Nobody’s Wives, Together

Or, Thirty Years of Queer Delight

Facebook already knows how this story ends, so I might as well tell you right up front: Reader, I married her.

blackberry pineapple mojitoIt was an impulse move thirty years in the making, one made possible by the voters of Maryland and finally irresistible because of a ballsy woman named Edith Windsor. We billed it as a celebration of our thirtieth anniversary and, “by the way, a wedding,” which was our way of saying that what mattered most to us was not the change in our legal status but the three decades of shared life and love that had preceded it. It was a small, elegant, impromptu affair, which we planned and executed in three weeks in the middle of an already insanely busy semester. (How busy? The night before the wedding, I took a job candidate out to dinner while relatives and out-of-towners were gathering at the house.) We were able to pull it off because a trusted caterer happened to be available and a dear friend is an interwebz-certified secular officiant. My advice? If you’re going to get married, don’t spend more than three weeks planning and executing it. Ignore the whole marriage industrial complex. I got married in a ten-year-old suit and never got around to buying new shoes for the occasion. The suit looked great and I kicked off my old shoes an hour after the ceremony. The world didn’t end. Also: Serve mojitos. And shrimp with dry ice wafting off the platter. No one will notice your shoes if there are festive cocktails and a dry-ice haze hanging pleasantly in the air.

Fine, Madwoman, I hear you muttering. You’ve told us the how of your wedding. What about the why?

What, you can’t just congratulate me? I’m not sure I owe you an explanation, but, having publicly proclaimed myself a marriage resister, I suppose I can understand why you might expect one. It’s simple, really. I stand by everything I’ve ever said against marriage: It’s not necessarily the best way to organize intimacy, it’s a terrible way to distribute benefits and protections that all citizens should have, and it’s an obscene (and probably unconstitutional) way for states to enforce judgments about who and how people love. At the same time, it is, at the moment, the best way to secure a relationship legally and financially. The Woman Formerly Known as Goose and I have already been together for thirty years. We are not getting any younger. We’ve reached a point in our lives where such security feels both appealing and necessary. As I explained to a friend, I may be ambivalent about marriage, but I’m not ambivalent about my relationship. It’s my future. I want to protect it. Besides, I’ve been working to create change from inside institutions my entire career. I’ll treat marriage the same way I’ve treated academia: I’ll resist and subvert it from within. And I’ll continue to argue against compulsory marriage and for the full range of queer intimacies. I’ve always been a firm believer in the value of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time or, as a more eloquent pal put it on Facebook, of being able to balance the both/and.

The_trouble_with_normal_(book_cover)To the queer purists who would dismiss such talk as a load of self-justifying bourgeois crap, I say, fine. You win the cool contest. I understand the romance of precarity and marginalization in queer culture, the veneration for all things anti-normative. I enjoyed my outlaw status and have mixed feelings about giving up my strongest claim to it. I was and am proud of the sturdy, resilient alternative to legal marriage that WFKG and I lovingly built and sustained. On the other hand, I also experienced the terrible insecurity of that alternative one day in 1994, when my partner nearly bled to death on an operating table in a Catholic hospital. I sat for nine excruciating hours in a surgical waiting room, not knowing what was happening to her and not at all sure that the medical power of attorney she had given me would be respected. A volunteer at the desk had shaken my confidence when I asked her to call the OR to try to find out why the surgery was taking so much longer than expected. “You’re not family?” she said in the course of our exchange. “Well, I don’t know if the doctor will talk to you at all.” Live through a moment like that and then tell me you wouldn’t do everything you possibly could to assure you’d be able to care for the person you love in a medical crisis.

More recently, I ran into an old friend in the grocery store, someone I hadn’t seen in a few years. We chatted in the produce aisle, catching up and kvetching about the winter storm we were both preparing for. She told me she and her partner had sold their sweet bungalow and moved into a condo near the store in which we stood. “That sounds like a great idea,” I said. “I love our house, but there are days when I’m sick of taking care of it.” She smiled and nodded, then paused briefly before saying quietly, “Well, I got this diagnosis a couple of years ago.” “Oh, no!” I said, and to my quizzical look she matter-of-factly replied, “I have Alzheimer’s.” I was astonished by the news and pained for my friend, who is probably in her mid-60s and has lived as healthy and mindful a life as anyone I know. She’s a Buddhist, a vegetarian, a yoga teacher, for heaven’s sake! The encounter forcefully reminded me of things we all know but generally avoid acknowledging: That virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded, that life is a crap shoot, that the bottom can suddenly and inexplicably drop out of everything, re-arranging the world and one’s way of moving through it. That chance encounter had a lot to do with my decision to say to WFKG, “Let’s do this. Anything can happen. We need to put ourselves in the best possible position to manage the worst possible circumstances.” She agreed.

The ceremony was simple and sweet, performed in front of the fireplace in our great room thirty years to the day after we spent our first night together. We reaffirmed vows we made in our 1989 commitment ceremony while the rings we have worn since that day were passed around in a small silk bag and lovingly re-warmed by each guest. As part of my vows, I surprised WFKG by singing to her, John Lennon’s “Grow Old With Me,” which is based on a poem by Robert Browning and is one of the last songs ever written by my beloved’s favorite Beatle. I hadn’t sung in public since my killer performance as Mona Kent in Dames at Sea in high school, but the song’s tender lyric so eloquently expresses what love and commitment feel like in the middle of life that I was willing to risk humiliating myself in front of a group that included a number of professional singers and musicians. By obsessively studying Mary Chapin Carpenter’s beautiful rendition of the song I managed a creditable performance, but I did have to make one key, queer revision to Lennon’s lyric. Where he writes, “Spending our lives together,/Man and wife together,” etc., I sang

Spending our lives together,

Nobody’s wives together

World without end

World without end

In last year’s anniversary post, I wrote that the term “wife” is for me beyond reclamation, rooted in and saturated by gender-based inequalities that persist in custom if not in law. “I don’t need it,” I declared. “I don’t want it. I don’t like the feel of it in my mouth or the sound of it in my ears. It grates. It simpers. It titters and totters, uncertain of itself, as Emily Dickinson brilliantly, devastatingly shows” in her poem “I’m ‘wife’–.” A year later and newly arrived in the state of matrimony, I can state emphatically that my feelings toward the W-word have not changed one iota. I reject it. I will not use it, and I don’t want it used in reference to me or the person to whom I am legally married. (Note to the Associated Press: Partner, please. Even “spouse” feels weird to me, though WFKG and I have been trying it out this week.) I continue to believe that same-sex couples can and will queer the institution of marriage simply by occupying it. We can heighten the queering by refusing traditional roles and terms and by calling out marital privilege for what it is, which is perhaps why I can’t resist making jokes about only marrying WFKG for her money. The sentimentalists may cringe, but the truth is that, while my marriage may be legally meaningful, the change in status means little to me personally. It doesn’t change how I think or feel about myself or my relationship. It has no bearing on my sense of worth, belonging, or responsibility. To pretend otherwise would be to buy into the hierarchy of values that so troubles the speaker in Dickinson’s poem, as she looks back on a “Girl’s life” that is supposed to look “odd” from the comforting “soft Eclipse” of marriage. “Why compare?” asks the speaker, unable to bear or bridge the gap between what she feels and what heteropatriarchy tells her she is supposed to feel. “I’m ‘Wife!’ Stop there!” she frantically concludes.

Rather than stop there, I will use this occasion to say that perhaps it’s time to begin imagining a post-marriage LGBT politics. Many of us never wanted marriage to be the primary goal of LGBT activism and aspiration. We had more radical dreams for our relationships, our movement, and our world. We entered into the marriage struggle reluctantly if we entered it at all only because it became a fight to assure that discrimination against non-heterosexuals didn’t get enshrined not only in state laws but in the Constitution itself. In this extraordinary moment when we seem on the brink of full marriage equality nationwide, we should be thinking about how to mobilize support for, for example, economic justice, queer elder care, and protections for non-marital relationships. Some of us will be saying, “I do,” but all of us need to be asking, “What’s next?” There’s still plenty of work left to do, kids. The party was swell, but it’s time to get back into our comfortable shoes and put our queer shoulders to the wheel.

These gals made their first appearance on top of the cake at our "Practically a Wedding" in 1989. Being committed enviros, we reused them for last weekend's legal marriage ceremony. 3/8/14.

These gals made their first appearance on top of the cake at our “Practically a Wedding” in 1989. Being committed enviros, we reused them for last weekend’s legal marriage ceremony. 3/8/14.

Advice for (Virtual and Actual) Life: Don’t Be a Butthead

Don't Be a Butthead

Profiles in Science from the National Library of Medicine. Poster for a 1998 anti-tobacco campaign by the Centers for Disease Control. Original Repository: The History of Medicine Division. Prints and Photographs Collection.

That’s not the kind of butthead I had in mind, but, well, if the shoe fits, don’t smoke it. Or something.

Anyhoo, yours truly was on a little panel Monday morning at QTU focused on online professionalism for grad students. The panel included poet Josh Weiner, digital wunderkind Matt Kirschenbaum, and digital wunderkind-in-training Amanda Visconti, whose fabulous blog post of the remarks she made you should totes go read, soon and carefully. (Great links! Sound advice! Pithy wisdom on the magic of blogging!) The audience was lit critters, but the issues and advice are relevant to all job seekers in the age of social media, so I figured I’d share my own comments and links here. Feel free to weigh in with your insights, questions, and pithy wisdom. The un- and under-employed are eager to hear from you!

One of the questions put to the panel by organizer (and blogger) Rachel Vorona was, What does online professionalism mean, especially for graduate students? That’s where I decided to begin my reflections.

* * *

What does online professionalism mean, especially for grad students? Pretty much what it means for anybody else:

Don’t be a butthead.

Don’t tweet naked selfies. Don’t provoke flame wars with senior scholars in your field. Don’t brag about grading drunk on Facebook. Don’t blog as a dog or, worse, a dead dog, until you have tenure or, better still, are a full professor.

Here is a good local example of why online professionalism is important for aspiring academics. Recently adopted changes to Queer the Turtle U’s guidelines on search and selection have this to say about use of the Internet and social media in the hiring process:

a. The Internet and social media may be used to recruit and vet applicants for employment.

b. Information pertaining to personal characteristics or traits that are not job-related, such as race, religious affiliation, and personal appearance, should not be considered in the hiring process.

c. The use of the Internet and/or social media should be consistently and fairly applied to all candidates at the same stage.

d. The use of the Internet and/or social media should not be the only means of vetting applicants.

e. Search Committees should not use information found through Internet searches and/or social media unless the information is verified and related to the essential functions of the specific job.

I love point d. in particular. Oh, crap, you mean we have to keep reading all these recommendations and writing samples after all? The Google can’t do it all for us? The guidelines are an admirable attempt to acknowledge that we live in the twenty-first rather than the nineteenth century, but the problem of course is that you can’t un-ring a bell. Once a search committee member has seen the photo of you tongue-kissing Testudo or read your agonizing blog post about what an intellectual fraud you are, he or she is almost certain to reassess your candidacy, even if only unconsciously and silently. You can take comfort in knowing that all of your competitors on the job market are as vulnerable as you are to such scrutiny, but the bottom line is that you need to exercise good judgment in your online behavior and do what you can to assure that your digital footprint bolsters your chances of gainful employment rather than undermining them. That doesn’t mean you should live in a state of digital paranoia or desperately cultivate and promote unrealistic images of yourself as a saint or a superstar. It just means you should assume that everything you put up online will be permanently and universally accessible. Nothing ever really disappears, so make sure you won’t mind having it follow you around forever. (You can try to delete yourself from the Internet, but is that a realistic option for someone aspiring to work and live in the world? I don’t think so, sweeties.)

How might blogging fit into your efforts to build a professional online presence? That’s a great question, but I’m not sure it’s one that a former dog blogger is equipped to answer. A year and a half ago, I put down the dog, as it were, and started blogging as a Madwoman, but The Madwoman with a Laptop is still not an “academic blog” if by that we mean a blog primarily aimed at developing and promoting my scholarly work. Nonetheless, I do blog regularly on academic professional issues, and blogging has become an important part of my academic profile. I’ve published articles on the subject, given lots of talks at conferences, teach a class called “Writing for the Blogosphere,” and now list my blogs on my CV under the category of creative nonfiction. (That feels right to me, though the question of whether it fits and how it counts is something we might take up later.) My most widely viewed post ever was one I published this Labor Day called “Take This Job and Shove It.” It focused on assistant professors resigning from tenure-track positions, a trend we are seeing increasingly, unfortunately, among women and faculty of color. I’ve written a lot on the so-called funding crisis in higher education and on the pressure on universities to produce Excellence Without Money in the age of helicopter parents and neoliberal austerity.

So, why should you blog? I peeked ahead to Amanda’s presentation and note that she describes blogging as magic. She’s right. I think it’s also, ideally, just about the most fun you can have while staring at a screen. What thrilled me about blogging was that it helped me to re-establish a regular practice of writing something other than the dull reports and soulless e-mails I had to crank out in my administrative work. I enjoyed the informality and the creativity of blogging. I delighted in being able to compose multimedia texts without having to know anything more technical than how to flip open a laptop. As the blog grew, I loved the sense of connection to a live and responsive audience. Every post felt like an adventure and an experiment. If it was labor, it was a labor of love. Nearly eight years later, I still feel considerable love for blogging and can recommend it to scholars at any stage in their career as a writing practice that encourages the disciplines of clarity and concision and affords the pleasures of thinking out loud in public. Light-hearted as it often is, my blogging is always informed by what I’ve learned in my life as a scholar and teacher. I view blogging and other social media as tools of outreach and education, means of engaging in public pedagogy, of translating our work into terms that a broader public can understand and, I hope, support. David Palumbo-Liu wrote recently in the Boston Review of the profound effects that changes in communications technologies and the information landscape have had on the concept of the public intellectual. His comments resonate with what I strive to do as a scholar blogger, and I think they would be useful to anyone interested in engaging in public conversations. He writes:

What is called for are public intellectuals who exert critical intelligence in synthesizing multiple sources of information and knowledge and presenting their opinions for debate, not simply for consumption. A public intellectual today would thus not simply be one filter alongside others, an arbiter of opinion and supplier of diversity. Instead, today’s public intellectual is a provocateur who also provides a compelling reason to think differently.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that in the last couple of years I have come to feel a little burdened by the labor part of my labor of love. Blogging is work, and it is work that is devalued if not wholly disregarded in the academic reward system. That is something worth thinking about very seriously if you are in the early stages of your career and trying to figure out how to spend your time and energy and balance your various commitments. I’m fortunate to be in a department that let me start teaching courses on online writing and culture when I decided it was time to make my hobby part of my work life. With the security of tenure, I was able to re-tool myself as something of a digital humanist. It is worth noting, however, that, although my hilarious – and entirely fictional — Xtranormal cartoon “I Want to Be Promoted,” in which an associate professor meets with her department chair to discuss her desire to go up for full partly on the basis of her blog, has gotten more than 11,000 hits on YouTube, I am still, three years later, an associate professor and expect to remain so unless and until I produce that second scholarly monograph, which is still the standard for promotion in humanities departments at R1 universities.

Thus, though I cling stubbornly to the kind of idealism Palumbo-Liu expresses about the vital work of the public intellectual in our changed information ecosystem, I also share the ambivalence articulated so eloquently in Mimi Nguyen’s trenchant “Against Efficiency Machines,” which I urge all of you to read in its entirety. (She published it in September on her blog, Thread and Circuits.) Nguyen is absolutely right that blogging, tweeting, and other modes of online communicating have been sucked up into the maw of the neoliberal university, with its insatiable demands for “flexible subjects, immaterial labor, round-the-clock consumption, and the commodification of the self.” We are expected to prove our public relevance, encouraged to cultivate and “enjoin our personal brands to the university while being capable of working more for less compensation, or the same — or none at all.” Nguyen’s closing words feel hauntingly relevant to the kind of conversation we are having here today:

Professionalization comes at a cost, including that of your own uncompensated labor. And, you might not distinguish yourself after all, but instead become just another click in a continuous feed.

I pass those somber words along to you by way of a conclusion and hope that we’ll have a more upbeat conversation during discussion. I’m a glass half full kind of gal, but these are times that test even the most cock-eyed optimists.

* * *

The conversation that followed was indeed upbeat and lively, with Kirschenbaum insisting that building a professional digital presence should be as much a part of academic career prep today as putting together a CV, while Weiner extolled the virtues of writing within the 140-character limit of Twitter and Visconti focused on blogging and tweeting as ways of workshopping ideas and building connections. (The whole convo is Storified here if you’d like to follow along, thanks to Kathryn Kaczmarek. I’m not sure I’ve ever been Storified before!)  I hope the audience of aspiring English profs found it informative and maybe a little provocative. Mind your digital footprints, kids. Don’t leave a mess behind you. Build something you’d be thrilled to have the world see. Because, you know, the world may well be watching.

On Boycotts

Channeling blog pal Historiann, The Madwoman prepares to get off the fence and take a stand. With, you know, mixed feelings and lots of qualifiers.

Channeling blog pal Historiann, The Madwoman prepares to get off the fence and take a stand. With, you know, mixed feelings and lots of qualifiers.

I have, until now, avoided writing on the controversy that has raged within my academic professional networks since the American Studies Association voted in December in favor of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. I did so because I didn’t feel informed enough on the issue to stake out a position publicly and, truth be told, because I had no desire to insert myself into a debate that seems inevitably to devolve into name-calling and mutual accusations of bad faith. I may live to regret writing and publishing this post, but after attending both the ASA and Modern Language Association conventions, reading a lot, thinking a lot, and tuning in as carefully as I can to the vibe in the aforementioned networks, I feel ready to weigh in. (NB: The MLA’s Delegate Assembly has not endorsed the boycott. It debated and narrowly passed a resolution “urging the U.S. State Department to express concern over what the measure calls restrictions on scholars’ ability to travel to Israel and the West Bank to work at Palestinian universities.” The resolution still faces review by the MLA’s Executive Council and has to be ratified by the membership.)

As a member of both the ASA and the MLA, I have deep qualms about these moves for reasons that have nothing to do with how I feel about U.S. aid to Israel or Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. I have come to oppose organizational endorsements of the boycott because I think they are producing dangerous divisions within the memberships of the ASA and the MLA and distracting the organizations from their primary missions at a time when those missions urgently require attention and action. The debates and votes are also dominating media coverage and supplying ample fodder for those who dismiss politically engaged humanistic scholarship as propaganda. (They are also provoking lawmakers to propose stripping funding from institutions whose faculty participate in organizations that support boycotting Israel, but one has to imagine that such hysterical overreaching will not be taken seriously.) I note with chagrin that in the past couple of months both The New York Times and The Washington Post have extensively covered, and, in the case of WaPo, editorialized against, the boycott, while neither has said a word about, for example, adjunctification, the erosion of tenure, or the slow starvation of public higher education that has put our institutions and access to them at risk.

The press attention to the boycott has perhaps contributed modestly to breaking down the reluctance to criticize Israel and begin to hold it accountable for its occupation of the West Bank. That is a laudable achievement, but I can’t help worrying about the cost to the ASA and the MLA of having helped to bring it about. These are membership-based organizations that rely on the good will and support of scholars and teachers whose livelihoods are threatened by the new normal of diminishing support and dwindling opportunities. If members come to feel their professional associations are spending their limited political capital on quixotic missions tangentially related to the organizations’ main goals and functions, they may well abandon them, feeling, not without some justification, that the organizations have in a sense abandoned them. Poor attendance at a conference session on contingent and part-time faculty issues is by no means proof that the MLA and its members are not concerned about such issues. One cannot, as they say, prove a negative, and I went to three sessions at the MLA that featured Famous People Speaking on Big, Hot Topics to surprisingly small audiences. (Two out of the three were, like Lee Skallerup Bessette’s session, held in the 5:15-6:30 slot. I blame cocktail hour for the paltry crowds.) Nonetheless, I understand why some presenters might have felt marginal to the concerns of a convention in which “the talk of boycotts and resolutions . . . threaten[ed] to overshadow the rest of the proceedings,” as Jennifer Howard put it in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Judith Butler has commended the ASA for taking a “principled and courageous stand” and “assuming the public responsibility to defend equality, justice and freedom” by supporting the boycott. I have enormous respect for Butler, whose work constantly teaches, thrills, and challenges me. Her characteristically thoughtful comments on the boycott, however, are not sufficient to overcome my doubts about the wisdom of  the ASA (and perhaps, ultimately, the MLA) pursuing this particular course. How much courage, I can’t help but ask, have these organizations or their members — myself included — expended in the fight to improve working conditions for contingent academic laborers? Where is our bravery when it comes to demanding resources adequate to preserving quality, affordable higher education? What risks are we willing to take to protect tenure and the academic freedom it affords? If we are going to put ourselves and our organizations’ credibility on the line, I respectfully submit that it should be for causes such as these.

I am not, by the way, suggesting that the ASA or the MLA have been inattentive to the issues and causes noted above. The MLA in particular in recent years has been tireless in its efforts to document and respond to changes in the academic workforce. (See, for example, this collection of surveys and reports.) My point is simply that our efforts so far have been ineffective and the boycott is a distraction that impedes our ability to communicate and educate on matters vital to the professional futures of everyone who belongs to these organizations.

Further, the contentiousness of the Israel/Palestine issue undermines whatever solidarity there is among the diverse members of ASA and MLA, creating or exacerbating tensions and leading to flame wars and the kinds of gratuitous insults one sees in Cary Nelson’s “Playing Heedless Politics at the MLA.”  Nelson is strongly opposed to academic boycotts and even the MLA’s much milder resolution of concern. I have some sympathy for the substance of his arguments, but his post attacking the Delegate Assembly as “a circus with a surfeit of clowns, incompetently run by people who had mastered neither Robert’s Rules of Order nor the association’s own procedures” is a dispiriting example of how toxic and destructive these debates tend to become. I’m inclined to agree with a commenter on Nelson’s post, Jonathan, who attended the Delegate Assembly (which I did not) and felt that it “resembled every other Israel/Palestine event I’ve ever attended or participated in — ferocious differences leading to caricaturing of opponents’ positions, angry denunciations of motives, and all-around ill will manifesting itself at the earliest opportunity. So be it — the stakes are high, for both sides. But this very fact is why I think the MLA is ill-suited as a venue for this kind of discussion and potential action.” Amen.

Look, I know that civility is overrated and often used as a way to avoid or shut down conflict. I also appreciate that many people believe that a strong collective stance against the occupation is necessary to force Israel to change course and that the violations of Palestinian academic freedom under occupation are sufficient to justify organizations such as the ASA and the MLA getting involved in the struggle. I hear and respect those arguments, but I also cannot shake the concern that these actions are not without cost or consequence to the organizations taking them. Ill will may weaken them internally and engaging in what many will perceive as feel-good political gestures far afield of the organizations’ zones of expertise and responsibility will likely weaken them externally. Many friends and colleagues have clearly decided those risks are worth taking. For now, I cannot concur in that judgment. The world will always need saving. Right now, so does higher education. I would prefer that my academic professional organizations concentrate their energies on the latter rather than the former.

That’s my two — or twenty — cents. Have at ‘em, Madpeople, but be nice. I’ve got that lasso in my hand for a reason. Peace out.

Off the Wall: Reflections on the Old Year

Moby Dick (beach glass on glass) by the Madwoman's Father, Welman "Lindy" Lindemann.

Moby-Dick (beach glass on glass) by the Madwoman’s Father, Welman “Lindy” Lindemann.

I was reaching sleepily for the second or third sip of coffee this morning when a loud thud out on the porch interrupted my efforts to fortify myself for the last day of 2013. The Woman Formerly Known as Goose was a sip or three ahead of me, and so she joined me out on the porch to investigate the source of the noise. To my considerable consternation, we discovered that the family masterpiece of recycled art, Moby-Dick, had fallen from the wall on which it had hung, proudly and without incident, for nearly ten years. Careful inspection revealed no damage to the painstakingly assembled pieces of Lake Michigan beach glass that make up the jaunty white whale, but a sawtooth hanger on the back of the frame had given way, causing the fall. Whether the culprit is rusty nails or weakness in the decaying frame I cannot at the moment say. WFKG and I will figure it out, though, fix it up, and get the picture back on the wall where it belongs. That’s a good project for the approaching new year: small, doable, but satisfying.

Things fall. Things fall apart. That they should do so on the last day of a year that has seemed so damaged and damaging is convenient for a lazy writer in search of an easy metaphor but not surprising. Things happen. Shit happens. Timing is meaningful only to those who believe in patterns and portents. There are no coincidences. It all fits together. See? I told you everything is getting terrible.

I don’t believe in patterns and portents, but every picture tells a story. My father, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, was not an artist. He was a department-store accountant, a mild-mannered guy who kept his head down and smoked a lot of cigarettes to get through the days on his tedious job. He played the piano, beautifully and by ear, but his taste was more Broadway than Bach, middlebrow all the way. Moby-Dick was his only foray into visual art. He produced it in the early 1980s, because my mother ordered him to do something with the piles of beach glass he kept bringing in to their home on Lake Michigan. He would walk the beach for hours, head down, Baggie in hand, scanning the ground for the rare bits of lavender and red scattered among the truckloads of green and brown glass that seemed to gather at the water’s edge. He would come home and show off his findings, brimming with the excitement of all the world’s treasure hunters. My mother and I were partial to the striking pieces of cobalt blue that would turn up from time to time. We theorized, as the poet Amy Clampitt did, that such beauty could only have been produced by Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia bottles that somehow ended up on the beach and then got broken and polished by the water into delicate chunks of loveliness that would catch my father’s eye.

The glass piled up and up in the ever larger jars my mother would buy to contain them. I wasn’t there when some of the jars got emptied out and turned into Moby-Dick, but I’m sure it was a winter project, perhaps undertaken on one of the many New Year’s Eves my parents spent at the lake. Did they collaborate in its making? I doubt it. I see my father, hunched over the kitchen table, carefully considering the placement of each piece of green glass comprising the piece’s sparkling foundation, wrestling with where and how to place the boundary between water and sky. My mother comes in from time to time and leans over the table, chatty, trying to be helpful, asking why he’s put that odd pale patch between the green and the brown in the lower right and suggesting that the small tail is out of proportion with the massive body. Also: It’s a lake, Lindy. There are no whales here. He is too absorbed in the work to offer anything but a grumble by way of reply. Get me another cup of coffee, Patsy. This is going to take awhile. The moment when he glues the triangle of red into place as the whale’s delighted eye is, I am confident, one of the happiest of his life. A Midwestern Lily Briscoe, he had had his vision and executed it to the best of his abilities.

I don’t recall how or why I came to possess Moby-Dick by the mid-80s, but he graced a wall in the first home WFKG and I ever shared, a funky little cottage on Barnegat Bay that we took because it comported with our fantasy of where writers and scholars would live and was, somehow, affordable for a couple of non-trust funded grad students. Kitschy as he is, he is one of my most cherished objects, a constant, visible reminder of things I learned from and loved about my dad: whimsy, patience, discernment, a willingness to try something new. He taught me to trust silence and my own instincts. He taught me to love a soft yet genial smile. He taught me that a strategically placed spot of red might be just the thing to bring a composition together. (What did I learn from my mother? Find out here.)

All years are a mix of good and bad, hard and easy, delightful and disheartening. By the numbers, 2013 seems to have been a fairly awful year. For me it has been a year of challenge and uncertainty on the professional front (nothing you need to worry about, I assure you) and sadness and anxiety on some personal fronts, as the chatty woman referred to two paragraphs ago slips further and further into the twilight of dementia. Will 2014 be “better”? Oh, it’s pretty to think so, isn’t it, darling, and we cling to that hope as fiercely as Robert Redford clung to his pathetic little sailboat in that great big storm. I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Meantime, I practice that other skill I learned from my father of keeping my head down and carrying on, without the cigarettes. If there are battles raging in the blogosphere, I am avoiding them, because I don’t have the time, the energy, or the inclination to hurl myself into them right now. That doesn’t mean I don’t care, though it might mean I have begun to have doubts about whether these little first-amendment machines are worth having in our laps after all. Mostly, though, it just means I am tired and expending my limited energies where they are most needed.

Here’s one thing I do know for sure, though, so I’ll offer it up as an out with the old year/in with the new year observation: Kindness might not save the world, but unkindness will surely damage it. If you have a choice, choose kindness, not because it will magically resolve conflicts and turn hell into paradise but because it stands the best chance of not increasing the world’s or your own soul’s supply of misery. Simple, right?

And on that not entirely upbeat note, I bid you a fond farewell for 2013. My minimal hope for 2014 is that nothing will fall off the walls. Happy fricking new year, Madpeople at Your Laptops. I raise my glass to each and all.

champagne & flowers

Random Bullets of Post-Thanksgiving Mellowness

Still cooking . . . . Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 11/30/13

Still cooking . . . . Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 11/30/13

The carcass of the bird is on the stove (or was, last night, when I began this post), simmering down into a stock for a soup we’ll eat for a week, if we’re lucky. This soup, I think. The lemon sounds good to me, and the Middle Eastern spices will be a nice change of taste. The guests have gone. A fire crackles. I am tired but happy and, yes, grateful for all the things a person in my ridiculously comfortable position ought to be: love, leftovers, a house suited for both comings and goings, a little dog, a partner skilled in fire-building. These are not things I take for granted. Oh, and you, of course, despite my terrible neglect recently, I am, I swear, still grateful for you, my legions of loyal, lovely readers. Thank you for being here. I’d be truly Mad without you. Now, those random bullets I promised you.

  •  Movie Mavens: Go see All Is Lost, writer-director J. C. Chandor’s absorbing, nearly wordless tale of an aging white dude (Robert Redford) whose solo sailing adventure goes horribly awry. It is brilliant for all the narrative and cinematic cliches it manages to avoid. In that respect, it is a much better film than this season’s other Adrift in an Indifferent Universe epic, Gravity, which I also enjoyed despite the fact that it collapsed into ludicrousness and sentimentality at key points. (I’d stage a full-on smackdown between the two films, but, lucky for me, someone has already done that.) Chandor deserves a medal for believing that moviegoers in a moment as loud and chattering as ours would sit through a film with one character who stares mortality in the face for a hundred minutes and has next to nothing to say. Reward his faith. Go see All Is Lost and then come back here and debate the ending with us. And tell us if you think the wedding ring on Our Man’s right hand is as significant as the close readers in our group of moviegoers thought it was. I thought it meant Redford’s character was a widower, which might help to explain his longing for solitude in a world far from home. Also, though, read A. O. Scott’s wonderfully astute reading of the film as “a fable about the soul of man under global capitalism.” Yeah, I know it sounds like the abstract of a paper from last week’s American Studies Association convention, but it’s really smart.
  • Grammar Geeks: Go read this delightful account of the evolution of “because,” which now operates as a preposition in statements such as, Grammar nazis will grouse, but the rest of us will celebrate because USAGE! Language changes, and that isn’t always or necessarily bad. The speed and terseness of Internet communication have helped to produce new usages that are concise, clever, dense with irony and wit, and highly adaptable. Yes, I hate it when student papers sound as sloppy and informal as a late-night text message, but I love a cool maneuver that tightly yokes syntax, semantics, and zeitgeist into one neat little package. I could spend all day explaining this to you in great detail, but neither you nor I have time for that and you already know anyway because Interwebs!
  • Book Nerds, Obamaniacs, and Friends of Willa Cather: The president patronized an independent bookstore in Washington, DC in support of Small Business Saturday. Among the books he purchased was Willa Cather’s classic My AntoniaI would have pegged the prez as more of a Professor’s House guy myself, but it could be he’s feeling nostalgic for his childhood on the Kenyan prairie. Or something. I just hope it’s not a gift for one of his daughters. I’d hate to think all that tuition money he and Michelle are dropping on Sidwell would end up in a future of farm work, bad teeth, and prolific motherhood. And, you know, being the object of some middle-aged white dude’s nostalgic fantasy. Just sayin’. (No disrespect to farming or the conditions of rural American life in the late nineteenth century, of course. Antonia has just never been my favorite Cather novel. Call me for recommendations, Mr. President. I am ready to serve as your Secret Santa/Cather Scholar on Call. Or, you could just buy this book.)
  • Higher Ed Reformers: Read this and then shut the f_ck up about trying to reform higher ed. The opening lines made my heart sing: “The more I read and think about higher education, our shortcomings, our crises, our threats, and our supposed saviors, the more I come to believe that the best thing we could do in the name of reform is absolutely nothing. Down with the pursuit of ‘excellence!’ Enough with innovation! Leave some of the children behind! Say it with me! Let’s do nothing! I say this because I wonder what chasing the next shiniest thing has really been getting us.” Amen! (H/T The Reader Formerly Known as Dudley’s Human.)
  • Un-Smart Smart Phone Users: (By which I mean: me.) Help is out there. Here are “19 Mind-Blowing Tricks Every iPhone and iPad User Should Know.” Hey, it’s worth the click just to learn that pressing your space bar twice will magically produce a period, a space, and a capital letter on the next word you type. I saved 15 minutes of my holiday weekend by using this trick on pointless holiday texts to members of my beloved but far-flung family. Try it. Because tick-tock, tick-tock!

Oh, dear, speaking of time passing, I gotta go. It’s Sunday. It’s December. There’s soup to be made and feedback to be given and classes to plan and meetings to remember. So long, mellow. Hello, Madness! Hope you had a delightful holiday, darlings, and that the Madness is manageable in your neck of the woods. Just remember: Things could always be worse. You could be a guy in a boat in the middle of nowhere who manages to run into a shipping container full of tennis shoes. Because random! Because globalization! Because oops!

Our Man faces another fine mess in All Is Lost. Photo Credit: Daniel Daza © 2013 Roadside Attractions

Our Man faces another fine mess in All Is Lost. Photo Credit: Daniel Daza © 2013 Roadside Attractions

Fun Home, Or, Visual Pleasure and Dyke Spectatorship

Fun_Home_musical_original_Playbill_cover,_OctoberOver at the always illuminating Feminist Spectator, my pal Jill Dolan has already published the definitive lesbian feminist review of the new musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel‘s 2006 graphic novel Fun Home, currently playing at New York’s Public Theater. (Playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori did the adaptation. Get a little info on the show here and a short musical montage here. The show’s run has been extended through December 1. Read this, and then go get yourself some tickets. Has the Madwoman ever steered you wrong?)

I defer to Jill’s expert judgment on the brilliance of the show and the excellence of the cast. (Ben Brantley also gave it a rave review in the New York Times.) What I’d like to do here is justify the day of my life I devoted to training up to New York to see the show by riffing some on a comment Jill makes at the end of her review:

I left the theatre . . . feeling strangely seen and not quite sure how to think about that; I’ve spent so many years watching for lesbian subtext and trying to read queerness underneath protestations of heterosexuality. To see lesbian desire as the text felt almost startling — and more wonderful than I can even begin to describe.

My experience and sentiments exactly. I went to see the play alone, the Woman Formerly Known as Goose being occupied, as she often has been lately, with research and other shenanigans having to do with an obscure nineteenth-century poetess. No disrespect to WFKG, but I quite enjoyed my solitary Muppet Takes Manhattan adventure — the long, early morning train ride when a strong and steady internet connection helped me motor through a huge backlog of grading, the spontaneous stop at the “Queer History of Fashion” exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum, the pre-matinee brunch at a sunny Italian place in the Village. Most especially, though, I was content to be alone when the lights went down and Fun Home began its 90-minute meditation on the love, ambivalence, and haunting uncertainty of a queer daughter’s relationship to her gay, deceased father. By “alone,” of course, I mean that I was in a theater full of strangers and didn’t have to worry about whether the sweet Asian guy to my left or the stocky dyke to my right were enjoying the play. I could give myself over entirely to what was happening on stage, where, as Dolan suggests, the action was mesmerizing and remarkable and painful and strangely interpellating.

Like the novel, the play is retrospective and delightfully meta. The narrator is Alison at 43, a lesbian cartoonist struggling to sort out her family history and the mystery of her father’s life and death. Played with ease and authority by Beth Malone (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Alison Bechdel), Alison is on stage and at her writing table throughout the play, stepping away from the table to observe and comment on scenes from her earlier life and to join occasionally in the singing. She watches herself, and we watch her working on the book that will become the play we are watching. Two other actresses play Alison at earlier ages, and their performances are spectacular: Sydney Lucas plays her as a precocious gender-bending child; Alexandra Socha plays her as a charmingly confused college student who steals the show with a belted-out ballad of lesbian first love called “Changing My Major” (to Joan, the name of the first girlfriend, winningly played by Roberta Colindrez). (Speaking of adventures in meta-ness, the New Yorker‘s Michael Schulman has a nifty little note up on watching Stephen Sondheim watch Fun Home. [Literally: Schulman sat directly behind Sondheim at a performance.] It muses on Sondheim’s “pervasive influence on the genre” of the musical and on this one in particular, in part by detecting the echoes of several Sondheim songs in “Changing My Major.” It’s a smart piece that ends by wondering if Sondheim, who, “in his decades of work, . . . has never wrestled explicitly with his sexuality or his upbringing,” wasn’t, at Fun Home, “watching the one show that he could never write.”)

Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, and Alexandra Socha in Fun Home. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, and Alexandra Socha in Fun Home. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

Okay, back to Jill’s “feeling strangely seen” by the play and the alluring frisson, for the dyke spectator, of seeing a play in which lesbian desire is the text rather than the subtext or a wild fantasy born of some powerful (dis)identificatory need. Yes, darlings, I, too, squandered hours on the couch in the 80s desperately seeking the lesbian subtext of Cagney & Lacey. Meanwhile, WFKG had a thing for Clair Huxtable, which I didn’t mind because it meant I could have Kate & Allie all to myself. As well, you know, as the early Jodie Foster. To find pleasure in looking at most mainstream cultural texts, dyke (like queer and feminist) spectators can’t mindlessly surrender themselves to the fantasy structures of stories that assume and cater to heterosexual male desires. We must be willfully resistant readers, taking what we can or what we want from texts that ignore or despise us. We become skilled in remaking even the most toxic representations, recycling damaged stereotypes so that they become what José Esteban Muñoz calls “powerful and seductive sites of self-creation” (Disidentifications 4). Such resistance and revision become habitual, reflexive. They are, as Muñoz claims, “survival strategies” that minority subjects practice “in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere.”

So it is hardly surprising that, despite The L Word, Ellen, and Orange Is the New Black, the dyke spectator (particularly if she is white, middle class, and of a certain age) might still find it strange to feel truly seen by a play — to feel, in other words, that her own experiences and desires are on every level (content, form, and fantasy structure) reflected back to her in what she sees on the stage. It is, as Jill implies, an intensely pleasurable experience, but it may also, after decades of wrestling with and against texts, be slightly unhinging to feel that one is invited into the cozy spaces of this fun yet fraught and complex home. I know that I felt unhinged, sitting in the darkness, as college-age Alison sang with lascivious gusto of her desire to change her major to Joan before shifting abruptly to consider the turn her life has suddenly taken:

I don’t know who I am.
I’ve become someone new.
Nothing I just did
Is anything I would do.
Overnight everything changed. I am not prepared.
I’m dizzy, I’m nauseous, I’m shaky, I’m scared.

Love and sex are giddily transforming and terrifying experiences, even, I’m told, when the norms of heteropatriarchy aren’t in any way violated. Still, it has always taken considerable effort and ingenuity for me to believe that Fraulein Maria and Captain von Trappe were singing about me as they confess their love for one another in The Sound of Music‘s “I Must Have Done Something Good.” (WFKG shared so fully in my creative appropriation of this song that it was performed as the processional at our commitment ceremony in 1989. Which proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that we were queer before queer was here, don’t you agree?) At Fun Home, I didn’t have to fight the text or mock it or translate it or lovingly subvert it. I just sat there, in awe, reveling in yet also feeling overwhelmed by the pleasures of identification. “Majoring in Joan” made me cry because it so viscerally recalled for me a similar night of my own college life so many years ago. A friend who saw the show the night before I did said she cried through most of the second half of the play and was surprised because she didn’t react so intensely to the experience of reading the book. There is something, I think, about seeing such a story brought to life on the stage, something about the intimacy and proximity of the performers to oneself, even across the dark space of a theater. There is also something about seeing the multiple time frames of this particular story dramatized simultaneously, as when, in the photo above, the three Alisons are on stage together for the show’s final song, the beautiful “Flying Away.” The song recalls the daughter’s childhood love of playing “Airplane” with her father, which is evoked in the illustration from the book version of Fun Home projected on a screen at the rear of the stage as the play concludes. That is the only time an image from the book appears in the play. In this moment, the play’s queer temporality is gorgeously realized. Desire makes all time present, brings all our selves — past and present, living and dead, printed and performed — to us. It is a fitting, generous, not overly sentimental ending — and it left me feeling shattered. In a good way.

I left the theater eager for company, ready to end the solitary part of my long day. I was glad I had plans to meet friends for dinner and was thrilled that the friends were queer art and culture geeks who would be eager to talk with me about the play. They were, we did, and this post is what that dreamy yet solid queer conviviality helped to produce. I loved Fun Home, and I needed the ache it gave me. Recognition, it turns out, can hurt as much as misrecognition. I’m grateful to have had the occasion to learn that lesson after more than half a century of spectatorship. I raise a more than half full glass to the marvelous looking-glass of Fun Home in all its incarnations. Long may it run.

Pre-Fun Home Bloody Mary. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 11/2/13.

Pre-Fun Home Bloody Mary. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 11/2/13.

Random Bullets of Holy Crap It’s October?

  • How to Lose the Interwebz: Follow up your most ridiculously popular post ever (thank you, Twitters!) with a solid month of the blogging equivalent of this! And watch your hits go from the stratosphere to the toilet in 3-2-1-boy, that didn’t take long, did it? Sorry, readers, we were busy. Love you, mean it!

take this job & shove it weekly stats

  • Counting the Ways: The federal government is shut down over a hissy fit, George W. Bush is posting kitten and baby photos on Instagram, Carrie Mathison is off her meds again, and you think there are only Twelve Signs America Is Insane? Gee, and I thought I was an optimist. But, srsly, Justin Bieber made $55 million in 2012? What am I doing wrong?
  • Academia Kills: Yes, I read the unbearably sad “Death of an Adjunct” column published by Daniel Kavolik in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in mid-September. The titular adjunct was Margaret Mary Vojtko, who had taught French at Duquesne for 25 years without job security or health benefits and died in poverty after a heart attack at the age of 83. Reaction to the column was swift, as the piece went viral in the unhappy, increasingly adjunctified world of higher ed. Good lord, people, how do we bear to look at ourselves in the mirror?
  • Academia Chokes, Mid-Stream: Tenured Radical examines the misery of the middle ranks of academe in a post that did not make me cry or squirm or feel the least bit ashamed or defensive everyone should read. It’s called “The Associate Professor Blues.” Which, at least in my head, sounds a lot like this. Deep in the heart of my second decade as an associate professor, I have nothing to say on this subject that I didn’t say in my epic Xtranormal cartoon of 2010, “I Want to be Promoted.” Close your office door and watch it. I promise it won’t make you cry or squirm or feel the least bit ashamed or defensive.
  • Because I Always Thought Christopher Robin Was Kind of a Jerk: Read this McSweeney’s piece (by Rachel Klein) on how residents of the Hundred Acre Wood react to a barrage of out-of-the-blue friend requests from the Boy Who Went Away all those years ago. It’s pitch perfect. Especially if you always thought Eeyore was the best judge of character in the forest and the animal most likely to embrace new communications technologies.
  • Because I Never Thought Obamacare Had Anything to Do with ME: I set off a bit of a poop storm on my own Facebook wall yesterday when I declared I was angry to discover that the Affordable Care Act was going to force me to purchase prescription drug coverage. I’ve always had access to such coverage and not purchased it because I am a) healthy, b) cheap, and c) convinced that the pharmaceutical industry is going to destroy human life through overuse of antibiotics. I appreciate the need for such coverage, especially for folks with chronic conditions requiring life-sustaining medications, and I accept the argument that those blessed, as I am, with ridiculously good health, should buy into the pool to help offset the costs of those who will rely on the coverage more. Still, it ticked me off to realize that the ACA was going to compel me to buy something I had rationally decided I did not want. It felt like a violation of my consumer sovereignty, which, in the United States of Walmart and Starbucks, is the only form of sovereignty that matters. That is the problem, as one of my Facebook pals pointed out, with having stuck with a market-based model for health-insurance reform rather than moving to a public, single-payer model. I have never objected to paying taxes to help educate other people’s children or to build hospitals I hope never to use. I view paying taxes as part of my duties as a citizen — an exercise of my political sovereignty, a contribution to the public good that I am happy to make. The market model, by contrast, taps into my inner Ayn Rand, as another of my FB friends teased, making me feel not altruistic and publicly good, but selfish, niggardly, and privately robbed. Look, I will get the coverage and sincerely hope that the ACA proves to be the most wildly popular act of the federal government since the repeal of Prohibition. My point in confessing a momentary, knee-jerk reaction against the law’s impact on my own associate professor’s wallet is that I think it is a small but good example of why, for now at least, the ACA stokes ambivalence at best and fuels apoplexy at worst. It is a law no one can truly love. It is proof of how little we are willing to invest these days in common sense and public goods. It is a law that might have improved the life and death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, but only marginally so. She deserved better from us, but, well, so does nearly everyone.

Happy October, darlings. May it be the best month money can buy.

Take This Job and Shove It

A (Not Going) Back to School Post

No, not me. Y’all know I’m too attached to things like food and my pretty house to walk away from lifetime job security, even in the dying world of American higher education. (Tim Burke explains that higher ed isn’t the only thing dying in our sorry, twisted, clueless nation. Go read his latest here.)

Pardon me while I take a sip out of my half-empty glass. It’s hot here today. This is not the Labor Day post I thought I’d be writing, in part because it is kind of downbeat and I prefer to be a chirpy, uplifting blogger, but also because it involves matters not often discussed in public. Quiet, please. Nice people don’t talk about personnel issues.

Newsflash: People are leaving academia, and they are talking about why. (H/T to Historiann for the first of those links.) Those of us who haven’t left had damn well ought to be listening — and thinking and acting on our own campuses to improve working conditions before it’s too late. Too late for what, you ask? Too late to save the dying world or the generation of scholars we helped to train? Maybe. Maybe it’s already too late, but shouldn’t we try to do something?

I am haunted by the words of the departing: “I found that I couldn’t do the work I used to love. My motivation stalled. Something broke, and it seemed irreparable.” “I was tired of a system that served black students badly, promising an education that it failed to deliver, condemning them to repeat classes, to drop out, to believe they were stupid; I was tired of colleagues who marveled when I produced an intelligible sentence; I was tired of attending conference panels where blackness was dismissed as ‘simple,’ ‘reactive,’ ‘irrelevant,’ ‘done’; I was tired of being invited to be ‘post-black’ as the token African, so not ‘tainted’ by the afterlife of slavery; I was tired of performing a psychic labor that left me too exhausted to do anything except go home, crawl into bed, try to recover, and prepare for the next series of assaults.

On my own campus, it isn’t just adjuncts who are quitting, worn down by brutal teaching loads and appallingly low salaries. The second quotation in the paragraph above is from my friend and former colleague, Keguro Macharia, who resigned his assistant professorship in May not to take a job elsewhere but to return to Kenya to focus on building not just a career but a sustainable life. He is not the only person to walk away from a tenure-track position without a firm offer or a clear sense of what’s coming next. I won’t go into detail, because others haven’t been as public as Keguro, but I know of at least three other assistant professors in the humanities at QTU who have resigned in the past three years.

The Woman Formerly Known as Goose points out that, when it comes to personnel issues, academics tend not only to be quiet but also maddeningly particularistic. We view each case in isolation and as somehow unique or exceptional. Oh, well, this one had health issues, you know, and that one had aging parents in a remote part of Never-Never Land, and I hear that other one was having problems with the book. For all our critiques of neoliberalism, we privatize personnel issues and fail to look for patterns and the structural inequities that might produce them. Is it a coincidence that all of the resignations I know of were from women or people of color? Given the glacial pace of hiring in recent years, shouldn’t we be concerned about this rate of voluntary attrition? I know I’m just a numerically challenged English prof, people, but this data feels significant to me. Shouldn’t we be paying attention to it?

I have worried for years about how assistant professors were faring in the cash-strapped, technocratic, lawyered-up, outcomes-obsessed postmodern university. Tenure has never been a sure thing, but it is a far less certain prospect than it once was, even for those who spend six years running themselves ragged on the hamster wheel of hyper-productivity. We mentor them to death, mostly, I suspect, to protect the institution from liability in the event of a negative tenure decision. We fill their heads with conflicting advice about what and where and how much they should publish. We urge them to focus on their research but worry if their anonymous student evaluations of teaching lack the now-expected comparisons to Jesus Christ. And some of us undermine them in ways large and small, treating them as a servant class or as children in need of hand-holding. In most cases, our actions are well-intended. We don’t want to lose them. We want to support them. We want to smooth the uncertain path toward tenure. And some of them are saying, “Thanks, but no,” and stepping off the path.

“I quit!” is both a refusal and an affirmation. It is a screw-you to working conditions that have come to feel unbearable, inimical to sanity or well-being. It is a declaration of the need/right/desire for something more or other than the hollow, uncertain promise of “security” in a broken, hostile, dying professional world. I applaud those brave enough to state their “I quits!” publicly and in thunder, though I mourn these losses to my institution and, perhaps, to my profession.

On this Labor Day weekend, I challenge those who are going or have already gone back to school this year to look around and notice what’s happening with assistant professors on your campus. Do you have data or observations that comport with what we’ve noted at QTU? How do you think your junior profs are doing these days? What great ideas do you have for supporting the up-and-coming without making them feel that they are being infantilized or surveilled?

While you ponder those deep questions, take a listen to the song that inspired the title to this post. A guy named Johnny Paycheck did the original back in 1977, but the Dead Kennedys did a cool cover in 1986. No, I am not cool enough to know that, but fortunately the Google machine is. Happy Labor Day, workers and ex-workers and non-workers of the world. Unite.

All the News That’s Fit to ME!

The Madwoman's Breakfast Table, 8/6/13

The Madwoman’s Breakfast Table, 8/6/13. You’ll pry my print edition from my cold dead hands.

Look, I’m not reflexively opposed to the sale of my home-town newspaper, The Washington Post, to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, though I was, like pretty much everyone else on the planet, stunned by the announcement late Monday afternoon and the bargain-basement price — a mere $250 million — of the deal. As a friend quipped on my Facebook wall, “If I had known they were just going to GIVE away one of the greatest institutions of all time, we could have all pooled our pennies and bought it.” Indeed. I have always dreamed of having an attorney general of the United States be so unhinged by my vast power that he’d go all locker-roomy over my lady parts.

Anyway: I will confess to getting choked up when I read stories about the Graham family’s multigenerational commitment to the paper and the city of Washington. David Remnick’s haunting piece in The New Yorker about Donald Graham (chair and chief executive of the Washington Post Company) choosing to break his own heart by selling the paper rather than break the Post by holding onto it rings true to what I’ve learned about the family over the years. The love and loyalty employees felt toward Graham is evident in dozens of tributes and reactions that have been produced in the past 48 hours, including these by Ruth Marcus, Kathleen Parker, and Michelle Singletary. So, for now at least, I’m buying the story that Graham’s decision to sell, made in concert with his niece, Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, was anguished, noble, and quite possibly in the best interests of the paper, journalism, and the world. Like others, I’m also encouraged by the tone as well as the substance of the statement Bezos made to Post employees the day the sale was announced. It was modest, reassuring, deferential to the Grahams, cognizant of the fact that journalism is not just a business but a public trust with a unique role to play in a democratic society. Bezos affirms the paper’s old values and its obligations to its readers, even as he acknowledges the need for change and embraces “the opportunity for invention.”

Newspapers have been struggling for decades to hold onto readers and make money in a world transformed by bits and screens. If Bezos has ideas for how to do that more effectively than Don Graham and the Post‘s other ink-stained wretches have been able to do, then more power to him. A deep-pocketed internet mogul known for his patience might be just what is needed to figure out what newspapers ought to be and do in a post-print information ecosystem.

At the same time, I get more than a little queasy reading stories suggesting that we might be on the brink of the Amazonification of the newspaper industry. A paragraph like this one brings a mild burning sensation to the back of my throat:

Technology analysts said that the kind of predictive analytics perfected by Amazon could be used to provide Post subscribers with personalized news feeds based on where they live and what they have read before. People browsing The Post’s Web site or tablet app could be served ads tailored to their past purchases, and then could buy products with a single click, media industry experts said. Reader voices could be integrated into online storytelling, with the community voting on the most valuable comments.

Reader voices could be integrated into online storytelling. I’m sorry, sweetheart, but have you ever clicked into the toxic waste dump that is the comment section on any story WaPo ever runs? Lord, save me from a world that caters to and includes such voices! Seriously, though, folks: Is customer-centric news really what the world needs and a democratic society requires? I know, I know — Suddenly I sound like one of those fist-shaking gloom-and-doomers railing about how the interwebz are leading increasingly to a personalization of the system of communications, potentially locking each of us up in a “Daily Me” in which our opinions are never challenged and enabling us to avoid news altogether if we’d rather bathe our brains in gossip, sports news, and cat videos instead. The concept of the “Daily Me” is elaborated by law prof Cass Sunstein in his book Republic.com. The argument is provocative, but I’ve always been resistant to it, finding it in some ways both techno-phobic and elitist. Sunstein overestimates, in my judgment, the virtues of an old media public sphere in which what he calls “general-interest intermediaries” expose readers to a broad range of thought and opinion. (How broad was that range, really, and who had access to those limited old media spaces?) Further, he underestimates some of the potential benefits of a mediascape that empowers the people formerly known as the audience to participate much more actively. Surely that is good for democracy, right?

Of course it is, but I have to admit I began anxiously imagining a nation of “Daily Me” readers this morning when I saw that story on Bezos’ obsession with the customer’s experience on the front page of the paper he will soon own. Thus, when I got to the Opinion page and saw Carter Eskew’s brief reflection on what kind of owner Bezos might turn out to be, I found myself nodding in agreement:

For now, we have to rely on patrons to save journalism. What kind of patron will Bezos be? Yesterday, he said, reassuringly, that “the values” of the Post don’t need changing but went on to say that readers will be the publication’s “touchstone” as will “understanding what they care about.” This last bit worries me. Bezos built the greatest retailer in history understanding and anticipating what people want and giving it to them. But that’s an incomplete model for the news business. What people want is local, sports, human interest, gossip and rancorous and self-reinforcing debate. All that is great, but it needs to be put in service of what people and our democracy need: hard information, accountability, truth. That is what Bezos bought yesterday, and you can’t put a price on it. Now he must protect it.

Even the most committed techno-utopianist has to admit that it isn’t enough to give people only what they want when it comes to news and information in a democratic society. That tension between What Readers Want and What (We Think) Readers Need is one that has always bedeviled the news business, and it’s been exacerbated hugely in the desperate hyper-competitive battle for eyeballs, clicks, and money that the business has become in recent years, particularly for news entities that are owned by publicly traded companies (like, you know, The Washington Post Co.). Putting the Post back into private hands may save it from the relentless cost-cutting that would have been necessary to placate shareholders, but we have to hope now that Jeff Bezos truly appreciates what he’s bought. If he’s the good guy and the visionary that everybody seems to think he is, then surely he’ll come up with something more creative and socially beneficial than the Amazonification of the news industry.

Right? Tell us what you think, loyal readers. Is this the Best. Thing. Ever? Or proof that we are doomed to know only what we already know because our corporate computer overlords think it’s all we want to know?Let us hear your loud, lovely, and well-informed reader voices!

The Virtue Rut

Two years ago, almost to this day, I put up a post over on the old blog called “The Virtue Binge.” Friends and longtime readers know that I lost a significant amount of weight in 2011. (That adventure is documented [and related issues of the cultural politics of body size are explored] in a cluster of posts you can find here.) “The Virtue Binge” focused on my transition to maintenance after I had reached my goal weight seven months after I signed up for a well-known Lifestyle Adjustment Program. Like many of my posts on body matters, “The Virtue Binge” wrestles with how to talk and think about such matters without being punitive, terroristic, or fat-shaming. At the same time, it conveys the joy, even the giddiness, of feeling happy in my body again after years of feeling out of shape and out of sorts. I even offered readers tantalizing glimpses of the results of my renewed commitments to eating less and moving more:

Photo Credit: Anon, Self-Portrait After Plank Workshop, 7/30/11. Originally published here.

Self-Portrait After Plank Workshop. Photo Credit: Anon, 7/30/11. Originally published here.

Two years later, as you might suspect from the title of this post, I find myself in a different, more anxious place. I’ve decided to blog about it for reasons not unlike those that led me to go public with my recent colonoscopy: I’ve got a body. You’ve got a body. Why should we keep quiet about that? Perhaps by talking, we can learn from each other, help each other, or at least enjoy a few commiserating laughs. Also, it’s summer. I don’t feel like blogging about MOOCs. Or Anthony’s Weiner.

So, what’s with the decidedly un-giddy sound of the sequel to “The Virtue Binge”? What is “The Virtue Rut,” and how did I end up in it? First let me say that I haven’t gone all couch potato on you. I haven’t given up exercise and gone back to a steady diet of Cheetos and dry martinis. A typical week still includes a couple of 4-4.5 mile runs and a 90-minute yoga class. We were away from home for much of June, and I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that I did quite a bit of eating and drinking while we were gone, first on our Italian adventure and then visiting with family on the shores of Lake Michigan. Still, I give myself credit for not sitting on my duff the whole time we were traveling. I sought out opportunities to get my heart pumping and reveled in the pleasures of active vacationing: a sweet early morning run along the banks of the Arno in Florence, a 20-mile bike ride on southwest Michigan’s Kal-Haven Trail, a walk/jog/photo shoot through a Tuscan vineyard drenched in some of the most glorious light I have ever seen. I love to travel this way. I always feel that I haven’t really visited a place until I’ve taken a run through its streets. And stumbled across something like this:

Photo Credit: The Madwoman in Italy, 6/21/13

Photo Credit: The Madwoman in Italy, 6/21/13

Fine, Madwoman, we get the picture (haha), but we’re still waiting for you to explain what you mean by the virtue rut. Oh, right. Sorry.

What I mean is that, two years after a major weight loss, my weight recently has been trending upward, and I think it’s because I’ve gotten complacent and maybe a little bored with the routine of trying to stay more or less in the same place. This is a familiar story, of course: You lose weight. You’re proud, you’re happy, you know what you need to do to keep it off. Time passes. You skip a workout here, eat or drink too much there, weigh yourself the next morning and discover that you haven’t regained 53 pounds overnight. So you start playing little games, letting old habits (another bite of this, a couple more glasses of that) creep back in, and the next thing you know, you’re up a pound. Or three. Or seven. No wine for me tonight, you think, and maybe an extra ten minutes on the treadmill. But, shoot, we’ve got that dinner with X tonight. . . . It’s a vicious cycle. You know where it leads. Can you stop the cycle? Change the pattern?

It’s comforting to know the problem I’m having might arise, at least partly, from changes in my metabolism rather than defects in my character (as the fat-shamer’s emphasis on willpower, evident in the paragraph above, tends to imply). Recent studies suggest that weight loss triggers hormonal shifts that increase appetite and slow metabolism because biology is fighting to keep weight on. The theory is that being too thin was once an evolutionary disadvantage. Your inner cave woman, with rocks to move and bears to outrun, wants the whole damn 2-pound slab of Tuscan T-bone, not the petite filet.

Let them eat BEEF! Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 6/20/13

Let them eat BEEF! Photo Credit: The Madwoman in Italy, 6/20/13

I dig the theory, because it jibes with my sense that, even allowing for some admitted overindulgence, my body seems almost eager to put on weight. Is that what I mean? I struggled with how to complete that sentence, writing first that my body was resisting my efforts to maintain a certain weight. Perhaps I just mean that my metabolism seems to have slowed down. I’ve felt sluggish lately, even on the treadmill. I overheat easily and find it difficult to sustain my usual pace. It’s clear to me that I need to make some adjustments in order to drop the pounds I’ve put on and get back to where I’d like to be weight-wise. We’re really just talking about a few pounds, folks, but I know it will require taking in fewer calories and burning more. I figure I need to add at least one more vigorous cardio workout a week, but here’s the rub: It’s too hot to do much running outside, and I’m bored as hell on the treadmill. I need a fun new cardio alternative.

Yes, this is an open invitation to tell me what you are doing for fun and fitness these days. Zumba? Spin? Z-GoGo? Canoeing in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota? Boxing with bears in a national park? I’m open to anything that will raise both my heart rate and the corners of my mouth. I don’t mind being virtuous, but I’ve got to get out of this rut and make myself want to work out again. The more playful it feels, the more likely I am to do it, repeatedly.

I look forward to hearing from all of you sweating, happy people. And from those of you who are, like me, fighting the doldrums of summer and middle age. In the meantime, the interwebz are full of good advice on how to reach or maintain your preferred weight — such as this, for example, or this. Scott Mowbray, editor-in-chief of a little magazine I like to call Food Porn for the Conscientious, has recently gone public with his own effort to lose weight in something he’s calling the Social Diet. I disapprove of the d-word, but I like the social part and admire his openness. Check out his posts on the magazine’s blog here.

As always, kids, The Madwoman reminds you to love your body, whatever its size. It’s the only one you’ve got. Now, click on that comment button and tell me what you and your body are doing for fun.

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