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Showing posts from August, 2011

An Historic Duel

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"Allez!"
My first bout with my son in some years.
My, how he's grown!  And his arm is so strong.  And his parry (still!) so crisp.
Trying not to get all wistful here.

How to Be a Bad Listener

1.  Focus on your own feelings about what your friend or colleague or partner or student or child is talking about rather than on what he or she is saying about how he or she feels.  Take every opportunity to think about how what you are hearing says something about yourself.

2.  Allow your own feelings about what you are hearing to interfere with what the speaker is trying to say.  Defend yourself immediately against these feelings by making what the speaker is saying somehow about you rather than about him- or herself.  Start arguing about whose perception of the situation is correct.  If this doesn't work, counterattack, e.g. by making the speaker feel guilty for having the feelings that he or she has expressed.

3.  Presume that you know what the speaker really means before he or she stops talking (or you interrupt).  Presume that the speaker knows you understand what he or she has said without checking to be sure (e.g. by asking questions for clarification or paraphrasing back…

A Plea for Morality and the Liberal Arts

"In the Old Testament we read that for the table of shewbread a golden crown was skillfully wrought [Exodus 25:23-25].  This signifies that we should cultivate eloquence, an active mind, chastity, fear of God, prudence, and virtues of every kind.  The table of shewbread ornamented with gold stands for the man who is crowned king because he is eminent in word and deed.  But today rusticity is mingled with learning in active and in contemplative life.  The muses are silent, confounded, repelled, as if numbed by the sight of Medusa.  But why, you ask?  If you are a real scholar you are thrust out in the cold.  Unless you are a money-maker, I say, you will be considered a fool, a pauper.  The lucrative arts, such as law and medicine, are now in vogue, and only those things are pursued which have a cash value."

--John of Garland, Morale scolarium (1241), chapter 1, paraphrased by Louis John Paetow (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1927), pp. 154-55.

I ask you, plus ça ch…

Sense and (In)Sensitivity: A Delphic Duologue

"Norma [Lady Harte] and Rosemary [the recently-widowed Mrs. Clement Kane] were the sole occupants of the drawing-room, Sir Adrian [Norma's husband] having drifted away to the library. When Jim [Kane] and Patricia [Miss Allison] came in through the French windows Norma [Jim's mother by her first husband, James Kane, who was killed in the Great War] was seated bolt upright at a card-table, energetically playing a complicated Patience [i.e. Solitaire], and telling Rosemary at the same time how much happier she would be if she found an Object in life.

"Rosemary was quite in agreement with this, but explained that her Russian blood made it impossible for her to remain constant to any one Object for longer than a few months at a stretch.

"'My dear girl, don't talk nonsense to me!' said Norma bracingly. 'You're lazy, that's all that's wrong with you. Why don't you take up social work?'

"'I don't think my …

Home Truths

I feel scared when I think someone is angry at me and will fight back by getting angry myself.

I feel anxious when others express uncomfortable emotions, particularly if I am involved in some way.

I find empathizing with others difficult and frightening.

I hate fights. Fights (I am convinced) mean something is going to end, and so I panic and try to run away first. If I can't run away, I cry and/or try to puff myself up, like a dog raising her hackles or a bullfrog threatening to explode.

I believe that if I were really a grown-up, I would never get angry or lose my temper. That I do proves that I am still a child.

I like to think that I am particularly sensitive to others’ emotions, but in fact I’m not very good at reading other people because I tend to assume that they don’t like me or wouldn’t if they really knew how childish I am.

Magical Thinking

If I were thin...

I would wear sleeveless shirts, spaghetti-strap dresses and long, flowing skirts over perfect ankles and soft feet.

My hair would be long and smooth, not frizzy and impossible to style.  My face would be sweet, gentle and loving, wrinkled in smiles, not coarsened with fear and age.

I would live in a big three-story house with a wrap-around porch, big windows and hardwood floors, lots of light and space, cool with breezes in the summer and warm with crackling fires in the winter.

I would spend my mornings sitting in my upstairs library-office, writing exquisite prose, novels and essays and translations of great spiritual texts; the afternoons walking in the park with my dog; and the evenings entertaining friends with wine and music and sparkling conversation.

I would be elegant and poised, graceful and calm, quiet and serene.

I would be a real athlete, strong and self-assured, able to concentrate perfectly, move powerfully and precisely, gliding through space.

I would…

The Great God Busyness

I am spending today lying on the couch, reading mystery novels by Georgette Heyer and how-not-to-feel-bad-about-being-fat books by Geneen Roth. I know that this is wrong, that I should be doing something else, but I can't help it. I'm tired. I'm listless. It's raining outside and I don't really want to move.

It would be better if I were busy. Being busy is a great excuse for pretty much everything. "Sorry, I can't help you, I'm busy." "No, I don't have time to talk on the phone with you, I'm busy today." "Let's get together when we're not so busy." But heaven forbid if you're just not feeling like getting together or helping or talking on the phone. Then you're just rude. Or selfish.

And yet, I feel like I should be busy. It is wrong not to want to be doing something. "Go outside. Do something. Do anything other than sit on your butt reading, for goodness' sake!" Whose voice…

August Afternoon

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No Ordinary Life

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It's my father's fault, really.  He always used to say, "You three kids are so smart.  If you would just put your heads together, you could make a million dollars."  He was never very specific about how, exactly, we were supposed to make this million, but it generally included something along the lines of writing/acting/movie making.  He was trying to be encouraging, I think.  But, not yet having made our million--nor, indeed, put our heads together about anything since his 60th birthday party--it's hard not to feel that we've somehow missed our chance.

But at what?  I write (here, but also in an academic context); my brother writes novels as well as lectures and blogs; my sister works as a script supervisor.  We might have the talents to make something spectacular, but spectacular is not (necessarily) what makes millions.  Pop is.  The real question is, do we want to be pop?  Or, indeed, famous?  You know that I've struggled with this one over the past c…

Note to Subscribers

What can I say?  The fat went to my head.  Normal service will resume shortly.  With a wiser and (hopefully) more temperate bear.

Thank you for bearing with me!

The Secret Ingredient is Mine!

I've figured out what it is.  Not talent (but then I knew that all along).  Not time (at least, not time as such).  Not [fill in the blank with some other difficult-to-acquire something].  Rather (and listen closely, because this is really important), it is the willingness to be absorbed in practice to the exclusion of everything else.

How Zen, you say.  But it's true.  The secret ingredient to excellence is the willingness to surrender ourselves to practice without attachment to outcome.   Duh.  Talk about having the magic slippers on my feet the whole time.  This felt like a much more startling insight when it came to me on Sunday as I was typing out that entry from my diary about how fat I felt and came to the part where I mentioned not practicing drawing enough.  I was right, I didn't practice.  Why?  Because I always wanted everything to be effortless, of course.  And if it weren't?  I would give up.  Why?  Because, as much as I enjoyed drawing, I enjoyed having d…

The Real Reason Why Americans (and Everyone Else Who Watches American-style Mass Media) Are So Fat

Yes, I have a theory about this, too.  You know the usual argument: people (especially women) who watch American-style mass media feel bad about themselves because, as they are watching, they implicitly (or explicitly) compare themselves to the people they see projected on screen and when they don't measure up, they eat out of frustration at not being as beautiful (i.e. skinny) as they wish they were.

Perhaps.  Certainly, if you listen to what the characters in the television shows, movies, and advertisements say to and about each other, you will get the impression that they all think that being thin is better.  Indeed, the thinner the better.  And yet, what are we really seeing when we watch, e.g. Dana Delaney as Dr. Megan Hunt intervening on behalf of the young woman whom her bartender boss is forcing to starve?  Two (or three, actually--Dr. Hunt's boss, even thinner, gets in on the conversation, too) incredibly thin women talking about how one of them needs to eat more.

Our…

The Sacred Power of Fat

"The principle may be put thus: according to primitive psychology, organic matter and, to some extent, inorganic also, is instinct with a Divine force or vital essence....  This essence, with its gifts of life or strength, and magical or supernatural power, is transmissible by various methods, primarily contact.  Inasmuch as its most obvious and convenient source is the flesh and blood of men and animals, the most direct method of assimilation is provided by eating and drinking; but an equally certain method is external application--a method which, in the form of anointing, is peculiarly adapted to the case of fats and oils.  Unction is thus based upon the same sacramental principle as the practice of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of sacred persons and animals.  The Divine life is transmitted, and communion with the sacred source attained, by anointing the worshipper with the sacred essence. Fat is the most primitive unguent, and is regarded in early thought as a very i…

Plus-Size Sexy

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Perhaps, after all, there's hope if Glamour can publish such a celebration of female beauty. But do you notice something? These women aren't just beautiful.  They are really, truly, deeply sexy.  More so than any rail-thin "straight-size" (what a euphemism!) fashion victim could ever be.  Which may be a problem.

Because, you see, our culture has a problem with sex.  Sure, we're (men and women both) supposed to want to be sexy, but it is very unclear whether we are supposed to want to have sex.  We are also extremely uncomfortable with being naked.

Thus, I argue, our cultural obsession with thinness: thin people can never actually be naked--not even in the tiniest bikini or thong--because they do not have bodies as such.  Sure, they can move and breathe, but they don't have any actual flesh to uncover when they take off their clothes.  Nothing to be embarrassed about, sure, but nothing to show, either.  Thus it is, paradoxically, okay to show their skinny no…

Where's Fatso?

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Okay, okay, I know thisis gettingtedious.  But it is an essential part of the decluttering that I've been doing: decluttering not only my physical space, but also my mental space of the junk that I have carried around with me for so many years.

Remember that Toni reminded me I was going to Europe in 10 weeks and that I needed to lose weight so that I wouldn't be fat?  Well, I didn't lose the weight (I may have even gained some--I was a champion binger* in those days), but I did go with my sister on the trip to Europe, our first, with a group of fellow high schoolers.  Most of the pictures that I took on that trip (recently reviewed in the course of the decluttering) were of the sights that we saw, but in the album that I kept there are occasional photos of people, including this one taken by one of our teachers (I think; he put it up recently on his Facebook page, which is where I got the digital copy).  Both I and my sister are in the photo.  She, at the time, was wonderf…

Myself to Myself, Age 16 (and “Fat")

Friday, March 27 [1981]

Dear Toni [i.e. Dear Diary--but I wrote to "Toni"],

Rachel: Ask me what I did today.
Tony [sic]: I'll bite.  What did you do today, Rachel?
R: I failed--again.
T: How?
R: I binged on peanut butter, cheese and raisins.
T: How badly?
R: I'm not sure; 3 boxes of raisins (1 serv. boxes), about 15 slices of American cheese, 3 or 4 huge globs of PB.
T: Why?  Do you want to be fat forever?
R: No, of course not.  It's a nervous habit, like smoking.  If I'm not bingeing on food, I'm chewing--and twirling--gum and guzzling diet cokes and decaffeinated coffee.  I had a huge B.M. today, but my stomach is as pouched [sic] out as it ever was, and I weigh 132 [pounds] as of this morning.
T: You've got to stop.  It can't go on another day--another second.  There's only one way to quit.
R: How?  I've tried everything--fasting, diet pills, prayer, diuretics, gum, diet drinks, Weight Watchers, swimming, tears, oaths.
T: No, you haven…

How to Reach Your Ideal Weight Instantly--In Five Easy Steps

Caution: These steps must be followed to the letter.  No exceptions.
Throw out your bathroom scales.  NOW.  No, I mean it, right now.  Don't weigh yourself "just to check."  Throw.  Them.  Out.  Including the spiffy BMI ones you have hiding under the dresser.  And the spare set in the closet.  NOW.Throw out (or donate) any clothes that you have that don't fit, whether because they are too big or too small.  Keep only the clothes that look fabulous on you right now.  Pay especial attention to what colors look good on you and wear those.Throw out (do not donate--we don't want to spread the virus) any books or videos that you have that imply that you should be any other weight than you are right now.  This means all diet books, all cookbooks that celebrate anything other than the great taste of food, all exercise books that suggest that there is any reason to exercise other than to be in shape (and, yes, round is a shape).  Being thin is not equivalent to being in sh…

Generations of Fat

It's August, which means it's time to worry about my weight--again.  Yes, I know I've written about this before, and every time I've promised myself I was going to stop worryingabout it.  But it's there, lurking, waiting to get at me if I let my guard down.

Why should this be?  I've read lots and lots of answers over the years, but curiously, every woman writing about it seems to think that it is a problem peculiar to her generation.  Thus Courtney E. Martin, in Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body (2007), written when she was 25: "Our mothers had the luxury of aspiring to be 'good,' but we have the ultimate goal of 'effortless perfection.'"  Well, I was old enough in 2007 to have been Martin's mother (just--if I had had a baby at age 17), and let me tell you, I somehow missed that luxury.  The goal of perfection was our goal, too, back in the 1970s.  It is hardly as "new" as…

Bears on Deck

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My Fifteen Minutes

Or thereabouts.  Talking about history with Milt Rosenberg, Constantin Fasolt and Robert Bucholz last night on WGN Extension 720.

Oh, this is a lot of attention for a very shy bear!  It's taken me all day to come down from the anxiety.

Please be gentle with your comments, I'm not used to having my voice broadcast in quite this way.

Like Mother, Like Corgi

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You know how they say people come to resemble their pets? Well, then there's me and the Dragon Baby...
We're both nervous when meeting new people. She barks; I, well, sometimes I might bark a little bit. Or try to be more impressive than maybe I feel.Neither of us likes loud music. She tries to run away; I just feel anxious and wish I were somewhere, anywhere else. Which means, you guessed it, we're not going to Lollapalooza this week. Oh, well.We both like games of reflex. She, balls that she catches in mid-air; me, hitting people with pointy sticks. Same game, really.We both like concentrating really hard on things that other people might find insignificant, like bugs, or obscure Latin texts. We can concentrate for hours and hours and..."Squirrel!" Oh, okay, maybe not hours.We're both stubborn and constantly testing the limits of the rules that others have set. Of course, I'm right when I want us to walk or for her to keep out of the flowerbed…

The Provost's Shilling

I am (and have been for some time now) in two distinct minds about my employer.

On the one hand, it would seem that I should be nothing if not consummately loyal for having a job in the first place.  After all, my university hired me when I was but a graduate student, only just finishing my doctoral degree.  They took a risk on me when I had not yet proven myself tenurable, and they tenured me--a great vote of confidence in the work that I had done and in the promise that they believed I showed for future research.  And besides, I (we) have great (and I do mean phenomenallygreat) students where I teach.  I love teaching, and I love teaching our students.  I should be proud to be associated with my university, wear its livery and take its shilling for my service.

On the other hand, it would seem that my employer wants nothing more than for me to be looking elsewhere for positions, to be constantly courting that "outside offer" that will guarantee me promotion and status far b…