Thinking about stress as an identity marker

Michel Foucault tells us that the end of the Victorian era marked a shift in how we view sexuality. Our sexual choice (same sex or opposite sex) became an identity marker (homosexual, heterosexual). Engaging in sex with another of your own gender became a marker of your entire being–your childhood, your present beliefs, everything–where as before it would have been viewed as a singular action. Sexuality became an identity marker.

A note on the difference between identity marker and individual action: an action is an action is an action–I read a book, I ate too much. An identity marker takes an action–possibly a habitual action–and turns that into a characteristic of the entire person. I am a nerd. I am a glutton.

Why is this important? Well, identity markers get imbued with all sorts of stereotypes that aren’t heaped on individual actions. The statement “I read a book” only informs you that I’m fortunate enough to be literate. It could be Dr. Seuss, it could be Michel Foucault, it could be Oprah’s latest favorite. The statement “she’s a nerd” or “she’s a bookworm” asserts that that action (reading of book) is not only habitual but it affects more than just that action. What does a nerd wear? What does a bookworm listen to? You might not be able to answer those questions correctly, but you have an image in your mind– a stereotype that is implicit in the identity marker but not in the individual action.

Take it one step further, if I say “I’m a nerd” or “I”m a bookworm,” I’m accepting that identity marker. I’m saying yes! this action (of reading a book) is really one that defines me.

Ok, back to Foucault. He says 

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality…. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature…. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. (The History of Sexuality, Foucault, p. 43)

Basically, he’s just articulating the idea that we haven’t always assumed a person’s choice of sexual partner is a way to categorize them. The action (gay sex) was changed to an identity characteristic (lesbian/gay) which then was thought to explain or clarify that individual’s entire life.

I think the same move has been made to feelings of stress. Instead of experiencing moments of tension, or times when we have to “buckle down and get to it”, the  assertion of “being stressed” has become a characteristic of identity. 

I am stressed. You are stressed. He, she and it are stressed. We and they–yep, also feelin’ it.

Feeling it always. All the time. I go to bed stressed and I wake up stressed. I think about my to-do list while I’m making the bed, filling up my car and scratching  my dog’s belly. It’s always there–insistently reminding me of what I need to be doing.

But that’s a little ridiculous, isn’t it? Am I–are any of us– actually going to be working the entirety of our waking hours? I know–ideally: yes! otherwise I’ll never get it all done! Ohmygod (cue hyperventilation)–but honestly. Can you–can I–actually be researching while making coffee and feeding the pets? What about while driving to school? Or walking from the car to the library? Or from the library to class? Or any of the other five million little things that I’ll get done today that aren’t intrinsically linked to the projects that are pending? Not really.

So right there, I have at least two hours (likely quite a bit more) in my day that I can determine. I can be impotently stressed and tense, feel my stomach twist and kink the entire day, completely focused on getting to the library as quickly as possible (hurry-hurry-hurry-can’t get it all done)… or I can let it go, refuse to let stress be my primary identity marker this week, acknowledge that I’ll be spending a good 8 hours in the library today, during which I’ll have to focus…but that’s later and not right now. There’s no reason to allow stress to engulf my world in burning acid.

At least, that’s how I see it. 

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What I’m Reading: A Room with a View

It so happened that Lucy, who found daily life rather chaotic, entered a more solid world when she opened the piano. She was then no longer either deferential or patronizing; no longer either a rebel or a slave. The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world; it will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected. The commonplace person begins to play, and shoots into the empyrean without effort, whilst we look up, marvelling how he has escaped us, and thinking how we could worship him and love him, would he but translate his visions into human words, and his experiences into human actions.

Perhaps he cannot; certainly he does not, or does so very seldom…

Love this. I want to shoot into the empyrean without effort. The image reminds me of a trapeze artist, gracefully and incomprehensibly flying above our heads. (If you haven’t read Nights at the Circus,  you should. It’s lots of fun. Speaking of trapeze artists, which we weren’t.) Such a picture of escape, of freedom. Sadly, I have much to much to do to even think about trying to escape. The walls are much too thick.  (C’mon fellow nerds, what movie?) 

I began A Room with a View on the way to school yesterday. After absolutely loving Howards End, which I read earlier this year, I’m ready for some more Forster. He’s a bit of a revelation for me–a new favorite.  I seem to have had this book confused with Daisy Miller (understandably, I believe–so far they seem quite similar) but thus far I like Lucy much more than Daisy. Daisy always reminds me a bit too much of Lydia Bennett–annoying and silly and self-centered and vain. Obviously, I really disliked both.

Lucy, so far*, seems much less silly– Forster makes a point of showing both her instinctive reactions to things (correct, genuine) and then her recollection of how she “should be” reacting to something, after which she turns all terribly proper and stilted. You can see a bit of that in the above quote–she is able to somehow get loose of social restraint when she plays the piano, to “shoot into the empyrean.” Of course, she is going to either have to quash that impulse toward freedom or be crushed by it. (She might be headed for an ocean dip with the rather sodden Ms. Pontellier.)

I’m feeling somewhat less than positive about Lucy’s chances of happiness… were she to begin “living like she plays,” she would scandalize society. I have no idea what happens next… but I’m rooting for her!

I love finally starting new/old books. Makes me happy.

(*I just finished Part I. Lucy and her horrible cousin/companion are leaving the Pension Bertolini for Rome.)

Domestic Feminist: Anachronism? (Or Roast Chicken 101)

There’s something about working at the kitchen table that makes me want to cook. Or maybe it’s residual vestiges of the Sunday dinner concept– regardless, today I’m roasting a chicken.

I love roasting chickens. Beyond the product (which is pretty damn good), and the efficiency of getting several meals out of one task, I get this smiley-warm feeling of competence when this most basic of meal components is sizzling in the oven. I feel the same way when I’m making bread… I enjoy other cooking, but chicken and bread seem so fundamentally linked to centuries of women in the kitchen¹ that it makes me happy.

It’s a little problematic, this domestic bliss of mine. It doesn’t quite fit with my prevailing image of myself (feminist/academic/walking bookmobile). Those things that I want to be–that I actually am at a rather fundamental level–have always seemed to be at the other end of the spectrum from simple pleasures such as a well-roasted chicken².  And here I am, basking in the glow of a warm oven. 

The madwoman to my Jane Eyre seems to be Donna Reed.

I no more have a clear resolution to this seeming anachronism than I understand why roasting a chicken makes me happy in the first place. I could theorize for hours, but instead, let’s talk chicken.

The recipe that I’ve most frequently been using lately is from Epicurious: My Favorite Simple Roast Chicken. It’s amazingly simple, fairly quick and (besides the chicken) you definitely have all of the ingredients in your pantry.

(This is the baby-steps How To version. Roasting a chicken isn’t difficult, but I was totally intimidated by the idea before I’d done it. So in the interests of equal access–to roast chicken if nothing else– here ya go.)

Ingredients: 

  • 2-3 lb chicken (today’s version is 3.5, I’ve used this recipe for one a pound larger. Just adjust the time a tad³.)
  • Salt

Steps:

  1. Prep– preheat the oven 450°; empty at least one side of your sink (chicken juice is gross, you don’t want that dripping on anything but the drain); get out the pan you are going to cook in (I’m using my iron skillet this time, I’ve used a Pyrex baking dish and a cookie pan in the past. Don’t use a cookie pan, the juices will just drip straight into the bottom of your oven–smoky mess. But anything that’s oven safe and has an edge should work.)
  2. Wash the chicken and pull out the giblets [the innards]. This is the grossest part of the process. I understand. I hate this too. It’s disgusting- and a whole chicken somehow seems so much more like an animal than a chicken breast–the ribcage is the same size as my dog’s. It’s disturbing. I come close to turning vegetarian when I do this–but then I remember bacon, and change my mind. Persevere, you can do this. Make sure you get all the innards all out, rinse everything well, and don’t touch anything else until you wash your hands.
  3. Using paper towels, pat the chicken dry.
  4. Truss4 the chicken. I could explain, but this video is quick and clear. And he’s funny.
  5. Salt like crazy. Go nuts.
  6. Cook for 50-60³ minutes.
  7. Eat. Standing over the stove, dipping in honey-mustard. Seriously, it’s oh-my-god good. Just don’t burn your fingers.  

That’s it! I mean, how easy is that? Plenty of time left to ponder the contradictions in my character. Or for whatever you are doing today.

¹I’m obviously not saying that the idea of ‘women in the kitchen’ is a good thing. Women have been responsible for the invisible, so-called unimportant labor which civilization requires for centuries. It is not somehow part of gender identity to prepare the meals. I think it’s more the continuity of history that appeals to me. Or maybe it just makes me feel like my granny.

²I am definitely not trying to reduce, frame or critique anyone else’s version of feminism or any other sort of lived experience. I’m just saying it seems weird to me, and the fact that it seems weird to me is also weird. And I’m weird, but you knew that already.

³I know- now you’re cursing me because I said it was easy and now I’m being vague about how long to cook it. If you enjoy cooking the chicken–if you get the warm-smiley feeling of competence that I referenced above–then pick up a meat thermometer. (I have this one from CDN and I love it: measures the temp of the meat, the temp of the oven and has handy-dandy alarms for both.) If you’re working without one, though, use this rule of thumb from NPR400 °=15 minutes a pound. So my 3.5 pounder was done perfectly at 52-53 minutes. 

 4I’ve roasted dozens of chickens without trussing. It’s not crucial, the chicken won’t escape if he’s not tied up. The purpose is to plug up the holes (the cavity into which you were just delving) so air doesn’t circulate and dry the meat out. If you stuff the chicken, with herbs or citrus, this eliminates some of the air flow. Since this recipe doesn’t call for any extras, it isn’t a bad idea to tie it up. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, skip it. You’ll survive. 

(Do footnotes make you as happy as they make me?I love them. It’s like a sticky note from the author.) 

Because this song is in my head so very frequently that you need to know it too. And it’s vaguely on topic. 


What I’m Reading: Villette, Charlotte Brontë

At about 2:00 this morning, I finished Villette. Staying up wasn’t precisely the most intelligent decision I’ve ever made–I had a paper due today, another tomorrow, and a presentation at a research symposium on Friday. (Yikes!) Hardly the first time I’ve stayed up all night, but I still marvel a bit at my stupidity.

Villette is the last novel Charlotte Bronte wrote. (The Professor was published posthumously, in 1857, but was written long before.) In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar call this her most “overtly and despairing feminist novel.” Sounds like fun, eh? (Oh, but it was.)

“Lucy Snowe, Villette‘s protagonist-narrator, older and wiser than any of Bronte’s other heroines, is from first to last a woman without–outside society, without parents or friends, without physical or mental attractions, without money or confidence or health–and her story is perhaps the most moving and terrifying account of female deprivation ever written.  Silent, invisible, at best an inoffensive shadow, Lucy Snowe has no patrimony and no expectations, great or little.” –Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination

In examining the successive heroines of Bronte’s novels (Jane Eyre, Frances Henri, Caroline Helstone, Lucy Snowe) Gilbert and Gubar note that the “movement of the novels suggests that escape becomes increasingly difficult as women internalize the destructive strictures of patriarchy.” So if you aren’t familiar with any of these but Jane Eyre (which I wasn’t until reading this) imagine all of Jane’s internalized assumptions of personal unworthiness as the pinnacle of confidence. Lucy Snowe is then positively invisible.

Villette, though, is not. One of Bronte’s authorial tricks is to let the landscape and the weather mirror the action of the novel (consider the windswept heath over which Rochester’s voice echoes, the terribly grey gardens of Lowood School, the sun-dappled hills around Moor House.) So Villette is beautifully and precisely articulated–at times frightening, at times idyllic, but always very easy to visualize.

Villette, a [fictional] French town, is peopled by petty aristocrats and British expatriots, and many, many very spoiled schoolgirls. After a number of various personal tragedies, Lucy Snowe becomes an English teacher at the rather frightening Mme Beck’s boarding school in that fair city… and you’ll have to read the rest yourself.

Here’s what the book looked like in my mind:

Villette was all sunlit squares and deep, dark shadows.

Much of the action occurs in the dormitory of the boarding school.

During a break, Lucy remains at school alone. She becomes very ill and has feverish fantasies; she imagines the lines of white dormitory beds turned into spectres: “the coronal of each became a deaths-head, huge and sun-bleached–dead dreams of an earlier world and mightier race lay frozen in their wide gaping eyeholes.”

The schoolgirls I saw as various iterations of Catherine Deneuve. Not particularly logical, it’s that whole French schoolgirl thing. And there were several beautiful (and rather silly) blonde schoolgirls.

Then, of course, the conclusion:  a rather melancholy fantasy of domesticity. M. Paul, shortly before leaving on an extended trip, arranges a surprise for Lucy.

He did not knock, but taking from his pocket a key, he opened and entered at once. Ushering me in, he shut the door behind us. No servant appeared. The vestibule was small, like the house, but freshly and tastefully painted; its vista closed in a French window with vines trained about the panes, tendrils and green leaves kissing the glass. Silence reigned in this dwelling. Opening an inner door, M. Paul disclosed a parlour, or salon — very tiny, but I thought, very pretty. Its delicate walls were tinged like a blush; its floor was waxed; a square of brilliant carpet covered its centre; its small round table shone like the mirror over its hearth; there was a little couch, a little chiffoniére, the half-open, crimson silk door of which, showed porcelain on the shelves; there was a French clock, a lamp; there were ornaments in biscuit china; the recess of the single ample window was filled with a green. stand, bearing three green flower-pots, each filled with a fine plant glowing in bloom; in one corner appeared a guéridon with a marble top, and upon it a work-box, and a glass filled with, violets in water. The lattice of this room was open; the outer air breathing through, gave freshness, the sweet violets lent fragrance.

‘Pretty, pretty place!’ said I.

Lovely, lovely book.  Highly recommended.

Beautifully Unbalanced

I’ve made progress. I used to compare myself with every airbrushed cover model, every long-haired laughing girl advertising Diet Coke or tampons, every beautiful girl at the mall smiling up at her adoring boyfriend. I don’t do that anymore- I’ve seen enough airbrush exposés to be a trifle cynical about beauty in advertising; I’ve felt beautiful when smiling at my own truly wonderful boyfriend.
A glimpse of my distorted reflection in a car door usually doesn’t send me into the tailspin of too-big nose/too-high forehead/too-flat eyebrows.  Of course, I’ve been examining and analyzing this face of mine for a long time. I’ve made peace with it. It’s quirky.

I don’t find it terribly difficult to ignore Cosmo when it tells me to “Get Gorgeous Now!” or Vogue when it demands that I get the latest look. But those other magazines–the ones with artfully arranged flowers or towering desserts on the front cover, with articles that gently and insistently urge me to ‘feel good now!’, ‘achieve your balance!’, ‘find your peace!’, ‘stop stressing!’– those are the magazines that send me into paroxysms of self-doubt.

Embrace your life! Live mindfully! Creatively! Live your best balanced life! … suddenly, I’m questioning every decision, berating myself for falling off the morning pages wagon, for not nurturing myself more, fretting about the lining of my stomach and what I’ll do when that ulcer finally shows up, and wondering why my life isn’t more consistently meaningful. More peaceful. More balanced.

I think the balanced life is yet another version of the myth of the woman who can do it all, the woman who is the perfect mother and the head of the company, the full time student/full time worker who also has a meticulously clean house and cooks healthy meals and takes long, peaceful walks with the dog… I think she’s a ghost, this immaculately-coiffed specter who makes elaborately decorated Easter cakes. She is the first wife to whom you will never measure up. She’s as much of a construct as the air-brushed celebrity. I don’t think she actually exists.

Oh, she exists for moments. I’ve been her for momentsWhen a beautiful pink tree literally takes my breath away… and there just happens to be fifteen extra minutes in schedule during which to stop and bask in the loveliness. The moments that reverberate with poetry; when my soul feels still, and calm, and I can take a deep, cleansing breath and love the minutae of my life and let my miseries all melt away.

The next day the tree is pale pink blur in the rear-view mirror as I scan for flashing blue lights.

Long, long ago, in a completely different stage of my life, I struggled with this exact thing in a rather different context. (Brace yourself, I’m going to quote a preacher.)  I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t always “on the mountaintop” (to put it in a Southern religious colloquialism). Why I didn’t always feel close to God, why my emotions were so horribly changeable. Every time I slipped, whenever I just wasn’t feeling it, I worried that all wasn’t as it should be. The preacher told me that you aren’t supposed to live on the mountaintop. The mountaintop exists to give you faith and comfort while you are in the valley.

I disagree heartily and fundamentally with 99.9% what he or any other preacher who has ever berated a sinner believes. But if you lift that sentiment- the ‘not living on the mountaintop’ idea- and transfer it, whole-cloth, to my current frustrations at not being able to live a peaceful, balanced life with any sort of continuity, it puts everything into perspective.

I don’t have to marvel at the pink trees every day. My kitchen will not be clean every day, I will not be creative and charming and confident every day. Those moments are extraordinary. Those are the mountaintops.

And some days I really just need to get to class already.

But the memory of those pink trees, even in my hectic, often-frustrating, and beautifully unbalanced life, provides a shimmering moment of poetry, of peace, of balance.

And that works for me.

Orange pecan waffles: breakfast of champions

Cooking–well, any type of housework, really–is one of my most insidious forms of procrastination.  I need to eat while I’m trudging the theory trenches and I’ll likely focus better if my kitchen isn’t a mess… and yet, I can subsist just as easily, for this short period of time left in the semester, on crackers and ramen and Diet Coke, and the kitchen sink isn’t going to collapse if there are a few dishes in there… it’d be much better to just get the work done. Alas, that’s not how my mind works.

And so, without further ado, Orange Pecan Waffles!

First off– marshal those forces again.

You will need:

  1. 1 cup of orange juice
  2. pancake mix
  3. 1/3-1/2 cup of pecans, chopped
  4. 1/3 cup of oil (whatever type- I used vegetable, ’cause I’m classy)
  5. ground Valencia orange peel (totally optional- I have some that I rarely use, so anything citrus-y gets a pinch)
  6. powdered sugar and syrup (or whatever you prefer) for the top
  7. coffee. Because really, are you going to make waffles without coffee? for shame!

So easy you almost don’t need a recipe. But just in case–

  • (Plug in/turn on waffle maker- those things have to pre-heat and it’s a pain to wait on it when you’re done preparing the mix)
  • Basically, you are just going to follow the mix instructions, subbing in orange juice for a portion of the water. The instructions on the package I used (Great Value) directed me to add 1 1/3 cups of water and 1/3 cup of oil to 2 cups of mix. Instead I added 1/3 cup of water, 1/3 cup of oil, and 1 cup of orange juice.
  • Sprinkle chopped pecans into hot, greased waffle maker
  • Pour mix in
  • Straighten up the kitchen while it cooks.

And voila!

Orange pecan waffles: slightly crunchy, slightly tart, and holy-mother-of-god delicious.

And now, back to that post-colonial feminism in the Heart of Darkness. Oh, the horror, the horror!

But I, being poor, have only my dreams

When I brought 84 Charing Cross Road to the librarian’s desk, she picked it up, kind of stroked the cover and exclaimed that she absolutely loved the movie. She then looked me dead in the eye and said “if you like books, you must like this movie.” (I was a little intimidated. I mean, I know I like books… but what if–dear god– I don’t like the movie. My entire self-identity was called into question!) Luckily, the movie is rather wonderful … so all is well. 
Anne Bancroft is Helene Hanff, a writer in search of obscure books that are unavailable in her price range in New York City. Anthony Hopkins is Frank Doel, an antiquitarian bookseller (whose shop is located at the titular address in London) to whom she applies for the books she requires. A decades-long friendship develops between Hanff and Doel… conversations about books and poetry and history and politics ensue, all through the lovely medium of letters and parcels through the post. Anne Bancroft/Helene Hanff says she was told that tourists always find what they are looking for when they go to England: she wants to find the England of English literature–to sit where Elizabeth sat when she refused to enter the tower, to see where John Donne preached….  When I finally get to go to England, I want to wander around musty old bookshops like the one found at 84 Charing Cross Road. 

Helene drinks and smokes constantly and elegantly, is passionate about John Donne and rants about incomplete editions and shoddy translations. Had Jennifer Cavilleri lived longer (and a few decades earlier), she would have been Helene. My kind of woman.
Although it’s not the sob-fest that Love Story is, 84 Charing Cross Road is quite the melancholy story–Helene keeps planning to visit London and her friends at the bookstore, but things keep happening to keep her from traveling. Jennifer Cavilleri taught me E.B. Browning 22: When our two souls stand up erect and strong…, and Helene introduced me to Yeats’s “He wishes for the cloths of heaven”

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Just as the Browning seems such an apt inclusion in Love Story (the perfection of earthly love, the love of soul for soul), the Yeats selection seems a precise capstone to 84 Charing Cross Road. Both Hanff and Doel live in their minds, in worlds of literature, in their dreams… both of long-dead authors and of each other.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams.

How beautiful is that?