the choice is yours

Me too, George. Me, too.

“You can get with this, or you can get with that.”

I started this blog post last night when I didn’t really have the time to write it. I was swamped with work, and I deeply wanted to get some decent sleep. I got my standard two hours instead.

I am too tired to work tonight. I am falling over. My brain shut down hours ago. My eyes are quickly following. I can’t not finish writing this, though. I have to get it out of my head and on the page. It caused me such a sudden and surprising anxiety attack last night that rose up in my chest out of nowhere. As suspected, the anxiety was unfounded, but the whole experience has been on my mind all day and demands documenting. I realize now that this reckoning has been a long time coming.

I also need a nightcap in order to write this, so hold on for a minute while I pour myself a small manhattan in a juice glass with what was left of the Jim Beam and a year-old bottle of stale sweet vermouth that had the cap glued on tight. Yes kids, liquor really can go bad if you never touch it. Not really my finest hour drink-wise, nor what I had in mind, but whatever. That’ll do, pig.

Now, I don’t have much time before this thing starts to work, so here it is:

During the winter break between semesters, a professor I had last fall contacted me and asked if I would be willing to do a guest lecture about public media in an undergraduate class she’s teaching this semester. I was honored to be asked and jumped at the chance to be back in the classroom. I was also excited by the prospect of introducing young minds to the joys of public radio and television. I pictured myself at the head of a room full of desks occupied by dewey-eyed 20-something converts who would find themselves rapt at the wisdom dropping from my lips and compelled to leave the miasma of commercial media and follow me into the light where Morning Edition and Downton Abbey await them.

As the date approached and I worked to put together my lecture and its attendant PowerPoint, my enthusiasm turned to something more sinister: guilt. Once, and quite recently, the love of my life, I found pubmedia had been left on a shelf in my mind for ages now. I hadn’t researched or lectured on it since 2008. I hadn’t really talked or thought about it seriously since I turned my back on it in favor of academe a year ago.  I was suddenly forced to dig back into my professional and personal past and resurrect a part of me that I had left out in the rain and allowed to rust. What had once been my constant companion, a major part of my own identity, was now a stranger to me. How could I teach what I couldn’t remember? What I no longer knew? Moreover, I suddenly had to confront the truth of the choice I had made.

Public broadcasting was my chosen career. I spent my 20s wandering through non-profits only to find my “true” calling into public radio and, to an extent, television, through disillusionment with my career, the milestone of turning 30, and the outpouring of emotion I and others of my generation felt at the death of Mr. Rogers. I realized that I really wanted what I did with my life to make an impact. That I wanted to work for an industry and organizations who did something about which I felt good and passionate. I wanted to have a hand in something that had touched me in an effort to return the favor and ensure the safekeeping of a community asset and national treasure. I walked away from a lucrative, but mindblowingly shitty, government-funded job to start over producing a local radio show. And I loved it.

I was a perfect and immediate fit with public radio. I went to work with a smile on my face every morning and still had it plastered on there when I came home late at night. I loved putting good programming I was proud of on the air. I loved being on the air myself. The best part of all is that I finally found the mentor I had been seeking in the incredible woman I had the good fortune to call my program director. She believed in me wholeheartedly, introduced me around as her new Bright Young Thing, and handed me challenge after challenge to tackle knowing I was up to the task. She fed my mind and soul, and with her at my back cheering me on, pushing me forward, I felt unstoppable. I WAS unstoppable.

My time in public broadcasting was one of the happiest times of my life. I felt good about my work, felt every day brought me something new and gave me new lessons, and I absolutely loved and adored the people I worked and volunteered with at various stations. They were my family. My big, dorky family where I could be comfortable being my big, dorky self. I spent every day at work laughing so hard that parts of my body hurt when I got home. We were all inspired by the chance to do something of value for our community. Even working at NPR on the national level, I still felt surrounded by people who cared a great deal about their work and gave it their all. I was intellectually and spiritually fed. I was home. It was heaven.

It even inspired me to return to school for a second gradate degree — this time in my new broadcasting field — so that I could work my way up the ladder to become part of the next generation of pubmedia leaders. I was going to run a station and change the world. I knew exactly who I was and what I wanted to be. I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of the end.

I went to school and wrote oodles of research papers about public radio audience analysis and management issues. I was on a singular mission, and everyone in the department knew it. Try as they might to interest me in staying on to do a Ph.D., I wasn’t biting. I was an industry girl, and I was doing that thesis, getting out, and returning to station life. And that’s exactly what I did. I even moved across the country and tried community radio. It wasn’t a fit. The passion was gone. The family was nonexistent. The economic downturn had dropped the scales from my eyes and made my job that much harder, made everything just a little less bright. I didn’t have my head and heart in it anymore, and nothing at my new station worked to change that. And so, I was already teetering on the brink when everything happened with Dad and the bottom dropped out of my life completely two years ago.

When the hammer fell, the first thing I did was leap from the precipice and out of my job. I had to unload some of the heavy baggage and fast if I was going to survive the big fall, and that seemed to be the crate easiest to push out of the cargo hold at the time. I figured I’d do my best to keep a hand in and pick up the pieces career-wise when the dust settled. All that matter at the time was that I figure out some strategy to make sure that I landed in as few pieces as possible myself. Can’t really do the sweeping when there’s nothing left of you to hold the broom. So, I cut the cord and didn’t really look back. And I’ve never regretted leaving that job. Never. Not for one minute. In fact, I celebrate it as one of the best and healthiest decisions I have ever made. It wasn’t public radio, and I was dying there. In that regard, Dad and everyone else I lost up until that point did me a huge favor. I didn’t so much jump as let them push me. It felt so good to just be able to let go and lose my damn mind for a while there.

When I began to wake up from the nightmarish liminal space that had become my life and my life a year ago, I, of course, started knocking on pubmedia’s door again. And they were receptive, but, man it was just not the same. I had turned in my keys and had to wait in line. And it wasn’t leaving the last job that did it. It was crossing the rubicon from public into community broadcasting. I had gone off the reservation. I wasn’t native anymore. I had been the walking undead in my industry for years without realizing it. No more handshakes or passwords. Outside looking in. I felt it immediately when interviewing, but it wasn’t just them. It was me. It was mostly me, in fact. I wasn’t sure I wanted back in. I talked the talk, smiled the smile, walked the walk, but I was a still a shell of myself. My heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t sure I was passionate or convinced anymore. I could speak the language, but I wasn’t in the life, and they knew it. I still cared, but I was changed. I was…elsewhere.

And the elsewhere was the mistress I was already courting. I had had my epiphany that I belonged in academics seven months before. It came like a bolt from the blue standing on a college campus with a fucking gyro and a Coke in my hand. No one was more surprised than I was. The momentum from that point was lighting fast. The gravitational pull back to school was bonecrushing. I was shocked. I wasn’t going to do this. Was never, ever doing the Ph.D. You hear me? Never. Fucking. Doing. That. Shit. That was for masochists. Insane people. Societal dropouts. Hell no. Not me. I talked to friends who were doing their degrees. Who had finished their degrees. To former professors. They all chuckled at me knowingly and said, “Yes, we’ve known this for a while. We’ve always known you would do this. Congratulations on finally seeing what was right in front of you. What we all saw all along. Welcome to the Dark Side.” I felt like a heel. Felt like destiny’s plaything. Resented it a little. I’m all about the free will thinking I can do whatever I want and be whatever I want. But, they were right, I had been ignoring the voice telling me that I belonged in a college classroom that had been screaming in my head since I was a teenager. And by the time I was turning in resumes for station jobs the following spring, I had long-since sent in my application to the Ph.D. program. I was just playing the waiting game.

I started getting calls for the jobs the same time the acceptance email came from school. I had a week to get it together and decide. Things looked bad for pubmedia at the time — not just with me, but politically. Congress was battling over funding. The future of my chosen profession was in serious doubt. Part of me wanted to say yes to the work again and go charging in with guns blazing. I was so used to fighting everything that it seemed easy to just keep doing more of it. I was good at it. It was all I knew. It would be easy. More of the same. Only it wouldn’t be. I was in tatters. The battle scars of the past year just were not healing, and I had no gas left in the tank. Age and loss had changed me. Whipped a good deal of the fight out of me. It was just too hard, and I really didn’t want to do it anymore. I started to think in terms of long-term job prospects and career security, and retirement. One option yawned with opportunity and growth and satisfaction, the other asked me to squeeze back into a tight space and let everything be a challenge with no promise of anything. It was as though someone had pulled up one of those big highway signs with a blinking arrow up right in front of me pointing in the clear direction. I’ll admit it. I punked out. I cried about it for a week. Told myself it was about nostalgia and regret and lost love and a bunch of other bullshit like that that it wasn’t about at all, and then I dried my eyes and cut and run right back to school without so much as a fleeting glance over my shoulder at what was getting smaller by the moment in my rearview.

Now, here I am putting together lectures and lessons on something that I used to eat, breathe, and sleep, and it’s like it never happened to me. I could not feel more divorced. I realize that that is not really the case. I’ve consciously constructed a wall inside, and the cracks in it are what let the anxiety through. It’s where I feel that twinge of guilt. It’s that nagging little voice in my chest that says, “You fickle little bitch. You’re a fraud. School feels like it’s so perfect, eh? You’re made for it, right? Well, that other thing felt like such a great fit, too, didn’t it? Remember that? Which is it, then? How do you know? Or are you just convincing yourself to love the one you’re with?”

Am I a dilettante? A career slut?  A master rationalizer? A traitor who didn’t want to dance with the one what brought her?

Possibly.

Probably not.

Truth is, I’m most likely a good person with several talents and her heart in a lot of “right” places. I won’t beat myself up about that part. The voice can try, but that isn’t what bugs me. It’s the detachment. The fact that there might not be a wall at all. The numbness might be actual and real. Maybe I cut it out of me along with a lot of other stuff that had to go, and only an empty space is left now. After all, I watched the industry I love chew up and spit out a lot of people I loved, too. And I had to stand by helpless. I don’t like that feeling. I don’t want to watch it happen to those I care about or to watch it happen to me. I’ve had enough to be sad about it. I just didn’t want to be sad anymore. Still don’t. And I’m not. I’m a lot of things, but I’m not sad, and a big part of that is because I made the right choice. I am a consummate survivor with the singular gift of re-invention, and those are good things. I know who I am, and I won’t apologize for her. I won’t feel bad about doing what it takes to get by and thrive. I am doing something I am really good at, and it’s something that empowers me and gives me a voice. I do find it telling, however, that I’ve completely changed my research focus so that it doesn’t involve pubmedia at all anymore. Ok, so I lied. I am a little sad about that.

I still love pubmedia with all my heart. I look back on it like one does on a good marriage that ended in an amicable divorce. We’ll have lunch from time to time to swap stories about the kids and always speak fondly of one another, but I think we both know it’s over.

There. I said it. That was really hard to admit.

The lecture went beautifully. Felt good to be in front of a class talking about a former lover I was once lucky enough to take for a brief spin around the floor. I dipped into something deep down in me and drew from the well, and my audience had no idea what was happening right in front of them. I played the role to perfection. Most of the students just sat there dutifully taking bored-looking notes, and the 75 minutes zoomed by. I did have one kid come up to me after and ask for my card. He wants me to help him work on getting a job in public radio. “Gladly,” I told him with a big grin on my face. As I handed over my card to him, our fingers brushed briefly. And I swore I felt a spark.

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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.)

she’s a very freaky girl

A tale wherein the students have become the teachers…or at least my teachers.

Words cannot describe how good it feels to be back in the classroom. Everything about this semester is clicking along like a well-oiled machine and has me walking on a cloud because I’m so happy and in love with my research and everything else I’m doing, but teaching again is by far the best part. I honest to God stroll around with this smitten look and stupid smile plastered on my face like I’ve got some kind of crazy schoolgirl crush going on because it just feels so damn euphoric to be doing what I am meant to do. It’s true what they say — if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life (even though I’m working my ass off here). And the difference clearly shows. I have friends and even strangers commenting left and right that I glow. My hair, my skin, my clothes, my everything apparently looks better. I’ve been asked if I’m in love or pregnant more than once this week alone.

I am serving as a TA in preparation to take on my own courses as a GPTI next semester. It was my adviser’s idea to fight for me to be placed under her supervision so that I didn’t have to start at zero doing recitations for the 1001 class. I appreciate that she recognizes my level of experience and doesn’t want to see me set back and bored when I’ve taught lecture classes of 250+ students at a one of the largest research universities in the country in the past. She wants to make use of my talents and hone them. I am anxious to be fully at the reins again, and she made it clear in our meeting today that she’s going to get me back there as quickly as possible. I’m taking over writing the quizzes and tests for the class and will start doing a good bulk of the lecturing, too. I can tell that she’d hand it all over to me, if she could. She has such tremendous faith in me and is as eager to mentor me as I am to learn. She has much to teach me. We’re an amazing team, and our already-good relationship has rocketed to a new level in the past week. She’s caring, supportive, challenging, and a good boss and friend. She trusts me, and she gives a damn. Her tutelage combined with that from past mentors and my basic God-given gifts of instruction will make me freaking unstoppable by the time I’m doing interviews. It’s perfect. I’m high on it.

The best part is our students. We have a class of 40 upperclassmen. Some have taken classes with my adviser before. She has groupies, and with good reason. I’m one myself. She knows how to structure a good course, and she’s amazing in front of the classroom. The room is an odd, open, long meeting hall in a building that’s used for advising more than classes, and everyone sits at a long rectangle cobbled together from several tables that takes up the entire room. The class is overbooked, and there are more students than the room can actually hold, so there are a few kids sitting in corners and in chairs along the walls. They don’t care, they just want to be in the class. It’s kind of sweet, actually, and it should have tipped me off to their level of enthusiasm about and involvement with the content of the course.

Thursday was my first chance to really see the students in action as part of a discussion. Prior to this point, we had just had class business and lecture. This afternoon we really got down to business, though, and wow. Goddamn. I was impressed.

While there was certainly a minority that sat there slack-jawed like deer in the headlights because they either hadn’t done the reading on the sexualization of popular culture or because their minds were blown and groins made uneasy by the explicit music videos we were all sitting in the dark watching together. Their chairs were pretty close together, so it’s not like they had much in the way of personal space as we watched Madonna play the dominatrix, Nelly slide a credit card down the crack of a stripper’s g-stringed ass, or Katie Perry clumsily ape and fumble her way through the cartoonish and wide-eyed part-time bisexual slut role in her offering. I felt particularly bad for the poor sophomore guy who had to share a little table in the corner with me. My proximity clearly made him a little uncomfortable, and he had a hard time sitting still. Nonetheless, he was nice about it, and I tried to give him a little room to shift around in his seat.

The majority of the class was right there with it, though, sitting on the edge of their seats, soaking it all in, keeping pace intellectually and applying what they’d read in the week’s assignments and elsewhere to the text and subtext of what we put before them. Practically salivating at the thought of self-expression, they could barely wait for each video to finish before they jumped right in with their sharp analysis. They weren’t very nice to Katy Perry when they did it, either. As much as I’m not a fan, I almost felt sorry for her as I listened to these 19 and 20 year-olds rip her performance and general pop persona to shreds. I won’t lie, though. Inwardly, I was fist pumping with satisfaction in the knowledge that these kids had two brain cells to rub together hard enough to create enough friction to generate some real heat. It was a truly lovely surprise coming off of my experience in the graduate version of this course last semester with a cadre of master’s students whose heads projected ocean sounds to those standing too close to them on a mildly breezy day. They led me to wrongly underestimate the undergraduates.

The best part were the young women in the room. They easily outnumbered the guys 4 or 5 to 1. Add two female instructors to the mix, and you’ve got a regular estrogen brigade on your hands. While there are certainly some girls who looked overwhelmed by the subject matter, the vast majority of them attacked the discussion with gusto and slid right into the driver’s seat of the class. They came prepared, not only from the assigned class readings, but from their accumulated knowledge from their other courses and just general keen life observation. It was inspiring. They were bold and fearless with their academic analysis of the videos we watched, but even moreso, their grasp of sexuality and sexual politics was really sophisticated for their age. Some of the men were right in there with them and had astute and clever things to say, but the majority of them appeared to be more intimidated and out of their depth than the women and needed to have a picture drawn for them on concepts like BDSM and dominatrices. Sexual experience and exploration were clearly in their futures more than their pasts. The women, on the other hand, were right there to do the explaining.  They also had amazing contributions to offer on strippers’ agency, straight female performances of bisexuality and homoeroticism, and the historical context of sexual controversy in the media its resultant censorship.

The part that really blew my mind and schooled me was the students’ (both male and female) feminist approach to the discussion. They were unafraid and unembarrassed to have frank discussions of sexuality, and the women were not shy about sharing what they knew on the topic — even when it came to concepts that might be considered perverse, non-heteronormative, and not appropriate for public discussion. They weren’t scared to be “freaky.” They are so firmly ensconced in third wave feminism and its constant insistence that all things are relative, that the battle is to be fought where you find it, and that compromise is an acceptable option. They do not see the world as a place where they are oppressed at all or that they should be personally offended by anything. The term “sex positive” was used over and over again as a measure of the media, particularly with relation to women’s agency in the examples we watched. Their take on everything was so firmly in contrast to my own second wave- and postfeminst-influenced ideals, that it really made me sit up and take notice. They were able to justify and rationalize and find upsides to things I couldn’t and didn’t see before.

I cannot say I agreed with everything they said, but I cannot say they did not make me think. The third wave feminist is a force to be reckoned with and a puzzle to be solved for the Gen Xer. My eyes are opened, and now I see things I’ve seen a million times in a new light. I am humbled and view my students with a new depth of respect, too. I couldn’t help but think, “Right on, sister” more than once as they contributed to the conversation. This is not only helpful for my research on the intersection of generational identity and the media, but also will improve my skills as a teacher by reinvigorating and challenging my approach to pedagogy with this group and others to come. I have work to do when it comes to negotiating the waters of the third wave and reckoning with the brave women it. They will push my envelope with their openness and unabashed willingness to share…everything. There is a gap to bridge, and I can see I will learn a lot from my students this semester. For that, I am already grateful.