Another Day Another Dollar

It’s strange how even when you don’t have kids, your life still somehow gets more stressful as you age. At least this is my experience. After yet another sleepless night last night, I was standing in the kitchen this morning glumly holding a cup of coffee in my hands and wearing this weird heavy shawl I got out of a free pile at some point, and I started thinking about happiness and contentment and whether I used to be happier than I am now. In spite of how awful youth is in many respects, there also does seem, at least in retrospect, to be this sense in which the world didn’t weigh on you then like it does later. I guess I thought not having kids would take some of this weight off. In fact, it probably has, which means that people with kids feel even worse than I do, which is comforting I guess. God bless us all.

I think in youth you have this idea that everything will be okay, that one person can make a difference, that all that matters is love, etc. And then slowly you realize that all of those beliefs are naive, and then what are you left with? This question of what is the point of doing anything when you’re just going to die someday, and indeed when the entire human species is obviously going extinct right before your eyes. What is the point of teaching kids about Beethoven, when those are the terms? Then again, if those are the terms, then what is the point of worrying about anything at all? Why not just be happy every day, like Buddhists or whatever? And of course these are the same questions you asked your friends in college when you were a goddamn idiot, so really nothing has changed except now the skin of your face is all leathery and lined and you’ve realized you truly will never take up skateboarding.

So we are house-hunting, which is by far the bourgiest thing I have ever done, I think. Well, aside from spending two hours researching all the local dairies to see which one was the most humane and organic–this research entailed watching a video of a robot milking a cow while a voiceover said “our cows choose when they want to be milked, day and night.” The cows also sleep on heated waterbeds. We were watching this video to psych ourselves up to switch from almond milk to cow milk, in light of the sudden realization that almond milk is every bit as heinous, unethical, and bad for the planet as factory-farm dairy, and probably local milk from cows who sleep on heated waterbeds and choose when they want to be milked, while of course philosophically totally disturbing, is probably your safest bet, in terms of milk options. Anyway so yeah, there’s a dairy farm 8 miles from my house where the cows sleep on heated waterbeds and robots feed them snacks all day and the farm is carbon neutral because it’s all solar powered. It’s the Huxley dystopia rather than the Orwell one. If those are the two choices I guess I choose Huxley, I don’t know. They are both horrifying. It’s weird how our current reality is a mixture of both. When you read them they seem opposed but they actually go together really well. Also though FYI the happy robot cow milk is SO INSANELY CHEAP, much cheaper than almond milk, so then it’s like, who is truly bourgie after all? I’m saving some money here on top of supporting humane robot farming and not buying shit from drought-ridden California that was then sent 5,000 miles on a truck, what on earth.

Then again I firmly believe that you can not win by making “good” consumer choices, so maybe instead of milk we will just switch to crushed-up Doritos

Anyway, so we are house-hunting, which of course makes you feel deeply ashamed and all that, blah blah blah. Ashamed to have parents who have enough money to give you a down payment, which is the only way you could ever own a house. Ashamed to be worrying about things like knob-and-tube wiring and whether or not the street is too trafficky while all over the world people are basically tortured to death to give you the free time to worry about such things. Ashamed to hear yourself describe how “stressful” house-hunting is in light of same. “Shopping for a nanny to raise our child is so stressful I need 8 pedicures from impoverished immigrant women, alas”

Of course it is also fun and exciting. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we are all conditioned as capitalists even if intellectually we resist the capitalist system, or are alive to critiquing it. But no one is outside of it; everyone is conditioned in some way by it. I was noticing the other day how when I am depressed sometimes I cheer myself up by going to Goodwill and spending ten dollars. Like, I’ll buy a cool blanket and a wok and a novelty coffee mug, or something. Some pair of shoes. The fact that this “cheers me up” is deeply weird. So of course shopping for a big ticket item like a house is exciting. Whereas to someone conditioned in a wholly different culture it would just seem confusing or bizarre. What do you mean, you “own” a house? How can the land belong to anyone etc. etc.

One thing that is fucked up and lends urgency to your half-hearted desire to own a house though is when you actually sit down with the incredibly competent banker and actually do the math and see that buying a house would, counter-intuitively, cut your monthly payments in HALF. And you suddenly feel this surge of desperation–we have to buy a house RIGHT NOW. How can you have been spending that much money on rent your whole life? Just throwing money out in the street and letting cars run over it! Plus, given that there is no way out of capitalism, there IS something to be said for extracting yourself from the parasitic landlord/tenant relationship, I guess.

At the meeting with the banker I also started thinking about skill sets and how different times, places, and cultures lead to the development of these wildly different skill sets. This banker lady who helped us get our weird financial situation in order (“how much money do you have in savings?” “Zero dollars.” “….” “But we have $800 in a checking account in a credit union in Iowa.” “…okay. And is this J. Crew credit card still active?” “I don’t know what that is.”), she was so fantastically competent and brilliant. You should have seen her polished talons flying across the worn keys of her calculator! It was breath-taking. She calculated in an instant the most complex sums. At this interest rate, at this mortgage period, at this income, at this home price, at this tax rate, with insurance as a package or without–great columns of numbers and sums fairly flew across the ancient calculator’s screen while she narrated a steady stream of acronyms and concepts that meant nothing to us. It was just exactly like when Homer keeps asking the doctor to dumb it down further and further until the doctor says “we’re gonna cut you open and tinker with your ticker” and Homer still doesn’t understand what he’s saying. We were Homer, in this scenario. “WHAT IS THIS ‘PROPERTY TAX’”

So this lady is fantastically skilled. She went to school to learn how to do this; she has a fancy degree indicating she is good at doing this stuff. She knows so much more than we know, than we will ever know in our whole lives. Her brain can calculate fantastically complicated scenarios in an instant. But this skill set is so unique to our specific time and place. When the world ends, her skill set will be just as meaningless as mine, even though they are such wholly different skill sets. Send her back in time, or to another culture, or forward in time, and her skills are useless.

This came up again last night, because, as I am trying to get around to explaining, we almost bought a house yesterday. Because we thought we were going to buy this house, we were talking about all the things we’d have to do to make the house nice to live in, because it’s actually not that ideal of a house. One of these things was fencing in the yard and the other thing was turning the attic into a bedroom. So we started watching YouTube videos about how to do each of these things. YouTube is amazing. I sincerely believe that I could now build a picket fence; it is very empowering to have some man show you how to use a carpenter’s square and a skill saw and how to mix concrete and how to notch your corner posts and remind you not to point a nail gun directly at your eyeball. I heard myself saying things like “line levels are LEGIT” and “brackets seem jankier than notches” and “oh TIGHT call,” referring to the hammering of a small piece of PVC pipe into the ground to serve as an anchor for a gate latch. 80% of these videos are made by Australians, for some reason. The land of Australia must be filled with proud middle aged men showing passers-by their new fences.

Watching these videos it became so clear to me that this is a skill set that my old man could easily cultivate. I believe if he spent one week focusing on building a fence he would essentially be able to build anything. He has the good carpenter’s deliberate, precise mind and absolute inability to do anything in a hurry even when it would really behoove him to do so. For a long time he has been using these skills in the pursuit of various academic and pedagogical projects, but it was so interesting to see that they are the exact same skills that would enable someone to build a house. Watching these videos stressed me out. The idea of carefully painting something for hours and then waiting for it to dry and then carefully painting it again literally gives me hives; I would rather do almost anything else. I am a corner-cutter extraordinaire and my picket fence would be riddled with measuring errors and weird blobs of hastily-applied paint and crooked posts because I didn’t wait long enough for the concrete to set. I slowly developed the intense desire for my husband to build a picket fence from scratch, though, because I think it would be good for him and rewarding, and I would enjoy coming out to admire it when he was finished. I think this kind of project is beautiful and pure and simple even in its complexity and I think we spend too much time living the life of the mind and not enough time doing stuff with our hands. Even though the life of the mind is important, and people who don’t spend any time thinking hard about stuff are also impoverished in various ways, probably, or are at least not much fun to talk to about politics.

So all of these videos made us excited about home ownership, and about this home in particular, which has a very beautiful bathroom even though in other ways it is not ideal. It’s on a busy street, which would drive me crazy. It doesn’t have enough rooms in it, hence the need to immediately finish the attic, hence all the Bob Vila videos we were watching about insulation and dormer windows. But then as the evening wore on, I realized the gnawing in my stomach was not going away. And then in bed my old man suddenly said maybe we shouldn’t buy this house. What followed was two hours of a spiraling descent into madness, as the conversation successively touched on the following topics, none of which, in the cold hard light of day, seem to have all that much to do with whether or not we should buy this house:
- how I am like my mother in a couple crucial ways and how this frightens my husband
- how even though that is true it still hurts my feelings to hear him say it, which is illogical
- how I feel like I’m not going to get tenure
- how my old man makes bad decisions when left to himself
- how if left to himself he would buy a rotting Victorian mansion in this industrial ghost town an hour away from where we currently live, and “have an adventure”
- how maybe not getting tenure would be “the best thing that ever happened to me”
- how it’s hard to tell if my reservations about certain things are because I have the same mania as my mom or if I’m actually right about stuff sometimes
- how the sixth extinction event is happening and shouldn’t we do something different with our lives in acknowledgment of this fact

Finally we went to sleep and both had a night of anxiety and thrashing. In the morning we agreed we would not buy the house. But all the questions raised in the night are still haunting me. Like what even is this, that I am doing. It is so crazy that we will die someday but we spend so much time worrying about how our butts look or whether or not anyone will publish our stupid book about music almost no one listens to. Or whether we should finish an attic or live in a crumbling castle in the bombed-out industrial wasteland, writing poems about the poisoned river, and growing out our beards

Regret is for assholes; I’ve never been much for succumbing to morbid reflections upon the past and all the stuff I should’ve done differently. That is the fool’s route. I don’t think what I am feeling is regret, I think I am just tired and confused. And realizing that being a grownup is harder than it seems like it ought to be, all things considered. I just can’t believe that I am afraid and full of dread literally all of the time; this didn’t used to be how I lived my life and I wonder if there is a way to get back into a better mindset. Probably meditation or some other boring-ass shit.

anyway that house really did have an amazing bathroom; you would’ve loved it

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Creaturely Life

I’m reading a lot right now, as I finished a shitty draft of my article and am waiting for my old man to tear it apart with his teeth before I rewrite it and/or before I quit my job and go live in a tent in the woods. So I’m taking some reading days. The academic reading day is a strange beast. I’m letting myself go down whatever rabbit holes I will, because I’ve designated these two days as fact-finding days. So you start out with a keyword search on JSTOR where you’re trying to see how many recent articles refer to a 1970s book on advertising that you don’t know how legitimate it is, and then four hours later you’re reading an article about how a French scientist in 1778 figured out that fossil fuel use was going to cause global warming (<--A TRUE STORY). How did you get here from there? You can't remember, but anyway you sure learned a lot about dinosaur bones.

You'd never think it, but sometimes the ol' "academic writing" strawman yields some glorious gems. There are so many truly smart people who also have literary minds and care about turning a good phrase. Harvey's "maelstrom of ephemerality" that characterizes modern life. Tovey's "e flat clarinet broomstick" that the idée fixe rides in on in the fifth movement of Symphonie Fantastique. Or the "restful detumescence" Dijkstra humorously argues paintings of dead women allowed threatened men to feel during the Fin de Siècle. Here is the inimitable Huyssen trying to get us to stop using false dichotomies when discussing the avant garde: "...the prophets of the new will remain locked in futile battle with the sirens of cultural decline." And Hochschild: "After we've asked if being cool is useful, we have to ask whether being cool is good. Is it the best we can do?" Or my dissertation adviser's many notably excellent article introductions--she's known for her "hooks"--like the one where she's at a county fair eating kettle corn and then the Confutatis from Mozart's Requiem starts blasting and she's frozen with terror but everyone around her is like "this is from Amadeus.” I remember reading one of my professor’s new books when it came out, and coming across his description of some super-angry musical manifesto from the 1960s, which he called a “hysterical screed,” and it made me laugh so hard I emailed him about it and he wrote back: “Yes, ‘hysterical screed’ is quite good isn’t it?” Ha ha ha

And not to mention, like, MARX or some shit. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” DANG DUDE.

People who complain about academic writing USUALLY have never read much of it. I mean, it’s even a little bit sad to argue with these people because usually the anti-academia stance is born of defensiveness. “How dare someone think they are smarter than me” etc. It’s weird because I am totally comfortable with the realization that there are literally millions of people who are smarter than I am and I don’t get why this is a stressful thing for people to have to confront. No shit somebody who went to school for 10 extra years and has written six books on a subject is smarter than you when it comes to that subject! No shit you might thus find those books difficult to read! It seems so American to want to argue that point. We believe every opinion is equally valid even though that’s just demonstrably, empirically a false statement. And we believe every idea ought to be put in clear language that even the dumbest jackass who has never thought about that idea for one second can understand. Lord!

Anyway, to be fair, there is of course so much bad academic writing. Just a few days ago I LITERALLY threw a book (in anger) at my husband and said “am I right that this book is insane bullshit?” and he read the introduction and said “YES.” But if you wade through it in a focused way you find writing of great beauty; writing that gives you chills; writing that makes you laugh. When people complain about bad academic writing I just want to point out that there is so much bad writing in EVERY genre. I dare you to go pick up a Dean Koontz or 50 Shades of Grey or even something marginally classy like that recent atrocity of Curtis Sittenfeld’s or even freaking The Marriage Plot or whatever, and try to argue that those books are “well written.” Why hold academics to a higher standard than you hold all other authors? Writing ideas down that are both smart AND beautifully articulated is a pretty tall order; it seems reasonable that a lot of people only accomplish the first part. True, a lot of people accomplish neither, but that too is life my friends, we are all groping toward understanding and transcendence in our own small ways.

Part of my research entails reading all these TRULY heinous articles in journals of marketing and advertising. “Improving consumer click-through rates with varied repetition of banner ads” and shit. You want to talk about people who can’t write OR think? Look no further. The worst people in the world. Worse than an ideological dictator. At least an ideological dictator has beliefs and feelings about other people, even if they are terrible ones. There’s a cold nothingness to marketers that is not human. It is impossible to imagine these people loving their children or being amazed by a sunset or getting angry at an article about abortion, one way or the other. “The bourgeoisie has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’” damn, Karl Marx, you have nailed it yet again

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The Small Stuff

I just deleted some stressful emails and said “I don’t care” out loud. It felt great. I am working on not sweating the small stuff. There is more than enough medium and big stuff to sweat and I’m going to save my sweat for those things and not expend it on worrying about emails or being scared about asking my chair something or worrying about the future.

I thought that working on contemporary capitalism as part of my new project would depress me but I find it invigorating. Last night I read one of Silvia Townshend Warner’s letters in which she says that her own ability to feel interest is her most prized possession, and that she’s confident that no matter what happens, her ability to be INTERESTED in observing and thinking about it will carry her through. I think she’s specifically talking about getting old and feeble, but it applies to many aspects of life. Observing and trying to understand the workings of the truly heinous, inhuman system we are all trapped in makes me feel mildly empowered, even though of course I don’t actually have any power. But in our minds we are all free. “HERE is where the sun shines! HERE is where the sky is blue!” (Denholm Elliott poking himself in the chest with a fork in “Room with a View”).

Also, studying capitalism makes it easier not to sweat the stressful emails or the job terror or the hip dysplasia. My god. It’s like worrying about which iPhone you should buy when you’re in the middle of a genocide or global annihilation. Omg my analogy doesn’t work because that is LITERALLY our reality! Jesus, please help us! Somebody help us!

I read that certain kinds of Buddhists (actual Buddhists, not people like me who use “zen” to describe the state of bliss that is deleting emails) as they are becoming monks, have to spend years contemplating human bodies in various stages of decay. The start by contemplating a fresh corpse. Then over the months they watch the corpse decompose. I got the impression they do this all day, every day. They watch it decompose in real time. Then finally it’s just a skeleton polished clean by wind and crows and bugs, and they have become liberated and they laugh and laugh and now they can be monks and go beg in the streets for their food because who gives a shit

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