November 18th, 2014

_The Age of Innocence_, Edith Wharton

I'm not going to say a word about spoilers, because this book has been out for a long while now. Get over it.

It's very readable. The language is a little old-fashioned, filled with the many clauses that we are so unaccustomed to today. There's a bit of french, here and there. This was the November book group selection in Mayberry (<-- not its real name) and my fellow readers tell me they had to look of a fair number of words (I was stymied by "quant a soi" and in the end, the only definitions that really made sense to me were themselves in french so I'm not even going to try. Sorry about the missing accent.). The group's vote on a 1-5 scale at the end was remarkable for its consensus: all 3s or 4s.

I hate vacillating young men with power stories (YES THAT INCLUDES HAMLET. DUH.). I was once a vacillating young woman and my remorse for that means I work to be compassionate to people who are having trouble deciding. But it also means that I find indecision as the basis for a story or as a life choice really, really aggravating.

To modern readers (or at least my fellow book group members), things like the description of opera as experienced in the 1870s at the Academy seem light, tongue-in-cheek and funny. And they condemn the socialites who chatted away during the recitative for not loving music. This is PRETTY FUCKING HILARIOUS COMING FROM PEOPLE WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN TO AN OPERA WITH RECITATIVE, and whose sole example of attending anything similar to an opera is Les Mis. Talking during the recitative was self-preservation. And the description of German operas being sung in Italian was not light, tongue-in-cheek, etc., altho it was kind of funny if you like that kind of viciousness. I don't really.

So that's two marks against _The Age of Innocence_: its viciousness (and it is _relentlessly_ vicious) and the vacillating young man at the center who so comprehensively misunderstands the world around him that he only starts to really figure out how thoroughly he has been led around by the nose at the very end, when his son inadvertently pulls back the curtain on Dead Mama's last manipulations. Oh, wait. That's three.

I should toss something in here about how all the women are pretty horrible. Understandable, sure, but nevertheless, pretty horrible.

But I don't want to distract from the thing I disliked most about this book (and for the record, it's a really well-written, good book -- I gave it a 4). The thing I disliked most about this book is the agonizing over the long engagement. WHICH DOES NOT MAKE A LICK OF SENSE. In fact, in conjunction with May taking two years to get pregnant, really the whole thing starts to take on a suspicious complexion that made me wonder about Edith Wharton. A lot. For a book which is about Family and marriage and other people taking lovers and a possible divorce (which devolves into a lifelong separation instead), there is a mystifying and relentless lack of sexual tension. Our Bookish Hero, Newland Archer, loves a good book and, prior to the events of the book, was apparently led around by the nose for a while by a married woman. But his desire to avoid a year plus engagement (understandable!) requires An Explanation both internally and to a variety of other people. And it is pretty clear that it is his impulsive pressing for it by going down to Florida when Work says he Should Not that relieves a bunch of other people in the social circle that he actually has ... a libido? Unclear. And this guy is supposed to be 27! WTF.

Do not tell me about how Oh Well It Just Used to Be Like That. Yeah, sure and your parents only had sex as many times as they had kids. Pull the other one; it has bells on. Long engagements on the scale described in this book (and apparently Wharton's other books) were never the norm for people in their mid-20s and older. They just weren't. Which means this is probably some sort of closeted thing going on that I am having trouble deciphering. Is Newland asexual? Is Ellen lesbian? We've got some clues going on that indicate that the author isn't real sympathetic to the closeted longings, what with the obligatory derogation of long haired men and short haired women.

If you read it (and you can interpret that verb tense however you like!), and have a theory, I'm interested. Last night I was convinced that Count Olenski was objectionable because he was gay. Having read a little about Wharton's life, I'm now wondering if bipolar disorder should be contemplated as an alternative explanation. I sort of wish that I enjoyed this book -- it's always nice to read an Issues novel from the past that gets into something I care about (women being able to get a divorce in this case). Alas, I didn't. But I finished it, and the book is thought-provoking and really well-constructed.


How long should an engagement in the 1870s last? Well, here's a contemporary work!

"Between persons who have been intimately acquainted for years, less concealment of the real temper is likely to occur. It is when strangers meet, in unfamiliar circles, that there is danger of overhasty marriages being a source of ultimate repentance. Twelve months’ engagement is considered by most people in the middle circles of society quite long enough."

I suppose you could argue that the characters in _The Age of Innocence_ moved in more rareified than the "middle circles of society", but Wharton indicates that they really were not aristocrats and presumably Cassells writing in a British context would have considered May and Newland "middle circles of society".

Not a book review: _Smile at Strangers_, Susan Schorn

Either this will become a book review (or a liveblog of reading the book) and/or will be followed by a proper review, should I get all the way through the book.

A friend recommended this to me months ago. I read reviews and descriptions and went, meh. I'm not going to learn a lot here, and it sounds like the author will drive me up a wall.

Then there was a great Jezebel post by the author:

Which is super awesome. If you have a pair of balls of your very own, this is probably super triggery and you might want to stay away from it. But if you don't have a pair of balls and were raised to feel a lot of fear just because of being a woman, it is Super Awesome Fun! And since it is by Schorn, I felt like I really ought to go read the book. Which is available via kindle unlimited! Yay!

First observation. Fall down seven times, get up eight. The author finds the usual moral (if at first you don't succeed, try, try again) and tells excellent stories while she struggles to reconcile what she perceives as a fence-post error. Well, nowhere in the exposition does it occur to her that she assumes that the person to whom the advice is directed started out "up" and that that assumption is in error. There is nothing more fundamental to the history of martial arts (understood as it is today, not, you know, nukes and tanks and shit) than the idea that the artist _started out down_, got up, was knocked down, got up again, lather, rinse, repeat. Great artists do not start out from a one-up position. Period. End. This would be a duh thing. In Schorn's defense, a quick survey of standard exposition of this saying fails to note this as well, getting lost in the obvious morass of perseverance and losing sight of the all important choice to STAND UP IN THE FIRST PLACE.

Second observation. The description of smiling at strangers is really beautiful, but again missing the core of the practice. Being out in the world and starting with a good offering in each interaction, as simple as a smile or cheerful, "Hello!" is partly about cultivating a healthy interior life, partly about sending out positive energy into the world and getting it back. But in a martial arts context, there is a whole lot more going on and it isn't really developed at least in the first encounter with the idea in the book (maybe it will come back?). At the simplest level, a smile and a hello allows you to assess each person in turn in a way that passive observation does not. It is also the first bid or token in developing the tenuous connections in public that can allow a group of strangers to act in unity to deal with a threat in their midst. The world is, as Jane Jacobs painstakingly and eloquently described as "eyes on the street", much safer when the people within it attend to its nuances actively.

To be clear! This is a great book and people should read it. The author is charismatic and articulate and funny. The lessons she is elucidating are ones that every adult should know. She is careful to not blame victims. It is wonderful stuff.

It's really all on me that she is driving me up a wall, and I did see that coming so no blame attaches to anyone else.

ETA: Let's just call this a liveblog.

"Jan, for example, had an alarming tendency to take full-power kicks to the abdomen, laugh, and then hit me three or four times while I stood there waiting for her eyes to glow red like the Terminator's."

I think we must use the term "full-power" differently. A full-power kick to the abdomen isn't something you absorb. Even with one of those big foam training things, a full-power kick to the abdomen should result in the braced person moving back (or to the side, as the case may be) several feet, and then bending over in pain while they recover. Otherwise, it's probably an indication that you need to work on attributes and/or technique.

"So when Sensei ushered in a dozen shoeless middle-aged ladies"

How did ladies slip in here? *sigh*

"She was a conventional-looking woman, stocky and brown haired, and clearly the kind of stay-at-home mom who has an insufficient outlet for her talents and thus channels her energy into organizing the holy bejeezus out of everyone and everything around her."

I hate the author. I hate the author. I am just gonna own it now. I fucking hate the author.

I am mostly okay with the rest of the description of Anna (not the locusts or desert part: "They probably would have followed her around in the desert for forty years and eaten locusts if she'd told them to. In fact, it would have been completely in characater if Anna had told them to eat locusts. "Be sure to chew thoroughly," she would have decreed, her commands booming out over the sound of crunching. "They're full of riboflavin.""), because it is actually descriptive, as opposed to fanciful and judgmental, which in a description is really not a good combination at all.

I sure hope that Anna is a fictional construct. Because the author wildly misinterpreted Anna.

"In the years since I met Anna, I've heard this depressing bit of "advice" [don't fight back it just makes the attacker more angry] pretty often [walkitout sez: what, only _after_ you met Anna? Weird. I remember hearing this as a small child over and over and over again, but by the time I was thirty, a couple years after the author hit thirty, I wasn't hearing it much any more]. Usually it's offered up, with real concern [or at least a good show of it], by women who are timid about their own ability to fight (or who have led extremely sheltered lives). But Anna was neither timid nor sheltered; even as inexperienced as I was, I could see exactly what she was up to: she was making trouble. The woman had, not half an hour earlier, told me she was considering carrying a gun. She obviously believed in fighting back. Furthermore, she herself had clearly never given a damn whether or not she made someone madder."


Sure know a lot about that woman within an hour of meeting her, much of it directly at odds with the evidenced adduced towards same. Is Anna here to make trouble? That's why she dragged all her friends and her friends kids in the girl scouts troop to self defense? NO. Anna very seriously wants to make sure that after she leaves this class, all her friends have heard from the expert -- Schorn -- why this particular argument (an argument that they almost certainly have already leveled at Anna when the trip was planned in the first place) is a bad one.

Ann is on Schorn's team. Pity Schorn couldn't see it at the time. Alternatively, in another autistic lapse, I have taken literally something which was only here for rhetorical purposes, in which case, oops. My bad.

This is potentially so NOT COOL I may rescind my recommendation.

Schorn walks in woods with dog named Memphis, whose leash she is holding, but not with adequate care. Young men on bicycles pass and "Memphis lunged forward and seized the second biker neatly by the ankle, eliciting a yell and a thud as he came off his bike."

So, that's a crime, and Schorn is legally responsible for what her dog has done to the biker.

"I have to say, no one throws a bigger hissy fit than a man wearing spandex."

*heart attack*

SCHORN IS THE DEVIL. Tempting, seductive and EVIL.

So, your dog bites a man, and then you make fun of the man using words that suggest effeminacy (hissy and spandex). You are a bad human being.

"I was so mortified by what my dog had done, and apologized." The very least you should do in this situation. Offering contact information, health status of dog all potentially called for. "you might not expect them to do what this guy did -- something I believe he did solely because I was female. He told me he was going to pick up a rock and split my dog's head open with it."

I question whether the female thing is relevant but I wasn't there. The response is intemperate, sure, but YOUR DOG BIT HIM. You probably violated the law because even places without leash laws are clear that owners are supposed to control their animals and are legally responsible for the actions of those animals. THIS ISN'T NEW OR THEORETICAL. Your dog kills somebody you can go down for manslaughter.

"Honestly, how big a coward does a man have to be to threaten a woman's dog?"

A dog which bit him. FUCK YOU, I'D JUST PICK UP THE DAMN ROCK AND DO IT. Which the men, fortunately, did not do; they left.

I still cannot figure out why the author didn't explore the legal ramifications of the dog biting a stranger after pulling off leash, or the implications for her POOR FUCKING BOUNDARY CONTROL OF A COMPANION ANIMAL.

Also, a couple paras about the darkness within her just make me weep in frustration. I HAVE HEARD THIS SO MANY TIMES from testosterone addled young computer nerds who have the blue belt blues or some such. That anger is helping you, but it would be better if it were better focused.

Later: After describing Gekisai Dai, a bunch of deadly attacks, "Could I really do this to someone, I wondered as I worked my way through the rest of Gekisai Dai's precise destruction? The biker who threatened my dog"? I'll say this. If you use martial arts skills to kill someone who threatened your dog, the law will not look kindly on you, especially if the dog bit first.

People who contemplate the use of deadly force, with, say, guns, actually entertain the legal ramifications of protecting a pet.

And the gun owners -- presumably mostly men -- are real clear on the idea that humans > pets, and no one wants to be the test case in using deadly force to protect a pet. Further, there is the issue of innocence. Using deadly force to protect yourself when you are committing a crime, for example, isn't self-defense. It's murder. And that dog was NOT innocent.

"there were actually pictures of the infamous fracture and black eye Jan sustained at her green belt gamet"


Sun Dragon really is one of those schools, more of a cult than a studio.

"I managed to reach her inner thigh, which I pinched viciously -- not a legal sparring technique, but once you're on the ground, in my opinion, you're no longer sparring. Also, I was betting Sensei Suzanne couldn't see what I was doing."

You can see the path that leads to Mike Tyson biting someone's ear in this compact little story. Also, as bad as my ground game was (I'm sure it has only deteriorated further due to disuse), it seems obvious that these people have even less.

"For the past three and a half years of my life, I'd been making myself into someone who got back up every time she went down." Funny, my instructor worked tirelessly to break me of that, and to try to make me as effective on the ground as standing up. Wish I'd been a better student, and less freaked out about rolling around on the mat with someone.

"As a newly minted black belt, I expected great things from myself in the sparring ring. Or failing that, I assumed I should at least be able to push people around a little bit now. I had some power at my disposal. My black belt was proof"

If Schorn has ever encountered Learner's Mind, she has carefully kept it a secret from This Reader.