Friday, November 30, 2007

Walking In L.A.

There's something a little bit perverse about saying that I really like walking around L.A. L.A. is a famously bad city for walking in; there are songs about it and everything.

But I do. Tonight I was en route to the convenience store (when in doubt, go to the convenience store) and I stepped out into the courtyard and the rain was bouncing off the surface of the lit-up swimming pool and I decided to walk around first.

I don't walk around my neighborhood that much. I've only lived here for a year and some change, and it still can feel a little bit foreign and therefore menacing to me, and so when I walk for comfort, which I often do, I go back to my old neighborhood. And when I walk for natural beauty and a sense of accomplishment, I also don't usually stay in this neighborhood, because the natural beauty portions of it are heavily trafficked and frighten me with their cultural currency.

But really, when you just want to walk, it's always best to do it in your neighborhood. Then you know you can turn around and go home when you get tired or bored, and it gives you a satisfying sense that you know what the space you live in looks like, and there's just generally something intimate about it.

Some people like to walk by shops, and some people like to walk by landmarks, but really, when it comes down to it, for this kind of casual walk I like best to walk by houses that I don't know that are all lit up inside and try to imagine what kind of lives those people lead and feel a vague sense of envy and estrangement but also coziness. That's the killer combination: simultaneous attachment and detachment.

It was raining a little bit, and there were some puddles on the sidewalk and wet leaves and not too many cars out and people were lighting their fires and the wood was smoky and some Christmas lights were out and it was, really, all pretty satisfactory.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My Name Is Tomas, But You Can Call Me Smooth

Sometimes I like to pretend that I'm not that girly. Then I am forced back into remembering that my main playtime activity from ages 7-9 was pretending with my friends that we were horses. (Before that we mostly pretended we were pregnant.)

There is nothing more stereotypically girly than the childhood horse obsession. There are My Little Ponies and Black Beauty and National Velvet and the Black Stallion series and on and on. It is not clear which came first: the horse-industrial complex or the fascination of small girls for horses, although given that I grew up in a milieu pretty goddamn devoid of horses, I can only assume it was all those books telling me that I should care about them that started it all. We used to fight over who got to be which color horse. Exactly.

Little girls who have never seen a horse may or may not right now be fighting over who gets to be the palamino ths time. But given that as recently as the early to mid eighties that debate was raging hotly, how come horse racing is dying?

Yes, I went to the track today. Hollywood Park, the seedier of the two local racetracks, is in season, so I took the bus to Inglewood. There's something great about making a significant trek by local bus without transferring. People come and go, making complete trips, and the bus fills, than empties, then fills again, all while you stare out the window. It had been a while since I had taken a bus outside my zone of familiarity, and I found myself getting nervous that I would somehow fail to see the enormous racetrack out the window of the bus and miss my stop. Fortunately, Tomas was there to tell me to get off the bus. This was, it turned out, unnecessary, because the bus driver had already promised to tell me when the stop came up, and because, as I on some level knew, Hollywood Park is pretty hard to miss. But Tomas meant well, and although I declined to call him Smooth ("Say, 'Good afternoon, Smooth'") we parted on good terms.

The track was pretty goddamn desolate. Litter everywhere, sea gulls, dead-eyed small children, and a generally jaundiced view from the racing programme -- of the favorite in one race, they said "There's not a whole lot of speed in the race, and he has a little zip." In other words, it was great. Nobody bothered me; I got asked for my opinion in one race and declined to give it; the horses blew me away.

But it's pretty funny, the gap in horse perception. Either it's pastel colored my little ponies, or it's drinking in the afternoon and cursing furiously as your horse loses.

I had to run to catch the bus back. I got on, and the bus driver said, with a certain amount of disapproval, "You were at that track."

Non-Consensual Giving

For the past few months I've been depositing money into a friend's bank account. She's in Europe, and I'm making use of her apartment, so I'm paying her, but it makes no sense to send a check all the way to Germany, so we looked into it and it turns out this is the easiest way to do it.

The first time, I thought to myself, "Wait. Even if I have the account number, surely they're not going to just let me put money into someone else's account. Are they?"

But they are. And they do. No questions asked. You have someone's account number, you show up with the cash, you can put it in.

Does this strike anyone else as odd? I mean, it's your bank account. Someone can just show up off the street? Any person? Who wants to give you money? And they can just put it in your account without needing any permission?

I know it's your account number to give out, suggesting a kind of permission, but it's not like you can show up with just someone's account number and take money *out of* the account. No.

So there seems to be an assumption that with giving, it doesn't matter. But in ordinary life, I think people take the "acceptance" of a gift pretty seriously. There are times you don't want a gift. Maybe you don't want any favors from person X because your're pissed off at X, or you think X has evil motives, or you think X's money came from ill-gotten gains. Or maybe you already have enough.

In ordinary life you're usually there to fight about it. "Take this." "No!"

My (relatively poor) Italian grandmother used to want to give us money all the time when I was a (middle-class) kid. She knew my parents wouldn't accept it, so she'd try to sneak it to me, figuring I was young enough not to really know what was going on. It was, like, you know, five dollars at a time. Then also she'd try to buy stuff for us. There was always a fight. I can hear her making her Thanksgiving declaration. "I'll pay for the turkey!" and a chorus of "No, no you won't!" Indeed, when we wanted to tease her by mimicking, we'd always start with, "I'll pay!"

So, wait, you mean she could've just shown up at the bank, put the money in, walked away? It's a surprising world out there.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Defacing Library Property Is A Crime

So even the best-edited books have the occasional typo or misprint. And when you get into the quickly-produced-mystery section, which I do, the misprints become more frequent and glaring.

I've been going to the Glendale library for my mystery stories lately, because of their fine selection of 1950-75 mystery stories. And I check these books out and I read along and all of a sudden I come across a part of the page where there was a misprint.

Now there is not. Because somebody has written over the misprint in pen.

Usually it's when the wrong character name is given in a sentence. Two people in the book have similar names, and the edition has the wrong name, and somebody has corrected it.

There are a lot of questions here. Is this all the work of one person, or are there a bunch of would-be editors out there, reading with their pens at the ready? Is this something one of the librarians is doing? I favor the idea of the lone madman, working his way through the library collection. Right now he's polishing off the sci-fi.

The main question is whether whoever is doing it actually thinks it's helpful or if they just can't stand to see a mistake. Because it's not helpful (if you were wondering). It's jarring and annoying to read the wrong name, but it's pretty easy to sort out, and it's equally jarring and annoying to come across the pen marks, given that the writing looks nothing like the surrounding typeface and you have to take a minute to figure out what's going on.

It's funny, this insistence on correcting the book. I've never done that, myself, but there was a book that I loved when I was a kid, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, and I didn't like the description of one of the character's appearance -- I think, shamefully, that I didn't think she was pretty enough -- so I decided that I would go through and change her description in the book. I started off with my whiteout and my pen, and then got bored.

I guess, in one way or another, we all want to make the world a better place. Or at least a place more suited to our desires.

Monday, November 26, 2007

You Look Wonderful Tonight

There's a homeless guy in a wheelchair who spends a lot of time on the corner of Cherokee and Sunset. I too spend a lot of time on the corner of Cherokee and Sunset, although mostly in transit. So we see a fair amount of each other.

And, if you go by what he says, he thinks that's swell. He thinks I am a nice-looking lady, and he is not shy about saying so. Sometimes, like tonight, he will lead a chorus of appreciation for my attractiveness from the other homeless guys gathered around him, who dutifully play along, saying things like, "I like her hair."

This is not a post about how that makes me uncomfortable, because the conversation is never lewd or unseemly. I assume, in fact, that the idea is these compliments will brighten my day, and maybe I will hand over change. This is a mistaken strategy, because a) I am not very good about handing over change and b) I am even worse about handing over change when I feel like there will be some accompanying complicated interaction. If I am going to hand over change, it will be to somebody who I never have to see again.

But, despite the fact that I suspect his ardor is insincere, it still has this funny complicated effect on me. The very fact that I feel the need to weigh its sincerity shows, I think, how seriously on some level I take it -- there is apparently some part of me that wants to believe his compliments and I, apparently, feel the need to discourage that impulse in myself.

This strikes me as strange.

It's The Hollywood Santa Parade!

Yesterday I went to the Hollywood Santa Parade, which I guess is technically different than the Hollywood Christmas Parade, which died last year from hemorrhaging money.

I live about two blocks away from the parade route, and last year I came back from the grocery store and watched high school bands practicing on the little side streets of Fountain and found the whole thing pretty goddamn touching, but didn't go. Then they said that was the last year and I found myself stricken by a sense of loss and failure, which is funny. As though it wasn't worth going to in itself, but if it was my last chance to experience the parade all of a sudden it became critically important.

I went to the parade once before, when I was maybe seven or eight, with my family and my best friend's family. I don't really remember what I thought about it; I remember people shoving and a struggle to see and some confusion.

Anyway, I saw the signs this year and I meant to go and then I forgot, and then I remembered. The parade started at five; I worried about whether to show up early to get a seat and all that. I went to get a late lunch at RoRo's Chicken and I saw people already staking out seats.

So I drifted over there around 4:30; the parade was due to start at 5. There was a lot of space left, and I sat down on the street, and watched the 15 year olds next to me flirt and giggle. But then at 4:45 one of their parents showed up with a whole host of other adult/teenager/family friend types, and the thermos of hot chocolate came out and a six year old was sitting at the very end of their row of chairs, looking, mostly, extremely anxious about the whole thing.

Bob Avakian's Revolutionary party came along, handing out newspapers and selling t-shirts about how the Bush Administration was a terrorist organization and then there were the Jews For Jesus and then people selling candy canes and light up toys.

The Eckankar center was advertising clean bathrooms, and lending out chairs.

People kept running across the street, aka the parade route, and I found myself vaguely anxious about that. The six year old's mother brought him a piece of pizza; she was blowing on it to cool it down for him.

Things started happening. A whole troupe of fire department guys on motorcycles tricked out with lights and tinsel and with lovely ladies on the back came wheeling down the street. Then there was a procession of emergency vehicles, lights and sirens on. The Robocop car was one of them!

The families on either side of me were waving; I felt weird waving. In fact, I felt a little weird being there on my own, plunked down on the asphalt without so much as a blanket or a thermos. I guess maybe I should have bought a light up toy.

One of the six year old's relatives who was maybe 13 himself (although I am now too old to accurately measure age in young people) came over and told the six year old to stand up, that he wanted to see how tall he was. The six year old was reluctantly hauled up. Then the 13 year old took his seat. The six year old looked upset and said, "Give me back my seat." The 13 year old said, "What do you say?" The six year old added please, and was given back his seat.

There was Bob Barker! There were high school bands! There was the mayor, who may have been greeted by cheering up on Hollywood Blvd., which was the pulsating heart of the parade route, but not down on Sunset, almost at the end. I mean, there were a couple of cheers, but nothing so much. He was working the crowd; he shouted "Hollywood in the house!" and asked the cops what district they were from and mentioned the tragic recent death of a cop and then later he asked a family where they were from and shouted "Covina in the house!" There was Rocky Delgadillo. There was Fred Willard, which I was very excited about because I had him confused with David Leisure, who was Joe Isuzu. It is only just now that I learned my mistake, and I feel a little cheated.

Endless amounts of time passed between bands and celebrities. I got antsy. The Marine Corps band from Twentynine Palms played a medley of Christmas carols, including that one that goes peace on earth and mercy mild, and I got all choked up, and then I myself ran across the parade route and went home.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Women In Love

This is something I've been meaning to write about for a while, but I've been reluctant. Mostly because haunted by a suspicion that what I see as a phenomenon is only my own little rorschach test, reflecting back my hopes and fears.

The topic is this: How often a discussion of a famous woman of the past involves her unhappiness and failures at love, usually of the embarrassingly unrequited variety. If I were a certain kind of person, I might have clipped and copied the articles and books and so forth that struck me as bringing this home, but mostly I just read them with a certain amount of discomfort and worried what it said about me that I was so struck by their failed and unhappy love lives, rather than their triumphant achievements.

But this is the data set that I'm thinking of. Nancy Mitford, whom the Wikipedia article describes as carrying on a "largely one-sided affair." Emily Dickinson -- at least according to my recollection of an introduction to her poetry which dealt heavily with her embarrassing enthusiasm for some local worthy. Charlotte Bronte's love for that Brussels teacher. Emma Goldman: there's a book out covering one of her relationships and showing that, according to one review, "[d]uring this passionate and stormy relationship, Goldman lectured in public about free love and women's independence, while in private she struggled with intense jealousy and longed for the comfort of a secure relationship." New Yorker articles on Lucinda Williams and Sylvia Plath (Al Alvarez, who I think turned it into a book, castigates himself for not fucking Sylvia Plath when, he says, she wanted him to, blames himself for her suicide, and talks about how disgustingly dirty her hair was) and Simone De Beauvoir (the crucial quote: "Though her affairs, for the most part, were love affairs, it is plain from almost every page she wrote that she would have given them all up if she could have had Sartre for herself alone").

There are probably more I could think of. Even so, it's a scattered and random group, hardly even deserving the term "data set". Possible thoughts: as noted earlier, this is my private psychological issue and my own prurience is responsible for my alarm at these articles and books and coverage. Or you could say yes, these particular woman had issues with love and desire and stability and the fact that those aspects of their lives are covered and discussed is just our natural fascination with the inner lives of our culture heroes -- the same articles would be written in the same tone if they were men. Or you could say that the fact that all these women had these issues suggests that some kind of odd pressures exist on women, pressures that drive them both towards and away from domestic happiness in striking ways.

Or you could say that we as a culture are particularly obsessed with the successful domestication of women, that we see that as a central focus of any woman's life in a way that we don't when looking at men.

(But maybe this is all me. Maybe Henry James is treated as much as a cautionary tale as Emily Dickinson; certainly his failure to partner was discussed in some pretty goddamn prurient ways.)

I don't know. I've talked about it with friends, but mostly only female ones, I think it's a real thing.

Even if I'm right, I don't know what the thing that I'm looking at is; I don't know what it shows. There's some kind of uneasiness there, about women and their private lives and their public lives and their more or less successful domestication, I think. Even if it's all in my head, we can at least establish that I personally am uneasy about those issues, and I, like Mrs. Pearce, am a woman, which could be the start of another data set.

I don't know.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

It's The Other People, Stupid

In this previous post, I said that there is a limit to the right a person has to decide their own future. In particular, I pointed out, when it comes to health care, your right of self-determination runs smack into, and is overridden by, my right not to be surrounded by sick people dying of preventable diseases whose treatment they can't afford.

Especially when you just know, like the mortgage lenders, they'll come crying to the rest of us: Hey! It's not my fault! I didn't know! Help me!

In this post I've got something else to say about health care and human psychology. Or, uh, American psychology, I should say.

In this editorial from the early part of November, Paul Krugman sums up what he takes to be the core argument for health care reform in the US. He writes,

"The United States spends far more on health care per person than any other nation. Yet we have lower life expectancy than most other rich countries. Furthermore, every other advanced country provides all its citizens with health insurance; only in America is a large fraction of the population uninsured or underinsured."

Krugman suggests that to any reasonable person these would be knock-down arguments for reform, and he goes on to offer some replies to counter-arguments in defense of this basic position.

These counter-arguments seem right to me; I haven't got anything to add there. But what I'm interested in is the reason there is reluctance to change the US healthcare system. I'm sure there are lots of reasons.

But one reason no one talks much about is this: most people having an opinion are actually getting very good health care. The Krugman argument talks about averages, totals, and the uninsured. Most people, I think, actually don't care much about averages, totals, and the uninsured.

Most middle-class and wealthy people probably think that if the health-care system changes in the direction of socialization that their care will become worse. In fact, I'm betting that for lots of people, the idea of socialized health care brings immediately to mind an image like the following: There they are, sick, sitting in a racially diverse room, with lots of poor people around, being told by some bureaucrat that there are 100 welfare queens ahead of them in line for the one MRI machine.

No one, I think, feels comfortable discussing this fear, so they find other things to say.

This fear is what we should discuss, for one reason: the fear is only relevant to the kind of socialized health care system no-one in the US is proposing anyway: a single-tier, no-private-doctors system.

In lots of European systems, there is socialized health care with nothing like this, because anyone has the choice to pay themselves, or get private insurance, and lots of people do, and they don't have to sit in any dark depressing rooms with people who don't play golf. They can do whatever they want.

Clearly any system anyone adopts in the US will have these options. The argument then is partly "this isn't such a change" -- in addition to the familiar "we have to change." And the argument should include an explicit injunction to take the cares of others into consideration.

Along a slightly different line of thought:
I'm an American living in Canada. Here in Canada we actually have a single-tier, no-private doctors system. It's interesting, because, you know, some of the things people say about it are true: there aren't enough machines, there are waiting times, places are understaffed and sometimes depressing and chaotic. And they're that way no matter who you are.

I've been here for a few years and so far the care I've gotten has been great. But more interestingly, I'd say, there are benefits to this system that you can't really imagine until you're here, but they're extraordinary.

Everyone gets the same health care. Duh. It's so simple, but it kind of transforms the way you interact with and feel about your fellow citizens. It gives everyone dignity. No one has to plead for help, and no one feels like a second-class citizen. If the system sucks, it sucks for everyone, so something gets done about it.

You're at the gym chatting with the cleaning lady. You're at McDonald's ordering a Big Mac. You're buying the papers at the weird convenience store.

All the people you see, you talk to, you're all in it together. You can look people in the eye, and not feel like shit. It's kind of awesome.

But this awesomeness isn't going to translate to the US. Whatever. Focus on getting it together for the people who need it, and let the people who can afford it do whatever they want. Don't tell people, "This will make it work for you." Tell them, "If you don't care about anyone else you're being overly selfish." Or fill in your own adjective.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sometimes You Can't Decide For Yourself

When I was a kid, my father had a really funny thing he used to do at Christmastime. Starting a few days before the 25th, he would start lobbying to get to open his gifts early. Like real begging and pleading and fussing -- the kind you associate with children.

On certain occasions with certain gifts, he would get his way, and he'd open those presents early. Certainly any gift that came from outside our immediate family -- that is, not from me or my mom -- he considered fair game to open whenever he wanted. So there was a fair amount of opening on Christmas Eve, even though really we were a "Christmas morning orgy of opening" kind of family.

On Christmas morning, my father would complain bitterly, but, you know, jokingly too, about not having any surprises, about not having as many things to open as me and my mom. Poor me! Nothing to open! On Christmas morning!

I remember finding this awesome and hilarious. I thought it was awesome that an adult would care so much about presents that he'd actually be upset about not having enough at the right time. Even if he was sort of hamming it up, I thought was awesome that an adult would carry on like that. About Christmas presents! Most adults I knew were focused on planning family events, buying stuff for kids, cooking, you know.

And I thought it was hilarious that he would fail to learn, or would pretend to fail to learn, year after year, that opening on Christmas Eve meant fewer presents Christmas morning, and that fewer presents Christmas morning was less fun than more presents Christmas morning.

Eventually my mom and I found a way to take this game to the next level: we would hide certain key presents and pretend they didn't exist so that no matter what happened Christmas Eve, my father would always have as much Christmas morning excitement as me and my mom.

This was just one of a range of very funny things my father used to do. Like telling me that airplanes only went up in the air because everyone prayed at the same time (he was an engineering professor), or telling my little friends that if they wanted their parents to get them a pony they should throw a temper tantrum the next time they were in the grocery store.

But I got thinking about the Christmas thing recently because I was reflecting on the ways we do and do not allow people the freedom to choose their own futures.

In a previous post, I mentioned as a kind of off-handed joke the idea that some people felt it was their right not to have health insurance -- that if they wanted to spend the money on other things they should be allowed to.

The prospect of lots of people not having health insurance upsets me a lot. And I can tell you why. Health is one of those things that it's easy to undervalue while you have it. Planning for illness is one of those things no one likes to do. Once you're sick, though, you'd have to be a figure of towering rationality and self-control not to say to those around you, "Help me. I'm sick. I'm dying. There's treatment, and I need it, and I can't pay. Please help me!"

And, you know, if someone says those things to me, I'm going to want to help them. I will find the early deaths of such people incredibly painful.

In that sense, the commitment to shared medical care isn't something you sign on for just because it's in your own self interest, it's something you sign on for because of the people around you, who care about you -- whether they're intimates, friends, or just fellow-citizens.

I consider it my right to infringe your freedoms in this way, at least to some extent. The alternative infringes on my freedom not to be surrounded by sick, dying people who -- oops! -- changed their minds about the whole dying thing once it came into close view.

Sorry, we're going to have to hide your presents sometimes. Hope you don't mind too much. Maybe you'll be happy later.

The Joys Of The Airline Musical Programme

Once upon a time, before ipods or even walkmen, the only way to listen to songs on an airplane was to tune into the musical selections offered by the airline. Usually you would have to pay $3 for their headphones, but if it was an international flight and/or you were an unaccompanied minor, they would probably just give you the headphones for free under the assumption that everybody's nerves would be saved at least that much in general wear and tear.

Pretty early on I fell in love with the airline musical programme, although it was a never-quite reciprocated love. I would spend the first ten minutes of every flight checking out the channels and the songs that the channels offered, flipping from channel to channel and trying to catch the seven songs that I wanted to hear. The channel list would promise everything, but unless you were flying to, say, Tokyo, and I never was, you usually only got five channels. The hits, the country, the soft classical, the soft jazz, and some kind of record company promotion. And then mostly the songs you wanted to hear would be playing at the same time on different channels, and the airline pilot would interrupt your very favorite song to point out some invisible monument on the other side of the airline or you would fall asleep, which was kind of a good thing, but would mean that you missed your song.

One flight I got to fall in love with that classic Shania Twain hit "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under." Another time it was a soft pop French song (I flew a lot of Air Canada, okay?) called Aftershave by Maxime Le Forestier. And it was only four years ago that on a redeye from New York to Los Angeles I listened more than once to the upcoming Hilary Duff album. It suited my mood; it suited the vague plastic quality of being on an airplane and flying at night and falling half asleep next to business travelers.

It took me a long time to figure out that the airplane channels were actively uncool, that they weren't the place for me to be looking for my pop culture cues, and it's a lesson that I keep on forgetting, so that way back in 2003 I came off the plane bounding with enthusiasm for Hilary Duff. There's just something about music, divorced of context, put on repeat for five or six hours, that comforts me, makes me feel safe and clean and wholesome. Or maybe it was Hilary Duff in particular.

Now I mostly listen to my ipod.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Real Property

Growing up could be described as the act of trading in one set of illusions for another. But that would be glib, and probably untrue.

The illusion of mine that I miss the most was what I thought it meant to own land. I spent much of the years from 1984 to 1990 daydreaming about owning property. Mostly of an unconventional kind. I blame the Swiss Family Robinson, My Side of The Mountain kinds of books, which encouraged me in the belief that you could make your home in a tree. I daydreamed about that. Also, oddly, about owning a small corner of my school, like a secret room, where I could retreat to during the day. It would just be a single room, but somehow I would have title to it and it would be mine.

I thought ownership of land was absolute, that it was something that you bought that could never be taken away from you, that you could return to no matter what happened. Even at the time, I wasn't sure how the mechanics of buying the land worked, and I had a vague inkling that it could be problematic to talk the state or the school board into selling me that mysterious secret room, not to mention that I had no money. But once I owned it, I thought, it would be mine.

Sadly, I grew up and learned that it doesn't work like that. Land can be taken away from you by eminent domain, by failure to pay property tax, whatever. Also, even if it's not taken away from you, it's not as though you can do what you like with it. There are regulations and requirements and lawsuits waiting to happen.

I'm still startled by my primitive capitalism as a kid, by my desire to carve out a chunk of the world, however small, that nobody else could touch. I'm also startled by its persistence. Sometimes I'm someplace beautiful, and my overriding thought is a desire to own it, to have it be mine. It's a funny deep down possessiveness, not really susceptible to reason; it can be covered up but not erased.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Remembering, Misremembering, And Bad Deeds Of The Past

I woke up this morning at 5:00 a.m. for a telephonic job interview on the East Coast. It was done by 5:45, and I was drowsy but not particularly ready to go back to sleep so I was reading Straight Man by Richard Russo.

I have a very vivid memory of how I first read that book, which is that I was staying with these people in Berkeley for a weekend when I was deciding whether to go to college there or not, and it was on their bookshelves and I took it down and read it and it stuck with me.

But there inside the cover is the copyright date, 1997. Which means that it didn't happen like that, because by January 1, 1997 I was already a sophomore in college. I still think I probably read it when staying at that house, because I housesat a couple of times for them over the years, so I'm maybe not wrong by so much, but it changes my vision of the story so completely, because I remember myself as so different in 1997 than I was in 1995, that it's all a little unsettling. And casts doubt on my memory in general, which I tend to rely on heavily and enforce on others with a pretty high degree of severity.

So there we go. The past is uncertain, and our memories are just best guess reenactments. And then I found myself thinking about how once, I was staying with some people, and I started to read a book off their shelves, and not having finished with it by the time I was leaving, I just took it with me. Without asking permission, and without, I think, feeling particularly guilty about it. I must have been sixteen or seventeen at the time. It was pointed out to me sometime later that this was not good behavior in a houseguest, and now I cannot think of it without some guilt.

It's strange to look back in time at the things you did that you are now distinctly not proud of. I would say the things you did in innocence, except that innocence is hard to establish in retrospect. When I was eighteen I made a boy that I knew had a crush on me trek out into the cold to pick me up dumplings, knowing full well that I was never going to date this boy. Or knowing with an eighty percent certainty that I was never going to date this boy, because nothing is written in stone. I feel ashamed now for having done it, for having taken advantage of his chivalrous impulses; I think at the time I thought that sort of thing was allowed, but I wouldn't say it was innocent -- can a failure to consider the feelings of the other people that are staring you right in the face really be innocence?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Moral Anti-Minimalism: The Case of Dr. Phil and Dan Savage

Two guys you might think didn't have a lot in common: Dr. Phil and Dan Savage.

Dr. Phil is the Oprah protégé who has that annoying afternoon TV show. He's full of family-values opinions and over-reactions that drive me crazy. "You were smoking pot and having sex? You're a drug addict! You're going to ruin your entire life!"

Dan Savage is the writer of the advice column Savage Love. His main thing is, sex is important; it matters a lot to people. Take it seriously; be open-minded, and be nice to each other, but if you're still not satisfied you may have to break up and find someone new.

OK, so pretty different. But Dr. Phil and Dan Savage have one big thing they share: a belief that the moral minimum is not enough.

Dr. Phil frequently tells people in conflict that it's not enough to think about what's fair: for the relationship to work, or move forward at all, one or both of them is going to have to "be a hero" -- to forgive or forget, or reach out, or something. To do more than would be strictly required.

Dan Savage frequently tells people whose sexual desires are an uneasy fit that they must be "GGG" with one another: Good, Giving, and Game. "Game" here means being open to another person's fantasies, no matter how strange or unsettling they strike you. If your boyfriend is dying for you to dress up in a wetsuit, well, you owe it to him to try it out. Even if, you know, it's not really your thing. Do it anyway.

These both strike me as expressions of the same basic idea: that when you live interconnectedly with other people, sometimes "fair" or "within my rights" just aren't the relevant things to consider. It's not fair that you have to forgive before the other person changes; it's my right not to dress up in a wetsuit if I don't want to. But the moral minimum is not enough: these are still, nonetheless, the things one must do.

One reason I think these guys find they have to give this advice so often that they've got handy phrases for it ("be a hero," "GGG") is that we've sort of become moral minimalists.

We're very good at signing on for moral requirements specific things you must do, rules you must obey, things in which a transgression is obviously blameworthy. You can't kill people, cheat on your taxes, rob a bank. You can't cheat on your spouse.

But a world of moral minimalists is a shitty world. It's a world in which everyone is calculating how little they can do, and what they can get away with. Everyone's a defensive little island. It's no way to live.

In a world of moral minimalists, the least misunderstanding, the least unforeseen bit of trouble, the least disruption in the agreed on order throws everything into chaos.

In a world of moral minimalists, you do things for other people, but always with a silent calculation that changes the very interaction. Maybe you can get your partner to dress up in a wetsuit. But the very elements of exchange ruins the feeling: you can't help but be reminded, "Oh, I know, it's a favor. I know."

It's funny that the actual word for going beyond the moral minimum is "supererogatory," a word that no one even knows.

Friday, November 16, 2007

If You Liked Tristram Shandy, You'll Love . . .

Last week I read a funny, weird, good book called When to Walk, by Rebecca Gowers.

I bought it in a kind of book-buying-binge last weekend, during which I spent about 100 dollars (Canadian!) buying also: a novel by a Lebanese woman about the Middle East, a collection of the best American comics of 2007, and another small graphic novel by Julie Doucet, called The Madame Paul Affair.

I picked out When to Walk knowing nothing about it, but the truth is I was heavily swayed by the fact, mentioned on the cover, that it had been nominated for some book prize.

I find when I am shopping for new novels I pay close attention to prizes and good reviews from serious newspapers. It doesn't always result in a book you like, but it almost always results in a book worth reading.

One reason I have to rely on things like this -- things on the cover of the book -- is that I seldom have a book in mind when I go novel-shopping. And one reason I seldom have something in mind is because I don't read reviews of novels. I don't read movie reviews, either, except for movies I'm never going to see.

This might seem funny (or "ironic," as we say nowadays), because I am obviously relying heavily on reviewers' judgments to decide what to read, but I refuse to read the reviews. But the thing is, as I've mentioned before, I am way into narrative. And I love being caught up in a narrative, not knowing what's going to happen. Reviews just ruin the narrative, ruin the experience.

I always read things in order. Absurdly, I even read magazines from cover to cover. I know this is nuts -- I know there's no "narrative" in the placement of New Yorker stories and that I can perfectly well skip ahead to the Television Review and then skip back. But the impulse grabs me: I think, well, maybe if I skip ahead I *won't* skip back. And then what?

Anyway, with novel reviews, you also have the problem that the subjectivity of novel-reading is so intense. Even if I agree with some reviewer that some book is great, I can almost guarantee you that the reviewers opinions will annoy me, or disturb me, or leave me feeling something like, "You thought that, about this book??" What is wrong with you?

All in all, I'd be just as happy with a novel review system that was just a list of stars. "Lucy Ellman says: 5 stars!" works for me. Better than ". . . this is Moby-Dick female-style: more of a whimper than a whale," which is what Ms. Ellman actually says in her Guardian review of When to Walk. Just tell me what to read, guys. "Read this book" is about all the information I need.

The other thing on the cover of Gowers' book says, "Tristram Shandy meets Bridget Jones. . ." Ugh. Even though I've never read Tristram Shandy or Bridget Jones's Diary, and even though I have nothing against either of them, this blurb made me almost not buy the book. Why do things like that have to be so stupid?

I'd tell you all about When to Walk but it's the kind of book that's hard to talk about without ruining the experience. So. Read this book. It's good. 5 stars.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Inanimate Objects Have Feelings Too

I used to use Safari, and only Safari, and then Noko Marie pointed out that if I used Firefox I could link to things without typing in the links by hand, and so I started using Firefox for the blog, and then I just got into the habit of using Firefox, and now I haven't used Safari for months and months, and I feel kind of bad about it. I was just using Safari, moments ago, and it didn't remember any of the websites I wanted to go to, and the whole experience felt blank and sad, like when you lose touch with an old friend and then you get together to catch up, but you don't really have anything in common anymore so the whole experience actually leaves you feeling less close to them, because at least in your head they were still a major part of your life, but now you've been confronted by the harsh reality of the situation.

Once, when I was eight, I decided I wanted to keep a (grocery store bought) orange as a pet. It didn't end well. I don't remember the details. I think there was mold. I had a shoebox for it and everything.

When I was in high school, everybody had names for their cars. Actually, I still know a lot of people who have names for their cars. Or computers or ipods or whatever.

I like stuff; I know I've mentioned that before. I like my stuff in particular. And some of that's because of what I think it says about me, or because I think it's an extension of me, but some of it's that helpless human impulse towards emotional attachment.

When I was first quitting smoking, a friend of mine told me that her husband said that it was like having your best friend die. I would say it's more like having a terrible irrevocable falling out with your best friend. Not just in degree of unpleasantness, but qualitatively. There was this thing, and you had a relationship with it, and now you're turning your back on it, you're walking away. And I know that smoking doesn't miss me, at least I think I do, but it still feels kind of like a betrayal.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Books or Butter?

In some recent New Yorker (I'm a little behind), Anthony Grafton has a piece about the history of organizing information. One of his points is that we've always had too much information, and we've always been worried about how to access what we need, so the whole "oh my god the internet search engine is going to change everything" isn't, maybe, the paradigm shift you might have thought.

That's fine. And his discussion of the history of information is fun and interesting.

Toward the end, Grafton starts talking about how much things will change with Google et al. digitizing books. His first point is that things won't change much because all they're doing, really, is scanning things in and allowing us to search them; it's not anything so dramatic.

And then he gets into that whole "irreplaceability of the book" thing. You know, we have to have books; we can't live without them; do what you want with the whole "intertubes" thing but eventually you're going to have to get your ass to the library and get the wood pulp product off the shelf.

This line always gets on my nerves, even though I'm probably as great a lover of the old-fashioned book as you'll find anywhere. Books are just nice: you can take them to bed, take them to the sofa, flip the pages back and forth, blah blah blah, this ground has all been well-covered.

But the Grafton point isn't that books are a pleasure but rather that they are irreplaceable sources of knowledge -- knowledge you can't get from digital archives. What's the evidence? As far as I could tell the only evidence he offers is that some people get some information from some physical books. Like, some historians smell books to see if they smell like vingar, to see if they were sprinkled to avoid disease, to see if there were outbreaks.

OK, I admit this is information you get from physical books, but really, most of us are not in the vinegar-book-business, nor are we in the paper-analysis business, or any other business other than just reading the words that are written down. For the vast majority of purposes, the digital version does just fine.

It matters, because books are freaking expensive compared to digitized access. And if we're going to spend money -- communal money -- on them, we'd better have some good reasons. After all, there are people who need food and shelter.

There may indeed be good reasons for pouring money into the communal purchase of books. But knowing whether old ones smell like vinegar isn't one of them. It isn't even in the right ballpark.

Major League

I really love the movie Major League.

I love it so much that I kind of make a pain out of myself, talking about how much I love it and bringing it up at every opportunity. And then I start worrying that I don't actually love the movie that much, that I bring it up to be different or interesting or because I think it's funny.

Then I watch it and I remember how much I love it.

I'm not always entirely sure what I love about it. I'm not going to be claiming any time soon that it's one of the world's best movies, only that it's one of the world's most enjoyable movies to watch.

I think partly it's got to do with the way the movie actually replicates the experience of watching your team do better than you expected it to do. It's got this nice lazy stretched out feeling to it, where a bunch of players make more of an effort than they did before, and Charlie Sheen gets glasses, and then they're winning games that they expected to lose and doing American Express commercials. And it kind of is shown from the perspective of the fan: they spend a lot of time at the beginning showing Cleveland, and they take shots from above the stadium, and they have the guys arguing along the way, and people hugging in bars when the team wins (which once upon a time I would have said was pie in the sky, but I actually have hugged strangers in bars after my team won a playoff game and I'm not ashamed of it) and the way the players act is the way you want to imagine your team being on the inside where you can't watch them, even down to Corbin Bernson, who plays the rich asshole who, it turns out, still loves baseball on the inside.

(Here, I guess, is my big chance to share that I read the Esquire profile on Kobe Bryant, which revealed that a) Vanessa demanded to act as his stylist and b) she asked for more money than they offered for doing so.)

It makes the world feel strangely safe, Major League, which I guess makes more sense of the fact that the writer/director also wrote The Sting, and co-wrote Sleepless in Seattle, because as different as those movies are, I kind of remember them having the same effect.

I really hate when people switch sports teams. And sometimes I argue about this and try to score points of other people for it, because in my book it's just something that you don't do, and I don't have a reasoned position on it other than that only bad people switch sports teams.

But I think one reason I hate it is because it detracts to one extent or another, from the feeling of safety that you get watching your team having a better than expected season. It's precious and safe because you had to root for them anyway. If you could just root for anybody, you'd have to decide if these guys were really loveable losers or just kind of annoying, and if maybe those scrappy Red Sox were a better bet. Moveable fandom means that you just have another variety of mature adult relationship with your team. That's obviously ridiculous and pathetic.

That said, I couldn't tell you what the Lakers record is right now.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Some Brief Thoughts On Makeup

I have been going through a mildly pro-makeup phase, recently. Wearing lipstick, buying perfume, the occasional mascara experiment.

This is not, despite my stated goal of dressing neutrally, the first time this has happened. Every now and then I get this image in my head: some cream eyeshadow, a brick red lipstick, something that strikes me as tremendously appealing which I go out and purchase and play with.

Usually I give it up after a couple of weeks.

The main reason I usually wind up giving up is a feeling of self-consciousness about the whole experiment. I get overwhelmed by the sense that I am saying to the world: I look better this way. I smell better this way. I think this is a good thing to do. And I imagine a phalanx of people looking at me, shaking their heads, saying to themselves, "Is she out of her mind?"

If your clothes don't, at least on the surface, seem to be striving for anything, nobody can ever confront you with your failures.

It seems even harder, or more intimidating, to strive for femininity; I feel like I'm on the brink of exposure as a fraud.

(Written down it seems neurotic.)

You can avoid this fear, and sometimes I have, by making your clothes a deliberate provocation. You wear the brightest lipstick. You wear a hat. You wear elaborate jewelry. You tell the world that this is a light-hearted game, that you are in on the joke.

I am still not entirely sure what drives me into my pro-makeup moods in the first place. Another unknowable impulse.

You Don't Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Either

Last week I reread Catcher in the Rye. I read it just after rereading Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool. I realize this is a lot of rereading, but you know, when times are tough sometimes a little familiarity is like a warm bath. Repitition induces comfort.

On the face of it, they're pretty different books. The Salinger book is about a rich kid, the Russo book is about a poor grownup -- or, rather, a lot of poor grownups and a few who are somewhat less poor.

One thing they have in common, though, is that they both describe people who are fundamentally in the dark about the reasons for their own behavior. In Nobody's Fool, Sully is constantly surprised by his own impulses, both kindly and otherwise. More than deciding to do things, he just sort of, you know, finds himself doing them.

In Catcher in the Rye, poor Holden is so mystified by his own behavior that he can only say over and over, "Sometimes I'm really crazy. I really am." Why does Holden propose to a girl he has just told us he hates? Why does he try to convince her to move to Vermont with him and start life over from nothing? He has no idea. There are probably reasons, but Holden isn't really in on them.

This resonates with me a big way. It not only describes the way my own inner life feels, it describes how other people seem to me, even when they are pretending they're all, you know, deliberative and purposeful and shit.

I once saw a talk by the philosopher John Doris, challenging the idea that rationality -- the normal quality we attribute to healthy human adults -- could possibly be understood in terms of reflective deliberation followed by action.

He cited study after study showing people could be induced to particular behaviors for reasons completely unknown to them. Like, if you show people word lists, the people who see lists like "Shuffleboard Florida cruise Early Bird special" walk more slowly to the elevator. If you ask them why, they cite some "reason" -- "Oh, my toe hurts today" -- but never the real reason, which is these words just remind them of aging.

He argued in his paper that rationality was more the process of imposing a coherent narrative on the way things have unfolded.

Whatever you think about that, it's certainly true that some people are extremely good at imposing coherent narratives on their past choices -- even when it seems obvious to an outside observer that those choices were made for no good reason at all, were basically the life equivalent of walking slowly to the elevator.

If you're really honest with yourself, you might be less inclined to believe these narratives. You feel, "Well, sure I could tell that story. But who knows whether it's true?" This strikes me as just one of the ways that genuine self-knowledge might be bad for a person. Blind trust in the narrative makes life easier.

Of course, having this self-knowledge may be bad for you, but it may be good for the people around you, since it might make you more forgiving, less dogmatic, and more willing to entertain alternative points of view about yourself.

It's a trade-off.

I realized thinking about it that a lot of my favorite books are like this -- they describe characters who are blindsided, surprised, amused, dumbfounded by their own actions.

I don't know why I like these books. I mean, I could guess. But I'd probably be wrong.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Repetition Induces Comfort

So because I spend too much time online and reading magazines, and because sometimes I get desperate and read things that I would not otherwise read, I have now read three separate interviews with A.J. Jacobs who has just published a book about how he spent a year trying to live by biblical precepts despite the fact that he is not a religious person.

I have not read this book; I do not plan to read this book.

I am simply struck by the fact that in every single interview, he gives this exact quote, about the positive effects of wearing all white: "It lifts your mood. It's hard to be in a bad mood when you're walking around looking like you're about to play the semifinals at Wimbledon."

The first time I read it, I thought it was a kind of funny thing to say. By the third time, it kind of got on my nerves. It's funny to bring up Wimbledon; it's not that funny to bring it up in this precise context every time somebody interviews you. Because what's funny is it's got this quirkily spontaneous feeling about it, and when you realize it's just his pre-packaged response it gets a lot less funny. The air goes out of the room.

But I, of course, do the same thing constantly. For a year my main recourse for conversational lulls was to bring up how much better the world would be if law firms hired young lawyers on an NBA draft model. I have a handful of anecdotes that I repeat constantly. And all these things are designed, more or less consciously, to show me at what I consider to be my best. Either in my wit and charm, or by exposing dramatic and interesting aspects of my personality. And road-testing is what helps you decide if these topics/phrases/anecdotes actually put across what you want them to put across. If you get a good reaction once, you feel more comfortable using it again.

But then I also worry that one day I will wake up and be entirely a creature of tics and tropes. No more raw humanity, no more blurting out of sordid revelations. Just a smooth bundle of pre-tested material. It's appealing to the same degree it's troubling: it has certain things in common with my dream of a world in which I always want to hear all the songs on my ipod and in which I wear the same clothing every day.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

File Under Life Is Unfair

I just can't seem to stay away from the advice columns.

So today, on Dear Prudence, which we know what I think about, this woman wrote in. And, to paraphrase, she and her German husband agreed before he was willing to propose (but she was kind of drunk!) that they would live in America for five years, and then move to Germany. And now the five years are up and she doesn't want to move to Germany. She wants to stay in America. Her parents are needy. She's going to have a kid. She doesn't know German, although she's tried, a little bit.

And Dear Prudence says that they need to take the deadlines and pressure off and talk about it and acknowledge that one person is going to feel always slightly screwed.

Which, I guess, to the extent that you think the sanctity of marriage is important, is probably right, because the letter writer seems prepared to throw a huge fit about moving to Germany. And I guess some of the whole premise of marriage is that circumstances change, that things that seemed worthwhile and super-important before you get married seem less important afterwards, that the person you love should be more important than some half-baked condition you set way back five years ago. I wouldn't know for sure, myself.

It just seems unfair in one of those no right answer ways. You tell this woman, look, I'll marry you if you'll agree to move to Germany for five years. The promise to marry being what a contracts professor would call "consideration." And you do what you promised to do, and now she's saying that it's too much to ask her to do what she said she would, that you're not properly understanding the difficulties of her position. When she had the opportunity years earlier to consider the difficulties of her position and say, you know what, thanks, but no thanks.

I guess what really set me off about the whole thing, though, was this quote. "He is a lovely person but not terribly social, and he wants to move to Berlin—where he has no family and few friends—and I don't feel comfortable relying on him to make new friends for us."

I don't know if I've already written something about this (this being the abstract point I'm about to make); I know I've talked about it with everybody who reads this blog. She wants to stay in America. He wants to go to Germany. It's not enough for her to say, "I promised; I've changed my mind; please don't make me go to Germany."

She has to give reasons. She has to explain why it's better for everyone that they don't go to Germany. It's not enough to have a simple game of chicken, where they each decide what the relationship is worth to them vis a vis their presence in a foreign country. She has to be right, too. Even if it's right in a cheap-shot kind of way. I hate that. It's some kind of repulsive colonization of other people's preferences. It should be stopped.

Voting Is, Like, So 80's!

It's going to be a busy busy day, so the big topics are going to have to wait. But in the meantime, I thought we might all consider this quote from a student, explaining why he or she thinks that voting is so, you know, over. The community, it turns out, is where it's at.

"Like the government is, like, really far away and something that you can't really affect or change," the student is quoted as saying. "But something that you can actually do in your community and see the results of might be more, like, motivating, like, for people."

The student is quoted in a report, and discussed in this story in the Chronicle of Higher Education. (The report itself is here).

According to economist and Freakonomics author Stephen Levitt, the student is 100 percent right and 100 percent rational. Since it is extremely unlikely your vote will change the outcome, there's no point to voting. (Blog post here, more interesting but old NYT thing here).

I'm no economist, but doesn't it seem like if your theory can't explain the point of voting that there's something wrong with your theory rather than something wrong with voting? I mean, given that our whole stupid political system seems to depend on voting, if you're going to argue that voting is pointless, don't you at least owe us an explanation of how the political system should be arranged so that there is no voting?

Philosophers sometimes say, "One man's ponens is another man's tollens." If we agree that A implies B, you might say, OK, B, while I might say, OK, not-A. Here I gotta go with the tollens: if the theory of rational behavior says there's no point to voting you need a new theory.

Especially since things like this are mounting up (see my previous rant about economists and the Radiohead download scheme, here).

Sorry guys. Back to the drawing board!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Sentimental Sinister Music

So I got (as a present, which was tremendous) a cd of the Psychedelic Furs. I had two Psychedelic Furs cds back in high school and listened to them over and over again, and then sometime in college I decided I needed to be cooler in my musical tastes (and I liked the Psychedelic Furs to much to think they were cool, plus nobody else I knew was really listening to them) and so I sold them at Amoeba for a Willie Nelson cd, and have regretted it ever since, although it is hard to regret anything that brings more Willie Nelson into your life.

A quick note about my musical life: I would get super-obsessed with particular bands and cds, and I would listen to the cds over and over again, but this almost never translated into buying more albums or learning more about the band, it just involved complete memorization of and devotion to those songs.

And what I loved about the Psychedelic Furs is that it was mostly sad music, at least according to my 17 year old standards ("and it feels like love, but it don't mean a lot" or whatever -- listen to the lyrics of Pretty in Pink sometime), but it had this sweeping love song feel to it -- it was a valorization, a romanticization, of the failures and boundaries of love and human existence.

Other examples of this feeling: the entire oeuvre of The Fire Inside by Bob Seger, Sleeping With The Television on by Billy Joel, Perfect Skin by Lloyd Cole.

I kind of want to argue that this was a more prevalent mood in the songs of my youth, but then I remembered that I don't know anything about current pop, so I could be totally wrong. Also, it's not like those things actually came out when I was young.

What I do feel is that we're instructed sometimes that only successful, meaningful things should be celebrated, should give rise to sweeping, romantic sounding songs. And there's something about songs that celebrate the weakness of human capabilities for love and affection, but celebrate them in a sweeping romantic way. Not a dry little ditty, but you know, a synthesizer fest. Where it could come on the radio and it takes you a couple minutes and some sustained attention to realize that it's not just a love song.

Because these aren't songs about rejected lovers, which there are lots of. There's the Cure for that. These are songs about not-quite lovers, about the ridiculousness of the search for love. But they make it sound noble, worthy on its own terms. It felt kind of dangerous when I listened to it at 17, and I guess it still kind of does. Deliberate sentimentality in celebration of triviality -- it's a mood that I would like to be able to sustain.

Monday, November 5, 2007

You're Being Such A Vajayjay!

Look, I'm sorry. I apologize in advance. I know you don't want to read anything else about "Vajayjay." Feel free to skip this, walk on by.

Everyone probably knows the basics by now: some character on the show "Grey's Anatomy" used the word "vajayjay" to refer to her, you know, vajayay. Oprah liked it, used it. It became a hit.

Predictably, there's been some hand-wringing. The charge has been leveled that people like "vajayjay" because they are squeamish about "vagina," and that they're squeamish about "vagina" for some dark reason having to do with fear of women and sex.

OK, listen, this is just wrong. You don't need any squeamishness or fear to think that "vagina" is an awful word. It sounds bad. It's not fun to say. It's not remotely sexy. You can tell that it is the sound of the word that is the problem because even extremely close variants are way better: "vagine," say, or "vagina" pronounced so that is rhymes with Tina. Also, "clitoris" and "clit" are both fine.

When I learned that the city of Regina, in Canada, has a name that is properly pronounced so that it rhymes with vagina, I almost fell off my chair. Somebody needs a branding consultant up there, quick.

Anyway. Roots in fear and squeamishness is not the problem with "vajayjay." "Vajayjay" is fine, I'd say, for some purposes: if you're just discussing vajayjays in general, say; or if you're making a joke.

But. As Cleo argues so pursuasively in my favorite novel, Amazons, it's annoying that girl parts have such dopey names. How come guys get cock, prick, penis, while girls get boob, nookie, pussy? As she says, The only one worth anything at all is "cunt," and some woman probably came up with that one.

Also. It's not like vajayjay is a sexy word either. You're not going to say in the heat of the moment, "Oh, honey, lick my vajayjay! Yeah!" No.

As the predictable Times story on "vajayjay" reminds us, the vagina isn't even really the sex part, it's the inside part. The sex part is the "vulva." A word you almost never hear, though really, it's kind of a cool word in a weird way. "Vulva" kind of side-steps the whole contrast between the aggresion of "prick" and the stupidity of "nookie." "Vulva" just has its own thing going on.

The Times story also reports on the host of The Soup (which I've never heard of) saying in favor of "vajayjay," "It’s not derogatory. It’s not 'You’re being such a vajayjay right now.' It’s kind of a sweet thing."

Sweet or not, now that you mention it, I can imagine lots of situations that would call for "You're being such a vajayjay right now." I'm all over that.

Incidentally, the (female) creator of "Grey's Anatomy" wanted to use "vagina," and the broadcast standards people said "no way," even though they had used the word "penis" 17 times in one episode once. Vajayjay was a compromise.

So maybe for some people there is a squeamishness and fear thing going on.

What a bunch of fucking vajayjays.

A Night At The Roller Rink

Yesterday I found myself back at the local roller rink, a strange kind of place, being so close to the train tracks and the Home Depot and really nothing else, except for one of those all nude strip clubs where, I hear, they don't serve booze, which is pretty dispiriting to contemplate.

I've never been a good skater of any kind. I never played hockey or learned to skate backwards. On the other hand, like every properly socialized little girl I insisted on being taken to the ice skating rink, and although it was in some regards disappointing -- there were so many goddamn people around moving so fast -- it also had its upsides. Including hot chocolate in those paper cups with playing cards printed on them. And that mind blowing moment when you took your skates off and your feet felt so light, as though you were walking on air.

And sometimes I would go to the roller rink, and they would play the hokey-pokey and YMCA and we were all very ironic about it because the heyday of the roller rink was clearly a long way gone, but it was still pretty fun.

I actually went to a birthday party at the particular roller rink I went to last night back sometime in the late 80's/early 90's, and felt a kind of vague heartburning during the couple skate.

So last night we got there too early first, and then we went and got dinner at this restaurant that we were just walking by that turned out to be an enormous tiki-themed steakhouse, and I vaguely wished I was not going roller skating after so that I could get a Mai Tai or a Chi Chi, which were the cocktails featured on the menu. I am not a good enough roller skater to think mixing booze and wheels is a good idea. The restaurant was in Glendale, and people were being kind of boisterous, and one table kept bursting into highly trained song, leading me to believe they were some kind of choir. According to the menus, the restaurant has been there since 1937.

When we went back to the roller rink, the parking lot was entirely full. We walked in and some guy outside smoking (in contravention of the signs all over the place which said no outs and ins) was talking about being locked up for 30 years, from 1978 to 2004. I don't know if it was what it sounded like. Sunday, anyway, is not just the over 21 night at the roller rink, but the Savoy night, which meant that they were mostly playing seventies soul music. The crowd was 95 percent black and 100 percent truly excellent skaters, and they had one segment where only groups of three or four were allowed out on the floor. It's funny, because every night I've gone to this roller rink it's been a different kind of thing. Tuesday is organ night, which is one far back recreation of a midwestern past, but then there's also the Debbie Gibson era recreated with blonde 13 year olds showing off.

Anyway, I skated around a few times, slowing down the traffic and people watching, and it was all pretty awesome. And between that and the restaurant you could say it was some kind of cutsifying, a deliberate chase of alien charm outside my experience, because my normal life does not include things tiki or roller skating all that much. But the thing is, watching the skaters go round and round was genuinely awesome, and, in fact, roller skating is genuinely awesome, and I really need to start going every night so that I no longer feel bad about getting in people's way when I'm skating.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Zeno's Paradox of Gender Equality

The New York Times had a feature last Thursday on the latest on the "why aren't women getting anywhere" business. It's a report, titled "Damned If You Do, Doomed If You Don't." Basically -- shocker -- women can't win no matter what.

If you're nice, you're a pushover. If you're not nice, you're "bitchy." If you're a woman and you get mad at work, you're seen as "out of control"; if you're a man and you get mad at work, you're seen as effective and with-it. This was established showing videos of the same exact scene and just switching up the sex of the actor.

The qualities valued in the workplace, the report says, vary all over the world, but whatever qualities are valued, people seem to think it's those qualities women are lacking.

And of course, if you look frumpy, bad news, but if you look sexy, well, just forget it.

Things like this always remind me of how relatively fragmented life feels from the female inside. George Clooney is sexy, rich, mature, powerful, and excellent marriage material. But to be sexy for a woman is to be young and therefore probably powerless; to be excellent marriage material for a woman is to be nurturing and soft, and to care about the home -- hardly the qualities that lead to wealth.

I used to wonder how small sexist behaviors could add up to the striking sex differences in positions of power, especially after so much time has elapsed. Now that so many of my friends have children, one answer is becoming apparent to me.

If you think about family life -- even without kids, but especially with them -- there's actually a lot of work to do to make it good. There's shopping, cooking, cleaning, childcare, it's a huge amount of time.

Who is going to do all this family-work? It seems as though the early feminists thought that family-work could simply be divided in half: each partner does his or her share.

But in a capitalist competitive system like the one we've set up, anyone doing a full half of the family-work is at a pretty serious disadvantage with respect to anyone doing less-than-half. So a family likely does best for itself financially when one person does more of the family-work and one person does less. I bet in lots of cases -- jobs that require and reward long, long hours of work -- the difference is dramatic.

So there's great pressure to divide the work less-than-evenly. And if you're going to divide the work less-than-evenly, you're probably going to want the one who earns more to be the one doing less family-work. You add up a million small sexist behaviors, and what do you get? The man is almost always going to be the one who earns more.

This is how small behaviors translate into huge sex differences. Millions of families, making the same cost-benefit analysis, and ending up with the obvious solution: a man who works hard at some hard job and a woman who works less hard at a less hard job and also makes dinner.

Since I work in a university, I'm surrounded by academics, who have it relatively easy on these matters -- even though we work hard, our time is flexible. But the problem in academia, of course, is finding jobs in the same location. And here the same thing plays out. Over and over you see it: Mr. X has a job offer from Great Research University in Perfect Location, Ms. X has one from Slightly Less Good University in Slightly Less Perfect Location. Where do you think they'll go?

You know where they'll go. And you know what Ms. X will do when they get there: she'll teach a few classes, work part time, and make dinner.

It's nobody's fault. But it's a part of the explanation of how small differences in hiring, promotion, and so on, translate into crazy shit like women being still only 19 percent of full professors at doctoral universities, but 57 percent of lecturers and instructors.

What is someone's fault, and what pissed me off on Thursday, was that the Times story was in the god-damn Styles section. Uh, hello?