Friday, December 28, 2012

Singular Thinking

A colleague at work recommended Michael Cobb's Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled (2012), and although this book is probably the last thing I need to read (after all, Cobb had me at "hello"), I picked it up.

Cobb is a specialist in queer theory and gay and lesbian studies, but his book explores the concept of "the couple" in American culture at large. It was inspired by his own experience after the death of a friend from brain cancer. As Cobb writes in the acknowledgements,
If writing this book has taught me anything, it's that a single person doesn't have to be lonely, which matters because sometimes we'll each have to confront the worst heartbreak, in our own solitary way. When that happens and when you need to literally regroup, you're lucky if you can see and embrace the wide world of friendship, interest, work, pleasure, and love that might just help you not collapse.
Cobb examines the extent to which American culture as a whole renders that "regrouping" and solitariness inordinately difficult. We've become a culture premised on "the couple," a society that operates on the assumption that, if you're not someone's "better half," you're no one.

And we all act accordingly. In my own experience as a happily, permanently single woman (yes, I'm sayin' it), I've been surprised by the lengths to which people will go to insist that I must be quite unhappy, really, deep down. That I must be putting a brave face on it, but really, don't I just wish that...

And then comes the fairy-tale. The mythological "guy" who is like no guy anyone has ever seen before, except in fiction and cinema. The Jane-Austen hero-guy.

For the record, Jane Austen never married. She was happily single her entire life. She did get engaged for all of about 15 minutes at one point, but then she woke up one morning about 2 weeks later, had a full-blown freak-out, and called it off.

So even she knew that such guys were fictional. She momentarily caved to the social pressure, but then she got a grip and articulated the shape of her own life.

And we all benefitted as a result.

Cobb attempts to examine and deconstruct the hegemony of the couple as an ideological value, an exclusive and exclusionary way of viewing the world that shapes the way so many people think of themselves and their lives.

The sad irony is, even in the throes of a misery that was patently obvious to absolutely everyone who comes within half a mile of them, many couples repeatedly express--for the most part angrily and spitefully, but occasionally pityingly--their assurances that their experience together is inherently "better" than singleness could ever be, and that singletons must be "jealous" and "envious" of "what they have."

They are "a couple," after all.

Actually, couples like this do appear in Jane Austen's novels, but we frequently give them no airtime and no notice. One of the reasons we fail to do so is because we prefer to pose "the couple" as the "solution" to a state of singleness that is predeterminedly configured as "lonely" and "unhappy."

As Cobb points out, however, this figuration assumes that the state of being "single" is both inscrutable and incomprehensible. The assumption of a necessary state of "Coupledom" creates a sociological blindspot that locates "singleness" at its center.

As Cobb notes, "Lurking within the logic of these worries is the notion that the development of a self has a particular goal: relationships with others." On the surface, such a logic initially makes sense.

How else can one develop feelings of empathy, compassion, kindness, and love, if not in interactions with others?

And yet, the logic that assumes that such self-development can only flourish in the form of the dyad or the couple is inherently flawed. Many couples demonstrate a total lack of empathy, compassion and kindness--both towards each other and towards the world at large.

Examining Hannah Arendt's linking of loneliness with totalitarianism and terror, Cobb notes that "The loneliest of us are not necessarily those of us who are actually alone but rather those of us trying our hardest not to be alone."

"Solitude" and "abandonment" are in no way the same thing. Yet we have constructed a social logic that presumes that they are and that defines a state of "aloneness" as necessarily a state of "loneliness." As Cobb argues, "relationship status turns us into characters, into forms, that have dramatic impacts on our lived experiences and self-understandings."

What would it mean to find out who we are, individually, without the assumption of the couple guiding our thoughts about the logic of our lives and its ultimate destiny? What would this look like? Cobb suggests,
I want to think about the isolated figures of the "single" who are misconstrued as lonely and pathetic figures but who are actually much more. They may not be lonely--they may just want to be antisocial, or they may just want to relate to others outside of the supreme logic of the couple, which has become the way one binds oneself to the social, otherwise known as the crowd.
Such an examination goes beyond the trite, popular, self-help cliche of "learning to love yourself first," a process that, as Cobb points out, always assumes as its end result the idea that one will be better able to become part of a couple.

In the end, this change in perception will require a very singular kind of thinking, something unlike anything we currently possess.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

One Day in the Life

This week was a wonderful week, topped off by a great day today. 

I woke up this morning with a million things to do to get ready for the holidays, and truth be told, I felt like doing none of them.  But I did them ALL.  So I'm all set tomorrow for traveling and decorating, and if all goes well, I'll have a nice, relaxing Christmas.

I even had time to swim a mile and stack firewood.  I'm almost finished with the article I'm writing, so I'm 100% certain I'll be able to send it on its way next week.  Then, I've got one more to get finished up, and by then, classes will be starting again.

I must say, gulag literature is a great motivator.  Right now, I'm rereading A Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  I first read it about 30 years ago, when I was 14.

Yes, right around the time I was reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  I was an odd child.

Ivan Denisovich is the gulag novel that everyone reads who reads any gulag literature.  I suspect that's because it's short, unlike The Gulag Archipelago, which is actually on my Classics Club list, so it's on my reading list for this January.

Returning to Ivan Denisovich after all these years, I like it okay, but I confess, I like Shalamov's Kolyma Tales much better, and I find the oral histories more compelling (although they're less aesthetically structured).

Ivan Denisovich's day is organized around work and survival which, obviously, is how the day of any gulag inmate would have been organized--and yet, the oral histories and Shalamov's works tend to capture the sense of random danger far better.

Reading it now, with a broader context and background, Solzhenitsyn seems to be depicting gulag life as worrisome and depressing, but his novel definitely lacks the violence and brutality of other depictions.  The cynical side of me can't help but suspect that this is why his novel was the one that Americans picked up on. 

He softens the blow a bit, I think.

And as I said, the texts are great motivators.  It's unlikely that I'll ever complain about minor housekeeping tasks again.  At least I have a house.  It has heat.  I have adequate clothing.  And food.  I can contact friends and family.  I can blog.

Life is good.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Gulag Survivors

I spent the week reading Jehanne M. Geith and Katherine R. Jolluck's Gulag Voices: Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile (2011).

I know to some people, this sounds... terribly depressing.  But really, it's no more depressing than seeing the news out of Newtown, CT over the past week.  Or listening to Wayne LaPierre insist that the only reasonable response to senseless violence is to return fire.

Geith and Jolluck's volume attempts to capture narratives about inmates' experiences in the Soviet Gulag that might otherwise go unrecorded.  As Geith and Jolluck note,

Dokhodiaga (Goner)
Drawing by Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia, former Gulag prisoner.

Courtesy of Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia Foundation, Moscow.

"Estimates of how many people died in the Gulag range from several million to 15 million.  Lower estimates tend to be based on archival sources and limit their consideration of the Gulag to the years of Stalin's rule, while higher estimates use a combination of oral and documentary sources, with a heavy emphasis on eyewitness accounts, and consider the Gulag to last from the 1920s to the 1980s." (5)
As Geith and Jolluck point out, a volume devoted to recording the oral histories of  Gulag survivors faces particular challenges.

On the one hand, there is always the issue of memory and its distortions.  Stories are being told years after the fact, by individuals who suffered extreme emotional trauma and physical abuse.  In several cases, the narrators are quite elderly--they often openly admit that they simply can't remember details from 30 or 40 years previously.

On the other hand, as Geith and Jolluck point out, when it comes to stories of the Gulag, "remembering and telling were dangerous for at least two generations" (7).  To speak of the Gulag or of one's arrest and incarceration in the Gulag was to risk additional punishment, or even death.  People learned not to talk about it; children learned that, for whatever reason, it was not to be spoken of.

Such habits are difficult--if not impossible--to break.  They permanently shape both an individual's voice and the voice of the culture at large.  One (surprisingly outspoken) survivor,  Larisa Mikhailovna Lappo-Danilevskaia, observes about her time in the Gulag, "at that time, I couldn't even think what I wanted to think; it was bad enough not to be able to to talk, but to think!  I couldn't think, you see!" (85).

Reacting to Gorbachev's policy of perestroika in the 1980's, Lappo-Danilevskaia remarks,
"Under Gorbachev I was already thinking differently, I could already think, you see?  I didn't just keep quiet, I could think as well!  You understand, it's more frightening when you mustn't think.  It's one thing not to talk, but--when it's forbidden to think!  (85)
How different would each of us be today if we spent years of our lives unable to simply think what we wanted to think?  Not simply not speaking about those things, but deliberately training ourselves--or being trained by others--not to even think of them.  

Giuzel Gumerovna Ibragimova, whose parents were incarcerated when Imbragimova was only two years old, describes her mother's reaction to the experience of the Gulag:
And she buried him [her husband] and brought us everything in order, the letters everything, everything, everything there was.  She took his manuscripts.  You understand ... deep terror.  The terror of repetition.  The deepest terror.  It was subconscious.  All the time, she'd say, "Don't keep letters.  No material evidence.  Don't talk in public places.  If there are more than two of you, don't discuss any political themes."  It was simply terror.  And this terror, by the way, didn't leave her even at the end.  So much time had gone by, right?  She basically didn't tell us a lot about her life so that we would know less and discuss less.  [Gulag survivors] had a very immediate sense of terror and panic.  A panicked terror that this might happen again.  And cripple our fate. (137)
What is left behind, in the wake of such experiences, are official documents that constitute their own kind of code regarding events and their significance.  As Geith and Jolluck argue, "In Western contexts, documents are generally considered to be the more reliable, objective source, but in Russia, oral testimony has long been regarded as truer than official history, which was consistently distorted in the Soviet period for ideological and propaganda purposes" (7).

Children of Gulag survivors face a complicated bureaucracy of lost, mis-filed or simply mistaken paperwork, of things unspoken, of memories too terrible to relate.  Generations were changed by the Gulag in ways that, in many cases, we can't even begin to know, much less comprehend.

The publication of Gulag-memoirs and literature in the 1980s and 1990s has changed the landscape of this history as well, merging the strands of oral history with documented accounts.  In many cases, survivors whose oral histories are recorded by Geith and Jolluck are aware of the existence of Gulag-memoirs.

As a result, "many people now tell the stories of other's memories as if they are their own" (8).  Terrible individual memories are repressed or recast as a collective story of suffering.  In such instances, what constitutes "the truth"?

What is particularly interesting in Geith and Jolluck's volume, I think, is the way in which oral narratives unfold very differently from written narratives.  In writing, the author has time to revise, rethink, select the right word, tailor the narration of the experience to an envisioned audience.

In oral histories, words are repeated, verb tenses shift, anger and sadness erupt unexpectedly, things that might need to be said simply can't be said after all.

And, of course, the presence of the interviewer him- or herself shapes the encounter as well.  Speaking to someone--particularly someone from another place and time--and attempting to explain traumatic and essentially incomprehensible life experiences is very different from writing about them.

At times, Geith and Jolluck organize and abbreviate, in an attempt to maintain coherence and give the reader a sense of the tempo and significance of the interview as a whole.

And in the end, this too is a shaping of oral history, a process in which the erasures are often as telling as the words themselves.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

One Headlight

I went out last night and, as I was parking my car, I noticed a woman walking to her car.

Instead of simply continuing on her way, though, she stopped and began hanging around my vicinity, as if she were waiting for me to shut the car off and get out.

In my inimitably humanitarian fashion, I noticed this and briefly wondered, "What's her problem?"  Then I cut the ignition and got out.

She was waiting for me.  She wanted to tell me my headlight was out.

I masked my internal reaction of "Shit" with a hearty, "Hey, thank you!  I thought it seemed kind of dark..." or some such stupid comment, a reaction which provoked an equally friendly and far less stupid response on the part of this Good Samaritan.

And then we parted ways forever.  Two ships that passed in a night that, unbeknownst to me, had been rendered slightly darker because I only had one functioning headlight.

I confess, after she left, I checked to make sure, because hey, you never know.  Maybe it was her eye.  Maybe it was just that one time that the headlight just kind of fritzed out, you know, in an electrical way, but then when I restarted the car, it would "get the juice" and be okay again.  Maybe I'd have the headlight that only seemed to burn out that once, but that was really okay all along.

It was out.

So I drove home later that evening and, as it turns out, it's true what The Wallflowers sang: we can in fact drive it home with one headlight.  Actually, if you're like me and paranoid about how bad things come in a minimum of threes and therefore firmly believe that you are 3x more likely to get ticketed by a cop for driving with a burned-out headlight within mere hours of discovering said problem, you put the highbeams on and pretend you don't know any better.

I had it all planned.  If stopped by Fate in the form of a Statie, I was simply going to tap into centuries of gender-stereotyping, open my large eyes wide and say, "My HIGHbeams are on?  Gosh... I didn't know...".

Because I hate to say it, but guys can be suckers for the "I'm just a girl" routine.  Like I somehow didn't realize that the big blue light in the shape of a big blue headlight right there in front of my big green eyes means that my highbeams are on.

I had no plan in place if I happened to be stopped by a female cop.  I think I probably would have just told her, "Yeah, you know, the sonovabitchin' thing blew out on me an hour ago" and hoped for the best.

Anyway, I got home and decided this morning that I would try to fix the problem myself.

Admit it: you saw this one coming.

So I went online and began watching videos about how to replace a headlight.  First off, I would simply like to send a big "HOLLA" out there to all of the good people making such videos.  You are helping each and every one of us stick it to The Man, and by "The Man," I mean all of those car manufacturers who know full well that they have most of us over a collective barrel when it comes to car repairs.

A few initial observations.  At one point, one of the steps of the process was openly identified by absolutely everyone as "tricky."  I confess, I felt a sinking sense of despair when I repeatedly saw, read, and heard this.  I immediately articulated that despair by thinking, "Shit," and this time I even said it out loud.  (I don't believe in bottling up my emotions.)

In my experience, when any set of instructions identifies any step in any process as in any way "tricky," you are essentially being warned that this step may well prove to be nearly impossible to complete.  You're being told in nice, roundabout way that you may end up huddled in a fetal position somewhere, quivering and whimpering, "I just couldn't... I didn't know how...". 

It seems to me that auto repair is frequently marked by all kinds of little secrets that only those "in the know" are allowed to know.  This bothers me immensely.  For example, it was pointed out that I should avoid touching the low-beam bulb itself because the oil from my skin would ultimately cause it to burn out faster.

Are you kidding me?  Who would just "know" that?  And how?  Where does one go to learn such things?  Tibet?  Detroit?  That's like... dermatology and auto repair, COMBINED.  I have a Ph.D.  I live in school.  I read all day long.  I didn't know that.

But it was the next point of the process that really had me punctuating my sentences with an expletive that rhymes with "duck."  Apparently, the "tricky" step of the process would be "tricky," I was warned, because to remove the burned-out headlight, I'd be "working blind."  I'd have to "do it by feel."

Having never felt up a low-beam light bulb, I was really not sure what to make of this.  It seems to me to be something quite characteristic of the automotive industry.

Who designs a machine such that you can't see what you need to see in order to repair it?  Apparently, a low-beam headlight bulb is held in place by a little clip, but if you don't know about the existence of this clip beforehand, you can't actually see it when it's in place--and therefore you can never actually learn of its existence on your own.

You'll just keep wondering why the DUCK the bulb won't come out.

This sounds to me like the kind of thing the Unabomber would design--and be quite proud of, in fact.

So that made me a little bit mad, actually, and as anyone can tell you, you don't want to make me mad.  One of my friends commented this summer that watching how my determination to fix my bathroom sink increased exponentially with each indication that I would probably have to call a plumber was "a little disturbing."  (She later told me, gently and kindly, "Normal people give up."  To which I immediately replied, "But I FIXED it."  To which she replied, with a sigh, "Yes, you did.")

In this case, I simply told myself, "Hey, come on try a little, nothing is forever.  There's got to be something better than in the middle," recognizing that in this case, "in the middle" meant "sitting at the garage for an hour and paying $50 for a $5 part that takes less than 2 minutes to replace, if you know what you're doing."

I took deep, cleansing breaths.  I made a mental note of the fact that, in some ways, the existence of that tricky little clip could be seen as analogous to faith in the existence of God. (Both are unseen, both potentially hold everything in place.) 

Then I high-fived my kitty cats (imaginatively), went outside, and just did it.

And wouldn't you know it, me and Cinderella (that's me too, in this case), we put it all together.  I no longer need to drive it home with one headlight.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Well, it has been a hectic and crazy week, but it's DONE.

The exams and office hours are finished.  The grading is finished.  The letters of recommendation are finished.

The yard is raked, the wood is stacked.  The house is cleaned, the laundry is done, the windows are winterized.

It's raining in RI and I am DONE.

What will I do now?  Get ready for the holidays of course.  Got cooking and presents to do.  But my time is officially my own, and in typical thinker-fashion, I have a stack of books, both real and e-form, about Soviet gulags. 

I can't wait.  Don't worry, I'm sure I'll be blogging about them.  Just in time for the holidays.

In the midst of all of the finishing-up activities, I also finished Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), which was on my Classics Club List.  FYI, the Classics Club will be hosting its very own, very first Readathon on January 5, 2013.  

Of course I'll participate. 

Tenant was actually a re-read for me.  I read this novel for the first time years and years ago, when I was about 15.  I remember that I thought it was wonderful, romantic, deep, a real page-turner.

I was 15.

Oh, the times, they have a-chang-ed.  On one level, I draw deep, abiding comfort from the realization that my romantic ideals are no longer those of a 15-year-old girl growing up in a working-class town with a population of 4000. 

In the eighties, there was a popular self-help book for women called Smart Women/Foolish Choices: Finding the Right Men, Avoiding the Wrong Ones.  

There was also one called Women Who Love Too Much: When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He'll Change.

Helen Huntingdon, the protagonist of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, could really have benefited from having either one--or both--of these books loaded into her e-reader.

Prior to hitting the dating scene, Helen gets a straight-up, no-holds-barred bit of advice from her wealthy aunt: "Don't marry a douchebag."  Helen responds to this bit of homespun advice with great condescension, asserting that her overwhelming powers of rationality will ensure that she is no easy mark for airy dreams of white knights and castles.  (Or nights at White Castle, for that matter.) 

She promptly marries the biggest douchebag the world has ever known.  The guy has "I'm a pig and an idiot" metaphorically stamped all over him: the red flags fly up all over the place whenever he strolls into the room.  In the course of about two pages, Helen falls madly in love, and wouldn't you know it, within a month, she realizes, "I'm married to a pig and an idiot who is also the biggest douchebag the world has ever known."

Despite its painful plot, Brontë's novel is interesting for the very fact that it confronts the idea of bad marriages and the men and women who make them.  Helen is officially, legally trapped: in 19th-century Britain, divorce is unheard of, and a woman suing for divorce from her husband?  Well, it just didn't happen.

Women in the early 19th century lost all legal right to own, buy or sell property.  Whatever had been theirs, was theirs no more.  They officially possessed no legal identity: they were "covered" by the law of coverture, which meant that, upon marriage, the husband's legal identity became the wife's as well.  His interests were, by definition, hers.  

In any child-custody dispute, the children "belonged" to their father.  And if a woman went so far as to dispute this idea, it would only serve as further proof that she was an unfit mother.  

What wife can't keep her husband in line?  What wife can't morally reform her significant other through the very example of her chaste, devoted, loving, patient self?   Booze and opium and gambling and hookers are no match for such a vision of domestic perfection--everyone knows that.

This makes all of those lovely romance plots of Jane Austen's novels look a bit different, doesn't it?  No wonder you wanted to marry nice and rich and find a guy who thought you were smarter than he was and who would love and defer to you in all things at all times.

It was not until the Married Women's Property Act in 1882 that a married woman's legal identity was restored and considered (potentially) separate from that of her spouse.

So Anne Brontë's novel is, not surprisingly, about what can happen when you let your heart rule your head. Strolling the beautiful grounds of Pemberley may not be all that great after all, if it turns out that your Mr. Darcy was just a guy playing a role to get himself a smart, good-looking wife.  

He may not even own Pemberley.  In fact, it may be mortgaged to the hilt.  He may be up to his ears in debt.  He may like booze and prostitutes and he may have simply taken a shine to you because he heard about your credit score.

It's hard for a 21st-century female reader to connect to a character like Helen Huntingdon.  She relies on her faith and her sense of Christian duty to enable her to take the high road and put up with her asshole of a husband.  Her life revolves around ensuring that their young son doesn't fall prey to her husband's influence  (Daddy likes to teach Junior to cuss like a sailor and drink gin)  and praying for her reward in the hereafter.

No, I'm not kidding.

Brontë's novel employs a really interesting narrative structure, however.  We don't find out Helen's story until well into the novel, because it's framed by another narrative, a series of letters written by Gilbert Markham to his friend, designed to tell him about his encounters with the mysterious tenant of Wildfell Hall--a young widow who has moved into the mansion next door.

Although the plot of Wildfell Hall had me rolling my middle-aged eyes quite a bit and wondering aloud, "GIRRRLLL, what were you THINKING?!!", the fact is, the novel addresses themes and issues that were by no means openly talked about in mid-19th-century England.  Like Wuthering Heights, it addresses issues of alcoholism and domestic abuse; unlike Wuthering Heights, it dares to envision what might happen when a woman decides enough is enough.

In short, what happens when she realizes she's DONE. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012


I spent the weekend reading In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000), by Nathaniel Philbrick. 

I was supposed to be grading, of course.  I picked up Philbrick's book on Thursday night, to unwind for a while after my drive to RI.  I couldn't put it down.

Full disclosure: as I mentioned in a previous post, I'm a fan of Melville's novel, Moby-Dick (1851).  Friends have speculated that I may very well be the only woman on the planet who is, but so be it.

I cried at the end of the novel.  Again, friends often point out that plenty of people cry during their reading of the novel, but that it's usually from sheer boredom, and that this typically occurs somewhere in the middle of all of Melville's whale-talk, not at the end.

The end, for most people, is usually marked by a sense of joyous relief that the experience of reading Moby-Dick is finally over.

So call me crazy, but I like the novel and it makes me cry.  The first time I read it and realized that Moby Dick was going to attack the ship, I started to cry.  I didn't care if he chomped Ahab into small bits, but not the ship.

Because, if the whale attacks the ship, I speculated, they'll all die.  There's no way they'll be able to get home.

I won't spoil Melville's novel for those of you who haven't read it (or seen the movie).  Instead, I'll simply tell you that Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea is a non-fiction account of the incident that inspired Melville's description of the whale attacking the ship at the end of Moby-Dick.

In November of 1820, the Nantucket whaleship Essex was in the Pacific, hunting whales, when it was rammed by a very large whale.  Although the crew members claimed that the whale "attacked" the ship, it is also entirely possible that the "attack" was simply an accident. 

Owen Chase, the ship's first mate, was in the process of repairing a damaged whale-boat.  To do this, he was hammering nails into the wood, and the sound would have traveled through the wooden whaleship and into the ocean.

It may have sounded like the "clicks" that whales make to communicate with each other and to engage in echolocation.  As Philbrick observes,
Whales ... use clicking signals to communicate over distances of up to five miles.  Females tend to employ a Morse code-like series of clicks, known as a coda, and male sperm whales make slower, louder clicks called clangs.  It has been speculated that males use clangs to announce themselves to eligible females and to warn off competing males. (87)
So although Chase and the other surviving crew members of the Essex assumed the whale's behavior was an aggressive attack, this perception may have been colored by their own highly aggressive occupation.  (In later years, it did appear that whales had caught on to the fact that the sight of little Quaker men in tiny boats meant trouble and that they began to respond accordingly and aggressively.)

Philbrick's account begins at the end, with the discovery of one of the whaleboats used by the surviving crew members of the Essex.  In February of 1821, the whaleship Dauphin was cruising the Chilean coast and came upon a makeshift boat: "[t]he boat's sides had been built up by about half a foot.  Two makeshift masts had been rigged, transforming the rowing vessel into a rudimentary schooner" (xii).

What they found in the boat was the stuff of nightmares:
First they saw bones--human bones--littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious, man-eating beast.  Then they saw the two men.  They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards caked with salt and blood.  They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates. (xii)
One of the men was George Pollard, the captain of the Essex.  The other was Charles Ramsdell, a shipmate.  About a month previously, Owen Chase (the first mate) and two other shipmates had been found, alive, but starving and severely dehydrated, in another one of the Essex's whaleboats.  Three other members of the crew were stranded on Henderson Island, a coral outcrop in the South Pacific.

In total, eight crew members survived.  Several of them committed cannibalism in order to do so.

Philbrick's account is fascinating, not simply as a story of survival, but for its attention to the details of whaling life and the role that whaling played in the history of Nantucket.  In many ways, the crew members of the Essex were not simply victims of circumstance.  As Philbrick observes, their reaction to the disaster was constantly shaped by their heritage, their community, and their spirituality--and by the way that all three of those factors intertwined.

When the Essex sank, the crew was actually not all that far (relatively speaking) from the Polynesian Islands.  If they had headed west, they probably could have reached them before their supplies of food and water ran out.

They decided to head east, however, and attempt to reach the coast of South America.  In making this (disastrous) decision, they were influenced by rumors circulating among whalemen that the islands in the South Pacific were home to tribes of cannibals. 

If you're thinking, well, so, it's a bit farther to South America, so what?, you should bear in mind that the winds in that region are called the "Southeast Trade Winds" for a reason.  They blow from the southeast.

And the currents there flow in a westerly direction.

In short, they opted to sail against the current AND against the wind.  Not only did this add thousands of unnecessary miles to their voyage, it meant that they spent a great deal of time sailing southward, parallel to the coast of South America, while their supplies of food and water steadily dwindled. 

All to avoid those (non-existent) cannibals on the Polynesian Islands.

Philbrick examines the inherent irony in the fact that, while terrified of cannibalistic "natives," American whalemen nevertheless understood that acts of cannibalism on their own part, while not generally acceptable, of course, were often required in survival situations.  The story of the Essex is not unique in the history of American whaling.

Philbrick attempts to understand what happened to the crew members both psychologically and physiologically as they slowly starved and became increasingly dehydrated.  Having established the terms of the elaborate social, political and spiritual networks that made up the 19th-century community of Nantucket whalemen, Philbrick's account reveals just how fragile such moral communities really are.

Philbrick cites the observations of a University of Minnesota experiment on human starvation supervised by Ancel Keys during World War II: "Many of the so-called American characteristics ... abounding energy, generosity, optimism--become intelligible as the expected behavior response of a well-fed people" (159).

As Philbrick points out, the whalemen of the shipwrecked Essex quickly found themselves in what anthropologists would call a "feral community."  Normal rules do not apply.

Philbrick also examines the role that effective leadership plays in survival situations.  While Ernest Shackleton's miraculous accomplishment is often held up as an example, Philbrick notes that Shackleton's achievement is in many ways atypical of survival situations.

When basic survival depends upon a perfect storm of human community, leadership, psychology, physiology, and circumstance, the odds are very much stacked against us.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

"Alias Grace"

"What does the past tell us? In and of itself, it tells us nothing. We have to be listening first, before it will say a word, and, even so, listening means telling, and then retelling." --Margaret Atwood

I love Margaret Atwood. In the mid-90's, I read quite a few of her works--Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, Lady Oracle, The Handmaiden's Tale.

So it was with a trembling sense of joyous anticipation that I picked up Alias Grace (1997).

I was not disappointed. This novel is now officially My Favorite Margaret Atwood Novel of All Time.

Alias Grace is a novel based on one of the most sensationalized crimes in Canadian history. In July of 1843, two servants, Grace Marks and James McDermott, murdered their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery.

Nancy Montgomery was also Kinnear's mistress. McDermott ultimately claimed that Marks was in love with her employer and jealous of Nancy Montgomery. He claimed that Grace Marks helped him strangle the housekeeper.

At trial, McDermott claimed that the murders were Grace Marks' idea, and that she put him up to it. Marks, who was only 16 at the time of her conviction, claimed she had no memory of committing the murders, that she knew McDermott had killed Kinnear but didn't know that he had also killed Montgomery, and that she played no part in the deaths of either of the two victims.

She claimed that she had been kidnapped by McDermott, and that she feared for her life. According to Marks, this was why she helped McDermott ransack the Kinnear household and fled with him to the United States, where they were arrested.

She denied that she and McDermott were lovers.

Marks and McDermott were found guilty of the murder of Thomas Kinnear and sentenced to death. As a result, they were never tried for the murder of Nancy Montgomery.

James McDermott was hanged in November of 1843. Ultimately, Grace Marks' sentence was commuted to life in prison. In 1872, she was pardoned, released from prison, and relocated to upstate New York.

There is no record of her after 1872.

Atwood uses the motif of quilt blocks and quilting to organize her narrative. Needless to say, I LOVED this technique.

Quilts are made by stitching together patterned squares of fabric: each block has a particular design which is named after what it is meant to symbolize.

For example, here is the quilt block for a pattern called "Broken Dishes":

Quilt blocks are typically a simple combination of squares and triangles, in patterns of light and dark. Here is another quilt block pattern, called "Puss in the Corner":

Taken individually, the combination of shapes doesn't seem all that different. Taken as a whole, however, the patterns appear quite different. Here is an entire quilt using the "Broken Dishes" pattern:

This is an example of a quilt made using the "Puss in the Corner" pattern:

As you can see, the overall pattern belies the simplicity of each individual square. Quilts patterns are always double: they look one way if you focus on the light colors, and another way, if you focus on the dark colors.

Quilters not only choose their own colors: in the 19th century, quilts would often be made from scraps of worn-out clothes. So what might simply appear to be a beautiful bedcover would literally be embedded with scraps of the quilter's past--memories associated with clothing worn in another place and at another time.

Quilts were also hand-stiched. The stitching itself testified to the skill and artistry of the quilter, a detail that the general public might not notice but that an experienced quilter would.

Atwood uses this motif to reflect on the narrative complexities inherent in any retelling of Grace Marks' story. While she sticks to the available facts, her novel is nevertheless shaped by the many sensationalized newspaper accounts of the crime (most of which were riddled with inaccuracies and improbabilities) and by the accounts of witnesses who saw Grace in the hours after the murders and said she seemed quite cheerful.

They said that Grace Marks was wearing Nancy Montgomery's clothes.

Atwood's account is also shaped by McDermott's claims and by the various (contradictory) confessions given by Grace Marks herself. McDermott was known locally as an outright liar.

Grace Marks was young, she was Irish, she was a servant, and she was beautiful. Atwood contextualizes the seemingly simply (but ultimately inexplicable) story of the murders against a complex background of gender, social class, and politics.

To accomplish her purposes, Atwood creates the fictional character of Dr. Simon Jordan. A specialist in the newly emerging science of psychology and psychiatry--an "alienist"--Dr. Jordan arrives at the Kingston Penitentiary in 1859 to interview Grace Marks in order to determine whether she is sane or insane, innocent or guilty.

He's there to listen and sort out her story. He's there to arrive at the truth. He's been asked to interview Grace Marks and offer his professional opinion of the case, on the assumption that his judgment might go a long way towards determining whether she deserves to be pardoned.

In creating the fictional character of Dr. Jordan and then piecing the complex true-crime narrative of the Kinnear murders (and its equally complex social and political context) around the figures of the doctor and the prisoner (the novel is told alternately from the perspective of Grace Marks and Dr. Jordan), Atwood is able to reflect upon the position of both the writer and the reader with respect to narratives that purport to tell us the "truth" about events.

Is Grace guilty? Of what? Is she innocent? Is she lying, and if so, when, and why? Is she simply telling the story that the doctor wants to hear? Is she tailoring her story to her audience?

Or has she too fallen victim to the inaccuracies of newspaper accounts and public perception? Is she telling the story that she herself wants to hear and to believe--a story pieced together from her repeated reading of the stories of her own story?

In identifying Dr. Jordan with the figure of the writer who is also, by necessity, a reader and a listener, Atwood questions the interrelationship of listening, telling and retelling in our quest to understand the events of our personal and collective past.

Will we hear only what we want to hear? Or will we hear the truth?

Is there a difference, and if so, how will we know?

Monday, November 19, 2012

"Worlds of Unknowing"

I recently read Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face (1994).

Actually, I thought it was on my Classics Club list, but as it turns out, it's not. Oh well.

It's an extremely interesting--and yes, somewhat depressing--read. In 1973, at the age of nine, Grealy was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that typically afflicts children.

Over the next two years, she would undergo an aggressive course of radiation and chemotherapy (5 days a week) and a series of surgeries that eventually removed over a third of her jaw on the right side of her face.

And before you think, "Oh, but they can do wonderful things with reconstructive surgery...," stop. This was the mid-1970's. Chemotherapy was relatively new. Microsurgery was in its infancy.

Most people don't realize that reconstructive surgery on radiated bone and tissue is extremely complicated. Even if the body doesn't reject the graft, the radiated tissue has a tendency to simply "absorb" the graft over time.

In Grealy's case, she would undergo the pain and complications of a surgery involving extensive bone grafts designed to reconstruct her missing jaw (the bone was removed from her hip, which typically left her lame), only to watch as her jawline slowly disappeared again anyway.

And then they would try again.

Initially, when presented with the idea of reconstructive surgery, Grealy was told that the only option was a technique called "pedestaling." Because microsurgery was a relatively new field, the primary issue in reconstructive grafts in the early- to- mid-1980's was the problem of creating a sufficient blood supply to the graft itself.

To achieve this, "pedestals" were used: part of the graft was left attached to its original site and then slowly moved to its final destination. Grealy's description of the procedure is both explicit and horrifying:
In the first operation, two parallel incisions would be made in my stomach. The strip of skin between these incisions would be lifted up and rolled into a sort of tube with both ends still attached to my stomach, resembling a kind of handle: this was the pedestal. The two incisions would be sewn together down its side, like a seam. Six weeks later, one end of the handle would be cut from my stomach and attached to my wrist, so that my hand would be sewn to my stomach for six weeks. Then the end of the tube that was still attached to my stomach would be severed and sewn to my face, so that now my hand would be attached to my face. Six weeks after that, my hand would be cut loose and the pedestal, or flap, as they called it, would be nestled completely into the gap created by my missing jaw. This would be only the first pedestal: the whole process would take several, plus additional operations to carve everything into a rcognizable shape, over a period of about ten years altogether. (154)
Ultimately, Grealy found a microsurgeon, so she never had to undergo the pedestal procedure described above.

What I think Grealy manages to convey throughout her narrative--beyond the mind-boggling description of a sequence of operations that sound like the stuff of science fiction--is a sense of how the regular experience of this kind of perception of and relationship to one's body shapes one's sense of oneself.

Grealy was fifteen when the pedestal procedure was suggested.

In interviews and at public readings, Grealy expressed dismay at the extent to which she was often defined solely in terms of the content of her story. She was a writer. She wanted her story to be read on the basis of its literary merit, not simply as a tale of her "triumph" over cancer.

Autobiography of a Face is thus about identity and physicality, but it is not solely about the role that the body--or, more specifically, the face-- plays in the construction of identity.

As the world looks at Grealy's childhood face and stares or cringes, and as Grealy herself attempts to come to terms with whether or not to look at her own face and its implications, her narrative account meditates on all of the other ways we understand the trajectory of life's direction and its significance.

For instance, Grealy describes how her cancer diagnosis first unfolded. It's a malignancy with few symptoms, and Grealy never actually realized she had it.

One day, she was playing dodge-ball and collided with a classmate. By the next morning, her jaw had swelled and she couldn't open her mouth. Initially, they simply thought she had fractured her jaw.

Grealy reflects on the sheer coincidence of this discovery of a life-threatening condition:
It's impossible for me not to revisit this twenty-year-old playground scene and wonder why I didn't go right when I should have gone left, or alternatively, see my movements as inexorable. If the cancer was already there, it would have been discovered eventually, though probably too late. Or perhaps that knock set in motion a chain of physical events that created an opportunity for the cancer to grow which it might not otherwise have found. Sometimes it is as difficult to know what the past holds as it is to know the future, and just as an answer to a riddle seems so obvious once it is revealed, it seems curious to me now that I passed through all those early moments with no idea of their weight. (27-28)
These are the moments of sheer beauty in Grealy's text, I think: the points at which she pauses, poised on the threshold of discovery, to reflect on what she characterizes as the "worlds of unknowing" that we all inhabit on a daily basis.

Hospitalized for yet another surgery, she shares a room with a teen who dove off a two-story building into his friend's pool. As Grealy observes, "Michael, at the age of seventeen, was permanently paralyzed, all because of a stupid trick that took him ten seconds to perform":
When I got home, I thought of Michael again and again. Did he ever reimagine himself standing on that roof or try to remember what it was like to not know his fate for just one split second longer? If he didn't, I did it for him. I'd close my eyes to feel the height, see the bright blue of the pool winking below me, bend my legs, and feel the pull in my calves as I jumped up and then down, falling from one world of unknowing into the next one of perpetual regret. (175)
Lucy Grealy died of a heroin overdose in New York City in December of 2002.

Monday, November 12, 2012

"Common Sense, Dancing"

I recently read a (common sense) article by Marie Hartwell-Walker on PsychCentral, "The Care and Maintenance of Friendship."

But although it's common sense, as another old adage would have it, "common sense isn't so common."

It frustrates me sometimes, today, to watch how others conceive of friendship.  I'm lucky: most of my life has been marked by strong, good friendships.  Occasionally, I've been not-so-lucky, and my retrospective posts have talked (at length) about one set of such experiences in particular.

What was always most frustrating for me in those episodes was, the people involved clearly had a very different definition of "friendship," and it in no way involved adhering to any of the care and maintenance tips Hartwell-Walker describes.

These so-called friends were rude: in big ways and in small.

So-called friends always keep score.  They like to remind you of all of the "nice" things they have done for you, most of which involve absolutely no effort on their part, provide them with at least some form of tangible, substantial benefit, and generally aren't all that noteworthy, really.

If they even did them, in fact: so-called friends also like to take credit for other people's contributions, or simply fabricate "help" that you will subsequently rack your brains to remember receiving.

The things you do for them, however, are always taken for granted as run-of-the-mill expressions of the admiration they so richly deserve.

Sometimes, however, the signs are more subtle. (Usually, actually.)  In one case, the weekly, if not daily, phone calls just started dropping off.  At first, this isn't a problem: people are busy, I'm busy.  Life changes.  But then, you start to notice that, when you leave messages, your calls aren't returned.  When you write to say, "hello!", you get no response.  Ever.

Months just roll on by.

If you call and happen to catch them, they say, "I have someone here, but I'll call you back."  The someone (if there really is anyone there) is someone they see daily, and meanwhile they haven't seen or talked to you in months.  And they don't call you back, despite the fact that they repeatedly say they will.  

But when you write to say, "Is everything okay?  Are you angry?  I'd really hate to lose a good friend...", you receive protestations of deep and sincere friendship.  Or the person just ignores the first two questions altogether, talks about the equivalent of "the weather," and acts like there's no problem. 

But when you look them in the eye and talk to them, they read their responses to you off of a cloud or the ceiling, or it's inscribed on the ground at your feet.  Or, you suddenly realize that there is clearly an invisible teleprompter somewhere just to the right--or left--of your ear.

In short, eye contact is a thing of the past.

They're not your friends.  And something's up.

So, take it from me, when it comes to friendships, there are some bad hombres and phony feminas out there, big-time.

But that shouldn't sour your attitude toward friendship as a whole.  Because, in the long run, people like that are a flash in the pan.  They're out of your life more quickly than they came into it, and their influence never proves to be lasting or significant--with you or with anyone else, actually.

In cases like these, age makes a huge difference.  I remember that, in high school and college, the loss of a supposed "friendship" always seemed incredibly painful and incredibly dramatic and overwhelmingly meaningful.

But now, in my mid-forties, I can safely say that I've had friends that I've kept for decades.  These are people I'm in daily, weekly, monthly contact with, who have been in my life for decades.  In some cases they live in another state, in some cases, another country.  They're as different from each other as they are from me.

So when I face a situation that involves losing people who played a walk-on role in my life for, at most, a couple of years, well, it's not something that's going to leave any lasting scars.  And at the end of the day, I'm just grateful for the wisdom the experience provided me with.

And the humorous anecdotes, of course.  Because, as William James once wrote, "A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing."

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Eat a Bowl of Tea

If you had told me a month ago that I wouldn't like a novel centered around female faith-healers, but I would like a novel centered around male impotence, I wouldn't have believed it.

And yet, it's true.  I enjoyed Louis Chu's novel, Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961).  A self-proclaimed, "Novel of New York's Chinatown," Chu's text focuses on the Chinese American community post-World War II.

Although the novel is often described as depicting the Chinese American "bachelor society" of the 1940's, I don't think that label is entirely accurate.  Most of the men depicted are married (ultimately): in the case of two of the main characters, Wang Wah Gay and Lee Gong, their wives live in China.

As the novel repeatedly explains, it was not uncommon for Chinese American men to marry in China and then emigrate to the United States, more or less permanently.  At the same time, however, these men always hold onto the possibility of return: I think identifying the protagonists as members of a "bachelor society" erases the cultural nuances of their situation.

In Chu's novel, the post-war generation of Chinese American men exist in a state of cultural and geographical transience--in some cases, they go back and forth between China and their adopted country (the U.S., Canada, the Philippines), and in other cases they stay in the west and help their children relocate.

As a result, the novel depicts the generational conflicts that occur when centuries-old Chinese traditions clash with a newly-conceived notion of "American" identity.

The novel centers around the arranged marriage of Wang Wah Gay's son, Ben Loy, to Lee Gong's daughter, Mei Oi.  The young couple meet in China (thanks to the maneuvering of their parents), are immediately attracted to one another, and quickly marry.

Things are going just fine until they return to New York and Ben Loy becomes impotent.

What is particularly interesting and clever, I think, is the way in which Ben Loy's impotence (and the consequences that result) becomes a vehicle for Chu's depiction of the Chinese American community at large, the role of the elder generation and its traditions in the lives of the younger generation, and the function of mobility.  (Travel is a kind of Viagra for Ben Loy.)

As I said, this was one of the most pleasant surprises of the novel: that Chu could use a device rife with comedic potential as a way of making very serious and astute observations about Chinese American society in the 1940's.

Because, let's face it: no card-carrying feminist like myself is going to want to read a couple of hundred pages about a guy lamenting the fact that he can't get it up now that he's married, despite the fact that he frequented numerous prostitutes prior to his marriage (and suffered the requisite bouts of syphilis and gonorrhea as a result).  Chu's style and approach prevents his material from being reduced to that, and I for one am quite thankful.

At the center of the novel, of course, is the daughter-in-law, Mei Oi.  Although we see relatively little depth in her character, in many ways, it is the role that she plays in shaping the definitions of Chinese American masculinity (and paternity) that are highlighted.

Wah Gay arranges for his son to marry Mei Oi because she is not "fook sing," an American-born Chinese girl.  Ben Loy, for his part, is identified in China as a "gimshunhock" like his father-- that is, a Chinese-born man who is living in America (also known as a "Gold Mountain Sojourner").

The marriage of Mei Oi and Ben Loy is influenced--even on its most intimate level--by the couple's expectations of each other and the way in which those expectations are shaped by their understanding of Chinese culture and traditions.  This understanding is complicated, of course, by their newly-emerging place and status within American culture, figured in the depiction of New York's Chinatown.

Chu's novel is interesting and highly readable--he opts for short chapters that offer brief vignettes depicting the couple's married life, the atmosphere of Wah Gay's mah jong club, and surrounding scenes and connections in Chinatown.  As with Fae Myenne Ng's novel, Bone, I had a hard time finding it at a library and ultimately had to opt to purchase it.

I'm glad I did.  There is much in Chu's novel to return to.

Friday, November 2, 2012

"Small, Bordered Worlds"

I have a tape of a Tibetan nun singing a mantra of compassion over and over for an hour, eight words over and over, and every line feels different, feels cared about, and experienced as she is singing. You never once have the sense that she is glancing down at her watch, thinking, “Jesus Christ, it’s only been fifteen minutes.” 
I do so enjoy the wit of Anne Lamott.

I've been reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994). The title itself encapsulates one of my favorite anecdotes from Lamott:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a  report on birds written that he'd had three months to  write. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen  table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper  and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my  father sat down beside him, put his arm around my  brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'
This is Lamott's recipe for writing: take it "bird by bird."  Focus on the small steps, one by one, and you will gradually move toward a larger goal.  Lamott argues for the benefit of "short assignments": "figure out a one-inch piece of ... story to tell, one small scene, one memory, one exchange."

And little by little, one by one, the short assignments will help you to build momentum as a writer.

Lamott is also famous for her advocacy of "shitty first drafts": just write it down, and don't worry about how bad it sounds.

While I agree with the principle behind the "shitty first draft," personally, I find that there is only so "shitty" I can let a draft get before it becomes humiliating and pointless.  As I said, I agree with the premise Lamott is advocating: don't give up just because it sounds bad (or even not very good), just keep writing, because it's only in the writing that you can find the way.

For me personally, though, if it gets too obnoxiously "shitty," I find it makes more sense to stop writing and put the ideas on the back-burner of my brain.  Let the thoughts and the ideas cycle through, talk to myself about them, find my phrasing that way.

And then, come back to the actual writing.  As Lamott points out, "this is the nature of most good writing: that you find out things as you go along.  Then you go back and rewrite."

It sounds so simple, but I think many people really struggle with the idea that you'll figure out what you're writing as you're writing it.  I find that when I start with a set idea in mind and try to hold myself to it, I hem myself in in ways that often don't ultimately "work" for the piece itself.  If I had a nickel for every wasted hour I spent trying to force my sentences and my ideas into a perspective I thought I had... I'd be rich.

Joan Didion has commented on this phenomenon at the very level of grammar itself:
Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement.
The picture can only dictate the arrangement, though, if you loosen your grip on the sentences themselves and leave them free to move and rearrange themselves as you go.

As Lamott argues, "Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly."

I think many beginning writers stay hypnotized and feel that retreating to a position of cold calculation after the warm moment of inspiration is over is a betrayal of their artistic impulses.  I think most writers--and artists--would tell them that the artwork begins with an inspiration, but it doesn't end there.  No one really knows where it ends, once it begins, and sometimes the best and most promising beginnings don't necessarily lead to great things.

You need the false starts and the missteps just as much as--if not more than--the moments of "flow."

Again, as Lamott points out, "Annie Dillard has said that day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects.  If you give freely, there will always be more."

It sounds odd, but I think every writer has an impulse to hoard: sentences, phrases, stories, ideas.  You keep them back for a "better" time, but in doing so, you fail to use them.  And they wither on the vine.

That doesn't mean, of course, that you dump it all into whatever you happen to be writing at the moment.  Simply that you don't save the best for later.  The best belongs in the moment in which it comes to be.

Finally, Lamott notes that, "To be great, art has to point somewhere."  I think this is a crucial idea that gets lost in the work of writers who think art is its own explanation (pace Oscar Wilde).  Art for art's sake is still a direction: it points back upon itself.  It isn't directionless or aimless.

It forces us to, in Lamott's words, see "things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds."

And that's the best kind of break-in there is.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Salt Eaters

Win some, lose some.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had hoped for good things from Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters, which is why I included it on my Classics Club List.  The novel centers around the experience of a young woman named Velma as she is in the process of being healed by the faith-healers of her community.

The title comes from the idea expressed in the novel that, "You never really know a person until you've eaten salt together"-- that is, until you've suffered hardship and bitterness together.

Given my interest in illness narratives and disability studies, I was really looking forward to this novel.  I think that secretly, I was hoping it would be like finding a neglected Toni Morrison novel.

It was not.

Bambara's novel is, as I think I mentioned in an earlier post, a novel of the 1970's.  Set in 1976, it deals with nuclear power and chemical spills (the novel itself was published in 1980; the accident at Three-Mile Island occurred in 1979). 

One of the characters, a waiter at a diner, actually creates a board game centered on nuclear disaster and designed to foster political activism (what the?!?!).

I think this was my main issue with the novel: it contained everything but the kitchen sink.  The threat of nuclear holocaust, black militants, an activist theater collective, a vomiting bus-driver, menstruating women, corporate espionage, faith-healers and a Mardi Gras festival are just a few of the things I can think of off the top of my head.

There were more.  Many, many more.

If I had to guess (and this is no more than a guess), it seems to me that Bambara perhaps wanted to create a sense of the African American community in all its incongruities and idiosyncrasies at a given moment in time--in this case, 1976.  The main character, Velma, is clearly in need of healing largely because of what she has experienced.

The argument of the novel's plot is, in order to be healed, she needs to return to her roots--to the community of wise-women in which she grew up (Alex Haley's novel Roots was published in 1976), and the folk traditions that have grounded them.

The premise is interesting: the issue of black community is one that Toni Morrison herself will explore in The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon (novels I definitely recommend reading).

I think the problem with Bambara's novel is two-fold: on the one hand, its focus is so largely a product of the concerns of the United States in the late 1970's that it seems dated.  On the other hand--and on a related note--because it incorporates so many elements of social climate and context, the larger thread of the plot and its significance is lost.

Over the course of the novel, the protagonist Velma is being healed by a community of faith-healers and as readers, we are left to slowly figure out why exactly it is that she needs to be healed. 

I'm approximately 40 pages from the end, and quite frankly, I still couldn't tell you.  Social malaise?  Existential ennui?  Chemical toxicity?  Hereditary mental illness? Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder?  It's all up for grabs.

More significant, I think, is the fact that we see so little of the protagonist that it becomes hard to care.  More often than not, Velma is referenced by others as a problem for the community as a whole and someone who is perhaps "crazy."  The novel begins with Velma's perspective and at times returns to her memories via the faith-healing session, but overall, somewhat scant attention is paid to her or to the community of women--"The Salt Eaters"--who give the novel its title.

Am I glad I read The Salt Eaters?  Not really.  It was disappointing, to say the least, and only sheer willpower, coupled with caffeine, is going to get me through the final pages of it at this point.  I'm finishing it only because that's what I do: I finish what I start.

Even if it kills me.

What I did find interesting, however, is the question of how a writer goes about creating a novel that both speaks to immediate social circumstances and yet connects--whether aesthetically or philosophically--with a larger audience.  I teach a lot of literature in translation, and this is always a concern: how do you lift a text out of its immediate social and linguistic context and transfer it to another?  What is lost over time?

Bambara's novel no longer speaks to me, I think, because it speaks so exclusively of another time in history.  And yet, many other works of literature focus on a time long past, and still manage to create a sense of immediacy and relevance.  How?

Food for thought.  In the end, I give Bambara's novel credit for raising questions about the writer's craft, even if the answer she offered in the form of The Salt Eaters is, for me, ultimately unsatisfying.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Waiting for Sandy

Sorry. I couldn't resist.

It's been another busy week, and I've been trying to figure out why, and I've decided it's because someone decided to move fall break 10 days later than normal. This was not good. Fall break is designed to allow professors and students to 1) collapse, and 2) catch up on everything. Postponing it 10 days makes it that much harder to do both.

But it's here, and so is Sandy. Much to our surprise.

I had planned on using the weekend to leisurely stack the cord of wood I planned on getting. The plan was, actually, to get the wood delivered on Thursday, then spend a few hours on Friday and Saturday, and even Sunday, if necessary, and get it stacked.

They couldn't deliver it on Thursday. It arrived on Friday. And Sunday it's supposed to rain, followed by The Hurricane Wrapped in a Nor'easter.

So, I spent the day stacking wood. It's done.

I also had to run out and get ready for the storm, since I had only one small flashlight and four small, scented votive candles.

As part of this preparation-process, I obtained a good old-fashioned phone that you can use in a storm. I confess, as I took it out of the box, I was overwhelmed with a wave of nostalgia and left longing for the days when all a phone did was ring.

Okay, it's true, it could be a pain when you had to stretch the cord across the hall into your bedroom so your parents wouldn't hear you talk about what's-his-name, and yes, your dad did occasionally trip or clothesline himself on the cord and then you weren't allowed to do that anymore, but all in all, it was a simpler time.

Imagine all of those supremely important calls we all missed back when there were no answering machines.  And yet, our lives continued.

And now, we can talk to our phones and they'll answer us. Not the people on the other end, but the phones themselves. I confess, I don't see the attraction of this, but apparently, Siri is much-beloved by many.

I talk to my cats. I talk to my neighbors. I talk to small animals that frequent my yard.  I even curse at my printer. But talk to my phone? No.

Like Bartleby, I would prefer not to.

The up-side of my being, as one of my friends recently put it, "close to becoming one of those homesteader people who await the end of the world," is that, when faced with the news of a Nor'easter-and-Hurricane, I'm already somewhat ready.  I have canned goods and non-perishables.  I can survive without the grocery store for weeks on end.  I can even skip the gas station.

So my hope is, if Sandy doesn't take away my power, I'll be able to get caught up on my blogging and you'll see more of me here this week.

In particular, I'm hoping to post my review of Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters.  I'm about halfway through it right now and I'll admit, unless something really wonderful happens and this baby turns a corner, it's going to go on my list of "novels I wanted to like, but just didn't."

It reads very much like an American novel of the 1970's.  Social activists are constantly protesting and women are frequently menstruating.

If you're wondering what the two have to do with one another, so am I.  I'm not suggesting a girl should have to limit the amount of airtime she gives to the discussion of her monthly "friend," but ... well, actually, maybe I am.

If that doesn't make you want to check back to see my review of The Salt Eaters, nothing will.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What Leaves

This week has been insanely busy.  And it shows no signs of letting up.  Today is my day to once again (try to) catch up on all of the things that absolutely have to get done or else the earth will simply spin off its axis and I alone will be held supremely responsible for the ensuing chaos.

Actually, it's been a really nice week.  Thursday was my birthday, so I am now officially 44 (nice double number).  My friends treated me to dinner at a Portuguese restaurant, so I was pleasantly reminded of the lesson that I learned in 2008 when I was in Lisbon for a week: Portuguese cuisine, accompanied by Portuguese wine, is both inexpensive and awesome.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am on a quest to make my own soap from homemade lye that I'm making from wood ash.  I'm taking it one step at a time, since I can't quite believe I'll be able to do it, but I must say, it does seem to be working.

I saved up white wood ashes from my fireplace for a week or so, put them in a bucket, poured boiling water over them, and let the water drain into another bucket through a tiny hole drilled in the first bucket.

I've re-boiled the drained lye-water twice now, and re-drained it through the ashes (I added some new ashes the second time around).  I tested it today, and I think it's almost strong enough.  Once it gets to the proper strength, I have to let it evaporate and collect the resulting lye crystals.

I have no idea how much lye this whole process will make, but if I get enough, the next step is for me to render some fat and see how that goes.

It's definitely a project with a long-term timeline, though, because even if all goes smoothly and I get some bitchin' good soap out of all of this, I will need to let it cure for months before anyone can use it.  Otherwise, it will burn my skin and the skin of those I cherish, and that would not be good.  I'd like to avoid that, at all costs.

In another random observation, I would like to note that, by some strange coincidence, I always seem to time it such that I'm teaching Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" and Keats' "To Autumn" at precisely the time when I'm required to rake the leaves in my yard.

I have two observations to make on this point: 1) Shelley clearly never had to rake a single leaf in his life, or he wouldn't be all "West Wind, you rock, etc. etc.", and 2) I hate leaf-blowers.

I don't own a leaf-blower, because I think they are kind of ridiculous.  They make a lot of noise (pollution), they use gasoline (pollution), and they are, in my opinion, no faster than a plain old rake.

If you want to drive me insane, let me see you blowing a tiny little pile of leaves across the yard with a gigantic leaf-blower.

The ones who really get me are the ones who chase a single leaf across the yard with a leaf-blower.  I calm myself by assuming that they must be engaged in some form of transcendental meditation about the small and the singular being driven by the mighty and the unseen.  Because otherwise it just doesn't make sense.

I have noticed that there is an unspoken landscaping assumption that you have to have every last leaf picked up if you're using a leaf-blower.  (No matter how foolish you may look doing it.)

I just rake.  Quickly.  Then I bag it, drag it, and go about my business.  I do this in weekly installments, and lo and behold, the job gets done.

I think leaf-blowers encourage a devil-may-care attitude toward the autumnal descent of deciduous foliage.  If you wait until you have a thick carpet of wet and rotting leaves, you will have a bad raking experience, no question, and under those conditions, a leaf-blower will seem to make sense.

But really, you could also just mow, and then occasionally rake.  Not every week, but every couple of weeks.  Mowing will mulch your leaves and fertilize your lawn, and lawns do grow quite a bit in the fall.

My best leaf-centered story though, happened this week.  I realized that one of my adopted cats has probably never seen falling leaves.  When you think about it, it makes sense: he has been in shelters most of his life, and although he did have a foster home at one point, he may not have lived there last autumn. (He's only a little over a year old.)

He is entranced by the sight of falling leaves.  For the past two days, he has been sitting by the screen door, sniffing the air and staring up at the sky, watching them fall.  He stays there for hours on end, never getting tired of the sight.

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth;
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Percy Bysshe Shelley's fair draft of lines 1-42 of "Ode to the West Wind," 1819, Bodleian Library

Monday, October 15, 2012


"It had not occurred to me until lately that a house is warmed by death as well as by life."
--May Sarton 

Last Wednesday would have been my dad's eightieth birthday. He died in July of 2006, of lung cancer. He died at home, in the living room he himself had built over forty years earlier. 

Less than four years later, in March of 2010, I found myself sitting alone in that living room every evening for a week. I was spending my days--the days of my Spring Break that year--at the hospital, visiting my terminally ill mother. 

I hated that living room. 

One night, I said it out loud. Tired of trying to read and distracted by the metronomic ticking of the clock, I said it.

"Everyone's gone." 

In Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton writes, "We can accept death.  It is dying that is not and never will be acceptable.  For us who have to witness dying, it must always feel as if the very fabric of life were being torn apart."

As I sat in my parents' living room that night in March, I thought about the fact that, four years earlier, my parents had visited me during my Spring Break.  I had gotten tickets to a show; we drove around Princeton.

It was bright and light and spring was coming.

That's not to say that I hadn't had inklings.  The previous Christmas Eve, driving home from my brother's house, I had looked at my father, riding in the passenger's seat next to me, and thought, "This is good.  I'm glad we've had this, this Christmas eve together.  He's not young anymore.  There may not be many more of these."

I stopped myself before it got morbid.

It was his last Christmas, in fact.  There was no way of knowing that at the time.

Even when we do know (or simply suspect), I think there is a way in which we cannot allow ourselves to see what is taking place right before our eyes.  I remember how, less than a month after my best friend's ten-year-old son had been diagnosed with brain cancer, I looked at him as he showed me his rock collection.

"It can't be that he will die.  That he will be here with me today, and a year from now, he will be gone."

I stopped myself before it got morbid.

Sarton insists that "death is a part of the human richness, the truth of the house for me."  And now that I have acquired my own house, I have begun to understand what she means.

At first, every space is painful, a reminder of the ones who aren't there anymore, of the places they will no longer go, the rooms they will never again see.

Where they sat, where they laughed.  The idiosyncrasies of lived space that always annoyed them--rugs tripped over, lamps never liked, a spill, a tear, a stain that wouldn't come out.

Where they were standing when they got--or gave--good news.  Or bad.  For a long time, it seems like the house, like every house, will always be haunted.

It will.  This is death's housewarming, a haunting that transcends the spaces the living once occupied, going places they themselves never went.
Of this too, I have had inklings all along.  A week after my dad died, I dreamed that I was sitting in my bedroom at home--in the home that I had rented for over ten years--when the phone rang.  It was my dad.  When I answered, "Hello?", he laughed and said, "Hey, there!"

In my dream, I started to cry.  I told him, "This terrible thing happened.  You were so sick, and you died."

In my dream, my dad laughed, gently but genuinely.  "No, no, no, no, no..." he said.  "I'm here."

And in my dream, we never hung up.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sarah Kay performs "B"

The Aftermath

I didn't get any further on The Salt Eaters.  I fell asleep.

I was too tired (and cranky) last night to blog about it when I updated yesterday's post, but it took a bit of time and effort to turn the tide on my day yesterday, and by the time it was all over, I was about ready to give up.

After I blogged at 4:00, I decided to make a nice fire in the fireplace and read, read, read.

As I was getting wood off the stack in the yard, a piece fell and landed on my foot.  It landed vertically, not horizontally, so it really hurt.  (For some reason, I have become convinced that, if it had landed horizontally, it would have hurt far less, but really, I have no way of knowing.)

It's a good thing we're well past the season for open-toed sandals here in the northeast, because I now have a major bruise on my right foot, one that initially threatened to engulf the last two toes of said foot.

I cussed a blue streak.  

I often think my neighbors must sit by their windows and watch me talking to myself and cursing as I go about my odd-ball business, occasionally injuring myself in the process.  I'm quite certain they laugh at the sight of me with my two cat carriers, doting on my kitties as I load them into the car for yet another road trip.

What can I say?  We're a team.  I only wish my other kitty hadn't died, so I could have all of them.

Anyway, the wood.  As I limped back into the house (doing my best to ensure that I didn't drop any other pieces of wood on that foot--or on my other foot, for that matter), one thought came to mind.

"Grilled cheese."

This is where I find the vegan lifestyle simply unfathomable.  In my experience, there are times when melted cheese is not simply a dietary choice, but an existential necessity.  I cannot imagine how one could do without it, and I think anyone who tries to fabricate a vegan cheese-substitute should be brought up on charges.

So I had grilled cheese.  Believe it or not, the bread burned while I was making it, but I caught it in time.

I was not to be denied at this point.  I simply ripped off the burned piece of bread (the cheese hadn't fully melted yet) and replaced it with a new, fresh slice that could be more appropriately toasted.

This made me nervous that, in fact, the tide had not been totally turned.  If there's one thing I know for certain, it's that desperate times call for desperate measures.  And so I made a batch of apple crisp.

Again, say what you like, but it is a fruit-based dessert (i.e., "healthy," in a very loose sense of the word), and the addition of butter and cinnamon and brown sugar to any fruit can never be wrong.  If it is, then I don't want to be right.

So although my Saturday was not quite as nice as my Friday, I did enjoy the Read-A-Thon, in the end, and I'm going to hope for better things when the next one rolls around in April.

And so far, my Sunday has been just fine.  I made cupcakes.  I refer to them as "virtuous" cupcakes, because they're carrot-cake cupcakes.  Some people would argue that the term "guilt-free" would be more appropriate, but in fact, it is not.

I refuse to link food with guilt.  Instead, I opt for a more proactive, positive stance.  These cupcakes are not simply lacking in the negative qualities associated with guilt.

On the contrary, I believe my carrot-cake cupcakes positively promote feelings of compassion and well-being, and thus encourage virtuous, right-minded action.

If I were to frost and then distribute them at the next meeting of the UN Security Council, they might very well lead to world peace.  And I would do it, too, but I'm out of cream cheese, and it's not like I can just throw on a pair of sandals and go get some.

So although things didn't go as planned yesterday, ultimately, I triumphed.  (This phrase can be my epitaph someday.)