Monday, May 31, 2004

I haven't seen the new World War II memorial yet. I'll probably pop by and take a look when I go to D.C. for my brother's wedding next week. To be honest, I'm dreading it. A big part of it is that I'm not happy about where the thing is, right on the Mall, surrounding the reflecting pool. It mars a really great view, but it also adds a permanent martial note to a space that I associate with non-violent political protest. This is particularly unfortunate given the current tendency to contrast the "Greatest Generation" with their supposedly not-so-great, whiny, protesting progeny and implicitly to valorize the kind of patriotism that involves killing people over the kind that doesn't. This is, of course, silly. I'm sure there were many WWII veterans at the March on Washington. In fact, the civil rights movement had its genesis partly in the righteous anger of African-American veterans who risked their lives to fight fascism and then returned home to find that they still had to sit in the back of the bus. Baby Boomers don't have a monopoly on peaceful protest, and not all members of the "Greatest Generation" retreated into comfortable suburban conservatism the moment the war was over. But juxtaposing the "Greatest Generation's" military service with the Baby Boomers' protest politics sure is a convenient way to demonize the peaceful practice of democracy.

Discussions of the "Greatest Generation" are almost always implicitly conservative, if not reactionary. The lesson we are supposed to learn is that their "greatness" stemmed from their unquestioning sacrifice. They were great because they exemplify a kind of citizenship that focuses on obligations, not rights. It's a form of citizenship that obeys the dictates of the government rather than making demands on it. It's a form of citizenship that is thought to be performed with the body, not the mind: soldiers are supposed to act, not think. It's a form of citizenship in which physical courage, physical prowess, and a spirit of self-sacrifice are more important than actual civic engagement. There's something very compelling about this vision of citizenship, and not just because it's easier to make movies about battles than about reading the newspaper and trying to tease out what changes in tax policy will really mean for the working poor. This version of citizenship is pretty grim for the actual military personnel dealing with the unglamorous reality of modern war, although I suppose it offers the psychological compensation that comes from being told you're among the truest, best citizens. But it lets the rest of us off the hook. The military doesn't need or want me, and it's not like the current war demands a lot of sacrifice of those of us on the Home Front who are lucky enough not to have close relatives serving overseas. I'm not rationing sugar or planting a victory garden the way my grandmother did. The Greatest Generation version of citizenship, therefore, asks me to "support our troops" and not do much else. Considering all the other pressures on my time, the effort it takes to inform myself about current events, and how depressingly futile my recent efforts at political engagement have felt, I can see the appeal of a version of citizenship that doesn't require anything but obedience.

But there's a different way to tell the story of the Greatest Generation, and it's not one that we hear very often. And that's the story of the GGs as the recipients of the biggest, most ambitious, and most effective welfare programs in American history. Start with public education. In 1910, 10% of American teenagers attended high school; by 1940, it was up to 70%. This represented a huge state-sponsored, state-funded effort to extend to all but the most disadvantaged members of society opportunities that had previously been reserved for the elite, and it would prove incredibly important after the war when the U.S. government faced the challenge of easing soldiers back into civilian life. Next, there was the New Deal, which ensured that most of the GGs would have the right to unionize, unemployment insurance, and some money to live off of in their old age. Finally, the American government dealt with the traditional problems of post-war conversion by funding programs that would literally create the modern American middle class. Typically, when big wars end, there's a period of high unemployment, as returning soldiers flood the labor market. The U.S. avoided that partly by unceremoniously firing women workers, whether they wished to leave the labor force or not. But the government also hit upon the brilliant idea of paying for returning soldiers to go to college, thereby delaying their return to paid employment. Those beneficiaries of expanded public secondary education, therefore, now also had the opportunity to benefit from vastly expanded access to college as well. Similarly, faced with an acute housing shortage, the Federal government subsidized returning veterans' mortgages, making it possible for young families to move to suburbs that would never have been built without federal mortgage subsidies.

Needless to say, these welfare policies primarily benefited white men. African-Americans, many of them stuck in a separate and unequal school system, were represented in vastly disproportionate numbers among the 30% of GGs who were not able to attend high school. New Deal programs like Social Security explicitly exempted jobs in which women and African-Americans were heavily concentrated, such as agricultural labor and domestic service. Because New Deal programs tied old-age pensions to work, women war workers who lost their jobs in the post-war reconversion also lost their benefits. Both the educational and mortgage provisions of the GI bill were only available to veterans, and almost all veterans were men. Redlining and restrictive covenants excluded many veterans of color from new suburbs. Part of the task of post-war social justice movements was to claim for oppressed groups the welfare benefits that white men took as their due.

The real monument to the Greatest Generation, I think, is not some bunch of pillars on the Mall. It's the modern American welfare state. It's the suburban, college-educated middle-class that the welfare state brought into existence. And it's the invisible exclusions built into our ideas about state intervention. It's the fact that oppressed members of society are expected to feel a combination of shame and gratitude for programs which benefit them, while privileged people are allowed to deny that their welfare benefits constitute welfare at all. You won't hear about this monument: it's not handy for politicians in an election year, and Tom Hanks isn't going to make a movie about it. But it matters a lot more than anything Congress can plunk down on the Mall.

Friday, May 28, 2004

How's this for a truly bizarre coincidence?

For the past two years, I've shared an office with five colleagues. We use it to meet with students and do some administrative stuff and things like that. Yesterday I bumped into a guy who was one of my officemates last year. Let's call him Fred. I remembered that Fred had lost his hearing in one ear last year, and since I'm interested in hearing stuff these days, I asked him what had happened.

He said that he'd had a weird autoimmune inner-ear thing. First he got vertigo, then he'd gone deaf in one ear.

"That's really strange," I said, "because I'm having a weird autoimmune inner-ear thing. I haven't lost any hearing, but I have vertigo."

"Do you also have iritis?" he asked.

At which point, my jaw dropped.

Now, I don't want to make too much of this. Both Fred and I had indicators of autoimmune problems long before we started sharing an office. Fred has had iritis periodically since he was a kid. But it's a really weird coincidence. Autoimmune inner-ear disease is not at all common. My rheumatologist has seen two cases in twenty years of practice. Autoimmune inner-ear disease accompanied by iritis is really, really rare. It is very strange that two people in the same department, sharing the same office, have this particular, very rare constellation of symptoms.

I can't decide whether I should tell my rheumatologist about this. Is it possible that there's something in the office that could trigger inner-ear problems in people who are already predisposed to have autoimmune issues? I know that sounds nutty.

One more medical thing before I shut up and try to think about something else. It's been bugging me recently that there isn't a medical specialty in autoimmune disorders. It's been bugging me personally, because I'm having a really hard time getting my various doctors to coordinate, and it would be nice if there were one person who was really in charge. But it also strikes me as politically sketchy. All autoimmune diseases fall to rheumatologists, because rheumatologists deal with joints, and arthritis is the most common autoimmune disease. But my condition has nothing to do with joints, and I'm still seeing a rheumatologist. It's as if we sent everyone with cancer to a lung specialist because lung cancer is the most common form of cancer. That would never in a million years happen. And I just don't believe that it's a coincidence that this neglected class of disorder is one that primarily strikes women and disproportionately strikes women of color. Call me cynical.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

I would like to offer some unsolicited advice to grade-grubbers. Actually, I would like to offer advice to students who wish to talk to professors or T.A.s in an attempt to get their grades raised. Not all of these students come across as grade-grubbers. Sometimes they are actually right. Here is how to make your case.

First of all, have a good reason that your grade should be higher.

Some things that are not good reasons:

Here are some better reasons:

And here is how to behave when you go in to grade grub ask for a higher grade.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Ok, so I am, again, suddenly and inexplicably exhausted. This is beginning to make me nervous, for two reasons. First of all, there's the rare but serious heart complication that's associated with the Very Rare Condition. And secondly, and I think this is the more likely cause, there's the possibility that I'm having blood sugar issues. Blood sugar issues are, like just about every other unpleasant thing known to woman, a possible side effect of prednisone. (I have been having particularly good hair days recently. My face may be a bloated, spotty mess, but my hair is shiny and bouncy and wavy and a total contrast to its usual stick-straight boringness. I'm wondering if this could be a good prednisone side-effect. Or maybe it's the humidity.) I've definitely been more thirsty than usual, and I'm peeing all the time. I'm getting up to pee four or five times a night. These, along with fatigue, are the things I was told indicate blood sugar problems. So tomorrow I'm going to have to call the doctor, and I'm sure she'll make me come in for another blood test, and I'm just really bored of being poked and prodded and having blood drawn. I have an ear doctor appointment tomorrow, too, which I suppose is good, because if I need to get blood taken I'll already be at the hospital. But honestly, I'm getting really bored with being sick. I'm getting bored with doctors. I don't know if there are stages of dealing with illness, the way there are stages of grief, but if so, I'm out of denial and anger and into I just really want my old life back.

Yeah, I know, whine, whine, whine. Ok, there are some good things in my world, too.

In an article on testing and textbooks in the current Journal of American History, Sam Wineburg reports on a history test given to a 1500 students in Texas.

Across the board, results disappointed. Students recognized 1492 but not 1776; they identified Thomas Jefferson but often confused him with Jefferson Davis; they uprooted the Articles of Confederation from the eighteenth century and plunked them down in the Confederacy; and they stared quizzically at 1846, the beginning of the U.S.-Mexico war, unaware of its place in Texas history. Nearly all students recognized Sam Houston as the father of the Texas republic but had him marching triumphantly into Mexico City, not vanquishing Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at San Jacinto.

The overall score at the elementary level was a dismal 16 percent. In high school after a year of history instruction, students scored a shabby 22 percent, and in college after a third exposure to history, scores barely approached the halfway mark (49 percent). 1

You're probably not terribly surprised by this: it's pretty much the standard fodder for a familiar narrative of American educational failure and decline. You might be surprised to hear, however, that this test was administered not in 2004, but in 1917. According to Wineburg, student scores on history tests have remained similarly and constantly dismal across the course of the century. You could argue that the tests used to measure more difficult and sophisticated material, but the examples of student ignorance that Wineburg unearths seem to suggest otherwise. Actually, if you take into account the vastly expanded pool of children who actually attend school now, it seems pretty likely that kids these days know more about history than their counterparts did seventy years ago.

It's fun to debunk the familiar degeneration theory of American education, but actually the interesting bit of the article is about the "science" of test writing, and the ways in which that "science" predetermines the results of tests. It raises the possibility that reliance on statistical methods actually distorts results. The most glaring example of this bias is the assumption that a good question is one that replicates the outcome of the entire test. So the students who score best on the test, as a whole, should score best on each particular question. If that's not the case, then the question should be thrown out. The problem with this is that it penalizes students whose historical knowledge differs from the majority student population's. Wineburg gives a hypothetical example:

Imagine an item about the Crisis magazine, which W.E.B. DuBois edited, that is answered correctly at a higher rate by black students than by whites, while overall white students outscore blacks on the test by thirty points. The resulting correlation for the DuBois item would be zero to negative, and its chances of survival would be slim—irrespective of whether historians thought the information was essential to test.2

Which is to say, if the item was retained, it would show that white students didn't know very much about African-American history. But in practice, the question would be scrapped, and instead African-American students' historical knowledge would be slighted.

Wineburg also suggests that test-writers assume that if the overwhelming majority of students get a question either right or wrong, there's something wrong with the question. It fails to differentiate between those students who have mastered the material and those who haven't. But in fact, it could be that schools are doing either a great or a lousy job teaching that particular topic.

Now, I'm going to be honest and admit that I don't know nearly enough about statistics to evaluate whether Wineburg's criticisms make sense. But they raise some interesting questions which I haven't seen in the whole debate about testing and standards. And it may be that the most notable thing about the article is that the JAH, the scholarly journal of the Organization of American Historians, published this article at all. Historians based in universities have not paid nearly enough attention to what's going on in K-12 education. If this is evidence of a change in attitude, that can only be a good thing.

1 Sam Wineburg, "Crazy for History," Journal of American History 90 (No. 4, 2004), 1401-1414, pp. 1402-1403.

2 ibid, p. 1409.

Friday, May 21, 2004

I have become strangely obsessed with Romenesko. In general, I'm a little obsessed with media about the media, which seems like an odd interest for someone who has never worked in journalism. It may be a residual effect of my high-school dream of being a crusading reporter, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable and all of that. I gave up this ambition reluctantly after realizing that investigative journalists spend most of their time talking to strangers, a thing which I find excruciating and at which I am completely inept. Later, I realized that American journalism has largely turned its back on the investigative tradition and that I'd probably just have been frustrated anyway. (Maybe the recent canonization of Seymour Hirsch will change that, although I'm not all that optimistic.) So now I spend all day reading newspapers from the 1920s, afflicting and comforting nobody but myself. And then I read websites about the media.

Crusading historians are few and far between. Academics like to think of themselves as political, and there certainly is a political aspect involved in deciding who and what gets studied, but we're really not crusading types. But Bruce Craig, who runs the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History is an exception. He's the historical profession's one-man voice on Capitol Hill, advocating for access to archives, transparency in funding of history-related projects, participation by actual scholars in history education, and other good stuff. His weekly NCC Washington Updates are pretty much the only way to stay on top of Federal policies that affect the American historical profession. This week's update has a report on a former National Endowment for the Humanities employee who may face prosecution for blowing the whistle on policies that made it more difficult for projects dealing with race, sexuality or gender to get funding.


According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sheldon Bernstein, the inspector general (IG) of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)has initiated an investigation into the actions of Julia C. Bondanella, a former NEH employee, for allegedly improperly disclosing information about grant applicants and employee matters to a Chronicle reporter.

In January 2004, the Chronicle published a lengthy article by Anne Marie Borrego on the NEH practice of "flagging" -- that is, identifying applications dealing with controversial topics (i.e. ones dealing with sexuality, race, or gender) and giving them closer scrutiny in the review process. In the lengthy article Bondanella was briefly quoted about the
agency's ongoing practices.

Read the whole article in the NCC update. And score one for the Chronicle of Higher Education, for upholding the tradition of investigative journalism in its own little patch.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Good lord, I feel like shit. I'm giving myself permission to lie in bed until I'm confident I can get up without falling down. The other day my doctor suggested that I might need a cane, and I said no. I'm starting to think she was right. Sigh.

We're having problems with our upstairs neighbors. Actually, we're having problems with their kid, which makes it all the more complicated. We don't really know the upstairs neighbors: they're not very social. Ok, they're a little weird, although both my roommate and I are having trouble identifying exactly what makes them seem so odd. And when we discussed our problems with very nice neighbors whom we do know, the nice neighbors described Mr. Weird Neighbor as "volatile." Apparently someone complained about their dog in the past, and there was unpleasantness. We are, therefore, unsure about how to proceed with our problem.

The upstairs neighbors have a daughter who appears to be 7 or 8. From what we've seen of her, she seems like a great kid: smart and precocious and curious and cool. And loud. Very, very loud.

The kid upstairs is homeschooled, which means that she's around all day long. Also, she keeps odd hours: she gets up at 8:30 or so and goes to bed at around midnight. And between 8:30 AM and midnight, she engages in her favorite activity, which appears to be jumping off of her bed onto the floor directly above my roommate's desk. Frequently, she yells when she does this. The ceiling shakes. All the light-fixtures in the apartment rattle. Her dog howls.

My roommate and I both work from home pretty often. And while we've been fleeing to the library during the day, neither of us really wants to do that at night. We come home in time for dinner, and after that we'd like to be able to study in our rooms and then go to bed at a reasonable hour. And we can't, because the kid upstairs is practicing to be an Olympic pole vaulter.

So here are the problems. First of all, if we complain, it's going to sound like we're passing judgment on the way the neighbors are raising their kid, especially since the way they're raising their kid appears to be pretty unconventional. That's not our intention at all. We just want to get our work done and get to bed at a reasonable hour. And this is compounded by the fact that the people upstairs are professional education experts, and that presumably they have very strong ideas about the way they're raising their kid.

Secondly, there's a huge power differential here. We live in a co-op building, in which all the other residents are shareholders. We're the only renters. Our rent is due to go up at the end of the year, and all the shareholders will get together and decide by how much. There are a number of other things, having to do with approving subletters and scheduling termite spraying and replacing appliances, that shareholders could fool around with if they felt like punishing us. Actually, it wouldn't be terribly difficult to orchestrate things so that we had to leave, and that would be a massive nightmare. We really aren't in a position to make enemies of our neighbors.

And finally, there's the issue of Mr. Weird Neighbor's "volatility." Usually, I wouldn't think this situation would be a huge deal. We'd say "hey, would it be possible for you to keep it down after, say, 8:00 PM," and they'd say "sure," and we'd all be reasonable. But when we raised this with the nice neighbors, who are also the current heads of the co-op board, they advised us against saying anything. They said they'd try to come up with a way to address it. Since then, the kid has, if anything, been louder. My roommate thinks she's heard the father egging her on, telling her to jump off her bed. I can't decide if this is a coincidence, or if the nice neighbors said something and that was Mr. Volatile's response.

I'm pretty annoyed with the entire situation. For one thing, I don't want to approach the weird neighbors against the nice neighbors' advice, but I also feel like I can't really blame the weird neighbors for not fixing a situation that they may not realize is a problem. On the other hand, if you live in an upstairs apartment, it just doesn't seem like rocket science to consider that the people downstairs may not appreciate it if you make lots of noise late at night.

And look at that, I'm actually feeling better! I think I may rouse myself and try to take a shower.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

So the hospital just sent me someone else's medical records.

Did I mention that the hospital just sent me someone else's medical records????!!!!!

I had ordered my own medical records for the road trip, and I went and picked them up myself. Today, my disclosure form arrived in the mail, followed by some guy's entire 88 page file. It has his social security number on the first page, and his diagnosis and all his test results and... it makes me a little sick just thinking that I looked at any of it. I called the privacy office, and the woman literally said "oh, fuck," and then told me to send them back to them.

Quite aside from the major, vast breach of privacy, how am I supposed to trust that they're competent to keep track of things like test results if they can't keep people's medical records straight?

I've finally broken down and decided to get my groceries delivered, as part of my new effort to stop being a good little trooper and acknowledge that I'm going to be a little impaired until the world settles down and stops spinning. I feel guilty about this. I'm abandoning my lovely, local grocery co-op for a soulless corporate supermarket. No more picking out the freshest produce, not that the produce at the co-op is all that fresh. No more oh-so-European daily jaunts to the market. Most of the stuff I ordered is made by huge food conglomerates, like Kraft and Nestle. I'm going to be eating like a proletarian, not like a peasant. Alice Waters would be appalled. I'm a failure as a foodie.

The thing is, I've never really been a successful foodie. I'm a foodie poseur. I've become, with a lot of work, an adequate cook, but there's nothing at all instinctive about it. It's taken a lot of work for me to wean myself off of absolute adherence to recipes. It was a huge breakthrough when I stopped measuring the olive oil in which I cook onions. It's only recently that I've begun to trust myself to eyeball the spices in a chili recipe that I've made so many times I've literally memorized it. My one real kitchen triumph, pie crust, is something I've mastered only because I attacked it with an approach so rational and scientific that I should have worn a lab coat during my many experiments in gluten-minimization. Seriously: I can actually explain the chemistry of flakiness to you. While my pie crust is, I have to say, pretty damn awesome, it signifies everything that's wrong with me in the kitchen. I take great pleasure in serving people food that makes them happy, but there's not a lot of joy in my method. It's a far cry from the playful, free-form, sense-based kind of cooking that distinguishes a true foodie from a faux-foodie like me.

Maybe that's why I've never been a huge fan of food writing. I read cooking magazines in an obsessive search for the kind of recipes I like: filling, veggie casseroles, burritos and the like, preferably that freeze well. I enjoy Jeffrey Steingarten's columns in Vogue, but I think they're really more about obsession than about food. It so happens that food is Steingarten's particular passion, but he could just as well be writing about the over-the-top quest for comic books or first editions or tropical fish. He's the record-collecting geek of the food world. But I don't read a lot of true food writing. I've never even tried M.F.K. Fisher, which in itself should tell you that I'm not a real foodie. The books about food that I like tend really to be about something else, like Sidney Mintz's brilliant Sweetness and Power, which is as much about the links between European industrialization and slavery as it is about the history of sugar.

This is, I think, why I really enjoyed Laura Shapiro's Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. It's really not a book about food. It's about cooking, and what cooking meant to women, and how the food industry tried to change what cooking meant to women in order to get them to buy newfangled food products. But really, it's about the revisionist history of women in the 1950s. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.

We're all familiar with the standard version of the 1950s. That's the one with rampant conformity: men in gray flannel suits, women blissfully vacuuming in pearls, pleased as punch to do nothing but pop out children and bake cookies (or barring that, pretending to be while drowning their sorrows in cocktails and tranquilizers), everyone living in the suburbs with their white picket fences and their 2.5 children. Insert the standard disclaimer about how of course many people were excluded from this consensus, but mostly ignore them. Be nostalgic for this time, or mock it, or both. Talk about it as the calm before the storm of the 1960s, the official Decade That Changed Everything.

The revisionist history of the 1950s holds that this era of conformity and consensus never existed. In fact, the '50s were characterized by anxiety, rapid social change, and the first stirrings of many of the social movements that would alter the world in the '60s. And part of this was that women, including married white middle-class women in the suburbs, had a much more complicated attitude towards domesticity than the standard narrative would have you think. Many openly acknowledged the drawbacks of domestic life: the tedium, the loss of status, the desire for stimulation and adult companionship. This stuff was a staple of articles in women's magazines of the time, and possible solutions were raised and discussed. Many women saw full-time domesticity as a temporary status: the '50s was a period of extremely high fertility, and many young mothers reported that they intended to return to the workforce when their children were older. Over the course of the decade, increasing numbers did just that. Yet even with all this acknowledged ambivalence, many women, across divisions of race, class, region and culture, remained committed to the domestic ideal. They might find it tiring and tedious and yearn for something else, but keeping house, cooking, and caring for children remained central aspects of their identity and sources of meaning in their lives. And many still expected themselves to do those things with an ease, effortlessness and grace that certainly never existed outside of T.V. and advertising copy.

Shapiro's book is about how food industry types assumed that harried, overworked homemakers would prove the perfect consumers for new processed food products, and how they hit against women's attitudes towards what comprised proper domesticity. It turned out that many women didn't want to feed their families by throwing a frozen dinner in the oven, no matter how quick or easy or ostensibly tasty that might be. It didn't feel like cooking. It didn't feel like fulfilling their obligation to nourish their families. They expected cooking to reflect skill and love and hard work. Even the most frazzled, inept cook felt like she was shirking her domestic duties if she let food manufacturers make dinner for her. Shapiro argues that the industry set about trying to redefine cooking, showing women that baking a cake from a mix could involve as much "flair" and "creativity" as baking a cake from scratch. Meanwhile, other forces were at work. Shapiro ends her book with cooking's ostensible liberation at the hands of two very different women: Julia Child, who broke down the gendered divide between the female home cook who created food as a domestic obligation and the male chef whose food was a display of macho art, and Betty Freidan, who finally packaged the decade's abundant domestic malaise in a way that was suitable to start a movement.

I have to say that I don't find that contention all that convincing. Julia Child is obviously a tremendously significant figure in the history of American food, not to mention a hugely engaging and appealing character, but I'm not sure she really altered the way the average American woman got dinner on the table every night. I've been reading The Julie/Julia Project, and I'm most struck by the fact that I really, really don't cook like that. My cooking is much more influenced by California cuisine than by anything done by a French chef. And while feminism has changed everything, I'm not sure how radically it's changed the expectation that women will be ultimately responsible for food preparation. At the very least, it took a generation for that to change, I think. My brothers are reasonably adept in the kitchen, although unlike me they didn't start to learn to cook until after they left home. But my father is still at a loss when my mother isn't home to make dinner. When I was a kid, and this is firmly on the other side of the Betty Freidan divide, if my mother wasn't around to make dinner, we went out for fast food or I made my signature pasta with eggplant sauce. At 12 years old, I was a better cook than my fully-grown, reasonably enlightened father. I was a girl, and cooking was a girl thing to do. I took a lot of pride in my ability to be a stand in for my mother, even as I vaguely realized that there was something wrong with the fact that my father and brothers never stuck around to help with the dishes.

At any rate, both Child and Freidan are well-known figures, and in fact Shapiro's chapter on them is so derivative that she ought to send their respective biographers royalties. If there's a really stunning character who emerges from the book, it's Poppy Cannon, the author of, among other things, The Can Opener Cookbook. Shapiro could have treated Cannon as an object of scorn and ridicule, and indeed she shows that the gourmet food establishment did just that. And it's hard not to laugh just a little bit at someone who insisted that it was possible to replicate gourmet French cooking using only processed, canned ingredients. But in Shapiro's hands, Cannon emerges as a vibrant, noble, and slightly tragic figure: a woman who refused to back down from her conviction that women should and could have it all. A completely self-made woman, Cannon insisted on living her life on her own terms: a Jewish immigrant from a deeply troubled family, she changed her name, won a scholarship to Vassar, established a wildly successful career as a journalist and food authority, and married three times before settling down with the love of her life, NAACP president Walter White, in a match that was as transgressive as it was apparently happy. Shapiro suggests that Cannon knew deep-down that her canned-food cuisine wasn't up to the standard of real cooking; Cannon had all the foodie instincts that hack cooks like me lack. But she clung, tenaciously and a bit desperately to the idea that, with the help of the proper technology, women could balance satisfying work with a satisfying, gracious home life. Shapiro sees Cannon as embodying the contradictions of the '50s, but to me she seems like a much more modern figure. It's easy to see a bit of her in all those working mothers who are making family-sized takeout meals a big seller at places like Boston Market. And while I'm not a big take-out aficionado, if you have the money, you can throw together dinner on the fly with a lot less guilt and sacrifice of quality than Poppy Cannon and her audience could fifty years ago.

I don't have the money, though, and I'm a little worried that my scaled-back, corporate-supermarket meals are going to look like the recipes in The Can Opener Cookbook. Actually, as we speak, I'm about to go cheat and stop by the co-op on my way to the library for green lentils, something that the delivery service doesn't offer. How pathetic is that? I can't even pull off being a former-faux-foodie!

Sunday, May 16, 2004

The moral of the medical road trip story is that if you have a disease with which 250 other people in the world have been diagnosed, and if there is one doctor who has seen 57 of those people, it is a good idea to go out of your way to get a second opinion from that doctor. Basically, he told me that my disease is so rare that it's impossible to know what my prognosis is, or what treatment would work best, or really anything. You just can't do controlled studies with a sample that small. It was actually a bit reassuring just to hear him say that, because I knew it was true, and it made me trust him. And at least he's basing his opinions on clinical observations of a fair number of people with the Very Rare Condition. More people than anyone else has seen, at any rate.

So here's what he said. In general, vertigo is a temporary symptom of the Very Rare Condition, and it usually goes away on its own in three to six months. He said that if the prednisone hasn't helped yet, he doesn't think it will, and I should go off it and hope that the vertigo fixes itself. He said that only three other people have presented with vertigo and no hearing loss. Two of them never lost any hearing. The third one did within a matter of months. So the odds are slightly in my favor, but the sample is really so small as to be meaningless. He said I need to monitor my hearing and go in at the first sign of any problem, because steroids can arrest hearing loss once it starts. But he said that there's no evidence that taking steroids now will do any good, and at any rate, I can't take this dose indefinitely. Also, about 12 percent of the 57 people have developed heart problems, which can be really serious. So I need to start paying more attention to my health in general: if I feel tired or sluggish or generally lousy, I need to see a doctor right away to make sure my heart is ok.

I'm not sure why this made me feel so much better. Nobody's offering me any guarantees: nobody is promising that the vertigo will go away, or that I won't lose my hearing, or even that I won't die of this. I suppose part of it is just relief that I'll probably get to stop taking steroids. Part of it, I think, is that I feel a little vindicated. The doctor last week was really obnoxious about my insistance on getting a second opinion: he simultaneously accused me of being neurotic and of not trusting him. (This is slightly ironic, since he claimed, inaccurately, that the Very Rare Condition is not significantly different from a more common, similar condition with which he has extensive experience. But there turns out to be a big difference, and that's the heart stuff, which is a rare complication of the Very Rare Condition but which is the most serious aspect of it. He didn't even realize that I needed a baseline EKG, because if I'd had the More Common Condition, my heart wouldn't have been a concern. So I was, in fact, right not to trust him. He didn't, in fact, know as much as he thought he did. Moral of this story: I'm probably right to be wary of doctors who feel threatened by second opinions.) And part of it is just that I've found the person who knows the most about this, even if it's not very much. I can deal with uncertainty, as long as I'm getting the best advice possible.

So that's the news from the medical front. Hopefully tomorrow I'll have something slightly less boring to post about.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Just my luck to be leaving town at the exact moment when India finally dumps the BJP. (I'd link to an Indian paper rather than a British one, but all the Indian media sources are running really slowly. It's not terribly surprising: I bet every Indian expat is checking compulsively.) I want to talk to ask my Indian friends about this, but I don't think I'll have time before the medical road trip. At any rate, anytime a party fueled by religious intolerance is replaced by a secular one, it can only be a good thing. Score one for democracy.

I'm sort of obsessed with the phenomenon of the political widow, of whom Sonia Gandhi is a prime example. There's something really fascinating about women who leverage a "traditional" role to gain real political power. Will perhaps write more about that when it's not the wee hours of the moring and I don't still have papers to grade.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Tomorrow I'm off on a road trip to see the one specialist in the country in my Very Rare Condition, so I'm going to be on hiatus for the weekend. Hopefully I will have something interesting and provocative to say when I get back. I'm afraid this blog is going to get a bit boring if it turns out only to be about my medical problems.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

I am suddenly, inexplicably exhausted, so I apologize in advance if this is incoherent.

Here's an article from the Washington Post about vertigo. I am immensely bitter about this. This person's vertigo is no more interesting than mine. In fact, it's less interesting than mine, as hers is not accompanied by iritis, a weird rash, odd blood tests, strange autoimmune symptoms, and a diagnosis so obscure that most doctors have no idea what it is. And yet she got some money and a perfectly good clip out of her boring old vertigo. How come I didn't think about writing something for the health section?

Maybe I could write about this. It has become clear to me that there are some serious drawbacks to having an invisible disability. (I'm still getting used to thinking of the vertigo as a disabiity. But I'm starting to think that, at least as long as I have it pretty much all the time, it is one. At least, it's getting in the way of my living my life, and that seems to be one of the definitions of a disability.) I'm not saying that it's a great thing to have a visible disability. My oldest friend has cerebral palsy, and being visibly disabled has always been a huge pain in the ass for her. People tend to take one look at her and assume that she's all sorts of things that she patently is not: stupid, passive, incompetent, sweet, brave (she's actually pretty intrepid, but brave means something much smaller and more condescending), etc., etc., etc. People stare. They ask rude questions. Or they don't ask the rude questions, and those questions just hang unspoken in the air. In a lot of ways, it really stinks to be visibly disabled.

But it also stinks to look normal. Today I got told off by a security guard for trying to go through a disabled entrance at the hospital where, ironically enough, I was diagnosed with the condition that makes it necessary for me to use the disabled door. The hospital has a big revolving door, which all the non-disabled people are supposed to go through, and a nice, normal automatic door for disabled people. Revolving doors and vertigo are not a happy combination. It's hard enough to walk in a straight line when your brain thinks you're simultaneously spinning and tilting upwards. It's really difficult to turn correctly while your body thinks it's turning on a totally different axis. So I headed over to the disabled door, and the guard yelled at me "you're not allowed to go through that door. It's for disabled people."

I, of course, expecting people to be reasonable, said "I have vertigo, and it's hard for me to manage the revolving door." But I forget that most people don't know what vertigo is. The security guard clearly either didn't know or didn't care, because he glared at me and yelled louder, so that lots of people turned and stared "it's only for disabled people. USE THE REVOLVING DOOR."

So I did, because I was flustered and people were staring at me and I couldn't figure out how to make myself clear. I've since come up with a little spiel about how I have a balance disorder that makes it difficult to walk, and while it doesn't look like I'm disabled, my balance disorder does in fact qualify. And if he has a problem with that, I'll give him the name of my doctor and he can give me the name of his supervisor and we can all have a little chat about whether I should be able to use the disabled door and who gets to make that call. I almost went back so I could give him that spiel, but I decided that would be pathetic. And I'm not sure it would even be credible, because I did manage to grip the side of the revolving door and make it out without banging into anything or anyone. Thank goodness for small victories.

So anyway, I'm halfway tempted to start carrying around a cane, just so I'll be able to avoid revolving doors without getting yelled at. Actually, I'm tempted to start carrying a cane so I can beat the shit out of obnoxious security guards who don't realize that you can't always see people's physical challenges. You'd think this would be the kind of thing they'd cover in security-guard training at a fucking hospital, wouldn't you?

Monday, May 10, 2004

I thought I'd take a cue from Sofiya and write an irate letter here.

An Open Letter to My Doctors

Dear Doctors:

I know that a lot of the questions I ask are really stupid. They're questions that nobody who knew anything about medicine would ask. The dimmest first-year medical student would know better than to ask my questions. My questions just reveal my ignorance and my inferiority to you.

But here's the thing. I'm going to ask them anyway. I'm not going to let you do anything to me until I understand what it is, why you're doing it, what the alternatives are, and how confident you are that it's going to work. I may look like an idiot in the process, but that's ok. I'm just not willing to defer to your expertise until I understand what's going on. This may be your job, but it's my body, my future, and my life. You can answer my questions right away, and we'll all go home sooner, or you can imply that I'm a neurotic bitch who doesn't know her place, in which case I'll keep asking and the whole thing will take a lot longer. But I'm not leaving until I have the answers I need. The stakes are too damn high.

I crossed some sort of threshold today. I'm done being a nice girl. From here on out, I'm viewing you as people whom I pay to provide me with a service, and I'm going to find a way to get the service I need. I'm sorry that bothers you. It shouldn't. But I don't really care. And I don't care what you think of me, as long as I get what I need from you.

Anyway, thanks very much for being so condescending and obnoxious today. I think I needed to get angry. I think it will provide the impetus to stop being such a wimp and start demanding things. Honestly, I'm pretty sure you did me a favor.

Yours in struggle,


Sunday, May 09, 2004

Look ma, new blog name!

You know how some people have really obscure body hang-ups? Not normal ones, like thinking their thighs are fat or whatever, but strange ones, like not liking their ears or knees or collarbones? Well I have a hang-up about my fingers. They’re really short and stubby, which is kind of to be expected since I'm pretty short and stubby all over, but which still makes me self-conscious. I envy people with long, elegant fingers. So anyway, I don't usually wear anything that calls attention to my short, stubby fingers, which means no nail polish and no funky rings. And that's a shame, because if I liked my fingers, I would definitely be into these, a link I got from the always-fun Not Martha. Maybe they'll branch out into plastic bracelets.

Today brings the news that another left-leaning independent bookstore is closing. It's as depressing as it is predictable.

My first job out of college was selling books at an independent bookstore. Truth be told, it was a pretty awful job. The pay was lousy and the hours were both horrible and totally irregular. It wasn't unusual for me to work until midnight one night and again at eight the next morning. A lot of the customers were pretty obnoxious: smug, powerful, wealthy people who treated booksellers with the casual contempt that I suspected they held for all service workers while simultaneously expecting us to possess a vast store of expertise on every book ever published. The owners subscribed to the weird fiction that the store was a family, not a business, and regularly asked us to do things that might be reasonable to request of your children but were patently inappropriate to expect from employees. There were times when I yearned to work for a faceless corporation where everyone would agree that the employment relationship was mediated by laws and contractual obligations, rather than bonds of affection. Everyone who had anything to do with the place was horribly self-satisfied and convinced of their own superiority to the ordinary book-buying public, a conviction that seemed pretty misplaced, given some of the dreck that they tried to pass off as high-brow literature. And what they couldn't pass off as high-brow, they denied. For instance, they doctored their best-sellers list to hide the fact that The Bridges of Madison County outsold every other novel.

So I don't have a lot of illusions about independent bookstores. I don't think they're some sort of utopian public sphere, never mind particularly nice places to work. But I do think they're important. I'm willing to go out of my way and spend a little more to shop at indies. The point about indies isn't that they're better than Borders or Barnes & Noble. In fact, in some ways they're demonstrably worse: they're less likely to discount bestsellers, and they almost always have a narrower selection. What independent bookstores offer, however, is diversity, and that's really, really important.

If there were no independent bookstores, we would have a situation in which a few major retailers would literally get to decide which books could be published. If Borders, Barnes and Noble, Walmart, and Amazon said that they wouldn't carry a book, there would be no reason to publish it, since there would be no place to sell it. This is a problem because corporate bookstores, like all big corporations, are notably adverse to controversy.

Think about Disney's recent decision not to release the Michael Moore film. Now, I'm not a conspiracy theorist, and I think that Disney is telling the truth about why they made that decision. Disney serves a mass audience, and that audience includes a lot of Republicans. In fact, it includes a lot more people who think George W. Bush is a great guy than people who agree with Michael Moore. It isn't worth it to alienate the 50% of Americans who think Bush is groovy in order to sell tickets to the miniscule percentage of the population who think Moore has something meaningful to say. This is a totally rational business decision. And it's a reason that you don't want the flow of information controlled by people who serve a mass audience.

Niche retailers have the luxury of being offensive. They can put off some people, or even a lot of people, without worrying about losing customers. They don't have to bank on a controversial book being an Ann Coulter-sized bestseller in order to justify the outrage from the other side. Can this be annoying? Sure. There are niche retailers who sell books and movies that I firmly wish did not exist. But it's the only way to ensure that we have any sort of intellectual diversity. Otherwise, we'll get a bit of Ann Coulter and a lot of bland, pseudo-centrist crap that doesn't challenge or offend anyone. Considering how offensive pseudo-centrism is these days, that would be a bad thing.

I don't shop for books at the major chains, but I've been told that at the moment, Borders and Barnes & Noble are actually ok on this score. They'll still carry politically challenging books. I suspect, however, that this is because they still have to compete with the remaining independent bookstores. The chains' trump card is selection, and they need to convince customers that they’re more likely to find what they want at enormous chain stores than at smaller indies. As soon as the indies are gone, however, they'll be free to limit their stock. And at that point, it will be too late to turn to niche independent bookstores that will carry the stuff that we want.

So I'm going to put out a plea to people to support your local indie. If you don't have a local indie, find a nice independent, or better yet independent feminist, bookstore online and order from them.

Friday, May 07, 2004

It’s hard to think of anything to say about the emergency contraception decision that isn’t completely obvious, so instead I’ll supply some addresses.

Food and Drug Administration
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, Maryland 20857

President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

It seems unlikely that the FDA will reevaluate the decision in an election year, since shoring up the Republican base is clearly more important than preventing unwanted pregnancies or giving women control over our bodies, but it’s worth writing anyway. I find that expressing outrage is far more cathartic than banging my head against a wall.

In the meantime, in a surprisingly good and overtly political page on the emergency contraception issue, Self magazine suggests that you ask your doctor to write you a prescription for the morning after pill now, before you need it. That way you’ll have it on hand if the occasion should ever arise. This is particularly important because the sooner you use the pill, the more effective it is. While women run around looking for a doctor to prescribe them emergency contraception, the clock is ticking and the chances of it working are decreasing. This is, of course, only a problem if you believe that women ought to have access to effective contraception.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Aaargh. I have a million errands to run, but I can't do them, because I'm sitting around waiting for the ear, nose and throat doctor to return my call. I know that the doctor has to deal with people other than me, but it's still very frustrating. He's has been out of town for a week, and meanwhile I'm getting worse. I feel like my body is falling apart, and nobody but me seems all that concerned. That's probably unfair, but I'm still annoyed.

I'm having a really hard time dealing with my doctors. For one thing, I tend to downplay my symptoms. I didn't even realize I was doing this until my roommate overheard me talking to the rheumatologist on the phone and told me I was. The thing is, I don't want to sound like I'm whining. So they'll say "how bad is your vertigo?" and I'll say "well, it's not good, and I seem to have it a lot, but I can cope with it," or something like that. And then I expect them to realize that what that really means is "it's much, much worse than it was." I think the rheumatologist is really pissed off at me, because it took me several tries before I managed to convey to her how much worse it is.

Doctors seem to bring out my every deferential impulse, and I really need to get over it.

In other news, I get to spend the entire day grading papers. Lucky me!

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

I slept through the night last night. Hooray! Actually, I feel surprisingly ok right now. I'm not exhausted, and for once I don't feel like I'm spinning, rocking, waving, or about to blast off. I'm so rarely vertigo-free these days that I'd sort of forgotten what it feels like when my experience of the world corresponds to some sort of objective reality.

This article in Salon contains the staggering revelation that women surf the internet because it's fun, and unless that's news to you, there's no real reason to read it. But I'm linking to it because the people who brought us this startling insight are none other than Just Ask a Woman, a market research firm with which I have had dealings. During my grad school career, I’ve done a lot of things to earn extra money. I’ve worked as a receptionist; I’ve temped; I’ve worked for non-profits in several capacities; and I’ve taught a whole lot of classes. But my most surreal income-generating experiences have been participating in market research. And those experiences have convinced me that the entire focus-group industry is a farce.

I got into the focus-group game through my friend J., who hooked me up with her focus-group wrangler. The focus-group wrangler, whom I like a lot, is a sarcastic stay-at-home mother who’s clearly more invested in filling seats than in selecting participants who adhere to the companies’ specifications. We have a tacit understanding that I will mold myself a bit to fit those specifications. For instance, I’m happy to engage in some creative accounting about my annual income. I usually count my tuition-exemption as income to make it sound like I have actual disposable cash. And that’s not the only thing I fudge. We frequently have discussions that go something like this:

Wrangler: They’re looking for women who are on a diet.

Me: Well, I’m trying to eat more healthily.

W: They want women who are trying to lose between 5 and 15 pounds.

Me: Um, I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I lost 5 pounds.

W: Ok, I’ll put you down.

My rule is that, while I will twist the truth to get into a group, once there I am totally honest. Therefore, the people who run the groups hate me. For one thing, they’re usually interested in advertising, and I want to focus on the products. So our exchanges go something like this:

Focus-group host: this advertisement is for low-carb cereal. What do you think about it?

Me: Is that even possible? Isn’t cereal by definition full of carbohydrates?

Host: I don’t know. Would that advertisement make you buy the cereal?

Me: No.

Host: What about this one?

Me: No.

Host: Which one would be more likely to make you buy the cereal?

Me: I would never buy that cereal. It looks disgusting. I don’t believe low-carb cereal is possible. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with carbs. I don’t believe that any cereal can make you lose weight. And I’m pretty loyal to Cheerios.

Host: [rolls eyes] Well, would this ad make anyone else buy this cereal?

And here’s the thing. Every focus group has one or two participants who set the tone for the whole group. You can tell within two minutes who those participants will be. The goal of any focus group is to establish yourself as that alpha participant, and then to use that status to insert a little bit of feminist commentary into the proceedings. I should say that I don’t have any illusions that this will score any victories for feminism, but it sure is fun. And it’s surprisingly easy. It’s amazing how often I’ll say “is it really necessary for the model to be that skinny?” or “why can’t daddy have the power of Clorox 2?” and watch the entire room erupt in spontaneous feminist outrage.

Just Ask a Woman was an unusual focus group, though. For one thing, it’s one of the few ones that I had to flat-out lie to get into. It wasn’t just creative accounting: they wanted women who spent $2000 or more a year on cosmetics, and there’s no way to twist numbers and get me into that category. I did it because I was intrigued by the description of the group and also, frankly, because they paid a mind-boggling amount of money. And when I got there, I realized that I was going to have to lie during the group, too. For instance, they asked how often we bought cosmetics and how many items we purchased each time we went shopping. If I’d answered that honestly, they’d have known that I spend more like $50 a year on makeup than $2000. I thought about claiming that I used Crème De La Mer moisturizer (at $100 an ounce, that ought to get me close to $2000 in a year) and then answering honestly about my other cosmetic purchases, but in the end I threw caution to the wind and came up with a character who would spend $2000 a year on makeup. It was completely unethical, but it sure was fun.

Anyway, Just Ask a Woman runs unusually cushy focus groups. Usually, focus groups are not glamorous affairs. You go to some non-descript suburban office building; you and a bunch of other people sit in a conference room, usually in front of a one-way mirror; and they give you some soda and cookies while you answer their questions. Just Ask a Woman rejects this approach entirely. Instead, they strive to recreate the Oprah experience. We were escorted to a huge suite in a very fancy hotel, where we were treated to a full spread of crudités, desserts, and coffee in fancy china cups. Then we sat down in big, comfy chairs and were introduced to the cameraman, who was not hidden behind one-way glass. The whole thing was explicitly conducted like a talk show, with us as the guests. It was bizarre and, I’m ashamed to admit, really fun. At the end of it all, I got a fat check and a new mascara.

As I said, I lied shamelessly throughout the entire proceedings. And there’s some evidence that they took my opinions seriously, because a few months later when I actually saw the ads we had been asked about, they had made some of the changes that I advocated most strongly.

One of the guys in my department has a boyfriend who works in advertising, and when I told him about my little focus group racket, he got a look of unmitigated horror on his face. He said that people who run focus groups understand the weird group dynamics and that they have ways of correcting for them. But he said it had never occurred to him that the participants might be lying about their income or spending habits. He said that what I was doing was really unethical and that it was completely screwing up their research. He’s right, but I have a hard time feeling too bad about it. At any rate, whenever I hear Just Ask a Woman, or for that matter any market research firm, pronounce upon anything, I'm a tad skeptical. Based on my experience, I'm not convinced that market research is anywhere near as scientific as it proports to be.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Can't sleep. I'm having serious insomnia issues these days, and I've decided to stop fighting it. Instead of lying in bed feeling sorry for myself, I'm going to get up, read a book, play on the internet, and feel sorry for myself. Maybe I'll get back to sleep faster that way.

Monday, May 03, 2004

It's not very often that historians' controversies make the mainstream media, but the press actually seems to be paying some attention to the sudden departure of National Archivist John Carlin.

Here's a joint statement from a bunch of scholarly organizations, including the Society of American Archivists, the American Historical Association and the American Library Association.

Essentially, there are two issues. The first is that it's not clear why Carlin is leaving, as he had indicated a desire to stay on for another year. He's refusing to talk to the press, and it looks like it wasn't his choice to retire. There's some suspicion that the Bush administration wants an archivist who will be willing to let them put off the planned release of potentially-embarrassing records relating to the George H. W. Bush administration. The second is that, in the past, groups representing archivists and historians have been consulted about the choice of a new archivist. The Bush administration has bypassed these organizations and appointed someone who, although he professes to be a Democrat, looks like a partisan candidate. And, to me most shockingly, the new nominee, Allen Weinstein, has been accused of ethical violations related to archives in the past. According to that article:

For Weinstein's 1998 book The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America--The Stalin Era, his publisher, Random House, in 1993 paid a group of retired KGB agents a substantial amount of money--Weinstein has told people $100,000--in exchange for "exclusive" access to the KGB archives (see Ellen Schrecker, "The Spies Who Loved Us?" May 24, 1999). This appears to violate the code of ethics of the International Council on Archives, which calls for "the widest possible access" to documents.

The very idea of "exclusive access to archives" offends every standard of acceptable historical practice. The way that the profession works is that people are supposed to be able to evaluate each others' sources: it's the only way to tell whether the a historian has overlooked something or, for that matter, made it all up. This is really basic stuff, and I can't even wrap my head around the idea that the guy who's going to be in charge of the National Archives is someone who thinks it's ok to deny other historians access to your sources. It's like appointing someone who rejects the scientific method to head up the FDA.

Oh, wait. Didn't they try something like that?

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Just made ginger snaps, an experience which has caused me to wonder how I managed to go so many years without discovering parchment paper. Parchment paper makes everything better. Everything.

Did you know that one of the side effects of prednisone is a severely distended abdomen? Neither did I, but I do now. I'm going to have to wear sweatpants tomorrow, which is going to weird out the kiddies who show up for my office hours.

Is there something wrong with me for being really annoyed at the tone of the first paragraph of this Village Voice article about the grad student strike at Columbia? Don't get me wrong: I'm all for grad student unions, and I acknowledge that a lot of the concerns raised in the article are legitimate. I'm alarmed by the casualization of academic labor, and not just because of what it means to my personal job prospects. I'm worried that we're moving towards a two-tiered model of academia, where a small cadre of tenured stars will produce scholarship and a much bigger pool of poorly-paid, untenured adjuncts and grad students will teach undergrads and do the mundane research tasks that are beneath the alpha-profs. I don't think that state of affairs would be good for anyone, besides maybe the alpha-profs: not undergrads, not the academy, certainly not the T.A.s and adjuncts, and if I can be pretentious, not our society. This is all just part of a much bigger crisis about how we fund higher education, and in general we're failing to address that crisis well. At the moment, universities are attempting to balance the books by exploiting workers (and not just academic workers) and by raising tuition, pricing a lot of working-class kids out of higher education. Clearly, this is not ok.

And yet I'm having a really hard time seeing myself as a victim. That Village Voice article makes it sound like I was lured to grad school under false pretenses, and I wasn't. Nobody ever promised me tenure; nobody ever denied the realities of the academic job market. I always knew that there was a chance that I wouldn't find a tenure-track job, and I've kept that possibility in mind at every stage of my grad school career. I've tried to develop a skill set that might have some utility outside the academy. I've thought about how I can sell my dissertation to think tanks, non-profits, maybe even the government. I didn't go into this with the attitude that the world owed me tenure, and I'm not limiting myself to a single career path. I sort of don't understand why grad students seem to think we're the only people in the modern world who should be exempt from thinking creatively or proactively about our careers.

There's also something slightly bizarre about that article's description of grad student life. Grad school does require some big sacrifices: if I'd gone to law school, I'd be making ten times what I earned last year. And I agree that academia has done a particularly lousy job accomodating people's family lives. It's not that you can't get married, as the article suggests, but there's no guarantee that you'll get a job in the same state as your spouse. This is a huge problem.

Having said that, in a lot of ways, grad school is a pretty amazing life. It sounds corny, but I feel immensely privileged to be able to spend my days reading and writing and researching and talking about ideas. Despite the many petty frustrations, I'm sort of flabbergasted that I'm getting paid to do something that's so much fun. I don't feel like my entire life has narrowed to the production of my dissertation, and in fact my dissertation has been enriched by my interactions with a big group of smart, committed grad students from all over the world. At any rate, if I were miserable, I'd leave. It's not like I went to grad school for lack of other options.

(And now I've just been hit with the depressing thought that, because of the VRC, I actually can't leave grad school. I need to keep my health insurance. I think I am not going to consider the career implications of the VRC right now. La, la, la, la, la...not thinking about it.)

Saturday, May 01, 2004

I love my mother to bits, but she truly has the worst taste in clothing of anyone I've ever met. My mom just sent me a care package containing the following outfit:

this top in "seagrass" (which is to say bright green), and these pants in periwinkle blue.

I feel bad being quite so incredulous about a gift, but I can't even begin to imagine what made her think this was something that I would ever, in a zillion years, wear. I wear pretty much the same thing every day: slightly stretchy jeans and a black or dark blue stretchy t-shirt. I do not wear bold patterns, anything baggy, or colors like seagrass or periwinkle. Ever. For that matter, I can't figure out why she would think that anyone would ever wear that outfit. Is there any woman in the world who would look good in periwinkle capri pants? This is not a rhetorical question!

I'm a little ashamed of this, but I just woke up and realized that I'm having a really difficult time adjusting to being ugly. I'm ashamed of it on two levels. First of all, it feels a little vain to admit that until two weeks ago, I was not and did not think I was ugly. And it feels even more vain, not to mention superficial and anti-feminist, to admit that I really care that I am now. I should be worried about much more important things: the war in Iraq, world hunger, the fact that I may go deaf. And instead, I'm actually fretting about the fact that I look like a toad.

Since I started taking steroids, the following things have happened to me. I have lost my cheekbones under a layer of fat. I have developed a double chin. I now devote five minutes every morning to hunting down and plucking hair on my face and chest. I have gone from a person who got the occasional pimple to someone whose face, chest and back are covered in acne. The itchy rash on my chest, which I've had for years and which used to be limited to a small patch between my breasts, now extends from my belly button to my shoulders. I may be imagining it, but I feel like I have more fat around my stomach.

It's probably unrealistic to expect myself to react with equanimity to my sudden transition to ugliness. For one thing, the changes in my appearance just reinforce my basic feeling that my body is falling apart, and vanity aside, that's a lousy feeling. But also, it's probably silly to pretend that I was immune to the subtle and not-so-subtle rewards of being a reasonably-attractive woman. I knew those rewards were illusory and temporary, but on some level it didn't matter. And on some level, even though I haven't noticed any difference in how people treat my ugly self, I feel diminished and a little humiliated by the changes in my appearance. I've found myself wanting to explain to random acquaintances that I'm taking medicine that makes me ugly, like I need to provide some sort of excuse for my sudden hideousness.

My friend L. says that I should do something to make myself feel pretty: get a facial, schedule a spa day. The thing is, I can't really afford it. One of the annoying ironies about getting sick in a country with crappy medical care is that you end up broke at the exact moment you want to pamper yourself. And I'm not even sure it would make me feel any better. L. also thinks I should make an appointment with the student counselling service, and I'm thinking maybe that's a better idea.

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