Said and read – June 2018

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I can’t explain why, but June, despite having had some vacation time, wasn’t filled with as much reading as I’d have liked. This disappointing sentence seems to be a variation on my opening sentence for every single one of these monthly posts. I may finish about 20 (or a few more) books by the end of the month, which of course is shy of the book-a-day pace I’d (however unintentionally) set through most of the early part of this year. I realize it’s not about quantity, but somehow having neglected reading for so many years, I feel as though I am playing catch-up. And I know I will never ‘catch up’. Catch up to what exactly?!

…I’d prefer to begin with some riveting tale about how I feel that too much can be read within a person’s eyes – it’s out of their control and completely unguarded, and each time I try to tell myself to be more open, don’t judge anyone by what their eyes immediately tell me, my initial reaction to a person’s eyes seems accurate. I wish this were not the case. These stories, too, about people’s eyes betraying their true nature, might be more interesting than how I start these chronicles of my random reading.

It might also be more interesting to go on wild tirades about the tyranny and insanity of several world governments at the moment, but what can I really add to that collective outcry? Many books have been and are being written about related subjects – last month I unabashedly recommended Sarah Kendzior‘s The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America, for example; Peter Temin‘s The Vanishing Middle Class is another good one that illustrates that the US is not the ‘best country in the world’, as it boasts in the loudest, most bellicose, violent way possible but is rather a developing country. There are really too many to count.

I can also calmly reaffirm my great love for Scots and how it sounds. A friend shared The Allusionist podcast about my beloved Scots language with me, and I think it’s worth sharing onward.

Dig further into what I was reading, liking, thinking, hating in May, April, March, February and January, if you’re curious.

Thoughts on reading for June:

Highly recommended

*StonerJohn Williams

I did not know what to expect from Stoner – first mentioned to me by a friend not long ago, which caused me to add it to my to-read list. I was never sure when I’d get around to reading it. Some books, after all, linger aimlessly and endlessly on this expansive list (in many cases because the books are not available as e-books or because they are entirely out of print and not easy to get my hands on).

But the simplicity of the narrative – the heartbreaking simplicity and humanity – make Stoner an enduring, if under-the-radar, classic. William Stoner, a farm boy in Missouri who has modest aims and wants, goes to college to study agriculture, and ends up pursuing literature and philosophy and becoming a professor. His life is beset by the troubles and pains of … the average. He never sought much, and his modest needs and wants ensured that he had a life of contentment, marked by his principled nature, even if there were professional struggles, domestic unpleasantness and a brief but intense love affair that ends. It’s almost sad for its/his lack of striving, or at least never striving beyond what he could reach (apart from early on breaking away from a future in farming). Hard to describe what is so compelling, which is largely why it’s a must-read.

“And it might be amusing to pass through the world once more before I return to the cloistered and slow extinction that awaits us all.”

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

“Then he smiled fondly, as if at a memory; it occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love. But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there.”

*Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequencesEdward Tenner

The last book I read in June, and also the one that put me at 200 books for the year so far. Like many books I find myself immersed in, this was a random choice, a recommendation sourced through some other article. It’s hard to say exactly why I enjoyed this book. I think on the surface of it, it is interesting because it chronicles the unintended consequences of some of the most ingenious inventions and innovations (some good, some bad… some positively catastrophic), but at a deeper level, it coaxes the reader to think more holistically about how anything and everything can have unintended consequences and almost prompts one to think in a different or more careful way about planning and implementation of virtually anything, while at the same time, pointing out the folly of believing that even the most careful of risk assessments and examinations of ‘domino effects’ can foresee all the consequences.

“Doing Better and Feeling Worse.” This phrase from a 1970s symposium on health care is more apt than ever, and not only in medicine. We seem to worry more than our ancestors, surrounded though they were by exploding steamboat boilers, raging epidemics, crashing trains, panicked crowds, and flaming theaters. Perhaps this is because the safer life imposes an ever-increasing burden of attention.”

*FuelNaomi Shihab Nye

Poetry. Need I say more?

*Anything by Donald Hall

US Poet Laureate Donald Hall died near the end of June, and it was the perfect opportunity to revisit his poetry. I re-read a few volumes and don’t have one single book to recommend but think you’d do well to start with any.

When he died the other day, I reread and shared this piece about solitude and loneliness, moved anew by the love for solitude but the possibility of finding solitude while still coming together with another person, as Hall did with his partner, fellow poet, Jane Kenyon, with whom, as he wrote, he shared “the separation of our double solitude”, and from which each day they would emerge to be together as it suited them.

*Olive KitteredgeElizabeth Strout

I had long ago seen the HBO film adaptation of Olive Kitteredge, so it was hard to form new ideas about the characters (e.g. Richard Jenkins as Henry and the formidable Frances McDormand as Olive… impossible to erase while reading). Still, I had forgotten so much of what happened in the film that the book was almost like a new experience, and I was carried away by the beautiful, fluid writing, the vivid characters and their lives (and stages of those lives) and by how moving the entire thing was overall.

“Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most, it was a sense of safety, in the sea of terror that life increasingly became. People thought love would do it, and maybe it did.”

Good – really good – but not necessarily great

*What is the WhatDave Eggers

Dave Eggers isn’t really the story – he’s just the writer of the story. And the story is a heartbreaking and challenging story based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese child refugee who migrated to the United States under the Lost Boys of Sudan program.

“Humans are divided between those who can still look through the eyes of youth and those who cannot.”

*IndignationPhilip Roth

I came late to reading Roth (the last two years), and I don’t love everything he wrote. That said, there’s still quite a lot for me to read. I don’t want to recount the plot of Indignation, but there were some thoughts that I took away that have stuck with me for several days, which is, I suppose, one of Roth’s hallmarks: planting thought-provoking seeds, however little or much they have to do with the story.

“I persisted with my duties, determined to abide by the butcher-shop lesson learned from my father: slit the ass open and stick your hand up and grab the viscera and pull them out; nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done.”

“If you ask how this can be—memory upon memory, nothing but memory—of course I can’t answer, and not because neither a “you” nor an “I” exists, any more than do a “here” and a “now,” but because all that exists is the recollected past, not recovered, mind you, not relived in the immediacy of the realm of sensation, but merely replayed. And how much more of my past can I take?”

“Because other people’s weakness can destroy you just as much as their strength can. Weak people are not harmless. Their weakness can be their strength. A person so unstable is a menace to you, Markie, and a trap.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The Order of TimeCarlo Rovelli

I don’t know what I can write about Rovelli and the way he presents physics and complex concepts in … elegant and beautiful ways that make them transcend the page and provoke thought, imagination and curiosity indefinitely.

“How does one describe a world in which everything occurs but there is no time variable? In which there is no common time and no privileged direction in which change occurs?”

“The difference between past and future, between cause and effect, between memory and hope, between regret and intention . . . in the elementary laws that describe the mechanisms of the world, there is no such difference.”

Coincidences

* Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 QuestionsValeria Luiselli

In keeping with what I wrote above about all the books that chronicle our difficult times, in the most timely fashion, coinciding with the Trump administration’s child-migration concentration camps (I cannot even believe I am writing those words), I read the brief but important Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, in which Valeria Luiselli writes about the legal crisis and cruelty facing children who come to the US from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, etc. She wrote her reflections before the latest nightmare (detention camps filled with children put in cages, separated from their parents), but it was nonetheless stark and painful in the narrative it painted. Who would have imagined it could get worse?

“From the beginning, the crisis was viewed as an institutional hindrance, a problem that Homeland Security was “suffering” and that Congress and immigration judges had to solve. Few narratives have made the effort to turn things around and understand the crisis from the point of view of the children involved. The political response to the crisis, therefore, has always centered on one question, which is more or less: What do we do with all these children now? Or, in blunter terms: How do we get rid of them or dissuade them from coming?”

We have also seen the resurgence of old books that foretold the kind of rise in tyranny and dictatorial rule that we’re seeing in chilling abundance now, such as Sinclair Lewis‘s hastily written 1930s/Depression Era *It Can’t Happen Here. As he himself writes, “The hell it can’t.”

And when I just can’t take more of the timeless and timely old warnings (yes, somehow the US avoided becoming a fascist/Nazi state in the 1930s, but just as well might not have, as Lewis imagines, or as the recently passed Philip Roth envisioned in his alt-future imagining, The Plot Against America. Having resisted these tendencies once certainly doesn’t inoculate one from future tyranny. The same concerns and fears seen, for example, in the 1930s, have echoed in the present day and led to a dictatorial moron to the WH. Despite some brilliant passages and predictions in Lewis’s book, the book itself was not smooth reading and felt both like it was rushed and dragged out at the same time.

“(but)… that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!

“Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word—just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours—not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini—like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days—and have ‘em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again.”

*My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace Ehud Barak

It does not exactly qualify as a coincidence so much as it was a random fluke that I decided to read this autobiographical account of Ehud Barak’s life. I never would have considered it except that one morning while heading out for a coffee in Oslo with AD, we ran into one of her acquaintances (because it’s impossible to go anywhere in Oslo without running into at least one person she knows). This particular acquaintance, squinting into the sun on one of Oslo’s blazing, and unusually, hot early June days, immediately started telling us how he was reading this particular book, and if I may say, sort of mansplained Israel, (cultural) Judaism, kibbutz culture and military strategy and Ehud Barak’s role in all of the key moments of Israel’s brief history. Yes, I suppose I have often complained about Norwegians knowing nothing about Judaism, so someone having a clue is surprising – but having a man (however ‘enlightened’ and committed to equality Scandinavian men are purported to be, middle-aged men of all nationalities seem particularly keen on demonstrating their knowledge… maybe in some bid to seem important, intelligent, relevant?) try to explain Judaism and Israel to me is not a surprise but is completely laughable.

Nevertheless, having heard him recount much of the book himself, I decided to read the book. Mostly I could have done without it, although there were a few key passages that capture, I think, fairly succinctly many of the strategies and ways of thinking behind Israeli military actions (not recent actions, as the country has moved further and further right). That’s not to say I would concede that any of the actions made sense – just to say that it was interesting to get the insight.

Overall the book itself could be skipped. Heavy on detail of Barak’s life running in parallel with the birth and development of the state of Israel and his role in it. Maybe a bit more detail than I needed at times, but, as I said, a valuable POV of someone who was inside the fateful moments and decisions in Israel and the Middle East as a whole – including some circumspection. Not perfect but … worth the read if only for the epilogue alone, which was oddly moving.

“The cause to which I’ve devoted my life—redeeming the dream of Zionism in a strong, free, self-confident, democratic Jewish state—is under threat. This is not mainly because of Hizbollah or Hamas, ISIS, or even Iran, all of which I feel confident in saying, as a former head of military intelligence, chief of staff, and defense minister, are real yet surmountable challenges. The main threat comes from inside: from the most right-wing, deliberately divisive, narrow-minded, and messianic government we have seen in our seven-decade history.”

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

*War & WarLászló Krasznahorkai

I didn’t despise anything I read, but for some reason had had high hopes for War & War, but it ended up being disappointing. I suppose this is because expectations always betray us. It was not a bad book – it just didn’t hold my interest.

“16. Should we die, the mechanics of life would go on without us, and that is what people feel most terribly disturbed by, Korin interrupted himself, bowed his head, thought for a while, then pulled an agonized expression and started slowly swiveling his head, though it is only the very fact that it goes on that enables us properly to understand that there is no mechanism.”

Images by SD 2018

Rousing sessions, furious responses

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“Part of what interests me is the impulse to dismiss and how often it slides into the very incoherence or hysteria of which women are routinely accused.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

When not enunciated clearly, “betrayal” and “portrayal” sound very much the same. And in reality, they are.

Applicable in many situations, it seems most apt when thinking about the portrayal women must give so often in the world, consciously or not, in the workplace, in their private lives, even in their friendships. And in giving this portrayal (or portrayals), she performs or reflects a kind of betrayal – of herself, other women and even the truth of what women are or can be. I wrote a bit about this – or about false feminism – or carrying the flag of feminism only when it is convenient or aligns with one’s own individual conception of feminism. But I can think of very little that betrays oneself and womankind – and does the least amount of good for all of humanity – than the idea of portraying a role, fitting into a mold, being or showing some unreality to the world and perpetuating it. At the same time, though, it is so ingrained as the expectation that it’s hard to do otherwise. After all, no one appears ready to take a woman at her word.

“I told you, but what does the proverb say? A woman’s prophecy is always taken lightly until it comes to pass.” –The Dance of the Jakaranda, Peter Kimani

At face value

I think of this often: we don’t take what women say at face value. Even if we believe them, and even if what they tell us bears out, e.g. Bill Cosby’s many accusers, Cosby’s own admissions of what he had done (without accepting any culpability, i.e. “I did it but it wasn’t wrong; it was consensual”), we still don’t apply the logic or truths of what women say, we still don’t hold anyone accountable for what women endure, reinforcing the idea that we might as well just shut up or contentedly portray our role.

“If we could recognize or even name this pattern of discrediting, we could bypass recommencing the credibility conversation every time a woman speaks. One more thing about Cassandra: in the most famous version of the myth, the disbelief with which her prophecies were met was the result of a curse placed on her by Apollo when she refused to have sex with the god. The idea that loss of credibility is tied to asserting rights over your own body was there all along. But with the real-life Cassandras among us, we can lift the curse by making up our own minds about who to believe and why.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

Crazy label: Unspoken message

“As you know, men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman.” –Cane, Jean Toomer

I read this week about Sylvia Plath, and how she is widely regarded in academia and in general as a gifted but troubled woman. Clearly if you’d commit suicide, you must have been crazy. She was just a jealous woman who had been cheated on, like so many before her, and could not handle it. Unhinged. Hysterical. But is any story or person that simple? It’s so easy to dismiss her this way because this is what evidence we have; this is the narrative that her ex-husband sought to craft in her death. Not to preserve her reputation as a literary voice but to protect his.

The article I read asks: “Why are we so unwilling to take Sylvia Plath at her word?” The “crazy label” assigned to her (which, granted, is not hard to assign when a person kills herself and is therefore left defenseless; any written evidence she left behind was destroyed by the aforementioned ex-husband) automatically makes her an unreliable witness to her own existence, all the more so because she was a woman. The hushed-up, unspoken message is clear: You don’t need to listen to a woman if she’s crazy, and much of the language used to describe women and their behavior (as if it can be so easily classified and compartmentalized) makes all women seem crazy in some way. All women then are unreliable or biased witnesses. When an individual woman’s own situation becomes unbearable and visible to others, it is demanded: “But why didn’t you say anything?” Answer: “I did and no one listened/believed me” or eventually, “Who would have believed me?” When their prescience comes to prove itself, later people ask, “But why didn’t anyone say anything?” Well, we did. It went unheard until it came to pass.

Uncontrollable circumstances, self-blame

As Dorthe Nors writes in So Much for that Winter, “and it is woman’s weakness to believe it’s because she isn’t good enough that things don’t go according to plan (and it is woman’s weakness that things should go according to plan).” Perhaps it is this near-built-in inferiority coupled with the idea that somehow you (as a woman) should be perfect that makes one seem crazy. Even though this is exactly the portrayal women are asked to give every single day.

Meanwhile, as Alice Munro writes on men in Hateship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage:

“Men were not like this, in my experience. Men looked away from frightful happenings as soon as they could and behaved as if there was no use, once things were over with, in mentioning them or thinking about them ever again. They didn’t want to stir themselves up, or stir other people up.”

(Wo)man with a plan

It’s overly simplified and not universally true (in other words: here are some sweeping generalizations for you), but in very broad strokes, women plan and then feel guilty and inadequate when that plan does not work precisely, dwelling on the consequences (even if they often have also performed risk assessment and made contingency plans even for the simplest of maneuvers). Men do not plan, and walk away without a second thought when the things around them fall apart, feeling no connection at all to the consequences.

Or, men’s and women’s idea of what constitutes a “plan” are fundamentally different: A man makes a plan, points A through Z. He rarely seems to follow the threads of what happens if any of those alphabetical points does not go to plan, which is where many women excel. She is thinking about point A1, and the contingency plans A2, A3 and how those interact and meet with the next possible steps in the plan, points B-Z and their subplans. If she thinks this way, how can she not foresee and foretell pitfalls and disasters? It’s a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book but without any real surprises. A bit like a woman’s life at times: chaos and silence, ignoring and being ignored and many rousing sessions and furious responses that lead nowhere.

The silent woman

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“The real trouble about women is that they must always go on trying to adapt themselves to men’s theories of women.” —D. H. Lawrence

“It has taken me most of my 40 or so years as a conscious person to realize: I don’t owe anyone an explanation.” – Me

Today I read an article by Danish writer Dorthe Nors on the invisibility of middle-aged and older women. She writes: “A middle-aged woman who’s not preoccupied with handling herself or taking care of someone else is a dangerous, erratic being. What is she up to? And what’s the point of her being up to anything?” It fell in my lap at the right time, seeing as how I’m sidled right up to middle age, and have always been a bit invisible anyway.

In that sense I, perhaps wrongly, feel like I can see this clearly and objectively, but I doubt this is true. Perhaps it is, as one dear friend commented when I shared this article, “I think middle age must come as much more of a shock to women who fit the current standards of beauty. For someone to whom men have never paid much attention, there is not much difference in how we are considered in middle age. While difficult to deal with when young, you are forced to find your self-worth outside of a man and man’s view of you at an earlier age.”

This article arrived at a moment when I was otherwise contemplating commitment and choice. We are led, at least by the media, to believe that our choices become ever-more limited, and scarcity rears its terrifying head – in the workplace, in terms of potential relationship or sexual partners, even in our friendships. I don’t think any of this is as acute as we’re told, but it is also not universal. It depends on you, where you are, what you are doing, what you want and all kinds of other factors. In the midst of all the infernal thinking, someone said to me, referring to more specific things than I thus applied it to, “There are still a number of points ahead of you at which your life branches off in multiple directions. You still have options, choices.” Logically I know this but a combination of inertia and grief, and a soupçon of fear, has stopped me in my tracks. I feel a bit like I have been shaken awake and have no time to lose.

But a lot of sluggish meandering through literary contemplations on women, communication, relationships and marriage had to happen first.

Finding a voice

For a lot of women, finding their voice – the voice that represents them truly, not just the voice and content she uses as a conciliatory mediator, but the voice and content as the one who gets labeled as a bitch or troublemaker or a roadblock simply because she actually is the smartest one in the room, knows what she is doing and has thought through all the potential outcomes and problems. The voice that is not just a cushion, a boomerang, a mirror for something a man says or does, but the voice that is not afraid of or concerned with how she is perceived. This is mined with risk. It is all easier said than done. It’s not just having the knowledge and eloquence to hold forth on a given subject, it’s as Rebecca Solnit posits, just being able to assert the right or space to say anything at all:

Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have gotten better, but this war won’t end in my lifetime.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

I am not sure how much of my own difficulty in asserting myself is rooted in age-old shyness (as opposed to my being female). But, as an adult, I also live in Sweden, so I don’t find that men are quite as domineering, particularly when they have sought out my expertise in my own field. Right after I wrote that sentence I happened to see this opinion piece by Paulina Porizkova on feminism. She realized when she moved to Sweden as a child that suddenly “my power was suddenly equal to a boy’s”. In the Swedish world, “the word ‘feminist’ felt antiquated; there was no longer a use for it”; after all, “Women could do anything men did, but they could also — when they chose to — bear children. And that made us more powerful than men.”

It was only later, in comparing the roles of women in her native Czech Republic, in Sweden, in France and finally the United States that she could embrace the need for feminism:

“In the Czech Republic, the nicknames for women, whether sweet or bitter, fall into the animal category: little bug, kitten, old cow, swine. In Sweden, women are rulers of the universe. In France, women are dangerous objects to treasure and fear. For better or worse, in those countries, a woman knows her place.

But the American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.” –Paulina Porizkova

I also tend to have the upper hand in business dealings because everyone else is using English as a second or third language, and it’s my first. But I certainly recognize that battle of trying to gain the right to speak. And the ability to say what I want or need to say without being interrupted or talked over or “mansplained to”. This isn’t scientific, my observations/thoughts. But being this insular, shy person for my entire life, while teeming with vociferous opinions, thoughts and ideas, I experience the ongoing struggle, but then I also experience this with louder, more domineering women who stubbornly want to hear the sounds of their own voices and repetitive thoughts (they’ve probably learned to behave this way because they too are fighting for a space for their voices). I also keenly feel that these communication difficulties (not mine specifically but more general, gender-related mismatches) have informed my opinions on male-female communication, relationships, and have contributed a lot to my desire to be alone.

It often takes us such a long time as people to find our true voices, to be ourselves, that it’s a shame that it’s twice as hard for women of all ages under most circumstances, and that by the time we as middle-aged women find our voice and claim the agency to speak openly and freely and to demand the floor, so to speak, we are silenced by this invisibility (or as Alex Qin explains in her SkillShare TechSummit 2017 keynote, linked above, being hypervisible and invisible at the same time).

Expectation and the value of nothing

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“Expectations carry the day, causing us to ignore contradictory data. We speak in conversations in incomplete thoughts and sentences but we do not perceive it that way. Oral conversation is full of holes, but we don’t hear it that way. If we did, it would be quite disruptive. It is usually efficient to perceive in terms of our expectations. On the other hand, it disguises just how much we actively share what we perceive to fit our image of what is there to be perceived.” – Awakening Your Psychic Powers

I think (and write) a lot about the concept of expectation – but what exactly is it?

We all seem to have an understanding of what ‘expectation’ means. We expect something to happen, to receive something, and there is a level of trust implied in that expectation because, as I have written elsewhere, expectation is on one end of the spectrum and hope is on the other. On both ends, some action or object is ‘promised’ – it’s just that with expectation, we have a stronger sense or assumption, or trust, that we will experience or receive the promised thing. With hope, it’s more distant, just a possibility, and often much more unrealistic. Is that how everyone perceives these concepts? Is expectation always in the “likely, unless…” (sometimes with caveats) column while hope resides usually in the “unlikely” column?

Sometimes it’s practical: things go as expected… until they don’t. And you wonder why. Promise theory aims to get to the root of some of these issues. Even if it won’t solve everything, it is an interesting enough concept to delve into briefly (with an handy animated video, no less!):

“No matter how good the plans or how detailed the instructions our expectations about the world have limitations. Our information is incomplete.

One answer to the question is that the world has both remarkable predictability but also maddening uncertainty. But that’s not helpful.”

Can we immunize against uncertainty?

“What did you expect?”

From Calvino’s Invisible Cities: ““I speak and speak,” Marco says, “but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. The description of the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing; the description that will go the rounds of the groups of stevedores and gondoliers on the street outside my house the day of my return is another; and yet another, that which I might dictate late in life, if I were taken prisoner by Genoese pirates and put in irons in the same cell with a writer of adventure stories. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”” “At times I feel your voice is reaching me from far away, while I am prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present, when all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume. And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again.”

It’s funny when you’re immersed in something, especially with another person, and when something changes, that other person – almost like an amnesiac, or a cold operator who shuts everything down with emotionless precision, now outside the sphere of shared feeling or experience, forgets or misplaces what the connection once (possibly only in a limited or illusory way) offered to both people. Or when you are part of a project or a job or any activity. Expectation boils down to – to be successful – a give and take.

But failing that, in essence, we can always expect inconsistency, a lack of transparency and, most of all, contradictions, particularly where people and feeling are involved.

Is anyone better at juxtaposing the contradictions and our propensity for fooling ourselves than Pessoa? At our expectation and desire for the new but then being exhausted and annoyed by having to actually deal with the details and complications of the new?

“I reject real life for being a condemnation; I reject dreaming for being an easy way out. But my real life couldn’t be more banal and contemptible, and my dream life couldn’t be more constant and intense.”

“This is true in the whole gamut of love. In sexual love we seek our own pleasure via another body. In non-sexual love, we seek our own pleasure via our own idea. The masturbator may be abject, but in point of fact he’s the perfect logical expression of the lover. He’s the only one who doesn’t feign and doesn’t fool himself. The relations between one soul and another, expressed through such uncertain and variable things as shared words and proffered gestures, are strangely complex. The very act of meeting each other is a non-meeting. Two people say ‘I love you’ or mutually think it and feel it, and each has in mind a different idea, a different life, perhaps even a different colour or fragrance, in the abstract sum of impressions that constitute the soul’s activity.”

“The tedium of the forever new, the tedium of discovering – behind the specious differences we see in things and ideas – the unrelenting sameness of everything…” “…the stagnation of everything that lives just because it moves…”

“To love is to tire of being alone; it is therefore a cowardice, a betrayal of ourselves. (It’s exceedingly important that we not love).” Yes, even within ourselves. We long for love, sometimes to not be alone, but at the same time, feel as though that longing is a betrayal or that we have succumbed to a great weakness. (See the poem “Longing is the betrayal of oneself…” by Agneta Ara for a more poetic take…)

Expectation of superfluity

“this syndrome is a war that nearly every woman faces every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence…” –Men Explain Things to Me

We can also – almost always – expect mansplaining and sexism. It’s almost always a given, unintentional or overt. Rebecca Solnit has published two whole collections of essays on how half the world’s population expects the worst – expects to be silenced or talked over or had its concerns ignored, at best, or expects to be raped or killed, at worst.

In Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, she pretty much hits all the nails right on the head:

“Yes, people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.”

“…billions of women must be out there on this seven-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever.” “…And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t.” “…Dude, if you’re reading this, you’re a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.” (Maybe I fell in love a little bit with this statement because I love starting statements with “dude” when I am at-the-end-of-my-rope frustrated and irritated.

“Think of how much more time and energy we would have to focus on other things that matter if we weren’t so busy surviving.”

Perhaps the remarkable thing about Solnit and her writing is that, despite describing the condition of – and expectation(s) – of, for and by women in society, she nevertheless explores the opposite end of the spectrum: hope. And why? Because, back to the principles of the aforementioned promise theory, of uncertainty:

“To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable. Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in Gonzalez’s resonant phrase. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans; hope like creative ability can come from what the Romantic poet John Keats called Negative Capability.”

It is not blind hope, though. It, too, is informed by experience – the times we have ignored logic or signs to succumb to seeing only the reality we wanted – or expected – but if we were to marry the two, could we overcome the stumbling block of the ‘plan’ we can’t seem to abandon?:

“As I began writing this essay, I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness.”

“We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see.”

The expected end

We expect death, but we hope it comes for us later, much later. But do we know what to expect within death? Is it, as I have asked before, just an expanse of nothingness forever?

What we do know, as William Empson writes in “Ignorance of Death“: death is “the trigger of the literary man’s biggest gun”. Too true – pondering its manifestations and meanings runs through everything. And yet, as Empson also wisely states, “Otherwise I feel very blank upon this topic,/And think that though important, and proper for anyone to bring up,/It is one that most people should be prepared to be blank upon.”

In Slaughterhouse Five it is: “At that moment, Billy’s high forehead is in the cross hairs of a high-powered laser gun. It is aimed at hm from the darkened press box. In the next moment, Billy Pilgrim is dead. So it goes.

So Billy experiences death for a while. It is simply violet light and a hum. There isn’t anybody else there. Not even Billy Pilgrim is there.

In Calvino’s Invisible Cities: “I thought: “Perhaps Adelma is the city where you arrive dying and where each finds again the people he has known. This means I, too, am dead.” And I also thought: “This means the beyond is not happy.””

In Pessoa: “I don’t mean the mystery of death, which I can’t begin to fathom, but the physical sensation of ceasing to live. Humanity is afraid of death, but indecisively. The normal man makes a good soldier in combat; the normal man, when sick or old, rarely looks with horror at the abyss of nothing, though he admits its nothingness. This is because he lacks imagination. And nothing is less worthy of a thinking man than to see death as a slumber. Why a slumber, if death doesn’t resemble sleep? Basic to sleep is the fact we wake up from it, as we presumably do not from death. If death resembles sleep, we should suppose that we wake up from it, but this is not what the normal man imagines; he imagines death as a slumber no one wakes up from, which means nothing. Death doesn’t resemble slumber, I said, since in slumber one is alive and sleeping, and I don’t know how death can resemble anything at all for us, since we have no experience of it, nor anything to compare it to.”

Also, even one of the new-age psychic books suggests that meditation is as close to near-death experience as we can get – makes me think of my questions on this very topic earlier.

When you can expect nothing: A gift horse, full of surprises

Maybe we don’t always have expectations – penis size, for example, is apparently a crapshoot. One can hope, of course, but pop culture will caution about expectation in either direction.

Vonnegut’s preternatural obsession with cocks and their sizes (appearing in both Slaughterhouse and in Breakfast of Champions) is another reflection on how our society prioritizes and values this all-important fact. Size matters, even when this particular size is confidential and invisible. He has just made it visible.

From Slaughterhouse: “Montana was naked, and so was Billy, of course. He had a tremendous wang, incidentally. You never know who’ll get one.”

No, in fact you just never know… until you know, that is. But you really cannot have any expectations in this department. In Breakfast, there are stats provided about multiple characters on these matters.

And then there is Lars von Trier, famously bizarre film director, who claimed that actor Willem Dafoe had a “confusingly large” member, which called for a “stunt cock” in Antichrist. (And this becomes slightly more confusing for me, reflecting on watching The Last Temptation of Christ and recently wrapping up my reading of Reza Aslan’s book Zealot about Jesus of Nazareth. By the way, even Aslan refers back to Dostoevsky when it comes to faith and religion – does anyone not fall back on Dostoevsky?! Hard to reconcile it all somehow.)

Oh, and then there are always the poor micropenises.

Difficult to please

Standard

Yesterday someone told me, in a list of things, that I appeared to be ‘difficult to please’ (or that this was the version of me he had created in his mind). It was all in light conversation, but it made me think about the things I have heard all my life, about all the things I read – about all women – particularly this week when International Women’s Day hit.

“She’s so difficult to please.”
“Really? Do you even know what she wants? Did you ask? Did you, more importantly, listen? Did you even try?”
Somehow, dude, just by existing in the world you didn’t please her. Imagine that.

My Facebook feed and other online outlets were filled with stuff about women’s day, women’s strength and the fight for equality. (We’ve got a long way to go as long as sexist buffoons like Polish politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke exist.)

I had and really still have almost nothing to add to any of it. I wish none of this ever needed to be discussed. International Women’s Day was always one of those things that seemed like such a big deal everywhere except America (where I was educated). I only knew of its existence at all through my Russian studies, when it became clear that women’s day was supposedly such a big deal in Russia. Little did I know it was ‘big’ everywhere. It figures that it doesn’t register with me even now, after almost 20 years away. “What? It’s women’s day? So?” It doesn’t register with me – not because I don’t think it should exist. Not because I don’t believe in feminism or equality. Of course I do. But it’s like with all days set aside to “honor” some group, accomplishment or … even love itself, it sequesters it. Sure, it’s meant to shine a brighter light on something (or sell more greeting cards and flowers), but does it excuse everyone from thinking about women and equality the other 364 days a year?

It’s obvious to say these things – and it is obvious that it is so much more complex than being reduced to memes and 10,000 articles on variations of the same theme, as the women’s-day-dominated internet was. Subtly discriminatory practices and ripples of inequality are insidious – they are everywhere (and this, of course, is applicable to the ‘enlightened’ northern European world I live in – I can’t speak for anywhere else). And they live every single fucking day.

After reading what was meant to be a comical take on women/feminism (a primer for men, I guess), I questioned what is actually wanted/desired versus what people say they want. As long as a woman is called out for “being difficult to please” because she has preferences and reasons for them, we’re still far from total parity.

“Our ultimate aim, when it comes to men, is to find an amusing mate we can have sex with, then sit on the sofa with, watching re-runs of Seinfeld and eating a baked potato. Discount all that Christian Grey/abs of steel/”bad boy” shit. Our priorities are: 1) Kindness; 2) Jokes; 3) High tolerance of carbs.”

If this is true, why is it that women as a huge, whole, general population have this reputation for “being difficult”? (Surely some other part of the article, such as “Periods”, cannot account for all of it.) Could it be that things that are perfectly logical to women, such as having a closet full of clothes yet still have nothing to wear, sound illogical until you take the full picture into consideration (as the article’s author does): “What we mean is, “I don’t have anything to wear for who I need to be today.” Most men will never live with the same kind of scrutiny women do for how they look and what they wear and what it says about them. All these decisions are loaded for women.

I guess what I am trying to say is that these things that seem frivolous and vain are often informed by so much societal and cultural baggage – if you’re not a woman, you are not going to get it. Or at least if you do get it, you’re going to get it intellectually only because you’re probably never going to experience anything in the same way. I’m sure we appreciate that you try to ‘get it’, but there are experiences all of us can never have and lenses through which we can never see.

I read a recent interview with Allison Crutchfield in which she touches on this – men are never going to understand the woman’s reality (any more than we will understand theirs), but there is a certain self-congratulatory strain in some men, which wouldn’t be half so bad if they did not proceed to hijack the discussion:

AVC: You say in the song, “You assume you understand because your voice is the loudest while you borrow our reality.” How often do you see men adopting these ideologies and then using it as a means of asserting dominance?

AC: I think it happens all the time. I can only speak to my experience, but I think that I had a few different relationships with people—platonic or romantic—that inspired this song. I’m happy to say that those relationships have all kind of ended, slightly because of this. But that line is specifically about just actually having a conversation or a discussion about feminism, and about my experience as a woman, and literally being talked over by a man who had not had that same experience. And that was really difficult for me.

I feel a little bad calling him out on this, but I had a really hard time watching that show Master Of None. I like Aziz Ansari, but the feminism episode of that was so hard for me to watch. It didn’t necessarily inspire this song, but that is something I can point to where it’s like, Aziz Ansari just gets feminism all of a sudden and is just yelling about it from the rooftops. I feel like a lot of people, a lot of men, want this pat on the back for correctly identifying how they feel about feminism, how radical they’re being and how much they “get it.” That is just really gross to me. That’s what that line comes from. It’s about feeling like I’m surrounded by these people who really think they’re doing the right thing but they’re completely socialized to scream over women who are trying to talk to them about their actual experiences and also sort of borrowing the reality of a woman’s experience.”

In fact, as a case in point, a lovely former colleague (a man) shared:

“Well, that didn’t take long.

Staff chat about International Women’s Day descended into a group of men mansplaining why any institutional solution to the shortage of women in tech is mathematically bad and undermining the goals or equality.

The actual women in tech who weren’t being listened to mostly dropped out early and got back to work.”

I am no expert on this subject. My own attempts to undertake formal education in gender studies ended in frustration when many of the readings were just slightly less venomous than Andrea Dworkin’s infamous “sex is just rape embellished with meaningful glances” comment. My only claim to being able to talk about this, and it should be enough to have an opinion, is that I am a woman. Rambling on about this is not an edifying experience; it’s just that this stuff is so virulent but often just beneath the surface.

Am I difficult to please? No more than any other woman who wants to be heard and have choices.

Photo (c) 2017 astoller used under Creative Commons license.