Follow Me on Twitter

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Something's Rotten, Part Deux

It's been a tough week. The twentieth anniversary of the death of two dear friends, one my college boyfriend, who died in an avalanche. So I'm not feeling frivolous today. 

I mentioned in my post on Status Anxiety, that there was a second book that seemed to be talking about how something’s rotten in the state. Not that I need books to tell me. There’s the news. Ferguson. Baltimore. Albany. Police brutality. Political indifference to civil rights and social welfare. 

Anyway, the second book is called, Depression: A Public Feeling, by Ann Cvetkovich. I read it because a friend wanted to discuss it at her birthday party. Just what I need, another book club, right? Well, I had to go. I was so intrigued by someone who would have such a birthday party. More like an intellectual salon than a party. Serious. A discussion. And in fact, when she introduced me (I had arrived with a delicious artichoke-bean dip and a platter of pita chips), she told the assembled that I belong to several book clubs. Then she turned to me and said she was really glad I had so much experience, because she didn’t know how best to facilitate a discussion. This made me want to stuff a handful of pita chips in my mouth, to stifle a snort. The idea that I could facilitate a serious discussion. Ha! (Not to mention that I’d only skimmed the book). The very idea. I do not normally associate with people in a serious manner. I joke. I pun. I jest. I devolve. If you want me to bring your conversation down to a lower level, burlesque, or even scatological, I’m there.

Well, the book is full of words such as “incommensurability” and phrases such as “the gendering of mental health,” “depression is another manifestation of forms of biopower,” and “the institutionalized use value of theorizing marginalization.” 

Which is to say that I have no idea what I read, except in the broadest terms.
What I could understand of it was this: The prevalence of depression in our society should be examined from a nonmedical point of view. It may actually be a natural response to the unhealthy structures of many of society’s institutions. “The goal is to depathologize negative feelings so that they can be seen as a possible resource for political action rather than as its antithesis, ” says Ann.

The underlying idea is that something is wrong with the culture, not with our depression or anxiety or feelings of worthlessness.  People – activists who want to make changes - have, since 2001 been responding to a “sense that customary forms of political response, including direct action and critical analysis are no longer working either to change the world or to make us feel better.”  After all, we had Bush, and more Bush.

I think what she means to explain is the apparent apathy of the left. She sees apathy as a reaction to disappointment with the slow pace of change in race relations, among other things. She thinks that if people get together and discuss the effect that our institutions have on us, it will help. She wants people to acknowledge exhaustion, hopelessnesss, etc. This will allow the “slow, steady work of resilient survival, utopian dreaming, and other affective tools for transformation.” She sees this as a possible resource for political action.

So this book was published in 2012.

And now there is action. I’m talking about Ferguson, about Baltimore. I’m thinking about that old trope that depression is anger turned inward. Therapy prescribes letting out the anger, acknowledging it. That’s what is happening now, on the streets, on my social media feeds. Do I wish the acknowledgment was nonviolent? I do. But it isn’t my choice. I can’t help feeling that ultimately, these developments are good news for civil rights and race relations. I can’t help feeling the pendulum is swinging back towards a more compassionate view of what society is all about. It’s all about the people, after all. We work, we earn money, we maximize profits – we do this for people. Us. We. We need to take care of each other.

I guess I’m wishing that those disenfranchised activists gain momentum and pick up steam and continue the slow, steady work of transformation.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Why I Am Not Running for Office

The other day at approximately 5 p.m., the 7th grader announced there was a documentary called “Raising Ms. President” playing at 6 p.m. at our local movie theater that she wanted to see. It was about encouraging girls to think of running for government office. So I took her. How could I not? Besides, I was able to abandon cooking dinner and eat popcorn instead. It was a good documentary. It almost made me want to run for office. I enjoyed some fantasies of me at a podium, but then I remembered who I am. 

Here’s why I’m not a government leader: the butter dish. You see, I have taken to heart President Obama’s advice about streamlining your decisions so you have energy to focus on the important things. And I understand that to implement that advice that it’s a good idea to turn things automatic, so that you can just do them habitually, without deciding every single time that you’re going to do them. For the President, that means, as I’ve mentioned, only wearing blue or grey suits. No decisions needed. Just put on the uniform. For me, that means for example, sun salutations. I have been keeping my Jerry Seinfeldian chain going, doing sun salutations every single morning, first thing, in my pajamas. This has been going for weeks. I can’t say exactly how many weeks, because I didn’t note the day I started. I just started. I think that’s better for me. I’m such a type B, I have to sidle into a routine, otherwise I’ll keep procrastinating, or my innate contrariness kicks in and I can’t allow myself to stick to it. If I were Type A, I could take it up with more fanfare. Buy a calendar, mark it off with Xxxs every day after I finished. But that is not me. That kind of commitment to good scares me. If I made a big thing out of it and told everyone I was starting a new routine, then I’d probably have to intentionally screw it up, just to show myself I wasn’t the boss of me. That’s how contrary I am.

Yea, now we get to why I’m not running for president. Or even school board.

So instead of with fanfare and an actual calendar and red pen, I work with a virtual calendar in my head. I started this little routine, and now, even on the days when I feel like my head is stuffed with cotton when I wake up, I hear my little inner voice saying, “don’t break the chain” and I get up and do my sun salutations in my pajamas. It’s become automatic. Success.

However, I was talking about the butter dish. The other morning, I used up the last bit of butter. Naturally, the dish was a mess of old butter remnants. I’ve failed to teach my children how to take a pat of butter properly, because the dish is always a disaster. So I wanted the dish clean before I opened another stick of butter. So I thought about putting it in the dishwasher, but we wouldn’t be running it until after dinner and then the butter dish wouldn’t be ready for use until the next day. And I actually wanted to use some butter in just a little while. Before the dishwasher would be run. What to do? What to do? A question as difficult as what to do about Israel and the rest of the Middle East.

Readers, I pondered this. Yes, I pondered the butter dish dishwasher problem. For minutes. Minutes, I tell you. Granted, it was early in the morning. And I hadn’t yet discovered the 5 Tibetan Rites (to be discussed in a future post). So my brain was a little slow, perhaps. But, yes, minutes passed. Finally, a solution arrived in my brain. I could wash the butter dish right now, with a sponge and soap. I could even dry the butter dish with a dish towel. And then – my goodness, the brilliance – I could open up a new stick of butter and make myself an egg.

Why this decision took so much time befuddles me. It was anything but automatic. It  and so many other small – I mean hugely important – decisions gunk up my day. It’s exhausting. Which is why I’m not running for president.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Annals of Successful Parenting, Vol. ?

Pardon me while I let out a big sigh of exhaustion - or relief. Last week was spring break, and my girls and I went away. No, we didn't hit Ft. Lauderdale in our bikinis and Miraclesuits. We hit the road. Colleges were visited. Colleges were enjoyed. Only minor tension eruptions occurred. For example, when at the information session for Columbia, the admissions representative talked about how Columbia loves applicants strong in the arts, Someone made the mistake of looking at Someone Else and nudging her (very, very gently in the arm. Very gently). The result was a hissed, “Stop looking at me! I can hear.”

But whatevs, as we mothers say, thus proving how evolved and relaxed we are.

Not relaxed enough to sleep well, I must add. Just so you can hear the tiny strains of the mini pity violin tuning up. That high school class trip that descended on our second night at the very chic Best Western Plus hotel did nothing to help me sleep better. And they mobbed the breakfast room, too. Sheesh.

Furthermore, I spent more time at King of Prussia Mall in King of Prussia, PA, than is good or healthy. I couldn’t refuse it, though, as the mall was visible from our hotel room – and I must admit a weakness for Nordstrom. My discovery of the existence of this mall was what convinced the 13-year-old to join her sister and me on this college jaunt. I wasn't sure which I liked less, having to appease the 13-year-old for enduring hours in the car and traipsing around small liberal arts colleges, or leaving her at home alone for three days (the husband would be home in the evenings) with the TV and computer. So we did the mall. Although, to her dismay, I refused to pay $59 for a dry clean only shirt for her.

Um, no way.

Readers, I learned a few things:

1. Both my daughters now find me vaguely disgusting. How do I know? Because we had two beds for three bodies, and neither wanted to sleep with me, even though the elder daughter cannot sleep in a bed with anyone, and the younger one used to want to sleep with me. I know this is normal, it’s a sign of them growing up. But suddenly, there I was, awash in the realization that I will always be vaguely disgusting to them from now on. Never again will I be the perfect Mommy.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve ever been that. After all, the younger daughter was still in preschool when she used to greet my morning kiss - er, breath - with, “What’s dat ‘mell?”

2. King of Prussia Mall is the largest mall in the United States, “in terms of leasable space,” according to Wikipedia. This is a nod to Mall of America, which is somewhere in the Heartland, and is supposed to be the largest mall, in terms of overall space.

3. My children are going to leave me. Possibly for a bucolic campus with a dorm that encourages nudity and sexual expression (Swarthmore). Possibly for a bucolic campus where students throw their backpacks in a heap just inside the door to the dining hall without worry of theft (Haverford). Possibly for a grittier, urban campus where no one would dream of leaving a backpack unattended (If you see something, say something). But they are going to leave me.

4. I am not wacko. Here is wacko: the mom who chatted with me about bringing her 7th grader on the tours. That part wasn’t wacko. There were a reassuring number of bored-looking younger siblings on these tours. What was wacko was that her older child was in 9th grade. I felt like pulling her down by the flap on her trench coat and saying, “Okay, then, lady, step to the back of the tour so that 11th graders can hear the tour guide.” I am sure I looked a bit shocked when she told me this. She mentioned something about needing to look early if your child does something athletic, and maybe that’s true. But I think not. Wacko.

Lest you are thinking how judgemental I am, let me offer this anecdote, which happened yesterday. I wore to the gym my t-shirt that says, “I am silently correcting your grammar.” One of the regulars in my NIA class commented on the shirt and I said that it had been a gift.* She said, “Oh. That makes sense, because you don’t seem like a judgy person. Some people really would be silently correcting your grammar, but you don’t seem that way at all.” Which I ain’t.

Isn’t that sweet?

*Which it was. I won it at a random give-away on a funnyblog by Wendi Aarons.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Why Do I Do This, Part Two.

Lately I’ve been reading books that suggest, if not outright state, there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark – and by Denmark I mean the USA or Western Civilization, not just Denmark. And no, I’m not talking about reading Hamlet.

First, there is Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton (A de B). A friend brought it to my attention months ago, but I had no time to read it. Then this friend sent me a link to A de B’s entertaining and amusing TED Talk about the book, which is in part about the need to redefine success, and I finally buckled down and read it. The book’s thesis is that the current cultural obsession with “getting ahead,” a.k.a. “success”, is fueled by living in proximity to people with varying degrees of wealth and its trappings. Back in the good old feudal days, everyone lived in similar conditions, except for the feudal lords, so people didn’t mind their squalor. Since the Joneses next door had no more than you – you all supped from one giant pot in the open hearth – it wasn’t a big deal. 

Once industrialization and the rise of capitalism came about, though, differences in circumstances occurred and began to make people miserable. Ideas like equality of opportunity and meritocracy arrived. Put them all together in that big pot on the hearth and stir, and you come up with a bitter brew: the idea that prosperity relates somehow to merit, and therefore that poverty is dishonorable. The rat race, in other words. Now, as A de B said in his TED talk, we’ve done a good job of teaching people that everyone should have the same opportunities at the start of the race, but not a good job of helping them out after they break out of the starting gate. And lately, it seems as if we don't even help everyone get to the starting gate. So if they aren’t doing at least as well as the Joneses, they need Xanax and therapy and high credit card debt to appear as if they are. Which is a pretty unhealthy way for society to be.

So there’s something to think over.

But it’s not all bleak, according to A de B. The answer is to redefine success (already on it, A de B)! 

Now, there are several aspects to his redefining, but I haven’t finished the book yet. So far, I’ve read about how good old Philosophy can help. For example, if we remember that back in the Dark Ages, people were not blamed for their poverty, then we can detach ourselves from our obsession with wealth. Back in the Dark Ages, the idea was that Fortuna or Fortune or Fate was a giant wheel that turned, and sometimes you were up and sometimes you were crushed, and that had nothing to do with your inherent worth. This may seem somewhat cruel, but also it is somewhat freeing. People were not always defined by what they had, and you don't have to be, either. You don't have to feel worthless because you chose to write a novel that never got published, for a totally random example, because you can see that there is more to life than accumulating material goods. 

I'm still digesting that one, Readers, so I'll hold off on talking about the second book. 


Other news related to the previous paragraphs because we live in a malfunctioning capitalist society that provides me with more than a subsistence living, thus providing me with free time:

Things I thought were wrong with me this week:
1. Vitamin B-12 deficiency because my feet were itchy and a friend’s daughter might have a vitamin B-12 deficiency. I asked the husband if I had a vitamin B-12 deficiency, because a friend’s daughter has one. He said no. You have dry skin, he said. (Incidentally, itchy feet are not a symptom of B-12 deficiency.) Nevertheless, I had itchy feet.
2. A foot fungus because I had itchy feet. I decided it must be a fungus I picked up from doing NIA barefoot at the Y. I was just about to call the dermatologist – in fact, I did call the dermatologist. However, the office was closed. It was either too early or too late to call, or it was lunch hour, or it was the day off, or something. Mars was in Mercury and Venus was retrograde or something. Fortunately, it turns out. Because right after I hung up, my feet stopped itching. Maybe it was the lotion I applied.

Things that actually were wrong with me this week: Itchy feet.

In other news, the 16-year-old has her learner’s permit and is taking driver’s ed. This means I’ve been in the passenger seat while the 16-year-old practices driving. I’ve only depressed the imaginary break pedal once, (that she noticed,) and only opened the window by accident whilst loudly suggesting that she not drive into the next lane while a car is passing once. I pass the time by reminding myself that I don’t believe this is the way I’m going to die. Which you, Readers, can note ironically in my obituary if I’m wrong. After all, what are these intuitions worth? Does anyone think they are going to die? I mean, on an ordinary day, when in ordinary health? No, no one does not. Which is why, probably, I can tolerate being the passenger while she learns to drive.

Next week we head off to visit some colleges.

I got a really great pair of flats for only $38.

Happy Passover. Happy Easter. Happy Weekend.