Life as We Have Known It: by Co-operative Working Women

Printed by the Hogarth Press in 1931, V Woolf provides a meandering introductory letter to her pal Davies and describes being uncomfortable listening to the speeches of the Guild, having false sympathy for the working woman since she could return to her comfortable life as a capitalist. (“When you asked me to write a preface to a book which you had collected of papers by working women I replied that I would be drowned rather than write a preface to any book whatsoever. Books should stand on their own feet… If they need shoring up by a preface here, an introduction there, they have no more right to exist than a table that needs a wad of paper under one leg in order to stand steady.”) Before this, we have the Davies’ note on what co-operatives are, some bright optimistic text that “Co-operation is the beginning of a great revolution!” Members own the shops where they buy, supply their own capital and manage their own business.
The bulk of the text are the recollections of life from the pens of the working women themselves. Lots of common themes: mothers pumped out tons of children (15, sometimes 18), families struggled, people went hungry, husbands were laid off, having babies was difficult due to lack of drugs and needing to work hard to save up for the time off. Almost all of the women suggest that the Guild saved their life, gave them something to work for, gave them a voice, energized them.
Some of the good bits:

I had once by accident gone into a church when a very grand wedding was going on, and I heard the promises made by the contracting parties. I came away with the idea that the woman had given up all her freedom, and that it required a great deal of love to induce a thoughtful woman to give up so much.

The education I got in the Guildroom made me understand more about the laws of the country. So when I was ready to buy my house I had put the mortgage in my name. This caused a little friction between my husband and myself. He thought that although I had earned and saved the money, the house should certainly be bought in his name. He said it did not look respectful for a woman’s name to be put on the deeds when she had a husband alive. I thought different, and so the house is mine.

I have read Colonel Repington’s diary, and advised all our members to read it to teach them, if possible, how the people are regarded merely as pawns in a game and how the war-makers made war lightly, and callously regarded the loss of life. I also read Wilfrid Blunt’s diary. These books should be read by the workers because they find a different point of view and how we are thought of by the other class.

How to Live on Twenty Four Hours a Day

This slim volume leapt out at me as I was scouring the library shelves for Schopenhauer, and I trust I do no harm in sampling some of Bennett’s words despite Virginia Woolf’s takedown of him in her 1923 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”. Published in 1910, it was a quick read back during the walk home from the library, and a few more minutes at home. Essentially Bennett wants you to maximize your day, rescuing those 16 “lost” hours that aren’t involved with work, to train your brain to concentrate, to reflect on yourself and to learn about a topic that interests you. He chides us that no one gets tired from their office jobs, so buck up and use 90 minutes after work 3x a week to focus on study. The morning commute should be when you’re concentrating your mind– read a chapter of Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus the night before, and think it through on the morning commute. Strangely mentions Elizabeth Barrett Browning who I keep tripping over in everyday conversations/reading.

Philosophers have explained space but they have not explained time. It is the inexplicable raw material of everything. With it, all is possible; without it, nothing. The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions… No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive. Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, no aristocracy of intellect… Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste tomorrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you. (p 23-4)

Now the great and profound mistake which my typical man makes in regard to his day is a mistake of general attitude, a mistake which vitiates and weakens two-thirds of his energies and interests. In the majority of instances he does not precisely feel a passion for his business; at best he does not dislike it. He begins his business functions with reluctance, as late as he can, and ends them with joy, as early as he can. And his engines while he is engaged in his business are seldom at their full “h.p.” … Yet in spite of all this he persists in looking upon those hours from ten to six as “the day,” to which the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue. Such an attitude, unconscious though it be, of course kills his interest in the odd sixteen hours, with the result that, even if he does not waste them, he does not count them; he regards them simply as margin. (p 43-4)

Yes, books are valuable. But no reading of books will take the place of a daily, candid, honest examination of what one has recently done, and what one is about to do- of a steady looking at one’s self in the face (disconcerting though the sight may be). (p 74-5)

[After studying how to listen to music, you] would live at a promenade concert, whereas previously you had merely existed there in a state of beatific coma, like a baby gazing at a bright object. (p 80-1)

I have two general suggestions [about literature to read]. The first is to define the direction and scope of your efforts. Choose a limited period, or a limited subject, or a single author…. confine yourself to your choice. There is much pleasure to be derived from being a specialist. The second is to think as well as to read. I know people who read and read, and for all the good it does them they might just as well cut bread-and-butter. They take to reading as better men take to drink. They fly through the shires of literature on a motor-car, their sole object being motion. They will tell you how many books they have read in a year. Unless you give at least 45 minutes to careful, fatiguing reflection (it is an awful bore at first) upon what you are reading, your 90 minutes of a night are chiefly wasted. This means that your pace will be slow. Never mind. (p 95-6)

Three Guineas

This marvelous anti-war, pro-woman tract is slightly less approachable than A Room of One’s Own, but worth a dozen reads of its own. Its dense, tightly constructed argument covers points in detail (with copious footnotes), and Woolf’s sly style trumpets wisdom while slightly mocking. She is a wonder.
Written as a letter in response to a request by a man asking her opinion of how to avoid war (along with a plea for a donation to his cause and to join it), this is a diatribe against the mistreatment of women at the hands of England. She quotes biographies, newspapers, speeches, to point out the very precarious position women are in, only having been given the right to work in certain professions 20 years earlier, and the brutal response of society to attempt to drain her of any power. Her argument is that war is the plaything and desire of men, and women should resist the patriotic fervor by absenting themselves from war-work, by not appearing at rallies, by pure indifference. Her snobbery does come through in her insistence on focusing only on the daughters of educated men (e.g. the wealthy), and leaving the poor ladies toiling in the dust, forgotten.
My biggest takeaway (perhaps because it’s at the end of the book, after a month of on-and-off reading), is the section on the psychologist’s testimony as to whether women should be allowed in the upper echelons of the Church of England. She quotes Professor Grensted:

“It is clearly a fact of the very greatest practical importance that strong feeling is aroused by any suggestion that women should be admitted to the status and functions of the Order of the Ministry. The evidence before the Commission went to show that this feeling is predominantly hostile to such proposals… This strength of feeling, conjoined with a wide variety of rational explanations, is clear evidence of the presence of powerful and widespread subconscious motive… it remains clear that infantile fixation plays a predominant part in determining the strong emotion with which this whole subject is commonly approached.”
For as Professor Grensted gave his evidence, we, the daughters of educated men, seemed to be watching a surgeon at work – an impartial and scientific operator, who, as he dissected the human mind by human means laid bare for all to see what cause, what root lies at the bottom of our fear. It is an egg. Its scientific name is “infantile fixation.” We, being unscientific, have named it wrongly. An egg we called it; a germ. We smelt it in the atmosphere; we detected its presence in Whitehall, in the universities, in the Church… Listen to the description. “Strong feeling is aroused by any suggestion that women be admitted” – it matters not to which priesthood; the priesthood of medicine or the priesthood of science or the priesthood of the Church. Strong feeling, she can corroborate the Professor, is undoubtedly shown should she ask to be admitted… [The two other motives for this feeling are:] To pay women more would be to pay men less [and]… a psychological motive, hidden beneath what the Commissioners call a “practical consideration” – “At present a married priest is able to fulfill the requirements of the ordination service ‘to forsake and set aside all worldly cares and studies’ largely because his wife can undertake the care of the household and the family…” (p 126-128)

After detailing the supportive private relationship between brothers and sisters, she rails against the public relationship and hits on something critical to what’s broken in society:

[T]he public, the society relationship of brother and sister has been very different from the private. The very word “society” sets tolling in memory the dismal bells of a harsh music: shall not, shall not, shall not. You shall not learn; you shall not earn; you shall not own; you shall not… Inevitably we ask ourselves, is there not something in the conglomeration of people into societies that releases what is most selfish and violent, least rational and humane in the individuals themselves? (p 105)

Some ridiculous letters to the editor are quoted, “thickening the odor” of blatant sexism. You can almost hear VW hooting with laughter as she clips these out of the Daily Telegraph (p 51):

I think your correspondent … correctly sums up this discussion in the observation that woman has too much liberty. It is probably that this so-called liberty came with the war, when women assumed responsibilities so far unknown to them. They did splendid service during those days. Unfortunately, they were praised and petted out of all proportion to the value of their performances. (20 January 1936)
I am certain I voice the opinion of thousands of young men when I say that if men were doing the work that thousands of young women are now doing the men would be able to keep those same women in decent homes. Homes are the real places of the women who are now compelling men to be idle. It is time that Government insisted upon employers giving work to more men, thus enabling them to marry the women they cannot now approach. (22 January 1936)

She brings up the very real problem of the power of the press to ignore issues, causing them to be scuttled, quoting Josephine Butler’s fight against the Contagious Disease Act:

“Early in 1870 the London Press began to adopt that policy of silence with regard to the question, which lasted for many years, and called forth from the Ladies’ Association the famous ‘Remonstrance against the Conspiracy of Silence’,… which concluded with the following: ‘Surely, while such a conspiracy of silence is possible and practised among leading journalists, we English greatly exaggerate our privileges as a free people when we profess to encourage a free press, and to possess the right to hear both sides in a momentous question of morality and legislation.” Again, during the battle for the vote the Press used the boycott with great effect. (p 162)

She brilliantly eviscerates the life of lawyers and clergymen:

Here is an extract from the life of a great lawyer. ‘He went to his chambers about half-past nine… He took his briefs home with him… so that he was lucky if he got to bed about one or two o’clock in the morning.’ That explains by most successful barristers are hardly worth sitting next at dinner – they yawn so…. Here is a quotation from the life of a great bishop. ‘This is an awful mind-and soul-destroying life. I really do not know how to live it. The arrears of important work accumulate and crush.’ (p 70)
Those opinions [quoted above] cause us to doubt and criticize and question the value of professional life – not its cash value; that is great; but its spiritual, its moral, its intellectual value. They make us of the opinion that if people are highly successful in their professions they lose their senses. Sight goes. They have no time to look at pictures. Sound goes. They have no time to listen to music. Speech goes. They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion – the relations between one thing and another. Humanity goes. Money making becomes so important that they must work by night as well as by day. Health goes… What then remains of a human being who has lost sight, sound, and sense of proportion? Only a cripple in a cave. (p 72)

She asks how we can enter the professions and yet remain civilized human beings, human beings who discourage war:

If you refuse to be separated from the four great teachers of the daughters of educated men – poverty, chastity, derision and freedom from unreal loyalties – but combine them with some wealth, some knowledge, and some service to real loyalties then you can enter the professions and escape the risks that make them undesirable…
By poverty is meant enough money to live upon. That is, you must earn enough to be independent of any other human being and to buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind. But no more. Not a penny more.
By chastity is meant that when you have made enough to live on by your profession you must refuse to sell your brain for the sake of money. That is you must cease to practise your profession, or practise it for the sake of research and experiment; or, if you are an artist, for the sake of the art; or give the knowledge acquired professionally to those who need it for nothing.
By derision… is meant that you must refuse all methods of advertising merit, and hold that ridicule, obscurity and censure are preferable, for psychological reasons, to fame and praise.
By freedom from unreal loyalties is meant that you must rid yourself of pride of nationality… religious pride, college pride, school pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them. (p 79-80)

More on why women should have no particular patriotism:

“‘Our country,'” she will say, “throughout the greater part of its history has treated me as a slave; it has denied me education or any share in its possessions. ‘Our’ country still ceases to be mine if I marry a foreigner… For in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” (p 108-109)

Among the many tangents, some thoughts on literature as currently taught:

Further, the reduction of English literature to an examination subject must be viewed with suspicion by all who have firsthand knowledge of the difficulty of the art, and therefore of the very superficial value of an examiner’s approval or disapproval; and with profound regret by all who wish to keep one art at least out of the hands of middlemen and free, as long as may be, from all association with competition and money making. (p 155)
But for the sons and daughters of [the working class] to continue to sip English literature through a straw, is a habit that seems to deserve the terms vain and vicious; which terms can justly be applied with greater force to those who pander to them. (p 156)

Follow-up reading:
* The Life of Sophia Jex Blake
* Life as We Have Known It by Co-operative working women, edited by Margaret Llewelyn Davies

The Wallcreeper

Tremendous, spare, modern tale of a couple who marry within 3 weeks of meeting and move to Berne, Switzerland for the hubby’s job. She finds out he’s a birder on their wedding day, when he presents her with a pair of $2,000 binoculars. The opening scene is of a car accident that causes her miscarriage, he had swerved to avoid hitting a bird (a wallcreeper) that then gets taken home with them. As she learns more about him, she finds she does not love him. Affairs begin on both sides, openly. They move to Berlin, she becomes more into birding while he devolves into clubbing and drugs. Zany eco-pranks ensue, like dismantling the bank of the Elbe River stone by stone, causing flooding of a nearby forest. The hubby falls into drug hazes in the opium fields of Albania (birding and drugging) while she gets preggered by a nineteen year old tourist, causing her to fly back to the US for the necessary procedure only to find that she was not actually pregnant. While in the US, she snares her sister into returning to Berlin with her, saving her from a strip club job. The sister becomes a middle class teacher in Berlin, success story! Meanwhile, the couple are broke and floundering around in the wilds of Europe looking for the next big eco adventure, and he dies in a lake. She immediately slips into the promise of marriage with one of her lovers, who hates her as soon as she moves in. At the end, she stamps her foot, “hopping in place on the snow like an angry robin,” claiming to be tired of being people’s sex slave, that she wants to study organic forestry. She finally settles on living with the old priest, who lets her live rent-free as long as she decorates. When she asks if she can take up the carpeting, he sighs:

Stop following orders. Do what you want. Work selfishly. Without the experience of control, you will never have the experience of creativity. Stop giving yourself away, and you will have more to offer than your body and soul. Keep them and cultivate them. Learn, learn, and once again learn!

Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”

I’m not a fan of Dunham’s TV series, Girls, so wasn’t terribly into the 50% of the book which reeked of bad choices, awkward sex, drunken pomposity. But there were a few gems sparkling in the dung heap, primarily in the section about Work, where she exposes some of the harassment she’s received at the hands of male Hollywood and her laughing in their face and not giving in. So yay for the feminist bits, but they’re overshadowed by a general distaste I have for people who grew up in NYC and lord it over everyone in their memoirs about growing up in the city. I have more interest in those of us who made our own way to the metropolis, fought our own battles. Dunham chokes me with her tales of therapy, fancy schools, fabulous parties thrown by her art-world parents.

Open City

It’s never a good sign for the book you’re reading when you’re relieved that you have to do some work and so must step away, gleeful to put it down. I’m giving up on this one after 100 pages, having devolved into skimming to find any semblance of thing I want to read. Ostensibly about walking around New York City, Cole layers in scenes from Belgium, Nigeria. It sounded so promising when it was mentioned in a recent article that also brought up the interesting fact that classifying “fiction” and “non-fiction” is a purely American thing to do (and quite silly).

The Unveiling of Timbuctoo

Henry Miller’s The Books In My Life lists this book as “the greatest adventure story of modern times.” I struggled to find a copy of the 1938 story, finally acquiring a version from a university library that Xeroxed the original book and bound it into an 8.5×11″ casing which leaves oceans of white space around the original 5×8″ text.
René Caillié was an early 19th century explorer who self-funded the first successful visit of a white man to the mysterious city of Timbuktu. The Frenchman acquired the habits, language, and dress of the local Muslims, and walked ~3000 miles from the west coast of Africa, meandering along with his various caravans to Timbuktu (fighting disease, sores, hunger, scurvy), feasting his eyes on the Niger River and floating the final stretch into Timbuktu, then crossing the Sahara and nearly dying of thirst when the wells were dried up, slipping into Morocco and thrusting himself on the French consulate in Fez. He carefully took notes while pretending to read pages of the Koran, took scientific measurements discretely with his compass, and avoided any detection of his real goal, “to write the country.”
The book itself is condescending to the African natives, calling them simpleminded, and making ridiculous statements that yearn for harsher days:

As for the children, their charm is beyond white rivalry, so winsome in their negro nudity that one almost wishes all the world’s babies could be black! There nearly blue-black little girls, sleek-skinned as plums, with a string of white beads at the base of their throats and another at the base of their stomachs, all smiles and infant coquetry, make one almost regret the old slave days. For which of us could deny a momentary impulse to buy one of these delightful black dolls and stuff it with sweets? (p 170-1)

I was surprised to discover that Galbraith Welch was a woman, fully ready to launch into a diatribe about the ridiculousness of men in the 1930s with regards to writing about women. I’m still astounded by those passages, now even more so since at the pen of a woman, such as describing the women of Timbuktu:

Generations of brave travelers had sobbed out relief at deliverance, or horror of the ordeal to come, in the arms of the consoling women of Timbuctoo. Chastity would have been a niggardly vice where so many tortured men needed tenderness. (p 254)

Definitely not the greatest adventure story I’ve ever read.

The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine

I’ve been struggling to understand the increase in hostility and rudeness, the decrease in civility and treating people humanely. Interactions between strangers escalate to fury within seconds. Names are called that would have been unheard of decades ago. Car horns are honked within a millisecond of the person ahead of them pausing, even just to wait for a pedestrian to cross. Every day I spend in the city, I’m engaged in combat on a battlefield. And I wonder why this increase, why this devolution to barbarity. I think part of the answer comes in arguments made from Giroux’s book, detailing our culture of cruelty, the normalization of violence and police state causing the fragile social fabric to fray. Part of it comes from our mad scramble to survive, this Darwinian struggle made harder by economic pressures on the poorest but also on the (disappearing) middle class. Everyone except the Koch brothers is feeling the squeeze, so why not cut in line, bump people in the street, and call people unthinkable names to unleash a tiny bit of the frustration boiling under the surface?
As to the book itself, it contains eight chapters that are varying rehashes of the same theme. Honestly, you could read one chapter and say you’ve read the entire book. Perhaps the power is in the retelling, the underscoring of the same message over and over. It’s like having a sane version of FOX news playing in the background throughout the day. The message is: we’re living in an authoritarian state and we seem to like it because we’re numbed and dumbed by violent entertainment/news to the point of not caring. The consumer culture that glorifies corporations tells us to display our love of freedom by shopping. We become increasingly focused on self above all else, real problems are buried in the fog of manufactured crises. “The obsessive pursuit of self-interest is fortified through an equally compulsive refusal of critical analysis, dissent… critical thinking, dialogue, and thoughtfulness…”

As the pleasure principle becomes less constrained by a moral compass based on a respect for others, it is increasingly shaped by the need for intense excitement and a never-ending flood of heightened sensations. Advanced by commercialized notions of aggression and cruelty, a culture of violence has become commonplace in a social order in which pain, humiliation, and abuse are condensed into digestible spectacles endlessly circulated through new and old forms of media and entertainment. (p 51)

Beyond the police state and increasing militarization of everyday life, Giroux points to the disintegration of the education system and the increase in the prison complex. Violent culture, manufactured fear, and the surveillance state are destructive, but even more so is the reaction when you challenge them – suspicion and you’re branded unpatriotic. Why else aren’t we speaking out? Hardship and suffering from the Great Recession, but also the increase in authoritarian measures:

How else to explain the public inaction about everyday violence of poverty, a state of misery to which at least one in every six people in the US currently wallow? Surely, public paralysis in regard to these and other correctable injustices are characteristic of populations subjected to the warfare mentalities perpetrated by deeply authoritarian regimes. (p 133)

Consumer culture strips away our ability to think for ourselves:

Corruption, commodification, and repressive state apparatuses have become the central features of a predatory society in which it is presumed irrationally “that markets should dominate and determine all choices and outcomes to the occlusion of any other considerations.” The political, economic, and social consequences have done more than deface any viable vision of a good society. They have undermined the public’s capacity to think and act in its own interest. This has entailed the destruction of social protections and a massive shift toward a punitive state that criminalizes the behavior of those bearing the hardships imposed by a survival-of-the-fittest society that takes delight in the suffering of others. (p 186)

We’ve become so self-involved that we have no conception of how to treat victims of natural disaster except to take pictures of the “other” as if we’re on vacation:

The atrophy of public values and civic imagination are also on display in the privatization of language, morality, and everyday life…In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the overly washed elite of NYC was discovering poverty while exoticizing the poor. Sarah Maslin Nir pointed critically to the elite’s fascination with poverty porn by noting its “voyeuristic interest in the plight of the poor, treating their trip into disaster areas as an exotic weekend outing.” She noted the complaint of a resident of a Rockaway project who stood by “as volunteers snapped iPhone photos of her as she waited in line for donated food and clothing.” The implications of being photographed were not lost on the Rockaway resident, who commented that she and her friends felt as if they were “in a zoo.” (p 111)

This theme gallops throughout:

Material deprivation, galloping inequality, the weakening of public supports, the elimination of viable jobs, the mindless embrace of rabid competition and consumption, and the willful destruction of the environment speak to a society in which militarized violence finds its counterpart, if not legitimating credo, in a set of atomizing and selfish values that disdain shared social bonds and any notion of the public good. As John Le Carre once stated, “America has entered into one of its periods of historical madness.” (p 191)

The private is all that is left. Chilling.

Americans are now gently coerced to live in an ad-infested bubble of intense privatization, commodification, and civic illiteracy. The public does not merely dissolve into the private, the private is all that is left. (p 214)

Without time, how will we mobilize?

The formative cultures, institutions, and modes of critical agency necessary for a vibrant democracy do not exist in a culture in which knowledge is fragmented, power concentrated in few hands, and time reduced to a deprivation for large segments of the public – one consequence of which is the endless struggle by many Americans to simply survive at the level of everyday life. The commercial colonization of time, space, and consciousness occurs in parallel with most of the population’s need to work more than ever in order to make ends meet. There is no democracy in a country in which for most people time is a deprivation rather than a luxury. Time is crippled when it is trapped within an endless need to fight to merely survive in order to have enough to eat, have access to decent health care, day care, and a social wage. (p 216)

Writer Mark Slouka is quoted on what sounds like the motto of aforementioned FOX news:

Ignorance gives us a sense of community; it confers citizenship; our representatives either share it or bow down to it or risk our wrath. … Communicate intelligently in America and you’re immediately suspect. (p 197)

Wonder

Heartwarming story of a facially challenged (deformed) kid entering 5th grade, his first real school after being homeschooled during years of surgeries. Told from the perspective of Auggie, the face of wonder, and everyone around him (at least, all the non-adults). Wrapped up tightly into the happiest standing-ovation type endings, but I suppose most YA fiction does this. Heavy drumbeat on the message of being kind (kinder than necessary) as everyone struggled to deal with their initial shock/surprise at seeing Auggie’s face. Kids being cruel and kind in turn; Jack Will being asked to show Auggie around the school and then really enjoying his company but making rude comments on Halloween when goaded by Julian (the evil doer). The ensuing “war” between Jack and Julian caused by Auggie’s presence. The popular kids who eventually migrate to Jack & Auggie’s side. Bullies from the 7th grade taunting Auggie and causing the jocks to stand up for Auggie. Parallel story of Via/Olivia entering high school (Auggie’s sister), her changing friendship with Miranda, her boyfriend Justin who pretends his fiddle case is a machine gun and threatens the bullies that are harassing Jack with it.

The Interestings

I got swept away by this book, glancing casually at my watch to hope for another half hour to squeeze its bits into my mouth, chomp down the story and savor the words. Not the most swoon-worthy writing, but decent (no dog-eared pages, nothing quotable, but why should novels be quoted?) For once, a long book that didn’t cry out for editing help, and an ending worthy of the 500+ pages that went before. Deft maneuvering from telling the tale of 6 teenagers to detailing their early 20s struggle in NYC in the 80s, that pit that frightened yet still showed signs of the injection of cash and fancy restaurants even in its scariest incarnation. The group moves on through their inexorable 30s and 40s, finally wrapping up the story in their 50s, one dead, two estranged, the two close girlfriends still hanging on to their friendship despite babies and careers and families. The magical camp in the woods of Massachusetts where they all met (Spirit-in-the-Woods) in the 1970s plays a role as they age, Jules & Dennis returning as caretakers for a year. Secrets are held and revealed, money is made and squandered. A rapist goes unpunished. Thin on certain aspects and relationships (Jules & her mom) while thick on others (Jules & Evan, Jules & Ash, Jules & Dennis). Definitely a lovely way to spend an afternoon soaking up the lives of others.

Bad Feminist

Great collection of essays that loop around the inherently toxic themes of misogyny and racism, sprinkled with lighter bits of personal narrative (competitive Scrabble tournaments, memories of fat camp). A perfect book to surreptitiously slip your non-feminist-identifying friends (if they’re women, they’re destined for an awakening at some point). A necessary reminder that we don’t experience the world like anyone else – easy to be blissfully unaware how narrow the entertainment IV drip is for non-white women even though I’m very aware about how egregious the portrayal (or absence of portrayal) of women in TV/films is. If I were a woman of color, I’d be nearly incapacitated by rage. Gay deals with these issues with calm aplomb and wit. Skewering books, film, TV shows, and music, she also gives us glimpses of life in academia, life as a black woman surrounded by “other,” recognition of her own privilege after visiting Haiti as a child, exposes her teenaged trauma in the woods. Excellent and readable essays that are strong without stridency. She struggles with the feminist label (hence, “bad feminist”), settling on her favorite definition, “feminists are just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.”

Even from a young age I understood that when a girl is unlikeable, a girl is a problem. I also understood that I wasn’t being intentionally mean. I was being honest (admittedly, without tact), and I was being human. It is either a blessing or a curse that those are rarely likeable qualities in a woman. (p 84)

Disagreement, however, is not anger. Pointing out the many ways in which misogyny persists and harms women is not anger. Conceding the idea that anger is an inappropriate reaction to the injustice women face backs women into an unfair position. Nor does disagreement mean we are blind to the ways in which progress has been made. Feminists are celebrating our victories and acknowledging our privilege when we have it. We’re simply refusing to settle. We’re refusing to forget how much work there is yet to be done. (p 102)

We live in a strange and terrible time for women. There are days when I think it has always been a strange and terrible time to be a woman. Womanhood feels more strange and terrible now because progress has not served women as well as it has served men. We are still stymied by the issues our forbears railed against. It is nothing less than horrifying to realize we live in a culture where the “paper of record” can write an article that comes off as sympathetic to eighteen rapists while encouraging victim blaming. Have we forgotten who an eleven-year-old is? (p 132)

Often in literary criticism, writers are told that a character isn’t likeable, as if a character’s likeability is directly proportional to the quality of the novel’s writing. This is particularly true for women in fiction. In literature, as in life, the rules are all too often different for girls. There are many instances in which an unlikable man is billed as an antihero, earning a special term to explain those ways in which he deviates from the norm, the traditionally likable. The list, beginning with Holden Caulfield… is long. An unlikable man is inscrutably interesting, dark, or tormented, but ultimately compelling, even when he might behave in distasteful ways… When women are unlikeable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike. Why are these women daring to flaunt convention? Why aren’t they making themselves likeable (and therefore acceptable) to polite society? {Claire Messud is asked about her unlikeable protagonist, the interviewer says, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Messud’s response includes “What kind of a question is that?… If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”} (p 88)

But men want what they want. We should all lighten up.
It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening, it’s that they’re all happening, concurrently and constantly.
These are just songs. They are just jokes. It’s just a hug. They’re just breasts. Smile, you’re beautiful. Can’t a man pay you a compliment? In truth, this is all a symptom of a much more virulent cultural sickness – one where women exist to satisfy the whims of men, one where a woman’s worth is consistently diminished or entirely ignored. (p 189)

The Coming Insurrection

I’m probably on someone’s watchlist already because of all the radical feminist/socialist books I’ve been reading, so I might as well confess to reading this, a book used as the primary piece of evidence in a 2009 French anti-terrorism case. The book takes as fact that we’re already knee-deep in a shitstorm of crisis (“Everyone agrees. It’s about to explode.”) and provides suggestions on what next. Primarily, shake off society’s drumbeat of mobility (upward or otherwise, always so busy busy busy), start to connect with people one-on-one, dialog about real things, form communes, be negative-growth focused and self-sufficient. I feel a tad ignorant about all the insurrections referred to in the book, in France during the 2005-2009 period, need to do some digging (traditional media can’t be relied on to spread the word). The pendulum swing to hyper-individualism (and its requisite consumption) only benefits the corporations who profit from alienating us from one another.

As the welfare state collapses, we see the emergence of a brute conflict between those who desire order and those who don’t. Everything that French politics has been able to deactivate is in the process of unleashing itself. It will never be able to process all that it has repressed. In the advanced degree of social decomposition, we can count on the coming movement to find the necessary breath of nihilism. p12

Two centuries of capitalism and market nihilism have brought us to the most extreme alienations – from ourselves, from others, from worlds. The fiction of the individual has decomposed at the same speed that it was becoming real. Children of the metropolis, we offer this wager: that it’s in the most profound deprivation of existence, perpetually stifled, perpetually conjured away, that the possibility of communism resides. p16

This injunction, everywhere, to “be someone” maintains the pathological state that makes this society necessary. The injunction to be strong produces the very weakness by which it maintains itself, so that everything seems to take on a therapeutic character, even working, even love. All those “How’s it goings?” that we exchange give the impression of a society composed of patients taking each other’s temperature. Sociability is now made up of a thousand little refuges where you can take shelter. Where it’s always better than the bitter cold outside. Where everything’s false, since it’s all just a pretext for getting warmed up. Where nothing can happen since we’re all too busy shivering silently together. Soon this society will only be held together by the mere tension of all the social atoms straining towards an illusory cure. It’s a power plant that runs its turbines on a gigantic reservoir of unwept tears, always on the verge of spilling over. p30

There is only one alternative to the coming apocalypse: reduce growth. Consume and produce less. Become joyously frugal. Eat organic, ride your bike, stop smoking, and pay close attention to the products you buy. Be content with what’s strictly necessary. Voluntary simplicity… “When an individual is frugal, property serves its function perfectly, which is to allow the individual to enjoy her own life sheltered from public existence, in the private sanctuary of her life.” p69

Whoever knew the penniless joy of these New Orleans neighborhoods before the catastrophe, their defiance towards the state and the widespread practices of making do with what’s available wouldn’t be at all surprised by what became possible there. On the other hand, anyone trapped in the anemic and atomized everyday routine of our residential deserts might doubt that such determination could be found anywhere anymore. Reconnecting with such gestures, buried under years of normalized life, is the only practicable means of not sinking down with the world, while we dream of an age that is equal to our passions. p84

Methods, adopted from principle of sabotage:

a minimum of risk in taking the action, a minimum of time, and maximum damage… No need to dwell too long on the three types of workers’ sabotage: reducing the speed of work, from “easy does it” pacing to the “work-to-rule” strike; breaking the machines or hindering their function; and divulging company secrets.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Janie trudges home in a pair of overalls, causing the porch-dwellers’ tongues to wag, how she’d left town all high and mighty with Tea Cake (to marry him), and now she was loping back home alone. Did she retain her money, or had Tea Cake taken that, too? Janie’s friend Pheoby brings her dinner and they sit in the gathering darkness while Janie tells her story. Thrice-married, once to an old man at her grandmother’s insistence to protect her purity, then she ran away from him to marry Joe/Jody who sets out to become mayor of the all-black town and accumulates a fortune, finally to Tea Cake after Joe dies. Tea Cake is the love of her life, “God made it so you spent yo’ ole age first wid somebody else, and saved up yo’ young girl days to spend wid me.” They head to the Everglades to plant and pick beans, gamble, hunt, and have a grand old time. Along comes a hurricane (they watch Indians file east en masse as they flee ahead of the storm, then all the animals make the same hasty retreat). Tea Cake saves Janie from a mad dog perched on a floating cow in the aftermath, he gets bit and a month later dies from her shotgun blast since he’s gone mad and tried to kill/bite her. Tremendous imagery post-hurricane, brought to mind Hurricane Katrina. Pressed into service to bury the dead, the workers were told to bury the whites in coffins and toss the blacks in an open grave covered with quick-lime. When the workers protested that they weren’t sure which race the bodies were, the white men conferred and agreed that they must look at the hair to make a determination. Enjoyable early black feminist work once I got over my aversion to reading dialect.

Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century

Terrific book to read alongside Virgina Woolf’s Three Guineas (review to come), covering the epic and ongoing battle for women’s rights. It manages to reveal, reflect, instruct, and not leave you reaching for a razor to slit your wrists over the current state of the patriarchy. I’m left with a long list of follow-up reading, everything from Zora Neale Hurston to Susan Faludi and Betty Friedan to Kate Millet. Best outcome of the book is insight into the many forgotten and usually unnamed heroes that went before us: Molly W. Dewson’s influence over FDR’s political appointments; Robin Morgan’s coordination of the protests in Atlantic City over Miss America Pageant (source of the image of bra-burning, although they weren’t allowed to light their Freedom Trash Can on fire due to safety concerns the boardwalk had); Pauli Murray’s brief that played an important role in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka Kansas (1954); Paula Coughlin’s reporting of assault at the Tailhook convention in 1991; and many more. Originally published in 1992, Rosenberg was able to add a meaty chapter at the end that covered Anita Hill’s legendary impact on awareness of sexual harassment, the impact of Title IX (Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain), and the disintegration of protection around access to abortion.

Urban Flow: Bike Messengers and the City

It’s never a good idea to publish your thesis as a book unless you have several years dedicated to parsing out the obtuse academic bits and only leaving the core of your argument in place. Unfortunately, Kidder kidded himself into thinking that his topic was so juicy that it could hold up the tottering components of rotting wood from his dusty sociology paper. He vacillates between striking a “Hey I’m just one of the grime-encrusted guys” pose and a nasally “As I explain in further detail in future chapters” tone. We’ll be rollicking along, fully immersed in decent prose about the day to day life of these road warriors, and then clunk! get doored on some text like: “Speaking of capitalism, for example, Karl Marx states…,” and “couriers are engaged in a dialectical relationship with the city’s built structures,” then layering in quotes from Weber and obscure German sociologists. Despite the fog of pseudo-intellectualism that strikes such a false note, I did appreciate the reminder that the reason messengers enjoy their jobs so much is that it involves a lot of play and the concept of flow as defined by Csikszentmihalyi.