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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

New meaning for the postmodern babies tag

The Manual for Postmodern Childrearing, undoubtedly the best thing you will read today.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Every day is a new heart attack

The end of the world keeps interfering with my dinner plans.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Reviews of books no one cares about: Children's Literature: A Reader's History

I have this recurring nightmare about grad school in which I spend seven years in the virtual (possibly also real) company of child liberationists. Have I talked about child liberationists before? Probably, but I am too lazy to search my own archives. If what you were interested in is how childhood reflects political authority, then of what use are people who cop out and say there is no authority, so let the children be free? None. (Actually, maybe the problem is more that people who are really into Foucault have blurred the distinction between authority and power, created all kinds of faulty logics, and mistakenly let the children be free. Either way, bad news: the children are free and you should run for your lives.)

This is especially a problem when academics get their hands on children's literature and, because understandably Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day isn't Ulysses in terms of grist for the literary interpretation mill, they are reduced to grinding out conclusions about how it reinforces sexist, racist, hetero-normative, and imperialist worldviews in order to demonstrate that studying children's literature is a Serious Field of Inquiry. The argument has to rest on subconscious perceptions of these things, since no nine-year-old reading Kipling is going to turn to his parents afterwards and say, "You know, mommy, I think I'd like to take on the white man's burden and administer an Oriental colony full of savages, please."

I'm not averse to the possibility that children do attend to these things subconsciously or implicitly, particularly where the offending ideas are very explicit (and Babar the Colonialist is definitely not explicit--what American child even knows what a colony is when he is 6?). But there's no way to demonstrate that Kipling makes children imperialists, since the child who absorbs Kipling's imperialism and denies it because, as an adult, he can't recall learning imperialism from Kipling only suffers from this problem because Kipling has made him such a thoroughgoing imperialist that he can't even remember when his affliction began. See how useful that was? There is good reason to suspect that the analysis of the professional academic might not be the best guide to the reading mind of the child, but how can we know what the child does absorb from these stories?

These are problems. Seth Lerer's Children's Literature: A Reader's History does not resolve them, but it is nonetheless marvelous. Really. My point in the above disquisition was only to convey my deep suspicion of academic studies of kid's books, which almost necessarily over-critique the obvious, and start from dubious assumptions, like that which holds that children's authors want to enslave their readers by teaching them manners and other burdensome rules of adult life. But Lerer does not have this problem. His history assumes that all the great children's authors have succeeded in teaching basically good things to children, things which will help them grow up successfully into the world of adults, and that growing up is a good thing.

I'm a little doubtful of Lerer's readings of some of the earlier works, like Aesop and Augustine. I'm not sure he (or really anyone) knows enough about the context in which these stories were read by Roman and medieval schoolchildren, and when he doesn't have much to say, he fills space with cloying linguistic metaphors for life, so that, for example, the bigger meaning of The Adventures of a Bank-Note: "Our offspring are our banknotes. We put stock in them, we hope the redeem us. They have value, they are money in the bank..." Or after describing an ambush scene in Winnie the Pooh: "Like Pooh and Piglet, or the young boy in Treasure Island...we are all ambushed by imagination." Let's just say that there is a lot of eye-rolling and facepalming to be done in the first few chapters.

But then he starts into the influence of Puritanism on children's literature and goes forward chronologically from there, and the bad metaphors are (mostly) replaced by really interesting readings of the really big themes that child readers would themselves plausibly see--the omnipresence of lists and categories in children's literature, the islands and explorations of boys' books, the connection between philology and fairy tales, between the overflowing of culture and ironic YA lit, nonsense and the idea of childhood imagination, and the best chapter (I am biased by my own childhood reading, obviously)--Theaters of Girlhood--about the tension between performance and authenticity in girls' books:
That girls are always on the stage; that being female is a show; that there is always, as the girl grows up, a tension between staging one's behavior for the delectation of others and finding inner virtue in devotion to the family or to learning...Should the girl pursue a life in public or in private? Should she place desire over duty? How can she avoid the temptations of applause to find true fulfillment in good works or small devotions?

...The literary fictions I have explored here all figure forth ideals of a creative life. The girl may grow up as Jo March, absorbed and writing, chronicling stories of her family, putting away the old hunger for the stage in favor of the pleasures of the book. She may, by contrast, grow into Anne Shirley, learning to master her theatrical impulses, bringing a bit of floral drama to the otherwise dull, simple lives of her adoptive family. Or she may grow up into Mary Lennox, a stage manager of human growth, playwright and director of men.
In case you are wondering, no one grows up to be an actress, possibly because we are still Puritans, a thread that Lerer also follows diligently. (And we know how I love this thread.) Most of these thematic explications successfully walk the fine line between absurd hyper-critique and statements of the obvious that call into question the validity of children's lit as an academic source in the first place. And this is actually pretty hard to do.

Also, this book made me reconsider my plan to write Straussian chick lit in favor of Straussian children's lit. So it wins.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Back in MY day, we drank vats of oil for breakfast and never gained a pound

In what is perhaps the most simultaneously self- and other-loathing article ever, the NY Times finds Greek children to be not just "overweight," as it calls American flabsters, but positively bulging--"husky," "stocky," "chunky." Well, 9-year-old Maria Loukakis of Kasteli, Crete, now everyone in America knows that you're kind of a cow. And PS: that spanokopita is at least 300 calories. (For the record, I Nexised this, and the NYT never uses the term "chunky" to refer to specific American children.)

But it's not really her fault; it's ours. You may not have been aware of this, but in the golden age of Greece, before America spread its greasy curly fry-shaped tentacles across the Atlantic, all Greeks were actually supermodels. Yes, even though their average height was about 5 ft, and they were often starving, those were good times. Remember when we had to subsist off of onion bulbs from the garden during the Civil War, and the communists kidnapped our child and brainwashed him? Such a healthy ratio of greens to meat we had then! That was before the loss of innocence ushered in by candy stands at the supermarkets (and supermarkets themselves). Rue the day that chewing gum came to Athens!

While this article makes no mention of internal trends that might lead to increased obesity like urbanization, economic growth, sedentary lifestyles (hello, sitting on this park bench for three hours is not exercise?), it is very concerned with American food imperialism in the form of "fast food." Ok, so I've never been to Crete, but I've been to boring small towns in mainland Greece, and I never saw a hamburger outside of the McDonald's and Goody's chains. To be sure, there was tons of fast food, and it consisted almost entirely of souvlaki, gyros, and what Greeks call "spaghetti," but is more accurately a plate of cold noodles floating in ketchup. Thanks probably to Greece's protectionism, non-Greek brands are, as a rule, pretty expensive, so the cheaper and more convenient options are national. Fast food in Greece is Greek fast food, not the Greek arm of America's evil plan for world domination through Big Macs. Sorry fat Greek people--it's your own fault.

As for the fabled Mediterranean and other magical European diets (cigarettes, croissants, etc.), this is really Phoebe's domain of comment.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Roommate correspondence

Instead of the usual cat crying for food yesterday morning, I woke up to this email from Nostalgic Fratboy Roommate:

Nigel ran outside when i left just now. Hope he survives. We are starting to bond!

Turns out that Nostalgic Fratboy Roommate accidentally(?) let the cat out in the morning before I got up, couldn't catch him (or, more likely, didn't try), decided that the best way to rectify this situation would be to send me an email that I wouldn't see for another two hours, even though I was in my room upstairs, and then leave for work. This gave Nigel a lot of lead time to run the hell away, and I had to spend all morning and afternoon looking for the beast (and meeting many of my neighbors). Finally, he decided to come out of his hiding spot and perch on my lawn, looking quite pleased with himself. I wrestled him back inside the house, but he managed to shred my dress in the process. I rubbed him down with a wet towel in retaliation. We are almost even now.

Roommate's response to all this? "Should i call animal patrol?"

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Technology fails me

My mp3 player died, my laptop is dying, my cell phone doesn't seem capable of receiving calls. I got a new mp3 player, and it died within five minutes of being turned on. Science fiction said we would have flying cars by now, and I can't even get this 2-oz piece of plastic crap to unfreeze. Where is the technological progress!?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hypothetical conversations I might have with my roommates, if we talked about how they live their lives

Me: So what are you doing this weekend, 27-year-old defense analyst roommate?
Roommate 1: I'm thinking of inviting some people over, getting a keg, playing beer pong, and trashing our house, actually. How about you?

Me: It's 2:30 AM and the fire alarm has gone off twice in the last 30 minutes. What are you doing?
Roommate 2: We got really drunk and decided we needed to cook these shrimp skewers RIGHT NOW, preferably on the stove, so that the wooden sticks could catch fire and repeatedly set off the alarm.
Me: That is interesting. And why are you screaming?
Roommate 2: There is a giant praying mantis on our kitchen wall and we don't know how to get rid of it.
Me: So there is. It looks to be about a foot long. Good luck with that.

Me: Our roommates threw a party last night. That's why there are glasses buried in our backyard, and charred shrimp on the stove, and the floor is covered in potato chips, which the cat is now eating.
Roommate 3: I will kill them.
Me: I will help you.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Brief glimpse of daylight, then back into the cave

I started filling out an application for grad school today and, after selecting "white" in the race box, was directed to the following options:
Please indicate ethnicity:

White:
- White - Other
- White - Unspecified

Other:
- Unspecified
Does anyone have the vaguest idea what this even means? How are any of these ethnicities?