The Things We Talk About When We Talk About TV

I have always been aware that Mr Litlove and I are opposites and generally this works out okay. We worry about different things, and can therefore count on one of us being sensible for the other in a crisis. Although our interests are wildly different, they both require space alone and time to indulge, and so we’re usually sympathetic to each other’s needs, particularly now we don’t have childcare to share out. But every so often, the deep-down difference in our natures makes itself felt to my surprise.

We were watching The Good Wife – the first season, as I’m on average six years behind the curve when it comes to television and films – and in this episode, the legal drama concerned a wife and a mistress who were wrangling over the body of the man they shared, as he was being kept alive on a life support machine after a motorbike crash. One wanted to turn the life support off, the other to keep it on. Thrown into the discussion was testimony from a doctor who’d witnessed a patient suddenly revived and healing after twenty years of comatose inaction.

So naturally, I expressed my feeling to Mr Litlove that I would never want to be maintained in a vegetable state. That if the lights go off, then that’s it for me and no regrets. A bad virus gave me thirteen years of chronic fatigue syndrome, and I can’t imagine what the payoff would be for twenty years in a coma. Not worth considering in any case.

‘So what about you?’ I asked.

Mr Litlove didn’t say anything; he just scanned the ceiling for a while with his eyes.

‘Oh my Lord,’ I said. ‘You want to be kept alive, don’t you?’

‘Well,’ said Mr Litlove, batting his eyelashes, ‘if I wasn’t being any trouble.’

‘I think you might be a little bit of trouble.’

‘Well,’ said Mr Litlove, still batting, still reasonable, ‘if I wasn’t in any pain.’

‘No pain, for sure. You’d be dead.’

I still can’t quite believe he’d want that, I mean, who would want to exist in a vacuum of thought and sensation, with no relationships, no creativity, no feelings to access? And then I thought of Mr Litlove on the weekend, and how he works his way through hours of seven-minute-long clips of The Graham Norton Show on youtube in order to be in exactly that insentient state… and I suppose it came a little clearer.

As for The Good Wife, I absolutely loved the first season, but having reached the end of the second just last night, my admiration is waning a teeny bit. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s essentially the story of Alicia Florrick, the wronged wife of a politician caught in a damaging sex scandal. Alicia has to return to work as a lawyer in order to support her two teenage children while Peter is in jail, but then he gets bail and comes home and wants to get back into politics. (I don’t understand the American system – he’s state attorney, which somehow seems to be political.) The question in the first season is whether Alicia can forgive him for what he’s done to them all. She’s remained loyal on the surface, partly out of the paralysis of shock, partly because she wants to do the right thing by her family. But you can see that forgiveness is almost beyond her. In this second season, it’s looked as if the marriage is healing, until we reach the end when a new revelation splits them up again.

The thing is, I understand the television series requires oodles more conflict in order to keep going. But the lovely purity of motivation that powered the first season seems to have gone. Now it looks as if Alicia never really forgave Peter, that she was always holding out for a good reason to leave him. She has no statute of limitations on past misdemeanours, and she seems to think that people are good or bad, with any fault or crime putting someone beyond the pale in her life. She’s also become very controlling, which sure, is a response to having been put out of control through no fault of her own, but it also speaks to the litigious nature of American legal practice, and it never works as a life strategy.

Anyway, I’ve watched two seasons in a row and it’s probably just time for a break. I need a new box set!

Stress, Creativity and Dancing Kittens

I didn’t mean to take a break from the blogworld – I was overtaken by events, a busy week which culminated in Mr Litlove coming home early from London one day (unheard of) and going straight to bed (even more unusual) with the flu, and he’s there still. Every time he speaks he coughs – well, it’s not so much a cough as the heaving bark of a walrus with a fifty-fags-a-day habit – so it’s been an exceptionally quiet weekend during which I seem to have been auditioning for the role of under-housemaid in the next series of Downton Abbey, endlessly up and down stairs with trays of food. I’m trying to view this positively, as my own little step workout which will have untold benefits to my thighs.

In the times when the bell to the master’s bedroom hasn’t been ringing, I’ve been reading some interesting books. All too appropriately, I was sent one called Stress Control by Susan Balfour, and whilst I’m still in the early stages of it, it seems to me a lot better so far than the average self-help guide as Balfour tries to go deeper and think harder about what causes stress and how we can tackle it. I was interested in the way she talks about holding onto both personal truths and received wisdom in times of trouble. We have to work hard to hang onto a mental equilibrium and soothe our minds, she argues, and I think that’s true. It really is hard work to prevent the mind rushing off into disaster scenarios, or disappearing down the wurmholes of self-pity, resentment or hopelessness. Whereas of course we do have a store of strengthening realisations that have usually been hard-won from other battles with fate. It’s impossible to say what mantra or truth or acknowledgement will work the trick as it’s such a personal thing. But Balfour suggests that such ‘truths need to be polished up and put on display in our lives…we must be proud of displaying our spiritual wealth.’ And that struck home with me as I know I am often indifferent in stressful situations to the wisdom I’ve gained elsewhere. Or perhaps not indifferent exactly, but too distracted to bother with it.

Naturally there are pieces of advice that also strike me as unhelpful, such as the suggestion that one way to rise above the muddle of an argument is to throw in some observation from outside it, for instance: ‘Just look at that beautiful sky’, which sounds to me like a good way to vex the other person beyond all reason. Balfour says this is effective with tantruming children, though in my experience a tantrum occurs when you go beyond the point of ordinary distraction being enough to divert escalating trouble. But what do I know? Maybe I’ll try it next time Mr Litlove has a coughing fit.

The mind in all its magnificent trickery was also centrestage in Christopher Bollas’s book, Cracking Up. Bollas is examining the constant freeflow of ideas, images and thoughts that race through the mind mostly unobserved. Like rush hour traffic, these mental elements congregate around experiences that have a particularly intense emotional resonance, though often they may be simple things, scarcely worth the charge they give us on first appearances. So for instance, Bollas describes one of these intense moments when, passing a record shop he notices an advertisement for Philip Glass’s opera, Akhenaten. He isn’t going to go in, but somehow finds that he does after all, his mind swimming in the memories of the evening when he saw the opera and all that happened then. At the same time, the mention of Akhenaten makes him think of his son who became interested in Egyptian history when he was about five, how the two of them talked about the school project he was working on, and this takes him on a chain of thought back to his own Greek ancestors and Bollas’s conflicted feelings about that part of the world. All sorts of lines of thought are generated by this chance encounter with the memory of a piece of music and when he has finally bought the record and carried on with his day he discovers in the library that he has momentarily misplaced his glasses. Of course he has: glasses, Philip Glass, the glass of the shop window, the slippery glass of the surface of his thoughts. He finds his glasses again.

We live in this soup of dynamic, ever-shifting mental elements that become dense and meaningful when we are brought into chance contact with vivid parts of the external world, and which then disperse in all directions, often simultaneously, as they spawn various emotionally-charged trains of thought. Bollas talks about ‘psychic bangs, which create small but complex universes of thought.’ This is effectively the work of free association that goes on all the time inside our minds; its effects are felt in how we react, experience and respond to everything around us, for every encounter is caught in a sticky web of associations. It’s impossible to experience in the moment – or at least the closest we come, I think, is when we are still ‘reading’ only the book is face down on our laps and we are staring into the middle distance – but parts of it can be reconstructed in retrospect. And because this is the source of all creativity, I think the more aware we are of the existence of these deep layers of thought, the more sensitive and creative we are as individuals.

Susan Balfour talks about how essential daydreaming is to keep our minds free and limber, and for Bollas, too, the freedom of the mind to pursue its endless avalanches of unexpected signification is an important part of mental health. I think this is also why the internet exerts such a power of fascination. When we begin with quite a respectable and justifiable reading of an online review of a book that looks interesting, which leads us on to author interviews in the Paris Review, and then the lyrics of a song we’ve been meaning to look up and then before we know what’s happening, we’re watching videos of synchronised dancing kittens, it’s like we’re just following the normal patterns of the mind, so normal that at some point the process becomes unconscious. Which is how you wake up, faintly alarmed, to find those kittens bobbing their heads to MC Hammer. The internet is just a vast externalised daydreaming mind. But ultimately it’s a time wasting distraction, the video equivalent of looking at the beautiful sky outside the window, because it’s not your own associations that are freewheeling in space, but the borrowed associations of other people.

Thinking about this brought me (via my own rhizomatic byways) to the conclusion that while freedom of mind and pleasure is a beneficial thing, stress plus a freewheeling mind often ends up in catastrophising. We’re back to that difficult place where it’s hard to prevent our thoughts from delivering us into dark alleyways where we’ll likely get beaten up. The mind needs strongholds, places of solidity which we can cling to while the turbulent stream of thought tugs at our legs. And maybe, the more as a culture we permit ourselves all sorts of freedoms, the less able we are, paradoxically, to make sensible calculations about the risks we run, the fears we suffer. Perhaps stress – in the moment we are experiencing it – is the place where we have to limit our creativity and value self-discipline instead.

Chronic Fatigue Gets A New Name

So, The New York Times reports that the Institute of Medicine has suggested a new name for chronic fatigue syndrome. The proposal is that it should be called ‘systemic exertion intolerance disease’, which is quite a mouthful. But maybe an almost-unsayable name is appropriate for an almost-intolerable illness. Basically, the name is designed to reflect a significant symptom of the condition: ‘a sustained depletion of energy after minimal activity, called postexertional malaise.’

I used to describe the experience of the illness as akin to having a leaky car battery. You could charge and charge that battery, but as soon as you started doing anything you could feel the energy draining away. Quicker than seemed possible you’d be reaching the point of exhaustion. Sleep makes no difference. So during term at the university, I’d be struggling by about the second week in, watching my symptoms come earlier every day in the third, and running dangerously on empty from the fifth onwards, knowing I was just going to feel sicker and sicker and trying to manage the panic about that.

The harder you try to push through the fatigue and the illness and keep going, the worse it will all be when you finally stop. In fact the worse it is day in day out. I always thought that if it was only tiredness I felt, that really wouldn’t be a problem. The difficult part is that you feel extremely ill. There’ll be symptoms – nausea, headaches, general aches and pains, sore throats, dizziness, all that sort of thing – but the hard part to deal with is a kind of essence of all illness. You lose control of your temperature, your heart rate, your blood pressure. All of these experiences are invisible. The habitual words do not convey the reality of the feelings. No one will understand.

When I finally came off work, the suggestion from medics was that I try ‘pacing’. I began with no more than one hour’s activity a day, and would stick to that for a week. If all went well, then the following week I could increase my activity by five minutes. And again if all went well, five minutes more the week after that, and so on and so forth. There would be relapses. I remember several years ago, Mr Litlove and I were on a beginners’ tango course. This was a big ask for me – three hour sessions every weekend. Towards the end it was becoming too much and I intended to miss a session. My mother-in-law, who had been visiting, couldn’t understand it – I didn’t want to miss out, did I? If I was tired the next day I could just sleep in. Of course healthy people think this way. For me, I knew that completing the session would mean three days or so in bed, followed by a long, slow, increase of activity afterwards. And it’s hard to enjoy things when you are aware how expensive they are going to be.

I still think of energy as money. Some activities are a lot more expensive than others – for me, socialising, travel and stress are the most costly (this differs from person to person). But everything costs a little – being excited about something is as energetically demanding as being anxious. Laughing takes energy. Engaging in an intellectual activity doesn’t come cheap. Television is more expensive than a book. I have an expensive personality – my normal demeanour is bright, cheerful, engaged. Even being myself was more than I could afford some days, and of course the sense of outrage and unacceptability is so overwhelming when you cannot even behave like your own self that you (I) tend to push through regardless, out of frustration and stubbornness, and build up a large debt that then takes forever to repay.

Doctors have long wanted to push for depression as a key part of chronic fatigue, but I think that’s putting the cart before the horses. It’s hard to stay positive sometimes when you have an illness that is like a punishment for living. And inevitably, the sort of mindset you need to get better – calculating all the time what amount of exertion you can afford, always playing it safe, shying away from anything demanding – affects your confidence over time. Doing something new, or something you haven’t done in a while, can be frightening when you have no idea how you will feel afterwards.

I write about chronic fatigue for two reasons. The first is to raise consciousness, because it is still such a misunderstood and stigmatised condition. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I’m motivated to find ways to express the reality of living with it. The second reason is that for a long time, I felt terribly ashamed of myself. I thought it was my fault. I didn’t want to confess to all the things I couldn’t do without severe consequences. I hated not being able to live like a normal person. But you know what? Denial is a very expensive habit, and I came to realise it was far better for me to accept the condition, to understand it was part of me, like it or not. And it still is a part of me. The past eighteen months have been a very stressful time for me and my family, and for most of it I kept up a reasonable level of activity. This was encouraging – I thought I was seeing the back of chronic fatigue. But then when things finally calmed down towards the middle of November, I felt the familiar old exhaustion. In December I caught every bug going, every time I tried to raise my level of activity even a little. I resigned myself to more of the same in January. This month, I’ve felt more like myself, but I have to calculate my energy every day and make decisions accordingly (hence minimal blogging for which I apologise).

But even the experiences that take the most away, do give something valuable back despite themselves. If there’s one thing this condition has taught me, it is the resilience of the human spirit. Since 1997 I’ve been on a wild cycle of ups and downs, but no matter how low I have been brought, I have always risen back to the surface. There has always been a return of energy, a renewal of appetite, an improvement in my overall wellbeing. And each time that happens, I have felt acutely, exquisitely, how precious life is. I live a very quiet, peaceful life, but living quietly and peacefully with much time for contemplation turns out to be something I cherish and for which I am profoundly grateful. Not many people have the luxurious time and space that I do for observation and for thought. The blessings only come from accepting the truth of the situation, and that can be hard with a condition that is so poorly understood. In the absence of a cure, perhaps a new name (however awkward!) will help the healthy and the sick understand what’s at stake, and deal with it better.

 

 

Dangerous Ambition

theblazingworldI’ve been wondering whether to ditch the idea of reviewing Siri Hustvedt’s novel, The Blazing World. Not because I didn’t enjoy it or admire it – I did both. But because it somehow seemed difficult to write about. Briefly, the novel concerns neglected artist, Harriet Burden, a woman of great ambition, great intelligence and fierce drive, whose work has been repeatedly overlooked and dismissed by the critics. It is structured as a posthumous collection of disparate writings by and about Burden that trace the development of her life and her last, desperate attempts to prove gender bias by creating three spectacular shows of work that are fronted by men, masquerading as the real artist. This isn’t some pc-driven whine: in the novel it’s noted how many actual women artists were blatantly sidelined, receiving no real recognition until their seventies (Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois) or their death (Eva Hesse, Joan Mitchell) or indeed not at all – like Lee Krasner who was only ever seen through the frame of her husband, Jackson Pollock. The art world does have a problem with women, preferring ‘their geniuses coy, cool, or drunk and fighting in the Cedar Bar, depending on the era.’

Harriet Burden is driven to the edge of her sanity by the lack of recognition her work has received, and her dangerous ploy, to create work that men agree to show, backfires in all sorts of ways. Her first chosen male artist, a newcomer to the scene, is hailed beatifically and then cannot deal with the fact that he is not the work’s creator. Her second, a gender-bending black man, is too close to the feminine to attract the serious attention of the art world, though Harriet enjoys their collaboration most of all. The last, an already-established rock star of the art world, pretentious Rune, betrays Harriet in the worst possible way. Harriet proves the sexism inherent in art criticism, but she is powerless to change anything, and remains deprived of the satisfaction she seeks.

I thought a lot about Harriet Burden while reading Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels. Fels’ argument is that ambition is useful to us – ‘coping skills, understanding of reality and sense of self-worth’ are all higher in women who have defined plans for their futures. Women who want to be ‘upwardly mobile via their own achievements’ turn out to be ‘the most psychologically well adjusted.’ But recognition – accurate, meaningful praise from the external world – is consistently withheld from women, and white middle-class women in particular are the group most loathe to go after it. Ambition is understood to be pushy, aggressive, non-feminine. Women will repeatedly say that they have nothing against ambition, that they understand it can be useful, but will stubbornly stick only to ambitions that involve nurturing others.

What I found most intriguing about this book is its insistence on the value and importance of recognition. It’s a tragic myth women tell themselves to try to come to terms with their lot that it’s all about the work for its own sake, Fels suggests. ‘[T]he recognition of one’s skills within a community creates a sense of identity, personal worth, and social inclusion – base cornerstones in any life’. The times we receive recognition are usually iconic moments we remember forever more. ‘Recognition by others defines us to ourselves, energises us, directs our efforts, and even alters mood.’ Fels argues that the times we are happiest and most engaged in our work are the times when we are most valued and validated – and alas for women, cultural validation only comes in the form of praise for selflessness, for stepping down, shutting up, putting their desires away and promoting others.

Honestly? I agree. There is so much of my own experience that resonantes here. Fels notes that: ‘When girls persist in being high achievers, they are subtly penalised by their teachers. They actually receive less attention from their teachers than any of the other student types.’ Yup, that was my experience at school. And the times I flew high and found my work easy and fulfilling were mostly during my graduate days when I had two mentors around me who encouraged me a great deal. When I began working for the university, there was no recognition to be had. In thirteen years teaching, I had two appraisals and only one sentence of praise which yes, I remember to this day (the then Senior Tutor said ‘no one can please all the people all the time, but you get pretty close to it’). The constant lack of recognition undoubtedly contributed to chronic fatigue – I paid out so much energy, and had so little re-energising sense of doing well in return. And I did indeed feel guilty and wrong for wanting recognition at all. Not least because I was aware that it’s so hard to come by. For instance, here’s an intriguing study from Fels’ book:

Two groups of people were asked to evaluate particular items, such as articles, paintings, resumes and the like. The names attached to the items given each group of evaluators were clearly either male or female, but reversed for each group – that is, what one group believed was originated by a man, the other believed was originated by a woman. Regardless of the items, when they were ascribed to a man, they were rated higher than when they were ascribed to a woman. In all of these studies, women evaluators were as likely as men to downgrade those items ascribed to women.’

Essentially, it’s the premise of Hustvedt’s book. Which of course puts women in a complicated position. What else IS there to do but try and find consolation in the practice of whatever work we do, in the full awareness that it’s the only reward we’re likely to get? Another interesting book that’s been holding my attention lately is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Approval and acceptance are hugely important, they agree, but to jump on the bandwagon and produce commercially successful art is often to lose your identity as an artist, whilst standing out for your own vision is always fraught with inevitable misunderstandings: ‘The problem is not absolute but temporal: by the time your reward arrives, you may not be around to collect it. Ask Schubert.’ It’s a great little book, actually, that has made me laugh a lot, and has some pithy advice.

The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts – namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. They’re in a good position to comment on how they’re moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process.’

Sensible words, but I doubt they would have helped Harriet Burden. Ambition is like a virus, I don’t think you can just will it away, but it is also a very high-risk strategy, particularly for women and I can’t see that changing any time soon.