Saturday, March 18, 2006

Anniversary Day

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We had been having a lazy Saturday when gf had a phone converstion that reminded her that today was the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. There was a rally planned in downtown Chicago and a big march down the middle of Michigan Avenue at 7pm. It was 2 o'clock, sunny, and in the 30s. We had no plans. Somehow we had missed the marches, rallies, and protests of the last three years. We talked against the war and taught against the war, but we hadn't marched against the war. Other days of protest had been busy, freezing, inconvenient. Other people had taken the trouble to represent us while we had done other things. I looked at her and sighed. There really was no getting out of it this time. "You realize we have to go," I said. She nodded. I knew we were both thinking that really, it was time to be counted.

At five we walked to the train with hats, gloves, a camera, and a flask of bourbon. We met a friend at the train and rode in. By 6 we were in a schoolyard, watching people decorate floats. A skinny boy in a studded leather jacket drew the anarchist "A" on a brick wall with chalk. Young people with fucsia hair collected money in buckets, and older guys who looked like Jerry Garcia passed out socialist broadsheets. Women wearing anti-war buttons carried home-made signs. Police in riot gear lined up all along one side of the street.

Then more and more people started to arrive. People with small children, college students, grandmothers, Gulf War veterans, high school kids, teachers. We wandered out of the yard into the street and realized there were already hundreds of people waiting to start the march. It began to feel a little exciting. A menacing hooded figure towered near us, rising from a float like the grim reaper, but when we walked around it we saw that there was no face, only the covered head of an Abu Ghraib prisoner standing with outstretched arms, its feet trodding the corpses of dead civilians.

The crowd swelled and grew restless, and finally stepped off with a roar. We walked, mincingly at first so as not to kick the people in front of us in the crowd. People played plastic buckets and blew whistles. Some tried chants and songs, or rapped into megaphones. The bucket drummer near us was dressed as a banana. He played a mean round-off, and I realized that I was unconsciously guarding right, checking to see that the people around me were marching in a straight line. They were not, of course, and this disturbed me for a while until I a) realized what I was doing, and b) got used to the anarchy of the crowd. Of course I had marched in many gay pride parades and protest parades, but apparently for some reason tonight, old high school marching band habits came rushing back to me. Is it because the dull ache of today's conservatism feels so much like the Reagan 80s come back again? Or did I just forget who I am, the way more and more I get moments where I can't remember what year it is?

Ever since 9-11, my mother's death, and my tenure battle lost, I feel moments of time vertigo creeping up on me, or rather, seeping into me like the water from little waves, diluting my sense of the here and now. Instead of feeling dizzy, I forget the year, how old I am, whether someone is still my friend or my lover, where I live now. Which things are still before me? Which ones are over and done with? Who have I lost and who is here walking beside me?

I wonder if these times, these politics and this war, feel so cyclical, so much like bad reruns of battles we thought were won and done, that maybe large numbers of us are whirling sometimes in little moments of time vertigo like this. Women on the internet are talking seriously, SERIOUSLY about how to set up illegal abortion clinics and emergency networks for each other. The lies about the economy being fine, about the war being just, about the future being bright, are wearing thin. It reminds people of something. What is it? Genocide. Teenage cannon-fodder. Class war. Back-alley abortions. Rich people who don't know how much milk costs. Gas lines. Hamburger Helper. Anti-war protests. Haven't we been here before?

When I was in third grade I told my father at dinner what I had heard from a boy at school about Americans being selfish murderers who killed babies in Vietnam and wanted to take over the world. My father slammed his milk glass down and pointed his finger at me. "Listen to me, young lady," he said loudly, almost shouting. "We are the greatest country in the world! We are the greatest, freest, luckiest country there is, and if you don't believe me, you just go visit other places and see how good you have it!" I remember being surprised at his emotion. I was just repeating something I'd heard.

My father doesn't believe in America anymore. He thinks all politicians are crooks and that the best we can do is keep our heads down and protect our assets. The people marching tonight feel something else, I think. I think they believe we can be something better. Walking down Michigan Avenue, listening to the songs and the cheerful banter and the earnest plastic buckets all around me, I felt the pull of cyclical time. It might be that the 60s and 70s and 80s and 90s, and all the sexual freedom and social dignity we fought for during those times, is over. But I think that's wrong. I think the underground is starting to come alive again, and on days like today, you can feel it rousing itself, like some hibernating creature, to shake off a long impermanent sleep.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Huge Luck

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Here's a shout out there to all those adjuncts on the quarter system facing uncertain times. It's that part of the year when enrollments dwindle, and the trickle of cash you hoped might last till June dries up in the blink of an eye. You know you shouldn't depend on it. You try to keep yourself from hoping, but you can't imagine why, with students requesting you for the no-brainer (I mean this. You literally take your brain out like a supplementary drive and check it until class is over) Comp II class they have to take next quarter, there won't be something for you. You let yourself believe that maybe you'll make it through a good part of the summer. In a fit of luxurious hopefulness, you buy three paperback novels discounted to half the price by independent sellers on Amazon. You think maybe you really can finally replace those two expensive plastic hubcaps stolen from one side of your car by the kids up the street when you had that flat tire for two weeks. It's not a big break you're hoping for, really--just a little piece of something to sustain you as you wait for the upswing to happen. A tiny bit of luck in the first optimistic days of spring.

Thursday was the last day of class at Culinary College so I made sure I was there in time for my Last Free Meal. It was a doozy, as usual, with five different stations--hand-cooked and assembled cajun pasta, three different fish entrees, a salad bar filled with oysters on the half shell, a peppery roasted lamb, a pizza station, a salad bar. Desserts galore. I always try not to eat too much, but I took as many oysters as I could reasonably fit on my tray. I collected papers in two classes, then checked in with the coordinator to find out about final grades and possible spring courses. I found him at his desk eating salad out of a "to go" plastic clamshell, looking glum. We spent twenty minutes talking about final grade submissions before I asked him point-blank about courses, and he told me there was nothing. He could have told me up front. He knew from my flurry of emails that I was desperate. But he held back, hoping I wouldn't ask. Why?

He explained thet Spring enrollment was slack. Fewer courses were being offered, and most of these had to go to full-time people whose contracts required three or more courses per quarter. He didn't have anything for anybody, and by anybody, he meant adjuncts. The coordinator showed me the schedule, and pointed out the different classes and who would get them. But I could see over his shoulder that actually, one of us HAD gotten a class, out of the four of us that had started that quarter. I recognized the initials of one of the adjuncts penciled in. I didn't say anything. I know the adjunct, and I remembered that while a couple of us had gotten two courses to teach this past quarter, he had only gotten one. It seemed fair to give him a second course. The weird thing was, the coordinator was lying about it when he said nobody was getting anything. He didn't have to lie, but he did it anyway, hesitating when he came to the initials I recognized. I felt bad for him. His life was about holding back information and lying to people. He felt bad, too. He looked miserable. I think it must kill your soul a little every day to know that your job is to treat people like they are expendable. He promised to keep us in mind for summer, for next fall, trying to convince himself that he actually could reward loyalty and good work. But his hands are tied. Culinary College is run by a for-profit educational company. No programs will be built there, ever. As he gave his little speech, I laughed somewhere in my own head. See you next fall? Fat chance, sucka.

I drove out of the parking lot for what now seemed like the last time, but I didn't feel sentimental. Better to get out before my facade of taking it seriously cracked. When I swung by the apartment after class to pick up gf for a much-needed trip to Costco, though, I burst into tears. I was a failure. I couldn't even keep a stupid comp job at a sham college. Gf cheered me up with an exhortation to remember everything I had to look forward to later in the year, how far I'd come, how everything would work out. She offered to drive, and we switched places for the short journey into the land of suburban bulk-buying. At Costco, as usual, toilet paper is cheap and plentiful, and strangers offer us exotic reheated foods in little paper cups. Everything is giant-sized. Cereal boxes and Starbucks bags of coffee have huge, Mesezoic dimensions. That which was once big will be big again. Think big! Buy big! Dream big!

When we get home a letter in the mail tells me I have gotten a merit scholarship to Neighboring Big State University law school, putting it in the running with my in-state University law school. Cheered, I go to the back room to check my email, and find a solicitation from Elite University in town to teach an intro to gender studies course for them this quarter. One course at Elite pays a little more than I would make teaching two courses at Culinary. Whoa. Now I have to put my brain back in and make a syllabus. The hilarity of moving in two weeks from teaching composition to cooking students who don't want to be there to teaching gender to some of the best students in the country at a better school than any place I have ever taught strikes me. As an adjunct I can go places I never could as a professor; once long ago I thought teaching at Elite University was the most amazing and impossible thing. I knew I could do it, but I also knew it would forever remain out of my reach, reserved for much grander people than me. Under the radar, below the regulatory mechanisms of hiring and tenure, they are happy to have me. "Welcome aboard!" the email says. It doesn't mean status or validation. It means rent money for the next three months. I look at it. I feel lucky.


Monday, March 06, 2006

Almost Legal

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It's time to make the trip downstate to visit the big law school. I really want gf to come to the open house, to feel like it is our decision and our adventure. She cancels class for the day. She is very busy and very stressed. I assure her that she can bail at the last minute if she needs to, that I will go myself and be Completely Understanding, that I won't sulk or be passive aggressive or store it up as a Wrong in the Emotional Arsenal. But I really, really want her to come.

I make a reservation at the Holiday Inn Express. I arrive home from teaching to find a tiny pile of her clothing on the bed, ready to pack. She prides herself on packing light, which I can't seem to manage, ever. She takes one turtleneck cotton sweater, one pair of underwear, and one pair of socks for an overnight trip. I imagine blizzards requiring layers of socks, colonic disasters necessitating twelve pairs of underwear, and sudden climate changes requiring t-shirts, sweaters, maybe a fez. I am happy when I see her tiny pile, because it means she is coming with me.

It threatens to snow. Far away, rush hour traffic is piling up. We manage to pat the cats and dash to the car. The drive is long and boring. The highway is really, really boring. The blonde, bland fields go from straw to gray, and gray to black, and darkness falls with its raw red heaviness, and we are still driving, driving down the country, through all the towns tired of winter.

We find the Holiday Inn Express, finally, off one exit that looks like all the others. The Holiday Inn looks like all the others. But it is brand new, the room smells like new carpet, and the bed--lo! the bed!--is free of the usual scratchy germ-ridden polyester bedspread. Instead, it has a white cotton duvet cover encasing the puffy goodness of a real duvet. The bed is puffy goodness. The pillows are legion, not the one or two creepy flat things you lump hopelessly under your head on a brick of a cheap mattress. Gf looks around, sighs, sits down happily, and asks why we ever have to go home.

Even dinner is a miracle. Driving around looking for restaurants, I spot the sign for a steakhouse. Inside are two big pits in the middle of the floor, around which people, mostly beefy heartlandish boys, are gruffly poking steaks, which they are cooking themselves. In a refrigerator nearby sit piles of thick red cuts, strips and porterhouses and filets and T-bones. Two middle-aged ladies with fading bobs cackle happily together at one of the grills, clutching big mugs of flourescent pink Mai Tais. We are loving them. We are loving this place. We are loving the cool taste of beer in a glass, and the charred burnt of grilled beef you can cook yourself even in the middle of winter.

Love Story is on the TV when we get back to the room. "We can't watch this movie because it will make me cry, " says gf. We watch it. She cries. We are happy.

Next day we get up and face the orientation. I get a packet of information, apartment listings, maps, and a couple of thick plastic orange pens that say "Class of 2009." I am Class of 2009. Omygod. We go to the opening remarks, and the Dean remarks on the diversity and achievements of this admitted class. He mentions Engineers, PhDs, an English Professor.

English Professor? Did he just say that?

We get a tour of the law school from two incredibly radiant, enthusiastic, lovely law students. They are happy. They love it here. We are happy. This is an incredible place. The building is panelled and beautiful. The foyer is airy, nice. The classrooms are big and plush. There is a new courtroom. The Law Library is breathtaking, with its hundred lovely little reading lamps and long tables and dark rich stacks of books.

We watch a class in criminal procedure. The professor is young and hip and smart. The students are a mixed batch of lame and aggressive. Like many classes, I suspect in here the ones not talking are the best students, quietly taking notes. Then we notice someone is playing Solitaire on her computer. The guy next to her is playing Solitaire. All the best students are playing Solitaire.

Still, the professor manages to keep their attention, to steer them kindly through the material. He is still awkward, just getting his footing. Afterwards we tell him we liked his class. He asks what we do and it comes out. He is suddenly shy. It is his first year as an Assistant Professor. Luckily, we have to go to another panel. I wonder if it will be like this, feeling strange about revealing myself to professors who should be colleagues. How can I be a student, be under the radar? I don't want to set people off, feel shame, be a target, or come off as arrogant. I am a student now, in this field, not a colleague. I tuck this away to think about more.

At lunch we are joined by two professors. One is fierce and logorreic. She brings up a subject in order to lecture you about it. The other professor is innocuous, with thick gray hair that looks like a seventies hairpiece, but is real, and parted in the middle. He listens with dark, thoughtful eyes. I learn from the student sitting next to me that Professor Thoughtful sings opera and runs an a capella group. He is known for belting "Capital Gains," a song my father later tells me is from the musical "Don't Sleep in the Subway," in his intersession tax class. The students adore him. Professor Manic asks what brought me to law school. I take a deep breath and try to answer her. She cuts me off after two sentences, ready to talk. I nod and smile until it starts to hurt. Professor Thoughtful casts his mild eyes on me and starts speaking softly about how I might be interested in education and employment discrimination law. He tells me this is a growing field, and one urgently needed. I thank him. I may indeed be interested. I watch him as he leaves the table, a kind, accomplished, modest, jaunty man.

The Assistant Dean stops me and asks if I am coming. He tells me that my story jumped out at him from four thousand applications. I am glad, and a little uneasy. Who wants that kind of story? But I am glad to be wanted. Very glad.

At the end of the final panel they give us T-shirts with the law school name on it, and the words, "Class of 2009" on the left sleeve. I take one happily. I am the Class of 2009. In the parking lot we run into one of the other admitted students, and we tell her how much we like it here. She is not sure; she wants to meet women in another city. We shrug and tell her we hope she changes her mind. We are a we now, in this together, making decisions together, trying to figure out life together. This feels nice. We get in the car to drive home, each expressing to the other the hope that the cats haven't broken anything major this time in the apartment. It is a beautiful sunset. There will be lots more like it on this road in the next several years. We look forward to them all.