mourning has broken

And Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.” — Ruth 1:16-17

Tomas and Amelia came to America from Galicia in what is now modern-day Poland. They were peasants — cobblers and musicians — and two of the faceless millions of Eastern European immigrants who flooded into Chicago at the turn of the last century. They had five daughters: Helena, Veronika, Tekla, Stefania, and Czeslawa. Amelia died of tuberculosis when Czeslawa was still an infant. Tomas worked on the railroads as a gandy dancer — a job that required him to be away from his family working on rural rail lines for days and weeks on end, and he was so poor that he would tie scraps of rags around his legs to shield his flesh from the bitter cold of the Illinois and Indiana winters where his tattered pants had worn through and left his skin exposed. He was in no logistical or financial position to raise five girls, nor was such a thing socially acceptable for a father to do in that day and age, and so, he relinquished custody of his children to a Catholic orphanage. Thus, my grandmother, Stefania (Stephanie), grew up an orphan despite having a family and a father, raised by nuns who couldn’t have cared less about her. When she was old enough to work, she was given to a “foster home” where she worked as a housekeeper and nanny for the biological children of her employers. Isolated and alone in many ways, she was never far from her sisters. They bucked the odds and lived most of their 90+ years either together or in close proximity to one another. Helena (Helen) was the eldest and died first, but in their final years, Veronika (Verna), Tekla (Dorothy), Czeslawa (Jessie), and my grandmother were all neighbors in the same condo — Verna and Jessie both never married and even shared an apartment with twin beds on either side of the same bedroom. Stubborn, spirited, and the eternal hub of the family, my grandmother took care of of her sisters to the end and was the last to leave this world at the age of 94. I am her granddaughter in every sense.

Despite her fierce devotion to her sisters, my grandmother met and married my grandfather during the Great Depression. Irving came from a family of Ukranian Jews of better circumstances. They were artists — slightly educated and bohemian. He and his sister Lillian were both aspiring opera singers. He was tall and slim with dashing red hair and piercing grey eyes. He was handsome, and he knew it. The only son of a Jewish family, he was every bit the proud and entitled prince who expected my grandmother to fall for him, and fall she did. They married and had my father and uncle. My grandfather dodged the draft during World War II, ran the family uniform business into the ground, made one bad investment after another, cheated on my grandmother, left her and his children, returned to them, and cheated some more. When I was two years old, he suffered a massive heart attack and dropped dead at the age of 57 on a cold February night in 1975. My uncle attempted CPR, but was eventually resigned to watching his father die in the Chicago snow as they waited for the ambulance to come. We flew out for the funeral. I remember standing on a step stool in front of a water fountain in a room that seemed to be made of red velvet trying to give my stuffed leather toy elephant a drink. My father didn’t cry. My grandmother went on to fall in love with another man, live with and bury him all while speaking of my grandfather for decades as a saint she didn’t deserve to know, much less wed.

As each of my great aunts passed on, I traveled to Chicago to meet my uncle and father to bury them and handle their affairs. Because I was the next woman in the familial line, I often took the assignment of going through their personal effects. While on my last visit there to pack up my grandmother and Aunt Verna, rendered vegetative by advanced right brain dementia, my grandmother gave me a thick, yellowed collection of writings by Kahlil Gibran. When I got it home and unpacked, and I opened it to find a tattered, typewritten program from a 1941 concert where my grandfather sang the tenor part and his sister was the featured soprano. I also found a pair of folded pages on which were my grandparents’ wedding vows in my grandmother’s unmistakable and impeccable handwriting — an excerpt from The Prophet, and the above excerpt from the Old Testament’s Book of Ruth. I was reminded of the album of keepsakes from my own parents’ wedding that my mother kept in her bedroom closet when I was growing up and how the disintegrating announcement of their modest nuptials clipped from The Roanoke Times mentioned that the vows they exchanged at the small Episcopal church in Christiansburg, Virginia also came from the Book of Ruth.

My brother proposed to the woman who is now his wife during the time my father was comatose in the hospital. In between researching Medicare and estate law and medical terms online at the end our long days at his bedside, he and I would set time aside to visit websites to look at engagement rings for his intended. We took lunch breaks and visited antique shops and jewelers, and I modeled rings for him and gave my female two cents . He settled on a lovely ring of white gold with an oval peridot set with diamonds and proposed to her while on a camping trip at a rustic cabin retreat. She said yes. A few weeks later, as we sat together at the foot of my father’s death bed at 3am on his last night on Earth, my brother asked me to stand up with him at his wedding. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Come on,” he replied, “who else is it gonna be?”

I couldn’t have been more honored. It couldn’t have been more appropriate. I adore his other half. No sooner had he introduced us two years before, than he was asking “Who’s dating whom here?” because she and I immediately took to each other and made copious plans together. We got on like a house on fire — almost intimidatingly so. I was almost as in love with her as he was. Brother didn’t know what to do with the sea change in a sister who had abjectly and vehemently hated every prior mate he had brought home. He and I are incredibly close — isolatingly so — much to the chagrin of those around us, including, and especially, significant others. Even our own mother feels insecure around us when we get together and start talking our own little language of jokes and references and thoughts and ideas and a mish-mash of German. Most people cannot abide us — much less hold their own around us — but not my sister-in-law; she fit with us like flesh and blood from the jump. She not only accepted our little dyad, but quickly jumped in feet first and enhanced it and expanded it to be a natural triangle with her infectious grin and perfect sense of humor. She never tried to neutralize the relationship my brother and I have — she just made everything we did together as a threesome better — holidays, movies, concerts, meals, festivals, baseball games, tubing on the Shenandoah — all had more laughter, jokes, and memories with her on board. We gained another sibling from the moment he introduced us. I could not love her more — she’s the sister I always wanted and what I would have chosen for myself and my brother and my family given the chance. The relationship could not be deeper or more natural, and I couldn’t wait to do everything within my power to officially welcome her to the family. There my brother was asking me to help bring her into the fold in the moment our tribe was shrinking, and we needed her more than ever.

About an hour later, after giving up trying to convincing me to come with him, brother left me in Dad’s hospital room and slipped back to Mom’s to catch a few hours of shut-eye. I ordered the nurse to turn up the dosage on my father’s softly beeping morphine pump, heaved the heavy recliner with mauve upholstery up to my unconscious father’s bedside, turned the radio to quietly play classical music from the local public station Dad loved, and held his hand as I watched the sun rise with him one last time and slipped into a deep sleep. I awoke a couple of hours later to find myself covered with a thermal blanket and my mother standing over me in her pink nursing scrubs and thin yellow gown we had to wear in the room. She held a pink smoothie of some sort in one hand and a bag with a Hardee’s steak, egg, and cheese biscuit in the other. My weary eyes never beheld a more welcome sight.

“Poor baby,” she said. I brought you some breakfast,”

“You’re dressed for work,” I noted. “Why? Dad’s dying today.”

“Yeah,” she sighed, “I don’t know what made me think I was going in.”

She got comfortable and never left. Brother returned about an hour later. Together the three of us settled in for the final vigil and spent the day together as a family for the last time ever and first time in more than a decade. Early that afternoon, brother and I went down to the cafeteria to grab some lunch to bring up to the room. When we returned, we found Mom sitting in the chair I had pulled up to Dad’s bedside. He was waxen and gray and drawn — already half gone from this plane of existence. She was holding his hand and curled up into him; looking tired and sad, she had fallen asleep with her head on his shoulder. Tears streaked her face. Brother and I stopped in our tracks struck dumb by a moment of vulnerability and tenderness we had never witnessed our parents share before. Right there and then we could see them young and courting and in love and understood that those versions of them never really left. We stood together gripping each other’s hands in silence — me with my hand over my mouth in astonishment, him with a revelatory grin cocked on his face. It was the final moment of their marriage and a gift to us. I eventually came to my senses and snapped a picture with my phone. Hours later, when my father passed away as the sun set and the three of us stood together in shock at what we had just witnessed, my mother bolted from the dark room.

“Where are you going?” I choked out.

“I have to call someone!” she responded.

“Who?!” I demanded.

“I don’t know!” she cried as she ran through the door.

Minutes later, I heard her out in the lobby on the phone with her childhood friend — the one who was with her when she met my father, the one who was the maid of honor at their wedding. And I could hear my mother, sad and 20 and in love out in the hallway sobbing in little shrieks to her friend — a girl, a bride — again across all the decades. A week later, when I brought my father’s ashes home in a little black box, she snatched it from my hands and clutched it to her chest and walked into the living room and sat in her chair and held it in her arms, saying nothing. In the weeks that followed, she played the Lou Rawls album they had loved when they were dating in the early ’70s, She let the live version of “Tobacco Road” repeat over and over because she knew it reminded my father of growing up in Chicago and talked about how he had opened up new worlds of art, literature, music, thought, and existence to the provincial girl from a foundry town in Rust Belt Michigan she had been when she had first stepped into his classroom at Radford College. She talked about how handsome he was as a young English professor from Duke — impeccably groomed and dressed in his suit, sitting cross-legged on his desk and smoking as he held forth at the front of the class. She kept my Dad’s ashes with her for a year before finally bringing them to me last summer.

The night Dad died, the three of us stumbled home from the hospital empty-handed, in shock, and at a total loss. My brother’s fiancee was there to greet us with the home fires burning, my lost luggage collected, and a pot of homemade chili waiting for us on the stove. When I had called my brother the day before to tell him that he needed to drop everything and get down to Dad because the end was near, he got home to find that she had gotten there first and had their bags already packed. My father was a stranger to her, but our family was not, and, because she truly loved my brother, she was already a part of us. She was an ally and invaluable support in the hard days that followed. She proved her mettle and them some. Already his wife. Already my sister. As we said goodbye to Dad and walked away from a member of our small tribe that night, we gained another at home waiting for us, and the ship was righted.

The story of Ruth is a story of women. In it, an Israelite named Naomi migrates to the land of Moab with her husband and two sons. The sons marry native girls — Ruth and Orpah. The husband dies and then both the sons do the same, leaving the three women at loose ends in a patriarchal society that offered them few options for a livelihood as single women without men to provide for them. Knowing she has no reason to stay in Moab and no hope of earning an income or remarrying there, Naomi renames herself Mara which means “bitter” and tells her daughters-in-law to go back to their people and remarry when she packs up to return to Bethlehem. Orpah reluctantly obliges, but the loyal Ruth steadfastly refuses and insists that Naomi is her family now, and pledges to stay with her until death separates them. Ruth makes a separate marriage vow — this time to the mother, the family, of her husband. She has cleaved to more than just a man, but also to his people, his mother, his way of life, and she has no intention of reneging on it. Together, it is these two women against the world, and they form a matriarchy that is a bond beyond any legal contract. They truly love each other, and nothing will change that come what may. In the end, things turn out well for Naomi and Ruth, largely because they stick together. Others want a part of their family because they recognize the strength of their bond.

My grandmother never officially converted to Judaism, but she lived her life with her husband as a Jew and raised her sons in the faith. Despite all of my grandfather’s flaws and failings and mistreatment, she never turned from him. She treated his sister as one of her own until the very end, despite the fact that she had sisters in spades.

My mother and father did not have a happy marriage. They separated when I was 14 and divorced when I was 16. Despite the fact that my father gave my mother plenty of reasons to give up on him, she never really did. She would speak of his behavior with bafflement, frustration, and grief, but she never derided him as a man or a person. She never let go of that brilliant young professor who taught her Milton and Shakespeare. She always maintained fond memories, spoke of the goodness in him, and voiced her gratitude for all he gave her — especially my brother and me. She was there with him in the end, and I’ve gotten glimpse after glimpse of the true depth of the love they had for each other in the two years since his death. I am grateful to him for giving me a view of their relationship and a sweet, unguarded, romantic aspect of my mother I had never seen before. Our relationship has never been more open, honest, and supportive. It was his parting gift to us, and he continues to live with us all through it. My parents never stopped being family. Not in the ways that really matter.

Two generations of the women in my family made this pledge from Ruth at their weddings: “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried.” I have not done the same myself, because it is not my role to be a wife and leave this family. I am its archivist, its chronicler, its storyteller. I will most likely never leave it for another, because I am not sure I can make that pledge to a family that is not my own. I am not able to make that commitment. The family I’ve got keeps me plenty busy as it is. While recently reminiscing over a time as a teenager when I came home one afternoon during a visit from my maternal grandmother and aunt to receive news that my mother had taken my sick brother to the ER, I marveled to my Mom about how rude I had been to leave our guests and take off to the hospital to join her and brother. “Are you kidding me?” she replied. “As if there was ever any question what you were going to do in that circumstance. Nothing was going to keep you from us. If your family is in trouble, there is never any doubt that that is where you will be. You are the protector. That’s always been your job. That’s who you are.” And she’s right.

Just because I have not carried on the tradition of Ruth does not mean it has ended with my mother, however. When planning their wedding, my sister-in-law insisted on incorporating the reading from the Book of Ruth. She didn’t do it to curry favor or out of some kind of consolation or obligation. She wanted it. It made sense to her. It was as though she was honoring and keeping a generations-deep tradition in her own family. It was her love letter to us, and she meant every word of it. It was at that moment that I realized that she really did belong with us — to us — all along. She was a missing piece, a cuckoo’s egg, that we had been lacking. The Prodigal Daughter finally coming home to complete our little clan. She could manage to be in two families at once. That reading in their wedding was her way of cleaving herself and her people to ours, of expanding our horizons and resources, of truly pledging allegiance to us when we needed it most. It was so comforting. We needed her that day and continue to need her the same we did that night we returned from the hospital. She’s a comfort. A pillar of strength. An asset. A natural progression for the women in our family. An added value that has only made our family stronger. I talk to her and see her more than my own brother these days. We crave each other’s company. We honor each other’s roles in the family and each other’s roles in the lives of everyone else in the family. We thicken our generation and share the load of the work it must do as the one before us ages and passes away. Two women are always better than one, especially in a matriarchy like ours. We trust each other (she even trusted me to help pick out the home where she now lives sight-unseen — told people her husband’s family would find them a home in Utah and then send for her…and that’s kind of what happened). Together we are stronger. Together we are happier. She and I take care of each other. We don’t even like to use the term “in-law,” because we are not sisters by law. We are pledged to each other. My people are her people. Where we go, she will go. And so, I tell people that I’m bringing my sister with me places, and I arrive with a woman who looks absolutely nothing like me, and the two of us giggle at the confused looks on everyone’s faces. Doesn’t change what we are, though.

The day she and my brother married is one of the happiest days of my life. It’s our family’s best day. It came a few months after Dad died, and really, it was just the new beginning we needed. She did what I could not. She gave us reason to put aside our sorry and to celebrate our survival. She added to our ranks with her own. She brought smiles and song and joy back into our lives. She kept us from wallowing in grief. The wedding marked the end of the end for us and the start of something better and fresh and new. Being an early riser, she insisted on being married before noon, because, as she put it, she didn’t want to wait all day to marry my brother. She chose the brightness of the new day to christen the next chapter in our lives. And so, as I stood there at the head of my Episcopal church in Arlington, Virginia, next to my brother and before my priest watching as my beautiful new sister came beaming down the aisle on her proud father’s arm as her personal choice of processional hymn, “Morning Has Broken” played, I thought, “yeah, that’s right.” And with that, she put her own stamp on our family as she entered it. Mourning had broken, spring in completeness.

My grandmother would be so pleased.

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i’ll take potpourri for 200, alex

narrative aside for this one, folks. capitalization and grammar, too. most likely cohesive thought, as well. enjoy.

i spend a lot of time alone. it’s a conscious choice. i like, even prefer, my own company. over the years, my myers-briggs scores have taken a steady slide out of the staunch “e” territory into a more “i” realm, because i need more and more time away from people to recharge my batteries drained by the time i spend with them. this personal trait plus the whole turning 40 next month thing means i spend a good deal of time in my head lately to consider myself, the world, and all the ways i fit in it — and don’t (mostly). and so, here is a grab bag of random completely, self-centered observations i (and others) have made recently:

  • i could probably eat popcorn every day. especially the delicious, buttery air popped stuff my friend makes
  • i constantly crave cantaloupe and cucumber. probably because the aforementioned popcorn makes me thirsty.
  • i’m addicted to water. if i don’t have a bottle of it near me or in my hands, i get twitchy.
  • i like to sleep outdoors in public.
  • i sleep better with someone else in the room. even better with someone next to me.
  • i like to curl up and take platonic naps with other people but generally want no part of cuddling after sex. don’t touch me. i’m tired and sticky and sick of you. it’s time for sleeping now.
  • i think maybe the above secretly makes me a man.
  • i still think “friends” is funny.
  • closet george michael fan. only, like george now, not really in the closet.
  • i take the words “all you can eat crab legs” as a personal challenge. and one i am yet to lose.
  • words most likely to come out of my mouth in response to something: “i know, right?!”
  • sushi and salad are my favorite foods. but not together.
  • i would give up meat again, but man, i make the best freakin’ burgers on the planet.
  • manhattans in the winter, martinis/gin and tonics in the summer. beer all the time.
  • i’m addicted to [good] gay porn and tumblr. one of them can make me laugh for hours on end. i’ll let you guess which one. and i’ve got links, if you want ’em.
  • i love songs that are more than one song in a song. examples include:
    • layla
    • bohemian rhapsody
    • a day in the life
    • band on the run (three songs for the price of one!)
  • i love iced tea, but i have to sweeten it myself.
  • nothing’s better than clean sheets.
  • all my towels are white. it makes me feel like i’m at a hotel.
  • i’d secretly love to give everything away and hit the road and live out of a suitcase.
  • in another life, i could probably be barefoot and pregnant and very happy. just not this life.
  • i have to watch “dune,” “heavy metal,” and “wrath of khan” any time they’re on tv.
  • don’t fucking talk to me when i’m swimming. i don’t care if we’re friends and we came to the pool together. it’s time for swimming, not talking. serious business.
  • i hate all things willy wonka. effing creepy.
  • i don’t get the big deal about “the princess bride.” cute enough movie, but cult favorite? why?
  • “seinfeld” really isn’t funny anymore. most of it probably never was.
  • i’m not really that good at riding a bike.
  • the older i get, the less i like bread.
  • nobody ever expects the religious side of me…and then i quote chapter and verse. it’s probably the functioning brain and open mind and all the swearing and drinking and the fact that i like sex and people think those things and religion don’t go together. they’ve just never met an episcopalian before.
  • remember when bravo used to be a television station that thinking people could watch? yeah, me too. i miss that.
  • i love disc golf. i miss disc golf. with margaritas and no pants. in the rain. you know who you are. i’m looking at you.
  • i will never not find farts funny.
  • sometimes i just miss digging a big hole in the sand and then sitting in the sea water it collects like a private pool at the beach.
  • i can’t seem to follow more than one tv show at a time anymore.
  • one of my favorite memories of my dad is staying up late one night with him watching “conan the barbarian” when i was about 10.
  • one of my favorite movies to watch with my mom is “close encounters of the third kind.” she always let me stay up to watch it when they showed it on ABC once a year when i was a kid. weird, huh?
  • every time i hear the ice cream truck, i have to resist running out there to buy a popsicle. especially the red, white and blue rocket pops.
  • i recently realized that i was born in appalachia. i come by it honestly.
  • i thought i had a wart once, but i cut it out of my hand with a knife, and it didn’t grow back, so probably not. gross, i know.
  • i don’t like drinking coffee, but i love coffee-flavored things.
  • i tried my dog’s jerky treats recently, and it turns out they’re pretty good.
  • i love going to movies.
  • if we each all get our own blue heaven when we die, i will spend all eternity at a baseball game with my friends. eating hot dogs and peanuts and drinking beer. that is where and when i am happiest.
  • my favorite flower is the iris, but i never buy them anymore.
  • i hate feeling rushed.
  • i hate feeling scheduled.
  • i do what i want.
  • the family comes as part of this package. deal with it.
  • i think my current default setting for most things is “whatever.” unless, of course, you’re messing with my boys or my family, in which case, it’s most likely on.
  • i like cereal, i just wish it was more filling.

progress & evaluation

Spring is an exciting time of year for academics. Well, exciting if you’re not the one having to write comps, defend comps, finish dissertations, defend dissertations, and generally just try to graduate. Granted, there are always tons of semester deadlines and conference deadlines, but for first and second year doc students, spring is a time when we get to observe and celebrate our more advanced colleagues’ milestones. We can bask in the glow of their reflected light, as it were. Life’s real easy out here in the cheap seats. Still, it’s a time of nervous energy and lots of good and exciting news for people we care about. It’s a time when we generally all get to cheer each other on and be happy for one another.

In this vein, I was honored to attend a friend’s dissertation defense this week. It was the first one I have observed, and it went really well. My friend was the epitome of cool and handled her committee with grace and aplomb. In short: she’s my hero. I took notes on everything from her demeanor to who she had on her committee, to theories they discussed, to suggestions they had about turning her work into a book after graduation. It was thrilling to be there at the inception of her new life as a “Dr.,” and it was a generally eye-opening experience for me that has had my wheels turning ever since.

As we gathered at a local Mexican joint to throw back good tequila and passable cervezas to celebrate her victory, several people around the table remarked on something I too found exceptional at the defense: more than one committee member described the dissertation as a “page-turner.” Wow. What an amazing compliment. Praise for your writing — any writing — doesn’t get any better than that. We were all blown away by that comment and in unanimous agreement that it made our brilliant friend’s achievement a resounding success. I decided to use it to set a personal standard for myself. I decided to write a dissertation that would be worthy of the same assessment from its readers, because, really, no one wants to read a boring dissertation. Or a boring anything. And God know, I certainly don’t want to write one. That just sounds onerous.

And so, I’ve chosen a subject to research and write about that I really like. It’s a topic that’s been a glaring whole in the academic conversation for almost 30 years now. It’s painfully obvious and big enough to drive a semi through, and yet, amazingly enough, no one has touched it. They’ve touched every aspect of the general subject around it for decades, and yet nobody has wanted to go near the bullseye right there on the lid of Pandora’s box. I’m not sure why, but the low-hanging fruit of sorts was sitting right there waiting for me to pluck it. And pluck I shall. It’s a fun topic, kind of a sexy topic, and it always makes people laugh and lean in to hear more when they hear what I’m working on. They want to know more. They have opinions on it. They want to get involved. It’s become my identity now, and it suits me just fine.

I take all of this as a good sign. I am encouraged by the compliments I get on my papers about it. I am even more encouraged that my work is getting accepted at conferences and even winning awards, although, truth be told, the latter comes as a bit of a shock to me. A welcome shock, but a shock no less. People corner me or strike up conversations about my work in hallways and elevators at conferences. I get emails from people who attended my sessions — or people who talked to people who attended my sessions. Or people who attended whole other conferences I didn’t attend where they heard about my paper in other sessions. It’s mind boggling. I’m sure it happens to lots of people, though, and it’s just new to me. Still, my research has groupies, and I have barely even started. To be perfectly frank, though, it’s not like what little I’ve written is world famous or anything. It’s just gotten a little bit of attention in a very small, dark corner of the tiny island my area of academics occupies. Perspective, please. And really, part of it is the title of the paper (I’m good with catchy titles), and, truth be told, part of it is my name. It’s odd. It’s unbelievable to people when they first hear it. It gets remembered. It gets attention. It probably doesn’t matter what I’d scribble in dull crayon on the back of a torn paper bag, if my name was attached to it, people would still sit up and say, “Who? What?” And that is by no means an achievement or anything that speaks to my skills as a writer, researcher, or…anything at all, really. It’s just a testament to my parents’ ability to give me a great, funny, slightly goofy, and quite honestly, pretty porny, name. I’m sure people are totally let down when they actually get to put a face to the name, because I’m just not that interesting.

And so, a couple of papers in, my research is off to a good start. Nothing amazing, just relatively smooth start so far, but this week came the rough part. I had a big name professor (if we have one of those) step right up and express interest in my work and in serving on my committee without solicitation. This professor has been supportive of what I’ve been doing, and I was flattered without coming right out and saying yes right away. Unfortunately, this development still lead me into uncharted academic jealousy territory with another faculty member that I didn’t expect and didn’t see coming. I was completely blindsided by it, and at a moment that wasn’t especially good for me emotionally. It wasn’t my first faculty turf war of sorts here, but it did make for a particularly unpleasant moment. Something that should have made me feel really bolstered made me feel really crummy for about 24 hours, but then I got over it and told everyone to just grow up and trust that I’m not selling anyone out or going behind anyone’s back and that I know what I’m doing with my own work. The trust has to go both ways, people. Also, perspective is a good thing. It’s just academic research. I want advice, not to be lead around by the nose, and I’m not anyone’s territory. My research is mine — good or bad, win or loose, succeed or fail. I am the one who has to live and die with it in the end.

And, while we don’t have to do comps or dissertation defenses yet, first year Ph.D. students in my program do have to create a document called a P&E, or progress and evaluation, proposal. It’s not really a big deal, nor is it a big document (mine was six pages). It’s mostly just one more annoying thing to add to your plate when you’re already busy, but it’s a little burdensome in that it forces you to assess your work and organize a statement of what you’ve done in your first year, give a summary of your proposed research, and then look waaaaaay down the road and make a degree plan that lays out the courses you want to take for the rest of your program. We’re talking years’ worth of planning. We’re talking hunting and pecking through department websites to try and sleuth out who offers what course. No, I mean who really offers what course, not what is just in the catalog but never sees the light of day. We’re talking contacting numerous professors in various departments who are complete strangers to you, your abilities, and your accomplishments to try and get a straight answer, a syllabus, and a little bit of interest out of them. We’re talking selling yourself constantly for a couple of weeks straight when you really don’t feel like it at all. And when it comes to independent study, you really have to put yourself out there on a limb and hope that someone nibbles. My P&E proposal was due today.

The process of poking at hives to see who’d come out and play with me was a little unnerving, but in the end, a good experience. I had one professor respond to my little two-page CV with a “Wow. What a great life!” Really? Ok! I had several more tell me my research was fascinating. Three expressed interest in meeting with me about it. Three agreed to do independent study with me (although, I can only do it with two classes). Everyone wanted me in their classes, but, to be honest, they probably want any warm body in their classes to make sure they meet the minimum enrollment, so there’s probably nothing to that. Still, while emotionally exhausting and time intensive, this process of feedback and exchange has been informative and encouraging. It’s also been overwhelming as I work to make strategic contacts that will please me, please my adviser, benefit my dissertation, and meet with approval from the committee that will review and approve my P&E proposal. It’s all very delicate and political with the whole chicken-and-egg, first-things-first, you-scratch-my-back-blah-blah-blah of the process. So many hoops to jump through. So many balls in the air. So many places to screw it all up. So far, so good, however. I got positive feedback from everyone I contacted, and my adviser complimented what I put together.

In the end, what’s really scary about the P&E process is the final product. I sat down and looked at it today before I sent it off and thought, “Whelp, that’s it. Your life for the next three years all on six pieces of paper.” I’ve never thought that far ahead. Never had a plan. Never felt so locked in and committed to anything, and, I won’t lie, I started to suffocate and needed a glass bottle of wine when I read it over and started to freak the fuck out. It was claustrophobic. Even more overwhelming is the way the document painted a picture of the career I mapped out for myself — of the person I was going to become. When did I become a gender studies scholar? When did I become a hardcore feminist? When did I start taking rhetoric courses? Who is this person? When the hell did I get so damn focused? Ha. I imagine from the outside looking in, most people who know me would laugh at that last statement and tell me I’ve always been focused like a laser. Funny, but I always feel scattered inside, even if I’m totally honed in with tunnel vision on the exterior. I have to admit that I was a little scared that I’m not building in enough diversity to give myself some breathing space with this plan, but, then again, maybe I need to learn to breathe with a little less room if I’m going to get anything meaningful done in any reasonable amount of time.

Really, though, I don’t doubt myself. It’s a good plan. I’m going to be happy with it. I’m pleased with how my first year is wrapping up. I know what I want and how to get it. I feel confident and powerful and like I know exactly what I’m doing and wouldn’t do anything differently. I’m where I belong. I love the skin I’m in. I’ve never been so sure in my life. I hear people out, but nobody’s voice is in my head except my own. My intuition guides me well at every turn. I’ve got good backing, and I’m honored to have the mentors I do, but I’m nobody’s bitch.

And so, I bit the bullet and turned the proposal in and figured that would be the last I’d hear of it for a while. Figured it was mostly just an exercise. Figured I could move on to grading papers and putting together lectures and filling out fellowship applications. Figured nobody would give it a second look and I’d get a rubber stamp with a couple of obligatory comments from the committee in a few weeks. Figured nobody would actually read it.

Within two hours of sending the document, I got an email in response to my proposal: “I find your topic interesting — I actually read this, rather than just glancing as I usually do. Your research is a real page-turner.”

Guess I’m on the right track after all.

it’s not about the hoodie

The internet is been alive with rage and protest in response to the February 26th murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL. Martin was a slight boy of 160 pounds armed with nothing more than candy, an iced tea, and black skin. He was gunned down in cold blood by a man with more than ten years and dozens of pounds of advantage on him who walks free and protected by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law that categorizes his actions as self-defense. In the intervening weeks the focus has shifted from Trayvon to his hooded sweatshirt. I have to admit that I find this concerning. Why? Because America — white America — needs to sit up and admit the truth to itself and others: Trayvon was not shot because of what he was wearing. Trayvon was shot because he was black.

It’s all well and good that everyone’s putting on a hoodie and saying “I am Trayvon Martin,” but here’s the fact of the matter, white folks: You’re not, and white guilt isn’t going to change that. As a brilliant friend of mine said recently, “unpack your white privilege.” The hoodie is a red herring. It’s an excuse for America to blame something other than blatant and pervasive racism in this country for the death of this young man and, let’s be honest, thousands, millions just like him. It’s not ok that Trayvon is dead. It’s not ok that his killer walks free. It’s not ok that this country gives one race the power in this country. It’s not ok that this country sees other races and their children as expendable. It’s not ok that we’re not honest with ourselves about it.

Trayvon was somebody’s son. He was a young man with a future he will never realize. We will all miss out on what he could have been, because we can’t see beyond the end of our noses. Sitting in my class discussing race theory last week, the discomfort was palpable, because we can talk gender and class and sexuality until we’re blue in the face in this nation, but we still can’t talk race The class only had one American student of “non-white” decent (although, ethnically speaking, she’s Caucasian, but all that matters in this country is skin color, unfortunately), so the discussion was largely held by white people and a couple of newly-arrived international students who are new to the nuanced complexities of racial relations in America. The young white male leading the discussion was obviously unfamiliar with people not of his own race, and he said the magic words: “Well, I’m not a black person, so I don’t know how they feel.” And that did it for me.

Here’s the deal, folks. People are people. It’s not hard to imagine how they feel. They feel how you would feel about most things. They feel the same rage, helplessness, grief, loss, frustration, isolation, and injustice that any of us would feel when faced with discrimination, oppression, threat, and murder. Everyone loves their children. Everyone is devastated by their deaths. Everyone would come straight out of their skin if their child’s killer walked free. It shouldn’t take a stretch of the white imagination to recognize the black experience in this country. Granted, no one can be an expert on any direct life experience other than their own individual one, but we should be able to recognize when justice is done and when it isn’t. And we shouldn’t tolerate the latter regardless. And we shouldn’t have to focus on what a victim was wearing, whether the case is rape, assault, robbery, or murder. Saying the hoodie got Trayvon killed is no different than saying the low-cut, knee-length cotton sundress I’m wearing today would get me raped walking my dog around my neighborhood this evening. Clothing is a performance. Clothing is an excuse. It isn’t what makes criminals act out and hurt other people. Don’t get mad about the hoodie. Get mad about the person. Get mad about the national mindset that reduces the person to race or gender. Get mad about the truth that Trayvon is dead because he was young, black, and male, and THAT is what makes a person suspicious and somehow less than a person in America still. Today. In 2012. That is inexcusable.

I have to admit that my heart breaks every time I see Trayvon’s face in the media. In that child, I see in it the face of so many boys I know and love. It’s a sweet face. It’s a face I can’t help but think was the light of his family’s lives. I think about the friends he had. The friends he would have had. The people he would have loved. The people who would have loved him back. And how that’s not going to happen now. Why? Because he was young, black, and male, and in America something that we view as criminal. As threatening. As subhuman. As disposable. We need to fess up to that. We need to be honest with the fact that many of us cross the street when we see that coming, hoodie or no, and that’s not alright. It’s so not alright. That young black man is your neighbor. He’s someone’s son. Someone’s brother. Someone’s boyfriend. Someone’s friend. Someone’s nephew, lover, co-worker, classmate, pet owner, and a million other things that makes him human. His life, his experience is not different from your own, except that he has to live it as a young, black man in an America full of George Zimmermans. God, that has to be scary. Scary for him. Scary for his mother. Again, take a minute and imagine that. It shouldn’t be a stretch. I know I feel bad enough when people cross the street to avoid me with my big dog — and yes, that happens all the time. I know the small white girl isn’t the perceived threat. Well, I can’t tell you, but I can imagine what it must feel like to be seen as the threat yourself all the time, every day, 24/7. It’s got to feel awful. It’s got to color your life. It’s got to make you wish it would stop. And you know what? We need to fucking stop it already. Stop with the guns. Stop with the gated communities. Stop living in fear of the people who live down the street, walk down the street. Stop being afraid of ourselves. Shutting yourselves away and arming yourselves in fear. THAT, my friends, is what got Trayvon killed. When we take the time to know each other and what it’s like to be someone other than ourselves, it’s a whole lot harder to see someone else’s son as something you can shoot. It becomes a whole lot harder to pull that trigger.

I get the hoodie thing. I really do. It’s a brilliant protest icon. It’s a savvy rallying point. It’s something white people can put on and make them feel like they’re doing something. The semiotics of it is something we can all recognize. The sign and the signified work together beautifully in our brains that want to believe we can do something small that will wash our hands clean. But, if we learn anything from this case, if we are going to do Trayvon and the America that killed him any justice, we need to stop relying on what he was wearing to be our rallying cry for justice and start focusing on his humanity — and ours.

It seems simplistic and idealistic to say, but this case, this turning point, needs to be the last straw for us. We cannot let it go. The protest needs to be one of honesty and accountability. We need to not pretend like racism just showed up. Like it was just hiding somewhere in some Southern backwater and we’d forgotten all about it. We need to recognize that it’s here, all around us, everywhere, every day. It’s an experience every person of color lives with every minute of their lives in America. They don’t get to take a vacation from it. It’s their reality. “Post-racial American” is a myth that only exists in the mind of white people, because we are the only ones who can afford to believe in it. We (and by we, I mean EVERYBODY) need to stop treating people of different colors as “others.” We need to stand up for black men and stand against what we keep doing to them. We need to recognize our parts in it. We need to make the change meaningful and lasting.

When I did my first master’s degree, I wrote about an organization of women in the 1930s and 40s who ended lynching as an accepted practice in the South. It was called the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, and, with what they learned about community organizing from their roles in the preceding Commission on Interracial Cooperation, they worked to make it happen. Go ahead. Look it up. We don’t talk about them today, but we have them to thank for standing up for social justice and instituting social change because they dug in their teeth and they didn’t let go. It can happen, people. All it takes is saying, no. Enough. This man is a man. He is my brother, and I’m not having it anymore.

I am not Trayvon Martin, but Trayvon Martin was my brother. And I say enough. He was a man. He is our loss. And I’m not having it anymore.

how not to get into my pants

engage: lame, whiny, inelegant, ventilating rant

hey there, guy! think you might be interested in me? want to get to know me better? think it might be cool if we spent some time together socially? think we might have the makings of a good friendship? think there’s a chance in hell we might actually have sex or even a relationship some day? well, gentlemen, here’s a sure-fire, bonafide how-to guide on to make sure that none of that will ever happen with me in a million years:

  • spend months, even years fawning over me every time you see me, flirting and even touching me, hugging me, stoking my hair, trying to massage my neck, but never doing anything more about it.
  • start non-specifically “asking me out” without presenting an actual invitation to do something planned with you or even requesting my phone number.
  • finally give your phone number to me and tell me to call you if i ever “need anything.” what the fuck does that even mean? also, do this repeatedly.
  • act all mopey that i never called you the next time you see me (protip: i don’t do the calling, particularly when you can’t man-up enough to just ask for my number). i like my men confident and assertive without being dicks. mopey is a sure non-starter, as is putting the responsibility on me to get things rolling when you are the one who was interested in the first place.
  • finally ask for my phone number and get it from me on a night when i’m not feeling well (see: how good i was not feeling) and don’t have any fight in me to put up. also, i had a moment where i figured, “what the hell?” and thought i’d be nice and give something new a try.
  • begin to text me ad nauseum within two hours of getting my phone number with messages like “how are you?” “what are you doing?” “feeling better?” no, i’m not feeling better — you just saw me three hours ago and i was sick as a dog. do you think i ran into jesus giving out free miracles on a street corner on my way home or something? and this despite me telling you that i was busy with plans that night and into the weekend. why the hell would you listen to me and choose to respect my stated boundaries rather than just start sending me messages anyway, even though i had made it clear that i was otherwise engaged for the rest of the evening?
  • text to ask me if i “need anything” at midnight that night.
    a.) don’t be texting me at midnight. you don’t know me that well yet.
    b.) that’s a lame booty call, and i’m not amused.
    c.) i’m freaking sick, and you know it. don’t booty text someone who is sick.
    d.) just don’t ever booty text someone. get some game already.
    e.) even if you are legit offering to bring me something like medicine or food, i’m not going to have some dude i barely know come over to my house in the middle of the night to do that. we haven’t even met for coffee or drinks yet. you’re sure as shit not coming to my inner sanctum when i’m sick in my pjs to bring me gatorade. come on. this is just 100% disrespectful and bordering on invasive.
  • have me wake up the next morning to find that you started blowing up my phone before sunrise with several more text messages like “good morning?” “sleep well?” “feeling better?” and even “what are you doing?” what the hell do you think i’m doing at 6am?
  • never actually pick up the phone and call me. just keep texting me for days and days like you’re 14 asking me if i’m better yet. like i need that. and this in spite of the fact that i have responded more than once to tell you that:
    a.) i just came down with my viral infection, i’m not on the back end of it, and
    b.) it will probably take the better part of the week to feel better, so please stop asking me if i’m better yet. i will tell you when i’m better.
    i don’t know how to be more honest and up front with you aside from telling you to just get lost right off the bat. i was trying to be nice and give you a small chance to redeem yourself.
  • and since you couldn’t take the hint to back off when i told you i’m sick (which was both a warning to you and the hand-to-god’s honest truth), i also told you that i was going out to town to a conference in vegas for several days and having company in town when i returned so i would be off of the map for about a week. i thanked you in advance for being patient and told you that i’d be in touch when everything settled down.what’s your response? what do i get from you as i’m boarding the plane? a text from you warning me to “be a good girl in vegas.” SERIOUSLY? “be a good girl?” i mean, FUCKING SERIOUSLY?! first of all, i’ll do whatever the hell i want. we haven’t even been on a fucking date. you can’t even muster the guts to ring me up proper and use your big boy voice to ask me out, and you’re telling me to behave myself like we’re committed somehow? why the hell do guys do this? you are by no means the first to pull this shit on me, and it pisses me off to no end. fuck you. i’m not your “girl.” i don’t have to “be good.” get over your lame penis insecurity and back the hell up off of the possessive vibe, dad. you don’t have me marked as yours. telling me what to do is a sure way to burn any bridge with me, especially when you don’t even have a place in my life yet.
    moreover, this is what you send me when you know that a.) i’m sick and b.) i’m going away on business. fucking insulting on every damn level. way to treat me like some dumb hoochie and neither see nor acknowledge that i’m a grown adult professional woman with a lot of balls in the air — none of which are yours, i might add. you’re not even on the list and slip-sliding further from the edge of it with each passing text. it also doesn’t help your case that you never bothered to ask why i was going to vegas, what i would be doing there, and what my work was about. no interest in my brains or academic passions. all you were worried about was that some girl whose ten digits you just got might fuck some stranger in her sickened state because she’s a just a woman and therefore so hysterically cock crazy that she can’t be trusted not to jump on the first stiff one she sees once shes get a couple appletinis or some other fruity designer non-drink in her. none of which is the case with me — especially the part where i’d drink anything in a martini glass that wasn’t three olives in ice-cold gin with a bottle of vermouth passed over it (or maybe a manhattan…up).
  • proceed to spend all weekend texting me “hello?” repeatedly. no, i’m not kidding. that’s what you did.  just “hello?” several times a day all day saturday. i can’t even begin to grasp what was going on in your head there.
  • when i finally reply two days later to tell you that
    a.) i’m so sick that i’ve been in the hospital and
    b.) i would really appreciate it if you’d stop texting me because it’s annoying me and not something i want to deal with sick or well, but especially not sick, you fly off the handle wanting to know why i didn’t call you to take me to the hospital (WHAT?!) and then follow up with a day’s worth of passive-aggressive texts that slowly escalate to accusing me of using the sick excuse to push you away. really? i mean, seriously? what? you even SAW me sick, but that’s neither here nor there, just…WHAT?!

first of all, there is probably no behavior in the world that will make me angrier or want to be rid of you (after punching you in the face) faster than passive-aggression. i have to time or patience for childish behavior. got a problem? pony up and say so. if i wanted to be around people who pout, i’d work in day care. spill it, let’s fix it, move on with or without me. i don’t care. but if you want to bitch out and completely fail at communicating your feelings in a forthcoming, productive adult manner, fine. just do it far away from me and not involving me in any way. and this goes for everyone. and i most definitely will not tolerate this from someone who is just trying to get to know me. how is that a way to get off the ground with a new interest? explain that one to me.

i’ve got a couple other people pulling this cop-out crap with me lately, and they’re fools if the think i’m not noticing it. i’ve addressed the vibes they’re sending out directly with each of them at least once only to get denials and more of the continued passive aggression, and i’m kind of fed up. it’s more aggressive than passive, and i’m losing patience fast. i’m torn between calling them out on it once and for all or just deciding that anyone who behaves that way isn’t worth my time and just walking away. i’m every bit as over-scheduled and overwhelmed as they are, so that excuse does not fly as a reason to be rude to a friend. i’ve worked too hard to hoist myself through hell and be in the happy and healthy (well, emotionally, at least) place i’m in now to waste energy playing people’s mental guessing games. that’s not a good use of my time. passive-aggressive i can do without from everyone, but if they’re friends of mine, i love them, so i’m willing to give a little and see if their sudden mood swings pass and we work things out.

you, however, don’t get a pass. i barely know you, and  i’m thinking i don’t want to. if this is how you behave when you’re trying to start some kind of relationship with me even though you can’t manage to even begin with a simple date when i’m totally worth a decent meal and an evening’s conversation, then i’ll just thank you for showing me the crazy right up front so i don’t have to waste any time on you before i shut this down and move on. the fact that i’m taking the time to sit up and write this while i’m as sick and falling over tired as i am right now should tell you how angry i am. i just have to get this off of my chest so i can get some good sleep. something in my gut told me all along that i shouldn’t have bothered giving you a chance. once again, my intuition was spot on. note to self: must remember that.

finally, i’m a big girl who can take care of herself. i do it all the time — and i like it. a little credit, please. i’m happy to be vulnerable with those i trust. i love to let my guard down and let those i love take care of me from time to time. however, do NOT ever treat me like i’m somehow helpless. if the fact that i’m self-assured and able to handle my business is what attracted you to me in the first place, recognize that and stop trying to treat me like a damsel in distress, and don’t get hostile with me for not acting like you’re god’s gift and that i have nothing better to do than drop everything and come running because you sent me some puss-out 160-character text. i’m not going to come slobbering for the answer to all my problems you think you have in your pants. let me let you in on a little secret: you don’t.

you know what the worst part is? you’re not the first to try playing this exact game with me. it’s pathetic. gentlemen, here’s the deal: step up your game or don’t even bother. the least you can do is CALL a girl and ask her out to drinks or the movies if you think you like her. get to know a girl, for the love of mike. no one wants a text relationship. no one wants to be smothered before they even spend an evening with you (or after, for that matter). nothing about a bright, independent professional woman should give you the impression that i will go for that amateur hour crap. i would block your texts if only my phone would let me. as it is, i’m just ignoring you and hoping you’ll get the message and go away. i feel like shit right now, and your nonsense is not helping.

note: i’m no helen of troy, but i have other options. i don’t need this bullshit. and, the truth of the matter is, that i am very, very happy with my own company. thank you for doing your part to make me prefer it even more than i already did.

no. seriously. stop texting me.

end: lame, whiny, inelegant, ventilating rant 

meet my double standard

Objects in the mirror are not as crazy as they appear.

One morning a couple of Sundays ago, I rolled over, fumbled for the cell on the bedside table, and dialed my brother before I even sat up in bed.

“I want a knife,” I told him.

“What?” he asked.

“You heard me. I said I want a knife. Like to carry with me.”

“Whatever for?”

“You know, because they’re useful. Men have them. Not all men, but lots of men have them. You always have some kind of knife or your Leatherman tool on you to whip out of your pocket and poke or slice or cut open something that needs poking or slicing or cutting. It’s very helpful. I don’t always have you or another man with a knife around, and I think it would be useful. I want one. I’m sick of trying to use my keys or some such crap to open things or whatever.”

“Ok…so why are you telling me?”

“Because I was wondering where to get one. REI? Is that a good place to get a knife? Should I go to REI?”

“Sure, uh,  yeah, I guess. REI would be fine, I suppose. It depends on what kind of tool you want. Do you want a flip blade? A Swiss Army knife? A Leatherman like mine?”

“Yeah, well…I don’t really know.”

“Can’t help you if you don’t know.”

“Ok, here’s the deal: I want a knife and I want you to buy it for me. That’s how it works. The man buys the knife, so you buy it, ok? You buy a knife for me. It has to come from you.”

“Uh…what?”

I went on to explain that I was pretty sure that Dad gave me a little Swiss Army knife at some point when I was a kid. Probably a gift as a teenager. I seem to remember that and recall him making a bit of a big deal out of it at the time. Dad wasn’t macho. He was an ex-academic who worked in retail. He came from a generation of men who were moderately handy at a minimum, however, and he knew how to do stuff. He changed the oil and tuned up the fleet of old cars we owned himself — and taught me how to do it, too. Didn’t matter that I was his daughter. He was a feminist who believed that any child of his needed to be capable. From a very young age, he would pull a Black Label beer out of the fridge for the two of us to share and sit me down next to him out on the sidewalk to watch him as he tinkered and fixed. He’d spread out newspaper on the floor every Sunday night and commence the weekly ritual of shining his shoes for the week.  I used to love to watch him work on the leather and set the polish with his lighter. I enjoyed bearing witness to how he performed a similar regular cleaning on his pipe collection. And, of course, I’d sit at his knee and watch him work his pocket knife rhythmically over a whetstone to sharpen it every month or so. Dad had all the accouterments of manhood, and he took care of them. So, it came as no surprise that he eventually gave me a knife of my own and tried to teach me to do the same. Being a snot-nosed punk teenager on the post-divorce outs with him and his alcoholism at the time, however, I paid no heed. I have no clue what eventually happened to the knife. Looking back now, I realize that I probably really hurt his feelings spurning his gift and showing no interest in what he tried to share with me. It hurts to think about it.

And that’s probably why I thought of wanting a pocket knife now. And why I thought it needed to come from my brother. Because “the man buys the knives” or some such bullshit. A pocket knife isn’t a very girlie thing for a woman to want. Then again, I’m not a girlie girl. Nonetheless, some strange gender script I had in my head kicked in and made me pick up the phone and make that request of my brother. That’s not how our family — our matriarchy, ironically enough — works. Granted, my brother’s an outdoorsy guy and so would be able to help me pick out something — it’s not as though the request was totally without merit. That’s not why I asked him, though. To be honest, it was all about asking him to be the “man of the family” for me. To ask my little brother to somehow step in and fill the father or, at the very least, big brother, role for me that I never needed filled before. While I was Daddy’s girl, I was never anyone’s princess. No shrinking violet, I. I’m a tough broad. I’m supremely capable — so much so that people tell me it’s intimidating. I can take care of myself, and I expect other women to be able to do the same.

Something has changed since Dad’s accident and death, though. Keeping everything together, holding back the Devil and his ever-rising tide of constant disaster night and day for a year just took it all out of me. I used it all up, burned through the reserve tanks. I don’t want to have to do everything myself anymore. I am ok with letting go and letting others handle things for me. I am especially ok with letting my brother step in and shoulder some of the load — he was my partner in all things he could be during The Crisis, and he did it all beautifully. I couldn’t have asked for a better sibling and other half. We were one well-oiled machine. A force to be reckoned with. Being a small family means that you need to band together to take care of business, and boy, did we ever. One of us was on research while the other beat the streets at the hospital with Dad or talking to bankers or lawyers or doctors. We took shifts. Took turns playing good cop to the other’s bad cop. He was the Mulder to my Scully. The ever-logical Spock to my emotional, take-charge Kirk. Everyone knew there was more than one of us to reckon with, and they took our unified front seriously. It helped. We were a traveling roadshow of awesome. At the end of each day we’d collapse on the couch together — out came the laptops as we put our heads together to process what medical and legal information we’d collected and map out a plan of attack for the next day. I’d fall asleep on his shoulder, and he’d put me to bed. Then, he’d get my poor, deflated corpse off the mattress to do it all again the next morning. Propped me upright and pushed me out the door for more. Kept me from curling up in a ball and just staying there. Leagally speaking, I was the one who had to do all the heavy lifting, make all the big calls, but I couldn’t have done it without him. I was, for all intents and purposes, completely out of my mind. We’re talking stark raving mad and screaming inside my head. Just going on adrenaline and automatic and a lot of Diet Coke. It was a pretty impressive pretense that I don’t think even he saw through, despite being up close and personal with it like no one else. I put on a good show. I would have gone under completely and ended up in an irretrievably dark and broken place without his help, even if it was just to be the body in the seat next to me, someone to pick me up from the airport in the in the middle of the rainy night, someone to make sure I ate breakfast, someone to drive me around so that my tired, distracted, and overwhelmed brain didn’t cause another tragic accident, someone to eat shitty, cold pizza and chicken fingers with in the hospital cafeteria at 1am, someone to keep me laughing so I didn’t go completely and forever batshit insane. He knew his job and he did well without me having to ask for anything. He was just there. Doing it.

As we’ve both aged into our 30s, the seven-year age difference has dropped away, and it’s now blissfully impossible to tell who is the older sibling. Two heads are better than one, and I am more than happy to let him take the lead and be the capable one and put his skills and life experience to good use. To let him take care of me from time to time. He does it so skillfully, and releasing control to him makes me a happier and better person and sister. It’s been healthier for both of us. Having me be the boss all the time sucked and did nothing but breed resentment on both sides. I stepped aside and made some room for him, and he stepped right on up. He seems to suddenly know my needs intuitively and how and when to be by my side and bridge the gap. He also needs no help when it comes to gift giving. He never fails to knock it out of the park when buying presents for me, and he needs no suggestions. Some of my most prized possessions are gifts from him, from my heart rate monitor to the beautiful gold earrings he gave me for standing up with him at his wedding. I wear them every day. If the house burned down, those would be the one inanimate thing I would grab on the way out the door. He amazes me. He’s not only a fantastic brother, but I can confidently say that he has grown to become The Best Man I Know. I breathe easier knowing that he’s my kin and looking out for me.

It is this confidence in my brother that made me want to ask him to play this bizarre masculine role and let me somehow be…helpless? Feminine? Is that even the right word? Why is a knife a masculine thing? Is it because it’s a tool? Is it the potential violence of the blade? Is it that women aren’t supposed to be sharp or have sharp things? In any case I suddenly developed this bizarre gendered double standard and called the male in our family to ask him to be all head of the household for me and channel his inner hunter/gatherer and buy me a knife — a gift that also goes against my superstitious nature. You don’t give a knife or a pair of scissors or anything with an edge to a loved one, lest its sharp blade sever the bonds between you. If you do receive something like that as a gift, you give the giver a penny, so it’s not totally a gift. Money exchanging hands diffuses the edge. I’ve always done this with my brother when he’s bought me good quality cutlery in the past. He knows his kitchen knives, so I let him get them for me.

In any case, I hung up the phone thinking, “Well, good, that takes care of that,” with one side of my mind and a feeling of having sold out, being a fraud with the other. A voice in my head nagged at me for days after, telling me that I was a fake. A big, fat hypocrite. That I had no business teaching and writing about feminism when I would call up my brother to ask him to buy me a knife. You’re a big girl. Buy your own goddamn knife! the voice told me. Eventually, I put it out of my mind. I even had to laugh at myself a little when I remembered the way my ex and I used to stay up late drinking and watching “The Knife Show” on the shopping network wondering who cared enough about knives to buy all that stupid shit. Who was I that I was suddenly one of those losers?

Last week I was away at an academic conference where I presented my first paper as a Ph.D. student. My work was very well received, and I even won a little award for it, which both shocked me and made me proud. It was so nice to get a plethora of encouragement and feedback from so many people in varied fields. In the end, the whole week read like a coming out party of sorts for me, and I felt empowered and encouraged by the experience. I felt really capable — almost like my old self — again for the first time since Dad’s car left the road flipped over nine times in that scarred, muddy field and came to rest a twisted wreck in a ditch on that cold January day two years ago. I ended that week finally feeling back in control of something again. And that’s who I was when I strolled into the little shop selling local handmade Native American arts and crafts on a side street in Old Town Albuquerque a week ago. That’s who I was when I saw it sitting in the glass case waiting for me.

It had a three-inch folding blade with a handle inlaid in turquoise and jasper, so it’s mostly light blue with tiles of gold and flecks of red. It fits in my hand perfectly. I haggled the price and even got the proprietor to agree to ship it to my home address because I couldn’t fly with it in my carry on bag. He was more than happy to oblige, although I think he was baffled as to why a woman was so excited about a knife. I started to explain the personal symbolic importance of the purchase — that I was buying my own knife rather than deferring to a man to do it for me, that I was being true to myself despite my recent and inexplicable lapse of reason — but I looked at his face and decided to just default to, “I’ve been looking for one of these.” He seemed happy enough with that.

And so, my knife came in the mail today. She was wrapped in a big wad of bubble wrap in a padded envelope, and she arrived in pristine condition. I love her. I’m calling her Jasper. Yes, I know that’s a man’s name. I’ll name my knife whatever I want. We’re breaking down gender barriers here, so it seems in keeping. And my brother can still buy me a knife, if he wants, but what is undeniable and unchangeable now is that I manned up and bought my own blade in the end. Just like the old me — the strong and capable and real me that’s still at the core — would have done. I feel good about that. I feel more honest with myself. And I have more respect for myself now, too. Funny what a $50 knife can do, huh?

Maybe I’m insane. I don’t know. All I know is that this mattered to me, and I came home with something significant that celebrates more than one personal victory for me. Jasper was my perfect prize in more ways than one, and I smile and feel proud every time I look at my little tool. My weapon. My shiny new toy. She’s beautiful, and I think she’s an appropriate talisman to remind me that I’m sharp and to stay sharp. I am a blade I can wield all on my own. Now, all I need is a whetstone.

i hate people when they’re not polite

This is what the state of our union should look like.

A study in contrasts, or why the Susan G. Komen Foundation can go screw itself, and why I will be working to re-elect President Obama this fall. 

Talking to my sister-in-law last night, she mentioned that Facebook is too much for her right now. “It’s all breast cancer and Planned Parenthood.” She’s right. You open your news feed right now, and it’s a wall of pink and rage over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to pull its grant funding for breast cancer screening from Planned Parenthood. People are mad, and rightly so. It’s intense. It’s emotional. It’s good to see people wake the hell up and care about something.

I have to admit, I’ve had a personal issue with the whole Komen Foundation brand for a while now. The pink thing has always bugged me. It’s just so girlie and patronizing. I hate how it genders. I hate that it serves as a “brand” for females as a whole when people are not products. It doesn’t speak for me. I’ve never been a pink girl (although, most of my sporting equipment is lavender, for some non-premeditated reason). I’ve never really wanted to be around girls who were. If I were suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer, I wouldn’t want to have to regress to wearing that color as my mandatory badge of honor. I have to agree with author Barbara Ehrenreich that the whole pink ribbon marketing that the Komen Foundation has injected into the battle against breast cancer not only sets back feminism as it infantalizes women as a whole, but it is especially damaging those who are in greatest need of strength as they fight the fight of (and for) their lives. Why make women into girls at the point in time when they’re facing their mortality and losing a part of their body that defines their mature femininity? It never does ring true with me, and it doesn’t rob the cancer boogey man of its malignancy no matter how rosy a shade they give it

The whole Komen Foundation is just too glossy, too slick, too corporate for my taste, too. I shouldn’t be surprised that they were in the pockets of politicians, especially given that their founder, Nancy Brinker, served in George W. Bush’s administration. I never really saw the work they did or any tangible gains being made. Breast cancer and those it strikes aren’t a commodity to be sold, and yet they’ve been selling them for decades now. I think the women who actually battle, survive, and yes, die from breast cancer get lost in the message like the trees for the forest no matter what kind of show the Foundation makes of trotting out pink-clad survivors to do their little turn on the runway and wave their little hats in front of the crowd at the start of every Race for the Cure (a trademarked term, by the way) or at the occasional NFL halftime during the month of October.

This is difficult for me to say given that I actually lost an old and dear childhood friend to breast cancer late last year. I grew up with Ronda Martz Lopretto. We went to junior high and high school together. We both worked at the local movie theater our senior year. I still see her face on the ticket girl every time I approach a box office. I liked her immensely. She was a sweet and bright and kind and funny and gentle and beautiful soul with big blue-grey eyes and a voluminous head of gorgeous hair. Her smile lit up the room. She was a loving and loved wife and mother. She was my age when she died and spent her 30s battling breast cancer only to lose the fight before she turned 40. I miss her, and I’m devastated to know that she no longer walks this planet with me. It’s cruel and unfair and bullshit. She should be here still. Her friends poured out their grief by gathering together to honor her memory and strike a blow against her killer at the Race for the Cure last fall. They formed a team and raised money and ran and walked to forget the pain of the sister they had lost just weeks before. It gave them something to do to make them feel like they made a difference, an annual ritual that made breast cancer’s victims and their loved ones feel like they could take action against an invisible foe. That ritual was designed to take away the victim stigma. When the Komen Foundation politicized the fight against breast cancer this week by attacking Planned Parenthood, an organization that should be their close ally in the cause for women’s health, they robbed women like Ronda’s friends of something to believe in and an constructive outlet for their grief. They betrayed and victimized and dis-empowered and diminished women everywhere. They insulted and abandoned us, and we don’t like being made to feel like dupes or second class, baby-making, abortion-having citizens. They did a disservice to the memory of the woman for which the foundation is named. Poor Susan G. Komen. She doesn’t deserve to have her name maligned so. Her sister should be ashamed of herself.

Mostly, though, they woke a sleeping giant. Instead of feeling victimized and disenfranchised by the Komen Foundation’s baffling move, they took up arms in social media and the traditional press to make their enraged voices heard, and the Foundation listened — too little, too late. Bye bye now. It’s a public relations disaster that any moron could have predicted for them. And can I just say that Nancy Brinker’s face freaks me out? Seriously. Eat something, woman. You look like the Crypt Keeper. Really, though, my own personal pettiness is neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is that the Komen Foundation helped to remind women and the men behind them of their mass influence this week. Taking away an outlet to strike out against cancer means that the hate and anger is now redirected and focused on the Komen Foundation with laser precision. Power to the people has meant the end of the Race for the Cure and the pink hats and t-shirts and water bottles and all the branding that hasn’t done a damn thing to cure breast cancer over the past 20 years. The Komen Foundation has met its match, and it’s called Facebook. Welcome to the 21st century, bitches. Lesson the first: Don’t fuck with your fan base. They are the hand that feeds you.

As an aside, I would like to mention that I myself have been a benefactor of Planned Parenthood’s services, and no, they’re not my abortion provider. When I was working on my first graduate degree back in the early 1990s, I did not have insurance, and the campus health center did not provide annual well woman exams, STD testing, or birth control. Planned Parenthood to the rescue. Thank you, PP. I still support you financially to this day because of it, because I want the frank, respectful services you provide to women that say you believe we have brains in our heads and the ability to think and advocate for ourselves to be there for other women who need you. I also want you to be there for me, should I need breast cancer screening in the future. Women need options. I am heartened to see that Komen’s loss has parlayed into Planned Parenthood’s gain in spades. Good on you, America.

This week’s development around this issue has been fast and furious and couched in the larger issue of increasing animosity and disregard for our fellow man in this country. Those in power seem to have nothing but the deepest disdain for those weaker and more in need of help than they, to say nothing of the general vitriol that characterizes the campaign for the GOP nomination in this election cycle and their sickening displays of nastiness and hate that we have been calling as “debates” but come across as more of a an attempt to replicate a WWE Smackdown match. The debates are really nothing more than a rhetorical pillow fight among a confederacy of dunces. No battle of wits there.  I will admit to rubbernecking more than one multi-car pile-up with casualties in my time, though, so I know more about the debates than I wish I did. Every glimpse I get of them robs me of a little piece of my soul I’ll never get back. This pitiful display has offered up a political counterpart to Komen’s snafu this week by sacrificing Republican front-runner Mitt Romney on the altar of current affairs with his statement that he doesn’t care about the very poor in our country. Like Komen, he tried to retract and backpedal on this statement, but the horse has already left the barn. We all now know he’s a bootstrapping asshole (well, we already knew that) who sees no value in our nation’s “have nots.” Being poor or a woman or in need of any help at all from something like Planned Parenthood in this country makes you less than human in the eyes of the power elites. Worse yet, they’re ok with saying so. Being a hegemonic jerk is in vogue. They think there will be no repercussions. No comeuppance for them from the great unwashed. It’s somehow acceptable and politically chic to be a hater. It’s ok to be dismissive and rude to your fellow American. What the hell is that all about?

And this is why I have the now-famous photo of President Obama embracing Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at last month’s State of the Union Address at the top of this blog post. Not only is Giffords a hero — an example of a strong woman who battled adversity to keep her life and thrive despite daunting odds and an icon of the survivor myth that the Komen Foundation has been selling us (note: she’s not in pink) — but she’s a symbol of class, courage, and quiet strength in the face of insanity and hatred in this country. She is a pillar of forgiveness who has put her ego aside to serve her state and her nation. She’s what we should all emulate. And she’s a woman. A powerful woman. She and the leader of the free world are locked in a tender, loving, honest, and touchingly poignant embrace in that picture. They are both so strong and vulnerable — and strong in their vulnerability — in that photograph. He obviously loves and cares about her and is glad that she is alive and well for him to put his arms around. She is happy to be held and so melts into his arms and goes so far as to relax and rest her head on his shoulder like a child. Time stops around them in this intimate moment between two people who seem to have no regard for the fact that they’re in a room full of people that the whole world is watching. The President has important business to attend to, but not so important that he cannot stop to properly greet and show affection toward his friend and fellow public servant. It is a moment that give earnest and unmistakable insight into their character.

The photograph captures a moment of love and compassion and civility and proper priorities that our national discourse is sorely lacking at the moment. Those are my values, and, to be honest, as silly as it sounds, it reminded me of why I voted for Obama in 2008 and why I will be voting for him this November. In that instant, he won my vote back. Call me emotional, but that’s all it took. Actions speak louder than words; rhetoric and politics be damned. That little moment, that pause in the crowd reminded me that our President is an advocate for social justice and human who really and truly gives a damn about his fellow man and our condition as a whole. The least among us is his brother. He treats us with respect, including women. We need more of that. I need more of that. He might not be Superman or the Second Coming, but he’s kryptonite for hate and greed and selfishness, and how can I not choose that? I don’t recall much of the speech he made that night, but his embrace of Giffords, and hers of him, was a political watershed moment for me. I will continue to believe in and choose a love and hope that says “yes” to humanity and the social condition, and I hope as many Americans as possible will wake up and choose it with me. We might not solve all of our problems that way, but, like we did this week, we can send the message that the growing culture of meanness and intolerance in the country will not be tolerated.

the boys are back in town

Another interesting class with our undergrads today. They continue to awe and amaze me. I am endlessly impressed with them — and not just because they don’t expect the PowerPoint presentations to be posted online and to have everything else handed to them. They’re students. They take notes — really good ones — and largely on what is being SAID, not just what’s on the screen. They’re engaged in everything going on in the room. The lecture. The notes and images projected overhead. The discussion between us and their classmates. They have clearly done the readings, and they come ready to talk. And talk, they do. They’re aware of the world around them, up on current events and pop culture moments. They grasp the theory and the concepts. They apply both with acuity and aplomb and sharp insight. They’re respectful and insightful and probing and funny. Very, very funny. This class is my favorite 150 minutes of my week without a doubt.

The really welcome surprise today was how the men in the class came alive all of a sudden. The class is mostly female, but the ten or so boys really brought their A game this afternoon. Not that it’s a battle of the sexes or anything, but I find that each gender often has unique perspectives and different ways of communicating as young adults, and I appreciate the balance. I am also always kind of doing my own internal observation of the power balance between the genders in the classroom. Taking my own little mental notes. It’s fascinating.

I was really glad to finally hear from them, since they’ve been a silent minority up until now. Suddenly, they were an intellectual bloc working in concert and driving a lively discussion. I cannot account for the change — we weren’t talking about anything that was gendered in anyway. Maybe political economy just spoke to them, but they just dominated the conversation, but in an inclusive way. They just had a lot to say on the topic and many questions to ask. Several of them are repeat students for the professor, and they clearly appreciate her. They take a lot of pride in being her groupies, and make a point to tell me that they are just that. The way they humble themselves before her endears them to me. They have so much respect for a woman who really does deserve and command it. They get it. We share that trait, so I immediately relate to them. They were not afraid to speak up, but they also didn’t shut out the women. There was no ego in the room; it was one of the most productive collaborative moments I have ever had in the classroom. They brought up interesting points about corporate consolidation, globalization, and passive vs. active audiences. I walked out of there with a smile on my face and my mind stretched. I love watching the clay take shape and fire into something good and useful. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to put them all in my pocket and take them home or give them all respek knuckles on the way out. The women didn’t disappoint, either. Everyone brought it. I’m proud of them all. I just love all of their open, incisive minds and their fresh, happy faces. I love to watch them listening, thinking. It’s inspiring. It’s a rush. It’s all so very Dead Poet’s Society that I’m going to make myself puke.

And I won’t lie. These boys are pretty darling. I have a soft spot in my heart for young men. Ew. No. Not like that. Get your mind out of the gutter. It’s maternal. From about age 7 through age 22 they’re just so awkward and vulnerable and innocent. I remember I even felt that way when I was that age and they were my contemporaries. They just seemed rawer and more fragile than the girls somehow. Like they needed nurturing and protecting for some reason. And like their sense of humor was particularly funny and poignant. I realize that this is ridiculous, sexist bullshit on my part, but there it is. I just want to pass out gold stars.

I think the funniest part might be that claiming the seat at my little table in the corner seems to have become a bone of contention. My regular “seatmate” showed up a little late today, and he found another male student sitting with me. The usurper was older and bigger — a blond, All-American type who is sort of the class clown, but in an intelligent, non-disruptive way. He constantly makes me laugh, and I think he gets a charge out of that. I’m not sure why he sat with me, since there were plenty of other seats open. When my regular buddy showed up and saw blondie sitting in his seat, he got upset and was all, “Hey man, that’s my seat.” Then, he looked at me to do something about it. I told them they’d have to settle it like men, but that there was no need to fight over me. There was plenty of desk to go around. They could just sit in each other’s laps. It ended with my regular friend taking a seat nearby but telling blondie that he wanted his seat back next week. I gave him a little wink, and he seemed to feel a bit better about it. I’m sure it has more to do with the real estate than the roommate, but still it was pretty cute and a little flattering. I have no idea why a couple of kids would care about sitting with some old broad over in the corner like a dunce, but they do. I think my “otherness” fascinates them. And blondie did have me steady cracking up the whole class with his side commentary and pop culture examples. I did miss my little friend, though. I felt bad looking at the back of his head the whole class. Either way, I win, I suppose. Could be worse, the kids could quarantine me alone in the dark back there and never acknowledge my presence until I step up and lecture.

Check it out. I’m in the cool kids club! I look forward to seeing them again on Tuesday.

(ETA: It should be noted that I think my favorite part of the class is where I announced to everyone that “I’m dropping my balls all over the place today.” That so didn’t come out right.)