Tuesday, April 2, 2013

In the mist

So there are some problems with this obituary. I could do without the line, "Even at 40, her looks were pretty much in tact." Would they write that about a MALE gorilla, hmmm?? They would NOT.
That picture above is about the cutest picture ever. So maybe this is all an excuse to repurpose that image. But the fact of the matter is that only a few months ago, I would have glanced over this piece and barely stopped to read it. I'm not an animal person. Then I got an animal.
I grew up with pets, and even had a cat for several years of my adult life. But then something changes and a particular pet enters your life and you're a little older and more interested in care taking and all hell breaks loose and you're texting pictures to your friends and loved ones and they are pretending to be amused by a disgusting creature that bites and scratches. Not long after we got this cat, I was reading a book in which something awful happens to a dog--not even the same species--and I had to put the book down. Right now I'm ignoring her as her little teeth ruin an article of clothing I am currently wearing. It's like something happened to my actual heart and suddenly I stop and read articles about dead gorillas because I look at their faces and they remind me of a cat.
It's stupid. It's boring. It's deeply uncool. It reveals every part of me that I'd like to ignore and my god, if you think this means I'm now interested in YOUR pet you are dead wrong.
But I get it now. I get why an entire city of people who hate other people were enamored of Pattycake gorilla. She was born adorable, beat the odds to survive, lived long enough for people to grow up with her, have kids of their own, and take them to the zoo to meet her. She's a teddy bear and wild beast and local monument all in one. She is terrifying and uncomplicated and her eyes belong to a primate and it's hard not to respond to that.
Nobody's innocent except animals. That's debatable, of course, but in the moment you look at them, you feel it to be true.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Good advice

I just now heard about this death. This one's a little different, because this is someone I actually knew. Not well. We had exactly one conversation. But it was truly one of the most important conversations of my life, one that I talk about often and that I think about even more often. It was a turning point and I'm so sad that I never got the chance to let her know.
One of the rites of passage that grad students go through, if their lucky, is a practice interview. My alma mater sponsored an evening of mock interviews, in hopes of preparing us to face the (admittedly grim--and only getting grimmer) job market. One of my practice interviews was with her, someone who I had never met before (she taught in a different department.) And it went all right. She asked me some questions about my research, smart questions that forced me to define my terms. And when it was over, she told me she thought I had done fine. That was great. I needed to hear that. It was in the midst of one of the hardest times of my life. Because at that point, I was failing at the job market. I sent out many, many applications, into the dark silent void, with no sense of what I was doing, or what I was doing wrong. And it was demoralizing--I felt I was failing at work, which was something I'd never failed at before. I had no idea who I was, if I was someone who wasn't able to work.
But then she said something that I needed to hear even more. She told me, in the most gentle terms, what I was doing wrong. She took a long pause before she said it, thinking carefully about how to say what she wanted to say. And then, in the kindest way, told me to stop being such a fucking girl. Of course, what she really said was something like "I've noticed that sometimes women, especially younger women, have tendency to apologize or undermine their research. Don't. do. that." And something about the way she said, about who she was and her thoughtfulness, I was able to hear it, really hear it.
I was raised by a woman who interjected feminist commentary at every passover seder. Who put a "Ms."magazine t-shirt on my teddy bear before I could read. She shouted down anti-abortion protestors on a regular basis. They called me "feminazi" in high school (that was a thing in the early 90s). I had the bona fides. But still, there I was apologizing... for what? For my ideas? For articulating them? For answering a question I had been asked? I had every reason in the world to know better, but it took someone not too much older than myself, with a quiet confidence and clarity, who had never met me before in my life, to call me out on that.
I feel so grateful to this person I barely met. I have thought of her in the last few years--often when I catch myself apologizing for expressing an idea or describing an accomplishment. But I also think of her when I encourage a student. When I talk about institutionalized sexism in a class. I try every hard to be a good mentor and I've been lucky enough to be given some great role models in my life. But in some ways, the 20 minutes I spent with her were as important as relationships that developed over years.
Her shockingly early death is a great loss. Nothing that lessen that. But I will honor her words by being the best mentor I can, to give her credit for the way she affected me, to use her name when I tell that story.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Study and difference

This woman--wouldn't you want to be in her class?
The older I get, the more I realize my mother was right about everything. And by everything, I mean her unwavering second wave feminist beliefs. She put a Ms. magazine t-shirt on my (male) teddy bear. She got into screaming fights with anti-abortionists. I short, she was generally intolerant of stupidity--I can't think of a more appealing definition of feminism.
But I couldn't understand all of this until I was solidly in my thirties, with a few worthwhile things to call my own (a real-deal career, a decent husband, a little respect). Sure, I had been a good lefty soldier since I could shout, but it was when I finally had some of the things I had worked for that I started to understand that someone might try to undermine them for reasons having to do with my identity. I mean, I would have told you I understood that all along, but something about being in the fourth decade makes it all real. I'd love to grab a few 20-year-olds and tell them something about what I see now. But I'm no so far past that age myself that I can't predict how deeply uninterested they would be.
All that said, I hesitate to join that endless ongoing conversation about women "having it all," for all the reasons one might imagine, and also because I am a feminist (see definition above.) And what I like about this obit for Susan Nolen is that she seemed to do something about these issues (if you consider research doing, and oh, I do). She studied them. She looked for the hard data. She drew her conclusions from that. She identified an epidemic of "over-thinking." And she made that her life's work. I haven't read her book, truth be told. Maybe I wouldn't like it. But I appreciate that she noticed the different mental health issues that men and women face and looked at that difference. Me, I traffic in abstracts and clever anecdotes, and they have their place. But sometimes, you just want a scientist to give you some perspective.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Extraordinary/ordinary Klemens von Klemperer

This is not an obituary that I would have thought, at first look, would have had such an impact on me. The life in question is, obviously, extraordinary. And of course, I love to hear about anyone who turned an academic career into a tool of social justice. The idea that knowledge and a relentless pursuit of truth might be a kind of heroism, even when the hero in question lives in an ivory tower (I hate that term), is very moving to me. But what I love the most about this obit of Klemens von Klemperer, besides his undoubtedly amazing name, is this line: “I was not an extraordinary person, but I did live in extraordinary times,” he wrote, “and my small mission was somehow to make sense of it all.” The idea that the responsibility to "make sense" of the world around you might be, in and of itself, an extraordinary act, is inspiring. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The nun who taught me about gynecological health

I can't stop thinking about this obituary. What I love so much about Midge Turk Richardson is the fact that her life took such drastic turns, and they were all of her own choosing. She was a child actor who gave it up to become a novice. She spent 18 years as a nun, a career which she saw largely in terms of service, only to leave at the age of 36, and move to New York with one suitcase. Somehow, less than 20 years after that she managed to become the editor in chief of Seventeen magazine, and moved the magazine towards discussing more serious topics. I would almost be willing to bet cash money that the first issue of Seventeen that I ever purchased was the one above, in 1990, firmly in the middle of Richardson's tenure as editor. I was 13, undoubtedly "so fresh," and in need of some guidebook for adolescence, which was taking its sweet time arriving. Look, I'm a card-carrying member of the Sassy generation, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that Seventeen was my gateway drug. I feel so much better knowing that I was ushered into puberty by a social-justice-minded former nun who was committed to making sure I had the facts about sexually transmitted disease.
It's inspiring to read about people who lived lives that were tempest-tossed--subject to dramatic historical and personal dramas that were beyond their control. It's comforting to read how they dealt with misfortune and challenge with strength and grace. But I also love reading about people who made their own drama, who were willing to uproot themselves and take big chances and live several lives in one lifetime, simply because they were interested in different things and followed their passions.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Peg Leg Bates and learning from death

When I was in college, I went through a phase of being obsessed with obituaries. This was back when we still read newspapers on paper, and I would sift through the cast off left in the student center. I don't remember how this started, but I remember Peg Leg Bates' obituary. He was, as you might imagine, a tap dancer who lost his leg in a work accident when he was 12 and still made it big on the vaudeville circuit. This fascinated me, and because I was young and thoughtless, I also found it kind of hilarious. I cut the obituary out of the paper (something else we still did back then) and showed it to all my friends who were equally callous and amused. Death seemed so far away--at that point life was much scarier. Looking back now, I realize part of the fascination with obituaries was the very vague sense that by reading about people who had done enough to merit a write-up in a major newspaper, I might find some guidance on how to live my life, on how to be the adult that I was about to have to be, on how to be, at least a little extraordinary. In the truest sense of the word--ordinary, but with a little extra. At that point in my life, I remember having the overwhelming urge to sit at the feet of every teacher and mentor I had a say "please, please tell me how to be a person." That feeling is still so vivid, over a decade later, and I know that urge is a big part of why I teach college-students now. I want to be that person for someone else, at the same time I realize that no one can ever tell you how to be anything. I like reading the obituaries of people I've never heard of, as it reminds me of how much there is for all of us to do, how little of it gets seen. So I'm thinking about going back to that, and maybe writing about it, writing about what I learn from obituaries. I think I'm a little less callow now, if no less self-involved, and I am in need of as much guidance as ever. Look at that image of Peg Leg Bates. How could that NOT be a lesson on how to live life and be a person?
Important note: Some friends who also found the Peg Leg Bates obit hilarious tried to use it as a teaching tool in a writing class for middle-school students. The middle-schoolers were horrified, rightfully so, that their teachers were laughing at an obituary. Mentorship comes in all shapes and sizes and unexpected ages. 

Monday, November 26, 2012


This is a piece I performed last week at Write Club at the Hideout. Two opposing ideas. Two writers. I wrote about "native." The incomparable Mary Fons wrote about "foreign." Mary won. The picture above is what I looked like. Here's what I wrote.

Imagine, if you will, that you are a smallmouth bass
First off, you are adorable
Those golden iridescent scales cascading down your back
That Betty Boop mouth. Sensual. Small.
You are, and I quote a very reputable fishing site, a “plucky game fish that gives good fight on the line”
Well well well…

Native is what is here and what belongs here
It is the indigenous and the natural and the group with deepest roots
We can’t deny that in this globalized, post-colonial age, we are, and should be a little suspicious of the term
The word NATIVE has been used to delegitimize the colonized (“the natives are restless”—hint: they mean DARK people!)
The word NATIVE has been adopted by conservative cranks to describe all those guys that they CLAIM were disenfranchised by our most recent election results  (hint: they mean WHITE people!)

So I want to take NATIVE out of the realm of politics altogether, and wash it clean of its historical muck in the fresh, sweet waters of that closest body of water. Lake Michigan.

Back to you, a smallmouth bass, shimmering through the chilly damp atmosphere, maybe blowing a kiss to a drum fish, maybe winking at a perch (or not, cause you know, no eyelids)
It’s a good life
Swimming peacefully through the green-brown haze of the Greatest of Great Lakes, and the world, is not your oyster, but your delicious local crayfish

When all of a sudden, it’s coming at you, the gaping maw, a huge hole in the middle of the lake, framed by teeth
You are staring into the abyss
Then your eyes meet the eyes of this creature
(I mean this metaphorically, because not only do you not have eyelids, your eyes are actually on the side of your head)
You are looking down the throat of your own destruction

You may have heard of the terrifying ASIAN CARP. The possible invasion of this species of hulking meaty fish, gnashing at the water around them, their bottomless hunger, their rapacious need to eat everything in sight sends environmentalists into a frothy panic
They don’t belong here, the Asian Carp
Their presence destroys the delicate balance
They are the foreign, and they will destroy the native

And you, the innocent little fish, just trying to swim around
Is it your fault that globalization, that the rapid speed at which every beast, fish or fowl can now travel to parts of the glove where they were never meant to be means that your very ability to gurgle and spawn should be threatened by pre-historic monsters from Asia?
It is not.
It is our fault. The humans. We enjoy our first world access to cheap electronics that sending boats around the world allows. The destructive foreign influence has merely hitched a ride on our greed. But still, the native will pay.

Now I am fully aware of the racialized undertones to this story. Lest you fear that I espouse any sort of xenophobic, nativist philosophy, let me assure you that I am big fan of the human Asian-American community, having gone so far as to MARRY an Asian-American
For you see my husband was raised by foreigners
And let me tell you, no one loves all things deeply, disgustingly American like a man who was a little boy with 2 heavily accented parents. He’s at home right now figuring out how to deep fry a turkey for god’s sake.

I’m glad his parents were both brave enough to become foreigners in a strange land. I love foreigners. We live in a city, which seems by definition a celebration of the foreign. Cities are the places where foreigners arrive, where they buy cheap property and open restaurants. Where they get their footing in a new world and I am thankful for that for both ethical and culinary reasons. But that is merely the built environment. Nature, that thing that is native by definition, peeks through the cracks in the pavement, the spaces between parking lots. There are places you can stand, on the shores of Lake Michigan, within the city limits, where you can watch the native grasses swaying, and listening to the birds who have sung the same songs since long before you came here.

Everything I know about the native small-mouth bass I learned from the aforementioned turkey frier, my own little Asian Carp. He’s dragged me out to the lakefront at ungodly hours of the morning to go fishing. Here you see Polish grandfathers, sipping their Ice Mountain beer as the sun comes up. Vietnamese men who have arrived on bicycles, balancing heavy buckets as they pedal. Men from places in Africa I can’t identify, whispering rapid French to one another. They each love the lake. They trade tips and disagree about which of the native species is the tastiest. And if you walk past them on an early morn, you’ll see them periodically pull a fish from the Lake frown at it, and throw it behind them to be fed to the seagulls. Foreign, invasive species. These foreigners share one thing, a love of the native.