Sunday, January 30, 2005

I have been a very, very bad blogger recently. I think my mind has turned to mush. I've also been busy, but that's not a good excuse. I will try to be better next week. I will try to have fascinating thoughts and exciting adventures and to convey them all in a lively, witty, and engaging style.

Barring that, I'll at least try to blog about television.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

I'm in a lousy mood. I've been in a lousy mood for days, and I'm dealing with it by whining a lot and baiting trolls on feministing First of all, it's snowing, and while snow is lovely, it's also very cold. And I don't deal well with cold. I used to think that I was cold-blooded. Now, thanks to the miracle of rheumatology, I know that I have Raynaud's phenomenon and livedo reticularis (Note: you may find the livedo pictures gross. Which is to say, you may find me gross, at least when I'm cold. Sorry about that.) Neither of these things is particularly serious or rare, but they do mean that it hurts to be cold. I used to wonder why I was the only person I knew whose ears felt like they were going to fall off when it got below about 50. Now I know. So anyway, I hate the cold, and I've been holed up in my apartment for two days.

Also, I kind of feel like shit. Yesterday I had a back ache, and it seems to have morphed into an everything-ache. Because everything aches, I can't sleep. Despite my now-almost-entirely-lactose-free diet, my stomach is bothering me. I have an itchy rash. I'm tired, I ache, I itch, I feel like I'm going to puke, and it's all very annoying.

So I'm spending the night cooking, watching T.V., and downloading embarassing pop tunes from iTunes. Seriously embarassing: I just downloaded Britney Spears's "Toxic." I feel a little better already.

Incidentally, I'm watching a BBC profile of ice dancing team John and Sinead Kerr, who are siblings. And I'm thinking that's a little sketchy. Isn't there a kind of couple-y vibe to ice dancing?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

I've been thinking about the Larry Summers flap. I'm sure everyone who reads my blog has heard about this: basically, the president of Harvard suggested that the reason there are so few women elite scientists is that women are innately bad at science and math. And this made me remember a story about the smartest girl in my high school

She was a couple of years ahead of me, and I was friends with her younger sister. She was fierce, and she seemed to be good at everything. She took AP calculus, physics, Latin, English and US history, got 5s on all of them, and ended up with the second highest GPA in her class, even though my school didn’t weight grades and pretty much everyone else was taking an easier course load. She made the all-city track team twice. She worked construction in the summers, which was just not something women did where I grew up. She used to have funny stories about the guys' attempts to harass her and make her uncomfortable, and she at least seemed completely unfazed by it all. She was unusually good looking, even in a school full of really pretty girls. She was so cool that she could wear all black, listen to Skinny Puppy, and instead of people thinking of her as a freak, she just made them think that wearing all black and listening to Skinny Puppy was cool. There was no way in hell I could ever have pulled that off. She was the most intimidating woman I'd ever met, and she was 17. I was totally scared of her.

So anyway, she went off to the most elite college in the country, and naturally she signed up for the most advanced math and science classes she could find. Her first day of classes her freshman year, she showed up for a super-intensive physics class, and the professor asked her to stick around after class. And then he told her to drop the class because, and I quote, "pretty girls are distracting." She had done as well as it was possible to do in the hardest math and science classes she'd had access to until that date, but when her physics professor looked at her, he didn't see a future scientist. He saw someone who distracted the future scientists.

This story was reported to me by her younger sister, and I don't remember if she dropped the class or got the prof to reconsider. She did eventually major in physics and get a PhD, and last I heard she was a professor at a big-name research institution. So although it would be hard for anyone to deny that this was an instance of bias in the sciences, maybe the Larry Summerses of the world would point out that it didn't dissuade her from pursuing a career in elite science.

But then I thought, what if it had been me? I was not a fierce 18-year-old. I completely lacked intellectual confidence. I didn't expect to get into the college I eventually attended, and I spent my time there believing that my good grades were a fluke. I secretly spent my entire college career pretty convinced that I was about to be exposed as a moron. After I graduated, one of my professors convinced me that I was capable of going to grad school and sort of shamed me into overcoming my insecurities. Looking back on it, I was a pretty obvious candidate for an academic career, but I required encouragement to think of myself that way. And I got that encouragement because I had a professor who saw me as a potential historian, not as someone who would distract potential historians.

I'm not a scientist, and I don't really have the skills necessary to evaluate whether there are gender differences in men's and women's brains. But I do think there are some pretty big differences in how men and women are taught to view their intellectual capacities, in how much they're taught to assert themselves, and in how much encouragement they get from authority figures. And honestly, I think we should concentrate on correcting those imbalances before we start talking about innate inequality.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Someone is trying to tell us something...

This just in: unexpected snowstorm mars Bush inauguration

Someone is trying to tell us something...


Sunday, January 16, 2005

Trish Wilson linked to this list of Maryland ghost stories. I was particularly amused by this one:

Ellicott City - St. Mary's College - Hell House - The building was founded in 1866 and it's main building was erected in 1868. It is actually in Ilchester, MD not too far from Ellicott City. It is said that it was a catholic all girls school and the cardinal had impure thoughts which he took out on 5 nuns. A nun came foward and told the archbishop and the cardinal had to leave. The nuns were later killed and place above an inverted pentegram. Later more girls and nuns died and the school was closed down in 1972. Some say that the nuns at the school were practicing satanic rituals and some say that the cardinal came back to get his revenge. Unfortunately, the school burned down Halloween night in 1997 and authorites still do not know the cause of the fire. Some people have heard screams, girls laughing, and have seen a strange shadowy figure on the premises. There are tunnels underneathwith drawings in red of pentegrams and other markings. - A note to all who go, be careful because the building is no longer stable.


That story, minus the ghosts, could be taken straight out of a 19th century anti-Catholic convent novel. (I'm slightly obsessed with these things. They're salacious, sometimes quasi-pornographic novels or "memoirs" that purport to tell about the horrible, horrible things that supposedly befell nuns in convents. It was, of course, deeply painful for the authors to discuss these horrible, horrible crimes, but it was nonetheless necessary to describe them in exquisite detail, so that virtuous Protestants could avoid such a fate.) It has all the right elements: underground tunnels, lecherous priests, murdered nuns, sinister rituals... it's only missing the pure, Protestant maiden who will see the light of Scripture and rescue herself from a life of Catholic sin. I don't think anyone writes or reads convent novels anymore, but it's interesting to see that the basic plot seems to survive in folklore.

I don't have very much to say about the flap about Prince Harry and the Nazi uniform. Was it in poor taste? Sure. Does it suggest that he's been raised to be a clueless dingbat? Yes, but I think we knew that already. But honestly, the outrage seems a bit disproportionate to the offense. Given all the truly awful things going on in the world right now, I'm inclined to save my outrage for other targets.

But I do want to comment on calls for a ban on swastikas." I heard a German politician on the BBC last night advocating this, and he seemed to suggest that it should extend to the U.S., since the internet has made American swastika-laden stuff available to Europeans. "This is not a free speech issue," he said.

The thing is, it is. Actually, I think it's a freedom of religion issue. Hitler did not invent the swastika. He stole it from India, where it was and continues to be a symbol of good luck. It's used by Hindus and Buddhists, and it's an emblem of the Jain faith. It's even been incorporated in the officialJain symbol. I stayed with friends of friends in Bombay, and they chalked little swastikas all over their front walk, because swastikas are decorative and are thought to be auspicious. My hosts were totally taken aback when I flinched at the sight of swastikas. They knew, of course, that Nazis had appropriated the symbol, but they'd had no idea that Nazism was the primary (indeed, the only) thing that people in the West associated with the swastika. "But we used it first!" they pointed out. And that's true.

In my experience, South Asians in the U.S. are hesitant to display swastikas, for obvious reasons. But that's a far cry from saying that they shouldn't be allowed to do so.

For me, the swastika will never be redeemed. I'm always going to associate it with the people who murdered my great-grandparents. But my associations are not the only valid ones. I don't believe in banning symbols anyway, but this one seems especially problematic. Would the law require governments to prosecute Jains for displaying the symbol of their religion? The irony is that a law meant to protect minorities would actually criminalize expressions of minority faiths.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

When you study history, you are supposed to keep a nice, critical distance on your sources. You are supposed to recognize that they are products of their time, and you are not supposed to get offended or bothered by them. And honestly, I work on relatively inoffensive sources. I know someone who is writing a dissertation on lynching: she must get upset all the time. But I only occasionally encounter something that really gets to me.

And for some reason, the journal I read today bugged me. It's a high-brow Catholic magazine from the early 20th century, and it just struck me as a nasty, meanspirited little enterprise. The people at this magazine seemed to think that the number one problem facing early-20th-century America was that there was just too much niceness and fun going on. There was, for instance, far too much compassion, which they liked to call "sentimentality." Prisons were much too pleasant. People felt far too sorry for prostitutes, who were, after all, lured into prostitution because they were especially evil. Catholics felt bad about perfectly reasonable aspects of Catholic history, such as the decision to force Jews to live in ghettoes. (One should be kind to Jews, because although sinful, they are people, too. But one cannot allow them to corrupt Catholic morals by, say, wandering around freely as if they were decent people. In certain circumstances that could have a very bad effect, and surely the church knew better than us when those circumstances existed.) Students had the insolent and insubordinate idea that they ought to be able to choose some of the classes they took in college, and they complained much too much about Catholic college curricula not preparing them to do anything useful. It is for priests, not mere students, to decide what is useful. (And let's not even talk about Catholics who went to non-Catholic colleges. They were going straight to hell.)

The writers worried a lot about the so-called "boy problem," which was that working-class youths were engaging in fun activities that were not supervised by proper authorities. But they also worried about the morals of middle-class young people, who had money and leisure and who could therefore also engage in sinful, unsupervised fun. The solution was to have the middle-class young men and women help the priests run "clean," uplifting evening entertainment for poor kids, "clean" being a euphamism for "extraordinarily un-fun." In this publication, "clean" stands for such a load of misery that I'm tempted to boycott soap.

In the grand scheme of things, none of this is particularly horrifying. It just bummed me out. It's like spending all day watching the early-20th-century equivalent of Bill O'Reilly or something. It is possible that in a hundred years, some historian will have to watch O'Reilly for days on end. And I feel sorry for that person. It probably won't be any better for her mood than this has been for mine.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Update on the food pyramid issue: the USDA has released its new dietary guidelines, and they're pretty much the same as the old guidelines. About dairy products they say in the "key recommendations" section: "Consume 3 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products." That's actually an increase from the old requirements, which called for 2-3 servings. (The dairy industry recommends 4.) In the text of the recommendations, they elaborate:

If a person wants to consider milk alternatives because of lactose intolerance, the most reliable and easiest ways to derive the health benefits associated with milk and milk product consumption is to choose alternatives within the milk food group, such as yogurt or lactose-free milk, or to consume the enyzme lactase prior to the consumption of milk products. For individuals who choose to or must avoid all milk products (e.g. individuals with lactose intolerance, vegans), non-dairy calcium-containing alternatives may be selected to help meet calcium needs.


At least it mentions alternatives, I guess.

I'm very prolific today! I don't know whether it's because I'm excited about all the additional traffic that's been generated by Amp's link or whether I'm just in a frenzy of procrastination.

Anyway, I'm a fan of No Rock & Roll Fun, and it's nice to see a male music geek who actually occasionally notices gender-y stuff. But I think he's missed the boat a bit in his post on musician Seal's remarks condemning hip-hop. Commenting on misogyny in rap, Seal said that it was particularly bad that black people were attacking their own. He suggested that other ethnic groups don't do that kind of thing . "Take for example the Jewish culture. They've been persecuted just like the black people, right? But you never see them eating their own."

Simon has issues with the "eating their own" bit: he thinks it harkens back to the blood libel that Jews eat Christian babies. I think that's kind of a stretch. But the quote bothers me anyway.

First of all, it's not true. If he's specifically discussing misogyny, he'd have to know exactly nothing about Judaism to argue that Jewish men have never oppressed Jewish women. When scholars try to tease out why Jewish women have been so active in the feminist movement, they often point to the explicit, theological misogyny in Orthodox Judaism. And plenty of Jewish entertainers have offered highly problematic images of women. We are, after all, the people who originated the borscht belt mother-in-law joke.

More than that, like pretty much every oppressed and ghettoized group, Jews have a history of internal oppression. In the early 20th century, Jewish garment factory owners paid starvation wages to their Jewish workers, and Jewish workers fought back by founding unions. Jewish gangsters demanded protection money from Jewish small business owners. As Jews have been given wider opportunies and more access to the mainstream society, this kind of intra-group oppression has probably lessened, although I'm sure you could find instances today. But at any given time, I'd say we've been no more and no less guilty of "eating our own" than any other similarly-situated group.

The problem, for me, is that this kind of apparently-flattering comparison seems to put a slightly positive gloss on what are, in the end, potentially anti-semitic stereotypes. "Jews don't eat their own" sounds an awful lot like "Jews take care of their own," which sounds an awful lot like the conspiricist language that has Jews plotting for world domination or at least increased ethnic power. The folks I study were constantly talking about how their constituents should emulate "the Jews," who were expert at getting politicians to listen to their concerns. But implicitly and occasionally explicitly, they relied on negative stereotypes about a highly-disciplined, close-knit community which used cunning and manipulation to achieve disproportionate power. And when a Jewish person behaved in ways the writer didn't like, the author would immediately revert to the uglier, anti-semitic aspect of this idea.

So while I can hardly blame Seal for being distressed when black men insult black women, I wish he wouldn't revert to sketchy ideas about Jewish ethnic cohesion.

I don't think I need to rehash the Cosgrove controversy here, because other people have done it better than I could. So I'm only going to comment on Del. Cosgrove's stunned, outraged response.

He's horrified, he says, because some of the emails were less-than-polite and because he's "never been blogged before." He makes it sound like being blogged is some sort of horrible assault: it's like being kicked or stabbed. And while I know this is preaching to the choir, it's really not. "Being blogged" is an awkward synonym for "being discussed." An elected official did something, it was discussed and analyzed by his fellow-citizens, many of them determined they didn't like it, they contacted him to communicate their disapproval, and he changed his mind. What we have here is a perfect example of democracy in action. This is how things are supposed to work. Citizens are supposed to be interested, informed and engaged. They are supposed to convey their wishes to their representatives. Their representatives are supposed to take their feedback into account. This is a feel-good, Mr.-Smith-goes-to-Washington type story. This is a story about how blogs can function as an updated public sphere.

It's too bad that some of the emails were rude. Maybe it's just because I started writing letters through Amnesty International, and they stress that you should always be scrupulously polite, but I tend to think that rude letters are less effective than civil ones. It's fine to vent, but when you're writing to a politician, it's not a good way to get your point across. Still, politics can be a rough-and-tumble business, and I'm not sure why Cosgrove is so worked up about it. Surely he can see why his bill would cause an emotional response in some people.

Cosgrove sounds like a jerk, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. We all screw up occasionally, and maybe he just drafted his bill poorly. What seems damning to me is his response. He has no business serving as an elected official if he's outraged by the effective practice of democracy.

Monday, January 10, 2005

File this one under TMI...

So the night before last I made a cheese-laden veggie lasagne, ate a big piece, and promptly became ill in ways that I will not describe, because there are actually some limits to my willingness to share. And it dawned on me all at once that perhaps the reason I've been nauseous for months is because I have become more lactose intolerant.

People who are lactose intolerant can't digest a protein in milk and get an upset stomach after they eat dairy products. I realized a while back that I had issues with lactose, and I've tried to cut down. I buy the expensive Lactaid milk, which contains the enzyme that allows people to digest lactose, and I'm not eating ice cream anymore. But like a lot of lactose intolerant people, I could tolerate small amounts of dairy, so I still put normal milk in the coffee that I buy from the student coffee shop, and I still sometimes eat cheese or cheesecake or other delicious, lactose-filled goodies. I've figured that good food was worth the occasional discomfort. I don't know whether the prednisone triggered some change or whether it's just that I'm getting older, but I'm thinking that maybe my cut-back-and-ignore-the-occasional-tummy-ache compromise is no longer working. Maybe I need to be a little more careful and systematic about it.

In an effort to learn more about lactose intolerance, I did some googling. And I was sort of horrified to find that most of the information I could find came straight from the dairy industry. According to these websites, I am probably not lactose intolerant. (Never mind that something like 75% of members of my ethnic group are.) And even if I am, I can probably eat quite a bit of dairy without feeling too sick. (Never mind that my concern is prompted by the fact that I am feeling sick.) And even if I can't, I can buy expensive pills that will enable me to digest lactose. (And they are expensive: the ones I bought are $10 for 32 pills. You take either one or two pills each time you eat dairy. Assuming I eat the recommended 4 servings of dairy a day, I'll spend between $1.25 and $2.50 a day just on lactaid pills. That's hundreds of dollars a year. That's a ticket to Dublin or an iPod. Possibly two iPods, not that I actually need two iPods.)

The sites that aren't funded by the dairy industry mention alternatives. I can get calcium from other sources, or I can take calcium supplements. They point out that most adults in the world are lactose intolerant, and you've got to figure that few of those people can afford to spend $2 a day on lactaid pills. They raise the possibility that, rather than making myself miserable or bankrupt in order to get four servings of dairy a day, I should just figure that the food pyramid is not right for me.

And the thing is, the food pyramid is not right for most people. I'm not weird: Northern Europeans, most of whom can tolerate lactose, are the weird ones. I suspect PETA is probably right (how it pains me to utter those words...) that the dairy industry influences the nutrition information that the American government provides. But I'm even more certain that there's racial bias involved. Most white people, especially those from Northern Europe, can tolerate lactose. Most non-white people can't. Guess who mattered more to the people who designed the food pyramid?

These days, you can get your hands on alternative food pyramids. Check out the Asian Food Pyramid. (I like the little leaping stick figures to represent exercise.) Here's a Mediterranean Food Pyramid, which would have worked for my old diet, but probably has too much lactose for the new leaf I'm trying to turn over. The Vegetarian Food Pyramid allows dairy products but doesn't require them. On the other hand, the USDA's Native American Food Pyramid looks a whole lot like the plain old food pyramid, and it requires a ton of milk and cheese. Is that really going to work for people who almost universally can't digest dairy products?

In a fit of totally misplaced generosity (and also because it was free), my parents have given me subscriptions to both Time and Newsweek. I'm sort of irked about this: if you put a magazine in front of me, I will read it, and I certainly have better things to do with my time than read more than one bland weekly news magazine. Also, it's a recycling hassle. So anyway, my first issue of Newsweek has arrived, and I'm sort of shocked to realize that the magazine appears to have completely given up on covering the news. It's all about celebrities, gizmos, fitness, drugs for acne and other not-terribly-serious conditions, and assorted other "news you can use," as long as you have no use for politics or other issues that actually matter. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for frivolity. I have a subscription to Entertainment Weekly. I read Lucky, perhaps the most frivolous magazine in the history of magazine publishing, on a pretty regular basis. But I don't pretend that Lucky or EW will keep me informed about current events.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Life Swap CD

Lauren at Feministe set up a CD exchange. It was supposed to be a mix-CD-as-autobiography thing. I'm not much of a lyrics person, so this was a difficult assignment. Here's what I came up with:

Runaround by the Undertones: I got this album my freshman year of college and immediately decided that this was my theme song. What that means depends on whether you listen to the lyrics, which would suggest low self-esteem, or the music, which would suggest sheer, blissed-out exuberance.

Thirteen by Big Star: Thirteen was actually a pretty miserable year for me, and this song doesn't really capture the craziness and awfulness of that little bit of my life. But it does, I think, speak to some of the awkwardness of early adolescence: things like discovering sexuality and dealing with clueless parents. And it's a lovely song.

Pink Bullets by the Shins: blah, blah, blah, romantic angst, blah, blah.

Roadrunner by Modern Lovers: in high school, I spent a lot of time driving around in friends' cars, listening to the radio. Hence this song.

Meadowlands by Nancy Jacobs and Her Sisters: I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement when I was really young. I think it was sixth grade, which would have made me 11. Years later, I read an article that suggested that anti-apartheid activists had all sorts of sinister motives for seeking the participation of elementary school kids like me, and I think the article might have been right. And you could argue that by protesting apartheid, I was concentrating on distant evils instead of thinking about the pretty glaring inequities from which I benefited. But for me, anti-apartheid activism was really important: it made me feel responsible for the world in which I lived; it made me feel like I was part of a global movement to fight inequality. This song, I think, captures some of that ambiguity. Meadowlands was an area in Soweto to which black South Africans were forced to move after they were kicked out of their homes in Johannesburg. The lyrics of Nancy Jacobs' song seem to support the forced relocation program, which is why it got past the government censors. But South Africans quickly decided the lyrics were ironic and adopted the song as a protest anthem. Did Nancy Jacobs intend it that way? Does it matter? At any rate, it's also a testament to people's ingenuity in the face of oppression and censorship. And that's probably not a bad thing to remember, considering the state of the world right now.

Satellites by the Doves: the lyrics to this one are a bit melodramatic, and really, my life is not as bad as all that. ("All I've known is sadness..."? Not really.) But I've had a pretty tough year, and I suppose I relate to the "hold on" bit.

Drowned Lovers by Kate Rusby: this one is autobiographical. Ok, it's not. But there's something very appealing about a cheerful, upbeat, major-key song about tragic death.

Orange Sky by Alexi Murdoch: it occurred to me after I made the mix that this might actually be a Christian thing ("in your love my salvation lies"), which would be singularly inappropriate. But that's not how I read it. I think it's about being redeemed by your connections to other people.

Me and Mia by Ted Leo: I listened to this song about a zillion times before I realized that it's explicitly about eating disorders. It's a little weird that a 30-something guy wrote the song that best sums up my late teens, when I realized that if I wanted to do anything with my life, I was going to have to gather up all the energy and willpower that I'd spent starving myself and redirect it towards the goal of becoming something more than my diet. "What's eating you alive/ might help you to survive" is exactly right.

Snakes/Mna na hEireann by Susan McKeown: when I lived in New York, I used to go see Susan McKeown at Fez all the time. This song reminds me of that heady post-college time, and also of the friends I hung out with then, who are now scattered all over the world. This isn't Susan McKeown's best song, but it does refer to two of my pet obsessions, Ireland and feminism, so it went on the CD.

The Gulf of Araby by Katell Keineg: I take this song to be about living in an imperfect world and realizing that you can never make it perfect. It's a downer, but it's beautiful.

Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks: I really was in a strange mood when I made this mix, wasn't I? And here we have another song about being happy in the face of loneliness and misery.

Pass in Time by Beth Orton: I've been thinking a lot about mortality: my own and that of the people I love. I suppose this song's message is kind of trite ("you might as well smile/ because tomorrow you just don't know..."), but whatever gets you through, I guess.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The inventor of the bundt pan has died. I'm sort of surprised that there is an identifiable inventor of the bundt pan. I'm also surprised that the mainstream popularity of bundt cakes only goes back to the late '60s. And I'm very surprised that bundt pans were created at the behest of Hadassah, the old-school Zionist women's organization to which my great aunts and sundry other elderly relatives belong. Who knew that so many tasty desserts were bestowed upon the American people by the world Zionist conspiracy?

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

I'm back from my trip to warm, sunny Georgia, which was actually very warm and sunny. However, my internet access is a bit of a mess at the moment, and I don't know how often I'll be posting for a week or so.

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