On Thankfulness and Gratitude

I keep meaning to read Diana Butler Bass’s book on gratitude, but haven’t got round to it for much the same reason I don’t do a lot of things that I look forward to being good for me. “You’ll be happier once you’ve washed the dishes,” I say to myself, as how Bullwinkle might say, “Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of a hat!”

That trick, as any ADHD person knows, never works.

So my thoughts on thankfulness and gratitude this Thanksgiving season are unguided by anything other than my own insight. (I might have said exactly this when I was 25, but I would have meant something rather less modest.)

I am thankful fairly often. It isn’t very difficult; I think of thankfulness as an undirected feeling of relief and obligation, and reasons to put oneself in that headspace are plentiful. I’m thankful for a good day, a finished task, a delicious meal, avoiding a car accident, getting a good night’s sleep. Having a continual background anxiety that some other shoe is about to drop — that makes thankfulness noticeable by contrast.

So I never particularly liked that Thanksgiving exercise of “let’s go around the table and everybody say one thing they’re thankful for” — what, like it’s hard? I’m thankful for breathing, for getting over a sprained back when some people have a lifetime’s worth of the same chronic pain, for today not being a day when something terrible happens to me… I mean, it’s great and all, but there’s not much of a so-what factor there. And every thing I just listed is something someone else isn’t getting. I think the exercise would work better on a community level, like what David Mamet is said to have said Jewish holidays are all about: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”

Gratitude is something totally different. Gratitude is directed. It sometimes isn’t explainable because so often it’s for something you can’t do for yourself. You can’t put your own hair up when you’re sick over the toilet, like my mother did for me on one occasion. You can’t make someone apologize to you for some hurt they did. Sometimes, you can’t even explain to a person what it is they did that eased you, or revived you, or humbled you. Sometimes, when I’m grateful, I feel thankful that I’m grateful, like it’s a sign that my soul is in good working order.

I’m not sure what makes gratitude so inescapably spontaneous, though. Like, it’s easy enough to explain when someone does something for you specifically to manufacture your gratitude for their…gratification. But sometimes, a gift is given, a favor is done…and the firefly doesn’t light. In my experience that mostly happens when I feel secretly that I ought to have done it myself, or been able to do it myself. That I needed power more than I needed the gift.

I think gratitude is reserved for the meeting of an unambiguous need.

I think we shouldn’t expect people to be grateful when we meet a need for them that was manufactured by people or by structures. But the thing is, sometimes people are grateful anyway. Sometimes we can’t help it. It’s one of the most helplessly genuine reactions we humans possess: and like tears, it’s made of the thing that caused it. It’s something that is still sacredly right when lots of things are wrong.

I guess if I’m going to be thankful for anything this holiday season, it’s that.

Blogback: Courtesy as a weapon

If it’s not costly, it’s not courtesy.

This is definitely one of the things I hope Ryswyck brings to the table: a way of defining courtesy that isn’t just “having a well-policed tone” or “using good breeding.” As one character (actually, more than one) asks: “How can there be courtesy if one side thinks they’re the only humans?”

There’s a very real sense in which Ryswyckians can afford to exercise courtesy — they’re being trained to be formidable fighters, most of them have a comfortable class status, and all of them are intelligent enough to clear the entrance exam. When they leave the school they will be qualified for at least a lieutenant’s position, or the equivalent thereof, in the army or the navy.

And there’s also a real sense in which Ryswyck Academy creates artificial conditions for courtesy to flourish — as Scalzi mentions, places where people are understood to be social equals are places where courtesy actually isn’t very costly. On the other hand, Ryswyckians are inculcated 24/7 with the community’s ideal of what courtesy looks like, so if someone were to accuse them of discourtesy outside Ryswyck, they’d quickly suss out whether the accusation is being made in good faith.

Courtesy, unlike civility in a lot of contexts, does not equal “never showing anger.” You can respect someone’s humanity and still make it bitingly clear that you are furious with them. At Ryswyck, you can hit them — within certain rules of combat, of course. But what courtesy and civility have in common is that sense of cost. It is a heroic thing to show courtesy when it costs you. When someone who finds it much less costly, who styles themselves the arbiters of who and who is not a true member of a community, demands your heroism as a right — well, that is a vast insult.

I know what people are saying when, for example, they complain about Michelle Obama’s maxim, “When they go low, we go high,” but it does have one effect that I don’t think is often considered. Coming from her, this is a seizure of the moral high ground before the fact. White supremacist haters lose their chance to demand her heroism as their rightful due, because she has already framed it as a gracious gift. It’s a nonviolence tactic that drives them crazy.

Still, it’s a tactic, not the whole strategy, and it’s not available always and everywhere. It’s very useful in direct action, and less useful in, say, a situation where someone has applied the letter of the law of civility but made it manifestly clear that they don’t respect your humanity at all.

An actual sense of courtesy seeks, where possible, to liquidate unfair advantages, which requires a person to be aware of the situation outside the boundaries of one’s self. That’s the other sense in which courtesy is costly. Scalzi is perfectly right to suggest that the people who usually call for “civility” would never do so if it turned out to actually cost them something. For a lot of them, there’s little to choose between “respect my humanity” and “never tell me I’m wrong about something.” But for all courtesy’s costs, shielding someone from narcissistic wounding isn’t one of them.

It really sucks, though, to have the responsibility of issuing a gentle and courteous criticism, only to be met with a Category 5 uncivil backlash. I guess that’s why I got such pleasure out of having my Ryswyckians turn courtesy into a weapon.

Smile. Bow. Hit them. What could be more gratifying?

Admiring other writers, and other invitations

Writers, what mad skills of other writers make you stand back and admire?

I’m not talking about the obvious stuff; I’m talking about the kinds of things you know are tricky from trying to do them, and leave you dumbstruck when you see them done well.

This question occurred to me by way of plotting for The Lantern Tower. Now that I’ve got down three opening chapters, I have a better handle on the problem that was holding me up while storyboarding. The emerging answer was one I had already gestured at in the outline, but I had been rather timid about raising the stakes in order to do it. As soon as I thought that, Sensible Me said, “Well, why?” Indeed, Sensible Me. I should listen to you more often. So I opened a chat window to a friend and nattered at her for half an hour, and found myself remarking: “This is the part where I really envy Julia Spencer Fleming her seemingly limitless capacity for orchestrating the psychological movements of a large cast.”

It’s been a while since I thought about JSF and her books, but damn. Yeah. The more characters you constellate in a situation, the more complex the emotional movements and realities grow, reflecting in counterpoint and building toward either disaster — or eucatastrophe. Keeping track of that many internal realities, timing climactic urges, making sure every beat strikes a realistic emotional note: this is not freaking easy. Rocket science is easier, sometimes. This is especially true when, as JSF often does, you’re writing a story with multiple POVs.

Now, this skill can’t carry a book all by itself. One of this series — I think it was To Darkness and to Death — focused on psychological orchestration to the exclusion of all else, and I got bored and asked S to spoil me so I could read the next one. But if a story needs this skill, and it isn’t there…well. The fact that JSF can create, maintain, and drive stories with a community full of breathing internal realities makes the series as a whole one of my benchmarks for writing a large cast.

So if you stand in awe of a mad skill of some fellow writer, I want to hear about it. I need some new recs anyway.

(And speaking of recs, have you read Ryswyck? Did you like it? By all means hit it up with a review! Let the good folks at Amazon know what they’ve got.)

Meanwhile, I am still basking in the afterness of a good day of goodness, having done my first (small) fencing tournament last weekend. I fenced to my standard, which is to get on the board in any bout and win as many winnable ones as I can, learned a lot about procedure, fenced some new and very interesting fencers, and picked up some new music from the fencing buddy I rode up to Des Moines with. All in all, a good time was had by me, 10/10 would fence a tournament again.

And that is all the news that’s fit to print.

The state of the state

Honestly, as weekends in November go, this one wasn’t bad.

I got a scene finished in Chapter 3 of The Lantern Tower and started another. I’m introducing two new POV characters in this book, one of whom had a throwaway mention in Ryswyck which interested me enough to pull his thread, so now he’s in the story. I haven’t got round to the other one yet, but I’ve got lots of dialogue sketches socked away for when he appears.

This is not, as I may have mentioned, my optimum time of year, either creatively or mood-wise, so having produced two and a half chapters so far is rather a cause for cheer. Also, we’re off Daylight Saving Time, so getting into the last trough of time toward winter solstice is progress, of a sort.

Meanwhile, the new season has opened at the symphony, and I went on Saturday night with the usual suspects — three of us are coincidentally former senior wardens of our church, and perhaps less coincidentally, we have dinner beforehand at some place where we can drink well. I had a house Manhattan that was chalked up on their blackboard as “ABV = a lot” — so I only needed one.

And on the program this weekend was Bruckner’s Seventh. After Erica’s friend mentioned it as the background to her enjoyment of Ryswyck, I was curious to be in the same room with the piece. I think my main takeaways are: 1) yes, it’s long 2) if I am going to be hearing an extended restatement of several themes, I’m not sorry it’s these ones 3) Bruckner may have adulated Wagner but I know who I like better 4) it’s all still Very German, which is confusing to my Very Yorkshire genes 5) the program notes said that the third movement was based on the laendler and I was like, I don’t remember the Captain and Maria dancing to anything like this, are you sure? 6) I kind of like Wagner tubas however 7) the piece afforded some awesome opportunities for sections to play in a rich unison, showing off how well they blend, which means that 8) the KCS played it very well indeed. Someone yelled “BRA-VO” before the reverb of the last note cleared, and one of the violas bounced in her chair at the end, obviously having fun.

So, clearly I owe N. a Belfry Manhattan (ABV = a lot), not just for adding enjoyment to my musical calendar, but also for reccing Ryswyck in multiple venues. She’s responsible for more of my recent sales than I am, I’d judge!

Tune in next time for…I don’t know what. Probably I should wrap up the Alter series before the year ends. We’ll see how many brain cells I can scare up before solstice.