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Archive for the ‘ennui’ Category

The most frustrating thing about aging right now is how much it makes me think of Milan Kundera. I spent a good solid chunk of the ’90s, maybe ’93 through ’99 – just absolutely hating that guy. It was so bad that I was planning to write abook about it, entitled “Why I hate Milan Kundera,” with the first chapter being “Because He Sucks.” It’s a compelling argument, I know, which made it all the more astonishing that it should need to be made in the first place. Milan Kundera clearly sucks, so why was he so popular?

At least in part, the answer to that is because everyone’s first exposure to Kundera was via a charming turn by a young Daniel Day Lewis in the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In a larger sense, though, the two halves of the equation are more intertwined, and the thing that makes him so popular is the very reason that he sucks so bad, and that reason is the clear and incredible contempt he has for his female characters.

This is not simply an issue of an author writing unlikable characters. While I generally prefer to like the characters I read about, in much the same way I prefer to spend time with people whose company I enjoy, it’s not 100% necessary. I understand unlikable characters have their time and place; holidays, for example, or other family gatherings. But the series of embarrassing or tragic calamities that befall so many of his female characters ends up having no lasting impact on the story. So a pregnant nurse accidentally takes a poison pill – the real surprise is that the crabby old man wasn’t lying all those years about carrying a suicide pill with him at all times. Or the woman, despondent over an unworthy man, who attempts to end her own life but instead takes a handful of laxatives and suffers not just the expected bathroom embarrassments while her uninterested beloved stands on the other side of the door, she, desperate to flee her humiliation, must then run out of the bathroom without pulling her stockings all the way up, causing her to trip so severely that she falls face forward on the lawn, exposing her bare ass to the world.

Now, I have not had occasion to have first-hand experience of the stockings that could be gotten under Communism, but from decades of Democracy stockings I do know both that even in an intestinal emergency they don’t take that long to pull up, and that if you are in such a rush that you don’t pull your stockings all the way up, that will present such a serious impediment to travel that you will not get far enough out of the bathroom to run outside, trip, and expose your bare ass to the world.

Such are the calamities that befall young women in Kundera’s novels. Should a female character manage to avoid both accidentally being poisoned and accidentally not poisoning herself, she can still in her old age look forward to being ridiculed by Kundera for having aged. And in this case, instead of acting through his characters or the role of the omniscient narrator, in Immortality (or maybe it’s Identity; I read all of those books such a long time ago), Kundera inserts himself directly into the story as Milan Kundera, sitting poolside as an older woman climbs out of the water, pausing in her post-pool toweling off to wave girlishly at someone.

She’s probably not waving at Kundera; even if she doesn’t know him, she can probably tell he’s a dick. But Kundera was there to catch the wave and can’t help but notice the incongruity of the girlishness of the act with the advanced aged of the actor, and is stunned to be witness to this older woman not knowing that she’s not beautiful anymore. Which, honestly, shouldn’t be such a terrible surprise to him – or maybe it should, because, despite his many years, he seems to have no awareness that he himself is a terrible prick. Regardless, he is so amazed by it that he goes on to repeat that this woman is no longer beautiful at least 1,000 times on just that one page if I’m recalling correctly; as I said, I read it a long time ago, so it may have been more.

This has always been my problem with Kundera – is that it’s impossible to believe that the extremely negative portrayal of women in his works is due to anything but him. Which is always the case with authors, that everything that happens is due to them, but the purposelessness of the malice directed at his females, that doesn’t add to the story, that doesn’t provide any commentary on the role of women in society, Communist or otherwise, or on the difficult and changing relationships between women and men; by the process of elimination, we can only conclude that the only purpose women serve is to show how much Milan Kundera does not like women.

And that, in my opinion, is what accounts for the disproportionate popularity of his books here in these United States. Writing as he was behind the Iron Curtain, Kundera provided assurance that, should American have lost the Cold War and been crushed under the heel of oppressive equality, men would still have plenty of opportunities to act like immature and terrified little prats toward women, benefiting from their accidental and completely avoidable deaths, or causing them disgraceful embarrassment simply for not being their ideal. So, that we may have won the Cold War, in that we just waited while the other side collapsed under its own weight, we have the comfort of knowing that, even if we had failed (or they didn’t), the State would have begun to do terrible things to those who acted against its interest, but crimes against women would still not be considered crimes against the state and could therefore proceed unobstructed, in the usual fashion.

Eventually, in ’99, I let go of my plans to take down Milan Kundera. Partially because writing a book would have meant learning a lot more about Milan Kundera than that I hated him. Partially because “because he sucks,” is a lot harder to turn into a whole book than you might think (although, at this point, you may have an inkling). Mostly, it was because I realized that when I gave up trying to convince the whole world that Kundera was terrible, I would not have to subject myself to him anymore.

And so I put his books down. I still remember closing that last one – Immortality, or possibly Slowness – on my desk at work. Under the bright florescence my coworker Matt asked “What are you reading?” And I replied, with a calm smile and a pleasant shake of my head “Nothing,” certain that the moment would be as cinematic in my memory as it was in reality. Eventually, I got rid of the books that I’d been lugging around from house to house; physically and mentally, I left Kundera behind.

And so I lived, happily ever after for 15 years without thinking of Milan Kundera at all. But here we are together now, talking about him which means, obviously, that has ended. Not because of his new book, although it’s fitting that Kundera, too, has forgotten that he’s not desirable anymore. But a year ago, as I stood in the Grove with my brother and sister on a sunny spring day that wasn’t as warm as it should have been. It was the first time we were all together in more than a decade too, and we stood in this crowded outdoor shopping complex overrun by tourists, like us, who, like us, had come hoping to spy a celebrity and who wouldn’t notice us anything other than a group, like them, of middle-aged tourists, standing around and squinting into the sun.

It was sad in that moment to realize that I too was a part of the anonymous throng of overweight Americans, that, until that moment, I’d been living like Kundera’s foolish old woman at the pool, living on as though I had value despite the cruel march of time. Perhaps somewhere in that crowd at the Grove there was a writer witnessing that moment who would be so inspired by the momentary despair that they, too, would use it as the springboard for an unrelated story that reinforces for the world what a cock they truly are.

At the same time, from the viewpoint of Kundera’s ridiculous old woman, I understood – in a way Kundera could not – that she wasn’t so ridiculous after all. She may not have been beautiful in the moment Kundera hoped to preserve (an observation which is entirely suspect because why would anyone trust Milan Kundera on these things?) but even he himself can recognize that she had been beautiful at one point. This may not be valuable in his opinion, but it is not merely the shadow of beauty that persists. Her beauty (which, it should also be noted, is not her most important quality, but again, we are limited by Kundera’s framework) may no longer be that of youth, but it continues to be visible for the people who know her. The woman herself, other people, people who are not assholes; rather than lamenting its absence, they still see her beauty, made all the more remarkable that it can still be seen despite her foolish old face.

Too, there are the people of the woman’s life who don’t know she is no longer beautiful,those who knew her before the moment Kundera felt was so important to preserve. The moments they witnessed – of beauty of otherwise – also endure, as much as Kundera’s moment, if not more because they are not insufferable twats, most likely. And, even if they are, the version of them that the old woman knew still exists, as she remembers a place where she was beautiful in the company of someone sufferably charming; her eyes alight with mischief while he stands up straighter and wonders if in the future they’ll still be together. Those two people, who managed to be lively even in the face of Communism, will continue to matter as long as anyone continues to think of them, in the present as a fond recollection or a promise of a future that will never be realized.

But the most important thing – the MOST important thing I have to occasionally remind myself about that day in the Grove, when I notice my eyelashes have vanished, or as I wait at an intersection for a beautifully upright horse to trot past while I sit in the car feeling like a melting candle, is not just that, even if only in photos or on Facebook, I will always be young enough to enjoy the sun and believe it will always be shining on me; that my brother will always have a dopey grin and a bowl haircut even as his crew cut becomes saltier; that our sister will always be taller than us because she’s older, and her feathered bangs will never go out of style. The MOST IMPORTANT thing to remember is that Milan Kundera will always, ALWAYS be a dick.

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There was a time not too long ago in memory but perhaps a bit further back as the crow flies when, instead of taking to the internet to share half-formed thoughts however deeply felt, I would walk on down to the Pamplona cafe and write. Not, as many of my friends did, in a journal; I have never managed to quite wrap my head around the thought of writing for no audience – particularly when the alternative is to pass hours upon hours with the same thoughts whirling around my head in a most productive fashion. Instead, I would put pencil to paper to write letters to my friend Naopi, who was living in Greece at the time.

An interesting thing about these letters, or so I think, is that, although I did almost nothing at all in my free time except write to her (then, as now, it took me an exceptionally long time to complete a single letter), I always had lots to talk about. While the overall topics are probably pretty similar to the categories on ye olde blogge here – people being strange, shopping, animals – the specifics of most of those letters have been lost to the hoary mists of time, and possibly the recycling can. Except for one topic, which I remember quite well : what makes a person boring.

There are two main reasons why I remember this topic : one is that, as soon as I mailed it off to Naopi, I received from her a letter dissecting what is was that made a person charismatic; she couldn’t possibly have received my letter before writing her own – the Greek mail system being notoriously slow in the mid-’90s – and I thought it an interesting and symbolically meaningful statement on our friendship that we would both approach the same topic at the same time, but from such very different directions. The second is that there was a cute boy involved.

Said cute boy was Luke, who had been a classmate of mine at the college Naopi attended as well. Luke and I had a few classes together, and he played in a band with a guy who lived downstairs from me freshman year (whose roommate that freshman year, a propos of absolutely nothing, took dreadful notes), so I had ample opportunity to appreciate his classic, Aryan dreaminess.  Luke’s most important quality, it turned out, was that, in one chance encounter behind a Walgreens in Somerville, he utterly obliterated the very boring theory I had spent so many weeks working out.

Then, my theory had been that whether or not a speaker was interesting was determined by energy. It was a simpler time then, I was young, and so it made sense to the optimism of my youth not that any topic would be inherently uninteresting, but that a lack of energy and enthusiasm displayed by the speaker would translate to a corresponding lack of interest in the audience for anything they had to say.

That day on the bike path, though, Luke was interested in whatever it was he was talking about. He was smiling, eyes crinkling, hands gesticulating an amount appropriate to the topic. Also : still very handsome. If we were in a silent movie or being watched from afar through high-powered binoculars, it would not have been unreasonable to conclude that our conversation was of great interest and perhaps some little import. When, in fact, the conversation was stunningly dull.

So boring. It was so boring! I don’t remember at all what we were talking about, but I do remember a peculiar sense of loss as I realized that there would be attractive people in my life that I would have no interest in talking to, and a more profound sense of disbelief as my theory of energy crumpled in front of a handsome face, clearly so jazzed about the topic, and yet, somehow, so, so boring.

I have, of course, been bored many times since then, and even, on a few occasions, by a handsome gentleman. Though I have not had reason to return to my formal studies, I have, through repeated exposure to things and people that are not at all interesting, realized that “boring” can not be reduced to either the presence or absence of one single element, but instead is the complex result of the interplay of several factors:

  • The most sure sign that you are at the advent of a boring conversation is an assumption by the speaker that the audience has knowledge it could not possibly have. This gambit is often employed by the advertising industry, which will develop products to help you sync to the The Cloud, perfect its BB Cream, or list the 10 most tell-tale signs of Imposter Syndrome, without ever having established that the cloud, cream or syndrome actually exist and, further, serve some purpose. They do not.
  • In conversation, this will typically present as an especially difficult part of a task that has not been previously discussed, and, as in advertising, is an attempt to hook the audience’s interest by exploiting the audience’s unwillingness to admit they don’t know something and risk looking foolish. Unfortunately, my typical response to context-free information that sounds like nonsense is not worry that I don’t know what’s going on, but rather to conclude that the speaker is kind of a dick.
  • An addition signifier of a boring conversation is the inclusion of numerous but completely unnecessary details. This one is difficult for me to point out, as there are few things I love more than unnecessary details – it’s kind of my signature. And, indeed, a well-deployed detail can add flavor and depth to a story. However, few are the people in the world who would enjoy an in-depth discussion of each individual vegetable that could potentially top a Subway Sandwich, even if the shredding of the lettuce could indeed be the key to replicating that sandwich at home.
  • A corollary to unnecessary detail is the allusion to other unspecified details. The speaker may reference a previous event as though it had been aforementioned , e.g. “So then there’s that whole thing,” the emphasis on that indicating the potential of interesting, or perhaps even scandalous, information. As with the assumption of knowledge, this is often an attempt to get the audience to ask after that whole thing, thus prolonging the conversation and the speaker’s role as the center of attention. Don’t fall for it.
  • While the speaker might happily digress in a direction of their choosing – revisiting that whole thing, for example – they will not allow for the natural flow and development of a conversation that can occur between two (or more) equal participants. Even if another participant does manage to introduce a new topic, a boring speaker will always revert back to the original topic.
  • Similarly, while it may feel like a boring conversation just will not end, the fact is that is that a boring conversation is actually far, far longer than an interesting conversation. As with the previous point, it is impossible to bring to this conversation a natural end; even if you were to tell the speaker that you knew exactly what they were going to say, and then prove that by going ahead and saying it, the speaker would still continue on the predetermined path of what they want to say. That may sound far-fetched, but I’ve done it.

I.

Now that I have the training and (some of) the experience of a librarian, I recognize that the decision to become a librarian was one that should have been researched quite a bit more thoroughly before committing. Certainly, it should not have taken becoming an information professional to realize that a program devoted to churning out librarians would present the prospects of the prospective librarian in the most positive light, but I suppose that it did only serves to underscore a point made many times over the course of my library school curriculum, which is that without libraries and properly trained librarians no one will ever learn how to do research.

Regrets aside, the bright side of this terribly deep hole that I seem to have dug for myself is that it provides a focus and scope for any future job search I might conduct; in library speak, the topic has been selected, leaving the only the task of identifying resources that might point me to a valuable conclusion. My last non-library job search had no such focus, and, consequently, I had to review just about every ad on Craigslist. Or, at least, all the job-related ads.

There’s a certain repetition that comes from reading ads on Craigslist, partly due to the fact that, in order to stay on the first page, some companies will place the same, or slightly edited, ads over and over again; another part of that is probably that some of those companies are just terrible places to work, and so are in a constant process of replacing departed employees.

I don’t know into which of these categories Circles falls, and, despite having read their company information at least once a week for several months, I don’t have any idea at all what it is that they do. I thought, vaguely, yet unshakeably, that they probably were some kind of cult.  Like an H.P. Lovecraft story, the language in these cryptic ads was entirely straightforward, yet something was being plainly obscured by their very everday-ness; no matter how many times I read them, the key to understanding that sense behind them remained elusive.

I really liked the idea of getting a job at Circles. That it might possibly have been a cult was part of the appeal, but what I mostly I wanted to find out what it was; I would plumb the depths of Circles and surface rich with knowledge, and if the secrets of Circles into which I would be initiated were worth keeping then I would keep them, and if not, then I would probably complain about them for a little while. My sister liked the idea, too, because if I got involved in a cult, then she could lead the effort to deprogram me. And vice versa. It was fun to think about, as long as you studiously ignored the fact that we both were somewhat seriously considering a cult as a viable alternative to our respective  employment situations.

II.

Every day when I left that respective employment situation, I would walk past the old Sears, Roebuck building on my way to the bus stop. The size of the building made clear, or possibly I read it on a plaque, that the building had been a major warehouse and distribution center for the Sears, Roebuck catalog, and that countless modern, time-saving marvels had been shipped out from that building to homes all over the country. Walking past that building in the early days of the internet, when the primary purpose of this new technology seemed, as I understood it, to be to allow people to shop for things without ever leaving their home, it was hard not to consider how little innovation this actually represented, and how much of progress is really just people moving in slightly widening circles, with families making things on their own being replaced by trading and purchasing from their neighbors, which is enhanced by being able to purchase things via catalog, which becomes mostly obsolete by department stores expanding into smaller neighborhoods so everyone can buy things immediately, which then gives way to the convenience of  staying home and avoiding crowds by using the internet, which is now home to an ever growing DIY community of people trading and selling handmade goods and homemade things, which walks hand-in-hand with the urban homesteading and localvore movements, which is undoubtedly already in process of pupating into something else that I likely won’t hear of until US Weekly reports that Gwyneth Paltrow is doing it.

Twitter strikes me, too, as a point on a large circle, as free verse and the beats exploded the rigid forms of writing and poetry, and in the face of such limitless freedom of expression, people rush to confine themselves to 140 characters or less. Only now, instead of the format forcing people to think carefully about what they want to say, now we can use it to say everything we think, without putting any thought into it at all. But Twitter didn’t exist back then, so I rarely thought about it while walking to the bus stop.

III.

The next job that I managed to get was not in a cult, but in Watertown, and to get there meant taking the 70 bus. I have hated that particular bus route since the ’90s, when it was one of the very few ways a car-less student could make her way from Waltham into the actual city. Rarity did not unfortunately make it a very good way to get into the city – the 70 is a really long bus route, that makes a lot of stops, many of which are very close together and could easily be eliminated. Riding that bus end to end is a good way to meet some interesting characters, one of whom told me how the Lotus Flower blooms and seeds at the same time. But it is also a powerful way to feel your life passing; the three stops at the mall are enough to make you abandon hope altogether. And while most people use “going places”  when speaking career-wise metaphorically, it seemed a particularly bad omen to me that, despite my new job, I was not, in fact, going any place I had not already gone before.

I may not have found the bus route to be particularly ominous had I not known from the outset that I wasn’t going to like that job. Yet I had similar trepidations, perhaps unwisely overlooked, when I made my (rash?) decision to attend library school and discovered that the school itself was in the very same neighborhood as the job I had just left, and, while I would no longer be walking past the Sears, Roebuck building, I would be riding that same bus, just a few stops farther than the one to which I had walked for so many years.

My very first library job, at The Smaller Institution of Which You Probably Have Not Heard, too, was in that same neighborhood, just two blocks or so away from the Library School. Which was in a sense convenient, particularly on Saturdays, when I had class in the morning and then worked in the afternoon. But, as much as I liked it there, it did more and more seem strange to me that, with all of the city before me, I just seemed to be caught in a circuit between two points.

IV.

The Illustrious Institute changed that. Of the many reasons I was excited to work there – I could walk to work! It was a full-time job! I have a Memento-like inability to remember problems that are not my own and so had completely forgotten how utterly unhappy Derbs had been there for almost all of the years that I’d known her! – one of the most important was that it was in a brand-new neighborhood, one I had never worked in before.

However.

While I will grant that the outdoor stations on the Blue Line are more picturesque, I firmly believe that the Red Line is the best of all of the MBTA lines. Yet, I have nothing but scorn for the people who ride the Red Line only one stop. I tell myself that I don’t know them, or their lives, they may have had a really long day, or walked really far to get to the station. And no one can argue that the train will get you from Porter to Harvard faster than any of the buses that go that way. And it’s not particularly crowded. And it’s going to stop at the station anyway, so why not?

Because I would never take the Red Line only 1 stop, not within Cambridge, anyway. So no one should. The distances for which it is acceptable to take public transportation have been very clearly defined, by me, making everything else within walking distance. Which is the reason I walk to work; it’s not because I enjoy walking, although I do. And it’s  not because there is no public transportation option conveniently available, because there is – it’s the bus that, eventually, goes to The Library School, The Smaller Institute of Which You Probably Have Not Heard, and to the stop just by the Sears, Roebuck building.

V.

It was inevitable, I think, that excitement would wane over the course of years, but it was an enormous surprise, to no one more than myself, how suddenly, and violently, mine was crushed a few months ago. Certainly, there will be good days every now and again, but then I’ll remember how my new and internally promoted boss would refer to one of the library users as  Dirty ShitPig, and, when I stop wondering how I ever thought this job mattered, I realize that I have that same desperate urge to flee that I had 10 years ago, when I actually spent time pondering the merits and relative drawbacks of brainwashing and deprogramming. And now that I’m back where I started, I’m anxious to find something that holds the same intrigue that Circles did, the mystery, the promise of discovery, the secrets. Because I think that, what I’ve learned, is that the only way to beat the circles is to join a cult.

The summer after my freshman year, I had a job telemarketing. I was not particularly good at it; despite the one day I was the top seller in the office, thanks to the 8 cups of coffee I drank out of a ceramic demi-tasse with a black exterior and white interior which I stole at the end of the day and which today I regret not knowing what I did with, I never was able to sell enough to meet the minimum weekly quota to earn a bonus. So, while on the down side that meant that I was not making a lot of money, it should be noted that I was at least getting rejected a lot. People do not like telemarketers, I tell you what.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that the main problem with my sales technique was that I apologetic about the invoice : the way I hit the would in our scripted “After two months, you would be sent an invoice,” let them know that I wasn’t really behind the product. Sure, they would get the Non-Profit Board Report for 2 months, and that’s cool, but, even if they enjoyed it, they’d still have to deal with this invoice in 2 months time. Like, you’re a non-profit organization and that we respect that, and our publication might help with the management of that organization (I think? I don’t know if I ever saw a copy of the Non-Profit Board Report). But we are not a non-profit organization, and we will charge you. Of course, you could cancel the invoice, but the way it was set up, we were basically coming as close to ripping you off as the bounds of the law would allow. All of that, conveyed with a simple would.

However, sometimes the problem was that the leads weren’t very good. That was the culprit the week we were selling The Marketing Report and all of the businesses that the list of contacts spit out were slaughterhouses.

As it turns out, slaughterhouses are not really all that concerned with marketing, for the reason eloquently provided by the gentleman on the other end of the phone who, in response to my request to be connected with the marketing department, drawled “Lady, all we do is kill old pigs.”

The brilliance of that response, of the unconcerned deliberation that made it clear that the foolishness of my question would not be entertained, has always made it one of the great joys of my life. However, as much as I appreciated the laconic verbal smack-down that put my self-hating would to shame before it could even be uttered, what I did not realize until this past week is that what I truly admire about that gentleman is the simplicity of purpose expressed. This is not someone who’s ever had to worry about an elevator pitch, of breaking down an overly complex process into its component parts, who has to chase fads, keep up with the latest technology, or worry about obsolescence. As long as there is an old pig that needs killing, this guy is in business : that is the hedgehog-like focus that proves elusive for most companies.

It’s the professional equivalent of my gastronomical envy of pandas, who only eat bamboo; fortunately for the panda, bamboo is only eaten by them. I enjoy the lovely natural symmetry of that relationship, in no small part because it relieves all of panda-kind of most food-related stressors : a panda never has to figure out what to do for lunch, or what it’s in the mood for. There are no ethical implications to panda’s diet, it doesn’t matter if the bamboo has been humanely raised or if it’s locally sourced. The question of what to eat has been so solidly settled for pandas that it never even needs to be raised; a panda only gets as far as “what” before it realizes that the answer is “bamboo”. It’s bamboo; it’s always bamboo.

Make no mistake : I don’t want to switch to a diet of only bamboo any more than I want to make a career of killing old pigs. Or pigs of any age. It’s just that, every now and then, instead of answers, what I would like is a lack of questions.


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