Spear vs. Grindstone

The grindstone: approved usage

Another post in the series on The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley. (You don’t really need to see another image of the book cover, do you?)

A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the role of hunting in the Old Stone Age … Hunting has been given an inordinate status both by archaeologists and by hunting peoples themselves. In the latter case this is largely due to the fact that it is the men who do most of the hunting and they therefore pride themselves on their own achievements and tend to play down the considerable contribution of women. Prehistorians are presented with an archaeological record that contains far more information on hunting than on gathering activities … owing to the poor survival of botanical specimens.

Rudgley, p. 158

Of course, hunting is also more glamorous, riskier, and it generates better stories than “that time we found all those berries.”

According to Rudgley, in the case of modern hunter-gatherers, up to 80% of a community’s diet can consist of “gathered foods,” which includes edible plants but also such things as eggs and shellfish. We can’t assume that ancient people’s diets were exactly the same. The world has changed quite a bit (there is less big game, for example). Still, this is suggestive that people were processing and eating plants long before the supposed advent of agriculture.

The Noble Savage Myth and the Wild Yam Question

Speaking of modern hunter-gatherers, there is actually some question as to whether it is possible for people to survive on pure hunting and gathering. It is extremely difficult to find a modern hunter-gatherer group that does not get some of their calories from trade with nearby agricultural peoples, and/or “paracultivation.” Paracultivation is practiced by the Central African Pygmies, who re-plant the tops of rain forest yams (a main source of starch for them) after they harvest them, and by people in Central Borneo who depend on the sago palm for starch, who will cultivate patches of palms that they can return to and “gather” later. The so-called Wild Yam Question, first raised by Thomas Headland, postulates that in tropical rain forests there is not enough naturally occurring food for people ever to have survived there without at least paracultivation. This has been hotly debated among anthropologists. You can read an overview of the debate here: “Could ‘Pure’ Hunter-Gatherers Live in a Rainforest? : A 1999 review of the current status of The Wild Yam Question”

Was Agriculture Really a Revolution?

Implements normally associated with agriculture – mortar and pestles, sickles, grain storage – are found in the Natufian culture of the Levant (c. 10,500 to 8000 BC). I can’t resist pointing out that this is the exact time period which, in my books, comes right after the Tower of Babel and only a few hundred years after the Flood. In that, possibly true, alternate universe, these “first farmers” could have been people to whom the knowledge of agriculture was not new, but who were having to resettle the earth after a series of society-shattering disasters.

Could there have been farming before the Flood and before the Neolithic “agricultural revolution”? Mortars and pestles have been found that are at least (with the usual caveats about dates) 80,000 years old (California); 43,000 to 49,000 years old (South Africa); 30,000 years old (Australia); 44,000 years old (Ukraine); and 40,000 years old (Spain). Various stone artifacts from even farther back (Lower Palaeolithic sites, including Olduvai Gorge) have been speculated to be pounding stones, also used to process seeds or grains. (Rudgley p. 159 – 160)

The Oft-Under-Appreciated Grindstone

The grindstone may not be as glamorous as the spear and spear-thrower, but it can be used as a weapon in a pinch:

Abimelech son of Jerub-Baal went to his mother’s brothers in Shechem and said to mother’s clan, “Ask all the citizens of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you: to have all seventy of Jerub-Baal’s sons rule over you, or just one man?'”

The citizens of Shechem were inclined to follow Abimelech. They gave him seventy shekels of silver, and Abimelech used it to hire reckless adventurers, who became his followers. He went to his father’s home in Ophrah and on one stone murdered his seventy brothers. Then all the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo gathered beside the great tree at the pillar in Shechem to crown Abimelech king.

[Things go bad between Abimelech and the people of Shechem, and he ends up razing their city.]

Next Abimelelch went to Thebez and besieged it and captured it. Inside the city, however, was a strong tower, to which all the men and women – all the people of the city – fled. They locked themselves in and climbed up on the tower roof. Abimelech went to the tower and stormed it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull.

Hurriedly he called to his armor bearer, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him.'” So his servant ran him through, and he died.

Judges 9:1 – 6 and 50 – 55

But we all know she did.

The grindstone: alternate usage.

Complete Nonsense, Delightfully Expressed

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

Should’st rubies find; I by the tide

Of Humber would complain. I would

Love you ten years before the Flood;

And you should if you please refuse

Till the Conversion of the Jews.

My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires, and more slow.

An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze

Two hundred to adore each breast;

But thirty thousand to the rest;

An age at least to every part,

And the last age should show your heart.

For lady you deserve this state;

Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wing-ed chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Thy beauty shall no more be found,

Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song: then worms shall try

That long preserved virginity:

And your quaint honor turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust.

The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

And while thy willing soul transpires

And every pore with instant fires,

Now let us sport us while we may;

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour,

Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

Let us roll all our strength, and all

Our sweetness, up into one ball;

And tear our pleasures with rough strife,

Through the iron gates of life.

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

“To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678)

Did any of you fellas talk like this when you were dating your lady?

Perhaps you did. This is, after all, just a better-expressed version of the old line, “Do you want to die a virgin?”

That’s why I call it complete nonsense. Come on, Andrew Marvell. Was this girl really expecting you to wait centuries for her? Or was she just hesitating for a few weeks? I’m guessing probably the latter. And you decided to bring the specter of mortality before her in order to guilt her in to your bed immediately.

But I honestly can’t dismiss this poem because, oh my gosh, it is so well expressed! I hope you laughed several times while reading it, because so many of the lines are funny and clever. The AA BB CC rhyme scheme is flawless, and the rhymes, together with the four feet instead of five per line, run through the middle of sentences in order to hurry us along through the poem. We want to get to the next rhyme, just as Marvell wants to get to the next … thing. And many of these images are so evocative that they get quoted frequently: “deserts of vast eternity” … “time’s slow-chapped power” … “all our strength and all our sweetness.”

I think the content of this poem is a huge piece of eye-roll worthy male manipulation. But the form is so terrific that I love the thing despite myself. I almost have it memorized. It’s a 17th century ear worm.

Marvell has taken a quintessential line, and he has elevated it, through the magic of poetry, into something else entirely.

Love Ruins Everything

OK, not everything that Nicholas Cage’s character says in this little seduction speech do I endorse. For example,

“I don’t care if I burn in hell. I don’t care if you burn in hell.”

This recklessness is indeed what we sound like when we’re in the grip of headlong love (or lust), but I still don’t recommend saying it to your significant other.

But.

The way he winds up the speech is just … brilliant.

“Love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything. It breaks our hearts. We are here to ruin ourselves and love the wrong people and break our hearts … and die!

Right on, Nick! The only thing that loving another guarantees us is heartbreak. No one knows this better than our Lord. He definitely “loved the wrong people” … and it got Him killed. Sure, love wins in the end, but let’s not skip over this part. The stories we tell will ring hollow if we skip the part where love ruins everything.

Factory Settings

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Happy Valentine’s Day!

Today’s post is about cognitive science. But it’s also about love, in ways that will become clear.

In this post, I will regurgitate what Jordan Peterson has said about the Big Five personality traits, and then I will have a comment about them. If you doubt my word, or want to hear the same things said in a much more detailed, professional, and actually egg-headed manner, please feel free to watch the JP video below.

I have posted before about the MBTI, a personality typology which some people find insightful, but which was developed by amateurs. The MBTI makes a lot of intuitive sense to many people, but it was still made up. And it is not the only one with this problem. Peterson points out in this video that most personality typologies started as a theory which the developers then tried to apply to actual people. Not so with the Big Five. These are personality traits that emerge naturally from data. (JP says that much more convincingly than I do, of course.) They vary among individuals within every culture, and they are fairly stable throughout a person’s life. These traits are on a continuum, not binary. Each of us comes into this world falling at a certain point on each of these continua. As we mature, we expand our range along the continuum, but we are never going to move our set point from one end of a continuum to the other.

The Big Five Personality Traits

This will be easier to understand if we look at the Big Five.

Extraversion

Neuroticism

Agreeableness

Conscientiousness

Openness (to new experiences)

Very extraverted people draw energy from being around others. Very introverted people are drained by this. (This is the only trait from the Big Five that shows up, with the same terminology, in the MBTI.)

People with high neuroticism are more susceptible to negative emotion.

People with high agreeableness want to please others. Less agreeable people are less motivated to please others and more motivated to reach their own goals.

People with high conscientiousness are more industrious and more orderly than people without.

People with high openness tend to be creative types. They are also more likely to be politically liberal. (I am high openness, but due to a long personal journey, not politically leftist. My politics are spite of my temperament. This does mean that typical conservative arguments often don’t appeal to me.)

The Big Five and the Sexes

This is an aside, but Peterson often refers to the Big Five traits when talking about average differences between men and women. Women are, on average, more agreeable than men, higher in neuroticism, and slightly higher in conscientiousness. It is easy to see why these traits would flow from being designed to be moms. Even a greater tendency to negative emotion is an advantage when you’re taking care of preverbal children and you have to be sensitive to their distress.

These Are Factory Settings

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It’s easy to see how a person could feel inferior by virtue of having any given one of these traits. It’s also easy to imagine how people who are proud of their trait could think there is something seriously wrong with people on the other end of the continuum.

  • Why don’t you want to be around other people?/ Why can’t you ever entertain yourself? (Extraversion)
  • Why are you so sensitive?/so insensitive? (Neuroticism)
  • Why are you so domineering?/so wishy-washy? (Agreeableness)
  • Why are you so lazy and irresponsible/so uptight and controlling? (Conscientiousness)
  • Why are you such a stick-in-the-mud/a hippie? (Openness)

Relax, people.

All of us have character flaws. And sure, they fall along the fault lines of our Big Five traits, no doubt. But having any given one of these traits is not the same thing as having a sin nature. Conversely, not a single one of these traits will make the bearer a perfect person, either. These are just the factory settings.

And now we get to the love.

I was thinking about these traits as I sat in a Sunday School lesson about the love of God. To be specific, I was bemoaning that my natural tendency is to be low in conscientiousness. This has often caused me trouble with loved ones who are higher in conscientiousness. How can that be a good thing? Why didn’t God set my natural conscientiousness level a little higher? What was He thinking?

In a move typical of people who are high in openness but low in conscientiousness, I was lost in my thoughts rather than paying close attention. But then, the topic of the Sunday School lesson abruptly broke in upon my consciousness.

He loves me.

He loves me, and He made me, and, for some reason, He chose to make a person who is a bit low in conscientiousness. In fact, He chose to make people with all different Big Five factory settings. Ergo, all of these factory settings are by design. He must think we need all kinds.

Ergo, He likes your settings. Even if someone else doesn’t. Even if no one else does.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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When Romance Goes Rong: A Review of Tyler Perry’s A Fall from Grace

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A Fall from Grace is a movie that’s out right now on Netflix. This post will contain spoilers, though not for one particular twist. Which shows, by the way, how good of a movie it is, that I can tell you a good bit of the plot and still hold back a twist.

I had a feeling this drama was going to be good as soon as I saw Tyler Perry’s name on it. I haven’t seen all his Madea movies, and of those I have seen, I haven’t liked all of them equally well. But I loved Madea’s Witness Protection. It was obvious, watching it, that there is not just comedy here but some human wisdom as well. I don’t know whether Grace is Perry’s first drama, but it’s the first one I’ve noticed circulating. Something told me that after years of making movies, he would be maturing as a director and ready to make impactful dramas.

I wasn’t disappointed. Grace is a really good drama, in the sense that after watching it, I honestly feel as if I have personally been through Grace’s experience. As of this drafting, I watched it about 24 hours ago, and have been thinking about it more or less continually ever since.

The title character, Grace, is a lonely divorceé with a grown son. When the movie opens, we are told that she has killed “her husband,” and that this is really out of character as she is a Sunday School teacher who bakes cookies for the kids in the neighborhood, etc. But she has confessed to the murder. The young public defender who is assigned to Grace is expected to plea bargain, and it’s expected that this will be easy to do given Grace’s (up until now) stellar character. For different reasons, the public defender starts digging in to what really happened. And from those events flows the title of this post.

In a series of flashbacks, we see Grace fall in to an unexpected romance with a younger man. (It’s hard to tell his age exactly. I first thought he might be about 10 years younger that she is, but it later seems it’s closer to 20.) This man pursues her, and at first she is skeptical. She even asks him flat-out, “You have probably been with many attractive younger women. Why me?”

He answers very wisely, “We tend to do that to ourselves as people. We ask, ‘Why should this good thing happen to me?’ The real question is, Why not you?”

Over a three-month courtship he overcomes her defenses. They talk for hours. Even at this stage there are a few red flags. For example, on their very first date he tells her, “As you get older, you start to get interested in people who have a wise way of looking at the world. You are a woman who sees the world etc. etc.” But at this point he’s only known her for a few hours. He started pursuing her literally after only a few minutes of conversation. He has not had time to find out how she views the world. This is flattery. But it’s done so sincerely.

He also, with remarkable insight, says to her, “There’s this thing you do. You’re judging. Stop it.” Of course, she is judging. She is an upright older woman. She is always judging herself and others. This is how we live. Hence, this young man could probably say this to any older woman and be 100% correct. But at the time, it seems like a sensitive perception. Later it becomes obvious that he was trying to get her to turn off her faculties of judgment for reasons of his own.

After an incredibly romantic proposal scene, Grace marries this man. She’s never been happier. She never felt this loved and understood, even with her first husband who later left her for his secretary.

Then, within a few months of getting married, she finds out that her new husband has: taken out a huge new mortgage on her house (which was previously paid for) … stolen her passwords, forged her signature, and embezzled funds from the bank where she works. She loses her job. The mortgage is unpaid, and she has no way to pay it. She is facing losing her house and possible jail time. She calls the police, but legally her house is now her husband’s and they can do nothing. It becomes obvious that the entire courtship and marriage were a scam.

Even then, she doesn’t kill him. She keeps trying legal ways to get him out of her house, but there are none. She is reduced to repeating emptily, “I want you to give me back my money.”

Finally comes the scene where Young Husband is justifying himself. This man who seemed so understanding and caring is sitting with his back to Grace, sprawled in a chair, saying casually, “Actually, the way I see it, you owe me that money for all the sex and all the joy I gave you. Women your age … you’re low-hanging fruit. In a way, if you think about it, all this is your own f—ing fault for making this so f—ing easy. For being weak.”

By this point in the movie, I already knew she was going to kill him and I was pretty sure this was the scene where it was going to happen. But I was confused. I didn’t see a gun anywhere in the house, and wasn’t sure Grace would even know how to use one.

Then I saw her walking up behind him with a baseball bat, and honestly, my impulse was to jump off the sofa and scream, “Do it! Do it!”

Once she does it, of course, her life is completely ruined. She is now a murderer.

Watching this, we are forced to ask ourselves … “In Grace’s position, would I fall for this?”

I can’t arrive at any answer other than Probably Yes.

Grace is about my age, give or take 10 years. I happen to be happily married. But what if I wasn’t? What if I had a job at a bank and a house that was paid for? It’s quite a blow to the pride to admit to yourself that these things are more appealing to a young man than your very soul. Not to mention your body, which after all was once considered attractive.

Grace isn’t stupid. She’s pretty savvy, actually. And she has been scarred by divorce. Yet she still falls for this extremely cruel scam. Primarily because he puts her in a position where, in order not to fall for it, she would have to decide she is basically worthless as a person.

So I guess you could call this movie a public service announcement.

The Curiously Affirming Female Figurines of Ancient Europe

Trigger warning: statue of a naked fat lady

This post is the second in a series of posts based on chapters from this book:

The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley, Touchstone, 2000.

As Rudgley writes in the Introduction:

In this book I will show … how great is the debt of historical societies to their prehistoric counterparts in all spheres of cultural life; and how civilised in many respects were those human cultures that have been reviled as savage.

Ibid, p. 1

What do you mean, “Stone Age”?

“Stone Age,” of course, sounds very ancient, and that is by design. But when Rudgley talks about the Stone Age, often the dates involved are “only” about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago (approximately the time we think that people were crossing the Land Bridge). This falls before the beginning of recorded history — we think — unless we are willing to accept local origin myths worldwide as inevitably garbled historical records. After the small amount of study I have done about the historicity of myths, of Genesis, and of the many amazing prehistoric engineering feats, I no longer think of Stone Age people as “cave men,” but rather as fully modern humans, certainly our intellectual equals and probably our superiors. For my disclaimer about the dating of archaeological sites and prehistoric events, see my last post about Rudgley, here.

The “Venuses” of Eurasia

Chapter 14 of Rudgley (pp 184 – 200) discusses the large number of small female figurines which have been found all over Europe and as far east as Siberia. These are called “Venuses,” though of course they would not have been called that by the original artists. They were being produced (if we take the dating at face value) over a period of many thousands of years.

The oldest one, according to Rudgley, dates to the Aurignacian age, about 31,000 years ago: “the Venus of Galgenburg [Austria].” It is 7 mm tall, made of a soft green stone, and is artistically sophisticated. The figure is posed as if dancing. She is bearing her weight on her left leg. The right leg is carved free of the left and braces on the base of the figure. The right arm is carved free of the body, with the hand bracing on the knee. Clearly the sculptor knew what he or she was doing when it came to posing the figure, carving free limbs that would not break off, and piercing through the material without breaking it. Since this is (by hypothesis) the oldest such figure that we have, it’s clear that we don’t have a case of an artistic tradition that started out crude and later became more advanced. (pp 192 – 194)

Probably the best-known of these figures is the Venus of Willendorf (also found in Austria).

When I was first exposed (pun not intended) to this little figurine, it was introduced to me simply as “the mother goddess.” Although shocking to modern eyes, it is certainly a work of art. As you can see, it has no face, but it has a considerable amount of detail in odd places such as the knees, private parts, and hairdo. The hair looks a bit like corn rows to me, but could also be braids wrapped around the head or even styled curls a la the Babylonian kings. “Alexander Marshack believes the coiffure of the Willendorf figurine may be one of the symbols of a mature and fertile woman” (198).

Not all of the Stone Age Venuses are fat or naked.

Bednarik is very skeptical about the usefulness of lumping all female figurines of the period together, noting that they are extremely diverse in numerous ways. Some are naked; others partly or fully clothed. Some are in pregnant condition; others are not. Some are fat to the point of obesity, whilst others are very slender. Beyond the fact that they all depict females and most come from the same period of the Upper Palaeolithic, they appear to have little in common.

Ibid, p. 197

The Meaning of the Venuses

Figures like the Willendorf Venus are very intriguing to some people, for obvious reasons. The explanation most ready to hand is that they are artifacts of some kind of fertility religion. This explanation is the more intuitive because of what we know about the importance that fertility often plays in pagan religions worldwide.

Marija Gimbutas has taken these figures and other evidence to posit a wide-ranging “civilization of the goddess” in Old Europe. (She published a book with that title in 1991.) She deduces (or speculates) quite a lot about this religion from Venus artifacts and from other sources. Her thesis is that the gentle, goddess-worshipping Old Europeans were overrun by warlike worshippers of a sky god coming from the Eurasian steppes (i.e. the Indo-Europeans). Gimbutas’ work had quite a strong influence on one of my high school literature teachers, who emphasized to us that worshipers of a male sky god “always” come to rape, pillage and plunder, steal, kill, and destroy. (At this point, the neo-pagans in the class would give the Christians the side eye.) We will deal with Gimbutas in another post, probably later this year.

In Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear books, the venuses are definitely symbols of a goddess of fertility and sexuality. Her male lead Jondalar comes from a matriarchal society in western Europe where the figurines are referred to as doni. Jondalar, when distressed, will even exclaim, “Oh, Doni!” The female lead Ayla, meanwhile, was raised by Neanderthals, who in Auel’s books severely oppress their women (because, of course, they fear their procreative power).

Moving even farther along the continuum of being obsessed with sex, Rudgley’s chapter includes a hilarious discussion of how some archaeologists have gotten over-excited and begun to interpret nearly all Palaeolithic art as porn.

It has been suggested that another important aspect of Aurignacian art was their liberal and frequent use of sexual imagery, particularly … female genitalia. This theory was first developed by l’Abbe Breuil … The idea soon caught on among French prehistorians and became something of a dogma, and various shapes engraved in stone … that looked vaguely like a vulva were automatically perceived as such by scholars eager to discover further proof of the prehistoric obsession with sexual matters. … Perhaps the most absurd example of all is a description of a simple straight line as a representation of the vaginal opening.

Ibid, pp. 194 – 195

It just cracks me up that these were French prehistorians. Of course they were. Of course.

Rudgley sums up in a way that I think is quite reasonable and balanced:

[T]he fact that the figurines are found across a huge geographical area and a period of thousands and thousands of years means that it would be ridiculous to think that they all symbolised the same thing to their extremely diverse makers. It is quite apparent that the female body was used to express numerous concerns in Palaeolithic times. [198]

We can now see how any crude explanation of the Willendorf figurine as simply a fertility figure or an object of sexual desire is entirely inadequate. The representation of the female body during the Upper Palaeolithic period … was a symbol of cosmological significance that was able to express all aspects of Palaeolithic human concerns. [199]

If the female body was one of the most widespread and elaborate images of the Old Stone Age, and a symbol for the various forces of nature and the various aspects of culture, would it really be so far from the mark to believe that the figurines actually embody aspects of the Palaeolithic worship of a goddess? [200]

Rudgley, Lost Civilizations, chapter 14

… So, Why Are They Affirming Again?

Well, obviously, on the most superficial level, the Willendorf Venus is an implied affirmation to any modern woman who is pregnant, aging, or concerned about her weight. Somebody worked very hard to portray this lady.

On a slightly deeper level, our modern culture is one that really hates the idea of motherhood. We don’t like the idea that potential motherhood is a defining characteristic of being a woman, or that it might be a worthy or even glorious goal. Unfortunately for our tidy little minds, though, motherhood (besides being a kind of superpower) is in fact a built-in goal in the design of women. Which means that knocking it as a role and calling is pretty hard on women, even those who don’t realize it, because we, as a culture, are constantly asking them, in a thousand ways large and small, if for the sake of decency they could please not exist.

In this kind of environment, it’s a tonic to know that it was not always thus. There could exist – there apparently did exist – a culture that greatly valued, perhaps even worshiped, mothers. You don’t have to be an acolyte of the goddess to appreciate the boost this gives women.

Worshiping a good thing, rather than its creator, is idolatry and idols always turn on their followers. Thus, a religion of motherhood certainly would have come with its own distortions and injustices (such as devaluing infertile women, as we see in the Old Testament). But still … it’s nice to know that at one time a mature, even obese woman was considered a thing so good that she could possibly be worshiped.

I am dealing with this topic not because I feel a particular affinity for it. I don’t enjoy looking at the Venus of Willendorf, and despite the paragraph above I would not want to look like her. I tackled these figurines because my area of interest is prehistory, and durned if they don’t show up in it. Finding out how affirming they are to women was just an unexpected bonus. And if they do feel really weird even as they are affirming, I think the weirdness comes because they are from such a different culture.

So. This book.

A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out, by Sally Franson, 2018. I read the Center Point Large Print version.

From the jacket:

Casey Pendergast is losing her way. Once a book-loving English major, Casey lands a job at a top ad agency that highly values her ability to tell a good story. Her best friend thinks she’s a sellout, but Casey tells herself she’s just paying the bills – and she can’t help that she has champagne taste.

When her hard-to-please boss assigns her to a top-secret campaign that pairs literary authors with corporations hungry for upmarket cachet, Casey is both excited and skeptical. But as she crisscrosses America, wooing her former idols, she’s shocked at how quickly they compromise their integrity …

When she falls in love with one of her authors, Casey can no longer ignore her own nagging doubts about the human cost of her success. By the time the year’s biggest book festival rolls around in Las Vegas, it will take every ounce of Casey’s moxie to undo the damage – and, hopefully, save her own soul.

How could I not pick up a book that has the former English major main character falling in love with an author? And since Casey was going to “the year’s biggest book festival,” I also hoped this book might teach me something about the industry.

It didn’t.

I enjoyed it, it was a page turner, but in retrospect, most of the colorful characters – including the evil corporations, the evil advertising exec, and even the quirky authors – were kind of … stereotype-y? Also, the book kept smacking me in the face with its politics. It was pretty subtly done, but I guess, as author and an avid reader, I could see the strings moving.

The Good

First, the good part. Casey herself is not stereotype-y. The author had to write a character who was sympathetic, but unaware enough to participate, for most of the book, in activities that – in the world of the book – are considered “selling out.” So Casey is complex. She’s smart and analytical, has mommy and daddy issues (the mommy issues drive her career path), and does a great job documenting her own self-deception.

She is also, though socially vivacious, an empath and an introvert:

Before I met [my writer friend Susan], I’d spent my whole life feeling a few clicks on the dial away from everyone I knew. Not that you could tell necessarily – I was popular and all that growing up, lots of friends, guys buzzing around like big horseflies – but there was this static in the air when I was around other people. Sometimes I’d even cancel plans, feigning illness, in order to stay home and read novels and fiddle with the antenna in my brain, trying to get a clear signal. Sometimes I’d go days, weeks, without it, the dull hissing unceasing. The static only seemed to stop, or my brain could only tune in to the world properly, when I was taking walks or reading novels. In other words, when I was alone.

Oh well, I’d thought then, sucks for me I only get clarity by myself, everyone else seems to be getting on fine. Weirdo. Probably best to pretend the static doesn’t exist.

pp 14 – 15

The “static” is the way Casey can sense other people’s thoughts and emotions.

This is a terrific description of the inner life of an introvert/empath.

It’s also a good example of how, contrary to what you might expect, feeling other people’s feelings does not necessarily endow a person with good social skills. Quite the opposite. Sometimes it can be quite overwhelming, and the empath will withdraw, or will wildly act out the emotion that’s already flying around the room.

The Bad

A number of things bothered me about this novel. Let’s start with the reverse sexism:

In the aftermath of our efforts to hold these men responsible, we realized we didn’t possess the power to do that. We were just a couple of nobodies, a couple of ladies. Men were innocent until proven guilty. Women were crazy until they were believed.

page 352

Yeah, I don’t know any men who have been publicly shamed on the Internet … who have lost their jobs, been called names, received death threats, been unable to get their side of the story out there, or been unable to recover their reputation.

Sure, powerful people exploit less powerful people all the time. People unfairly get their reputations ruined all the time too. But this does not divide neatly along the lines of sex. Social power is so much more complex than that. Interestingly, the book seems to recognize this sometimes, except when it forgets itself and wants to beat us on the head with its Message.

Then there is the book’s incoherent attitude towards money. In trying to convince Casey to get authors to rep dying companies, her boss tells her cynically, “You’d be surprised what people are willing to do when you put enough money on the table.” And, for most of the authors, they agree to the deal realizing that they are being used, but wanting the money for a noble cause (taking care of an ailing mother, opening an animal shelter, etc.).

But then Casey goes to meet her literary hero, also the book’s villain, and hears him speak at a book festival:

Beyond the obvious problems of his sick wife’s medical bills, Julian didn’t appear to be motivated by money — a sure sign that he’d grown up with a fair amount of it.

page 310

So, we are selling out if we need some money and are willing to work for it … but not wanting to make money is also, it’s implied, a sign of culpable privilege. It sounds like we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Reminds me of that scene in Time Bandits where Robin Hood and his men are giving bags of gold to a line of poor people. As soon as anyone receives his gold, he takes a few steps crying out, “I’m rich!” … until the next Merry Man punches him in the face and takes the bag away again because, after all, he is now rich, and must be punished.

Speaking of the book festival, when Casey first arrives there,

The crowd at the fair was mixed in the way of gender, and about as mixed in skin color as, say, a gallon drum of vanilla ice cream.

page 294

Now, I have never been to the country’s biggest annual book fair (because it’s for actual, published authors). So maybe this racial critique is true. But it feels made-up.

At the one writer’s convention I attended, we had a mix of races, ages, both sexes. The keynote speaker was a woman of color. She got up and told us that when she got to grad school, she found out that all her favorite books from childhood (which included some of my favorites, such as the Chronicles of Narnia), “were racist.” She then showed us this hurtful graphic:

The stats themselves are disturbing, but so is the presentation. In this picture, the kid that looks most like one of my kids (the kid on right) is a horrible little narcissist, reading books for the sole purpose of seeing himself reflected in them. It’s assumed he identifies with any white character in any book, regardless of whether that character is, say, out in space or living 1000 years ago, as long as the character is white … but he can’t identify with a main character of color. Apparently this kid doesn’t want to read about anyone who isn’t racially like himself. Sounds exciting. I guess he is not making the literary choices that I made as a kid, which was to seek out books about Native American kids and passionately wish I could be one.

Meanwhile, the bunny rabbit is joyfully reading a book about himself. I can’t believe that I have to point this out, but … animals don’t read? So, obviously, animal characters are intended to be relatable all children? So, even if we are going to make a chart showing which races are represented in a given year in children’s books, animals should not be on there? Because they are not an interest group in competition with kids of color? But our keynote speaker thought they were. She noted with an eye roll that there were even “more animals” than black children in 2015 children’s books.

I don’t think the most important thing about a book is the color of its characters, readers, or author. Even so, I can understand why we might want more different colors and cultures in children’s books. A book is more than a mirror, but not less than one.

That said, this information could have been presented in a form that didn’t demonize the white kid or imply that kids only want to read about themselves. It could have been presented as a pie chart. Or the graphic could have had a variety of different children, gathered around, reading all the books that are there. That would have been more like real life. The animal books, if they were included at all, should have gone into each category. Also, there are tons of books with a multiracial cast. I’m not sure how this chart handled those, but I can guess.

As it is, the message I got from the keynote speech (not, thankfully, from the whole conference) was this:

“So that readers of color don’t feel left out, we need more books starring characters of color. [So far so good.] But it’s stupid when we have white writers writing about characters of color. [OK, possibly.] Wouldn’t it make more sense to have people write about their own culture?”

Yes, perhaps, with the caveat that writers usually write far beyond their own experience, and that this is in fact a critical part of the writing process and the reading adventure. Also, it’s a fallacy that no writer can really identify with any person who is not of their own tribe. Taking this logic to its conclusion, the only thing anyone can really write with honesty is autobiography. Say goodbye to fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction.

It was a weird feeling being walked through this logic. While I didn’t disagree with the intermediate steps, after doing the math, the unavoidable conclusion is that I am not allowed to write anything any more because I am the wrong color. There are already way too many characters “like me” out there, and I am not allowed to write about anyone who’s not “like me.” (Bwa ha ha … of course, little do they know how weird I am! There is no one like me in the world!)

So, yeah, my experience of a writer’s conference was emphatically not a tub of vanilla ice cream. More like a “Stop writing, white author.”

About Forgiveness

Ahem. Back to A Lady’s Guide.

Susan says forgiveness is just a philosophical construction anyway, a con put in place by those in power against those who have no power, so that the responsibility of coming to terms with bad shit keeps falling to the latter.

So instead I believe in forgiverness, which to me means waiting for these a**holes who f*cked me up to take some responsibility for their actions. And I, in order to make this practice copacetic, will have to in turn approach those with whom I grievously f*cked, bowing my head and admitting that I, too must take responsibility, and no, I don’t want their forgiveness; I’m just coming around to own up to what I did. If they forgive me, great. But that’s not the point.

page 406

What a strange mixture of insight and incoherence.

First, note the assumption that there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who “have power,” and those who don’t. That these categories never shift. That sin is never committed by those who have less power.

But the really odd thing is that this book, and even this passage, does seem to understand the need for forgiveness. Casey realizes that she has wronged other people. There are several relationships in the book where, indeed, she does need to be forgiven in order for the relationship to proceed.

I think at the bottom of this passage is a misunderstanding of what forgiveness means. Susan (and Casey) seem to think it means passing over wrongdoing, doing nothing about it, not calling the person to account. Offering forgiveness to those who have not repented. That is not what it means, at least not in Biblical categories.

Casey realizes that forgiveness without repentance won’t do, because in the very next paragraph she describes her own need to repent to those she has wronged (she calls it “taking responsibility.”) But then she adds, “I don’t want their forgiveness.” This might be true in the case of some people, who are enemies, whom, after repenting, she might have no desire to see again. But I can’t believe it’s true about her best friend, or about her love interest. The whole point of forgiveness is so that the relationship can continue. This is why it’s not just about power. Every person, powerful or not, has intimate relationships that they need to continue long-term. Every person wrongs people within those intimate relationships. Therefore, every relationship has to proceed on forgiveness if it’s not going to stall out.

And In Conclusion

So, I’m not quite sure how to land this plane. Lady’s Guide was a fine book, well-written, lots of insight about the little things plus some big lies about the bigger ones. I went back and forth between feeling that the book loved me (I’m a woman, an author, an introvert) and that it hated me (I’m white though not wealthy, a Christian, and a social conservative).

I guess the best way to sum it is up is that my reaction, on nearly every page, was,

“I see what you’re doing there.”

Bashing our Heads Against the Brick Wall of Reality

The headline was pure clickbait.

“A Viral Google Memo Alleges Retaliation Against A Pregnant Manager.”

At least, that was the headline back in August when I first noticed the article. The headline has since been changed to,

“A Leaked Google Memo Exposes the Fallacy of ‘Generous’ Parental Leave”

That’s a lot less clickbaity, but the first paragraph is still pretty damning for Google:

On Monday, Motherboard re-published a memo written by a Google employee with the title, “I’m Not Returning to Google After Maternity Leave, and Here is Why.” First posted on an internal message board, it details a now-departing employee’s allegations of pregnancy-related discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The memo writer alleges that a manager made sexist and derogatory remarks about a coworker who might have been pregnant before retaliating following a related HR complaint. When the memo writer herself became pregnant, she says things got even worse.

op. cit.

Let’s find out what these sexist and derogatory things were. I am going to give you my take on this article, and you are welcome to click on the link, read it yourself, and draw you own conclusions.

 The writer of this latest viral memo … was a manager at Google when she says her own manager “started making inappropriate comments” about a member of her team, “including that the Googler was likely pregnant again and was overly emotional and hard to work with when pregnant.”

op. cit.

Hmm, the third party was “overly emotional and hard to work with when pregnant?” Does that sound like a thing that ever happens? Do you suppose it’s ever happened before? Oh, yes, it must have happened, to this very person, because the manager said the Googler was “likely pregnant again.”  So perhaps the manager is speaking from direct, even recent personal experience. And perhaps his or her words are, in some sense, true.

It is well known to all people with a brain that many women become emotional and forgetful when pregnant.  We also become easily fatigued. This could make us difficult to work with, especially in a high-pressure, fast-moving, competitive work environment.

This is not a slam on women. Pregnancy is a major life event. It drains the energy from your body, often makes you physically miserable, and messes with your hormones and, yes, your emotions something fierce. It is, in fact, a full-time job. It would be surprising if such a major physiological event weren’t.

 She continues, “My manager also discussed this person’s likely pregnancy-related mental health struggles and how it’s difficult because, ‘you can’t touch employees after they disclose such things.’” The author felt her manager was encouraging her “to manage the member of my staff off of the team.”

She says she then reached out to HR with a complaint and “almost immediately” found that her manager’s “demeanor towards me changed, and drastically.” The employee alleges “months of angry chats and emails, vetoed projects, her ignoring me during in-person encounters, and public shaming,” as well as the manager “sharing reputation-damaging remarks with other more senior Googlers” and “actively interviewing candidates to replace me.”

op.cit.

Wait a minute. Her? Her??? The evil, pregnancy-retaliating manager is a woman??? Don’t you think this might be relevant?  Yes, yes, I know that women can be sexist against other women too, but given what we’ve already heard, I can’t help but think there might be more going on here.  Like maybe this female manager wasn’t looking forward to having to manage an emotionally unstable employee, and now she finds out she’s got another direct report who is complaining to HR, calling her a sexist, over remarks she made in an unguarded moment. Remarks which, perhaps, she expected that another woman would understand.  Clearly, she was mistaken.

At this point, I no longer trust the author of the memo accurately to describe her manager’s behavior.

After complaining again to HR, the employee says she was told there was “no evidence of retaliation.” Then, she says she was encouraged, and agreed, to find a role on another team, but was told that she wouldn’t be able to manage her new team “until after returning from maternity leave for fear that my maternity leave might ​‘stress the team’ and ‘rock the boat.’”

op. cit.

Maternity leave might stress the team and rock the boat? You mean if the team manager had to leave for several months? Nah, that doesn’t sound at all likely.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.

Then, she writes, she was diagnosed with “a pregnancy-related condition that was life-threatening” to both her and her baby, and which would require an early maternity leave and bedrest. She relayed this to her new manager, who then allegedly told her that “she had just listened to an NPR segment that debunked the benefits of bedrest” and shared a personal story about how she had personally ignored her doctor’s bedrest order while pregnant herself. “My manager then emphasized in this same meeting that a management role was no longer guaranteed upon my return from maternity leave, and that she supported my interviewing for other roles at Google,” she writes.

When she later wrote her manager announcing that she was “experiencing concerning symptoms” and would likely be starting her leave, she says she received back “an angry email letting me know I wasn’t meeting the expectations of someone at my level, nor meeting the expectations of a manager.” 

op. cit.

OK. It’s time for some reality here.  Maybe, just maybe, the childbearing years do not mix well with building a high-powered, team-managing career at Google.  Maybe this is the elephant in the room that is being ignored by everyone in this story, heroes and villains alike.

Obviously it is not good to discourage a pregnant woman with a life-threatening condition from going on bedrest when her doctor has recommended it. Nor is it good to tell someone else how to care for their own health problems based on your own personal experience.  What could be causing all this bad, arguably sexist (though I prefer the term anti-pregnancy) behavior from another woman?

Maybe it’s the cultural expectation that prenancy is not a big deal and should not in any way affect a woman’s ability to “meet the expectations of a manager.” Which, of course, it is and it does.

This is a subset of the bigger problem of wanting to pretend that men and women are exactly the same and should behave and been seen as exactly the same at all times. Or, rather than being a subset, this is more like the real road test of that idea. Can women behave and perform exactly the same as men … even when pregnant? Even when on bedrest?  And if they can’t, does this make them inferior? And if you say they can’t, does this make you anti-woman?

One Google employee who dared to say “men and women are not the same” was James Damore. Adding insult to injury, he is now used in this article as an example of sexist attitudes within Google. 

Then-engineer James Damore wrote a memo arguing against the company’s diversity efforts on the scientifically inaccurate grounds that women are less competent in the field of technology than men.

op. cit.

The only part of that sentence that is accurate is the phrase “then-engineer.” That’s because Damore lost his job for writing the infamous memo. But the way the article quotes him is extremely misleading. He did not “argue against the company’s diversity efforts.” He suggested that there might be a natural limit to the number of women Google was able to recruit and retain. He didn’t say that “women are less competent in the field of tech,” at least not that all women are. He said that, in general, women tend to be less drawn to that field.  This is not “scientifically inaccurate.”  It’s extremely well-documented. As Jordan Peterson has pointed out, in countries where people are allowed the maximum freedom to choose their careers, women tend to gravitate toward the helping professions and men tend to gravitate toward the hard sciences. 

What is scientifically inaccurate is the idea that women and men are exactly the same in mind and body, that pregnancy is a minor exception to this sacred truth, and that in the service of “equality,” pregnancy should at all costs be minimized, ignored, and if possible avoided altogether.

Certainly, goes the reigning orthodoxy, pregnancy shouldn’t be a big deal, shouldn’t change a woman’s work performance or lifestyle in any major way.  And if it does, somebody is due for some blame. Usually it’s the pregnant or newborn-having career woman, who “needs to figure out how to balance work and family” (translation: how to care for an infant without any help and without anyone else ever having to see or hear about the infant).  Occasionally, as in this article, the person who gets blamed is the woman’s manager, who dares to point out that her childbearing might have some impact on what she’s able to do at work.

People are flawed and sinful, and often, when we are blamed for something, it is at least partially justified. Not in this case. In this case, people are being blamed for not being able to enact a completely false picture of reality.  

Expecting women to combine their child-bearing years with their prime career-building years is unfair to everybody. As we see in this article, it puts managers, co-workers, and teams in a bad position. It also, of course, puts the young moms in a bad position, guaranteeing them a bad experience at work and robbing them of the ability to focus on their bodies and their babies during those childbearing years.

I’m not trying to guilt anybody here. Some young moms need to work so the family can get by. I get that. But we need to stop insisting that this arrangement is desirable for everyone … no big deal … easy … possible without something having to give, something having to suffer. Until we stop pretending, we’ll continue demonizing people (like the poor manager in the story above) rather than question the flawed doctrine.  That attitude, and not James Damore, is the real sexism.

Recommended reading: Maxed Out by Katrina Alcorn