2014: The Year of Barely Blogging

Ruby's Double Rainbow

I didn’t take this picture. The Woman Formerly Known as Goose snapped it on July 8 as we drove home from the animal hospital with our dying dog. We carried her to the car in the pouring rain. I held her in my arms in the back seat and sobbed uncontrollably as WFKG drove slowly through the storm. Ruby was still and quiet, as stoic in dying as I imagine she was during the three years she spent in a puppy mill. Oh, how we loved this sweet, strong, silent girl who came from nothing, gave so much, and was leaving us much too soon. As we drove into Takoma Park, the rain let up and the setting sun burst through the clouds, producing a magnificent double rainbow that demanded our attention, distraught though we were in that moment. WFKG pulled over. I jumped out of the car and started taking pictures. She stayed behind the wheel and got this shot through the front windshield. I love it for the drops of rain on the glass, as if the world were crying with us while affording us a consoling vision of unexpected beauty. Yeah, I’m a sucker for a good pathetic fallacy, but give me a break. My dog was about to cross the rainbow bridge, and suddenly there’s a double fricking rainbow in the sky! Who could resist?

A rainbow glimpsed through tears: I offer this up as my Photo of the Year because I reckon I’m not the only one struggling to find something nice to say about 2014 as it grinds — mercifully, inexorably — to an end. What’s to love about a year that brought us Ebola, Ferguson, and ISIS and took away Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Lauren Bacall (among many others)? How do you make sense of a year that brings legalized pot to Colorado, same-sex marriage to Utah, and a new Congress committed to repealing all of the 21st and most of the 20th century? You don’t, or, you know, at least I don’t. Or can’t.

2014 has been the year of barely blogging for me for a number of reasons. The short, dull, honest explanation is that I’ve been busy. I got legally married this year. Bought a guitar. Buried my mother. Started a big new job. Went to China. Worried a lot about the upward trend of my weight. I’m still in love with my new job, but I’m also still learning it and still wrestling with how blogging fits into it. As I assume new responsibilities and carve out new expertise, I feel a need to be cautious in relation to social media. My blogs have always been ambiguously connected to my professional and institutional identities. During this period of transition, that ambiguity feels a bit riskier than it has in the past. I’ve felt more comfortable blogging on personal topics, but I worry about alienating readers with concerns that might seem humdrum or, heaven forbid, dull. I’d rather die than bore you, darlings, so I’ve spent less time hanging out here and more time in the cozy confines of Facebook. (Along with my brilliant new colleague Alexis Lothian, who wrote early in the fall about how personal/professional changes shifted her online positioning.)

There’s more to it than that, though. I have a terrible confession to make. I’m not just spending less time writing blogs. I’m spending less time reading them as well. At some point in the middle of the semester, my Feedly feed got so full up that I closed the tab and just stopped checking. I guess I declared blog bankruptcy. The term infobesity has begun to resonate with me, and I don’t think it’s just because it hooks in with my concerns about my weight. It’s probably a bad metaphor for information overload, because it suggests that the problem arises from individual pathology or bad behavior rather than from a structural condition nearly impossible to avoid. Still, I’m recognizing that I feel weighted down by the news, information, and analysis that come at me every time I lock eyes on a screen — which is darn near every moment of my waking life. Often I click and click and read and read, and with every click I feel less clear about what I know, less able to compose and publish my thoughts. Some days I remind myself of Nicholas Branch, the CIA archivist in Don DeLillo’s Libra tasked with piecing together the secret history of the assassination of JFK. He spends fifteen years working in a room filled with books, documents, “theories and dreams,” studying everything because, “he is in too deep to be selective.” He takes copious notes but produces precious little in the way of “finished prose” because, “It is impossible to stop assembling data. The stuff keeps coming.” He feels disheartened, immobilized, haunted, but he persists, knowing “he can’t get out.”

How do we avoid the immobilization produced by information overload? Do we stick with the logic of infobesity and put ourselves on a strict information diet, knowing that diets, like new year’s resolutions, tend to fail? Or do we reject the metaphor and find a better one, one that might more effectively capture the structural conditions of what Jodi Dean terms communicative capitalism? I’m not prepared to shut this blog down as a way of demonstrating my virtuous commitment to info calorie consciousness. I’d rather find a way to revitalize it in 2015 by using it as a tool — a fine pair of flippers, perhaps — to help me and readers play delightfully in the sea of information rather than feel overwhelmed by it. Hate that metaphor, too? Then find me a better one, Madpeople. I eagerly await your suggestions.

Oh, and happy new year. Here is a picture of two adorable puppies looking like angels in a pool of morning light. Yes, they are mine. Their names are Mattie and Max. They are litter mates. And proof, perhaps, that a double dog dare is sometimes worth the risk. Double rainbow. Double dog dare. You see what I did there, don’t you?

Terriers in a pool of light

A Love Letter to My New Job

Or, A Labor Day Post Quite Different from Last Year’s

Labor Day reflections. Western Maryland 4-H Education Center. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 8/31/14.

Labor Day reflections. Western Maryland 4-H Education Center. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 8/31/14.

The summer of 2014 has been long and strange for me and horrifying for much of the world. I’m not sorry to see it end. Within a 17-day period in July, I started a new job, lost a beloved and relatively young (six and a half years old) dog, and lost my mother, who was not young and hadn’t been in good health for a long time, but still. And when I say that I lost them, I don’t mean I misplaced them. I mean that my dog and my mother died, within eight days of one another — while I was still trying to sort out the best places to park and pee in my new job. Why, yes, as a matter of fact, it did suck.

I don’t want to blog about the dying, though. I hope you won’t mind. I’ve done plenty of sharing on Facebook, and maybe some day I’ll find a way to blog about the powerful ways in which these two deaths, so proximate to one another in time, are linked in my heart-mind. For now, I’d like to blog about the happy part of my long, strange summer, the part that went beautifully when so much else was so achingly out of joint — the start of the aforementioned new job.

Classes begin tomorrow at Queer the Turtle U, but I’ve just gone through one of the busiest weeks of the year in my new position as executive director of an academic residential community that is home to close to 2,000 academically talented freshmen and sophomores. This past Wednesday, we welcomed our new cohort of 977 freshmen to campus with a convocation ceremony that featured some first-rate a cappella singing, the university president, and yours truly in the role of inspirational speaker, though I have a hunch our young scholars will forever remember me as the Lady in the Awesome Red Jacket Who Inadvertently Made Them All Think About Sex at the Same Time. (Long story. Brief occupational lesson: Never forget that eighteen-year-olds are always this close to thinking about sex. Speak with caution. And laugh along with them when you push them over the edge.) On Thursday, we sent them all out at ten minutes past the butt crack of dawn to do service projects at thirty sites throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C., a logistical operation on par with the invasion of Normandy as far as I am concerned. On Friday, we worked quietly in our offices while caffeinating heavily and patting ourselves on the backs that not a single teenager had been maimed or killed on Service Day. Some of us stayed late to hang out at a burrito slam (is that a thing now?) being hosted by four of our programs. On Saturday, I pulled my sleeping bag out of mothballs, gave a quick kiss to the Person to Whom I Am Legally Married, and headed off to a 4-H camp (see photo above) in the part of Maryland that is really West Virginia to spend the weekend with students and faculty in another of our programs who prefer to do their getting acquainted in the company of snakes, mice, and salamanders. In this instance, tacos were slammed. (Long story. Brief occupational lesson: The new job involves lots of social eating. Someone is headed back to her Lifestyle Adjustment Program soon for a quick refresher course before the buttons on that red jacket start popping off.) I drove home this morning, exhausted, stiff as a board from two nights on a flimsy mattress in a rustic cabin, grinning like a fool. Labor Day? I chuckled to myself. In this case, I think we should call it Labor of Love Day.

Go ahead. Roll your eyes. Feel cynical or superior. Or click back to that Word document of the syllabus you’ve been working at in a desultory way for the better part of the weekend. Or stick around for a minute or two and listen to an academic talk about something other than fear and loathing of everything currently happening in higher education. Don’t worry. I haven’t lost sight of the fact that there is plenty to fear and loathe. That’s just not my focus here.

I’m an academic, and I am having fun at work. There. I said it. I know I’m still in the honeymoon phase of this new gig and that one day I’ll wake up and there will be reports to write instead of inspirational speeches and meetings that will make me wish I had food poisoning to get out of attending. I am also acutely aware of how fortunate I am to be in a big honking R-1 school chockablock with cool programs that need people to run them. Still, I don’t think my situation is all that unusual. Most schools have similar opportunities for mid-career course adjustments that can ease the dread so many faculty members feel this time of year. My advice to those for whom the dread is starting to feel unbearable? Look around you. Keep your ears open for opportunities. Put out feelers. Be open to possibilities that might seem unusual.  Unusual could easily turn out to be just right. That’s what happened in my case. I’d never been involved in a living-learning program. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to apply for my current position if I hadn’t been actively exploring what I might do once I stepped down from twelve years of running a small academic program. I was prepared to head back “home” to the English department full time and focus on getting promoted, but when this opportunity came up something told me I ought to pursue it. I was surprised by what my gut was telling me to do, but my gut has never steered me wrong. I listened to it. I’m glad I did. I love the energy and excitement of my new office as well as the commitment to working together to make great things happen for undergraduate students in their first two years.

I’m an academic, and I am having fun at work. Are you? If you aren’t, look around you. Maybe the best job you’ll ever have is right there on your own campus. Don’t just stand on the dock feeling surly or sad. Dive in — Summer may be over, but the water is still fine!

This post is dedicated to my dear pal Lisa, who lives on the water, recently became a dean, and is also in mad love with her new job. Lisa, my friend, you make me regret every No Dean Left Behind joke I ever made. If higher ed is in your capable hands, we might avoid the apocalypse after all.

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.

Love Your Butt, Part Deux — With Pictures!

Pssssst, hey, Mr. Weiner, if you show me your ileocecal valve, I’ll show you mine! What? You won’t? Really? You think THAT’S gross and disgusting? Oh, well, what the heck — Here’s mine anyway!

(Tunnel of) Love Your Butt: The Madwoman's Colonoscopy, 7/22/13

(Tunnel of) Love Your Butt: The Madwoman’s Colonoscopy, 7/22/13

You may recall that I blogged about the Love Your Butt campaign, a project of the Chris4Life Colon Cancer Foundation, in March, when I stumbled upon one of its eye-catching billboards in a DC Metro station. The campaign’s message about the importance of regular screening as a way of preventing colorectal cancer stuck with me. (Note to public-health message crafters: Humor works!) I had my first colonoscopy twelve years ago when I was only 42. The CDC recommends screening after 50, but my father died at 60 of colon cancer, so my siblings and I got to start loving our butts earlier in life. For years, I had put off going back for a second test, in part because I have a constitutional aversion to doctors and doctoring but also because colonoscopies are a lot less fun than you might think they’d be. (Sorry to go off-message, Chris4Life, but it’s true.) I figured that my fondness for fruits and vegetables, my avoidance of tobacco, and my commitment to regular exercise made me a CDC poster girl for colon cancer prevention. I didn’t need no stinkin’ test — and I do mean stinkin’!

Still, the Love Your Butt campaign pushed my, uh, buttons, and then the Woman Formerly Known as Goose turned 60 in May, which got me thinking about my dad’s early death and a promise I had made to him about colon cancer awareness. So, finally, after we got back from our summer travels and had bought a new car and cleaned most of what needed cleaning, I gave myself a good kick in the butt and got back in touch with my gastroenterologist. I signed up for the first available appointment, to give myself less time to think about it or squirm out of it. I also went public with my plan, announcing on Facebook that I needed to schedule a colonoscopy and then letting friends know when my appointment was. The response was both hilarious and illuminating, providing a small but significant example of social media serving both personal and public goods. The advice and encouragement I got from my friends bolstered my resolve and helped me endure the physical discomforts of a 24-hour fast. My hunger game involved fielding quips and suggestions from a far-flung network of pals that included a fellow queer studies prof with a family history of colon cancer whose own colonoscopy had occurred just six days before mine. I hailed her as my role model as I sought to distract myself from my growling stomach. She talked about watching the Food Network as she guzzled the prep solution. We started using the hashtag #queercolonoscopy on our increasingly goofy comments, most of which involved pointing out that vodka, gin, and champagne are, technically, clear liquids, which was all I was supposed to have during my fast. Hunger was making me giddy. My kind, quick-witted friends were entering into the spirit of my day and helping me get through it.

Going public about my colonoscopy was personally beneficial to me in that I felt supported in a good but challenging intention and cared for on a matter about which I felt some anxiety. For all of Facebook’s flaws and limitations, I stick with it because I value the ease with which one can set up or enter into such conversations, which are really circles or networks of care. I am also interested in thinking about such conversations as circles or networks of information and knowledge, in this instance as a modest and in some ways irreverent means of spreading information about a serious health issue. People are uncomfortable talking about colon cancer because the bowel is for some reason one of the less popular body parts and cancer is scary and colonoscopies are not fun, but for heaven’s sake, people, “If everybody aged 50 or older had regular screening tests, as many as 60% of deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented.” Sixty percent! In light of that statistic, even our joke hashtag, #queercolonoscopy, might be seen as a tiny act of hashtag activism, an effort to break silence and raise awareness, to urge queers and non-queers to get up off their butts and tend to the matter of bowel health. Here’s one reason to be grateful for the complete lack of privacy on Facebook and other social networks. I think of the hundreds — actually, thousands — of people who might have stumbled across these conversations by being my friend or the friend of one of my friends. If even one person paused and thought, “Man, I really need to get in for a colonoscopy,” then the exercise was more than personally beneficial and the value wasn’t just in entertainment. Look, I know we’re all just throwing pebbles on the surface of the information pond, but isn’t it nice to think the pebbles are at least making a ripple — and a force-for-good kind of ripple at that?

Oh, and how did my test go? Fine, thanks. The nurse anesthesiologist who sent me happily off to Twilight-land declared me “abnormally healthy” when she saw my stats. Surprisingly, given all my discomfort during the preparation, I was cool as a cucumber as I settled in for the actual test. When the nurse hooked me up to the machine that monitors pulse and blood pressure, an alarm went off. “Did I just die?” I asked. “No,” she said. “You’re apparently just really relaxed.” My resting pulse was 41, which was low enough to trigger the alarm. (Yeah, I’m bragging, but my pulse and BP tend to be slow and low.) The anesthesiologist woke me up for the last part of the colonoscopy, which meant I got to see my innards live and in color. “Oh,” I squealed, “that’s a kernel of corn from dinner the other night!” The doctor removed one measly polyp and diagnosed me with diverticulosis, which basically means I am fifty-four years old and I have a colon. (Translation: Sometimes I fart. Sometimes I take Metamucil.) I’m supposed to get tested again in five years.

Maybe I’ll wait six years, not to procrastinate but because then I’ll be 60, too. I was always a Daddy’s girl. I think he would appreciate that symmetry and its painful irony.

And you? You should get up off your middle-aged butt and get tested, too, if you haven’t already. Tell ’em The Madwoman sent you.

In loving memory of Welman “Lindy” Lindemann, who died twenty-two years ago, on August 1, in Phoenix, eight months after being diagnosed with colon cancer. High in some silent sky / Love sings a silver song.

The Madwoman's Father, Mesa Verde National Park, July, 1991. Photo Credit: The Madwoman.

The Madwoman’s Father, Mesa Verde National Park, July, 1991. Photo Credit: The Madwoman.

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