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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The tale of the thesaurus

From a Boston Globe article:
SPEND ENOUGH TIME in suburban preschools these days, and you're bound to hear one parent or another uttering a boast masquerading as a complaint about how they just can't keep the books coming fast enough for their precocious 3- or 4-year-old reader. Odds are, there's probably no reason to boast. Researchers who've been marinating in reading studies for years say a tiny percentage of children - maybe 3 percent, maybe a little more or less - can be classified as truly early readers. These 3- or 4-year-olds understand phonics and context, and they will likely keep up their accelerated reading pace throughout their school years...

But most of the other early readers bringing smiles to their parents' faces aren't really reading at all. They're demonstrating merely that they've memorized lots of words by sight...Studies have demonstrated that the early reading advances these kids show typically wash out a few years down the line.
In grade school, whether someone could be said to be a genius (in our universe, that meant maybe the most impressive one or two people in the class)--or at least smart--mattered a lot in terms of how that kid would get gossiped about. We had a gifted program starting in the first grade, and it was widely known who was in and who was just a wannabe. Stacy (as we shall call her) was definitely in, and, in my first few years of school, widely heralded as a genius. In fact, during a session of show-and-tell one day in the first grade, after I had finished waving around my new Barbie doll, Stacy stood up and introduced her offering:

"This is a thesaurus." She held it up and passed it around. "It has synonyms. Synonyms are words that are like other words. I like to read it to learn words." At this point, if I were a more dramatic six-year-old, I probably would have fainted. As it was, I just sat in shock for several minutes. How did Stacy discover such a thing? And why? I could barely read at this point, and while Stacy was "learning words," I was spending my after-school hours pretending that my bicycle was a horse in various games of Cowboys and Indians with my neighbor. How could I be so stupid? The teacher was pleased beyond measure (finally, a break from the monotony of Barbie dolls and teddy bears, I imagine), and gushed about Stacy's brilliance for several minutes after the presentation. I was convinced.

Stacy was officially the smartest person I had ever met. Smarter than my parents, my first-grade teacher, and all the adults on television. I began to worship Stacy and try to ingratiate myself into her social circle. I largely failed in this endeavor because Stacy was not only the smartest person ever, but she was also super cool due to her mother's heavy involvement in the PTA and her ownership of some sort of business that personalized jewelery boxes and stationary and other trinkets, which were regularly dispensed as birthday gifts and party favors to the great delight of the class. (This was an age when having your mother chaperone field trips was still the it thing to do.) I think being a smelly Russian kid kind of disqualified me from her friendship. I finally did get invited to one of her birthday sleepovers in the fourth or fifth grade, but I was intimidated by her well-appointed modernist home (my house was a discount sale pastiche) and the sophistication of the party (we spent part of the evening applying make-up), so I didn't enjoy myself very much.

Shortly thereafter, Stacy's star began to descend. She was still a good student, but she no longer seemed quite as stunningly brilliant. By middle school, boys and other late bloomers overtook the socially established geniuses. By high school, only one or two of the originally designated gifted students remained at the top of the class and Stacy was not among them. My parents, who had responded to my incredulous tale of Stacy's thesaurus years earlier with a dismissive, "Her parents push her. Don't worry. She's not that great," were more or less vindicated. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that her parents were very involved in cultivating her toddler talents given her perennial involvement in lessons of some kind--skating, tap dance, acting, etc. Well, it didn't work out quite like they hoped, but except for a brief and very public "conversion" to Wicca, I think she still turned out fine. It's possible that she is disappointed at not having lived up to the promise of her thesaurus days, but I wouldn't know. Most likely, she doesn't dwell on them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

An open letter to DC charter schools

Dear DC charter schools,

What is your problem? What do you have against me? I want to help you. I am qualified to tutor. I am offering you my time and energy at no cost. Surely you can find some way to employ me. Can you at least do me the courtesy of responding to my emails?

No wonder DC public education is such a disaster.

No love,
Miss Self-Important

Thursday, October 25, 2007

First world problems: my life is too easy and comfortable!

I think I am nurturing a new neurosis. Previously, my neuroses centered largely around getting good grades, understanding philosophy, and not inadvertently insulting various authority figures. This neurosis took up a lot of time and distracted me from dwelling too much on questions like, "Are my shoes cute?" My education was supposed to inoculate me against such bougie diseases.

Now that it's over though, and I have more aimless time and money, I find myself wondering, "Are my shoes cute?" I look around at other women's shoes in downtown DC. I decide mine are lacking. And then I start shopping for new ones. Basically, my new neurosis is consumption, followed by guilt about consumption, followed by shame that I have nothing better to do than buy stuff and spend money. When I feel particularly bad about this, I try to distract myself by reading books, most of which make me feel even guiltier for spending money because their characters are always serious people with serious lives, whereas I live a life of aimless frivolity. I don't study, I don't write, I don't do anything to help anyone. My job is interesting and fairly time-consuming, but it still leaves a lot of hours in the day to consider how I am like a large and highly mobile parasite that only consumes and discards. It's a dismal state of affairs.

And it's not entirely clear how I should resolve this problem. No one seems willing to allow me to tutor at their school, I can't think of anything to write about, and the Greek class I was going to enroll in at the community college turns out to charge $750 to non-residents. This is kind of like being in Greece, where there was also nothing to do except eat, shop, and sleep on the floors of various ferries in order to go places where we could look at yet more ruins or lie on yet more beaches. Except at least in Greece, there were more people to discuss this anomie with, and at least one class to fail at any given time.

I'm pretty sure that, in order to become a real person rather than an updated version of Gregor Samsa (Kafka's Cockroach 2.0 perhaps), I need to overcome this problem and stop spending all of my leisure buying things. But I also need to stop worrying whether my shoes are cute in the first place, so that I will stop wanting to buy new ones. How am I supposed to accomplish this, short of moving somewhere out of driving distance from an H&M?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Pumpkin party


Carving.


The stenciled ones turned out better than the improvised ones.


Cheers!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Douchbaggery II: Every topic this blog covers seems to require a follow-up

Julia has alerted me to this gem from New York Magazine about the undercurrent of youthful rage that makes Gawker (and by extension, the macro-desire to dethrone the douchebags) possible:
It’s long been known to magazine journalists that there’s an audience out there that's hungry to see the grasping and vainglorious and undeservedly successful (“douchebags” or “asshats,” in Gawker parlance) put in the tumbrel and taken to their doom. It’s not necessarily a pleasant job, but someone’s got to do it...It’s an inevitable consequence of living in today’s New York: Youthful anxiety and generational angst about having been completely cheated out of ownership of Manhattan, and only sporadically gaining it in Brooklyn and Queens, has fostered a bloodlust for the heads of the douchebags who stole the city. It’s that old story of haves and have-nots, rewritten once again...

That’s part of the weird fascination with Gawker, part of why it still works, five years on—it’s about the anxiety and class rage of New York’s creative underclass. Gawker’s social policing and snipe-trading sideshow has been impossible to resist as a kind of moral drama about who deserves success and who doesn’t. It supplies a Manhattan version of social justice.
Ok, I don't live in New York, and I'm not a struggling writer (though I might have to become one soon when no one accepts me to volunteer at their school, and I give up on education), but this pretty much describes why, thanks to Gawker, I am motivated to move to New York, where every one of my frustrations can be more emphatic and poignant.

However, this doesn't just apply to Gawker. It's the unfortunate consequence of the expectations generated at the U of C (and likely every other competitive school like it, as well as the general upbringing of the middle class) for post-college life, including the delusion that you're just one short step away from success, wealth, fame--whatever earth-shattering accomplishment you particularly desire. The internet is perfect kindling for this delusion, especially for would-be writers, I'd imagine. Through it, all the centers of power become closer and more transparent, and it seems possible to leap right into them, to become somebody overnight with a clever blog or a particularly bold pitch (paging Aleksey Vayner...). But when that does happen, we feel that codes of advancement have been violated, so the violator is a douchebag. Enter Gawker!

The NY Mag article preempted the publication of Phoebe's and my gchat yesterday about the crucial role that sacrificing one's dignity plays in effective douchebaggery, and particularly in achieving blogfame.
In an insult culture, shamelessness is a crucial attribute, was part of the point. Last week at Gawker’s book party, Allison appeared in a particularly revealing top and told me, “I figure if people look at my cleavage they won’t listen to my words,” then winked...By Gawker’s rules, Allison seemed to be winning the game. Still, the question remained: Could you be successful in New York without becoming a—well, a douchebag?
Every young person who goes the blogfame route seems to do it by revealing way too much about themselves in ways both embarrassing and engrossing. While we readers are engrossed, we secretly hope that the embarrassment will one day win out and the writer will be crushed under the weight of his own poor judgment.

However, then I think how easily that could happen to me, and I become intensely paranoid. The combination of Google, The Internet Archive, and readers with long memories is a terrifying prospect.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Kid nation, part II

In continuation of yesterday's post, I am also reminded of a conversation I had once with Will about the expansion of youth culture in America to include increasingly more space from which adults are excluded and in which children are autonomous. The internet is a vast stage for the enactment of children's complicated social lives, and there is a growing amount of fashion, stuff, and media marketed solely at them. At the same time, greater mobility in general means that fewer people live near their extended families, and the anonymity of urban and suburban life means that fewer people take responsibility for children who are not their own. As far as I can recall, the only regular contact I had with adults until probably college was with my parents and my teachers. No one else over the age of 18 even existed on my radar.

Will argued that his own best memories of childhood were moments in which adults were absent, so he didn't think an expansion of an exclusive children's world was too bad. I, on the other hand, think that children are basically underestimated but vicious tyrants, and the less adults intervene in their lives, the more they will tyrannize each other. Not that I think children should be constantly supervised. They can spend a lot of time unsupervised in a world shared with adults. But I do think adults are disinclined to take responsibility for introducing children to this world, and so they are content to allow the market to carve out a realm for them and let them raise each other in it. This is justified as being child-centered, or non-interventionist, and letting children follow their inner muses. If I recall junior high correctly though, it has mostly negative results.

But you know, I read too much into Arendt, and at some level, I think all change is bad and things are always declining. Perhaps you can show me why I'm wrong?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Childish conflicts

I got a press release at work today from some children's lobby promoting their latest pro-S-CHIP campaign, a YouTube video of kids threatening to withhold photo-ops with politicians if they didn't vote for S-CHIP. In the video, a 10-year-old says, "Hey Congress, remember me? [Photos of children with House members.]...I know you like us kids, but if you want us to keep hanging out with you for the cameras, you need to protect us, not the president. No health care for us, no photo ops for you. Believe me, we got better things to do."

This reminds me of a class on the history of childhood I took in college, where the question of the political status of childhood came up. It has been argued that children are an oppressed (possibly colonized) minority, one which is in itself a coherent, potentially autonomous socio-cultural group that would articulate its shared interests if given the chance. The obvious criticism against this argument is Lord of the Flies, and also that it's totally absurd. However, in its less absurd formulations, it highlights an interesting contradiction in our perception of childhood.

We do tend to think of children as a distinct social group with distinct group interests (much as we think of old people as having a shared interest in stealing money from our paychecks to fund their various life support devices). Moreover, to varying degrees, we also assume that they can make sophisticated ethical judgments. Consider the organization that made the video: its ostensible purpose is to persuade people to protect children because they are innocent and incapable of protecting themselves, and yet its ad suggests that children are in fact quite capable of organizing their own political campaigns. Consider also the widespread tolerance for violent or lewd media created for children. They're old enough to deal with it, we think, and "old enough" usually means over the age of four. But at the same time, we insist on their innocence and need for protection from corrupt adults. We want lighter penal sentences for children, and a juvenile justice system that holds the youth less responsible for their actions. Minors include anyone up to the age of 18, long after the point at which most people agree that children should be exposed to "the realities of the world." Melvin Burgess, the author of Smack, wrote an essay several years ago defending the "realism" of his book as appropriate to the ethical sophistication of the young:
Once you have decided that young people can contextualise narrative in their own right, make a moral judgement on it in their own right, recognise the difference between story and real life in their own right and understand that it relates to their own lives in many more ways than simple example or advice, you can let go of any attempt to lecture them, help them or, worst of all, educate them, and simply tell your story.
Rail on, Melvin, but I doubt you'd suggest striking the distinction between children and adults in court.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Douchebaggery: An examination

After a recent moment of douchebag invasion into my otherwise serene life, I have again taken up the question of the social chances of douchebags. Do douchebags really succeed, or are they ultimately undermined by widespread agreement of their douchbagginess?

To be clear, douchebags are not just regular assholes, but that particular species of asshole who is actually successful by most measures—they are good students, group "leaders," widely known (if not universally loved), and often attractive. Their problem is a certain lack of humility and restraint, a certain tendency to rub their status and accomplishments in people's faces, or announce their ambitions too loudly. They are the stereotype of frat boy aspiring i-bankers. In a culture that was less in love with worldly achievement, or less encouraging of the fusion of work and social life, they might be rejected out of hand. But, because we* frequently have conflicting values about what constitutes success, we have more trouble with them.

Maybe they're just really good at life, and we're jealous because they excel in all the things at which we struggle? They network practically in their sleep, where we must continually work at maintaining our handful of friendships. They assert themselves boldly where we constantly question our own convictions. They find time to do everything where we can barely finish a book a month. So, when they do things bordering on the douchebaggy, like call up important people they barely know whose attention they don't warrant to "get career advice," we are torn between resenting their presumption and admiring their gumption. [I tried to find some non-rhyming replacement here, but failed.] Maybe that really is how to succeed? Maybe I should do that? we think. (Ok, obviously by calling them douchebags, I am killing any real ambiguity there might be about this. You will have to bear with my lame rhetorical skillz here.)

Last spring, my roommates and I discussed this question in light of my recurring fear that the various douchebags I meet might actually be modern incarnations of Ben Franklin. After all, Ben Franklin, who was chided for his conspicuous lack of humility, turned out to be not just a small-time success, but a Great Man. If you ever want to prove that some idea is American, all you need to do is find it in the Autobiography. Where do we draw the line between a hero and a douchebag, I asked. My roommates thought this was much less ambiguous than I was making it out to be, plus they were not obsessed with Franklin like I was at the time.

But if it were really so clear when a douchebag is a douchebag and not an admirable and enviable person, why would people unleash such fury on some petty douchie who has done absolutely nothing to harm anyone? Clearly, he is a laughable douchebag. Equally clearly, he does not deserve to have his character assassinated in a massive public forum like Gawker for it. I think the Cleveland school shooting may actually have generated less outrage than this guy's absurd email to some chick on Match.com. Why would this happen? (Aside from the obvious answer that Teh Internetz is a skewed world.)

I think people feel vindicated when they can clearly establish that one of these ambiguous creatures is actually a bona fide douchebag. The crux of the douchebag strategy is to appear to be a mensch when you're really a skeeze, and when we finally decide that a douchebag is a douchebag, we still have to debunk everyone else's belief in their greatness. This is no small task, especially since douchebags are not typically people who commit outright crimes or even actively offend us. They are just really irritating, and undermine our sense of appropriate humility and restraint. We need this sense of balance confirmed by agreement on who is a douchebag. Email guy is a douchebag. Aleksey Vayner is a douchebag. They totally overweaned their ambition. Score for the unprepossessing! (Also, we are horrible people and love to celebrate our collective ability to hate someone really a lot and in a snarky way, hence the popularity of Gawker in the first place.)

*And by we, I obviously mean me.

UPDATE: I was considering this further, and it occurred to me that it's not fair to assume that a douchebag is necessarily a male. Most of the douchies I've met are, but some are also douchebaguettes.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

i has a secretz

One of today's lolsecretz looks familiar.

One day, I may be able to promote great personal achievements, but for now, I will promote my own lolcats. kthx.

UPDATE: More secretz!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Submitted for your consideration: Who is an adult?

The responses to the following question posed to 20-somethings in the early 2000s (from Arnett/Emerging Adulthood):
"Indicate whether you think each of the following must be achieved before a person can be considered an adult."

TOP FOUR ITEMS (% Indicating "Yes")
Accept responsibility for the consequences of your actions - 93%
Decide on personal beliefs and values independently of parents or other influences - 81%
Become less self-oriented, develop greater consideration for others - 81%
Financially independent from parents - 74%

BOTTOM FOUR ITEMS (% Indicating "Yes")
Become employed full-time - 26%
Married - 15%
Finished with education - 15%
Have at least one child - 14%

At the same time, only about 57 percent of people aged 18-25, and 70 percent of those aged 26-35 consider themselves adults. The rest say they both are and aren't yet adults.
Alex and I have spent a lot of time debating these responses. Alex thinks that the choice of subjective moral benchmarks for adulthood instead of concrete events is basically a good thing, whereas I think it's troubling. She points out that what really identifies these responses is their individualistic view of adulthood; that it's about individual attainment of certain goals rather than an understanding of one's relation to and need for other people. I think that it might be nice that people venerate adulthood so deeply that they identify it with such lofty moral accomplishments, but at the same time, I wonder if making such accomplishments the prerequisites for adulthood might put adulthood out of the reach of many people? And if irresponsible, selfish, philosophically inconsistent people are just people who haven't reached adulthood yet (rather than flawed adults), should we hold them less accountable for their actions, like we do children?

I wonder if holding up these morally demanding benchmarks for adulthood is a way of actually shirking responsibility, or putting it off until a vague future point when one feels "ready" to accept it. Alex points out that, once you have children, you pretty much have to live up to the first three benchmarks or you'll be a bad parent, and my boss claims that, in fact, once people do have children (assuming they're not teenagers who are getting knocked up), they stop entertaining these dippy notions about "what it really means to be an adult" and just consider it a done deal.

Thoughts?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The friend application period is closed

Recently, I decided that I was done making new friends. This might seem like a premature decision, especially given that I currently spend all my non-internet based time with My One Friend in Washington, and it sometimes happens that My One Friend's interest don't coincide with mine. For example, Seb doesn't shop, and he is opposed to going to see both the Edward Hopper exhibit at the National Gallery and Darjeeling Limited with me. (Seriously, what use is having One Friend when you can't agree on these basic activities?)

Nonetheless, I am done making new friends. Everyone I meet in Washington is attractive, well-educated, and nice (AWEN). They're all very friendly and ask about my university, my job, my future plans. I ask them similar questions (though I can admit no great interest in their responses--oh, you went to Cornell too? that's very nice). After this, I can't think of anything else to talk about. We drink. We part. I never contact them again. At work, this happens on a daily basis, minus the drinking. My office seems AWEN, and I don't actually understand what their jobs consist of. I could discuss this with them, but I don't think it would improve their perception of me if I confessed my ignorance. And what if I asked, they told me, and it turned out to be boring and incapable of generating further conversation? It is safer to stay quiet. My roommates could also be befriended, but they are also very AWEN. Conversation is sparse. Sometimes we discuss chores, or television, but I never know enough about what's on TV to carry a conversation. If I invited them out, I sense that they might accept, but the evening would be silent, so that's probably inadvisable.

Maybe if everyone weren't so perfectly AWEN, and instead they were a little neurotic or maladjusted (and not just in a self-consciously cute way), I could find something to talk about with them. Like "In the Penal Colony"? What is that about? Or whether Philip Roth is worse than Saul Bellow? Or how otherkin is, like, the most absurd and terrifying symptom of our internet future ever? Or whether there can be Being outside New York City, or are we trapped in a permanent Becoming? If AWEN people think about these things, they don't seem interested in spontaneously sharing their thoughts with me. And it's a lot of work to coax these things out of them, work that seemingly requires all kinds of charisma that I don't possess.

Besides, I already have enough friends to keep track of; they have just conveniently dispersed themselves all over the world. And whose fault is that?

EDIT: In response to your concerns, dear readers, I still like you. I just hate everyone I haven't met yet.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

An open letter to the NYT Magazine, 2007 college issue

Dear NYT Magazine,

This story is a joke, right? What would Miss Perfection's insane mother have done if her overachieving superstar daughter had only gotten into all the schools she applied to, but hadn't gotten a full ride? Would she have denied her the opportunity to attend college at all? After all that "application station" effort? Because the tuition would stretch their meager, upper middle-class finances? Obviously not. She would take out a second mortgage, sell the car and the dog, and highlighted loan repayment deadlines on a large Staples calendar bought for the occasion. So why the drama?

You just wanted to paint a portrait of crazy people, NYT Magazine, and pass them off as typical. But I know you're secretly laughing at the Devlins, and I know this because the URL for the article page is "neurosis.html." You thought I wouldn't notice that little sleight of hand, didn't you? Well I did. I know that, sitting in your cubicles in New York, you are chuckling softly to yourselves, legs propped up on the desk, thinking how witty you are for making a buck off America's college fetish. Combing it with America's equally vigorous parenting fetish. Two bucks. You are so clever, NYT Magazine.

However, after this tale of horror and doom, you may wish to reconsider your decision to publish the actual writing of these wunderkinds. Because they suck, NYT Magazine. These people are crappy writers and lazy thinkers who cling desperately to platitudes about life being "what you make of it" and rage against the over-commercialization of their tender little souls, completely oblivious of how much they themselves have contributed to it. Basically, NYT Magazine, they are just like me. And when they are as dumb as I am, how am I supposed to believe that Miss Perfection of the "neurosis" article actually exists?

Better planning next time, NYT Magazine.

Sincerely,

Miss Self-Important

Monday, October 01, 2007

Brooklynland

The weekend in New York went well. It could've been better if I weren't worried about this Arendt thing, but I'm starting to see that worry, neurosis, and minor setback is going to be my ever-present companion in life rather than simply a temporary college-related disorder. The alternatives are grim--a career as a barista at Starbuck's might relieve my constant dread of incomplete projects.

Friday night, Julia and I went to a UChicago young alumni reunion at a place where the music was excessively loud as though to encourage us to spontaneously grind against each other. An odd choice for a U of C event. However, Chicago's newly-acquired immense wealth means that there was an open bar to ease us into the evening. I was able to strike at least one person off my I Know Everything About You From Your Blog Even Though We've Never Met list though, which was nice.

The next afternoon, we toured key areas of Brooklyn--Park Slope, Williamsburg, and Brighton Beach. Babies and puppies were omnipresent, though not in Brighton Beach. I do not fully understand the phenomenon of Park Slope. Julia says that it's not a new thing to raise children in the city, and Phoebe says it's an outgrowth of the Upper East Side, which ran out of space. I, on the other hand, am inspired by my recent discovery of the shocking republicanism in FDR's New Deal speeches (ask, and I will expound), and think this is some new manifestation of civic republicanism. Think about it--the public-ness (ok, in the form of stroller socialization, but still), the civic engagement (ok, in the form of recycling, but still), the effort to restore an idealized past of the location. (These might also be signs of incipient totalitarianism, but let's sideline that possibility for now.) The emphasis on raising children is key to all this. (Whereas the obsession with buying stuff to represent your lifestyle is a problematic outlier.) Anyway, the theory is still nascent and unformed (uninformed?). I really don't understand how such a baby density arose.

Brighton Beach was an extremely discomforting alternate reality--my life had my parents moved to New York instead of Chicago. It was a little too intensely Russian for me. We had a difficult time finding lunch in Brighton Beach, largely due to the fact that everything looked either filthy or offered such delicacies as "boiled cabbage and potatoes" on the menu.

Or, "scrambled eggs with stuff." We did end up eating at this place though, and allowing for our decision to pass on the veal tongue and the "rock of lamb," what I did get was pretty good:


Compot.


And blintzes with caviar. (Julia was disgusted by this, but this is because her tastes are underdeveloped.)

Then we wandered around some more, and discovered some other excellent culinary options we'd missed:


And a bookstore boasting the following neighborhood niche:


The rest of the trip was spent variously eating, partying, meeting up with a high school friend, and schlepping back to Penn Station. Now I'm back to work and worrying. Life is good.