A difficult year. In better moments it was a so-so year. In other moments in which I take the bigger lines and shapes of my life into account it has been a bad year.
There is a dog now in the family and that makes me happy. We had a great summer vacation in northern Finnland. But this year was not without strain to keep moving in a positive direction or at least not lose ground. Like making it through fast flowing rapids. There was lots of stress: self-made and unavoidable at once. I broke my arm in the end of 2020 and needed to heal the first few months of 2021. Things at the job were hard and at times disappointing. Looking back, this year showed me the strength of my now six year long relationship; That we managed to get through this year together, trying to understand each other even more, giving each other space, when we knew there were lots of things going on. I am proud of us being able to talk, to forgive and to move on. Around midnight, when the neighbors were lighting fireworks, we acknowledged the year for what it was, especially for us two (the dogo was sleeping through the explosions…). Me being the more optimistic person even went as far as being hopeful for the new year. It carries the opportunity of a fresh start. We smiled and kissed.
The pandemic didn’t help. Being here in Finnland’s north meant that we both experienced increasing cabin fever: a new topic was discovered. Do we need to move? How do we manage giving space and time to each other in a loving, non-condescending way? One fascinating aspect of being in a long-term relationship is how the relationship and with it oneself and the other changes over time. I wonder what captures this dynamic better: The continued reveal of yet another onion skin or a more evolutionary abstract image of ever-changing symbiotic organisms. It is the question between an essentialist and non-essentialist viewpoint. Whatever it is: Not knowing (or rather: deciding) makes this dynamic no less interesting to me.
This year was hard and in many ways one I’d like to forget. But I won’t reduce the year to that. There were beautiful, funny, heartwarming, delightful moments. And these I won’t forget.
I am grateful for the past year’s me trying to keep the ship afloat even when I wasn’t feeling like it.
I am grateful that I continued to be interested in cooking dinner for us. I feel like I have improved a little.
I am grateful for the dog coming into our lives, our little chaos agent, that brought us so much happiness in a year of strain.
I am grateful for my relationship and my partner being there and giving me the reality check that I sometimes needed. Or the back rub. Or the space and time. Or the normality of everyday life. I love you for your honesty, humor, your smile and you holding me accountable. You, like no other can make me reconsider a strongly held belief. You, like no other can make me belief I could be a decent man if I tried. Thank you for being here with me, E.
As I said in my last review: I love autobiographical writing. To continue the theme, I recently listened to Joan Didion’s Books: The Year of Magical Thinking and Let Me Tell You What I Mean.
The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir of an especially tumultuous year in her life. After the sudden death of her husband and the hospitalization of her daughter, Didion finds herself detached from reality and has to claw herself back to reason. There is a certain sharpness in the way she puts things, a certain breathlessness in the intelligence with which she follows the paths of her own thoughts while mourning the loss of a writing partner and spouse (a parallel to Hampl’s book).
We see here a woman who is smart, quick and in control of her faculties wanting to fight and having to accept, that there is no real shortcut, no swift way to skip the all too human need to just feel shitty for a while, to be scared, to be upset, to not know, to maybe not even understand why your own seemingly better argument, the pointed question or educated guess doesn’t cut it. To be clear, what Didion focusses on is not this desire to skip the lowly emotions and loss of control that are part of the human condition. But, to me, she exemplifies how hard it is to accept the necessity of being a passenger, not the driver, for a while after an event like this.
One strength of Didion’s writing is that she can put a finger on the power of slightly changed emphases. Like in her text “Everywoman.com” about Martha Stewart and her empire from the second book of her’s I have listened to: Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a collection of essays from 1968 to 2000.
In Everywoman.com she turns the critique on Martha Stewart, a home maker turned CEO of a billion dollar company, inside out. The critique goes something like this: Martha Stewart is a fraud, because she pretends to be a simple homemaker, like her fans, even though in reality she is a driven business woman who created merely an artifice of being a homemaker. Didion is directing her more empathetic read of Stewart mainly against Jerry Oppenheimer’s unauthorized investigative Book on her: Just Desserts. Opposed to Oppenheimer, Didion concludes that Stewart’s success, Artifice and all, are inspirational to US-American women because Stewart managed to create her own rags to riches story: from homemaker to CEO.
One thing I picked up and that is eerily related to her empathy for Stewart is her own success. I stumbled upon the following review of The Year of Magical Thinking on Amazon that is an example of what I mean:
She certainly went through losses that would make anyone stagger. I just found that I couldn’t identify with her experiences. She describes months of folks making sure she was taken care of. Can’t relate. She recounts good times in a long marriage that involves luxurious travels and freedom gained through wealth. Can’t relate. Am I jealous? Probably.
Didion is well off, that much is clear. She has been a successful writer for a long time and coming up in a much more socially mobile era, she ended up being wealthy. The question is: Does this take away from her writing? And the answer is: Yes, a little bit. I wouldn’t go so far to suggest that I can’t relate or that what she has to say is not interesting, quiet the opposite, but because Didion’s voice is one of careful reexamination (it reminds of the idiom “show me, I’m from Missouri”) and her reputation is one of popularizing counter culture, of problematizing the American Dream I can’t deny that the success, although earned, subverts a little bit her persona, her self-conception or the frame from which I read her (so maybe, probably, this is on me). It complicates the relationship between me, the reader (or listener in my case), and her, the counter culture writer. Now, I am not owed an uncomplicated relationship. But I do have to admit that the contrast of a now wealthy writer that came from a place of socially conscious reporting - and still has those instincts but lives a totally different life - lead to some cognitive dissonance. It totally makes sense that lives like this exist. She is not the first, nor the last that will have had also monetary success from writing empathetically about various social issues. I still enjoyed the books, I just wish there was a way to ask the question: How do you integrate your being well off with writing so empathetically? How do you try to juggle not being perceived as patronizing?
- You can find her Essay on Martha Stewart on the New Yorker’s website: Everywoman.com.
When I was looking through my DayOne posts - the recent acquisition of the journaling app by automattic made me curious; I had not been using the app in a couple of years - I stumbled upon a journal entry that included a few screenshots of tweets that a quite popular German political Twitterer (maybe 30k followers back then, now around 50k followers) had posted, that berated me fiercely. How stupid I was and how dare I speak up against this person. They called me a baboon that needed to be put into place amongst other things. I think they called me sexist, too. I didn’t have the heart to plunge deeper into the post. As I was simply too shocked. I had completely forgotten about this life altering experience half a decade ago. But here it was. And the remembering began.
What had happened? When I was studying history of science and technology I was not shy to speak up. I was a young man that deemed himself smart and with a talent for research. I also had way too much time on my hands, which made me “dangerous” in class. I read and studied furiously. And what I learned I wanted to apply. That is, nothing went past me in class. Any little uncertainty that came up, I problematized - to the frustration of my professors, I’m sure, as well as my classmates. I wanted to be a researcher, or no, I wanted to be a prodigy. A person with great potential to become an exceptional researcher. I dreamt big. And I wanted my professors to see how smart I was. I had this dream that somebody would take me under their wing, make me behave, by offering a path to a career in research. I wanted to be tamed, I think, so that I could become the beautiful, creative researcher that I thought I ought to be.
In any case, this phase of my life was a messy one and so were the discussions in the seminars. Lots of arguments, lots and lots of monologuing on my part. Oh, my poor classmates, forgive me! But that’s who I was back then and although I look back with shame, I would be lying if I would not point out that this time of my life was one of the most instructive phases of it as well.
I remember neither subject of the course nor the specific book introduction, chapter or article that we were assigned to read for this weeks class. What I do remember is that I disagreed vehemently with the author’s premise that nobody had as of yet really looked into the topic at hand, except herself. That the author was female was incidental to my disagreement. But I never liked this take. To me, history was all about uncovering more and more aspects of the past. And a new take was adding a new shade, a new layer to the beautiful complexities of historiography as it related to the topic at hand. There is no singular fundamental take on history that subsumes all other takes - or at least not for long. History is best, I thought, if it was a humbling exercise, one in which your own strong opinions and values get somewhat relativized. History, to me, was a quest for authenticity, for serious inquiry, that ought not to bend to the political fashions of the day - even if I happen to agree with them. History ought to be historicist, in the German sense, where the understanding of a happening stems from a process of trying to find plausibility in the actions through sympathy for the actors - no matter how vile their behavior would be deemed, probably rightfully so, in our time. In short I was a young man looking for authenticity in a world full of ironic takes. I craved sincerity. “Be real with me”, I thought often, “I want to like you”. “I want to be sure that you like me”, if you say so, too. I was lonely and longed for reliability.
It was well known amongst history of science students back then, that we had a minor celebrity in our midst. This person was a young politician of some clout. An up-and-comer that had gotten a taste of political authority, of respect towards their own person, after being elected to the city’s parliament. They were invited to talk shows and interviewed a few times for TV and radio back then. They carried the aura of demanding respect into our classroom as well. Wearing nice long woolen coats, good fitting suits and expensive looking scarfs, not at all what the rest of us normals wore and especially not me, the wild man in the shabby cloths. They were standing out. They had understood that clothes make the person. At the same time their public persona was one of irony, of trolling for the greater good, or what they perceived as the greater good. They were a postmodern politician. One that always seemed to play both sides of the un/certainty coin: Claiming “Facts first!” but being crowned troll of the year some years earlier.
The actual quarrel around which I have been circulating for this handful of paragraphs is explained quickly: My adversary had read the text different than me - or not differently, but more affirmatively. The claim of a fundamental take did not repel them, quite the opposite. They bought the author’s points about what others had overlooked, maybe they bought the idea of a perfect all-encompassing historical take as well? I wasn’t sure back then, but I was sure that history doesn’t bend to a totalitarian approach. Writing history is a process of picking and choosing, of simplification. So I argued against their notion, vehemently. That the author had a feminist viewpoint - which was so incidental to my points - became the linchpin of the discussion. To this day I am sure of this: Even a struggle so central to modern societal progress as equality can only ever be an aspect of historiography. You may base a whole career on feminist history - and that would be an important pursuit - but nobody would claim everything is said and done when we have told all there is to tell about this struggle. No. No! And again: No!
I would like to claim that I stayed as calm as I am now, writing all this down however many years later, but that would be a lie. We shouted at each other. I didn’t permit this person, or my professor for that matter, to have the last word. I was incapable to give in, to allow this person to lug his intimidating aura around to steamroll me. After all, this was academia! Or its impoverished simulacrum at least. And arguments ought to count more than any accomplishments in other arenas of society here. Finally, the person just left in the middle of the class, infuriated, slamming the door. I was about to make another remark about their bad attitude, but was silenced by my professor: “Martin!” He only shouted this one word. My name. “Martin!” “There it was”, I thought. Finally an acknowledgement. I felt oddly good. I felt put into place. And wasn’t this what I wanted? To be put into place?
A few hours later, still pumped up from the altercation, I learned that my opponent had posted the tweets they did. I don’t think they assumed that I was a Twitter user or would seek ought their timeline - if they cared at all. I found myself in an exceptional situation: I could read what another person that didn’t like me thought about me. They just had put it out there for anyone to read. That included me and their kinda big audience. Some people liked those tweets, others retweeted them. And even though I knew, intellectually, that these tweets weren’t meant for me or were in the end about me, really (they were about this persons anger), I felt deeply hurt. I felt seen, in a bad way. I felt revealed, caught. I felt like I was laughable. The whole village, their village, had it out for me, pointing, be it in anger or amusement about this anti-feminist idiot, who came to town, unbidden, to insult the mayor with his retrograde ideas, the fool, not even able to see how antiprogressive he is. I felt my artifice was visible as such. The political ascriptions didn’t bother me, because they weren’t accurate. But the persona that was described between the lines did. This mess of piled up insecurities that held up the disguise of an eager student was laid bare. There I was, in my most unfavorable interpretation. However, I couldn’t deny the fact that it was a possible interpretation. It had a connection to reality. Yes, I was a self-serious jerk. And I knew it, I realized it, sometimes. And in this moment, I could see it clearly, I wasn’t the only one who was aware. I felt deeply ashamed.
As though a pill as it is swallow to remember all of this, to rethink all of this: I am grateful that I had the strength back then to screenshot those tweets and put them into my journal. I don’t know if I knew it back then, but I preserved a seminal moment in my life. There is no real moral here. And I couldn’t point to this vignette as the cause for things being different from there on out. I carried on a couple of years longer with this prodigy-jerk persona, before it finally clicked that this wasn’t the way. Erosion takes its time. But I will always think back to this moment in my life when thinking about where the beginning of the end of that persona is located. It’s right then and there. I am a better person for it today, prodigy or not.
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