Stuffit. [UPDATED]

May 29, 2010 at 1:17 pm (By Amba)

New bookcases were built and painted out on the porch, much sooner than I thought.  I could not have afforded them, but our friend Nathan, the karate teacher, paid for most of it in partial trade for my editing of his memoir.

Yesterday the bookcases were installed, and the unpacking of boxes commenced.  (Let me hasten to add for the cat fans that a cat tree awaits assembly to replace Box Mountain:  the cats have become addicted to napping near the ceiling.)  My reaction is surprising, or maybe not:  I recoiled from how much stuff we have — although I am helpless to effect a sweeping purge — and recoiled, especially, from the commitment implied by planting it all here.  I’d been feeling like “OK, this is home, for now,” and now I’m all “Hey, not so fast!”  (Fast?  The boxes have been piled against the dining-alcove wall for six months.)  The simple inertia of all that stuff makes moving again overwhelmingly aversive and unlikely.  Not that it was any likelier before yesterday — but the asceticism of having our stuff packed up and out of sight must have created a pleasant illusion of spareness and transiency.  Of being able to travel light, if one could travel.

And worse than the material inertia of it all is the weight of the past.  I made the mistake of opening a box I hadn’t opened before, one of the ones my parents sent me when they dismantled their Chicago apartment and gave me first pick of their library, including first editions and Paris-published banned books collected by my father’s bold bookseller mother.  That’s all wonderful, but the box I opened was warningly labeled “Non-Books.”  It was memorabilia that had moldered in my parents’ storage locker for decades:  waterskiing badges from summer camp, a spelling-bee plaque, Communist propaganda pamphlets in English picked up with horrified fascination in East Berlin in 1962, bluebooks from Harvard science exams (interesting only that it’s the science ones I saved), clippings of articles I’d forgotten writing . . . stuff of no conceivable interest to anyone but me, and of only tenuous interest to me.  I have no children to mock and cherish this archive of their own backstory.  If I don’t throw this stuff out, it will just have to be shoveled out of my digs by strangers after I die.

My past is unusually dead to me.  I feel almost no connection to the 30- and 31-year-old who wrote the neurotic and pretentious journals that were also in the box:  an Anaïs Ninny who wasted vast stretches of healthy youth in anguished introspection.  Maybe 5 percent of it is either observant or funny.  An astringent sense of humor begins to surface here and there, cutting the gunk like dispersant.  For the sake of one good joke would you save the city?

Moral:  don’t look back.  Your life may not add up.

Meanwhile, as the books come out of storage, I go in.  Every one I place in the shelf is another nail in my crate.  I feel like a Strasbourg goose having my feet nailed to the plank.

UPDATE: Now I’ve flipped and the books are making me feel rich.

Also, found these quotes in the old notebook/commonplace books.

And this mysterious body, this body whose transience we try to vainly to feel as a fact, is loved with a special reverence for continuing, miraculously, to live, and hated with a special loathing for promising, incredibly, to die.

*     *     *

The sinking sense of falling — loss of maternal support — is the permanent archetype of catastrophe.

Both are from The Mermaid and the Minotaur by Dorothy Dinnerstein, which relates to the Jimmy Buffett lyric, “Some people claim/ that there’s a woman to blame . . .” From Amazon reviews:

I read this book twenty years ago when I was in college. I found (and still find) Dinnerstein’s feminist argument for shared parenting to be one of those books that has the potential to change lives. . . . The kernel of her argument is that so long as we all are raised (exclusively or predominantly) by our mothers or by female caregivers, children will grow up with a deep-seated resentment of the feminine (since no parent can perfectly anticipate a child’s needs, and all children, in growing up, will be conditioned by our infantile rage at our parent’s imperfections). . . . At the age of twenty, I was persuaded by Dinnerstein to be (when I did have kids) an active and equal participant in the raising of my children, from changing diapers to feeding and everything else. I was so convinced of the importance of her analysis, and of its potential to change lives, that I have, in the past few decades, bought and given away as gifts eighty-eight copies to male and female friends. (I figured that if I just told people what a great book it was, few would follow up, but that if I actually bought it and thrust it into their hands, they might be moved to actually read it.) I’m not sure how many of these were actually read by the recipients. But I can report that out of 88 copies given away, eight people came to me afterward and said something to the effect of, “This book changed my life.”

*      *      *
Dinnerstein also relates the fear of death to how women rule the infant’s world and men the adult’s world. Seem unrelated? Phrase “womb to tomb” captures it best perhaps.

*       *       *

it is not “just another” “feminist ” title. Indeed quite a few feminists have objected mightily to it over the years. The big problem, though, it that it has been roundly ignored over the years!

I agree.  The book made enormous sense to me, especially in explaining the cruel control of women in so many traditional cultures.  Its influence still lingers.  (Matter of fact, I’ll cross-post this last part at Cloven Not Crested.)


  1. reader_iam said,

    Well, *I’m* grateful for that faraway, disconnected young woman who in one way or another birthed the outstanding person I’ve been blessed to come to know, admire and consider a true friend of the heart over the past few years.

  2. Jason (the commenter) said,


  3. Danny said,

    I am literally weak in the knees at the possibility of you throwing that box out. True, I am a borderline hoarder, but everything you mentioned in that box sounds like GOLD to me and I want to meticulously go through every morsel. Can I please be the official archivist of the Annie Gottlieb Collection? DON’T THROW ANYTHING OUT! Oh, and the Strasbourg goose metaphor was pure brilliance.

    On a related note, we may be passing through Durham in late August courtesy of Buick (for whom I am now a part-time corporate shill). Will you be there then? Don’t make me have to go through your trashcans, missy!

  4. Donna B. said,

    I’m with Danny – don’t toss it. Not yet anyway. You have nieces and nephews don’t you? Family is family!

    But then I’m a hoarder when it comes to anything remotely resembling a family heirloom.

  5. amba12 said,

    Ohhhhh . . . Danny to the rescue!! Danny, not only are you a natural-born archivist and appreciator of the past, but you are family! After all, you and David were switched several times until nobody knew who was which!

    I’m so relieved, because I’m not a thrower-outer either, Donna (or an eBayer, Jason — eBaying at the moon??). I have trouble deleting a one-word e-mail from anyone I love.

  6. Donna B. said,


    Now on to those books… If you blog about them that would be a great way for us to come up with a summer reading list.

  7. Ron said,

    Ah, but you can’t be who you are now without having gone through what you were then…

    Amor Fati

  8. reader_iam said,

  9. Donna B. said,

    Of course I have not read the book your update is about… BUT

    I have witnessed my daughters and sons-in-law parenting as well as my own father, the father of my children, and their step-father.

    My own upbringing? I have no idea whether my father ever changed my diaper or not. But I do know that he changed my little sister’s whenever he needed to. And he took us with him to work as often as he could and he was fortunate to be able to do so (ie, he was the boss.)

    He was the boss… that had a lot to do with my raising, I suspect. My earliest memory is of handing my father nails while he was building the house we were to live in for the next 5 years. (That house is still in the family, though it’s a tiny part of extensions built later not only by my father but also by his brother and his his brother’s offspring.)

    Well into my teenage years, I remember handing my father tools… and we both laughed just a few years ago when I couldn’t find the tool he needed because he was laying on it… and complaining of his shoulder hurting.

    One thing my husband is a bit uncomfortable with is that I have a somewhat instinctive sense about a car’s performance that he lacks. I think this is entirely because I spent so much time with my father fixing cars and listening to him talk his way through the repairs.

    This habit… or talent? of talking the way through whatever he was doing is something my mother lacked. When she was trying to teach me sew, it was a real effort for her to tell me each step and why. This came naturally to my father.

    This does not mean my mother did not teach me how to sew… but her method was more of the “I’ll show you” type without an explanation as to why.

    Why is one of the things I have found that I really need to know. Yet the older I get, the more likely I am to accept “just because that’s the way it is” as a valid reason. Go figure!

    If that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry… it doesn’t make sense to me either!

    Fast forward… to my sons-in-law. One of them I think is likely to be “taken in” by his children. He simply cannot stand for them to hurt in any physical or emotional way. My oldest grandchild is his – age 5 now and I have witnessed this man overcome his own fears of his child being hurt… and since he’s got 2 more children now, he’s becoming quite pragmatic in his attitude. Still… both he and my daughter know he is a sucker. His children “own” him in a way that I have not witnessed before. I don’t know how this is going to play out.

    Another is determined that his children will obey him at the drop of his hat. And… I have problems with that. His oldest turned 3 this last Feb. and I think that 3 year olds should be given a little bit of time and leeway to respond to commands… unless those commands have to do with safety. This is where we disagree… and have agreed to disagree.

    Yet this man is more than willing to change diapers and has been fully involved in every aspect of his children’s upbringing. If you want a swaddling expert, he’s the one to consult.

    It’s my husband’s actions that are strange to me… and perhaps he is the norm? He is my 2nd husband… my 1st having died when my oldest child was 10. He is very good with toddlers who have been toilet trained, but he has no idea how to hold a newborn baby and though he could probably manage it in an emergency, would not how to change a baby’s diaper.

    He is completely awkward with newborns… and babies up to about 10 months. He thinks they are cute… but please don’t leave one in his care for more than 10 minutes.

    I wonder about the cultural differences between my father’s time (born in the early 1920s) and my husband’s (born in the early 1940s).

    The huge difference (I think) is that my father was born during a time when everyone in the family pulled together to make ends meet and that my husband was born during a time when the breadwinner was the father and the mother was subordinate.

    It’s my opinion that “feminism” became popular during the 1950s and 60s because that was a time during which women found themselves subordinate in the family. Before that time, women might have been legally subordinate but were equally (monetarily) very important to the family.

    Just my silly theory….

  10. amba12 said,

    One thing my husband is a bit uncomfortable with is that I have a somewhat instinctive sense about a car’s performance that he lacks.

    Mechanical aptitude is not sex-linked. I inherited it from my mother. Neither of us has cultivated it to the degree we could (working on cars, e.g.), and this is clearly because of the cultural biases of the 1940s and ’50s. But she and I are the ones who can just figure out how to assemble things and repair things.

    The huge difference (I think) is that my father was born during a time when everyone in the family pulled together to make ends meet and that my husband was born during a time when the breadwinner was the father and the mother was subordinate.

    That is absolutely fascinating!! I suspect you’re right. Would you mind copying this comment at the other blog (Cloven Not Crested)?!

    My husband grew up in a family where it was cool for men to gag at the sight of a full diaper and where a three-year-old got smacked in the face for making noise. That was J’s father. The family was well-to-do and most of the messy work of small-child care wasn’t done by his mother either — she was the household manager — he had his own nursemaid, who was Hungarian (it was a 5-ethnic-group world, Transylvania — Saxons like J, Romanians, Hungarians, Jews and Gypsies — and they had worked out a pretty good modus vivendi until Hitler), so Hungarian was his first language. (I think he’d had a Gypsy wet nurse as a baby.) The result of his father’s “discipline” was that he consciously agreed that his father was right (it was one of the reasons I was afraid to have a child with him), but also identified with his mother, to the extent that people have called him a “male earth mother,” and as an adult had very satisfying dreams of decking his father, whom he never saw again after being taken to Russia. As in all things, he is both extremes on every continuum, and probably would have smacked a small child the way his father did, but would also have slung diapers without batting an eye.

  11. Donna B. said,

    So how did I miss out on Cloven Not Crested for this long?

  12. amba12 said,

    My failure, I’m sure.

    Its slogan is “We are broad minded.” Pun intended. It is open to just about any point of view on the subject of women and power (although I’m sure there are a few I would bridle at).

  13. William O. B'Livion said,

    “Maybe 5 percent of it is either observant or funny. ”

    You were doing better back then that most professional writers.

    “The kernel of her argument is that so long as we all are raised (exclusively or predominantly) by our mothers or by female caregivers, children will grow up with a deep-seated resentment of the feminine (since no parent can perfectly anticipate a child’s needs, and all children,”

    This is horse shit.

    The vast *VAST* majority of people I know love their mothers.

    Funny story. My child is named after one of her Great Aunts (Helen). Helen had 4 boys. The *small* one was in excess of 6’2 and 200 pounds in his prime. These are (well, were) the kind of boys who don’t pull wings off flies because to do that you have to sit still. These were the kinds of boys who stole *MAN HOLE COVERS* to make a weight set with.

    In short, one of the strongest willed women I’d ever known.

    When she was dying (a multi-year process) she was in the hospital and didn’t want to eat.

    She’s laying in a hospital bed and one of her kids comes in. She doesn’t want to eat. He wants her to eat.

    “Mom, eat this”.
    “Open your mouth Mom, here comes the airplane”
    “G-D it stop”

    She ate, and got out of the hospital for a while, and might have even managed to see one of her grand kids get married and have her first great-grandchild.

    Because her kids loved her enough to get someone in there every day to make sure she ate.

    Yeah, teenagers may have some sort of idiotic (they are teens) resentment because their needs are imperfectly met, but teens think all sorts of stupid shit, which is why they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Fortunately even when we do allow them to, they don’t bother.

  14. William O. B'Livion said,

    Another is determined that his children will obey him at the drop of his hat. And… I have problems with that. His oldest turned 3 this last Feb. and I think that 3 year olds should be given a little bit of time and leeway to respond to commands… unless those commands have to do with safety.

    He needs to develop at least two different voices that he uses to give those commands. Little children (I have one) do not know danger from dinner.

    “Helen eat your food” is a different tone (the first 30 times) than “Helen, time for bed” which is given in a different tone than “**STOP**” when she’s two steps from the curb.

    And yes, I DO expect my child to obey me. I will not *tell* her to do something that I think she can have a say in.

  15. amba12 said,

    C’mon, William, don’t be pretend-simple. This is psychoanalytic thinking, which we’ve pretty much forgotten how to do, which is mostly to the good. But when well done, it tapped into a dimension that nothing else does. She didn’t say people grew up with a deep-seated resentment of their mothers. She said a deep-seated resentment of “the feminine.” Why do we say “Life’s a bitch,” not “Life’s a bastard” (or “Life’s a son of a bitch”)? That’s her point (although I don’t think she ever used that example).

    Psychoanalysts tried to imagine an infant’s early consciousness before it knew where it left off and the mother began. An infant is sometimes comfortable, sometimes uncomfortable. These sensations utterly fill its world. It hasn’t got the mental tools to classify or explain them or to tell itself “This too shall pass.” When uncomfortable, it screams with pain or sometimes with what sounds like rage. As the infant comes to grasp that someone is fulfilling its needs, when its needs are (however temporarily) unmet — and it has no sense of time or “soon,” only “now” — it feels that the source of pleasure and relief has become the source of pain and deprivation. And when all an infant’s caregivers are female, the target of that primitive rage, which stays alive but locked up in the basement of the psyche, is female.

    What mainly impressed me about the theory was how well it explained the mistrust and brutal control of women in so many traditional cultures. Because women give birth and nurse, I am not sure the newest new father can ever completely correct this. But Dinnerstein thought at least the brunt of an infant’s most primal emotions, positive and negative, could be borne somewhat more equitably by the two sexes, and then women wouldn’t be the scapegoats for all life’s insults — or the source of all its bounties. Women would actually have less exclusive primal power, and that would make it less threatening when they had other kinds of power.

    Melanie Klein had a truly dreadful version of this, having to do with the “good breast” and the “bad breast,” or something like that. Indigestible. But Dinnerstein was a much more humane and poetic writer.

  16. amba12 said,

    Wonderful story about great-aunt Helen and her sons. Thank you.

  17. William O. B'Livion said,

    It’s not being pretend simple. Sometimes shit ISN’T complex or deep or has cosmic ramifications, it’s just what it is. To quote Sigmund Fraud, “Sometimes a Cigar is just a Cigar”. Though probably not in his case.

    Note too that Bastard is a pejorative. As are both “Dick” and “Cunt”. Asshole is generally gender neutral.

    Bitch is more cutting to women because the feminists have taught them to that they are less than men, and that we think less of them.

    “Psychoanalysts tried to imagine an infant’s early consciousness before it knew where it left off and the mother began. ”

    I knew these two punks (as in Mohawks and drug problems) who dropped acid and started to imagine that the snow was trying to eat them. The difference is that these two punks eventually figured out that if they went inside, not only would the snow not eat them, but they’d be warmer. Oh, and eventually the acid wore off. Well I assume it did. Those two were weird enough that it was hard to tell. One of them was particularly fucked up because his mother called him by one set of names and his father a completely different one. As in “Tony Smith” and “John Carter” different. Must have been a bad divorce.

    I have little faith in those whose approach to mind ignores the brain, just as those who approach to brain ignores the mind.

    As a father of two (but a dad only to one), I think the Psychoanalysts, in pursuit of the truth, accolades, or even a paper may have over thought the issue. They were implying a level of sophistication to a tool that has not yet developed it. We “know” that a child’s brain continues to develop, if properly nourished and stimulated, into the late teens or early twenties when the proper physical structures are in place to allow for longer term planning (at least one of the reasons that 10 year olds don’t generally plan long term is they don’t have the hardware, and have to “fake it in software”. This means that those “programs” cannot be running all the time in most kids).

    If you “back propagate” this you start to realize that infants simply don’t have the *physical structures* for abstract conceptualizing. Resentment *requires* abstract conceptualizing. It *requires*, to pull from another area of mental study “Theory of Mind”–the understanding that the care giver is a separate entity with will and agendas of it’s own.

    Do dogs resent us because we don’t meet their every need?

    I’m also not quite sure about the rage part. At least with infants.

    I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but for my youngest daughter, from about 6 months to about 18-19 months I was the primary care giver, and was very active before that (after that I was in Iraq) with her, so I was there most days and nights.

    She was born with GERD and it took a while for the diagnosis, so she was cranky a LOT.

    Those screams never sounded like rage, and the only thing we could do (which actually helped a lot) was to hold her.

    Of course, this is a sample size of one, and not a representative sample of either side of the equation.

    As to “What mainly impressed me about the theory was how well it explained the mistrust and brutal control of women in so many traditional cultures.”, how many cultures unaffected by Islam is this present in?

    And how much of this is related to, and can be explained by reproductive control (meaning the males making sure that the children born by their wives are their children) rather than some nebulous “resentment”?

    Occam’s razor cuts both ways.

  18. amba12 said,

    I have time for only one response right now, and that is that Islam took the extremes of female subjugation from tribal cultures, not the other way around. Islam, emerging from such tribal cultures, was actually supposed to be a partial improvement on them in this regard. But in many areas it merged with them instead.

  19. amba12 said,

    Later: I think it’s generally just as well that the psychoanalytic perspective has passed away, but I miss the depth and interiority it imagined, along with the arts and literature of its era. There was a grandeur to that notion of inner space to match outer space. When you think about your molecules and synapses instead of your emotions and (here comes a paradox) preverbal experiences (I know, can’t think without language), it flattens things. It gives life about as much dimension as a circuit board. And the irony is, it’s still you thinking. You cannot directly experience your synapses and molecules, only conceptualize them. It’s an odd choice to conceptualize yourself “from the outside,” as a material system that can be manipulated with material interventions. I suppose it confers control, but it also diminishes.

  20. reader_iam said,

    preverbal experiences

    Music, anyone? [Including the reality of tones in the human voice, for starters.]

    (I know, can’t think without language)

    All those snappin’ synapses. Where to draw the line between pre-thinking and thinking–hell, even pre-verbal and verbal?

    : ) **

    **And what to err in favor of? Especially given experience.

  21. amba12 said,

    Psychoanalysts used to talk (!) a lot about the power of primal emotions that preceded the ability to conceptualize or control. They thought we could still break through to those feelings and that they made life fresh, powerful, and authentic, even when they were painful.

  22. reader_iam said,

    Whether or not they were wrong about people being able to break through BACK to whatever, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with developing humans inexorably growing *forward* from birth, as the living offspring of the already living, reproducing tend to do. I think there’s a decent amount of value to be mined from certain insights gained from that particular now-discredited movement (and to be clear, I’m neither unaware of the excesses nor defending them–nor am I unaware of those who actually benefited in a limited amount of time and therefore moved on). IMO, those insights happen to have turned out to be more useful (if not necessarily easily practicable) in terms of raising new humans to adulthood than in redressing the disappointments, grievances, resentments and anger of those who were already adults by virtue of sheer number of years on earth, like it or not, fair or not–and, above all, just or not.

  23. reader_iam said,

    Oh, hell. Got off on a tangent. What I meant to convey, in short, was the following reminder:

    if p then q is not [necessarily] equal to if q then p

  24. amba12 said,

    There speaks a parent!

    On the negative side, psychoanalysis kicked off that immense interest in THE SELF that the self, conceived as a bounded entity, does not merit and cannot sustain. Getting older, and/or becoming a parent, one is relieved to be unable to sustain it.

    The power of the emotions, however, is universal.

    Psychoanalysis was not a science, it was an art, and aspired to be a source of art, like Method acting. But I knew a great teacher of acting who despised the Method and believed that imagination could take you into any possible experience, character or soul. You didn’t have to tap into your own sad experiences to find tears.

  25. reader_iam said,

    But I knew a great teacher of acting who despised the Method and believed that imagination could take you into any possible experience, character or soul. You didn’t have to tap into your own sad experiences to find tears.

    Annie, perhaps you can help me recall what’s dinging at my brain in reference to this: Wasn’t there, at some point in time, a story out there about a conversation (conflict?) between Harry Fonda and Jane Fonda that relates to that point, in some way? (Not suggesting Harry or Jane was right–frankly, I don’t remember enough [and, frankly, I could be misremembering altogether] to do or want to do anything of the kind.) “On Golden Pond” jumped to my mind as part of the flash-thought that’s motivating this comment [/query]. Do you recall anything like that?

  26. reader_iam said,

    “Henry,” of course. My bad, of course–thoughts-spilling is no excuse. My question still stands, though.

  27. amba12 said,

    reader — offhand, I don’t remember. But I can bet that Jane argued pro-Method and Henry argued anti- . He was pre-Self era, she was post-.

  28. William O. B'Livion said,

    “””but I miss the depth and interiority it imagined,”””

    I miss a lot of my dreams on waking. I miss a lot of my childhood views of How The World Works.

    I really liked that fantasy that all I needed to do was spend 6 months going to the gym and a few martial arts classes and I’d be kicking ass with the Green Berets.

    But you have a choice at some point. You can vote for the likes Obama[1], or you can grow up and face reality.

    “””I know, can’t think without language”””

    Prove it.

    No, seriously.

    How do you want to define language? At a certain level “Any set of symbols with a set of rules for manipulating them”. Uh–you’ve just *defined* thought as language.

    Except in the mind of a (stipulated) God all we can do is abstract the world around us (create symbols) and manipulate those abstractions. If we don’t use some sort of rules then we’re not manipulating the symbols. If we do, then we have language? Chomsky and the like aside, IMO language has to have two minds involved agreeing on abstractions and rules.

    I wonder sometimes about some of the Autistic kids. What’s going on in there.

    I think it is much more accurate to say that humans cannot conceive of thought that does not involve language.

    [1] I’m not saying all democrats are delusional, or are feeding peoples childish delusions, but the Obama certainly is.

  29. amba12 said,

    You’re suggesting that I voted for Obama? You’d be wrong.

  30. William O. B'Livion said,

    No Amba, I’m not suggesting that you voted for Obama. I think you live in the real world, and that your politics are probably a conservatism informed by the best of liberalism. Note that I’m just guess this based on your postings here.

    There were legitimate reasons to vote for a democratic president in the last election, or at least to vote against a Republican.

    I’m saying that a lot of people who *did* vote for him (not all certainly, but a lot) were delusional, they ignored reality. They ignored his history, they ignored his supporters and they ignored the political system he came from.

    (Sorry for the late response, I’m ~1500 miles from home taking a class that is fairly physically demanding (running around in the high desert near Prescott AZ (no, not Gunsite)) and by the time the day is done I’m *finished*.

  31. amba12 said,

    Now you’ve piqued my curiosity — is it classified, or can you tell? :)

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