30 October 2006

Whither the Library?

In the midst of a lingering cold, student appointments, and classroom demands, not to mention trying, unsuccessfully alas, to return to the edits on the manuscript, I ran across an email last week from our Faculty Teaching Centre for a workshop on library resources, which offered a stipend to attend. Given that Miss Oso is broker than our current administration’s policy in Iraq, I signed up, and after some creative rescheduling (i.e. a hasty note on my office door), I was dim-eyed and wet-tailed for the first 9:00 am meeting of the seminar, grasping my coffee as if it were a life line. There were a wide range of faculty there, from many disciplines, and I wondered, as it got under way, how many of us were actually there for the money as opposed to the actual training. My guess would be all of us, in fact. But the stipend aside (which one could argue is perfectly legitimate, since you are taking up faculty time which deserves reimbursement; I wish Sadistic College had offered stipends for all the bullshit one was expected to perform for free), one always learns something useful in these seminars, almost in spite of oneself (and the typically early hour they commence).

Very quickly, we got into a discussion on the role, history, and future of the Library. The session discussants were library science professionals, and wanted to touch on some of the issues in contemporary library culture, then move on to some exercises. However, given that they were speaking to a crowd of faculty, their plan had soon gone awry. The group entered into a lively, if sometimes tense, discussion on the Library and its pasts, presents, and futures, that supplemented the schematic the discussants had proffered, a set of questions not grounded in the research library, per se, but the Library as a social and public institution. What was the function of the library today? What was the mission of the library in a digital age? What were the public perceptions of the library’s past, the realities of the library’s present, and the challenges to its futures?

Some of these questions came down to how the library had changed in our collective lifetimes, from quiet places (the infamous and notorious “Shhhhh!”) to increasingly cacophonous spaces of conversation, beeping and ringing cell phones, yakking schoolchildren ("Can't you just shut up and stare into air?"), and interactive activities far outside of the realm of mere books: DVDs, audio materials, classes and courses for the community, and homework centres. One of the discussants made the interesting observation that the political role of the librarian has changed, from guardian of culture to defender of free speech. Perhaps the librarian’s role was always thus, but it struck me as compelling that in the past the librarian was regarded as somewhat of a fuddy-duddy, with rules and the Dewey decimal system and the ever-present shushing, not to mention the long-standing social stereotype of the old maid librarian. Nowadays, libraries, in particular new ones, tend to be bright, social spaces. Librarians come to work in red North Face fleece jackets and techy sneakers, and are constantly cheerfully pimping some event or other: Banned Books Week, Black History Month, Gay Pride Month, Graphic Novels Week, etc. Librarians are now fun! Computers have replaced the card catalogue, and the public has been drawn back into the library as a site of electronic interconnectivity in a manner unknown when I was in high school and college, when the library, in particular the university library, was more of a cloister than community centre.

As part of the seminar, we toured a local public library close to campus, and saw the range of services the “New Library” offered to its patrons: popular DVDs included the notorious Inglés Sin Barreras complete set, a collection of Manga comics, apparently all the rage among the tween set, workout and self-improvement videos. As we looked at the offerings in the homework centre, the discussant, who works with this particular library, told us that they were in the process of purchasing Dance Dance Revolution, which they expected to draw more young people into the library, as well as provide them with more physical exercise (!). This caused firstly a pause, then some serious questions among the group: what exactly did Dance Dance Revolution have to do with the library? Was the library now, in addition to a child- and elder-care centre, now a high school gym (complete with the high school dance)? But it was clear, from the standpoint of any competent understanding of what libraries have had to do to survive, that increasingly libraries have embraced concepts of popular entertainment and child care to fulfill their missions, not to mention to sustain their generally meagre funding. Most of us understood this pressure to compete with other forms of entertainment, and prove one’s social and economic worth to a skeptical and anti-intellectual public through raw numbers of patrons ‘edutained,’ but the inclusion of a crazy televisual dance game with loud music as part of the New Library’s mission struck me as slightly absurd. Have we indeed descended this far? What's next, strippers on Mondays and Bingo on Wednesdays?

Apparently, we have. An interesting part of the introductions was relating a bit of our own history with libraries, in general. Most seminar participants, whether out of a taciturn nature or the early hour, declined to elaborate. But I thought it was actually an excellent question to locate ourselves as intellectuals and educators. Most, if not all, people who hold doctorates in the humanities have spent considerable time in libraries. The dimensions of the time, however, are interesting to parse. For me, at the secondary school level, going to the library was a chore to be done only if impossible to avoid. My high school library was small, certainly not of the Breakfast Club variety, and held very limited resources. Mostly, it was a place for the typical high school pranks, such as pasting maxi-pads on the ends of the shelves or as the milieu for detention for teenage jezebels and delinquents. Like most high school libraries, it was not a place for intellectual repose. I would often have to venture to the local municipal libraries to find material, but made my visits quick jaunts with no lingering. In my youth, libraries were not vibrant places, even if I knew how to use them.

Moving onto Prestigious Eastern U, which offered a range of libraries for every sub-topic and specialty, as well as a large central collection, the relationship shifted. The library now, in that mini-city of eggheads and intellectual discontents, was a social and networking site, as well as a veritable den of inequity. The basement men’s room in the main library was a notorious Tea Room, for the uninitiated a public place where men gathered to have anonymous sex, and even as HIV was on the rise, remained incredibly active. Too shy and virginal to participate or even know about such things, I was schooled by my girlfriend Caribbean Queen, a Haitian-American undergrad who had already lived an infamous sexual life in New York as a teen before coming to study at PU, cruising the public places where men met to have sex. His favourite thing was to sit on a padded bench outside the men’s room and clock the men coming in and out (literally timing their stays, which often lasted for hours) whilst purportedly doing his homework. As well, as we were eventually to learn, he was a participant in the action as well. Since this rest room was right off the general lounge with coffee and snack machines, our group, the Trend Pack, would often gather there with him on his bench to socialise and shoot the shit, no doubt endlessly annoying the cruisers just a few feet away, engaging in the rapid and passing passions of sex in a very old-fashioned men’s room, marble stalls with a large anteroom that had once held furniture but was now barren. So, quickly, I came to associate the university library with sex and socialising, although I’m still not sure of the connection between these two and the millions of books which lay over our heads as we yakked and joked and drank bad coffee and smoked (Yes, Virginia, smoking in the library! Ah, the eighties).

My other favourite library milieu was the Art Library, in a very modern concrete building designed by a once famous but at the time disgraced architect from the sixties (he is back in vogue now). The library, like the building, was once beautiful and compelling but in the eighties was a shambles. Hot in summer and cold in winter, cramped and strangely spaced with occasional leaks necessitating the egregious use of plastic sheeting, it was in spite of its flaws a veritable centre of coolness when I was an undergrad. I even worked there, miserably, my freshman year, after being fired, I mean leaving, my first campus job, as a secretary for two neurotic curators with the same name (the two Janets) at the university gallery. While actually working as a bursary student in the library was anything but glamourous, it did put one at the centre of a certain scene, and gave one a power that was interesting. After all, every cool person had to come to me to check out anything, or get something on reserve. La Zeez, whom I had met my freshman year but did not become friends with until sophomore year, remembers an encounter with me when I worked there, where apparently I was terribly bitchy to her as she checked out material. I had thought her at the time quite the snob, although I don’t remember the incident in detail. Once a Diva, always a Diva, apparently.

In any event, my relationship to the temple of knowledge gained precision in my graduate years, where at a small R1 state school I mastered the modest library fairly quickly, and became proficient with its collections, particularities, and peculiarities, including the strange culture of the university librarian, a creature all its own in the academic ecosphere. After sixteen years of formal schooling, the library finally met its purported mission in my head: as a place for ideas and books and material. On my recent trip back to Doctor Town, Advisor joked that now no one actually goes to the library: it is practically all virtual. The building itself, undergoing a renovation, is planning more shelf space but also more social rooms and spaces, to become more like a community centre rather than an exclusive repository of books. Libraries have of course always had that role and function, but the manner of approaching these aims, especially for public libraries, seems to have entertained a decidedly different scope and scale.

Still, the library in its edutainment mode fulfills vital social functions, as places where children can be relatively safe, where immigrants and pensioners can check out the material that speaks to their needs, where those without home internet access go to check email or buy something online (or look at porn, when they can), therefore lessening the vaunted digital divide. But will the library eventually lose the books and reading and just become a social centre, even on university campuses? This is an interesting question. It is far too easy to err on the side of entertainment rather than education in the synthesis of 'edutainment.' I do think we lose something when the line between the two becomes too blurry. And this is a shame, for the library as a site of self-formation has been central to my own development as an intellectual, albeit in strange and unconventional ways. The New Library does not really appeal to me. If I wanted to spend time with loud schoolchildren and the odd pensioner, I would go to the Mall. Then again, the digital explosion in library resources means that academic misanthropes such as myself no longer have to actually go to a place and see people whilst pursuing books or articles. Remember photocopying? Ha! Some things are indeed not missed. But the new libraries, whatever their paradigmatic limitations, are packed with people. So obviously, a need is being met. But the old library, the shushing and the schoolmarms and the old maids and the cubicles and the card catalogues, gone oh so long ago, will always be central to my understanding of the role and function of the library, even as seemingly this vision withers away or rather transforms itself into another creature entirely.

27 October 2006

Marrón Claro Grande (Part Two): The Latin@— What is It?

In Venezuela, a marrón claro grande is akin to what most Americans of a certain class would understand as a large latte, no foam: a strong dark coffee with milk. A marrón, plain, is a bit like a macchiato, but a ‘Claro’ indicates it is a bit lighter, due to the addition of more milk. In Caracas people drink marróns like they were shots of water. The ubiquitous little plastic cups of coffee at street-side coffee carts as well as in porcelain cups in French-style cafés, form an easy excuse for breaks of all sorts, and it was always hard for me to figure out how, in a tropical country, little shots of hot coffee became the national drink. Venezuela in particular is renowned, of course, for the quality of its coffee, which can be bought very cheaply in grocery stores. The last time Mr. Gordo and I went we brought back practically a whole suitcase of it, which lasted us a brief couple of months.

It is quite easy in the course of a busy social day to consume up to eight cups of coffee a la manera Caraqueña, which in fact is more like espresso than American drip. Since moving in with Mr. Gordo years ago, I gave away my American-style coffee maker to Skanque Huore and have made my variation on a marrón every morning. For Christmas three years ago my cuñado Quique gave us a cafetière, or moka pot, which I now have with me in Cold City, burnt and stained and rather broken-in. I am so used to the highly caffeinated variation that I find I have to chug regular American coffee to get a buzz now, and find its taste bitter. Is this a parable for a cultural reconquista in reverse? Or rather is this coffee story an allegory of the Latin@ cultural condition, always leaving and returning? For sometimes I think of myself as a Marrón Claro Grande, a bit black, a bit white, and definitely large: a creamy delicious mixture. While I am unsure of the exact answer to these questions, there is nothing that can make the US Latin@ feel more American than actually venturing into the heart and soul of Latin America, and experiencing a Latinidad that is both hyperaware of the colossus to the north as well as blithely unaware of its presence as life goes on. To tell someone in Latin America, outside of maybe perhaps Mexico or Puerto Rico, that you are a US Latin@ is to be met most often with a blank stare. One is either gringo (in the most descriptive manner possible) or not, and there is little in-between.

Recently, after struggling with it for many years, I finally finished Richard Rodriguez’s Brown: The Last Discovery of America. It used to be fashionable among Chicana/o intellectuals to have a kind of knee-jerk, almost allergic disdain for Rodriguez, because his first volume, Hunger of Memory, advocated assimilation and raised some uncomfortable questions about Mexican American identity (oh, and also attacked bilingual education and affirmative action). I always read Hunger of Memory less ideologically: for me, Rodriguez’s first book was, in the words of one reviewer at the time, “painful to read, painful to write.” For as much as Rodriguez might have been fucked up, so were we all. In any event, I have followed his work for years, usually pleased with (at the very least) the quality of his prose, but Brown threw me for a loop. Mr. Gordo gave me the hard cover when it came out and I read and re-read the first forty pages for years. There was something about it I found profoundly annoying, and just put it aside. Upon finally finishing it, I don’t think I have a better opinion of the work, but his idea of "Brown," of the syncretic power of Latin@s, the force of change contained within Latinidad(es), was interesting, if also a re-hash of the best work of Chican@/Latin@ scholarship of the past twenty years.

Ostensibly, “Brown” is the idea of Latin@ resistance to didactic interpretation and binary oppositions. Rodriguez meanders through the idea sloppily passing for lyrically, borrowing and appropriating the work done by Anzaldúa, Moraga, Gómez-Peña, Hicks, and many others along the way, but with the addition of his own anglocentric erudite tradition, arguably an attempt to broaden the scope of Latinidades for Anglo-bourgeois readers in the cities and well-heeled suburbs of the Eastern American seaboard. A mission, I suppose, which is laudable in certain ways. The frustrating thing is that it is impossible to get under his argument in/on “Brown.” Hints, gestures, movements, but never does our literary eye center and focus on the idea of “Brown” succinctly defined, which I suppose is part of the strategy. (Rodriguez’s) “Brown” resists definition, is fleeting, floating, wandering. And in its inchoate formations and dissolutions is to be found, to follow the line of thinking in the text, the future of America (as in the US variant).

Perhaps this is true, even as I am prone to rolling my eyes at the frequent proclamations of the transformative power of Latinidades on the United States. It’s not that Latin@s aren’t changing the material and social conditions of American life as we speak, it’s just that I see that project as a quiet rather than loud one. One day, you’ll turn around and it will have already happened, no fanfare and no parade. But for now, the Anglo hand wringing of the current moment, yes, lots of it, and fences, more fences: the ultimate symbol of futility and ignorance of how the world works.

Even in spite of these qualms, OK, I’m down with the “Brown,” but there was one passage that struck a personal note for me. Rodriguez at one point, in an ill-tempered screed against racial identities in the USA, details talking with a light-skinned Chicana at Yale who described herself as a person of colour, to which he claims “She doesn’t get it” (i.e. the idea of "Brown," which is profoundly anti-didactic). This made me think of myself, of course, as a light-skinned Mexican American who has been known, on occasion, to also describe himself as a person of colour, more out of political necessity than mere descriptive, which in some senses is the very function of race in our society, hyper-aware as it is of race and racial difference: race as identity has become divorced from the body and lives in the realm of institutional and political and social paradigms. This of course is not a function of people of colour wanting to be different. I understand this move rather as a function of living in a formerly formal white supremacist society that for 200 years was also a slave society. Epistemological racial identities are very important in a slave society, for it tells us who is free and who is not. For mestizo people like most US Latin@s and Black Americans, what is really Black or Brown/Bronce? Our bodies reveal the complicated racial histories that we literally embody, often with great colour and phenotypical diversity within single families, yet we have gathered under race, or pan-ethnicity, or rather both, in processes which are both internal and external, reinforced and codified by all the forces which act upon us in society. The technologies of self-description which Rodriguez pans in his snarky descriptive of the güera Yalie struck me as both unnecessarily pointy as well as provocative. For “Brown” does seem to call for a new manner of self-description, both on the individual as well as social level. But as a society we don’t seem to be ready for that particular launch into the stratosphere of theoretical amorphous “Brown” identities just quite yet.

I am currently teaching a Latina/o Studies class, and my students, both the Latin@ and the non-Latin@, have been having a difficult time understanding this series of key ideas, of indeterminacy, of mestizaje, of collective identities organised around a concept of self-conception rather than the exclusive physical referent, and how they relate to the course’s (i.e. my) project vis-à-vis Latin@ identity. After struggling through some interesting work, covering and re-covering discussions of pan-ethnicity, race, mestizaje, cultural strategies, assimilations, adaptations, the body, ideas about identities in formation and Latin@ diversity for the past several weeks, a student of mine, a good student, posed this question in class the other day: “But what then exactly is a Latino?” I wanted to lay my head on the desk and take a nap until Teacher woke me.

What struck me about this moment in class was the resistance to the resistance, in the sense of understanding Latin@ identity as inchoate and messy and travelling and “Brown.” Students don’t want this, and one could argue society doesn’t want it either. Rather, what they want is the ability to “be able to tell.” A standard enough desire in our Enlightenment tradition, and one I both relish and dread disabusing my students of. For the simple fact of the matter is that even most Latin@s can only give you either an almost purely subjective analysis of Latin@ identity (usually their own), or the most general fluffiness: “They’re Catholic” (Not exclusively); “They all speak Spanish” (Wrong again! No Gold Star for you!!). On one hand, I feel for my students. They didn’t expect to fall into a void when they signed on for the class. They might have even felt they would gain some practical knowledge for dealing with “them” (i.e. Latin@s) in the real world. If my students are listening closely, and I know at least some of them are, they will realise that indeed they are learning a lot about Latin@s, just not what they expected to learn: the shape, the scent, the feel of things.

The class has dovetailed with a civic project I have been engaged in, a committee of (rather nuts) Latin@s that meets monthly: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and the Professor (me). Oh Mary, don’t ask! The last meeting we descended into a crazy bilingualism that gave some of the members of the committee pause: which language should we be speaking? Some were speaking mostly Spanish, others (me, primarily, because I am a sin vergüenza) mostly English, and others yet mixing the two more fluidly. There seemed to be a desire on the part of some committee members to speak either English or Spanish, exclusively. For me, the crazy linguistic moment, with phrases passing half-understood and others more completely comprehended, is itself a parable of the Latin@ condition, and instead of being resisted, needs to be embraced, even as it is scary and potentially risks misinterpretation in the process. But then again, two people can misunderstand each other speaking the florid and dense prose of a single language as well. When I related this story of the linguistic Babel of the committee to Mr. Gordo, he observed that the one thing that must be resisted (for Latin@s) is monolinguality, and this could be understood socially and culturally as well as linguistically. Not the mono, but the polyphonic.

I’m not sure about Rodriguez’s güera Yalie not getting it, but suffice it to say I think the problem is that “getting it” is itself part of the conundrum. It’s not that there is nothing to understand, no material rubrics to apply, rather it is that Latin@ identity is moving so fast, is so fleeting, that by the time you capture it in a frame it is already gone, moved on to its next project, stretching out into the world, curious, intemperate, impatient. This sounds great on paper, but is quite the struggle to communicate in a classroom, not to mention figuring out one’s relationship to the chaos in one’s personal life. It can, in fact, lead one to experience asco, nausea, which was the name of the controversial Los Angeles-based seventies Chicano conceptual art group whose images lead and end this piece (They earned their moniker when one Chicano activist described their work as giving him asco). In both the sense of the work and direction of Asco in the 1970s and contemporary Latin@ identities, the asco of the void displaces our assumptions, forces continual changes, adaptations, and adjustments, but also more powerfully grounds us in the here and now, the rocky terrain of contestation.

24 October 2006

Marrón Claro Grande (Part One): The Shtetl Electronica

Miss Winter’s back, and honey, payback is a bitch. I have nothing really more to add other than it was really depressing to close my storm windows today, after one too many moments of waking up in the middle of the night frigid and cold. The sudden slip from autumn to mid-winter blah has even caught the Cold City natives off-guard, coming as early as it has this year. Will there be a warming trend? Perhaps, but warming in this case means 60º and without flurries. Goodbye 70º and warm sun, to come back at the end of April, if we’re lucky. Oh well, at the very least I can now wear my delicious woolens without shvitzing up a storm. Meanwhile, on the phone with Mahku yesterday afternoon, he was having the shvitz for both of us, outside a laundromat in El Ay with a temperature above 80º and climbing with a sunny sky. So what else is new?

Our lives have become so dependent on technology, both in the personal and professional sense; it can be amazing and incredibly disquieting at the same time. One of the things Mahku and I talked about was Doctor Town, and how our doctoral university has changed, and reminiscing about paper memos and the world before email, the ubiquitous email we live within nowadays. We commiserated about how we both tended to be bad email responders, sometimes leaving messages for weeks, if not months (if not, in fact, years). I was reminded of a passage by Joan Didion in her sublime essay “The White Album,” where in the midst of one of her depressive states she would neglect her correspondence, only to respond months later with the pithy, “During my absence from the country for these past 18 months…”

If only such easy solutions were available to us! Cold City U.’s email system takes electronic snooping (and egghead OCD) to another level by enabling you to see when the recipient of your message has opened it and even if they forwarded it. When I first arrived, I would use this feature endlessly, until finally I tired of it. After all, did it really matter that I knew that Professor X opened said message at whenever? No, because by that point I was just hoping they wouldn’t respond at all. What really sucks about it is the fact that students can also use this tool. So, we surveille and are surveilled in our electronic haimische.

My mind has been on this old-new electronic village thingy tonight for a couple of reasons, the primary one being the entire evening has been taken up composing a PowerPoint midterm answer review for my classes tomorrow, covering the exams which my students took last week. I know that PowerPoint has a terrible reputation, and personally I find that most of the time the old-fashioned writing on the board is more effective than a nerdy, overly composed PPT presentation that glazes your students’ eyes like a candied ham. But I have discovered that in fact PowerPoint can be useful when you have to communicate a massive amount of information in a short period of time, and as such is a useful tool if of dubious reputation. The fact that students also seem to regard it as more “real” than the scribblings on the blackboard helps the evals ("He was prepared." In the parlance of the electronic shtetl: LOL), but also speaks to the electronic bells and whistles that pass as sophistication and labour nowadays. Smoke and mirrors, really. I remember composing my first high school essays on an IBM Selectric that my mother had, um, requisitioned from her office, and that in 1984 was the height of technology. But it was still hard copy, and therefore fallible in a frustrating way (especially when your automatic corrective tape ran out). When I arrived at Prestigious Eastern U., I quickly became an aficionado of Mac, and the magic of the word processor, a distinction between technologies completely lost today ("magic" v. Liquid Paper). The poor long-gone typewriter, textual siren for one hundred years, overturned and scrapped in less than a decade by the pixilation of the computer screen. Now we compose and think electronically, and one must wonder sometimes if we have indeed become Haraway’s cyborgs in real time, mediated and created and sustained by our technology (as techne).

Stepping down a bit from these lofty heights, the other aspect of our little electronic shtetl that both delights and cautions is the now ubiquitous (and Google-owned) YouTube. As I began to explore the contours of the site last year, I was struck as most were by the funny, the inane, the ridiculous. But what is interesting is that very quickly YouTube has not only become a stage for every American Scooby as well as corporate entity, but also become a kind of time machine, where the past is being rescued, one pathetic video upload at a time.

So, a few weeks ago, I found this little gem: a video by the eighties Black British Rap-Dance group Cookie Crew. During the summer of 1989, La Zeez and I listened to their album Born This Way constantly, as we cruised the student-less streets of PU town, looking for adventure in a fifth of Bacardi and listless late night trips to the playground to drunkenly do the swings and have those intimate conversations that seem so important to a 19-year old but are remarkably forgotten later (perhaps blissfully forgotten). How I heard about Cookie Crew escapes me at this moment, although once I was able to pull off a wry joke many years ago on Isaac Julien (yes, that Isaac Julien) by popping in a tape of Deee-lite's fantabique Dewdrops in the Garden (in Mahku’s old car, actually) and turning around precociously and declaring that it was Cookie Crew’s latest tape. The referent seemed so British, so private, that Julien's eyes got big, not only because the musical styles were mismatched, but also because who in the hell in North America even knew about Cookie Crew?

I did, and this music video from long ago, aside from the obvious laughs generated by the crazy Afrocentrique fashions and wild fades of the eighties (Remember Kid 'N Play?), made me think of La Zeez and listless summers and being broke, but also of the project of many of us during that time: reaching out, exploring the world, feeling the contours of ourselves and our place in the world, both personally and intellectually, finding connections and messages in strange and unexpected places. This was around the time I was introduced to Stuart Hall in a seminar on the decline of Britain, going to mixers at the Afro-Am Centre where young PU students of colour were dancing to Kraftwerk and Sade and Mantronix and Africa Bambaatta and Jody Watley, where the biggest question about any party was “who’s doing the music?” which was also a question full of racial and cultural connotation, where some of us wore Kikit or Matsuda and others J. Crew, back when Matthew Barney (yes, that Matthew Barney) was still one of their preppy models. This diasporic iconoclasm of symbols and things and ideas and trends has today come to mean, in some simplistic and reductionist ways, globalisation, but makes me wonder about other tropes, other directions of thinking through these connections, however deep or facile they may have been.

What has led me to this place is not only rediscovering, after almost twenty years, that Cookie Crew wasn’t half bad, but wondering about the cultural fusions of Latin@ and Black identity, which perhaps are now writ larger and beyond those particular experiences, but seem to be very much grounded in a kind of unauthorised knowledge. We know of course, as we knew in the eighties, about Mothers Africa and Mexico. But what about Fathers England and France? Some Chican@s do live in a peripatetic museum of lo mexicano, which has always struck me as incredibly kitschy in a specifically American way. I mean, Mexico has skyscrapers and subways and malls and freeways and all the accoutrements of modern life. It’s not all grandma and the burro. And it’s not all exclusively American (or Western) global economic imperialism, but a specifically Latin American take on those things, wonderful and horrible, those aspects of technology which in the Western mind (here I include some earnest Latin@s) are exclusively the property of the developed world.

So, in letting lo mexicano become modern, I too sought (and continue to seek) to let lo chicano become modern as well, but back when Cookie Crew (a fusion of Black American rap modalities, Black British signifiers, Euro-American electronic-funk sounds and diasporic Afrocentric empowerment themes) was playing on the portable tape player in La Zeez’s beat up powder blue Cadillac car (because her installed radio had been stolen, the bane of the eighties), this was not necessarily an intellectual project, it was more like a way of living. Insatiable curiosity and desire colliding with expectation and stereotype in ways that diasporic Latin@s and Black communities always provide, much to our collective hand wringing and heavy sighs. Once, in graduate school, an über-earnest Puerto Rican student peer declared that once the masses knew about transnational capital, everything would change. I was then, and still am, astounded by the naïveté of the remark. The masses already know from transnational capital, and what they want is their slice (or sliver, or crumb, or whatever). But what else is graduate school for other than revolutionary dreamers and dreaming? In my experience, Latin@ and Black diasporic experience is about not towing the line, is about challenging us in ways that confound and disappoint and delight all at the same time. I would like to think that I play my own little part in this larger cultural drama, singing along on YouTube to Cookie Crew. Who knew?

(to be continued)

18 October 2006

Chanson sans issue

This morning I descended from clouds and slumber in a cozy window seat next to a prim married couple onboard a 757 into a cold and rainy Cold City, where fall has gone the way of the loon, the leaves are off the trees, and it is scheduled to snow tomorrow. At the luggage carousel, sleepy, desultorily smoking a cigarette on my way to the car, sleepy, and into the rush hour traffic headed towards Cold City with a stop (sleepy, natürlich) at chez MacDo for some breakfast (I am rarely up so early, so it is kind of a treat), then onward to coffee, a shower, two long classes and a meeting, it has been one of my more exhausting days of late.

The red eye that brought me back to la tierra del invierno returned me from an academic gathering over the last week and a complicated (travel-wise) side trip to Doctor Town, where I earned my PhD. Wedged between professional commitments and the return to the maison of Chaucer Prof and Philosopher Mom, I have explained and re-explained “what has been going on” for the last three years, so much so that at the end I felt like just handing people my card and saying it was the Reader’s Digest version. Although we all tend to have fairly trim and easily executable narratives about who and where we are on the professional race course, a soundbite that places us in space and time for our fellow egghead travellers, the endless repeating of the narrative left me feeling exhausted and disinterested in my own story. I know, of course, what I’ve been up to. What else is happening out there?

This particular academic gathering, I have now realised, is really my true academic home. Aside from the fact that I have been going now off and on for at least ten years, over that time presenting papers and interviewing for jobs lost to some other and attending meetings, it struck me at one point that I knew a lot of people there: Friends, enemies, and everything in between, hearty greetings both real and forced in the hallways and outside of the concurrent sessions, noting faces and strategic positions and groupings in the hotel bar. Is this what it feels like, to be a woman with a past? It is both comforting and disarming, a trace of the past in real time, the collapsing faces of professors you remember as young once in a seminar somewhere, the changing hairstyles and waistlines and sartorial styles and lovers, as well as the warmth of remembrance, the passion of connection, to have particular (and in some cases peculiar) pasts with people near and far, gathered under the relatively relaxed big tent of a mild Vanity Fair. The stakes seem middle-range, important but not crucial. You can relax.

For those who have walked the runway at the MLA, you know how stressful certain conferences can be. Pop, Dip, Spin, girl, and you better not slip on your heels, because you’ll fall farther than Ann Margaret. From the rictus grins and strong cocktails at the bar to the sweating suits (both men and women) in the lobby chairs, always too low to raise oneself up in a lady-like fashion, the pretentious posturings and black suits and chunky eyeglasses and heels, the neurotic conference hookups (Actual post-coital utterance, not my own: "It's so perfect because we're in totally different fields and we'll never compete with each other!"), and semi-private tears in faux marble bathroom stalls, the MLA is not for the faint of heart. You must be a brave womon to ford that stream. I have done it, and will no doubt do it again, but I do not relish my return.

This past gathering is not that. Instead, it has the quality of a strange and funky family reunion, with “the children” doing the Bus Stop on the lawn while some Loca works the grill and the viejitos y viejitas mind the salad table, waving away flies and charlando-ing. Everyone is there, both in good and in some cases decidedly bad, ways. The gathering, along with my trip “back home” to Doctor Town, did give me the sense of being “placed,” not necessarily in a bad way, but in a collective one, which of course is the very purported value of our academic junkets: to bring us back into focus above and beyond the institutional drudgeries we endure day in and day out. To entertain the professional transcendant. That's the theory, at least. The fact that it rarely happens quite so easily does not seem to dissuade us. You have to work at transcendence, baby, it doesn't just hit you on the head, like the chancla of La Lupe.

One of the brightest moments, the proverbial thrown sling-back kitten heel, I suppose, was meeting with Professor Chicana, one of my closest interlocutors. We have known each other since I was a wee lass back at Prestigious Eastern U, she a grad student and me an intrepid and overly dramatic undergrad with big, big hair, and I managed to catch up to her at the registration counter, resistant as she is to cellular technology. She, in her insouciant casualness of outfit, a rain coat and loose cotton clothing and a roll-aboard (!), which had my friends rolling their eyes but struck me as essentially and wonderfully her. We had the opportunity to have two moments together, both of which were as usual rich encuentros for me. It is funny in some ways to know someone for almost twenty years, and the benefits of her experience and wisdom are for me like finding an oasis after your Land Rover dies in the Outback (and you’ve been walking for days in flip flops and shorts, dust-covered and with blistered lips). I consider her a guiding mentor, even as such a title embarrasses her. She knows my story, and I hers, and within that connection is a certain power, not sentimental but active, vibrant, a live feed. Upon such brevity and energy we continue on. I am reminded of the differences between Spanish and English in this regard: Conocer, to be familiar with, is related but different from saber, to know, and the subtlety of this distinction is not present in English, where we “know” how to build a nuclear weapon as we “know” our mother. Pero la conozco, y ella me conoce, as well as saber-ing in the conventional sense. Which is nice, quite frankly. To be known, as well as to know, is to be the fabulous woman with a past, marching straight into the (shared) future. No woman is an island unto herself, and to be known is to be legendary (or "future legend, upcoming," as the case may be).

From the realm of the personal-professional conocer to the milieu of the synthetic familial conocer was a bit mind blowing. Returning to Doctor Town for the first time in almost three years was a shock. Time marches on, of course, but the campus has changed immensely, buildings raised upon parking lots and new masses of bright-eyed students and the cutesy aesthetic touches so obligatoire now for institutions to be competitive. I’m surprised they haven’t raised a rock-climbing wall at the entrance to campus, to show how “with it” they are. Boo. Philosopher Mom, always the social butterfly, had arranged a series of lunches, brunches, and dinners to meet-and-greet, which was nice but in the end extremely tiring, as I was fighting off a cold and the weather was colder than I remembered October as being. The best times were actually those spent alone, me and my old “family,” including their twins, changing into teenage boys but retaining yet still a trace of their child-selves, strange boy-men playing video games and uttering the occasional foul language but with collections of stuffed animals hidden in their rooms. The echoes of my time in their home at every corner: what was the quality of my life then, so near yet so far? The garden has grown, the neighbors have changed, there are cracks in the ceiling where there weren’t before, the kitchen has been redone, but the front room is as disorganised as ever, filled with monographs and homework and 409 bottles, and their front door remains unlocked, traffic to boys and pets and neighbors and friends and roommates and potential serial killers.

What is the quality of la vie academique? Seemingly, it is maintaining relationships at the interstices, across distance and time, and learning how to keep connections active once separated from the roots of daily contact. We are experts at this, at least most of us, out of necessity more than desire, although it gives our lives a shadow-like quality, traces of the past written across the here and now, faint then strong then faint again. In between returning to my favourite places to eat and all the mandatory (but not joyless) socialising, I was able to schedule a meeting with my Advisor, supportive as usual in a general, generous, deeply intellectual, and meditative way, which I once thought annoying but now find curiously reassuring: life may grow chaotic and unsure but Advisor remains as calmingly placid as ever. I was able to see as well my old department assistant, looking fabulous, who shocked me with the news of her impending retirement. Have I really known her that long? In our brief half-hour, she gave me the rundown on those in and near my graduate cohort, a litany of successes both vaunted and middling, or of disappearance, with very little room in between. Fifteen years ago, who knew? Well, now we know. It was a slightly chilling tour, as well as mildly depressing, shaken off by returning to the cold yet bright October sun, my mission my impending departure.

Today, in my exhaustion and four hours of sleep and mildly disorganised outfit, a colleague remarked that my trip seemed to re-energise me. I was a bit surprised by this, considering I felt like something the cat dragged in, but in the end I suppose I was re-energised, even through my temporary fatigue, by my return to the interstices, my past and present and future(s) reflected in the eyes of those I have known for a long time.

09 October 2006

Love Is All Around

How will you make it on your own?
This world is awfully big
And girl this time you're all alone
But it's time you started living
It's time you let someone else do some giving

— Theme Song from the Mary Tyler Moore Show (Season One)

Prancilla returned to the Cold City region this weekend, which has been whipsawed between summer and winter weather. Yesterday it was summer, but Wednesday is forecasted for winter. The loss of Prancilla to Prestige U. in Lake City (formerly Staid but MultiCulti City) has been one of the dramas of my return to Cold City. As academics, we are constantly on the move, like pilgrims or strippers or politicians, always looking for a better colour of sky. Oh sure, some academics land a job and stay forever, but increasingly we roam, even if only in our minds as to where we could be, where we should be, and where we are.

As such, building community remains one of our salient challenges. Of course, the institution presents itself as our community, our nexus, our centre. But sterile and coerced institutional "community" is not what I’m interested in here. I had that at Sadistic College, and it was awkward and uncomfortable, even if real relationships did grow from that generally infertile ground. We all know the rictus smiles and forced presences of work, and that is not community in an organic sense. No, what I have been thinking a lot about lately is how we perceive community, how we recognise it, and how we fetishise it. Of course, community as a term is often thrown around nowadays rather carelessly, with a certain political smugness that places it above reproach. Not to be too callous, but who cares about community with a capital C? We may live in abstractions such as these in the classroom, or the voting booth, or in our research, but for those of us who aren’t megalomaniacs, community is what we live within, not an esoteric paradigm but a material reality. And when we got it, all is good with the world, and when we don’t, well, if you’re smart you’re planning your next move.

Cold City lives up to its unkind moniker in its fascinating resistance to Ausländer, outsiders, transplants like me. This unkindness has led to a reciprocal disdain, but the simple fact of the matter is that I am here for l’instant, and in spite of my best efforts at insouciance in the face of loneliness, have been working hard at rebuilding community. It is recognising that home is, for me at least, completely temporal, a state of mind rather than a place itself. Mr. Gordo likes to proclaim, partially because Mr. Gordo has no plans to move to Cold City and partially because in piques of bad humour I can say so myself, that I “hate” Cold City. And indeed sometimes I do hate Cold City, the rigour with which it can complicate quotidian life, the “Friendly one day, Cold the next” attitudes that make one always feel dislocated and vertiginous and lonely and alone, the miserable pay.

But the truth is that I am ambivalent about being here. It is a nice if increasingly apparent temporary perch: I am a big fish in a small pond, I could be in Montana or Newfoundland, and sometimes I feel a surge of power in the fact that I came, I settled, and have largely been successful in this effort. My car is registered in Cold Place, I carry a Cold Place Driver’s license, and I am registered to vote locally, I know my way from point X to Y better than most transplants. I just have no one to really call when I want to go see a movie, or have a quick bite, or shoot the shit on a walk in a park without a two-week advance notice. I am here but not here simultaneously, and this seems to be the problem. Then again, my motto following Sadistic College has been ‘nothing lasts forever,’ and so I approach the problem of quotidian life chez Cold City with a certain understanding of temporality, even if such a condition offers cold comfort to emotion, which seeks permanence, however foolish such a sentiment can be.

I know that I am most comfortable in a clique, a clika, a group of close and strong friends, not too large and not too small, who spend lots of time together not for the occasional get-together but for everything: shopping, eating, gossiping, phone conversations, travel, events, etc. For many, this is the modality of youth, teenagers and packs of 20-somethings. Many people seem to grow out of this when they "graduate," in the teleological sense, to monogamy and coupledom, which seems to close down the possibilities of the clika, inverting that energy into the couple, the home, the children, the pets, the cars, and other assorted accoutrements of bourgeois possessive individualism. Many LGBT folks don’t have this socially sanctioned mechanism to fall back upon, so remain reliant on community (via the clika or some other milieu, such as the gay bar, softball team, or increasingly the chat room) to a far greater extent.

I would venture to argue that, in some crucial ways, academics share some of the dynamics of LGBT social formation in the necessity of the clika/community. Like LGBT folks more generally, we are oddbins, we are deeply resented by other “normal” people, we practice esoteric arts and speak in tongues. Today at brunch, Prancilla’s ex-colleague and friend Professor P. related the story of meeting an academic in Puerto Rico (oddly enough, another refugee from Sadistic College), and recognising him as an academic by his tone of voice and the words he was using before speaking with him. We form a strange fellowship, but exist in institutional structures that do not necessarily reward nor inculcate community. All of this is rather macro and airy-fairy, however, in the face of the individual struggles to settle and resettle and resettle yet again as we jump around the map from school to school, job to job, looking for a better colour of sky.

The last couple of weeks I have been obsessively watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show on DVD. The first four of seven seasons has been released on DVD, and at 24 episodes per season, that is a lot of Mary, even for a dedicated fan such as myself. But as I sit in my garret, with the radiators hissing approximately twice a day, with another winter in Cold City approaching rapidly, I want to be Mary, even as I find such marathon watching to be as depressing as it is enjoyable. I identify strongly with the narrative and premise of the show, which at the time was revolutionary: a single career-oriented woman in the big city, with no husband, children, nor other feminine encumbrances. The happy, hopeful theme song has been running through my mind as I do my walks and errands around town— Mary in Minneapolis, Oso in Cold City (minus the nifty polyester pant suits). Will I make it on my own (again)? Where is my Rhoda? Prancilla was my Rhoda last year (or am I Rhoda and Prancilla Mary?), and as good as it was to see him this weekend, along with the mutual sadness at saying goodbye after a brief visit, he has moved on to his own MTM fantasy in Lake City.

MTM gives us a televisual spectacle of community, in modest form. Mary toggles between her work life and her home life, and they overlap and inform one another. The twin poles of work and home are of course the foundation of our lives, and as such was a powerful vision of normality for Mary and her strange friends. What Mary finds/creates, in the fantastical spectacle, is a ready-made community that is incredibly seductive. But real life is rarely so perfect, and so my quest begins anew for the fabled clika. I have made some headway, met some interesting folks, possibilities that were neither present nor needed last year. But make no mistake about it: this is work, one heavy brick, business card, and email at a time. Only to be destroyed again when the next move occurs. The truism that life is what happens when you are making other plans seems apropos here, which is what informs Mr. Gordo’s occasional panics about the state of our lives now, apart and disorganised. But what choice do we have other than to accommodate as best we can the slightly deleterious conditions of our quotidian lives, recognising the increasing temporality of all situations, no matter how solid they may seem, working for something better?

The fact that my ideas about my life in Cold City would be deeply influenced by a television situation comedy from a generation ago only serves to reiterate the deep influence of popular media on what is normal, natural, and expected. When TV Land sponsored the placement of a bronze statue in downtown Minneapolis honouring the Mary Tyler Moore Show by replicating her famous hat toss, one puffed up professor of communications at Macalester College in Saint Paul was quoted on Minnesota Public Radio as declaring it was like putting up a monument to a unicorn, a fake character.

Aside from revealing a complete and total lack of imagination, such a statement conveniently elides the power of representation on reality. Mary’s journey was to become herself, similar to the journeys, consensual or otherwise, academics make when they move. Given both the nature of the academy and ourselves, this is also typically a journey we do, like Mary, alone. And for those of us who make this journey without the markers of social approbation (an opposite-sexed partner, marriage, children, houses, mortgages), we are as revolutionary in our own ways as Mary was in 1970 (minus the flip). Will we make it on our own (again)? For some of us, the question has only one answer: we have to, saving what we can or that has lasting value and discarding the rest so we can move faster.

Love is indeed all around, but the trick is recognising it.

01 October 2006

The Day After the Day After

Today Cold City basked in what is most likely our last bout of warm days before the onset of true fall, which here is really better considered early winter. Feeling restless and unwell chez moi, I actually got it together to go for a promenade in a nearby park, if being pushed aside by 50-quelquechose power walkers in perky outfits and shirtless roller bladers counts as a paseo. I went to the favourite park of La Nena, not my own, and remembered quickly as to why this was not my usual locale for outdoor exercise. There were so many six packs I thought I was at a tailgate! It was disgusting. Don’t these people have something better to do than worshipping at the altar of their plastic “healthy” bodies? Read Lolita, make love, bake a soufflé, bathe a child, wax the floors, stare into the air, foment revolution, plot conspiracies, adopt new radical names (Tania, I've read, is currently available)— anything but the flaccid narcissism that passes as attractive and wholesome in our very, very sick culture.

Instead, the armies of the perpetually Yuppie (of all ages) walked and ran and bladed and rode around the park, under a warm sun and clear sky and the large jets gliding down to Cold City intergalactic aerodrome. Aside from automatically feeling like a frump, I cursed myself, for in fact the crowds were to be anticipated, although I didn’t realise that necessarily as I dressed for my walk: very now Banana Republic corduroy pants with a slight flare in “stone,” Keen brown clogs, but horribly matched with a blah red t-shirt from Target, untucked. Oh the shame! Partially fashionably trendy and partially a slob. I know! I wasn’t thinking! I had in my mind elder care, Soccer moms and overweight couples walking hand in hand. But at the last moment I decided to take La Nena’s route and paid the price. This particular park will only be safe when it is so cold that everyone looks like the Michelin man.

On the weekend after habeas corpus fell, with the Republic on the brink of an abyss, with Congress and the Executive and the Judiciary in the hands of zealots and incompetents (and even worse, zealous incompetents), when true American values have receded in the face of panic and a desultory acceptance of the political status quo, when years from now, if indeed we survive, people ask what one was doing during that fated time, I can say I went for a walk in the park. This seems, more than anything else, a parable of the times, a koan for our current American age with disquieting answers about who we are as a people and where we are headed.