Wednesday, October 31, 2007

There Ain't A Decent Yodel In The Bunch

I thought about throwing the towel in on the blog altogether, between the Secretary's merciless dissection of my structure and another regular commentator's cruel verbal imitation of my word tics. But instead, I will rise above it. I will overlook it. And when I get my hands on the secret treasure, certain parties should watch their goddamn backs, is all I'm saying.

So I miss being young, sometimes. Having undergone a super-stereotypical version of the college years for my age and background, I miss it. Not really, you understand. It's actually more fun being my age now and leading my life now. More interesting, more rich and fulfilling, all that stuff.

What I miss is not really knowing that much about the world or myself or anything. What I miss is moving in a pack with a bunch of people that you maybe don't actually like that much, but that you think you might like, given the chance to just have one real, serious, intimate conversation. What I miss is not knowing the odds.

These days, I have friends that I actually like, that I know, that know me. We don't move in a pack. We make plans to do things that we think will be fun. If the plans don't sound fun we change them. Sometimes we make plans because we need to catch up.

In the spring of my sophomore year I shared a room and a phone line with two people. The way I remember Friday nights, which is probably not at all accurate, is a kind of round-robin of phoning, of call-waiting, of running out the battery on the cordless until some kind of consensus was reached. I was so young that I could actually be affronted when one of my roommates went to a party and didn't invite me. That seemed like such a goddamn slight.

A couple times this summer I spent time with people I went to college with. We talked about it, about how you could just go sit on the Sproul steps or the Dwinelle benches and wait for the world to pass you by and then you could attach yourself to some semi-random group and see what happened next. What happened next wasn't really all that fun, but you never knew.

I would say this is just another symptom of me getting old, but I think I pretty much felt nostalgic at the time.

Did I already post exactly this earlier?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Purpose of Teaching

As I've mentioned before, I teach. I'm a professor, so strictly speaking teaching is some kind of official fraction of my job, but as everyone who's ever taught anything knows, teaching takes up a disproportionate amount of one's psychic energy.

When teaching is great, it's great, and when it sucks, it sucks. When it sucks, you sometimes wonder, "What is the purpose of this"? When it sucks, you start to think, you know, the smart students in this room could probably just discuss the text over beers, without me, to the same effect, and the, uh, less smart students aren't going to get anywhere not matter what.

So, what is the purpose of teaching? My university actually has a policy about this. "The purpose of teaching," it says, "is to facilitate learning."

When I read that I heard Butthead's voice in my head, going, "Uhh, OK."

And indeed, if you need to lay something out, this is reasonable.

Lots of stuff happens, though, in classrooms, that makes you not sure if this is the whole story, makes you wonder if maybe there's something else going on -- something, I don't know, a little less cheerfully agnostic.

My students find it almost impossible to sit still and read or write quietly for any length of time. Or to listen attentively for more than a few minutes. And, you know, I don't blame them. I was a disaster at these activities well into adulthood. It's one reason I majored in math.

I can't see any way of getting better at these things except practice. The more you do them the easier they get. Since presumably we "lovers of democracy," or whatever we are, are better off when our citizenry can read and write and listen, I figure it's part of my job to simply force students to do a certain amount of these things.

The students seem to think so, too. They revel in the mythology of the classroom: that I am the stern task-master; that if I am "generous" and "kind" I will push back deadlines a day or two; that as task-master I will not only penalize them with bad grades but will punish them with anger for failing to do what I ask.

So fine; I'm happy to comply. But honestly, this is way more like being an aerobics instructor or a mom than like being a "learning facilitator."

There are also times when even university teaching verges on indoctrination. I teach philosophy. It's part of the framework of what we do, at least in the humanities, that everyone has a voice, not only a right to their own opinion but a certain obligation to have one. To state it. To support it by appeal to considerations others will find worth listening to.

It sounds so basic, but when you teach that way to students not used to it, it seems like its own, weird, non-negotiable demand.

For example, I sometimes teach courses on moral problems -- abortion, animal rights, pornography, etc etc. Sometimes I have students who've been taught all their lives that the only possible approach to these problems is a religious one.

They can see right away that "God said so" is not an appropriate classroom discussion point. I try to explain that since everyone has different views about God, we have to leave that aside to discuss these problems in a way that everyone can share. Your point has to be one that anyone can appreciate the force of, regardless of their religious convictions.

Sometimes when I think about how that seems from the opposite point of view, I feel the force of how radical it is, and how committed we all are to it, and how we in the university treat it as utterly essential to being a complete intellectual and cultural person.

If I'm in a good mood, I think I'm instilling, by example and requirement, the best of enlightenment values of freedom of thought and open debate. If I'm in a bad mood, I think I'm indoctrinating the youth.

Either way, it's not really facilitating learning.

Tidy Not Clean

describes me. And it is a dichotomy I find interesting. People you would would think were neither tidy nor clean turn out to have strong opinions about which (cleanliness or tidiness) is more important for their personal comfort, as do people who, in living-space-descriptive terms, have attained both.

I am tidy and not clean; I hate clutter on surfaces and things left sitting out, but dust does not worry me.

Still, I think it would be suaver (cooler, really, to dig straight to the heart of my seventeen-year-old soul) to be someone clean but not tidy -- someone who rigorously washed and dusted and swept and de-grimed, but could care less about the outward orderliness of it all, someone who left piles of books on the coffee table but each and every one of those books was dust free.

I imagine mid-century fiction identifying that attitude as one of natural aristocracy, an unconcern with outward appearances and a profound concern with inner truth. My identification may be a product of my own insecurities (a friend and I had identical Skipper dolls back in early 1983; I was convinced that hers was better) or a response to some kind of objective truth out there in the world.

Also, perhaps, it seems so much harder to me to be clean than to be tidy, and I assume that to be true for everybody, and so I admire the clean for not taking the easy way out.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Post About Dog Shit

I feel a little weird posting about dog shit, but it's only to make a larger point, so I hope you can put up with it. Also, I decided not to post the relevant pictures, although they would help you understand what the hell I'm talking about. There are limits to all things.

You can buy single Black & Milds at any convenience store in my neighborhood, and also when you see something brown on the sidewalk there's not too much doubt about what it is, as picking up your dog has a long way to go around here. But the other day there was something on the ground that resembled dog shit, but wasn't, as far as I could tell, dog shit. It was foamy, for one. Also, I later found some on the hood of somebody's car.

So my first thought is that it's dog shit, and then my second thought is that it's somebody's art installation trying to make some kind of point about dog shit. And it's the second point that caught my attention.

I don't actually think it was that; I didn't very much think it was that at the time. And then later when the foaminess vanished and there was just some brown dirt-like substance on the places where the putative art installation had been it seemed even less likely. I just thought it was funny that that's become my default category for things that confound my expectations of the world -- oh, it's somebody's mode of artistic expression.

I mean, here at the end times we all have points to make and many people make them in creative ways and you have Andre the Giant stickers and stencils, and graffiti, and billboards and all those elaborations of life. Last night I had a dream that a friend was having a party in one of those art communes/living spaces that the L.A. Weekly is always so excited about. Then in my dream it turned out the place was in Bakersfield, which just made it that much more elaborate.

I remember the first time I read a book by Henry James. It was really a conversion experience, because for the first time I felt like somebody was describing the world the way I understood it, with incredible ambiguities and hesitations and conflicting acts of delicacy. But now, a bit later on, I wonder how I would see the world if nobody had ever laid out that incredibly complex version for me. Would those ambiguities still exist in my head, or would I see the world differently and more simply?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What I Learned At Starbucks

Photo by Flickr user williamhartz, here. Used under Creative Commons license.

I spend a lot of time at Starbucks. I have three main Starbucks I go to. There's the one near my home in the "gay village," which is always filled to the brim with flirty gay guys; there's the one near the public library, which is kind of a mix; and there's the one downtown, which is visited mostly by lawyers and business men taking a coffee break.

The one I go to most often is downtown. I work as a professor, and after a day of sitting alone in the library working on some writing, it's refreshing to my spirit to go downtown. I like seeing everyone all dressed up. I like hearing their conversations with deal with concerns so far from my own. I like the bustly energy of "downtown" which is so totally unlike the energy of the university.

A lot of people complain about Starbucks, and I understand being frustrated with the feeling that they are taking over. But in many ways it's a very OK company. In my experience, they're for real about welcoming anyone to hang out there, even for long periods of time. They're respectful of the wandering, the confused, and the homeless. They offer a good selection of healthy snack foods, and they're cheerful and encouraging about putting your coffee in ceramic instead of paper. They offer health insurance to their employees.

Today's narrative happens at the library Starbucks, which, as I said, is a real mix. It's kind of close to the University, so there are students, but it's also close to various museum-y things so there are tourists. It's slightly a "see and be seen" crowd, because there's a Tim Horton's right next door, and in some class-distinction-complexity of Canada that I don't quite get yet, it seems that people who identify as "sensible" are faithful to Tim Horton's, though to the untrained eye the two places just seem to offer completely different sorts of things.

I was working at Starbucks, and I had my laptop open. On the other side of the narrow room, there was a weird guy, maybe about 22 years old. At the table next to him, a young couple - maybe like 17 or 18, very quiet.

Some coffee spilled. I looked over, couldn't get the story. Whose coffee was it? Was it an accident? The older guy's laptop was open on his table but it seemed fine. There were some words exchanged, but quietly. It was calm for 5 minutes.

Then angry, louder words. Some taunting: it seemed like the older guy was taunting the younger guy, trying to get something started, and the younger guy wasn't sure what to do. I'm probably just projecting, but it seemed to me like the younger guy would've been just as happy to leave the place and avoid a confrontation but that he also wanted to stand up for himself in front of his girlfriend.

The tension escalated. Everyone could tell a fight was brewing; everyone was kind of looking at them like, guys, just cool it, it's Starbucks. You can't fight here.

Eventually the younger guy started trying to make peace. "It's fine; let's just forget it, OK? Just let it go," he said.

"Good," I thought.

Then wham. The two guys were up, seriously going at it, knocking into the table with the older guy's laptop, which teetered and almost crashed to the floor. They grabbed one another, started careening around. In about one second they were crashing toward me.

I grabbed my laptop and held it to my chest, evidently having some thought that if they were going to crash into me I could put myself between the computer and the floor. I'm not sure.

Finally the staff came over and shouted and called for back-up and shouted some more and made a huge fuss and finally the young couple left and the staff stood over the old guy glaring at him 'til he packed up his stuff and got out.

I learned:

I do not have the necessary qualities for breaking up fights. It's not just that I'm physically not a fighter (though that is true), and it's not that I'm timid (because I'm not); it's just that I don't care enough. These guys were so mad, they'd have steamrolled right over me.

It's not necessarily because I'm a girl that I don't have these qualities. The staff member who came over and broke it up was a girl and she did an awesome job. Those two piped right down.

I seem to care a lot about my laptop.

Let's Pretend

I just finished cleaning my kitchen floor.

My kitchen floor had reached a state of incredible disgustingness weeks ago, but I did nothing. Today, however, is zero hour, because my mother will be arriving, and since I cannot hope to keep her out of my kitchen, steps had to be taken.

Which takes me back to days gone by and cleaning the house with my mother when visitors were due to arrive and complaining about the hypocrisy of it all. Why, I wanted to know, wasn't our normal state of cleanliness (which was a lot cleaner than the normal state, not to mention the current state, of my apartment) good enough for them? It was, I said dusting the salmon pink tile, a lie to show the visitors a better face than we normally had.

But I am not really trying to deceive my mother as to my standards of cleanliness. She has known me my whole life and she has a pretty accurate sense of where the cleanliness needle stands for me. What I am trying to prove is that I am capable of cleaning up on occasion.

(Whether this is something that I need to prove to my mother is another kind of question.)

It is the same reason you wear a suit to a job interview. Faking for the purposes of showing that you can, showing that you're willing to.

And then also, as I am unwillingly forced to admit, it is nicer staying in an apartment that's not disgusting.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

2 Bizee 2 Rede Teh Classix?

Adam Gopnik has a thing in last week's New Yorker on adding and subtracting stuff from works of art. (It's not online; the "abstract" is here).

The beginning part has to do with literary classics, and it has to do with subtraction. Evidently, some unnamed British company is putting out shortened versions of the classics -- books like Anna Karinina, Vanity Fair, Moby Dick. (Unnamed by me, that is).

Gopnik goes on to say some reasonable things, like part of what makes a masterpiece a masterpiece is its crazier qualities, which just don't come out in a shortened edited version. He gives some examples.

He doesn't mention, though, the total fakery of the premise these guys are offering. The ad copy will make you want to vomit: "The great classics contain passionate romance, thrilling adventure, arresting characters, and unforgettable scenes and situations. But finding time to read them can be a problem."

Uh, hello? Did these guys take a logic class? Obviously if you have time to read a version of Moby Dick that is half as long, you have time to read the whole thing. . . it will just take twice as long.

So obviously there's some shenanigans. And a moment's thought reveals the truth: the target is people who have the time to read but not the patience. I guess it just sounds nicer to say, "I don't have the time." Though I don't know who they're trying not to offend. It's not like Melville's going to be moping around about the comments he gets on his blog or whatever.

But it seems to me they should be more honest and up front about it, because the potential target audience of people who have no patience is truly enormous.

I was at the gym yesterday and I was watching Much Music (which is Canadian MTV; don't get me started). They had a countdown of the greatest videos of all time. I was watching the end. Number three was "Weapon of Choice" with Chistopher Walken. Number two was "Thriller." Number one was Johnny Cash's "Hurt."

The commenters went on and on about Cash's video and how moving and real it was. But they never actually showed it. In fact, they didn't show any videos. They just showed clips, little pieces, interpersed with discussion. I know it's old news that MTV doesn't play any videos, but this was, like, a whole show about videos! With a number one video of all time! And they couldn't show it!

I guess videos, which used to be the symbol of a generation with a short-attention span, are now, you know, "Who has the time? Who has the patience for that?"

A Short Pause For Vituperation Or Adam Gopnik Is A Force For Evil

We have all been warned about the dangers of anonymous rants on the internet, so I will not spend a lot of time discussing the history of my dislike for Adam Gopnik. If you would like further details, email me at this address, and I will be happy to oblige.

I always believed this dislike to be a personal prejudice, perhaps arising from envy over his years in France, his range of knowledge, his status as man of letters. I have changed my mind.

In the most recent New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has an essay about abridged versions of books and the extras in DVDs, and what these things have to teach us about the nature of art. I didn't get it.

(I would also like to state for the record that having a special issue of the New Yorker about "the arts" strikes me as idiotic, and that I noticed a distinct anti-Trilling slant in their article about Jacques Barzun.)

But the course of saying what he has to say brings him to the movie Hollywoodland, which is one of those movies about Old Hollywood which I didn't want to see because it looked dull.

This is what Adam Gopnik has to say about it: "The tale of how the guy who played Superman on a cheap, forgotten TV series shot himself lacks the grip of tragedy, even pop tragedy, which demands, after all, that the hero once counted. (Joe Orton's life can be made ugly and tragic because the scale of his gift implies both conditions; but George Reeve's death is merely sad and a little sordid.)"

I've been thinking about writing about it for a while, and during that time I wondered if my initial outrage was excessive and then I typed in that quote. I am now perfectly satisfied with my initial outrage.

Adam Gopnik thinks that the unhappy extinction of human life can only become ugly and tragic if the life extinguished possessed the gifts to make it so. George Reeve (Superman!) doesn't make the grade; I don't know about the rest of us.

Now, a more charitable interpretation is that Adam Gopnik just doesn't feel like the movie in question made us believe in the importance of George Reeve. This would be wrong.

"The enormous care lavished on material that would never be worthy of the effort is more moving than the film."

I don't think of myself as given to moral outrage. I do believe that all of our lives contain at least some material worthy of enormous care, rising to the level of ugly and tragic. Or at least that there's no dividing line between the more gifted and the less so, making their sorrows are ugly and tragic, and ours are sad and a little sordid.

Human life is not well-designed for human beings. The tragedy of that is free-ranging and always tragedy. Except, of course, when it's comedy, which is an entirely different matter.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Unquiet Conscience

Louis Althusser told us all about the vague guilt we feel when made aware that a policeman is walking behind us. Then, later, he strangled his wife in his sleep.

There is a lesson in that.

I got a note the other day from the Glendale Public Library telling me that I had an overdue book. The odds were in the Glendale Library's favor; I have a psychological block about returning library books on time. But I was pretty sure I had returned that particular book. Library workers sometimes fail to scan books in properly. I know this, because I was once a library worker myself.

I went back to the Glendale Public Library yesterday; I had other (overdue) books to return. At the front desk I registered my protest about the allegedly overdue book. Also, I checked the shelves. It was there, exactly where it should have been, and I brought it up to the front desk, where they checked it in.

Then I asked if I had any fines and I did and I asked if any of them were for the book in question and they were, so the nice library worker removed those fines and I paid for the actually overdue books and went home.

Here's the point:

Having foreseen exactly this course of events, I felt tremendously unquiet. There was no way for any grudging or suspicious authority to satisfy itself that I had not checked this book out, failed to return it, and then by virtue of claiming to have returned it earlier, gotten out of paying the fine.

Let me be clear. I had not done that. Nor did anyone accuse me of having done that. But because I could not prove I had not done that, I felt guilty.

A couple weeks ago I found myself wandering through Rite Aid with a full bag of Doritos that I had purchased at that same Rite Aid a couple of weeks earlier, and that same vague sense of guilt overcame me. Guilt, I guess, for having put myself into a position susceptible to sinister interpretations.

If, one day, one of the obligations of citizenship is not to put oneself in equivocal situations that could give rise to (ultimately unfounded) suspicions, life will be unbearable.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Marc Jacobs' Mid-Life Crisis Is An Inspiration

As I seem to mention all the time these days, I am 40 years old. This seems to me just about the paradigm age for being "middle-aged."

In way, you could say I'm having a bit of a mid-life crisis, in the classic sense: I fret about my age; I feel bad that I've accomplished so little; I'm seized by stupid fantasies of life improvement. I know, I'll buy a Corvette! I'll adopt a greyhound! I'll get liposuction!

Last week Jezebel had a story about fashion designer/icon/guru Marc Jacobs and his midlife crisis. The basic elements: Marc Jacbobs has gotten into weird jewelry; Marc Jacobs has one tattoo of an M+M on his arm and another of the girl from "Poltergeist" on his back; Marc Jacobs has been to the gym and wants to pose for you, topless, ballarina-style, showing off his sexy physique. Marc Jacobs wants to say goofy things like "The new concept is to have no concept. Ha!"

Now, this is a midlife crisis. The Jezebel comments were sort of along the lines of "Ugh. What happened to him?" but I think it's way cool. The man is showing us how it's done. I, for one, am paying attention.

One of the things often said about midlife is that it's the time in life when one's thoughts start to turn toward death. This doesn't apply to me, though, because, as I mentioned before, I have always been a freak about death.

I think about the finitude of life all the time, and it never seems to me anything less than a shocking, unbelievable tragedy. I mean unbelievable in the literal sense: I almost cannot believe that this is part of the organization scheme we've got going on here. It's just too shocking.

As far as I'm ccncerned, death is the perfect dilemma for not enjoying life. When you're unhappy, it seems outrageous that, you know, life's a bitch and then you die. No second chance to work it out right the next time. When you're happy, it seems equally outrageous in a different way: what, you mean I'm just getting this all figured out and then it's going to end?? You can't be serious.

In my previous post I mentioned my apprehensiveness about reading The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, since it's a story about a man who can barely move. As I explained, there, though, I needn't have worried: the book is about a strange sort of life, not about death.

No, the book I should have been frightened to read is Philip Roth's Everyman. I just read it this week. Not only is it about death, and about dying, but it's about death and dying in a way that make them seem completely unbearable. Having come to think of Roth as one who makes the unbearable bearable, I felt the absurd emotion of betrayal on top of my ordinary unhappiness.

The "theme" of the book seems to be something like, "Everyone is going to get old and die, and it sucks so so bad. When you start getting older and closer to death it sucks even more. Way more than you expected."

Do I need this? The narrator of the book experiences a certain surprise at finding it so awful to be sick and alone at the end of his life, but is there anyone who isn't aware of the awfulness of geting older, and sicker, and finally dying?

As far as I'm can see, there is only one rational way to deal with the fact that one is going to die, and that is total denial. At least, it's the only way for me. If I think about it, I am paralyzed. If I don't, I am OK. My life is organized around finding ways to not think about it for extended periods of time.

That's why I like Marc Jacobs' mid-life crisis. This guy is having a good time, and he is obviously not thinking about death. He is doing it at no one's expense, really: there's no violence, no belittling of other people, no crabbiness.

He's just having a good time. He's an inspiration to us all. Just as a fashion guru should be. Thanks Marc!

Now if you'll excuse me I gotta go work on my abs.

Friday, October 19, 2007

I Am Not The Stuff Of Which Buddhists Are Made

Once, a very long time ago, I lived in a very small town on the border of Colorado and New Mexico and I was the reporter for the finest weekly paper in town.

This was my schedule:

Monday I would wake up at 5 a.m. Sometimes 4. I would drive over the mountain pass into New Mexico. Usually the sun wasn't up yet and I would smoke cigarettes out the window of my car and listen to Roxette or Willie Nelson and worry about the day ahead and whether or not I was going to hit a small animal. Sometimes I would brush the snow off my car first.

Then a period of hubbub and fast and frantic typing and people grouching at each other and the paper would be all ready to go and printed out and I would drive home. Smoking, again, out the window of my car. Usually I would stop at Taco Bell.

When I got home I would sit on the floor and watch old episodes of Northern Exposure which would bleed into Magnum P.I.

Tuesdays I would go to the County Commission meetings in the morning and the City Council meetings in the evening. There would always be a break in the City Council meeting where we would go outside on the balcony and smoke and shoot the shit. In between I would read police reports and talk to people and try to find things to take photographs of.

Wednesday and Thursday were all trying to talk to people, trying to find things to write about, fielding complaints and making sure the obituaries had come in.

Thursday night and Friday morning I'd write up my stories. Four or five, usually. Friday afternoon my editor would send me a sketch of how the front page should look and details on the ads for the rest of the paper and Friday night or Saturday morning I'd put the layout together.

Usually I screwed it up, which is why I had to get there so early on Monday morning.

Sunday was my day off. I had developed this fixation on the Sunday New York Times, a hobby that would wax and wane over the years. Unfortunately, the New York Times couldn't be purchased anywhere nearer than an hour and a half away. So my mother bought me a subscription, which still ranks up there with any present I've ever gotten.

But since I was probably the only person in town with such a subscription, delivery was erratic. It would come one week, and you would think that the problem had been solved, and then it wouldn't come for the next two weeks and it would take endless phone calls from both me and my mother to get it to show up on the third week.

On the weeks where the New York Times came, no matter how bad and bleak things were looking, I felt better. The New York Times was something to cling to in a dark and menacing world.

The names change. Sometimes I really want coffee from a particular place, sometimes I want this one kind of potato chip and no other. It makes me feel safe, to be invested in a brand name, a certain product, it makes me feel autonomous and in control, a person of discrimination and taste.

And when that product is not available, there can't be a substitute. If the New York Times is the magical object, what goddamn good is the Denver Post going to be to me? Even if I really like the comics?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Time Off For Good Behavior?

I am, by preference and aesthetic, kind of an unhealthy person. I like junky food, and there's something pleasurable about eating it beyond just the tastiness of all those trans-fats or whatever the hell they're called these days. It's something about swimming against the tide of self-preservation, of sound common sense.

I am thinking about this because I am at a rotten stage of not smoking. I have not had a cigarette in a little over three months. I have developed a fondness for pipe tobacco cigars, which is indisputably unhealthy, but probably less unhealthy than smoking a pack a day. But the stage I am at is the stage where I think, "What the hell's the point of all this?"

I couldn't walk up that one hill that one day. But I was probably sick or something. On another day I could have walked up there just fine. And god knows I could get hit by a car or something tomorrow, and then what would be the good of not having smoked? Here we are, stranded in this incredibly imperfect world; why am I denying myself something I enjoy, when pleasures are so few and far between as is?

This is all so much noise. I do not really want to start smoking again; I don't really want to fall off the wagon. There are nice things about not smoking; there is something nice about not having my body chemistry go haywire every hour if I don't top it off with nicotine.

I just hate that moment when you forget why you're doing something, and the only justification you can offer yourself for why you're doing it is that it is, in some at that moment entirely abstract way, the right thing to do. Not the interesting thing to do, not the amusing thing to do, not the cool or authentic or experimental or tawdry thing to do. No, all you can say to yourself is that it is the way forward, and therefore you are taking it.

Or at least, that's the way it looks right now. Noko Marie compared the inner self to a pet; right now I am the parent screaming at the child in the grocery store "Because I said so," having forgotten, momentarily, why I said so in the first place, anxious for the noise to stop.

You Scratch My Back, I'll Just Sit Here, KTHX!

I was infuriated by two things in last Sunday's New York Times. Yesterday my internet connection was fucked, leaving me extra time to ponder which of these things most deserved the sustained attention of Commonwealth and Commonwealth.

I decided on this opinion piece about Radiohead's "pay as much as you want" download scheme.

Here's an extremely brief outine:

1) Economists tell us paying nothing is the only rational choice.
2) Those who pay more than nothing -- as many people do -- are behaving in a way that is mystfying and cries out for explanation.
3) The best explanation for their behavior is altruism, and the reason they act altruistically is that they get a warm glow from doing something "good."

The author boasts he paid nothing. Ha ha, suckas!

There are at least two things infuriating about this.

First, it's a good guess that a lot of people are thinking something like, it's fair all around if I pay more when I have more and pay less when I have less, and if I'm honest about it this scheme will work out for the best all around.

I know they're thinking other things too, but this is a commonsense starting point. And it's supported by what the Times author describes in an analogous case of a book: the people who paid nothing often wrote to justify it on grounds of being poor.

The thing is, this commonsense idea is not only familiar, ordinary, and known to everyone, it's one of the fundamentals of economic game theory. If I cooperate when it's not in my immediate interest to do so, and you do too, we all do better. It's just like the old Prisoner's Dilemma.

In this sense fairness and honesty in cooperative dealings seem rational and unsurprising.

How do people decide to be fair and honest in such cases? I don't know much about it, but it's not hard to imagine that humans evolved to have impulses toward fairness and honesty partly because these were successful strategies -- successful in this basic, game-theoretic sense.

So it's hardly mystifying or strange if people employ these basic attitudes of respect for fairness and honesty when they're participating in a process with other like-minded people -- that is, other fans of Radiohead.

The Times author kind of comes around to something like this in his piece, but he continues to sound amazed, and he denigrates the impulse to pay as based in "touchy-feely" reasons. Good lord. Since when did acting honestly and fairly in a cooperative enterprise become "touchy-feely"?

The second infuriating thing about this is what the opinion piece doesn't say: they never mention that the fact that some people are paying basically supports what teenagers have been saying for years: that free downloading of music can co-exist with paying to download music, in such a way that the former doesn't undermine the latter.

I'm not saying this will work in the long run, just that this one fact about Radiohead fans would seem to support this long-held belief. How come this doesn't even get mentioned? Evidently, no one listens to teenagers. It's kind of infuriating.

OK, that's it for the opinion piece. The other thing I got all mad about in the Sunday Times was this Modern Love column in which a guy wrote slightly sheepishly but mostly comfortably with the following narrative: I was 24; she was 41; we were in a class together; we dated; she got upset and drunk one day and I had to help her home; I was disgusted and knew then that it was over; I ignored her to her face after that in class; I then dated another classmate right in front of her. Now, were friends. Yay for me!

Good heavens!!

But the truth is, if you were going to write about all the things in Modern Love that drive you crazy, you'd need a whole blog just for that.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Indiscretion: A Defense

I'm a big fan of gossip. Or, as I like to call it, community building. I like hearing it, I like spreading it, I like the meta-analysis (Why did X tell me Z about Y? What does it all mean? Where are we going? The end is upon us. Etc. etc. etc.). I like it all.

Except for a couple of things. First off, it's not exactly one of the dignified human passions. You don't hear a lot of people going around talking about how great it is that other people are gossips. Somewhere in my collection of Nancy Mitford letters is this letter where she talks about how she's a fundamentally disloyal person, and she says it without apology, and it was one of the more shocking confessions I'd read, because while a lot of dissolute behavior has a certain cachet to it, gossip doesn't. I think that's because the gossip underlines a fact that we all secretly and deeply resent: that we are, like it or not, part of a broader human community that watches and judges us, ascribes motives and grades to our behavior that contradict and confuse our own assessments, and that we will never be rid of. A good thing, a bad thing, it is what it is.

A short digression about loyalty: I was, for a time, a tutor at a literacy center. And I had to explain to my tutee what the word "loyalty" meant. So I'm talking about it, and she's like, "Oh, so a loyal person is a good person." And I had to say that that wasn't necessarily so, that it depended on what you were loyal to.

By the way, that's an anecdote, and therefore could be classed as gossip. Just to alert you. Actually, while we're here, let's talk about the difficulties of classifying gossip. Is it gossip anytime I say something about somebody else? What if it also involves me and I want to talk about that? What if I'm upset by something somebody did? Is it gossip to pass that along? If I don't use names or other identifying factors is it still gossip? Does it depend on traceability? Can I be said to have gossiped about myself? What if I'm trying to make an abstract point and use somebody as an example? I myself find it hard to take in abstract points without concrete examples.

Does it depend on whether it's a good story or not?

So one of the downsides of gossip is that it's not socially well-regarded. (I am reminded of a David Sedaris essay where he talks about his daydreams and how in one of them he's famously discrete.) But obviously there's more to it than that.

Because, as mentioned above, it has this necessary quality of disrupting other people's lives. Or not so much disrupting, as taking bits and pieces of those lives out and looking at them somewhat out of context. And sometimes that's just bad because it causes trouble, causes fights and hurt feelings. But it might also be bad because it has this way of blithely ignoring the whole person, of simplifying that person down to a collection of tics and anecdotes. It makes them less real.

Also gossip is not always just a utopic free exchange of information. Sometimes, when I've said something about somebody to somebody else, I realize there was a certain kind of posturing involved: look how much I know, look how connected I am. That's more than a little bit creepy. Or it can be a way of getting close to the person you're gossiping with. Which is also creepy.

On the other hand, I love it. I love the sense of all of us, going about our lives, getting ourselves into stupid situations with our tics and our neuroses and our dancing on tables. It makes it less lonely, this human existence. I kind of wish I were more discrete; I kind of wish other people were less so.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

I Love The Change Of Seasons

It's fall here in Toronto. Just this week it got crisp and chilly; everyone got a little overexcited to wear their new fall clothes, and, of course, most importantly, hockey season started.

I'm one of those people who goes around boring their friends by going on and on about how much I love the change of seasons. If you live in place that is cold in winter, and you like it well enough not to be pining for a move, you can get a little defensive about it. Even the people living around you are like, "Ugh! Don't you wish we were in Arizona?"

Well, no. Because somewhere in the top twenty or so reasons I never wish to be in Arizona there is the fact that, you know, I love the change of seasons.

So, what's so great about it anyway? It's not like I really like cold weather so much; I don't play hockey; I don't even ski.

Well, of course, the seasons each carry their own particular charms. Fall brings "fall fashions." Just today I'm wearing my knee-high boots, tights, a skirt, a shiny jacket, and a weird new scarf made partly of linen. I feel invincible, attractive, and ready for anything. It's like a cross between a gladiator outfit and a schoolgirl uniform. And yet it looks totally normal. What could be more fun and delightful?

You know cold-weather clothes are awesome because even in California, the stores all stock up on them. Sure, it's only for two weeks in January and that trip to Vail in March, but hey, don't you want that adorable matching scarf and mitten set?

You can't talk about fall and winter, though, without talking about the ways that "bad weather" can be a source of a unique kind of excitement and pleasure. Nothing makes being inside more fun than bad weather outside. Instead of feeling like "We're sitting around at home, bored," you feel, "Ooh, it's cozy and nice in here! Look at all that goddam snow!"

The corollary to this is that since you get "cabin fever" being home too much, the cold makes people gather together inside in public instead of being out pursing dispersed pleasures. All over the city, the bars and restaurants are now packed, full of people who spent the summer lolling around the beach. It's crowded everywhere. And it'll be even more so in winter.

The ice-skating rink at City Hall in downtown Toronto. Is this cute or what? Photo by Flickr user 416style, here. (Creative Commons licensed).

Also, bad winter weather lets people overcome the natural shyness that they seem to develop as they get older. When you're an adult, there's usually no real reason to stay out, to have another martini, to then exchange the kind of confidences that drinking too much leads to. We're grown-ups; we have to get up in the morning; yada yada yada.

But if the snow is piling up outside and you're going to freeze your little tootsies off as soon as you go out, the temptation is overwhelming: oh, sure, give me another one.

Of course, this last works inversely if you and your friends are driving, in which case the snow makes everyone leave early. And in general, winter weather is way more irritating and downright depressing if you drive. There's nothing like chipping ice of the windsheild at 7am on a cold winter morning to make you want to kill yourself.

I admit it. My answer is: no driving. I take the bus, and the subway; I walk; occasionally I take a taxi. Once you're on foot, the snow changes from a menace to a bunch of cottony fluff.

Of course, spring needs no defense; everyone is familiar with the obvious and totally accurate stereotype: life, love, sex, flowers. And summer, too: sunshine, tank tops, sandals.

My only complaint with the seasons is that winter is too long. It just goes on and on; you feel like you're going out of your mind. Of course, it's possible that you only feel really berserk in spring if you've suffered through an interminable winter, or that there's some proportionality or something. So it's a trade-off.

This is why I can never understand "utopias," or heaven, or whatever. How could things be perfect? You'd always be missing something.

I guess in the classical conception heaven is supposed to be more like 70 degrees and low-humidity than a burst of sunshine on a cool March morning. Does that mean I don't get to bring my red leather gloves? I always knew this whole thing "afterlife" thing was a scam.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Let Me Persuade You To Follow My Example, And Take A Turn About The Room

This blog is no stranger to talk of objectification -- there's this post and this one.

But, despite the sense that I am maybe worrying the issue like a dog with a slightly mangy bone, it's on my mind again due to my reading of the Advice Goddess Blog, to which I am strangely addicted. I say strangely because a) our political views do not coincide and b) I am exactly the sort of weak-kneed liberal she regards with derision/horror. On the other hand, she pretty unflinchingly addresses the issue of women's place in the world and then there's the fascination of knowing what somebody whose views differ almost entirely from yours thinks about things.

And in this post she said that a group of some kind is protesting the fact that the makers of Dove products, who have this whole real women/real beauty public image campaign going, are also the makers of Axe body spray, which has this whole sorority girl/pillow fight/sex in elevators public image campaign going.

The Advice Goddess makes the point that it's stupid in the first place to expect Dove's campaign to mean anything other than an attempt to sell product. Which is probably true, but might still be a point worth making.

This is all so much prelude. This quote is what hooked me:

"Men objectify women and women objectify women -- meaning, they objectify themselves. I think it was my friend, professor Catherine Salmon, who pointed this out in an essay. Male sexuality is visually driven. When men fantasize, they picture the woman (or the gay man) as the object of their desire; women generally picture being the object of desire. (Shouldn't the angry ladies be vilifying women for this, too?)"

This is very clearly put and certainly fits in with my personal experience.

And it does bother me, that self-objectification. In point of fact, it terrifies me, sends me waking up screaming.

While I am not unsympathetic to the difficulties of being the pursuer -- the risks of being shot down, mocked, the difficulties of getting laid -- at least at the end of the day the pursuer wants things, knows he wants things, moves towards them. Whereas, if your chosen role is as an object of desire, you are not supposed to want things. You are supposed to shed your desires, ignore them, go ahead and drift, so that you can eventually be taken by surprise and succumb to the desires of some conscious actor.

Zombie girls from Mars, really.

This mode, blissful non-desire, is often brought back to evolutionary biology. Which is fine; I don't really have any knowledge and/or interest in evolutionary biology. But I refuse to believe, with an almost religious faith, that there is an unalterable biological destiny that forces these roles upon us. And so I am left hoping that, as as Noko Marie suggested, we are somewhere in the middle of the feminist movement, rather than at the end.

Friday, October 12, 2007

"Nokomarie, Grow Your Penis!"

Whenever I get an email that starts, "Nokomarie, grow your penis safely and naturally!" it gives me pause.

I understand this email is intended for men and isn't suggesting "Nature's Path to Hermaphrodism." Still, for the briefest of moments, I think, "Really? How?"

I probably see more spam than most people. I use a very old-fashioned text-based email program: Pine. I love Pine. I can look at and delete tons of messages in less than a second with the "d" key -- no clicking required. Each message loads instantly. There is zero risk of getting your computer infected with a virus because all that's coming through is text, text, text.

OK, it's not great for attachments. I admit it. And there's no images. I can't click on any links . . . it's true. It's just those 26 letters and me. But the simplicity of that kind of knocks me out.

All this means I often scroll through and delete rather than deleting the messages right from the inbox. So I see a lot of spam.

It's always funny to see it while you're working. There you are reading some important internal memo about the creation of a new department offering a new Masters Degree in Socially Responsible and Innovative Leadership (names have been changed to protect, well, me, but this is not far from the truth). And you click "Save" for that one and the next one pops up and screams, "ERECTILE!" Always makes my day a little brighter.

Also it's nice to know there are so many things that men and women share when it comes to spam. I remember reading somewhere that spam was like the collective unconscious of the entire culture. . . it's what we're all thinking about and emoting about on the inside while we talk about other things. Spam is about our deepest and scariest hopes, dreams, and unmentioned desires.

And except for penis- and breast-enlargement, spam is pretty unisex. Make millions from Nigerian warlords. Refinance your mortgage. Lose unwanted kilos! (Isn't it weird they neither use the right units nor spell check? How much better would phishing work if you weren't being asked to "please now to type your PIN code into the CItybank page.")

With respect to the big things -- old age, death, money, sex -- men and women, we're all in this together.

There is, though, one real outlier here, and that is: software spam. Software? There you are being promised everlasting youth, riches, beauty, sex, and . . . free OEM software?

Uh, thanks, but maybe some other time. Right now I'm busy imagining how my new penis is going to work when when my Nigerian wealth lets me take my Russian bride to my timeshare in Florida. Will its size satisfy her? Or will I need to bring some Vi@gra?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Recommended: Botox For The Mind

Sometimes I read the Freakonomics blog. I've never read the Freakonomics book. I'd been sort of waiting for it to come out in paperback.

I just checked Amazon and they offer hardcover and "roughcut." WTF? As far as I can tell it's a hardcover with uneven pages. Why this is interesting or preferable I have no idea. Probably the authors would have something cute and pithy to say about it.

Anyway, over at the blog, Steven Levitt (the economist author) wrote about a study showing increased female unhappiness. He offered some thoughts for its causes, none of which really jumped out at me.

I posted my own brief reflection about female unhappiness from my own point of view, including this:

"It seems to me that the things that make me most happy are areas where my life overlaps with a kind of “guy’s life” — I have financial autonomy, great satisfaction in work achievements, enough money to go out to eat when I don’t feel like cooking, interesting colleagues to talk to, and total leisure time when I’m not working.

The things that make me most unhappy all have to do with being female. At 40 I already feel like I am “old” with respect to attractiveness. I have to seriously struggle to maintain an attractive weight, while my guy colleagues are snacking on doughnuts and relaxing with beer. For whatever reason, as a woman, I don’t feel at ease in the workplace. Things my guy colleagues take in stride– like interpersonal disagreements — weigh heavily on me. I feel if I am critical or demanding, I’ll be thought less of."

Thinking about it later, I noticed the strange relationship this bears to Levitt's (3), which says: women's lives have become more like men's lives; men have historically been less happy than women; so now women are less happy than they were.

It's not quite a contradiction, but it's some kind of odd fit.

Around the same time Levitt posted, I noted with interest a report on another study, claiming to show that women worry more because they are more likely than men to believe that "past experiences accurately forecast the future." (Actually the details suggest that women were simply more likely to attribute that belief to others, so I don't know what's up with that).

This is kind of funny. It's long been noted in philosophical studies of scientific reasoning that all of it is based on some kind of assumption that the future is going to be like the past. Otherwise you couldn't base any kind of general conclusion on information from a range of particular cases.

If the second study is right, it suggests you might worry less if you stopped assuming this. You might be dumber and less informed about the world -- even less able to draw inferences about what is going to happen. You might sign up for a variable-rate mortgage. You might tumble around, assuming everything will work out for the best. But you might be happier.

It's kind of a Botox for the mind. And just think: if you worried less, you wouldn't frown as often, and you wouldn't need Botox for real. Another problem solved!

In any case, I'm inclined to agree also with Levitt's (4), which says that self-reports of happiness are basically meaningless anyway. If I'm right in this post it doesn't matter, since we want what we want regardless of whether it will make us happy.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Sometimes I Run Out Of Quarters While Doing The Wash

Do we really have to do things the right way?

The money is starting to run out/slow down to a trickle here in Los Angeles, even with the cigarette savings, and the job hunt is heating up. The preseason is over, you could say.

Today I applied to two jobs. I was almost done with the second application, when I realized that to upload some relevant documents I would need first to reduce those documents from hard copy to something a little more malleable. I could have figured that out with a couple moments hard thought before I started the process. But instead I left my computer screen sitting there and went tearing through the streets of L.A. in search of a place to get them pdfed. And then I got lunch and then I came back and then I had been timed out of my application session and then I tried to log back in and it didn't recognize the password that it sent me in my email when I hit the "Forgot Password" button and it thought I answered the secret question wrong, which would mean that I don't know my grandmother's first name.

So I ate my lunch and started the whole process again. And in fact, magically, it had saved all my earlier-entered information, so I didn't have to tell them again whether I had received a commendation for working well with others in any of my previous jobs. And then I tried to upload the documents and then it told me the documents were too big and then I split them in half and then they were the wrong format and so on and so forth.

The whole thing took me a good hour and a half. And the whole time hovering in the back of my mind was that secret guilty knowledge that if I had done things right, if I had prepped my documents and read the instructions it all would have gone better and faster and smoother and I would right now be running through the fields instead of having a pounding headache to go with my sense of disaster narrowly averted.

This is something I run up against a fair amount. Sometimes I do things, but I just do them, I don't think them through properly. Now that suggests that I should try not to hold it against other people when they don't go along with my half-assed attempts to alter the situation. But assuming I don't blame others, and assuming I do what's needed to fix things, is it bad to behave in that flailing way?

I'm voting no, myself.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Your Basic Post About Public Transportation And Feminism

There is no way around it: In a perfect world, we would all have a little two-seat row to ourselves on the public transportation vehicle of our choice.

On the other hand, I move in circles in which consensus has been reached on the unacceptability of certain techniques for achieving that (highly desirable) state of affairs. (And yes, Octopus Grigori blogged about this first, here.) You are allowed to stand up to avoid sitting next to people; you are allowed to be unhappy when people sit next to you.

You are forbidden to sit on the outside seat unless you suffer from extreme claustrophobia and if you, when asked to move aside, do so with grace and good will. It is only acceptable to put your bag on the seat next to you is if the bus is almost empty. Even then, you need to maintain a constant awareness of the influx of people onto the bus. Really, you're better off with it on your lap.

I know the basic rules, and they're ok, but I still suffer from that inner tension between what I want (two seats to myself) and what I understand is required of me as a good citizen (the willingness not only to share, but to make the sharing relatively painless). And so I brook over those not following the rules as I see them, and I tend to say "Excuse me" in that classic passive-aggressive semi-hostile tone of voice and scoot in next to the person sitting on the outside of an empty seat row.

Which is to say that the first time I saw the elderly man in the row ahead of me slide over to the inner seat as people began to board the bus, I was not unsympathetic. He wanted two seats to himself, but he was willing to move if it looked like it would be necessary. Then as the people filed on and found other seats, he moved back out, tentatively. The bus kept moving, and he kept sliding back and forth. Sometimes he sat in the middle of the two seats, prepared for action either way.

It was all an illustration of our haplessness in the modern world; Ayn Rand would have told him to keep sitting on the outside.

But the bus kept going and it kept happening and I realized that he was only sliding in when the people that might need seats were female. Three guys left boarding the bus, and he was back out, walling off his turf.

It's one of the classic anti-feminist things you hear, that we don't appreciate male courtesy. Which is, at least for me, not really true. I am always delighted when people offer me a seat on the bus; there's something nice about watching people sacrifice for other people, even if the rationale for the sacrifice presupposes the weakness of women. I may not take the seat; I do express my gratitude, pleasure, etc. (It's complicated by inclinations towards chivalry myself -- my urges to stand up, to open doors, to pay for things.)

But I guess I found something creepy about this guy's apparent willingness to sit next to someone only if they were female. (I am forced, reluctantly, to confront the possibility that I am completely misreading his actions -- maybe he had a tic, maybe some other algorithm entirely governed his perpetual motion). Was it that woman didn't strike him as threatening? Was it that he thought only women really deserved easy access to a seat on the bus? Was it that he felt bad for women but not for men? Did he actually deep down hope for some pleasant-looking woman to sit next to him?

(Unrelated anecdote: on a Saturday bus a couple of years ago, a guy sat next to me and I immediately thought he was a creep, and then wasn't sure why I thought that. Until I looked around and realized the bus was almost empty, and he could have had a seat of his own in any number of vacant rows. Then he started talking to me and I could smell the booze on his breath. But it was funny: immediate social knowledge based on a subconscious running tally of empty space on the bus.)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Literary Smackdown: Dickens Vs. Trollope

I've just been going through a little Dickenso-mania here. That's just to say, I've been reading some Dickens.

I hated Dickens when I was made to read his books in high school. A Tale of Two Cities: I could not get through it. Hard Times: I found it boring and stupid.

Looking back on it, I think, "Why those particular books?" I mean, the Dickens books I've enjoyed most as an adult have been Bleak House and David Copperfield. Both of these are more interesting, funnier, and way more enjoyable than Hard Times.

My guess is that they assign Hard Times because it's, you know, the right length. Which is a seriously dumb reason.

Also, it's not obvious that Dickens is suited to a young audience. The humor is allusive and subtle. The stories often involve political sentiments that are of no interest to your average 14-year-old.

Anyway, the past few months I've read some more Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations. I reread David Copperfield. I reread Hard Times.

Charles Dickens at work, via Wikipedia.

Here's the thing. I come to Dickens with a set of complex prejudices, arising from the fact that I am a huge, and hugely partisan, Trollope fan.

For those of you who aren't Victorian-novel-enthusiasts: Dickens and Trollope both wrote in nineteenth-century England. Dickens's books often feature important poor and lower-class characters, and often have a sort of point to make about them. The poor are downtrodden; they are noble and worthy; they deserve better treatment.

Trollope's books feature pretty much only aristocrats, and they tell the characters stories with incredible verisimilitude. They focus on family, money, and politics. Who will marry? Who will inherit? Who will prosper? How is England's social and political world changing?

Dickens is taken way more seriously these days. Friends in literature departments often poo-poo Trollope as a lightweight: a sort of early soap-opera writer. And almost any North American bookstore will have about ten Dickens books and maybe one or two by Trollope.

It is my belief that this is totally unfair. Trollope, I believe, is actually a better and more serious writer. (Actually I think all literary judgments are subjective. But you know what I mean: I mean I love Trollope and maybe some other people should too.)

The main reason for the difference in respect up to now, as far as I can tell, is class and politics. Dickens saw his writing as a way of changing society, not just as an entertaining diversion. He was an egalitarian, right-thinking, progressive guy.

Trollope was socially and politically kind of conservative. He saw his writing as a way of entertaining readers, making money for himself, and encouraging virtuous behavior in readers. Women, he claimed, would always be made to behave more modestly from reading his books rather than less modestly. He was against women's rights, and in many ways against the dismantling of the British class system he saw happening around him.

OK. Score one (or two) for Dickens.

But. Trollope's characters are real. They are complicated. They are moved by various passions. The good guys are tempted to behave badly; the bad guys are often moved by impulses we sympathize with. Many characters are neither really good nor really bad but just muddling through. A lot like life.

Anthony Trollope. How great is this picture?

I love this, and I find it missing in Dickens. In comparison, Dickens's characters seem one-dimensional, cartoonish. There are lots of evil people who are just evil. No one knows why. There are a few good people who are just good. No one knows how they got that way. The evil people seem like aliens.

I'd say Dickens is at his best when he has a narrator who is encountering these aliens and trying to work things out -- like in David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Then the hero is a real person. But he still encounters a lot of cartoonish people.

Trollope's books often center on some conflict that has some justice on both sides. In The Warden a kind and sensible old man is being overpaid, through no fault of his own, out of a charity fund. Should he be exposed to ridicule in a system overhaul that will ultimately leave everyone worse off? Or should the arrangement continue based on a lie?

Many of these conflicts concern cases in which some cultural system (inheritance laws, class-marriage customs, money arrangements) clashes with some individual's needs. An aristocrat spends himself into poverty and can't simply go to work; a young man and woman fall in love despite class differences; a woman yearns to be involved in public life but cannot without risking her life's happiness.

Trollope conveys the desires of these individual with passion. He thus seems to doubt the wisdom of the cultural arrangements themselves. So to deny him the "progressiveness" of Dickens is unjust.

It is true that Trollope seems to offer no particular solutions. He doesn't seem to think young people should marry without their parents' approval, but he doesn't seem to think they should refrain either. If you marry without love you'll regret it, but if you marry for love, you may well regret it also.

This is a sharp contrast to Dickens, who seems to suggest that more equality and respect would just make the world a better place.

I don't see that this is a failing for Trollope, though. Some problems have no easy solutions; the clash of needs between cultures and individuals is never simple, and everyone has experienced it.

Many of the conflicts that interested Trollope the most seem to involve the role of women in society. The women in Trollope's books are as richly drawn as the men. They frequently want the same sorts of things men want: power, money, happiness, significance. They can only achieve or even pursue these things through marriage, except in very unusual cases. Sometimes, this makes them very unhappy.

Trollope's obsessive desire to portray the world as he saw it, I believe, led him to ascribe to women dissatisfaction with their dependence, whatever his personal views. This makes his books some of the most powerful feminist books there are. Although Dickens is insightful and hilarious describing the folly of a young man falling for a pretty young thing, the "good woman" for him is mostly just kind and warm and sensible about the home.

Nathanial Hawthorne wrote to Trollope that Trollope's books were "just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case with all its inhabitants going about their daily business" (cited on p. 144 of Trollope's Autobiography).

That's exactly right.

Characters, conflict, and women: three power blows for Trollope. Looking over the Autobiography to write this, I found T said some of these things himself: "It has been the peculiarity and marvel of [Dickens's] power, that he has invested his puppets with a charm that has enabled him to dispense with human nature" (p. 248). Oof!! Body Slam!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Behind Closed Doors

A couple years ago the Los Angeles Times had an article in its magazine section about how more and more self-centered Angeleno types were planting un-see-through-able shrubs around their houses, presumably to facilitate nude sunbathing or front-yard drug use. And the Times writer, as best I can recall, took the position that this was a bad thing, that this would tear down the fabric of street life and make us all strangers to each other.

(I think this is the article. This is along the same lines.)

I think about that article a lot, late at night when I'm walking through the streets of Los Angeles. Mostly, it kind of bothers me.

I hate that "it's the end of the world" attitude among Los Angeles architectural critics. They have in their heads, I think, some kind of monster created by the spawn of the Utne Reader and Sunset magazine, and when the city strays from that dual image and its pitchers of mojitos on the front porch of a green communal compound in the hills, they think it's all going to hell.

It's the kind of thing that it's easy to think here. Los Angeles is a weirdo city, giving the illusion of space and sun enough for all your most benign dreams. Buy property at the right moment and before you know it you're a guerilla filmmaker with a vintage car.

But at the end of the day it's just a city, and some of us wind up in the hills in our compounds and some of us wind up in the flatlands, and we're all happy and unhappy in our various ways and while I am a firm believer in the idea that architecture and space can affect your mood I don't want to take that too far.

I also kind of feel that these people are barking up the wrong tree. If the hedges make you feel so closed off in your own neighborhood, there are always shopping centers and carparks. There's the bus if you want to look your co-residents square in the face. Who doesn't dream off a life of porches and neighborhood gossip -- but it's not always available, like so many things that we dream of.

And then, finally, last but not least, I like walking through the city streets lined with hedges. You try to peer through; it feels menacing and glamorous; you don't know what's happening back there; you never will.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Winning, Losing, Playing The Game

I am, in general, mild mannered, even meek. I say this with the hesitation that comes from an awareness that self-awareness is limited, self-deception unceasing, and judgment difficult. But let's assume I'm correct in my self-assessment.

It doesn't really matter: I mention it only to preface the disclosure that I also have a nasty competitive streak. Which, I assume, I share with about 100 percent of the human population.

An example. In the first year of law school you are expected to learn a system of citation called the Bluebook (Sitemeter tells me that 100 percent of our readers already know this -- let's pretend you don't). And my legal writing and research teacher decided to reinforce our knowledge of the Bluebook by playing a game called "Bluebook Jeopardy." Winners to be rewarded with small plastic toys. Losers to be rewarded with small plastic toys.

Without going into too much detail, let's just say that my team was up by two with a couple minutes left and I started strongly urging my teammates to help me run out the clock.

We did win.

This is what I felt afterward:

Triumph. Despite the fact that I knew this was a meaningless exercise, something deep inside some part of me told me this victory said something good about me and my team.

Embarrassment. I had been in law school for maybe a month at that point; I didn't really know those people. And now they all knew that I was the kind of person who would plot to win at Bluebook Jeopardy. I also just kind of thought it was funny -- me there, waving my arms around and yelling at my teammates.

And then another pleasure, distinct from winning. The pleasure of not being mild-mannered, the pleasure of locating, again, a part of my personality that feels foreign to the day-to-day world of compromise and being nice, the pleasure of the contrast. It's not Clark Kent and Superman or anything, but it's nice sometimes to feel foreign to yourself.

No Kitty Treats Today!

Photo ("Rosie Feeding") by Flickr user incurable_hippie, here. (Used here under Creative Commons license).

People who know me often think I have a lot of willpower.

I made it through a PhD. I write stuff. I go to the gym almost every day. I don't watch TV. I read lots of books.

The truth is, though, I feel like I have almost no willpower at all. What I have instead, I think, is something else: I am explicit, and relatively clever, about treating myself as an impulsive, irrational creature. Which, on the inside, is what I am.

If you were about to bring home an impulsive, irrational pet you would immediately do two things. First, you would fix the environment: if your pet loves to romp, you'd take away the glass tables. If your pet loves to eat, you'd put the food high up in the cupboards. If your pet is a sex fiend, you'd hide the pornography.

Second, you would immediately commence a program of training. Rewards for constructive, helpful, nice behavior; punishments for peeing on the carpet.

This is basically how I run my own life.

Put a TV in front of me and I will flip channels until my eyeballs fall out. So: no TV at home. I've found a library to work in where I don't have wireless internet access. I'm a god-damn nag with myself about the gym, telling myself over and over how much better I'll feel later if I go now. I go just to shut myself up.

It's possible this only works as well as it does because my impulses are mostly benign and I am easily bored. The easily bored are more easy to manipulate, because, well, all you have to do is bore them. All the decisions I've made with respect to getting things together I've made mostly out of boredom.

When I wrote in an earlier post about the inner life, I mentioned how The New York Times made the having an unconcious self sound like having a dog. Even though I feel my inner self is impulsive and irrational, it doesn't seem dog-like. All that doggy hyper-activity isn't really me. And dogs, you know, they are, like, the definition of not easily bored. They will do the same thing over, and over, and over, and over.

When I see cats, though, lapping up the sunshine, grooming their fur, willing to play for a few minutes with a piece of string -- "sure, if it makes you happy, whatever." That's a little more like it. Not exactly like it, since cats aren't really easily bored either. But closer.

As we all know, if you want your cat to stay healthy, you have to keep the kitty treats in the cupboard. You just can't trust the little guys as far as you can throw them. It's harder when you're a person: there are, like, ten Tim Horton's on my university campus. I have to walk by.

So I resort, again, to nagging. No doughnuts for you! No cookies! No kitty treats today!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

It's Like Going To Bed At A Quarter To Three

Note: I'm sick. Not seriously, but indisputably. My nose runs and I sneeze and I ache slightly all over and I slept 11 good hours last night (and that's not just a symptom of my decadent lifestyle, which usually only runs me to nine hours of sleep) and I am sporting what for me is a fever, although given that the temperature elevation in question is from 97.1 degrees to 97.9 degrees I don't really expect anyone to take it terribly seriously. Least of all myself. Nevertheless, it is a fact that these kinds of trivial illnesses affect my mental outlook, usually for the bleaker.

The other morning I woke up at 5:30. I had to catch a 9:00 plane at an airport half an hour away from me. It had been a while since I had woken up at 5:30 on purpose and in order to do something, and as the alarm went off and I, startled, woke up, I felt desolate.

It was dark outside, in that particular blue way that only barely precedes sunrise. I mean, it was pretty.

My feeling of being lost and alone in the world had nothing to do with what I was going to do, because I was looking forward to that, and it wasn't a case of lack of sleep, because I had gone to bed early. To prepare.

It was just being awake when it was dark out, heading out when everybody else was asleep, being pried out of my normal routines and patterns, and the weird sensation of falling off the edge of the world.

Once I got going, up to Hollywood Blvd. and the bus stop and all, it was fine. I felt like I was just participating in the noble movement of people who get going early. But before then, when it was just me, it gave me this sense of being taken out of life as it should be lived.

There have been a number of occasions in my life when I've had to work on a Saturday. It's not actually that bad, although the cumulative effect of having only one day off a week can be pretty crummy. But it is bad and hard, for me at least, to feel this sense of moving outside the tide of normal working life, of people who use Saturday for brunches and house cleaning and whatever else.

What's funny is that in retrospect, when those things are over, they tend to seem oddly comforting. Me in my office on a Saturday, puttering around, un-harassed by co-workers and bosses, pulling something together.

Monday, October 1, 2007

You Owe Somebody, Somewhere, Something

You hear it all the time: “That’s Objectifying!” Fashion, pornography, sex, whatever.

Immanuel Kant thought sex was inherently objectifying of both partners: since it involved using a person as a mere means, as an object of pleasure, it was morally wrong. His solution was the unity of marriage.

I’ve always had some doubts about the deployment of this concept of objectification. Even when I was kind of on board with the general feeling that there was something amiss, the appeal to this particular concept didn’t seem right. I mean, if I choose to wear stilettos, or pose nude, or let a guy come on my face, well, aren’t I making a choice? How could that be being used as an object?

You might say, well, your choice wasn’t genuine, wasn’t free, it was made only in response to a fucked-up world. And that might be true in some cases, and it would be important. But that conclusion would be a different one from “that’s objectifying!” and would require a separate, contextually sensitive argument: because of very particular conditions X Y Z W you weren’t choosing freely. In such cases “That’s implicitly coercive!” might be a more accurate thing to say – though, of course, it lacks a certain pizazz.

This cool photo is called "Objectified." By Flickr user Stu Willis, here. (Used here under Creative Commons license).

In this previous post, I discussed the ways in which contextual conditions might make choices less than free, and I argued that we had “cultural obligations” not to create such conditions.

In a nutshell, what I said was, if almost everyone does X, it’s very hard to resist X, so your choice to do X is less free, less yours, less genuine. If you do X, you may help create conditions under which others cannot freely choose X. You have an obligation of sorts to help block the creation of such conditions – maybe by being in touch with your inner weirdo; maybe by consciously resisting.

You can see where I’m going with this with the objectification business. Sure, you’re free to choose to participate, and there’s nothing wrong with your free choice. Your conscience has to kick in only when you start joining some kind of mass parade.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing to wear stilettos, with posing nude, with letting guys come on your face. But if so many people did these things 24-7 that opting out just wasn’t a real possibility, well, that would suck.

One appealing thing about this line of thought is that it explains why sometimes the most extreme, crazy, version of a thing seems less objectionable than the everyday version. I love to look at high-fashion magazines; I love seeing teenagers in micro-miniskirts. I was a miniskirt wearer myself in my day. But like most women, I don’t like feeling like unless I look like a fucking fashion plate, no one is going to pay attention to me, or take me seriously. It’s not the teenager in the micro-mini that’s creating this problem; it’s the cumulative effect of millions of women making tiny conformist choices every day at the mall.

Another appealing thing about this line of thought is that, instead of pitting the Xers and the non-Xers against each other, there’s a sense in which each is guaranteeing the freedoms of the other, by undermining the coercion of conformity.

Feminists have bitter battles over “freedom” – does freedom mean freedom to be "Babe of the Month" for Playboy or freedom not to be treated as a sex object? As I see it, it’s only when one is *generally* not taken as a mere sex object that one is free to choose to be treated as one. The everyday insistence of feminists that women must be regarded with equal respect in fact ensures conditions under which there is any freedom to pose for Playboy at all. This might lead to restrictions on how, and how much, of such a thing is good. So perhaps these two lines of thought are reconcilable.

Anyway, I like feeling that when I go out in (somewhat) sensible shoes and a high-cut shirt to teach my classes, and so on, I’m actually enabling that micro-miniskirt wearer, by making her choice a more free one.

Because they involve the undermining of conformity, cultural obligations involve practices that are common – especially those that are becoming standard – and not practices that are uncommon. So you should worry about your choice to get Botox but not about your choice to post bikini photos of yourself in storm-trooper uniform on Flickr.

One big problem putting this idea into practice is this extreme context-sensitivity. When is something on the verge of creating coercive regimes? Hard question.

Anyway, I tried to put theory into practice yesterday. I’d been planning a long-awaited foray into the world of eyebrow waxing… Til now I had always made do with a few tweezer plucks at home, and the result was iffy.

Thinking of my cultural obligations, I changed my mind. It’s probably a losing battle, but whatever, dude. At least I’m trying.