Lucidité

Musings on language, images and life

Month: May, 2010

Recalibration

This post is dedicated to all of my family members and friends who participate in solutions (through policy, education and everyday actions).  

Try something for me. Scroll down your Facebook news feed and count how many status updates see in which the author is complaining about a problem. Now, see how many of those you would categorize as “First World problems.” If your news feed looks anything like mine, it’s pretty much all of them. Common “problem” updates include having to study for a test, disappointment over a silk shirt being ruined by spilled red wine, pants that are too tight after a winter of too much eating out, complaints about house cleaning, delayed flights, rescheduled concerts (get better soon, Bono — apparently I am fb friends with hundreds of your fans), play-dates being canceled (frowny face),  etc. With Facebook for iPhone, we can now stay up-to-date on every frustrating situation that befalls our friends.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as though I am any different. I’m the first to be bummed about a bad meal out, frustrated by a client who cancels at the last-minute or annoyed (well, a tad amused) by a 16-year-old barista who condescendingly tells me that the luke-warm watery grossness she’s prepared for me is “ummm, actually, like, how a traditional cappuccino is made, but I can *eyeroll* make it again for you if you really want.” First World problems? Yeah, I think so. (For some hilarious examples check out http://therealfirstworldproblems.tumblr.com/) That said, the purpose of this post is not to poke fun (ok, well maybe a little, and definitely at myself), but to provoke thought and, best case scenario, action.

Though I try to always remain aware of the privileged place in which I stand as a middle-class American woman who has access to as much education, information and opportunity as I want, I consistently fall short of the expectations I have set for myself. A few months ago, I attended a party at my parents’ place. I came directly from teaching my night class and was pretty tired and distracted– Michael and I were leaving for Puerto Rico for a week the next morning. A few of the other guests started asking me about the trip and, after describing the articles I was researching there, the hotel where we were staying and some of our sight-seeing plans, I launched into a diatribe on my frustrations with Delta Airline’s ridiculousness. As I stopped to take a breath, a young Mexican-American friend of our family interjected “Wait… you get to go on a plane tomorrow? That’s so cool.” I smiled as I turned toward him and was met with wide eyes. “Man, that sounds SO fun,” he added. He was absolutely right. Forget Delta, I was the one who was being ridiculous.

As I drove home that night, I thought about the reality he and his single mom experience. Like me, they live in the First World— in suburban America, to be exact. He is growing up a few blocks from my childhood home, though his access to education, information and opportunity is limited due to a variety nonsensical bureaucratic obstacles he and his mother are currently facing.

Most of us can agree that the systems we perpetuate as First World citizens have, through both action and inaction, ruined many lives around the globe. However, we frequently forget about the hidden— and very real— problems many experience here, quite literally in our back yards.  Many of these individuals— not only immigrants, but anyone who has been denied opportunity or experienced difficulty for any number of reasons— are often too embarrassed or scared to talk about their problems, especially in suburban America, where “OKness” and social advancement are the perceived norms. Middle-class Americans are brainwashed to think that if we work hard, anyone can achieve the “American dream” (and, conversely, that those who have not achieved financial success have chosen not to or are simply lazy). Nothing could be further from the truth (and if you still believe the “American Dream” maxim, you’ve been drinking a bit too much of the Party’s Tea). In reality, it is a privilege “just” to be able to get an education, “just” to work.

Time to recalibrate.

Taking political or social action to reverse these unjust systems that are so close to home.

Educating those around us about current realities and the sociohistorical events that lead to them.

Respectfully (without self-interest or imposing a religious agenda) helping those who are afflicted by social injustices (often this is best done on a personal level, and quietly).

These are some of the first steps to providing solutions to the problems many experience, the real problems of the First World.

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The Last Word (and the beauty of not having it)

We’ve all been there. You’re in a “discussion” with your partner, spouse, friend, parent, co-worker. You’ve both made your points and feel the conversation coming to a close when, all of a sudden, you’re compelled to repeat your point one more time or add a final zinger. You feel the words deep in your stomach, traveling up through your chest and….BAM. There it is. The last word. So satisfying.

What does having the last word really accomplish? In my experience, not much. Throughout my career, I’ve spent what I consider to be too many minutes of my life dealing with people who radiated such a desperate need to have the last word that I often felt embarrassed for them. We’d get to a point in the conversation where I would just agree with them (to avoid further interaction) and, with wide eyes and sweat forming on the brow, they’d prolong the pain with a really long, drawn out final word.  In that instant, my waning tolerance for the situation would disappear completely.

The other night, my husband and I were having a normal conversation that, due to our collective fatigue, morphed into a more of a “discussion.” I had already made my point…okay, points… and he was responding and making some of his own. I felt myself calming down and truly listening to what he had to say…empathizing, even. I reached out to hold his hand and….there it was, that last word sensation again (“Just to sum things up…”; “So, like I was trying to say….”). I fought it. Instead, I smiled and squeezed his hand. “I understand you,” I said. “You too,” he replied. Far more satisfying.

Leaving…living

As the academic job market continues to deteriorate, I’ve been receiving a lot of inquiries and questions from friends and acquaintances in academia who feel stuck, frustrated and at a dead-end. Some are trying to find a job, others are struggling to find new positions for their spouses as they relocate to pursue their post-doc work. As the lowest people on the totem pole, new lecturers and adjuncts live in fear of losing their jobs. Others have simply grown weary of their colleagues’ egomaniacal antics and the constantly shifting landscape of academic politics. Many of them have questions about how I left, why I left, etc. Here goes…

The dream of landing a tenured position in humanities at a reputable 4-year institution is increasingly difficult to achieve. After spending a good chunk of one’s adult life living on less than minimum wage and working day and night, humanities Ph.Ds thrust themselves into a hostile job market and, best case scenario, are offered a position for which they have to relocate (at their own expense, naturally —- my friends in business are always shocked by this) in order to earn a starting salary equivalent to what private school undergrads pay for one year of tuition (or less). 

Moreover, many universities continue to convey the message that the humanities are of little importance as they slash funding and bring on more adjuncts and less full-time professors (if they are hiring at all). Of course, this could not be further from the truth (the importance of the humanities is a topic for another post), but this trend doesn’t make finding (or keeping) a job any easier. At the same time, many Ph.D students are told by their advisors that the only respectable option for them is a tenure track position or a highly competitive post-doc.

It easy to commit to the system (I did for 4 years), to believe that being a professor is not just the “right” but the “only” career in which one will be happy. I know many incredible humanities scholars who are trying to make a go of it in an impossible system, and I wish that system could accommodate them.

I realized half way through my grad school career that traditional academia was not at all what I hoped it would be. I had entered with the desire to hone my teaching skills, acquire an in-depth knowledge of my field and open up more opportunities for my future. What I found was a system in which the rules and requirements change depending on who you happen to talk to that day, making it very difficult to concentrate on the goal (gaining skills and knowledge) because one is so focused on playing the political game. I was not alone in this, and I sympathize with graduate students and those looking for jobs who are currently experiencing such frustrations.

Realizing I was not happy, I researched my future options with a Ph.D. in French, trying to justify why I was there, why I should stay. Looking back, this period was very important; it forced me to identify my priorities and, to be blunt, screw my head back on straight. I learned that a Ph.D. in French would cause me to be over-qualified for many positions outside of academia, thus limiting my options should I fail to land an academic position (which, based on numbers, was looking like it would be the case). I began to think about other ways in which I could use my skills.

I left with my M.A. in French in 2007 and started a fruitful career teaching and writing. I soon had the resources to buy a house and travel. More importantly, I had time to devote to my marriage, my family and activities I enjoy. I continue to publish, make new connections, and am constantly driven by a genuine research interest in several fields. Though I enjoyed my graduate work (the actual work part of it, not the politics), I am also fulfilled pursuing my own research and publishing outside of a traditional university setting.

I work at a community college where I teach classroom and online courses. I have the freedom to design my own curricula for language, culture and literature courses and the pleasure of working with intelligent, down to earth colleagues and a diverse student body.  I also own a freelance writing, editing, translation and consulting business that has not stopped growing since I started it 4 years ago. I use my skills every day and my income is considerably more than what I could make as an untenured new professor at a traditional university… or an unemployed Ph.D (not that it’s “all about the cash” when you’re a humanities person, but it’s nice to be paid a livable wage after training for so long).

When I left grad school, I received messages by people within academia warning me not to “ruin my life” by leaving the Ph.D. program. I remember being surprised and amused by this assertion, as if a Ph.D was some sort of identity or the “end all, be all” instead of a means to an end (that end being employment of some kind). On the contrary, by leaving I regained my freedom and am living a reality that would have never been possible had I continued down the path I was on.

Why do I write?

For someone who loves the craft as much as I do, this is an extremely difficult question to answer. I’ve mulled it over for a couple of days and have come to the conclusion that this difficulty stems from the fact that there are just too many reasons for me to enumerate in a concrete and organized manner (cop out!) — ironically, it’s also difficult for me to articulate some of them in writing (though I will try my best here). Moreover, I’ve realized that some of the reasons why I write are…well… slightly embarrassing. Here they are, for better or for worse.

1. Seeing my own voice on the page brings clarity. Yes, it may sound egomaniacal (or worse”self-helpy”), but visualizing my words gives me a new perspective on what goes on in my mind. In addition to revealing thoughts and memories I didn’t know (or had forgotten) I had, writing helps me to organize them and make them relevant.

2. Writing is the best gift I know how to give. Writing allows me to commemorate and honor those around me, whether through personal essays, creative nonfiction, or my rare forays into fiction. I also hope that the academic writing I’ve published is useful to a handful of scholars out there (or will be someday).

3. It challenges me like no other activity or occupation. Yes, the most agonizing aspect of writing (pushing oneself to explore new phrasings, genres, languages, lexicons) is also the most fulfilling.

4. It is my portal. There are times when I feel like writing is the way I connect best with people near and far. When I write, my truest self emerges. This is the person I want the world to read and know.

5. It’s something (hopefully meaningful) that I can leave behind. Not that I ever imagine I’ll become famous for my writing, but I like thinking that after I am gone my words will live on and reveal insights or provoke reactions for future readers, thinkers and writers.

Gifted

For D on his 60th birthday (5/14/2010).

I was cleaning out my closet yesterday when I found two gifts from my dad: a magenta knit scarf and an oversized t-shirt with steel drums on the front and “Soca to the max!” printed on the back. I smiled as I folded them and put them back in the drawer. The scarf was made by an 80-year-old woman and purchased at a local fundraiser. “It reminded me of those cool flowers by your apartment in West Hollywood. I thought you’d like the color.” I did. He bought the t-shirt on his first trip to New York at age 56 (during which he called me at least once a day to express his excitement — “I’m walking down 5th Avenue, this is awesome!”). “I bought it big, so you can sleep in it if you want. I thought you’d like it, it’s kind of Caribbean.” I did.

Neither of these were things I would have ever picked out for myself, but I liked them… a lot. As for the intangible gifts he has offered me throughout the years, I wonder if the parental moments I consider his most effective and inspired are the ones he’d choose.

We used to take walks around our suburban neighborhood after dinner when I was in junior high. He would tell me stories about his childhood, about insecurities and worries that he had when he was younger and some that he still held. He would tell me about choices he had made, some he was happy about and others he wished he could change. Listening to him I always felt better, lighter, more normal somehow. Instead of “bestowing fatherly advice” on me, we talked and joked, like two people who enjoyed hanging out together. I now realize that learning about his life helped me to navigate my own. I always used to think I was very different from him, that I was more “my mom’s” and Annie was more “his.” However, over the years, I have heard his voice come out of my mouth more times than I can count and surprised myself as I made choices that replicated his own.

Looking back, I realize how honest his parenting style was. Challenging as we were at times, he always engaged with my sister and me in a natural, completely uncontrived manner. He parented us from the heart. In our youthful arrogance, we hurt him several times by taking jokes too far or making choices that disappointed him. Instead of scolding us or laying on the guilt, he told us that he was hurt or confused by what we had done. We talked about it; we dealt with it. To this day, I am more receptive and empathetic because of these experiences.

When I had my first major heartbreak I called him from my college dorm room, sobbing. He listened for hours as I went on and on about betrayal, true love and lies. At the end of my monologue there was silence. “Well, this is one of those parenting moments when I don’t have the answers, when I don’t know what to say. I know it will get better for you, but that probably doesn’t mean much to you right now,” he said.  “I just need you to know how much I love you.” I was frustrated when I hung up the phone. I had called for answers, insight, something.  To my 19-year-old self, his words seemed like a cop- out.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized just what it took for him to be honest with me in that moment. He had taken my emotions so seriously that, instead of offering a “one size fits all” pep talk, he courageously admitted that he didn’t have the answer. His admission of “not knowing” was a validation of my pain, of what I was going through, and essentially of me. He didn’t belittle or dismiss me as an over-emotional college freshman (which I was); he treated me with love and respect.

Last Thanksgiving, I saw him wander into my home office. I stood in the doorway as he looked at my framed diplomas, wedding photos and the mounds of papers and projects on my desk. His eyes stopped on a framed photo of us when I was a newborn— he’s holding me close to his bushy 70s beard, smiling, and I’m staring at him with a look of serenity.

“You were my age there,” I said.

“Younger, I was 28,” he laughed, “I was so happy to be your dad. I still am.”

I hugged him. “So proud of you,” he said.

“Likewise.”

Commitment

Let’s face it. The word “commitment” has acquired a bad reputation. We use it to describe our self-imposed hectic lifestyles (“I’m just so over-committed.”). Parents and authority figures employ it to shame people (especially youth) into action (“But you made a commitment to this, you have to stick with it.”). It’s thrown out as a ready excuse for not pursuing something long-term (“I’m a ‘commitment-phobe,’ you know?”).

Last night, a friend of mine made a comment about relationships she’s been in where she only felt comfortable because “the door was always open,” meaning she could leave if things turned bad. “It wasn’t a true commitment, you know, like a marriage,” she said. Her comments made me think about the cultural and moral baggage associated with terms like “commitment” and “marriage.” In many sectors of our society, we have been made to feel like marriage is the “end all be all,” and not always in a positive way. There is the pervading notion (often “humorously” manifested in “ball and chain” jokes) that once the commitment is made, it’s all over….you’re stuck.

As I think about my own marriage, these negative connotations of “commitment” don’t fit. In lieu of restriction, I find extreme liberty in knowing that a commitment has been made. It was a lucid choice — we knew, in essence, to whom and what we were committing. We are, however, still discovering our many layers. Our commitment gives us room and freedom to examine who we are individually and as a couple. It gives us space to disagree, to “rock the boat,” to be true to ourselves. It allows us the privilege of being honest with each other at all times.

Ours is a union based both in reality and in vision. For better or for worse (usually for better), we are forward thinkers —- grateful for what we have, but always seeking out opportunities to grow, to expand, to improve. This applies to the emotional foundation of our marriage as well.  It is only through our commitment to each other that we can achieve all that we want as a team, in life and in love.

I am grateful that I have come to know this meaning of the term “commitment.” I certainly have my life partner to thank for it. My commitment to him goes far beyond the labels associated with the traditional social bond of marriage— it was made well before we even considered becoming “husband and wife.” It is, and will always be, a deep, intrinsic part of me. In this connection I find joy, assurance, and the opportunity to be and become.

Transformation

Mom seemed uncharacteristically down on the phone. Her typically vivacious tone was flat, sorrowful. After I hung up, I felt guilty for not asking what was wrong. I stopped by the house after work and found her in her robe, working at the kitchen table.

“Hey Jenno, I didn’t expect to see you!” Her swollen eyes sparkled.

“What’s up?”

“Bad day. One of my friends from work died today. I’m just really down, I decided to work from home.”

“Oh no, who?” I said, moving closer.

“I don’t know if you knew him, he was one of our custodians. Such a nice guy.”

I knew exactly who she was talking about. I remembered how he beamed when Mom greeted him in the hallway and introduced him to me. I remember thinking how friendly he seemed, how broadly he smiled as Mom showered him with praise.

“He was a great guy.”

I have always known that she is a “people person,” an extrovert who thrives on reaching out to others. But it wasn’t until today that I realized how profoundly she allows her life to be altered by every individual who enters it— friends, colleagues, strangers. This is her most amazing gift, the courage to open herself up, to give her all — to allow herself to become invested, no matter who the person or what the situation.

If I were to ask anyone in a 50- mile radius of the city of Hopkins to describe her, they would undoubtedly mention her work in the community, the hours she has put in organizing, feeding, listening, fundraising. The capacity for recognizing a need in another human being and acting to fill it, always with respect, is one of the most beautiful qualities a person can have. A talent for organizing — no, for inspiring others to take action — is rarer.

The ability to empathize, to intellectually and emotionally go beyond the philanthropic act and put oneself in the position of the person to whom one is reaching out (whether that person is standing inches or miles away) — to allow the experience to change oneself on a fundamental level— is present in one in a million.

Imagine my surprise today when I discovered I had won the lottery. In her infinite wisdom, Mom never talked to me about empathy during my childhood (except maybe once while helping me study for a vocabulary test). She modeled it, day after day, with everyone she met. In my foolishness, I always thought she was “volunteering” and “helping people.” It is so much more than that.

She is touching lives and allowing herself to be transformed in the process.

(Non)violence

Yesterday I attended one of my favorite events in the Twin Cities, The Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater’s May Day Celebration in Powderhorn Park. The theme of the annual celebration is nonviolence, the cultivation of a peaceful existence between humans and the natural world. As I watched the ending ceremony, featuring humans carrying “heavy burdens” (literally depicted by boxes and paper maché stones), I began to think about the burdens, and violence, we inflict on one another (whether knowingly or unknowingly).

Violence takes many forms — physical harm, intentional damage, neglect.  Often, our words produce violent results. I am reminded of a debate I had about a month ago regarding legalized abortion. It was one of those all too common (well, if you’re me) Facebook debates, some of which are productive (many of which are not). The person I ended up debating had posted an intentionally inflammatory status update to the effect of “… now every slutty sally on the block can use abortion as birth control when she gets knocked up.” Aware that this individual was trying to get a rise out his audience, I attempted to engage on a different level.

I asked him if he had considered the psychological violence these terms and stereotypes encourage and inflict. I also remarked that this comment seemed contradictory to the “respect for life” stance. If one truly has “respect for life,” then it should extend to all life (and don’t even get me started on the “gender trouble” inherent in his status update). Obviously missing (or choosing to ignore) my point, he continued to rattle off statistics and moralistic insults, attracting even more “verbal violence” from like-minded individuals committed to “respecting life.”

I give this example not weigh in on the abortion debate, but to illustrate that all of us, no matter what belief systems we subscribe to (or don’t), have the potential to inflict violence through words and actions. I know I am guilty of this. Satire is often my “weapon” of choice. I have always thought of it as a coping mechanism when faced with unbelievable co-workers or when I find myself in a “bang your head against the wall” conversation at a dinner party. But when it comes down to it, my facetiousness is a form of violence, I know it has wounded others in the past.

In the spirit of nonviolence, I constantly challenge myself to quiet my inner snark long enough to hear where others are coming from. Though I encounter many people with whom I will never see eye to eye, I can learn from them. Understanding their theories and arguments most likely won’t completely change mine, but it may help me to nuance my responses to these issues.  At the very least, approaching every person and situation (even the most staggering) with sincerity and respect will, in my opinion, help to foster peace (cue Elvis Costello).

I’m human (as my daily mistakes remind me). Though I will try to control the snark as much as I can, I’m sure she’ll escape from  time to time (wine tends to lure her out). In these instances, I’ll make sure I’m in like-minded company. After all, sincerity toward one’s philosophical opponents can be an arduous task (refueling is important), but it’s worth it.