Saturday, February 28, 2009

Saturday Poet: Theodore Roethke

We haven't done these for a while--mainly because sometimes it's a lot of work trying to find 2-3 poems from one poet that I like online so that I don't have to type them up, or else me typing up 2-3 poems from my limited library (I don't buy anthologies, usually).

Things I have been up to: I baked a monstrous lot of black forest cake that I gave away (post to come, it ain't pretty), and I redecorated my entire apartment for under $20 using fancy wrapping paper from Snow & Graham. I framed the paper in my heavy black frames on my white walls, and covered my formerly white paper lampshades. Result: cheerful! colorful! whimsical! feminine! A welcome change from my black and white photography, elegant as that was. I needed to brighten up my apartment, as it's been so dreary out. And there's nothing more eye-popping than magenta on a chartreuse background (it looks nice, I promise). Pictures to come. Remember A Room of One's Own and Vindication of the Rights of Women? I take this luxury for granted, and also under-utilize it--for so long as I live alone, in an uncompromising space, in which I both live and work, I can make this space whatever I want, and work well and live happily in my own home. Well, I can't paint my walls. But I can put up bright zinnia printed paper!

I am also writing and working, and deciding whether I am using more macro or micro theories, or if I am going to be labeled as meso-level. Argh. It would be better if I could package myself as macro or micro, I think. But we'll see what happens. And in the meantime, I have to still take breaks and shake my hands all about (hokey pokey!) as I wait for my second round of steroid shots on Monday. Grrr!

Onto the poetry:

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

I Knew a Woman

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

When I put her out, once, by the garbage pail,
She looked so limp and bedraggled,
So foolish and trusting, like a sick poodle,
Or a wizened aster in late September,
I brought her back in again
For a new routine--
Vitamins, water, and whatever
Sustenance seemed sensible
At the time: she'd lived
So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer,
Her shriveled petals falling
On the faded carpet, the stale
Steak grease stuck to her fuzzy leaves.
(Dried-out, she creaked like a tulip.)

The things she endured!--
The dumb dames shrieking half the night
Or the two of us, alone, both seedy,
Me breathing booze at her,
She leaning out of her pot toward the window.

Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me--
And that was scary--
So when that snuffling cretin of a maid
Threw her, pot and all, into the trash-can,
I said nothing.

But I sacked the presumptuous hag the next week,
I was that lonely.

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood--
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks--is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is--
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark,dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.


I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

random reviews of things

I'm trying to reduce my levels consumption, but here are things I have particularly enjoyed:

  • My second (or third) time reading it, Pfeffer and Salancik's The External Control of Organizations remains awesome, useful, and so clearly written. It's super interesting and readable.
  • Trader Joe's fruit roll ups (or fruit leather, or dried fruit strips or whatever) are pretty tasty. Thick and dense, not unlike the dried fruit jerky you can buy at Indian grocery shops, and therefore far superior to that thin, cellophane-like fruit roll up of yesteryear. I like mango and passionfruit. At $0.49-59 per unit (some have extra fiber), I think that's a little pricey, but it's a good snack to tide one over on the walk back from the store.
  • The Lysol Conair steam mop isn't bad for the price, and I didn't want to use disposable Swiffers. Actually, I hate those. It beats scrubbing on my hands and knees, and it cleans with steam and/or all purpose cleanser. It has a swively head and can go around objects and into corners. But it's hard to push around and you have to wait for the water and steam to come out, and I'd recommend washing out the little cloth it comes with after each room. Otherwise, I don't see the point of how it gets things clean.
  • I like shell-shaped pasta more than any other pasta shape, just because it's fun to eat and holds more pesto or bechemel in its little inner chamber than penne.
  • Pantene "Always Smooth" works better than Pantene "Classic Care."
  • I like to use potato bread hamburger buns when making sandwiches to bring to campus, because they don't get all soggy like sandwich bread and stand up to the weight of my leftover fillings (lamb burgers, roast chicken/beef, etc.).


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

throwing in the (kitchen) towel

Augh! And I haven't even made it yet! One of TD's requested desserts is something called "Black Forest Cake." I have never eaten such a thing and did not know it existed. I mean, I have eaten black forest ham (delicious). But not cake.

I'm a pretty decent baker, but I am terrible at cake decoration. I just don't spread things smoothly and don't have an eye for that thing. And I don't have any piping bags or decorative tips. And I'm not big on frosting. So I tend to bake simple things: cookies, frosting-free cakes and cupcakes, bar cookies, pies (with my own pastry crust, of course). Nothing fancy. I certainly don't bake tall layer cakes.

So, I am ready to throw in the towel with the very idea of this cake. Check out this four-part article series on the cake! I had to call B.W. just to make sure I was getting the right kind of cherries--and I still have to make a compote (and a ganache, and a cake, and a mousse). I'm still missing the kirsch, because I hate buying liquor (which is expensive) and never using it again. Maybe I can get an aiport sized bottle at the liqour store. This had better be worth the effort! I think I am going to go with a deconstructed Black Forest cake though, because I am lazy and a failure of a woman.

Usually I don't let complicated-ness or time-intensivity stand in the way of food, but I have to say, fancy layer cakes (especially those that require a fondant) are a pain in the butt. Maybe one day I will make a proper fancy layer cake.

Any white whale recipes out there for you? One day, just one day, I will make a layer cake.


you've made your bed and now you have to lie in it

Phoebe remarks on the Obama family's efforts to maintain discipline and normalcy for their daughters by way of making them make their own beds and clean their own rooms:

While telling the housekeepers not to make the girls' beds in the morning seems reasonable, bed-making is something I've never understood altogether--why must a bed be made, except on the occasion of sheet-change/laundry day? Can't a person (child or adult) OK with a messy bed have it messy in the morning and return to it messy each night? I get how having a maid clean a room could spoil a kid, but I tend to think parents who make their children make their beds (as opposed to saying, your bed will be as you leave it) do so to make a point, a point that could just as easily be made by having children help out with chores that actually must get done, such as dishes, laundry, vacuuming, cooking, etc.

For the Obamas, whose goal is providing normalcy, I can understand why such a rule might make up, character-building-wise, for chores the kids simply wouldn't get a chance to do, it being the White House and all.

As a non-parent, I can only speculate, but maybe enforced bed-making is a way of telling your children that they don't make the rules, that this isn't their property, and that they must not only pull their weight around the house and lack grown-up privileges - both reasonable requests - but also submit to constant reminders of their inferior status. And I'm not sure I see the point of taking things that far.

So, I wouldn't normally impute such authoritarian motives on the Obamas, except that my parents definitely wanted to put me in my place. Half of the orders I had to comply with as a child were to reaffirm my inferior status, both as a female and as a child, so yes, that part of it sucks, although I am not sure I want to go so far as to not establish any authority over my future children. Plus, "good" habits like "tidiness" carry some sort of character-building, no?

Apart from the stacks of articles that are piled high on my desk and my totally messy desk tray (thank goodness for online automatic bill pay) that betrays my lack of paper organization and continual works-in-progress (no really, I need that book I took out a year ago for THIS project too), I'm pretty tidy. My workspace is what it is because that's the only way I can work--I need every book I might require around me. But I'm tidy otherwise. I like to keep my counters clean, and like to break out the 409 after each cooking/eating episode. Shoes are removed at the door, and still I sweep up every other day and mop every week (or at least every two weeks). The bathroom is cleaned just as frequently, and the laundry is sorted by colors in bins, done twice a month, and then neatly folded. There aren't piles of clothes (although there are piles of books and Buffy DVDs). I even fold my underwear into neat little squares and put them away by color in my dresser (okay, TMI, I admit). And yes, I make my bed. Every day, and it takes like 10 seconds to fluff the duvet and pillows and arrange them. Not just when company comes over, and certainly TD is not formal company, and he is...not as tidy as I am and would not care at all if the bed was unmade or if there were clothes on the floor. I am not saying I am a better person. But I'm tidier, and I care about my surroundings and the impression they give to others (not that I have many guests), and I feel calmer in a tidy environment (apart from the chaos of my desk, but at least the papers and books are organized by project/subject in neat stacks).

So I'm just saying, what's wrong with making little girls make their beds? Maybe part of it is telling them what to do and where their place in the family hierarchy is. But the fact remains that they are not the decision-makers of the family, and that they must learn the good habit of tidiness, and so there. Of course, this small issue is actually a much larger one--what would you require of your children? What is your fundamental child-rearing philosophy? TD is more laissez-faire. I find, to my horror, that mine is closer to my strict authoritarian parents than I'd like to admit. I never want to be like my parents to my own children. I mean, I want my children to respect me and listen to me and not do bad things, but I never want to instill that type of fear in my own children. I never want to yell at my children for the simplest thing as if it reflects a character flaw or failure to be a proper ____, such as leaving a sock in the dryer or failing to make a bed. So it's a really uncomfortable feeling to realize that I am not the liberated, liberal Westernized person I thought I was. I actually am as deferential to authority and later, willing to exercise authority as my crazy parents raised me to be!

Isn't there a balance between instilling "good" habits in children and being my psycho strict mean parents? TD was raised completely differently, and while less tidy than I am about clothes and dust, he's also free of all of this psycho baggage. I am sort of coming around to his way of thinking. 1/10 of my mental space is devoted every day to keeping things under control, including dust, objects, clothes, etc. I do not, I repeat, I do not, want this to extend to being a control freak. Right now, I live by myself, and I am not totally unbearable. But I am worried that I might be. I do not want to fight with my partner over who does which chore, and I do not want to get angry at my children for not being tidy. Tidiness is a virtue, yes, and I do like having a clean and well-organized house. But I also want a happy and healthy home. Perhaps just let the children do whatever they want to do, so long as they stay out of real trouble and get their work done and don't grow up to be too lazy and pampered.

Perhaps I wouldn't be so worried about balancing the two (it's not like you can't have both), were it not for the ingrained from birth propensity to control-freakiness and apoplectic rage over disorder. You know how alcoholics just have to eventually stay away from all parties to avoid even being near alcohol? It's sort of that way with this type of "red-flag" issue that could very well mean me becoming something I'm not. I avoid all sorts of things and people because I don't like the effect they have on me, that I become a different person I don't like. Avoid. I wish to avoid becoming a Strict Asian Parent.

So, ways to avoid the conflict between clean and too-strict: 1) Only be with people and later raise compliant people who are as tidy as I am. Hmm, that's not really an option, and not even a desirable option, given the peculiar attachment I have already formed and my desire to raise children who will become independent, autonomous people. 2) Chill the fuck out and relax a little bit, because dirt is good for babies and if I live far enough away, my parents won't be able to visit and remark on how I fail as a woman because of my untidy house or the tidy house that is due to the housekeeper I waste my money on because I am such a failure of a woman.

I think #2 is the one. I guess I have to get used to the idea of shoes in the house one day, and their attendant dustiness. Excuse me while I shower after shuddering at the very idea of dust.


Friday, February 20, 2009

why i read advice columns

In keeping with Matt's urgings (it's like he's my sponsor), I've been better about kicking the Modern Love column habit, because it's usually such dreck and it makes me so mad. I am even thinking of kicking the Jezebel habit, because while it's a great link-referral service to things that are interesting/infuriating, it's terrible at its own "substantive commentary" and the comments are completely idiotic, making me despair for modern feminism.

But I still like reading advice columns and can't seem to stop (favorites are Dear Prudence and Since You Asked, although I hate the advice and prefer just reading the weird dilemmas), and according to Alex, this is why:

As a quick perusal online will make clear, people have a penchant for publicizing strange things about their lives. And within the forum of an advice column, they not only admit to certain eccentricities, but often sordid dramas about their friendships, marriages, and families that reveal intimate details about the people involved. And their hope, in all earnestness, is that a one-paragraph response from an imperious looking middle-aged woman (advice columns are written almost solely by women) will solve their problem. Why is it exactly that anyone would write to a stranger for advice on a meddling mother-in-law, when family and friends are probably better equipped to offer solutions, knowing, as they do, the people involved in the conflict?

And yet almost every major publication carries at least two or three advice forums by columnists who encourage readers to send them their relationship woes and mother-in-law traumas, subject line: please advise. Audiences lap it up, and with good reason. There is the voyeuristic thrill in learning about other people’s intimate problems, and having a passive, enjoyable vehicle to observe and comment on how other people choose to live their lives. They provide an opportunity to test your own savvy as an advice-giver: Is this the best advice to give, and is this how I would go about solving the problem? And there is the off-chance that a reader will pick up a nugget of wisdom that is applicable to his own life, or learn something that will save him from his own potentially embarrassing social misstep. (Note to self: Don’t crochet a custom doggy bag for first dates.) But the most appealing feature of advice columns is that they give us reassurance that there actually is a correct way to proceed in any given situation, that there are discernible norms that govern social behavior, and they can be pared down into a newspaper-length column in an easy-to-follow, step-by-step fashion.

That advice columns are so popular as venues for articulating the guidelines and parameters that govern social behavior is an indication of how necessary they are. Americans are socially and geographically mobile, always negotiating the democratic tension between hierarchy and equality. They constantly find themselves in ambiguous social situations, and the impulse to impose rules to make their relations clear and predictable has found one of its greatest outlets in the advice column. In effect, advice columnists are contextualizing and re-affirming traditions for successive generations of readers even as the surface of social life changes dramatically.

This is why the columns seem to repeatedly come back to the same topics: relationships, wedding planning, social invitations, work/life balance, domestic issues. These are the themes that dominate our lives, and they are at the same time the ones most impacted by economic forces, social mobility, and the pull of egalitarianism. The reader seeking advice is usually not demanding a return to more traditional social values, but he does believe that there actually is a way—a correct way—to navigate between the twin dangers of undermining social order and adapting to change, and that Ann Landers knows what it is.

I do like seeing how norms are produced, reinforced and disseminated through advice columns, but I usually find all of the advice so terrible that I can't imagine that being the primary functio of why we read these things. I admit that it's my prurient interest in all that is pathetic, sordid, and hapless about my fellow human beings. Not because I necessarily feel a sense of identification and commiseration with these problem-plagued people, but because it's so darn interesting to read how troubled people are by seemingly simple social dilemmas or their occasionally crazy-ass stories and problems that simply cannot be answered by some middle-aged woman with a column. Most of the advice is to seek other advice from legitimate and trained professionals like doctors and psychologists and psychiatrists.

Ah well, I suppose the advice they dole and the norm-producing function these columns fulfill beats Miss Lonelyhearts. And they are entertaining to read in a guilty, dirty, voyeuristic I-delight-in-the-problems-of-mankind way.

Sorry, Matt!


Belle's Macaroni and Cheese

Pretty darn tasty, and pretty darn bad for you. This is a halved recipe, but I'd say it'd still feed four people really generously. Because we only got through very little of this and are eating it again tonight with the chicken piccata I'm going to make. Careful using a Microplane grater: I shredded my thumb, and that kind of was not awesome and blood-flecked cheese is gross. Next time I will experiment with different cheeses. I imagine gruyere would be nice.


2 tablespoons butter + 1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 lb Vermont Sharp Cheddar cheese, grated.
1/2 lb Monterey Jack cheese, grated
3 cups whole milk
1/2-3/4 lb elbow macaroni or shell pasta
1 tsp. dry ground mustard
1/8 tsp. cayenne
1 tsp. salt
1 cup panko
7-8 fresh sage leaves, chopped finely
1/4 cup grated parmesan


1. Cook the pasta to tender (not al dente!i in salted water, drain, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process, reserve. you can do this while you do everything else, of course.

2. Make a bechemel:

Melt the butter on medium high till foaming. Add flour, mustard powder, cayenne, stir and cook until fragrant and golden, about 1-2 minutes.

Slowly whisk in the milk. Turn heat till high, and whisking, bring the milk to boiling. When it reaches a full boil, turn heat down to medium, and constantly whisking, let it reduce at least 5 minutes.

Take it off the heat. Add cheeses and salt stir with a wooden spoon until melted. Add the reserved pasta.

3. Put pot back on medium and heat everything through, 6-8 minutes.

4. Pour mixture into a broil safe baking dish. I used an 8x8 glass Pyrex.

5. Melt remaining tablespoon of butter, again on medium high. Add panko and sage leaves, stir and toast until slightly golden (don't burn or toast too far). Mix with parmesan cheese, use as topping for your mac and cheese.

6. Broil on high until everything is golden and toasty, just a few minutes.



Belle's Creamy Wild Mushroom Soup

My own recipe! Super-delish, and was much enjoyed by The Dude, The Best Friend, and The Best Friend's Husband. You can puree it (or half of it) for a Campbell's can toothless consistency, or leave it chunky like I do.

Serves 4-6.


8 oz. Shitake mushrooms, chopped
8 oz. Oyster mushrooms, chopped
8 oz. Enoki mushrooms, chopped
Two stalks King Oyster mushrooms, quartered lengthwise, then chopped
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
1/2 bunch fresh sage leaves (7-10), chopped
4-6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup good red wine
4 cups beef broth
1/4-1/2 cup heavy whipping cream (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste


1. Take half the butter, melt on medium high until foamy. Add the onion, sautee for 2 minutes until soft and golden. Add flour and sage, sautee 2-3 minutes more until flour is cooked up (so it doesn't taste pasty at the end).

2. Add remaining butter, and melt. Add mushrooms, and a pinch of salt sautee until soft. King oyster mushrooms will always be chewy, don't worry.

3. Add red wine, bring to a boil, until most of it evaporates. Add beef stock, bring to a boil again. Add cream, stir until you get the level of creaminess you want. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

This is a great starter for a beef entree. I was relatively happy with my braised beef ribs, but it really does matter where you get your beef. At $6.99/lb, I've never been disappointed with my local-and-no-longer-creepy butcher shop, but at $2.99/lb at Safeway, I was really disappointed with the stringiness of the beef, which probably has to do with how it's cut and the quality of it--it should be marbled with fat and not as dry as mine were. Also, it's a dish that requires you to throw out your mirepoix, which seems wasteful. Next time I'm making brisket.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Kid on the legal job market vs. the academic job market

One of my favorite bloggers, a Medieval-historian-turned-1L, has great insights into both:

I think I bring a warped perspective to discussions about the employment prospects in law.

(Disclaimer: I don't know much about the legal job market yet, not compared to the academic job market, so my comments here are just gut reactions, not reasoned arguments.)

This article talks about a reported employment rate among 2007 law grads of 92%.

Now, this is troublesome because schools are notorious for reporting ANY employment as employment - so if a law grad is working at Starbucks, hey! they're employed! Moreover, these percentages are based on students' self-reporting, and presumably those who are un- or under-employed are less likely to respond than those happily set with legal employment.

Nonetheless, the idea was floated at this other board that a 92% employment rate wasn't very good, and that, well, it made me laugh. Or cry. When you consider that most people I've seen now concede that maybe 50% of humanities Ph.D.s will get a tenure-track job (and I'd argue that number should probably be lower), 92% sounds like PERFECTION. 80% would sound like perfection. And 70% would sound pretty decent. I mean, maybe there really is 42% worth of wiggle room/exaggeration in the reporting of law grads' employment. But I'd be a little surprised if it were THAT high.

The other major issue with legal employment is an extreme bi-modality (is that a word?) of salaries. Associates - meaning new law grads - at the biggest of BigLaw firms do earn $160K+. (I'll pause while my academic compadres recover from that one.) Of course, firms offer a wide range of salaries, and only a very small number of people will reach such heights. Nonetheless, the article linked above states that the median salary for law grads working at firms is $108K.

The thing is, there are salaries clustered at the top of the scale, and salaries clustered at the bottom of the scale, but very little in the middle. And the same article warns that 38% of law grads are earning $55K or less.

And all I can think is, I would be willing to bet you that there are a LOT of assistant professors throughout this country who still start at less than $55K. (We won't even get into adjuncts, who are, after all, employed in the field for which they trained, and who would therefore be considered successfully employed by legal standards.)

The bottom line, according to New Kid, even taking into consideration how expensive law school is: "It still doesn't sound as bad as academia."

Having read several emails and reports from my own enormous and prestigious R1 university about hiring freezes and curtailing new faculty searches from 135 last year to 25 this year, I am inclined to agree, despite my general position that you should NOT go to law school. But now I just think you shouldn't go to grad school, either. So, one part of my American dream was that my own kids would be financially comfortable enough to study and do what they love. That still seems to be a luxury of those with serious family money. Knowing what I know now, which I didn't ten years ago when I was starting college and humanities Ph.D programs, I would strongly urge my kid to seriously think about job prospects and run the statistical probabilities. It's just so depressing to think about or talk about, but since I didn't make that choice I don't want to harp on it, lest my humanities grad student friends hate me. I played it relatively safe, and I am inclined to think that my kids should as well. TD listened to some family friend about learning a hard science and finance, and he is doing interesting work and feels just as fulfilled as I do (of course, I am a law school sellout, so maybe we are two peas in a pod).

Still, while I strongly resist the "trade school" model of academia, there must be a way to balance doing what you love with less scary job prospects and better pay. No grad student should incur debt, but many do anyway, because fellowships are competitive, and at the big universities, so are TA'ships--and that's how you're funded. And the stipends are pretty meager and may not cover all of your living expenses, and I know plenty who take out loans. MFA programs are especially pricey, considering that people are paying $25-35,000 a year to embrace the bohemian impoverished life of a writer or artist.

Yeah, really, perhaps it's another American dream deferred, but I think I would suggest to all my nieces and nephews and my own future children to really, really think about their major, school, and career choices. In this bad economy, probably lots of Nth generation Americans are still thinking quite pragmatically and practically about these things, so perhaps the second generation of the Lettres will do so as well, and it's not so bad, really. Why do I feel like apologizing for this, as if I am demonstrating a lack of commitment to ideals of education, the humanities, and the liberal arts? I really am still committed to such ideals, but ideals must be balanced by reality. So all I'm saying is double major. Is that such a terrible compromise?


Zoo Pictures: Da Bears (Ditka Reference, Not Slang)


Posted by Picasa


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

random roundup

1. This makes me want to link to every Jones Day lawyer in America, except that I'm risk averse and don't want to be sued.

2. What it takes to be a liberal. I qualify!

3. Does this mean that I can't say "I drink my Haterade" anymore?

4. NYT discovers that college students have a sense of entitlement about grades, study finds that students correlate effort exerted with grade deserved. Clearly they haven't yet attended law school or some more rigorous university.

5. I have a Twitter account and occasionally micro-blog links, status updates, seek advice or give my 21 friends responses, but I remain unconvinced that Twitter is the wave of the future. It, like Facebook, is just pretty much no more than a time suck, and I think that most of what it does (get you an answer within 15 seconds, according to the article) can be done through Googling, emailing, or calling someone. I mean, please, David Pogue. Get a grip.


weekend report

We eschewed the cheesy Valentine's day trappings (and crowded restaurants and pricey prix fixe) in favor of having friends come to visit for a really fun and relaxing weekend. I made many delicious three course things, and have many recipes to blog. Let me just say that wild creamy mushroom soup is like nothing out of a can. We hung out with The Best Friend and her husband, played board games, ate food, talked a lot, and watched funny things. We also went to the city zoo (first time ever for me going to a zoo, very cool) and the science center.

We also watched Slumdog Millionaire, which I loved and would watch again. Yes, I cried. Also, my new dream in life is to become part of a Bollywood dance crowd, or at least replicate some of these moves in a coordinated fashion with TD if we ever have to go to a dance club:


Friday, February 13, 2009

the principle of the thing, movie edition

I never said that I was principled or consistent, but here goes:

  • Much as I like fashion and much as I have been known to shop on occasion and much as I like Isla Fischer, I refuse to see "Confessions of a Shopaholic," because it fills me with feminist rage and it makes me want to break stuff.
  • Much as I like Jennifer Connelly as an actress, I refuse to see "He's Just Not That Into You," because it fills me with feminist rage and it makes me want to break stuff and then set it on fire and toss it through your window.
  • Much as I love Joaquin Phoenix and much as the positive-ish review on the NYT makes me curious, I refuse to see "Two Lovers" because of my abiding hatred of Gwyneth Paltrow. This hatred excuses my youthful naivete for liking "Sliding Doors," and is proscriptive rather than retroactive and more because John Hannah quotes Monty Python. Ah well, Ms. Economically Tone Deaf would just say "fuck you, hater" to me anyway.
  • Much as I hated "Before Sunrise," I will see "Medicine for Melancholy," because it sounds smart, self-aware, and not totally oblivious to its own pretension and does not have the much-hated Whiny McEmo Ethan Hawke in it, a hatred that is indeed retroactive.
  • Much as this tepid review discourages me, I will watch "The International," because I love "travelogue thrillers" and I really love Clive Owen (ever since "Croupier") and Naomi Watts.
  • Much as this tepid review really, really distresses me, and much as I was annoyed by the straining-to-keep it-real "five by five" chica from Chino mannerisms of the Faith characer in Buffy, I will totally watch "Dollhouse," because I will watch anything Joss Whedon makes, even shadow puppets.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Torn like an old sheet?


Oh sweet JESUS, why did I read that Elle essay linked in the Traister piece? It makes cesareans sound like fun. My entire body is doubled over in sympathy. But isn't that sort of visceral reaction just what Purves was aiming for? The whole point of the female gross-out confessional is to puncture our composure and drill down into the fears and insecurities we mostly suppress.

Breslin's missing the point* when she asks whether "writing about the female body [can] go beyond the literal, transcend the body itself, make a point that exposes something more than the fact that bad things happen when you leave your tampon in for 10 days?" This sort of writing is only superficially about the body; it's about the masks we wear to avoid thinking about our bodies, about the social niceties that feed ignorance, about our own reactions to being confronted with the fundamental universality of being embodied in meat sacks. (Whether it's successful is a function of the writer's skill: no comment on the Jezzies.) The price of silence, as you note, is high. But you're not satisfied with the gross-out status quo:
I am glad to write about women's health issues and sexuality, but I really never want to write about my own body and I will never write about my personal sexuality.** But maybe I am behind the times, and not feminist enough. I mean, the personal is political, right? Perhaps I am antiquated in thinking that while the female body should be studied (most studies use male subjects) and discussed with honesty and openness, the personal body should remain wherever you want it to be, and in most cases is better kept private. Otherwise, we risk losing the individuality that comes with privacy, that while many experiences are shared, our personal relationship to our body is best experienced in private, shared selectively, and kept as our own rather than for public consumption. The body in public is dissected mercilessly and not always in ways that we wish it to be.
The fundamental premise that one could lose one's individuality without keeping these things private strikes me as questionable, especially with respect to discussions of the body. When we tell people that they are unique and special, it's not usually because we're thinking of how their genitals don't look, smell, and taste like anyone else's. We're thinking about what's inside. If self-disclosure is a threat to individuality, confessions about one's hopes, dreams, values, fears, and general emotional state are a far bigger threat. But we praise the ability of literature (fiction and non-fiction) to speak universal truths about the human experience. Moe and Tracie's experiences are still theirs, no less than your experiences of carpal tunnel are yours, despite being shared. Your body may be an rivalrous good, but your discussions about your body aren't. And their choice to open up and share about their bodies is nothing like being dissected by street harassers. They're performing a public service!***

Which gets to Eugene Volokh's post: It was odd, and doesn't really get at the value of the gross-out girl sharing; he postulated the existence of an in-group of menstruators that women might want to be part of, when really it's about breaking down the idea that there is an in-group for which these bodily functions go in some neat, smooth, prescribed way. People are bonding over the idea that there's this immense diversity, and that their own diversity of experience doesn't put them outside some hypothetical norm they derived from 7th grade health class and Summer's Eve commercials.

That's why your idea that we should discuss the female body with honesty and openness but keep the personal body private is problematic and unsatisfying. General statements or impressions about our bodies are often not viewed as trustworthy. If I ask whether it's okay for part of my body to look a certain way, you might tell me that everyone looks a little different and it's fine, but I might think you are patronizing me or trying to spare my feelings or just cutting off an awkward and norm-violatingly explicit line of conversation. The gross-out girl response that "yes, mine looks like that too/no, mine looks like [something else weird]" cuts through all those uncertainties and is immediately reassuring. Recourse to the personal is the one way we can be certain that someone's not bullshitting us, and there's perhaps no sphere of human experience more vulnerable to euphemistic bullshitting than sex.****

But enough bloviating from me on the deep social significance of oversharing. I sent you your convertible mittens. Happy Valentine's Day! I hope they fit over your splints, if need be.


* Questioning the tone of the Jezebel pieces and comparing it with Sontag's cool prose is likewise off; everything on Jezebel is written with that gonzo air. But anyway.

** You do write about your sexuality, what with the mentions of romance and your relationship values and TD.

*** If gross-out girl columns trickle down and prevent even one man from buying his girlfriend Depends instead of maxi pads then it will be worthwhile.

**** And this is mostly about sex; I doubt this discussion would be going on if the writers in question were just being frank about their IBS.


G.R.O.S.S. Girls

Click to enlarge:


What did you think of this column by Rebecca Traister on the cult of gross-out confessionalism among the writers at Jezebel?

Moe Tkacik wrote about the time she accidentally left a tampon in for 10 days. She described how, on the advice of her editor, she squatted on the floor and started rooting around for the source of the acrid discharge that had been plaguing her for days of sex and drugs and drunkenness. "It was far. I had never reached that far. It was gross-far, nearing the anus zone far."

There were certainly some grumblers in Jezebel's comments section, including one who wrote with anatomical exuberance that Tkacik's odyssey was so disgusting, "My vadge recoiled so hard that I could basically feel it slam into my duodenum." But there were many, many others, expressing sentiments like, "Moe I feel your pain. I was 16 and it was summertime ..." And "Um. This happened to me once. I never told anyone. But one day, after having sex, it just kind of slid out. I'd been wondering what that very strange odour was coming from my yoohoo ... I was very happy to read that I am not the only one this has happened to." One respondent offered, "Midway through, I almost threw up. And yet, kept on reading. At the end, I laughed my ass off. It def. sometimes sucks to be a chick, but at least we can all laugh about the nasty shit together."

Laughing about all the nasty shit -- or crying about it, kibitzing about it, whining about it, bragging about it, confessing it, writing about it, and most important, exposing it -- it's all the rage. Jezebel, the popular women's offshoot of the Gawker empire, has been the leader of the oversharing crusade, with vibrant, aromatic and really graphic posts about everything from lodged tampons to yeast infection remedies to bloody period sex to female ejaculation. (The last, in Tracie Egan's piece, "Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gush," also includes Egan's report that "I live my life perpetually suffering between either mild dehydration or a UTI, meaning that my piss is (ab)normally cloudy, stinky, and dark" ).

Oversharing is in. And for a lot of people who are doing the sharing, or experiencing it, it's not so much "too much information" as it is the next, necessary step in personal-is-political, enlightened honesty about the female body. It's a tack that has been taken in the past, by second-wavers who threw parties at which women were encouraged to take a gander at their cooters with hand mirrors, and by Riot Grrrls, whose zines and music teemed with expressions of female body anxiety. But all that communal celebration or shouted fervor for the female body and its effluvia was always a little too marginal, too embarrassing, reeking of moon-tides and red tents and creaky second-wave earnestness.

Today's version of these revelations can also be celebratory (see "My Little Red Book"), self-punishing (Tkacik and her tampon) and angry (the "Ring of Fire" essay). But it is also often funny and conversational, casual and exhibitionistic. Here are frank, explicit physical descriptions in glossy women's magazines, on a blog that also covers celebrity fashion, from teenagers who are allowing their period stories to be published in a book that everyone might read!

We have edged away from a time when talking openly about the female body was necessarily a brave political statement and into one in which it can be self-promotional, potty-mouthed and kind of sweet. It is the merging of a decades-old, well-intentioned but often embarrassing feminist health project with a liberated Internet age in which people have few qualms about airing their very dirty laundry to as wide an audience as possible, and in which women have immediate access to the experiences of their peers and elders, no matter what intimate abysses, emissions or embarrassments those stories entail.

This new graphic femininity creates a space in which women can tell their own funny or scary stories and provide tips, advice or cautionary tales for others who might harbor silent curiosities about their bodies and what can go wrong (and right) with them.

Whether or not you view female excretions as vile, or whether, like Nalebuff, you view menstruation as "cleansing impurities out of your body," there is no question that many women find the process of self-revelation, as Holmes said, cathartic. It's about breaking certain silences, yes. It's about letting loose with long pent-up questions and anecdotes and curiosities and fears. It's about laughing about things that might otherwise make you wail with shame or pain or fear.

And at the same time, it can be about getting attention, performing, flaunting and acting out your own vulnerabilities, getting noticed for your willingness to debase yourself or win a gross-out contest that once could have only been dominated by boys. It can be painfully self-punishing to read and self-objectifying to write. It can be liberating, and poignant, and it can also be irritating and crass. All at the same time!

I think Susanna Breslin's take is spot-on, that this thought-provoking (and only indirectly ew-provoking because of its quotes) column raises more questions than it answers. While I am all for de-mystifying the female body and its excretions and processes and getting honest answers to common questions that were heretofore shrouded in mystery and euphemism, I am usually pretty grossed out by these columns. More than the TMI, it's just excessive. Were its purposes limited to the clinical (like a Smokey Bear "only you can prevent or at least treat STIs") and commiserating (haha our bodies are gross, group hug!), I might have less of a problem with it. But the authors take on this "Pssst! Check me out! I am sooooo gross and I can write about viscous body fluids and I am sooooooo funny!" level of juvenility that's off-putting. Interestingly, the Jezzies have written more than once against celebrating the confessional for it's own sake. Confessions are not necessarily honest, brave, revelatory, insightful, or relatable. Relatability is a dumb index by which to judge anything, anyway. Sometimes they just reveal the author to be immature and batshit insane. I am increasingly disenchanted with the "confessional" writing at Jezebel, because they seem to be more like exercises in self-justification with very little self-reflection or contrition. Not that one has to apologize for one's bodily processes, but much like being flatulent in public, there's a sort of "erm, excuse me" kind of awareness of the body in public. The body in public is different than the body in private. Call me a prude, but I just do not walk around naked in public or talking about my bodily emissions with everyone.

Now, I do love Spanish picaresque literature, which can be really scatological. And talking about shit can be the fine art of literary criticism. And I do agree, of course that women's bodies have been long shrouded in suffocating veils of mystery and pseudoscience, to our detriment. How will we know how our bodies work without such open honesty (I would suggest taking a few science classes, talking to your doctor, and self-educating, but hey what do I know, since I don't read women's magazines)? How will we learn to receive and experience pleasure, at our hands our our partners? How much does silence make us suffer: between shameful, untreated infections (those odors and emissions signify something) that irritate us or may even lead to infertility, refusing to recognize the humanity behind the femininity (Hey Margaret, it's God. Yeah, being a woman sucks, and your body is going to do some weird shit on you, and it doesn't end after menopause and the research is controversial about hormone replacement therapy so you should talk to your doctor about everything. And, by the way, you will one day have to evacuate your bowels in the same building as your boyfriend), or suffering at the hands of inept lovers we can't bring ourselves to be honest with, boy, does silence seem to have a price.

But there has to be some middle ground between oppressive patriarchal silence and this glut of gross-outism as feminism, isn't there? I mean, I am glad to write about women's health issues and sexuality, but I really never want to write about my own body and I will never write about my personal sexuality. But maybe I am behind the times, and not feminist enough. I mean, the personal is political, right? Perhaps I am antiquated in thinking that while the female body should be studied (most studies use male subjects) and discussed with honesty and openness, the personal body should remain wherever you want it to be, and in most cases is better kept private. Otherwise, we risk losing the individuality that comes with privacy, that while many experiences are shared, our personal relationship to our body is best experienced in private, shared selectively, and kept as our own rather than for public consumption. The body in public is dissected mercilessly and not always in ways that we wish it to be. Street harassment bothers a lot of people, for example. I am not saying that women should stay home, and keep their bodies covered. But while I have never read "Our Bodies, Ourselves," I have always thought of my body as my own, and my experiences as my own, even if they are common to all women. I mean, remember the controversy that this post sparked (I appear to have commented on this here)? It seems like the Jezzies are proving Volokh right, that we women view menstruation as a great bonding experience that we would hate to be left out of if they approve a pill that ends this monthly ritual!

But perhaps I'm too retro in my thinking, because by keeping through privacy and discretion such a clinical, dissociative distance between my head and the rest of my body, maybe it could be said that I never really "claim" my body as my own. Maybe it's not my body, because it's just an example of a woman's body, rather than a personal experience of my body. Wait, how does that make sense, You Straw Woman I Am Making Up, because I still inhabit this form and experience it, even if I don't write about it or share it with others. Well, I mean, I did blog a lot about having carpal tunnel and how it affects work and the various treatments I'm getting for it, but haha, it's like these hands have a mind of their own! I just had to learn to stop worrying about them and learn to love them for what crippled, constantly-in-pain things they are. Haha, last week I dropped a pan of bread because it was too heavy for my hands, and a few days before I had to put down a pot because holding it sent a twinging spasm down the median nerve, and now my fine motor skills are finally returning but my hand strength is not. Oh, you know what's that like, haha. Hugs all around!

Anyway, what do you think? I also officially invite Phoebe to join us in this conversation.




Sunday, February 08, 2009

what on earth is a "date" movie?!


Apart from finding mutually agreeable viewing fare, I don't get why "date movies" have to be any different from "movies you would like to see in general." In fact, marketed-as-date-movies are guaranteed to be craptastic, since they will be terrible romantic comedies. Cough How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days cough (I have never seen that movie, but it sounds terrible, and I was delighted to hear that some other pre-Belle girl had made TD see that movie with him, so he must now appreciate my good taste and anti-chickflickery). I thought Vicky Christina Barcelona was somewhat of a date movie, apart from it's rather honest and jaundiced view of love, just because it was smart and sexy. Most foreign movies are. Why do American romantic comedies suck so hard? Fie on the idea of a "date movie!" I mean, there are unsettling movies to watch as a couple (I'm thinking Adrian Lynne's "Unfaithful" or Neil Jordan's "The End of the Affair"), but otherwise, I think couples should hold the same aesthetic standards as they would individually. Who knows, maybe it's cathartic to watch movies about infidelity, although I think it may just be uncomfortable and a starting point to an awkward conversation that would begin "well _I_ would never do that", but then you would wonder why you had to say that--probably to hear it back, to be comforted after watching something so unsettling.

It's hard to find "sexy" movies to watch together anyhow, since "sexy" is so idiosyncratic and most movies containing sex (at least, good, non-porn ones) are too complex and will probably feature the more unsavory side of love, like jealousy and infidelity and anger (e.g. In the Mood for Love, possibly one of my favorites). One of our earliest dates was watching High Fidelity, and I was impressed and amused by his ability to recite all of the lines with perfect timing. In some cases, romantic comedies work, but only if you are two giant dorks. But I wouldn't call that movie sexy by any means. Nor was "A River Runs Through It," the last movie we saw, or before that, "The Hudsucker Proxy." I can't think of the last sexy movie we saw together. Do they still make any? I am far too one-track minded to combine both cinematic pleasure with sexual seduction: my one-track mind leads me to suggest things like "hey, let's watch Das Boot, it's awesome!" and think that I'll unsubtly try to bat my eyelashes without looking like I am having a seizure later, after the crew surfaces and goes home dispiritedly to La Rochelle. You know, one thing at a time. I can see how some movies are just anti-sexy (see, e.g., movies with extended torture scenes, lots of drug use, lots of drawn out killing rather than explosions, things featuring Pauly Shore or Carrot Top, etc. ), but in general, a movie that makes one happy or full of adrenaline (good comedies and action movies) should make one ready for anything. Does the mind need that much coaxing into changing tracks?



Saturday, February 07, 2009

You think you're chocolate when you're chewing gum?


Viewing love as something beyond your control, something inflicted upon you, does seem like a cop-out. Unless you believe in Cupid's arrow, or a Godfather-style "thunderbolt," or that inhaling pheromones has effects comparable to PCP or some other strong drug, love is something you create out of your perceptions of a person. (And those perceptions often trickle in over time---rarely are we presented with a five minute window in which someone evidences all the smart/cute/funny/sensitive/pick-your-cliche traits in quick succession.)

Maybe it's not always volitional, in the sense that one typically doesn't decide to fall in love. But who you love is a reflection of your choices about what to value. Maybe some of these values were ingrained in a youthful and malleable mind, but for those of us with a little introspective ability and the inclination for self-interrogation, we should be able to get to the heart of why we love who we love, and potentially to change it. (Through therapy, perhaps?) Otherwise you may fall into a pattern of doomed relationships in which you embrace certain values in the beloved that prove to be counterproductive to human flourishing, or at least your own happiness.

But assume that your values are sound, and that finding someone who embodied those values would bring you love and joy. How to determine whether a person actually is, for your purposes, virtuous? If the virtue itself, and consequent valuation of the individual, is the source of love (which it must be, unless the aforementioned "love at first sight" paradigm holds), then your chance of finding true love is a function of how good you are at judging people. It is always difficult to discover that one is bad at something. Of course, you may be excellent at assessing people but extremely poor at drawing accurate conclusions about their future behavior. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns, but it's probably more common in relationships to selectively disregard past (or present!) performance and think that, evidence to the contrary, things with you will be different.

A claim of being duped is fundamentally distinct(and has dissimilar implications for agency, as you note) than acknowledging that one has, through ordinary human weakness, convinced one's self of something that cannot be. Is it better to be a fool or to be weak? The weak man is everyone's potential victim, and so in a strange way retreat into the role of the fool, especially one fooled by someone particularly adept at nefarious evil, allows one to minimize one's fear of becoming a victim going forward. After all, you can always say that you won't be fooled again! (Until, of course, you're again bound by the volitionless animal spirit of love to another uniquely seductive yet destructive heartbreaker.)

But enough of this. Let's talk cinema. A friend recently inquired whether anyone actually likes
date movies for themselves, as opposed to seeing them because they are "guaranteed to be somewhat anodyne (and therefore minimally tolerable to most) and have a romantic subtext." Now that includes the generic rom-com, but the problem is that modern rom-coms are almost always chick flicks (of the worst sort: poorly scripted, emotionally manipulative, and rife with unflattering stereotypes), and why would you drag a fellow to a film that he is almost certain to not enjoy? If the purpose of a date movie is to facilitate the getting-to-know-you process in the early stages of a relationship, then maybe what you want is some kind of movie that 1) promotes conversation afterward, 2) promotes romantic feelings or arousal, to the degree that would not be awkward for the relationship stage, or both. It should also be something that is likely to be enjoyed by both sexes, so one party will not feel resentful later and spoil the mood.

So say you're taking a fellow out on a date: what sort of movie do you pick? It should be sexy, but not so sexy that you're going to be embarrassed. (Maybe not Lust, Caution, frex.) Both very high quality and very low quality pictures are fodder for post-film conversation, but deliberately going to see a bad movie, MST3K-style, may result in resentment, so it's dangerous. Foreign films are a standard go-to, but you may lose the plot if you kiss during the picture and can no longer follow the subtitles. Probably no Bruckheimer-style explosionfests: they get the blood pumping, but not the right way. Pure adrenaline is not conducive to seduction. Nothing with heavy, depressing themes: I saw The Reader tonight, and Holocaust pictures always make my limbs feel leaden, which is hardly a recipe for sassy banter and third-date hookups. Preferably there should be no relationship issues that could bleed over into real life. (This is why most chick flicks, with their dependence on engagements, marriages, and babies, are questionable. Do you really want to get into a spirited debate with a new beau about these types of weighty issues?)

Here are some lists of possibilities. Thoughts? (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind shows up practically everywhere, but it's not a good date movie, really---too much negativity focused on the main relationship. And incidentally, this is the worst date movie ever.)


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

take responsibility for your relationships!


To answer your last question: merely pathetic.

While I agree with the author that social relationships can be divided into levels of intimacy and cohesion, I completely disagree with the valuation process. It completely ignores the more complex realities of social interaction.

Weingott is right that we have different degrees of social interaction: strangers, acquaintances, intimate platonic friends, and romantic partners. There are more of course, but for the sake of the conversation, let's leave it at that without getting into the vagaries of different levels of sexual/romantic intimacy and commitment. Strangers are those with whom we lack social ties. Once we form ties, however, the tie strength is dependent on so many things that social network theorists are still fighting over how to operationalize this variable. Most agree that we tend to form ties with people who are like us: homophily on the basis of race, gender, class, education level, activities, shared social ties, etc. I may form a tie with someone who is "like me" on whatever basis, but the tie strength will change as the relationship matures. Once the link is formed, it is not static--I have met people through a shared interest in a certain activity, and the at-first casual relationship deepened and became more intimate with time, the sharing of experiences and confidences. So Weingott gets it completely wrong by trying to decouple the "instrumental" and "intrinsic" valuation processes of relationships. Relationships, whether platonic or romantic, are rarely either one or the other. In fact, it would be a rather unfulfilling relationship if it were one or the other. Not that you need to get every personal need from a romantic partner or close intimate friend, but the bases of such relationships are complex, multi-layered, and difficult to disentangle from each other.

I am not disputing your argument that romantic relationships are inherently valuable. Far from it. It's more that I'm wondering how such an idea is even being disputed. My best friend of fifteen years is someone whose character I value greatly and whom I regard highly, and from whom I get many instrumental benefits: emotional support, physical affection, conversation, company, etc. My partner, who is also my best friend, supplies all of the same instrumental benefits, and I also value him highly. The two relationships are not completely comparable of course, because while I have the same life-long commitment to both, in the latter relationship the stakes are different (I am loathe to say "higher") because it carries a level of intimacy that is greater, and thus more complicated, than mere tie strength. If anything, I would have expected someone to argue that romantic relationships have an even greater intrinsic value than friendship (also a fallacious argument), because of the extra layers of intimacy that distinguishes a romantic relationship from a merely platonic relationship. I do not only mean sexual intimacy and the possibility of taking a dyadic social relationship and expanding it to form a new family unit and integrating each other's social networks and families. I also mean that it's just a different type of love, one that compels a person to contemplate forming a life-long commitment to another that is monogamous in ways that friendship is not (I can have many friends, and I am not polyamorous), and intimate in physical and emotional ways that friendship is not.

Much as I love my best friend, she is not my only best friend, and I have "broken up" with a few close friends in my time. When friendships dissolve because of distance (emotional or physical), it's as sad as one of those relationships that are "near misses" but for timing, distance, maturity, etc. When friendships break up because of acrimony, it's as bad as any breakup, and no, you probably don't keep in touch with that person, much as you value them as a person or the experiences you shared with that person. Much ink has been spilled over the sadness of a friendship breakup. Thus, I was kind of perplexed that there was even an argument to be made that friendship relationships are more valuable than romantic relationships, when I find them to be pretty comparable. If anything, I wish that people would see romantic relationships as being friendships with a huge degree of formal and informal commitment, and friendships as being every bit as complicated and pleasurable or painful as a romantic relationship. Then maybe people would act more responsibly and sensitively in both.

I'll move on from the points you covered about instrumentality and then debated with Weingott, and I'll even pass over the debate about the inherent sexism of holding one type of relationship more valuable than the other. Besides, I sort of agree that it's because romantic relationships have depreciated in estimation in current pop culture. It has done so, I think, because of the general tendency to see things either/or, rather than as being extremely complicated, as if you had to choose between everlasting love or everlasting friendship (and why anyone would assume that either is everlasting without work is beyond me). Didn't Carrie get more mad at Miranda's betrayal than she did at Mr. Big's in the Sex and the City movie? Didnn't Seth Rogen's character have to grow up and move out of his buddies' house in order to man up enough to stay with Katherine Heigl's character in "Knocked Up"? Anyway, that's neither here nor there. I'll let that part of the argument end.

Rather, I'm more interested in the idea of being "duped." Meaning, that when relationships end, some people think that they have been utterly manipulated and duped into liking/loving someone who has no other apparent redeemable qualities, with whom they have nothing in common, and for whom they have lost all respect and no longer consider "virtuous." Man, these people must have bad taste in others. Either that, or in doing so they attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility in selecting partners for themselves, or any role they may have had in perpetuating the relationship. I've had plenty of relationships, platonic and romantic, end. I wouldn't blame the other person for my involvement. Sure, everyone tries to market themselves as agreeable and sane, but otherwise relationships are not unilateral contracts made by a party with completely unequal bargaining power. I find it rather distasteful that someone would enter into a relationship with another and upon its end, abdicate all responsibility for their own emotional involvement. In a normal, non-rape type of relationship, no one is forcing them to respond positively to the purported charms of another, or enter into a romantic and physical relationship with the other. Why then the accusation of being duped? Why date someone you had nothing in common with? Why absolve yourself of human agency, free will, and responsibility? It's just such a cowardly cop-out.

So more than accusations of sexism in either direction, I'm more upset about this culture of victimization. Not victim-blaming, but rather the idea that we are all pawns in the game of love, that we are all overrun by biochemical reactions and subject to the machinations of more sophisticated lovers with no other redeemable virtues, and that we're all jutst basically sexual instruments. Ew. That's just not healthy. I would prefer a more mature conception of human interaction, one that's more complex. Otherwise, it's like that old sociology trope that we're all bound by constraints (institutional, societal, etc.), without acknowledging that everyone has agency and independent motivation. I protest againt this! Mainly because all of my bad relationships, platonic or romantic, have caused me to grow as a person and recognize bad signals in others and bad behavioral traits in myself. I've learned, through the counsel of others, how to dissociate myself from negative people and from bad relationships. To blame others for everything that has ever happened to me would be to deny this potential for growth and independence. Nowadays I have mostly healthy relationships with people whom I admire and from whom I learn to grow as a person. The relationships are both instrumental and inherently valuable: I enjoy their company and I value them as people. My current romantic relationship is great because we have become each other's best friend and main support, but we also have a deeper commitment to one another than I have ever had with any other person, and with each day we acquire new shared experiences that bring us closer. Were any of these relationships to end, I would be really sad, but I would also be really grateful for the experience. I would certainly accept my own part in the relationship, and I would feel like I learned something--but not that I was duped.


Monday, February 02, 2009

'roid rage! grrr!

I got steroid injections in both wrists today. Apparently, my doctor (who also helped to design this keyboard and this mouse!) thinks that hand therapy exercises are not useful for carpal tunnel syndrome. So I am getting three rounds of injections. So, we'll see if this works, or if it's surgery. Until then I'm still wearing splints most of the time and cursing my crippled hands.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

Why romantic relationships are intrinsically valuable


At first I didn't have words to describe just how skin-crawlingly horrible I found this post to be.

The basic idea is that romantic relationships are only instrumentally valuable, whereas strong friendships are intrinsically valuable, where "intrinsically valuable things are those that make us happy (rather than happiness itself being the intrinsically valuable thing), and instrumentally valuable things are those that we only value insofar as they give us access to those things that in themselves make us happy." The author breaks relationships into categories:

First, we have acquaintanceships. Examples of people we share these with might be certain people you work with or share a class with; you talk to them and perhaps walk between classes with them, perhaps have lunch breaks together, but the association ends when the semester ends, or one of you resigns from the job or whatever. (Just think of people you were friendly with at high school but never talked to again once high school ended.)

You then have what I think Aristotle called pleasure friendships. This might be where you share an interest with a person such as fishing or music or something, so you hang out to do those things. Once the fishing season is over or your band breaks up, the friendship also ceases.

You then have strong friendships where two people are friends because they respect and admire each others’ virtues. They associate with each other purely because they like each other as people. There are no extrinsic conditions; the main basis for the friendship is the liking of each other as people, and they thus find association with each other valuable for its own sake.

Romantic relationships are not like this; they are a form of pleasure friendship. The participants have attraction and infatuation in common, and there is no need for this to be grounded in a real appreciation of the other person’s virtues. Perhaps we could say that what they have in common is the indulgence in intimacy for intimacy’s sake. Of course when we are in a relationship we see our partner as perfect and they can do no wrong (unless/until you’ve been together for a while). Every instance of agreement between the participants is evidence to them of their being soul-mates.


Now, there are exceptions to all of this. We usually meet our good friends at school or work or perhaps through some mutual hobby (how else?). Sometimes those in romantic relationships really do have much in common; these relationships are probably those which result in either happy marriage or successful post-romance friendships (I mean more than just the occasional “hi” or semi-annual coffee).
Then we get into the valuation:

The type of value a relationship has depends on what kind of relationship it is. ... [S]trong friendships are intrinsically valuable because you like the person’s character for its own sake. The friendship does not depend on an activity or proximity.

Romantic relationships, being a form of pleasure friendship, are, I would say, instrumentally valuable. When the romance ceases, so does association. ... The association in romantic relationships was never about the person them self; otherwise genuine post-romance friendships would be more common, and post-romance regret would be less common.
Perhaps I am some exceptional case, or fancy myself to be one, but this analysis does not represent the reality of romantic relationships as I see and have experienced them. Are people sometimes more in love with the idea of someone than with the person? Certainly, but this is typically based on the lover's opinion of the beloved's character or self. What is one attracted to and infatuated with, but the beloved's physical and mental selves? What is the value of intimacy without the accompanying knowledge that the beloved is worthy of such contact? Romances founder not because one somehow loses some targetless, floating "attraction," but because one's initial assessment of the beloved's balance of traits changes, either due to the inclusion of new information or revision of old information. The idea that romance, like needlepoint or fishing, is something that people get together to do for its own sake, regardless of the nature of their partners, is baffling in the extreme.

The author acknowledges this in a brief addendum:

I still think some kind of an argument can be made to say romantic relationships are intrinsically valuable, though. When you’re in a romantic relationship, you usually do think your partner is virtuous and respectable. It is only when the infatuation ends that you realise you were deluded. Perhaps this isn’t so different to a genuine or “strong” friendship ending upon learning that the friend you thought virtuous is really a sneak. Would we say here that the friendship was still genuine and thus intrinsically valuable? Perhaps it is about perception, rather than fact?

And what's so problematic about the original hypothesis, which the author does not appear to have rejected?

Contending that romantic relationships are not about the content of the partners' character allows the adherent to objectify potential partners. In the one type of relationship typically marked with the greatest level of intimacy, it presupposes an almost arms' length transaction, in which personal qualities are somehow irrelevant.

By elevating "strong friendships" (on average likely to be homosocial) over romantic relationships (on average likely to be opposite-sex), it contributes to the repellent, sexist "bros before hos" dynamic, in which the opposite sex is denigrated and depersonalized as being unworthy of true personal intimacy and value (perhaps in this case such a connection is merely unnecessary).

Plus, acceptance of this philosophy of relationships? Correlated with being a dick. Witness this, also from a recent post on the linked blog:

Who the hell uses the word ‘avant-garde’ with a straight face, anyway? It’s like dropping ‘postmodern’ during conversation. Anyone who does that is a prick.

The only time I’d ever welcome that would be in a girl. People like that are trying so hard to be open minded that they’ll buy any bullshit you offer.

So, Weingott: Threat or menace?