Friday, January 16, 2015

Rob Roy

I should be working, or cooking supper, or possibly writing the other blog post I was planning to write, but instead I'm going to write about Rob Roy.

When I read a tale of adventure about a noble bandit and political intrigue, I'm willing to accept the ordinary guy as protagonist who gets swept up into events beyond him.

I'm not really expecting him to then stand there the entire time with his hands in his pockets.

Also, what kind of a name is Osbaldistone?

I can't say I disliked Frank Osbaldistone. He seems a perfectly decent chap. Who goes on being a perfectly decent chap while he gets falsely accused of armed robbery and his cousin steals his father's money. Between the love interest and the outlaw and some complicated political machinations, it all gets returned and everything comes out OK. But other than riding about some exquisite Scottish scenery, and one brief comic round of fisticuffs with some drunken Highlanders, Frank doesn't do a thing for himself.

The titular outlaw also was something of a disappointment. He doesn't even show up until the book is half over, and even then his role is somewhat ambiguous. He promises to help, but then is captured. He escapes. Meanwhile things are taken care of by other people. He comes to a dramatic rescue on almost the last page, but that's about it.

Fortunately the other characters were quite delightful: Diana Vernon, who manages to keep her outlawed father (NOT Rob Roy, someone else) hidden and her evil scheming cousin at bay, while excelling at horsemanship AND scholarship. (Why she marries the inoffensive Frank remains a mystery, except that being nurtured in a hotbed of Jacobite rebellion she wanted a quieter adult life, in which case I am sure she got what she was after, as she apparently always did.) Mrs. Rob Roy, apparently a competent general in her own right, if a bit blood-thirsty. Jarvie, the respectable Lowland merchant with secret Highland connections. Andrew Fairservice, the servant with a very strong sense of self-preservation. And the scenery is outstanding, and I don't usually even bother to read descriptions.

Still, it could have done with a livelier hero.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist

This book is one you should read, but probably won't. It's 462 pages long, and that's without the footnotes and bibliography. And they're big pages with small type.

But it's worth reading. It's even worth just skimming. I kept it to the end of our library's generous renewal policy once, and then I have kept it almost to the end again before getting it reviewed. It is a book that makes clear connections that I have long felt but not been able to fully explain.

It is more like two complimentary books, really. The first is on neuroscience and the different roles of the two hemispheres of the brain. Not in the simplistic manner of "Are you right-brained or left-brained?" quizzes or common dichotomies like words and logic vs. art and music.

In fact, everybody is using both hemispheres of their brain all the time for every task. The difference is not so much *what* the two halves do as *how* they do it. The left side of the brain takes things apart, creates clear divisions, handles and manipulates, deals in lists and syllogisms. The right side of the brain takes things in, absorbs the whole, understands and appreciates, deals in relationships and paradoxes. Without the left brain, we cannot find words, use tools, manipulate the world. Without the right brain, we cannot understand words, find meaning, know our place in relation to the world, appreciate the existence of reality outside ourselves.

The two hemispheres of the brain correspond to two ways of knowing, which were certainly understood and appreciated for centuries before the brain was so closely analyzed. They might be called analytic and synthetic. Or scientific and poetic. C. S. Lewis has a memorable passage in which he discusses the difference between looking "at" a beam of light in a dark shed and looking "along" that beam of light to the world outside.

The challenge is keeping these two parts of the brain in balance, working together even though it is their nature to operate at cross purposes. And the real challenge in this is that while the right side of the brain, which takes in the whole picture, can appreciate and understand what it needs the left side of the brain for, the left side of the brain doesn't. It thinks it's got the whole picture and can do everything itself. It thinks its way of looking at the world is the *right* way. (One reason this book is so huge is that all these points are meticulously documented with patient studies and other neurological and psychological research.) Without the right brain keeping it in check, it takes over and tries to do tasks for which it has no capacity

So, on to the second book within the book: the way the tension between the two hemispheres has played out over the history of Western civilization. Not that our brains have changed drastically over the course of recorded history, but the way we perceive and interact with our environment produces and is produced by culture, and it shifts over relatively short timeframes. (This part, also, is meticulously documented in a completely different way, with literary, historical, and philosophical references.)

The author is dealing with a very big picture here and can of necessity only bring fragments to sketch it, a difficult task but one I think he for the most part succeeds at. But the general idea is that the hemispheres tend to alternate dominance, first culture showing a flowering of right-brained creativity, and then a left-brained tendency to analyze and sharpen. He starts back in ancient Greece, then on through Rome and the middle ages, the Renaissance (right brain) followed by Reformation (shifting), leading to the Enlightenment (hard left), and then a rebellion against that with the right-brain emphasizing Romantic movement.

The challenge he sees is that over time the left-brain dominance becomes sharper. The left brain, after all, thinks its way is the right way. It dismisses the right-brain approach as illogical, inconsistent, inadequate. For most of human history, the right brain has had many supports to keep its place: our experience of nature and our own bodies, the presence of art and music and religion. These have kept the left brain from following its own drift too far.

However, since the Industrial Revolution, we have less and less access to these anchors. Our environment is more and more not a thing outside ourselves, but predominantly the product of human technology, all straight lines and sharp angles. Science (a vital endeavor) has been turned into scientism, a dogmatic insistence that only the left-brained facts and figures have any truth value. Religion has responded mostly by abandoning its realm of mystery and splitting up into fundamentalism (an attempt to reduce the inexpressible to a logically consistent body of dogma) or modernism (eliminating the supernatural altogether). Art and music have ceased to be human endeavors toward the beautiful (the left brain can't handle the idea of beauty; it can't be reduced to specific parts) and have become exercises in novelty for the sake of novelty. The body itself becomes an object, not a thing we are, but a thing we own and try to manipulate.

In consequence, we have followed up Modernism, a triumph of the left brain if there ever was one, not with a right-brain revolution to restore our appreciation for the reality that is out there, for beauty and relationship and all those other things that don't quite reduce to figures, but with Post-Modernism--a retreat further into the left-hemisphere world, in which there is no longer an out there at all, but everything is simply a product of our own minds.

I have already summarized a book that is probably too long to read with a blog post that is also too long to read, so I will try to do a second post on how this resonates with me.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Old Goals, New Goals

It is the time of year for planning and goals and breaking down your lofty goals into manageable, achievable steps.

This seems very sound in theory, but in practice, manageable, achievable steps bore or frighten me (depending on how many of them there are).

It may be unorthodox, but on both a large and a small scale I do better if I think about the things that I want and then just putz about and do what seems to come next. If I want to get the house clean and I make a list and do one thing at a time and cross it off, I'll be exhausted and cranky at the end of the day. If I just leave a blank of time and do whatever inspires me most to do next, I get more done for less crankiness.

Sorry.  I know it's not supposed to work that way. And I freely confess I've never managed to make it on anyone's list of 30 under 30 and it's too late now. Probably the world of high-powered, amazing achievement is closed to me, as is the world of immaculate houses. But I'm OK with that. I do the stuff that really matters to me and I still have time to have fun.

On the large scale, life takes way too many twists and turns for me to make long-range plans. And yet the road has a curious way of curving back around to that spot I saw in the distance. A long, long time ago, at a time when most of the people in my life had extremely conservative ideas of what females could be doing, I had just started law school, and someone asked me, "But why are you going to law school? Don't you want to get married?"

"Well, maybe," I said, "But maybe my husband and I could practice law together."

I did wind up meeting DOB through law school, but then neither of us practiced law, and we even lived in a state where it was impossible to be licensed. Then we moved back to where we could be licensed, but he got hired and I started free-lancing and things looked like they would stay that way for a long time.

Last year I was taking the kids on one of our weekly hike/park days and I noticed the trail we were on went right behind an office park, including the offices of a local firm.

"Hey," I thought, "If I were practicing law more regularly, this would be the place to do it." Cities and desks I hate, but having a little trail by the creek leading down to the beach right out the door would do a lot toward making it survivable. (There just aren't that many jobs involving analysis and debate that also involve a lot of time outdoors. Street preaching, maybe?)

Well, late this year the road took an unexpected hairpin and all of a sudden . . . here we are. Starting our own firm as of January 1. And, what do you know, but the CPA firm that DOB knew that was eager to lease him office space--is in that very same office park. Technically I've hired him, as I'm maintaining majority control of my corporation, but as he's the rainmaker he's pretty sure he has job security.

Current plans are for me to work primarily from home doing drafting and research, maybe going in once a week and filling in at court from time to time, while continuing to home school. Right now DOB is still in transition, wrapping things up at his old firm. We are going crazy trying to set up phones and email and computers and insurance and all that stuff. We'll see how it all shakes out. I'm sure the road will stay curvy.

I do have one specific goal for the year: Green eggs. I've decided to add vegetables to breakfast. I abhor smoothies, but a mess of fried green stuff with eggs is a tasty way to start the day, and right now fat is rated as healthy, so I'll enjoy it. I was going to set a goal of not remodeling anything but the new law office to be is . . . of all colors . . . bright blue.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Choring Curve

The thing about chores is, they are chores.

There is no system that will get around this. You can put purple stickers and happy unicorn balloons all over it and yet there is that nasty compost bucket still waiting to be taken out.

One does need a system, of course, but eventually the system grows old or wearisome. The choreishness comes uppermost. Then it's time for a new system.

It won't work forever. It won't get rid of the choreishness of chores. But it will help.

Chore systems work on the following curve:

Week 1: Enthusiasm for shiny new system. Considerable cooperation and only minor amounts of griping.
Week 2: Shine comes off. Griping begins.
Week 3-4: Agony. Chores are horrid and everyone wants to quit. Mother's will is still firm, though, hopefully, allowing things to proceed to:
Weeks 5-28: Routine. Chores get done, system works OK.
Weeks 28-end: Fraying. Chore system gets increasingly shrugged aside, fragmented, or just not followed. Mother gets distracted and cranky. Children are mysteriously nowhere to be found.

I used to have this feeling that if only one were truly virtuous and consistent, one would never need a shiny new system, one could just follow through on the same one, world without end, amen. But I think this was an error. Everything has seasons, ebb and flow, novelty within familiarity.

And now is the time of the new chore season. I relieved the kids of doing the hauling things outside chores (which they detest during winter, whereas I love the chance to go outside in any weather) and distributed more dish handling among them, which I could happily do less of. Today is the first day of shiny new system, and Duchess did a fabulous job on the breakfast dishes while I enjoyed my breakfast and Facebook.

The shine will come off. But it was nice today.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

We're . . . sort of . . . doing the Christmas thing

A week of catching up around the house and getting ready for Christmas wasn't nearly enough. I am, surprisingly enough, a really good planner. When I have time to plan.

When I don't have time to plan . . . well, baking day arrived without flour and I totally forgot to check whether I had green chiles for an enchilada-based Christmas dinner until the last trip into town had been made. I still haven't gotten the house up to baseline-level Stuff Doesn't Get Caught In The Wheelchair cleanliness, let alone Festive Christmas Cheer cleanliness. The children's rooms are still the disaster that makes me want to swear they will never get new things again, ever. I didn't even dust the piano. I'm not going to have time to finish one person's gift and I think it's too small anyway. I'm tired and I have a sore throat but I can't seem to lower my immune system enough to get good and sick and have an excuse.

I did manage three kinds of cookies (after getting flour). That's pretty pitiful for my baking traditions, but it's what I could manage. We tried these gingerbread cookies (with half the pepper) and they were fabulous.  And these flourless chocolate cookies were awesome for gluten-free relatives (or, you know, non-gluten-free people. They're really good).

But Christmas comes anyway, right? There's something to unwrap. There will be something to eat (even if a little short on chiles). I'll try to sweep. I hope.

I should have pretty low expectations by this time. Around here it's a good Christmas if no one throws up. But I still would like to have things a little more together. Maybe next year.

Monday, December 15, 2014

We're DOING this Christmas thing

Christmas had kind of gotten sidelined this year up until Sunday. Which was OK, right, because it's Advent, not Christmas?

Only Advent is supposed to be getting ready for Christmas, and we weren't doing that. DOB has been absorbed with the Thing Not Yet Announced, I was busy with working and school and the Remodeling Project That Grew, and the kids have been shifting as best they can and listening to a lot of audio CDs. We did manage to get out the Advent wreath and readings, but that was it.

But this past weekend I put in my last day of remodeling. It's not done, but I am. And it's really, really close, and detailed finish work is definitely not my talent. It is an amazing transformation. We have eradicated nearly every scrap of country blue in a house which was one solid mass of it. Hopefully the new and improved pictures will attract a new and improved set of showings.

And I made an executive decision to quit school a week early. Since I didn't make this decision until Saturday, we skipped the whole vacation brain final week, so that worked well. We'll have to keep going until the second week of June, but it's not too awfully long.


So Sunday we had the church Christmas pageant and chili cook-off. Dash is gratified that no one tries to recruit him to be a sheep any more. He has hated being a sheep since the role was first foisted upon his toddler self, and most recently declared his role in the Christmas pageant to be "100 sheep who are not there." As a long-limbed first grader, though, he's solidly into shepherd territory, and shepherds wear fuzzy bathrobes and carry long sticks, so they're cool.

Then afterwards we had an unexpectedly gorgeous day and went and found our tree. (It's on the smallish side, because most of the $10 yellow-tag trees were gone this late in the season, but on the other hand that meant the kids could decorate it entirely without help.

The kids even tried to bring in the boxes by themselves. Some of them were too high up, but the big kids got a number of them. Deux asked, "What about this box that says 'Dishes?' It looks like it might have something."

"Oh, no," I said, "All the 'Dishes' boxes only have dishes in them."

Then when they had gotten through all the rest they could reach, I went out and got down the rest. And we searched through them all and found everything except the Christmas tree lights. Which, of course, had to go on first.

I went back out and searched the other miscellaneous boxes. I found some more things, but no lights. I searched the boxes we had brought out again. No lights.

I went back out to the garage and noticed a small box labeled "Dishes" sitting next to where most of the Christmas boxes had been. A light began to dawn. I looked inside.

Deux was pleased with bragging rights.

 Nothing got properly cleaned, but the decorations are up. This morning I rescued the Christmas CDs from the heap in the boys' room after they decided to repurpose the CD box as a fortress. I put Bing Crosby on. We read our advent reading and did a craft. I have butter thawing to bake cookies.

We're going to do this Christmas thing. I think I'm going to start with a long winter's nap.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Dear Internet Writers, Please Stop Pretending You Know Me

Headline writing has always been the redheaded stepchild of literature, but the internet (which freeing us from typographic constraints, ought to have made things better) seems to have brought out the worst in headline writing. Or maybe it's even deeper, since the problem seems to afflict the entire article.

The formula that goes "Something Bland. You'll Never Believe What Happens Next!" was a lousy one the first time it was used. It has now been used 5,403,243 times. It really, really should never be used again. Yes, *I* will believe what happened next, because *I* know exactly how oversensationalized internet stories work. Everyone will burst into dancing, somebody will do something really nice without an obvious reason, and/or a crafter will make something quite clever. If it were something truly unbelievable, like a visitation from Narn or a rift in the space-time continuum, you wouldn't need to jazz it up with such a lame headline. "Giant lizards from space in awesome leather coats visit Munich" just doesn't need anything more.

It's probably the need for constant content. We just can't have these massive bandwidths of information and let them go empty, can we? Yet, giant lizards so seldom visit. So we must pretend that the adventures of our pet cats are Every! Bit! As! Exciting!

(You know another meme that needs to die now? "Keep Calm and . . . " Yes, it was a fine wartime slogan and the first 15 iterations were mildly amusing. It's done now. Let it die. Stop making t-shirts.)

But the *really* annoying thing is when this presumption moves from doubting my ability to believe completely believable things and begins making moral assumptions. Such as this article, titled "5 Ways You Are Unknowingly Destroying Your Husband and Killing Your Marriage." Well, I surely did not know I was killing my marriage in those ways, especially since the first one on the list was "Living beyond your means" and mentioned how I might have to suppress my desire for a Kate Spade bag. (Actually, I have no idea what a Kate Spade bag is, but I was pretty happy when my friend gave me a bit of silver wire so I could rewire the handle on the purse I got from the thrift store a year or two ago and hopefully get another couple of years out of it.) Without this article, I definitely would not have known my rampant spending was threatening my marriage, although I had noticed that at times the dry heaves I get at the prospect of ever spending money on anything do seem to cause a bit of a strain.

OK, at some point the article did throw a "might" in there. As in, you "might" have these problems. But, you know, let us not let the possibility that different people struggle with different things (and, oh, that not every minor stress in a marriage is sending it into a death-spiral) keep us from writing a sensational headline.

Why is it so difficult to just write what you mean? What is meant appears to be, "Here are some attitudes that can cause more problems in a marriage than first appears." Nothing's wrong with that.

Of course, once an internet article writer faces up to an honest, straightforward assessment of what they have to say, they might just discover that . . . it's not much. And that would let all that bandwidth go empty. We couldn't have that, now could we?