23 July 2007

The Story of Squirrel (2): Chrysalis

Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him. It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person “the world today” or “life” or “reality” he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past. The wo
rld, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever.

John Knowles

The clika that the Squirrel and I were at the centre of was a social phenomenon that was intensely personal, interlinked with friendship and subjective relationships. It was also, unbeknownst to me at the time, extremely fragile. Two moments marked the end, which like all disasters, came rather suddenly: the first was the Squirrel’s desire to transform our socio-personal nexus into a sexual one, which I was not terribly interested in. In retrospect, the first and primary Oops! The second, more professionally typical moment, was the decision for the clika to engage in a professional project together. A bigger and far more common Oops!

My sexual rejection of the Squirrel unleashed not only a frantic search on his part to find a "boyfriend" (the third boy brought home was the charm) but also led directly to the collapse of the professional project. As our personal relationship soured, the Squirrel almost immediately initiated a code red effort to marginalise me within our shared social and professional circles, of which our project was one. Even though I was the co-lead on the project and obtained funding for it through my leadership and work, questions were soon raised in the collective about my “political reliability,” and whether a potential pocho vendido such as myself should be on board in a leadership position. Joined together with another falling out within the circle, which I may write about later, the effort soon feel apart, mired in recrimination, blame, distrust, and ridiculous identity politics.

The project, needless to say, never happened. But what was surprising and devastating to me was how quickly the clika, my clika purportedly, turned against me, took the Squirrel’s side in our personal disagreements, and moved ruthlessly to banish me, flowing from the personal to the professional in a sleight of hand that was both hopelessly common and for me, at the time, profoundly affecting. Excluded from my former social life, I woke up from my domestic fantasy to realise how isolated I was, how I had basically given my energy and time to a joint socio-professional operation, le projet OsoSquirrel, that was now alles kaput. Mistake #3, as Boy George once intoned. My friends were now, stunningly, the Squirrel’s. My work was now the Squirrel’s. I did manage to keep my advisor, but other Chicana/o faculty and graduate students chose sides, mostly through the guise of the failed project.
“Who made Oso boss?” was something that was heard more than once in the hallways of the department, emanating from the mouths of armchair generals, the resentful and jealous, and the sullenly louche whose connection to the project was remote but who smelled blood and moved in for the kill. What happened between the Squirrel and me was not connected to Chicana/o Studies ideology, although it quickly became indicative of those differences in a ridiculous manner. I had become political unreliable not due to a change in professional and political perspective, focus of work, or because I was shilling for the Heritage Foundation (if only!), but rather because I had a personal falling out with someone who was unscrupulous and insecure enough to broadcast and promote this view of me for his own selfish and self-serving ends.

The house, my little dream cottage, became a battleground of silence and distrust, until finally after a spectacular argument, the Squirrel moved out to be with his child bride, the undergraduate he was now enamoured with (who, in retrospect, looked, sounded, and acted a lot like myself when I was an undergraduate. Funny that.). I spent the last two months in the house alone, preparing for a summer research trip to France and licking my wounds, depressed and worried about my future. Being truly alone for the first time in almost two years also demonstrated to me how dependent I had become on an illusion, now that the Oso/Squirrel nexus was ruptured. When I returned from France at the end of the summer, I moved away from doctoral town for four years, in exile in some ways, but also moving into a different phase of my life, Now Voyager-like, a necessary chrysalis, living in San Francisco and Montréal and discovering other things about myself, even if at the time this did not feel like a choice so much as a fait accompli banishment.

Payback, as they say, is always a bitch. And in this sense, there is a strange karmic sense to the tale of the Squirrel. After I moved away, he became the head Chicano fag in the department, but more like a symbolic figurehead. He was, frankly, not original enough to truly assume my role, or as I would describe him later, he became a gay mascot for those who couldn’t really stand a sassy, sharp gay man: safe, neutered, inoffensif. While my social life (and to a certain extent professional life, for some faculty decided it was best not to be associated with me) in doctoral town lay in tatters (after I moved away, he crowed triumphantly to old friends from PU that “That bitch [i.e., Oso] is out of favour now!”), he assumed in many ways what had been my life there. But he was obviously not an astute judge of human character. If people are so ready to throw off relationships for the flimsiest of reasons, for their own personal and ideological edification, it is only be a matter of time before the pattern repeats itself. Even now, years later, the reasons remain shrouded in mystery, but at the end of one academic year and ABD with some substantial work completed for the thesis, the Squirrel left campus quietly, resumed his old life in the real world, and never returned to the program or completed his degree.

He never discussed the matter with his advisor, never talked to the department administrator, nothing. One day, he just disappeared back into the non-academic world, literally with grading left behind. Both advisor and the department admin have made occasional inquiries to me if I know what happened. I do not, and the silence of mutual friends from PU, so anxious not to get in the middle of something, means I still don’t have the whole story, although I do know he is basically doing the same thing he was before graduate school and apparently has an abusive boyfriend (not the child bride, who is ancient history now). Perhaps the Squirrel realised that assuming a life is not the same as having one, and returned to a truer incarnation. At this point, over ten years later, the details are less important than the allegory, not necessarily for me or for the Squirrel immediately, but for how the vaunted pipeline for faculty of color remains treacherous, and how sometimes we cooperate with the forces arrayed against us, how we become and remain tools of the very hegemonies we putatively seek to undermine. The Squirrel is history, but several of his co-conspirators are rather well-placed, elegantly spouting appropriate rhetoric and making some money. I find myself in the odd position of wondering whatever happened to the Squirrel, when those who once found in him a convenient tool have moved on: luscious, glossy, ruby red rhetoric hiding their vicious fangs.

There is no transparent moral to this tale, necessarily, and I certainly was not the only one in the program to suffer such ideological fates, which is one reason why certain graduates from my program have terrible reputations as polemic automatons and unpleasant, rigid colleagues. I remain marked by this experience in ways that are idiosyncratic and iconoclastic. People can be mean, people can be capricious, but the collapse of the clika and the simultaneous destruction of the professional connections based on it, was a deeply affecting shock, a lesson ultimately in human cruelty but also social frailty, the tenuous emotional and social bonds of collegiality, of which the Squirrel is only but one possible example. Intellectually, the limits of identity politics as a true basis for socio-professional affiliation were reasserted, and a deep skepticism of those who rely on such easy equations grounded in my own bruising experience flowed directly into my intellectual project, which refused explicitly these politics in favour of deconstructing their bases in rhetoric and discourse. And such decisions have a direct influence on where we are, who we become, and how we function within the profession, as much as for our individual personalities as for how we become, through trauma and enlightenment, paragons for esoteric ideas and themes.

The house on the street bordering campus remains a reminder of this strange time in my life. It is cuter now, painted fashionable colours and the home of an equally cute lesbian couple, from what I can tell from randomly passing by and seeing the new residents trim their grass, or bring in groceries. The house represents the apex and nadir of particular fantasies about my life, my friends, and my career that were once powerfully determinant in my life. As The Fierceness once intoned, with her usual perspicacity, “These people are your colleagues, not your friends.” The desire to keep these things kosher, or at least consider them critically, is rooted in that small house, where I grew morning glories and baked quiches and hosted parties and lived, briefly, the life I thought I wanted to lead, at one time.


mommie dearest said...

I love the way you combine your personal stories with subtle (and sophisticated) references to pop culture. After reading your trepid prose I understand better why the personal is political. I still have a question, though: What ever happended to Baby Jane?

P.S. ( a la Center of Gravitas):
It seems to me that the Squirrel moved to TX and became Gayprof's Liar Ex (Who Told Many Lies).

db said...

A great and very truthful series, thank you. Reminds me of Gòmez-Peña's Navigating the Minefields of Utopia: "It's dangerous to mix sex, love, and art."

I also find it fascinating how time lays out the temporality of the skirmish and the war so differently, in a way that's hard to understand when you're in it. Or maybe this is just something about growing older?

Tenured Radical said...


These two posts on Squirrel are just a brilliant essay about friendship and loss. I love your writing anyway, but this is some of the best.


geoff said...

gracias por tu historia... as smeone slowly making my way up the ladder, i am still occasionally surprised at how often the politics of departments is made intimately personal despite the attempts, or lack of them, to run a professional organisation/institution... I wonder if it's the accumulation of so many folks desperate for recognition with only their thoughts to keep them company - their battles becoming war fields on which fellow staff and students and lovers and even the occasional onlloker are imagined and then repeated in an attempt to control... and those who cling to the belonging of identity politics become quite adept at asserting whose identity is in need of politicking...
and just anted to say howmuch i appreciate your posts, and the bette davis references - last night i finished watching hush sweet charlotte... - and the way you weave theory, practice and self into your writing, knowing there is no other writing but.