The food we eat right now

September 30, 2011

Jacob made his own breakfast Thursday morning. He makes quinoa pasta for himself most mornings, but because we were hanging around the house waiting to go to services, he got a little more elaborate.

“Can I fry some tofu?” he asked with his head in the fridge. I get this extra-firm tofu we crumble and pan-fry.

“Sure,” I said.

He pulled green onion and sweet peppers out of the bin and shoyu out of the door. “Wait, how about the cabbage pickle? Can I fry that?” he asked.

“I’d fry the other stuff and then put the pickle on at the end,” I said. It’s the cabbage, onion, ginger and chile pickle I made for the banh mi the other day.

He cut up the vegetables and put it all in the hot frying pan with some shoyu. The green onion smelled great.

“Wait! The nori!” he yelled. He got out a sheet of nori and lined his dish with it. When the tofu was cooked he put it on top of the nori sheet and sprinkled the cabbage on top.

Jacob's Rosh Hashana breakfast

Jacob's Rosh Hashana breakfast

He made this beautiful breakfast with stuff he scrounged out of the refrigerator. He had to peel some gross parts off the week-old green onion and he had to remember that we had nori sheets in the snack cupboard. I knew that all these ingredients were in the house, but I didn’t imagine making this breakfast with them. He took what was available to him and cooked something with it.

We are people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.

On TV, Rick Bayless is doing a whole season of Mexico One Plate at a Time from Baja California. The rest of Mexico is tropical, he explains, but Baja has a Mediterranean climate. It’s dry in the summer and wet in the winter. He stood on a hill with olive groves and lamb flocks and gestured. For a moment he talked about how this isn’t what you really expect from Mexican food, but then he dove in and cooked with the chefs of Baja, lamb with smoky salsas, chard and kale in a taco with queso fresco, more lamb with lemon thyme. The chefs were all committed to the products of their region, including the local wine. I could feel from them (much more than a lot of fine-dining chefs) that the food they made was part of their identity. They embodied my sentence: We are people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.

I think that Rick Bayless felt that he had to address the question of these Mediterranean products and their place in Mexican cooking. He did it only briefly, I imagine, because he did not want to belabor the point that it’s not what we, as non-Mexicans, expect cooking from Mexico to be, based as it is on olive oil and wine and thyme and lamb. Those are products we identify more with southern Europe, but the people in Baja have probably had access to them just as long as the Italians have had access to tomatoes.

This morning, Jacob was working with ingredients that were right in front of him, just like those fine-dining chefs in Baja on Rick Bayless’s TV show.

I was talking to a colleague earlier this week and she asked me what I was cooking for Rosh Hashana. I hadn’t given it much thought back on Tuesday. “I’m more thinking about the music,” I told her. She said that for her family, it’s all about the food. Her parents are from Mexico and their parents were from Poland and Hungary. They eat gefilte fish with a sauce from Verracruz, tamales made with chicken fat instead of lard, tortilla chips with gribenes. “We are the people who live in this place,” the recipes seem to say, “and this is the food we eat right now.”

I didn’t really get around to thinking about making Rosh Hashana dinner until, I guess, Wednesday. Split pea soup, I figured, and didn’t get any further.

I didn’t even know that there was a big holiday meal on Rosh Hashana until I was in my 20s and I got invited to someone else’s. There is, it turns out, a huge tradition of big holiday meals on the night of erev Rosh Hashana. We never had them growing up. I guess it was because my mother was singing in the choir so she didn’t feel like making a big meal. We didn’t have an extended family around us to go to, so my dad and my brother and I ate a big snack and my mom got an early ride from a friend. We went to synagogue and I sat next to my dad and held his hand sometimes. His hand is square, like the shoulders of his suit jacket. That is what I remember about the High Holy Days, not a meal.

So when I am planning my own Rosh Hashana dinner I don’t have any preconceived ideas about what we should or shouldn’t eat except, of course, for the round challah. Come to think of it, I started making round braided challa for that first Rosh Hashana dinner I was invited to in my 20s.

I went to the grocery store on Thursday morning with not much of a plan. When I got there, I saw end-of-season Roma tomatoes on sale; they reminded me of a big beautiful picture of roasted tomatoes in my new cookbook, so they went on the menu. Clean new crop apples, of course, to dip in honey and then more to bake because Ruth asked for apple sauce. She loves pomegranates, also newly in season, and when I was putting together the apples and honey plate I pulled in the Asian pears from Roberto’s tree across the street. Every single piece of produce in that meal was grown in California. We are the people who live in this place, my Rosh Hashana dinner said, and this is what we eat right now.

The first family dinner of 5772

The first family dinner of 5772

Even when I am cooking Indian food, I am thinking as much about the Indian grocery where I get my spices as I am about India. I’ve never been to India but I go to Vik’s all the time. I don’t think I would cook nearly as much Indian food if I didn’t have Vik’s so close. I can go over there on my bike after work on the spur of the moment. I get to live in a neighborhood next to another neighborhood where a lot of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent set up their stores. It’s the same as my young colleague’s mother with her gefilte fish and chicken fat tamales. And speaking of tamales, I am quite sure I would never have tried nixtamalization if I didn’t have Mi Terra right here, selling dried untreated field corn less than a mile from my house. I am just cooking what is available to me on my bicycle.

We are the people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.

My Tiger Mother, My Self

January 24, 2011

I have been following all this stuff about the superiority of Chinese mothers vaguely – reading with interest but not following every link. I didn’t want to write about it because I hadn’t read the actual book. And then yesterday afternoon the mother who dropped R off from the playdate handed me the actual book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.

I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, which says more about the book than it does about my reading speed. I was shocked.

The whole time I have been following this conversation about Amy Chua, I have been thinking of myself as the mother. I’ve been comparing myself to her, or to the bits of things that get repeated in articles and blog posts about birthday cards and garbage and such. Reading the book, though, I realized that I am a little bit like the mother – but my real role in parallel to this book is the role of the daughter.

My mother is not Amy Chua. A lot of the most extreme stuff that has been circulated in the last couple of weeks is stuff my mother would never, ever do. But a lot of the stuff in the book – big and small – brushed at my memories of childhood. I only had sleepovers with my cousins. I scraped the piano with my teeth and made a mark. I was expected to be totally respectful to my parents and older relatives.

There was a time, eight or so years ago, when I would see little half-Asian kids and I would want to walk up to their parents and say, “I am what your child will grow into.” There just aren’t very many adults my age who are that kind of mixed race, but there are tons of little kids running around who are. I forgot about them for the last few years, I guess, or I have not been thinking about it so much. I forget that I am – and will always, for the rest of my life be – at the leading edge of a cultural shift around intermarriage and multicultural families.

The parallel with Amy Chua is problematic – she’s Chinese-American, raised in the Midwest with her immigrant parents but not an extended Chinese family; my mother is third-generation Japanese American raised in a Japanese-American community. So Amy Chua is both more and less Chinese-American than my mother is Japanese-American, and their parenting is both more and less Western (as Amy Chua is calling it). I am very, very glad for all the crazy ways my mother was not like Amy Chua, most of all including but not limited to the fact that she did not stand over me at every moment that I was practicing piano and let me quit at some point because I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t care about it.

The thing that Chua hints at but does not explore is the thing that I think is the most interesting about the way that I co-parent with Ellen. Ellen and I have a huge culture clash about parenting on a daily basis, and the way we negotiate that constantly is the most intellectually stimulating part of our marriage for me. This went down in our house, word for word, a couple of days ago:

Me (yelling at B): When I tell you to do something, I tell you ONE TIME. Then you do it. I do not have to ask you more than once. When an adult tells you to do something you do it immediately!

Me (to E): Did your parents EVER have to ask you more than once to do something?

E: Yeah, they did. All the time.

I was shocked. It never occurred to me that in any family, anywhere, ever a child could think that a parent’s request was ignorable, negotiable or even postponable. I had no idea. I’ve been thinking about it ever since that dialogue, trying to re-arrange my conception of what I think B and R’s obligation is to me as their mother. I don’t even know what the conclusion is, yet, but this kind of thing – the stuff that I take as set in stone that Ellen casually dismisses – these things are the things that make me grow the most as a person as I try to be a good mother. I get the sense that Amy Chua isn’t co-parenting like this. She’s not trying to compromise and learn because there are good things about every way to raise a child – and there are also supremely messed up ways, and they exist in tandem in each parent and in each cultural conception of parenting. If you say that you are going to do it all one way, you are missing out on new ways of shaping your children and shaping yourself. I love E so much, and I hate so much about the way she parents, and I love so much more about the way she parents even more. I would not want E to hand over everything about parenting to me – and if I handed over everything to her I — I don’t even know. It’s not possible.

“There is no true collaboration without disagreement,” one of my favorite work colleagues said to me once, more than a decade ago. I think about that at least once a day about work-work or about Jewish community work, but mostly about my marriage with E. The glory of living in the U.S. in the 21st century is that we have this incredible opportunity to collaborate with people from many cultures – and they are in our families.

(Just to restate for the record: my mother never, ever called me garbage. She never would.)

In Praise of the Fracture

November 21, 2010

We were in the car with my parents driving past the Oakland Coliseum a couple of weeks ago. My mom looked at the sign that advertised the upcoming events and asked, “Who is Steve Harvey?”

My mom does not live in a cultural vacuum. She reads the New York Times. She’s enthusiastically watched Survivor and Torchwood. She did not know who Steve Harvey is. I explained to her that he’s a comedian and he wrote a book.

Steve Harvey wrote a book that totally dominated its category on the New York Times bestseller list for the better part of a year. My mother, legitimately, does not know who he is.

The culture isn’t fracturing. It has fractured, and my mother, right there, is exhibit number one in the case of the fractured culture. I can’t think of a cultural figure who has emerged in the last ten years – since 2001 – who is known by everybody. There are Americans who don’t know who Jonathan Franzen is. There are people, millions of them in this country, who have never heard of Selena Gomez, Rick Ross, Tyler Perry, Sixteen and Pregnant. There are millions more who feel like their lives have been transformed by them.

There are so many ways we can mainline culture now that we didn’t have access to twenty years ago – hundreds of TV channels instead of six or seven, video games, the internet – that there is no longer a dominant cultural conversation, aesthetic, idea. There are hundreds of cultural institutions that are beloved to millions of Americans and completely unknown to millions more. There will never be another Oprah Winfrey. The fractured culture will not support it.

In Entertainment Weekly, there’s a feature about what was big 20 years ago. 34 million people watched Cheers on a Thursday night in November of 1990. The ratings chart later in the same magazine says that 13.6 million people watched the top-rated sitcom last week, Two and a Half Men. We don’t even think that the same things are funny anymore, and if the loss of a common sense of humor isn’t a huge sign that the culture is fractured, I don’t know what is.

I think that the fractured culture is mostly a good thing. It means that we aren’t dominated by a small set of ideas and people. If you want to find some music or tv show or writing or game that speaks to who you are, and you are not white and straight and English-speaking and male, if your parents didn’t go to college, if you are disabled or if you are so many other things – now you have a much better chance of finding something that you can identify with or that speaks to who you are.

If my mother is exhibit number one in the fracturing of the culture, she is also my exhibit number one in my argument that it needed to be fractured. I remember this clearly, it may very well have been 1990. If it was not, it was only a couple of years before or after. My mother was watching tv by herself in the evening, and she yelled, excited, for the rest of us to come to see what was on. It was a commercial, a Kodak commercial, with a young Asian woman in it. My mom was so surprised and pleased to see this one young woman on TV who looked liker her, it was such a rare thing that she called for the rest of us to see it. At the time I was only excited, too. Someone who looked like my mother on television! It was an event, remarkable.

Now, off the top of my head, I can tell you that if you want to see Asians on TV you can turn on Mythbusters, Nikita, Hawaii 5-0, Glee or Dancing with the Stars. There are probably hundreds more on the hundreds of channels, and it is no longer a remarkable moment to see a young Asian woman on TV. It sound funny or sad to relate that story of my brother and my father and me running into the living room to see the end of a commercial just because it had somebody Asian trying to sell us some Kodak product.

The culture has fractured and that is a good thing, because it means that there is more culture, more musicians and writers who can express themselves and, in the multiplication of cultures there is a multiplication of ideas and images. The poverty of being excited by a Kodak commercial has transformed into the richness of thousands of smaller, truer, more available cultural ideas.

Then, in the New York Times Friday, David Brooks (and yes, there is probably nobody with whom I disagree more on the subject of American culture than David Brooks) writes about the merging of Newsweek and The Daily Beast. They are valuable because they can revive something that has been lost, he writes. For many decades, people believed in one cultural standard.

To be respectable, it is necessary to spend your leisure time sampling the great masterworks of culture. To fight off the grubby materialism of American culture, it is necessary to be conversant in philosophy, theology and the great political events of the wider world…Poor families scratched together their dollars to buy an encyclopedia, to join the Book of the Month Club, to buy Will and Ariel Durant’s “Civilization” series or the Robert Maynard Hutchins’s Great Books… For decades, Time and Newsweek devoted more space to opera and art and theology than to Hollywood or health. You may never have visited New York City, but to be a respectable figure in your town in Wisconsin or Arizona, it was helpful to know what operas were playing or what people were reading in Paris. The magazines supplied this knowledge.

Brooks does not use the phrase “fracturing of the culture,” but this is what he bemoans when expresses his dismay that the desire for the singular vision of what is culturally important in America we were presented in Time magazine. “The new ethos valued hipness, not class,” is what he writes. That’s his view of the fractured culture. He’s wrong. His mom never called him into the living room because someone who looked like him was on tv for 30 seconds once every five years, either.

Brooks calls on the newly merged Newsweek and The Daily Beast to provide that old thing Time and Newsweek gave us, the dominant cultural ideas redominant. He’s so missing the point.

I think he’s right in saying that there were decades when you could and should have gone to the Book of the Month Club and Newsweek in order to be conversant in the culture. I think he’s wrong to say that we can or should go back to it. I believe that we are under as much obligation to study culture as he is describing, but it’s not about all of us looking to the same sources. What we must do is look beyond our own fractures. My mother should feel obligated to find out who Steve Harvey is so that she better understands the people around her for whom he is important. He’s never going to be meaningful to her – and that’s just fine. But she might owe it to her neighbors to figure out who he is. She also might laugh.

I would go to the wall to defend the idea that the fracturing of the culture is good and, at the same time, we are obligated to learn about cultures that are not our own. They exist in our cities, televisions, computers. If the fracturing of the culture has created the opportunity for more people to find culture that reflects themselves, it has also created the opportunity for us to get to know people who are nothing like us. It provides a hundred thousand shattered barriers to learning more.

The big question

February 26, 2010

I got into a funny back-and-forth with an online friend several days ago. She’s never met me in person and (I think) never seen a picture of me, so she was imagining that I look classically East Asian. I do not.

The biggest formative identity of my childhood and youth was being in a Japanese-American family. I have built a lot of other identities on top of that as an adult, but the very deep core is the Japanese-American. Also, in my head I think that I look classically East Asian. I mean, I know I don’t look like that but when I see Asian people my gut reaction is, “Wow, there’s someone who looks like me.” Today a colleague linked me to Young Me Now Me and as I clicked through the pictures of adults and children, my heart swept up a little every time I saw an Asian person. It still happens, even though I’ve spent my entire life not looking like that.

A couple of weeks ago another mother at a birthday party asked me, “Are you half Asian?” She’s Tibetan and her husband is German. I wondered if she asked me that because she’s used to seeing her own mixed race daughters but not so many 40 year old women who look like me.

The way she asked the question, “Are you half Asian?” struck me as funny, because of the assumption that white is the default-understood element of my racial makeup. I thought of it again when I watched the Olympics and sixteen year old Cheltzie Lee of Australia skated out on the ice. Both times – before the short program and the long one – the commentators ran through her racial heritage: father of Chinese descent, mother African-American from Louisiana. They didn’t feel the need to explain the same thing for the classically East Asian medalists, because their countries of origin – South Korea and Japan – matched their appearance. Or perhaps the skating commentators thought that we’d see a vaguely brown-skinned Australian and think she was Aboriginal. That would have been an assumption based on Cheltzie Lee fitting into a category of Australian. She does not fit.

Whatever their intention, the commentators were answering the unspoken question to Cheltzie Lee: what are you?

“I hate it when people ask me, ‘What are you?'” my high school acquaintance said to me once. It’s one of the clearest memories of my life. We were working at the espresso bar one afternoon and I was in the back by the sinks. He was turning away from the counter carrying a coffee pot and he spoke through the doorway to me, loud enough that the customer who’d asked the question might hear.

MC looked, now that I think of it, as if he might have been Cheltzie Lee’s much older brother. He was some mixture of black and Latino and maybe other stuff that I didn’t know about. He lived with his white aunt and she was his only family member I ever met. He and I talked about being mixed more than once, but this incident when a customer asked him, “What are you?” was the first time I’d heard him express his displeasure at it.

The question isn’t as rude as it might seem. That espresso bar was a small neighborhood place in a neighborhood that was very neighborhood-y. The owner went out of his way to make sure the customers felt really at home there. Many of my regulars gave me gifts (my first fountain pen, money, books about NY) when I went away to college. So a customer asking, “What are you?” isn’t any different from the other mother at the birthday party asking, “Are you half Asian?”

I went through my own period of saying, “I’m American,” when people asked what I am. I outgrew it and now I answer the question more or less as people ask it. Its asking is based, as is the unspoken question to Cheltzie Lee and the spoken one to MC, on the idea that we do not belong to a known group of people known to the person asking the question.

You might say that Snooki was cast on Jersey Shore because she did belong to a very specific known group: Guidettes. When asked “Who are you?” she says, “Guidette!” without reservation. So when her castmate explained that Snooki was Chilean by birth and adopted into an Italian family, she had this exchange with the interviewer:

“So what does she mean when she says Guidette?” asked the semi-incredulous FOX anchor, Jill Dobson.

J-WOWW’s response? “That’s a stereotype that people misconstrued with Italians. It’s a lifestyle. Like, the scene that we’re in. It’s not like Italian.”

J-WOWW is open about her lack of Italian heritage; she’s Spanish and Irish by descent. Snooki is adopted by an Italian family, hence her surname. J-WOWW also revealed that “Ron’s not full Italian either,” referring to Ronnie Magro.

Which neatly answers the question, “What is a Guidette?” which is a close cousin to, “What are you?” and could be construed as equally intimate or insulting.

The link between the Jersey Shore brand of Guidette (or Guido) and Italy is not, in my mind, concrete – and I don’t think that it needs to be. Close to the end of a longer and more nuanced look at ethnicity in Jersey Shore, Wendi Muse writes:

In the cast claiming its subculture and, in turn, imaginary ethnic identity (imaginary in the sense that they seem to lack any real understanding of both old and contemporary Italian elements of culture), they differentiate themselves from other whites despite their being able to shed the markers of fake tans, gel, and extensions in order to simply be perceived as “white” whenever they wish, no questions asked.

Here, I think that Muse is over-reaching in two ways.

One, the Guidos and Guidettes could shed their cultural markers and pass as white – just as I could have told that birthday party mother that I’m not Asian – but we’re not going to and (I’ll speak for the Jersey Shore cast here, uninvited) more importantly … it would never occur to us to do it. Taking that out isn’t part of our calculation of our identity or our place in the world.

Two, I don’t think that Guidos and Guidettes need to understand Italian elements of culture, especially not contemporary Italian culture, in order to have their own cultural experience. If their families followed the typical pattern of immigration, they have been in the U.S. for generations, as both U.S. and Italian culture has changed significantly. They aren’t Italian, they are Italian-American. Italian-American is its own thing, linked to but not dependent on knowledge of actual Italy. It’s like my friend Akili, whose (African-American) grandmother was married to a Japanese-American man. Akili and I would talk about how the few words of Japanese we’d picked up weren’t used in Japan. He took Japanese in college and the instructor laughed at the archaic term for bathroom (benjo) that we had both used which, in actual Japan, would be like saying “water closet.” It doesn’t make the Japanese-American experience that Akili and I had wrong or archaic; it simply points out that we had a Japanese-American experience, not a Japanese one.

Still, if you ran into me and Akili on the street in DC in 1995, you would not have looked at us and thought, “Wow, those two just had a Japanese-American experience,” because, especially in DC, we would have looked like a black man and a white woman. Now, at this very moment, I realize that I never asked Akili if he preferred “black” or “African American” and now, as at so many other times, I am sad that there is yet another question I will never be able to ask him. He was classically descended-from-slaves African-American, as were most – but not all – of the people who looked like him in Washington DC. The assumption in DC was that you were either descended-from-slaves black or immigrant black and it was easy enough to tell which category you fit in when you opened your mouth to talk.

It’s not a good thing to assume, even though the upcoming census isn’t even going that deep. It isn’t listening to how black people to talk; they are just asking them to check the box about race and leave it at that. In light of that, black people of Caribbean descent are being asked by their community’s leaders to write in their nationalities on the upcoming U.S.Census. It’s like the skating commentators, telling us that the brown-skinned Australian isn’t that kind of brown-skinned Australian. She’s a subtler and less categorizable kind of person. Except that there are thousands of people of Caribbean descent in the U.S. and only one Chinese-African-American-Australian figure skating Olympian.

The census is one of my favorite things to think about in terms of my identity. I measure who I am against the questions in the census and the more easily I can answer it, the more I feel validated as an American. No, not validated, because I feel valid, but that the greatest bureaucracy recognizes that it’s possible for there to be a person like me. This news story says as much.

The wording of the questions for race and ethnicity changes with almost every Census, making room for the people who say, “I don’t see how I fit in exactly,” Census Bureau director Robert Groves told reporters in December. “This will always keep changing in this country as it becomes more and more diverse.”

The census questionnaire does not make a distinction between the terms “black” and “African-American,” but linguist John McWhorter recently made an argument that we should be using the term “African-American” to refer to people whose families immigrated to the U.S. after the end of slavery – and “black” should refer to people, like my friend A, are classically descended-from-slaves African-American.

Bless the Max Protect blog, jumping in to explain that “African-American” is a terrible term for immigrants from Nigeria, just as “European-American” sounds silly when you talk about someone of Italian descent.

That is to say, an immigrant from Nigeria is a Nigerian-American, just as one from Ireland is an Irish-American. Because the immigrant from Nigeria knows he is from Nigeria, he should be hailed accordingly. This recognizes two realities of geopolitical modernity: one, the importance of the formation of nation-states; and, two, that most black people born in the United States do not know precisely from where they come. This is how one distinguishes a descendant of slaves from an African immigrant from, say, Kenya: the former is an African American, the latter is a Kenyan American; whereas the Kenyan knows he from Kenya, the African American is from everywhere and nowhere in Africa at the same time.

This is an elaboration of an idea another online friend introduced to me a little while ago, that descendants of slaves preferred not to be called “black” and that term should be reserved for immigrants and children of immigrants. I’m not sure when that distinction made its way into common knowledge; it was new to me.

When I was a teenager, back in the 1980s, a bunch of women in my family were sitting around our kitchen table and my grandmother said something about Oriental people. She paused a moment. “I guess you are supposed to say Asian these days,” she followed up. She looked a little embarrassed, like I might have been if I called someone “black” when I should not have. For her, the important distinctions were between “Nihonjin” (Japanese) and “hakujin” (white), both words she used with much more frequency than “Oriental” or, for that matter, “Asian.”

Still, these are all big groups – black or African-American, Nihonjin or hakujin, Guidette, of Caribbean descent. There will come a time when there are so many people like me and MC and Cheltzie Lee that the census director has a really big problem. The point of the census is usable information, and a friend of mine says that the information about ethnicities on the 2000 census is difficult to navigate because it is so detailed. It’s an explosion of information, he says, and because there is so much it’s hard to figure out what it means. Just because it’s hard to use doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try, of course, but I do understand that as it gets ever more detailed it gets ever more difficult to use.

The thing that is amazing and unique about the census is that it is an attempt to count everyone. We see information all the time about populations and opinion polls and demographics. It’s all based on surveys and polls, small samples of the population that are assumed to be representative of the whole group. They are estimates. The census is a count. It’s a whole federal agency that is going to do its level best to reach every single person in the country, one at a time, and ask each of us a question: who are you?

A friend sent me a link to a bathroom sign that’s an alternative to the binary genderization of more traditional bathroom signs. It has something that looks like a female centaur on it. There’s also a mermaid. It says, “All Genders Welcome” and there’s nothing on it about a bathroom. If I could not read English – or even if I could – and I saw a door with that sign on it I would have no clue that it was a bathroom. If you put the sign next to the stylized man/woman symbols that indicate a bathroom, you’ve still got that problematic binary symbolism.

Because the thing is that there’s always going to be more. There’s a joke I saw – on Facebook, naturally – where people write GLBTQI (gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender-queer-intersex) and then they throw some random initial at the end, a K or a Z or whatever, and other people guess what it’s for. The census is going to have boxes to check for race and one of them is labeled “Black, African Am., or Negro” and some people – on the blogs, naturally – are a little put off that the federal government is using what they consider to be the archaic and perhaps slightly offensive “Negro.” The census people say that in the last census 50,000 people wrote in “Negro” so they wanted those people to feel included this time.

You could argue it both ways, that it’s important to make the people who call themselves “Negro” feel included or that you are going to turn off more people by using language that’s outdated and possibly offensive. You can also argue – and this is the argument that I am inclined to agree with – that there are a lot more things to worry about with the census than if they should use the term “Negro” or not. They are also offering a census form in Yiddish. I wonder if more people will use the Yiddish questionnaire or will feel included by having “Negro” there in the English.

There are two ways to be inclusive, and both of them are problematic. The first is the GLBTQI/Negro way, where you try to list every possibility so that everyone sees themselves in print. Eventually you get crazy-long and unruly lists like GLBTQIJKZ. Also, another group is going to emerge that you want to include as well so you have to make the list even longer. The second way is to come up with something neutral so that everyone might be covered by a single term. That’s how you get centaurs on the bathroom door.

There have been countless times when someone has asked me something about my husband and I say, “I’m married to a woman,” and the other person is embarrassed and apologizes for assuming. I tell them that it’s perfectly ok and I’m not offended at all. It’s true; I’m not offended. The world is heteronormative because most people are straight and it’s easy enough for me to explain who I am married to when it comes up. I have developed my own way to be vague. I’ll ask people some variation of, “Who is in your family?” and let them answer however they want. I thought I was being clever until someone asked me not to talk about “your family” because it was excluding single people.

I don’t think that anyone is ever going to get it right, because unless you ask me first there’s no way you are going to know that I prefer “queer” to “lesbian” and I would gladly use any bathroom, even if there’s a mermaid in the next stall. You can’t go around asking everyone individually before you print up the census form, so the best we can do is try to get the wording for other people as right as we know how, politely correct the people who mislabel us, and be gracious when we correct other people in the endless shifting tag cloud.

The old social scripts

November 3, 2009

A friend pointed me to this column by David Brooks in the NYT. My friend is vaguely amused at the middle-aged and unhip like myself who are hearing about Sex Diaries for the first time via his column.

Brooks is writing about (presumably) single New Yorkers who publish accounts of their romantic lives, and he’s focusing on the way people juggle multiple possible hook-up partners in an evening via carefully composed and timed text messages. They don’t want to commit to one until they are sure a better one isn’t going to be available later in the evening. Brooks doesn’t like this. He writes:

Once upon a time — in what we might think of as the “Happy Days” era — courtship was governed by a set of guardrails. Potential partners generally met within the context of larger social institutions: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families. There were certain accepted social scripts. The purpose of these scripts — dating, going steady, delaying sex — was to guide young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment

Over the past few decades, these social scripts became obsolete. They didn’t fit the post-feminist era.

My first problem is this: he’s laying responsibility for the shallowness of the hook-up on dead feminism?

Beyond that, I have deeper problems with his claim that the social institutions you are brought up in (the “neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families” he lists) are necessarily going to have a good partner for you. That works great if you want to marry (or hook up with) someone who is like you, who shares the culture, religion, values and experiences of your family of origin.

It made me think of my dad. When I was a young teenager he took our family to visit his family of origin in Alabama. One of his aunts mentioned a young woman he’d been engaged to in a way that spoke fondly of the young woman and gently disparagingly of my father for having broken off the engagement. I was shocked. I don’t think that my mother was present, but I was shocked that 20 years after the fact my father’s aunt was still dredging up this old issue, that she wanted him to marry a Jewish girl in Alabama and not my mom, from California and Japanese-American.

I am sure that if my dad had not married that particular Jewish girl from Alabama he might have married another one approved by his – as David Brooks lists – neighborhood, school, workplace or family. They might have had a perfectly nice family and a perfectly nice life. But he would not have moved to California, and my father loves California. He rids his bike through the Delta or up in the Sierras and he understands the watershed and the wildlife and the system of freeways. His wide understanding feeds his deep love for the landscape. He would have not had that if his choice of a wife had been constrained by the guardrails David Brooks remembers fondly.

It’s odd that Brooks attributes it to a “Happy Days” era. Young people have been making marriage choices more independently since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This is the whole plot of Fiddler on the Roof. It’s why San Francisco and Washington DC were filled with gay people in the 70s and 80s. They weren’t going to find the people they wanted to make long-term commitments with in their old neighborhoods. If they did find someone, their families and communities would not support their gay relationships. The “old social scripts” would never have served them.

The old social scripts, however, do serve me now. We’re getting ready to go to Thanksgiving with my extended family in Sacramento. For me growing up, they were precisely the guardrails Brooks is praising. I had to move away from them to find my gay identity and my wife. I also moved back to them once I acquired my wife and my first child because I wanted my children to be closer to their extended family. Now, I think, if you are gay there’s a good chance that you can stay inside the guardrails Brooks writes about and still be gay.

That would not have been possible if the gay people of previous generations had not broken away and made their own culture and community. The old culture and community, the one that could never have served gay people of a previous generation, the one that would not have served my father as well, seems great to the people who were served by it. I assume that David Brooks is one of those people who could be their full and happy selves inside the guardrails. For everyone who could not, I don’t know what Brooks had in mind.

At the conclusion, he writes:

This does not mean that young people today are worse or shallower than young people in the past. It does mean they get less help. People once lived within a pattern of being, which educated the emotions, guided the temporary toward the permanent and linked everyday urges to higher things. The accumulated wisdom of the community steered couples as they tried to earn each other’s commitment.

Today there are fewer norms that guide in that way. Today’s technology seems to threaten the sort of recurring and stable reciprocity that is the building block of trust.

He writes about “the accumulated wisdom of the community” as if it was a static thing. I wonder what he thinks is supposed to happen to you if you don’t fit into the existing “pattern of being.” And that whole last sentence – does he really think that if we couldn’t text people would not hook up, they would just go steady and wait until they get married to have sex?

The Rules, part 2

August 14, 2009

I remember ten years ago or more being in a committee meeting for the gay synagogue I belonged to at the time. We were talking about something – I don’t remember what, actually, but it was very contentious – and we voted and people kept talking about the issue, bringing it up again at the next meeting. One of the women got fed up and said, “We already decided this issue. We shouldn’t go back and debate it again. I’ve done that, been in communities where every decision is subject to renegotiation endlessly. There’s a reason we don’t do that anymore.” She was totally right and everyone in the room listened to her.

She was probably 20 years older than me. She had been, as Ellen and I said, “in the movement.” By that we meant that she had been active when “lesbian” and “feminist” were coming into their own together in the 70s. This woman had told me, with a laugh, that back then she went by the name Thunder. When she said that thing about endless renegotiation in the meeting, I knew that she was talking about that time. I’d bet that she got fed up with that way of functioning in a community around the time she went back to calling herself the name her parents gave her.

Today for the first time, I understood why, back when she was called Thunder, the women in her community felt the need to renegotiate everything endlessly. I got into this exchange with Shana about the arrangements we made with our wives about sleeping with other people. Ellen and I had a very specific one when we first met. Shana and her wife have one, too, even if they didn’t quite go through the negotiating process that Ellen and I did – but our mutual friend Elizabeth did. At the end of our conversation, I told Shana that I never called into use my agreement with Ellen. We agreed that we can’t really imagine wanting to sleep with other people, anyway.

Sexual fidelity is the kind of thing that used to be understood in marriage. There was only one way to handle it. There was no negotiation. Shana and I took for granted that it was ours to negotiate within the bounds of our individual marriages. When Thunder and her cohort were endlessly renegotiating everything to the point where community decisionmaking was constantly being undermined, they were reacting to the earlier state, when there was no negotiating, only one way to handle it. The one-way-only system didn’t work for them, so they thought the way to counteract it was to reject everything about it. Eventually Thunder and a bunch of other women figured out that constant renegotiation didn’t work so well, either and I could sit across from her at a committee meeting 20 years later and benefit from the wisdom she had gained the hard way.

I love my life. I love being in my life right now, where I can take for granted that the old rules don’t automatically apply to me – but I know most of them have some value. I know that marriage has to have some mutually-agreed-upon component of sexual fidelity. Shana and I are married to women and we call them “wives” – that’s how much we want to say “fuck you” to the old rules and how much credence we still give them.

“I want my America back,” someone said on the radio this afternoon, quoting a protester at one of the health care town hall meetings. You can take that a lot of ways, but I think the person means (even if they would not articulate it this way exactly) that they want to go back to a time when they knew what the rules were. They aren’t thinking that those rules didn’t work for everyone (leading to the adoption of names like Thunder), just that they find themselves confused by a world where everyone doesn’t have to follow the historical rules. They would feel more comfortable if it went back to a time when you could not renegotiate the rules.

That’s what the health care debate is about – a fundamental change in the way the rules have been understood for a long time. It’s as scary as women running corporations once seemed, as scary as gay people teaching elementary school, as scary as a black family living next door to a white family once seemed.

At every stage in my life I have been happy and excited to be me, right at this moment. When I came out in the early 90s, gay women were hip and exciting and Cindy Crawford was shaving k d lang on the cover of Vanity Fair. The census started letting you say that you were mixed race in 2000, the year I filled out a census form for myself for the first time. I’ve never had to fight the difficult fight. I’ve never been the first at anything but I’ve been early, in the first wave of people who are making a new identity. It’s always been the source of a lot of satisfaction in my life to be not the first courageous rule-breaker – but to surf in just after them, full of appreciation.

I feel happy because I know how to renegotiate the rules. I’ve been doing it my whole adult life. I also know that I can take control of my own re-negotiation and make it come out better for me.

Here’s what I don’t know how to do and I wish I could: I wish I could communicate to the people who say “I want my America back” that they can’t have it back – but they can have something that, after the renegotiation, is better than it was before. It’s not going to turn into the crazy anarchy-world Thunder eventually rejected where nothing is ever knowable. Thunder has already been there and we can benefit from her experience. I want to tell them that they can get in on the renegotiation, that renegotiation could make for stronger marriages, a more equitable economy, safer communities.

I have no idea how to say that, though, at least not in a way that doesn’t begin, “Back when the lesbian feminists were trying to overturn the patriarchy …” I know that’s not the way to reach them. I just don’t know what is.