As the new year approaches, it’s a time to pause and reflect on the past while simultaneously looking forward with some kind of hope and optimism. We all hope that in the next year we’ll get to all the things we’ve not managed to do in the past year, yet we also try to appreciate the good things that have befallen us and the difficulties we’ve gotten through. There’s a weird mix of looking back and looking ahead. Prime time for the complex mixture of joy and sorrow that this blog explores.
So, for my year-end, year-beginning musical offering, I give you The Lumineers’ “Stubborn Love.”
The Lumineers have been playing together eight or so years, but have just had their first (rather large) commercial successes in the past year with the release of their first album and two Grammys. They have a lot to look forward to, but, as they expressed in this Rolling Stone interview, they’re aware of the dangers in that. To me, they are young and “new,” but they also have a bit of maturity and nostalgia in their tone. And there’s nothing like a touch of the strings to bring a bit of melancholy to the fore.
I picked “Stubborn Love” for a couple of reasons. The song notes that “It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all,” certainly one of my themes, but also speaks to the need to “Keep your head up, keep your love.” This last is a mantra I can embrace.
And I don’t just mean romantically. We give way too little credence and attention to other kinds of love—family and friendship. I’ve been feeling very nostalgic lately about all the friends I seldom see, and in fact may never see again. Facebook is fun in that it keeps us all marginally connected, but sometimes I have to ponder that if there’s someone I haven’t seen in twenty or thirty years, will I ever again?
Here’s hoping we all get to see those people again sometime. And that 2013 is a very good year.
And here’s a terrific 30-minute live session with The Lumineers that also ends in “Stubborn Love” but contains a wider selection. If you have the time, of course, spend a little of it listening to this and remembering all the loves that stubbornly persist.
P.S. The Lumineers have their own website, but there seems to be some problem with it today. Check it out another time. Or connect via The Lumineers amazon page.
My paperwork-overloaded desk, with the green animal license cards.
We all encounter it: the paperwork required to lead a contemporary life. In fact, from the moment we are born, we are subject to paperwork—birth certificates, vaccination records, report cards, drivers licenses. By the time we turn 16 and encounter the DMV, we are thoroughly immersed in bureaucracy. Now that I’m in my 50s, and working at a public university as a state employee, I’m sometimes so overwhelmed by it all that I feel there’s time for little else in work or personal life. (I started to list all the adult forms, but it was so long and boring a list that I just deleted it. You know what I’m talking about.)
Most of all of this paperwork is just deadening. Sometimes, however, it actually connects in poignant ways to what’s important to us.
Last week, I received in the mail three bright green “courtesy” notices that it’s time to pay my Seminole County Animal Licensing fees. I don’t mind paying these modest fees. They go toward supporting Animal Services in my county, and though I’m sure they euthanize far more animals than I’d like, I do support their work in keeping animals from dying on the streets. Even getting these little cards reminds people that they need to vaccinate their pets and be responsible pet owners. The fee is lower when your pet is spayed or neutered. In these ways, they function as an educational tool as well as a tax on pet owners.
This time, of course, I have to send one back with the box checked off that the “Pet is deceased.” Little Cameo is no longer, and the green card with her name stamped on it will go back without a fee.
My grandfather at McFerrin School, c. 1908 or 1909.
Perhaps because it’s November again, this has reminded me of the months after my grandfather died on November 2, 1972. My mother, of course, was the main one in our household dealing with the practical implications of her father’s death, as well as the emotional ones. These must have been enormous. My mother was closer geographically than her two siblings to her parents’ home, but was nonetheless more than 400 miles across the state of Tennessee, and her mother had grown fragile and fractious and was soon to enter into nursing-home-land. My mother filed changes of address on numerous accounts from their house to our house, so she could make sure that nothing slipped between the cracks. My grandfather had been in the hospital for several weeks, and the lengthy and incomprehensible medical bills kept coming. Other bills had to be paid. The estate had to be settled.
What I remember about this is that we kept on receiving relentless communiques sent to my grandfather months and months after his death. My mother handled the important ones, but somehow I took it upon myself to help handle the subscriptions and other minor stuff. My grandfather had been an avid reader—Newsweek, Life, Look, American Heritage, Smithsonian, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, Forbes. The list was large, and these companies kept sending renewal notices relentlessly, long after we had canceled the subscriptions.
Today, of course, I understand that in those times removing someone’s name from a subscription list might take time. No instantaneous computer could make him disappear off the rolls at the touch of one button by one employee. In some ways perhaps we should have taken comfort in this echo of my grandfather’s life, at the difficulty in purging someone from the world. However, it just seemed to us like torture.
I remember the day about eight months after his death when an envelope arrived in the mail from one of these magazines—fortunately, I don’t remember which one. The envelope was thick, not the usual postcard, and I wondered momentarily as I took it out of the mailbox at the end of the driveway if they’d sent an apology for harassing us every week for all these months even though I had sent numerous handwritten notes explaining that Paul Meek had passed on and would not be renewing his subscription. (This was a time when we were far less used to just dumping whole loads of mail in the recycle bin.)
Instead, the letter started off, “Dear Paul,” and went on with the most maudlin and begging kind of diatribe—how he had been such a long-time subscriber that they just couldn’t understand his betrayal now. How if they had done anything to displease him in the pages of their magazine, they hoped to make up for it with the fabulous new content slated for the coming months. How if he continued to care about his own standing in the world based on the insights this magazine gave him, then he would surely re-subscribe NOW! They allowed as how they wouldn’t raise the rates, even though they had the perfect right to do so because he’d let his subscription lapse. This went on for bpth sides of 2 solid, single-spaced pages with red ink used here and there for emphasis. Then came the clincher: They just couldn’t stand to lose someone who had been a member of their x-publication family for so many years!
My little 13-year-old head didn’t exactly explode, but the use of the word family evoked in me a bitter sarcasm about commercial enterprises who made grandiose, even delusional claims to try to guilt people into continuing to buy their products. I envisioned the pained look that crossed my mother’s face every time she took in a pile of this exhausting mail. By now I myself had burdened her further with my two broken bones and a diagnosis of diabetes. In fact, my grandfather’s actual family had enough to deal with and was getting pretty tired of this crap.
I decided that afternoon that hand-written notes would no longer do, and I sat down with my mother’s typewriter. “To Whom It May Concern,” I typed for the first time in my life (though I have typed it many times since then), “my true family has been writing to you for months to explain my lack of desire to renew my subscription to your magazine. Their missives have been ignored, and you continue to bother them, so I now take it upon myself to write you.”
I paused. Then I pressed the keys once more, click-clack, with the tears bulging but not spilling from my eyes.
“I am dead,” I wrote, “and unless you deliver to heaven, nothing you publish will reach me. You are not my family, and I wish you would quit bothering my family. While not on the pages of your magazine, this constant sales harassment is offensive, and none of them will be subscribing.”
Wondering if I were breaking the law and feeling like a rebellious crusader, I signed my grandfather’s name with a childish, girly flourish, and then folded it neatly into the automatic-return, no-postage-required envelope and put this letter out for the mailman. I don’t think I even told my mother about it.
Though I’m relatively sure now that my letter had nothing to do with it, that we had just reached the end of the natural life course of their pleas, we indeed never heard from x-publication again. I patrolled the mailbox for weeks as though I were anticipating a secret love-letter, making sure, feeling vindicated, hoping that someone had been at least embarrassed.
My grandfather with my brother and me, about 1963.
Nowadays, receiving the green card with Cameo’s name on it, I feel a little differently. First, of course, Seminole County will not be sending me missives for months—they provide a check-box for just such circumstances as a regular part of pet ownership. And SC is not a commercial enterprise, so there’s not a matter of them trying to get someone, anyone to just write them a check whether or not there’s anyone there.
It’s also true that I will be printing out a form from the Internet and filling it out and attaching a fee for a new little cat, the pesky Paka, who has since attached herself to our household. The life cycle is shorter with pets, and we are perhaps more prepared for their loss and their replacement. There is no replacing your grandfather, but while no two pets are ever the same, new ones appear to fill the gaps the gone ones leave behind.
Perhaps it was getting the reminder cards, but yesterday I took up all the cat beds in the house and washed and dried and re-arranged them. A couple of these beds had been used primarily by Cammie in the last weeks of her life, and the other cats haven’t touched them since. They have sat empty in Cammie’s favorite spots, reminding us of her absence. This weekend, I felt ready to have them used by other cats. We’ll see if the other cats are ready, or if they would rather they could send me a letter to the effect that she’s gone and I should get rid of her things.
I’ll try to pay better attention than a bureaucracy would.
Re-encountering the bureaucracy after time on one’s own is always a bit of a shock to the system, and one thing it has produced in me the past couple of weeks is a vague nostalgia for episodes of the 1967-68 TV series The Prisoner.
Not that I am a particular devotee. I didn’t watch The Prisoner until I was in college in the early 1980s, and then only in a passel of bodies sprawled together on a mattress in a dorm mate’s room. I didn’t follow it coherently through the entire series, nor did I spend a lot of time in later years looking it up again. In fact, until I sought out video clips for this post, I recalled incorrectly that it was filmed in black-and-white. Probably my friend (if you can call him that) in the dorm only had a black-and-white TV. The guys were all fascinated with it, and we girls were fascinated with the guys.
I wouldn’t really relate to that sense of being trapped in social conformism for decades to come. But I certainly do now, and sometimes Patrick MaGoohan’s voice echoes in my head, shouting, “I am not a number! I am a free man!”
Number Six’s struggle to retain his sense of individuality, and the inevitable white bubbles that would trap and suffocate those who attempted to escape have stuck with me over all these years.
I also have strangely fond memories of one of the first loves of my life, who was part of the gang that sometimes gathered to watch The Prisoner. He had the habit of parting company with the words “Be seeing you”—and I think he learned all of the panache he had from listening to Patrick MaGoohan say this line. In the show it’s a creepy, ambiguous line—a reminder of how undetermined all superficial social interaction is. When we long for someone’s company, it’s a statement that feels like a promise of a future encounter, but it can also indicate a stalker-like Big Brother threat of surveillance. Sometimes in life, as in The Prisoner, it is hard to tell the difference.
One of the things this chain of associations led me to is that realization of loneliness in the busy-ness. I think this is the common result of people’s individuality not being recognized and of a lack of trust due to a culture in which everyone is out for “number one.”
Ironically, this is, of course, at the root of the very difference that President Bill Clinton pointed out in his speech last night at the Democratic National Convention–the difference between a “you’re-on-your-own society” and a “we’re-all-in-this-together society,” and it’s one reason why I will vote Democrat in the upcoming election. There is no way that one can truly support democracy without a belief in the value and rights of every individual. This is what democracy is about–collective individualism–not socialism and not the extreme isolationist individualism of the current right-wing. Individuality is only a positive value when everyone has an opportunity and ability to use it, not just the ones in charge who so often try to turn the rest of us into drones.
All too often these days, however, I see a kind of instrumentalism that goes way beyond the Repubicans. I recently started re-reading Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, and early on she mentions both “what it is to approach another person as a soul, rather than as a mere useful instrument or obstacle to one’s own plans” and “the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation.”
I do believe that the humanities can help us with these endeavors, but not when it becomes a world driven by the old quid pro quo and rampant careerism. The values of the humanities are unfortunately too often betrayed by those in the humanities. I see this very kind of instrumentalism on a daily level even among many of my so-called liberal and progressive colleagues and acquaintances. Too many of us are so busy trying to claw our way to the top of some heap that we lose focus on anything else. It sometimes feels impossible to resist–it’s what we are trained to do by numerous forces in society today. In universities, this creates enormous cognitive dissonance–democratic and critical thinking skills that we believe in except when they apply to the system we’re embedded in. Our work is seldom gauged on its own merits–just by numbers–how many thesis projects you’ve supervised (not how well), how many butts in seats (not whether the students have been engaged or recognized themselves), how many committees you’ve served on (not whether you have created anything meaningful or have merely destroyed work that came before), and most of all how many publications you have (not whether you got them by trading favors, not whether they are of any quality). This is a societal sea-change, and to me it is a fearsome change, an infiltration of everything by those who have a vision of the world as an uncooperative and dog-eat-dog place. Not even progressives are immune.
I long for that kind of community where people recognize each other respectfully as individuals rather than as mere stepping stones on the way to success (or mediocrity, which is usually where this stuff ends up). I give and get some of this recognition in bits and pieces—friends and colleagues for whom I am truly grateful—but there is not nearly enough to go around these days. I know, I know–utopian thinking. Still, I take comfort in repeating the mantra that I am not a number, and I try not to treat others that way either.
A beautiful song for the third anniversary of my marriage to Bruce. This “Hallelujah” was written by Leonard Cohen, whom I posted about just the other day, and is sung here by kd lang, who Bruce and I saw in concert here in Orlando last Sunday.
So many thoughts—
One reason why this song is perfect for today is that Bruce, like lang and Cohen, is a Canadian. “Canadian content” is one of our short-hand phrases for pointing that out—the distance from which we came together.
Another reason is that the love of people our age is complicated. Just this morning, I woke up with a low blood sugar and burst into tears over anxiety about our upcoming trip to Berlin—all my fears of not being able to keep up because of the arthritis in my foot and needing to rummage around in his friends’ kitchen for low-blood-sugar juice in the middle of the night and of my stomach getting upset over unfamiliar foods… Bruce and I had to talk it all out, and I told him after I realized what day it is that maybe I should wish him an unhappy anniversary. But, no, he loves me—and I love him—in spite of all the flaws of our human condition. “All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value,” Cohen is quoted as saying about the song, and that seems appropriate today, even though I would not call my love a cold or broken hallelujah. Quite the contrary.
But even the kd lang concert the other night gave me much food for thought. Beyond the beauty of lang’s voice and the sheer pleasure of the concert, I have to note that it was not particularly well attended. Bruce and I—and no telling how many others—had gotten free tickets in a last-minute promotion, which was no doubt inspired by poor ticket sales. The Hard Rock Café concert space was even so only about 2/3 full, and I felt bad about this. Lang gave a terrific performance, and I know that non-sellout shows must be a standard feature of the musician’s life, but it was hard for me to believe that someone as distinguished as kd lang hadn’t filled the place up.
Bruce noted that there’s really no great way to keep up with events going on in Orlando, and several friends commented later that they, alas, had not realized she would be here. We ourselves had missed a John Prine concert just a few days earlier in spite of the fact that I’m his fan on Facebook and would have loved to be there. (I first saw him in concert in about 1977, and perhaps we should label him with “Appalachian content” to also indicate the different roots Bruce and I have.) It’s just hard to keep up, and we are distracted from our “entertainment” options, even the profound ones, by our work.
Such is the unpredictable and accidental nature of fame, art, love, and human life. Today, I am grateful to be experiencing all that together with him.
In my ongoing quest for understanding about the life of the feelings, yesterday I attended a half-day event on “Dealing with Destructive Emotions.” Now, this was not some egregiously awful, dumbed-down positive psychology event, but a “meditation workshop” led by Dr. Barry Kerzin, personal physician of the Dalai Lama and a Buddhist monk.
I had had the pleasure of joining a group that took Dr. Kerzin to dinner on a previous visit to UCF last April, and I found him charming, compassionate, and intelligent. He had been particularly kind to me in that vulnerable time after my brain hemorrhage—that time when some people were so very kind and others showed their cruelty and indifference so clearly. I also know and admire the two organizers of the event, both of whom are leaving UCF for better positions elsewhere, and I wanted to support their final efforts here.
In addition, though I’m not a Buddhist and I can’t even claim to be all that knowledgeable, I was motivated to attend because I find much appealing in the Buddhist approach to happiness. I’ve posted before about the Buddhist concept of self-compassion, and there are other ways in which I think the Buddhists have it right. For one, they readily acknowledge that suffering is also a part of life, and they refrain from the blame that so many purveyors of popularized positive psychology allow themselves to indulge in.
For instance, in the talk I link to above, Dr. Kerzin cites a study about women with breast cancer and happiness. What’s different about this from so many of the kinds of “if you’re happier you will be healthier and live longer” assertions is that Kerzin notes not that the happier patients who lived longer were somehow innately more happy as persons (and therefore superior), but that they received tender loving care and that it was this compassion that contributed to their happiness and better health outcomes.
I think this is a radically important difference. In Buddhist thinking, we are responsible for helping ourselves be happier, but we are just as called upon to help other people. That mutuality and interdependence is key to keeping the search for happiness from becoming a weapon against those less fortunate than oneself. This kind of nuance distinguishes many Buddhist teachings from a lot of junk positive psychology, and so I feel myself more open to its strivings for a better world.
But I also attended with some apprehension based on my own make-up as a human being. As I put it to my husband yesterday, my pathology is such that group hugs just make me feel more alone and alienated than almost anything else. I am squeamish about crowds of all sorts, and the most common of types—the roaring audience of the sporting event or the rock concert—I find downright revolting, terrifying, really. Even a lecture given and a meditation practice led by someone I find intelligent and compelling can make me feel queasy in a large-group setting. When everyone else is sharing life-affirming togetherness, I usually feel more and more as though I don’t belong anywhere. So, I went with my mind as far open to that sort of thing as I could pry it, though I knew I would find myself uncomfortable. I assured myself that I nonetheless would be able to use it as a point of useful contemplation. Everything, as they say, is grist.
The day was divided into three segments, one before lunch and two after lunch. Each hour, Dr. Kerzin would talk for a while, take questions, and then lead a brief meditation.
In the opening session, Dr. Kerzin talked for quite a bit about where he had recently traveled, where he was traveling next, and the few days he had spent on a silent retreat near Deland, writing, reading, and kayaking. He talked a bit about his encounter on the St. John’s River with an alligator, which he would touch upon throughout the talk.
What I noticed right away was my own destructive impatience. I wanted Dr. Kerzin to start getting to the point, to give me something that I could take away from this talk. He wasn’t, after all, talking in any way about how to deal with destructive emotions, but about the pleasures and challenges of his lifestyle.
After a while, he transitioned into talking about the way that Buddhism defines “destructive emotions” or kleshas in Sanskrit. (He gave us Tibetan terms as well, but I could not venture to spell those.) He spoke of the three roots of these kleshas—anger, desire, and distorted ignorance—from which negative feelings arise. This all seemed obvious to me—of course, while I understand the need to define things clearly, I felt I knew what destructive emotions are, including the ones I was having in that moment. I wanted not to define them, but to work on “dealing with” them.
By the end of the day, I would realize, of course, that in itself this was a productive lesson for me. As the day went on, it dawned on me how utterly exhausted I would be by giving a program that lasted so many hours, especially one where my presence and wisdom might be sources of expected sustenance for so many. And yet, Dr. Kerzin did not show signs of exhaustion or stress. The slow pace of his talk, rather, allowed a relaxed approach that might help prevent burn-out. I will think much more about this as I return to teaching next year with a desire not to kill myself with frenzied overwork.
Kerzin’s entire first segment, it seems to me now, was about sticking with things and how you can do that in spite of impatience. He noted several times the Dalai Lama’s fondness for saying, “Never give up,” and he went through a long and rather elaborate description of various phases of awareness and practice—at first, you may have an intellectual understanding, and only later will that become felt or experienced. You start with an awareness that there’s another possible way of responding other than getting angry, and from the brief “sigh of relief” that can give, you keep trying and move on to being able to laugh at appearances, then to a point when “love boils up” and the conflictual appearances subside.
As I sat in the ballroom, I contemplated a task that faces me today—calling the health insurance company and the hospital about bills that I’ve been receiving and don’t understand. If there is one thing that sends me into a rage, it is dealing with the medical world in our bureaucratized and profit-motivated system. The last time I talked with someone in the billing department at the hospital and he kept repeating, “That’s our policy,” I ended up calling him a drone. He got all insulted and told me he was a human being. I told him he didn’t act like one. It was a terrible impasse all around. We’ll see if I can do better today, because one thing is certain, and it’s that my fury about this system does me no good on a daily basis. I need to transform that fury into larger action rather than letting it eat me up or letting it make me mean.
At one point, as in the video above, Kerzin asked the audience if there was anyone who had let go of all of his or her anger. There were actually a couple of people who raised their hands. Perhaps it was then I began to feel alienated. How can anyone claim that? I felt suddenly as though I were in a room of poseurs, fake Buddhas. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have no anger left in me, only what it is like to keep trying to let go of it. Probably, if I’m honest, I’m not even fully convinced that I should let go of all of it.
Kerzin ended the first session by taking some questions and then leading us in a five-minute meditation, starting and ending with a toll of a chime, in which we were to empty our minds and concentrate only on our breathing. Once, years ago, when I regularly practiced yoga, I could sometimes do this. Lately, I can only observe as the thoughts fly in and out of my brain like so many pieces of confetti. If meditation could produce a panic attack, I’m a likely candidate these days.
Once dismissed for lunch, I discovered my blood sugar was a low 63, and I stumbled out onto the empty campus and found a vending machine. No doubt the low affected my responses, and I hoped I’d feel better later on. I had told myself that I would go to the library over the hour-and-a-half-long lunch period, but it was closed for semester break, and so I sat on a bench and enjoyed the sunshine until the ants started biting my ankles.
As I watched two middle-school-aged boys playing in the fountain, I contemplated Kerzin’s talk. I was grateful at his nuance. It seemed to me that some of the audience questions had been agenda-driven and tended toward the oversimplifications that so offend me. Kerzin always made important distinctions. “Anger,” he noted, “needs to be distinguished from strength and courage and passion. The problem with anger is that its motivation is harm or revenge, even directed at oneself.”
“Fear,” he noted, on the other hand, “can in itself be sensible.” When you face an alligator, he noted, some fear is a correct response and can keep you alive. “Fear becomes a problem when it becomes habitual anxiety that doesn’t serve to remove you from the danger.”
Dr. Kerzin started the afternoon sessions with reminders once again to be patient and to be gentle with ourselves and others. Once again, he made a distinction important to me: If you ever think you’ve “got it,” he said, you are falling into a trap, the trap of arrogance. He emphasized the lack of right answers and formulas.
He posed the question of how it is that distorted ignorance appears and noted that it’s built in to the assumptions we live with and are born into. Then he used an acronym—PPI—for permanent, partless, and independent. Leisurely, he discussed how people assume these qualities for themselves and other things in the world.
Another destructive emotion invaded me at this point… I felt a little bored. Certainly, on an intellectual basis, I have understood a world that is ever-changing, multi-faceted, and interdependent for a long time. True that I often don’t experience it that way, and in that ballroom I felt atomistic as can be. But this wasn’t introducing me to new concepts.
I felt relieved when we moved on to the practice of a new meditation—that he called “tonglen”—where you breathe in the sorrow or pain (of one person or animal or a group or opened to the general sorrow of the world), and then transform it on the out breath to healing love to alleviate that suffering. It was striking to me throughout the day that Dr. Kerzin included animals as sentient beings, especially because I was once again very worried about my elderly cat, who had done so well over the past couple of weeks but who has now taken another down turn. I was grateful to be able to focus my meditation at least in part on my little cat.
After this second meditation, while we took a short break, I also thought about how it is that I am a practice person rather than an intellectual one. This, of course, is always a factor in academia and one of the reasons why I seldom feel truly at home there. Academia is a traditionally scholarly place, and scholars are oriented toward concepts and ideas, whereas artists of various stripes are oriented toward practice.
This led me to thinking about myself in the context of a large lecture hall full of people. I feel so fortunate to teach the generally small and often truly intimate creative writing courses that I teach. For some in the ballroom yesterday, there was a sense of closeness and sharing encouraged by Dr. Kerzin, but because I am so used to the much more intimate workshop setting, it continued to feel rather abstract and distant to me. This made me grateful for the usual practice of which I’m a part, and reinforced once again my sense of the value and specialness of that method. There are workshops that do unfortunately become the site of intimate brutalization, but for the most part I think the creative writing workshop is a primary location of exploration and sharing of human qualities. When Kerzin mentioned how in his study with his Buddhist teachers, there was often a lot of laughter, I thought of my workshops.
The last hour of the day, Dr. Kerzin mostly took questions from the audience. Several people seemed to me again to have come with agendas—to show off their knowledge, to question him about Taoist principles (not his area), to demonstrate to this wise man how good they were. One even seemed to have that good old positive psychology agenda. I had heard him during the break talking about studies that supposedly showed that people could affect reality with the strength of their thoughts. He asked about the Buddhist precept that “nothing exists.”
Dr. Kerzin gently corrected him. The Buddha, he noted, taught that nothing exists in itself, but he also taught that there is a reality behind the common reality based on experience. The way that we commonly perceive things may be an illusion, but a belief that nothing exists at all would be considered nihilism, and is not a tenet of most kinds of Buddhism. (See also, the third paragraph in the Second Dharmachakra here.) This is another one of those oversimplifications that tend to infest people’s thinking, and I was grateful he pointed that out.
We ended the day with a walking meditation, in which we all stood, found a spot in the room and began walking as slowly as possible, paying attention to the way our feet moved and touched the carpet. This was delightfully new for me. Sitting meditation was always hard for my fluttering mind, but recently has also become physically hard for me with my back aches. Many of the yoga practices I used to do to work on my sense of balance (such as the tree pose), I simply can’t hold now. Even walking itself has sometimes become painful with my arthritic foot.
I found it amazingly challenging to walk so slowly, and it proved a great balance exercise. It also was easy on my foot, as the slowness prevented any pounding of my bones on the floor. Perhaps it was also true for me that the activity helped calm and focus my mind, so that I felt more meditative than I usually ever accomplish sitting.
Besides, as the featured video below will show, it’s wacky to do in close proximity to others, and I am always glad to greet the wacky. Finally, I enjoyed all the other people in the room, their various and varied bodies moving around the space, encountering each other and yet not colliding, all of us doing the best we could do at this deceptively simple task.
It was a good way to end the day, and I came home with plenty to think about and the empty spaces in my head in which to do so.
I enjoyed the walking meditation so much, I’ll include links to a few more videos about it in addition to the one below.
Conversation has become a luxury. The Conversation by Kobe de Peuter.
I think of my generation as the one in which the meaning of “love” shifted and became larger (a good thing) but also more confusing (a bad thing). My female college friends and I both celebrated and mourned the loss of the clarity that most of our mothers seemed to have about what love meant. To them, it meant marriage.
To us, it meant so many other things. For one thing, marriage wasn’t available for those among us who were gay. Yet it was becoming clearer and clearer that gay love was a reality that needed to be acknowledged. And at the same time, our heterosexual relationships were undergoing massive upheavals—marriage, though we didn’t wish to deny it to our gay friends, seemed to many heterosexual women like a “property relationship.” We wanted our love to be free, not attached to economic or child-rearing promises.
The men I knew often took perhaps unfair advantage of this. Even when what they felt was clearly not love to them, they might claim to love us, but to just not to want to participate in the strangling institution of marriage. For the most part, women still wanted to be loved. This made for a lot of broken hearts, and many women eventually “got over” their liberation from marriage. Women and men (gay, straight, and bisexual) began to redefine marriage in multiple ways that (we hope) retain the goodness of an institution of intimate commitment and jettison the woman-down or gays-denied aspects.
Not that the redefining of romantic love is over, but lately what I find shifting more radically is the meaning of friendship.
This weekend I read an article in the May 2012 issue of the Atlantic called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” by Stephen Marche. It is one of many litanies lately about the dangers of our reliance on social networks on the Internet. Bruce also sent me a link of a TED talk by psychologist Sherry Turkle, who is mentioned in the Atlantic article and who has changed her once-upbeat take on the social network into a lament for the depth and spontaneity of real conversation.
These two commentaries bring so much to my mind. Mainly, they resonate. I myself can experience great loneliness in spite of the ever-enlarging circle of Facebook and blogging friends that I have. Blogging sometimes brings about more substantive exchanges, but even that is not real companionship.
And I have noticed that even my dearest friends no longer want to talk. Now, I am a “long-talker,” as my boss once told me, and I have tired people out for many years in that regard. But I feel more and more removed from this quick-take social interaction that has become the norm. I worry that my pleasure in and need for complex, digressive, even desultory conversation is becoming more and more anachronistic. My friends love me, and I love them, but we don’t have time to talk with each other. Conversation has become the ultimate luxury.
People don’t even like length in writing any more, as literary magazines shrink and shrink the length of manuscripts they will even consider for publication and as those of us teaching creative writing shrink and shrink the length of assignments we accept from our students because we have more and more students and therefore fewer and fewer hours to devote to critique of their work. We indeed are living in an aphoristic time.
Turkle, in her talk, reports that one 18-year-old, “who uses texting for almost everything,” told her “someday, someday, but certainly not now, I would like to learn to have a conversation.” And it is true that sometimes my students today have a hard time participating in a workshop at all. I have even had a few students so afraid that I had to coach them outside of class about how to manage to participate in class. I had to teach them how to have a conversation.
So, another thing that came to my mind is the continuing value of the creative writing workshop model. In creative writing workshops, we still talk. This may be on its way to becoming a lost art, but it may also be something that we should emphasize as part of the value of a liberal arts education. Rare skills can become extremely valuable, after all. And the magic that can sometimes happen in a creative writing workshop (the minds melding, the contributions mixing, the starts and stops coalescing into something new that no one thought of alone) will never, I believe, be replaced by even the most detailed online critique.
That some 18-year-old, who probably has hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, can have all those friends without conversations strikes me as odd. Yet I know that I have some friends on Facebook I have never met, or have met once or twice, or who simply “liked” some brief quip I made in response to someone else’s post.
And this phenomenon of friends we don’t really know is more and more being extended to relationships that have nothing to do with actual friendship and everything to do with business. I offer a mere two examples, though I could go on all day with more:
* I just recently had to purchase a new insulin pump. I’ll save the internecine details of this most recent set of frustrating health care exchanges for another time, but here I at least want to object to the constant reference by the insulin pump company to their being my “partner.” In fact, the company website refers to us as “partners for life.”
Forgive me if I view this with cynicism. I had to order a new pump because my previous one went completely kaput a few days after the warranty expired, not because I desired any of the minimally new features. (Most of which, I am finding, have created a kind of neurotic, nagging, numbing effect with lots of extra alarms.) Since the new pump takes a while to “process,” the company offered a loaner pump for the duration. However, they informed me that if I canceled my order, and didn’t buy my next pump from them, I would be charged $3600 for 90 days with the loaner.
If this is a “partnership,” it’s a coercive one.
* At least the pump company still uses a neutral word like “partner.” In other business news, however, Brighthouse has launched a new advertising campaign in which they pull out all the stops and go right to calling themselves my “friend,” your friend, everybody’s friend. That friendship could be offered to all comers for the price of subscribing to Brighthouse services totally perverts the meaning of the word, of course.
At first the only clue to the identity of who was paying for these prime-time and expensive Hello Friend ads was the combination of blue and yellow in the text portion of the ads. Now, they are gradually introducing ads that move from soft-touch pleasantries to out and out courting. Brighthouse wants to be your friend, the ads say.
How, I wonder, can anyone take this seriously?
Bruce tells me that the campaign is likely a response to the horrible customer service reviews that Brighthouse has received in the past on Internet complaint sites. “Brighthouse,” he said, “gives notoriously bad service. There are all kinds of comments like, ‘DirectTV is bad, but Brighthouse is the worst.’”
In fact, the campaign may actually indicate an actual change in policy that could be important. This would never have occurred to me if the folks who helped put in our new flower and garden beds last week hadn’t accidentally cut our Brighthouse cable. When we realized what had happened, I thwacked myself in the forehead repeatedly, cursing the fact that I’d mistakenly believed all the cables were away from our dig areas. How much would they have to dig up again, and how much would this foolish oversight cost us?
Within 24 hours, the repairman came, made a quick fix, and charged us nothing. I was so relieved not to be punished that I have to admit I felt almost like this man was my friend.
The ads, however, have made me feel simply that the world is more pathetic than ever. I wondered if it’s true that people are just getting more and more disconnected from other real humans and more lonely than ever. That such ads could be deemed effective seems to coincide with the research that Turkle and others report about heavy Facebook users being lonelier than those who use it less or not at all. And with the fact that more and more people use it regularly.
In addition, I think it’s a documentable fact that more and more of our daily needs are met through these large corporate entities. There are few family-owned corner grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, hardware stores, and pet food stores, so we don’t have even the same kind of superficial acquaintances that we know over a long period of time and that might bloom into something like genuine friendliness, even if not intimate knowledge. I visit the same stores over and over again and hardly ever see the same clerk twice because they are chains that move people around and that people leave at the next best opportunity.
We also have witnessed the rise of various kinds of stealth marketing, where people who purport to be our friends are actually (or also) trying to use us for financial ends. To me, these practices are particularly heinous because I like to know when a spade is a spade. But many young people today live lives much more merged with advertising than an oldster like me is comfortable with. They see nothing wrong with defining themselves with logos, with trying out free sample products and sharing them with friends, and so on. For them, there is no private sphere.
(And there are so many how-tos and analyses of these kinds of marketing that I can’t find a single link to represent them, but if you’re interested, the key terms are stealth marketing, viral marketing, word-of-mouth marketing. And don’t forget product placement!)
These secret agendas also exist in terms of pyramid schemes like Amway, Landmark Forum, and Stargate. Whenever someone approaches you with some ulterior motive, there’s a kind of strain. This person is not approaching with an open mind or with curiosity, but with a pre-determined agenda: to get you to join so that they can get a discount on their own self-help seminars.
One of the most disturbing trends noted by Stephen Marche in the Atlantic is this: “In 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.”
And so we also pay others to listen to us. Marche also reports on the dramatic rise in the numbers of psychologists, other kinds of therapists and counselors, and life coaches. This marketplace is more legitimate—at least most of the time you know what you are paying for and it’s about your own needs, whereas the stealth marketers are lying to you to meet their needs. But sometimes even that gets confusing. In my dealings with Landmark Forum, I encountered several members who had also become independent life coaches—they had little in the way of credentials I would recognize for advising others about their lives, but there is no licensing necessary for life coaching. Even in the realm of professional “friends,” the stakes can get confused these days.
What many commentators have begun to notice, including Stephen Marche and Sherry Turkle, is that what many of these online friendship forums promote is a kind of uber cheerfulness, an editing of our personal lives into success stories and personal p.r. campaigns.
I think, however, this trend goes far beyond and certainly doesn’t originate in online social networks. Landmark Forum, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Kris Carr, and the whole host of self-help gurus have over the past decade moved so deeply into the superficial tenets of positive psychology that this kind of self-editing has become ubiquitous. Everyone, nowadays, fears being a “drag,” whether in person or online.
Marche’s article thankfully makes this connection, and he cites a recent study by Iris Mauss and others at the University of Denver that finds that valuing and seeking happiness can doom people to disappointment. Mauss and her fellow psychologists all consider themselves to be working in the arena of positive psychology, and in other writings that I found, she seems a true believer, even in “positive neuroscience.” They apparently expected happiness to be like other goals—those that value academic achievement usually make better grades in school. But they found the opposite—at least in situations of low stress, the valuation of happiness correlated with lower happiness and life satisfaction and higher symptoms of depression.
So, I believe that what Stephen Marche points out about Facebook’s pitfalls is actually something that spreads beyond the online environment. I suppose it’s a chicken-and-egg question whether our online habits have created the changes in our psyches concerning friendship, but I do know that it’s not only online that this issue exists.
However, in a live chat about his Atlantic article, Marche just now referred to another article he wrote—for Toronto Life—about his institution of a Digital Sabbath. I know that I agree with him fully that simple pleasures have become filled with distraction. He mentions playing Legos with his son; for me, this shows up in a variety of ways. How often do I sit quietly with a cat on my lap without checking Facebook and email on my phone every few minutes? How many nights do I wake up and cuddle with a Scrabble game rather than with my sleeping husband? How often when I’m talking on the phone with my mother am I also answering emails?
It seems a supreme irony that we learn so much on Facebook and other online forums and yet also isolate ourselves this way. We won’t give them up, and doing so even on a Sabbath seems unlikely for many. I do hope, however, that we can strive to use them more thoughtfully. No doubt, the meaning of “friend” has changed permanently. But it’s good to remember what’s at the core of it. Else, I fear, friendship will see a worse fate than the changes wrought in the world of romantic love. Sex, after all, still cements romance in the physical world. Friendship may not have such a tangible hold.
A couple of people have recently asked me if I’ll be going to a high school reunion this summer for all graduates from the 1970s. This is more likely than that I will ever go to a college reunion. My thirtieth-year college reunion occurred last summer, and I wasn’t there. I had a great education, which I enjoyed immensely, and I have donated to my college every year since I graduated. It was a time when I came into the bohemian aspects of my personality, discovered my sexuality (the pleasure meant a lot to a person who had to stab herself frequently with needles), and realized that there’s a larger world than my Tennessee hometown had indicated. I had been an odd girl in my Tennessee high school, but I fit in at Carleton.
So, why, then, am I more likely to go to a high school reunion? I mean, I was miserable in high school. But while I had high school friendships that ended, they did so simply. There were changed interests and hurt and loss involved, but never maliciousness. On the other hand, the end of my time in college was marred by the fact that a friend of mine turned rather viciously on me. I still have no idea why. After numerous phone calls and attempts to talk to her about why she’d gotten mad and would no longer speak to me—I even attempted to take a bus through a blizzard to talk with her—I retreated from an entire group that I thought at the time would be my friends for life.
None of these people would talk to me about what was going on. They said they didn’t want to get in the middle, and that I’d have to talk with her. She refused to talk with me. It was a conundrum I couldn’t solve.
La Discrétion, n.d., attributed to Claude Marie Dubufe (1790-1864). French.
One of these friends, years later, admitted that Karen had produced this effect in all of them by claiming discretion. She told others that she wouldn’t talk with them about why she had turned on me because she “didn’t want to make them think ill of someone else.” In other words, she implied that I had indeed done something terrible, so terrible that, if she told them, they would also find me repugnant. Imagination rushed in where fact was missing. Somehow, they all came to believe that I had wronged her.
Maybe even I came to believe that I had done something terrible. What else would have made her behave this way? I’m a person capable of self-reflection, and I pondered it for weeks and months, years, even, but could never figure it out. Of course, I make mistakes, like any human being. I can be harsh and judgmental without even realizing it. I can be too direct and can hurt people’s feelings by the strength of my own. Sometimes I am inconsiderate and selfish. But if I hurt a friend in some way like that, I would gladly apologize and rectify it. Not to be given a chance to do so was a huge blow to me. That my idealized college experience came to such a crashing end demoralized me for a long time.
Since then, I have, however, encountered this kind of devious discretion numerous times. Much to my chagrin most of its perpetrators seem to be women, and in my adult life they have not usually been friends but colleagues and co-workers. (I choose my friends more carefully now.) Over the years, I have discovered that there are many motivations for these people to make certain things unspeakable. It almost never has to do with the actual horrible nature of what they refuse to speak about. Rather, it’s that their reactions are logically indefensible. So they hide behind “discretion.” They work by false insinuation. This kind of “discretion” is one of the worst kinds of gossip.
Gossips, n.d., Filipp Malyavin (1869-1940). Russian. This work is in the public domain in those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 80 years or fewer.
For instance, I once had a colleague who was always saying things to people like, “Why is X so angry? Why is there so much conflict?” She acted distressed about these things, but, in fact, she created them, at least perpetuated them. If you asked her why she thought X was angry, she would say, “Oh, I don’t think it would be productive to tell you. It might hurt your feelings.” X might or might not in fact not be angry at all, and there might be no conflict to speak of other than the ordinary tension of people working together. But other people believe the underlying assumptions when people ask things this way and then refuse to give details.
It’s still amazing to me how effective this strategy is. I have fallen for it myself. Once, for instance, I failed to be as welcoming to a new colleague as I might have been because another person made vague allegations against her. In retrospect, I regret this. She ended up fast-tracking out of our shared work environment, and I later concluded that her accuser was less than truthful in an attempt to cover over her own insecurities.
It’s why my favorite rhetorical device is the enthymeme, and I always try to remember to question the unstated assumptions in what people tell me. What’s the evidence that X is angry? I try to go back a step and ask another question instead of leaping into speculation. I try to remember that the person who makes such vague allegations may be sincere, but may also be manipulating me into believing that X is angry. She may be trying to disrupt my work relationship with X or to create some false closeness to me. She may be promoting her supposedly more cheerful personality over X’s supposedly grumpy one. She may simply be a person who is herself terrified of any level of irritation or dissatisfaction. But one thing she is not doing is being, as this particular person often claimed, truly discreet or a positive, healing force in the workplace, trying to bring people together.
Genuine discretion might be that person asking X herself whether she is angry and what that is about. It would require that person to absorb what X said and perhaps to try to help X with her anger if she had some, without judging the person or situation that X was mad about. Discretion is about understanding that everyone in a situation, even an arena filled with conflict, probably has a legitimate and important perspective.
I have learned so much from my husband about this. My husband is a person who is truly discreet without ever sacrificing his honesty or his integrity. As a university department chair, he may work behind the scenes to try to benefit situations and people. He definitely does not blab about every frustration he has or every emotion he sees in another person. However, he’s very good at insisting that everyone has something good to offer and working to bring that out. He never pitches one person against another.
Certainly, I don’t mean some reverse sexist point by all this. I have certainly seen men who do pitch others against each other, and women who don’t. And I believe that women often turn to strategies like this out of a sad training that they get in childhood and in school and in their early work experiences—that directness is punished in women. I know it has been in me. I have had bosses both male and female say negative things about my honesty and integrity that I don’t believe they would ever say to a male employee.
Afternoon Tea (or The Gossips), 1889, Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896). English.
This has been on my mind recently as Newt Gingrich calls a woman who testified to Congress about birth control a “slut” and as Rick Santorum asserts that abortion should be illegal even in situations of rape and incest. This has all been on my mind as we cling to the remnants of feminism in a world where feminism is so often deemed by the young as “unnecessary.” Let us really think about how we teach our young women to be. Let every woman challenge repeatedly the idea that she must use her wiles as a primary source of success and dampen down her honest self.
Little Gossips, 1888, Jane Sutherland (1853-1928). Australian.
Real discretion is something I value. So is an ability and willingness to work out misunderstandings and disagreements with open hands, and to let go of grudges. Both of those things are hard to come by in the work world and sometimes even in one’s private life, if there even is such a thing anymore. I believe that these are important ways that each of us can contribute to a more genuine world.
I come back around to Adrienne Rich again, this time as an essayist. In “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” in the collection On Lies, Secrets and Silence, she notes the following:
“Lying is done with words and also with silence.”
“When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”
“An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.” [I would note that any honorable human relationship that is based on respect includes some love, and Rich clearly doesn’t mean only romantic love.]
“The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.”
“The liar has many [so-called] friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.”
Even silent stones can speak slander. The Three Gossips rock formations in Arches National Park, Utah. Photo by Tiziano Lombardi.
Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, c. 1650, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
“Are you ready to make plans for New York now?” Bruce laughs a little hopelessly as he asks.
I feel the panic rise in my throat like a hairball, even though we are lying in bed. He thinks that a trip is in order for me to meet with my new editor at Oxford and with my agent, who has been unwilling to give me the time of day. He thinks my new relationship with Oxford will make her take notice. And last year we missed making our usual annual pilgrimage to see our dear friends there because I’d had a brain hemorrhage.
Bruce loves the city, loves clearing away all travel challenges with his efficient handling, loves touring galleries, sitting in cafes, and walking the bustling streets, hour upon hour. He loves the atmosphere of culture and excitement that we just don’t have in the city where we live, which is a suburb through and through. He loves to fall into step with our friend Craig, their long legs matching in pace and rhythm as they talk about Kant or Hegel while John and I try to keep up behind them. He loves revisiting his favorite painting in the Met, Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, and holding my hand while we stand in front of the soulful eyes of a man long since dead whose pain and dignity we can still feel. He and I both love that a slave could hold himself so proudly, undaunted by the injustices of his world.
Last time we flew to New York, however, my feet swelled so badly I had to get a new pair of shoes. Now I have been diagnosed with arthritis in my right foot. Now I have mysterious and as yet undiagnosed damage in the left basal ganglia of my brain. Six months of doctor’s appointments and tests later, and I still feel uncertain in the world. I want to stay close to home.
So I cry and tell Bruce that I can’t do it. Not yet, while I don’t know what the future holds. I tell him angrily because I am afraid. I tell him that I know he wants to travel—he wants to take me to Berlin this summer and to Kenya someday soon—and that he may have gotten a bad deal when he married me just two and a half years ago. It has not been a very romantic time since we got married, especially the past year and a half since the brain hemorrhage—and now all this.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I may just have to travel by myself.”
I know this is his attempt at letting me off the hook, but it makes me cry harder. It makes me angrier.
“Oh, great,” I say. “It’s not like I don’t want to go. Don’t you understand? I can’t physically do it. I can’t pound the concrete with you and Craig. I can’t stand for hours on the hard museum floor. I will be in agony if I try to do that. But being left behind doesn’t sound like that nice of an alternative.”
We lie silent for a few minutes as disability wafts over us in the air from the slowly turning ceiling fan.
It is a couple of days before Valentine’s Day, but the day after I have a lumbar puncture scheduled for an analysis of my cerebrospinal fluid. We have no plans to celebrate the love holiday. We both know that it is a marketing ploy, and we agree with efforts to knock back the Romantic-Industrial Complex. We have also each spent enough Valentines Days alone over the years to have experienced the whole thing as yet another competitive way for some people to feel superior to others—“I’m loved and you’re not. So I’m a better person. Hah.” We are aware of all of that, but we also are just tired and distracted by my health and other depredations of things we hold dear (like our lives’ work in higher education). These things put a damper on the mood.
A 1683 map of Sri Lanka from Geographicus Rare Antique Maps
Yesterday I picked up some friends at the airport after their holiday travels. In all the pre-holiday hub-bub we had not communicated all that well so I was early, and the plane was late, so I went round and round the airport drive too many times in the crisp Florida sun. At first I was listening to disheartening stories on the radio, but then NPR’s Talk of the Nation featured an interview with S. H. “Skiz” Fernando, author of the recently released Rice and Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking, and I perked up.
The guy sounded awkward and smooth at the same time, which always fascinates me. And then the show featured a call-in session. At first this annoyed me—each and every one of the callers just wanted to talk about herself. One, who admitted to living in some isolated place like Wyoming, even wanted to talk about the difficulty of obtaining kefir lime leaves, which Mr. Fernando had immediately said are not part of Sri Lankan cuisine. Another said she met Mr. Fernando when he performed in Paris a decade ago—and the radio host interjected to explain that he is also a hip-hop artist. Clearly, Mr. Fernando did not remember the caller at all, though he treated each caller gently.
But then the radio show host read a few emails, including one from a guy, now living in Florida, who wrote that he had fond memories of the Sri Lanka Curry House in Minneapolis from when he’d lived there a couple of decades earlier. He noted that it has since closed, and that it didn’t include “mild” on the menu.
I laughed at the collision of time and place and suddenly found myself more sympathetic to all those who called to display their memories. I too live in Florida now but lived once in the Twin Cities. The Sri Lanka Curry House was a long way from my home in St. Paul and required a car to reach, so I only ate there once. But I remember it, though it was important only because I discovered something bad about myself. I had gone there with a large group of women, some of whom were my friends. I’m not sure of the occasion, but it might have been after a lecture given by Germaine Greer. We had been provided tickets by a friend whose mother had been one of the organizers. So, if my memory is correct, we were a bunch of feminists. Several of our crew were also lesbians.
It’s hard now to even remember how big a deal that was in 1979 or -80. I had some mixed feelings at the time, not so much about how any individual expressed her sexuality, but how the politics played out. Frequently, one of my lesbian housemates had told me that sooner or later I would see the light. Surely, she said, I would evolve. I could accept that she was a lesbian, but she could only accept that I wasn’t as a temporary setback.
The peer pressure was enormous, and with my many man troubles, I sometimes wished that I could at least claim bisexual status. But I have never been one to cave in to peer pressure. Instead, I get stubborn and resentful. Until that dinner at the Sri Lanka Curry House, I hadn’t really felt that consciously.
One of the women at the restaurant that night was named Marcie. I didn’t know her well, as she had repeatedly snubbed me at various house parties due to my retro-hetero status. As the waitresses put together several tables for our group, Marcie strutted up and down, sorting out where to sit. She noted repeatedly how much she loved hot food and how much she looked forward to this. The rest of us shuffled out of her way. Finally, she chose the middle seat on the table’s opposite side from me. I sat near a corner.
From what I recall, the Sri Lanka Curry House did have a “medium” designation on the menu, and they recommended it to all non-Sri Lankans. Most of us acceded to the waitress’ recommendation and ordered our curries as mild as possible. Not Marcie. She insisted that she was a pro with curries and that she loved her food hot. The waitress tried to talk her out of it, but she shook her head for emphasis. “Very hot,” she said.
Soon enough, the food came, steaming cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, coriander, cloves, cumin, and fennel. I was not knowledgeable enough to smell the hot flavors of the chilis and mustard, and I wondered that the strongest tasting things often don’t have the most identifiable aromas. We oohed and aahed around the table, eager but tentative, taking mostly small bites and passing each other the condiments of coconut flakes and tomato relish.
Marcie lifted her heaped fork to her mouth and dug in. After a moment, her face blanched and sweat popped profusely out of her forehead. I had never seen anything like it. She grabbed for her water glass. “No!” someone yelped, too late. Marcie gulped water and then grabbed her neck as if to strangle herself. “Water is supposed to make it worse,” the helper said.
“It’s fine,” she said, gasping just a little. “Amazingly hot. But I’m okay.” She dragged her fork across the dish and lifted it again, more slowly this time.
Everyone looked at her, then we went back to taking our own small bites of our own super-hot “medium” dishes. I didn’t figure that Marcie would eat all of her dinner, but I found myself not minding. I found myself feeling a little mean.
After a bit of dawdling with her food, Marcie ventured a second bite. As soon as she took it, the sweat began running down her cheeks. She blinked twice, slowly, and pushed the plate away from her. Suddenly, she was face down on the placemat, groaning slightly. “Here,” her neighbor gestured to the waitress. “Bring a lassi. Mango lassi, please, quickly.”
Soon enough, the wise waitress appeared with the sweet, milky drink, and Marcie’s neighbor at the table clapped her on the back and coaxed her to sit up. “Here,” she said, “this will cool you off.” Marcie shook her head no and gasped out that her throat felt burned.
“You’ll feel better,” her helper said. “Really. It will soothe your throat.”
So Marcie alternated between rolling her head side to side on the placemat and sipping the lassi. Eventually she sat up and wiped her face with the cloth napkin, though the sweat continued to pour. Everyone cooed around her, asking if she would be okay, patting her on the back, and reassuring her that the food was “insanely hot” and that she couldn’t have known. Most everyone ordered lassis to keep her company.
I recall growing quieter and quieter as the evening went on. I didn’t order a lassi because I knew it would be too sweet for my diabetes, and no one talked about how great the food was except for the lassis. (The food was great.) One thought kept echoing in my mind: Machismo is dumb whether exhibited by a man or a woman. I had also discovered my own inescapable judgmental nature, and I knew this wasn’t a nice thing about me.
This is something I have struggled with ever since. Judgment is something we all need, but need to temper with kindness. I never would have set Marcie up for such a painful episode, but the fact that I really didn’t feel all that bad for her demonstrated to me my propensity to blame people for their own ills. It might have been easy for me to do that in such a clear-cut case, but most cases of blame are not so clear.
I have always had a hard time making excuses for people of the “you couldn’t have known” variety. And this has made me very hard on myself as well.
Lately, I have been thinking further about the way that language can be shaped to an interpretation. Some of this has come out of my reactions to all the “lucky” and “blessed” labels bestowed on me in recent weeks. But it goes beyond that to thinking about how our interpretations in the world of politics can be so different when reality is presumably the same (or at least close) for all of us. And to thinking about so many self-help endeavors that claim that if you view things positively, you will do better. I want to make more distinctions in all of this about what we can affect this way and what we are lying to ourselves about with euphemisms. I want to be able to tell the difference.
In teaching introductory creative writing, I often do a lesson about denotation and connotation. What, I ask my students, is the difference between red, maroon, scarlet, vermillion, cherry, rust, and cerise, not just in shades of hue, but in implication? What is the difference between wine and claret? Within individual word choices, of course, lies the way to truthfulness and accuracy in our writing. But they can also lead to manipulation.
These days I have been noticing these differences in day-to-day description even more. I am thinking about what the difference is between the opposites that we use for the same situations and things. The weather reports long ago changed from “partly cloudy” to “partly sunny” to try to keep people happier with the newscast. Someone said to me the other day that she wasn’t sure if her holiday had been relaxing or frantic. “I could describe it either way,” she said, “and both would be true.”
There have long been issues like this that are hard to split. In another memory from my college days, I actually remember having a conversation about whether or not all “nice” guys were also necessarily “boring.” Having since been trapped on many a date with a boring man, I can say that I no longer think the two words synonymous. In fact, now I think that the kind of man typically described as “exciting” might be boring in his likely narcissism and avoidance of depth. I wouldn’t use the word “exciting” to describe such a person at all. I would describe my husband both as exciting and as one of the nicest guys on earth.
What, I might ask, is the difference between mild, medium, hot, and very hot?
I am setting as one of my New Year’s resolutions to think about how to make these relationships between words and the world meaningful, and also to at least consider a kind interpretation when I can. Marcie, after all, could never have known how hot “very hot” was, even though I still feel a touch of satisfaction that she found out. Wink.
Bruce and I recently watched The Social Network. We’d put it off for quite a while because we’d heard that it was full of jerks, and indeed it was. The filmmakers were fascinatingly successful at rendering Mark Zuckerberg sympathetic by making it seem as though the other jerks were worse than he was. Poor little lonely rich guy.
Several things struck me about the movie. One was how much college has changed. My brother graduated from Harvard in 1980, where Facebook got its start 20+ years later, and I attended another “elite” college, though not in the Ivy League. As I watched The Social Network, I couldn’t help thinking about the way money has come to be the vastly dominant value in our culture. I don’t mean to trot out that “when I was your age, we had to walk to school two miles through the snow.” But I have virtually no recollections of talking about plans to get rich when I was in college, and I don’t think my brother had many either. Yes, both of us knew obnoxious rich kids, the silver spoon jock types. It might be an odd thing to celebrate those fellows’ 1970s and 80s obsession with drugs and sex, rather than intellectual learning, but—hey—at least it wasn’t an obsession with reaffirming their privilege and expanding even further their financial advantages in the world. I’m sure financial plotting was there; it just wasn’t so bald in my youth.
It was no doubt more prominent at Harvard than at Carleton—I remember the much stiffer and status-conscious atmosphere from when I visited my brother there, and I remember being amazed that Harvard allowed those dinner clubs to exist in our day and age. In fact, one of the reasons why I had chosen Carleton was that it had absolutely no fraternities or sororities. I believed that such things were a throw-back—like debutante balls and country clubs. How could universities open their doors to women and people of color and different backgrounds, thus asserting that the right to higher education was not a birthright, and then turn around and allow these clubs to perpetuate the discriminatory privileges that their admissions policies no longer supported?
Of course, instead of dying out, secret societies, country clubs, and fraternities and sororities have made a huge comeback. On our recent visit to Knoxville, Bruce and I asked my dad about an enormous new construction project near the UT campus, and he informed us that the university is now pouring money into a project to build sorority houses. “To fix the gender inequity,” he said, and sighed. I find the idea of sorority houses addressing an inequity hilarious. One kind lessened for more of another kind. That they’re now building sorority houses instead of demolishing fraternity houses shocks me.
As we watched The Social Network, I thought a lot about the exclusive origins of Facebook. I recall that when I was first encouraged by friends to sign up for a social networking account, I was told that the Facebook membership was better educated than that of MySpace. I didn’t realize for a long time that Facebook had originated at Harvard, that it had been built on the concept of exclusivity. First it opened to other Ivy League schools, then expanded to university students with “edu” email suffixes, then (I suppose when some of them started graduating) to people at certain companies, and then, finally, to all over the age of 13.
In some ways then, Facebook has been democratized. Yet I wonder if it doesn’t remain tied to a hierarchical system based on rather juvenile standards of interaction and created by a fellow who imbued it with a barely-beyond-high-school sense of social values. I think a lot of us—even those of us who use it enthusiastically—have deep ambivalence about it because of some of these remnants.
On the one hand, I really enjoy Facebook. It’s rather miraculous to be in touch with people I would likely never have heard of again had Facebook not come on the scene. I no longer live in either of my hometowns, and I have never received an invitation to a high school reunion, nor have I ever attended a college one. When you have had the rather peripatetic life that I’ve had, it’s also a miracle to see so many different parts of your life gathered in one spot. Weird sometimes, but cool, too.
There’s my brother, of course, whom I’ve known since birth, but close on his heels is Sharon, whose parents played bridge with my parents when I was a toddler; Lisa, who I met in elementary school and who introduced me over the years to both s’mores and Spin the Bottle at her parties; William, who played basketball with my brother but who was closer to me in age and stayed my good friend and correspondent all through college. There are high school friends mixed in with college friends mixed in with grad school friends mixed in with colleagues and recent friends mixed in with former students. When on Facebook I often miss my friends who don’t use it at all or much. There’s something deeply satisfying in knowing that there are some continuities in my fragmented life, even if it is just that a lot of my friends like cats and dogs.
Facebook was also great immediately after my brain hemorrhage last year—it made things easier for everyone, including me. Hospitals have changed—I can remember when they took everything away from you as soon as you were admitted. Now they leave you with your iPhone in peace. I had music, I had Scrabble, I had email, I had the ability to make calls, but I also had the ability to not have to make calls. I just posted on Facebook, and the messages of concern and affection came rushing in like rain on the windowsill—it was outside, but I knew it was there, warm and life-affirming.
Obviously, these purposes now go beyond the college-student hook-up site that Mark Zuckerberg originally envisioned. Facebook, as we all know, has helped to create entire political movements and to help locate lost teenagers. Wikipedia even reports that in February 2011, a newborn in Egypt was named “Facebook” to honor the role that it played in that country’s revolution.
On the other hand, Facebook in my health crisis situation was a little deceptive because serious illness is a demand, both physical and emotional. Some people in your life are going to meet that kind of demand and others won’t, and there are even some people you shouldn’t ask. Facebook lumps everyone together, though now in response to Google+’s circles it allows for different “lists.” Still, the effect of Facebook is a kind of superficiality—a kind of one-night-stand of support rather than something more sustaining. Three people—one colleague, one former mentor, and one dear friend—rather brutally abandoned me in the immediate aftermath of my brain hemorrhage, and Facebook has made this doubly weird.
It’s not that these betrayals wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened without the brain hemorrhage—at least one of them definitely would have, as the ground for it was laid by my colleague long before her final coup. My brain hemorrhage was in that case used as a convenient excuse for side-lining me, and this extended to the betrayal by my former mentor as well. In both of these cases, I was discredited partly because I was ill and therefore “weak.” This is a common and well-documented reaction to serious illness, outlined long ago by Irving Goffman in his work on stigma. The friend who abandoned me is another matter, and one that I’m at a loss to explain. Explanations and excuses are seldom forthcoming in such situations, and certainly friendships sometimes end without major illness as a factor. But I will say that such abandonments in times of illness seem cruel, far more so than when you’re well.
And it’s not as though these betrayals wouldn’t have happened without Facebook. It’s just that Facebook takes you back to the kind of public rejection that we’re all likely to have had in junior high and high school. One of the people who betrayed me in 2011 also “unfriended” me on Facebook in a good indication of her own guilt and self-loathing, just like the junior high girl who steals someone else’s boy and calls her former friend names.
The other two are still my “friends” on Facebook. One of them is probably completely unaware that I feel betrayed by her; I grant her the benefit of the doubt because I know she was misled by others. We are still polite to one another, but I feel a bit like a teenage girl who thought she was the favorite of the football team captain only to find he’s dropped her for a cheerleader. The one who was my friend simply sits there, just as her image does in my wedding photos, a cypher, like the former close pal whispering with her new buddies at the school lockers.
I feel no particular antipathy toward any of these people, though it is odd to see them on Facebook (and I do see even the one who “unfriended” me because we have numerous “friends” in common). I suppose that’s an indication that my emotional life has matured since high school even if the structure of Facebook shapes us in that h.s. mode. This has all pointed out to me concretely how Facebook is not so much about friendship as it is about something else, the wider social network indeed—or the appearance of community, but not community itself.
We all know this, of course—it’s particularly obvious among writers and academics where so many of us use it as a tool of self-promotion. I do this myself, to the extent I link my blog to it and post publications sometimes. There are those who use this aspect lightly, though, and those who use it heavily. There are those who do so unrelentingly, and there are those whose Facebook pages are strangely unreal, surreal even. Watching The Social Network, I thought it no wonder that Facebook is so commonly used this way, considering its founders and their original intentions of getting ahead.
Being “friends” is, after all, not the same as being friends. I’m pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg has known this from the very beginning since his main motivation for his creation seems to have been revenge and social climbing. In other words, this may be a “duh” moment. But I still think about it a lot, in love as I am with both the simulacrum and the real world and still trying to parse out what differences Facebook makes, positive and negative.