Saturday, December 18, 2010

Our Tragic Universe

After finishing this novel, I was left with that empty feeling one feels after immersing oneself unintentionally into another world. Our Tragic Universe is at once complicated and uncomfortably familiar. The characters are well-rounded, with both likeable and eye-rolling qualities in spades, and their relationships with one another reflect all the intricacies and redundancies and paradoxes we experience in our own lives. The book explores many different concepts, our relationship with stories and fiction, the structure and lack of structure in meaningful stories, paradoxes and 'storyless stories' or metafiction. This novel is all of those and none of those at once. Thomas often discusses Tolstoy and Chekhov, admiring both, and their differences:
[Chekhov] wasn't bothered about the meaning of life in general, but life as it is lived, He was more interested in what people around him said and did. He was obsessed with the detail of life. Tolstoy always saw his own writing as "teaching" and had his breakdown partly because he was so anxious that he didn't have anything to teach. But Chekhov only ever saw his own writing as the formulation of questions, and so didn't need to have a crisis about it.
While I first found the meandering plot, or lack of plot, distracting, at some point I was drawn into the bleak and hopeful world without noticing. It was one of my favorite reads this year.

Monday, December 6, 2010

David Loses Against Goliath

These are now our only options if we want to fly in the good old USA:


All in the name of our security? Apparently neither of these methods would have caught the infamous underwear bomber, the touted reason behind these 'enhanced' security measures. Our fearless leader Obama appears to support these infringements of our constitutionals rights. So far, a breast cancer survivor has been forced to remove a prosthetic breast, a sexual assault survivor's sanitary napkin showed up in the body scan and she was subjected to a traumatizing molestosearch anyway, a bladder cancer survivor who has to wear a urostomy bag was left covered in his own urine after an aggressive search, and a woman who refused the scanners and asked questions about the pat down procedure had her ticket ripped up and was then handcuffed and escorted out of the airport.

All modesty aside, it's not clear what health effects these scanners might have. The TSA continually claims that the radiation that one is exposed to in a scanner is equivalent to 2 minutes of flight time. However, the radiation from the scanner is concentrated on the skin. Does this expose us to greater risk of skin cancer? No study seems to eliminate that possibility, as most seem to be based on general radiation exposure.

Neither of these methods would detect a device shoved up someone's... body cavity. But the TSA, so far, will not do random body cavity searches. (But is that next?) It's not even clear that either of these new invasive procedures would have caught the infamous underwear bomber. But you know what would have prevented him from boarding the plane? Israeli security methods, based on behavioral profiling. According to an article in the Toronto Star, everyone has to pass through 6 layers of security, in which highly trained security agents look at the actual passengers for any signs of nervousness or distress. Moreover, passengers go through these 6 levels of security in 30-40 minutes (apparently):
"First, it's fast — there's almost no line. That's because they're not looking for liquids, they're not looking at your shoes. They're not looking for everything they look for in North America. They just look at you," said Sela. "Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes ... and that's how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys."
Look at the person? Analyze their behavior? How novel. The article also claims that unlike us passive lie-down-and-take-it Americans, Israelis won't stand for ridiculously invasive or time-consuming security procedures, especially if they aren't likely to catch terrorists.
"Israelis, unlike Canadians and Americans, don't take s--- from anybody. When the security agency in Israel (the ISA) started to tighten security and we had to wait in line for — not for hours — but 30 or 40 minutes, all hell broke loose here. We said, 'We're not going to do this. You're going to find a way that will take care of security without touching the efficiency of the airport."
The article goes into more problems with American security, such as herding large numbers of people into a small area that resembles a mob scene (but you can tell it's not because of all those line dividers keeping the would-be passengers in place), which before you pass through any security is an easy target for someone wanting to take out a large number of people (say, the number that might board a plane).

Oh, and I almost forgot: these invasive procedures are a clear violation of our constitutional rights. Illegal search and seizure, anyone? I don't recall the mere desire to fly on a plane as constituting probable cause for a strip search.

So are we going to lie down and take it? Allow naked, possibly cancer-causing pictures to be taken of us? Or let ill-trained TSA agents (who would rather not molest us, let's hope) to invasively search us?

After the non-wave-causing opt-out day and the dying down of the media coverage of the issue, I'd guess... yup. And I'll be taking the train.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why We Need the Paycheck Fairness Act

The Paycheck Fairness Act is up for vote in the Senate this Friday - November 19 - and it hasn’t quite mustered the 60 votes needed for safe passage. Urge your senators to pass the act (unless, of course, you have a better tool for getting closer to gender parity in the workplace, or just think women should be valued less).

Think this bill is imperfect? It is, but not so much that we shouldn’t pass it. And what law or bill isn’t imperfect? Many businesses are up in arms, claiming that the floodgates of frivolous lawsuits are going to open. Why would they think this? Do they believe that if women had access to the salary info of their male equals in the workplace, that the disparities - when controlling for education, experience and job performance - would undoubtedly provide valid grounds for lawsuits? Shouldn’t individual employers be held accountable in some way for the pay gap when they themselves perpetuate it?

As Jessica Bennett and Jesse Ellison of Newsweek point out:
Consider this survey from Catalyst, which found that female M.B.A.s who’ve made exactly the “right” life choices—no intention to have children, top-tier schools, high aspirations—still earn $4,600 less per year in their first jobs out of business school. Or U.S. Department of Education data, which separated pay by job sector to determine that whether women who go into teaching or business, social work or science—and before they’ve had the chance to cripple themselves by “life choices” (these are young, childless women we’re talking about)—they will still make roughly 20 percent less than the men they work with. “The last decade was supposed to be the ‘promised one,’ and it turns out it wasn’t,” says James Turley, the CEO of Ernst & Young, which helped fund the recent M.B.A. study.
(Catalyst’s data can be found here)

Furthermore, do you
Remember Lilly Ledbetter? After nearly two decades of employment at Goodyear, a colleague left her an anonymous note with her salary and the salaries of three of her male colleagues. She was stunned to find out that she was earning less for doing similar work. Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court. She won, but the justices ruled that she couldn’t get her back pay because the discrimination began 20 years ago. Ledbetter didn’t sue earlier because she didn’t know about the pay disparity; to the court, that didn’t matter. Congress has since fixed this problem—with the support of Sens. Collins and Snowe. Yet to this day, employers can retaliate against an employee who merely wants to know what her colleagues earn (and yes, that includes firing). (Heather Boushey of Slate)
Perhaps you are indifferent, and of the ‘why should I care?’ population that makes up the majority of America. And no, this law isn’t going to dramatically change anything, not overnight. It is merely the next step towards ensuring fairer compensation, which will help everyone. How many men and families are in no way affected by the paychecks of the women in their lives (or the paychecks they could command)? Girlfriends, daughters, mothers, etc.? Wouldn’t it benefit everyone if women weren’t penalized for being women when it comes to monetarily valuing the work they do?

How can you not care?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Tyranny of Marriage

via Lara Pawson |  The Guardian:
I had never considered how marriage would change my place in the world. Before we even tied the proverbial knot, I became swiftly aware of discrimination against wives. A job in journalism I was up for suddenly became unavailable: a female manager called to say that now I was married she presumed that it would be difficult for me to be a foreign correspondent.

This was shocking, but the point I wish to make here concerns the privileges accorded to the wedded heterosexual couple. When you marry, you gain a certain unspoken gravitas, as though society heaves a collective sigh of relief: "Thank God they've grown up." Several husbands and wives actually said to me, albeit with a weary smile, "Join the club". Clink clink. And I soon discovered that marriage really is a club.

Being married pulls you into a new elite. It lends you an air of stability and reliability that singles and divorcees are denied. We assume that those who are unmarried probably have something just a teeny bit wrong with them because they have never managed to persuade another to settle down into that cosy unit of coupledom. This is the smug tyranny of husbands and wives.
What is it about marriage that makes people so smug? It's as if there's a relationship status caste system: Married heteros, engaged heteros (yes, somehow the mere promise to the world that you plan to marry results in a collective sigh of relief, perhaps that you're finally, almost, beginning to take life seriously) coupled heteros, single heteros, and then everyone else.

People talk in terms of 'my husband/wife,' 'my girlfriend/boyfriend/significant other,' and this to people who know the person by name and his or her relationship to the speaker. Such behavior seems a subconscious prioritizing of the speaker's possessiveness of the person in some way over that person's individuality and ownership over their own persons. Or perhaps it's more to depersonalize the individual of whom is spoken.

Such possessive language has always felt remarkably uncomfortable falling from my own tongue. I tend to avoid it to the point of allowing acquaintances unfamiliar with my relationship status to infer on their own my relationship with whomever it is I am speaking about, or force them to ask for clarification. I don't define myself by my relationships in that way, and would rather not be judged a part of some mythical hierarchy based on my luck in the romantic relationship world.

This article briefly captures a few of the reasons I find myself ambivalent about my impending legal knot-tying: it's not that I fear committing my life publicly to the co-conspirator, but that I am uncomfortable with all the assumptions and judgments society will next pass on me based solely on the "married" box having an X inside. A married woman is presumed to have certain priorities that have nothing to do with who she is outside of being married and regardless of being a woman. I will become, first and foremost, a married woman, a Mrs. (actually, I will continue to shun that salutation), and presumed to be interested in supporting my husband's wants and needs before my own. Let's face it, even in 2010 wives' wants and desires are presumed to be greatly superseded by those of their husbands. I will also be assumed to want to get right down to baby-making and family-raising, that those will be my only priorities, all the rest life has to offer be damned. After all, whatever else would be the point of becoming a smug-married?

Despite the ambivalence, why would I exercise a privilege denied to millions of people based on purely discriminatory reasons? I assume it will make things easier for us to navigate having children and owning things, as well as protect our rights and means should something happen to either of us, if we were a unified legal entity, but besides custody of our own children and ability to get onto each others' insurance plans, and, of course, making break-ups much more costly, why is marriage necessary?

I propose a new kind of personal union, one that retains the positive connotations of the term 'marriage,' as well as the legal, public commitment, but that sheds the negative baggage the term drags with it. Though, what to call it...

Monday, November 8, 2010

Born to Run

Having been laid up for a month with tendinitis caused me to shelf the book for a while because all you want to do while reading this is go out and run. I am very thankful for the minimalist shoe/barefoot running movement, since the lighter, thinner soled and more flexible shoes allow me to run much more comfortably than when I tried a decade ago with the bulkier shoes that were your only option then. Ironically, the most barefoot of the runners turned out to have the sorest feet at the end of the Tarahumara ultra, or so it was implied. I don't know if I'll ever be crazy enough to train to run an ultra, but it'd be great to get up to at least half-marathon status.

One thing that struck me about running - and this is focused on several times in the book - is how much calmer and happier I feel when I run regularly. I have been terrible at finding time and space to meditate since returning to the Midwest, and running seems to fill that void in some way. Once I finish the couch to 5K and 10K programs, perhaps I can run while listening to guided meditations. Not how you're technically supposed to meditate, but hey, it's better than not at all, right?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore is certainly a skilled and witty author, and while I mostly enjoyed the punny prose I wasn’t very enthralled with the novel itself. I can see how she is known for short stories, as the character vignettes are descriptive and humorous. The book seemed to be divided into three distinct parts, four if you count the strange Reynaldo affair. Much of the plot seemed unlikely to the point of unbelievability, and the main climax seemed to happen 2/3 through the book, based on an incident that was supposed to have occurred many years earlier.

(I have this thing with time lines, to the point of OCD, ask the co-conspirator. I have to know when things happened, in relation to other events (before or after) and I have to be able to plot the events on my mental time line. I don't know if it's the whole narrative bit of the memos I had to write in law school -- the only part of legal writing I remotely enjoyed -- or what. But this book meandered around and I couldn't even tell what season it was supposed to be, let alone month. The spring semester, with all the montages of passing weeks, seemed like it must have been about 8 months long.)

The awkwardness of all the characters was well-captured, and I did enjoy many parts of the book. None of the characters were necessarily likable other than mostly the narrator, and not one character seemed capable of breaking out of their shells of awkwardness to allow themselves the occasional happiness. Perhaps that comes later, after the novel ends. Overall, especially after the matter-of-fact climbing into a casket with a blown-up body (what the…), I can’t say I would necessarily recommend, other than to have a shared ‘what WAS that’ experience.

I will say that I enjoyed and appreciated Moore's writing style, and very much look forward to reading some of her other works, particularly Birds of America.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hello, my name is Z, and I am an Introvert

From Caring for Your Introvert - The Atlantic:
Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?

If so, do you tell this person he is "too serious," or ask if he is okay? Regard him as aloof, arrogant, rude? Redouble your efforts to draw him out?

If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you have an introvert on your hands—and that you aren't caring for him properly. Science has learned a good deal in recent years about the habits and requirements of introverts. It has even learned, by means of brain scans, that introverts process information differently from other people (I am not making this up). If you are behind the curve on this important matter, be reassured that you are not alone. Introverts may be common, but they are also among the most misunderstood and aggrieved groups in America, possibly the world.
It's true. I was recently called 'backwards' for not enjoying parties full of strangers, preferring instead to stay at home with a book and a cup of coffee. I was told I needed to 'break out of my shell;' that I'd regret all my alone time when friends and family died. (And apparently strangers, too, because I didn't go to that party, so I never got the chance to engage in awkward small talk about the weather. And now they're dead. With whom will I discuss traffic patterns now? -- Not to be callous. I'm sure they are lovely people.)
...If we introverts ran the world, it would no doubt be a calmer, saner, more peaceful sort of place. As Coolidge is supposed to have said, "Don't you know that four fifths of all our troubles in this life would disappear if we would just sit down and keep still?" (He is also supposed to have said, "If you don't say anything, you won't be called on to repeat it." The only thing a true introvert dislikes more than talking about himself is repeating himself.)

With their endless appetite for talk and attention, extroverts also dominate social life, so they tend to set expectations. In our extrovertist society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence, leadership. Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. "People person" is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like "guarded," "loner," "reserved," "taciturn," "self-contained," "private"—narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality. Female introverts, I suspect, must suffer especially. In certain circles, particularly in the Midwest, a man can still sometimes get away with being what they used to call a strong and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty.
That is clearly the perception.

Introverts aren't going around telling extroverts to 'retreat into their shell' or to spend much more time alone than they're comfortable with. We just ask for the same respect in return. Difference does not equal inferiority of deficiency. I'm tired of being told I need to change in some way.
...Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts' Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say "I'm an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush."

How can I let the introvert in my life know that I support him and respect his choice? First, recognize that it's not a choice. It's not a lifestyle. It's an orientation.

Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don't say "What's the matter?" or "Are you all right?"

Third, don't say anything else, either.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Author Equality

This bit in the Atlantic has been on my mind since the controversy that inspired it developed. I read the piece, I nodded in agreement, and then I checked my own reading history for the current year... Male authors were indeed ahead, by 4-5 books! How could that be? How is it that I, who identify with nearly all causes to raise the status of women to a level equal to that of men, who consider myself an adamant advocate of women's rights, and of raising awareness of important issues, how is it that I could have been so oblivious to my own culturally imposed gender biases?

Unfortunately, women weren't prevalent as authors for quite some time, so the wealth of 'literature' written by men seems to far outweigh women's literature. That, coupled with the fact that it may indeed be true that modern male authors get more - and better - press than female authors, and how does one find great women authors without stumbling up on them? This is not to in anyway discount the value and talent of male authors, but to raise awareness that women's books are often just as valid and interesting and relevant as work by men. The dismissive term "chick lit" does everyone a disservice. After all, it's not as if every book written by a man or written about "masculine" subjects is derisively referred to as "dick lit."

I am disheartened that my life co-conspirator finds reading books by women such a low priority that he scoffs at my suggestion, no matter how neutrally I try to state it. Is that how the majority feels?

UPDATE: It seems my LCC was harassed in college by young ladies that had not fully grasped the feminist texts they were touting, using them mainly to tell any male that disagreed with them on any point that he disagreed with them because he was sexist. It’s going to take a lot of work to reclaim feminism to mean equality and not male-bashing/hating.
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