Sunday, January 31, 2016

Gone, But Not Forgotten

Yes, I know I'm supposed to be blogging more regularly.  I haven't forgotten my resolution.

First, there was the blizzard.  Perfectly timed to coordinate with the start of classes (again), so (once again) the first day of classes was cancelled.  

This meant a bit of regrouping was in order.  I figured I would eventually blog about that, but instead, I just regrouped and went about my business.  

Then, the semester started.  It went as smoothly as could be expected, with no drama or angst whatsoever.  Which is good, because the last thing you want at the start of the semester of drama.  It isn't a good thing midway through the semester either, actually, but right at the start?  It's totally unnecessary and unwelcome.

I also started taking Pilates classes again.  This meant that I suddenly became aware of about 89 tiny muscles that I haven't used in months.  And while that's interesting to me, if you haven't experienced it yourself, I doubt you could relate.

But then yesterday, that was the day.  I cleaned a major closet.

I have a little walk-in closet in my home--and please, if, when I say this, you're picturing some fabulously lighted white-and-golden chamber in some movie about a fabulously wealthy celebrity with all kinds of fashion-sense, stop picturing that.

Because compared to that, my walk-in closet is more like a walk-in tunnel.  But it is a walk-in closet and it is the largest closet in my home and it really can hold a lot of stuff.

I took full advantage of its capacities when I moved in, back in 2010.  I knew that a lot of the stuff I was putting in there would have to be sorted and/or discarded, but instead of doing that, I just loaded it in there and went on with my life.

Needless to say, as the years unfolded, the previously-planned sorting and discarding never happened and what happened in its stead was... accumulation.

Last spring, I decided to store my hybrid bike in there.

This decision isn't as insane as it sounds: there is--and was--room enough in there for it, so I wheeled it in there and closed the door.  Problem solved.

Over the course of the summer, no new problems arose because what I cheerfully refer to as my "play-clothes" are stored elsewhere.

Once the semester started, however, it became clear that we had a problem, Houston.  Because my "school-clothes" are stored in the walk-in closet, and I could no longer walk into it.

I quickly realized that, unless I did something--and quickly--I would be wearing the same two outfits all semester, simply because those were the ones that I could open the door, lean in, and grab.  

So yesterday, I tackled the closet-cleaning that probably should have happened over five years ago.  When it was all said and done, my nasal passages required two doses of antihistamines to cope with all the dust, but my heart was happy.  I took 11 bags of clothes to the donation bins and several bags to the trash.

I can now walk into my walk-in closet.

And yes, the bike fits.  With all kinds of room to spare.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Villette

Thank heavens that's over with.

I've been planning on beginning my review of Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853) with that opening sentence since I was about a third of the way through the novel.

My goal in putting Villette on my Classics Club Reading List was to finish it because, truth be told, I first started this novel well over 25 years ago, and I simply couldn't continue with it.  

I put it down, unread and unfinished.  I disliked it that much.

I thought that maybe the intervening quarter-century might have changed my perspective.  Because again, truth be told, in that intervening era, I've heard more than one person rave about how "interesting" and "wonderful" Villette is.

In hindsight, I'm not sure what they were smoking. "Interesting" and "wonderful" are not words I would use to describe this novel.  Overly long, overly wordy, and at times a bit odd and disturbing would be my way of describing it.

To be fair, I think that the people who do like the novel are judging it on the basis of the last 50 pages or so.  My guess is, they're remembering the ending, which has a few plot twists and a surprise or two, and which really has a better overall narrative pace than the rest of the novel.  

They're remembering that and forgetting the 200+ pages of Catholic vs. Protestant debates that the narrator, Lucy Snowe, engages in with M. Paul.  At one point, I was down to simply reading the first sentence of each paragraph and if it said anything about "Papists," "Rome," or "Catholics," I simply skipped the paragraph entirely.

Brontë's narrator, Lucy Snowe, is staunchly anti-Catholic.  So there's a lot of extolling of the Protestant's "true" and "pure" relationship with God.  (A LOT.)  She's also somewhat anti-French--not as anti-French as she is anti-Catholic, mind you, but she's got a lot of condescension to dish out towards all things non-English. 

Which makes for some rough going for everyone involved given that Villette is a town in--you guessed it-- France.

To me, this is what makes Lucy Snowe difficult to endure: she's a quintessential unreliable narrator (and no, I'm not going to give away the plot or offer any spoilers, because if after reading my review you still--bless your heart--decide to pick it up and read it, you're going to need all the surprises you can get), but she's also, in my opinion, a pretty dull one.

"I'm not meant for happiness, but that's okay--I don't need it anyway.  Happiness is for lucky people.  I'm not lucky.  I know that.  I'm also not smart or pretty or well-loved by anyone."

This is the gist of Lucy Snowe's attitude towards life in general.  And, as you can probably glean from my summary-statement, this is why people who like the novel like Lucy Snowe: like Jane Eyre, she's deliberately portrayed as not your typical Victorian heroine.

Which is fine, but this may also be what disturbs me about her.  The pendulum seems to have swung the other way in Brontë's representation of Lucy Snowe: she's not pretty or cheerful, she's just sad and stoic and she endures.

But what she endures is a bit disturbing.  Specifically, I'm talking about her relationship with M. Paul.

It's not fun to have to read hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of pages (be forewarned: this novel ain't short) of what today would be classified as emotional (and occasionally physical) abuse couched as an emerging love story.

M. Paul was an abusive prick.  There, I said it.  I SAID IT.  There was nothing attractive about him for hundreds of pages, and then all of a sudden, we go on a spring picnic and he "softens"--as a bevy of women wait on him and make sure his picnic-party goes off without a hitch--and suddenly, he's the love of our life.

I'm not naive about this kind of plot twist: I teach Romanticism.  I'm fully aware that the Byronic hero's mantra is, "Stalk her, hit her, cheat on her, and tell her she tortures your very soul.  If she really loves you, she'll ultimately thank you for it."

But this was just not worth it--in my opinion--given what you get in the end from Villette.  The middle of the novel bogs down mightily, characters are introduced only to disappear and then magically reappear, out of the befrigged blue, later in the novel, by means of major coincidences that Brontë doesn't even bother to try to smooth out or otherwise normalize.  And you're stuck with a narrator it's hard to really care about, because she prides herself on not caring about anyone.  "Cold fish" is a compliment to her (note the name: Lucy SNOWE).

I tried--and I'm still trying--to think of something positive to say about the novel, now that it's over.  One review that I read suggested that Villette is a novel about loneliness, really, that stems from Brontë's grief at the loss of her sisters.

I think that may very well be true, and I think someone might find interesting ways to compare Lucy Snowe with Goethe's Werther, in The Sorrows of Young Werther.  Both reflect at length on the consequences of emotional and social isolation, but each responds to it in very different ways and draws very different conclusions.  

Seen in this light--as a philosophical construction or an idea rather than a flesh-and-blood protagonist that readers can (or should) relate to--I think Brontë's representation of Lucy Snowe and her role and relationships in the town of Villette might well offer food for thought.

For my part, though, I'm done.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Journeyman January

Believe it or not, this will be my 500th blog post.

I think the timing is particularly appropriate for my current situation, and I've tried to neatly sum it up in my choice of title: I'm living a kind of "journeyman's January," for lack of a better description.

A "journeyman" is someone who has surpassed the stage of an apprentice, but who is not yet a master craftsman.  In sports, a "journeyman" usually refers to a player who is good and skilled and reliable, but not a superstar.

Stretching the analogy a wee bit, I can say that a "journeyman's" approach to life is what I need to accomplish what needs to get done in January this year.

I don't need the flash and dash and panache of a superstar; I need solid and skilled and reliable.

Case in point: last week, I had new windows installed.  This is wonderful, but this also means that I now need to repaint the trim on every single window in my house, and reinstall (and update) the shades and the drapes.

This is not a task that requires innovation and insight.  It's a task that requires steady persistence and a few well-honed but generally basic skills.  

I'm in the middle of a few books that I've started reading and a few knitting projects that I've been (you guessed it) knitting.  At this point, I need to just keep going along at cruising altitude and finish them.  I'm in the middling middle of the road and right now, it's just a question of staying the course.

Similarly, I have two articles that have received "revise and resubmit" recommendations from editors.  The bulk of the research is done, the inspiration has been achieved.  What's needed is fine-tuning and finishing--strengthening connections between ideas, adding a bit more of a background context, fleshing out specifics.

In short, I need to exercise all of the basic, day-in-and-day-out attributes of a journeyman.

On the fitness side of things, I'm not recovering from injury or setting out into uncharted territory in a sport this January.  I simply need to make sure that I maintain a steady workout schedule, that I show up, put in the time, stretch my abilities as needed, but most of all... show up and stick with it.

This is easier said than done, obviously, and that's the kicker when it comes to journeymen.  It isn't necessarily easy to maintain their approach to daily labor, because it possesses none of the flash of a superstar's existence, but all of the work and commitment and, well, for lack of a better word, drudgery.

I've already been slightly derailed.  Last week, I got off to a slow start and didn't get the writing done I had planned, although I did get to the gym on Monday and Tuesday.  But then, on Wednesday, I told myself I'd "take a break" from swimming and do a bit of writing instead.

Which would have been fine, except somehow, the writing didn't get done.  (This is what I'm saying about the difficulty of being a journeyman.)

I figured I'd get back on course on Thursday, but first thing in the morning, I received a sudden phone call announcing that the windows were going to be installed.  This meant that I scrapped all my plans to write for the day, but I reassured myself that I could recoup the loss on Friday.

Which would have been perfect if I hadn't awakened on Friday with a headache that quickly morphed into a migraine, requiring me to go back to bed at 11:00 a.m. (hormones suck: they are not a journeyman's friend, that's for sure).  It took all day to recover, but recover I did, with plans to use the weekend to get where I wanted to be--where I had meant to be by the end of the day the previous Monday.

I won't go into the gory details, but suffice to say, the writing didn't happen over the weekend either, largely because looking at what I needed to do felt like an overwhelming exercise in tedium.  There was nothing interesting or inspiring to be done, just a lot of ... work.

The good news is, this morning I awoke to a renewed sense of commitment and a clear sense that, whatever challenges the journeyman's January might pose, I need to simply rise to the occasion and do the diligent, reliable tasks that need doing by implementing the tried-and-true workaday skills that I have.

Ultimately, I think that the situation I'm facing is not necessarily all that different from the slump that most people hit two weeks into the New Year: the thrill of resolution has worn off, but the thrill that accompanies noticeable results has not yet been earned.

At this point, I think the best I can hope for is a daily self-reminder that slow and steady will--eventually--win the race.

And when I find myself overwhelmed by doubt, perhaps it will help me to remind myself that, step by step, day by day, I've managed to keep a blog for a little over five years now and that I've actually written 500 entries.  One. At. A. Time.

Monday, January 4, 2016

No Complaints

Suffice to say, the holidays were very nice (witness the extended blog absence).

I now have a full three weeks entirely to myself until classes start, and I intend to stick to my New Year's Resolution for this year which was--and is--to write more and/or to get back to writing on a more regular basis and schedule.  Because although 2015 was in many ways quite wonderful, that was definitely something that fell by the wayside (again, witness the dearth of blog posts for the year).

As I've been thinking about writing and the need to write, I stumbled upon Steven Parton's November 1, 2015 post, "The Science of Happiness: Why Complaining is Literally Killing You."

Parton's argument is based on a compelling mix of neuroscience and Buddhist philosophy.  When we complain--or think negatively about anyone (or everyone)--our brain fires an electrical charge across a pair of synapses and, as a result, the synapses draw nearer to one another.  Having "fired together," they are now "wired together," and the thought becomes that much quicker to formulate and that much easier to have.

If the thought is a negative one, then we are--without realizing it--making it that much easier and more efficient for our brains to formulate negative thoughts.  As Parton points out, "the synapses you’ve most strongly bonded together (by thinking about more frequently) come to represent your default personality: your intelligence, skills, aptitudes, and most easily accessible thoughts (which are more-or-less the source of your conversation skills)."

If those synaptic bonds are forged by thoughts of sadness, anger, fear or negativity, then these thoughts will slowly but surely come to dominate your personality.  And although as human beings living very uncertain lives on a very uncertain planet, we can't help but feel negative emotions, we can, however, remain aware that, when we do, we're hard-wiring our brain at the same time.

And we're not alone in this project: the company that we keep also helps to determine the ways in which we think and respond to the world.  Again, as Parton observes,
When we see someone experiencing an emotion (be it anger, sadness, happiness, etc), our brain “tries out” that same emotion to imagine what the other person is going through. And it does this by attempting to fire the same synapses in your own brain so that you can attempt to relate to the emotion you’re observing.
We neurologically mimic the emotions that we see in those around us.  And so, as Parton points out, if we spend too many nights out with "friends who love love love to constantly bitch, whether it’s about their job, the man, the government, or about their other so-called friend’s short-comings, or whatever little thing they can pick apart in order to lift themselves up and give themselves some holier-than-thou sense of validation," our brains will neurologically mimic their constant bitching, momentarily making their gripes our own and hard-wiring our brains. 

Now, don't get me wrong: no one is saying that the good-natured gripe doesn't have a place in the universe or that you shouldn't object to the things in life that are unfair or unwelcome. 

The point is, gripes and complaints shouldn't have pride of place in your own personal universe, if you want to be happy and healthy.

And although some might argue that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, I can't say that I've seen that strategy work long-term.  In my own experience, people quickly grow tired of those who accentuate the negative and often go out of their way to (quietly, unobtrusively) ignore or avoid the chronic complainers of the world.

Because although some like the occasional dose of snark, no one really enjoys being fed a steady diet of sarcasm with no relieving doses of optimism.  Snark and sarcasm aren't really humor; they're cynicism.  And yes, sometimes the cynic can make us laugh. 

More often, though, the people in our lives who make us laugh are the ones who see the good in the bad and who work to help raise our spirits, instead of meeting us at our own temporarily depressed level and reminding us that they too have it bad.  

In the end, complaining is a choice and one that we would do well to make deliberately and consciously.  If venting our grievances is a way of letting off steam so that we can "get over it" and move forward in our lives or if it is designed to alert ourselves--and relevant others--of potential room for improvement (in the form of constructive criticism), then by all means, take a minute and hold forth.

But remember that, during that minute, you're also shaping your brain, as well as the minds of others.  So try to make it a purposeful and deliberate use of your time, designed to renew, repair and uplift your own sensibilities, to move you to a better frame of mind by bringing the synapses of better thought patterns that much closer together.