Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dear Modern Life

Dear Modern Life,

You and I have to have a talk.  Not just any talk.  A relationship talk.

Obviously, I'm in this for the long haul: really, where else could I go?  So I'm taking the long view.  And I know you and I have had our ups and downs over the years -- both very intense.  We had some great moments over feminism, gay rights, and the internet.  Good times! 

There have been struggles that nearly destroyed my commitment to you, though.  A girl doesn't get over global poverty, local income inequality, and climate change without a certain amount of internal struggle.  At what point does "stand by your man" turn into making a doormat of yourself? 

Still, I realize that some problems are hard to solve, and all my friends will tell you I defend you often.  Indeed, they're probably tired of hearing me say, "Modern Life isn't so bad! Sure it's impossible to afford a reasonable apartment on the average working wage ... but what about feminism?  Gay rights? What about the internet?"

But you know what they say: it's not the big things that ruin a relationship, it's the little things.  And to tell you the truth, you're getting harder and harder to live with.  In particular:

Could you please be a little quieter?  What's with the constant racket? It's not like we're going to forget you're there!  I don't want to be listening to sexed up pop songs while I'm trying to shop for yogurt; I don't want to listen to the sounds of cellophane wrappers, mocha latte slurps, and constant chewing and lip smacking while I'm trying to study in the library; and I especially don't want to be assaulted by the 100 decibel sounds of those ridiculous new air-hand dryers!

Also, could you cool it with the inattentive driving?  Every time you cross the street these days you feel like a car is about to crash into you.  It's exhausting!

I know a lot of people have been on you about the whole gadget-connectivity-stupidity business lately, so I won't go into that now, except to say that this whole suggested connection between social networking, sharing, and open-mindedness ... well, who do you think you're fooling with that? I saw Mark Zuckerberg in the New Yorker suggesting that the more people put stuff on their Facebook pages, like the fact that they're gay or whatever, the more open and tolerant our society will be.  You think we haven't noticed that the more information people have about others, the more intolerant they are?  I don't know if this is some kind of bait-and-switch or what you got going on with that, but let me just say, I am onto you, Mister.

I know it's not easy being you, but it's not easy being me either.  We're stuck with each other for now so hey, work with me a little, will you?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Man or Wife? Dilemmas In The Female Reading Experience

Who knew the image results for half man half woman would include so many Halloween costumes?  Not me.
A woman with an interesting job, who's involved in the world, and who lives in the modern post-sexual-revolution world, faces a difficulty in identifying with the characters of any but the most contemporary novels.

It's not hard to see how this happens.  You can identify with the female characters, and for a certain range of contexts that works:  you can identify with being a daughter, with receiving male callers, with the timeless weird expectations of feminine passivity and caring.  But at some point identifying with female characters becomes impossible.  Their lives are structured around the expectation of marriage and childbirth.  After a certain time in life female characters have one of three things happen to them.

1)  They're absorbed by marriage and children; their concerns are now inscribed in a circle of intimacy.

2)  They're unmarried; their unmarriedness is now a striking and awful burden, rendering them objects of pity.

3) They're in a convent or something with a religious, non-family, non-sexual life.

Obviously, these options bypass most of us completely.  Most married women with kids still work, which means they have a public life:  a life out in the world with all the hassles, drama, and pride that entails.

In a huge amount of pre-contemporary literature, it's only men who have this sort of public life.  So you identify with the male characters, and for a certain range of contexts that works.  Indeed, the male characters often confront the puzzles and dilemmas we all confront now:  those of public life, but also those of the clashes between that life and the needs of one's intimates.

But at some point identifying with the male characters becomes difficult too.  For one thing, men have wives; for another, other men respond to them completely differently than they respond to women.  For me, identifying with the male characters gets harder as I get older:  being a middle-aged woman is just not like being a middle-aged man.

So you kind of go back and forth.  And it's this kind of back and forth that gives being female that weird kind of double-aspect, that two-sided quality.  You're a person, so there's that, but then you're a woman, which is somehow different.  It's kind of exhausting. 

I was reminded of this recently because I was reading Jennifer Egan's (very contemporary) book Look at Me, and there's a scene in the beginning with two teenage girls and their difficulties with sex.  They want to have sex.  First they try having sex with boys, but the boys have no idea what to do to make it pleasant or satisfying for them.  Then they try having sex with men, but it's creepy and weird:  the men are married and want to get it over with as quickly as possible and get home.  Then they try having sex with guys, like college guys, but that doesn't work so great either:  they guys are too drunk; they're distracted; they're more interested in impressing one another than actually interacting with girls.

Wow, I thought.  Whatever else you want to say, you just don't get that kind of depiction of actual modern girlhood ... well, anywhere really.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Drudgery and the Good Life: Questions In The Philosophy of Alcott and Montgomery

I've always thought of Louisa May Alcott and L. M. Montgomery as philosophical novelists.  Alcott is more obvious, maybe less subtle about it:  in books like Little Women the wiser are always counseling the less wise in ways clearly directed at the rest of us, and the less wise are always geting into trouble for not following wise counsel.  Montgomery is more subtle and more complex:  the Anne of Green Gables books do have that same wise-not-wise-counsel stuff, but they also have a kind of funny randomness and unpredictability.  Montgomery doesn't seem committed, as Alcott is, to the belief that if you just approach what is happening in your life with the proper spirit it will be less sucky.  In Montgomery books, somtimes life just sucks.

One theme that is big in both authors is the importance of caring for others, and the ways in which caring for other people will enrich your own life.  Interestingly, both pursue this theme partly through reflection on adoptions of various kinds.  Of course, Anne's own adoption is the main thing in the Green Gables books, and the main thing about it is the way it alters and improves the lives and the souls of the brother and sister who have adopted her.  In Little Men (the sequel to Little Women), Jo opens a school and takes in various abandoned boys to raise and care for alongside the regular pupils.  In other Alcott novels, taking care of children that are not yours is treated as an obvious thing to do, something tending toward the happiness of everyone involved.  And late in the Green Gables series, one of Anne's children has to decide whether to take in an orphaned infant to care for as her own, even though at sixteen years old all she wants to think about is what color ribbons she wants to wear to the next gathering.  Naturally, she decides to take in the infant; naturally she comes to adore him and is completely happy with her choice.

It's a nice message: caring for others is the way to happiness.

But this is not a simple message to carry over from their world to our world.  Consider.  Who is changing all those kids' diapers?  Who is doing their laundry?  Who is cleaning up their dishes?  Who is making sure they have lunch at school?

The answer to all these questions is THE HIRED HELP.  Even though none of the families in the relevant books is in any way rich, they all have help:  women who work for the family and do the washing, the cooking, the darning, the scrubbing the floors -- even the nose-wiping, the infant feeding, and the nagging.

It seems to me this complicates the idea that caring for others is the way to happiness.  Sure, if someone else is doing all the boring dirty work, I'm sure singing lullabies, reading stories, and giving wise counsel is pretty life affirming stuff.  But that's just the nice part of caring for someone.  The hard part of caring for someone is the drudgery:  the shopping, the food preparation, the endless boring tasks that life just requires. 

Now I'm willing to believe that doing these things is Good, but the ticket to happiness, really?  Certainly no one is holding up the servants as examples of the Life Well Lived.  In fact, and weirdly, in these kinds of books no one discusses the emotional life of the help.  When you think about it, the existence of "help" complicates many of the themes of these books.  There's often a kind of "if you are industrious and good you'll go far" kind of thing, but what if the cook is industrious and good? She doesn't go anywhere.

The fact that someone else is doing all the crummy parts in these books, it seems to me, undercuts the simple theme that the ticket to well-being is to surround yourself with dependents.  The question, then, is how we should interpret Alcott and Montgomery's idea in a modern world without servants.

Is it that drudgery isn't so bad, and doing laundry at 10:00 pm, as many working moms do, is not so sucky, if you just approach it in the proper spirit, like a wise person would?  Is it that there are ways of caring for people that don't require taking over the drudgery parts, and we should do more of those?  Is the idea essentially yoked to a system in which only one person works outside the home?

We need a modern Alcott and a modern Montgomery, so they can help us figure it out.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Adulthood Isn't Independence, And It Doesn't Require A Nissan Quest Minivan, Either

 There are a lot of things to be annoyed by in the recent New York Times article on the way 20-somethings are dithering and delaying their progress toward "adulthood."  But the most annoying is the way adulthood is assumed to consist primarily in independence and the pursuit of a middle-class suburban lifestyle.

The author mentions early on a sociological definition of adulthood in terms of milestones.  On this view, your adulthood is scored on how many of the following five things you've done:  completed school, left home, become financially independent, married, and had a kid.

It's a weird list right on the face of it, no?  Obviously having marriage and kids on there is really peculiar:  many people will never do these things, just by choice; if you're gay, you might even find the law trying to prevent you from achieving them.  Leaving school is a bit more plausible, but not totally.  If you go back to school to change careers this is surely not a sign of immaturity.

The article points out early on that people don't march in lock stop toward these five things anymore, and then explores why and how modern 20-somethings are generally avoiding them.  Kids are staying at home, and moving back home, of course.  They're taking a long time to decide what they want to do in life.  When they don't live at home, they often travel, and move from living in one place to living in another.  They delay marriage and family.

But really, what's so bad about these things?  Indeed, from one point of view they seem to me admirable.  It's admirable to want to see a bit of a different kind of life before settling into the kind of life you're going to live for the rest of your existence, and it's admirable to want to think carefully about what life path would be best.  Many of these young people are wrestling with questions like to what extent their life should involve good works and to what extent they should be selfish -- surely a difficult matter on which the messages they receive from the culture around them are deeply ambivalent.

Now if you're a parent, you might be annoyed by your kids depending on you, and that is totally understandable.  But beyond that, what is the issue here?  There's nothing "non-adult" about wanting to travel, kick around, and do different things.  Lots of adults are dying to do the same thing.  Really, there's nothing non-adult about any of these things, once you let go of the idea that adulthood has to consist in independence and family life.

And this, I believe, is where the mistake is.   What is up with the fetish for independence?  What is it with this idea that seems to permeate modern discussions of relationships, politics, mental health, that somehow independence is the be-all and end all?   Life is tough.  That's why people band together in groups to help one another out.  That's why families take care of one another.  Dependence on other people -- emotional, practical, financial -- is the norm of life.  It's not an exception, it's not an illness to be treated, and it's not a sign of childishness.  It might be slightly better to think in terms of inter-dependence -- adulthood correlating with being able to help out, in addition to being helped out -- but really, do you want to say that people who are physically disabled are somehow less "adult"? Doesn't seem right.

And obviously, adulthood should not by definition involve marriage, children, cars, dogs, houseplants, or sofas.

Definition-wise, we can surely do better.  Why not look to internal markers rather than external ones?  Just off the top of my head, two things come to mind.  Adulthood -- or, at least, maturity -- has to do with thinking for yourself and it has to do with being able to take other people and their needs and desires into consideration.  Intellectual and moral adulthood.

As a university professor, I see young people all the time, and interestingly, I'd say there is some cause for optimism on the moral maturity front.  Young people are thinking about others; they'd like the suffering of the world to disappear; they'd like to be able to help out others more without having to worry so much about their own futures and what those hold.  The same behaviors that are immature on the standard definition could be signs of maturity on this one:  people find it hard to figure how they ought to live in the world.

It's on the thinking for yourself front that I'm a little worried.  Thinking for yourself is work, and it's often difficult, and if you're used to just absorbing information, it can be a real pain.  If you're worried about the effects of the new kinder, gentler, parenting, or the effects of endless "self-esteem" praise, or the effects of huge classrooms on young people, the thing to be worried about isn't so much whether the kids are ready to pick out and pay for living room furniture by the time they're 25; the thing to be worried about is whether they believe everything they read on the fucking internet, or find in a textbook, or see on TV, or hear from their friends.