Day 209: Mom, can I ask you something?

A small sampling of questions put to me by the younger, aged 8 years and 4 months, in the last 24 hours. With answers below for the curious.

Questions

  1. Why do you start to talk all British when you talk to another British person?
  2. You know that kind of movie in which the bad guy becomes something like a grocery store manager or a librarian at the end?
  3. Would you rather have all the money in the world but you can only spend it on what you need or a hundred dollars that you can spend on what you want?
  4. Is it true that if you bathed in pickle juice your skin would become all warty and bumpy?
  5. Have you ever broken anything?
  6. Do you think that an ant’s brain is microscopic?
  7. Did you know that sand is just tiny rocks?
  8. Why is the sky blue?
  9. Have you ever been to Starbucks?
  10. What’s your favorite number?
  11. Would you rather bathe in a tub full of squishies or a tub full of water that smells like your favorite food?
  12. Can I tell you a story?
  13. Can I tell you the worst idea ever had?
  14. Did you know that Tom Cruise has a middle tooth?
  15. Who do you think is the best Ron, Ron in Parks and Rec or Ron in Harry Potter?
  16. Which is your favorite squishie?
  17. Were you alive in 1967?
  18. What’s your favorite kind of film, films with magic or films without magic?
  19. Would Max be grounded if he doused me in boiling water?
  20. Which character from Harry Potter do you think I am most like?

Answers

  1. I don’t really know! But I know I do it! I suppose hearing them I naturally fall back into British ways of saying things? It’s sort of contagious?
  2. No, I can’t say that I do.
  3. Hmm, I think all the money in the world and everything I need. I feel like I could figure out a way to get some stuff I want too …
  4. Umm. I’m not sure? Did someone tell you that? No? I mean, I don’t think you would become warty … if there was a lot of vinegar in it maybe it might sting though?
  5. Like what? A vase? A promise? Oh! Well, I fractured my elbow once. That doesn’t count? Then, no.
  6. I would say probably … yes. Because an ant is already very small. And their brains are probably quite small. So, yes, I would say microscopic.
  7. Well [pedantically], I would say tiny shells? Actually, I just looked it up and her answer seems more accurate than mine.
  8. Oh man. I know I know this. But I just can’t remember. Is it something to do with why the ocean is also blue? No, that’s not right. I can’t remember. We’ll have to look it up when we get home. We forget to look it up. If you can be bothered, you could read this for the answer.
  9. Yes. Many times. She seems quite surprised by this answer.
  10. 27. Well, 27 used to be my favorite number because I used to think that would be the perfect age. But it was just, you know, fine. What’s yours? Why 4? Huh, a “warm feel,” that’s interesting. Because I’m 44 so then maybe my age is the perfect age because it’s extra warm!
  11. Squishies. I don’t want to bathe in a bath that smells of food. No, not even my favorite food.
  12. Yes. I cannot remember the story but it involved strange, hybrid pets.
  13. Yes. I cannot remember the idea, but it was something she saw on YouTube.
  14. I didn’t know and no, I don’t need to verify it. She insists we verify this.
  15. Ooh, that’s a really good question. I ponder this one seriously. I mean, I think I’ve got to say Ron from Parks and Rec because, as you know, I think Ron from Harry Potter is kind of meh and certainly he is nowhere near good enough for Hermione, and my irritation at that makes it difficult for me to feel kindly towards him, although I suppose that’s not really his fault. She counters that Ron “lives in the world of magic,” “has a really nice Mom,” and lives in a “really cool house.” I counter back that these are not really essential aspects of Ron-ness and that Ron-from-Parks-and-Rec has more skills because he can make stuff out of wood. I’m approaching this question in terms of a who-would-you-want-to-have-with-you-during-the-zombie-apocalypse type question.But I would rather live in Ron-from-Harry-Potter’s world,” she says. OK, well that’s a totally different question, I would rather live in Ron-from-Harry-Potter’s world too. I mean, sure! I get to be married to Hermione, so I’ve somehow managed to snag someone who is totally out of my league; and also my best friend killed Voldemort which was really the only bad thing about living in the magic world; what’s not to like?
  16. Definitely the hybrid raspberry-sheep.
  17. No. No!
  18. Films with magic.
  19. He would be more than grounded.
  20. Hagrid.

 

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Day 208: the continuation of love

“Grief is the continuation of love.”

(Robert C. Solomon, In Defense of Sentimentality, 2004, p.90)

A couple of sessions ago, Dr. F asked me if I felt angry with my father when he died. After thinking it over I said no, that while I was angry more generally, I didn’t feel anger directed specifically at him.

But later I remembered that, yes, I had actually felt angry about something quite specific; and I had also felt—still feel—embarrassed by this anger; perhaps that’s why I didn’t think of it or didn’t mention it when she asked, because it felt too trivial.

When my mother told me on the phone that my father was dead, the thought that shuddered through my mind like an electric shock was “but he promised me that he wouldn’t die.”

This promise—to perhaps state the obvious—was one he made to me when I was a young child. As a child, I worried a lot about my parents dying—not that they would die in an accident or something; simply the prospect that I would one day have to live in the world without them caused me immense distress. I remember crying in bed and being unable to go to sleep because the idea was so awful to me.

I’m probably conflating a lot of different memories here—but what I have experienced as a distinct memory for a long time is this: I am in bed and both of my parents are in the room near my bed. I am younger than eleven because I’m in the bedroom I shared with my brother until that age. I am crying and begging them to promise me they won’t die. My Mum promises me that she won’t die until she is a “very very old woman,” which doesn’t make me feel better at all. My Dad promises me he won’t die and, while my Mum makes disapproving noises at his making such a promise, I immediately feel better, like a weight has been lifted.

Obviously, even if I believed him at the time, I understood as I grew older that this was not a promise he could keep. And it didn’t bother me; I understood it as something he’d told me at the time to comfort me and make me feel safe, knowing that I wasn’t yet able or ready to live with the truth.

It was therefore surprising to me to find how violently this sense of the promise having being broken coursed through me at the moment I learned of my Dad’s death.

***

I’ve been reading a book by the late philosopher, Peter Goldie, called The Mess Inside (OUP, 2012), which is about the importance of narrative to the way we experience emotions. One of his insights is that, when we reflect upon past experiences, we often inhabit a point-of-view that Goldie views as the “psychological correlate” of free indirect style. What he means by this is that, when we reflect on the past, we encounter “an unelectable ironic gap (epistemic, evaluative, and emotional) between internal and external perspective”; and that when we inhabit this point of view, it performs the same function of free indirect style: that is, “simultaneously closing the ironic gap and drawing attention to its distance” (43, 48).

I’ve been rereading Pride and Prejudice this week for my class on the novel with Goldie’s observations in mind. Austen is famous for her use of free indirect style; but what I now notice is that she also puts her characters in situations where they inhabit the point of view that Goldie suggests is the psychological correlate of free indirect style. So, for example, the following sentence describing Lizzy reflecting on Wickham’s past behavior is not in free indirect style, but it expresses the point of view that concerns Goldie:

“She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before.”

Or consider another example, which is both in free indirect style and represents its psychological correlate in such a way that proliferates the number of viewpoints that the sentence brings together: the free indirect style merges narrator and Lizzy, and the retrospective point of view merges present Lizzy with past Lizzy. Again, here, Lizzy is reflecting on Wickham:

“How differently did every thing now appear in which he was concerned!”

Goldie focuses on grief as a case study of this way of narratively thinking about the past. As he observes, in grief, “you remember the last time you saw the person you loved, not knowing, as you do now, that it was to be the last time. And this irony, through the psychological correlate of free indirect style, will infect the way you remember it” (65).

Goldie describes here exactly how I think about lying with my head on my Dad’s knee while he stroked my hair, the night before he died. He died when I had just turned eighteen, at a time when our relationship was combative. Our conversations always turned into arguments in those days. But his stroking my hair and back, as he always had, still soothed me. That memory took on an aching poignancy after his sudden death because of not knowing at the time, but knowing ever after, that it was the last time.

Another insight Goldie makes about grief is that it does not endure but, rather, perdures. Things that perdure tend to be processes as opposed to states. To say that a process perdures is to say that “its identity is not determined at every moment of its existing” (61). This is very abstract; a helpful example of a thing that perdures that Goldie takes from the philosophers Thomas Hofweber and David Velleman, is the process of writing a check. Here are Hofweber and Velleman:

“A process of writing a cheque is a temporally extended process, with temporal parts consisting in the laying down of each successive drop of ink. What there is of this process at a particular moment – the laying down of a particular drop – is not sufficient to determine that a cheque is being written, and so it is not sufficient to determine which particular process is taking place. That particular drop of ink could have been deposited at that moment, just as it actually was, without other drops’ being deposited at other moments in such a way as to constitute the same process. Not only, then, is the process not present in its temporal entirety within the confines of the moment: it is not fully determined by the events of the moment to be the process that it is.” [1]

Goldie’s point, in bringing the concept of perduring to grief, is that grief, like writing a check, is a process with many features, “none of which is essential at any given particular time” (62). This observation might seem obvious or banal but I think it’s actually profound. It is its perduring quality that makes grief so particular, and so painful. Goldie quotes a passage from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961), a passage that captures the way that grief’s capacity to subside for a while is part of its agony:

“It’s not true that I’m always thinking of H. Work and conversation make that impossible. But the times when I’m not are perhaps my worst. For then, though I have forgotten the reason, there is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss. Like in those dreams where nothing terrible occurs—nothing that would sound even remarkable if you told it at breakfast-time—but the atmosphere, the taste, of the whole thing is deadly. So with this. I see the rowan berries reddening and don’t know for a moment why they, of all things, should be depressing. I hear a clock strike and some quality it always had before has gone out of the sound. What’s wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn-out looking? Then I remember.”

I remember, after my Dad died, the feeling of awakening, day after day, from the oblivion of sleep into the memory of loss. Every night I would forget, and every morning I would remember.

This is part of grief’s cruelty; if it was enduring rather than perduring, perhaps you could get used to it. But there’s no getting used to it nor getting over it either, not so long as you love the person you have lost; for grief, as Robert Solomon writes, is the continuation of love. As Goldie cites Wittgenstein,“‘grief’ describes a pattern which recurs, with different variations, in the weave of our life” (from the Philosophical Investigations, cited in Goldie, 62).

Like writing a check, grief perdures. The analogy only goes so far. Unlike writing a check, there’s no being done with grief. It’s a check you’re forever writing that never gets deposited. It’s a check that, like a reckless promise, can’t be cashed.

 

Notes

[1] The Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 61, Issue 242, January 2011, Pages 37–57, p.50.

 

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Day 207: breaking news: it’s a ducking rabbit

Scene: Friday morning, 7:30 am, at the breakfast table.

ME: OK, you guys remember that I have this conference today and tomorrow?

ELDER: Yes. Are you giving a talk today?

ME: It’s tomorrow. Wanna hear my title?

ELDER: Sure.

ME: It’s called “How to Do Things with Ducks and Rabbits.”

YOUNGER: [scrunching up her face] That reminds me of that book which has the picture that kind of looks like a duck and kind of looks like a rabbit.

duckrabbitbook

ME: Yes! The talk is actually about that picture so it’s good that the title makes you think of that—of the duck that looks like a rabbit.

YOUNGER: Well … it’s actually a rabbit that looks like a duck.

ME: [laughing] is it?

YOUNGER: [not laughing]: Yes.

ME: [somewhat condescendingly] Well, I think the point is that you can see it both ways.

YOUNGER: [adamant]: No, if you look at the picture you’ll see that I’m right.

I Google the picture–the one from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, because that’s the version I’m discussing in my talk–on my phone and we all peer at it.

another wittgenstein duck-rabbit

YOUNGER: [triumphantly] Yeah, it’s definitely a rabbit that looks like a duck.

ELDER: No, it’s a duck that looks like a rabbit—because I saw the duck before I saw the rabbit.

ME: Yeah, I think I agree with him—the duck seems more obvious. But the fact that we all see different things is the point!

YOUNGER: [Exasperated by our slowness.] No, look, do you see this [pointing to the indentation that makes the rabbit’s mouth]? Why would the duck have this thing on the back of his head? There’s no reason for it. So it’s a rabbit that looks like a duck!

ME: Huh ….

***

The more I thought about it, the more I thought she was right. Especially in Wittgenstein’s minimalist rendition of the duck-rabbit, every mark matters. A mark that isn’t doing double duty in contributing to the identity of both duck and rabbit inevitably tips the duck-rabbit more to one side of its identity than the other: in this case, towards the rabbit’s side.

As my friend Elaine recently observed, “the duck-rabbit has to do with a deficit of representation. The deficit allows it to remain ambiguous (if Wittgenstein had draw whiskers and a carrot, it couldn’t be a duck).”

He didn’t draw whiskers and a carrot, of course. But he did draw that tiny gesture of a mouth–and it’s a mark that, in enhancing the rabbitness of the rabbit slightly diminishes the duckness of the duck. Or, perhaps the mark makes us want to create a narrative about the duck; like, he’s a duck who got into an accident and has a scar on the back of his head–but you should see the other duck!

I know that Wittgenstein didn’t originate the duck-rabbit illusion but I found myself wondering how he first imagined the duck-rabbit—that is, how he first drew it.

Reader, you know what happened next. I fell down into a deep, deep duck-rabbit hole trying to find the original manuscript. I discovered that the duck-rabbit first appeared in Wittgenstein’s manuscript notes, later published as “Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology,” which are considered as preparatory studies for Part II of the Philosophical Investigations. Although Wittgenstein produced typescripts based on those manuscripts, and those typescripts are reproduced in the Collected Works, the typescripts didn’t include the original drawings. Anyway, I was desperate to see the duck-rabbit in its natural habitat, as it were, on the lined, scrawled upon note-book page.

Reader, I found it (them?)! Thanks to an absolutely amazing resource, http://www.wittgensteinsource.org, where you can freely access Wittgenstein primary sources, including manuscript facsimiles and typescripts. [1] And there he is, situated in a nice little clearing of blank page, leaving room for him to quack or … make whatever noise it is that rabbits make, in either direction.

Original duckrabbit

But here’s the thing (and I’ll wonder if you agree with me). This duck-rabbit is even more rabbity than the one in the Philosophical Investigations! I can barely even make myself see this one as a duck! The mouth is much more pronounced—this poor duck has suffered some even more terrible injury resulting in a cleft skull. (There’s got to be a story there.) It almost seems implausible for Wittgenstein to claim, as he does in the manuscript version, that this drawing is, indeed, ambiguous.

I think there are two lessons that we can conclude from this here philosophical investigation.

1. It’s a good thing that Wittgenstein improved his drawing of the duck-rabbit, or else his philosophical reputation might have been very different.

2: The younger is right: it’s a motherducking rabbit. Case closed.

 

Notes

[1] See the notebook page here: http://www.wittgensteinsource.org/box_view_url_shortener?u=dr

 

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Day 206: flapjack

I bit my lip, squared my shoulders, and walked into class, smiling as best as I could. I stood at the podium and started to unpack my stuff. One student wanted to make an announcement about the Writing Center, and as she spoke to the class I set up my PowerPoint presentation on Pride and Prejudice. Then she sat down and the class looked at me expectantly.

“I ….” I hesitated. I tried again. “I … I’ve been having kind of a hard time and so ….” I could feel my face crumpling but I was determined to press on “… and so I decided to bake something … because … because I like baking … and I thought you might like these …. they’re called flapjacks. They’re not pancakes,” I added hastily, “what you call flapjacks—they’re like oatmeal cookies … and they’re really good.

A sound emanated from the assembled students, something half way between a sigh and an awww, and I busied myself getting out the two big tupperwares and passing them around.

I spoke about the Regency against the pleasant background noise of munching and rustling wax paper.

After a while I even felt like eating a flapjack.

It lifted my spirits to find that my students could successfully pick out which parts of a passage from Pride and Prejudice were in free indirect discourse. It cheered me to discover that they could articulate that what makes Elizabeth Bennet feel “relatable” to them is how she finds ways to express resistance and creativity in a world that is so restrictive and codified.

At the end of class the students filed out shyly, thanking me for the cookies. “I’m glad you liked them!” I said, and I walked out of class feeling better than when I walked in.

As I walked to the parking lot I heard myself being hailed, “Sarah!” and pivoted. It was one of my students. She was running and breathing heavily. “First, sorry for calling you Sarah,” she panted.

I laughed.

She bent over, winded, “Oof, I’ve been trying to catch up with you,” she exclaimed.

I wondered what was so urgent.

She caught her breath.

“You mentioned that you were having a hard time and … and it just made me want to tell you,” she paused, panting again, “sorry, I’m still out of breath, and this is also just off the top of my head … It made me want to tell you that I really value everything you put into this class. It’s meant so much to me to be able to work with you. And … I don’t know if this helps to hear this, but I just wanted you to know how much you’re appreciated. Not just by me. All of us in the class—we all love you.”

I have got to figure out a way to stop from crying whenever people are kind to me.

I told her how much it meant to me that she would say that, more than I could say, and especially, I added, because I knew that she had experienced a bereavement, the death of a close friend, the previous quarter, and so she knew keenly what it is like to struggle to keep going when you’re in distress.

“And …” she added, a little sheepishly, “sorry for making you emotional.”

I laughed through my tears, “Oh, that’s OK,” I said, “I’m emotional every other minute at the moment.”

“Can I give you a hug?” she asked.

I accepted it gratefully.

What kindness. What tremendous kindness. I know I’ve been extremely Eeyorish in recent days but … I do also know how lucky I am. I won the bloody lottery in almost every aspect of life. I forget that sometimes, but I remembered it yesterday.

Oh, and here’s the recipe for the flapjack. You should make it.

From the Islington Cookbook

Flapjack

4 oz brown sugar
4 oz butter
4 oz rolled oats
4 oz flour
2 Tbsp golden syrup (or honey)
optional: 1/2 tsp vanilla
optional: pinch of salt

Melt butter; add brown sugar and mix. Add everything else. If you’re using golden syrup, I’d strongly recommend licking the spoon. Spread on a baking tray and bake at 375 F for 10-20 minutes, until lightly browned. It will firm up as it cools. Slice and eat—or give away, if you’re feeling extremely generous. Don’t feel bad if you can’t muster the willpower.

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Day 205: a bad day

I hadn’t met this nurse before and I didn’t warm to her.

“First day of last menstrual period?” she enquired.

I made a face, “I mean, about a week ago …”

“I need a date,” she said. “Do you want to look it up?”

“Uh, no,” I said, smirking mirthlessly at the idea that she thought that I had a place where I could look up such information.

“Let’s just say May 1st,” I said.

I thought I saw her roll her eyes slightly when she wrote the date down.

In the examining room, she stood in front of the monitor updating my information.

“Any new medications?”

“Yeah … it’s … actually I can’t remember what it’s called but I have the container right here.”

I fished it out of my purse. As she took it from me she caught sight of my face. It was the first time we’d made sustained eye-contact. I noticed her long, beautiful eyelashes. She noticed, I’m guessing, my puffy eyelids and contorted expression. Her face softened.

“Oh my God, are you OK?”

I started to sob.

“I’m … I’m just having kind of a bad day,” I said.

“Oh my dear!”

Before she had seemed impassive and now she seemed the opposite: almost anguished at my distress.

She hesitated.

“Can I give you a hug?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, my voice breaking. “Yes, please.” She gathered me in her arms and stroked my back.

“Thank you,” I mumbled into her shoulder.

“You give really good hugs,” I said as she released me from her embrace.

She still had to finish updating my information, so at first I thought I’d misheard her when she asked, “What makes you happy?”

“What makes me what?” I asked.

“What makes you happy?” she repeated, more softly and slowly, still staring at the monitor.

I thought for a second. “Dancing,” I replied. “Dancing … and writing.”

“What makes you happy?” I asked.

She considered. “Well I like dancing too, and, I mean, I can dance,” she declared, and I believed her. “And listening to music. And napping in the sun.”

“Those are all good things,” I agreed.

When my doctor—whom I adore—swept into the room a minute later, I duly explained to her, too, after she expressed concern upon catching sight of my face (which is apparently quite alarming looking, if measured by the number of strangers who’ve expressed concern for me today), that I was having a bad day,

I was beginning to feel that it was not only my body that was stark naked—I was having both a pelvic exam and a breast exam, so all clothes were off—but also my soul.

My beautiful doctor hesitated after I explained that I was having a bad day.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Well, it’s just that … I just feel bad that I’m about to give you a pelvic exam, which I doubt will make you feel any better.”

I shrugged. “You never know!”

I actually think that combatting one kind of pain with a different sort can be quite effective. I pinched myself very hard when I was in labor. Recently, for the first time in over a year, I started running again; and not because I’ve rediscovered a love for running, but, on the contrary, because I find it quite relentlessly awful. It’s only something that’s relentlessly awful that can take you out of another sort of pain.

Luckily for me, I had a mammogram scheduled right after my pelvic exam!

The mammogram technician was especially lovely.

“Do you have a hair band to tie your hair back?” she asked, adding, “if not, it’s OK.”

I shook my head.

She nodded and gently guided me into position close to the machine. It felt intimate, as if she were a dance instructor correcting my positioning with a new partner. She draped my right arm more tightly around the machine. My body was tilted but also leaning in. She tenderly pulled my hair back over my shoulders. I almost started crying again because it felt so good, the way my Mum would adjust my hair.

“Ouch!” I exclaimed, as she clamped my right breast between the plates.

Having nursed two infants, my breasts at this point are not especially sensitive. But I also have an inverted sternum—a sternum that protrudes outwards. I like to think of this aspect of my anatomy as a feature rather than a bug, but it makes getting a mammogram rather awkward.

“It’s not my breast,” I explained, “it’s because I have this weird sternum.”

She nodded, “yes, I can see you have a protruding sternum,” she said, trying to angle me to avoid pressing on the bone.

“Now throw your head back!” she commanded, sounding even more like a dance instructor.

When it came to my left breast, the machine dug even more painfully into my sternum. I flinched in pain.

“You can yell at me!” she suggested. “Go on, take your chance!” she urged me.

I laughed uncomfortably in my constricted position.

“I don’t feel like yelling at you,” I said. “There are some other people I could yell at, but …”

Boys,” she interrupted, knowingly. “This machine,” she added, “was designed by a man, I’m sure of it. Now throw your head up again,” she commanded.

A machine that images breasts. Now in 3D! Not perhaps quite what Sterne had in mind when he imagined “the fixture of Momus’s glass in the human breast.”

No, this here, this duck-rabbit hole: this is the dioptrical bee-hive, is it not? Have you pulled up a chair? Hush! You must move softly if you wish to see the maggots gamboling.

Today, however, the maggots are sluggish (can maggots be said to be sluggish?). And I did not have the heart to dance. So I wrote instead.

 

 

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Day 204: filling in

“I always wonder if anyone actually draws a picture on the blank page,” I mused out loud to my class last week during the final lecture on Tristram Shandy.

 

If you haven’t read the novel, I’ll wait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Sorry, that was actually just a joke for people who have read the novel.)

But really, if you haven’t read the novel, the situation is this: Tristram has just told us that his Uncle Toby fell in love with the Widow Wadman. Tristram then adds, “And possibly, gentle reader, with such a temptation—so wouldst thou: For never did thy eyes behold, or thy concupiscence covet any thing in this world, more concupiscible than widow Wadman.”

The next chapter begins thus:

“To conceive this right,—call for pen and ink—here’s paper ready to your hand.—Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you—’tis all one to me—please but your own fancy in it.”

And then, famously, there follows a blank page ready to receive whatever you wish to draw there.

But does anyone ever draw anything there?

Today I can definitely answer that question: some people do; or, more precisely, at least one person has done so, and that person is me.

It was on a whim that I decided to draw in the book; it was just there and I felt like drawing and I thought “Why not?” But I wanted to draw in a way that would be relaxing; for that reason, I didn’t want to draw a face—which is always, I realized, what I imagined one would draw there, although Tristram’s characterization of the Widow Wadman as superlatively “concupiscible” might certainly inspire an artist to head in a different, more southerly direction.

Drawing faces never feels relaxing to me because it’s so difficult to get a good likeness. But then I remembered how I often draw when I’m sitting in panels at conferences; and what I draw there is often the backs of people’s heads, because … that’s generally what’s in view when you’re sitting in a panel. But also, I find drawing hair, like drawing folds of cloth, hypnotically relaxing.

It also occurred to me that it would feel somehow apropos to draw the back of a head on the blank page; it would be a way of filling in the blank in a way that wouldn’t close off but rather provide further fodder for the imagination.

“I should choose an eighteenth-century looking head,” I thought, and scrolled though portraits on Google images that showed vaguely eighteenth-century-ish backs of heads.

But then I got a different idea—inspired both by the whole project of Tristram Shandy as a work of self-portraiture as well as Sterne’s sometimes cheekily gendered references to the reader; I would draw the back of my OWN head.

I liked the idea that it would be an act of self-portraiture in the Sternian mode but that also, in drawing myself looking away from the reader’s gaze, I would kind of up-end what Tristram has in mind when he enjoins the reader, “Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind,” with the nudge, nudge, wink, wink of “as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you.”

I didn’t really want to overthink it, though (you are probably thinking: oh, you are way past overthinking this), so I just asked the elder to snap a picture of the back of my head in the kitchen. I didn’t really think about the composition of the photograph and after I started drawing from the photograph he’d taken I started to wish I’d worn something different or that my hair hadn’t been thrown up so messily, or that I’d moved the box of tissues and the paper bag off the dining room table in the background.

original

But then something started to happen as I was drawing. It was a version of the phenomenon the art critic Richard Wollheim describes happening after he “evolved a way of looking at paintings which was massively time consuming and deeply rewarding. For I came to recognise that it often took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down, and it was only then, with the same amount of time or more to spend looking at it, that the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was” (Painting as an Art).

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I’m not sure if it’s exactly that by trying to render the photograph as a drawing that it disclosed itself as it was; but the photograph certainly changed over the hours I spent with it. The most prominent part of the figure—the hair—gradually dissolved into abstract form—an interplay of light and dark, curls and waves. It started to look not messy but beautiful and intricate. The background objects changed in a different way; they began to seem freighted with allegorical significance, as if they each played a role in telling a story about who I am.

The chair on the left is one that used to belong to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved’s parents. He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved kindly let me take the chair with me when I moved out. The briefcase on the chair is one that La Bonavita gave me. I regard it as my first proper, grown-up work bag. The laptop that’s open on the dining room table—well, that’s because—have you noticed?—I’m always writing. And the paper bag—that, I’m pretty sure, is what our takeout that night came in, because takeout is sometimes the working mother’s savior. The box of tissues isn’t even visible in the drawing but that has significance too because it’s always important to have that kind of paper ready to hand too—both because the elder has allergies and because, as is well established, I’m a weeper. Oh, and the electric kettle: because you can take the girl out of England but …

The longer I looked at the photograph, the more I appreciated the composition: the way that the door frame framed my head like a picture frame. What you can’t actually see in the picture—because they are hidden by my massive head of hair—is that on the wall of the dining room are two framed paintings by my grandmother, Elfrida Tindal, who was an artist.

When I was a child I always thought that I would write and illustrate my own books when I was grown-up. And I guess now I have, sort of.

 

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Day 203: On being wrapt up

“Our minds shine not through the body, but are wrapt up here in a dark covering of uncrystalized flesh and blood.”

In Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-67), Tristram makes this observation to evoke the difficulty of making characters legible to an outside observer. But the remark applies equally to the act of self-examination.

When you’re wrapped up in yourself all you can see is darkness.

The more you strain to see yourself clearly, the more the object seems to recede from view, and the quality of the darkness that enshrouds it becomes difficult to gauge. How do you know if you’re depressed or if you’re having an appropriate response to a difficult situation? And, whether the distress is situational or constitutional, how do you treat it without compounding it? Pharmacological prescriptions can produce side effects that exacerbate the initial distress; behavioral prescriptions burden you with additional tasks to undertake on top of your regular duties.

While the exact nature of the melancholy can feel elusive, other sensations become more vivid. I’ve learned that different types of physical pain correlate quite precisely to different qualities of feeling, even as the object of the feeling can remain indistinct. My fingertips sting, sharply, when I feel a particular kind of emotional vulnerability. My neck aches as though constricted by a tight collar that restricts my ability to breathe freely when I feel anxious. In her essay “On Being Ill” (1930), Virginia Woolf picks up Sterne’s metaphor of the body as an opaque casing that mediates the soul’s experiences: “All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane—smudged or rosy.”

I was reading Woolf’s essay because I’m working with an undergraduate who is conducting an independent study on mental illness and literature. If writing and reading about melancholy when you’re already feeling sad seems ill-advised—cozying up to the black dog when you should be chasing him away—the most famous meditation on melancholy suggests that, on the contrary, writing about melancholy can be curative: “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy,” writes Robert Burton in the Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).

As I learned recently from reading another undergraduate’s wonderful thesis on Tobias Smollett’s channeling of Burton’s curative ethos, Burton’s recommendation to be busy was just one half of his two-pronged method for combating melancholy, encapsulated in the pithy imperative, “Be not solitary, be not idle.” As I learned from the thesis, in 1779, Samuel Johnson wrote a letter to James Boswell in which he both repeated and modified Burton’s dictum: “The great direction which Burton Has left to men disordered like you,” Johnson wrote to Boswell, “is this, Be not solitary; be not idle: which I would thus modify;—If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.”

Johnson’s rewriting of Burton fascinates me. Most immediately striking is the change in syntax from Burton’s imperative to Johnson’s if / then parallel structure. Why did Johnson change Burton’s maxim?

Since I couldn’t ask Johnson himself, I did the next best thing: I texted my esteemed and beloved colleague, preeminent Johnsonian, and advisor of the Smollett thesis, Helen Deutsch, to ask her opinion. She texted me back right away, suggesting that “by translating Burton into his own style [Johnson] also gives us his habit of mind, of balancing opposites and seeing both sides.”

This seems to me exactly right.

But the reason, I realized at last, why Johnson’s version struck such a chord with me was not because of its stylistic elegance. Rather, Johnson’s version resonates with me in a way that Burton’s doesn’t because Johnson revises Burton’s dictum in a way that is deeply humane, particularly as an expression of care for another individual who is already feeling down.

Think about how different it is to say to someone who is feeling despondent: “Be not x; be not y” versus saying, ‘If you are x, be not y; if you are y, be not x.” Johnson’s version recognizes that the melancholy person is bound to be already overwhelmed and easily fatigued. The melancholy person is probably intimidated by the effort of tackling any one single task and, to be honest, is probably already either solitary or idle in their resting state.

Burton’s version sets you up for failure. Imagine it. You’re just sitting by yourself reading The Anatomy of Melancholy. Perhaps you are feeling, actually, slightly pleased that you’re nearing the end of what is, frankly, a massively long book. Then he hits you with “Be not solitary, be not idle” and now you don’t even have the chance to congratulate yourself on how you haven’t been idle because you are by yourself. Loser.

Now let’s imagine Boswell receiving Johnson’s missive. Boswell’s been out of town, visiting friends in Chester, and even as his initial letter to Johnson brims over with talk of visiting and social gaiety, his vulnerability shows plainly in his final entreaty to Johnson before he signs off: “two lines from you will keep my lamp burning bright.”

Let’s imagine this same, vulnerable Boswell, now having traveled to Carlisle, receiving Johnson’s reply five days later. It’s a warm, kind letter: Johnson both affirms Boswell’s lovableness and gives him practical suggestions for warding off his melancholy. And then we get to his reworking of Burton: “If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.” Unlike Burton’s reader, as Boswell reads Johnson’s words, he can feel a little smug that he’s already winning: he may be alone—but that’s OK! Because he is not idle—he is reading Samuel bloody Johnson, isn’t he! And Samuel bloody Johnson has just given him permission to fail even as he expresses faith in his ability to succeed.

The ethos implicit in Johnson’s version of Burton is one that Boswell records Johnson expressing earlier in a different context in the Life of Johnson (1791): “Because a man cannot be right in all things, is he to be right in nothing? Because a man sometimes gets drunk, is he therefore to steal?”

When one is melancholy, it’s easy, I find, to succumb to this all-or-nothing way of thinking: since I failed to achieve task x, the whole day is now ruined; in fact, at this juncture, I may as well fully commit to making the day a full-blown disaster.

Johnson’s approach is different. Allow, Johnson suggests, for the fact that you will end up falling into some of the habits that foster melancholy. Allow that fact to be the place from which you start rather than the place where you give up.

For me, Johnson’s dictum has also been a starting place for thinking up other dictums.

So, you can’t say I’ve been idle. Just saying.

  • If you have a croissant for breakfast, have not a croissant for lunch; if you have a croissant for lunch, have not a croissant for breakfast.

 

  • If you are texting, be not driving; if you are driving, be not texting.

 

  • If you are weeping, be not teaching; if you are teaching, be not weeping.

 

  • If you are drinking coffee, be not drinking diet coke; if you are drinking diet coke, be not drinking coffee.

 

  • If you are scrolling through Twitter, be not scrolling through Instagram; if you are scrolling through Instagram, be not scrolling through Twitter.

 

  • If you are drunk, be not sedated; if you are sedated, be not drunk.

 

  • If you are online shopping, be not KonMari-ing your closet; if you are KonMari-ing your closet, be not online shopping.

 

  • If you are binge-watching Netflix, be not overly nice in your tastes; if you are overly nice in your tastes, be not binge-watching Netflix.

 

  • If you are in bed, be not checking the apps; if you are checking the apps, be not in bed.

 

  • If you are sharing your feelings, be not averse also to listening; if you are averse also to listening, be not sharing your feelings.

 

  • If you are ashamed, be not self-flagellating; if you are self-flagellating, be not ashamed.
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Day 202: “Even dreams must be concrete.”

I came across Viktor Shklovsky’s Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar (originally published in 1970, this edition translated into English by Shushan Avagyan and published in 2011) while looking for a particular essay of Shklovsky’s to assign to my undergraduates.

I ordered the book because I’ve been thinking about similes lately, and the book’s title made me think that it might have something to say about them.

It doesn’t, really, but it has something to say about almost everything else, delivered in the form of sphinx-like epigrammatic pronouncements.

On many of the book’s pages, paragraph breaks separate each sentence, the way they do here.

I thought I’d try out this formatting style to see if it imbues my own words with the aura of profundity that Shklovsky’s words emanate.

It doesn’t seem to, but that’s OK.

This post is really just a collection of those sentences that made a strong impression on me.

They are arranged in the order they appear in the book.

 

From the preface:

These are old pathways. I hope to intersect them.”

“Nightingales sang below my window, or maybe they weren’t nightingales at all.

They don’t care that they have been exhausted in poetry; they don’t know that they’ve been refuted” (4).

On Tristram Shandy:

“Life evolves in a thread of knots that gets more and more tangled. The narrative segments are intentionally dislocated and rearranged, so the knots become the characters, as it were” (25).

On the digital humanities, avant la lettre:

“Today we have such a multitude of fairy tales that it is quite impossible to try and make sense of them. We certainly can’t retain them in memory, and there won’t be enough index cards. We could create an enormous cybernetic machine, but what should it be programmed to do?” (167)

On the art of narration:

“Art has its direction and purposefulness, which does not coincide with the aspect of how interesting the work is, but rather how skillfully the story is arrested or delayed” (276).

On art and wondering:

“Science avoids the act of wondering, it tries to overcome the element of surprise. Art preserves it” (284).

On litotes, lyric poetry, and love:

“In rhetoric, litotes is a figure of speech that is the opposite of hyperbole. Pushkin spoke about a family, the members of which were becoming so small that soon one had to lick a finger in order to pick up one of them. That’s an example of litotes.

But there is another kind of litotes that intentionally understates something or implies that it is lesser in significance than it really is. If you are freezing but instead tell your neighbor (because you don’t want to worry him) that you are cold, then that’s a litotes.

The soldiers uses to sing during campaigns in the Caucasus:

‘In one word, it’s hard,

It’s certainly not easy,

By the way—it’s fine.’

This is a litotes.

When one is in love, one is often obliged to speak about it indirectly. If lyric poetry—all of it—is not a trope, then it is dissident speech.

The litotic plot in Pushkin’s poem [Eugene Onegin] is that a man is trying to persuade himself that his love has faded. In reality, it hasn’t (295-6).

On metaphor:

           In a metaphor, one object is compared to another, but it’s not confined in it as in a prison and it doesn’t replace the other.

The metaphor turns our knowledge of the subject as a stoker turns pieces of coal in a firebox with his tongs” (362).

On myths:

“Myths in human memory are like tools in a smithy—they are made for work, not for storage” (374).

On his changing views of form and content over time:

“I refuted the idea of content in art when I was young, thinking that it was pure form … Back then I used to say that art had no content, that it was devoid of emotion, while at the same time I wrote books that bled, like A Sentimental Journey and ZOO. The latter was also called Letters Not About Love because it was a book about love” (440).

On being an aging critic:

            “There comes a time in every man’s life when he renounces whatever is fashionable, considering it a mistake, and stays in his old, narrow pants and old-fashioned hat.

I have been studying the history of art for a long time now and I know.

The new skirts are too short for me” (442).

On rethinking the significance of ostranenie (estrangement):

“I should have asked myself: what exactly are you going to estrange if art doesn’t express the conditions of reality? Sterne, Tolstoy were trying to return the sensation of what?” (442-3)

On concreteness:

“[E]ven Dulcinea del Toboso couldn’t exist for Don Quixote without an exact address. Even dreams must be concrete” (446)

On the difference between the lack of endings in Sterne and Pushkin:

“The Sternean ending is the rejection of the principle of closure.

Pushkin’s ending in Eugene Onegin is the sad mark of the impossibility to tell the truth about the fate of the hero among his friends” (452).

On returning the ball to the game:

“[T]he photographer [at the end of Antonioni’s film Blowup] sees a group of university students dressed in masquerade costumes.

They are playing a game of tennis: we clearly hear the fast, staccato sounds of the ball hitting the racket.

Then we realize that we are watching a mimed match—it’s a game without a ball.

There is no sense, no ball in the game—only the ghost of sound.

Its purpose—the ending has disappeared. Nobody cares about the murder mystery and its solution. It can be used in a newspaper article or in photography, but nothing more. The denouement has vanished. There is no ending …

… People write poems about writing poems.

Writers write novels about writing novels, film scripts about film scripts.

They are playing a tennis game without a ball, but the journeys of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Pantagruel, and even Chichikov must have a purpose.

Return the ball into the game.

Return the heroic deed into life.

Return meaning to the movement—and not the record of achievement” (464).

In conclusion:

Regarding the ending—

I don’t like that word.

There will be no ending” (467).

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Day 201: an even tension

In the first week of my undergraduate class on literature and attachment, we discussed excerpts from John Bowlby’s foundational work, A Secure Base (1988) and Bruno Latour’s essay “Factures/Fractures: From the Concept of Network to the Concept of Attachment” (1999). Although Bowlby and Latour approach the subject from very different perspectives, they agree on one thing: there’s no wriggling out of attachment.

As Bowlby writes, having explained the three basic attachment patterns—secure, anxious resistant, and anxious avoidant (based on the findings of his former student, Mary Ainsworth), “each pattern of attachment, once developed, tends to persist.”

As Latour puts it, “We can substitute one attachment for another, but we cannot move from a state of attachment to that of unattachment.”

For Latour, the important factor is not the attachment pattern but the object to which the subject is attached, and whether, as he puts it quite starkly, the object is good or bad, “morbid” or “redemptive.”

Latour doesn’t elaborate on what he means by good or bad but his main example is that a smoker cannot hope to become detached from smoking but only “that other attachments will come to substitute for this one.” Latour cites a study about substituting methadone for heroin, so I took that model to be what he had in mind, that model being one in which “the aim is to substitute methadone, a legal, oral opiate with a long half-life, for the illicit, parenterally administered heroin, which is associated with a high risk of morbidity and mortality. (Anderson, I B and T E Kearney. “Use of methadone” Western journal of medicine vol. 172,1 (2000): 43-6.)

Or, in the example I breezily presented to my students, “I get really distracted by my phone,” I confessed earnestly, “but my Mum just taught me to knit and I’ve found I’m spending much less time on my phone!” Here, I gestured smugly to the knitting stashed in my Virginia Woolf tote bag.

The class went really well and ended on a high note when one student posed a final question that used the Bowlby to gain a new vantage point upon the Latour.

She looked worried as she asked it. “So Latour says the important question is whether your attachments are good or bad. And that you can substitute good attachments for bad attachments.” But what,” she continued, “if you’re the anxious resistant type, and you’re just always attached to bad things. Or what if your attachment pattern makes things … even good things … bad?”

I was so jubilant at how she’d so deftly woven the two texts together that, in the moment, I just stood there, admiring the question as it hung in the air like a glittering spider’s web in the rain; and then we were out of time, so I just grabbed my knitting and left.

***

Knitting insinuated its way into my life so smoothly. These days when I leave the house for work my last minute check has an extra step: phone; wallet; keys; laptop; knitting. Part of the reason knitting integrated itself so seamlessly into my daily routine was that the knitting itself was easy. I was knitting a blanket square by square. Once I’d got the hang of casting on and off, completing a square was delightfully straightforward. My hands wanted to knit even when my hands were empty. Sometimes when I wasn’t knitting, I would fantasize about knitting. Dive under; loop over; push through; slide off; dive under; loop over; push through; slide off.

But then, a few nights ago, I hit a snag. A strange excrescence had appeared out of nowhere below my right needle, its lumpy appearance marring the effect of the rows of even stitches below it. What to do? I had absolutely no idea, I realized, of how to go backwards. Stay calm, I counseled myself. Theseus used the ball of thread to get out of the labyrinthYou just have to retrace your steps. 

I tried, gingerly, going one stitch back and then one stitch forward; but neither undid the mess. I felt myself start to panic.

What’s done cannot be undone.

I was completely stuck. Suddenly I was just holding a ball of wool and two sticks. What the fuck even are these, I thought to myself, staring at the knitting needles in dismay. The whole thing had become completely illegible to me, just a big, poky, tangle.

It was time to start reading stories to the younger and she’d gotten to bed late the night before.

She came in to see what I was doing.

“It’s all gone wrong!” I wailed.

She sighed.

“Just call Elo!” she urged.

“I can’t,” I whimpered, “it’s in the middle of the night there.”

She sighed again.

“Well just call her tomorrow.”

I knew I needed to lay the knitting down and start reading but I could feel tears filling my eyes at the very thought—at the idea that I would lay it down and not know where to pick up.

Let me just try to figure out how I can fix it, I thought. I Googled unraveling knitting and watched snippets of various YouTube videos and found a technique for unknitting stitch by stitch. But it didn’t seem to work and the sensible no-nonsense tones of the knitting YouTubers rubbed me the wrong way. I was left with even more of a mess.

My cheeks hot and my heart beating fast, I laid down the knitting and picked up Mary Poppins, which we’d just started reading. The younger was now overtired and fussy and I was irritable. She wanted Fudge-a-mania not Mary Poppins.

“But the thing is,” I tried to explain steadily, my voice growing shrill, “I actually don’t think I can read that book out loud again.”

There would be no spit-spot into bed that night.

***

When she was finally asleep and I went back to my own bed I thought about going to sleep but I just couldn’t. I picked up the knitting. It didn’t look so bad. But when I studied the two needles and the stitches held between and tried to imagine how to undo the defective stitches or transfer them from the right needle to the left, it engendered the same feeling of vertiginous panic as contemplating a horrendous equation. I felt nauseous.

All of my attempts at rescue produced more knots, but also, unfairly, a bigger hole. I watched more YouTube videos and finally decided, close to midnight, to attempt a drastic solution. I removed both needles and started unraveling my knitting down until I reached the part that was free of knots and holes. The yarn yielded stitch by stitch, as I gently pulled. It was pleasurable the way that ripping something along a perforated edge or toppling a line of dominoes is pleasurable. I could see the danger; once you started unraveling, it was difficult to stop. But I did stop. And then, holding my breath, I re-inserted the needle. It seemed to work. I knit forward with alacrity, eager to finish the square. The finished square was not perfect; there was a deviation in one of the rows, like a scar, I thought; but I felt ecstatic.

It was after midnight.

***

The next morning, galvanized by my triumph, I talked sternly to the younger, with Poppins-like authority, about dawdling at bedtime.

But as we were walking to school I admitted, “But it was my fault too. Because I wanted us to get bed early but then I got distracted by trying to fix my knitting.”

“Why did you get distracted?”

“I don’t know. I just felt like I couldn’t put it down.”

“It’s like knitting is your screen time,” she observed casually.

“Hmm,” I said.

“And then you stayed up till midnight knitting,” she went on. “You’re really addicted to it!” she exclaimed.

“Huh,” I said, uncertainly. “I guess I am.”

***

I have to finish proofreading something tomorrow. I had been putting off even starting it for weeks and today was the day I had resolved to start. So I went to the yarn store and picked out some beautiful soft yarn for a new project. It was thicker than the yarn I’d been using for the blanket so I needed some new needles, but I wasn’t sure what size. I asked the very patient assistant who had already been advising me.

“Well, it depends on your knitting style,” she said. “What’s your pattern, do you tend to knit loosely or tightly?”

I shook my head. “I really … I really have no idea,” I said … “Uh, perhaps you could look at my knitting and tell me?”

She smiled, but her gaze did not drop down to the knitting in my bag to which I was gesturing. Instead she held my gaze for a second, strode to the back of the store, grabbed something off a rack on the back wall, and then strode back to the cash register.

“I think these will suit you,” she said, handing me a pair of needles, each one the thickness of a fountain pen. I believed her.

 

knitting

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Day 200: I was very beautiful

Saturday morning. The elder is at kung fu. The younger and I are FaceTiming with Mum.

Mum: Oh, I was going to tell you, I ran into someone in Highgate Village yesterday who remembered you. I think she maybe had children who were similar ages to you and at the same school. Somebody Sainsbury? Do you remember anybody with the last name Sainsbury?

Me [not really listening, distracted by the various dolls whose heads the younger keeps pushing sinisterly into the camera frame]: Uh, no.

Mum: Well, anyway, it was quite interesting because the one thing she remembered about you, she said, was that you were very beautiful!

Me: [perking up, surprised and pleased and ignoring the younger, who is now making a barfing face and retching noises]: Oh! She said that I was very beautiful? Me?

Mum: Yes, you!

[I frown at and shush the younger who is now giggling and simpering in an English accent “oh, hello, my name is Sarah Kareem and I am sooooooo beautiful, la-di-dah!”]

Me: Well that was very nice of her!

Mum: Yes, wasn’t it? I said, “yes, she was. She was very beautiful.” [Then, in tone of mock-severity to the younger, who is now laughing hysterically]: And what are you laughing at, young lady, at the idea that your mother was beautiful? Well, she was!

Me [pause]: Wait. So you said to her, “she was very beautiful”? Why did you say “she was very beautiful”? Why didn’t you say, “why yes, she is very beautiful”?

Mum: Why, because she hasn’t seen you for twenty years! So that would have been a strange thing to say!

Me: [uncertainly]: Would it?

Mum: [decidedly]: Yes!

Me: Hmmm.

smaller sarah

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