Object-Oriented Mom-ology

[Clever allusion in post title explained here. Kinda.]

Today is Mother’s Day, a day I mostly loathe, perhaps because I’m not fond of commercially generated displays of rank sentimentality and perhaps because I resent that childless lesbians don’t get a special day set aside to honor their unique contributions to civilization. I mean, seriously, people, does softball mean nothing to you?

what my mother gave meNonetheless: I was driving to campus the other day and caught a few minutes of a conversation on NPR’s Tell Me More about a new collection of essays edited by Elizabeth Benedict called What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most. The conversation made the book sound far less rank than its title and cover might lead one to expect. The contributors are a diverse group of writerly women, including poet laureate Rita DoveNation columnist Katha Pollitt, and Genius grant-winning immigration activist Cecilia Muñoz. The essays clearly aren’t all saccharine and floral tributes to Saint Mom either. Some document fraught relationships with difficult women who weren’t always as present or functional as their daughters might have hoped or needed them to be, yet each writer came up with a particular gift from her mother that had, over the years, attained a special meaning and resonance: a wok, a quilt, a photograph, a necklace.

Not surprisingly, the story got me thinking. I did a mental inventory of things my mother has given me over the past half century or so of our relationship. On my right hand, I wear a small diamond ring I got for Christmas my senior year of high school. In my dining room, I have the lovely gray Wedgwood that was the special occasion china of my childhood and a set of ruby red goblets that graced every holiday dinner table. In my study, I have Brit lit anthologies filled with notes in her neat high school teacher’s hand. She gave them to me when I started graduate school. As I write these words, I gaze up at a gray and white china rabbit on a nearby shelf. It was her mother’s, and she passed it on to me after Grandma died. Photographs? I have boxes full, just waiting for me to fulfill her wish for a proper family history.

These are all beloved objects, things I love having in my daily life and world. I cherish them and, if they are intended to be used, I use them, regularly. They are gifts that matter, deeply, yet none of them seems quite the right vehicle for taking up Benedict’s challenge to her contributors to describe a gift that “magically, movingly reveals the story” of my mother and my relationship to her (xii). I thought again, harder, letting my mind wander into places it doesn’t often go, not because those places are especially painful or tragic but because they are remote. I thought less of objects than of moments, turning points in my life when my mother had made a difference. And just like that, I knew how to identify the gift that mattered most.

The Plane Ticket

It must have been over the semester break, also in my senior year of high school, but I’m fuzzy on the timing. Still, it was winter and I had time to take a trip, so that would make sense. That year was strange for me — intense, as senior years tend to be, but weird because I wasn’t living with my family. My father had gotten transferred to a new job in a town about an hour away from where I attended high school. My parents gave me the option of staying behind, boarding with a friend’s family during the week so that I could graduate with my peer group. I was editor of the yearbook. I had a (gay) boyfriend. I had seen how hard similarly badly timed moves had been on my older brother and sister, so I opted to become a commuter kid. It was a good decision, but the arrangement added to the tumult of what is always a topsy-turvy period in one’s life.

In the midst of all this upheaval, I was also of course trying to figure out where to go to college. With all the editing and writing I was doing, everyone — myself included — had been assuming I was headed toward journalism school, perhaps at Indiana University, where my parents had met in the early 1950s and from which the grandmother with the china rabbit had graduated in the late 1920s. The summer before senior year, though, I spent six weeks in France in a language-immersion program. When I stepped off the plane in early August, I had a difficult time speaking English to my parents — and all my old plans and assumptions had been upended. I had been to a ballet, seen the Mona Lisa, picnicked in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. I had visited tiny towns on the Norman coast, where grateful citizens still recalled being liberated by American troops in World War II. I had learned to tell jokes and to dream in another language. I had learned to love vegetables! Suddenly, Bloomington just didn’t seem big or glamorous enough, and I wanted more from college than a vocational training program.

McGill scrapsAnd so it was that at some point in December of 1976 or January of 1977 I found myself alone in Montreal, Quebec, checking out McGill University. I had never been to Montreal before, and I had never even heard of McGill until one of my pals in the study abroad program mentioned she was thinking about going there. “Wow,” said my impetuous young mind, “an English-speaking university in a French-speaking city known for its elegance and sophistication. Allons-y!” So I went, and of course I fell instantly and hopelessly in love. I remember nothing of campus tours or meetings with officials, though I’m sure I must have met with someone. (Remember, though, the whole campus visit industrial complex was a lot less complex in ye olden times of the 1970s than it is nowadays.) The highlights of the trip that I do recall were taking myself out for a dinner of crepes and wine and getting caught in a snowstorm that resulted in my flight home being canceled. I was already at the airport. I called home collect — remember: no cellphones! — to get advice on what to do. My mother gave me a credit card number and told me to take a cab back to my hotel. Because people were nicer and more trusting in ye olden times of the 1970s, I was able to check back into the hotel with nothing but a number on a piece of paper. I had one more deliriously happy night in Montreal and made it home the next day, determined to enroll at McGill. Which I did, for two years — but that is another story.

Why do I consider that plane ticket to Montreal the most important gift my mother ever gave me? And why do I think of the gift as coming from her when I know that my father was fully involved in this process?  I suppose that particular ticket feels monumental because it was the first time I was sent out into the world on my own, to explore and evaluate a whole new set of possibilities and make my own judgment about them. When I came home and announced my decision, no one questioned it. No one said, “Oh, honey, why do you want to go so far away to school?” or “You know, they don’t even have a journalism program.” I made a decision, and it was respected and supported, every step of the way.

I credit my mother with the gift of the ticket because she was always the one who encouraged me to fly. I adored my father, but Mom pushed me to develop my skills and talents in ways that he didn’t. I realize there was a certain amount of vicarious living going on in her embrace of my big dreams, but I also think she recognized early on that I needed to chart my own course and that it was going to be quite different from hers. Not that my mother’s life was terribly thwarted or ground in the mill of the conventional. She had a husband and four children, yes, but she also had a demanding career, first in teaching and then in publishing. She set a high bar for accomplishment, and I’ve spent my life trying to get over it.

The finest gifts are always a reflection of both the giver and the recipient. They come out of deep desires and understandings; they meet deep, often inchoate, needs and open mind and heart to new ways of seeing, being, and thinking. With the gift of a plane ticket, my mother said to me, “Fly, my darling daughter. I know you can. I know you must. Fly away, and I will survive your absence. Fly back, and I will welcome you home. Fly, daughter, fly.”

Thank you, Mom. For the ticket to everything.

The Madwoman's Mother, hamming it up for the camera. South Haven, MI, c. 1993.

The Madwoman’s Mother, hamming it up for the camera. South Haven, MI, c. 1993.

Tab Overload Disorder

Tab overload is a real thing in the virtual world. It’s what happens when you spend your days skimming, clicking, reading, and thinking, “Oh, that’s interesting. I’ll finish reading it later. Maybe I’ll share it on my Facebook page. Maybe I’ll even blog about it!” Soon you’ve got two or three browser windows open and eleventy billion tabs crammed across the top of your screen and you imagine that the virtual chipmunks who keep your machine running are panting, sobbing, begging for mercy. Sensible people, technologically savvy people, deal with the problem of tab overload (which actually does put a strain on your computer’s memory) by adding free extensions like OneTab to Chrome. OneTab will convert all your open tabs into a list. When you need to access the tabs again, you can either restore them individually or all at once. No, I haven’t tried it, but just writing this paragraph has enabled me to close one tab in my browser that has been opened for nearly a month. Spring cleaning FTW!

Less sensible people who are sick and tired of trying new things manage Tab Overload Disorder by being secretly happy when their computers crash and all their carefully arranged tabs disappear. (Yes, I know they can all be restored through “History.” I’m not an idiot, just lazy.) Or, they finally bang out a blog post that is little more than a link farm so they can close a few tabs and start the Madness all over again.

Welcome to the Madwoman’s Spring Link Farm Extravaganza. I’m still alive. And blogging. Sort of. If you are reading this, you are alive, too. Congratulations. Follow these links and your mind will feel refreshed for the next round of grading. Or at least my Tab Overload Disorder will have become your Tab Overload Disorder, which will bring us closer, sort of, virtually. Read on.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet was on my campus yesterday. The Woman Formerly Known as Goose and I spent the whole day in the presence of this affable fellow, who was as impressive and remarkable as I had heard he would be. We liked his humility, his playfulness, his obvious delight in every aspect of the occasion, including the Terp schwag he got as a gift:

Photo Credit: Gary Cameron, Reuters. 5/7/13.

Photo Credit: Gary Cameron, Reuters. 5/7/13. Via.

(Yes: We are aware that His Holiness has a thing for visors. We’re just glad he liked ours.)

Our favorite moment was when the Dalai Lama went nose-to-nose with Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley as the big wigs gathered on stage at the end of his lecture. We may not become Buddhists, but we are definitely committed to becoming nose-rubbers:

Photo Credit: Nicholas Kammnicholas, AFP/Getty Images. 5/7/13.

Photo Credit: Nicholas Kammnicholas, AFP/Getty Images. 5/7/13. Via.

Question: Would the world be a better place if President Obama rubbed noses with, say, John Boehner or Wayne LaPierre? Call me crazy, but I think it’s worth a try.

Second Question: Does the Pope do nose-rubs? Again, totes worth a try, in my opinion. Nothing says humility like a good eskimo kiss.

Enough religion and hyperlocal news, let’s turn to the Black Gay Sports S/Heroes tabs that have gotten opened up in our browsers in the last couple of weeks. Kwame Holmes has an excellent analysis of how class factored into the highly respectable coming out of basketball player Jason Collins. Holmes doesn’t disrespect Collins or underestimate the significance of his announcement. His aim is to situate it within the context of black respectability politics, which is helpful indeed. Meanwhile, Wesley Morris explains why Brittney Griner’s coming out was totally no big deal. It’s a deft analysis of how Griner’s self-confident gender performance over the past few years made her official coming out seem so superfluous. Griner herself addresses her sexuality, the bullying she has endured over the years, and her commitment to helping to ease the way for others in an essay in the New York Times. Brittney, we’d look up to you even if we wouldn’t have to climb a step ladder to rub noses with you.

Meanwhile, in academia, our friend and QTU colleague Keguro Macharia is resigning his assistant professorship and returning home to Kenya. His staggeringly eloquent “On Quitting” is about precarity, professionalization, toxicity, deracination, and bipolar disorder. Among other things. It deserves a response, but I am not ready to produce one. Not yet. Not publicly. Go read it. Also, Tim Burke will make you think and feel better with a marvelous piece called “The Humane Digital.” It explains the necessary messiness of humanistic inquiry and its many differences from managerial modes of thinking. I would declare Burke my blog boyfriend if Chris Newfield didn’t already occupy that position. Chris, by the way, has some thoughts on MOOCs up on Remaking the University, for those of you whose Tab Overload Disorder is all about the MOOC Madness. Knock yourselves out, people.

There, that’s better, and I didn’t even bother to burden you with several dozen links related to the recent publication of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by my pals Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. That’s big news in my neck of the professional woods, but I’ll save it for another post. Meantime, happy grading or happy avoidance of grading or happy celebration of finishing your grading. And remember: Close your eyes when you rub noses with someone. It’s sweeter that way.

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