Thursday, December 27, 2001

Most Americans don't like to talk about social class. Many either refuse to admit such a thing exists at all, or say that class in the U.S. is a purely economic matter and having more or less money automatically changes one's class position.

For those who know better, or at least are willing to think about the subject, Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide Through The American Status System is a fascinating and often hilarious read. Fussell takes the standard three classes and expands them into nine, with a bohemian "classless class" tacked on at the end, and talks about why two families with the same income and living next door to one another, can be different classes. Since the book came out in 1983, a few details have become outdated as fashions changed, but in general the class indicators for clothing, homes, entertainment, food, and other things seem surprisingly stable. It's all the sort of thing that you may have never thought about, but when these characteristics are pointed out to you, they are immediately obvious.

Anyone who won't be crushed to find themselves showing up in a different class than they might have imagined would enjoy this book -- be sure to try out the "Living Room Scale" and see what your living room says about your status.

Sunday, December 23, 2001

I have, I admit, read a lot of psychology books. Feeling Good, The Courage To Heal, Transforming Trauma, and I Hate You -- Don't Leave Me, just to name that ones that made a big enough impression for me to remember them. But John Ratey and Catherine Johnson's Shadow Syndromes: The Mild Forms of Major Mental Disorders That Sabotage Us is unusually fascinating because it deals with people who have something that isn't serious enough to be diagnosed as a mental problem, but is still serious enough to affect their lives. This attracts my attention because that's a situation I've been in often: borderline clinical depression on this personality test; some other therapist saying I exhibit some but not all of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder; rarely in as bad an emotional condition as the people in the sexual abuse support groups I visited. In general, I cope with living reasonably well, with occasional lapses that freak me out and surprise everyone else.

So this book suggests that rather than having a huge divide between people with no diagnosable mental health disorder and people who do have a disorder, there's a continuum of severity with people who are neither as bad as the DSM-IV requirements or as healthy as they could in theory be. This makes a lot of sense. The authors see most of these disorders, in mild or severe form, as biological in origin, though certainly they can be triggered or worsened by environmental factors; this is also a new approach for me, after four therapists and lots of books that encourage talk therapy and behavior modification. I have been on antidepressants and that does seem to have smoothed out the worst of my own visits to the abyss -- perhaps this makes me trust the biological view more. But the approach to the mild versions of these different disorders as being closer to one another than their severe versions are is really interesting (and might give you a new view of your own or anyone close to you's mental problems. Even if one doesn't wholeheartedly accept this approach, seeing different possibilities never hurts.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2001

It seems that Orson Scott Card is good at writing about warped childhoods. There's Ender's Game, perhaps his most famous -- the children taken away from a normal life and trained to be soldiers and strategists. There are the parallel works to Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow and Shadow of the Hegemon, which deal with different children who have been subjected to the same regimen. There's his more realistic book Lost Boys, which creeped me out too much for a second reading, even though I couldn't put it down the first time. Lost Boys deals with missing children and child molestation, the latter a particularly difficult subject for me, but the reviews seem to indicate that anyone will be hit hard by this book.

But perhaps the earliest of Card's works on the theme (or maybe not -- I certainly haven't read anywhere near all of his work) is Songmaster (out of print, unfortunately). In this book, it is to the Songhouse that talented children are taken, to learn to sing more powerfully than anywhere else in the galaxy. Only those the Songhouse judges fit hosts can have Songbirds, the pre-pubescent singers who are the cream of the crop the Songhouse produces. It surprises an empire when Mikal, the ruthless emperor of many planets, is judged fit for a Songbird, but after years of finding the perfect child and training him, Ansset goes to Mikal's court.

The Songhouse environment comes through as unusual but warm; the Imperial court is cold and stiff, full of security guards who fondle Ansset's genitals and retainers jockeying for permission. (I find it amusing that every character seems to assume the galaxy-conquering Emperor is sexually involved with his nine-year-old Songbird [which he isn't], even though adult homosexuality in this world seems to be looked down upon as weak and weird.) Emotionally, Mikal becomes a father to Ansset, but even that is torn away.

Ansset survives and becomes a force to be reckoned with in Imperial politics, just as Ender and Bean and their comrades survive and gain great power in their books. It has started to get a little old by the sixth book in the Ender series, but the theme touches so many readers; perhaps because, especially in science fiction fandom, readers feel that their peers or their family or some other force treated them wrong, that they are as unusual, talented yet warped, as Card's characters. Songmaster is perhaps not as gripping as Ender's Game, but it covers the theme in a more interesting way: the power of song, not war.