This morning, my Chronicle daily digest featured a new entry in The Adjunct Track column, “The New Faculty Wife” by, presumably, a woman who has given up a tenured job to follow her husband to a tenure track job elsewhere. (Sorry, a subscription is required to follow that link.) She now works as an adjunct while he works the more-than-full time that it takes to teach and earn tenure. I know these columns aren’t meant to hold deep thoughts, but there’s a glaring shallowness to this writer’s point: that the institution of the faculty wife is not dead, it’s merely been transformed to include women who put their careers second to their husbands’ and take it upon themselves to become the manager of all things domestic: “The role of the new faculty wife (and more rarely, the faculty husband) exists because it adequately meets people’s needs. So let’s pause a moment to consider its pros and cons.”
She mentions briefly that men could and often do fulfill, but leaves the rest of the piece squarely pointed at women,  always using “she” as the pronoun and by extension leaving untouched the thought that men could and should feel equally obliged to respond to the pressures of raising children, keeping a home, and navigating the annoying realities of basic living. In this piece, it’s never the spouse, it’s always the wife, and because of that, it reads like an apology for blatant sexism. This is the way it is, let’s examine it as a fact.

The pro’s and con’s she mentions sound, in this context, like one more tired repetition of the reasons that have been put forth generally over the last half century for why women shouldn’t work even if they have the choice not to rather than an analysis of how the demands of an academic career are immense and don’t really work for families. In particular, she commits what is, in my mind, the cardinal sin of reasoning that if she found full time work, most of the salary increase would be taken up by childcare costs (which come only out of her salary why? isn’t that an expense both parents take on by working?) and relishes the fact that she gets to go along for the full benefits ride while her husband has a full time job (I can understand and imagine a variety of reasons why a wife might find herself in this situation, permanently or temporarily, but to see virtue in turning your PhD into an Mrs as a benefit strikes me as unhelpful). Yes, it is hard verging on impossible to make it in academia at all, even harder to do so w/ an academic partner, and you do what you have to do to get through–but what is this adding to the solution? The message becomes, it’s hard, ladies, rather than it’s hard, people.

Underlying my frustration with this is my own experience at my current place of employment. I am, happily, the breadwinner this year as D completes his graduate studies in accounting. We live in a small town where the very good salary that our college pays can support a couple quite well, and that’s important, b/c the town is also small enough that it is not always easy for the second person to find work, especially in a one-year job situation like mine. So, when we go to parties, and I introduce myself as a librarian at the college and D introduces himself as a faculty spouse. And you know what? He’s not alone. I’d say there’s a pretty even split, at least in my trending young social circles, as to whether the trailing spouse is male or female. I know plenty of faculty husbands.

As for the argument that, as nice it as it might be to pretend that the faculty wife has become the faculty spouse, it’s still mostly women that end up in these circumstances, I say, exactly. If we talk about it like a reality, it’s even more likely to stay a reality. Changing the way we think about people’s work (not men’s work and women’s work) starts with using language that includes both genders in the decision-making process. Until the arguments for a stay-at-home mom become arguments for a stay-at-home parent, this will remain an unhelpful discussion.

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That one’s the penguin

February 16, 2009

Our Netflix queue has stalled recently–the new semester has gotten into gear, and so has our regularly scheduled programming, w/ Friday Night Lights, Lost, and BSG all returning for their winter runs–and this past week we found ourselves watching back to back documentaries.

The first one we watched was Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog’s portrait of the people who work in Antarctica, either as scientists or supporting scientists. Confession: for several years in my late teenagerhood, I fantasized about being one of the hired help for a season. While I’m no longer nearly obsessive enough to qualify as an Antarctica buff, I do have an infatuation the place. I bought my expensive Northface snow boots this year largely b/c they are a style named McMurdo. I think, though, that even if you have not been intermittently twitterpated with the Earth’s largest continent, you would find something to marvel at in this film. I never got tired of the various poetic explanations people offered for how they ended up in Antarctica. One guy (I forget his name, but his occupation was listed as philosopher/fork lift driver) said it was where all the people who rushed toward the edge of map found each other. Another guy said that it was like the planet gets shaken up, and everyone’s who’s not attached to something or somewhere floats to the bottom. I’m fairly eccentric at heart, but I no longer think I am qualified to work in Antarctica. Not quite yet.

One image, though, I don’t think I’ll be able to get out of my head any time soon. Herzog interviews David Ainley, who has been studying a penguin colony for more than 30 years. Herzog conjectures that being around penguins so long has diminished his desire to talk to humans, but I think his terseness was in part attributable to hard questions Herzog seemed ready to supply constantly (maybe he resorted to the deep stuff when small talk didn’t pan out). Herzog asks him if he’s ever observed any evidence of mental illness in penguins. Being a scientist and all, of course he answers no, b/c there’s really no way to equate what we broadly call mental precisely with animal behavior. What does happen, though, is that sometimes a penguin can become disoriented. After he says this, Herzog shows us footage of one of these disoriented penguins, zooming away from his buddies who are on their way to the fish hole and towards inland Antarctica, where there is no food and where he will certainly die. I can’t stop seeing how surely he walks and scoots on his belly in what every other penguin could tell you is the exact wrong direction. He looks just as purposeful a the food-seeking penguins. Ainley says that even if the humans were to go and catch the penguin, and take him to the feeding ground or back to his home, he would turn around and go right back the wrong way. Once they are like that there is no way to stop them. So, all they could do is put the camera on him as he gets further and further away.

After this scene, I paused the movie and asked D if he thought that catching that penguin and autopsying its brain and seeing if there was some physical difference from the other penguin would change how humans treat similarly inexplicable behaviors in people. B/c there seemed to be something so clear about that image to me. The human race has its disoriented penguins–and I don’t think including that image of the penguin alongside images of Shackleton’s exploration team was at all coincidental. There’s all these penguins over here, getting food, and then there’s that penguin over there, hell bent on going some opposite direction. It’s hard to believe that penguin is making a choice. I’d be the last one to say I know where to draw the line between human choices  and human disorientation (do sane people need to go to Antarctica? write thousands of pages? paint huge canvases? would we trade the art and knowledge we gain from their extreme actions for their happiness? should we?)–but I wonder. If there’s no way to sort the beautiful extreme from the uselessly harmful extreme, what do we do when we see a penguin? Is there anything?

Coincidentally, the next documentary we put in was Man on Wire. The first time I saw footage of Philippe Petit walking between spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral, it took my breath away, and I turned to Daniel and said, “See? That one’s the penguin.”

The call came in

February 12, 2009

And now I know I can go at least one place to pursue a PhD in English, for better or for worse!!! And, it’s the place I started this whole process with the hope of being able to go, so as far as I’m concerned, I don’t care what any of the other letters say. This is good. And just in time, too, b/c you know there would have been some melodramatic blog reading coming your way otherwise. Seriously, I’ve been walking around reciting Hopkin’s “I wake to feel the feel of dark not day” in my head. That was not a good scene. This is a much better scene. And I’m going to enjoy it as long as I can.

Yes, you dare

February 12, 2009

The 2009 National Poetry Month poster:

If you feel like using it for educational purposes, you can get one for free.

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Vamos stays gone

February 12, 2009

The book “challengers” are going to get their way on keeping Vamos a Cuba, a children’s book, off the shelves:

Writing the majority opinion (PDF file), Judge Ed Carnes stated that the school board “did not ban any book [but] removed from its own school libraries a book that the board had purchased for those libraries with board funds. It did not prohibit anyone else form owning, possessing, or reading the book” and that “there is a difference between not including graphic detail about adult subjects on the one hand and falsely representing that everything is hunky dory on the other.” The cover of Vamos depicts laughing Cuban children dressed in the uniform of the nation’s Communist Party.

Oh no–children laughing in Cuba! The lies, the lies! Since when is “falsely representing everything as hunky dory” a legal basis for anything? But perhaps this judge has helped us find fit grounds for prosecuting a few mortgage brokers I met in South Florida in the years 2005-2008. Hmmmm.

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Last weekend, I took a trip to south Florida to help my sister pick out a wedding dress. She helped me pick out mine, and somehow managed to make it be totally fun, and it was really important to me to be there to help her (what is more nerve-wracking than choosing the most expensive piece of clothing most of us middle class type people will ever wear?), and Expedia obliged me by having a very reasonable ticket available. The trip was great, despite the fact that I managed to haul an Iowa cold down to Florida AND bring it back with me. We ate sushi, hung out with Diego and Frida, watched 30 Rock on Netflix instant viewing, and best of all we found a beautiful dress right in her budget.

The trip had another highlight: reading. At the last minute, I decided to leave the work reading (which would have been excellent had I wanted to use my flying time for napping… open access metadata harvesting protocols…. Yawn) and most of the poetry (only Peter Gizzi made the carry-on cut) and take a novel with me.

Lydia Millet’s How the Dead Dream is a book I checked out from the library last September, after I had perused the Soft Skull backlist for potential collection purchases and realized that we already had it. And on top of my dresser is where it had sat until I put it in my bag to go to Florida. I left DSM at 4:55pm CST and had finished it just before landing in Florida at 11:30pm EST. I loved this book, and I loved the feeling of just devouring it.

The protagonist, T., is obsessed with money from a very young age. The kind of bizarre extremity of his devotion to literal, physical money was at first kind of hard for me to get into, but I liked the way his obsessive qualities developed as the story progressed. I appreciated his gradual transformation from an unintentionally ruthless land developer (he sees it as a game he is very good at winning and he is very young, but you aren’t really expected to feel sympathy for him, just accept that he is someone who hasn’t thought very hard about where the money he loves comes from) to someone who values the lives of animals intensely, perhaps above his own, but also without much reflection on why that is. I found this transformation believable in part, I think, because it was rooted in a much more universal kind of change—disillusionment. As he lives through his 20’s, he begins to see the fragility of human accomplishment and the fallible nature of human institutions. Money can build but it can’t restore. Nothing can replace the life of an animal. This novel also had one of the best endings I have read in a really long time. It managed a powerful sense of conclusion without overtly tying up any storylines or answering any questions about what is going to happen to T. I think Millett managed this by following the lunging pulse of her protagonist, even though it takes us somewhere that could not rationally be expected. And, by writing beautifully, and in a way that really enlarged my imagination of what it might feel like to be an animal. T.’s transformation is the conclusion, and we are sure that it is total, but other than that we don’t really know much else. Best of all, it’s the first of a trilogy, so there’s more to look forward to.

Having had such great fun gulping fiction on the way south and having neglected to pack a second novel for the trip north, I made a spur of the moment purchase at my departure gate’s book kiosk, one that offers a 50% refund if you return your book after you’ve read it: Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, in a paperback edition with a fetching picture of Leo and Kate on the cover. I managed to tuck in all four hundred-some pages of rather large print before I had to board my connecting flight in Dallas (longish layover made more entertaining by the televisions tuned to some random station that featured viewer call-ins on Michael Phelps—I loved that at one point it went from a woman who said she was never going to watch the Olympics again to a woman who said that legalizing marijuana was the only way to save the economy—God bless my country full of nutcases). It’s a tightly written book, with a lot of closely-observed emotional moments that would probably hurt quite a bit to read if you were not feeling very enthusiastic about your marriage. I’m not particularly well-versed in domestic novels of the early 1960’s, but I can imagine that it might have been fairly shocking for some readers then. And it rather fearlessly goes right to the edge of a couple of questions that most fiction shies away from: what do you do when you have no particular ambition but do have a sense that you’ve shortchanged your own life (it seems like most of the time this urge is played as a midlife crisis or the result of some long-harbored but very specific ambition, usually artistic)? How do you honestly reconcile that what you do 8+ hours a day does eventually say something about you, that you can’t pretend you are just gaming the system to earn enough money to have this sophisticated and intellectual personal life—you are that person who works in that office? (Or the person who cleans the house, in this novel’s gender-defined marriage.) What do you do when you turn out not to be exceptional? It doesn’t quite dive into those questions, though; it dips its toe in and then decides to go back to the surface, where we only see our protagonists through the eyes of their erstwhile neighbors. I think this is meant to have a tragic effect, but I guess one measure of how each generation’s expectations of marriage and adult life changes is that I didn’t quite buy it as a tragedy, although I might have if I had lived in its time. But I think the world that Frank and April lived in has evolved, just like, thankfully, marriage has. I’ve seen the suburbs lit up by pain in a hundred crazy ways, in Six Feet Under and The Corrections and countless other takes on what happens to the weirdness of us when it’s compressed by the outlines of a life that doesn’t fit. Tragedy is too antiseptic for the reality that these stories have unlocked.

I can’t wait to read another novel…. what’s next?

The very first thing we did upon D’s arrival in Iowa in August was take a trip to the Iowa State Fair.

Our goal: only eat food on a stick. (Or, a drumstick, as the case may be.)

Can’t skip the corn dog:

These enormous turkey drumsticks were amazingly delicious:

This beer brought to you by the Budweiser Clydesdales:

This is a cow:

But is it an Americow? We’d have to check the passport to be sure:

You can’t kill the rooster!