Saturday, December 31, 2016

Oh the places you'll go! In the germ-ridden cold and frost-biting snow.

We took Goomba to Chicago, where we all got sick yet again, but I think Goomba had a cognitive development spurt in spite of it because now she insistently repeats a word for both shoes and tissues - "sheez." She also learned how to "blow her nose" by putting a piece of paper or any available cloth (usually her sock) to her nose and aggressively snotting into it. I think we're pleased with the progress, though it's a bit sad that her milestones all revolve around the accoutrements of colds, evidently in imitation of the constant words and actions of her parents.

On the way home, I was flagged down by TSA for carrying a bomb in my orange, and subjected to multiple pat-downs and tests and re-tests of my belongings, which kept eliciting a blinking red bar from the machine reading, "EXPLOSIVES DETECTED." Yet it all looked so innocuous! Diapers, wipes, baby crackers, snack cup. Which one was the explosive? Many procedures had to be followed, which mostly involved being escorted back and forth between various cubicles in the security area. The woman who had detected my explosives missed her break because she "could not leave my passenger," which resulted in a Kafka-esque conversation between her and the agent who'd come to replace her for her break. 
"But what are you doing with her?"
"For what?"
"I don't know; the rules just say to wait. I can't leave until I'm done waiting." 
Finally, a certified explosives expert was brought in to find my bomb. He asked if I had any "organics," pulled out an orange I'd brought for the flight, and said, "Oh, it's just this. The machines can't tell the difference between food and explosives." Fortunately, we had come early to the airport so were not in danger of missing our flight on account of the explosive orange detection process. We then ate the orange without further incendiary incident.

So now we're back in Utopia, where it's at least 10 degrees warmer than Chicago, which really makes a much bigger difference when you're 31 and have to tote a kid in a puffy coat that doubles her size around than it ever used to.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Farming your own field*: Gilmore Girls kvetching, part 2

Now I've watched the whole thing and read the commentary, so what follows will obviously contain spoilers.

The first thing to say, I think, is that the reboot completely fails as a story taking place 10 years after the original ending. They should have just picked up the story two or three years on, disregarding the chronological disparity involved and covering up the physical aging of the actors with makeup. (Not that hard, really, considering that all three of the female leads could nearly pass for their original ages still.) If, as a viewer, you will yourself to think of the reboot as taking place in 2009 or 2010, almost everything will seem a lot more reasonable - Rory's affair with Logan, her professional floundering, the Luke/Lorelai relationship impasse and its resolution, etc. If it's true that the writers intended all these outcomes in the original series, then it follows that they'd only make sense in 2010.

So let's imagine that this show depicts the Gilmore Girls circa 2010. Lorelai and Luke have been back together for three years but, given their checkered marriage histories, are not sure whether to finalize the deal. Rory used her one-year campaign blogging gig to get a foot in the door and freelance in a few impressive venues over the past two years and is now unsure which direction to go for a permanent job - staff writer? professional freelancer with royalty income from books? lower-level editor with freelancing on the side? These are legitimate questions a 25 year-old journalist could be anxious over without being a washout. Characteristically weak-willed Logan was unable to stick to his demand for marriage or nothing on graduation day, and she in turn was indecisive enough to accept his invitation to continue their relationship under the radar. Richard has just died. See how that all seems so much more plausible?

In this context, the main question that the reboot sets up to answer is, now that we have all grown up and more or less attained our youthful goals (the attainment of which was the subject of the original show: Rory getting into Harvard-then-Yale and becoming a writer, Lorelai opening her inn, the multi-generational Gilmore family re-establishing a loving, if fraught, relationship), how do we remain satisfied in the lives we worked so hard to create? How do we settle? Not for something, which implies lowering our expectations, but how do we settle into expectations we've met? Because once you've got what you thought you wanted, there is always the threat of discontent, the danger of restlessness and underutilized ambition, which always wants growth and expansion, new things and more of them, and is never satisfied with the attainment of anything, no matter how intensely it was longed for before it was attained. Let's call this problem the Adulthood Question.

The Adulthood Question is a big part of Lorelai's plot arc in the reboot. She's made the Dragonfly into exactly what she imagined, but Michel urges her to expand, and she begins to question her own satisfaction. (And in the background, Sookie has left out of an inability to accept that what she had was in fact what she really wanted, although we have to assume that was more the result of McCarthy's schedule than the writers' wishes.) Lorelai's finally got The Guy, but doesn't know whether that's all there is to it; by getting The Guy, you get a nice, reliable "roommate," as Emily calls him. Emily's widowhood is a down-the-road restatement of the Adulthood Question - how do we live when the passage of time takes away the life we've settled into and learned to love? Even Rory, though she hasn't yet decisively established herself, has already largely become the person we saw her aiming at in the original show, and now has to decide only what version of her goal to select, though she has yet to address the family question.

If you continue to indulge my re-imagining of the reboot as taking place in 2010, then Rory's unplanned pregnancy is a very fitting resolution to her problems. As I wrote of the original series, this is a show that celebrates motherhood and emphatically argues that unplanned pregnancies do not have to ruin your life. In the Gilmore Girls, unplanned pregnancies jump-start adulthood for all of the women who seem like they might never reach it without a major intervention.

This LA Review of Books review (via Will Baude, whose post has a good round-up of other reviews too) is interesting, but I think ultimately wrong to see unplanned pregnancy as a mark of failure or unmet expectations in the show. That's only how Richard and Emily viewed Lorelai's pregnancy, but one of the main points of the original series is that they were quite bad parents to Lorelai - not as bad as Lorelai made them out to be, but certainly far too uncompromising and concerned with appearances. But pre-pregnancy Lorelai was hardly a diligent little bookworm on the road to Phi Beta Kappa at Yale like Rory. Teen pregnancy turned out to be a way out of a life she hated and into one for which she was suited. The other unplanned pregnancies in the show (Sookie's, Lane's, Christopher's wife's) are much better-received than Lorelai's.

And Rory's pregnancy at 25 (I insist!) occurs in a very different context than her mother's. Precisely because she gets along so well with her family, she isn't going to be raising a child on her own while scraping by as a hotel maid, but will have her mother and stepfather, grandmother, and we must assume the entire town of Stars Hollow, which still worships her, to help. Not only does her pregnancy not foreclose her writing career, but we're given reason to think it will focus and advance it. Given the timing, it's the pregnancy that finally motivates her to get serious and write her (probably slanderous, self-absorbed, Millenial stereotype-reinforcing) memoir. The fact that this pregnancy is not preceded by marriage like Lane's and Sookie's pregnancies were might give us pause, because what does it mean that you need a baby but not a husband in order to finally become an adult? But Rory is also her mother's daughter, and her independence from/inability to commit to men is an important continuity. (There is also the suggestion that Rory's future Luke will be Luke's own nephew, Jess - more continuity.)

So I disagree with Will and the LARB that the reboot is, or at least is supposed to be, dark. I don't think the point is that everyone will immediately celebrate Rory's pregnancy as though it were the most desirable event in the world, but the history of unplanned pregnancies in the show should give us good reason to believe that the characters will eventually be grateful for it. The Adulthood Question only has one broadly accessible answer, and that is children.** Children channel restlessness and underutilized ambition so that it doesn't leak out of you and ruin your life by making you perennially dissatisfied with everything you've worked for and always on the hunt for more and better. Children give you the novelty and open-endedness you desire, but in the form of someone else - a new person you bring into being, one whose future is still open, and who must be guided towards it by you. You have to stop worrying about your own ascent (is it high enough? is this as good as it gets? should we add a spa to the Dragonfly?) to launch theirs. So Rory's pregnancy actually solves apparently unresolved problems in the show by giving both Lorelai and Rory a new outlet for their ambitions (since apparently Lorelai won't have more kids of her own) while also helping to satisfy and anchor them in the lives they already live.

The Adulthood Question was actually set up in the original series by the problem of the Small Town Where Nothing Happens and Everyone Is Average. How can an intelligent, ambitious person be content in such a place? Most of the original show allowed us to assume that the children raised there were really destined for greater things: rock stardom (Lane), beat-revival poetry (Jess), Pulitzer prizes (Rory, obvs). But that assumption doesn't really work in the long run, or small towns would be unsustainable and everyone has only the choice between being a star elsewhere or a failure back home. There has to be some positive appeal of such a place, some reason to end up there instead of just beginning there and then moving on to greater things. I think the reboot does try to show that flipside by showing that no place can be big enough and exciting enough for the internally dissatisfied person who hasn't answered the Adulthood Question, while for the person who has, Stars Hollow's virtues will be clear.

The other triumph of the reboot was Emily, who solves her problems on her own, with only the help of her maid, while keeping a stiff upper lip and revealing vulnerability only rarely, and then only to her immediate family. Someone on the writing staff must be a great fan of midcentury WASPs.

All that said, significant problems remain. It was too much the parade of cameos, with most of the significant secondary characters from the original run appearing only in one episode and often only in one scene, giving us a quick update on what they've been up to, and then immediately disappearing again into the ether. The result is subplots of weirdly time-consuming but then eventually one-off things like the town musical, and a lot of loose ends. Does Paris go through with her divorce? Does Sookie realize what she's missing and return? Also, Rory's brilliant career idea to write a memoir is pretty lame. I completely support Lorelai's objections to it. A final important question: why didn't they use the old theme song until the closing credits? I loved that theme song as an opening. A definite minus in the reboot.

* "Farm your own field, don't try to farm the fields of others" is my husband's summary of the moral of Herodotus' History, which he repeats to me when I suggest undertaking some massive project completely outside my wheelhouse instead of focusing on all the projects within it that presently remain half-done. In Herodotus, this point is made by Cyrus in the final paragraph, when the Persians suggest to him, "Let us move from this land of ours - for it is little and rocky, too - and take something better than it. There are many lands next to us and many further off, and if we take one of these we shall be more admired for more things." But he tells them that their pursuit of something ever-better than what they have (which is what has already made them great at this point) will only result in their conquest by others.
** Another answer is the kind of superstar career where you go from one important and all-consuming project to the next, and so always have a newer and bigger thing on the horizon. But that kind of life is not open to most or even many people, including most Yale graduates, however enthusiastically they might believe otherwise while they're at Yale.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Utopia, VA

Despite my prolonged blog silence, I am still alive and everything is fine. We finally left nihilistic Southern California and moved back east in August, I started a new job, we put Goomba in daycare, where she caught every illness in circulation and passed it on to us, so we've been constantly sick, and it has generally been a very hectic semester.

But other than that, it's been great! We are now living in Utopia, a city built for Goldilocks. It's not too big, but not too small. It has all the amenities of a larger city: Trader Joe's, public transit, gourmet cheese, walkable downtown, a full array of coffee shop options, advanced medical care, absurdly specialized classes for toddlers too young to actually benefit from classes. But it has few of the drawbacks of a large city, strangers say hello to you when they pass you on the street, and it's situated in a very beautiful part of the country, disproportionately prosperous due to its connection to the university. In truth, it is basically a bubble, but I am well-accustomed to bubble-life and am not complaining.

The first bubbly thing that struck me about Utopia, is that there are very few luxury cars driving around (in San Diego, even our babysitter drove a Mercedes convertible), but every other car is a Subaru. We also have a Subaru, but we bought it in SD, where it signaled nothing. Indifferent practicality on a moderate budget, maybe. But here, the Subaru seems to be a real signal that one is of the university, or at least of the city's educated middle class, as against the people who drive either pick-up trucks or, worse, Detroit-made sedans. To be of this class is not to waste money on flashy luxury, but to invest in something cosmopolitan but not ostentatiously foreign, solid but eco-conscious, practical but also rugged, affordable but not actually cheap. What the Volvo is to private college faculty, the (less expensive) Subaru is to (public) Utopia University. Mr. Self-Important insists that I'm imagining it the whole Subaru phenomenon, but I am sure it's real.

The university is pretty great so far, a bit over-bureaucratized, but without the constant stream of low-grade scandals and crises that washed over a certain university in Boston. It seems weird now to read the school newspaper only to find no news in it on most days. 
Also, I have a new (academic) article out which I'm sure will shoot immediately to the top of your reading lists once you discover its compelling and even salacious subject: Locke's ideas about habituation.

So that is the life update to fill the gap since August. I do intend to blog again, now that the semester is over and next term's courses will require significantly less prep than this term's did.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

32 is the new 23: Gilmore Girls kvetching

I came out of hibernation just to complain about the Gilmore Girls. Well, not really, since I didn't mean to go into hibernation in the first place, but moving, teaching, child-rearing, and being sick all the time from the unceasing stream of baby germs brought to my home through child-rearing all got in the way of blogging this semester. More on that another time. But they did not get in the way of complaining about the Gilmore Girls.

I've only seen the first episode so far. I AM SPACING IT OUT, OK? I do not care that Netflix is not made for that. I do not care that you've already seen the whole thing and are in the process of preparing for the re-re-boot. Perhaps my complaints are premature, but oh well.

Ok, now, we did know this would happen. The basic problem is that Gilmore Girls is at bottom a coming-of-age show, and coming of age is not a lifelong process. Yes, sure, living is a lifelong process, and some people's adult lives are more interesting than others, but it's not all just a process of growing up and up and up until one day you accidentally fall down dead. So if you leave a coming-of-age show for a decade and then suddenly return to it now, everyone in it should have finished coming of age. What's left for the show to be about? That's the obvious difficulty with the re-boot.

Some characters can weather this difficulty better than others. Richard and Emily were of course in the best position to weather a decade off-air because they were always pretty much the only adults on the show, already settled in life and in their ways. The next candidates would be Sookie and Jackson. But death and scheduling conflicts felled both these couples, and turned Emily into an old version of needy, whiny Lorelai. So all we have left are perpetual-child Lorelai and the younger generation of the original show who were supposed to have used this decade to settle into careers and families and become dull, but have instead been essentially frozen in time for all these years, except for the physical aging.

First, there is the chronologically 32-year-old Rory who is at life stage age 23, exactly where the show left her in 2007. Somehow, despite having pursued her journalism career with unswerving intent and ambition since college, despite racking up impressive credentials and networking madly, despite covering Obama before he was cool, we meet her a decade later, single, homeless, and still floundering around in Journalism Career Stage 1: Occasional Freelancing.* Lane has also spent the past decade in suspended animation because, despite being married and having twins at the end of the show, nothing at all has changed about her life since 2007. She still lives in the same house and her primary occupation is still drumming for her apparently hopeless garage band, now with two little kids sitting in a corner of the house quietly coloring. (Convenient children! Can I have some like that?) Only Paris shows signs of having continued life during the hiatus, following the awesomeness arc her character created in the original show. Paris is plausibly 32: she has built a business (an empire, apparently, but what is Paris if not motivated?), married and had children, and is now apparently ready for divorce (but not really!). Everyone else has just aged in place.

I understand that it is irrational to take this failure on the writers' parts personally, but I'm exactly the same age as Rory, and I expect my real life and her fictional life to unfold in tandem, but they haven't, and that's sad. I do admit of course that, if they had, and Rory were a TV-version of me, the re-boot would be, objectively, really boring. But not to me!

Besides my main concern that there would be no good way to work a decade of time passed and life lived into the reboot without undermining the coming-of-age premise of the show, I had two other worries about this reboot: the first was that, given current cultural preoccupations, it would turn into an elaborate condemnation of the original show's often-positive depiction of New England WASPs. The second was that it would just be a series of cameos and inside-jokey flashbacks to the original series. Concern 1 has not proven to be relevant so far. Concern 2 is very prevalent.

*I am holding out hope for one redemptive story line that might come out of this very inauspicious beginning, which is that the reason that Rory has made no progress in her career despite mightily trying is that she is about to realize that she never really wanted fame and prestige in the first place, but her real calling all along was to come home and teach at Stars Hollow High or something like that. Such a shift would obviously be inconsistent after 27 solid years of wanting to be Christiane Amanpour (an aspiration which I've previously insisted was itself out of keeping with her character), but it would be consistent with the show as a whole.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Oe, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids

Another entry in the political uses of children in literature. This is a postwar Japanese novel that inverts Lord of the Flies to emphasize the innocent morality of children's society against the venality and cruelty of adult society. This also has a precedent, in Huckleberry Finn, for example, where Huck's naive sense of justice illuminates by contrast the sophisticated injustice of Southerners. Children are used as a kind of stand-in for or reminder of natural justice in moments when adult justice has grossly miscarried and adult society has failed. In Huck Finn, that failure is slavery, and in Nip the Buds, it's the war.

But not all children can be relied on to demonstrate this native moral purity, because if adults are corrupt, then surely some of their corruption will have rubbed off on their children. So it is only children who are somehow insulated from adult influence, and by extension from civilization, who can remain pure: orphans like Huck, or virtual orphans like the reformatory boys in Nip the Buds. Such outcast children appear to polite society as uncivilized and wild, but this is only because the adults have the wrong perspective and don't see that it is they who require civilizing. What they perceive to be wildness is in fact natural morality, to which they, in their gross immorality, have become blind.

To accept this device, you have to accept some version, religious or secular, of the view that children are born free of sin. And there are secular versions of this and its opposite: Hobbes and Freud are modern, secular proponents of children-as-sinners, at least in the loose sense that this kind of literature requires. They view the child as the father of the man, and the disorders of civilization as contained in miniature in the primitive, unrestrained passions of individuals. The Hobbesian, Freudian argument of Lord of the Flies is that the source of injustice and disorder is in our nature, and that the artifacts of law and government - adult artifacts - must be imposed on that nature in order to suppress or channel our innate tendencies towards injustice. Nip the Buds, and to some extent also Huck Finn, follows from the competing premise - that the child is naturally moral (and further, natural morality is good), though susceptible to corruption by adults. But where adult corruption has grown very great, we can still turn back to the instincts of children to guide us back to our natural state of goodness. 

I am at best ambivalent about this device. Empirically, I have little doubt that it is wrong, and that children (especially children in groups) are not naturally or instinctively good to others or one another in the absence of adults. But it has some literary merits: emphasizing the purity and innocence of childhood adult political injustice. And even Oe is not fully Rousseauian: in the end, the idyllic mountain-top commune of reformatory boys commits injustice when faced with the prospect of death. Still, it is a device based not just on a kind of noble lie about childhood's goodness, but one that potentially distorts the truth about nature and morality in order to heighten the poignancy of certain political injustices.

Also, I don't think I've ever read a modern parable of this sort - set somewhere unknown, taking place outside of time, populated by unnamed and half-drawn characters who represent moral ideas more than actual people - that wasn't, at bottom, kind of schmaltzy. The Lottery, The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas, The Plague, even Animal Farm. They're engaging, intriguingly ambiguous, highly-assignable course material to get students thinking about political theory without realizing it. But because they're ambiguous and sketchy, they always seems to end in an edifying condemnation of injustice arising out of a totally ungrounded hope that society could be better if we just put our minds to making it so. But things can't always be better, especially if the injustices are part of us or inherent in living together, and not just the unfortunate imposition of particularly horrible grown-ups.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Political correctness as a revival of etiquette

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a short talk at my advisor's book event in DC about the parallels between the recent speech-related demands from campus and online activists and the prewar rules governing social etiquette that the left had worked to subvert because they were hierarchical, artificial, constraining. Since then, I've come across two similar versions of this argument, from James Bowman and from Damon Linker. Linker writes about something I've been considering for a couple of years, since the Title IX controversy began:
Understood in this wider sense, we've been living through an extended libertarian moment since the early 1960s. Moral libertarianism presumes that no authority — political, legal, or religious — is competent to pronounce judgment on an individual’s decisions, provided that they don’t negatively effect other people. Thanks to this assumption, a grand edifice of inherited moral and legal strictures on sexuality have crumbled over the past half century, leaving individuals free to live and love as they wish, as long as everyone involved gives their consent.
Religiously traditionalist conservatives have rejected moral libertarianism from the beginning, while losing just about every political and legal battle over its spread. But left-wing dissent has been selective and sporadic...That may be starting to change.
Now, Linker overlooks the ways that the right has also appealed to so-called "moral libertarianism" during the past 50 years. What he's calling moral libertarianism is actually the principle of liberal neutrality, amenable to all partisans precisely because it transforms partisan demands into neutral rights. So, for example, in the 1970s and '80s, one argument for the legalization of homeschooling was that parents have a right to educate their children as they see fit, provided that they do not harm them or anyone else. Although this argument was advanced mainly by "religiously traditionalist conservatives," it was framed in a way that applies to anyone who wants to homeschool his children for any reason.

One of the most significant morally libertarian principles of this period has been the popular view of free speech. That view goes beyond what even the First Amendment permits, although First Amendment jurisprudence since the '60s has also expanded the limits of free speech. But I think the popular view is that speech should not only have no legal limitation, but that even moral or social sanctions are suspect. People shouldn't lose their jobs or even their friends just for expressing their opinions, especially their political opinions. Of course, this hardly reflects reality, where people are socially sanctioned for being disagreeable all the time, but it's a not uncommon aspiration. And it reflects a neutral or morally libertarian view of speech, even though everyone who holds it preferentially applies it to his own fellow-partisans. But, since it's pretty obvious why "free speech for my side only" is not sustainable, even partisans frame freedom of speech as a neutral right: the "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" principle.

Linker is down on moral libertarianism when it comes to sex, but I suspect he's more content with it in the realm of speech. But he's right that the moral-libertarian consensus, embattled as it may always have been, is starting to break down in every realm. In some cases - the pornography with which Linker is concerned, for example - breakdown will mean a change in the laws. But in others, it must mean a change in - or, more accurately, a revival of - manners. These manners, as both Linker and Bowman point out, are a distinctly "progressive" attempt at etiquette, but they're not in purpose and sometimes even in substance all that different from the etiquette that moral libertaranism overthrew. Before, for example, men had to avoid vulgarity and displays of sexual aggression around women, and now, men exactly the same thing. Before, this was to defend women against offense. Now, it's to defend women against offense as part of a vague strategy to liberate everyone from gender sometime in the distant future.

Of course, you could easily point out that since conservatives love manners, they should cheer all these speech demands made by social justice activists, and form a strategic alliance like the one between the anti-porn feminists and the socially-conservative right in the '80s. Perhaps. But as Bowman points out, there is another axis to consider here that runs perpendicular to the left/right opposition, which is the many/few opposition. Manners are inherently exclusive; they always preserve a division between mass and elites.
Social elites have always defined themselves—and justified their elite status—by their manners. I think we must have forgotten this since the word “uncouth” became, well, uncouth. Originally meaning “unknown” or “unknowing,” the word was in common use by the eighteenth century to indicate someone who was unfamiliar with the manners of what was once called “polite” society...The manners of the postwar American elite do not admit of any such overt exclusions, which are now seen as wrong and undemocratic. But the elite would not be an elite if it did not retain some means of excluding the uncouth—something that it has accomplished in our time by turning its manners into morals. 
This is what so-called “political correctness” is all about. Now we are meant to show our fitness for membership in the elite by knowing that you must refer to “people of color” but never, ever “colored people,” a locution which, dating from the benighted past, is deemed to be racist and offensive... But the dictionaries would not be doing their job if they did not warn you off committing such social faux pas as these and others with the discreet notation: “Considered offensive.” 
Offensive, you may wonder, to whom? Not necessarily to the members of those minorities towards whose feelings the dictionaries have become ostensibly solicitous. You may be sure that The Washington Post’s recent discovery that the term “redskin” is not considered offensive by 90 percent of the American Indians it surveyed will not be taken into account the next time the dictionaries are revised. That is because the feelings that matter are not those of the minorities alleged to be offended but those of the elite who have moralized our linguistic manners so as to be able to exclude the unwanted and the uncouth—that is, those who do not signal their fitness for inclusion in it by adopting the elite’s vocabulary. Lacking the means of excluding such people merely on social or aesthetic grounds, the elite must turn the social and aesthetic into the just and ethical so as to be able to exclude them on moral grounds.
Because they're elitist and exclusive, manners - progressive as well as traditional - are anti-democratic and run counter to the populism of both the left and the right. Bowman thinks the main challenge to the elitist progressive effort to revive a moral code of conduct is conservative populist opposition (or just Trump, our great savior). I'm not sure. Why wouldn't the deep tension within progressivism between populism and elitism, the effort to reconcile these into an inclusive and egalitarian code of conduct that will continually result in exclusions, issue in a more thorough demise?

Another plausible, completely different explanation for all this is David Brooks's account of "shame culture."

Friday, June 03, 2016

Marks of adulthood

In the years just after I finished college, when I was working full time and living in DC, I was very concerned with the question, "Am I an adult now?" I very badly wanted to answer in the affirmative and worked hard to make it so, but when so many other people your age are still behaving like children, it's difficult to distinguish yourself as invisibly more mature. So I was always wondering when I would reach a point where my adulthood would be incontrovertible. Then I went to grad school, where the adulthood project had to be aborted as a matter of necessity.

But now, it is a lot easier to see the marks of adulthood. For example, I am drinking a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Ever since I started drinking coffee in college, I used to wonder at decaf coffee drinkers - for why? Coffee doesn't actually taste good; it's essentially a low-grade productivity drug to help you read more books and write more words, faster. Drinking decaf coffee is like taking placebo aspirin for a headache.

But now I see things differently. It's like the hat/elephant drawing in The Little Prince. Children are defined as those who see the elephant in the gullet of a boa, adults as those who see a hat. Neither can satisfactorily explain their perspective to the other.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Love and Friendship

We went to see this, and it was very enjoyable, but I still think Whit Stillman is adrift. His first four movies were all commentaries on and against contemporary manners, and in this sense they had a purpose and an argument. But everyone (except me) hated Damsels in Distress, because they dismissed his apparently whimsical argument about the importance of dancing for social life and for bringing the young together in an innocent but auspicious way, and his complaint that we've failed to create a suitable substitute for it, to the detriment of the social lives of the young. (Notably, he made exactly the same argument Last Days of Disco, and no one was contemptuous of it then. I suppose it was more subtle there, but not that subtle, given that Josh has at least two monologues about the importance of disco for his generation.) But I think that, in the first place, Stillman is serious about this argument, and in the second, he's right, even though I am a terrible dancer and doubt that I would've personally benefited from a youth culture to which social dancing was central.

Anyway, it seems like the poor reception of Damsels unmoored Stillman. First, there was the Amazon TV pilot that went nowhere, though according to his Twitter, it's not dead and Amazon is just waiting for him to actually write the rest. Now, there is Love and Friendship, which is very clever and witty, but doesn't have any clear point. Or the point is just that Whit Stillman loves Jane Austen and wants everyone to know it, and he demonstrates his love by filling out one of her unfinished novels instead of adapting Austen's style and intentions to the social world of the present, as he had been doing before.

The filling is mostly good, with some dialogue that seems anachronistic (for example, at some point, one of the characters refers to a relationship "dynamic" - probably not an eighteenth-century usage), but there's something a little narrow and academic about the project. It doesn't have a broader argument or any real connection to the present. There is a kind of Machiavellian moral (or anti-moral) point within the story, that those who are always abuse friendship probably should not rely on the sincerity of their friends, and the manipulators are the ones who least expect (and so are most likely) to be manipulated themselves. There are worse things to make than a clever fable in period costume, but also better things, like Stillman's other movies.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Yes, this is the first time I've read Dostoevsky, even though when I was college, it seemed like everyone was taking a class on one or another of his books every quarter and then writing a thesis on him. I kept my distance from all that, just as I kept my distance from the Jane Austen enthusiasm, only to discover soon after college that Austen was in fact as good as the enthusiasts claimed. So sometimes Miss Self-Important is wrong, or too quick to dismiss. When I happened upon this old Commentary article by Gary Saul Morson a few weeks ago, I decided now was the time to be wrong about Dostoevsky. And I was, but not as much.

Here's the thing: Austen is for young women. Not exclusively, since no excellent novelist is so narrow, but I suspect that the greatest direct pleasure and edification to be gotten from her major novels will occur between the ages of 18 and 28. After that, you can still appreciate the wit, craft, morals, and aesthetics, but it no longer has immediate application to your life. (Come at me, geezers!) So Austen's popularity among college students is fitting. But what about Dostoevsky? Who is Dostoevsky for?*

Here is who Dostoevsky is not for: mothers. No one among his collegiate enthusiasts mentioned to me that Dostoevsky assiduously collected lurid stories of child abuse because they tested the limits of Christian faith, and he put this collection to use in his novels. Another thing no one mentioned to me is that after you have a baby, your capacity to read about little children suffering, especially at the hands of adults, falls precipitously. And moreover, the treatment of children in literature (or movies, or any representation) becomes disproportionately memorable. I think this is what is meant by "faint-hearted," which it is very uncool to be because it impinges on one's sense of detachment and irony, but which is a deficiency that can apparently be acquired in mid-life after many years of impeccable detachment and irony. No one mentioned any of this to me, but now I am mentioning it to you. So even though this was a great book in some cosmic sense, I think the main thing I will remember is the one not particularly important line from Ivan's Grand Inquisitor speech about a Turk tickling a baby to make him laugh and then shooting him. I will not quote it here, in the unlikely case that you too happen to suffer from the defect of faint-heartedness.

The book is about other things, like the Russian obsession with the decay of the aristocratic order with its nobility of character (of both the actual nobles and the peasants, for we must not forget the subtly-named peasant Platon in War and Peace) into cold, bureaucratic stupidity on one hand, and boiling, revolutionary stupidity on the other. And Christianity.

Maybe someday, once I've re-hardened my heart, I'll go back to the Grand Inquisitor passage because it was important to Arendt, and the book will work on me more effectively. But for now, all you get is this half-hearted post and no further interest in reading Dostoevsky.

*I don't mean to leave this hanging as some great unknown. It's pretty easy to answer. Dostoevsky is for young men alienated from modernity having a theological-political crisis. So, young men who read books.

Monday, May 16, 2016

High school impostors

Two new, bizarre stories in my favorite genre, one involving an old guy masquerading as a high school student, the other a high school student masquerading as an old guy. The fake doctor story is funny, but ultimately there isn't really anything so shocking about a kid pretending to be an adult with a good adult job. It's fraud, sure, but it suggests that society is working ok, instilling sufficient and even overweaning desire in the young to grow up and be respectable. But Miss Self-Important does love this defense of the kid, advanced by his father:
“He’s not out doing drugs, he’s not out trying to rob nobody,” Robinson said. “He’s trying to do something constructive, and if he did do something and the paperwork wasn’t right — he can get ahead of himself sometimes and he may have been trying too hard, but he had good intentions.”
The old guy who posed as a high school and also as a fake teenaged son to an actual married couple though, that one is much weirder, but it's hard to know from the reporting which parts of this scheme were his idea and which were his "parents'," and what the goal of the charade was. Was it just the most bizarre way to stay in the US illegally that anyone has come up with, or was there some other motive? The article has him playing the clueless foreigner card, so who knows. But since both of these stunts have already occurred in film (recall the great Drew Barrymore vehicle, Never Been Kissed) there isn't even anything ultimately original about even the old guy's weirdness. We can thank Drew Barrymore for her culturally pioneering work normalizing creepy old guy impostordom.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Notes on baby sleep

1. When strangers strike up conversation with me about the baby (the sharp increase in unsolicited stranger interactions is an additional benefit of having a baby), the order of their questions is invariably: what's her name, how old is she, how's she sleeping? I know baby sleep is a fraught topic, but how could strangers have any real interest in my baby's sleep patterns? I have no interest in anyone else's sleep patterns, not even my friends' (sorry). I oblige them with a response (pretty well), but the prevalence of the question continues to puzzle.

2. I actually don't know if Goomba is sleeping pretty well. I only know that she sleeps the requisite number of hours per day that the baby books suggest. But I also think the baby books are full of lies about sleep training. They're all like, "Just toss your kid in the crib and shut the door and plug your ears. Don't worry, she won't cry for more than 40 minutes! And she'll sleep through the night (except for the 90% chance that she'll wake up at midnight to eat). And within three days, you won't even hear a peep out of her when you put her down. She will practically be begging for naps! She will learn to talk just so she can say, 'May I please be put to bed now, Mother?' It's gonna be great!" This is a lie. It is true that Goomba has never cried for more than 40 minutes and that she sleeps for many hours after crying. But it is not true that she doesn't cry. "Sleep training" is a false advertisement. There is (eventual) sleep, yes, but no training. Or, at least the baby is not the one being trained. If anything, it trains parents to withstand willful baby crying and to enforce baby sleep. Which is fine if it's all that can realistically be achieved with a pre-rational creature whose driving passion in life is to be held all the time, but the sleep-training gurus should just admit that. When you read further into the books, there are some disclaimers about how maybe the magic won't happen quite as quickly as three days, and maybe you just have to keep at it for a while until the child finally achieves protest-free sleep. I suspect that will occur closer to 10 years than three days.

3. Up to about five months, Goomba would fall asleep as if by spontaneous collapse. There was no gradual drifting off like an adult, but instead, normal activity or even howling one minute, unconsciousness the next. This was especially funny in the cases of howling. Now she drifts off, in principle, except she mostly prefers not to sleep at all. I miss the days of spontaneous collapse. It was the cutest thing.

4. Before the instruction to put babies to sleep on their backs became widespread, it was apparently very common to sleep babies on their stomachs. But most babies hate "tummy time" until pretty late into their first year, when they're already rolling and sitting and therefore not stranded like sad, overturned turtles when they're put on their stomachs. How then was it possible that a majority of infants used to be put to sleep on their stomachs from birth? This question has been bugging me for many months.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

The prototypical American adolescent is from Skokie, IL

I re-watched Sixteen Candles the other day and realized for the first time that it takes place in Skokie. The school bus reads, "Maierhofer Bros., Skokie, IL" and one of the geeks wears a Niles East jacket. Indeed, the schools scenes were filmed at Niles East before it was torn down. I knew that many John Hughes movies had been filmed in the north suburbs of Chicago, but I didn't realize that this included specific places in Skokie. I'm sure it's been noted many times before that those movies generated the sort of defining image of American adolescence for at least for the next two decades, if not still today. Adolescence is suburban, middle-class, white, angsty, anti-intellectual, dominated by social cliques and anxiety about sex. Later teen movies tended to be set in vague southern California suburbs, which was probably more convenient given the location of studios, but continued to work from the basic template created by Hughes. It's kind of nice to think that the prototypical American teenager created by Hollywood, who has been so important for the self-understanding of so many actual teenagers*, was not the product of some generic Burbank soundstage, but was instead modeled on the particular inhabitants of, of all places, my home town.

It's at least better than having to identify Skokie as, "the place where the Nazis once had a march that almost became a Supreme Court free speech case," which is how I do it now. Henceforth, I will say, "the place where the epochal film, Sixteen Candles, was filmed."

*I can't exactly say this self-understanding is an especially good one, but since it's bound up with my home and my childhood, strong feelings of partiality prevent me from criticizing it too much. Besides, whatever the shortcomings of Hughes's movies, you must admit at least that Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a piece of comedic brilliance.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

On lullabies, part 2

During further research into "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," a song that Goomba loves even though it denies its narrator's scientific curiosity, I discovered what must be the greatest lullaby of all time: "Ah! Vous dirai-je maman." It shares its melody with "Twinkle, Twinkle," and a number of other children's songs across a surprising number of languages. But the main thing is that the words are brilliant:

Ah! Vous dirai-je maman
Ce qui cause mon tourment?
Papa veut que je raisonne
Comme une grande personne.
Moi je dis que les bonbons
Valent mieux que la raison.

All lullabies should aim at this standard of naivete and irony to depict how children and adults regard one another. 

Friday, April 01, 2016

Pressing questions of our age

Do we think that the Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats song, "S.O.B.," is intended to be a parody of doo-wop and acapella?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

In defense of unsafe spaces

Back in the Golden Age of Blogs, people used to write long posts responding to other posts on other blogs instead of posting their objections in a medium that makes anything over 50 words look like the infinite crazed rambling of a certified crank, or just clicking a like button that means anything from "I totally agree with all your words" to "I am glad that you exist and compose words, though I have not bothered to read any of them." Remember when online discourse was somewhat less groupthink-inducing? Yes, good times. For a brief moment, I would like to take us back to those halcyon days to respond lengthily to Jacob Levy's blog post/lecture in defense of safe spaces. Ironically, this throwback to old blogging norms recalls the way that the Golden Age of Blogs was an unsafe space in the sense of being all dispute all the time, embodied of course in the classic cartoon justification for staying up until 3 am to do it: Someone is wrong on the internet!

I think Jacob is wrong on the internet. Not totally wrong, but interestingly wrong, since I agree with his basic premises about the nature of associations and their limitations on free speech, but not with his conclusions. Jacob's defense of safe spaces rests on two different analogies:

The first is that universities are not simply small-scale replicas of the state governed by all the same rules (in particular, by the same application of the First Amendment), but rather complex associations with their own purpose and rules. Within the larger association of the university are smaller associations, including departments and student associations, that are perfectly within their rights to exclude individuals who do not want to pursue their purposes, or do not want to pursue them in the same way. They can argue with these objectors and defend their purposes and means, but they're not obligated to argue endlessly, and at some point can just turn their backs and demand to be left alone to pursue their purposes. Because of their ability to exclude those who do not share their collective goals, these associations are in effect safe spaces for their goal-sharing members.

This is pretty much the position that Northwestern's president advances when he characterizes Hillel as a safe space for Jews. Whereas formerly, we would say Hillel is the Jewish student organization, this argument re-describes it as the Jewish safe space in order to show that recent student demands for safe spaces are actually just requests for something that already widely exists and that we all accept the free-association rationale for anyway. In addition to student orgs, Jacob re-describes the entities we previous understood to be political science departments as political science safe spaces - places where chemists don't invade to call political science a not-science. Yet, if it's the case that student associations already were safe spaces, then why would students just now begin to demand safe spaces? There already are dozens of student affinity groups at every school, and no one is challenging their legitimacy. (Well, this is not quite true - in fact, the rights of some student groups to exclude are very much under dispute, but not the rights of the minority groups primarily at issue here.*) At the same time, why are faculty not requesting that their departments be re-described this way?

The second analogy, connected to the way that departments and disciplines can be seen as safe spaces for particular approaches to inquiry, is to the way that scholars require a respite from constant methodological dispute in order to get their work done. Students are just like scholars in their need for breaks from ceaseless dispute during which to work. Ergo, they need safe spaces, understood as spaces free of dispute.

Jacob's primary example of the defensibility of safe spaces is the case of the Yale student who told the resident master of her dorm, “I don’t want a debate; I want a safe space.” Unfortunately, this demand is one of the vaguest available. Let's assume Jacob's parsing of her comment is right and
she was saying was not “I want all of Yale to be an environment in which my feeling are protected.” She was not saying “I don’t want there to be debates at Yale.” She was saying “this place, this residential college, this dorm that you are the faculty member associated with, this needs to be a place where I can go catch my breath.” 
But here, the first analogy breaks down. A dorm is not an association like Hillel or a Black Students Association. Its purpose is to provide room and board for a number of randomly selected students who, prima facie, have no shared purpose beyond a desire to sleep indoors at night. So long as you are a student who shares that purpose, you can't in principle be excluded from a dorm for your other interests or views. At least, not any more than a Jewish carnivore should be excluded from Hillel because other members, even a majority of other members, are vegetarians. What would it mean for an association like a dorm to become a dispute-free zone? It's fine to insist that other students can't barrel down this girl's door at any hour of day and demand a discussion of Halloween costume appropriateness. Her room is a kind of safe space insofar as she always has a right to exclude people from it. But dorms also have physical common spaces and digital common spaces like list-servs. Should those be dispute-free as well so that students can use the whole dorm to catch their breath and have their feelings protected? Given that dorms are not simply student-run voluntary associations, how would that kind of mandate be enforced, and by whom?

The second analogy, of student safe spaces to scholarly breaks from arguing to get work done also faces difficulties. In the Yale case, Jacob claims it applies as follows:
At a large majority white institution like Yale, it can be the case that from the perspective of any given white student saying “well I think everyone should be admitted to university on their own merit and we should abolish affirmative action.” That’s the first time they’ve every had that conversation and they’re really into it. It is never the case at a large majority white institution like Yale that for any given African American student it’s the first time they’ve heard it. And when the African American students say “we want a moment in our day, we want a space on the campus where we can step back”. They aren’t saying “we want to shut down debate on campus.” They’re saying something that is perfectly within everyone’s range of reasonable emotional and psychological needs: “Stop boring me with this argument about whether I belong here or not, I have work to do.”
On this argument, safe spaces seem to exist to facilitate student productivity. But what scholars actually do when they take a break from methodological dispute is not to go somewhere where criticism is formally prohibited, but to temporarily tune it out. The entire time that I was writing my dissertation, other people were criticizing every aspect of it - the relevance of the texts I was using, the relevance of using texts at all, of political theory as a subfield, of political science as a discipline, etc. This included people in my own department. At no point could I force these critics into silence, but I could ignore them while I worked. Yet if that's all that a safe space is, then it's just an individual capacity to focus, and it needs no external enforcement. My department never had to proscribe certain topics from discussion in the grad lounge or ban written criticism of competing methodologies or designate certain spaces within the department "safe" for theory or statistics in order for us to do our work. In the dorm example, the analogy to scholarship would mean that students and administrators can talk about whatever they want over the house listserv, and any student can choose to ignore every word of it and focus on his work instead.

The reason this solution doesn't satisfy students is because what they want from "safe spaces" is not analogous to what scholars want or need in order to get their research done. They don't want a break from dispute, like a nap or quiet office, so that they can be individually productive.**  Infinite opportunities for such breaks already exist, and there is no epidemic of students accosting one another in libraries or at yoga classes or on the quad and demanding a debate about affirmative action here and now, so it's not clear why designated safe spaces are necessary to protect these already-plentiful opportunities for respite and recharge. That's also why we never hear about faculty requesting safe spaces where they can be free from, say, exposure to quantitative methods. If you want to be free from quantitative methods, you just avoid the methods workshop, which leaves the rest of campus a safe space. You don't need to officially designate a room next to the methods workshop a safe space from methods, where presumably no one is permitted to express a positive view of statistics. Breaks from dispute are individuated things we can all take all the time. They aren't safe spaces and don't require recognition as such.

When students ask for safe spaces, they tend to ask for official recognition from the university for some particular, usually political and controversial, view or position, and the official exclusion of objections to that position. In the Brown case above, for example, the safe space is a place where there will be discussion of rape but everyone must accept rape culture as real. In the Yale case, the request was (maybe?) that the dorm be a place where we can talk about what to wear for Halloween, but no one is allowed to defend wearing something deemed by another student to be cultural appropriation. In this respect, a safe space is somewhat more like a Hillel than it is like a scholarly break from argument, but even so, the analogy is incomplete. Hillel requires its members to be broadly sympathetic to Judaism, but it's otherwise ecumenical and requires no other commitments for participation. You don't even have to be Jewish. There are actually very few student groups whose membership is tied to holding one particular political position and being prohibited from voicing any other, because such groups lack broad appeal and because people are generally loathe to join groups that define themselves primarily by what members can't say or believe.

But if a safe space is just a request for ad hoc associative privileges by just such a group of monomaniacs - we the Rape Culture Believers of Brown want to reserve a room for our use tomorrow, or we the Yale Anti-Cultural Appropriation in Halloween Costumes Committee want to meet in the dorm tomorrow - then under certain circumstances, we can assimilate safe spaces to existing associative liberties, as Jacob claims. We might wonder though why these sorts of groups get to circumvent the usual process of organizing and receiving recognition as an official student group. We might also wonder if these same associative liberties could be applied in the other direction: if, for example, an equally monomaniacal group of students at Brown wanted official sanction to meet and discuss the arguments against the existence of rape culture in a context where no contrary views were permitted. Would that also be a legitimate use of associative rights to create safe spaces?

More to the point for free-speech critics of safe spaces though, do any of these associative principles apply to dormitories, classrooms, newspaper editorial pages, and other "spaces" open in principle to anyone who is a member of the university as a whole? Here I think not. These may not be spaces where full First Amendment protections apply (ie, although there are no legal consequences for plagiarizing an op-ed or launching an ad hominem attack on a fellow student in class, these acts may well merit sanction from the university). But they are places where I can't think of any reason that particular political arguments or positions must be pre-emptively proscribed in order to sustain the purpose of the association or the university.

* I do wonder what Jacob thinks about these sorts of limitations on free association. It's fine to say that universities need not be completely neutral about the purposes of associations formed within them. They need not tolerate a student chapter of the KKK. But if associative liberties are fundamental to complex associations like the university, should we be especially concerned to preserve them where we can, as in the case of single-sex social (really, party) associations?

** Jacob frames his argument about safe spaces largely in terms of productivity and distraction or annoyance, but the students themselves tend to frame them in terms of trauma and security. Such framing is also one of the primary objections to safe spaces: critics argue that controversial student speech does not actually threaten anyone's safety. I'd be curious what Jacob thinks about the rhetoric of safety and trauma invoked in conjunction with the demand for safe spaces. I think it shifts the issue quite a bit, as in the safety from exposure to quant methods parallel I draw above.

UPDATE: And then I checked my RSS feed and discovered that Megan McArdle had posted many similar objections five minutes before me. Golden Age of Blogs!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Spark, The Only Problem

For Christmas, Cheryl sent me adorable baby clothes, and, in order not to "neglect [Goomba's] mind," also included a copy of The Only Problem. As it happened, this intention was carried out rather literally, since I ended up reading most of the book out loud to the baby.

See, here's the thing: people are always telling you to stimulate babies from birth by reading to them. That sounds great in theory, but when you have an actual newborn in front of you, you will quickly see that reading is about the last thing it is interested in. It wants to be fed and changed and rocked and bounced and swung and and talked to and shown bright, noisy objects. And it wants these things all the time, except for the few minutes when it accidentally and very much against its will manages to fall asleep. Also, books for babies are extremely short and stupid. They're basically, "This is a dog. A dog is fuzzy. Fuzzy fuzzy fuzzy. The end." Even my five-month old has a longer attention span than that. Writing baby books seems to be a job that could be done more efficiently by robots than most of the things for which robots are actually used to replace people.

If you are trying to finish up your dissertation at the same time as having this baby in front of you, you will also find that, between dissertating and doing all the things the baby wants, you don't have much time to read anymore. So you might think that since you're supposed to read to the baby, but the baby's books are extremely lame, you may as well read her your own books. So that is what I did with The Only Problem. She seemed to enjoy it, in 20-minute increments, so it took a couple weeks this past winter to get through, but we managed.*

So, about the book. I found this one only slightly less puzzling than The Driver's Seat, which is by far the weirdest Spark novel I've read. In The Only Problem, you can see what is happening: the main character, who is writing a study of the Book of Job, is also simultaneously becoming a modern Job. But there, things become vague. In the first place, Job's losses are very dramatic - all his children and all his flocks, plus the boils, which Spark harps on. By contrast, Harvey, the modern Job, only loses his wife, and it is he who leaves her. She then goes on to become a violent but facile terrorist of the Symbionese Liberation Army variety, and he is caught up in the media and police circus that ensues. Maybe the public humiliation he suffers is the equivalent of Job's boils. But is his wife the equivalent of all of Job's children and flocks?

I've always read the Book of Job (and all the rest of the Bible) unimaginatively and straightforwardlyas depicting a very dramatic personal cataclysm, the worst things that can happen to a man, but Harvey's cataclysm seems more absurd than tragic, and his suffering does not seem especially great either.** On the contrary, he seems bemused and detached throughout the police investigation and publicity scandal. So is Spark's point that, being small people, our tragedies are necessarily small, and the real responses of good-natured people like Job who are well-disposed toward God would indeed resemble Harvey's slightly indignant confusion? Or is she mocking Job and challenging God herself?

In the service of the latter reading, Harvey's study of Job leads him to wonder in the end, when his own ordeal is done and he receives a kind of doubling of his previous good fortune (minus his original wife), "if in real life Job would be satisfied with this plump reward, and [he] doubted it. His tragedy was that of the happy ending." There is something Greek about this objection - it resembles Homer's veiled protest in Book I of the Iliad that the gods are blinded by their immortality to the gravity of human tragedies. To immortals, everything appears replaceable and interchangeable - flocks, children, wives - so that nothing is properly worth grieving. The happy ending is itself an illusion from the perspective of immortality (which is also the perspective of the author of fiction, since fiction takes place out of time). The happy ending is, sorry I took your sons and daughters, but here, I gave you this new set, one of whom, as Spark repeatedly points out, is literally named "Box of Eye-Paint," as if to underscore how petty this reimbursement is. Is Spark accusing God of heartlessness in his treatment of Job akin to the wantonness of the Homeric gods?

*When my husband walked in and discovered that personal reading and baby entertaining could be combined in this way, he proposed to start her on Is Administrative Law Unlawful? next.
** And by "I've always read," I just mean the one or two times I've cursorily considered it. I did take a summer course on representations of Job in Jewish literature though, but those also depicted recognizable suffering.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Dr. Self-Important

The epic East Coast trip with baby is done and I've defended my dissertation. One day, maybe I'll write a post about grad school as an experience (that you should probably avoid), just as one day, I'll write about pregnancy and motherhood as experiences (which you might consider undertaking). But not now. What I will say is that defending my dissertation was anticlimactic, and now that grad school is over after so many years, I hardly know what to do with myself and am full of absurd and unjustifiable nostalgia.

To assist you in sharing my melancholy about recent events, here are some photos of Cambridge and environs during the years I was there.

The view behind the department, 2012

Irving St., 2011
Chestnut Hill Reservoir, 2012

Charles River from the JFK Bridge, 2013

Cambridge St., 2012

Avon Hill St., 2013

Creative stumping, somewhere in Avon Hill
The time someone chalk-outlined the shadow of my bike very precisely and for no reason

I predict they will be as popular as their pizzas

There are too many platitudes to choose from, so why not combine?

A turkey

A baby raccoon

Inky, the sweetest outdoor cat that ever was

Friday, March 18, 2016

School pride II

Well, now my high school is all over it. I guess being a very important federal judge does not merit attention from Niles West, but getting nominated to the Supreme Court suffices to elevate you to the ranks of those who play on middling NFL teams.

Stroller fashion by city

In San Diego, the Britax Agile-B stroller is the most ubiquitous model. In DC, it is the Baby Jogger City Mini. In New York, the Uppababy. We'll have to see about Boston.

Stroller popularity is something I pay attention to these days. We are on a two-week trip up the East Coast with the baby, which offers ample comparative perspective. It also offers a very ill-timed context for her four-month sleep regression.

Monday, March 07, 2016

On school pride

My friend David recently brought to my attention the fact that one of the potential SCOTUS nominees, Merrick Garland, is a graduate of my high school. And my grade school, on further investigation. It occurred to me that, while this person was never mentioned by my school as a notable alumnus in whom students might take some pride, we were constantly reminded of Bart Conner, famous athlete of some sort, as the pinnacle of achievement. Since graduation, my high school's alumni publication has promoted as its exemplars an NFL player, a WNBA player, and, because sometimes something like brains can be just as lucrative as brawn, the guy who created and made his fortune by buying up all the one-word domain names on the internet in the early '90s and then selling them in the late '90s.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The progress of Holistic Admissions 2.0

So, how's that plan written by aliens from outer space to make elite college admissions about being a nice person going? According to the headlines of the college papers, it's going amazingly well. Everyone is totally behind it in spirit, and the report has convinced several elite universities to radically overhaul their applications by...adding a supplemental essay question asking applicants to describe their goodness.

And the rest of the report's recommendations? The stuff about capping AP courses and activities, throwing out the SAT, evaluating "students’ daily awareness of and contributions to others," and - my personal favorite - asking elite schools to discourage ambitious students from applying to elite schools? Well, it seems that those might take a bit longer to implement:
Fitzsimmons stressed that his endorsement of “Turning the Tide” did not mean the College is relaxing its expectations for academic rigor. In particular, he pointed to the report’s recommendations that admissions officers reduce pressure on students to take a large number of Advanced Placement courses in high school. 
“Academic excellence in all its forms is critically important,” he said. “There are students out there who relish the possibility of taking many AP tests, and it’s one of the things that gets them ready for work in college.” 
Similarly, while the report suggests that schools should reevaluate whether the SAT is a predictor of academic success and consider adopting a test-optional admissions policy, Fitzsimmons said Harvard is unlikely to make such a move any time soon. 
“We still find that standardized test scores are useful,” Fitzsimmons said. “One of the things that we hope does not get lost in the enthusiasm that people have for the report is academic excellence, measured a whole variety of ways, including by standardized test scores.”

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Oscar nominated short animated films

Every year, we go to the movies to see these, and nearly every year, the best one is robbed by a flashier but less substantive Disney puddlemuck. Last year, the best one wasn't even nominated but was merely "commended." Even though it depicted Louis XIV's court as fat chickens! And the best of the nominated ones did not win. But this year, I'm confident that the Academy's insipid judgments will coincide with mine, because "World of Tomorrow" is so self-evidently excellent that no one can deny it. I don't know if it's better than the best of all short animated films (which did win the year it was nominated), "La Maison en Petits Cubes," but it's pretty close.

One of the strengths of this bizarre and charming genre is that the time constraint requires you to compress details, and the result is usually something like a visual parable. For some reason, this results in many films about, basically, mortality. Maybe animators just ask themselves, "If I had nine minutes in which to convey one point, what would be the most important thing to tell people?" and always answer, "Death." "World of Tomorrow" fits squarely into this tradition of cartoons meditating on mortality, but Hertzfeldt has the courtesy to offset all the moments when you'd otherwise cry with a joke, so that you end up not crying at all, and not knowing how one short movie comprised almost entirely of stick figures and floating lines and circles can be simultaneously so funny and so sad.

On the other hand, the Oscar winner might be "Prologue," because wow drawing so good that it doesn't even seem to matter what the point is.

UPDATE: But then I watched Hertzfeldt's long animated film, It's Such a Beautiful Day, and it was totally unremarkable.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Department of Bad Ideas: Holistic admissions 2.0

There is a crisis afoot in America: way more "youths" report that happiness and achievement are more important to them than "caring about others." Now, why would anyone think happiness was a greater end than selflessness? That is downright Aristotelian. It must be stopped. But how? Well, since the thing for which all American youths strive is admission to a prestigious college, because they hope that this will lead them to happiness and achievement, we ought to manipulate the criteria for this admission to reward only those who strive selflessly with success. Or, since success is a form of achievement and they're not supposed to desire achievement anymore, let's call it a reward of reciprocated care from the college of their choice, previously known as admission. Instead of selecting applicants for their perceived intellectual aptitude and promise of achievement, colleges should select for perceived sincerity and promise of moral goodness. What could go wrong?

The problem with the SAT was that it correlated too much with family income, and the problem with AP classes was that they stressed students out, and the problem with extracurricular activities was that students did so many that it was hard to tell which were "heartfelt," and the problem with the whole process was that it didn't "measure true ability or intellectual hunger." It was all so reductive and admissions committees are no good at discerning "true ability" from it. But you know what admissions committees are really good at? Determining the relative heartfeelingness and intellectual hunger of complete strangers based on what they claim about their heartfeelingness and intellectual hunger in essays carefully crafted for an audience of admissions committees. Surely it is more difficult to fake sincerity and "passion" than to fake an AP exam score.

Where grades and scores obfuscate "true ability," limitations on advanced coursework and extracurricular activities will reveal it. Grades and scores are so arbitrary that “we might as well be admitting these people on the basis of their height or the size of their neck.” What sense does it make to admit people to academic programs based on their previous records of academic success? It is obvious that people who care a lot about others will be much more capable of studying genetics and French literature than people who merely did well in science and literature in high school. We knew this when we first came up with the idea of holistic admissions in order to evaluate the whole applicant rather than just his practically worthless academic aptitude. But even holism was not enough, since extra-curricular activities only take up a few hours a week, and what we want here is to find the individuals who aren't just thinking about college admission a few hours a week, but every minute of the day. That is why "the nature of students’ day-to-day conduct should be weighed more heavily in admissions than the nature of students’ stints of service." Next time you're tempted to cut gym class or not tuck in your shirt, just remember, Harvard is watching.

All this is great news for poor kids, who evidently cannot be expected to demonstrate academic aptitude, but who can still be nice and authentic. If they tend not to score as well on standardized tests, but do tend to take care of family members and work part-time, we can make college more egalitarian by making taking care of family members and working part-time a pre-requisite for admission and getting rid of the standardized tests. Problem solved.

The best part of all this is that we know it will work: parents spend years trying to raise virtuous children, but elite colleges need only "signal" that what they want students to care about is, well, caring, and the youth of America will comply practically overnight. Next year, 90% of the applicants to Harvard and Yale will have suddenly discovered that their grandma - or someone's grandma - needed a lot of care, and will have spent 10 hours a week taking her grocery shopping (as illustrated in the report), and will effuse about what a meaningful experience it was. Of course, they will only help grandma grocery shop out of a genuine and authentic concern for their community, and not because they want to get into Yale. That will just be an incidental benefit. Because as everyone knows, the best way to cultivate authenticity and genuine concern for others is through bribery and manipulation. And the people most susceptible to being bribed into all this caring just happen to be those who prioritize happiness and achievement. Hm.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"We’re seeing a real flight out of suburbs like Rancho Santa Fe"

There are many hilarious things about this WSJ article pumping up downtown San Diego as a walkable foodie valhalla, not the least of which is the cover photo of shirtless hooligans illegally skateboarding on an upscale condo development to demonstrate how classy the neighborhood has become. But I'm pretty sure that the image of a "flight out of Rancho Santa Fe" is the best. Try to imagine these poor, huddled masses, fleeing their unwalkable mansion developments with only their Birkin bags and the Lululemon hoodies on their backs. Their Range Rovers snake down the clogged I-5 South, strewn with the abandoned vehicles of refugees past, towards their last beacon of hope: the luxury high-rises of downtown San Diego.

Never mind that there are probably about five people in the entire county doing this, and all of them are quoted in this article. That's the definition of a trend article. Let us now consider the great attractions that the new and improved "city center" holds. It's "walkable." Which means what exactly? You can take a walk, just as long as you don't actually hope to get anywhere. Can you walk to the grocery store? Nope. Your doctor's office? Probably not. The local high school? Negative. You can walk to a number of trendy restaurants and to "touristy Seaport Village." I can probably walk to the airport, but why would I do that? Ah, but here is what walkable means:
A few months ago, Huey and Suzanne Antley sold their home in the northeast edge of San Diego and bought a 1,000-square-foot condominium in the Marina district downtown, a neighborhood known for its high-end condos, parks and touristy Seaport Village. The couple paid about $600,000 for their condo, which is near a park where they can walk their dog. 
Walkable means you can walk your dog in a tiny park. Of course, on the "northeast edge of San Diego," these people could've probably walked their dog in a five-mile canyon. But no matter. They are so excited about this that they're even considering ditching their car:
“We maybe use the car once a week for an hour,” says Mr. Antley, a vice president of a data analytics company, who works from home. “We’re kicking around the idea of buying a Vespa.”
Ah but if you work from home, you don't need to drive to work no matter where you live. With such flexibility, people looking for a walkable city experience could even move to a city that's actually walkable, which would not be San Diego. We're talking about a place where you can't drive more than five miles in any direction without having to get on a freeway to go any further. And you can't walk on the freeways. And come to think of it, you can't drive a Vespa on the freeways either. So maybe this couple should consider the building with the "boat-share program" mentioned in this article before they trade in their car, so they can have some means of leaving their walkable urban paradise to get provisions.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

How Kenny Chesney can help you select a spouse

If you listen to country music (which of course you do, because it is great), you've probably heard the Kenny Chesney song, "Down the Road." If you also happen to be a Jew from Skokie who didn't realize that "Amazing Grace" was not in fact about a woman named Grace until you read about Calvinist theology in college, you may also have been puzzled by the line in said Kenny Chesney song which goes, "Mama wants to know if he's been washed in the blood or just in the water." What does this mean? Does Mama want to know if her prospective son-in-law believes in transubstantiation and is a Catholic? That seems doubtful, because there are no Catholics in country music. Well, behold, the internet has answers. The best thing about this is that this church has not here offered simply a general theological clarification, but a specific response to and endorsement of a Kenny Chesney song: "A popular country song by Kenny Chesney describes a mother who wants to know if the boy that her daughter is going to marry is 'washed in the blood or just in the water.' When young Christians are contemplating marriage, that is an important thing to consider." America is great.