shark, shark -- and squid

Wifeswap has really jumped the shark. Late last night we watched Monday's episode that we'd taped -- I think the shark appeared early on in this second season, but we have kept on watching because, as I've suggested before, I found this show really interesting in its representation of domestic labor. Plus, it helped my partner and I make some changes in how we divide up that labor. So we have felt a bit loyal to the show, even though in its second season it has become more and more predictably exploitive, more like all the rest of the so-called reality shows. Recent episodes have been all about ideology (pairing the hunter with the PETA activist, the pastor's wife with the atheist) rather than the running of households. Sure, ideology is part of that -- but now they're just looking for the most extreme loons they can find. So the vegan animal rights activist wasn't just that -- she believed that staring at the sun would provide all her nourishment. Etc. Anyway, this week really was a lame episode and we are probably in the process of weaning ourselves off this show. But, if the first season is ever on DVD, it has some really great moments.

We went to see Prime, and were about 1 or 2 minutes late. So the shark must have been right on the opening screen or something. I just could not get involved in this movie -- and I have a much higher tolerance for cliched romantic dramas than does my partner. Maybe I'll watch it if I'm home sick with the flu. But there just seemed to be lots of talent not going anywhere. We lasted about 40 minutes and then surfed over to Derailed, which was very well done for what it is. Sort of an old-fashioned twisty suspense film, really -- predictable if you know the genre, but it made me jump a couple of times...

Belatedly -- we saw Squid and the Whale a couple of weeks ago -- it's probably no longer in your local theatre, but should be at the top of your rental queue. Great performances all around and full of the pain of real life. I didn't like any of the characters -- which was really the point -- your sympathy and attention are carefully distributed to the whole awfulness of family life. Really really well done.


today, no eyelashes

About 20 minutes before class, as is my usual habit, I looked in the mirror to put on a little lipstick and check that I didn't have anything stuck to my teeth. What I discovered was that I had left the house without putting on mascara. I think this was the first day ever in my teaching career that I taught without mascara, except for a couple of times when I've had my glasses on instead of contacts due to an eye irritation or infection. Wearing glasses is such an identity mask that mascara is almost beside the point. But today, I had my contacts in -- and the little bit of eyeshadow and face powder that constitutes my "professional" look. But no mascara. Which is a big part of trying to look awake, professional, and reasonably authoritative, since my natural eyelashes are so pale as to be almost invisible.

In my thirties, I began wearing less and less makeup -- I rarely wear it on the weekends, unless we're going to something especially dressy (kind of rare in our social life). Thankfully, I just don't care as much as I did as a teenager. Sure, I try to look reasonably put together -- but it doesn't have to involve makeup. Makeup is kind of fun, and I enjoy getting dressed up, but it's not really part of my casual life.

However, my professional persona involves wearing certain clothes and presenting myself in a certain way -- it's all about making myself feel like I'm at work. Putting on my teaching clothes helps get me in that mindset, which is different from the mindset I have when I'm reading on the couch wearing sweatpants. (Even if I'm reading for class.) And, eyelashes have always been one of the things I felt were helpful in creating that persona.

I wasn't especially tired or distracted this morning, or -- more disturbing -- I didn't think I was. Who knows what else I might have forgotten and just haven't realized yet? I guess I must have gotten interrupted during my getting ready process and just never looked in the mirror afterwards.

Oh well. I survived teaching without eyelashes, and no one has said anything. I guess maybe I need to add mascara to my personal drawer in my desk, where I've stashed Clif bars and dental floss and other things you never know but that you might need.


I'm back!

Yay! we're back! and we even have this evening and all of tomorrow to decompress in before having to face Monday morning. Definitely we planned the travelling well, trying to hit off days and times, and it went fairly smoothly, I suppose. But today, as it often happens when I fly through Midwestern Airport, I got pulled aside after walking through the metal detector without it going off, for a patdown screening. Why this happens to me, I have no idea. Sure, you can tell me it's just random numbers or something, but it's happened more than once to me, only at this airport. Today the screener was female, and young, which made it only slightly better that she was patting my rear, my breast, and (most horrifyingly to me) my belly. No one touches my belly except in the most intimate situations, and even then I'm not always free of tickles/grimaces/nervous sucking in. So this was pretty awful. Who cares that it's the back of her hand when she's touching you all over in the middle of the frickin airport. Uggh.

Then, on the plane, the pilot made many announcements about how terrible the turbulence would be (this was a Scare the Passengers Silly tactic I think -- he was warning us from the first minute onboard that it was Going to be Very Rough-- so when in fact it wasn't, it seemed kind of like a letdown, though one I was grateful for). About halfway through the flight, when the attendant usually makes a second trip through the cabin offering seconds on drinks, she said "I'm going to have to cut off the second beverage service because the blue liquid in the lav is about to overflow and that will eat the wires and cause mechanical problems in the plane." So no one was allowed to pee any more. This made the semi-turbulent last hour a little extra exciting.

Then we sprung the excited dogs from the kennel and came home to regroup. I've unpacked my bag, put away last week's laundry, and started some new wash -- the most disgusting thing about the entire trip was that most of my clothes reek of turkey, since I'd been cooking in my mother's house all Thursday. (She cooked the turkey -- I refuse to touch it or assist with it in any way.) Hadn't realized til we went back to the motel that night that the flesh odor was soaked through both my casual cooking clothes and the fancier clothes I'd worn for the evening's meal. Even my bra smelled like turkey. Truly disturbing.

So now it's going to be take out food and our taped episode of Lost, if our VCR worked properly in our absence. And tomorrow will be time enough to deal with all the other undone tasks looming ahead...



I'm at the internet workstation thoughtfully set up in the lobby of the motel we're staying in -- and I am so grateful that we are here and not on the couch at my mom's. Her new smaller place just isn't really set up for guests (esp since we have my partner's family here too) and this means we get to have a few hours of quiet private time. Because otherwise, it's Narcissist Mom 24-7.

Today I showed up at her house at 9:30 a.m. and did not sit down until I got in the car at 6:15 to dash back to the motel to change clothes for dinner, and then go back to her house. (Luckily this is a small town so nothing is very far from anything else.) I spent the day cooking, washing dishes, mopping floors, cooking, moving boxes in the garage, more washing of dishes, more cooking. Etc. My mother used to like to cook but she's older now and doesn't do much in the kitchen these days. And then of course there is the Issue of my veganism (which is going on 13 years now (plus 5 or 6 of being vegetarian before that). My mother still takes this as a personal affront. So basically I wind up doing all of the cooking, but also having to listen to disparaging remarks about vegetarian food. But everybody *ate* it just fine.

So yes, I'm tired and kind of cranky. Hey, it's holidays with family! Though actually I suppose it is going better than I could have imagined. But I'm going to need a vacation day to recover from all this togetherness.


out of town/offline

Our departure for the my mother's house is nearly imminent. (well, in about 7 hours we'll leave the house to begin the journey).

I am not exactly excited about this trip. What I'd really like is just a couple days in bed with a good book and not having to talk to anybody. But that's not an option right now.

Spotty and nonprivate internet access from there, so probably no blogging. Sigh.

But perhaps it will generate some blogworthy material: we're combining my family and my partner's, a first at an official holiday scenario. . .


how to talk to a professor

Over at lifehack, a column on "How to Talk to a Professor" from Michael Leddy, who blogs at Orange Crate Art, which I hadn't read before, but will start keeping up with. Leddy suggests five basic tips which usefully explain some aspects of academic office-hours culture to students, like greeting your professor when you walk in the door, phrases to avoid (what "will this affect my grade" really signals), and how to end the conversation.

When I was in college, at one of the "public Ivys," honors students were told over and over that we should "go talk to your professors in office hours." The idea was that you wanted them to get to know you, and that you the student would somehow benefit from chatting with them. I don't know if the same directives were issued to all students, but I certainly heard that message, and tried on a few occasions to follow it. But I often felt awkward -- like I had to make up questions to ask them, but questions that weren't in the book already or something I could research on my own. I have never been comfortable in situations where I felt I was being asked to suck up to an authority figure in any way, or where my actions might be perceived as an attempt to suck up. (Yes, this iswhy my track record with mentors has been so spotty.)

My own students usually come to office hours for one of the following reasons: they want to rewrite a paper or get assistance with a draft (usually because I've told them they should come in for extra tutorials); they are undergoing a medical or family crisis, or dropping the class; they want a letter of recommendation; or (and this is a small percentage) they are just curious about who I am.

This last group of students are the most awkward when they come in the door. They don't have clear agendas, or questions (although most have some flimsy excuse for coming in, a paper idea or something). What they want to know they can't really ask: "how does someone like you become a professor" or "how old are you" or "what is it like to be a childfree woman? So many of my students have followed their society's or culture's path and only later in life begun to question it. Many of them are confused about women professors, unsure of their qualifications. Their addressing emails to "Ms." rather than "Dr." which is the convention at my U, sometimes irritates me, but I've grown to see it as a symptom of the relative lack of women faculty on this campus, and the pervasive sexism in the larger society -- in most cases I don't think it's a conscious or personal attack on my qualifications, but a lack of awareness that faculty come in both genders. Plus many of my students don't really understand what it takes to be a professor, what the difference between a professor and a TA is, what "Dr" actually signifies.

But I don't mind answering questions about myself (within appropriate boundaries) and in fact consider it part of teaching students about academia, and about what a college degree might be good for. I'm happy to tell them where I went to undergrad or grad school, what it was like, why I became a professor, and what other kinds of work I've done. When a student wants to know those things, I know she's thinking about her own life path and what options she might have. When my LGBT students come to see me, often it's because I'm one of the few out faculty on the campus. It often matters less what we actually talk about than just being there. We chat about a movie, or a campus event, or a book one of us has read recently. That's the vague ineffable thing that's supposed to happen in office hours -- sometimes it's about defined intellectual topics -- but sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's about two people who can learn from each other just by opening up a little bit.

Because I'm shy and socially awkward by nature, office hours are kind of difficult for me too, even though I'm the powerful figure in the equation. I'm often unsure about rules for eye contact, smiles, and other interpersonal signals. So I tend to err on the side of formality rather than friendliness, just to keep everything clear and professional. But I do enjoy those rare chances to talk to students who just want to talk, who aren't there just about the grade or the paper outline.


ready and waiting ...

...for the end of the semester, that is. But since that is actually several weeks away, I will have to make do with the too-late and not-enough break that is Thanksgiving. I was a Bad Prof this year and cancelled my Tuesday classes so that I can be a Good Daughter and travel for the holiday. I hate, hate, hate travelling for Thanksgiving, so that's why we're going to leave on Tues, to try and make it a bit less awful.

So I just have to get through the next three days of classes and meetings. And then 2 weeks after the holiday. But in my mind, the term is already finished. I'm so over it already. Maybe my enthusiasm will return, but this week has been something of a low point in motivation level.

My Day: Today was the Faculty Council Meeting that Would Not End, in which no fewer than five senior administrators made an appearance. I just keep reminding myself that I'm learning about how things work at the U. But, in my second meeting of the day, we actually made a decision that will benefit students and academic advisors and make the requirements for graduating a little teensy bit more logical. So some meetings actually are useful.

An Embarrassing Reality: I am incredibly far behind in putting things into my gradebook spreadsheet. I used to be the kind of person who set up the spreadsheet the first week of class and then kept it up to date all the way along (every attendance sheet, every quiz, etc). And now I have this stack of things that have to be entered in, and the semester keeps going on.

An Achievement: In the past two weeks I have been able to properly do Dandayamana - Bibhaktapada - Janushirasana (Standing Head to Knee pose), a pose I've always had a hard time with. I'm good at backbends, but the frontal compression poses (the point of this one is your forehead must touch your knee -- your back is curved up like a cat -- it's not a leg stretch at all) are difficult for me. We do several of them in the Bikram series, because they're very good for the thyroid. I have a hard time because of my alignment, but also because, well, curving forward into your belly is kind of tough if you actually have a belly, which impedes your progress. Not to mention breasts. Anyway, miraculously, something is changing and I can now get further into the pose.

Task I'm Currently Dreading: grading Ph.D. exams.


not satire, it's true

I've been asked to serve on the Committee on Committees.

No, this is not a made-up bureaucratic extremity from a snarky academic novel. It's true.


where my yesterday went

I did not go online at all yesterday. I didn't even check email. Which turned out to be just fine, since none of my students were trying to reach me, and the only semi-urgent message, about changing the time of an appointment this afternoon, was duplicated via phone. It wasn't an intentional internet holiday -- I haven't been feeling overwhelmed by digital information-- if anything, I've been too cut off from the blogosphere etc. But I was in super clean-up mode and that wound up taking over my entire Sunday. Not only was I cleaning, but I also got rid of a bunch of stuff (some to the women's shelter donation, some to recycling, etc) and dealt with some things that had, embarrassingly, been just sitting in boxes since we moved to this house five months ago.
  • washed around 10 loads of laundry, including 3 dog beds, 1 couch cover, throw pillows, cotton rugs, towels, dog towels, and clothes.
  • dusted shelves and surfaces
  • swept/mopped floors
  • deodorized the main couch (sprinkle well with baking soda, let stand for 20 minutes, vacuum up the baking soda and all pet odor)
  • applied boric acid to insect problem area
  • cleaned air filters
  • recycled many years of MLA conference programs and copies of Profession (my favorite MLA publication, but I rarely read them more than once)
  • found shelf space (yes they're double stacked) for all the books
  • organized half of the storage closet in my study
  • consolidated tools and repair supplies
  • weeded out some more clothes
  • recycled a bunch of articles I don't need to keep now that they're available digitally
  • sorted through box of miscellaneous things
So today I feel good about all that I accomplished, but I'm also feeling sort of tired. Not physically so much as existentially. Having things is quite a burden. And coming from a household of disorganized packrats I have to work extra hard to overcome the tendency to hang onto objects, to let papers pile up on surfaces, to put things in a box or container and then forget about it. I can be well organized within certain limits, but at home it's a challenge, since it's all my personal stuff plus a lot of my work stuff. My office at school is much better, just because I have less stuff and clearer boundaries.


girl/boy movies

Two movies I liked this weekend.

The boy movie: Jarhead, which has apparently been getting criticized for not taking enough of a stand about the current war and/or Desert Storm. But the whole thing starts off with the hero reading Camus, after all. Mendes is busy signalling his disinterest in a typical war film throughout the piece, even as he plays with those conventions: brutalizing training experiences, male bonding, etc. To me, the film is a lot about how the technology of war is changing -- and the difficulty and inevitablity of comparing every contemporary conflict to Vietnam. In this film (I haven't read the memoir upon which the film is based), the young Marines of today, having undergone existential boredom and readiness, struggle to define themselves in relation to Vietnam, the war of their fathers -- happy not to have fought, but feeling inadequate too. The acting is wonderful, particularly Peter Sarsgaard's homoerotic fixation on Jake Gyllenhaal. And the desert full of oil works aesthetically and philosophically as an existential testing ground.

The girl movie: In Her Shoes, which is far better than the typical "chick movie" (a genre I'm partial to anyway). It's got everything: sassy senior citizens, dogs, sibling rivalry, and POETRY -- honest to god reading aloud of real poems, for a purpose. Yay! says the English teacher in me. But the film viewer in me loved it for other reasons. Although it's funny in places, and sad in others, it didn't wallow. It's about sisters (which I don't have, so don't know) but it's also about friendship, and the difficult decisions in family relationships which, once made, are hard to undo or revisit. Cameron Diaz actually gets a chance to act, and Toni Collette is strong as always. A great ensemble movie.

writing group followup

Having confessed my anxiety in this space, the actual writing group experience yesterday was not as bad as I had feared. But it's still an awkward group, in part because some of us are post-tenure and others are pre-tenure -- that process casts such a long shadow over one's research decisions in the early years, and some residue remains even several years later.

What I currently see as important to think about: how this group raises issues for me about staying here, about being here, about how this job is both absolutely right for me, and also somehow not quite what I was trained for. About how everything I love about this place and this job isn't quite enough to keep my intellectual drive going -- and how hard it is to keep that going on one's own.


writing group ambivalence

In five minutes, I have to leave for a meeting of my current writing group. Formed in August, it consists of people from my department and also from a neighboring university. Not all in the same subfield or even discipline, although there are enough overlaps to help us understand each other's work.

In theory, I'm all for writing groups. I know I've benefited from getting feedback on my writing. I know I learn a lot from reading other people's drafts, and giving them feedback -- sometimes more than I get from their comments, even. And the meetings of this group (we've only meet 3 or 4 times) are pleasant, mostly engaging. On the one hand, I feel grateful for the opportunity to think about other people's topics, to discuss ideas with my colleagues, and so forth -- it's a rare monthly treat in the midst of the day-to-day obligations of the job.

But at another level, this group gives me anxiety. Every time we've met, afterwards I've been in a foul mood of insecurity and doubt. Which is not the group's fault, obviously. But now that I've recognized the pattern, it makes me less enthusiastic about going to the meeting.

I should confess that my work has not yet been critiqued by the group -- which is comforting because I've seen how polished or not other people's writing has been. But probably ups my anxiety level, too. I think my turn will come in January.

In graduate school, I had two writing group experiences, neither of them exemplary. The first was a three-person group (the fourth dropped out almost immediately) that in retrospect I think I possibly subconsciously designed in order to spend time with Ex Girlfriend A., who I had not yet started dating. (Once we started sleeping together, the group disbanded.) The third person was on her way out of the program -- by the time the group fell apart, she'd basically decided to quit ABD. So you could say the group was psychologically or personally useful, but not so great as a writing support system.

My second experience was wonderful, but it wasn't a group -- I had a dissertation buddy, a close friend who became closer as we marched each other through the dissertation process. We each read every draft word, multiple times -- a kind of intensity and support that could never be replicated outside the emotional hothouse of a top-tier PhD program. Without her, I wouldn't have finished my diss. But we weren't a group, with orderly rules and procedures and a variety of opinions.

And then in the past few years there were a couple of attempts at forming writing groups in my dept that didn't really work. And another group I was invited to, but didn't want to join, because two of its members drive me nuts.

The sad truth I now see I must confess: I simultaneously want the support of a writing group, but I also apparently am more judgemental deep in my heart of hearts than I think I should be in order to be a good group member. I wish my group could be as smart as the group I think I ought to have had in graduate school. (Not even a nostalgic wish for the past, this is some idealistic mish mash). This is the kind of perfectionism that keeps me procrastinating and insecure.


how wifeswap improved my life

I think I've mentioned before that my gf and I routinely watch Wifeswap, which pairs two families of very different temperaments/styles/beliefs and has the wives swap places for two weeks. Like most "reality" shows, this one has certain rules and rhetorical conventions that regular viewers come to appreciate. For the first week, the wife (as awful as the terminology is, the show has included same-sex couples and unmarried couples) has to follow the rules of her new family, trying to live the way they do. During the second week she gets to set new house rules, which usually means asking them to adjust their behaviors to be more like her own family's. The show always includes key scenes of the women exploring their host family's house before the family gets there (which is fascinating because how often do you get to do that??), the rule change scene, and a final wrap-up where both couples meet face-to-face. Along the way there's plenty of conflict, of course, since the show's producers pick families that are as opposite as they can find: super-conservative Christians and punk rockers, etc.

So why do we watch this show? Because it's completely fascinating and often encouraging to peek into other people's houses, to see the areas of conflict and concern that inevitably arise in dealing with household chores, budgets, and children. It's interesting just to see how other people live. There are all kinds of relationship issues that come up, too, of course, and it's been a springboard for many good conversations in our house about how we manage things. But at the most basic level, I love this show because it clearly exposes that household work is work -- work that somebody (and interestingly, it's not always the "wife") has to do. It shows just how darn difficult it is to get everybody fed, cleaned, educated, and happy.

Unlike some reality shows, which seem designed to build on the worst aspects of human character (greed, vengeance, etc), this one is premised on the notion that human beings are capable of change, and that seeing the world from someone else's perspective can teach you something. Sure, maybe it's corny or even semi-staged, but it's still doing really important cultural work, to show husbands tearfully realizing that their wives are overburdened and that they should do more at home.

And my own lesbian husband? She's improved 100 percent in her contributions to our household chores since we've been watching the show. She credits it with helping her realize that both her life and my life would get better if we could have a more equitable distribution of household tasks. My partner now does the grocery shopping, washes the dishes, changes the bed linens, mows the yard, washes her personal laundry, and sweeps the floor. I do the cooking, wash the household laundry, clean the bathroom & kitchen, vacuum & mop floors, and dust & vacuum surfaces and furniture. We're not perfect, and our house isn't immaculate. But we're doing OK, and we no longer argue about these things. So thanks, Wifeswap!



What I learned last week:
  • At least two of my colleagues did not remember requesting to teach a specific course in Spring 2006 NOR receiving the Chair's letter telling them that they were assigned to said course. Now, a few weeks before Spring term begins, their panties are in a wad because they are dingbats.
  • That I was able to summarize an entire theoretical subfield in 20 seconds for an uncomprehending audience of faculty from Engineering, Math, Business, and Pharmacy who constitute the Curriculum Committee (stage 2.5 in the process of getting some new courses approved for my Department). Not sure they really understood what I was saying, even though I was watering it down for them. But they approved the course, and that's what matters.
  • I am on too many committees this year.


perks of this academic life

This morning I woke up earlyish -- it's cold at night now, so my gf and I and the dogs all pile onto the bed together. It's an awful lot of cuteness to wake up to. I managed to extract myself long enough to make some coffee, and then climbed back in to finish the reading for my afternoon classes. I got to spend three hours tucked under the comforter with a dog leaning on either side of me, drinking coffee and reading a great novel. How awesome is that?

I generally try to keep stricter boundaries -- no work reading in the bedroom -- but I make exceptions in the wintertime.