May Update: Abandon all hope…

It’s almost June and I have crossed off exactly one requirement on my reading syllabus. It’s safe to assume I might not get this done this year. According to Goodreads, I am, at 15 books, four books behind schedule if I am going to get through 50 books this year. Four of those books are the Harry Potter series on audio. Not included on that list is Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series, which I’ve been re-reading on nights I cannot fall asleep. This isn’t to say I haven’t been reading. I have subscriptions to The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post. I catch myself reading the same articles in the morning Post that I read online the night before (yes, I get the daily paper in print. I also have a landline, recently purchased stamps, have bar soap in my shower, and write longhand in cursive. I am an old millennial.)

This isn’t the sort of reading I enjoy. It’s not the sort of reading I should really do before bed or having my blood pressure taken.  This is the sort of reading that makes me check the time stamp at the top of an article before skimming it for the fifth or sixth time for new information about North Korea’s nuclear program. It’s the sort of reading I measure out in hash marks, thinking that counting out the number of times I check Twitter or that stupid news widget to the left of my home screen might convince me to just keep the phone in the other room. So far, it has not worked. Neither has turning off notifications. The other day I went for a short run only to notice the flag of the local parochial school at half-mast. I stopped my run to check the Washington Post app. I checked the Times and Twitter for good measure. I still don’t know why the flag was at half-mast.

Even now, I’m getting a little itchy and my chest is hot. When I am done writing this sentence, I will check my phone again…

President Trump asked senior intelligence officials to deny collusion between the campaign and Russia. Sounds about right for a Monday evening.* Right now, I can’t muster the energy to be appropriately horrified or even surprised. Tomorrow, there will probably be another story about the president attempting to quash the Russia investigations in a way only a routinely guilty party might. It may be the country’s good fortune that he appears to be at least as incompetent as he is nefarious.

But this sort of reading—skimming article after article in an effort to better understand what “throw-weight” means or the distinction between ballistic missiles categories or how Robert Mueller’s role as “special counsel” is not as secure from Trump administration meddling as Ken Starr’s role as “independent counsel” was from the Clinton administration because a statute has lapsed—isn’t reading. I am not served by knowing what I know, at least not in the manner in which I am learning it.

“[R]eading as a means of understanding and resistance” was an excellent idea on January 1st, when I hadn’t started doing this. I wasn’t tired yet. Right now, Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s My Own Words, and The Federalist Papers are all sitting unread on the stack of books I keep next to my reading chair. I’m probably not getting around to The Painted Bird or On The Beach anytime soon. I can’t seem to get through more than a chapter or two of Lincoln in the Bardo before dozing off at night and Alyssa Mastromonaco’s memoir of her time in the Obama administration is due back to the library in a few days. I haven’t even cracked the spine yet.**

What I’ve been doing looks enough like reading that I can trick myself into thinking it is. It’s not surprising I don’t have the patience or energy for book-length reading. I’ve only exercised that muscle 15 times this year. Almost everything is harder the less you do it. The not-quite-reading I have been doing feels enough like reading that I don’t even always realize I’ve set aside my book for my phone until I’ve already read a couple articles.

Saturday, I largely did not check my phone. I didn’t read. I didn’t write. I didn’t keep busy with an endless series of chores that feel like being productive but are not. Instead, I sewed a pillow and two foot stools my dog will no doubt claim as her own within a week. It took me hours and I screwed up spooling the bobbin three times before I figured out what I was doing wrong. They all look fine from far if you don’t pay very close attention to the finishing and I am fairly certain the one I filled with bean bag balls only has one small hole that needs fixing. I didn’t check the news most of the day because I cannot sew one-handed and sewing machines are loud enough to drown out a lot of thought. I played old episodes of The Simpsons in the background to drown out the rest of them. In a lot of ways, sewing’s probably a better hobby for me to have right now. I’m not good enough at it that I can get away with not paying particular attention to what I am doing. It takes two hands. Unlike writing, I know when a pillow is finished.

I want to read. Abandoning the syllabus doesn’t stop me from reading, but it frees me from spending more time thinking about Russia. I’ll finish the Saunders soon, and the Mastromonaco. I might even get to the Snyder—it’s a very short book—but I don’t see myself getting around to anything by Masha Gessen in the immediate future. I may never get around to Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel about radiation from a nuclear war reaching the shores of Austrailia. But I have a bunch of poly-fill left, and some vintage fabric and notions my mom gave me still in the Woodward and Lothrop’s bag (the bag also included a photocopied handout from LaLeche League because my mother rarely throws anything away.) Maybe I’ll even make a dress or two if I can find a simple enough pattern—I’m not ready for sleeves, darts, or zippers yet. An apron. I’ll make myself a new apron. Mine all have cake stains on them.

*I wrote this bit before news broke about the explosion at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. I’ve actively chosen not to write about it because, while it’s easy to speculate, I have no idea what happened yet and I’m not going to make the deaths of kids at a concert about my anxieties. That would be indecent.

*I don’t really do that to library books.

March Update: I can’t believe I have to keep having this conversation…

I’m not quite sure what to write for a blog that’s mostly about what I am reading when I’m not really reading—or more specifically, I’m not really reading books. I’ve been reading the news a lot. Maybe even more than I should. I did manage to finish one syllabus book during the month of March,   I also picked up the second Neapolitan novel. I actively stopped reading Lab Girl by Hope Jahren about 40 pages in.

I did start, read, and complete The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina García, which does count towards the “living Central or South American Author” requirement since García is Cuban-American and alive. I didn’t take any notes while I read, so I’m working largely from memory here, but I want to give you a brief synopsis in place of an actual review. The novel is set at a hotel in the capital of an unnamed Central American country in the middle of an extended political upheaval. García’s narrative moves between the hotel’s residents and staff, including the novel’s titular matador, a Japanese-American woman named Suki, who eats pears before her matches and seems to choose her lovers based on their feet. While her story was interesting and the rest of the novel seems to wind around her story, I was more compelled by Aura, the ex-guerilla who works at the hotel and must serve the visiting military men, including the colonel who murdered her lover and brother.  At the beginning of the novel, Aura’s only apparent recourse is to spit in his pork chops but when she is alone, she is visited by the voice of her dead brother who urges her to avenge him and the rest of their village. Elsewhere, the novel is firmly rooted in realism and it’s not enough to say that because García is a Latin-American writer, her work is representative of magical realism*, but she plays with it in these scenes. Aura’s conversations with the brother are never couched in insanity. Neither she nor García questions her mental state when she goes to the roof of the hotel to listen to her dead brother’s voice (we’re never led to believe he appears to her physically) her to kill the colonel.  In fact, in that scene, she’s interrupted by a hotel guest who attempts to jump to his death. Aura stops him. Presented with this contrast, the audience can read her as stable and quick-thinking. It’s brilliant, really.

I was supposed to read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren for my book club but had to stop because I kept yelling at my Kindle and you’re not encouraged to do that on the bus. I don’t want to shit on a book when I barely made a dent in it before giving up. I really don’t want to shit on a female scientist’s memoir. But in about 30-50 pages, Jahren said more questionable shit than I could tolerate. Like this:

“I started out studying literature, but soon discovered that science was where I actually belonged. The contrast made it all the clearer: in science classes, we did things instead of just sitting around talking about things.”

She goes on:

“Science lectures dealt with social problems that still could be solved, not defunct political systems for which both the proponents and the opponents had died before my birth. Science didn’t talk about books that had been written to analyze other books that had originally been written as retellings of ancient books; it talked about what was happening now and of a future that might yet be.”

She returns to this riff a little later on:

I was reading a new biography of Jean Genet with whom I had been fascinated…To me, Genet was the perfect representation of an organic writer, one who wrote purely and didn’t labor to communicate, didn’t expect recognition, and when recognition came didn’t take it in. He was also untaught, which meant that his voice was absolutely original and not a subconscious imitation of hundreds of other books he’d read.”

I don’t know what to make of the person who wouldn’t just say this in passing but seems to think it enough that she wrote it down, kept it through (presumably multiple) revisions, and had it published with her name attached to it. I don’t want to dissect it, line-by-line, but fuck it, I’m gonna:

  1. Making a thing is a worthwhile pursuit, but so is talking to other people. Talking to other people about how they see the world is a way to think outside of your own head.
  2. Yes, sometimes scientists solve “social problems.” But it’s also worth pointing out that a lot of what we know about how the human body reacts to extreme temperatures we know because of Nazi experiments.
  3. Sunday morning I read an article in the Post by a political scientist using Thucydides to explain how the tension between the United States and China could end in a war. He was literally using an ancient thinker to explain a very real current problem. It’s not even a terribly unscientific approach, looking for patterns and connections between what has happened to theorize what may.
  4. Your own birth is a strange dividing line for determining what is and is not of value, regardless of your interests. It’s a bizarrely adolescent point-of-view. It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a science lab, but they’re all still in agreement with regards to Darwin and Newton, right? Those men are very dead. I just want to make sure we’re all still cool with the theories of evolution and gravity.
  5. I am admittedly not that familiar with Genet so I have to speak a little generally here. There are plenty of writers who never attend a workshop or seminar, but that’s not her claim. Her claim is an impossibility. It takes a lot of work to make a line, a passage, or an entire book feel effortless. Toni Morrison has said that she re-writes each line in her novels 15 or so times. That’s the kind of work it takes. Jahren’s version of Genet reads less like a thoughtful writer than a conduit. To suggest otherwise is to pretend writing is not real work.
  6. There is no one who has read and written who does not imbue the latter with the former, whether consciously or not. I have no patience for someone so lacking in self-awareness that they’d make this claim in one chapter, immediately after deliberating inserting Charles Dickens quotes into the previous one.

In a way, I should thank Jahren for writing something I didn’t agonize over setting down. One unfortunate side effect of this project (really, the only one) is that I find myself straining to finish books that aren’t terribly interesting to me. No one is actually grading me. I’m not going to get in trouble, not even with myself. It was a relief to decide to pick something else up instead and not feel the least bit guilty about it.

Hopefully, I’ll find a STEM book that takes a more charitable view of the humanities**—a view more like that of my next door neighbor growing up. Melissa was a professor in the biology department at the local college. She’d retired to Oregon by the time I was leaving for college, but that didn’t stop her from writing:

“English is a good major. If you change your mind after a year or two, you will have a solid foundation for almost anything else. Of course, if you stay with English you will have an even better foundation. A good liberal arts education can’t be beat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Remember, you only have one mind; the more you enrich it when you are young, the more useful and satisfying life will be.”

In totally unrelated news, I also got a tattoo this month. That brings the grand total to three. It’s still healing and my mother doesn’t care for it, but I’m pretty happy:

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks: Feminism is for Everybody
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness: White Trash by Nancy Isenberg
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust: Black Earth by Timothy Snyder
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

*Magical realism doesn’t only happen in Latin-America and it’s not just a thing lit students call fantasy novels to be hoity-toity. Ronald Dahl does it in Matilda. Hayao Miyazaki is a master of it. Magical realism differentiates itself from fantasy because magical realism always exists in our world, but it values mystery and the fantastical alongside reality. That’s not a perfect definition because, honestly, it’s a little murky, I’ll be honest.

**I would also settle for not mentioning them at all.

50 Strands of Gray

On a particularly nice fall day during my senior year, I met with my thesis advisor on a bench between Radford’s library and science building. Ostensibly, these meetings were to make sure my research was progressing, but more often than not our conversations drifted. That day, in the middle of whatever he was telling me about gay whales, Tim stopped and asked me if I was aware there were gray hairs on my fucking head (I’m paraphrasing, but Tim definitely swore. Tim usually swore a handful of times during these meetings. Tim routinely swore a handful of time during class.) I was, and still am, a woman of reasonable sightedness in possession of a mirror and an overhead light. I was aware. I might have asked if he was aware he was similarly afflicted. The difference, of course, was that I was a woman and 22. He was not. The next time we met, he asked me if I was aware my hair was aubergine in the right light. The box had read “Egyptian Plum” but “eggplant” wasn’t a totally incorrect descriptor. I’ve been dying my hair out of perceived necessity about every two months since.

I think I found my first gray in high school. I plucked it immediately and told no one. My relationship with my own body has been a little adversarial. I felt, and routinely still do, out of place in my own body most of the time—slightly too tall, slightly too thin then slightly too doughy, with too-large eyebrows and feet and too-small lips, too many freckles and acne that didn’t seem to trouble my brothers nearly as much (I also don’t recall any of them worrying about their eyebrows, but I could be wrong. At least one of them was concerned enough about eyebrows to attempt to eliminate my burgeoning unibrow. Mom caught us, probably for the best since Micah was going after it with a safety razor and some mentholated Barbasol which I do not recommend getting that close to your eyes.)

In my very early 20s, hiding my grays seemed easier than answering questions about them. I am no more equipped to answer the question “why do you have gray hair?” than I am “why are you so tall?” or “why do you have such long toes?”—all questions I have been asked at one point or another (exclusively by men, by the way. Don’t do that.) It is how my body is and I wasn’t given a choice in the matter,  though it is nice reaching the top shelf and those toes came in handy, both on the swim team and in dance class. I can also pick up socks off the ground without bending over (#blessed.)

For years, dying my hair felt like a reasonable use of my time. Sure, I’ve spent well over $1,000* and countless hours holed up in questionably ventilated bathrooms. I’ve ruined more than one towel, a handful of beloved over-sized concert tee shirts, and (I will admit since she is reading this and will point it out if I do not) my mother’s fancy shower curtain. I have dyed my ears, my cheeks, my forehead, and my neck while missing whole sections of my head. I’ve only avoided dying any pets because I won’t allow them into the bathroom. I don’t want them inhaling toxins. I’ve only had it professionally done twice. It was beautiful both times, but that dollar amount would be much, much higher and it wouldn’t have saved me any time. Only mess.

So, I’m done. Probably. Maybe. I’m not sure. The average white woman starts to see grays around age 35. I am 31 for the next month, but I’ve always thought of myself as a little above-average, a little ahead of the curve. I’m not making a grand stand against fascist beauty standards. I’m not going get my hair cut into a more utilitarian hairstyle or stop shaving my armpits or forego wearing makeup (not when I just picked up this bomb-ass highlighter and might have finally figured out contouring!)—not that there is anything wrong with doing any of that. None of this (or anything else I listed BTW) is necessarily a feminist statement. Right now, it just makes sense to give up something I do to myself largely out of a sense of obligation to other people who probably don’t care nearly as much as I have assumed they do. But I am also the same insecure girl I was at 14 and 18 and 22. I drink significantly less soda now and have that unibrow under control, but I am no less concerned about the way I look when I am out in the world. Giving this up is harder than giving up Diet Coke. I was pretty sure the Diet Coke was giving me migraines and no one asks me, unprompted, about how long I’ve drunk Diet Coke or how long it’s been since I’ve since I’ve had one.

When it all goes, I'm dying it lavender. I don't care if it isn't cool anymore.

Well, I still have less white hair than Bagel.

People (men) like to give people (women) unsolicited advice on how they look or how they might improve their appearance. I am already dreading the first time that happens. Years ago (maybe four or five) a co-worker told me he liked the way my grays were starting to come in and I should think about just letting them go.  I’d been worried that my hair was starting to look really processed and I’d been extra gentle with it, which was the only reason I had not already covered the grays coming in. But in that moment, my hair was no longer mine. Suddenly, it belonged to that guy and whatever I did to it next wasn’t fully my choice. I might have dyed my hair that night. I might have had a false choice, but I was going to use that false choice to tell that guy to fuck off.

…“But Meredith, I’m a guy with opinions. Are you telling me I can’t ever tell women what I think of her appearance?” If you’re asking this question—yeah, that is exactly what I am telling you. If you read this whole thing and that’s what you’re taking away, you should probably keep those opinions to yourself, full stop. We also don’t need to know what you think about the 2016 election, the wage gap, or gender-swapped movie reboots.

Not spending a little under $30 every two months isn’t going to make me debt-free (that money will just go to my wine or cheese or book budget) and I will probably find other ways to waste that time. But this feels right right now. If you see me about in a couple months and my hair is almost pitch-colored all the way through, you’ll know I caved and we won’t talk about it because you know better now, right?

*My hair is typically long enough that I have to buy two boxes. At around $14 a box, 6 times a year, for 9 years= $1,512 and it could be so much worse.

February Update: no new white dudes

Years ago, I remember a man telling me—this was a friend or acquaintance, I can’t remember who (and wouldn’t say if I could), but it was definitely a man— that someone couldn’t call themselves a fan of Kurt Vonnegut if their favorite Vonnegut novel was Slaughterhouse-Five. This is the sort of information women don’t volunteer to me about any author (or director or musician…) It seems I am not a fan of Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve read other books by him, but Slaughterhouse-Five remains my favorite. Mother Night, though I’ve only read three other novels by him, would not make the top five. It’s not the novel’s fault, really. I should have known better than to read it right now.

I went to the library after work a couple of weeks about to rectify a particularly crappy Thursday. Someone had quoted the book earlier in the day talking about Internet trolls using racism or sexism to attack people: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” The novel’s protagonist is a man by the name of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. who is being tried as a Nazi war criminal for his propagandist radio programs. Campbell claims, though he cannot prove it until the novel’s end, that he was working for the U.S. the entire time. He used his radio show to send coded messages. Campbell maintains throughout his telling that his only real allegiance was to his wife, Helga and that he was never a political person…as if opposition to the aims of the Nazis can be called political.

As I read, news reports came in of bomb threats at Jewish community centers and schools around the country. Headstones in Jewish cemeteries were toppled in the middle of the night.  I had a hard time negotiating Vonnegut’s winking distance in light of this. There is a kind of book magic that happens when you pick up the book you urgently need to read in a particular moment. Everything clicks into place and you understand yourself or the world a little better. The opposite is also true. Maybe I’d like this book more Donald Trump had lost the election and Richard Spencer hadn’t set up shop so close to where I live.

This is all to say that I’m done forever with speculative Nazi fiction, whether it imagines the world if Hitler prevailed or tries to ferret out a “good German.” I’m not interested in softening Nazis. There is a book on my desk right now by Timothy Snyder called Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. I’ll read that. It feels necessary.

It feels equally urgent that I shift my reading life away from white dudes. I still have to read William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy this year. I’m pretty sure Timothy Snyder is a white dude too. There is a high likelihood that the book I read on Reconstruction will be by renowned white dude, Eric Foner. It’s also pretty hard to avoid white dudes when reading epic fantasy and pre-Soviet Russian literature. But that’s still less than 10 white dudes and last year I read around 75 books. I’ve read nine this year so far and Kurt Vonnegut has the distinction of being the only dude, white or otherwise on the list. I figure that’s not a bad start. I just don’t care about what white dudes have to tell me. I know I am supposed to qualify that statement and remind you all that I love specific white dudes. But they know I love them and this blog isn’t their blog. It’s my blog. I get to make blanket generalizations on my blog.

On Tuesday, book fairies (Amazon) left three new books on my door. I haven’t really started any of them yet, but two are very slim—single-sitting reads. I’m re-reading Beloved. I read it in high school and skimmed it for a project in college, but have not read it as an adult. 

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

Re-Reading The Handmaid’s Tale

When it was first published, The Handmaid’s Tale won both the Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Margaret Atwood, the writer, has called the work “speculative” rather than traditional science fiction. It makes sense, there’s very little science in the book. That said, she’s also said in interviews that her guiding rule while writing the book was that everything had to have already taken place, no degredation was invented by Atwood. Everything in this novel is still happening.

There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel, Luke is trying to reassure Offred (but that’s not her name yet) that he will take care of her now that the government has closed the bank accounts of all women. This is right after they enact a law barring women from working outside the home. Luke’s reassurances that she’s only lost a job and that she’ll be protected sound patronizing to Offred and the reader. He’s not angry enough in that moment. Their relationship changes there and the reader can never see them as partners again. Offred will never have partners again, not in any real way. She’ll walk with another handmaiden to and from the shops. She’ll be paired with a Commander to breed a child for him and his wife, but she will not be a part of that child’s raising She’ll be reunited once or twice with her best friend from before, Moira. She’ll even find compatriots of sorts in Ofglen and Nick. But she is, from this moment on, isolated.

Offred, not whoever she was before the architects of a violent coup that supplants the United States government with the Christofascist Republic of Gilead, is made through this repeated isolation. Her body made be made literally docile, she suspects, through forced drug use when she’s first sent to the Red Center after her capture at the Canadian border, that is only the most physically obvious preparation. In all aspects of her new life, she is meant to be and feel alone. Camaraderie is not encouraged at the Center, though the women find ways to talk. They learn to lip read. After however, they are placed in the homes of men high enough in the organizing structure of Gilead (which we never fully understand, as Offred herself would have no real understanding of this new system of government), they are fully isolated. Offred is regarded with suspicion by one of the residence’s Marthas (maids and cooks, unable to procreate but not classified as Unwomen. Marthas still have usable bodies for work inside Gilead.)  She’d met with controlled hostility by the Commander’s wife inside the home (a Phyllis Schafly-like character named Serena Joy, who Offred recognizes as an anti-feminist religious TV personality from the time before) and outright contempt by Econowives when she leaves the house for her daily shop run.  It is not an accidental byproduct of the new system of government, but its organizing structure. Women who are separate cannot resist the subjugation. The Republic of Gilead creates categories of female bodies based on their use value. The role of the handmaiden is to be raped until she bears a successful, preferably male, child. She’s moved from qualifying man to qualifying man (three times, we’re given to understand) in the hopes of bearing “fruit.” Offred specifically does not call the Ceremony rape:

“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because that is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there is some, and this is what I chose.”

Offred needs to exist in a world where she has some choice in what she does, however false the choice. At the Center, the Aunts charged with re-training women into handmaids explain that before they had the freedom of, now they have freedom from. I suppose this is how Offred must be conditioned to feel. The reader knows better. In order to exist, Offred further isolates herself in this moment from the parts of her body that mark her as biologically female. The construction is entirely passive, removed by degrees from any activity on Offred’s part. In the Ceremony, The Commander’s wife sits behind Offed, who rests between the wife’s thighs. Offred is reduced to her reproductive organs. It is the only part of her the government is interested in.

It’s hard not to read (or re-read in my case) this novel as a dire warning. It isn’t just that the novel’s focus on a totalitarian government’s complete subjugation of women—reframing the role of women, not as people but as vessels (or hosts)—but also the government’s efforts to vilify Islam. The terroristic coup that precipitated the rise of Gilead is initially blamed on Islamic terrorists, as are later attacks during the nation’s founding. All of them, however, are carried out by the Sons of Jacob, a patriarchal, theocratic movement reacting against what it sees as the moral degradation of modern society. By suspending the U.S. Constitution, deporting people of color, referred to in news broadcasts as the “Children of Ham” (referring to Noah’s dark-skinned son), disallowing all second marriages, and severely delimiting the rights of women, the group is able to instill their own regime. These acts are all coordinated and should not be read as distinct.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale during the second Bush administration. I don’t remember if I was in high school or college at the time, but I barely called myself a feminist and, though I saw hints of the book in attempts to roll back the rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, the novel was speculative. When I re-read this novel in grad school, we were in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign and the Republican candidates, including the party’s presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, were coming out in support of personhood amendments. An abortion bill signed into law earlier that year by Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer, calculated the gestational age of a fetus from the first day of a woman’s previous menstrual cycle, rendering Arizona’s reproductively viable women pre-pregnant, rather than the binary pregnant or not pregnant. The presidential nominees were also campaigning on the need for immigration reforms that emphasized tighter border security. This year, I re-read the novel again a day or so after the Virginia house of delegates voted to defund Planned Parenthood and the Trump administration issued a disastrous Executive Order banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations, while also attempting to prioritize Christian refugees over others. This is to say nothing of then-candidate Trump’s assertion on the campaign trail that women who seek abortions should be punished by the law. Not the men who get them pregnant.

These policies are coordinated and should not be read as distinct. This increasingly extreme conservative view of reproduction, generally characterized as a moral issue in political circles, is part of a larger nationalistic narrative and indicative of an underlying fear of globalization wherein the threat of the non-White, non-Christian non-American citizen must be met with more White, Christian, American bodies.  It’s part of a worldview that acts out nationalism on bodies, both the bodies it deems worthy or unworthy of citizenship and the reproductive bodies it charges with creating new Americans. When viewed this way, we see a different, possibly more frightening narrative take shape.

When I re-read the novel in 2012, a co-worker mentioned in passing that he didn’t care for it because he found Atwood to be “didactic.” He also mentioned in passing—about a decade into the War on Terror—that atheists were the most hated group in America. I don’t think I need to tell you that this man is both white and in a heterosexual relationship. I don’t need to, but I am making a point. In the novel, his body was not controlled. He would have been able to pass. Although, he was technically correct at the time (though no longer), that atheists were less popular than Muslims, that distaste is not marked by hate crimes, just eye-rolling at parties when they bring up Richard Dawkins again. He had to largely invent a means of oppression. He didn’t see it acted out on his body at borders or in state legislatures or airport security lines or calls made to his house of worship threatening to blow it up. Maybe it felt preachy to him because he recognized himself in Luke, stooping down to hush Offred when her job and economic independence were stripped from her, but before they took her name. He would want her to know that he’s just trying to be helpful, supportive. Offred—and maybe more importantly—the reader know better.

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks: Feminism is for Everybody
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

Feminism is for Everybody

bell hooks defines feminism in the introduction of this work as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” It’s as succinct a definition as you are liable to find. As much as I love my tee shirt that reads “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people” it does not encapsulate the project as well as hooks’s definition because the work of feminism doesn’t actually just involve women. The patriarchal power structures feminism seeks to undermine also affect men who do not perform their masculinity in the manner narrowly defined by a patriarchal society. Sexism exploits men as well…but that doesn’t work as well on a tee shirt.

hooks is clear that feminism will not work if feminists don’t interrogate race and class in power dynamics alongside gender. A person cannot consider herself a feminist if she is only interested in raising herself up. This is why claims on the right that women from Megyn Kelly to Margaret Thatcher present a version of feminism that ultimately misappropriates the term. Kelly and Thatcher both aligned themselves with patriarchal white supremacist* power structures in order to gain prominence.  She extends this intersection outside the United States to show how feminism must also be anti-colonialist. This is perhaps where hooks shines brightest.

When I mentioned starting Feminism is for Everybody at the end of January, I was only about 10 or 15 pages in. hooks’s writing style in the ensuing 110 pages leans away from the rigorously academic as she repeats the need for a broad feminist movement. She does this purposefully as she sees feminism in the moment she is writing, fully ensconced in academia (with all its attendant obtuseness and circular reasoning.) I wish she hadn’t positioned herself as outside the academy so thoroughly because she is not. bell hooks is a distinguished professor. I understand her concern that the constant dialogue within a university setting can start to feel bloodless and theoretical. That said, I wish she’d at least included footnotes. Instead, her work feels anecdotal. She refutes the claims of other feminists without citing them. hooks calls for a feminist movement that does not leave out non-academics and perhaps that’s why she’s presented this text in this way, but the work feels incomplete. Not the work hooks is calling on the rest of us to do, though it also still needs doing. hooks’s call to arms itself does not always feel fleshed out. When hooks asserts that some women rely on abortion as a form of birth control or that repeated dilations of the cervix cause serious health issues, I would like to know where she’s getting her information. She’s not a medical doctor and her readers have the right to know why she feels comfortable making this claim. Her writing on abortion feels moralistic and hand-wringing even as she asserts that it should be safe and legal. I would like to know what has formed this worldview. hooks does not offer me this. hooks never offers her readers footnotes because she wants to reach readers outside an academic setting. However, I fail to see how her informal style (wholly necessary for her project) would be hampered by an unobtrusive notes section.

Ultimately, this seemingly minor issue of notation and sourcing (when she is responding the theories of other feminists, I don’t need to suggest hooks’s ideas are not her own) undermines her thesis: we need a bottom to top approach to feminism. hooks calls for the distribution of picture books, movies, bumper stickers—anything and everything that would bring feminism to the masses. There’s room in there, somewhere, for the obscure academics, but hooks disregard for this academic formality seems dismissive of the work of other feminists. Their names aren’t worth mentioning, even in contrast. It’s odd. The book should function as an introduction, but without that exposition, it seems writing for folks already in the movement.

After some cursory Googling, I can’t find books writing in either anticipation or response to the recent Women’s March. She’s checked in a number of articles on the march, with good reason. I similarly couldn’t find an article or essay in which she responds to the uptick in feminism as a fashion statement. Even as she calls for this at the beginning of this book, she does not consider wearing a tee shirt to be feminism. Your tee shirt will not dismantle sexist oppression. Similarly, she wants to see feminism explored in popular music, but criticized Beyonce’s Lemonade earlier this year as being violent, hypersexualized and commodified. Considering that response to arguably the highest-profile feminist statement we’ve seen from a pop musician in the last decade, I’m not sure what hooks is holding out for. I don’t know what unproblematic feminist art looks like. I don’t know if I (or bell hooks) will ever see it.

This is starting to sound like I wish I hadn’t read this book. I am glad I read it. I don’t know if it is the primer it intends to be, but it is a worthwhile read.

Reading Syllabus note: I haven’t decided how much work I need to read by each author I list in order to consider their work read. bell hooks has written around 30 books so far. It’s wildly unrealistic to suggest that I am going to read all thirty this year.I think two to three books per author should be enough to give me a better sense of their work.

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

*hooks does not use “white supremacy” in the same way we see it in discussions of high-profiles members of the “alt-right” like Richard Spencer or Milo Yiannopoulous. These men have overtly declared their racist ideologies. When hooks uses the term, she’s typically referring to the way the vast majority of white people do not question the privilege whiteness affords them and do not to anything to dismantle the institutionalized racism that continues to marginalize people of color while still proclaiming that they are not racist. It’s not terribly difficult to be overtly not racist. It’s much harder to be anti-racist. That takes work.

January Update: Oh right, I have a reading syllabus

This month I didn’t read any books that fit any of the criteria below. I started to read Wicked, which is good (at least the 50 or so pages I’ve read are good) but couldn’t hold my interest for long stretches. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read it, I just wasn’t reading it. Every time I picked it up, I felt like there was something else I was supposed to be reading.  I did finish three books, however, A Wrinkle in Time, Hope in the Dark, and Trainwreck. The first two deal, both literally and figuratively, with beating back the darkness. The last is a reminder of how little room to act out women are allowed in our society–as if I needed the reminder.

I missed A Wrinkle in Time when I was a kid. I can’t remember a teacher assigning it or a friend reading it around me or a librarian recommending it. I wish they had. It would have come in handy before I had Harry Potter. Despite my upbringing, I was never a fan of the Narnia series so I can’t recall reading any books growing up of the plucky-young-kids-take-on-evil variety. Truth be told, by the time I really enjoyed reading as a preteen, I was more interested in the evil than I was the plucky kids. Maturity (what all of it I have) has made me sentimental. After last year’s election, book people I follow online recommending reading hopeful fantasy like Rowling and L’Engle. I started using my Audible credits to collect the Harry Potter series to listen to while driving or cooking dinner. Right now it’s more relaxing than NPR. NPR used to be what I listened to when panic attacks made listening to a lot of music hard (songs all start to sound like sirens. It’s a very The West Wing season 3 side effect of my anxiety and I don’t care for it.) It seems other people had the same idea since I had to wait a few weeks before I could pick up A Wrinkle In Time from the library.  I won’t go through the novel’s full plot, but in the novel’s climax Meg Murry, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin O’Keefe travel to the planet Camazotz with the help of their supernatural neighbors, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit. They’re hoping to find their father, a research scientist working for the U.S. government. They do, but not before Charles Wallace falls under the thrall of the planet’s overseeing brain, IT. IT enforces total homogeneity on the dark planet. The children’s father is held captive there because he would not succumb to uniform thinking. Meg is ultimately able to rescue her little brother because she loves him. IT is not capable of love and Meg is able to use emotion to underline the brain’s control. It’s a good lesson for children—that difference is to be celebrated, not stamped out and that love unites us. It’s a good lesson for the U.S. right now. I’d say it’s a good lesson for the president, but he doesn’t  read and the Ava DuVernay-helmed adaptation isn’t slated for release until 2018.

The “dark” in Hope in the Dark is less literal than in the black cloud consuming planets in A Wrinkle in Time. Instead, it’s the Bush administration’s neoconservatism, climate change, and nuclear proliferation. But still, Solnit is able to find places for optimism. In particular, she points to the Zapatista’s anti-globalist guerrilla resistance to the implementation of NAFTA in Mexico. The Zapatistas did not rebel to overthrow the Mexican government per se, but instead to critique power dynamics. They advocated for indigenous and women’s rights at the same time. In the Zapatistas, Solnit sees a model of activism in praxis that “does not sacrifice or postpone one kind of justice for another.” Elsewhere, she highlights how the anti-proliferation movement of the 1980s eventually led to nuclear arms reductions but failed to see full disarmament because people when back out their lives. “It’s always too soon to go home,” she writes (and I would do well to remember when my voice starts to go a little hoarse and my feet hurt and I start to worry simultaneously about the sheer size of the assembled crowd and whether anyone is actually paying attention):

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes–you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.

I got Hope in the Dark when Solnit made it available for free through its publisher, Haymarket Books, just after the election. I read it in short bursts, leaving it to set for weeks before actually finishing it. I lumbered through A Wrinkle in Time. By the time I got around to buying Trainwreck by Sady Doyle two days after the inauguration, I was ready to be angry again. If the book has a patron saint, it’s Britney Spears. Toward the end of the book, Doyle notes that hers and any other book on celebrity meltdowns are now haunted by Britney, even though she has survived (however scathed.) Doyle’s premise is fairly straightforward: we expect female silence. Female abundance—sexuality, ambition, advocacy, addiction, displays of anything but the blandest emotional compliance— is met with harsh and continual critique. Even fictional women are ostracized when they can’t quiet down–the same abundance of emotion that makes Meg Murry her brother’s rescuer alienates her from most of her classmates and marks her as a problem student.

Doyle touches on the lives of everyone from Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Plath to Valerie Solanas, Hillary Clinton, and Monica Lewinsky (The last two being held up as reliefs of the other—the overly sexed and the sexless.) While I was reading, it came out that Trump’s team in the White House have been using private email addresses for official business. The outrage from the campaign’s “but her emails!” crowd was predictably nonexistent. The dig against Clinton, for a lot of folks at least, is her inability to fit a collective gendered notion of ambition and leadership. Her loss will be* our collective loss too.

Thursday morning, I started the syllabus in earnest with bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody. I’ve read essays and excerpts from hooks over the years, but never her book-length work. She is an uncompromising scholar and activist. Her writing style is purposefully undemanding—she repeatedly expresses the concern that feminist theory has requested itself in academia, making it inaccessible for the people who need it most—but that ease belies an undergirding rigor. bell does not come to play, ever.  That does not mean it’s not possibly to disagree with her. Her suggestion that we do not yet understand the long-term effects of abortion seems to go against the opinion of medical doctors who understand the long-term effects and potential risk associated with abortion pales in comparison to the risks of pregnancy. More on that when I actually finish the book.

In thinking about this list after a month, I wonder if it might need reworking. Part of my reaction to this presidency has been to commit myself to small, daily resistances. Twice now, that’s meant leaving my house and standing outside in D.C. to physically protest his ideology and policies (once at the Women’s March and once in front of the White House after he issued the executive order banning immigration from seven-majority Muslin countries.) Once, it’s meant attending a town hall meeting held by my congressman. I’ve been setting aside a little money here and there for organizations like Earthjustice, the SPLC, and CAIR in addition to my monthly donations to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Most days, it’s just calling my representatives at the state and federal level about upcoming legislation, etc. But it’s also less obvious (or more frivolous.) I’ve bought A LOT of books this year and this year is only a month so far. In addition to a small-scale spree at a nearby used bookstore a couple days into 2017, I’ve bought ten new books. That’s a lot, even for me. Most of them are conspicuously opposed to a Trumpian worldview. They are foregrounding the lived experience of people of color or women (or both). One is Mexican novel in translation. Two are written by John Lewis. One warns that humanity is still susceptible to the ideologies and impulses that allowed the Holocaust to take place. Two are about difficult women. One was literally written in response to Trump’s election. Are three Russian novels from different eras as necessary to the work that needs doing as reading my way through the Middle East? Do I have the time for long-winded world building in a fantasy novel, when everything feels so urgent? How many William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy novels do I need to read to get a sense of the two men? I’m not sure. Reading has always felt at least a little political to me, even when the reading itself is largely apolitical. But during this administration, it feels like an insurgent act. 

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks:
      • Feminism is for Everybody
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

*Will be? Who am I kidding, it already is.

This little light of mine…

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Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

Saturday morning, I got up around 5. Zac made coffee. I gave the dog her pill and started to get dressed. I did it that morning with more intention than I do most days. I had to stay warm. I had to be comfortable. I had to make a point. When I boarded the Metro with friends, it wasn’t too crowded. Women—mostly women—clustered together carrying clever signs and wearing pink knit hats. A group on the car we entered all had peach buttons tacked to theirs. They’d all traveled from Georgia. Everyone looked a little tired. Everyone smiled. Everyone except the man boarding in a “Make America Great Again” hat. We ignored him. I wonder if it bothered him to be ignored by so many women at once. I hope it did.

 

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Sweatshirt available at Shout Your Abortion

 

Saturday’s march sprawled, both literally and figuratively. From where I stood between the American Indian Museum, the National Gallery of Art and the Air and Space Museum, I could not see the end of it. I had no idea that it stretched over streets. I tried not to think about how many people were around me. I’m not great with crowds and have a tendency to get overwhelmed and anxious when I feel like I don’t have a clear exit strategy. When it got to be too much, I shifted my focus to the tops of buildings. I kept a few Xanax and some Advil in a contact lens case in my purse just in case. I’m still surprised I didn’t need either. When an ambulance needed to part the crowd, I wasn’t sure how the space—already so full of people—would make room, but it breathed into itself and seemed to push the vehicle along. Later, when a young girl went missing the crowd moved the information along: “Winnie’s been separated from her group,” followed in short order by the news that Winnie had been found. In front of me, a woman realized she was talking to her husband’s former teacher—a woman with waist-length curling white hair and a pale pink fleece cap. At times the crowd grew restless. Some people wanted to start marching because the speakers were taking too long. We took turns squatting down to relieve the pressure on our backs, each lifting the other up in turn, giving her something to lean against. Standing that long on concrete in misty weather isn’t easy on your back or knees or feet.

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possibly my favorite sign that day.

But we stood anyway. We stood and listened and cheered and booed and held up our fists. We sang when we knew the words. We sang when we only knew half the words. We chanted and marched. It wasn’t perfect. The marchers were pretty white and didn’t want to be reminded that a simple majority of us white ladies voted for Donald Trump, a lot of the signage and some of the chants focused on physical anatomy as a marker of womanhood further marginalizing transwomen, and Michael Moore was allowed to carry on for entirely too long. But still, I’m going to carry Saturday in my heart. Saturday felt pretty far away while I was reading a report Wednesday that the Trump administration was planning to issue regular reports of crimes committed by undocumented persons, a move straight out of Hitler’s playbook. It feels further still when scientists working for the EPA are told their work, already peer-reviewed, will be subject to review by political appointees. It feels completely out of reach when the expanded global gag rule will invariably kill women under the guise of “protecting life.”

Saturday felt a lot closer when I reached out to the woman organizing Solidarity Sundays for D.C. It felt closer when I made a point Sunday night to buy two books, one on race and one on gender, as a means of supporting writers already doing the work that really needs doing now. It feels closer every time I pick up the morning paper. It feels close when congressional staffers thank me for calling. So that’s what I do now: every day I pick a thing I can do, I do that thing, and I write down what I did in my planner. It doesn’t keep it all at bay and but it chips at the problems and it’s what I know I can do right now. It’s not nothing, which is what I’d been doing for way too long.

The Women’s March needs energizing joy, not internalized misogyny.

“Another part of the Puritan legacy is the belief that no one should have joy or abundance until everyone does, a belief that’s austere at one end, in the deprivation it endorses, and fantastical in the other, since it awaits a universal utopia. Joy sneaks in anyway, abundance cascades forth uninvited […] Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

Last week, writing in the Washington Post, Petula Dvorak implored women heading into the District on January 21st to leave our bright pink pussy hats at home out of fear that we might look silly. Now is no time to be silly, Dvorak says.But this is exactly the moment we shouldn’t lose our sense of humor.

The Pussyhat Project is the brainchild of Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, who wanted to create a unifying visual statement at the march that’s expected to draw as many as 200,000 people. Why handmade pink hats that give the wearer the illusion of cat ears? As the organizers point out, knitting is a historically female art form and pink is a culturally female color. Also the president-elect likes to grab women by their vaginas without their consent. The hats are a bright cozy “fuck you” to the sentient cheese doodle that will be our molester-in-chief come January 20 around noon. The hats are cute and clever and the president-elect won’t get the joke and it’s going to drive him insane.

Petula Dvorak, however, would like us to remember that men didn’t take our bra-burning, second-wave foremothers seriously and if we wear these hats and tote jokey signs, they won’t take us seriously either. What Dvorak’s editorial fails to understand is that the men she refers to won’t take us seriously. Full stop. We could march down Constitution Ave. in matching shapeless gray coveralls and carrying identical signs and those men would call our concerns superficial distractions. To pretend there is a mode of dress or means of expression we could adopt that these men might take seriously is to internalize the patriarchal notion that the feminine is frivolous. Men on the Right will deride us for abandoning traditional values, as if organized dissent in not ingrained in the Constitution.  Men on the Left will dismiss us for choosing “identity politics” over the real economic concerns of the day, as if access to adequate medical care, including birth control and abortion, is not an immediate economic concern for women in this country. There are men on all sides of the political spectrum who think the issues women face in this country are separate from the issues this country faces. We’re not going to get through to those men next Saturday, but we can start shouting over them. They don’t like it when women yell. But I’m not interested in accommodating them anymore.

It’s ironic that Dvorak points to the 1913 women’s march for suffrage as a protest remembered for its single-minded goal rather than any attendant frippery. But Dvorak ignores how those early feminists also used fashion—the all white dress that suggested purity and virtue, both of the their movement and their members—as a means of protest. She also seems to forget that the dresses weren’t the only mostly white things at that march. White temperance suffragists, courting support from women in southern states who resented the passage of the 15th amendment, characterized African-American men as whiskey-crazed mobs. I’d rather a large, messy, many-hued sea of pink that takes all comers willing to fight for real equality than a dour monolith that ignores the needs women of color or LGBT communities or the disabled or immigrants, etc.  in favor of a supposedly streamlined message that leaves most of us behind.

I can’t think of a better way to protest the explicit and implicit racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, authoritarian wave of utter bullshit (and allegedly urine) that Donald Trump rode into the White House than to gather together as women (and people who don’t hate women)—festooned in weather-appropriate metaphors for wherevers out of which many of us bleed—and take pleasure and joy in the abundance of our intersecting communities to spite him. What a way to steal his thunder.

Resolutions

I am nothing if not triumphantly confident in the dead of winter. It might be because I am mostly covered—wrapped up in dark, thick tights, shapeless dresses, and oversized sweaters. I wear my hair down more. I wear hats. The red lipstick I’ve been wearing a lot lately (with little, if anything else on my face) is ruddy, like the bottom of a glass of red wine you left out overnight or drying blood. I start to feel a little impervious, not invincible, but certainly more able to withstand sudden bursts of cold wind. The dead of winter is when I started running. It’s when I went back to graduate school, both times. It’s when Zac and I started looking for a place to live. It’s when I found and decided to keep Bagel. I make some of my best decisions between December and February.

At some point on January 1st of this year, I sat down at my desk with a sheet of graph paper and started taking notes. I made a color-code list out of those notes in the back of my planner. I gave that page a tab labelled “Resolutions.” The tab is a festive pink. It’s officially week two and it’s already a miraculous failure. Over the last week, I’ve gone to bed on time exactly zero times. I’ve gotten out of bed without hitting the snooze once. I got four hours of sleep that night. I have not started a single book I planned to read in order to complete my self-imposed reading syllabus. I only stuck to my plans to write 300 words a day three times. My average daily water intake is about 4 glasses and I’ve already ordered Chinese food twice.

On the other hand, I have gotten in a Facebook fight with a former professor that ended with him declaring in all caps that he teaches many “DEAD WHITE AND BLACK WOMEN” much to my eternal delight, ignored a Twitter troll who wanted to know where I stood on the “few billion unborn babies” murdered by feminists, and made some pretty serviceable vegetarian pad thai. All accomplishments for which they do not make merit badges. I also managed to sneak in at least a half-hour of yoga every day and started meditating. Unfortunately, the five to ten minutes I’ve spent each day with my legs pretzeled has made it painfully obvious that I have a 31 year-old’s knees and a total inability to count above two without thinking about whether that mole on my back is funny-haha or funny-cancer.

The nine straight days of yoga and eight days of meditation aren’t nothing.  Nine is the absolute most I could do anything this year that I set out to do once a day. But the page is still mostly unchecked boxes. The thing is, I don’t actually feel all that bad about only getting the year 30-50% right so far. It’s down right impossible to make a bunch of changes in your life all at once. That only one or two things are clicking right now doesn’t mean I won’t get the hang of waking up on time next week or next month. Clearing out my brain a bit each day might help me become a better writer. I don’t know how to fix the water thing, though. I’m a 31 year-old woman who regularly looks at the empty water glass on her desk and thinks, “I’m thirsty” before redirecting her attention back to her computer without doing anything to satisfy that very real need.

I got out of bed this year and thought about how to make myself and my relationships a priority (and also maybe get a cat. Zac’s talking a big game about pet rats but their tails aren’t terribly fluffy.) That’s better than two years ago when I spent the morning dry heaving because I’d already thrown up an entire bottle of prosecco before bed. I don’t remember actually getting out of bed that day. Does jotting down a list of goals for the year mean that I finish the year having finished the shitty first draft of a novel, done yoga every day, and gotten to eight breaths before wondering whatever happened to the lady who starred in The Secret World of Alex Mack? Maybe. I might as well try. What’s wrong with being (overly) confident?*

*did I get the song stuck in your head?