Thoughtful Revolution


A Little Shakespeare

There are a handful of things that I believe are incontrovertibly worth saying about Shakespeare.

I’m not talking biographical details, or trivia — though it’s certainly interesting that Shakespeare passed away on his 52nd birthday (the same day that, across the ocean, Miguel de Cervantes died), or that he famously willed his wife his “second-best bed,” or that his most famous detractor was killed by a dish of spoiled pickled herring, none of those factoids are critical to an understanding of Shakespeare.

10. Shakespeare wrote for voices, not eyes.
In a number of Elizabethan grammar schools, teachers would have their students perform plays, usually morality parables or tales from Greek mythology, as a way of quietly forcing them to learn and understand the material. Whatever else might be said about the critically flawed Renaissance-era school system, I think this is an absolutely brilliant idea. I’m not saying that every class on Shakespeare must begin with a performance — though I wouldn’t turn that down — but any teacher who refers to “Julius Caesar” as a “book” and assigns readings, or who begins and ends an entire Shakespeare course without forcing students to act any of the text, ought not to be teaching Shakespeare. Textual interpretation for playwrights is based so much on the realities of human voices and rhythms; after all, the plays were written as such. It’s much, much easier to understand Shakespeare when you’re not only reading it aloud, but reading it with appropriate passion — suddenly, meanings flow out of inflection and movement that would have been undetectable on the page. Expecting students to understand Shakespeare while treating him like a novelist is like expecting students to understand “Moulin Rouge” from an in-depth silent reading of the screenplay: it’s counterintuitive.

9. There’s no reason Shakespeare should be anyone other than Shakespeare.
Some people may insist that Shakespeare wasn’t William Shakespeare, a grammar-school-educated glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon; he was instead Francis Bacon, or Edward de Vere, or Christopher Marlowe, or (I swear to God I’ve heard this) Queen Elizabeth herself. This is a ridiculous belief. There is a good deal of evidence, beginning with the conveniently similar name, that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. There is no evidence whatsoever that Shakespeare was anyone other than Shakespeare, and the evidence provided is either fudged (e.g. theories that have Marlowe writing “Hamlet” after his confirmed date of death) or cryptic enough that it could prove anything from Shakespeare’s secret homosexuality to Shakespeare’s past life as a potato. As such, it is — like Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny, or, say, Bertrand Russell’s invisible teapot — impossible to rationally disprove, as it is so based in fervent anti-realistic faith that no argument will sway it. And what could possibly be the motivation for such a faith? Why on earth would so many aristocrats, public intellectuals and “beautiful people” steadfastly believe that a middle-class, public- and self-educated prole could never be the real Shakespeare, despite largely irrefutable evidence? Why, when pressed to offer new candidates, are those candidates always moneyed, titled Renaissance celebrities, and not artisans or priests or schoolteachers or even actors? Guess.

8. Shakespeare loved spectacle.
And that doesn’t mean you can’t do a minimalist production of Shakespeare — far from it. Some of the best Shakespeare shows I’ve seen were minimalist; some of the worst were as lavish as shows can be. Spectacle need not be based in money: it can be music, or dance, or “performance art,” or the frantic waving of 75-cent sheets of colored cotton. And Shakespeare, even with his set-less, effect-less venue, wrote a tremendous amount of spectacle into his plays, and to deny that spectacle when it appears is to deny a quintessential element of Shakespearean writing. If you’re doing it consciously, to subvert the general spectacular conventions of “Cymbeline” or “Pericles” or what have you, the more power to you; if you’re just doing it because spectacle doesn’t seem right on a modern stage, you really should be directing another playwright’s play. Shakespeare, in part because of his mistreatment onstage, has come to seem dry, stuffy, devoid of visual beauty. He — this man who filled Twelfth Night with music, who ordered ships to wreck onstage and statues to come alive and gods to descend from the heavens — would be furious.

7. Shakespeare loved sex.
There is nothing I can say about this except: When the Victorians held up Shakespeare as an exemplar of morality, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

6. Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. There is no evidence to determine which. — paraphrased from Stephen Booth.
We can assume nothing. The sonnets, though beautiful pieces of writing, cannot count as historical proof; they are an assortment of love poems to people whose identities we will never know. We don’t know if he was in love with the Dark Lady or the Fair Youth or the Rival Poet. We don’t know if their genders were changed, or their situations fudged for artistic merit, or if they existed at all. They could have been the crepuscules of a brilliant mind. One thing is certain: we cannot take stereotypes and vague poetic hints as concrete evidence that Shakespeare “swung” one way or the other.

6. Despite his little “Richard II” slip-up,* Shakespeare displayed amazing political savvy.
Why is Henry Tudor a god and Richard III a monster? Because Henry Tudor was Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather. One thing is certain: Shakespeare knew how to choose a subject. Note that he conveniently saved “Henry VIII” until after Elizabeth’s death, and avoided all historical subject matter that might defame the Tudors, instead opting for patriotic material and the occasional bit of revisionism. This behavior wasn’t restricted to Elizabeth’s reign: King James was Scottish, and “Macbeth” was born. And our playwright was a favorite of both rulers. Well played, Mr. Shakespeare.

* After a performance of “Richard II,” a play in which a philosophical but ineffective ruler is violently deposed, Elizabeth famously said “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” and demanded an audience the troupe. We don’t know what happened in that audience, but luckily, if heads rolled, they weren’t the actors’.

5. Just because Harold Bloom disagrees with them doesn’t mean they’re worthless.
The famous curmudgeon may claim that those demon Marxist-feminist-multicultural-revisionist-neo-historicist critics today are destroying Shakespeare, but that says more about Harold Bloom than the state of contemporary Shakespeare criticism. Modern critics — even (or, I might say, especially) those peering at Shakespeare through a specific lens — have breathed new life into a stagnating discipline powered by professorial white men; whether or not you concur with their perspectives on Shakespeare, writers like Gary Taylor and Gail Kern Paster have raised points and provided food for thought that thoroughly energized the field. (And everyone interested in history and/or literature should read Taylor’s revolutionary Reinventing Shakespeare, a fabulous, though surely not Harold Bloom-approved, upending of what we might call “the Shakespeare myth.” It may not always be easy to agree with, but it’s an excellent read.) Harold Bloom… well, he will always be Harold Bloom, and he will always feel it his responsibility to bring back the good old Victorian days. It’s nothing but a fancy. Let it pass.

4. Shakespeare’s tragedies were funny, and his comedies were sad.
It’s one of his great virtues as a writer (and, while working on Ariel Dorfman’s relentlessly high-drama “Death and the Maiden,” one comes to appreciate it even more) — he calls life as he sees it. And his situations may be exaggerated, and they may be far beyond anything we plebeians will ever experience, but they have those little elements of emotional variation that ring true. No life is pure tragedy, or pure comedy; there will always be a drunk doorman to greet you after the murder, or a nasty rumor to spoil the fun of a new relationship, or a friend spitting potty jokes into the face of death. So it is in Shakespeare.

3. Shakespeare’s women were ahead of their time.
He wasn’t, of course, the first writer to give us an engaging heroine — the Greeks supplied a few, even if they were often closer to ciphers than fully fleshed characters. Still, he created the first real female characters in Renaissance drama. Cleopatra, Rosalind, Imogen, Isabella, Beatrice all dominate the worlds they inhabit; many more of the women he wrote, Lady Macbeth and Juliet being prime examples, are equal to the men in personality, humor, intelligence, character. Virginia Woolf was the first to point out how unusual, and how extraordinary, this was. After all, Shakespeare drew these remarkable stage women at a time when real women were forcibly kept illiterate and treated as their husbands’ property, and where the women of literature (despite Queen Elizabeth’s prominent presence) were universally chaste sex objects or broad, low-comedy wives. Shakespeare saw more variety and depth in women than an entire culture could, and this leap of faith in itself would be enough to rank him in our literary canon.

2. Shakespeare wasn’t perfect.
He was a decidedly privileged inhabitant of a decidedly insular world; as such, we cannot expect him to be immune from the prejudices of his day. He was certainly racist. He was arguably an anti-Semite, though a convincing argument can be made either way. He had that peculiar bourgeois attitude wherein he hated money and its “corrupting influence” but set absolute faith in the class system; he was classist and a philosophical proponent of divine right. He believed — or so his writings would imply — that nobles were inherently more graceful, more beautiful, on the whole better people than poorer folk. (The rural poor are not, as some would argue, exempt; he romanticizes their pastoral lifestyle while simultaneously portraying them as dolts, oafs, clowns undeserving the paradise they inhabit.) This doesn’t invalidate contemporary readings of his work; we have the right to subvert the text, or to reinterpret it. Such is a benefit of theater. But, in the general absence of evidence for the defense and profusion of evidence for the prosecution, we can’t assume that he originally spoke in irony or in sympathy, no matter how much we would like to.

1. Shakespeare is our most underrated poet. — Stephen Booth
And that is a fact.

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San Francisco: Day 1 (12/17)

We interrupt this program to bring you: The San Francisco Travelogue!

As many of you know, I was recently in San Francisco for approximately a week.  Over the course of the next week I will endeavor to post daily entries describing one day each of my trip; I hope this will be vaguely entertaining, or at the very least tolerable.  I may post some Deep Thoughts in addition, but my after-the-fact travel diary will remain regular.

I’m actually starting here with day 0, seeing as our traveling began the day before we reached San Francisco, then proceeding to day 1.  Forgive me for the inconsistency.

12/16: I packed my bags, slipped behind the wheel, and pulled out of the driveway almost immediately after my Spanish exam; we reached the Dulles airport just before dinner.  It being the week before Christmas, we were deluged by carols on arrival — including “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” which would quickly become a theme throughout our travels.*  After a long ordeal at the security counters and a swift bite at Chipotle (vegetarian burrito with black beans, rice, grilled peppers and onions, tomato salsa, corn salsa, and guacamole, with half a shared pineapple smoothie from Greenleaf’s on the side; for those of you who care, I will try to describe my meals in as elaborate detail as possible, even without awesome photos) my father and I boarded our flight.

The ride that followed was remarkably uneventful, especially when compared to our return trip; suffice it to say that it included a minute sliver of study time, a whole lot of iPod time, a book of Doris Lessing’s essays, and free club soda.  (I could write an entire post on either of the latter, but particularly Lessing; she is a brilliant, well-read critic and analyst who gets a number of things royally, dumbfoundingly wrong.  She is also one of those writers who laments the “scourge of political correctness” without either defining her terms or backing up her statements with any kind of evidence.  But that’s another story.)  The highlight of our trip?  When changing flights in Minneapolis, the temperature was — in the pilot’s own words — “a toasty nine degrees Fahrenheit.”   Snow had accumulated inside the tunnels between planes.

We arrived at the San Francisco airport around 12:30 Pacific time (3:30 Eastern time) and just made the hotel’s final Complimentary Courtesy Shuttle.  The next morning

12/17: we woke up in South San Francisco Industrial City — no kidding, that’s the name of the town.  It’s splayed across the prominent hills in Hollywood sign-esque letters — and had breakfast at IHOP, the least egregious of the many chain restaurants that studded the streets around our Comfort Inn.  My dad ordered gingerbread pancakes, an enormous holiday-themed platter that came with hash browns and sodden scrambled eggs; I had the surprisingly good Garden Crepes, which (ordered without the toxic-waste-like Hollandaise sauce) consist of thin, slightly sweet crepes wrapped around scrambled veggies and Provolone cheese.  Thus sated, we headed back to the airport and took the BART train into San Francisco proper.

On the BART, it is worth noting, we spent the entire time puzzling out a mysterious red advertisement:

“Jacques Binet could have read this.  Can you?
tq-gj*Z\YC=”

Neither of us, needless to say, found the answer — in part because (spoiler alert!) we were barking up the wrong Binet.  If any of you can, please feel free to comment, and I’ll worship you forever if you get it right.

From the windows of the train, San Francisco looks much bigger than it is.  This may be a fluke of the hilly terrain, or the colorful, eye-catching houses, or the route that the BART takes through the city; nonetheless, the city seems to sprawl out endlessly in all directions.  It’s one of America’s smallest Big Cities, measuring in at only 49 square miles (7×7), and that size was abundantly clear while walking later in the trip — and yet, for that moment, we were surrounded from all sides, as far as the eye can see, by San Francisco.

We got off the train at the Civic Center stop and stashed our bags at the hotel: a Holiday Inn, cheap, convenient, and centrally located.  From there, we decided to take an exploratory stroll of the area and were quickly drawn in by City Hall.

San Francisco’s City Hall is among the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen, and though I really haven’t seen that many buildings I count that as high praise — especially when you take into account that the entire thing was destroyed by one earthquake, rebuilt, then critically damaged by another.  (It is now officially “earthquake-proof,” meaning that, like many of San Francisco’s other impressive buildings, it can sway and pivot in case of seismic disturbance.  Personally, I don’t find this too comforting.)  The inside is no less awe-inspiring: built entirely out of pink marble, its primary feature is the steep, Cinderella-style staircase that dominates the rotunda.  This flight of stairs is a popular location for school trips, choral concerts and weddings (the latter as much because of the dirt-cheap rental fee as the beauty); accordingly, in our hour-long City Hall sojourn, we witnessed a school choral concert and two different weddings.  City Hall offers free guided tours on the half-hour, which we hadn’t known going in but were very pleased to learn.  While the docents may be uneven in skill and experience, the politics and general background of the spot were absolutely fascinating, and the guided nature of the tours allow for access to areas that ordinary tourists wouldn’t see.  Case in point: the mayor’s office, where George Moscone served until his assassination in 1978.  Busts of Moscone and Harvey Milk were prominently featured on the building’s upper floor, and though the Supervisor’s Office where Milk worked and died is closed to the public, one got the sense that many of the City Hall visitors had come in part to pay their respects.

After the tour, we continued with our walk; from one of City Hall’s uppermost windows, we’d seen an odd building bearing the legend “TRUTH” and wanted to investigate.  Turns out that TRUTH was just TRUTH, painted in massive black and white letters on what appeared to be a defunct boardinghouse.  After walking a few more blocks, we stopped for lunch at Soup Freaks — a disappointment in my book.  This restaurant, which claims to specialize in soups of all kinds, only had one meatless soup, and in our quest to split a meal that would sustain us we were forced to order a sandwich in addition.  Unacceptable, though the tomato bisque was quite good (the mozzarella-arugula-pesto sandwich, not so much), and the pitcher behind the counter had cucumber floating in the water, giving the water a cool, fresh taste.

We proceeded to walk for two or three miles, going in a wide square around Yerba Buena Gardens and only stopping when we hit a large highway; despite its peripheral proximity to the famously funky Mission District, the area we found ourselves in was swank, manicured and studded with museums.  It was also the home of San Francisco’s resident art school, and as such was overrun by young adults in startingly hip outfits, many of which were clearly DIY.  (Looking down at my blue jeans, green Power Shift T-shirt, quickly deteriorating corduroy jacket, and Payless boots, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of embarrassment.)  Coffee shops were in abundance, particularly independent ones and small chains; after spending much of my life in DC, this came as a surprise.

Finally, we stopped in Yerba Buena Gardens: large, green, very pretty, unabashedly touristy in parts, and with a lovely independent arts gallery/center.  After a quick rest in the sun and some deliberation, we ducked into the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which far exceeded both our expectations.  The museum, far from the simplistic Jewishness-in-140-word-captions approach I’d feared, thankfully steered away from the “summarize Judaism and its millennia of history” challenge entirely and chose to feature interesting snippets, well-curated and in depth, of Jewish life.  A thoughtful exhibit on Maurice Sendak, full to the brim with interviews and original sketches, explored the influence of Sendak’s own family and beliefs on his work; a room bearing the title “Jews on Vinyl” invited visitors to listen to thousands of Jewish-themed records, both by Jewish and non-Jewish artists, and as such provided an unorthodox exploration of the American Jewish experience.  And finally, the museum recently commissioned a local artist to write an entire Torah scroll; the exhibit that followed, combining information about the creation of a Torah with firsthand testimony from the scribe herself and modern artistic interpretations of the text, was a revelation.

Hungry and tired (and still stuck in Eastern time), we walked back to the hotel, first stopping for dinner at the excellent Ananda Fuara.  An all-vegetarian restaurant run by followers of Sri Chinmoy, Ananda Fuara is one of the most popular vegetarian eateries in San Francisco — and, in general, a bargain.  My father ordered a rather disappointing vegetable curry with rice, served with the best mango chutney that either of us had ever tasted; I opted for the “neatloaf,” a delicious, if visually unappealing, tofu concoction served with gravy-laced mashed potatoes and an exceptionally fresh side salad.

And that was that.  We went back to the hotel, relaxed.  The amazing value of the hotel rooms created a virtual two-for-the-price-of-one deal, so we each had our own room; this luxurious privacy, coupled with a welcome independence from my father’s snoring, lulled me to sleep in minutes.

To be continued!


A Brief Summation of the Days Since We Last Spoke

24 days, to be exact.

In that time I’ve literally circled the country, if only from the detached vantage point of an airplane window. I’ve visited family, spent time with friends, and mounted a full-length Shakespeare play in a week. I’ve gone swimming in December, nearly fallen off a cable car, passed judgment on Doris Lessing, sampled the mysteriously named, vaguely Furby-like Gluten Puff. I read ad nauseam about the attempted bombing of a flight en route to Detroit, and grew very, very sick of the general nastiness that ensued.

And I didn’t read nearly enough, didn’t write a single song, fell down on my newfound jogging routine. I was lonely every so often. I lost my official D.C. credentials, having missed our grandest snowstorm in more than 60 years. I gained a handful of pounds from sheer miserable inactivity. I didn’t find a job. My deepest thoughts were confined to food and a few flimsy theories on the gender binary.

Still, all in all, I’ve had a good time.

Over the course of the next few weeks I will provide you with a San Francisco travelogue, a chronicle of a drastically accelerated dramatic process, and (hopefully) a few worthwhile insights along the way. You’ll see the usual comments on sexism, classism and education reform, not to mention food and music and a post on body image and “lifestyle activism” that has been months in the making. In the meantime, welcome back; please continue to send me ideas, responses, and whatever strikes your fancy.


Musings on Chanukah

*

No one knows how much of the Chanukah story is fact. General consensus, scientific and otherwise, has it that the “miracle of the oil” never came to pass. It is established that there were Maccabees; it is established that they were revolutionaries. It is not established that they were heroes. According to modern scholars, the Maccabees’ quest may have been a quest for religious orthodoxy and not freedom from Syrian rule, a conflict not between liberation and oppression but between — as the author of the Second Book of Maccabees himself writes — “Judaism” and “Hellenism.” The brunt of the Maccabees’ force was initially directed at assimilated Jewish “collaborators,” and the bigoted, grossly incompetent Antiochus became the story’s centerpiece villain only when he stepped in too far on the side of the Hellenists, prohibiting Jewish practices in a chess move that would backfire on his head for all time. After the guerrilla war was waged in full force, the Syrian-backed Hellenists defeated, and the brief period of Hasmonean rule began, many of the victorious Maccabees sought imperialist campaigns of their own. Judah Maccabee, in particular, hoped to conquer lands with sizeable Jewish populations and convert the rest of their inhabitants. History is nothing but an amalgam of pop culture and oral tradition, the detritus of fact and the gems of self-aggrandizement, a collection of myths propped up on the discovery of a decomposing tibia or a hairpin someone threw away. It changes with the winds and the generations only peripherally; at its core it is oddly persistent. We think we are above mythology, and yet we cling to our creation myths with a shared and righteous fervor. We do not know our ancestors.

**

On Chanukah we fry things. Latkes and sufganiyot fill Ashkenazi skillets, and American preschools from Augusta to Los Angeles. Other traditions bring zucchini fritters, beef and leek patties, ricotta-stuffed pancakes, fried dough balls soaked in milk and rosewater, stuffed peppers, borekas, kibbeh, donuts stuffed with dulce de leche. There is no one smell that screams Chanukah across the world; there is no one taste, no one texture. The prayers hit our ears differently in Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires — the melodies vastly diverge, and the accents each lend the words their own unique tinge. The only universal earthy appeal we have on the night of Chanukah is the most mundane, isolated in a corner of the kitchen, consigned to what has traditionally been the women’s realm: the sound of newly poured oil crackling on the griddle.

***

Chanukah is a minor holiday in the Jewish canon. It was elevated to its current status mostly because of its proximity to Christmas.

When I was in elementary school, no one asked anyone what faith they practiced. Instead, the question was, “do you celebrate Christmas, or Chanukah?”

****

I always try to spell Chanukah C-h-a-n-u-k-a-h. The other spellings don’t quite cut it for me; I’ve never bought the substitution of H for Ch, the verbal assimilation of a Hebrew word. And the double K’s in the alternate spellings overstate that consonant’s power: the K should pale in comparison to the first grand guttural onslaught of the Ch, or the booming depth of the first A. It is the first syllable — the Cha — that rings out like a shofar, that calls a people to attention; to weaken its pronunciation is to weaken its power, and to sublimate it beneath the afterthought of the “kah” is to demean it entirely. (I also try to pronounce “latke” as “lat-kuh” instead of “lat-key,” but maybe that’s just me.)

*****

Sometimes I like to let my fingers close to the Chanukah flames, even singeing the calluses on the tips of my fingers, just to see what it feels like. My mother sets down foil so that the mantelpiece will not stain beneath the chanukiyot. My parents ask me not to lean over the candles — my hair will catch a spark and burn. I play with tiny drops of hot wax, letting them adhere to my hand, both for the color and for the stinging, oddly comfortable warmth.

******

In our most basic traditions, there are two persistent icons: food and fire. On a primal level it makes sense — Judaism stems from a period in the unimaginable past, a period where the dearth of light could be as frightening as starvation, could be explained as the wrath of an angry God. The beginning of our day of rest is signified by the lighting of candles, and so is the end. Our Chanukiyot are placed in our windows, fulfilling a commandment to share the beams of light with the world. Even our Passover seders, in the sunny peak of spring, begin with candles and prayers. And of course, in the first few centuries, there were the ultimate lights: the altar flames of animal sacrifices, sending not just their aroma but their illumination up to the heavens.

And yet, these little self-contained fires nestle themselves in the back of their minds, long since replaced by fires that rage and consume despite our best efforts. When I think of fire in the Jewish iconography my mind jumps not to the Shabbat table but to the Eleh Ezkerah, the Yom Kippur martyrology, where malicious flames are omnipresent. Earlier in the service we repeat the line “And who by fire;” in the Eleh Ezkerah, we are given an all-too-literal answer to a rhetorical question. Rabbi Akiva and his students, allegedly burned by Roman imperialists, wrapped in the Torah scrolls they studied. The victims of the Inquisition and of other European heretic-hunts, set afire and forced to suffer for two or more hours at the stake. Whole villages razed by soldiers in the employ of the czar, fires that struck seemingly at random and with devastating force. And, most resonant in modern memory, the countless victims of the Holocaust. Synagogues have burned, and shops, and private homes. Fire is inescapable and terrifying, and now that electric lights fill our homes and electric stoves heat our food it rarely has the redeeming value of being needed. Somehow, still, it is lovely to look at — but it is a new sort of loveliness, the sort of loveliness that moves you to sobs in silent moments, a light that is sad and dangerous and painful but still has a way of sending a shiver of beauty rippling through a dark room.

*******

Chanukah music is joyous and rowdy. With the exception of the venerable chestnut Maoz Tzur and a handful of children’s songs, it does not recant old tales, or even pray. Even its most ethereal minor-key ballads revel in earthy pleasures: the pleasures of bright lights, and good food, and drink, and games, and family, even the snow lit up by the glow of the chanukiyah. In the spring and summer and fall, we reflect; in the winter, we dance. We humans have always staved off early nights and bone-chilling cold by retreating to our most visceral comforts — and even with our central heating systems and constant light, somehow, we still continue.

********

I do not receive lavish presents for Chanukah. I have never gotten an iPod, or a digital camera, or a glistening new cellphone. I have always been given the gift of books.


How to Criticize Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic (A Basic Primer)

First of all: I know I changed the Thoughtful Revolution look. Again. This will be the last time, I swear — but I didn’t want people to mix me up with Quixotess’s far superior site.

Anyway. As an active member of an active Jewish community, I hear a lot of discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and about its representation by media outlets and arbiters of public opinion. Accusations of anti-Semitism are routinely slung, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. Almost everyone in our synagogue seems to accept paraphrased variations on a basic mantra: “legitimate criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic.” Such a statement is a cipher, vague enough that everyone who hears it can graft on a convenient meaning. What constitutes legitimate criticism, and who gets to decide? And if legitimate criticism is “not necessarily” anti-Semitic, some of it is implicitly anti-Semitic, and… therefore illegitimate? As much as these may sound like meaningless semantics, in a debate that hinges so often and so heavily on word choice — or, more broadly, “fact choice” — they are questions worth asking. I will try to answer them.

Let it be said that my definitions are subjective. My family members will certainly say that they encompass too little, while many of my friends may label them too broad. I am setting out the basic protocol for discussing the conflict in front of me, and while I happen to think that my rules are fairly good ones, not everyone will agree with me — so if this post causes a mashed-potato-slinging catastrophe at your next family gathering, don’t blame me.

1. Standards.
It’s the most elementary idea in the book: judge a nation on its own merits. That doesn’t mean that historical context or internal discrimination or myriad other variables can be taken out of the picture; it means that those variables should be weighed as they would be weighed for any other country. Basically, allowing the fact that the dominant religion in question is Judaism should not affect the standards by which Israel is evaluated. This doesn’t only go for conventional anti-Semitism per se, the kind that might judge Israel negatively because of a negative opinion of Jews. No, this is applicable to any school of thought that applies blanket statements about Jews to a judgment about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whether or not it is a favorable judgment.
Acceptable: Applying impartial standards to Israel and finding it wanting.
Unacceptable:: Applying different criteria, either laxer or more stringent, to Israel based on an opinion of Judaism. Saying that “Israel is honorable because the Jews are honorable” is as unacceptable as “Israel is repugnant because the Jews are repugnant.” Likewise, it is unacceptable to criticize Israel because we Jews ought to be “a beacon unto nations,” or morally superior in any way; this is a trap that is unfortunately popular in the progressive Jewish community. “Positive” stereotypes are as problematic as explicitly nasty ones (though that’s another post).

2. Hyperbole.
It’s a question of common sense: don’t blow things out of proportion. Especially when those things happen to fall under the category of “age-old anti-Semitic trope.”
Acceptable: “AIPAC has an undue influence on American reactions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Unacceptable:“AIPAC controls U.S. foreign policy/the government/the media.”

3. Inappropriate conflation.
I have said it before and I will say it again: Judaism ≠ Israel.  Jews ≠ Israel.  Individual Jewish friends or acquaintances ≠ Israel.  To accuse “the Jews” of screwing shit up in the Middle East, or to say that Judaism is racist because some policies of the Israeli government have been, is to reduce a vastly diverse and multifaceted religion (and one that predates the State of Israel by millennia) to the actions of one infitesimal sub-sub-sector of its population. And that is neither fair nor logical.
Acceptable: “Israel oppresses Palestinians.”
Unacceptable: “The Jews oppress Palestinians.”

4. Pseudo-psychology.
Along the lines of the whole blanket-generalization issue. I have enough psychological qualms of my own; I don’t need an entire new pack of “syndromes” attributed to me because of my membership in a certain religious group. And when someone accuses Israel of Stockholm syndrome or other oppression-related disorders — because they’re Jewish, and all Jews suffer from Stockholm syndrome, and all Jews would reflect that vaguely defined Stockholm syndrome in a position of power — the effect is frustrating on multiple levels. It posits that the oppressive policies enacted by the Israeli government stem directly from their Jewishness (as opposed to privilege, or power, or other factors that have been reflected identically in a whole hell of a lot of non-Jewish countries), which I think has a somewhat self-explanatory place on the anti-Semitism meter. It refuses to take into account the existence of Jews outside of the context of Israel, Jews who to my knowledge have not uniformly displayed signs of Shoah-related “disorders.” It’s condescending, and ableist, and an intellectually masturbatory derailing of knowledgeable discussion. And it, at the most basic level, disqualifies Jews from holding any leadership positions: because whether as government officials or CEOs or drama teachers or high school newspaper editors, we just wouldn’t be able to stop ourselves from harming our underlings, because history has irrevocably screwed us up, and that’s that.
Acceptable: “It’s wrong for the IDF to commit acts of torture.”
Unacceptable: “The IDF soldiers learned it from their grandparents.”

5. A few other assorted thoughts.
Okay, so, first of all: The Holocaust is not an appropriate metaphor. Ever. Not when critics of Israel use it, and not when Abe Foxman uses it. It was genocide, not a ready-made rhetorical device, and I am personally offended when it becomes a new, shiny feature of political speech. That’s as trivializing as it gets.

Also. What do you mean when you call the state of Israel illegitimate, or use words like “destroyed” or “dissolved?” If you want a more liberal, secular, democratic, accepting Israel, one that is “the Jewish state” rather than “a Jewish state,” and one that does not use politically decreed Jewishness as a reason to suppress non-Jewish populations, I’ll buy that absolutely. But if by “destroyed” or “dissolved” you mean actually rendered nonexistent, your point seems moot at best and poisonous at worst. Look, the state of Israel exists, and will likely continue to exist in our lifetimes. And if you don’t like that, feel free to consider its “destruction;” think about it in terms of violence, if you must. But also consider your feelings about Canada, and the U.S., and Australia, and myriad other countries built on the displacement of indigenous people. And if you can only muster up destruction-worthy feelings about Israel, shame on you. It’s wonderful to work for an end to the occupation and discrimination espoused by Israeli policies; it’s wonderful to encourage education campaigns and anti-racist work and initiatives to improve Israel as we know it. But advocating for the destruction of Israel, as opposed to integration and change (and a right of return for all Palestinians, and a public excoriation of Avigdor Lieberman, and so on), is not only futile and counterproductive but raises some serious questions about your motivations.

For insightful posts on the subject from someone far older and wiser than myself, check out this site: http://modernmitzvot.wordpress.com/. The author is a wonderful writer and a joy to read, even as she grapples with issues as diverse from Judaism to capitalism to the “War on Christmas.” If you hadn’t guessed by now, I’d sort of like to be her when I grow up.


November, November

If you only read this blog for the dispassionate criticism, read no further. This will be as self-centered and solipsistic as a single blog entry can get.

Things I did over the month of November:

– See a couple of good plays.
– Ace two math tests.
– Ace a Spanish test.
– Eat.
– Sleep.
– Go running.
Find a couple of great blogs.
– Read the newspaper daily, and kvetch about it immediately after.
– See “An Education” twice, and dislike it each time.
– Get a 190/195 on the Sporcle “Countries of the World” quiz.
– Make myself at least sporadically happy.

Things I did not do in the month of November:
– Complete a NaNovel.
– Finish reading Timothy Ferris’s The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report.
– Write poetry.
– Keep my blog consistently updated.
– Get an internship.
– Lose 15 pounds.
– Find sufficient social outlets.
– Wean myself off Facebook.
– Understand anarchism/its appeal.
– Do anything for the world.
– Attend a protest.
– Create things independently.
– Learn something new.
– Have a single worthwhile insight.
– Turn my life around to a significant degree.

The facts speak for themselves.

Over the last three years, I’ve never — never — felt so dissatisfied with a single month. So I’m no longer spending my mornings in tears. Screw that. I should be. My motivation level has dipped below zero: I may be happy, but I’m inert. I spend too much of my time reading online feminist publications, which would be fine if I was actually learning anything about feminism or current events; instead, I’m learning to be constantly jealous of more insightful, eloquent and powerful people than myself, or at the very least reinforcing that tendency. I am tired and bloated and sick of lying curled up on my couch, but I have nowhere to go, and nothing to do. I’d always thought it was ageist when people claimed that self-education would inevitably look like this. I may have to reevaluate my opinion.

If I were in school right now, I’d be getting less sleep. I’d be overworked and deluged in simplistic propaganda. I would be too exhausted to exercise, and inclined to eat even less healthfully than I do now. I’d be trapped between the cogs of the college admissions machine. Goddammit,Grace Llewellyn, I understand this. But I’d also have friends, and boundaries, and a constant flow of information. I’d have a school musical in the afternoons, and a Women’s Advocacy Club, and a literary magazine with more than 20 entries in each field. I’d have music classes that cost neither money nor extracurricular time. I’d be able to wear my one formal gown to my own senior prom; I wouldn’t have to watch it swinging delicately in my closet, a relic of the prom that a few senior friends dragged me to, at a school I had never attended. I was a sophomore at the time. I hated prom.

I was accepted into college early. I could have started this fall — I could be halfway into my freshman year by now. I could have just finished reading Plato’s Republic, and be working through Euclid. But I got nervous about leaving my life behind, got cold feet about starting in college when I had just turned 16, and I deferred for a year. I’d welcome some reminders as to why.

I’d also welcome some input, tongue-in-cheek or genuine, as to how I can make self-education vaguely worthwhile for the next approximately-a-semester. Suggest concrete steps only, please. And don’t tell me to go back to school; that’s no longer an option at this point.

Look, I don’t want to romanticize school. I know that it has some significant problems, problems which will be the subject of another post in the near future. But I’m fed up with the Grace Llewellyns and the figures in my life who tell me that whatever happens to me as an unschooler, it’s better than the “school machine.” It may have been better at the beginning. It may have the potential to be better again, if I can snag a job, find a secure circle of friends, sort myself out psychologically, and/or eat more veggies. But right now, it’s not better, and maybe I’m sick and fucking tired of slapping a smile on my face because my smile is a testimonial for the broad, faceless, monolithic “unorthodox schooling movement.” Maybe I’m a little bit sick of “movements,” and hoping to see a little bit more in the way of “people.”


Things that Taste Better than Skinny Feels (and Why This Post Is Worth Writing)

As I’m sure everyone is, by now, probably aware, Kate Moss (waiflike model of ’90s fame) was recently quoted as saying this: “Nothing tastes better than skinny feels.”

Come up with at least 5 problems with that statement. In 30 seconds. And if you can’t — which is highly unlikely — I’ll supply a few: use of pro-ana rhetoric that smacks of garden-variety “thinspiration,” reinforcement of a single attractive body type, reinforcement of the artificial [fat=gluttony-laziness-disease]/[skinny=glowing-with-perfect-health] dichotomy, refusal to acknowledge the diversity of female experience, unoriginal repetition of a retrograde diet mantra that has existed, in some form, for decades.

And finally: I believe, with all my mind, body and soul, that a hell of a lot of things taste better than skinny feels.

Before I start enumerating those culinary pleasures, there’s a word or two left to say. Posts on the subject by fellow bloggers have raised enough questions that I figure I ought to attempt some answers preemptively; below is a reflection that I hope will address any qualms.

Disclaimer. The last time I could reasonably have been accounted “skinny,” I was three years old. I have struggled with my weight all my life; the only way I could return to a state of skinny — much less Kate Moss skinny — would be through full-out starvation, and indeed I was at my thinnest when, in tenth grade, I stopped eating for extended periods of time. Ergo, for me, skinny feels lousy and unhealthy and unnatural. Would someone who was naturally pencil-thin feel the same way? Of course not, and it’s insulting to assume so. But I don’t mean to relish the pleasures of food as a covert way of saying “eat a sandwich”. I also don’t mean to imply that those who suffer from eating disorders could just cast all their troubles away if they wanted because this food tastes so darn good. Because that’s been a major concern with many “Things that Taste Better than Skinny Feels” posts, and justifiably.

But feminist blogging is meant as a safe space for everyone, and a safe space not only to take on problems but to embrace pleasures that patriarchy has traditionally withheld from women. Yes, I realize that it is triggering for folks with eating disorders to read list after list of favorite foods — I’ve been there, I know. So, too, is it triggering for women with vulvodynia or other physical barriers to sexual pleasure to read about the joys of sex. Does that mean that, for an arena to be properly sensitive and feminist, all positive discussion of food or sex must be scrapped? Such a move seems counterintuitive to me, even as I understand the motivation behind it. Food, like sex — though arguably more so — is something that society discourages women from enjoying; in what might be colloquially called “the real world,” visible enjoyment of food is too often suppressed or accompanied by the requisite fat talk. A feminist blog is designed as a safe space, and in that vein should be a haven not only for complaints but for pleasures that we are, as a general rule, not supposed to express. I can’t talk about food when I sign off the computer — my ability to discuss it online is as much a prerogative, and a feminist prerogative, as yours to avoid discussion of it. That has been an operating principle of this blog, and if it seems repugnant and hyperprivileged, please feel free to call me out.

And without further ado, a few “Things That Taste Better Than Skinny Feels.” (These are not all vegan. I am not all vegan. And that’s that.)

1) Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream.
2) Fried rice, browned all over and slightly burnt on the bottom, or coconut rice.
3) Alfajores. I had about thirty of these in Argentina: a pair of cakey sugar cookies, sandwiched together with oodles of dulce de leche and smothered in coconut shavings. Mmmm.
4) Hot chocolate with vanilla extract and whipped cream.
5) Fettuccine pomodoro.
6) Crusty Italian bread with olive oil and cracked pepper.
7) Spring mix salad with oil and vinegar.
8) Sauteed mushrooms.
9) Cucumber tea sandwiches.
10) Pumpkin anything. I’m a big fan of pumpkin soup.
11) Panang tofu.
12) Green curry over seitan and broccoli.
13) Crepes stuffed with grilled vegetables.
14) Vegan With A Vengeance’s coconut cupcakes.
15) New Mexico-style vegetarian Frito pie, with plenty of green chile.
16) Yuan Fu’s “chicken” with cashew nuts.
17) Shahi paneer.
18) Really excellent pad thai.
19) Sourdough bread with avocado, lettuce and red pepper hummus.
20) Potbelly’s Vegetarian Sandwich, hold the American cheese.
21) Cherry pie.
22) Pumpkin pie.
23) Any other kind of pie.
24) Red bean buns.
25) Eggplant in garlic sauce.
26) Nutty brown rice, tossed with the leftover sauce from any given main dish.
27) Veggie pizza, with an emphasis on the roasted tomatoes.
28) Guacamole with corn chips.
29) Burritos.
30) Black beans, rice, and salsa, all scrambled together and microwaved: the most satisfactory “quick lunch” out there.
31) Stoned Wheat crackers, despite (or because of?) the unintentionally hilarious name.
32) Chocolate-covered raisins.
33) Honey-roasted cashews.
34) Asparagus.
35) Avocado sushi, topped with pickled ginger.
36) Fondue.
37) Symphony bars.
38) Freshly baked sugar cookies, topped with a handful of rainbow sprinkles.
39) A toasted plain New York-style bagel with chive and onion cream cheese. Anything less is blasphemy.
40) Tabbouleh salad.
41) Acorn squash.
42) Beets.
43) Ripe figs, on their own or stuffed with goat cheese.
44) Sweet potato latkes with cardamom applesauce.
45) Kung pao tofu, complete with crushed peanuts.
46) Blondies, which I maintain are far superior to brownies.
47) Black bean soup in a bread bowl.
48) Spanakopita.
49) Trader Joe’s Masala Burgers.
50) My mother’s matzah ball soup.
Feel free to add your own!


Because I want to know

First off, let me apologize for being so exclusively personal lately.  It seems as much of a copout to me as it surely does to you, and I will be more interesting and less solipsistic in the future.  I swear.

But in the meantime, I’d be interested to find out: what about this blog keeps you reading?

I understand that most, if not all, of you only read this blog because you know the proprietor. That’s appreciated, don’t get me wrong. But what particular topics have made you stick around? This is a free-form, eclectic blog, and it will continue to be that way; this can, however, be as much a curse as it is a blessing, and sometimes I’d appreciate some input from the template of popular opinion. And, because I tend to gravitate towards certain topics for extended periods of time, it would be helpful for me to find out what basic areas you’d like me to gravitate towards.

Below are all the categories that I have addressed in past, as well as some that I haven’t tackled yet but would like to. Which of them are your picks for the future of this blog? And feel free to make your own suggestions!

Visual Art/Crafting
Current Events
Education
Feminism
Judaism
Literature
Movies
Music
Poetry Break
Political and Social Criticism
Theater
Vegan/Vegetarian Food

Reviews (theater, music, movie, book, restaurant)
General DIY
LGBT Rights
Philosophy
Economics
Fashion
Tea (and the People who Love It)

Also, how much do you want me to insert myself into my work? Stylistically, I can go either way; would you rather have the more impassioned, personalized journal format of late, or would you rather I return to a more cut-and-dry pundit format? Please give me your feedback.

Thank you all for reading. With your help, I’ll become more interesting soon — really!


Decoupage (and Why I Love It)

For most of my life, everyone who’s been anyone has also been a knitter.  I say this, dear readers, with a complete lack of sarcasm.  Though the older folks in our lives (read: parents) continue to think of of knitting as vaguely oppressive, the province of “bovine grandmothers” who’d slept through the sexual revolution, we teenagers know better.  The knitters in our schools are the hip countercultural types, the ones who match their hand-crocheted scarves with fishnet stockings and whose painstakingly crafted beanies sport Rasta colors.  Knitting is hip, it is sexy, it is DIY, it is radical.  It is, as so many knitters will tell you, a way of declaring freedom from the sweatshop-driven, earth-hating, nonconformist-breeding system of production.  And while it has been reduced, as faddish pastimes inevitably will be, to one of the trappings of a label (If you wanna be a Certified Indie Chick, lace up your Chucks and pick up those needles!), it still manages to keep its trendy veneer of bohemian independence.  In short, if you’re a knitter, you’re a bad-ass.  If you’re not, no matter how otherwise rebellious you may be, you’re inexorably out of the loop.

So imagine my chagrin when, after putting in my best efforts, I discovered something that I was sure would dash to hell any hopes of a social life: I didn’t like knitting.

To be frank, I found it boring.  The image — that of a young, copiously pierced, black-plastic-rimmed-glasses-clad, Artistic-with-a-capital-A knitter — was enchanting; the activity itself was not.  I lacked the attention span to keep up that regimen of stitch after stitch after stitch, with no room for improvisation or little flourishes or even the tiniest mindless deviation from the pattern, and as hard as I tried my attention span simply would not stretch.  Finally, I gave in.  My first and only scarf is still languishing in a corner, stuck at a length and consistency that might, with luck, manage to keep a Keebler elf warm on a slightly cloudy day.

This, inevitably, led to despair.  Would all my friends abandon me?  Would I lose all hope of becoming the iconoclastic crafty chica I so hoped to emulate?  Would I continue to support the all-devouring capitalist system with my capitulation to store-bought mittens?

Ladies and gentlemen, I tell you now: Decoupage saved my life.

Or at least my self-esteem.  In a funk from the crash-and-burn misery of my knitting experiment, I gave up on the DIY ethic completely, in a move that might be called “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”  For weeks I wept that I was unoriginal, uninspired, a waste of space, because I could muster neither the creativity nor motivation to knit.  It was decoupage — an activity that I took up on a whim — that made me remember my love for crafts, that glorious desire to put something new into the world.

Decoupage is the beautifying of an object with nothing more than paper scraps, scissors, and glue (or rubber cement, if you prefer).  Together with its more free-form sister, collage, it takes the detritus of civilization, of daily life, of affluenza, and puts it to an artistic and practical purpose.  You don’t need no fancy yarns or bamboo needles to decoupage, only an eye for color and access to your neighbors’ paper scraps.  It is quintessentially Freegan.  It is quintessentially DIY — in many ways, may I add, more so than knitting.  And it creates the sort of personalized sheen that few objects, whether storebought or handmade, can muster.  After all, you didn’t just sew together the pattern: you created it, down to the last tiny shard of text from what once was a March 2008 copy of Newsweek.

Decoupage is easy, it’s fun, it’s cheap to produce.  It’s even, dare I say it, liberating, and not only in a strict political sense.  It allows for all the little flourishes and halfway-through epiphanies that knitting actively forbids — in fact, the more license you take, the cooler it looks.  Want to layer that baby’s head on top of a military tank, which in turn is perched atop a line of sheet music, which itself is nestled between the ankles of a surly elephant about to charge?  Go for it.  It’ll all be under the same layer of glue anyway.  And such creative success, the kind that allows endorphins to pump through one’s head and Elmer’s-soaked fingers, will lead to a rekindling of creativity throughout one’s quotidian life — it certainly did for me.  I no longer feel like a failure as an artist because knitting leaves me cold.  I could make my way into the elite Countercultural Artists Brigade, though at this point I’ve lost much of my longing to do so.  I have my stack of Vogues and Washington Posts and cast-off worksheets and old art exhibit fliers, and I have a big strong gluestick and a perfectly sharpened pair of scissors, and that, dear readers, is all I need.


Thoughts on Homeschooling, Part 2

Part 1 can be read here.

In our last exploration of my so-called homeschooling life, I discussed the social ramifications of my grand educational experiment.  The whole thing ended on a cliffhanger, asking — but not answering — the big question: Have I learned anything?  And how, intellectually speaking, does it compare to school?

Before I begin my attempt to answer these questions, let me reaffirm that I am only evaluating my personal experience.  I am neither “for” nor “against” homeschooling; that is an exasperating (if not unusual) dichotomy that boils the highly personal question down into a simplistic theoretical debate.  I am for homeschooling in some cases.  I am against it in others.  The only experience I can judge with any certainty is my own, and that experience — and no one else’s — is what I evaluate in these posts.

Let me also note that, in this particular case, I will use the words “homeschooling” and “unschooling” interchangeably.  This is not because I don’t know the difference — it’s because my homeschooling experience has mostly worked through an eclectic-unschooling style, and I want my comments to specifically reflect on that style as opposed to the myriad methods of homeschooling as a whole.

At any rate, this second part will by no means be as damning as the first.  Yes, there are many ways in which homeschooling has intellectually failed me, perhaps enough to call the experiment, on the whole, a disappointment.  But I concede also that I have gained a tremendous amount mentally (if not academically, and I will explain what I believe to be the difference) because of the blessing-and-curse freedom that homeschooling grants.

The primary intellectual failure of homeschooling, for me, I have already enumerated: the lack of a diverse and challenging community to provide a forum for ideas.  I don’t mean to say that I lack potential study partners (read: friends) or that the ones I have are stupid — on the contrary, my autodidactic friends are among the smartest, most capable people I’ve ever met.  But there aren’t many of them.  And while that may seem like more a social wrinkle than an academic one, it does hem in the range of discussion topics and frequency of face-to-face discussion.  It is also hard to avoid the fact that the homeschoolers I know are very homogenous, both in background and opinion, and debating any of these lovely people becomes more an exercise in semantics or preaching-to-the-choir than a genuine broadening of views.  Now, it’s worth noting that many suburban Montgomery County schools are similarly homogenous; nonetheless, the smaller size of the social group makes such homogenity more overwhelming and less escapable.  As someone who learns — and doesn’t always feel good doing it, but learns nonetheless — through the constant challenge of others, I feel that my intellectual development has been somewhat hampered in the absence of a “community of ideas.”

Likewise, I have suffered from the failure of unschooling to impose structure, and thereby to challenge me in ways that give me a healthy dose of discomfort.  Call me a masochist, but I refuse to buy the too-common unschooling theory that “if you don’t want to do it, you probably don’t need it, and if you ever need it you can always catch up.”  That’s a perfectly adequate premise for a job search or a summer vacation; for a worthwhile, broadening education, I can’t help but feel that it’s nonsense.  The whole point of education — whether in the conventional K-12 sense or throughout one’s life — is to cultivate a rational/compassionate/generally functional mind and worldview and identity, to develop an interdisciplinary and informed sense of the world, to equip the student with a healthy desire for discovery along with the tools necessary to approach life with perspective and awareness.  I believe that a truly good education — as opposed to a strictly-practical-for-modern-life education, which, while necessary to any worthwhile program, is not sufficient education in and of itself — does not spend all its time endlessly finessing one particular “subject” or skill at the expense of a whole host of others.  It does not caress one field while shrugging off the others as unnecessary.  It certainly does not streamline students into specialized subject areas, reducing them to “a math kid” or “a Latin American history kid” or “a Project Runway kid.”  (The irony here is that what I have just described is essentially what we might define as “tracking,” possibly the foremost trait that prominent homeschool theorists deplore in public school.  If we posit that tracking is bad, we must also posit that exposure to, and education in, a number of fields is good — otherwise, we have a substanceless complaint without coherence, let alone a solution.  And while schools are far from perfect in that regard, unschooling cannot be held up as an antidote.)  That said, higher math does not come easily to me, making it less enjoyable a subject than, say, world literature.  I understand the necessity of doing it, and when I do it I feel the rush and expanding self-definition that comes with intellectual struggle, but it’s hard to motivate myself to do it on my own.  Which is why, increasingly, I’ve had to turn to school-like venues for calculus and hard sciences: if I were to revert entirely to unschooled self-study, the struggle would be much harder and much less pleasing, not only because I learn these subjects better from knowledgeable human beings than from textbooks but because I’m not always automatically motivated to do things that I know are good for me.

And that, I believe, has been my biggest problem with homeschooling as I know it.  There is only so much self-motivation that I personally can keep up (I can’t speak for anyone else), and that self-motivation has long since been exhausted.  Again, I realize that, though I was always referred to in school as a “motivated learner” or an “independent, driven worker” or what have you, I speak as a product of the “factory-farm” school system and may therefore be lacking in the vast reserves of drive that lifelong homeschoolers manage to cultivate.  But, though it may be a failing on my part, it is a factor in my experience nonetheless.  And while I was relatively hardworking in my first year of homeschooling — I certainly entered enough [bleep]ing contests — that power has steadily eroded, and it is now what might be kindly referred to as a shriveled, pathetic nub.  As evidenced by fossil fuels, or cough syrup, or a nice big bag of Orville Redenbacher’s, any resource, when made the exclusive and perpetual source of something, will begin to run out and/or have unhealthy effects on the user.  Self-motivation is no different.  I don’t need to explain that it has slowly exhausted itself, leaving me depressed, ineffective and with no greater desire than to eat leftover pasta and watch endless “Top Chef” marathons (and I don’t even have cable!).  But the part worth explaining is the less predictable one: as my self-motivation has burned out, it has also become an obsession.  The less I accomplish, the higher expectations I set for myself, and they grow higher and higher until they’re not only impossible to achieve in a day but in a lifetime.  This drives me into greater depression, which erodes even more of my motivation, and it all becomes one great miserable vicious cycle.  Which has, of course, had no positive effect on my education.  This only reinforces the need for a certain structure in my life — when it is all left up to me, I inevitably begin to stagnate in a tearful, unproductive, whatever-the-opposite-of-educational-is funk.

Of course, this has its upside, and a profound upside at that.  Though the overuse of self-motivation may eventually cause collapse, it has also forced me to draw on, and create, resources I never knew I had.  By that I mean that, no matter how “self-driven” my teachers may have thought me, I have become a much more independent thinker, learner and worker than I ever was in school.  I analyze, I argue, I question to a degree that I never would have imagined in school.  When something must be done, I force myself to do it, and it may be onerous, but it’s always exhilarating.  I may not like math, but I’m doing better in math than I ever was in school.  I don’t just rely on my basic skills and the knowledge I may or may not have absorbed in class; I study until I can keep myself afloat.  I told myself, last year, I would get a 5 on a pair of AP tests — without having taken any sort of course, and without any materials but a study guide and some self-selected supplementary readings, I did it.  I’ve pushed myself to excel in history, a subject that was neither my best nor my favorite in school, to the point where I’ve fallen in love with it.  I’ve grown more radical (and more obnoxious) politically, mostly because I challenge things now that I’d have taken for granted under school supervision.  More importantly, I act on my political impulses.  I tackle things that are outside of my comfort zone; I don’t always succeed, but I take them on.  I’m much less mainstream than I was in school, and though I don’t know what the term “mainstream” even means I accept that statement on a number of levels.  I started a freaking blog to voice my own mundane freaking opinions.  I could never have done any of that three years ago.

I could say a lot more about the positives of homeschooling: the time it’s granted me to explore new passions, the varying perspectives it’s allowed me to explore within by-nature-subjective-and-therefore-restricted-by-a-teacher’s-worldview subjects (history, English, political science, economics to some degree), the college admissions advantages (yes, I said advantages), the exposure I’ve gotten to numerous groups and venues and features of this glorious city.  I could also say a lot more about its negative effects on my psyche and education: the homebound nature, the dearth of science labs or field trips or school plays, the constant questioning, the disapproval of friends and relatives, the financial guilt, the sadness of seeing good friends demoted to acquaintance status, the unhealthy expectations of myself that, without a report-card checklist, expand past the bounds of reality.  But this post has gone on for far too long, not only because it’ll look ugly on the page but because there’s only so much time worth spending on reflection.  I’ve spent plenty of time picking apart my homeschooling life; now it’s time to return to it, and make of it what I can.