circling the drain

He laughed under his breath because you thought that you could outrun sorrow
take your own advice
cause thunder and lightning gets you rain
run an airtight mission, a Cousteau expedition
find a diamond at the bottom of the drain.

When I was about six years old, my family went to Chicago to visit my grandmother and great aunts during our summer vacation. While there, we took a trip to the Museum of Science and Industry where I saw the celestial mechanics machine — a low cabinet with nine steel balls of varying size and weights that spit out of the top and spun around and around a smooth, white plastic vortex into the hole at the bottom and then spit back out to spin around and around and do it all over again and again as a representation of the planets of our solar system in their respective orbits.

“Why don’t they knock into each other?” I asked my mother.

“Because they represent the planets. If the balls bump into each other, the planets bump into each other,” she replied.

I was horrified. I was convinced that the fate of the universe hung in the balance in that museum display. I stood there hovering over it for ages, afraid to blink or look away for fear I might miss the coming apocalypse. Sure that Jupiter had it in for Mars or that Saturn would lose control and careen wildly into the Earth and end us all right there on a carpeted corner of that museum on Lake Michigan.  Convinced that by watching the pot, it would never boil. That the simple power of my very gaze would fend off disaster if I could just stay there and watch forever. Of course, I was eventually pulled away from the display to go look at an old steam locomotive and tour the replica of a coal mine where my wise-cracking uncle made my mother laugh so hard she wet her pants, much to my father’s chagrin.

I didn’t forget that vortex, though. Didn’t forget the way gravity sucked everything downward into nothingness only to spit it all back out again to run the constant race back into the gaping maw of sure destruction at the bottom or how it left each piece to spin and whir while evading the others — avoiding contact that meant sure destruction. The idea was to know your place and keep it. Stay close but just far enough for self-preservation. To understand how your little steel ball affected the gravity of all other others around it as you tumbled into the void. To know that if your little ball was destroyed or knocked from the playing field, all the other pieces would lose their way. Their orbits would degrade, and they would eventually crash and burn and come apart as well. For me, the celestial mechanics machine has always been a metaphor for and a lesson in life, one learned at an early age and never far from my mind.

I’m forced to think about the celestial mechanics machine a lot lately as my Mom has gotten sicker. The long and the short of it is that her condition is terminal without serious intervention and soon. She developed atrial fibrillation back in 2004 and had an ablation done to treat it in 2005. It started back up in May, and she’s been on a lightning fast decline ever since. She was hospitalized in July, and brother and I went out to be with her. They have tried cardioverting her back into a normal sinus rhythm, but it won’t stick. She had a cardiac catheter two weeks ago that found that she is in full, systemic, and advanced heart failure with pulmonary hypertension. Both of her valves are shot, there’s fluid in her heart, and both atria are hardened and enlarged from the a-fib.

The most sickening part is that she got this horrible news alone. Neither brother nor I were there to help or support her because she didn’t tell us she was having the procedure done until it was too late for either of us to get out there. Part of her was in denial, and part of her was trying to protect us. And all of her was being stubborn. As frustrated as I am, I understand, though. Having us there just makes it too real. Either way, though, it only made things worse, because it meant we weren’t there to ask questions, get them answered, and head off the resulting delay in treatment at a time when every day counts. Over the past two weeks, she’s gotten much, much worse. She’s had to stop working. She can’t do anything. Her resting heart rate has been around 150 bpm and her blood pressure is through the roof. No meds seem to get a lasting handle on it. My brother flew out last Tuesday and is still with her. Together, we bulled her cardiology practice to put her back with her old doctor and then bulled him into seeing her on Thursday. He spent three hours with her and scheduled an esophageal echo-cadiogram yesterday morning. The echo found that she’s declined even further — flirting with the point of no return — in the past two weeks and that her atria are even more enlarged than previously thought. She’s in really bad shape. They admitted her immediately, and she’ll be in the hospital indefinitely. I’m flying out this weekend to relieve my brother so he can get back to Utah and start classes on Tuesday. I will be missing my first week of class to be with Mom. I might have to take the semester off if this gets much worse, but I don’t care. My family is my everything, and my Mom is the center of that universe. I love her, and I’m happy to be with her. I might not be able to do much more than sit next to her bed and read journal articles while she sleeps and play cards and work crossword puzzles together to keep her company while we wait to talk to doctors, but that’s what I’m going to do.

I am trying to be positive, and we’re fighting to get her the best care possible. She’s fighting now, too. And to say my brother has been anything short of amazing would be completely inaccurate. He’s blown me away with the way he’s taken charge of the situation. I’m endlessly grateful to him for picking up all the balls and running with them when I couldn’t. We don’t accept that a terminal condition means the end. Mom is still very much herself. Scared and sad, but herself. She’s up and talking and laughing and completely with it. She’s as mobile as she can be, although, being in the hospital inhibits that. And she’s finally getting the care she needs. She’s being monitored. She’s medicated. She’s got trained emergency staff right outside her door. She’s in good hands. They’re looking for answers, and I’m hoping we’re going to find them. I have to believe that my mother is going to get better. I can’t afford to lose another parent right now. I can’t see another ball bounced off the vortex only to not return again at the top of the chute. I’m fresh out of armageddons. She won’t run marathons, but just like I wanted to use my mind to control those steel balls and save the universe, I believe that I can will my mother into recovery. Of course, logic tells me that my powers are limited, but really — fuck logic.

That said, I have little tolerance for any bullshit at all right now. I am just impatient with anything I find to be a petty concern. If it’s not life and death, I can’t be assed to care. It makes me a terrible person, a bad friend, and overall not very good company. And so, my current hermitage. Dealing with Mom’s situation takes all of my energy. I couldn’t be less enthused about this coming semester. I can’t focus, and my heart’s not in anything. I’m tired and distracted all the time. I’m exhausted but can’t sleep. I fall asleep for a few hours and wake up ready to fight. Everything I eat just comes right back up. I am bracing for what might the inevitable impact, and the cumulative effect of the real possibility of losing Mom on top of losing Dad is just building up and taking its toll. I feel like I’ve hit the surface and gone limp as I sink to the bottom like a stone. Like all the neighboring balls are crashing into me. Like the ones who kept me in orbit — the ones with the gravity upon which I relied — have been scattered and lost and soon I will be, too. There’s nothing to hold me in place anymore. I’m degrading.

When I do get it together enough to be slightly social in person or online right now, it, quite honestly, is an act. I force myself to do it. Force myself to smile. Force myself to do a performance of myself. It takes every ounce of energy I have to communicate and connect. I’ve given up the phone, for the most part. Emails are getting harder and harder for me. I definitely don’t want to talk. I read a story last week where one of the main characters had his vocal cords severed. In the plot, it was supposed to be a punishment — an instrument of horror. For me, it sounded like the most beautiful gift in the world. I am obsessed with the idea. I crave it, really. To have my voice taken for me so I no longer have the onus to use it. So that no one would expect me to speak up. To say anything. To respond. To have any answers. To make insufferable small talk. To be a person. I could just sit mute and stare at my hands and contribute nothing. Be led around and just fade into the background and conserve my energy. No voice means no power. Means not making any sounds, and that appeals to me, because right now

I WANT TO SCREAM ALL THE GODDAMN TIME.

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turn the page

I have a friend who likes to say “good writing disturbs.” I happen to agree with her. As to whom it should disturb — the author or the reader…or both — is up for debate, but good writing shouldn’t pull any punches.

Now, as a Ph.D. student, I read a lot. I mean a LOT a lot. So much so that you’d think the last thing I would want to do at the end of an academic year of cramming upwards of 1,000 pages a week into my brain would be to read more, but hey, I’m a glutton for punishment with a thing for busman’s holidays. As a result, all I’ve done since the spring semester ended two weeks ago is pour myself into as much pleasure reading as I can possible absorb. I’m reading voraciously. I can’t get enough. What can I say? I’m a bookworm. Guess that’s why the academic lifestyle works for me. Maybe the school habit is hard to break, because, right now, I spend most of my waking hours — and more hours awake than I should — ripping through everything I bought, checked out, and downloaded for my summer reading list. It’s been a mixed bag, and I often have more than one project going. It’s not all that unlike school.

This weekend was different, though. I narrowed my reading to one thing only, and I find that was a mistake. The exclusivity wasn’t the problem, although, it probably intensified, and therefore exacerbated, the situation. The issue was the subject matter and the fact that I never should have touched it — or strayed within 50 square miles of it — in the first place. I certainly never should have spent three days alone with it and the inside of my head with nothing external to ground me. I wish I hadn’t done that. I really really do.

If you’re a reader, you can probably relate to how a good book can suck you into its universe. Pull you under to the degree where you have to think to discern between your every day reality and the engaging fictional story while you’re in the midst of it. It’s almost like being infatuated. You think about it when you’re not reading, and you have a hangover and disorienting withdrawal symptoms when you finish the last page. You mourn its loss like a break up with a lover. Usually, the ride is a good and exhilarating thing — escapism at its best…erotic and gratifying — but I’ve been feeling a growing sense of unease over the past 48 hours. In fact, I didn’t sleep at all last night. Couldn’t. The night before, I had nightmares. It’s almost 1:30 am, and I can’t sleep tonight, either. Yesterday, I was ansty. Withdrawn. Irritable. Today, my skin crawled like it was electrified below the surface. My stomach was in knots, the pit of it leaden and nagging. I had no appetite. I cried — BAWLED — spontaneously. My chest felt tight, and I was short of breath. My mouth dry. My throat felt an invisible hand closing on it. My heart locked in a screwed-down vice. By late afternoon, I found myself in the midst of a full-blown panic attack I should have seen coming but didn’t anticipate. I didn’t piece the symptoms together to recognize the building crescendo, probably because I didn’t realize how I was being affected, by what, or why and so didn’t stop to analyze and address the obvious warning signs. Ironically enough, despite being a writer myself, I didn’t give the power of the written word enough credit.

I should have known better. Should have not only seen all the warning signs, but known to stay the hell away from the story in the first place. Should have known it was too personal, too close, too real and visceral, and that it would push every button and flip every switch I’d worked to bury over ten years ago. It had “TRIGGER” written all over it in tall, neon letters, but I ignored the obvious warnings and sallied forth anyhow. It took me back to a dark time in my life and someone I let in as a result. To a chaotic, reckless, self-destructive era where I had a taste for danger and a greater propensity poor choices than self control. When I felt overwhelmed and didn’t want to be responsible for everything. Was tired of always being so structured. Tired of making decisions and caring for everyone without feedback or reassurance. Didn’t want to be in control. And I let in someone that I really shouldn’t have. That I wish I hadn’t. And when I got out and left that part of me and my past behind, I shoved it down so deep that I forgot it — forgot him. So much so that I not only suppressed his name but his memory completely. Until this weekend, when he slowly got a grip on the edges and hauled himself back to the surface to take me completely by surprise.

The experience shook me to the core back then, and the echo of it did no less this weekend — it was only shorter, lightning fast in its inception, and more intense. See, he changed me fundamentally. I’ve never quite been the same. I’m less trusting. Less carefree. Where I once was a girl with almost no neuroses or phobias, I now have several. He is the reason I can’t stand to wear bracelets or watches anymore. Can’t stand to have anything on my wrists. I only make the rare exception for my heart rate monitor, and even then I take it off as soon as possible. I’m claustrophobic. I panic in tight, crowded spaces, especially if they have low ceilings. Elevators are uncomfortable. Put more than a couple of people in there with me, and they’re a nightmare. Crowded open spaces like box stores — even the grocery store — are hard for me, too. I avoid them and often freak out and leave halfway through the errand. It means that I pretty much hate to shop. Like a Mafia don, I can’t sit in a public place with my back to the door without my skin itching and my nerves on end. I don’t like my back exposed. I simply don’t trust what people milling around me might be doing — can’t stop thinking about how I can’t control or anticipate their actions when I don’t know and trust them and can’t see them coming. Usually, I mask these fears pretty well and compensate or orchestrate situations to avoid them, but they’re there. I’m strategizing without it even registering on a conscious level. To be honest, it’s probably more exhausting than I realize, but it functions on a subconscious level most of the time, and not every situation calls for it.

It’s so subconscious, that I didn’t know it was happening to me today. I underestimated the power of what I was reading — of reading in general. And now, I feel like shit. Like I drank too much booze and ate too much junk food when I didn’t do either. I’m dizzy. At sea. My chest is fluttery. I’m tired and achy. My skin feels too tight. My head buzzes and my tongue feels too big. I have a metallic taste in my mouth, and I keep clenching my jaw. I’m upset and nervous and tense. Sick and exhausted. Strung out and needy just from something I read. I feel like I need aftercare. I wonder how long it’s going to take for me to come down and rehab from this. Until then, I’m going to wash a Xanax down with a glass of wine, take a hot shower and pray for sleep. Until then, I’m trapped by something someone wrote. Captive to simple words on the page — nothing more. Words that had the power to bend time and resurrect a ghost or two.

And so, I suppose you can say that’s some good writing. I applaud the author, really, because, right now, you can certainly say I’m disturbed.

to be or not to be

When I tell people I’m a Ph.D. student, the inevitable question is, “What do you plan to do with your degree?” I’m always a little astonished at this, because hey, tenure track academics. What else, right? I am so sure, so fixated on one path for me, that I forget that not everyone does the same.

And so, on Mother’s Day I find myself not wondering what I will do with my degree, but what kind of academic I will be. Seems like a strange subject for Mother’s Day, right? Not really. I have been lucky enough to be gifted not only with my incredible biological mother, but also with amazing, supportive women who have served as mentors along the way. I cannot overstate the importance and impact of a good mentor. Sadly, I lost both my professional mother and my original academic mother to untimely deaths in recent years, and for the most part, I have found myself utterly lost without them. I still don’t know what to do with myself when something amazingly good or bad happens to me. I want to pick up the phone to share the news with them or get their advice, and then I remember that I can’t. I have only their words of kindness and wisdom — and their innate trust in me and my abilities — to take with me and carry me forward. I’m out of the nest and on my own now.

The good news is that I have been lucky enough to have lightning strike a third time in the wonderful friend, adviser, and new academic mother I found almost immediately upon starting my Ph.D.. She’s very different from me, and we don’t always see eye-to-eye, but man, does she believe in me. She is my champion and protector, and she challenges me to do good work. She sees my success as a point of pride for her rather than a threat. Sees me as a legacy she is grooming with no plans to claim credit. It helps her to have her in my corner cheering me on and paving the way. The woman has my back, if nothing else. But there is something else. There’s the advocating and muscling behind the scenes on my behalf. There is the money to attend conferences. There are the chats over lunch. There are the extensive editorial notes on my work, telling it like it is when I can still fix and improve what I have written. The emails telling me that she’s proud of me. The phone calls to say hi, to check on me, to tell me a funny story, to let me know of another student’s award for his dissertation only to be followed by, “That will also be you, my girl. You’re next.” I can’t beat that, and I don’t intend to try. I know when I’m lucky, and I’m loyal to her. I don’t sneeze at people who pick up a sword and stand between me and disaster.

I am acutely aware that I am fortunate to have her. More importantly, I know that I am fortunate to have had every mentor I have had, and they are not easy to find. Most people never get one, and I’ve had three. And the result? The commitment it inspires in me to be a mentor myself. To shape myself to be the kind of academic, the kind of professor who reaches down and pulls students up. Who gathers talent and grooms it. Who values young minds and, even better, is valued by them in return. I have to say that I think deciding the kind of professor you are going to be is just as important as deciding the kind of research you are going to do. A good teacher specializes in more than just her subject area. She specializes in her students. Students are what last and live on long after you are gone. Their success and happiness are the ultimate measure of a teacher’s worth.

I went to a party for a new Ph.D. graduate last night. While there, I noticed something when the conversation turned one faculty member in particular: nobody had anything good to say about her. Despite her seniority and tenure, everyone agreed that, as a teacher and an adviser, she was someone to be avoided at worst, tolerated silently as a means to an end at best. Knowing and working with her was something you gritted your teeth and suffered through like some horrible rite of passage, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. You can always tell she is the topic of discussion in any group of students by the rolling eyes and hushed tones as though speaking her name will incur the wrath of some black curse on all present. Like a cancer you might catch. She has a reputation for being petty, spiteful, jealous, vengeful, and wickedly capricious, particularly when it comes to other, up-and-coming female academics. She puts down the research topics and theories of others — “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” is the sentence most likely to slip from her lips like a broken record. Because she does not know how to be loyal to her students, she assumes them all disloyal to her, and so no one trusts her, much less likes her. Everyone deems her dried up — unhappy and dissatisfied in her life. Here is this woman in middle age as her career wanes, and not a single student could speak well of her or her research, much less sing her praises as a teacher, mentor, or, worse yet, a person. I feel sorry for her. I don’t think this is what who she wants to be, or even set out to be, but, the fact of the matter is, this is who she is and how she is regarded. She chose this. She made it come to pass. She is a road map for loneliness. She is a cautionary tale.

This experience frames a stark contrast to my late, great academic mother from my master’s degree program. She gathered students around her and her husband and made us a family. Regardless of age, all of her chosen were known as her “kids,” and we wore it as a badge of honor. She took care of us, and we took care of each other and her. We felt safe, secure, and supported both personally and professionally. We knew she would go out on any limb for us, and we would all do the same for her and our brothers and sisters. We still do. We worked our asses off to produce our best in research and in the classroom as a result. Our reputations were her reputation, and we took that link seriously and treated it preciously. We felt enormous pride to have a relationship with such a good heart and a brilliant mind, and her company was warm, loving, and coveted. Students lined up to take her classes and work with her. Anyone on her team broke their necks to go above and beyond on her projects. Her sense of humor was refreshing and second to none. Being her student meant being her friend, and she took the time to know us inside out. She drove us home at the end of the day, took us to dinner, had us over to her house for parties. Knew our concerns, our interests, our competing priorities, our pitfalls, our interests, and our long-term goals. There wasn’t a mean or petty bone in her body. Utterly secure in her own mind and competency, she worked overtime to smooth the way for us and see we got what we needed to succeed. She treated us as equals, as colleagues, and we all flourished under her tutelage as ardent allies and cheerleaders for each other. She was well-regarded by students, by the college, by the university and in her field. You could tell when others were discussing her, because the group would glow and laugh and smile and bond while doing it. She inspired brilliance and love and brought out the best in us all. When she passed, we were all crushed. We leaned on each other in our grief and still do. The friendships she gifted us have only grown stronger and more committed in the wake of her life. She used to say that she viewed her relationship with her students as just a beginning. We see the time we spent with her in this world the same way. As hard is it is that we cannot pick up the phone and call her, she’s still very much with us every day, giving us strength in all we do. We still work hard to do right by her reputation and make her proud. I drop her name every chance I get because I am honored to know her. While she may not have been my actual mom, she will always have had a role in birthing and mothering the woman and academic I am. She is my hero.

And so, when choosing my path as a budding academic and future professor, I am giving a great deal of thought to what kind of mentor I want to be and how I want to lead. Long story short, I want to be a mother. I want to be generous and take the high road. I want to do right by the mentors who molded me and continue their work so that they might live and teach through me. I want to throw my lot in with other brilliant, growing minds. To bask in their glow and be inspired by their ideas and theories. To lead by example. To be a mentor people — particularly young women — trust and want to have. To remain open and supple and happy and funny. To be a port in the storm. To support without ego. To hand over diplomas and put hoods over heads with a loving smile. To attend their graduation parties and be welcome. To be spoken of with love and gratitude when I am not there. To have the honor of seeing students flourish and become my colleagues, too. Not only because I see the ravages of unhappiness in the the professor who burns her bridges, but because I see the satisfying path of love in the legacy of a woman who gave of herself. And really, what are research and teaching but putting a piece of yourself out there to join with others and become something bigger and better than yourself? Sort of like parenting in a way, right? Funny, that.

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.

hey nineteen

Yes, it's a freaking phone. Trust me on this.

She thinks I’m crazy, but I’m just growing old.

Despite its reputation for having such a marked gender imbalance that it’s often called “Menver,” I spend more time with women than men in this town as of late. Well, truth be told, I don’t spend much time with anyone human, given my academic demands and the solitary work at hand. It’s an event when I put down the laptop and books and step outside to do anything other than walk the dog. When I am with people these days, I tend to be with one of two women in my social circle who are also in school, and therefore have similar schedules while simultaneously being able to relate to my own experience and time restrictions. Misery loves company and all that rot, only we’re really not all that miserable. It works out pretty well, actually, and it helps that they’re a couple of really funny bitches who share my quirky view of what is wrong and right in the world. The interesting part is that both women are old enough to be my daughters, which is weird to say, because, really, I’m not that old. Not even close. Honest.

Shut up. Stop laughing.

….

One of these friends is in her early 20’s, but has the comportment, maturity, and gravity that I have to say far exceeds my own. She blows me away daily. The other is firmly ensconced in her mid-20’s and has the blazing intellect and vision, biting wit, and sophisticated sense of humor I love coupled with an easy-going and self-aware goofiness that outpaces anything I have. And I’m a freaking goofball. It helps that I refuse to grow up in all the ways that are important. I’m no 20-something, but I remember what it feels like to be young and love to laugh.

Both women are very comfortable in their own skin, know what they want from life, and have the ambition, drive and smarts to give as good as they get. They’re fighters, they’re hard workers, they’re wicked hilarious, and they’re very well-schooled for ones so young. They’re wise beyond their years, and I’m truly impressed with both of them. And I don’t mean that in a condescending way at all. They’re two of my favorite people in the world, and I love that the age difference seems to be a non-issue for us. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t notice it, and they don’t seem to, either. From my point of view, we have a relationship of equals, despite the fact that they are just finding themselves and stepping out into a world that is their oyster, while I’m setting foot into my own middle ages and looking over the rise at the downward slope in the road. It shouldn’t work, but it does. I have just so been enjoying their company, that I really had myself fooled into thinking there were no differences in our experience. This week, however, the universe body checked me repeatedly with reminders from these friends and my students that I’ve been around a lot longer than I sometimes realize.

Nothing says, “damn, bitch, you old” quite like getting the blank stare of nonrecognition from a younger person in response to a pop culture reference that you’re sure everyone in the room will connect with thanks to a collective memory. The silence that meet the words and terms and jokes and phrases that drop from your mouth with such natural ease is deafening and time stretches out before you like hours as you realize the decades that actually separate you from your listener. I imagine it’s how a comedian dying on stage must feel.  You don’t want to follow up with condescension, but you want to explain your reference in the hope that maybe the issue is one of miscommunication on your part and not the fact that your dinner companion just was not alive or, gee, I don’t know, not yet potty trained, when whatever event, show, song, presidential debate, etc. you just mentioned happened along.

In the past week, I have been met with the blinking look that says “Uh…huh?” in my efforts to engage on Benny Hill, Deep Throat (yes, including the Watergate version), and at least one other major pop culture moment from the 90s that everyone my age would expect everyone in the industrialized West to recognize, but that I can’t remember right now because, well, the kids are right and this bitch is apparently actually old fo’ reals. Despite wracking my brain, I cannot recall what it was. I think it was something from Seinfeld or another television show that was equally huge and momentous. Trust me, it was shocking. I had every reason to gasp at the blank stare I got — at least from a Gen X point of view. These reminders where like getting a bucket of cold water dumped on me from above, and the water was only made icier by the fact that my hike and brunch today with a 35 year-old girlfriend was a series of each one of us easily and effortlessly picking up what the other was laying down as far as references went. Our quotes varied from Ivan Drago to Dr. Peter Venkman without missing a beat. It was pretty delicious. A conversation like that is on par with good sex with a long-term intimate partner even when it’s with someone you just met. Hell, like really hot sex, sometimes it’s even better with a stranger. But anyway…

Ok, so maybe my generation lives in the 80s, but we know a good pull when we see one and rarely miss an opportunity to jump in and make one. The pop cultural tete-a-tete is a rush for all of us and can often parade as instant intimacy. And that’s just the thing. Therein lies the defining difference between my generation and the one who came after. Generation X makes its meaning in being referential. It’s how we communicate with each other. It’s how we form our own self-identities. Everything boils down to shared experience. In the words of Blackalicious’ Gen X anthem Make You Feel That Way, “Rakim? KRS? Hey, I had that tape.” We all seek that recognition from one another. It’s our secret handshake. The fact that my friend can drop a line from Rocky IV and I can reply with another from Ghostbusters and be understood without so much of a blink of an eye is the essence of the Gen X experience. It’s what we’re all looking for from each other, and it serves not only as a bonding ritual for each of us as we sniff each other as we each seek to build relationships with adults whose wheelhouses are similar to our own, but it grounds us in an era that has seen more rapid technological, social, cultural, political, and economic change than any in nearly a century. It helps to have a touchstone when you’re screaming through the universe at a million miles an hour. Pop culture is how we cope.

Granted, Generation X did not invent the importance of pop culture references or shared experience. Our Boomer parents most certainly defined the concept of  lived generational identity as is captured with comedy and poignancy in the 1989 film Parenthood when Diane Wiest’s character Helen is shocked to learn that her teenage daughter is pregnant upon returning home from a date with her younger son’s teacher, George Bowman:

Helen: No, no, no, no. I’m too young to be a grandmother. Grandmothers are old. They bake, and they sew, and they tell you stories about the Depression. I was at Woodstock, for Christ’s sake! I peed in a field! I hung on to The Who’s helicopter as it flew away!
George Bowman: I was at Woodstock.
Helen: Oh yeah? I thought you looked familiar!

If you haven’t seen Parenthood, put this blog down and go watch it now, so we can all continue on the same page. No, not later. Right now. It’s important. I’ll wait right here.

All done? Ok. Good. Let’s continue.

To be fair to my Millennial friends, it is not their fault. They just were not there. Why would they get all of my jokes? Why would I expect them to have been there when they weren’t born yet? They’re still young. It’s their world now, and they’re still writing the script. They’ve got their own culture. I just get that reality check from time to time, and I see the humor in their eyes and imagine the horror in my own whenever the gulf opens and I get a reminder of my age and experience. I don’t hate it, though. I revel in my place in life and wouldn’t trade it for the world. I just can’t expect to have everyone speak the same language. If Saussure is right, our language is based on the relationship between the signifiers we chose to create our signs — and references should be no different. Barthes would argue that it’s all part of our myth building processes, and Gen X gets off on the myths.

I have to give the Millenials in my life credit, though. They try very hard to understand me and where I’m coming from, in fact. They’re eager to learn, in fact. Some of them even seem to worship our references and use them as the basis for their humor. Talk to any Family Guy fan in his or her 20s, and you’ll see what I mean. That show is wall-to-wall Gen X pop culture references, thanks to the masturbatory writing style of its creator Seth McFarlane, and the Millennials just eat it up. They are craving a shared experience that their generation has been denied through the individualizing and niche-ifying media and technology of their youth. They’d trade their iPods for what I have in a heartbeat, and in my experience, many of them are dying to rub up against me. Want to understand what I have and maybe even get a little of it for themselves. It’s why my past classes almost invariably included a discussion about what a rotary phone was and how it worked and what it was like to use one whenever the image of one came up in a documentary I showed in class. The conversation goes from rotary phones to television with dials to what it was like to drink Coke out of a glass bottle (it’s like drinking beer out of a glass bottle). It’s why screening this to put this into proper pop culture and historical context always lead to a class discussion that caused my students to want to discuss it and other references like it for a week in my office, on my AIM chat, via email, and anywhere else they could find me because they had always laughed at the latter without ever having seen and understood the former. Getting the whole story changed them, and I appreciated that. They wanted to learn. Wanted to learn. Wanted to soak it all up. Most importantly, they wanted to use and apply the myths. That’s been a lesson for me, too.

The lesson is that bullshit debates like this are useless wastes of time that don’t get us anywhere, except to get me pissed off. Generational infighting seems to be a new thing, and it’s stupid. It’s a lesson that makes me consider who I am and who my friends are and how we can better communicate. It serves to drive my research. It also causes me to laugh at myself when I realize that I’m not as young as I used to be, and that’s ok. I’ve got my Millennial friends to help keep me on my toes and to help keep me from growing old without a fight. And every time some 20-something asks about my research and replies with “Generation X? Why would you want to study those old folks?” because she thinks I’m one of her tribe, I take it as a compliment, despite my own fervent generational pride . Thank you, 28 year-old. Thank  you.

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.