04 June 2013

An Archive of Feelings

Joan Didion once wrote, concerning the time in her life when her burgeoning journalistic renown sharpened her own equally growing state of personal disconnection, “Once in a while I even answered letters addressed to me, not exactly upon receipt but eventually […] ‘During my absence from the country these past eighteen months,’ such replies would begin.” Her epistolary dodge seems apropos to me now, after a 4-year unplanned blogging hiatus in an era when there are no longer any legitimate excuses for being out of touch. The heroic, pathological motto of our age is technological connectivity. But the relation of connectivity to actual connection is more intangible. As it turns out, walking away from one’s blog was relatively easy, given the surplus of competing screens.

If it weren’t for some strategically placed security questions, set randomly in the distant past, this post would have remained a glimmer of private thought, given that the passwords for my pseudonymous accounts were long forgotten, washed away in the wave of other passwords, login names, and profile pages of “the real me.” That said, this really isn’t a post-mortem, although I am not convinced, do not yet know, that it composes a return either. Perhaps more descriptively, this is a return to a treasured, forgotten place. It is reassuring to see that the electronic matrix of the interwebs has kept everything here (barring spam comments) neat and tidy, just as I left it, as if I had quickly stepped out for a coffee or a pack of cigarettes and not, as indeed what did happen, that I became distracted by other things, some important but many inconsequential (viz. Facebook).

In returning to the blog, and thinking through what blogging meant to me in a particular space and time in the second half of the aughts, I recognize a fleeting, fragile, yet tangible electronic community in extremis. This contingent society enabled me to think through the then-recent calamitous events in my professional life as I began what I once sardonically called my second (professional) marriage, connecting me to a pixilated group of like-minded scholars and writers whose own reflections (on their blogs and in their commentary) complemented my own disparate thoughts in productive and fruitful ways (something I share with others). Returning after so long to this place, I also see that the blog provided a forum for some pretty good writing (here, here, here, here, and here), as well as the context for a rigorous and regular writing practice on a wide range of topics: professional development, teaching, academic social norms, pop culture, cultural politics, and deeply personal reflection, in particular several meditations on place

A compelling aspect of this anthology over the course of three active years is the change in my narrative voice, from sassy, campy, and wise-cracking to sober and introspective, with a seriousness that towards the end bordered on brooding. Part of this shift was the growing awareness of a committed readership, including readers who knew my real identity. But I also find that the blog’s writing mirrored my own deeper movement into the profession, from acolyte to priestess. And it is this movement deeper into the structure of the professoriate that continues to challenge me. One attains the ostensible markers of professional accomplishment, even as the profession itself mutates into different creatures and forms. The total effect is really to keep one guessing, constantly questioning the parameters of success, performance, and accomplishment.

To wit, my tenure and promotion did not bring with it the anticipated rush of relief, although obviously I was happy to achieve it. Many of my thoughts on this entrance into the true mysteries of the profession are captured in this recent piece on Reassigned Time 2.0. I would add that, for myself, tenure and promotion did not lesson my general professional anxiety and deep distrust of institutions. If anything it heightened it, in ways I am still dissecting. Constructing a convincing narrative of one’s evolution is always a tricky process, although we keep to the shibboleths we have learned in our training, repeating them like a mantra in the face of a world increasingly marked by chaos. This blog forms a personal archive of my years of struggle and wonderment as an assistant professor: one possible index to a once and future self.

But for the moment, back in this beloved and abandoned place, I savor most the memory of friendship and camaraderie that came together here evanescently, for a brief while.

25 April 2009

The Way We Live Now

I have been away, but unfortunately not on holiday. Winter’s icy crust, an onerous teaching load, and the usual preoccupations with destiny have distracted me. In all honesty, I feel as if I have spent the last few months in a fugue state of work, striving for efficacy with five day weeks at the office and weekends spent grading or catching up on my admittedly anemic social life. The electronic world of blogs and Facebook has receded as the real life of classes and students and economic crises and health concerns has moved aggressively forward. I have been poor at responding to email, phone messages remain unreturned, and I am perpetually late to every meeting.

My appointment book resembles nothing less than the scribblings of a mad woman: class, meeting, consultation, forms due, forms returned, report due, report filed, assignment sheets due, assignments returned. Different appointments in different parts of the city mean I am in my car a lot. Sometimes I have to stare hard at an entry and work my mind significantly: What does that mean? Where do I have to be? What is demanded of me?

I feel lucky to still have a job. As the economic crisis rose in intensity after the new year, it was fairly clear that our campus would luckily only suffer minor reductions in staff, but our sister campuses were facing widespread faculty and staff retrenchment. This combined with a series of well-publicized mass layoffs in the corporate sector in Cold City made for a certain siege mentality. Receding into work made sense, both as a distraction and a goal. Even if we seem as if we’ve pulled out of the immediate economic death dive that made up January and February, the Fear remains palpable, both in the continuing gloomy economic news and the unknown beyond the next State budget session, not to mention the dreadful academic market of the past season rife with cancelled searches, even more limited opportunity professional opportunity, and the dreaded TIAA-CREF statements, with their negative figures. I’ve lost almost $9000, how about you?

The whole edifice of American life seems to have been violently shaken, although the extent of the true damage remains unclear. Even to those of us who realized early on the dimensions of the bubble, the broad-based hysteria of property porn, the opiate of flipping houses and putative permanent gains, the unfolding reality still comes an unpleasant shock. The tentativeness of the new administration and the usual political intrigues that seemed so interesting last fall now seem palliative, the last gestures before we hear “Switch her OFF!”

So one recedes into work, at the risk of being boring, or becoming wedded to the office in the way that some colleagues have always been, there on Saturdays, there every weekday, working in the hive, working into the night. And frankly, I don’t really have anything better to do with my evenings. I have no assignations, no boyfriend, no fuck buddy, no appointments for dinner, no jolly clique to join at the theatre or bar. I have become taciturn and curmudgeonly. There are many days when my cellular phone doesn’t ring once. The economic crisis has met the personal in a strange synchronicity, an odd concerto of bad performance art.

The retreat to the office is also a retreat from this place, Cold City, this godforsaken archipelago of exile. I have, on some integral level, given up on the here, like Napoleon’s dreary retreat across Russia, all mud and exhaustion. I retreat to work, but I suppose every silver lining has a cloud. Colleagues compliment me on my dedication to the university, to the demands of the institution. I am proving my commitment through the endless parade of students in my office, the door open for all to see, writing letters of recommendation and mentoring. I am proving my commitment by designing retention policies via assessment that add significantly to my workload. I am proving my commitment by constantly reinventing the wheel in my courses, the perfectionist tweaking and changing details and rearranging readings. I am proving my commitment by signing up for too much service, serving on myriad committees and panels, a very important and time-intensive administrative search with 8:00 am meetings (for which I am late), as well as the ubiquitous extra-institutional service, speaking to at-risk youth, developing scholarship programs, and making presentations to organizations. I’m doing fine, I’m doing well. Now, if only I could get rid of the doubt, of the feeling that everything I am doing is half-assed, disconnected, disparate. The Fear.

I look like shit. I have aged so much in the last two years it is sometimes a shock to myself. My photos on Facebook are artfully arranged simulations. My assistant remarks I look tired. Colleagues note I look tired. Thank God for the relatively boring dress code for academic men. It makes dressing in the morning less arduous. The body has its limits of course, which then become visibly palpable. But more importantly, I feel existentially unwell, so I retreat to the office. There has been a kind of mania to the effort, the unglamorous flapping of a drowning man. On some level, I suppose, it’s been an impressive performance: the spinster professor, with a box full of clippings and a French provincial office. Ideally, the next step is obtaining a cat, naming him Mr. Twinkles, and devoting my limited free time to making him seasonal costumes whilst I develop a healthy bourbon habit. Too bad I’m shit at working a needle and thread.

I have keys to my car, my apartment, my mailbox, my office, my building, and my different classrooms, but I don’t have the key. In this sense, my own personal circumstances mimic the general social and cultural malaise. Being an avatar of the moment, however, is seriously overrated.

08 February 2009

Classroom Notes: Embarrassment of Riches

These are the times that try the souls of men. I am not here speaking of what my colleagues have taken to calling, increasingly with less irony, the Little Depression. Rather, I am referring to my extremely busy semester. What with three full classes and a senior seminar, I no longer even have the time to feel sorry for myself, which I suppose is a good thing. But more remarkable than even my emergence from a certain lacunae of self-involvement is that after a disastrous fall semester, I am suddenly up to my ankles in ice cream.

All three of my classes are astonishingly, incredibly loquacious. Experienced teachers will know that this is a double-edged sword, for as much as student conversation can engage a classroom, it demands even more energy from the professor in terms of guiding and shaping discussion not only towards productive pedagogical ends, but to make sure that the Chatty Pattys, in their robust enthusiasm, do not push the quieter students to the margins. In my classes, this task is even more thrilling, in that we are talking about race and sexuality, which means that every student utterance has the potential of a pipe bomb to maim, injure, and deform.

Only one of my courses truly has this explosive potential, an intermediate course on race theories that is full of talkative Black students, a lot of white student anxiety, and Asian American student watchfulness. Because this is not my first time at the rodeo, and I tend not to be intimidated by even the most daunting classroom ecology, I approach this class with a certain insouciant sangfroid. Arriving at class, I am typically already mildly exhausted, for teaching at night is no excuse, I have discovered, to not have endless meetings during the course of the day before class begins. A final cigarette, a cup of vending machine coffee, and we are off.

The classroom is small, overheated, and the students are literally on top of one another. Such close proximity frays the boundaries students create around themselves. There is simply no room for coats, books, or anything to make safe space. There are exactly 33 seats, one for every student and one for myself. Such close quarters are still being negotiated, but they have tended to create an electric energy with both positive and negative benefits. For every remarkable observation made, there are two that are off topic, in the way that lived identities, such as race, can enable students to make observations without necessarily understanding the connections between their experience and the concepts we are exploring.

Yet, there are students who work with me, setting boundaries and returning us to relevant questions. We are all working together, in tandem, to create the space that we need to actually talk in depth about race. And it is working. I have done this before, but when it actually comes together, it can seem like a miracle.

At times, it can also feel like towing a boat with your teeth. Cajoling, smiling madly, writing on the board, asking questions, we rarely have any time for group work. Conversation can be inchoate, wild, wandering. Reining it back in takes energy, and when the last student has left and I walk to my car, I am blank. The flick of the lighter in the car, the heat running against the winter night, the crackle and spark of the tobacco, the first sharp inhalation of the dense smoke, is reward enough.

After last semester’s taciturn class, with its poisoned ecology, I feel like I have rediscovered some buried talent. How Oso Got his Groove Back. I know these things are variable, and that we all have bad semesters. Yet, for a teacher, nothing feels quite as good as when a class goes well. A quiet, deep satisfaction elevates one's mood and heightens the senses, opening up rather than closing off possibilities within and beyond the classroom.

03 January 2009

Waiting to Exhale

The holidays passed with their usual desultory combination of fast and slow, a morose conclusion to an arduous fall semester with occasional moments of delight. Like many who lack the accoutrements of the sentimental familial, whether in the figure of the biological family or a husband and his family, I again pass through the excruciating weeks of the holiday season in a sort of numbness, insulated as much as possible from a reflection on the potential personal meaning of having a void in those spaces.

Some schools offer long winter breaks, intersessions marked by weeks of cold, quiet time away from the demands of the classroom. I do not have that, and official faculty presence is required on Monday, with classes starting a week subsequent. It feels I have barely had time to get over my end-of-term head cold, much less recuperate enough to face once again the Roman Forum my classes seemed to be in the fall. I am exhausted by the very thought, although in the end I know I will put on my makeup, my costume, and return again to the proscenium arch. The show, after all, must go on, even if, especially at this point in the academic year, I feel as if I’m dancing as fast as I can.

One class in particular this fall was the proverbial thorn in my side. An introductory course with many students enrolled due to scheduling or General Education requirements is not, in and of itself, an omen for disaster. But in this case, the ecology never came together, and a mutual antipathy grew over the course of the semester like a marginal cancer rapidly metastasizing into every vital organ. You know, that kind of class. Since it is very hard for me to just walk away from my teaching, my response was to devote yet more time, more energy, more thinking, into the entire project, from assessments to classroom presentation to endless consultation hours re-explaining everything we had covered in class.

It was, in the end, all for naught. All the King’s horses, and all the King’s men could not put that shitcan back together again. Of course, I could spin it the way we are meant to nowadays: a learning experience, a teachable moment, an insight into greater attention to the needs of lackluster, unmotivated, and resentful students. All of which I will dutifully do, some snowy night by the fire. In the meantime, I remain hopeful that the next cohort of students shall be better equipped to respond both to me as a teacher and to the challenge of collegiate education. Since classroom ecology is situational, every semester we have another chance to succeed more effectively at what we do.

The high-wire antics of the crabby class were meet by other pyrotechnics of professionalism happening outside the classroom. A polite way to describe it would be personnel problems. I do not feel at liberty to elaborate greatly here, other than to say I have been particularly struck by how the politics of ‘respect’ are intensely and peculiarly felt amongst senior academics of color, to the general detriment of probationary faculty who are also themselves racialized. I have thought long and hard about this question, and can offer no straightforward solutions. I will say, however, that the drama of respect that plays out amongst racialized academics in a racist institution (the university) is incredibly destructive; it leads to mistrust, suspicion, paranoia, and stress, not to mention destroyed lives and careers. Mentoring is hard, and leadership is even harder. And in my experience, often those most obsessed with respect forget, conveniently, that ultimately it must be earned.

The paucity of these skills in the ranks of certain members of the senior professoriate of color I have encountered, or their selective and haphazard application, works against our greater interests. That said, our common humanity is never more apparent than in the twisted, ugly sneer of a senior colleague trying, pathetically, like a drowning swimmer, to destroy you: insecurity, damage, fear. I can empathize. It is a mark of the nobleness of the human social experiment that some of us try to rise above such self-involved survival strategies, that some of us know the value of living in human communities, and what that may mean. Such nobility tends not to protect you, however, in the star chamber of tenure. I’ve learned quite a lot in my traipse down the tenure track, not the least of which is the art of documentation. That does not relieve the stress, however.

My life has felt like an electric arc of stress, producing and draining energy in strange ways. In what should be the halftime of my adult life, I am still blocking, passing, sprinting to catch a soaring ball. I want to slow down the pace, but am not at liberty to do so now. I must continue to work as hard as I can, dance even faster, smile ever more broadly, jump even higher. The professional demands meet, awkwardly and uncomfortably, the playing field of the personal, the challenge of being fat, gay, single, 40, and an intellectual, a deadly combination I wouldn’t wish on my worst friend. I am highly conscious, perhaps overly so, of my rather precarious position, walking the edge of an active volcano of professional and personal desires, dreams, disappointments, and longings. I wish I could be more elegant in my handling of these challenges.

Yet, as someone I know recently put it, we constantly re-learn the most painful lessons in our life, over and over again like a masochistic version of Groundhog Day, specifically because they are important to who we are, who we want to be. And yet another has remarked that, on the commencement of the New Year she wanted to look toward the future, not the past, as the avatar of possible lives. This is of course what the New Year always promises: a new year, a new you; a promise also deeply grounded in the American psyche.

It is at moments like this, confronted with relentless American optimism, that I do not feel particularly American, but rather like the crazy aunt from the Old Country, wandering around the attic of memory while outside Ford motor cars and moving pictures and women with bobbed hair change the meaning of life, which in itself is a particularly ripe American image-text. So perhaps I am more deluded than even I perceive myself to be, at least as far as my place in a spectrum of American longing is concerned.

All I know is that it feels like I have been holding my breath for quite awhile. I am sure I am turning blue. I certainly did not expect to be here, where I am now. Fitzgerald’s famous dictum on no second acts in American life was matched, somewhere, by another who noted that American life is exclusively second acts. So, with that latter, more optimistic thought in mind, “I put on some makeup, turn on the tape deck, and put the wig back on my head…This show must go on.

24 November 2008

On the Morning After Turning Forty

I’m just a girl with my head screwed on
I’m just a girl with a smoking gun

— Eurythmics

There was, oddly, no palpable change. The alarm clock went off as usual. The cold milky white light of early winter flooded through the windows, as it always does when the sun dips low on the horizon at this time of year. The morning coffee tasted the same, the first cigarette crackled and burned in a familiar way. Neither flooded with a newly acquired sage omniscience nor weighed down with the depression of wasted youth, one showered and shaved with the usual alacrity, and made one’s way into the city, with its demands and quibbles and annoyances, beeping appliances and red lights and merge lanes.

At what is most likely the prime of my life, I remain unfixed. Gazing in the mirror, the act of vanity, I closely examine the face reflected back, my face. People tell me I do not look my age. Yet, I notice the signs, the lack of elasticity, a persistent sagging under the eyes, the mild yet durable imprint of lines across the forehead. One’s skin does not bounce back from a late night or a stressful week in the way it once did. The face settles into a jowly countenance of, of what? Disappointment? Preoccupation? Distraction? Dissonance? Only by bringing my mouth into a wide, clown-like grin do I approximate conventional happiness, of a mildly insane sort. Tired with the effort, I let my face fall, resuming its somber sobriety, the battle scars of all the good times.

I wish I could say that attaining my current state of grace has given me, serendipitously, some sort of insight into the meaning of life, about what is most important, about separating the wheat from the chaff, of sons and daughters calling me Daddy and the warm, nightly embrace of another who loves me for the proverbial me, the compelling messages of advertising and popular culture and sentiment. A random day on the calendar, of course, does not endow us with such enlightenment. I turn away from the mirror with a shrug, return to the computer, sip a Fresca, light a cigarette, and load Facebook.

There, in that digital bonfire of the vanities, I scan the photos of my contemporaries, my Facebook ‘friends,’ some who are actual friends and others somewhat more imprecise, some from those vaunted bright college years and others from graduate school. Some look older and others, disturbingly, the same. And yet still others have an effect that is neither, yet both. They look evolved, comfortable in their skins. I too have evolved, but into what?

All I know for sure is that I have survived an arduous year, the life equivalent of swimming the English Channel, and now I return my shoulder to the wheel of the tenure-track, to an approximation of regular life, to work. Arbeit macht frei, or so they say. My social world, once broad and lively and pleasantly distracting, has severely contracted, a retrograde movement from macro to micro. I dislike talking on the telephone and am terrible about email. I promise to write but am distracted by work, by the lake, by listening to Tom Petty and Alphaville and Mary J. Blige, by smart little books on Bismarck's German Empire and catching up on my Michael Cunningham. Only a handful of stalwart holdouts have managed to develop a benevolent tolerance for such bad habits, spread out in an archipelago stretching from San Francisco to Toronto to Montreal to Providence (of all places).

More importantly, there is nothing like a life crisis to palpably demonstrate who one’s friends really are, and I would be lying if I said I was terribly surprised that over the course of the last year so many have disappeared into the ether. Somehow, such sudden, trap door exits now seem expected, normal, unremarkable. People change, tastes diverge, interests and enthusiasms become too elongated through time and space, taxing their elasticity beyond even the supple, insipid boundaries of sentimentality. As goes Facebook, so goes the world. I have been 'un-friended' by many I once thought intimates, and as on Facebook, one is generally not notified when one is unceremoniously removed from a life. My desire to know, to plumb the reasons and rationales remains, is matched by the knowledge that one will never really know why for sure, only that there is no longer any there there. Certainly there are worse things, but the effect of this process of loss has been a curious distance fueled more by boredom with the machinations of people than passionate feeling. I shrug my shoulders.

Rodriguez once wrote,

Though I am alive now, I do not believe an old man’s pessimism is necessarily truer than a young man’s optimism simply because it comes after. There are things a young man knows that are true and not yet in the old man’s power to recollect. Spring has its sappy wisdom. Lonely teenagers still arrive in San Francisco aboard Greyhound buses. The city can still seem, by comparison with where they came from, paradise. (27)

I returned to this quote in Rodriguez’s morbidly fascinating essay “Late Victorians.” What this young man knew that the older one cannot recollect is an abstraction, of course, since we are real time compendiums of our experiential knowledge, but perhaps a useful abstraction. This young man believed in friendship, in community, in ambition matched only by gleeful dissipation. Forty seems to mark a space where dissipation becomes slightly more literal than figurative, a lack of elasticity. As for friendship and community, well, in my current state I’m no longer sure where exactly to place those. Hypothetically, they exist, but like rare orchids or an elaborate facial ritual, they’re a bitch to maintain.

Rodriguez's queer first words of “Though I am alive now” always struck me as intriguing. The narrator must, on some level, be obviously alive, yet the connection of that state of living to knowledge seems purposefully unclear, for Rodriguez is too much of an anal retentive stylist for such a line to be an accident. It seems to place Rodriguez in a strange position of generational interlocution, but a confusing one that smacks of hypochondria and delusion, two sentiments not unfamiliar to Rodriguez, but still.

But perhaps that is the point. I am a coastal extraterrestrial (ethereal, homosexual, intellectual), crash landed in the mid-western zone of North America. Salvaged from the wreck: notepad, laptop, one-half pack of cigarettes, a lighter, a dogeared copy of Joan Didion's "The White Album," one compact disc by Yoko Ono, one travel-size tube of ClarinsMen Shampooing Ideal, and an orange Lamy fountain pen.

Though I am alive now.