Said and read – July 2020

Standard

“Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.” The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of TraumaBessel A. van der Kolk

Image by S Donaghy

Right up until the 20th of July time seemed to fly. Then, inexplicably, it slowed. There’s no accounting for this shift. Is it that so many other people are on holiday? Is it that the passage of time is an illusion subject to how preoccupied (or not) we are? This slowdown at least afforded me the opportunity to reflect a bit earlier than I have in previous months on the month’s reading. I thought this would make for a more timely book report, but it hasn’t. It’s already almost mid-August. I’ve failed to write about July reading or even read much so far in August.

Previous book reports: 2020 – June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for July:

Highly recommended

*Scots: The Mither TongueBilly Kay

One of the most debilitating phenomena of Scottish society is the false notion that to get on you have to get out. English hegemony is so all pervasive in our society that a sign of success and sophistication among some is to attempt to erase signs of Scottishness from their public persona. The implications of such an attitude for Scottish culture are drastic, not to mention wrong-headed. The linguistic tension is often not resolved at one particular time and can be an ongoing choice throughout one’s life.

By far my favorite book this month. I love this kind of thing. It’s all about the Scots language, its status, its diversity and it use, and how it is essential to the linguistic, national and cultural history of Scotland. Historical and linguistic hostility at its persistent use and existence continues — but the language itself has become a subject of vivid study and much-needed focus.

If using your first language is classed as the equivalent of sticking your tongue out at the teacher, there is little ground for fruitful dialogue. Educationalists often refer to the ‘inarticulate Scot’ as if it were a hereditary disease, instead of the effect of shackling people to one language when they are much more articulate in another. The omnipotent standard of having one correct way of speaking colours our society’s attitude and results in false value judgements about people. These value judgements are made in every sector of society, not just in education.

“Politics, in support or suppression, are central to the fate of languages. Yet political support at a given time is not in itself enough to guarantee a language’s survival if the historical process which has eroded it has been unrelenting over centuries and has pushed the language to a geographical and psychological periphery in the nation’s consciousness. That is certainly the case with Irish and until recently was certainly the case with Gaelic. The principal reason why Welsh is in a much stronger position than Scottish Gaelic today is that the Welsh had not posed a political threat to the British state for hundreds of years, while Gaelic was the language of the Jacobite forces which almost overthrew the state in the rebellions of the eighteenth century.”

If you’re interested in the way propaganda, linguistic subjugation, politics and other factors convince people their language is wrong, is dying and is not important, this is a great, and entertaining, study.

Being an honorary Glaswegian who thinks of Edinburgh a bit as “England number two”, the passages about Glaswegian gave me particular joy.

“The huge Edinburgh middle class tends to speak Standard English or Scottish Standard English. Scots is there too; a friend who was born and bred in the Southside speaks good Scots, so much so that people presume she is not a native of the city. Edinburgh is so dominated by the values of the middle classes, that working-class culture and speech had very low prestige even among the working class. This has changed in recent years due to the phenomenal success of Irvine Welsh’s brilliant novel Trainspotting and the movie that emerged from it. The Edinburgh dialect now had street cred, but that is something the weejies of the west have always had in abundance. West Central Scots Whereas in Edinburgh the working class are defined by the predominant middle-class culture, in Glasgow the opposite prevails and the professional classes have some of the street wisdom and gallusness of the predominant working-class ethos of the city. The result of this is that almost everyone from Glasgow is recognisably Scottish in speech. In Edinburgh, it is sometimes difficult to tell if someone is Scottish or English by their accent; in Glasgow, that confusion rarely exists. The middle classes may not like the Glasgow dialect but they are influenced by it. Years ago, when I lived in South Carolina, I often heard elderly white gentlemen apologise for the fact that their speech had been influenced by their close associations with the blacks. The inhabitants of Glasgow’s leafy suburbs are in a similar relationship with the speech of the masses. Glaswegian has enormous internal prestige.”

“The ultimate test of a dialect’s worth is its ability to communicate, and there are few more extrovert communicators than Glaswegians.”

*The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of TraumaBessel A. van der Kolk

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”

A fascinating exploration of how trauma visits and expresses itself in a person’s physiology and psychology and can change “the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant. We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive”.

Trauma appears to never disappear and the traumatic event (or events) live on, triggered for decades after (and epigenetics indicates that trauma lives on in the genes)… but a complete understanding of this, while continually emerging, is incomplete.

“The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.”

*One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: EssaysScaachi Koul

“Plenty of us are fighting for structural changes, but a firmer solution has more to do with correcting human behaviour in general. No one learns how to be mean at twenty-five. No one actually becomes a hardline racist in their thirties. These are beliefs and behaviours we inherit from our bloodlines, from the people who raised us, and the internet is just another way to put those beliefs to work. The troubling part is not that there are people online who feel comfortable—vindicated and strong—in calling me a cum-bucket. What scares me is that those people go out into the world, holding these convictions secretly or otherwise, and exist around me physically. I see them at the bank and they go to my dentist and I might end up working with them. What they say to me online is the purest distillation of the rage they feel—statements that would get them fired or arrested in real life but get them a moderate fan base or begrudging attention online.

I didn’t expect this collection of essays to be as engaging as it turned out to be.

I happened to read this book first while sitting in a grocery store parking lot waiting for it to open and then while binge-watching the tv show Shrill. This reading was timely — so much of what the book addresses was being elevated in the popular media — from race and privileged spaces (as Koul writes about all kinds of groups: “All of us struggle towards whiteness”) to chemical skin whitening products in South Asia (“Fair & Lovely is a popular brand of skin-whitener in South Asia, marketed with crummy little ads where a girl gets the guy after she slathers these chemicals on her face and turns into some ghost-like version of her former self. You can buy it for your face or your body, creams to remove “facial discolouration or brown spots,” or to lighten all the skin you have, one big body-wide brown spot.”), from the deceptive idea of Canada as a multicultural haven (“The white majority doesn’t like being reminded that the cultural landscape is still flawed, still broken, and while my entry into something like Canadian media, for instance, hasn’t been an easy ride, it has been made more palatable for other people because I am passable. I’m not white, no, but I’m just close enough that I could be, and just far enough that you know I’m not. I can check off a diversity box for you and I don’t make you nervous—at least not on the surface. I’m the whole package!”) to immigration (“So much of immigration is about loss. First you lose bodies: people who die, people whose deaths you missed. Then you lose history: no one speaks the language anymore, and successive generations grow more and more westernized. Then you lose memory: throughout this trip, I tried to place people, where I had met them, how I knew them. I can’t remember anything anymore.”).

The Shrill parallels come up when Koul writes about the identities we forge online. This opens us up to all manner of abuse, which is something Lindy West, the author of Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, has written about extensively both in Shrill and the more recent The Witches Are Coming, which discusses the MeToo movement in great detail. It’s all on display, illustrated in the tv adaptation of Shrill, in which the lead character, Annie, experiences monumental levels of (violent/threatening) online trolling. Treading similar ground, Koul writes:

“I sometimes try to understand how people formed their identities in eras before the internet existed. What did teenagers do to carve out a sense of self in the world? So often, the people screaming at me online seem to derive their selfhood from being internet aggressors, and the more time I spend on any given online platform, the more my identity is marked by defending myself.”

“We love to talk about the web as if it’s a limitless resource, like the only barriers we put on it are what the government will allow, what money will buy, what manpower can create. But all things built by humans descend into the same pitfalls: loathing, vitriol, malicious intent. All the things we build in order to communicate, to connect, to find people like us so we feel less alone, and to find people not like us at all so we learn how to adapt, end up turning against us. Avoiding human nature at its most pure and even at its worst is pointless. No one deserves your attention, but no one has earned your withdrawal.”

Every message we receive — both online and in real life (as women, but particularly for women of color) is that we are not good enough, in one way or another, and something about us needs to change. We are objects, and that is why the rape culture, which Koul writes about with both clarity and rage, is pervasive. Once women have been objectified, they are easier to surveil and monitor and take advantage of. Rape culture likes to blame women for being in the wrong place, wrong time, wearing the wrong thing,  and drinking the wrong amount. It blames the victim (we all know this). Koul points out something that society as a whole doesn’t talk about even if all women know it:

“Surveillance feeds into rape culture more than drinking ever could. It’s the part of male entitlement that makes them believe they’re owed something if they pay enough attention to you, monitor how you’re behaving to see if you seem loose and friendly enough to accommodate a conversation with a man you’ve never met. He’s not a rapist. No, he’s just offering to buy you a beer, and a shot, and a beer, and another beer, he just wants you to have a really good time. He wants you to lose the language of being able to consent. He’s drunk too, but of course, you’re not watching him like he’s watching you.”

It is not an accident. It has all been carefully planned.

“And yet, being surveilled with the intention of assault or rape is practically mundane, it happens so often. It’s such an ingrained part of the female experience that it doesn’t register as unusual. The danger of it, then, is in its routine, in how normalized it is for a woman to feel monitored, so much so that she might not know she’s in trouble until that invisible line is crossed from “typical patriarchy” to “you should run.””

“The mistake we make is in thinking rape isn’t premeditated, that it happens by accident somehow, that you’re drunk and you run into a girl who’s also drunk and half-asleep on a bench and you sidle up to her and things get out of hand and before you know it, you’re being accused of something you’d never do. But men who rape are men who watch for the signs of who they believe they can rape. Rape culture isn’t a natural occurrence; it thrives thanks to the dedicated attention given to women in order to take away their security. Rapists exist on a spectrum, and maybe this attentive version is the most dangerous type: women are so used to being watched that we don’t notice when someone’s watching us for the worst reason imaginable. They have a plan long before we even get to the bar to order our first drink.”

*Confession of the LionessMia Couto

“Every morning the gazelle wakes up knowing that it has to run more swiftly than the lion or it will be killed. Every morning the lion awakens knowing that it has to run faster than the gazelle or it will die of hunger. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle: When the Sun rises, you’d better start running. —AFRICAN PROVERB”

I can’t really tell what it is about Mia Couto’s work that I find so compelling. Something about Couto’s writing style generally draws me in.

“Genito Mpepe was a tracker—he knew all the invisible signs of the savanna. He had often told me: Only humans recognize silence. For all the other creatures, the world is never silent and even the grass growing and the petals opening make a huge noise. In the bush, the animals live by listening. That’s what my father envied at that moment: He wished he were an animal. And far from human beings, to be able to return to his lair and fall asleep without pity or guilt. I know you’re there!”

In Confession, a small (fictional) village in Mozambique, Kulumani, is gripped with fear by a sudden spate of lion attacks on the village women. A hunter is employed to kill the lion, with a writer accompanying the hunter to chronicle the ‘adventure’. But there are other forces at work, and like much of Couto’s writing, lines between the literal and figurative are blurred. Women characters talk of themselves as though they are already dead — or are animals living within human bodies, while the language used to describe how events unfold hint at the possibility that there have been no lions at all attacking women, and perhaps something more mundane, but more horrible, such as men killing women, is happening. No definitive answers appear, but answers aren’t important. It’s more the setting of the scene and realizing what years of civil war and violence have done to the people and the place that make up this work.

*A Black Women’s History of the United StatesDaina Ramey Berry

Black women are at the core of – and key to – American history. This book explains how. Also included in my “Confront head-on our white racist BS” reading list.

*Washington BlackEsi Edugyan

“The skin around his eyes tightened. He shook his head. “Negroes are God’s creatures also, with all due rights and freedoms. Slavery is a moral stain against us. If anything will keep white men from their heaven, it is this.””

The story of a boy who, almost by chance, manages to escape slavery on a Barbados sugar plantation. I am not sure what I expected when I started reading this, but it was so much more than I imagined. It was engrossing.

“Death was a door. I think that is what she wished me to understand. She did not fear it. She was of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free. That was the idea that had come to her with the man in white, like a thread of poison poured into a well.”

*The Housekeeper and the ProfessorYoko Ogawa

“I remembered something the Professor had said: “The mathematical order is beautiful precisely because it has no effect on the real world. Life isn’t going to be easier, nor is anyone going to make a fortune, just because they know something about prime numbers. Of course, lots of mathematical discoveries have practical applications, no matter how esoteric they may seem.”

“The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the “correct miscalculation,” for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers. This gave us confidence even when our best efforts came to nothing.”

A young housekeeper is assigned by her agency to clean and care for a mathematician who, due to a brain injury, loses short-term memory every 80 minutes (if I recall correctly). Each day when the housekeeper turns up for work, the whole introduction begins again. At some point she begins to bring her son along to work with her because the professor has insisted, and there develops an unusual kinship among the three. There isn’t necessarily a deep plot here, but it was still engaging.

“He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world.”

*Angela’s Ashes: A MemoirFrank McCourt

I didn’t expect to be including Angela’s Ashes among the things I found best during July. By the time I got around to reading it, it had, of course, already hit best-seller lists and been adapted into a film (which I’ve never seen).

It’s one of those things I wouldn’t normally read, but for some reason I did. It’s an easy read in the sense that one can tear through it quickly because it’s that readable; on the other hand, the subject matter is difficult in that it describes abject poverty and people trying to live in the midst of that. What makes it readable and compelling is the fact that McCourt has told it from the perspective of a child. Despite the fact that this is a brutal account of growing up in extreme poverty in Ireland – and misery pervades — it’s in some ways so innocent, such as when the narrator recounts everything from having mustard for the first time (and uses “sangwidge” to write “sandwich”, which is one of those things I’ve always found cute among Glaswegians as well), to, more broadly, the matter-of-fact way of reporting daily realities and speech.

“There are Thursdays when Dad gets his dole money at the Labour Exchange and a man might say, Will we go for a pint, Malachy? and Dad will say, One, only one, and the man will say, Oh, God, yes, one, and before the night is over all the money is gone and Dad comes home singing and getting us out of bed to line up and promise to die for Ireland when the call comes.”

*I’ll Be Gone in the DarkMichelle McNamara

I remember many years ago having a very brief conversation with a Dutch guy, and when I told him a bit about myself and my youth growing up around Seattle, I happened to say a few words about the proliferation of serial killers from the area (both Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway – the Green River Killer come from there). The guy I was talking to flipped out and decided I was “sick” for talking about such things so casually and for knowing so much about serial killers in the first place. It struck me as a strange overreaction, but I didn’t really know anyone else who had an academic interest in serial killers. But this was the dawn of the internet true crime genre — before Michelle McNamara and others like her took to the internet to write about and discuss these cases and mysteries ad nauseam. Through McNamara’s work, I think a lot of people realized that they were not alone.

“The truth, of course, was much weirder: I was foregoing a fancy Hollywood party to return not to my sleeping infant but my laptop, to excavate through the night in search of information about a man I’d never met, who’d murdered people I didn’t know.

Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life—long before 2007, when I first learned of the offender I would eventually dub the Golden State Killer. The part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths: a boy’s BMX bike, its wheels still spinning, abandoned in a ditch along a country road; a tuft of microscopic green fibers collected from the small of a dead girl’s back.

To say I’d like to stop dwelling is beside the point. Sure, I’d love to clear the rot. I’m envious, for example, of people obsessed with the Civil War, which brims with details but is contained. In my case, the monsters recede but never vanish. They are long dead and being born as I write.

The first one, faceless and never caught, marked me at fourteen, and I’ve been turning my back on good times in search of answers ever since.”

That said, I’ve never been that passionate about the subject. I have a passing interest in true crime – and my knowledge of and interest in Bundy and Ridgway were “local interest” stories more than any fascination with rapists and killers. It’s similar to my passing interest in the bizarre story of the Enumclaw animal-sex case in which a bunch of men were having sex with horses until one of the men died. The story is horrible, and I am not interested in the details — it’s just that that was a local stomping ground, so it was of interest when it was an anonymous blurb in the local paper as much as when it became a national story and eventually a documentary called Zoo. I read the stories; I saw the documentary. But I won’t be visiting or starting any online communities dedicated to that or serial murderers.

With all of that background out of the way, though, let’s just take a moment to revel in Michelle McNamara’s glorious voice. Voice is one of the most challenging things to tackle in writing – but she had a distinctive, powerful, clear voice that was recognizably hers. In the parts of the book that she had painstakingly written, the strength of her inimitable voice shone through. Her blog had always showcased this, but writing a book is different. So much more scrutiny, deadlines, expectation. I imagine that some of this pressure and perfectionism is what led to her overuse of the drugs that eventually took her life. And that perfectionism is what made everyone around her miss all the signs that something was wrong. I didn’t know her, but both her writing — and the accompanying documentary about the book and her life — make it clear that she was meticulous. You would only see what she wanted you to see, and if she was even aware of how dependent she had become on various pharmaceuticals, she would have downplayed it (as her husband Patton Oswalt described in the docu).

*The Poems of Octavio PazOctavio Paz

*Hotel InsomniaCharles Simic

*Beautiful False Things: PoemsIrving Feldman

*Where Now: New and Selected PoemsLaura Kasischke

All poetry. All necessary.

Good – or better than expected

*Going Home: A Walk Through Fifty Years of OccupationRaja Shehadeh

“Clothes are like houses, objects we cover ourselves with and often dwell in so as to create an impression for others and not just for the comfort they provide. My different lives are represented by the different clothes I have worn, as by the homes located in different parts of the city where I have lived. To this day I have my writerly clothes and my lawyerly ones, some from when I started my career thirty-seven years ago – shirts, belts, trousers and jackets.”

A journey through Ramallah in the West Bank – emotional but almost journalistic. I happened to read this at the same time as I watched several Israeli TV shows that inevitably depict aspects of the occupation… and how it is a central function, or determinant, of Palestinian life.

“My jar is now whole again. You can see the individual pieces when light shines through the holes which I failed to fill, but you can appreciate the effort of rebuilding the whole after the disastrous breaking. Perhaps one day this will be the fate of Palestine too. It will become whole again, far more appreciated after going through wars and massacres before being reconstructed kintsugi-style.”

“How extensive has been Israel’s success. This woman who now lives in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank is working in the department that exercises so much power over us and determines which Palestinian can or cannot live in the city of their birth with their spouse. Not only have we failed to end the occupation, but every year it seems to be ever more entrenched. Almost daily now we hear of killings of young men who attempt to stab Israelis.”

*Last Night in NuukNiviaq Korneliussen

Unusual, brief book delivering a slice of life look at young life in Greenland. Perhaps it’s not perfect – drags on a bit in places, and the stream of consciousness style and point-of-view changes don’t always lend a lot to the story, but it’s a debut novel that shows promise and gives us a glimpse into something we never hear about – life in Greenland.

*Born in SarajevoSnježana Marinković

I will read almost anything I find about the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the subsequent war and forming of new states. This is a memoir both of the breakup of the country and disintegration of a family told through the eyes of one girl experiencing what became a familiar story as Yugoslavia split and violence ensued. The story itself was very personal but could at times be frustrating.

*Gravel HeartAbdulrazak Gurnah

“‘No one bid the British to come here,’ my mother’s father said. ‘They came because they are covetous and cannot help wanting to fill the world with their presence.’”

A boy grows up in a changing Zanzibar and doesn’t, as a child, understand why his father has abandoned the family or why his mother makes seemingly selfish decisions. He is sent to live with his shady uncle in London, and his life completely changes. He doesn’t get the answers he seeks until much later in life… too late to completely make amends.

“Everything is complicated and questions simplify what is only comprehensible through intimacy and experience. Nor are people’s lives free from blame and guilt and wrong-doing, and what might be intended as simple curiosity may feel like a demand for a confession. You don’t know what you might release by asking a stupid question. It was best to leave people to their silences.”

*Several books by Israeli-Arab writer Sayed Kashua, e.g. Let It Be Morning and Dancing Arabs

I read several books by Sayed Kashua, and in reading about him stumbled on this lovely but heartbreaking letter exchange between Israeli author Etgar Keret and Kashua after Kashua left for a sabbatical in the US.

*A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing NinetyDonald Hall

“You are old when you learn it’s May by noticing that daffodils erupt outside your window. You are old when someone mentions an event two years in the future and looks embarrassed. You are old when the post office delivers your letters into a chair in your living room and picks up your letters going out. You are old when you write letters.”

The best parts of this book were excerpted liberally upon publication and around Hall’s death. But there were nevertheless a few important thoughts that still gave this book something extra. Perhaps it is just that one feels Hall’s observations naturally, inevitably, as one ages: the speed of time but the slowing down of so many of life’s things (and the value of that slowness), the coming of old age, the growing delight of solitude that is interrupted only by those moments when another’s presence brings momentary relief…

“I look forward to her presence and feel relief when she leaves. Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns.”

“When I was sixteen I read ten books a week: E. E. Cummings, William Faulkner, Henry James, Hart Crane, John Steinbeck. I thought I progressed in literature by reading faster and faster—but reading more is reading less. I learned to slow down.”

“An athlete goes professional at twenty. At thirty he is slower but more canny. At forty he leaves behind the identity that he was born to and that sustained him. He diminishes into fifty, sixty, seventy. Anyone ambitious, who lives to be old or even old, endures the inevitable loss of ambition’s fulfillment.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My LifeAyelet Waldman

I have read many books by Waldman – some I’ve liked more than others, but overall there is such a needy quality to her, particularly when she writes autobiographically — like this book. Her insistence on writing about her near-obsession with her husband seems…troubling. This book chronicles day by day her experience with a total of 30 days of microdosing with LSD to see if it would help her moodiness and near-debilitating depression. It seems like it helped, and there are interesting passages in the book about the discovery and possibilities of LSD for clinical use. But the book overall was hard to get through, mostly because of this aforementioned neediness and intense… reliance on one’s spouse for a sense of self-worth (while also seeming to — probably due to depression — behave… badly toward that spouse. I get it — sort of. But I guess it just doesn’t make good reading for me. But it probably is great for someone — as I said, there is a lot of good information here. Just hard to sort it out from the rest.

*Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War IISvetlana Alexievich

“I am a person without childhood. Instead of childhood, I had war.”

Children will witness war and suffer just as adults do – prematurely losing the innocence associated with childhood. Alexievich’s ability to bring a variety of people’s recollections and stories to life is remarkable and makes even difficult subject matter easy to read and feel.

“What do I have left from the war? I don’t understand what strangers are, because my brother and I grew up among strangers. Strangers saved us. But what kind of strangers are they? All people are one’s own. I live with that feeling, though I’m often disappointed. Peacetime life is different…”

Told from POV of children and adolescents as they realized war was happening, what that meant to them. It’s heartbreaking (as most of Alexievich’s books are).

*Women, Race & ClassAngela Y. Davis

Davis’s take on the women’s movement and how it has been slowed by the lack of acknowledging intersectional concerns.

“This bears repeating: Black women were equal to their men in the oppression they suffered; they were their men’s social equals within the slave community; and they resisted slavery with a passion equal to their men’s. This was one of the greatest ironies of the slave system, for in subjecting women to the most ruthless exploitation conceivable, exploitation which knew no sex distinctions, the groundwork was created not only for Black women to assert their equality through their social relations, but also to express it through their acts of resistance. This must have been a terrifying revelation for the slaveowners, for it seems that they were trying to break this chain of equality through the especially brutal repression they reserved for the women. Again, it is important to remember that the punishment inflicted on women exceeded in intensity the punishment suffered by their men, for women were not only whipped and mutilated, they were also raped.”

*Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War IIDouglas A. Blackmon

“Beginning in the late 1860s, and accelerating after the return of white political control in 1877, every southern state enacted an array of interlocking laws essentially intended to criminalize black life.”

Since the end of slavery, we’ve lived in an era of “neo-slavery” — the creation of a new form of enslavement that is enshrined in the legal system, corporate greed, suppression of black citizenship and participation. Very clear manipulation of the system to engineer continued oppression of an entire group of people and a consistent supply of free labor on which capitalism relies.

“A world in which the seizure and sale of a black man—even a black child—was viewed as neither criminal nor extraordinary had reemerged. Millions of blacks lived in that shadow—as forced laborers or their family members, or African Americans in terror of the system’s caprice. The practice would not fully recede from their lives until the dawn of World War II, when profound global forces began to touch the lives of black Americans for the first time since the era of the international abolition movement a century earlier, prior to the Civil War.”

*TriesteDaša Drndić

“History, an ornate lady who does not die easily, dresses again and again in new costumes, but keeps telling the same story. History as Dracula, History as the Vampire, the vampiric fate of history, History the Bloodsucker, that great mistress of humanity.”

I think if I had been in another frame of mind when I read this, it would have been one of my favorites of the month. But I read it at the wrong time, and it struck me as dense and fascinating… and worth a second read.

“Conversations about the past are like little confessions, like unburdenings, after which the soul returns to the present on angel wings, fluttery and luminous.”

In Trieste, Drndić grapples with history — examining 20th century events almost like a historian while weaving in storytelling about victims and villains. And sometimes how history is elastic — it is eroded enough that it’s not fully erased. We might be able to trace it and find surprising things hidden in the faded past.

“Haya learns of Tom Stoppard, too. She hears that Stoppard was born Tomás Straussler in the town of Zlin, Moravia, where Bata sets up his famous shoe factory. She learns that until 1999 Tom Stoppard has no clue he is Jewish; then (by chance) he finds out that he is. Tomás’ father Eugene Straussler works at the factory hospital as a physician. Immediately after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, in 1939, Mr Bata decides to save his employees, including the physicians, by sending them off to the branch offices he owns all over the world. The Straussler family relocate to Singapore, but before the Japanese occupation, Marta Beck (Straussler by marriage) leaves with her two sons and goes first to Australia, then to India, while Eugene Straussler boards a ship full of refugees somewhat later. The Japanese shell his ship and with it sinks Eugene. In India, Marta Straussler meets a British officer by the name of Stoppard who asks her to marry him. He gives her boys his last name and together they return to his homeland, England, where they live happily ever after, as if their earlier life had never happened, as if there had never been a family, a war, camps, another language, memories, not even a little Czech love. In 1996 Marta Beck (Straussler by marriage, Stoppard by marriage) dies, and at that moment Tomás, no longer a boy, born Straussler, re-born Stoppard, starts digging through his past now that he is tired of writing plays or now that his inspiration has dried up—who knows?—and time unfolds before him. In the Czech Republic Tomás learns that his grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, cousins, all of them disappeared as if they had never lived, which, as far as he is concerned…”

*Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You HaveTatiana Schlossberg

I think more than I should about the invisible things we do that have incredible environmental footprints. One thing is the constant use of the internet – especially now that we are streaming all of our entertainment. This requires a shocking amount of energy — but it’s not as conspicuous or easy to calculate as the carbon debt we run up when we drive a car or take a flight somewhere. No, much of the physical infrastructure of the internet and what makes it run is hidden from site and euphemistically called “the cloud”. But the infrastructure — and all its energy-thirsty demands still exist. And we’re adding to that consumption every day.

“…the physical things we interact with every day and lots of our daily activities don’t exist in a vacuum—they’re much more connected to each other, to global climate change, and to each one of us than we think. The story of climate change—and all of our stuff—is actually a story about everything: science, health, injustice, inequality, national and international politics, the natural world, business, normal life. Climate change affects everyone constantly, but, until very recently, we usually only talked about it for a few days when some natural disaster happened or a particularly scary report by government scientists came out—if then—before we moved on to something else.”

Schlossberg takes on the less obvious energy and resource guzzlers in this book, looking in some depth at everything from ICT costs to the staggering costs of the fashion industry, among others.

*Superbugs: The Race to Stop an EpidemicMatt McCarthy

Any book on a superbug or virus… I tend to grab and read them all. I’ve been thinking a lot about antibiotic resistance for years, although this important and ongoing crisis tends to be forgotten and overshadowed when we find ourselves in times of more urgent crises, e.g. coronavirus. But, as McCarthy points out: More than 20,000 people die in the United States each year because of an antibiotic-resistant infection. And there are not enough new antibiotics in the pipeline to keep up with the growing ineffectiveness of the antibiotics we do have. Most tellingly – and this will surprise no one in our capitalist societies – antibiotics are expensive to develop, don’t have a long life (because we wear them out to the point of resistance) and are not money makers. Even with active antibiotic stewardship programs, where infectious disease experts make determinations about antibiotic prescriptions, there aren’t enough antibiotics now or in the offing.

A few crossover points with current events and other reading… McCarthy’s discussion on the shortage of infectious disease specialists makes us appreciate Dr Anthony Fauci even more (he is, of course, mentioned in this book):

“Infectious diseases specialists have become a dying breed in some parts of the country, cast aside by modern medicine. Most doctors are now compensated based on the types (and cost) of procedures they perform, and infectious diseases doctors don’t really perform procedures. Ours is a cognitive specialty, providing expert consultation, and reimbursement schemes haven’t figured out how to keep up with the tremendous demands of the work. The field is experiencing a brain drain, and every year, it gets a bit worse. Specialists still flock to big cities on the coasts, but the middle of the country has been hit hard by the changing economics of medicine. Young doctors are less interested in infectious diseases than their predecessors were, and this presents a problem: once lysin is approved, there need to be specialists who know how to use it.”

Also, McCarthy writes:

“Pharmaceutical research and development has the highest failure rate for new products of any industry, which raises important questions: How far should we go to incentivize the production of new drugs?”

This ties in with another book I read this month:

*Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions  — Richard F. Harris

Not only are there limited private funds for certain kinds of pharma research (no one wants to fund research for drugs that won’t turn a handsome and relatively quick profit), but public taxpayer funded research isn’t easy to come by.

“Taxpayers fund medical research – but what good is it, how effective is that spending – if most of the science produced – or how results are interpreted – turns out to be skewed to support the goals of the researchers rather than finding actual answers?”

“The ecosystem in which academic scientists work has created conditions that actually set them up for failure. There’s a constant scramble for research dollars. Promotions and tenure depend on their making splashy discoveries. There are big rewards for being first, even if the work ultimately fails the test of time. And there are few penalties for getting it wrong.”

Similarly,  despite peer review, there does not seem to be adequate oversight or rigor (hence the book’s title) required to make research results reliable — and replicable. Replicability of results is a major crisis across the disciplines — as the book highlights, one study with faulty (but “positive”) results can often go undetected when other scientists begin citing those research findings even without testing for themselves to see if they can reproduce the same results or find the same significance.

“There she saw one big problem with cancer research: scientists were not approaching many studies with enough rigor. Each scientist had his or her own way of working, but those were not standardized or often repeatable. That’s the culture of biomedical science today—researchers are individual entrepreneurs, each attacking a small piece of the problem with gusto. Barker says that unfortunately the quality of the work is all over the map—and there’s typically no way to tell which studies you can believe and which you can’t, especially when scientists try to add together results from different laboratories, each of which has used its own methods.”

And this is…well, again, it’s in the title: sloppy at best, and a waste of tens of millions of research dollars at worst.

“Begley said one of the studies he couldn’t reproduce has been cited more than 2,000 times by other researchers, who have been building on or at least referring to it, without actually validating the underlying result.”

Harris lays out the stark choice scientists are often forced to make: reporting rigorous results openly to advance medical science OR do what’s best for their career, which may require secrecy, fudging of results (or willfully deceiving oneself about the results or how to report them). And, as Harris reports, the time to make this choice is now:

“Arturo Casadevall at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shares that sense of alarm. “Humanity is about to go through a couple of really rough centuries. There is no way around this,” he said, looking out on a future with a burgeoning population stressed for food, water, and other basic resources. Over the previous few centuries, we have managed a steadily improving trajectory, despite astounding population growth. “The scientific revolution has allowed humanity to avoid a Malthusian crisis over and over again,” he said. To get through the next couple of centuries, “we need to have a scientific enterprise that is working as best as it can. And I fundamentally think that it isn’t.””

*Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and WantNicholas Epley

And so, with the obvious benefits that come from social understanding, you and I and nearly every other human being on the planet have become so well practiced at reading the minds of others that our sixth sense operates almost invisibly. As philosopher extraordinaire Jerry Fodor has written, “Commonsense psychology works so well, it disappears.” Only at the rare times when it is stretched beyond its limits, or is proven to be profoundly mistaken, does its existence come back into view.”

I kind of expected this book to be a surface-level, self-help, best-seller type thing, so I didn’t think I’d invest a lot of effort into reading it. It turned out to be a little bit like what I expected but it dives into much more. First and foremost – addressing the overconfidence people have about their ability to read and understand others (particularly those they are closest to).

“Getting to know someone, even over a lifetime of marriage, creates an illusion of insight that far surpasses actual insight.”

And at the root of this is understanding oneself — Epley writes that the disconnect between what people think about themselves and how they actually behave is one of the most common things found about perceptions of self when studied by psychologists. One of the most prominent studies, though largely seen as unethical by today’s standards, is the Milgram experiments. I’ve written about this SO MANY times before because it comes up in virtually every psychology textbook, course and discussion, whether it’s on experimental design and ethics, about obedience to authority or about the sense of self. It is cited in all kinds of pop culture, including tv shows like Law & Order SVU. You can’t escape Milgram.

And in Epley’s book it is a good illustration of exactly how misaligned our own ideas about ourselves are with what we actually do. In the Milgram experiment, most participants would likely have classified themselves as nice/good people who would never cause intentional harm to anyone else. But the experiment pushed the limits of what people were willing to do if they were being given instructions by someone who appeared to be in a position of authority. More than 60% of participants in Milgram’s study willingly pushed a button that they were told would shock a person in another room (even to the point of death) because they were “just following orders”. We are seeing things play out similarly in society right now — people who love to claim that they would have resisted Nazi terror are at best silent now and at worst buying into patently fascist and dictatorial moves in US politics.

Epley shows time and again, in different ways, that we are not who we say or think we are. One way we all do this is through “the planning fallacy”. Most of us underestimate how long it will take to get things done. Do we really just not know how long tasks take or are other factors at play? We all struggle with this at times, but some people are much more likely to fall prey than others (to my frustration).

“What’s surprising is how easily introspection makes us feel like we know what’s going on in our own heads, even when we don’t. We simply have little awareness that we’re spinning a story rather than reporting the facts.”

Fascinating book that simplifies some of the constructive work the brain is always — and almost effortlessly — doing. And how the effortlessness of that work can fool us until thinking we know a great deal more than we actually know.

*They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child SoldiersRoméo Dallaire

I did not “enjoy” this book – in fact it’s very disturbing. But we need to remind ourselves, or in some cases learn for the first time, about the atrocities of the world, of recent history. I know plenty of people who blindly ignore these kinds of things because they don’t want to see the darkness of the world – the true darkness. But how can we prevent further such atrocities if we don’t come to terms with their existence and how horrific they actually are? Recently I had a number of long discussions about ethnic cleansing and civil wars that almost no one seems to remember (Sierra Leone, Rwanda, etc.). The 25-year anniversary of Srebrenica recently passed, and I cannot count the number of people I mentioned it to who claimed never to have heard of it. These are brutal, gruesome events in recent history, but for some, these are relics of a long-distant past… and for others, things that never registered for them in the first place. I find the indifference and ignorance… more than painful.

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*A Confederacy of DuncesJohn Kennedy Toole

I could barely get through this. I don’t know why it’s so widely lauded. I could be missing something. I might have read it at the wrong time and not given it enough time to land. But every time I sat down to read, I wanted to give up. And that doesn’t usually happen to me.

*Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters – And How to Get ItLaurie Mintz

You’d have to be totally uninformed to find this book informative. Then again I am constantly surprised by how mysterious people find their own bodies, so how could a partner find another’s body any less so? The book does at least acknowledge that much of this ignorance comes from the misinformation and a lack of education that exist around female bodies, sex and orgasms … both formally and in the media and cultural realm. But I am not sure it delivered on the promise of the title. Does it really explain why its author believes “orgasm equality” matters?

*Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s PainAbby Norman

“I’ve often found it curious that when a woman is suffering, her competence is questioned, but when a man is suffering, he’s humanized. It’s a gender stereotype that hurts both men and women, though it lends itself to the question of why there is a proclivity in health care, and in society, to deny female pain.”

I was keen to read this book because the title promised something. There are a lot of voices in the media and even in medicine speaking up about the imbalance between how men and women are treated by the medical system. This ranges from how clinical trials are run to how drug dosing recommendations are made. Because men are always seen as the default, everything comes back to them. On an individual level, there are countless stories of women whose pain is discounted, disbelieved and dismissed. In this story, the writer keeps fighting back. As you discover as you read, she has very little choice but to keep advocating for herself, despite how her life otherwise falls apart.

“…she glanced down at my notepad where I’d scribbled something about the patriarchy of medicine. She pointed to it and just gave me a simple, but bold and resounding, “Yes.” “I think perhaps my biggest take as a woman is that I have so many people come to me who are willing to tolerate so much, or they have tolerated so much,” Dr. Marin began in our discussion of female pain. “Either because no one was willing to listen to them, or just because they thought it was normal, or that was the price of being a woman—that they don’t have to tolerate.””

“The problem with a woman’s “blood” was really not the problem at all: vaginas were the problem. To extrapolate, women’s sexuality was the problem. Women having agency of their bodies was the problem.”

Still, even with all this background, and the timeliness of the theme, I thought this book would be a lot more interesting. Of course I don’t want to criticize the author. I believe in her pain and the ordeal she went through to get diagnosed, to get treatment, to live without pain, and most of all, to be believed. The book probably needed excruciating detail of everything she went through to show how far women have to go to find relief. But I guess I’m hypersensitive to people’s illnesses and propensity to never stop talking about them, which should lead me away from reading books like this. But here we are.

Said and read – March 2020

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Image used courtesy of S. Donaghy

Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives.The OverstoryRichard Powers

Were we ready when March began for the way the world has changed? How casually and spontaneously we jumped on airplanes and flew from place to place without even thinking about it. How every activity was about time and convenience, nothing to do with whether or not it would be life threatening to leave one’s house. Sure, when March began, we knew the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading – we saw the tragic consequences unfold in more distant parts of the world (depending on where in the world you are, of course). But even now self-isolation orders (and adherence) is piecemeal, fragmented and inconsistently applied and enforced. Until we feel the pain or fear of personal loss, we don’t seem to care very much. We see the death toll rise, but unless it’s touched you, we express a collective, “Oh that’s too bad” kind of semi-indifference. When does that change? It may be an ideal time to reassess who we are in the world and who we want to be.

I want this not only for artists and writers, but for any person who perceives life to be more than an instrument and therefore something that cannot be optimized. A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.” –How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention EconomyJenny Odell

We haven’t seen the extent of the way the world will change. We just don’t know if it gets better or worse from here. And while I go on in my own long-term self-isolation (this is my normal lifestyle), I continue reading. I wish I had the language to discuss reading and books more interactively, but I don’t. I find that many people tell me they “love” reading, only to discover that they are talking about audiobooks (ugh) or scifi/fantasy novels, and then I just don’t have common ground any more. I want people to read; I want to read. I want to share this passion, but then I find I reach a certain point where it becomes private and insular, and no one can reach me on the ground I tread.

Past editions: 2020 – February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for March:

Highly recommended

It only takes a single night of frost to kill off a generation. To live, then, is a matter of time, of timing.” –On Earth We’re Briefly GorgeousOcean Vuong

*On Earth We’re Briefly GorgeousOcean Vuong

It’s a narrative work from poet, Ocean Vuong, and you can tell it’s written by a poet. The language is evocative, emotionally resonant and beautiful.

You once told me that memory is a choice. But if you were god, you’d know it’s a flood.

*How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention EconomyJenny Odell

Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily. We submit our free time to numerical evaluation, interact with algorithmic versions of each other, and build and maintain personal brands.

I am not sure that there could have been a better book for this moment in time of “manifest dismantling” than Odell’s How to Do Nothing. While many of us are forced to abandon what we think of as valuable productivity, and face who we are day to day without the trappings of what we think of as “normal life”, we are reflected back at ourselves. Since the various lockdown levels have rolled out globally, friends and colleagues have begun to exhibit signs of minor meltdown, insisting after two days at home, “I’m bored.”

Even with the technologies we insist we rely on at their disposal, which have been so immersive and all-consuming to the detriment of human connection, isolation is unbearable. When these people did have the opportunity to commune face to face with other humans in public spaces, they didn’t – they communed with phones and devices, which now – only now – aren’t enough for them. Who would have thought? And now they demand entertainment. Probably this is more a function of being human – needing connection and validation – than of just being unimaginative and boring (as grandma said, only boring people get bored), yet it’s still perplexing – and mesmerizing. What should you be doing? And if not now, when should you think more deeply on this subject?

“The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.

I will never run out of things to do. Why are these people so bored? Is the need to socialize and be productive in a collective way so compelling – compulsive?

If you become interested in the health of the place where you are, whether that’s cultural or biological or both, I have a warning: you will see more destruction than progress.

What has marked all of my memorable reading this month is how accidentally it has fallen into thematic alignment with the pitting of the momentary against the longevity of the durable and persistent … and what these things mean, and whether those definitions can and do change. That is, in Odell, Powers, and Sinclair we see long-term ecology and culture stretch out over unseen time, beyond this frenzied economic cycle, beyond our envisioned or predicted lifespan, beyond the life of a single tree from one geologic epoch to another…

“Our idea of progress is so bound up with the idea of putting something new in the world that it can feel counterintuitive to equate progress with destruction, removal, and remediation. But this seeming contradiction actually points to a deeper contradiction: of destruction (e.g., of ecosystems) framed as construction (e.g., of dams). Nineteenth-century views of progress, production, and innovation relied on an image of the land as a blank slate where its current inhabitants and systems were like so many weeds in what was destined to become an American lawn. But if we sincerely recognize all that was already here, both culturally and ecologically, we start to understand that anything framed as construction was actually also destruction.”

Good – or better than expected

*UnaccompaniedJavier Zamora

Powerful poetry from Salvadoran poet, Javier Zamora.

*The OverstoryRichard Powers

I have no way to describe why I liked this. It just had some beautiful, evocative passages about trees, nature… and chestnuts. Just after I’d discussed chestnuts with someone, stating that I was not sure I’d ever tasted them, I started reading and immediately was struck by the mildly erotic (?) description of the flavor of a chestnut.

“The charred nuts are comforting beyond words: sweet and savory, rich as a honeyed potato, earthy and mysterious all at once. The burred husks prickle, but their No is more of a tease than any real barrier. The nuts want to slip free of their spiny protection. Each one volunteers to be eaten, so others might be spread far afield.”

The “overstory” essentially is like the often lengthy life of a tree. Life’s decisions are not one-dimensional, one-generational, their consequences not immediately felt. They appear later, throughout time, like the rings of a tree.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Lifespan: Why We Age – And Why We Don’t Have ToDavid A. Sinclair

There’s also a difference between extending life and prolonging vitality. We’re capable of both, but simply keeping people alive—decades after their lives have become defined by pain, disease, frailty, and immobility—is no virtue.

When confronted by propositions about living forever, aging and the disease of aging, scores of questions follow. How do we value life, relationships, commitments if we remove mortality from the equation? Would we reevaluate “old age” if being elderly didn’t inevitably mean infirmity? Would we really want to live forever – or even for hundreds of years? What do things mean when they are no longer finite?

If the epigenome had evolved to be digital rather than analog, the valley walls would be the equivalent of 100 miles high and vertical, and gravity would be superstrong, so the marbles could never jump over into a new valley. Cells would never lose their identity. If we were built this way, we could be healthy for thousands of years, perhaps longer. But we are not built this way. Evolution shapes both genomes and epigenomes only enough to ensure sufficient survival to ensure replacement—and perhaps, if we are lucky, just a little bit more—but not immortality.

I read this book in large part because my brother talks obsessively about aging (and why we don’t have to age the way we think of aging now). For now, Sinclair’s impressive book, ostensibly about aging and how we can prevent it, is full of different strategies and avenues medicine, science and research are taking to tackle the problem of aging. It aims to challenge the shared narrative of aging as we know it as a natural phenomenon, and instead of redefine it (i.e., infirm aging) as a disease.

Yet, this book has struck me more for its focus on the ubiquity, totality, danger and promise of data… Sinclair argues that we give away copious amounts of personal data as a form of currency every single day, but we are reticent to do so when it is medical in nature, even if this data might be the most vital we could offer in ‘rejuvenating’ humanity.

Perhaps there are people out there who’d be happy to drive without any dashboard at all, relying solely on their intuition and experience to tell them how fast they are going, when their car needs fuel or recharging, and what to fix when something goes wrong. The vast majority of us, however, would never drive a car that wasn’t giving us at least some quantitative feedback, and, through our purchasing decisions, we have made it clear to car companies that we want more and more intelligent cars.

Surprisingly, we’ve never demanded the same for our own bodies. Indeed, we know more about the health of our cars than we know about our own health. That’s farcical. And it’s about to change.

Thanks to wearables, we already have the technology in place to monitor the body temperature, pulse, and other biometric reactions of more than a hundred million people in real time. The only things separating us from doing so are a recognized need and a cultural response.

Most of us aren’t “the world’s most connected man” (side note: I had read about this dude, Chris Dancy, online a few times and then a few years later was seated next to him on a plane), but we’re connected enough that any illusion of privacy we cling to is… a fantasy. Why do we not embrace it?

Indeed, most relevant at the moment is Sinclair’s writing (from 2019) on a future pandemic that is poised to wipe out huge swathes of the global population and how data might help. It’s timely right now, but clearly, the pandemic is already here.

Coincidences

Apart from more than three different books I recently read citing the film Gattaca, I didn’t stumble on any great coincidences in March.

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*Girl, Woman, OtherBernardine Evaristo

This was by no means a bad book; I simply had my expectations built up, so anything would have been disappointing. What I can say about it is… it is dynamic, told from multiple points of view – and that’s a hit or miss proposition for me.

The single woman: Alone with strangers

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“I started to think about how people say that the trouble with two strangers getting married isn’t necessarily that the woman has to marry someone she doesn’t know but that she has to learn to love someone she doesn’t know…But I think it must be easier for a girl to marry someone she doesn’t know, because the more you get to know men, the harder it is to love them.” –Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk

“But how was one to be an adult? Was couplehood truly the only appropriate option? (But then, a sole option was no option at all.)” –A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

Changing space and place

In writing an earlier post, The silent woman, about being middle-aged, or just being a woman who is trying to make her voice heard in the world we live in (it’s easy for me to forget that this is difficult, but then the news turns up some corporate jackass says women talk too much or one of the only hard-charging questioners, Senator Kamala Harris, was repeatedly interrupted by men at Jeff Sessions’s session in the hot seat at recent US Senate Intelligence Committee hearings), it started off with my thinking about the choices we, as women, have. The choices I, as an individual have – as a woman, as a middle-aged woman, in the position, station and circumstances in which I find myself now. I am fortunate; I cannot complain. I may always have been somewhere near invisible, but I’ve oddly been able to do most things my own way. I have never been railing against a system that is stacked against me. I run afoul of many of society’s expectations and have never cared what other people thought.

So when considering a woman’s place, a woman’s ‘requirement’ to marry or to bend to the conventions of society, I have never felt bound to these ‘norms’. Many of Erica Jong’s assertions in Fear of Flying, which may well have been the norm in 1973 (and in many cases remain so today), were thus memos I shredded in favor of doing whatever I wanted.

She wrote:

“Solitude is un-American. It may be condoned in a man—especially if he is a “glamorous bachelor” who “dates starlets” during a brief interval between marriages.”

Bullshit. Solitude may well be un-American, maybe even inhuman. But I prefer solitude and embraced it.

She also wrote:

“…be alone as a result of abandonment, not choice. And she is treated that way: as a pariah. There is simply no dignified way for a woman to live alone.”

Perhaps as a function or fact of the time, this was true. But I failed to embrace this.

She further wrote:

“Her friends, her family, her fellow workers never let her forget that her husbandlessness, her childlessness—her selfishness, in short—is a reproach to the American way of life.”

This is also not something that remains intact as fact today. Yes, a few people regard me as selfish for my lack of marriage and lack of children, and I occasionally confront the pity people direct toward me for these things I lack. But I understand in equal measure the envy that people also feel that I am free, and always have been. It’s a mixed reaction going both ways.

But then it’s not all about me. I am fully aware that I can only speak for myself and my own rather non-linear and unique experience. What Jong experienced and wrote about 40+ years ago is something different from what we have today, even if we can all cite 1,000 moments each day that we individually experience or witness more of the bitter sameness of obliquely discriminatory behavior. It is easy to dismiss what Jong, mid-20th century feminists or even my older female colleagues when I first joined the corporate workforce write or say as passé because many of us no longer experience the overt discrimination they exposed and fought against. But we see evidence every day, often not overt, but nevertheless pervasive, that there is still plenty of need for feminism and awareness-building. For society and for individuals and their choices.

Feminism, though it can be individual, is largely not about an individual perspective or experience. Each individual may need to define what feminism is for her, but on a more universal level, we are all responsible for making the world safe for women to make those self-determinations. Even if that choice is to follow a prescribed societal view of her own place and space. That means that sometimes we are not going to be on the same page just because we are women, e.g. some of the most vocal anti-choice activists are women; Donald Trump would not have become US president if it weren’t for white women in the United States. Do I agree with those women’s views? No. But do I feel that their right to believe what they believe is valid? Yes, insofar as it does not infringe on others’ rights (which, unfortunately, it often does).

Keeping pace: The marriage question – But who am I, and who are you? Who knows?

Many of Jong’s suppositions are tied to the search for love and the ultimate ‘subjugation’ of marriage. But most of us are not required to marry or pair off for material reasons or other obligations. Yet we do. By choice.

How, then, with all these communication-based minefields in our paths do we reach a point that it makes sense to us to marry? Who and where are we as individuals that we think, Yes, this makes perfect sense? I get it – feelings and lust and all these other heady things cloud our logical judgment. It’s not that marriage and companionship are wrong or troublesome. They can be pleasurable, supportive and all kinds of other good stuff. But what is the need, at a certain point? Maybe it is not a question of need any more, unlike for example, the scenes described in Fear of Flying:

“Damned clever, I thought, how men had made life so intolerable for single women that most would gladly embrace even bad marriages instead. Almost anything had to be an improvement on hustling for your own keep at some low-paid job and fighting off unattractive men in your spare time while desperately trying to ferret out the attractive ones.”

No, instead of ‘need’, I see a few clear paths people take. Among them (and these are only examples):

Those who don’t find a voice or identity, so seek a voice in another. One is essentially alone with a stranger – but that stranger isn’t the person she has coupled up with, but herself. And in some cases (leaving aside the equality of Scandinavian countries, which is atypical of the rest of the world), it is the preference. She may want to subsume her half-baked identity in the identity of another. (“But I have lost my being in so many beings” -Sophia de Mello Breyner.) Maybe she still, in this day and age (and again, outside Sweden this stuff may still be true), buys into the myths:

“What all the ads and all the whoreoscopes seemed to imply was that if only you were narcissistic enough, if only you took proper care of your smells, your hair, your boobs, your eyelashes, your armpits, your crotch, your stars, your scars, and your choice of Scotch in bars—you would meet a beautiful, powerful, potent, and rich man who would satisfy every longing, fill every hole, make your heart skip a beat (or stand still), make you misty, and fly you to the moon (preferably on gossamer wings), where you would live totally satisfied forever. And the crazy part of it was that even if you were clever, even if you spent your adolescence reading John Donne and Shaw, even if you studied history or zoology or physics and hoped to spend your life pursuing some difficult and challenging career—you still had a mind full of all the soupy longings that every high-school girl was awash in.” –Fear of Flying

Then there are those who find someone who loves and cherishes the voice and identity she has cultivated for herself. Something akin to two complete and fulfilled people trying to enhance their lives with the presence of someone else who, by all accounts, understands and appreciates them in a way that no one else does. Illusion? Maybe. After all, understanding may be an illusion:

“What elaborate misconceptions form other people’s understanding of us! The joy of being understood by others cannot be had by those who want to be understood, for they are too complex to be understood; and simple people, who can be understood by others, never have the desire to be understood. Nobody achieves anything … Nothing is worth doing.” –The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

The single misunderstanding

Perhaps these pursuits are doomed to be fruitless, but we can delude ourselves. Quite happily, maybe for a lifetime. We may never understand another and maybe we do not need to, completely, to find a kind of fulfillment in another.

“…is always myself that I seek in other people—my enrichment, my fulfilment. Once everyone grasps this, the logic of ‘every man for himself’, carried to its logical conclusion, will be transformed into the logic of ‘all for each’.” –The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

And further, we may not discover or know ourselves, but fool ourselves that we have; we may not truly connect with another – because we are not really listening, not really seeing, but marry anyway, probably blind, often miserable, perhaps someday concluding that we are marrying strangers, or living with the stranger that is ourself, or something similar to what Pessoa cautions:

“Have you ever considered, beloved Other, how invisible we all are to each other? Have you ever thought about how little we know each other? We look at each other without seeing. We listen to each other and hear only a voice inside ourself. The words of others are mistakes of our hearing, shipwrecks of our understanding. How confidently we believe in our meanings of other people’s words. We hear death in words they speak to express sensual bliss. We read sensuality and life in words they drop from their lips without the slightest intention of being profound.” -Fernando Pessoa

Undisturbed

Standard

The New Age book, finally completed (self-read audiobook on MP3, split up into chapter chunks), offered a few compelling thoughts and jumping-off points. I am struggling with one bit – that is, trying to respect what it commands – it’s such a pure and true passage, complemented by the poetry of David Whyte (whose work appears throughout the volume). I’d never heard of him (Irish mother/Yorkshire father; grew up in west Yorkshire before eventually moving to the Pacific Northwest of the US).

“Although true solitude — alert aloneness without diversions — can be challenging, it is often the necessary gateway to our deepest passions, and the discovery of what we must do to live them. As David Whyte writes,

…Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.”

On your marks, get set…

Standard

Go!

“Nothing tortures you like what could have been…
But I don’t know anything about you anymore.”

-Robyn Hitchcock, “Harry’s Song”

Sometimes things that start as fun end up being agony. They may even start out with a bit of agony, but if you have a bent toward self-torture, as I sometimes do, you stick with these things through the agony just because you feel you have to see it through to ask, “Can this get any worse?” In the midst of the moments of unhappiness punctuating everything, the agony is unfelt. Later, the agony of the moment is suddenly remembered and felt acutely.

I feel a great need for silence and solitude, but some part of me is not content with that. Disturbing this silence willingly, I spontaneously jumped up and traveled away from my quiet refuge to do the very opposite of what my nature dictates. So far, so good. I want to ring in the new year going against the grain.

While I often do feel uncomfortable in large crowds, in noisy surroundings, I imagine that there are times when I take the shortcut – that is, shutting everyone and everything out – and in turn shortchange myself. I imagine I have always been this way – my mother tells me that even as a baby, I liked to be surrounded by people and activity but I did not want to be a part of it. I wanted to observe it, doing my own thing. This has not changed. I look back and also realize that my multitasking, impatient nature has also shortchanged me. I recall activities I did in second grade (when I was 7) that I hurried through as fast as possible because I wanted the sensation of being finished. It was for this reason that a puzzle-building activity I completed was sloppy and my handwriting was the most dismal thing in the world. This continued all through my education, from reading the entire seventh grade social studies text within the first week of school and completing all the assignments that same week, to rushing through my BA degree in 2.5 years instead of 4. From the earliest moments, I felt this need to rush through things, devour more things – and I now think I was, as I still am, running away from something. But what was I running toward?

It is not as though the road I took was “the easy way” – in fact, in many cases, it was much harder than if I had plodded along slowly, at a normal pace.

All these years, I made many decisions and have landed somewhere where I am basically content. At least I was before 2013. I think 2013 has been the worst year I can remember having. After the useless and painful parts of 2013, I can only hope that 2014 will be a better year – for me, and for everyone.

Happy new year!