Sunday, April 29, 2012

On deciding whether I am a Shoshana or a Marnie or a Hannah, Jessa being obviously not an option

So I have watched the first two episodes of much-talked about HBO's Girls, which looks at the lives of four twenty-something women in Brooklyn. As I said in another recent post, apparently it must be compared to Sex in the City because everything must be, although Lena Dunham's decision to center the story around the lives of four female characters rather than, say, three or five is probably not helping matters on that front. It is not perhaps the deepest thing ever; I hesitate to say just yet that Lena Dunham is the voice of her generation or even a voice of a generation.

But it is well-written and enjoyable, and the characters are often neurotic in very familiar ways. Enough so that I plan to watch the next couple episodes once they land on the internet. I once had a conversation with an undergrad roommate about how our parents were really lucky that,  despite our shared nutty interests in writing and literature Ph.Ds and piles of clothes on the floor, at least we weren't drug addicts or pregnant. This was uncannily similar to Hannah's conversation with her parents in the pilot episode. I also fear that there is a faint physical resemblance between Lena Dunham and me, particularly to a couple of particularly bad Facebook photos that make me wish it were technologically possible to char pixels to ashes, though maybe I flatter myself. At the same time, Hannah is an anti-heroine... we are clearly meant to cringe at the scene near the end of the pilot in which she picks up both the envelope of cash addressed to her and the one addressed to the maid. But although I know I am not supposed to like her world or my world, I find myself doing so anyway, because hating the familiar seems both too complicated and too cruel.

The show's perhaps gotten the most press for its lack of racial and ethnic minority characters, spawning an entire eight entry Room for Debate series in The New York Times. As several of my Facebook friends sardonically pointed out, the Room for Debate contributors are themselves not as diverse as the country. In some ways, the rush to judgment based on just two half-hour episodes is oddly perplexing; the viewer's barely had time to get a feel for the contours of Hannah's character and those of a couple of her friends. We've barely scratched the surface of Hannah's world; most people have more than three close friends and more than one co-worker.  I suspect that it is precisely because there's so much in the show to appeal to the politically progressive... the four major characters are all some stripe of pro-choice who are in general agreement with Jessa's choice to abort her baby, all appear fairly comfortable with frank discussions about sex and so forth.... that the lack of racial diversity rubs one the wrong way more than it would on a campy latter-day Full-House-like sitcom with no voice-of-a-generation pretensions. About the most sensitive and intelligent pieces I've read on the topic come from Alyssa Rosenberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates. For my thoughts on this topic, see generally also the second paragraph of this old post.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Lamb Sliders with Neal's Yard Colston Bassett Stilton

 A close friend of mine from undergrad recently sent me a cookbook based on the menu at Caseus New Haven, one of her favorite restaurants in the town in Euphemistic Connecticut where her fiance is working on his Ph.D. A few look too complicated by half, but this one is quite do-able. N.b. that the pea shoots are in season right now and are available pretty cheaply at Trader Joe's in my neighborhood.

The book recommends adding cured lemons to these. It apparently takes three weeks to make the cured lemons. Maybe I'll tackle curing lemons the next time that I'm looking for a weekend project; maybe some of you will, too. Still, these are delicious without them.

You need:

1 shallot, chopped fine
1 lb. ground lamb
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
A little butter for the pan
Mayonnaise (whatever brand you like; I went cheapskate because that's what I had in the fridge)
Neal's Yard Dairy Colston Bassett Stilton (available at Whole Foods, in our neighborhood at least. If you can't get it, another Stilton or a Roquefort would also probably be OK. )
Pea shoots

1. Preheat the oven to 350.

2. Combine the lamb, chopped garlic,  shallot, and salt in a bowl. Combine into patties with your hands. Drop them into a pan with butter and cook until they're brown on each side on medium-high heat.  This will vary according to your stove and the thickness of your patties, but five minutes-ish on each side is a reasonable guesstimate of how long it'll take.

3. Slice and butter the rolls and put them in the oven to toast, along with the burgers. How long this will take will vary a bit, but I estimate about two minutes. At that point, take the burgers out and put a small slice of the Stilton on each. Toast for another minute.

4. Spread the mayonnaise on the bottom half of the rolls. Add the burgers on top. Top burgers with pea shoots.

I served these with a simple spinach salad because it's light enough to contrast well with such a rich dish. Lightly sauteed mushrooms might also be really good, though.

Unfortunately, Willow also had a bout of excessive enthusiasm about these. While Ilya was trying to get another helping, she... uh... jumped up on the counter and stole one from under his nose. Apparently dogs love rare and expensive Stilton! Good to know. Well, we'll work more on the counter-surfing this week. And we'll look forward to possibly picking up useful tips about it in exciting Intermediate Obedience. 

Libertarianism and merit: once more, with feeling

Cato's Trevor Burrus has written a good essay titled "Bad Arguments for Libertarianism: Merit." I couldn't agree more. See also this and this.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Very deep thoughts about shoes

Phoebe is right; it is silly to equate having an interest in shoes with an interest in very high heels that are nearly impossible to walk in. I suspect this is one more example of the lingering imprint of Carrie Bradshaw on pop culture. It's bad enough that every National Review column about the kids these days must reference a television show that's been off the air for nearly a decade. Must it also poison lighter-hearted writing about shoes, too? So yes;  it is most emphatically possible to like shoes without being particularly driven to teetering around on stilettos. My own personal weakness runs to very colorful ballet flats, most recently these (which are also quite comfortable for walking), although I have other variations on the theme on my shoe rack that are no longer featured on the internet.

That said, as a naturally short person who occasionally likes passing herself as a not-naturally-somewhat-less-short person, I've had the good comfortable to come across some beautiful shoes that give height but without rendering the kind of pain Hadley Freeman describes in her piece. These pumps in adobe are the most comfortable heels that I've owned in a long time. They are not six inch stilettos, it's true, but three and a quarter extra inches of height is not so shabby either.  I will never attempt a marathon in them -- or, let's be real, a lame quarter-mile interval on the treadmill before going back to weights or abs. But,  like, in contrast to various cheap pumps I had as a summer law intern, I don't feel like I have to slip on flipflops to walk three blocks from my office to the corner deli for a sandwich. For Caucasian women at least, they will also match just about anything and thus are likely to work out well for many on a cost-per-wear basis; recommended.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On why modernity is awesome

Reading this New Yorker article titled "Narcissism in Pink and Blue," I feel like I must have been born without some critical gene that might help me grok the author's point. Ostensibly, the author's argument is that there is supposed to be something horrifying about parents throwing "reveal" parties, in which they announce the sex of their soon-to-be-born child by either whisking out pink and blue balloons as appropriate or color-coded cupcakes. What exactly is so horrifying about this is never quite made clear, although perhaps that is the sunny Whig techno-optimist genetic disability kicking in again. It doesn't seem specifically to be about the amount of cash spent. The costs of cupcakes and balloons seem decidedly modest anyway. There are repeated references to "narcissism," but that doesn't quite clarify things either. Isn't it normal for parents-to-be to be excited about a baby that's on the way? And isn't finding out the sex of the approaching newborn supposed to be one of the more exciting milestones of the pregnancy? Like, is the appropriate response to just refuse to tell people what is the sex of your child? Are you just supposed to stare at your shoes when asked and say, "Gosh gee whiz, but I didn't think you care about it?" And isn't wanting your friends to share in your excitement about your upcoming baby by inviting them over for a cupcake and balloon fete friendly rather than narcissistic?

Yes, there are some references made to the importance of the author's work in re-integrating felons with society. I completely agree that it is deeply unfortunate that many paternalistic licensing regimes keep willing employers from hiring ex-felons, even if they want to. It's absurd that in any state in the Union, an ex-felon cannot get a manicure license. I probably do differ with the author of this piece regarding the wisdom of laws that try to prevent employers from looking at potential employees' arrest and conviction records; I fear that such laws only make it harder for employers to get information that may be genuinely job-related and may even increase unemployment among racial and ethnic minorities. These differences of opinion on policy issues aside, though, surely people devoted to important social causes can be expected to set aside their labors for a few hours for parties every once in a while? Perhaps it is, dare I say it, narcissistic to look down on one friends' relatively harmless fun because it prevents them from being devoted 24/7 to one's pet social causes?

So, too, I am puzzled by the claims about the search for meaning. Is it odd that I have never felt at a loss for meaning, despite having been a skeptic about organized religion since about the age of 12? It is true that I have invented social rituals, such as Pnin's and my annual Hayek Party, in which we gather a group of mostly libertarian friends together to eat traditional Austrian foods. I have not done this out of a search for meaning or anomie or rootlessnes. My thought process was more like, "I will do this because it seems like fun and is a good excuse to make Sachertorte! If it sticks and becomes a tradition of sorts, then so much the better!" This points also to the oddity of looking down on "contrived" or "invented" events: weren't traditional rituals once also contrived or invented ones a long time ago? How would any traditional events ever come into existence if not contrived or invented by someone at some historical point?

It is also hard to say for certain, but I tend to doubt that the fall of religion or tradition explains the credulous reaction of people to extremist political movements or to anti-vaccination crazes. Suspension of science and credulity have been problems in many different societies, including some much  more religious than ours. See, e.g. (I am not sure when disenchantment with modernity is supposed to begin in the eyes of this article -- are we talking "modern" in the sense of "Now there is Facebook," e.g. circa 2004, or are we talking "modern" in the sense of "not medieval," as historians might use it, e.g. circa 1400?) I am confused.

Monday, April 23, 2012

I am 54 pounds of AWESOME, flying at you with a tennis ball in my mouth

Because of my recent hiatus from blogging, I realize that it may have been some months since readers have seen a recent photo of Willow. In case anyone cares, I have sought to remedy this defect by supplying the above recent shot of young Miss Willow, age ten months.

Of course, Willow's also been very concerned about certain developments in the news. Specifically, Puppygate. Some of her Republican friends have even gone so far as to tell her, "You know, Willow, if you had a son, he would look a lot like the dog Obama ate." To which she has replied, "No, because that dog was just some kind of stupid Indonesian mutt, and I am a golden retriever." She then proceeds to stare back as if to say, "Yes, Prada and K-Mart both sell things called 'handbags,' but to pretend the two products are the same in any sense beyond the semantic is to miss the point. So, too, is calling a golden retriever just a dog." Her interlocutors have then usually backed down.

Yes, Puppygate marks yet another low in the silly season of American politics. For one thing, the scandal ought to have been old news: Dreams from My Father was in print well before the last election cycle. I suppose the dog story is supposed to support the narrative that Obama is somehow deeply foreign, a creature far more alien and weird than your average liberal Democrat politician. One of the stranger things that I've read in this vein is this Pajamas Media piece, which picks out a quote about the rhythms of the Indonesian marketplace in contrast with the Chicago housing projects to illustrate Obama's deeply anti-American sympathies. This is... odd... because while full context is missing from the PJ media piece, the Obama quote presented there is perhaps fairly read as lamenting the lack of a rich, vibrant civil society in the Chicago housing project . Indeed, the welfare state's displacement of such networks of thriving small businesses and custom has long been a major conservative and libertarian criticism of social welfare projects. It's unfortunate that Obama didn't connect the dots better and take this typical criticism of the welfare state to heart better. It is also especially odd that the PJ media writer Spengler here views a Chicago housing project as a stand-in for the rough and tumble of American capitalism.

But... meh. At least all of this will be displaced next week by some equally ridiculous non-news story.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

In which I realize that I am more libertarian than bourgeois

My mother informed me tonight that a childhood acquaintance of mine, who is a couple years younger than me, is now living in an agricultural commune in Southern California. She is not paid wages but is allowed to eat some of the food that she helps to produce. What horrified my mother most about this entire set-up is that she has never paid any money into Social Security. "She's 27 now," my mother intoned, "and she has no quarters of employment piled up yet." I think I mumbled something empathetic but vague. I guess I cannot bring myself to feel much if any horror, given that I would not really mind it so much if the entire Social Security apparatus were to just wither away.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Libertarianism 101 colloquium

Occasionally, when I read infuriating online articles or blog posts about libertarianism, I start thinking that there should be a "Libertarianism 101" blog that covers essentials about our beloved political philosophy. It would look something like this blog, which aims to do the same thing for feminism.

What might be as or more useful, though, is a six to eight lecture D.C. based  "Libertarianism 101" course intended to introduce fundamentals of libertarian thought to non-libertarians. Nobody would required to go to all of the lectures or even more than one, though there would be some thematic continuity among the lectures, and it would certainly be great for people to go to all of them. There should be nice receptions afterwards with wine, cheese, appetizers, etc. to encourage hanging out and chatting with the speakers.

As far as I can tell, no organization in the movement is really trying to do such a thing (though if there's some effort on this front that I've missed, please tell me so in the comments.) I'm aware of the IHS "outreach" seminars. But they typically require a much longer time commitment -- usually a full week -- which can be tough to impossible for anyone with a full time job not in libertarian advocacy. I suspect most internship employers especially are not that keen on letting people go for a full week. The intended audience would be "idea geeks of all parties." I'd also like to draw in roommates/close friends/significant others of libertarians, who are somewhat curious about "this libertarian stuff" that their junior Cato staffer friends are spending so much time on, but who know very little about it themselves. Someone like Josh Barro's then-boyfriend in this story would be pretty much the perfect intended audience.

The goal would not be to "convert" these people, at least not in the short run. The goal would be to produce more liberal, progressive, and socially conservative journalists and policy wonks who could pass a libertarian ideological Turing test. If the faculty are worried that they are sounding like vacation time-share salesmen doing a hard sell or Baptist preachers at a revival, they are probably doing it wrong. They should be going approximately for the tone that Patrick Allitt strikes in this Conservative Tradition Teaching Company course (n.b. that it includes some discussion of libertarianism as an important element of the American conservative tradition, but the focus of the course is elsewhere, as it should be.)

I've been musing some on what, ideally, I'd like each lecture to cover. We'd have to start with a broad overview. Maybe Nigel Ashford could do a modified version of the speech that he normally gives to the Koch summer fellows. There would have to be another on "libertarianism and the left" and another on "libertarianism on the right." I picture Will Wilkinson doing the first and Mike Rappaport of USD doing the second of those two, though maybe other suggestions could be found. There would of course need to be a "Is there more to libertarianism than Ayn Rand?" day, with the answer being "Yes," although I'm not clear on who the best choice of speaker for that would be. Maybe Bryan Caplan of GMU. For the next couple of years, a lecture on "Is health care special?" (brief answer: no) should be included because it's such a hot question in current affairs, although it's not a topic that I imagine including forever. There should be a variant on "Is it possible to be libertarian and care about the poor?" (answer:yes), although that is of course a huge topic and there are any number of angles to hit it from (should the lion's share of the lecture be devoted to philosophical considerations that the Bleeding Heart Libertarians like to discuss, or policy nitty-gritty on Milton Friedman and the negative income tax?)  Other ideas are of course welcome. Conversely, I'm trying to figure out what I consider too Libertarianism 201 for this....

... This also raises the question of whether libertarians would find interesting a similar outreach project on conservatism, progressivism, or non-classical liberalism. I certainly would, and I'd encourage the Center for American Progress, Heritage, etc. to explore putting together such programs.

 Note also that the Libertarianism 101 colloquium might actually make a decent, do-able Social Entrepreneuship Project for some Koch Associates, if the KAPs are indeed still doing SEP.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Adventures with ramps

I recently made this salmon with ramp pesto and this risotto with this season's bounty. Although the reviews for the latter were generally more favorable, I liked the first better but would nonetheless recommend both.  Take that for what it's worth. Also, feel free to recommend extra uses for the remainder of the vermouth from Recipe #2.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Damsel not in distress

 (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

I saw the new Whit Stillman movie Damsels in Distress this weekend with a friend and, after having read some of the reviews, felt sufficiently tempted to revive this long-lying-dormant blog.

On the whole, it was really lovely and very much worth seeing, especially if one already liked previous Stillman films. I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't. It is more over-the-top whimsical and less realistic than either Metropolitan or Barcelona. It focuses on the adventures of four young women at the fictional Seven Oaks University. Seven Oaks is almost certainly loosely based on Dartmouth -- there's a reference early on in the movie to it being the last of the Select Seven to go co-ed and to it being the one that remains the most masculine-feeling and the most male-dominated.  Although Columbia was actually the last Ivy to go co-ed, Dartmouth was one of the last Ivies to admit women and down to the present day is often caricatured (in my view unfairly) as being unfairly dominated by all-male fraternities.

Anyhow. The story begins when Lily, a transfer student from another college, is signing up for Seven Oaks orientation. Three young ladies named Violet, Rose, and Heather eyeball her, agree to themselves "That one," and then approach her and draw her into their little circle. The choice of all floral names is no doubt deliberate.

The date at which all of this is taking place is left (probably deliberately) ambiguous. Lily appears in the first scene dressed in a T-shirt, but the other three are all in prim full skirts and kitten heels that would not be out of place on the set of a Season One episode of Mad Men. Of course, retro-inspired clothing is readily available in any suburban mall that has an Anthropologie or a J. Crew, and plenty of 2012 college women dress in such clothing sometimes. But there are other markers that Seven Oaks is both of the modern world and yet not quite. Violet once remarks how nice it is to receive handwritten notes in an age when most communication is electronic. Yet none of the characters is ever seen using a computer, sending an e-mail, or talking on a cellphone, all of which seems utterly implausible on a modern campus.  This technological backwardness seems most apparent when Violet mysteriously vanishes, and her friends resort to hanging up posters on campus. One wonders; why aren't her friends franctically trying her cellphone? What about mass e-mail as an alternative to the damn posters?

The Seven Oaks horticulturally-named trio-turned-foursome aspire first and foremost to help others, but in unconventional ways. First, they attend fraternity parties and aspire to date these guys not for the usual reasons, but in the hope of being able to improve the poor witless creatures. Seven Oaks does not have a Greek system  -- it has a "Roman letter" system -- which all of the characters with charming stubbornness insist is totally different from a Greek system.  Ringleader Violet shrugs off the claim that fraternities are bastions of elitism: "They can't be elitist if they're filled with morons." Thus, Heather winds up dating a guy named Thor who never learned the colors because his parents made him skip kindergarten. They always assumed that he'd pick them up, but he didn't. This would admittedly seem over-the-top absurd, except for the fact that there was a kid in the Dartmouth marching band back in my day who was infamous for not being able to tell analog time. He refused to learn how in third grade because he felt that digital watches were the wave of the future anyway and that this was therefore a waste of time. There are also my ongoing efforts to teach Pnin more unusual colors like "teal" and "magenta," both of which he once said he thought were shades of brown.

Violent, Heather, and Rose also head up the Suicide Prevention Center. They hand out gratis Dunkin Donuts and coffee to those who are suicidal or seriously depressed, but only to those truly suffering in such a way. The scenes about the Suicide Prevention Center are a clever enough little commentary about the proliferation of well-intentioned but not actually very helpful peer advising programs on college campuses; in my own day, there were the SAPAs (Sexual Abuse Peer Advisors,) the DAPAs (Drug Abuse Peer Advisors), EDPA (Eating Disorder Peer Advisors) and GABA (which is either an acronym whose initial referent I have forgotten or a misfiled memory involving gamma-aminobutryic acid.)

Once again, though, Violet's approach to preventing suicide in no way resembles the long confessional conversations that the depressed were supposed to be having with the SAPAs, DAPAs,  EDPAs, and GABAs. No, she wants them to take up tap dancing. And yes, we are treated to scenes of the prospectively suicidal learning tap steps from her. Indeed, Violet's ambitions are grander -- she aspired to start an international dance craze. She confesses once in a small seminar that she views history's greatest humanitarians as Richard Strauss, Mr. Charleston, and "Chubert" Checker, who all accomplished this feat.

But then Violet herself must struggle to resist suicidal depression when Roman-letter frat stud Frank breaks up with her. She travels to a motel in a nearby town with the possible intention of throwing herself under a train there; the spot is notorious as the location of previous Seven Oaks suicides. She turns back, though, because she discovers a bar of really lovely smelling soap in the hotel room. In fact, she becomes so excited about the revitalizing potential of the soap that she decided to pack up dozens of bars and distribute them to residents of one particularly malodorous and unhappy dorm on campus. Notably, the soap is not the only time that the characters are drawn to the  rehabilitating power of scent. Violet asks one of her Suicide Prevention Center counselees what perfume she is wearing. When the counselee says none, Violet replies, "Well, that might explain why you're depressed."

On the one hand, of course this is all a bit over the top and ridiculous. As Lily -- who as the group's most newly inducted member often plays straight man -- once points out, "Depressed people need drugs, not tap dancing." At the same time, it is not really all that absurd to suggest that perhaps many depressed people benefit from taking joy in the little things. I have long liked and found utterly believable the Tori Amos song  in which the singer deals with a brutal rape and thoughts of suicide afterwards by reminding herself that the biscuits in the Carolinas are really good and that she must get through this trauma so that she can travel to Barbados someday. Sometimes, the little things are all one can really address. Consider this the psychological equivalent of the broken windows theory of crime prevention.

Also, perhaps Violet is not really so wrong that there is something special about the power of dance to heal and the special significance of international dance crazes that have brought joy to so many people. I was also reading Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind during the same weekend, in which there is an interesting discussion of the power of dance to activate humans' "hive switch" and bring us together (see here for a good short summary of Haidt's argument.*) Perhaps Violet's claims that international dance crazes have a special power to heal and bring us together are not so ridiculous after all. So, shall we dance the Sambola?

*It's beyond the scope of this already long post, but I agree with many of the criticisms of Haidt voiced in that post.