Friday, November 23, 2012

On Writing, by Stephen King

I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards. —Albert Einstein

Stephen King’s bestselling book is part memoir, and packed with funny anecdotes and pithy advice on the craft of writing. Having pondered why he wanted to write a book on writing, he acknowledges that the easy answer isn’t always the truth: “We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don’t know.” He states it in no uncertain terms:  “Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

Even, like Einstein, if no one know where the ideas come from, King makes an honest attempt to put down, briefly and simply, how he came to the craft, what he knows about it now, how it’s done, and warmly recommends the widely acclaimed Strunk and White, for style. He notes: “This is not an autobiography. It is, rather, a kind of curriculum vitae— my attempt to show how one writer was formed. Not how one writer was made; I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe that, writing a book like this would be a waste of time.”

A great writer perhaps emerges from a mysterious blend of nature and nurture. King’s advice on writing, however, is grounded in salient memories from childhood recalling encouragements of his mother, and his early experiments as a writer: “imitation preceded creation; I would copy Combat Casey comics word for word in my Blue Horse tablet, sometimes adding my own descriptions where they seemed appropriate.”  Some suggest that it was his passion for writing, and the beautiful meaning that writing bestows, which helped him recover from the near-fatal accident in 1999. Brilliantly organized and inspiring, On Writing,  will charm and entertain anyone who loves the written word and wonders about the unknowable thoughts behind it.   

Sunday, November 4, 2012

On Writing: by Stephen King

Please join us for the next two months as we discuss Stephen King's critically acclaimed memoir. Share your views on writing (and thinking) and stay tuned for more posts. Thanks. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Kids or No Kids?

Moran's account of giving birth to her first child is absolutely terrifying. I'm not sure if she ended up in a hospital with an incompetent staff, or whether this is standard at NHS hospitals in Britain. Let's just say that when you read it, you want to make sure that you completely vet your hospital staff before the big day.

However, once the horrors of childbirth are over, Moran enjoys being a parent. Although she does compare it to being in a perpetual state of war, she gets much joy out of her two children. She also finds that having kids has made her an amazing multitasker who is afraid of nothing and who has developed incredible time management skills.

She does point out the tremendous pressure that society puts on women to have children. Whenever she interviews a female celebrity, in addition to asking them about their clothes, she ismalso expected to ask them about their kids, or if they are childless, whether they want kids, and when they plan to have them. Moran once again ties this to sexism:

"Part of this feeling that women can only become powerful elders in society when they have, I suspect, linked to the fact that women aren't valued when they actually do get old: essentially, the peak of your respectability and wisdom is seen to coming in the years you're still fertile, holding down a family, and increasingly, a job at the same time. By the time you hit 55 you're being fired from the BBC and getting sniped at for being wrinkly." (p. 235)

Since a menopausal-aged woman can no longer have children, society views them as useless and therefore as extraneous.

Childless men, however, are not viewed as useless or extraneous:

"No one has ever claimed for a minute that childless men have missed out on a vital aspect of their existence, and were the poorer and crippled by it. Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Newton, Faraday, Plato, Aquinas, Beethoven, Handel, Kant, Hume, Jesus. They all seem to have managed quite well" (p. 238)

Or if at least not quite well, they led creative and productive lives. In fact, looking at some of the names on this list, it was probably a good thing that these men remained childless.

Moran calls for women to freely admit that they choose to be childless, and for other women and society in general not to view childless women as useless failures. With the increasing number of single women in society and the choice of many to live alone, childlessness may become the new norm in First World Countries.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

I Go Lap-Dancing!

Back in the early 1990's, when I lived in Seattle, two male acquaintances of mine were dating two women who worked as strippers in a club near Pioneer Square. The men in my social circle viewed these women as feminist pioneers, who had taken ownership of their bodies and were supporting themselves by exploiting men. Stripping paid well and the women were supposedly paying their way into or through college.

My female friends were outraged. They felt that these two women were being exploited - not being the exploiters, and that stripping was degrading. Both strippers came from extremely troubled families, and it was felt that they had a poor sense of personal boundries. I don't know what the women themselves thought since on the few ocassions that I actually was in a room with them, I rarely heard them talk, and we certainly never discussed their jobs. What I do remember was that my male friends viewed stripping as empowering and my female friends as degrading, and that this was a frequent topic of conversation. For the record, I have never stepped foot in a strip club.

Moran and one of her friends went to a strip-club because they wanted to write an article about it. While the strip-club chapter starts out as funny and upbeat, with Moran debating over what to wear to a strip club, it rapidly becomes darker. Moran finds the club and its patrons depressing:

"You spend this money on nothing at all - addiction to porn and strip clubs is the third biggest cause of debt in men. Between 60 and 80 percent of strippers come from a backround of sexual abuse. This place is a mess, a horrible mess. Every dance, every private booth, is a small unhappiness, an ugly impoliteness: the bastard child of misogyny and commerce" (p. 164).

In other words, she doesn't feel that the strippers are happily exploiting men for personal gain and getting empowered in the process.

Moran is also horrified by recent spate of interviews with young women who become strippers (or call girls) to pay their way through college. I must agree with Moran about this trend. I think that it is a sad state of affairs when young women have to resort to selling themselves to get a college degree and it is considered acceptable for them to do so. While I've read about young men selling their sperm to fertility clinics, and their blood to blood banks, I don't think that I've ever read about any who have had to turn to stripping or escorting in order to do so. Either they are in the minority, or too smart to get themselves into the media.

 I doubt that these young women will remain anonymous and it will be difficult for them to get employed in non-sex industry jobs after they are outed. For example, a New York City teacher was fired by the Department of Education after it found out that she had formerly been a sex worker. Evidently upper management thinks these women will try to corrupt the youth when in reality they are becoming teachers to prevent the youth from falling into the problems from which they themselves have escaped by hard work.  I just wish that the economy is better so that people can work relatively lucrative and rewarding jobs, preferably related to their future occupations, while in college.

Interestingly, Moran does enjoy pole-dancing at home and burlesque shows, which she thinks are empowering to women because they are fun for them. Since I've never pole-danced or attended a burlesque show, and neither have any of my female friends, I'll have to defer to Moran on those area. Feel free to comment if you have anything to share on these topics.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

I Encounter Some Sexism!

In this chapter, Moran explains why sexism exists by summing up thousands of years of human history:

  • men are stronger than women.
  • they don't get pregnant and die in childbirth.
  • they don't get cystitis.
  • simple biology gives them the advantage.
To quote Moran directly:

"Let's stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative on an equal with men, that's just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. There isn't. Our empires, armies, cities, artwork, philosophers, inventors, scientists, astronauts, explorers, politicians, and icons could all fit, comfortably, into one of the private karaoke booths in SingStar. We have no Mozart; no Einstein; no Galileo; no Gandhi. No Beatles, no Churchill, no Hawking, no Columbus. It just didn't happen." (p.130)

She continues on to say that women have not yet begun to be the creative individuals that they have the ability to become.

My first reaction when I read this chapter was to think "WOW! Her education was neglected. What about these famous women:

  • Eleanor of Aquitaine (spent over a decade in prison because her second husband was afraid of her).
  • Elizabeth I of England (couldn 't risk getting married since her husband would then try to rule for her).
  • The abbess Heloise (confined to a nunnery after she had a child by Peter Abelard, she was a brilliant scholar who was not allowed to raise her child or marry her lover because of the conventions of the time).
  • Hildegard of Bingen (a brilliant composer who once again became a nun and spent her days in isolation).
  • Jane Austen (the famous writer who never married).
  • Virginia Woolf (who committed suicide).
  • Veronica Franco (a talented Venetian poet forced to become a courtesan to support her own children and those of her brothers, she was tried for witchcraft by the Inquisition).
The problem with being a famous woman is that there always seems to be some kind of catch - you cannot marry, you have to enter a convent, you have to give up your children, you must become a prostitute, in order to create. Whereas people like Rembrandt and Mozart, even if they did have fits of depression, also had wives who ran their households, paid the bills, and did the laundry and cleaning; as a result, they had enormous amounts of uninterrupted time to create.

Even today in the UK, where Moran lives, women still do the bulk of housework and most of the childcare. Even in the US, women do most of the cleaning and housework
even if they work. Although industrialization has eliminated the strength differences that have kept women in subserivent roles, the responsibility for maintaining a home still falls on them. It will be interesting to see how much ruling and creating that women do in the 21st century.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What we wear dictates what we become

A few posts ago, I quoted Moran on fashion and the workplace:

"Chicks in jeans and sneakers don't get promoted. Men in jeans and sneakers do. How women look is considered generally interchangeable with who we are - and, therefore, often goes on to dictate what will happen to us next" (p.203)

Later on the page, Moran emphasizes that clothes cannot just be clothes for women. A man can pull on the only clean pants in his closet and a shirt, and live his life. When a woman puts on a piece of clothing, it immediately becomes a statement about her political views, sexuality,sense of aethestics, etc. A woman's clothing choice is always analyzed. Even a woman who dresses just for comfort has her decision analyzed and criticised.

While some of this critcism is done by men, much of it is done by women judging other women. Fashion designers and writers are also women. it is fascinating that as more and more women dominate the world of fashion in positions of influence, the clothes that appear in fashion shows still are designed for impossibly thin models and have little relation to real life.

At the end of her fashion chapter, Moran finally realizes:

"Although we use it as our major study aid, fashion does not, ultimately, help us get dressed in the morning. Not if we want to wear something we can walk around in without constantly having the hem ride up or picking the seam out of our crotches. Fashion is for standing still and being photographed.Clothes, on the other hand, are for our actual lives. And life is really the only place you can learn the most important lessons about how to get dressed and feel happy" (p.207).

Fashion deliberately forces women to be passive manniquins in order to get the "look" conceived by the designer. In real life, most women cannot, and do not wish, to stand around passively. Perhaps designers of both sexes will acknowledge that fact and someday design for real, active women.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Fashion & Librarians

When I first got hired as a librarian over ten years ago, I went through training that emphasized that to our teenage patrons, all librarians are old and dowdy. I thought this a bit extreme because in my experience, anyone over 21 is viewed as old and dowdy by a teenager - not just librarians.

Over the years I've read articles about the new hipster librarians in the NY TImes, the well-dressed NYPL librarian in The Wall Street Journal and seen posts telling librarians what to wear to conferences, as well as actual blogs devoted to librarian fashion. The Annoyed Librarian has done many posts over the years making fun of hipster librarians and librarians dressed in cat sweatshirts and confortable shoes roaming library conventions dragging bags of loot. I have posted many times on the Annoyed LIbrarian blogs comments to the effect that the emphasis on librarian fashion is sexist.

I'm going to imitate Caitlin Moran (see her list on fashion on p. 208) and give a list of reasons:

  • According to the ALA in 2010, 83% of librarians are women. The mean hourly wage for librarian, when computed is $43,000/yr. Three out of ten librarians work part-time, so they are making less than this mean on a yearly basis. This does not leave much money for clothing, and since many librarians are married, have children, or are in school, they don't have lots of time for thrifting. In fact, some even have second jobs to pay their library degree. Some of them may be saving towards retirement because they've read a few books in the personal finance section.

  • By the way, in 2010, the median weekly salary for female librarians was 81% that of male librarians.

  • Also according to the ALA study cited above, most librarians work in school or academic libraries, with a fourth working in public libraries.

  • Anyone who reads comments on listservs, facbooks pages, and blogs geared towards public librarians will notice that librarians don't sit around around and read books. They shelve, clean up patron accidents as needed, conduct craft programs and clean up after them, weed books, fix computers, and generally spend much time on their feet. There is a reason these people wear comfortable shoes and clothes that can be easily washed. Whenever I see an article about well-dressed librarians, invariably they either work in a special library, or a special division in a public library where they don't have to worry about getting dirty and therefore don't have to spend a fortune on dry-cleaning. They also probably work in a climate-controlled environment.

  • SInce librarianship is such a low-paid, woman-dominated profession, the media does not respect it. The NY TImes does wonderful articles about exciting archeological discoveries. Whenever I read them, I get depressed and rue my inability to learn a language other than English. Interestingly enough, the Times never describes the clothing of the archeologists. I don't know whether they excavate in khaki or jeans or combat pants, and whether they prefer steel-toed shoes to sneakers. Why, you ask? Because it isn't important! What matters is that the archaeologist has just discovered the site of the Roman Lupercal or a lost city in the Amazon. No one cares about what Howard Carter wore when he found the tomb of King Tut.

  • This applies to other male-dominated professions, such as neuroscience, psychiatry, etc. What matters is the work done by the professional, not how the professional looks. However, since librarianship isn't male-dominated, it isn't taken seriously, and neither are librarians. The appearances of librarians make the news, not what they actually do.

  • In addition, these articles can actually be harmful to librarians because they are divisive. What really matters is whether the librarian is competent, not stereotypically well-dressed (although I draw the line at not bathing). Instead of obsessing over the appearance of librarians, we should be concerned with the major budget cuts happening in libraries throughout the country and how it will affect the literacy of Americans of all ages.

Moran does discuss this kind of sexism frequently in her book. For example, whenever she interviews a female celebrity, she is expected to describe the woman's wardrobe and her feeling about having children. This is not required in articles about male celebrities. She also talks about the inability to move up in the work world for women, and how sexism in the workplace is not gone.

What can be done about this? I, for one, am going to apply Moran's advice about the Zero Tolerance Policy on the Patriarchal Broken Window Bullshit, and laugh. Then I'm going to buy a new pair of comfy sneakers.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I Get into Fashion! Continued

Moran spends the rest of the Fashion chapter describing the hell women go through while looking for clothes. Getting depressed while gazing in fitting room mirrors. Buying completely unsuitable items in fits of desperation, only to realize when you get them home that you will never ever wear them. Not being able to find anything with sleeves. Few women find shopping fun, which may be why online shopping has increased; it is more pleasant to try on clothes in the privacy of your home, where no one will hear you cry.

The last complaint I found really interesting because that seems to be a common complaint among British women. The Guardian has a blog called “The Invisible Woman” geared towards older women who feel invisible because of their age. One post generated a string of comments about how impossible it was to find t-shirts with elbow-length sleeves, something that can be easily found from American clothing companies such as LLBean. Most posters (whether from the U.K. , the U.S., elsewhere) agreed that it is hard to find attractive clothing that fits older female bodies and more mature lifestyles, despite the economic power of the aging Baby Boomer generation.

The misery of ill-fitting clothes is compounded by the criticism received by the women who wear them. While Moran mentions how British female politicians are chastised for their wardrobe mistakes, I remember Hilary Clinton. It seems as though every time the poor woman trims her hair, unflattering photos of her appear in the news and she is denounced for her appearance. 

I hope as more women become fashion designers and reporters, more clothes will be designed to accommodate the wide range of women’s bodies and lifestyles. Models look more like real women and less emaciated.  Perhaps women politicians will even receive coverage of their job performance rather than their looks.

Chapter 11 - the chapter that made me love this book

Chapter 11 "I Get Into Fashion", is the chapter that made me love this book. Moran, aged 24, finally has enough spare cash on hand so that she can go clothes shopping. Since her backround is grunge, she normally wears the same few clothes over and over again until they wear out, buys clothes at jumble sales, and wears Doc Martens. Now that she has enough money to shop like a grown up, she learns about the need to accessorize and to wear heels.

Thirteen years later, Moran has collection of heels that she doesn't wear because they are excrucuatingly painful and often made her fall down the stairs. To quote Moran:

"Why are all these shoes unworn? Ladies, I'm going to put it on the line. I'm going to say what, over the last 13 years, I have gradually realized, and what we all secretly knew anyway, the first time we put heels on: there're only ten people in the world, tops, who should actually wear heels. And six of those are drag queens. The rest of us just need to...give up. Surrender. Finally acquiesce to what nature is telling us. We can't walk in them. WE CANNOT WALK IN THE DAMN THINGS. We might just as well be stepping out in antigravity boots, or roller skates." (p. 195).

This is actually true. One of the earliest forms of high heels were worn by Venetian courtesans, who needed servants to assist them as they walked down the street. Most prostitutes died young and poor. Some, like the famous Veronica Franco, ended up before the Inquisition.

High heels were also popular among the men of the court of Louis the XIV, France's Sun KIng. Louis deliberately forced his courtiers to move to court and spend their disposable income on frivolous items such as heels, jewelry, and furniture because under previous kings the nobles had stayed home and spent their money on armies, which they then used to try to overthrow the king. Louis realized that getting his courtiers hooked on conspicuous consumption would keep them broke, under his eye, and less likely to try to cause a revolution. It worked.

This also works with women. It is now Fashion Week in NYC. I realize that Fashion Week generates enormous revenues for NYC and helps support the city's reputation as one of the most glamorous places in the world. I've spent the week gazing at the fashion sections of the local papers. Most fashion is aimed at women, who are expected to spend money to stay fashionable - to own the latest trends.

However, fashion is also expensive. Money spent on designer shoes, or even illegal knockoffs of shoes, is money that could be saved to buy an apartment, invested in a retirement fund, or used to pay tuition or start a business. Women over 65 in the U.S. have much higher rates of poverty and near poverty than men. One cause is that women have lower salaries than men, but they also are not investing in retirement plans to compensate for the lower salaries.

There is less pressure on men to spend money on fashion. Male fashion changes less radically; male shoes and clothing are more durable because manufacturers know men want to wear their clothes for more than one season. To quote Moran once again "Indeed, I've pretty much given up on women's shoes altogether. Even women's flats seem insubstantial and sloppily made, compared to mens" (p. 197) Women's shoes are less substantial because in most cases, manufacturers don't expect women to wear them for more than a season. Since they spend less time and money on clothes shopping, men have more time and resources to do other things, many of which earn them money, or they can actually save some money rather than spend it on clothes.

While Moran is on strike against women's shoes, I'm not that extreme. I don't care if other women wear heels - I just don't want to have to buy them or wear them. However, as Moran points out on p. 202, women are judged by what they wear, by men and especially by other women. "How women look is considered generally interchangeable with who we are-and, therefore, often goes on to dictate what will happen to us next." (p. 203).
This last statement is something I'll discuss in tomorrow's post.


Monday, September 10, 2012

I Am Fat!

Caitlin Moran was overweight for all of her childhood, and only began to lose weight in her teen years. Her childhood nickname was "Fatso." As a result, Moran remains very conscious of the pressure that society puts upon women to remain thin. As Moran entertaining describes, celebrities such as David Bowie and Keith Richards can completely fry their brains using drugs, but are still idolized by media and society. Women  (especially celebrities) who are not model-thin are constantly vilified for their weight (p.110).

As Moran points out:

"Because people overeat for exactly the same reasons they drink, smoke, serially fuck around, or take drugs... In this trancelike state, you can find a welcome, temporary relief from thinking for 10, 20 minutes at a time, until finally a new set of sensations-physical discomfort and immense regret-make you stop, in the same way you finally pass out on whisky or dope. Overeating, or comfort eating, is the cheap, meek option for self-satisfaction, and self-obliteration. You get all the temporary release of drinking, fucking, or taking drugs, but without-and I think this is the important bit-ever being left in a state where you can't remain responsible and cogent....Overeating is the addiction of choice of carers, and that's why it's come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions...Fat people aren't indulging in the "luxury" of their addiction making them useless,chaotic, or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn't inconvenience anyone. and that's why it's so often a woman's addiction of choice" (p. 111-113).

Since Moran, in addition to being an obese child, was also the caretaker of her numerous younger siblings, she has first-hand knowledge of the causes of obesity.

The U.S. in general, and NYC in particular, has become very aware of an obesity epidemic in the general population. More than a third of the adult population in the U.S. is obese, and over 17% of children are obese. NYC has mounted an agressive campaign to lower its obesity levels by increasing the amount of healthy food carts, improving schools lunches, and posting admonishing ads on subway trains. However, obesity rates remain high among New Yorkers of all ages. One reason may be that these NYC obesity reduction methods, while admirable, don't provide caretakers for the caretaker. There is no one there to help provide these women with the support that they need, which is a much more expensive proposition than posting some signs in a subway car.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

I am a feminist!

Unlike many women, Moran is happy to admit that she is a feminist. When I was a child growing in the 1970's, being described a feminist was a positive thing. My mother was one of the few women of her generation who got a college degree in the 1950's. She always spoke about being forced by the NYC Board of Education to quit when she became pregnant with her first child. This was standard policy in the 1950's; not only couldn't women teach in NYC schools after their third month of pregnancy but they had to submit their child's birth certificate, and got their pay retroactively docked if their child was born less than six months after their final work day.

My father, a gym teacher, was one of the main advocates for allowing girls to wear pants to school. Back in the 1970's, girls could only wear skirts in Long Island schools. As the father of six daughters and the husband of a woman who never wore dresses except in extreme heat waves, my father was sympathetic to the demands of his female students and supported a dress code change. He later supported the addition of a female player in the high school football team.

I spent the early 1990's in Seattle during the height of the grunge era, leaving just before Kurt Cobain killed himself. Moran is a big fan of Courtney Love, who she credits with teaching her not to give a damn about what others thought of her. One of the best aspects of the grunge movement was that it allowed women to dress comfortably in jeans, flannel shirts, t-shirts, Converse, or Doc Martins, all of which allows great freedom of movement. Moran is not a big fan of high heels and prefers flats, which I suspect is a decision influenced by grunge. My own recollection of life in 1990's Seattle was that it was OK to take risks with my life, and that no one would judge me on how I looked.

After the end of grunge, feminism fell out of style. I cannot remember the last time that I heard a woman describe herself as a feminist. In my experience, admitting that I was a feminist was politically incorrect, like admitting that I ate red meat, didn't compost, and didn't sign petitions. It simply was a very indiscreet thing to confess to people who weren't close friends.

Moran openly confronts women with this refusal to admit that they are feminists. As she points out:

"When statistics come in saying that only 29 percent of American women would describe themselves as feminist - and only 42 percent of British women- I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies. What part of "liberation for women" is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay?...

These days, however, I am much calmer-since I realized that it's technically impossible for a woman to argue against feminism. Without feminism, you wouldn't be allowed to have a debate on a woman's p;ace in society. You'd be too busy giving birth on  the kitchen floor-biting down on a wooden spoon, so as not to distub the men's card game-before going back to hoeing the rutabaga field." (p. 75).

My questions to my readers:

  • Do you feel ashamed to describe yourself as a feminist?
  • If you are a man, do you dislike women who openly describe  themselves as feminists?
  • Why do you think there is a slightly less stigma about calling oneself a feminist in the UK?
  • What do you think IS a 21st century feminist?
Please post.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why I Chose "How to Be A Woman" by Caitlin Moran

A few months ago, as I was doing the dishes, I heard Caitlin Moran being interviewed on WNYC. While I regularly read the British newspaper The Guardian, I do not not read the London Times, so I had never heard of her. What impressed me about her interview was that she discussed why "feminism" should not be a dirty word. She also discussed the enormous pressures put on women to conform in both appearance and behavior to really impossible standards set by men.

I immediately ran out, bought a copy of her book since there was an enomous holds queue for it in the BPL catalog, and spent an entire day reading How to Be a Woman on my couch while drinking coffee. Moran's prologue brilliantly stated what I have felt about being a woman but not have been able to articulate:

"In the Broken Windows theory, if a single broken window or an empty building is ignored and not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may break into the building and light fires, or become squatters.

Similarly, if we live in a climate where female pubic hair is considered distasteful, or famous and powerful women are constantly pilloried for being too fat or too thin, or badly dressed, then, eventually, people start breaking into women, and lighting fires in them. Women will get squatters. Clearly, this is not a welcome state of affairs. I don't know about you, but I don't want to wake up one morning and find a load of chancers in my lobby...

Personally, I feel the time has come for women to introduce their own Zero Tolerance policy on the Broken Windows issues in our lives - I want a Zero Tolerance policy on "All the Patriarchal Bullshit." And the great thing about a Zero Tolerance policy on Patriarchal Broken Windows Bullshit is this: In the 21st century, we don't need to march against size-zero models, risible pornography, lap-dancing clubs, and Botox. We don't need to riot or go on hunger strikes. There's no need to throw ourselves under a horse, or even a donkey. We just need to look it in the eye,squarely, for a minute, and then start laughing at it." (p. 12-13)

This will not be an easy book to post about on a respectable, intellectual library blog. It certainly won't be easy to find many people who have actually read BPL copies due to the long holds list. How to Be a Woman was a bestseller in the UK, and Moran's ideas are definitely relevant to a US audience. If you cannot get a copy, an excerpt is posted at the NPR link earlier in this post. More information can be found at:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Americans and a National Cuisine

Pellegrini correctly assesses that Americans who are not recent immigrants lack an established cuisine. He comments about Americans:

"His curiosity about culinary matters, of relatively recent origin, is an encouraging sign.If he would proceed wisely, however, he must remember that the evolution of a traditional cuisine requires time. His immediate concern should be a willingness to experiment, an insistence upon quality, a purging of his mind of all culinary prejudice...

The culinary poseurs, foreign and domestic alike, are out to capitilize on American credulity in cultural matters. Their insistence that cooking is an art and eating and drinking a ritual, has thrown the dinner hour out of focus and produced needless confusion. There are few Americans, for example, who can serve a dinner which deviates a little from the native tradition without being somewhat self-conscious about it. And who is certain about when to serve red and when to serve white wine? The proper attitude, of course, is that it doesn't make a damned bit of difference." (p. 231-2)

For Pellegrini, what matters is the quality of the ingredients and a willingness to improve, using the proper techniques, using the materials on hand. He also states earlier in the book his belief that women and men can be equally good cooks, although it is easier for men to do so as a vocation because women are tied down with domestic duties. This is a radical statement since he is asserting that domestic cooking is as important as restaurant cooking.

Both Italy and France have strong regional cuisines. Peter Mayle in particular likes to visit smal, unpretentious restaurants in little towns with traditional (often female) cooks. These regional restaurants will serve food using recipes that draw from the meats and produce traditionally produced by the surrounding countryside. Although they don't use the term, these restaurants can be viewed as locavore dining spots.

It has been sixty years since this book was published. I would be interested in hearing from readers whether they think that Americans have developed a domestic cuisine, and if so, what is it? I think we have developed the burger and fries combo to a fine art, but would love to read comments from others.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Gardening and the Neighbors

Home gardens have traditionally been grown by first-generation Italian immigrants. While most people, when they think of gardening Italians, recall Vito Corleone dropping dead in his Long Island yard, many other humbler Italians also tilled the soil of their yards. For example, my great-grandfather the unsuccessful wine-maker had what my mother remembered as a "farm" in the Bronx of the 1930's. My father's mother had a large garden in her house in Elmont, although I tend not to believe my sister's claim that grandma raised goats; I don't think this would have popular with the neighbors in Elmont in the 1960's. My neighbor in Astoria was able to be self-sufficent from his produce from his two yards. Italians in Glendale, Middle Village, and Canarsie and Bensonhurst all had patches with tomatos, zucchini, and basil.

Pellegrini viewed his yard not as something to be turned into green turf, or cemented over for additional parking space, but as fertile land that could be used to feed his family. He turned twenty-five hundred square feet of spce into a vegetable garden. In addition to a ffifty artichoke plants and a fifty-foot row of raspberries, he also had:

"sixteen blueberry bushes, three peach trees, a plum, an apple, a fig, and a pear. There are also about a hundred strawberry plants. ...The fruit trees and berry bushes provide thefamily with fruit for the year. What is not eaten in season is frozen or otherwise preserved for the winter. We can also give an occasional basket to our good  friends."
(pp 72-3).

He also has herbs, flowers and decorative shrubs, and two thousand square feet of lawn for his children to play on.

Fortunately for Pellegrini, he lived in a Seattle suburb. While Seattle has gentrified considerably since the early 1990's, there were still many ungentrified neighborhoods prior to the twenty-first century. My neighbors in Ballard, for example, had moved to the US from Finland and regularly used the smokehouse they build in their backyard. My neighbors in Queen Anne were  horticulturalists who grew drought-resistant plants in their yard and fennel for their rabbits. The only plants the city cracked down on were marijuana and opium poppies.

Cities in the rest of the country were less flexible. By the mid-1980's, most of my neighbors on Long Island had gardeners, regularly spread chemicals on their lawns, and confined their shrubbery to evergreens pruned in the shape of corkscrews. They would not have welcomed a neighbor who ploughed up his lawn to  plant messy fruit trees and plebian vegetables. My parents had a huge apple tree in their yard, but we never ate the apples. Pellegrini would have turned them into apple sauce and pies.

While there is a new move towards urban farms, particularly in NYC and Detroit, there are also areas where farming is not popular with the neighbors. Fruit trees attract messy birds and rodents. Gardens fallow in winter look like big plots of mud. Rabbits kept in hutches to fatten them before eating would prompt a call to Animal Control. In fact, NYC actually had to amend its zoning law becuase people were completely paving over their  front yards to create parking spots, and the resultant runoff was flooding streets and houses.

Pellegrini's other book, such as the Food Lover's Garden, emphasize the joys of growing your own produce and eating homegrown food. He thinks this helps him to lead a balanced life of both the head and the body, as well as an aesthetically pleasing one. He and his fellow Italian immigrants already know the benefits or exercise, a physical connection to the earth, and a healthy diet.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wine and family values

Pellegrini, like many immigrants originally from Italy, made his own wine with grapes that he bought from Robert Mondavi.When I was growing up on Long Island, my mother frequently took me shopping at a giant fruit and vegetable store named
Cross-Island Fruits. They stock giant glass demi-johns and a variety of bottles for the home wine maker. You can order grapes from them, as well as a wine press if desired. Whenever we visited the store, my mother would recall how her paternal grandfather, who immigrated from Tuscany in the 1890's, also made his own wine from purchased grapes. Unlike Pellegrini, who claims that his wine was highly sought after by friends, my great-grandfather's wine was legendarily undrinkable. Pellegrini fermented his wine in glass, as Cross Island Fruits recommends on their wine-making page; my impression was that my great-grandfather used wood, which may have tainted the wine.

When I moved to Astoria in the 1990's one of my neighbors was an elderly Italian man who owned several properties in Astoria. He had huge vegetable gardens and fruit trees on two properties, and canned his produce every fall. He also made his own wine. Although he was in his seventies, he rose at five every morning, rode his bike everywhere, and could be found doing repairs on his property and the houses of his friends.

In addition making his own wine, Pellegrini advocated training children to enjoy wine from an early age. Both of his daughters ate a traditional Italian breakfast of bread and coffee, which he lightly spiked with grappa. They prefered to dip their coffee into his mug, which contained a higher percentage of grappa. The oldest daughter also enjoyed a small glass of wine with her evening meal. Despite their early exposure to alcohol, neither of his daughter developed a drinking problem.

Pellegrini suggested that children participate in the wine-making process by helping to press the wine, carry bottles in and out of cellars, and learning how to monitor the aging of the wine. By learning how good wine is made and how it should taste, they develop an appreciation of it as something that does more than get them drunk. They also view wine drinking as a wholesome family activity, not as something excitingly forbidden.

There have been a recent spate of articles about the new "stroller bars" in Brooklyn. The NY Times even did two articles about Greenwood Park:

While some commentors to The Times articles do not think that children should be in bars, others point out that this is common in Europe. Reading through the comments, the real issue to me is not that children are being encouraged to drink wine or spiked lattes (which might actually calm them down a bit once the alcohol kicks in) but that children are not being properly supervised by parents. I have to admit that if I were at a bar and saw one child try to bean another child with a bocce ball then I would feel obligated to look for a parent to prevent an injury. Since much of my day is spend encouraging children to act in a more thoughtful manner, I would try to stay out of a bar that perpetuated my working environment.

I suspect that if more supervision was available at these bars , whether by parents or on-site nannies hired by the bar, then the atmosphere would be safer and more enjoyable for all. Perhaps Greenwood Park should hire some French preschool workers and open a creche for its customers a la  last month's Bringing Up Bebe.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Improvisational Cook

Pellegrini's family was forced to consider what was found in the natural world around them and what was available in their garden or pantry. As a result, he learned to be an improvisational cook because his food source changed from day to day. He advocates always having on hand four items - onion, garlic, parsley, and celery (p.142) These can be used to flavor any dish. He also suggests growing the Mediterranean culinary herbs - thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano, and tarragon, and bay since they taste better fresh than dried (I disagree with him about the oregano, which gets stronger as it dries). Since he lived in Seattle, which in the past seldom freezes, he could keep these herbs growing all year round, and cut them as needed.

A typical meal in the adult Pellegrini's house would be this:

"One day there were six people for dinner. In the refrigerator there were four Italian sausages and a light, scrawny fryer. In the garden were string beans, artichokes, zucchini, carrots, beets, peas, and several other vegetables. The cellar, as usual, was well stocked and bread was in abundance. What could be done?" (p. 224)

He then described how he cut up all the meat, cooked it with herbs, tomato sauce and lemon, then added vegetables and wine. He covered the skillet cooked it for twenty minutes, and served it to happy, satisfied guests. The wine, of course, he has made himself.

Unlike many cookbooks, Pellegrini wants his readers to think about what they have on hand, and how it can be used. He assumes that his readers know how to mince, roast, and bake already; unlike Mark Bittman, he doesn't tell his readers, complete with color photos, how to boil water. He wants them to take this skills and apply them to whatever is handy in the pantry.

Peasants - the original freegans

Pellegrini's attitude towards food was shaped by his childhood as a peasant in Italy. His family was so poor that he followed animals being driven to market so that he could collect their manure and sell it for fertilizer. He gives a description of his father meticulously cleaning out chicken intestines so that they could be cooked and eaten. A typical Italian Christmas stocking contained no toys because children had no time to play, only nuts and an orange (p.19).

In his trip across America to join his father in Washington State, Pellegrini gathered apples from neglected orchards, stunned that so much fruit was allowed to go to waste with no one to threaten him for theft. He lost a girl friend after he served her and her mid-Western parents freshly shot larks for dinner; in Italy, songbirds were viewed as another source of food to a starving population. In a paragraph that is shocking to twenty-first century Americans, Pellegrini admits that friends give him unwanted Easter rabbits bought for their children, and he serves them up for dinner for other friends (who are told that they are chicken) (p. 99).

The grown-up Pellegrini still scavenged for firewood during his trips to the hills around Seattle. Looking back on his childhood in Washington state, he remembered:

"During the first few months in America I went to the forest every day and returned home laden with its precious fruit. There were nuts and berries in profusion. With my father I hunted grouse, pheasant, quail, and rabbit. Here and there were abandoned homesteads with pear, plum, and apple orchards...Although we worked hard in our eagerness to take advantage of new opportunities, we did not neglect what was to be had for no more effort than was required in gathering it. We never bought a bit of fuel."(p.31-2

In addition to what his family found in the land around them, they also planted an extensive garden. This habit was continued by the adult Pellegrini in his Seattle yard.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Cooking as part of a balanced life

Pellegrini first published The Unprejudiced Palate in 1948, shortly after the end of World War II. While the US has been at war with two countries for over ten years, we have not had to mobilize our population in the way that we had to do in WW II. There has been no food rationing,and women have not been not encouraged to leave their homes and take jobs in factories to make aircraft and munitions. Rosie the Riveter does not exist in the 21st century.

However, in America of the 1940's, there was considerable rationing. Newspapers and magazines printed recipes for "wacky cakes", which didn't contain rationed eggs. Most recipes were designed to be quick and to use a minimum of ingredients because women were cooking them after spending a day at war work. Food was something just to be eaten quickly before chores and homework were begun.

The Italian-born Pellegrini had a completely different view of cooking. He states in The Unprejudiced Palate that the United States had unmatched resources of plenty in meat, fruits, vegetables, and grains which provided the materials needed for what could be one of the great cuisines of the world. However, he was mistrustful of cookbook authors:

"The American housewife has been convinced by these culinary fakirs that cooking is an art, and since she is at the moment in full revolt against the thesis that woman's place is in the home, she is quite willing to admit that her cooking isn't worth a damn - despite the spherical tendencies of her own and her mate's girth. She is in no mood to achieve distinction in the kitchen if to do so she must go snouting for truffles in the oak groves of Piedmont and preying upon snails in the vineyards of Burgundy. If cooking is an art, then by definition it can be mastered only by a select few – a conclusion which she has been quick to seize upon and exploit in defense of her admitted ineptitude. If excellent meals require exotic and unavailable ingredients, endless hours in the kitchen, and a lifetime to perfect, Mrs. Jones is content to whet the can opener and concentrate on bridge.” (p.10)

In contrast to the view of cooking as a complicated art, Pellegrini believed

“An accomplished cuisine is only one of the ingredients in the good life. It is perhaps the basic ingredient; but to look upon it as either more or less than that is to pervert its meaning…He knows, too, that simplicity and variety, both in ingredients and in their preparation, are the abiding principles on which the distinguished diet is based. A cup of broth, fine, crisp bread, good cheese, celery and chicory hearts, a bottle of wine – never mind the French names and ancient vintages – topped with coffee and brandy, make a pleasant and satisfying dinner.” (p. 14-5).
As a result, The Unprejudiced Palate, while it does contain descriptions of the food that he makes, is more of an exposition of  Pellegrini’s philosophy that anyone can cook, and cook well (whether male or female), with good American ingredients and a basic knowledge of simple recipes and techniques.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Why discuss "The Unprejudiced Palate"?

In November, 2010, I did a post in the discussion of Cheap the High Cost of Discount Culture that has since  garnered hundred of hits and as of today, fourteen comments. Those of you who are long-time readers of Brooklyn Book Talk will have realized that while people are actually reading the blog (yes - we do track the hits), they don't comment. However, every few months, someone will post a comment praising this post.

In the post, I quoted the late food writer Angelo Pellegrini. I first discovered Pellegrini in the early 1990's, when I moved to Seattle, worked a series of minimum wage jobs, gardened in a community garden patch, and discovered the Seattle Public Library and the famed Elliott Bay Books. Elliott Bay prominantly featured the works of M F K Fisher, who writes not just about food but the memories that it invokes in people. She had a rich, eventful life filled with tragedy but her interest in food and eating helped her to move past failed marriages, financial crises, and the death of loved ones.

Fisher's book, Dubious Honors, is a collection of introductions that she wrote for cookbooks. One chapter is about the afterword that she wrote for An Unprejudiced Palate, which she helped to get republished by North Point Press in 1984; she had originally read the book in 1948, when she first met Angelo Pellegrini. Fisher and Pellegrini had been invited to serve as judges in a wine tasting conference at the Los Angeles County Fair. They spent three days as partners, judging wine. Pellegrini was annoyed that Fisher, a woman, had been selected as a judge. He spent all three days refusing to talk to her, and generally acting in a hostile, petulant manner:

"The next day was the last, thank God. I had never lived through such a miserable experience. My female honor felt bruised by the dark unsmiling man sitting with such obvious impatience and distaste beside me, sharing the same horrid bucket for our public rinsings, sucking in his breath whenever I had to lean toward him so that I would not pollute his pristine taste buds with my stench.I prayed for patience to get through the fruit wines, through the raw brandies, and away." (p. 97).

Finally on day three, Fisher finally won over Pellegrini, who realized that she did not in fact stink (it was his hotel soap) and she became friends with him and his wife.

Fisher described Pellegrini repeatedly as a kind of Pan (the Greek demi-god, not Peter Pan). She was willing to put aside his prolonged boorish behavior because she admired his writings and was won over by his eventual charm. Although an English professor at the University of Washington, he was born in Italy, the son of Tuscan immigrants who had moved to Washington State in the 1910's and did not learn English until he was ten. Most of his writings focused on food and life in America. While I never met Pelligrini, and was horrified by Fisher's article, I was won over by his writings, which still resonate in food-obsessed NYC society.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Politeness and the Parisians

During my month blogging about Bringing Up Bebe, I was inspired to reread several books by Peter Mayle. Mayle frequently comments on how well-behaved French children are in restaurants, and how polite the French are in general. Nevertheless, he quotes Provence natives who describe the Parisians as rude at least once per book.

It would be easy to dismiss these comments as sour grapes on the past of the rural French who secretly long to live in Paris. However, I just finished reading The Sweet Life in Paris: delicious adventures in the world's most glorious and perplexing city by David Lebovitz. Lebovitz, a pastry chef, cookbook author, and Paris resident, makes it clear that visitors to Paris must obey etiquette in greeting shop employees (say Bonjour to EVERYONE) and in dressing even in a casual fashion (it is not OK to put out the trash in sweats). Lebovitz describes a simple visit to his supermarket, which sounds dismal and which he likens to a "Romanian prison" (p. 176):

"At my Franprix, if there's a mess, all the employees gather in a semicircle around it to watch it spread. They just stand there, watching it, waiting for something to happen. You can see them backing away and thinking to themselves, "C'est pas ma faute...c'est pas ma faute..., hoping for someone else to take the initiative. They'll toss a plastic cone nearby, shrug, then head back outside to finish their cigarettes." (p. 176).

Lebovitz devotes an entire chapter "Lines are for other people" where he lambastes the Parisian refusal to stand on line, leadng them to cut other people or push them aside. He makes Paris sound like one overcrowded Times Square.

However, all of his accounts sound like these Parisians failed their state-run preschools. They obviously never learned to cope with the boredom of a minimum wage job. They've never learned to use initiative at work. They haven't even learned to get along with their fellow walkers. And then there are strikes. Constant strikes. Once again, the strikers are definitely not people who have learned to settle  with what they have been handed in life. I look forward to the changes to American society that will occur once a French upbringing for children has become popular in the US.

Monday, July 23, 2012

French mothers don't feel guilt

There has recently been much speculation in the press about the pregnancy of the new CEO of Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer, with journalists debating over whether Mayer can have a family and still be CEO. According to Druckerman's book, this would not even be a question in France. One of the major differences between French mothers and American mothers is that French mothers don't feel guilty about returning to work. Most of them apparently stay home for three months, lose their baby weight, and then go back to work, secure in the knowledge that their child is being cared for by trained professionals at a creche.

Mothers, in fact, expect to work; stay-at-home mothers are viewed as dull and uninteresting, and get ignored at parties. Women admit that they get bored staying at home with their children and that working is more interesting. In addition, they feel that it is safer to stay employed because there is no guarantee that their husbands won't leave them. If they have a job, they are more financially secure. Even women in government are expected to return to work after the appropriate time; one female minister was criticized for returning too early, not for returning at all.

What probably helps French mothers is the existence of the cheap, well-run state creches and preschools. The French admit that two incomes are needed in most families, and are willing to pay the taxes needed to provide children with care and parents with a safety net. This care allows any mother, not just female CEO's, to go back to the jobs that they enjoy and need.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Multitasking and Manners

I have become more aware since I read Bringing Up Bebe of the breakdown of manners in NYC. I hate writing this next post because it makes me sound like the stereotype of the crotchety librarian. Nevertheless, it has bothered me enough to that point where I felt I had to do a post on it.

Some observations:
  • people talk at other people while the other people are on the phone. The talkers seem to forget that it is hard to carry on two conversations at once. It is actually more efficient for the person to finish the phone conversation, then deal with the person in front of them.
  • the human brain cannot actually multitask (see this NPR article). This is why it is more efficient to let the talker finish the conversation before s/he deals with the person before him/her.
  • personal computers did not become common until the 1980's. Gen X was the first generation to grow up with computers, followed by Gen Y and the Millennials. Human beings do not mutate as quickly as lab rats or fruit flies. Three generations of computer-using humans do not translate to brains born instantly capable of multitasking.
Nevertheless, everyone seems to think the brain (or at least the American brain) has evolved enough in thirty years so that it is possible to carry on an intelligent conversation while texting, driving, walking, and/or riding a bike. They therefore don't think it's rude to interrupt people since they don't view anything as an interruption - the person interrupted should just multitask more efficiently. As a result, children watch their parents interrupt people and think it's OK to interrupt adults.

They also learn not to respect adults. Druckerman gives several examples in her book of American children who do not respect adults, from rude teenagers to younger children who bite and hit their parents. Interestingly enough, Peter Mayle frequently describes rude adult  Parisians in his books, so the French child-rearing method is obviously not fool-proof.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

California has discovered parenting French-style

I was stunned to read this article in last week's New York magazine. The article is about a California-based program called Resources for Infant Educarers (REI). The author of the article attended a Manhattan class, and spent her time learning not to be a helicopter parent.

Intrigued, I checked out the REI website. The founder, Magda Gerber, received a degree in linguistics at the Sorbonne before studying with Hungarian pediatrition Emmi Pikler. Her philosophy of child-rearing, which includes free play, observing the child, treating the child like a rational being, and allowing the child freedom to play and learn sounds much like that of Francoise Dalto. She develped her ideas with the help of a neurologist partner, Tom Forrest, who presumably served as an advisor about the infant brain.

Gerber's take on discipline quoted in the New York article sounds very French:

"The RIE approach to discipline is simple: Set reasonable, consistent rules and stick to them even if they’re unpopular with those expected to abide by them. “It is not the best thing to try to keep your children happy all the time,” writes Gerber. “That is not the way life is.”

Presumably this means that you should also teach your children to cope with frustration, boredom, and waiting. It will be interesting to see if Druckerman's book on French child-rearing and classes on Gerber's child-rearing methods will have a noticeable impact on the children of NYC.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The French and the Joy of Food

Despite the steely resolutions of Druckerman's friends, who all lose their baby weight within three months of giving birth, the French enjoyment of food comes across in the book. French parents want their children to appreciate the different flavors of fruits and vegetables. They encourage the children to revel in the different tastes and textures of food. On weekends, they spend time teaching their children how to bake, and the process of making the cake is treated as equally enjoyable as eating it.

Druckerman's female friends keep their weight down by not eating bread during the week. Their snack is a cup of black coffee (I'm sure unsweetened). Yet they allow themselves to eat what they want, in moderate amounts, on the weekend. This prevents them from feeling overly constrained in their diet, and they don't have the urge to binge eat.

Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, first published in 1989, started a trend of travel writing/memoirs (especially about France). I personally like the first sequel, Toujours Provence, as much as the first book. What sets these two books apart from other travel memoirs is Mayle's vividly written, genuine enjoyment of long French lunches, house wines, fresh produce, olive oil, cheese, the melons from his own backyard trees, and bread that is matched to the meal. When I read his books, I don't get the urge to go to France - I get the urge to visit my local produce store and bakery.

There is a description in Toujours Provence when he visits the Les Halles market in Avignon, gets really hungry after looking at the produce and other foods on sale, and desperately wants to chow down on a sausage sandwich and a litre of wine. However, since it's early in the morning and he hasn't done any genuine physical work, he cannot justify this breakfast, and just gets coffee. Whenever I read that passage, I get hungry and make coffee. It also comes to mind whenever I visit an NYC farmer's market. Unlike some other travel writers, he seems to focus more on his personal experiences rather than on shopping or accumulating possessions.

Mayle mentions in one book that he and his wife have lost weight since they came to Provence. He credits their fresh, unprocessed food, use of olive oil instead of butter, and the fact that they walk constantly for helping them keep their weight down. They've learned to focus on the experience of eating, to really taste their food and savor the textures of what they eat. As a result, they do not overeat, and keep their weight down. He predates French Women Don't Get Fat by twenty years.

I've noticed over the past two weeks that this blog is getting an increased number of hits from viewers in France. I know that Peter Mayle was viewed as writing about France in a condescending manner when his books first came out. All I can say is that as a New Yorker, I've had to deal over the years with literally hundreds of  tourists while at work, commuting, or merely roaming the streets. Tourists can be annoying (I stay OUT of Times Square because it is impossible to walk). However, I've also been a tourist myself in other countries. I do my best to direct tourists, offer them safety tips, and cheerfully walk around them. Although they drive up real estate prices, they also fuel the NYC economy. I suspect that Peter Mayle gave a boost to that of France back in the 1990's because he made Provence so appealing.

Happy belated Bastille Day!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Snacking and French Kids

Children eat three meals a day, and a goutier (or snack) at 4:30 PM each day to tide them over from lunch to dinner. The goutier often consists of bread and good-quality dark chocolate. They do not eat at other times, which is connected to teaching them delayed gratification. Druckerman comments

"when we rush to feed Bean whenever she whimpers, we're treating her like an addict. Whereas expecting her to have patience would be a way of respecting her." (p. 74).

By expecting their children only to eat at established meal times, French parents are teaching their children not only to wait, but how to establish healthy eating habits. Once French nanny that Druckerman interviewed will no longer work for American parents. The nanny tried to teach the children manners and healthy eating habits, only to have her attempts undermined by overly permissive parents. As a result, the kids were "stout" and spoiled because they were being fed cake and ice cream late each night.

Over the past few years, I've noticed that American parents and caregivers never seem to venture out without a container of Cheerios packed into their carriages. Kids appear to be fed Cheerios (and sometime Fruit Loops, raisins, or trail mix) periodically throughout the day. While the majority of the babies and toddler that I see are not obese, I have found myself wondering if it might be better if these children were fed fresh fruit or vegetables as snacks instead of breakfast cereals. According to the French way of child-rearing, these children would be better off not being fed any snacks at all.

Child-hood obesity rates in France are lower than in the United States and are expected to remain below 10% in the next ten years. As of now, 40% of American children are over-weight, and half of these children are obese.  However, in both countries, poorer children are more likely to be obese than wealthier children. I would be interested in knowing whether creches and preschools in poorer French neighborhoods have fewer resources available for educating children on food and diet, whether poorer French children snack more frequently, and whether their snacks are less healthy than those of wealthier children. In NYC at any rate, there is a push to make healthier food more easily procurable in poorer neighborhoods and to provide healthier school lunches in public schools.

Food and French Kids

I first read about the special diet of French school children when I read Peter Mayle's Toujours Provence (1991). Mayle spends a chapter describing how he experiences French dining options at various price points along with Regis, whom he refers to as the "Athlete Gourmet". Regis has a small daughter named Mathilde and

"at the village school attended by his five-year-old daughter, the menu for the week is posted on the notice board, so that the meals won't be duplicated at home,and each day is a three-course lunch. Yesterday, for instance, little Mathilde had eaten a celery salad with a slice of ham and cheese quiche, riz au saucisses, and baked bananas. Voila! The palate continues its education. As so it is inevitable that the French adult has a better appreciation of food, and higher expectations than the English adult." (pp. 165-6).

At the time that I read this, I assumed that Regis simply lived in an affluent village in Provence, possibly one that was reaping a lot of money from tourists. I myself grew up in a somewhat affluent village of 50,000 people on Long Island, which at that time spent a large amount of money on its very good school system. We had an excellent art and music program, although I do not have fond memories of the cafeteria food. I simply assumed that Regis' village opted to spend more money on food, and possibly less on cultural enrichment programs.

I was fascinated to read, twenty years later, that what Mayle is describing is standard in French creches and preschools. Druckerman 's daughter Bean is her first child to go to a creche. Druckerman writes:

"What really wins us over about the creche is the food, or, more specifically, the dining experience. Each Monday, the creche posts its menu for the week on a giant white board near the entrance.

I sometimes photograph these menus and e-mail them to my mother. They read like the chalkboard menus at Parisian brasseries. Lunch is served in four courses: a cold vegetable starter, a main dish with a side of grains or cooked vegetables, a different cheese each day, and a dessert of fresh fruit or fruit puree. There's a slightly modified version for each age group; the youngest kids mostly have the same foods, but pureed...

An in-house cook at each creche prepares lunch from scratch each day. A truck arrives several times a week with seasonal, fresh, sometimes even organic ingredients. Aside from the occasional can of tomato paste, nothing is processed or precooked. A few vegetables are frozen, but never precooked." (pp. 111-2).

The kids are deliberately exposed to as many different kinds of foods as possible so that they can become flexible eaters. If a child doesn't like a food, s/he is asked to at least try it, and then the food is re-introduced in different forms over the next few weeks. An added bonus is that during the week, the child's main meal is school lunch so that parents can serve a lighter, easier-to prepare meal, such as soup, for dinner. Parents don't have to cook large, involved meals until the weekend.

Druckerman never mentions what happens to children with allergies to peanuts, gluten, sugar, etc. Her own children are Jewish, and she spends two pages discussing how her daughter, who does not eat pork at home and is on a no-pork list at school, is sometimes served pork at lunch; she knows this because Bean will come home and tell her that she ate pork (pp. 164-5). Druckerman does not say why this happens - was it just a mistake, did Bean insist on trying pork, are the caregivers deliberately ignoring religious tabboos in order to make the kids as French as possible (most French are still officially Catholic so eat pork)?

What happens to the children who have been diagnosed with ADHD, for example, and whose parents are trying through diet to mitigate the condition? Are these children in special creches and preschools? Does France just have a statistically lower level of children who need special diets for health, religious, or ethical reasons?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

What Druckerman Ignores About French Schools

Shortly after I first previewed Bringing Up Bebe in a Barnes & Noble, I was invited by a French-speaking friend whom I shall call S. to see the movie version of The Rabbi's Cat at the JCC. Since I had loved the first two books (which are owned by BPL), I eagerly accepted. When we arrived at the JCC, we found the auditorium completely full. Filled with expectation, everyone sat back to enjoy the movie, only to be told that the film was not working, and that we would instead be shown a French movie called "Fracture".

SPOILER ALERT! "Fracture" is about a young French teacher named Anna, who is unlucky enough to land her first teaching job as a social studies teacher in a high school in a poor section of Paris. Anna is Jewish, her parents are formerly radical university professors who marched in the French student riots of 1968, her uncle is very pro-Israel, and her non-Jewish boyfriend appears to be a naive, self-centered twit.

The kids in Anna's school are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Anna is verbally harassed by her students for being Jewish and an an attractive woman. One student, an 18-year-old who is still in a class meant for 14-year-olds and spends his time beating up the younger kids, finally gets thrown out of school after burning down the library. Other students argue against Sarkozy's policy towards immigrants, the Israeli presence in Palestine, and what they perceive as Anna's lack of respect towards them (she would like them to sit down, stop throwing things and beating each other up, and learn).

The most sympathetic student is boy who had planned to become a professional cartoonist before he fell down and hurt his hand. He had gone to a public French hospital and was treated by a doctor who had been working for 36 straight hours, was completely dulled by fatigue, and caused irreparable nerve damage to the boy's hand. The school's way of handling this problem was to force the boy to spend hours in the library (before it was torched) practicing the alphabet with his good hand. The boy eventually commits suicide.

While all this happens the students riot in their housing projects, torch a couple of dozen cars, and shoot a few people. The brother of one student is arrested for being a member of a terrorist cell. One teacher takes early retirement at 55 and announces that he is moving out of France since any country with such youth is beyond repair.

The reaction of the JCC audience, once the lights came up, was very revealing. Based purely upon my observations, the audience was mostly older and middle- or upper-middle class. A number of them (from our eavesdropping) had actually been to France as tourists. The audience members were all shell-shocked, and a few accepted the JCC offer of a refund.

My reaction was somewhat different. I have a family member who was a social studies teacher for 25 years in a NYC high school that was recently closed as a failing school. Other than the fact that the French students were avidly following politics (something that NYC students apparently ignore) the classroom overcrowding and turmoil appeared to be quite similar to that of NYC. S.and I both agreed that the student with the injured hand would have been treated differently in NYC- perhaps the school would have allowed him to bring in his laptop or an iPad to take notes, or set him up with a social worker and counseling.

S. is a daily reader of BBC News online and I read The Guardian online. As a result, we were both aware of the high rate of unemployment among French youth, and the riots in the housing projects. Back when the French banned the wearing of the face veil to preserve French culture, we had agreed that it had been a short-sighted move by the French government.

At any rate, although "Fracture" is a fictional movie and not a docmentary, it does present another side of French youth. These teens are presumably mostly graduates of the universal free French preschool for ages 3-5. They definitely don't say bonjour to adults, and appear to lack any form of framework. They use their copious unscheduled time to smoke pot and watch TV. In fact, they appear to be much like American teens, except they speak better French and buy their French fries in small independent restaurants instead of McDonalds.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Joys of Unstructured Play

There are many example of the French preference for unstructed play time thoughout Bringing Up Bebe. Druckerman tells a story of how when she takes her kids to the park with a French neighbor, the neighbor is appalled that Druckerman has to spend her time supervising the kids. The neighbor instructs Druckerman on how to make it clear to  the kids that they can both play AND behave, thus allowing Druckerman and the neighbor to relaxand have a friendly chat (p219-221).

On Bastille Day, Druckerman takes her daughter to the park. She sees a French parent who has provided her child with a ball. While the child amuses herself with the ball, the parent talks with an adult friend. Druckerman, in contrast, has packed for her daughter "a giant sack of books and toys for her. I spend a lot of the day helping her play with the toys and reading with her." (p. 144). The French girl is evidently able to cope with boredom and is able to amuse herself, while the American child requires constant stimulation from her parent.

Druckerman also tells a story about how on visits to the US, she sees helicopter parents "narrating" every move their child makes as the child moves around the playground. When she talks to Michel Cohen about this, she finds out that he has actually written about this in a negative fashion in his guide to child care as he thinks this overstimulates the child (p. 139). He thinks the parent is filled with guilt,and is trying to prove what a good parent s/he is to the child.

The French mothers interviewed by Druckerman are not big fans of extracurricular acitivites. Most limit their children to one activity per school term. One mother  commented that "You have to leave kids alone, they need to be a bit bored at home, they must have time to play, " she says (p.143). The boredom from the unstructured time forces the child to use his/her inner resources  to entertain him/herself rather than to always depend on an outside source to amuse her/him.

Another mother

 "says that she stopped sending her kids to tennis lessons or anything else, because she found the lessons "constraining".

"Constraining for whom?" I ask.

"Constraining for me," she says." (p. 143)

As a child, my time was relatively unstructured. Provided that I did my homework, my free time was my own. I learned how to amuse myself and how to cope with boredom, as did my siblings; we developed inner resources. These inner resources have come in particularly useful when stuck in subway tunnels for long periods of time, in dull classes, and even sometimes at meetings. They help us to survive adult life, which is not always that obviously stimulating or exciting.