Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bad Bad Belle

I should be doing any of the following:

1. Packing.

2. Editing/Bluebooking.

3. Reading through huge list of articles for the research seminar at Cloudy Cul-de-Sac Law so that I can be a good little prepared, constructive-feedback-giving-participant (unlike the way most law students are in the generic law school "____ and the Law" seminar).

4. Writing the next crap article (but this is only because current articles are truly craptastic).

5. Sleeping (but I'm nocturnal by nature).

Instead, I'm reading:

The archives of this blogger and his coterie. We're hanging out this summer, and it's fun to stalk your friends. Now I know what books we can talk about over the best morning buns in the country. We may not agree on everything, but we find each other agreeable, and I'm looking forward to turning in a book report on Ada, or Ardor and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. As soon as I finish this article on the FMLA. For his part, he must report to me his thoughts on The Archivist, and I am assigning him (for purely fun reading) The Shadow of the Wind.

And the archives of this blogger. I want to meet her the next time I Blog Across America. Even if we disagree about the size and scope of the government (federal or state apparently), we can agree about the fabulousness of polka dots, the irritating way Renee Zellweger acts with her pursed mouth, and the beauty of this Robert Creeley poem (who will be next Saturday's poet).


Monday, May 28, 2007

Before There Were Blogs

Because I hate and fear packing almost as much as I hate Bluebooking:

And since I am not looking forward to living out of boxes for the two weeks before I leave for a research seminar at Cloudy Cul-De-Sac Law (a double blind pun if you can figure that one out, but don't be surprised if I don't post your comment or email):

I give you something more fun to read as I disappear for a couple of days, because when I'm not packing/unpacking, I'll be preparing for the seminar and kicking up my (fashionable, psychosis inducing) heels with this secular bible of sorts:

Barring another "WTF?!" post of course.

Before there were blogs, there were:

1. Zines.

Although you might want to look at this handy compendium first.

2. Slate Diaries.


Richard Posner. About being a tireless public intellectual. (you know you can't resist Judge Posner)
Untenured. About being a, well, untenured associate professor. (my favorite passage below*)
Eric Weiner. About adopting a baby.
Seth Mnookin. About recovering from a heroin addiction. (cousin to law prof Jennifer Mnookin btw).
Ingrid Katz and Alex Wright. About being medical interns.
Dave Koch. About attending the Bread Loaf Writers' conference.
Stanley Fish. About returning from the AALS and being his theoretical Fish-ness.
Ira Glass. About being my ultimate nerd-crush.
David Sedaris. About being his weird, fabulist, fabulous self.
Robert Pinsky. About being one of the greatest poets of our time.
Bill Gates. About being a rich and generous geek who inherited the earth.

3. Open Letters.


Daniel Arp - on his passion for Amazon.com.
Ian Brown - on a moment of clarity.
Scott Carrier - on crickets and desire.
Dishwasher Pete - on a clean conscience.
Jonathan Goldstein - on an old flame.
Paul Tough - on a moment of coincidence.
Sarah Vowell - on casting her ballot.
Amy Sohn - on long-distance love.
X. - on her son, and his father.
Jonathan Lethem - on his favorite band.


(Picture credits: www.explodingdog.com , except for the one of my feet)

* From Untenured, one of my all-time favorite ways to describe teaching (and yes, I've read Vygotsky, Freire, and bell hooks):

Teaching often leaves one feeling a little like chopped liver. It is like some intense romance which retroactively turns into a one-night stand. But weirder still--it is like a one-night stand you keep having over and over. Students come and go but always stay the same age. I sometimes have the feeling that I have had several similar relationships with generations of their slightly older prototypes over the years. I had met B. in his many previous incarnations. In my graduate student days, he might have been what we liked to call the Heidegger boy. The Heidegger boy would always find a way to fit a discussion of Heidegger into any and every conversation. The Heidegger boy is brilliant, aloof, and a bit cold around the edges. The Heidegger boy has some interpersonal limitations.

But emotional attachment to students takes many archetypical forms: These range from grand, unconsummated courtly passion to raging, unconsummated, stuttering lust. There are more complex forms as well. There is the love one feels for the beautiful young woman who doesn't know she is brilliant and the love one feels for her twin--the brilliant young woman who doesn't know she is lovable. There is the earnest frat boy who learns to think. The boy one wanted to date in high school but didn't. I have always had a particular penchant for young men of 20 whose intellectual excitement translates into a steamy sort of vulnerability. Sometimes one falls in love with a class as a whole, like an adorable Borg whose every part is equally adorable. During these semesters, a random absence from any student feels like an amputation.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Living Out of Boxes

What the heck, I couldn't resist.

This is what life will be like for a week or two, until I move out of my 300 sq. ft. grad school dorm shoebox (often described as the "nicest shoebox though") into my new 900-1000 sq. ft. apartment in the lower floor of a house on a street lined with some kind of trees in a certain neighborhood. And then I leave town before I really get to enjoy it.

But it will nice to move up the food chain of boxes. I'm the one in the box, vaguely.

Not to be confused with the guys in these boxes.

Yes, if you turn the handle and sing "all around the mulberry bush" I jump up at you.
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Bizarre Defense: The Fashion Industry Made Me Do It

Apparently, not only does the devil wear Prada, s/he also made Peter Braunstein, former media columnist for Women's Wear Daily, "sexually molest and terrorize" a co-worker for 13 hours. Yes, you can go "WTF?!" now.

From The NY Times, "The Devil Wears Prada Defense That Didn't Fly". See if any of this "resonates" with you. Or maybe just makes you go "what?!" (emphasis added):

Something strange happened in court during the Braunstein “fire fiend” trial. That was the moment when Anna Wintour’s name came up as someone Mr. Braunstein had fantasized about killing. It began to dawn on everyone, from spectators and reporters to, perhaps, the prosecution, that they were about to witness the first use in a high-profile criminal case of the “Devil Wears Prada” defense.

Plot twists lurking below the surface in the Braunstein story suddenly emerged full blown, propelled by the fevered writings in Mr. Braunstein’s diary and manifesto. In a written evaluation, the defense psychologist, Barbara R. Kirwin, stated that for Mr. Braunstein, the sexually charged, celebrity-driven pressure cooker of the fashion world was toxic, “the proverbial recipe for disaster.”

Was it true? Is fashion so catty, judgmental, obsessed with appearance and attitude that it can drive someone insane? Is it so poisonous that it can lead a person to commit several felonies? While the “fashion made him do it” defense ultimately failed — the jury resoundingly convicted Mr. Braunstein last week of kidnapping and sex abuse, and he faces 25 years to life in prison — some elements of his lawyers’ claims do resonate.

There is no doubt, several fashion insiders and former insiders say, that working in the industry can be brutal. “Fashion is what fashion is,” said Fraser Conlon, a former publicist for Tom Ford and Donna Karan, who now runs Amaridian, a gallery of sub-Saharan art in SoHo. “If you’re not grounded and don’t have a strong sense of yourself, sure, that could affect you.”

Mr. Braunstein, now 43, was fired from Women’s Wear Daily in 2002 for, essentially, being obnoxious to the wrong person. Before then, he had been a lowly freelancer and graduate student in pop culture; working in the newsroom of Fairchild Publications, the oracle of the fashion industry, was his dream job. He had access to celebrities, he could make magazine editors quiver through “Memo Pad,” WWD’s answer to Page Six, public relations as gossip.

But he was also a seemingly willful misfit, according to former colleagues, someone with bad clothes, bad hair and tone-deaf social etiquette, on the order of Heathcliff, Ugly Betty and, yes, Andrea Sachs, the Wintour character’s clueless assistant in “Devil,” in a world that prized all the opposite qualities.

It was not so different, perhaps, from high school, and in the end, after his dismissal, he became a monster, Stephen King’s Carrie, humiliated at the prom.

After Mr. Braunstein was fired, the psychologist said, his latent paranoid schizophrenia emerged, and he plunged off the deep end. On Halloween 2005, he impersonated a firefighter and tricked his way into the Chelsea apartment of a co-worker he barely knew, where he sexually molested and terrorized her for 13 hours.

Mr. Braunstein put Manolo Blahnik sandals on his victim, which some commentators have described as fetish-like behavior. It was not a fetish, his lawyers say — the shoes became “props” in his crusade to destroy fashion icons.

Mr. Conlon wondered why Mr. Braunstein would have been attracted to an industry that was so toxic for him, an industry dominated by strong women, which was certainly no place for a misogynistic male.

Still, he said: “I would be hard pushed to be convinced that it was the industry that drove him to do what he did. You are or you aren’t that person. I would believe some far more deeply rooted psychological trauma would make him do something like that.”

In his manifesto, Mr. Braunstein exhibited a grandiose need to justify himself by tearing down those who, unlike he, had survived the steely, exacting mistress that is the fashion world.

“O.K., you get to call me a psycho,” he wrote, “and in return, I get to tell you, irrefutably, that I’m someone who saw through and willfully renounced the inane regimen of petty satisfactions and petty grievances that you all live every day.”

Who in the fashion world would not recognize that sense of self-importance?

If the Prada fits, wear it.

I'm sorry, nothing in the above "resonates" with me, no matter how many comparisons to high school mean girl hazing the author makes. Am I supposed to feel sorry for a guy who breaks into his co-worker's apartment, kidnapping (for non-lawyers, you don't have to be "taken away" to be kidnapped, but rather unlawfully restrained for a substantial period of time) her and sexually molesting her in perverse ways? Am I supposed to believe his "fashion bitches made me do it" defense? That doesn't excuse his misogyny, much less his terrible criminal actions.

I don't know what's worse, that the Fashion section of the NYT is discussing this in such a bizarrely sympathetic manner, or the astute insight "fashion is what fashion is"--thanks! I get it now!

It's tough being a misogynist in an industry dominated by "strong women"--and I guess that "steely mistress," so unforgiving, just brings out the psychosis in some misogynists. I guess working with "strong women" made him want to exact revenge on a "weaker" one by molesting her and terrorizing her. Oh, and he could stick it to the fashion industry as a whole by humiliating her with expensive footwear. And in doing so, he renounced the inane pettiness of the fashion industry. Renunciation = rape. Yes, that makes sense.

Or maybe he just is a garden-variety psycho whose schizophrenia was triggered, as many could and do to a sudden stressful event as a job, and committed a heinous crime.

Perhaps what he and the female-dominated fashion industry share is some sense of ego--but aren't there different types of ego? The kind that believes itself superior by a certain metric, and the kind that believes itself justified in the most heinous of crimes? I'm not defending the self-absorbed and prettier-than-thou nature of the fashion industry. I'm just saying that's an entirely different type of ego, and while probably neurotic and insecure, isn't psychotic and criminal. There's a difference between disdainful indifference to the wrong types of shoes and extreme indifference to human life, dignity and the law. At least I hope so, or else there's a lot of raging psychotic rapists and killers walking on Madison Avenue.

I hate that the above article conflates such psychopathic self-righteousness with superlativeness, seemingly implying that brutal misogyny is just one step away from cliqueish mean girls/high school nature of the fashion industry.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Saturday Poet: Louise Bogan

Years later, loves later, these speak to me.

Epitaph for a Romantic Woman

She has attained the permanence
She dreamed of, where old stones lie sunning.
Untended stalks blow over her
Even and swift, like young men running.

Always in the heart she loved
Others had lived,—she heard their laughter.
She lies where none has lain before,
Where certainly none will follow after.

A Tale

This youth too long has heard the break
Of waters in a land of change.
He goes to see what suns can make
From soil more indurate and strange.

He cuts what holds his days together
And shuts him in, as lock on lock:
The arrowed vane announcing weather,
The tripping racket of a clock;

Seeking, I think, a light that waits
Still as a lamp upon a shelf, —
A land with hills like rocky gates
Where no sea leaps upon itself.

But he will find that nothing dares
To be enduring, save where, south
Of hidden deserts, torn fire glares
On beauty with a rusted mouth, —

Where something dreadful and another
Look quietly upon each other.


I do not know where either of us can turn
Just at first, waking from the sleep of each other.
I do not know how we can bear
The river struck by the gold plummet of the moon,
Or many trees shaken together in the darkness.
We shall wish not to be alone
And that love were not dispersed and set free—
Though you defeat me,
And I be heavy upon you.

But like earth heaped over the heart
Is love grown perfect.
Like a shell over the beat of life
Is love perfect to the last.
So let it be the same
Whether we turn to the dark or to the kiss of another;
Let us know this for leavetaking,
That I may not be heavy upon you,
That you may blind me no more.

Song for the Last Act

Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd’s crook.
Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.

Now that I have your face by heart, I look.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music’s cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence. In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat’s too swift. The notes shift in the dark.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

I Wish I Were This Mighty

I am a recent convert to Org Theory, so I missed this a while back, but am happy to report this now:

Congratulations to Dr. Freese for the move, and for being so MIGHTY.

(do yourself a favor and click on the "Mighty" link and watch the whole thing)

I don't know who made that site, but sure hope that one day I'll be as well thought of!

And if there was some genius cabal of students behind this, I hope one day I'll have such fans as handy with Flashplayer and with such excellent taste in dramatic background music.

This beats any Facebook fan club any day!

Hat Tip: Orgtheory.net


Essentializing Women's Bodies and Body Functions

Tampon Toys:

Strange discussion in the blawgosphere today:

From Eugene Volokh, a discussion about the "Pill That Ends Menstruation":

Again, concerns about long-term health effects are quite sensible. But I don't see any justification for the feeling that it's not "right to sidestep" something that's "part of being a woman." I suppose it could be some esthetic judgment that argument won't much drive; but setting aside esthetics, why on earth should we want to accept natural but painful or unpleasant things?

Disease is a part of being a human. Headaches are part of being a human. Excruciating pain in childbirth is part of being a woman. They are bad parts.

A good part of being a human is being able to prevent disease and to ease pain. Why embrace the harmful, painful, or uncomfortable parts of human nature, and reject those parts of human nature — our species' intelligence and resulting scientific acumen — that diminish harm, pain, and discomfort?

But menstruation isn't about appearance. Women don't dislike it chiefly because it "occurs in association with being female," because it's "disgusting," or because it's "not-so-pretty." They dislike because of the cramps, because of the mood swings, because of the hassle. (I suppose that the desire not to get blood on one's clothes, and the concomitant need to use various products to prevent that, can be cast as a question about what's "disgusting" or "pretty," but both men and women generally and understandably don't like bloodstains of whatever sort. And in any case, as I understand it the physical discomfort associated with menstruation is a much greater concern for most women than just the universal desire not to get blood on things.)

Odd comment thread (but less odd than the one at Althouse), but I liked this one from Amber Taylor:

As usual, Althouse misses the point; all birth control pills cause cessation of menstruation. The fake period produced by conventional birth control pills is a withdrawal bleed, not a real period, and women have been taking conventional pills continuously, off-label, to eliminate all bleeding for years. This is not about skipping the nasty and uncomfortable (but natural!) cycle of menstruation, but about doing away with an artificially produced simulacrum thereof.

Follow-up from Volokh, a blog post with oddest title ever, "Seeking Input From People Who Have Actually Menstruated":

Humanity does derive meaning from some shared experiences — but not all. Shared experience that you bond over: pregnancy. Shared experiences that you don't bond over: hangnails, nearsightedness, tooth decay. Shared experiences that people sometimes seem to bond over, but that I'm sure they'd be much better off without: various illnesses or operations that some elderly people stereotypically discuss with each other, but which they'd be glad to avoid without any worry about lost "meaning."

My sense is that menstruation falls within the second (or, less likely, third) category of experiences rather than the first. To many women, pregnancy is a harbinger of their joy in becoming a mother, an affirmation of their fertility (something many women worry about before they become pregnant), a sign of a growing bond with their husbands, and more. Menstruation, it seems to me, is far removed from that: While it is part of the same system that may eventually lead to pregnancy, it doesn't have the directness of connection to a growing baby, it doesn't prove fertility in a way that would ease the woman's fears, it doesn't strengthen the marriage, and in general it lacks very little redeeming value.

But let's hear from some people who actually menstruate, and have been pregnant. When you menstruate, do you feel that you're part of the "in crowd"? If you chose to stop -- not because of menopause, which is a marker of age and of lost fertility, but voluntarily and reversibly -- would you feel "out"? Do you smile and talk to your friends about the cramps, the mood swings, and the like? Do you feel you derive meaning from the fact that you share menstruation as an experience with other women? Would you feel meaning subtracted if you stopped menstruating, because menstruation is so "central" a "female experience[]"? Do you find menstruation to be similar to pregnancy in any emotionally positive way?

Again, odd (but this time more interesting and useful) comment thread, and I like these:


wow... what a title to a post... I've talked about this with my friends, one of whom is going on the new pill that suppresses menstruation (she'll be the guinea pig). The only advantage to menstruation is that it's a monthly "nope, not pregnant" reminder. If (for various health reasons) I am capable of switching to that new pill, I'd consider the lack of a period a benefit; miss nothing about it; and stock up pregnancy tests from Costco. My friends and I bitch about menstruation together; we don't smile and talk about it. And the various travails of men, families and life are more than enough to give us shared bonding experiences without the added ignominy of bleeding for five days without dying.


I just *love* when men tell women what the Essential Feminine consists of. Men like that give women plenty to bond over -- no menstruation required.


What on earth is this topic doing in a legal forum? Although as someone who menstruated during the bar exam and had to put her sanitary supplies in a clear plastic bag to show that I wasn't writing any cheat notes on a sanitary napkin, I suppose it could have some connection. A bonding experience? Puhleeze. Look men, would you want to spend five or six days every month with blood leaking from your body, sometimes coming on with little warning, and potentially putting a very embarrassing stain on your business suit? Do older men who need Depends after their prostate operations, bond over the experience? Think about it.

I have great respect for Volokh as a scholar and blogger--and he's a really nice guy (yes, we've met, but I'm sure he doesn't know). I don't always--in fact I rarely--agree with him. And I admit, sometimes his posts truly bother me. Like this one (a great response here, and here). But this post doesn't make me as mad as you think it would.

Essentializing women by their body parts and functions (menstruation, childbirth, "maternal instinct") drives me nuts. But I don't think that's what Volokh is doing here. In fact, it seems to me that he's arguing against essentializing women via this particular body function. At least that's my interpretation, that he's responding to a commenter at Althouse for conflating women's identities with their body functions. And he seems genuinely interested in wanting to know what women think. Odd blog post aside, and odd way of framing the question ("smile and talk"?! "in crowd"?! "meaning/emotionally positive/female experience"?!) I trust his bona fide curiousity.

Still, I am very amused by this response by my blogfather Ann Bartow:

Well, one thing I’ve learned is that if you want all the men to leave a room at breakneck speak, just uttering the word “uterus” will sometimes do the trick. Bu I think Eugene needs to be educated gently and incrementally, so the first thing I’m going to do is send him a copy of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume. Then, when he seems to have grasped the thirteen year old perspective, in a decade or so, I’m going to send him a package of Always and a bottle of Pamprin, and urge him to enroll in an introductory course in Women’s Studies.

I'll answer Volokh's questions anyway, since I'll take his curiousity in good faith:

I get personal enough here, probably too much (hence pseudonymity), but I will say that I don't define myself by this body function. Maybe there was an "in crowd" for at the age of 12 or 13, when we were waiting for the sign that we were "women." "Eve's curse" shouldn't mark the fall from "innocence" to "maturity," but I was too young and stupid then to know that being a woman isn't defined by when my body releases a certain amount of hormones. Actually, at this age of wanting to grow up quickly (believing anything other than the present is better) it seems like any first experience that marked a transition was anxiously desired, pleasant or unpleasant. Just because girls (and boys) brood anxiously for/about their first date, kiss, sexual experience, driver's permit, hair growth, menstrual period, or wet dream doesn't mean that each experience is equal in meaning or value. It's all a part of a very odd time in life when everything is new and everything makes you older than you were yesterday. Eventually, the novelty wears off.

I have two older sisters. We rarely talk about this, and if we have, they were not salient bonding experiences, except: 1) when I was 14 I got my period in the hospital after an appendectomy and swore I was bleeding out and dying (they told me I was stupid and that if I was bleeding out I'd be dead by now); 2) when my sister got fibroid cysts and I made her see a specialist, marking a time when she took my advice as from one adult to another. I think of these experiences a medical discussions, not "we are women, let us bond over something that happens every month" experiences.

In law school I lived in all women's housing, and none of us ever bonded over the synchronization of periods or the jokes about Aunt Flo coming to town. Yes, if one of us was out of "feminine napkins" there were always some to spare, as well as Advil for those in need. But I think I got the same commiseration whenever I had a cold--chicken soup, hot ginger tea, and the awesomeness of Nyquil. Women do talk about and share over their periods--but it's no different to me than when I commiserate over some other bodily affliction.

Menstruation is not "central" to my feminine experience. It's a good reminder that I'm not pregnant, but cycles can be irregular--and so it's not always a reliable indicator. In fact, when I went off the pill my cycle stopped for a couple of months--this often happens, and can be helped with a progesterone supplement. Did I feel less like a woman for these two months? No. Did I lack ability to commiserate with women over the experience? Because I hardly talked about it anyway, I didn't miss it, and if my friends brought up their experiences, I listened the way anyone would to someone complaining about a headache. With tepid concern and an offer of Advil.

In fact, when my cycle stopped for a year and a half due to hormone conditions (but I was healthy and yes, still reproductively viable, and yes, it's over now) I stopped thinking about the entire enterprise. I stopped thinking about bloating, cramps, headaches, tiredness, mood swings as being part and parcel of the feminine experience. I stopped noticing if whenever I felt any of those conditions, whether they were tied to a certain time of month. Even though I had never defined myself by the experience, I became even less attached to it. And I was no less a woman. My body goes through tons of changes and all sorts of conditions. And it will continue to do so as I age, and when I have children. But I define myself by what I, as a sentient being, do with my body--not by what my body does to me or for me.

I spent a good 2-3 years in college being a women's sexual health columnist for my campus feminist newspaper. I don't feel any particular qualms about discussing this or any other body functions. But I don't think bodies should be defined by their parts and functions. We are more than the sum of our parts. Women are more than their functions and body parts. A woman who has had a masectomy is no less of a woman. A woman who has had a hysterectomy is no less a woman. Both are still able to relate to other women and share in the "feminine experience" in whatever ways they define that experience. Menstruation by no means compares to childbirth and rearing as a bonding topic, and I am loathe to define women by their reproductive capabilities anyway. If you are unable to bear children, are you less of a woman? If you cannot breast feed, would you be less of a mother? I would hate to limit the "feminine experience" to functions that form such a small part of the universe of experience.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

In Which Belle and Her Real Life Alter Ego Ponder Their Respective Googability

I blog pseudonymously to protect my googability. The googability of the Real Life Alter Ego is very minimal. I am on the verge of making my name in the world...but am not quite there yet. There are works in the pipeline, a reputation being slowly and selectively built. Still, it is interesting to have a smackdown between the two personas:

When you google "Belle Lettre":

Page # of first appearance: 1

Link #: 1!

Pages: many, I sayeth with pride.

Displacement ratio of the less common singular form of the very real French literary term "belles lettres": embarassingly high, but I can't say I'm not pleased about it.

Might be confused with: This defunct blogger. Whose writing I don't really get.

When you google the "Real Life Alter Ego":

Page # of first appearance: 2.

Link #: 4

Relevance: as a blog commentator, or as a blog hat-tipper for the next few pages.

I do occasionally write under the Real name, but not often, and only concerning academic topics for which I have the competence to discuss.

Next most important link: page 7, as a colloquium participant representing Liberal College Law. This, you'd think, would be first. But not according to Google page rank.

Last known position of prominence: on the masthead of law school journal, which still shows up on page 8.

Previous position of prominence: College PBK election list. Presenter at undergraduate research symposiums.

Displacement ratio of other people named Real Life Alter Ego: embarassingly low.

There are tons of accomplished scientists, real estate agents, urologists, and with the same name. A name I used to think was uncommon. Alas.

Might be confused with: a college student who looks very happy.

I think Belle Lettre wins the smackdown for googability. But that was the intention, I suppose.


Notes on Narrativity

When I was a Crit, it was all about narrative.

But as a blogger, it still is all about narrativity.

Go figure.

I liked this article from the New York Times, This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It). Yes, I'm pasting in a gratuitous amount from the article, but it's worth reading:

[I]n the past decade or so a handful of psychologists have argued that the quicksilver elements of personal narrative belong in any three-dimensional picture of personality. And a burst of new findings are now helping them make the case. Generous, civic-minded adults from diverse backgrounds tell life stories with very similar and telling features, studies find; so likewise do people who have overcome mental distress through psychotherapy.

Every American may be working on a screenplay, but we are also continually updating a treatment of our own life — and the way in which we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but how we behave, new studies find. By better understanding how life stories are built, this work suggests, people may be able to alter their own narrative, in small ways and perhaps large ones.

“When we first started studying life stories, people thought it was just idle curiosity — stories, isn’t that cool?” said Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and author of the 2006 book, “The Redemptive Self.” “Well, we find that these narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future.”

Researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative construction. People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list, studies find; and they rate legal arguments as more convincing when built into narrative tales rather than on legal precedent.

During a standard life-story interview, people describe phases of their lives as if they were outlining chapters, from the sandlot years through adolescence and middle age. They also describe several crucial scenes in detail, including high points (the graduation speech, complete with verbal drum roll); low points (the college nervous breakdown, complete with the list of witnesses); and turning points. The entire two-hour session is recorded and transcribed.

In analyzing the texts, the researchers found strong correlations between the content of people’s current lives and the stories they tell. Those with mood problems have many good memories, but these scenes are usually tainted by some dark detail. The pride of college graduation is spoiled when a friend makes a cutting remark. The wedding party was wonderful until the best man collapsed from drink. A note of disappointment seems to close each narrative phrase.

By contrast, so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh. They were laid low by divorce, only to meet a wonderful new partner. Often, too, they say they felt singled out from very early in life — protected, even as others nearby suffered.

In broad outline, the researchers report, such tales express distinctly American cultural narratives, of emancipation or atonement, of Horatio Alger advancement, of epiphany and second chances. Depending on the person, the story itself might be nuanced or simplistic, powerfully dramatic or cloyingly pious. But the point is that the narrative themes are, as much as any other trait, driving factors in people’s behavior, the researchers say.

Mental resilience relies in part on exactly this kind of autobiographical storytelling, moment to moment, when navigating life’s stings and sorrows. To better understand how stories are built in real time, researchers have recently studied how people recall vivid scenes from recent memory. They find that one important factor is the perspective people take when they revisit the scene — whether in the first person, or in the third person, as if they were watching themselves in a movie.

In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University measured how student participants reacted to a bad memory, whether an argument or failed exam, when it was recalled in the third person. They tested levels of conscious and unconscious hostility after the recollections, using both standard questionnaires and students’ essays. The investigators found that the third-person scenes were significantly less upsetting, compared with bad memories recalled in the first person.

“What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you’re feeling upset,” instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study’s lead author. The emotional content of the memory is still felt, he said, but its sting is blunted as the brain frames its meaning, as it builds the story.

Taken together, these findings suggest a kind of give and take between life stories and individual memories, between the larger screenplay and the individual scenes. The way people replay and recast memories, day by day, deepens and reshapes their larger life story. And as it evolves, that larger story in turn colors the interpretation of the scenes.

“The idea that whoever appeared onstage would play not me but a character was central to imagining how to make the narrative: I would need to see myself from outside,” the writer Joan Didion has said of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her autobiographical play about mourning the death of her husband and her daughter. “I would need to locate the dissonance between the person I thought I was and the person other people saw.”

On the heels of my previous post quoting Dave Hoffman on Jonathan Franzen's complaint about the erosion of the public sphere, this is a kind of interesting addendum. Maybe there's a point, after all, to personal blogging. For a person like myself (who hates keeping diaries and deletes emails with impunity), blogging is another way of storytelling. It's not public airing of dirty laundry for me--it's a sort of performative art.

One that can be taken or left, of course, but most art is. I write an awful lot that no one ever sees. I have only published once, and the rest will probably die a quiet, whimpering death on my hard drive. But blogging, for me, is a more robust exercise than my poetry writing or oft-abandoned attempts at prose. I blog, and I hit "publish." I do this often too quickly--I know that I should proofread more. I know that. I know that I should buy a new keyboard that doesn't have sticky keys. But I like the quickness of this medium. I like the ability to publish fearlessly.

I like being able to arrange my thoughts and experiences in a narrative. And now I see that there's a cognitive benefit to doing so. The funny thing about my years in CRT was that so many of my classes were like group therapy. So many of us relating our personal experiences rather than discussing the articles themselves, much less "The Law." That's one of the things that eventually eroded my stamina to keep up with CRT. Another thing was my anxiety over whether I was in the appropriate position to tell anyone's story other than my own--could I really speak for the "voices at the bottom" if I was an elite-educated academic? Was my own story relevant to any legal issue I happened to discuss?

Nowadays, I tell only my own story. I tell it to shine a light on a slightly different take on the academy, from a slightly different person than one would usually expect to be pounding at the gates of the Ivory Tower. But I also tell it because it's fun to tell, and see if anyone will listen. I don't expect anyone to, and am pleasantly surprised when others identify with my stories. I no longer insert a personal narrative into my articles (even though there are one or two in which I could), but I like having a forum for my personal narrative. I don't see it as being completely independent from my scholarship--but right now, my story has no place in my legal analysis. But I think it has a place here. Mainly because I've created the space for it here. It's my shingle.

It is interesting to come full circle to narrative. To accept its important place in my life and how I relate it (and relate to it). And to reject its place in my working life is not a repudiation of CRT completely--it's my reticence with respect to one aspect of CRT. I am still engaged in the anti-subordination project. Most of my work deals with anti-discrimination law, specifically employment discrimination. One of my articles even deals with Asian American stereotypes. And I could have talked about my personal encounters with such stereotypes in the workplace (there are some doozies). But I think not. Not now. My article deals with the structural inequality of the workplace and how individuals consciously or unconsciously exclude heterophilous (women, minorities) individuals from career enhancing social networks (i.e. social closure). My personal experiences with slurs or stereotypes don't really speak to that. So I leave them out of the article.

But one day, I might relate it here. It's a narrative for another space. I think the phrase is "That's a whole other story, and one I'll tell you one day."

For now, on this blog, you'll get the narratives I leave out of my work. As I try to make sense of my life and myself, I will tell you stories that hopefully make a little more sense. I think you should all start with The Vietnamse Yentl though. But for those of you with less patience, there's always the Cliffnotes version.

For more on stories:

Go here first.

Then here.

And don't forget, here.


Read This--If You Can, That Is.

I'm not getting into this, but as there remains little else to be said, and because I have no time to say anything (or if I do, it will not be as well said), here is a smattering of links:

First go here.

Then here.

Onwards to here.

Thence to here.

And finally, arriving here.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Dave Hoffman on "Politics, Private Space, and Total Persuasion"

Dave Hoffman has a most excellent post over at the Co-Op. Gratuitous excerpts:

[T]here are analogies to be drawn between the government's defunct secret possibly ongoing program to gather reams of information about its citizens andcorporations' desire to grab consumer mind-share by every persuasive avenue possible. Indeed, we're rapidly approaching a time when it will be exceedingly difficult for the law to draw lines between advertising and not-advertising; between fraud and persuasion; and between censorship and consumer protection...

[B]usinesses are "more constrained in the claims they can make" than politicians, presumably by the law of fraud (in its various guises). But there is a solution to this problem: encourage consumers to make their own persuasive advertising by creating "social networks around products and brands . . ." In the future, we should anticipate that such social persuasion will become an increasingly prevalent aspect of corporate marketing efforts, just as politicians have worked to co-opt social networking sites for their own ends....

What's wrong with a society in which most speech that you hear is designed to persuade you to consume? When framed that way, some might immediately respond: nothing! After all, no one is being compelled to any particular purchase...

But I doubt that market rhetoric is going to provide satisfying answers to whether the law should work to hinder a total persuasion society. I haven't fully thought this issue through, but my starting point is an essay by Jonathan Franzen called Imperial Bedroom, in his book How to Be Alone. Franzen attacks privacy advocates for focusing on privacy as just problem of being from free from others' (corporations, the government, space aliens, the U.N., etc.) prying eyes and grasping hands.

Instead, the real loss of privacy in modern society is the "public sphere." He argues that Americans increasingly do not differentiate betweenpublic matters and private ones, that there are few places where "codes of dress and behavior are routinely enforced, personal disclosures are penalized, and formality is still the rule." Elsewhere, private life is "brutally invading" public spaces, through the media, cellphones, public conversations about private matters, and, in short, a "pajama-party world."

Franzen contrasts this world with a "genuine public space," a place where "every citizen is welcome to be present and where the purely private is excluded or restricted."

There is a connection between total persuasion and the loss of public space. This connection is deeper than the mere fact that public places are being renamed in service of persuasion. I’m not the first to note that the problem with persuasion's ubiquity is that it makes us unable to walk in public without feeling like a targeted consumer. To the extent that our fellow citizens are harnessed to this persuasive effort, this lack of noncommercial space will be all the more keenly felt.

I don't really address Dave's points about whether there are any legal protections against an increasingly consumerized existence, but I did bring up these points on the eroding boundaries between the private and public spheres, drawing on my research in social networking theory, my personal experiences blogging, and my Real Life Alter Ego's lurking habits on social networking sites:

Thanks for a great and interesting post. I'm not going to position myself on Franzen's side (would be hypocritical) or on the opposite (since I don't belong there either). Rather, I would offer these two thoughts:

1) The proliferation of blogs and online journals have been key to eroding Franzen's conception of the public sphere. My own blog, for example, has been characterized by Dan Filler as "a (particularly nice) mix of the personal and academic." I won't get into whether that's good or bad, but I will note that nowadays, even on what one would call "academic" (as opposed to the personal blogs of academics) blogs are riddled with personal observations. Dan Markel offers his travel tips on Prawfsblawg. Baby announcements are routine. Let's not even discuss such diary sites as Xanga or LiveJournal.

My point is, even as blogs have offered academics a new forum for their roles as public intellectuals, this public space has become a refractory for the private as well. Indeed, what to make of blogs that are both personal and academic, and commercial to boot? Most blogs run ads. How do you feel about this space being co-opted by commercial interests? The commercial aspect arguably erodes both the private and public interests of the space.

2) Blogs are inextricably linked to social networking. Blog communities are not a thing of imagination--check out the Co-Op's own blog roll to the right. This serves, I believe, an important function, a sort of virtual community for those who would otherwise feel isolated (for instance, the community of medievalist bloggers are surprisingly large in number relative to their percentage at any particular institution). Moreover, many social networking sites permit a blog option--either hosted on their own servers (MySpace) or through "importing a note" (Facebook). Again, these sites are overrun with ads.

It seems inexorable, this erosion of the public sphere, the commingling of public and private, and the commercialization of both sides of life.

Be sure to read Dave's entire post, and to contribute to the comments section here and at the Co-Op.


All the King's Women

Over at Salon, Debra Dickerson has this op-ed about Michelle Obama. Excerpts:

Damn it all, Michelle Obama has quit her $215,000 dream job and demoted herself to queen. Though the party line is that she's only "scaled back" to a 20 percent workload, I doubt her former co-workers will bother alerting her to many staff meetings. She's traded in her solid gold résumé, high-octane talent and role as vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals to be a professional wife and hostess.

Now, the energy and drive that had her up jogging before dawn and a gratifying day of work and family will mainly be spent smiling for the cameras...

My heart breaks for her just thinking about it. Being president will be hard. So will being first lady for the brilliant Michelle -- imagine, having to begin all your sentences with "My husband and I..."

I'm in a feminist fury about Michelle (I'll use her first name to avoid confusion with her husband) feeling forced to quit, but make no mistake: I'm not blaming her. Few could stand up to the pressure she's facing, especially from blacks, to sacrifice herself on the altar of her husband's ambition. He could be the first black president, you know! Also, she must be beside herself trying to hold things together for her daughters. I'm blaming the world and every man, woman, child and border colliein it who helps send the message that women's lives must be subordinate to
everyone else's. .....

I am not saying Michelle Obama is just another member of the so-called opt-out revolution; clearly, her reasons for leaving her job are historic -- and even so, she clearly seems pained to do it. And I hate to add to Michelle's load, but even though she's made the choice to leave work, I hope she'll keep her role in women's history in mind and increase the tiny inroad political wives have made into something approaching women's freedom of choice.

What can Michelle do? If Obama wins, she should go for it and take on a meaningful public policy role, à la Hillary Clinton's healthcare work. Just a lot more carefully. Why on earth should such an accomplished woman just arrange white-tie dinners? Until then, she should become more outspoken, building on her husband's willingness to confront dysfunction in the black community -- a black mother can get away with what no one else could....

Of course, "black" problems are really American problems; having the golden couple spearheading the fight will make it sexy to help blacks with their systemic problems (education and entrepreneurship, to name two). The two Obamas can de-race these issues (here is where she can use her fancy education) and help America understand that black progress is American progress.

Most important, though, I hope Michelle will bring feminism to black women. Feminism is rightfully criticized for being irrelevant to black women and ignoring their issues...

Now is the perfect opportunity for the movement to reach out to black women by embracing Michelle and black women's causes in general. Progressive women should be working their way toward the middle ground a political wife must occupy and politely engineer ways in which Michelle can put her postelection time, win or lose, to worthy causes important to the black community -- welfare-to-work, hiring and job training, for example.

I find this op-ed interesting and compelling on so many levels. While far less enamored of identity politics than I used to be in college and law school, I do sympathize with Dickerson's exhortations. Even as I myself don't feel bound to comment on every issue pertaining to feminism or Asian Americans, I do feel a sort of responsibility--but the extent of that responsibility, particularly the extent to which it impacts my personal decisions, is yet to be seen. Still, I think it's tough that the weight of so many expectations--pulling in so many different directions--should be on Michelle Obama's shoulders.

Your thoughts?


Monday, May 21, 2007

Belle In a Nutshell, The Cliffnotes Edition

Belle In a Nutshell:

1. Like this blogger (who's the inspiration for this post), a recovering Objectivist. But I'm definitely not a libertarian. And I have to live with winning the Ayn Rand "Anthem" essay contest at 14, as well as of being a card-carrying member of the Objectivist society for the two years after that.

2. A Democrat with a big "D." As in, party of Roosevelt, F.D. And L.B.J. I'm not always happy with my party. I'm often unhappy. I'm more of a political pragmatist than idealist. But for better or worse, I'm a registered Democrat, pretty left of center, but not left enough to be anything other than what I am.

3. A product of the sunny suburbs, public school system, and a lot of bad '90s rock and pop.

4. A Feminist with a big "F." Not radical, not Marxist, not any "wave," not "pre" or "post," not "sex-positive" or "negative," not merely "choice" or "critical race," but decidedly a Feminist. Yes, I wear expensive makeup and perfume, and yes, I read Victorian literature. Get over it.

5. A nationalist who's growing to appreciate the roles of the states in our dual federalist system. But I'm still on the outs with anyone who seriously libertarian and anti-government on both levels. But some of my best friends are libertarians. Seriously. Nothing but love.

6. Daughter of post-1975, post-Fall of Saigon Vietnamese immigrant parents. Super strict, super old school, super strange. But loveable in a dysfunctional way. Super Aunt, albeit currently long-distance, to nine wonderful kids. I am The Baby Whisperer.

7. Closeted Romantic who thought she was going to marry high school-to-college sweetheart. Still believes in love, commitment, and romance, just not acting all emo and stupid over it. Believes that being in love and in a good relationship means being yourself, preserving your own identity, which means having some alone time and separate friends, and having the together time be the coming together of two wholes, such that it is neither too much or too little, but just what it is no matter the frequency.

8. Lapsed Critical Race Theorist. Currently into employment discrimination law, federalism, and organizational theory.

9. Growing more centrist on many political issues with age, to surprise and slight horror. But still a commie pinko lefty by most people's standards. Pro: choice, affirmative action, gay marriage, social welfare, liberal immigration policies, ERA, VAWA, Title II, VII and IX, bias crimes laws, environmental regulations, liberal constructions of the commerce clause, equal protection clause, and necessary and proper clause.

10. Occasional poet and frustrated prose writer. Envious of friends in MFA programs, who sometimes end up going to law school anyway. Even more envious of friends in graduate English Lit programs.

11. Interested enough in subjects of torts, contracts, employment discrimination, remedies, and constitutional law enough to put some combination of them on my FAR, surprising many friends who thought I'd be writing a dissertation on Southern modernist fiction by now. I like them as much as I like the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, weirdly enough.

12. 5'2", brunette, quirky and perky, with eclectic tastes in everything. Extremely fast speaker, except publicly. Idiosyncratic fashion sense, somewhere between lawyerly business casual, bitchy city slicker, and 1950s Wellesley girl. Obsessed with polka dots. Currently mad about the color orange. No tolerance whatsoever for styling hair or painful shoes, but extreme fondness for things of useless, decadent beauty that sparkle or feel soft.

13. Tendency to say "awesome," "neato" and "okie dokie," but only to good friends and never in professional circles. Extreme fondness for the term "dude," due in no small part to its original connotation of "dandy," its popular use in my home region, and this linguistic analysis.

14. Not into post-colonial theory and anxiety enough to anachronistically reject out of hand such beautiful art as: the paintings of John Singer Sargent, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, or the novels of Charles Dickens. Yes, I'm trying to learn French.

15. Non-practicing Buddhist and thus non-deist, which is NOT the same as being agnostic or atheist, but thank you for not inviting me to your church social.

16. Book worm, epistolary geek, tea addict, newspaper hound.

17. Infatuated, rather than obsessive personality type. Quickly intrigued and compulsively addicted, but then just as quickly disinterested and forgetful.

18. Non-closeted and unabashed lover of science fiction entertainment: Star Trek (most series), Star Wars, X-Files, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica.

19. Unapologetically into baking, craft-making, country music, and old school R&B, in spite of whatever that does to non-existent hipster street cred.

20. Almost convinced I made the right career choice.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Saturday Poet: James Wright

Even if I press "delete" I never erase completely certain things from my own internal memory. I remember my first boyfriend giving me a collection of James Wright's poetry. Not because I particularly liked James Wright at the time, nor because he himself loved the poetry. No, it was because I was the girl he left behind--the girl who remained in our hometown (I went to the local state university) after he had gone off to a Midwestern liberal arts college. "You like poetry," he said. "And this is poetry from Kenyon, so it's a little bit of where I'm from too." It took me a few years to appreciate that sentiment. At the time, all I was thinking was "do you even know me?!" (I was in a Victorian persuasion then, and not into bleak Midwestern New Critics modernism.) It took me a few years to appreciate the beauty of James Wright as well. But now I do.

Lessons learned and filed away, even if the love letters are long gone--and the inscription in the book X-acto'd out.

And what remains is the beauty, the sentiment, the longing. Inexorably, they persist in memory.


The moon drops one or two feathers into the fields.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
There they are, the moon's young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me

Relieved, I let the book fall behind a stone.
I climb a slight rise of grass.
I do not want to disturb the ants
Who are walking single file up the fence post,
Carrying small white petals,
Casting shadows so frail that I can see through them.
I close my eyes for a moment and listen.
The old grasshoppers
Are tired, they leap heavily now,
Their thighs are burdened.
I want to hear them, they have clear sounds to make.
Then lovely, far off, a dark cricket begins
In the maple trees.

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more, they begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

To the Muse

It is all right. All they do
Is go in by dividing
One rib from another. I wouldn't
Lie to you. It hurts
Like nothing I know. All they do
Is burn their way in with a wire.
It forks in and out a little like the tongue
Of that frightened garter snake we caught
At Cloverfield, you and me, Jenny
So long ago.

I would lie to you
If I could.
But the only way I can get you to come up
Out of the suckhole, the south face
Of the Powhatan pit, is to tell you
What you know:

You come up after dark, you poise alone
With me on the shore.
I lead you back to this world.

Three lady doctors in Wheeling open
Their offices at night.
I don't have to call them, they are always there.
But they only have to put the knife once
Under your breast.
Then they hang their contraption.
And you bear it.

It's awkward a while. Still it lets you
Walk about on tiptoe if you don't
Jiggle the needle.
It might stab your heart, you see.
The blade hangs in your lung and the tube
Keeps it draining.That way they only have to stab you
Once. Oh Jenny.

I wish to God I had made this world, this scurvy
And disastrous place. I
Didn't, I can't bear it
Either, I don't blame you, sleeping down there
Face down in the unbelievable silk of spring,
Muse of the black sand,

I don't blame you, I know
The place where you lie.
I admit everything.
But look at me.
How can I live without you?
Come up to me, love,
Out of the river, or I will
Come down to you.


Friday, May 18, 2007

Eternal Sunshine of the Editing Mind

As I edit my articles, I wonder what else would benefit from the swift stroke of a merciless pen. Or a particularly vengeful "delete" key.

My memories, to be sure. There were plenty of ups and downs this year. The much alluded to law school "drama." I'm hoping that as a 5L SJD I'll skip it next year. I'd rather focus on the positive, and forget entirely the negative. I learn from my mistakes, to be sure--I just want to forget the particular details, leaving only the vague impression of a lesson learned. I destroy evidence. I burn bridges and scatter the ashes to the wind.

I edit my memories, keeping only the good ones and the hard-won lessons--but none of the bad details, and definitely no evidence of feelings that have changed or things that should have never been said in the first place. This is why I don't keep a diary. This is why I'd be perfectly willing to delete this entire blog one day, if it ever becomes too compromising. This is how I am able to delete tons of email correspondence, digital pictures--virtual memory--without hesitation.

This seems entirely contrary to what everyone has learned from Bartleby: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Indeed, that is all anyone really remembers of Santayana. Clever twist: "The only sure thing that can be said about the past is that anyone who can remember Santayana’s maxim is condemned to repeat it. As a result, the danger of not understanding the lessons of history is matched by the danger of using simplistic historical analogies." Although, as Eric Muller notes, it's possible that even this twist is a repetition.

From Eloisa to Abelard :

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd;
Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;
"Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep;"
Desires compos'd, affections ever ev'n,
Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav'n...

Far other dreams my erring soul employ,
Far other raptures, of unholy joy:
When at the close of each sad, sorrowing day,
Fancy restores what vengeance snatch'd away,
Then conscience sleeps, and leaving nature free,
All my loose soul unbounded springs to thee.
Oh curs'd, dear horrors of all-conscious night!
How glowing guilt exalts the keen delight!
Provoking Daemons all restraint remove,
And stir within me every source of love.

- Alexander Pope

Maybe it's not possible to forget. But it's easy enough to edit. I wonder how much of my memories (or my thesis) will survive the editing process--what I'll take with me in the end. Ah, but they say, you can't take it with you anyway.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Update to Opting In and Out

I have a follow-up post at MoneyLaw that discusses the Belkin/Albiston articles from an academic perspective, regarding extension of the tenure clock. Several articles about tenure clock extension are excerpted, and I provide some examples of university tenure extension policies. Here's a taste:

For MoneyLaw readers, I will note that there seems to be an encouraging attitudinal and structural shift toward extending tenure clocks for those faculty who need to take time off to care for their new children or for a sick family member. This would represent a similar type of endogenous structural change in the work culture of academic institutions to recognize the work/life balance needs of their employees.

This would also reflect a growing recognition that today's academics are not the same as yesterday's, and that both male and female faculty alike will want and require more flexible work arrangements and tenure clocks. Moreover, this would help to make academia more attractive, welcoming, and feasible to those faculty who are in the position of primary caretaker--which, for better or worse, tend to be female faculty. I just hope that the shift is serious and not merely lip-service. I'm going to have to be a skeptic and wait to hear how the tenure decisions play out--and I'm looking forward to more organizational and empirical studies on how many faculty actually use the tenure extension policies, and whether their schools really think of the clock as really stopped for the purposes of evaluating scholarly productivity and commitment.


Opting-Out, Opting Back In, and What is Wrong with the NYT

A few years ago, Lisa Belkin wrote an article called "The Opt Out Revolution." This article is not known for its statistical rigor, as she basically interviewed her friends and former clasmates and friends of friends, and the figures are something in the "dozens" or "countless" or "many":

But to talk to the women of the book club -- or to the women of a San Francisco mothers' group with whom I also spent time, or the dozens of other women I interviewed, or the countless women I have come to know during the four years I have reported on the intersection of life and work -- is to sense that something more is happening here. It's not just that the workplace has failed women. It is also that women are rejecting the workplace.

I say this with the full understanding that there are ambitious, achieving women out there who are the emotional and professional equals of any man, and that there are also women who stayed the course, climbed the work ladder without pause and were thwarted by lingering double standards and chauvinism. I also say this knowing that to suggest that women work differently than men -- that they leave more easily and
find other parts of life more fulfilling -- is a dangerous and loaded statement.

And lastly, I am very aware that, for the moment, this is true mostly of elite, successful women who can afford real choice -- who have partners with substantial salaries and health insurance -- making it easy to dismiss them as exceptions. To that I would argue that these are the very women who were supposed to be the professional equals of men right now, so the fact that so many are choosing otherwise is explosive.

Catherine Albiston (Boalt Hall) wrote this fantastic response to Belkin (20 Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice 30, 2005):

Now, I'd like to turn to a second narrative that sometimes frames the work family dilemma: “opting out” of paid labor and the rhetoric of choice. One recent example of this narrative is an article by Lisa Belkin that recently appeared in the the New York Times Magazine, in which Belkin asks, among other things, “Why don't women run the world?” Her controversial answer is, “maybe they don't want to.” Belkin argues in the article that an “opt-out” revolution has begun in which women, including elite, highly-educated, and accomplished women, are choosing to leave the workplace to become stay-at-home moms. Why? According to Belkin, women (unlike men) are realizing that their children are more important than working crushing, 80-hour weeks in corporate law firms. Belkin even resorts to research on primates to suggest that perhaps this gender difference is hard-wired.

The most compelling critiques of Belkin, however, take on what Joan Williams calls the “republic of choice” - the pervasive rationale that women are free agents rationally acting on their individual preferences when they voluntarily choose to leave the workplace to care for their children. Here is a second master narrative about work and family that bears a closer look: the idea that it is something endogenous to gender, rather exogenous in the workplace and in society, that drives the opt-out choice. This personal choice narrative implicitly constructs women as less committed workers likely to forgo advancement or to exit the workplace because they are “naturally” driven to choose their family over their job.

The narrative that women (but not men) “choose” not to advance because they prefer family responsibilities over paid employment is not just an outdated stereotype irrelevant in an era of antidiscrimination legislation. It has very real consequences when courts grapple with what constitutes sex discrimination under Title VII. For example, Sears successfully advanced this narrative as a defense against claims that it discriminated against women in the hiring and promotion into commission sales positions. To explain the gender disparities among its commission salespeople, Sears called upon a feminist historian to testify that historically, women have subordinated paid labor to family responsibilities and that therefore women were unlikely to want, or to succeed in, positions requiring after-hours, full time work. Despite that fact that the majority of applicants for these positions were women, this argument prevailed.

The rhetoric of choice tends to frame the work and family conflict as a private dilemma rather than a matter for public policy. As a result, courts remain reluctant to accept legal interpretations that make explicit the connection between family hardship and rigid employer policies.

The rhetoric of choice helps obscure how institutions constrain the alternatives from which women must make their choice. Indeed, critics of Belkin's article point out that the women she interviewed explicitly said that they left their jobs because they asked their employers for more family-friendly work schedules and were turned down. The rigid structure of work makes the “choice” they would prefer--spending a little less time at work and a little more time with their children--categorically unavailable. Belkin never questions whether employers should be allowed to structure work to force an absolute choice between family and job, or why a “free market” economy does not produce flexible yet appropriately-paid (and appropriately valued) positions for these educated, talented women. Nor does she ask why these women, rather than their husbands, are the ones to stay home.(Remember, these are women able to command six-figure salaries.) Perhaps it is because employers continue to view men who take time off to participate in family life with suspicion, whereas the master narrative about gendered choice leads employers to expect, and in some cases encourage, women to exit. Thus, the alternative narrative here is not how women “choose” to exit work for family responsibilities, but how the institution of work constructs both the available choices and the meaning of gender to recreate stereotypical family roles for both women and men.

The critique goes deeper than this, however. The other question that Belkin fails to ask is to whom is the choice to “opt out” available? Belkin's generalized rhetoric of choice, based on a few extremely privileged women with high salaries, builds a universal master narrative on the experiences and available choices of upper-class, white, straight women. Belkin notes in passing (and in parentheses) that although fewer educated white women than educated white men are working full time, “the numbers for African-American women are closer to those for white men than to those for white women,” but then goes on to generalize nonetheless. How are we to understand this statistic for black women? If one rejects the pernicious interpretation that seems to follow from Belkin's thesis that these women care less for their children than white women do, constrained choice seems to be one possible explanatory factor here.

The opt-out narrative assumes a set of baseline conditions unlikely to be met in many, if not most, families. As one critic points out, “for most single-parent and dual-earner families, reducing or forgoing one parent's wages in the interest of ‘putting family first’ is not a realistic option.” Opting out assumes a particular family structure, and a particular class privilege, that Belkin leaves largely unacknowledged. Women partnered to other women (who, because of discrimination, do not earn as much as men), single-parents, and women in working class families where both parents struggle to make ends meet have even more constrained choices than the privileged Princeton graduates Belkin interviews.

And here is the rub. The master narrative that Belkin promotes does more than simply perpetuate gender stereotypes by suggesting that women who choose not to adopt traditional gender roles within the family care less for their children than those who do. This narrative also implicitly condemns those women who are economically unable to “opt-out” to care for children for not meeting these gendered norms. Nor does Belkin ever acknowledge that “opting out” does not *47 have the same cultural meaning across race and class lines. For mothers who receive public assistance, opting out is not viewed as virtuous conformity with biological imperatives, but as lazy opportunism. Indeed, while some may applaud the choice of Princeton-educated women to stay at home, there is far less support for stigmatized poor, single mothers, and particularly women of color, to make the same choice.

Belkin's framing of the problem also helps to dissipate the demand for institutional reform by locating the solution to the work / family dilemma in the choices of women, even when no desirable choice is available. This lack of meaningful social policy reform is perhaps most damaging to the women for whom “opting out” is just one more hypothetical “choice”--like affordable childcare, flexible work schedules, and fairly-compensated part-time work--that does not realistically exist. Legal reforms to make these options reality are unlikely to happen as long as the master narrative of choice remains the dominant discourse.

But Belkin's back! This time, the "Life's Work "column ("a column about workplace trends and office culture") is not in its usual place in the Sunday Business section, but rather the Thursday Styles. A bit telling. I ask you, what the heck is wrong with the NY Times?! But anyway, Belkin is here to tell us that after opting-out, women are opting back in:

But now it is time for another phrase, “opting back in,” a term that not only describes Ms. Stepnowski’s decision to return, but also reflects the growing acceptance by business of a nonlinear career. It’s a movement that’s still in its infancy. And it is hard to separate lip-service by companies from true commitment for the moment. But should it take hold — should the stopping and starting, the ramping down and revving back up of a career become the norm — it would transform the workplace.

The law firm of Heller Ehrman, for instance, created a group called the Opt-In Project, which has spent the past year studying the way the firm does business. At the end of the month, the group plans to unveil a proposal to abandon the idea of billable hours that is deeply ingrained in the profession. “We can’t afford to keep losing all these people,” says Patricia Gillette, founder of the project. “The way we currently reward spending more and more hours at work makes no sense in a world where people demand balance.”

This growing demand for balance, or what I prefer to call sanity, is also leading businesses to accept that some employees will leave no matter how much flexibility exists, and that it is better to keep the door open for their return, rather than slamming it tight.

I have been writing about life and work long enough to know that a change in policy is not the same as real change. I hear regularly from workers who were all but laughed at when they tried to take advantage of a flexible program that was nothing but corporate window dressing. Or who work for a company listed in Working Mother’s “100 Best Companies” but who are at the office nearly every weekend. This week I got a typical e-mail message from a woman, in her 40s and trying to return to the workforce, who finds that “interviewers still think your brain has the consistency of baby food just because you’ve spent some time off with a baby.”

So I am too jaded to believe that this small handful of trendsetters will bring transformation overnight. They will not change the fact that too many employers still look at a résumé gap as a disqualifying mark; or that women who leave and return pay an average 18 percent salary penalty compared with those who never pause; or that men feel constrained from asking for flexibility because it carries a stigma; or that the only way to eliminate the stigma is for men to start to ask.

But whatever distance is left to travel before these exceptions become the norm, we are five years closer than when Ms. Stepnowski opted out. And I am not so jaded that I don’t recognize that this is a promising, and important, start.

I think Albiston's critique of Belkin's articles leaves little to be said. (Although I do appreciate Jack Shafer's press criticism of the NY Times' bogus trend-reporting.) I will note that if we accept Belkin's reporting in the latter article, then the endogenous change of workplace leave/return policies and culture is significant. My dissertation will concern organizational responses to the Family and Medical Leave Act: how management interprets, promulgates, and enforces the terms of the FMLA, which creates an entitlement to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave (subject to how the statute defines who is covered). The literature in the field suggest that it's the organizations and work culture that define the scope of the right: who is "entitled" to take leave, the desire to avoid being framed as a "slacker" or "bad worker" even if this is an entitlement, what is "work" and who is a "worker." I'd be pleased to see a top-down shift in workplace culture and governance.

But I can't say I trust such anecdotal evidence--just because a few elite firms are changing their policies, or just because there is a "many" or "most" shift in public opinion about work/life balance doesn't mean that there's really a change coming. I hope there is one. But I'll believe it when I see it--or rather, the empirical data and a pro-worker amended statute.


I have a follow-up post at MoneyLaw that discusses the Belkin/Albiston articles from an academic perspective, regarding extension of the tenure clock. Several articles about tenure clock extension are excerpted, and I provide some examples of university tenure extension policies, as well as my own thoughts on whether policy changes will really affect how work and gender are constructed.


Stats for Poets

Is there a doctor in the house? What is it called when a sinus cold turns into a curious disorder where you feel like lying in bed all day with a headache and muscle aches? When your throat hurts almost continuously? If I was in college, I think people would say I had Mono. As a closet hypochondriac, I would almost agree. However, as a closet hypochondriac, I've looked up the symptoms and definitely don't have mono. So I guess I just feel like crap. This is very bad, because this is not the right time to be sick. This is a very bad time to be sick.

Why? Let's run the numbers:

Days out of the past three weeks I've been sick: 18

What I did on the three days I did not feel continuously sick: 1) take a final, 2) attend commencement, 3) go to the beach.

Times of the day I do not feel bad: 9:00-11:00 am, 1:00-4:00 pm, 7:00 pm-3:00 am.

I'm out the rest of the time. And so those are my windows to work. Thank goodness I dont' have a real job.

Date I turn in the last paper: May 28.

Date I move: May 29.

Date I go out of town again for a constitutionalism conference that I still need to prepare for but haven't yet because of other work: June 8.

Date I come back to even more work and the mess I leave behind: June 18.

Date I go out of town again to visit parents: June 28-July 12.

Number of days I actually enjoy living in my new apartment in the month of June: 18.

Number of those days that will actually not be enjoyable because of the horror of unpacking and figuring out the Ikea pictograms: 5.

Net days of enjoyment: 13.

Amount I am paying for those 13 days of enjoyment: $955, excluding electricity and gas.

Amount I'm paying now for non-enjoyment of tiny graduate studio: $950, excluding electricity and gas.

Square footage of current tiny graduate studio owned an operated by Liberal College: 300.
Square footage of new apartment in nicer, less-dangerous neighborhood in a renovated Queen Anne house: 900-1000.
Distance between, in miles: 2.
Likelihood of a dish breaking in the course of those 2 miles: 100%.
Square footage of the crap load of stuff to Uhaul: don't want to think about it.

Amount packed: none.
Number of neighbors I had in my grad program: 4.

Number that I'm actually still on semi-friendly terms with: 2.

Likelihood that I run into them in awkward moments that create the wrong impression: 100%.

Number of times French Dandy Dude and I would run into Friendly Chica at the oddest hours of the day and night when he was my de facto roomate (and nothing more): 6 times per week.

Number of times I've run into her since he's left a month ago: 1.

Number of days I actually went to campus in the last 3 weeks: 4.

Number of people avoided by working entirely out of apartment and not attending any school or social events: Unknown, don't know current statistics of the entire law school student body.

Depth of the ass-shaped groove in my Ikea Lyksele Lovas sofa chair: 1.5".

Percentage that I'll miss the dorm like atmosphere of living in grad housing: 0%.

Belief that the hassle of moving and extra $5/month is completely worth it: 100%.

Number of classmates I've said/will say goodbye to: 4.
Number of classmates returning to the SJD program that I am friends with: 1.
Number of classmates I had irrevocable falling outs with: 2.
Regrets: 0.

Positivity Index of The Roomate: 200%

Percentage in Common: 0%.

Likelihood that The Roomate will buy Dance Dance Revolution + Karaoke on Sony Playstation: 100%.

Likelihood that we'll disturb our landlord with loud sing-a-long to Mariah Carey's Greatest Hits: 100%

Likelihood that Happy Hip Hop Bioengineer will get along with Cynical Indie Lawyer: 100%.

Number of emails I send a day in moments of lucidity so that I can reduce my work efficiency even further: at least 5.

Number I will send out tomorrow: I can't promise, but I'm shooting for only 2.

Seconds before I crash right now: 5, 4, 3, 2, ....