Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dream: Disabilities and lovers

Pinecroft, Pennsylvania

I just read John Polidori's "The Vampyre" and wonder if it influenced this morning's dream. On the surface, there is no resemblance to the story, but I awoke with a vaguely uneasy sense about the dream that reminded me of the story's mood.

There was not much action or plot. I was a young woman who was lame, perhaps from polio. My left hand appeared to be affected as well; without warning it would convulse into a curled claw painful and ugly to behold.

I dined out and went to the theatre, and was attended by an older man who was unfailingly solicitous. He did not go with me, but would appear at my side after dinner or the performance had begun. He was never more or less than kind, and although I found his attentions somewhat strange and disturbing because I did not know what motivated them, still I looked for and enjoyed them, and feared their loss.

My half-awake conscious mind began to influence my dreaming one. It accepted my youth and uncharacteristic active social life, but it questioned the disabilities that were the apparent cause of the man's seeming fondness for me. I did not remember having polio, nor becoming lame from it. As for my hand, I knew I have signs of arthritis in both, but that did not explain why it would be normal at times and contorted at others.

I felt I must be a fraud, but did not remember becoming one intentionally. I was terrified that I was and that the man would find out and have nothing to do with me. I stopped going out. I waited and waited for this man I didn't even know or understand, and even mistrusted, but he never appeared, and this made me sad. At the end, I think I was whole again, except for the arthritis that I actually have.

It occurs to me that I was lame only as long as I saw him and that that was his hold over me. When I stopped going out, it broke his hold and cured my infirmities. Yet I found myself longing to be infirm and cared about rather than whole and lonely.

That dynamic surely explains many, many controlling relationships.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"Seeking high-energy individual . . ."

Employers who are hiring want "energy," so those want to be hired have to have and demonstrate "energy."

To which I say: If you want "energy," hire a two-year-old.

I have recent experience with someone described to me by several people as "having lots of energy." In some ways I am the best judge of character I know, and it's easy for me to see that what is perceived as "lots of energy" is no more than a spectrum of annoying nervous tics and a tendency to look rushed for no particular reason.

I worked with a woman who also was perceived as being "energetic" because she literally ran around constantly to display her "sense of urgency" and "can do" attitude. Not surprisingly, she accomplished about half as much as someone who simply sits down and gets work done.

Like I said, if you want "energy," hire a two-year-old. Except for the occasional nap time, "energy" is never in short supply for them.

What employers really want, I think, is initiative—the ability to take charge, to come up with ideas, and to find problems and their solutions, all without having to be managed too closely. A person with initiative just does it. A qualified, experienced person with initiative just does it well.

Humans are visual creatures, however. Initiative is hard to see, while "energy" is hard to miss. Someone with initiative could quietly generate dozens of ideas and solutions, and he would be thought of as a dedicated hard worker, perhaps even a smart one. If the same person did half as much but with "energy," and threw in a little self-promotion, he would soon be on the management, even executive, track. And he would want to recruit "high-energy" candidates like himself—nervous tics and all.

Meanwhile, the real work is done by others, those who focus on the doing, not the talking.

I wonder if that is why I sometimes feel like many organizations are run by the equivalent of two-year-olds—complete with "energy," egos, and tics, but not so complete in the areas of, say, intelligent decision making or action. Even the thoughtful have been conditioned to think that "energy" is a must.

"Energy" in a two-year-old is both exciting and exhausting. "Energy" in an adult is primarily exhausting. If I want "energy," I'll go to a playground. If I want vision, ideas, and accomplishments, I'll seek out an adult.

Unfortunately, I'm not hiring.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Please Mr. Postman

Tomorrow, U.S. postal rates will increase again. This time, there hasn't been the traditional outcry, or it's been at a lower volume. People probably don't count their pennies, or two, as closely these days. The bigger reason, though, is that people don't use postal services as often or as directly as they used to, and of course there is more competition. Need to talk to someone? Use some cell phone minutes or Skype. Need to write? Send an e-mail. Need to get something? Buy it online and have it shipped to yourself or to someone else. Need to pay a bill? Pay online. At this point, I suppose that most of what goes through the U.S. Postal Service is "direct" mail (advertising), magazines, some business-related mail, and parcels from retailers and sellers on ebay and other services.

I don't imagine there are very many people left who would put five personal letters into the mail, as I just did—all to people for whom I have phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

Why do I write? I like to—I like the feel of pen or pencil on paper, the kind of tactile sensation that our virtual reality society doesn't seem to value. I can write almost anywhere—at the lake front, at a restaurant or café, or in a public garden as I am doing now. All I need is a notebook or paper and a pencil case. I don't need a computer, computer case, battery, power supply, or a place with the right kind of lighting for an LCD—just a few ounces of the tools of the craft.

Those aren't the most important reasons, of course. A handwritten letter is more personal. Some of my personality comes out in not only the choice of words and phrases (and topics), but in their shapes and sizes. Times New Roman is Times New Roman no matter who types it; my handwriting is my own.

The people I write to can read (or not read) my letters at their leisure, wherever and whenever they want—at the park, a restaurant, or café, or in a public garden. Or even in the bathroom. They don't need to have equipment or a connection or a spot shielded from bright lighting.

I don't expect anyone to respond to my letters in the same format; the time for letter writing seems to be past. When I was a child, one of the highlights of a summer day was the sound of the U.S. Postal Service Jeep pulling up to the mailbox outside the kitchen window. It would be a happy day if there were a letter from a pen pal or a postcard (addressed to me!) from Aunt Marietta, posted from one of her exotic destinations like Mexico or Switzerland. Even catalogs could be exciting, even though we knew we were never going to get to order from them.

At my apartment building, most of us check our mail when we get home from work or school, and most of us throw most of what we receive straight into the convenient trash can. Once in a while, someone will have a flash of joy by the mailbox area like that we felt when we were children. Last week, a man told me, "I got a letter! I don't know when the last time I got a letter was! A LETTER!" He waved it half with joy, half with disbelief.

Writers and other thinkers have always communicated through letters. Thomas Jefferson wrote reams of correspondence, probably knowing that he would be communicating not only with the recipient but with the generations of Americans to come. His letters are as much a part of his legacy as his more formal writings. All of the Brontë sisters wrote letters that provide interesting insights into both their works and the family relationships and alliances that lay behind them. For a person in Anne Brontë's position, supporting herself as a governess, writing letters was a costly necessity; she used some of the little money and free time she had to write them. Her letters, and those of her siblings, preserve her attitudes toward her position, her employers, and her society, and hint at her emotions.

Today, Anne would have sent e-mails to her family and friends. One wonders what they would have said—if they would have been quick reassurances that all was well, even if they weren't, or if they would have been the more detailed descriptions that provide such insight into the Brontë family and a governess's life. The accessibility and instantaneousness of e-mail might hinder the very depth of thought and feeling that went into the letters written by Jefferson, the Brontës, Hardy, and so many others. It's easy to shoot off a quick e-mail that reveals little, but hard to write a letter about what is really on your mind.

I write so many letters that I'm sure they are not particularly special to their recipients. Any deep thoughts I may have are locked in the basement of my psyche, as I have been told. I tend to babble about the mundane, which is safe and doesn't reveal much about me other than that I am like everyone else.

Except that I write letters. Lots of letters.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Review: The Custom of the Country

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton with an introduction by Diane Johnson and notes by Benjamin Dreyer. Highly recommended.

In The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton creates one of the most unlikable, even despicable, characters I know of in American fiction. Undine Spragg is not a murderer, sociopath, or monster, but an ambitious young woman determined to climb New York's social ladder to the very top. The ambitions in themselves are not inherently bad, and other characters clearly share them. It is Undine's utter lack of regard for anyone else, from her aging parents to her neglected son, that makes her contemptible. What makes her chilling is the odd combination of ingenuousness and its opposite; with rare exceptions she is oblivious to the rights, aspirations, and feelings of others if they do not pertain to her own objectives.

In Wharton's world, choosing the right man was as important to a society woman's future as selecting the right college, graduate school, or first job is today for a professional woman. For Undine and her friends, divorce carries no more significance than as a means to get out of the wrong job. As she tells her fiancé's shocked traditional New York family, "I guess Mabel'll get a divorce pretty soon . . . They like each other well enough. But he's been a disappointment to her . . . Mabel realizes she'll never really get anywhere till she gets rid of him." This dinner conversation foreshadows the rest of the novel.

Wharton reveals Undine's competitive nature through her childhood rivalry with Indiana Frusk, and her unsatisfied, reaching one through her travels with her parents. Undine will never be happy because there will always be someone with something she doesn't have, whether it is greater wealth, fame, or a title or position.

By marrying Undine, Ralph hopes to save her from "Van Degenism," which helps to set up the irony after irony found throughout The Custom of the Country. Ralph doesn't know that Undine not only desires "Van Degenism," but she wants to define it. A would-be poet, Ralph cannot seem to separate surface beauty from inner ugliness. "When she shone on him like that what did it matter what nonsense she talked?" Raymond de Chelles, who reminds Undine of Ralph, first sees her on an evening when, as even the cynical Charles Bowen thinks, " . . . she seemed to have been brushed by the wing of poetry, and its shadow lingered in her eyes."

More than greed, selfishness, or hedonism, Undine's defining characteristic, lack of empathy, shapes her actions. "It never occurred to her that other people's lives went on when they were our of her range of vision." What dooms her relationships with Ralph and Raymond is not money, attention, socializing, or any of Undine's numerous desires and complaints, nor is it simply the gulf between their values and her own. The failure lies in her inability to grasp that anything of importance exists outside her own system and their inability to see this in her until far too late. Because her parents cannot deny her anything, ". . . her sense of the rightfulness of her own cause had been measured by making people do as she pleased."

Undine wants everything, but especially that which she does not have. Her counterpart, Elmer Moffatt, exhibits this "new money" behavior through collecting objects. "To have things had always seemed to her the first essential of existence," while Moffatt says, "I mean to have the best, you know; not just to get ahead of the other fellows, but because I know it when I see it." Raymond's tapestries have no more deeper emotional value to Moffatt than last year's dresses do to Undine; all are markers of money and success.

Ironically, Undine is little more than an attractive object to the people around her. As Madame de Trézac tells her, " . . . they're delighted to bring you out at their big dinners, with the Sèvres and the plate."  Later, when she visits dealers with Moffatt, she saw that "the actual touching of rare textures—bronze or marble, or velvets flushed with the bloom of age—gave him a sensations like her own beauty had once roused in him." To Moffatt, who knows and understands her insatiable hungers, she may be at least in part an object for his collection. He tells her, "You're not the beauty you were . . . but you're a lot more fetching." The "oddly qualified phrase" could be used of Raymond's tapestries and many of the other old valuables that Moffatt has acquired.

For Wharton, Undine and Moffatt represent those aspects of contemporary American society that she most disliked. As Charles Bowen says, " . . . in this country, the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it . . ." Undine, like the Wall Street of Peter Van Degen and Elmer Moffatt, is voracious, self-centered, reaching, and without conscience or moral center (choosing to sell an ill-gotten string of pearls for the money rather than to return it). Unlike Mrs. Marvell, with her hospital committee activities, Undine does not contribute to society; she was born to take. Symbolic and symptomatic of the new America that Wharton left, Undine remains ignorant and without taste.

Wharton's last paragraph is brilliant, for it cleverly shows how even an Undine who has achieved wealth, position, fame, and power can still find something to desire—something that she has put out of her own reach through her actions. " . . . . she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for." Undine is a young woman; Wharton hints at the potential she still has to leave yet more misery in her wake as she yearns for yet more of what she believes she deserves. She is like a living Tantalus, but one whose every attempt to grasp destroys.

Sunday, 6 May 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Dream: Second wedding

I was at home in a room next to my mother's. It was very odd because either her room or mine seemed to open onto a courtyard so that part of it seemed to be outdoors.

I used the far stall in the bathroom, which was supposed to be the dirtiest but was in fact the cleanest. All I noticed was that the water was a little high but for some reason this seemed to indicate cleanliness rather than a backed-up toilet.

I found myself at a large hall, although ultimately my destination was elsewhere. I discovered that a childhood friend was to be remarried. I wondered what happened to her husband and children as I had never heard anything about a divorce.

The hall was large, white, and packed with people. There were few decorations, which seemed unusual. Everyone was drinking while waiting for the wedding, although the gathering looked more like a reception. I was wearing a long, elaborate dress, which made me think of bridesmaids. I looked for and saw women who must have been the bridesmaids; they were all short, stout, middle-aged, and remarkably coarse and ugly. I thought that these must be her new friends from work and that they had displaced me and her other old friends.

She came along and offered me a drink, but first she held her champagne glass under a nozzle. Outside the walk-in box that this apparatus was in, someone was pumping a button to fill her glass. She went out and pumped for me, although then she started to hold the button down. When I realized how it all worked, I didn't want it.

Outside the box, the crowd was thinning rapidly. Someone spoke, but was inaudible. The minister tried to speak, but his voice was hoarse and squeaky. Someone commented that he shouldn't be a minister with a voice like that.

I spotted some people from high school and risked walking over and trying to talk to them. I was surprised that I recognized them so easily and remembered their names, but when I addressed them they would look at me oddly. None of them knew me. My excitement faded, and I wondered when the wedding was to occur, who the bridegroom was, and where the first husband and children were; it was almost like they had never existed. I also had a nagging feeling that I was supposed to be on my way to another place, somewhere outdoors or away from wedding halls.

I found an exhibit of mannequin-robots who represented the presidential candidates. All of them looked young and fashionable, and the only one I recognized was Barack Obama. He would speak now and then, and people were gathered in front of him, sharing their excitement. I noticed his neck looked mechanical, like two bundles of cords covered with plastic skin.

The hall was nearly empty now; even most of the classmates had left. I still waited for the wedding.