Charting, and Other Horrors

I just made a private blog for women who are learning to chart and want an online support group. To request access, go here.

If you are an experienced genius charter or something you and your benevolent guidance are of course also welcome.

For fun and profit, here is the first post, in which I read the Marquette user manual.


Ok, this is helpful:

“There are four basic methods of natural family planning:

• The Calendar Method or (rhythm) – relies on counting cycle length and a simple formula to determine the beginning and end of fertility.

• Basal Body Temperature (BBT) – recording of the woman’s daily waking temperature and observing the changing patterns

• The Ovulation Method (OM) – observing and recording the patterns and changes of cervical fluids

• The Sympto-thermal (ST) Method – combining daily waking temperature, changes in cervical fluid, cycle length and other minor signs of fertility”

but then

“The Marquette Model of NFP applies these devices in helping the new learner of NFP to gain confidence in the selfinterpretation of the woman’s natural signs of fertility. All methods of NFP in some way help a man and women to get a better picture of their fertility. Learning about one’s fertility aids in 4 understanding, appreciating and holistically living with this precious gift” OK BUT WHICH OF THE 4 TYPES MENTIONED IS MARQUETTE, THIS IS THE KIND OF INFORMATION I AM HERE FOR. LESS PRECIOUS GIFT MORE BRASS TACKS PLZ.

Anyway, I think Marquette is sympto-thermal? That’s what I want to learn, because it seems to encompass the most information, and thus will hopefully make switching/dealing with irregularities easier.

2. “Philosophy of Natural Family Planning” skip skip skip.

3. “Anatomy and Physiology” this seems basically like high school bio, ok if I skip this? Ok.

Oh wait

“However, at certain times of a woman’s monthly cycle a woman produces a fluid (called cervical mucus) that is optimal for sperm survival. When sperm are in this special woman’s fluid they can live from 3 to 5 days. If no cervical mucus is present in the woman’s vagina, sperm will die within minutes.”

Yet another example of men’s dependency on women.

also helpful

“Therefore, in order for a woman to become pregnant and for a couple to conceive a baby, three factors need to be present; good sperm from the man, a good egg from the woman; and good cervical mucus for sperm survival.”

Ok, now we’re going through three phases of ovulation. Tl;dr version, apologies to the biologically literate:

Pre-ovulation: hormone FSG makes an egg develop, developing egg gives off estrogen, which makes inside of uterus develop and produce cervical mucus, which is an indicator of fertility and thus IMPORTANT TO US HERE IN THE COVEN.

Other info: women can ovulate on different days in her cycle, duh. Stress illness weight etc affect when. Biological markers can tell us when YES YES SAY MORE THIS IS THE INFO I COVET.

Ovulation: Luteinizing hormone, LH signals ovary to release the egg, which in my mind plays out like this . Some women experience breast tenderness or swelling, (which is why I once thought I had breast cancer), abdominal pain or cramping, and vulvar swelling, wtf.

Cervical opening widens and fills with clear-slippery and thus sperm friendly mucus.

Post Ovulation: Begins day after ovulation, ends day before period. Called luteal phase, averages about 10-16 days in all women. I would suspect, Watson, that it is in this phase that the baby-making happens.

Then comes a chart, I hate charts, and furthermore this one is not telling me the good stuff about when babby is formed but just general stuff about hormone levels. Nevertheless, should probably not skip because the wonders of understanding your fertility etc, ugh.

“After ovulation, the body increases the release of another female chemical, a hormone called progesterone (See figure 3). Progesterone has a number of important functions. It elevates the woman’s body temperature about 4-6 tenths of a degree Fahrenheit. This heating up of the woman’s body can be detected by taking daily waking temperatures. Progesterone also prepares the lining of the uterus, for possible implantation of a new human being. Finally, progesterone stimulates cervical cells to produce thick mucus that closes off the opening of the cervix and thus serves as a barrier to sperm and bacteria.”

So it sounds like….progesterone is friendly to already made babby, not friendly to sperm and other microscopic supplicants for sanctuary within our glorious cathedrals.

Ok, more about what happens when you conceive.

“The new person will travel down the fallopian tube in a 6-9 day journey.”

Surely I cannot be the only woman who will spend this journey screaming GET OUT OF MY FALLOPIANS at her abdomen. After all, they say the fetus can recognize the sound of its mother’s voice!

So, it looks like there are two paths:

Ovulation happens.

Luteal phase happens, in which progesterone makes sperm entry and thus pregnancy less likely. If your man’s seed has found joyous congress with yours, baby. If its suit has proved unsuccessful, this.

Right now it looks to me like pregnancy is most likely at ovulation, in post ovulation before the progesterone has kicked in, and in pre-ovulation once the cervical mucus is present.

Hopefully as we progress we will see this confirmed or denied–also get a better sense of how long each phase is, though I suspect it varies. And what parts of each phase are fertile for you is probably the stuff you learn by actually charting.

Also, this may be a dumb question, but is there ever a part of any given month where you are neither pre-ovulating, ovulating, or post-ovulating, but just, you know…….hanging out?

Summary, in which my tl;dr is rendered gratuitous:

“Summary of Female Hormones and their functions:


Secreted by follicle: •Stimulates cervical mucus production • Stimulates lining of uterus to grow

FSH and LH • Stimulates ovulation

Progesterone • Heats up female body temperature • Dries cervical mucus • Supports and nourishes lining of uterus

Summary Facts on Fertility:

There are a number of biological facts that have been discovered in the past century that are necessary to understand how NFP works. They are as follows: • A woman only ovulates one day in each cycleAn egg lives only 12 to 24 hours • Sperm need good mucus to survive • Sperm will live 3-5 days in good mucus • Sperm will die within hours or minutes when not in good mucus • A man and woman together are only fertile for 6 days.

Factors necessary for pregnancy:

1. Satisfactory ovulation

2. Healthy and open fallopian tubes

3. Healthy endometrium for implantation

4. Healthy cervix with adequate cervical mucus

5. Healthy and adequate sperm

6. Mutual and supportive relationship between the husband and wife is helpful. HELPFUL BUT NOT, ALAS, NECESSARY, LET US BE VERY CLEAR ON THIS POINT.

Ah, ok, now they answer my questions!

“A man and woman together are only fertile for six days during a women’s menstrual cycle. These 6 days include the day of ovulation and the 5 days before.”

Apparently the timing of the actual window is variable. They illustrate this with a chart, but seriously, I don’t do charts, so you’re on your own there.


For reference: in the sample cycles offered, the post ovulatory phase ranges from 12-14 days, while the pre-ovulatory phase ranges from 11-23 days. Lot more variability before than and after.

Ok, now we’re getting into the nitty gritty.

Fertility monitors: 

-urinary LH test kits (ovulation test kits)

ClearBlue fertility monitor

Oh, I want to get me one of these. I like when machines do my work for me. Will see if my insurance covers it and report back. Will be extremely pissed if not.

You start the monitoring by pushing a button on the morning of the first day of your cycle, which is the first day of your period. What if you get your period at 5pm the day before? Do you wait till next morning to start the monitor?

Every morning you press a button to record a new day in your cycle. It then tells you when you need to take a test (10-20 times a cycle), the mechanics of which I shall skip until I actually have one. Basically, it seems to involve taking a pregnancy test, but for fertility. You’ve got three hours from waking to take the test.

The monitor tells you if you have high, low, or peak fertility.

Here are its disadvantages:

“The disadvantage of the monitor, if using to avoid pregnancy, is that the 2-5 day warning period it provides is not long enough to avoid pregnancy and it does not tell anything about the status of cervical mucus. Furthermore the monitor itself costs about $175 and the test strips cost about $18 – 20 dollars per month.”

So, uh, finances aside, it looks like you might want to supplement it with something.

“TO AVOID PREGNANCY: Do not have intercourse, genital contact or practice withdrawal during the fertile window – i.e., from the first day of fertility through the last day of fertility. The length and time of the fertile window will vary from cycle to cycle. Couples who are using the Clearblue fertility monitor as an aid to avoid pregnancy will be asked to avoid intercourse on all “high” and “peak” days and to use the following instructions for determining the fertile window:”

Ok but wait, I thought the whole problem is that it can tell you HOW fertile you are but doesn’t give you enough warning about when fertility starts? What is the backup here?


1. Fertility BEGINS on day 6 of the first 6 cycles;

After 6 cycles,  2. Fertility BEGINS on the earliest day of “peak” during the last 6 cycles minus 6 days or the first “high” reading on the monitor – whatever comes first.


3. Fertility ENDS 3 full (i.e., 24 hour) days after the last “peak” day on the monitor;

After 6 cycles,  4. Fertility ENDS 3 full days after the last “peak” day of the last 6 cycles, or the last “peak” day of the current cycle plus a count of 3 full days – whatever comes first. These instructions are only to be used for those women who have cycles between 22 and 42 days in length and between the ages of 20-42.”

This does not answer my question. I am very confused.

“Those women who are coming off of hormonal contraception, recently were pregnant, or recently stopped breastfeeding should wait until they have at least 2 natural menstrual cycles in a row before using the monitor and following these instructions. There is a separate protocol being developed for women who are breastfeeding and not in cycles. Women who have polycystic ovaries need to have their cycles regulated before using this protocol. The monitor will not be accurate for women who are on fertility drugs. Tetracycline antibiotics may also affect accuracy of the monitor.”

Good to know, also wtf is a polycystic ovary, I feel like I need a professional gynecologist involved at this juncture.

Ok, now we’re getting into the actual charts, which you kind of have to see for yourself. There is a lot of stuff to chart though, fertility levels and heaviness of menstrual bleeding and when you have sex. Which means I, for one, will be marrying Liz Lemon.

And do we, what, download these charts as an image and print them? Is there a chart store? Where do I get my charts.

“The chart in figure 5 shows that fertility begins on day 6 for the first 6 cycles. The earliest Peak day on the monitor for the first 6 cycles was on day 14 in cycle #5. The latest Peak day for the first 6 cycles was on day 17 in cycles #2,3,and 6. Therefore, for the next cycle, fertility will begin on day (14 – 6 ) 8 . Fertility will end on day (17 + 3) 20 or the last Peak day of that cycle plus 3 full days – whatever comes first.”

This is worse than SAT word problems, I hate this I hate this I hate this, help.

I keep trying to make more sense of it but I’m just not, so moving on.

Cervical mucus! Ah, ok I spoke to soon, we’re not stuck with just the ClearBlue and all its empty promises.

Thick, sticky, holds its shape: beginning.

Cloudy, thinner, slightly stretchy: fertility high.

Clear, stretchy, slippery: Peak fertility! The cervix is open! 

Three full days after peak fertility: Progesterone raises your temperature and dries up the once-flowing mucus, your cervix closes up, it’s all over, your body is a barren desert.

“She will only know the Peak day of cervical mucus retrospectively.” Very helpful, very helpful.

Then its just a bunch of pictures of mucus and more detailed descriptions. You test it with your finger apparently, and although magnifying glass and deerstalker cap are never explicitly mentioned, they seem optimal.

It also tells you to mentally note the sensation of your mucus a couple times a day–which idk, I only notice anything if I am actually ovulating or am sexually aroused, so.

“1. Begin observing for and sensing the cervical fluid as soon as your bleeding (i.e., period) becomes light or spotty or no later than the first day after menstruation has ended.

2. Focus on the sensation that is felt at the vulva (vaginal lips) during the day and make a mental note while wiping with the tissue. The sensation of lubrication or slipperiness should be an obvious sensation.

3. If you wish, collect a sample of the cervical fluid (mucus) with toilet tissue and observe the mucus between your finger and thumb.

4. If you have difficulty differentiating between cervical fluid and vaginal secretions, dip the sample in a glass of water. If the sample is cervical fluid it will form a blob and sink. If it is vaginal secretions it will dissolve. Slippery cervical fluid should feel slippery even when held under water – like a FISH” [why did you capitalize this word you weirdos]

A helpful tip:

“However, in the pre-ovulatory infertile phase (also called the relative infertile phase) you should limit intercourse and genital contact to the end of the day only.The reason that it is limited to end of the day only is because the daily activity of the woman observer is what helps to bring down cervical mucus to the opening of the vagina. Thus, it is at the end of the day that the woman/couple user can be sure of her cervical mucus indicator. Another reason is that the pre-ovulatory phase of the cycle is the phase that varies the most. Using greater caution in this phase is common sense.”

“The following algorithm for determining the fertile phase with the cervical mucus sign is for women who have cycles between 22 and 42 days in length. ”

Wait I have no idea how long my cycle is, do I just measure between periods?

Then follows the algorithm for avoiding pregnancy, the specifics of which are not super important to me at this time.

Then a bit about arousal fluids vs. cervical: one is stretchier and doesn’t dissolve in water, so either test it or see if it just goes away eventually.

Then, how to rid yourself of semen after intercourse so as not to confuse the auguries: also categorized as not super important to me at this juncture.

Ok now charts–looks like you’ve got separate mucus chart and the ClearBlue charts. Is there anyway to combine them for easy comparison? You enter the same data on the same days, shouldn’t be that hard.



-I need to get some charts. Possibly I will try to make my own for the sake of easy data comparison.

-Need to see if insurance covers a ClearBlue. I want that ClearBlue.

-So I guess that was not actually sympto-thermal given that there was no thermal? I shall familiarize myself with the basics of that method next, that I might combine them.

-I don’t have an iphone, but if anyone uses the, I’m sure, many apps for this, please tell.

There’s been a spate of articles recently on the sufferings of female prisoners unable to access sanitary napkins.

Philadelphia’s Riverside Correctional Facility, one of the prisons featured in the Ms. Magazine post, also had one of the highest sexual assault rates in country as of 2013.

I would like to, eventually, ensure that the inmates of Riverside can access tampons safely and regularly, and am currently in touch with the prison about the best way to set up a commissary fund or alternative method of distribution.

To that end, I’ve set up a GoFundMe campaign here.

This is not the abolition of prison or a reform of prison conditions needed; but the humiliation of being unable to provide oneself with intimate and basic hygiene supplies is very thorough and cruel, and worth mitigating if only a little.

According to the city of Philadelphia’s daily census, there are 728 inmates currently housed at riverside. Ideally, the fund would provide each one with one (approximately) $4 box of tampons a month.

If you are a woman, consider donating the cost of an extra box of tampons next time you stock up on period supplies.

If you are a man, consider donating two.

I’m in my grandparents house after everyone has gone to sleep, drinking their armagnac and sifting through a box of pictures, some close to a hundred years old. My maternal family keeps much better records of its march through time and space than my paternal. The pictures are all black and white, and faded around the edges. They have the ghostly feel of being untethered to any reality that such pictures often do–the round faced girl in the short white dress, scowling at the camera outside a stone house, has no name and belongs to everyone. She lives in the picture.

Some pictures, though, do have names. Gertrude Mundy, then her daughter, Mary Gertrude Mundy, show up again and again. They have the same hard, dark face and soft, gauded eyes.

Midway through the pile I come upon a photo that can only be my grandmother. She’s staring at something, her lips pursed just a little, the same way mine get when I’m thinking. I have no idea what she’s thinking about.

I’ve come to know, as I reached adulthood myself, more about my parents and grandparents. Their accomplishments are for the most part a matter of public record, and I’ve become privy to their hardships and sins bit by bit. They slip out in pieces, my mother remembering hers (“I think she was lonely, then…”) or remembering her mother’s memories of her grandmother (“She said George was never the same afterwards.”) But it’s such a tease, opening up the door to a tantalizing, terrifying world in which dead ancestors and living caregivers are people apart –and then closing it with a bang. They lived and suffered, what more can you want to know?

But how, and why, and what they felt, and the changes, slow and imperceptible except in hindsight, to the character: this is what you want to know, and to which you have no access. You know your forbears like the sailor knows the iceberg. Like the black-and-white girl, frozen in a perpetual scowl, they exist apart, behind a barrier you cannot pass.

It would be easier if you could see some of their youthful follies, crises, repentances; but even the elders still alive have lost all these identifying extravagances without quite leaving them behind. They’ve become absorbed into the character, inextricably tangled in its other matter, leaving the surface bare.

It would perhaps also be easier if their lives had contained more action. Had my grandmother divorced my grandfather I would still know as little about her, but I could fool myself into thinking I did. Outward action is at least definite–it’s disruptions give form to a life, the illusion that you are seeing the shape of it, real, and full. If you can’t dismiss a ghost, you can at least put it on a stage and clothe it in a costume, and turn a haunting into a drama.

This is partially the appeal of Mad Man, Daniel Mendelssohn argued: to bridge the lonely distance between generations with the whispered invitation to come view their dirty laundry; an intimacy manufactured in voyeurism.

As for the appeal: Who, after all, can resist the fantasy of seeing what your parents were like before you were born, or when you were still little—too little to understand what the deal was with them, something we can only do now, in hindsight? And who, after having that privileged view, would want to dismiss the lives they led and world they inhabited as trivial—as passing fads, moments of madness?”

But I’ve never watched Mad Men, and though in the picture my grandmother’s haircut and bold-patterned shift dress costume her as a 60’s housewife, she lived her life in patterns of ordinary staidness.

None of that, however, makes her sorrows and sins and private joys any less real. Nor can I give up asking who she is, and why, trying to force a portrait in profile to turn and face me. After all, my mouth purses in the same way.

In the morning I’ll ask her what she’s thinking. Nighttime, though, is for armagnac and ghosts.

Things Better Than Other Things, A Partial List

Quilts, Duvets

Lipstick, Lip-gloss

Coupes, Mason jars

Gazpacho, Smoothies

Silk robes, Yoga pants

Stacked heels, Ballet flats

Cookbooks, Self-help books

Sun hats, Sunglasses

Crop tops, Culottes

Kitchen tables, Kitchen islands

Leggings, Pants

Bars, Coffee-shops

Shelves, Cabinets

Pie, Cake

Shoulder Pads, Infinity Scarves

Thick writing paper, Monogrammed towels

Berets, Knitted caps,

Skirt-suits, Suitors

Bocce, Croquet

Antipasti, crudites

No tops, Bikini tops

Only A Factory Girl, Chapter One: Introductions

Dear Reader,

By a strange chain of circumstances involving an unexpected legacy, a secret cupboard, and the lost continent of Lemuria, I came into possession of an early manuscript edition of Only A Factory Girl, one of the late, great, Rosie M. Bank’s early romance novels. There being little market for these things nowadays, and summer being the appropriate season to read sentimental fiction, I thought I might as well publish it here in serial form. Without further ado:

Only A Factory Girl

Chapter One: Introductions

To many men, a clamorous superabundance of marriage-minded society beauties might seem quite a pleasant little problem with which to beguile the leisure hours; but Lord Claude Bletchmore, Earl of Twichester, was fed to the teeth. As the sun’s first rays slipped into the bedroom of his spacious flat, furnished at great expense and to questionable effect, he cast his mind over the scene from the night before. Here he was certainly in the minority; most attendees of the annual Gala for The Royal School of Deaf Harpsichordists were still too deeply dreaming off their hangovers for reflection. But Lord Claude had always felt that sleeping past the sunrise was somehow a cowardly retreat from life, no matter how demoralizing the previous night had been.

And this had been one for the ages. The endless array of girls, women, their grande dame chaperones, swimming up to him like so many tropical fish: shimmering in jewels, laughing over champagne–not a one distinguishable from the others in features or address, except, occasionally, the the more interestingly hideous chaperones.

Perhaps he would marry Mrs. Booth out of spite.

Mrs. Booth was a recently widowed American steel baroness, ugly as sin, enormously fat, and with an undiminished appetite for life. He would enjoy seeing their faces as he led her to the altar.

It wasn’t, he thought, the girls themselves. It was not their fault if they were young, or silly, or if they failed to stir any tender passion in his breast (he could hardly blame them for his good taste). Were they not so obvious and fawning in their intent, he imagined many of them might be quite pleasant. Really, it was the mothers to blame. It was perhaps excusable, if rather vulgar, to set portionless daughters with fortunes to make husband hunting. But it seemed that no one, however comfortably settled in their own right, could abstain from the season’s blood sport. And Lord Claude was their quarry.

Donning his favorite silk dressing gown (purple, embroidered with little gold kimodo dragons), he wondered if perhaps he weren’t being a tad unfair. This was, after all, what they were bred for. To spend a few seasons at the same round of parties, murmuring through the same conversations, moulding themselves into identical paragons of refined and unserious correctness; to be rewarded for these efforts by the name and children of a suitably wealthy and prominent man.

And who could be more suitable, wealthy, and prominent than the ninth Earl of Twichester, hero of the polo-field, occasional lecturer on ancient Cypriot weaponry, mountain climber, philanthropist, and heir to Thwistlesham Halll.

Really, he had no one but himself to blame. He should never have let Great Uncle Reginald buy him that polo pony. How often, he reflected, with a groan, do we in our youth sow the seeds of our own destruction. He was beginning to feel the pangs of a slight headache.

As if in answer to a distress signal, Phipps entered, bearing the silver tray, the steaming teapot, in fact, the whole apparatus of a bearable morning.

“Good morning, sir.”

“Good morning, Phipps. I’ll take it out on the balcony.”

“Very good, sir.”

Lord Claude had never once been able to conceal an incipient hangover from Phipps’ eye, by turns judgemental and sympathetic. His valet coughed.

“A trying night sir?”

As  Lord Claude had surmised early in their relationship, “a trying night” was Phipps’ preferred euphemism for “blotto carousing.”

“Indeed it was, Phipps, in more ways than you ken.”

“The ladies, sir?”

Phipps was far too chivalrous a soul to elaborate further.

“The ladies, Phipps.”

“If your Lordship will forgive me, this is precisely why I suggested that your Lordship appear with Lady Elinor.”

Lady Elinor Montmorencey  was not exactly Lord Claude’s betrothed, but as they had known each other since childhood, were regularly seen together, and enjoyed a pleasant similarity of fortune and birth, it came to the same thing. Lord Claude dimly felt that in the end he would delight their respective parents and take her to wife–if he had reasons for postponing the tender proposal, for dallying and tarrying in the comfortable shallows of informal expectation, as had been his policy thus far, they were even more obscure, and nothing he cared to probe. In the meantime, he generally squired her about when he came to town, and she had provided an armor against the most explicit and determined attacks on his bachelorhood.

“Believe me, Phipps, no one could regret her Ladyship’s absence last night more. But you know how she is with her Women’s Union for the Moral Uplift of the Masses. Wouldn’t desert her  bally masses and their squalorous vices were I pleading on my deathbed for one last kiss to my alabaster brow. I suppose,” he said, flicking a jammy crumb to an inquisitive pigeon that had alighted on the balcony’s railing, “I should not object.”

Phipps, forbearing comment, retired to draw the bath.

Certain factions of Lord Claude’s family regularly begged him to trim his mane of chestnut curls into a less eccentric style.  And certain men, jealous, lesser men, doubtless, men who hung around the edges of dances, unsought by Claude’s throng of damsels, had been known to mutter under their breaths, “Curse Bletchmore, that blasted dandy. Can’t imagine what they see in him,” when he waltzed by; but if Claude could not in good conscience claim that his leonine profusion was his only vanity, it was the one he had decided to live with openly, and the flowing locks remained. He shook them out now. They were indeed striking above his blue eyes and broad shoulders, giving him the air of an Apollo Belvedere statue suddenly come to life and not quite certain what to about it.

He lowered his body into the steaming tub. No one, at least, could accuse him of maintaining a foppishly boyish softness. The polo field, tennis court, fox hunt, and mountain cliff had all lent him a powerful musculature coupled with an unexpected bodily grace. This did not endear him to his detractors. But it probably attracted more admirers than Lord Claude, who rarely bothered attributing more than one dimension to young women’s motivations, might have guessed.

Claude splashed about the bath like a destructive island god, creating tsunamis for his unfortunate rubber duck, ruminating as he did. He still felt dissatisfied and out of sorts with the memory of last night. Was it, as Phipps thought, because he had not brought Lady Elinor with him? He thought not. Besides, he could not cling to her skirts and otherwise refuse to face the world; though it was a tempting option: Elinor had a way of managing so that everything seemed natural and settled and there was very little for you to do.

The truth was, he was bored and tired, and wanted a change. But what, and where? He cast his mind over the usual spots:  Capri, Cyprus, Prague, the Alps. None of them appealed to him. Perhaps he should take up that offer of a guest lectureship at Oxford. Oxford would be pleasant, and removed enough, and there would at least be a different sort of party. But Lord Claude was honest enough to foresee for himself the same restlessness and rebellion, this time against quiet and seclusion. He knew he was not really a scholar at heart, only a connoisseur,  and would soon grow tired of courteous dons and frolicsome undergraduates.

Reviewing possible avenues of refreshment and variety, he remembered with a jolt that he’d promised to accompany Elinor to the factory she was visiting this afternoon. Well, he reflected, he had wanted to see a different slice of life. His conscience pricking him for it, he groaned, and disappeared beneath the bubbles.


On the other side of London, Kate Barrett was also making a sunrise breakfast. She had not risen from silken sheets, nor was her family crest carved into the handsome oak headboard above her. Indeed, her blankets were moth-eaten and threadbare, and the mattress of her narrow, rickety brass bed sagged. But she tucked into her tea and toast with at least as much gusto as Claude did his silver breakfast tray. The tenement kitchen in which she ate was tiny, with stubborn yellow grease stains left behind from previous tenants; but it bore the signs of care. The table and floor was worn from scrubbing, and the copper kettle shone bright and sang out a tune of good cheer. In the center of the table, on the window sills, and corners, stood tiny nosegays of the humble and unregarded flowers that grow in cracks and corners of cities. They stood in chipped mugs, cracked glasses, and other ad-hoc vases, and their yellows and purples lent a dauntless charm to the room.

The small, smooth head so lustily tearing into buttered toast possessed the same dauntless charm. This was unsurprising, as the flowers, like the scrubbing, were her doing. One could not say that Kate Barrett was beautiful. True, her dark shining hair lay around her face like the tendrils of a blooming vine, and the line of her jaw somehow managed to suggest both strength and delicacy, but these alone are not beauty. Her lips, parted in eagerness as they were now, held a suggestion of devilish mischief in their upturned corners; perhaps, had they not been disfigured by a freckle, they might have have called pretty. But her large eyes, full of waifish poignancy and latent fire–these were certainly compelling rather than lovely. No, Kate Barrett  was not a beautiful girl.

From around the kitchen doorpost peeped another head, an almost exact replica of Kate’s on a much smaller scale. A tiny girl, clad in a nightgown much too large for her, was rubbing sleep from her eyes.

“Come and have some breakfast, Jo, It’s butter day!” Kate waved her bread about like a flag of victory, careful not to lose any fat from the melting pools. Last night Kate had parted with a portion of her wages to purchase such luxuries as butter and beer. Josephine climbed on Kate’s lap and began munching on her toast, and Kate, as was her custom, made no protest against these gross liberties with her person and property. Instead, she began braiding her sister’s hair with nimble, work-worn fingers, pausing every now and then to look down into the girl’s face as if memorizing it. This was the part of her day that she lived for: when London roused itself from slumber, between the first gray hints of dawn and the sounding of the factory whistle; when, having both family and hot buttered toast within reach, she lacked for nothing.

“Is mother up yet?”

“No, she’s fast asleep still. More toast please.”

Kate put more bread on the rack, and broke the remaining slice into pieces, which she shared one by one with her sister.

“Let’s let her sleep, her cough’s been getting worse all week. You can get yourself ready for school, can’t you?”

Jospehine nodded, mutiny in her eye.

“Why can’t come I come to the factory with you? I hate school. I’d much rather be with you.”

This was a familiar argument.

“You’re going to school, ragamuffin, and that’s that. Now go wash up.”

Kate glanced at the clock. Late to meet Mary–just time to snatch up hat and coat and apron and race out the the door and down the lane. Breathless, she pulled up at their daily meeting place.

Mary had one arm around the lamppost, and was grinning her broad Cheshire cat’s grin.

“You’re late.”

“Shut up.”

They ran, arms around each other at a lopsided galloping gait.

As long as she’d worked at the factory they’d walked there together in the mornings like this, sometimes half running, depending how much time they had to spare. Kate was almost always punctual.

They’d met ten years ago, on the factory floor, when Kate had been nothing more than a wretched little sparrow, large-eyed, shivering, still in shock from the death of her father.

It had been a fire in one of the tenements next door. They’d all been able to get clear, but he’d heard Mrs. Malone’s stifled cries–she was too old to move quickly–and gone in after her. Granny Malone had survived. Joe Barrett had not.

Kate knew she ought to remember him away from all that horror: smoke, heat, everything collapsing into rubble and all the rotting corners of the tenement exposed by the flaming light. She ought, she knew, embalm him in some peaceful memory of home life. Slurping one of her mother’s stews, waggling his eyebrows to show that he knew she disapproved such breaches of table etiquette, and wanted to simultaneously goad and compliment her, like a schoolboy; or the schoolboy lovelight in his eye whenever he put his arm around his wife; or perhaps tucking Kate in at night, telling her about the palace in the moon they’d have one day. But somehow she could only remember him as she’d last seen him, blue eyes brightened by the flames reflected in them, his jaw set, his shoulders squared against–what? She had never been able to guess. She did not think it was the fire, exactly. He looked so strong, so dauntless, she would have bet that nothing on earth could ever beat him. But the smoke had.

Kate had not quite been able to believe it, but Kate’s mother, who had then been pregnant, took it quietly. When Kate’s father talked about her mother, she was like a princess in a fairy tale: lovely, laughing Annie, and himself the rascal who’d run off with the pride of three counties. Kate was lucky she took after her mother, he’d said, and Kate believed him, though time and pain had changed the woman in Joe’s stories. Annie Barrett was, in her own way, as dauntless as her husband; her infirmity made her more quiet, smiling, gentle refusal of defeat all the more gallant; but she was weak, and the shock of her husband’s death on top of a difficult pregnancy made her weaker. When she’d suggested taking a post herself in one of the factories, on top of her sewing, Kate, eleven though she was, had shaken her head, and her mother had not disputed. She knew it was against all their interests for her to die too.

Little Josephine had been born prematurely nonetheless. And in the aftermath Annie had contracted a pneumonia that exacerbated her frailty and permanently weakened her lungs, and which put into Kate a constant terror that her mother would fall victim to that curse of poor districts, tuberculosis. Nowadays Annie still plied her needle, but most evenings saw her younger daughter take over its passage through the yards of fabric as her mother’s fingers grew heavy with fatigue.

Kate and Annie Barrett had both insisted Josephine attend school during the day. Every so often her younger sister would urge Kate, now de facto head of the family, to reconsider the question, and Kate would think back to her first days on the factory floor before returning the invariable verdict: Josephine was to continue her education.

The recollection was both dim in places, and, as childhood memories are wont to be, sharp in others. The noise and movement, new and jarring, rendered her insensible of almost everything but a few instructions and the hum and clack and whirr of work all about her. It was hot, and she could not breathe, and the too-quickly barked directions bounced off the surface of her attention, and she did not know where she was to go or what she was to do, and this elicited sneering, humiliating, somehow distinct and audible snarls from her supervisor. For a child just plucked from the protection of her father and the safety of home this was was beyond endurance, and hot tears filled her eyes and obscured her vision before rolling down her cheeks. Then, like a ministering angel, a face appeared close to hers. The face was older, already fifteen, but it was full of kindness.

“Here, hold your thread like this.”


“Like this,” and Mary took the clumsy little hands in her own to show her, at risk of her own scathing rebuke from the floor manager. But Mary Rodd, Kate was soon to think, was not afraid of anything.

She helped Kate all through her shift, and at the end waited by the big double to doors to catch Kate by the braids as as she skiddered past–all the energy of childhood had momentarily returned to Kate’s exhausted body when the whistle blew.

“Hey, going to run by your old friend without so much as a ‘good evening?’”

Kate blushed, conscious of and mortified by her lapse, but she saw that Mary’s eyes twinkled, and walked home with her.

The next morning, her second shift at the factory, Kate found Mary waiting for her by the lamp post. At first the older girl patronized the younger out of a concerned pity expressed in jocular gruffness. But she soon found that Kate, with those she trusted (she had trusted and shly adored Mary from the moment she saw her), Kate could repay gruffness with cheek, and could offer a perceptive and piquant commentary on the street, the factory, the cafe where Mary took her for a cup of tea at the end of her first week. As she found her bearings, she helped Mary once or twice, with a boldness that surprised the older girl, by coming forward with a quick excuse delivered in a pretty manner. Indeed, she soon learned to exercise her wits on behalf of any worker she saw in a jam, and for this soon became known and loved. Still, she clung to Mary, took Mary’s opinion as the final arbiter of any question, and loyalty to Mary as the unspoken anchor of all her daily dealings. And over time Mary came to regard her less and less as a rescue and more and more as an equal.

Fresh sardines are a special kind of delight, firm and briny and with all their little silvery scales, but the tinned kind are still cheap and good and lightening fast to prepare, and, in my opinion, sadly neglected in favor of the decent but inferior canned tuna. Two to three dollars will get you enough, packed in olive oil, for two meals. Here are three things to do with the little suckers once you’ve got them.

1. Sardines and pasta.

I don’t know how to scale down meals or cook for fewer than five people (hello, seven small siblings!) so I make a huge batch and eat it till it’s gone. If you’re someone who understands portions et al, work your wizardry.

Chop up two red peppers, throw a little olive oil on them, and roast them in the oven. While they’re roasting, put your pasta water on to boil, then saute several cups of spinach with the sardines in their packing oil. You can add a little garlic here too, if you feel like it. Drain the pasta, take out the roast peppers, and toss them all with the spinach and sardines. Squeeze some lemon over the whole mess, and add salt, pepper, and more olive oil to taste.

2. Fake salade nicoise.

Defrost, rinse, and drain a pack or two of frozen green beans. Throw together with with half a can of black olives, a quartered tomato or two, a tin of sardines, separated into fillets. If you’re really swinging for the fences you can add more nicoise-ish things: a few anchovies, a hard boiled egg, sliced cucumber. Combine olive oil, lemon juice, some minced or powdered garlic and drizzle over. Add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Sardines on toast.

I have saved the best for last. This is one of the my favorite snacky dinners: cozy, crunchy, nourishing, and simple. Because I’m a reckless fool who burns money like kindling I like to buy good, thick, whole grain bread that will hold its own in flavor and texture; sardines on toast should be an indulgence.

Toast two pieces of bread, and while it is toasting, open up the sardine tin and pour out the oil into a pan. Sautee some spinach in this oil–I like the spinach layer thick, and it cooks down, so I’ll sautee half a bag or more. Put the spinach on the toast, separate the sardines into fillets, and warm them up in the pan for just a minute. Arrange the Sardines on the spinach, top with coarse salt and a squeeze of lemon juice, maybe another drizzle of olive oil if you’re so inclined. Pour yourself a glass of wine and munch.

Game of Thrones, thinning, and primitive accumulation

paragraph five is where it starts to get good.

I feel like I have already read what happens here in some short story or other; what author I can’t quite pin down.

message from a Palestinian Christian


Hilary Mantel sees the Devil

The Van Man

on the lam

fairy tale photography


dunno, computers still seem like magic

The Longest Open Letter in the World, Addressed To Rory Gilmore, Seasons 1 and 2, Being the First of Two Parts

Hello Rory, you moon-faced L.M. Montgomery heroine, you pint-sized monster of wholesomeness, you bookish Nancy Drew. How are things? Seems like you’ve been having a lot of boy trouble over the last two seasons! Tristan wants you and Paris wants Tristan and Jess wants you and Dean hates Jess! Or at least, that how it’s spun–heartbreaks,  feuds, your inevitable and harmless Sweet Valley High teenage romantic drama.

But it’s really not.

I know this may sound strange, so let’s start with Tristan. Ugh, Tristan.  I’d be preaching to the choir if I told you he’s an entitled little toad, so lets go through some of the specific manifestations of his toadery.

-He repeatedly bothers you for a date when you’ve made it clear you in no way welcome his advances.

-He steals your school books and refuses to give them back unless you agree to go out with him.

-He publicly misrepresents your relationship and lies to schoolmates about going out with you.

-He uses your angry controlling boyfriend (whom we shall get to LATER) to blackmail and humiliate you throughout a school project that is 50 percent of your final grade.

In other words, he does his best to make school a toxic nightmare for you, either to browbeat you into accepting his overtures or punish you for rejecting them, it’s not quite clear. We have a name for this behavior. It’s called sexual harassment, and it’s something that, if Chilton receives a dime of federal money, it has an obligation to prevent and address.

Saying “sexual harassment” might sound weird, but trust me, calling these things by their proper names is much less weird than being the kind of person who would do any of them.

We both know Tristan is pathetic, but he doesn’t have to be a full nuclear, bodies-in-freezers threat for you to decide that his treatment of you is not remotely ok, that it is not your problem to manage, and that it must cease and desist immediately.

Nor is this to say that you’re not handling it well or that you’re weak. Freedom from sexual harassment isn’t a special protection for those too weak to handle it; it’s about freeing you from expending valuable energy dealing with capricious aggressions so that you can focus on your actual job, which is 100 % schoolwork and 0% Tristan’s issues. You don’t have to refrain from taking action until the problem spirals out of control because “uuugh, can’t you just be cool, why are you making us deal with this, this is so awkwaaaard for us.” People who say this, implictly or explicitly, are bad and will hopefully soon meet a fairy who makes toads fall out of their mouths.

And I know you feel sorry for his issues, and that’s ok!  But his problems do not equal marching orders for you to suck it up and think of England: you’re not a therapist, and if you were, I’m pretty sure you’d have both fees and boundaries. Insofar as you can help Tristan, it’s by not giving him a sad-rich-boy pass. Calling things like sexual harassment by their rightful names sheds sunlight on on something that thrives in obscurity; it creates room for the possibility of addressing Tristan’s behavior before it becomes an entrenched pattern that, as time goes by, grows more serious and less easily disentangled from Tristan’s character.

But at least everyone knows that Tristan is a jerk. Dean, on the other hand, barely needs a white horse to be officially crowned World’s Best High School Boyfriend, and that is why your relationship with Dean scares me more.

For your three month anniversary, Dean takes you out for a big, fancy, romantic night out, surprises you with a car he built for you, and then tells you he loves you.

Oh Rory, this is not cool. Surprising someone with an extravagant, unasked for gift that they can neither reciprocate nor politely turn down right before springing a major emotional declaration on them is hugely inappropriate.  Building her a car is something you do after you’ve both said I love you, not before you unilaterally escalate the relationship. I know we’re supposed to think that a man spending two month’s salary on a woman before ambushing her with a question that will determine the course of her life is sweet, but what Dean did here is manipulative.

And Rory, you handled it so well! You avoided the trap of going along with it, saying I love you just to make him happy. Because no matter how much you love do in fact love him, that pressure, that lack of freedom you felt will poison your relationship and make trust or honesty impossible. You were kind, empathic, and communicated your feelings and boundaries clearly. That is the kind of relationship skill that takes years to learn, and you knocked it out of the park on your first try in a terrible, high-pressure situation! High five Rory!

And Dean threw a tantrum. He didn’t say “You don’t have to tell me I love you till you’re ready, but that’s where I stand.” He didn’t say “Oh man, this is awkward and hard to hear. I’m not sure how to react.”  He didn’t say “I’m glad you felt comfortable telling me that.” He didn’t even say “I get that you’re not ready, but I am, so this is really hard to hear. Let’s take some time alone to think about everything.” He threw a tantrum, and in a minute had you apologizing for having boundaries and speaking up about them.

Rory, there is not one goddam reason you should have been able to say “I love you” back. You’re 16, this is your first relationship, you’d been going out for three months. Everything you said was prudent and right and kind, and anyone who makes you apologize for not offering up emotional intimacy on demand as soon as he’s ready is not someone who knows how to love.

And then! And THEN, a few months later, Dean says “I told her I loved her and she just sat there and somehow I’M the bad guy?” Yes, Dean, you are the bad guy, because love isn’t a prize she’d damn well better show proper gratitude for, it’s something mutual, and organic, and caring, and respectful. I get that you made Romantic Gestures, but if you weren’t ready to hear anything but what you wanted at the end of those Romantic Gestures, they suddenly seem less like romance and more like a trap. Pro-tip: If you can’t handle a “no,” don’t. build her. a fucking. car.

Rory, you did nothing wrong. I’m sorry your boyfriend manipulated and punished you, and I’m sorry the people who should have had your back the most unconditionally made you feel like there was something wrong with you, not Dean. Unfortunately, that part doesn’t really get better as you get older.

Speaking of which, a digression.

Lorelai, what the hell is wrong with you? I get that you never got an adolescence of your own and are therefore in some ways emotionally frozen at 16, but you need to get it together, and fast.

When your daughter finally tells you why her boyfriend broke up with her, your response is, “I’d hate to think I’d raised a kid who couldn’t say I love you.”

When you see your daughter freaking out because a sex-pest is threatening to tell her boyfriend that they kissed the night after he dumped her, you don’t say “Honey, let’s  bracket for a moment our discussion about sexual harassment and what steps you feel comfortable taking.  The fact that you are so worried about Dean’s reaction to something that happened after you broke up, when you were completely free, and which is absolutely none of his business in the first place—it is starting to worry me. Hearing this might be painful for Dean, but in a good relationship it shouldn’t engender this much stress.”  Instead, you say “This is the kind of honesty that will only make you feel less guilty, and it’s going to hurt Dean very much,  and possibly going to screw up the very good thing you guys have going now.”

When you see your daughter going out of her mind with anxiety–not sadness, not distress, anxiety— because she accidentally lost the bracelet Dean gave her, does this raise any red flags for you at all? Nope, you just help her look for it and yell at Jess for taking it.

When Dean calls, what, 16 times in one day? do you say to Rory, “Wow, that is intense. How do you feel about this? Are you ok?” You say, “Honey, you’ve got to ease up on that love potion you’re giving him.”

You are telling your daughter that living in fear of upsetting your boyfriend is normal, that angry jealousy and failure to respect boundaries is par for the course, and that if her boyfriend starts behaving in ways that make her uncomfortable or miserable, that it’s just because he loves her so much. Do you have any idea idea how messed up this is?

True, you do tell Dean to give Rory some space for the sake of her relationship, but whether or not their relationship works out is not what worries me, and it sure as hell shouldn’t be what worries you. What worries me is Rory learning that love means a knot of anxiety in the pit of your stomach, and that romance means refusing to leave you alone or give you space. It’s the possibility of this learned identification of love with control haunting her for the next 20 years as these patterns become hallmarks of all her relationships. I’m afraid her ability to speak up for herself and listen to her gut and identify problems is slowly eroding–and I can already see it happening. And because all the advice you give her is about conisdering Dean’s feelings, managing Dean’s jealousies, learning to prevent his anger, she is learning that a) all these things are healthy and her job to take care of, and b)  that the goal is always keeping your boyfriend, no matter how miserable he makes you.

She’s just beginning to learn what love and relationships mean, and you are her first and final baseline of normalcy. You are the one who sets the rules of what’s ok and what’s not in her world; you’re the one she trusts to give her advice on boys. You don’t need to forbid her to see Dean or sit outside with a shotgun, but you do need to check in with her–not about how her relationship with Dean is doing, but how she is doing. You need to be the one who offers her a vision of healthy relationships, who helps her talk through feelings of fear and powerlessness and unhappiness and give them names, who reminds her that she is a person before she is a girlfriend, who lets her know that she is loved and supported and that you care for her, not her-with-Dean.

Stop advocating for your daughter’s relationships and start advocating for your daughter, because she needs you, and you are blowing it.

End of digression.

Anyway Rory, turns out I’ve a lot of things to say about the boys in your life, so I’m going to call this Part One and wrap it up here. In Part Two we can chat more about handsome handsome Dean and handsome handsome Jess, and why you should flee them both like peasants do a plague ship.

Until then I remain,

Yours faithfully,

Cranky Aunt Clare

Terrible Valentine’s Day Playlist Redux

Once again, and a month late: a playlist for those whose Valentine’s day was more traumatic than tender, loosely inspired by women from books and their mediocre-to-terrifying suitors. Possibly a bit spoiler-y; previous version here. 

Mary Garth re Fred Vincy

Gwendolyn Harleth re Grandcourt

Lydia Glasher re Grandcourt

Fanny Price re Edmund Bertram

Bertha Mason re Mr. Rochester

Tess Durbeyfield re Alec Durbeyfield

Katie Nolan re Johnny Nolan

Lizzy Bennet re Mr. Collins

Lizzy Bennet re Wickham

Dunya re Svidrigailov

Literally every woman Don Juan interacts with/molests, that Venn diagram is pretty much fully intersectional

Penelope re all her suitors

Harriet Vane re Phillip Boyes

honorable mention, because she deserves it, poor girl.

Dorothea re Causabon

50 Shades of Grey With Anastasia Romanov Instead of Anastasia Steele

“I think you need to learn to manage my expectations. I am not a patient man. If you say you are going to contact me when you finish work, then you should have the decency to do so. Otherwise, I worry, and it’s not an emotion I’m familiar with, and I don’t tolerate it very well. Call me.”


“You should find me intimidating,” he nods. “You’re very honest. Please don’t look down. I like to see your face.”


“I’m a very wealthy man, Miss Steele, and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies.”


“I tracked your cell phone, Anastasia”


“You can leave anytime. The helicopter is on stand-by to take you whenever you want to go, you can stay the night and go home in the morning. It’s fine whatever you decide.”


[Upon waking up the night after she drinks for the first time, is sexually assaulted by a friend, and is taken home–his home, not hers–by Grey]
You’re lucky I’m just scolding you.” “What do you mean?” “Well, if you were mine, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week after the stunt you pulled yesterday. You didn’t eat, you got drunk, you put yourself at risk.”
Can I treat you?” I ask Christian. “Treat me how?” “Pay for this meal.” Christian snorts. “I don’t think so.” he scoffs. “Please. I want to.” He frowns at me. “Are you trying to completely emasculate me?
“Anastasia, you should steer clear of me. I’m not the man for you.
“Besides, immense power is acquired by assuring yourself in your secret reveries that you were born to control things,”
“No one’s ever said no to me before. And it’s so – hot.”
“But quite frankly, Anastasia, I’m not sure you have a submissive bone in your delectable body.”
“Alaska is very cold and no place to run. I would find you. I can track your cell phone – remember?”
“‘This conversation is not over,’ he whispers threateningly.”
“It’s taking all my self-control not to fuck you on the hood of this car, just to show you that you’re mine, and if I want to buy you a fucking car, I’ll buy you a fucking car,” he growls.”

Poem of the Day 35

Giant Snail

The rain has stopped. The waterfall will roar like that all
night. I have come out to take a walk and feed. My body–foot,
that is–is wet and cold and covered with sharp gravel. It is
white, the size of a dinner plate. I have set myself a goal, a
certain rock, but it may well be dawn before I get there.
Although I move ghostlike and my floating edges barely graze
the ground, I am heavy, heavy, heavy. My white muscles are
already tired. I give the impression of mysterious ease, but it is
only with the greatest effort of my will that I can rise above the
smallest stones and sticks. And I must not let myself be dis-
tracted by those rough spears of grass. Don’t touch them. Draw
back. Withdrawal is always best.
The rain has stopped. The waterfall makes such a noise! (And
what if I fall over it?) The mountains of black rock give off such
clouds of steam! Shiny streamers are hanging down their sides.
When this occurs, we have a saying that the Snail Gods have
come down in haste. I could never descend such steep escarp-
ments, much less dream of climbing them.
That toad was too big, too, like me. His eyes beseeched my
love. Our proportions horrify our neighbors.
Rest a minute; relax. Flattened to the ground, my body is like
a pallid, decomposing leaf. What’s that tapping on my shell?
Nothing. Let’s go on.
My sides move in rhythmic waves, just off the ground, from
front to back, the wake of a ship, wax-white water, or a slowly
melting floe. I am cold, cold, cold as ice. My blind, white bull’s
head was a Cretan scare-head; degenerate, my four horns that
can’t attack. The sides of my mouth are now my hands. They
press the earth and suck it hard. Ah, but I know my shell is
beautiful, and high, and glazed, and shining. I know it well,
although I have not seen it. Its curled white lip is of the finest
enamel. Inside, it is as smooth as silk, and I, I fill it to perfection.
My wide wake shines, now it is growing dark. I leave a lovely
opalescent ribbon: I know this.
But O! I am too big. I feel it. Pity me.
If and when I reach the rock, I shall go into a certain crack
there for the night. The waterfall below will vibrate through
my shell and body all night long. In that steady pulsing I can
rest. All night I shall be like a sleeping ear.

–Elizabeth Bishop

Poem of the Day 34


The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
The state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white,
and unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale
every time in a tantrum.
Tanagers embarrassed by their flashiness,
and pelicans whose delight it is to clown;
who coast for fun on the strong tidal currents
in and out among the mangrove islands
and stand on the sand-bars drying their damp gold wings
on sun-lit evenings.
Enormous turtles, helpless and mild,
die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches,
and their large white skulls with round eye-sockets
twice the size of a man’s.
The palm trees clatter in the stiff breeze
like the bills of the pelicans. The tropical rain comes down
to freshen the tide-looped strings of fading shells:
Job’s Tear, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,
parti-colored pectins and Ladies’ Ears,
arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,
the buried Indian Princess’s skirt;
with these the monotonous, endless, sagging coast-line
is delicately ornamented.

Thirty or more buzzards are drifting down, down, down,
over something they have spotted in the swamp,
in circles like stirred-up flakes of sediment
sinking through water.
Smoke from woods-fires filters fine blue solvents.
On stumps and dead trees the charring is like black velvet.
The mosquitoes
go hunting to the tune of their ferocious obbligatos.
After dark, the fireflies map the heavens in the marsh
until the moon rises.
Cold white, not bright, the moonlight is coarse-meshed,
and the careless, corrupt state is all black specks
too far apart, and ugly whites; the poorest
post-card of itself.
After dark, the pools seem to have slipped away.
The alligator, who has five distinct calls:
friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning–
whimpers and speaks in the throat
of the Indian Princess.

Elizabeth Bishop

Poem of the Day 33

Five Flights Up

Still dark.
The unknown bird sits on his usual branch.
The little dog next door barks in his sleep
inquiringly, just once.
Perhaps in his sleep, too, the bird inquires
once or twice, quavering.
Questions—if that is what they are—
answered directly, simply,
by day itself.

Enormous morning, ponderous, meticulous;
gray light streaking each bare branch,
each single twig, along one side,
making another tree, of glassy veins…
The bird still sits there. Now he seems to yawn.

The little black dog runs in his yard.
His owner’s voice arises, stern,
“You ought to be ashamed!”
What has he done?
He bounces cheerfully up and down;
he rushes in circles in the fallen leaves.

Obviously, he has no sense of shame.
He and the bird know everything is answered,
all taken care of,
no need to ask again.
—Yesterday brought to today so lightly!
(A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)

–Elizabeth Bishop

By temperament, I am neither disciplined nor forgiving–I would rather spend six hours perfecting a miniscule detail of the project I care about, leaving half my work undone, than budget realistically and accept a compromise. If you have an obsessive, project-oriented streak, this can work well up to a point, but eventually, time for sleep becomes very sweet, and the baffled sense “for I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate” very frustrating.

I can get one or two things done, and done to my satisfaction, but the problem was realizing that I want to do many things. When you want, not just to produce, but live well–eat good food, answer letters, dance, speak French–the finitude of time becomes much more pressing, and you can’t succeed by treating everything as a crisis.

I was noodling this after reading Calah’s post. Full-time childcare with the majority of housework is essentially working two jobs (in which your first job actively tries to destroy your second). Part of Calah’s point is that the problem is in some ways intractable; part of the problem also seems related to impossible demands placed overwhelmingly and specifically on mothers. But working two jobs and trying to find the energy to open a beer, at least, is familiar to me. Sometimes even minor adjustments have been helpful, and here some from my frantic times.

1. Focus on habits, not projects.

People tell you to begin with the end in mind, and I do! And that end is one in which I pray daily, am fluent in several languages, have an organized wardrobe with appropriate outfits for every occasion all of which fit and none of which are ripped, go for runs in a high ponytail and those cool stretchy outfits, write several thousand words a day, return emails immediately, read six newspapers every morning, make things like “walnut crusted salmon with artichokes and lemon pesto tapenade” for dinner, and have read literally every book.

Part of this is just me, but part of it, I think, is a well-marketed concept of femininity, and the tip-off is the picture of the self as a product–clean, contained, accessorized, on brand. It doesn’t touch on the development of a continuous person as much as the assembly of a static persona.

It also happens to be impossible, because most people have to work and reproduce their labor power, and there is barely time for leisure, let alone perfection, And even if you scale down your goals, you’ll still be stuck trying to create a setting, an aesthetic, “fixing your life” as if it existed in some malleable, adjustable “hackable” remove from you, the person.

And then, so much of the aesthetic of the clean, finished life depends on money, and so much of that, unless you are rich, is out of your control. You’ll gather up the skirts that desperately need alteration, and realize the money you’d blocked out went to fixing yesterday’s burst pipe. So you go on, waiting patiently for the day you can get everything just right, become the fantasy of yourself you wish to see in the world, finally take out your to do-list and cross “life” off forever.

When I really attend to happiness, not pawn it off on some immaterial collection of future things and traits and circumstances, I still want a good life. But I want to live it now, at a cruddy job and with cruddy pens that write in ugly smears, without scented candles or the silk pillowcases on which I know, deep down, my head was meant to lie

What makes me happy is being someone who gives what time she has to good books –maybe just page a day, not enough to become an expert in anything–not trying to become someone who has read a certain quota of good books.

What I really want and need is an order to my time and the habits that make that possible, not this or that particular outcome.

2. Don’t make a to-do list, set aside time.

I like to-do lists, because they impose little discipline and maximum achievement. I can treat them as a project, and faithfully, eventually, get everything done without having to worry about what the cost was, what I did with the rest of my time, or how long I can keep it up. But if what I really want is not just to plow through a complete set of Harvard Classics, but to give my time and attention to good things every single day, it helps to pre-allot the time I want to give. If I get up at 6 and get coffee, I can read the newspaper. If it is 5pm, I can be at my desk and computer, whether I feel like writing or have any good ideas.

And the best thing about this, for me, is the discipline of failure. You slept in? You read articles instead of writing? There’s no analgesic. You don’t get to make it up later, borrowing time from sleep or work. You don’t get to excuse yourself by shoving it off on a perfect tomorrow when you’ll “get your life in order.” You committed a specific amount of time to a specific work, and you failed, and that’s that.

But it’s ok, because now it’s time for another good thing you can succeed at, and tomorrow you’ll have another chance at this one. Making the acceptance of failure a part of the discipline helps quarantine what can otherwise be overwhelming self-castigation. You didn’t just tank your whole plan for your time, you failed at one thing, and by letting yourself feel that failure without abandoning the whole struggle, you’re turning it into a success.

And the flip-side to the discipline of failure is letting stuff go when it’s out of your control. The essay needed more work to be good, time’s up and you’re only halfway through? Hit save and move on. Unavoidable freak errand popped up in the evening prayer time? That’s ok, it’ll roll around again same time tomorrow.

When my focus is on achievement, interruptions and failures make me feel out of control, or that trying to do [goal] until [future condition] materializes is pointless. But with habits, what matters is the fidelity.

This is why I like the liturgy of the hours–your prayer is set up for you around regular intervals, and if you miss one, in three hours you try again.

3. Scale down.

Obviously, some things do not admit failure–some things are on a deadline, some of children’s needs are urgent.

In my experience, applying the discipline of failure to these non-negotiables, insofar as you can, makes them more manageable in the long run. If I have a paper due, rather than say “Saturday, I will write this paper,” I can begin, way before it’s due, giving myself half an hour a day to work on it. And you can fail  at all those half hours, or use them with less than maximal efficiency, sure, but–wasting manageable bites of daily time explicitly set out for a task feels, to me, more difficult, harder to ignore, than dicking around when the only constraint is “get it done sometime today.” And even if I end up really using 15 minutes of that half hour productively, in a week I might still surprise myself with half a paper.

But I’ve found that it is a learning curve, and when you’re at the beginning, or you have many non-negotiables, or very difficult and time-consuming ones, it helps to massively scale down. Right now I exercise for three to five minutes a day, right before I shower and go to bed. It takes less energy to make myself do it when it’s only five minutes, and if for some reason I don’t get to it, it’s easier to jump back into the routine. My tiny workout won’t make me any kind of cross-fit champion, but I exercise more than I would with more ambitious goals; when I miss it, I notice.

4. Make bed-time a non-negotiable.

I tend to waste less of my allotted time if I know I’m going to bed at 9:30 whether I’ve finished it or not. I can’t always do this, obviously, but it helps, more than almost anything else. I’m happier and more capable, I don’t sleep in, and instead of finishing my to do list at an ever-increasing rate of inefficiency and exhaustion, I have to let the day go.

This applies, actually, to physical stuff in general. Prioritizing my goals by a kind of Maslow’s hierarchy is very helpful, and my top priority is the physical. Getting up on time, going to bed on time, my tiny workout, making myself drink water and stand up straight.

Putting it first and foremost provides a structure that keeps me from charging randomly at a free-wheeling vortex of obligations, never knowing which ones I’ll fulfill on any given day. If there’s just not enough time for everything, or I waste some of my time, or I fail at lower priority tasks, having my small, daily, absolute baseline physical regimen prevents me from feeling like I’ve lost all order so nothing matters after all..

I keep harping on this, because for me, it’s the key: understanding that I will sometimes fail to get everything done, especially at first, and having a structure that can absorb and neutralize that failure is how I build good habits.

And for some reason, putting the physical first offers a balance that enables me to attack the other stuff without being overwhelmed. Maybe because it’s relatively easy and therefore a low-cost way to keep your sense of order intact, or maybe it’s just that everything’s easier when you’re healthy. Either way, taking care of myself, even at the cost of other more important things, helps me stick to the hardest part of a discipline: not doing it perfectly every day, but doing it, like clockwork, the next day after you’ve let it slide.

My hierarchy goes something like this: physical care, liturgy of the hours, work, writing project A, writing project B, personal writing, reading, other miscellania.

It’s not what’s most important that comes first–prayer, writing, and reading all more important to me than sleep–it’s what allows me to stay disciplined in the pursuit of the important things.

5. Figure out what you actually need.

I enjoy cooking, and for me “eating well” was tied up with cooking a meal from scratch every night, chicken thighs and rice pilaf and a glass of red wine, etc. But that, you will no doubt be surprised to hear, is a massive time suck! I do need to eat well, but right now that doesn’t mean having fun in the kitchen, it means making a giant salad with chicken at the beginning of the week and storing it in five tupperwares.

6. Figure out what you want to do daily and what you want to do regularly.

For me, reading, writing, studying, answering mail, and exercising are what I need to do daily, and the first three are what I give the majority of my time to. Once a week I want a block of time for bills and budget, one for groceries and cooking, one for cleaning and laundry, and one for scheduling appointments and other miscellania. I don’t need to do those things every day, and I don’t need to devote a certain amount of time for them in the same way in the same way as reading and writing, but if I know when they are going to be done, I can put everything that accumulates into that block and bracket it off, so I don’t become bogged down in small tasks during the rest of the week, or put off what I really should  do by telling myself I’m still being productive.

Some things I let slide for long periods of time, because I just don’t need to, say, have a busy social life right now. Some things I really can give to future–if my aunt says she’s going to teach me how to sew this summer, I don’t need to be looking up how-to videos on my own. And some things I have to be satisfied with making slow progress on, because I’ve given most of my time to more important things, and there’s really only ten minutes a day to learn X. But slow progress is still progress.

All this makes sense for the life of a single person with no dependents, not someone in Calah’s situation. But this post isn’t really for Calah (although she’s great). It’s for me. If it’s likely, one way or another, that changed circumstances in the not terribly distant future will render me much less mistress of my own time, it makes sense to work on ordering it now, and think consciously about what techniques are helpful in doing so. Hopefully, even if what works changes, the ability to come up with a modus vivendi that lends discipline to failure won’t.