Goodbye to all that

Goodbye to being one of millions who, just like me, are confined to home by an illness; who can’t socialize freely; can’t go out to eat or to shop; can’t go to work. Soon the vaccine will release millions from their prison. And I will still be here; I have a life-sentence, with no time off for good behaviour.

That paragraph oozes self-pity, and I’m ashamed of it. But I need to put it out there to let people know what it is like to have ME. And because it has taken me 15 years to achieve even a modicum of acceptance of the life I’ve been dealt, I do understand why so many—even those who are surviving financially—are feeling desperate, frustrated, and isolated after nine months of restraints, and even why some have begun to rebel. Maybe they may know they’re behaving irresponsibly and selfishly; maybe they don’t care; more likely they’re doing what human beings do best, which is hiding the bit of them that knows stuff from the bit of them that goes out and does the opposite anyway. (Some clearly think the whole thing’s a hoax, and I do not pretend to understand them.)

So this may be hard to believe, but my life has changed for the better because of COVID-19. I must say straight off that no-one I know has died of it, with one exception—an old boyfriend I hadn’t seen for 40 years; which was a shock, but because of what had once been, not of what was at the time. Certainly no-one dear to me has even contracted it. So, against that background, I can list these improvements: my husband is working from home, meaning he is around a lot more, even if usually we are working in different rooms (we are both academics, so we are always happy to do our own research); I am able to join meetings, talks, and happy hours by Zoom, when previously I had been excluded from all of these because one had to be present in person; and contact with family and friends has increased because, generally speaking, they are at home more and have more time on their hands.

I love the new quiet around my home, too. There is far less of the dull, distant roar that marks rush-hour (which lasts for four hours hereabouts), and fewer gunning engines from the rats using residential streets as their own private mazes—although the local gilded youth, if that’s the word, with their Ferraris and Teslas and what have you, do race on a road a couple of miles away whenever they get the chance, and I can hear that display of arrogance and contempt for others loud and clear. But, taking our evening constitutional, we often don’t see a soul on foot, and not many in cars either, even on the main road that is the final stretch home. It’s blissful.

So I had to remind myself that this quiet, limited life is not what other people consider desirable, and that it was forced on them… if behaving rationally and sensibly in face of a killer disease can be considered coerced; at any rate, chosen as better than the alternative (cf. Sweden). I have to remind myself that millions of people have had not been able to make such a choice at all, because they had to work, COVID or no COVID, and that millions more have lost work and exhausted their savings and are relying on food parcels. Children and students have been deprived of an education and of the close social contact young people need and can only get in school or on campus. This is not a dream, but a nightmare, and people desperately want to wake up from it.

Sometime in 2021, they will wake up, and then we’ll see how much remains of the 2020 COVID world. Will people try to conserve energy and save the environment by working from home, avoiding in-person get-togethers and conferences as expensive time-wasters, or will they go back to enjoying the boondoggles and snoozing through dull committee meetings? Will they continue to order most goods on-line, or go back to standing in line? Will they wear jogging pants rather than jeans, let alone suits? Will they use whatever extra time they have more wisely, learning French or eliminating the junk from their homes, or will they just carry on scrolling through Facetime or bingeing on real-crime shows?

I think we know the answer to the one.

And there’s no doubt I shall go back to the same life as I had before COVID arrived. The difference is, I don’t have a choice. But I can accept that. So then I think of those “long COVID” sufferers who are only just beginning to face the fact that their lives may never be the same again. The uncertainty (how long is this going to last? what can I do about it, if anything?) is its own form of torture, on top of all the other physical and psychological problems, but there is not much to do but wait, learn, read, experiment, fail, learn some more, experiment, fail, try again… And so on. They must be prepared to be patient. They should remember that finally there’ll be money pumped into ME research now that experts can see, in real time, that the virus is devastating people’s bodies in unforeseen ways—that post-viral syndrome is real. They will need strength, courage, imagination and lots of support from others, so they should get in touch with whatever ME/CFS/CFIDS self-help groups there are in their city or country. It’s probably too late for me, but not for them, to leave the Kingdom of the Sick.

Anna Garlin Spencer

Today Anna Garlin Spencer (1851-1931) is remembered as a fighter for women’s rights—especially the right to vote and the right to receive an education—and for world peace.

Recently, however, I came across a quotation that throws a different and less flattering light on her life and work. Its source is a book by David Starr Jordan (also 1851-1931), an ichthyologist by trade, and also founding President of Stanford between 1891 and 1916. Jordan was a skeptic in some areas about what he called “sciosophy” (roughly equivalent to today’s “pseudoscience”), and wrote an influential book criticizing it called The Higher Foolishness. But he was not skeptical about eugenics. Jordan was also a pacifist, and a pacifist because he was a eugenicist: he thought that wars consistently kill off “the flower of youth”—the best young men in every generation—while leaving the morally and intellectually less gifted, in short the more unfit, to survive, to father children, and so to allow their genes to be passed down to future generations. The inevitable result of war, he argued, is that “the race” becomes weaker in every way.

Jordan served on the board of “The Human Betterment Foundation” which advocated forced sterilization of “the unfit”, and he also wrote several essays and books promoting his eugenicist ideas, perhaps the most famous being The Blood of the Nation: A study of the decay of races through the survival of the unfit (1902). In 1915 Starr wrote a book to popularize his ideas, called War and the Breed: the relation of war to the downfall of nations. It is in this book, on p121, that he quotes Garlin Spencer approvingly, as follows:

“Women bear the chief burden of personal care of the young, the undeveloped, the frail and sick, the aged, the feeble-minded, the socially incompetent. They have had to bear that burden ever since social sympathy forbade the strong to kill the weak by fiat of the state. This process of social protection of the incompetent has unquestionably lowered the average standard in human quality where it has worked unmodified by some science and art of race culture. War — and all that makes for war — is the worst hindrance to the attempt to relieve women of this overmastering burden of administering philanthropy, and to give her time and opportunity for her organic function of teaching and developing the normal and super-excellent specimens of the race. Not only does it destroy uselessly all the common wealth of humanity so terribly needed for projecting and realizing the social control that can truly advance individual life, but it deliberately and monstrously aids that ‘breeding downward’ which is the bane of civilization. . . . It is because of women’s peculiar functional relation to the social demand for race integrity and race culture that enlightened women must hate war and all that makes for war. It sinks under waves of bestiality and passion those ideals on which respect for womanhood and tender regard for the child have fibered the later progress of the race.”

This quotation is sourced (in a footnote) to a publication called The Independent, which so far I have not been able to locate. More information, and even the complete article from which the quotation is taken, may perhaps be found amongst Spencer’s collected papers, now housed at Swarthmore College. The pamphlet from which I got this information (published by Scholarly Resources Inc., 2005) also states that these are available only on microfiche. The pamphlet describes Garlin Spencer and her life like this:

“Anna Carpenter Garlin Spencer (1851-1931) was a minister, feminist, educator, pacifist, and writer on ethics and social problems. Perhaps inspired by the examples of her abolitionist mother, Nancy Carpenter Garlin, and her aunt, Sarah Carpenter, a missionary who worked with homeless women, Spencer dedicated her life to social reform. She was the first woman minister in Rhode Island, serving in Providence from 1819 to 1902 at the Bell Street Chapel, a liberal, nondenominational ethical church.

“Anna Garlin was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, in 1851 and spent her youth in that state and in Rhode Island. In 1869 she began writing for the Providence Journal, as well as teaching in the public schools. She remained a journalist until 1878 when she married the Rev. William H. Spencer, a Unitarian minister. From 1902 until her death, Spencer held a series of teaching posts at such institutions as the University of Wisconsin, the University of Chicago, and Teacher s College at Columbia University. She taught on issues of religion, marriage and family, the role of women, sexuality, and philanthropy.

“Spencer was active in the cause of women s rights for more than forty years. She was a friend of well-known feminists, including Susan B. Anthony, Ednah Cheney, Lucy Stone, and Valeria H. Parker. In the 1890s she served as president of the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association. An early participant in the National Council of Women, Spencer was also president of that organization in 1920.

“Her interest in pacifism led Spencer to prominent positions in the cause for peace. She was on the Executive Committee of the National Peace and Arbitration Congress in 1907 and was a founding member of the Woman s Peace Party in 1915, serving as vice chairman. In 1919 she also became the first chairman of the national board of the Women s International League for Peace and Freedom.

“Spencer died at her home in New York in 1931.”

Only those phrases ‘writer on ethics and social problems’ and ‘the role of women’ might conceal Spencer’s eugenicist past. I would like to be able to pursue this point, but COVID-19 and my own unfitness make it impossible. Perhaps Garlin Spencer is as well known as a eugenicist as, say, Marie Stopes, who expressed similar opinions not only about the burden placed on women by unwanted children, but also about the burden placed on society by allowing the ‘degenerate, feeble-minded and unbalanced’, ‘the hopelessly rotten and racially diseased’, to have children. If an expert on Garlin Spencer reads this, I would welcome more information.

“Dark”: not an appreciation

I think my husband and I belong to a very select band. We are two of the very few people on the planet who aren’t in ecstasies over the German Netflix series Dark. Admittedly, we enjoyed seasons 1 and 2 quite a bit; we even watched them twice. But season 3 was, to put it mildly, a slog, and not at all what we were expecting, which was something like a serious version of Peggy Sue Got Married or Back to the Future, or a less soggy version of It’s a Wonderful World. In other words, a meditation on the “road not traveled”—an exploration of what it is to look back both at the decisions you made and at events out of your control, and imagine the other worlds you could have made. Or not. Thomas Hardy talks in one of his poems of being, as an old man, the ‘strange continuator’ of his younger self, whom he imagines looking at him in wonder. That is what we wanted: to see the “strange continuators” confront their younger or other selves.

Instead what we got was, basically, a video game. There are two sides: Light and Shadow, White and Black. One side wants total annihilation; the other, for the cycle of birth and death, killing and saving, to go on for ever and ever, rinsing and repeating for all eternity—or until the Sun turns into a Red Giant, anyway. The leaders of the two sides explicitly describe their team members as “pieces” or “counters”, who/which are dispatched to certain times and places (how this precision is achieved is never explained) to do something or other that will advance their side’s plan or impede their opponents’. So rather than the impact of three terrible events—two boys going missing in successive generations; a man hanging himself—on a few key characters—Jonas, Martha, Ulrich, Hannah, Claudia—who each make, say, one key return journey, everyone has three selves of different ages in different worlds who jump back and forth with the ease of a neighbour who has just popped round to return the sugar they borrowed last week. Or next week, I suppose.

As we got to the last two episodes in particular, there were lightning-fast, rather corny warp-speed style shifts between past and present and between the two (or three) worlds, leaving us quite confused, which is fine—but also indifferent, which isn’t. And that was the real problem: we no longer cared about what was happening (or going to happen or had happened) to anyone. Instead of watching characters slowly change and adapt, change their minds, realize their mistakes, while somehow continuing to be faithful to their own selves (e.g. Ulrich’s philandering; Hannah’s ruthless pursuit of him), what we see are pawns being moved around an invisible, vastly complex board. Inner lives and motivations remain invisible. The “counters” have labels attached putting them in a family tree—or a family copse, I should say, as there are several family trees here—as X’s son or daughter, wife or husband; or they are slotted into positions as best friend, girlfriend, boyfriend. But in the final season we learned next to nothing about how it feels to be them, to have become the person they are, to have suffered or caused suffering, to have achieved something or failed at it. There is just a game being played by other people, whose motives are as much black boxes as the various time machines they invent: their inner workings are almost wholly mysterious. After a while we began hoping for the end of the world just so we could go off and watch something else instead.

There are also last-minute “reveals”, as they say (what’s wrong with ‘revelations’? too biblical?) that come far too late for us to understand characters’ motivations. One especially striking example is that the watchmaker turns out to be driven to construct his time machine not merely by grief, but by guilt, which actually makes much better sense. His last conversation with his son had been more of an argument, in which his son furiously denounced him as unloving, cerebrally distant, and uninterested in his (the son’s) life. We also find out that Charlotte was given to the watchmaker by two unknown women to take care of, and we see him break the news to her with all the gentleness of a sumo wrestler—another sign of his emotional immaturity and coldness, perhaps, but that sign should have been given a lot earlier and with much more context. (In any case, who takes in a baby from two unidentified women, with no explanation, and without going to the authorities, even if they have lost a granddaughter? And: how did Hannah manage to make a life for herself in the 1950s without any ID?)

Now, writers and filmmakers often use love as a key explanatory factor precisely because it seems so mysterious. It takes a genius to fathom the enigma of why one person falls in love with another. The same holds for a parent’s love for a child, a bond so strong they will do anything to get their dead child back, including building a time machine or killing another child (as Ulrich tries to do)—except when they won’t do anything of the sort. Which brings us to the revelations that Katerina was abused by her alcoholic mother, thus explaining why she was such a bully herself; and that her mother was herself sexually abused as a child and had to have an abortion as a result. That kind of multi-generational damage is the stuff of which serious drama is made; here, like Katerina’s brutal murder at her mother’s hands, it was almost an afterthought—merely a device to get the St Christopher’s medal into the sand at the edge of the lake.

The constant switching between one- or two-minute long events was also off-putting. Maybe it was meant to keep our attention. If so, it failed. We found boredom creeping up on us like the tide of dirt that crept higher and higher up the faces of most of the characters (clearly combs and the secret of hot water had been lost at the Apocalypse). This ennui was varied only by mounting irritation with Adam’s and Eve’s sententiousness. Those bits of the higher gibberish meant to sound deep reminded me of a fridge magnet game I once had, consisting of about a hundred philosophical nouns and verbs and adjectives, mainly from metaphysics, that could be arranged in any order to produce loftily abstract, mysterious, but meaningless sentences. What’s more, Adam brazenly borrowed Lemmy Caution’s gravelly voice from a real sci-fi classic, Alphaville. Talk about cheap.

There was one scene, in the final episode, that almost made the wait worthwhile: when Adam/Jonas persuades Eve/Martha that they have to make one final journey back in time, to before that fateful car accident, and in turn persuade the watchmaker’s son to return to his father’s house instead of trying to drive home in a storm. When that happens a very moving version of ‘What a wonderful world’ begins, and so does their annihilation and the annihilation of all the other characters who came into being only because of that time machine. It is not that they simply choose not to be—they choose not to have ever been. It’s a real and demanding sacrifice, because they do love one another. Jonas ‘s final words to Martha are, of course, ‘We’re a perfect match. Never think anything else’—just before she disappears into nothingness. The only hint of something that survives is Hannah’s choice of the name ‘Jonas’ for her unborn child when she notices a yellow raincoat just like the one Jonas used to wear before everything went to hell in a handcart.

But the narrow confines of the series, which I take it were meant to make it manageable, actually made it more unconvincing. First, there seem to be only three or four families in Winden, who never see anyone else, never go anywhere else, never watch TV, never tell each other jokes, and never go on holiday. If a character arrives from some other place, their life elsewhere remains virtually unexplored and serves only as a signal that There is Something Mysterious About Them. Second, there is the almost complete absence of politics. The only political or politicized decision is to build (or not) the power-plant. In fact, Winden must be the only town in Germany where nothing—absolutely nothing—happened between 1933 and 1945. I suppose the writers didn’t want to get into the whole weird-Nazi-science scene, but I expect there will soon be a spin-off computer game called Winden: Die Zeitwunderwaffen.

Lanes

About a year ago I read a piece* about a quiet morning’s work in a loop of dusty greenery beside an off-ramp from the eight-lane I-10 in LA. My first, rather resentful thought, was that this could not have been written by a woman. Women ought to be able to enjoy the unofficial solitude such half-forgotten spaces can offer, but I am not going to be the pioneer in this outpost of the feminist Wild West. My second, now definitely resentful, thought was that even getting to one of those freeway freedom zones would be tricky, as I’m a long-term semi-invalid. (A friend who has severe rheumatoid arthritis cheerfully refers to himself as a “crip”, and I’ve given the term house-room, this being its first, tentative, public outing. As for his blithe spirit, I live in hope.) My legs seem often not to get the memo—you know, the one telling them to move, preferably in the sort of co-operative enterprise that allows all of you to head in the direction you actually want to go in. Hiking in the Santa Monica mountains, for example, I don’t even dream about. I used to go walking on the hills and moors back home in England; but that was a long time ago.

On the other hand, I live in an area of LA that is generally safe, one where the most common crimes are thefts from and of cars, and where what people seem to worry about most, after break-ins, are coyotes coming down from the mountains to snack on their pets. This means I am able to savour a different kind of largely unnoticed and unappreciated space: the lanes or alleys—the name for them in the part of England I come from is ‘ginnels’ (with a hard ‘g’)—that run between the back gardens of the single-family homes and behind the condo and apartment buildings that line the streets in my neighbourhood. These lanes are a source of deep satisfaction for me, and for more reasons than the mix of peace, safety, and fresh air—well, relatively speaking: this is LA, after all—that they can offer.

The last house my husband and I lived in in England lies just off a busy main road and near an even busier ring-road around a fairly large city. The house had been added to over time, and while its front wall is 19th-century brick with a large 20th-century bay window, the core of it is very old—17th century, probably. The other walls are of stone and almost two feet thick; the windows are tiny and idiosyncratic in shape and arrangement; the floor of the dining-room at the back is of stone slabs and the fireplace there is a simple rectangular space at the bottom of the stone chimney; the fireplace in the living room is even larger, and irregular, not a neat rectangle.

You approach the house from what had once been a real road, but at some point had dwindled into a lane, when it was replaced by that busy main street I mentioned. In fact, a few yards beyond the gate to the house, it becomes a simple footpath, and then, after crossing an ancient bridle-way linking the parish churches of the villages on the south side of the city, you won’t find it at all, for it disappears under a tangle of humble greenery. The same plants give the lane its uneven, unkempt borders: brambles and fox-gloves, nettles and dock, dandelions and daisies, set off by a few more elegant escapees from local gardens. The house is so secluded even local taxi-drivers didn’t know where it was.

When we lived there, that quiet lane constantly reminded me of the places I used to play in as a child: first of all the small back-yards and the ginnels, still paved with cobblestones, behind the rows of Victorian and Edwardian terraced houses; later on, as I grew and became more independent, there were quiet streets (so much less traffic then), fields and spinneys, canal bridges and tow-paths, and, in the long summer evenings when there’s light in the sky until 11pm, deserted car-parks and institutional lawns that were ideal for our cricket matches and games of rounders. There were many patches of waste ground too, of the kind where rosebay willowherb grows, because it likes disturbed earth, and where it was useful to know that dock leaves relieve the pain of nettle stings. These were usually the sites of older buildings—mills were closing all the time back then, and cottages being found “unfit for human habitation”—that had been demolished, or just being allowed to fall down. They were off-bounds for us, for good reasons, only not the sorts of reasons that children find compelling.

And then there were all those small, unnoticed, unused spaces where kids construct their own world, from the nooks and corners, the unwanted leavings, of the grown-up one: a world that is out of sight of adults, some of the time at least. It is constructed largely in ignorance of adult interests and values, and often in spite of them, which is why being told to keep out of somewhere becomes an invitation to try to get in. An adult sees a row of ugly, delapidated single-car garages patched with peeling tar-paper and thin wooden panels cannibalised from old tea-chests. A child goes around the back of the row, to where the ground slopes steeply away, and finds the little cave made between the sagging floors of the garages, the narrow, crumbling brick piers that prop them up, and the bare earth. A secret space like this can become a hiding-place for a gang, where initiations may be held, or precious, forbidden objects  kept safe, such as cigarette ends or rusty pen-knives or fire-crackers salvaged after Guy Fawkes’ Night. My best contribution to this kind of stash was part of an ear I’d hacked from a dead hare found on a walk in the fields near the house of some friends of my parents’, and that I had brought back, for obvious reasons, without my parents’ knowledge. It had to be buried pretty quickly, also for obvious reasons, but it upped my status no end.

So now when I go for walks along those quiet, neglected neighbourhood ginnels here in LA—where collapsing fences, and gates hanging drunkenly from rusty hinges rub shoulders with brand-new concrete walls soberly sporting automatic security lights—I feel sad, if no longer surprised, that I almost never find neighbourhood kids playing, and certainly not out of sight of watchful adults. I think how well suited these places would be to old-fashioned games of hide-and-seek or cops-and-robbers. When I find I can call one of them “Quince Tree Lane” or “Blackberry Alley”, and then a builder of yet another gigantic ersatz-Moorish or faux-Mediterranean villa rips out the brambles, or chops down yet another tree that for decades has been weeping fruit and leaves into this uncared-for corner of the adult world, I mourn for the disappearance of these neglected, scruffy, ugly, beautiful spaces. I mourn for my house in England, which I have lost. I mourn for my childhood, which is gone for ever. I mourn for everything that is fragile, and humble, and defenceless.

As I write this, another Santa Ana is probing our defences. It’s rattling shutters and turning downpipes into bagpipes and didgeridoos; rocking and shifting the tables and chairs on our deck; whistling and howling around doors, like something, or someone, wanting desperately to come in, but, being demonic and not of this earth, needing permission to do so. I am still not used to this sort of weather, although I’ve lived here for almost sixteen years now. I’m not used to a wind that will suck the moisture right out of your mouth and skin like a vampire, that can scour your eye-balls or make your nose bleed. A few exceptions aside (such as during the legendary summer of ’76), there were no dry winds back home, only ones that bring rain, hail, sleet, and snow, sometimes all of them in a single afternoon. If I could hear the wind in the telephone wires, making them sing and quiver in their moorings, it was coming rain, or a storm, they were singing about.

When it’s raining is my favourite time for those back-lane walks. No-one’s about; even the multi-dog-exercisers, and the power-walkers with their holstered iPhones and bottles of super-water and Boris Karloff sneakers, prefer to stay indoors; birds and cats alike seek shelter. The rain soaks old leaves and drenches bone-dry fencing, and for a while—a little while—there’s a wonderful scent of damp earth: a sharp, sour tang as comforting to me as the aroma of my morning coffee, or as my husband’s look when he hands it to me.

So next time I’m tempted to name and list all the things I’ve lost—such as playing cricket, or dancing, or walking on the moors, or for that matter walking for more than a few blocks without needing a few hours’ rest—I will remind myself to make a second list as well: of all the things I haven’t lost because they weren’t mine to begin with, no more mine than is the pair of hummingbirds that has recently taken up residence on our deck.

They are as light and delicate as flower-petals, these birds, but when they divebomb intruders into their territory (they clearly have no doubts as to its being theirs), they’re like jewelled bullets. When one of them stands in the air three feet away to scrutinise me, turning its exquisite head now this way, now that, and I sit frozen in my chair, hardly daring to breathe, I feel I have been blessed—or at any rate inspected and found satisfactory. I have been accepted, you see, like the grewias or the olive-tree on our deck, into the hummingbirds’ world, which is no more part of our world (the human world, the city world) than the world we kids made for ourselves out of the adult world’s left-overs was part of their world. One falls inside the other only on a map, and you cannot enter it by setting your GPS.

I shall remind myself, then, that it’s a mistake to assume the ordinary, everyday things that are transient, and lovely, and fragile, are all of them here, in this world—the world of the city, with its circling helicopters, its strip-malls and strip-clubs, its freeway off-ramps—when really they are in their world. I shall tell myself that you have to wait for permission to enter it; sometimes it’s given, and sometimes it’s too late even to ask. That is why those things can’t be caught, let alone held fast. They have to come to you, for as long as they like, and then they leave. In compensation, they can come to you anywhere, even in a ginnel in Los Angeles.

*Nathan Deuel is the author: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/livable-city/la-oe-dueul-bundy-exit-20151227-story.html