finishing what I started

I’m good at beginnings, not so good at middles and ends. I’m very enthusiastic about starting things, but not as much about the follow-through. The three projects which I’ve kept at longest in my life are, in order from greatest to least longevity, 1. graduate school, 2. this blog, 3. my marriage. Most everything else has been abandoned before being properly begun.
As in life, so in reading: as I’ve noted before, I’m better at starting than at finishing books. As one of my Old Year’s resolutions this year, however, I decided to start finishing at least some of the books I begin. In keeping with the Old Year’s ethos, finishing books was not some sort of requirement I set up for myself; rather I simply thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice to find out what happens at the ends of books, sometimes?” and then I did. Sometimes.
Here are some of the books I’ve finished so far this year:

Listening to Prozac, Peter D. Kramer: After a decade and a half or so, people finally seem to be getting over themselves about Prozac. We have all had plenty of time to adjust to the idea, to learn about what SSRIs can and cannot do to you, and to occasionally bemoan the medicated state Americans find themselves in today (SSRIs along with Ritalin etc. being favored targets of such lamentations, as Americans in their wisdom don’t seem to feel the need for a medical degree to decide what is and is not really a problem for other people).
Kramer’s book was published at the height of our national freak-out over SSRIs, however; and I find that in spite of the passage of time, I at least did not know that much about how and why SSRIs actually work. Listening to Prozac explains the biochemical basis of what SSRIs do, as well as exploring the personal and social impact of SSRIs.
Now I don’t believe that SSRIs actually have as dramatic an impact on personality in most cases as they do in the cases Kramer cites, hence I don’t believe our notions about what a person is are too dramatically threatened. But Kramer’s philosophical musings do suggest that SSRIs, because of the way the work in brain chemistry, will have mostly a positive effect both on those who take them and on our ideas about personality. SSRIs allow for one particular neurotransmitter, shown to be depleted in depressed and anxious people, to return to normal levels. Hence, they don’t simply make a person happy, nor (I believe) they alter personality; rather they allow the individual to approach his or her circumstances and problems with normal mental processes, rather than with the distorted thinking that results from a lack of serotonin in the brain.
I recommend the book, both as an interesting study of how Prozac came to be developed and how it works, and as a sociological/philosophical treatise on how a seemingly scientifically morally neutral thing like the scientific development of a medicaiton is really a cultural artifact. It reflects who we are, how we live, and our fundamental ideas about what a person is and what the “good life” entails–it is just as much a philosophical process as the musings of the Greek philosophers.
The Egg and I, Betty MacDonald: Coincidences are interesting: I had just been thinking about this book and wondering if I could find it again, when I found it on sale for 50 cents at the GR library. When I was a kid, after I’d read the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books and encountered Ma and Pa Kettle in old movies on public television, my parents introduced me to The Egg and I. I remembered it being both hilarious and frustrating, as I felt for the poor lady taking care of all those chickens. Reading it again, I found it once again hilarious, but was surprised by the deeply felt but very mixed feelings which seemed to be felt by the author about her experiences on the chicken farm in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century.
It was clear that the chicken farm was entirely Betty’s new husband’s idea; and on one hand she seemed to be devoted to both the husband and the farm. The husband is depicted as kindly, competent, and an oasis of egalitarian feeling about the husband-wife relationship in a sea of attitudes that a wife was not a person, only a child-bearer and workhorse. The natural beauty surrounding the farm and Betty’s joy at spending her days in the midst of it and involved in it through her work comes through very clearly.
But at the same time, as I read, the husband seemed utterly insensitive to Betty’s feelings of inadequacy, fear, and loneliness as she did her best to work her way through day after day, month after month of drudgery in the middle of nowhere, rarely seeing another person, at 18 years old cut off from her family, and with frightening encounters with wild animals and odd people. I was shocked to read online that the husband in the book was not Mr. MacDonald, but that two years after The Egg and I ends, Betty left her husband, taking their two daughters with her. (Later she remarried another man who seemed to take a much more reasonable stance vis-a-vis chickens.) The book was not merely the early growing pains of both a marriage and a new life adventure, things actually didn’t get any better for Betty, and the story didn’t have a happy ending–at least not a conventional one. (The actual book had a sort of happy ending, but it felt sort of tacked-on.)
As I read this book again, I wondered at the huge difference in attitude taken by children vs. adults toward the pioneering experience. When I was a kid, the Little House books seemed like a kind of a paradise; now my thoughts match Betty’s mental state a little more. I wonder what appeals to kids so much about pioneers. I think a large part of it is the close, loving family unit. The family in the Little House books were not only there for each other at the end of each day, their lives were intertwined with each others’. They worked together–the kids as well as the grown-ups–for a common goal: survival and the development of a good and abundant life out of nothing. In my world, my parents and I each went to a different place all day and then saw each other again in the evenings. My family was a very loving one, but our lives were segmented, while the Ingalls’ life was an organic whole, and that appealed to me.
Also, while Ma and Pa took on the responsibility for taking care of the family, the girls also had their work to do to contribute to the family. Today, children and even teenagers are often not encouraged or even allowed to do work that has real meaning and tangible result. Their job is school, and that is an important job, but I think a lot of kids have a strong desire or need to do valuable work, not just put in their time until they’re deemed old enough to contribute to society. I think the denial of valuable work to kids (age-appropriately, of course) leads to a lot of the problems of teenagers. Adult prerogatives (cars, decisions about sex, alcohol and drugs, etc.) are dumped on them, albeit with peculiar limits which are the result of a history of cultural compromises and which must seem rather arbitrary and incoherent, and with a don’t-ask-don’t tell policy on the part of adults, exactly when they need the input and advice of caring adults; long before they are given adult responsibilities. In my opinion, the two should go together–not all of a sudden when a kid turns 18, but gradually according to the individual kid’s age, maturity level, and capability, and always with loving adult supervision.
I’ve gotten a long way from books and into pontificating, so will stop here. More on Books, hopefully without too many tangents, later.

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