Category Archives: Academia

To freshmen, I am ancient: proof

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Earlier this week, I screened the 1927 film, Old San Francisco for my seminar.  In class this morning, I asked my students if they recognized any of the actors. My students figured out (likely by way of imdb) that the Swedish actor, Warner Oland, playing evil Chinese Chris Buckwell, was the same actor who played the rigidly Orthodox cantor in The Jazz Singer, which came out a month later (we watched that film, too). But no one recognized Dolores Costello, who plays the beautiful and chaste Dolores Vasquez, set up by the film as the rightful proprietress of Californian lands, by virtue of being descended from Spanish Conquistadors (the film brilliantly elides San Francisco’s history as part of Mexico, casting Dolores as a pureblood European, and a contrast to the other sketchy ethnic types who try to take possession of her rancho and the rest of the city–only to be crushed by the 1906 earthquake).

dolores_costelloOK, I didn’t actually expect them to recognize her (even if she was the Goddess of the Silent Screen), but I wanted to see if anyone noticed a family resemblance to another actress.

I gave them a few facts about Dolores Costello: “She was the daughter of actors.”

“She was married to an actor.”

“She was the mother of an actor.”

“She was the grandmother of an actress — who is still acting today. Can anyone guess who that actress today is?”

Nothing.

Then: “She’s about my age. And she was a child actress. I am willing to bet everyone has seen, if not some of her recent romantic comedies, one of the films she did as a kid. It was a very famous movie. I saw it as a kid when it was out in the theater, but it’s a classic. You would have seen it.”

One student confirmed: “She was a kid when you were a kid?”

Me: “Yes.”

Silence while they all thought and thought (and held their googling fingers back).

I didn’t break the silence. I waited. And finally, the student who clarified the actress’s contemporaneity with me, piped up with a knowing response:

Shirley Temple!

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. . . the ’30s star who died this past month, at the age of 85.

Giant sigh. If you know the number of a good plastic surgeon, it seems I need it. Send it my way!

Dual Academic Parents

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Sometimes a friend says to me, “How do you do it? And BOTH of you academics–wow.” By which I know that friend means, “Seriously–how does your family live off those pathetic salaries? As a second salary, ok, I get it, but both of you–?” Or another might mean, “Just thinking about your life makes me reach for my Xanax/calming glitter bottle. You have no job stability, and therefore no life stability. You move every two years, your kids have tried out every Jewish school on the continent, and you apply to 100 jobs a year, hoping that some random place in some random corner of the world might hire you.” Or yet another might mean, simply, “How do you ever have time for your kids?” (but that person is probably a fellow academic, because everyone else thinks we only work 4h/week).

And what do I say? I put on my best Dowager Countess of Grantham voice and tell them my life is just lovely and that our shared profession allows us to inspire our children with lifelong passions for knowledge, education, and self-betterment.

And as long as they have no interaction with my kids . . . they might believe me.

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Kind of Leaning in?: My Good-enough Martha Stewarting for LL & Cool J’s Awesome Ninjago Party

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The other evening at a GNO, I said I’ve been hesitating to read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In because I’m afraid it will just confirm my suspicion: I lack ambition. If I really wanted to writes piles of dense scholarship, wouldn’t I? If I really wanted a tenure-track job, wouldn’t I apply to every single one that came on the market? But then I brightened: “Oh, but I can’t say I’m not ambitious at all. Let me tell you about this Ninjago party I’m planning–”

The women shook their heads. “That’s not the kind of ambition Sandberg’s talking about,” said my friend, Sulochana, a Martha-Stewart type who sews complicated costumes and just baked her daughter this fantastic cake last week:

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I call this a cake, but as each layer has to be prepared and baked separately, it’s more like 6 cakes

Sulochana’s domestic diva-ness is an aside. She is actually an assistant professor who is writing a book that will change the way scholars understand poetry. We might all agree she has the kind of ambition Sandberg has in mind. She’s good.

As for me, I lack both her homemaker skills and career path, and I lack the drive for both. I am not “good.” I am “good enough.” Good enough cooking and baking, good enough career, good enough parenting.

I still think, however, the Ninjago party planning showed a spark of ambition. Inspired by Craft, Interrupted (The Scientist sent me this site featuring supercrafty moms as we began our planning, as well as another one that showed a mom refurnishing her entire house to fit the Asian theme. Now that’s “good”!), I decided we could do a version of it, too. Here’s how it all went down:

The 24 kids were divided into 4 teams of 6–Jay, Zane, Kai, and Cole (Lloyd was so coveted, I had to exclude it for fairness). Each kid got a pin to wear on his shirt:

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All the eyes are a little creepy, no?

Two teams went to the park with The Scientist for Ninja star throwing, the “Serpentine” obstacle course, and Lord Garmadon’s Relay race. The Ninja stars were a pain in the ass to make  so I delegated that role:

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Ever been to a carpet factory in Egypt? Our house was something like that . . .

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my MIL had the kids decorating their “Bonezai boxes” with their Ninja names–using crayons in the shape of minifigs–while I ran the photo booth:

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The Ninja name of Poor Princess is . . .

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Testing . . . testing . . . Does this thing work?

Then we went to the backyard for Ninja training–

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24 kids + one non-industrial bounce house = complete chaos

before the final mission: attacking the head of Sensei Wu:

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Sensei Wu is full of crap — sweet, sugary crap!

And that was that. Well, almost. There was also an ice cream cake–

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And, it being 2013, I also made a gluten free one–

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And that was that. A good-enough party by a good-enough mom (and dad and Bubby and Zaidy) for good-enough kids.

But who am I kidding? It was pretty awesome! (at least I thought so!)

D Day

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So, remember that decision we were supposed to make months ago about moving to the UK? Right. We’re still in the process of making it.

And in doing so, we are constantly weighing pros and cons. The biggest pro is that it is a professional step up for The Scientist. And there are other pros, of course, like new cultural experiences and European travel. On the other hand, I worry about not having a job there–about not ever getting a job there. Nevermind the longer term career issues for me, how can we possibly afford to live off of one academic salary? Also, I am also loathe to leave a place where I am quite content. But on the other hand (like Tevye, we seem to have many hands to play the other)–The Scientist has turned down tenure-track jobs before, and this is a really good one. How do we decide? Will a message just appear from the heavens?

It happens there are messages, like Chinese fortunes, but unwrapped and there for all to see, not up in the sky, but below, on the paving stones dotting my college campus. Throughout the semester–and our decision-making process–I trod on two on the path between my office and my classroom. One says “Yes!” (apparently the whole of the letter of acceptance a former dean used to send out). Another says, “Be happy. Never be content.”

It’s hard to ignore the signs.

BUT, there are other signs. Like grapes.

The other day, I’m chatting with my mom on the phone as I’m unpacking my groceries. Crunch, crunch, crunch in her ear. “Mom,” I gush, “I am eating the best grapes in the world. Do you know what I mean when I say the best grapes?”

“I know good grapes.”

“No, but I mean the best grapes. You know–like crispy.”

“I know crispy grapes.”

“But not just crispy. Crispy and –” chomp chomp –“juicy.”

“Yes, honey, I got it. I know crispy and juicy grapes.”

“You know what it is, mom?” I ask.

“What?” asks my mother, whose patience for me is astounding.

“It’s that Whole Foods charges, like, double the price for everything. This bag of grapes cost me $10, but here’s the amazing thing. It’s still a good deal.” I continue to unload my brightly colored organic produce, carefully packaged containers of cheese, and freshly ground peanut butter. “The thing is,” I say, “Their stuff is actually five times better than normal supermarket stuff.”

My mother sighs.

“Oh, princess,” she says, “You are not good at being poor.”

Alas, D Day approaches. In the next couple of days, we need to give the UK university an answer. What will it be? Will we stay on in this princely town . . . or will we go back to our (non-organic) salad days in a new land?

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Our former salad days: When Cool J came along, we didn’t have money for a place with a bedroom for him . . . but he survived!

Selfish Reasons I Have Kids

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Disclaimer: I haven’t read Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. I’m sure it’s fantastic. But there’s no way I would buy it, because I really think it would be a bad idea to read about reasons to have more kids. Frankly I’m pretty sure I already have one kid extra.

On the other hand, I like this vision of the world–in which not sleeping through a single night for over 8 years; spending all my money on childcare (which isn’t even full-time childcare) and soccer (which in the early years consisted of a minute of play followed by a request for a snack) and high fructose corn syrup food items, which somehow keep ending up my shopping cart despite my constant avowal that I would never allow such disgusting things in my house; feeding, bathing, and comforting my kids (even when I sure as hell need to be fed, bathed, and comforted); and practically throwing away a doctorate it took me 9 years to get–is somehow “selfish.” “Selfless” is so passé. That whole 19th-century “angel in the house” type? The “self-less” type? No one wants to be her! I don’t want to be her! I’m going with selfish.

And so, inspired by Caplan’s book that I will never ever read, I came up with 3 selfish reasons I have kids.

1. I am a not-so-neat person, but with kids, I can hide this defect.

Imagine I got up this morning, and I made my bed–hospital corners and all.  But within minutes, Baby MoFo wanted to show me his song and dance:

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Then Cool J came along. And somehow The Scientist got in there, too:

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My bed never stood a chance. So, whether I had made my bed or hadn’t–would you know the difference? Exactly.

2. They’re balls of entertainment and love. Around 5:30am, I woke up to Baby MoFo screaming his head off beside me in my bed (I know how much each part of this sentence sounds like it should go on the other side of the divide, but read on). He was in the throes of a nightmare about Cool J: “J . . . is eating a lightsaber [lifesaver]! He’s eating the whole thing up! He isn’t sharing! I angry!!! I angry!!!!” The Scientist and I, roused (again) from our (oft-disturbed) sleep, burst into laughter. Baby MoFo then rolled over, wrapped his arms around me and murmured, “Mama, I love you. I kiss you.” He planted a series of kisses on my face and promptly fell back asleep. There are other ways to wake up–breakfast in bed, a few yoga poses, the sound of chirping birds–but laughter and love seem pretty good, too.

3. On a bad day, an academic (who is perpetually seeking that tenure-track job — that shimmering oasis in the sand) might receive a number of letters that look something like this:

Dear Applicant,

Thank you so much for your application to Buttfuck University, where, if hired, you would teach hundreds of students every semester, be expected to serve on numerous committees, and be evaluated only on the publications you clearly would never have time to write. You would also be paid less than the secretary writing this email. While your application was quite strong, so were many of the 785 other applications, and unfortunately, we’re not going to read any of them because we’ve been planning to hire an internal candidate all along. This is, of course, a vast improvement from last year, when you also applied for our listing; we brought out applicants from all over the world for interviews (one of them came all the way from Australia for less than 48 hours — and another abandoned a wife in labor!), put each of them through the ringer for several days, and then canceled the job search altogether. That was a hoot!

Many thanks, Applicant. And please do accept our apology for cc’ing the other 785 applicants in the earlier email. Your privacy is important to us.

Many thanks, BU

On an awesome day, an academic might receive a letter that looks something like this:

Dear Professor,

Thank you for your submission “A Feminist Reading of a 19th-Century Filipina American author that 6 people have heard of–maybe.” We have received the readers’ reports, and we invite you to revise and resubmit your article based on their 20+ pages of recommendations that basically undermine your argument, force you to read all their publications, and should take you about a year to complete. Congratulations!

Best, The Editor

If you ever want to have your confidence in your intelligence and self-worth decimated, please become an academic.

But, if you then want to have it restored, become a parent!

Here is Baby MoFo playing on the stairs:

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A minute later, he bursts into tears: “My feet hurt!”

I say, “Why don’t you take the cones off your feet?”

“NOOOOOOO!”

“Try it–I bet they won’t hurt anymore.”

He tries. Big smile again. “Mama!! They don’t hurt anymore!! Mama!! How you knew?”

You see–in my field, I’m a moron. But in my house, I’m a genius.

Well, Bryan Caplan, it’s possible you’ve covered all these reasons and many more in your book, and I’m sorry that I’ll never so much as peek at the Amazon reviews, but I am grateful to you for helping me appreciate my boys and my life.

Love, Poor Princess

After the Quota System

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A couple of years ago, fresh off the long drive to my new princely town, I wrote about its remarkable WASPiness (here and here). But now I barely notice it, and I have even come to realize that among the professors and post-docs in The Scientist’s department–whose names are along the lines of Itai, Amichai, Shai, Oren, Shulamit, Michal, Shachar, Jonathan Goldberg, David Bloomenfeld, and Brice–it’s possible there are a few people like me (and that poor Brice is understandably confused when he shows up on Yom Kippur, which he might think is an ordinary Tuesday, and his lone voice echoes down the empty hallways. “Hello? Hello? Anybody out there . . . ?”).

If this town and the university at its centre still don’t quite advertise themselves as hotbeds of Yiddishkeit, that doesn’t mean my neighbors aren’t in a Klezmer band (they are) or that Baby MoFo can’t attend a local (non-Chabad) summer camp that will be conducted entirely in Hebrew next month (he is).

But it’s fun to see this princely town as I first saw it–to see it through the eyes of one first seeing. This afternoon, a beautiful, sunny day, the boys were off from school, and I took respite with an iced coffee and a chapter of Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (née Nathan Weinstein), a novella about an advice columnist with a Christ Complex (think the Bintel Brief in the hands of the other folks). A few minutes after perching on a bench outside the Starbucks with my cold drink, I saw, out of my peripheral vision, an elderly woman with thinning, carefully set white hair, polished nails shaped into old-fashioned ovals, and sturdy but not dowdy black patent leather shoes, sit down beside me. She watched me intently, clearly waiting for me to acknowledge her. I didn’t (How often does one score a break from one’s kids to do nothing but sit and read and drink an iced coffee and enjoy the sound of silence and the sun on one’s face??). So she gave up waiting, and she cleared her throat. “Excuse me,” she said. I marked my passage in the book–the protagonist is attempting to escape his despair through a pastoral fantasy and arrives in a rural world where the deer run wild: “The man said that there was still plenty of deer at the pond because no yids ever went there. He said it wasn’t the hunters who drove out the deer, but the yids.”

I look up.

“I’m just visiting here, and I was wondering–Are you a student here?”

I smile. “No,” I say, “I teach here.”

“Really?” Flattering though it might have been from someone a bit younger, the comment made me realize that when you’re in your 90s, college age and 30s seem equally and unattainably distant — kind of the way millions and billions of dollars seem equally and unattainably distant to this Poor Princess.

But it turns out there was something else she meant by “Really?”

She continues: “They let you in here?”

Me? A woman? A dark-skinned person? A Canadian?

She pushes further. “They welcomed you?”

“Yes,” I say hesitantly.

“With open arms?”

“I think so . . .”

“And are there others?” She gestures at my pendant.

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“Are there?”

“Yes,” I say. “There are others.”

“And what do you teach?”

I tell her.

“Do you teach them about us–your know, our stuff?” she asks.

“I do,” I say. “Do you know The Jazz Singer?”

“With Al Jolson?” She laughs with amazement. I wonder if she knew him. She lowers her voice. “And the goyim–they like it?”

“I think so,” I say.

“I don’t believe it,” she says.

“Believe it,” I respond. And we say our goodbyes, and I saunter off.

And when I get home, I remind LL that I am signing him up for ballroom dancing and etiquette lessons at Barclays. It’s a revered institution where children who use their chopsticks as swords and have other defects of manners (or circumcised bits) can learn to be proper, poised, socially sophisticated WASPlike little gentlemen and ladies. After all, we’re in a princely town. Barclays is by invitation only, but I might have an in– I hear there’s a Jew on the board.

Badass Brain Protection

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I once owned a pair of Doc Martens, and they were seriously bitchin . . . except that they were lilac. My high school bedroom boasted a white eyelet canopy and bubblegum-colored walls . . . pasted over with pictures of Kurt Cobain. I love me a little girliness, but only when it’s got some badass, too. So to harden the pastel sweetness of my terribly feminine cream-colored Bianchi Cortina bike with its pretty pink basket, I picked up this helmet:

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Baby MoFo’s cute keppy with my hardcore helmet

Strangely, I now give off the wrong impression when I walk into class with it. . . which might not be the worst thing.

Eying my head candy, a student asked one day: “Hey, do you snowboard?”

Me: “Nah . . . this is just for my bike.”

Another day, another student asked: “Hey, do you have a vespa?”

Me: “I wish!”

And today, a third: “Oh, wow. Do you drive a motorcycle?”

Me: “Goodness, no! I mean . . . just a little pink vespa.”

Student: “Cool!”