The Etiquette of Inequality in Democratic Spaces

I am happy to announce that the Russell Sage Foundation is supporting one of my new research undertakings:

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Easter egg brownie

One of our favorite traditions in Montpelier is the annual egg hunt in Hubbard Park. It is usually cool and muddy with at least a bit of snow left of the ground and, most years it seems, snow or rain failing from the sky, too. Kids arrive in their outdoor gear. Some carry picnic baskets, others are making do with halloween trick or treating bags, others with plastic and cloth shopping bags, garbage bags, etc. Three different hunts are prepared: kids under 5 have in an open field; kids 5 to 7 hunt in a small stretch of woods on the side of a hill, kids over 8 in romp through a larger, steeper and more intensely wooded tract of land. Each year there are 3 to 4 plastic prize eggs per field, and the children who find those receive a large basket filled with art supplies, sports equipment, and other fun things. For the vast majority of the hundred(s) of children in attendance, however, there will be no big prize. Instead, they wander the woods picking up foil-wrapped chocolate eggs that have been scattered liberally over the ground.

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It’s a wonderful event. And, as discussed in the Burlington Free Press, this year Mei-mei and a friend actually found the silver egg!

However, there is one drawback to the annual egg hunt: at the conclusion of the event, families are left with gobs of low quality chocolate eggs – think of brownish-gray wax with a cloyingly sweet hint of chocolate flavor. My kids eat a couple in celebration of a good hunt. Then the rest of the eggs tend to sit in a bowl on the counter for a while before I move them to the freezer with last year’s eggs. When winter-time gingerbread house baking arrives, we use some in the construction of stone walls and facades for the house. But we never seem to make a dent in our foil egg supply. Until now.

It turns out that those not particularly tasty eggs do make tasty brownies – perfect for bake sales, birthdays, or just having your kids bake and then deliver to the unsuspecting neighbors who are buried in their own supply of uneaten foil eggs.

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Here’s the recipe:

  • Preheat oven to 325 degrees
  • Unwrap 4 to 6 dozen foil eggs (the more the better, of course). Place in large, microwave safe bowl.
  • Add 1-2 TBSP butter or coconut oil.
  • Microwave for 30 seconds at a time, stirring vigorously between, until the candy is thoroughly melted. Make sure to be scraping the edges of the bowl and do not over cook.
  • Once the chocolate is smooth, mix in 1 tsp of vanilla, 3 beaten eggs, and a wholesome flour (whole wheat is fine, garbanzo or teff is even better)- 1 cup for extra fudgy (as depicted in picture) or 2 cups with a tsp of baking powder for more cake-like consistency.
  • Place in ungreased 9×11 pan. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the brownie is pulling away from the edge and the middle is set (not runny, but still gooey).
  • Allow to cool at least 15 minutes before cutting.
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Manhattan and Montpelier

We have been New York residents for nearly 18 months, less the significant time we spend at our house in Montpelier, Vermont.

I love it here in New York. There are the things you expect to hear about – the food, the museums and other cultural amenities. There is always something to do and to see. The whole world is at your fingertips. Another thing, perhaps more surprising to those who have not lived here, is the kindness and good will that you so often feel with and towards the people you share this place with. There is this general feeling of connection and collective responsibility that I think it comes from the shared feeling of being part of something unique and special. I love that about New York – a world full of strangers who are rooting for you and vice versa. It has been a great 18 months and I am resolved to get back to writing here so that I can share more about my life in this place.

But there is also Vermont. Our time in the city has strengthened our love for Montpelier, probably in part because when we are there we have stepped out of the everyday grind. No school, no work, no extreme schedules, just lots of quiet, community, and family time.

When we are in VT, as we just were over the holiday break, we slip back into our old lives like we’re sinking into a perfectly broken in sofa. Well, not like we’re doing that since one of the first things I do when I get to the house is shed the clothes I wore on the drive and replace them with my flannel pajama bottoms, wool socks, an eat more kale t-shirt, and an oversized hoodie, make a cup of tea, and sink into my plush, perfectly broken in, leather sofa. Just to keep the level of slovenliness in perspective, it is usually evening when we arrive at home and fall into the comfortable embrace of a dark, empty, and silent world lit by the moonshadows on the snow and the stars twinkling in the night sky.

I love Vermont, our lovely town of Montpelier, our neighbors, our home. I love the terroir of the food. We always pick up local bread, cheese, and apples. We marvel that they are all so fresh and flavorful. The apples are particularly baffling. How can two apples – the same variety, one New York apple grown just on the other side of Lake Champlain and purchased in the city, and one Vermont apple purchased in Montpelier, be so different in terms of size, texture and flavor?

Our neighbors (there are 5 houses surrounding us and all their occupants are dear friends) often come out to welcome us. Or, if we don’t see them the first night, we’ll see them the next morning as we walk the dog. Sometimes the doorbell rings at 7 or 8 am that first morning because 7-year-old Mei-mei’s best pal in the whole world lives in the house next door and he is usually over the play as soon as his parents let him come. Inevitably there will be long conversations outside, and dinner at someone or another’s house. With the resources of time, terrific ingredients, and a tremendous kitchen, we cook, I bake, and we invite our friends to come and help us eat it all.

When we are in Vermont, Jie-jie and Mei-mei are in children’s paradise. Between the two of them, they have about a dozen friends within a 5-minute walk of the house. Since we are in a residential neighborhood, we have no concerns about them walking the area to collect their friends. The children often congregate in particular areas. Our property is on the hillside, while most of the neighbors are either or the top or toward the bottom of the hill. So, in the winter our backyard is a popular sledding spot for the neighborhood children.

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In the summer, the children are more likely to migrate to the top of the hill because the little-trafficked street offers a relatively flat spot for bikes. They may travel a couple of minutes further to arrive at the College Green (Vermont College of Fine Arts) – a large grassy area with criss-crossing sidewalks, a fountain, and a basketball court. The Green, as it is commonly called, is perfect for cycling, basketball, soccer, dog training, kite flying, impromptu yoga led by one of the neighborhood moms, etc. As they grow older, Jie-jie (9) and Mei-mei have begun to lay claim to more of the town. They can and frequently do walk together to the library, boulangerie, the candy shop, used book store, bead store, ice cream shop, and toy store located in the little downtown situated around the intersection of State and Main Streets. Sometimes Jie-jie will go with a friend. They relish their independence in Montpelier all the more because they have no such freedom in the city where they must always be accompanied by an adult.

Just before I get into the car to return home (my other home), I take a deep, deep breath of the sweet, cool, clean air, listen to the silence behind the sounds, and savor a bittersweet twinge of regret as steel myself, my body tensing in happy anticipation like a swimmer awaiting the start of a race, to plunge back into the life that awaits me in the city. As we are driving back to Manhattan. I look out over the beauty of the Green Mountains (if you have never driven in daylight on I-89 between White River Junction and Burlington, you are missing out) and consider the differences between the world laid out before me and the one that surrounds me when I am in New York – Vermont’s open vistas versus a beautiful jumble of buildings piercing the sky. It seems that, if you substituted a person for every tree in sight and replaced each mountain with a dozen tall buildings, you would almost, but not quite, bridge the differences between two worlds that are so immeasurably distinct. One, almost pure nature.

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The other, the work of human hands.

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But often at its most beautiful when it collides with the natural world:

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As we made the neighborhood rounds over the holiday break, our Montpelier neighbors asked about the New York life. I said that it is going well, that I love it in the city. “But this is home, right?” one neighbor asked, “Which would you choose? Which do you prefer?”

“Of course this is home,” I replied. “But don’t make me choose. Right now, I have it all.”

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The Year in Candy

Being the studious type, when I was pregnant with Jie-jie I read my way through the pregnancy, childbirth, and child development sections of the Public Library. I read somewhere (Sears and Sears, The Baby Book, I think) that if during pregnancy and in the first year or two you limit your children’s in-take of refined sugar and other simple carbs, they won’t develop a sweet tooth. I developed a food introduction plan from a book called Super Baby Food (Yaron), and leaving out the sugar was consistent with the plan. So, my both of my children went without refined sugar and simple carbs for the first year. After that, we did not worry about it as much, but we still didn’t really offer those things at home.

Now, nearly a decade later, I can say that my children are great with sweets. Mei-mei is more likely to stop eating an ice cream when it is only half done than she is to actually finish it. Too sweet, she says. Jie-jie often skips birthday cake if it is very sweet or heavily iced. Our children are so uninterested in eating candy that in both New York and Vermont we have entire cupboards devoted to the storage of surplus goodies. We don’t worry about them having access to it, either.

It’s not that they don’t like candy. In fact, they really like stopping in at the local candy shops, amassing tremendous amounts of Halloween candy, Valentine sweets, Easter treasures, etc. What they don’t seem to care much about is actually eating all the candy they collect. They eat a little, but the truth is that they don’t like it that much. Sadly, I have a very highly developed sweet tooth, and I am certain that I eat more of their loot than they do.

Each year, typically shortly after Thanksgiving, we dig out all their candy. We unwrap and sort it and use it to decorate gingerbread houses and cookies. Whatever we don’t use goes to the trash.

We are a bit late with our gingerbread house construction, so this evening I just pulled out their candy. It really is quite amazing how much candy two children can accumulate over the course of a year’s worth of holidays, birthday parties, house guests bearing gifts, and trips to the sweet shop.

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Seeing all those pounds of leftover candy leads me to wonder how many pounds of sugar they consume over the course of the year. I am concerned about the health impact of all that sugar when it comes to my own kids. Since I suspect our candy acquisition rate is at or below average, I am even more concerned about those children who consume more sweets.

According to the USDA (http://www.usda.gov/factbook/chapter2.pdf), Americans consume an average of 152 pounds of caloric sweeteners annually. That is 50% more sweeteners than 50 years ago. Scary stuff since research suggests that sugar is addictive, and associated with unhealthy cholesterol levels, type-2 diabetes, obesity, cancer, and, of course, tooth decay.

Perhaps it is time to consider the role of sweets in our children’s celebrations and special moments. The goodies we lovingly and indulgently give our children today may be limiting their good health in the future.

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Signs of New York

When we were in China, I took photos of particularly amazing English-language signs. Some signs here in New York have also caught my eye. These particularly signs are usually unique, amateur slips of paper posted in public spaces. The signs tend to express outrage, make a moral appeal, or convey complex directions. Here are a few examples with more to come.

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No place like home?

Grading student papers in which they gather census data on their home zip code (or alternative of their choice) and compare with the areas studied in the ethnographies we are reading – and reminded of something that I take to be a distinguishing factor between types of places and their people:

I grew up in and have almost always lived in places that are self-consciously distinct and the home to people who know that their lives are not “typical” in at least a couple of important ways. I normalized the distinctness of locale, so I was shocked the first time I heard someone say that their home community was “just like any other place” and, to be honest, I didn’t even know what that meant (not enough car trips, big box establishments, and television as a child, I guess). Still shocks me a bit when I see it in writing – the possibility that a collusion of media images, school curricula, economic and cultural segregation, selective travel, and inattention to national and global affairs results in a reality that is constructed in such a way as to give people the impression that everyone else’s lives are just like their own.

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The sociological context of urban ethnography

Yesterday at the 2014 American Sociological Association Annual meeting, Wisconsin Sociology Professor Alice Goffman ran the disciplinary gauntlet in the form of an author meets critics session focused on her new book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Goffman has received a great deal of press for her work (e.g. here), and there has been, especially in the wake of the attention, expressions of hostility to On the Run. Critics have raised questions about the validity of the research, Goffman’s ethnographic focus on the most stereotypically “ghetto” of the residents of the neighborhood where she did her fieldwork, issues of research ethics, and the white and privileged position from which the book and its warrant seem to be emanating.  A large crowd turned out for the event, many attendees were looking for the opportunity to criticize the book and its author. The hostility was undeniable.

I would like to suggest that we dispense with the emphasis on Goffman – both laudatory and virulent – and look to the discipline to understand why On the Run is the book it is.

Ethnographers in sociology face some unique challenges when it comes to publishing. My experience is that ethnographic work does not easily lend itself to the standard article format and my sense is that ethnographic work is underrepresented in the journals relative to the number of people doing such work – especially if you separate empirical pieces using ethnographic data and theoretical and methodological treatises written by ethnographers. Ethnographers gravitate toward the book format. (NOTE: this is all unsubstantiated. I’ll see what I can do, but not today).

When I was shopping my manuscript to the presses, I was told quite directly by a very esteemed publisher of urban ethnography and community studies that my work was not sexy enough for his press. Where was the biographical construction of “characters” that would hook the reader? Where was the ethnographic detail that would take the readers on a vicarious journey into the world of those characters? In other words, to put it in a somewhat inflammatory manner, where was my account of the exotic others that inhabited my field site, and how was I going to make their presumed strangeness familiar to my readers? I tried to push back. According to C.Wright Mills, sociologists seek to make the familiar strange by exposing the way everyday social life is shaped by the operation of recurring social processes and interrelated social institutions. I hadn’t conducted an ethnography of Muslim, Somali, immigrants in Lewiston, Maine, or the white Mainers that reacted with hostility to immigrant newcomers. My ethnography observed local processes of community inclusion and exclusion that referenced extra-local forces as they unfolded in a pretty ordinary place filled primarily with honest and hard-working people who by and large wanted the same thing – comfort, security, self-determination, and the hope of a bright future for their children and grandchildren. Ultimately, I was fortunate to find an editor who appreciated my approach.

What Rios (2011) refers to as the “jungle book trope” is a huge problem in contemporary sociology. How many books must we read in which the punch line is that there is a moral order to life in the ghetto (Hannerz 1969, and on and on), that black children don’t want to fail (Harris 2011), that “dead beat dads” do care for their children (Edin and Nelson 2013), that Muslim immigrant mothers want to help their children develop identites that balance what they believe is the best of their religion and home culture with all that they appreciate about American life, and that their children, like many children, struggle with determining their own balance between tradition and the present, parental guidance and individuality, faith and secularism (McGown 1999)? The first lesson that should have taken long ago is that “other” people are people, too. Let’s move on. (Note: I do not attend to criticize the sociologists who are writing these books, merely to say that we should be beyond needing books that draw that conclusion. We need to push for a change in approach.)

The second lesson that requires learning is that quite frequently the “other” is not so much a real thing as a creation resulting from the pressure that sociologists face to depict as ideal types various distinct “characters” or exotic ways of life – be they Anderson’s (2000) composite “street” kids or a typical evening of bottle service at an elite night club (Mears 2014). I attended one session at the 2014 annual meeting in which an ethnographer shared research conducted in a very wealthy private school attended by exceedingly privileged children. In the Q&A a couple members of the audience pointed out that they had observed in other school settings the didactic practices that the ethnographer claimed were particular to this school for the elites. Was this really a case of some unique thing, “the elite school,” and, if so, what is it that made it distinct? The researcher replied that the elite school was a different kind of thing because, although other schools may focus on creative production, student self-determination, and using the first names of teachers, this school had a 24 (or was it 240?) -acre campus and took their school trips to China. The disgusted snorts in the room following this revelation cemented it – distinct, inexplicable, and (in this case) despicable “other” created. Whatever the elite school is, it was clear we should all agree that the school was nothing like ours and its parents and students were nothing like us. (Note: Again, I think the problem a collective one inherent in our approach to the sociological enterprise, ethnographic work in particular.)

As sociologists, we are charged with the explication of social processes, institutional contexts and structures, cultural systems – some of us may consider these things as they become interiorized as goals, intentions, habitus, values, etc, while others may choose to focus on social life as it exists exterior to individuals. How does one establish the end-boundary of a process or a context? With all due respect to Weber, must we continue to parse the richness of social life into types? In the biological sciences pure taxonomy fell out of favor because it was imprecise as a science and had yielded about as much insight into the natural world as it could (Dobbs 2005). Let us hope that we recognize the limited efficacy of this approach when it comes to understanding the operation of the social world.

Alice Goffman is not the problem. The discipline is.

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