Monday, November 10, 2014

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

This is a picture of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard. As you can see, I tape-flagged the bejesus out of it when I was reading it; each of those tape flags represents a passage I found thought-provoking, or a pleasing quote, or something that struck me as profound.

It's a library book. It was due back three days ago. I am now paying 20 cents/day for the privilege of having it sitting around on my table. I can't take it back to the library until I clean out those tape flags; I can't clean out the tape flags until I've processed them, thought about what they mean, tried to integrate Bayard's words and ideas into my mental picture of the world of books.

I want to do this even though Bayard himself would call it a futile undertaking:
When we talk about books…we are talking about our approximate recollections of books… What we preserve of the books we read—whether we take notes or not, and even if we sincerely believe we remember them faithfully—is in truth no more than a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion…We do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books remembered by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and further recast by our private fantasies. … What we take to be the books we have read is in fact an anomalous accumulation of fragments of texts, reworked by our imagination and unrelated to the books of others, even if these books are materially identical to ones we have held in our hands. [quote lifted from Goodreads]

Futile or not, I want to think a bit about why I love this book so much that I have now read it twice, and may well read it again.

The title is a playful one, and Bayard's playfulness is part of why I love the book. One of his arguments is that it isn't necessary to have read a book to have an opinion about it, and he creates a shorthand for his relationship to books, and footnotes each book with this shorthand the first time it's mentioned. A book can be UB, SB, HB, or FB: unheard-of, skimmed, heard about, or forgotten. Where is RB, "a book I have read"? It doesn't appear in the list of abbreviations that preceded the text. This is him being deliberately contrary:

It will be observed that this system of notations is valuable as well for its omissions, specifically RB (book that has been read) and NRB (book that has not been read), the very notations one might have expected, which will never be used. It is precisely in opposition to this kind of artificial distinction that the book is organized, a distinction conveying an image of reading that makes it hard to think about the way we actually experience it. (xix)
I think we'd agree with Bayard if we reflected on it for a moment. We regularly form opinions of works we haven't read or seen, in part to help us decide whether it's worth reading or seeing them, but also based on the opinions of others we trust, or the previous work of the creator, or our knowledge of how the work fits into what Bayard calls the "collective library." Although he is only talking about books, the collective library contains movies, TV shows, music, comic books, and more. If you have ever chosen not to read a book that all your friends are raving about because it's not the kind of thing you normally like, you're forming an opinion without reading it.

Bayard, of course, is interested in the literary canon, to the extent it still exists, and he references a game among faculty in literature where the winner is the one who confesses to not having read the very most canonical work. I think the winner in the game he describes claims not to have read Hamlet. But Bayard thinks it's perfectly OK not to have read Hamlet; he says that it is possible to know everything you need to know about the play without having read the whole text. The thing you need to know most about Hamlet is where it fits into the "collective library," how it is positioned culturally and in relation to other books.

Again, there's truth in this, and here Bayard is doing serious work, in thinking about the sociology of books and the cultural capital of books, as something separate from the books themselves. A book's position in the collective library is sometimes more relevant than the book itself: it matters to know who Gertrude Stein was, and what she was trying to do, if you want to understand early 20th century culture, but there is little pleasure to be had from simply reading most of her work, which is strange and tiresome. The experience of reading Stein is enhanced by knowing who she was and what her intentions were, her cultural position. But there are few people, I think, who can sincerely say they read Stein for pleasure (and here's a place I'd add another element to Bayard's shorthand rating system, to account for how you can have a high opinion of a writer and her work, as I do for Stein, without actually liking the work very much).

My relationship to certain works—Moby-Dick comes to mind, and Joyce's Ulysses—is very much a relationship Bayard describes: I know just about everything it is necessary to know about these books, but I have never read either of them. I know who the authors were and what movements they were part of; what inspired them and why they wrote as they did; who was, in turn, inspired by them. I can tell you, in detail, what the books are about, and I can even quote passages from both (and not just "Call me Ishmael" and "yes I said yes I will Yes," either). Especially with Moby-Dick, I am capable of having a very informed conversation about these books. Which I haven't read. (Again, I need another classification: PB, a book I plan to read someday. Moby-Dick: SB, PB++; Ulysses PB+.)

It often seems to me that it is necessary to know things about a book in order to appreciate the book at all. I am disdainful of lists of books aimed at creating culturally knowledgeable people, because it isn't enough to have read, say, The Grapes of Wrath or The Yellow Wallpaper or Mrs Dalloway's Party (FB++, RB+, RB-). To read for pleasure, what's between the covers is all that's needed. But if a person wants to read as a way of participating in culture, they need to know where these books are shelved in the collective library at least as much as they need to know what's in them.

I read nearly the complete works of William Shakespeare as a middle-schooler. I liked more of it than I understood. My impetus was a burning desire to be a part of the culture of literature, to have read what it was most important to read (and to be precocious about it, to boot). But I didn't begin to appreciate Shakespeare until a high school Shakespeare class and a couple of visits to the Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario. As an undergraduate in English, I learned more about how Shakespeare fit into the literary culture of his own time, and how he influenced the future. As an undergraduate in Women's Studies, I learned to look at his work and his influence in a more complex way. As a graduate student in literature, I was absolutely blown away by a course in Renaissance Literature in which, instead of the usual Heaping Dose of Will Shakespeare With a Side of Faustus by Christopher Marlowe,  we read slave narratives, the journals of European explorers, advertisements meant to attract colonists and investors, a long poem about how to manage your plantation in the West Indies (apparently how-to poems were a whole genre at the time; who knew?). And then, our professor gave us The Tempest. We'd all read it before, of course, but this time, steeped in that context, the play turned into a bomb that exploded all our prior understandings.

It is always good to read The Tempest, and if you read it as an adventure tale and a source of poetry (Full fathom five thy father lies! Our little lives are rounded by a sleep! O brave new world, that has such people in it!), that is good. But it is best, perhaps, to read it knowing something of the shelf it sits on in the collective library. If you want to be a citizen of the library and not just a reader of books, it can matter more to know where the book is on the shelf than to ever actually take it down and open it.

Bayard takes on other questions that I also find very fruitful: What does it mean to read a book, if you will ultimately forget most of what you read? If you have forgotten a book, can you still claim to have read it? What does it mean to read a book if you know from the outset that what you read is not the same book the author wrote, or the same book that another reader reads? But I don't suppose I have time to go into all of that. This is a short book but very densely packed, and it is witty all get-out:

Chapter XII. Speaking About Yourself
(in which we conclude, along with Oscar Wilde, that the appropriate time span for reading a book is ten minutes, after which you risk forgetting that the encounter is primarily a pretext for writing your autobiography)
I could write about this book for days, but I don't have time for that, and someone has placed a hold on it and wants me to return in to the library so they can read it. I will satisfy myself with browsing through my tape flags as I remove them, and sharing a few quotes and letting Bayard speak for himself for a bit. The challenge has been to not include too many, and I have failed: I have included too many. But I have fallen short of re-typing the entire manuscript, so that's some consolation.

There is more than one way not to read, the most radical of which is not to open a book at all. For any given reader, however dedicated he might be, such total abstention necessarily holds true for virtually everything that has been published, and this in fact this constitutes our primary way of relating to books. (3) 
Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and opening all the other books in the universe. (6)
As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any books in particular, but of being able to find your bearing within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others. (10-11)
Breaking with that critical tradition, [Paul] Valery posited that despite appearances, an author is in no position to explain his own work. The work is the product of a creative process that occurs in the writer but transcends him, and it is unfair to reduce the work to that act of creation. (16)
The logical implication of this theory—that cultural literacy involves the dual capacity to situate books in the collective library and to situate yourself within each book—is that it is ultimately unnecessary to have handled a book to have a sense of it and to express your thoughts on it. The act of reading is disassociated from the material book... (32)
[Umberto] Eco's novel [The Name of the Rose] illustrates that the books we talk about are only glancingly related to "real" books—indeed, what else would we expect?— and are often no more than screen books. Or, if you prefer, what we talk about is not the books themselves, but substitute objects we create for the occasion. (44) 
Even as I read, I start to forget what I have read, and this process is unavoidable. It extends to the point where it's as though I haven't read the book at all, so that in effect I find myself rejoining the ranks of non-readers, where I should no doubt have remained in the first place. At this point, saying we have read a book becomes essentially a form of metonymy. When it comes to books, we never read more than a portion of greater or lesser length, and that portion is, in the longer or shorter term, condemned to disappear. When we talk about books, then, to ourselves and others, it would be more accurate to say that we are talking about our approximate recollections of books, rearranged as a function of current circumstances. (47-8) 
But fear of repeating himself is not the only embarrassing consequence of forgetting his own books. Another is that Montaigne does not even recognize his own texts when they are quoted in his presence, leaving him to speak about texts he hasn't read even though he has written them. (55) [Note from Su: I love this because it happened to me recently. I ran into someone who remembered me from the days when I was regularly performing my stories on stage. "I always especially loved your story about X," she said, and I had no idea what story she was talking about. It's possible that she was confusing my story with someone else's story or poem, or projecting her own interpretation onto a story I remember but don't recognize in her description, but it is equally likely that I have completely forgotten a story I used to perform, which is to say a story I had written and which I very likely knew well enough to recite from memory. It wouldn't be the first time it happened, and apparently I'm in good company with Montaigne.] 
Every writer who has conversed at any length with an attentive reader...has had the uncanny experience of discovering the absence of any connection between what he meant to accomplish and what has been grasped of it.... It might then be said that the chances of wounding an author by speaking about his book are all the greater when we love it. Beyond the general expressions of satisfaction that tend to create a sense of common ground, there is every likelihood that trying to be more precise in our exposition of why we appreciated the book will be demoralizing for him. In the attempt, we force him into an abrupt confrontation with everything that is irreducible in the other, and thus irreducible in him and in the words through which he has attempted to express himself. (98-99) 
 The acknowledgment that books are mobile objects rather than fixed objects is indeed destabilizing, since it reflects back our own uncertainty—which is to say, our folly. (148) 
The paradox of reading is that the path towards ourselves passes through books, but that this must remain a passage. It is a traversal of book that a good reader engages in—a reader who knows that every book is the bearer of part of himself and can give him access to it, if only he has the wisdom not to end his journey there. (178) 
To become a creator yourself: this is the project to which we have been brought by the observations drawn from our series of examples, and it is a project accessible only to those whose inner evolution has freed them from guilt completely.... How can one deny...that talking about books you haven't read constitutes an authentic creative activity, making the same demands as other forms of art? Just think of all the skills it calls into play—listening to the potentialities of a work, analyzing its ever-changing context, paying attention to others and their reactions, taking charge of a gripping narrative—and you will surely find yourself convinced. (182-3) 
To show [students], instead, that a book is reinvented with every reading would give them the means to emerge unscathed, and even with some benefit, from a multitude of difficult situations.... As we have seen exemplified by numerous authors, the entirety of our culture opens up to those with the ability to cut the bonds between discourse and its object, and to speak about themselves. 
The key, in the end, is to reveal to students what is truly essential: the world of their own creation. What better gift could you make to a student than to render him sensitive to the art of invention—which is to say, self-invention? All education should strive to help those receiving it to gain enough freedom in relation to works of art to themselves become writers and artists. (184)
Denuded, and ready to be forgotten.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What It Was Like the First Time I Was Pregnant

Yesterday, I went looking in my old journal folders for something I wanted to share with a friend. I found what I was looking for, but I also found this. I was 8 or 9 weeks pregnant when I wrote this to some friends, and still living in hope that my nausea and vomiting would end with the first trimester. It didn't. Although I got some relief from anti-nausea meds later in my pregnancy, for all intents and purposes I didn't feel well again until the baby was born. Bless him for coming three weeks early. I was a grad student in English Literature at this time, and would probably have dropped out of school except that I needed my fellowship stipend to live on. When I think of that academic year, I see myself sitting at a seminar table, dull and blank-faced, with a baggie of saltines in front of me. One day toward the end of my pregnancy, I had a surprisingly lively couple of hours in class, and one of my friends said, "It was like the old Su was back, for just a little while, and then gone again."

Caring for me during my pregnancy was so encompassing that Toots told me later he had something like mild PTSD after the baby was finally born. And I think it's possible the dirty knives referenced in this post didn't get washed until after the baby, either.

Our plumber, Jim, had begun a bathroom remodel that was supposed to take about two weeks on the first day of my last menstrual period. Because of defects in the tub that was first delivered to us, it eventually took nearly 14 weeks to complete. Jim ended up rigging us a shower in the middle of the basement, near the floor drain, and his business was nearly bankrupted by the fiasco that was our new bathroom. Poor guy.

Anyway, enjoy!

November 2, 2000

I am sorry to have to tell you that last Friday's feeling of happy well-being is but a distant memory. I have had a very difficult week, augmented by the intensification of some symptoms and the appearance of a couple of entirely new ones, including excessive saliva (you will forgive me mentioning), which doesn't sound too bad when you read about it in a book, but which, it turns out, is unpleasant and troublesome when experienced. Raider believes that I am slowly turning to liquid; he says my stomach is squishy (I think so too). According to his reading on pregnancy, by the time the baby is delivered, I am going to be completely of a gelatinous, amoeba-like consistency.

What good news do I have? Despite having to call Raider to come pick me up at school this afternoon, I had this weird idea that I might be able to eat some sesame chicken. Sesame chicken being fetched for me, I succeeded in eating about a half-dozen small pieces with rice. It was very delicious. If all goes well, I intend to have some more for lunch tomorrow. I am amazed repeatedly by my ability to eat even when actively nauseated; it's a unique feature, in my experience, of pregnancy nausea. I have never been able to do more than suck popsicles when I've had an upset stomach before.

We told our plumber about the baby today. Turns out he has training as a naturopath and delivered two of his five children at home with no assistance from anyone but their mother. We have been joking about enlisting him as our midwife. He says it's natural that my joy in pregnancy should be suppressed by being sick, but assures me that I will begin to feel the "spiritual aspects" of pregnancy in the second trimester. "It's a whole little soul in there," he says. He also says we pick our parents, based on the karmic lessons we need to learn. The best either of us (the plumber or me) could say about the lessons of our upbringing, was that it taught us what not to do to our children; I have been thinking since our talk about what karmic lesson Junior might be seeking in choosing me and Raider. Scary.

Do you remember the TV show "Murphy Brown" and her house painter Eldon who came to paint the walls and stayed for, like, 10 years? I feel that way about our plumber, like he's been living with us for two months. I get to the point of wanting to say to him, "Jim, why don't you run the trash to the curb while you're up," or "Hey, Jim, put a load of dishes in, will you?" or "Hey, Jim, how about a ginger ale in here?" He did show up one day with a 12-pack of Vernors because he had noticed that we were almost out, and he understands how much I need it.

The representative of the bathtub company came today to inspect the tub; it can be fixed, he says, but he also says that the flaw in the pipe was so evident that it should not have passed inspection at the factory. He seemed quite indignant and promised to be very active in getting the repair done as soon as possible. We'll see.

Speaking of dishes and stuff: I have not lifted a finger around the house in a month (except during scheduled housework times on Saturday morning; last week I sat down more than I worked, but did succeed in tidying some things and dusting some other things while Raider and Toots cleaned the whole rest of the house). Raider and Toots have been terrific, doing all the shopping, doing dishes, scooping cat litter. Toots has taken over my job of feeding the cats, and also backs me up on dog care, checking to see whether I have fed them and doing it if I haven't been able to. I am enormously grateful, and yet am experiencing the frustration of having things done not by me and therefore not as I would do them. For instance, neither Raider nor Toots will generally do the hand dishes until they are quite scandalous; actually, not even then. As a consequence, every wood-handled knife in the house is dirty, and an archeologist could determine all the meals we've cooked (a very small subset of meals we've eaten) in the last few weeks by excavating the pile of pans to the right of the sink. Also, there is a tupperware container growing a culture in the fridge; no one else has dealt with it, and I have felt that it would be ill-advised of me to try it. I really want the fridge cleaned out and the hand dishes done, but I feel I can hardly press the point when they are already both doing so much. And I feel I can hardly use what little energy I have in a day in knife-washing when I have, for instance, a paper which was due yesterday and which is no farther forward than a list of possible source materials I have been too sick to go the library for.

I have to say, though, that it is a good feeling to have people in my life who will so patiently and cheerfully add my responsibilities to theirs, as well as the work of bringing me beverages and preparing me food (Raider packs me a Snack Kit whenever I have to go anywhere), over a period of weeks, with nary a complaint worse than, from Raider occasionally, "Can I finish this first or should I go get it right now?" (Although, truth to tell, he did get a little snarly last night between 12:30 and 1 a.m. when, first, I wanted the foam wedge to sleep on because I had heartburn, and then I wanted the window open and the fan on because I was hot, and then, after [our cat] Baby threw up, I wanted him to get out of bed immediately to clean it up because I needed to go pee and was afraid of stepping in it. But after that I slept straight through til morning, so what does he really have to complain about?)

The two of them have even agreed to go to the library and photocopy articles for me, since I keep saying that I feel I could work on my papers if only I had the materials here at home; if I can't manage the library tomorrow, I will take them up on it. In any case, I will probably take at least Raider with me to help with retrieving things from the stacks. And they are driving me everywhere, even when it means, on some days, six different trips in one day to drop me off and pick me up various places. I am in imminent danger of throwing up whenever I am in a moving car, and am much more comfortable in the passenger seat with a plastic bag in my hand than behind the wheel.

I have repeatedly been congratulating myself on having visited Montana when I did (and also on having visited my friend Julie the next weekend; by then, I was already constantly nauseated, but only mildly, and I don't think I had started throwing up yet). I feel like I did my traveling at the last possible time; I couldn't bring myself to get on a plane now, or to undertake a car ride of longer than 12 minutes.

One last thing: in all the pregnancy books, they say that labor and delivery are like orgasm in being an involuntary bodily response. But yesterday, I had a long and violent bout of vomiting (in the late morning; it is always worst in the late morning) during which I thought, for instance, that my eyeballs might explode*, and I realized how much of the body is engaged in throwing up; I had never really noticed the extent to which, for instance, opening your mouth to throw up is involuntary, and I swear I believe now that my vagina can get big enough for a baby because I'm pretty sure one could have come easily out my mouth yesterday. I felt exactly like those scenes in "An American Werewolf in London" in which David Naughton turns into the wolf. I couldn't believe when I looked in the mirror afterward that there wasn't some permanent sign. Anyway, in the middle of the worst of it, I thought, "I bet this is what labor is like." It wasn't like orgasm at all; it was too violent and all-encompassing and, interestingly (I've had a lot of time to think philosophically about retching), it's sort of neither pleasant nor unpleasant while it's going on; it just takes over. In between, in those little rests you get, hanging over the toilet wondering whether it's over yet or not, it's very upsetting, but during the actual vomiting, it just sort of is. I will let you know on or about June 11, 2001, whether my insight holds up. [Note: my labor with the Lego Savant was relatively mellow and not at all overwhelming, though it was difficult at points. Some of the vomiting I did while pregnant was much, much worse.]

*A couple of years ago, Toots had a bout of vomiting that left him with two black eyes; it was amazing. I keep half expecting that to happen to me, and when it doesn't, I think, "Good God, what Toots must have suffered!"

I have to say one more thing about throwing up: Last week, I experienced the most unpleasant vomiting-related thing that has ever happened to me. I haven't told anyone what it was, because it's just too gross and no one but me should have to be haunted by the vision of it, but I can't help telling you just that it happened. If you remember that I was once, in fact, sick in the hallway outside the door of my classroom while teaching a class, you can imagine that this must have been unpleasant indeed, although I was alone when it happened. Ugh. I won't say more, except, "Pity me! Pity me!"

Although I am physically very unwell, my spirits are improving. I think one can only be miserable so long, and as the weeks pass it begins to feel that I can endure the weeks ahead (how many? Perhaps as few as three, though I'm not counting on it), and, although I am keeping up with the reading in my classes, and making some slow progress on papers, I am ever more indifferent to school and am not letting my descent from the fabulous student I was all last year to a very indifferent performer distress me too much. On Friday, I thought singing in the shower was the mark of how well I felt, but today I have felt very sick all day but I still sang in the shower, just a little (the shower is one of my favorite places; the warm water on my stomach seems to really help. If only the basement drain weren't sluggish, so that showers have to be quick to avoid flooding the room, I would probably stand in there for an hour). And I have been very rewarded by small adventures in food; as well as the sesame chicken today, on Tuesday Raider, in response to an idea of mine that I might be able to eat some home fries if they were fried with only a very little oil, made me a wonderful bowlful of diced potatoes. A welcome variant from my usual assortment of yogurt, fruit, applesauce, Carnation Instant Breakfast, homemade ginger spritzers, peppermint tea, and, of course, saltines. [Later in my pregnancy, I began to live almost entirely on Peppermint Stick ice cream. I couldn't brush my teeth without vomiting, and so it freshened my mouth a little and was cool and creamy both going down and, if necessary, coming back up.]

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Gender-Related Name Change Rant

I ranted a little on Facebook today, and then realized I might as well blog it as well.

I'm doing a lot of paperwork this morning, including getting the Tiny Tornado's petition for a legal name change filled out and printed. In Michigan, you can change your name for any non-fraudulent purpose, and when I changed mine, I was only asked whether I was doing it to evade debt or any other criminal sort of reason.

Unless it's for gender change reasons. In which case, you need a letter of support from an expert, cause god forbid *you* be the expert on your own name. It's so stupid! We could have named him Guyname Manlyman Lastname at birth and nobody would have stopped us, but now he's 7 and has CHOSEN HIS OWN NAME and we need a letter.

*grump, whine, complain*

Of course, we had no trouble getting a letter. The doctors at the Lurie Children's Sex & Gender Development Clinic have a form letter. "It is common that social transitioning for gender dysphoric children will lead to a dramatic improvement in social and psychological functioning, as Name_of_Child has experienced. There is no question that Name_of_Child was struggling with gender dysphoria and has benefitted from social transitioning."

But that it was easy for us to get the letter is not the point. The point is that people who don't fit the gender binary are unnecessarily subjected to additional scrutiny. AND THIS IS WRONG!

And the point is also that people who don't have the privilege of access to one of the THREE children's gender clinics in the whole country, or other knowledgeable and compassionate care providers, might find it difficult-to-impossible to get such a letter even though their child would also benefit from having a legal name that matches the name they use. THIS IS ALSO WRONG.

/end of rant

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Why Gymnastics Will Never Be a Popular Spectator Sport

My youngest kid, the Tiny Tornado, started gymnastics just over a year ago. After his very first class, his coach told us, "I think we have a real gymnast on our hands." In June, he joined the competitive team at his gym as a Level 4, the lowest competitive level, and it looks like he'll have his first meet in November.

So now, we're fans of men's gymnastics. Gymnastics is one of the most popular sports at the Olympics every four years, but most people don't pay any attention to it in between. This is because being a gymnastics fan is hard work. Most gymnastics events, even the big international ones, aren't broadcast on TV. Fans have to get their fix via live scoring updates on the USA Gymnastics webpage, and twitter updates from people in the audience. Often, it's not possible to see video until after the fact. This year, for the first time, it was possible to watch the qualifying rounds from the world championships on a live feed, but even the men's team final was broadcast without commentary in the US. You have to be dedicated.

On the one hand, I think this is too bad: following the sport this year has given me a much better understanding of what's going on with all that flipping and spinning, and I can now evaluate a routine with just a bit more sophistication than, "hey, he didn't fall off, and he stuck his landing!" I look forward to the Rio Olympics in 2016, when for the first time in my life, I'll know who the gymnasts are before they walk into the arena. I'll know their strengths and weaknesses. I'll know that Danell Leyva uses headphones and a towel draped over his head to avoid getting overstimulated with the noise around him; I'll know that it's worth calling inattentive family members to the TV for  Donnell Whittenberg's vaults and Leyva's parallel bar routine; I'll know that John Orozco is talented and capable but lets his nerves get the better of him sometimes. I'll know who's not there, but might have been, and why they didn't make it.

On the other hand, I have some ideas about why gymnastics is a quadrennial treat for most people rather than perpetual fandom.

It is Too Far Removed From Our Own Experiences

This theory is not original with me; I read it somewhere, and it stuck with me. Basically, the forgotten writer of the piece I read suggested that fans of most sports that have strong followings, like soccer, baseball, football, and basketball, are games that fans can identify with because they can imagine themselves playing, too. Probably they have played, whether in gym class, a neighborhood pick-up game, a family match during halftime on Super Bowl Sunday, or in a league. What the players are doing on the field is different in intensity, quality, and skill, but it's the same game.

On the other hand, gymnasts of four years old (and even less) are already doing things the vast majority of us will never be able to do, at all. When we're watching gymnastics on YouTube, my gymnast son takes breaks to practice his handstands, presses, hollow-arch-kicks on the pull-up bar. But the rest of us? Ha! There's no gymnastics equivalent of taking a ball out back and tossing it around for awhile, and this, the argument goes, makes gymnastics too distant from our own experiences for most of us to spend a lot of time on it.

It's Repetitive

For the most part, in a given season, a gymnast is going to work up a routine on each apparatus, and stick to it. If you're paying a lot of attention, you might know that they have, say, an upgraded release skill on high bar that they're considering bringing to the competition. A year ago, I saw a short interview in which Sam Mikulak talked about working on his airflair as a skill upgrade on floor. I got to see him compete it (poorly) at a couple of college meets, and then really well at national and world championships. "Yay, Sam!" I thought. But if you're not paying attention, these little dramas and differences won't be apparent to you. "So-and-so took the extra twist out of his Tsukahara on vault today; he must not have been feeling confident" is pretty insider-baseball stuff.

So: you get to see the gymnasts do more-or-less the same things over and over, with variations that you have to be kind of an expert to recognize. I like this! But not everyone will.

There is No Head-to-Head Competition

Sure, the gymnasts are competing against each other, but not directly. Each of them has a routine they're trying to perform as well as they can, and, except for maybe psychologically, nothing any of the competition does can directly affect a gymnast's performance. There's no offense, no defense, no direct confrontation. In baseball, a great hit can be thwarted by an even greater catch, but there's nothing like that kind of drama in gymnastics.

It is Almost Impossible to Actually Watch a Whole Meet

During a men's gymnastics meet, there are athletes simultaneously performing routines on six apparatuses. When you watch on TV, the camera is always ignoring five other athletes to concentrate on the one you're being shown. Even when you're in the stands, you can't see it all. You miss an amazing vault because you're watching a mediocre floor exercise; the dramatic moment when the favorite to win falls off the pommel horse happens in the corner of your eye because you're watching somebody on rings. A meet lasts close to three hours, and to see all of it you'd have to watch it six times from six different perspectives.

Toward the end of a meet, when it's clear who's likely to win and who their competition is, the crowd will get excited and start to focus on those athletes. But for most of the meet, not even the people in the audience are watching the same event at the same time. Some of them are sending up a rousing cheer for a well-executed skill on the bar while some of them are sighing at a disappointment on rings, and some of them are checking their e-mail because their team is out this rotation on a bye. There's no single focal point, so you're always missing something.

Until Near the Very End, It's Almost Impossible to Know Who's Actually Winning

Throughout a gymnastics meet, individual and team scores are posted continuously (this only applies to team and all-around competitions; it's different in individual event competitions, but I'm not going to get into that right now). But for most of the meet, these scores are largely meaningless, except to the extent that you know how a specific team is doing relative to its usual performance.

One reason for this is that scores vary from apparatus to apparatus: the pommel horse is deadly, and scores there are usually lower overall than on other apparatuses. So whichever team starts the meet on pommel horse will very likely end the rotation in last place, but they have a good chance of closing the gap as the other teams rotate through their pommel routines.

In addition, teams and gymnasts have strengths and weaknesses. Teams A and B may both be great on floor, and only OK on high bar. Team A is going to pull ahead if they have an early rotation on floor while Team B is on bar, but that doesn't mean much until they've both finished both apparatuses.

Finally, if there are more than six teams competing, each team will take a bye on some rotations. So, at the end of a rotation, some teams will be far far behind because they've only been scored on, say,  three apparatuses, while other teams have already done four.

Predicting the outcome of a gymnastics meet in progress is an exercise in branching possibilities and if-thens that rivals a game of chess.

Scoring is Complicated

It's pretty easy to understand a home run, a touchdown, or a goal in soccer, and to do the math as the points pile up. In gymnastics these days, it takes a slide rule to keep up. I have to admit I don't fully understand it yet, and I may well be wrong about what I think I do understand.

Each routine gets a score for difficulty, and one for execution. The D score is based on the difficulty assigned to various elements in the routine, and the E score starts at 10 and then deductions are taken for various things, like not completing skills, falling, poor form, and so on. This means that the potential score for each gymnast varies; a gymnast with a D score of, say, 5.2 could earn 15.2 points if he executes his routine perfectly (not that a perfect execution ever happens). A gymnast with a D score of 6.4 has a ceiling of 16.4.  One reason Japan's Kohei Uchimura is favored to take Gold in the All-Around again at this year's World Championships is that nobody else has D-scores like his, and you can't beat him if your best possible score is still a losing score.

The Gymnastics Code of Points describes skills, and assigns them point values on a scale. "A" skills are worth a tenth of a point—my little guy's Level 4 routines are chock full of A skills. At the other end of the scale are a handful of F skills that are worth .6. When gymnasts talk about an "upgrade" skill, they mean they're working on something that will increase their D-score.

So, to understand a gymnast's score, you have have some kind of idea of their D-score, which determines the ceiling, and how many deductions they got, and how that stacks up in the context of the rest of the competition. Is 14.88 good? Bad? Mediocre? It can be hard to tell. For the broadcast of the national championships in August, the TV network invented a red-yellow-green symbol to cue the audience in about whether the gymnast had few deductions, some deductions, or lots of deductions. Green=Good, they told us, and Red=Bad. Because that's the kind of scoring we can understand.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: A Rule is to Break: A Child's Guide to Anarchy

It is a sad day when you bring home a book called A Rule is to Break: A Child's Guide to Anarchy, and the biggest problem you have with it is how banal and prescriptive it is. I joked when I first heard of this book that my strong-willed adventurer of a seven-year-old must never read it. I still think that, but only because it offers so little to children who are feeling stifled by rules about what to eat, when to sleep, and how to behave.

The authors, john & jana, make a fundamental mistake: their entire book is a series of commands. "Don't look like everybody else. Be you!" "Build it. Don't buy it." "Forget about grocery stores and get dirty in your garden."

My favorite page has got to be the one that says, "No rules!" and then, right next to that, "Be nice!" Isn't "be nice" a rule?

I'm used to the liberals I know engaging in a game that goes, "Be a freethinker! Follow my rules instead!" but I'm discouraged to find anarchists engaging in the same bait-and-switch. I understand that exhortations to garden and build instead of shop are in keeping with anarchist goals not to support capitalism, but these pages could be re-purposed into any of a hundred didactic picture books aimed at the children of progressives, books about taking care of the planet or promoting peace or living more authentically.

As I read A Rule is to Break, I couldn't help answering back to it on practically every page. "Cake! For! Dinner!"? OK, but what if you're really hungry for tofu, or a nice piece of fish? "Stay up all night"? I have two kids who don't like sleepovers because of the pressure to do just that. "No more baths ever"? But what about how good it feels to be clean? "Don't look like everybody else"? But what if you don't care to draw attention to yourself by how you dress or wear your hair?

My kids bristle at being given a series of peremptory commands that might or might not suit them, and this book makes anarchists sound like one more set of grownups who want to boss you around and tell you what to think, even if the second-to-last page of the book does say, "Think for yourself." Too little, too late.

I'd have written a different book. Mine would have said things like:

"Have cake for dinner if you want! Or tofu, or a nice piece of fish! Whatever you're hungry for! Trust your appetite!"

"Bedtimes? Pah! Sleep when you're tired, or four hours after you got tired when you finally finish that book. You can stay up all night and watch the sunrise, or you can get up early and watch the sunrise, or you can never watch the sunrise at all."

"Baths are great if you like soaking in the water or want to get clean! But don't take a bath just because somebody else thinks you should! You can be bath-indepenent and make up your own mind!"

"You can follow a rule if it seems like a good one. But a bad rule wants to be broken."

My mother, for all her many failings, had her moments. And one of her best moments was during high school, when she said to me, "Susan, I wouldn't want you to do a thing just because everyone else is doing it. But not doing something just because everyone else is doing it is just as bad. You're still letting everybody else do your thinking for you." Staying up all night because people want you to go to bed, eating cake for dinner because they want you to eat spaghetti, wearing skinny jeans because everybody else has moved on to boot-cut: that's rebellion, not independent thought. It's an adolescent way to mark yourself as different from the herd. A Rule is to Break is, sadly, more "A Child's Guide to Oppositional Behavior" than a guide to anarchy. I hoped for more. I hoped for a book that might really feel too dangerous to give to my children.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

My Polyamory Reading List: By Me & Others

Someone recently asked me for readings on polyamory. I am by no means an expert, and this list is nothing like comprehensive; it's more like a collection of what I have on hand, and/or read before I decided I'd reached the point of diminishing returns and could just live my life instead of reading and thinking about my life. I welcome suggestions for things to add to the list.

There are two books that are sort of de rigueur. Neither is perfect, but they both have their uses.

The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy is the one I most often hear recommended. I've read it, and thought it was fine without being mind-blowing. I'm sure I had more to say about it when I first read it, but I don't seem to have written it down at the time. This surprises me.

In any case, if you're poly these days, or curious about it, this is the book to read.

Another recent book is Opening Up by Tristan Taormino. I read this awhile ago and had very mixed feelings about it; my blog post about it is I Have Read a Book About Open Relationships

I really like the blog Solo Polyamory. The author has chosen not to have a primary partner, and her discussions of navigating relationships, working out challenges, negotiating boundaries and expectations, and more, are insightful, and have been useful to me even though my relationships are quite different from hers. I particularly like the concept of the relationship escalator, which I'm pretty sure I learned at this blog.

And look! She recently favorably reviewed a new book: More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory. I will read it. Perhaps you should, too.

I also very much like The Pervocracy. This blog also covers kink and BDSM, so I have very helpfully searched for all the posts about polyamory for you. This blog is a bit of a mixed bag; I find the recent read-through of 50 Shades of Grey pretty tedious, for instance. But it contains some brilliant thinking and writing as well, and is worth exploring.

I thought I'd have more in blogs, but it turns out I don't follow many poly blogs. I'll update this post if I come across something worthwhile.

By Me
I was looking for my review of Opening Up, and discovered that I have also blogged about polyamory! Imagine that. I also observe that I suck at writing SEO-optimizing titles.

Loving Your Slutty Friend: A Guide For the Vanilla and Monogamous
I should consider picking this series up again. I like these three posts and never wrote some of the ones I thought I would.

It takes courage to be open to the new things coming into your life, whether that's a new love or a new religion or a new hobby that takes you away from home every Saturday, because the changes that come with these things are unpredictable. It takes courage, too, to turn away from the new for a time because the relationship matters more.
Every relationship incorporates change over its lifetime. Sometimes the changes are challenging, the process of adapting to them requires a tremendous amound of hard work, and a successful outcome--if by "successful" we mean "the relationship continues"--is by no means assured. Other times, they're relatively easy to accommodate.
3. Loving Your Slutty Friend: What I Like About Non-Monogamy
Thirdly, I like sex. I like it with Raider. I love it with Raider. Whenever I have reason to honor a new relationship, say at a wedding, I write in the card, "I wish you every happiness." And one of the things I mean by this is, "I wish you good sex." And what I really mean by that is, "I hope your sex is as good as mine and Raider's." I wish this sincerely for the whole world. 
But I like sex, once in awhile--not really that often, in the grand scheme of things, but once in awhile--with someone else, too. Because sex is one of the ways I relate to people. I enjoy the kind of connection you have with someone when you are physically intimate. Back when I was a young free agent, sex was one of the ways I got to know people.
Standalone Posts 

What's Hecuba To Him, or He to Hecuba?
What is Toots to us? What are we to Toots? The kids call him Uncle, but we could just as easily have decided to call him Papa Toots; he is the closest thing they have to a third parent. I sometimes tell people that they might think of Toots as the third adult in our nuclear family, even though he lives with the Crafty Elf these days. Toots sometimes tries to convey his relationship with the children by telling people he is their godfather; that works pretty well. Sometimes he takes flack from his family for spending more time with our kids than with his biological nephew; would it help people understand the relationship and accept it if we had decided to call him their stepfather?
The Things You  Find Out About Yourself
I was surprised by how much meeting with these folks meant to me, because I hadn't thought of polyamory as a central part of who I am.
You Put Your Whole Self In
I am a moral person. I am a deeply ethical person. I am religious in a non-trivial way. I think and ponder and reflect and think some more about everything. The decisions I make about my life are shaped by these things. I don't think I've ever made a decision lightly. So, you know, at least, that if I make a decision that seems dangerous, reckless, immoral, wrong-headed, deeply mistaken, risky, or even just head-scratchingly incomprehensible to you, well, it's probably the best-thought-out, most-thoroughly-processed bone-headed move in history.  
Won't Someone Think of the Children?
We make decisions ourselves about who to trust with our hearts. Sometimes we get it right; sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we get it right and it still goes wrong. Sometimes somebody you thought would be there forever, isn't, and there's nothing you can do about it.
A Crusade, but Without the Oppression and Death
I say it's love, particularly love in the form of sexual desire, that wants the walls down. And I will make the claim that is not been a lack of morality or an unhealthy promiscuity or a recklessness toward my own feelings or my partners' that has led me to squeeze through the narrow gaps in so many walls in search of the light I can see shining through from the other side. 
It has been love, which in all its forms is ultimately the same form. And this is one of the ways I have been called to be in service to love in my life. 
Epistle from the Poly and/or Kinky Friends Retreat 
We long to have our relationships recognized and respected, but we also hope to share our gifts, talents, and ministry. We are abundantly blessed with gifts for open-hearted loving, and experienced with the radical honesty that our relationships call us to. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

I Have a Headache

A friend of mine who lives with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction (CFIDS) posted recently on Facebook that it was the fifth anniversary of the beginning of her symptoms. That took me back to the beginning of my chronic pain. The specific moment of beginning isn't clear, because you don't realize something is beginning. You just think you're having a bad day.

Raider and I had been together not quite a year, I think. I'd had headaches before, very occasionally, and had always been able to get rid of them by taking over-the-counter meds like Tylenol. More often, I simply napped; I had found that a nap as short as 10 or 15 minutes would relieve the mild, occasional headaches I got.

So when I got a headache, I didn't think much of it. I did the usual things: napped, took some meds, ate protein, had maybe a little extra caffeine.

But it didn't go away.

I took more meds. I took more naps. Raider massaged my head and neck. One feature of the headache was a feeling like a metal spike was impaling my left temple; Raider and I played a visualization game where he pulled out the spike, hoping that if I imagined it gone I could fool myself into feeling better.

Eventually, I saw my doctor. And some other doctors. And tried a whole lot of different medications. A couple of years into the headache, they sent me off to a pain clinic for a week. This is where they send you to learn how to live with pain you're not ever going to be able to live without.

Over the years, I have sometimes been aggressive in trying to improve my headache, and sometimes not. Medications have side effects that are sometimes harder to live with than the headache, and other  treatments also take effort I don't always have the energy for. Still, when a headache lasts this long, you have time to try everything. I've done acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, esoteric healing, herbs, and a bunch of things I don't even remember. I've done rigorous eliminations diets to try to find food triggers. For years, I wore a mask in public to limit my exposure to perfumes, a major trigger (fortunately, during my first pregnancy, this trigger became much less deadly. I am still sensitive to perfumes but not nearly to the degree I used to be).

Doctors usually use a 10-point scale for pain; my current neurologist uses a 5-point scale. For me, though, my headache meaningfully has three levels:

1. It's there, but I can easily be distracted from it and can participate more-or-less fully in daily life. At this level, I can feel the headache if I think about it, but if I'm busy, watching a movie, talking to friends, or reading, I don't notice it. It doesn't intrude itself. It just sits quietly in the corner, not drawing attention to itself.

2. I can't forget it's there, but I can still function. I can do my work, hang with my kids, enjoy myself. But I know I have a headache the whole time.

Actually writing "enjoy myself" made me realize there's a level sort of between 2 and 3, or in the area where they overlap, which is where I can function, but only with great effort and not at full power. And I'm not enjoying myself. I remember throwing a birthday party for one of the kids with pain at this level. Games were played, ice cream was eaten, messes were made, presents were opened. When the last guest had left, I turned to Raider, said, "I am a fucking superhero," and burst into tears. Sometimes when I'm functioning like this, people can tell something is up with me. Sometimes they can't. Often, I don't want them to know, because dealing with sympathy is hard in its own way.

3. I can't function. I need to do as little as possible, and sleep a lot.

Somewhere, there is a reader who has just realized that the implication of what I've written is that I've had a headache for over 20 years. Can this be true, that reader wonders?

Yes. Yes, it can.

So, back when I used to come see you perform at the Detroit Women's Coffeehouse, imaginary reader asks: You had a headache then?


You worked on the security crew at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival for years! Round-the-clock shifts! Are you telling me you had a headache that whole time?

Yes, that is what I'm telling you.

You've been pregnant twice! Given birth twice! Adopted once! Cared for three newborns! Surely you didn't have a headache that whole time?

Surely, I did.

You did a reading at my wedding...


We danced together!


*whispering* We had sex.

"Not tonight, dear, I've got a headache," is an excuse that holds no water around here. At least, not unless we're dealing with a level 3 flare-up.

What has made all of this possible is that I live much of my life at low Level 2 or below. It has been interesting to me that, although I always have a headache, I know many people who have headacheS, and theirs are often much worse than mine. Raider used to have migraines a few times a year, and he couldn't function at all during them. He had to lie down in a dark room. Often he vomited. I can remember taking him to the ER on at least two occasions because the pain was so bad and he was dehydrated from throwing up.

I've never had to go the ER for a headache.

A few years ago, someone I knew began having Cluster Headaches. People with cluster headaches often have years in between bouts. But during the weeks or months that a cluster headache persists, the pain is excruciating. I haven't experienced anything like that.*

My headaches have a pattern. It's unpredictable, but it's a pattern. I live most of the time at what I call my "baseline," which is the ordinary daily level of pain. My baseline can vary; a couple of years ago, under the care of an excellent new neurologist, my baseline got so low that I was this close to putting a zero on my daily headache log. I could never quite bring myself to do it. It felt too much like tempting fate. And, soon enough, my baseline drifted up again.

Still, on the medication regimen my neurologist and I trial-and-errored our way to, my baseline is generally a comfortable Level 1.*

My life is punctuated by flare-ups. If I tell you I have a headache, it's most likely during a flare-up. Many folks don't know that I also have a headache in between flare-ups; I remember one of my best friends telling me a few years ago that even she often forgot about it. It isn't stoicism that keeps me from talking about it all the time. It gets tiresome answering, "How are you?" with "I have a headache!" And if I'm at baseline, and functioning pretty well, "I'm doing great!" is true.*

Historically, a flare-up lasted 4 or 5 days before my headache dropped back to baseline. Under the care of my neurologist, for the past couple of years I have had rescue meds that can head off a flare-up before it really starts, or shorten it to one or two days. This has been amazing! I feel the early warning signs, I take my meds and a nap, and I'm good to go.

Under this regimen, traveling to conferences, something I love, has become much easier. Travel itself is a trigger; so are lack of sleep; bad beds; the increased exposure to perfumes, fabric softeners, and cleaning supplies that come with travel; and stress (even the good kind). A week at Friends General Conference Gathering, for instance, used to mean increasing pain throughout the week, and days of recovery afterward.

Not anymore. For the last couple of years, with my medication regimen and some reasonably judicious attention to self-care, I have been able to travel without ending the trip less well than I began. This is wonderful.

Unfortunately, about six months ago my rescue med stopped working. I don't have a lot of other options. For instance, I have a bleeding disorder that rules out most non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. Fortunately, I haven't had many flare-ups. At my regular neurology check-in on July 9, I showed the doctor a log in which I'd been comfortably at or below baseline for weeks; I'd even gotten through a whole menstrual cycle without a flare-up (did I mention hormones are a trigger, too? No? There are so many it's easy to lose track). We were smug and self-satisfied. He gave me a new prescription, for a narcotic pain reliever I could take on really bad days if my rescue med let me down, and we set my next check-in for October.

Two days later, a flare-up started.

It hasn't stopped yet. My log shows severe headache on 25 of the last 28 days.

Footnote number one: "I haven't experienced anything like that": At least, not until this most recent flare-up, which is unprecedented for me.

Right now, my neuro has me on phenobarbitol, an anti-seizure drug, in an attempt to interrupt this flare-up. It seems to be working; three days in, I am beginning to feel more like myself. On the other hand, I'm pretty significantly impaired by the phenobarb. I can't safely drive, it's difficult to stand and walk around, and I'm sleeping a lot. I thought about leaving all the typos in this post in order to demonstrate just how out of it I am, but couldn't bring myself to do it. For demonstration purposes, though, here are some instant messages I sent to Raider on the other day, asking him to come home from work if he could, to take the Tiny Tornado to gymnastics. He asked if he should bring me food, and I said I might be able to eat some yoghurt. These were typed on the same keyboard I'm using now.

Su Penn:
I think I need you to com ehome. I’m in so much pain
that was a type]
he likes to lavea a little bofere 1
i expect so if hes not yeaer
that’s efficient for diringld
yougurt paybe
i’m probably going to sleep after I hear back from the coctor’s fofice

I'll be on the phenobarbitol for another week; in the meantime, I'm starting a new daily preventive, also an anti-seizure drug. We're hoping the phenobarb will interrupt the flare-up and keep the headache pinned down while the new preventive gets into my system and starts working.

The new preventive has side effects. Everything does. Here's footnote 2: "Still, on the medication regimen my neurologist and I trial-and-errored our way to, my baseline is generally a comfortable Level 1." And all I had to give up for this wonderfully dramatic reduction in pain was orgasms. It's mostly been worth it, and I will someday write a whole other post about having a great sex life without orgasming. But that's what it's cost me. I met the devil at the crossroads, and that's the price he demanded.

When you have chronic pain, there is no option that doesn't cost. Want to feel better? That might mean giving up big chunks of your life. I have a friend who, for years, couldn't do evening activities because if she wasn't in bed by 7 p.m. she paid for it in pain. You will never get to have everything that people who don't live with pain have. I can have a really low pain baseline, or orgasms. I can't have both.

There are always these trade-offs. You live in the land of Either-Or, not the land of Both-And.

This latest flare-up is hard for me because it is different. I like it when I understand my pain and its patterns. A major flareup that lasts the better part of four weeks is unprecedented, and it scares me. I don't want to have to get used to a new normal that is worse than my old normal. Especially since I feel like I'm handling the old normal less well than I used to. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I had an underlying reserve of youthful energy that kept me going even when the pain was pretty bad. I'm almost 50; I don't have it anymore. This also scares me.

Third and final footnote: "And if I'm at baseline, and functioning pretty well, 'I'm doing great!' is true."

One of the things I've learned from Facebook is that many people have chronic pain or chronic illness that they live with. The body goes wrong in every possible way it can, so the conditions people live with are marvelously varied. And most of these people say, "I'm doing fine!" when you ask how they are. You might never know what they're carrying. My final footnote is to say that one reason I don't tell people every day that I have a headache is that I'm not unique. My burdens aren't especially heavy.

Today, I'm in a lot of pain, and at the same time I'm doped to the gills on a medication that is messing with me pretty badly. I think I've been wearing my nightgown for three days. I certainly smell like I have. I'm hoping that today I'll feel like I can stand up long enough to shower. If not today, tomorrow. I'm worried about the future, and I'm worried about the present, about all the things I haven't been keeping up on and the consequences of what I've missed in the bill box. But my to-do list is not overwhelming; most things can wait. I have been enjoying watching TV with the kids, and lying in my bed thinking drifty thoughts before I fall asleep. Food tastes good to me. I haven't lost my sense of humor. Earlier today, after I reviewed the day's essential chores with the kids, they did them. It's enough to go on with.