Friday, September 25, 2015

Binges

I've been on a bunch of binges lately.

First, there was the reading-binge.  I spent a solid 48 hours reading Neil Gaiman.  I started with Coraline (2002) and then moved on to Neverwhere (2003).  I loved both of them.  They were just so weird and different, it was downright wonderful. 

While I was reading them, I concurrently embarked on a knitting binge.  I've been knitting for over 30 years of my life, so yes, I can knit without looking.  It isn't really that hard, once you're a seasoned knitter: you just need to get up the nerve and take the plunge and stop looking and just... knit.

So, I worked on knitting a scarf while reading and, strange to say, it turned out that the color of the scarf kind of matched the plot of the novels.  Dark and moody.  That doesn't usually happen, but suffice to say, I now think of the scarf as my "Neverwhere" scarf (and not because I'll never wear it).

I've been on an exercise binge.  I swam a mile yesterday, and then took an adventurous bike ride today that didn't really pan out as well as I had hoped.

I was hoping for some really nice views and a relaxing ride of about 25 miles.  I ended up with very bumpy roads and hills with long inclines and traffic and a couple of missed turns that ended up leading me onto even bumpier roads.

Plus, the view deteriorated the further I went, and I didn't want to go further in the hopes that it would get better, in case it didn't, because I already knew that on the return trip, the view would be basically not that great for at least half of the trip.  So I only went 15 miles and then I turned around.

The thing was, the view at the park where I started was actually quite nice, so when I returned, I took out a little beach chair and--you guessed it--knit for a bit.  So all's well that ended well, on that front.

I've also been on a soup and bread-making binge.  I keep making soup.  Soup, soup, soup.  I think it has something to do with it being the first day of autumn this week.  And I think the bread-making is simply following in the wake of the soup-making, because really, what's a nice soup without some nice bread?

I made two loaves (a binge, like I said) of oatmeal honey bread.  And I have to say, given that I have a house full of homemade jam from this summer, homemade bread seems to be the only sensible way to go.

Because homemade jam without homemade bread is just nonsense, and I won't stand for it.

I've also been getting--or getting set to get--a million and one little household tasks done before autumn sets in.    The down side of this is that it seems to take all day to do this, so I'm not getting as much writing done as I'd like.

But I'm hoping that this weekend can maybe mark a turnaround on that front.  Because in a few days, I'll have grading to do.  Yes, the semester's officially underway, and we're about to be in it

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"After A While"

I came upon this poem today.   I really like the wisdom and the perspective that it offers on relationships, so I'm sharing it here.

After A While

After a while you learn
the subtle difference between
holding a hand and chaining a soul
and you learn
that love doesn’t mean leaning
and company doesn’t always mean security.
And you begin to learn
that kisses aren’t contracts
and presents aren’t promises
and you begin to accept your defeats
with your head up and your eyes ahead
with the grace of woman,
not the grief of a child
and you learn
to build all your roads on today
because tomorrow’s ground is
too uncertain for plans
and futures have a way of falling down
in mid-flight.
After a while you learn
that even sunshine burns
if you get too much
so you plant your own garden
and decorate your own soul
instead of waiting for someone
to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure
you really are strong
you really do have worth
and you learn
and you learn
with every goodbye, you learn…
  
~ Veronica A. Shoffstall (1971)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Tuning In

I happened upon a couple of articles this morning that I found worth considering (this seems to be happening less and less, in my world).

The first, despite what I consider to be the overly heavy cheese-factor of its language--witness the title ("undeniably magnetic") and sentences like "People will feel you because you are feeling yourself"--offers some interesting points about what it is that makes for strong, supportive social interactions.

Introverts often struggle with social situations and with building relationships, but as Gabiola suggests, there is an inherent attractiveness in qualities such as quiet strength and grounded self-knowledge.  As she points out, it is possible to be "quiet and fierce."

When you know who you are, you can see people for who they are.  In a sense, by being tuned into yourself, you can, when you interact with others, tune into who they are and see them for what they are, without a lot of the noise and worry and distraction. 

The article I found a bit more compelling, however, is Brianna Wiest's summary of "10 Things Emotionally Intelligent People Do Not Do."

As Wiest points out, we spend a lot of time focusing on logic and reason as components of human intelligence, but undervalue the way in which emotions function in our day-to-day lives and decision-making processes.

"Emotionally intelligent" people--that is, people who "have the capacity to be aware of what they feel"--avoid falling into this trap.  They recognize that emotion, although subjective, is an integral component of any human relationship or interaction.

Thus, Wiest argues, they acknowledge the extent to which their emotions are responses, not realities.  They face an objective situation and they feel how they feel in response to it.

At the same time, however, they accept that--as psychologists will tell you--"feelings are not facts."

That doesn't mean, though, that feelings don't matter.  It means that something about the situation is triggering an emotional response.  If, for instance, you come home at the end of a long work day and think, "No one wanted to have lunch with me today.  I think everyone hates me," then you are responding emotionally to a reality.

No one wanted to have lunch with you today.  As a result, you feel like everyone hates you.

That doesn't mean they do.  It just means no one was able to have lunch with you today.  And you feel the way you feel, perhaps because you're tired and overworked and lonely and missing a friend who recently moved away.  Or any number of other realities.

Emotionally intelligent people manage to gain a measure of control over such responses, however, because they realize that their emotions are internal, not externally driven.  It isn't really about whether or not people would have lunch with you; it's about how you feel inside right now.

Because the fact of the matter is, if your internal barometer is low, all the lunches in the world with all the most wonderful people in the world won't really make you feel any better.

Which leads, in turn, to yet another capacity of emotionally intelligent people: they don't assume they know what will make them happy.

At first glance, this seems odd.  How can you be happy if you don't know what will make you happy?

Well, because the fact is, you don't know what will make you happy: you only know what you think should make you happy and you know what has made you happy or unhappy in the past.  A tendency to confront the future as a way of making up for--and remedying--the mistakes of the past or as a way of replicating previous moments of happiness closes you off to the fact that the future is always potentially quite different from the past.

As Wiest points out, "there are equal parts good and bad in anything."  In effect, emotionally intelligent people live with that, instead of framing experiences in terms of an all-or-nothing notion of "happiness."

Because emotionally intelligent people also realize that happiness is a choice that you can't always make, that being fearful is a natural reaction to change, and that having bad feelings doesn't mean you have a bad life. 

This is a point I've seen a lot of people stumble over: they think they have to be happy all the time, and if they aren't, it means they aren't happy and life isn't... good. 

I often wonder, "How happy do these people think the rest of us are, on any given day?"  I think the pharmaceutical industry has led them to believe that we're all just constant sunshine and roses and songbirds inside, and if you don't feel similarly, there's something wrong with you.

Personally, I think that, if this were the case, there would be no art.

Because, as Wiest points out "infallible composure is not emotional intelligence."  The emotionally intelligent don't suppress emotion; they work on managing it effectively.  And they screw up on that sometimes--as everyone does--and they know that this too is okay.

Because in the same vein, they realize, "I decide." That is, "They don't allow their thoughts to be chosen for them."

"You need to not be so sensitive...", "you need to calm down...", "you need to lighten up and learn how to take a joke..." 

Well, yes, maybe you do need to do all of those things.  But that's for you to decide, since these are your thoughts.  Maybe the person who's telling you these things is doing things that are insensitive or annoying or not funny.  Maybe this is a good person who's just being a total pain in the ass right now.

If so, you DO have the right to think, "Wow.  You are a serious pain in my ass right now."  And behave accordingly.

Emotionally intelligent people realize that "feelings don't kill."  

Feelings just happen.  Emotionally intelligent people know this, and they don't label those feelings "good" or "bad," they just accept that, right now, this is what's happening.

Which leads to one of Wiest's final points--and one of the most compelling, I think: emotionally intelligent people "don't just become close friends with anyone."

Trust and openness are slowly and steadily built over the course of a friendship or relationship.  They aren't automatic or instantaneous.  They can be damaged by words and actions and they can erode, over time, if they aren't maintained. 

When someone proves to be untrustworthy, that's a sign that maybe that person shouldn't be a close friend.  And if they already are, maybe they shouldn't be.

Because emotionally intelligent people recognize the nature and influence of feelings on their own lives and happiness, they acknowledge that this kind of situation isn't the end of the world because how they're feeling isn't reality itself.  It's a feeling.  It will change.

Ultimately, I think emotionally intelligent people realize that happy, stable lives are the product of a lot of constant balancing and decision-making in the here-and-now.

Sometimes the scales dip one way or the other, but in the end... that's life. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Station Eleven"

I'm participating in a panel discussion of Emily St. John Mandel's novel, Station Eleven (2014) on Tuesday, so I thought I'd blog about it as a way of thinking through what I have to say about it.

Typically, I have a gut reaction to a text, so I often start from there and then try to figure out why I feel that way.  In the case of Mandel's novel, I found myself thinking "More plague, less apocalypse, please."

Now, this may simply be a measure of my own personal literary preferences.  I'm not keen on "end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it" or dystopian literature in general.  I HATED Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for example.  Couldn't even finish it.  And NO, I'm not linking to it here in my blog either.  I just big, fat, friggin' didn't CARE what happened to anyone in that novel. 

For the record, if, while reading a novel, I find myself tipping over sideways on my couch, closing my eyes and shouting, "Oh my GOD, give me a BREAK!!!" that is a sign that I really don't like the novel.  This happened TWICE while reading The Road.  I have never read another word McCarthy has written.  Sorry, no.  Can't do it.

So as I found myself thinking "more plague, less apocalypse," I tried to figure out what I meant by that.  And I think it's this: is Mandel's plague supposed to be "realistic," or is it supposed to be allegorical?

For example, in The Plague by Albert Camus or Boccaccio's Decameron or Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year or Jose Saramago's Blindness, there are descriptions of an actual plague, but in many ways, the idea of the plague itself is transformed into a larger concept.  It's a vehicle for thinking about the meaning of art and life, for example.

I think this was what Mandel was going for, but I'm not totally sure.  But I want to give her the benefit of the doubt on this one, because I have to say that, if her plague was meant to be "realistic" in any way, I was not at all convinced.

At the start of the novel, a pandemic of "Georgian Flu" sweeps across the globe, wiping out 99% of the human population.

I had two reactions to this: first, stop blaming everything on Russia and Central Eurasia.  Second, why invent a "new flu," when there are all kinds of longstanding diseases out there that could easily reach pandemic proportions and wipe out over 90% of the population?

Did it HAVE to be 99%?  Would 95% have been just as good?  That was my thought about this element of the novel, and I confess, I started to feel like I needed to just let it go, because I was being a bit of a pill about it.

That said, though, I think I got hung up on it because without a convincing plague, the emotional impact of the text is diminished.  And it seemed to me that Mandel really skirted the issue of the symptoms of this plague in order to focus on the post-apocalyptic outcome.

I don't mean to be a nudnik about this, but the thing is, if all I'm gonna have is a sudden onset of flu-like symptoms that will last for--at most--48 hours and then I'm gonna just... croak, basically, well, then, that's not so scary to me, really, particularly if I'm going to be feverish and hallucinating for the last 24 hours of that time.

The symptoms of things like smallpox and cholera and ebola and bubonic plague--now, to me, those are scary.  You don't just die: you suffer and THEN die.  So I started having a weird suspicion that Mandel wanted people to be frightened by the idea of a plague, but not too frightened, if you get my drift.  And I felt like that was kind of a cop-out.

To me, that was also what happened in her depiction of "The Prophet."  There was a lot of build up, and then... it was over.  With a lot of things left unexplained and unresolved, and conveniently, everyone who could explain or resolve them was quickly dead.  So... oh well!

I don't like when novels do that.  If you paint yourself into a literary corner, you need to figure out how you're going to get us out of there.

I guess, ultimately, I found myself wishing that Mandel had narrowed her scope a bit, maybe, and done a bit more research.  Because again, personally, I find it VERY hard to believe that humans suddenly lost all ability to figure out and reinstate things like electricity and running water and radios and airplanes.

I get that the human population died off and that the remaining humans had to do what they could to survive, but the knowledge was still there and all it would take was a willingness to find it and use it.  This was what I found myself thinking throughout the novel, and oddly enough, at the end, Mandel herself suggests that this is in fact possible and plausible and may be happening.

But if that's the case, then I sort of feel like I was subjected to an emotional bait-and-switch: you seemed to be saying that the world as we knew it "ended," and would never return, but then, maybe... it can!

Which is it?

I think Mandel wanted to end on a more positive note than the rest of the novel struck, and I think that's understandable--most plague narratives do end with the end of the plague and a restoration of normality.  But they don't undercut the overall existential significance of the situation they've just spent hundreds of pages describing--and this is what I felt that Mandel does, actually.

What I found interesting in Mandel's novel, however, is the way in which she incorporated the intertextual references to Shakespeare--this is something that, if there were world enough and time, I wouldn't mind teasing out a bit further.

I liked the character of Miranda in particular, and I kept wishing I had a better working knowledge of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," so I could pick up on the interconnections between the two works.  Because in Shakespeare's play, Miranda is an innocent pawn and an essential optimist.

So I thought that it was interesting that it is Miranda who is the author of the "Station Eleven" comics that play such a key role in Mandel's text.

Similarly, I think it would be interesting to think about the way that Mandel's novel is tracing out issues of generational succession by organizing so much of the text around a famous actor who plays King Lear.  Lear is all about self-aggrandizement and an inability to see the very clear (and very disastrous) future that one is creating with each (foolish) step or decision one takes and makes.  I think this resonates with the larger idea of the plague that Mandel is using, and I think it is interesting that she interweaves this idea with Shakespeare's repeated use of "another world" or a fairy-tale dream world in "The Tempest"and "Midsummer Night's Dream."

I haven't said a lot about Kirsten Raymonde, the novel's central protagonist, because quite frankly, I found her a bit disappointing.  I felt like I was sorta trapped in a cross between The Road and The Hunger Games while reading the episodes that dealt with her life.  Kirsten Raymonde struck me as Katniss Everdeen on The Road.

On the one hand, she has clearly been traumatized by the apocalypse because of her year of living on the road (hello, Cormac McCarthy), but... she can't remember any of it.

So... we... I... just... yeah, okay, I don't get it.  You imply trauma (in the form of rape and desperation and survivalist killing), but then basically dodge the implications of this for the character by repeatedly telling us, "she can't remember!"

So, why tell us?    Again, it felt like emotional bait-and-switch to me.  You're drawing me in with a premise, and then shoving it aside with no additional explanation or development.

Similarly, at the end of the novel, there's a sudden implication of ... ghosts.  Wait, what?  Now, 30 pages from the end, I'm getting... ghosts?  I would have preferred to see this motif earlier and more often, actually--I think it would have worked with the other motifs Mandel was employing.

My overall evaluation of Station Eleven?  It was okay: I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it.  I don't know that I'd really recommend it to anyone, but at the same time, I do think that, if you're drawn to post-apocalyptic literature, there are worse texts you could be reading, and Mandel's novel does do some interesting things and raise interesting ideas.

I just wish she had done more with them.  As I said, I would have preferred a narrower scope and greater attention to detail.  But that's just me, obviously.  And for the record, Station Eleven was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award, so there are many, many people out there who would disagree with me on many of the points I've raised.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Recalibrated

After being ill for so much of July, I really thought that August would be my month to get back on track.  But over Labor Day weekend, I decided I needed to face facts: I was officially discombobulated.

Although my health was doing much (much!) better, I was still having trouble focusing and moving forward on the things I needed to get done.  I tried to ignore it and think that it was just the end-of-summer pile-up, and in some ways, it was, but in other ways, it wasn't.

So I decided that I needed to get "recombobulated."  No, that's probably not a word.  But the good news is, it doesn't have to be.

Because regardless of what the name was for what I decided, it worked.  I'm back on track.  I'm working my way, slowly and steadily, through the pile of stuff I wanted or needed to get done, and life is feeling pretty good. 

So I guess that means I finally managed to recalibrate my brain and my life and my body so that things are in sync.  (It's about time.)

Today, I got a nice swim in and then did a marathon session of running errands.  We're talking 5 hours here, people.  That got me caught up, so that next week, I can focus on the home maintenance issues that need to be faced before the fall sets in.

Lest you think the errands were totally unenjoyable, I'll post this pic:


Because yes, I went apple-picking.  I'm thinking that this weekend, there just might be time to make a batch of apple-carrot muffins: fresh apples, and fresh carrots from the garden, so... it sounds like it was meant to be.

In the meantime, I'm basking in the feeling of being back on track.  I got a bit of writing done this week, and I've been able to focus on reading and I'm nearly caught up with that. 

The good news is, this means I'll FINALLY have a few new ideas and things to post about, instead of just occasional updates about my so-called "life."  (Like the fact that I finally finished a sock this morning--those kind of updates.) 

It's a good feeling: reaching a Friday and feeling like you've reclaimed yourself.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"Gone, Gone, Gone"

Life has such strange starts and stops; it always seems to unfold in waves of good and bad.

I say this because I have several friends right now who are struggling, and I'm remembering my own struggles and how much my friends helped me during those times.

This song makes me think of them.  

You're my back bone.
You're my cornerstone.
You're my crutch when my legs stop moving.
You're my head start.
You're my rugged heart.
You're the pulse that I've always needed.
Like a drum, baby, don't stop beating.
Like a drum, baby, don't stop beating.
Like a drum, baby, don't stop beating.
Like a drum my heart never stops beating...

For you, for you.
Baby, I'm not moving on.
I'll love you long after you're gone.
For you, for you.