Sunday, August 26, 2012

And now for something completely different

This week, I've been speeding up and slowing down, trying to create a bridge for myself between a sabbatical year with its intense yet flexible demands and the coming academic year which is in some way less demanding and yet less  forgiving if you get behind.  If my discussion of Lily Briscoe's aesthetics didn't flow as smoothly as I liked, I simply revised my expectations (again) and worked away at it until I'd expressed what I was seeing in her work and the relationship she created between that work and the world before her.  Though the publisher wants the manuscript "soon," "soon" hasn't been assigned a date.  On the other hand, I simply can't walk into a class anything less than over-prepared; only if I feel fully in control of my subject can I give up that control to student curiosity and the very different vision of, say, Jane Austen's novels, than the one I have.  So, fast, and slow. 

In the fast lane, you can see that I've finished another quilt, one completely unlike my poppies.  It is meant to go where you see it here, on the spare bed in my workroom.  It is as serene and understated as the poppies are vibrant and raucous.  Once the term begins, there simply won't be time to do the kind of planning and pulling together and searching for border fabric required when you finish a quilt.  I'm hoping to get some piecing done on a quilt for Veronica, but that's about all I'll accomplish, other than picking up hand quilting.

In the "slow" department, I've been taking long pulls at Charlotte Gill's remarkable Eating Dirt:  Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe about her work planting trees, mostly in clear cuts in British Columbia.  It's a curious book, part visceral evocation of the tedium and back-breaking labour of planting trees, part ode to the natural world's variety and wonder.  In between there are sometimes brightly-written snippets of history or biology, like her history of the implosion of Mesopotamian and Roman societies that came on the heels of their exhaustion of their local supplies of timber.  You suddenly see how crucial trees are to the human endeavour of housing ourselves and heating those houses.  The prose is always both clear and poetically exact so that the exhaustion, the weather, the tense muscles, the scent of bear, the feeling of weighlessness when crazy Adam takes a hill so fast that the jeep keeps ascending after the hill has dropped away, become part of the reader's experience.  I've taken the book in  with great gulps, Sheba in my lap making sure my attention doesn't wander.

Gill's book and Sheba's quiet weight and the need to slow down before the term shifts into gear have made me aware of the turning away of August toward September.  In the mornings, I read in the living room, close to my supply of coffee, looking out on our well-treed back yard.  I noticed so many things when I looked up from whatever I was reading (I've also been loping through Ford Maddox Ford's Parades End).  The sun falls quite differently.  The leaves in the trees are just a little dry around the edges so that there's more sunshine in the yard and more whispering when there's a breeze.  In the late afternoon and early evening, the light is golden, probably from newly-harvested grain.  Even if I only glimpse quickly up from the page, I can't help notice that September is coming soon.

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow is also building a bridge for me.  It's made me aware why this past year has sometimes been frustrating and exhausting.  Kahneman talks about the two speeds of our brain, which he labels system one and system two.  System one is, of necessity, speedy, taking a quick inventory of threats and opportunities, making decisions based on intuitions--though some of these are the result of our experience and developed knowledge.  System one is pretty cocksure, rather too certain of its conclusions.  It makes up stories and assigns cause with alacrity, but sometimes without the necessary evidence for drawing solid conclusions.  System two partakes of deliberate thought.  It can be a little lazy, a little slow to come on line, and when we do employ it, we often feel uneasy and unsure.  Here's his description of the two systems:  "When you are in a state of cognitive ease [using System one], you are probably in a good mood, like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions, and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar.  When you [are forced to use system two you] feel strained, you are more likely to be vigilant and suspicious, invest more effort in what you are doing, feel less comfortable, and make fewer errors, but you are less intuitive and less creative than usual" (60).  You are also less confident of your System two knowledge, though it's more reliable.

Kahneman's work has taught me that this year has been an intense, deliberate dance between these two systems.  I have enough knowledge of Woolf's work, her diaries, letters, essays, and novels to be comfortable situating her aesthetics and intuiting what she's up to.  But sometimes finding the evidence, structuring an argument other people will find clear and convincing, and thinking through the implications of what I see happening in her texts is hard work.  Moreover, it's hard work involving two handicaps.  One is that the lack of ease prompts you to distrust yourself--even though you're more reliable and thinking more deeply.  The second is that you're less creative, and you need all your creativity for negotiating Virginia Woolf.

Kahneman's work also has implications for my teaching.  I have a sense--just an intuition, mind you, provided by confident system one who likes causes and effects--that students come out of high school having mostly used system one.  Consequently, they're sometimes shocked and intimidated by the way we ask them to think very differently than they have in the past.  I've been thinking about how to put this knowledge to use, perhaps even emphasizing more than I usually do the importance of revision that literally re-sees your argument and the evidence you've based it on.  When you revise, don't trust yourself.  So while Kahneman helps me see why this year has sometimes been frustrating, he's also got me excited about helping my students learn about how they think and helping them to get lazy System two to cooperate.  Because I've missed my students and the daily challenges and reactions and interactions that have filled my life as a teacher.  I want to get back into the fray.  But not too quickly.  Another two weeks before I really begin teaching will be put to good use on The Waves.

The quilters among you should know that this quilt is based on one called "Moody Blues" in Kaffe Fassett's Passionate Patchwork.  It's essentially many two-fabric,  four-patch blocks with little triangles sewn to the outer corners of the lighter of the two fabrics.  When these come together, they make little darker squares on point.  Fassett's quilt is, predictably, wildly blue, edging sometimes toward purple, sometimes toward turquoise.  I chose to work  with colours ranging from yellow green through grey green, blue green, blue, the occasional grey, and cream.  The fabric for the border was the perfect colour to pull the whole together, except if I put it right next to the four-patches it sometimes nudged uncomfortably against a bright yellow green.  So I included a narrow secondary border.  But because I didn't want to buy yards and yards of fabric for a one inch border the longest piece of the tan I had was about forty inches.  So I eked it out with more triangles before attaching the next forty inches.  Working within constraints can make you creative, I find, and I'm happy with the unpredictable little clusters of triangles.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Aesthetics 101: When the whole is WAY more than the sum of its parts

Bill and I just stretched my newly-finished quilt top along an empty wall in the living room and he said, with dismay, "It's a little loud."  That might be taken for tactful understatement.  We thought just maybe it might look cheerful in the hallway leading upstairs in the dead of winter, but I'm really not sure about putting it on a wall at all.

I have been taking this week off to re-set some habits.  I've been knitting too much and quilting too little simply because picking up a piece of knitting where you left off is much easier than getting out your sewing machine and ironing board, choosing fabric, cutting it out, and beginning to piece.  But knitting is also much less satisfying.  So I thought I'd get this quilt finished and basted up so that sitting down to quilt is as easy as picking up a sock.

Sheba quickly got the drift of the whole "new habit" thing and concluded that my spending  three or four hours in the morning and a couple more hours at night reading had been arranged just for her.  She's been a limpet.  So today when I wanted to put the borders on the quilt, I had to bribe her with the good end (the wide end, that is) of the ironing board which I put under the "sun" of a task light.  Otherwise, she wouldn't stop demanding attention, kneading the quilt and pushing her nose under my hands as I tried to pin on the borders.  The wide end is the good end because she so frequently stretches out to arrange herself and falls off the narrow end.  Laughter ensues and her dignity is in tatters.

I plan a lot of things in my life.  I even had plans for my week off that included finding reading for the Literature and the Environment 110 class I'm teaching in the winter term and making good headway on Ford Maddox Ford's very lengthy Parade's End.  I also wanted to find a home every day for something languishing in the basement--clothing or kitchen equipment I no longer needed, books I've read, so I've made trips to the Mennonite thrift store and a bin where Canadian Diabetes Association collects clothes, as well as bringing more books into the university.  I'm into the aesthetics of minimalism these days, thought you wouldn't know it from my quilt.

As an over-planner, I don't necessarily want to completely plan out quilts.  I had fallen in love with the cheerful blue chintz with its red poppies and simply took my cues from that, making small basket blocks, each of which is different.  Quilters must have a dozen ways of representing baskets.  (Sorry these are sideways; my computer's software doesn't "know" it needs to turn them 90 degrees, and I don't see an option for doing this.)
 So each basket was an adventure with colour and design.  Then I'd wanted to make a "strippie" quilt which is an important part of the North American quilt aesthetic and has been picked up by brilliant quilters in Japan.  A strippie is organized vertically and each strip can be made of different blocks.  Following the Japanese examples, I thought I'd alternate appliqued strips with blocks on point. It seemed like a good idea as I worked my way through my casual plans.  The blocks were lovely and fanciful; the applique panels, based on flowers designed by Nancy Pearson but arranged by me for the space I had, had a kind of music about them.

What I hadn't fully accounted for was how much wider it would be than it was tall and the effect of all that startling red and the intense robin's egg blue.  I could cut it back to two rows of baskets and a single applique panel.  What do you think?  I have a photograph of 3/5ths of the quilt, but my computer wants to put it in upside down, so just put your hand over a couple of rows and see what you think.

Since the ancient Greeks, unity has been a quality we look for in a work of art.  Hence we sometimes say "That book (or movie) just doesn't hold together."  Or "I can't see how it all works.  There are too many pieces unaccounted for."   But I'm not sure aesthetics has any principles to deal with something simply being too much.  Ads on TV this week for the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie reminded me that I thought somebody was over-fond of the special effects of the sea monster's tentacles invading the ship and pulling out people and the movie simply became boring for me, in spite of Johnny Depp's cute self-irony.  This isn't boring, or is it?  Is there a boredom of surfeit, like too much chocolate?  That's what this quilt is:  too much chocolate.  I think, though, that in mid-winter, two people could share it over their laps while they read.  A cat could join then and eventually a lovely patina of cat fur would soften the colour a little.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

All the news that's fit to....

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind, in which he uses some very persuasive experiments to illustrate the fact that most of the time we don't make rational decisions.  Here are the terms of his metaphor:  we're 90% elephant and 10% rider.  When we're faced with a decision, our first response is probably coloured by our feelings at the moment and by our intuitions.  Using evolutionary psychology (along with many other methodologies and points of view), Haidt explains that for most of humanity's history we have had to evaluate threats or benefits in our surroundings very quickly, so most of the time we go with our guts.  Sometimes this is literal.  Experiments have shown that when we are asked by a clever  graduate student to take a brief questionnaire that asks us to respond to stories with moral dilemmas, we will make a much harsher judgements if we belong to the half of the subjects who stood next to a trash can in which "fart spray" had been released.  In an attempt to measure the way our feelings colour our judgments that was a little less sensational, experimenters showed subjects pairs of words like flower-happiness, hate--sunshine, love--cancer, cockroach--lonely.  Subjects saw the first word for about a quarter of a second before the second word appeared.  Our task was to say whether the pairing was "good" or "bad."   The first word essentially primed us, so that we turned our elephant in a particular direction.  In the case where the second word had the same valence, we responded very quickly.  When the second word changed our affective response, it took us longer to make decisions.  Our elephants are easily led by fart spray (or our olfactory responses of disgust) or by the affective charge we prepare in a quarter-second glimpse of a single word. 

Insofar as "reason" takes part in these decisions, it is largely put to work defending and justifying the affective reasons for our elephant's decisions. But there are three main ways that the rational rider can gain control.  The least used is reflection:  sitting down with ourselves with the express purpose of examining our beliefs and seeking evidence both for and against their effectiveness, their accuracy, their rightness. The second way the elephant's path can be influenced by riders is through the questions and challenges of friends for whom we have affection and respect.  The third is through subtle social pressures at large in our culture.  While few of us undertake the route of self-examination very often, most of us are influenced by the wider culture in ways we're not really conscious of.  It's those passionate conversations with friends (and perhaps even with books or art, if we also consider them our friends) that have the most meaningful effects on the growth (or stagnation) of our belief systems.

Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in behavioural economics, has essentially spent his life studying the elephant. Among his many accomplishments, detailed in Thinking, Fast and Slow, has been the elucidation of heuristics--procedures or habits that help us identify simple, seemingly adequate but often imperfect answers to difficult questions.  The first heuristic that he names is substitution.  Faced with a difficult question we can't answer except with quite a lot of time and more information than we have at our fingertips, we often substitute an easier question.  For example, faced with the question "How much would you contribute to save an endangered species?" the intuitive elephant instead asks our lazy brain "How much emotion do I feel when I think of dying dolphins?"  If circumstances in our lives confront us with the question "How happy are you with your life these days?" and you are in the car driving four kids to soccer practice rather than taking a long solitary walk, you are more likely to ask "What is my mood right now?" 

I'll admit that I haven't finished Kahneman's book, which is much dryer than Haidt's, but which also seems to crucial to a society that wants to make better public policy decisions.  (I will finish it, I promise.)  But the heuristic that grabbed my attention is called the "availability heuristic."  Using this heuristic, we judge the frequency with which an event will occur by the ease with which our lazy minds deliver up examples.  If, like me, you can't resist reading the headlines on the celebrity magazines and the tabloids while you wait to buy your groceries (even to mock them), you probably think that the divorce rate and the amount of sexual scandal is higher among politicians and celebrities than it is in the general public.  News coverage of plane crashes might make you fear flying, even if you know are safer in a plane.  Reports of car crashes in Saskatchewan during the slow news month of August make you wonder about the safety of driving on your holiday.  Between these two fears, plus the uncertain economy, you decide to have a staycation.

For a whole range of improbable reasons ranging from visits to family and riding the elliptical bike at odd hours, I've been watching an unusually large amount of (non CBC) news.  One night, chained to the elliptical for another twenty minutes, I witnessed horror story after horror story.  Hands and heads found in Toronto.  Burst pipelines.  Automobile accidents.  Strange diseases.  I realized that the news media, purposefully or not, was creating an availability heuristic whose main automatic conclusion was "This is a scary time."  Stories about car crashes and bizarre murders actually have political implications, as Haidt points out.  When we are fearful, we tend to vote small c conservative, regardless of the particularities of their platform of the day.  We just think that people with conservative tendencies are the ones who will stop all this craziness.

The availability heuristic can also snowball into an availability cascade.  If a relatively minor event is over-reported, it can lead to public panic which becomes the story itself.  Think of how many times a "news report" consists of sticking a microphone in the face of a bystander and asking them how they feel.  As a result of the media's exaggeration of danger, politicians can feel bound to address the issue with multiple, expensive  inquiries and with funds.  We might become fearful, for example, after two gory stories on murders that involve decapitated bodies.  This might prompt us, especially now that the days are getting shorter and the sun sets earlier, to give up our evening run when we can't get out on the street before dusk.  But the availability cascade has prompted us to reset our priorities in a way that isn't good for us.  We're more likely to die of heart disease because we've given up exercise than we are to be murdered.  We're seeing some of this heuristic affecting the lives of our children.  Because parents are worried about their children playing outside without adult supervision, but feel that they're safe if they're indoors attached to a computer or a TV, we're seeing more and more obesity in our kids.  We're also seeing much more nature deficit disorder--an inability to concentrate that comes from childrens' lack of time in an environment that asks for or invites their engagement rather than demanding it.

Here's my hypothetical availability cascade.  First let me say that Kahneman admits that the science on availability cascades is relatively new and still open to debate.  We aren't sure, for example, whether "experts" make more informed decisions than citizens.  Nevertheless, I don't think my concerns are entirely silly.  In a blog post written in January of 2011, after John Allemang reported that more people had died in 2010 of "weather events" than had died of terrorist attacked since the late sixties, I wondered why we were putting so much more money into airport security and so little into finding ways of reducing the level of CO2 we spew into the air.  The availability cascade might explain our decision. Terrorism is always a big story, particularly after September 11.  While I don't mean to belittle the lives of those people who died that day, or to mitigate the horror we all felt, I wonder if we've made some policy decisions based on the perception of threat rather than on the likelihood of it.  In Canada, we're used to crazy weather events, and to complicate the issue honest scientists remind us that while we can't blame a particular event on climate change, we can infer that the rise in the number of floods, droughts, tornadoes, and hurricanes is caused by global warming.  Yet we continue to take minimal steps, largely because our government argues that doing so will harm the economy.  The weather isn't already harming the economy????

On our return from a visit to Bill's family in Calgary, in a very grotty restroom in Swift Current, my mother's voice began to repeat all the things she said in the fifties about the diseases you could get in dirty bathrooms.  And then tumbled out all the warnings and fears of the time:  the atomic bomb safety drills we spent huddled under our desks, the TV programs that explained how to build and provision your bomb shelter, the warnings about crowds and polio, the less articulated fears about dirty old men.  And suddenly I realize that the fifties and early sixties were times of fear. We feared the Soviet Union as much as we feared McCarthy's HUAC hearings, and writers like Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible about our fears.

Over the next couple of days, I attempted a kind of "fear index," thinking through the last sixty decades and trying to see whether fear was in the ascendant.  Historians would be horrified, particularly since I was lazily thinking in decades.  And of course the availability heuristic played an important role.  What I had seen and thought and witnessed was, in all probability, not reflective of the zeitgeist.  Nevertheless, I could see moments when we were less fearful, sometimes wisely, sometimes stupidly.  Anger and irrational joy seemed to infuse the sixties and seventies--sometimes, as in Beatles' songs--in the same moment.  We got excited again when the Berlin Wall came down, and  perhaps celebrated prematurely when the Soviet Union disintegrated.  The nineties brought an economic reality check, but not as brutal as the one we are now coping with.

Because there's no doubt about it:  we are in a fearful time.  The economy, unless you live in China, is in tatters world-wide, our generation having over-extended its credit.  We are embroiled in a guerrilla conflict that bursts out now here, now there, with Muslim attitudes and ways of life--neither of which we understand adequately.  (In turn, Muslims are horrified, I suspect, by post-modern life and are desperately trying to turn back the clock.)  We are enthusiastically adopting a whole host of technologies without any clear sense of how they are going to influence our social practices and social institutions.  But the media is, particularly during the slow news month of August, exploiting our anxiety and grabbing our attention by offering us a vision of a frightening, threatening world where danger looms and disaster is impending.

What we need to recognize is that playing to our fears disempowers us.  Rather than being given information that allows us to make informed decisions, the evening news is prompting us to huddle in our caves in front of a smoky fire.

And then, on the other hand, citizens are joining together to gather the signatures necessary to force a referendum on a new stadium for Regina.  The Occupy Movement, regardless of where it is manifested now--perhaps in Quebec over tuition or in Regina over a stadium and affordable housing, has inspired us to find ways of showing that we are committed to democracy.  (Do we think the local nightly news would offer a Friday night tally of the number of signature we've attained so far?)  My friend Katherine and her various crews have a garden at the university that will provide fresh food for Carmichael Outreach and are busy picking fruit off trees in Regina to preserve or donate to the Food Bank.  Good things happen.  Good people go on making good things happen.  And no historical period, in spite of my attempt at a fear index, is uniform.  But fear is a far less effective rallying cry than the hope that leads to creativity, innovation, and justice.  Guess I'll have to quit watching the news.  And you're welcome to stop by my office next week to sign the referendum petition.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

How do we ever manage to tell our own stories: Virginia Woolf's The Waves

Since the death of my mother, I feel as if I have a different relationship to my past.  It is as if not having parents to worry about and not having their difficult, ambivalent relationship to puzzle over has broken some log-jam of memory.  So that in unexpected moments of my days, memories drop like ripe fruit from a tree when there is no set harvest season, in their own time and rhythm.  Sometimes when a day has been full of these moments, I write lists in my diary.  They might read something like this:
Prom dresses.  Draped apricot chiffon with covered buttons.  The green metallic one I made myself and beaded around the neck.  The way the metallic seams felt against my skin.
My sleepovers with Cherie Van Oostendorp.  Some time before tenth grade?
My mother and father dancing in their kitchen in Florida--the only smooth floor in their house.
My Dr. Kildare shirt and the disastrous perm my mother gave me for school pictures.

How do we ever make stories of such moments?  Or, if Robertson Davies sent a recording angel to us on our deathbeds and we were forced to utter a memoir or autobiography (subtly different genres, those), how would we find in the long, causal narrative sweep of our lives the space for those moments that drop into consciousness with such physical and emotional presence?  Narrative logic, whether of the memoir or the autobiography, requires movement through time, yet these memories seem to exist in their own timelessness, as if contained in a blown glass ball you hang in your window to catch the sunlight.  How is it that "experience" is not the same as "narrative"?  Narrative has its causes and its effects.  I could certainly tell the recording angel the story of my divorce or of my relationship with Bill.  But how, in that context, could I convey the fact that for some of the most important moments of my mind there has been no one, though a cat probably lurked around the edges.  The winter morning when, driving to work, I saw the geese on Wascana Lake, all their heads tucked under their wings, so that they looked like stones floating on water.  Listening to Faure's Requiem after my father's death, my own private funeral service sung to the music he loved, containing all the ambivalence I felt about him in a musical whole.

Virginia Woolf's The Waves is making me ask these questions.  It is Woolf's most abstract, avant-garde, and difficult work, one you must read over and over if you want to get past the poetry of experience and understand the characters and Woolf's purpose.  Six characters recite soliloquies, rarely speaking to one another, that record their experience in the chronological order of grade school, boarding school or finishing school, university or (for the women) the quest for a partner.  Insofar as there is any causality (As in "gentleman A had an automobile accident and so met lady B"), it is that of the characters' relationships to the world as it is shaped by their characters.  Tying all this together is a series of prose poems that describe, first, the pre-dawn light, then the sun's appearance, noon, late afternoon, dusk; each of these appropriately accompanies the parallel phase in the characters' lives.  Sometimes, when Woolf is describing the sextet's days at school, for example, each phase of that experience is assigned to a different character.  Bernard tells us about leaving home to go to school, Neville tells us about the train trip, Susan records her last day at school ever, so it is almost as if the novel is a biography of a generation.  And since Woolf had just written Orlando, biography was very much on her mind.   There is one character, Percival, who never speaks, and who is conventional, labelled a "hero," the fellow who goes off to colonial India and dies when his horse trips.  If any of the characters comes close to being a conventional hero, it's certainly Percival, but he's merely glimpsed by the other characters. 

I've come to see this novel as an inside-out, upside-down Bildungsroman, a novel where one character's ironized heroism and bald narrative was played out against the dense, intense experience (not narrative) of characters who, unlike the Bildungsheld, (which is a fancy German word for the hero of a novel of development) don't feel falsely confident and sure about their role in the world, but rather who are outsiders, characters who are making themselves up on a daily basis, just like you and I do.  So I was delighted to learn, as I rootled around in the library, that the Bildungsroman went fairly ironic in the early part of the twentieth century.  (Think Ulysses.) Whew!  I've got a theory and it seems, as I re-read the novel, to hold water.  Also, the modernist Bildungsroman went back to its classical, eighteenth-century roots, so that the bildungsheld's aesthetic education was more important than the social conformity that would allow him to return, comfortably and profitably, to his community.  So through exploring the treatment of Bernard, the failed artist, I will be able to tie form and aesthetics together again, as I have been doing in the previous chapters.

But Woolf makes it so hard for the reader.  Only the most dogged of readers take notes on each of the characters' foibles and perspectives can read this novel with any small amount of satisfaction.  And if I'm writing about Woolf's use of form, that's a question I have to ask:  Why does she make it so hard?

Perhaps, I have thought, as my own memories fall through the boughs of apple and plum trees, as a moment in a current relationship will trigger a memory--plus all the layers of affect, from a time twenty years ago--straightforward narrative is only one way to tell who we are.  Better, perhaps, a handful of poems (which was what I did with the geese), the ashes of one's cats, a worn sweater that captures exactly the way you put your left elbow on the table to rest your cheek, a letter to your daughter or son.  How, though, do you capture a kiss?