Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Obama's mama

I know that I am not alone in being fascinated with Obama's mama and wanting to know more about her. In particular, I always have been curious about her being a parent of two biracial children, and an anthropologist - I admit b/c that could be (or that is) me, too :) Here is an excerpt appearing in The New York Times from a forthcoming book on S. Ann Dunham.

Author Janny Scott's account of her interview with Obama himself on the subject of his mother is itself rather moving. She describes Obama himself as "someone whose patience had been tested, by a person he loved, to the point where he had stepped back to a safer distance. Or perhaps it was the knowingness of a grown child seeing his par­ent as irredeemably human." Is this not a knowingness that we all come to have?

Contrary to popular belief, I do not harbor much guilt or anxiety about being a "working mother." Which I did, esp. when I had to learn how to let go, first of Beanie and then again of Bubbie. However, I am fortunate in that I know that when I am not with them, my children are well cared for (not to mention sometimes better supervised and no doubt more entertained). This frees me to do the other work that I also find engaging.

So, I also especially appreciated Obama's observations about his mother:

Part of being an adult is seeing your parents “as people who have their own strengths, weaknesses, quirks, longings.” He did not believe, he said, that parents served their children well by being unhappy. If his mother had cramped her spirit, it would not have given him a happier childhood. As it was, she gave him the single most important gift a parent can give — “a sense of un­conditional love that was big enough that, with all the surface dis­turbances of our lives, it sustained me, entirely.”

Let us appreciate that enabling women to do meaningful work makes them better mothers, and that being mothers is not the only meaningful work that women do.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

How do I raise Bubbie not to be a boob?

That question has been on my mind lately. Not b/c he has been exhibiting any boob-like behavior. (Aside from a re-enchantment with my breasts, which I reminded him were how he nursed for the whole first year of his life, not that that fact seemed to mean much to him. However, that is a story for another time.)

In fact, a number of Bubbie's favorite friends are, and have been, girls. StraightMan and I have tended to attribute this to the fact that he has an older sister who adores him and whom he adores, and has been around her friends, who are typically considerate of him. It also seems like little girls are a bit more verbal and show more interest in playing together, which I think makes it easy for Bubbie to play with them.

Within the last two months or so, I have noticed that Bubbie now names boys among his favorite friends. They apparently share his passion for Pixar ("Cars" and "Toy Story") characters and, lamentably, merchandise.

I hope that Bubbie always finds friends among girls and boys alike.

Not long ago, as I was driving home, listening to "Fresh Air," I heard an interview with Dan Savage about the "It Gets Better" project. He and his husband described their life together as parents of a straight male. The off-hand remark they made was that they knew their son was straight b/c as a small child, "he hated girls." In contrast, Savage and his partner described their boyhood friendships with girls.

I have been turning that remark over in my head for weeks now. Why is boys hating girls as children taken as a "healthy" and "natural" sign that the boys will grow up to be men who want to have sex with women? Why is little boys liking little girls taken as a sign that the boys must be gay? Must misogyny be the foundation of heterosexuality? Is that not grotesque? Is it no wonder that violence, in fact, colors sexuality in its human variation?

It seems to me that there are subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways in which we teach and learn misogyny in our everyday lives - and that misogyny itself lies at the heart of other forms of fear and loathing that surround men and masculinity.

For me, the concern is not really about teaching Bubbie that it is OK for boys to like pink.* More important is that Bubbie learns it is OK for boys to like girls.


* Which, for the record, I say it is. As an aside, Bubbie's favorite colors seem to be green and "Dinoco blue", which for the record I also will say that I find far more problematic.

Also, not that you asked me, but I did not view that JCrew spread as "gender bending" or a celebration of "transgender childhood." Beanie once slathered her father's shaving cream on her chin - to see what it felt like - but this does not make her butch. This is called playing. We all should do much more of it b/c as Beanie will tell you, "it helps us learn and grow."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Valuing college

Tina Fey, in her prayer for daughters, beseeched her maker thus: "Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance."

Just read today's Room for Debate at the NYT, which is a follow-up to an article from last week questioning the worth of an undergraduate degree in business.

I think it is a question well worth asking. True, we all know people who worked hard at their business degrees and people who lolled away in the liberal arts. The point is that when students undertake a business degree - and 20 percent of all undergraduate degrees in the United States are granted in business - what are their expectations, and are they being met?

When I talk to students, they assume (or at least have parents who assume) that a business degree makes them "more" qualified for employment than, say, a philosophy degree. However, note that one of the bloggers at Room for Debate claims, "if I was an employer who had to choose between a business major and a philosophy major, I'd pick the grad who could write well, and I know who that would likely be."

So, I hope that a dialogue on the worth of a business major inspires students and parents to rethink the value of, say, a major in Spanish or Asian studies or, God forbid, anthropology.

More important, a dialogue on the value of higher education ought to inspire colleges and universities to consider where they place (or misplace) their values. For example, UNLV will be cutting faculty in programs like anthropology and philosophy, U Albany eliminating entire programs in classics, languages, and theater.

What worries me is what happens if / when fields of study like theater or philosophy or anthropology become areas accessible only at wealthy and elite college and universities? Will we be creating even greater inequalities?

My advisees in anthropology often describe "educating" their parents, relatives, and friends on how and why they think anthropology is, in fact, "worth" majoring in - however, I am pleased also at how many students also tell me that their parents tell them that it matters less what they study than that they do well at it. This is what I plan to tell Beanie and Bubbie.

Unless they tell me that they plan to major in business. Then I just might have to badger them into comparative literature or art history.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Say a little prayer

On break from teaching this week. Which means I have a chance to catch up with Netflix. StraightMan and I just watched two films that illustrate what happens when people think they are smarter than every other sucker out there: "Inside Job" and "The Social Network".

If you have not seen them (or even if you have), consider watching them side by side.

Of course, you likely will trudge up to bed afterward feeling like bringing your sweet, innocent children into this world might have been a mistake - and then hating yourself for entertaining such defeated feelings.

Oops. I wrote that in the second person. "You" would be "me."

I have to say that both films inspired, in me, as much horror as rage. B/c here were these people who enjoy the advantages of education and wealth and so on - who demonstrate such disregard for other people. People - I should say men - being oh so smart and oh so hateful.

There has been commentary linking gender with the 2008 financial meltdown, and it appears in "Inside Job" also, in the connection between high finance and high-end prostitution.

The filmmakers behind "The Social Network" already have been taken to task for the misogyny depicted in their fictional film, which is based on a non-fiction book.

Unfortunately, it seems like a fact even in ordinary life: You can just about get away with saying any awful thing as long as you say it cleverly enough.


Unto this muck, the sun will shine: Tina Fey's "prayer for daughters" seems to be making the rounds on so-called mommy blogs and on Facebook:

Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes And not have to wear high heels.

What would that be, Lord? Architecture? Midwifery? Golf course design? I’m asking You, because if I knew, I’d be doing it, Youdammit.

Here is an excerpt that I want to post as a shout out to Mark Zuckerberg et al:

O Lord, break the Internet forever, That she may be spared the misspelled invective of her peers And the online marketing campaign for Rape Hostel V: Girls Just Wanna Get Stabbed.

Amen, sister.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Should I get Bubbie a guitar, too?

Have you seen this video of five North Korean kindergarteners playing guitar?

If not, take a look. Then scroll ever so quickly through the comments on YouTube for a taste. (A blog post and more comments also here.) Warning: Do not linger too long or read too many b/c you might become upset.

I think it is interesting that a number of comments seem to express a certain kind of disgust with the virtuosity itself of the children's performance: A dismissal of its "authenticity" b/c the commenters assume that if the performers are North Korean, then their ability to perform at all results from lunatic Soviet style training. Or intense tiger mothering at the level of the nation state.

Had the children been white and American, I wonder whether or not the video would have prompted the same kinds of responses. I suppose there might have been comments about obnoxious stage parents and doomed child stars and so on, but I think "talent" might have been used to describe the children themselves.

The response "frightening" is also worth examining. What is frightening here? That such young children can perform to such a level? What one imagines might have been the experiences of the children themselves? Or the idea that such a performance can be produced from sheer will and exertion that those of us gawking at the video simply could not muster?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Plumbing the depths

Something I find more intimidating than even the process of buying a house is the process of remodeling. We moved into our house knowing that we would have to redo the upstairs bathroom (and eventually the kitchen and downstairs bathroom) and have been deferring that decision ever since.

However, the peeling wallpaper and paint flaking from the ceiling and the water staining on the vinyl flooring make abundantly clear that our upstairs bathroom requires attention. So, I am starting to think about the redo. Blurgh.

A particular challenge is that the bathroom measures about 5 by 8. Which actually is fine with me, except that I harbor a deep desire for deep baths. (Calgon, take me away!) Which is leading me to look rather longingly at the walk-in soaking tub:

Or is it too geriatric?

Or is that perhaps a forward looking investment in case we sell the house to empty nesters or stay here past retirement ourselves?

Coming next: Oh, how the Toto makes me want to go-go.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Modernist Cuisine

Just finished reading The New Yorker's review (in the March 21st issue) of a cooking text called Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Reviewer John Lanchester notes that the text is comprised, in fact, five thick 11 x 13 volumes plus a ring-bond volume of recipes (2,438 pages). The price alone ($625) should clue us to the fact that this is not for the ordinary home cook.

The book apparently describes the science behind cooking, which itself sounds fascinating. After all, cooking depends upon manipulating, for example, temperature and provoking chemical responses to desired effects. Not only does this approach to cooking contribute to, say, smarter stewing, but it also makes possible the presentation of natural foods in forms that seem utterly unnatural to us, like "foams," "gels," "airs", "soils," not to mention magic tricks like "foods that change temperature when you eat them, a cup of tea that is cold on one side and hot on the other," and so on. The approach (and the resulting gimmicks) in Europe has been called "molecular gastronomy" and in this text is called "modernist cuisine."

I think it is interesting to note that even with science shaping this new approach to cooking, it is called "modernist cuisine," which seems to signal a break from "craft" to "art." As a cultural anthropologist, I thought we were living in post-post-modern times? Politically, what does it mean to claim a "modernist" cuisine? For sake of comparison, see this post on The Futurist Cookbook, published in Italy in 1929, which was notably anti-pasta, which artist F.T. Marinetti rejected as reactionary.

What I consider more important to ask: What does it mean - and what will it mean - that this new science / art of cooking emerges at a time when there is growing awareness and acceptance of farmers markets and local foods and "provenance" associated with food (e.g., chocolates labeled with their national and regional origins)?

Last time, I had posted on what I perceived as the elitism of "simple" eating. However, I also appreciated this reminder from Lanchester's review: "There was a time when that emphasis on ingredients seemed quaint; now it is at the center of what chefs do, and it also has had a big impact on the way ordinary cooks thin, shop, cultivate, and prepare food, from the elementary-school kitchen to the White House garden. Perhaps the best thing about this movement is that we can put it into daily practice for ourselves." At least the farm-to-table "movement" - if that is what to call it - makes possible a conversation about what is not fair about food and eating.

I worry that with "modernist cuisine," we are looking at a false sense that science will save us. Like, Green Revolution, anyone? I worry that "modernist cuisine" is the taste of things to come. Notably the further intensification of inequalities.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Harassed, bored, and miserable

Just followed a link to the Web site for a new documentary called "Food Stamped" that I might like to see. The tag line for the film is this: "Is it possible to eat healthy on a food stamp budget?"

I say that I might like to see this film b/c I also am a bit afraid of what the message of this film might be. I say this based on who is being quoted in the blurbs praising the film - two cookbook authors whose sincerity I do not question, but whose relationships with food are not like those of the people who live on food stamp budgets - and based on the Tips that the filmmakers offer on their Web site. Here is a sample:

# Plan, plan, plan – Creating a menu of meals before going shopping helps save you money at the checkout. Shopping with a list in hand also helps prevent lots of impulse buys.
# Buy in bulk – Many grocery stores have bulk sections, where you can get whole foods like grains, beans, nuts, and seeds by the pound. These are often cheaper than buying food in the package.
# Buy seasonal and local – Seasonal and local produce is often times more affordable (not to mention tastier and better for the planet)

Is it just me, or does this strike you as terrifically unhelpful advice for someone who actually might be living on a food stamp budget - which the filmmakers define as $1 per meal? For example, I think we need to remember that planning is a privilege that middle-class folks take for granted. Who else has the time and the assumption that the transportation is available on demand? Who else has the $ on hand to be able to pay a bit more upfront for the bulk goods - which btw, who else has the room to store?

The problem that I see here - and I allow for the fact that the film might be rather different from its marketing here - is that "bad" lifestyle and "wrong" choices are being discussed, yet again, as the culprits. Not the problem of inequalities the shape our experiences with food and eating.

BTW, if the film is rather different from the marketing, then I wish that the message here emphasized the structures that make food inequalities possible - and the institutions that benefit, frankly, from a Fast Food Nation. Certainly individuals have the ability to make decisions, but think about the ways in which the decision, say, to drive-thru McDonald's is made so easy for us.

I also just have to add: In conversations about how and why Americans might not be eating "better," I am struck always by the implication that "bad" lifestyle, "wrong" choices, and "bad" taste go hand-in-hand. In particular, "bad" taste equals what I have heard some college students call "lower class behavior." Which they feel free to say b/c they say that sometimes they do it, too. Which apparently demonstrates the security of their own class position (as not "lower") and at the same time absolves them of being snobs, judgmental, and biased ("class-ist").

To hear some college students talk (as I do in courses on cultural anthropology and medical anthropology), eating fast food is wrong not just b/c it is too many calories and not enough nutrition, but also b/c it exhibits lack of refinement!

Indeed, take a look at the Recipes on the Web site for this film: It smacks of the assumption that if only the lower classes would learn to appreciate how delicious and nutritious and affordable it is to eat "simply"* - like sauteeing a bit of kale in olive oil with garlic, then squeezing a bit of fresh lemon juice on it...

*Simple itself being a bourgeois aesthetic that can be rather costly to achieve: Real Simple, Simple Home, Simple Living, and so on.

The Economist led an editorial on malnutrition (with which I did not agree entirely) with the following:

AT THE depths of the Great Depression, George Orwell wrote of the English working classes: “The basis of their diet is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potato—an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread? Yes it would, but the point is, no human being would ever do such a thing. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man does not. When you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want to eat something a little bit tasty.”

The issue today is not necessarily that people (at least in the United States) are underfed, but apparently not much else has changed since Orwell made his observations.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Learn me this!

I love it when science and intuition agree, as with recent research on how kids learn:

Adults often assume that most learning is the result of teaching and that exploratory, spontaneous learning is unusual. But actually, spontaneous learning is more fundamental. It's this kind of learning, in fact, that allows kids to learn from teachers in the first place.

The quote above comes from Alison Gopnik's description of two recently published studies on preschool. I wonder whether or not we are seeing the effects in higher education?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Keeping up with the Times: Bob Herbert

Bob Herbert published his final column (which sadly is titled "Losing Our Way") for the NYT today. This is too bad b/c in the era of the new normal, we need a voice like his to remind us:

There is plenty of economic activity in the U.S., and plenty of wealth. But like greedy children, the folks at the top are seizing virtually all the marbles. Income and wealth inequality in the U.S. have reached stages that would make the third world blush. As the Economic Policy Institute has reported, the richest 10 percent of Americans received an unconscionable 100 percent of the average income growth in the years 2000 to 2007, the most recent extended period of economic expansion.

Americans behave as if this is somehow normal or acceptable. It shouldn’t be, and didn’t used to be. Through much of the post-World War II era, income distribution was far more equitable, with the top 10 percent of families accounting for just a third of average income growth, and the bottom 90 percent receiving two-thirds. That seems like ancient history now.

The current maldistribution of wealth is also scandalous. In 2009, the richest 5 percent claimed 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The overwhelming majority, the bottom 80 percent, collectively held just 12.8 percent.

I find funny in a not-so-ha-ha way Herbert's observation that "Americans behave." We need to start serious misbehavior on the part of what is fair and just.