Yet again, life seems to have interfered with blogging. I have two half-written blogs, one on Marin County and one on the 4th Annual Veuve Clicquot Will Rogers Polo Classic, but since my last blog I’ve seen Alan Alda and Tony Kushner live at UCSB Arts and Lectures and driven back and forth from LA to SB six times, once just for the Bill Foley Wine Society event at the Bacara Spa and Resort.
I thought three days in Visalia for J’s urban planning conference would furnish a good opportunity to blog sans distraction, but I was incapacitated with cramps and a hormone headache yesterday and extremely groggy on Monday so spent most of the days in bed not focused enough even for fluffy blogs about polo, much less serious blogs about Alda and Kushner. I usually have only one day of (literally) gut-wrenching pain but this time the headache lasted some 20 hours.
Yesterday, however, in the midst of the Vicodin haze (just 300 mg which is just 60% the average Hydrocodone pill), I ran across a blog called Disgrace Under Pressure, written by a woman at Role/Reboot, a popular blog about gender and feminism. (Role/Reboot calls it Grace Under Pressure so either they got it wrong or she changed it.) My friend, Lynn Beisner, writes for Role/Reboot and I both enjoy her as a FB friend and respect her as a writer even when I disagree. Also she’s very funny and her posts pepper serious and often painful material with humor and self-deprecation, so while Lynn is more interested in gender than I am as a topic of investigation, I find her writing worthwhile.
In my 3.5 years on Facebook, I’ve been accused of siding with men or being a “sexist apologist” by hardcore Second Wavers. See my take on Naomi Wolf, an embarrassing product of Yale’s legendary English department for whom impressive, illustrious Camille Paglia has no use whatever: Mother\’s Day Weekend: Westlake Lunch and American Buffalo at Geffen. Their public spat was terrific and Paglia was indeed glittering in plugging her newest book, Glittering Images, last October at the 92nd Street Y. (That’s on my list of books to read, as the friend I both care for and admire, whom I met that stormy October night at Sfoglia’s bar across the street, recently reported loving it.)
I’ve also been accused of sexism for daring to point out the obvious: women are often cattier and generally more gossipy and unreliable than men. As the years go by, I find more and more of my confidantes are male for precisely this reason. A man rarely envies a woman her looks or financial security. Not so with women, particularly women who struggle.
I consider myself a Ruth Ginsberg or Gloria Steinem (pre-1990) feminist: I support equal pay for (truly) equal work, reproductive freedom, marriage equality, equal opportunity, and efforts to halt violence against women (all women, including those in Muslim countries incomprehensibly and deplorably ignored by establishment American feminists). But both the whiny popular strain of feminism and the militant academic variant (the sort of theorist or literary critic who drones on about patriarchy) leave me cold. A longer version of what follows can be found in a blog from a year ago after someone dug up Yale graduate Amy Biviano’s Playboy shoot: Reflections on Amy Biviano\’s Playboy Shoot, Feminism and Feminist Scholarship.
I never took Women’s Studies at Westlake School for Girls–an unusual yearlong course in the 1980s for a high school–though I respect Joanie Parker immensely as former head of CARAL (California Abortion Rights Action League) and back in the day, a leader of CA NOW. As much as I personally like the witty and ballsy Joanie (though she didn’t write me back on FB after May’s lunch when I explained that while I remain a Democrat, I see things differently than I used to and have many Republican friends on FB), Women’s Studies at Westlake seemed a bit cultish to me. Also I was neck deep in debate (a history elective) so had no time for it my junior year with 4 AP tests, (evil) intro calc, chemistry and weekly tournaments along with rigorous workouts five or six days a week.
By 12th grade, I took half my courses at UCLA and wanted to be as far away from the catty Westlake social scene as possible, so I spent only one hour a day on campus four days for the obligatory science course (physics) and three hours on Wednesday night for Government, an unusual night class Westlake allowed veteran history teacher Francine Werner to teach after having two babies in a few years. I had no interest the introductory Women’s Studies survey at Yale, a reading-intensive course popular among freshman (or “frosh,” already preferred to “freshman”). By graduate school, I had become downright hostile to feminist theory as would any sane person forced to endure Donna Haraway, Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray.
Beyond the realm of critical theory, much feminist criticism is simply boring and one-dimensional work which interprets texts through the narrow lens of gender, thereby reducing complex works to pamphlets about gender or sexual politics. LGBT critics are guilty of this too and some are considerably less grounded in traditional criticism than the famous late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick whose influential Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire coined the term “homosocial” to describe the milder homoerotic impulse she finds central to Dickens and James.
Henry James may have been gay, but his novels are certainly don’t represent an argument for the acceptance of homosexuality; if anything, his novels at once depict and partly legitimize the values of the leisure (and ruling) class, though Columbia’s Ross Posnock has written sensitively about class in Henry James (among many other authors and topics) in works of cultural criticism which strive to preserve “aesthetic value” rather devolving into shrill polemics. I’m out of the loop and didn’t realize how prolific Posnock had been in the last decade. I probably won’t get around to it but Henry James and the Limits of Historicism looks fascinating.
The James Family, a cross-listed philosophy/English course taught by philosopher Carol Rovane and literary critic David Bromwich, was both one of my favorite and most influential courses at Yale. It profitably explored the relation between William’s and Henry’s work and seven years later, the sixth chapter of my dissertation dealt with Eliot’s anticipation of James, so I have run across Posnock before in Robert Pippin’s seminal study, Henry James and Modern Moral Life. Like Pippin, I find his work rigorous and interesting.
Feminist critics are also notorious for imputing modern feminist notions to female writers who did not at all hold, much less espouse in their texts, the views attributed to them. George Eliot, for instance, perhaps the most educated, well-read woman of her time, had surprisingly conservative notions about women and education. And in her later years, as her greatest biographer (and august Yale professor) Gordon Haight signaled by titling a section of her one-volume letters “Growing Conservatism,” Eliot’s politics shifted quite a bit after Felix Holt‘s famous Address to Working Men. Sedgwick, credited with helping formulate queer theory, wrote–God help us–a controversial work I’ve not read called Jane Austen and the Masturbating Woman.
But Joanie was also a talented and passionate teacher of English–not, I might add, Language Arts. The substitution of “Language Arts” for “English,” a huge, recent pet peeve of mine, represents an abominable development in public education and a concession to PC which reflects our weakened commitment to literacy in America, where literacy includes the transmission of the American and English Canon. I’m ABD in English, not Language Arts, just as my parents were English majors in college. And names matter: my novelist and teacher friend tells me students can now take the California GED in Spanish. What possible incentive can there be to learn English if you can get a high school diploma in America speaking only Spanish?
Such views reveal my conservative impulses, or perhaps simply my Anglophilia and refusal to dispense with standards and cave to the logical conclusion of extreme versions of multiculturalism which would have us believe that middling poems by a minor poet in a marginalized group are aesthetically equivalent to canonical epic or lyric poetry by Dead White Males.
In this vein, I railed against the predominance of “Cultural Studies” in graduate English departments and the disappearance of poetry from undergraduate curricula (aka Dead White Males, of whom I’m an enormous fan). See my February, 2012 piece for the Weekly Standard about Edith Wharton and CS: Innocence Abroad: Edith Wharton, at 150, is Introduced to Cultural Studies. Sadly, it’s possible now to graduate from UCSB’s prestigious (and in many ways extraordinary) English department without having read Canterbury Tales or Paradise Lost in their entirety.
As the daughter of a trailblazing, liberal female lawyer known for her grace and graciousness as much as her acuity and toughness and recognized at local, state and national levels by bar associations and other organizations for her work in civil rights and mentoring of women and minority lawyers, I have as little tolerance for the man-hater wing of popular feminism as I do for the conservative young women proud of their hostility to the Women’s Movement. Such Michelle Malkin-types lack both knowledge about and gratitude for the sacrifices and sufferings of women in my mother’s generation which allowed future generations to achieve their goals and dreams.
With women outnumbering men in American law schools and graduating from college in higher numbers than their male counterparts, such ingrates can’t begin to conceive what it was like to come out of law school as one of a dozen women in a class of over 300 as my mother did at UCLA Law in 1965, only to be asked in her first interview: “This all looks good, but how do you get over being a woman?” As Mom tells it, the senior partner of the boutique entertainment law firm expected a concrete answer in list form. Of course there is still work to be done, particularly in conservative, religious parts of America. But a relatively unaccomplished broad pretending she lives in the 1970s, trotting out cliches about patriarchy some 40 years old doesn’t sit well with me.
Obviously, I descry legitimate sexual harassment, but I distinguish between lewd comments or sexual innuendo around the water cooler (“nice rack” or “did you get a new push-up bra?”) and a forced blowjob in your superior’s office, whether a quid pro quo for advancement or not. I also think a woman’s beauty and sex appeal are assets and that men are often dopey, prisoners of their sexual appetites. I’m hardly going out on a limb here. Can you say Anthony Wiener? Or Mark Sanford? Or Eliot Spitzer? A savvy and competent woman knows how to mobilize her beauty and feminine grace to good effect (from free drinks to invitations to parties with fertile network opportunities).
Certainly, a woman shouldn’t go on about how much it sucks to be pretty the way that English twit did as an explanation of why she has no job (“too beautiful”), any more than a privileged girl should moan about others treating her harshly (the one reprinted in the Huffington Post along with a response), or Hermanson does about her guilt over good health care. If you have these issues, find a therapist. They’re not blog-worthy, at least not till you’ve overcome the problem.
No one worth reaching wants to hear about the conflict as it’s happening; someone might, and I stress might, want to hear about your triumph over these First World problems after the fact. I’ve often said it’s better to have First World than Third World problems, but they’re only interesting retrospectively or if recounted humorously. Babe Walker is often over-the-top, but she can also be funny, as witness the success of her book based on her blog, White Girl Problems (a New York Times bestseller).
People on FB find entertaining my half a decade laundry saga in SB when I was too sick to go out to a laundromat and felt the laundry room in Death Gardens was “haunted” with depressing memories. (I felt the same way about the trash area for 102 N. Hope Ave, where this chain-smoking Section 8 older man who wore the same outfit for weeks on end creepily hung about, so my parents hired a “TP” (trash person)–a man who took my trash once a week a block away at the end of the complex across from a cemetery on the official truck route to Foothill–hence my revision of the complex’s name from “Hope Gardens” to “Death Gardens.”) I fully acknowledge that only a depressive with a fluff and fold budget can be paralyzed by the brain-dead laundry service we have here in SB. If poor or middle class, I would have had to suck it up and go to a goddamn laundromat.
I would sob and sometimes scream hysterically in my car (so as to avoid a second eviction for noise disturbance) because no one in town could grasp the concept of “no Bounce or fabric softener.” My skin twitched when it came into contact with the Tide or Bounce and it didn’t matter how much I pled, cried, or screamed in English or Spanish. Add to the subpar laundry services in SB, the abject stupidity of Crystal Springs Water based in San Luis Obispo, an organization thrown into utter chaos by every three day weekend for at least a month or two of deliveries. You’d think it was the first time America celebrated Memorial Day or Labor Day (and yes, they seemed to be more flummoxed by summer holidays than winter ones). Don’t get me started on Thanksgiving: two days off and they were deer in the headlights for months. It’s bizarre that I became a hysterical sobbing wretch about laundry and water but I did and now it’s all a big joke.
As for a boss hitting on you even after the behavior has been called to his attention? It’s very upsetting, but the “men are pigs” line gets old. For one thing, duh. For another, this doesn’t apply to all men but rather the bosses in question. And don’t get me started on the evil ex-wives who at every income bracket often receive the better deal from chick judges. From Manhattan to Grand Rapids, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
The foregoing sketch of my general attitude explains my predictably negative response to Lauren Hermanson’s blog, (Dis)Grace Under Pressure, which I browsed after Lynn posted her piece on ACA and women: Hermanson on Guilt and the ACA. I agree that women have been systematically discriminated against by insurance companies and that ACA, imperfect and problematic as it may be, works to redress some of these injustices. But her whining about “guilt” at having good healthcare for which she did not “work,” was so off-putting. I checked other entries to see if she was just having an off day but no, this tone of this piece is fairly typical. She was particularly strident in taking on the nitwit who called depression the “new narcissism.”
Ms. Hermanson seems not to have gotten the memo that you do not seriously engage morons (a FB rant in a status update does not constitute “serious engagement” for anyone who can type over 75 wpm). Most of us are guilty at one point or another of expending energy on worthless opponents on Facebook or other social media sites, but she seems to make a partial career out of it. My boyfriend rolled his eyes both at the bio on Role/Reboot–“Lauren Hermanson blogs about almost everything”– and at the title of her most recent post, whose header meme revises Samuel Jackson’s famous line from Pulp Fiction: “English motherfucker, do…you…speak it?”: A Quick Primer on Empathy.
In a recent blog, Hermanson objects to the label of vanity: Wanting to Look Pretty is not Vain. Gee, I’m so glad she cleared that up for me. It seems that her move to Portland was difficult because according to her, women there don’t bother much with clothes, hair or makeup. (I could have told you that years ago, when I learned both Portland and Eugene were not only full of hippies–not generally associated with good fashion sense–but modern dancers who flock there.) But what, pray tell, is wrong with being regarded as vain, particularly when she’s okay with adjectives like “superficial” and “silly”?
I’m extremely vain and would not dream of denying it: I started fillers at 37; I have since 8th grade danced or swum or worked out regularly at the gym and watched calories; I’ve always been a budget fashionista; I avoid exposing my face to direct sun; I worship at the altar of shiny, sparkly objects and more, I believe that many women vastly underestimate how bling builds self-confidence and a feeling of true womanhood; I’ve colored my hair most of my life, long before I had grays, as I like my hair a shade darker than natural and prefer a slightly burgundy hue over my natural reddish brown.
So hell yes I’m vain and likely to become vainer as I ferociously (but rationally) fight aging; I don’t intend to follow the tragic example of stars like Meg Ryan who looked lovely at 45 and now have mucked up their faces such that they represent plastic surgery cautionary tales. But far from lie about my age, I broadcast it. I’m proud to be almost 42 (in February) and able to do the splits as I maintain my dancer’s body through jazz class, swimming, light weight training and rational eating which acknowledges the metabolic shifts after 40 and takes into consideration my daily wine consumption. Lying about your age is so 20th century and only a woman with confidence or self-esteem issues does it.
I also don’t lie about my jewelry from Diamond Nexus, lab-created diamonds in white gold which fool Upper East Side jewelers and Israeli diamond dealers on the subway wearing yarmulkes. Thursday is particularly good day to shop (and the day I bought the 2400 ring for just 600) as they send out email “e-steals” to those who like the Facebook page: Diamond Nexus website. Dozens of people come up to me to ask about my tennis bracelet (“Adoration”), eternity band (“Oasis”) and breathtaking 75% off right hand ring (originally $2370), which most assume is an heirloom because I don’t deny I’m a renter on a budget, though I don’t have to work to survive. Mined, the ring would cost some 25K–the heft alone when gold is at 1800/ounce is worth the original DN price–and that’s $4000 more than I pay in rent for a year.
I regard wrinkles on a woman as neither beautiful nor as evidence of wisdom or character, and I’ve studied too much 18th-century British literature to deny that women in Western or at least British culture, have historically been viewed as sexual objects. Dowries, after all. At some point, you give up but that point doesn’t arrive till 75 in my view and a little Dysport or Perlane does wonders on a woman who otherwise takes care of herself (i.e. stays out of the sun) and has good genes. I’m perceptive enough to know that sex sells and that conforming to society’s standards of beauty smooths one’s way in life and yields perks. “Objectification” can of course be negative but it’s more complex than a lightweight like Hermanson appears to grasp.
For a subtle exploration of objectification by a Purdue English professor, poet, and publisher, see Kathleen Rooney’s Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object. Occasionally, Ms. Hermanson writes an okay (but hardly groundbreaking or innovative) piece like this one about internecine conflicts within feminism itself: Why We Should Stop Fighting about Feminism, but mostly it’s your average redundant blog about social issues, politics, family and gender.
Ms. Hermanson is a novelist, not an academic, so one should not expect philosophically rigorous analyses of gender, but still one hopes I think to accomplish something in a blog, even if, on the Horatian definition of the poet’s function in Ars Poetica–“to delight and instruct”–one falls firmly on the side of delight. And there is little delightful, diverting or entertaining about this woman’s hand-wringing. She herself admits to being addicted to self-examination, a psychic form of the skin picking which has a technical name I already forgot. (I used to pull hair around 9/11 but I was blessed with hair model /Breck girl hair from my part-Mexican mother so I had a lot to spare.) Further, she identifies this as an obstacle to relationships, work, and friendships.
The editors of Role/Reboot didn’t enjoy my comment on their FB page, accusing me of being “whiny,” the very charge I level against Hermanson. The comment is probably gone now, but it amounted to this: I was not a GOP troll and I support reproductive freedom and agree that women have suffered from the discriminatory and unjust policies of insurance companies. I noted that I come from good liberal lawyer stock (mentioning my mother’s legal career though not by name) but wrote that if the blog wishes to be taken seriously and read by those who don’t already agree with everything Role/Reboot posts, the editors must take responsibility for endorsing an author whose tone chafes on the nerves even if the content is basically unobjectionable.
I further noted that when you publish your (trite) work on the internet, you can’t expect to be treated with kid gloves. I didn’t call her a name or use profanity but I wasn’t nice or “respectful” just because she “put herself out there.” I too was depressed and I’m extremely open about the catastrophic and crippling nature of my long bout with depression which destroyed my academic career. I write my story as honestly as I can in the hopes that it inspires others to believe they too can one day be free and cured of the problem.
And in fact, I receive dozens of private and public messages thanking me for my candor and the hope–as well as diversion–Victorian Chick provides in detailing my fun bicoastal life. Finally, I pointed out that whiny and derisive are different and that my comment was the latter. They wrote back but I have learned (and generally adhere to) the following rule: if you deign to address a lightweight or by turns annoying and hostile individual on the internet, you make your point once and then move on.
But some bloggers about mental health seem not even to entertain the possibility of a “cure.” Daphne Merkin is the most famous therapy addict of our time, writing amusingly and often insightfully about her 40 or so analysts over a lifetime and in 2010, announcing her decision to call it quits in the New York Times Sunday book review. Merkin can grate on the nerves as well, but she’s a far better (and more successful) writer than Hermanson.
I was trained never to make claims about a text without acknowledging my forerunners: this is basic stuff for any writer of criticism or social commentary. Another irritating thing about bloggers like Hermanson is they tend not to reference those who came before. Instead, they refer incestuously to other frankly insignificant bloggers covering the same ground, taking on academic issues without grounding their claims in the significant texts which have framed the conversations in which they’ve inserted themselves.
One of Hermanson’s better blogs is Can We Choose Not to Make Our Past Dictate Our Present? It’s hardly cutting edge, but at least it avoids the sanctimony of her other blogs with titles like “We Need to Talk About Depression and Everyone Needs to Listen.” I lost a decade of my life and no one thought I’d ever go back even to my “dark and twisty” but highly functional years through the end of my Masters. And yet here I am, med free four years this January, and bouncier, cheerier and perkier than I ever was as a teen, young adult or 30-something (the worst years until about 37).
That part of my life is over. No, I’m not a professor at a great New England or Mid-Atlantic university but so it goes. I realize I have what a friend called a “life of Riley.” I’m financially secure and I don’t have to work. I have a wonderful relationship with my parents, parents with whom I didn’t speak the better part of a decade and with whom things were rocky from 1990 on.
I am bicoastal and go to theater, comedy, dance, symphony and lectures regularly. I have good relationships with my half-siblings and a terrific aunt I adore and speak to frequently even post-retirement to Seattle. My boyfriend truly loves me and we (after three years I’ve claimed joint custody) have the best dog and cat on the planet. I’m extremely close also to his parents–who have a goofy, loving French Briard who rivals our yellow lab Emma in the best dog contest–and I love them both.
The key to my freedom, of course, is being childless. But when I was suicidal, not having kids (or financial problems except for a year of my life) didn’t make me feel free or joyful. Now, I appreciate and take full advantage of my freedom. I can live on vastly less money than someone with children (or even one child, which requires additional space) and I don’t have to save up for college or shrinks. Nor do I have to watch my offspring undergo the humiliating and inhumane experience of applying to college in an era vastly worse than mine in the 1980s. Yes, getting into Yale early was a lot of work but I sort of assumed I would as I was one of the stars of my class and other than my misery in intro calc in 11th grade (about which I occasionally have a nightmare in which I fail the final rather than getting a C and Yale rescinds my acceptance), I generally managed to hit the marks I set out for myself.
During my decade plus of death, I avoided relationships–remaining celibate 8.5 years–so I have neither crazy ex-boyfriends nor a crazy ex-husband. In short, I am baggage free. I spent years in therapy from 19 to 36, sometimes with a three or four year break, sometimes just once a week, other times two to four days a week (during the analysis years). That too is over. I check in by phone every three months with an ex-shrink I saw never more than twice a month and usually less than that when she was in SB.
I understand that for some mental illness is a lifelong condition, like alcoholism, never fully gone. And it’s not that I’m not sorry that life is so hard for Hermanson, whose blog seems to be a therapy journal with excursions into social commentary. If her ranting (that’s the URL) is therapeutic for her, great. But she sets herself up as some kind of authority on life, psychology, gender relations. She doesn’t seem figured out at all–much less at peace–and again this would not raise an eyebrow were it not for her preachiness and status as self-proclaimed guru.
Driving home from Visalia, I got a FB message from the woman which indicates that she’s so self-absorbed she didn’t bother to look me up on FB or Google. She sent me the piece about depression, thinking I was a person with no mental health history devoid of compassion for those who suffer.
Then she asked me what I did for a living. Duh. I’m ABD and a caretaker for my father. I blog for myself, for the Patch in LA, and occasionally a literary blog called Philadelphia Junto. I wrote two pieces for Weekly Standard, which ran in various Clarity media outlets, and hope to do more in that vein. (It was a fluke that I published my first reviews in a Neoconservative national magazine, but I met the literary editor on the GOP Facebook circuit and he liked my blog.) I make no secret of my bicoastal life of culture and friends and a minute or two on my blog–or author page–would make that plain.
Then she hurled “privilege and entitlement” at me. As I posted on FB, she’s gotta do a whole lot better than that if she intends to wound. A FWB (friends with benefits) I had in 2008, when I started to date again (though “dating” to me connotes dinner in restaurants and we never ate out) called me a “trust fund baby cunt.” A former DJ back East and successful producer of “unscripted” TV shows (what we now call “reality TV”), he was an Italian Catholic from Yonkers with a musician father and housewife mother who grew up with a lot of love but very little money.
I don’t regret the short-lived but emotionally intense interaction, which was the most twisted I ever had, as it makes for a good story and he did make me laugh. I was vulnerable after my Emily Dickinson phase and his magnetism (not to mention Yonkers accent) drew me in. But if your first sex partner after 8.5 years you actually like calls you a “trust fund baby cunt” (all the more amusing when you don’t have a trust fund but rather a spendthrift trust) doesn’t unglue you, a struggling, irritating woman you don’t know coming at you with “entitlement and privilege” (which aren’t in any case incompatible with depression) ain’t gonna bring you to your knees. Particularly not one who obsesses over how to dress in her new city, Portland,.
What’s the problem? Either be a schlub or dress up and tell others who have a problem with that kindly to fuck off (but never split an infinitive: you don’t want those Portlandians to think you’re both ungrammatical and vain). But that’s the thing: as my boyfriend put it, “Are there really people out there who don’t know this stuff?” It appears that there are and that Hermanson is their spokeswoman.
P.S. I find animals to be instant mood elevators. Perhaps, if Hermanson is not to abandon writing for what she calls in an email my “lifestyle of privilege and entitlement,” she might get a dog and a cat. Or go with the privilege thing. I chose the Veuve Clicquot picture as my blog header as a vote for privilege, though I didn’t in fact pay for my ticket. It was free to residents as a thank you, along with a bottle of Yellow Label, for ruining their Saturday with the blockades up the hill to the park. I’m not sure which she’d consider more entitled, paying 50 a ticket and 19 a flute or getting in for free because my parents live close by. Surely both would qualify.
I feel compelled to note, however, that the Armani dress I’ve had nearly 4 years was 65 at a secondhand store in Santa Monica called Discovery Shop, whose proceeds benefit the American Cancer Society, and the Jack Rogers flats I’ve worn for two years from the Cape were 95 on sale. The hat is my aunt’s and the purse was 65 on 56th and 6th this past trip, surely overpriced to begin with, but ridiculously cheap at 65 (90% off at a going out of business sale) for this caliber of leather with the innovative design (strap doubles or you can wear it long). Outfit total: 215 including purse.