horizon vertigo

God made the world round so we would never be able to see too far down the road.

— Isak Dinesen

I had a bizarre experience at a recent conference I attended. As always at these out-of-town things, people kept asking me where I am from as a typical conversation starter. For the first time ever, I didn’t know what to tell them. It’s like my brain momentarily ceased to function and couldn’t comprehend English every time this happened. I wasn’t even sure what they were asking. Where do I live? What school do I attend? From whence do I originate? Worse yet, I couldn’t even think of an answer to any of those questions. It’s not as though it’s an unusual question or I’m a complete social retard. And yet, in a place where I was supposed to be a brilliant academic, simple words, names of places utterly disappeared from my blank mind. I was so disoriented that I couldn’t imagine myself ever existing in a time or place other than that very moment. All the edges around it blurred and filled with dissipating images like waking from a dream. I was suddenly an amnesiac with no history — not even the past that existed 24-48 hours prior when I was in my house in the town I’ve called home for almost four years. Nothing but the then and now existed for me in the moment that question came up. I couldn’t remember my city, my state, my school — even my own name. I just blanked out. Couldn’t fathom what was being asked of me or why. Why would anyone care? And more importantly — what was the correct answer that kept eluding me?

I grew up on the East Coast, an Easterner and Southerner to the core. I’m Virginian by birth and grace of God. Mother of Presidents, blue blood of the South, blah blah blahdy blah. Atlantic salt water and iced tea run through my veins. This made me tough. Raised me up a no-nonsense girl. A straight shooter who didn’t suffer fools at all, much less gladly. I have a dear friend who tells me I’m “too hard on people.” Ha. If she only knew. But, while she probably knows me better than anybody, she’s not really familiar with what I am or where I come from, so I get that she doesn’t get it. Doesn’t really know why I am who I am. Doesn’t realize that I come from a dog-eat-dog culture where everyone has high expectations of each other, living up to them is job one, and laughing at those who don’t is a source of humor for the rest of us. I come from a place where snark is the native tongue, every gathering is a battle to be the Smartest Person In The Room, and cynicism is a bonding ritual. Expectations are a form of symbolic interactionism — semiotics that allow us to communicate with each other through signifiers of success and failure. And you’re either one or the other. It’s a culture that bitches constantly. It’s a tough room, and I like it that way. Gotta have standards, right?

Now, I’m a perfectionist and an overachiever. A constant competitor, mostly with myself. In command of all things. The alpha. The architect. The nursemaid. The warrior. The angel. The hammer. Lord Protector. Butcher. Baker. Candlestick maker. Or, at least I used to be. I lived most of the first 40 years of my life wound tight and ready to spring. Either in constant action or coiled in anticipation of it. A bundle of nerves always ready to take action on my own or others’ behalf. Pushing things to make them happen. Reveling in self-defining competence. Getting things done and done right before anyone even knew they needed doing. Harder, better, faster, stronger. Straight A’s, top of the class, award winner, never failing at anything — at least in the perception of others. In my own mind, everything I did constantly fell short of the mark, while at the same time I never trusted anyone else do to them right. Never trusted anyone to do anything for me. Nobody took care of me but me, and I was going to take care of you and everyone else while I as at it. I got it. I got you. I’ve got it all under control. Ran myself into the ground. Made myself insane. Stubborn and invulnerable and independent and willful, I was tight and hard and all edges. Edges people, especially men, threw themselves against time and time again, getting themselves bruised and bloodied but never getting anywhere with me.

When I made the conscious decision to move out West almost four years ago, it was my intent to leave the East and the only way of life I’d ever known and broaden my experience to include other lifestyles. I wanted the change, the space to grow. I wanted to have my cage rattled a little bit. As my brother and I drove across the country, we bemoaned the fact that the landscape hadn’t changed much by the time we reached eastern Kansas. Everything around us was still crowded with familiar trees and peppered with suburbia and the occasional city. It all looked like everything Eastern we already knew. I remember him voicing his frustration at the monotony and expressing that he was gonna want his money back from American lore if he didn’t see some Great Plains action pretty soon. And then it happened: the interstate took a turn up over a small rise in the road, and the world opened up before us. The trees all fell away to reveal a rolling ocean of golds and reds and greens and black in patchwork below. A vast, empty expanse for hundreds and hundreds of miles in every direction and nothing but endless blue above. I looked to my right up into Nebraska and to my left down into Oklahoma and out into the ever-retreating horizon before me.

And then, I lost my damn mind.

To say I freaked out would put it mildly. Within ten short minutes on the plains, I went into a full-blown panic attack in the passenger seat. Agoraphobia to the nth degree. It was all too much. Too big. Too wide. Too open. My heart raced. I hyperventilated and started to giggle hysterically. Like a prey animal searching the skies for death from above, I hunched down in my seat trying to make myself as small as possible and fade into the gray upholstery as my eyes searched the blue for some phantom attack.

“What the fuck is your problem?” my brother inquired from behind the wheel.

“I’m freaking out,” I replied.

“Yeah, I can see that much. What’s going on? Are you ok?”

“No. No, I’m not ok. Don’t you feel it?”

“Feel what?”

“The dizziness. It’s like the landscape is moving. I can’t focus. I can’t make my eyes rest on anything. My heart is racing. I’m panicking. You’re not having this?!”

“Uh…no. What the hell? Why is this happening?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Everything is just too much. Too exposed. We’re too exposed out here. It’s too much to take in all at once.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Pull over.”

“Pull over? And do what?”

“Find some cover. We have to find some cover. Now.”

“Are you freaking nuts? Look around. There IS no cover. Not even a tree. There’s no place to go. This is it. Hundreds and hundreds of square mile of fuck all. There’s nothing out here.”

“I know. I know. I just…God. Oh my God.”

“Are you ok? You’re seriously starting to worry me. I don’t know what to do.”

“I’ll be ok. Just….drive. Just keep driving. I’ll get past it.”

And I did. After another twenty minutes or so, the panic subsided, but the feeling of looking at the world through a fish-eye lens didn’t abate. We drove through Kansas in awe at its alien beauty. Cruised along I-70 through the dozens upon dozens of towering windmills dominating the landscape like giant invaders from a 1950’s B-budget sci-fi flick as we passed through the Smokey Hills Wind Farm. Completely taken with and, as irrational as it was, a little frightened of them as they spun lazily at different rates and different directions as the afternoon slipped by and the daylight slowly waned. We marveled at the diversity of early autumn crops that whizzed past the car, wondering what the bizarre low-growing red-tasseled plant we saw everywhere was (it was sorghum, which we learned by asking around at a truck stop, but not until after I leaned out the window of the car and shouted our question at a farmer driving a slow tractor on a dirt service road we passed at 75 miles an hour, my unheard words ripped from my mouth and hurled behind me by the wind only to be replaced by gales of laughter on both my behalf and my brother’s). Long story short, my anxiety receded, and the drive became a fond family memory — my weird prey behavior included.

The fish-eye lens feeling didn’t leave me, though. It stayed on the rest of the drive and through my first few weeks out West. Any time I spent on the open road, I felt disoriented, like I was watching the world in high definition 3D. Like I was in an stereographic projection. It was hard to get my bearing and judge distances. I felt as though everything was a mirage and that the horizon, including the huge Rocky Mountains in the distance was both constantly moving away from me and close enough to touch. I was sure there was something wrong with me, and then a native explained that what I was experiencing was a very real condition called horizon vertigo. It’s so real a condition that the U.S. military sent soldiers from places like Kansas and Nebraska and Colorado and Wyoming to fight in the North African theater during World War II, because they knew those boys wouldn’t be prone to its disorienting effect like troops from places like New York, Georgia, and Virginia would be. I could understand why. The East is a much more claustrophobic place with huge, lush trees constantly embracing you from every direction and limiting your scope of vision to a matter of yards, for the most part. A few miles at best. Back there, your perspective is smaller. You can never see to far ahead of you, so you focus intently on what is right in front of you. Your immediate environs are your entire universe. You’re not seeing states away. Not able to envision the world on a grand, macro scale of time and size in epic proportions.

My vision eventually adjusted, as did other perceptions. My first years of living and working in the West were a constant internal battle of wills with my straight-laced, buttoned-down East Coast professionalism. The office culture here was a challenge, as I was constantly stood up for appointments and forced to suffer through staff meetings where our karma was discussed. Karma. At work. Fucking hippies. I hated it. Hated them. I still do. Get a haircut, you losers. But bitterness aside, this place has slowly become my home through a process of internal compromise and negotiation. I let the freeze and thaw crumble parts of me and round off some of the sharp places, adopted a more “que sera, sera” mantra, let some laid backness creep into the cracks in my Type A personality until it was almost nothing but cracks. In the end, I’m happier, even if I don’t have the sharp focus I used to and walk around a little more often with a goofy gait and a blissed-out look on my face. Some aspects of the East and the South will never leave me. I prize intellect. I demand the use of proper grammar. I still expect people and organizations to generally have their shit together. I use my car horn with extreme prejudice and want to blink people who can’t merge on the interstate or parallel park right out of this plane of existence — if you drive like you got your license out of a fucking bubble gum machine, get out of the goddamn car. I still read the Washington Post for my news (and listen to NPR, but, given who I am, that goes without saying). I can finish the New York Times Sunday crossword in an afternoon. I would cut a bitch for proper fried chicken and a mess of greens. I love me some Patsy Cline. I will never not say “y’all.”

More has changed than has stayed the same for me, though. I sit back and wait to see what will happen rather than trying to force a result anymore — and I find that things tend to work out in my favor that way with little or no work from me now. No wonder underachievers are so happy. More of my mind power is devoted to sports than politics. I’m more about the grand scheme of things. I take long, meandering walks with no destination, no aerobic goals. The house is a bit of a mess. Sometimes, a glass of wine is dinner. Not everything always gets done perfectly, or even at all, and that’s ok. I accept and even embrace some of my flaws and those of others. I’m happy to fold up into someone else’s arms and let them take control and care for me for a change. I crave help — even ask for it. When choosing my battles, I often choose not to battle at all these days — most conflict isn’t worth it — and that’s probably the biggest change of all. I just let things slide. When I do get up in arms about something now, it means it’s something that really matters. I recently got fed up with having a certain professor hurl character assassination my way and stood up for myself and set the record straight — consequences (and they will be myriad and long-term given her pettiness and position of influence) be damned, because I’m no pushover, and I have to look at myself in the mirror. The only person more shocked than her that I finally let her have it was me, I think. I wasn’t sure I still had it in me,  but damned if I don’t. The lion is just sleeping. My choice to speak up may not have been prudent, but then, the East Coaster in me has never given a crap what others think of me, especially when it comes to speaking truth to power, and she’s not going away.

Some of her has faded, though, as I learned very acutely on a recent trip back East to visit my friends and former home after a year and a half away. I walked the streets of my neighborhood and could feel the echo of my 25 year-old self around every corner, but I couldn’t see her anymore. She was like a sneaky little cat stalking me, but always staying just out of sight. If it weren’t for the people I know there to anchor me with memories and new experiences and a constant warm welcome, the life I’d lived there would have felt like nothing more than a dream. Even so, I’m not still convinced it wasn’t all just some movie I saw once. Things I thought were once part of my DNA — driving directions, the subway map (but not the scent memory of my commute), what to order at my favorite Lebanese restaurant — had all started to fade significantly from my mind as it cleared space to make room for new information I am filling it with in my current life. My past has been archived or even possibly erased. My bond, my feeling of attachment and need for the place was eroding and disappearing. I no longer fit, and the most obvious and outward sign of what an oddball I am there now was the way people kept staring at me — I didn’t realize until days in that it was my nose ring and chunks of violet hair that drew their gaze. I don’t look that strange and certainly don’t draw a second glance most of the time out West, but in the Land of the Buttoned-Up I stood out like a sore thumb in a bright floral sundress in a city where I used to wear head-to-toe black in an effort to blend into the background. And so, while I will always have a home back East as long as my loved ones are there, I no longer think of it as my Home.

But then where do I belong? Somewhere in the past decade, I pulled up my deep roots and became a gypsy and always have one eye on the road — wondering what’s next and where. This hybridized version of me is neither fish nor foul. I don’t really fit anywhere anymore. When I mentioned the problem I was having answering the “Where are you from?” question to an old friend at the conference, she offered an insightful reason: “That’s because there are so many answers to that question.” She was right. Ten years ago, I never would have believed you if you’d told me I’d be where I am now. I would have run like hell if you’d told me what was waiting for me around the corner. I’m glad I couldn’t see it then. I’m glad the horizon keeps retreating so I can’t see what’s waiting for me over it now. Glad I don’t really have an answer to that question, because I am no longer limited and defined by a place. I am no longer afraid of being exposed out in the open. No longer searching the expansive, empty sky for death from above. I’m without shelter. Without a net. I’m from Everywhere. Nowhere. Right here. All at once. I am not who I was. I am just who I am right now. Wait five minutes, and I’m sure to change.

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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.

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.

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.

begin the begin

This isn’t my first blog. I had one a few years ago that spawned another one when a new chapter of my life started. Neither was special to anyone but me. They were personal with no real agenda. Just my inner ramblings.

I liked blogging. I was honest. I was raw. It emptied me out when I needed it, which was mostly when I was working on my master’s and my brain kept filling up and overflowing. I didn’t worry about making other people happy or unhappy with it.

The blogs developed a following. First, it was just friends and people who knew me. Then some others started to notice — mostly other bloggers.  Some of them put me on their blog roll. Some of them were expats and dissidents from another country, and that readership grew. Then, I started to notice that country’s government in the analytics for my page. A lot.

At the same time, some of the people who knew me started to have a hard time separating my online space and what I wrote there from our personal interactions. It started to bleed together. What I said and did on the blog started to affect day-to-day “real life” situations. Mostly, it was a netiquette issue, but it was really awkward for me coming from people who weren’t sharing like I was. They kept trying to have a one-sided conversation, and I felt a little stalked. For some reason, it was cool when other bloggers did it. There was give and take. To have others — people who cared about me, mind you — start grilling me about my blog and reading between the lines and inferring things and injecting meaning into my words was uncomfortable.  I started to blog less and less and censor myself when I did. I even started deleting posts.

The final blow was when the FBI showed up on my page analytic. I have friends who work for the Bureau, so I thought maybe it was them. When I asked, they laughed in my face for asking if they were surfing my blog at work. They asked for the location of the FBI address checking out my page. When I gave it to them, they immediately suggested I stop blogging and shut it down. I did. Bye bye, blog. I retreated to Facebook where I had more control, where everyone was sharing equally, and where I could have control over who saw what. I could give as well as I got over there and felt safe…r. I keep my profile locked down with all the privacy settings possible, I have a hair trigger when it comes to hiding my profile and deleting “friends,” and I rarely, if ever, post pictures of myself. Yes, I’m paranoid. Deal with it.

I own my choice, but it was silly, of course, because I essentially just shut down my personal diary.  I quit. I more or less punished myself when I wasn’t doing anything wrong, or even anything exciting. My decision was really about protecting my associations, and both those associations and I were going through hard times that didn’t need to get any harder. Blogging was getting onerous anyway. The emotional weight of my circumstances was so incredibly intense that I couldn’t articulate my thoughts even if I’d wanted to. I chose my battles and chose to walk away. Given the events of the past four years, maybe it would have helped to have an outlet, but, truth be told, I didn’t really want one. I didn’t know where to start, and I just didn’t need one more fucking thing to do. Now, I do.

I’m back in school getting my Ph.D., and my need to blog is suddenly back with a vengeance.  I have to write all the time, and the more I write, the more I can write. I have some stuff to work through. My brain is full and continually filling with more. As more and more new theories, methods, and concepts are introduced to me, I need a place to apply them, do things with them, to tinker and try things on and suss out how they relate to each other and me and my ideas. I need a workshop. A lab. A place for a running internal monologue to go external. A place to just unload and process. A bride for my former Frankensteins (and yes, I realize that Frankenstein was the scientist, not the monster).

I have real misgivings about how this will go, especially from the personal angle, so I will be taking some precautions. Names will rarely be named. Some entries might be password protected. And I have to get over some things. People are supposed to read and comment — both here and in the world. I want that. I welcome it. I need to remember that. I will do what I have to do in order for this blog to be what I need it to be: a place where I get it all out, pull no punches, and never ever apologize. It’s been hard for me to take this step back into blogging, but the need obviously isn’t going away, and I can’t deny it, so here I am again.

Myles Standish proud, congratulate me.