Category Archives: what i’m reading

Still January

I’m quoting Roz Chast’s bleak advent calendar for this darkest of all months: January 22, “Still January.” It is one of the few months that I want to pass quickly, though it never does. Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 4.33.05 PM.png

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In the company of men

Even while men are looking backwards, fearful that past workplace behavior will be mis/construed as harassment (or assault), women I know are reconsidering their acceptance of office-inappropriate words and deeds.

I thought about this while reading “Can Hollywood Change?The New Yorker article by Dana Goodyear, who takes on the same topic. A Friends assistant was fired, she suspects, for not being “game” about writer-room banter. Along the same vein, another source, a script writer who was “game,” now feels ashamed of her complicity, a “betrayer of my feminist values.”

With 30+ years in the workplace, I’ve seen and accepted behavior I now cringe to recall. I wrote about the most egregious incident in an essay called “The Boss of Me,” about my first magazine job (and boss) for TueNight. That was harassment. But what of the years of intra-staff hookups, locker-room banter and, overall, iffy (and icky) stuff I wrote off as part of the landscape of working at Time Inc., a company led by men? Here, a short list of the iffiest, ickiest stuff, some of it as recent as, say, last week. All colleagues referenced, unless otherwise noted, are male.

  • “Snatch canyon” is what a colleague called his office view over a passageway between two buildings, populated, in his opinion, by attractive women.
  • “So should I just take my dick out and slap it on the desk?” Fumed a colleague after sharing an emasculating comment he received from another male colleague.
  • “Is she hot?” Asked a colleague about an intern I was interviewing.
  • “I’d leave my wife on Christmas morning for her,” declared a colleague about a female colleague we had in common.
  • “People are totally banging in that room,” snickered a colleague about a “wellness/nap” room.
  • “Assfuckery,” “Assfucked,” “Fuck me up the ass:” A colleague’s casual profanities about workplace annoyances.

 

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#MeToo

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Therese Dreaming

When I first saw this hashtag on Facebook, I bristled a bit. I don’t know why but it struck me as self-consciously “brave” and “honest” — and even a little coy. What women hasn’t been sexual harassed at some point in her life? What man hasn’t been bullied? What employee hasn’t been disrespected? What child has been unfairly treated? Humans can be hurtful and unthinking and selfish, putting their own pleasures and profits over others. And, I guess, #metoo.

I didn’t voice this. I didn’t want to sound like an apologist. But a New York Times column called “Publicly We Say #MeToo, Privately We Have Misgivings” by Daphne Merkin gets it right, in my view:

“The fact that such unwelcome advances persist, and often in the office, is, yes, evidence of sexism and the abusive power of the patriarchy. But I don’t believe that scattershot, life-destroying denunciations are the way to upend it. In our current climate, to be accused is to be convicted. Due process is nowhere to be found.” 

She raises the issue of “Therese Dreaming,” a circa-1938 Balthus painting that two young Metropolitan Museum of Art staffers petitioned to have removed, based on its “blatant objectification and sexualization of a child,” per one of them. Says Merkin: “This is the kind of censorship practiced by religious zealots.”

Convictions without due process, censorship, “witch hunts.” Something has run amok. Again, Merkin says it better:

“These are scary times, for women as well as men. There is an inquisitorial whiff in the air, and my particular fear is that in true American fashion, all subtlety and reflection is being lost. Next we’ll be torching people for the content of their fantasies.”

 

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To state the obvious

These days, Facebook seems to be mostly a collection of our obvious observations and rhetorical questions, repeated over and over and over again.

“I can’t believe how much she’s grown!” (said of any/all children who have grown up) and “Where does time go?” (answer: it doesn’t “go” anywhere it just disappears, only to be replaced by more time). These days, there are photos of snowdrifts with obvious captions (“brrrr…” and “so cold!”) and of our president (“such an idiot”). I agree that it is, indeed, cold outside and that Donald Trump is the worst kind of asshole. But that doesn’t mean I need near constant reminders of these facts.

All of this is better and more humorously said in The New Yorker essay, “Oh, Look, Some Time Has Passed!” by Kathryn Kvas. You almost don’t need more after the headline and this purposefully stock-y looking Getty photo of an ethnically diverse trio of women laughing their heads off over lattes.

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For every woman who loves laughing over lattes with friends.

Even so, I’ll quote this paragraph, so perfect: “But, really, I had so much fun hanging out this time! Maybe once some more time passes we’ll do something fun like this again. What do you say? I bet some stuff will happen by the time we get around to doing that fun thing, and then we can reminisce about how much time has passed since we talked about doing that thing that we’ll do! And then I bet that even more time will pass after we do that fun thing, and then some more time after that. And then we’ll keep talking about the passage of time over and over again until so much time has passed that we’ll stop existing as physical beings altogether!”

 

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Portraits of the Ladies

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Rereading “Portrait of a Lady” because I want to read “Mrs. Osmond,” its sequel of sorts, written some 150 years later by John Banville. How I quickly fell under the spell of James and his formal, precise language. There’s nothing loose or modern or elliptical about his prose in “Lady.” It’s as if James was tasked with telling the story as accurately and as plainly as possible and he does so in the unaccented voice of a vicar.

Here’s a lovely turn of phrase from the preface, about James’ experience of writing “Lady” when he found himself “ … in the fruitless fidget of composition, as if to see whether, out in the blue channel, the ship of some right suggestion, of some better phrase, of the next happy twist of my canvas, mightn’t come into sight.”

He goes on to lament the city he chose for his “composition,” Venice, as too rich with romantic and historical sites that are also too steeped in their own specific significance. Switching to the third person, he feels wrong in “yearning toward them in his difficulty, as if he were asking an army of glorious veterans to help him arrest a peddler who has given him the wrong change.”

And that’s just the preface! My reading and viewing this season has been backward-looking, to a more civil place and time: “The Crown,” “Alias Grace,” “Emma Brown” “(picking up, again a century or so later, on a half-finished Charlotte Bronte novel), “Bleak House” (produced by the BBC, streaming on Netflix) and “Death Comes to Pemberly” (P.D. James’ continuance of the story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy). Come to think of it, all of these are about strong but economically disadvantaged women. Except for “The Crown’s” Queen Elizabeth who has so many other crosses to bear (including that horrible husband of hers).

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The Pause

 

Pause is the title of a essay by the poet Mary Ruefle about menopause. It is long and, in many ways not my experience. I never felt suicidal, wanting to kill myself “with a steaming hot turned-on iron.” Ruefle (hmmm… sounds like rueful?) writes in the third person, telling you what you will feel, with no small amount of conviction, which is why I feel the urge to disagree with her. However, this part sounds right to me, especially the italicized bit:

You have the desire to leave your husband or lover or partner, whatever.

No matter how stable or loving the arrangement, you want out.

You may decide to take up an insane and hopeless cause. You may decide to walk to Canada, or that it is high time you begin to collect old blue china, three thousand pieces of which will leave you bankrupt. Suddenly the solution to all problems lies in selling your grandmother’s gold watch or drinking your body weight in cider vinegar. A kind of wild forest blood runs in your veins.

This, and other behaviors, will horrify you. You will seek medical help because you are intelligent, and none of the help will help.

You will feel as if your life is over and you will be absolutely right about that, it is over.

No matter how attractive or unattractive you are, you have been used to having others look you over when you stood at the bus stop or at the chemist’s to buy tampons. They have looked you over to assess how attractive or unattractive you are, so no matter what the case, you were looked at. Those days are over; now others look straight through you, you are completely invisible to them, you have become a ghost.

I do feel invisible, which, Frances McDormand tells me is the best thing that will ever happen to me:

‘You become sexually invisible to both men and women. You gain the power of not giving a shit,’ McDormand says in a profile about her in the NY Times Sunday Magazine.

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Frances McDormand, Difficult Woman

And I love Ruefle’s last lines, finally hopeful, and explaining why the pause exists in the first place:

You haven’t even begun. You must pause first, the way one must always pause before a great endeavor, if only to take a good breath.

Happy old age is coming on bare feet, bringing with it grace and gentle words, and ways which grim youth have never known. 

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Behold the Upholder

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, has a new book called The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too).

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I really like the writer Penelope Green, so I read with more interest (than Rubin warrants?) a profile of the author and her slightly Jungian online personality quiz. I say slightly Jungian because it’s also slightly Cosmo-like, with your choice of answers tipping their hand toward your ultimate score or judgment. Green likened it to the Sorting Hat ritual, which makes me, as an Upholder, “a high-working Hermione type,” per Green. Briefly, Upholders like to comply with rules—both externally- and self-imposed. They value discipline above all, which is a good thing (in my view). But it’s my belief that good qualities have a flip side, and Upholders tend to feel discomfort breaking rules, sticking too rigidly to “promises,” even the most meaningless. Here’s an example: I’ll promise myself I’ll be home from gym, errands, whatever by 12 noon to start work. If I find myself at the Whole Foods at noon, I’ll feel pressure to get home, skipping what I need to do at the Chase, even though I’d be no more than 20 minutes “late,” with no one impacted. Except me, who still needs to go to the Chase at some point.

How does this help me, knowing I’m an Upholder? How does it make my life better, happier?  Rubin has built an enterprise around all this, so perhaps I have to dig (meaning “buy”) more—pod casts and an app, along with all her books.

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The Spectacular Now

I feel as if I’ve been circling around the book “The Power of Now” for a long time, happening upon its precepts here and there, even instinctively “knowing” some of them from yoga or the Bible. And I’ve listened to people reference “Now” phrases and nodded my head thinking “that’s so true.” But then Oli gave me a book in which they are all gathered up and linked to one another in an organized way. Organized so as to make a blueprint for thinking and living a certain way. The things I’ve heard: “operating from a place of fear” or “motivated by fear” (David); recognizing one’s own “poverty” (Betsy); “look up, look around” (some random guy I interviewed in Norwalk years ago) and “really look at things” (Oliver). “Enjoy yourself” (Gail). “Lilies in the field” (the Bible). And just a couple of weeks ago, Mary talking about feeling grateful she could play tennis, could move and could apply her skill to this game she loves: “remember to love it,” she said to me, “remember to have fun.” So many people trying to tell me things that I take in for a moment then obliterate with my habits and thoughts and busyness.

I finished “The Power of Now” on the plane home from California. Personally, for me, it speaks to my patterns of compulsive thought. My defensiveness. My resentfulness. My submission to “clock time,” although I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I feel as if I’ve been given permission to stop with all the busyness, to value slowing down, quieting my thoughts, planning, planning, planning. I woke up last night in planning mode, my mind circling through when I’d exercise, or what I’d wear, and what I need to pack for two days in the city. Future tasks to be dealt with in the future, I thought. “Now” is the time to sleep.

And here’s a “Now” moment from the plane. I read “look up, look around” and so I did and there, out the smeary little window, was a shimmering jade-colored lake, encircled by snow-capped mountains. “Utah Lake,” the lady next to me told me. I’ll take it as a reward and an encouragement to keep looking.

 

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The Four Agreements

 

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The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

Oliver* bought me The Four Agreements, a book he found helpful in breaking bad habits and moods and reframing how we relate to each other. That’s a lot for such a little book but I read it, because he gave it to me, and I was astonished at how applicable Don Miguel Ruiz‘ “agreements” are to my life and habits and moods and relationships.

{This is the disclaimer paragraph and one I will one day be able to skip, once I become a more evolved human being. I am wary of New Age and Self-Help and this book belongs on those shelves. I tend to shy away from easy appropriations of “ancient wisdoms” — the glib referencing of Buddhist, Mystic, Mayan, Whatever thought promoted as “wisdom” based on the very fact that it’s “ancient,” a tautological argument if I’ve ever heard one. And finally: written 20 years ago, selling 5.2 million copies in the U.S., translated into 38 languages — why I have never heard of it?}

But lately, I have formed the habit of challenging the hard little “truths” that are diverse in their content but share this: they are self-limiting. I ask myself: why do you believe that? what if you’re wrong? wouldn’t it be a relief to be wrong, to not know something, to let someone tell you, help you? isn’t it possible that the answer is not in your head and therefore you have permission to stop ruminating and just experience the world, finding or not finding answers elsewhere?

In a more succinct way, the Four Truths guide seekers (and everyone else) out of the jail-like constructs of habitual thought and out into the wide-open lands I like to call “possibility.” And here they are:

  1. Be impeccable with your word — this is about honesty, but also a caution against toxic judgment and gossip.
  2. Don’t take anything personally — the most salient for me, who assigns meaning to casual words, smiles, even glances, rejecting people because I know how they really feel about me. Put another way, in a Psychology Today article written by John A. Johnson: “Because each person sees the world in a unique way, the way that others treat us says as much about them as it does about us.”
  3. Don’t make assumptions — ties closely to #2 but also my self-challenge, above, and best summed up as: confused? just ask!
  4. Always do your best— this is a hedge against that internal judge and jury that critiques every word and action and finds them lacking. Do your best, whatever that is, and move on (if only to silence Judgey McJudge).

Funny, in the telling of them, they seem so self-evident and exactly the sort of overheated leftovers a skeptic would expect from a long-ago Buddhist/Mystic/Mayan/Whatever meal. But that’s the assumptive way (self-help is garbage), to which the self must ask: what if you’re wrong? *Also, Oliver, what a guy!

 

 

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Jerkish

 

“Humanly impoverished” is one of the ways novelist Philip Roth describes Donald Trump in an email to Judith Thurman for a New Yorker article. Further, per Roth, Trump is:

“…ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

I’ve always admired Roth but, at the same time, felt excluded from Roth’s world, even as a reader: I’m too fond of resolution, kindness and civility. I react to him in the same way I react to overly (in my estimation) sardonic, sarcastic, cerebral but dark-world-view-professing people in my IRL. Why? I don’t know. I’m not the sunniest of all sunbeams. Perhaps it’s a lack of confidence in my own intellect. Insecurity, let’s say, the root cause of so much human conflict.

All that said, I’ll put “The Plot Against America”on my reading list.

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Philip Roth

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