Where I'm Coming From

My Photo
Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Monday, July 31, 2006

The Trouble with Unhappiness

I read this on my way to yoga class: “Meditation, yoga, acupuncture, magnets, herbs, and aromatherapy are all variations on the placebo principle. They bring patients to ‘a state of weakened rational activity, filling the emptiness in their lives with romantic notions and grabbing hold of them with useless substances,’” in a Wilson Quarterly review of a book called Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class, by Ronald Dworkin, a practicing doctor with a Ph.D. in political philosophy. I bought the book right away. I’m a pessimist. This is not a quality that I like very much in myself, but I find it useful; you’re disappointed much less often when you don’t expect good things to happen to you. I tend to see the dark side of almost anything and agree wholeheartedly with Hobbes’ that “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” I find it almost impossible to reconcile myself to the imperfection and uncertainty that are the constants of human life; I don’t believe happiness is possible in the presence of imperfection and uncertainty (as my husband, for example, does). So I dove into Dworkin’s book head first, greedy for evidence that happiness of any kind is an illusion.

I was disappointed at first by his prose. It reads to me like an undergraduate’s research paper. He harps on the same few ideas; he beats you over the head with his thesis, which is that Americans rely on pills to induce in their minds a state of artificial happiness that is entirely disconnected from the facts of their lives. Husbands and wives stay in bad marriages, fearing financial ruin or solitude if they divorce, and anesthetize themselves to the misery of living with a person they cannot get along with by taking antidepressants. Their lives suck, they admit, but that doesn’t trouble them any more. Unhappiness has ceased to be, for these people, a sign that they have to take stock of what’s happening in their lives and make changes. Rather, Dworkin writes, it has become a disease to be treated by popping pills the way you would treat a toothache.

I’m with Dworkin so far. But he gets stuck in this jeremiad. He keeps berating people who look for the easy way out of their unhappiness without exploring the reasons they do it; to him, it’s simply laziness. He doesn’t consider that unhappiness is a complicated state of mind, and that taking the easy way out is a way to cope with a situation for which, as I see it, there’s no long-term solution. To me unhappiness is like slow metabolism, a chronic condition you are stuck with and cannot cure even after years of doing the hard work. I struggle with pessimism and unhappiness every single day. It’s one of the reasons I take yoga. It’s one of the reasons I cannot easily dismiss therapies that rely on the placebo effect. I dislike very viscerally the approach of drugging yourself into a state of not caring about what’s going on in your life. At the same time, I have to acknowledge how painful it is to be aware of your condition as a human being, of the limitations of your reason and your emotions, of the narrowness of your understanding of other human beings and of the world around you. I don’t think it is possible to have that awareness of yourself and be happy. And I don’t think it’s possible not to wish very desperately to be happy in spite of all that.

Perhaps yoga does work on the placebo effect. I started practicing it to keep fit; it’s the only form of exercise I have been able to stick with for several years. Very slowly I became interested in yoga philosophy, but it hasn’t taught me anything more harmful than to be breathe deeply and stay calm (both of which enable me to make more balanced decisions in moments of crisis), and to expect results only after long, committed practice. It hasn’t filled my life with empty romantic notions. It has taught me that going with the flow is sometimes better than trying to fight what is happening to me. I’ve thought about the ethical implications of this approach, and I do not like all of them. I don’t want to go with the flow when innocent people are harmed and discriminated against, when policies are being enforced that destroy the planet on whose resources we depend. But I do want to go with the flow when I’m stuck in traffic and can do nothing to change the situation, when I have to deal yet again with my mother questioning my choice to become a vegan. In those cases I don’t think unhappiness is of any use to me.

Dr. Dworkin seems to think that unhappiness is always useful, and that eliminating it by methods other than philosophy and psychotherapy is a cop-out. He doesn’t acknowledge that there are things that make us unhappy that we can do nothing about, and that this is a situation extremely difficult to live with. He has no sympathy for people who fumble about looking for ways to work out what troubles them, for people who do not have the inclination and time for philosophy or the money for therapy. I appreciate the work he’s trying to do; it is important work. But I don’t think you can do it with the kind of black-and-white and faintly contemptuous attitude about unhappiness that I see on every page of his book.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Old and New

For three days men in orange jumpsuits and hardhats have been trimming the eucalyptus trees near our apartment. Chainsaws whirred and whined for hours on end; the air, heavy with heat and damp, smelled sharply of sap and living wood. A bulldozer clamped in its jaws the severed limbs of the trees; crows wheeled overhead searching for lost nests. I don't like crows -- their hysterical cawing wakes me up at five in the morning; they rummage through the garbage bins scattering oily hamburger wrappers over the sidewalks -- but now I feel sorry for them. They have no home to return to except these cropped trunks, these stumps so bare against the summer sky.

No home to go to, no certainties, no familiar places to rest -- this is how my mind has felt for the past few weeks. Every once in a while I get put out of my own thoughts, out of the things I think I've learned and know well. But the truth is that the path back home is getting easier the more I travel it. Reading unfailingly helps. The poems of Hayden Carruth, rough and sturdy as tree bark; a short sensuous novel by Jeanette Winterson whom I've listened to on Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason and now have a crush on; and Julia Glass's latest book, crisp and entrancingly old-fashioned, the modern woman's Dickens I'd say if I wasn't so unsure of my judgment these days.

Thank God for reading. Viginia Woolf knows what I'm talking about: “I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards – their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble – the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’”

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Grateful Saturday

I woke up dazed and irritable this morning. I'd dreamed about my old job at the law school and about my boss from back then who behaved towards me with a distressing combination of clinginess and coldness. I sat on the edge of the bed for a few minutes trying to bring myself back into my life as it is now. But I didn't succeed. My stomach growled strangely as it used to with anguish before I had to go to work, my vision was blurred, making coffee seemed a Sisyphean task, and I wanted to have a big bucket of greasy fries for breakfast.

I haven't recovered several hours later, despite a hot cup of lemon tea and reading the new issue of Glimmer Train, so I must stop, I must stop and take stock of what's happening, I must give myself a time-out and the punishment of writing down all the things in my life that I should be grateful for, the many, many reasons why my indulging in this self-pitying, angry mood is simply stupid. So here goes my list of good things that I forget almost every day to be grateful for. It is so hard to begin.

1) Physical health. Limbs and fingers and toes, lungs that breathe and heart that beats, eyes that see and ears that hear, a brain with all the right chemicals in the right balance.

2) Bookshelves stuffed with books, and bookstores and libraries. Pen and paper. A computer. A little space in this great web of images and voices to say whatever I want without fear. This enormous luxury of understanding words, of being able to read them and write them, of being able to learn new ones in any language I want to.

3) Parents who are alive and healthy and with whom I get along. A sister who surprises me with her courage and intelligence. A good, good life partner, with whom the question of love is a simplistic, irrelevant one, because what we're building goes further, much further than that.

4) The hundreds of mornings I've spent in solitude and silence working on the one thing that matters most to me. And learning (from In The Actors Studio guest Dustin Hoffman) that failure is not the worst thing that can happen to you; that the worst that can happen is committing the sin of settling for what's safe and comfortable, never taking a risk, never pushing yourself into that terrifying place where truths are discovered. Mary Oliver: "All my life/I have been restless/I have felt there is something/more wonderful than gloss/than wholeness/than staying at home."

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Self Portrait As Crane

This is a yoga pose that seemed impossible to me when I started practicing. It seems like a small miracle to me every time I get into it in my practice these days. There's a yoga sutra that teaches the correct way to practice yoga: for a long period of time, without interruption, with full dedication, and without concern for the results of the practice. I can't say that this sutra is very encouraging. For me it's counterintuitive not to think about the results of my practice, in yoga or anything else. But I do see the value of being present in the moment of doing something, so present that the past and the future, what you've accomplished and what you haven't yet accomplished, become irrelevant. I'm working towards this: to think of the effort as an end in itself, independent of what the fruit of that effort is. It's enough work to last a few lifetimes.

Monday, July 10, 2006


A trim handsome black man smiled broadly from the book’s dark blue cover. His teeth were dazzling, his cheekbones beautifully sculpted; he wore an impeccably ironed light blue shirt. The book was about a clever new method to change your body and your life forever. The author had an M.D. after his name. And I thought, how strange that they shouldn’t put a photo of the author on the cover but of one of the people who had changed his life after reading the book.

The next second my mind clicked into self-focus. Why couldn’t the man on the cover be the author of the book?

I read just weeks ago in Scientific American about a psychological study that seeks to identify unconscious prejudice. Even people who make a conscious sustained effort not to be prejudiced can on a subconscious level still subscribe to a black=bad, white=good way of seeing the world. I dismissed the study; I was annoyed that psychology had found yet another thing wrong with the human mind. It wasn’t real, I told myself. Either you’re prejudiced or you’re not – both in a conscious, deliberate way.

But there I was, staring at a book with a black man on its cover, assuming instinctively that this black man on the cover could not be the author of the book because in my mind being black makes you unlikely to become a doctor.

I feel compelled to defend myself, to explain away this slip of judgment. But the truth is that there must be some association in my mind, however feeble, between being white and being a doctor or lawyer or university professor; that on a deep level of which I wasn’t aware before I think that black people who become doctors and lawyers and university professors do so against all odds and are atypical, not representative of their race. I want to say that I’m sorry for thinking like this. But I don’t think that saying sorry will do any good. The only thing I can say in my own defense is that I’m no longer ignorant of my prejudice, however faint, however deeply buried in my psyche, against black people.

My grandfather told me, some years ago when he first came to America to visit us, that he has only one thing to ask of me, and that is that I do not marry a black man. I was mortified but didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to, and what’s more I didn’t know how to, argue with him, how to prove to him that what he was asking was ridiculous and stupid and demeaning to himself and to me as much as to black people. I’m afraid that next time I’m given the chance, I will remain quiet again, I will not stand up for what I believe to be right. And I don’t know what to do about that.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Thank You, Jane Austen

When I was in Portland I visited a cousin who's in his early forties and whom his mother has tried (unsuccessfully) to marry off for many years. He is a solitary man, finicky and withdrawn; for a while he was a Christian so committed to the faith that he occasionally slipped into fanaticism. I didn't look forward to seeing him, but I went for my father's sake; my father is a great believer in family loyalty. To my surprise, my cousin and I had a long stimulating conversation. I found out that he's interested in Tibet and Buddhism, that he doesn't think church is the only place where you can worship God, and also that he would like to start a family some day. "But it's hard," he said, "to find someone who will give you your space, you know?" All the couples he knew at his church were controlled by the women, he added; the men were under the tyranny of their wives.

I was flabbergasted. All my education and my experience has trained me to be watchful about women being controlled by men, never the other way around. So it never occurred to me that men had concerns about their own independence and freedom. What about the patriarchy? What about the political and social and sexual oppression of women for hundreds of years? Of course the first thing I asked Husband when I got home was if he thought my cousin had a point or was simply paranoid. Husband said, looking at me as if I was asking a silly question, "Well, think of the novels of Jane Austen." I could hardly believe my ears. I laughed with glee and a not altogether wholesome sense of victory. So Jane is among us, I thought. Whenever yee shall gather in my name.... "In Jane Austen's novels women are always in charge," Husband said. "Even if it appears otherwise, the women are the ones who pull the strings from behind the scenes." A lightbulb went off in my head then. You can think of the oppression of women as motivated, at bottom, by fear, and of patriarchy as a defense tactic.

It's hard to believe sometimes that my everyday life offers me such delicious, perfect segues, but it just so happens that only last week I finished reading The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler for my July book club meeting. The book is quite good and improves on second reading; it's more whimsical, thought-provoking and funny. I will allow myself only one rant about the discussion at the book club meeting, and it is this: I think I will become physically violent if I ever again hear someone say, with a grimace of disgust and disappointment on her face, "Oh, this book was all right but not very uplifting." I'm going to hate the word uplifting for the rest of my life. It seems that the average reader cannot tolerate characters who do not pull themselves up by their bootstraps by the end of the story; they cannot intellectually digest quirkiness, complex motivations, inner contradictions. One woman in the book club complained that all Jane Austen characters are obsessed with money and she doesn't see the point of that. Another woman said acridly that she felt sorry for the women in Jane Austen's books because they had nothing to do all day, and sorry for the men because they were so terrified that they might have to work for a living that they had to resort to marry rich. Deep breaths, I told myself. I'm not coming back here, I told myself. But I will, just for one more discussion. I don't know if it is out of loyalty that I'm doing it, or out of masochism.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Back to Two

I've been beset by doubts about writing the last few days, the purpose and point and use of it. I kept asking myself questions that have no answer and feeling stupid and sorry for myself that I couldn't answer them. Then I thought: just write. I hate doing things I don't understand, and for me writing is like that; I can't comprehend this urge I have to put things down on paper, and the arm-wringing and doubt and sometimes exhilaration that come with it.

This is a picture of the floor in one room of the Chinese Garden in Portland. The pattern is meant to suggest ice breaking on a lake at the end of winter; the flowers are plum tree blossoms, a symbol of optimism in times of hardship, because the plum tree blooms first in China, even before spring has arrived, in February, even when there's still snow on the ground. There are symbols so ancient and evocative that I don't think they slip entirely into cliche.

It surprised me that I had to negotiate consciously the transition from being alone to being back with Husband. I loved being by myself in a big city, the freedom and slight chaos of it, the sense of responsibility for myself and no one else. I loved having the whole bed to myself to sleep in, eating when I felt like it no matter that it was at odd hours. I loved not speaking to anyone. I kind of fell back into myself and after a day or two of solitude words seemed irrelevant and unnecessary; looking as attentively as I could was what mattered, and smelling and touching and absorbing everything I could and remembering everything I could. I've heard of retreats where you are not allowed to speak for days, and I can see why they can be tempting -- frightening but tempting. I wasn't aware before of how much energy I waste by talking even about interesting things. And small talk -- I feel physical discomfort now when I'm chattering. It's still difficult, though, to stay quiet; the pull of words, of conversation, is just as strong as usual for me. But at least now I know that what's on the other side of it, stillness and silence and emptiness, can be good.

So I'm back to two and it's bitter-sweet. And I see again how essential the ability to be happy by oneself is if you are to be happy with someone else.