Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A Delicate Matter of Grammar

I don't want to sound like a school marm, but there's this blog I read sometimes, and I really like it--I like the writer's voice, I like their humility, their humor, their really right-on sense of the academy, and especially of the academy from a humanties prof's point of view. But they continually write a lot as alot. At first I thought it was a typo, but I've since seen it like this in several posts, often multiple times within the same post. I'm not a regular reader, but I stop by every once in a while. I almost want to write a comment and, as nicely and politely as possible, point it out. But I can't, right? I mean, really, I can't.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

This is the Place

Most likely, in Mormon congregations throughout the world, but especially in the western U.S., today is being honored as "Pioneer Day." This day celebrates and memorializes the moment when Brigham Young, sick from the long, long journey, sat up from his bed in the back of his wagon, pointed out over what would soon be called the Salt Lake Valley, in what the saints would call the State of Deseret, but that the United States would derisively name Utah (after the Ute Indians of the region, who were said to run around in very little clothing; the joke was that because Mormon men had many wives, and therefore spent a lot of time attending to matrimonial duties, they didn't bother putting on clothes) and said "This is the place," bringing to an end a journey that had begun in the cold of winter, when the Mormon settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois had been burnt to the ground and the saints had fled the U.S.

Pioneer Day falling on a Sunday means that on this day, sacrament meetings (what the main service in Mormon churches is called--where you take the bread and water sacrament, listen to talks from members of the congregation, and--best part--sing hymns) are being opened or closed with the Mormon hymn "Come, Come Ye Saints," and speakers are memorializing their ancestors' sacrifices, as they left the hostile United States and ventured into the territories. Maybe they are drawing parallels to current times, when Christianity sees itself as under attack, admonishing each other to stay the course, be brave, and have faith. Maybe they are pausing to be grateful for their comfort and wealth and security; for their limbs which didn't fall off from frostbites; for the family members who sit comfortably in the pews in front of them, not having died and been buried in makeshift graves along the road; for the roast beef cooking slowly even as they speak, in anticipation of the Sunday dinner they will eat in a few hours, in their middle class homes, protected from wild animals and the elements.

When I was a kid, my ward (congregation) used to have Pioneer Day picnics in the park, with a childrens' parade. We decorated our bikes and dressed as pioneers. I LOVED getting to wear a pioneer bonnet--I would have worn one every day if I could. I have a distinct memory of playing in the sand afterwards, one year, still in my dress and bonnet, and poo-pooing the new movie all the boys were talking about, Star Wars. "I'll bet it'll be stupid," I remember saying.

As soon as I remembered that today is Pioneer Day, I started this entry, planning on noting the day and then making sarcastic remarks about Mormons and their goofy celebrations and their creamy, squishy, no-need-to-chew food--the treacly-sweet red punches, the cheesy, cream-of-soupy funeral potatoes, the squishy white Parker House rolls and endless parade of jello salads. We have tentative plans to have people over tonight. I thought, okay, I'll run to the store and pick up some ingredients, and serve my friends a Mormon-style Sunday dinner, heat be damned.

But first I pulled up i-tunes and checked to see if they had "Come, Come Ye Saints" in the data base, because I was feeling kind of homesick for it. (Notice the familar Freshman English-style conversion narrative rhetorical strategy.) Of course they did, sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. So I bought it, because it's only a buck, right? So I girded my loins and listened to the hymn, (written in 1846, while the pioneers were still mid-journey, and tired, and hungry, and scared, but hopeful) which is THE quintessentially Mormon hymn. Predictably, I cried, because I still don't know what to do with my feelings of pride in my ancestors, horror at their imperialism, sadness at the current church's ideology of exclusion and hatred. But mostly, I cried out of pure longing and sadness. I cried because I left my people, and I'll never really belong anywhere again. I don't often feel like this, but today, as I listened to the hymn, I did.

One year, on a visit to Utah, my grandmother decided to buy each of her grandchildren a copy of this illustration of the Willie Handcart Company, which her grandmother had been in.

The company set out from the east coast much too late in the season, in handcarts hastily made of still-green wood. By the time they got to the Rocky Mountains, the winter snows made it impossible to go any further, and the company lost many members before rescue parties arrived. My great-great grandfather, who had baptized my great-great grandmother in England a year earlier, was in the rescue party and after their snowy reunion they got married. She was the first of his four wives. My grandmother wanted us all to have this picture so that we would remember our heritage, and be proud of it.

Come, come, ye saints, no toil nor labor fear;
But with joy, wend your way.
Though hard to you this journey may appear,
Grace shall be as your day.
’Tis better far for us to strive
Our useless cares from us to drive;
Do this, and joy your hearts will swell
All is well! All is well!

We'll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away, in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the saints will be blessed.
We'll make the air with music ring,
Shout praises to our God and King;
Above the rest these words we'll tell,
All is well! All is well!

New Thrash

Today's supposed to be the hottest day of the year. Maybe it already is, but I haven't been outside to check, nor do I plan to. In preparation for this day Girlfriend put in a second air conditioner and so far the house is cool and shady--not a place I plan to leave. Unfortunately, our NYT didn't show up this morning, and so we're waiting to see if it will redeliver. In the meantime, we have four non-paper-reading hours to fill. Exercise? No way. It's too hot to even walk to the car to drive to the gym. But I'm jonesing for a run.

What does it mean that I woke up with Sublime's "New Thrash" running through my head? I like to think that the song in my head at any given moment is an index of subconscious thoughts, but I can't even make out the words to this song, let alone analyze them. And since it's a mosh-pit kind of a thrasher song, and since I'm sitting here feeling anxious and jitery (gotta eat some breakfast, I guess) it seems logical that the sound of the song is as indicative of mood as the lyrics. Okay, wait, I'm listening to it on headphones and I'm on line, duh, so here are the googled lyrics:

I got so much trouble on my mind,
That I feel like I'm always sleeping with the enemy
But I know the real world always gets the last word
And that's why you gotta kick reality.
So don't tease me and try to say I should care.
I might as well go out for mine
'cause everybody's going out for theirs.

Okay, so it's standard malaise. Sleeping with the enemy: Is this about my job? I work for spendy, middle class urban university, educating trixies and frat boys. The last two weeks I've been doing summer advising, which is great, easy money and a good way to figure out exactly what my students' educations look like (anyone else out there who really doesn't understand what their students have to do to graduate because you still see things in terms of your undergrad u's requirements?) It's been eye-opening though, as I see student after student bypass classes in African Black Diaspora Studies, Islamic Studies, Women's Studies, even Art History for god's sake, in favor of Intro. to Philosophy, or Medieval History (sorry New Kid). There are a million ways they can fulfill their liberal arts requirements, but they only want the whitest, safest, most familiar. Unless it's in the English department--they don't want anything that makes them read, no matter how canonical and white it is. In six days of advising I haven't managed to get one student into an English class. They would rather fulfill their religion requirement with Intro. to Catholocism (it's a Catholic U; most of them are Catholic!) or Intro. to the New Testament, than Buddhist Thought, or African-American Religions. Hello! You are wearing a batik shirt and a macrame necklace, and you reek of patchouli: I know that you got all that at Urban Outfitters, but given that you are posing as counter-cultural, don't you think you might want to explore a different culture, even just a baby bit? No wonder the university requires a sophomore-level seminar on multiculturalism.

So maybe the "enemy" I'm sleeping with is my status-quo university. Or myself, given that I offer classes that students fleeing from diversity might take, like the diva class, or my middlebrow lit. class. (NB: my classes are all about diversity, much to the disappointment of some students, and as reflected in comments that complain about my being too "political" in the classroom.)

Or maybe it's my department, which I really like, but don't entirely trust, since my transfer into it last year was met with a bit of resistance. Do they like me yet? Do they still think I'm too humanities-oriented and too American culture to add anything to women's studies? A year later, would they accept me more readily? or would they have more concrete reasons for rejecting me?

Or is the "trouble on my mind" related to girlfriend's job search and quest for a new direction in her life post-tenure?

Or is it the fact that I haven't been out to California to see my family in over a year and a half and they fully expect me out there this summer, but I don't know how to arrange it? I can't really figure out where to start, but that's wrapped up in many other issues--the panicked need to write (to justify my summer grant), girlfriend's job search, not wanting to leave my cats--and too complicated to think about on such a hot day. But the way it makes me feel is exactly what "New Thrash" sounds like.

Is it because we watched Nashville last night and my sleeping thoughts were puncutated by Altman's 30 year-old reading of a jingoistic, cynically-patriotic, empty-minded America that still looks pretty familiar? (And is it weird that I think Barbara Harris is really hot? You probably remember her as Jodie Foster's mom in Freaky Friday.)

Or is the "trouble on my mind" much simpler? Is it that our bedroom set-up just isn't working? I can't figure out a way to make the furniture fit correctly, and it depresses me to look at when I wake up.

Or is it that, because I sprayed leave-on conditioner on my hair by the side of my bed yesterday, (because it was in my gym bag from the day before) the floor next to my bed was impossibly slippery last night, and everytime I got up to go to the bathroom I had to walk very slowly and carefully, so as not to slip?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Dear Sarah Vowell,

Dear Sarah Vowell,
You are a very smart woman. You have worked hard to establish a successful career in a male-dominated world of media commentary. You are not afraid to fly your freak flag and loudly proclaim your love of all things 19th century American politics. My god, girl, you've actually managed to get people buzzing about Pres. Garfield. I read your books, I listen to you on NPR, and because of it, I am a different person: I now think about the Civil War more than I ever imagined I would, and I often interrupt road trips to stop at random roadside attractions because you've taught me about their importance in reifying previous generations' ideas about what is worth preserving and revering in American culture. I think you're pretty cool, and I was really happy for you when you did that cross-over bit in The Incredibles.

But your guest columns in the New York Times are bumming me out. I know it's not your fault that there is so little representation of women in media commentary; just because you are a woman who gets the chance to talk doesn't mean you represent all of us, or that your writing should reflect THE singular, liberal, educated woman's point of view. But the fact is, you ARE a woman who gets a chance to talk, and you're talking to a different audience than the This American Life folks, and so you need to think about ditching the cuteness and using your platform to be clearer, more straightforward, and more focused than you've been in the past.

The last few Saturdays and Wednesdays, I've skipped my usual routine of reading the entire front section in order, saving the Op-Ed section for last, and have instead turned immediately to the back page, eager to read what you'll say. We're listening, Sarah, and we trust that you have good things to say. We believe in you.

But you're kiling us here. Please, just for the next few weeks, stop using phrases like "Way, way, way dumber," and "one measly" speech/second/anything. Try beginning your columns with a clear thesis. Tell us what the column is about immediately. Don't make us read all the way through and then try to piece your point together for ourselves. I can do that. I do do that. But that's not what the op-ed page is for. This is not a forum for creative non-fiction; it's a place for cogent commentary. Give us a clear thesis, and then back it up with strong supporting points. Don't meander through your alloted words.

I know you have a signature voice and style, and I get that it's not cool of me to ask you to tone it down for this forum. Why shouldn't your cutesy approach to contemporary politics be okay if that's who you are and that's how you see the world? But you're not just you right now; you are all of us women who think and read and write and hunger for the chance to speak up. You're in a unique and precarious position here. Don't Mary Engelbreit your way through it. Life is not a chair of bowlies, and you are not a powerless, wide-eyed pixie, drolly commenting on the way, way, way bad guys and their super stupid actions.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Happy Camper

I'm back from the woods. I'm tan, I've read several novels, and I've kicked up my stamina a bit by having gone on several ridiculously long hikes. Long and vertical. I wasn't prepared for hand over foot climbing, but I'm glad I did it because now I finally get why people hike: from up on top there are some pretty amazing views!

"Payoff," my hiker friends tell me, "that's called the payoff."

So now I'm back in the city, eager to maintain my tan, and looking for ways to incorporate exercise into my everyday life. Just last night, for example, girlfriend and I WALKED to our favorite bar.

New Kid's recent success writing has got me kind of excited to get back to work, though. And since I'm living on a summer research grant, I really can't justify not getting work done this summer. But first, I have to fix up my office, so I'm off to Ikea for some good-enough-for-now bookshelves, and maybe a new trashcan.

If you got here via my comments on New Kid's music post, I realize I spelled frenetic and neurasthenic wrong. I didn't want to comment again, because that's kind of hoggy, but I wouldn't want anyone to think I, of all people, can't spell those two pivotal words.