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How to Write a Paper

Step 1. Choose A Thesis.

Try to pick something that really resonates with you.

Step 2. Change Your Thesis.

Apparently, “Japanese poetry is boring” is not an acceptable topic for a paper. Try something like, “The Utilization of Vital Imagery as Expression of Unincorporated Traumatic Memory in Japanese Tanka During Postwar Reconstruction.” Not only will you sound smart, you’ll also subtly alert your reader that Japanese poetry is boring.

Step 3. Wait Until The Day Before It’s Due.

You won’t be able to write your best paper if you aren’t properly rested.

Step 4. Panic.

Realize that you don’t know what a vital image is. In fact, you’ve never really known. But you’re three years in now, and there’s no way you’re going to ask the professor. He might find out that you’ve been faking your way through class discussions about trauma theory and artistic representation for four semesters.

Step 5. Google.

You can probably skip this step. Your topic is too boring, and no one at Google cares enough to scan the books you need. Listen, just wing it. Like in class discussions.

Step 6. Spend All Night Writing.

Sleep is for the weak. And the well-prepared. You are neither of those things.

Step 7. Submit Your Paper With Seconds To Spare.

Ace! You’re a champ. Time to start resting up for the next paper.

What “Ordinary Women” Gets Wrong About Murasaki Shikibu

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Murasaki Shikibu, by Kano Takanobu (Late 16th century). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Feminist Frequency team, best known for Tropes vs. Women, have recently started a crowdfunding campaign for a new series, Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History. Each episode of Ordinary Women will examine the lives and achievements of a historically notable woman: the Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu, the anarchist Emma Goldman, the pirate Ching Shih, the computer programmer Ada Lovelace, and civil rights activist and journalist Ida B. Wells. As the crowdfunding page puts it:

Rather than heroes, leaders and innovators, women are often depicted and treated as secondary characters in history, objects of affections, damsels to be rescued, or merely the wives, mothers and assistants to the men who achieved important things. Instead, we’re taking a look back at the amazing women throughout history who defied gender stereotypes and changed the world, to remind us that the stories we tell about women—in TV shows, comic books, video games and in real life—often reflect the limitations placed on them, rather than the world-changing feats they’ve already achieved.

In an interview with Elle, creator Anita Sarkeesian says that the series “spotlights women from history who defied the expectations of their times and did incredible things.”

The 10th-century Japanese novelist Murasaki Shikibu, for example, pushed back against the limitations on women in her time through her literary genius, while the early 19th-century pirate captain Ching Shih did it by leading naval battles. Although their approaches were different, both of them found a way to make more space for themselves in their world. Whether they were writing books or leading naval battles, they refused to accept the limits of what society said that women could do. That’s one thing that all of the women in this series have in common: they were defiant.

I’m in favor of any web series about historical badasses, and this series is a great idea. However, I have take issue with the way Murasaki Shikibu is being portrayed.

(Note: My criticism only extends to what I have seen in the promotional materials. I look forward to seeing the final series.)

A Room of One’s Own

Before we continue, let’s take a moment to consider Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In this famous essay, Woolf sets forth her theory as to why there are so few female authors. She observes that there are some basic prerequisites for writing. First, the author must be literate, so that she can write, and so she can be inspired by other works of literature. She has to have have time to compose her work. And finally, she needs the titular “room of her own,” a quiet space to work in. An illiterate woman with no time away from children or household duties and no personal space will be unable to create a work of art, even if that woman is a natural literary genius.

Murasaki Shikibu

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Scroll from The Tale of Genji (12th century). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now let’s talk about Lady Murasaki. For those of you not in the know, Murasaki Shikibu is the author of The Tale of Genji, an 11th century romantic epic about a fictional prince and his many lovers. It’s a massive work, with around 400 different characters, and about 800 poems.

Murasaki Shikibu’s era, the Heian period (794-1185), was known as the golden age of Japanese literature. Both men and women of the upper classes held poetry in such high regard that successful love affairs often depended on the production of an emotionally moving love poem. Heian court women also had a remarkable amount of social freedom. They could own property, take lovers, and they were well educated in the poetic classics, as well as fine arts like incense making, dyeing, music and calligraphy. (Lovers were often judged on their handwriting, something I suspect would doom most of us to a life of celibacy.) Since husbands usually lived separately and only visited their wives at night, Heian women had plenty of free time to refine their arts while they waited.

Because men wrote mostly in Chinese (much like European men wrote in Latin), it fell to women to create the earliest Japanese language literature. These women produced a body of work which formed the very foundation of Japanese art. Some notable Heian authors include Sei Shonagon, who wrote a hilarious book of collected miscellany, and the woman known as Mother of Michitsuna, who wrote a diary about her tempestuous relationship with the regent Kaneie.

(Women were generally referred to by a nickname, often the government position of a male relative. Therefore Sei Shonagon is so called because a male relative was a shonagon, a lesser councilor of state. Likewise, Lady Nijo lived on Second Avenue, or Nijo, while Murasaki Shikibu is named after the main character in her novel, who is herself named for a plant called murasaki, a kind of gromwell.)

Of course, it wasn’t all wine and roses. Marriages were polygamous, and could be dissolved by the husband anytime he wanted by just cutting off his visits. Marriage could be extremely stressful for women, as Mother of Michitsuna’s diary shows. Women often lived secluded lives, cut off from the social life of the court by personal circumstances, or living in isolation in the provinces. Women did not hold government positions, and might have no say in who they married. However, each woman experienced her life differently. For every Mother of Michitsuna, living alone and waiting in vain for her husband, there was a Lady Nijo, a court beauty who deftly juggled several simultaneous affairs. For every Nijo there was a Lady Sarashina, who hated court life and only wanted to stay at home, reading tales (including The Tale of Genji). I should also mention the importance of money: all the women discussed here were from the wealthy classes. Women from poor or agricultural communities would have experienced life very differently. As historians, it’s important for us to avoid overgeneralizing.

Was Murasaki “Defiant”?

In her interview with Elle, Anita Sarkeesian says that Murasaki “refused to accept the limits of what society said that women could do,” and “pushed back against the limitations on women in her time through her literary genius.” In many ways this is untrue. For the upper class women of Murasaki’s time, creating literature was more the norm than the exception. (It’s worth noting that Murasaki may not have written the entire tale – there may have been one or more anonymous authors for the final chapters, which supports the argument that Murasaki’s talent was not an isolated case.)

Heian court women had everything Virginia Woolf deems critical for literary success: they had the time, money and the education to create some of the world’s finest literature. That’s not to deny that The Tale of Genji is a work of genius – it is. However, Murasaki would not have been able to grow the seed of her genius if the society around her had been less fertile. All of us, men and women, live within a social structure which will either help or hinder our goals. The ‘defiance’ narrative puts the burden of change on women, and ignores greater social forces at work in our lives. If defiance is all that we need to break out of the patriarchal trap, where are the diaries of Heian farm women?

It’s also tempting to see Murasaki Shikibu as a feminist writer. Her novel certainly examines some of the emotional damage polygamous marriage could cause. However, we need to be careful about applying our own values to historic works. Some scholars suggest that the tale deconstructs, or at least reproaches, the patriarchal system. I don’t have space to respond to this approach in depth here, but I will say that I find it unlikely. Murasaki’s female characters do suffer, however, they are understood and evaluated within the novel entirely according to contemporary feminine ideals. The main character, said to be a paragon of feminine accomplishment, is praised for controlling her jealousy. Women who fall short of the ideal (like the beak-nosed and poetically inept Suetsumuhana) are ridiculed. The marriage system itself is never challenged, but men who perform their social duties improperly and without sensitivity are chastised. The novel never imagines a world outside the social status quo.

Anita Sarkeesian says in the crowdfunding video, “Murasaki Shikibu lived at a time when women’s names were rarely even written down, but it didn’t stop her from writing the first modern novel.” For us, it’s shameful that these women were only known by aliases. But would Heian women want to be known by their name? Or would she find you unspeakably rude? It’s worth noting that the men in Murasaki’s novel are also referred to by their titles alone, or even by vague phrases like “that person.” (Directness was not valued by the Heian literati.)

The Ordinary Women page says that the series will “remind us that the stories we tell about women… often reflect the limitations placed on them, rather than the world-changing feats they’ve already achieved.” Likewise, we need to be careful not to make assumptions about women’s lives. The vast scope of history encompasses many times and places, and the women of those eras each had their own ideas about who they were, what they wanted, and why.

Murasaki Remembered

I applaud Feminist Frequency’s efforts to popularize the names of these fascinating women. However, Murasaki is by no means forgotten in Japan. The Tale of Genji is as well know there as Romeo and Juliet is here. Kids slog through it in school. There have been countless adaptations, like the 1980 manga, and an opera. There’s a Murasaki sweet potato, and Murasaki even has her own crater on Mercury. Murasaki could be better known to Western audiences, but we shouldn’t assume that because she’s unknown here she’s forgotten everywhere.

In summation, I urge the creators of Ordinary Women to avoid falling into the same trap they are fighting – the negation of the historical female experience.  We are lucky that so many women wrote diaries in the Heian period, which allow us to understand their personal beliefs and experiences firsthand. As Feminist Frequency puts it, “what we can do—what all of us can do—is to promote the treatment and portrayal of women as complete human beings, and to be critical of when we see women treated or portrayed as anything less.”

 

Recommended Reading

The Confessions of Lady Nijo (Brazell, Karen, trans. 1976). The love life of the Kamakura-era beauty Lady Nijo should make juicy reading for anyone who finds all the poetry in Genji a bit dry. Her lovers included a courtier, the emperor, and a Buddhist priest.

World of the Shining Prince (Ivan Morris, trans. 1964). Although slightly out dated, Ivan Morris’ book is an excellent general introduction to the culture of the Heian court.I suggest pairing this very readable introduction with one of the primary sources I list here.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (Ivan Morris, trans. 1967). This book of lists, anecdotes, short essays and poems may be my favorite of the Heian diaries. Shonagon’s sharp wit and opinionated personality leaps from the pages.

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (Ivan Morris, trans. 1971). Lady Sarashina shares her experiences as a shy bookworm in this charming diary. Fangirls of all ages will find themselves identifying with Sarashina’s quest for the next chapter of her favorite series.

The Gossamer Years (Edward Seidensticker, trans. 1964). This diary by The Mother of Michitsuna chronicles an unhappy marriage between the author and the regent Kaneie. This diary is a particularly good example of the use of poetry for communication between lovers, and is a masterful examination of jealousy within a polygamous marriage.

The Tale of Genji (Royall Tyler, trans. 2001). There have been many translations of The Tale of Genji, but Royall Tyler’s version is extremely faithful to the original text (unlike some earlier translations, which have been ‘edited’ for English audiences). If you’re intimidated by the sheer length (and who wouldn’t be), there is an edited version. Whichever version you chose, I think you’ll be moved by this touching, poetic, sad and funny masterpiece.

Farm Stand Customers

IT’S ALL SEASONAL

Corn season, at 9:05 am: “Do you have any fresher ones?”
“These were picked at 7 this morning.”
“Do you have anything fresher?”

“Do you have strawberries?”
“No, I’m afraid we ran out.”
“BUT I DROVE ALL THE WAY HERE.”
Oh, well in that case… we’re still out.

THIS IS ALL I’VE GOT

At the isolated, tiny stall by the highway: “Do you grow these in the back?”

“Do you have any in the back?”
Yes. We were hiding them. We left the display stay empty because we hate you.

“Can I get a tarp for the back of the car?”

“Can I get a rope to tie this tree down?”

“Can I get some potting soil to put in this?”

“Can I get a box?”

“Can I get a smaller box than that?”

“Can I just get a bag?”

“Can I just get a small bag?”

“Can I get a small, paper bag?”

The white woman wearing a shalwar kameez and a bindi who chided me for not having paper bags because we “seemed so natural, otherwise.”

“What are you going to do when they ban plastic bags?”
I just sell stuff, sir. The question is, what are you going to do?

FISHING FOR FREEBIES

Customers who get two of something and are like, “Can I get a discount because I’m buying in bulk?”

“How much is this?”
“Twenty five dollars.”
“How about if I gave you twenty?”
How about no?

“This one is [bruised/chipped/old/just plain shit]… can I get a discount?”
No, sir. I’m taking it away and setting fire to it immediately.

A LITTLE LEARNING IS AN ANNOYING THING

The customer who asked me, “Doesn’t it kill the plants to water them when it’s hot out?” as I was watering.

“Are these Heirloom tomatoes?”
“Well, this variety is called Carolina Gold.  I’m not sure how old that particular type is, but I can assure you, they’re very good. Lots of flavor, and quite sweet.”
“But are they Heirlooms? The recipe says I need Heirlooms. Heirlooms are more delicious. Which variety is called ‘Heirloom’?”

Informative Sign: “Did you know? Peaches come from ancient China.”
Customer: “Where’s “Ancient China”? Is that the orchard where you get your peaches?”

ASSUMPTIONS

“You guys are organic, right?”

“You guys grow this yourselves, right?”

“This is perennial, right?”

“You’ll deliver this today, right?”

THAT’S NOT HOW HORTICULTURE WORKS…

“Did you pick these from the wild?”

“Is everything you sell here native?”

Customer: “Do you order these plants from a company?”
Me: “No, I believe the boss propagates these himself.”
Aghast customer: “I hope he didn’t dig these up in the woods! That’s illegal!”

CLEAR AS COAL

“Do you know about the plants?”

“Can you tell me about a plant? The one out there.”

“Can you tell me about the basil? What is it?”

“How much is that plant?” when we are both inside the store with no plants in sight.

“How much is that bush?” while pointing toward the entire shrub section.

“It was definitely a bush. A really big one. Or maybe a tree.” (It was a peony.)

READ THE SIGNS

“Hi. Do you work here?”
No, I’m just watering for fun.

“Hi. Do you work here?”
No, I’m just hauling shrubs out of the back of a trailer while wearing a t-shirt with the company logo.

“Is this organic?” while standing next to a sign that says “ORGANIC.”

“How much is this?” while standing next to a sign that says how much this is.

IT DEPENDS

“When will these be ready to eat?”

“How often should I water this?”

“How fast will this grow?”

“When will the sour cherries be in?”

“Will this grow where I live?”

YEAH, NO

“Do you have something that will flower all season, in blue and red, that can grow in a cave but also full sun in summer, and I want to plant it in the middle of my pond, and I want it to be scented, but it shouldn’t attract bees because I’m allergic, and I won’t ever have to fertilize it, and it will come back next year, and will grow in the shape of an elephant?”
“As a matter of fact, I do-”
“Do you have anything cheaper?”

CLOSED

The customers who drive past the closed sign, into the deserted lot, walk through the empty aisles up to the shut door and looked into the darkened barn: “Oh… are you closing?”

The customer who did that and then started shopping.

The 7 Habits of Highly Sensitive Snowflakes

Are you “sensitive?”

“Why yes…” you think. “But the medicated cream is really helping.”

No, I mean emotionally sensitive.

“Yes I am! I cry at the end of Titanic every time.”

Me too, reader. Me too. But is that enough? Wouldn’t you like to swaddle your tender feelings in a warm blanket of vaguely psychological authority? Perhaps you should consider becoming not just sensitive, but a Highly Sensitive Person.

Here. Take this test.

How did you do? I bet you were Highly Sensitive. I bet you answered “yes” to a question like “I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things.” That is clearly a trait only a truly Sensitive Person would have. I don’t know what those other, Insensitive People are doing, but I bet whatever it is, they’re exhibiting a flagrant disregard for remembering things and not making mistakes.

Not like us.

“I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.” Well, clearly that is a facet of the complex and beautiful personality we share, as Highly Sensitive People. Sometimes Susan at work is like, “Hey, will you please make those copies today? I need them for the meeting.” And I’m just like, “GAWD, SUSAN. Get off my back. Stop annoying me with all these things I need to do.”

Sheesh. Susan needs to appreciate that I am a Highly Sensitive Person. “I find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once.” It says right there in the test. Also, I won’t be presenting at the meeting. Someone else is going to have to do it, because like the test says, “When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.”

That is SO ME. And I bet that is so you, too.

We are special, special people.

Winter Clam Chowder

1 can chopped clams (OR fresh clam meat*)
1 can corn
1 cup milk
2 cups chicken broth (OR fresh clam broth*)
1 potato, cubed
1 onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1-2 leeks
1 bunch thyme
2 TBSP butter
1 spoonful flour

*Homemade clam broth. Buy a bag of clams, scrub them down, and put them in a bucket of salt water for an hour or more to clean out the sand. [More details on clam cooking may be found on the internet]. Boil a cup of chicken broth, a dash of vinegar, a chunk of butter, and a handful of herbs in a large, covered pot. Add the clams, and steam until open. Chop the meat, and strain and reserve the broth. If you have eaten the clams in a frenzied orgy of deliciousness like a starving walrus, buy a can of chopped clams to replace them.

Fry the vegetables. Cook the onion, leeks and celery in butter until brown. Add the thyme and heat to release the fragrant oils, and a spoonful of flour to thicken the broth. Add the rest. Pour in the milk and the clam broth. Add the potato and corn. Cook until the potato is soft.

Butternut Lasagna with Italian Sausage and Cream Sauce

Yesterday I decided I wanted squash and sausage lasagna, but I couldn’t find a recipe I liked. Emeril’s had twenty four ingredients. That’s, like, 14 ingredients too many. The Kitchn had a good one, but the instructions were so involved it would have taken days just to finish measuring out the layers. (“Add another layer of noodles, a fourth of the bechamel, half the sausage, half the squash, and another third of the mozzarella. Add a third layer of noodles, a fourth of the bechamel, the second half of the spinach, the second half of the sausage, the second half of the squash, and the final third of the mozzarella…”) Troublingly, Giada’s called for crumbled cookies. Girl has clearly flipped. Someone go check on her.

I was simultaneously annoyed, and amazed at how many squash and sausage recipes there are. Like, I didn’t know that was a thing. Seems like a weirdly specific filling for lasagna. Anyway, I eventually gave up and made my own. This lasagna is both sweet and savory, with a delicate herb flavoring that will keep you coming back for more. Feel free to add stuff like spinach or ricotta – this recipe is forgiving!

For the filling:
1 butternut squash
3 or 4 large Italian sausages
1 apple, peeled and chopped
For the sauce:
2 cups milk
2 TBSP butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cloves garlic
1 bunch fresh herbs, chopped (chef’s choice)
And also:
1 package lasagna noodles (1 lb)
Shredded mozzarella cheese

1. Cook the squash. Halve and clean the squash, then lay it in a pan of water, cut-side down. Cook for 1 hour at 400F, until squishy.
2. Brown the filling. Chop up the sausage, or pull it from its casing, and brown. Add the apple chunks, and cook until soft. Mix in the squash. This is your filling.
3. Make the sauce. Melt the butter in a pan, then toss in the flour. Whisk until it’s a bit brown. Stir in the milk, a little at a time, and cook until slightly thickened. Add the garlic and herbs.
4. Prep the noodles. Cook the noodles in boiling water, until al dente. Drain. Remember not to leave them in a congealing heap, like I did, or you will have a bit of trouble getting them unstuck.
5. Avengers… assemble! Ladle out some sauce into your baking tray, then lay out noodles to cover the bottom. Spoon out a layer of squash filling, then sprinkle with cheese. Continue layering until your pan is full. Remember to finish with a layer of cheese, so we can toast the top!
6. Bake. Cover the pan with foil, then bake for 45 minutes at 375F. Remove the foil, and cook a little longer to brown the top. It’s done when you can hear it bubbling and sizzling.

Plant Mania Quiz

Plant Mania. Do you have it? Is it catching? Is it covered by your health insurance plan? Why doesn’t “health” insurance cover vision or dental? Aren’t teeth a body part?

Take our handy quiz below, to answer one of those questions!

Question 1: There’s a new Sir David Attenborough documentary (“The Secret World of Kelp”) on Netflix. Your thoughts?

a) They knighted a guy for squatting next to things?
b) I’m already watching it right now. Did you know kelp can grow up to a foot and a half per day?
c) What is this glowing rectangle with the moving pictures? Some kind of new scientific achievement?

Question 2: It’s the weekend, early spring. The weather report calls for unexpected snow flurries. What are you up to?

a) Staying inside, obviously. Spring weather blows.
b) On my way to the garden center to beat the crowds. Snow keeps the amateurs away. I’ll probably do some weeding, too, if I can chip the ice off the beds.
c) Checking on the boy who stokes the pineapple glasshouse boilers. We let him sleep four whole hours a night, but he still dozes off.

Question 3: There is an epiphytic orchid that grows in the depths of the Andean mountains of Bolivia. Its blooms shimmer like multicolored jewels on a green velvet cushion. It is so rare it has only been seen twice, and even then only by a crazed shaman in the throws of a prophetic vision. It blooms once every forty years, and the blooms are pollinated by dust from the Perseid meteor shower. It grows on a bed of silken moss threads at a pH of 7.5238 to 7.5230, and it is fertilized by the decaying husks of ant eggs. If grown in captivity, the ant eggs will have to be chewed to a pulp and manually formed into fertilizer pellets. The only iron supplement it will accept is human blood. It has a 98.2% chance of dying at an altitude lower than 21,000 feet. The last man who attempted to collect this specimen died of frostbite-induced gangrene.

How do you feel about this orchid?

a) Sorry, I didn’t catch that, I was playing Skyrim.
b) I already ordered my Bolivian phrasebook!
c) It would be easier to find if we burned down the Andes first.

Mostly A’s: You are normal.

Mostly B’s: You have Plant Mania. Your premiums are about to go up.

Mostly C’s: You are Victorian plant thief and professional Scottish person Robert Fortune.