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.)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Today's the Day: 24-Hour Readathon

It's here.  The Dewey's Read-A-Thon is today, and I'm about to get started.  Once again, I'm a bit late getting going, but I have the coffee and the stack and I'm ready.

Last spring, I had a list and a plan, but this time around, I just have a stack and some ideas.  I'm going to try to finish James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain and Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters today.  I have a foothold started in both of those, so I think I can do it.

It would also be great if I could use the time to read a hundred or so pages of Infinite Jest, since that has been shelved since I started classes and ran out of time.

I'm also supposed to read the second Canto of Byron's Don Juan for my class on Wednesday, so I may crack into that if it gets to be slow-going and I need a breather from the prose and a sense of accomplishment.

I have a bunch of other books as well (obviously)--some Margaret Atwood, Louis Chu and a book about "Medical Detectives."  So I've got quite a bit of variety: hard-core lit. and some contemporary stuff.

We'll see how it goes.  Time to get started...

4:00 p.m.  How It's Gone

Well, the Scotsman Robert Burns was definitely right when he said, "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men/ Gang aft agley,/ An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,/For promis'd joy!"

I had a few chores to do this morning before I could start reading, and then I got caught up in making lunch.

For many people, lunch is simply lunch, but I should have known when I thought to myself, "Let me go into the kitchen and look at something...", that I was on a slippery slope.

I love to cook.  I think it may be an addiction.  I like cooking better than eating, actually.

So, one Homemade Moroccan Spiced Pie later, I was ready to read.  Or so I thought.

I made the mistake of checking email first.  All week long, I have been embroiled in an Eddie Bauer Bruhaha.

As God is my witness, if I had known what I was getting into when I tried to order two shirts and a pair of shoes, I would have gone both topless and barefoot for the entire week--and it's been quite chilly this week.

"Customer Care Specialist," my ass.  I have been passed around among 15 such "Specialists" over the past week, and I still don't have what I ordered.

I do, however, have a couple of back-ordered items that I cancelled TWICE, two weeks ago.  And they have generously offered to send those to me AGAIN.

At one point in my electronic correspondence, I was tempted to write, "I'M MISSING THE READ-A-THON, YOU BE-FRIGGED IDIOTS!!!", but I did not.  I felt it would be over-the-top.

So, I've taken a shower, I've got a (at this point, much-needed) glass of wine at the ready, and as God is my witness, I WILL get Baldwin and Bambara done today.

"You have failed no one, Grasshopper; only your own ambition." 
--Master Po, Kung Fu (1972)

11:30 p.m.  Redemption

I finished James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain.  Parts of it were really interesting, and reminded me of a cross between Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Steinbeck's East of Eden.  

It's focused on the spirituality and potential salvation of John, the fourteen-year-old protagonist, and tells the story of his parents' lives and conflicts.  The bulk of the novel is organized around a Sunday service that takes place on John's fourteenth birthday.

Personally, I preferred the narratives about John's aunt, his father, and his mother.  

I'm going to work on Bambara's The Salt Eaters now, and although I doubt I'll be able to stay up late enough to finish it and blog again, I'll see how far I get.

All in all, a good ending to a Read-A-Thon that got off to a delayed and somewhat bumpy start.

Friday, October 12, 2012


It's been a busy week. I've been kicking myself for being lax about my fitness regimen, but then I remind myself, "it's been a busy week."

I skipped boxing class last night. I got up at 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning and it was just non-stop busy-ness until I finally got to bed at 3 a.m. on Thursday morning. I fell asleep early last night.

Today, I caught up on all the little errands I have needed to do for weeks now. I FINALLY got the blankets delivered to Project Linus.

Then, I finally went apple-picking. In the rain. Pouring rain, actually.

I would like to point out that, on the weather Thursday night, no mention was made of pouring rain on Friday. Perhaps because it did clear up and become sunny by mid-afternoon.

Perhaps they were simply "skipping" that whole 3-hours-of-pouring-rain-thing as somehow irrelevant.

It was also quite a bit chillier than predicted. All in all, it was not the morning I would have picked to pick apples, if I had known what was in store for me weather-wise.

But anyway, I got my apples. And I like them very much. I'm thinking tomorrow or Sunday may be an apple-tart day. If that proves to be the case, my guess is, I'll post a picture.

I brought a bunch of peppers and small carrots in from the garden, because they're threatening frost tonight.

Maybe that's why they didn't mention rain in today's forecast last night. They were all focusing their attention on the upcoming possibility of frost.

To accomplish all of my little missions today, I had to drive to Cranston to Providence to North Scituate to East Greenwich.

I mention this because, to a native Rhode Islander, this would be a sign of insanity. Rhode Island is a very small state, as I'm sure you know, and the fact that it is only about 42 miles long by about 38 miles wide leads to what one of my friends calls the "hyper-local" mentality of Rhode Islanders.

Although this is not the case for all Rhode Islanders, obviously, many will resist traveling more than 15 minutes for anything. If it takes 20 minutes to get anywhere, they will express dismay at "how long" it takes to get there and "how far away" it is.

The daughter of a friend of mine once moved from Coventry to Pawtucket. 15 minutes away on I-95.

Her friends at school threw her a going-away party.

Rhode Islanders will often insist that separate towns breed very distinct kinds of people, personalities, accents and attitudes. My friend once told me that his wife, a native Rhode Islander, commented on the fact that a barbecue they went to was not a "typical East Providence barbecue," but "more like something you'd see in Barrington."

His comment was, "Oh for God's sake, you all live 10 minutes away from one another."

While Rhode Islanders will readily venture into Massachusetts, in my opinion, they seem a bit more reluctant to head to Connecticut. Businesses located north and west of the city of Providence often adopt what seems to me to be a distinctly apologetic tone when announcing their location.

No one south and east goes north and west, apparently. The beach and the ocean are to the east. Why go west? There are actually some really beautiful lakes and hiking trails in the northern and western parts of the state.

I won't even begin to try to explain why people on the West Bay think they're better off than people on the East Bay--and vice versa. Friends of mine who live on the East Bay never go to the West Bay.

Luckily, I just wander the state at random. People find this charming, my unwillingness to be fazed by the vast distances that make up the smallest state in the United States.

In Rhode Island people will rent--yes, I said RENT--a house at the beach for the summer, despite the fact that, from pretty much any point in the state, you can drive to the ocean in well under an hour.

Unless you're in the northernmost and westernmost corner of the state, in which case it will probably take you exactly an hour. With traffic.

When I first moved to NJ, a colleague told me, "We're not too far from the shore." When I looked a bit surprised, he said, "Oh, yes, it's quite convenient: just get on 195 and you can get there in about an hour and a half--two hours or so in the summer, when there's traffic."

Everything in NJ is at least 45 minutes from everything else. It's as simple as that. Trips in NJ function in 45-minute increments.

It will either take you 45 minutes to get somewhere, or it will take you a hour and a half.

If there's traffic, add anywhere from two to six hours to your 45-minute increments, and that will give you a rough estimate of when you can expect to arrive at your destination.

So catching up on errands in Rhode Island is not at all a bad way to spend a rainy-then-sunny Friday.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Office Politics and Rumor

The weekend got away from me.  Again.

That's the trick in life, balancing work (and work stress) with personal commitments, with... blogging.  I left work last week determined to leave it behind me and de-stress, but unfortunately, I was only partly successful.

On Friday, I read a June 29, 2009 blog post by Calvin Sun on Tech Republic entitled "10 Ways To Survive Office Politics."  I think Sun offers excellent advice. 

What I learned early in my career is, when you're at work, you're there to do a job.  If something is interfering with that, it doesn't really matter whether it's relatively harmless or totally toxic--in the end, you need to stay focused on why you're there: to do a job.

I think Sun's advice to "be a straight arrow," to find ways to "be helpful" and to "confront office politics openly" is well-taken.  You want to do everything in your power to cultivate a positive attitude or "aura" surrounding your work.

When there's a problem, try to be a problem-solver.  When there's conflict, try to be a voice of reason.

And then, get back to work.  You can't solve every problem and there's a fine line between being helpful and being a pushover.  Don't take on more than you can reasonably do and, when you do take on additional work, follow Sun's advice in point #8: "document everything." 

Nothing breeds more resentment than an employee who feels like s/he "does everything" and "pitches in constantly" only to have it go unrecorded or ultimately unacknowledged.  Supervisors can't always acknowledge every little thing, so I think you have to be savvy about the types of tasks you take on and proactive in documenting your work.

Millions of little, time-consuming tasks may not get you the recognition that will allow you to advance in your career.  A few well-placed major undertakings on behalf of the organization, followed by a series of "no, I'm sorry, I can't take on anything additional right now"'s are better in the long run for your career as a whole.

Perhaps the most important thing that I've learned is that people who constantly ask or expect you to do anything and everything don't mean you well.  They will not be strong advocates for you in the long run, and if you don't document your contributions, they will go undocumented and be "forgotten" in the end.

In cases where this kind of thing happens, I think one of two things is probably occurring: a person is infatuated with power and likes telling others what to do (under the guise of "delegating" assignments and encouraging "team players"), or a person is overwhelmed him- or herself.  And like it or not, you have somehow cultivated a reputation for being the one who will always save the day.

Let someone else save the day once in a while.

Point #4 of Sun's article--"Stay away from gossip"--is a bit trickier.  Offices are social communities and social communities function through verbal exchanges.  And often those exchanges become fixated on individual members of the community and their (alleged) actions.  Or problems.  Or hairstyles.  Or wardrobe malfunctions.  Or whatever.

Social psychologists are in relative agreement about the function and purpose of gossip and rumor.  By definition "gossip" is local, topical, and limited in significance, whereas rumors tend to be concerned with issues of greater significance to the community at large.

"I heard Bob is fooling around with Kathy."  That's gossip. 

"I heard Bob's going to fire the current office manager and promote Kathy."  That's a rumor.

I think rumors are more pernicious than gossip, ultimately, but as Sun points out--and as my examples above suggest--gossip puts people and communities on a slippery slope.  What starts as gossip can become a disruptive rumor that spreads like wildfire.

What social psychologists are less clear on is how and why certain rumors spread and gain prominence in a community.  At times, nothing will kill a rumor: not even the most clear-cut facts and openly shared information.  In a sense, rumor can function like propaganda, and a negative rumor can seriously undercut office morale and community confidence.

In "Problem Solving in Social Interactions on the Internet: Rumor as Social Cognition" [Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 1, 2004, pp. 33-49], Prashant Bordia and Nicholas Difonzo note that "Rumors arise in situations that are personally relevant but ambiguous or cognitively unclear" (33).  In such cases, "Rumors as explanations provide meaning to the uncertain situation, and offer a sense of control" (34).

Somewhat paradoxically, Bordia and Difonzo observe, "rumors that induce anxiety seem to be transmitted more frequently," "presumably because the act of transmission helps to vent the anxiety" (34).  In talking it out, however, the anxiety takes on a life of its own.

This is something that Sigmund Freud became aware of later in his career.  Whereas the "talking cure" (as psychoanalysis was initially labeled) was intended to offer an individual a chance to gain control over a repressed, traumatic event by retelling it--and thus essentially "reliving" it--in a safe, controlled, therapeutic context, Freud began to realize that something quite different could--and often did--take place.

Instead of retelling the story of the trauma in order to expel or "abreact" it, the narrator could become caught up in the "talking" itself, never moving in the direction of a "cure."  That is, the individual might derive a certain subconscious emotional satisfaction from "reliving" the trauma and repeatedly "gaining control" over it through narration. 

S/he would subconsciously opt to hang on to it instead of letting it go, and verbalization would offer a means of doing precisely that.

In the case of rumors, a similar danger presents itself.  If "the social interaction involved in rumor transmission" is a "collective sensemaking" (34) designed to ward off situational anxiety, that collective sensemaking can function effectively only if it ultimately alleviates anxiety.

But that's generally not what rumors do.  They fuel it--at least for some people.  In some cases, no measure of interpretive control is enough to cause an individual to squelch or dismiss a rumor.

Obviously, I think there's far more to be said on this issue, but one point I find particularly interesting is the potential intersections of social psychology and clinical psychology in the study of rumor.  Rumor transmission and persistence may coincide with the presence of certain individual personality types within an organization.  Although an anxious organizational situation or atmosphere may be the obvious catalyst for rumors, their continued propagation and transmission may also depend upon a perfect storm of individual personalities, in conjunction with both personally- and organizationally-compelling content.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Giovanni's Room"

I finished reading James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956). Although this novel is a bit shorter than Bone, it actually took me about a week to get through it.

I had actually never read anything by Baldwin, although I took a class in African-American literature when I was at Brown. I'm planning to read Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) at some point, although it isn't on my Classics Club list (we'll call it a write-in).

On the cover of Baldwin's novel, a review for The Saturday Evening Post indicates that "Mr. Baldwin has taken a very special theme and treated it with great artistry and restraint."

In fact, Baldwin's theme is not particularly (much less "very") "special": he has written a novel about love, desire and betrayal. His protagonist, David, however, meets, desires and falls in love with a man, Giovanni, even as he is in the process of becoming engaged to marry a woman, Hella.

The issue of "restraint" is an interesting one: recently, I rented "A Single Man," a movie starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. As the cover of that film indicates, it is based on a story by Christopher Isherwood.

I confess, I stood perplexed for several minutes as I looked at this cover. I was pretty sure Christopher Isherwood was homosexual, and that most of his work revolved around that theme. And yet, here is the film's cover:

The film was touted as a story of love and loss and grief. And it is. The gay protagonist's partner dies suddenly in a car accident, and he spends the bulk of the film coping with that loss.

At one point, he has dinner and a few drinks and dances with an old friend with whom he once had a brief relationship (Julianne Moore). That's the image depicted on the cover.

I doubt that anyone looking at this cover would be able to glean what the film was about. If I hadn't known about Christopher Isherwood, I wouldn't have had a clue. I would have assumed it was about a heterosexual relationship between the two characters pictured on the cover.

I can't help but wonder at the motivation behind the packaging. I sort of doubt that any dyed-in-the-wool heterosexual American couple looking for a "nice" romance story would pop this one into the DVD, realize what it was about, and think, "Oh, well, okay."

Some would, obviously, but many wouldn't. And I think everyone would feel the cover was highly misleading.

This is what I think is at issue in the reviewer's characterization of Baldwin's novel Giovanni's Room as a text marked by restraint: the assumption that, if you're not speaking about heterosexual relationships in American society, you need to speak in a kind of "code" or show "restraint" by masking your actual subject matter so that the heterosexual "norm" isn't alerted to its own instability.

You're not supposed to make anyone overtly uncomfortable.  Homophobia manifests itself not only as a form of violence against gays, but also--and more often--as an unspoken insistence that being "out" should nevertheless entail remaining "invisible."

Too often, those are the terms of social tolerance.

I don't think Baldwin's novel adheres to this maxim of "restraint" at all, actually. I think his text is quite frank in its depiction of homosexual desire and I think his exploration of David's conflicting sense of his own masculine and sexual identity is complex and interesting.

Baldwin uses the motif of various spaces and "rooms" through the novel. Perhaps not surprisingly, the protagonist perceives Giovanni's room as filthy and disorderly--a scene of poverty and chaos. And yet it is the space of his honest desire.

The protagonist also shares a room in a hotel, and later a house, with his eventual fiancee, Hella. These spaces are, by contrast, conventional and orderly: as David acknowledges, he longs to marry and have children, to come home every evening to dinner with a beautiful wife and have the life that everyone expects of him.

Interspersed with these locations are other sites of the protagonist's other desires: the apartment of a female friend he picks up and has casual sex with, the apartment in New York where he grew up, the bar where he meets Giovanni, the room he's been kicked out of, which initially drives him to stay with Giovanni.

I think this is the strength of Baldwin's novel: it's exploration of what is now called "heteronormativity," that is, the system of cultural norms that identifies heterosexuality as both "universal" and "natural." By focusing on the protagonist's movement through a variety of "rooms"--always organized around and defined by the pivotal status of "Giovanni's Room"--Baldwin examines the subtle (and not-so-subtle) pressures that social space exert on individual identity.

Not surprisingly, Baldwin sets his novel in 1950's Paris, not in the United States, although much of the novel reflects on David's identity as an American and what his homosexual desires will "mean" for him if he ever returns to New York. Is he simply "experimenting" sexually while in Paris? Although he would like to believe so, he admits to a previous homosexual encounter and to a growing sense that who he is cannot be scripted by heterosexual norms and ideals.

As the narrator puts it quite succinctly in the opening pages, "people can't, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life" (5).

Monday, October 1, 2012


"This telling had a stillness, not time stopping, but time hurting."

I've finished reading Fae Myenne Ng's novel Bone (1993), and quite frankly, I can't say enough good things about it.

If you're a fan of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club or Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, you should read Bone.

Ng's novel is closer in style to Tan's, but I found the substance of her work more complex and interesting.

Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed The Joy Luck Club the first time I read it (although the movie was truly atrocious), but I never felt like there was much there that I could return to.

Once you absorb the dynamics of generational conflict and get a sense of how Tan's characters ultimately succumb to or transcend those conflicts, I kind of feel like you're pretty much done with Tan. (I was ultimately so disappointed with Tan's second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife, that I haven't returned to her work since. But I should, obviously.)

That is not the case with Ng's first novel. Not by a long shot. I've been sadly ruminating over the fact that, as the student worker pointed out when I checked the book out of the College's library, no one had checked it out since 1999.

I couldn't quite comprehend why this would be the case, so I did some poking around and it turns out that, upon publication, Bone was criticized for not being "representative" of "the Asian American experience."

This is a huge debate within the Chinese American literary community, one that has spanned decades. When Maxine Hong Kingston's work was first published, novelist Frank Chin criticized her for manipulating and refabricating Chinese legends in order to (in his opinion) pander to the tastes of a white American audience. (Disney's production of "Mulan" would seem to support Chin's criticism.)

Chin argued that the immense popularity enjoyed by Tan and Hong Kingston suggested that they had sold out, opting to create a version of Chinese American identity that Americans could feel comfortable with.

Without delving too far into the specifics of the debate, it clearly raised fascinating issues. Hong Kingston argued that, because she was not Chinese, but Chinese American, it was her prerogative to artistically recreate and reconfigure Chinese legends to incorporate a (decidedly feminist) perspective that was not necessarily integral to the original story.

Or was it? Hong Kingston provocatively questioned what it meant to convey an "authentic" myth--itself the product of a centuries' old oral tradition--in a work of contemporary fiction, published on another continent and in another language entirely.

Ng faced similar upbraiding for the "non-representativeness" of Bone, to which she purportedly responded, "I can't represent all of China." Ultimately, Ng's response raises the question of what it means to "represent" a socioeconomic, national, racial or ethnic group, and highlights what is at stake in attempting to do so.

Literature is always both aesthetic and political. It is always a form of artistry undertaken in a specific, social context. Artists are typically paid for their work--sometimes meagerly, sometimes handsomely.

When a literary text is produced by a member of a socially or culturally dominant group, there is a tendency to "erase" or "naturalize" any elements of social and political commentary that it might include. They become somehow secondary to an allegedly "neutral" artistic vision and the artwork is (purportedly) capable of being read "on its own terms," because the writer is perceived as speaking for "everyone."

In short, it is awarded "universality." It "represents" "all of us"--our unified hopes and dreams.

In the case of literary texts produced by members of a historically oppressed group, however, this neutrality is always unavailable. Their work is seen as "necessarily" possessing greater political importance. Writers are identified as "speaking for" a specific group, in its entirety.

But every group is always by definition composed of unique individuals. So really, what does it mean to speak "for" everyone?

This detour leads me back to what I like about Ng's novel Bone. Although the novel incorporates the concept of generational conflict that often marks Chinese American novels, Ng complicates the conflicts. The narrator, Leila, is shown interacting with her stepfather, Leon, and her boyfriend, Mason, as much as with her mother, Mah, and her sisters, Nina and Ona.

Although the novel begins with the now-familiar invocation of the stereotypical Chinese hostility towards girls ("We were a family of three girls. By Chinese standards, that wasn't lucky. In Chinatown, everyone knew our story"), the rest of the novel systematically calls that stereotype into question.

Leon and his wife, Mah, clearly value their daughters a great deal.

Likewise, instead of simply orienting (pun intended) her text around issues of generational conflict and gender, Ng uses the sudden and seemingly inexplicable suicide of the middle daughter, Ona, as a way of shaping and problematizing the relationships of all of the characters to one another and to their society at large.

Ona's death becomes a way for each of the characters to reflect on what it means to leave and what it means to stay--a key concern of any text that deals with the immigrant experience. Her suicide also becomes a way of reflecting on the passage of time--an overarching frame that, in my opinion, gives the representation of generational conflict an interesting degree of existential depth and nuance.

At one point, after visiting a cemetery, Leon notes that the dead outnumber the living. Leila will eventually revise this position, however, as a result of her reflections on her sister Ona's personality. Noting that "Ona was a counter" (88)--someone who liked to tally up the number of occurrences of random events--Leila concludes,
Ona was right about the counting. Remembering the past gives power to the present. Memories do add up. Our memories can't bring Grandpa Leong or Ona back, but they count to keep them from becoming strangers.
...If Ona were here, she would count the living; Ona would tell us that there are more living than dead. (88-89)
Perhaps the most interesting motif that Ng employs throughout her novel is the one invoked by the title. Ostensibly, the reference to "bone" refers to the tradition of returning the bones of the dead to China for burial.

And yet, the novel's references to "bone" are always multifarious: bone never refers to only one idea or tradition, and the multiple references intersect in intriguing ways.

In the end, it is up to us to discover their interconnections and their significance because, as the narrator Leila observes in the final pages of the novel, "what we hold in our heart is what matters" (193).

 This is the beauty of Bone.