Sunday, December 31, 2006

Review: Agnes Grey

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë with a memoir of her sisters by Charlotte Brontë and an introduction by Angeline Goreau. Recommended.

The youngest of the three literary Brontë sisters, Anne was the first to die, within only two years of the publication of Agnes Grey and one year of the publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In this edition, Angeline Goreau's introduction offers valuable insights into the relationships among the Brontë siblings, Anne's personality without the distortion of Charlotte's lens, and the conditions prevalent in Victorian England that inspired the writing of Agnes Grey.

For her first novel, Brontë chose to write about the social topic she knew best—life as an underpaid, unempowered, unappreciated governess. Her story, which begins, "All true histories contain instruction," closely parallels her own experience as governess to two families of overindulged, undisciplined, disrespectful children. She "candidly lay[s] before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend."

At times, Agnes Grey is hard to read, not because of the Victorian language and conventions, but because Brontë's unadorned, dispassionate writing style coolly conveys the monstrosity and heartlessness of the children for whom she has responsibility without power and of their distantly doting parents. When the cruel, sadistic Tom Bloomfield, age 7, tries to torture and kill a nest of baby birds and Agnes intervenes, spoiling his "fun," his mother coldly tells her, "You seem to have forgotten that the creatures were all created for our convenience . . . I think a child's amusement is scarcely to be weighed against the welfare of a soulless brute." Through her portrayal of Tom, Brontë makes it clear who in her opinion is the "soulless brute" and how he came to become one. Meanwhile, Tom, his sister Mary Ann, and their parents foil Agnes's every attempt to perform her duties, including the teaching of morals.

Agnes's next family, the Murrays, are somewhat tolerably by comparison, although she is expected to, in her words, "study and strive to amuse and oblige, instruct, refine, and polish, with the least possible exertion on their part, and no exercise of authority on mine." In the Murray household, Agnes is subjected to a form of social snobbery and disdain from which her background, manners, and education do not exempt her. All that matters to the wealthy and privileged Murrays is that she is the hired help, to be controlled, ignored, bullied, or snubbed at their whim.

Agnes becomes a governess against her family's wishes so that she can help them out of their financial straits. When her illusions about molding the minds, hearts, and souls of her charges are taught away in chapters titled, "First Lessons in the Art of Instruction" and "A Few More Lessons," Agnes does not continue her ignominious career out of economic necessity; in fact, her family refuses to accept her financial assistance. She continues to work from a sense of pride; she does not want to admit to her family, and perhaps to herself, the personal and emotional cost of her own "instruction."

Given Brontë's purpose in writing Agnes Grey, there are some difficulties with the novel. First, Agnes's distress is primarily emotional, yet surely the masses of underpaid governesses suffered from poverty and from the hopelessness of escaping it. As Goreau notes, there were so many single women vying for governess positions that the employers could pay these vulnerable women next to nothing in wages, even taking deductions for laundry. Charlotte Brontë herself was paid 20 pounds per year at her final post, with 4 pounds deducted for washing. This deprivation, and the lifelong sense of despair that must have come with it, is not evident in Agnes Grey.

The novel also becomes sidetracked from its purpose when Agnes develops an interest in the new curate, Edward Weston. Toward the end, Agnes Grey is transformed from a novel about governesses and Victorian family life into a weak, undramatic love story that is too drawn out. The Anne Brontë who hid her feelings from the domineering Charlotte does not reveal them even through Agnes. While Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights seethe with the drama and passion of unhealthy relationships, Agnes Grey plods through the development of an uninspired one.

The strength of Agnes Grey lies in its characterizations of Victorian country society and the people who inhabit it. Their materialism, which reaches its apex here in the unhappily married Rosalie Murray; their wanton wastefulness; their view of nature as subservient to the whims of man; and their hypocrisy and recasting of God into man's image are the easily recognized precursors to many 20th-century attitudes. Despite its faults and facile ending, Agnes Grey is a tiny but honest glimpse into the Victorian world that preceded ours. Angelina Goreau's informative introduction, with its generous helping of quotations, makes this edition especially worthwhile.

Sunday, 31 December 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Dream: Dining with demons

27 December 2006

I was at a restaurant in a high-rise that seemed to be part of an amusement park. I was there with a group of people, but I don't think I knew any of them. There was a couple that stayed with me, but although I talked easily with them as though I did know them, I did not know their names. Then I noticed that the man, who was very handsome and charming, would touch me in odd ways that seemed both affectionate/sexy and creepy. At one point he passed his arm or hand around my head.

Then I found some small dogs and for some reason this made me realize that the couple and maybe others were demons and that I had to protect the dogs from them. Someone, or a voice, told me that of course they were demons and that the touch of the man had taken away my head. I struggled to remember if he had touched me there.

Confused about my head, which I thought I still had but which no one else could see, and determined to save the dogs, I took the man by surprise and pushed him over the edge. When I looked down, I could see his clothes in a pile but not him. Now I was no longer sure that he was a demon, and I wondered if I had just committed a murder. I was also not certain that the dogs, which I had locked into the women's room, were truly safe.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Shrinkage

A few years ago, perhaps many, professional curmudgeon Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes did a piece on shrinking product sizes. The most obvious example is, of course, the pound of coffee, which Rooney noted had been reduced to 13 ounces—enough to generate more profits, but not enough for the average consumer to notice. Naturally, the price was not lowered to reflect the lesser amount. Recently, I noticed that my coffee now comes in a 12-ounce can. At some point, I expect the pound of coffee will become a half pound, and no one under, say, 60 years of age will know the difference.

I've become used to these games when it comes to packaged foods. I may think it's a questionable tactic, particularly since the manufacturers and distributors don't announce the reduction in quantity or size the way they announce "new and improved flavor" or new packaging, but there is nothing I can do about it. The practice has become too widespread and too widely accepted (or ignored); there's no motivation for companies to change the way in which they operate or market.

This practice is not limited to foods, of course. Shampoo, toothpaste, cosmetics—all come in smaller sizes than the standard sizes I grew up with.

I am aware of this, yet I still managed to be surprised by my recent purchase of notebook filler paper. The shrinkage is not in the number of sheets, which has always been variable—100, 150, 175, 200, 250, 300, 400, 500. No, the shrinkage is in the size of the sheet itself. In the U.S., a standard letter-sized sheet is 8.5" x 11", whether it's plain copier/printer paper or notebook paper. I have filler paper from about 10 years ago—it's 8.5" x 11". But the new filler paper, from a leading manufacturer of school supplies, is 8" x 10.5".

They cut one-half inch from both the length and width to keep the proportion.

Now I will have to find some other brands to see if this size is the new standard for filler paper. Imagine. 8.5" x 11" paper that's 8" x 10.5". Along with a pound of coffee that's 12 ounces.

I can't wait to find yardsticks that are 30" and foot-long rulers that are 9".

Postscript: Staple carries 8.5" x 11" and 8" x 10.5" paper. I forgot to see if there is a difference in pricing.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dream: Padua

There was a drawing for members of my high school band to go on a journey to a city in Italy. My name wasn't drawn, but I was asked to take care of someone's cat. When I was asked where they were, I could not remember. "It wasn't Rome . . . nor Milan . . . nor Venice . . . nor Florence . . ." Suddenly I remembered that it was Padua.

Then I was near a stream where an attack was taking place. There was a line of bodies, men in swim trunks, face down in the water along the bank, and the attackers were using short, curved blades at the end of poles to deface their backs. One was solidly bloody. I thought I recognized one of the attackers and wondered at what was happening and why.

Monday, December 11, 2006

eHarmony reject

If you're like me, you don't know anything about eHarmony.com other than what you've seen in their advertising—that the company claims its matchmaking system, based on 29 areas of compatibility, is more likely to get you your dream match than those of their competitors, and that eHarmony's founder likes to appear on camera. This strikes me as odd because Neil Clark Warren doesn't quite have the trademarked offbeat image or the eccentric charisma of a Colonel Sanders or even an Orville Redenbacher. He's plain, ordinary, and painfully earnest.

Not even his Ph.D. from my alma mater can make him or his message compelling, at least to me.

At about the same time I started seeing a plethora of eHarmony commercials, a friend mentioned that she had completed the eHarmony personality profile, so my curiosity was piqued. The advertising features people who don't appear to be models; they do look real enough. Some are even older people, perhaps over 50 or 60. They seem normal, but there is something a little disturbing to me in their smiles and their cloying happiness that they have found someone with whom they instantly and magically clicked.

When they are telling me this after 30 years, surrounded by children and grandchildren, I'll be impressed with the success of the relationship, at least the public aspects of it. But not when they are in a commercial talking about how well the first date went.

I don't think this will ever be me, perfectly dressed and coiffed, smiling with 32 flawless pearly whites, and clinging like a Stepford wife to my newfound soul mate.

Still, I decided to find out what eHarmony would tell me about me and my ideal match. Admittedly, the concept of the latter would be new to me, since Mr. Stepford wife has yet to make an appearance. So I spent a half hour filling out the profile in a brutally honest way. I'm no beauty, I'm not in top physical condition, and I'm not vivacious and outgoing. I don't make a good Stepford wife, actually. Hmmm. The more questions I completed, the less l could picture myself being invited to appear in an eHarmony commercial.

Frankly, eHarmony is a lot like Myers-Brigg, only not as accurate. The personality profile I ended up with is not exactly spot on, as Myers-Brigg was. Despite the consistency of my introverted answers, eHarmony seems to think I'm on the line between introversion and extroversion, comfortable on my own or in most social situations.

No, that's me at the party, reading a book in a cozy, hidden corner (ideally), or looking desperately for someone familiar who's chatty to make up for my lack of garrulousness so I can appear outgoing.

There were a few other areas in which eHarmony made me more middle-of-the-road, more "normal," than I actually am.

But apparently I'm not normal enough to deserve love, or even a nice first date, because after another half hour of my life that I can't get back, hunched over my iBook and aiming at what seemed to be hundreds of radio buttons, I learned the horrible news:
eHarmony is based upon a complex matching system developed through extensive research with married couples. One of the requirements for successful matching is that participants fall within certain defined profiles. If we find that we will not be able to match a user using these profiles, we feel it is only fair to inform them early in the process.

We are so convinced of the importance of creating compatible matches to help people establish happy, lasting relationships that we sometimes choose not to provide service rather than risk an uncertain match.

Unfortunately, we are not able to make our profiles work for you. Our matching model could not accurately predict with whom you would be best matched. This occurs for about 20% of potential users, so 1 in 5 people simply will not benefit from our service. We hope that you understand, and we regret our inability to provide service for you at this time.

You can still receive your free Personality Profile by clicking here.
No wonder I'm single! After 30 seconds of dissecting my heart, soul, and intellect, eHarmony determined that there's no way to match someone as unique as I am—me and that 20% who are just not predictably matchable, or at least not through a "system." That's twenty percent who may not work out as Stepford wives.

This intrigued me, along with something I'd noticed—there were neither of the usual "man seeking men" or "woman seeking women" options.

I found a Salon.com article by Rebecca Traister about eHarmony and its founder, Neil Clark Warren (I reserve the "Dr." title for medical/veterinary professionals, not Ph.D.s), who turns out to be a conservative Christian. According to Traister, eHarmony ". . . won't match gays or depressed people or anyone who's been married more than twice."

Traister goes on to say:
When I asked Warren about his refusal to serve same-sex couples, he listed several reasons for his policy. "First, we're into marriage," he said, pointing out that gay unions remain illegal in almost every state. He also doesn't feel there is adequate research on how men can be matched up with other men, or women with women.

"It's just not an easy point! We've got thousands of years of history of the human race in which this was never treated as a marriage and there are a lot of people who think it's just not going to have the same kind of stability over time."
This strikes me as a weak defense. First, this rationale presumes that "marriage" is merely a legal contract between two parties—parties of the opposite sex. This diminishes the sacred aspect of marriage, which should be before God, not men. Is a long-term or lifetime loving commitment to one partner any less sacred without the legal blessing of man's secular government?

Then, while Warren's goal for his heterosexual members may be marriage, who is to say that that is the goal of any given member? Some people, of either sexuality, date with the objective of finding their soul mate. Others just like to date. It could also be said that some people, of either sexuality, remain faithful to their partners; others simply cannot. eHarmony cannot control, or predict, the actions of its members. After all, does everyone answer the questions, all of the questions, brutally honestly?

There is also the matter of the science. Why presume that the 29 areas of compatibility could be significantly different for homosexuals? Gays are not a different species; they're subject to the same human psychology, whatever it is, as the rest of us. Why not at least try the same formula to see how effective it is?

If bringing together heterosexuals in successful marriages is satisfying (and eHarmony has decades to go before it can be determined if it has accomplished this), then how is uniting non-heterosexuals in equally committed relationships any less so? Even Warren seems uncomfortable with the Old Testament's judgments and punishments.

But I digress, because I'm not gay, and I've not been married more than twice, yet eHarmony can't help me. That's probably because my answers indicated I'm in that other outcast category, "depressed." In a way, this seems fair enough. A relationship with a person prone to depression is probably fraught with additional difficulties. Yet it doesn't make sense to single out depression among the many emotional and physical disabilities that could complicate a relationship. For example, the questionnaire didn't ask if I have visions of myself as a 13-year-old boy with Christ, like Naomi Wolf, but I imagine I'm a lot easier to get along with.

Then, too, there is the matter of misrepresentation. What if I were to go back and answer the questions in a less brutally honest way, if I were to represent myself as cheerful and optimistic? Would eHarmony find a perfect match for my altered persona, a happy, well-adjusted man who would find himself on a memorable first (and last) date with a brooding melancholic who is nothing like the smiling Stepford wife his profile called for?

Of course, there is always the concept that anyone who uses eHarmony should be an adult with eyes wide open. Take me, match me to someone who seems to be tolerant of a tendency to sadness. Let us, as adults, determine for ourselves if that is really true. If it is, wonderful. If it is not, then, like many others before us, single and married, we will end up parting, perhaps to try again with another. Surely there are depressed or sad people out there who have managed to have successful relationships—with or without eHarmony's permission.

I suppose this means that eHarmony is not the perfect match for me after all.

Now if only I could have that half hour of my life, that "first date," back.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Dream: Obstacles

I think I was leaving a party and was across the back lawn when someone threw me a pistol and told me to shoot at a target that appeared to be on a wagon. The person who threw the gun, who may have been someone I knew and admired, didn't move and was too close to the target, and I didn't say anything. I accidentally shot his eye out. I could not bear what I had done and could not look at him, at the accusations in the missing eye. Then I saw everything as though I were a third person, and I heard someone say, "They [the man I had shot and I] have always been passionate about one another." I thought I saw us embracing.

I was driving an odd kind of vehicle up a stairway of rocks, and the more I tried to surmount the obstacles, the more fluid flowed from the wheels. I did not remember this happening when my father drove. Suddenly he was there to tell me I had taken the wrong route and was doing all the wrong things.

To get to my room, I had to climb what appeared to be an icy rock, or, as an alternative, rocks that were sheer and underneath which someone I know from college lay, possibly drunk and stoned. I did not know what to do, and then I tried to help him out from underneath so I wouldn't hurt him. He laughed at me because he did not need my help and thought he would be fine where he was. There may have been someone else there. I struggled and struggled to climb up, but couldn't. It felt like climbing a sheer chest of drawers. I could not face doing that every day. Maybe I cried.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Oscar Wilde on women

". . . women are meant to be loved, not to be understood." —from "The Sphinx Without a Secret"

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Dream: Incensed hair

When I woke up, I found that each of the ends of my hair was lit, not flaming, just lit like a stick of incense. I started trying to put them out with my fingers so that I wouldn't start a fire, but the more I tried the worse the situation became. A spark landed on the carpet, which caught fire. I stepped on it and put it out; it did not leave even a scorch mark.

I went out into the living room, where I found a chaos of mess spread everywhere. Two tiny Christmas trees had been knocked over. I tried to right them, but their bases were so tiny in proportion that they could not support the trees. My mother would be very unhappy when she saw the condition of the room.

I suddenly realized that I must have left the cat (not Hodge) loose, but she was nowhere to be found. I went outside, which turned out to be an incredible garden with built-up earthen ledges everywhere. I found an eraser and a pen with cartoon characters on it and stole them. Somehow I knew they belonged to a mysterious, wonderful man whom I had to find. I went to look for him.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Anne Bronte on work

"I can conceive few situations more harassing than that wherein, however you may long for success, however you may labour to fulfil your duty, your efforts are baffled and set at naught by those beneath you, and unjustly censured and misjudged by those above." —from Agnes Grey

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Charlotte Bronte on work

". . . am I to spend all the best part of my life in this wretched bondage forcibly suppressing my rage at the idleness the apathy the hyperbolical and most asinine stupidity of those flat-headed oafs and on compulsion assuming an air of kindness patience and assiduity?"

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Planning ahead for Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day

In 1993, the Ms. Foundation came up with Take Our Daughters to Work Day. The
idea, as explained to me, was to give girls greater exposure to career
opportunities and to boost their self-esteem. The premise was that girls
tended to receive less attention than their male siblings.

I remember the first several years of TODTWD. My firm brought in clowns,
face painters, local celebrities, even zoo docents (me) with animals. There
were coloring contests and other planned activities, and it was the one day
when Mom would forego her calorie consciousness and take the children to
McDonald's for hamburgers. None of the parents got much work done, and the
childless among us (me again) braced for six hours of constant noise,
interruptions, and childish chatter. I recall the daughter of one of our
attorneys making colored mark all over paper; I told her, "Wow, that's
exactly what your mom does all day."

In short, the girls, many eight years or under, must have come away with the
idea that "work" means face painting and other kinds of fun.

By 2003, the original purpose of TODTWD had become lost or irrelevant, and
our sons were now included. With the passage of time at my new employer, I
noticed that this even twas become less and less structured, until even the
coloring contests were no more, or at least were not promoted. The children
come in and meet other children, chase each other around, play on the
computers, and color on their own. This year, a coworker's nephew made us
personalized door hangers.

In other words, the children still don't really understand what their
parents do, other than sit at desks, working with phones and computers.

I've gotten the impression that this how the day goes at other corporate
offices, that it's increasingly downplayed, and that it seldom lives up to
its purpose. I also can't imagine that this event is widely implemented in
non-offices or in more hazardous white- or blue-collar settings. Do
night-shift emergency room nurses bring their children to work? Nuclear
power plant workers? Sawmill workers? Stevedores? Airport security
personnel?

I suspect that TODASTWD boils down to a day spent in an office rather than
at school, a feel-good opportunity for office workers to show off their
children to their coworkers and their offices to their children. Some
parents may explain to the older children what they do, but for the most
part the children seem to play and socialize until they get bored.

If the Ms. Foundation wants to make the day educational and meaningful for
the daughters and sons, I have some ideas for structured activities. The day
itself is the last Thursday in April, so now is not too early to begin
planning.

* Invite the children to a two-hour department meeting where many
carbohydrates and fats are served and where, after much wrangling and
tension, nothing is decided.

* Have the children join their parent for a weekly project status update
with the boss so they can witness the humiliating consequences of not being
able to read a superior's mind.

* As a extra activity, have the children jot down every time the superior
interrupts Mom or Dad to read personal e-mail and take personal phone calls.

* Have Mom or Dad submit a small project that day so the superior can
demonstrated the fine art of criticizing work that he or she cannot do.

* Make sure the children participate in an informal gripe session among two
or more lower-level employees. Point out to them the furtive glances and the
lowered voices, especially when Self-Important Leaders pass by. As a bonus,
have the Leader stop and address someone in the group and have the children
watch the attitude change instantly from sullen to solicitous.

* Do not offer them a lunch break. If the children are to experience
corporate office life, they will need to get used to doing without food and
breaks and to working through the day until at least 7:00 or 7:30 p.m.

* Be honest with them Tell them that what they have experienced is what Mom
or Dad faces every day until retirement or until those lottery numbers
finally come through.

It seems to me that TODASTWD is the perfect opportunity to prepare the next
generation for corporate slavery. It would give all those daughters and sons
who are short on self-esteem and starving for positive attention something
to look forward to.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Review: Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony

Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony by Lee Miller. Not recommended.

Armed with a master's degree in anthropology from Johns Hopkins University, Lee Miller tries to combine history with the arts of the novelist and dramatist. Not successfully, as she might say in one of her numerous misplaced sentence fragments.

As the subtitle implies, Roanoke focuses less on the mystery of the lost colonists than on Miller's convoluted approach to solving it. She takes the reader on so many voyages, to so many places with so many peoples, and through so many plots and treacheries, none in chronological order, so that within just a few pages that reader feels as lost as the colonists themselves.

Miller tries to use the techniques of the novelist and dramatist to heighten the effect, including a breathless tense that implies the present: "In one of the last glimpses we have of them, it [what?] has already begun: colonist George Howe has been found dead, floating face down among the reeds along the shore." This, along with the use of the present tense elsewhere, makes this event sound ominous indeed, until later it is revealed who killed him, how, and why. While this information boded ill for the colony, it was not mysterious in the way Lee hints. Howe's death plays a small role in the Miller's solution of the "crime," but it is for the most part a minor red herring.

The author plays up innumerable events and questions as though the revelation of identities and machinations will be shocking to the reader, much in the manner of the present-day tabloid. One of these questions is, "Who are the Mandoag?" This point, raised continually as other nations refer to them ambiguously, mysteriously, and with fear, seemingly becomes the crux of the mystery and the fate of the colonists. After such a buildup, the unveiling has no dramatic impact and little interest. Even worse, Miller's case for their identity is speculative, weak, and inconclusive.

This describes much of Miller's approach. She frequently comes to conclusions through process of elimination and then finds supporting evidence. Once she has determined the religious affiliation of the colonists, then their actions, and the mother country's lack of interest in them, make sense. Such an argument is weak and easily undercut. Miller does so herself when she says that England had become so overpopulated that she didn't want any colonists back, whatever their affiliation may have been.

Miller's speculations do not always seem logical. She writes, "And why would they [the colonists] assume that a strange fruit, growing in an unfamiliar land, is fit to eat? In fact, we would expect them to err on the side of caution." On the contrary, I might expect people who have been at sea for months, living on dry rations, to be so hungry for fresh fruits of the earth that caution might not occur to them in the excitement of the moment, that they might eat any fruit that appeared fleshy and edible. Miller does not speculate as to what the fruit might have been, but concludes that the colonists must have been told by a treacherous individual that it was safe to eat. I would question why an individual would take the risk of betraying such a large number of people in whose company he is stuck and why they would not punish him. The answer could be that they were utterly dependent on his him to get them to Roanoke and/or Chesapeake Bay. Still, the question of this particular betrayal is not as clear as Miller portrays; this is typical of her thought process throughout.

Her writing style and habit of jumping around erratically in time and space is frustrating and tiresome for a reader who is not familiar with the facts of the Roanoke voyages. She tries to use sentence fragments for dramatic effect, but has no idea how to do so. Most of these fall flat. For example, "White pushes ahead, the sailors following. Out of their element."  Since this fragment is not followed up with something that happens because White and the sailors are "out of their element," it is pointless and adds nothing. Numerous fragments like these are distracting and detract from the narrative. A good writer knows to use such a device sparingly, but Miller indulges in it relentlessly.

By the end of the book, I knew a little more about Elizabethan England, John White, Sir Walter Raleigh, and the nations of the Roanoke area than I did before, although I have qualms about the reliability of Miller's interpretations of her sources. Her ultimate conclusion about the fate of the colonists seems little different from that of other historians, although she probably presents the case differently. I recommend reading a more straightforward history of Roanoke colony before tackling this book and being prepared for more drama, badly done, than history.

Monday, 20 November 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Two dreams

I've never read The Interpretation of Dreams, or any of Freud's
writings, so I don't know what the father of dream analysis says about
dreams. I wonder how individual dreams are. Do some people dream very
literally, while others dream in symbols and metaphors? If so, are those
whose dreams are literal also those whose thoughts are literal? How do you
recognize what is literal and what is symbolic?

In some cases, it's very obvious. In my morning dreams, no matter how
surreal they are, invariably I will look for a bathroom. Each time I find
one it is configured oddly, or is nonfunctional or dirty in some way. This
morning it was full of what appeared to be repairmen and other males. At
some point, though, no matter what the obstacle, I go in and take care of
the need. This means that I wake up, find my glasses in the dark, and
scramble to my functional, prosaic (but never quite clean) bathroom. With
two fibroids the size of a fist and numerous others crowding my uterus, plus
the problems caused by PMS and attendant hormones, I have to go when I have
to go, sometimes sooner . . .

(This is one of the reasons I want to be a man in my next life. An
extroverted man.)

But the prelude to the bathroom fantasy is usually not so mundane. I've
dreamed of people transformed into frosted cakes, of houses with their
facades in the city and their rears in the country, of houses with
watercourses inside, of roads that take me places that I knew once but that
are infinitely strange to me now, of pans and vampires, of makeup that
betrays hidden feelings and anguish, of an incubus whose attack made me wake
up breathless with terror an hour after going to sleep, of apocalyptic night
skies, of many things that are weird and marvelous. My dreams are better
than any work of fiction could be. Often they leave me with such a wonderful
feeling of strangeness, of being outside the world, that I don't want them
to end (and I do recognize that the intrusion of thoughts about bathrooms is
a sign that the end is coming). Sometimes I sleep at odd hours, perchance to
dream.

Today I had a new dream and one whose gist is recurring more and more
frequently. In the new dream, which I had in the afternoon, I had a caged
dog whose face was expressive of his emotions, which seemed sad and
hopeless. Enter the cat, against whom the cage was probably meant to protect
the dog. Still, the cat managed to attack the dog brutally, which made him
even sadder and more withdrawn.

I don't remember speaking or doing anything, but the cat somehow became
contrite, perhaps because I willed it, and soon he and the dog were snuggled
together, the best of friends. The dog had lost its infinitely sad look and
now seemed blissfully happy. I felt pleased and envious.

In my morning dream, with the recurring theme, I was at a gathering of
people from high school, apparently two or three years after graduation,
while we were still in college. As usual, I was trying to get someone to
notice me, to acknowledge my existence. As usual, it was as though I were in
an alternative universe, where no one could see me. I would even talk to
people, but they looked past me as though I weren't there&lsqauo;or weren't worth
noticing. One woman spoke to me, although perhaps she was addressing someone
else. I leant so close to her because of my poor hearing (of which I was
conscious even in my sleep) that our relationship could have been
misconstrued. I do not think she saw me any more than anyone else did. I
could see her, and the object of my desired friendship, but I could not be
seen. I was not real to the real world.

Frustrated, yet desperate to continue trying, I repaired to the bathroom
full of repairmen, where the stalls were wavy suites and there was nowhere
to go . . .

Saturday, November 18, 2006

An army of one

If you don't follow the news, whether online, or on television or radio, and if you don't have a family member, friend, or coworker serving in the military, would you know that the U.S. is at war?

This isn't a pointless or trite question, but one about how we the public have come detached from a world that is increasingly sanitized for us, a world in which we are observers rather than participants, a world that we hope will somehow, someday set itself right—when someone, we don't know who, when, or where, invents miraculous technologies that will allow growing populations with heightened quality-of-life expectations and demands to live on dwindling space, animal, plant, and even element resources, such as topsoil and water.

If you don't know anyone serving in the military, how otherwise does the war in Iraq or the action in Afghanistan affect your day-to-day life? Except for some economic fluctuations that could be due to many factors, it probably doesn't.

Now think about World War II, a war fought before everyone had televisions, radios, and personal computers. Yet you could not fail to think about it. People across the country gave up commodities like stockings so the materials could be used for the war cause. Companies like Kraft Foods advertised that their prepared dinners utilized fewer ration points. Women became "Rosie the Riveter," filling the growing number of industrial positions left vacant by able-bodied men sent to the front. Military recruitment posters caricatured the enemy and Hollywood cranked out war and propaganda movies and shows, while Bob Hope and friends entertained the troops. Every radio program referred to the war, whether it was Jack Benny asking you to buy war bonds or "Fibber McGee" reminding you about ration points. The president spoke regularly to the public about the war.

In short, your everyday life, from the food you ate and the work you did to the entertainment you enjoyed, was affected by events thousands of miles away in the European and Pacific Theaters. Everyone was in it together.

Not so today. Most of us go about our business, eating what we also do, going to our jobs, and renting Pirates of the Caribbean as though there weren't a war going on, as though we didn't have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting to hold both countries together and fighting for personal survival.

What you might notice is a greater amount of military recruitment advertising on cable channels geared toward young men. In between the commercials for fast food, games, and technical schools are those about the "Army of One." The messages are different for different audiences. In one, an older man talks to a young soldier about the need for trust and to be able to rely on one another, appealing to young men who want responsibility and camaraderie. For those who desire excitement, another commercial shows a young recruit on leave, at home with his civilian buddies. When he tells them he works with computers, they look at one another incredulously and point out to him that he could have done that here. "Not really," he says, as he is shown in the think of adrenaline-pumping action. One focuses on life after the military. A former soldier is introduced to the team at his new employer as someone who learned something about aviation and mechanics at his "last job." Yet another appeals to patriotism; a soldier is shown jogging past the people and property and neighborhood he is defending and is joined by other fresh-faced soldiers who run with him (the only commercial in which female soldiers make a token appearance).

The Navy simply plays coy. Water is shown lapping a beach in the dark for some seconds, then the Navy Seals Web site appears on the screen.

War and terrorism are strangely absent from each of these commercials. During World War II, we were called upon to fight sneering Nazis and sinister Japanese; during the Vietnam conflict, we were called upon to fight the Viet Cong and communism. Today we are not called upon to fight at all. We are called upon to experience trust and camaraderie, excitement, on-the-job training, and pride.

But we are not fighting anyone, whether you call them the Taliban, insurgents, or terrorists. We are not rationing or sacrificing food, raw materials, or food. What we are doing is eating, working, shopping, partying, etc., as though there weren't a war, or as though it is so removed from our reality that it doesn't affect us or our lives. That seems to be what we want, and what our leaders want.

I am not so sure I feel comfortable feeling so comfortable. At some point in a not-very-distant future, all of us will have to start sacrificing some of that comfort, including those who have had it for a while, those who are just getting used to having it, and those to whom it is being marketed. The planet can't sustain it, nor can our combined propensity for procreation, consumption, and conflict.

Your cave or mine?

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Vote early and often. Or not at all.

Vote early and often.

You've heard this time-honored [tired] saying about Chicago elections, which supposedly even reanimate the deceased.

In my case, it was, "Vote not at all."

What happened to me on Election Day, November 7, is probably not that unusual, although the judges told me I was the only one all day, as of 6:30 p.m. That's me—always different.

The way in which it happened was funnier than most of what you'll see on a comedy show.

After work I duly reported to my polling place, where the Democratic judge could not find me in the book.

In other words, this was my first step on the road to finding out that I am a non-person.

Befuddled, the judge referred me to the Republican judges, apparently in the hopes they have better eyesight. They could not find me in the book or on their list.

"Have you moved?" they asked. "Yes, in 2003, but I voted in 2004." After some back-and-forth during which they told me that perhaps I voted before but it may not have been counted, they referred me to a Person of Greater Authority (PGA) to give me a provisional ballot.

The PGA called "Election Central," which pulled a Peter the Disciple and denied all knowledge of me. "Sorry," she said. "When was the last time you voted?" "2004." "Two years ago? That's the problem." "But I've been voting for more than 20 years and never had this problem before." "Did you vote in the primary?" "No." "Aha," she said knowingly. "But I've never had this problem before!" By now I was getting emotional, as it was clear that as long as "Election Central" didn't know me, I was going nowhere near a voting machine.

"Why would they arbitrarily delete me?" I wailed. Then, realizing it was best to leave before embarrassing myself even more, I said, "I"m not upset with you," but halfway through my apology the PGA turned her back on me to ask someone who didn't need help if they needed help. Next!

At home, a little calmer, I called the Illinois board of elections complaint number. The person who answered listened to my tale of woe sympathetically, but said only the Chicago board of elections could help me. He did point out that not having voted since 2004 had nothing to do with it and that I shouldn't have been told that it did. Apparently the PGA was incorrect, at least about that.

Now, this is when it gets good. I called the Chicago board of elections and, upon request, gave my address: 5500 South Shore Drive. After several minutes of muttering, she told me that address didn't come up. I repeated it, as I would approximately 50 times in the next 10 minutes. "5500 South South Shore Drive, right?" she asked. "No, 5500 South Shore Drive." "Okay, 5500 South South Shore Drive." "No, it's 5500 South Shore Drive." "That's what I said, 5500 South South Shore Drive." "5500 SOUTH SHORE DRIVE." (When you're not being heard, it helps to raise your voice to complement the increase in your blood pressure.)

"You mean, there's no directional?" "Yes, it's south. 5500 SOUTH Shore Drive." "So it is 5500 South South Shore Drive." "It's just SHORE Drive; south is the directional." By now, even I was recognizing the potential for comedy, similar to Abbott and Costello.

I heard her consulting someone about 5500 East Lake Shore Drive. Oh, no . . . At one point, she informed me there is no building at that address, whatever that address was in her muddled mind. She couldn't mean 5500 South Shore Drive, where there's been a building since the late 1920s.

Clearly the address was getting us nowhere, so she asked my last name. "S-C-H-I-R-F," I said at 85+ decibels. "F as in Frank"—this because most people hear the last letter as an "s," so I thought I'd cut her off at that pass.

It didn't matter. "I see Fleming, Fraser, etc., but no F-C-H." Help . . .

"S as in Sam, C as in cat, H as in horse . . ." It didn't matter. My address didn't exist, my building didn't exist, and unaccountably S-C-H-I-R-F could not be found under the Fs. So she had the great idea of looking up my old address. Apparently, South Everett is not nearly as elusive an address because she found it—and me. I'm not sure how, but I may have voted with my new address (which I shall not repeat) in 2004. In 2005, the board of elections received returned mail from my old address and dismissed me with "inactive" status.

After all that, the solution was to fill out a card and mail it to the board of elections. Soon I hope to have my address, building, and registered voter status back.

But that hour of my life is gone forever.

Monday, October 16, 2006

An ironic title?

It occurs to me that "An INFP's inner life" might seem to be an ironic title for my journal. According to MBTI, I am an INFP, but aside from raw recountings of select dreams (I don't post the juicy ones), there is not much here about my inner workings. You could learn something about me that's somewhat beyond the surface from reading the dreams, the social commentaries, and the book reviews. You could see the type of behaviors and situations that annoy and concern me. If you are a determined dream analyst, you might even hit up on some relevant symbols in my dreams.

You could, but who would want to?

I've been told that I'm hard to get to know enough times that I believe it must be true, yet I do not understand how or in what way. I feel painfully open and appear painfully closed. It is true I do not discuss a lot of my personal feelings publicly—but do most people? Many personal journals online do tell day-to-day life stories with feelings described, but to me they seem to scratch only the surface. If a friend or family member is late or makes a thoughtless comment, the writer may express impatience, anger, or frustration, especially if it is already a troubled relationship. They seem to be reasonable responses that most of us in similar circumstances would share. The same is true for the rest of the gamut of feelings. Perhaps even strangers believe that they have come to know these journal keepers because they recognize the situations and the reactions. With me, apparently, whether it's in my offline or online life, there is nothing like that on which to latch.

Last night a friend annoyed me. I thought his behavior was, albeit unintentionally, thoughtless and inconsiderate, just short of rude. At the same time, my reaction to it—complaining in a somewhat passive-aggressive way, then become cold, silent, and distant—was equally disturbing and off-putting. I knew it even as I was behaving that way, but could not seem to stop myself. I despise myself when I am like that—when my emotional mind shows its reaction even while my rational mind knows it is an unwarranted waste of energy and insignificant in the scheme of things, whether that "scheme of things" is my own confined personal world or the greater world in which global warming, war, genocide, famine, etc., etc., seem both unstoppable and unthinkable.

Within a short time, my rational mind does win, and my emotional one feels sorry for its self-centeredness, impatience, and lack of control. And then it seems to draw the same conclusion it must have drawn before—that the best way to avoid feeling petty, out of control, and emotional is to minimize human contact.

This isn't easy to do. I crave meaningful human contact, partly because for me it is so difficult to find and therefore rare. When I do find it, I share too much, I think; I probably scare most people off, even as they tell me I'm hard to get to know. I am afraid of that kind of intimacy because it is both elusive and fragile. I try too hard. I become half a person—the half that is understanding, empathic, and noncontroversial. The half that is bland and boring and flat. The half that is petty, petulant, passionate, and difficult stays hidden. Once the hope of intimacy is lost, however, then too much of that half is revealed. Neither is a whole person, neither is an interesting one, and, I hope, neither is me. Neither person is someone I would want to know.

When I was depressed, I saw a social worker who was convinced that I have a "rich inner life." So was Wayne Booth in the brief time during which I took his classes. I do not live it, however. I don't know how to.

The social worker also told me I have locked away my emotions behind a door, in a basement. I suppose it is so that they do not trouble me. But once in a while something will happen that will make them, at least the stronger ones, maybe love-hate-anger-fear, escape or try to. I imagine that I do one of two things—let the door burst open, let the flood out, succumb to an overwhelming flood of anxiety and depression, with all the attendant physical and emotional symptoms, fighting to suppress their expression. Or I expend all my energy leaning on the door with a tightlipped smile to keep them where they belong, where I may not be able to manage them, but where no one else need be aware of them.

I imagine that this basement resembles my rooms and my closets—full of old things piled up haphazardly, things with which I cannot bring myself to part. I do not always use them but I may need them someday, a day that never comes. Meanwhile, they oppress me; they weigh me down.

I can neither keep them in nor let them out.

Maybe that is the way I am meant to be.

There. Not so difficult to understand after all.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Rats, Charlie Brown

If population growth continues unabated, I suspected that we will turn into rats. Apparently, rats kept in overcrowded conditions become stressed and violent. While rats do not have such added factors as human intelligence and compassion, they also lack human ego and vanity.

I am noticing an increased amount of territoriality, some conscious, some not. For example, when was looking for a table at a busy, upscale lunch place, I came across a woman who had bought a bottle of water and who, together with her bags, was spread across two tables and three chairs. This seems to be occurring more often—the need to sprawl.

Then there is the bus. High school students traveling 20 or 30 blocks require a minimum of three seats. Sometimes an entire seat is needed for a flung-out arm, which simultaneously embraces the adjoining seat and warns off anyone who might be considering using the seat portion. If the body posture doesn't deter you, perhaps the glaring, ice-cold expression will. (Neither is effective with me or my painful back.)

It's no better on the suburban trains. A couple of weeks ago, I entered a car that was half empty, but there was only one empty seat. Every other pair of seats was occupied by a VIP and his or her VIP baggage and/or body parts. As people boarded, no one budged.

Even public space has become something you claim, not share.

Rats.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The morning after

Last night, just as I was thinking of walking to the store, a storm began that turned into a frightful experience. At first, there were nearly incessant flashes of sheet and streak lightning, beginning at about 8:15 p.m. This lasted for about an hour unabated. It began to rain, then to rain hard, then to rain so hard that sheets of water hurled themselves at the windows while the lightning continued and thunder sounded. Suddenly there was a terrifying roaring as the wind picked up, tossing the trees back and forth and seeming to cause the building to shudder.





I surprised myself by feeling scared.

At the moment when I was beginning to realize this was the worst storm I'd ever weathered, worse than any of those in western New York that made the trailer seem instantly frail and vulnerable, there was a blinding flash and a simultaneous, deafening thunderclap.

My heart stopped and then raced.

I have been that terrified at an autonomic level only a few times in my life, and even while sensing danger at the door, I felt acutely alive yet disconnected and detached.

This morning presented a scene of minor, yet disturbing devastation. I noticed last night that a half-dead tree in Burnham Park across the street had fallen on the sidewalk. It was not the only tree to succumb. A couple of my favorites, large shade trees, were among the victims, either fallen or snapped off partway up the trunk. Partial trunks and huge branches littered both nearby parks. The landscape was altered, as trees that had been growing 30–40–50 years cracked or crashed in an instant.

The Chicago Park District was at Burnham Park today at 7:00 a.m. to clear the tree blocking the sidewalk that the police use to enter Burnham Park and Promontory Point. It was a curious operation in which 4–5 men stood around and watched a truck awkwardly scoop up the not-very-large branches and place them in a dump truck. The scooping method was inefficient, and I'm not clear why so many people needed to supervise the operation. From what I could see, it would have made more sense for the 4–5 men standing around simply to pick up the branches and toss them in the truck. It would have taken half the time and would not have wasted the fuel. But we are no longer a society that does anything "by hand" or respects manual labor. We are slaves to the machine.

Tonight, I walked around part of Burnham Park and Promontory Point. So many trees wrenched out of the ground, or split in half, or with limbs torn off and strewn about. I found the two gingko trees I have spent many hours reading under torn in half. They were usually the last to lose their leaves in autumn. It looks like last year was their final fall. They will shelter me no more.

I looked up at the Shoreland from near the underpass. Trees no longer filter most of the lower part of the building. The tree line is broken, open, scarred.

It took decades to create the beauty of mature trees.

And minutes to destroy it.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Dream: Silent attachment, anguish, and appeal

I was participating in a special service at my old church, where I was to read from a book. Suddenly, though, after reaching the platform, I had to go to the bathroom. I didn't know when I was supposed to read and didn't want to miss the opportunity, but I couldn't wait any longer and so I left.

To my horror, I found an odd-looking child with curly hair with me. I couldn't tell whether it was a boy or girl, and it had a large head and small body like a cartoon. The child didn't say anything but would not leave me. I thought I would be accused of abduction.

I found myself in a maze of hallways. This appeared to be a new building, constructed since my last visit in the place where the pastor's house used to be. I could see the parking lot at one point, although there did not appear to be windows. The walls were natural pine, complete with knotholes. Graffiti, mostly in white, covered them, which shocked me as I could not imagine the kids at the church treating it with such open disrespect. I tried to read it to see if it were at least spiritual in nature, but I couldn't.

I found the bathroom, but as is usual in my dreams, it was odd and required decisions about cleanliness, privacy, etc. By this time I was carrying the child, who seemed utterly attached to me. As I sat in a stall with no door, still holding the child, a man came toward me. I thought somehow that this child's father had lost his wife (the mother?) and had remarried. The man, the father, took the child from me wordlessly as I sat there.

When I came out, unsure if I'd missed the time for my reading, I looked down and saw that my formerly fresh yellow dress was streaked with lines of embedded dirt. I did not know how this could have happened, but between the father's silent accusation, the child's unspoken attachment and anguish, and the mysterious ruin of the dress, I wanted to fade away.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Dream: "Magic Carpet Ride"

I was in a cave when a motley group of people roller skated by me. They seemed happy, and Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" was blasting. Someone told me that this was or would be the best movie ever and that I should join in. I can't roller skate, but I did. Perhaps I was running, but it felt like fluid motion. Then I learned that there was or had been a powerful vampire in a refrigerator, and someone had or was about to let him out. Now there was a sense of terror, although it was subtle and perhaps only I really felt it. Then I saw someone who looked more like a cat-like creature operating on a bag, and I had a feeling of foreboding. Suddenly metallic but animal teeth snatched the operator into the bag, and I was now terrified. The music and the flow of the skates never stopped.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Review: The Mysterious Island

The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. Recommended.

After reading The Mysterious Island, I wonder how much Jules Verne's current reputation is based on 1950s and '60s movies loosely—very loosely—adapted from his novels. In this book, there are no giant crabs or bees, or aliens, or even women. There are five men and a dog seeking to escape besieged Richmond during the Civil War who are carried off in a balloon by hurricane winds to an uncharted island in the Pacific, where they find and make what they need to survive.

The "colonists," as they style themselves to avoid the negative connotations of "castaways," are an improbable assortment, each man having knowledge or skills that complement those of the others. Cyrus Harding, the engineer, is not only a bottomless well of information about mechanics, chemistry, navigation, and other practical topics, but is also a natural leader. Gideon Spillett, the reporter, is an expert hunter. Pencroft, the sailor, knows shipbuilding and is a willing worker, while his teenage ward, Herbert, is a knowledgeable naturalist and able hunter. Harding's servant, Neb, plays the role of cook and domestic, while Harding's dog, Top, provides keen senses and instinct. When Verne wrote, "It would have been difficult to unite five men, better fitted to struggle against fate, more certain to triumph over it," it cannot have been without some sense of irony, since he is the one who brought them together in his imagination.

While a mysterious influence, whose acts are ambiguous at first but become more tangible over time, rescues the settlers or provides them with just what they need just when they need it, the real mystery of the island is the island itself. Perhaps Verne misunderstood or misused common names; he calls Jup's troop both "orangutans" (apes) and "baboons" (monkeys). He might have been pandering to a Victorian taste for the exotic. The island that the settlers call "Lincoln" for their wartime president is an impossibility of nature. Creatures from nearly every continent and ecosystem roam among an equally unlikely mixture of geological formations and collection of plants. Onagers from the Asian steppes and Middle Eastern deserts, koalas (described as "large" and speedy) from Australia, jaguars from Central and South America, orangutans from the Borneo rain forest, and musmons from isles of the Mediterranean are among Nature's bounty found on this small temperate island. Here, tropical apes, cats, and parrots survive below-freezing winters as easily as the musmons and goats.

The mineral riches are equally diverse, but even as he wonders about this paradise, Harding tells his comrades, "Nature gives us these things. It is our business to make a right use of them," signaling the beginning of man's never-ending quest to conquer and destroy nature. Even the water must be tamed; the settlers must "borrow its power, actually lost without profit to any one."

Under Harding's leadership, and with the occasional help of the island's secret benefactor, the colonists build an incredible infrastructure that provides them with shelter, water, food, clothing, power, tools, and weapons. Harding is not the leader because he is rich, good looking, charismatic, well spoken, or the other things that appeal to civilized man; he is the leader because he knows what to do and how to do it, and has faith in his ability to do it—and because he has intelligent followers in whom he can instill that same faith. The lack of discord among the colonists is as unlikely as the flora and fauna, but it may be Verne's commentary on leadership when it is most needed. When an important decision must be made, Harding refuses to make it without obtaining the opinions of all concerned, including his own servant. Taken away from civilization and its layers of social, moral, and other complexities, and forced into a situation where able leadership and willing cooperation mean not only survival but comfort and satisfaction, these men rise to the occasion. It is no coincidence that the impetus for the arrival on Lincoln Island is the Civil War, one of America's bloodiest, most savage times.

In the afterword, author Isaac Asimov tried to determine the appeal of "robinsonades" like Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and The Mysterious Island. He came to the conclusion that such tales answer the question, "What do I do if civilization fails me?"—a question that could apply to castaways on an uncharted island or survivors of a civil war or a nuclear or chemical/biochemical holocaust. Perhaps, though, the question is more basic than that. It might be, "Do I need civilization at all?"

While the North and South were counting and burying their dead and trying to heal the nation—a process that in some ways has not been completed—Harding and his group were using both their minds and their hands to shape a near-paradise (interestingly, one in which tobacco is missed sorely, but not women).

The Mysterious Island starts off slowly; too much ink is dedicated to Pencroft's desire to kill eat every creature they encounter, and the characters can seem psychologically shallow and limited to a mature reader. At some point, however, I found myself so interested in Lincoln Island that I, like the colonists, was reluctant to leave it. I was even disappointed by the ultimate fate and home of the settlers, as it did not seem the right place for them to be. While not a literary masterpiece, The Mysterious Island does not need giant crabs, bees, or even women to be a good story of its kind.

Monday, 25 September 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Dream: My new room, husband, and boys

While showing guests my apartment, I found a huge room that I had forgotten about. It had hardwood floors, a solid walls of windows that was two stories high, and good but mismatched furniture (including the longed-for sofa). There were even a single-bowl sink and a door that led to a deck with the trash.

On the room's many shelves, tables, and stands, I found things I had forgotten were missing. Then I discovered teas and biscuits that were growing mealy bugs and tried to rush them out to the convenient trash as they were the room's only imperfection I could see.

Although the room had a television, I told someone that if it had a cable connection I would like their help moving my TV from the living room into this room. Subconsciously I saw myself moving into this room altogether.

I asked for assistance washing a mountain of dishes. It was really difficult with the single-bowl sink, and the two drain boards were small, pointed the wrong way, and dirty from disuse. I had no way to organize the dish washing, rinsing, and drying, and I became so frustrated that I almost cried. The water smelled and tasted terrible, too, and I wondered if that could be fixed.

Then we noticed that the room communicated across a divider, not quite a hallway, with a modern, frosted green glass room. I went to slide the doors shut, but someone from the other side was doing it already, a bit huffily. The glass walls went only part way up, though, but my wall was solid; I'm not sure how this worked with the narrow divider hallway. I decided that it was a conference room since it was so modern and offered no privacy.

I came back to find nearly everyone gone but a person (not sure of gender), who was my husband, apparently, and two boys who turned out to be my late husband's orphans. I did know them at first and feared them, but found they were loyal and devoted to me. They were the boys that I had always wanted.

Somehow the the topic became someone else, a friend of theirs perhaps, who needed to be told about birth control, at least I thought so. I'm not sure what the other remaining people thought.

Then the husband (I didn't remember having one, like I didn't remember having the boys) started talking to me about our children, the religion we would raise them in, and so forth. I saw the two loyal boys who were virtually my own and then thought of the spiritual responsibility for children of my own. I was also confused at having this person in my life whom I didn't know or even recognize. "Perhaps we should have discussed these things more before we got married," I said. "I am 45 and did not think to have children at this point." The person seemed stunned, although I could never quite see the face. The boys and the person then faded away, and they took the room with them.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Test Drive Unlimited

"I want it all . . . now." This darling quote is from a commercial for a video game. A sleazy-looking young man postures in front of endangered cat skins and brags about his "ladies" while fondling them and then going on to mention how he's "all hot"—all in a very odd, very girlish voice. Captions of "unlimited mansions," "unlimited cars," "unlimited money," etc., roll by. "I want it all . . . now. Right, Eugene?" he says to an equally sleazy-looking young man with a mindless babe hanging off him. Eugene answers in the affirmative in an equally weird, equally girlish voice.

And this game so charmingly advertised is deemed "appropriate" for "10 years old and up." Apparently, as long as there's no violence, greed and utter lack of scruples are okay for young children. Apparently it's worked for so many of our so-called leaders.

So if you've got a 10-year-old who's "all hot" to the ladies and who "wants it all now," legal or not, moral or not, ethical or not, and if you want to feed his worst impulses, then you'll want to get this game for him. But don't be surprised if, in five years, you get a late-night call about bail money.

Or in 20 years he wins his first election.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Dream: Vistas and vultures

17 September 2006

I was in a darkened room next to an accountant or actuary, discussing some numbers. I noticed a side window covered by a thick curtain with bright edges of light. I felt closed in, so I opened it. The window looked out onto an endless vista, with a few rows of colorful bushes filled with tightly packed flowers across from the window. I was shocked because there was supposed to be a home there. I couldn't believe the vista. Then I turned to find a second window in a perpendicular wall. It was like home, with the window in the extra room that faced the trailer across the driveway and the rear window that overlooked the back yard. The other person had joined me, and we saw fantastic, colorful birds that didn't seem real but did resemble real species. Then, at the rear of the yard, I spotted three very large, slightly cartoonish birds. "Raptors!" I exclaimed, or perhaps it was "Falcons!" or "Hawks!" When I looked again more carefully, I realized that the one in the middle was what would have been called a buzzard in a cartoon but it was really a vulture with a thick bill. This seemed important, but I hoped the accountant/actuary wouldn't notice. Perhaps it was a bad omen, perhaps I still wasn't sure, or perhaps I didn't want him to know that in my enthusiasm I had been mistaken.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Review: The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. Highly recommended.

I had not seen the movie of The French Lieutenant's Woman until recently, so I did not know what to expect from the novel. I thought it might be a romantic thriller set during one of the world wars and was surprised to read a book set in one of my favorite English periods, the Victorian, written from the perspective of the late 1960s.

The waning aristocracy is represented by Charles Smithson, dilettante and heir to his aging, unmarried uncle's wealth and title. His bride-to-be, Ernestina Freeman, heiress to the fortune her father has accumulated at his enormous London emporium, represents the rising, affluent middle class. While Charles and Tina seem to share the idealized Victorian view of marriage and family life, they are also keenly aware that their engagement is a legal contract that will benefit each of them in different ways. After Mr. Freeman's death, Charles will gain control over the family's money. For Tina, marriage means an entrée into the aristocracy, elevating her above being a mere "tradesman's daughter."

This is only one of many Victorian dualities that Fowles highlights; he is not subtle about his theme. Darwin's theory, as seen by the science dabbler Charles, is as harsh as practitioners of Christianity like Mrs. Poulteney. The advantage of evolution seems to be its lack of bias and judgment. Charles, unwilling or unable to adapt to a changing society in which money is coming to matter more than manners, is as much a victim of evolution as Sarah appears to be of the hypocritical morality of Mrs. Poulteney's religion.

Idealized Victorian life centered on the home and family. The poem that Ernestina reads to her contracted lover is about a sterile, lofty form of love devoid of real passion—and it promptly puts Charles to sleep. According to Fowles, it was believed that respectable women merely tolerated men's carnal desires, but did not share them. Ernestina "must not" think about such things, even though they are natural. Nature is to be controlled. She is shown mostly within the confines of her aunt's house or social settings. In contrast, Sarah Woodruff, the French lieutenant's woman, is first seen at the end of the seawall, in the wind, exposed symbolically to the world. Later, Charles discovers her "on that wild cliff meadow"; at some point, he "recalled very vividly how she had lain that day." Charles sees her in a way in which he will never see Ernestina; she is sleeping openly in a natural position which is, not surprisingly, sexually suggestive.

If the close-minded, tightly clothed Ernestina represents the Victorian marriage-and-family ideal, Sarah seems to represent the unspoken male ideal, at least for men like Charles—a natural woman, a woman of intelligence, of spirit and independence, who is not afraid to shun the ideal in favor of the real, to prefer passion to posturing. Her interactions with Charles make the "love" of Charles and Ernestina seem like the play-acting of children. Even with Sarah, however, Charles cannot escape the duality of his perceptions and desires. "He was at one and the same time Varguennes enjoying her and the man who sprang forward and struck him down; just as Sarah was to him both an innocent victim and a wild, abandoned woman."

While Ernestina sees herself in the perfect Victorian marriage—one in which love is pure, and carnal demands are submitted to primarily to produce the ideal family—Fowles shows some of the alternatives. There is the prostitute mother, for whom sex is a mechanical means to the end of supporting herself and her child. There is Mrs. Tomkins, intent on producing the rich heir to what would have been Charles's title and inheritance. There is Mary, and the servants and country girls like her, who see sex as a way to land a man but who also seem to enjoy it for its own sake. There is Mrs. Poulteney, whom one can never imagine experiencing love of any kind, pure or not. There is the sexualized Sarah, the French lieutenant's whore, whom Charles encounters in the wild, in a natural state unencumbered by social expectations. There is also the Sarah of one proposed ending, the sophisticate artist's assistant in London, committed to her single status and her freedom.

The narrator often intrudes into the story, deliberately undermining it. Just as the reader may be getting wrapped up in the odd, tension-filled relationship between Charles and Sarah, the narrator interjects a comment from contemporary times; words like "computer" clash with the old-fashioned stays of Mrs. Poulteney's dress and the limits of her mentality. While drawing us into the Victorian world, the narrator pulls us back with his ironic, detached commentary on what he wants us to understand is fiction if not fantasy. Charles and Sarah are no more real to a man of the 1960s than the mores of Victorian society.

While the Victorians may have feared the power of sex and desire, the narrator points out that we have succeeded where the Victorians did not of stripping sex of that power. He notes that, by his time, any relationship that is more than casual quickly becomes sexual. For Charles and Sarah, the tension is cumulative, building to a proportional climax. By the 1960s, Charles would simply have dumped Ernestina and gone to bed with Sarah as a matter of routine, transforming sex into as casual an activity as changing the sheets. It is instant impulse fulfillment, which is no more satisfying than ongoing denial without release.

The French Lieutenant's Woman is filled with philosophical, historical, religious, scientific, and literary references that alone make it a fascinating novel. They reveal the numerous and often conflicting ideas that made Queen Victoria's time, a time of evolution, so vibrant and complex. With its twists on the conventional novel and love story and its sweeping perspective, The French Lieutenant's Woman is a remarkable achievement in 20th-century literature.

Sunday, 17 September 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Quotations that resonate with me

"My life has been steeped in loneliness, Mr. Smithson. As if it has been been ordained that I shall never form a friendship with an equal, never inhabit my own home, never see the world except as the generality to which I must be the exception."

"He was at one and the same time Varguennes enjoying her and the man who sprang forward and struck him down; just as Sarah was to him both an innocent victim and a wild, abandoned woman."

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Dream symbols?

I have had some dreams in the past few weeks that I haven't recorded, maybe because I'm lazy or busy, perhaps a little depressed—I've been sleeping too much on weekends—but mostly because I have felt reticent. What can I write about that won't reveal that I am foolish and naked? Wisdom is silent.

Symbolism. I was in a bed, waiting for a lover but more likely a husband. As I lay there, I became aware of an eye looking through what seemed to be an aperture in the wall next to the bed. It was too large to be a human eye. I did not want it to see and noticed that there was a cover for the opening, so I pulled the cover down. It was clear, and the eye was still visible. Involuntarily I made some sounds that could have been of pain or pleasure or both, and was terrified that the eye would detect the sounds; the disconnect in that thought did not occur to me. When I woke up, I realized that the eye was fixed; it looked neither up nor down, nor from side to side, nor did it blink. It was the unflinching, unfocused eye of omniscience, of omnipotence.

There was a roommate, a person I know whom I do not like. In the dream, she showed me a soft, clear, wizard-shaped squeeze bottle of some kind of cleaner because she had noticed a rust spot in the toilet. The room is dark, cluttered, full of mystery and mysterious things, like the world outside, yet the thought of the mind and the speech of the mouth is on the trivial.

A person I never knew well and with whom I never had anything in common; a person who seems to have achieved some ambitions and goals; a person who, from the little I know or care to know, leads an outwardly conventional life, haunts my dreams but not my waking thoughts or feelings. I yearn for his attention and his approval with a devastating excess of feeling—and never gain even the slightest notice. This time, in an agony, I disappeared into a hidden place, like a cave with a river, and took off my clothes, exposing my nakedness yet exposing nothing, for to all I am invisible. While hiding and trying to control the uncontrollable, I saw two men fall as though ill or dead, and I argued with my conscience about revealing myself and my nakedness to help them. I did the right thing and brought them back to life. One spontaneously hugged me in gratitude, but when he felt my nakedness and saw the insignificance of who I am, he laughed contemptuously. I fled and tried to find another place to hide, a place safe from derision. The only place left was in the open, among the crowd. There were no safe places without people, and I did not want to be with them any more.

This morning I dreamed that I saw a spectacular silver maple tree with a full green crown of glory. Then I saw a tree, an ash, near which I had lived, but this did not seem right. It was the ash tree that my brother had planted in 6th grade for Arbor Day, but I think my dad had told me that it had died or been cut down because of disease, maybe the disease of the landowner's convenience. In my heart, part of me had been struck down with the ash, because it was the first thing I saw every morning of my childhood. When I woke up, the thought of the silver maple made me happy for a moment because it was the one I had planted in 6th grade. In the 34 years since, it would have grown into majesty. I was still thinking this for a few moments after I woke up when I remembered that vandals had uprooted my silver maple sapling shortly after we'd planted it. I still mourn the tree with so much potential that was murdered so young.

In my waking life this week, someone told me that a particular horror movie was "pretty good." She expressed no emotion about it; it was entertainment that was "pretty good." From a fatal sense of curiosity, I looked the movie up to learn that it seems to be the worst kind of slasher porn, the kind of movie that seems utterly incompatible with any sense of human empathy. People took their small children (under 10) to see it. And to date it has grossed (she says ironically) more than $41 million.

Perhaps I dream to escape the nightmare.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Review: Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman. Highly recommended.

You know the feeling—your spouse says something that strikes you the wrong way, and involuntarily you tense up. You can almost feel your blood pressure rise. Without thinking, you respond emotionally, and soon what may have been intended as an innocuous comment has sparked a full-fledged marital battle that may leave as its aftermath lingering feelings of anger and resentment.

In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes the physiological processes that drive and are driven by emotion and their purpose, the ability of emotions to hijack rational thought and the short- and long-term physiological and psychological effects, and the personal and social benefits of teaching and learning how to manage the emotions.

In the opening chapters, Goleman discusses in simplified terms the complex interactions of the brain when emotion-causing stimuli are perceived, with the emotional mind reacting more quickly than the rational. For example, the sight of a snake may start the fight-or-flight response; the structures of the emotional brain prime the body to strike out at the snake or to flee from it. Then, after the body is tensed, the rational mind notices that it is a harmless garter snake. The efficiency of the brain circuitry, along with its emotional memory and associative abilities, helps to explain the power of the emotions. Citing research, Goleman suggests that the ability to recognize and manage emotions and emotional response, primarily learned from parents, family, friends, school, and the community, is a greater indicator of success in relationships, work, and society than intelligence tests. It is not necessarily how well you learn or what you know, but indeed how well you play with others.

Goleman covers a variety of topics: depression, mania, anxiety, PTSD, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, relationship issues, abuse, and others. For example, a feeling of sadness can be transformed in the brain into a lingering mood and ultimately into a full-blown clinical depression. He shows how emotional intelligence can be used to control the brain's circuitry so that pathological conditions like depression, mania, and PTSD can be managed or at least controlled.

Citing an increase worldwide in indicators of emotional and social problems, Goleman focuses on children and the importance of pilot programs that teach such skills as empathy, assertiveness without aggression, self-awareness and self-control, conflict resolution, and so forth. He discusses several studies that show measurable, long-term benefits of such programs, and the negative results when children do not have the opportunity to learn these skills at home, at school, on the playground, or in the community.

Goleman does not always seem trustworthy. His description of the 1963 "Career Girl" murders, intended to illustrate an emotional hijacking, does not match other accounts in key areas. He also leaves out facts, such as that several knives were used, instead saying that the killer "slashed and stabbed them over and over with a kitchen knife." He does not mention the sexual assaults in "those few minutes of rage unleashed." The crime he depicts fits his picture of an emotional hijacking, but other accounts show it to have been a more deliberate crime of longer duration. In a section on empathy, he says that one-year-olds "still seem confused over what to do about [another child's tears]," citing an instance where a "one-year-old brought his own mother over to comfort the crying friend, ignoring the friend's mother, who was also in the room." There is no confusion here, but a logical, pre-verbal assumption: "My mother is comforting to me when I am upset; therefore, she will be comforting to you, too." This kind of thinking is not limited to one-year-olds; for example, how many times has a friend recommended an action movie or horror novel to you, saying that you will "love it," even though your known preference is historical romance or another completely different genre? Even adults assume that "what works for me will work for you."

Goleman also discusses school bullies and outcasts in detail. He places so much emphasis on the probability that their peers are reacting to their lack of emotional intelligence that he misses some important exceptions and nuances, such as children who are social outcasts for socioeconomic and racist reasons or because they are nonconformist individualists, in which cases it is the other children who display a lack of empathy and emotional intelligence. On the flip side, there are children (and adults) who are not empathetic or emotionally intelligent but who are well liked, even popular, for other reasons, tangible and intangible (e.g., socioeconomic status, influence, some mysterious force of personality or charisma). Many successful, popular people exhibit little emotional intelligence, which Goleman could have addressed. In addition, while Goleman cites a wealth of research supporting his arguments, he does not present any dissenting opinions, or whether any exist. This weakens his presentation.

Emotional Intelligence is an insightful, enlightening look at how awareness of the emotions and their physiology can help us to manage them when they affect our lives negatively or when they become pathological (e.g., depression). I found the book to be a practical guide to recognizing when I am reacting rather than listening to others or hearing them correctly. It has helped me to cope with colleagues who are lacking in emotional intelligence and to give them subtle guidance. While most of Emotional Intelligence is intuitive to a perceptive mind, the book serves as a guide and reminder that even a little emotional intelligence can make relationships, situations, and life more positive, more productive, and less stressful.

Sunday, 13 August 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Review: The Island at the Center of the World

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto. Recommended.

Before New York, there was New Netherland, claimed for the Dutch by English explorer Henry Hudson. At the heart of New Netherland was New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan—a frontier village and the gateway to the vast American interior, ripe for exploitation.

In The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto makes the case for the influence of the Dutch and their colony on the future United States and for Adriaen Van der Donck, who tried to convince the Dutch government to wrest control of the colony from the inept hands of the Dutch West India Company. He failed, leaving the colony vulnerable to the British, who took it with little effort and made it a mere footnote in American history textbooks.

The modern perception of the Dutch colony seems to support the adage that history is written by the victor. Adriaen Van der Donck lost; Peter Stuyvesant won, so that it is the latter who has a place in the history books. It is not much of a place, according to Shorto; as the loser to the British, Stuyvesant is portrayed "as almost a cartoon character: peg-legged, cantankerous, a figure of comic relief who would do his routine, draw a few laughs, and then exit the stage so that the real substance of American history could begin."

Shorto covers the colony's history from the time Hudson "found" it to Stuyvesant's reluctant surrender to the British in 1664, as well as Van der Donck's career from his university days and the writing of his book to his efforts at The Hague, followed by speculation about his death.

In between, Shorto shows what was different about New Netherland from its encroaching Pilgrim and Puritan neighbors to the north. For one thing, the "Dutch" were not all Dutch in origin. They were Dutch, English, German, French, African, Jewish, Quaker, even Turkish. One of the founding couples of New Netherland was a "French-speaking teenager " and a "Flemish textile worker," ". . . two young nobodies" whose descendants are estimated to number more than one million. The Dutch, having been victims of religious intolerance, promoted an unusually tolerant society that naturally encouraged diversity, which continues today. Shorto notes that, where Peter Stuyvesant's farmhouse once stood, "The same view takes in an Arab newsstand, a Yemenite Israeli restaurant, a pizza shop, a Japanese restaurant, and a Jewish deli."

Perhaps the more important difference in the English and Dutch legacies lies in each colony's original reason for existence. The Pilgrims and Puritans sought to escape persecution and to establish a society based on their own strictly interpreted religious beliefs, which did not preclude the persecution of others such as Quakers. New Haven and other cities were to be their equivalent of a promised land. The Dutch and others who settled New Netherland had a different motive—they saw opportunity. Here, anyone could obtain land, work hard, and succeed in a way not possible in the Dutch republic, with its limited space and resources. When writing of the initial report on New Netherland, Shorto says of the Dutch merchants reading it, "What jumped out at them, however, were other words, sharp, money-laden nouns—'Vellen . . . Pelterijen . . . Maertens . . . Vossen . . .' —the report making a frank promise of 'many skins and peltries, martins, foxes, and many other commodities.'" He reminds us that the colony was not managed by the government, but by a profit-making concern—the Dutch West India Company.

It was the opportunity that drew the French-speaking teenager and the Flemish textile worker and that allowed their descendants to proliferate, together with the Dutch attitude of religious, cultural, and social tolerance. It is easy to see the seeds of a democratic society in New Amsterdam, where the rules are different, where colonists of all skill sets are needed, and where opportunity is not restricted by class or status. Even the militaristic Calvinist Peter Stuyvesant can't change the character of the colony that developed before his arrival.

The book would have benefited from quotations from primary personal sources, for example, letters and journals of Stuyvesant and Van der Donck. It appears that such historical riches have been lost or not yet translated. Shorto tries to fill in these deficiencies with colorful, evocative language and speculation about how these and other characters might have felt or acted at critical moments; for example, Van der Donck writes "like a man possessed," while Stuyvesant might "stump off" in a fit of pique.

Shorto does bring the colony to life, including interesting and sordid details about court cases, facts such as that one-quarter of all businesses on Manhattan were taverns or breweries at one point, and details such as that one prostitute preferred to be paid in otter and beaver pelts rather than with money.

His evident passion for the subject and his frustration with Anglocentric (and mythologized) history leads Shorto to overstate the case for the influence of the Dutch colony. The United States today is not as uniformly tolerant, even in the Dutch sense, as Short believes, or as multicultural except in urban areas. Each urban area has not necessarily modeled itself after early Manhattan, but has evolved in its own way, not always offering equal opportunity to every group of immigrants or every individual.

Despite the Pilgrim/Puritan myths left to us and to which we cling, however, the United States, like Manhattan, is a unique creation born of a unique set of circumstances. Like the Pilgrims and Puritans, the Dutch were founding colonists and be given their due as such. If you are interested in a more complete picture of early American history, The Island at the Center of the World should be on your "must read" list.

Sunday, 6 August 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Uncommon sense

I'm not telling you anything you don't know when I say that an amazing number of people are lacking in not-so-common sense and courtesy.

This is not a new observation or a sign of the times. My understanding is that the ancient Romans and Greeks were known to lament the lack of these qualities in their youth. Consternation at rudeness, particularly that of the young, is a time-honored tradition.

Still, displays of rudeness and lack of sense astound me, no matter the age of the offender.

Case in point #1: A woman in the bathroom at work, in a stall, sitting on a toilet, is holding a cell phone conversation. In a stall. Sitting on a toilet. Performing bodily functions, like you do in a stall on a toilet. While talking on her cell phone.

And then, mid-conversation, she flushes.

Several years ago on an AOL message board, I mentioned how rude this behavior seems to me, and how weird it seems to me that any sophisticated, educated person could consider this acceptable. To my surprise, then horror, several people disagreed. It was normal to them.

This may be why I communicate primarily by e-mail, instant messages, and snail mail. If you read my letter while you're sitting on the toilet, at least I don't need to know about it. Or experience the sound effects.

Case in point #2 (also cell phone related): My dentist has a sign posted in her waiting room about considerate/inconsiderate cell phone use. I thought this might refer to people talking loudly. I asked the hygienist, who seemed grateful that at least one person had read the sign. Volume is an issue, she said; for some reason, some people think they need to shout when using a cell phone. That isn't the primary problem, however. They have had a number of patients who make and accept cell phone calls while getting their teeth examined, cleaned, or filled. The hygienist or dentist is supposed to stop what she is doing every time Suzy Patient wants to have a mundane conversation about where she is or what she is doing. To add proverbial insult to proverbial injury, the patients who do this are the most likely to have been late to the appointment.

If it were my dental practice, I'd confiscate the cell phones of known offenders at the door. If you behave like a child with no impulse control, I will treat you like one.

Case in point #3: As I've mentioned before, I've noticed that most people feel compelled to answer their cell phones, as though there were no other choice. When the phone rings (sings, chirps, meows, barks, whatever), I must answer no matter what—even if I am in a restaurant having lunch with a friend, who apparently does not deserve as much of my attention as my cell phone does; even if I am a cashier in the middle of checking out a customer; even if I am an office worker with whom others are trying to have a work-related discussion. Any cell phone call is worth interrupting whatever I was doing and putting off the person who is physically in front of me. These "can't miss" conversations usually involve no more than, "Yeah, I'm at lunch. I got home around 9 last night. Where are you?" etc. Not exactly headline news at eleven.

Case in point #4: A driver is at an intersection with a green light, waiting for the pedestrians to cross before making a left turn onto a one-way street. The driver of the third care in the lane honks his horn. Again. Again and again. Soon, he's lying on it. The pedestrians passing by on the sidewalk don't look enthused about having their eardrums blasted. Even other drivers start looking askance at the impatient one. It is not clear what he wants, except perhaps for the driver in front to mow down, maim, and kill pedestrians who have the right of way in the interest of shaving five seconds off travel time. Finally, the light changes, the pedestrians stop, and when #3's turn comes, he turns the corner with a squeal, almost on two wheels.

Maybe he was in a hurry to get home to relax. I would be, too, if everyone drove like that.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Student life, then and now

7.22.06
Café Verde in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Where there are college students, there are the four necessities of life: the notebook computer, the iPod or equivalent, the cell phone, and, of course, the Internet connection. I don’t know if the poorest students have all of these, but I suppose they have access to computers, printers, and the Internet in a center or at the libraries on campus.

Could today’s student imagine my college life 23–27 years ago—a lifetime for them? The only computer was a mainframe; 100 hours of use per quarter (or year?) was included in tuition, and students like me, ignorant about computers, used it mainly to play a DOS-based text game called “Adventure” (in my case, badly). More sophisticated students used it to store and retrieve data, including papers, and undoubtedly for research and other purposes, but I would have not known how to do this and was too reticent to ask anyone who might have known.

In my dormitory, there was one communal telephone in each hallway, from which you could call campus numbers. Off the lounge was a pair of pay telephone booths from which you could call your parents collect (no prepaid calling cards then). A few of us, including me, went to an event where you could get a telephone and connection from what was probably known at the time as Illinois Bell. The big new convenience was that the new jacks were modular, meaning that no wiring was involved—it was plug and play, so to speak. And my phone didn’t chirp, meow, bark, sing, or play music—it rang. The bell added to its heft and feeling of substance. Also at the time, phones were still rented from the local phone company. When you canceled your account or moved, you were expected to return the phone. At some point, I did buy mine (it was sky blue), but I no longer have it. I wish I did, because I’m enough of a fogy to prefer a loud, mechanical bell ring to an electronic chirp.

For me, portable music was a huge, now vintage, GE Superadio (which I still have) and an aesthetically unpleasing, monaural white earplug. I did not take it anywhere that I can remember other than perhaps the courtyard. The more affluent students had stereo systems. I don’t think the once-ubiquitous Sony Walkman was in common use yet.

As far as I know, the Internet was still a university/military construct and was not in wide use. When I needed to do research, I waded through the library card catalogue, drawers and drawers of typed, much-fingered, manila cards listing books, journals, and other works in the library’s collection. The next step was to locate the items in the stacks or wherever they resided in the collection. Now, I suppose students search the Internet and the electronic card catalogue, then the physical collection. It’s also probably easier to query other university libraries.

Finally, I used to write my papers in pencil, always at the last minute, then, in the wee hours of the morning on which they were due, type them laboriously slowly on a Royal Sabre manual typewriter. Some professors permitted the use of erasable paper; others forbade it. When I was tired enough, I could make mistake after mistake, and depending on what it was and where it was on the page, I might have to retype a page—sometimes more than one, sometimes more than once. Typing even a short paper might have taken one to three hours. A computer with spell check and a printer (not to mention e-mail) would have been quite handy—and would have saved some exhaustion-induced delirium.

I wonder what students today in situations similar to mine can afford or manage, for example, if they have notebook computers (which are relatively inexpensive at “big box” stores) or cell phones. I imagine that they do, because, as is typical of a product life cycle, such things have come down in price and become “necessities,” not luxuries. I wonder if having a computer would have helped me be more disciplined, given my dread of typing papers, or if I would have frittered away even more time on e-mail, instant messaging, or random reading unrelated to coursework. I wonder if students realize how freeing it must be to sit in a café comfortably; to correct mistakes instantly; to focus on rewriting, not retyping; and to focus on ideas, not logistics.

And I wonder if they can imagine how different this aspect of student life was, only 23–27 years ago. Can I even remember it myself?

Pass the Celestial Seasonings Morning Thunder. It’s going to be a long night.