Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Embracing technology

Good reads is a site I joined back in 2007 on the recommendation of a friend. Five years ago I felt it might be another internet time waster, but as the years have gone by, I have found myself unable to regulate or account for my reading.

I'm starting to think that perhaps listing what I have actually read, and what I want to, mean, absolutely ought to read, might be an excellent idea.

It's all part of my concerted attempt to embrace the web. Unfascinating for those of us who realized we were riding a revolution as big as Gutenberg quite some time ago. But perhaps some will sympathize.

I have an iphone, and now, hot on its heels, an ipad. My world has inverted. I am always where the information I need is. I can pull the universe to me.

My time management has changed on a dime: something I learnt to do while in a recent research job with very tight deadlines was to use an online calendar to plot my every action. I loathed doing this at the time and felt as if I was going mad in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy in which I might need to schedule going to the toilet.

Yet I did come to accept that it helped me be more realistic about what I could actually do in a day. As opposed to what I expected of myself, wanted to do, hoped to achieve, combined with all the frankly fictional achievements I fully intended to get done at some point in the next few years, and might tackle today.

The tenses I learnt to use while in this job were reduced (painfully) to the present, rather than the imperfect, perfect, future and conditional.

An online calendar, I learnt to see, was sufficiently separate from my physical self to function like a mirror. Screen-based tools will do this. It reflected back to me how much I attempt to distort time in order to bend it to my will, and how ineffectual and Cnut-like this behaviour is.

So I now have a tool to read my texts and emails anywhere I am, to make calls and take photos wherever I happen to be, to make notes on all the distinct areas my maternalized life is chopped up into, without losing little bits of paper... I can review a book without taking a massive laptop to the library... I can move between appointments and to do lists without getting them muddled up...

I can separate out and bring together the different fanfolds of my life with a mechanical tool, rather than try to do that work inside my head. I no longer try to stuff time, like piping cream into profiteroles. Instead I am learning to break down time into minute portions. I am learning to exercise temporal portion control.

It is a wilful simplification, ultimately a narcissistic one, but it is also a clarificatory one. I spent my early adult life training my neuronal pathways to make lateral connections all over the place, and all over time (and thus made my life much more complicated than it needed to be). The binary, linear efficiency of my online calendar literally rules out some of these connections. It helps me park them, so that I can ruefully remind myself that clothes must be ironed, food hoiked out of freezer, hair cut, and bills paid today.

This in turn is helping me see that I never prioritize what I really really want. I keep that in a sacred place, never to be touched. Liking writing the books in my head.

My reading, like my writing, was kept in a sacred space that I only organized if it was for a curriculum, a reading list for students. 'Reading' was only to be unpicked in the service of supporting others, never myself.

In setting myself a 'reading challenge' through the Good Reads site this year, a little bit like training for the 5km run I'm going to do with my daughter this summer, I can (albeit with a shot of irony) regulate my reading habits a little more. I can enable myself to notice what I have read, when, and what I thought of it. Let's face it, this way of working might have helped me a lot as a lecturer in French literature....

So, in 2012, here and now, I am starting to tear down (or at least look into) some of my 'sacred spaces', because I am starting to accept that as you get older, do more stuff, bed down the compost of experience, things actually do start to disintegrate, mush down, and might need a little dusting and tidying up.

At first, as a young adult, aggregation and synthesis — mushing — is very important, because it's a vital outcome of learning to be able to move rapidly between what you are absorbing, and your capacity to interpret and act on it.

Later in life, though, compartmentalization, however inimical it seems to the creative mind at the outset, is actually a good way of archiving what's been done so that you can return to it.

So that it does not weigh you down.

So that you can move between the particular and the general without doing the sum on your fingers each time.

Compartmentalization, like multiplication tables, signifies big adding and good storage, a rule-bound kingdom, not the breaking of connections I used to think it was.

Compartmentalization, ironically, preserves connections in a different sign system, and can, if it's done effectively, enable dynamic granularity in your thinking: if you compartmentalize well, you can retrieve data at the atomic level and see how it connects to data at the universal level — without being overwhelmed. You can see the links between the big and the small in wonder, rather than in panic.

When I set out on writing a book about indifference, one way I thought of starting was by creating a database of all the references to indifference and its cognates in A la recherche du temps perdu.

I fell at the first hurdle: nothing in my training had prepared me to construct such a big database (there are thousands of references to 'indifférence' in Proust — in fact one of his short stories is called L'Indifférent).

I say 'nothing in my training': I had the excessively painful memory of trying to construct a database of all the digressions in A la recherche, to show a kind of typology of evasion. I nearly died in the attempt. Or at least fell into a swingeing depression for a year.

This memory was traumatic enough to stop me in my tracks when it came to another database of references. All this happened back in 1998, and in the intervening (ahem) fourteen years (I had two babies! I lived in Australia! I wrote my phd on self-justification!), the mere thought of thinking about that database was enough to prevent me getting any further on it.

But having worked for an online organization, which relied on Excel for its data analysis, I am creaking into understanding that humanities thinking based on linguistic meaning-making sign systems is not absolutely other to thinking based on numerical sign systems and operations.

Both are systems for enabling representation and interpretation. There are links between qualitative and quantitative thinking. It is possible to use quant data in a qual way. But you have to work really hard to do it, and it is true that a lot of so-called data analysis is simply data reproduction, without any genuine analysis, or reading.

I recently downloaded a free trial of Scrivener, which is supposed to revolutionize my archiving and organizing systems when writing a sustained project like a book. This is something I'm scared of, but also want and need, if I'm to try to write the book on parenting I have been carrying in my head like a gestating baby for the last 3 years.

'Scared', I see, is just a readjustment of 'sacred'. What I hold sacred is often also a place I am scared to look at too closely, for fear I will not be able to control what I find there....

Saturday, 18 February 2012

On female loneliness II

I posted this week about female loneliness, and had a few comments which made me reread what I had written in quite a new light.

What I had intended to talk about was the sadness of losing intimacy with one's friends, as one embarks on adventures like families or big jobs. And I was making the (feminist) point that for women this is a significant loss because their intimate relationships are such a major support, especially in their youth.

But this can then be read as "I don't get enough from my husband". At this moment, my husband is snoring gently, and I am typing away like a mad egret. Go figure. However, in general, husband is a jolly good conversationalist, and banter is high quality (when it isn't about mending the shower hose).

I suppose I WAS saying that part of the marital game seems to be a battening down of hatches, an avoidance of betrayal of the better half which I find laudable in many ways, but troubling in others.

I wouldn't want to live in a world in which I had to play the Stepford Wife everywhere: a good rant about one's beloved is vital, from time to time. I insist. But because there is such focus these days on supporting our kids to behave better, it ends up invading every part of my moral life: I feel unable to let rip to a friend, having just told a 5 year old it is unacceptable to have a tantrum. Plus these days I tend just to rant AT my beloved. After all, now that he's witnessed me giving birth, twice, it no longer seems feasible to hide my inner feral.

No one person could ever be sufficient to fulfil every emotional need. I am not enough in that sense for my husband: he has good friends he needs to talk to. And he does so with my blessing.

No, I'm talking about losing the kind of chat you can only have with a sympathetic friend, the warts-and-all examination of your deepest feelings, without fear of judgment or gossip. That's what goes. That's what there isn't time for. Because it takes time to really get to the heart of the matter with your friends. A whole meal, a bottle of wine, chit chat about the other stuff first, winnowing.

I love the friends I have made through my children's school — I love that shared experience, and the telegraphy above bobbing heads (although I also find it inordinately stressful to negotiate the playground, fielding dates, trailing letters, doling out snacks). But it is all too often just that: a snatched few seconds of rolling eyes, beginning a deep chat, and then the classroom door opening, or having to rush off to an appointment. It's the fragmentation in women's lives once they have kids that I loathe so much.

So I was trying to draw attention to different forms of loneliness that can beset women for very different reasons. I don't suffer these days from physical loneliness, indeed I absolutely crave time alone. But I do suffer from mental loneliness, because I am no longer with friends and colleagues from my former life, and do not have enough time to deepen the relationships with the lovely women I do now encounter.

What I miss is conversation.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

On female loneliness

When I was younger, the phone was a constant companion and source of solace, a lot like eating fistfuls of Lovehearts or Refreshers. I could dial any time of day or night, and willing friends would be at the other end, ready to drop what they were doing to listen to my many woes, empathize, give advice (which I would promptly ignore), and enjoy or endure the high drama of my inner life.

My phone bills were probably my biggest expense: I saw them as a painful necessity of life alone. Friendship was the highest state of being: to be connected with another who could understand me meant, literally, the world. I had a lot of friends — it's probably just as well, given what I'm describing.

My friends came from distinct groups, parts and times of my life. Sometimes different sets of friends co-existed. I was different people in each of these groups. Sometimes the groups strung out like a pasta necklace over time, knots of friends at different junctures. Some of these groups have faded to shroud-like thinness in my memory. Ties with them are gone. Other groups have shrunk to symbolic representatives, two or three people from an original band.

My friends were a massive compensation for the trials of the single girl, a protective defence I could summon when the adventure got too much. I can remember parties in France, when husbands came over to dance with me. Wives would glare at and shun me. I felt the opprobrium as though I were the guilty party, and saw myself as a vulnerable potential victim of patriarchy. Husbands had their wives, what were they doing preying on single women? What were their wives doing blaming me? What was I doing that made me a temptress? Being available.

Then I watched as my own friends married, and saw that they no longer told me of arguments, he said, she said, should I call him, he's such a bastard, what do I do. A wall of propriety came with marriage, it seemed, behind which women were to execute their dirty washing, and not reveal the workings of the machine. Apparently there was too much to lose. But I wondered, even then, whether what was at stake was not their individual marriage, but the state of marriage itself, the edifice, the institution.

Now I am married too, and I have gradually relinquished my former single girl tell-it-all-and-ask-for-succour behaviour. There are fewer moments when I simply have to pick up a phone and call a friend, because I have to tell someone how I am feeling.

Sadly I have accepted that I now have smaller phone bills. There is no time and no privacy for those long, long dissections of the soul with my girlfriends. And I must cope, I am not allowed, by social consensus, to show my feelings in public. I must find ways to manage, and I must not speak of it. The very fabric of society apparently depends on my dogged silence.

It is customary, among the smug married, to assume that single women must be lonely, vulnerable, wanting a relationship really. I find that I don't subscribe to this view at all. I count my single female friends among my closest. I think it is precisely because they are still able to function existentially. They are, and they wouldn't deny it, vulnerable, prey to other people's wandering husbands, and to their own fears, at times. But they have a very precious commodity: choice, true choice. Choice about when to take a holiday, what to eat, what to wear, when to swear, what to write, what to say to describe the death throes of a fiscally-fissured Europe, who to say it to.

I went out for supper with one of my best friends the other night. She is single, hugely successful as a writer, flying high. She goes out when she wants to. She reads and thinks freely. I was consumed by envy. I know that I cannot have these things because of the choices I have made, and that my only choice is to fight the blanketing gum of marriage, to sabotage its secondhand customs and conformities, to mine it for what is valuable and take the rest to the charity shops with the children's outgrown clothes and toys. It would be easy to comfort myself with another side of my friend's life, her night time anxieties. But this is not the truth.

The truth is that the female experience is, at the moment, still vulnerable to the socially-sanctioned choices that are available to women. If you choose to have children, a readymade world of conformity, and lethal punishment for non-conformity, awaits. Step into your future, ladies, it is all laid out for you, we know what it costs, and where to buy it. We also know what it will cost you, but that is the price you have elected to pay. If you choose not to have children, you are open to isolation, and self-doubt, as others inform you of what you are supposed to feel.

Across the supper table, both of us, I think, felt lonely.