But I do appreciate the expression “effeminate edge.” Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz on man make-up:

 He told the Advocate, “At some point when we were doing this band, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to be the most androgynous person that I can possibly be. I’m going to wear girl pants and makeup.’ I looked to David Bowie, Mick Jagger and people like that and I was like, ‘That’s what’s missing in all the bands that we’re playing with right now!’ You need the effeminate edge.”

And now that you’ve got that killer effeminate edge, maybe you could pick up some songwriting talent too. I hear they’re going to start carrying it at Boots right next to the mancake and guyliner.

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Another uncranky Tuesday

October 30, 2007

Man, this being in a good mood thing is superbad for my blogging. Oh well–I tried to work up some righteous ire this morning on my way to work, and even though some of the SUV drivers around Boca elementary and the financial prognosticator on NPR pitched in admirably with piss-poor driving and dire predictions, respectively, I am still smiling. On the inside. Constantly smiling on the outside would really freak out my co-workers.

So, in a spirit of uncrankiness, here’s what I’m smiling about. Fair warning: most of these are intensely personal reasons that unlikely to interest anyone other than me, and maybe D.

  • The weather. I’ve given up waiting for the first truly cool day of fall… I’m thinking it will arrive in 2008. In the meantime, I have decided to celebrate what I consider the first day that seems to point toward the eventual arrival of a cool one, and that day was yesterday. Breezy all day and, from midafternoon onward, right in that temperature range where you feel like there’s no real boundary between you and the air. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right.
  • As it turns out, the breeze I loved was a serious breeze. Last night when we were watching our DVR’d episode of House from two weeks ago, the television kicked into one of those squally red warning tickers, advising us all to watch out for High Winds. This made my decision to cut my run short seem wise instead of lazy, and I am always in favor of that. Anyway, the main happiness here is that I got to experience the adrenaline rush of a National Weather Service advisory without any of the negative after effects. I am addicted to those little red disaster messages, esp. when they turn out to not be about disasters.
  • Even as I struggle to make headway on Larry Brown’s Joe for multicultural southern lit, I am still finding ways to sneak in reading time for a (so far at least) awesome memoir, Circling My Mother by Mary Gordon. On that book, more later I hope.
  • Even the Unified Medical Language System is making me happy today. That’s the kind of librarian I want to be, the kind who does research for the National Library of Medicine and makes some semantic stuff so the Web gets smarter for peeps. Maybe. Or the kind who orders great books for her patrons and gets to check them out first. Either one.

Yup, already joined it

October 27, 2007

That is, Stephen Colbert’s Facebook group, which has already put Hilary’s and Baracks to shame. I guess we can just call all of Facebook’s electoral votes right now..

Just go read it

October 25, 2007

This post about one mother and her preemie daughter is the most amazing thing I’ve read, well, at least since SOS’s Hichens link. And I found myself reading the comments too, which were apparently moderated with regard to sanity of the commenter. There’s nothing I can really contribute except to say yes, exactly–and to think I sometimes wonder why I have spent the last four years of my life unable to make a decision with regards to what I want to aim to do for a living? With a culture that’s simultaneously sending me messages of “follow your joy, no paycheck is worth misery,” “you better plan the s*** out of your working years b/c when crap happens to you, it’s your fault and your problem,” and “get involved in politics, but don’t expect anything to change”? Like I’ve been saying since March 30, 2003: in this country it currently makes you crazy to be sane.

Surprise party

October 24, 2007

It’s hard to blog on a Cranky Tuesday when you’ve had as wonderful of a long birthday weekend as I did.  Hence the title of this post, although I don’t intend it to refer to an actual suprise party, per se, but more the surprise of finding out that I found so many things to celebrate and people to celebrate with as my 26th birthday came and went. Seriously, I was planning on some major depression. Instead, I started out the weekend pretty sure that I had finally figured out the real point of birthdays after the age of 21: to affirm to yourself that you have enough good friends in the world to all gang up and help you forget that you are getting older. I finished it thinking, I’m so excited to keep going, for better and inevitably for wrose. As Lopate suggests in “Against Joie de Vivre” (guess what was on our CNF syllabus this week!), hungry is perhaps the most honest way to be, and for the moment I am that, in spades. More cake, more laughter, more wine, more sweaty hours in soup kitchens not quite sure of what I’m doing with my life.

Yes, hours in soup kitchens. That’s how I spent my actual birthday, Saturday. For a while now, it’s been pretty clear that I was going to be spending my birthday weekend doing some form of youth group chaperoning. I used to be sanguine about it, but as the semester progressed and the true insanity of my schedule became more apparent, I started dreading having my weekend of celebration taken up by commitments to church. Bleh. For a brief moment in time, it looked like I was going to be off the hook, but then at the last minute another chaperone bailed on the high school service project and I was back on deck. I was bummy, but we managed to negotiate to arrive on Saturday morning rather than Friday night, freeing us up to spend a truly lovely evening with Diego, Frida, LL & co. Pasta, wine, and conversation al fresco, and for once the baby’s need to go to bed got us all headed home at a decent hour. I guess 26 is just about the age when you start to think that going to bed early when you have to get up really early is a good thing to do, rather than just staying up all night and dealing with the pain the next morning.

We arrived at the Missionaries of Charity in Overtown around9am. It was already hot and sticky, and there was already a line of homeless people stretching around the block as we made our way inside to join the high school youth group. They had been there since 7, with nothing to do, it turned out, but learn how to say a Hail Mary. One thing I learned on our trip to NYC last summer is that volunteering in soup kitchens is a very amorphous experience. Sometimes you do nothing but chop, spoon, and sweep for six hours straight, and sometimes there is nothing for you to do. So our kids had some time to sit, look at all the pictures of Mother Teresa, and look at all the kids from Catholic school reciting rosaries like creatures from another planet. When we got there, activity picked up a bit, and we served and washed dishes for the rest of our stay.

At the end, we had a few minutes to speak with one of the soup kitchen coordinators. She wasn’t a nun, but she was very Catholic. When the kids asked her what the number one thing she thought they, as a youth group, could do for the homeless in Miami, she answered quickly and simply: pray.

That is probably the last thing we expected to hear, and I’m pretty sure the look on my face was skeptical. We are Protestant; love is a form of the verb “to do.” We teach our kids to sing a song that points out the difference between believing in Jesus and following Jesus, with a strong preference for following. Prayer? How about a fundraiser, a clothing drive, and a protest instead? But she was firm in her insistence on the primacy of prayer, and explained to us that the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity make no requests for donations whatsoever. They rely completely on providence. They have no idea how much food they will have each time they open their doors. She told us a story about a time they ran out of all kinds of soap and could not wash the dishes for the second seating. The volunteers decided to make a prayer circle–typical. I would have been all, look, I have this thing called a credit card, I’m going to go hit up Target and back in a flash. No sooner had they finished praying than there was a knock on the door, and some delivery guy said he had just had the strongest feeling that he should bring the extras from his last drop-off to this door. Of course, his truck was full of dish detergent. Explain it any way you like, that’s their definition of a miracle, or put another way, a life of faith.  And whatever I think, or believe, or do, there is tremendous power in people who truly live that way.

Later that day, we went to another mission for the homeless, this one with a profoundly evangelical bent. Again, there was a surplus of volunteers and little for our ten kids to do but talk to the homeless themselves, which is exactly what we encouraged… no, told them to do. If you’ve never tried it, I will openly say that talking to the people you are trying to serve is much, much harder than washing crusty baking pans or scraping mashed peas into a dumpster. As a chaperone, it’s tempting to stand back and tell the kids to go do it, but you lose credibility fast if you don’t try it yourself. So I did, and it did get easier with time but it was never easy to walk up to a stranger so seemingly distant from your own world and say hi, is this seat taken, can I sit down? Usually, the answer is yes, and then you’re in it, you’re right alongside this person, and all of a sudden he or she isn’t nearly different enough from you. You could be her.  You wonder why you aren’t and you realize there is no good reason, in some ways.

Seeing us do this really got the other volunteers’ (Catholic ones, from a Neuman club somewhere) dander up. When our kids lined up to eat along with the homeless, they got dirty looks and remarks such as “go home and eat your own food.” Fair enough, but a Christian sentiment? Hardly. One of the adults in that group took me aside and said I shouldn’t let the kids talk so freely, that we were “lambs among wolves.” Fair enough, there’s some level of danger, but they were never alone and it was a small, brightly lit space. Their attitude toward service was unambiguous: the homeless are there and we are here, we are helping them. Our attitude tends to want to blur the boundaries: we are all here together, we have something to learn from each other. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but I do think that ours is more challenging. And I love that, and I love the kids for being a part of that. When we got back to our bunk beds and sleeping bags at the church we were staying at, they sang me happy birthday and said I wasn’t old. I love them for that too.
Sunday we woke up early again for two more soup kitchen stops, and I thought I was going to be too tired and homework-fearing to stick around in Miami afterward, but when we dropped my sister-in-law off, there was a birthday tea party in the works. Little sandwiches, tea, cake, and Birthday Cake Remix ice cream from Coldstone. My cup was truly running over.

And somewhere in here, something happened to me. I started thinking that maybe I could go to the baby shower. Maybe I could even go to two, which is they have planned. Maybe sometimes I can do what I don’t want to do and find out that it helps me more than anyone else. The prayer of going through the motions until it means something is the one I pray most often.

Here’s your sign

October 19, 2007

Okay, Wray & Newitz. Two questions: what is white trash, really, and can/should it be thought of as a culture, an object of study within the framework of multiculturism as practiced in the academic literary world?

When I opened the book White Trash, assigned for my multicultural southern lit class, the last thing I expected to read about within its pages was myself. Yet, within a few pages, I had fought down several shivers of recognition. Reading about white trash in Detroit, I just had to ask myself, was I white trash? No, but the interesting part of that question isn’t the answer. It’s another question: why wasn’t I white trash? So many of the outward markers could have been applied to me, or almost applied. Grew up in an industrial town in Michigan? Check. Qualified for reduced lunches? Check. Child of a single mother, conceived out of wedlock? Yup. House a chronic mess, no matching bedsheets or furniture or flatware (save the tupperware)? Yes. Wore hand-me-downs and shopped at consignment stores when we were flush, Goodwill when we weren’t? Yes. Considered a trip to Ryan’s Family Steakhouse a nice dinner out? Oh yeah, you betcha. Kristen Bell, aka Veronica Mars, refers to her family as white trash, and she grew up in Michigan, so why not me?

For starters, there’s as many superficial markers in the solidly middle class direction that could be placed one me as well. Both of my parents went to college (eventually), my dad completing a Master’s degree at Berkeley well before I was born. My mother was our only residential parent, but my dad did send money and my grandma lived nearby so we usually had two adults around. That money sometimes ran out, but when it did there were credit cards, so we were never in real danger from one month to the next. My mom paid a mortgage instead of rent from the time we moved to Michigan onwards–I never remember living in an apartment during my childhood years.

So those are the tangibles that kept us out of white trash-ness, but to be honest I still don’t think these are the heart of the matter. There’s something else, something that is not even truly attributable to education, seeing as my mother did not finish her college degree until I was in the third grade. My parents had some innate sense of culture that they made it a priority to transmit to us–a sense of culture that neither of their own parents had either. When it came to music, our ears were always filled with Bach, Beethoven, and British rock & roll. It was assumed we would all play at least one instrument. The first “luxury” item I can remember coming into our house was a beautiful upright piano. We watched plenty of television, but we were only allowed to watch it on two channels: Disney and PBS. (An exception could occasionally be made for Nickelodeon.) Grades were important, and not just getting good ones– Mom insisted that we do our best work no matter what the grade was. I remember being sternly lectured when I brought home an A paper which my mom considered subpar writing. I re-wrote it that day during my free time at school, I was so ashamed of myself for disappointing her. Also, I distinctly remember my mom explaining homosexuality to me around the time of Ryan White’s fame. I was 8 or 9 maybe? She told me that sometimes men love men and women love women. Just like that–sometimes, people are attracted to the same sex. (I was too young to realize that the fact that my mom had spent her 20’s in San Francisco in the 70’s meant that she probably had plenty of friends who were so attracted.) Our material trappings were questionable, but intellectually we were definitely not white trash, which seems like a sliver of a difference but kind of a big one, when I think about how I have been perceived as I’ve moved through the world.

We did have friends who definitely were white trash, though, and although I didn’t know the term at that time, I had a deep and abiding fear of not them but the lives they lead. My mom had a friend who lived an hour away from us, who was also a single mother, and once or twice a year we would spend the weekend together. Usually us going to their house, once in a while at a motel in some city with a kids’ museum, and much more rarely them coming to our house. Whenever we went to their house, I couldn’t wait to leave. I clearly remember the shock of our first visit. I had thought no house looked worse than ours, but this one did, and much, much worse. I’ll never forget the fear I had of using their bathroom, which forced me to look at the buckling, black-mildewed tile of their shower. My fear of that tile was primal. It was like my boogeyman. I thought about it for days after we left. If I was being honest with myself–there was also a phase in which I felt profoundly guilty for hating their house, in which I realized that the fact that they didn’t have the money to fix their crumbling bathroom fixtures or broken windows didn’t mean that there was something wrong with them.

In hindsight, I know I wasn’t really scared of them or their run down rented house. I was scared that we could turn into them–if mom got sick and lost her job, if dad stopped sending money, if I wasn’t careful and accidently broke something around the house that cost too much to fix. There is still nothing that frightens me more than an ordinary thing breaking around the house. Every time the car stops working or the plumbing goes wonky, I feel ashamed and terrified. What if this is the last time we manage to fix it? What if this is the beginning of our transformation into that kind of people? Deep down, I still fear that, and I fear that no amount of education will help me if I run out of money to keep up some semblance of appearances.

But, obviously, the most important questions that reading White Trash raises are not the personal ones. The big question is, do we need whiteness studies to match our womens’, African American, Asian American, Native American, Latino/chicano studies? Is that a useful thing to devote our time and attention to deeming a social construction, or is it just one more way for the dominant group to talk about itself?

I haven’t decided yet, and I can see it being both useful and harmful at the same time, and I am inclined to agree with my fellow grad student PH when she says that no one should need to be in a category at all. But in general I’m inclined to say yes, we should talk about whiteness. Whiteness, like middle classness, is usually considered the unmarked category, the category in which you don’t need an adjective to describe yourself. As a permanent member of at least one adjectived category, woman, I feel that this is chronically unfair. Case in point, as SOS brought up recently, at readings, Sherman Alexie is going to get asked how being a native American has influenced his writing at most Q&A’s, whereas no one would think to ask a white writer that. The audience would start with questions of style and artistry rather than identity. The fact that there are whole subsections of academic discipline to deal with my existence–women’s writing, women’s history, women’s health–is evidence both of increasing sensitivity to my difference but ALSO of my permanent implied exclusion and non-normativity in the unmarked versions of these disciplines. In some way it does reinscribe my marginality at the same time as it writes me into existence. So, ironically, those who argue that creating whiteness as a category of study is another potential form of domination are completely overlooking the fact that categorization to some extent equates with marginalization in every other case. You see? If that argument held up completely, it would work the same in both directions. It couldn’t simultaneously bring us down and bring them up.

So, to steal Jeff Foxworthy’s formulation, I think we should starting handing whiteness its sign. It probably won’t work any better than anything else we’ve tried, but at least it would be even-handed, and once it’s even-handed maybe it can change. I’d prefer that none of us have to live and work in the marked identity ghetto, but as long as someone’s in there we probably all should be.

But aside from those kind of academic considerations, which can make me feel overly safe from the often scary realities of white trashness, it’s the class part that continues to haunt me. We can change all the adjectives we want, but very little will change on the ground until material reality and opportunity do in a real way. I’m thinking of the people of Jena who want the world to know that their town just isn’t “like that.” If, as one of the essays hints, that racism is a product of a classist system so deeply integral to how we think of America, it’s not going to be a matter of education alone to end it. If right wing political power is so dependent on getting large swaths of white, lower middle class America to vote against their own economic self-interest, how can we ever hope that a bill like the current S-CHIP one to pass? Because that would help middle class people, and moreover, it would be fair. Fair cannot be the goal if you want the middle class to stay hostile toward the poor rather than claim even a strategic solidarity with them–because then whoah, you’d kind of have a majority of people who might favor going in a more socialist direction for certain areas of civil life, and that’s anathema. Profound unfairness is the basis of a lot of American identity, even when it is mythically recast into absolute opportunity.

I’ve just finished reading a collection of essays about the idea of being white trash in the US for my multicultural southern lit class (yes, fascinatingly, in this class we’re spending part of our time considering whether or not we can legitimately include white trash as a multi-culture), and in my spare few minutes I thought I’d do a little background research on You Tube to see if I could lay my eyes on some self-identifying white trash-ness. More later, but for now, after reading Wray & Newitz, I find this clip from The Apprentice just too provacative for critical vocabulary: