gall and gumption

Sunday, February 24, 2008


I just lost two and a half hours of writing when MS Word crashed because I pasted a URL. It was the last thing I needed to add to the piece. No, don't ask me if I saved and don't tell me...

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Nothing That Is Not There and the Nothing That Is

This got me thinking about my neighborhood.

The Tick Farm is located near the westernmost edge of the DC metro area, in Loudoun County, VA. Well, it was the westernmost edge last time I looked. More of it might have gotten eaten up since I came in from the grocery store. I see the recent displacement of a lot of small rural businesses -- some guy running a tree service or a welding shop out of his back yard. This is all in the process of being replaced by huge subdivisions, strip malls, office parks and big box chain stores. Land is for sale everywhere you look, and nothing but those things will be built on it. A couple miles from me a whole village is about to disappear. The old places get somehow converted into non-places when the subdivisions sprout up next to or on top of them. They have been rendered obsolescent, they are things that are there that do not exist in any way that merits consideration. Gives me the creeps. That's what gets me about "development" is this curious fictional nonexistence resulting from the way the subdivision degrades whatever it is next to.

The little older rambling house with the big fenced yard and the good old trees making the lawn shady, with the work vehicles all in back and maybe an extra smaller house for grown kids or in-laws, this is what you still glimpse around here. There’s a spot near me where the gigantic Stepford Subdivision has wrapped itself around one of these places. The subdivision is gigantic and the houses are also gigantic. The older houses nearby are low-profile and have sort of blended back into the landscape, as older houses will do. But you look at them now and you think, “Doomed.” This doesn’t happen with the older houses that are still on their own, the ones a couple miles out. The older house near a subdivision looks like the embarrassing poor relations left behind by the mighty processes of human progress. Might as well knock them on the head.

It’s like as soon as these big sterile places move in the old places are in the countdown to being obsolescent not only in imagination but in actuality. This nonconforming bit of reality will be bulldozed because reality is supposed to match the subdivision. And what I notice about the subdivision is how sterile it is. When I say it’s sterile I don’t mean it in any psychological or metaphorical sense, I mean biologically sterile. Down at the Tick Farm, just out of sight of the subdivision, there are birds in and out of my yard all the time, and above the woods and the meadow turkey vultures and hawks act like they own the place. Mushrooms grow on old logs, the dogwood tree and the old oak trees and cypress trees in the woods have lichens on their trunk, and even though the previous tenants have used parts of the meadow for garbage disposal on a truly astonishing scale, apparently the possums, skunks and rabbits have learned to live with this and they go scratching about in the weeds among the World’s Largest Collection of Bud Lite Cans. The subdivision looks biologically sterile because it really isn’t designed to co-exist with other earthlings. And it’s aesthetically sterile as well. I imagine a HOA rule book the size of a family Bible and about as notable for liberal-mindedness as the Old Testament.

But that’s OK because their fees pay for all sorts of exclusive services and facilities -- a mini-government, really -- not open to the public. It’s not a gated community but when I walk the dogs there I feel like an interloper. And here and there are signs reminding everyone that this is “Your New Hometown.” The design of it is in imitation of a small town – Mayberry, possibly. I mean, if Mayberry had nothing to walk to. And so you get this curious thing happen, where regimentation and conformity are the same as living in a neighborhood -- are represented as the essence of coexisting with others, and this is supposed to be a good thing. Do the residents believe this? I assume it is an architectural assertion, and I imagine that a lot of people don’t care about their surroundings that much and just conform because conformity has material benefits and then live their lives inside the house. Nevertheless, the bigger and more micromanaged the life of the subdivision is, apparently, the more prestige it has. I suppose you can go and brag to your distant relatives about how your HOA won’t let you plant a vegetable garden. It could all end up sounding like that old Monty Python sketch.

My late uncle, for instance, migrated to the U.S. in about 1970. He lived in places like this as soon as he completed his residency in obstetrics/gynecology. As soon as he started delivering babies and the money started pouring in, his life with my aunt (and after their breakup) was a steady progression from subdivision to newer and fancier subdivision. To live in places like this was to have arrived. Inside the house was where all the life was – and they certainly had lots of life there; outside the house, even though my aunt kept the small front garden very nice, was mostly just how you got to your car.

The subdivision near the Tick Farm got an enormous fire department/police station complex, this magnificent thing which I suppose the residents are encouraged to believe is for their exclusive personal use. Though what they use the police for other than settling domestic disputes I don’t know. There’s no crime to speak of out here. No, not because of the virtues of the subdivision; there’s no crime on my road either, other than dumping and, evidently, drinking Bud Light while driving and flinging the cans out the window.

The Tick Farm is doomed of course. I’m at peace with it as far as my personal life here is concerned. I just really really really hate that business of rendering the noncomforming nonexistent so that when you actually eliminate it you can say you have eliminated nothing and built something. That’s evil nonsense and I don’t believe it. I wish it didn’t win every argument.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Well, Thank Heavens That’s All Over With

Leslie has been having Valentine's' Day fun with this Lori Gottlieb piece, which I sent to her after finding it at Pandagon. She looks up from her work and from small crises like the cat catching its tail on fire and bops Gottlieb on the head with the sheep's bladder and then goes back to work again.

Gottlieb strikes me, first of all, as awfully dismissive of the experience of love – when it happens to other people – she is not making her arguments from much understanding of, or curiosity about, other people’s inner lives.

So I find myself wondering what standing she has to be telling other women what to do, other than her own experience, when, if you’ll pardon the expression, she doesn’t even seem to have actually experienced that, either.

They let anybody do that? Well, maybe I'll try it.

So here is my first bit of unsolicited advice on relationships: If you find yourself at brunch, or a baby shower (God help you!) or any gathering of these females, flee.

Whether you acknowledge it or not, there’s good reason to worry. By the time 35th-birthday-brunch celebrations roll around for still-single women, serious, irreversible life issues masquerading as “jokes” creep into public conversation: Well, I don’t feel old, but my eggs sure do! or Maybe this year I’ll marry Todd. I’m not getting any younger! The birthday girl smiles a bit too widely as she delivers these lines, and everyone laughs a little too hard for a little too long, not because we find these sentiments funny, but because we’re awkwardly acknowledging how unfunny they are. At their core, they pose one of the most complicated, painful, and pervasive dilemmas many single women are forced to grapple with nowadays: Is it better to be alone, or to settle?

I am assuming that these are not fictional people; they sound a lot like fictional people, but that could be because they are all pretending to be friends. In any event people who act as if they are people in genre romances are best avoided, wherever you find them. Unless you like the prospect of a party that is 1) achingly boring and 2) has this moment – possibly the moment after the cutting of the cake, when you’re looking at them and they’re looking at you and you don’t know that they are thinking Gee she’s no spring chicken any more. What a pity she doesn’t have a life, er, man. Washed up at 35!

Is it better to be alone, or to have friends like these?

No, if you fear loneliness the first thing to do is ditch these “friends.” People who talk like this are emitting loneliness – that’s what you’re inhaling, the exhaust fumes, the flatus, of their narcissism and vulgarity. If you breathe those fumes for long you may be tempted to knock back the last of that mimosa and fling yourself under a bus. Go and call one of your real friends. Go take a walk. Go look at shoes. But get up from that brunch table ASAP. Do you have a book in your purse? Good. Then go sit and read it for an hour and look at people walking by and daydream about adventures you can have. Go out and flirt with somebody.

I hope the book is Persuasion.

Read it to learn about unselfish endurance and tenacious love. Read it and understand that Anne Elliot has chosen to live single because she lost the one love of her life, and being alone is better than “settling” because she knows what love is like. When we meet her at the opening of the novel her feelings about Captain Wentworth have endured for eight years and she doesn’t expect ever to see or hear from him again.

I’m really trying to restrain myself here from talking at length about Persuasion, but think about the prospects of Anne’s life; they are to see and not be seen, and to be regarded as an object of use by almost everyone else. A dogsbody, a person whose feelings are of no interest, no account to anyone else, even if she is the most perceptive and keenly feeling person around. Austen describes all this with such a light touch, she places Anne’s situation in a comic setting, there you find her among these silly relatives. That’s Austen’s genius and yeah I do mean genius. It’s up there with Pushkin and Chaucer and Mozart, those writers who make the image of the human condition (doomed) beautiful and not a bit less true for being so.

I’m going to digress here for a moment to Jane Eyre where, with a considerably heavier touch, Charlotte Bronte gets at another aspect of this. I was in a bookstore with Tom here in Washington and this book group was discussing Jane Eyre. They were talking about when Jane goes back to Gateshead to visit her aunt, who is dying. Mr. Rochester gives her some money for the journey and offers to send a servant to escort her. Jane takes basically her back pay and declines the offer of the servant. The women in the book group called attention to this offer of an escort. Why was that necessary? And of course when Jane runs off after the failed wedding she runs off on her own. So I think this got into the discussion too. The leader of the group suggested that there was danger of being raped. But I don’t think that’s it. It’s that a woman who is out on her own is in danger of being exposed to impertinent familiarities that are the ordinary lot of unprotected and unrepsctable women. It’s not so much her person as her respectability that will come under assault. Without the externals of respectability (family, connections, clothes, money, husband, etc.) a woman is presumed to be no good. Bronte wrote this scene because she felt the vulnerability of her own place in the world; one, she was a passionately sexual woman, and two, she was poor. Had it not been for the fame of her books she would have been just another poor, insignificant daughter of a clergyman, and her imagination must have imagined worse.

Jane’s journey across the moor, before she fetches up at the house where St. John and his sister, is an idealized best-case scenario of what happens to a woman who (even innocently) falls off the edge of the world.

When you didn’t get a man it meant a very confined life.

You might stop, also, and ask yourself whether the women at that birthday brunch are really different in substance from Sir Walter Elliot. I bet you read Persuasion and thought people like him didn’t exist. Goldberg has done you one favor at least; she has proved that people like him do exist. It’s only in fiction that they confess themselves so readily. It’s not beliefs that indicate Sir Walter’s stupidity, it’s his inability to cover them up.

… Sir Walter's remark was, soon afterwards--

"The profession has its utility, but I should be sorry to see
any friend of mine belonging to it."

"Indeed!" was the reply, and with a look of surprise.

"Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds
of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons
of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours
which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly,
as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old
sooner than any other man. I have observed it all my life.
A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise
of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to,
and of becoming prematurely an object of disgust himself, than in
any other line. One day last spring, in town, I was in company
with two men, striking instances of what I am talking of;
Lord St Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate,
without bread to eat; I was to give place to Lord St Ives,
and a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage
you can imagine; his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged
to the last degree; all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side,
and nothing but a dab of powder at top. `In the name of heaven,
who is that old fellow?' said I to a friend of mine who was standing near,
(Sir Basil Morley). `Old fellow!' cried Sir Basil, `it is Admiral Baldwin.
What do you take his age to be?' `Sixty,' said I, `or perhaps sixty-two.'
`Forty,' replied Sir Basil, `forty, and no more.' Picture to yourselves
my amazement; I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin.
I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can do;
but to a degree, I know it is the same with them all: they are all
knocked about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather,
till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked
on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin's age."

The joke here (and it is Austen’s joke—she always knows what she’s doing) is that Sir Walter is patently absurd when he talks about men that way, but of course men, and women, talk about women this way all the time. Except Austen doesn’t talk about women this way, even when, like Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice they choose to “settle.” Yes, Austen reviews Elizabeth Elliot’s life that way, but that is because those are the terms in which Elizabeth chooses to see her own life. It should give you pause to think that Charlotte Lucas would rather live with Mr. Collins than risk not gaining the tiny bit of respectable independence that marriage will give her.

But you and I don’t labor under those constraints. The world is wide open for us in a way that it could never be for Austen’s heroines. No husband? Well, this means that you can fall asleep reading with the light on every night. You have mobility that Austen and Bronte could barely dream of. But it means nothing if you don't use that mobility to actually, you know, go anywhere.

Personally, I find myself alone out here at the Tick Farm. I am surrounded by a meadow and woods. I get decent views of the stars. I'm liking looking at the stars for the sake of the stars, and not as the stage for a fictive romance.

Update: Here's some good advice.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Another County Heard From

You may already know that The Mighty Sparrow, Greatest Calypsonian Ever, has endorsed Barack Obama. You may not know that Sparrow has also written a new calypso for Obama.

This post is not an endorsement of anyone except Sparrow, and I know you all don't appreciate his supreme Mightiness nearly enough.

Here's one of his classics. Listen out for the line, "Wait, Wait May May, a sandfly bite me down deh!"

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Boyfriend I Never Had

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Would You Call It Happiness?

Via email from Max, this note. Of course he’s completely right to be puzzled by what I said. Ignore all the pro-Kia bias, of course...

Dear Kia,
I tried to send a comment, but God knows where it went. Your piece about Marvin Mudrick is terrific, I think--I should say "your piece about book reviewing" but of course I love reading what you say about
M. It puzzles me, though, in one place, and I'm hoping you'll say a little more. I'm taken aback when you say, with great emphasis, that M was a happy man. If you were to say that Boswell was happy, or Johnson, I'd have the same reaction. I think you wouldn't say that, I think you'd agree that both of them were constantly fending off a kind of bleakness which always came back. As Boswell puts it, this lowness of spirits was the ground of his mind.
It seems to me so clear that MM was like this too (he often said so himself, as you must remember), that I'm puzzled when you say what you do. The truth is probably that I just don't quite understand how you're using the word happy or just what you have in mind. Therefore, I repeat, I wish you'd say a little more.
Anyway, many thanks. Among the many things I'm grateful to M for, what gives me the most pleasure these days is remembering some of the thousands of time he made me laugh. Only, I wish I could remember better! People are, in other people's memories, such pale shadows of themselves.

So what did I mean?

I once told him that I often felt that the ground under me was like the crust of a volcano, and I walked in fear that it would give way any minute. He told me he experienced a very similar feeling, and the only way he had learned to cope with it was to get everything done: pay the bills as soon as they arrived, meet deadlines, get all the administrative work done by 11 a.m. Which, as you know, he did. He made it clear that doing these things would not cure this disposition to melancholy. He said something like, “At least I won’t have to worry about that.” Well the end result of that way of coping was that he was the most-published scholar in the department, while teaching six courses a year, and he had a college to run, and he did all of that and had lots of available time to spend talking with students. And he never went around complaining about how tired he was. And occasionally I think he recognized that as far as his work went, as far as being a literature major went, he had been very lucky in getting to do exactly what he wanted to do. But that is a sort of intermittent satisfaction you can get looking back down the road you’ve walked, but it’s not the same as what one feels about one’s own existence. And I should have made that clearer.

But there’s something else that is harder to get at, and I think it relates to him, and to Boswell and Johnson and it’s part of what made him feel such an affinity and love for them. My favorite of Blake’s proverbs is in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Actually it might be my favorite proverb of all: “Energy is eternal delight.”
MM had energy in this sense. And so did Boswell, and so did Johnson. It had nothing to do with being cheerful or happy-go-lucky or thinking positive thoughts and never having negative ones. It was just energy and it was large and mysterious and more than their personalities.

I love that Boswell expression. I think you can have energy and feel that lowness of spirits is the ground of your mind. And yet, while you believe this, you are breaking out, you are revealing the activity of this energy. There’s Johnson feeling low, and he’s in a conversation somewhere, and somebody says something and he fires back blam! He’s totally present, like (to put it in a rather crude metaphor) like a dog that suddenly wakes straight up out of sleep and runs across the yard barking. Fully awake. I’m aware when I read Boswell of this energy; Johnson has it too. And so did MM. I could call it the life force, I guess. He would have called it vitality and then spent 20 minutes trying to explain why he didn’t mean mere physical vitality but something that was also related to consciousness, then he would have given up without having explained it to his own satisfaction. He would never have used an expression like “the life force.” Come to think of it neither would you, Max. It is a sort of inwardly generated exuberance that somehow leaves no emotional trace or thread that you can pick up and continue with once the mood has passed. Not really the basis for a philosophical happiness. But it is energy that delights in itself and in its own expression. Solving problems doesn’t bring it into being, unless it takes an interest in the activity, and it doesn’t apparently solve anything, not even anything related to itself. It exists for its own sake. And it can exist, as it did in Boswell and Johnson, in people who experience a large part of life as the avoidance of wretchedness.

Well, this is what I've got. If anyone else wants to take a whack at this, please do.