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?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

There is only one Yeats.



Is has been quite some time since I posted anything "instructional."  But I used to do it quite often. I posted a guide to the literature subject GRE.  I described how to dovetail a philosophy major or minor with your English degree.  I posted on how to talk about the Middle Ages, and how to use the word "modern" in all its definitions.  Why I don't do that anymore is something of a mystery.  I've been at this "Student of English" business for years now, so I usually know what I'm talking about.  Maybe that's just the trouble. (And I explored this a couple months ago -- it seems the more you know what you're talking about, the harder it is to write essay-style pieces.)

Well, dash it all, tonight I'm going to instruct.

It may seem silly to instruct on something like this, but I think there may be a need. It's come up in conversations with smart undergrads, and it's come up twice in grad classrooms filled with smart people. And so I've seen that there are many who don't know that:

There is only one Yeats. 

By that I do not mean "O what a literary genius Yeats is!  There can never be another!"  While I do think that Yeats is pretty irreplaceable, the point here is how to talk about Yeats. And other people named Yeats.  Or Yates. Or any authors who share a last name.

There is only one Eliot.  There is only one Shelley. There is only one Woolf. (And I will argue that there is only one Austen.)

When readerly types talk about authors, they often throw around last names.  Whether this is for the sake of brevity or because it makes you sound professional in a graduate classroom, is variable.  It is, in fact, professional and eloquent sounding, and it would certainly be a mouthful to say "William Makepeace Thackeray" mid-conversational stream.  But when introducing an author into a conversation, it's only acceptable to do so by last name if everyone there will know who you're talking about.  So anyone who is not counted among the "greats" has to be introduced by full name, just like when you write a paper MLA style. (You can't refer to some unknown critic with "Cooper argues..." on the first page of your paper and more than you can say "Smith has quite a way with metaphors!" in a conversation at a party. Because...Who the hell are these people?) 

Contemporary writers should probably all be introduced by full name, because individual taste still determines what we read when it comes to stuff that hasn't yet been sorted out by the critics.  If there are two new spewers of novels with sad titles and soft-focus covers, and both writers are named Smith, who can yet say which Smith is the only Smith?  (For the sake of all that is right and good in the world, hopefully neither.)

But Coleridge, Thackeray, Keats, Byron, Milton, Spencer, etc, etc, should never be called by full name.  That would just be silly.  What other Milton is there?

That question leads us to where it gets tricky.  I list a few of the Romantics above, but I left out Shelley.  Because there is another Shelley.  How do we decide which one gets the privilege of being the only Shelley? 

Before you start weighing the options, the decision has probably already been made for you, by the same forces that shape the canon.  Which one is a white male Anglophone?  Which one is the parent or husband? (In the case of a child or wife using the same name even though the head of the household is famous.) Who's work is more influential? (Already partly determined by the existing canon, which is of course already influenced by gender, race, language, and so on.)  I won't get into a discussion of canon here (because it's here), but it does bother me a little bit that the same canon criteria that long kept women and minorities from being heard are similar to the criteria for deciding who takes the honor of being "the one." 

All that aside, Yates is no Yeats.  Sometimes an author just completely outshines another, both in works and in historical significance.  So even if you study Yates, even if your dissertation is on Yates, and you talk about his work with your colleagues and committee all the time only having to use a last name because they all know -- STILL, when you introduce yourself to someone who doesn't know you're knee-deep in Yates, unless you are at the Super-Secret Society of Richard Yates Conference, you'll have to call him Richard Yates.  Or they'll think you mean Yeats.

Percy Bysshe Shelley is the only Shelley, so we can stop using his silly names now.  His wife is Mary Shelley.  Always Mary.

T. S. Eliot is the only Eliot.  This one is tricky -- George Eliot is just as important as T.S., in my book.  But that's not her real name.  Besides the obvious canonical ding for being a woman writer, the fact that Eliot is her pen name makes it weird to call her that and only that, as if it's a last name.  So T.S. wins.

Woolf is the only Woolf.  Although, people frequently use her full name.*  We have a tendency to do this with women, while men who are of the same authorial caliber are rarely called by their full names. Tom Wolfe is not Wolfe.  He's Tom Wolfe.  Only Woolf is Woolf.  This is a case where a woman writer triumphs, because her work is so historically important, partly because it's the work of a woman about being a woman.

*I admit to sometimes even calling her by her first name.  But as a believer in some kind of Écriture féminine, using a woman's first name brings me closer to her. Somehow it seems appropriate. But even though I talk about "Virginia" often, we should not be required to call women by their full names just because they're women.  In fact, in the above list of "last name only" men there are two I'd never heard of before I read Woolf.  Her last name was part of my vocabulary before Thackeray's or Lamb's. She actually introduced me to them.

Jane Austen, I would argue, is the only Austen.  Since Austen sounds exactly like Austin, there are any number of writers liable to be confused with her as the centuries wear on.  But why do we always call her "Jane Austen"?  Again, I understand the affectionate use of a first name by a person who feels a close affinity with a writer.  But as well known as Janey is these days, I think "Austen" should suffice. 

As for who is the only Brontë... I think we are stuck with both Emily and Charlotte. (And if you plan to talk about the third sister who no one reads, her name is Anne and you'll have to be specific about it.)

So when you want to talk about authors, make sure you're clear, and that you sound like the reader you are.  Don't introduce obscure folk by last name only.  Don't trip over the full names of the greats who we already know by last name or even nickname. And if the dude you want to talk about shares a name with another writer, remember the "only one Yeats" rule. 

I took that line from a professor at NIU.  We were in a library smart-classroom and a student said she wanted help finding some bit of information on Yates.  The prof started looking up Yeats, and she had to clarify, "No, I'm sorry, uh, Richard Yates."  He was flabbergasted!  And then he lectured us severely that there is indeed only one Yeats.

Just yesterday a Romanticist classmate mentioned Shelley as we sat down to our final Old English class.  A guy behind her started to say "She is..." but the young Romanticist immediately cut him off.  "SHE?"  Then he sputtered out something incoherent and was like "OH! That Shelley."  Yes, we all know there is a She-Shelley.  And there's nothing wrong with She-Shelley.  But Shelley is a he.  So the whole thing was awkward with the girl thinking the guy hopeless and the guy thinking her a know-it-all, and various minds around the classroom thinking things like "OF COURSE IT'S SHELLEY!" or "Shit, should I have known that's what she meant by Shelley? I'm an idiot!" or "Ugh why are we having this conversation..."  Luckily we made fun of Shelley for falling off his boat, had a lively discussion about drownings, and set things right again in time to translate together the saddest poem in the Old English corpus.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Working Mother

Son of a "working mother." He looks so neglected.

The title of this post is the title of a magazine that started showing up in my mail a couple years ago. I assume it came free with something I bought for my kids, like the horrible unwelcome issues of American Baby that only recently stopped polluting my mailbox with their claims that "cesarean babies are happiest!" and other such rot.

Working Mother.  Let's parse that.  Most mothers in this country work. Most women in this country work.  Yet there we have this appellation, like a working mother is some special breed of woman.  She's really quite common.  She's often amazing, but still quite common.  This reminds me of Drew Gilpin Faust's assertion: "I'm not the woman president of Harvard. I'm the president of Harvard."  Not quite the same thing, but something about "working mother" has that "woman president" ring to it.

Feminist gripes with mainstream magazine titles aside, Working Mother is not bad.  And in fact, in my mildly affluent neighborhood, where we are one of the very few families who don't contribute to that affluence, working mothers like me are the minority.  So sometimes it's good to have an ally, even if it is just a bunch of shiny paper stapled together.

When this month's issue showed up, I was in a mood where the title and article headlines rubbed me the wrong way.  I flipped through the pages to find something to rant about.  I'd been aching to do a social rant on something, anything.  But this time I was disappointed.  Yet even though I could not find an article to work my critical pincers upon, Working Mom still gave me something to write about.

In article entitled "Teacher, please," Abigail Green outlines the phenomenon of Teacher Appreciation Week and the toll it takes on a working mom.  She tells the story of her five days of failing to live up to many of the appreciation week "requirements." On flower day she hits the grocery store before the florist is there (because she has to drop the kids early to make it to work on time) and in desperation she snatches dripping tulips from behind the counter.  Kudos to her.  I sent my son in with a plastic flower I pulled out of a storage bin, telling him it would be more special because it won't die.

Funny stories of frantic mornings are good memories, in a way, but it's the public shame that is hardest to live down.  Something Green doesn't mention, something more important and more sinister than hectic schedules, is how working moms are often judged by their SAHM neighbors who can't understand how YOU DIDN'T KNOW IT WAS CUPCAKE DAY?

How are we supposed to remember which day is cupcake day?  Or even have time to make cupcakes?  (And here I remember a rich woman -- the mother of a friend of mine -- counting the storebought baked goods at a PTA function years ago.  And as my own working mother set down the tray of rice krispies treats, the woman sighed, saying "Ohhh look how many people brought rice krispies treats...")

The local moms stand around outside waiting to pick up their broods at the walker door.  They're all in gym garb and North Face. One of them wears tall fashion boots with her gym garb.  They talk about developmental milestones.  Sometimes, about the careers they gave up.  One of them loudly proclaims that it is irresponsible and thoughtless for a mom to go to grad school. (Yes, that happened.)

In come the PTO emails that imply that if you don't have the time, then you have to have the money.  Donate soft drinks and plates. Send money for gift cards.  Etc.

I pick my son up at that door three days a week, but they look at me like they don't know who I am or what shrubbery I just crawled out of. I only have one mom acquaintance -- our boys became friends after hers punched mine.  Her husband is an art professor. The other women's husbands are in sales.

The shame doesn't just come in the active SAHM hating on working mom (and grad mom) variety, but also in the blindness of the school district to the make-up of its student body.  It's kind of a passive shaming. Because the school district has tons of money, it operates like all its students are Richie Rich. And all of Richie's moms stay home and have nothing better to do than read emails from the school and pore over the calendar and pack two weeks of lunches in advance and stick them in the freezer.

The school does not send announcements for events, because I should know, somehow, that tomorrow is pajama day.  My son has cried more than once over missing pajama day.

My son's class operates on a four day schedule.  Not five.  So library day (when he needs to bring books back) is always on a different day than it was last week.  He never brings his books back on time.  And when there is a holiday, it is a complete crapshoot what day the next week will start on.  What the hell is this?  Yeah, high school students have different periods and sometimes rotating schedules, but they are responsible for that.  A second grader (or his mom) should not have to go online and check the calendar every single night to find out what new and different surprise is in store for him the next day at school.

Once I forgot to pay the lunch bill (the kids can run up to $10 in debt on their lunch cards, in case of forgotten lunches).  I owed $4.40.  The school sent me a stern note saying how "All of our parents make sure to pay their lunch balance on time." First of all, that's a bit stern for a balance of less than $5, when district policy allows him up to $10 before they give him a stale cheese sandwich and toss him out on his ear.  Secondly, and more important than my irritation at receiving debt collection-style notes from an elementary school -- shouldn't a school think to offer free or reduced lunches to a family who has been getting behind on their lunch payments?  I know you have to qualify for that (and we wouldn't qualify), but they don't know our situation.  For all they know I don't have $4.40 to spare.  Here's what they should send: a letter that asks for the balance to be settled and comes with a form and a nice handwritten note saying "We noticed Mikey hasn't had lunch money this week.  Do you want to apply for free lunch and see if you qualify?"  Aren't schools supposed to be on the front line of helping kids in poverty?  Again that's not us, I paid the $4.40.  But their approach seems completely blind to any other kind of student demographic than the ones whose moms they see hovering around the classrooms as "room parents" every day.

I complain about this all the time (mostly to myself, in the kitchen, while trying to figure out what all the uninformative papers in my son's backpack mean), and it was good to see similar angst (and not a shred of guilt!) in Green's article.

Did I mention they never send home notes? Unless you owe money. Then they want to break your working mom thumbs.

Now before the stay at home moms get mad at me, I know there are arguments on both sides.  I know that SAHMs get unfairly judged by "career women" just as often as SAHMs dish out criticism of working moms. But in the realm of kids-at-school, and getting-shit-done-for-the-PTO sorts of stuff, SAHMs are in charge.  No one is telling them that staying home is making them less involved in their kids' education or a less valuable member of the community.   Working mothers in conservative, affluent areas like mine not only deal with the passive shaming of a system that doesn't recognize their family or lifestyle as a component of the neighborhood, but their kids miss out because of that system too.  Information on the little things (pajama day, art fair, etc) is hard to get, and we're not on the "phone tree." And because we can't make social bonds with the North Facers at the walker door, they don't let their kids bond with ours.

I don't know who needs to step up here.  Why aren't the schools smart enough to realize that not all parents can be involved with school activities EVERY DAY?  Why can't parents in one-earner families realize that they are actually NOT the norm, and that we working moms appreciate what they do at the school, but we just absolutely can't contribute the same way?  Do the working moms need to start a club to call attention to ourselves?  To ask SAHMs and schools to stop making us feel like terrible parents? Or most importantly, to allow for kids of working moms to be involved in all of the activities they never find out about because NO ONE TOLD THEIR PARENTS.

A working mom club... Ain't nobody got time for that!

He'll make his own pajama day.


Friday, April 19, 2013

Translating Flute



I am learning to play the flute.

Why the hell would a 32-year-old woman try to learn to play a new instrument? Or any instrument at all for that matter?  (These are the things my fellow soccer moms wonder.)  Because this is the kind of shit I do.  That and ballet classes, and self-portraits, and grad school, and translating Old English poetry, and a lot of other things mothers don't typically even think about, or suspect that their neighbors are up to.  Take that suburbia.

I played saxophone and french horn in school, and I got especially good at the sax.  I was emulating Lisa Simpson then.  Outcast nerd with saxophone who hates the school band music (the vegetarianism waited until I grew up). But instead of jazz like Lisa I wanted to play rock sax.  I'd listen to the radio and play the solos by ear.  And in the early nineties, there were plenty of sax solos wafting o'er the airwaves.  Like a river flowin' into the ocean...

Now my inspiration and instrumental role model is Ian Anderson.  (Who else? Well, Peter Gabriel plays the flute, but it's not quite the same.) I've been into Jethro Tull for about ten years, and all through my 20s I dreamed of being in a rock band.  I always pictured myself playing rock flute in that band, and singing in a folksy voice.  Always doing a Tull cover or two.

So a few years ago I got my chance to play in a cover band, and I became the lead singer.  And I sang bluesy, not folksy.  And the Tull in our catalog was null.  I was instrumental to the band line-up, yet even with all my multi-talented influences I remained ironically non-instrumental.  I honed my vocal craft for four years, but always felt terribly lacking.  I didn't have anything to hold.  Sometimes I had hand percussion.  Other times, just idle hands. I'd pick up a tambourine and shake it lightly enough that it was inaudible, just to have something to do.  Most of the time I just danced wildly.  The few times I offered my saxophone abilities during practice discussions, the band was skeptical. 

That venture has ended, so as a singer I've been longing to perform in some way or another. I loved the rush of being up front, the euphoria of getting lost in my own sound-making.  But I don't have a band now, and no one is impressed by just singing. Everyone has a voice. You have to be able to do something.  ENTER: FLUTE!


Despite the flute having the same fingering as the sax, and despite my early, demonstrated ability to merrily meld with woodwinds (maybe "graft" would be a more woody metaphor...but the flute is silver anyway), many told me "You can't do it!"  No one said "You're too old to learn new music stuffs," but it may have been implied.  They did say, most pointedly, that I wouldn't be able to muster the wind for a flute.  Wait! -- I belted out "White Rabbit" and "Sweet Child of Mine" at earbone-jarring volumes, always garnering that cute comment from one or two in the audience, "Such a big voice for such a little girl!" I think I can manage to blow some good air into this thing with the holes on it.

So I've been working on it for about a month and a half.  My basic music reading came back at two weeks.  My sight reading came back at four. The fingering came back at four weeks too.  Then the simple Yiddish song "Tumbalalaika" committed itself to my memory, allowing me to practice embellishment without slowing down to fiddle with my tangled, confused digits.

I still can't keep time when I learn a new song.  That will come, I'm sure.  I still forget notes when there are flats and sharps not in the key signature. I think the memorization of tunes will come better once I'm not using so much brain power to get my fingers over the right and proper holes and to tell B from D on the staff, and so much muscle power to keep the flute from flying out of my grasp whenever I play C sharp. (You have to let go of all but one pinky key, and that key depresses forward. TweeeeeetfllubbupwhoAAH!)

Let it float...
Maybe the problem there is that I think of my flute as something I need to grasp? It's like learning to ride a dirt bike.  You grip too hard over the jumps and get sore arms because you're so afraid of falling off.  I'm afraid of falling off the flute, and my hands start to cramp from the effort of keeping it close. What should I do with it?  Let it sort of float there? Someday...

Too much grasping.
So after six or seven weeks of practice (with 1/2 hr lessons most of those weeks, with a gal who is happy I want to learn rock flute), putting a few folks songs in the vault, and reading Amazon reviews that said "My fifteen-year-old daughter sight read it and played it right off the bat!" I bought my first Jethro Tull flute solo book.  It will be here Monday.  I can't wait. 

In fact, I couldn't wait so much that I looked up Bourée and started playing it. It actually is easy to pick up right away!  And I'm not even fifteen!  All the trick is in the timing and the embellishments.  There are still some symbols I have to figure out, but I can feel where the trills should be, and I know the movement of the song even if I don't properly interpret all the lines and dots.  I have the notes, I have my Tull records, I have my woodwinded mind -- I think I am set.

The title for this post came from overly philosophical thoughts I began to have while playing a Tull song for the first time.  I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  There's a line in The Sun Also Rises about an American woman speaking French and being surprised at it coming out French.  And then talking too much just to hear herself magically talk French.  That's what it felt like. 

Then tonight I thought about having to relearn to read music, and then to add in all the other info on the page besides just the notes (notes on notes, paratexts...), then interpret it for myself to make it sound agreeable, and like actual music. I thought about the acts of reading, writing, and translation.  I think my knack for Old English translation, silly as this may sound, has been helped along by my learning to play the flute. I began the two endeavors together this semester -- translating OE, "translating" flute -- and they are remarkably complementary.

I was Bourée-ing after I put the kids to bed tonight.  It was great to hear my 8-year-old son call down to me, "Hey, I can hear the song now! Doo doo DEE, doo dee DOO, doo dee DOO, doo doo DEE..."

(And then after a few clinkers he called down "Mama, would it help if you just put on the record?")

Friday, April 12, 2013

Almost there.


I've been blogging here for five years now, and in many ways the blog has done what I wanted it to do.  It's kept me aware of how often (or seldom) I write, it's given me an audience to keep me honest, give me shit, and give me hope, and it's provided a record of my changing style and interests.  But probably most importantly, as the title suggests, this blog has followed me through my career as a student, from "non-traditional" college junior to graduating Master of Arts.  That's me.  I'm a master now.  A black belt in literature.

The next illogical step in this eternal forward march of studentry is to take a PhD.  Yes, I'm going to do it.  I only spent the first year and a half of this blog talking about how I would do it.  And now five years later, I will.

I'm staying at NIU and entering the doctoral program this fall, with full support.  That is, they are paying my tuition and I am getting paid (better than I was paid as a masters student) to teach.  Had to throw that in there in case anyone reads this and wants to tell me I'm going in debt.  Yes I will continue to be quite poor!  But I won't be paying anything for school, just like I didn't pay anything for my MA.  They'll be paying ME for school. 

The school has very little money for any new appointments in 2013-14, after hiring a huge cohort last year.  But they found some money for me.  The graduate director made sure they found some for me.  And that was awesome.  Since he didn't know if they'd have enough money in the English department, he wrote a letter for me to get a "recruitment" scholarship from the Graduate School.  Which is funny because it's more like a "Wait, wait! Please don't go somewhere else!" scholarship.  I like it.  But after all that (I took the money of course) they also found me an assistantship appointment and the bucks for that too.  Maybe I could go somewhere else.  But it is sweet to be where you are appreciated.

The letter that informed me of my scholarship award also informed me of how I should feel about it. "I encourage you to think of the waiver as a demonstration of the Graduate School's faith in your ability [...] and an institutional commitment to your academic success."  Thanks, Dean.  I'll think exactly that.

Know what I told them in my statement of purpose?  That I'm going to study the history of ideas.  And that I'm going to study Old English.  And that somehow that will all work out.  I put it more eloquently of course, and they did not seem to mind my unapologetic goal of becoming a generalist.  In fact, I think it might even help in a market where every new grad has been told Specialize! Specialize like hell!  As Dr. David Gorman tells me, "Be someone who knows something."  Spending these years on intellectual history will bring me knowledge of many somethings.  And being a fool for Old English will give me a very enjoyable pastime that I may one day be able to pretend is my "specialization."

WAIT! OH SHIT!  I just read an article in The Economist telling me I'd better not do a PhD because I'll only make 3% more than my MA'd peers.  The correspondent made an attempt to separate STEM, professional, and humanities PhDs, but not a very good one.  She also noted that the award for the most unfinished dissertations goes to humanities students.  It's probably because we get paid the least as assistants, and at some point we can't take it anymore and our kids get hungry. (TAs in other fields at my school get paid more than me to do recitations, grade, or sit as lab attendants.  While we, the few, the proud, the English, design and teach all our own classes by our own damn selves.)  Material pains aside, as many of the (non-sexist, very respectful) commenters argue, many of us who pursue a PhD, especially in the humanities, are not thinking of that 3% or however much it should be (and how much would be enough for someone who already thinks a PhD is a waste of time?). 

So this is NOT where I say the blog has run its course!  I'm still a student.  For at least four more years, I'd bet. And now that I'm a 32 year old PhD student, I'm no longer non-traditional.

I have in the works three very long blog posts on actual topics, that is, they're not autobiographical indulgence as I like to label it.  I'm writing about sexism, because it's everywhere.  I'm writing about it twice (1. anti-feminist tu quoque, and similar problems in arguments by angry commenters, and 2. the sinister side of benevolent sexism).  And the third work in progress is about my grandmother, who died February 27.

Also in the works is a proposal (idea finalized today!) for a fellowship to do research in the NIU Library's Special Collections.  It has to do with H.P. Lovecraft but I won't tell you what it is until I submit the proposal. We've got the second largest collection of his papers outside of Providence.

I'm due for a writing revolution, revamp, or rejuvenation.  Nothing well written has come out of me in a long time.  That's the thing I miss the most about this blog -- the push of having a place to publicly publish (soooo much alliteration!  Thanks Wulfstan...) put me at the top of my game sometimes. Lately I've fallen off, and so have my words.  I think I'm in a transitional stage.  I'm learning a lot, so lately when I write I know what I'm talking about.  I think I need to rise to the next level of incompetence for my writing urge to kick back in. Maybe when we use writing to understand things we can't figure out otherwise, that's when it's at its best.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The F-word, Revisited

Here We Go Again

There is a time and place for swearing. In fact, in some situations, a swearword provides better rhetorical effect than any other word could possibly embody. There is, if you will, a kairos for swearing.

There is also a method to swearing.  As I wrote in 2011, there are three basic categories of rhetorical swearing: attention-getters, intensifiers, and ironic swears.  Sometimes these three work together, sometimes only one or two are at play. I won't get into it here because I think 2011 Robyn did a decent rundown of how this works.

I'll talk about two new angles I've taken on this thing: the (im)morality of swearing, and the (un)education of swearers.


The "Morality" Problem

I wish to discuss how swearing, both in daily conversation and for rhetorical purposes, pisses off a certain audience, and not in a constructive "get riled about this!" way.  This bothers the hell out of me.  Not the swearing!  The needless offendedness and backlash that inevitably pops up in your comments feed when you drop even a perfectly timed F-bomb.  Not that I don't think people should have their own stylistic word preferences.  Shit, I get nauseated when I see the word "delicious." It's a preference.  And readers who shy away from literary works or essays because of "language," or worse, readers who insult and denegrate the writer for using "language," need to realize that their preference for prude writing is just that -- a preference.  Not something you need to hate on good-natured, foul-mouthed fuckers for.

No amount of There you go again with the bad language you stupid bad person! can take away the rhetorical power of swearing.  Just ain't gonna happen, sanctimonious bastards.

So why does it bother me so much that someone has a lower vulgarity tolerance, and may not prefer my writing?  Don't get me wrong -- I am tolerant of all readers' preferences in writing and rhetoric.  If you don't like to read me because I have a potty mouth (potty fingers?), that's cool.  But what I am not tolerant of is when readers turn a writer's work into "evidence" of the immorality of the writer's character, based purely on the writer's word choice.

A disclaimer before I go further: Certainly there are offensive words that negatively reflect upon a writer's ethos.  As I said in 2011, hate speech is not rhetorically effective, nor is it okay.  You may be allowed by your first amendment rights to utter all sorts of disgusting things about other human beings, but being hateful with language in ways that judge folks for their color, religion, sex, etc, is just the worst kind of assholery.  And sometimes it IS against the law.  To remain morally neutral, you must be an equal opportunist with your swears.  Or even better, to remain morally actually a pretty cool person, swear only at fuckers who deserve it, and only swear upon the subjects of their foul acts or dubious characters that make them swear-worthy.

But this brings me to my big point about most of the great swearwords that provide rhetorical effect -- they are not offensive to any particular group of people, in fact, when used as intensifiers or in other vacuous applications (i.e. using "fuck" in ways that have nothing to do with intercourse) swears are morally neutral.  They do not express goodness or badness of the character of the utterer, any more than his or her other word choices.  Cusswords are often loaded with value judgments, yes.  But even those values are slippery.  Something that's "fucking awesome" or "awesome as shit" is good.  These bad words imbue things with positive or negative value, and the way that works is up to the writer or speaker.  There is nothing inherently immoral about swearing.  With the exception of words designed to hurt people for no good reason (see above), Words are Words.  Some are more powerful than others, some are more elegant, some are more earthy.  But no word is "worse" than other words* just because it ended up on the FCC's list of words you can't say on TV.  It is an arbitrary value judgment that we attach to the word when we think that way.  Just as with any other word we perceive as intense or insulting, swearwords may make the subject of an author's disdain seem worse, and the words may very well be the best suited words for the occasion. 

*(This makes me think of language parity -- linguists argue (and so do I) that no language is "better" or "worse" than any other language.  I think there is a sort of internal language parity too.  Some words may be better for certain situations, just as some languages are better at expressing certain kinds of thought, but that does not make those words superior to the other words in the language.)

There are many factors that may cause people to be averse to profanity, but here are a couple that I find problematic:

First, one of the earliest and most widespread types of swearing was taking the names of deities in vain, and making dirty jokes out of religious mantras or prayers.  If we hold onto some stupid idea that all swearing is actually blasphemous (i.e. immoral), it comes from this association.  But words like piss, shit, fuck, etc. have nothing to do with blasphemy, and derive their power by association with bodily functions.  "Goddamn"...well that's blasphemy.  But it's a good one!

Second, swearwords like "shit" and "fuck" existed as everyday words in Germanic languages (like Old English), before the Norman French had their way with English.  The words were still vulgar, but "fuck," for instance, has probable etymological roots in several non-vulgar North Germanic words for "intercourse" and "penis."  One theory is that from 1066 AD, the cultural push for the English aristocracy to speak French probably pushed Germanic expressions of disdain and Germanic words for bodily functions into a class of speech considered to be only worthy of peasants.  So like many linguistic trends, it became a class thing.  So today, people who don't cuss think they are classy, and they think those who do are of base character.

But I think it is often the truly classy people who know exactly when and how to use those age-old, four-letter intensifiers.  Here is a classy lady anecdote from Online Etymology Dictionary:

In 1948, the publishers of "The Naked and the Dead" persuaded Norman Mailer to use the euphemism fug instead. When Mailer later was introduced to Dorothy Parker, she greeted him with, "So you're the man who can't spell 'fuck' "

The Education Problem


Many swearing haters, especially those you meet online, in your comments feed, object to bad words because they think educated people shouldn't use them.  As if having a vast vocabulary means you are only permitted speak or write in words that have far more than four letters. If you use a swearword, it matters not how cogent your argument is, how hilarious your story may be -- it only matters that now EVERYONE KNOWS YOU'RE STUPID.  At least that's how the angry commenters see it.

I have a theory about this, and you're going to think I'm a snobby bitch but here it is: it is mostly uneducated people who like to point out that a writer's swearwords are proof of A) no imagination and B) no education.  Their own lack of education and imagination makes them angry -- your blog bio says you have two degrees or your latest article is about something esoteric.  That riles them, and if they disagree with what you have to say they will need some irrelevant point to cling to (she said "Goddamn!") to prove you are wrong, because they are incapable of a serious response to your positively ingenious point-making.

It also riles these less-informed readers when you talk about everyday things that they feel are their domain.  In my above-mentioned 2011 entry on swearing, I talked about a lady who hated on me for hating on Jimmy Buffet.  My use of a single swearword negated anything else I said in that entry, which was merely a rant that was obviously my own opinion about some bad music, not a philosophical argument on the merits of Margaritaville.  She took a casual swearword ("dumbasses") and and said I might as well be saying a hateful word ("retards") and I was therefore politically incorrect.  I never said that word.  That was her association, her mind thinking in hateful ways.  I was just out to make fun of some drunk dumbasses.

I won't say anything more about the uninformed reader, because I've shown my snobbishness enough.  What I will say besides all that, is from the point of view of the educated potty-mouth.

Why do we use these words if our vocabulary runneth over with more sophisticated ones?  Because, as I said above, they are sometimes the absolute perfect word for an occasion.

Let me explain.  Cusswords are some of the most flexible and versatile words in any language.  Ask a linguist!  You can use "fuck" as almost any part of speech.  You can use "shit" to mean just about any noun or group of nouns or class of things.  This lack of specificity is not something that automatically makes a word a good word choice -- I note "W.C." on my students' papers all the time for using vague, non-specific words like "nice" or "large."  But for all their ambiguity, swearwords don't often lose their potency like other vague words tend to do.  Their very intensity prevents that loss -- and the effect of using a catchall like "fuck" or "shit" emphasizes one's exasperation, or the hugeness of the class of things being discussed, or the egregiousness of those things.  The phrase "I don't take shit from anyone" has always been a powerful one for me.  It can mean so many things, and that swearword is exemplary of the ballsy attitude one has to have if one truly does not wish to take said shit.

All that being said, this doesn't mean you should swear like a sailor.  Overused swears, like any overused words, become less effective.  And because of their sharpness to the ear, they become cacophonous.  But the well-timed, rightly applied, and situationally appropriate curse can have a weighty rhetorical effect not only because of the power of the chosen swearword, but because of its unexpected presence in an otherwise academic or conservatively written piece.

Finally, swears are much like pathos.  They are not totally logical (even if their meanings can be) and they don't say anything for your ethos except that you probably have balls, and are a regular guy unafraid of regular words.  But the emotional appeal of swearing --which is a valid rhetorical appeal -- cannot be overlooked.  We can be riled by swearwords in a good way. Put into action by them.  It's the written equivalent of the shake of a fist to accompany a cry of injustice, or the purposeful slapping together of hands to accompany a cry to get to work.

Anecdote time, and then I'll leave you to practice your dirty-talk.

I recently got into a most distressing (and eventually very funny) argument with a young lady.  She isn't too much younger than me, and she is not exactly an accomplished wordsmith.  She pulled the vocabulary card on me!

Here's the short of it: she was messing with me in a bad way.  I've had personal problems, health problems, and deaths in my family this past year. 2012 shat on me.  Then she appeared at the edges of my life and immediately saw to it that my problems were even worse then they had been.  I am not a confrontational person.  But this girl knew what was going on, and kept on anyway.  It came down to me telling her "Don't fuck with me."

She lost it!  "You're attacking me! You truly are an awful person!  I'm just trying to defend myself! And you're SWEARING at me! OMG SWEARING!!!" etc etc.  (That one f-word was the only swearword I used in the whole conversation.) I tried to calm her down.  I actually said (and my husband thought this was hilarious) that I only swore because the f-word was the most rhetorically appropriate word for the situation.  She said it showed I have no vocabulary!  (I've got some vocabulary for you, girl...she didn't even comment on the rhetoric thing because I'm sure she had no idea what I was talking about.) I didn't say anything else.  Maybe she thinks she won.  It wasn't worth arguing with someone who can't appreciate the following:

When someone is fucking with you, what better way is there to put it?  Stop molesting me.  Stop making things uncomfortable for me.  Stop saying mean things about me.  Stop trying to turn my loved ones against me. Stop texting me, it's 3am.  STOP FUCKING WITH ME covers all of that.  And then some.  And the fact that I said it has nothing to do with my saintly morality (ha!) or my hard-won education.  Is has to do with choosing the right word for the right situation.

There is a rhetoric of fuck, and a kairos of fuck.  Dealing with crazy bitchez is a right occasion for that word.  So is making a joke, because well-timed swearing makes a lot of people laugh.  It might not make you laugh, and it might not work an effective rhetorical peroration on you -- but you have to appreciate its rhetorical and humorous effect on many human beings, of all walks of life. (Parrot-heads excluded.)