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Friday, December 31, 2010

Picking up the resolution thread

I skipped last year due to grad school-induced life malaise, but this year low-ambition, self-replicating resolutions are back. They are:
1. Finish my MA.
2. Read more, play cell phone Mah-Jong in the library less.
3. Write more, using fewer words.
4. Finish furnishing my apartment.
5. Be less unhappy a year from now.
Optional 6: Finish War and Peace.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More considerations on YA lit

As promised, I read my former classmate's YA novel over Christmas. As a frequent browser of the Barnes and Noble YA section, I bring you this and other news from the trenches of market-researched girldom:

Vampire sex mush is still in, and now even has an entire sub-section of its own called "paranormal romance." Melodramatic amoral "realism" is also still in, despite having probably exhausted its credibility. You know, the books where an innocent, straight-laced girl drinks one beer at a party and then ends up pregnant, a heroin junkie, and DEAD IN A GUTTER? Do girls still like these books? The convention is already 40 years old--authors too timid to suggest that maybe some adolescent behaviors are bad in principle, that they reveal a lack of restraint and prudence, say that make you a bad person, so they invent incredible (and, needless to say, incredibly unlikely) consequences to warn girls away from them. If conscience doesn't punish you for drinking that beer because conscience is too moralistic and the author doesn't want to seem judgmental, then the wrath of nature must. It seems like this illusion should wear off once girls realize that ending up pregnant or dead from a couple of beers is not, in fact, "realistic." And most girls know this by, what, age 13? So who's left to read these books except 10-year-olds and emotional voyeurs? Which, come to think of it, really encompasses a lot of girls.

Anyway, Sales's book admirably avoids both vampires and melodramatic amoral realism. No one dies from beer or pot. It also avoids the vulgarity, hyperactive sexuality, and adulation of low culture of the other books it shares shelf-space with at Barnes. There is no product positioning and no female characters who are, at the age of 16, utterly consumed by their passion for some guy in the grade ahead. Instead, the characters spend a lot of time doing homework. And, as some of you know, one of my greatest media-related desires is to see intelligence established in some way other than the mere repeated assertion that Character X is really smart, even though she never goes to class, does any homework, reads any books, or otherwise demonstrates the slightest intellectual inclination. Often, such characters will out of nowhere ace their SATs as a convenient testament to their latent genius. Like the outsized lust that would fit better in a novel with a voluptuous woman in the arms of a man with hair that could plausibly be described as a "mane" on the cover, this characterization of adolescence is a fail. Smart girls do a lot of homework. The characters in Mostly Good Girls do too, so I approve of this, although it still isn't all that intelligence portrayed could be.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Trader Joe's, my love

I can't believe I was not alerted to this article before. In Chicago and DC, I liked Trader Joe's well enough, but except for a few select items (specifically, avocados and beer), it was still more expensive than the local supermarket chains. True, it had some cool options that Jewel and Giant lacked, but because it was out of the way and inconvenient, I rarely went. Then I moved to Boston, where even the local supermarket chain cost as much as Whole Foods, and suddenly Trader Joe's was glorious, conveniently-located, cheap food land of both excitement and staples. After my entire refrigerator and pantry was populated by its items, I too started to wonder what was happening in Monrovia, CA (also, where Monrovia, CA even was). Given that all of Trader Joes' products seem to be warehoused there, I imagined that the whole place was some kind of company town--a wonderland of cheap beer and sweetened dried green mangoes.

Last, year, Trader Joe's sold an extremely excellent paid thai starter-in-a-box that came with the fish-soy-tamarind sauce mix and the rice noodles, and required that you add in the fresh ingredients yourself. This was such a great idea! Do you know how hard it is to find tamarind pulp in a grocery store to make pad thai from scratch? SO HARD. On the other hand, do you know how gross and salty the pre-made, microwaveable pad thai-in-a-box meals are? SO GROSS. This starter was the most perfect pad thai thing ever made! And it made two portions each time--lunch AND dinner! So great! And then...they stopped stocking it.

This is the downside of Trader Joe's. You come to love some item, to entrust maybe all of your meal-consumption to it, to rely on it for all your sustenance, and then one day, it's gone. The pad thai starter disappeared over a year ago, but when I go to Trader Joe's now, I still visit the place on the shelf where it used to live, hoping that the benevolent will of the Trader Joe's Gods decides to have it re-stocked it while I'm not looking. In the meantime, I have to make pad thai from scratch, without the tamarind, which I still haven't found anywhere, not even Trader Joe's. It's not as good.

In defense of product turnover, I do love the new green mangoes, although unlike the pad thai, they can't become both lunch and dinner every day.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The new commercial domesticity: Miss Self-Important tries to make stuff

Many of the women I know (who are my age; I don't actually know very many people older than me, which I suppose is strange in its own right) have, since graduating from college, succumbed to some kind of hand-making disease which involves channeling primal housewife urges in every context where something could be bought, and insisting on making it instead.

Don't get me wrong; this isn't a moral scourge. In fact, the general trend to hand-make stuff led to the creation of Etsy (which is, notably, totally dominated by women), which is maybe the third or fourth greatest Internet Thing ever, after Amazon and Google and Lolcats. I have benefited a great deal from other women's crafting urges. But it's still a strange impulse to me, since my reaction to the post-college mode of acquiring things was not wonder at how many commercial products could be handmade instead, but wonder that I could actually afford to purchase commercial products. The awe and glory of having a real income for the first time in ever made me think, "I can now purchase soap any time I want, anywhere I want!", not "I can now purchase lye and glycerin and boil them for hours to make my own soap!" Making stuff that costs almost nothing at a supermarket is for poor people in places without supermarkets, not people with a weekly paycheck full of relief from necessity, like me (or, the me that used to get a weekly paycheck).

Friday, December 17, 2010

Best campus news story ever

Between muggings, fraud, and death, the Crimson brings you this delightful tale: 'Justice' Exam Blue Books Stolen From TF. This is precisely the kind of absurd scandal that should be rocking a college campus. What are the chances this actually happened, and the TF didn't just lose the exams somewhere and make up this story? I'm not sure, though it does seem pretty strange to break into a car and steal some undergrad exams, but not the car itself. Then again, maybe the exams are worth a lot in Asia...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Open letter to the writers of Buffy

Dear writers of Buffy,

For five seasons, you managed to avoid getting all after-school special-y on some Major Social Issue, and then in season six, you give us Willow's "magic addiction" that just happens to look exactly like a heroin habit? And suddenly it's all compulsion, lying, screaming hysterics, and "withdrawal symptoms"? Please, gag me with a spoon.

And what exactly is nature of witchcraft on this show? Because you're always telling us how Willow is such a remarkably powerful witch, but it seems like even amateurs can successfully pull off powerful spells when they try. Anya conjured a room full of bunnies and a sword-fighting skeleton, Jonathan made himself Awesome, and Dawn brought her mother back from the dead without a whole lot of practice. So why does Willow have to spend two years perfecting her pencil float? And all the supposed side-effects of magic, aren't they a little less convincing than you make them sound? Willow's spells never actually go wrong because she does them wrong or isn't sufficiently powerful. A little spark leaping from the fireplace and onto a pile of brambles is just chance, not side effect or error. The whole magic construct just isn't as logical as the demon universe or the technologically-animated evil constructs. (Yes, I did just say that.)

Also, is it just me, or does the new vampy magic Willow kinda kill the show?

No love,
Miss Self-Important

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tidings

Phoebe may insist that the one remaining criterion of American, assimilated, secular, modern, probably inter-married Judaism is the refusal to celebrate Christmas, but I don't feel particular beholden to such pointless crusades any longer. I, for one, love Christmas. I love lights and trees and songs and presents and huge retail markdowns. This year, to demonstrate my long-standing but never before enacted love of Christmas, I purchased this very small tree at Trader Joe's (shown with cat for scaling):
It's not much, I realize. I also realize that it's crooked and fairly ugly. But it's a start. Next year, bigger tree and nicer lights. And cookie baking! There will also be cookie baking! But not this year, because this year, there are finals instead. Aspiration is about 90% of the Christmas spirit though, so I think I'm doing it right.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Extracurricular activities in grad school

My department requires that second-year grad students produce the entertainment for the annual holiday party. Here is what my cohort produced. It will be of interest to only an extremely small audience outside the department, and in fact, I can't even identify all the faculty featured in it.

Also, last year's effort.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Devolutions

This may explain what happened to the Midway Review:
John Podhoretz, Jonah, and others, have done a very good job highlighting the incoherence of the “No Labels” project—it’s basically a way to label as unconstructive people who disagree with the no labels crowd. John Miller also brings up O’Sullivan’s First Law (“all organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing”) in this context.
Oops, my bad.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

An open letter to my high school newspaper

Dear high school newspaper,

Isn't the purpose of going online-only to actually post some content online at some point? Just a thought.

Some love,
Miss Self-Important

UPDATE: Oops, I hadn't realized it moved and became a giant blog. I can't bring myself to update the link on my sidebar to this.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

An open letter to the characters on Buffy

Dear characters on Buffy,

Do you really expect me to believe that you have lived in Southern California all your lives and only two of you know how to drive by the age of 20? And one of those two is actually an old British guy? Look--vampires, demons, trolls, hellmouths--all that I am willing to believe. But your inability to drive crosses the boundary of the absurd.

No love,
Miss Self-Important

Friday, December 03, 2010

Sleeping at Lamont

The Crimson responds to my despair with a photo series. Note the bare-footed guy! Not ok!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

I can has a better political theory of education?

I've been doing a lot of research this semester on homeschooling for reasons that, again, aren't really clear to me. In general, I think that public schooling is at once not as bad as it is made out to be and also much, much worse, so it's quite easy for me to endorse alternatives without getting all, "Down with the public schools!" about it. Barring huge changes in the labor market however, I doubt homeschooling will ever be extremely popular, which is all the more reason to let it be. This makes me a bad political theorist, since, as I've learned from my research, consequentialism is SLOPPY THINKING and we need RIGOROUS PRINCIPLES ROOTED IN TEH JUSTICE to evaluate every policy. However, the rigorous principle thinking seems to have led political theory into an abyss of craziness, wherein it rejects all private education as anti-democratic.

Much of this rejection flows from of the liberal academic fear of the religious right, which liberal academics pretend is a matter of abstract first principles rather than the merely partisan reaction to the last 30 years of American politics that it really is. It's true that a small but steady proportion of homeschoolers are actually lefty types who are totally in favor of all the lofty goals for children--autonomy, tolerance, self-motivation, etc.--that academic theorists think only public schools can effectively achieve, but these people are a collateral casualty of political theorists' fear of teh fundamentalists (a term that "in the literature," seems to describe anyone who identifies with a theology more conservative than Unitarianism). It is dangerous to let teh fundamentalists spend too much time with their children because they will teach them all kinds of horrible things, like hierarchy, authority, God, sin, and so on, resulting in a systematic suppression of their autonomy. Also, they are racists.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Writing the lobbing grenades paper

I'm almost finished with a paper--the first such that I've written--in which I undertake an energetic and sustained (40+ pages!) but unfocused attack on a school of thought I'll call "civic educationalism." This paper is pretty much a laundry list of every single error, contradiction, groundless assertion, and sleight-of-hand ideological insertion in a series of books and articles that I have no idea why I even read in the first place. The basic problem is that my thesis is that no one should be doing political theory this way, but that means that I make no argument until around page 39, when I offer some vague suggestions for other, better ways to think about these things, while crossing my fingers that something on pages 1-38 has actually convinced anyone. It is much like blindly lobbing a barrage of grenades over a wall, ducking while they explode, and going over later to check if any of them have managed to hit the target. It was kind of fun to write (at some point about 35 pages in, the momentum gained through such prolific grenade-lobbing may have led to my calling the authors names) but I wonder how effective this new tactic will be.