How Middlebrow Are You?

Dear CF,

n+1 has chronicled and foretold the death of the hipster, but only now does it seem to be happening. Not the hipster’s death, but exhaustion within the ranks of the tastemakers. People are writing about brows and where one wears them. (This season, high is the new low! they seem to say, wearing their eyebrows on their cheeks.) I’m just going to leave them here, because the conversation just dances and dances around the question of what taste is for:

From Nitsuh Abebe’s “Why We Fight” in Pitchfork (via):

4. We are suspicious of enjoying anything anyone else has told us about.

This is the habit that strikes me as most problematic. Fifteen years ago, the main problem a lover of music– or film, or television, or other varieties of pop culture– would experience was scarcity. It took money to get hold of the stuff, and if you liked anything weird, it took effort, too. As a result, the default mode was to like what you could. In fact, the best way to demonstrate to others that you cared and were discerning about music was to like things– to have enjoyed exploring all these realms that took some effort to get to.

Over the past decade and a half, this situation seems to have reversed. The problem people talk about now is not scarcity but glut: a glut of music available to consume, a glut of media to tell you about it, a glut of things that desperately want your attention. Somewhere along the way, the default mode has taken a hard shift in the direction of showing your discernment by not liking things– by seeing through the hype and feeling superior to whatever you’re being told about in a given week. Give it the attention it wants, but in the negative.

This extends far outside of music. There’s an entire Arch Snarky Commenter persona people now rush to adopt, in which they read things on the Internet and then compete to most effectively roll their eyes at it. And there’s nothing inherently terrible about that; a lot of the phenomena we read about every day can afford that kind of skepticism.

It’s interesting, though, just how overclocked a bullshit detector can get– to the point where we’re verging on a kind of paranoia about things that are, in the end, mostly trying to offer us pleasure. There’s some kind of whiff of it in just knowing that some artist couldn’t possibly be what she seems, and must be part of an elaborate plot to trick people less savvy than you are. Or maybe that line of thinking just makes us feel more clever than saying something sucks.

And Devin Friedman in GQ, wherein he takes a (sarcastic) shot at Pitchfork while writing for GQ in what might be the weirdest middlebrow-high-middlebrow-lowbrow ironic Mobius strip ever made (OH GOD, IT ONLY HAS ONE SIDE):

Saying you like Feist is like not having an opinion, the greatest offense in certain Internetty precincts of our contemporary culture. You might as well say you like chocolate or potato chips. It says nothing about you. It’s not curated. It doesn’t say what we most want our music to say about us: I used to read Pitchfork.com until it got lame. You can’t like Feist, in other words, because it’s middlebrow. And loving the middlebrow is an unforgivable crime against taste.

[snip]

People tend to hate the middlebrow because of its embarrassingly earnest desire to be liked, its scientific and successful approach to hitting people’s pleasure buttons. It points out the obvious fact that you’re not as much an individual as you’d like to think, that human beings are designed to like chocolate and potato chips and Jack Purcells. That’s where the high middle differs. Take Vampire Weekend. Sarah Goldstein, associate editor here, calls it “elevator music from Africa.” She’s right, of course: Last Christmas season, companies like Tommy Hilfiger and Honda used the song “Holiday” in their ads, even though it’s supposed to actually be about American imperialism.

[snip]

At bottom, perhaps my affection for the Stings of this world is just a function of the stage of life I’m in. Two kids, not a lot of time to read or etc., always pretty tired, no longer afraid of being uncool. A phase where I pretty much look for comfort food in whatever I consume. Music, film, literature, clothing: All I want right now is what could be described as the macaroni and cheese. And it’ll probably only get worse as I age. My parents have hardly any critical filter at all anymore. Everything feels like a fastball right down the middlebrow plate to them. Almost every movie is good. They go nuts over almost every meal they eat. Pretty much every glass of wine is amazing to them now—they’re not worried that Pinot Noir is played out. And you know what they suffer as a result? Unrelenting happiness and satisfaction. You can say it’s a critical lobotomy, and maybe you’re right. I’ll grant you that it’s important to challenge yourself at times. Read some Beckett. Go lowbrow and eat some Twinkies. Wear some asymmetrical nipple-revealing shirt from a Japanese designer who may or may not be a eunuch. But just admit that when you go home at night, you’d rather be watching Friday Night Lights.

Fondly,

M

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Consent Beyond the Bedroom

Dear Millicent,

While navigating the new world of enthusiastic consent, I’m finding a lot of places outside of the bedroom where the same patterns exist. A quick list:

  • If Mr. CF and I are in the car, he always drives
  • If Mr. CF and I are in the grocery store, he pushes the cart
  • Mr. CF handles the majority of our bill paying
  • Mr. CF also purchases and prepares the majority of our food, therefore making the majority of our food decisions
  • I go to bed when Mr. CF is tired
  • When choosing restaurants or meeting places with friends, I usually say “what sounds good to you?” Most of us do, creating widespread exasperation.
  • When a female friend is aggressively particular about what she wants us to do, I am taken aback. When a male friend makes specific plans, I am relieved.
  • I rarely invite friends out, but will often respond to their invitations
  • If somebody requests something, I usually do it, then only later process it and either agree or grumble about it

The first 5 with Mr. CF  have evolved partly from the same long term relationship pattern of assumptive consent that got me thinking about all of this in the first place. Sometimes assumptive consent exists because it is practical. I have worse night-vision, so he always drives at night, and that slowly shifted to him driving whenever we are both in the car.  Since he plans most of the food, he drives the grocery cart because he knows what we need to buy. He’s a grand cook who enjoys making food, and I enjoy eating his cooking more than my own.  He is more meticulous about accounting and cares about it in a way that I don’t, so his taking care of the bills is a win win. We both know that I can drive the car, that I can drive the cart, that I can take care of the bills. But we both also know that I assumptively defer to his choices he assumptively makes (yes, assumptively). These household chores bring up the territory of consent in a long-term relationship that is the opposite of pronouncing desire, kinda. It’s about pronouncing responsibility, and pronouncing that very hard thing that consent protects: balance.

I really love that I don’t have to do these chores. I don’t want to verbally ask to participate in them.  Besides Mr. CF, who really enjoys paying bills? However, the answer here is the hard one. I wish it could just be a case of enthusiastic consent, with the answer being a hearty “no! I don’t want to cook! Please a go ahead!” but, of course it’s not that simple. When I look at all the items of the above list, I get a little frightened. They add up to a big pile of passive.  A person who can’t cook for herself, who doesn’t have a clear sense of when her bills are due, who has luxuriously let go of the some of the reins, is not doing herself (let alone her relationship) a solid.

The detriments of our arrangements are minor, but telling. I don’t know the city as well as Mr. CF because he does more of the driving (as a passenger, I never absorb orientation). My cooking skills have atrophied. When he travels and I am home alone, I am always astounded that I used to feed myself three meals a day on a regular basis when I lived alone, and it was more than turkey sandwiches and Trader Joe salads. We have even got to the point where he, like a 1950s housewife, prepares meals ahead and leaves them in the fridge or freezer with notes on how to reheat. I have a very fuzzy general sense of what we have in the bank, and often guess if it’s okay to use the debit card or not. If I make a big purchase, I will call him first to make sure it’s okay (something he doesn’t like, because we both feel the ridiculous daddy structure of it). In short, I have kind of infantilized myself.  That is, I am half baby, half Don Draper.

Since consent has recently climbed into the spotlight of our marital relations, we’ve talked about all of the above. It’s hard to tackle, because we have made all of these choices for a reason, I take on other chores, and the pattern does work well. I’m noticing I’m resistant because, just like with enthusiastic consent in sex, it means more work for me. I have to do more, and I love lazy. There’s also a lot of effort that doesn’t exactly give rewards: if I cook dinner, it doesn’t taste as good as if he did it and I forget about bills until the day they are due.

So, I have taken on making breakfast. It turns out that oatmeal is basically foolproof, something we both like, and feels like real cooking because I have to boil water first. I also offer to make dinner on days where I have more time, or if there is a recipe I specifically want. I haven’t even looked at recipes in years, but it’s good now because it forces me out to grocery shop, and to re-learn the kitchen. These are both minor things, but they force me to pronounce that I am part of the kitchen, that I can easily cook something I want when I am hungry, and that I want specific things.

Driving has been the most interesting because it hasn’t really changed. When we both get in the car to go somewhere, Mr. CF now asks “do you want to drive?” which is new, but my answer isn’t.  I say no–I really love looking out the window.  The change is he doesn’t ask out of routine, but instead out of genuine inquiry. I could say yes and it wouldn’t be a surprise.  While our actions are the same, they’ve shifted from assumptive decision making to conscious consent.

I’m still working on navigating the bills and on resisting going to bed because he is tired.  A lot of it is about not going on auto-pilot, and again realizing that my auto-pilot captain is quieter and more passive than I ever dreamed. Redefining consent in the bedroom, getting all baboon, announcing the freedom of no assumption or expectation in what comes next (except of course, love and respect) has been about work and liberation.  I imagine it works the same way in the kitchen and checkbook as well.

Am very much still learning, still confused.

I’m interested in how consent works in friendships, too. What passive approaches continue because we don’t want to offend? When nobody says where they want to go to lunch, does anybody end up eating what they want? Are dudes more likely to make the call with female friends? Where there is less intimacy, are we assumptively bound to less consent for the sake of polite interaction?

I’ve been reading the collected works of Miss Manners, who deserves a post of her own. As a great defender of personal boundaries, she often advises against the immense acrobatics of polite society.  Overall, she suggests that saying exactly what you mean is one of the most elegant existences. Pronunciation is key.

More soon,

Yours,

CF

Mastering The Art of Emotional Corseting: Living Rooms and Closed Doors

Dear friend,

After reading your letter about your grandmother, I’ve thought a lot about how “repression” and closed doors have gone out of fashion. Good things open doors, bad things close them (unless God opens a window). In our metaphors, anyway, we’re against keeping the private thing out of the shared space. I think all this is just a little bit wrong. When Julia Child in Julie and Julia (which I watched for the first time tonight) gets the letter from Knopf, she glances at her husband inside, takes several deep whooping breaths and steps out onto the porch for privacy. She actually leaves the house. That scene reminded me of what you said about crying your bathroom or on the street—anywhere but in the living room. Brute emotion, you called it. Whether it’s excitement or grief, does it demand total privacy because, like other completely private things, you can’t really blunt the edges so they don’t hurt or alarm the people around you? (And give them ammo too?)

I thought about this while watching Julie and Julia because Julie keeps having “meltdowns” in front of her husband that result in him calling her a narcissist (which she is—brute emotion is narcissistic) and leaving her. (For a night or two, anyway.) Meanwhile, in total and telling contrast, Julia writes her friend Avis that it’s becoming harder and harder to conceal from her husband how heartbroken she is about leaving Paris. Julia corsets her sad emotions; Julie blogs them.

It reminded me of your idea about how shared lives are half-lives, and how the things that make us tick are also the things that can make us explode. Julie and Julia shows two pretty convincing  happy, well-suited couples.  To the extent that there’s romantic crisis, it’s over how the two Julias’ search for a passionate direction leads us to look at what careerist passion can mean to a domestic relationship (basically, absorption in the work and neglect of the partner). The movie’s challenge—and I’m not sure it bones this particular duck—is figuring out how to make the weird and private “half-life” of well-loved work gel with the other weird and private “half-life” that is a couple’s world. Those two halves don’t always talk to each other, right?

You and I tend, I think, to let the latter half-life trump the first. I bet a lot of women do. Maybe a lot of people do, though in my limited experience (hello dad!) men fall into work-world and ignore the social noise around them better than women. My dad can sit in his open-plan office and ignore anyone coming up the stairs, even if they’re talking directly to him. My mom, to claim time to herself, has to close a door. Even that isn’t enough sometimes. One door in my parents’ house actually has a sign taped to it that says “PLEASE DO NOT KNOCK UNLESS IT IS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH. THANK YOU.”

That door leads to the bathroom. And it has butterflies drawn on it to soften the blow.

There’s a formal desperation to that sign, I think; it exists because otherwise she would give into us all. My dad won’t, because he’s absorbed, so he never has to make the choice. He doesn’t actually realize that we’re there, and it doesn’t occur to him that we might be hurt. And so, by and large, we aren’t.

When work is like yours and mine and gets mainly done from home (and your partner’s does too), it’s that much harder to pick up the work-world because it feels antisocial. It feels—and Julie and Julia deals with the fineness of this line outright—not just absorbed but self-absorbed. It feels selfish and like a rejection of the couple-world, and who wants that?

This is why I think doors are important. Like my dad’s focus which protects him, doors protect us from having to make a choice between the work-world and the couple-world. Thanks to them, or something like them, we can fully occupy one half-life before returning fully to the next, instead of living in the liminal space between the two like one of those optical illusions that are either two faces or a vase but never actually kiss or hold flowers.

(If we could close those doors in our brains instead of relying on architecture, it would be much easier, of course.)

Remember our intense virginal past, full of (sexually frustrated) inspiration and achievement? The thing about being virginal is that (whether you want it or not) you do have a door to close.

I started this letter meaning to talk about grief, not work, and I seem to have lost my way. But I think something similar applies—shared space can almost equal shared everything else, and that’s weird when you’re dealing with an unshared loss. Mr. Carla Fran, in all his wonder, can’t overcome the fact that your grandmother was not his. You have a long past that doesn’t include him, and you will have feelings about it that he can’t feel. Your childhood, your feelings about your mother and grandmother from when you were five… those doors are closed to him, which has to be part of what makes crying in the living room so awkward. One of my dad’s favorite truisms is that when you’re born and you take your first breath, it contains so many atoms that when you die, you’ll have at least one of those atoms with you. When you have to take a breath that comes from an older story than the one you’re in (and what are grandparents but older stories?), the living room—where you do your present living with Mr. Carla Fran—might not be the place to feel an older story dying.

As I write this I wonder: besides the fact that another person doesn’t share your past, could the difficulty also be partly about the room? Parlors and studies and foyers and billiard rooms are conceptually marvelous because they suggest (rightly or wrongly) that there are right rooms for things. The living room, where you couldn’t do your crying, is a special case, partly because it’s in a thirty years’ war against the Family Room for supremacy. (Is it telling that the American family home wants to dedicate one room to Family and another to Living?) When all you have is a Living Room, a shared bedroom, a kitchen and an office, where do you cry? Your solution seems right. At least the bathroom is built to withstand water.

When my grandma died I lived alone, so there was no corseting of the kind you describe, but my living room wasn’t much comfort to me either.  I drifted to a running track that has a big hillside with little trails. I walked up the steepest one and when I was winded (a whole three minutes in), it gave me something to do with the explosive throat-knot. Those old atoms wanted out, but I couldn’t let them out in a Living Room, which suddenly seemed frivolous and dingy and small. How dare sofa cushions exist in a world where my grandmother doesn’t?

Once the big emotion passed and I got myself down the hill and home, I realized I wanted some corseting. Not for me, not exactly. I wanted (here’s a sentence I never thought I’d say or see) to be a corset for my mom. I wrote then that I wanted to be down the hallway and that still seems right. If there’s a hallway, a door’s implied. I worried about her. My mom always holds it together, but this seemed like the exceptional case: she might fall apart utterly. I worried (weirdly) about her dignity. To think of her stripped of it—to think of her, for example, sitting on a trail by a track sobbing—seemed like the worst thing in the world.

Did you have this feeling too? Mothers and grandmothers. Oof. Very hard to imagine them as elemental selves and not our structures.

Corseting is tough, as Julie and Julia acknowledges, with its triumphal last meal in which Julie successfully bones a duck. (Telling, right, that Julia is an excellent duck-boner? She’s very good at keeping her sadness in.) When my grandma died, since I couldn’t be there for my mom (she was in Chile), I drove to my Tia’s house and kept her company on her first night without her sister. I did my best. When I got there her eyes were red from crying. We didn’t cry in front of each other, although I spent most of that night awake and she did too. All in all, I think we were pretty good corsets for each other. Of course, there was a built-in pressure-valve: we weren’t sharing a room. We could keep up the decorous facade up and save the waterworks for bed. That made our corseting easier.

It’s harder to corset if you’re Mr. Carla Fran—both distant (not a direct relative) and living inside the closed door, but I think it can be done. Do you remember the scene in Julie and Julia when Julia Child, who has concealed her devastation at leaving Paris and tried to wave away the fact that her 8 years of work will go unpublished and turned out to be “just something for her to do,”  reads in a letter that her sister Dorothy is pregnant? Paul is standing there when she gets the news, and she breaks down. When she sobs “I’m so happy” into his shirt, he says, “I know.” Good corseting, Paul.

My point, insofar as I have one, is that whatever her reasons were for “repressing” her sadness and reading her letter from Knopf on the porch, Paul’s insufficiency wasn’t one of them. When her corset fails, he’s there. Her reasons have everything to do, I think, with the basic privacy we all need, whatever our sex our age or time—the space for an unfiltered reaction that doesn’t jeopardize the things we most value.

Dear friend, I’ve blathered on about this and that and the other and I haven’t said the really important thing, which is how sorry I am, and how much I wish I could be down the hall from you right now.

Fondly,

Millicent

P.S.–Speaking of hallways, Easter, mothers and Julia Child, I poached my first ever egg.

Whip It: Girls Need to See This Movie

Someone once said they would go out tonight but they haven’t got a stitch to wear, and I’m feeling that way after watching Whip It: in need of clothes and a destination.

Having seen it, I’m predictably fascinated by roller derby, awed by Juliette Lewis, and delighted with Drew Barrymore and Kristin Wiig. I’m all-around pretty darn happy with this uncloying and montage-free female comedy. At last: a movie that isn’t ironic cheesecake, Bratz, Rival Brides or a warmed-over version of Clueless.

The main character, Bliss, really wants something seriously scary that demands a toughness not usually demanded of someone of Ellen Page’s build. It isn’t sensible and isn’t sex. God, that’s a relief. Girlish wildness so rarely gets channeled anywhere else.  (Incidentally I’m tired of sensibleness tonight. It’s boring, and my protests against my sensible self are even more boring. Wouldn’t it be great to take an actual risk? I ask myself and answer sensibly, yes. Yes it would.)

I want to say this: It has flaws, but it fired me up.

A tangent (if disinclined, skip to here*): If on a winter’s night a traveler is a “novel” whose plot is that you, the Reader, are trying to track down the rest of a novel you’ve started and instead you keep starting different novels that have the same title, or purport to be the one you want in translation, but aren’t what you started reading at all. They trail off in turn just when you start to get interested and you, the reader, end up frustrated—both in real life and in the novel. Instead of investing in the stories themselves, you start caring about the frame narrative: the story of the reader (you, male) tracking down the stories with the Other Reader, a woman.

When they started the book my students cared a lot about the novels-within-the-novel: they really wanted to know what happened in the first novel to the man waiting to hand off a suitcase to a fellow undercover agent at the train station. Or to the woman who ran the leather goods store. They were a little upset by the interruption. Now, midway through the book, I asked them where their investments lie. They say they don’t care about the interrupted stories at all. They express surprise at the very suggestion.

When I remind them of how interested they’d been in the man at the train station their faces change into that frown-twist of recognition that strikes when you remember a childhood feeling. It’s a look that dredges impressions from very long ago. They explain, then, that they didn’t know yet. But now they’ve learned not to invest in the beginnings because it’s clear, at this point in the novel, that they’re never going to get a full story.

Not surprising; we’re creatures of habit and we’re easily trained. What is kind of surprising is that they don’t remember the initial interest they felt until they’re reminded of it. Even their memories of the experience have been trained out of them. They forget that once it was otherwise—once upon a time they were more interested in the story than the frame.

(Exeunt Tangent, chased by a bear.)*

I feel that way tonight—startled that I can experience something as silly as a roller derby movie directly without having to transpose it into a different key, without experiencing it at one remove. I can’t remember the last time I felt anything but mildly depressed by a sports movie—elated in translation, maybe, in my imaginary incarnation as the boy the movie was meant for, but pretty convinced that those bodies and those possibilities aren’t mine.

These aren’t either, but they’re much, much closer, and that matters more than I thought it did. Not all movies are meant for identification, but this one is. Girls need to see this movie.

In addition: I feel like driving. And I miss L.A. And part of me wants nothing more than to work in a really plasticky commercial mall, the kind with Christmas ornaments the size of beach balls already hanging from an enormous tinsel tree. Another part wants to spray-paint a bicycle and start a zine. A third part wants to fight. A fourth wants a haircut and contemplates doing it herself. And the last part, the part that lets me sleep or not, wants me to finally get to the work that matters.

Four years ago someone wrote me asking me to fill out a survey about writing. It was the kind of thing I scoffed at—the hokey sort of “what is your ideal writing space?” quiz that forces you to come up with positive terms on which you will actually work instead of complaints or excuses. Hokey or not, I’m taking it seriously.

How would you whip it? Where would you go to write?
M

The Remains of the Day

  • From the Wellcome Collection in London’s new exhibition, Exquisite Bodies, on Victorian representations of human anatomy, comes this pastoral depiction of placental extraction. (Will she eat it?) assisted birth
  • At Significant Objects, authors are paired with weird objects and asked to write a story that invests the object with meaning as part of an experiment to see how stuff acquires value. The objects (plus story) are sold on ebay. I’m waiting for Aimee Bender’s entry.
  • I planned to finally read Infinite Jest this summer, not realizing there was a “coterie of bibliophiles across the world” doing that very thing at Infinite Summer. This is their story. (I’m pleased to note that the two most recent entries reflect my experience wrestling with the first 200 or so pages, and some of my resistance toward DFW generally. Kevin Guilfoile is right to call Wallace anti-seductive; I have to think about this more.)
  • Madoreable’s rant on struggling and complacency in our generation’s approach to work. Even crankier than us.

American Idle: How Fear and Anger Drive Us To Our Fallen Work

Dear CF,

[Opening insult framed in sexual terms that broadcasts author’s failure to properly express anger:] Those radio guests can suck my boob.

[Agreement plus fake announcement of topic]: I’m with you: anger and fear, weirdly understood as alienating or paralyzing emotions, are no such thing—if anything, they’re over-activating. Without anger, fear and their cousins discomfort and desire, nothing would ever get done.

[Facile examination of social objectives:] ‘Course, this is a militantly capitalist take on what exactly it is that a society is supposed to do. Conquer nations? Propagate the species? Provide decent transportation? Eastern philosophy interests me in its determinedly unworldly focus: if nirvana is the elimination of desire (o happy goal!), why would anyone build anything?

[Acknowledgment of bias that effectively neuters all that precedes and follows:] (Full disclosure: I’m writing you from my time-share in the Unmotivated, Unfearing and Unangry Doldrums, so I know whereof I speak. But I confess to also vacationing in Unenlightenedland.)

Idleness [a.k.a. Jerry-rigged Transition to Give You a Break and Create a Pleasing If Deceptive Sense of Progress]

Slate has been running a series called “The Idle Parent” celebrating the delights of leisure, especially spontaneous and unforced interactions, for parents and children alike.

[Don’t Be Fooled–Marriage and Kids Will Suck Out Your Soul:] Seems like a sensible approach to child-rearing—one that might soften the apocalyptic overtones of pregnancy and marriage by suggesting that people needn’t subordinate their entire intellectual and emotional selves to the needs of a mewling infant. Which might, in turn, counteract the fear of commitment that plagues the unmarried Mongol hordes who suspect (rightly, insofar as the culture defines these things) that both marriage and parenthood irrevocably castrate the self.

Idleness has a place. An important place. Even—as I’ll get to in a minute—an Edenic place. Milton’s Adam might be the very first Idle Parent.

[The Autobiographical Problem That Motivated This Whole Faux-Philosophical Post:] Read more of this post

The Massive Continuity of Ducks

Dearest CF,

I enthusiastically second your nomination of Harriet Vane for Odd Saint, maybe the oddest of them all. This morning I’ve been thinking about Rereadings—that delicious readerly indulgence that Anne Fadiman explores in her book of the same name—and about the particular pleasures of rereading Gaudy Night.

Why does it  reward revisitings so richly?  For one thing, Harriet Vane is an older, wiser, more contemporary and (dare I say it?) more interesting Elizabeth Bennet. Like you say, she’s prone to mistakes, lapses in control, the “strange organic disruptions that thwart!”

But she’s not the only one given to those organic disruptions–Sayers is too. The novel is full of ’em and they’re the greatest pleasures of the book. I’m thinking of those tiny reflective moments, those gems like the ones you mention that have nothing to do with plot. They feel like the equivalent of digressions in an Old English poem—sections that could be swapped around and added in depending on the audience.

Since there’s no bard making those decisions for us, we make them ourselves. The book hasn’t changed but we, the audience, have. This is one of many misunderstandings we have when we’re young, I guess: I thought I was underlining the book when I was actually underlining me.

Glancing through my grimy dog-eared copy of GN, I still find many of the same passages compelling.  Sometimes I remember the flash of blue lightning that made me underline the first time. Other times the older self greedily usurps the passage for its own uses.

I first read the book in a defiant and exhilarated mood. It came to me recommended by the only real “flame” I’ve ever had, the one whose back distracted me during exams and whose neck forced me to kiss it.  This was one of his favorite books. I know, therefore, that in underlining the following passage at the time, I was pointedly comparing someone unfavorably to him:

There was a refreshing lack of complication about Reggie Pomfret. He knew nothing about literary jealousies; he had no views about the comparative importance of personal and professional loyalties; he laughed heartily at obvious jokes; he did not expose your nerve-centers or his own; he did not use words with double-meanings; he did not challenge you to attack him and then suddenly roll himself into an armadillo-like ball, presenting a smooth, defensive surface of ironical quotations; he had no overtones of any kind; he was a good-natured, not very clever, young man, eager to give pleasure to someone who had shown him a kindness. Harriet found him quite extraordinarily restful.

Tragically, I no longer know who my Pomfret was. These days someone quite different comes to mind when I read this, and I find myself heretically wondering whether Harriet might not have been happier with Reggie than with Peter.

Not really, of course. Fiction transcends even our own immensely fascinating biographies. If Harriet’s a more complicated (or at any rate more modern) Ms. Bennet, Peter’s a vastly more interesting Mr. Darcy and there’s narrative justice in their ending up together.

And yet it’s in the ending that a worry niggles. If this is ultimately an effort to marry the detective story and the Shakespearean comedy–formulaic genres dealing in intellect and love–what is the argument that makes this all work?

The concerns about such a marriage are, after all, real. I can’t say it better than you did:  “That grapple with work and domesticity and power (Hrothgar’s dilemma) is what’s on the table here, and dear Harriet can see all the swords as they hang on the wall.”

Harriet’s worries are legitimate!! Recently Family Guy had a bit (not exactly an organic disruption, but definitely a digression) where a Career Woman runs around town arranging important meetings and therefore feeling stressed. She meets a man who says “Don’t worry, all your problems will be fixed by my penis.”

Now, obviously GN isn’t merely a rom-com–in the Shakespearean or the modern sense–or merely a detective story, where social order is restored in the end. And yet the solution, as much as it tries to answer all the questions plaguing the protagonists, seems oddly pat. Are we safe accepting its answers to the problems of marriage? I wonder what you’d think of the short stories where Harriet and Peter have children.

I stumbled across the following passage (heavily underlined in black ink):

Could there ever be any alliance between the intellect and the flesh? It was this business of asking questions and analyzing everything that sterilized and stultified all one’s passions. Experience perhaps had a formula to get over this difficulty: one kept the bitter, tormenting brain on one side of the wall and the languorous sweet body on the other, and never let them meet.

Bemusedly mourning that I no longer underline my copy of Gaudy Night, I’d secretly labeled it a time capsule of my younger, naive, questing self.  Nice to see one’s own trajectory, watch the urgency of once-terrible questions dissolve. Then I read this and was reduced to my core puddle of doubt. This very weekend I banished the languorous sweet body to let the bitter tormenting brain do its work. It has stopped occurring to me that such a collaboration is possible.

Does this problem ever go away?

While Harriet and Peter are enjoying a moment free of power struggles on the banks of the river, Peter says, “How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks. ”

So. What is our problem finally? A passion, or a duck?

Fondly,

Millicent

(Carla Fran’s response, “A Delicate Balance,” is here. For more Gaudy Night or Harriet Vane-related musings, see “The Body and the Mind” and “Odd Saint: Harriet Vane.”)

The Body and The Mind

Dear Millicent,

Forgive me as I continue talking about the divine Ms. Sayers and her great character, the divine Ms. Vane.  I was reading a section that hit on a conversation we have had at least once or twice.  You and I have discussed the magic of our younger and less boy-ridden days, where our mind sucked up the majority of our time.   In college, all of my passion (all of it–except that which was spent on obsessing about music and movies) was pitched towards my work and books.  I didn’t know it yet.  It was only when it wasn’t all pitched there anymore, when credit cards and kissing became realities, that I noticed my work had fallen off.  I blamed it for a long time on stupid sex (and credit cards were their own song (tawdry) of innocence and experience).  I always think of Tom Robbins quote from Even Cowgirls Get The Blues that “all magic requires purity.”  This book was read at the height of my sharpened, celibate powers. I agreed.   I assumed my virginity was linked to my force as a scholar and go-getter.  This seems ridiculous, and yet, even now, a part of me believes it.  I did feel magical then.   Now I offer that the virginity part takes on little of it, but the passion, the compression of desire that demands the articulation of form,  has now been allowed to become a mist instead of a laser beam.    I also don’t hunger as much for sad songs sung by lonely raspy-voiced men.  I sleep better,  too.  But I miss it.  In ways, I think I might be muffins where I used to be magic.

Harriet has been there.

In the melodious silence [she is out on a walk, early morning, Oxford], something came back to her that had lain dumb and dead ever since the old, innocent undergraduate days.  The singing voice, stifled long ago by the pressure of the struggle for existence, and throttled into dumbness by that queer, unhappy contact with physical passion, began to stammer out a few uncertain notes.  Great golden phrases, rising from nothing and leading to nothing swam up out of her dreaming mind like the huge, sluggish carp in the cool waters of Mercury (243).

She goes on to write some verses that come from an inner voice that she trusts, “once more in her own place,”  and finds that

she had got her mood on paper–and this is the release that all writers, even the feeblest, seek for as men seek love; and, having found it, they doze off happily into dreams and trouble their hearts no further (244).

This made me feel better about things.  If such an apt description could have been written in 1936 by Sayers, then it offers proof that the struggle is real, and hearty, and never quite gone.

Meaning, it’s still there.  Which may explain the situation you and our mutual friend recently discussed: the enhanced productivity that occurs when in the midst of an unrequited crush?

Yours,

CF

Oversharing

Dear CF ,

I’m incensed by the word “overshare,” so I only glanced at the Jezebel piece, which seemed concerned more with the graphic and anatomical variety of the phenomenon than with the stripping bare of a life. I’m firmly in favor of the former—felt, in fact, that Sadie’s approach to the subject was quite like our own. The blood-and-guts guffaws are right, so much so that I fail to see why this is even a point of interest. Men, God bless ’em, have been talking frankly and jovially about their members for a long time. Take Erasmus cackling about penii in The Praise of Folly:

Let me ask you if the head or the face or the breast or the hands or the ear, all of which are reputed the more seemly parts of the body, actually beget either gods or men? Not as I see it; it’s that other part, so stupid and even ridiculous that it can’t be named without raising a snicker, that propagates the human race. That is the sacred fount from which all things draw their existence….

I guess I have a more anxious relationship to the other kind of Oversharing. Just now, searching for the original Salon article, I came across an October 18, 2008 article about this very issue which said the term was coined by ex-Gawker writer Emily Gould. Suddenly my case of the cranks made perfect sense.

In the spirit of camaraderie I’m taking a deep breath and a moment to overshare my thoughts on the occasion of Ms. Gould’s retirement. The following is a direct transcript of my Notes to Self on the date she quit the old-school Gawker. It’s fitting, p’raps, that she quit with an overly personal (perhaps overly dramatic, but nonetheless interesting) final post.

Ahem:

Came back from a party at R’s house feeling twinges of regret, as I always do. What sort of honesty is appropriate at these sorts of gatherings? I feel I always choose the wrong one. Small breakthroughs: wrote the piece defending sloth. But really an invitation to consider a spiritual crisis as represented by Sloth, the Capital Sin, as described by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. The fact of the sigh we give when we are deprived of spiritual truths. The inability/struggle of the mind to produce “good.”

The big question in writing, as at parties, is who to sacrifice to the audience.

Is the Gawker phenomenon so explosive because it’s the cocaine  of blogging? Everything is sacrificed for the sake of the reader’s microsecond of thrills. Mothers, siblings, lovers. The columnists willingly burn the bridges of what they’ve been and will be; the question is–do they do this knowing that they will grow into what they mock, and are they prepared to deal with the self-loathing of having all this on record? Or do they think they’ll successfully avoid it all?

Emily Gould and Choire Sicha quit Gawker today. Last night she was at the party at n+1, while I was at their reading here. To go or not to go to the party tomorrow?

Take that, Hamlet. (I’ll spare you the suspense: I didn’t go.)

Let’s face it: this kind of oversharing is boring. The other kind—the kind I worry about here—is terribly, terribly risky.

The author of that first Salon article I stumbled on, AV Flox, does some lovely work articulating what it is that blogs have done, and how they’ve eroded levees and flooded the neighborhoods of real life. It’s blogging, I think, that made it possible for her to write the following to her aunts in an e-mail:

I have decided that a man’s libido must have an invisible umbilical cord that connects it to the New York Stock Exchange; I have no other way to account for the fact that I don’t recall the last time I was intimate with my husband…

She describes the embarrassment she felt a moment after sending it, but decides, in the end, that suburban silence is more pernicious than candor.

“So,” she concludes,

when people ask me how marriage is, I say it’s a pain in the neck. It’s like taking care of a giant, ancient machine that can help you accomplish a lot of tasks in the emotional fulfillment department, but which constantly needs maintenance and calibration.

At the risk of further boring you, dear friend, I Overshare two other things I found in that same notebook, from when I was trying to calibrate my own marriage.

On a day when I woke up (warning: TMI ahead omg!) wanting sex:

It was the Cal-USC game. X looks good in his cowboy hat. The kitchen was clean—I did it late last night. X picked the living room and bedroom up a bit. Oh, environment.

Norman Mailer died. An assistant killed Linda Stein with a yoga stick. A girl in Italy is being held for helping to kill her roommate in some sort of sexual context. Benazir Bhutto is out and about. Mark Danner is in the Best American Essays edited by David Foster Wallace. I listened to David Bowie. And Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto. Nazis were the other dominant story theme. Made my first Itunes purchase—2 episodes of The Office.

Saw D, N and Baby yesterday. Very cute, but so far from what I’m prepared for, and X is much farther still. Thinks it’s conformist and conventional to have one, doesn’t feel he wants one but feels the inevitability of it.

The powder for beef onion gravy does not make tasty beef onion soup. This should not be surprising. But I thought of Ramen. My high school reunion was today—that just occurred to me.

On another Day, following a dream in which I yelled at two manicurists in a large white warehouse (calling one of them—and I was proud of this—“Barber Barbie”), I find that I was already struggling with this problem of Gifts and Work in Marriage and had in fact unconsciously developed the solution I suggested to you—namely, turning everyday things into the gifty currency:

Why do some old men always wear dark glasses? How do some people always offer to do the dishes, even when it isn’t a real offer?

What’s an offer? To make an offer. What does that mean? A coffer is a container for expensive things.

A Coffer of Offers

  1. a neckrub
  2. to do the dishes
  3. to vacuum a room
  4. to leave the apartment for 1 1/2 hours
  5. to sweep up the porch
  6. to edit a paper for you
  7. to read an article you enjoyed and talk about it
  8. to read a story you enjoyed and talk about it
  9. to make the bed
  10. to clean the bathroom
  11. to shake out the bathroom rugs

It’s a terrible little list.

But what did YOU make of the Oversharing, dear CF?

Fondly,

Millicent

Beowulf and Marriage, Gifts and Work

Dear heart,

I have indeed been at sea, but miss you and am sipping Tippy Assam tea and staring in befuddlement at a lovely bouquet of flowers much like the one you left me last time you visited. I’ve been thinking about gifts, you see, and am feeling a little seasick as a result.

I did read the articles on American Mothers, the bitch/nag problem, and have been pondering the complications you mention because a guest in my home is thinking of cohabiting with her boyfriend. We’ve had some frank discussions about the Unexpected Tensions that arise and arrest the pleasures of a shared life, sort of how a shoelace catches on a nail while racing into your backyard kills the spontaneous onrush of childlike whimsy.

This guest has a tendency, even now, to occupy the Nag niche, which arises in response to a partner who does respond to some prodding. An example: he proposed that they move together to another country so that he could study something for two years. She had a fit because in making the proposal he failed to think out a single step of the plan—not how they would pay for plane tickets, or what she would do there, or how they would live  (she doesn’t speak the language), or how the gap might affect her own very successful career trajectory.

The fight that ensued seems fairly typical of the NYTimes article dynamic: he was startled and hurt by her outrage. He claimed he was merely floating the idea, wanted her input, was very much considering their life together: he was asking her what she thought, wasn’t he? To him, the conversation itself was a gesture of inclusion, a move toward some sort of togetherness. She felt oppressed by the practical dimensions of the situation which he clearly hadn’t considered, and which by default she assumed. So while he intended the gesture to be inclusive, she ended up feeling not only alone, but also weighed down by work, the demands of two lives instead of one.

I bring up the backyard-run because the concept to me encapsulates one of the sweeter red herrings in the myth of domestic life. It seems like marriage  should aspire to that kind of ease: both parties are eager. There’s momentum, there’s desire and there’s that slightly embarrassing sentimentality or fresh-faced optimism that forces couples to hide their pet names and schlocky-but-tender rituals.

How does this all fit into your work, dear CF, and marriage generally? I suppose, like the reality (vs. the romance) of being a Writer, the real thing ends up being quite a lot of determinedly schlubby Work. So much bending is actually required on both sides in order to lay down peacefully and rest at the end of the night.

I drag gifts into this because I’ve been thinking about them a great deal in relation to the problem of work in my own life. I still haven’t read Hyde’s The Gift. I want to, because (thanks to you) it crosses my mind more than any unread book really ought to.

I have, as you know, recently been given some rather large gifts by someone very kind and quite lovely. However, my idea in pursuing this particular relationship was to experience something informal, light, and casual. The gifts were ostensibly given in that spirit, and yet they’ve done quite a lot of work weighing the whole enterprise down with the Ghost of Girlfriendhood Future.

Now, Beowulf. (I promise there’s a point buried in here. Bear with me.) The poem is about many things: kingship, the problems of aging, arbitrating between the competing value systems of Christianity and warrior culture; it’s about civilization vs. barbarism, truces and revenge.  To be cast out of the mead-hall, in B’s world, is to be condemned to death or to become monstrous. Not unnatural—nature, in this poem is monstrous, lethal, and hostile to human habitation. So any creature that can survive it (like Grendel and his mother) is by definition inhuman but also natural. What’s valued here is artifice, work. The work of building something solid and beautiful and absolutely unnatural together against the wilderness.

Most importantly, it’s about the bonds that hold a civilization together—a civilization structured (literally—the architecture of the mead-hall is hugely important) around male companionship. And the male bond between a king and his thanes (or other tribes) is cemented through a) the exchange of women through marriage, which always fails, and b) the exchange of gifts.

The gifts in question are incredibly worked. They are gold. They are beautiful and heavy. They come in sets. They are earned—and this is problematic—in battle. (They are in fact plunder.) But despite the emphasis on work, artifice, and the beauty of the object, the point is never the gift itself—rather, it’s the gift’s ritual function in cementing  a relationship.

A good king in the poem, Hrothgar, starts out a warrior (in other words a plunder-collector) and ends up a “ring-giver,” a giver of gifts. Beowulf dies in the end because he fails at this transition as he ages. No longer the warrior he was, he nonetheless decides to confront the dragon alone—a dragon who incidentally only turned on B’s kingdom because a banished man stole a gold object from his hoard to win back Beowulf’s favor.

The point is, he fails, and his mead-hall—which, like Heorot, is called the “best of houses”—fails too, because of misdirected effort. Work gone awry.

This illustrates something important, I think, between gifts and work. You know how the universe is created out of matter and energy? Relationships, I think, and houses, and families, and civilizations, are created out of gifts and work. Just as matter and energy are finally the same thing, gifts and work are interconvertible.

The key is, the gifts must matter to the recipient, and must be recognized as gifts. There must be a moment of ritual reckoning, a presentation, even, when both giver and receiver understand what is being transacted and why. What happens, I think, to these American moms (and it certainly happened to me in my marriage, and has happened to my own parents, and to my guest too) is that women often eagerly participate in this gift-giving economy with an idea of selflessness or modesty. They give “freely” of their time, their effort, their energy, sure that the results—a clean bathroom, Valentines for the kid’s classmates, space for the spouse to work—are noticed and appreciated.

This “free” giving makes sense for children, but not for spouses. It’s not really free, and the minute the giver realizes that the recipient didn’t even NOTICE the gift, much less appreciate it, a conversion happens: the gift retroactively turns into work. It’s a debit, not a credit. The result? Instead of achieving the exalted status of giver, the offering party becomes merely a worker. And the recipient incurred a debt when he didn’t even know he was shopping.

There’s a reason gift-giving in Beowulf works (and marriage doesn’t): it only happens between men. I think men are better at making a song-and-dance about gifts than women are. The culture raises them that way: the gesture, the bouquet, the ring. The new car for the kid. Women are NEVER taught to give in this way. Somehow women tend to opt out of the gesture-thing, the meadhall presentation of gifts. So we tend to offer smaller gifts without a lot of pomp, which (from the men’s point of view) pretty much invalidates the function of the gift since it’s the ritual meaning, not the gift itself, that matters.

The result is a weird disparity where everybody’s giving what they themselves would like to receive. The small thoughtful embroidered scarf vs. the anonymous Ferrari. It’s the absurdity of the Golden Rule. (Quick digression: A recent study found that men’s necks are approximately 10x less sensitive than women’s. Therefore, when a man kisses your neck, he’s unwittingly delivering 10x more pleasure than he himself feels when you kiss his. Because he doesn’t know that, he might not kiss your neck that often, or quite believe you when you tell him how good it feels.)

I can’t believe how rambly this has gotten. Sorry.

Back to my situation: the gifts I received from this kind person have turned out (for me) to be quite a lot of work because I SIMPLY REFUSE TO BELIEVE that he’s not participating in this Beowulfy gift economy where the point of the gift is the ritual and not the gift itself. He’s a warrior of sorts, and I just can’t convince myself that he’s really truly opting out of an economy that’s so firmly rooted in ritual. (You can’t get more Beowulfy than the military.) I refuse to believe that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a television is just a television, a bouquet is just a bouquet, because it flies in the face of everything I know to be true about men and their gifting ways.

Is it possible, I wonder, that he’s really truly transcended his own model and is participating quite insightfully in mine? It’s all very confusing, because while there was no ritual, no grand presentation, the object itself does amount to quite a large gesture that doesn’t quite compare to the quiet gifts of vacuuming every day or (in your very difficult case) putting off your work to accommodate his plans.

In your case, dear CF, I wonder if a small part of the solution is not to view your choices as Gifts, because they so often get converted in your head to Work. Relationships are work—they’re gold-roofed mead-halls that protect us from the wilds of nature—and it’s the work that invests them with value. But the work they demand is enough. There’s really no need to overachieve. I’ve already—just by agonizing about my own situation as much as I have—put in way more work than was warranted or appropriate or necessary or right, and am sucking all the fun out of it.

So: as far as the things that invite one to nag, I guess I’m suggesting an Experiment: If they are Gifts, proclaim them, celebrate them, build a fire and present them in full diamond-hand regalia. If they aren’t, don’t make them. For awhile, maybe try to stop yourself from making those invisible offerings, because they’re costing you too much and Mr CF is—through no fault of his own—maxing out his line of credit.

For what it’s worth, I think you’re both working hard, I think your meadhall is glorious, and I think you’re both fabulous ring-givers. How this work relates to your own work is, of course, an entirely different question, and God knows this has gotten long enough.

Fondly, and at sea (or, to use a kenning, on the whale-road),
Millicent

(This post responds to “Le Marriage et Le Travaille,” available here.)