Tuesday, September 28, 2010

so many books, so little time

Oh, there are so many things I want to read right now I can hardly stand it.  I was determined not to read Maybe this Time (Crusie's new one) until I finished reading Turn of the Screw, which took forever because I just couldn't get into it.  Had totally forgotten about reading James.  But i did finally finish it a couple of days ago, and now MTT is sitting on my bedside table as my reward for finishing the presentation I have to do this week (Thursday).  Then I just found out that a new Tiffany Aching is coming out!!  (Pratchett's YA series).  Our whole family has enjoyed those-- we listen to them on audiobooks on road trips and they are hilariously lovable.  And since I just discovered Joanna Bourne recently, I have another one of her older ones waiting, plus The Help, and one that is called something like the Guernsey potato peel society or something, and 3 or 4 more just sitting.... and waiting.... for me.... to have time to read them.

On the plus side, the stuff I'm reading for class is actually pretty good.  I adore shakespeare, especially now that we're on our third one and I'm starting to get used to his language and style again.  As You Like It for this week.  And Pauline Hopkins, an African American novelist from the turn of the century (19th/20th), who is entirely new to me and who is the subject of the presentation I have to do on Thurs.  And Kafka's Metamorphosis for tues.  It just makes you wish you were in grad school, doesn't it??

sign me happy happy happy.

Monday, September 27, 2010

GS: the dead horse again

you will be able to tell, perhaps, that I am ambivalent about posting this.  It was written yesterday morning about events that happened a week ago and have been simmering in my brain ever since, and I'm pre-dating it by two days so I hope it will disappear.  I can't tell you how much I wish I never brought this up.   but I did, so I'm finishing it up, and since I never manage to get everything I want to say across in the first try, there might  even be another one.  I hate feeling stupid.  (so, one might reasonably ask, why the hell did I go back to school? because let me tell you, it is one non-stop stupid party.)

Yesterday, our theory professor told us about our first paper, which she wants in two parts.  She does not want them elegantly connected into one paper, she wants two distinct parts.  I was reminded of that (for absolutely no reason) while I was trying to type this out, so in that spirit, here are a bunch of disconnected bits that all revolve around the same basic idea.  

1.  Can I just clarify (again) that I consider myself a feminist.  I vote feminist, for one thing. I argue as a feminist-- being in class the last month has reminded me how often I do.  But having been outside of academia for 25 years, I have to say that academic feminism makes me wonder.  In part, because I feel betrayed by it.  by the time I had a family and a job and a busy life and was faced by a number of difficult decisions about what my priorities were, feminism was very little help to me.  Life is complicated.  You can't always have it be all about me, me, me.  I got tired of going around all the time being enraged about situations that weren't bugging anybody else.  But that's what it seemed like my feminist background was telling me--because of male domination of women for the past millennium or two, you deserve to have everything your way, and if the men in your life have to pay the price for it, well, they deserve it.  I just got tired of it.  I live in the gray area.  There are no black and whites here. So even though I still consider myself a feminist, I find myself rolling my eyes at a lot of feminist rhetoric. 

2.  My literary theory class is a three hour seminar that meets once a week.  we're spending a week on each of the major groups of theories.  So last week, we talked about feminism (which is now officially feminisms, plural, because there are so many different kinds).  The debate is far too complex for me to even begin to summarize it here.  At the heart of it is "essentialism" vs. "constructionism" --which is the old nature vs. nurture issue dressed up in academic language.  If you're an essentialist, you believe there is something "essential" or elemental or built-in or fundamental about being male or female; if you're a constructionist, you believe that gender identities are constructed by the culture, there is nothing, no character trait, no behavior, that is inherently male or female.  (and put like that, constructionism sounds pretty reasonable, now that I type it out.  Maybe I should just bag this whole thing.)  It doesn't take long to realize that in an academic arena, it is important to be constructionist.  There is a long history of misogynist or just plain old misguided theories about women and "their place" that make it important in the academic world to be constructionist-- so important that our professor had a note of dread in her voice when she noted that one author we read exhibited a "creeping sense of essentialism."  I get that.  In an academic environment, I can probably even go along with it.

3.  The problem is, I don't really believe that.  Or at the very least, I'm only willing to accept it as a tentative conclusion.  I don't believe that there is some universal way of being female, but I do believe that women are different than men in ways that go beyond cultural conditioning.  (and that is not to say that I define being female only as a way of being different than male, as if being male were the gold standard and being female just a variation of it.)(See?  there's all these hidden arguments going on all the time.)  I feel some kind of affinity for other women that I don't feel for men.  The fact that I can't list exactly what it is that is essential about it doesn't mean I don't experience that. You can't bully me into not having my experiences, my perceptions.  I've learned that one-- that's what growing up fundamentalist and figuring out how to leave it will do for you.  (and yes, I do realize that my perceptions are created by the culture, the hegemony, whatever you want to call it.)(we did marxism this week.)

4. but here's the thing:  none of us, essentialist or constructionist, can prove their point.  None of us can get outside of our culture, outside of our way of thinking, and say for sure that they are Right.  Even when we're interpreting other cultures, we're still doing it from inside our own.  It seems to me that these stands, these positions, have more to do with an agenda than they do with anything relevant to what's going on in my life.  In other words, I've discovered that I don't really care about the essentialist vs. constructionist argument because there's no way to really know.  Even though I've been participating in it (in the early posts on this topic, without really knowing it) in this blog. 

5.  But here are a couple of small points that we talked about in class last week.  One:  our professor said that contemporary feminism, or 3rd wave feminism, or neo-feminism, or whatever you want to call it, is not about opposing masculine power, it's about opposing a particular type of power which requires the denigration of others.  YES. That is exactly what I think of when I think of my own brand of feminism.  It sounds a lot like what Starhawk called "power over" back in the 80s (as opposed to "power from within"). But then she (our prof) talked about the search for an androgynous ideal--which is where I start to roll my eyes, because so often feminists define the androgynous ideal as male.  (which is what I was trying to get at in this post, but maybe not very well). I'm not interested in being male.  I think I am more comfortable with what our professor called French feminism-- which comes down to believing that life and experience are "irreducibly heterogeneous"-- a term I love. (is that the difference? women's brains are irreducibly heterogeneous, while men's are monolithic? hmmmm.) Every time I've made a statement like that in this blog, I've discovered within a week or less that it was a dumb thing to say, so take that with about a pound of salt, please.  I'm just riffing.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

magic abounds

Two or three years ago, I realized I had lost my magic.  I don't know how else to describe it, and that doesn't do a very good job.  I mean that inner sense of me-ness, the knowledge that at my core is a deep well of something that is different than anyone else, that makes me who I am.  The thing is, I never had very much of that sense.  It was always overlaid with a lot of other burdens, the burdens of trying to please a parent who was never pleased, the effort to fit a round peg (me) into the square hole of my religious training (which unfortunately worked just well enough that it took me decades to figure out that I really, really didn't fit). 

But even with all that layered over the top, there was-- up until about ten years ago-- always an inner part of me that I treasured.  I would feel it at certain moments with friends and family, or while writing, or reading a really good book, or sometimes when I was looking up at the stars on a night with no moon.  I've been thinking about what happened, how I let it get killed off.  And I think it comes down to a misunderstanding about what love means.  I grew up in that Christian tradition that honors self-sacrifice above all else.  Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends, right?  An acronym that floated around often in my childhood and in my head:  Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last = JOY.  Not kidding.  Somehow I took that too seriously.  Once I had kids and a spouse with a career that seemed more important than anything I was doing, the demands on me became endless, more than I could possibly do. Infinite sacrifice seemed required.  I think I self-sacrificed myself to death.  It was much easier to figure out what everyone else wanted from me than it was to figure out what I really needed.  So I took the course of least resistance, what seemed like the easiest way at the time, and kept doing what everyone else wanted until there was nothing left of me.

Not consciously, of course.  I'm not quite that pathetic.  You could have caught me at any number of times during the period of my deadness telling friends or family that they needed to take care of themselves, that you can't be a good mom if there's nothing there to mother with, that God didn't mean for us to be doormats.  But I was so clueless about what I needed, and then when I started to figure it out, I was so reluctant to do anything about it (because of the demands it would make on the people I love), that it was very nearly too late by the time I realized I had to change.

Ack.  this post was going to be about how happy I am that my mojo, my magic, is coming back, not an extended journey into the boring-ness of my past.  But maybe I needed to put this into words.  The thing is, when I first started figuring out how to take care of myself, it felt selfish.  It felt mean and hard-hearted to put my own needs ahead of what other people needed.  But I was dying, or at least slowly going insane.  I had to change.  I don't think I would ever have been able to get past the guilt of putting my own needs before others' if it weren't for that-- a selfish mom, I finally realized, was better than a mom who was locked up in a nuthouse somewhere.  Or dead from suicide (which I never actually planned, but there were a few moments where it entered the realm of possibility, which scared the shit out of me).  Pema Chodron says that tonglen, which is the Buddhist practice of infinitely returning good for evil, is an intermediate practice-- not for beginners-- because you have to have a sense of when it becomes self-destructive (since she's buddhist, I'm sure she didn't use the term self-destructive--the whole no-self thing, you know-- but it's been awhile since I read that, and that's what I remember about it). 

Now, three years later, the odd but welcome outcome of my learned selfishness, my determination to get my own needs taken care of, is the return of my magic. Now I get it.  Now I understand that it's not being selfish, it's just being yourself.  If you give away too much of yourself, you become something other than who you are-- for the theist part of me, I could even phrase this, "you become something other than the person God created you to be."

Ha.  Now I know why I needed to type this out:  because I was about to give in on something very important to me (before the person even asked) because it seemed like to much to ask. and I didn't even realize it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

an aside

So I sat down to post this morning with no idea where I was going, but a bunch of things to say after my classes yesterday.  But then I got distracted.  Blogger has "stats" now.  From your "dashboard" (which is what they call the main menu), you can access statistics about your blog.  how many people have looked at each page, what page they came from, what they searched for when they found you, etc.  OMG.  It's amazing.  It turns out that my blog gets a lot more traffic than I realized.  Not that it gets a lot-- less than 50 page views last week-- but STILL.  If you had asked me, I would have said less than a dozen.  Sometimes I'm not sure if it gets any.  And the most popular page on my blog?  this one.  From Jan 2008, which got 5 pageviews last week.  Go figure.  So now I can't remember what I was going to post about and if I'm going to have time to do the treadmill, I've got to run.  (ha)

Oh, great, one more way to waste time on the internet.  Like I needed that.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

GS: let me try this again

I've mentioned before that being a mom doesn't come easily to me.  At work or around other adults, I often find myself being maternal-- keeping track of people, or trying to help, or taking care of things.  But toddlers?  pre-schoolers? infants?  I just don't have the patience.  I did not feel a huge wave of maternal bliss the first time I held my daughter in my arms.  I felt a wave of terror, of complete and utter inadequacy.  I did not cherish The Baby Days.  I was utterly and completely relieved to leave my daughter four hours a day with a wonderful woman running an in-home daycare so that I could keep my job on a part-time basis.  The older she got, the more I enjoyed her.  Her teenage years had their definite moments of angst, but I'd take a teenager any day over an infant.  Heck, I'd take a whole house full of teenagers over an infant.

You get the idea.  June Cleaver I am not.  There are a number of consequences of this:  for one thing, I am enormously proud of myself for sticking it out.  It didn't come naturally to me, but I kept at it because it was more important to me than anything else ever had been.  I still remember the day when my daughter was 3 and we were sitting in the cab of the little Nissan pickup I drove back then, and we looked at each other and it was like we really saw each other for the first time.  I remember giving this little nod and thinking, Okay, then.  I can do this.  We're all right.  I don't take credit for the amazing person she has turned out to be (she is now 20, and she has done that all by herself), but I do take some credit for not screwing it up. (I'm leaving my son out of this for now since he is still at home and just turned 13, but he is a similarly awesome kid). 

So on the first day of class of "Progressive Voices" (Four American Women Writers of the Progressive Era), when the professor had us go around the room and each introduce ourselves and tell "something interesting" about ourselves, the only thing that came to mind was my kids.  My kids are far and away the most interesting thing about me. This is the bare truth.  I am by nature an observer.  I am not interesting.  I watch people and I think about them.  I don't do crafts or hobbies or sports, I haven't had an interesting career, I don't have any big accomplishments in my life to brag about.  Except that I survived my kids' childhoods (I'm still surviving my son's, of course, but he's out of the bitty kid stage, anyway).  (And honest to pete, it didn't occur to me until the next day that the fact that I've had a blog for seven years would be something interesting.  Never crossed my mind.)

But you can imagine the reaction that I got in a roomful of students in a feminist literary criticism class when I said that the most interesting thing about me is my kids.  It just isn't done.  We're women, hear us roar.  We don't find our fulfillment in other people, we find it in ourselves and our own accomplishments.  And on the one hand, I get that.  I've been a feminist for practically my entire life (I should write a post about my childhood moments of feminism someday).  I took a class in feminist literary criticism in 1983 before any of the other students in this class were even born.  But on the other hand, it pissed me off.  I could almost see their eyes rolling, their inward groans of embarrassment for me, the immediate conclusions that were jumped to with eager leaps.  But you know, I'm not embarrassed that I'm proud I've turned myself into a good mom.  I suppose I could have gone into a long-winded explanation of what I meant when I said the most interesting thing about me is my kids, but damn it, I shouldn't have to.

This isn't done yet.  Just more of the continuing conversation.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

GS: textbook case

I don't know why I post about some of this stuff because if you don't already think I'm nuts, this will do it.  But what else am I going to post about?  This was my week.

It's been about three years since I first decided to go back to school.  I started with classes at our community college, then last fall, I started driving the two+ hours to get down to UTown and our state university.  In mid-October, I had to write the first paper I'd written in 24 years.  I remember the night before it was due, I was staring at the complete chaos on my desk, notes and papers and a stack of books, and my laptop and who knows what else, and thinking, "I just can't do this anymore.  It's not possible for my brain to function at this level.  I'm going to have to drop out."  and on and on.  I did get it done (by about 2 a.m., if memory serves, which wouldn't be a problem since I'm kind of a night owl anyway, except that then I have to be able to do that drive the next day).  And then I waited with dread to get it back and see how badly I had done.  I was so freaked out about it that--I'm not kidding-- when the prof handed our papers back, I grabbed mine, stuffed it straight into my backpack, drove two+ hours home, and made my spouse look at it first.  I was so terrified they were going to kick me out for being an idiot.  But of course I did fine, so I persevered and now here I am in the master's program.

And I'm doing it again.  It's completely neurotic.  I can reason with myself and rationalize and try to have some sense that I am a functioning adult human being, but it's all for naught, because Monday night I just lost it.  I had a big presentation to do on Tuesday (so not only the intimidation of being a grad student for the first time in decades, but also major fear of public speaking), and I came unglued.  By the time my poor spouse got home, I was standing at the stove cooking dinner and crying.  Not hysterical sobbing, but just a continuous, uncontrollable stream of tears down my face.  I knew it was going to be horrible, and that someone was going to have to pull me aside and tell me that oops, they had made a mistake and I really am not capable of this level of work and please go home.   Poor dh looks at me and says, "what in the world are you doing cooking dinner when you have a big project due tomorrow?"  and I wailed, "Well, I'm going to get kicked out of grad school tomorrow anyway, so I figured I might as wellllllll....."

To his credit, he did not roll his eyes and laugh.  Because I deserved it.  I pulled myself together and got my notes done, and the presentation was fine.  Far from perfect, but it got done, and it seemed to be fairly well received, and I'm sure I didn't fail.  Fortunately for me, I had a partner who was great.

But the point is that it is just mystifying to me how I can let myself get into that state.  It's completely irrational. I mean, even if it was horrible, there's no way I would get kicked out of grad school on the basis of that one assignment.  That's just silly.  But in the moment, I am totally immersed in the feeling of panic and misery and despair.

And believe it or not, the topic of the presentation was psychoanalytic theory.  So we were talking about neuroses.  About how Freud saw the id--the unconscious--as this mass of seething socially unacceptable sexual desires and urges that result in neuroses and compulsive behavior.  And Lacan's version is that whatever we can't speak, whatever we can't understand through the language that creates our consciousness, enters the unconscious and then is acted out outside our conscious control.  So not only am I freaking out about my ability to handle the academics of the assignment, I'm thinking to myself, "Oh, crap, this is me.  I'm a nutcase."

and it just might be true.  be thankful you don't have to live with me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

GS: reading and reading

So this week I have been reading Saussure and Derrida (for last Tuesday's theory class) and now Freud, Lacan and Rzepka (for this coming Tuesday's class) and it is making me nuts.  especially Derrida and Lacan.  If I were just reading for pleasure, it would be kind of fun (for a page or two) to see what they do with language-- not what they say about language, which is also interesting -- but to watch how they express themselves in language.  I'm reading them in translation, of course, but still it is evident that they enjoy playing with words.  But I'm not reading them for pleasure, I'm trying to understand them, and it's enough to drive you nuts.  You have to suspend resolution of a thought sometimes for several paragraphs of densely written explication of ideas using words you've never heard ("neurax" doesn't even come up when you google it-- neuraxis, but not neurax, except as the name of software that predicts the outcome of horse races, and I swear I did not make that up.)

But anyway.  These guys talk about how we create our consciousness through language-- which makes sense to me on most levels, because how can you think about things for which you have no words? (but makes me wonder exactly how Buddhist meditation, which is beyond/beneath/outside words, fits in.).  And how would you even begin to think about something that isn't defined in your language, except to first try to articulate it?  we can't know anything outside of what language allows us to know, and thus we and our culture are created by what we can say/speak.  We can't find a place of outside of our culture from which to be objective about anything.  That all makes sense to me.  But it strikes me as odd that they somehow think that because they question every bit of common sense knowledge that you've ever taken for granted, that they have done that-- placed themselves outside of culture and are therefore able to make these pronouncements from a position of authority and objectivity.  They never outright claim to be doing that, of course, but the manner in which they state their observations certainly makes it sound like that's what they're doing.  it amuses me.  And of course it goes without saying that they are horribly sexist, but they (like all of us) are products of their time-- which is exactly the point.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

late night thoughts in the morning

One of my most distinct memories of high school is sitting in physics class my senior year and listening to the teacher try to explain that light is both a wave and a particle-- meaning light seems to travel both in continuous waves and also in little discrete packets.  I must have seemed like a complete dolt.  I kept questioning him about it.  How could it be both?  I think I finally ended with, "That's just Not Right."  But now, 30 years later, I totally get that, because it seems like half the stuff in my life is both a wave and a particle.  Belief and unbelief, content and anxious, determined and stymied.  And in more esoteric realms, as well.  Does the fact that I can't list 10 universal moral truths mean that there is no such thing as a universal sense of what is right and what is wrong (that gets interpreted differently in every culture)?  Does the fact that I can't list 10 traits that every woman has mean that there is no Eternal Feminine out there that gets interpreted in infinitely various ways?  (sorry to go all new-agey on you there with the eternal feminine, but I'm just thinking out loud here)(or typing out loud? or thinking-to-type?).  Why can't both be true?  particle and wave, wave and particle.

And yesterday I was sitting in class listening to the professor do a quick rundown of the shift during the 20th century from a metaphysical mindset to a post-modern mindset-- the metaphysical mindset being the one where there is some sort of absolute (whether God or a Platonic ideal or some sort of secular humanist ideal of human nature) outside of existence that we can use as a touchstone, a guide, a place of origin; the post-modern mindset of course doesn't believe that there is anything outside of what we know, that everything we know is dependent on other things we know (Saussure!  Derrida!).  So we understand cow-ness in relationship to (and in opposition to) horse-ness and dog-ness and tree-ness and everything else that we know.  And I find myself thinking, why can't both be true?  Why can't there be something out there, some infinitely spacious ground of universal being, that's so vast that it has little or nothing to do with determining the reality of our little lives?  and otoh, if what's out there is so huge that our little reality isn't something that he/she/it would even begin to notice, what's the point in considering the possibility of its existence? I don't know, but it doesn't seem all that clear to me that either side can claim certainty here. I want to say why can't God both exist and not exist, but that might be pushing the boundaries of the absurd to the point where they break.  Although sometimes I think that's what these theory people are all about.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

GS: one week down

A bit of housekeeping: I'm going to try using GS in the subject line to denote posts that are solely devoted to grad school and literary studies. I know those topics don't interest some of you and that way you can tell at a glance if it's one of those.
Every time I sit down to type a post, I wonder how in the world I'm going to be able to organize the swirl of thoughts in my head into something coherent enough for someone else to understand. Which is why my posts frequently begin with some sort of caveat about how I'm not sure how to say this, I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this, how the hell am I going to make this work, or whatever. But it occurred to me today that exactly that dilemma is what it means to be a writer. Duh. Of course I have to figure out how to put it into words. that's the whole point. So, no more apologies on that score. But that's exactly what I'm thinking right now.

I really wish I had never brought up the whole theory issue (which is mostly in these posts), because I'm going to end up having to eat a lot of crow. Even though I know it's a complex issue, I had no idea exactly how complex, or how quickly it would come up. It's ludicrous of me to think that I can have something relevant to say after having been out of the academic world for 25 years. But I did bring it up, and I stated my uninformed opinion rather strongly, and so now I'm feeling honor bound to keep slogging away at this.  It will help me figure out what I think to type it out, anyway.

So maybe if I tell you the story of my first week you will get the idea.  I'll skip over the Shakespeare class for right now, even though it looks like it will be a lot of fun, because it's pretty straightforward.  The issues that have my brain locked up come from the other two classes.  One is Intro to Graduate Studies, which is, for the most part, a theory class.  The other is "Progressive Women," about four American women writers from the early twentieth century, which will have a pretty strong feminist component, and I hope some exposure to other theories as well.

OK, I got that far (above) last Friday, but then got bogged down trying to explain what I wanted to say.  Then today I had my theory class again (it only meets once a week), and realized that it's just silly for me to try and say anything intelligent about it at this point.  I just don't know enough.  I will say -- for one thing-- that the posts that I've already written about feminism seem to be in response to a version of feminism that is now out of date.  In other words, I've been responding to the feminist literary criticism professor I had in 1982, not to the state of feminist thought now.  So there's my first little bit of crow, and I'm sure there's more to come.

Friday, September 03, 2010

just a note

I'm working on a post about the first week of class, which got me so tangled up in knots that it may not get posted until after the 2nd week.  But thought I would throw out a random observation in the meantime.  Many a feminist would be willing to battle to the death over their assertion that it is just as important to read Uncle Tom's Cabin as it is to read The Scarlet Letter (they were published a mere two years apart, by the way--1852 and 1850, respectively).  According to them, to "privilege" Scarlet Letter, written by an educated white male, over Uncle Tom's Cabin, written in sentimental style by a woman, is to pander to sexist criteria of what is culturally important.  But many of those same feminists would rather have their fingernails pulled out one at a time than read a romance novel, which would seem to be the Uncle Tom's Cabin equivalent of our era (at least in some ways, not the least of which is that Cabin outsold every other book published at the time except the Bible). Strikes me as a bit hypocritical.

I'm completely buried in trying to read Saussure and Derrida.  I understand each of the individual words, and usually I can puzzle out what any particular sentence is saying, but I have absolutely no idea what it means.  Which I suppose is appropriate to the nature of the topic-- would that be the diachronic nature of language?  You understand each word, each unit of language, in relationship to the words immediately surrounding it, but haven't got a clue about the overall meaning.  or maybe that just proves I don't get it.