Thursday, May 26, 2005

Blanche gets out

Image hosted by

I finally went for my first outdoor run of the year. My girlfriend decided I was getting agorapobic (which is true, I am), and suggested that I accompany her to the beach for a run. Outside. In actual sunlight. With people around. Feeling like Dracula about to take a swim in holy water, I agreed. I put on black shorts, a black t-shirt, and tried to find black socks (no luck). I turned my ipod up loud enough to drown out the sound of snickering bystanders, my labored breathing, and the staggered thud, thud of my slow slow feet. I walked from the car to the path, took a deep breath, and tipped myself forward.

Fortunately, almost nobody was around. There was the usual dog walker trying not to tangle up eight separate leashes. There were the running pairs--thin girl or boy-girl couples bouncing effortlessly along the sand. A few teenagers dry-humped each other in the grass. An older woman walked purposefully towards the dream of a longer life.

Early on, it became clear that my bra was not taking its duties seriously. My thin shoes and thin feet seemed unable to withstand the pounding of two-hundred plus pounds slamming down on them over and over again. Yet we pressed on, the body parts swinging in crazy spirals, careening towards fitness.

It's always nice when it's over. The sky is blue, the lake is cool, the grass ripples, and the sun dries your salty sweat tears, leaving the faintest white footprints down your cheek. I thought about doing this again soon, then remembered the Memorial Day onslought just around the corner, of families and hibachis and the smell of grilled meat and the smoke so thick it chokes you. I felt agoraphobic again, then looked down and admired my calf muscle. Was it just me, or did it already look bigger and more defined?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

SuperFake Fun

Image hosted by

Today I bleached my hair. My haircutter lady will not like this, so I may have to go AWOL from her salon for a while. I bleached it because I want to own my own head. I bleached it because it looks queer and festive. I bleached it because otherwise I look like an overweight lesbian version of my mother. With a nose ring.

When my girlfriend and I first got together, I was getting 10-dollar hair cuts at Big Hair in Roscoe Village. It's one of the scummiest places you will ever contemplate from a barber's chair, but it is fairly impersonal and always cheap. As their name does NOT suggest, "stylists" at Big Hair go fast and heavy with the clippers. One slip and you've got a month to explain that you are not in fact shipping out to Iraq.

My femme girlfriend thought I deserved the luxury of a real salon, so she took me to Art and Science in Evanston. It's one of those places where you put on a smock and consult seriously with your hair professional about what you want BEFORE you even get shampooed.

The problem with places like this, besides the fact thay they are expensive, is that they are not particularly diverse when it comes to gender. Woman plus hair equals feminine, in other words. What's a butch girl to do?

I love my hair lady, though. Her name is Cindy, and she's from Michigan. SHe's the breadwinner in her family. She likes to have real conversations about real things. She's got progressive politics.

But like all hair professionals, Cindy wants control of my hair. She's got a vision. She wants it dark, au natural, cut short in front like Eddie Munster. I like her scissor work, but I think I look like a big triangle with a dark tip. In a strong headwind. The face looking out of the mirror where mine should be looks pale, haggard, and slightly surprised.

So today, I took back my head. I bought a 10 dollar box of Feria extra bleach blonde, divided all the ingredients by half, and gave myself a double process in my very own home. The chemical smell alone drove the cat away. I put the bleach on, wiped my ears, and put Glad Wrap on my head for heat activation. After 45 minutes, I washed it out, my hair the color and loft of Heat Miser's kewpie doo. I let it dry, then put in batch two. This time I also used the hair dryer to boost the chemical reaction. After I washed it out, I put in purple toner shampoo, taking everything down to a nice silvery white.

I still look like a big triangle, but now I'm all Giza, my pyramid top leafed with gold, gleaming in the sun. I look intentional. Punky. Fun. There's nothing accidental or timid here. You won't walk by and not see me. I will not bow before my hair professional. I may not be free, but I'm free enough to nuke my head with scary toxic junk on my own terms. I may have no idea what in hell I will be doing three months or a year from now, but I know tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, I will be blonder than blonde. Malibu Ken blonde. Titanic iceberg blonde.

The great thing about making yourself look ridiculous is that nobody can really look ridiculous if they try hard enough to look that way. But my haircutter lady can't know for sure. Not now. At least, not till I've grown my roots out.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

80s hangover

Image hosted by

Just finished Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, and I feel strange, like I gorged myself on dessert (or cocaine, which is maybe the point). The writing is beautiful, though I can't say as much for the characters. Not to be a moralist, but I couldn't like any of them.

Nick Guest--the shallower, faggotty-er Nick Carroway of Hollinghurst's ode to 80's Britain--never grows or changes, except in the intensity of his asskissing and firmness of his commitment to eradicating of all symptoms of his own interiority, reflection, self-criticism, and compassion. The AIDS part of the plotline seems inevitable yet gratuitous. The narrative brilliantly evokes the homophobic shame and hedonistic moral relativism of a protagonist more interested in knowing the right people and being surrounded by nice things than in thinking for himself or doing anything about anything. Yet the twin plot developments of AIDS, on the one hand, and Nick's expulsion from the Garden of Eden he has enjoyed as the lodger of a wealthy political family, on the other, both serve to reinforce one's sense that Nick has gotten what he deserves, and that, in turn, all the apolitical, shallow, coked-up, parasitic, hard-hearted, and exploitative gay men that surround him, of which he is a representative clone, reaped what they sowed. I'm sure we are supposed to cluck cluck at the end of the novel about how these guys should have been more critical and less unctious towards the conservative system that would eventually sell them out without a thought, but really, in the end their wrecked lives seemed more like a fate they brought on themselves.

Is this hateful story really the way, or even a way, to think about the 80s? Is this rehashing of every gay stereotype you ever heard (except for the effeminacy part--Hollinghurst gives us pompous little men instead, perhaps because queens would evoke too much sympathy) really deserving of the Booker Prize, for Christ's sake? Yikes.

His writing is absolutely gorgeous, but the whole thing left a really bad taste in my mouth. I have a headache-y sad feeling, one similar to what you feel the morning after overdoing alcohol and drugs all night. The self-recrimination accompanying this hangover as it is figured in the novel may be a good thing for the vacuous Nick Guest, but I'm not sure it is at all deserved by the novel's larger gay readership, many of whom--unlike Nick--worked hard, took care of their friends and lovers, became politically active, and contracted HIV anyway, too. Despite the ugly logic implied by The Line of Beauty, they didn't "deserve" HIV. Nobody does.

In short, though Hollinghurst sets out to satirize a conservative era, he seems rather to be paying moral tribute to it. Anyone else who has read this novel, I would love to know what you think.


Lucky me, I get to actually pack up my office. Some people in corporations just get their pink slips one morning and a box for the stuff in their desks. So now it's time to pull down the books from the shelves and guage how petty I feel about my office furniture. If I can think of a grad student with an actual office, even shared, I'd rather donate my Ikea rug and comfy Poang chair to them. But put stuff in the furniture pool for redistribution at the end of the month? No way.

Where do I leave this university? When I came, this was a school for first-generation college students from the city and older people going back for affordable degrees. Many of them couldn't write a five-page paper, even in advanced classes. Our graduate students were getting degrees in creative writing, high school certification, and rhet/comp. Department meetings were jolly, social things run by a benevolent patriarchy. Everyone got their say. We discussed curriculum, hiring needs, graduate oral exam formats. Nobody got paid very much, so everybody that could got into administration as soon as possible. The atmosphere was democratic, workmanlike, communal.

Where do I leave it? The department is full of ivy types bent on transforming the curriculum into Duke Lite, a program heavy on American Studies and Milton. These men--and with few exceptions, they are all men--fit a profile. They married their graduate or undergrad students and ratcheted their salaries up by flirting heavily with counter-offers. In some cases, they are so high-priced that they will never be able to find comparable jobs elsewhere. They in turn would rather hire a male ivy-league assistant professor than anyone anywhere else, though female ivys of any stripe are also desireable as hires. They create a climate heavy on testosterone and light on diversity. They run meetings by telling everyone else what is going on, with no desire or expectation of feedback. Faculty sit, mute, their opinions as welcome in these meetings as a genuine critique is welcome at a George Bush "Town Hall." Both are charades of self-governance; both are related in creepy ways.

After intimidating senior faculty with threats about resource scarcity and wage and hire freezes, our famous--or infamous--Dean is retiring, leaving his prison bitches to count the myriad ways they have prostituted their own ideals. There is no community here, unless you count all the men who are just like each other and therefore feel comfortable and affirmed as "community." Formal reviewers in the department fail to recognize queer sexual diversity as a thematic category of scholarship. Junior faculty canned at other institutions for exceptionally bad teaching boast in the copy room about the condos they have bought. Women who are some of the best teachers in the University are denied tenure despite extensive publication records and international reputations. Graduate students apply to work with these women on topics of class, sexuality, and international modernism, and are not told that they are no longer here--are not told that these women have most likely been driven out of academia's soft job market for good.

The students remain. They are smart and beaten down, but hopeful. They are tolerant and convivial. Their minds are hungry, and they fill me with hope. Some of them fail--too many, actually. Their family troubles or financial hardships eventually sabotage their chances for an education, and there is little institutional support for them. Others persevere, and they are proudly graduating right now. They don't care about prestige. They are triumphant because they have done a difficult thing, worked hard, and succeeded despite the politics of higher education. They should be saluted. They are the ones who quietly read during their shifts at the multiple jobs they work full time while they attend school. They are the ones who finish the whole novel because they couldn't put it down. They are the ones who bring their friends to class because the discussions interest them so much. They refuse to countenance intolerance of any kind, and they are incredibly fun to teach.

I will miss them a lot.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Retro Shuffle

Image hosted by

This is the kind of music I got to listen to when I was a kid. My dad liked The 5th Dimension, Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Petula Clark, The Seekers, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. The local radio station in our patch of 1960's rural New Hampshire, WLNH, couldn't decide what its demographic should be, so they played music that would offend as few people as possible. Their aesthetic was muzak-y movie themes, smoothed-out covers, and, inexplicably, Tom Jones. I added others to the list just for fun: Tammy Wynette is always good, and Neil Diamond just makes me happy, as does Dolly Parton and her awesome guitar playing.

When we were little, my sister and I liked to sit next to my dad's stereo, one of those wood-cabinet deals with speakers in the front and a top that opened to play records or the radio. If you looked in, you could read the record labels in the bright light of the slide tuner. We liked to lean against the speakers, with the backs of our heads or one ear at a time against the soft fabric webbing, and let the music vibrate our little bodies with its big stereo sound. We didn't always understand what the songs meant, but we loved the way those voices and orchestras wrapped around us. I sent this playlist to my sister the other day so my 3-year-old nephew can blow his little ears out on the same stuff we did.

Up Up And Away /The 5th Dimension
King of the Road /Roger Miller
Help Yourself /Tom Jones
Color My World /Petula Clark
Dr. Zhivago (Laura's Theme)
Jolene /Dolly Parton
Ladybird /Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood
Stand By Your Man /Tammy Wynette
Georgie Girl /The Seekers
Theme From A Summer Place /Percy Faith
If I Were A Carpenter /Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash
Cherry, Cherry /Neil Diamond
Sundown /Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood
It Ain't Me Babe /Turtles
Don't Think Twice /Peter, Paul and Mary

Sunday, May 08, 2005

after tv

You know the feeling. You've done it a million times. Your show is over and it's time to turn off the tv. It's not as if that would be a bad thing. You know that. You could read. Write. Check email. Sleep. Write up a list of things to do. Yet you can't turn it off. You don't want to. The shallow interiority it pretends to provide feels better than the abyss of thinking. At least, that's what you think when the tv is on. So you surf. The guide tells you what's on. The info button explains in greater detail. It is hypnotic, this enfolding of knowledge in a multicolored menu. You could follow its trail forever.

When it's off, if you can bring yourself to do it, everything feels better. You feel your lungs expand and the sullen resentment at the back of your head dissipate. It's quiet. You can be critical now. You can feel generous. That creativity you watch other people use to sell you things? You have it too, buried in a sleepy mind. A mind looking for a way out of the day. For rest and the blur of checking out.

The sounds of the night filter in the open window. The slam of a car door, the voice of a girl and the windy sound of tires on a wet street. Far away, a siren wheeling like a cicada. And the sound of your heartbeat, and your lover typing in the next room, and the soft whirr of the cable box, and the stir of the living poised, yearning.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

It's been real

At first I decided that it was just too boring to have another sad post about my miserable job, now ex-job. Then I thought I should at least say what the day was like. So here goes.

My last day came and went with little fanfare and just enough bullshit to piss me off. I set myself a deadline to get grades in by telling my undergrads that I would hand back papers yesterday at noon in my office. Students rarely come en masse to these hours, but the good ones who want closure on the class usually show up to say how much they enjoyed things, and to say goodbye. This time five or so showed up to say goodbye, this time for good. That was fine. I appreciated their sweetness, and even thought it was comical when one of the students most upset about the university not tenuring me said the name of Famous Dean at the exact moment that Famous Dean walked by. His head swivelled uncontrollably for a moment, drawn to the rare spectacle on our hallway of an open office door. The student kept talking, he kept walking. The student left. Other students hovering near came and went. Eventually it was time to close up shop.

I checked my email one more time and saw that the Assistant to the Head wanted to see me briefly. I stopped in to her office, expecting her to tell me where to drop off keys, or something like that. The first thing she asked, discomfort writ large in every gesture of her body, was when did I think I might be moving out? No hurry, no hurry, she reassured me. She asked about keys, equipment, whether I had let the pension system know I was leaving. Then her voice trembled, and she told me she was really sad I was going, and that she'd miss me. I saw tears in her eyes. I was flummoxed.

Fortunately Crazy Poetry Lady blew into the room at that precise moment to demand the time of a meeting she had forgotten. When she stopped short, Staff Lady told her she was saying goodbye, and Crazy Poetry Lady offered me her hand, almost as if I should kiss it. "Goodbye, goodbye!" she trumpeted. Then added, surprisingly, "Best prose writer in the department!" I couldn't help it. "Too bad everybody else didn't agree with you!" I shot back. "I was on leave!" she protested, too much. She had never said anything before, not in the two years since my tenure decision when I'd passed her in the hallway at least once a week. Ah, collegiality. It seems always to require an audience.

It was definitely time to go. Even as I knew I had to drag in one more time to get an incomplete grade done for a dawdling grad student, and thought with a sigh how tedious it was going to be to pack up my books, most of which belong to my ex in Boston and need to be sent back to her, yesterday felt like the end of something.

And really, when you consider what a truly shitty place to work it has been for the last four years, and that I'm getting paid all summer to figure out what I want to do with my life, and that my health insurance continues through August, that's fine. I looked up at my door, with its "Professor Dirty Lesbian" flier still on it, and closed it behind me.