The Sorrows of Young Werther

Book 23 of 2020 was The Sorrows of Young Werther. I am the patron saint of unrequited love, so I figured I’d get to know one more of my subjects. Werther is, I suppose, the German version of Frédéric in Sentimental Education, which I read earlier this year. We could do an entire post of compare/contrast, but I’ll just summarize. Werther is so much more earnest and single-minded. Frédéric liked to be dramatic about his one way love but was also a playboy fully capable of being flattered by other women. For Werther, there was only one. Amusingly, both young men have some disdain for the workaday lives of older, more established men.

The book was written in high German, so it sounds almost as stilted and old-fashioned as Shakespeare. Most of the book consists of letters written by Werther to his friend Wilhelm, and most of the letters are an unconvincing telling of how great Charlotte (object of Werther’s affection) is, or how obsessed with her he is. I say “unconvincing” because everything is trite and sounds like a “textbook” case of unrequited love. He describes her beauty and her good qualities, and how time has become a blur to him, and his obsessive thoughts, and how happy he is thinking about going to see her. There’s nothing fresh in his descriptions. Though, to be fair, it may have sounded less overused at the time of writing.

The story was too realistic. Too like real life in that nothing happens. From his descriptions of Charlotte, I’m not convinced his love is based on actually knowing her at all. Maybe just confirmation bias — an initial meet-cute, some fun dancing at a ball, then spending the remainder of his life assigning positive attributes to her. She’s not actually a saint: she knows how he feels and wants to keep him around, even after she’s married, because she likes the attention. She briefly considers marrying him off to one of her friends, but decides that she doesn’t think any of them are a good fit. How awkward.

Overall, too much telling, not enough showing. Not very much happening in this book and the writing wasn’t good enough to offset the lack of narrative progress. The reader should feel sorry for young Werther, but he’s hard to get close to, because he doesn’t seem like a real person. Actually, now that I think of it, this book reads like a novel-length, yet barely more grown up version of any story from Der Struwwelpeter.

All that being said, I did find a few quotes I liked, so I’ll leave you with those:

“Often do I strive to allay the burning fever of my blood; and you have never witnessed anything so unsteady, so uncertain, as my heart…. I treat my poor heart like a sick child, and gratify its every fancy.”

“I examine my own being, and find there a world, but a world rather of imagination and dim desires, than of distinctness and living power. Then everything swims before my senses, and I smile and dream while pursuing my way through the world.”

“A dim vastness is spread before our souls: the perceptions of our mind are as obscure as those of our vision; and we desire earnestly to surrender up our whole being, that it may be filled with the complete and perfect bliss of one glorious emotion. But alas! when we have attained our object, when the distant there becomes the present here, all is changed: we are as poor and circumscribed as ever, and our souls still languish for unattainable happiness.”

“He values my understanding and talents more highly than my heart, but I am proud of the latter only… All the knowledge I possess every one else can acquire, but my heart is exclusively my own.”

“I fear, I much fear, that it is only the impossibility of possessing me which makes your desire for me so strong.”
— Charlotte to Werther

Sustainable Happiness

Book 22 was from a Little Free Library and titled Sustainable Happiness. I know, I know… self-help? I promised not to discriminate on genre, and hey, who doesn’t want to know the secrets to sustainable happiness, right? So here we are. The basic premise of this book is that while consumerism is necessary for continued economic growth, it doesn’t make humans much happier after we have the basics.

Here are the 10 things that will make you happy, according to the book:

  1. Savor everyday moments
  2. Avoid comparisons
  3. Put money low on the list
  4. Have meaningful goals
  5. Take initiative at work
  6. Make friends, treasure family
  7. Smile even when you don’t feel like it*
  8. Say thank you like you mean it
  9. Get out and exercise
  10. Give it away now!

Many of these things make sense intuitively, and #10 is the basis of Marie Kondo’s de-cluttering manifestos. 4 and 5 are probably the most difficult, because they’re hard to define, and the benefits are hard to quantify.

I did also appreciate the following list from the book, though it sounds more like a list on “How to be French”:

The Sabbath Manifesto — 10 ways to take a day off

  1. Avoid technology
  2. Connect with loved ones
  3. Nurture your health
  4. Get outside
  5. Avoid commerce
  6. Light candles
  7. Drink wine
  8. Eat bread
  9. Find silence
  10. Give back

The book is composed of several essays, and I found a couple of them… goofy. For example, there’s one on internet porn addiction that seems out of place. Author Dan Mahle says giving up porn helped him restore a sense of personal integrity, dismantle his subconscious sexism, reconnect to his tears, trust himself more, increase self-confidence, gain clarity on his life’s purpose and be passionate about the work he’s doing. Wow, what an infomercial. Makes me wonder why there are people who were never into porn but don’t have those things (eg clarity, passion, self-confidence). Then there’s some stuff about “Earth university,” “Earth Democracy,” and restorative justice. I’m not really sure what they have to do with an individual finding happiness, but maybe the point is to help all humans get there.

In short, to be happy, try to live more simply, enjoy and be thankful for what you have, and be Frencher.

Quotes from the book that I enjoyed:

“Slavery was motivated by “the love of ease and gain,” and no luxuries could exist without others having to suffer to create them.”

I definitely disagree with this one. Fine dining? Those chefs have the time of their lives. I don’t think the artisans at Staub are suffering a lot to make the luxury cocottes I love either.

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Simple living is not about abandoning luxury, but discovering it in new places.”

Maybe this quote addresses my objection to the previous luxury quote. Maybe I’ve discovered it in places where it doesn’t cost suffering. Yay, me.

“It’s not that we actually have an overwhelming desire to accumulate property, it’s that we’re concerned with how we’re seen all the time. It’s not material self-interest, it’s that we experience ourselves through each other’s eyes — and that’s the reason for the labels and the clothes and the cars.”

“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” — Viktor E. Frankl, concentration camp survivor

*Not about actually smiling, but a recommendation to have a positive outlook so as to see more opportunities

Things that bring me joy

I’ve decided to write about things currently bringing me joy because what everyone else is posting right now isn’t. And remember what Marie Kondo says about things that don’t spark joy? That’s right. Thank them, then remove them from your life. Unfortunately, current events have infected my Facebook and Instagram feeds with repetitive, performative content I quickly got bored of. So I’ve decided to take a break until Stonemill posts matcha again, until Dogspotting is all about dogs again, and until my well-intentioned friends return to posting about their cooking adventures.

Here’s what’s making me smile these days, in no particular order:

Hospital Playlist

It’s a (Korean) medical drama, and I like it because it’s full of things I can’t do right now. There’s a group of 5 surgeons who have been friends since medical school (aww) and now work at the same hospital and play in a band together. They frequently eat meals, all of them together. At restaurants. This is my fantasy life, eating kbbq at a restaurant with a group of friends. Laughing and teasing each other. I miss eating at restaurants. I miss seeing friends. Also, everyone in the show is a good person, but in a realistic way. It was so cheery to watch that show that I was sad when I ran out of episodes.

Newfies of Norway

This Instagram account features another fantasy life. The owners run a farm with a forest on their property and post videos daily of hiking or working with the newfies running around “helping.” You know, napping nearby or sloshing around in muddy ravines.

Animal Crossing

This is a game for Nintendo Switch. It’s yet another fantasy life, where I live on an island and all my neighbors are cute animals who give me gifts and speak to me. I breed flowers, buy myself new outfits, visit friends’ islands, make furniture out of fruit, fish, and redecorate my huge house with multiple bathtubs. Oh yeah, another reason it’s my fantasy life is that there’s no crime on this island. You can leave things you own anywhere, and no one will touch it. Even literal bags of money or trees that grow bags of money. If only San Francisco could be more like my island in Animal Crossing!

Schubert – Impromptu No 3., Op 90

How did I take piano lessons for 9 years and never know this song existed? I found it when looking for a new piece to learn and this one took my breath away. I have learned about half of it now, and it is so moving that it messes with my breathing to play it. I know, dramatic. I couldn’t find information about what inspired Schubert or what it might have meant to him. But to me, it sounds like sweetness, hope, longing, with brief undercurrents of darkness or frustration. The only thing that would make this one even better is if I could find a recording of Lang Lang playing it.

Yoo Yeon Seok singing

He has a nice voice: velvety, comforting. One of the most important components to performing music well is expressing the feeling behind it. It’s hard when performing for an audience, but getting outside yourself, your nervousness, your fear of fumbling — and finding joy in the music: that’s the key. He does a really good job. Almost as good as Lang Lang.

Buy Nothing groups

All that time quarantined at home. All that Kondo-ing you’ve done. And now, walls and entry halls are lined with paper bags full of things awaiting their trip to Goodwill. Which has also been covided. Enter Buy Nothing groups! No matter what you have in those bags, I can guarantee there’s someone who would be grateful to have it. And who would come to your house to take it off your hands. Also, people give away nice things too. I recently saw a street lamp that you could plug in!

Weighted blanket

Speaking of buy nothing groups, I recently got this blanket from one. Some people hate feeling pressed, but I love it. It’s so relaxing. As a child, I used to fantasize about being pressed under the couch or refrigerator. Yeah, while other girls my age were wearing towels on their heads dreaming of being brides, I was imagining what it would be like to be squashed by my couch. TMI? It’s better than a spa day. Really! It’s relaxing and there are no strangers touching you. (How can anyone relax with strangers touching them…)

The Calm app

I linked to the Amex offer: a free year for any cardholder. The meditation lessons are the highlight. They’re funny because the guide’s story is that he was once a clubby party bro and then he found meditation. It probably sounds hokey to anyone who hasn’t tried it, but after a 10 minute guided meditation, I do feel more relaxed for the rest of the day. It sure beats being angry or anxious or agitated about things I can’t solve. The rest.. well, I tried listening to the bedtime story read by Stephen Fry, and it made me imagine things (a mouse with silver claws and silver eyes) that were terrifying and made me less sleepy. I tried the Sigur Ros “calming” music too, but it sounded like a horror movie soundtrack replete with voices of haunted children.

Ok, friends. I hope that helps. Remember, die gedanken sind frei. Don’t let anyone pressure you into doing something you don’t actually believe in.

Wall of Silence

The 17th book I read this year was Wall of Silence. It was a free Amazon book of the month, and it was interesting enough to keep me reading until the end. I confess I didn’t see the ending coming, though the author did give hints.

I didn’t find it believable that the daughter could stab her father, even given the circumstances revealed at the end. I also found the father character poorly developed. When he was young, he was a perfect, sheltered golden boy. But sweet. And then he grew up to be paper thin. An adulterer, a win-at-any-cost politician, a sociopath? It’s not a clear trajectory and there doesn’t seem to be trauma to explain how it happened. He just became this way to make the plot twist work out, I guess.

This book was interesting enough to finish, but may make you resentful because, on the whole, it isn’t interesting. Take my opinion for what it’s worth though: I felt the same about Slaughterhouse Five and wished a painful death to the author every time “and so it goes” was repeated.

In an Instant

Book 16 this year was In an Instant. This was an Amazon First Reads book, and probably the best one I’ve picked. The characters are vivid and I can see them being real people. No one is that ideal hero you’re rooting for. (Okay, maybe Mo). Everyone makes mistakes.

Maybe one reason the book is so well-written is that the author had an experience in her childhood similar to the accident at the beginning of the story. The story illustrates the idea that regardless of our everyday personas, when it comes to life and death, we become selfish and protect ourselves and family first. None of the characters are painted as sociopaths: they’re normal, average people. They seem happy and generous; their friendships look strong. But once they’re put into a life-threatening situation, they begin to scrabble like rats for any small advantage: warm boots, who drinks water first, etc.

Most of us will never be in that situation, so it’s hard to say what we would or wouldn’t do. That’s probably what makes this book so interesting. None of the characters would have seen themselves as the type of person who would choose to help themselves to the detriment of their friends. We don’t like to see ourselves that way: it makes us uncomfortable. But what if we would make the same choice if we were faced with the same situation? How strong is the instinct for self-preservation? The parental imperative to protect our children?

Designing Your Life

Books 10 and 11 of 2020 are a funny story. My friend recommended a book, which I misheard as Design Your Life. I’m cheating by calling it book 10 because I only got through about half of it before giving up. The book she actually recommended was Designing Your Life. The book was recommended as something that could help me apply design principles to improve my life. My friend thought I would like it because it’s similar to one of my bibles, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

So, I tried reading Design Your Life. At first I was puzzled. Sure, maybe personal style is somewhat important to living a satisfying life. I went with it. But when chapter after chapter featured long-winded expositions on the author’s personal style and personal opinions about what pieces make her look and feel the best, I was puzzled. I don’t care what makes the author feel feminine yet powerful. I don’t care what she thinks every woman should own. I don’t believe in the “law of attraction.” There were sections about shoes, jewelry, accessories and story after story where the author name drops people like Anna Wintour and brands like Chanel. Vapid. I gave up reading this book after it became clear it wasn’t about designing my life so much as designing my wardrobe to be a copy of the author’s.

No way my friend could be as vapid as this book. I went back to look for the correct book and found it. Thank goodness I did. It was so much more useful than the first book. The authors of Designing Your Life do not believe in telling people to find their passion and make a career out of it. Although some of their tools seem a bit woo, like “mind-mapping” and “grokking” or a bit goofy to implement, like having brainstorms with a group of 5-6 people specifically about how to improve your life, I want to try many of the exercises given.

I especially like all of the “reframing” statements and stories. In Marie Kondo’s book, it was these reframing arguments that helped me give up a lot of things I had been hoarding. Similarly, reframing in this book will help me get over inertia, fear of failure, fighting against gravity, and many other detrimental beliefs and behaviors.

The book offers techniques to figure out which parts of your life you need to work on: work, play, love or health. It seems basic that in order to improve something, we have to find a metric and determine the baseline, but I had never thought to sit down and think of it this way. There are also tools to determine which activities are engaging and energy-boosting. With such analysis, it’s easier to see the components of a good job, and to excise the aspects of your current job that you don’t like.

The book covers principles that I’d like to incorporate into my own thinking. For example, becoming immune to failure by categorizing failures to either get over them or learn something useful from them. I also appreciate the section on making choices, then moving on instead of agonizing over whether you’ve made the right choice. The bias towards action, prototyping, and failing fast/failing forward are also concepts I really need to implement. I am finding things hard to implement, so maybe I do need outside help for brainstorming. We’ll see.

AB5 Shutdowns

California lawmakers recently passed Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), which goes into effect January 1, 2020 and re-classifies many contractors as employees. While the intent was to give more workers benefits like unemployment insurance and health insurance by re-classifying them as employees, the effect will be that some companies shut down, stop doing business in California, or hire fewer workers. This is a list to keep track of the unintended consequences of AB5. Feel free to comment if I’ve missed one and I’ll add it.

SBNation, a sports blogging site owned by Vox, has indicated they’re replacing hundreds of freelance blogger positions with about a dozen full and part-time positions.

Envoy,  which began as a grocery delivery service and has grown to include elder-care tasks, announced it’s shuttering operations in the following message to its workers sent November 30:

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“Nigger” is not Lord Voldemort

Right. I spelled the word out. We should spell the word when discussing it. We shouldn’t have to call it “the n-word” or use other ways to disguise it. Why? Because nigger isn’t Lord Voldemort. Using it in an academic context does not give it more power, but maintaining the taboo around it does. Here’s a discussion of the same on the Language Log blog.

I’ve seen it in a few discussions now, where some who want the word to be masked in discussion accuse those who refer to it in full of being racists, or of wanting to spell it out/use it. I tried to educate myself on why it shouldn’t be spelled out in discussion, or why doing so would be offensive, and I found an article by John McWhorter in The Atlantic where he mentions the case of professor Laurie Sheck, who was investigated for using the word in a discussion about James Baldwin. He said “I am not a nigger” in a speech, and this was changed to “I Am Not Your Negro” for the title of the 2016 documentary on him. She had her class discuss why. She said the word, but did not use it as a slur. In short, McWhorter defends academic usage of the fully spelled out word, and implies that those who take offense are being hypersensitive.

Since it has become common to mask the word in online discussion, I wanted to see if there might be a good reason to do so. From what I’ve read, I’m not convinced there is. Furthermore, news sources seen as liberal (NYT, The Atlantic, NPR) do not engage in masking. What it means for you: it isn’t necessary for you to use clunky terms like “the n-word” or a row of asterisks. Referring to the full word in discussion doesn’t make you racist.

Note: I am not saying it’s okay to go around using the word.Ta-Nehisi Coates gives a good explanation on context and why it matters. However, he only covers using the words to refer to people, not saying the words to discuss their usage. For example, he wouldn’t call his wife’s friends as bitches just because she does. But he feels comfortable saying the word “bitch” and does not feel the need to call it “the b-word.” That’s all that I’m arguing here: without a target, a slur is not a slur and we should be comfortable using words (spelled out in their entirety) in discussions about them.

And if people get offended? Why, it’s the perfect chance to tell them “that’s not my religion.”

Americans misuse French

Sometimes it’s nuanced. Sometimes it’s blatant. Mostly it’s hilarious. Americans have taken some French words or sayings and made them something they aren’t to the French. If you know of any not on this list, please leave a comment, and I’ll add it!

Ooh la la!

To Americans, this phrase means “Well, isn’t that fancy.” It’s a response to a friend showing off a new designer purse, for example. When the French say it, there are usually more “las.”  It sounds like “ooh la la la la la la!” It doesn’t mean they’re impressed. It means something like “What a mess. How annoying.” It’s a common response when a child drops something and it breaks all over the floor, or when a child falls and starts screeching.

Casserole

This one has a hilarious backstory. My boyfriend’s mother asked him to hand her a casserole from the kitchen cabinet. I stared at them both. “Don’t you refrigerate your casseroles? The French make shelf-stable casseroles?!” They stared at me, and he got a “casserole” out of the cabinet. It was a cooking pot. It wasn’t even the flat, rectangular baking dish that Americans bake casseroles in.

Rendezvous

To Americans, this word has a romantic or sexual connotation. So when I heard a French person say they had a rendezvous with their hair dresser, I was curious. “You’re sleeping with your hair dresser?” That’s when I was told that in French, it just means any kind of meeting or appointment. Not necessarily sexual. Probably not sexual, in fact.

A la mode

In America, this phrase means “with ice cream.” In French, it isn’t used to mean anything other than its literal meaning, “in the fashion.” If you ask a French person to serve your dessert “a la mode” they’ll just give you a funny look. “In the fashion of what?” they might ask you.

Lamontre

Apparently, this is a name in America. In French, it means “the watch” (la montre). The most common reaction I’ve heard from French people upon learning that this is used as a name in America is “Really? But why?”