More matter with less art

As my eighth grade graduation approached, my parents decided, for reasons that are a whole 'nother story, to let me choose where I wanted to go to high school. (A decision they later regretted, but that's yet another whole 'nother story.)

I chose a school at which I did not know anyone and no one knew me. I don't think that's why I chose it -- as I recall it had a lot to do with hearing that you could do anything you wanted at the school, like, even walk out of the classroom to go to the bathroom without raising your hand for permission! which appealed to me as a lifelong student at Catholic schools, and most recently an all-girls Catholic school, at which, just to give an example, it was the norm for every single student to say "thank you Mrs./Mr./Sr. So-and-so" to the teacher as we filed out of a classroom (in single file. of our own accord.) to go to our next class.

For whatever reason, at any rate, I ended up a stranger in a strange land, with nothing but my severely under-developed social skills to make my way. But a few weeks before classes started, I started going to swim practices. This was a good way to make friends, right?

Unfortunately, the high school I had chosen was in fact a K-12, meaning that many of the people I was going to school with had known each other since kindergarten. They'd had ten years in which to develop a complex caste system, about which I knew nothing. Indeed, having never been in a school with more than 30 kids per grade, I knew little about such systems in general, much less the specifics of who I must never, ever be seen talking to, and who I must not attempt to talk to absent express invitation or until I had sufficiently established my own equal or superior place on the ladder that I could so presume without invitation.

Unfortunately for me, many of the other freshman girls on the swim team, whom I attempted, clumsily, to befriend, happened to be at or near the very pinnacle of this caste system. Imagine their surprise and disdain at my advances! Imagine my confusion and terror! Oh, the hilarity and shame that ensued.

Among my many faults that made this endeavor so spectacularly unsuccessful was that I had a propensity to tell stories that did not proceed logically to a punch line, moral, or climax, or otherwise have any apparent point. These sorts of pointless stories became known as "Anne stories." At least, that's my impression, since it was behind my back.

I still tell Anne stories, although people are too polite to tell me so, and, one hopes, too grown up to say so behind my back. It's particularly amusing/painful/ironic because I would like nothing more to make my living as a storyteller. Sometimes that worries me a little. Other times I think, well, doesn't much of literature feel pretty pointless? I have twice now attempted to read Ulysses and abandoned the endeavor because of its (somehow frantically energetic, but still) narrative inertia.

Which is where the irony really gets going. Literature doesn't always have much of a plot, but personally, I think it should. I don't read books without plots. I used to force myself to do it, because I was pretentious, but I've decided life is too short and I have too little time to read and there are way too many books in the world for me to waste time reading books I'm not enjoying.

So is it possible to write books you don't want to read? Or at least, is writing a book without a plot more interesting than reading a book without a plot? I hope so.


Let us sit and mock the good housewife Fortune

Once upon a time there was this idea that dropping out of the "rat race" and retreating to some simpler, typically rural, life, was a virtuous and worthy path. It's a concept that dates back to the early days of literature (see, e.g., As You Like It, Virgil's Eclogues), and it seems to me that it was a theme that was popular in the late 80s/early 90s (see, e.g., Funny Farm, Baby Boom), presumably in reaction to the cocaine-fueled corporate excesses of the 80s.

Is it just me, or is that concept pretty much dead? Now high-powered executives can work from their ranches in Montana, and small towns in Iowa are better known for their meth labs than quaint bucolic virtue. And now the idea of "opting out" is associated with the emotionally fraught, highly controversial debate about well-educated, professional women dropping out of the work force to be stay-at-home moms.

That debate seems to be structured bilaterally: the benefits of and joys of spending time with your kids if you can afford it, versus the wastes and risks for the woman's career and economic prospects. But tossing the pastoral concept in there has the potential to shift the conversation away from sex and gender roles, which is what makes it so emotional and controversial, toward this well-established and very respectable idea of lifestyle choices and spiritual/philosophical space.

It does strike me, though, that we Americans with our Protestant ethic may never have been comfortable with the pastoral. Contemplation can look a lot like sloth. And take one of my examples above, Baby Boom: Diane Keaton's character starts out leaving behind her high-powered profession, but after she goes to the country and finds herself she becomes a very successful entrepreneur. So much for the contemplative life.

Maybe the difference is that now there isn't even the expectation that you might "opt out" of something by moving out of corporate America and the urbs and suburbs. You can physically move to the woods, but you'll be taking your laptop with you, so what's the point?


We must not make a scarecrow of the law

Gmail thinks I'm interested in (1) law school; (2) funding for my short sale; and (3) cruises. Is it just me, or are those three things contradictory? Well, I guess law school and short sales are pretty compatible.

Also there are recent conversations about law school and refinancing a mortgage in my email, so two of those are at least reasonable guesses. But the cruise has me mystified. Of course, of the three, it is also the most compelling. Maybe Gmail throws the cruise in randomly, figuring everyone is tempted by a cruise. Or maybe when two of your ad topics are really depressing, they figure you might need a cruise.

But I'd like to think that Gmail is wiser and kinder than that. I'd like to think that GMail thought I was refinancing to pay for law school and dangled the cruise in the hope that I'd throw over my law school plans and blow the money on a cruise instead. Aw. Gmail doesn't want me to go to law school! Gmail really does care.


Beware the foul fiend

From Nick Reding's Methland:
Visible in the semidarkness were fine bones and bright, shining blue eyes around which Jarvis's skin had liquefied and reset in swirls. He rubbed at where his nose had been and coughed violently. Jarvis had just smoked a hit of meth by holding the glass pipe with his rotted teeth. Using what was left of his right hand, he jostled the lighter until it wedged between the featureless nub of his thumb and the tiny protrusion of what was once his pinkie, managing somehow to roll teh striker of the red Bic against the flint. Suddenly, his eyes were as wildly dilated as a patient waiting in the low light of an opthalmologist's office. ... He was always cold, he said, and hadn't slept more than three hours at a time in years. His skin was still covered in open, pussing sores. He had no job and no hope of getting one. The last time he "went uptpwn," as he calls going to a Main Street bar, was eighteen months earlier. That night he was in his old hangout, teh Do Drop Inn, when another customer hit Jarvis in the face because he wanted to know what it was like to slug a man with no nose.
(What is dogeared?)


Caught II

(This doesn't show up very well on some monitors, but if you'll take my word for it, this is further evidence that the Chicago Bureau of Rodent Control is losing the battle. As Trent points out, it is also evidence that I broke the leash-your-dog law. No need to prosecute though, I'll get my comeuppance when the dog gets bitten by one of the giant alley rats she likes to chase.)



From Naomi Wolf's The Silent Treatment, New York Magazine, March 1, 2004
There is something terribly wrong with the way the current sexual-harassment discussion is framed. Since damages for sexual misconduct are decided under tort law—tort means harm or wrong—those bringing complaints have had to prove that they have been harmed emotionally. Their lawyers must bring out any distress they may have suffered, such as nightmares, sexual dysfunction, trauma, and so on. Thus, it is the woman and her “frailties” under scrutiny, instead of the institution and its frailties....

If we rephrase sexual transgression in school and work as a civil-rights and civil-society issue, everything becomes less emotional, less personal. If we see this as a systemic-corruption issue, then when people bring allegations, the focus will be on whether the institution has been damaged in its larger mission.
(What is dogeared?)

these headstrong women

Forbes' list of the 100 most powerful women is out, and I really enjoyed clicking through the gallery. It's heartening to see so many women leading corporations and nations around the world. Of course, there are a number of irritating inclusions, like Lady Gaga (#7!!), Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and Gisele Bundchen.

I thought maybe I was being unfair to Gisele--maybe she founded a think tank I don't know about?--so I read her full profile. The first sentence says it all: "One of the best-paid new mothers of 2010, the supermodel raked in $25 million in the year she gave birth to her first son, Benjamin, with NFL quarterback Tom Brady." Oh -- mother, supermodel, wife? That explains it. Yes, definitely up there with Christiane Amanpour, who follows her at #73. And then there's this gem to round out Ms. Bundchen's profile: she "caused a ruckus on the mommy blogs when she was quoted as saying, 'There should be a worldwide law, in my opinion, that mothers should breastfeed their babies for six months.'" It's a good thing she's not as powerful as Forbes would like to think.

Broadsheet criticizes the prominent inclusion of marital status and number of children in each woman's profile. I agree in principle with the criticism, but to be honest I find the information pretty interesting. I vote they include it when they profile men to equal things out, rather than dropping it from the women's profiles. Maybe then we can stop thinking that work-family balance is a women's issue?


’Tis better to be vile than vile esteem’d

The other night I went out in my pajamas at about 10 o’clock at night to get wine, ice cream, and jellybeans. There is a very reasonable back story there, but it's not the point of my story. I was wearing Trent’s polartech over my pajamas, my hair was in a messy bun, and I think I even had my glasses on, although I rarely wear my glasses in public. In short, I was not exactly looking my best. (I would like to think this is relevant.) 

I picked out my wine and my ice cream and jelly beans and got in line, clutching my goodies, behind a guy who looked to be at least 30, with long hair, a nose ring, and combat boots. He was buying a six pack of beer and a sack of potatoes. And he was arguing with the store clerk because his driver’s license was expired. He told her that was all he had because his wallet had been stolen, and he showed her his social security card as further evidence that the expiration of his license had not altered his age. She didn't budge. So I’m standing there, thinking, that’s really silly, and maybe I should buy the beer for him. But I live in a city and people don’t do nice things for strangers in cities. Even in Chicago, the nicest of cities. It would probably turn out awkwardly, I thought. But when my turn came and the guy was still standing there counting his change, I gave in to the impulse and asked the clerk for the beer she’d put behind the cash register. The guy looked at me, and seemed to give a half smile of recognition, and I gave a half smile to acknowledge what I thought was our silent pact, and then when I’d finished paying, I turned around and he was gone. No problem, I thought, he’s probably waiting outside the door. Nope. Gone. 

And, really, I can’t blame him. A woman buying wine and ice cream in her pajamas at 10 o’ clock at night wants to buy him some beer? I guess I’d run like hell too. 

So I ended up with a six-pack of Busch that I never intended to buy. Now, Trent and I are pretty snobby about beer. So I was pretty annoyed to end up with Busch, although I did count myself fortunate that it wasn’t Busch Light. Plus, it only cost me $4, so that's something. And when I tried it, I was actually pleasantly surprised that it was less like water than I expected. And yet it had a terrible aftertaste: the sour flavor of rejection, with a hint of regret for the lost beauty of youth. And a dash of irritation because I wasn’t actually even trying to hit on the guy, goddamnit, I was just trying to be nice.