Friday, February 28, 2014

Being and Doing

“To be is to do - Socrates

To do is to be - Sartre

Do Be Do Be Do - Sinatra”

I thought that this was an old undergraduate joke, but "Quote Investigator" tells me that this little trio has a long history.  It was first seen in Texas in 1968, on the warehouse wall of Bud's Tool Cribs, the first line put there by Bud himself, the second added by a salesman travelling through. No one quite knows who added the Sinatra reference. There, the first two lines were initially attributed to Lao Tzu and Dale Carnegie. Then a syndicated series called "Weekend Chuckles" gave the trio of quotations wide distribution. That's when things began to morph. The words would be written on a wall somewhere, slightly changed, or included in the Boston Globe or London Times, who reported seeing the words on a lavatory wall in Cambridge.  All kinds of philosophers were given credit for the thoughts--Kant, Hegel, Camus, Aristotle--credit which rarely accorded with their thought, until Socrates was added as the source of the first and then Sartre of the second, in Kurt Vonnegut's 1982 story, "Deadeye Dick."  Sinatra's lines, from "Strangers in the Night" has been a constant, added by someone unknown moving through Bud's warehouse in Richardson, Texas. Clearly we're fascinated by the relationship between being and doing.

An early meme?  Certainly, like Dawson's 1976 concept of the meme, it mutates and spreads.  What sent these words wandering through my mind as I sat on the stairs with Sheba purring in my lap(stairs are the only places she finds comfortable these days--something I'm very worried about), is that for me being and doing seem not to be connected--being leading to doing, or doing to being--but profoundly at odds with one another.  Still contemplating being and doing, still sitting on the stairs, some second-wave feminists showed up, particularly Sixties British thinker Juliet Mitchell,  one of the first feminists who identified doing and making and agency with masculinity, being and passivity with femininity.  For feminists, this binary way of thinking about gender is highly problematic, and following the spread of these ideas, women began moving into the "doing" parts of culture.

In 2014, we're a very "doing" culture.  This shows up most grotesquely in the fact that our cultural heroes are businessmen who put in long, long hours--even though doing so is ineffective when it isn't positively damaging.  It's our Protestant Work Ethic write large and prompting us to admire something that's basically dysfunctional.  It shows up on a smaller scale in our relationship with our smart phones.  Studies of young people whose lives are drenched and inundated with technology have shown that they lack empathy, something we learn and wire in our brains mostly when we are reading or day-dreaming--not when we're reading status updates. A "like" doesn't really require empathy.  On the other hand, empathy requires the time to daydream and reflect.

I've found myself trying to discover the difference between being and doing.  I don't think they're two separate boxes; I suspect they are a continuum. Trying to sort this out, I found only questions.  Why can preparing a class be "being" if you have enough time and find the work you're thinking about engaging, but the same task without enough time is distinctly a matter of "doing"?  Why is writing my blog a matter of "being," while writing comments at the end of a marked essay certainly a matter of "doing"?  Why is marking papers almost always "doing," whereas making dinner or a sock or a quilt is definitely "being"?  I began to get glimmers of answers. There is always a deadline for marking papers.  As well, if I'm going to judge someone else's thoughts, I'd better do this very carefully--something that works against the deadline. When you make a quilt or a meal, though, there are pleasant, rich, sensuous way-stations along the way:  the colours and geometry of cloth, the smell of fresh ingredients or of spices you've just added to your Moroccan chicken.  And there is pleasure and friendliness at the end, in the meal, in the beautiful drape of a quilt.  There's something distinctly utilitarian about "doing" and something inherently sensual and pleasurable about "being." Doing" involves getting something done (often to a deadline), whereas "being" emphasizes the pleasure of each step of the process.  

Oddly enough, Sheba's ill health has been a boon for the "being" part of my life, though I've had to do most of my thinking sitting on stairs with both arms around a little cat whose paws have stretched up on either side of my neck. I'm stiff but loved.  While I'm worried that we can't quite diagnose what's wrong and sick about the way she lurks on stair or won't curl up in my lap when I sit on the sofa, her behaviour has challenged my sense of what's really important. This is going to be another very "doing" weekend:  I have two batches of papers to mark and a novel to read.  But I'll know enough to take "being" breaks on the stairs with Sheba. 


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mindfulness and Doing More with Less

I know I am in trouble when Time Magazine offers me an antidote to my mood.  Standing in line in the grocery store on Saturday, I picked up an issue of Time whose lead article was about the mindfulness movement.  According to the writer, who opens her essay with a description of her careful, mindful exploration of a raisin getting stickier with each mindful, meditative moment, we do too many things at once and our attention to the world suffers.

We know that universities across the continent are struggling financially; we also know that one of their biggest expenses is salaries. Hence it's not difficult to conclude that one of the way universities are dealing with their financial difficulties is by not hiring replacements when people retire.  The obvious result of those decisions (or non-decisions in some cases--all too often the administration is simply letting this happen, which means that older faculties like Science and Arts take more of a hit than the younger "professional" faculties) is that there will be less variety of classes offered and that those classes will probably be larger. A perhaps unintended consequence is that all of the things the academy does to run and regulate itself are done by fewer and fewer people.  

I'm senior faculty; I have seven more weeks (and a bit for marking and a single exam) left of the term, so it's my job to do what I can.  When I told my department head to put me where he needed me (we have four people on well-deserved sabbaticals), he took me seriously.  Hence I am teaching two new classes this term. When  no one from the humanities volunteered for the Faculty of Arts Performance Review Committee, I stepped up.  I'm on the English Department's Advisory Committee, so I also read all the files that will ultimately go forward to the Faculty's Review.  As well, I'm Graduate Chair, and spent nearly a week of "spare time" reading eleven applications to our M.A. program from Nigeria and China, as well as from Ontario and Saskatchewan. 

Reading files:  it's not as awful as it sounds.  In both the English Department and the Faculty of Arts, reading files is often inspiring.   I need perhaps to say that again:  it's inspiring to see your colleagues being reflective about their teaching, to see them considering ways of framing their discipline that will catch students' imaginations, to see the fruits of their scholarship, to know that they have fresh new insights into the world we struggle every day to make and remake.  Reading student files, particularly from abroad, is certainly challenging.  We sometimes don't know what to make of student transcripts; just as often we are surprised by the classes students in Nigeria and China take--on cultural traditions and peaceful social transformation. Ultimately, we need to create a past narrative that might predict the future.  I can imagine the life of a student studying in Ontario; I have no idea about the life of a student studying in Saudi Arabia.  It takes time and a certain kind of mindfulness. 

As usual, it's not the work I need to do that is the problem; it is the time I have to do it in. The two new classes alone are more than a full time job. Let it also be said: I'm not an automaton.  If I don't have some down time to simply be, to have conversations with friends, cuddle with a cat, knit some complicated lace, start a new quilt, I lose my sense of self. I'm not sure I teach particularly well when I walk into a classroom with no reserves, with a dwindled sense of self.  I am not my job.  I don't think that any professor who is just their job can do the important work of reaching beyond the text or the discipline that is in front of us to make those crucial connections between the academy and the world beyond.  These aren't something we plan:  they come out of our mindful, imaginative engagement with the faces in front of us, our sense of who our students are and how they view their world.  We know a "teachable moment" when we see one, but only if we're not on automatic pilot.

When people asked me what I wanted to do with "Reading Week," I said "Walk, play lots,and think deeply."  We might laugh at Kate Pickert's exploration of the raisin in the palm of her hand, but that's what I mean to do. I am starting a new quilt; the wonderful thing about any craft is that it requires a mindfulness that is half zen and half intensely engaged. You can't do things by rote, though their familiarity creates a kind of zone in which you move comfortably.  I need to finish my conference paper on Woolf's early use of experimental form for the "1914:  A Turning Point in History and Culture" lecture series at the University. I'm reading Pierre Bourdieu's The Rules of Art, which hasn't netted any profound moments yet, but I'm willing to hang in with his critique of nineteenth-century French art and all the wondrous and venial institutions that supported it so that I have a context for what he says about the making of art.  I'm nearly done with Molly Peacock's splendid The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life's Work at 72--an irresistible title for someone on the eve of retirement.   Next comes Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, a real door-stopper that clocks in at nearly 800 pages.

Even this soon, I can see something that I'd lost sight of among the piles of files and paperwork and meetings:  it's the University's job to teach mindfulness. What we really try to do, particularly in the Faculty of Arts, is to offer students myriad ways of being mindful, being attentive to their world. We teach them to see things that have been invisible, like ideology. We teach them to reframe and reconsider what is all too visible:  inequality, unkindness, lack of empathy and compassion.  We teach the mindfulness required to read a poem or watch a film or to unravel the threads of cause and effect that lead to homelessness or despair We teach them ways first to observe carefully and then to create the world they want that isn't here yet.

Monday, February 10, 2014


In my creative writing class, we are using Jack Hodgins' lucid and helpful book on fiction.  We began, appropriately, with words and sentences, moved on to setting (after all, fiction first needs a world) and then last week looked at what he had to say about character.  At the very least he says good, interesting characters need to be coherent or consistent, they need to have motivation, and they need to be plausible.

Yes, but.

In my CanLit class, we have just finished reading Dennis Bock's first novel, The Ash Garden.  One of the main characters, Anton Boll, is a man who left Germany to work on the atomic bomb in the United States. Bock's fictional character seems to play a small but crucial role in getting the whole thing working and deliverable.  He's not the big brains, but he's important.  Boll goes to Japan with the Manhattan District (the military section of the Manhattan Project) about four weeks after the bomb is dropped and sees the very personal and horrific scars radiation leaves on survivors.  (Bock implicitly makes us realize that the experiments in the middle of the desert never involved human subjects, so we didn't know what the bomb would do to the survivors in Hiroshima.) This traumatic experience leaves Boll with a galloping case of cognitive dissonance.  Part of him believes, as did many Americans, that dropping the bomb was the best course against a country dedicated to "total war," and that it probably saved lives in the long run.  (I'm not sure about this argument, and I will always wonder if we would have dropped an experimental weapon on Europeans rather than the Japanese.  The notion of the Japanese as "other" may well have contributed to our mis-understanding of the way "total war" might have played out.) But Boll also has a personal investment in the bomb.  He knows that his work with the Manhattan Project will cement his legacy as a physicist.  Add to this the guilt he feels about the wounds he sees, and you have a characters whose motivation is powerfully inconsistent.   It seems to me, pace dear Jack Hodgins that sometimes we are moved by a character's inconsistencies--inconsistencies so like our own beliefs that we're about to be a hero or a heroine in someone's narrative, hopefully our own, and that we're really worthless, stupid, lazy, completely lacking in wisdom or perspective.

My students did a much better job of querying Hodgins' notion that characters should be plausible, since they read much more genre fiction than I do and thus know that the character's plausibility depends on the world the character lives in.  I was thinking of magic realism and the plausibility of Isabel Allende's or Gabriel Garcia Marquez's characters:  I don't think plausibility is their greatest strength.  Rather, the magic of these writers' works is to pull us into worlds where the contract is entirely different.  We have to figure out the new rules--a great exercise for people who move unthinkingly in and around the rules of their own cultures.

Motivated I can run with.  In Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter argues that characters who are victims aren't very interesting.  Hodgins himself notes that characters have to want something and to be frustrated in their efforts to get it.  Characters need to want to change something, to make a difference, to grow and change themselves.  They have to want.  That, after all, is one of literature's--one of art's wild cards:  what does unpredictable and incomprehensible human desire look like?  Baxter also suggests that we can get interesting characters when we witness them making an inadvertent mistake that they then need to take responsibility for.  Baxter wonders "What's an unwitting action? It's what we do when we have to act so quickly or under so much pressure that we can't stop to take thought.  It's not the same as an urge, which may well have a brooding and inscrutable quality.  For some reason, such moments of unwitting action in life and in fiction feel enormously charged with energy and meaning.  It's difficult for fictional characters to acknowledge their mistakes, because they then become definitive.  They are the person who did that thing.  The only people who like to see characters performing such actions are readers.  They love to see characters getting themselves into interesting trouble and defining themselves" (Burning Down the House, 14).

Running alongside my thoughts about character was an inexplicable desire to find myself an old deck of cards and play a few games of solitaire.  I needed to do something completely useless, to rebelliously waste time.  I never did dig up that old deck of cards (a new deck is too hard to shuffle), but that goofy desire did help me think about character. In the best post-structuralist tradition, I have long realized that subjectivity was always "in crisis and in process."  We're not people; we're people in the making and we're often pulled in two directions. These are easiest to see using feminist theory. Perhaps while we consciously buy ourselves a pair of red Converse sneakers (something I plan to do when I retire) and wear boyfriend jeans, we're also unconsciously thinking about whether we live up to the model of femininity that culture is advocating in the media, femininity with an up-do and diamonds and stiletto heals.  As if there's only one.  That would be too easy. We'd be able to follow the pattern and get on with life.  But there are always so many that we have to choose and experience cognitive dissonance.  So I've long thought of personality or subjectivity as a gem with many facets.  These connect but they're not identical.  My yearning for solitaire inspired yet another model.  Perhaps we're dealt a metaphoric hand--or dealt part of a hand and accrue the other part. The hand is a whole, but its parts may take us off in unpredictable directions.

This term my reading schedule has been relentless:  finish one Canadian novel and start the next one.  But the upcoming break has already created a bit of a hiatus in my reading.  So I've begun Molly Peacock's wonderful work of creative nonfiction, The Paper Garden:  Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72.  Mrs. Delany, friend of Handel and Swift, began making floral collages in her seventies.  Her damask rose, Peacock tells us, consists of 71 pieces carefully layered on to create the depth of the rose.  And while the rose has an inner coherence, there are--as in most flowers--stamens and pistils, male and female organs.  The creative part of Peacock's nonfiction is to pair a collage with a phase of Mrs. Delany's life and to consider how the details of the collage's construction might illuminate an earlier period of her life.  It's that odd and interrogative reading of the flowers that suggested Mrs. Delaney's mosaiks were another wonderful metaphor for character:  layered, contradictory yet complementary, whole but with easily identifiable parts. And contrasts--a sliver of deep red demarcating the creamy pink petals at the centre.  I can imagine at the very same moment the notioin that consistency might be profoundly comforting and restful--and boring.  Would it mean that I couldn't walk into my CanLit class tomorrow as both a teacher and a student? I'm not giving that up for a little consistency.