Friday, February 28, 2014

Guest Post: I Got Married . . . And People Got Upset

Today's guest post comes from an anonymous guest who feels frustration over the response to her wedding. Is there a right way to get married? And who gets to decide?

I should clarify that people didn't get upset by the fact that I got married or about whom I married. But apparently there is a right way to get married, and ours was not.

My partner and I had been together for almost exactly seven years until we got married three weeks ago. We both were absolutely committed to this relationship even without the legal piece of paper. I have been, for a very long time, uncomfortable with the institution marriage, and both my partner and I did not have great models in our parents' failed marriages. We just didn't see the need. Until we had to face the fact that I, a soon-to-be underemployed recent Ph.D. in English without permanent resident status in the U.S., would have to leave the country in a few months. I have lived in this country for the past 6 out of 7 years, but without a job offer and an academic department willing to sponsor a new visa, I was facing an existence of having to take a trip to Mexico every three months to keep re-entering the US as a tourist. (Not that a vacation every three months doesn't sound lovely, but on an adjunct salary it seemed rather unpractical ...). So it was a no-brainer for us that we would head to the courthouse and "legalize" our seven year relationship. And this is where hell broke loose.

Because, see, what I was unaware of is that there are rules about how to get married. And if you don't follow those rules, you are in trouble.

#1: You are supposed to announce your wedding plans way in advance, post about your plans on Facebook, and solicit and accept advice from everyone and their mother. We only told our parents, my grandmother, and our best friends. At virtually no point in my life did I ever make people expect that I was going to get married. I never got around to creating that wedding scrapbook that all women are supposed to have lying around somewhere. So why, I wonder, is it that a cousin of mine now vehemently refuses to speak with me? The cousin who made me her maid-of-honor for her elaborate two-country-wedding last summer (I know what you are thinking—why would she ask you of all people to be her maid of honor? Trust me, I was just as surprised). Why did an aunt of mine become upset that I hadn’t made a big announcement at my family’s Christmas party? Why did she feel the need to try and make my mom feel guilty about not spending two months-worth of her pension for a flight to the U.S.? Clearly, the idea that everyone should just get married whichever way works for them upset her. Something is going wrong here if we waste our energy on policing people like that (I mean, hello, at least I did get married—just imagine had I stayed in an extra-marital relationship forever .. unthinkable, I know).

#2: Apparently, I missed the memo telling me that my wedding day needs to be the most exciting and most important day of my life. If it is/was for you, that is wonderful. I truly mean that. I have attended a good number of wonderful and super fun weddings. It wasn't for us. I had to disappoint a lot of people by telling them that, no, signing a piece of paper did not miraculously make me feel substantially different. Here’s a little secret about myself: I hate being the center of attention. It often makes me so uncomfortable that sometimes I’m not even sure I like my own birthdays (last year, I was on an Italian island [for said cousin’s wedding…] and my partner was on an overnight kayaking trip. On my birthday, I was alone on the beach. It was a perfect birthday with books and drinks and no attention). Women today are still trained to think of their wedding as the most important accomplishment in their lives. For me, that’s when I got my Ph.D. True story:
When people congratulate me these days, 7 out of 10 times I think they are referring to my recent Ph.D. which makes for fun conversations: “Did you change names” … “No the title is still the same as on the prospectus” … “???”

#3: Weddings are only real if they are accompanied by a lavish party and other things that cost a LOT of money. Did you know that a U.S. couple on average spends over $28,000 on their wedding? $28,000!! And that, in many cases, does not even include the honeymoon. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that, as Jessica Valenti puts it in Full Frontal Feminism (2007), “young women are being taught that unless you have a Tiffany ring and a Vera Wang dress, your wedding and marriage are crap” (142). I first remember feeling very troubled by this pressure when watching an episode of TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress [I swear it was just that one time. I was at a conference and exhausted and needed a fix]. In said episode, a young woman decided to say “yes to a dress” for which her grandfather, who had promised to buy her the dress, had to sell his beloved Harley. I was outraged. I hope that man found another hobby fast.

#4: It’s all about romance. Well, #3 clearly established that that’s not the case at all. In addition to capitalist pressure, romance is just not the main focus in many people’s reality. It’s a luxury. Every day, couples get married for reasons regarding health insurance, taxes, and a long list of legal issues. Are their marriages worth less? I hardly think so.

I have more to say on how people reacted when they learned that I wasn’t going to change my name, that I didn’t want an engagement ring (so much to say here), that we are not planning on having children, and that for our “honeymoon” we are thinking of taking a tent and our mountain bikes to Yellowstone National Park. But I think I’m done for today.

Our experience really showed me the extreme influence patriarchal social norms have on how we are trained to be men and women. If there is such a thing as pregnancy brain, there definitely is a phenomenon that should be called "wedding brain." Imagine what we could do with the money and brain power spent on traditional weddings. I like the idea of feminist weddings. If you haven’t seen the Bones episode in which Bones awesomely proclaims, after her father walked her down the aisle, that “this is not one man ceremonially handing over a woman to another man as though she’s property,” you should. But it just wasn't for us. I agree with Valenti that “[r]ejecting normative romantic expectations . . . is revolutionary” (134). So whatever works for you—go for it!

At least one person told us that they were sorry that we had to marry “this way” just because of immigration. You know, if it hadn’t been for my residence status, there likely would not have been a wedding and if there had been one, I sure hope it would have turned out exactly the same.

Photo: Wonderlane

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Guest Post: Stories from the Fitting Room

Today's guest post comes from Sheri McCord, an adjunct professor at SLU and a Women's Studies scholar. She kindly shares this story of her summer spent working in the fitting room of an upper-end athletic wear store, which serves as an interesting intersection of her professional and scholarly perspectives. 


For three months the fitting room was my job, my workplace. I hid in the tiny cubby that was deemed “my office”. Working retail for the first time in my thirty-eight years was eye opening. While I lacked confidence on the sales floor, I could process clothes faster than most. I excelled at tucking tags and tying the bows of halter tops. My fingers worked fast at their tasks just like they do when I’m writing, just like they did when I used to play the clarinet.

An adjunct college instructor, I am not paid in the summers, so I must find employment from June through August. In order to keep my one bedroom apartment and feed my fat cat, I’ve worked lots of summer jobs, and most, thankfully, were teaching gigs. Last summer, however, I worked at an upscale women’s clothing store specializing in athletic wear. I was also a yoga teacher, so the gig kind of fit in that I could purchase their clothes for a discount and wear them during my yoga classes. Wearing yoga clothes to work was fantastic and anxiety producing as well. While I felt comfortable being in the yoga room in my yoga clothes, I felt out of place and self-conscious at work.

Like I did in the fifth grade, the year that I remember first being self-conscious of my body, I wore a jacket all the time. On the rare day that I let my arms and shoulders show, I felt anxious and exposed. When I was ten, I donned this blue jacket with lots of snaps even during the summer time. I would not take it off. Like Linus, I had my security blanket.

At work, I wore a black hoodie. Most of the time covering the hours of artwork on my back and arms. Despite my desire to be seen, I often hide in plain sight. I tried to make myself seem smaller in all ways. While I love being seen on stage or in the classroom, in a retail space, I just felt out of place, an unnecessary addition. The awkwardness I felt was hard to conceal, but I needed the job, and I tried my best at folding, customer service, and more folding. 

So here I was working in an industry that is all about appearance. Even if you don’t find hundred dollar yoga pants or a sixty-five dollar exercise top egregious, you would agree that it is all about how you look in the clothes. Sure, some of it is function, but today’s activewear is meant as much for style as it is for functionality. In my yoga classes, women wore the top brands and most had good reviews. Some didn’t find their size or had trouble with sizing, and it’s no wonder when the materials are made to suck in your internal organs.

Back in my office, the fitting room cubby, I witnessed so many women go through what I always went through in the dressing rooms: anxiety, frustration, and self-loathing. But I don’t want to imply that all women hated the fitting rooms. Many women loved ours specifically for the customer service provided by my colleagues. They were supportive and kind while also being realistic. This was a talent.

Our fitting room area was spacious compared to some. The lighting, however, still seemed to reveal every nuance of imperfection on my body, but maybe that was just me.

One woman tried on at least five kinds of black yoga pants, which, yes, all went for about a hundred bucks a pop. And, yes, we sold multiple kinds of black yoga pants. I was in the fitting room area alone at the time; we were closing up. She tried on these yoga pants multiple times, and I could tell she was getting frustrated. “My thighs just look so huge in all of these,” she said about her long, slender legs. They looked so long and lovely to me that I didn’t know what to say. I told her that she looked amazing in the pants, whichever pants, because she really did. She tried them on again. She thanked me for my helped and said, “I just can’t do it tonight.”

Another woman was concerned about the “back fat” that bubbled out of the exercise top that is designed to compress the body. The fabric is actually designed to suck everything in. I did not want to refer to this woman’s normal looking back muscles as “back fat” and told her so. “You don’t have back fat! You have muscle!” She was training for her second marathon.

I’m one to talk. I could tell these women that they looked great and mean it, but I could never convince myself. But from these stories, I knew it wasn’t just me, and the skewed perception I had of myself became more lucid by the time I quit that summer. I still need a job for this upcoming summer, and I know I can fold piles of clothes with the best of them. It’s just one more skill to add to the c.v.

Picture: stevendepolo

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Childhood Pop Culture Literacy: What Do We Miss?

As a follower of Salon on Facebook, I get a lot of their old posts popping up in my feed, and today's brought this 2010 article about why the author (Andrew O'Hehir) chooses to keep his home-schooled children in the dark about the latest pop culture trends. Here is part of the justification for this choice:
we wanted to affirm the idea that media is something you can choose and control, not a collective demonic unconscious that fills up your imagination and swallows all your spare time. Specifically, we wanted to resist the stepped-up invasion and colonization of early childhood by corporate media, both in its most obvious Happy Meal and merchandising tie-in form and also in its friendlier, allegedly educational “Dora”/”Blue’s Clues” guise. It’s not like we think toddlers who watch TV will all become mindless consumer zombies, but the correlations between childhood media consumption, the obesity epidemic, literacy problems and the disappearance of outdoor play are too strong to ignore.

As my previous musings on this topic have probably made clear, I think about the impact of media on children a lot, and those thoughts manifest themselves as guidelines and decisions within my own home about how much and what media my daughter can consume.

But this article didn't really make  me reflect on my own parenting practices and rules. Instead, it made me think about my own childhood and just how lonely pop culture illiteracy made me as a child.

My pop culture illiteracy was more technical than philosophical. My parents weren't intentionally shielding me from television to save my forming mind from corruption. We simply didn't have access to the channels. I lived too far out in the country to get cable, and the reception was too bad to rely on an antennae. We had a gigantic satellite dish (we later used it as a water slide in the summer, once the tiny dishes became the norm), but we didn't get local channels. I watched the old Batman series and Dragnet as a child. I had never seen Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Sesame Street, or (to the horror of my classmates) Power Rangers. My parents also listened exclusively to pop/rock from the 1950's-1970's and contemporary country. That was it. I had no idea who TLC, Snoop Dogg, or Madonna were. It wasn't that I knew they were out there and I was being kept from them. I simply had no idea they existed.

I did have some peripheral exposure to media like the Ninja Turtles through the toys, and I watched movie versions of the Care Bears until the tapes wore out, but none of it gave me a language of familiarity with my peers. 

The real problem was my physical and social isolation. Growing up so far from "town" with a mother who was crippled by anxiety attacks if she attempted to drive anywhere, I spent a lot of time on my own. O'Hehir cites a desire for outdoor and imaginative play as driving forces behind denying his children pop culture, and I can certainly attest that I got plenty of both. I spent hours creating imaginary worlds in the woods surrounding my house, but the skills I gained there (and I'm not knocking them) were not helpful in navigating the social world of kindergarten, my very first exposure to people my own age. 

I remember thinking that everyone around me was just so weird (and I am certain the opinion was mutual). They used words I didn't know, played games I'd never played, and had a collective store of experiences through media that I couldn't access. If someone wanted to play Power Rangers on the elementary school playground, I never played. I didn't understand what they were talking about. When they sang the pop songs of the day, I spent my time walking around the fence--alone. 

I didn't have a single friend until third grade.

I'm not blaming my rough entry into the social world on a lack of pop culture exposure, but I do see it as an opportunity for smoother inroads that I missed.

A more recent Salon article comes to mind as I think through these memories. D. Watkins reflects on what it's like to be too poor for pop culture. When your cell phone doesn't have a camera on it, how do you connect with the news story about Obama's "selfie," he ponders? When news comes to you days late (which is basically the equivalent of months late in our constant news cycle), how does it stay relevant to your life?

And with our media ever-colliding, with hashtags on shows so that you can live tweet your viewing experience, with fan forums where you can contemplate alternative endings, with cross-over media from books, film, and television happening all around you, what social doors close with the removal of a single venue to pop culture?

I am not criticizing O'Hehir's desire to shield his children from the commercialization and potentially dangerous amounts of exposure to pop culture. I understand his decision and empathize with it completely. I just want to take a moment to reflect on what pop culture really does to our social landscapes and what we might miss when we (even rightfully) opt or are forced out.

Image: toywhirl, Jenny Ivins

Monday, February 10, 2014

Guest Post: Looking Through Different Eyes

You may have noticed that postings have been slim on this blog, and that most of what I do post is about rhetorical theory. I'm closing in on my doctoral exams, and they've taken over my life (well, the part of my life not taken over by teaching, parenting, or roller derby). Since I'm sure that all of you wonderful readers would like to see something other than rhet/comp theory, I asked some of my friends if they'd help me out with some guest posts over the next couple months. I got an outpouring of support, so there are some great posts headed your way!

First up is from my friend Jon Brace. Jon and I have been friends since middle school, and he wanted to use my request for a post to explore some of his thoughts on body image and confidence. He swears he's not a writer (he's a scientist by day), but I think he did a wonderful job!


Hello.  You don’t know me, but I can feel you judging me.  I can feel your eyes drifting to the parts of me that I am self-conscious about.  You are causing me pain and grief with every small eye flick I see.  

This is how I used to feel every time I would meet a new person.  I would feel like I was being judged for every little flaw I found in myself.  For the longest time I wouldn’t talk about it.  I would just let it linger in the back of my mind.  However, about three weeks ago my partner told me that I seek attention from strangers on the internet.  You know…I didn’t want to admit he was right (and to his face I never did), but he was.  To some degree I still fear that personal contact with a new person.  The internet provides me with false security and a sense of relief that allows me to say, or be, what I want.  You can’t live your life without some personal interaction, right?  Where did this fear come from and how do I get over it?

Everyone is quick to blame media, television, and so on about the body image issues.  To a degree, they are right.  We allow our lives to be flooded by beautiful people and then try to live to their standards.  Very few of us will ever reach these standards, but you can’t just blame that.  Most average adults have something about themselves they don’t like. What’s yours?  Think about it.  When you get dressed, what do you cover up?  When you are meeting someone, what do you tend to avoid?  Everyone has something, but how did that something start?  I want you to do an experiment.  I want you to describe yourself, physically.  Then I want you to ask other people to describe you.  I picked a few good friends who I knew wouldn’t sugarcoat things.  The differences might amaze you.

Here is how I would describe myself.  I am a 28 year old and I am balding.  My eyebrows are too bushy, my eyes too close together, and my smile is too large for my face.  My arms and legs are too skinny, while my mid-section could stand to lose a few pounds.  I basically move like Bambi on ice being very ungraceful.   From this description I wouldn’t be surprised if you pictured a Mr. Potato Head falling down!  Here are some of the things my friends had to say about me.

“I was immediately attracted to your smile and eyes, which were inviting but suggested a little danger. You were lankier then than you are now, so you weren't physically imposing, but you did thoroughly dominate the space you occupied. You have a very strong physical presence through your body language. It's animalistic and powerful but seductive, Both graceful and strong.”
“The first thing I notice about you is your smile. It is contagious, and you smile with your whole face. You are tall and thin, and you move your body with enthusiasm and fluidity--and not only when you're dancing. Your movements match your personality of being friendly and outgoing.”

“To me you are tall, attractive. A loving, but cunning smile. Beautiful eyes that are inviting, trusting..but cautious., delicate, but masculine features...the amount of gay, but also the right amount of man.”
“tall with a slender build, bright eyes (cuz I don't remember the exact color) infectious smile. you don't quite have a beard, but it's not clean shaven, though it's not scruffy.”

This is how the world views me?  This?  Even those traits, like my smile, that I can’t stand are a common thread that most people gravitate towards?  If the world views me positively when did I become the monster I see now?  

Some people are unable to answer when their body dysmorphic image started.  It was a gradual thing.  However, some people can tell you exactly what caused it.  I am one of those people.  I was a skinny, sickly child, who had a lot of asthma related issues.  When I was in middle school (roughly 6th grade) I was put on a liquid steroid to get my asthma under control.  I don’t know about you, but it seems that my doctor neglected to tell me all the facts, or my family neglected to relay them.  I won’t go into how steroids work, but what you should know is they do cause weight gain.  They cause you to gain fat and water weight, and I gained MASSIVE amounts of weight.  During this time my brothers dubbed me "hippo."  The neighbor up the street, now my sister-in-law, was fond of calling me "chipmunk cheeks."  The icing on the cake was the day the nurse pulled me aside in the hallway at school to ask if I was okay because I “have gotten really fat, really fast.”   After that I decided I needed a change.  I became a vegetarian for a spell,  eating mostly celery and cheese until I was back down to what I considered a good weight.  This started a whole slew of other eating-related issues.  Let’s just say that one of my “friends” that I ate lunch with in high school was quite fond of letting everyone know she thought I was anorexic, which continued through part of my college career.

During these up and down phases I began obsessing over portions of my body.  While I was heavy I would focus on my mid-section.  Then when I lost weight I would focus on my face and appendages.  This obsession and the compulsions to change it are all part of body dysmorphic disorder (DPP).  Since I couldn’t change these things fast enough, in my mind, I began covering things up.  Wearing jeans and long sleeves until the middle of summer, even then keeping the jeans.   This is a classic sign known as avoidance.  After college I began trying to gain weight and get much larger muscles.  As a gay man, I feel there is a lot of pressure to stay young and beautiful forever…and I wanted to.  This led me down the path of the “Adonis complex” also known as muscle dysmorphia.  To an extent, I still have some of these symptoms.  However, I have moved past this and I want to share how, and I can simplify it to four steps.

Step one: Be honest with yourself and friends.  This is the hardest step.   Anyone can say, “oh I know I’m decent looking” but feeling it is completely different.  You need to be honest about your feelings.  You don’t like your mid-section?  That is fine, but if someone asks you about it be honest about it.  This honesty will start to sink in and leads to step two. 

Step two: Talk about it.  I am a private person.  I don’t like to talk about my feelings or troubles.  However, talking about it helps open up lines of communications.  I wanted to write this blog as a stepping stone.  A trophy really.  I have come so far that not only can I talk about it with friends, but I am willing to share it with anyone.  I know that the internet provides a false sense of security, but this is letting me start the process of communication.  When you open up lines of communications you learn that you are not alone.  A person may have different body issues, but they still have the same fears as you.   It makes you feel less alone, less ashamed, and more willing to come to terms with things.

Step three:  Make goals and changes.  I know this seems like it goes against most of the stuff I have written.  This particular process has helped me so much over the last few years.  Make small goals.  You don’t like your arms?  Make a goal to go to the gym.  Now the trick.  You should incorporate this goal into a larger goal.  I have issues with my arms…so I made a goal to go to the gym to work out arms once a week.  With this I also made a goal to go to the gym 4 days a week.  This ensures that I am not obsessing over one part, but I am putting equal work into all areas of my body.  The parts I like and the ones I don’t. You will notice a change in your entire body, and mood.  

Step four:  Actually I lied, this might be the hardest part.  Love yourself and find the beauty within.  You can’t change everything.  I will never be able to change my smile (unless I stop smiling, and that will never happen).  I learned to love myself.  I love that I am different, that I crochet, that I sing at the top of my lungs, that I am 28 and still pretend to be an airplane on windy days.   I can keep going, but I recommend you do it.  Write down all the things you love about yourself.  Don’t limit it to just physical.  I mean, there are issues that are more than skin deep.   I would put these on small pieces of paper and hang them around my room randomly.  I found the amount of things I loved about myself out weighed those I disliked.  When I would start getting down on myself about something, I would start reading them and remind myself of all the great things I have done, and who I was.

I know that these aren’t all the answers.  I also know that this will be a forever project.  I will never be completely happy with everything, but who is?  I need to focus on the things that make me who I am, and worry less about what other people think.

I would like to thank you.  This has been one of the most liberating experiences in regards to my mental well-being.  I hope something you read can help you, or relate to you.   Also, feel free to tell Michelle to never let me write again (not only am I a scientist, I have the writing competency of an ape with a broken keyboard).

While I leave you, I also want to leave you food for thought.  Think about what I said, and then watch this video that Dove did.  You might be surprised at how much we doubt ourselves and are far too critical we are.  While this particular video is geared towards women, men also have these issues.

Photo: tantrum_dan

Friday, February 7, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: Comfortable Deceptions

What do you know about ancient Greek history? Dinosaurs? The Great Depression? Living in Belarus (unless you actually do live in Belarus; then replace this with a different example)? Slavery? The human brain (unless you're a brain surgeon; then replace this with something else)? Women's Suffrage?

Chances are that most of your experiences surrounding these (and most other things you "know") are received through mediated sources. We are in the Age of Information because we have more and more of these mediated sources available to us with greater and greater ease, but that means that fewer and fewer of the things we "know" are things we experience firsthand.

This is a good thing. I would hate to only have knowledge of what I could experience firsthand. It would make it really difficult to make, say, informed decisions about what medication to take when I'm sick or even something as simple as which toe stops to buy for my roller skates. I depend on the mediated writings of people who have had firsthand experience to help me make those decisions (doctors and Amazon reviewers, respectively). 

But when so much of our knowledge comes from these mediated sources, it's worthwhile--necessary, even--to remind ourselves of the gaps that can come between the narrative put forth for simplicity's sake and the potential narratives that could form if we broadened the scope of the voices we'd allow to come forward. 

It is this very exploration that informs Cheryl Glenn's book Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance. Glenn found that women rhetors were simply not a part of the accepted history of rhetoric, and when she aimed to question this long-standing version of historical events, she was discouraged, told that her work would amount to "negative" research. What she found, though, was that she could include the remnants of several erased female rhetors (most notably Aphasia) using the exact same standards of credibility extended to figures as omnipresent as Socrates in the history of rhetoric. 

She explains that those who had previously erased these women from the history were doing so because the connection between historical account and actual events is never perfect: 
The text of history writing, then, initiates a play between the object under study and the discourse performing the analysis. . . even the most seemingly objective historical records are stories. And even these stories are selected and arranged according to the selector's frame of reference.
Why keep doing it, then? If history is so flawed as to never get it right, what's the point of telling the history at all? Glenn explains "It is too late to do otherwise":
Historiographic practices are now so firmly situated in the postmodern critique of rhetoric that we already take for granted that histories do (or should do) something, that they fulfill our needs at a particular time and place, including our need for those familiar constructs referred to as historical periods.  
Friedrich Nietzsche takes this one step further, insisting that everything we know (even the things we do experience firsthand) amount to nothing more (but also nothing less) than metaphors we use to make sense of things.

He explains in "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense" that we are driven by our need to be deceived:
But man has an invincible inclination to allow himself to be deceived and is, as it were, enchanted with happiness when the rhapsodist tells him epic fables as if they were true, or when the actor in the theater acts more royally than any real king.
The stories that we tell ourselves (or allow others to tell us) help us make sense of the world. It's how we do something manageable with all of that information that we take in, but it also means that we are loathe to accept evidence that our stories are stories. Knowing that our perceptions are always incomplete at best, downright fabricated at worst, and flawed pretty much always puts our sense of empirical certainty into doubt.

To put this into some more tangible perspective, let's take a look at this article by Alexander Hoffman at Cracked.  It examines six historical things that everyone pictures wrong.

Example number three is Greek statues. Quick! Picture a Greek statue! Did you picture something like this:

The shiny white marble is understated and classy, right? Well, that's not what it looked like when it was created. New technologies involving ultraviolet lights have shown that the statues were created with very vivid colors (follow that link to see some recreations). 

We often construct mediated realities based on our best guess at the time, but if too much time has passed and our best guess has been recreated too often, we're not very likely to accept a change when new knowledge suggests otherwise. Just imagine a movie set in ancient Greece with sculptures painted in bright, vibrant colors. Almost all of the articles I read about the new technology voiced their opinion that the colorful sculptures were "ugly" in comparison to the all-white ones we typically show. Chances are we'd denounce that movie as gaudy, ugly, or just plain wrong. It doesn't matter that evidence now suggests it would be more accurate. We like our own version of history more than we like this "new" version of history. 

Some of the other examples from Hoffman's article include dinosaurs with feathers and the way people dressed in the past. 

But perhaps most telling of all is his discussion of our image of Jesus. The chances that Jesus looked like this are virtually nil: 

But that doesn't stop Fox News' Megyn Kelly from angrily declaring Jesus (and Santa who--spoiler alert--isn't even real) to be white and those suggesting otherwise to be delusional. She's maintaining a narrative that's invested in white hegemony and xenophobia. (Even though she later admitted that Jesus "might" not be white, it was clearly a tough pill to swallow.)

What does this gap between historical narrative and historical events mean for those of us who don't have our own time slot on Fox News? Well, a lot. In a culture that puts so much value on "proof" and "truth," we have a very hard time admitting when we got something wrong--or even just not fully right. 

As Glenn showed us when she went back through the remnants of rhetorical history and found several women who had been pushed out of the picture, there is often (or, more likely, always) more to the story than what we've been told. 

This is a scary place to stand, knowing that you'll never really know, but it's also an important realization if we are to use any of that scientific inquiry we value so much in our actual culture. What good are archaeologists examining dinosaur bones if we can't then change our mental image of dinosaurs to include feathers? What good is ultraviolet paint detection if we can't now re-imagine Greek sculptures in Mardi Gras-parade shades? What are we doing with all of this technology and investigation if we won't let it penetrate into the places where we spend most of our time: mediated realities?

Photo: Horia Varlan, Bliss Photo Co., angelofsweetbitter2009

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Floodlights and Roller Skates

No jokes, no exaggeration, right now is probably the most intense time of my life.

Okay, the moments of transition during childbirth were probably the most intense of my life, but they were brief. The intensity I am in now only waxes and wanes with the subtlest fluctuation. Mostly it is bright red and constant, present during the mundane (brushing my teeth), the important (grading a set of papers), the fun (watching a television show), the personal (trying to have a conversation with my husband and daughter), the exhausting (running).

Studying for my PhD exams has become all consuming, like a floodlight that is shining on me at all times. No matter where I go, what I do, how much I try to distract myself, it is there. It's not even in the back of my mind anymore (where it dwelled for the past several months). Now that I am one month out from the start of my exams, it is around me all the time. Like a floodlight, it makes it difficult to see everything else around me. I have to shield my eyes from its glare just to get through simple tasks like getting ready in the morning or making a grocery list. I have become distracted, grumpy, scatterbrained.

The only time I can turn the light off is when I put on a pair of roller skates.

I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out.

About four months ago, I put on a pair of skates for the first time in my life and took lessons with a group of children. I felt gawky, baby-giraffe like on the floor. But I also felt something important: focused. If I didn't focus, I fell. If I let my mind wander off to how many books I had left to read or how horrible I would feel if I failed my exams, I stumbled. I was immediately brought back to the present as I bent my knees and tensed to regain stability.

Instead of imagining (horrible, dreadful, embarrassing) futures, I was forced to pay attention to the here and now, the sound of the floor under the wheels, the pressure on the outside of my foot as I turned, the shift in my body as I moved.

The enormity of exam study is not within the texts themselves. I am capable of reading these books and pulling out meaning. I am capable of talking about them intelligently and drawing connections. I am capable of the work.

The overwhelming nature comes from the time you spend under pressure. I'm sure this is true for everyone, but it feels particularly pronounced to me as a part-time student whose prospects of finishing often felt ephemeral, sometimes downright mythical. These exams were like a unicorn; I heard stories about others facing them, but they were so far off for me--taking my one class at a time--that I didn't need to really consider what would happen when I found them.

Once the reality became clear, the path was still so prolonged. I have been actively reading the works on this list with the exam in mind for nearly a year. Through full-time teaching and parenting, through managing a household, through an otherwise very full life, this side project grew more and more intense until it was suddenly pushing everything else to the peripheral.

And now it is everywhere.

Except when I'm skating.

And the connection between skating and the exam is deeper than that. I just read this post called "Practice" to explain roller derby and how it starts out confusing and ends up a part of you.

The author, Vivi Section, writes:
You go to practice and wobble out onto the track. You wobble out onto the track wearing skates that are a size too big for you, a fact you won’t know until two years later when you buy new ones. You go to practice. You go to practice even though you can’t do T-stops, even though you can only skate 23 laps in five minutes. . . 
You go to practice on a former ice-skating rink with an uneven floor in a dilapidated park district building. You go to practice in an abandoned store in a shopping mall. 

And the exam version would go something like this:
You read the book. You read the book even though the words have blurred and the terms have all started to close in on each other. You read the book even though your eyes are watery and your mind is numb with the lists of things you have to do before you can sleep. You read the book and you force your hand to take the notes, sometimes wondering if the words even make sense.  
You read the book on the bedroom floor while tapping your toddler's back. You read the book while waiting at the DMV as the sighs of frustration and too-loud phone conversations envelop you. You read the book on stationary bikes and whenever holiday family gatherings fall to a lull. You read the book with one hand while you stir spaghetti sauce with the other, splattering the pages. 
Vivi Section ends her piece (which you should really go read in its entirety) on the other end of the spectrum:
 You go to practice because you want to feel like you’re flying. Over and over again. 
You go to practice, you go to practice. Because that’s what you do.
All that work that starts out making no sense, making you cry because of the pain in your feet and legs, making you feel stupid because you don't know what anyone is talking about, it ends up okay. It becomes a part of who you are.

And maybe that's what these exams are about, too. Consider what this Chronicle article offers to would-be PhD exam-takers:
Of all the benefits that came from preparing for and taking my exams—identifying the pertinent literature, grappling with and grouping the major arguments, imagining new interpretations and new courses, and experiencing this exercise in sheer discipline—the biggest was psychological. Field exams helped me to imagine myself as a teacher as well as a lifelong student. I will always see my faculty examiners as my teachers, but exams taught me to see them as colleagues as well.
And, at its heart, isn't that what practice is? Imagining ourselves as someone else until we become it?

So I will go to practice, and I will read the books. Because that's what I do.

Photo: Steve A. Johnson, JameyMPhoto