Saturday, July 31, 2004

Renaissance, pt. 2 (The Mark)

Once, they called me a princess and stuffed me into a tree trunk. Another time, they blindfolded me on-stage, and promised to reveal my life's True Love. (It turned out to be my friend Tim, who gallantly fought the urge to squirm as they forced his hand into mine.)

It's not that I'm wary of Renaissance Faires or their promise of "audience participation." When plucked from the comfortable anonymity of the crowd, the only way to preserve one's cool is to surrender it. You have a choice: laugh at yourself or disappoint the audience. Whether asked to sing, wave a torch, or fake-tumble off a building, I've learned to ignore inhibitions and embrace whatever bizarre situation into which I've been tossed. But I can't help but wonder why I'm tossed there so often.

I've now been to a Ren Faire three times in my entire life. Three. I don't wear the Renaissance garb. (Don't have nearly enough breast flesh for it, although friends assure me that the corsets can work miracles.) I don't buy garlands or amulets or any other attention-getting accessory. And yet Ren Faire performers in search of "volunteers" have been drawn to me like mosquitoes to blood.

Still, it had been almost a decade since my last Ren Faire, so I was hopeful that the curse was lifted. I sat feeling comfortably middle-aged in the company of my comfortably middle-aged friends. Never mind that those friends were in adolescent swoon over the charms of a certain Renaissance performer, whose show they had already seen three times this season. They also had once spotted him in the unglamorous confines of the Rust Belt Mall, but not had the courage to approach him. ("He must get so tired of that.") His real name, they told me with some reverence, was Karl.

Having heard so much about Karl's beauty, I was a little startled to find that Karl was a late-forty-ish man with long hair to his waist. (Ick. But my friends pronounced him sexy, despite the increasing grays.) I was even more startled when, halfway through his act, Karl leapt over the first few rows, pecked my hand, and then dipped me into a kiss.

Okay. A very surprising, very sweet, and very nice kiss.

My friends (one of them my former student) declared me lucky. They told me they hoped I was flattered. I lied that I couldn’t be (for I kind of was), because Karl gave multiple daily performances and would surely be kissing other women at 3 and 5 o’clock that day. Having seen the show thrice before (see how I pick up the Ren lingo?), Antonia swore that Karl always stopped with the hand-kiss. The lip-kiss and dip were new, she insisted.

Maybe. Maybe not. But I’ll confess that I thought about it for the rest of that day. My streak as a Renaissance Faire "volunteer" remains unbroken, although my role was mostly passive for this one. I felt stupid about it, but I replayed in my head the strange experience of being suddenly so close to the salt-and-pepper whiskers of a stranger, albeit one with lovely blue eyes. It was a false intimacy, of course, but it felt nice. And for the very first time since I’ve been married, I felt a tiny pang of loss in the vow of monogamy. And a tiny pang of thrill for having, just fleetingly, circumvented that vow without any real transgression.

God bless you, Ren Faire curse.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Renaissance, pt. 1 (Most Well?)

In the past five years, I've taught at four different schools — a public research university, an ostensibly prestigious private university, a private four-year liberal arts college, and a religiously affiliated women's college. At the latter, I worked on a satellite campus dedicated to serving "non-traditional" students, almost all of whom had children and who worked full-time in addition to attending classes.

At all four institutions, I've encountered some outstanding students. But I've had the most respect for the women at the latter — women who work their butts off for a chance to snatch and savor a college experience once precluded by: (a) motherhood; (b) youthful apathy/feelings of inadequacy; (c) financial hardship; (d) having been a refugee in a country ravaged by war; or (e) all of the above. Without romanticizing them, it's fair to say that such "adult" students had a hunger I've seen less frequently in their "traditionally aged" counterparts. Keenly self-conscious about what they felt they didn't know, many of the non-trad students were also the most un-self-conscious about loving ideas. Many also were stunned to realize that, in contrast to the teenaged classmates, they had an edge when it came to efficient work habits and critical thinking.

At my current institution, one rarely sees a student older than 21. Which is why I was so happily surprised by the appearance of Antonia in my class last spring. Apart from the inevitable, strange moments when Antonia wanted to know how old I am (about 16 years her junior) and if I have any children (nope), and apart from a few individual conferences that suggested we could, under different circumstances, have become instant friends, Antonia and I had a properly professional student-teacher relationship all last semester. A month after grades were in, however, she invited me to do something socially, and I happily agreed. The upshot: yesterday, Antonia coaxed me and another of her friends to our state's Renaissance Faire. This meant spending a whopping thirteen hours together, many (a few too many) of them in an atmosphere thick with turkey legs and bawdy Ren Faire humor (hint: A sword is never just a sword).

Adam and I are about to leave town for a few days. When we return next weekend, I'll write more about

• MISCOMMUNICATION, or when a professor assumes her former student would prefer not to talk about school... and accidentally wounds that student as a result.
• HUMILIATION, or when that same professor finds she has not escaped her life's curse — namely, of forever drawing the attention of Ren Faire performers looking for "volunteers."
• A DISSERTATION, on the role and treatment of breasts at the Ren Faire — from the perspective of one of the underendowed.

p.s. Academic bloggers ruminate way too much about their own images. Upon coming to that conclusion the other evening, I congratulated myself for never stooping to writing about looks. And then I remembered this entry. And this, this, and this one. Who knew I was so shallow? (No, don't answer that.)

Friday, July 23, 2004

9 Decades and a Dancing Sybil

Our friend Frank turned 90 on Wednesday. My mother helped throw him a luncheon, which about 25 friends attended. At one point, someone suggested that they should go around the room so everyone could say something about the guest of honor and how they knew him. Frank interjected that he would do the honors — and, indeed, he said something personal and endearing about each person present. He also received 84 birthday cards in Wednesday's mail. That has to be some sort of record.

Meanwhile, I moved a little further into my thirties on Tuesday. I don't normally think much about my age, except while attending dance class on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Technically, it's an "Adult Dance" class, the title of which conjures images more salacious than six weeks of ballet and jazz ought. But in summertime, much to my chagrin, "Adult" includes anyone 13 and up. Most of the students are high school- and college-aged. If it weren't for the blessed presence of Anthony, the one forty-something male in our class, I might feel freakishly out of place. (As it is, I am freakish in other ways. When we stand before the mirror in fifth position, my spaghetti arms stretch above the crowd's — a wooden spoon among the Q-tips.)

There are three high schoolers in the class—all gymnasts—and I watch them with fascination and horror. Muscular and fit, they should feel comfortable in their bodies. Instead, they frown at themselves into the mirror, fussing with tank straps and tugging at shorts. One will glare at herself, whip out her rubber band, and angrily scrape at her long hair, in a gesture of self-loathing. For a while I assumed that this obsessive scrutiny was melodrama or a cue for compliments. But the ritual is oddly private — to the girls, at least. They don't seem to realize how obvious their self-study. And, although they are friends, the high schoolers never reassure each other. Each girl seems locked in her own world, staring at her image and daring it — pleading with it — to change.

I’m sad for them, because I remember too well that awful body consciousness of the adolescent years—and even the early 20s. So, I stand in the back feeling older and wiser. And also older and out-of-touch. For how can I be anything but amused by the 5-foot-tall kid who shows up to Tuesday's class wearing a pink baby-tee-style sports jersey, with #2 and “SWEETIE” printed on the back? And how am I to interpret the identically cut tee the same kid wore last night? Clearly purchased with the first shirt, the second shirt was black, with a #1 on the back. It labeled its wearer as “EVIL.”

Were these shirts a spoof of the printed T-shirt genre itself? A sardonic take on the “Diva” and “Bad Girl” trend, perhaps? Or maybe the shirt was jab at the current administration's "axis of evil" rhetoric. If so, will this dance studio, which already harbors a politically suspect Pilates teacher, warrant a visit from Homeland Security?

Thursday, July 22, 2004


Ever since I turned in final grades, the weeks have been whipping by like Lance Armstrong on the L'Alpe d'Huez Where did the summer go? Summer advising (most of June) and hosting out-of-town visitors (seven and counting) gobbled up a good proportion of it. Another significant chunk we've spent (or will have spent) on the road:

Travel Tally:
• 1 conference (Wisconsin)
• 1 double date research trip (D.C. and Philly)
• 1 baby shower (Philly area)
• 2 week-long family reunions (Massachusetts, New Jersey)
• 1 best friend's wedding weekend (Baltimore area)
• 2 trips to brother's house (Richmond, VA)
• 1 visit with a friend on the occasion of his 90th b-day (Portsmouth, VA)
• 1 trip to Alleged Utopia-ville, the city we'll call home this time next year.

Ah, Alleged Utopia-ville. I should be really enjoying this summer, but for thoughts of you. Today I had another attack of massive self-doubt, this one brought on by two hours spent reading about the job market in the on-line Chronicle. By the end of the first hour, I was sighing heavily. By the end of the second, I was grasping at the curtains, struggling to stay upright. Wish I could get some sort of miracle inhaler, like those used by asthmatics. I need one that would gently mist my lungs and brain with aerosolized reassurances.

Update/P.S.: I have become enamoured of a new blog by Bitch Ph.D.. See, for example, her comments on anonymous blogging, both on her own site and at

Excerpt from the latter:
In a nutshell, I guess I’m anonymous because I’m having a very hard time reconciling my personal desires with my professional ambitions, and I don’t want to compromise the latter while I try to work it all out. And yeah, I think gender has a lot to do with it. Not just b/c women feel surveilled, but because I, at least, have seen situations...where, when women were caught between the personal and the professional, their choices were judged. It probably happens to men, too, but I’ve seen it a lot more with women—and, as a feminist, one of my biggest worries is that my unhappiness might be perceived as my “personal” problem rather than as something structural.

Amen, sister.

I would add that in my naïve, early blogging days, I didn't hesitate to sign off in an email to a fellow blogger using my real name/email address. For some reason, I felt this was more friendly and more in the spirit of a blogging community — even if (and here's the paradox) I cherish the purely virtual nature of mingling in that community. (I also only used my real info in email communications with female bloggers, because that seemed safe and in the same spirit of friendship that exists with my real-life girlfriends. I know. Naïve. But my intentions were good.) As a result of that early insouciance, now some people could know who I am...while I don't know who they are... and that feels powerfully unequal somehow. It has sometimes altered what I feel free to write here, because those few question-mark people can make noisy what was once a purely contemplative space. I try not to get uneasy about it (and I certainly respect in the right of others to remain undercover), but it does make me regret not having guarded my privacy more consistently at the start.

This is a community of molecules — few of us really responsible to or a part of each other’s lives. Okay, let me amend that: What I read on strangers' sites does become a part of my life, in an imaginary, and not insignificant, sense. Because I am affected by the choices and observations of others. And, naturally, I begin to care about them and their lives. But blogging, and especially academic-world blogging, is necessarily a masked ball. (I dislike that hackneyed metaphor, but it applies here.) In real life, those dearest to me will be the keepers of my history, and I the keepers of theirs. In blog life, there’s freedom in forgetfulness. Alone-together, we're eager to be singular, but pleased as hell at the first signs of solidarity.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Soul of the Mango

Bad things happen in threes, or so the saying goes. Could the same be true of unexpected good things? Mack has landed the perfect job. Trix has met the love of her life. We're dizzy from it all and so we had to celebrate. Recipe for fêting friends? Mango-apricot smoothies on a rainy summer's night.

• 1 cup vanilla soymilk
• 1/2 tsb. vanilla extract
• 4 tsb. lemon juice
• 2 ripe mangos, peeled and chopped
• 6 ripe apricots, peeled and chopped
• 8 ice cubes

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend for about 2 minutes, or until mixture is smooth and thick. (Substitute vanilla yogurt for soymilk to create a thicker mix. Add more ice cubes for a thinner one.) Garnish with lemon slice and a smattering of blueberries.

Now raise a glass to that third good thing. Maybe it's you?

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Deep Thoughts, pt. 1 (Lime Disease)

My friend Mark is a pusher. He has me hooked on Lime Tostitos. At first, I only indulged in them at Mark's house, in social situations. (I reasoned that this didn't alter my status as a healthy foods person, one who shuns the "snacks/soda" aisle at the grocery store.) Then yesterday, in a fit of deadline-induced madness, I sank a little lower into addiction. I started downing Lime Tostitos in the middle of the day. Alone.

Lime Tostitos are not ordinary corn chips. No sir. They are corn chips sprinkled with unnatural, dark green specks — specks that would prompt any sane person to assess the bag as rotten and toss it away.

That didn't stop me from opening a bag — the first such bag I'd ever purchased for myself — in the parking lot of the grocery store. I ripped happily into the clear cellophane, eager for the salty-limey fix. The bag split and exhaled a chilly breath, perhaps made more noticeable in the humid space of my automobile. Gingerly, I reached a hand to the chips. They, too, were chilled. Not moist, at all. But definitely cool to the touch.

Is this chilly blast normal for bags of chips today? That can't be entirely natural, can it? Is the process chemical? Harmful? And, if so, what is the antidote for someone who has already eaten about a half bag of tainted chips?

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

NPR-IV (media drip)

There's no question that I am a public radio geek, which is why I was so floored when an NPR personality emailed yesterday. She knew about my dissertation topic and had read an op-ed I'd written on a particular trial three years ago. Would I therefore comment on new developments in that trial?

• Step 1: Fly into a panic and race to Google. (What new developments?)
• Step 2: Read about new developments; begin re-reading loathsome old dissertation files.
• Step 3: Commence nervousness, in the form of pounding head and lurching stomach.
• Step 4: Draft four talking points on trial outcome for which I still feel major ambiguity.
• Step 5: Phone NPR personality and decline interview, citing new distance from Midwestern city. Offer contact info for two local commentators instead.

I wouldn't say that I chickened out exactly. I was just wary of having what would necessarily be a 5- or 6-sentence response reduced to a misleading sound bite. Okay, maybe I am a little poultry around the edges. But the good news is that I've been asked to comment on future stories, especially those involving the background of the case and its defendant. And this has given me another kick in the pants as I finish my manuscript. Halleluiah, some people out there are interested in my tiny corner of expertise and what I have to say about it. What a wonderful world.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Trees and Sailors

George is a champion among the civic-minded. It's his day off, and he just trotted up the street with a wheelbarrow. His mission: to distribute mulch around the trees in our public park. George has also been known to rise at 4 a.m. to give the grass around those trees a surreptitious trim. He does this to save the trees from the park's summer workers, whose careless edgers otherwise slash the bark, exposing the trees to infection.

Meanwhile, I am feeling particularly useless today. You could call this a day of uncertainty. A day of injury. A day of funk (in the bad sense).

Technically, I am lucky. And, most of the time, I can keep perspective on that fact. Being a trailing spouse is not a tragedy. A more open-hearted person might even embrace it.

But, in this Year of Too-Many (slights, rejections, set-backs, exploitations), sometimes it can feel like an indignity. A mood rolls in like heartless summer squall, ravaging the boat of my hopes. (As in that Dar Williams’ song, the ocean gloats:“I bludgeoned your sailors. I spat out their keepsakes.”) The boat endures, buoyed by rage or stupidity, I don't know. I should lash myself to the deck. Instead, I lash out at Adam and at my own sorry self.

And then—if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor—we quietly bleed, just like those trees in the park.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

"There're" going extinct

A moment of silence, please, for the (fake) contraction "there're." In the past few months, it seems to have all but disappeared from spoken English. In its place: the newly all-purpose, if still ungrammatical, "there's."

Recent examples culled from the press and real life:
• "It's a worthwhile DVD. There's tons of extras."
• "There's great chefs in Vermont. There's great chefs all over New England."
• "Please don't say there's snakes or rats or dinosaurs coming on the set tonight!"
• "There's two things we're going to learn tonight..."

While I would never chide a stranger for misusage, I've become obsessed with this ripple in the language. Coming across a well used "there are" or "there're" is like finding ten dollars in my pocket. A private delight.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Summer Reading Redux

Bad things, good people—how does it happen? Some are hexed at birth by mischievous fairies. Some haplessly trigger an ancient curse. And some, despite taking history degrees, can only find work in an English department.

So it is for me and for my brother-in-law, Moses, with whom I love to discuss books. Moses and I recently compared summer reading lists, he nodding civilly at my Woolf and I smiling tolerantly at his Vonnegut. (Full disclosure: Having never read Slaughterhouse-Five, I know Vonnegut mostly from his Breakfast of Champions. I had to abandon Timequake, an embarrassing distillation of the author’s most annoying quirks.) Fortunately, in our desire to fill gaps in our American lit. educations, Moses and I inevitably have some titles in common. Thick on both our lists were mid-twentieth-century stories about bookish heroes—men (always men) who are at first the clear-eyed critics and then the courageous victims of repressive, futuristic regimes.

I just finished one such title, Fahrenheit 451, which I took from the library before knowing that Fahrenheit 9/11 was in the works. The book has some highly skilled moments and, of course, a reverence for libraries and books. But it also feels a little dated, and I cringed to find that the book's most easily distracted, anti-intellectual characters are the silly women. (Yes, the noble, nubile teenager Clarisse awakens Guy Montag’s dissatisfaction. But, as befits her role as a male fantasy, she gets flattened by a car in short order.) Still, I admire Bradbury’s science fiction. He’s nothing if not wildly creative and prolific. (And those who encounter Bradbury's short story “All Summer in a Day” while in junior high seem unable ever to forget it.)

On Wednesday, I sat all day with George Colt’s The Big House, which I might not have found so absorbing had we not recently visited Cape Cod and were I not so worshipful of the author’s wife (the talented Anne Fadiman). Colt’s memoir very rarely crosses the line into self-indulgence. His lovely writing style is complemented by a wise narrative structure—one that intercuts characters and history, and that leaves the fate of the “Big House” a mystery to the end.

Colt claims himself neither as the clear-eyed critic nor as the courageous victim. It’s not that kind of book. But his chronicle of a house that is burden and treasure—and of a family awkwardly revising the story of itself—seemed very apropos of the Fourth of July holiday somehow.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Banish the FMA

Early this month, the Senate is scheduled to vote on the discriminatory Federal Marriage Amendment, or FMA. Urge your senator to oppose the FMA via the Human Rights Campaign's on-line form.

This link again comes courtesy of Mel's In Favor of Thinking.

Damn, I'm predictable

Do you ever wonder about your "Bloginality"? (Okay, me neither. But you know you love these self-searching quizzes, even if the term "bloginality" does invite a smirk.) I'm an INFP. Sounds about right. And explains why James Taylor and I will totally hit it off should we ever find ourselves trapped in an elevator.*

Thanks to Mel for this one.

(*We need the elevator because we're both shy, sensitive types, unlikely to initiate conversation without prolonged confinement. What were you thinking?)