Jesus Christ what a terrible year. From the never-ending stream of celebrity deaths (and not the awful ones! What? Why?) to the terrible environmental news and the disastrous American election and Brexit and Syria various global catastrophes to the smaller and more personal crises of harassment, Frances’s health issues, my Dad’s decline and death and its related catastrophes, friends’ minor and major upheavals, house stuff, money stuff–fucking hell.
2016, were you high? Please tell me you were high. Please, please tell me this was some opioid-induced fever dream from which, in two days, we will all awake with 2016 to do all over again with less of the soul-shredding. Because I don’t know about all of you but I am feeling a bit shell-shocked here. Like … is it done? Are we done? Is it going to get worse or is this the bottom? Can it get worse? Of course it can get worse, dumb question. Please, Universe, don’t take that as a dare. We are collectively penitent for our sins and I am in particular very sorry for choosing Flaws as my word of 2016.
I am feeling kind of like the person who didn’t bring an umbrella, so everyone is getting soaked by the rain. Yes yes I know my accessories don’t influence weather systems and Donald Trump was not elected because I was looking to exercise my tolerance muscles, but holy motherfucking christ on melba toast. “I want to learn to accept the flaws in myself and other people,” said the naive January-2016 version of Andrea. The Universe cackled: “You got it!” And thereupon I was deluged with an epic thunderstorm of personal failings, familial grudges, medical snafus, friend crises, minor criminal shenanigans, a neverending stream of celebrity grief on FaceBook, and a collective decision by a throat-chokingly large number of my fellow humans to embrace xenophobia, racism, misogyny, anti-semitism, and homophobia. At some point in there my poor overwhelmed tolerance muscles hit a series of barbed-wire walls and quailed away. My god. I wanted to learn about Flaws, not see humanity drown in a toilet of its own inner sewage.
I mean there were good things. There was my aunt’s book release and there was finding out that Frances is probably not going to need hip reconstruction surgery for at least a few more years after all. Which hurray, but you know, first I had to be told that she DID need surgery and quite urgently in order to avoid dislocation, which turns out to have been a pile of horseshit, but just because it was horseshit doesn’t mean I didn’t panic for a few weeks straight.
Was it really just one year? Doesn’t it kind of feel like it was ten? I kind of feel like I’m ten years older.
There were good things. There were. And I am clutching them greedily in my secretive fists in case 2017 tries to take them.
And I promise I’m going to choose a much friendlier word for 2017. Something so inane and meaningless that taken either as a dare or a jinx, it would at worst be no more than a minor inconvenience. Like Tea, maybe. Puns. Artichokes.
I also promise that I did some sewing and some of that will turn up here.
No darts, no pleats, no shaping; just a t-shirt with an attached gathered skirt. Not only is it easy as sin to put together, the lack of structure means there is no interruption to the print. Huzzah!
I sewed some seam binding into the shoulders and the side seams to help it hold its shape. It’s a lot of fabric and quite heavy so otherwise it stretches out.
The black area between the floral repeats was not large enough to position the entire bodice, so I knew both skirt and bodice would have to have flowers on them. To create a bit of interest and have a solid black waist, I reversed the flowers on the top half.
The skirt was just gathered; I added clear elastic to the waist after the dress was assembled to help hold the weight. It didn’t work quite as well as I might have hoped but it’s definitely better than without.
The one goof was accidentally cutting one of the pocket pieces in reverse. I went ahead and used it anyway since I figured it’s on the inside and no one would see it … except that it insists on flipping out a bit and making a nice light grey stripe on one hip. I’ll bar-tack it down and see if that helps, and otherwise just be always twitching at that pocket to make sure it isn’t peeking. If that doesn’t work I’ll just cut a narrow strip of black and hand-stitch it close to the opening.
I read a number of years ago in Snoop that motivational posters are essentially a form of self-talk, and one of the most reliable external indicators of a neurotic temperament. Science. Gotta love it. Apparently people buy them, not to communicate to other people their commitment to Excellence or Overcoming Fear or Success, but to remind themselves of the kinds of people they want to be.
It made me incredibly insecure about anything that might be considered a motivational poster in any of my spaces. Oh my god. I’m advertising my neuroticism. Laying bare my inadequacies for the viewing pleasure of any passing pizza delivery person.
One exception to this rule has been this poster:
Proudly displayed right above the sofa, for many years now. Except at Christmas when it’s replaced by a seasonal cross-stitch. Anyway:
Backstory is that our former PM, Harper, had a very anti-science and secretive attitude, and this artist, Franke James, was outright censored by the government for her views on climate change. You can read her story elsewhere, but James put together a series of posters and stickers, and a really funny book, about her experiences. And this is one of those posters. (I also have the book. Worth reading.)
True to Snoop form, it is of course a statement to myself of the kind of person I want to be: committed to environmental values, willing to take an unpopular stand to communicate my commitment to environmental values.
But since the election of Justin Trudeau in the fall, it is also out of date.
Cue parade, streamers, marching band. Hurray! So glad it’s out of date!
This meant it needed to be replaced. And the sooner the better. I don’t want to have to look at any Harper Era reminders for any longer than I have to.
It’s been replaced by this:
Soon to be joined by the most adorable little threadpainting. It’s going to be a corner of nauseating sweetness. Frances and I will snuggle up with Simba and talk about our days under a nice little “LOVE” banner (plus the threadpainting), possibly while using the critter cuddle quilt. Maybe I’ll call it the Saccharine Seat.
The backing fabric is a hand-dyed aida bought at Gitta’s Charted Petit Point (favourite embroidery store in the known universe, Dear Readers. Did you know you can buy embroidery fabric off the bolt?). What I love about hand-dyed aida is, well, first off the colours are fabulous, but I also find the slight mottling introduced by the hand-dyeing process tricks the eye into seeing it as a regular fabric, at least from certain distances, rather than a grid.
Never let it be said that I lack self-awareness, Dear Readers. (Though it’s true sometimes.)
I could say I made it just because of how wonderfully the colours work with the grey-blue walls. I love the contrast between warm and cool. Give me a room to decorate, I’ll put a warm or cool colour on the walls, and then the opposite for the furniture and fixings. And the golds in the cross-stitch work so well with the golds in all the other art hung over the couch.
And I could talk about how mentally I have just not been up for sewing. The massive purge has contributed, yes–but even then. Sewing (even pouches and tote bags) requires a kind of focus and concentration I haven’t had much of. Whereas cross stitch is like paint by numbers on fabric. You can set yourself up on the sofa with something on the TV and just plug away, one little x at a time, and as long as you count correctly, you’ll end up with something gorgeous. But that begs a whole other question, doesn’t it?
The TV appears to be important, because otherwise I end up fruitlessly ruminating on unhappy memories.
And you don’t want to hear about it, but fruitlessly ruminating over unhappy memories is, in the main, incompatible with a hobby that requires focus, concentration, some math, and the use of machines with strong engines and sharp edges. An easy, mindless project that can be carried out on the couch while watching sci-fi shows is much more the thing.
According to WordPress I’ve written about 25 versions of the rest of this post. Not that I’m indecisive or anything, but apparently I can’t decide how to end this. Dear Readers, let’s try #26:
Once upon a time, a young girl at daycare stared, puzzled, at a boy who was sobbing brokenheartedly as his mother left. “Why would you cry,” she wondered, “just because your mother is leaving?”
She thought about this hard all day, but her thinking brought her no closer to an answer. She decided to try this for herself, the next time her mother dropped her off there, and she did. Wailed. Her mother left and the daycare workers comforted her. “Nope,” she thought. “I still don’t get it.”
She would never cry for missing her mother. Not once, in her entire life. There was nothing to miss. Her relationship with her mother was like a three-prong electrical cord trying to fit into a two-prong outlet, like the outline of where a person should be. Fear, anger, and sadness were subject to evaluation and her reasons for being scared, sad or angry were never good enough. Eventually nothing would make her cry–not disease, not death–not where anyone could see, but she suspects the jewelry box she hid a scalpel and a bottle of aspirin in is probably still in storage with the rest of her childhood things.
One day she would find herself in a psychologist’s office, after having made so many mistakes that she could no longer chalk them up to circumstance, and realizing that she didn’t know what to do with her life except try to fit three-prong electrical cords into two-prong outlets. That psychologist would have a number of things to say, like, “I don’t know why you still have a relationship with those people,” and “Asking why is pointless. A doormat can ask the feet that walk on it for a million years why they’re walking on it. If it really doesn’t want to be walked on, it needs to roll itself up and go under the chair,” and “You are more disconnected from your emotions than anyone I’ve ever met.”
A lot of it wouldn’t make any sense at the time, but would become clearer as the years passed, until she was able to say to herself, “I don’t know why I have a relationship with these people either.” Until she became the kind of person who regularly wore waterproof mascara and carried kleenex in her purse, who was teased by her daughter for crying at everything. Who learned that crazy doesn’t look like crazy from the inside, that the people closest to a situation often see it least clearly, that children normalize whatever it is they’ve grown up with. That Philip Larkin is at least a little bit wrong, and so are The Clod and The Pebble.
That people who have grown up in houses with empty outlines instead of people develop a sense of humour that is quite distinct and often not appreciated, and she could find her tribe by telling a joke and seeing who laughs.
That people only change when they want to, and they almost never want to. Dragged to the edge of a cliff, held by the collar of their shirt over the edge, while life says “change or die.” They’d rather fall. They do fall, reciting a litany of reasons why falling was inevitable, why falling isn’t actually falling, why they’re falling up instead of down, why actually everyone is falling and those clowns standing there looking so smug are falling too even if they won’t admit it. It was a kind of gift, she knows, to have been dragged to the right cliff at just the right time. It wasn’t a given.
Eventually plenty of tears would be shed over what should have filled that outline–the words, gestures, and expressions that might have existed, but didn’t–a kind of meta-missing. Like missing a friend you’ve never had. A country you’ve never seen. But decades of looking for what wasn’t and couldn’t be there would eventually drive home the point that if it was to be found, it would need to be found elsewhere; and that regardless, it would need to be begged, borrowed, stolen, bought, or created out of popsicle sticks and duct tape, for her daughter.
(That part didn’t turn out to be so hard. Her daughter is pretty lovable.)
Every year I would start thinking about my New Year’s Resolutions in November.
By December 31, I’d try to narrow the list down to 10. Each would be specific and measurable, and have been broken down into steps with defined follow-up dates.
Does this sound exhausting to you? It’s a bit mind boggling to me in retrospect. It’s not like I had more time, I just flogged myself like a draft horse in pursuit of some nebulous image of perfection, or maybe flawlessness is a better word. I didn’t think I was ever going to be perfect, but by god if I wasn’t going to make every (un)reasonable effort in scrubbing everything from myself or my life which anyone might even possibly conceive of as a flaw!
For the past couple of years, I’ve followed along on the recent trend of coming up with a Word for the year. One, a couple of years ago, was Warmth. The others I’ve forgotten. This is, as you likely don’t need me to tell you, a change. I’ve got a Word for this year, too–one I haven’t forgotten yet; it’s Flaws. Yes, indeed. How the mighty have fallen.
I know I know. It’s supposed to be something like Achieve or Grow or Learn or LiveInTheBahamas or something aspirational and surrounded by a lit-from-within glow suitable for motivational posters. Fuck it. After decades of examining myself with a microscope to identify and destroy anything that does not live up to whatever ideal(s) I was trying to embody at the time–and to be sure, missing plenty, that being a key part of humanness–I’m going to spend 2016 being ok with having flaws and not being perfect or growing or trying to achieve anything in particular except a wholehearted appreciation of those imperfect quirks that make us individual humans.
A Word like Flaws naturally introduces some logistical questions, particularly with regards to hobbies, such as: Am I going to purposefully read books I know to be awful? Will I make sewing mistakes on purpose? Should I embrace the Joys of Burnt Pasta? Well, no. I’m sure I’ll end up reading awful books, making sewing mistakes, and burning pasta without any special effort on my part. I’ll also say things to Frances I shouldn’t, do something I’m not supposed to at work, spend money on things I don’t end up using, miscalculate the carb content of a considerable number of meals, emit more greenhouse gases than the planet can safely support on a per capita basis, wrongly sort the recycling, and in many other ways both large and small, Fail to Live Up to My Full Potential. Hurray!
Who knows, maybe I’ll do some stuff, too. Maybe I’ll even finally take some pictures of recent sewing projects and post something here about sewing again, or finish a book review, or talk about something other than myself. Let’s hope, anyway.
What can I say about 2015? It was a year. It was a very year-like year, in that it had 365 days, divided into 12 more or less equal portions. On those days, many things happened. Some were bad things that turned out to be good, which was a relief. Some were bad things that stayed bad, which was unfortunate. Thankfully all of the good things that happened stayed good–none turned out to be, on later reflection, bad things.
Among the 365 dinners, lunches, and breakfasts consumed, hundreds of school days successfully prepared for and attended, dozen or so not attended, nights of more or less restful sleep, and other such mundanities, which even I yawn to remember, things happened which were not in the slightest mundane.
We exchanged a nightmare of a government for a government which seems, in its early days, to be at the very least fully awake and conscious of its surroundings. This is a positive development.
We had our hearts broken approximately 152 times apiece over the Syrian refugee crisis. Cumulative tears spilled over pictures of dead children on beaches and HONY’s ongoing refugee stories surely number in the billions. Scientists are still trying to account for the water usage in global models of rising sea levels. Further, we had the opportunity to discover which, of our friends, had been for many years absolute racists right under our very noses. We learned that the human capacity for hatred of other humans in distress remains tragically high in western culture, despite all the progress made in human rights and diversity over the past few decades. This struck a real blow to our collective hubris but not, alas, in the right quarters.
We learned that there are far too many people who are willing to support politicians and parties who build their platforms out of the wood of hate-trees, but not, in Canada at least, enough of them to win those politicians an election. Fingers crossed, America.
There were also events which were neither global nor national in scope. Some of them involved pieces of fabric which were assembled by hand or machine into various textile goods. However, in amongst navigating daily life and large piles of fabric, hugs were exchanged, tears fell, jobs were lost and gained, genetic conditions were considered and dismissed (all of them, in fact), deadlines were missed, bills were paid, cancer diagnoses were confirmed, birthday parties were held, friends were entertained and/or consoled as seemed appropriate; in short, it was a year. A year in which 365 days were experienced in a consecutive fashion, much like most other years. A year in which night followed day, which followed night, with periods of twilight mixed in for aesthetic impact. A year in which one person’s best day ever was someone else’s worst day ever, and most of us found ourselves squarely in between. A year in which beauty and ugliness were, as usual, so thoroughly co-mingled in most situations and places that there was no separating them.
2015: It was here. Now it is not.
2016: 365 days plus a freebie. Let’s see what we can do with this one.
[Spoiler warning to end all spoiler warnings. You will find out about just about everything that happens in these books.]
I have, as I’ve said before, a considerable taste for dystopian and apocalyptic fiction, moreso in recent years than previously; and according to actual published scientific research (!!!) it is not just me. Apparently, the future disappeared as a place people could fathom and predict about thirty years ago, and it has not come back. (But more about that when I review the book I read this in. I’ll have to finish it first, which is going to take a while, because I can only read it in thirty minute increments on the elliptical machine. Any more than that and I find myself clutching my head and wondering what my daughter’s life will be like.)
But when I hear the Southern Reach books described as horror, I can’t agree. The Southern Reach trilogy is only a horror series if you see Nature as other. If you like boundaries between Human and Nature, you will find these books horrifying, because they erase those boundaries. But nothing dies in these books–at least, nothing that people don’t kill. Any damage done by Area X to human beings is either to our artefacts (and big deal) or to the specific shapes of our bodies. Humans become Other in Area X: first utterly entranced by the cornucopia of wilderness on every side, then changed, then something else entirely. It’s hard for me to see becoming a bird, or a marmot, as a terrifying fate. Particularly when through this process the rest of nature is saved.
Southern Reach inspired the kind of detailed, nerdy, reference-saturated book reviews typically reserved for english theses, and for good reason: a reader could spend a good long time peeling back the layers without hitting the core. Widely agreed on is that they are densely atmospheric, eerie, concerned with our environmental plight, filled with alienated characters whose human identities are slowly stripped away, and not the least bit concerned with your personal need for closure. The books rate a bunch of 5-star ratings and a bunch of 2-star ratings on Goodreads: people either loved it, or complained bitterly about how odd it was and how they wanted it all tied up with a nice neat bow. (Hint: if you like your bows nice and neat, pass this series by and pick something more traditional up.)
So you may (almost certainly in absolutely no way whatsoever) be interested in the main themes of the novels, expressed as a collection of analogies and metaphors:
1. Decay. Things rot, fall apart, rust, are covered in lichen, are soggy, soft, falling down, skeletons are bleaching, floors ripped out by seedlings, and so on–a few times on every page.
2. Light. Specifically, from Area X. Area X is jam-packed full of light references. Stars. Sun. The moon, sometimes with a halo. Area X infections described as an internal brightness. Things glow that shouldn’t. From other geographies and locations, no light. Lots of darkness.
3. Birds. In a larger respect flying things in general, such as insects and bats, but mostly birds. Birds everywhere. Birds all over the damned place, including one small bird in the Southern Reach cafeteria who took up a fair bit of page space in volume 2.
4. Sea monsters. Sometimes just fish and other watery critters, but sea monsters mostly. The word “leviathan” comes up an awful lot.
5. Unhappy marriages. Spouses either die or get divorced. All of them. Or people stay single and are never married. There is no one in these books who has a happy marriage. Relationships in general are fraught. Some friendships are close, but the characters are in general people with few connections to the people around them. Parents are abusive or at least not affectionate or die or abandon children or are otherwise lost. Friends lie to each other and keep secrets. People fall in love with people who don’t love them back.
6. Alienation, particularly with the Biologist. I’ll come back to that.
7. Religion, but no faith. Preachers, sermons, gods, shrines, temples, etc., all over the place. No prayers. A very odd, central piece of religious writing apparently conceived by Area X, without any reference to any deity.
8. Nature vs. civilization. The human destruction of the environment is a constant drumbeat under the story. Pollution, toxic waste, illegal dumping, extinctions, and so on, are constantly discussed, and constantly contrasted with the “pristine wildnerness” of Area X: “The air was so clean, so fresh, while the world back beyond the border was what it had always been during the modern era: dirty, tired, imperfect, winding down, at war with itself. Back there I had always felt as if my work amounted to a futile attempt to save us from who we are.” (p. 30, book 1) (I hear you, B.)
9. Transformation, succession and transition. Things are constantly changing from one thing into something else. Most notably (and I venture to guess for most people most frighteningly), people become something else: animals, monsters. A lighthouse doubles itself and becomes a tunnel (that the biologist insists on calling a tower, and which seems to have a lot of light in it for something underground).
First Digression: Succession ecology:
One of the things I loved about this series is that Vandermeer so clearly did his homework. The biologist is a succession ecologist, and it is a perfect fit for the themes of the books, so it’s worth exploring what that is a bit more.
Succession ecology is the discipline that studies the transformation of one kind of environment into another kind of environment. When a forest grows in an old meadow, for example. Different communities of plants and animals succeed each other in more or less predictable ways in a journey to what’s called a “climax ecosystem.”
The first and most major caveat of succession ecology is that there are no value judgments.
Forests are not “better” than meadows. The various successional habitats that will grow and change on that landscape on the way to the forest are not “improvements” or “progress.” It’s just a description of what is, what it becomes, and why. As a professor of mine put it, a trucker drives by the same forest every few months and throws his cigarrette out the truck window. Sometimes it starts a fire. The first three times, the forest grows back. The fourth time, it becomes a blueberry patch. The forest is not better than the blueberry patch. The blueberry patch is not better than the forest.
But the progression of the burnt patch of ground (it could be caused by people; alternatively, by a natural process such as a storm or disease) towards something stable and long-term follows a fairly well-known progression. You start with the opportunists, the pioneering plants who like lots of space, sunlight and nutrients, all of which you get in the newly disturbed ecosystem. We like to call these plants weeds, and indeed weeds do love human habitats because human habitats are constantly disturbed. Lawns are little more than intentional high-maintenance disturbed habitats which, if left to their own devices, would become climax ecosystems. In my part of the world, if you leave your lawn alone for ten years, it becomes a young forest (probably maple/ash/beech). But we don’t leave them to their own devices; we interfere constantly with succession, and then complain when the opportunists love all the light, space and nutrients we so thoughtfully give them.
In a non-human environment, what happens is that the pioneers (weeds) start to crowd each other out: there is less light, fewer nutrients, and the plants start to cast shade on the ground, making it difficult for their own seeds to grow. A new community of plants and animals adapted to conditions of greater scarcity starts to take root. This process then repeats itself until a plant and animal community that is compatible with the conditions it creates–that can grow and flourish within the nutrient, sunlight and space it itself makes–establishes itself. These may oscillate over time (for instance, maple trees make conditions that are hard for maple seedlings but great for ash/beech seedlings; ash/beech trees make conditions that are hard for ash/beech seedlings but great for maple seedlings; so over time you see them shift back and forth along a continuum that is more or less stable overall). These tend to be diverse, complex, and dominated by species that conserve resources within their own biomass. Forests with big trees in them, for instance. Weeds no longer flourish there.
Succession ecology, both mentioned explicitly and implied as part of the Regular Planet-to-Area X transformation, is referenced constantly. What impresses me about this is Vandermeer’s ability to remain consistent with the value-neutrality of succession ecology when used to discuss what is happening in Area X. Part of Florida coastline becoming a segment of weird-ass alien ecology? Just part of the circle of life, friend.
Second Digression: Invasive Species:
The thing to remember about climax ecosystems is that they’re not permanent. They are very stable, more stable than the various stages that lead to them, but plants and animals are more or less mobile and they like to move around, expand their territory, and find new niches to exploit.
It is perfectly natural for living things to move about. Ecosystems are not museum displays. They change, constantly.
What happens when a species arrives in a new habitat can follow a number of different trajectories, broadly divided into failure, naturalization, and invasion.
A failed species is one that tried a new habitat and did not survive.
A naturalized species is one that tried a new habitat and found a good niche, something that it could use without negative impacts to existing plant and animal communities. It fits in. Queen Anne’s Lace here in Canada is an example. Most of the plants we in Ontario are familiar with are actually not native.
An invasive species is one that tries a new habitat and is able to successfully compete with the existing native species, to the point where it damages the local environment.
Invasive species come up a lot–as examples and as metaphors–in the Area X series.
Is Area X or its originating agent an invasive species, destructive of the environment it found? Or is it an opportunist, exploiting an ecological niche and creating a new climax ecosystem? Or is it a saviour of the existing environment, containing the true destructive agent (humanity) on behalf of the rest of creation? No answer to these questions is ever provided, but they are asked–more or less explicitly–all the time, in all three books.
10. Thistles. These books are obsessed with thistles. I don’t blame Vandermeer–I love thistles too. I don’t love pulling them out of rose gardens (don’t ask), but as wildflowers, I can totally understood a good non-tactile love affair with thistles. But these three books talk about thistles to the exclusion of almost any other wildflower that may be present in Area X.
11. Control, and the lack thereof. One of the characters is named Control; he keeps trying to exert influence on the situation and is thwarted at absolutely every turn. But it’s not just him. The Southern Reach agency–an offshoot of Central, which is only two letters off from Control–as a whole is trying to control Area X–contain it, understand it, influence it, and failing for decades. Ultimately every human attempt to understand and prevent what is happening in Area X is an utter failure; the only remotely successful human interaction with it takes place in a context of acceptance (also the title of the third book). As one of the incarnations of the Biologist says, “I’m not an answer. I’m a question.”
At the very end, Control (the character) manages to affect Area X is some unexplained way, but mostly by giving up control, or any attempt at it. He’s just going to throw himself into the mystery and see what happens.
Third Digression: The Biologist & Alienation:
I LOVE THE BIOLOGIST.
What a great character. But so odd (which, to be honest, is why I love her so much). She just hates everyone, doesn’t she? Even the man she married she seems kind of iffy about (at least until the end of the first book).
The Biologist, in both incarnations, is a person who values nature over other people. She can’t keep a job; she doesn’t really have any friends; her marriage is on the rocks; she’s surly, argumentative, obstinate, prickly, and fiercely protective of non-human nature. SHE IS AWESOME.
She’d hate me–I’m human, after all–but I do adore her.
Random selection of quotes from/about the Biologist:
“when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”
“All three stared at me then, as if I were the strange cry at dusk.”
“I made no friends there, and I wasn’t sure that even long-standing neighbors were friends, either. … I wasn’t looking for much of anything from anyone.”
“I would not become that person the locals saw out on the rocks and still thought of as an outsider.” (but only because she left before they could.)
“At some point during our relationship, my husband began to call me the ghost bird, which was his way of teasing me for not being present enough in his life. … If we went to bars with his friends, one of his favorite things to do, I would volunteer only what a prisoner might during an interrogation. They weren’t my friends, not really…”
“But fun for me was sneaking off to peer into a tidal pool, to grasp the intricacies of the creatures that lived there.”
And at this point, Dear Readers, I have chosen only a handful of relevant quotes from just the first half of the first book.
It’s relentless. Reminders of the Biologist’s alienation from humanity and civilization and her preference for non-human nature aren’t just constant, they’re celebrated. She is the only character who really adapts well to Area X, who copes with it, and can establish herself there. Her alienation ultimately leads to her transformation, not into a fuzzy earth-mammal or -bird, but into an alien, capable of travelling between worlds.
The biologist is not the only alienated character, but she is the only character who appears in all three books and never gets a name. Control has a name–John. The psychologist has two names–Cynthia and Gloria.
In one of the reviews I linked to up-page, the reviewer suggests that Vandermeer is claiming our identities are the source of our misery. Enh. I’m not sure about that. If so, the Biologist would surely be brimming over with joy, but she never is. Her lack of human-identity makes her uniquely suited to long-term adaptation within Area X, but it doesn’t ease her misery. Ultimately, if the books are about anything, I think they’re about our limitations: Area X utterly confounds us and we never are able to solve the mystery. It is alien, truly alien rather than big-bug-eyed-monsters. In her own way, the Biologist is also alien, which may be why she gets along so well there–and why less alienated folks find Area X to be so very frightening.
Mohr’s heart is in the right place. She wanted to write a book that would help women overcome a lifetime of socialization and learn to believe in ourselves, so we can pursue our own big dreams and goals. And that is wonderful. But the execution fell apart somewhat.
To begin with, it is pretty well a standard self-help book, with standard self-help advice: make friends with your inner critic, find and follow your inner mentor, step depending on praise or running from criticism, deal with fear, stop undermining yourself, figure out what your big dreams and callings are, chase them down to the ends of the earth. All fine, so far as they go, but not earth-shaking. I’ve read enough self-help books over the course of my life to know that making friends with your inner critic is the first piece of advice offered in almost every self-help book, and whether you call it your Inner Mentor or your North Star or your Peaceful Place or your Future Visualization or whatever, finding it is always the second.
(Aside: I had three stages in my own self-help book journey: 1–I was young and proud and much too good for self-help books; 2–I was older and sad and decided maybe I could use help even if it came in the form of self-help books; 3–I am even older and either through the books I’ve already read or just the process of increasing curmudgeonization, I feel like I no longer need it. The Fuck-Off Fairy has been and gone; now I figure if I do something and it turns out to be ridiculous and everyone laughs at me, well, at least I’ve brightened their days.)
For another, the feminist portion of the book seemed half-thought-out, at best. She acknowledges the reality of discrimination and sexism in shaping our world, our lives, and our personalities, but then doesn’t really consider how that sexism will react to us in our new, fearless, uber-confident and self-mentored-up selves. If we are taught self-deprecation in order not to seem uppity, for example, it stands to reason that when we no longer self-deprecate, the world will not take it well. In my exeperience, one can absolutely expect a significant backlash to any move away from the feminine Norm of Nice.
Most of the research that forms the basis of the book is anecdotal and personal–of course, since this is self-help; one can’t expect double-blind studies and statistical correlations. However, it is less that convincing, particularly when some of the anecdotes are of the “I listened to my inner voice, and it told me to send my first ever written piece to Forbes, and it got published!” variety.
The chapter on fear, though, angered me.
Mohr states that really there are two kinds of fear: pachad, which is the fear of things that don’t actually exist, like monsters under the bed; and yirah, which is the fear felt when we confront the divine or other things larger than ourselves. Pachad we should ignore because what we fear isn’t real. Yirah is telling us we should move forwards.
You may notice that there is a distinct lack of any discussion of the fear of real, present and immediate threats, like sabre-toothed tigers, abusive ex-husbands, or the imminent prospect of foreclosure on one’s house. Both of the kinds of fear she does discuss mean, in her view, that you should move forwards towards your dream; but look, terrible things can happen and sometimes our fears are rational and realistic. The Universe is not a cosmic vending machine and we are not all guaranteed to have our dreams come true if we are nice people who want reasonable things. The worst can happen, and sometimes it does. Sometimes people fail, and it is irresponsible not to even discuss what to do when one’s fears are realistic or even probable, and it boggles my mind that however many people read this manuscript and no one thought to wonder about the whole fear thing.
Here’s my own personal advice on fear:
As yourself three questions: What is the most likely outcome? What is the best case scenario? What is the worst case scenario?
If you can accept the most likely outcome, if the best case scenario is something you truly deeply want, and if the worst case scenario is something you can recover from, it’s a good risk.
If the most likely outcome is not good enough, if the worst case scenario would crush you and you aren’t sure you could recover, or if the best case scenario isn’t amazingly fantastic, it’s probably not worth it.
By all means, do some research or talk to people to figure out what those scenarios are; but just plunging ahead on the expectation that the Universe takes care of people with good intentions is silly and irresponsible.
There was a time in my life when a lot of this book’s contents would have resonated with me and I would have dragged out my journal and earnestly completed all of the journaling prompts. If you are at that time in your life, I wish you good luck, god speed, and it almost certainly isn’t as bad or as scary as you think. Keep breathing. You’ll get there.
Somehow or other, I did; or at least, I think I did. I did more tagging of pages that I agreed with than tagging of insights–in fact, I didn’t tag any insights. Yep, still scared of things; no, it doesn’t stop me; the inner critic is still vicious but I just smile and nod at her and keep on plugging; praise and criticism don’t tell me what to do; etc. Maybe I’m just a smug and self-satisfied brat. In any case, I’ll be sending this back to the library, where it can hopefully inspire and console someone else.
Naomi’s political lens is so focused that it’s blinding. This is less a book about climate change than it is about why climate change is now the perfect excuse to do everything she’s always wanted to do anyway (eg. scrap globalization, redistribute wealth), which is fine, but she ignores any contrary evidence. For example, she has a brief section on the brief flourishing and untimely death of Ontario’s green energy economy, which she blames 100% on the WTO’s decision on domestic content. The waffling and delays of government regulators on applications, the constant changes in direction, and the dead-set-contrarian politics of the mostly rural ridings where wind energy projects were to be sited were completely overlooked, but as anyone who actually went through the process can tell you, the domestic content reg change was the least of any developer’s worries, and came after years and years of frustrations brought about by the public sector.
She spends a great deal of time criticizing anyone else whose political perspectives change how they perceive climate science and solutions, but is much, much worse herself in this book. No information penetrates unless it conforms with her pre-existing beliefs. But the global carbon cycle is not sentient. It doesn’t care how carbon emissions are reduced; it doesn’t even care if they are reduced at all. It does not vote and has no political preferences. WE do; and so it’s up to us to make some decisions about if and how we’re going to turn things around. It should be a mark of deep shame to any thinking citizen in a democratic society that authoritarian China is pulling so far ahead in the transition to a renewable economy.
The flaws with This Changes Everything can be boiled down to two, major, fundamental issues:
1. She acts as if the private and public spheres were diametric and opposed, rather than almost entirely overlapping. A person who works all day in a corporation then goes home and becomes a voter and consumer. People move back and forth between the private and public sector in terms of employment all the time. We are not talking about two different species–the private, evil homo sapiens determined to ruin the earth at a profit and the loving, public homo sapiens trying desperately to save it. It’s all just people.
2. The public sphere is as complicit in this as the private sphere. The reason we do not have a healthy, thriving renewable energy sector in Ontario right now is because the people of Ontario didn’t want it. They had it, and then put the politicians of the province under so much pressure to gut it that eventually they did to save their mandate. The moratorium on offshore wind projects in Ontario is a perfect example: two (small) corporations were all set to do the assessment work necessary to figure out if their Lake Ontario projects would work or not, but the government made offshore projects in Ontario illegal because the voters in Scarborough demanded it.
This is a terrible book on climate change. You’d be better off reading almost anything else on the subject.
People who are agreeable are also more likely to make destructive choices, if they think doing so will help them conform to social expectations. That’s the finding of psychologists, who suggest that disagreeable, ornery people may be more helpful than we think.
Being me, I followed the link back through other, earlier reports, including Psychology Today:
Now a new study using a variation of Milgram’s experiments shows that people with more agreeable, conscientious personalities are more likely to make harmful choices. In these new obedience experiments, people with more social graces were the ones who complied with the experimenter’s wishes and delivered electric shocks they believed could harm an innocent person. By contrast, people with more contrarian, less agreeable personalities were more likely to refuse to hurt other people when told to do so.
If this is a complete shock to you, there are two possibilities:
You are not Canadian. Canadians have a reputation for being “so nice!” and polite to the point of utter pointlessness. But if you are Canadian, you will know that it is entirely possible to be a very Nice, extremely Polite Asshole. It’s a national speciality. You smile and nod a lot, say sorry, please and thank you every third word, and treat people like crap while claiming to do it all for them because you care so much. It’s effective, if you’re looking for a strategy that lets you get away with murder for a long time.
You are Canadian but are not possessed of critical thinking skills. Sorry.
But let’s keep working our way back to the original research:
Say, are you in the holiday spirit right now? All in a warm and fuzzy glow over peace on earth and the essential goodness of people? Right. Then get yourself a drink or a xanax, or stop reading until you’re in a less rosy frame of mind, because the Milgram experiments show a pretty grim side to human nature.
The reportage of Hannah Arrendt on the Nazi war crimes trials, and her observations on the “banality of evil,” got Stanley Milgram wondering about what would make a person do something they knew was wrong and would kill people.
In his original experiment, participants were asked to deliver what they were told were potentially lethal electric shocks to someone else (who they were told was another participant, but was actually an actor) if they answered questions wrong. The actor was instructed to answer most of the questions wrong, and would then begin to scream convincingly as the “shocks” became stronger, and beg the person to stop. Eventually the actor would stop responding, simulating death.
Everyone in the original experiment (where the actor was in another room, and the participant could hear but not see him) went all the way to delivering severe shocks. No one stopped delivering shocks before 300 volts. (And 26/40 went all the way to maximum.)
Almost everyone delivered potentially lethal shocks to an innocent person because someone in a white coat told them to.
The experiment yielded two findings that were surprising. The first finding concerns the sheer strength of obedient tendencies manifested in this situation. Subjects have learned from childhood that it is a fundamental breach of moral conduct to hurt another person against his will. Yet, 26 subjects abandon this tenet in following the instructions of an authority who has no special powers to enforce his commands. To disobey would bring no material loss to the subject; no punishment would ensue. It is clear from the remarks and outward behavior of many participants that in punishing the victim they are often acting against their own values. Subjects often expressed deep disapproval of shocking a man in the face of his objections, and others denounced it as stupid and senseless. Yet the majority complied with the experimental commands.
In fact, it was so close to universal that in order to get usable data, they had to alter the experiment–bring the actor into the room, close enough to touch the participant, with the participant required to grab the actor’s hand and force it onto a plate to deliver the shock, before enough of the participants would refuse to continue that they could properly analyze the data.**
I won’t blame you if you need to stop, breathe deeply, get some chocolate and alcohol, and continue after a short break.
In this recent update to the Milgram experiments, they replicated the original structure in the format of a game show. The white-coated authority figure of the original was replaced with a broadcaster on a stage with a microphone, but the rest of it–questions, electric shocks, actor pretending to be shocked to death–remained the same. What the researchers did was look at both the personality traits and political leanings of the obedient vs. the disobedient.
I’m finding it hard to write this. Do you find it hard to read?
As with Milgram’s original experiments, the majority of participants shocked the actor to death, with the twist that all it took was a person on a stage with a microphone. That’s some pretty flimsy authority by which to murder someone, but it was sufficient for approximately 80% of the research subjects.
As expected, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness predicted the intensity of electric shocks administered to the victim. Second, we showed that disobedience was influenced by political orientation, with left-wing political ideology being associated with decreased obedience. Third, we showed that women who were willing to participate in rebellious political activities such as going on strike or occupying a factory administered lower shocks.
In other words:
Nice, reliable people delivered the strongest electric shocks.
People with strong-right wing values delivered the strongest electric shocks.
Women with a history of participating in left-wing activism delivered lower electric shocks. (There was no significant difference for men re: whether or not they had a history of political activism.)
There was NO relationship to emotional sensitivity. An emotionally highly sensitive person with low conformity values would not deliver the shocks. A very nice, very reliable person with low sensitivity would.
This is a subject I’ve written about many times over the years. Nice is not GOOD. Nice can be a good thing in some contexts, but it is not inherently good. Nice is a social strategy. GOOD is good, and good requires bravery–the willingness to be unpopular, to stand out, to do things other people don’t approve of, to take flack, to speak the truth when no one else is saying it. Highly sensitive people are just as capable of this as anyone else. Don’t blame your thin skin or weak stomach. If you can’t speak up, stand out, or take a risk of being unpopular for an opinion or point of view in the society we have right now–the safest one for dissent in the history of humanity, where the strongest penalty you’ll receive for most disagreement is an upset stomach and some broken weekend plans–you may be Nice, but mostly, you’re a coward.
It’s agreeable, conscientious people–nice, rule-following people–who merrily followed an authority figure down the path to murdering an innocent person, for no reason or reward at all. So if you take pride in how nice you are, how popular, etc., and like to upbraid people who are less conventional, who won’t go along to get along, who are NEGATIVE, heaven forbid, or CRITICIZE, or aren’t NICE–maybe entertain the idea that it’s those people who will risk their necks one day by sticking them out for you.
*Yes, that’s a needlessly provocative attention-seeking headline. Go ahead and be nice. Just don’t get it mixed up with being good, and don’t use it as an excuse for being a coward.
**Yes, I’ve heard the criticisms of the Milgram experiments. What they don’t explain to my satisfaction is how often the results have been replicated around the world since the 1960s. Sorry. Human beings are not a noble race, and blind obedience to authority and social convention is surely behind some of our worst atrocities.
Apparently studies have found that washing releases up to 1900 microfibres from each piece of synthetic clothing per wash. These bits of plastic are too small to be removed by conventional filtres and water treatment, so the plastic washes out to sea, where it (along with microbeads) contributes to a serious ocean pollution problem.
This strikes me as one of those rare pieces of environmental news that has direct relevance to home sewers. While I prefer natural fibres myself, sometimes they’re just not available locally at a price that is reasonable. And sometimes they’re plain not available locally. I searched high and low for stretch cotton twill for my recent Jasmine pants, but in the end the only stretch twill I could find had a substantial poly content.
I’m in general opposed to lifestyle-scale solutions for global-scale problems, so I’m not going to tell you what kind of fabric you should buy. As the article itself notes, given how much sheddable synthetic clothing is already in circulation, that likely wouldn’t address the problem anyway, and what we really need are better filtration systems (though this raises the question of what to do with all those bits of plastic that would be flushed out of our domestic sewage systems).
Still, as home sewers, we have managed to create (or at least increase) a reasonable supply or organic and local fabrics; maybe, if there were enough demand, less easily shed synthetics would be created and sold.
In the meantime, this may be another good argument for laundering clothing less frequently. In addition to the waste of water and electricity and the pollution of water from soaps and detergents, we’re plasticizing the oceans. Fantastic. So how about we only wash our clothes when they’re dirty?