11 3 / 2014
In Atlanta, it is springtime already. Outside my hotel room is a large Ferris wheel, which lights up in undulating multicolor by night. Perhaps I will ride upon it before my time here is out.
Tonight I took a short meander past it, letting the warm air surround me and marveling at the trees in bloom.
10 3 / 2014
09 3 / 2014
There is a foreboding (because harbinger of decay) but sweet ache in my knees, after running around and dancing the night thoroughly away at V’s birthday party. She was radiant, and so was everybody else.
It was electrifying and cathartic, in a way unique to dance parties (which I seldom experience these days). The unaccustomed activity and, one supposes, my creeping decrepitude, have weakened my knees to such a degree that I am capable of little today beyond pajama-clad couch idling.
You don’t need knees to read, and I have plenty of bright, warming reading do. Notably, ”Drowning in Light" (something to think about on this painful and arbitrary time-adjustment day) on Nautilus; the beginning of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, which opens on a beach, and the part of Testament of Youth in which Vera Brittain reaches Malta, which she describes glowingly (in a chapter called “Tawny Island”):
At the end of the summer thegrass all over the island was parched and withered; from a distance the surface of the uplands resembled the stretched skin of a great tawny lion. A macabre fascination, such as I had realised in Mudros, seemed to radiate from the dazzling light which drenched this treeless barenness, making black and sharp-edged the tiny shadows cast by the clumps of tropical shrubs—cactus and prickly pear and eucalyptus—that fringed the dusty white roads or leaned against the ubiquitous stone walls. In the hospital garden immediately below the balcony, pastel-blue plumbago and pink geranium foamed with luscious generosity over sulphur-hued balustrades.
08 3 / 2014
I walked through the golden afternoon to the Brooklyn Museum, to catch the Wangechi Mutu exhibit before it ends (tomorrow). Her work is enchanting, expressive, inventive, grotesque, and masterful, really. I feel doubtful that my words can add to or illuminate her art; but if you have the opportunity to see her stuff, do it.
Thinking as I had been of feminism and stuff, I liked seeing Mutu’s fluid and almost frightening play with gender. In addition to her large collage/paintings and mixed-media space-occupying pieces (see, no art vocab have I), there were two horizontal box displays of smaller collage bits and wonderful drawings, some of them very sexual. Some heavy, some playful.
But the exhibit appeared in the wing of the museum dedicated to feminist art! And there was an adjacent exhibit of tapestries and plates, set up as a trans-temporal/dimensional dinner party among goddesses and important ladies of herstory (no, really). But I liked that too. The plates were arranged in a triangle and were variously vaginal. The placemats were delicately woven, each distinctly ornate.
The best part of the museum’s fourth floor (which my friend E and I explored thoroughly) was an elaborate display of 19th-century American domestic rooms, peered-into from the outside and accompanied by miniature dioramas of each room’s associated full house.
07 3 / 2014
I learned from the Google Doodle that today (tomorrow?) is International Women’s Day, and I find myself unsure of what that means or should mean, or who cares.
Am I a feminist? How to hear that question without feeling exhausted by a multitude of interpretations? A minefield of potential missteps.
Recently a friend I really respect invited me to a feminist book club she’s starting. It meets on Monday. I finished the book for it (Kindred, by Octavia Butler) the other day and have a few tentative ideas about what might be feminist things in it or feminist ways to read it.
This was a fine book, definitely a well-told story, with vividly realized character and places. I have some ideas about it, and I’m excited for the chance to talk about it. But I admit that aside from being a lady and having read another friend’s Women’s Studies thesis a few years ago, I feel ill equipped to have Feminist Ideas.
Right now I am also still reading Testament of Youth, whose author and narrator is an ardent feminist—right around the time, it so happens, that International Women’s Day became a thing.
Early in the book, she writes:
Only the other day a fellow-journalist, half rueful and half amused, told me that I had made a better thing out of sex equality than she had ever thought possible for such a portentous topic until I began to scatter articles on equal pay and married women’s careers through the pages of the daily and weekly Press. If that is so, I can only reply that I have written nothing on the various aspects of feminism which has not been based upon genuine conviction, and that the foundations of that conviction were first laid, strangely enough, at a school which was apparently regarded by many of the parents who patronised it as a means of equipping girls to be men’s decorative and contented inferiors.
Miss Health Jones, who from my knowledge of her temperament I now suspect to have been secretly in sympathy with the militant suffrage raids and demonstrations which began after the foundation of the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1905, was an ardent though always discreet feminist….
To this day I can remember some of the lessons which Miss Heath Jones gave us in History and Scripture—lessons which raced backwards and forwards in the same five minutes from the French Revolution to the Liberal Victory in the 1910 General Elections, from the prophecies of Isaiah to the 1911 Italian invasion of Tripoli. From the unimaginative standpoint of pre-war examinations they were quite unpractical, but as teaching in the real sense of the word—the creation in immature minds of the power to think, to visualise, to perceive analogies—they could hardly have been surpassed.
She didn’t say herstory, and neither probably will the feminist book club.
06 3 / 2014
“Why Work Is Lonely" from the Harvard Business Review Blog yesterday, describes "violent politeness," a form of blind and insistent positivity in the workplace that ends up alienating everyone.
It feels too risky to raise misgivings, especially if one cannot offer an alternative course of action. It might make them look clueless or disruptive to their boss or colleagues.
Early in my career, I was sympathetic to that analysis. I knew it all too well, the fear of being myself at work—or more precisely, the uncertainty about which self to be.
I thought, and advised reassuringly, that things would improve with time. As young managers became established, they would have more latitude to put their mark on the roles they took—and so would I. It would be easier to find and speak with our own voice.
We keep ignoring that by censoring ourselves in order not to appear vulnerable, we are often complicit in being misunderstood. Silence is easy to fill with suspicions and assumptions about what others do not know about us.
We keep fooling ourselves that we need to wait and time will make us more open, as if time alone did anything more than harden tentativeness into superficiality. And in the meantime, violent politeness corrodes collaboration, problem solving and decision-making. It kills enthusiasm and drags learning to a halt.
We cast it carelessly, this stone that kills two birds we claim to cherish—our voice and our relationships.
I like the way this is put, and I relate to it—thinking especially of myself three or four years ago, being relatively young and inexperienced at work, taking on a lot of responsibility at a small and rather chaotic company, expecting more certainty of my leaders than was truly reasonable, and being by nature/nurture/whatever too ready to please others for my own good.
05 3 / 2014
I have surely done a version of this rant on the blob before. But this article made me want to cry and stamp my feet, childlike, for my early math education and subsequent math-fear and wimpiness. Called, “5-Year-Olds Can Learn Calculus,” it’s short and worthwhile to read. It says:
Children need to be exposed to a variety of math styles to find the one that suits them best. But they also need to see meaningful (to them) people doing meaningful things with math and enjoying the experience.
Emphasis mine. For years I avoided math, considering it something not only formidable and difficult and tedious, but also really without any soul-value. It was obvious to me that math was necessary and contributed to Important Things like skyscrapers and aspirins and stuff, but I was so far from finding anything joyful or exploratory in math.
So after years of treating math like an unpleasant exercise or smelly but virtuous tonic to swallow, eyes closed, I struggled hard and (for me) bravely in college; and at last I gained some confidence in math and even began to see it as beautiful—a perspective which before then I knew existed but could hardly begin to sympathize with.
Of course, I love an opportunity to see my struggle with math as somehow an educational-systems failure, rather than entirely a reflection of my own character weaknesses (though it’s surely that too). But it’s encouraging to see people thinking differently about how math can or should be taught. My mom, wonderful creature that she is, remains math-phobic (fine) but also very math-avoidant.
I too would be perfectly content never to calculate anything ever again, but math is more than just calculating. And I want to show a braver (or more playful) math-face to my own (inconceivable, unconceived) kiddos someday.
04 3 / 2014
Some things I read today:
A very informative, if grim, perspective on the global banana situation.
Another sad account, on the feasibility of profitable (or break-even) preventive healthcare in the US.
03 3 / 2014
Philip Roth on death, for the Swedish news. What a perfect thing to have found to read tonight.
Reflecting on Roth, though I read a rash of his books when I was a teenager, the most indelibly memorable one was The Breast, which was also profiled in the Times, in a way that makes it seem far more intellectual than I recall. Cause of all the boob/genital stuff.
But I do remember it being funny (if maybe above my brow-level), and I found the prose fine and surprising, as I do even now.
I skimmed over some drony bits and lists in that interview, but I would like to highlight Roth’s final answer:
Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer’s “thoughts” violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel. The thought of the novelist that matters most is the thought that makes him a novelist.
The thought of the novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection but in the plight he has invented for his characters, in the juxtaposition of those characters and in the lifelike ramifications of the ensemble they make — their density, their substantiality, their lived existence actualized in all its nuanced particulars, is in fact his thought metabolized.
The thought of the writer lies in his choice of an aspect of reality previously unexamined in the way that he conducts an examination. The thought of the writer is embedded everywhere in the course of the novel’s action. The thought of the writer is figured invisibly in the elaborate pattern — in the newly emerging constellation of imagined things — that is the architecture of the book: what Aristotle called simply “the arrangement of the parts,” the “matter of size and order.” The thought of the novel is embodied in the moral focus of the novel. The tool with which the novelist thinks is the scrupulosity of his style. Here, in all this, lies whatever magnitude his thought may have.
The novel, then, is in itself his mental world. A novelist is not a tiny cog in the great wheel of human thought. He is a tiny cog in the great wheel of imaginative literature. Finis.
02 3 / 2014
Song of Myself has been on my mind lately. It’s a help to me, when feeling small, to chant:
"Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
Going over the poem again this afternoon, some bits caught me, including this one:
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.
This is how I feel about a lot of people.