Monday, December 28, 2009

Things I Knew about Denmark

I briefly thought about what I knew about Denmark before I started researching Denmark in preparation for this study abroad.

Roughly in chronological order of when I learned of them:
1) The Little Match Girl and other dark Hans Christian Andersen stories. It was in a picture book of fairy tales I had as a kid, along with the version of Cinderella where the two stepsisters cut off their toes and heel respectively and then get their eyes pecked out by birds.
2) Lois Lowry's children's book Number the Stars
Spoiler: A happy story. A Jewish girl gets smuggled from Copenhagen to Sweden in a little fishing boat during the Nazi occupation. I thought it was terribly clever that the family who took in the Jewish girl pretended she was their daughter by giving her the identity of their dead daughter. It was also a bit sad that that daughter died.
3) I didn't know until I stopped playing with Legos that they were Danish.
4) I read somewhere that Scandinavian countries have the highest per capita coffee consumption.
5) The whole Muhammad cartoon fiasco. A lot of people got angry.
6) According to some survey that I don't know the methodology of, Danes are the happiest people in the world. Then I read an article explaining that this is because they have low expectations*.

*Christensen, K. Why Danes are smug: comparative study of life satisfaction in the European Union. BMJ 2006; 333:1289-1291.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Find me

I just learned that a Google search for "Japanese vs. Chinese tea" lists my blog as the fourth hit. And that entry isn't even about tea. I wrote about Asian art.

I will reemerge onto the blogosphere when this week is over. 

Friday, December 11, 2009

A cause for celebration

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. I was going to write about the story of Hanukkah I first read in Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht, a historical survey of doubt, emphasizing skepticsm was healthy in the past and made significant contributions. But David Brooks beat me to it, as he and Hecht tell the story of Hanukkah as a conflict between less religious Jews and more religious Jews. The Greeks gentiles weren't the central players.

The story of Hanukkah that I know, the most basic, most sanitized version, goes like this:

The Jews resisted their forced conversion to Greek paganism from the Greek rulers. They forced Jews to worship Greek gods and even dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem to Zeus. However, Judah Maccabbee organized a resistance against the Greeks and won. They got religious freedom, preserved their nation, and the Temple was rededicated. But the oil remaining in the Temple was only enough to last one night, but miraculously, it burned for eight nights. The Jews were happy. And Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights.

But Hecht and Brooks have this account of Hanukkah. The chief conflict was between Hellenized Jews and more orthodox Maccabbees. It's a question of identity and of religious practice. Who can be a Jew? Assimilated Jews and conservative Jews had different answers.

Furthermore, Jews forced to assimilate into Greek society. They did so willingly. Hecht writes:
For Jews, this meant an economic, social and cultural boom. Jews took on Greek names — Joshua became Jason, Saul became Paul. And they built a gymnasium — a Greek center for training in sports, philosophy and politics — at the foot of the Temple Mount.
Hellenized Jews weren't keeping kosher.
Many Greek-educated Jews of the upper class (often the elite priest class) ignored the laws of Moses, which seemed restrictive and dated. Abraham became their great father because, predating Moses, he did not keep kosher.
However, the pious (and poorer Jews) angry. This erupted when one Jew killed another who went to the temple to sacrifice, to Zeus. Hecht continues:
The killer’s son Judah would come to be called Maccabee (the hammer) for his ruthless soldiering. Wherever the Maccabees triumphed, secular Jewish men were brutalized, even beheaded.
The rededication of the Temple then, came about because one group of Jews triumphed over their more secular brethren.

I'm not here to rain on the menorah lighting, gift exchanging, and dreidel spinning festivities. The history of Hanukkah doesn't diminish what I think is the significance of holidays anyway: to be together with the family, to feel a sense of goodwill among people (or among people of the same religion...). Even if the reason for celebration is invented, it's still a good time.

It is not my intention to channel Brook's subtext. I'll not speculate on modern parallels to "angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East" as he writes in his column. Disclaimers done, now my point.

My point is this, to quote Brooks, "The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices." The narratives that define a people are less joyous and more ambivalent than we generally think they are.

My point is also, to echo Hecht, "Hanukkah will be a celebration of Hellenized Jewry. These ancestors weren’t turncoats, after all — they were good cosmopolitan Jews." We are living in even more cosmopolitan times than second century BCE Judea. The flow of cultures should not be an alarm to ward off the border from ideas and from people. Our definition of what constitutes a people should be narrow. Our only option is to accept greater diversity, not only in religious belief, but in all other matters.


While I'm studying, I like to listen to podcasts or radio segments. Yesterday I listened to a PRI segment called lust of life lists. One guest talked about why we love making lists: it's simplicity.

I was youtube link hopping and came across this list. I have no idea who she is, but it's fascinating. 

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Private Lives

I think my blog would be more interesting to read if my commentary were more timely. I usually read or do something that inspires me to write a blog, but then I push it back a week or so or more before I write about it. So I did read Married (Happily) With Issues when it debuted on the cover of the NYTimes Sunday Magazine but I'm writing about it now.

Pursue sapience read this too. (As did a lot of other people. It was the most viewed piece on for a couple days.) It was eye-opening since people usually don't speak frankly about their personal lives, but I also know the window into their private lives is an illusion, the way that celebrities don't really reveal who they are. I'm not sure how I feel about articles dissecting the author's personal lives anyway. It's interesting, voyeuristic on one hand, but it's too (fake) confessional. Not all secrets will be unearthed to the NYTimes.

About the article itself: It thumped the steady drumbeat of disillusionment that I now think is inevitable in middle life with moments like this:
The psychologist Michael Vincent Miller describes marriage as mocking our “fondest dreams,” because the institution is not the wellspring of love we imagine it to be. Instead it’s an environment of scarcity, it’s “a barbaric competition over whose needs get met”; it’s “two people trying to make a go of it on emotional and psychological supplies that are only sufficient for one.” 
But the article was also punctuated by moments of  "WTF! I can't believe someone took this seriously enough to write about it in a book". 
Then one day at my desk I started reading “The Multi-Orgasmic Couple: Sexual Secrets Every Couple Should Know.” I sent Dan an e-mail message entitled “Nine Taoists Thrusts.”
Page 123, from the seventh-century physician Li T’ung-hsuan Tzu:
1. Strike left and right as a brave general breaking through the enemy ranks.
2. Rise and suddenly plunge like a wild horse bucking through a mountain stream.
3. Push and pull out like a flock of seagulls playing on the waves.
4. Use deep thrusts and shallow teasing strokes, like a sparrow plucking pieces of rice.
5. Make shallow and then deeper thrusts in steady succession.
6. Push in slowly as a snake entering its hole.
7. Charge quickly like a frightened mouse running into its hole.
8. Hover and then strike like an eagle catching an elusive hare.
9.Rise up and then plunge down low like a great sailboat in a wild wind.
This last point also falls into a category of “ancient non-white people are soooo mystical, soooo exotic, and had the secret to fantastic sex using ridiculous metaphors” that sets off a whole other theme I like to blog about. So now you know that behind the placid veneer of the wizened, beared Daoist, they were getting it on like rabbits. Or like sparrows plucking at pieces of rice.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Alternate readings

Gustav Klimt's The Kiss must be one of the most reproduced paintings in western art. I've seen it as posters, on the sides of ceramic mugs, and even as a necktie at some art museum gift shop. A print of it hangs in the office of Lori Brotto, a researcher of  female sexual desire, as profiled here.
Like most people who have glanced at a reproduction, I thought that it shows a man turning his head to kiss a woman.

But this article mentions two readings of the painting, "The couple in the painting, with the woman either bending sublimely in the man’s emphatic embrace or wincing away from his lips..."

Now that I look at the painting, I see how this interpretations fits the painting just as well as the conventional reading. The the angle of the woman's head suggests she is pulling away or turning her head. And woman doesn't exactly look happy.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Safe explorations

Yesterday I pulled together several critiques of the Twilight series. Because of the reasons describe there, I don't enjoy the series. However, I think it is important to acknowledge the appeal of the books for young female fans.

It is important not to dismiss the enjoyment that young girls who love the books and who feel swept up by the characters. We already too easily dismiss nascent feelings of love that girls grapple in the process of becoming adults. I think we've all heard older people tell young people that they "don't know what love is". Heather Corinna of Scarleteen writes about this dismissal of a young person's experience of love: "You felt the double-whammy of having what you know to be the truth of your feelings discounted and of being deeply patronized all at once." I feel sometimes the criticism of Twilight becomes criticism of its fans and I don't want this to be so.

Personally, if I were 12 when the Twilight books became popular, I think I would have liked them too, if not fanatically, at least partly. I don't like the books, but I still feel very close to the feelings Bella has, to the feelings the fans of Twilight have about the characters. I know the giddy feeling of having crush, even if its directed toward a fictional character or an actor playing the fictional character. These feelings that 12 year-olds have aren't the same love that a 21 year-old or a 41 or 71 year old woman would feel. But when you are (and when I was) 12 that is as close to romantic love as we have known. I've felt those feelings before, so I very much empathize with fans at the same time that I'm critical of the gender and race in the Twilight-verse. I see the appeal of Twilight, but I can't get past its treatment of a lot of other things.

(On a similar note, I see the appeal of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita as a masterpiece of modern literature, but I just can't get past the icky-ness of pedophilia and into the novel.)

The reason I empathize with Twilight fans, the reason I would have liked Twilight as a girl, is correctly identified by Neesha Meminger as the need for girls to safely explore their burgeoning sexuality. She writes:
Stephanie Meyer has capitalized on the one niche that Disney and women’s romance novels left open: the hunger for teen girls (and their mothers) for a safe place to explore the wonder and excitement of their own sexuality.
The key here is safety. There is good reason to take refuge in Twilight. The sexual exploitation of women and images of women is pervasive. We see them everyday: scantily-clad women on TV, women peddling cosmetics, weight-loss treatments, and ways to keep our men satisfied in bed.

Safety and security become difficult in adulthood have but we still desire and deserve it. When we're little, it was easy to be safe and to be protected. And as we grow up, the world opens up its possibilities but also its risks. I want to explore new places, new people, and new feelings but I still want to be held and to be cuddled. And it's okay normal to want that.

Meminger writes:
The final scene, with Edward lifting Bella onto his feet and dancing under the lights of the gazebo at her prom, is the ultimate little-girl-in-daddy’s-arms fantasy — safe, protected, cherished…still innocent.
Yes. Enter Edward. While Edward carries a persistent undercurrent of danger, the readers also know that he won't bite (or have sex with) Bella. There's a paradoxically safe and controlled sense of danger, like the weightlessness of being in roller coaster all the while the bar is firmly across your lap. Bella's virginity and "innocence" is not actually in danger, but the reader is allowed the temporary vertigo of intense infatuation. Twilight provides its readers with a safe universe in which to swoon over a really good-looking boy. The character of Bella is criticized for being ... really bland but her lack of distinguishing traits facilitates connection with the reader because the reader easily inserting herself into the story as Bella. A blank canvas of a character isn't a writing classes teach to build character, but it makes a lot of girls feel like they are Bella.

Now about the older fans of Twilight, the young adult women, the moms of tweens:

The desire for safety never goes away. Relationships are tricky at any age. Sometimes it's nice to take refuge somewhere where the rules are clear and there's a happy ending waiting. I sometimes think it's rather nice to be in middle school where everyone seemed to know the rules of "going out". It meant telling someone you liked them, "going out", and dancing with each other at Fun Night.

And nor should it. Girls and women at any age confront challenges to their safe space. For college-aged women, it can be the sexual coercion at parties from strangers, acquaintances, and friends. Or it can be just figuring out what you want, which is still really confusing!

The popularity of Twilight doesn't spell the doom feminism, even though the critiques may seem like that. The girls on Team Edward or Team Jacob can grow up to be on Team Feminism. When I was little, I did all the girly things. I pretended to be a princess, dressed my dolls, watched Disney movies and was swept away by the prince charmings. Twilight won't become the model relationship for most its readers just as I don't  believe in Disney movies anymore. As we grow up, we'll inevitably be exposed to different relationships, different kinds of love. Twilight will not be the only model on which to base our relationships.

My hope for the Twilight books, and by extension for crushes, infatuations, relationships that never get off the ground, and boyfriends is that they allow girls to explore their budding sexuality, to grapple with some really confusing feelings in a safe and healthy way.


A note from me:

I've been blogging prolifically of late, a new post almost every day for the past two weeks. I put much time and thought into blogging, mostly for my own pleasure, but it would be nice to hear an echo coming back. So...  I'm encouraging lurkers to de-lurk. If my writings generate some discussion in you, I'd appreciate it if you leave a comment. I'd like to hear your take too. You don't need a Blogger account and you can also  make it anonymous.