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SSar's Beast
The Question

"We are what is missing from the world"
-Fernando Pessoa

Some questions have no answer. The first question I think when I look up from a book is Where am I? The jigsaw pieces of my context assemble not-quite-instantly. On Sunday I looked up from such a book and was instantly warmed at the hearth of: steel gray weather outside, warmth and light inside, the chaotic colour of my possessions, Joel reading nearby. This scene is more rewarding than the ones inside some books I’ve read lately. Londonistan is bleak. It was one I picked up along the theme of ‘I should find out what people think about the world’. What Melanie Phillips thinks about Britain is that it has taking apologism and appeasement to extremes - in fact, not just taken them to extremes, but to Extremism - Islamism and anti-semitism and judicial activism and other isms on the rim. It’s a good read, very sobering. To people who are not me I am sure it would provide much material to challenge. I am only able to absorb and be frightened.
Raised, they hang there in the mind “Right,” Joel says, “Now you need to read Kratman’s A Desert Called Peace. That takes priority.” It will give me, he says with a canny smirk, a new perspective on the world. I solemnly note that a txt file called A Desert Called Peace has appeared on the eMac’s desktop. I “shelve” it just above Heinlein’s Take Back Your Government for which I have an arbitrary reading deadline of “before the Massachusetts election primaries, please!”
Like open mouths, full of something missing. Reading is not like filling in the gaps - it’s like drawing maps between stars. You start to notice the spaces in between them. The more connections you draw the more black space you have. And the universe is expanding.
The great Portuguese poet, Pessoa, (I’d like more poetry in my diet, too.)
Said that the idea of happiness Another I have just finished is Easton and Lizst’s The Ethical Slut. Strange bedfellows with Londonistan, as the latter viciously attacks the increasingly morally relativistic stance of the Anglican church and a decline in visible British Christian values. Slut is optimistic. It says “Your friends can be more than friends.” Most universally applicable are its section on communication within a relationship, and its section on owning your own feelings. Most exciting to me are - those sections, and the assurance with which it argues that 1-2-3-”Complicated” relationships can be everyday.
Is what makes men permanently sad. Along the same lines of “sexual freedom” - I am not sure if I am being liberated or conformist, but I went back to the strip clubs last week for another Girl’s Night Out. No token males this time - but please give me your own answer to the question, Is a guy going to a strip club acting inherently more sleazily than a girl going to a strip club? Do women ‘objectify’ other people’s bodies less than men do? If women entertain themselves with sexually charged shows that have traditionally been aimed at men, is this “as bad as” men looking at women in this way? Would this still be “sexist” objectifying? (sorry, my participles are getting away from me.) And for what definition of ‘sexism’? (By the way, this time it wasn't that great. The performers mostly ignored us, and this time it did feel sleazy. I will try one more strip bar and if that is also sub-par I will not try this experiment again.)
The body, imagining the soul About half of my female friends have started or are planning to start some sort of exercise or weightloss program now that 2008 has begun. At first I felt a bit threatened about this, with reactions ranging from "Gah, more people I don't dare cook dinner for," to "Societal conformist!" Very small-spirited of me, heh. But now I am feeling a lot more happy about my friends' decisions (as if I should have an opinion either way, but I still do) as they seem really positive and self-determining. I had a savvy discussion with Tara about the difference between caving into society and being honest with yourself, and Yvette and Frances are making such a fun novelty of Weight Watchers that I am almost tempted to try it for myself. I, however, am not changing my diet, because I am lousy at regimes of denial. I am running in the mornings. Today was day 24. Layne, who is running with me, says he has already noticed we have lost weight. I don't quite dare check. In a month, I will dare.
Looks ugly to itself. My stated aim is to get fitter. What I was reading before The Ethical Slut and Londonistan was John Ringo's "Ghost" or "Kildar" series, and these glorify the military and athleticism (as well as providing quite a lot of fun with occasional BDSM and terrorist-whacking.) Then the New Year rolled around, and, hey, there's my friend starzend with whom I have gone running before, and who has coincidentally just moved closer to my house. With this combination, how could I not promise to get out of bed at 5:45am EVERY morning for the conceivable future and make myself wheeze and ache? "Getting fit" is a nebulous goal - at least my friends who are losing weight have something to aim for. What I really want is to take every step with slightly less unwillingness, to tackle every day with more energy and courage, and to convince myself I think I can. I think I can.. To be honest, I don't like the way I look. But I can work on my attitude first. :)
A man hears a word, and the world Twelve hours after one running session, I was sitting in an airy pub jabbing knitting needles into the air, hopefully expectant. After a brisk woman told me for the fifth time, "No - keep your hand under the needle!" and kept refusing to let me unravel my wool so I could try to cast on again, I was closing my eyes rather than make eye contact with the rest of the knitting circle. Four years ago, when I was that stressed out, I would have abruptly gathered my stuff and left, wordless, sulky, scared and ashamed. On this occasion, I waited until there was a lull for food, and quietly thanked my teacher for her patience, promising to practise in the intervening week. Then I left.

Becomes a place that he misunderstands. I was sad, later, when a friend told me it seemed as if I'd walked out with out warning, possibly appearing offended. Did I win at all? I guess so, because as I left I was thinking "That went badly, but it wasn't a disaster, and I'm not too scared to go back next week." It is a pity that I was seen differently. But it is not necessary or desirable to reconcile what others know about me with what I know about myself.
So he climbs high into his life, - Funny how I never seem to get stressed at work. Once I was very upset, and headed to work after crying into Joel's shirt. Ten minutes after sitting down at my desk I felt better. Up on the sixth floor, there are small and measurable goals and there are places to fit and when in employment, society does not condemn you for being a round peg fitting in a round hole. Also! I got a pay rise of $2 an hour on Thursday, because of Office Politics. Whitney's little sister Ashley was hired to do data entry, and Whitney pointed out very firmly to Wayne-the-boss that Ashley was getting paid more than Whitney had been when Whitney started in data entry. Plus, Whitney was moved to a more skilled job and had not received a pay rise. Whitney walked out of Wayne's office, and Wayne promptly found me and declared that Whitney and I had a pay rise. I owe Whitney.
Ashamed of all he doesn't know, I received my Offer of Study a few days ago! Just two courses this semester. Then I went and looked up the coursebooks for these courses - except the total information available is one "recommended reading" and one Shakespeare play that we will cover. That is a pity, but it is somewhere to start. Also, it encourages me to start prep for Germanic & Danish by asking Daniel, "How do I say 'I cannot speak German?'..."
And refuses to come down. I go through phases of being high powered and quick-moving, the brown fox rather than the dog. This is one of them; I will learn and read and talk and write letters and do everything as long as I can. I will sew and cook and flirt and when my leash is cut I'll run.

If you could coax him out again, Recently I have begun listening to a podcast called SubKnit, which, punningly, is about knitting and BDSM. To be honest, the knitting scares me a lot more; I want to learn a skill I will HOPEFULLY find rewarding and which will introduce me to new and friendly people, but I wince at the High Level of Wank implied in competitive yarn-stashes and similar snobbery. Please, O Fortuna, keep me tucked up all safe from this rubbish. I wished this particularly strongly when Juliet, the podcaster, was going through lists of fears knitters might have, for example the fear that they are not "up" with current celebrities like the Yarn Harlot. I realised I was being a bit unfair, though, when she moved on to her sexual topics, where I could definitely empathise with her list of embarrassment-related fears. I guess this is because I do not yet define myself as A Knitter. If I do become A Knitter someone will have to remind me that once I couldn't see what all the fuss was about either, and use this to comfort me when pride and yarn get tangled.
You could tell him, say, Oh! Today I learned who first said this: "Let me first assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, speaking at his inauguration. The panic he mainly meant was economic. All across the country, banks had just closed, one after the other like a house of cards falling. (The book that has taught me this is The Glory and the Dream by William Manchester - a tome of American history from 1932 to 1972. If you know American history in the slightest, you will realise I am not very far through this book. That will change. It is awesome.)
That anything can be explained. My job frequently requires me to explain to people how it is they should be filling out forms. One day I spent five (5) hours writing one (1) letter about forty-three (43) fishing return forms, upon which our lovely client had made a consistent and complicated mistake that could indeed have made sense if you screwed up your face and stood on your head at a forty-five (45) degree angle. Because my computer did not have enough memory to handle repeated cut-and-pastes, it crashed three (3) times, and threatened vehemently to crash a further time, which I count as a half-crash (0.5 x crash), because I reacted in fear by restarting my computer. I was able to put this letter in an A4 ('a'-four) envelope before the postie came for our mail, though the computer reduced my victory by refusing to save my formatting. I still won. That is all. Apart from occasionally howling like a sad puppy, all this was most amusing. I don't think the client will think so when he gets fifty-seven (57) pages of forms-plus-explanations.
The shape of apples, for example Wikipedia informs me that the word apple (in its medieval form) was used for any kind of foreign fruit, and that some scholars have suggested that the Biblical apple was actually a kind of trance-inducing mushroom. OMG I LOVE this idea. Er-hem.
By their love of travel. You could also explain the shape of apples by the fact that Malus domestica is a member of the rose family. Or you could merely use this to confuse people. Is Johnny Appleseed a hero, spreading easy edibles across the land, or a tyrant, introducing competition with rare natives? Maybe I should reread my old copy of American Folk Tales. You know, actually, what COULDN'T be used as an explanation for apples? Just say it's because it's too hard to make a fruit grow in the shape of New York. The variety of cultural references make the humble apple a kind of Rorschach blot.
Or that the sky is blue because This is the best answer I have, and the oldest text I have saved on my phone. It reads: NOW i am on a bus only here its a blueish afternoon scattered with clouds shaped like anvils. will they fall or will it just rain? pick your cartoon-style doom. 21/07/2004, 2:14pm. (That was Pip and apologies if I am appropriating you, Pieride).
It's an easy color on the eyes. - Oh yes. The recent movie Cloverfield is worth watching, but I had to walk out of the credits because I only realised how much the shaky camera had offended my eyes when I tried to read text. I thought the movie was a simple concept done pretty well - survival rather than Conspiracy Theory X - and I loved the device of the "amateur film" being recorded over an earlier tape, bits of which we occasionally got to see. Ambitiously, I'd like to see Enchanted, Death at a Funeral, and Sweeney Todd soon.

Even the dog, chasing its tail, This is more a note to me than to you: ANIMAL MUSIC PROJECT. Right. Oh, okay, I'll tell you something - when I was at the sewing bee, on Thursday, Tara and Bex got a phone call from a hopeful Hamilton Road flatmate: name Courgette, age 32, occupation professional dog walker.
Has, temporarily, a center. I am not a Professional Dogwalker. Or a Sewer - I mean Seamstress. I used to define myself by scribbles in a journal or compositions in Ariel Narrow, size 13. That is, I used to be a Writer the way I do not quite want to be a Knitter. Sam recently gave me a silly anime, Romeo X Juliet, which nevertheless inspired a drabble, which is the only creative writing I've done in two years. Do you want to read it? If you don't you can move to the next paragraph - more mundane.
--There is a shop that sells masks - not coy things that only give flourishes to your eyes, or ethnically complex relics, but masks that transform your head's grace and shape. It's hard to give you directions to this shop because the district around it changes often. Stores go in and out of business quickly. Recently the old building complex where the mask shop is was surrounded with scaffolding and noise, and turned into inner-city apartments. But the mask shop reappeared behind glass doors to the left of the apartment lobby.
-About twice a year, here, there is a masked ball. The venue changes. The rule goes: you don't take off your mask. All drinks are served with straws, and food in separate rooms that are always too cold, so that people don't linger there. The tradition goes: If you meet a person you like, you swap masks. You must be prepared to surrender your mask again. As you trade masks you exchange a smile with the other stranger. When you next see that mask's particular design (blue, black, jailhouse bars) it will be on another person's face. You will wonder why the person you passed your mask to passed it on to her, what she saw in her.
-The truth is that a month from now - or six - you will not meet that person on the street, or see her in a magazine. You will not write her a letter or song. It doesn't work that way. And you won't take off their mask.--
Even the bird, disappearing into his hole I'm not moving this year! Joel and Alex and I and... well, someone... are living here again. My flat is small-ish: good for me and my boyfriend, not great for entertaining, great for university access, supplied with an abundance of stairs, and known to most of my friends. I live at the top of an upwards-winding street with a good view of the city, on the bottom floor of a house below street level. Beyond a "lawn" about two metres deep, there is a suburban Cliff/Jungle combination. Concrete steps go down, and are overgrown into obscurity. My flat could have a herb garden, posters in the bathroom, ripe plums, and white paint on the edges of the stairs coming down from the street.
Knows that the world goes on without it. I am aware there's a world beyond my home... Can anyone let me know if it's possible to submit an expat vote for a state primary election? I know I can vote later in the year. My last state of residence was Massachusetts, which is having their primary in March. Which would be enough time if I *knew how to participate*. Please excuse and amend my ignorance.
And Pessoa, that eminently healthy man, On a side note, my mother reports wistfully that people have begun to give up their seats to her on the bus. For me, it is hard not to remember her as completely silver-haired. She is not frail. She is not quite sure what to think.
That artist, wore a blue wool hat I am writing a letter to my mother's mother (honest). I am talking to her about knitting because she once crocheted a blanket for me that I put on top of my duvet on cold nights. I tell her that the first real thing I want to make (scarves and swatches not counted) is a cloche hat. I know they're very 1930s. They are lovely, by the way. Mine will have a ribbon.
Even on the hottest summer days. Was shivering on Tuesday, was sunburned yesterday. It occurs to me that a wise thing to do in a volatile NZ city like Wellington or Auckland "Four Seasons In One Day" is to make a list of the best things to do in each type of weather. Cold rain - stay inside and fold paper. Not-so-cold rain - go to a cafe and meet a friend and watch the windows together. And so on. You can help, you know. I suspect I could use something from all the different categories by the end of February. (My favourite month, did you know?)
Simply to toss at strangers in the street. Whoever you are, that is. Whoever you aren't yet but could be. How does one start talking to strangers? When I'm walking to work, a fixed route that inevitably causes to see people more than once, I wonder why it is I don't know how to talk to them. Sometimes I feel as though we share enough in common simply because we're in line of sight. My new neighbour, a visiting Philosophy professor called Ken, started chatting to me when I passed him coming down my street. I was surprised because people don't usually do that. Is it an American thing, to be more friendly in suburban areas? Last year, I came out of the movie Superbad in a wonderful sugar-like high. There was a interesting looking girl who stayed for the credits, as we did, and wandered off along the street the way we were going. I wanted to run up to her and start chatting as if we'd always known each other. Maybe I could have done that - but only if I'd started talking when we were the only ones leaving the theatre. Where was the last possible polite point of contact?
He liked to see them catch it, And what about my point of contact with you? If you’ve read all the way through this essay-of-appropriation, congratulations and thank you and: say something. Send the ball back over the fence, please?
And grow immediately less strange. The world is a stranger place today.

-Tony Hoagland

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Yes, I read it :) I don't know how to talk to strangers either, which didn't serve me well at a wedding reception tonight. Although psychologists say that if we see people more often we're more inclined to like them, which seems about right.

I'm impressed.

How well did you know the people getting married? Do you know, I have never been to a wedding or related celebration. The most formal party I've been to was a friend-of-a-friend's 21st, and I somehow got talking to her stepmother for half an hour. We finally found something we could talk about when she mentioned she lived in Sydney and I asked her to recommend places for Joel to go when he went there on business trips.

Re: the psychologists - I guess that's an argument against love at first sight?

What for, it was a good read!

The bride was a family friend's maid, so not particularly well. I was also badly seated; the only other person under eighteen at my table was my sister and I'm even more awkward with adults I don't know than teenagers. But well done on talking about Sydney!

Yeah. I don't know how they plan on explaining that one.

In humid weather you should go swimming!

Maybe, but it takes so long to dry off when you get out, and then you feel so sticky! Then again, what IS good to do in humid weather? The pleasant options may be limited. "Take a plane ride". No such thing as a humid domestic flight.

Eating an iceblock is very nice in such weather.

Especially when up a tree.

I am still digesting your opus. "Accomplished" seems entirely appropriate as the mood upon completing it!

I was moved by the poem. I am going to send it to a friend. Where did you find it?

It was in that book I got from Borders a very long time ago, a collection put together by Naomi Shihab Nye called "What Have You Lost?" Another you might recall from it starts, "Just lying on the couch and being happy. Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head..."

Thanks, Mum :)

Random comments on "Answer"

There are so many reasons I liked that poem. I liked the tone and the message, which to me came through as “It’s OK – maybe actually a bit more than OK -- not to know stuff. ‘Should know’, like ‘should be happy’ creates a sense of something missing. And (given how much there is that you theoretically could know and don’t) it takes so little, just a word, to make you feel deficient. But not knowing can be freedom instead of a sense of something missing – freedom to consider possibilities, instead of being stuck in the cul-de-sacs of what you ’know’, and ashamed of not knowing what you don’t. What’s really important isn’t knowledge and answers, but connection.”

Poetry does it better. I loved the image of Passoa throwing out his blue hat, and seeing strangers become less separate from him in the act of catching it.

On reading and recommendations: I think you have to choose books mostly on the basis of recommendations (book reviews, friends, the bibliography of a book that you liked, etc.) Otherwise where would you start? The bibliography trail is what I seem to be using most at the moment (it works well for non-fiction.) Jim reserves a lot of books based on a monthly email of suggestions from the Auckland library.

Recommendations from friends can be a bit complex, depending on the friend’s motives. Best, in my view, if they can describe why they liked a book in a way that sparks your own interest. But there are lots of different, legitimate reasons to decide to read a book: to escape for a while; to make a connection with, or please, the recommender; to widen your experience; to challenge your assumptions about yourself or others; for the pleasure of the experience, because the author writes so well; to get information that supports achievement of a goal that you have; etc. etc.) If you’re clear on why you’re reading a book, it makes it easier to stop reading it without guilt if you decide the effort is outweighing the benefits.

A book I just finished met a couple of those objectives for me. It was “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert, and explained a lot of recent psychological research into the ways we make decisions. I looked forward to my assumptions being challenged and I thought I could use the information, but it also turned out to be enormously fun to read. A comment I enjoyed from his last chapter: “My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it.” The tone of the whole book was like that, sort of wry and a bit deadpan and quirky. “Vital Lies, Simple Truths”, by Goleman, about how our brains perceive things, was similarly fascinating but more seriously presented. My mother read that at my recommendation but said it made her feel uncomfortable. So that's a recommendation for and against.

Further comment on "Answer"

There’s a lot to be said for February. In my case, what’s neat about it is that the frenzy of November / December gardening – with projects that carry forward into January – is over. Plants are doing what they’re meant to do, flowering or fruiting, and they don’t need much help doing it, which creates time for other things. The world of business has regained its momentum and I’ve re-acquainted myself with what seemed so important at the end of last year but what was so easily put on hold for the holidays (which brings a healthy sense of perspective that might last a month or two beyond February.)

About talking to people: sometimes the simplest thing works best as a starter, just saying what prompted you to speak and then asking a question, like “I notice you walk this way often, are you going back and forth to work?” or “I noticed you stayed through the credits – did you like the movie?” A friendly smile usually reassures that you’re not a nutter (which they can be forgiven for worrying about because the confidence to initiate conversation with strangers is so rare.) You only need to figure out the first thing to say, because you’ll be able to then respond to their response. If their response doesn’t give you anything to work with, you can answer the question you posed as though they’d posed it to you, offering a comment on why you’re walking that route, or saying that you liked the movie except for whatever. And if there’s still nothing (maybe they are terminally suspicious or are having a really bad day) you can just say “well, see you around!” and take satisfaction in having made the effort. Some percentage of encounters won’t “work”, but practice improves the odds.

I agree that timing matters. Probably the last possible point of casual contact is when it still would feel casual. (If you can come up with a more purposeful reason to initiate – e.g. wanting to know where someone got that fabulous scarf they’re wearing -- it would probably feel OK to impulsively run after them.)

I find it often easier to talk to absolute strangers than someone I know casually. You can’t just start from scratch in the latter case, what you say needs to reflect that fact that you do know something about that person, and the risk in asking questions is that maybe you’ll ask something you really ought to have known the answer to! The safest bet is to discuss weather or a current event or to ask a question as if you know you should know the answer but have a temporary brain fade (e.g. “I should know this, but are you based in Auckland now, or Wellington?”)

That last one would have served me well when I rode up the lift at work the other day with a senior manager whom I know to be very pleasant. After a question from him which only required a yes/no from me, and a question from me that got a cordial response from him, my brain froze. I couldn’t think of a single other thing to say, and could only make eye contact, say “have a good day”, and smile warmly as I got out on my floor after many long seconds of silence. Ah, well, it’s comforting to think that either his brain was similarly frozen, or he was lost in his own thoughts and didn’t even notice whether I conversed.

For people you run into frequently, like the Philosophy professor, you could think up a few questions in advance. Is he new to Vic? Where did he teach before? What got him into studying philosophy – was there anything else he almost did instead? Etc. Sounds geeky but we are all so fundamentally shy and vulnerable, and connection with other people is so important, that it’s worth the effort – and if other people aren’t responsive then they have Issues that are not yours to feel responsible for.

Back on reading again, I liked the image of a star map highlighting the spaces between. Sometimes just knowing that the spaces are there feels empowering, given that you previously had no idea.

Final comment on "Answer" for now

On the Massachusetts primary: They decided in November to shift the date to February 5 (just found that out, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21989367/.) When we were about to emigrate, an accounting firm told us that Massachusetts would expect us to pay state taxes (in addition to U.S. taxes) on our NZ income if we retained our claim to be state residents. Seemed an unreasonable price to pay for voting in the primaries, so long as we could still vote in the U.S. election.

“You will wonder what the person you passed your mask to . . . saw in her.” My assumption (a technical point but it affects my reaction) was that the act of exchange does not reveal your unmasked face, that the smile comes via the old, or the new, mask. So what one sees in the other (that makes one decide to swap) is the mask as it’s worn by that person --- a mask changes the grace and shape (liked that) of one’s head, but is influenced by it, as well, so one mask doesn’t look quite the same as worn by different people. –That might not be at all what you intended, but that’s what it made me think about. I wasn’t sure why the line quoted above was so arresting, until I realised that I was assuming that I’d swap because of how I thought a mask might change my own head, rather than by what I saw in the other person. . Your “drabble” was dreamlike, making sense in some ways but disquietingly not, in others, as though I was someplace as a foreigner and there were underlying cultural assumptions that I wasn’t equipped to understand. I liked it a lot.

About my being offered seats on buses: your comment was such a perfect description of how I felt. I don’t take the bus that often, and I’m not always offered a seat even when I do . . . but still, “not knowing what to think” does tend to make something occupy the mind. And deciding what to think is precisely the issue. There are so many ways one can think about something like this, and it’s not a question of right or wrong. Given that a response is necessary when it does arise, what I was trying to figure out was, what response would best reflect who I am and leave me feeling OK?

I’ve ended up concluding (as you did with the knitting group) that it isn’t important how they see me; what’s important is what I know about myself, and how I act. In the case of the people on the bus, they are making an understandable assumption that if I have grey hair I’m more likely to tire easily or be unsteady, and it makes them feel good to do a kind thing. Given their good intent, why should I tell them how robust I am and make them feel wrong? That doesn’t mean I have to accept an offered seat, if I’m taking pleasure in swaying with the motion of the bus. But if I’d have taken an empty seat when I entered the bus, why not accept an offered seat given that the offer was made freely and with goodwill? I can accept, or say “no thank you”, depending on whim, but in either case I can feel pleasure at being the focus of their desire to do a Good Thing, and warmly thank them for it. I can tell from how I feel about having reached that conclusion(light-hearted and free and comfortable), that it’s consistent with who I am.

It seems like that could have just been my natural response, without having needed all that rumination, but it wasn’t. And I don’t think it’s wrong to be careful of one’s integrity, as long as one stops to consider whether it’s actually being threatened. Sometimes it is, and what feels right is speaking up, and setting boundaries. And sometimes someone’s misperception of you needs to be put right, because it matters. But not in this case.

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