Category Archives: Parenting

Giving Reality a Relief

To find  trees where there are none, or something where it shouldn’t be, such as a hat off a head in one shot but on again in the next, are, as it were, cracks in the wall through which poetry can penetrate. Those who notice such spelling mistakes are the real illiterates and cannot be moved by fantasy anyhow. Such details have no importance. 
—Jean Cocteau, Diary of a Film (50).

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Still from the filming of La Belle et La Bête.

Jean Cocteau’s book Diary of a Film is a lovely little look into the process of making a film. His diary documents the making of the 1946 film La Belle et La Bête. A friend had wanted me to read the book, so I decided I’d better see the film first. The film is fabulous. Not just fabulous as in ‘wonderful,’ but, as my desktop dictionary gives the etymology: Latin fabulosus ‘celebrated in fable,’ from fabula. It is both kinds of fabulous. The artistic conception of the sets and costumes are a wonder, and the earnestness with which the earnest tale is told is nearly flawless (there was one scene which caused an outburst of mocking laughter in me, but I didn’t mind, and in fact enjoyed, the hearty laugh).  

But for all that, I’d be mad if I forgot that bad luck has always run through  my life, and that it always has been and always will be, a sheer struggle (77).

“Bad luck” is a serious understatement. Never mind the post-war equipment problems and chronic “current” spasms (in my translation when there was a power outage it was said that they lost ‘current’—and that was pretty much daily). No—it was health issues that seriously beset Cocteau and crew. The leading man suffered boils, the leading woman—feverish illnesses, co-stars—various maladies including a fractured hip, and Cocteau…oh dear man—carbuncles, shingles, fevers, face rashes, eczema, and then this gem on page 189: “Have got jaundice. Yes, that was about all that was missing!” It’s a medical miracle they finished the project. Meanwhile:

Nuremberg trial. The two-and two-make-four’s are judging the two-and-two-make-five’s or even twenty-two (158).

Cocteau is a marvel of succinct truth and he is eminently quotable. Does the above quote not perfectly describe many of our current politician’s logic? And yet….This past summer I bought a wonderful book (it’s a rare occurance for me to actually purchase a book as I neither have room to house books nor discretionary money to spare—but, je ne regrette rien). I haven’t finished it, but this is why I bought it—I knew I would want to take my time with it. (It is in alphabetical order—I’m up to the F’s.) Written by Clive James, Cultural Amnesia is a series of essays (over one hundred) on the heros, villains, and fascinating figures of the twentieth century. Cocteau naturally rates.  And yet, while more than acknowledging Cocteau’s artistic achievements, James, as is his style, does not give Cocteau a pass regarding his questionable forbearance regarding the Nazi occupation of France.

While not exactly despicable—nobody died because of him—his behavior was not admirable (James 131).

Cocteau did not merely stay silent, he was an “air-kissing” attendee of Nazi cocktail parties. I read this essay before I saw La Belle et La Bête and, of course before reading Diary of a Film, but I had to re-read it after the two because….oh man. People are complex and flawed, I know. And—I have children! and I know enough about the Nazi’s and their ilk to know that I can’t say for sure how I would behave—those folks don’t fuck around, they don’t simply murder you! no, they will murder your son, daughter and goldfish too—and that is terrifying. We can not be in Cocteau’s mind, we can not know what aspect of his life allowed or forced his recurring attendance at these Nazi fêtes. All we can know is that we hope we would not. And we hope we will never be faced with the prospect.

I went off to R. in despair of ever finding perfection that can survive its difficulties. It’s always just beyond one’s reach. Sometimes one can almost touch it. But something is lacking (Cocteau 86).

*Title from p. 57: “In films a trick shot is often much more convincing than the real thing, and besides, it gives reality some relief.”

 

 

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The Nectar of Mathematics

It is better to do the right problem the wrong way than to do the wrong problem the right way.
Richard Hamming quoted, Julian Havil, Impossible: Surprising Solutions to Counterintuitive Conundrums (50)

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My kind of geometry: The Doughnut

I was deep into my morning walk a few weeks ago when a powerful craving for doughnuts caught up with me. But proper doughnuts require a little time and a small crowd to partake in the pleasure, so I waited until the right moment.

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong (H.L. Mencken quoted, 82).

I find that I tend to read a math book or two every year. I’m not sure what it is in me that compels me to plow through the complex equations that I have little to no real understanding of, but I do it anyway. I like the ideas that the math symbolizes, I suppose. I take a strange pleasure in relating events in my life to mathematical equations.

A recipe is like a math equation: n( x + y) (s/t/r) + nfº = Ne (That’s n ingredients, multiplied by speed and time of rotation, plus n degrees fahrenheit, equals the nectar of mathematics: in this case: Apple-cider doughnuts.). Of course we ran into some problems.

Now that we have complex numbers properly placed and our mind receptive to lurking difficulty, we will consider what should be a simple computation for a calculator (44).

Ah yes, the lurking difficulty. Well, that is something one must always be prepared for. I had my heart set on apple cider doughnuts. My children and I were all visiting friends who had kindly procured all the necessary ingredients. I only needed 1/2 cup of apple cider (which I would reduce to 2T) and my friend wondered what to do with rest as they didn’t care for cider. I told her not to worry, my boys would take care of that. The next morning, I awoke, ready to prepare the dough when I realized our error. I neglected to tell the boys that there had been a reason, other than their enjoyment and ever-lurking thirst, for the purchase of the cider. They had made quick work of it. Good communication is important. In math, baking and life—that holds true.

Put succinctly, to increase the chances of success the team must adopt the somewhat counterintuitive strategy of being wrong together, not correct together (53).

Something strange that I love about math, as it feeds some sort of philosophical truth I seek, is that not only can there be multiple ways to reach a solution, but there are multiple solutions to a problem. It just depends on what system, matrix, or units of measurement and/or data you are using. There is not as much firm ground as we like to think. There are just abstract ideas and evolving methods of problem-solving.

Of course making apple cider doughnuts is not that complex of a problem. I solved the equation, in fact, by a simple adjustment of words. Rather than making Apple-cider Doughnuts I replaced the 2T reduced apple cider with milk and renamed the solution: Plain Doughnuts.

*title from p 128: “Certainly, [the proof] is more secure and in looking at it we can taste the nectar of mathematics…”

 

 

 

The Paper of Housewives

Women create thread; they somehow pull it out of nowhere, just as they produce babies out of nowhere. The same image is latent in our own term lifespan. Span is from the verb spin.
Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, (238).

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Textile from Mexico given to me by my grandmother

About a year ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Elizabeth Wayland Barber on the history of fabrics. I wrote down the title of one of the books she wrote (mostly because I loved the title—and the title’s sense of humor was very much in line with her personality which made for a wonderfully lively, fascinating, and fun lecture style). More than a year later, I finally got around to reading it.

If the productive labor of women is not to be lost to the society during childbearing years, the jobs regularly assigned to women must be carefully chosen (29).

Barber begins by working out what we are talking about when we use the term “women’s work.” She points to Judith Brown’s criteria in which women’s work must be suitable for the people that are bearing and tending to children (and there are no societies in which men take on the latter—the former being, obviously, unlikely). Therefore: “such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration and are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptible and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home” (30). Spinning, weaving and sewing all fit nicely into this criteria.

Cloth survives poorly in most of Europe, subject to the destructive effects of alternating wet and dry weather; yet our surviving textiles from Neolithic are astonishingly ornate. Clearly these Neolithic women were investing large amounts of extra time into their textile work, far beyond pure utility, far beyond our concept of “subsistence level” (90).

This suggests that a reconsideration of our assumptions of what ‘level’ humans historically lived at needs to be reexamined, as well as the obvious (to me) fact that—human beings like making the useful beautiful. As I always say—art is the constant.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that Barber herself weaves. This enables her to reconstruct ancient textiles so that the arm-chair archeologist’s assumptions about the level of sophistication of a given society are not only challenged, but disproven. Only a weaver would know what the warp and weft denote. Only a weaver would know that a given pattern makes no sense unless more than one color is being used—thereby pushing certain knowledge in the dying of fabrics to significantly earlier dates than had been thought.

By looking at murals, previously discarded archeological evidence of spindles, looms, weights and the odd scrap of fabric, as well as art, a tremendous fount of the previously silent or discarded history of women can be known.

Simply following the language trail reveals so much of how and when sewing and weaving skills emerged.

But it is Barber’s knowledge that exists in her hands, rather than her head that so greatly impressed me. Understanding what one is looking at—true understanding of the art involved is an enormous advantage. For instance, in regard to the historical ubiquity of “string skirts” which are used (Barber cogently conjectures) to signify a woman’s readiness for childbearing—and thereby again shows how the visual is used as a form of language, perhaps even a precursor to language—Barber notes that on a Paleolithic Venus figure the sculptor has rendered the string skirt as fraying out at the bottom into a “mass of untwisted fibers” which shows that in c. 20,000 BC certain knowledge of twisted fibers, and therefore knowledge of sewing, existed.

Barber weaves a wonderful history of textiles. A history that greatly contributes to one’s understanding of ancient societies, language, myth, culture, and art.

We women do not need to conjure a history for ourselves. Facts about women, their work, and their place in society in early times have survived in considerable quantity, if we know how to look for them” (300).

Knowing how to look at what is, as well as, significantly, what isn’t, is true scholarship.

*title from p 232

Eats On The Streets

Really love the collective power of crowd sourcing, and I really love my son and am excited for him in this venture. Please consider supporting a great project and documentary filmmaking adventure at indigogo: http://igg.me/at/eatsonthestreets/x/12984751

Soaking Wet: truth and meaning

“All thought arises out of experience, but no experience yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”
Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (87)

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In part 1 of Hannah Arendt’s book The Life of the Mind she examines (with breathless thoroughness) the concept of “Thinking” (part 2 comprises “Willing” and the appendix takes on “Judging,neither of which I have read yet).  I suppose there are three types of people: those that actively (or willfully)  don’t think, those that think, and those that go the extra bend of the river and think about thinking.

“Every thought is an after-thought. By repeating in imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses” (87)

The senses concern themselves with truth. Verifiable information. This sort of thinking is procedural and factual. But we are endowed with the ability to internalize, generalize, and “de-sense” those facts and therefore search for meaning. The meaning can never exist in ‘the truth’ of experiences. Meaning only comes from the second part of the dual-mind—the searching, pondering mode of thinking.  I exist is a different mode of thinking than why do I exist?  Truth is irrelevant to the latter question.

“The business of thinking is like Penelope’s web; it undoes every morning what it finished the night before. For the need to think can never be satisfied only through thinking, and the thoughts I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I want and am able to think them anew” (88).

Thinking that occurs through the interaction of our senses is primary of course, as Arendt wonderfully sums up “The famous first sentence of Aristotle’s metaphysics. ‘Pantes anthrõpoi tou eidenai oregontai physei”—”All men by nature desire to know”—literally translated reads: “All men by nature desire to see and to have seen [that is, to know] (58). But, the sort of thinking that Arendt tells us Kant called the ‘intellect,’ the sort of reasoning that has no objective truth associated with it, nor does it have an end game, is a separate and separated life. It is like death in that it is abstract and utterly solitary, creating a break between mind and soul, but— it is life too—it is the wonder and the mystery: it is how we know beauty.

Thinking beings have an urge to speak, speaking beings have an urge to think” (99).

Common sense thinking (cognition) does not require language. But the intellect does: “It is not our soul but our minds that demand speech.” Languages in many forms, animal languages I think included, are useful, even necessary  for communication, but this is different from the internal discursive reasoning that humans engage in and which can not be considered possible without true speech. We talk to ourselves—how bizarre and yet how essential. Arendt examines, historically, two of the major philosophical strands considering the origin of this “speculative reason” (103):

“I have dealt with two sources from which thinking as we know it historically has sprung, the one Greek, the other Roman, and they are different to the point of being opposites. On the one hand, admiring wonder at the spectacle into which man is born and for whose appreciation he is so well equipped in mind and body; on the the other, the awful extremity of having been thrown into a world whose hostility is overwhelming, where fear is predominant and from which an tries his utmost to escape” (162).

Thinking about thinking framed within those two opposing world views is quite profound. It seems to me the Roman view-point is currently in vogue, but I personally feel split unevenly between the two. Life is a wonder, and the force of the beauty insists that we speculate. It is the cause of the thinking. I can’t go a day without feeling that—hardly an hour, really. And yet I have my own pains to bear. The unfairnesses and unkindnesses that are suffered and witnessed are irrepressible.  Whywhywhy?

However, non-thinking, which seems so recommendable a state for political and moral affairs, also has its perils. By shielding people from the dangers of examination, it teaches them to hold fast to whatever the prescribed rules of conduct may be at a given time in a given society. What people then get used to is less the content of the rules, a close examination of which would always led to perplexity, than the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars” (177).

Yes. The possession of rules is the true opium of the masses. The refusal to think creates a veneer of well-run, quasi-peaceful societies, religions and political parties, but it is truly the death of progress and hope. The death of our human-ness—our ability, gift, and need to reason.

Like the photo above of my son moments after falling into the river after having climbed out farther than any common-sense thinking would have allowed—our hopes and dreams take a pounding. Maybe we weren’t strong enough, maybe the bark underneath was rotting away, maybe it was a good risk, maybe it was a dangerously bad one. But, still, to feel the air between our fingers, the cold water, and sand in our hair and to then think of the moving water, of my sweet boy’s unflappable enthusiasm even in the face of being thrown into this river of life—I think I’d rather be alive to it all. We may be all wet, but at least we are awake.

Inability to think is not a failing of the many who lack brain power, but an ever-present possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded. Everybody may come to shun that intercoarse with oneself […]. thinking accompanies life and is itself the de-materialized quintessence of being alive; and since life is a process, its quintessence can only lie in the actual thinking process and not in any solid results or specific thoughts. A life without thinking is quite possible; it then fails to develop its own essence—it is not merely meaningless; it is not fully alive. Unthinking men are like sleepwalkers” (191).

Vita Activa

If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality. No man can be sovereign because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth 
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (234)

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I took my twelve-year-old son to a college lecture last week called Creatures Who Create: Should We Bring Back Lost Species? given by Bruce Jennings the Director of Bioethics For Humans and Nature. He began the talk with a quote from Hannah Arendt. As it turns out it was from her book The Human Condition—a book that has been on what I call my “bbq” (beckoning books queue) for over a year. So it seemed time to read it.

To live an entirely private life means above all to be deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others, to be deprived of an “objective” relationship with them that comes from being related to and separated from them through the intermediary of a common world of things, to be deprived of the possibility of achieving something more permanent than life itself (58).

Divided into five major parts: The Public and Private Realm, Labor, Work, Action, and The Vita Activa and the Modern Age, Arendt gives a deeply thoughtful and historical account of the permeating modern angst of alienation. I could hardly do it justice to it in this format—even pulling quotes seems a bit violent to the content. Overwhelmingly, though, I feel that quickening— my perspective, my ability to contemplate the nature of our “condition” has been cracked open that much more. An intellectual expansion brought about by respect for her method of inquiry, as well her sensitivity to her subject.

Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity (121).

This false expectation of ever being free of labor which is a necessary child of necessity is key to Arendt’s thesis and a fascinating entré into how work differs from labor and ultimately how labor has been subsumed in our culture into a cult of productivity instead of a healthier recognition of  labor’s true status as a cycle, an unceasing necessity, as well as an appreciation of product-less work which has a permanence and immortality which humans need to feel connected to life.

Works of art are the most intensely worldly of all tangible things[…] they are not subject to the use of living creatures, a use which, indeed […] can only destroy them. […] It is as though worldly stability had become transparent in the permanence of art, so that a premonition of immortality, not the immortality of the soul or life but of something immortal achieved by mortal hands, has become tangibly present, to shine and to be seen, to sound and to be heard, to speak and to be read” (167-8).

There is so much in the book my head is still in a stupor of reader’s gluttony. When my son and I left the lecture I asked him what he thought of it. Being a little contrarian, he said he had understood nothing. But as we discussed the topic I pointed out to him that his opinion of the matter aligned very nicely with what the speaker had presented. Yes, he was forced to admit, he had understood and thought about plenty. I told him even if 40 minutes of the 60 minute lecture was impenetrable to him I was not concerned, boredom is a good and profitable condition as far as intellectual and creative stimulation are concerned, and the 20 minutes that sunk in gave us an evening’s worth of contemplation together, and lifetime’s worth individually.

As Arendt points out, all action stems from contemplation and the lack of contemplation when considering actions which inevitably, indeed— ALWAYS have unforeseen consequences  is a vastly underused skill in our culture. We are all thrown into this world and we must, and can, forgive the others thrown-in before us for their actions which led to what looks like an environmental catastrophe in the making. That does not mean that we should withdraw into isolation, or give up on the only thing that gives our lives meaning—each other. We must profoundly, prudently, and compassionately contemplate the decisions that we make which impact our selves (which is always a plurality), our planetary cohabitants, and our world. And then we must act.

Dirge of the Efemulated

It seems she had a sudden fit of insanity while shopping at the market. 
–Rosa Rosà,  A Woman With Three Souls (part 7.)

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F.T. Marinetti, the de facto head of the Futurism movement of the early 20th century, was a pretty prolific articulator of the ideas and aims the ‘anti-artistic’ movement sought. Whatever one thinks of the art that resulted, his manifesto, printed in Le Figaro (although Italian, Marinetti often wrote in French for French audiences whom he particularly sought approbation) is set at a high pitch. The movement proclaimed allegiance to  speed! and youthful vigor! But things, for me,  go off the rails in his 11 point diatribe. Here, for instance,  is number 9: “We will glorify war–the world’s only hygiene–militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for and scorn for woman,” at the risk of pointing out the obvious, it is pretty odious and ridiculous. Given no. 9, it may surprise one that there were women involved in the movement (interestingly, many of them not native to Italy).

She was fading away and disappearing like a ghost, yet retained, until the last second, her self-awareness, amazed and frightened by the aggression of the new personality (part 1.)

Rosa Rosà, née Edith von Haynau, born in 1884 Vienna, was one such woman. She married an Italian journalist and changed her name, rejecting her bourgeois upbringing for the progressive, exciting promise of Futurism! (I feel that the exclamation point should be henceforth included to indicate the intensity as well as, subversively, the silliness). Rosa Rosà was the mother of four children and her views of what it could mean, in the future, to be a woman are quite interesting and truly progressive. I am not sure how she stomached the vitriol that permeated Futurism! at large, but her ideas were refreshing: embracing the potent sensuality of femininity alongside the power of the maternal feminine.

Giorgina Rossi was young, but her youth was starting to collect dust (part 1.).

Never mind the scorn, it was the indifference and decomposing dust that interested Rosa Rosà. Her short novel, The Woman With Three Souls is a fascinating consideration of the female side of Futurism.

Briefly stated, Madame Rossi is altered by a lightning strike which hits the chemical lab of Professor X (maybe Y or Z, I can’t remember–they consult one another–the point is, X, Y or Z is alarmed at the strange going-ons within the lab and hires a detective agency to investigate whether the effects of the event have permeated outside of the laboratory walls. They have).

A variety of different sensations had converged in one central point. She felt a great surge of vitality, in her very being, altering her personality and her thought process. Her feminine sensibilities seemed to multiply exponentially in a passionate burst of sensuality that had been completely unfamiliar to her until that moment (part 3.).

This nondescript, (not ugly but unattractive) woman is suddenly infused with her own sensuality, she experiences an “intense vitality “ and is “endowed with predatory instinct” (part 8.).

Giorgina, within days, passes through three metamorphoses. The first is the sensual woman. Pejoratively stated: the femme fatale, but her’s is a realization and communication of the sensuality of her sex.

The second is her intellectualization. Posited as a masculine trait I went off on a tangent to find a word that denotes the female equivalent of ’emasculate.’ Sadly, I was unsuccessful. I resorted to coining my own: hence, ‘efemulate.’ How else to describe the notion that one’s essence can be stripped by emulating the opposite sex– or, more pointedly, the expectations of the behavioral norms of the opposite sex? When Giorgina stands on the market square intellectually raving, the reaction to her sudden efemulated metamorphosis starkly exposes the historically  limited view of femininity.

[Giorgina was driven to] eloquently deliver an illogical speech, replete with vague scientific terms, describing with ease marvelous discoveries that do not exist” (part 8.).

News of her ravings makes the front page of the papers alerting professors X, Y and Z to the anomaly’s effect. The name of the paper is The Awakening and I couldn’t help wondering if the reference to Kate Chopin’s brilliant novel was intentional.  After all, only some thirty years separates the stories’ publications and compellingly overlapping theme of a woman’s autonomy being seen as a form of insanity.

But it is the third soul and metamorphosis of Giorgina that is especially moving. Writing a punctilious letter to her traveling husband about the mundane trivialities of her days and the going rate of beets, she suddenly includes an epic sensibility for the infinitude of love:

You are not here, and I love you. I love you without knowing who you are or where you are. I do not know if you are a body, if you are a soul, or if you are simple the projection into the Infinite of all my desires, of my thirst for Unreality” (part 8.).

She poignantly articulates the profundity of love, and maternal love, which is really, simply universal love. It is not the individuality of love, but rather the universality of love (a love for all babies) that is one of the keenest effects of motherhood.

I love you more than ever, because I know this love will never try to invade this remote corner of freedom, which must be my own” (part 8.)

Nevertheless, the status of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mother’ has, historically, reduced a woman. Not surprisingly, upon receiving the letter, Giorgina’s husband quickly returns home fearful of her sanity. A woman of sensuality, intellect and eternal love has long been considered mad.

Rosa Rosà’s optimistic take on Futurism! was that her woman of three souls would be the inevitable future: women would escape the dastardly quagmire of the madonna/whore complex; they would have intellectual freedom without the stigma of efemulation. In the future they would, at long last, be free to be women.