Book Review: Super Sad True Love Story

I first encountered Gary Shteyngart’s horrifyingly funny America in the not-to-distant-future in the New Yorker’s 2010 annual fiction edition. “Lenny Hearts Eunice” (I think it was called that, and I’m too lazy to look it up) was an excerpt of the remarkable novel that’s resting just to the left of my Mac, tilted for convenient cover-reference. Though jealousy and demographics cut through my adoration of Super Sad True Love Story, I’m going to give a wholehearted “Buy” recommendation. If you don’t see our sad, battered land in Shteyngart’s America, then your perceptions are so very different from mine that I suspect you are not merely deluded, but perhaps an alien of the science fiction sort, brought here to snap up our devalued assets.

First the good. Before I took my M.A. and moved off into the happy land of philosophical concepts of rape, I spent a brief spell writing on corporate culture in late 20th Century dystopian fiction. I dutifully Thomas Pynchon, and took on Martin Amis and Will Self with real enjoyment. If doubts remain about my ability to write a substantial work of criticism on a novel that warrants, at best, tepid approval, I can still steer skpetics to my M.A. thesis on Don DeLillo’s The Names. (“Substantial” may be the wrong word here. I’ve always been one for brevity in critical work, and my thesis set new records for anorectic length — a paper on Madonna that one of my cohort submitted that year was precisely three times as long. Come on, though — you can’t tell me that late-career Europeans educated at Oxford and Konstanz sit down to a 75-page effusion on an American pop star with anything other than clenched jaws and held noses. Damn blogs for lacking footnotes! This so clearly is one.) So while I admit to vast shoals of ignorance about contemporary fiction, I do know something about the tide pool Shteyngart wades in. And he’s easily the best going.

First, last and always — damn him — he’s a master of his craft. The novel is a blend of diary and epistolary, and he’s hit off each of his characters beautifully. When he writes in the voices of the less-literate, he captures their pathos without sinking into the monotony that plagues your average student paper or Facebook blathering. The novel’s core, the diary of the bookish Lenny Abramov, is charming, funny, original, sad, and deeply infused with the history that his younger characters hate and fear.

The surface of his prose is just part of the picture, though. Super Sad True Love Story is beautifully structured — the epistolary form is integral to the book’s functioning — and plotted. Like his beloved Kundera, Shteyngart depicts love, death and war; like Kundera, Shteyngart avoids cheap resolution and irritating ambiguity. Rather. like most of us, his characters reach a series of contradictory epiphanies, and are alternately vindicated and punished by events. Amazing. Subtle. And very, very funny.

There’s so much to admire here that my criticism really must result from irreconcilable differences. His portrayal of middle-aged male angst moved me — a tough assignment, since “pathetic older man finds love and redemption with an innocent younger woman” is at best a crowded genre. And here’s where demographics interfered with my enjoyment. As a middle-aged woman — one who redeemed her share of jaded older men during her 20s and 30s — I do find it hard to take that women my age appear in Shteyngart’s world as bitter, sexless harridans. As much as Shteyngart lampoons a culture that values women entirely for their “fuckability,” the entire structure and subject of his novel adds to a voluminous literature that worships dewy feminine youth and asks the reader to identify with the solid, lovable guys who who want to bang and protect what innocence they can command with their receding hairlines and shrinking bank accounts. That’s depressing. At the same time, I suppose that leaves an opening for my rejoinder to Super Sad True Love Story written from the point of view of an educated, sexy femme d’une certain age.

Enough. Go buy it. It’s good.

The book’s website is here, incidentally.

Love to all.

Happiness Advice from the Academy

Yesterday the dear Allosaurus approvingly quoted John Stuart Mill in a comment: “Ask yourself if you are happy, and you cease to be so.” In one sense, I think Mill is right. Happy people don’t typically sit around interrogating themselves about their moods. Happiness is self-evident, and if you’re asking yourself whether you’re happy, then it’s likely that you’re not. Constant introspection is the sad property of the miserable.

In another sense, though, I disagree with Mill. The quote above suggests that thinking consciously about happiness scares it off — that you might be happy without knowing it, and you might stay happy if you leave well enough alone. This doesn’t match with my experience. When I ask the question, it’s usually long after my happiness has drained away — that is, the question itself is the result of misery.

No, when it comes to whether we should consciously pursue happiness, I side with Gretchen Rubin in that I think that it’s an excellent idea to make a study of happiness. Seeking happiness is a moral good, in fact, for two reasons. With a very few exceptions, we’re happy when we’re conducting ourselves well (saving the planet and such). Also, moods are highly contagious. Therefore, insofar as our associates are not mean-spirited grinches, our happiness cheers up the people around us.

This brings me to one of my few bits of personal wisdom concerning happiness, which came to me this morning as I was applying a facial mask. My prevailing thought of “I hate my skin” gave way briefly to the following idea: I’m often happy only in retrospect. Or, to put it another way, I do look back at past times in my life and think, Wow, I had all the raw ingredients of happiness then.

For instance, when I was a grad student, a professor told me that I should enjoy studying for my qualifying exams, because I would look back on it as one of the happiest times of my life. After all, it’s one of the few times in your life when you’ll be paid to read books on subjects that fascinate you. This horrified me, naturally, because I spent those four months in a perpetual anxiety attack, convinced that my committee members would interrogate me about proper names and specific dates, two things that I absolutely cannot remember. Once I passed with distinction, I felt the proper appreciation for the luxury of nonstop reading, and now I do, in fact, remember that as a happy time.

I’m running out of time to write, but I’d like to pass on another bit of academic wisdom from French professor Leslie Rabin:

“When I was a grad student, I thought that I would be happy when I got my degree. Once I had my degree, I thought I would be happy when I had a tenure-track job. Then I thought I would be happy when I had tenure. Once I got tenure, I realized that the truth is, you’ll never be happy.” Oh, my. I prefer to think that you will never be perfectly secure and satisfied, which is a different matter.


In this post from The Simple Dollar, Trent urges his readers to start — to stop dreaming and act. In his exordium, he urges us to spend two hours today working towards achieving a dream. How wonderful, I thought. I will do that right now.

I ground to a halt before I got started, however, when I realized that I don’t actually have any dreams right now. I mean, I want to have a more normal life, with friends and so forth. I’m so focused on the details of survival — getting into the climbing gym, practicing yoga, cooking rather than starving myself, showing up to appointments with my shrink, not drowning at work, and so on — that I couldn’t really tell you what I’m working towards. In other words, I don’t know why I want to be healthy.

That’s unlike me. I am usually the personification of goal-directed behavior. While it could be argued that thrown myself behind some dubious goals — getting a Ph.D. in an obscure field from an elite university comes to mind — it’s unprecedented to find that I’m marching briskly in no particular direction. In fact, I think that this has been the case since I left academia.

There’s a difference, I think, between intending to engage in particular activities regularly and setting a goal. “I want to climb three days a week” is not a goal in the way that “I want to climb an eight” is (climbing routes are rated between 5.5 and 5.12). Goals may be specific, measurable, and so forth, but they also culminate in a one-time event (filing a dissertation, say). Climbing three times a week isn’t a goal, since I’m not going to stop or set a new goal once I’ve done it. Instead, it’s a routine. Funny that I never saw this before.

OK, off to shower and get ready for work. Perhaps my way of following Trent’s advice will be to spend two hours developing a few goals.

Just a Quick Quote from Eminem

Heard on my Pandora station this morning: “I feel like I’m walking a tightrope without a circus act.” Eminem, “Rock Bottom,” The Slim Shady LP

The good news: I had an extraordinary day climbing yesterday, cruising up a couple of walls that would have defeated my utterly when I took it back up again last month. On the advice of my much more experienced climbing partner, I’ve confined myself to relatively easy walls for the last couple of weeks so that I could focus on technique. That helped immensely. It’s natural to improve in bursts rather than steadily, but it still felt strange to find myself moving with such decision and ease.

Neutral news: Today I’ll be doing my interim review at work. I’m a bit anxious, of course, but I always like having an opportunity to get feedback on my performance.

Hang on Tight — We’re Going Off-Topic

Trent, the personal finance guru of The Simple Dollar, takes on a touchy topic in this post which concerns how others often react defensively to his financial choices. Apparently he gets a rash of bitter comments every time he earnestly advocates such thrifty practices as rinsing and reusing Ziploc bags. In “Minimalism, Frugality and Confrontation,” he observes that many people take his frugality to be a judgment on their own spending practices. It is odd — no one finds it extreme to spend thousands on a home theater system, but woe betide the person who indulges in extremes of frugality.

No one has ever accused me of moralistic frugality, but I’ve seen a similar phenomenon in other areas of life. For instance, many, many people assume that anyone who’s as thin as I am must spend a lot of time noticing and other people’s weight and disapproving of it. (In fact, I often overlook 20 or 30-lb weight swings in people I know well.) When I turn down doughnuts at the office, it’s as if I’m doing it to show off. As a result, I try to avoid revealing that I don’t drink and don’t own a TV, for example, since these eccentricities seem to put people on the defensive.

I’m not certain what my point is there. I just felt compelled to bring up the problem.

In other news, there’s amazing wisdom in Gretchen Rubin’s interview with Chris Yeh, a dot-com entrepreneur. I won’t summarize it — just take a quick look if you have time.

Love to all.

How to Fake Happiness, Followed by the Three Types of Fun

Controlling your expression is the first step towards faking happiness.
Every morning when I sign into this blog, I look at my readership stats, including the most common search terms that send people to this space. Today I noticed that some poor soul came here looking to find out how to fake happiness. Wow, I thought, that’s one of those crucial skills that no one teaches you explicitly. I’ll have to try to fill that gap. So here goes.

For us gloomy folk with minimal spare energy, it’s worth going over the benefits of faking positive emotions of all types.

1. You may fool yourself into a better mood, since, to a surprising degree, emotion follows behavior rather than vice versa. If you fake a smile or a laugh, you will cheer up measurably, while adopting a severe expression can help you to focus.

2. It’s a brutal fact that people are drawn to people who are self-confident and cheerful. If you can fool others, they will respond more positively to you than if you simply expressed all of your misery.

3. Even if people aren’t fooled, they will appreciate the effort. Mood is contagious, and it’s wearing to spend time with someone who is consistently crabby.

4. Discipline is rarely wasted effort.

So, what are the mechanics of deliberate cheer?

1. Control your demeanor. Fake a smile. Don’t just grimace — involve your cheeks and eyes.

2. Control your conversation. Replace complaints and criticisms with positive remarks. If you start conversation on a negative note, others will follow your lead, and a downward spiral may result. Along the same lines, notice and follow others’ attempts to keep things positive. Don’t be that person who counters every upbeat remark with a “Yes, but….”

4. Control your movements. Move briskly like a happy person would, and choose activities that you would do if you were in a good mood.

5. Control your thoughts. Resolve to focus on the good and turn away from the bad. During this last hospital stint, I noticed that when mental patients suffer a slight or things don’t go their way, they tend to magnify the effect of the setback by talking about it endlessly and insisting that no one understands their pain. When you’re tempted to fume or ruminate, change the subject before you’re fully ready to let go. The good news is, if you smile and talk about other things, your thoughts will almost certainly follow.

How do you fake happiness? I’d love to hear about your efforts in the comments.

Moving along, there’s a good deal of wisdom in this post from The Happiness Project on the three types of happiness. In her tripartite division, Rubin identifies challenging fun, accommodating fun and relaxing fun. It’s worth reviewing all three briefly.

The first and best sort encompasses ongoing efforts to master a skill. In her book, Rubin tells of taking a drawing class when she hadn’t tried to draw a figure since childhood. She’s often self-conscious and anxious during the class, but it proves to be a source of pride and the skills she gains provide long-term pleasure. This is challenging fun: It entails difficult emotions, but provides long-term rewards.

Accommodating fun happens when you make the effort to enjoy yourself around other people. For example, when you take your kids to a movie that you’d rather not see or go to a good deal of trouble to plan a birthday celebration for a coworker. In the moment, you might prefer to be reading a good book, but by enhancing social bonds you’re providing for future fun.

The easiest and most common sort of enjoyment is pure relaxation, which comes from engaging in activities that require little effort or planning. Watching television is the obvious example here: It doesn’t require a huge investment of skill or effort, but the benefits end the minute you switch of the TV or finish that novel.

At the end of a rough day at work, we tend to gravitate towards relaxing fun exclusively. Rubin argues that one secret of lasting happiness is to push yourself towards the first two types instead. If you’re like me, you’ll cry. “But how can I do that when I’m tired all the time?” She ends her post with perhaps the best point of all: To improve your general level of happiness, you need to increase your energy levels by ensuring that you’re exercising, getting enough sleep, and eating healthfully. I found myself nodding along with that one — I’ve been shorting myself on sleep since I got back to work, and the results aren’t pretty.

Turn Away from What Should Be and Focus on What Is

I got up this morning to a problem that every human being confronts at one time or another: My time and energy are limited, and I can’t meet the demands that I’m facing right now. I think that the answer spelled out in the headline applies, not just to my immediate dilemma, but to any situation where the stakes are high. Let me begin with the problem, and derive what I think is the solution.

When I got up, I felt the hopelessness and dread that stem from a truly unmanageable workload. It’s unmanageable for several reasons:

1. There’s more than anyone can do in 40 hours a week. I’d be happy to do overtime, but…

2. I’m often in a situation where I’m facing deadlines for multiple, different mission-critical projects. This week, for example, I had to burn 110 data CDs for testing this weekend. At the same time, I needed to translate, index, post and log several data items for analysis — again, this weekend. None of this was optional — if I didn’t get to any one of these tasks, we would be looking at a schedule slip that we can’t afford. So it’s not enough for me to work overtime, since it’s literally impossible to do crucial tasks simultaneously when they have the same deadline.

3. The work requires total precision and unflagging attention. I can’t do it effectively when I’m exhausted, hungry, or depressed; I’m human, too, and I find it demoralizing to respond to constant nervous status inquiries from people who don’t understand the dimensions of my workload.

4. Other people depend on my work getting done quickly and accurately — if I don’t post data, others can’t perform analysis on it, and the program will miss crucial deadlines. If the data I post is corrupted or hard to locate, the engineers will waste precious hours restoring it or simply looking for it. In other words, if I fall behind, that places the whole program at risk.

5. If I defer routine tasks like training, eventually crises will erupt that will — yes — waste precious time and resources. Therefore I need to spend several hours a week tending to administrative tasks that aren’t, in the moment, mission critical.

6. My work requires an unusual level of conscientiousness. If I feel hopeless and stop caring — even just a little bit at the end of a long day or on a Friday — I risk making a critical mistake.

So, what to do? In the past, my solution has always been the one espoused by Boxer, the faithful draft horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm: I will work harder. I will get up earlier and stay later. Through sheer force of will, I will be perfect. Program and functional management, God bless ’em, have been quick to enforce this ethic whenever they think I might be slipping.

There’s just one problem with that. When Boxer’s health breaks — and it does break — the pigs send him to the knacker, and he’s made into glue. The farm loses Boxer, and Boxer loses everything.

My old answer is the wrong one, then. I think that my experience with climbing provides a better one: Turn away from what I think should be and face what is. When I’m climbing or belaying, I can’t afford to fool myself about my limits. If I don’t understand a belay technique and let my partner climb anyway, he could be seriously injured or killed. If I’m tired, distracted, or dehydrated, I need to look realistically at the extent of my impairment and do whatever I have to do — including refusing to climb or belay — to keep myself and my partner safe. A good climber is not someone who can scale a 5.12 with ease. A good climber is levelheaded, systematic, and, above all, realistic about her limits. A dangerous climber bluffs, brags, or refuses to acknowledge her own failings. She pretends to be perfectly skilled, fit and attentive, and thereby places her own life and others’ at risk. Pride — the kind that would lead me to overestimate my abilities or ignore my physical condition — has no place in an activity that involves risk.

You may ask, how does this apply to my life as a cubicle jockey? For one thing, my life is at stake. Also, the program has no margin for failure — if I make a horrible mistake or cause delays, it could cost the company a sum of money that I hate to contemplate.

Work differs from climbing in one crucial respect, however. Good climbers are swift to acknowledge and adapt to a partner’s limits, since no one wants to hang from a sheer cliff wall with no one on belay. Business tends to be more shortsighted. When time is short and profits and lives are at stake, management will reward me for ratcheting up the pressure on myself and refusing to accept limits. Until, of course, I reach a hard limit and break. Then they’ll just discard me and reach for someone who is still fresh. Unfair though it may be, it’s ultimately up to me to think for myself and for the program, and to call a halt to an untenable situation.

Starting Monday, then, I will turn away from the vision of myself as the perfect, tireless emplyee. I will go in an hour early and take a clear-eyed look at my workload and at my own individual, human limits. I will set up meetings with functional and program management, and I will communicate the facts clearly and dispassionately. I will spell out the consequences to the program if management ignores the problem and deprives me of the resources I need to solve it. I will document each conversation in writing, and take it up the chain of command if necessary. If my immediate bosses don’t see the problem, I suspect — I know — that upper management will.

It’s going to be hard, but it’s the only way.

Love to all.

Tips for Boosting Your Energy Level — Now

How sad it is that when I’m tired, it’s usually because of something I’ve been doing wrong for several days. (Sleepless nights, anyone?) It often seems like I can only beat back exhaustion and guarantee some level of productivity by slugging down some coffee or eating an evil food. That’s why I was glad to see this post from The Happiness Project with some concrete and, I think, workable suggestions that will reliably raise your energy in the short term without undermining your health in the long run.

Today is the last day of my first week back at work. It’s gone extremely well. Not surprisingly, though, the last couple of days have reminded me exactly how easy it is to let myself be pushed into a miserably unhealthy lifestyle. Human beings were simply not meant to work nine and a half hours a day and commute for another hour. It takes an unholy level of planning and discipline to prepare healthy meals, get eight hours of sleep, work out, and take regular breaks.

Love to all.

Accomplish More by Refusing to Accept Your Usual Excuses

Woman belaying
This works best when you're not dizzy, nauseated, or dehydrated.
Because I’m depressed much of the time, I procrastinate a lot. I devote a shameful amount of mental energy to either badgering myself into action or, more often, talking myself out of it. Since I got out of the hospital this last time, I notice that I divide my motives for inaction between lame, shuffling excuses and near-irrefutable reasons.

I’m simple, and if I’m not paying attention, I can easily dupe myself with an excuse along the lines of, “I just don’t feel like it right now — maybe after I’ve eaten something….” If I’m on my game, though, I can bring myself up with a round turn and scold myself out of that sort of absurdity. As a result, lame excuses don’t present a serious problem.

Reasons that appear excellent on the surface present a much greater danger to happiness and productivity. I started paying attention to this issue a few days ago when I was preparing to go climbing. There are always excellent reasons to avoid rock climbing: It requires concentration, and I often feel distracted and irritable; it can be tiring, and I often lack energy; success and failure are highly public, and I am inclined to self-consciousness; there’s a small but real risk of death or serious injury for myself or my partner. I recognize, though, that none of these constitutes a real reason to avoid an activity that I love and excel at. My main reason for not getting to the gym? Feeling nauseated or dizzy.

You may cry, as I do, “But that’s an excellent reason! What if you got sick or fainted while you were on belay? You could kill your climbing partner! Nausea and dizziness are symptoms of dehydration — it would be very bad to climb while you’re dehydrated!” And so forth.

The thing is, nausea and dizziness are my main anxiety symptoms, and anxiety has paralyzed me for much of my life. If I refuse to climb — or go to church, or practice yoga, or whatever — whenever my stomach is upset, I won’t do any of these things often enough to make a difference. I’ll spend my life firmly planted under my bedclothes, whimpering. For other people, gastrointestinal symptoms are a sign that they should take it easy. For me, they just mean that I’m anxious. If I don’t accept the small risk that I really am sick, I’ll never get really good at climbing, or at anything else that presents a serious challenge. I can’t afford to accept an excuse that would serve for another person.

The good news is, the last few times I went climbing, I did it in spite of really rotten stomach cramps. Of course, I stopped noticing the pain after I climbed a couple of routes. I managed to stay focused while on belay; I didn’t faint, drop the rope, and allow my partner to fall to his death. The moral of the story? If I want to function, let alone excel, I need to push past even my most sensible excuses.

Love to all.