Madness

wide-sargasso-sea

Warning: SPOILERS

If you have not read Wide Sargasso Sea or Jane Eyre, go read them both right now (maybe read Jane Eyre first) and then come back.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a strange book. I’m having a hard time understanding the bare bones of the story line. And then this:

‘If my father, my real father, was alive you wouldn’t come back here in a hurry after he’d finished with you. If he was alive. Do you know what you’ve done to me? It’s not the girl, not the girl. But I loved this place and you have made it into a place I hate. I used to think that if everything else went out of my life I would still have this, and now you have spoilt it. It’s just somewhere else where I have been unhappy, and all the other things are nothing to what has happened here. I hate it now like I hate you and before I die I will show you how much I hate you.’

Something about this speech from Antoinette was very, very familiar. I know this feeling, that you have let someone into your precious, sacred space and then he breaks it and breaks you, and what used to comfort you just reminds you of pain and your own stupidity and you feel like you can never trust that sense of security again.

I didn’t want to read this book because I didn’t want my opinion of Mr. Rochester to change. When I read Jane Eyre in high school, and many times after that, I saw a hero. That’s what the man is in the story, right? He’s a hero, which means he can’t be cruel or thoughtless or selfish. Of course, in the story, Rochester calls himself cruel and selfish, but I was too young to understand that Charlotte Bronte was writing an antihero. I didn’t know enough stories for the true definition of hero, so I assumed Rochester was one.

Wide Sargasso Sea does not paint him as a villain– not completely. When Rochester was the narrator, it seemed he was just as crazy as his wife. How could a person stay sane when forced to marry a stranger to preserve the dignity of one’s distant relatives?

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The right to be wrong

hogfather-3 So Austin has had some unseasonably gorgeous weather. It actually feels like autumn! So I’ve been adding cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves to my coffee and reading Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.

The book is about belief.

Terry Pratchett always talks about the common people and how they are an immovable sludge that keep doing what they do despite the best efforts of the educated and the heroic. He always does it with a sort of awe and love for those people, because even as he points out their intractableness, he criticizes the main characters for thinking they can make a difference.

Here’s a footnote on Ponder Stibbons, the character who represents comp-sci nerdom:

Credulous: having views about the world, the universe and humanity’s place in it that are shared only by very unsophisticated people and the most intelligent and advanced mathematicians and physicists.

Ponder Stibbons is smart enough to hold himself above the “credulous” masses, but not quite smart enough to recognize the mystery in the physics that he studies.

Here’s another statement reflecting the perspective of the credulous:

The universe clearly operates for the benefit of humanity. This can be readily seen from the convenient way the sun comes up in the morning, when people are ready to start the day.

This attitude has definitely shaped the way I approach my work as a political activist. I’ve been reading Discworld novels since middle school, so, of course, Pratchett has shaped my understanding of the world. So while there are amazing characters who cannot be constrained by mediocrity (like Granny Weatherwax and Susan Death) those characters must protect the people who reject them (and whom they reject). Because you have to allow people to be stubborn or wrong-headed or just plain stupid. Because if you don’t, you become the villain. You become the person who controls others to get what you want. And that’s evil.

Deliberate Practice and Grocery Shopping

A funny thing keeps happening to me lately. I’ll go grocery shopping, help bag my own groceries, and the cashier will make a point of thanking me. I always try to speed things along by bagging my own groceries, so I don’t know why- suddenly- the cashiers are so grateful.

I usually make my way through the store and load my cart so that it will be easy to bag the groceries later. I know I will unload the cart so that the heavy things go first (like bottles of Topo Chico), then packaged items (like trail mix), then fragile items (fresh mint in a plastic bag). I’ve done this for as long as I can remember, and I think it has to do with Therbligs. I wrote about Therbligs and the effect that the book Cheaper by the Dozen has had on me in a previous post.

Cheaper by the Dozen is about an efficiency expert who has a dozen kids and the systems their family had in place to keep things running smoothly.

A Therblig is a unit of motion or thought. Suppose a man goes into the bathroom to shave. We’ll assume that his face is all lathered and he is ready to pick up his razor. He knows where the razor is, but first he must locate it with his eye. That is “search,” the first Therblig. His eye finds it and comes to rest — that’s “find,” the second Therblig…

When Dad made a motion study, he broke down each operation into a Therblig, and then tried to reduce the time taken to perform each Therblig. Perhaps certain parts to be assembled could be painted red and others green, so as to reduce the time required for “search” and “find.” Perhaps the parts could be moved closer to the object being assembled, so as to reduce the time required for “transport loaded.”

Cheaper by the Dozen, Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr and Ernestine Gilbreth Cary

After two and half years of living in Boston, where I would have to carry my groceries all the way home, I have gotten very particular about how my grocery bags are loaded. I have a distinct memory of walking several blocks with a pasta box digging into my side. Now my goal is to carry all my groceries up two flights of stairs in one trip, so that means using as few bags as possible and distributing heavy items evenly into different bags.

I apply this kind of analysis to almost everything I do– I’ve done it for so long I’m not always aware of it! When I worked at Starbucks, my manager once said I was, “Always thinking…” because I made some comment about moving items closer to where they were needed. The best thing about working at Starbucks was that they had lots of these kind of systems in place and it was a good environment for someone like me to try to improve them.

Part of the analysis is the constant motivation to get better and more efficient at each task. I now know this mentality is called deliberate practice. I still find it strange that a book I loved as a child could have programmed me so thoroughly. Because I loved Cheaper by the Dozen, my behavior for everything I do has been shaped to find efficiency, even grocery shopping.

Vulnerability as Strength

Schumer bookLast night, after a day of making bad decisions, I decided to go on a bender. But because I’m a huge dork, my bender took the form of blowing $100 at Book People. Included in my short stack of books (when did they get so expensive??), was Amy Schumer’s new book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

I was really surprised when I first saw Amy Schumer’s comedy and liked it. I don’t usually like comedians who talk so much (and so graphically) about sex and other bodily functions– but maybe that’s because the comedians who usually talk about that stuff are men and they were talking about bodily functions that don’t happen in my body. Also, I’m a very cerebral person, so talking about body stuff usually makes me uncomfortable.

But, of course, comedy is about confronting discomfort. And I love Amy Schumer for her form of comedy. There’s one chapter about her experience at a camp for people with disabilities and she learns how to accept that bodies are different and you have to own yours. I had a friend in college who insisted on making us all go to the women’s tub at the spa so that we could see female bodies that weren’t air-brushed. I’m so grateful for that! Of course, Santa Fe had a culture of loving natural bodies and aging gracefully and feminine power. It was a great place for me to spend my early 20s.

Amy Schumer is my age and grew up on Long Island. When I first learned this, I concocted a whole alternate childhood for myself where my parents raised me on Long Island (it’s where my mom grew up and we have family there), and Amy and I went to the same school and were best friends. Reading her book and learning about her childhood, I realized there’s no universe in an oodleplex of universes in which she and I would have been friends.

While she was off scheming about boys and trying cigarettes and beer, I was in my isolated world, reading books. I would have been the awkward, weird girl that she ignored. The weird thing is, she writes as if she was the awkward, weird girl making people laugh because she loved the attention. Twenty years later and I’m at home on a Friday night reading about her adventures instead of going out and having my own. That’s me I guess, and Schumer’s book is all about being yourself with no apologies. And I don’t regret my nights reading books, I started this blog to make myself spend more time reading books!

Schumer’s book is a very rich, human autobiography (even though she writes in the “Note to my Readers” that it is not an autobiography, I beg to differ). I was expecting a rehash of her stand-up material, instead I got a real story about her life. That’s the key to her comedy, too, she tells real stories that are genuinely painful and makes you laugh at them.

Beautiful, ugly, funny, boring, smart or not, my vulnerability is my ultimate strength.

-Amy Schumer, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, p. 314

There are a lot of things I connected with– but I’m not going to write about them here. I only recently have been able to admit certain things to myself, I’m definitely not ready to publish them on the internet– maybe I’ll never publish them on the internet. Again, that’s me. And I’ve been learning a lot about the strength within vulnerability. It has something to do with going out into the world, letting it destroy you, picking up the pieces and doing it again. And again and again… until what? I don’t know but I’ll have to keep going until I find out what’s next. That’s another part of being strong and vulnerable, having faith that this is worth it, even when there’s no plan.

Immersion

Christmas of 2014, my mom gave me Reamde by Neal Stephenson.  I started reading it last wReamde covereek.  You have to fully commit to a Stephenson novel, it’s not the sort of thing you just pick up.  It takes commitment.

As much as I love the action-paced dystopic young adult novels (The Hunger Games, Divergent, even Harry Potter) there’s nothing like taking the time to immerse myself in a fictional world.  I lost the ability to read long novels for a couple years, but I’m reclaiming it now.  Part of the impetus for starting this blog was to reconnect with my high school and college self who could spend 10 hours a day just reading… although I had plenty habits back then that I don’t need to dig up!

You know those articles about our attention-deficient, social-media addicted age?  This is my retreat from that world.  We need balance in our intellectual lives.  The energy of observing modern phenomena, reacting to it, starting a heated discussion– well and good.  But we can’t contribute to those passionate, present conversations if we don’t have the foundation created by quietly probing our own minds.  Stephenson always stretches my imagination.  That phrase is overused, because I really feel like my brain is expanding when I read his books.  It’s fantastic.  But I need quiet time.  No Facebook notifications, no spoilers.  (I mean it! NO SPOILERS!!)

So, see you when I come up for air.  Or when I’m unwillingly dragged back to reality by pedestrian needs like eating and paying rent.

Persuasion, self-delusion, emotional labor

After a vigorous discussion on Emotional Labor, prompted by this MetaFilter discussion,  I found myself wanting to reread Persuasion by Jane Austen.  Now that I’m halfway through it, I realize why my subconscious made the connection.

I love Persuasion.  I love that it hasn’t been co-opted by Hollywood.  I love that it’s about a woman who was disappointed in love eight years ago and has had to fully accept the consequences of making a decision that ended all hope of happiness for her.

In all of her novels, but especially this one, Jane Austen does a fantastic job of describing the thoughts and feelings that grease social interactions.  Now that I’ve learned my new vocabulary words: “emotional labor” I can’t stop applying that lens to everything I observe.  Anne Elliott, in Persuasion, feels the burden of unseen emotional labor.  She doesn’t even realize it’s a burden, most of the time.  She considers it her responsibility to account for the feelings and desires of the (often selfish) people around her, to smooth their way without acknowledgment for her effort.

Books do shape us and I wonder if my love for Jane Austen gave me the wrong tools for modern social life.  There was a Facebook group called “Jane Austen gave me unrealistic expectations of men” and now I think I should belong to a group called “Jane Austen gave me outdated expectations of myself.”  I’m reading about Anne making herself amiable and disinterested and realize that I have tried doing that when around my own family.  In the past couple years, I realized that being so passive around my family was boring!  I would go stay with my grandmother and kill vacation days not doing much of anything.  I thought I was doing it to be easy on my grandmother, but I’ve slowly come to realize, that maybe she wouldn’t mind if I showed initiative and desire to go out and do things.  While we’re at it, why was I using my precious time off to just hang out instead of go to awesome places?  I have a friend living in Alaska that I’ve been wanting to visit, but never have time or money after my family trips.  I’ve been operating under these false obligations that a single woman has to put her family first– when I don’t think my family would have their feelings hurt if I decided to do something else.

I’m a bit worried that my new perspective on emotional labor might make me dislike Jane Austen.  That would be terrible!  But I have to say, while reading Persuasion, I’m a bit frustrated with Anne. I want her to speak up, claim what she wants, and stop caring about what her selfish family wants.  I know what happens in the story, but now I’m reading it with whole new eyes– is that what happens?  Does she grow into a self-determined woman, or does chance and circumstance lead her to a happy ending?

I thought that if I was considerate, good, self-sufficient, then all my dreams would come true.  Where did I get that idea? Austen? Disney? church?  Well, I’ve been waiting for years for things to fall in my lap, because I was considerate, good, and self-sufficient.  But the good things that have happened were a result of me identifying a goal and working toward the goal, claiming the reward.  It was not sitting back and waiting for someone to notice me. Anne Elliott is waiting for someone to notice her.  While some decent people do (and some indecent people), it doesn’t lead to her happiness.

Throwback

I wrote this on September 19, 2005:

I have just read another fascinating part in Resurrection [by Leo Tolstoy].  The prisoners are being marched to Siberia.  Nekhlyudov [the main character, a young, wealthy man] observes a family stopped at an intersection and forced to wait until the prisoners have passed by.  The little girl who doesn’t understand what this procession means looks at her parents’ faces.  She interpretes that these people are different from herself and her parents, and is relieved when they are gone so she can return to her own world.  Her brother, on the other hand, “knew firmly and beyond any doubt, having learned it directly from God, that they were just such people as he himself and all other people were, and that, consequently, something very bad had been done to them.”

It’s interesting how Tolstoy is trying to convey the impact of this particular instituiton on society through many different characters.  The previous chapters were about Nekhlyudov’s interactions with society people after his change of heart.  He met the young, beautiful wife of some government official and nearly fell for her flirtation.  She pretended to understand his motives and thoughts on social reform, but she only wanted to make him fall in love with her.

Then he had an argument with his brother-in-law because he said that the courts don’t stand for justice but to maintain the social order.  Nekhlyudov has been stripped of the ideals that society fed him to protect its interests.

It makes sense to me that any society would be established by the powerful to make sure power is not taken from them or their children.  Nekhlyudov is an oddball because the social order did not harm him, so why is he so interested in changing it?  Well, his privileges seemed not to harm him, but obviously he feels that his wealthy lifestyle is not the way to exist because he has renounced it.

The family is fascinating.  The little girl will most likely never be convinced of what her brother knew immediately.  She will always think of convicts as a foreign class.