Sunday, February 26, 2012

On the Blight that Is the Third-person Singular

i had no intention of posting on this. but i just read a funny post on another blog in which the writer [whose gender, praise god, is evident] took on the overuse of the word 'one' as an effort to avoid the universal 'he.' twice i tried to respond, each time coming against a different horror, specific to the web.  to get your response to a blog posted, you need to prove you are a living person by correctly  typing in a pair of highly mutilated non-words provided by the cyber gods.  each of my tries was rejected by sending me right back to the blog home page.  so this is dedicated to jim, b/c i think i can post on my own blog without having to  figure out that a pair of squiggles says 'flemtyr marzonchq'.

jim's irritation at the repetitions of 'one' is justified.  one doesn't want one's every third word to be 'one,' even if one is gratified that one doesn't have to deal with being 'included' in 'he' and 'him.'  but what, alas, is the solution?  'he and she', particularly when followed closely by 'his or her' destroys any possible grace the sentence may have had, while still being sexist.  'she or he' might be less sexist, or at least more female-friendly, but the aesthetic problem remains.  when desperate, i have used 's/he,' which i find better, but it sounds like a hiccup and doesn't solve the possessive problem at all--her or his?

but there is, and has been for lo these many years, a very easy substitute.  you can find it in shakespeare and jane austin and others over the years, before the rulebook emerged and squashed it forever.  you can find it in casual speech still, even when no one is trying not to sound sexist.

'they.'  what the hell is wrong with 'they'? good, brief word, that could function as the 2nd person pronoun has always comfortably functioned;  no one complains, at least in english-speaking countries, about the fact that 'you' doesn't identify gender or number, except in context.  once begun being used, it would become as common as most unfamiliar new words become, when they make sense.  the dictionary allows us all to get 'hung up,' where once it would appear only in dictionaries of black slang.  'shmuck,' having lost its original biological meaning, has long since left the jewish ghetto and is comfortably used by people of all backgrounds and genders.  women call each other 'dude' [though not with my approval].  word meanings grow, evolve, and sometimes change completely over years.  why can't we simply extend that perfectly inoffensive 'they' to take care of the 'sexist or graceless' problem once and for all?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Halfway out of the Mental Illness Closet

last week, i wrote a post here about my stay in the netherlands to date. in passing, i mentioned going through some minor physical and mental health problems, the latter being a spell of depression.  the rest of the post was  on other stuff going on.

it got few readers, and two of them were old friends who are also psychotherapists,  and who gently but firmly reproved me for calling depression a mental illness.  they have known me and my depression for years, and so have a sort of doubled authority on the subject.  one of them was surprised that i had mentioned it at all, since it's a personal issue; the other thought it might deter some depressed people from getting help, since they would be put off by the thought that they were 'ill.' 

their remarks echoed those of a therapist i had seen many years ago, a wonderful  woman who kept me sane and very possibly kept me alive at the time, in those years when psychotherapeutic drugs were in their infancy.  she too rejected the illness idea, which she thought belittling to people in therapy.

i was unsurprised by my freinds' reactions, knowing as i had their general views on emotional.....shall i say, conditions.  but i disagreed with them, as i had with my own therapist back in the day.

as to the idea that 'illness' has been used as a stigma, i think that it emerged as an anti-stigma [though i should do at least a wiki-search on this], a reassurance that you weren't crazy but instead had an illness, that was treatable, the way the flu or high blood pressure could be treated.  but the language, as is inevitable when changing terminology becomes part of the method of trying to change reality, became itself tainted.  if i tell someone i have asthma, they might mention that i'm sick.  there, the word has no value attached to it--it's a simple generic descriptive.  but 'sick,' in relation to mental conditions, has a very different tone.  "that's sick,' we'll say, in tones of intense contempt.  so that instead of the word changing the context, the context as often as not changes the word.  sometimes the  phenomenon is more complicated.  look at the words white people have used for black people.  'negro,' the way respectful people in the 1950s used in place of 'the coloreds,' by the mid-1960s, 'negro' itself had a patronizing connotation, replaced by 'black,' adapted at first by militant anti-racist organizations and taken on, sometimes reluctantly, by well meaning whites.  but 'black' too became suspect, and grew into the ungainly but to-date inoffensive term 'african american.'  listen to racists use the term 'african american,' as though it were a humorous reference to pretentious second-class citizens who thought they were as good as 'real americans.'

language matters; of course it does. the evolution of the terms for the descendants of american slaves has occurred with the evolution, however incomplete, of legal and social realities.  at least we don't have  separate toilets for 'african americans.'  it matters that adult females are now 'women' rather than 'girls,' that homosexual men are 'gay' and not 'faggots.'  as both a feminist and a writer, i believe in the power of words and the importance of challenging insulting language.

but equally, i see the more subtle uses of denial in some language change.  we have ceased to be old; we are at best 'elderly,' or the really obnoxious 'senior citizens.' 'old' is an insult.  but 'old' is real, if you're lucky enough to live beyond 'middle age.'  being old encompasses some inevitable physical realities--wrinkles, memory problems, joint pain, all that stuff. above all, it encompasses the utter proximity to death.   making up cute words doesn't change that, but it can help us deny it. 

so...mental illness.  i like the concept.  granted, depression isn't as harsh an illness as, say schizophrenia.  asthma isn't emphysema.  a cold isn't asthma.  disease is a fairly large concept.  

for me at least, depression as an illness makes sense.  it pretty much parallels my asthma.  each responds to medication that has made my life bearable.  each manifests in different degrees.  my recent episodes of both have been mercifully mild. both have held on to symptoms, the way a cough lasts long beyond its cold. severe episodes of either are rare if i take my meds.  either could ultimately kill me.  neither is, or should be, a cause for shame.

what i don't have to grapple with when i have asthma is concern that i'll be looked down on. and it's why i refuse to hide behind either denial or soothing language around my depression.

and yet...

i said earlier that i have had only three hits on the post about my castle life.  when i write a post about something i think may interest my former students, i send a flag about it to facebook. this time i didn't. instead i posted a note  saying that i'd written it, but it wasn't very good. and i gave it a title suggesting the same thing.  i've never done this before. i told myself that i was downplaying it because i don't want to cause my current students, some of whom have already become fb friends, any concern about me.  concern...or contempt?  i wish i could be sure of my motives. so this one gets the usual facebook treatment. and i'll give it a funky title. 

what fools we mortals be!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

I Am No Kafka

it's the damnedest insect i've ever known.  octagonal, not especially ugly, though certainly not pretty; fly-sized but wingless, yet it lumbers like those giant waterbugs in my second manhattan apartment when i lived with larry.  we sprayed the whole place with bug-poison one day, then went for a long, comfortable walk by the east river, or anyway that's how i remember it.  when we got back we didn't see the thing, so we opened the window to let the air in and the fumes out, and we went to hug each other, and then stopped and screamed at the same time as the beast slowly crawled out of larry's shirt pocket.

this one isn't huge, though, and oddly i'm not frightened of it. but it's been around for a few days, and it keeps startling me, hanging or crawling in different spots in the room. it's even less scared than i am; suddenly being violently shaken off its current book or window pane, it falls off and then resignedly shuffles to somewhere else in the room.  maybe it shrugs its shoulders; the attitude is right anyway.

there's a fly swatter in the room, which i sometimes wave at the bug, but i hate killing things, and when a crawly creature needs killing i usually get someone to come and do it for me.  when they do, i hold my ears, like it's going to scream.  i was a lousy biology student in college but i'm pretty sure i know that bugs don't scream.

since it seems to be living here for awhile, i've considered giving this one a name.  but the only name you can really give a bug is gregor, and i'm sure that's been overdone.  besides, what if it were true and it morphed back into a man?  i had a pair of moths one summer who lived on my shower curtain. they never seemed to move and i wondered if the changing of the environment had created a new species of moth that ate plastic. i did give them names; they were butch and roland, because i was in my closest to a man-hating phase and i thought if the cat ate them i'd rather they weren't female moths.  but leibniz ignored butch and roland, and they ignored him, and when the weather got cold they flew off, to winter in the south, i supposed.

only i really don't want to name this bug; i haven't any fondness for it as i did for butch and roland. but i  don't want to kill it.  i have students living next door, and of course there are always kids in the computer lab, which is on the same floor, so i'll probably end up getting one of them to kill it for me.  or maybe it will get  bored waddling around my room, and find its way to the window from which it will lugubriously disappear and i'll never see it again. then it will fall into the moat, which i dreamed once was full of sharks, but that, luckily, was only a dream, albeit a colorful one. there's nothing colorful though about an octagonal beetle.  there really isn't.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Castle Report, Such as it Is

i've been here nearly a month and haven't blogged about it--or about much of anything, since time is being a mega issue.  besides, there really isn't much to say.  i love it, and the kids are good, and i adore my colleagues in those moments when i can tolerate human beings at all.  but a bunch of annoying though minor health problems, mental and physical, have pretty well drained my energy, so i've done very little and felt very distant from what i have done: mostly i just want to [a]be alone and [b] sleep, preferably simultaneously.  ugh.

still it's the castle, which in itself at least somewhat mitigates the effects of depression and  insomnia with its inevitable sleep deprivation. the cold snap seems to be over; we have typical dutch weather, damp rather than cold, so walking is something i can actually do, if i can bully myself into it.  and there are always things to delight in, even at a step or two removed from your soul.....

the cold weather froze over both moats.  the fresh snow made a pretty spot beautiful,  and kids from the town skated on the outer moat. as did one of our staff, ivo, who swears he did it only because we had a responsibility to make sure the ice was safe for the local kids.  watching ivo circling the moat with the grace of a speed-skater made up for a lot of shivering.

 but the most breathtaking sight,  and one i've experienced here only twice over the years, is the ice melting.  it cracks into thousands of small, irregular pieces, turning each moat  into a large, constantly shifting, crystal mosaic that i doubt any artist could replicate.

then again, this sunday will be the annual carnival parade, and 1/2 of the students are staying for it, as excited as five year olds [and 67-year-old teachers] about their costumes and about seeing their temporary home in its festive and ancient ritual.   swingin' and swayin' and dancing in the streets. [though here, it does matter what you wear].

and then there's my friend mia.  [there are two mia's in the village, both of whom are my friends, and both reason in themselves to keep coming back].  i ran into mia  t. in the supermarket, and there was the usual hug [american] and three cheek kisses [dutch]. after a bit of affectionate chat, we continued separately with  our shopping. then mia found me, again, because she wanted to tell me her news. she is happily, gloriously, newly in love.

mia is a widow, whose husband died around five years ago. they had had a long and loving marriage,  they both determined to maintain their happiness through his lingering illness, seizing every moment of their life together.  i don't know what rene's religious beliefs were, but mia has that huge-hearted spirituality that you see in some people of deep faith--catholic, i think, in its form, since this is a catholic area of nederland, but past all boundaries except love of humanity and of life.  so when she falls in love again, on the border of old age, you can only feel that wherever rene is he is glad for her; the glow on her face, the wide expansiveness of her strong, long arms, the whole sense of love not only for her new lover but for everyone and everthing on the planet.....who could not rejoice with her? the fact that her new beloved is a woman, whom she met in a christian retreat, would not be surprising in a large city.  but well is a small, interconnected dorp of 2500 people, and i wondered.

shortly after seeing mia, i met a couple in town who knew her well.  the wife is a member of the town's chorus [run and conducted by the other mia]. so we chatted awhile about our two terrific mia's, and the woman said, with only a slight air of caution, that mia was in love again. i nodded and smiled, and she continued. at the beginning of their concert practice in january, mia had stood up and said she had an announcement to make. my new acquaintance did a great imitation of mia's typical, hug-to-the-world stance as she told them she was in love, and spoke about the woman in her life. when she had finished,  'we all sang,'lang zal ze leven,' ' ['long zal ze leven' is the  hearty, exuberant  dutch  all-occasion congratulatory song, which means 'long shall they glory'; no one here ever has a birthday without hearing it many times].

i would, of course, be happy for mia whoever her lover was, and happy too that her community rejoiced with her.  but with all the homophobia permeating so much of  my country's current discourse, the petty, ugly hatred of the religious right spewing out through all the triumphs of gay marriage and gays in the military, the fact that the person she has found is a woman adds yet another layer to my happiness for her, and my respect for the townspeople who  seem able to cherish love where they see it.

mia, long shall you and your vriendin and the people who love you live, in glory!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Keep the Politics Out Of....

i've read this phrase a thousand times, i'm sure. and each time when i agree with the position of the writer/speaker [pro-choice; stop the wars, etc forever] i nod sagely.  right: the bad guys are politicizing this issue. when it's someone whose position i dislike [right to life, don't make the government support its hungry; give rich capitalists more money], i frown. hypocrites, they're the ones politicizing it. but lately something has been gnawing at me when i see the phrase, and i now realize what it is.

this phrase totally negates what was once, and really needs to be again, a basic tenet of the second wave of feminism.  it's a horrible, terrible, dangerous phrase.  it separates politics from life, and puts it into its own narrow category.

okay, feminists and leftists who remember: THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL.  Everything is political. 'political' is about us, the citizens, and our relations among each other and the state. the polis, the people.  it's not about playing eenie-meanie-miney-moe with the top echelon of the power structure; or rather, that's a small part of of its meaning. it's not about Democrats and Republicans, and casting your ballot for one or the other.  It's about US--we the people.

how much patient time did we invest in the 1970s explaining this? those cute cartoons where the fat old boss chases the busty secretary around the room? that was political. the woman dying in her own blood because the coat hanger didn't do the job right.  that was political.  pretending you were engaged so you and your boyfriend could rent an apartment together.  rape.  rape was a political crime.  beating your wife was a political crime.

such an analysis could only expand to acts that weren't in any narrow sense limited to acts for or against women. your kid gets killed in vietnam in the process of killing another kid in a war we never voted for. [shit, even if we had voted for it, those two kids are just as dead.] from the most grim to the most trivial, what humans did to, with, for each other, was political. in the book i worked with Susan Love on, the second edition, and those editions thereafter, included a chapter on 'the politics of breast cancer.'breast cancer in itself is a disease. how we choose to research the disease, treat it, pay tax and/or charity money to help cure or eliminate or attack it--that is political.

we can, we must, certainly argue that some areas of life shouldn't be controlled by the government. we can and should say that this particular topic isn't about Democrats or Republicans, who represent a small part of the 'people.'  but that is far from meaning they are 'politicizing' it.  they are perhaps seizing on a political situation to support their own power.  they are being political, but no more than any of us involved in the situation.  the brave workers at abortion clinics are being political; so are the fanatics who may decide to kill them; so are those of us who support or oppose abortion rights. so, above all, are the individual women who get or do not get abortions when they face unwanted pregnancy.

if this weren't true, there would never have been an Occupation, and it would never have spread as it did--and continues to, even with camp-ins.  i think at core, though i don't think they used the expression, it has had so much resonance with so many people because the occupiers knew that the political was personal.

i think we need to reclaim that phrase, to acknowledge that we respond in very different political ways to any situation, but that as long as we live in proximity to others, as long as anyone besides me has any control over my actions, my actions and theirs are political. good or bad, banally neutral, right or wrong, worthy of being emulated or avoided, even if necessary stopped because i'm harming others---all that is important;  all that needs to be addressed or at least recognized.  but no matter how clear, how complex, how morally ambiguous, how painful, or how fun: it is political. fate has politicized, it not  us.