Monday, June 28, 2010

Being Ladylike is Overrated

Women who make shit happen and are imprinted in the Book of Life are generally not the ladylike type. The exemplary Elena Kagan -- currently on track to be our next Supreme Court justice -- is a Jewish New Yorker with bad hair, bland clothes, and possible lesbionic tendencies. (Carpet munching? So not lady-like.) (Though to be fair, appearing or acting sexual in any way is not very ladylike either.) For the next few days as she makes it through her confirmation hearings, however, she will put a good show: she will cross her legs at the ankles, wear skirts, smile pretty, laugh at the jokes of men, and say as little as possible.

When it's over, she may never have to pretend again. I will be very happy for her. I am guessing that Camille Paglia will not. In the NYT this weekend (on Pride Sunday, in fact, because Gray Lady editors have a sense of humor) she laments the fact that white men and white women have fused to become a sort of androgynous, asexual unit:
[A] new pill, despite its unforeseen side effects, is necessary to cure the sexual malaise that appears to have sunk over the country. ...

In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure.
Now, whose fault is it that being ladylike/gentlemanly is out and androgynous in? "[E]lite schools, with their ideological view of gender as a social construct." She calls them feeder cells, which is super cute because as you may know that's a label usually used for terrorists.

She goes on to explain that white folks are screwed up because our men and our women both look like boys, whereas the darker-skinned folks have a more "healthy" ideal:
[V]isually, American men remain perpetual boys, as shown by the bulky T-shirts, loose shorts and sneakers they wear from preschool through midlife. The sexes, which used to occupy intriguingly separate worlds, are suffering from over-familiarity, a curse of the mundane. There’s no mystery left. ... American actresses have desexualized themselves, confusing sterile athleticism with female power. Their current Pilates-honed look is taut and tense — a boy’s thin limbs and narrow hips combined with amplified breasts. Contrast that with Latino and African-American taste, which runs toward the healthy silhouette of the bootylicious BeyoncĂ©.

Oh my god, Camille Paglia, have you lost your cotton-picking mind? Where is the proof of any of this? First and foremost: what sexual malaise? Seems to me like Americans are doing it early and often (and outside). The subset of Americans she is pounding on here, the educated bourgeoisie, is actually the most likely to have stable marriages. Wouldn't that probably be less true if men really did just feel like cogs in the domestic machine?

In Paglia's world, there don't seem to be any lesbians (mystifyingly, since she herself identifies as one). There are no folks who find gender-bending or androgyny titillating. There are, in fact, no real people at all, only figments of her imagination.

My friend Veronica put it best in a consolatory email she sent after reading the article:
Please let me express my condolences for your sexually suffocated marriage. You must just be killing Ben with your anxiety and ambition. And, my God, he probably has no idea what to do with your Venusian figure. What a shame. But, then again, I should probably question how I can be a Latina lesbian who prefers my girlfriend's broad shoulders to Beyonce's extra-yeasty double-rise curves.
Extra-yeasty. I myself rather fit that description, being composed almost entirely of cleavage; it is hard for me to be as ladylike as I sometimes feel pulled to be. In those moments, though, I try to relax and think of Elena Kagan, not to mention Margaret Cho, Alison Bechdel, Victoria Woodhull, Michelle Obama, and everyone else who has made the world better by simply being who they are.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Events, Summer 2010

Last summer, I was rather proud of how many things I did for $20 or less -- mini-golf on Governor's Island, a Magic School Bus Tour through several boroughs, burlesque shows, Moth shows, drag bingo ... And, as I believe in an Onwards and Upwards theory of life management, this summer should be better yet.

So far, I've seen the New York Liberty play at Madison Square Garden ($10) and Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet, the Little Stranger) interviewed by Maud Newton (free). I'm psyched to make it to a Brooklyn Cyclones game ($8-$16) and maybe a Dorothy Parker Society event (just for contrast).

The calendar is shaping up nicely.

+ Monday, June 28: NY Moth StorySLAM. Showing Off at The Bitter End

+ Wednesday, June 30: River to River: Beth Orton in Rockefeller Park

+ Wednesday, July 7: Riverside Park showing of The Never-Ending Story

+ Wednesday, July 14: Riverside Park showing of Pan's Labyrinth

+ Friday, July 16: David Mitchell (of Cloud Atlas, one of the #BooksThatChangedMyWorld) at Book Court.

+ Wednesday, July 21: Central Park Main Stage presents the Daily Show & Friends featuring Rob Riggle & Jamie Oliver

+ Thursday, July 22: The Big Lebowski in Brooklyn Bridge Park

+ Saturday, July 31: Get out the peasant skirts -- it's Lilith Fair!

+ Thursday, August 5: Brokeback Mountain in Brooklyn Bridge Park

+ Monday, August 23: Bryant Park showing of Bonnie and Clyde

+ Wednesday, September 8: Jonathan Franzen at the B&N in Union Square with his new book, Freedom

+ Sunday, September 12: Brooklyn Book Festival

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

My favorite writers are middle-aged

I came to a strange but inescapable conclusion when I found myself largely unmoved by the New Yorker's "20 Under 40": the writers that thrill me most tend to be of a different generation than me. Rivka Galchen, off of the New Yorker list, is brilliant both in person and on the page (as I discovered at the Brooklyn Literary Festival and in reading Atmospheric Disturbances, respectively); and, before this, I felt bad that Sarah Shun-lien Bynum hadn't gotten more attention for her rendition of the same song that won Olive Kitteridge the Pulitzer Prize. put together a good alternate list which includes Myla Goldberg, whose Bee Season finally taught me, at the age of 20, not to judge books by covers, and which inspired me to aim big in writing my own first novel.

Still, I realize, my favorites -- and the authors of some of the #BooksThatChangedMyWorld, as Susan Orlean put it yesterday -- are not the bright young things, or at least, not anymore. They are, in fact, either Middle-Aged, British, or Dead (though rarely all three at once):

  • Jonathan Franzen (middle-aged)
  • David Mitchell (British)
  • Ann Patchett (buying a Corvette as we speak)
  • Susanna Clarke (Limey)
  • Jane Austen (dead)
  • Dorothy Sayers (as-a-doornail)
  • Michael Chabon (menopausal)
  • Anne Lamott (grandmother!)
  • Marilynne Robinson (virtually a crone)
  • Dorothy Parker (worm-meat, but hopefully happy at last)
Some books #ChangedMyWorld at the time but have since faded comfortably into the ether:
  • Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City and Tom Robbins's Still Life with Woodpecker taught me that there was life outside my Jewish Day School. WAY outside.
  • Bridge to Terebithia -- Wait, you mean people you love can *die*?
  • The Princess Bride -- And life isn't fair?
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry -- And there's serious, endemic injustice built into the system? (This series affected me even more strongly than To Kill a Mockingbird. Though I loved them both.)
  • Midnight's Children -- And other countries have stories worth hearing?
  • Gone With the Wind -- And the South was a victim in the Civil War? (I believed this for about five minutes, until my father sat me down to have a chat. Still, that was a very disorienting five minutes.)
  • The Mists of Avalon -- And patriarchy has not always been the default operating system of every functioning society in the world?
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- And something really funny can still be profound?
  • Slaughterhouse Five and Vonnegut in general -- ditto. That's a lesson I never stop learning.
NOTE: If you want to complain about the "20 Under 40" list, Gawker has created a handy-dandy How To guide. Have at it!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Mr. Ben has photos up from our tour through Israel on his Flickr page, as well on the Book Face. They show an experience of extremes: tranquil scenes on the Sea of Galilee and refugee camps in Jerusalem; old churches and modern beaches; desert hikes and a Netanya wedding for one of the most beautiful brides I've ever seen, the sick-but-beaming, accommodating*, eminently-deserving Tamar.

Well, that's the holy land for you.

And now for a short tangent:

Who among you hates the subject of Israel/Palestine? Could I get a "whoop, whoop!" please? Certainly I'm not the only one.

The subject has been coming up persistently over the last month or so, mostly in my office but also, of course, in the news. Without getting into the details, I can say that it's been frustrating, and I have had to talk to and/or listen to people who do not meet my stringent standards for conversation on the topic.

What are my stringent standards? I'm so glad you asked:

1) No Bumper Stickers. I am thoroughly uninterested in anyone whose thoughts on the subject can be summed up by two words and an exclamation point, unless those words are "It's complicated!"

2) No Assholes. Do you write emails in Comic Sans bold? Do you roll your eyes and/or sigh heavily a lot anytime anyone else talks? Do you refuse to admit when you don't know enough about a subject to venture an opinion? Then go talk to a message board filled with your compatriots, friend, and stop making my ears bleed.

With that in mind, I was a bit nervous about heading over to Israel. As it turned out, I needn't have been: I'm a lot more comfortable talking Israel/Palestine politics while in the neighborhood, so to speak. Maybe it's because, if my discussion buddies are there too, that testifies to a certain level of understanding and commitment to the issue? I'm not sure. At any rate, Mr. Ben and I talked to each other, international strangers in our Tel Aviv hostel, and folks on our Im Amim tour, and we never had a problem. That was a significant relief.

Politics aside, we had a wonderful time. I'm not quite sure I'm ready to be home, to tell the truth. And seeing Tamar get married to a great guy ten years after we lived in Israel together, and spent most of our time moping to the Indigo Girls, was a nearly-transcendental experience. A whole cluster of us traveled over from the US to celebrate with her -- and that included improvising a mikvah experience** in the Mediterranean Sea at sunset and fetching chairs for the hora and finally cutting the neglected wedding cake and dancing to techno remixes until our legs collapsed beneath us. I am so privileged to have gotten a chance to be there.

*This is not flattery. The huppah started an hour late, after the sun had already set; the rabbi overfilled the ceremonial glass of wine (red, not white), and then splashed it on Tamar's wedding dress; the cake was forgotten about until after the guests had left; and yet despite these, and other provocations, Tamar remained radiantly graceful and happy. What's the opposite of a Bridezilla? A BrideTeresa? The world needs a new word.

**The Hebrew word for immersion in a mikvah, "t'vilah," is the same verb used for immersion in baptismal waters AND for immersion in water that leads to drowning. That sums up a pretty complex and crazy country, doesn't it?