a question that I would still need to earn money in other ways while writing. Yes, yes, my privilege is always and forever showing, but I, the author of the privilege book, am not independently wealthy. As is normal for authors, I worked - in my case, teaching and doing other writing. For a year, free time didn't really happen, and I'm going to have to say, it was worth it. If not necessarily a schedule I'd repeat. 

And I think the whole needing-to-work thing was good for the book, as in, good for the end result that now sits before readers. Limited time forced me to focus, in a way I never had to for the dissertation, with those months spent living in a dorm room in Paris with all the croissant money a person could ask. (Also key: books have deadlines. Dissertations, not as much.) What is this book really about, and why does it need to be written? I had to keep this front and center. 

That said, does my inner critic immediately turn to places I would have added/expanded, had I had all the time in the world? Of course! Does this make any criticism that (inadvertently, of course) lands on wondering why this or that wasn't mentioned, where "this or that" is precisely what I'd have mentioned with more time, extra frustrating? It does. This, even though with more time, I'd likely have spent it making more thought-through decisions about whether to get a cappuccino or a matcha latte, and not turning my book into the imaginary, every-methodology-covering fantasy every project probably always will be, before practical constraints and my own limitations enter the picture.