Monthly Archives: May 2013

Well, after writing yesterday’s post, I realized that some of my visitors are not from the United States and might be puzzled by my reference to a “floor-through.” Many of the townhouses in New York were built during the same two or three decades towards the end of the nineteenth century. Frequently, the facades were covered with a brown sandstone, known as brownstone, although many were brick or limestone. Being town houses, they share a wall with an adjacent building. Brownstones, when they are single family homes, can be very spacious and elegant, however I almost never see them in that way except in movies. When I see them in movies, I have to laugh. If you want to buy one, expect to pay upwards of two million. So last night, I started making a model of a typical New York townhouse. The are many variations, but a surprisingly large number are laid out in a similar fashion.

A 3d computer model of a brownstone. The facade viewed from the street.

This is how the facade appears from the street. Many of the buildings have a large flight of front steps, or stoop. The height allows a second door to be put underneath. The lower floor has decent sized windows and is called the “ground” floor. There is typically a basement beneath it.

A view of one side of the model with the exerior side wall removed revealing the staircase.

The floor above the ground floor is called the parlor floor. Frequently, it has higher ceilings and more elaborate decorations than the rest of the house.

The model with the facade and the other of the two sides removed.

Here you can see the layout of the rooms. Each floor has a central room with no windows.

This view of the top floor with the roof removed gives you a good idea of the floor plan.

This view of the top floor with the roof removed gives you a good idea of the floor plan.

Most of these buildings are no longer single family home and have since been divided into apartments. There are many ways of doing that, but the most common way is to simply make each floor its own apartment. That is called a floor-through.

Pardon my model making skills. It’s the first time I’ve tried this and I’m not up to materials, textures and lighting yet.

As a child, I liked to draw and was moody, so I was deemed an artistic type and a free spirit. Once you are labeled as a type of any sort, other people project onto you various qualities. Growing up, people made many assumptions about what I would or would not like based on this label. Most of the time, they were right. When you’re young, and don’t yet know much of the world, you accept these assumptions, at least as a starting point.

By the late seventies, there had been something of a reaction against modernism. The sixties and the counter culture’s love of ornament and romanticization of pre-modern societies set the tone. An artist, in popular imagination, would live in a Victorian era house with macrame around the doorways, ferns in the windows and lots of tchotchkes and trinkets. The second town my family lived in embraced this style. Mostly, however, they weren’t artists; they were bobos avant la lettre.

So, when I grew up and moved to New York, it seemed a natural fit to move into a floor-through in Brooklyn with tin ceilings, foot-wide woodwork, and french doors. I lived in two consecutive apartments of this sort in the neighborhood of Carrol Gardens, both built around 1870.

A real estate boom, followed by a real estate bust, suddenly made my rent stabilized apartment in Brooklyn overpriced. Meanwhile, I started working as a decorative painter and was starting, for the first time in my life, to do well. I gave notice and moved… to Manhattan. Cue the theme song to The Jefferson’s

We’re moving on up. To the… the.. west.. uh… to Chelsea. To a dee-lux apartment on the second floor.

Built in 1960, my new apartment was what was often derisively called a “white box.” It was no great example of architecture by anyone’s standards. It was one of hundreds of similar buildings, frequently made of yellow brick, that went up around New York City in the post-war era. It was exactly what I had told all my life I would most hate. It was boring – and I loved it.

The nineteenth century brownstones were drafty in the winter and brutal brick ovens in the summer. In order to not die in a heat wave in the summer, you had to block up your windows with air conditioners which cost a small fortune to run. Of course, now that your windows were blocked up you had no choice but to run them even in the mild weather. Furthermore, they blocked the light and made a long, narrow, dark apartment even darker. My new apartment was easily heated and cooled. Despite the fact that the last apartment had been significantly larger in terms of square feet, the new apartment had more usable space due to the rational layout. Best of all, I could clean the apartment in a couple of hours on a Saturday morning. What a chore cleaning both of those other places had been. Somehow, they always looked dingy.

Did I mention that bit about being a decorative painter? I rag rolled the walls, a white glaze over yellow. I put a Greek key stencil around the ceiling. I got some very nice ivory colored silk and made drapes with a Kingston valance. I thought it looked pretty sharp for a twenty-three year old, if I don’t say so myself. What I realized is that a white box is a blank slate and it’s only as boring as its inhabitant is willing to let it be.

The interior of the living room of an apartment.

Now that I’m older, it looks a bit fussy to me and I guess it’s a little dated, but I think you can see my overall point about a white box being the equivalent to a blank canvas. The drapes are not done yet in this photo. All the furnishings are either hand-me-downs or picked off of the garbage. (Note the kitties!)

So many people, when they saw my apartment, would be surprised. Time and time again, people would say to me, wouldn’t you rather live in a funky place somewhere like Park Slope. Actually, no.

Few people my age failed to see the movie The Blues Brothers. A few years would pass before that movie came out and gave my generation some repeatable lines like, “We’re on a mission from God” and “I hate Illinois Nazis.” Why Illinois Nazis?

Our suburban town, of course, was not isolated from the rest of the world. As a suburb of New York, we watched the news on New York stations and read, along with a local paper, the New York Times. The adults in our town tended to have more education than money and keeping up on, and discussing, current events was an important part of the social life of our town. A news event that dominated that year became known by the name of the town in which it took place and that town’s name has become synonymous with a prominent court case: Skokie.

For those of you who don’t know, the facts of the case are relatively simple and can be summed up quickly. The National Socialist Party of America, the Illinois Nazis of Blues Brothers fame, announced plans to march in Skokie, Illinois, a small town outside of Chicago where one sixth of the residents were holocaust survivors. The town of Skokie banned the display of swastikas and Nazi uniforms during the March. The National Socialists challenged the injunction and eventually it made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States.

As I’ve already mentioned, about one-third of the residents of our town were Jewish. However, there was a significant demographic difference between the people in our town and in Skokie. Most of my classmates’ families had come from Eastern Europe shortly before or after the beginning of the twentieth century. They owed their position in the middle class to progressive politics and the union movement of early twentieth century. For the most part, they did not have any direct family connections to the Holocaust. As it happens, in my extended family there were two Auschwitz survivors, originally from Hungary, one of whom still lives in upper Manhattan, but since our family was not Jewish I did not make the connection between our family and the events in Skokie.

The situation in Skokie attracted national attention and, given the demographics of our town, it was discussed quite frequently. I cannot remember getting into a discussion with my peers, but I do remember overhearing many discussions among adults. It was by means of this incident that I was taught to understand the principle behind the saying frequently misattributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to your death your right to say it.”

It is not uncommon, as a 1978 editorial in The New York Times noted, that civil libertarians find themselves in the “uncomfortable position of antagonizing those who consider themselves friends of freedom by supporting its enemies, such as Communists or Ku Klux Klanners.” The editorial goes on to say:

Perhaps the oldest lesson in the civil liberties primer is this: If the rights of those whom civil libertarians have most cause to despise are slighted, then everyone’s rights are placed in jeopardy.

This is not always a principle that is easy to keep, but it’s important to keep in nonetheless.

In the end, the Nazis did not march in Skokie. They marched in Chicago instead.

They say, supposedly, that one sign of white privilege is not thinking about being white. However, I think about being white sometimes, and I have two questions in my mind related to being white, which are otherwise unrelated.

A few weeks ago, I read something about the town where I went to high school. For those of you who have been following my memories, my family moved and the town that I’ve mentioned in the past, the all white, lower-middle class town, is not where we lived when I was in high school. We moved to a town that was about twice the size, mainly upper-middle class and “diverse.” I put “diverse” in quotes because, really, it just means that there were black people. It felt, to me, far less diverse. Where the previous town had been a white ethnic melting pot, the new town had just black people and white people, mostly professionals. The town had a reputation of having a “large upper-middle class black” community. The quotes are there because people used to use that exact phrase while talking about the town. I almost feel like I want to put on my best high-school girl face, roll my eyes and say, “Whatever.”

I liked the new town much better than the previous town in which we had lived. I don’t know if it was because of the college in the town and the large number of professors who lived there, but the atmosphere was overall much more intellectual. Suddenly, I had friends who read philosophy and serious literature.

It’s funny, I must have been shielded from people’s attitudes, but when the internet became commonplace I have been struck by the large number of times that people associate photographs of black teenagers, or a racially mixed group of teenagers, with “bad public schools.” It actively makes me mad. My interracial school was ten times better than my all white school. I genuinely liked the town and I thought it was a great place. If I had continued in the other school, I probably would have wound up being a geek or a nerd. Instead, I aspired to be an intellectual. Of course there were conflicts and problems. It was high school after all. Also, the town had an unfortunately deserved reputation in the area as snobbish. We were, I’m sorry to say, more than a bit stuck-up.

Recently, however, the town has been turning white. The black population, which used to be close to half, has slipped below thirty percent. Human communities are subject to alteration and I’d hardly be the first person to bemoan the passing of a particular time and place. Still, it makes me feel a little bit sad. Am I being ridiculously pc? I think the character of the place will change. I’m speculating, but I believe the changing demographics are being driven by changes in the economy and society, and those changing demographics along with the economic and societal changes in the country as a whole will cause changes in the character of the town. It will cease to be a haven of intellectualism in a consumerist suburban landscape and just be yet another upper-middle class enclave for the winners in our meritocracy. So my sadness at the news goes a little bit beyond pure nostalgia.

Second question, also related to race:

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m working on a comic book. I also have some ideas for an animated film, which no one should expect to be complete anytime in the near future. Now, had I written a play or was directing a live action film, I would probably have open casting for all characters whose race was not essential to the plot. If there was a need to make minor change to the script to accommodate this, then this could easily be done after casting. With the feedback and contribution of the actors, it would be very possible to do this. However, in a comic book or animation, I’m drawing the characters and have full control over this. So, where with actors I can essentially allow factors outside my control to dictate some elements of the character, now if a character is white, black, tall, short, etc., it’s all my decision. For characters inspired by people I’ve met, it’s not so hard. For instance, I know one character is going to be a very young, tall, skinny androgynous looking Asian woman. However, most of the characters can be anything and I don’t have a mental image of all of them. Does anyone have an opinion on how a person goes about making that decision? I suddenly find myself being very self-conscious about that. After The Hunger Games was made into a movie I read a forum where people were discussing the characters and someone was critical of the character of Rue, saying that of course the black character is nice and sacrifices herself for the white hero. I realize that these things tend to get picked apart.

Link: Here’s a link to a post that Northier than Thou wrote prompted by an interview given by the director of Django.

Ooh boy, have I ever been slacking off. I downloaded a trial version of Maya 3d and I’ve been a bit obsessed with it, staying up all night and that kind of thing. Well, Friday is my day to indulge in cute animals of all kinds. I got a kick out of the way one sheep looked up just as I snapped the picture.

Several sheep and a cow eating grass on a hill. One sheep has picked his head up to look.

I’ve been mucking around with filters and other things. I’m not really sure what I think of them.

A young woman in a short skirt and red jacket.

Well, last week I put up a one panel cartoon prompted by my frustration with people who view technology from a purely consumerist point of view – having the latest gadgets just to show that, well, they have the latest gadgets. What irks me is that they put down people who are different than they are. If you like new gadgets and have the money, go ahead, have a blast. Although this sort of behavior is exhibited by men as well as women, it reminded me of certain types of girls in high school who would show off having the latest and greatest whatever. It generally wasn’t technology back then. Then I felt funny about what I drew, contrasting a “bimbo” with a “serious girl.” After drawing it, I realized that I was feeding into stereotypes and that I might have looked like either girl at different moments in my life. Well, I don’t wear heels like that. So, I decided to draw a caricature of myself circa 1987. I found a red satin men’s smoking jacket in a thrift shop that I just loved. I used to throw it over a short stretch cotton mini-skirt and a black tank top. I usually wore dark tights so I didn’t have to worry about crossing my legs. I also had a pair of soft leather booties what were incredibly comfortable. I’d wear them whether or not they matched. After a while, a couple of friends started teasing me about my “elf boots.” Yes, elf boots and big hoop earings. That’s just the kind of gal I am.

As I said at the outset of this blog, I’ve been posting every day because in the past, when I’ve started blogs, I’ve posted lots and lots at first and then slowly taper off until I have one of those zombie blogs. I may still have two zombie blogs here on WordPress. So I post something, anything, every day – even if it’s just a picture. Today, I’m feeling too blue even for a picture post.

The post I’m planning on putting up on Wednesday is about getting my hair cut in seventh grade. That sounds really trivial, but it fact it was a turning point in my adolescence because, quite accidentally, I stumbled on the trick to being “cool” rather than a “nerd.” You see, I suffer from mild social anxiety, although I didn’t know it for most of my life because I was able to cover it up successfully. I thought everyone was just a little bit nervous in social situations. I would have put myself in the “slightly shy and certainly introspective” category rather than the “gregarious and outgoing” category, but I believed that I still fell somewhere on the continuum of what most people would consider normal.

I handled social situations by over preparing and bracing for the worst. I’d do my makeup and my hair. I’d choose my clothes carefully. I’m not much for the consumer mentality, but I am very visual and I think I frequently succeeded in looking quite stylish, yet not unoriginal. I’d agonize about going and finally I’d force myself out of the house because I was already showing up a little bit later than was polite. I’d take a deep breath and walk into the room. It could be a classroom or a party. The dynamic was pretty much the same. I’d battle my instinct to slink along the wall like a scared cat. I’d walk into the room, moving close to the center although I usually couldn’t bring myself to actually inject myself into a conversation. Then I’d stand there with my shoulders back and my chin up as if I were defiantly facing a firing squad. What did I get as a reward for a my bravery? People would think I was stuck-up and a snob.

That’s not as bad an outcome as you might think. I learned very young that most people don’t exercise judgement very well, and it’s especially poor in groups. People value things because they see social cues telling them that something is valuable. By accidentally acting as if I thought I was too good for everyone else, other people would perceive me as having something of value. I didn’t need to approach people because they approached me. Of course, every minute of waiting for someone to approach is like dying a million little deaths in my mind. Consequently, I do not choose to go to any and all parties. I pick ones which offer a high return on investment. In some sort of virtuous circle, I appear to other people as picky.

Still, I’ve never ceased being nervous. People saw me as confident and self-possessed. Meanwhile, inside I was a basket-case.

What does this have to do with not feeling like posting? Because time doesn’t work on the internet the way it does in the flesh. In the real world, I’m not up for an argument all the time. When I am, I steal myself for it, so to speak. If I’m feeling vulnerable, or blue, or especially shy, I don’t engage. However, on the internet, you can put up a comment on a day when you’re feeling strong, or silly, or friendly and you might get a response when you’re in a totally differently state of mind.

So someone made me cry this morning. This is not the first time this has happened within the past couple of weeks. I find myself hesitating to comment on other people’s blogs. Most of the people I meet online,I like. I don’t especially want to withdraw, but I’m feeling very conflicted about my presence in certain places.

On the plus side, it’s caused me to try to be a little more sensitive to other people’s feeling when I make comments online.

Anyhow, that’s my post for today.

This wasn’t an easy challenge for me. Since the challenge is posted on Friday, that usually gives me the weekend to come up with something. Escape is a word that means almost nothing to me. My mind was a total blank. Then my sister went away to the beach with a friend for a week. She asked if I had any good “escapist” fiction. I took the lightest stuff from my bookshelf and put in a bag for her. Then I realized that reading was one of my primary means of escape. So I took a whole bunch of novels off my shelf and made this little tableau. There are also books under the chair and on the other side as well, but aesthetically, I liked this photo best. I think you still get the sense of a room cluttered with books even if you don’t see all the books.

An arm chair covered in novels.

Now, I need to go clean up the room.

A flat rock in a river speeding rough river with water flowing over it.

This week, rather than posting several links I’m just going to post one. Recently, I’ve started reading Ally Fogg’s Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men blog. Apparently, he’s had a WordPress blog for a while but he recently joined Freethought Blogs. His claim to fame is being a white male heterosexual. In other words, he writes critically about gender roles from the point of view of a straight white man. I think he’s British, although most of what he writes could apply to the rest of the English-speaking world, and probably much of the allophone world as well.

Recently, I’ve read quite a few times on blogs known to be feminist the acronym MRA. I written elsewhere about the pitfalls of activist bloggers using terms that will only be understood by a small number of like-minded activist bloggers from your own age cohort, your own social class, your own region and, probably, only your own narrow sub-culture. Finally, I figured out what MRA means. It means “men’s rights activists.” Actually, I’m not even certain of that because I’ve never seen the acronym defined, but those are the words that best fit the usage. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, I don’t assume that men who are interested in men’s rights are inevitably anti-feminist because I was first introduced to men’s rights in a women’s studies class by a male professor who was very obviously and actively supportive of feminism. That he realized that there were issues facing men that feminism didn’t address didn’t turn him into an anti-feminist.

Ally Fogg does not call himself a men’s rights activist, but he does write about gender issues from a man’s perspective and that does occasionally include issues that wouldn’t normally be taken up by feminists, like a recent blog post about the shadow health minister’s comments about masculinity being in crisis. At least most feminists would be unlikely to write about it in a way that would put men’s interests first. Fogg makes some excellent points about the shadow health minister’s speech. I don’t know how things are in Britain, but from the point of view of an American woman going on fifty, the “hyper-masculinity” that Abbot, the shadow health minister, discusses has gotten better than it was when I was younger. The rise of social media and the accessibility of porn has definitely changed some dynamics, but I’m not sure that pornography presents men and women with any greater distortion of gender roles than the average beer ad. Focusing in porn while not worrying about the myriad of other representations of women and sexuality is really not seeing the forest for the trees.

Fogg’s world view is summed up in a post entitled Welcome to Global, Inc. (The actual title is longer, but contains a period which presents me with a punctuation problem.) In it, he creates an elaborate metaphor of the world as a large company. That company has a binder full of its stated rules, but it also has unstated rules and each department has its own internal culture. “But so long as the department is doing well enough, meeting its targets and making profits, the hierarchy at Global Inc doesn’t really mind too much, and doesn’t interfere.”

I have concocted this grand and rather clumsy analogy to illustrate a key point of my political views, which underpins everything I write on this blog and elsewhere. Socialised gender roles are not there by accident. They are functional. Oppressive acts of sexism, misogyny, misandry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, class prejudice and the rest do not arise from individual weakness or venality but because we have all been induced to retain and reinforce them as essential components of our role within the company. Necessary social progress in emancipation, liberation and human rights will be indulged by Global Inc when it can be turned to the company’s advantage – the welcoming of women into the professions, for example – and fiercely resisted when it challenges the bottom line, such as union rights or decent parental leave entitlements.

It is simplistic nonsense to think of patriarchy, in particular, as a system in which men oppress women by choice and for our own interests. Patriarchy often requires men to do horrible things to ourselves, to each other and to women. Patriarchy imposes dominant roles on men whether we want them or not, and punishes us when we fail to fulfil them adequately.  It’s all there in the job description. It is equally simplistic nonsense to imagine that male suffering (on the battlefield and in homelessness, suicide rates, alienation and loneliness) is a consequence of women’s behaviour, choices or social liberation.

Anyway, I’ve been finding his blog fairly interesting, so I thought I’d put a link up to it.