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Monday, July 17, 2017

Embarrassment is sort of embarrassing, when you think about it

Embarrassment is a really weird emotion. It’s related to shame, but it’s not exactly the same. Shame is an emotion you can feel about something even if no one else knows about it. It’s connected to your internal sense of right and wrong. Which isn’t to say that shame can’t be influenced by outside factors like cultural norms, religion, the disapproval of others, etc. But whether originating from without or within, shame is about how you feel about what you did.

 Embarrassment, on the other hand, is entirely about how you feel about what other people saw you do. And it’s not even entirely about right and wrong. Sure, you can be embarrassed about getting caught doing something shameful. But you can also be embarrassed about being seen doing something that is totally an accident and not your fault, like tripping on the sidewalk or a bird pooping on your head. Those are misfortunes. We worry people will judge us to be clumsy, or our condition will revolt them. We’re not even sure why we feel so bad. We just do. And the feeling can be really intense, even about something relatively trivial -- as strong or even stronger than the shame we feel about having intentionally harmed someone or failed in a responsibility. Most of us probably still cringe at the memory of some embarrassing moment that happened when we were children, despite our adult knowledge that it was no big deal and is in fact a common occurrence in children (like, say, peeing the bed or forgetting a line in the school play).

 The downside of being social creatures, I guess. Humans are weird.

Friday, July 7, 2017

It's art, it's history, it's art history

This article about a pilgrimage to Spiral Jetty made me pull out my college art history textbook: Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 7th edition. Back then, Gardner was divided into five parts that reflected the West's idea of history: the Ancient World; the Middle Ages; the Non-European world; the Renaissance and the Baroque and Rococo; and the Modern World. When it was my textbook, Spiral Jetty was just about a decade old. I remember staring at the black-and-white photo; the book is filled with such photos, which paradoxically utterly fail to capture the art they represent. Also paradoxically, the inadequacy of that photo made it one of my favorites. It appears on page 869 out of 889 total (excluding glossary and index). The chapter is called simply, "Painting and Sculpture After World War II." 

From the epilogue: "The transformation of the world by science and technology is the signal fact that separates the modern epoch from all of the past....The iconic, mythic, and social function of representation has been monopolized by mechanical media -- photography, motion pictures, television. By these means images have been produced and reproduced in countless millions. The art object itself, through sophisticated means of reproduction, loses its uniqueness and it's 'space,' like the original sound of an orchestral performance reproduced in high-fidelity recording....Meanwhile, the Tradition has been dismantled." 

How many more pages are there in Gardner today? The Internet tells me there are now multiple editions; one is called A Global History and another The Western Perspective

We had no idea of the deluge that was to come, just as now we have no idea of the deluge that is to come. Like Spiral Jetty.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

This is not silly

Some men are really pissed off about all the girl cooties that have been contaminating their action-genre movie and TV franchises lately. Granted, most men I know are not like that. Most want nothing to do with the bitter, disaffected minority of male fans who fill up online comment sections with vitriolic misogyny (and racism — which, not surprisingly, often comes with it). But those vocal yahoos are just a super-concentrated distillation of something bigger and more pervasive: the sense that women are, at best, guests in a man’s world.

To more "enlightened" men, we are welcome guests — but guests nevertheless. When they look at Fury Road, The Force Awakens, Rogue One, Wonder Woman, or Star Trek Discovery — not just women-led stories, but installments in beloved male-dominated franchises — and think, That’s nice, let the girls have some fun too, they are trivializing something that is, to me, Earth-shaking and paradigm-shifting. No doubt, they feel pretty good about their broad-minded acceptance of the female presence, oblivious to the fact that we had to break down the door with a battering ram to get in. What is petty to them is profound and validating to us. And the fact that, the moment I typed that, I felt silly — afraid that someone will accuse me of being melodramatic and overemotional — is actually what I want to talk about.

I am a child of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The coolest things on TV aimed at girls my age were The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, shows that incorporated pop music and fashion, but basically just slapped a fresh coat of groovy paint on the same old gender roles. Moms nurture, dads work. Boys play sports, girls do art. Boys sing lead, girls sing backup. And anyway, I was a tomboy, with little use for domestic stories about family, friends, and dating. I wanted action, adventure, and excitement. I wanted courageous feats of derring-do performed in pursuit of noble goals like honor, exploration, and justice. I wanted bravery, brains, and heroism.

I wanted Star Trek.

I fell in love with Star Trek when I was about ten, and in no time at all, I had hooked my best friend, Rifka. Soon, all of our playtime was spent pretending to be the characters we admired in the fiction we loved. I was Kirk, she was Spock (I’ve written about this before, here.) While Star Trek was our main gig, we play-acted other stories as well: Bonanza (I was Little Joe, she was Adam); The Hardy Boys (from the books — the TV show was still several years away; I was Joe, she was Frank); Lost in Space (I was John Robinson, she was Don West); Hawaii Five-O (I was Steve McGarrett, she was Danno Williams); Batman (though rarely, because neither of us wanted to be Robin). Always men.

Though there were women in some of these stories, we never pretended to be them. Of course, now, with adult hindsight, I can appreciate characters like Uhura, who pushed the boundaries not only of gender, but of race as well. (Whoopi Goldberg was famously inspired to ask Gene Roddenberry for a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation after having been profoundly affected by Uhura as a child — so much so that, the first time she saw Uhura on TV, she excitedly told her mother, "There's a black lady on television, and she ain't no maid!") But at the time, with a child’s eyes, I wasn’t interested in gray areas, fine distinctions, and historical context. The women were never the bravest, the toughest, or the most important. And we saw ourselves as the bravest, the toughest, and the most important. Period.

Then one day, everything changed. Or more accurately, a gradual change that had been percolating in the background came to a head. We must have been about 12 or 13, an age when we still played pretend, but were vaguely embarrassed about the childishness of it. Whereas we used to play openly during recess and after school with large groups of friends, now it was just the two of us — our little secret. But I was growing more and more uneasy, torn between my love of being in the stories and my sense that I was getting too old for this kind of thing. And something else; something I couldn’t put my finger on, but that made me feel kind of squeamish.

As it happened, we were playing Hardy Boys that day. It was all going as usual; we’d agreed on some mystery to investigate, and we were making up the details as we went along — until I called time out. That’s when I dropped what I was about to realize was a bombshell.

“I want to be a girl.”

I can still see the look on my friend's face. It was as if I’d said I wanted to be Robin. No, worse. A villain. No, even worse. A lamppost.

“But you can’t be a girl,” she said. “Joe is a boy.”

I saw my mistake too late and tried in vain to make it right.

“I’ll be exactly like Joe, but a girl. I’ll do all the same things. Only my name won’t be Joe. I’ll pick a girl’s name.”

Eventually, Rifka reluctantly agreed, and we gave it a shot. But basically, that was it — the end of our pretending. We may have made a few more half-hearted attempts to get up a good game of Star Trek after that, but I’d pretty much put the nails in the coffin and handed out the hammers. It was the end of an era.

Looking back, it’s easy for me to see exactly what was happening. That little voice of heterosexual puberty had entered my head — the one that whispered, “If you want boys to like you, you need to be a girl. A real girl.” I guess Rifka hadn’t quite gotten there yet, but I suspect she did eventually (I would love to ask her, but alas, to my great sorrow, I can’t, as she is no longer with us). I also know exactly what Rifka heard the moment I said, “I want to be a girl.” It was, “I renounce and betray all our shared values. I settle for second best. I give up my hopes and dreams. I strike a bargain with the devil.”

Yes, it was really that stark and simple. Black and white. Girls didn’t fight the good fight, or any fight at all. They didn’t get the grand missions to save humanity, explore new frontiers, or pursue truth and justice. Ever. There was nothing in our world, real or fictional, that said they did. Girls weren’t heroes.

“I want to be a girl” meant “I don’t want to be a hero.” I understand completely now the look of betrayal on Rifka’s face. To be honest, I understood it then, too. I just didn’t know how to find another way.

I am 55 years old now. When I sit in a darkened movie theater or tucked up in bed watching Furiosa, Rey, Jyn, Wonder Woman, Melinda May, Peggy Carter, Natasha Romanoff, Buffy Summers, Kathryn Janeway, Aeryn Sun, Dana Scully, River Song, Zoe Washburne — such a long list now, I can’t even name them all! — I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the magnitude of it, knowing what those characters would have meant to me if they’d existed half a century ago. I am downright giddy at the thought of a new series in the Star Trek franchise promoted with a trailer that features two female characters as the unambiguous leads — a trailer that opens with the words, “Ten years before Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise….”.

I believe that, because of all these fictional women — heroes — when my daughters say, “I want to be a girl,” it won’t mean, “I surrender.” It will mean only whatever they want it to mean. And if there are men out there who think that’s silly, I will try hard not to care, because this isn’t about them.















Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Trump's immigration ban is horrifying; it's timing, tragic irony

Let me try to explain the special horror I, along with many American Jews, felt when the U.S. enacted an immigration ban targeted at a religious group on Holocaust Memorial Day of all days.

My grandfather was born in Vienna to parents of Polish citizenship. Under the laws of the day, that made him a Polish citizen, too. His family emigrated to Budapest, where he grew up. After marrying and having his first child, he moved his young family to Berlin, where my father was born. My grandfather had never lived in Poland and spoke no Polish. But on Oct. 28, 1938, the Berlin police came knocking at the door and handed him this document.

It's a deportation order. The Nazis were sending all male Polish Jews over the age of 16 "back" to Poland. They gave him ten minutes to pack a bag. He was taken from his family to a detention center, and from there to the train station, where they loaded him, along with hundreds of others, onto the next train to Poland. My father was 10 years old at the time -- old enough to remember how, after they took my grandfather away, my grandmother sent my father running to synagogue to warn his brother, who was 16 and also a Polish citizen, not to come home. To his horror, he couldn't get to the synagogue because it was already surrounded by police; as it turned out, my uncle had successfully lied about his age and had not been taken.

As fate would have it, this took place just as the family was anticipating its salvation. A relative who had emigrated to the U.S. a decade earlier had miraculously managed to enlist the assistance of Sen. Walter George of Georgia (ironically, a notorious segregationist) in obtaining visas for them, which were to be delivered to the U.S. embassy in Berlin. The story of how my grandfather managed to re-enter Germany, rejoin the family, and flee to the U.S. just a couple of months before Germany invaded Poland is amazing. You can hear my father tell it in the video below. (The video was made after my father's faculties were already starting to decline, but we managed to get the whole story more or less intact, if you have the patience to stick with it. It's rather long.)

But for my grandfather's sisters, who also lived in Berlin, there were no visas, and they did not survive.

PS -- WTF, Jared Kushner?


Monday, September 12, 2016

Feminism, now more than ever

Hillary Clinton is vilified as untrustworthy and unlikeable, and Phyllis Schlafly gets the last laugh. It makes me wonder what’s happened to feminism over the years. What explains the persistence of the idea that women are weak, unreliable creatures fit only for domestic life? Why do people — even women — so easily accept the narrative that a strong woman is bitchy and false? Why don’t people recognize the blatant sexism? Why do so many women see marginal improvements in our status as total victory, and then abandon the struggle? Did everyone just fall for the “You’ve come a long way baby” ads and the pseudo-women’s lib of “Sex and the City”?

Before I go any further, let me get one thing out of the way.

Victim blaming is deplorable. I’m starting with that because I know that, by the time I’m done, someone is going to call what I have to say victim blaming. No woman deserves to be the object of sexist ideas or actions, no matter how she chooses to live her life. Bigotry is the fault of the bigot.

But that doesn’t mean that women should be complacent. If we should learn anything from Phyllis Schlafly, it’s that all the gains women have made over the past few decades could evaporate in a heartbeat, because old-fashioned notions about women’s “proper” role are alive and well and waiting in the wings to make a comeback. And if the Trump candidacy teaches us anything, it’s that the embers of bigotry can be fanned into a roaring flame a lot more quickly and easily than we might think.

Challenging ourselves to buck expectations is not wrong. Putting conventional notions of femininity under a critical microscope is not self-hatred. Recognizing the toxic messages we’ve internalized since childhood is not victim blaming.

If anything, those are the ways we seize the agency we need to create change.

There’s a tendency nowadays to see old-school feminism, with its rejection of traditional femininity and its focus on the evils of objectification, as unpleasantly strident and even self-hating. Some look at the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, which turned against a lot of the outward trappings of femininity, and ask, why do advocates for women seem to hate actual women? It’s a fair question. When anger and disapproval are aimed at things closely associated with womanhood itself, from bras and makeup to mothering and homemaking, people feel attacked. It becomes impossible to have a free and open discussion about choices and messaging. The sense that feminists are a small subset of women who hate most women is understandable. Utterly wrong, but understandable.

The problem is, how do you stand up against a widely accepted, oppressive, male-privileging definition of femininity without criticizing the outward manifestations of that definition and, by extension, the people who embrace them?

When we value how we look over what we know and what we do; when we police our own behavior to avoid seeming aggressive or unlikeable; when we accept the notion that we are delicate, fragile, and weak; when we project the idea that our bodies are tools for sexuality and little else; when we spend our precious time highlighting culturally privileged physical characteristics of whiteness, thinness, and youth — then we perpetuate what oppresses us. And that’s where the idea of victim blaming comes in. To say that women should be doing something differently in order to save themselves from a great evil sounds an awful lot like saying we are responsible for the great evil.

But in truth, those two things are worlds apart. When we lift ourselves up, we do it for ourselves. When we break out of the prison, it is to seize our freedom. It’s not the fault of the unjustly imprisoned that they have been imprisoned, whether they have the will to break free or not. Nevertheless, it’s the will to break free that will force change. And every little act of defiance breaks a link in the chain.

There is plenty of room for women of good faith to debate what constitutes an act of defiance. Is it refusing to support the “beauty” industry by eschewing its standards, or is it subverting that industry by taking control of it and broadening its standards? Is it taking control of our sexuality by being unabashedly sexual, or deemphasizing our sexuality in favor of traits we’ve long been denied the right to celebrate, like intelligence and strength? Is it succeeding in male-dominated fields, or elevating female-dominated ones? Are these either/or choices or false dichotomies? These are valid and important questions. The key is remembering that we all share the same goal in asking them: to change a system that prevents us from achieving the personal fulfillment that is every human being’s right.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Remembering My Spock

As my social media feeds fill up with posts about Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I find myself remembering Spock.

Not the original-series Spock. Not Leonard Nimoy. My Spock. A long time ago, when Star Trek and I were very young, I had a best friend. Her name was Rifka. I was Kirk, and she was Spock. That pretty much says it all.

Rifka and I fell in love with Star Trek when we were about 10 years old. It was the early 70s, a couple of years into Star Trek’s seemingly endless syndicated run on Channel 11 in New York. I’m pretty sure I was the one who started it, having been introduced to Star Trek by my older brother, but our passion for the show soon surpassed his. It surpassed that of everyone we knew.

The Star Trek universe was our universe, or at least, everything we wanted our universe to be: exciting, dangerous, just, beautiful, honorable. It was how we saw ourselves. Star Trek wasn’t just what we watched, it was what we did. For the next few years — long past the age either of us would have willingly admitted — Rifka and I spent most of our time together playing Star Trek. We played other things from time to time — the Hardy Boys, Lost in Space, board games — but at least 90% of our time together was spent playing Star Trek. And always, always, I was Kirk and Rifka was Spock. At school, there were others who joined our game. Scotty, Bones, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu were divided up among whoever else wanted to play. Interestingly, the one boy in our group, Arthur, always played the alien. (There’s probably a whole dissertation to be written about that, but I’ll just leave it there.) But Rifka and I were tyrannical in our control of the lead roles. She was Spock, I was Kirk. Always.

The funny thing is, I don’t think we had any clue just how accurately those roles reflected who we actually were.  I was brash, she was measured. I was smart, she was brilliant. I was impulsive, she was thoughtful. I was the tomboy, the risk taker, the girl who wanted to beat the boys at everything. Rifka was the hard worker who mastered everything to which she set her formidable intelligence. And in the world of our Jewish day school, my faith was showy but shallow, where hers was quiet but deeply spiritual.

As we moved into adolescence, the very things that had drawn us together began to drive us apart. In high school, I wanted to reinvent myself. I thought of  myself as a rebel, a rule breaker, a free spirit (though looking back, it was all rather tame and pretentious). Rifka remained cautious and studious. We were still friends, but we were no longer inseparable, complementary, flip sides of the same coin -- Kirk and Spock. As the years went on, we spoke less and less. By the time we went to each other’s weddings, we hadn’t seen each other in years.

And then, in 2002, some three decades after Rifka and I began playing Star Trek, word reached me that she was very ill. Rifka had cancer.

The news kicked me in the gut. All the stupid stuff that had ever come between us fell away, and the realization of all the time wasted, the friendship I should have cherished but instead allowed to wither, stood stark before me. So I did what I should have done years earlier: I wrote her a letter.

Rifka was a writer, too. By then, she was a columnist for the Jewish Week. This is what she wrote in June 2002 in a piece about the Beatles, another passion we shared (later published in an anthology of her work):

“Perhaps the only silver lining to having been diagnosed with cancer several months ago is that I have reconnected in unexpected ways with people from all walks of my life, but most particularly, with old, dear, and long out-of-touch friends.

“If I may quote from a recent letter from that same best friend who introduced me to the Beatles so long ago — and with whom I have not been in touch in years: ‘For me, talking to old friends has this kind of magical power to make me real — not just me, sitting here at this moment, but the me that’s been me all along, since the very beginning of me….Whatever else we may be today, the two little girls we were then are here with us now. They never left us.’”

A little more than a year later, I saw Rifka at her father’s shiva. He was a Holocaust survivor, a businessman, and a lovely human being, but the massive turnout at his shiva was not entirely for him. For so many of us, it was an opportunity to see Rifka without having to say what was readily apparent: one last time. In a stroke of luck, when I arrived at her brother’s house, I found that our alien friend, Arthur, whom I hadn’t seen since elementary school, was there as well. The three of us sat and talked for hours. Rifka was tired but still very much herself, her wit and insight as keen as ever. Her husband and children were there as well. As the other shiva callers came and went, I lingered, soaking her in, until finally I had to go home to my own young children.

Rifka died just a few weeks later at the age of 42. The injustice of it still makes me weep bitter tears. For my Spock, there was no Genesis planet, no katra, no miraculous resurrection. She lives on only in the memories of those who loved her.

I never think of Star Trek without thinking of my Spock. And when I say never, I mean never.

Last weekend, four decades after Rifka and I went to some of the earliest Star Trek conventions together, I attended the 50th anniversary Star Trek Mission convention in New York. As I entered, I saw this banner.

I stopped to look at it awhile, and yet again, I shed tears for my Spock, who did not live long enough to see this day. I miss her. I have been, and always shall be, her friend.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Sign of the times

When I drove past this sign this morning, I had to stop and take the picture. It tells an entire tale about how education is creating new rifts in a society already characterized by vast inequality.

“Mendham Country Day School. Advanced Educational Opportunities. Teaching to the student NOT the test. NO Common Core. NO PARCC Testing.”

This private, $20,000-a-year K-6 school knows exactly how to grab the attention of affluent parents who are likely to send their kids there -- parents who either have direct experience with or have been hearing a lot about high-stakes standardized testing in public education. The four words, teaching to the test, speak volumes, and none of it good. They suggest that public school offers mechanistic pedagogy designed as a very limited tool to do one narrow task -- prepare children to pass a specific test  -- rather than the kind of teaching that inspires creativity and original thinking,  promotes intellectual curiosity, and develops the power to reason. Teaching to the test gets kids over an arbitrary hurdle placed in front of them in one given year. The implication is that this school will instead give kids the tools they need to be more broadly successful throughout their education and beyond.

“Nonsense,” say the data pushers. “That’s just paranoid. Common Core-aligned PARCC tests are just tools that help kids see how they’re doing and allow teachers and schools to be held responsible for their outcomes.” We’ve been hearing the rebuttals for years now: Affluent white parents are just afraid to discover their precious little dears aren’t as smart as they thought they were. They’ve been brainwashed by the teachers union. They’re afraid of change. They fail to see the big picture.

But if it’s so paranoid, why are the people behind these reforms, like New Jersey governor Chris Christie and state Board of Education president Mark Biedron, sending their kids to exactly this type of private school? They live in towns with some of the top public schools in the nation -- schools that don’t have to deal with the problems of poverty and lack of resources, but are subject to the same testing requirements as every other public school in the state. Instead, for their own kids, they choose private schools free of Common Core and standardized tests. Are these guys afraid their kids aren’t smart enough for Common Core and PARCC?

Of course not. Neither was I when I chose to remove my three children from the public school system. Sure, standardized testing soaked up a ridiculous amount of time that could have been spent on more important things, but I honestly didn’t believe those lost days would have a significant impact on my high-achieving kids over the long run. The real issue was what would happen on all the rest of the days. Even before the implementation of Common Core, I could see the harm that was being done by the high-stakes testing regime of No Child Left Behind, and later the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which bound the fates of schools and teachers to the test scores of their students.

High-stakes standardized testing strangles learning in a number of ways. It dictates what is taught in the classroom by creating an irresistible incentive to focus on test prep. It pushes out of the classroom any subject, activity, or strategy that doesn’t directly enhance test scores in the short term. It handcuffs teachers from developing curriculums and classroom strategies that play to their own strengths as teachers and meet the unique needs of specific classes and students. It promotes mediocrity by rewarding schools and teachers for getting as many kids as possible over the line of basic proficiency rather than for driving high achievers to new heights. It drives schools to divert resources away from extracurricular and enrichment programs that keep kids engaged with school but aren’t perceived to contribute to higher test scores.

As my children moved through elementary and middle public schools, the writing on the wall became ever clearer: High-stakes testing was the new normal. By the time my eldest were entering their last year of middle school 4 1/2 years ago, it was a crapshoot whether they’d make it through high school before the shit really hit the fan. We knew that Common Core-aligned tests would emphasize close readings of informational text, which would change the way high school English was taught. We saw our school district’s excellent instrumental music program beginning to shrink. It seemed likely that PARCC would soon be a graduation requirement. Teachers, already vilified by anti-union forces who begrudged them their pensions, were alarmed at the prospect of their jobs depending on highly unreliable test scores. How would this affect our kids? Without a crystal ball, we couldn’t be sure. But we knew two things for certain: Every kid gets only one shot at high school, and all this data-driven reform was bullshit. We enrolled our kids in private school. We were lucky we could, though not with the same ease as many other parents who send their kids to elite private schools. Most people are not fortunate enough to be able to take this route.

The Mendham Country Day School sign is a pretty strong indicator that we are not alone. Other parents who can afford to jump ship are moving their kids to private school in response to high-stakes testing. Those schools are understandably capitalizing on that trend in the way they market themselves. How long before the demographic shift becomes noticeable and suburban school districts begin to feel the pinch of wealth flight?

When “No Common Core, No PARCC Testing” is a major selling point to the well-off, even as the ruling class pushes Common Core and PARCC for everyone else’s kids, there’s something very wrong. “Teaching to the student not the test” is not just a sign of the times. It’s a sign of trouble.