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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Turns out tznius is just what it says on the tin

I remember being a self-styled feminist grappling with the whole issue of tznius, or modesty, when I was in high school in Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school. The dress code required us to wear tops that were not low-cut, with sleeves at least halfway to the elbow, and skirts to the knee. (For some mysterious reason, they allowed miniskirts in the 1960s, when I was in elementary school. I think during that period the emphasis was more on “modern,” less on “Orthodox.” But I digress. Sorta.)

When I wasn’t busy hating the dress code for keeping me out of jeans, I told myself that it was kind of cool, because it was more of an attack on the shallow vanity and materialism at the core of the Western feminine ideal than a means of oppressing women and making them culpable for male sexual appetites. We were not going to fall prey to the hypersexualized, Madison Avenue-promoted image of the perfect teenage girl. Nope. Our Jewish culture was above all that. We were too busy contemplating the nature of good and evil, or something. In fact, tznius was the most feminist thing ever.

Of course, in order to stick with that interpretation, I really had to close one eye and squint the other one. For one thing, tznius was only applied to girls. There was no equivalent concept for boys. The male dress code – button-down shirt and tie – had more to do with looking like other Upper East Side prep schools than with anything inherently Jewish, including tznius. Apparently, Judaism did not see fit to build in protections against fashion marketing for boys. And that extra eye-squint? That was to avoid noticing that plenty of Ramaz girls were serious clothes horses, which they managed quite comfortably without violating the dress code.

Which brings me to today, and this article from the desperate-to-be-relevant online Jewish publication, Tablet. It reminds me that, as one former Ramaz history teacher used to tell us, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The title really says it all: “This Fashion Week, Dress Modestly While Staying Stylish.” So much for resisting fashion hype. It turns out shallow vanity and materialism are actually okay, and we have the word of Hadar Magazine fashion editor Jessica Gugenheim on that.

But that’s not all. She also tells us: “I think modest dressing lends any woman an air of sophistication. I think modestly dressed women command more respect; they use their minds rather than sexuality to get things done.”

Yup. That’s your choice: cover up and be respected, or play the slut card.

If I hadn’t ditched the whole thing years ago, at this point I’d be shutting both eyes tight and sticking my fingers in my ears to make a go of it. That would make driving really hard.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Orwellian Irony of Common Core

How many decades will it be before we can have a productive, reasonable conversation about national standards in education? I think many, and here’s why: The biggest, most successful push to date for national standards was co-opted by the data junkies of the current education reform movement, who married the idea of national standards to the misbegotten notion that data from standardized tests should be used to reward and punish teachers, kids and schools.

That’s incredibly unfortunate. National standards, done well, could solve certain problems that plague public education, like the influence of local and regional extremists on what happens in the classroom, or the elimination of important subjects to make room for the pedagogical flavor of the day, or the sacrifice of valuable traditional skills on the altar of new technology. When you read about a state school board modifying the social studies curriculum to include American exceptionalism, the insertion of intelligent design into the science curriculum, sex education programs that teach only abstinence, books banned from classrooms for content relating to sexual orientation or atheism, the replacement of foreign language instruction with computer programming, or the elimination of civics classes from public schools, you wonder why there isn’t a mechanism to protect kids from the stupidity of their elders. As with civil rights and the environment, national standards for education would be less easily manipulated and could be a powerful tool for progress.

I hear the objection now: What if the forces of stupid take control of the national discourse, and all those terrible things become part of the national standard to be imposed on every kid throughout the land?

Which is exactly why national standards are not a no-brainer and need to be discussed in a reasonable way. Personally, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue, though I tend to think that, as with civil rights, the tendency of the nation as a whole is more trustworthy than certain regional proclivities.

But as things stand now, we can’t even hope to have that discussion, because the education-industrial complex has gotten its mitts on the whole idea and hijacked it as a way to sell tests, testing technology and test-prep materials; to beat up the unions by predicating decisions on teacher tenure and merit pay on the results of those tests; and to privatize public education by touting magic silver-bullet charter schools that churn out better test scores through drill-and-kill practices. The name of their strategy? Common Core.

Meanwhile, parents are waking up to the data-driven nightmare their schools have become after years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, federal programs that encouraged the ballooning of high-stakes standardized testing. They're waking up, and they are not happy. They've been watching their kids become nervous wrecks over tests; seen schools scrap art, music and other subjects that don't appear on the tests; heard from teachers who are being directed to teach to the tests; and seen good schools labeled as failures because of scores on the tests. Their ire is being directed at the Common Core and the new tests being introduced under it, even though the testing problem has been upon us for quite some time.

Also contributing to the growing public animosity is the fact that, in some part of the country, knee-jerk opposition to national standards in anything has become the norm, whether it has to do with education, public health, guns, or voters' rights. That's why the Tea Party mob is breaking out the pitchforks on Common Core. Note that, despite what Tea Partiers might think, Common Core is not a federal program, but a set of standards created in the hope that all states would adopt them, making them a de facto national standard. Also note the irony of Tea Party opposition; many of the same education-industry players who stand to make a mint out of Common Core, and therefore promoted the hell out of it, are also the people who fomented the Tea Party mentality. It's a wonder the Kochs and Waltons of America didn't see this coming.

So now, for a wide variety of often contradictory reasons, the people are starting to rise up against the Common Core. In the short term, that’s a good thing, because the whole project has become more about testing and related data-driven reform than about actual standards. The pushback from parents could slow the onrushing Common Core train, stanch the hemorrhaging of teachers from a system that imposes unreasonable demands on them, and generally throw a monkey wrench into the plans of those who would use data-driven reform to dismantle government-run public education. But the unfortunate collateral damage is that the underlying notion of national standards in education is now poison. A sensible endeavor by actual educators to formulate a workable standard that could promote academic excellence uniformly throughout the nation won’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell for quite some time.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Shaking Hands With Erma Bombeck

You know how in a nice restaurant, they serve you these beautifully arranged dishes of food that look like works of art? No misplaced glops of sauce near the edge of the plate, burnt bits scraped off the bottom of the pan, or stray bay leaves forgotten in the stew? Everything is absurdly neat and pretty – unlike anything you would dream of serving at home. Because these guys are professionals, right? Undoubtedly, a beautiful presentation makes dining out more fun, but what home cook is going to spend time and energy to create composed plates? We’re just happy when we manage to present delicious home-cooked meals served, as the restaurant critics like to call it, “family style.”

Similarly, when I go to a hotel, I expect everything to be immaculate: beds perfectly made, towels neatly folded, floors freshly vacuumed – basically, no sign anyone has ever lived in the room before me. But at home? Not so much. And then there’s hotel d├ęcor. Everything matches. The furniture is all from the same set. The rug matches the bedspread. The paintings even match the environment -- or suggest some other, more pleasant environment. (Beach hotel? Seashells! City hotel? Skyline! Ski chalet? Mountains! Middle-of-nowhere hotel by the side of the road? Paris!) But at home, I am content with a much smaller set of necessities: everything in basic working order, nothing so filthy or gross that I can’t look at it, comfortable places for my family to plunk our weary bones at the end of the day, and the stuff we’ve accumulated over the years that makes the house ours.

But unlike food presentation, the world seems to be full of people who value hotel-level perfection so much that they manage it at home, too. This is a complete mystery to me. Sure, it would be nice to live in that Good Housekeeping environment. But the amount of effort it would take? That, I can’t manage. In fact, I tried to come up with a fitting analogy – you know, something that would hold some appeal but would take way more effort that it’s worth. “Sure, a perfect home would be nice. So would ____________.” Trouble is, everything I came up with to fill in the blank seemed to beat perfect housekeeping hands down. Having a pony? Flying a hot-air balloon? Speaking Swahili? Becoming a champion watermelon seed spitter? Climbing Mount Everest? Growing wings and flying? All things I’d be way more willing to sink some serious time into.

So, without further ado, my list of ten things other people manage to have at home that I just…don’t.

1. Matching towels. I know, it wouldn’t be that hard to just go out and buy a stack of towels that are all the same. But then I’d have to figure out what to do with the closet full of towels I already have. Clear out more closet space? Too much effort. Throw away perfectly good towels? What a waste. Donate them to charity? I guess I could do that. But I could also just keep the towels I have and write a check so the charity can buy whatever they really need more than a stack of used towels.

2. Made beds. All of them, all at the same time, every single day. We all know the nightly problem with this one. The ultimate act of futility. What’s the point?

3. Empty kitchen counters. All that stuff people use multiple times a day, hidden away somewhere out of sight. No sign of salt, cooking oil or soy sauce, let alone balsamic vinegar or Sriracha. And then there are the appliances. Where do they put them all? If I wanted to put away my stand mixer, rice cooker, soda maker, blender, coffee grinder, etc., I’d have to build a new kitchen. Either that, or get rid of all the stuff that’s already in the cabinets. And how would I do that? I guess I could donate them…(see number 1 above).

4. Window treatments. I don’t mean shades or blinds that are useful for keeping out the sun or your neighbor’s curious gaze. We have those. (And we only lived in the house about a decade before getting them.) I mean those entirely decorative things. Big hunks of fabric that hang across the tops and sides of windows for the purpose of “tying a room together.” It’s a miracle my rooms don’t fly apart into a million pieces.

5. Closets that close completely. Y’know – without piles of crap getting in the way? Again, this is probably doable. All I’d have to do would be to clear out space in the basement and move some of the stuff down there. But to do that, I’d have to clear out space in the garage for the stuff that’s in the basement. And to do that, I’d have to…donate stuff from the garage? Hmmm.

6. Laundry that’s all done. I mean, at the same time. And folded. And put away. Days when the only dirty clothing in the house is what’s on my family’s backs. Nope, we don’t have those. Around here, laundry is one ongoing, never-ending process, with piles of stuff at every stage—dirty, washed but not folded, washed and folded but not put away, washed and folded and put away – coexisting peacefully. The U.N. could learn from us.

7. Filed papers. Like the laundry, filing is an ongoing process. The last time every piece of paper was in its appropriately labeled folder inside a filing cabinet was probably the day we got our very first apartment. So…late ‘80s sometime?

8. Stuff that makes the air smell good. Sure, we have that from time to time, in the form of good smells coming from the kitchen. But I mean all those little tricks people use to make their houses smell good all the time. Sprays, plug-ins, candles, potpourri. Once every blue moon I decide maybe we could have at least that much. How hard could it be? You just buy something and plug it in or shpritz it or light it. A year later, we have empty, discolored plastic things sticking out of the outlets, or empty cans sitting on the backs of all the toilets, or lumps of melted, cinnamon-scented paraffin on the end tables. And speaking of things that smell good…

9. Cut flowers. This is one I would love to get the hang of. I may not give a damn about window treatments, but I do love flowers. This, too, I have tried. And I have the vases full of withered stems and slimy water to prove it.

10. A bowl of candy that actually has candy in it. For more than ten minutes.

Of course, I could probably have made a good start on any one of the above in the time it took me to write this…

Come to think of it, there is one thing I could get rid of that would make me feel really good about my home. Guilt.