Between Private Blood and Public Guts

You’re about to get to know me much better.

I’m a public person, but I’m selective and strategic about what private things I make public. The very nature of the surgery I’m having next week has made me deliberate about how public or private to keep it. I’ve wondered if it is something I should share on Facebook or not. And then I’ve wondered if the reason I’d share it is to get attention or to get prayers or to make a point. Or, honestly, to just let people know in case I act weird while heavily medicated as I go about my way in town. Truth be told, it’s all of these. But it’s also more.

The surgery I’m having is not terribly scary or worrisome, but it’s not nothing either. I have a growth on the lining of my uterus that has caused bleeding since early March (yes, every day). While I thought it may be the start of my glorious entry into menopause, it’s probably not. The growth will be removed, the surgeon will do a D&C to clear the uterus, and she’ll do an endometrial biopsy, but no organs will be removed. Because it’s about the reproductive bits of my body, sharing the story has required some deliberation on my part. I’ve had lots of surgeries that require general anesthesia, and shared many of those stories, but there’s something about lady parts that makes me pause (there’s also something stupid about the phrase “lady parts” but I had to fit it in somewhere here). And, indeed, the fact that there’s concern about endometrial lining issues (eek, insert cancer scare here) means I’m just a little nervous.

In my not-too-terribly but-still-kinda nervous state, I’ve decided to share my private story publicly. I offer three reasons below.

First, women’s bodies are in this strange place of being simultaneously assigned to private realms (think “cult of domesticity” as women’s relegation to homes) and public debate (think “cult of elected officials who regulate at the same time they make claims that match neither women’s actual experience nor biological evidence”). The hemming and hawing I’m having about disclosing my story is precisely the same hemming and hawing I had deciding whether to disclose my stories of infertility and miscarriage in years past. You know, stories that bridge that weird line between common and invisible. Women’s stories. Stories that become controversial to me when the public implications of them are not controlled by the storytellers themselves.

Calling public attention to private life, as I’ve said in my writing before, is important in order to uncover what everyday life is like, for good or for bad. We don’t have to shout from a mountaintop what tampon brand we buy, but we ought not be ashamed of placing that box of tampons squarely on the grocery checkout belt next to our chicken pot pies. Or, for our girls in schools, let’s not keep requiring the extra mental energy required to sort out where the heck to hide a pad in a Trapper Keeper between classes (note to self: do students still use Trapper Keepers?). Isn’t it strange that something that half the population goes through is to be kept behind doors, under cabinets, and in folders?

Isn’t it strange that the prepositions associated with women’s reproductive experiences are all “in,” “under,” and “behind?”

We also ought not be taxed on tampons, by the way, but that’s a post for another day.

For women in our forties — those of us going through some bodily changes that make us call our moms and ask things like “did you have this?” and “should this look like that?” — the issue of symptoms that seem like they may be about (peri)menopause is at the forefront of our minds (and in our abdomens) and, increasingly with each generation, in our small group conversations. Maybe some talk to men about it. But, like miscarriage, it’s a topic often reserved for moments behind closed doors. Sometimes the privacy behind this door makes us feel safer and more secure because it’s secret. But might that also render our difficulties even further into the invisible realm? You know, the place where we feel shame even in our collective comfort? The place that gets co-opted by lawmakers who claim they know the secret stories.

So you see? Women’s reproductive issues bounce around the border between public and private. I say sharing some secret stories makes the public stuff align more with what actually happens. So, this mystery that is my body for these six months? Probably not that unique. But it sure feels lonely. I don’t like lonely.

The second reason I’m sharing my story is because women’s bleeding has been placed into the public imaginary and imagery in such a way as to render that fact somehow debilitating. Lessening women’s worth. Lessening women’s capacity to lead or be strong. Lessening women’s capacity to be in certain realms. Or to just be (in the “I am as deserving to be as human as male-type humans” category). This goes way back, of course, and sometimes even women make this kind of claim. I think it has something to do with some sacred texts that get used too frequently for convenient justification of gender inequality. But that, too, is a post for another day.

For the last six months when I’ve bled every day I’ve wondered what people would think if they knew. I think this especially in light of the fact that I’ve traveled extensively, published two books, written a bunch of short pieces, taught classes, hosted parties with dozens of guests, interviewed fifty people for my research, cooked some dinners at home, and managed to stay married and not permanently damage my child. All of this, by the way, while spending mental energy a dozen times a day on strategic bathroom locating and tampon hiding that is required to do work in the midst of others while wondering if I am hemorrhaging into my chair. Clearly I have been debilitated. Clearly I’m incapable of success. Clearly I should be relegated and regulated. Clearly.

Clearly, now in a voice that is not sarcastic, I have done more than enough. The only concrete debilitation I have experienced is that I have removed white pants from my wardrobe options. But honestly, most people should probably remove white pants from their wardrobes anyway. Everyone is putting up with something in their lives, often invisibly. It has become visible to me that I have succeeded in keeping up the appearance that I’m fine for half a year under debilitating circumstances. And do you know how much energy it takes to have this success? I’m gonna throw out that the number exceeds 17 on a scale of 1 to 10. But you would never know. Because that is what makes me strong. But wouldn’t I be even stronger if I didn’t have to spend the mental energy that yields a 17 on a scale of 1 to 10? Just image what I could accomplish without the worry of social stigma about something my body is just doing. Seven extra points for me!

Third, I want my son to understand women’s bodies. I have talked to him lots about this, to the point where I think he knows more about the female reproductive system than I did at his age. This is a good thing. While I could keep my story private within my own family, thus making him aware of the issue at an individual level, why not make it so that the story is carried farther into the ether of “what women teach their sons?”  I’m fairly certain the daughters will be grateful. Eventually.

Many of you may feel sharing this seems weird, wrong, or not-quite-comfortable. Do not take my disclosure as a judgment toward those who keep things private. I promise, I get that. It’s just that I happen to be in a position where my public self can do something about a private concern that, well, affects the public more than the public may care to admit. So, I’m not going to say I’m sorry. But I will say thank you for reading even if it felt weird to read.

By the way, I could have inserted a disclaimer several paragraphs ago saying, “Caution, squeamish souls beware — women’s body stuff and blood discussion ahead.” But then I would fail for precisely what I think is problematic. I would deny the political implications of my story (and my story’s not particularly controversial, I might add). I would be succumbing to the socially imposed secrecy that sucks energy that’d be much better used for something else. And I’d fail to teach.

Oh, and while I have your attention, I would most certainly appreciate the prayers on Monday. If you do pray, could you do me a favor and exclude reference to sacred texts that lessen women’s worth by virtue of their bloody lives?

I’ll collect the prayers in my new Trapper Keeper. And I’ll put my tampons on top of it.

Between Small Town and Hero

I live in the small town where Batman grew up. I teach at the small college that Batman attended, where he probably learned things like how even the most stellar camera tricks of the 1960s would make an audience have a hard time believing he and Robin were really walking up that skyscraper wall.

The Batman I’m referring to, of course, is Adam West. Walla Walla Son. This spring, his small town beginnings have been told as part of the stories that have accompanied the announcement of his death. This matters to people who live where he began. As a child born after the 1960s, I knew of him more from his voice on the Simpsons. Upon his death, and upon reading local stories, I now know him as the person who was baptized in the same baptismal font as my son (I am still awaiting confirmation from a clergy person whether my son is Batman by virtue of what I’m calling the “transitive property of spiritual geometry”). I now know him as an alumnus of the college where I teach, among other things, about the social construction of celebrity (I am still awaiting word whether we can include “I found this class useful for my future work as a superhero” on our course evaluations). I now know him as the local resident whose childhood home is a block from my current home (I am still awaiting confirmation from the city planner whether I can accurately call him a “neighbor”).

Over the last few weeks, local social media feeds have been filled with comments about the myriad connections Adam West had with Walla Walla families (“My daughter bought his parents’ house;” “I was in his mom’s Sunday school class;” “I took Superhero Fiction 101 with him in college;” “I sometimes walk around wearing gray spandex but people do not think I’m a superhero…”). Also since his death, social media feeds populated by superhero fans who live beyond our Valley have reminded me that both fiction and non-fiction stories of superheroes (or the actors portraying them) sometimes note the importance of them being from small towns. Like Smallville. Or Walla Walla.

Small towns are useful for telling a story of a superhero who has a humble beginning, appreciates simple things, fights for justice from a moral place, and, ultimately, preserves all that is mythologized as good in America. Protect the little guy. Value education. Go to Sunday school. Smile. Wave hello. Climb skyscrapers. Come home sometimes. There’s a wholesomeness to small town beginnings that carries weight in superhero stories.

In real life, small towns love to have a celebrity whose birth home, childhood home, teenage home, or college home is intriguing to help tell the story of how people go from small places to big places. Just google “small town hero” and you’ll see.

Small town beginnings form a foundation for the oft-told story of superheroes who have humble and overcome-able roots. But sometimes emphasizing small town beginnings can gloss over ways that some people have very little to overcome even if they’re from the middle of nowhere. Or, as any news stories that point to social and political chasms between coastal cities and heartland towns portray, sometimes small town beginnings are used as a label that ultimately leads to residents being stigmatized as having backward ways. Of course, doing this fails to capture the forwardness that resides in small and hard-to-get-to places, and it fails to capture the backwardness that resides in Gotham City. Either way, we’re oversimplifying small town beginnings.

Because, of course, small town life is anything but monolithic.

I recently met up with a high school classmate who told me stories from our high school days. We grew up in a town of about 5,000 people, so we knew everyone, and we knew their stories. But, as she shared her experience, I learned that I was insulated from a lot of these stories. I — the smart one, the weird one, the teacher’s kid, the editor of the school paper, the musician, the school mascot who also acted in plays sometimes — always knew my story was not representative of my classmates’ stories. But it was overwhelmingly a positive story.

I hadn’t realized just how insulated I was from stories that involved so much pain that it is hard even to write about. Rape. Death at young ages. Classism. Abuse. Addiction. Racial intolerance. All while I was getting A’s, putting wax on my braces so my oboe reeds didn’t make my mouth bleed, and jumping around in a bird costume at football games. I like to think I was insulated from knowing all of the stories because I was socially awkward, and because I was on the periphery of all of the social networks where all the gossip was spilled. Anyone with privilege likes to think they had it bad to start because it makes them feel a bit like a superhero when they emerge without too many emotional bruises. But, of course, I could afford not to know the hard stories in my small town, even if I knew everyone’s name. I was insulated because I was born into a family that was always going to cherish me, protect me from trauma, and help me find resources that would lead to my ultimate success. In fact, I was born into a family that helped me understand that there is value in capitalizing in weirdness, and in working hard while standing on the edge of groups to try to understand what was going on, even if I wasn’t part of them. Why else do you think I turned into a sociologist?

Since the announcement of Adam West’s death, we’ve seen the Bat Signal projected onto Walla Walla’s tall building for an evening. There have been campaigns to fund a Batman statue. I suggested to a friend that only something bold could fully capture the significance of our local superhero. Like a permanent Bat Signal. But then I remembered: if the Bat Signal was always on as a reminder of how great things are in this little town, and how even this town can produce such a hero, then how would anyone know when there was really trouble?

My friend who teaches visual culture studies (and who also is, I learned, a huge Batman fan) suggested that a colorful mosaic might be better. This, we discussed, would nicely capture just how varied people’s experiences are in this Valley. The mosaic of Batman would appear, from far away, as a masked superhero face. But up close, behind the mask, there’d be a lot more complexity that would more accurately capture the stories from our Valley. Even, and especially, the ones that didn’t result in people becoming superheroes.

 

 

Between Valedictorian and Validation

This and dozens of other essays are compiled in the book Between: Living Live in Neither Extreme. Check it out!

At the risk of coming across as Braggy McSmartypants, I am going to tell you a little bit about being a valedictorian. Which I was. Or, rather, I say I was valedictorian of my 1990 high school class, because my family, with the exception of my Opa who barely finished 2nd grade, seems to collect that label like we collect recipes for baked goods that contain a lot of butter. That is to say, we have plenty of them in our family (valedictorians and recipes that use butter).

Really, though, I was just the only one in my class who had achieved “highest honors,” the top in a range of categories that had been created that replaced the traditional valedictorian and salutatorian labels. That replacement happened two years before I graduated, much to the dismay of my older friends who were graduating in 1988 and had spent their formative years working towards the coveted 1st place trophy-that-is-not-to-be-shared. Somehow, even with the superlative, being highest honors amidst an unspecified number of people who also had achieved the same GPA was not special enough. Plus, four or five speeches at graduation from high school seniors may not necessarily be a better show than one or two. I can say this because I gave a speech at my high school graduation. It was about the Berlin Wall coming down, which, in my seventeen-year-old editing capacity, could not have been boiled down to a two-minute feel-good address that would have been situated between student speakers #4 and #6, both of whom may have talked about prom and Prince. Speeches about prom and Prince, by the way, would not serve as good segues into our out of a talk on the downfall of the Cold War. (note to self: see how many graduation speeches this year include reference to Prince).

I think the reason my school made this terminology switch way back in the last century was so that we could seem more sophisticated in our rural southwest Minnesota town. You know, like summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude, but without that complicated Latin. Incidentally, these Latin phrases mean “with highest praise,” “with great praise” and “with praise,” according to this article. These terms came about in the 1800s.

Interestingly, the word valedictorian is actually about leaving. Valediction really means to say farewell. So a valedictorian is the person to announce that, hey all, it’s time to go. It’s like the parent who’s rounding up the kids for a family vacation and yells into the house with exasperation, “Hey, get your butts into the station wagon! We gotta make it to southern Wisconsin by suppertime so we can get some of Aunt Henny’s butter-laden BLT’s before they’re gone!”

Salutatorian, or the traditional “runner-up” label for the race towards academic prowess, means what you probably think it does. It comes from salutatory, which is related to greeting people. So, the second place person says hello, and the first place person says goodbye. If taken with these meanings, graduation ceremonies could be much shorter, with one person standing up and saying, “Hello,” the other “Goodbye,” and then we just give out the diplomas and head home for cake.

These terms are really about the speeches, I’m coming to realize, not about the honor. It’s like the word butter.  You may not know its etymology, but you know it means something good.

Now I am starting to see why highest honors, high honors, and honors were used. They actually make sense. They imply a bar above which means you are higher than others. They are related to each other sensibly. They are the translations of the Latin.

Recently there have been news stories, and then the usual moral panic aftermath, of schools deciding to get rid of the labels valedictorian and salutatorian. This is, as one argument is presented, in order to prevent the unhealthy competition and grade grubbing that have seemed to overtake American high schools filled with students clamoring to get into good colleges. The response to these stories has included those lamenting the idea that our “everyone gets a trophy” society is lessening the meaning of any awards, or that students who can’t handle competition are being over-accommodated so much that they are not ever going to be able to handle anything short of total success. The other side of the discussion comes from those who say that if a student can’t handle not getting a top award, then the award carries with it too much stress. Making things competitive and hard to achieve without collateral damage to teenage health or sanity (or ethical judgment) sends the wrong kind of validation for the majority of the students. No amount of friendship loss or sleeplessness is worth adding .25 to the already uppermost 4.0 GPA.

In the school system my son attends, the terms valedictorian and salutatorian are still used at the high school level, but they can be awarded to any number of students who reach whatever the GPA level is that is required of each. I see this as a pretty good compromise. Keep the label as special. Allow room for as many to achieve as can. Seven valedictorians and two salutatorians? Bring on those nine two-minute speeches!

Of course, it should not be a risky thing to admit you achieved something big, even for you Braggy McSmartypants-types. But it should also not be the case that students are at risk for going about their student-y lives with only the goal of winning at all costs, even to one’s soul and body and relationships, in mind.

Validate achievement? Absolutely. Celebrate as many people who have achieved a high standard? Yes. Continue to have a conversation that acknowledges this is a complicated thing, since some people view academic success as meeting a standard, and others like a running race? Of course. One winner, many winners, or redirecting what we even think of when it comes to winning — this is hard stuff. Whoever figures this out should get a prize. And then that person can decide if she’s going to accept the prize for her individual work, or share it with others who have achieved something comparable.

Incidentally, I missed summa cum laude in college by 5/100ths of a GPA point. I was always good at learning written languages, so maybe if I would have taken Latin, I could have eeked out a summa.

 

Between Game of Thrones and Murder, She Wrote

This and dozens of other essays are compiled in the book Between: Living Live in Neither Extreme. Check it out!

Death on TV is nothing new, but we all have our thresholds of seeing what it looks like.

I made it to the second beheading in Game of Thrones* before I said to my husband (who is a GoT fan), “I’m sorry. I just can’t handle the blood. And realism. I recognize that the costumes are magnificent, but I’ve heard there’s misogyny.”

My husband, a calm and gentle man, is one of the biggest Game of Thrones fans that I know. As in, stay awake for three extra hours after the “Red Wedding” episode because it shook him to the core. As in, watch the second season 6 preview trailer three times and get just a little more excited each time. As in, “I will talk about this and my wife will write about it even to audiences who care nothing for the show because it is just that awesome.”

My endurance athlete husband combines his passions for prolonging his own life and watching other people’s deaths by watching Game of Thrones when he rides his bike in our garage. For you cycling aficionados, he rides on rollers starting about when winter is coming, and then moves to the hills in the spring. For you Game of Thrones aficionados, he rides on rollers starting about when winter is coming, and then the rest doesn’t matter because WINTER IS COMING. For the rest of us neither-cycling-nor-Game-of-Thrones fans, he rides for a long time and when he does it indoors he can put on wireless headphones and watch HBOGo. Hence, Game of Thrones on a bike. And for you garage aficionados, we have a back room in our garage that can receive HBOGo because we got a nifty internet extender doohicky that makes it possible to livestream whatever we want from our cable channels in a room that maintains a temperature suitable for cycling.

Lately, I have been binge watching Murder, She Wrote, a spirited, blazer-ridden, and nearly perfect 1980s show starring the incomparable Angela Lansbury, who, as far as I can tell, transcends age, geographic location, and identifiable accent. I do not watch this while riding bike, nor do I watch it in a  garage. I watch it in bed, just before I fall into a deep and lovely slumber, aiming to dream of all of the good things that stem from an undersung middle-aged female detective from Maine in the 1980s, and aiming to avoid analyzing all of the problems associated with everything that I just wrote.

But of course, I’m still watching a show about death.

In both cases, my husband and I are dealing with death on TV. And death is something that is tolerated at varying levels of explicitness in the shows we choose to watch. I have figured out that I have a threshold for what kind of death I can watch before my middle-aged detective dreams turn into a nightmare with neck parts strewn about. And my threshold is lower than my husband’s. It always has been.

This week, in a rare dinner out, Neal and I chatted about whether I could stand to try GoT again. Giver that he is, he offered to watch with me starting from Season1Episode1 and warn me, with a good half-minute notice, every time there’d be something past my threshold of grossness. He proposed that he would say, “close your eyes…..now.”

And here is how our conversation went:

Me: Okay, what kinds of things would I see if I watched beyond the second beheading?

Neal: Well, what about someone who slits someone else’s throat and you only see the blood?

Me: That’s not horrible. But I can’t tolerate seeing the insides of people’s bodies. Just like I can’t eat food on my plate if it has a face on it.

Neal. Well, what about a bunch of bloody severed heads stuck on a wall?

Me: Nope.

Neal: Whaddabout a pregnant woman getting stabbed? [incidentally, here’s where “what about” turned into “whaddabout” in the conversation, because it just came at me so fast and slurring it together carries with it a certain youthful fan voice that seems to just fit here].

Me: Remember how I said all of my previously weak tolerance for horror movies was made even weaker when I was pregnant? Yeah, so, no.

Neal: Whaddabout a man getting his throat ripped open by a wolf and the camera lingers on his wound for at least two seconds with some blood pooling at the surface? [insert grimace from me] Whaddabout a slice through a throat from at least fifty feet away? [another grimace] Whaddabout a collection of dozens of bodies in a field after a battle? [actually, I can take that. There’s something about my experience as a short-lived art history major studying Hieronymus Bosch paintings that makes this okay. I’ll allow it].

Note to self: look up those wacko Bosch paintings in spare time.

Here is where Neal looked at his phone to try to find more scenes to assess in his Whaddabout campaign. Included in this search were two things: first was IMDB’s Parents’ Guide, which we use to assess movies like Big Hero 6, and which required no fewer than seven vertical swipes when he searched for Game of Thrones‘ inclusion of sex and nudity (which I generally don’t mind); second, and more relevant to this discussion, was the listicle “Best Kill Scenes” from askmen.com; here was also where I raised one eyebrow and said, “Remember the misogyny part that I hate?”

Whaddabout, oh never mind.

At this point, we paused and ate some dinner. I said, “You know, I want to be like Angela Lansbury. I even know someone who knows her in real life and he says she is just fantastic, has aged well, is smart and lovely, and is active in promoting good arts and theater. I also wouldn’t mind being like her character Jessica Fletcher, since she’s independent, fit, solidly grounded in her logic and convictions, sometimes responds to the calling of good looking men at her discretion, is a successful writer, and doesn’t take any crap from anyone in coastal Maine or anywhere else where she travels and where there always seems to be a murder.

“And furthermore,” I shift into a lofty monologue over the din of plates and glasses and restaurant noises, “She knows how to deal with dead bodies. She looks at them, comforts people who’ve lost them, logically deduces who made them dead in the first place, and then confronts killers who magically confess before her with remorse. And after all of this, she is asked out by men who think she is hot stuff precisely because of her logic and spirit. Often she declines because she has to go write her next novel about that gruesome murder, dammit. But still.”

But, I then wonder, whaddabout the blood and guts that are sanitized in every episode of Murder, She Wrote? I don’t really care. I’d rather see her solve a crime and move on to her writing and independence than watch her figure out how to manage a bleeding wolf-bitten neck or wall of heads that a bunch of medieval naked women are somehow forced to promenade in front of because “that’s what gender looked like back then in that time period that we made up that has that kind of gender stuff in it.”

It’s not that gruesomeness and misogyny didn’t exist in New England in the 1980s. I’m sure it did. I’ve seen the heels she wore while filming episodes on beaches – just stupid. It’s that when I binge watch a show just before bed, I’d rather be sent off to dreamland with a strong person who can solve murders in her head and magnificently reveal the solution at an opportune time, than with a wall of bloody heads.

If I am going to watch a TV show about a writer, I’d rather it be titled Murder, She Wrote, not Severed Head and Amputated Thigh Next to Stabbed Pregnant Queen Who We All Thought Would Live, She Wrote.

But hold on, I may be speaking too soon. After all, I have just agreed to watch the first five episodes with my husband, as long as he tells me when to close my eyes. Murder, She Didn’t See. I can take that, maybe.

*P.S. I would have offered a spoiler alert, but I haven’t actually seen any complete GoT episodes.

Between Now and Then

This and dozens of other essays are compiled in the book Between: Living Live in Neither Extreme. Check it out!

Below is the Baccalaureate Address I gave at Whitman College. With advice for students, and perhaps for us all.

It’s time for celebration! It’s time for family and friends! It’s time to fit in as many fun activities as we can before we leave!  It’s time to give a speech that I’ve been told cannot last more than ten minutes!

It’s time…to graduate!

When we think of time, it is easy to think of special events such as graduations because they occur infrequently, they signify change in a life stage, they bring people together from different time zones, and they contain numerous schedules and timetables for the accompanying festivities. Sociologists think of time in terms of how it has been constructed as meaningful in varying cultural and historical settings, and in terms of how it is used to signify boundaries in our social lives. For example, as Phyllis Moen suggests in her book It’s About Time: Couples and Careers, in order to figure out ways to accommodate our changing work and family roles in contemporary U.S. society, we must first look at how taken-for-granted rules about work time and non-work time are enacted – how time is part of the infrastructure and culture of our work and family lives. What is a work day? What is a holiday? Can I spend time checking personal email at work if I do so surreptitiously on my smartphone? How does our understanding of work matter if we have discretion over our time or need to punch a clock? And, as many people may wonder, is there really such a thing as a weekend when I am accessible by email 24/7?

One of my favorite sociologists, Eviatar Zerubavel, has said that we live our lives in “social territories” along a continuum that consists of different kinds of time – namely, we live in public time and private time. I will add that we define certain times of day as more about close friendships or intimate relationships, others more about formal tasks. Some of us may use time set aside for spiritual growth, community involvement, or taking care of our bodies. Some of us take on a little too much and end up sacrificing activities or trying to do too many things in the same time period. We multitask within our social territories.

How we understand the use of time depends on what activities, people, and spaces we think are attached to certain times.  For students, if you want to participate in a sociology exercise, think back to your few years here at Whitman and count the number of instances where you have been speaking, dressing, and socializing differently depending on whether you were in my class at 11 a.m. on a Monday in Maxey Hall or in an off-campus apartment at 11 p.m. on a Friday. This example signifies that how we organize time parallels how we organize what we do, the people we are with, and the locations of both.  We use time to signify territories of our selves. Territories that are sometimes separate, and that sometimes overlap.

Life transitions do not move in a linear way. Anyone who is a parent here knows this, especially if they can think of stories when their children grew and then regressed and then grew and then regressed, sometimes in the timespan of a couple weeks. For the students here, this weekend may feel like a big transition with a huge directional arrow pointing from the past toward the future. But the way life actually works is that we always circle back and the directional arrow is not necessarily one that points from the past to the future in a straight line. We use the memories of who we were to construct who we are.  Our present selves are always made up of what we perceive has already shaped us.  Norwegian family scholar Marianne Gullestad has said that certainly what actually happens to us as children affects our adult lives, but our subjective understandings of our childhoods as adults have tremendous power in shaping how we act and think in our adult lives. How we think about what happened may affect how we grow just as much as what actually happened does. We go and grow through life transitions always building on our past selves, never completely starting over, and rarely in a straight line.

For students, you have spent these last four years using images of your future selves to have crafted what you opted to do here at Whitman.  Your present experience as students has been impacted and inspired by your vision of your future selves.

So what does this all mean? If we think about the word “then,” it is really not just about the past. It is also about the future. “When you were little, what were you like then?” reads just as easily as “Think about the future…what will you be like then?”  During a weekend like this, it is easy to think about how time flies – the “now” quickly becomes the “then.”  But it is also easy to see how this life stage transition signifies a jumping off point for present “now” becoming future “then.”  If now and then were on a continuum, I do not see a straight line. I see multiple axes, three dimensions, circles, satellites, and the location of “now” and “then” in multiple simultaneous places.

Anaïs Nin said, “We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”

I am so grateful to have been part of your lives, dear students, for these last few years. I hope you agree with me when I say that it is a gift to be part of the layers, cells, and constellations that make up Whitman College. Looking at you now, during this celebratory time, makes me very happy. I wish the world for you. As time goes by, I will think of you and how you’ve been these last few years. I’ll imagine where you’ll go in the future.

And while I thank you now, I’ll see you then.

Between Spouse and House

This and dozens of other essays are compiled in the book Between: Living Live in Neither Extreme. Check it out!

I have spent some of my free time in the last two months watching two shows regularly: “Married at First Sight” and “Love it or List it.” The first, an FYI-channel program based on a Danish TV show (“Gift ved Første Blik” — yes, “gift” is Danish for “married”), has as its premise three couples who are matched using social scientific compatibility measures, then married, and then asked after a few weeks whether they “want to stay married, or get divorced.” The second, one of the many HGTV shows I like to refer to as residential real estate porn, has as its premise couples (usually) who disagree about whether they should sell their less-than-adequate house even after a designer remodels it but never to their full expectations because of predictable mishaps, code violations, and varmints hiding in the attic that require a $6,000 extermination fee. The alternative is to move to a different house that meets their needs better. Designer v. real estate agent. Spouse v. spouse. Old house v. new house. The couples are asked, with all of the musical tension and awkward staring of a Bachelorette rose ceremony, “Do you want to love it (long pause) or list it (longer and more annoying pause)?”

Full disclosure: I love both of these shows. They’re like crack for people like me who are fascinated with the intersections of spaces, relationships, and expert advice.  Heck, I write about how spaces and relationships intersect, and try to tell anyone who’ll listen how awesome my research is.  [Note to self: get my own cable access show…]

Despite being reality shows, these shows are escapes of fantasy into romance and real estate that I do not occupy, that I do not want to occupy, but that contain moments and deliberations that come just close enough to my own life that I stay hooked.  Also, I’m a sucker for good design and relationship advice (as I give advice on both quite regularly), and I’m a full audience participant when advice in either realm is just plain stupid. For example:

“Why the hell would you put that kind of faucet in a traditional kitchen!?”

“What do you mean, she should write down all of the things that she is doing wrong in their relationship!?”

Or, just to confound Neal so he doesn’t know which show I’m watching, I yell, “That is NOT the way to talk to somebody who has to share your newly decorated bedroom!”

Does the marriage show objectify the spouses, as if they are things to be done away with like houses, or does the HGTV show anthropomorphize the houses, as if they are entities with which we can break up or to which we can stay attached like lovers? Do you want to stick with your old house (spouse) or move to a new house (spouse)?  Do you want to stay married to your old spouse (house) or get divorced in the hopes of finding a new spouse (house)?  Fun with word substitution!

Is this just a fun game of metaphors, or is there something sociologically interesting going on here?

My high school speech coach said it’s good to present things in threes.  So, I will now articulate three interesting things these two shows have in common:

1. Both shows rely on experts for authority on family decisions. This blurs the boundaries between private family life and public entities. Of course, the intersection of family decisions with institutions outside of the family is nothing new (neighbors weighing in on how high to build the barn, my grandma hiding her pregnancy as long as possible so she wouldn’t get fired from a school where she taught). And of course families have relied for a long time on help from therapists, clergy members, real estate agents, and designers (I get all my marriage advice from decorators).  But the televised representation of it means now it is an even more commercialized blurred boundary, and a doubly commercialized definition of “expert.”  And, as I alluded to when I first talked about my intrigue with MAFS on this blog, there’s a difference between a trusted and invested neighbor or boss and an expert who only develops a bond with you as you work on your trust issues/bathroom remodel trials and tribulations together.

2. Both shows frame couple decisions as autonomous and agentic, despite being scripted to highlight drama, and despite obvious structural influences and constraints imposed by the experts. I think the expert voices are probably among the most sincere and legitimate voices in both marriage and real estate, and on both shows. But there’s something interesting about the finished product that is careful to show the couples saying things like “You (tile pattern/wife) were meant for me” or “I chose you (husband/stainless steel appliances).”  We love choice and freedom and claiming we are in charge of our own decisions. We love this so much that we will continue to say we have decided something in front of those who have led us toward the decisions in a careful dance of compassion and expertise.

3. Both shows presume the preference of both marriage and home ownership, two goals that are impacted by factors such as social class, family influence, geographic location, and the role of men and women in decision-making processes. What does it mean to be married?  It means to live together and aspire to own a home. What does it mean to decide whether to stay or move to a different house? It means you have agreed to some sort of long term commitment that you’ll share space because you are defined by your relationship with this other person. Despite the fact that family and housing patterns are not monolithic across time or geography, we see strikingly similar versions of both when we flip the channels.

I have actually submitted an application to a reality show that was a competition to be a host and designer. Quite obviously, I did not get that gig. I suppose I’ll need to be satisfied with being an intrigued and smart viewer. As they say, I have a face for research.

Or maybe I will track down that cable access channel…

 

Between Old Dog and New Life

This and dozens of other essays are compiled in the book Between: Living Live in Neither Extreme. Check it out!

My childhood dog Cuddles died on my twelfth birthday. We drove 100 miles to bury her on my grandparents’ farm, because all dogs in my family were by definition considered farm dogs even if we lived in town.  That’s where we saw them happiest, living out their days (or, in Cuddles’ case, their visits) herding children into the chicken coop, enjoying the open air, and chasing cars.  Those of us in subsequent generations since my grandparents seem to have a connection with farm dogs. Or at least big dogs that are happiest working and pleasing people. And sometimes herding them.

You may find it funny that our big farmlike dog was named Cuddles.  This is because six-year-old Michelle was charged with naming the dog, who was fluffy and small when we got her.  When she got bigger the name seemed less fitting to my brothers, who affectionately called her Crud until she died. Not me. She was always Cuddles, because size has nothing to do with cuddliness.

This inherited connection with dogs, and kinda large dogs at that, is why, one spring morning around Eastertime about twelve years ago, I went and got Maggie from the Humane Society. I had visited a garden store and saw a bunch of baby bunnies being sold outside. I had not yet experienced the moment where I watched a TV decorating show with tiny dresses for curtains in a baby’s room and immediately felt compelled to have a baby, but seeing those bunnies made me feel an urgent need to take care of a critter of some kind. Bringing a new life into our home seemed fitting for Easter, too.

And so, I visited the shelter, and Maggie and I made eye contact and that was that. Neal was out of town that day. When Neal returned to a note that read, “There’s a very nice dog in our house named Maggie. I’ll explain later,” he thought we were dog sitting. A day later he proposed a deal that we could keep Maggie if, when we had a child, he could maintain his largely volunteer work with our college’s cross country team. “Deal!” I said.

Maggie  is a herding dog, which means she likes to have us all in the same room at the same time. She doesn’t bite, but she has been known to push people’s butts forward so they are nudged into a direction leading them to a room full of people. She even slept a lot closer to me when I was pregnant, probably because she could be close to two people at once.

When Aaron came along, she fell in love. Or maybe we could call it falling in deep tolerance.  The only negative thing she did out of jealousy was temporarily hiding my wallet, chewing the corner, and then sneakily placing it in the middle of Aaron’s floor, only after I had canceled all my credit cards. She also chewed the corner of a stack of my students’ papers, forcing me to admit to them that “my dog almost ate your homework.” And there was the time she stole the entire wedge of brie off the coffee table during a cocktail party. After hearing more than one story about a dog who came into a new baby’s room while the mommy was breastfeeding and then pooped in front of the mommy and ran out the open door into the street and never returned, these things seem pretty tame.

Maggie was two when we got her, and now it is twelve years later. She is slow and  old and deaf and has some digestive trouble. She started getting “old lady lumps” about the same time I did. Mine happened to have been a thyroid tumor which was promptly removed.  Hers are lypomas that are hard to see but easy to feel when you pet her through her fluffy black fur.

We celebrate her birthday every Easter, because we don’t actually know when she was born. At the risk of anthropomorphizing my dog even more than I have done, I am now imagining a kitschy combination of “The Last Supper” and “Dogs Playing Poker” on a velvet canvas, but I digress.

I am cherishing all of these days with her as her snout gets grayer, her farts get smellier, her days consist of more and more sleep, her nights consist of more and more digestive discomfort, and her ability to hear the doorbell is dwindling day by day.

Pets bring a heartbeat into a house even when we’re not home. They give us a life to take care of. They make us feel needed. They make messes, which is good for everyone to have to deal with. They simultaneously give us routines and make things unpredictable. They bark and make us feel protected. They stick their snouts in our lap when we’re enjoying our morning coffee. They perk up their ears or twitch their little eyebrows as if to say, “You know I’m almost as human as you are, except I’m not wearing pants.”  They lie in inconvenient places, willing to risk getting stepped on for the pleasure of being near all the feet of the humans they love.

And they dream about running on farms, which I know is happening when her little paws move and she utters muffled barks while she is sleeping. Someday she will join my Cuddles and they will chase cars and herd small children in the great farm in the sky.

Until then, my Maggie lies at my feet and takes care of me in ways she will never understand, which gives me a bit of new life every day.