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 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.

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.

On Not Resting

Image picked up here.

It’s a sweltering summer Sunday. I had a different kind of post in mind for today, a breezy back-to-blogging sort of post filled with travel pictures and light reflections on the monumental legal and social changes that have occurred during the extended radio silence that has prevailed in this particular corner of the blogosphere for the past several weeks. That half-finished post may or may not ever make it out of the draft folder. It certainly can’t go up today, not because I feel I have anything especially wise or useful to say in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin but because it would feel wrong to publish on any other subject right now. It would also feel wrong to publish nothing, even if I don’t really know what to say. Fortunately, others are less tongue-tied than I am.

Tenured Radical has compiled a list of things to do and read in the wake of the verdict. Bardiac offers a handy guide for white folks on how to end white violence against people of color. Here’s a helpful snippet:

1. If you see a person of color, don’t shoot them.

2. If you see a person of color, even if you think they shouldn’t be in your neighborhood, don’t shoot them.

3. If you see a person of color, even if you think they shouldn’t walk around with a hoodie, don’t shoot them. (In fact, even if you don’t like the fit of their pants, the color of their shoes, or whatever, don’t shoot them.)

4. If you’re a police officer, and you see a person of color driving a car, don’t pull them over for “driving while Black.” And don’t shoot them.

See? It’s simple! We can do this, people! Don’t. Shoot.

The always awesome Melissa Harris-Perry has an eloquent Du Bois-inflected commentary on how it feels to be a problem (which is different from merely having a problem), a feeling familiar not only to African Americans but to members of any stigmatized or disenfranchised group. Our dear and faraway friend Keguro Macharia meditates on the meaning of the words Stay safe to those who are deemed killable, disposable.

That is what it boils down to, isn’t it? We can fret about the weirdness of Florida’s laws or the weaknesses of the prosecution’s case (as commenters over at the Chronicle are already doing on TR’s post), but in the end Trayvon Martin is dead because George Zimmerman saw him as criminal and killable and ignored orders from police to end his pursuit of the young man in the gray hoodie armed only, as it turned out, with Skittles and iced tea. Martin is being compared to Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy murdered in Mississippi in 1955, supposedly for flirting with a white woman. The comparison is apt, except that Trayvon Martin didn’t offer his killer even a whistle as provocation. Trayvon’s crime was walking slowly in the rain, at night, in a gated community. Gosh, it’s almost enough to make you think we haven’t made much racial progress at all, isn’t it?

Did Emmett Till whistle? Did Trayvon Martin reach for his killer’s gun? We will likely never know, and we don’t need to know in order to mourn their deaths and commit ourselves to making the world safer for boys like them. Don’t shoot is good advice for white folks, and Stay safe is the hope and exhortation we have for everyone we love. Riffing off Judith Butler and Sweet Honey in the Rock, I add simply this: Every. Body. Matters.

Picked up on Facebook. Provenance unknown.

Image picked up on Facebook. Provenance unknown. Listen to Sweet Honey perform “Ella’s Song” here.

With thanks to the Woman Formerly Known as Goose, for pointing me toward “Ella’s Song.” Go listen to it. You’ll be glad you did, believer in freedom that you are. Peace out.

News for Ladies, Globetrotting Edition

We’re getting ready to go off on an international adventure of our very own in a couple of days, so amuse yourselves with some random snippets of gynocentric news and information, culled from the all-seeing, all-knowing digital panopticon the incredible Interwebz.

Image of the Week:

Screenshot of Hillary Clinton's Twitter profile page on the day it went live, 6/10/13.

Screenshot of Hillary Clinton’s Twitter profile page on the day it went live, 6/10/13.

Question: Are you bothered by the word “wife” in the bio? I am not. I dig the progression from the traditional, stand-by-your-man model of ladyhood that opens the series of nouns Clinton offers to describe herself. The series manages, in the cool, crisp style of the Twitterverse, to remind readers of her decades of public service while cheekily taking on the ridiculous attacks on her appearance, style, and personal life that have dogged her over the years. It ends with a brilliant tease, that coy TBD, inviting readers to stay tuned to see what’s coming next from one of the world’s most fascinating and accomplished women. Is it any wonder that Clinton’s debut caused an immediate sensation? Alyssa Rosenberg in Think Progress declared it a success, comparing the pop-cultural savvy evident in Clinton’s Twitter entree to the flat-footedness of a Republican Game of Thrones parody that made the National Republican Congressional Committee look dumb and out of touch instead of cool and hip. (That’s according to Rosenberg — I do not watch GoT, so don’t expect any jokes or spoilers here. I am out of touch but not dumb.) Clinton’s embrace of the 140-character mode of communication was front-page news in this morning’s Washington Post, which even this loyal pantsuit wearer found a little hard to believe. As I type this, Clinton has more than 375,000 followers on Twitter, which is mighty impressive for a political figure. I mean, an obscure singer like Justin Bieber can rack up 40 million followers before breakfast, but a hardworking pol like NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo can barely muster 84,000.

Yes, I am following Clinton. She hasn’t returned the favor yet, but so far she is only following Bill, Chelsea, and some Clinton Foundation thingies. She also hasn’t posted anything beyond her opening Tweet, a clever shout-out to the creators of the brilliant Texts from Hillary Tumblr that boosted Clinton’s coolness ratings into the stratosphere last spring. Good move, Hillz — We denizens of the Interwebz love nothing better than a hat tip as a way of demonstrating alliance and respect. Dear Hillary: You are clearly getting excellent social media advice, but if you want more, I’m available, 24/7, here at this humble little blog or over on the Twitters. Your devoted admirer, The Madwoman

Speaking of Sheroes Battling Sexism, biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling has been doing it for decades in academia. Read all about it here. And retired Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman finally answers an incredibly sexist letter she received from a dude at the Harvard graduate school when she applied for admission in 1961. Finally, Yoko Ono has just turned 80 and feels that she is starting a new life. Dog bless you, Yoko.

On the other hand, not all women are perfect. (I know: Sad, but true.) Case in point: This woman, a mom AND a professor of gender studies (!?!) published a tortured piece of hoo-ha in Wa Po the other day about how her daughter, a straight girl, took another girl to the prom because neither of them felt like waiting for boys to ask them to attend. (H/T Julie Enszer.) Mom was rattled, because, well, “If Angel were a lesbian, attending the prom with a girl would have seemed normal. But she’s not, so I kept thinking: ‘Why not attend with a boy instead of a girl?’” Dear Anxious Mom: Please add this book to your summer reading list and send me a new screen for my laptop. I smashed mine while reading your tortured, sentimental affirmation of traditional gender norms. For the record, yep, Angel is a much better feminist than her mother is, but you know what? It ain’t a fricking contest, and if you frame it that way everybody loses. Yours sincerely, The Madwoman

Because it’s summertime, you should read one silly piece of twaddle that will make you giggle about a certain form of Lady Power in the Media, so go read this profile of Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb’s wine- and estrogen-fueled partnership. I hadn’t watched morning television in years until I caught some of the high jinks going on during their daily hour of Today. They really are hilarious. The money quote in the piece is Gifford’s description of how enriching her work and friendship with Kotb have been for her: “It’s like an old man who’s taken a young lover,” she quips. “He’s got a jaunty little step.”

All right, kids, gotta run. If you need me over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be where this woman was in this pretty to look at but not especially good film:

Under_the_tuscan_sun_posterArrivederci, darlings! I hope your summers are off to a sunny, delicious start. I’ll post from the road if I can, but you know how spotty those international Interwebz connections can be, especially when a Madwoman has had a glass or three of nice chianti. Be good and brave, and I’ll catch up with you soon. Peace out!

Sixty Things I’ve Learned in My Sixty Years

A Guest Post by the Woman Formerly Known as Goose!

[Her birthday was a couple of weeks ago, but we’re celebrating it this weekend. When I ran across Ian Martin’s “Sixty Thoughts on Turning Sixty” awhile back, I challenged WFKG to come up with a list of her own to show how wise and witty she’s become during her long sojourn on the planet. She obliged and has agreed to share it here as the Madwoman’s first official guest post. Thank you, Goose, and happy fricking birthday! So glad to have spent so much of the sojourn with you. Okay, kids, pay attention: Words of wisdom from a cranky ex-Texan coming at you in 3-2-1-0!] 

  1. Growing older? It really does get better. Or at least it has for me.
  2. Where there is great love, there are always miracles. That’s true. (Thank you, Marilee Lindemann. Oh yeah, and thank you, Willa Cather 😉
  3. Goes to show you never can tell: I have been deliriously happy with the funniest, sweetest, smartest woman in the whole world for over 29 years. There were naysayers who said it wouldn’t last.
  4. Wise is the woman, wise is the man, who refuses naysaying.
  5. Goes to show you never can tell: marriage equality really is sweeping the land. Things can change.
  6. Goes to show you never can tell: state after state, marijuana is being legalized. Things can change.
  7. A mom who stands up for the right of her 5-year-old daughter to wear PF Flyers on Romper Room is doing something much more profound than it appears at the time. Thanks, Mama! [Editor’s Note: See photo below. Goose is on the far right, in the black socks and tennis shoes, the only girl on the “Don’t Bee” side of the room.]
  8. All the problems of the world can be solved after 2 martinis.
  9. You may not be able to remember the solutions the next morning. . . .or they may not seem so wise, but still.
  10. The love of a dog is a good, no, it’s a great, bountiful thing.
  11. “The system is working” is one of the most dangerous mantras that long ago swept the land. Tripping right off the tongue, it brings calm when there has been no resolution. (Thank you, Keguro Macharia.)
  12. Calm without resolution is a volcano, and it is an active one sure to erupt. Always remember that.
  13. True friendship can in fact be, as Blake said, opposition, but it is always real treasure.
  14. Laughing at least once a day is the best medicine.
  15. Humor really can change the world.
  16. If everyone spent a few minutes every day enjoying poetry, the world would be a much more pleasant place.
  17. I still have not figured out why it’s never bothered me to get older. In fact, I used to say I was older than I was—30 when I was 27, 40 when I was 38, stuff like that. I suppose it might have something to do with the fact that if you are alive you are also always getting older (as you have while reading this post) and I like being alive.
  18. So I guess it goes without saying that I don’t mind saying “I’m 60!” In fact, I like saying it. So why do so many people assume that a woman will lie about her age, meaning lie and say she’s younger than she is?
  19. Though I really like my card that says “membership has its privileges,” I don’t understand nor have I ever cottoned to exclusive clubs, formal or informal, though I’ll confess I’ve been a part of one or two. But needing to leave out, exclude, has never made sense to me. . .and seems to indicate insecurity, always, without exception.
  20. That gorgeous spring is accompanied by pollen is just how things are—the beautiful often partners with the annoying. Without pollen, there would be no spring beauty.
  21. I have learned that sometimes people really do lie.
  22. I wonder more and more, or maybe I mean that I more and more have come to think, that most people like living in echo chambers. Real disagreement and exchange of substantially different views are more rare than I was trained to believe.
  23. One has to accept, over and over and over again, that one doesn’t always get one’s way. . .and that’s ok.
  24. One has to accept that disappointment over not getting one’s way does not necessarily get easier with age.
  25. The most important human activities are laughter, loving sex, and enjoying a beloved’s company.
  26. Many people’s love of poetry remains undiscovered self-knowledge, and that is not a good thing.
  27. There is great wisdom in knowing when a circumstance is really good enough.
  28. A smile not only lowers blood pressure—it can make one’s whole day.
  29. Done really is better than perfect. . .most of the time.
  30. Texas really is the only place on earth bluebonnets grow—see this from Nanci Griffith (skip the ad but don’t miss Nanci’s introduction).
  31. When I left “West Texas Heaven” (see Kimmie Rhodes), I probably knew deep down somewhere that I was never going back again. . .but I was not at all conscious of that fact as I stood on a plateau overlooking San Angelo.
  32. At the age of 21, “West Texas Heaven” really was the only one I’d ever known.
  33. To grow up in a land where horned toads ran around in the backyard is a very good thing—not only for the individual child but for mother Earth, who is losing such delightful creatures (who will sleep in your hand if you rub their bellies).
  34. Blessed are they who always remember the importance of having fun.
  35. One can feel like a chump for being kind, but that silly insecurity passes. Kindness is true wealth.
  36. Snobbery is laziness. And boring.
  37. Watching The Empire Strikes Back once a year is a healthy thing to do. ‘tis a great way to spend 124 or 127 min. (depending on which version you watch).
  38. My brother Bobby Earl, my mother, beloved ML, Kimmie Rhodes, Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, BZ Palubinsky, and many more all taught me just how important music is.
  39. A large group of people singing a cappella, not necessarily in harmony with one another, is nonetheless a beautiful thing. There’s power in the human voice.
  40. My father, my sister, and other dear friends who can’t sing in tune taught me that singing together does not have to be in tune to be very pleasing.
  41. An afternoon in a good museum lowers one’s blood pressure.
  42. A walk on a beautiful sunny day lowers one’s blood pressure.
  43. A walk on a cloudy day lowers one’s blood pressure.
  44. 45 minutes on the treadmill listening to Helen Leight lowers one’s blood pressure.
  45. Yoda: “There is no why.” That is often true.
  46. Yoda:  “Do or do not. There is no try.” That is always true.
  47. “I don’t believe it.” Yoda: “That is why you fail.” That truth speaks for itself.
  48. Obi-wan: “Don’t give in to hate. That leads to the dark side.” True. It’s also true about envy, jealousy, any and all despisals—listen to Muriel Rukeyser.
  49. A cocktail in the late afternoon with a dear friend is heaven on earth.
  50. “Give Peace a Chance” is so very important for individuals and groups and organizations alike. Wait a minute, it’s not just very important, it’s crucial.
  51. Life really does happen while you’re making other plans. John Lennon, who famously reminded us of this, should know.
  52. When the poets “stand back and let all be” (see “Jungleland,” Mr. Springsteen) we are in trouble, deep trouble.
  53. Winning is not really anything lasting or important—it really is how you play the game.
  54. My friend Margie is right—“ecological hope is really about love.”
  55. Staying up nearly all night talking to my friend William 36 years ago was a very good thing to do—we have the gift of true friendship and there just can’t be anything better than that.
  56. I am the wealthiest and most fortunate woman on earth—I have more than a handful of true friends who really are family.
  57. Taking stock, as I have done here, should be done more often than once every 60 years.
  58. “Ethically, I am looking for / An absolute endorsement of loving-kindness. / No loopholes except maybe mosquitoes.” The older I get, the more wise I realize are these words of my mentor and dear friend Alicia Ostriker.
  59. One doesn’t have to be Henry James to know that “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” 
  60. The road goes on forever, comrades, and the party need never end.

mn romper room

 (Photo Credit: Smith Family Archive. WFKG on Romper Room, 1958.)

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.

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