Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Your oils do not tempt me


Welcome to our "home." We've made it as uncomfortable as possible so you won't stay too long!

I live in the suburbs. Not just any suburbs, but possibly some of the most vanilla, mildly affluent, tasteless suburbs in the country. I am not proud.

Of all the things that a person like me has to deal with and spend energy hating on in the suburbs -- chain stores, wide roads, McMansions, upspeak, people who name their kids Aiden (why not Bladen? Paraden?) -- my personal bane is the tasteless decor of the young-to-middle-aged suburbanite's home.

Seriously, one day last semester I parked next to a house near my suburban university and saw paintings through the windows. Real paintings. Some Audubon prints too! This was such a rarity to spy through an open, beautifully curtained window in Aurora, Illinois. I just sat there in the car staring. Who are these people of taste? Why are they here? And then I walked to class to teach kids in Adidas sandals about Nietzsche, walking past paintingless, Audubonless houses, walking past closed doors that probably hid the following:

At least three bottles of olive oil with shit floating in it. All over the kitchen counter. Displayed in duplicate behind backlit glass cabinet doors. Do they cook with that stuff? How long does it sit there? Is it supposed to impress dinner guests that they might have just been poisoned by it? When do you say, "Honey, I need a new bottle of olive oil with shit floating in it, can you pick me some up at da Costco? I think I'd like floaty lemongrass and pomegranates this time..."

Your oils do not tempt me. In fact I feel a little sick just writing about them. Here's a picture:


Also behind the suburban door are fake wrought iron candle-holder wall sconce swirlies. Above every doorway and overstuffed beige microfiber couch hangs a nest of twisted cheap metal, painted black, possibly supporting tea lights, flowers, wine glasses if we're in the kitchen. Other iterations of this waste of space (for them it fills space, covers their lack of ability to think of anything to put on that huge wall under the vaulted ceiling) include kitchen wine racks, living room wine racks, billiard room wine racks, um, bed frames, master bathroom toilet caddies, you get the idea.

All this shit was on their wedding registry.


Also behind the door, on the coffee table, the overstuffed ottoman, the end table... There are bowls of balls. Let me explain.  They are bowls, and in them are balls. Mosaic balls, feather balls, bark balls... I asked my friend about this and she said she's seen: "So many balls... I don't even know..." What does a bowl o'balls inspire in a guest? Envy? Sensory stimulation? Wait I don't think you're supposed to touch the balls.

Kissing cousin to the balls in bowls is the tray of stuff. Silk artichokes mostly, but other stuff too. Maybe a porcelain rabbit, if the house is big enough to warrant such extravagance-on-a-tray.

In the kitchen there are attempts at Tuscany all around. The olive oil is only the beginning. The best suburban kitchens have crackle finish over at least a third of the surfaces, hideous dark granite countertops, Bed Bath and Beyond artworks of grapes and wine glasses, a set of three painted wooden signs that say "LIVE. LAUGH. LOVE." (Trans: "EAT. DRINK. FUCK."  I should paint that on some wood pieces, in curly-cue letters, to match all the faux wrought iron I don't have.)  But the pictures are the worst. Sometimes hanging, sometimes fake-frescoed right into the wall. Lots of grapes. I can't make one, it will kill me, so here's an internet example:

(Run out of ideas?  AGAIN?  Just cover the wall in that shit.)
If you haven't read my rant about Tuscany (and paint color names, and Anthropologie) read it today.  It's funny as hell.

Behind the door are stainless steel everythings. No kids to get sticky prints all over them. (Maybe a baby, but everything is covered in baby-repellent.) What happened to the white kitchen? I love a bright white kitchen. Or even some knotty wood cabinets. I have both white things and knotty wood in my current kitchen, which has the original 1941 cabinets (new knotty doors on them) and that makes it worthless in the suburbs. Suburbanites loves cavernous, granite lined, crackle finished, steel coated oil cellars as their hangouts. Wait they probably don't even hang out in the kitchen. (Don't all the coolest people hang out in the kitchen at parties? Dumb 'burbans.)

Ok, I know there are worse problems in this world than my own two eyes being ravaged by bad looking things in other people's houses.  But I still hold that one of the worst things about living in the suburbs is the tastelessness. I will deal with my neighbors' excessive disposable income. My kid gets to go to a school with iPads and teachers assistants in every classroom, and free after school art classes that give me an extra hour to get home every Friday. I will deal with their whiteness I guess. I wish my kids saw more diversity around them, both cultural diversity and income diversity (they know our own poorness but have none poorer to compare it to). The rich vanilla issue is a serious issue.

But, as a person with an aesthetic, I really wish I didn't have to look at all these fucking wall sconces.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Call for Papers






This year I'm co-chairing the committee to organize Northern Illinois University's annual English Department Conference.  We call it the Midwest Conference of Literature, Language, and Media: MCLLM.


I know I have some grad student readers, so I wanted to post the CFP here and I hope you'll consider submitting.  You already know someone who's gonna be reading those submissions!  This is definitely a starter conference, so you can get your C.V. fleshed out a bit.  But even though we're easy, we're fun and professional too. We've got professors who come back to present every year, and someone is always in the crowd looking to hire talented presenters who are PhD'd (or almost there).

If you're totally new to this, don't worry. We will even give you tips to revise your proposal so that we can accept it. No kidding.

If you're an old hand... submit anyway!  The variety of panel topics will keep you busy all day, and you will meet some of the most friendly Midwesterners in the land.  This is a low-pressure, supportive conference.  We want to recognize talent, and foster fun and engaging conversation.  With beer too.

The theme of our conference is down to earth and practical this year.  "What do we do?" is the question we asked ourselves.  This whole "studying English" business is weird. How do we define it?  Especially in an age when books and language are always slipping away?  Especially when everyone's answers are supposed to be "BECAUSE SCIENCE."  Well what about "BECAUSE NOVELS"? (So the official theme is "What we do" because the faculty didn't want us to leave it as a question.  You're supposed to have some kind of answer. Be able to explain yourself. Maybe.)

Faculty also didn't want us to write "mount a conference" when we mean "organize a conference."  We keep trying to sneak in sexy action words, e.g. your paper should "tackle" something.  It's a graduate-run conference, so we'll mount and tackle all we want. (I must say that besides the word-splitting, our advisors are very helpful. We wouldn't know what the hell we were doing without them.)

The "What we do" theme for this conference is just a suggestion, something to get you thinking.  We welcome papers on everything under the sun, if you can call it L, L, or M (per the acronym).  For instance, one panelist is writing about jazz music in literature. He thought we would turn him down. We said bring it on.

Without further ado, here is the official CFP as sent out to universities across the country, with submission email at the bottom:

CALL FOR PAPERS

What We Do: English and Communication in Theory and Practice

Conference Date: March 28-29, 2014
Deadline for Proposals: January 31, 2014

The 22nd annual Midwestern Conference on Literature, Language, and Media (MCLLM) at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL is currently accepting proposals for 15 minute papers from individuals and panels. MCLLM welcomes proposals from a wide range of studies in the English and Communication fields. Some possible topics for investigation may include: literature and poetry, creative writing, linguistics, written and visual rhetoric, journalism, narrative and documentary film, games/video games, television, radio, new and social media, and pedagogy in these fields.

We are particularly interested in exploring the changing theory and practice of "What We Do" in our field(s) in the 21st century. For instance, how has the historical concept of a text changed in relation to evolving media? How has our use of technology and the Internet altered our research methods?

Please submit 200-250 word proposals by Friday, January 31, 2014 to mcllm@niu.edu including name, institutional affiliation, email, and phone number of each author. Panel proposals should include a brief overview of the panel's theme and purpose, along with a 200-250 word abstract for each paper.

The theme of this year's MCLLM is inspired by the work of Robin Valenza, Ph.D., associate professor of English at University of Wisconsin - Madison. Her research interests include the digital humanities and the history of academic disciplines. She is the author of Literature, Language, and the Rise of the Intellectual Disciplines in Britain, 1680-1820. Valenza will be presenting a talk entitled "What is Digital Humanities and what can I do in it?" on March 28.

The MCLLM Committee
mcllm@niu.edu


Saturday, November 2, 2013

"Be Safe!"


I'm easily annoyed at words that stick together in catchy appellations, and even more annoyed when those phrases start appearing on advertisements, signage, train platforms, yogurt lids...etc.

"Be Safe!" is the latest verbiage on my shit list (as in, shit you shouldn't say).

But why, Byrd?  It's so friendly! It's so concerned!  Well, my number one reason for disliking "Be Safe!" is its feigned attitude of friendliness and concern.  It's not actually friendly, nor is it actually concerned about your welfare.  It's become one of those things that people say when parting, whenever anyone has to drive a distance, is about to go on a trip, is about to do something fun, or is just about to step into the street in front of a bus.  "Be Safe!" comes out of people's mouths as often as "Have a good one!"  But "Have a good one!" is actually something you wouldn't say unless you were feeling genuinely friendly. It's so colloquial, its use implies not a familiarity but maybe a desire for familiarity, or at least it implies the satisfaction of having momentarily shared a social space with someone. "Be Safe!" on the other hand, carries no actual care or concern with it. It's something people say because they think it is the cultural expectation now.  Where the hell did that come from?

I know the forms of "Goodbye" mentioned above are different from "Be Safe!" because they are simply versions of parting words. "Be safe!", at first, replaced only phrases like "Drive Safely!" and "Be careful tonight!"  But those are situation specific.  "Be Safe!", on the other hand, has even started to replace the usual parting words for some people.  It's too specific to do that.

Not every parting occurs under potentially dangerous conditions. Unless you habitually part in dark alleys.  Or, unless you are a super-hero who is continually rescuing curb-side-stepping idiots from certain bus-whompings. Or, unless you are a cop who talks to people in the mean city streets on Saturday nights. There is a narrow set of circumstances where "Be Safe!" makes perfect sense.  But no, you, regular everyday civilian folk, don't have any goddamn reason to suspect the person from whom you are removing yourself is in any more danger now that you're gone than they were when you were right there with them.  That's a pretty stupid thing to think, non-super-person.

Second, that phrase is too damn up in my business. I can't stand that "Be Safe!"  is so much of a command.  It's in the imperative mood, like so many partings; but it assumes so much authority!  Even "Have a good one!" is giving someone an imperative.  But having "a good one" is so metaphorical and vague, you can have a good one of anything and still satisfy your friend's or acquaintance's culturally imperative parting imperative. I ate a croissant. Done!  Or, I hugged a towel fresh from the dryer. Done!  Having a good one is easy, and it makes me glad that other folks might wish me to have one, in any of its forms.  But whether I do safe things after talking with you is none of your damn business.  While I might not be in immediate danger after leaving a Be-Safer's presence, I certainly feel the pressure of this imperative, because it is delivered with such ownership. It's like the bestower of the imperative is a grand master of safety, and you, on the other hand, are a stumbling, bumbling, drunken, ne'er-do-well whom they have every right to expect will get into trouble tonight. Me? Be safe? YOU be safe. Boring safe person.

I've said much about the individual's usage of "Be Safe!", but this last gripe applies to both Be-Safers and "Be Safe!" signage.  I simply can't stand the pragmatics of that phrase. Telling someone, imperatively, to be safe, is just not sensible. While it may be too specific for a generic parting, it's not specific enough for signage or for an actual safety concern. Without more direction, your signs and well-wishes are meaningless.  What exactly do you want me to do to accomplish safety? And, more importantly, do I ever really have any control over whether I am safe? 

I can take measures.  I can chew food completely before swallowing.  I can tie my shoes mightily tight to avoid tripping on laces.  I can avoid dark alleys, rabid-looking animals, diving pools, dive bars.  But even in this relatively safe bubble I may create by avoiding the joys of sticky bar stools and rabies shots, "Be[ing] Safe!" is not under my control.  There are highwaymen. There are asteroids. There are papers that cut. You, Be-Safer, and your "Be Safe!" signs, are telling me to do something quite humanly impossible. What the hell do you expect? 

This evening as I walked up to the train platform at 57th Street, after traipsing through the famously sketchy U Chicago neighborhood, there it was.  A blinking sign announced the next arrival time, and then it flashed: "BE SAFE!...BE SAFE!...BE SAFE!"  I donned my ear muffs, toed right up to the yellow bumpy edge of the sunken tracks, and let the wind push me a little as a freight train screamed by with its 3000 tons of petroleum tankers.  I imagined them flying off the tracks and exploding against the side of the platform.  I felt as safe as I could be.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

On the Rhetoric of Being Mean


In order to have a little something to post, I've stolen a short thing I wrote for my rhetoric of satire class.  Actually, it's an eighteenth century lit class.  Actually, it's a Pope and Swift class.  (Actually, it's all of those things, which means it covers tons of coursework requirements, and is a weekly, 3-hour knowledge bath.)

We have to write a paper answering a simple question each week.  The requirements for these little "I understood the reading and thought about it" papers are not spelled out.  After two semesters with this professor (who is a font of wisdom but also a tough teacher) I'm finally figuring out what he wants.  He wants you to write about the ideas, the way they work, and write about a bit of the text that you know a little something extra about.  So I've started to seize on the philosophy references, which are easy to find in Pope and Swift.  (What he doesn't want is literary theory sorts of discussions, humor, -isms of any kind, or tangents. I can avoid most of those things easily, but I really miss having a class where I can go off on a tangent and mine it for everything tangential!)

Two weeks ago, I saw a non-philosophical opportunity to say a little about the rhetoric of being insulting.  I am still working on my "Rhetoric of Fuck," so this is an offshoot, or maybe even a broader category, of that.  Pope at his meanest shows that if your text or argument sets up the necessity of swearing or insulting, then it must live up to its own demands.  Maybe this is not an infallible rhetorical method, but it does make for a nicely encapsulated rhetorical environment where the speaker makes the rules -- and once he shows you that he can play by them, you are hopefully enticed to try the game.

Pope tells it like it is (because he thinks everyone should)
In Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Abuthnot,” the poet attacks several contemporary writers in satiric verse. Most prominent among these writers are Joseph Addison, an essayist and Pope’s former friend, and John Hervey, an aristocratic political writer and friend to the royalty.  In a stanza full of scathing accusations of literary cowardice, Pope critiques Addison’s critical persona.  His attacks on Lord Hervey get a bit more personal, as he questions Hervey’s sexuality and responds to Hervey’s attacks on Pope himself.  Do either of these writers deserve the treatment they receive from the tip of Pope’s pen? 
In the case of Addison, I think the attack was a bit unwarranted, based on a personal quarrel about whether Pope’s Iliad was any good, a quarrel that Pope let destroy the friendship.  When he writes Arbuthnot, Pope sees in his former comrade an easy vehicle for critiquing literary trends that rub him the wrong way, and winds his way toward a critique of the writer himself.  The stanza on Addison (ll. 193-214) comes after the poet has spent two stanzas lamenting trends in both contemporary literary criticism and the reading habits of the ever-growing literate (but unrefined) populace.  In ll. 159-172 he critiques the fascination with style for style’s sake (an empty habit of gazing at writing rather than reading it, reducing reading to “word-catching” and counting of syllables) and in ll. 175-192 he condemns writers who borrow other’s works to the point where they cannot create their own except for “eight lines a year.”  He may not associate all of these these bad habits with Addison, but he uses the writer’s name in an ironic manner in l. 192: “not Addison himself was safe” he quips, suggesting Addison’s work is not even worth pilfering. Whether Pope puts Addison in this stanza because the preceding critiques reminded him of that writer is uncertain, but what is certain is that he had something particular to say about Addison and he needed to get to it while he was riled about writing.  He makes note of Addison’s potential literary genius, but accuses Addison of being the opposite sort of social critic that Pope believes himself to be.  Pope views his own, sometimes savage, attacks as necessary evils (if he thinks them evil at all…) in an increasingly literate, increasingly published society where it is becoming harder to break through the literary clutter, harder to set oneself apart and make one’s points heard, and harder to stay in with the right crowd (for him anyway).  Pope believes he is not slighting others for personal gain or merely out of retaliation, but because he is virtuous, and cannot help but be virtuous, like an eighteenth century Socrates. He has no choice but to satirize and condemn those who make literature low-minded or unreadable, and he considers himself brave for doing so.  Addison, on the other hand, is a milk-toast of a critic in his Spectator, because he is afraid of damaging his image as a good-natured wit.  He does not commit to his critiques, he never “dislikes” but only makes a “hint at fault.”  Addison “Damn[s] with faint praise,” while Pope, as he sees it, tells it like it is.
Pope’s attack on Lord Hervey is both more justified and more explicit in its cruelty.  Hervey had made personal attacks on Pope, not leaving out his physical deformities.  So how could Pope ignore Hervey’s sexual (and writerly) waffling between “that and this” if he were serious about causing “wounds,” about striking one’s opponent instead of just making others “sneer”?  Pope hits hard when he calls Hervey a lady, but this is only for rhetorical effect.  The courtier's romantic habits are not what Pope condemns.  It is Hervey's inability to write an attack without telling vicious lies that really galls him because, again, a good critique should get at the truth. (If it's an ugly truth, well then all the better for your argument.  But you can't just make one up.)  While jealousy of Hervey could have been a contributing factor here, Pope is not amiss to continue to uphold his requirement (the requirement that Addison couldn’t meet) that critics, especially satirists, tell it like it is without pulling punches. There is no praise of Hervey’s genius, latent or not.
While Pope’s critique of Addison may be somewhat unwarranted, it is not all that nasty compared to Pope’s crucifixion of Hervey, “that mere white curd of ass’s milk” (l. 306).  If Pope’s main concerns are with the preservation of meaningful literature, with maintaining a literary society that is at once virtuous and au fait -- a society where intelligent men can openly challenge each other’s work -- then this epistle does what he wanted it to do.  The premise of the text requires personal attacks, and as Pope tells us in the sort of disclaimer that precedes some editions, “No injury can possibly be done by [my abuse], since a Nameless Character can never be found out, but by its Truth and Likeness.”  Pope considers himself free and clear – any fault in the poem is actually a fault within the reader.  The somewhat mean-spirited (but not entirely hateful) Addison critique sets up the model and the expectations for a good satirical treatment, and in Pope’s treatment of Hervey a few stanzas later, he happily (and angrily) abides by his own rules.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Mom Byrd





On Februrary 27, 2013, my Grandma Byrd went home. She was, as the obit reads in true obit form, surrounded by friends and family, and at home at her daughter's house where she'd been living for a couple of months. Until then she had always lived on her own.

But to say she lived on her own is not quite right. A mother of eight is bound to beget grandchildren by the dozens, and she did. There are 16 of us, and so many of us have had kids that there are 15 of them, and one of them (we're on great-grandchildren now) even had kids, which makes for two great-great-grandchildren. Some were near, and some were far, but all of us thought of grandma's house as home.

She is my kindred spirit and I think of her every day. Despite the very different trajectories of our lives, on the inside our journeys were similar, and our likes and loves similar too. An intelligent woman with a mind for history, she landed herself a job at National Geographic some forty years after she had left high school without a diploma to marry my Grandaddy. Her daughters saved the hand-written letter she wrote to accompany her humble resume (she hadn't worked since she was a teenager -- who could work with eight kids?), wherein she proudly recounts her path to a GED, and shows not by what she says but by how she writes it that she is deserving of a career at that magazine.  Her "MARJORIE C. BYRD" nameplate still sits on the desk at her house, where my dad now lives. I wish I could have it, but I know the daughters wouldn't let it go.

She had to get that National Geographic job. Grandaddy died in 1964 when seven of the kids were still at home.

I have to start telling stories here -- but first I have to say why I am so full of stories I can't hold them in. It's not only because Grandma died, and now I have to unload what I know and feel about her.  It's also because I didn't even have many of these stories in my catalog until the week of her funeral.

It's so strange. I always wanted to hear the stories.  So I always sat and listened to her stories, and my dad's stories too.  But there were eight kids. The other seven had to have stories too, I figured. No one ever told them to me.  Not until she died. It's like suddenly everyone had things to say and share they wished they'd said and shared earlier. Not just her kids, but her son-in-laws, her cousins and friends and neighbors. So many stories came out. Maybe telling her stories seemed to keep her with us in the room even after the coffin was closed and her body wheeled away.

My dad had never told me the story of his father's death. Now that mother was gone too, it could come out. It was Thanksgiving 1964. The day before, Luther Ernest Byrd had had some pain in in his leg, where the doctor had told him there might be a blood clot. He wasn't about to go to the doctor the day before Thanksgiving. He'd go on Friday, he said.  Well, after Thanksgiving dinner he got up and left the table. At the threshold to the kitchen he put one hand on the door jamb to steady himself from what looked like a dizzy spell. Down he slumped. The little ones started to cry.

One of the daughters' boyfriends propped Ernest up, and Mom tried to wake him but he was gone. The doctor said he went instantly.

Back in Illinois, after the funeral, I answered a call from my dad as I drove home from DeKalb on 88.  He talked about his dad's death again. He said he wanted to go that way, boom! and done.  He said the women in the family drag death out (the last one to go was Aunt Dory at 92) and the men just up and die, quick and painless. That's how I wanna go, he kept saying.

Grandma would not leave so easily. For the past three years or so she has had it rough. Two falls, one breaking her leg, the other her pelvis, diagnoses of COPD, blood disorders, and collapsed esophagus, to name a few. She and my aunt who has diabetes would compare the size of their pill bags at breakfast.  Yes, Grandma had been mostly miserable for at least the last year.  Finally in January they found two aggressive cancers at work on her. There was nothing to do but give her pain medication. Another one for the pill bag. 

The last time I spoke to her was on her birthday, February 3. She was loopy. I wanted to cry. That woman had never had a day of senility in her life. She was the most lucid 88 year old you could imagine. To hear her disorientation and confusion was heartbreaking.

At the funerals (there were two -- I'll get to that in a minute) my Uncle Wayne (her son-in-law) read a service. It was really beautiful, and he even changed it up the second time.  Anyway, there was a bit in there about how grandma never complained. She raised eight kids on her own, lost almost all of her brothers and sisters, never rose above poverty, and never, ever let it get her down. For the most part, that was true. For decades that was so very true. How that little woman had so much strength in her I can't know.

But last year when I visited in the summertime, I was very sick, sicker than I've ever been. My liver was crapping out. Grandma's everything was crapping out. We commiserated. One night when she couldn't sleep because she couldn't breathe, she came right out with it -- she was miserable, and was beginning to think "What in thuh world's the point? Let's get i'toverwith."  To hear her say that hurt, but it was a shadow of her dark side that I'd never seen before. I was glad that she felt she could show it in my presence.

After a fall two years ago, Grandma found herself in the middle of the living room, talking to an EMT.  "MRS. BYRD!" He called her back to waking life. "CAN YOU TELL ME SOMETHING MRS. BYRD?"  She shook herself to make her eyes focus. "What's that?" she asked. He was smiling. He pointed to the landing of the stairs, where it seemed she'd fallen from.  "Tell me -- how did you manage to throw yourself all the way over here in the middle of the room without breaking every bone in your body?"  She smiled back, because she couldn't feel a thing. "I surprise even myself."

After an arrest forty-some years ago, Grandma (Mom) had to bail out a couple of kids, and a couple of neighbor kids.  The neighbor kids' mom didn't find out about it until the funeral. Grandma could keep a secret.

My favorite eulogy given at the Dawsonville, Maryland service was from Grandma's neighbor, Katherine. I can't capture its poignancy here, but it bothered me that my Dad and aunts seemed to think she went overboard. Like "that's my mom you can't cry about her!" I guess as a granddaughter I don't feel that way. I feel like I want to share her as much as I can. I shared her with my best friend, with my kids and husband, with my cousins on my mom's side, with my writer's group (through words anyway). I loved that we could also share her with the neighbors.  Kate had only lived in that house a few years, and said she would have given up on living in a new place if it hadn't been for Marjorie.  I was so glad for Kate. And I was glad even to be reminded of the Bakers, who lived there before her, whose boys I'd play football with in fifty-degree evenings twenty years ago, and refuse to put on my jacket.

After the Dawsonville service, we ate in the church basement. I hadn't been down there in over 20 years. It was the same. It was great.  After we buried her in Chilhowie, Virginia, we ate at the community center next to the river, where we've had family reunions for decades. It was the same too. And the food was such a comfort. Southern, buffet-style church food is my favorite menu. My sis and I overate puddings, meatballs, salads and casseroles you'd find in a '70s cookbook, and overdrank sweet tea and diet soda.

Another thing Grandma and I shared was books. She loved mysteries and she would pick them up at antique shops and yard sales all over the countryside.  When she got them home, she would write inside the front cover where the book came from, and write the date.  After she read it, she would write inside the front or back cover a brief review.  She would write more than that too.  She always had several journals going around the house. Some were devotional sorts of things, and others were about family, a place to record stories, births and deaths. Sometimes I would just find a scrap of a piece of notebook paper with a line from a hymn and some musings on it.  I used to write compulsively like that, and thinking of her notebooks and scraps makes me want to get into the habit again.

Her love of learning made it onto the funerary card. At the Chilhowie, Virginia service, I had to stand up and say something about it. I have a big family, and most of them are proud of me for what I do. But they've all been asking "When are you done with school?" since college began for the first time, fifteen years ago.  Well, Grandma never asked me that.  She understood why I would always be in school, why I had to become a professor (which takes forever) so that I could stay in school forever. I love that she never asked me that.

Grandaddy was the one from Virginia.  Grandma was from Tennessee.  They both lived near the state line, where the tip of northeast Tennessee overlaps the tip of southwest Virginny.  There were two funerals because sometime around 1950, Grandaddy bought a farm in Maryland and asked Grandma if she wanted to be a farmer's wife. And after she moved to Maryland, where she had six more children, she created quite the matriarchy.  Scores of family and friends in both states wanted to say goodbye. 

Here's a wild picture of Grandma stealing a bike from a boy when she was 14, in Shady Valley, TN.


This is getting long, and I will never run out of things to say about her. I'll end with my last new discovery, had by unprecedented the story-sharing by my aunts.  Grandma could sing and play guitar.  She would wake the kids up by singing and playing. She would sing little songs about how breakfast is ready. And before all that, she sang to her husband. And before that, to her brothers. My Aunt Ginnie (named Virginia, after the state) ended the letter she read to her mama with, "Now you can sing to Daddy all you want."

I've been sitting on this for a while, and it's time to let it go.  It's an unrevised thought unloading, but it's on one of the most important people in my life, possibly the best human being I will ever know. (Some creative non-fiction about her will follow in later posts.)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Accidental Sexists, Latent Misogynists


This is going to be very unscientific. But you know what? That's what essays are. Unscientific "tries" (from the French essai) at getting across an idea, or at finding the answer to some question.  I will try my best. I have been thinking about this since I have had some life-altering, feminism-rallying experiences with men who think they are the shit, and that women should be the recipients of their shit.

Accidental Sexists and Latent Misogynists, as I'll call them, are two different things.

The first, as indicated by the accidental nature of the sexisms committed, is a forgivable dude (not trying to give anyone shit) who is trying to be nice and ends up being condescending instead. He usually knows it immediately, or sometimes after you point it out and he stammers awkwardly, and then he tries to fix it (clumsily).  This dude (and sometimes dudette) is not a social plague or anything of the sort.  He is just a manifestation of how the modern man is coming to terms with feminism, and sometimes he is even an indicator of how men are valiantly stepping up to the feminist front lines next to their woman peers. He just doesn't know what to say when he gets there.

Accidental Sexist, we forgive you.  We even thank you.  You may accidentally tell us something like "I have respect for ALL women!" and then we'll cringe imperceptibly, but we know deep down, even if you're sometimes confused, that if the Women's Studies department was doling out "This is what a feminist looks like" stickers, you'd slap one on your flat chest.

The Latent Misogynist, on the other hand, is a fucking menace.  He disguises himself (consciously or not) as what he thinks a mildly feminist man looks like.  Or rather, how he thinks a mildly feminist man sounds (because he wouldn't be caught dead wearing that sticker).  This is a predatory beast who gains unmerited rapport with women every day, and who most easily tricks his unsuspecting women friends (and girlfriends) of all ages into thinking he's on their side.  What's the trick? He spouts things that sound, on the surface, like the woman-positive rhetoric we've all been waiting to hear. But underneath those crafty lines is the almost inaudible low rumble of testosterone, murmuring all the while:

"You need me to say these things to make them true. I create the world with my words. I say things, and then they are so. You can't do that, but I can."

You can have your feminism. But know that it is sanctioned by HIM.

That is very sinister, yes.  That is the extreme version. There is another low rumble, less sinister, but very hard to put into words.  It sounds like this:  rumblerumblerumblegrumblegrowlrumble.  Let's see, the best I can describe this is like so:

"I like women. I want to have sex with them.

I happen to like women with brains though. And that makes me a special kinda guy.  Since I don't just care about tits, that means I respect women right?

In fact, if they're smart and funny, I don't really mind if they're not that good looking.  That makes me a real stand-up guy, huh?

Women should like me a lot for having this very modern and woman-supportive philosophy.  This means I'll get to have sex with even more women! Shit I hadn't thought of that!

I'd better keep this up, even if I sometimes don't really believe the bit about it being okay if she's not that good-looking.

I understand women.  I respect all of them.  I never want to hurt a woman."

NOTE: Before I explicate these manly lines, let me add a disclaimer.  There has been a lot of ugly anti-feminist rhetoric on the internets these days, and I don't just mean from men.  I mean from feminists themselves!  Some of them defend men against any accusation of sexism no matter how blatant (and some men defend themselves by lashing out) whenever some HuffPo gal, etc, writes a new "Sexism still exists!" piece in the columns.  Well, before you go calling me a sexist, I will flatly deny it.  The Latent Misogynist I describe here is not intended to represent all men, most men, or even a lot of men.  It is a very particular kind of guy, who probably comes from all walks of life.

Furthermore, in my 32 years I have had some very ugly experiences with some prime specimens of Latent Misogynists.  My own experience is something I can essai about (denying women traction in arguments because they tend to write from experience is yet another ugly internet trend).  These guys exist, and they are shitty shitbags, just as women who hate men are shitty too.  Anyway it is only THEM, the Latent Misogynists, who I am talking about when I reduce their mental activity to that of a grapefruit. Not all men.  Not at all. Many men are awesome, and many, many more are average respectable folk.  Same goes for women.  There you go.

I am sick of the comments on articles about sexism, the ones where sexist men and their woman-apologists say things like "I am totally offended by this. YOU are what's wrong with feminism," when the authors of said articles have made it excruciatingly clear that they are speaking about a minority of despicable men. Well, sirs and madams, if you are offended by me or anyone else kicking THIS guy (the Latent Misogynist) in the crotch, then you must identify with him pretty closely, ergo... you are also deserving of a good crotch-kicking.

Manly thoughts explication time!  There are three things lurking in the Latent Misogynist's thought bubble:

Sex on a man's terms

How to pass as a woman-appreciative kind of guy (consciously feigning it or not)

Things that men were raised to believe and that they might have heard said respectfully to their mothers 30 years ago, so they actually believe these things are still good things to say to women.

NO! A thousand times no.

SEX

The Latent Misogynist thinks of his outwardly "considerate" expressions of desire towards women as doing them a favor. The line about a woman's smarts increasing his ugliness-tolerance is right out of a former friend's dumb filthy mouth. Oh you're not so cute. Well you're smart, so I'll help you out! You can still get with all o'this, baby!  

Okay, I'll stick to what this guy really said and not just my imaginings of what happens in the heads of idiots:  Tina Fey was this guy's example of a smart funny girl he likes a lot but who is "actually kinda dumpy." Can you believe that shit?  Tina Fey is good looking.  Hotter than he who called her dumpy, that's for sure.

One more Tina Fey thingy -- people often tell me I look like her, especially in my glasses.  So this guy who was trying to work his idiot magic on me did so by telling me a woman who I look like is "actually kinda dumpy." Awesome!

As for the bit of not caring about tits and therefore being respectable, well that quickly falls apart when the misogynist supplies another body part to take the place of the tits.  Now, it would not be misogynistic at all, or even sexist, to say "I am a brains guy" or "I'm a humor guy."  Every person has particular things they like in the personalities of others, both friends and potential mates.  But when the guy's claimed preference is "Brains and humor even if you're not hot," then the implication is... he'd really rather you were quite smokingly hot because, oh wait, he's really an ass guy.  But does he still get points for not being a tits guy?  No?  Shit!

In short, in order to praise woman, one of the first tactics the Latent Misogynist's toolbox is objectification.  First objectify, and then praise the object. Much easier than actually understanding another human being, right? So while claiming to "love women," he can only start with his most basic urges.

LIVING WITH WOMEN

Let's move away from the base desires to the general appreciation of women (shudder), which he claims to have in abundance.  The Latent Misogynist talks as if he has taken a Gen Ed course in Women Appreciation, taught by a man.  (They could call it WOAP 101.)  When you see "appreciation" in a course title, it is a course for non-majors.   So in an appreciation course you never learn the real essence of a thing. You learn some surfacey language with which to talk about it and analyze it and maybe identify different types of it. You can, after the course, hopefully pretend to have good taste in that thing at the next party you attend ("I like brains blah blah blah").  Or you can just learn to live with it. (My best friend once took an art appreciation course and the textbook was titled Living with Art.  As if it's a disease or a nuisance!  Perhaps Living with Women will be next in the Living with... series.)

The Latent Misogynist listens to the vocabulary of women-friendly folk and picks up some phrases, tests them out on easy marks, and the ones that work become staples in his less than abundant copia of "I love women" rhetoric.  His remarks on women's progress rarely congeal out of the abstract "It's great when a woman does X," "Now THERE'S a woman" sort of comments.

He does not take a course in actual feminism, self-taught or not.  That's too much of a commitment.  The Latent Misogynist can pretend appreciation among average women. But if he tried to pretend feminism, he would never pass.

IT WORKED ON MAMA!

Some things the LM says are things that sounded really great fifty years ago. But he is the worst kind of benevolent sexist.*

*I hesitated to use that term here -- the Accidental Sexist described at the beginning of this post is closer to the definition of benevolent sexist.  But when the sexism really is accidental and well meaning, I can't get that angry. I do forgive the Accidental Sexist, even though I know it holds women back that benevolent sexism of any kind slips by quite often. But the intent is what I get hung up on.

The Latent Misogynist has no good intent when he says things like "I hate to hurt a woman."

Do I need to parse that one? Ugh...

SUM SCIENCE

To leave you with some science (however soft), here is a perfect definition of benevolent sexism from Glick and Fiske's 1996 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

"We define benevolent sexism as a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure)."

and...

"We do not consider benevolent sexism a good thing, for despite the positive feelings it may indicate for the perceiver, its underpinnings lie in traditional stereotyping and masculine dominance (e.g., the man as the provider and woman as his dependent), and its consequences are often damaging. Benevolent sexism is not necessarily experienced as benevolent by the recipient."

These excerpts were cited in this Scientific American blog post on sexism, which now boasts examples of the hideous article comments I've been alluding to.

Now to go back to my distinction between Accidental Sexists and Latent Misogynists, I believe that some benevolent sexism is expressed in a non-threatening and well-meaning way. But it is the Latent Misogynist who USES benevolent sexism for "intimacy-seeking," restricting a woman, and making her dependent.

Unlike "benevolent" slip-ups, microaggressions (subtle communications meant to put women and minorities in their place) are never perpetrated on accident.  Look at these two sub-types of microaggressions (from Wiki):

Microinvalidation: Characterized by communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person. [This is like every "WHERE'S YOUR DATA YOU CAN'T WRITE FROM EXPERIENCE BECAUSE YOU DON'T HAVE ANY!" comment on sexism articles by young women.]

Microrape: Characterized by predatory non-physical prurient communications with the intent to penetrate the victim's emotional security on the basis of heteronormative impositions. [PUKE!  This is like every word that comes out of the Latent Misogynist's (or latent homophobe's) mouth within the vicinity of his target or prey. Predatory is the key term there, I think.]

MORE TO COME

I have been collecting articles on sexism.  Well, actually I've been collecting the comments.  Sexism in all its forms (hostile or benevolent, intentional or not) is worse today than I ever remember it, in the streets, in the workplace, in relationships, and online.  I can't get my students riled about sexism, while rape culture flourishes at colleges and on Facebook pages. I know this is a sociological and cultural issue, but the way we absorb the sexism all around us also makes it a psychological issue.  A personality issue.  And that's what's been boiling in my brain lately.  Maybe an Accidental Sexist who is so close to being feminists could rethink some things and join the cause.  And maybe a Latent Misogynist or two can wake up from their delusions and go see a fucking shrink.  (I'm convinced that the level of utterly confused and damaging sexism I've described here is part and parcel of neurosis.) So I had to get this out, and hopefully I will soon pull together an article on this burgeoning collection of sexist internet comments.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

How to Sing a Hymn


Two things happened today. Well, if you're into minutiae then 162 things happened today. But in short, I went to a Mormon church service (seeking curiosities), and I went to the laundromat (seeking clean socks).

Instead of spending my wash cycle time walking out for a sweet tea or gazing numbly at the socks rolling around in the drum, I thought about the musical directions in the Mormon hymn book I sang from this morning. I've seen plain English directions in hymn books before, at my grandma's church.  The book at her church gives directions like "joyfully" or "slowly," sometimes casting commentary on the meaning but not much. In the Mormon book, however, all the musical directions are commentary on the essence of the song, and how the singer should feel about it.

While this may be a good way to indicate what kind of voice we should sing in, and maybe an indicator of how we should interpret the song, it doesn't help us understand what the tempo should be, or how the notes should be read. Isn't the main aim of directions like andante and allegro to give an idea of the tempo and the rhythm of the song?  Okay maybe it's silly to expect everyone to learn Italian words, but even rock sheet music has helpful (rather than emotional and confusing) plain-English directions, like "moderate rock" or "a little faster" or "ballad."

Yet now that I rethink it, ballads and shuffles, and whatever else might be included in the directions in my Jethro Tull songbook, are examples of a vocabulary shared by rock musicians (although the musician who transcribed Anderson's flute solos uses presto and allegro too).  Maybe the vocabulary of hymnals has to match the shared vocabulary of church?  So, there must not be any better way to describe how to sing a hymn, than with words like these:

Actual examples from the Mormon hymn book

With reverence

Prayerfully

With conviction

Fervently

Solemnly

Thoughtfully

These are so funny, because they attempt to be so specific and end up being so vague.  Prayerfully?  WTF, Mormons? Much can be said about musical directions as a means of shutting down a faithful one's (or a musician's) personal interpretation of a song, but there is just as much to be said about these lamentable word choices.  So then, still at the laundromat, I got to thinking, why don't they just take it all the way, and get all religulous with the hymnal commands?

Possible Mormon (or any evangelical church) Hymn Directions

With the Spurit

Shamefully

Guiltily

With clean thoughts

Zealously ( ♩ = 116 )

As if you are about to explode ( ♩ = 162 )

Like it's your Baptism-day!

Like the devil's got you by the balls

Piercingly

In tongues


And still at the laundromat, I thought, Why not have the alternate atheist/agnostic/apostate version?

Apostate Hymnal Directions

With frustration ( ♩ = 42)

Without grace

Facetiously

Ironically

With agony

With apathy ( ♩ = whatever )

Out of the side of your mouth

With goat voice 

That should do it. Have you seen any strange, confusing, or plain silly musical directions? Can you add any to my alternate lists?