Monday, April 25, 2011


I overheard the following while in line to get lunch. The speaker was a nursing student who had just started her OB/GYN rotation.

Student: Yeah. I started last week, and it's so intense over there. Like, the first day, this woman would not take Pitocin. She wanted to go without it. It took forever. We finally talked her into it, though.
Now, I wasn't purposefully trying to eavesdrop, so there definitely could have been more to the story, and there are certainly times when Pitocin is medically necessary, but I couldn't help but feel sad. Here is this young student, a future nurse, and she's being trained in a culture that views a mother's wish for a med-free labor as an annoyance. 

Ways My Daughter Messes with My Head

You've heard, I'm sure, how having a baby changes everything. Some people say it glowingly, assuring you that having a child makes life worth living. The sun shines brighter. The birds sing longer. And even when the days go faster, you've found meaning in life because of this child.

Other people say it forebodingly, with both a solemn tone and a hint of gleeful mischief, happy to see another soul sucked into their misery: "everything changes. You'll have no life. Just wait. You'll see."

They're all wrong, as far as I'm concerned. I know I'm only five months in, but having a child did not change everything. Though the daily schedule is a little more hectic and going out is definitely more complicated, the things that make me who I am seem firmly rooted.

Of those two voices above, the first one is definitely closer: my daughter has brought me a lot of joy. She puts things into perspective in a way few other roles of my life have done. I love being a mother, and it is an important part of who I am.

Though it hasn't changed everything, it has changed some things. It's left me wondering, contrary to the findings of this study that suggests having daughters (at least for fathers) makes one more liberal, if having a daughter has made me more conservative.

Not in a political spectrum sense. Not really. I won't be joining Gary Busey and Meat Loaf in throwing my support behind Donald Trump's presidential bid anytime soon. But in the social sense, I've noticed a few things that I'm altering my perspective on.

  • City Living- I like living in the city. I like the energy of it, and I like that most of the stores are unique and local. I love the sharp edges of city streets turning into beautiful parks, and I love the hundred-year-old buildings surrounding me. (Though I don't always love my own hundred-year-old house, but that's a different post for a different day).
    But some things have been getting to me lately. For instance, our lawn mower was stolen out of the shed in the backyard while we were out of town this weekend. This is the kind of petty crime I used to take in stride--broken car windows, stolen BBQ grills. I told myself it was a small price to pay to live in such a diverse, busy, entertaining place.
    But now that I have a baby, the petty stuff seems much less petty. I find myself slightly more suspicious, slightly less forgiving.
    I still like living in the city, but something about motherhood has made me more aware of the parts I don't like. Which brings me to . . . 
  • Schools- Now, I work in education, so I think about schools a lot. I knew that the public city schools were in trouble, and I spent time volunteering to do my small part to help. I believe in public schools. I went to them myself, and I truly think they can be successful. But I can't send my daughter to the ones in the city. I feel like a hypocrite, but feeling bad doesn't change my mind. I know that parents doing exactly what I plan to do--send my daughter out of district or to a private school or (even worse for the city) move and take my tax dollars with me--hurts flailing schools even more, but when it comes to the one vs. the many, my responsibility lies first and foremost with my one. And I have to make the best decision for her.
  • Clothing- And the best decision for her also made me question my self-identified feminist status. SlutWalk is coming to St. Louis. It is a response to a police officer stating that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." People were (rightly) outraged. Women should be safe from rape and assault no matter how they are dressed. And women should not be judged by their clothing. And women's sexuality should not be shameful.
    But when it comes time for my daughter to be out alone on those streets, I plan to tell her something a little different. I plan to say that she should be smart about how she dresses and the messages she sends. I plan to tell her that she has the right to dress however she wants, but that she should also be aware of the risks, especially of date rape.
Do these things make me a hypocrite? Perhaps. But if I'm being truly honest with myself, I have to admit that having a child did change me. I do see the world differently. It was easier when I was only responsible for myself. I knew how much I was willing to risk. I knew that a stolen BBQ grill was worth the short commute. I knew that public schools were great places in need of some TLC. I knew that clothing was just fabric. But now that I'm responsible for someone else's life, those realities are a little less stable. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Quick! What Five Books Have Made You Who You Are?

Earlier this month, one of those book lists made the Facebook rounds. It was based off a BBC Big Read list (like this one, in Sporcle form) and said something like "Most people have only read 6 of these top 100 books. How many have you read?"

I think that English majors respond differently to this list than most people. This isn't some light-hearted game. It's a challenge. The gauntlet has been thrown down. This is not just a test of your reading habits. It's a questioning of your identity. Are you, truly, who you claim to be? Prove it.

I read a lot of books. I always have. Even back in high school, when I thought I was going to become a biologist, and thus had no need to maintain my identity through copious reading, I read constantly. I read when I wasn't supposed to--like during geometry. Once, I decided to read a book a day just to prove that I could. I went to the high school library and picked out a stack of books from the young adult section, focusing on books that had empty check-out cards. The neglected. In this way I read Stargirl and a bunch of other stuff that hasn't really helped me much in life, but it was still fun.

In college, I double majored in English and creative writing. That meant I read a lot. I took a full load every semester, and by the second half of sophomore year, I was taking almost entirely English classes. I read classics (Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby (for the fourth and fifth times), The Scarlet Letter (for the third and fourth times), Othello) and lesser known works (White Teeth, Kindred). Some of it stuck with me; some of it didn't, but I read it all. Even the early American works that bored me to tears (oh, Jonathan Edwards, I know why God was angry with you) and the British texts that (sorry my Brit Lit friends!) made my eyes water as I reread the same paragraph for the fourth time in an attempt to maintain focus.

So, I found myself shaking my head as I read Kate Harding's essay on how she bluffed her way to an English degree.  Sure, she only ended up with a 1.56 GPA, but she read less than half of the assigned texts. I found myself responding as a teacher while I read. I have students, right now, who act like reading the ten pages I assigned them is literally going to kill them. Death by words. They're all afflicted. They don't even respect me enough to fake it; they just come in and avoid eye contact for one whole excruciating hour. It is miserable.

But then I read this line: "reading past Page 3 of a book that didn't immediately hold my interest felt like going to the zoo and being forced to watch the naked mole rats for hours, never being permitted to look in on the giraffes." And it took me back, for a moment, to geometry class. I sat in the back, quiet, taking geometry notes with one hand, and reading under the desk with the other. Geometry was my naked mole rat.

And then there's this bittersweet NPR article by Linda Holmes. She examines the fact that there is too much out there for one person to consume. Too many books, too many movies, too much music:
It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you'd have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.
 She goes on to explain that the way most people deal with this potential defeat is to cull the list, tossing out entire segments--rap music, for instance, or soap operas. The alternative, she posits, is to surrender--to recognize that  we do not, cannot, know all there is to know.  She ends with this:
If "well-read" means "not missing anything," then nobody has a chance. If "well-read" means "making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully," then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we've seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can't change that.
 And the BBC list circulating on Facebook and trying to send English majors into identity crises is based on broad-scale culling. If we can create a list of what is "important" and make sure that we have read everything on that list, we get to feel important, too. We get to ignore the people talking about anything else, because they didn't get the memo, and therefore aren't in the club.

Sometimes, I read books that aren't particularly "intellectual." I read Billie Letts' book Where the Heart Is about once a year because I love the characters. I have started Catch-22 three times and haven't finished. Could I skip reading Anne Lamott so that I could fit in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and thus check off another box from the top 100? Sure. I could. I'm not going to.

All that said, I still have a problem with Kate Harding's bluffed degree (and, to be fair, so does she, as she points out in the conclusion of her essay). This isn't because Harding's degree should be held up to some literary litmus test, but because participating in a college class means giving up some of that control over the choices. It means recognizing that we can't read everything, but maybe there's some value in letting someone with a little experience in the matter shape our reading for this classroom. It means understanding that literature has value not just in its isolated consumption, but as a jumping off point for discussion, and that requires some coordination.

I want to end with five books I couldn't imagine having culled or surrendered. Five books that I truly think I had to read to become who I am. They are, in no particular order:
  • Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
  • William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! 
  • Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 
  • Aristotle's Rhetoric 
  • Katherine Dunn's Geek Love
Are these the best books in the world? Probably not. In fact, Geek Love and Fear and Loathing, in particular, will probably be scoffed at by some of you as adolescent indulgences. Perhaps they were. But a book is a combination of its content and the experience of reading it in a certain time and place. These five have helped shape me into who I am, and I don't think any of them made the top 100 list.

What about you? What tops your list? What books could you not imagine having not read?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Coupons: Am I right, or just lazy?

"The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." -Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau used this logic about cost to justify things like walking for three hours to a destination instead of taking a train. After all, the train cost more than three hours worth of wages, so it cost less time to walk. 

The problem I have with Thoreau's point of view is that 1) I don't just go to work to make money and 2) I'm going to go to work anyway, so once you subtract the hours that I'm working and the hours I spent walking instead of taking the train, I've lost quite a few hours of the day. And hours are precious, ephemeral things. Much more precious than money. 

In my mind, this is all connected to some thoughts on couponing. Over at Just West of Crunchy, there's a post on the excessive nature of the couponing seen on TLC's Extreme Couponing. She notes the greed and extremity represented by consumers who buy 12 boxes of cereal or 62 bottles of mustard to score a good deal. She also brings up that "[m]ost of the people I’ve seen on the shows say they spend between 10-20 hours per week couponing and planning shopping trips."  And even though those hours do end up saving some money, "Extreme Couponers clearly don’t need everything they buy, and I think it only really counts as a savings if the coupons save money on a necessity." 

This reminded me of my own (brief and ill-fated) attempt at couponing. 

Before my husband graduated from law school and after we bought a house, we found ourselves not quite struggling, but certainly juggling a tight budget. We're not particularly extravagant people, so there weren't that many things we could cut out to save money. So I looked at our food costs and decided to try to trim. I, being the good little researcher that I am, turned to the internet for advice. 

I found a blog called Coupon STL. This blogger does not, in my opinion, go to the extreme the way the people featured on Extreme Couponing do. Mostly, she matches up national coupons with local sales, showing people how to get several items for less. She also notes when local stores are having promotions and puts together buying guides that show how to plan and make the most of them. It's good advice, and--while I did it--we did save some money on groceries. 

But I couldn't keep up with it, and I justified it to myself without much internal struggle. See, to me, money isn't that important as long as I'm keeping body and soul together. If I can't buy groceries, it's a problem. If I'm missing bill payments, that's a problem. If I don't have enough in savings to cover a mechanic bill, that's a problem, too. But as long as the basics are covered, I don't really care about saving money just for money's sake. And to me, couponing was costing too much. Namely:

1) I hated the way couponing dictated my schedule. My days are full. At the time I was working full time, taking evening classes a few days a week, volunteering at two places, and adjuncting a class. There was not a lot of spare time. One of the best coupon deals was a local store that gives $10 off a $50 purchase on Thursdays. So we started grocery shopping on Thursdays. After we got off from work and school. When we had to get up early on Fridays. It was inconvenient. 

2)  I'm not the only one who knows there's a deal. Experience matters to me, and I rarely enjoy shopping. If it's crowded and people are rude, that experience is going to linger, putting me in a bad mood for hours. Everyone else knew it was deal Thursday, too. The store was crowded, and people were grumpy. 

3) I was buying junk. Do you know who puts out those national coupons? Companies that make the products. They are not very many coupons for fresh fruit or meat. There are sometimes, but not that often, coupons for ready-made products I use to cook like flour or spices. Most of the time, though, the coupons are for things like Hamburger Helper or frozen entrees. We just don't eat that much of this stuff. But when I had coupons for it, I would sometimes buy it, changing my menu from mostly fresh food to mostly packaged food, taking me further away from a goal I had worked hard to achieve: eating healthier. 

4) It was time and energy consuming. I hated having to plan out what stores were best on which days. I hated planning out what to buy at each place and what coupons needed to be where. I completely ignored the deals that required you to buy something in order to get a new printed coupon at the register which you could then take back in to get more things for less money. It was too much to think about and too many trips to the store. 

When it comes down to it, I recognize that it is important to be fiscally responsible, but it's also important to enjoy life. I know that it didn't cost that much time and energy to use coupons, but I also don't have much time to spare. I justified it by saying that the time I was spending was worth more spent elsewhere, but I might just be a lazy couponer. 

What about you? Do you coupon? Is there an easier way to do it or is it just worth the effort?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Fleeting Sunday

Sundays are never long enough, but--like most things that fade too fast--they are often wonderful.

Today we had a formal photo shoot (which was unbearably long for me, and I'm not an infant, so I have no idea how she kept her cool long enough to produce smiles like these):

And we followed that up with a long walk in the park. 

Where the smiles were harder to come by. 

They may move too fast, but I couldn't ask for anything more from a day than what I get on Sundays.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Links of Interest

This week was filled with news stories that perplexed me, so I decided to share.

I normally don't jump on the Fox News bashing bandwagon. Not because I don't think Fox News deserves some bashing, but because it normally just doesn't register as being that important. This week, however, seemed particularly crazy:

1. Fox and Friends makes sure to inform people of the news that really matters. No, not the (then looming) chance of a government shutdown. Not even something as politically-charged as potential Republican presidential candidates. They hunted down the story the other news outlets were intentionally ignoring: Crayola's "pandering more to liberal parents" through multicultural markers. Nevermind that these markers came out 19 years ago. Pandering is always fair game. And yes, only liberals think that people come in more than one color.  Media Matters has a nice analysis of the clip.

2. Luckily, Fox isn't reserving this keen insight into the human condition for decades-old craft supplies. They are equally discerning with more modern incidents. The culprit? Moms who paint their little boy's toenails (and pink no less!) Dr. Keith Ablow analyzes a J. Crew ad in which a designer paints her son's toenails pink and carries it to its logical end: "crowding operating rooms with procedures to grotesquely amputate body parts." Even worse, "it will be a very big deal if it turns out that neither gender is very comfortable anymore nurturing children above all else." I'll just let that thought stand on its own.

3. Fox and Friends recognized their internal competition, but they would not be undone. The bar had been raised, but they were up to the task, and responded by incredulously mocking those who think Planned Parenthood's services of blood pressure checks, pap smears, and breast exams are necessary services. After all, you can get them all at Walgreens. That's right Friends, don't let factual accuracy stand in your way.

Despite best efforts, Fox does not have the corner on disturbingly culturally insensitive actions.

4.Maybe they should hire Kobe Bryant, who called a ref a "fucking faggot," and then insisted that his words "should not be taken literally." Enlighten me, Kobe. What would a literal definition of that be? I think it's the figurative one we're worried about.

With this many stories pointing to how far we have to come in understanding and valuing diversity in various forms, it would be refreshing to find an educator working with the youth to create a tomorrow free of this kind of bigotry.
5. But we should probably look somewhere other than Norfolk, VA, where a fourth-grade teacher decided the best way to teach her young class about slavery was to set up a mock auction and let the white kids buy the black ones.

Maybe I should stop reading the news.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The N-word and the Rhetorical Situation: Being a Good Big Sister

My little brother is 15. He's a good kid. He's friendly, funny, smart, and--mind-boggling to this once-high-school-freak--popular and well-liked. He has an array of friends, and my mom's house is the congregation spot. There is seldom a time I have called in the last year when there isn't a kid or two hanging around.

He also has, as much as possible in an overwhelmingly white rural area, a racially diverse group of friends. A few of his friends are black or biracial.

There's some context to set up the rest of this story. This morning, I get a text from my sister saying that she got on to my brother and his friend (also white) for yelling the n-word as they shot zombies (of no particular race) on a video game.

I texted my brother and asked him what was going on. He responded with the same response he gave my sister. He wasn't using the word "like that." He meant it as its dictionary definition dictated: to indicate that someone was ignorant. He had no racial connotations in mind when he said it. I texted back "we need to talk."

We did. I said that I understood what he was saying, but that he didn't understand the history and societal meanings steeped on that word. I explained the difference between denotation and connotation. I asked him how he would feel if his niece (my biracial daughter) heard him saying that word.

He said he wouldn't say it anymore, but I don't know if I handled it right. I later texted him again to ask if he'd read some articles if I sent them to him. He said yes (and I believe him. He is, despite this incident, a thoughtful, caring young man.)

First off, I do not believe in censoring words. I think that  moves like Jesse Jackson's proposed n-word ban are ridiculous, ineffective ways to tackle the real problem. In a graduate-level class on free speech, I wrote a final paper about these issues in which I maintained that banning words and assuming that a single meaning is the only meaning a word can have is detrimental because it gives that word too much power. Words have no innate meaning; they have only the meaning people give them. And if words denote racist thoughts, it is only because there are people thinking racist thoughts to begin with. Banning a word does nothing to remove those ideas.

Let me rephrase. I do not believe in censoring words from the outside. But I believe very strongly in censoring words yourself. I have chosen not to use the n-word. This is hard for me--not because I have any desire to say it to anyone or about anyone, but because I study race, rhetoric, literature, and pop culture. I read and watch a lot of things with this word. I quote these things when I write papers. I have a (perhaps silly) rule: if it's said/written in my own words, I use "n-word." If it's a direct quote, I write the full word. I recognize that this seems counter to the statements I made above about words only having the meaning you give them, but I also understand that no word has meaning without social context--my own intention is only one part of what creates the full meaning of the word. And because of my place within that social context, I do not feel that I have the ethos to use it.

The social context for the n-word includes the years and years that it's been used to mean "less than human." The lynchings that have occurred after a mob used this word to propel themselves forward. The times it's been screamed and the times it's been muttered under someone's breath to promote a racist agenda. And for me, the times it's been screamed at my husband, occasionally in my presence. In particular, the time my mom's neighbors screamed it at us--me pregnant and terrified--as they fired a gun in the air because they were mad at my mom for asking them to keep their dog in their yard.

I called my mom because I was upset when I heard that my brother was tossing around this word so casually. She said, "I told him not to use it. But his black friends say it."

I responded with a long-winded (and probably audience-inappropriate) retort. Something like, "Often members of oppressed groups reclaim a word used in oppression because it can restore some power." But that doesn't matter.

The fact of it is my little brother is using this word because he is testing social boundaries. I think the fact that he says he's using it for it's "real definition" at least illustrates that he's aware of the power of words. With that in mind, I want to take this as an opportunity to teach. So what do I tell him? I am trained to write papers for overly-analytical academics. What do I tell this well-meaning fifteen year old?

Do I send him websites like this one that show white audiences gawking at lynched bodies for entertainment?
Do I send him articles like this one reviewing Jabari Asim's book The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why?
Or blog posts like this one at Carmalized written in response to Dr. Laura's racist outburst?

How do you begin these conversations with someone who isn't aware of things like white privilege and who lives in an area with so little diversity that overt racist actions are rare (though, as my mom's neighbors proved, still present)? How do I move this lesson forward?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Katy Perry and Kanye West's "ET": Exoticizing the "Other"?

Today, I was talking to my freshmen composition students about doing close textual analysis and using textual examples to support a thesis-driven claim. To illustrate, I asked them to give me a song they liked that we could use to make an argument. They chose Katy Perry feat. Kanye West's "ET," a song I hadn't heard. Here's the video:

After a little analyzing, my students decided they would argue Perry might be making a statement about interracial relationships. My interest lies in trying to figure out just what that argument is.

From the first lines (sung by Kanye West), the stereotypical view of black males as sex-driven and dangerous is in full force. West says "I got a dirty mind/I got filfthy ways/I'm tryna bathe my ape in your milky way." Aside from calling up the deragatory reference of ape for black man and playing on the imagery of whiteness and purity in "milky," these opening lines are a direct response to stereotypical fears about black men's predatory lust for white women. West ackowledges the way some view this relationship, but he goes on to explain "I be so far up, we don't give a f-f-fuck." And surely, celebrity status (and wealth) grant a level of comfort that extends to interracial relationships.

A direct defiance of societal norms that discourage interracial relationships is a great message, but I'm not sure how I feel about the song as a whole. Some of the lyrics (both West's and Perry's) suggest an exoticism that leaves me uncomfortable.

West invites Perry to "Step into the fantasy"--the fantasy of sexual encounters with an exotic other. The song compares black men to the most exotic other of all: aliens. The lyrics could be viewed as drawing attention to this kind of exoticism in order to illustrate its absurdity, but then Perry sings "Take me, ta-ta-take me/Wanna be a victim/Ready for abduction."

It reminded me a little too much of the scene in Ellison's Invisible Man where a white woman, Sybil, begs the black protagonist to rape her: "You can do it, it'll be easy for you, beautiful. Threaten to kill me if I don't give in. You know, talk rough to me, beautiful" (518).

In a related, though less disturbing, observation, I went to a talk on interracial relationships at the university I work for this week. During the presentation, there was a video of local college students answering the question "Would you date someone outside of your race? Why?" Almost all of them (except one) said yes. But several of them elaborated with some variation of "because I like to learn about other cultures." This reduces their partners to cultural representatives--tour guides in a trip on cultural diversity--and denies them the complexity of real human beings.

Interracial relationships are becoming more common, and they are certainly more acceptable, but they might not always be a progressive step toward eradicating racism. I hope that "ET" is designed to call attention to some of these problematic aspects of exoticizing people for sexual pleasure, not to further them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


When the question is "Now, or in the morning?" the answer is always, always "Now."

I sometimes forget how much I am not a morning person. Then the sun rises, and I remember.