Notes from home

by Yule Heibel on January 2, 2006

Updated, Jan.3/06 (see coda, below)

Dave Pollard‘s recent (Jan.1/06) list of links for the week included this nugget by Paul Graham, Good and Bad Procrastination. At first I enjoyed reading it (it’s well-written and often funny), but in the end it really ticked me off.

Graham talks about “running errands” as an avoidance tactic for getting great things done (he calls Great Things “big stuff”). Well, part of my daily agenda includes running errands because they’re inherent in my job in raising my kids. In fact, I’ve been known to procrastinate long enough on the “errands” to the point where something starts to fall apart around the house (or do I mean hearth?) — so don’t tell me that “errands” are an excuse for avoiding the important things. Errands, in some poor (female) sods’ lives, are the warp and woof of what they do to keep the so-called other big stuff alive.

But then, I’m just a mom, and god knows that raising kids sure isn’t considered an important big-stuff thing. If it were, there’d be less talk about how it’s ok to let the small things slide so that the Big Things can get done. (Kids are after all just Little Things.) Less talk about how important it is to get The Big Ideas Realised. And. All. That. Graham writes that good procrastinators put off the right kinds of small stuff errands so they can get the big stuff done:

…they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

What’s “small stuff?” Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary.

Oh, I see! That’s why no obituary ever mentions “was a great parent,” and it explains why great parenting has devolved to the hokey schmaltz world of soap opera and corporate-generated cliché: that’s all “small stuff” and the “big stuff” matters so much more. And I guess that explains why kids today are often so fucked over by their parents.

I have been accused — no, that’s too harsh a word: it has been suggested to me, by someone who is male and who does not have young/ young-ish offspring still at home, that writing this blog is evidence of procrastination, that I am wasting my time and that all I need to do is buckle down to get some “real work” done. I always resented that suggestion, and now I know why. This blog is evidence of the fact that I am buckling down to keep my brain alive, it is evidence of all the learning that I’m still doing, and it feeds into the energies I have to continue priming the pump of learning that goes on in my “work” as a parent, too. Without it, I might as well go shopping instead. (As it is, I’ve discovered that I haven’t a clue anymore how to shop. Before I had kids and when I still worked “in my brain” all the time, shopping was a mindless diversion I got quite good at, even if I didn’t buy. But now, I am alas quite hopeless.)

But I may as well hang it up now. It’s all small stuff, proof positive of my inability to get any big stuff done. I should go shopping instead, or to a bar, or something.

Increasingly it’s a depressing exercise (swimming against this inexorable tide of what counts as “great”) and if you’re a woman, and particularly if you’re a mother who is raising kids, it seems there is nothing you can do right. All of it is just useless “small stuff,” none of it is “big stuff,” and I am sick to death of it all. Everywhere I look, I see men collectively dominating online intellectual / technological / political / design / elearning discourse. I see lots of men who are tiny insignificant schmucks like I am, but they still stand out more than the invisible women: they are part of the gender club. The women either aren’t there, or else it’s “understood” that they’re not dealing with things at the same level of Big Stuff importance as the men. I see this in every single sphere. When we start to complain (like I’m doing now), we sound like whining harpies. When we don’t complain and just do our work, it’s somehow not “big” enough. Even a discipline like art history (not present all that very much online, but very present offline), which is dominated to the teeth by female graduate students and female graduates (but, “naturally,” male professors, especially of the tenured variety), has only a tiny percentage of women who manage to develop “big stuff” presence. It is a relief to come across someone like Ana Finel Honigman or Ellen Harvey (see my I want to be a bad camera entry), and it makes so much sense for these two to be talking to each other and sharing their conversation with the reader — especially since they’re not necessarily pushing ostensibly “big stuff” in your face but instead are engaged in an intellectual questioning. Most of the time, however, the women (even in art history, for cryin’ out loud) can’t get a word in edge-wise.

Yeah, yeah, I know this isn’t what Paul Graham had in mind. But you know, Mr. G., fact is, when you write, you write from a gendered position. And when you write publicly, you’re going to have gendered readers. I’m not saying anyone should “tailor” their ideas accordingly — not at all — but I am saying that it’s important to keep this in mind. Unless, of course, you’ve ascended to such an empyreum of Big Stuff heights, that it doesn’t matter anymore. When that happens, stop and talk to a “little stuff” kid for a while.

Update/ coda: part of my personal skipping of “small stuff,” and it’s now coming back to bite me in the ass, is cutting back drastically on reading the blogs of my virtual friends (which begs the whole question of how good a virtual friend I am). Hence I’m late in reading about Elaine‘s escalating plight in caring for her aged mother. If you don’t have kids and think, meh, this stuff about mothering doesn’t apply to me, think again, because chances are you have parents who are getting older (unless you’re one of the lucky ones hatched ex nihilo, i.e., an immortal, a god). You could end up mothering them (and it won’t be in your obituary, so it’s definitely “small stuff”: isn’t that a comfort?). For a glimpse of what that could be like, be sure to read Elaine’s entries here and here and here. The story isn’t over, either. Hang in there, Elaine.


joseph duemer January 3, 2006 at 3:28 pm

Aren’t you writing a book?

melanie January 3, 2006 at 11:41 pm

Ha ha! I’m procrastinating on going back to the office by posting numerous things on my blog that are totally unrelated to the ‘big stuff’ I should be doing at work (inter alia, academic research, being in the peak in front of a hundred ‘long tail’ students). But sometimes I think this ‘big stuff’ involves too much routine and too few ideas that are worth committing to print. So I end up talking to myself in the Long Tail!

Yule Heibel January 3, 2006 at 11:50 pm

I know, Melanie — I saw your blog and entry More fun with data! But what an interesting data set it is…

Joe, I got so caught up in answering your question (the simle answer is “no,” sort of) that I ended up taking it to TextEdit to hack out there. More later…

Yule Heibel January 4, 2006 at 2:14 am

@ Joe: hmm, should I post this? It’s a much longer response than you bargained for and way too “dear diary”ish, my cynical (and self-protecting) self at its worst. Oh well (she says, little knowing that the drop on the cliff face was 300 metres). (Re. the long pause between this and my last comment: I had to play chauffeur and pick the offspring up at their Tuesday night politburo meeting…).

Alas, no, I am not writing a book at this time. But maybe I will be. Eventually. I’m not sure what it will be, though, nor am I sure that the world needs another book. I’ve also had rather a string of bad luck locally — I’m afraid no one wants what I do write, and it’s difficult to get rejection, especially when the rejectors are accepting a lot of pretty awful stuff (while rejecting mine), which as you can imagine makes me think that it must be the case that my stuff is even worse than the stuff they are publishing. It can be painful, obviously. Just the other day I read something about a local sculptor in a local-interest monthly magazine, and it made me cringe. It was well-written, but it was obvious that the person who wrote it doesn’t have a clue about sculpture specifically. If I wrote something about this particular artist, I’d want to point out how derivative and even mistaken in its premises his work is. But, and this is a big huge but: if there’s one thing that’s for sure it’s that a local community never wants one of its own questioned (even if he did come here from LA 30 or so years ago — he’s a “native son” now). Therefore, you instead get an article that emphasises this person’s “international reputation” (it’s actually practically nonexistant, but present enough to make folks here think they’ve got a Serra on their hands), and makes very vague noises about his “cool” forays into exploring the interrelationships between object and viewer (as if that wasn’t old hat, and hadn’t been done a lot better by any number of other sculptors). The article is well-written, asks no searching questions, espouses sympathy with “the artist” and “the process” and all that, and everyone is happy with the pure pablum of it all. Except me, of course. I want to scream. Yet this is paid-for “journalism,” not blogging drivel, so it must be taken with respect. Ugh.

On another note: your question makes me think that it deserves a whole other blog entry, because it has to do with the big (bigger) issue of value. I keep thinking about Elaine, and how, if she wrote a book about caring for her mother over these past couple of years and how this has changed her entire life, she would probably find a publisher because her story is gripping as well as timely. Her story (as well as her work) would get a value-upgrade (because “real” publishing would make it more valuable than “not real” blog publishing). It wouldn’t make her mother well again (or younger), it wouldn’t free her (Elaine) from the mind-boggling flip of being cast as mother to her mother, it wouldn’t mean that she hasn’t been doing incredibly hard work unrelated to any piece of writing, but it would somehow make that work more “valuable.” Or if I wrote a book about homeschooling/ education in a 21st century distributed learning environment (“homeschooling for the digital native”?), or, ack, a memoir — but I think I missed that tide, or a collection of essays on certain aspects of contemporary & historical art (whereby I’m not sure there would be any publishers interested in anything like that — art critics are a dime a dozen, another “value” phrase), but let’s say I were able to attract perhaps first an agent and then a publisher for a book project (still to be determined) were I to have an epiphany worth committing to: well, then my scribblings here (insofar as the book would draw on aspects of same) would gain “value.” Parallel case: I would “gain” value if I were an affiliated academic, or part of a think tank, research organisation, school or university, or museum/ gallery, or “with a publisher,” vs. being an undefined free agent (“free”: another value phrase). The institution would bestow value on me, in the eyes of others. I would no longer be “free” (for I would “belong” to the institution, identify with it, have their value bestowed on me), but I’d get paid. (…Wow, yeah, maybe I would “sell out” for that…! )

Bloggers give it away for free. And then the established media tell us that blogging is a waste of time and bloggers can’t write anyway. The proof: we’re not making any money. (You know that I was told by an editor at a NYC magazine — who was initially really interested in a memoir piece I submitted to her: she phoned me (imagine!) to ask me to work on it some more, but then disaster struck and I was prevented — long story, some other time — but when a couple of years later I happened to get in touch with her again and told her I had started blogging, she immediately dismissed me and blogging as drivel. Bloggers can’t write, they write drivel. They don’t get paid.)

It gets back to that question of value, and I’m just a bit puzzled by it all. Not puzzled at the basic economic level (I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like to get paid for what I do) or at the level of institutional power (how it works), but really puzzled at another level, that of audience reception (i.e., what people think, what they perceive, why they perceive) — a kind of economic reception theory, if you will (well, I don’t know if there is such a thing, but, you know, puzzlement over why people can’t figure things out freely and instead have to go where the money is or the benediction is or the buzz is — that sort of thing). “Women’s work” and so much of the unpaid human-to-human work we all do falls into a similar black hole.

Re. the question of making it/ selling yourself (and therefore committing to a project/ book idea/ whatever without procrastination): I really think that there are quite a few people who just have more balls than I do and who manage to sell themselves incredibly well and who have no questions (none of the questions I have) about what constitutes “value” — if it sells, they reason, it has value. It stands to reason, for them, that their products should be/ could be valuable, and that it makes sense to establish oneself in the pecking order of value: market-orientation. I think my basic problem is that at some level I really, really don’t understand value (I could get all Freudian here and reveal things about my unwanted arrival in this world, but let’s not go there!). I don’t understand how value is assigned collectively, who gets it and why, or who keeps it. That’s not to say that I don’t readily assign value to some products (and people), but I have no gods who are big enough to tell me what to do, which means I get all confused when the entire tribe seems to be heading north or south, and I’m standing there wondering why they’re doing it. I can sort of see the pattern in it, but the “why” makes no sense to me.

I have enough confidence and courage to believe in my own judgements, and I’m happy to debate and argue around them, but I don’t have the confidence to sell them on. In that sense, they are without value, if society defines value as something that sells. I’m not a masochist or a total idiot, however: I know some of my stuff is good. But 99% of the time I just I don’t trust the tribe: not their gladhands, priests, and fakirs, who might bless my products, because with the other hand they’re busily blessing crap, too. (How Freudian is that?) Consequently I’ve placed “a world” under suspicion; the only redemption is in individual goodness, interest, engagement. All systems stink. It’s immature, I know. Arrested development and all that. And of course cynicism, for I would naturally sell out at the drop of a hat, if the price were right…

joseph duemer January 4, 2006 at 8:54 am

Yule, you touch on a lot of things I have been thinking about. Give me some time to work up a response. (I think I’ll respond in my blog with links back here, ok?)

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