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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

 

Happy New Year Mikalogue


Kit: Go on, baby, say happy new year to everyone.

Mika: What is this new year to which you refer? Mika born in November. Year has been around for weeks. Is Year Two And A Bit of Mika!

Kit: Yes, but it's the beginning of the calendar year.

Mika: Calendar?

Kit: Yes, you know, like the things we have up on the wall.

Mika: If too high to chew, is beneath Mika's notice.

Kit: If you say happy new year, you can have a fish treat.

Mika: Oooh, happy new year! Yum.

Kit: Are you making any new year resolutions? I'm planning on keeping up my exercise regime, and...

Mika: Resolutions?

Kit: You know, when you decide how you're going to be a better person.

Mika: Does Mika really have to dignify that question with an answer?

Kit: ...I guess not. Happy new year, sweetie.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

 

And happy Christmas to all!


Okay, so this isn't a photograph of today, it's from a surprising snowfall early last spring. But, y'know, it's snow. And kind of pretty.

A very merry Christmas to you all. I'd like to thank all my posters for being such delightful company, all my lurkers for taking the time to read my ramblings, and wish you all a joyous season.

Monday, December 22, 2008

 

Merry Christmas

... but I'm ill and not up to blogging very much. So, I hereby declare this an open thread. Got something you want to promote, or a charity you want to advertise, or an opinion you want to state, or a joke you want to share, or ... well, anything else? Help yourselves.

Compliments of the season. Now I'm going to lie down again.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

 

What's on your Christmas tree this year?



Because Christmas trees can be an interesting document of how people live.

I myself have quite a lot of ornaments, which I tend to use in different combinations. They have certain things in common. Many of them are 'natural'-looking - lacquer berry clusters, decorated pine cones, model birds and so on - because I'm a fan of, y'know, Nature and all its beauty. Others are traditional-looking: enamelled bells, toy gingerbread men, candy canes; my house is Edwardian, and an overly modern tree would look peculiar; besides, Christmas is an old-fashioned tradition, associated with nostalgia and childhood, so cosy tradition looks pretty. I tend to buy several of each because I like symmetry, and also because I'm a bit neurotic about things I like getting broken and tend towards getting spares.

As a result, my trees tend to look artistically themed one way or another. This year we're fairly minimal with a naturalistic motif, largely because it's our cat Mika's first Christmas at home and I was concerned about her attacking the tree. We got one with thick branches so as to look impenetrably unclimbable, and I decorated it with nothing but berries and birds - largely because they're clip-on or hooked; I figured, especially as she's so recently out of kittenhood, that ornaments that bobbed from strings would be too great a temptation to her. As it turns out, she's leaving it alone, except that she likes to creep under the branches and hide there; presumably it makes her feel nested and safe, or possibly gives her space to plot in peace, but as long as she's happy and not destroying the tree that's fine by me.

In our house, it's usually me who decorates the tree, because I really enjoy it and my fiance doesn't particularly. Julia Cameron talks about 'artist's dates' in The Artist's Way, in which you do something fun and vaguely artistic every week - do some crayoning, go to an aquarium, make some paper dollies, whatever - and tree-hanging is one of my artist's dates.

My family have a different tradition: they have a box of ornaments and hang pretty much the same ones every year. Many of them match, because many of them were bought by me, but on the whole my parents aren't very fussed about decorations, so they just hang what they've got. The one stipulation comes from my dad, who rejects all non-silver tinsel on the grounds that tinsel should look like snow (which is probably where I get my love of natural-looking ornaments from). Who decorates depends on the year; there's no particular rituals associated.

On the other hand, my parents are amiable people with a lot of friends they keep in touch with (my mother's a particularly busy correspondent), so the real decorative undertaking is how to hang up over a hundred Christmas cards. Strings of them hang off every corner; it took us years to work out a way of making them stay up.

The other consistent decoration, again done by my dad and which again I do myself, is cutting holly, ivy and pine branches to stick behind the pictures. My dad's a nature-lover and keen gardener, plus hands-on practical, so there's always stuff to go out and gather. I carry it on because I always liked it, and also because I'm fond of seasonal decorations of all kind; marking the beauty of the different seasons is one of many ways to celebrate life in this lovely world.

My in-laws are different again. Their Christmas tree is like a family archive: they have some sets of ornaments, but lots of individual ones, and they've been accumulated over the years and all have different memories attached. There are baubles they don't much like but still hang, because they come from an early Christmas together where they could only afford the cheapest baubles in the shop; there are gifts from friends; there are holiday souvenirs; there are ornaments bought because they were beautiful and ornaments that belong to their shared history. They need to buy a tree about nine feet tall to fit them (and even then, there are usually ornaments left over), and the result is a Victorian-style maximalist extravaganza.

Decorating is a family event: we all go over - that is, the parents, my fiance, his sister and me - and listen to music, have drinks and snacks while we hang, and then have dinner afterwards. Doing the tree is a little yearly party.

All of which says something about how we live, I'd say. I do my Christmas trees arty because I'm like that, and my fiance lets me get on with it because he's obliging; my family are unceremonious but sociable and good at maintaining relationships over the years and decades; my in-laws are family-minded and loyal to their friends and history (and are also music-lovers - which you can see in the ornaments, too; there are quite a few little trumpets and drums).

How do you do your Christmas decorations? And what does it say about how you live?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

 

Misremembering the Brontes

Like many people, I hadn't heard of Stephanie Meyer's wildly popular Twilight until it started to be mentioned in film reviews. This is probably because I'm thirty-one rather than fourteen, though I did notice a friend of mine being given it as a thirtieth birthday present with the recommendation that it was a perfect book to relax with. Based on reviews and extracts, it doesn't sound like my kind of novel, so unless I get interested enough in the cultural phenomenon to pick it up from the library I'll be in no position to say much about the book itself - but reading discussions of it - I'd particularly recommend this one from Salon - something stands out. Meyer, apparently, is a big fan of certain classics, particularly Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Their heroes influenced hers - and, interestingly, hers is frequently described as 'perfect' (though a more jaundiced reviewer describes him as 'one of modern fiction's best candidates for a restraining order' - which adds up to the conclusion that he's a particularly effective version of the masterful hero that works so well in female fantasies and so seldom in real life; the guy who's kept Mills and Boon going all those years.

Which is a topical segue into the subject I'd really like to discuss, which is this: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights appear to be among the most misremembered books in history.

It's a curious thing that both books are seen as great love stories, when the former spends vast amounts of time away from the romance - notably, it begins and ends elsewhere - and the latter ends with the 'hero' dying in sin and insanity. Both of these 'love stories' are in fact deeply problematic.

The word most commonly applied to Wuthering Heights is 'passion'. The Cathy-Heathcliff relationship is seen as a lifelong love, wild as the moors, that endures all life can throw at it. More accurate, perhaps, would be to say that it's a lifelong obsession on Heathcliff's part that survives all that Cathy can throw at it - and that, for fans of the masterful man, Heathcliff is very much the underdog. The break in their relationship comes where Cathy chooses to marry another man, primarily for his money, which she justifies thus:

My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath - a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind - not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.

Catherine isn't saying this to declare herself: she's saying it to justify her abandonment of Heathcliff's love. She remarks that 'it would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him.' Catherine's logic is convoluted and narcissistic: believing Heathcliff to be 'more myself than I am', it's inconceivable to her that he might have needs or desires of his own that are separate from, or in conflict with, hers. To please herself cannot be a betrayal of Heathcliff if he, too, is herself. He doesn't even need to know how she feels; she knows how she feels, and that's all that's necessary. This sense of two-in-one, which sounds so romantic taken out of context, is in fact an absolute objectification of the man she claims to love: not being separate from her in her own mind, she treats him as entirely without rights. Nelly calls her a 'wicked, unprincipled girl' for this, and it's hard not to see her point.

And Heathcliff takes it. Physically large he may be, but his powers are weak when put to the test. He's violent, but only towards women (though not Catherine), children and animals; in his one physical confrontation with a man, Edgar Linton punches him in the throat and Heathcliff runs away blustering. He simply isn't as big as he talks; Linton, whom he regards as a weakling, bests him in a physical conflict - and if we're considering virility as well as strength, it's worth noting that the child Heathcliff fathers, Linton Heathcliff, is sickly and frail, while Linton fathers a healthy and beautiful daughter. Such force as Heathcliff does exert on other men following his return from exile is largely financial rather than muscular - and he never, ever stands up to Catherine. He schemes furiously against everyone he perceives as standing between him and her, but the plain fact is that Catherine married another man of her own free will, and Heathcliff blames everyone but her. He's remembered as masterful, but Cathy has Heathcliff by the balls.

(It's also worth pointing out that the moors, while present, are not heavily described. Wuthering Heights is a novel of domestic scenes, of quarrels and conflicts indoors; the moors' main effect on the plot is to enforce isolation from the rest of the world and from other households, allowing emotional hothouses to thrive and grow rampant.)

Wuthering Heights, in short, is not in fact a love story. Heathcliff's thwarted rage at Catherine's desertion drives a great deal of the story, but that's only romantic if we believe what the characters say about themselves - take their statements as facts, rather than as the self-justifications of ruthless people. Primarily it's a story of conflict between large personalities trapped in a small space, a tale of family dynasty rather than two people, and in this tense environment, affectionate love is something that struggles.

Jane Eyre is another tricky customer. The famous love story in fact only occupies the central phase of the book; much of the action is entirely Rochester-less. Jane's struggles with her aunt, her travails at Lowood, have very little to do with the Rochester storyline, except to impress on her a need for independence and self-sustenance that later will stand her in good stead. A lot of people forget about St John RIvers, too, Jane's later implacable suitor who tries to persuade her to marry him and lead a missionary's life that will, he knows, destroy her - even though St John's final letter, in which he declares that he's dying and looks forward to Heaven, is what ends the book. Jane's primary relationship throughout, the only one that lasts, is with her own integrity: as she says, 'I care for myself'. No narcissist like Catherine, Jane is instead aware that she is accountable for her own actions, and the emotional arc of the novel concerns her fraught relationship with independence and self-sacrifice. Rochester is part of it, but not the whole story; as Jane herself declares, if the price of love is her self-respect, then she can do without love.

The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep to the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles given me when I was sane, and not mad - as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation; they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would they be worth? They have a worth - so I have always believed - and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane - quite insane, with my veins running fire and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.

This is passionate language, but her passion is for principle more than for a man. Love is dismissed precisely because it is so overwhelming; because it unseats the judgement and overwhelms the emotions, it is not to be relied upon.

Even prior to this temptation, though, Jane is notably hard-headed in her dealings with Rochester. His attempts to buy her fine clothes are an 'annoyance and a degradation' because she doesn't want to be dressed up like a toy: 'I thought his smile was such as sultan might, in a blissful and fond moment, bestow on a slave his gold and gems had enriched,' and she isn't having it. Jane knows perfectly well that he's had affairs in the past and tired of those women; to 'be your English Celine Varens' isn't something she's prepared to risk. Becoming engaged to him, she is 'flinty' in her refusal to accept sweet nothings, certain that he's unlikely to respect or stay interested in a woman who falls for his line of talk: 'a lamb-like submission and turtle-dove sensibility, while fostering his despotism more, would have pleased his judgement, satisfied his common-sense, and even suited his taste less.' She views this as keeping him 'in reasonable check', to the relief of the housekeeper Mrs Fairfax - and one can hardly blame her for this. Rochester himself owns that 'To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out that they have neither souls nor hearts - when they open to me a perspective of flatness, triviality, and perhaps imbecility, coarseness and ill-temper' - and while Rochester believes that Jane can never display any such vices, Jane herself reckons that this is infatuation talking, and that once the first flush has worn off he will lose interest in a woman who hasn't conducted herself carefully in the meantime.

Jane, in short, is aware that their social discrepancy puts all the power on his side, and recognises that she must continually assert herself if she isn't to be overwhelmed and then lost. The Salon article I linked to above remarks that in the stories descended from Jane Eyre, 'The chief point of this story is that the couple aren't equals, that his love rescues her from herself by elevating her to a class she could not otherwise join.' But this isn't entirely accurate in this instance. Jane is impoverished, but a lady by birth: marrying Rochester doesn't so much elevate her to a class she couldn't otherwise join as return her to a class from which she has been exiled; a legacy finally enables her to marry him on equal terms, indeed. Power is delicately balanced, but rather than surrendering herself to love, Jane treads a fine tightrope to prevent either her own emotions or his social power from entrapping her.

The Bronte sisters are remembered as great romantics, and if we capitalise the R, that's true: they were Romantic novelists, interested in the internal and the extreme. But love is a fraught business in their stories, and their heroes are questionable. Neither Heathcliff nor Rochester really likes women; both make something of an exception for their beloved, but are quick to scorn those they can impress or intimidate, and are only tender towards women whose force of personality exceeds their own. In the light of this, it's curious to see them as the grandfathers of your template masterful hero; both of them talk a good game, but if we look at their actions, they're not as all-fired tough as you think. The Strong Man Mastered By Love is, of course, essential to the alpha romance hero, but in fact, neither Heathcliff nor Rochester are strong in asserting their will against others. Heathcliff, as I've said, takes his temper out on those frailer than himself, but tends not to win conflicts with his contemporaries; Rochester fails to resist his family's pressure to marry a stranger and deals very poorly with the situation he finds himself in, fleeing abroad, hiding the truth and generally taking the easiest option wherever he can. There are other ways of defining manhood than the ability to win conflicts, of course, and the capacity to love certainly impresses women, but neither Heathcliff's nor Rochester's love is, to use an old-fashioned word, disinterested. Neither man loves the woman's good; each views love possessively rather than as a desire to see the beloved happy - else why does Heathcliff turn so vengeful, or Rochester try to trick Jane into an illegal marriage?

To be intensely desired is seductive, but dangerous when not associated with the desire to preserve and benefit that lies at the root of true love. Both of these men represent the dangerous type of love - which may be part of the appeal to a woman who's temporarily tired of the kind of love that helps with the dishes. But the Bronte romances are not, so to speak, defanged versions: their heroes are depicted as genuinely dangerous, as life-ruiners driven by selfishness, rather than as idealised lovers whose 'badness' is cosmetic and ineffective. There's something sleazy about genuine badness, which both these novels capture, with Heathcliff's loan-sharking and alcoholism-fostering, with Rochester's affairs and lies and callousness towards every mistress or wife who fails to please him. It's possible, of course, to love a man despite his faults, which is certainly what Jane does - and what real people do too, men and women both, because we're none of us perfect - but the Brontes are unusually frank about what those faults are, and clear that love for such men can never be unconnected with power play - and that it such relationships can be fatal to women who don't have the resilience to play for power hard and skillfully. Heathcliff's wife makes the mistake of assuming that love is the answer, for instance, and finds to her cost that it wasn't.

And yet, and yet. Somehow, many, many readers seem to lose sight of these faults. They remember 'I am Heathcliff' and not its context; they remember the proposal under the horse-chestnut and not the haggles about money and flattery that follow it. The rhetoric of love, spoken by the lovers themselves, overwhelms recollection of the details. This may just be a variant of the Sanjuro Effect, the tendency to perceive a character's charisma and notice little else to the degree that you've actively misunderstood the point - or possibly a tendency to fall in love with a character on not-too-close reading followed by the usual state of love being blind.

Readers do sometimes rewrite books in their heads to smooth off the uncomfortable bits, and the Brontes seem unusually prone to that. It's a curious thing, nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

 

Writing morning pages

I've mentioned before, I think, that I follow the advice of Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way - one of the few books on writing I'd recommend, and recommend highly - in that I write what she refers to as 'morning pages'. Morning pages, for those unfamiliar with the phrase, are pretty much what they sound like: every morning, first thing, you write three sides longhand of anything. Really, anything; analyse your emotional state, reflect on the nature of politics, grumble about the chores you have to do today, plan your Christmas list, anything. It doesn't matter what you write, it matters that you write.

My cyber-friend Nicole from Slacktivist asked me: can I tempt you to expound on whether you do "morning pages" regularly and, even if not, what you get out of the exercise when you do it? Well, that's a good question, so let's see.

First: yes, I do them regularly. I started doing them about a year ago, and in that time I've missed maybe five days, either from illness or because my routine was so disrupted I somehow managed to forget. Once I missed two days in a row, and I didn't like the experience: I started to feel out of touch, disconnected somehow. Writing them isn't always fun, but it's a way of touching base. It makes me feel stabilised.

I cheat a bit, in that I don't always write them first thing in the morning. If I'm in a hurry or have an overnight houseguest, I sometimes have to put them off; there have been times I've written them last thing at night because I didn't want a day without morning pages. What counts as first thing in the morning can vary - before showering or after, before breakfast or after, and sometimes I move them forward to post- breakfast, shower and e-mail checking (I'm doing that today, in fact), because I want to write them immediately before I start working on my novel. They can be a wonderfully good way of getting over the fear of starting: by the time you get to the novel, you've already started writing for the day, and beginning is less scary when it really doesn't matter if you spend three pages writing 'bananas bananas bananas'.

So that's the first thing I get out of them, and it's a big one: they reduce the fear of writing. Writing can be a scary business; I don't know why, but it is. Morning pages are a way of getting over that hump. The experience of writing without worrying about whether it's any good is an invaluable one: it thaws the perfectionist freeze. One of Cameron's pieces of advice is to resolve that you'll take care of the quantity and God can take care of the quality, and it's a good one. You're not likely to write any worse because you're worried about whether it's any good; if anything, the worrying will take up energy that might otherwise go into your imagination. Stopping the fretting process is a huge blessing when it comes to writing.

It's good to make writing physical, at least some of the time. As I've remarked previously, I have pretty dire handwriting, so I tend to compose fiction on a keyboard. Different people have different ideas about what the best method of writing is, and as with so many things about writing it's a matter of finding what works for you, and typing is generally fine - but writing with a pen is more intimate and connected in many ways. Getting to do at least a bit of it every day is a good way of keeping that connection healthy. Morning pages can be the writing equivalent of taking exercise.

Another huge benefit to writing is that morning pages are my most reliable method of solving plot problems. If I'm stuck on what to do next, I get out the pen. Other things can work too - there are a few people who've helped me immeasurably by bouncing ideas around, for instance, but you can't call people up every time you're not sure what to do. Thinking about it seems to do little good, in my case, because my thoughts slide around, I get distracted, and it's too easy to loop back to plain worrying. Writing, though, is linear; you can't slide away from it when it's on the page. I discovered this accidentally through morning pages one day when I was just complaining to myself about not being sure what to do next - and then I suppose I could do this, and - hey, how about that! The ideas started coming, and as I wrote them down, more followed. This can happen in morning pages; there have been times when I've done my morning pages for the day but do some more because I'm stuck. It doesn't always happen, of course, because it's an unpredictable process, but it's a fantastic way of getting over obstacles. I wouldn't believe this myself if I read someone saying it, but it's definitely worth trying.

Those are the main benefits to writing. There are other benefits as well. If you have an inner voice that attacks you - and most people have at least one - morning pages help you identify it. Write down what you're thinking every day, and you'll notice when certain things recur. So when you've seen it come out on the page, you get familiar with it - and that means you're better able to identify the attacking voice in general life, not just when you're writing. The little demon whispers a thought while you're in the middle of something? 'Aha,' you can think, 'I've heard from you before, haven't I?' Recurring negative thoughts are one of the banes of life, but once you've noticed that that's what they are, recurring negative thoughts rather than facts, they become much easier to ignore. If you say them out loud, you can wind up talking yourself into believing them, but writing them down puts them in their proper perspective.

More generally, it gives me a chance to sort myself out every day, to work out how I'm feeling, to consider if there's anything I ought to do about it, and generally keep my mental/emotional engine oiled. I've gone over upsetting events and worked out why they bothered me and what the best course of action is. I've anticipated difficulties, rehearsed what I might say if they come up and then found myself actually in the middle of those difficulties with a good plan of action already clear. I've psyched myself up to do necessary things I've been putting off. I've weighed up whether or not I wanted to do things I was dithering over. I've worked out the most sensible way of doing necessary things. Stuff that's stressful to think about is often less stressful when you write it down, and since writing morning pages, I've got both more balanced and more efficient.

So yes, I do write morning pages regularly, and the benefits are huge. They're one of those things that you have to put something into to get anything out, but what you get back is so worth the trouble of writing fifteen minutes of nonsense worth a day. In fact, I think I'll go do mine now.

Monday, December 01, 2008

 

Poor Mikalogue


Mika: Owww ... oww ...

Kit: Darling, whatever's the matter?

Mika: Mika's eye sooore ... owwww ... doooo something ...

Kit: Oh, poor sweetheart, your eye's infected! Let's take you to the vet's. Come on, into your cat box.

Mika: Noooo! Noooo! Let oooooout! Don't waaanna! Poor Miiiiika!

Kit: It's okay. It's just a short taxi ride to the vet.

Mika: Mika hurts and you imprison her! Cry all the waaaaay!

(Mika follows through on this declared intention.)

Vet: Hello, what's the problem?

Mika: Is not Mika's daaay! Don't liiike this room!

Kit: Sweetie, you've been here before. These are the nice vets that rescued you and looked after you before I adopted you and brought you home.

Mika: Hoooome! Wanna go hoooooome!

Kit: She has an infected eye.

Vet: Oh yes, I see. Well, I think she needs an anti-inflammatory shot and some drops. Just hold her for me, will you?

Kit: Come on, sweetie.

Mika: Let gooooo! Let - agh oh no oh no is stickin needle oh no protect me Kit...

Kit: That's a good girl.

Mika: Hide against you. This is bad world.

Vet: That should bring down the swelling. Now, she needs some cream in the eye too.

Kit: Hold her again?

Vet: If you would, please.

Kit: Come on, baby.

Mika: Hidin against you does Mika no good, for you seize her! This is - oh no oh no is messin with eye -

Vet: I just need to massage it in a bit.

Mika: Owwww! Mmf! Not faaair!

Vet: I know, you don't like that, do you?

Kit: It'll make you better, precious.

Mika: You wrongs. Wanna go home.

Kit: That means a taxi ride, I'm afraid.

Mika: Noo! Cry all the way! Life is haaard!

Kit: Well, you asked me to make you better. This is what it involves.

Mika: You could contrive better solution if wished.

Kit: I really can't, sweetie.

Mika: But Mika needs you to.

Kit: You need your nice medicine that'll make you better. But you know what? The vet also sold me some tooth-cleaning food! Now you don't have to use that horrid stinky toothpaste you hate so much. That's a bonus, isn't it?

Mika: Sniff. So all is good now?

Kit: Well, not quite. Daddy and I are going to have to put the drops in your eye twice a day for a week.

Mika: Nooooooo!

Kit: Poor honey. Would you like a cuddle?

Mika (very quietly): ...yes please...

(Editor's note: this conversation took place several weeks ago, but other posts got in the way. Mika's fine now.)

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