Angle of Repose

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“You yearned backward a good part of your life, and that produced another sort of Doppler Effect. Even while you paid attention to what you must do today and tomorrow, you heard the receding sound of what you had relinquished.”

“Routine work, that best of all anodynes which the twentieth century has tried its best to deprive itself of—that is what I most want.”

Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner

I have no idea why I started reading Angle of Repose, but I am not sure that any book I’ve read recently captured so perfectly that sense of wishing I could breathe life into my own late grandparents’ stories (or the stories of anyone who has left this life)… longing to bring all the details I never thought to ask to life again, to recreate their individual histories and the story they built together. To have, or at least imagine, all the answers to questions I never thought to ask. This history lost to time, as it is in all families. I was quite unexpectedly moved by this quite long book.

“My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandparents’ side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.”

Perhaps the best of books do this to us – we don’t know what to expect going in, and we are constantly surprised, even when what we are confronted with is quite simple, but beautiful. Angle of Repose is certainly both, the richly historical fiction of the American West coupled with two rather tragic but unsentimental stories (one from the past, one in the present, which was, at the time of the book’s publication, the early 1970s.

Smash the bejesus out of July

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How, oh how, is it JULY 1?

Already?

Rolling my eyes at people saying, “I just don’t have the bandwidth for that.”

Fucking right you don’t – you’re not a goddamn wifi network. Find some … original, non-corporate-cannibalizing language for being busy. I want to take giant earth-moving equipment, scoop up all the bastardized and meaningless corporate language and dump it in a landfill and start all over again with the basics.

But then lots of words and their uses, misuses, mispronunciations and all manner of language-related things get under my skin. Not always in a bad way. My dear Scots abuse language constantly. My inner grammarian cringed at first, but the linguist took over and fell so much in love with its unique flavor and quirks.

I have written before about how a person, particularly a writer, will get stuck on a word and repeat it (I am not alone in this inquiry) – at least enough times that I think they either have bad or no editing, or they themselves are deliberately reveling in and using this word. That is, perhaps it has a deeper meaning for them, and they want to hammer a point home with its repeated use. Or, as Anne Helen Petersen does in her recent book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, some version of “abject” or “abjection” recurs, quite deliberately as a key word. She goes so far as to define the word and pick apart its roots to show how it applies time and again to “unruly women” – the subject of her book. (I happen to like the word “abject”, and I was pleased not only to see it here but to notice it in a book I read after Petersen’s.) Perhaps the way my brain tracks individual words reduces the overall power of the theme or the work, but I hope I’m taking it all in regardless of my own obsession with diction.

Book ends

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“…feeling of humiliation is simply the feeling of being an object. Once this is grasped, it can become the basis of an aggressive lucidity thanks to which the critique of the organization of life can no longer be detached from the immediate inception of the project of living otherwise.” –The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

Each time I find myself falling into the kind of doubt brought about by being too much in my own head, luckily, last-minute spontaneity (is there any other kind than last minute, though?) propels me back into a world full of people and noise. With absolutely no plan I dashed away for all of 24 hours, door-to-door, even though I had only just come home, had only just done the long drive from the airport, had only just settled in to enjoy half of the Midsommar weekend before returning to work from a too-short vacation. Unsettled by a strange melancholy, though, when a sudden opportunity arose, I jumped at it, and off I flew off to a former stomping ground for an event that served as a kind of an end of endings.

But my god how tired I am now. Do I feel more settled? No. Perhaps, though, more determined. I can’t easily explain this. What kind of determination?

Between reading just about everything Naomi Klein ever wrote (these books make me so angry), I found my “quick-read break” in Roxane Gay’s Hunger. Not that it was a breezy book, but it was further evidence (all thoughtful memoirs seem to provide this) that humans are cruel; humans are resilient; human individuals are beset and defined by tremendous fear and doubt; human individuals do not love themselves much but may come to love themselves, piece by piece, against all odds, only through some miraculous maneuvering, experience and remarkable perseverance.

And it seems, at least in a world where we have too much time to luxuriate in the suffering of our own misery and self-reflection, these experiences and doubts are fundamentally universal. How many of us have gone into some kind of self-imposed exile, real or within our own bodies or minds? How many of us have self-medicated pain away in a thousand different ways? How many of us have indeed desperately wanted to curry favor with some other person, or god forbid, make them love us, losing or never knowing ourselves or our desires, by submitting to whatever they want – or even what we think they want?

I don’t know that this strange combination of need-to-hide but need-to-please ever completely leaves; it shifts and is not the primary driver of one’s behavior. It does not get one into as much trouble. Less patience and tolerance for the whims, fantasies and projections of others, yes. Pushing back and asserting boundaries, yes. Finding healthier management mechanisms, maybe. But complete immunity? I don’t think it exists. Is this process, though, what I mean by ‘determination’?

Photo by Matt Alaniz on Unsplash

Memoirs & McKagan

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In between the more grueling books I’m juggling, I make room spontaneously for “spot choices” – something that I am reminded of in the spur of the moment, something I would not necessarily seek out eagerly (Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality and the Struggle for Oral Health in America, anyone?) but which might be interesting in some way. This is, as I have mentioned before, how I come to read most contemporary autobiographical memoirs. They share some background information about admired (or not) musicians or celebrities, but don’t usually set my brain ablaze. Sure, from the thoughtful writing of Carrie Brownstein and Kim Gordon, both seemingly effortlessly cool public figures, I glimpsed that seemingly universal truth that no matter how cool, aloof, nonchalant and in control we seem on the surface, there’s an insecure, wants-to-be-liked person underneath.

Even the memoirs of “regular” people (which, of course, all of these books underline: we all are regular people), such as the pleasant-enough Shrill by Lindy West and the charmingly self-deprecating All Over the Place by effusively expressive Geraldine DeRuiter (and I am dead serious here: if you don’t already read Geraldine’s Everywhereist blog, do. Also follow her on Twitter; one of my favorite Twitter feeds), forge this kind of ‘we’re all in the soup’ of humanity by sharing their everyday experiences. (Or maybe now that I look at this as a pattern, I read all of these because there is the Seattle connection to all of them but Kim Gordon.)

That said, these kinds of books are rarely ever deeply challenging, will be fast and easy to read. They may make us smile, laugh, nod in agreement and approval or even get angry or feel sympathy for the writer. These are very human books. It was in this way, in one of these palate cleansing frames of mind, that I came to read Duff McKagan’s How to Be a Man.

I don’t know how Duff McKagan ever ended up being someone on my radar, bookwise or otherwise. Somehow since junior high school in the Seattle area, he, despite my not being the Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘type’ (whatever that is), stuck out (probably being a local boy and all helped that visibility). Later, I think I was impressed by the fact that he went back to college after the heyday of GnR and worked on finding his sobriety and ways to maintain it. At another point in my life, I would not have picked up this book; in fact even if I had, I don’t think I would have taken anything away from it. But this time, having had the experiences of the last decade, I approached it differently.

But this is what I will say about it: Despite the fact that it struck me as slightly disorganized (some parts more organized than others), slightly random (although some parts were considerably slicker than others, which made me think the editing was choppy), neither of these things made the book bad. It in fact inspired the feeling and sense of sitting and listening to the guy reel off stories and opinions about his life and his experiences. Maybe that was what he was going for – the relatable (well, in tone, perhaps, not in all the activities – although let’s be clear, as Duff most certainly is – all Seattleites DO live with the ticking-clock on summer, and the damn deck/lawn/painting/housework can only be done in rain-soaked Seattle in that limited window) and conversational.

The book was entertaining and perfectly served the need I had at this exact moment:

*It flowed quickly, even if, as I stated, the editing didn’t make the content flow all the time.

*I liked the random lists of stuff, particularly the diverse variety of recommended albums and books. I would probably add more must-hear albums/artists (today I am overly influenced by the songwriting genius of Neil Finn/Crowded House and the longevity and wild creativity of Robyn Hitchcock). I would also add many books, but who wouldn’t? There are too many books in the world to be able to do justice to a must-read list, which McKagan himself acknowledges, describing his propensity for populating his personal library both in digital and paper formats:

“But a bookstore is the ultimate way to immerse yourself in what’s new. You can browse, and you can ask around, something you can’t do as well in the cocoon of e-commerce. It can be the littlest hint or clue that sends people looking for a book and thrusts their life briefly in new directions. It can be gossip you hear in line for an espresso or a movie you see on espionage. The direction of your reading can very well influence your life for a while.” –How to Be a Man

Clearly he gets what most passionate readers get:

“This is every reader’s catch-22: the more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing. There is no way to finish, and perhaps that shouldn’t be the goal. The novelist Umberto Eco famously kept what the writer Nassim Taleb called an “anti-library,” a vast collection of books he had not read, believing that one’s personal trove should contain as much of what you don’t know as possible.” –My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul

*On addiction and sobriety, he didn’t have anything new to say that I haven’t heard or read from recovering addicts or specialists in this field. But it’s nevertheless key to see some of the resounding themes: resentment and regret; again, some of this same lack of self-esteem and assurance that the other memoirists listed above have expressed, e.g. learning to like and trust oneself; that, as cliche as it sounds, it’s a one-day-at-a-time process. And sometimes the things that pull you through are unexpected and maybe even the smallest things that then go on to have ripple effects. In his case it was his ‘latching onto’ Jim Rome’s radio show, and when he appeared on the show as a guest, this prompted other listeners to take steps to regain control of their own lives. This too could sound cliche, but the kinship of addicts, and the power of these small sparks to inspire, is the same kind of things I have seen in trying to understand and connect with recovering alcoholics in my own life:

“This life is crazy. It’s the little things that can be absolute game changers.” –How to Be a Man

*Seahawks, Seattle sports and the constant, indefatigable cheering for the (hometown) underdog. Need I say more?

*Seattle. Yes, Seattle. (Do I sound all homesick? I swear I’m not! I left so long ago for a reason!) That place that suddenly became visible in the 1990s, from which its veil was slightly lifted with the mania that surrounded Twin Peaks during its first go-around (even though this was not technically Seattle, you’d still have to go to Seattle to get to the real-world equivalent of Twin Peaks). It is hard to believe now that Seattle was ever this unheard-of place that McKagan describes.

But true story: in junior high, I had a pen pal in California (this was 1989) who phoned me once and asked not only what time it was in Seattle (says more about his ignorance of time zones and geography than Seattle’s invisibility). He seemed surprised to learn that I had ever heard of Depeche Mode and even that I had a phone. If I recall, it was the same year that Time magazine covered the insular nature of Washington state and its ire at “rich Californians” showing up to scoop up all the land. Hmm. (I did go back to see if I could find that issue of Time, and it was, as a side note, interesting to see the cover stories – Donald Trump on the cover in Jan 1989, taunting readers that we would all be “green with envy” about his wealth – or a headline: “The New USSR?” – or Kevin Costner, just releasing Field of Dreams, or Pete Rose, just being tossed for life from baseball. Oh, hilariously, there was a cover featuring the Rolling Stones, including a headline about “aging rockers”… and we thought they were aged then?)

Back to the point. Seattle was on no one’s radar. Not in any appreciable way, at least. Not until Nirvana came along:

“I used to brag to anyone who would listen that these guys were from “my town” and that soon the rest of the world would realize that people didn’t live in tepees in Seattle!” –How to Be a Man

While McKagan framed the singular Seattle “way” within the lens of sports (and a bit in music), it is on the whole accurate about the city’s attitude and evolution.

It is a place of some stoicism, insularity and a bit of an outsider’s “fuck ’em” attitude. Claire Dederer posits in her own sort of memoir, Love & Trouble:

“Seattle is not a big city for crying. Seattle, in fact, is famously emotionally stoppered. There are many theories as to why this is the case; some say it’s because of our dominant genetic and cultural heritages: Norwegian and Japanese. Whatever the reason, Seattle is a place where you are not supposed to emote. You are supposed to endure. In Seattle, where rain and traffic are two snakes twining, choking the body of the city, forbearance is an art. We don’t cry, we just put on more Gore-Tex or maybe use the driving time of our commute to listen to a self-improvement book on tape. Though “driving” is a strong word for what happens when you get into a car in Seattle. And yet suddenly there were these crying hot spots.”

“When you visit other cities, get asked about Seattle. The people you meet want to move there. No one used to move to Seattle except aeronautical engineers and, like, rabid fishing enthusiasts. No one used to know where Seattle even was. They thought maybe it was in Oregon.”

And this obscurity from which Seattle was lifted has made it a too-hot, too-desirable place, in which most mere mortals cannot afford to live.

So… bottom line, I don’t know if I would recommend that anyone read McKagan’s book. I will, though, be giving a copy to one person who will be able to relate, and I think in that way it will help him. And perhaps that is the most one can hope for: reaching one person, especially when they need to hear your particular message, one day at a time.

Zero-sum game: Learning to give

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I read recently that there is a backlash to e-book sales in the UK. I love the immediacy and convenience of being able to get books on my Kindle device, especially because I live in the country, and even if bookstores were more accessible, I’d find precious little to suit my tastes. I could never feed the hunger for a book a day that is my current appetite, and if I could, I would not find quite the range of things I want. Thus, I appreciate e-books, but there are moments that I long for the real thing. (I suppose this is not unlike something like … if I may be so crass, sex toys/masturbation versus actual sex. Imitation does its job and in many cases may even be more effective, but it’s more clinical. Nothing is quite the same as the real thing. And guess what? It’s National Masturbation Month now! Take note!) In fact, imitation is one of the ways we can isolate ourselves, which is the point of this meandering ramble.)

We could praise this shift – moving to more compact and “less wasteful” modes of producing information, but we lose tradition and the ritual that comes with selecting a new books – the heft of it in your hands, the smell of the paper, the thickness and quality of the paper, the artwork/design, the way the book’s spine wears and pages grow tattered. We love them in a way we will never love an e-book. As cumbersome as it was to travel with books, for example, I enjoyed taking books on the road with me and then leaving them behind in airports, airplanes, hotel rooms, friends’ houses, cafes, wondering if their story would continue – would someone else take possession of the book and get something completely new? What would happen to a book I purchased in Iceland and left in Halifax, Montreal, Mexico City? Now, this will never happen again.

We have certainly lost something – not just in consuming and loving literature but in the way we live, the way we define ourselves, the way we consume, the way we relate to and love others and ourselves and, fundamentally, the way we are. Perhaps it does not matter because the universe as a whole is just a long series of losing things – or things imperceptibly changing. But observing the moment we live in, it feels hollow. No amount of flashing lights and distractions can distract from the emptiness the culture creates.

Dubravka Ugrešić writes in Karaoke Culture:

“The very foundation of karaoke culture lies in the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games. Today people are more interested in flight from themselves than discovering their authentic self. The self has become boring, and belongs to a different culture. The possibilities of transformation, teleportation, and metamorphosis hold far more promise than digging in the dirt of the self. The culture of narcissism has mutated into karaoke culture—or the latter is simply a consequence of the former.”

“We walk through the world with our memory sticks around our necks, each of us with our own homepage, each of us with an archive stored on the web. We, are everywhere . . . And the more voluminous the archive that trails us, the less of ourselves there seems to be . . . We don’t communicate with each other . . . Oh so modern, we put things on YouTube so anyone can gawk at them. We used to send out ghostly signals of our existence, and now we make fireworks out of our lives. We enjoy the orgy of being, twittering, buying new toys, iPhones and iPads, and all the while our hunger just grows and grows. We wear memory sticks around our necks, having of course first made copies. The memory stick is our celestial sarcophagus, our soul, our capsule, our soul in a capsule*.”

“In all its manifestations karaoke culture unites narcissism, exhibitionism, and the neurotic need for the individual to inscribe him or herself on the indifferent surface of the world, irrespective of whether the discontented individual uses the bark of a tree, his or her body, the Internet, photography, an act of vandalism, murder, or art. In the roots of this culture, however, lies a more serious motive: fear of death. From the surface of karaoke culture shimmers the mask of death.”

We are indeed more alienated and isolated – both from others and, even more alarmingly, from ourselves. But with gadgets, platforms and forms of high-tech mirrors, we fool ourselves into thinking we are self-aware because we are self-involved, self-obsessed even. But it’s the superficial self we plaster all over every new social media channel and into every app – crying out for attention – and connection – but moving further away from it all the time as we turn ourselves into caricatures, and eventually, commodities. And we start to see each other as commodities for exchange.

Treating each other as commodities, and treating ourselves as objects we must market and ‘improve’ so we can place the highest value possible on ourselves (but in a way that somehow empties us of self-esteem), started as a pet peeve for me but has grown into a full-blown worry as the trend has accelerated in the digital age and become its own form of epidemic. Dehumanized automatons cataloging themselves online for consumption in one form or another. I am no less guilty of committing this commoditization crime, subscribing to the “marketplace” idea of love or care. We convince ourselves there’s an endless supply of other, better, more interesting options, and so teach ourselves to dehumanize – that there is nothing to treasure, and nothing to trust in. It’s not a new idea, attempting to assign an ROI to people, to cut losses. It’s a game of emotional preservation, but it’s also a perversity. Eventually it does become about summing up balance sheets and ensuring you’re not playing a zero-sum game. And what in the hell does that have to do with care, love, compassion, feeling? It’s not just treating others this way – it’s an internal devaluation that leads us there in the first place.

Erich Fromm captures these very concerns in his The Art of Loving – and did so long before the advent of the internet:

“Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions. Human relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling or action. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome. Our civilization offers many palliatives which help people to be consciously unaware of this aloneness.”

“At any rate, the sense of falling in love develops usually only with regard to such human commodities as are within reach of one’s own possibilities for exchange. I am out for a bargain; the object should be desirable from the standpoint of its social value, and at the same time should want me, considering my overt and hidden assets and potentialities. Two persons thus fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values. Often, as in buying real estate, the hidden potentialities which can be developed play a considerable role in this bargain. In a culture in which the marketing orientation prevails, and in which material success is the outstanding value, there is little reason to be surprised that human love relations follow the same pattern of exchange which governs the commodity and the labor market.”

It’s not just technology that has created this, as evidenced by Fromm’s observations from the 1950s. But technology sprays fuel on the fire and changes. Ugrešić highlights how technology radically changes the perception of everything. I relate, having succumbed to the same mindless tv addiction she describes and am now “clean”. I take it a step further to say it has changed our perception of who we are – how we are – what we are capable of (so much more in some ways, but so much less in others):

“It’s a notorious fact that technology radically changes one’s perception of everything, including time. Thirty years ago I could wile away the hours on the cinematic aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky and similar directors. Today I am ashamed to admit that my eyes have simply been weaned off them; the shots are too long, too slow, and the plot, if there is one, plodding and ambiguous. I used to love all that auteur stuff, but today I don’t have the patience. In the intervening time I’ve become hooked on cinematic “fast food.” Flowing in my veins, this fast food has changed the rhythm of my heart, my attention span, and the rhythms of my respiration. The truth is that I overdosed on television, and so I don’t watch it anymore. I’ve been clean for a while now, and I don’t miss it a bit. But I do watch lots of documentaries—it doesn’t matter what they’re about, the most important thing is that they’re “slow food,” that they offer me the illusion that what is happening on the screen really is happening. The way I read has changed too. At first I was surprised when friends told me that they were going to speed-reading courses. Now I’m thinking about enrolling in a course myself. My eyes are too slow, the computer screen just gets richer and faster, and my attention span is ever shorter. From the sheer quantity of information my memory is getting worse and worse. It’s not just that I have no idea what I consumed on the Internet yesterday, it’s that I don’t remember what I sucked up five minutes ago.”

Should we be alarmed? It can be argued that laws, social mores, technology of earlier ages also came along and changed things. Airplanes, telephones, cars, inheritance laws, vaccines, and so on and on. Every generation predicts the end of civilization (or possibly something slightly less hyperbolic but nevertheless negative) because of change. But change is inevitable. Does it matter, for example, if young people’s brains end up being wired differently because of their affinity for devices? Does it contribute to this disconnection people my age and older are screaming about? Does it matter that taking notes in longhand will make the information stick if young people never really learn to write? Should these be the things we get upset about? Should we listen as Pope Francis chides the digital world for acting as a roadblock to “learning how to live wisely, think deeply, and to love generously”?

Is the loss of tradition, ritual, care going to objectify everything and everyone? Have we already crossed that line? We already “value” everything that is instant or fast. We cannot seem to handle things that are ambiguous or hard. Where do we find hope in this landscape?

Maybe it’s in all those people who take up knitting; all these “rebels” embracing old-fashioned books and letter writing; maybe it’s the neighbor planting a garden. And at the core, perhaps, it is also extending the sense of humanity and connection – building love, which is actually one of the most difficult things. No wonder we run in terror.

Fromm again:

“This attitude — that nothing is easier than to love — has continued to be the prevalent idea about love in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.”

Fromm poses a question, which he may actually, in some measure, have answered himself:

“Here, however, an important question arises. If our whole social and economic organization is based on each one seeking his own advantage, if it is governed by the principle of egotism tempered only by the ethical principle of fairness, how can one do business, how can one act within the framework of existing society and at the same time practice love?”

The answer, as I see it, apart from finding a way to love, is to cultivate true giving. The two go hand in hand.

“Nothing’s free unless it’s freely given” – Charlie Hilton, “Pony”

We can only love if we give freely, and we can really only give freely by loving. Actively. And through both, we can feel alive.

“Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a “standing in,” not a “falling for”. In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving.

What is giving? Simple as the answers to the question seems to be, it is actually full of ambiguities and complexities. The most widespread misunderstanding is that which assumes that, giving is “giving up” something, being deprived of, sacrificing. The person whose character has not developed beyond the stage of the receptive, exploitative, or hoarding orientation, experiences the act of giving in this way. The marketing character is willing to give, but only in exchange for receiving; giving without receiving for him is being cheated. People whose main orientation is a non-productive one feel giving as an impoverishment. Most individuals of this type therefore refuse to give. Some make a virtue out of giving in the sense of a sacrifice. They feel that just because it is painful to give, one should give; the virtue of giving to them lies in the very act of acceptance of the sacrifice. For them, the norm that it is better to give than to receive means that it is better to suffer deprivation that to experience joy.

For the productive character, giving has an entirely different meaning. Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.”

*See also Hal Hartley’s 1998 film The Book of Life.

A palate-cleansing sorbet of trivialities

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Having contemplated a blogging hiatus recently, I briefly put the idea of a hiatus on hiatus. Now I am back to considering a break from it. I suppose it’s not like a store or job where you have to formally shut things down or go on sabbatical – I just follow the ‘inspiration’ for pouring out the contents of my sometimes addled mind as it (inspiration, not the mind) comes (or goes).

I am channeling this energy into an offline project that is moving forward very quickly, and it’s eating every bit of creative marrow I’ve got in my bones. Thus I will potentially write blog posts when I need to unload or unwind. It seems that my most prolific blog writing periods happen when I am thinking too much, overanalyzing and in periods of intense emotional confusion or anguish or something. (Anguish may be too strong a word, but I like it, so I will leave it.) Once free of these things, the feverish urge to blog floats away. Blogging is, in some ways, a kind of existential palate cleanser.

I finished Infinite Jest – finally. As I wrote before, I marveled at its massive depth and breadth but cannot say I liked it. It was laborious to read at times, and I could not wait for it to be finished. I am still reading six other books, though – some great and some for fun (all my ‘hone your psychic abilities’ books are in fun; I have, after all,  to fulfill the psychic destiny one of my exes claimed I had when, while hiking along for many silent hours near Háifoss in Iceland, I randomly blurted out, “Sorbet is a vegan dessert!”. He looked at me as though he’d seen a ghost, and said, “I was just right then thinking about how my grandmother used to make sorbet.”)

I watched the second season of Love on Netflix – it’s easy enough viewing but only remarkable in that “I’ll Be Your Mirror” plays at the end of one episode and made me think back to a moment in time – so very long ago – when I was briefly involved with a Polish guy who made me possibly the most eclectic music tapes ever, and I think he was the first to introduce me to the Velvet Underground (starting with this song). I also recall that he had nothing but critical disdain for the United States – but many years after we had lost contact, I discovered that, after returning to Poland for a number of years, he eventually made a permanent home in, of all places, the American South (that’s a familiar trope, though – the “America Haters” who end up living there quite comfortably in the end).

I’ve cut back immensely on the TV viewing, but there are still things I watch – such as the aforementioned Love, binged in an afternoon; Girls – I’ve hate-watched the whole series, so why would I not complete the circle by watching its final season?; The Americans – it’s one of the best shows ever, and somehow more relevant than ever… and other stuff as well, but it is true that once I broke the cycle (ha!) it seemed quite dull to return to the majority of shows I’d mindlessly been sucking in.

Otherwise, life is work, creative projects, a series of last-minute travel or guests and always hoping for sunlight over the dismally, stormy greyness that pervades today. Nice weather, too, is a palate cleanser.

Letters of the Unliving (Mina Loy)
The present implies presence
thus
unauthorized by the present
these letters are left authorless–
have lost all origin
since the inscribing hand
lost life.

The hoarseness of the past
croaks
from creased leaves
covered with unwritten writing
since death’s erasure
of the writer–
erased the lover

Well-chosen and so ill-relinquished
the husband heartsease–
acme of communion–

made euphonious
our esoteric universe.

Ego’s oasis now’s
the sole companion.

My body and my reason
you left to the drought of your dying:
the longing and the lack
of a racked creature
shouting
to an unanswering hiatus
“reunite us!”

till slyly
patience creeps up on passion
and the elation of youth
dwindles out of season.

Agony
ends in an equal grave
with ecstasy.

An uneasy mist
rises from this calligraphy of recollection
documenting a terror of dementia.

This package of ago
creaks with the horror of echo.

The bloom of love
decoyed
to decay by the finger
of Hazard the swindler–
deathly handler who leaves
no post-mortem mask
but a callous earth.

Posing the extreme enigma
in my Bewilderness
can your face excelling Adonis
have ceased to be
or ever have had existence?

With you no longer the addresser
there is no addressee
to dally with defunct reality.

Can one who still has being
be inexistent?

I am become
dumb
in answer
to your dead language of amor.

Diminuendo
of life’s imposture
implies no possible retrial
by my present self–
my cloud-corpse
beshadowing your shroud.

The one I was with you:
inhumed in chasms.
No creator
reconstrues scar-tissue
to shine as birth-star.

But to my sub-cerebral surprise
at last on blase sorrow
dawns an iota of disgust
for life’s intemperance:

“As once you were”

Withhold your ghostly reference
to the sweet once were we.

Leave me
my final illiteracy
of memory’s languor–

my preference
to drift in lenient coma
an older Ophelia
on Lethe.

Photo (c) 2008 Angela Schmeidel Randall used under Creative Commons license.

On Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness

Standard

“Shy people unsettle others because they unsettle the tacit conventions of social life.”

Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness was not as great a book as I, a lifelong shy person, expected. It did not shed a lot of light on shyness and all its forms and shades – it mostly just introduced us to a slew of famous shy people and the various forms of shyness that ailed them. I expected something more informative or rigorous/scientific somehow, but oh well. Sure, there was some exploration of history, psychology and philosophy and what those disciplines have to say about shyness. But not quite enough.

A few interesting points but mostly it boils down to what I knew before (even if that seems arrogant to say; I know I don’t know everything): being shy is being shy, many people are surprised when they learn that you consider yourself shy, it is not a rare affliction, and sometimes you can fake it (i.e. fake not being shy) in certain circumstances. You never totally get rid of it, but you can tame it – it’s a strange and often mercurial beast.

It has been a swift read as a result of its brevity and lack of depth, so pleasurable and entertaining even if nothing I would necessarily recommend except for a few spots that intersect with topics and conversations I’ve touched on with different people.

Notable bits/quotes:

“Zeno founded the school of Stoicism, a philosophy of self-reliant estrangement from the world and of equanimity in the face of public approval, since status and fame were mere baubles. ‘Stoicism has qualities which foreordained for the bracing of shy souls, as if the men who framed its austere laws had prescience of our frailty,’ write Dalton in Apologia Diffidentis. ‘It is the philosophy of the individual standing by himself, as the shy must always stand, over against a world which he likes not but may not altogether shun.’”

 

“Unlike many of his compatriots, Taine did not think English reserve was the result of an obsession with rank and class that had constipated their emotional lives. It was rather, he felt, that they were brimful of feelings, which were all the more affecting for so rarely bubbling up to the surface to disturb dead-calm waters. The English expressed their passions in ways overlooked by the inattentive, but those who watched carefully could see ‘the emotions pass over these complexions, as one sees the colours change upon their meadows’.”

 

“Shyness may have its roots in human self-consciousness, but it leaves us at the mercy of our animal emotions — making us, in extremis, shake with fear, run away, and hide.”

 

“Shyness did not always have to be an inadequacy but could be a positive quality – something you were rather than something that stopped you from being who you were. Shyness’s energies are often reactive and damage-limiting…; “If you can somehow prevent your shyness from clotting into neurotic risk aversion, it can help you face the world with an added layer of gentleness and curiosity.”

 

(Society-level) shame has receded while (personal) embarrassment has grown: “Although we are more able to retain our self-respect in the face of others’ disdain, we are also more likely to feel ashamed when others might see no reason for us to be.”

 

Oh yes yes yes!: “All through history, letter writing has offered salvation for the shy.”

“A correspondence via the Royal Mail has the potential for show-growing intimacy, enhanced by a deliciously expectant wait between sending and receiving, which e-mail and text messages have since destroyed.”

 

“The Nordic countries rival Southeast Asian ones in the subtlety of their language of embarrassment. A shy Finnish historian I met once told me all the different Finnish synonyms for “embarrassed.” Nolo, the most common word, had a negative sense — for instance, in the phrase “Vähän noloa!” (How embarrassing!), “Nobody wants to be nolo,” he said, “because it also connotes being pitiful.” But there were others words, he added, that roughly tallied with embarrassment — kiusaantunut, vaivaantunut, hämillinen, hämmentynyt — which evoked a more general sense of confusion or discomfort and had a neutral or even positive meaning. Another word, myötähäpeä, the vicarious embarrassment one feels for others, what schadenfreude’s kinder cousin.”

 

(Charles) “Schulz came to believe, in a classically Minnesotan form of self-laceration, that his own inhibitions were upended narcissism. ‘Shyness,’ he wrote, ‘is the overtly self-conscious thinking that you are the only person in the world; that how you look and what you do is of any importance.’ But the lesson of Peanuts is quite the opposite. Who, after all, is a better model of humanity: Lucy van Pelt, who shouts at the world with bone-shuddering conviction, or Charlie Brown, whose shyness has made him a gentle, fair-minded stoic?”

 

“Cultures with a reputation for fostering shyness, such as the Nordic, seem to have a higher tolerance for silence than most. The Swedish ethnologist Annick Sjögren, raised in France, noticed that in her adoptive country the spoken word “weighs lightly” and is no sooner dispensed than it will “vanish into thin air”. French conversation is a rhetorical performance, detached from oneself, so one can say things without thinking, simply to enjoy the sound of the syllables on one’s tongue, without being afraid that one will be called to account for it. In Sweden, by contrast, what one says is a personal marker, and words are pondered for their meaning. Small talk is kallprata, “cold talk”, and Swedish words for the talkative, such as pratkvarnar (chatterboxes), pladdermajor (babblers), and frasmakare (phrasemongers), convey a suspicious attitude toward talking for its own sake. ‘Talking apparently never ceases to be a problem for the Swedes: a lean across an abyss,’ reflected Susan Sontag after living in Stockholm at the end of the 1960s. ‘Conversations are always in danger of running out of gas, both from the imperative of secretiveness and from the positive lure of silence. Silence is the Swedish national vice.’

The Swedish and Finnish words for shyness, blyg and ujo, carry positive associations of being unassuming and willing to listen to others. Many Finnish proverbs point to the value of choosing words carefully and not saying any more than necessary: ‘One word is enough to make a lot of trouble.’ ‘Brevity makes a good psalm.’ ‘A barking dog does not catch a hare.’ ‘One mouth, two ears.’ According to the Finnish scholars Jaakko Lehtonen and Kari Sajavaara, in an essay on ‘the silent Finn,’ the overuse among their compatriots of what linguists call backchannel behavior — nodding, eyebrow raising, saying ‘hmmmm’ while the other person is speaking — is considered intrusive and the preserve of drunks.”

 

My exact observations when I saw film in question; so few words: “The Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s characters are similarly sparing with speech. They work away silently in dull jobs at supermarket checkouts or kitchen sinks and drive through the country’s backroads, chain-drinking vodka while exchanging cryptic grunts. In The Match Factory Girl (1990) thirteen minutes pass, in a film just sixty-eight minutes long, before anyone speaks. …”

“Even in the Nordic countries, silence can carry awkward or hostile subtexts, Ingmar Bergman, in his autobiography, attributes his stammering s a boy to the determination of grown-ups not to speak to a misbehaving child until the child was visibly contrite — a cold shoulder far more painful, he recalls, than the ensuing interrogation, wheedled-out confession, and ritual fetching of the carpet beater. The SWedes have a phrase for it: att tiga ihjäl (to kill by silence). Different cultures may differently assess what constitutes a healthy balance between talking and listening. But silence can be deadly in all of them.”

New Zealand writer, Janet Frame, struggled with a lifelong shyness that crippled her, was subjected to extensive electroshock therapy and nearly lobotomized. Finally found a therapist who understood her (Cawley), who did not ask her to change herself but instead encouraged her to live alone and write – embrace her nature. Learn to live with shyness.

Storr (another psych), “Like Cawley, Storr came to feel that solitariness had its uses and that salvation did not always lie in others. … The naturally solitary could find meaning in their lives by embracing this inheritance rather than simply, as Freud advocated, trying to cure make-believe with cold reason.”

Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins, was famously shy and retiring and not a particularly pleasant personality. And her Moomins reflect this. “Jansson was a great admirer of the book Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle toward Self-Realization, by the psychoanalyst Karen Horney… ; …According to Horney, there are three kinds of neurotic ‘solutions’ to feeling unsafe or unloved: the expansive, the resigned, and the self-effacing. The expansive neurotics pursue mastery over others; the resigned neurotics strive for independence and self-sufficiency; and the self-effacing neurotics are conflict-phobic, criticizing themselves before others have the chance.”

“Jansson’s lesson is not that shy people should come out of their shells; it is that they should learn to become unneurotic introverts. For Moomins may sulk and skulk fleetingly, but most of the time they are neither needy nor neurotic. Their response to a problem is to think deeply and then make something — a hut, a painting, a poem, a boat carved out of bark — as a way of whittling meaning out of a terrifying world.”

The book even delves into Morrissey and his awkwardness and shyness, which, unlike many others so afflicted, managed to make his shyness work to his advantage. And what I most related to: “In this pre-internet age Morrissey relied, like many other shy British teenagers, on the marvelous efficiency of the Royal Mail and the cheapness of its second-class postage to keep in touch with his fellow human from a distance. The most intense crisis of his adolescence, he later said with his trademark blend of flippancy and dead seriousness, was when the price of stamps rose by a penny.”

And within the Morrissey section, a sub-section on Keats:

“The natural mode for the shy lover was the lyric poem: it recollected one’s embarrassment in tranquillity, at a safe distance from the beloved, and eternalized it within a classic literary form. In Keats and Embarrassment (1974), Christopher Ricks argues that one of the great consolations of poetry, with its public articulation of intensely private feelings, is that it helps us to express embarrassment and put it to creative use, making us feel less lonely and estranged in the process. Keats, he says, was a poet particularly attuned to , and insightful about, embarrassment. He felt embarrassed by his lack of formal education, his lowly apprenticeship as an apothecary, his poetry’s poor critical reception, his height (only just over five feet tall)…”

Keats realized that “among the sane, fortifying, and consolatory powers (nature) has is the power to free us from embarrassment, to make embarrassment unthinkable.”

“Keats’s willingness to face the subject of embarrassment in his poems and other writings allowed him to turn awkwardness into ‘a human victory’.”

The keys, though, if you could even call them ‘keys’ as opposed to ‘grin-and-bear-it’ grit (just get through it) come nearer the end of the book.

When offered anti-depressants and other pharmaceuticals to help, the writer concludes pretty much what always crosses my mind: “The sadness caused by shyness is real, and helping others to take the edge off that sadness is a noble aim. But taking a drug for social anxiety — for feeling stupid, boring, or unlikeable — feels like shouting at the wind, arguing with the rain. It feels like trying to find a cure for being alive.”

“All the people I have written about in this book were as shy at the end of their lives as at the start of them. They found ways to hide their shyness, channel it, finesse it, or work around it, but it never went away.”