Wednesday, December 30, 2015

New Year's Resolutions: Read better stuff. Work better. Live better.

Both GetaLifePhD (" How to become more creative, focused, relaxed, and productive") and Fie have recently posted New Year's resolutions, so I'm inspired to do the same. Basically, they're all in the title of this post.

1. Read better stuff. When did reading an actual book turn into a commitment rather than a pleasure? Was it reading for work in grad school?

Somehow, clicking on one more internet listicle news seems to ward off the work of opening a book, when the book makes you feel better, is more informative, and is less likely to result in rage at rampant stupidity, bad facts, and worse grammar.

Some books are work, true, but it's more the commitment of time than anything else that leads to stupid internet reading. "I only have 5 minutes, so let me check the news," I say, but how much better spent that 5 minutes would be if I read something real instead of fake--or something that, if it's real, makes me feel enraged and helpless in the face of the events.

2. Work better. After the big push of a collaborative project in the fall, I haven't done much for the past couple of weeks. It's time to get moving--back to the gym (did so today, so hooray) and back to writing. How is this working better? A new year, a new Moleskine, and a new shot at a 30-day challenge about writing every day, maybe, will help with those January deadlines.

3. Live better.  The simple version of this is pretty basic: move more, eat less, sleep more, fret less. But maybe it's even simpler than that.
  • What makes you happy? 
  • What makes you feel creative?
  • What are you proud of being able to do, even if it's something no one else would care about?
  • Was there some incident or you came through with flying colors? Keep it in your mind as a talisman against worse moods or bad times.  
  • Someone's being a jerk? Take your hands off that man.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Post-holidays roundup

    • Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
    • Turning into a cooking and cleaning machine for a couple of weeks is my favorite part of Christmas, except for seeing family, which is, of course, the reason I do it. Honest.  I love seeing people eat what I cook and bake. I love doing laundry and picking up.  I love the idea that if I don't bestir myself, there'll be hungry people milling around the kitchen wondering where dinner is and that nobody can get out of the driveway if I don't shovel it every day.  They offer to help, but I choose to do it. There's a beginning and an end point to it, and it's just very satisfying, probably because I can go back to wrestling with writing refreshed at the end of the two weeks. It's a good workout, too--I am really tired at the end of the day-- and, unlike the also invisible work of administration, people are grateful that you do it. 
    • You can think about all the foods that you don't have to make or eat any more when you sing holiday songs. "So bring us a figgy pudding"--uh, no thanks. 
    • It's easier to ignore the news and (justifiable) endless outrage on Twitter, if you're too busy to look at it. 
    • Ditto for ignoring email, which I've been happily doing for more than a week. Grade-grubbers? Contact me in January, for you are not getting a response to the email you sent on December 24. 
    • Sometimes I dance a little happy dance at the thought that I am not going to MLA this year. 
    • Speaking of MLA, it does not have good tidings of great joy this year. From Inside Higher Ed:
    "The MLA's annual report on its Job Information List has found that in 2014-15, it had 1,015 jobs in English, 3 percent fewer than the previous year. The list had 949 jobs in foreign languages, 7.6 percent fewer than 2013-14. This is the third straight year of decline in jobs listed with the MLA. And those declines have reversed the gains made in English and foreign language jobs after the severe declines that hit the disciplines after the economic downturn that started in 2008. The low point for jobs in that economic downturn was 2009-10. But the job totals for English this year are 7.7 percent below the English positions of 2009-10. The job totals for foreign languages are 7.3 percent below those of 2009-10."

    Thursday, December 17, 2015

    Thank you, Rebecca Solnit. Just thank you.

    Over at LitHub, Rebecca Solnit has a follow-up to her recent and provocative "80 Books No Woman Should Read"  called "Men Explain Lolita to Me." You should read it. Everybody should read it.

    A sample, with added boldface:
    It all came down to Lolita. “Some of my favorite novels are disparaged in a fairly shallow way. To read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov,” one commenter informed me, which made me wonder if there’s a book called Reading Lolita in Patriarchy. The popular argument that novels are good because they inculcate empathy assumes that we identify with characters, and no one gets told they’re wrong for identifying with Gilgamesh or even Elizabeth Bennett. It’s just when you identify with Lolita you’re clarifying that this is a book about a white man serially raping a child over a period of years. Should you read Lolita and strenuously avoid noticing that this is the plot and these are the characters? Should the narrative have no relationship to your own experience? This man thinks so, which is probably his way of saying that I made him uncomfortable.
    . . . . 
    But “to read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov” said one of my volunteer instructors. I thought that was funny, so I posted it on Facebook, and another nice liberal man came along and explained to me this book was actually an allegory as though I hadn’t thought of that yet. It is, and it’s also a novel about a big old guy violating a spindly child over and over and over. Then she weeps. And then another nice liberal man came along and said, “You don’t seem to understand the basic truth of art. I wouldn’t care if a novel was about a bunch of women running around castrating men. If it was great writing, I’d want to read it. Probably more than once.” Of course there is no such body of literature, and if the nice liberal man who made that statement had been assigned book after book full of castration scenes, maybe even celebrations of castration, it might have made an impact on him.
    What she says so well is what I was trying to get at here:
    Oddly enough, though, it was all right to dissect the thought processes of Tess Durbeyfield and figure out whether she was raped or just seduced because of Nature coursing through her veins and her attraction to Alex d'Urberville. We were supposed to admire the intricate wordplay of Lolita and feel compassion for Humbert Humbert because he is a literary construct and in the grip of compulsion and anyway, look how Lolita behaves.  See, she's really in charge and he is helpless. I didn't buy it then, emotionally speaking, [and I don't buy it now] but I know a party line when I hear one and after one protest (met with scorn: "Can't you see that he's a literary construct?"), I shut up.
    Solnit's "nice liberal men" mansplaining the book to her as though she just didn't get it--well, it took me back a few decades to when I had the same losing argument. I shut up, because I was a student and it was already a timeless classic, and if I couldn't see that, guess who was wrong?

    There were only two possibilities:

    1. You ignored Lolita's plight and reveled in all the nuances and games-playing and puzzles, etc. etc. etc.
    2.  You expressed discomfort at Lolita's plight, which revealed your obvious inability to "get it"--just as Solnit's commenters have said to her.

    Literary criticism has developed many ways of shutting people up, but this one is the most common. If you express discomfort at the subject matter, you just don't get it. Irony, satire, subtlety--all are beyond you because you're expressing emotion, like a fool (or a woman?) rather than reason and being smart. Remember, the adjective we prize most as academics is "smart" ("it's a smart book," "that's a smart argument") meant in a very specific way.

    Criticism loves the transgressive and gruesome, of course -- still does -- and this was transgressive for the time.* It was the same mindset that said if you don't laugh along with Hemingway at the comical spectacle of the horses gored in Death in the Afternoon and The Sun Also Rises, you just didn't get it. You don't have aficion. You're not Lady Brett Ashley, as you should be.

    What we find transgressive today isn't what was transgressive then, but it's the same impulse.  "Don't be sentimental," we hear, although the single most sentimental thing I ever saw was the movie Leaving Las Vegas, much praised for its unsentimental toughness because its subject was a male alcoholic writer (which critics love as a subject, because alcohol + writer = tough and manly) drowning in self-pity, or what would have been called self-pity if he had been a woman.

    But as with tech enthusiasts (I am one, really), to balk at something doesn't mean that you don't get it. Maybe it means that you're operating from a whole different set of ethical or social premises, and maybe, just maybe, those stirrings of discomfort deserve a second look.

    * Exhibit A: Current literary darling Mary Gaitskill. From Alexandra Schwartz's "Uneasy Rider," The New Yorker 9 November 2015, p. 77: "By reputation, Mary Gaitskill is a writer not only immune to sentiment but actively engaged in deep, witchy communion with the perverse."  Critical jackpot: "immune to sentiment" and "perverse."

    Saturday, December 05, 2015

    End-of-semester anger management

    Figure 1. Cary Grant does exactly what he's told to do.
    It's the end of the semester, and a lot of us are getting a little punchy because of too much work and too little sleep (and yes, we know we are privileged to be academics at all).

    I've been operating under the "two phrases" nonconfrontational approach recently. Some things are worth fighting for or about, and some aren't. If the subject is the latter and is a low-stakes situation, I think of these.

    The first is "a soft answer turneth away wrath." On a collaborative project recently, one longtime collaborator used some phrasing in an email that would normally have made me send a blistering reply. But it's clear we're all under a lot of stress with this project and that zie was feeling it. I sent a more diplomatic email and received an apology, where a blistering one would have made the whole thing worse. The length and strength of the collaborative relationship helped.

    The second is from the movie Gunga Din,* which I don't think I have ever watched beyond the opening scene. In the opening scene, you're introduced to the three main characters, of whom Cary Grant is one, and they're all brawling with a bunch of other men (I don't remember why).

    In the midst of the brawl, Cary Grant pushes one of the men to the window.  A sergeant watching from below says, "Hey, take your hands off that man."

    Grant does as he's told, and the man promptly falls out the window (but of course isn't hurt). He shrugs as if to say, "What? You told me to do it, and I did."

    Here's how "take your hands off that man" is helpful.  The hardest thing to learn as an adult is that (1) you're not in control of everything and (2) sometimes you have to shut up and let decisions that you wouldn't agree with take their course. Maybe things will work out.

    But say you've worked hard on something, or informed someone of the likely consequences of an action, maybe a couple of times.  The committee or person isn't listening.  There's nothing you can do. What do you do in that case? "Take your hands off that man."

    Obviously you need to continue to press your point if it's a high-stakes situation, but if not? Think Cary Grant and release your grip.

    * (Yes, I know: racism, imperialism, colonialism, war, violence, etc. etc. etc.)