September 17, 2014 Comments Off on Both Feet
In my crazy-intense self-defense class last weekend I commented to the instructor that I was finding I was standing on both feet a lot more often than I usually do, which I associated with blossoming confidence and energy born of new skills. Then at choir, while telling people about my crazy-intense self-defense class last weekend, I noticed myself on both feet when I said the word “ready.”
And I realized I had lied to the instructor. I stand on both feet all the time. Several of my favorite activities involve both feet—I even have my keyboard adjusted to standing height. All the times in my life I feel happiest, most competent, most relaxed, I’m on both feet. If I tied that balanced stance to the confidence and energy of last weekend, I should start listening to myself more often. It makes me think that even the idea of being slouched over on one hip is a lie. Anything that makes me reel like a melting snowman is out. And anytime I find myself standing balanced, I should tune in to the power and jump in with both feet.
August 25, 2013 Comments Off on Life is pain, Highness.
I am not an excessively cynical person—rather the opposite, in point of fact—but even I am aware that terrible things happen daily to people who don’t deserve it, and there is nothing you can do. Your sister might die in a car crash five minutes from now. Previously unnoticed cancer might suddenly metastasize in your body. There might be a serial killer in your neighborhood tonight—whose turn is it to take the dog out after dinner?
Maybe it’s because we’re periodically very aware of all the things that might go wrong in the world and affect us and the people we love that we go so berserk when we think we’ve found a scapegoat. The plaintiffs in the trial I served as juror for in June wanted restitution after a doctor missed something that killed the man of the house a week after his ER visit and subsequent hospital admission. We can all understand the impulse. I agree that in a case of wrongful death it may be reasonable to supply a certain amount of money to offset the expected paychecks that will no longer be forthcoming. I will even grit my teeth and agree that that amount may include the money you would have saved because the guy was handy and fixed everything himself (although where does that leave people with all thumbs and their families?).
But the plaintiff’s lawyer made it clear to us that if we didn’t include at least as much money for “loss of society and companionship” as we did for lost paychecks, we were denying our shared humanity with the deceased. He explained gently that the best translation they had found for that crazy legalese was “heartache.” Wouldn’t we all, he implied, feel a little better if the doctor who callously consigned our loved one to the pits of whatever-it-was-that-killed-him really shelled out because of it?
I was dismissed as an alternate before deliberation, and although I was disappointed not to be able to share my nausea with the rest of the jury, it seems it’s for the best that I wasn’t present. They voted to award the family $850,000 for “heartache” alone. I’ve never heard of anything so appalling. There is such a thing as emotional damage that should be reimbursed by the justice system: ordinary grief when your husband dies unexpectedly is not it. Courts should only award emotional damages when the suffering in question was so unthinkable and terrible that throwing money at the sufferer is the only thing you can possibly think of that might ameliorate it. I keep trying to give concrete examples, but people balk when I do, so all I’ll say is, think prolonged, excruciating, repetitive, sadistic. Suddenly dropping dead in the arms of your son is far from the worst way to go, all things considered.
Yes, it’s sad. But it’s not the legal system’s job to make everyone feel better. It’s not the case that there is money to be had to salve every wound, and it’s just a matter of getting a slimy enough lawyer to manipulate a jury into giving it to you. The joy the wife will feel when she gets her check for $1.6m is nothing like the joy she would feel if her husband walked in the door (I presume). To suggest that it is is deeply offensive to me. Shit happens and it’s terrible and NO you don’t get any money for it. That’s called life. It’s one of those awful unpaid internships and “heartache” is part of the deal. Who do you think you are, that you are entitled to a lollipop and a pat on the head from the justice system? Give me a break.
I was upset for days after one of the other jurors (the only one, apparently, who thought like me) called to tell me what they’d decided. It still makes me angry. I like to think I would have laid rhetorical waste to that room, and made them make the right decision. But who knows. Maybe it’s better I didn’t get a chance to try. I kind of wanted to end this post with a crack about how I should sue for emotional damages, but now that cuts too close to the bone. What a BS trial. What a colossal misuse of the system.
February 4, 2013 Comments Off on Premature Review: Harlot’s Ghost
RRRRGH. What an obnoxious book! I’m on page 796 of 1128 and I am going to finish it but by god I won’t do it quietly. Norman Mailer is supposed to be a 20th-century literary giant, but I will probably never voluntarily pick up another one of his books. I was very excited because the first 80 pages were gorgeous, lyrical writing concerning the narrator’s life in Maine, his love for his wife, an ambiguous suicide, and the ghost that haunts their house. It’s beautiful, nearly magical-realist, and reminiscent of Nabokov, in that it’s awfully pretentious but so so good at what it’s trying to do that you can ignore it. (I can, anyway.) But that whole chunk turns out to be just a preface to the rest of the book, which is much, much, MUCH longer and in large part worthless. It goes back to the narrator’s childhood and how he ended up joining the CIA (his father and godfather are both major figures) and what he does after he gets there. It’s strange—the plot is good but I find an almost complete disconnect between the story and the writing. Not to mention I don’t have any personal stake or even background in the Cold War or the Bay of Pigs or the Kennedy assassination and therefore have a hard time finding the period intrinsically interesting—I need an entertaining foreground.
The main issue is this: people just don’t talk like that!! Mailer does, actually, give the characters discrete voices, which is astonishing given how alike they all sound. They are all pretentious, pontificating, self-absorbed people who talk the same way in person, on the phone, and in writing. This is true of the narrator and his godfather and his wife, which makes sense given their characters, but it is also true of the narrator’s über-macho, thoroughly-Company father as well as the narrator’s lover who is having simultaneous affairs with him, JFK, a mob boss, and a millionaire. The chapter I just finished consisted of a letter from the father, who writes, “Found myself in low spirits over Thanksgiving. Kept thinking of Mary, my old sweet whale of a wife, and now she’s lost to me. She is thinking of getting married to a little Japanese businessman who is probably sitting on more wealth than the state of Kansas, and here am I, old blow-spout of the other half of this beached-whale duo, feeling egregiously elegiacal. Clark Gable died last week, and I discovered to my surprise that I had always felt a large identification with the man. Now, comprehend it. I really don’t know anything about Clark Gable…” And goes on about how he never realized how much he liked Gable except that from time to time he would have imaginary conversations with him. It’s not that your father might not suddenly send you an uncharacteristically confessional letter that takes forever to get down to the business he’s supposed to be writing to you about and in fact that would be incredibly interesting, character-wise, but NOT if he talks like this! Of all the people who can understand the phrase “egregiously elegiacal,” the subset of people who are capable of easily producing that phrase to describe a specific state of mind is probably pretty small, and the sub-subset of people who have the temerity to actually let that phrase out of their mouth (or pen) is smaller still. Ridiculous that every character in this novel seems to come from that same subset regardless of upbringing, intelligence, or place of origin.
It drives me up the wall. If Mailer wants to make the narrator a puling self-absorbed pedant with self-esteem issues and a penchant for luxuriating in descriptions of his own state of mind the way a drunk will sit in his own urine, then okay. If he wants to include a couple other characters cast in a similar mold, then okay. But they cannot all be the same! You could have the narrator describe reading the letter, thinking, “My father appeared to have been in an egregiously elegiacal mood,” but when the letter writer describes himself as egregiously elegiacal after pages and pages of wiretap transcripts where the trashy chick describes breaking up with Frank Sinatra (who earlier called her “kind of scintillating” but perhaps “too square for me”) by saying, “Frank, I adored the tenderness you offered. But I made the mistake of thinking that such intimacy was for me. Last night I realized that you feel kindred emotions for all women. They are part of your music. It just broke my heart when I realized it wouldn’t be me alone,” and pages and pages of letters where a character describes her impenetrable theory that every psyche is composed of two opposing parts, and native Uruguayans holding forth (in English) about “the fluvial nature of corruption” and saying things like “A modest stream helps to flush away the filth even as it elucidates the seductions of light” on top of all the pretentious language that the narrator uses to describe everything else in the book, it’s so unrealistic I can’t keep reading. Scintillating? Kindred? Elegiacal? No, sorry, I don’t buy it. Not only do people not actually talk like that, but they certainly don’t quote themselves talking like that on the phone. The girl’s quoted accounts of her affairs to her friend are tightly structured and include graceful mid-sentence speaker tags, although if you actually listen to the way anyone talks, especially to a close friend, that’s not how it works. Yes, it takes skill to pinpoint an emotion, state of mind, or abstract philosophical concept with perfectly precise words. (“Egregiously elegiacal” is actually a fantastic description of a mood.) But as a novelist, it takes much more skill to pinpoint these things in a character without using ridiculously highbrow language that is not in their idiom. Authors like Barbara Kingsolver can do this, and it’s like watching someone make a polished jewelry box with a hatchet. It’s a miracle. And if they can do it without your noticing, well, that’s the greatest magic in fiction.
Mailer has made one overt concession to different conversational styles, which stands out hilariously. One of the FBI transcripts has the friend ask what the girl wore to a party, and she replies, “I chose a turquoise blue for my gown, and shoes to match.” And her friend says, “Oh, my God, with your black hair! It had to be stunning. I can see your green eyes setting off that turquoise blue.” “It took some thought,” says the girl. “I’m so envious,” replies her friend. “Did you meet anyone new at the party?” Everything about this is funny to me. It’s clear that Mailer has absolutely no interest in fashion, absolutely no clue what girly-girls talk about, which is totally forgivable except when you’re trying to write a believable girly-girl. It’s funny that he thought what they were saying was so frivolous and unimportant that he never realized how stilted and graceless this dialogue is. He probably dashed it off and never looked at it again. He didn’t even bother to add an elision in the transcript (as he does several other places) noting that the girls chatted about clothes for ten minutes. Or even five minutes. And even I, who am not actually a girly-girl, found the description out of character and hopelessly inadequate. What kind of gown? How was it shaped, how long was it? Did it have a foofy skirt? What kind of neckline? What jewelry did she wear with it? Tell me all about the shoes! Real girly-girls would have so much more to say than “what color was your dress?” “blue” that this was probably the moment where I completely lost patience with and faith in Norman Mailer. I no longer expect the writing or the storytelling to improve, although I am curious to see what happens when we get to Dallas 1963.
It will be a long slog but I will finish it. I just couldn’t wait that long to vent about the stupid pretentious writing. But to balance out the bitterness of the rest of this post, I will now share my very favorite passage from the opening, about driving home along the Maine coast. Maybe after you read this you will understand how very disappointed I am. Enjoy.
On that moonless night in March, returning to the Keep, I took the road from Bath to Belfast, the road that goes by Camden. In every cove was fog and it covered one’s vision like a winding sheet, a fog to embrace the long rock shelf offshore where sailing ships used to founder. When I could no longer see anything at all, I would pull the car over; then the grinding of the buoys would sound as mournful as the lowing of cattle in a rain-drenched field. The silence of the mist would come down on me. You could hear the groan of a drowning sailor in the lapping of that silence. I think you had to be demented to take the coast road on such a night.
Past Camden, a wind sprang up, the fog departed, and soon the driving was worse. With this shift in the weather, a cold rain came. On some curves the highway had turned to ice. Going into skids, my tires sang like a choir in a country church surrounded by forest demons. Now and then would appear a shuttered town and each occasional streetlight would seem equal to a beacon at sea. Empty summer houses, immanent as a row of tombs, stood in witness.
I was full of bad conscience. The road had become a lie. It would offer traction, then turn to glass. Driving that car by the touch of my fingertips, I began to think once more that lying was an art, and fine lying had to be a fine art. The finest liar in the land must be the ice monarch who sat in dominion on the curve of the road.
November 14, 2012 Comments Off on Got Politics?
What I learned from this election is that I have no political opinions because every election I’ve voted in (okay, so not all that many) has been dominated for me by human rights issues, which are not politics. It reminds me of the Confucius quote in The Diamond Age: “The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge.”
Everything starts at the bottom. Before I can even begin to care about reducing the national deficit—which seems like an enormous problem to me and one that I can’t believe everyone isn’t panicked over—I need to feel safe in my personal rights. I need to know that I will have free access to birth control and abortion services if I need them. I need to know that I will be allowed to marry a woman (odds are it will be a man, but I like to keep my options open). I need to know that I can say whatever I want without fear of government retribution and that I deserve the same pay as a man. When my own life is safe and in order, then I will be able to learn and care about politics. Not before.
Hopefully sane Americans have sent a successful message with the trouncing of Romney/Ryan, not to mention Akin, Mourdock, Rivard, et al.: Can we please talk about politics now?
September 7, 2012 Comments Off on Skill Inflation
Some days it seemed like my teenagehood consisted largely of being told how grateful I should be that I had food, a house, etc. I rolled my eyes and sighed and said “Mom…” But apparently I was successfully brainwashed because I find myself saying it all the time.
One slightly convoluted application of this came up for the first time (and has recurred many times since) when Simon and I went to see a friend’s senior piano recital. She did a great job! She played a crazy piece that made no sense but somehow sounded exactly like birdsong. And I thoroughly enjoyed the recital because she was my friend, but Simon came out of it critical because he’d been comparing her to all the world-class pianists he hears all the time. It made me sad that we don’t applaud skill anymore because we have usually seen or heard something better. If this were the 19th century, when young ladies were expected to play the pianoforte at parties for the entertainment of the guests, and my friend had sat down and played the bird song, everyone would have had a collective seizure of ecstasy and proposed marriage on the spot (I imagine). But because with the touch of a button I can listen to Philippe Entremont or Ivan Moravec, everything magically becomes a lot less impressive.
I try to make an effort to be conscious of pleasures that show up somewhere on the spectrum, not only those that light up the ends. The same way you can be grateful for having macaroni and cheese from a box to eat even though it’s not as good as the filet mignon you had at that four-star restaurant that one time, you can appreciate a decent pianist who has worked hard even though she isn’t Glenn Gould, or avidly follow the star of the high school basketball team even though he isn’t Michael Jordan, or enjoy a book by the local author even though she isn’t Barbara Kingsolver. Don’t let constant access to excellence make us snobs about everything. And just because no one will think you’re the next Sir Laurence Olivier doesn’t mean you shouldn’t audition to play Hamlet. In the face of the current monumental struggle for everyone to understand politics and economics, history and literature, science and religion—in short, Everything—on a planetary scale (because otherwise how will you know who to vote for or which countries we should declare war on?), it is useful to turn everything off and remind yourself that even what is not excellent is still very, very good.
August 26, 2012 Comments Off on A Fire for Change
I’m actually probably too young and too inexperienced to make this statement, but I’m going to go ahead and do it. I am sick to death of being condescended to by jaded people. When I learn about something that doesn’t work perfectly and I express frustration and a desire to change it, and the people who have been responsible for enlightening me smirk at each other like, “Oh, I remember when I felt that way,” I want to strike them.
The world is big. It’s too big. It’s not possible to actually process most of what goes on every second of every day in every square foot of each of the one hundred ninety-six countries currently on the planet. I understand that it’s a defense mechanism against an overwhelming world to learn to accept what is and navigate your tiny little affairs as best you can within that framework. But that’s why I think that people who have the wherewithal and patience to take on a system—really take it on, not just think and whine about it or write about why it will never be changed—have a duty to do it, and the people who don’t need to get out of their way.
Take my outrage over a certain hospital cafeteria in Minnesota, with no salad bar but a reasonable selection of things like deep-fried reuben bites and bread-filled cheese sticks (yes, really), that only accepts cash (because you just don’t rush out the door to visit an aunt who’s just had a heart attack without making damn good and sure you have plenty of cash for the hospital cafeteria), plus the hospital owns the blocks around it to prevent a competing, sensible business to be set up nearby. Because of this I am seriously considering a master’s in public health. Or take my brainstorms at the Department of Transportation, that exalted temple of good sense and efficiency where I am currently employed, which are promptly shot down even before I manage to get going by people whose tone is very much, “Oh, you cute little thing. If you’d only been around as long as I have you’d see why you should just give up on this.” Or the water use laws in the Southwest, which are prodigiously stupid, barbaric and unconscionable, and which were delivered to me by a park ranger with a smirk like, “Yeah, makes you mad, doesn’t it, kid?”
How dare you ever react to someone’s desire to change something that needs changing with scorn, amusement, or disdain? A fire to change situations, societies, laws, customs—on any scale—is quite possibly the most important mission that anyone can undertake. Sure, a lot of people who express anger or frustration will just adapt and become jaded and bitter—or worse, come to “see the sense” in the system—and probably a lot of what outrages me at first will eventually fade to that place. But there are things that really set me on fire, and by god, I think I could make a difference. No matter what we’re talking about, it has never been except with imagination and energy that it has ever been improved. Someone who displays both should command your deepest respect…because they are trying to do something important that you can’t or won’t do. It might take a newbie or a youngster to see these problems at all; it might take a newbie or a youngster to ignore the amount of painful adjustment that it would take on the part of established system; it might take a certain amount of idealism, even naiveté, to even think that it’s possible to change this or that…and it might not work after all. But that doesn’t mean it’s futile to try. Those are not character flaws. Those are not weaknesses. On the off chance that their initiative actually takes them somewhere—even or especially if your own prolonged study and thought has not—you should SAY YES and get the fuck out of the way.
July 9, 2012 Comments Off on Drugs and Squeeze Machines
I should be fMRI’d. It would probably be interesting because I think I’m always on drugs. My mind appears to be structured in such a way that it periodically and without any external or chemical help ascends to the slightly higher states of consciousness that result in Deep Thoughts whose repetition to a normal person would be cause for mirth. Not that the thoughts aren’t profound and possibly life-altering, but the profundity and life-altering quality is highly specific to the person thinking/feeling it and nearly imperceptible to everyone else. I like to think that “normal” minds are like sloths to whom the ceiling is a solid face of luminous green high above, whereas I am a tree frog, and my ceiling is a lacy fretwork of individual leaves within fairly easy reach, and through it I can usually, if I bother to look, perceive the sky.
Apparently this is why people do drugs?
But I can lift my mind on purpose with breathing and so forth. Try this: Make a V with your first two fingers and place it under your nose. Press one finger against your right nostril and make a full inhale and exhale through your left. Switch so that your next full breath is through your right nostril. Repeat that four times. Doesn’t that lift your mind? The other thing that helps is physical constriction. Its least extreme manifestation is a sweatshirt with a hood, but I deeply enjoy being wrapped tightly in a blanket, burrito-style, and in times of great agitation and scatter-mindedness it helps me to have Simon wrap me in a blanket and then lie on top of me.
Both these things, but alternate-nostril breathing in particular, help me concentrate; it puts me in a flow state. It’s an interesting way of putting it because what it most resembles is lowering the Reynolds number in a stream. A Reynolds number is a dimensionless expression of turbulence: it is the product of mean flow velocity and depth divided by kinematic viscosity. High Reynolds numbers result from high flow velocities, deep flow beds, and lower viscosities. If a fluid’s viscosity is very low, as with water, for its flow to be smooth and uniform it must be moving at a very low velocity or in a very thin layer. Even in an extremely slow-flowing body of water there are eddies and turbulence. But if the fluid is highly viscous, like, say, corn syrup (well, more like magma, but let’s stick with this for now), it tends toward laminar flow so strongly that it takes significant disruption to create turbulence. Can you even imagine a rapids made of corn syrup? This is what happens to my mind after a good yoga class, or after breath exercises: my mind turns from water to corn syrup, and it is less easily disrupted. Flow state, indeed.
And the physical stuff reminds me of Temple Grandin, who remembers inventing a “squeeze machine” as a girl—it was a copy of something cattle have to keep them calm while being vaccinated and so on, and it worked for her. She put emphasis on its helping her with her autism, but I think it might apply to everyone. Even claustrophobic people find immersion in water relaxing, and I’d bet money it’s because of the slight pressure. What about kids and forts? On the rare occasions I actually (with the help of an adult) created a tent around the sofa that was big enough to stand up in, it seemed to lose something. Pressure is good. Small spaces are good.
It seems clear that there is a link between energy (as in chi) and concentration. I think I have a tendency toward high energy, or at least scattered energy, in a way that makes my mind turbulent and difficult to focus. I have a suspicion that if I could really focus my energy, I would exist at a higher mental plane AND be incredibly productive. It seems like a blessing to be periodically high without having to use any chemicals. I just need to figure out how not to lose my balance in the rush.