Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Love Letter

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So I sit all day in my desk chair indexing my book, because it has to be done and I can't afford to pay someone to do it for me. It's in the 50s and sunny in the middle of a Chicago winter. My butt hurts from the chair. I look out at the sunshine. I skip the gym. Towards late afternoon I realize that I have unconsciously reversed the names in a citation in my bibliography of a two-author volume that gf wrote with someone else. I have put gf's name first, even though on her book it comes second. I must have thought it SHOULD come first. This is further proof that really I am a bad scholar. I make things up, just like James Frey.

I panic about this. My book is in galleys and I will have to change this entry all around.

In an anxious phone conversation, I tell my friend in Austin.

"Leave it," he says. "No one will ever notice except the other author. Let the reversal stay hidden in your text forever, like a secret love letter."

It stays.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

On Time

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I woke up in a panic at 7:43 am. I realized it was Tuesday. I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:30. At a normal time of day it only takes about 20 minutes to get to school, but at rush hour Lake Shore Drive fills up. If I don't leave the house by 7:55, the traffic gets too heavy to make it to class.

Margo, darling popped her bird's nest head from under the covers and blinked at me, unbelieving. Then she ran to the kitchen to make me an emergency cappucino for the road. I dove for the shower, threw on a sweater and black jeans, grabbed a banana, and ran for the car. It was 8:05.

I was ten minutes late, but the students were sitting quietly. Many of them had come from the dorms. Some had been up for hours already. The pastry chefs. One walked in even later then I did. She made a funny face when I announced that next week would be movie week. I figured I'd give them a break from the monotony of discussing how to write research papers by actually watching documentaries that perform research and evaluation as part of their overall message. I chose "Supersize Me" because of its links to issues of food, nutrition, class, and politics. I chose "Fahrenheit 911" because of its easily identifiable political positions around the current war.

Later the student who had come in late lingered with her pastry toolbox. It is big and yellow, and in it are tape measures, a whole set of pastry caps, aprons, pastry bags, and other stuff I can't remember. The student is genial and slightly androgenous, with one of those big open faces that smiles naturally and often. She doesn't want to watch "Fahrenheit 911." She's just come back from Iraq and she doesn't want to think about it.

She tells me she and her fiance met over there. She thinks he probably has to go back over in May. She doesn't want him to go. She herself could get called back at any time because she still has time on her contract. I ask her how old she is, and she tells me twenty-one. I ask what happens if somebody is in school, in the middle of a quarter, and they get called up. You drop out, she says. You drop everything and go and come back to fix things when you can.

I ask her about the armament controversy, about trucks sent out with no protection and soldiers without body armor, and she laughs at the folly of installing door protection all around the outside of a vehicle that has no reinforcement underneath to soften the explosion of driving over a land mine. She is smiling when she says this, and her eyes are not the least bit cynical.

I tell her why I am showing the film and ask her if she talks about her experiences much with her friends. She nods to the row where a clump of pastry chefs sit together every day in my class, and tells me that they know her stories. She apologizes for being late. She tells me she doesn't live in the dorms because she got tired of living with women in Iraq. She laughs about her misguided attempts to move back in with her parents when she got home from her tour. I make a lame remark about how that is also a universal experience shared by most college students, and she nods politely, but we both know her experience is nowhere remotely the same.

I think about her fiance and muse about how their heterosexual domesticity must be a blessed respite for them, a private world outside the mandatory public homosociality of military service and school dormitories. So different from my domesticity, for me a private world outside the mandatory heterosexuality of offices, schools, public spaces. I tell her she can leave if the film gets to be too much. She nods and smiles and hurries off with her big yellow toolbox to her next class. I think about what it must be like to know you have until May together before you separate, not for a week at a time, or even a month, but for months on end. Months that could be forever if somebody drives over a land mine.

This morning I had the leisure to peruse the newspaper, and read a story about former employees of Enron still looking for jobs. One 50-year-old man rejoined the Marines, hoping to go to Iraq. He claimed he had patriotic reasons for wanting to go, but acknowledged that before he joined he had eaten Ramen noodles regularly to help make ends meet. Now he trains soldiers and lives, in the winter, in an oceanfront house. Come summer, when the rents go up, people who can afford it will move in, and he will go elsewhere, perhaps to Iraq. Right now he is happy just to have a meaningful job, and because his 9-year-old daughter can visit him on weekends. I imagine him making her a sandwich on a Saturday, looking out his window at the grayish ocean, happy to make a home with her, however fleeting, out of the little minutes and hours.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Action Station

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So Law School #2 just came through. When a door closes a window opens? Maria, what is it you cahn't face?

Big State U Law School just let me know I was accepted for fall semester. Big State U is a top 25 law school and 1/2 the price of any other law school anywhere because I qualify for in-state tuition. My Texas friend says his shoulder slump for me is lifting. Now gf and I have to decide how we feel about me 150 miles away. Not exactly long distance, but not exactly home. Not exactly an academic job, with its semipermanent separation of the two of us, but 3 years of semester-length distance. An agricultural campus in the middle of cornfields. Phone intimacies. My 175K mile car on a wing and a prayer for 3 more years. The flat darkness of the deep midwest on one's own.

Today lunch at the culinary school featured shrimp etouffee, cooked at an "Action Station." I like the Action Station. You watch the chefs in action, tossing the contents of their pans over big gas flames. A line begins to form. You wait. One young chef eyes the crowd and shouts nervously for reinforcements. She never looks directly at us but feels us watching her hungrily as she tosses the shrimp, first in clarified butter, then in a roux-based tomato sauce, then onto rice. She tops the whole thing with scallions and hands it over with a flourish. I love watching her flip the shrimp in the pan. When I bite into my etouffee, the shrimp pop against my teeth.

Today my freshmen begin to understand, dimly, that this first paper coming due might be harder than the ones they wrote in high school. They are boisterous and good-natured. I show them editorials from the NY Times and joke with them about how my class is probably the only news they have time for. They shake their heads at 1pm and tell me they'll be in class till 11 that night. My class at 90 minutes is one of their shortest. In their other classes they'll have an hour or more of lecture followed by three or four hours in the kitchen.

Sometimes, one or two of them will argue with me. One might turn around the questions I ask; another challenges the slant of an op-ed piece I project on the board. I feel like the newspaper reader in a cigar factory, keeping people informed who are busy working long hours. We cruise the editorials for topics that might interest them and forms of argument they might use. This week is a definition paper. Eventually, they will have to propose solutions.

I watch them stir uneasily at the injustice of sending soldiers into war with bad body armor. They tilt their heads at the idea of Fox News inventing A War on Christmas. They look off in the distance at the scandal of a minimum wage that is only $5.15 an hour. They seem to want to speak. I watch their minds yawn, crouch, and stretch. Their eyes gleam between the desk rows, like the sleepy eyes of lions.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Behind Blue Eyes

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Reading La Lecturess about the Green-Eyed monster of job-market jealousy got me thinking about the colored eyes of other emotions. Red is anger, yellow is slyness or cowardice, black is fury, brown either sadness or sweetness. And of course, brown eyes turn blue, at least in songs, with melancholy.

Tonight I saw the caller ID of an old student on my phone, and I was stupid enough to pick it up. I like this one; she is together, foreign, and really, really smart. She also a little butch thing, 24 going on 40. She thought she wanted a graduate degree. Now she's completely freaked out. I can hear the cognitive dissonence pulling her two ears out from the middle of her head when she speaks the names of her professors. Her voice is full of respect, but the content of her words is bewildered, disillusioned.

It seems graduate school isn't what she thought it would be. She wanted a Master's, maybe more. Now she's horrified by teachers who call her racist when she does a presentation on an assigned politically questionable theoretical essay, an essay by a professor in her department who she looks up to. She can't figure out how to critique it but knows she wants to. Still, he's the most prestigious name she knows. What can she say?

The teacher who assigned the presentation is cross. Why can't the student critique this guy? The student is adrift. Who is she to have an opinion about anything? She thought she could follow. She thought wise ones would lead her, letting her take baby steps to knowledge.

I hear the despair in her voice. My heart sinks. I'm not there anymore. Why do I still have to be part of this? But I like her, so I breathe deep and try. "Look, there are only two kinds of jobs. You know that, right? There are research one jobs and high-teaching jobs. Research one jobs are the ones everyone in graduate school thinks they are going to get. High teaching-load jobs are the jobs most people REALLY get."

She is quiet on the other end. I paused. "What I am telling you, is that if you don't want to teach, and teach a lot, don't bother going to graduate school. Things may work out differently for you, but almost everyone I know who is happy and valued in their jobs is teaching at least three courses a semester or quarter. You will be LUCKY if you get a job like this. Imagine it. Now see how you feel." I knew how I felt. Suddenly I wanted to tell her more. I wanted to tell her how fun teaching could be. I wanted to explain the joy of writing so intensely you forgot your body, your room, your hunger. I wanted to reassure her that the time could come when she would be rewarded for her diligence, but that diligence really was its own reward, no matter what the world thinks of you. I wanted to warn her and encourage her, protect her and scold her, guarantee that heaven awaited her and show her the fiery pits of hell. I wanted, in short, to download my life into her hard drive, and hope that she learned something useful from it all.

There was noise on the phone and I asked what was going on. She was taking the stairs down to the lobby to let in a friend who had dropped by. "I have to go," she said "but we should talk later." I was quiet.

"Look, all I'm saying is that you have to think about what you want to do, what you really, really want," I told her crossly, a shrill note entering my voice. "Don't take your unhappiness, use it to commit yourself to even more grad school, and then justify the whole process because you are sure that among all the hundreds of public university graduate students out there, you will be the one to land the perfect job that will make your life perfect and your choices all seem perfect and your poverty perfect and your sexuality perfect. Don't marry your best friend for a green card, then follow him to New York for graduate school because he wants to an NYU film degree. Think. What do you want? What do you want? What?"

"I have to go," she said, "but this has been a really good conversation. We should talk soon. I'll think about what you've said."

She hung up and I felt sick and sad. I wanted to tell her to go to grad school for the Ph. D. I wanted to tell her that the last thing she should do is go to more grad school. I wanted not to care. I wanted out of this moment.

But there is no outside. There will never be one. I think about the composite Tiresius, and wonder if there were things he'd found out that he'd rather forget. I can add on to who I am, but I cannot subtract who I have been, and every now and then, no matter what disguise I am wearing, someone who sees the professor I always was and always will be in my heart will call me back into the life I can only pretend to have left behind me forever, and my eyes will flash all the colors of the rainbow as I struggle to tell them something that is about them, and not about me, not about loss, and despair, and utter futility, but about the joy of a thing done for itself, for its challenge and discipline, its optimism, and all of its aching hope.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Four Things Meme

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Ok Dr M(eme), here's the Four Things you Tagged me for. Though it's gonna be hard to match a guy who lists a Big Wheel as one of his four vehicles.


Four Jobs I've Had

1. Washing dishes in a restaurant where the cooks thought it was fun to bowl pots and trays of dishes down the entire length of the back kitchen at my feet, making me jump over them. The game was called "bowl-a-rama." I was 12.

2. Refinishing antique furniture. The worst part was working with stripping chemicals. The best part was the two gay guys I worked for, who made me lunch on the weekends I worked there. Also listening to Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts. I was 15.

3. Working as a clerk in a general store in New Hampshire. Locals, tourists, and summer campers stopped in regularly to buy beer, cigarettes, newspapers, and sandwiches, among other things. The clerks hung out and partied after work. One summer Henry Fonda picked up his New York Times there every morning when they were filming On Golden Pond. I never saw him because his wife got the paper, but I used to write "Hank" across the top instead of his full name, which I thought was hilarious. I was 16.

4. Working at a group home in New Jersey for developmentally disabled adults in wheelchairs. They were fun people, and the staff cameraderie was pretty nice. The whole place had ramps everywhere. When the President signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, we took a big field trip to a park to celebrate their getting access to it. I was in grad school (27).

Four Movies I Can Watch Over and Over

1. The Celluloid Closet
2. Queen Christina
3. Gone With The Wind
4. The Wizard of Oz

Four Places I've Lived

1. Center Harbor, NH
2. State College, PA
3. Lambertville, NJ
4. Miami, FL

Four TV Shows I Love to Watch

1. The Daily Show
2. Medium
3. The "L" Word
4. Battlestar Galactica

Four Places I've Been on Vacation

1. Provincetown, MA
2. Austin, TX
3. Paris
4. Napa Valley

Four Blogs You Visit Daily

1. kinesthesis breakthrough
2. between an oxymoron and a redundancy
3. what now?
4. writing as jo(e)

Four of Your Favorite Foods

1. Tom Kha soup
2. pot roast
3. salmon
4. caesar salad

Four Places You'd Rather Be

1. someplace warm and tropical
2. New Hampshire
3. in a bar
4. Napa, on a bike

Four Albums You Can't Live Without

1. Joni Mitchell, Hejira
2. Jefferson Airplane, Volunteers
3. Dionne Warwick, The Dionne Warwick Collection
4. Bach, Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould)

Four Vehicles I've Owned

1. A 15 year old, 15.2 hand bay 1/2 Thoroughbred, 1/2 Quarter Horse ex-barrel racer with a white boomerang on his forehead named, naturally, Boomer. He cost 150 dollars and I bought him with babysitting money.

2. A 6 year old, 16.2 hand chestnut Thoroughbred ex-race horse named Navy Pennant, supposedly from the War Admiral line, who didn't know how to do anything but gallop and who you could never, never tie to anything. I bought him dirt cheap (because he was nuts) and worked with his traumatized self for a couple of years before I went to college, when I had to sell him. Watching the trailer go down the road with his chestnut tail hanging out the back, I wept.

3. 1984 Rabbit Sport (black, the moonroof rolled back by hand crank)
4. 1982 Volvo DL Sedan (red, rusty, beloved) named Wilma. I suspect she was pure Bondo.

Four taggees

1. Margo, Darling
2. What Now?
3. pronoia
4. winter woods

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Thanks But No Thanks

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I had been talking to my friend in Austin. It was late morning, but we were both still trying to wake up. I was drinking coffee; he realized he didn't have any and surmised that this was the reason he was grumpy. I heard the phone in the other room, faraway, under water. When we hung up I checked the messages. A message from my MLA interview school--Oh My God!!!!! I had time to hear his name, and "we are calling" before the phone cut out. What could it mean? They must be calling me for an on-campus interview! Of course they were. People don't call you if they don't want you.

With shaking hands I dialed the phone, not realizing that it had probably cut out because it needed to charge. I reached the man who had called me, and his voice sounded tired and sad, but friendly. I explained what was happening with the phone, and he told me that he had been calling to apologize because the committee had made their list of candidiates to bring to campus, and I wasn't on it. The phone cut out again. This time I called him on my cell.

I explained how much I had enjoyed meeting them. He told me how outstanding I had been in the interview. He mentioned how much he had enjoyed our conversation about chivalry and queer comportment. I realized that I had probably been his candidate. Ah, chivalry. I remembered moments in the interview when he had steered me away from lesbian modernism towards themes of nation and national belonging. I remember thinking at the time, with a shock, that he was maybe homophobic. Now I realized he had been trying to protect me, push me to show my breadth in front of people who might have been skeptical.

He asked if I would be staying on at my university. I told him I was already gone, that I hadn't gotten a book contract in time for tenure. He commented that I really was on the market, then. I replied that I really, really was. I told him about the culinary school where I was adjuncting. He asked if I was teaching literature there. I told him I was teaching composition, but that I got free lunches. He hid his surprise by cheerfully mentioned possible jobs in the spring list. I grunted politely, though I think we both know associate jobs never come out on the spring list.

He told me again how important my work was, how well I had described it, how interested everyone had been. I bit my tongue, wanting to tell him that this would probably be the last of it. But we were, of course, courteous. He is a charming man. There was sorrow in his voice as he thanked me again. He insisted that if there was anything he could do . . .

For a minute I wondered what he meant, exactly. Could he recommend me for something? Not exactly. Could he put exlax in the coffee of the people who had voted not to bring me? That was an idea. Better yet, remember this conversation when all his candidates turn down the job in April because their schools gave them what they wanted in salary boosts and spousal hires. Tell them to call me. (Phone sign with hand beside my head. Mouthed words: Call me.)

I hung up the phone and went back to planning my comp classes for tomorrow. I thought of the girl in the front row of my beginning freshman class, the girl who writes with a pink pen with a big fluffy pink feather at the top, like she's Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. I feel fond of that freshman girl's love of beauty, her insistence that her pen be pink, and pretty, and all about her very own style. I feel protective of her. I wish there was something I could do to make sure the bravado of her pen could always sail high beside her, and that she might wield her beautiful things proudly aloft, like a standard-bearer in a battle of old. But all I can do is wish her well, and hope her courage and dignity is enough to carry her through this world.