#metoo THIS

October 11, 2018 at 9:29 pm (By Amba)

A Brief for the Complexity of Experience

Reading this psychoanalytic article on how an ambiguous past experience can be retrospectively recognized or reevaluated as a trauma (such a revelatory change is an emotional reality, the author claims, not some opportunistic rebranding to jump on an angry-victim bandwagon), I started thinking again about the time my boss made a pass at me.

That scene sprang to mind immediately when #metoo arose, of course, and I have thought of it often since. I cannot honestly say it was traumatic at the time, though it was disturbing, and I cannot call it traumatic even now, though it remains vivid in my memory, which tells you something. I want to tell you about it because I think it exemplifies the one thing that gets lost in a zero-tolerance, all-or-nothing cultural climate, and that is what actually happened. And the context: what happened before, and after. The ambiguity and weirdness that is the power of narrative can be too quickly stamped flat by interpretation and judgment. I don’t want to lose the details of the experience by classifying it and filing it.

I have the luxury of remembering this way because I was lucky. The man in the story was not a misogynist, he had already demonstrated that beyond a doubt. At no time did he belittle me or relate to me primarily as a body, much less one he had rights to. He did not punish me professionally in any way for my infinitesimal rebuff. I do not intend to generalize from this story. I am not suggesting that other such stories may or may not resemble it in any way. I don’t want to make this particular story out to have been either worse or better than it was. I’m not drawing conclusions. I’m trying to preserve particularity.

*   *   *

I was twenty-two. He must have been in his mid- to late forties, a heavy-bodied, intellectual man with a sensual, fleshy face. Married. He was a senior editor in the publishing house where I had been hired right out of college. I was an editorial assistant. Or maybe I had been promoted to assistant editor, because I was no longer reading the slush pile (the unsolicited manuscripts that came in the mail—we actually read them) in a windowless office with three other Ivy League “girls.” I had my own little windowless office.

He came into my office on some business or other and closed the door behind him, which I thought was odd. We exchanged a bit of professional small talk and then he stepped forward, bent over my desk and kissed me on the mouth. In his loose business pants a dolphin rolled.

I simply didn’t respond. I didn’t move. I must have given him an uncomprehending, wary, enigmatic look. He stepped back. The dolphin vanished into the depths. He left my office and closed the door behind him.

And that was the end of it. Things went on as before, as if it had never happened. Almost. There was a little dent in my childlike trust in him, like the first scratch on a new car.

*   *   *

The context.

He had been a mentor to me, someone who reveled in and egged on my mind and talent, unlike the boyfriend I’d recently dumped whose motto was, “I like airline stewardesses because they don’t think.” Scalded by prefeminist Harvard, which had dripped condescension toward all things female, especially those with pretensions to intelligence, I had thrived on the heady banter and exchange of ideas with this authority figure who treated me like a fledgling colleague. If there was a flirtatious, male-female subtext, I was obtuse to it. I played in my boss’s indulgence as freely as a child in a play therapist’s sandbox, safely trying things out.

I wasn’t a virgin, but I was pretty innocent. About my own powers, and even my own motives, as well as others’. So when I showed my boss some poems I had written, I didn’t think anything of including this one:

Spring Song 2

Had he, I wondered, wondered whether my showing him that poem had been meant as an invitation? Or did it just turn him on?

Oh, and then there was the other one, I’d forgotten about the one about the visit to the gynecologist—I won’t inflict the whole thing on you, but it was 1968, full flood sexual revolution, not only in what you did, but what you could say, and it ended with these lines:

Sanger Clinic 2

He might have been . . . forgiven (I use the word with all due irony) . . . for wondering if I was dropping an invitation in his inbox, because—the plot thickens—another young woman working in the office, a few years ahead of me, had already had an affair with him (I don’t remember when or how I learned this; probably she told me, we were friends), and it is quite possible that she had initiated it. She had had a previous relationship with a much older literary mentor. You can hear the Starr Report chorus of prurient patriarchal scorn warming up, but it wasn’t a happy story, a case of the mythical wild free spirit; she had been sexually abused as a child, was possibly bipolar (she later had a psychotic episode), and possibly hypersexual at times. How could our boss have taken advantage of someone so vulnerable? Did he even know? Or did he just think, “Oh boy, wow, why not?”

In any case, this married man had learned that bright young women in the office might be available and willing, so his kiss was investigative, to find out if I might be another one of those. To his credit (more irony), he was keenly attuned to the finding that I was not. I didn’t have to do anything but nothing, and he backed off like he’d touched a hot plate.

Remember that in 1968 there were no rules yet governing this type of relationship (aside from the stuffy old ones about marital fidelity, of course). It was a time when graduate students routinely married their professors. Was ours a relationship of unequal power? Of course. Did my boss abuse his power? Barely. For the most part he used it sincerely to nurture and foster me, a kindly professional father figure.

But as such, he did violate my naïve trust.

Compare the president of the company, a devastatingly charismatic man who doodled sharp, dashing strokes with a fountain pen while he talked to you, like Stalin doodled wolves. He took great pleasure in summoning awestruck young editors-in-training up to his eyrie on “the Ninth Floor,” alone, and entrusting us with challenging assignments. And he was impeccable. If he knew the thrill his power and presence elicited, he never took an iota of advantage of it. He used it to supercharge us with endeavor.

(I did date his son a couple of times . . .)

The ultimate irony, if I am completely truthful, is that the “bundled bear” of my poem could only have been my boss. I didn’t know any other men that shape.

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Movie Review: “The Shape of Water”

March 4, 2018 at 2:28 pm (By Amba) ()

Judging from the (lack of) response to this on FB, it should have been a blog post in the first place.

Saw #TheShapeofWater” today. Trying to frame how I felt about it. [SPOILER ALERT!!]

I love “Beauty and the Beast” stories (starting with Cocteau’s 1946 classic) and hoped to be able to give myself over to this one and suspend disbelief. The movie was too self-conscious, culturally referential, and full of in-jokes to be the kind you could give in to in that naïve way (what Paul Ricoeur would have called “first naïveté,” to be outré about it). In fact, I laughed out loud many times (even at “a god? I don’t know, he ate a cat …”). Yet it also had many touching moments, relented and deigned to fulfill one’s yearnings in the end, and it grew on me after it was over.

It’s interesting for someone who actually lived through the late 1950s–early 1960s to see that era turned into a garish mythological dreamtime (as also, differently, in “Mad Men”). It reminded me a bit of the quasi-Victorian alternate universe of Philip Pullman’s novels. Many sophisticated and subversive tropes about the entrenched sexism, racism, and Cold War machismo of that time wove through the movie. It was a nifty touch that a circa 1960 movie monster actually looked like a . . . circa 1960 movie monster, done up in the special effects of that time. And it was a funny and lovely contrast between human missionary position sex, shown in blatant splayed bare-ass full frontal, and human-monster sex, hidden discreetly behind a pulled shower curtain and alluded to with a shy, sly hand gesture.

Best picture? Hell, I don’t know. The postmodern self-consciousness of so many movies now seems to me a sign of decadence, as if culture is eating and recycling itself, with too little input from either raw experience or headlong imagination. This was an enjoyable movie, haunting and hilarious by turns, but not all-of-a-piece enough to be a great one.

A final note: was Del Toro doing a bit of subliminal “Hidden Persuaders” (1957!) influencing by making the monster look so much like an Oscar?

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Frontpaging myself . . .

December 3, 2017 at 1:34 pm (By Amba)

shamelessly. From a comment I posted on this (which gave me the opening to draft something I’d been thinking about anyway):

Even when we lack for nothing materially and even interpersonally (or especially when we lack for nothing, because then we are not distracted by the demands of necessity), our consciousness still torments us, to the point where seeking to soothe and pacify this insatiable inner craving and discontent is one of our major activities and expenses (be it by football, alcohol, opioids, workaholism, religion, or reading articles on the Internet). Taoism, Buddhism, and Stoicism are some of the thought systems that have attempted to confront this directly. What is this bone-deep, incessant dissatisfaction, the ground bass of self-awareness that we hear when all the other noise stops (Henderson the Rain King’s “I want I want I want”)? Is it only human, an artifact of our incomplete evolution, or is it shared by, say, cats and cetaceans, perfected by evolution 30 million years ago? Is it about knowing we’re going to die? Is it just about the ebb and flow of physiological states of need and satiation? Should we strive to extinguish it? Should we harness it to drive ourselves somewhere worthwhile instead of driving us crazy?

 

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Hypochondria and Puritanism at 5 a.m.

November 28, 2017 at 12:02 pm (By Amba)

(wanna know what the “young old” think about early in the morning? I didn’t think so. but I’ll expose myself anyway.)

Journal entry, 11/28/2017

I’m scared of my body. I lie awake tuning in to its weird vibrations here and there like someone in a creaky old house, or an earthquake zone. Listening: was that a ghost’s step closer? a tremor?

I know that I’m past three score and ten (which is a real thing, it turns out) and my body could turn on me at any time. So is the tingle in my left big toe the beginning of ALS, or a brain tumor? (It’s probably sciatic nerve compression in my left lower back, where I’ve had sacroiliac pain, or common peroneal nerve irritation in my sore left knee. After yesterday’s amazing ATM [Awareness Through Movement© lesson], which differentiated extension of the lower spine, it vanished for a day. Also, I was walking up and downstairs in a new way that spared my knee.) Is the little string that repeatedly vibrates deep in my pelvis — now in the left groin, now just right of center — a muscle twitch (ALS again!) or an abdominal aortic aneurysm? Is it a reaction to the drastic demands for change and exertion I make on my body? Or have these things always been going on and am I just now attuned and undistracted (i.e. alone) enough to notice them? Who knows? Who cares? Something will get you, sooner or later, you can count on that. The real question is, how can I make use of rather than waste what’s left of my life? Not by lying awake listening to the first tendrils of the flood of mortality finger for cracks, trying the door.

Then too (ambivalence is all!), the “don’t waste your life” meme is so puritanical, and it just rouses its opposite, rebellion, so they are deadlocked. It’s the guilty puritan who wastes his or her life snacking on the couch and beating him/herself up for it. What a bore, “Should!” and “Don’t wanna!” in their endless Punch and Judy show. Superego and subversive soul . . . I was thinking yesterday that an inspired or guided blundering into situations is a richer way to live than setting a Project and plotting a course — the American self-help way. Ignore the landscape, build for the automobile, with its front-facing binocular focus, its blinders on, its headlamps tunneling through the fog to the same death that will claim those who’ve been wandering in the woods exulting shamelessly in their senses . . . But from another point of view, a Project is only a way of getting yourself into some new situations.

I’ve always lived myopically, using all my creativity to respond to, cope with, and understand comprehend whatever — whoever — came close enough for me to see and, better yet, touch. (“Comprehend” holds a better metaphor than “understand”; it’s hands-on.) Now? For the first time in my life, the field ahead and all around is clear, and I have the chance and the challenge to project something of my own onto that blank screen. It is so unaccustomed, and so absurd in the existential sense — undriven by the engine of reproduction and unawaited by any even imaginary expectant throng. Does it matter to me if it doesn’t matter?

I used to think this was what “acte gratuit” meant. What a disappointment to discover that it meant a murder committed for the hell of it — an adolescent male fantasy of the existentialists, a term coined by André Gide. . . . This is weirdly relevant.

The point is, I feel like an adolescent, but I am not. I am a “senescent,” a “moribund.” I don’t have an adolescent’s plausible illusion of unlimited time. I have some unknown but very finite amount of time until the clock inside strikes and my coach turns into a rotting pumpkin. And, maybe because I am abnormally healthy for my age, I can’t quite seem to get it. Is what I have my ear cocked inward for a kick in the ass? Do I need a ticking timer, a hard deadline to race against?

Doing something for someone else (usually editing) drags me back into the lifestream, contextualizes me, and gets my juices flowing. Everything exists in connection, nothing in isolation. Pull one thread and the whole peaks and puckers into a landscape.

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Whose foot is it, anyway?

December 22, 2016 at 8:28 pm (By Amba)

Sometimes it’s like that.

                                                                                               [better with the sound off]

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Thank you for [not] sharing.

September 14, 2016 at 3:31 am (By Amba)

Just because I’m drunk on self-inflicted sleep deprivation, I’m going to inflict a journal entry on you. But I’m putting it here, not on Facebook, so only the true masochists will make the effort to see it.

______________________________

Went to see a film about John Berger. He’s still alive! A hearty 90, smoking and shoveling snow. But he just lost his wife. I went to see it because his short story about a farmer and a calf so haunts me. He went native in a French peasant village 40 years ago. I was a little disappointed to see he is still something of a cultural sophisticate after 40 years of helping with milking and haying. When young he was beautiful and self-dramatizing, with a mop of wavy black hair, high cheekbones and a prominent nose, a sort of Leonard Cohen or Leonard Bernstein of radical art criticism. He’s a beautiful old man, rugged and luminous, with beseeching eyes,

john-bergers-quotes-2

and his dialectics are at least simplified and more enigmatic, the fancy edges worn off. . . . The film, much of it, was annoyingly hip and formless. As if form were a form of capitalist colonial oppression. But I could look at Tilda Swinton forever. She looks like a 6- or 7-month fetus, when they are fully formed but haven’t yet put on any fat.

I realized that I am something of a radical, in terms of despising the worship of money, the loving of it more than life. (There’s a desperation about it, the flight from death that it is, that only makes things worse, gives you more to flee from.) But I see it almost the way an old Catholic would, not as a flaw in “the system” but in human nature, the way we cleverly hot-wire and short-circuit our own brains. And in that way I’m more of a conservative . . . except I don’t think returning to tradition is the answer, because tradition isn’t adapted to the modern world. [Which leaves me feeling] we’re fucked.

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The storm troops of cancer

September 15, 2015 at 1:11 pm (By Amba)

The storm troops of cancer
burst in on the family dinner,
brute shoulder to the door
dull gray-green fabric tight
over meat malleus as bronze
smearing the candles,
dislocating the delicate jaw,
incinerating the snowflake of order
tatted by held-breath billions of years.

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Why Two

July 7, 2015 at 11:26 pm (By Amba)

It’s really strange to me that I haven’t seen articulated what seems to me the obvious reason why gay marriage isn’t the moral or legal equivalent of polygamy, and is not, therefore, bound to lead to it.

In a word: Two.

You can have sex with more than one person (like it or not, many married people do). I would hold that you cannot have full intimacy with more than one person (at a time, and it also takes time).

In fact, I’m not sure you can have full intimacy even with one person. It’s an ideal to strive for, to achieve at moments and at other moments fall far short. As the saying goes, we’re born alone, we die alone, and we’re often never more aware of our aloneness than in marriage.

But the point is, sex is only the opener, what overwhelms our resistance to getting close enough and open enough for the rest to start happening. If you stick around, then, it’s a full-time job trying to be intimate — and its daily double, companionable — with one other person. If you divide your attention you cut its depth in half and blow your focus. You may have fantasies about other people, you may be infatuated with another person, you may imagine that intimacy with that person would soar far above what’s possible with your current partner. Well, maybe: some people are better at it, or better together. But even at its best, coexisting with one other person, bringing two such different inner lives into one space, striking off the rough edges, takes a lot of work and time, a lot of attention, a lot of failure and rage and remorse, a lot of discovery and revelation of the other and of yourself. It’s not something we have the time or capacity to divide up and parcel out. If you do that (as in Big Love), it becomes something else — more reproductive and social, less . . .

spiritual.

At the core of marriage, underneath the habit and comfort and irritation, you bear witness to another person’s existence — and, let’s face it, you just bear another person’s existence — a little bit like God would. If we invented God (where would we get such an idea?), it was in the hope of being seen like that, through and through, with steady attention and patient, unblaming fascination, down to our dark places.

Try and do that with a harem, even a small one.

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On joining the ranks of the old

May 8, 2015 at 1:40 pm (By Amba)

This, by Alessandra Stanley, who has gotten herself in trouble before (h/t Tom Strong), got me going:

People who complain about aging sound old. But “Grace and Frankie” is a senior angst comedy that somehow doesn’t seem fusty and out of date. . . . Together, [Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin] pull this comedy about 70-somethings back from the brink of ridicule. . . . This series covers a later phase in life, somewhere between late-blooming love and assisted living.

And it’s been a while since a series was so intently centered on the early-bird-special set.

Television shows tend to reflect the preoccupations of their creators, and ageism is a fact of Hollywood life. It’s not just older actresses who feel discarded. [It’s e]ven [the] people behind the camera . . .

Reviews reflect the preoccupations of their creators, too. Stanley is reportedly 60 herself, and every line of this screams, “I am NOT one of THEM!!!” Ageism is also a fact of New York media life—hell, of American life. And milking that fact for bittersweet laughs (after all, there’s a large, retiring demographic coming along, the death-diminished bulge in the python, with lots of TV-watching time on its hands) is what this sitcom is all about. Toward the review’s end, Stanley stops sneeringly editorializing with every phrase and simply describes a scene from the sitcom:

Grace and Frankie find that without important husbands, they vanish. Old friends don’t call and strangers don’t even acknowledge them. In one scene, the normally poised Grace is incensed when a male supermarket cashier doesn’t turn to serve them or even acknowledge their waves, pleas and yoo-hoos. He has eyes and time only for a pretty young woman who saunters up asking for lottery tickets.

Grace has a screaming meltdown, and Frankie ushers her back to the car and reveals an upside: She stole a pack of cigarettes. “We have a superpower,” Frankie says slyly. “You can’t see me, you can’t stop me.”

Grace and Frankie feel invisible, but here they stand out.

So this has made me think about the perennial subject of age and ageism: how getting old really sucks, and how it actually doesn’t; why our culture dismisses, derides, and despises the old, and what it misses thereby. (Disclaimer: I don’t think this is all or even the main thing we should be talking about, in some last baby-boomer bid to monopolize the cultural conversation.)

How getting old sucks is perfectly obvious: your body starts to fall off. And sometimes, and therefore, your mind too. And it’s simultaneously happening to all your friends. Nature is through with you and starts looking for a way to kill you. And it is perfectly clear to you that it is not a matter of if, but when, and how, and how bad. From now on you’ll be occupied with tossing parts of yourself you can live without to Captain Hook’s crocodile to postpone the inevitable; then, you’ll be smashing the crocodile in the snout with your rifle butt as its bad breath engulfs you. It’s the price of life. And it’s amazing to arrive at the threshold of old age and discover how very little of a dent the triumphs of science have made in it. Okay, more of us now make it to our three score and ten. And then, if not before, the shit starts hitting the fan, right on schedule. Knees are replaced, stents put in, breasts and bladders turn cancerous . . .

What’s more amazing to discover, though, is that it isn’t all loss and fear. If you have your mind. If you have your mind, it becomes like a study glowing with burnishing lamplight, with a deep, comfortable chair, with shelves of books on all sides receding into the darkness of the infinite. As you sit in that chair you have a magical arm that can reach out past Alpha Cygni in a languid gesture and pluck just the right apple from the farthest twig of the great tree.

Of course there’s more — the detachment and perspective we call “wisdom,” which feels like rising to stratospheric heights above the busy surface of the globe and taking it all in with an eagle’s-eye sweep—the patterns, the vanishing tininess—on the way to leaving it all behind. And if thinking has new, powerful pleasures, so does stopping thinking—paradoxically recognizing how futile, inadequate, and disconnected from actual life are all efforts to systematize and understand. You know so much more about what you don’t know—the pinnacle of education!

Why doesn’t our culture find any value in this? I think mainly because it’s invisible, or hidden in homely vessels. We’re an almost exclusively visual culture, obsessed with the charm of surfaces. We’re also obsessed with marketing, which goes for the lowest biological common denominator, locus of the strongest impulses and the broadest base—therefore the surest profits. (Profits über prophets!) Sophisticated presentations of the most basic drives and arousals are our entirely worldly focus. In the heat of the prime of life, the insights of wisdom are impotent cobwebs, or snowflakes, to be shouldered off.  Only loss reveals them to be weighty anchors and deep wells.

It’s holding on that makes age ridiculous. If you’re too busy fighting the loss, you can miss the gain.

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Everybody Has a Theory About Procrastination. Here’s Mine.

August 27, 2014 at 4:41 pm (By Amba)

But first (ha ha!), here’s the latest new one that made me want to write this. And here’s an old post of mine presenting two opposed perspectives on procrastination, one heroic, one subversive. So there you have three other theories of procrastination (four, actually: the first link talks about procrastination as a time-management error before proposing that it may instead be a mood-regulation error).

So here’s mine.

For us to do anything challenging, and particularly anything creative, our regular everyday self has to get out of the way, and it doesn’t want to.

Our regular everyday self wants the credit for the work, and the gratification of having done the work, but in fact it cannot and does not DO the work. For the work to happen, our regular everyday self not only has to sacrifice the petty, reliable pleasures with which it lines its cozy nest and shores itself up; it has to sacrifice itself. It has to go away. It has to cease to exist for an indefinite unbounded while, a little death that for all it knows might be the big death. For the regular everyday self, this is not only unpleasant, it’s terrifying. It will put up a fight for hours, for days. Procrastination is its rear-guard action. A miniature version of this battle must be fought at the entrance to every workout, every workday.

But you can’t go in at the deep end with your clothes on. You have to shuck your regular everyday self: it’s the entrance requirement of the creative realm. Once you do, and only then, new stuff can come through, into the world through you.

And then at the end of the day or the task, your regular everyday self comes back and celebrates to find itself still alive and possessed of this new stuff that it can show off. The creative doesn’t need to celebrate. It just goes off looking for some other place where it can get into the world.

/my theory of procrastination. But does it help? It helps me.

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