Happiness the Sunday Styles Way: A “Hard Look” at the Way We Live Now

The New York Times has much to offer that is not worthy of hatred.  Within the US, International, Local and Business sections, there is a wealth of informative coverage of the world around us — “news,” if you will.  Why, then, do we return again and again to the Styles section, again and again to be disappointed?  What is the true purpose of the Styles section?  What is it doing next to all those other sections, and why can’t we just throw it away?  Well, I’ll tell you why.  The Styles section (and the Magazine, and T the fashion magazine) is far from extraneous.  These sections have news to transmit, albeit more ineffable and subjective than that which you’ll find in the “A” section.  The tidings they bring are about our lives, here in the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century:  How are mores and manners shifting? how are we changing? how is technology changing us? and how we should feel about it all?  These sections help us make sense of it.  Their subject is (hip, urban, upper-middle-class) humanity itself.  They may be vapid, but they are dear to our hearts.

But what answers do the Styles section and the Magazine really give?  Below, I analyze a selection of pieces from this Sunday.  I will extract the conclusion or “moral” each piece offers, and we’ll see if any patterns emerge.

We’ll start with Randy Cohen’s latestRandy Cohen writes a column called “The Ethicist,” in which he advises readers on morally significant decisions.  His qualifications to do this are that he has a B.A. in music and is an “Emmy-winning humorist,” although I suppose he’d be just as ineffectual if he had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard.  There’s something reassuring about his lack of credentials, though.  If you don’t like Cohen’s ethico-philosophical worldview, you can feel free to ignore it, because he’s just some guy.

I remember Cohen best for the column in which he asserted that “nobody should attend strip clubs, those purveyors of sexism as entertainment. Strip shows are to gender what minstrel shows are to race.”  That’s a nice analogy, because think about it.  Minstrel shows were a form of traveling variety show enjoyed by multiracial audiences in the 1800’s and early years of the 1910’s.  They gave many talented black musicians, actors and comedians a chance to succeed as professional artists, yet also forced them to perform degrading caricatures of blackness for the benefit of their white spectators.  If everyone had boycotted minstrel shows, these black artists would have been able to… go back to cotton sharecropping!  Thus bringing about an end to racism.  Similarly, boycotting strip clubs would help the women’s movement by putting a bunch of single moms out of work.  Why am I comparing these two things, again?

Don’t get me wrong, I think Cohen should following his personal moral compass on this issue.  As a feminist, I would never want to go to a strip club with Randy Cohen.

This week Cohen is at it again with the milquetoast-y pronouncements.  Someone writes in saying they don’t spank their kids, but have been asked by friends to spank their kids “when they are playing at our house and misbehave.”  Cohen says they don’t have to:

Many parents are militant in defense of their putative right to discipline their children as they see fit: with a sound thrashing. But conversely, your friends may not impose their Neanderthal parenting practices on you…. When you [tell them] that, you probably ought not mention that spanking is banned or restricted in 22 countries. Such facts will only irritate them. (And you should avoid the word ‘Neanderthal.’) Parents can be so prickly. Here in America, most people believe it is a fine thing to beat children, as long as you employ the accepted euphemism, ‘spanking,’ and are the child’s parent. (A similar justification was once applied to spousal abuse.)

Actually, I kind of love that Randy Cohen exists.  It is a rare writer who can make a person like me — someone who goes to graduate school, drinks Starbucks Via and gets one hundred e-mails a day from MoveOn.com — feel like a flag-waving mama grizzly Hell’s Angel rebel.  Don’t tell me not to spank my kids, you pantywaist!  I’m not gonna let some Liberal fascist feminazi communist Canadian Al Gore-hugger tell me how to raise my kids!  I almost can’t wait to have kids, just so I can start spanking them (moderately) (in cases of extraordinary disobedience).  Don’t Tread on Me!  Live free or die tryin’!  You’ll pry this imaginary gun out of my cold, dead hands!  I’ll put a boot up your ass, it’s the American way!

Moral: Don’t spank kids, don’t go to strip clubs.

Up next, “Out and About:  Cruising the Caribbean.”  This piece argues that “cruise ship food doesn’t have to be bad.”  “Qsine’s approach is high tech and high concept. The menu, with a lineup of small bites — or food to be shared — is presented on an iPad, through which each diner scrolls to select his favorites….  For dessert, the options are presented in a Rubik’s cube-like puzzle. Shift the boxes around and reveal ‘The Cupcake Affair,’ four cakes with do-it-yourself sauces and garnishes.”

Moral: The next time you’re planning a luxury cruise, hold out for one with gourmet meals.

TV Right-Sizes 3D” by Virginia Heffernan. “In deciding whether to buy one of the new, ludicrously cool 3-D TVs — some of which won’t even require special glasses — ask yourself a serious question: Do you like your entertainment in front of you, inside your body or all around you?”  Um… are you sure that’s really what you meant to ask me?  That’s a very very… intimate topic!  A penetrating question, if you will!  I’ll take the second one.

Moral: Buy a 3D TV immediately, unless you’d rather just fuck.

Social Q’s.  Someone writes in to Galanes complaining that their daughter (apparently of high school age) is dressing “trampy.”  He responds: “We don’t want your little girl mistaken for a hooker as she waits for the school bus. Horns of a dilemma, right?”  Anyone who would mistake a student waiting at the bus stop for a “hooker” is probably not a reliable arbiter of youth fashion, anyway.  Galanes suggests a way for the parent get perspective on the situation: “Drive over to your daughter’s school and take a hard look at what the other girls are wearing.”  Yes.  There is no more welcome sight on the high school campus than an adult cruising around the parking lot, taking a “hard look” at the female students.  You might want to take the family van, in case a couple of those girls needs a ride!  Teenage girls can be shy, so don’t hesitate to ask.  Some of them might need painkillers for their menstrual cramps, so try yelling “WANT SOME DRUGS?” at them to get their attention.  Let me know how this goes.

As for the daughter in questions, “set reasonable limits: blouses three inches above the nipple line.”  Nipple “line”?  It’s a circle, Galanes, a circle!  I knew none of these guys had ever seen a naked woman.  “And save those mini minis and four-inch heels for 11th Avenue, not home room.”  Is anyone else creeped out by all these references to someone’s “little girl” becoming a prostitute?  Galanes is not an “edgy” humorist; he cannot transition easily from anodyne gags about old sitcoms to statutory-rape jokes.  Also, the vast majority of women you see wearing skimpy or revealing clothing are not prostitutes.  Galanes must be a barrel of fun at cocktail parties, though.  “Pardon me, madam, that’s a lovely pair of boots!  Didn’t I see you wearing them earlier on the corner of 28th and Lexington?”

“”Keep her safe, but let her express herself, too.”  “Safe”?  From what, nipple-line frostbite?  Oh wait, I get it… from rapists, against whom the only impregnable defense is modest clothing.  No man would be so beastly as to victimize a woman with the mouth-watering three inches above her nipples covered up.

Moral for girls: Don’t dress trampy, or bad men will rape you.  Moral for parents: Go to the high school and check out all the trampy chicks!

What ‘Modern Family’ Says About Modern Families,” Bruce Fiedler.  “In his 1964 book ‘Understanding Media,’ Marshall McLuhan helped define the modern age with his phrase, ‘The medium is the message.’  Were he here nearly 50 years later, the critic would hardly be surprised to discover that in the most talked-about sitcom of the moment, the medium has become the punch line.”

Moral: You should watch Modern Family because it holds a mirror up to your techno-savvy, upper-middle-class lifestyle.  Also, Bruce Fiedler is an intellectual.

MTV’s Naked Calculation Gone Bad,” David Carr. This article chronicles the problems MTV has caused by itself by airing the controversial show Skins.  “What if one day you went to work and there was a meeting to discuss whether the project you were working on crossed the line into child pornography? You’d probably think you had ended up in the wrong room.  [DRAMATIC PARAGRAPH BREAK.]  And you’d be right.”  Wouldn’t I actually be wrong, if I worked for MTV, and we were being accused of violating child pornography statutes, which is what this scenario is all about?  Oh, never mind.

Carr is in a moral panic about this show.  To be sure, “MTV didn’t invent ‘friends with benefits’ [or] oral sex as the new kiss.”  Man, I’d like to see a profile on the guy who invented oral sex as the new kiss.  Now that’d be a trend piece I could get behind, am I right?  LOL!  That guy is responsible for so many cold sores.  Here we are wasting time on this stupid Skins show, while a much more sinister figure lurks in the darkness of anonymity.  He’s like the huge cocaine kingpin who gets rich and hangs out on a yacht in Miami, while all the little neighborhood crack dealers get prison time.

“The self-described ‘Guidos’ and ‘Guidettes’ of ‘Jersey Shore,’ MTV’s breakout hit, have probably already set some kind of record for meaningless sex.”  Gratuitous Jersey Shore reference alert!  The “record” for meaningless sex was probably set by some gay dude on Fire Island in 1978.  Still, it’s helpful to have David Carr around, weighing in on how much “meaning” other people’s sexual experiences should have.

“MTV leaves it to real-life parents to explain that sometimes, when a car goes underwater, nobody survives and that a quick hookup with cute boy at the party may deliver a sexually transmitted disease along with a momentary thrill.”  Or… they could just use condoms?  I am not joking right now. Actually kind of mad that the paper of record is resorting to scary metaphors straight out of an abstinence-only classroom to demonize young people’s sexuality.

Moral: Don’t watch Skins; don’t have sex or you’ll die of STDs and drown in a car.

On the Street: X Factor,” Bill Cunningham. This is that weird collage of half-inch fashion pictures.  “Every era has a defining stance, and at present, it is standing with your legs crossed, like a model or a dancer en pointe.  The key to the look is the ankle boot, some with platforms and stiletto heels.”

Moral: You’re not standing right.  Go buy some Christian Louboutin ankle boots.

*************************************************************************************

Meta-moral: The lesson I take away from all this is that we live in a time of great opportunity, yet also great danger.  This era is exciting, because innovations like 3D televisions, gourmet Caribbean cruise cupcakes, and Christian Louboutin booties are available to all, except people who don’t have a combined total of $16,299.98 to spend on them.  It is terrifying, because raunchy television shows, hookup culture, unrestrained oral sex and scantily clad young women are undermining the very fabric of the society in which we live.  Yikes!  But no matter how bad things get, pseudointellectual theorizing and half-assed social commentary are here to stay.  The Styles section will never die.

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Motherhood: The Most Dangerous Trend

First, some links:

The Most E-mailed New York Times Article Ever.  David Parker’s brilliant parody of NYT Trend pieces has been linked all over the internet, and may have even found its way to your computer screen!  Is 2011 the year that hating the New York Times goes viral?  If so, remember that I was here first!  I’ve been doing this since early January!

Accordingly, I have started a page for this blog on Facebook, the popular social networking website.  Please join!

News on the Glamorous High Life:  The business section reports that the bottom has quite simply fallen out of the superyacht market.  The article keeps nattering on about how yachts are “the ultimate status symbol,” but is that really the main reason people buy them?  In my town right now now, it’s 10 degrees, windy, and there’s dirty slush all over the place. I would greatly enjoy being out in the Pacific, in a hot tub on the deck of a yacht, even if it was not considered a high-status thing to do.  Even if yachts were known as “the trailer parks of the sea,” I would still go.  Say what you will about this country’s vastly wealthy ruling class, but they know how to have a good time.  I don’t know why the New York Times keeps running them down so.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the unmerited economic struggles and unpredictable woes of the privileged elite.  But socioeconomic trends do not restrict themselves to the buyers of yachts, designer long johns and $1500 coffee tables.  Trends reach out to touch the heart of every man and woman on this earth.  No one can escape them.  It matters not whether you’re a beleaguered superyacht seller or a bedraggled pregnant teen, someday you will come to recognize that your life is not truly your own — it is part of the vast communal striving after cultural relevance we all share.  Our births, our joys and sorrows, our deaths — all of them bob like organic corks on the great ocean of trends we can Life.  The Buddha taught in his Four Noble Truths that “life is trends; the origin of suffering is trends; understanding trends is attainable; there is a Path to the understanding of trends.”  With this knowledge can come great suffering, or great peace.

Or, for readers of Alessandra Stanley’s “And Baby Makes Reality TV,” great confusion.  Alessandra Stanley is a TV writer who has often been criticized for breaking the NY Times record for errors, although I don’t see why anyone should hold that against her; somebody’s got to be the worst.  The article is an omnibus review of reality TV shows about pregnancy (16 and Pregnant, and so on).  While it would have been challenging enough just to evaluate each of the shows and explain why they’re good or bad, Stanley doesn’t stop there (or even start there, really); she presents us with a review, a trend piece and a think piece all in one.  It purports to explain what’s going on in the world of regular women having babies.  Below, I explain the explanation.

“Motherhood, at least the way it is depicted on cable networks like MTV, TLC and even FitTV, is a menacing, grotesque fate that is mostly ill-timed…. Horror makes for easy entertainment, of course, so it’s hardly surprising that the maternity ward would be milked for bloodcurdling thrills in the way of weddings…weather…or travel.”  Yeah but like, I bet you these shows reflect anxiety about pregnancy because women really are anxious about pregnancy.  I’m no expert, but from what I understand about pregnancy, your feet swell up, you barf, your clothes don’t fit, a mean doctor tells you you can’t have any wine, and eventually a tiny little person starts hanging out in your apartment all the time, drinking from your nipples and yelling all the time.  That sort of thing is pretty menacing all by itself, without the networks needing to gin up concern about it.

“But the growing number and lasting appeal of reality shows about fertility and babies reflect a particularly contemporary obsession. Focusing on the darker side of giving birth might seem at odds with the giddy cult of motherhood in popular culture.”  Yes.  Women have never been celebrated for motherhood or fertility before this precise historical moment.  That is why you’ll notice that in the Bible, all the women are sexy secret agents or high-powered attorneys.  Pregnancy and childbirth are kind of like fiber optics, or Yelp.

I do have a theory, though, about the mysterious paradox Stanley is adumbrating.  Perhaps the fact that women are expected to feel relentlessly “giddy” and enthusiastic about motherhood… is the very reason they want to see media depictions of darker outcomes and more ambivalent attitudes.  That is my sociological explanation of this phenomenon.  I have solved the mystery!  But we still have way more of this article to get through.

“Red-carpet reporters and tabloids stalk celebrity breeding as much as divorce or career misconduct; a ‘bump’ in Us Weekly or on TMZ refers to a pregnant starlet’s belly, not a professional roadblock.”  Why would anyone expect it to refer to a “professional roadblock”?  Surely Stanley originally wrote “…refers to a pregnant starlet’s belly, not a line of cocaine,” and her editor made her change it.  So, I’ll give her credit for that one.  That’s funny!

She starts explaining that in vitro fertilization is popular now, and the frightening baby shows somehow reflect that.  “But beneath all those balloons, baby showers and HappyBaby organic food pouches lies a lurking dread, the anxiety that comes with cheating biological destiny.”  Comes with cheating what?  Because they’re trying to treat infertility?*  That’s kind of strange, but I’ll try to make sense of it….  It’s like how people feel nervous before they go to the dentist, because they fear a hideous recompense from the gods for depriving them of their allotted toll of tooth decay and gingivitis.  You’ll never escape destiny!  Stop trying to vie with the immortals, you stupid yuppies!

And so it is with the barren women on TV.  They should take a tip from all those high-powered attorneys I read about in the Bible:  Veil yourself in shamefacedness, and betake yourself back unto your father’s abode so that your husband can find a more fecund helpmeet.  Your husband will probably hook up with the maid… he’ll build a giant superyacht and go on a booze cruise with all your fertile sisters and cousins for 40 days and 40 nights… the joke is on him, though, because he’ll never sell that yacht in this economy, even unto the seventh generation.  (Note to fact-checkersI haven’t actually read the Bible, please correct as necessary.)

*Extra bonus question:  Has Alessandra Stanley been hanging out with Ross Douthat?  Her exciting ideas about how women should stop cheating fate by avoiding “the biological realities of being female” suggests Yes!  Don’t date him girl, he’s a total player!

“Mary Shelley’s 19th-century novel ‘Frankenstein’ is often seen as a metaphor for a woman’s fear of childbirth and motherhood. Cable television cuts through the metaphor and channels deeper fears about tampering with nature.”    Here we go again with the cultural references awkwardly shoehorned into an article.  Stanley is “pulling a Heffernan” by making a high-class literary reference instead of a pop culture one, but that doesn’t make it any less random and annoying.  These writers’ compulsion to make “intellectual” references reminds me of a story my parents once told me about some friends they had in the ’70s.  It seems this couple invited my parents over to play the board game Trivial Pursuit: Genus Edition.  The couple, though, mistakenly believed the game they had bought was titled Trivial Pursuit: Genius Edition, and that their ability to play it successfully was indicative of genius.  Gratuitous literary references work in a similar way.  When you indulge in them, you are playing Trivial Pursuit: Genius Edition.  I am christening a new tag in its honor.

Anyway, Frankenstein was 1818.  In the nearly two centuries that have passed since then, there have been a number of fictional works depicting anxieties about  motherhood that Stanley could have referenced.  Here, I’ll do it for her.  “Classic films from Rosemary’s Baby to Alien have play on viewers’ fears about the more bizarre aspects of pregnancy and childbirth.  Now, cable television {something something something}”.   Not bad!  Still not brilliant, but good enough for a passable first draft.

“Multiple pregnancies, along with cosmetic surgery, are arguably among the most visible — and startling — displays of scientific daring, be it artificially enhanced mothers like the 70-year-old Indian woman who in 2008 had twins after in vitro fertilization, or the drastic surgical makeover that turned Heidi Montag of ‘The Hills’ into a horror movie of her own making — ‘The Hills Have Eyelifts.'”  Recent cultural reference alert!  This sentence is a bit difficult to parse.   It seems to suggest that Heidi Montag’s plastic surgeries are a form of “multiple pregnancy,” but that can’t be what was intended.  I think it’s at that “be it” in the middle of the sentence that things start to go wrong.  Maybe it’s a syllogism.  Heidi Montag is a woman who had freakish plastic surgery… in vitro fertilization is a procedure that is also had by women… therefore all men are Socrates in vitro fertilization is freakish.  Never mind, I get it now!

“Modern medicine has achieved more remarkable advances, but procedures like hip replacements or Dick Cheney’s mechanical heart pump aren’t as visible. There’s a pretty direct line in many people’s minds between double and triple strollers clogging the sidewalks of Park Slope, Brooklyn, and the Octomom.”  Man, people are dicks!   Guys, here’s a little exercise in compassion:  The next time you see some adorable twins in a stroller, stop thinking about Dick Cheney, Heidi Montag and Frankenstein, and just smile at them.  It’s not their fault their mother cheated destiny.

“It’s hard not to believe in a correlation between the recent decline in teenage pregnancies…and the rise in ratings for reality shows about pregnant teenagers…. No pamphlet or public service ad is more likely to encourage birth control than these MTV tableaus of maternal boredom, fatigue and loneliness.”  Of course, the decline could also be the result of decades of hard work by feminists to make birth control widely accessible and diminish the culture of fear and shame surrounding sexuality that prevents women from taking control of their own fertility.  But a TV critic thinks it’s because of TV, so that’s probably right.  At least it didn’t turn out to be because of Facebook or earbuds or something.

Stanley summarizes some of the problems faced by the characters on Teen Mom 2.  It’s all pretty simple and straightforward, and then the review ends with the following mystical zen koan: “It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child. On cable television it takes a child to raise a child and women sometimes give birth to a village.”  What the hell is that supposed to mean? I’m just trying to figure out what TV shows to watch, not attain enlightenment, you asshole!  This is ridiculous!  Sigh. There are some things this blog will never be able to explain.

The Magazine, the Medium, the Message: Virginia Heffernan’s Vook Manifesto

“Seriously, though: I will always remember 2008 as the year I finally gave up on the Sunday NY Times Magazine . . . LOL, good magazine, guys . . . it’s really become a “must-read” in my house . . . LOL, lots of great articles about how What I buy says about who I am(?) and how How I watch screens says what I like is really who I am(?)” — David Rees

“I read three paragraphs about absolutely nothing, and the forth paragraph began, ‘Take pilates.’ So I stopped.” — My boyfriend, on this article

When it comes to the content offered by the NYT Sunday Magazine, there is a certain lack of conceptual clarity.  Within its pages, readers encounter a bevy of enthusiastic, articulate writers eager to present us with ideas about media, technology and Our Society; but as the epigraphs above suggest, there’s a thin line between a provocative new concept and a heap of stupefying drivel about nothing whatsoever.  While the “how I watch screens says about who I am” model for constructing think-pieces is nearly ubiquitous–see, for example, this hard-hitting cover story about The Beatles: Rock Band–nowhere is this trend more pronounced then in the electronic virtual pages of Virginia Heffernan’s column “The Medium.”

Heffernan’s intended goal is to provide us with paradigm-shifting interpretations of the electronic digital e-culture we now inhabit.  She would have us consider her an updated version of such revered cultural theorists as Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard and Stanley Fish (<<— irony alert, no one reveres him), breasting the turbulent waves of internet culture with her titanic intellect.  Auguring positively for this endeavor, she has a Ph.D. in English from Harvard University and once worked as a fact-checker for the New Yorker.  On the minus side: She once recommended a climate change denialist blog because she “didn’t know” that’s what it was, once accused feminists of not caring about sex slavery, and once reported that Facebook was almost dead after a “user exodus.”

That was over a year ago, and it still hasn’t come to pass.  So, perhaps her intellect is not all that titanic after all.  But let’s not hold her up to an unreasonably high standard.  Instead of comparing her to the intellectual icons of the twentieth century, let’s just look at her most recent column and ask a more basic question:  Is it about anything at all, and if so, what?

Continue reading “The Magazine, the Medium, the Message: Virginia Heffernan’s Vook Manifesto”

How to Write a Trend Piece

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Trend pieces are the go-to format for all the NYT’s attempts to chronicle the ever-shifting worlds of fashion and genteel society.  They are the bread and butter of the Styles section, and the essence of why people hate the New York Times.  When we look at trend pieces, we penetrate into the vacuous, long-winded, pseudo-intellectual Heart of Darkness.  Except instead of finding Mr. Kurtz impaling Africans’ heads on stakes, we will find a pudgy middle-aged man who listens to Paul McCartney, shops at Abercombie & Fitch, and is pathologically jealous of anyone he considers a “hipster.”  That is who writes NYT trend pieces.  I don’t know them, but I can tell from their writing.  I know how they think.  If you wish to see the world through their eyes, just follow these simple steps.

Continue reading “How to Write a Trend Piece”

Philip Galanes Outdated Cultural Reference Index

Social Q’s columnist Philip Galanes doesn’t suffer from an inability to dispense competent advice.  Every week it’s pretty much the same:  Someone writes in asking whether they are morally obligated to fly to Australia for their best friend’s nephew’s wedding, or whether it is acceptable to poison their neighbor’s dog, and Galanes offers a response most of us would consider pretty reasonable.  The problem lies in the fact that Galanes wishes to do more with his column inches than issue basic life strategies to lunatics who lack the faintest vestiges of common sense.  No, Galenes wants to stand out.  He wants entertain us with his sparkling wit.  Philip Galanes wants to be clever.

But, being clever is hard!  What are you supposed to do — go through life making note of the many absurdities and subtle ironies of social interaction, then articulate them in unexpectedly revealing turns of phrase?  Who can do that?? The man isn’t Jane Austen!  And fortunately, there is a simpler route to cleverness, one that any scribe can easily follow by watching celebrity news shows and listening to the routines of mid-level standup comics:  references.  Yes, by using cultural references, any writer can cultivate a unique literary persona, while showing he has his finger on the pulse of the Youth Generation.  This is the path Philip Galanes has chosen.  So, like the lobotomized love-child of Jackie Harvey and Neil Hamburger, he reels from paragraph to paragraph, indiscriminately strewing allusions to celebrities, politicians and hit television shows in his path.

I had oft noticed that Galanes’ references — like Bill Clinton’s sweaty jogging shorts, like Elaine Benes’ discarded Today Sponges, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ blood-spattered heroin needles (or something) — were not very fresh.  But, just how behind the times is he?  And is he getting better as he goes along — catching up a little?  To find out, I undertook an analysis of the data.  I singled out the references from Galanes’ ten most recent Social Q’s columns, and then from ten randomly selected 2008 columns.  Next, I determined the “age” of the reference (calculated as the number of years since the phenomenon under discussion could have been considered fresh and timely).  I used this data to find the average age of a Galanes reference, in the past few months and in 2008.

The resulting analysis will be something of a slog for all of us.  But it will be a valuable reference for future scrutiny of Galanes.  And if you read the whole thing, you may experience the not-entirely-unpleasant sensation that your mind has been cast adrift on a gently undulating sea of non-sequitors.  Warning:  Don’t try to read all the linked Social Q’s columns in one sitting!

Continue reading “Philip Galanes Outdated Cultural Reference Index”

Brokeback Mormon: I Wish I Knew How to Quit This Repressive Moral Code

The NYT‘s weekly Modern Love column could be very relateable.  Love, the universal human emotion that brings us all together… the only thing there’s just too little of… no matter if you’re a king or pawn, noble or peasant, ugly duckling or beautiful swan, love is a humbling experience that makes fools of us all while giving us a tantalizing glimpse into the mysterious workings of the human heart.  That sort of thing.  Instead, it tends to be more like one of those shows on TLC about freaks and weirdos.  “I’m Addicted to Sex“; “I’m Addicted to Candy“; “I Paid a Kabbalist to Find Me a Husband“; “I’m Jealous of My Grade-School Son’s Girlfriend“; “Reality TV Stole My Baby“; “My Wife Is in the Slammer“; “I Live With My Ex-Husband“; “Married to a Hoarder“; “78 and Still Doin’ It“; “Married… With Bedbugs!”  It’s a parade of special-needs children, arranged marriages, reappearing birth mothers, and psychotic animals.

And so it is with the most recent column.  In this personal essay, Nicole Hardy tells us what it’s like to be a 35-year-old Mormon virgin.  Fascinating… lurid… like a Judd Apatow movie, combined with that one reality TV show about how crazy Mormons are!  I can’t wait to learn more about the Mormon faith, so that hopefully I can let go of my simplistic stereotypes about it.  What have you got for me?

“Of all the places I felt sure I’d never go, Planned Parenthood topped the list. Because, you know, they perform abortions and give condoms to kids, or so I’d been warned.”  Okay, never mind.

As the story opens, Hardy magnanimously deigns to make use of PP’s low-cost, community-subsidized health services.  She finds herself “in its waiting room next to a teenage girl, who was clearly perplexed by the intake form and likely bound for an uncomfortable, humiliating four minutes in the back of a borrowed Chevy Chevelle.”  Teenagers are so stupid, what with being confused by bureaucratic paperwork!  Not like the writer, who, as we will learn, spent 15 years figuring out that putting off sex for marriage often results in neither.  Also, for all she knows, this teenage girl is about to have hours of mutually pleasurable sex with her adoring boyfriend on a bearskin rug.  It’s like, I know you’re jealous, but wishing painful intercourse on a sexually empowered youth is Not A Good Look.

“But what did I know?”  What, indeed.  “I was a 35-year-old virgin.”  You don’t say!  How come?  “I was not frigid, fearful or socially inept.”  Well, you sound a little fearful, what with that crack about “uncomfortable and humiliating.”  “I was not overweight or unattractive.”  Pics, plz.  “Didn’t suffer from halitosis or social anxiety disorder.”  I was not celibate like a nun/I was not celibate just for fun/ I was not crippled in my bed/I was not crazy in the head/I was not smelly like a goat/ I was not fat with junk-food bloat/I would have, could have gotten laid!/ I would have, but the church forbade. That’s a poem I wrote.

"Virgin" (original art by Eli Steele!)

The true reason, as the intelligent reader may have surmised (because it was in the headline) is that “I was a practicing Mormon, and Mormons ‘wait’ until marriage.”  The result was an epic wait.  “It felt as if celibacy was stunting my growth; it wasn’t just sex I lacked but relationships with men entirely…. I felt trapped in adolescence.”  That sounds awful.  I think I know what she should do, though.  She should get a makeover and go on a wacky, booze-fueled quest to get her cherry popped.*

*Ew, but that’s what the movie people would call it… Pop My Cherry, starring (probably) Katherine Heigl.

Instead, “my first act of open rebellion was to go see ‘Brokeback Mountain’… with a pair of lesbian friends.  I was not ready to have an alcoholic beverage or a cup of coffee, to lie with a man or smoke a cigarette. But I could watch a movie, even if that movie was an obvious attack on the sanctity of hetero marriage.”  Damn you, Hollywood!  Stop attacking the sanctity of hetero marriage by occasionally acknowledging that gay people exist!  You’re perverting people’s morals and tempting them to drink coffee!

“While I am also straight and believe in God, one thing became clear that day: I could empathize with those gay cowboys.”  I got news for ya, honey:  Every straight woman can emphathize with those gay cowboys.  The blond guy, the brunet guy, both at once, other gay cowboys who wander by and decide to join in, whatever.  So strongly can I emphathize with them, I would like to be pressed in between them, to feel what it’s truly like to be a gay cowboy.  Just a big testosterone-fueled sandwich of clandestine lust, musky sweat, and mutual identification.  I would do that for you, gay community.  Because I care about CIVIL RIGHTS.

Hardy goes on to appropriate the characters’ experience.  “I knew what it was to be sodomized in a tent fundamentally bound to an ill-fitting life, to be the object of pity and judgment, to feel I had no choice but to be the thing that made me ‘other.'”  Also like the characters, she risks being beaten up by rednecks and dragged behind a pickup truck if caught in bed with a man.  Curse our intolerant, heterophobic society!

Wacky rom-com antics seem likely to ensue in next paragraph, in which she pursues “stage 2 of my rebellion” by going to a sex shop with her lesbian friends.  The scene isn’t narrated in enough detail to make anyone laugh, though.  If she wanted me to LOL, she should have made up a part where like, she runs into her boss while waving around a gigantic black dildo.  Or maybe her chihuahau bites open a tube of strawberry-scented lube, and it squirts all over her silk scarf, and the clerk is like “since you damaged that, you have to buy it,” and then the next day she’s at Mormon church, and the lube falls out of her purse & into the collection plate… then an old lady sitting next to her says something incongruously risqué… this movie just writes itself!

She tries dating Mormon men and regular men, but gets nowhere.  Finally, she has a has a conversation with some douchebag that reveals what she’s doing wrong.   After getting her to admit that she has her own career and money & stuff, this dude concludes she’s “too independent” and that “If you have all the things we’re supposed to provide, we have nothing to give you.”

She regards this as a moment of epiphany, but it is hard to see why.   If all the men in one’s social circle were seeking out young, passive, helpless, mindlessly compliant women as life partners, one would think it would be the sort of thing one would notice.  Nonetheless, “I tried for 15 years not to lose hope.”  It’s not clear whether the 15 years happened before or after the conversation with the douchey guy.   There’s some stuff about “the Gospel” that I sorta skimmed over.  Then eventually, she did lose hope.

“Perhaps the failure was mine — I’m sure many church members see it that way. I was too weak to endure.”  Or, perhaps the failure was that of the Mormon church, for demonizing homosexuality and female sexual desire, judging women’s worth based solely on their reproductive output, and telling people they will burn in hell for all eternity if they don’t follow a set of arbitrary rules of conduct?  Nah, that’s too nitpicky.  It’s probably all the author’s fault.  What a slut!

“Oddly, my trip to Planned Parenthood provided much that the church had not in recent years.  I was mystified by [the doctor’s] compassion.”  Yes… that is odd.  After all, it says right in their mission statement that “for more than 90 years, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has promoted a commonsense approach to women’s health and well-being, based on respect for each individual’s right to make informed, independent decisions about health, sex, and family planning,” so it’s hard to see how they could have dropped the ball in this one instance WAIT I THINK I’VE MIXED THINGS UP SOMEHOW.

The nice lady doctor touched her all compassionately, and she cried.  The end, almost.  There’s one more paragraph.  So, is this going to be it, the thrilling conclusion, the sex scene?  Will she finally live out her dream of ass-balling on a mountaintop with a Heath Ledger lookalike?

No.  “I would have an IUD instead of children.”  Congratulations on your spiky little bundle of joy!  This isn’t a very good movie, after all.

The Rich Are Different (They’re Boring as Fuck)

I have been meaning to start this blog for some time.  Seeing this piece of journalism gave me the impetus I needed to get started.   This article encapsulates everything I ever found hate-able about the NYT in the first place.  This article made me fall in hate all over again.

“Titans in Party Dresses” is a profile of a Johns Hopkins sophomore named Hadley Nagel, who comes from a rich and socially prominent family.  She is a debutante.  The worshipful prose devoted to her here makes me long for one of those stupid articles the Times does about freegan squatters living the fixed-gear lifestyle and making artisanal farm tools; at least those people have their own shit going on.  The most noteworthy fact to emerge about Nagel is that she has a fascination with James Madison, and has registered as a Capitol Hill lobbyist to win him a national monument.  George Gurley’s profile does not explore the reasons for this intellectual enthusiasm, but it does engage in one of the worst habits of bad NYT writing: assuming that banal actions become fascinating when performed by wealthy socialites.  See if you can spot any others, though!

all illustrations by Eli Steele
"Debutante"

Gurley informs us that Nagel is “the most swell” young lady in the land, because she is “a German countess, according to her mother, Susan Nagel, and also a direct descendant, through her father, Jon… of two signers of the Declaration of Independence.”  Okay people, let me tell you something about being descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  I am also a “direct descendant” of a Declaration of Independence signer (for reasons of personal anonymity, it won’t say which one it is, but that person’s initials are J.B.). No one cares, nor have they ever.  I’ve never bothered mentioning it to anyone except my boyfriend, and he forgot about it until I reminded him of it on Gchat just now.  It’s unfair, I now realize.  Here I am, a potential swell, driving around in a 1996 Honda Civic and buying “manager’s special” items at the grocery store.  I have some salsa I bought yesterday that is fermenting and attempting to turn itself into a sort of hard tomato cider.  My “debutante ball” was an 8-ball! (of Olde English malt liquor) (not really, but you get the idea.)

“But Miss Nagel, 19, plays down her pedigree. ‘I mean, you still have to pay for your coffee at Starbucks,’ she said recently.”  That is what I was just saying about the hard life of a Declaration-of-Independence-signer-descendant.   People can’t recognize our blue blood just by gazing on our physiognomy.   This quote makes Nagel sound insufferable at best, and possibly like a dangerous lunatic at worst, but I don’t think it’s her fault.  Can you imagine the question the reporter must have asked her to elicit such a response?

Nagel’s accomplishments are “dizzying.”  Some of them involve published writing, but also, “an expert shooter in trap, skeet and clay, she was a blue-ribbon winner of a small-bore rifle competition.”  I wish the winners of small-bore rifle competitions received more press coverage; I bet there are some colorful characters there, possibly even more colorful than Nagel herself.  “Miss Nagel had founded Model United Nations and history clubs, a travel Web site for teenagers, playintraffic.com, and another site, americansformadison.org.”  “Founding” a website is kinda up there with founding a bank account or erecting a piece of Ikea furniture, but she does have some unique accomplishments.

“According to Susan Nagel [that’s H-Nag’s mom]… many, many, many people have thought Serena van der Woodsen, a character on the CW network show ‘Gossip Girl,’ is based on Miss Nagel, minus the promiscuity and drugs.”  Man, that sounds like a losing formula for a show.  You’re not supposed to take out the promiscuity and drugs from someone’s life!  If anything, you should add in more!   Gossip Girl must be a show for Mormons or something.   I’m glad I never watched it.  This makes me wonder, though, why George Gurley has been wasting all this space talking about high school chess clubs and… wait, what really went on at that “small-bore rifle competition”?

Speaking of which, “Miss Nagel has… dated a cross section of interesting young men in New York and Europe, including a duke with a castle.”   That reminds me of a book I once read; I think it was called Portrait of a Honky.  Seriously though, do the young people of today still think it’s cool to hang out with titled nobility?  I wouldn’t.  I see the words “duke with a castle,” I hear “boring dork who’s never heard of the Butthole Surfers.”

“Currently a member of Phi Mu… she asked her distant cousin Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia to design a Phi Mu ring, the proceeds of which will benefit the Children’s Miracle Network.”  How hideous do you think that ring is?  I have this feeling that anything designed by a “Prince Dimitri” would be way over the top and gaudy.  Maybe that’s just a harmful stereotype about Yugoslavian royalty.

The next paragraph shows of Gurley’s eye for detail and provides us with a window into her world.  “To unwind, Miss Nagel says she watches ‘crappy’ reality shows on her flat screen in the suite she shares with three roommates.  She enjoys listening to the Jay-Z song ‘Empire State of Mind’ when she’s homesick.”

It turns out she likes the song because it evokes the hustle-bustle of NYC life.  “Indeed.   Miss Nagel doesn’t go to frat parties. Good-looking nerds are her type, she said. Her biggest vice seems to be iced cappuccinos with cinnamon sprinkled on top and two packets of Splenda. ‘She is not blowing up, like a lot of kids in college, because of beer,’ her mother said.”  This paragraph has sort of a “word soup” aspect that I enjoy.  It’s relaxing.  Cappucinos… cinnamon… vices… beer… the horrors of weight gain… something about blowing good-looking nerds… “Shorty let me tell you bout my only vice/ It has to do with blowing lots of hot nerds, and it ain’t nothin’ nice.”  That’s a rap I wrote.  It is called “Johns Hopkins State of Mind.”

There’s a part about how she believes Napoleon is to blame for the war of 1812, and then:  “Wearing a Ralph Lauren blazer, cashmere sweater, jeans and Ferragamo loafers, she was having a lunch of crab chowder and chicken pot pie at a restaurant in Saks Fifth Avenue, with her mother (also in Ralph Lauren blazer). Both women’s nails were painted pink.”  I have a feeling George Gurley thinks I’m more ravenous for scraps of information about the Glamorous High Life than I actually am.  To be fair though, if I were a shoeless preteen growing up in a Appalachian mining shack in the 1930’s, I would find a paragraph like the above utterly riveting.

The article concludes with Gurley asking his subject the question that has been on the tip of his tongue the whole time:  “‘Can you dance?’  ‘I have rhythm, thank you.'”  It’s a strange moment, combining fawning obsequious, condescension, and wacky randomness in a manner rarely seen.  I kind of feel sorry for Hadley Nagel now.