Saturday, September 27, 2008

greater than


Well, I did it. I put an Obama sticker on my car.

It's not as if I don't want Obama to be the next President. It's just that I'm reluctant to get my hopes up about his getting elected. The fact that people are wowed by McCain's choice of Palin makes me feel the way I did in 1980, standing in the livingroom of my dorm with everyone watching the election returns for Reagan. I just couldn't believe it at the time. Couldn't people see that this guy was an idiot? What was wrong with America?

So when the Palin surge happened, I looked at the Obama sticker sitting on the hall table and felt like I probably should use it. I don't think I've ever put a political sticker on my car. Even if I want a candidate to win, I don't usually identify with any of them enough to want to have them become a permanent part of my self-presentation on the road. They are all straight, all male (except for Hillary), and all againt same-sex marriage (including Hillary). Most of them say what they think America wants to hear, including pandering to Christian conservatives in a way that makes me want to throw up (Hillary most certainly did this). I view elections more as damage control than any expression of MY ideals or MY politics.

Indeed, the only sticker on my car is an HRC "equals" sign I've modified to look like the mathematical symbol for "greater than." As my friend Danny pointed out when HRC first started using the gold parallel lines on a blue field to signify what is supposed to be the political goal of all LGBTQ people, why settle for equality when you can transform the world?

As a tribute to Danny's ability to dream big, I put my "greater than" symbol on the car, hoping that it would make me dream big, too. And today--inexplicably, perhaps-- I decided maybe we could dream big with Obama. Why not? I don't actually believe he's going to change things all that much, but I'm going to pretend that he is, and that universal health care, federal recognition of same-sex families, the end of the war in Iraq, and major investment in alternative energy is really going to happen in the next four years.

In the meantime, I'm trying to get my class I'm teaching to have political discussions without getting angry, polarized, and disrespectful of each other's views. I'm teaching an LGBT history and political change class, and in my efforts to get them engaged, I think I've loosed a whirlwind. We did some reading from Eric Marcus's Making Gay History, and we watched the Four-part PBS/Channel 4 series from the early 90s called A Question of Equality. I think Isaac Julien either made it all or helped on it a lot, because it is definitely hip and decidedly not from the usual white, middle-class point-of-view that gay history usually gets told from. Julian interviewed the drag queens and gays and lesbians of color who took part in the pre- and post-Stonewall LGBT movement to paint a sensitive portrait of the dynamic relationship between coalition and difference in LGBTQ political organizations. I taped the series when I was in grad school because I thought it would be great for an LGBT studies class, and I used to teach it a lot. When GF started teaching LGBT content she used it. It got so popular that her school tranferred it to DVD, though the copy is a little washed out. In my class, as it is usually, students were really engaged with the reading and the film, but the discussion got heated at one point, with a couple of white, privileged women's studies students berating the class for not understanding standpoint theory and their own privilege. Sigh. At one point a couple of students turned on an ROTC student and asked him to defend his position on--I don't know--the war? Conservatism? I'm not sure where they were going, except that at one point there had been an intelligent evaluation of the vulnerability of radical political groups to splinter over differences. Then, suddenly, the class was splintering over differences.

I was just about to intervene in the discussion when another student made a joke about the ROTC guy speaking for all military personnel, which was a sensitive way of defusing things, I thought, and of being sarcastic about the women's studies students singling him out. Also, he seemed eager to defend his point of view, and actually argued that the class shouldn't assume everyone shared the same political beliefs, class background, or moral philosophy, which was I thought a great thing to point out.

I'm making it sound a bit chaotic, which it really wasn't, because I was making them address the issues brought up in the reading and the film, and afterwards I thought it had been really performative of exactly the kinds of differences that we were studying. Then a student with a pierced lip buttonholed me afterwards and said she was shocked, shocked! by the fact that the class had called out the ROTC guy. I explained to her that I thought the other students had defused it, and that he seemed happy to have the opportunity to explain his point of view--to which they listened--and how all in all I thought it had been a successful class, if harrowing. The student also claimed to have seen other students text messaging during the film, and even chewing tobacco. I just looked at her. While I try to make sure the class is never disruptive, I really can't monitor people very well when we are watching a movie IN THE DARK. And I laughed to myself about the tobacco. Really? Is this where student rebellion is at these days--sneaking dip during class?

Seriously, I forgot that teaching can drive you batshit crazy sometimes. And that students expect you to be their mother, or the mother of everyone else. And that they are supercilious even thought they have pierced lips. And that many of them are perfectly comfortable telling you you aren't doing your job of making them feel comfortable. And you can feel bad, because on the one hand, you want them to have a real discussion, without having be watered down and censored so that it feels fake, but you also realize that they could use a good lesson in rhetorical (and other) accommodation, and be reminded that a classroom is not, in fact, the same as a political organization. But this is exactly the reason some people love teaching women's and gender studies classes, and others won't touch 'em with a 10-foot pole.

I found this truly disturbing, because Pierced Lip and I obviously had totally different experiences of the class. I also felt disrespected, because when I passed her in the hall again, in an empty building at 9 o'clock at night, she wouldn't look at me, but instead busily texted someone on her phone. Weird.

This week, Bayard Rustin! We'll see how they do with that. I haven't taught a GWS course in so long, I forgot how heated people get, and how it can make you long for the impersonality of literature.

GF puts it differently. She says it's just hard to care, and it always surprises--and annoys--us that they do. She is being funny, of course, but there is some truth in what she says.

GF is off getting her tenure file together in a coffeeshop. Little pixie baby is asleep in her swing. After exhausting all possible remedies, including food, diaper change, mobile-watching, lying on a play mat, swinging and swaying in my arms, and singing songs, I finally settled her down in front of the Michigan State football game, and she quieted down, watched it with some interest for a few minutes, and fell asleep. I think maybe she's really just a middle-aged man trapped in the body of a baby.

Which is way better and less dangerous than being a baby trapped in the body of a middle-aged man. SInce McCain is acting a lot like that these days, I'm going to try to care about politics just long enough to get a grownup in the White House. And maybe watch a little college ball with Maude.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

a little night music


Even before Maude was born, we knew we would have to think harder about music. Margo, Darling began regularly playing Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos in the car, and at night would beg me to sing a song to her rising abdomen. I felt silly singing to a stomach, but I tried to rack my brain for something lullaby-ish that might entertain the little fetus trapped in the dark down there. When she was born singing came more easily, especially since I quickly ran out of things to say to her when she was crying in my lap, too tired and worked up to sleep. Singing is the natural response to a crying baby. It allows you to soothe yourself while soothing her. It allows you to pick a mood and insist on it.

"There's no hysteria here," a song can say. "Nobody is at their wit's end in THIS house, oh no! THIS house is a palace of mellowness." Say it, know it, be it. Eventually it feels true.

As Maude sobbed in my arms and I bounced up and down on the exercise ball trying to soothe her, I would remember the songs I listened to as a child. My father had a big console stereo when I was little, the kind with polished wood sides and a top that lifted to reveal a turntable and radio inside. It lit up inside when it was on, and there was a little oval panel that also lit up to reveal the words "Stereophonic Sound." The radio had a slide dial and warm yellow numbers. The speakers were covered with a woven wicker-type material.

My sister and I loved to sit on the floor with our heads pressed back against the speakers, letting the sound wash over us. I think one of our heads dented the wicker material in a moment of enthusiasm, because I remember a dent in the front. We probably got spanked for the dent, because it was my father's prize possession, but it is equally possible he shrugged it off. Parents are inconsistent like that.

There was a lot of unhappiness, at least back then, so the stereo stands out for me as one of my happier childhood memories. My father played the Kingston Trio; Judy Collins; Mitch Miller; Big Band music; the Weavers; and Peter, Paul and Mary. He played Tony Bennett and Harry Belafonte. He loved early Beatles. He loved Patsy Cline. He loved Bread, the Mamas and the Papas, The Fifth Dimension.

My father was a moody man when we were little. My parents were high school sweethearts who had broken up when my father was in college and my mother in nursing school. He gave another girl his fraternity pin, but my mother still loved him. When she had to have a lower spinal fusion at 20 she waited in for him to come visit her in the hospital, where she lay trapped for weeks in a full body cast. Day after day she waited, but he never came. When she left the hospital she hopped a plane to Atlanta, where her father lived, met a handsome man in a bar, and married him on my father's birthday. She had two children with him before she realized he couldn't hold down a job.

My father's mother told him about my mother's divorce, and the two little girls she had. My mother and my grandmother had kept in touch. I am sure my mother told my grandmother that she had never stopped loving my father, which was true. My grandmother understood misfortune, having survived a tough childhood where she had been given away by her own father, who kept her brother but sent her out to work for any family that would take her in. My grandmother told my father to go get my mother and the two little girls that should have been his. He did.

Which is how my sister and I ended up with our little heads pressed against his stereo speakers, listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary and the Fifth Dimension day after day. At first my father thought that parenting meant beating us with a leather belt for every infraction. I remember having to come up with stories about bruises and handprints on my body for doctors during routine checkups or hospital visits. Later, when more children were born, he began to like us better, and he gave up the belt, and then gave up hitting us altogether. The years passed. We all grew up. I think he grew up more than any of us, grew into a kinder and more generous person over time. In the house of my childhood, all four of us and my parents and our dogs and cats, and horses in the barn, made what I like to call a tumbledy house, a house of noise and mess and lovely disorder and raucous dinnertime fellowship. I remember there was music in our house every night, filling in the cracks and seams between all of us like caulking, creating a reservoir of shared family life that took us all through the next decade together, and then, out into the world.

Eventually my father and I became friends. I borrowed his Tony Bennett and Harry Belafonte records and made tapes to listen to in my car on the drive home from college, and then, graduate school. He would growl at me if records went missing, but only half-heartedly, and if I had them in my possession, he told me to keep them as long as I liked. And when I played them, wherever I was living at the time, in whatever stage of my life, I recreated the raucous tumbledy house I missed, and celebrated my distance from it. The music of my childhood let me miss my family and feel free and separate from them at the same time. it let me revisit a feeling, feel comfortable with ambivalence, and make peace, ultimately, with all the bad things about growing up I couldn't change, and with all the good things I wouldn't trade for anyone else's life.

Before Maude was born I thought about how I would explain my parental relationship to her. I thought I could tell her that my father, the one whose last name I have, is not genetically related to me. I thought about how it may have mattered to me once, but never would now. I thought about how with my mother gone all of us try to see each other at least once a year, and nobody ever cares or seems to remember what degrees of blood kinship are or are not present for any of us. I thought about what a shared life is, what makes family, what it means to be a parent, or a daughter.

And so when Maude was born I sat night after night on the exercise ball, looking for songs that would soother her, and I found the ones from my childhood. I started with "500 miles," then went back to Peter, Paul and Mary for the songs I knew but could not remember. And then I found "Stewball."

"Stewball," of course, is a mournful song about betting everything on the wrong horse and regretting it. In fact, if you go back and listen to Peter, Paul, and Mary, most of their songs and the songs they cover are fairly sad: "Cruel War," "Lemon Tree," "500 Miles," "Leaving on a Jet Plane," and even--especially!--"Puff, the Magic Dragon," are songs about separation, loss, displacement, and disappointment. Did I know this when I sang them as a child? Did something in my sad little heart vibrate with the yearning, mournful minor found in that music? Or did I just think they were beautiful? Are those feelings all mixed together anyway, the beauty, the sadness, the yearning, and bittersweet memory?

Maude loves "Stewball". I can try several different songs, but "Stewball" always makes her happy. Sometimes I play it on my computer, through iTunes, and we slow dance together in the pink light of the nursery, Maude in my arms, her soft sticky cheek pressed against my face, both of us swaying softly to the guitars and vocal harmonies. I think about the heartache and the love and the yearning for safety and fellowship that is so much a part of the ideology of family, and I think about the sweet sad nostalgia I feel for a time when all of us were together under one roof, crowded and cross and driving each other crazy, but together, listening to the same music floating from room to room, humming the same songs. Surviving, fighting, changing, forgiving each other. And I tell Maude that I love her, and that I will probably disappoint her and drive her crazy, but I will try my best to give her a good life, and she is my family, now, for better or worse.

And I feel like our house, our little cramped apartment, is mellow, and calm, and grounded, and cheerful, and full of life and lots of love and all the good things that can be in a place where there is hope and the desire for happiness, and people who try to be their best selves, and love each other as best they can. Which is a lot.