Saturday, December 02, 2006

Helping a (graduate school) brother out.

I'm participating in a research study and perhaps you should too. Go and read about it at Scott Kaufman's excellent blog --

and if you feel so moved, follow the directions to participate.

24-hour party people

Have you ever been to an un-fun kid party? I mean, one where the adults had so thoroughly ran the Martha Stewart machine that it broke your heart to see the obvious care lavished on every little detail indoors while the kids ran through the house once on the way to the backyard and hid out in the treehouse so they wouldn't break anything? The mother was nearly in tears. Days of acquiring matching stemware for the sparkle punch, an hour in the party store agonizing over the color of confetti, three calls to Coldstone Creamery to update instructions on the design for the cake that Precious now won't even eat because "IT HAS CHERWIES ON THE PLATE....YOU KNOW I HATE CHERWIES....I TOLD YOU STWAWBERWIES..." The beyond lovely house, a soaring window looking out over a mountain lake at moonrise, echoed as the guests slunk away to let the birthday victim have her meltdown in peace. The last thing we passed going out the door was a tray of stemware, untouched.

I had one party as a child. Both parents worked, or worse, only Mom worked and Dad was unemployed. If there was money, there was no time. If there was time, there was no money. To me, therefore, giving my kid the opportunity to invite some kids to the house under any circumstances is a pretty huge deal. I'm glad to be able to do this, as I like her friends and find them interesting people. However, I'm not about to mortgage the house to hire Cirque de Soleil for
a private party. This, I've come to realize, is an unusual attitude among the parents of her peers. One of the things that
has been hard for me as a new arrival in the upper middle class is to figure out the child-rearing norms. Birthday parties
illustrate the great divide better than almost anything. Parents rent out museums, where the entire staff caters to the whims of five-year-olds. Parents purchase "party packages" at amusement parks so that a seven-year-old and 60 of his closest friends can ride a rollercoaster for two hours before eating cardboard pizza. We've been invited to water parks,
science centers, local craft stores, Libby Lu's, Build-a-Bear, Color Me Mine -- every conceivable store or amusement known to elites -- and every kid seems to have a more elaborate party every year. There's a weird "top this!" mentality among parents as they compete to place Junior (and themselves) in the limelight for a couple of hours. Between the site and
the stuff and the clean-up and the clowns and the everything, parents are paying between $300 and $1000 just to
"do" a birthday.

Remember when kids "had" birthdays? You know, like something that one had some ownership in?

Our kid is going to be eight. She likes to turn cartwheels, get paint all over the kitchen table, play board
games, talk quietly to her dolls, dance, write stories. This is not an age where commodified fun is necessary or desirable.
A little cake, a scenario (maybe...I'm now even rethinking whether I should have presumed to impose what adults would
call a "theme" on her), some materials, and the adults can and should step back and let the wild rumpus start. Feed the
kids a couple of hours into it, something simple. My husband will bake the cake (as his father baked all of his...) and
it will be maybe a little lopsided, with gumdrops for landing lights and a Hershey bar as the gangplank.
Our house is not large by McMansion standards but it was big enough to house a family of fifteen when it was built in
1914, so it will hold a dozen children for an afternoon. The cat will hide and the kids will shriek as they pound up
and down the stairs. There might be a lump on the head for someone and perhaps some Elmer's glue "boogers"
to gross out the squeamish girls. Balloons will be popped and drinks will be spilled.

It won't be perfect. It will be better than that. It will be fun.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Space, the final (girl) frontier

I am raising Goldilocks. Nothing is ever just right. Take the upcoming birthday party, lovingly whizbangingly brainstormed
by two parents who know their kid pretty well and pay attention. She loves space stuff. Her favorite TV show is old Trek, followed closely by Dr. Who. She has watched 5 out of 6 of the Star Wars movies (the most recent one is still a little too
scary and graphic for us to let her watch it) and has enjoyed them all. She has done a stop-motion animation film with
her Star War figures. She adores planetariums, she builds spaceships with Legos, she just plain is interested in space. Ok, so what could be better, we figure, than throwing her a space party? Bake a UFO cake. Serve chicken and stars soup. Make flying saucers as crafts. Play pin-the-tail-on-the-comet. Little styrofoam make your own solar systems. Too cool, right?
What eight-year-old wouldn't love that?


"But that's not a girl thing. None of my friends will come!" she wailed. She goes to a local Montessori where the kids are all pretty into space stuff...and where there's not much idiotic gender-typing going on in the class programming. We were
blindsided by this sudden anxiety that her interests were not authentically "girl" interests.

Resisting my first impulse, which was to tell her that little girls who act like turds get no birthday parties, I decided to explore a little further. "Why don't you think that Carrie won't like a space party? Or Kaley? When we went to the planetarium with them, they loved it. And Vama and Julia and Sapphie all had fun with the science experiments at the science center. Why wouldn't they want to come over to your house for a couple of hours and play space stuff with you?" (No reasons. Just more "girls don't like space stuff.") "You like space stuff, right?" (yes.) "You're a girl, right?" (yes.) "Are you maybe underestimating
your friends? Don't you think that they like what you like or that they like you enough to want to share your interests
on your birthday?" (Nooooooooo.)

Then that look she has. Always that look. The look that says "I'm about to counter-offer."

"Well, it was just that I was thinking...hoping...maybe..."

Spit it out. Mom and Dad have just spent a month dreaming up space games for a party. This had better be good.

"Well....I was thinking more like snowflakes. And snow. And penguins and stuff."

"You mean..." I say, trying to bridge between these ideas, "like if we pretended that the house was a snow planet? With
a polar cave and snowflakes hanging from the ceiling and light blue streamers and stuff?"


Phew. That was close.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Even when I am super-tired

...I find that I can't watch dumb TV. I know, some people do it to be ironic. Others find it soothing. I would rather do anything (like think "aha, you know, I know nothing about Jainism...I should look that up..." (true story. Just did that.)) than
stare vacantly at The Bachelor - Rome Edition. Or Fashion House. Or even "good TV" like House. Too bad. I like Hugh Laurie, but I don't think I'll ever feel intrinsically healthy enough to watch that show.

It's not that everything has to be edifying. Hell, I have watched the movie "The Cutting Edge" TWICE and liked it both times, so it's not that I'm all so highbrow. I just think I have a narrow spectrum of what I find interesting these days. That worries me some, as I fear that I will someday wind up being so quirky in my tastes that I will be cut off from sharing enthusiasms
with the other people in my life. Oh well. There will always be football, I guess. Thank god for books. And staring at
sleeping cats is kind of nice.

This is me, sneaking back into blogging. It is far more fun to read and comment on other people's stuff than it is to write my own.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

This is a post to acknowledge that I haven't posted in a while.

I've been revising my book manuscript and enjoying my summer vacation. With my husband back from his
long absence and my kid home for the summer, it's been very pleasurable. A little course planning here,
a little heavy reading there, a zombie movie or know, the usual summer stuff. We've discovered a local
beach and we're going to the minor league team here, trying belatedly to make this place feel like home now that we've been here four years. I've still not made any friends, but I have people to say hello to when I run into them at the YMCA,
and I have pleasant coworkers. And of course I get to stay in touch with a lot of my former classmates and
colleagues at other institutions. Still, I'm lonely and bored a lot of the time. Which accounts for the blog habit.
(Hey, there, SimNashville! Shout out to y'all.)

When the school year starts, I'll get back to blogularity.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Back home at last

18 states in 15 days. My husband's back home, I've participated in my PhD hooding, and all is right with the world. I've read four novels just for fun and I'm going to bake some bread a little later. Sun is shining, I've got an NEH seminar later this month to look forward to, and summer is just beginning.

Life is good!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

No Sugar Tonight

What does it mean that the first rock song that I ever really realized was something different than whatever played on the AM radio ("Windy" or "Take a Letter, Maria" or "Last Train to Clarksville", etc...) was a song not by Brits or Americans, but by a Canadian group? I can clearly remember the day that this realization broke on me. It was springtime of 1970 and I had gotten a little transistor radio with a dial on it. The only station that came in well inside the house was a easy-listening
station, but it was warm enough that my antennae and I could go outside and sit on the swing. If you pointed your
body towards Detroit, you could pick up a pop station and so I remember hoping to hear something by Jackson 5
or Sly and the Family Stone (because, after all, the station was catering to a Motown-loving audience) and instead,
I got this great "na na na na na na na na na na" in Burton Cummings' raspy growl. Aow! What the hell was this
and where had it been all my young life?

My brother is nearly twelve years older than me. He loves rock and pop with a passion and was building an enormous
record collection during my infancy and childhood. Not just the Beatles and the Stones and the Who, but
hundreds of LPs with one worthwhile song apiece just because he always had a band and needed to learn the chords
for the covers. So we had plenty of disposable pop, from Herman's Hermits to Paul Revere and the Raiders ("Kicks"
was the first song I ever saw him perform, complete with the tire-pump leg action familiar to people who saw PRR
play live...) and it was all very pleasant. My parents continued to take us to see the big touring country acts of
the day -- Porter and Tammy, Buck Owens, Carl Smith (who was a foul-mouthed drunk the night we saw him) -- and
I took it all in, not discriminating between genres other than by the clothes that the singers wore. (Porter
Wagoner wouldn't be caught dead in a Righteous Brothers or Beach Boys-style cardigan, even if the hairstyles were
eerily similar.)

The Guess Who was my first clue that something was up. (My brother didn't like the Kinks, so I guess I hadn't
heard the guitars in "You Really Got Me.") It was about that point, sonically speaking, that we became a house
divided. My father hated Iron Butterfly and Zep, thought Joplin was a fat sloppy braless "lezzie," (whatever that
was...that was the sole reference to the existence of homosexuality in my house until I went to college -- though
surely my mom must have been strangling on her silence during my enthusiasm for watching disco
dance shows on which the Village People featured prominently).

As for me, the louder, fuzzier, and drummier the better. I read everything about rock I could get my hands on, even
at a very early age. My brother was among the original subscribers to Rolling Stone. He would take me to the
library to read what I guess must have been the Village Voice, although I don't think I knew where the Village
was. Anyhow, I became a pint-sized Lester Bangs, the kind only 1960s blue-collar Cleveland could produce.
My parents had some "Jesus in the temple" moments with me when I'd wander off into the crowd wherever
my brother played and hang out with the bigger kids, swapping insights into who was deriving what riff
from the B side of what obscure import and politely declining the joint as it passed. (C'mon. I was only
6 or 7!) My head is still filled with rhythm and lyrics, obscure facts (such as....did you know that "Can't
Explain" was produced by the manager of the Kinks, which might account for the similarities between
it and "Really Got Me"?) and radio call numbers, on-air jingles (I can still sing the CKLW call letters...
hey, maybe *that's* why I heard so much Canadian rock-and-roll, because of listening to the Windsor
superstation as it bounced its signal across Lake Erie!). These tumble out at awkward times, making
my freakish enthusiasm for rock and pop obvious. And I went completely off the deep end (predictably)
for punk and wave, without which I could not have matured into a sane human being. Elvis Costello
alone gave me reason to live when nothing else could sustain me. (You think I exaggerate.
I assure you, I do not. I literally decided that despite all evidence to the contrary, the world who
had created such an artist was good or at least benign and I had to make it until his next album. Which,
luckily, was a good one.)

There are big gaps in my knowledge. I'm sound on funk, soul, and R & B, but I'm touch-and-go on rap.
Some rap artists made hardly a ripple, especially in the pre-video age, whereas others
like LL Cool J and the Sugarhill Gang are part of my sonic landscape. I checked out for a while
during grunge/grad school/early motherhood. The more punk the current alt-pop scene becomes, however, the more
I'm tuning in again. Stripes, Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys. I find that I have the
tastes of an 18-year-old punk boy.

Today, I heard the Guess Who on the radio. And I still got that thrill.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

One year ago...

As a few of you remember, one year ago today my father died. I am still inarticulate when it comes to describing most of the
emotional work of grieving. It's both too personal and too complex to wrap words around. However, I have been
surprised over and over by both the intensity and durability of love (especially given that my dad and I had a pretty
operatically loud and acrimonious relationship for a while in my youth). Now that the redbuds have again bloomed, I
am reminded that life goes on. My mother's very cautiously moving into a new relationship (so far, it's amounted
to a couple of nights of dancing and a short ride on the back of his Harley) and building a life of her own. I can listen
to almost any George Jones song without breaking down. My husband can open a milk carton and extract the sealing
ring without misting up about my dad's habit of "getting engaged" to my mom every time a new milk carton was opened.
And we're all learning to live with the very complicated, all too human, difficult love that we're left holding and passing

At my mother's church, the priest is saying the Easter Vigil mass in Dad's honor. He would be astonished to discover
that the most "pull out all the stops" Mass of the year is dedicated to him, a late convert and not a particularly by the
book sort of a guy. He knew what he knew, telling the priest who came to baptize him on one of those
dozens of trips to the hospital in the last 15 years that "if we can do this without putting me through all the
bullshit, I'd be happy to join." He had raised two children in the Catholic church, married a Catholic woman, lived
in the parish community all his life -- to him, that was sufficient time to figure out what Catholics believed by watching
what they did. I doubt he ever said the Rosary all the way through, probably didn't bother
with the fine points of transubstantiation or the Trinity, and carried a lot of his original training from the
Holyroller Freewillers right on with him to the grave. But he believed. He believed in A Way. He believed in
A Truth. And he believed ever so strongly in a life after this one, where the hurts and imperfections, the hard knocks and
mistakes would be healed and every tear wiped away. I don't know that he was right, but I think that he got
the essence of what is required by Christianity. We diverged widely on religion as we did in almost everything
else, but I am still gratified that the Mass dedicated to the glorification of the resurrected Christ goes to
a humble man who simply believed.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Day off...

I suppose you are wondering where I went.


I mean it. I've been right here in front of a computer, or in front of a classroom, or in front of an audience of my peers pretty much every day since March 1st. I had two days off (meaning didn't have to go to school, but still with work responsibilities) during our mid-winter break; that was also the last time that my husband will be home until the end of May. In the time you haven't heard from me, I've won another small grant, finagled another course reduction (meaning I am going to be teaching a 3:2 load, so now I'll be teaching what my peers at research institutions will be teaching and hopefully finally have more time to think and write), got another research assistant, helped hire two new members of my department, attended countless committee meetings, lost twenty pounds, gave two interviews to the student newspaper and one to the alumni magazine about the new Big Important Grant, wrote a dozen recommendation letters for seniors who are emerging into the post-collegiate world, counseled students who were breaking up, cracking up, dealing with rapes and miscarriages and flunks-in-progress, helped a student win a national fellowship, graded 300 or so student essays (not counting the mark-up of first drafts), prepped 50 class meetings (about half of them new lectures or activities), and inducted a new batch of honors students into our national honorary chapter on campus.

And then I came home and parented. I've read volumes 2, 3, and 4 of Harry Potter aloud, attended three birthday parties (and acquired/wrapped the presents), and volunteered twice at the school because they were doing something that I know something about. Moreover, Kid has entered into the tremendously exciting world of dance competitions and
although I am utterly opposed to the whole "eating disorders dressed up in spangles" pageanty aspect of this, she's
having a fine time and is largely unaffected by what I think is unhealthy attitude of some of the adults. As it turns out,
she's quite good for her age and she is happy to meet other dancers and doesn't get either freaked out or spoiled
by the attention. (Then again, she's never come in anywhere but first place. It's easy to feel happy when you win everything
you touch. ) Dance has been chewing up my weekends, my energy, and all my extra money. I am pleased to report,
however, that the reign of the thumping bassline is nearly at an end.

And then there's all the normal stuff. Grocery shopping. Laundry. Cooking. Bills. It all adds up. I've had time to
drop in your blogs and I've enjoyed them all immensely as my only contact with real adults talking about stuff
outside of work. I haven't really had time to blog anything myself, though. So thanks for playing your part in keeping me sane during this intense time.

Tomorrow is my first real day off. I have only 28 papers to grade before next Wednesday, so I'm going to go completely
off-line and sit numbly in the bright spring sunshine, watching the forsythia and daffodils bloom in my backyard and
listening to the drowse of bees pollenating the bright scarlet maple budlets. I might watch the dust spin lazily through
a sunbeam or listen to my Big Band 78s or write a love letter or paint my toenails...hell, I might just sleep. Whatever it is,
though, it won't be because I have a deadline to meet or miss driving me forward.

I really can't wait.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I promise, I'll get to three, two, and one sometime...

But not right now. Instead, I'll respond to a fun meme that Neal tagged me with as a means of getting back on the blog wagon.

Jobs I've had (out of the two dozen or so jobs I've had in the last twenty years):
1- Haunted House operator
2- Dishwasher
3- Art gallery guard
4- legal editor

Movies I could watch over and over:
1- American in Paris
2- It Happened One Night
3- Raising Arizona
4- My Man Godfrey

Places I've Lived:
1- Avon, Ohio (farm town)
2- Chicago's Gold Coast (high rise)
3- Coralville, Iowa (suburbs of a college town)
4 - Albany, NY (state capitol, metro)

Shows I love:
1- Great Performances
2- American Idol (or as I call it "Not so great Performances")
3- Sex and the City
4- The History Detectives

Places I've vacationed:
1- Coralville, Iowa
2- Dyersville, Iowa
3- Davenport, Iowa
4- Fairfield, Iowa

Favorite dishes:

1 - Pasta and marinara with a green salad, crusty bread, and a bottle of good red wine by candlelight
2 - Roast beef sandwich with lemon garlic butter and fresh tomatoes, outside, on a fine summer night
3 - Hot dog with coney sauce and finely minced onion, fries, black raspberry milkshake sitting on the trunk of my car in the sunshine
4 - Denver omelette, toast, home fries, hot coffee with cream served in bed by a smiling barefoot man in a bathrobe

Who am I tagging?? You, silly.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Number Four

Thought I'd forgotten -- or maybe you've forgotten? -- the rest of the list that started so long ago with Neal's meme about the little things that change our lives? Here's number four.

4) They were a series of numbers...who knew where they were from? A friend of a friend, someone I knew up in Buffalo gave me my first batch so that I could call him, free, anytime I wanted. Back in the day when phone freaking was still relatively new, these sorts of lists circulated around campuses like mine pretty freely and many people carried them around in their wallets. I had a boyfriend (see #5) who lived about 60 miles away; I was crazy in love and desperate to talk to him when the daily letters didn't seem to suffice. So, when I found numbers (obviously a credit card number) scribbled on a scrap of paper in the phone booth across the hall from my dorm room, I picked it up and started to use it. And use it. And use it. And use it. Unlike the other numbers I had used before, it didn't go dead
within days. It stayed active for months. In fact, I used it from October until May -- what good luck! And then, one day, I opened the door to find a very good friend completely furious and bearing down on me to give me the butt-whooping I had coming. As it turned out, it was her father's business I had been skivving, to the tune of several thousand dollars. (This in mid-1980s money.) Even more complicated, her mother was my English professor, in whose class I was enrolled and at whose table I routinely ate dinner. I can't describe the hundred different ways I felt sick.

I was no longer just screwing around having fun. I was a thief, with no way to pay back the huge bill I had incurred.
I swallowed her, and using my own money at last, began to make some phone calls. First, I called the man I had bilked and apologized. I then called the investigation branch of ATT and turned myself in, promising that I would make full
restitution whenever they sent me a bill. (I was the first phone freaker the investigator had ever actually talked
to...he was flabbergasted that I called him.) I decided to wait to tell my parents until the bill arrived, and only
then if I could not arrange an extended payment plan. That was gutless, I suppose, but at least they didn't have
to learn that they had sent me to Very Expensive Private Liberal Arts College so that I could major in least
not yet.

So what was the upshot? I waited many months for a bill and received none. I was never fully forgiven by the victims of the
theft (which I guess was fair); I was not prosecuted nor was I flunked out of spite, but I never had the nerve to pass
the salad around their wonderful rosewood table again (which was sort of like being cast of a literary paradise). My friendship with their daughter cooled (naturally), but eventually came back from the brink and we now chat once in a while.
I never had to tell my parents of my moral failure and I determined that I would live from there on out so that
I would never have to disappoint least not like that.

And my friends wonder why I hate talking on the phone.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Long Pretend...

Undeterred by bouts of illness, a good long visit from Dad, or even a maniacal embrace of all things Potter -- against all odds, the pretend continues. Kid and I are French orphans, running from the policemen of Marseilles and living in the open air markets around the docks, aided by kindly fish-sellers and a round little woman named Marie who owns a bakery. We do needlework to make money and I (being the older orphanness) make sure that Kid gets a proper education, including architectural tours of the city, lessons in French geography, day trips to other towns in France (to get more sewing supplies and see the fashion shows in Paris, naturellement!), and (bien sur) language lessons. This is a work-out on the vocabulaire of the older orphan, since she last spoke French about twenty years ago. Still, with the help of BBCi Steps (free language instruction on the internet! God, I love the British!), I'm slowly recovering my spoken French. If I had more money, I'd take us to France so that she could see this place that exists only in her imagination. Perhaps when she's just a little older.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

ENFJ, aka Teacher Idealist

I'm not persuaded by Jungian typology at all, but look on this as a happy coincidence that I happened to score
(this time) sort of what I am. I must say, moreover, that the descriptions of my personality traits are highly
flattering to my vanity. Maybe Jung isn't so bad after all.

Go ahead. Quantify yourselves.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Harry Potter

Kid's old enough to be hooked on the books, but too young to read them herself. Luckily, I love to read aloud and
so we've been working our way through them (with voices and dramatic bits acted out) -- in case you were wondering
why I hadn't gotten to numbers 4, 3, 2, and 1. The more recent the event, too, the harder it is to write about (at least
for me -- not enough critical distance.) I think I might have to put a ten-year cooling off period in play, since
it seems to take about a decade for the implications of the little things to become fully clear to me. So I'll try to wrap this list up sometime this evening, but only take it up to 1996, which more or less becomes a new epoch for me anyhow (married in 1996).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Number Five

(This one continues the post below, which explains the concept and gives you number 10-6. If you're just dropping in, I suggest you read "It's the Little Things" first.)

5. Writing a letter to the friend of a friend. A boy (let’s call him College Friend) fell in love with me, and as such things go, I was in love with someone else who didn’t love me. College is complicated like that. So College Friend began to exhibit strange and self-destructive behavior. He’s the only guy I’ve ever known who was a bulimic. He constantly praised the virtues of his Hometown Friend, so I thought that maybe someone who knew him better might be able to have a talk with him and help him get his head screwed back on straight. (Those who know me from this period know that I have omitted the story of my own Great Depression, which was not a small little thing, but a steel-edged speed-freaky time out of which I was just emerging…anyhow, I knew the power of sane friends.) And so on a pretense, I got Hometown Friend’s address and wrote the most awkward letter I’d ever penned. How do you tell someone that his best friend is killing himself very slowly and maybe he could do something? Please? I didn’t expect much of a response, but I felt I had done what was right. I was surprised when I got a return letter the next day, articulate and anxious for College Friend’s welfare. That correspondence, starting as two people with nothing in common but the mutual concern for a third person, blossomed. I met Hometown Friend, who didn’t like me because I was too punk. (Maybe it was the blue hair.) We continued to write. We met again and this time, there was a celestial click. We dated, we became lovers, we lived together, we contemplated marriage. We were romantically involved for almost a decade and remain close friends. And we continue to write each other at least every couple of days. What happened to College Friend, the one who loved me enough to make himself vomit after each meal we shared? He disowned both of us, gained valuable sexual experience with my roommate, formed a band, and wrote a lot of fast, bitter three-chord songs – but at least he stopped puking. Mission accomplished.

It's the little things.

Ok, so Neal’s post ( got me to thinking about those little things that happen that have made all the difference in my life. Not the biggies – being born to my mother, marrying my husband, having my kid – but the stuff that at the time doesn’t seem to matter that later proves to be huge. So, here’s my Top Ten list (which, because I’m a historian, will be placed in chronological rather than rank order.) I’m going to do it in two installments because this takes more thought and time than I have in one day.

10. The happy accident of getting Mrs. James as a 1st grade teacher. When I got to 1st grade, I was already reading well-advanced texts and didn’t really want to do anything else BUT read. She was willing to let me zip through whatever work we had to do in the other subjects and then go to the corner of the class where I was invited to read whatever I wanted from a corner she had stocked with the most wonderful books. Great Expectations (and a lot of other Dickens books). Jane Eyre. Animal Farm. The Red Pony. And some of the best of children’s books – E.B. White’s work, a book titled The Far-Distant Oxus. Elizabeth Enright’s books. Stuff like that. She and my mom collaborated on developing the booklist and then I was loosed upon these works like a starving child at an endless feast of words. I would have gone up the wall in a standard classroom (as became evident the next year, in Mrs. Williams’ exceptionally standardized care). But she bought me one golden year of pleasure and sustained the work of my mom in opening up my head to books. With those books came nameless hungerings for a world beyond my little town, education beyond the ordinary expectations of a poor little redneck girl.

9. Punching Jay Curtis in the nose in 5th grade. I was a painfully shy, nerdy marshmellow of a kid, bookish with thick glasses, buck-toothed, vulnerable, prone to tears while other children picked on me. Jay was a boy struggling with short-man’s disease from an early age. There were three of us in the cloakroom, me and Jay and Cindy. Cindy was the only child lower in the classroom social order than me, a girl who always smelled a little like old pee because she was poor, slept in her clothes for warmth, and had to share a bed with her bedwetting little brother. When he pushed her and made her cry, something inside me just gave way. I flew into him with both fists pounding. He sailed backward and skidded to a stop, a confused look on his face. And then he ran away and never told on me. I never told anyone else, but I think he realized that I could and so neither Cindy nor I had any further problems from him. I realized that if I could stick up for someone else, I probably could and should be sticking up for myself. And that sometimes a little violence can be efficacious.

8. Winning the “If I were President” essay contest in 6th grade. My public policy initiatives amounted to “I think that every worker needs to be given safety glasses” and “we need to raise the minimum wage because this will have good effects on both businesses and individuals.” Nothing earth-shattering, but sufficiently explicit to win. Unfortunately, as the principal awkwardly explained to me, I was not really supposed to have entered the contest in the first place because I would never really be President. I guess I just hadn’t understood that this was a competition intended for boys only – and since it was blind-juried, the local Woman’s Club had been placed in a very embarrassing position by my transgression. They had concluded that the only fair way to resolve the issue (without lawsuit?) was to give the $50 savings bond (the stated prize for the competition and my only incentive to enter) to the boy who was runner-up, “so he could save it for college.” I received a beautifully illustrated cookbook instead. He got to attend the awards ceremony. I did not. Although this boy and I were good friends throughout school, I always took a little bit of delight after that in trouncing him academically. (He’s now a high school teacher in our hometown. I’m a college professor in the same discipline. Neither one of us is President. I still am not a very good cook.)

7. Trying out for the 9th grade school musical. The shyness hadn’t gotten any better, really and I seemed to be stuck at permanently pudgy. My best friend wanted to try out and wouldn’t go without me for moral support. I had no intention of auditioning, but the choir teacher (Mrs. Irwin) wouldn’t let me stay in the audition room unless I also took a shot. Who knew I could sing – I mean, really sing? I got a small part which later turned into leads, which later turned into voice scholarships. Who knew?

6. Meeting Dodie. She was a year younger, a junior to my senior. She was funny, sexy in an uncomplicated way, and unafraid of life. I learned a lot from being around her – to give things a try if they looked like fun, that honesty and kindness are not mutually exclusive, and that women who like sex are not whores by definition. In an era before we all rocked the body-positive thing, Dodie totally got the whole celebration of womanhood. She was a fount of accurate information about birth control, STDs, sexual practices, and all the other realms of knowledge that our small-town upbringing had tried to close off from us. And because she had a car, she could take girls to the county seat to get health care through the only Planned Parenthood in a hundred miles. As the lynchpin of my high school group, she probably didn’t realize that she was a feminist role model for us all, but she was. She was the first person other than my mother to tell me that I was beautiful and it was only years later that I came to believe that she was right.

Sunday, February 05, 2006


He was only a few years older than me. He was a brand new prof at Big Midwestern the year I arrived. The first-years all took classes with this guy, pronounced a Wunderkind by the profession with a demeanor (and haircut) somewhere between Bill Gates and Ken Burns. Cool he was not. He was easily irritated with us, trying to pull us up to his speed -- as if humming the Jeopardy theme song was going to make us respond faster. I confess that I thought, after a few weeks, that he was a complete asshole.

And then I got better as a student and he got better as a prof, as these things happen. I got to know his family, his lovely wife, his three kids. He became department chair on the heels of his second book, director of a internationally known Human Rights center at the same time. He published, he supported grad students in their research and in their union organizing, he made hilarious withering comments at times when other professors lapsed into piety or silence. He could say "that's just fucking stupid" and the roof didn't fall in, giving others (me) the courage to call them as we saw them when we felt we'd earned the right to do so. He took on far more than he could reasonably be expected to do and somehow pulled it off, making time to watch the OC with his children and open his home to his colleagues at all stages of professional development.

On Thursday, he collapsed from a previously undiagnosed and inoperable brain tumor. True to his wishes, he was kept alive just long enough to give his final gifts to the world -- "stripped for parts," he probably would have said with wry black humor.

It's devastating.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The one I count.

Every February 2nd, I can expect a letter from one of my oldest and dearest friends, wishing me a Happy Anniversary. Anniversary? Not my wedding anniversary (July 13) or my birthday (Dec 14) or the date I got my driver's license (Sept 14) or the day I had my first real kiss (Sept 17...connect the dots on that one!) So what gives?

The year was 1985. I was a junior in college, living in a women's dormitory in a small private liberal arts school in rural Ohio. I'd been dating the friend mentioned above for about 9 months, long enough to have shared the painful story of my first (involuntary) sexual experience. We were absolutely crazy about each other, but between my skittishness (understandable), my "thou shalt not" upbringing, and his solicitude (this is important, don't want to screw this up), we hadn't quite gotten around to having sex. This strikes me now as utterly astounding -- my memories of desire are so keen that I look back
with a certain amount of impatience at my younger self. Didn't she know that youth and beauty are fleeting? No. Apparently not.

I have no romantic story to offer about my first consensual sexual experience. It was funny from start to finish. We had returned to my room from a cocktail party in which the featured drink was a Sloe Gin Fizz to find my roomate's
top bunk piled high with clean laundry but my roomate nowhere in evidence. Several minutes of dark fumblings later,
we realized -- much to our horror -- that roomate was indeed in the bed above, passed out in the middle of the
pile of laundry. So, ahem, midstream as it were, we had to take the mattress off the bunk so as not to disturb her rest with
our movement. Surely I must be the only woman in the world who questioned, with a nervous giggle, "So, was that
it?" in the tender moments after my partner's climax. I wasn't complaining -- no, far from it. I was really genuinely
confused because what I had been led to expect of sex (painful, dutiful) and what I had experienced directly
(painful, terrifying) was not at all this new thing. I really wasn't sure if we had actually had sex or not and I
wanted to check to be sure. Still, the question itself touched off such raucous laughter
in my partner that we had to evacuate the room and run to the dorm kitchen, where we laughed for at least
fifteen minutes. He was, is, that kind of a guy. (He reads the blog too -- feel free to jump in and add or
comment if you want...) While the romantic relationship didn't survive, our friendship endured and for this I
am glad. Because really, if you can stick with me after something like that, you're really the sort of person that
I need to have around always.

So, that's the story of my beginning as a sexually active woman. At least, that's the one I count. Happy Anniversary to me.

St. Brigid's Day (Feb 1)

If you're reading along in your liturgy (I kid), you know that today is St. Ignatius Day. But to me, being Irish and named Bridgett, this has always been St. Brigid's Day. Brigid was born to an enslaved woman, named by her father for a Celtic fire and fertility goddess. She angered her dad (for whom she worked as a slave) by giving away too many of his possessions to the poor, so he tried to sell her to the King of Leinster. While her dad was in arranging the deal, Brigid (left like a sack of meal in the wagon) gave away her father's sword to a passing leper. The King convinced her dad that she would never be of use as a slave to either of them, given her pathological generosity, and thus she was freed.

Brigid's Day, Candlemas, St. Blaise's Day -- three fiery days right in a row, right at the most depressing time of the year. Pagans had it right when they put Imbolc in the beginning of February, celebrating sexuality and creativity during these
long cold nights.

Go forth and celebrate appropriately.

Rain in January

There's nothing like watching a kid in rainboots go at a deep puddle to make you happy about rain in January.

Monday, January 30, 2006


Too tired to think straight, but I realize that it's been a very long time since I've posted. School's back in session and I'm back to teaching a "full load" (4 courses here). My department's hiring two new members, there's a ton of meetings to
attend in getting the new Center off the ground, and just a hellish amount of work considering that I haven't graded
any papers at all yet. Kid was sick (vomiting, fever) over the weekend, including up all one night, so my recuperative
time that I count on to catch up on sleep and get housework back under control didn't happen this week. And today
was the long teaching day. I basically have been lying prone for the last two hours reading blogs and doing class
prep, knowing all the while that I should get up enough gumption to turn off the lights and call it a night.

I promise. More exciting things to come. Just not tonight.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Always Christmas in my room...

I recently installed two strings of white Christmas lights in my room. Kid is currently in the midst of a long
pretend in which we are both poor orphans living in an open-air market in Marseilles. The lights were
my playful attempt to establish some atmosphere by putting up cafe-esque lighting. I like the soft
indirect glow and don't mind that it makes my bedroom look like the inside of a single-wide
trailer minus the deer head (cue Gretchen Wilson). In fact, I like the indirect lighting so much
and it is just bright enough to keep me alert but dim enough to make me feel relaxed that
I DON'T SEEM TO BE CAPABLE OF GOING TO SLEEP. Four nights in a row, much later
than I usually would be up. When I get up at 4 to finish my class prep, I plug them in and
I'm good to go, alert and productive even if I went to bed after midnight. Have I found
the secret to derailing the mid-winter blues?

Poetry for Saturday

Jo(e)'s doing poetry on Fridays, but typically, I'm a day late...

Aunt B. over at Tiny Cat Pants pointed this out to me a couple of months ago and it's kind of stuck in my mind/
Marvelling at the sky is something I've been known to do. Happy stargazing, whereever you are.

I got out twice,
leaned back against the car
and stared up at our windy, untidy loft
where old people had flung up old junk
they'd thought might come in handy,
ploughs, ladles, bears, lions, a clatter of heros,
a few heroines, a path for the white cow, a swan
and, low down, almost within reach,
Venus, completely unfazed by the frost.

(except from Moya Cannon's work, Night)

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Fucking rain. Fucking roof. Fucking leaks.

Fucking leaking old fucking rundown fucking house.

Carry on.

Another reason to love Iowa

I love Iowa. I lived there for the best decade of my life. I enjoy the small towns, the patient landscape, the quiet commitment to education access, the niceness and common sense of the place. I would move back in a heartbeat and have more than idly considered moving out of college teaching and into secondary ed or some related field so that I could live there again. It a soul-place, if you know what I mean, somewhere that clicked with me so deeply that I feel somewhat amputated living in the Northeast again.

One of the best parts of living there is the reasonableness of local and state government. Oh sure, there are boneheads. There are entire sets of policy to which I object. Mainly, however, I experienced the bureaucracy as an efficient and minimalist aid to my daily life, something I could not say about my current state. Trips to the DMV were quick, and often
a hoot. Getting involved in political life was easy and since one could meet and talk to all the presidential candidates
personally (trust me, sometimes they are desperate in the early running to talk to anyone at that chili-fest),
I felt myself able to evaluate these people personally. It made me a corny and passionate patriot, happily walking
uptown to the July 4th parade, eager to caucus. It's the only time in my adult life that I felt like I really was a citizen.
The distance between those days and these (no, I'm not going to drop into a disaffected and draining rant) is
pretty huge.

I just had another interaction with Iowa bureaucrats that made me so homesick I could die. (Yes, read that again.)
Iowa has a Public Employees Retirement System, same as most states. I was, for about half a year, a public
employee. I had a pittance in my account and because I wasn't vested nor did I have an IRA to roll this money
into, I just let it ride. Well, now that I'm a professor-type and am doing the TIAA-CREF thing, I decided to
investigate how to get this couple hundred bucks back. The automated voice system informed me that I no
longer had money in the account. Prepared to be assertive and if need be aggressive, I got a IPERS phone rep
on the line. She informed me that the state had changed the law so that anyone who had been out of public
service for 5 years and had a small investment (I'm guessing under $1000) was going to be sent an automatic
refund. I'll be receiving my check next week.

Damn, I love Iowa.


I just lost a huge post. It boiled down to:

1) walking to school in the sleet sucked for everyone, but helped me segue into teaching about pre-Columbian societies (how climate, geography, etc influence culture/economics);

2) the encounter with "that student" -- you know, the person who pumps your e-mail box full with double-copied messages (which I really will have to blog about more at length);

3) the encounter with Hotwheels, a student with spinocerebellar ataxia/rigidity who initially thought she was in my class but was misdirected by Student Disabiltiy Services. They assumed that because I'm known around campus as an academic advocate for such students, she must be in my class. Yes, they really are that bad and yes, this campus really is
that unenlightened. We're working on it. Unfortunately, I'll have to catch her and her excellent sassy notetaker, Shyanne, on the flip side, since she's going to be taking British history this term;

4) My ode to coffee, my drug of choice. That boiled down to a pathetic demonstration of what an addict I am, although
I also gently slagged off on my Ghanian colleague's skills as a barista;

5) Various department and faculty meetings, and my gratitude at having these to go to warring with my ire that
I have to go to these.

6) Happily looking forward to picking up tickets to go see Marshall Crenshaw and recalling his and other great
live shows that I saw during my heavy concert-going days. (With special reference to Elvis Costello, Oingo
Boingo, etc.) Motherhood pretty much dinged that, which is ok. MC is going to appear in an auditorium,
though, so I can take Kid.

Anyhow, that was the gist of it. I'm still alive. What's up with you all?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Clean-up Time

Those of you who know me in real life know that I have a love-hate relationship with order in my
personal space. When things are super piggy (like when I found kitchen grease in the upstairs of
our new home...and there hadn't been a stove in the room for at least five years!!!! Eeeeuwww!!!),
I am a dervish with the scrub-brush. On the other hand, I have a very high tolerance for ordinary
academic clutter -- piles of papers, towers of books, and stacks of opened advertisements for desk
copies I might want to order can lay on the dining room table (or the latest crap-stacker, the
old chapel bench that runs against the south wall) for weeks without acknowledgement. To give you an
idea of the magnitude of the order-problem here, this is what's currently on that bench:

A stereo, seven CDS, a Yahtzee game, a Spanish dictionary (brushing up...dreaming about
Barcelona again), a box of thank-you cards and 7 .37 cent Santa stamps from a couple of years
ago, a chalkboard, chalk, and eraser, 64 colored pencils, one fleece sock, a pair of child's leggings,
outerwear from an earlier snowball fight (as in, two weeks earlier), a fleece reading wrap in a rainbow
cheetah print (kid's craft project before she started quilting), a detachable bicycle basket for a
bicycle that no longer exists (used by kid to periodically to haul folded laundry up the stairs...), a
yellow plastic grocery bag filled with folders of research, a hundred or so blue books that I can't throw
away but that no one will ever retrieve, a 15-inch vertical stack of lecture folders, and a fake-flower
wedding bouquet that kid caught at a wedding on December 28th, a box of white Christmas lights,
some Christmas paper, a child's necklace made of yarn, drinking straws, and colored paper in the
shape of the flags of Kenya, Mozambique, Cote d"Ivoire, and Ghana, a chalice, two maps of Africa (political, physical),
a map-sized sheet magnifier (also useful for microfilm reading), some construction paper,
a five-pound box of air-drying white clay, two spiral-bound notebooks (labeled Haiku and Spelling),
a bag of marbles, five Hal Leonard Level II piano books, a dance bag full of tap and jazz shoes,
a globe, a pint-sized pottery wheel, a bag of calico, some foam packing noodles stuck to a cardboard
tube, a headless Barbie, two plastic light sabers (one with Yoda voice, one without),
an X-wing fighter, a old Star Trek figure (Checkov, I
think) and maybe 50 78 records from dance bands of the 1940s (part of a much
larger collections of 78s of music between 1918-1953 that resides under the bench.

I live in a small house made smaller by the vast amount of crap stuffed in it. So, repeating
the cycle that I always start in January, it's clean-up time. Earlier, I did closets. Now it's the
living room/dining room that is getting the purge treatment. I Freecycle a lot of things (kid
is like living with Scrooge McDuck -- it's very hard to convince her to just throw something
away even if it is broken and beyond repair. It has been tempting at points to Freecycle the
kid herself, but I've managed to resist.) Other items are taken to the local charity
where they will be redistributed to those who actually need it. This ritual always reminds me, especially
at a point of the year when I'm prone to poopiness, that I am already in that place
of abundance that I worry I'm never going to reach. It also uses up some sad energy
that otherwise would brood about my spouse's departure this morning -- he's
gone for another semester-long chunk, with some time back during spring break.

Next week, when I get the house just as clean as it can be (a relative state, since
kid is just another word for entropy) and everything smells like orange oil, I'll sit up
late one night and light a candle just to see the gleam reflected in the wood.
Sometimes you have to prepare for change by letting go of the old.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Good things about today.

As the four of you regular readers know, I've been sort of struggling lately emotionally and professionally.
I'm in that hateful stage of my life where I'm trying to figure out who I am now that I've grown up -- or
maybe it's just the big blah that comes after completing a big project like a dissertation. Or dealing
with my own mortality in the wake of my father's death. Or the periodic and painful absences of
my spouse, necessitated by our precarious financial situation. Whatevs. I got my reasons.

Today good things happened in a cluster. There was sunshine and warmer temperatures. There was
wine. There was music and gladness. Things got cleaned. I got an exceptionally good haircut that
makes me look my age rather than like some pedantic demented grannywoman. (Hope I can style
it in this cutey way -- I'm not so good with hair.) Perhaps most encouraging of all, however, is that
I won a huge grant for my department to start a Center for Important Social Issues In My Area of
Research. Like, more than my yearly salary huge, which I realize is not like B1 Bomber money, but
still. I wrote it. I presented the proposal to the committee. And it was fully funded for multiple
years with very encouraging remarks from the funding agency. (This is on top of -- yeah, I
didn't blog about this -- the more modest but still substantial grant I won to support my research this upcoming
year that will allow me to hire another research assistant. For a school that is firmly and
unapologetically a small teaching-intensive school, I'm doing fairly well at funding my own
work. I just wish I had more time to do it.) The best part about this all is that I wrote in
multiple funding opportunities for our grad students, who really need to get some support
to excel. And all those lines will be funded, which will free up other money in other places
that can also be directed to top students. As long as I'm staying here (and Longshot U hasn't
called, so I guess I was right about my poor performance in the interview), why not do something

I also began reading William Germano's From Dissertation to Book -- it's a very helpful, realistic
look at revision. I defended in July and I realized during my interview with Longshot U that
I had no clue about how to describe what I planned to do with my work. That also killed me
in a couple of post-doc interviews last year. If I'm going to actually do this, I'm going to have
to give it thought and make time for it and quit whining about how tough everything is and
how in a better world my genius (gesturing with back of hand swept up to forehead) would be
recognized...shuddup already. I'm getting recognition, a hell of a lot moreso than many of
my equally capable peers. So enough with the self-pity and the wishing things were different.
They are not. So this is me, getting on with it.

Monday, January 09, 2006

7 X 7 (for Rob)

Seven Things to do before I die:

1) Move back to the Midwest;
2) Publish my book manuscript;
3) Visit Barcelona;
4) Establish a scholarship fund for first-generation college students, named for my mother;
5) Wean myself from clutter;
6) Make peace with my own shortcomings; and
7) Accept my own mortality.

Seven Things I cannot do:

1) Put my own needs first;
2) Keep the squirrels from eating my tulip bulbs;
3) Establish a writing routine;
4) Teach without extensive preparation;
5) Get out of debt;
6) Stop worrying about the future;
7) Get the drywall back on my bathroom walls (7 months and counting...this is related to numbers 4, 5 and 6.)

Seven Things that attract me to blogging:

1) I learn new stories;
2) I have a venue for telling my own stories (aid to memory);
3) It's a form that lends itself to the writing blurt, which is about all I have time for these days;
4) I've met (virtually) incredible people that I'd be too shy to meet otherwise;
5) It's the teaching journal I've always thought I should keep;
6) I am astonished by the kindness afloat -- it's a tonic of courage in hard times; and
7) Having my say and listening to you have yours is the most politically radical thing that
I can be doing right now.

Seven Things I say most often:

1) I love you.
2) Enough of that for right now.
3 & 4) Dammit. Shit. (tied)
5) In a minute.
6) Hey, babe, could you....
7) No.

Seven Books That I Love:

1) Refuge (Terry Tempest Williams)
2) If On a Winter's Night a Traveler (Italo Calvino)
3) Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
4) A Place on Earth (Wendell Berry)
5) Anything by John McPhee
6) Soul by Soul (Walter Johnson)
7) Vicious (Jon Coleman)
(Ok, so I became a history nerd for the last two...)

Seven Movies That I Watch Over and Over (or would if I had the time):

1) Wings of Desire
2) My Man Godfrey
3) American in Paris
4) Roman Holiday
5) Singles
6) Raiders of the Lost Ark
7) A River Runs Through It

Tag -- you're it. If you haven't done this one and have the time, it's an interesting one. (I found it a lot more difficult
to do than I expected -- I need to actually read more of what I like and less of what I "need to" for my job.)

Friday, January 06, 2006

New lows...Low news...

Ok, long time, no post.

The end of the semester kicked my ass. Then that segued into Christmas, which is always a low season for me despite the obvious delight that my kid takes in the proceedings. I try not to get in the way of the good times of others. Now I'm
in a strange city, sitting in a cold and noisy hotel lobby, trying to survive the experience of my profession's biggest
conference. I have a perfectly good job in a city I don't like, so I thought I'd interview at Longshot U, a huge research
university back in the Midwest. The interview left me feeling inadequate in every way. I wonder how the hell I got
the job I currently have. The committee was palpably uninterested in my research. One of them told me I had sent
the wrong writing sample (how would they know? They hadn't read the rest of the work!) Another, when I described
my next project, said "Well, thanks for sharing that with us." (Clunk.) They tried to be nice, but I
felt like I had interrupted a great conversation that had been taking place shortly before I arrived that they were
eager to resume after I left.

Now I have to go and pick up the pieces of my good enough job, mustering gratitude for having a job even
while struggling with the whole demeaning interview thing.

So if anyone is still out there occasionally checking in, I could stand a little tea and sympathy.