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Truth and Fiction

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I guest taught a class earlier this week, one that the prof had titled “knowing the world through narrative.” I had mentioned in a conversation about my admin job that one of the things I miss about teaching is the opportunity to talk about books and the craft of writing and reading them on a regular basis. So there I was on Thursday, parachuted into a class of 100 students, with a plan to march them through literary analysis. I chose a few pages from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Are you my mother?, which is a memoir (though she terms it a comic drama) weaving psychoanalysis, Virginia Woolf, and Bechdel’s relationship with her mom into a pretty interesting text.

What I initially found so compelling about Bechdel’s book was her response to her mom at a point when her mom is asserting that there is no room for the individual, the personal, the specific in good literature. Bechdel says: but don’t you think that if you write minutely and rigorously enough about your own life that you can transcend your individual self? I thought that was spot on and beautifully put. Here, Bechdel shows you how hard it is to write about yourself and what you can hope to gain by it. It makes her project sound like self-ethnography, which fit in with what this class I was working with has been up to this semester.

The other notion I wanted to cover with the students, who had just been working with data collection and other quantifiable source material, was the notion of Truth vs. Facts. We can, if we choose, collect facts about a work of writing and these facts can bring us to a certain understanding of the work and influence our relationship to it. But good fiction is greater than the sum of its parts and, as Stephen King, Tennessee Williams and a hundred other writers have said–good fiction is the truth inside the lies they write. I wanted these students, most of whom would have had high school English classes that left them more or less cold and uninspired, to take the notion of reading literature seriously. So we talked a bit a about metaphor and symbolism (the apple I’m eating at lunchtime = the apple in Eden, for example) and get back to Bechdel and her notion of writing minutely and rigorously about her life as something that could become transcendent.

I thought it was awesome. And so good to talk about again. Ad as I write about it two days later, I may come to the conclusion that I am a better lecturer than I am a writer. My riff on my apple and Eve’s apple was pretty nice, I thought, and impossible to recapture now.

The other great thing about working with a graphic novel for this was the ability of that medium to visually display the layers of a text. Word bubbles, blocked off text that provides context/narration, and images of passages from other books (Woolf, Winnicot) that show the intertextual material Bechdel is working with. And then the images of the characters themselves. Are they happy, sad, regretful, confused? No adjectives needed–just those pictures. How challenging that work must be–to convey all of that with so little, really.

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Written by Jennifer

October 20, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Incoming Me

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(with credit & apologies to Havi Bell)

On a warm May evening eight years ago, or was it only seven, a friend of mine and I sat in my car in the driveway, engine off, and ran through what appeared to be her options to get out of a sticky situation. Well, I ran through the options; she batted each one of them away as too difficult, to painful, impossible. She was hurting and I was frustrated with the mess she found herself in and had no clue how talking to me was going to help her out. There are some issues, alas, which each of us must confront on our own: pistols-at-dawn and the responsibility rests on our shoulders alone. My feelings, my insights on her situation came from a place of compassion within me but, because they were mine, they did not resonate with her.

And in that car, I had a small flash, an insight both timely and useful–a rare combination, really. I asked her: “What would the person you would like to be do in this situation?” I thought maybe that question might sneak around all of the roadblocks she had constructed between herself and the solution (whatever it was) to her situation. Your best version of yourself, that image you have of yourself, dappled in sunshine, looking strong and capable and happy–SHE would know what to do here. She would behave with sovereignty and clarity, owning her decision and completely capable of managing the consequences. Why not talk to her??

It is easier to give someone unsolicited advice than to take it yourself. And I know there have been many occasions in the intervening years where I should have stopped tying myself in knots and had a conversation with the competent and sovereign version of myself. Frequently, I tied myself in knots and only came back to the realization of my own flexibility and control over my happiness with help from others.

But I am trying to listen to that version of ideal me now, and doing it consciously. Havi Brooks, who writes about “unstuckness” and yoga and shiva nata at www.fluentself.com, talks about this process, as well. She calls it talking to “incoming me” and she goes to her future, more knowledgable self for prompts, advice, and clarity on issues that are vexing her in the now. This makes sense to me, though it sounds quirky. In order to bypass that bitchy, nasty voice in your head that reminds you of everthing you’ve ruined, every mistake you’ve made, you might need to get in touch with a part of yourself that is beyond that and at peace.

Of course, there is a danger that I might be expecting too much from “incoming me,” “future me,” “idealized me.” And maybe that is why Havi talks about “incoming,” reminding herself that this YOU is always in process, always developing. There is no “future” or “ideal” to attain, because in that future moment, another “incoming me” will be in the wings, waiting to pull back the curtain and get new things in motion.

Right now I am hoping that incoming me has clarity on a few things–things related to space and shelter, things related to words and creativity, things related to the relationship between body and mind. That’s a lot to ask of her, maybe I’ll start slowly.

Written by Jennifer

August 21, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Summer, Skin and Heart

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Canada agrees with me. Anything that spared me from the infernal heat of the Midwest this past July would agree with me, though, so maybe I’m cheating. It gets hot here, too, southern Ontario is south of big chunks of the US so it isn’t actually the Great Frozen Icefield in the North all the time. There are lakes and rivers and it gets muggy and then we went to Quebec and the bugz were very buggy indeed. And bite-y. Damn bugz.

It’s hot out today and on my walk through downtown for iced coffee (to ameliorate the headache that comes from running for only the second time in three weeks AND doing noon yoga with someone twenty years younger than I) there was a lot of flesh on display. Kids and their parents at the downtown spash park. I envied them, especially the naked toddlers screaming and running through the fountains. Our journey to Quebec involved a large lake, with only us in attendance; one of my baths was a glorious skinny dip in the sunlight–clothes should always be optional at lakes in the summertime and damn the bugs.

The toddlers aren’t the only ones running around naked, though. In the amazing parade of ink that is any city walk in the summertime, I have discovered a formerly unknown-to-me site for a tattoo: between a woman’s breasts. You might smirk at my leering glance but allow me to assure you that I have seen not ONE, but TWO inter-booble tattoos today, sported by women clad in tank tops and shorts. I thought I had spied a third (in a three-block walk!) when I realized that this enterprising young lady had her cell phone stashed there.

I did not get close enough to read or interpret these tatoos–I figure they are some sort of territorial marking for a mate, much as the phone is a way to keep those to whom you wish to speak closecloserclosest to your heart. They were both green though, in that generic tattoo-ionk-green sort of way. I wanted them to be red and blue and floral and amazing–a stamp of some sort of power or joy center in the heart. That did not appear to be the case, though. My wish for a bright, colorful and joyful inter-booble tattoo on others does not, however, mean that I wish one for myself. Nosiree. I will have to open my heart and project the joy and centered-ness without a visual clue.

Written by Jennifer

August 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Posted in Canada, life

On the Dangers of Multiple Campuses

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One institution with several locations can be logistically messy to navigate. The link that takes you “home” might take you “home A” when you really wanted “home B.” Everyone’s titles are longer, since geography has to be in there somewhere. People worry about redundancy (good) and duplication (bad).

Knowing that, though I have only my own stupidity to blame when I use the search box on the campus website to find “Health Services,” call them up and make a chiropractic appointment, only to realize when I show up for the appointment that I’ve gone to Health Services B (where I wanted to be) instead of Health Services A (where I evidently made the freaking appointment).

My back hurts. And I’m a moron. Awesome.

Written by Jennifer

March 1, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Posted in life

On Having One Boss, or Dozens

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I am an academic. Although my work history includes being a TA, an adjunct, an assistant professor and an associate professor, I have always worked under the assumption that I am my own boss. The criteria for success in my profession have always been more or less clear: teach well, publish your original research in respectable venues, do the work of keeping your institution up and running in a sensible manner. Aside from an annual check-in with the head of department, I have been a free-range scholarly chicken, pecking at my piles of work until I considered them done.

Being your own boss, while it conjures images of independence from authority, flexibility of hours, and the ability to set one’s own goals and priorities, can be quite a bitch. When you are your Own Boss, there is never a day off. You are always there, peering over your shoulder, wondering whether  you should be knitting that Christmas stocking or perhaps reading a few articles for that research project you’re neglecting instead. You can be a very annoying boss indeed. I found My Own Boss to be a rather persistent off-hours stalker, who pestered me in a quiet, nagging way that grew tiresome.

In my current position, I am not My Own Boss, which is a good thing (see above). I have A Boss. But he isn’t really the Boss-y type, which leaves me in the position of being My Own Boss again, or, allowing each committee, team, project I work on to be populated by a small army of bosses, who each feel that they know what I should be doing. Dozens of bosses, daily informal performance evaluations (that isn’t what we wanted, Jennifer!), and no authority in sight.

Time to put on my Big Girl Boots and show that I know very well how to be My Own Boss.

Written by Jennifer

February 29, 2012 at 10:24 am

Posted in life, work

Self Electrocution

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Long ago and far away, a friend of mine and I discussed the interesting coincidence that the two of us, as well as many people we knew at university and considered “smart” had had some type of childhood run-in with an ungrounded electrical current. We pondered whether having been zapped at a young age contributed to our genius. (We had consumed a few beers by this point in the conversation, so forgive our arrogance.)

Then today I ran across this article in The New Scientist that suggests that electrical current to the brain can help us achieve “flow” state much earlier in our training in a specific skill. So now I’m wondering: How many of YOU have been zapped, either intentionally or unintentionally, by electrical current. Any good stories to share?

Written by Jennifer

February 21, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Posted in Kids, life

Repeat after me: There is no such thing as bad weather

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We used to live in New Haven, Connecticut, birthplace of George W. Bush. We moved there from Salt Lake City, Utah and I am pretty sure that I experienced less culture shock moving from St. Louis to Berlin. New Haven is small and gritty and post-industrial. Yale is all ivy and old masonry as one would expect; but for me, it’s beauty is marred somewhat by the close proximity to real poverty and its attendant dangers to personal safety. I was never a fan of New Haven. The excitement that we had built up before the move, in which we created visions of ourselves as East Coast People, fell  flat pretty quickly as we addressed the costs of childcare and housing one one income. We had one, and then two, small children. We did not jet off to Boston or New York City for the weekend, even though they were only two hours away. We did not enjoy the Off Off Broadway theater for which New Haven is famous–we were broke!

So, although New Haven as a city in which to live held and holds practically no charm for me, living there was in many respects like living anywhere else. You make or find a community of like-minded people–in our case parents with small children–and your life revolves in its own small orbit. Our orbit consisted of the families who were involved in our parent-run, co-op day care. It was a community forged in the fires of state childcare regulations and diaper changes and those moms and dads and their kids were my New Haven and THEM I loved.

The families in the co-op taught me all sorts of things. Don’t feed a toddler in diapers curry was one of those things but there were other gems, as well. The one I have been thinking of, and citing to others, frequently in recent weeks comes from my Danish friend Benedicte, who navigated much of her daily life with two (then three) kids without a car: There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. She regaled us with stories of her Danish childhood, when children played outside every day regardless of the (frequent) grey skies and rain, or snow, or whatever else Mother Nature threw at the residents of a country that is dark dark dark and wet in wintertime.

As fall turns to winter here in the Great White North, I am constantly reminded of Benedicte’s edict. I have invested in a full-length coat (this one, by Patagonia, though my black one is decidedly less shiny) and it is not only incredibly toasty but does not make me look like the Michelin tire guy. Yesterday was cold and wet and dreary. Today’s wet may involve snow instead of rain, which is really the way the end of November should be, anyway. I know the long, grey months of winter still lie ahead of us and I refuse to let the weather get me down. We shall bundle up against the cold and the wet and the wind. I have knitting needles and wool, warm clothing, and a ready supply of tea and toddies. All will be well.

Written by Jennifer

November 30, 2011 at 11:43 am

Posted in Canada, life