Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bad Romance: Part II

How to Sexually Harass a Woman (Or Anyone, Really) as Seen through the Lens of a Lady Gaga Video

If you've known me for any length of time, you are probably sick of hearing about Lady Gaga. I am a Monstrous Fan...for a number of reasons: she shares my lone superpower of wearing heels so high that we breathe clouds (not plain air like all you plebeians...I kid...mostly), she doesn't take herself very seriously (she falls down in those heels on stage all the time and gets up laughing), I find her songs imaginative, and, sue me, I love the added layers synthesizers can bring to a piece of music in the hands of the right musician. But I'm also a fan because of her videos, which are rich with complex meaning.

The video for "Bad Romance," however, has always stood out for me above all others, even "Born This Way," which is the video responsible for completing Lady Gaga's very own cosmology, another world that exists apart from the quotidian for the short bursts of time she performs live. There is something about "Bad Romance" that practically eviscerates me. After the news broke about my sexual Harasser being arrested for taking upskirt shots of women in a local big box chain, the first thing I did was watch videos of him taking videos in the store. Surreal.

Then, I watched "Bad Romance," and I realized what it is about the video that elicits such a visceral response, and it's the constantly shifting point of view. When the video begins, the person whom we call Lady Gaga is a sleeping queen on a throne—an example of "subjectness" although, a, perhaps, lax subjectness. In a  plot twist, she touches a button on a console next to her (actually a Parrot by Stark speaker) and is shaken awake into a dream. The facts of this dream are what shock because as she morphs (the way I do when I'm dreaming) into the different people who populate the dream, she becomes a different example of the dark side of objectification (ending with the darkest of all). I realized that day, after seeing the news and subsequently watching "Bad Romance," that I was being shown a movie about my own existence. And this is where our instruction on sexually harassing a woman begins.

Step One: Kill Her
After pressing the button, the queen is projected into the Bath Haus of Gaga. Make no mistake: this is not a spa; it's a morgue. Gaga emerges from a sleek white coffin in the form of a ghost in white latex. In current popular culture ghosts possess two characteristics. First, watch any reality show that attempts to prove the existence of ghosts, and you will learn they don't speak. Second, they are beings whose ability to act upon the world is severely limited, if possible at all. 

For the typical sexual harasser, who is a misogynist, to be successful at his project, he must first "kill" his victim, rendering her into a ghost-like figure. The guy at the table who talks over a woman trying to speak during committee meetings is a sexual harasser in the making if not one in fact. In my case, the harassment began discreetly the summer before the Harasser felt comfortable enough to make an open display of it. To recap, I was taking part in the professional development workshop that I would later help administrate. As part of that workshop we handed in pieces we had been working on that were in draft stage. I had asked that no feedback be given on my work. The Harasser's response was "Well, how are you going to improve if you don't receive any feedback." 

True, but having taught writing for 17 years, I know there is a time when feedback is valuable and a time when it isn't, and the writer should be the one to decide when it's time. Additionally, verbal feedback is better because it tells the writer something about this one audience member's attitude, emotions, and frame of mind. Not only that, but I had a bad experience in graduate school with a male classmate who felt we were in competition and basically "ripped me a new one" in an attempt to eliminate me, and I still had that bad taste in my mouth. 

So I asked, "Could you record your comments and send them to me?" 

"No, that's not the way we do things." 

When I got the comments back, I looked at the first page and threw the copy in the recycle bin. The feedback was not going to help me...and not because I planned to ignore it...but because the Harasser was responding to his idea of what the final product would be and not to what it was at the time, which was unfinished. I was becoming the ghost who doesn't speak or, rather, can't make herself heard. 

The fatal wound occurred on the day I've described in "Bad Romance: Part I." Having given this a lot of thought over the last few months, I now understand that the harasser's ideal victim is the one who attempts to ignore the harassment, in other words, the ghost who does not or cannot act on the world. As I mentioned in Part I, this allows the harasser to fantasize that the victim is giving chase. In Lady Gaga's video for "Yoü and I," which is a retelling of the Pygmalion myth, she sings, "Something, something about the chase," and we all know the titillation of that game...those first few weeks of infatuation where the would-be lovers play tag like children. This is what the harasser seeks, except the chase isn't mutual, nor is it about infatuation, nor is it ultimately about the freedom to play and experience joy (a point I will come around to later). 

There are other responses: I could have done as my friend advised and simply stood up, put my hand out, and said, "No." I could have reported it to his supervisor that afternoon. I could have "seen his 10 and raised him 20" by whispering, "Why is being married a problem?" And while my response was the worst possible because I allowed myself to be turned into a ghost thus giving him exactly what he wanted, none of the other responses really suffice. Saying "No" only sends him to some other victim. And I mean no offense to the director, who is still a good friend, but reporting it at that stage would have gotten him a slap on the wrist and me an apology of sorts: "I'm sorry; I really didn't mean anything by it." That's as far as any upper-level administrator could have legally gone. And reflecting his mirror image back to him may have made the situation worse, another point I'll return to later.

Step Two: Make Her into Your Own Image
In one short scene of "Bad Romance," Gaga is pictured standing in front of a mirror in a black dress, with that odd crown (this time in black) she's famous for, wearing black sunglasses. While singing "I want your drama, the touch of your hand, your leather-studded kiss in the sand," she reprises Madonna in her "Respect Yourself" parody of Michael Jackson grabbing his crotch. To me, this symbolizes the point at which, after having metaphorically killed his victim, the harasser must now make the shadow-self that is the object of his "affection" into his own hyper-sexualized image. In order to keep up the charade that the shadow-self is giving chase, she must want what he wants. It is also, of course, a way to justify actions he knows to be wrong. My Harasser has a wife and daughters; I'm 100% certain that if anyone did to them what he did to me, his reaction would have been similar to my husband's. But he felt no guilt because I was like him and, despite all evidence to the contrary, wanted what he wanted. However, this does not make me "one of the boys." In "Respect Yourself," Madonna is wearing pants when she grabs her crotch. In "Bad Romance" Gaga is wearing a dress, and I think this is intentional because she is not mocking a man in so much as she is questioning what happens when a woman in the garb of a woman makes the same gesture. In making the victim into his own image, the harasser does not confer male status onto the shadow-self, he makes her a slut...all the more worthy of harassing. 

Step Three: Make Her Think She's Crazy
The scene of Lady Gaga in the insane asylum is so reminiscent of the bathtub scene in Valley of the Dolls that I'm convinced the director had it in mind. Tellingly, Gaga appears doll-like with curly pink hair and eyes disturbingly shaped like anime characters. She appears in a bathtub wearing earbuds and some sort of asylum-issued bath suit while being placated by the music she listens to like every stereotypical psychotic we've ever seen in a movie. She is unwillingly made to drink something by two nurses who force her mouth open and pour the elixir down her throat. Intermittently, the video flashes back to the ghost, and we hear the words "I want your love and all love is revenge; I want your love, and all your love is revenge." There are two psychical states being enacted here. The first is the deep anger a harasser feels over the lack of control over the "other" as evidenced by the lyrics, which switch point of view as often as the video, and the second is the age-old scheme of making the victim question whether what she believes to be happening is actually happening. 

For the harasser, "love" is revenge. 

I'm a technical writer and a rhetorician. It's my business to know the most efficient ways of communicating with people. So during the time I was working on the presentation submission form for the conference our organization was hosting, I often received e-mails from the Harasser about changes that needed to be made. Mostly, the changes took less than five minutes, so instead of initiating an unnecessary chain of e-mails, I took care of the problem immediately and assumed that, as happens with tech writers collaborating on a project, he was monitoring the document as the changes were being made, which I had shown him how to do. Instead, I got angry e-mails asking why I hadn't responded to his e-mails (which left me wondering why he hadn't just checked the document for the changes he asked we had agreed). For him, this accomplished three goals: 1) it gave him further reasons to engage me, 2) it allowed him to assert authority over me (where he actually had none), and 3) it caused me to begin questioning whether the e-mails, which varied from sycophantic begging to acrimonious demands to obsequious apologies, were actually a form of sexual harassment. None of this behavior was described in the training I have to undergo every year as part of my position. My thought was "Maybe he is doing the best he can at his job and is truly stressed, and I'm the one being paranoid." Hell, he had me apologizing for things I didn't do wrong while dehumanizing me at the same time. His anger was a subterfuge designed to manipulate me into questioning my own sanity. 

So when I saw two stills of him angrily stalking the aisles of the local big-box chain, I knew that the anger was part of the MO. Now, I don't know what he's angry about in those photos...maybe he's not finding a skirt-wearing victim quick enough for his satisfaction, maybe he and his wife got into an argument before he left for the store, maybe he's angry because he's disgusted by his own behavior. It doesn't matter, he's angry. And this brings me back to two points I promised to come back to earlier. First, his endeavor is devoid of joy. The way he approaches it, with that countenance of consternation, it's more like a job taken on strictly to make ends meet. Second, anyone who's angry is dangerous. I believe it was the b-movie The Seduction where Morgan Fairchild plays a newscaster who foils a rapist by returning his "advances." He later begins stalking her with vengeance in mind. And while that was fiction, the mind that objectifies others in "violent" ways (in my case the violence was purely emotional, but it was there) experiences an es muss sein, "this must be." He considers any alternative that does not put him in control a violence against his own psyche, and he will most likely carry out an act of retribution. Which is why returning the harasser's advances is not a good idea. He must be in control at all costs, and while he will generally walk the fine line between ignorance of wrong-doing and open transgression so as to get off the hook when called out, if the axis of his world goes off kilter, the power of that anger remains. Emotional violence can transmogrify into the physical.  

There is no doubt that the man in the next scene of the video is the one responsible for sending Gaga 1) to the morgue, 2) to the mirror, and 3) to the asylum. Once this is a fait accompli, there is only one step left.

Step Four: Possess Her
I only want to touch on a few scenes in the final sequence of events in "Bad Romance." Lady Gaga is brought out against her will before a king who quite possibly now occupies her former throne and is made to dance for and then crawl to him for his pleasure. She is later shown frozen, as an object, in the middle of a circle of seated men as stocks in Lady Gaga, as a corporation and not a real person, continue to rise. We see her naked in a cage with monstrously huge vertebrae that force her spine to curve grotesquely. She has fulfilled the darkest stage of objectification possible: she has become a possession, a bauble, a sideshow freak, a slave. 

This is ultimately what a sexual harasser, a child molester, a peeping tom, a rapist wants: to claim ownership of another human being because that is the ultimate source of power for him. I'm no psychologist, so I can't identify where their sense of self got stuck or what may have caused this to happen. I just know they have issues with power and control, which they can only regain by dominating those they consider weak. 

In the end, Gaga tricks the new king and sets him on fire, Farrah Fawcett style, while he sits on his bed as she pretends she is about to perform for him and him alone. 

Lucky her. 

The article on "Sexual Harassment" at Wikipedia discusses how victims have coped in the past by taking on the personae of "the lady," "the flirt," and "the tomboy." The message is that we, as women, cannot be ourselves when being victimized by a harasser. It goes on to give the common side effects of sexual harassment, which include the following: stress, humiliation, being the subject of public scrutiny, decreased productivity, loss of support, etc. All of this says to me that I bear the burden for seeking counseling for and rectifying what was done to me. No mention is made of what someone who commits sexual harassment should do to make recompense. Is this an oversight? Or have we given into the idea that men simply can't control their sexual urges (to which I say, "Bullshit." I know way too many good men out there to buy into that load of hegemonical crap.)?

I'm enjoying the fact that my Harasser will live in ignominy for the rest of his life. But that's not enough. I've got a blog, a voice, two hands, and a laptop. And this, not counseling, is the solution that will finally have to suffice. 

And to those who would lament the death of flirtation because feminists see sexual harassment around every corner, have no fear. There is a huge difference. Real flirtation arises out of mutual admiration and a respect for someone that goes beyond the sum of her/his parts. It is childlike and free of darker motivations. It is play and joy. And it is wonderfully summed up by the wink, which is always accompanied by a smile. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Interlude: Rhythm and Blues

For the last five years, I've been working 8:00 to 4:30, and I've arrived at a decision:

I don't really give a fuck when I brush my damned teeth.

Before my dad got sick and left us, I had this idea in my head that I would eventually achieve perfection, and, in my mind, perfection meant that a grid would superimpose order over my life, neatly compartmentalizing it into flawless squares. (And by the way, that square puzzle that's making the run on Facebook right now? I'm counting 37, not 24, and I'm willing to bet there are more. So much for counting squares.)

At one point, (I was still in my 20's) I literally had my days down to fifteen-minute time increments. (And what is a calendar except for a bunch of squares?) I'm not kidding you when I say that I scheduled brushing my teeth into my...gosh...what was the system then? Stephen Covey? Then I got hooked on David Allen. Don't get me wrong, I could listen to him talk about getting my inbox to zero on CD in my truck on a blustery wintry day driving to Indy for 10 straight hours because it all sounds really lovely.

He reads with perfect rhythm.

But he doesn't live my life.

He's in some other realm where the world waits on him, and he does the world a favor by always being on time. Good for David Allen!

On the other hand, I've lived in a world where I'm waiting on everyone else, even when I was teaching, but especially now in my new position. For example, Think-a-Header X has a proposal due October 5th and started working with me in July. Procrastinator Y has a deadline of September 27th and dropped the proposal in my lap...yesterday, a Sunday, a day I don't check my e-mail because it's the weekend, and I'm not working overtime anymore, and you can't make me...state law!

If I were still teaching, I'd say, "Welcome to the real world: first come, first serve, baby. Suck it up." Except that actually isn't the real world. Procrastinor's research has as much merit as Think-a-Header's. And if either one or both of them get the grants, I look good. My institution looks good. So every morning of my life now I walk into work not knowing what my priority is. I feel secure in knowing that my inbox and calendar will tell me. Secure in insecurity.

There are only two things I can count on in my weekly existence (because I can't count on the day-to-day stuff): I'll be at happy hour Friday afternoon at 4:30 (and one of these days I'll beat my new boss) and Sunday brunch at 10:00 a.m. And even those aren't a given. Sometimes I go rebel and head out backpacking or canoeing. Sometimes I climb mountains. Sometimes I squeeze through tiny holes to find a cave that has potentially never been explored. Sometimes I stay up late at night and write. Maybe I'll feel like cleaning house some time soon or cooking (probably not). I just never know.

And maybe I don't want to know. Because the day I wake up knowing exactly what I have to do every minute of the day is probably the day I'll wake up shaking Satan's hand at the crossroads complete with his retinue of hell fire and pitchforks, time clocks and bells on the quarter- and half-hours. And that devil will be wearing a sharp suit and a fedora cocked at just the right angle, but I'm not giving up to his charms. Better to live in happy chaos than reign over perfect order.

Photo courtesy ĐāżŦ {mostly absent},

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bad Romance: Part One

When my sexual harasser’s mug shot appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, I appreciated more than a twinge of schadenfreude.

In writing this post, I have experimented with several aliases for him. In the first draft, I called him Casanova, but then I decided that was unfair to Casanova. The Marquis de Sade won't do because he's my not-so-secret mentor. Don Juan? No. The only other analogies I could think of were to Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy, but those seemed extreme (though, given the circumstances of his recent arrest, I'm not sure that's such a slippery slope). So I'll refer to him simply as "The Harasser."

I met him in the Summer of 2008. I had applied to participate in a month-long workshop delivered by an organization that used my university's facilities as an operating headquarters. I was accepted, and it was both the most invigorating and most enervating experience in my life: on the one hand, I left feeling like a new person, inspired to go forth; on the other hand, I also felt empty...wondering how to go forth. I had become close with one of the other participants and worried that we would go our separate ways (happily, we see each once every other month or so). I had also become closer to one of the team leaders, Liz, who had been, and still remains, a friend. And, yes, I even felt close to the other team leader, The Harasser. In fact, I believe it was because of that workshop that I "won" NaNoWriMo last November and now have a spiffy new job title in a position that fits better with my degrees and areas of expertise. Before then, I didn't have the confidence that my brain could connect with the fingers I placed on a keyboard to produce any kind of worthy text at all. But after the workshop was over, I worried that, without direction, I would lose that confidence.

So when I was offered a consulting position as the technical support person, I took it immediately. I could relive the workshop each summer, make a little extra pay, and enjoy doing what I love (mostly web development and troubleshooting recalcitrant laptops, networks, and media projectors). All while quietly going about my business with no one checking in on me (the way students did the day after all 50 of them had handed in a six-page assignment: "Ms. Le Nom! Do you have our papers graded yet?"

The next summer, the organization hosted another workshop for about 15 participants. Toward the end, we took everyone on a day-long retreat in the capital city. The Harasser, Liz, and I decided to have lunch separately to hammer out the schedule for the final week. Once that was nailed down and we had paid our bill, we stepped outside so Liz could have a smoke. We found a long, unoccupied bench near the trolley station. Liz sat on one end, near a grate where she could dispose of her ashes, and I sat near the other end...a distance of about three feet between us. What happened next runs like a movie in slow motion in my brain.

The Harasser squeezed into the small space between me and the other end of the bench.

He laid his long arm its entire length behind me (he's six feet, seven inches).

He rested his legs diagonally in front of me on the sidewalk.

He leaned into my face.

And he growled (that's the way it seemed), "If we weren't married, I'd be all over you right now."

My face flushed with embarrassment and pique as I stared down at his shoes, my head bowed, my hands underneath my thighs to protect them from the sun-heated wood of the bench. I remember feeling like a child.

Liz groaned, "Oh, Harasser, really?"

There is a picture on Facebook of all of us, participants and team leaders, in a semi-circle taken after the incident. In that picture, I'm as far away from The Harasser as I could get, and I have the expression of someone who looks stricken as if from a blow. Don't get me wrong, I was trying hard, but I can nearly see his shoes imprinted on my eyeballs in that photo.

Liz drove me home afterward, but neither of us mentioned what had occurred. She talked about typewriters and pens as my mind rewound and played, rewound and played the scene over and over again.

"All over me?" I imagined my knees and elbows scraping the pavement as he tackled me from behind and my cheek abraded by the cement as he forced my face into it.

"If were weren't married? What if we weren't? What difference would that make? I'm not interested in you. Are you telling me that your wedding band is the only thing keeping you from being 'all over me'?"

I told the story to my husband that night when he got home from work. To say that he was livid would be an understatement. He was ready to drive over to The Harasser's house to confront him in front of his wife. I begged him not to, persuading him that it was my battle. I didn't see any reason to use patriarchy to fight patronizing, which seemed a little like fighting a flood with more water.

So here's what I did.

Exactly nothing.

In my defense, I thought I was actually doing something.

A couple weeks later, as I was preparing for the next semester, going back and forth between G-Mail and Google Docs (now Drive), I heard the familiar blip of a chat box opening up. It was The Harasser. Instead of responding, I grabbed my purse and headed out the door, letting my status go from green to orange..."standby" hindsight, not the best message. When I got back, he was gone, and I set my status to invisible, blocked him from my personal G-Mail account, and e-mailed my dad to let him know that he should wait for me to contact him for our weekly chat because he wouldn't be able to see if I was online anymore. He wanted to know why. I lied, "Oh, my students have the address, and I don't want them barging in." I hated for my dad to worry about me because it made me worry about him. Besides, I could take care of myself and had my plan of attack ready, "Ignore The Harasser until he gets the message." This was my strategy.

The next three months The Harasser and I exchanged a few e-mail messages, mainly regarding how to contact people in the organization related to a conference we were attending. During that conference, it was announced that our organization would be hosting the next one. Once we returned, the e-mails started coming in earnest. He addressed me as "Wheels" because I beat him home as the driver of my van of conference attenders. But in meetings he started addressing me by the shortest diminutive of my real name. I love my real name though I don't use it here, but I really don't like either one of the diminutives associated with it. And I found it troubling...the familiarity and presumption were out of line.

At first the tone of the e-mails had been neutral, but, as their frequency increased, they changed. Some were pleading, "I hope you'll be at the next meeting because I really miss you." Some were aggressive, "I asked you for that update 20 minutes ago." Some were apologetic, "I'm sorry if I came across as curt in my last e-mail. I'm really stressed about this project." There was something almost bi-polar...or tri-polar...about them, so much so that I stopped responding all together except to provide links to the parts of the website he had asked about.

And, then, whether intentionally or not, he sabotaged a Google form I was working on. I was so infuriated, I wrote an e-mail stating plainly, "Stay out of the damned form. You don't know what the hell you're doing. Let me do my job and back off." Just as I was about to click "Send," a notification pinged the systray, "I see that you were working on the form as I was trying to edit it. Hope I didn't mess anything up." In fact, I had to build the entire thing from scratch, except this time I didn't give him editing privileges because I suspected his efforts to "help" had a darker motivation...a way of creating further association.

In legal terms, he had created a hostile working environment, and it had become obvious to me that my strategy of ignoring him was NOT working. He was looking for any and all excuses to contact me. I unfriended him and blocked him from Facebook and Twitter, and I no longer use Google+ because he somehow managed to plus me, even though I had blocked his e-mail address from G-Mail as previously mentioned. Seeking affirmation that I wasn't making too much over what was happening, I visited his blog posts through links on other friends' blogs. What I found was problematic. One post describes the nubile body of a college swim-team member whose suit had become caught in the cleft between her buttocks; another mentions the seemingly overt sexuality of the young people he worked with on a daily basis. And there were others that would be enough to incite a riot among the parents of the young women he described. (And I've got screen shots, so don't even try to deny it if you read this Harasser.)

I continued my work on the website and form, reporting to the director of the organization with a courtesy copy to him. He switched tactics sometime before the conference we were planning by making comments in front of my colleagues during meetings. The last one was "Gee, you look like a leggy supermodel in that skirt and those shoes." A few weeks after the conference was over, I quit...for reasons more than just the harassment...but that was by and large the bulk of it.

I confided in a wise friend about my reasons for leaving, showing him the posts, and echoing my plight. He sagely advised me that my attempt to ignore the advances was probably taken as giving chase. I had unwittingly egged The Harasser on. My friend taught me that the best thing I could have done that day back in the Summer of 2009 would have been to stand up, put my hand out in the universal sign that means "stop," and say, "No!" I thanked him and promised, “Mark my words, he will soon be caught for something worse.”

And was I right.

The Harasser was arrested and charged at the local Wal-Mart for using an iPod, disguised in one of the personal journals he ubiquitously carried around with him, to take "upskirt videos" of unsuspecting women.

I wish my instincts would fail me occasionally.

I felt vindicated for a time, until I learned of his response to his arrest...or rather his non-response. In an e-mail to a mutual friend he brushed the matter aside as media sensationalism. I'm sorry, but the security surveillance video aired on TV doesn't even need explanation. In fact, I can't stop myself from thinking that videos of my underwear are somewhere on his computer and the Internet.

In the weeks following, I have heard things like "Sure, I asked her to hold my hand and go to my favorite make out spot, and yes, she said she'd rather make out with a dead dog. But that's not harassment," "In cases of legitimate rape, a woman's body has a way to shut that whole [unwanted pregnancy] thing down," and "Why should women have equal pay?"

My Harasser did more to me than create a hostile work environment. Like tectonic plates, he shifted my paradigm, partially destroying the foundation of my home.

In "Bad Romance: Part Two" I will explain exactly all that he took from me and how I'm trying to rebuild the foundation in an effort to keep my house sound.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Going out of Business

F-Bomb Alert: My mom should not read this post (she will anyway).

My teaching career is officially, finally, and irrevocably over. After 19 years in the biz, I've had enough. A few months ago, a friend of mine said, "You know, there are problems at every job; I just need a different set of problems." And I guess I kind of took her statement into my own heart.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I, too, need a different set of problems. So I went out of business...mainly because I'm too tired to keep the store open anymore and because I'm not even sure how I went from being a teaching professional to a business owner.

"Delivering composition." It's the title of a well-known book in my former field, and it's the way many in that field refer to their work. Deliver stuff to someone. Like fucking UPS. It's the tabula rasa in make-up and high heels (because those who "deliver composition" are overwhelmingly female). Worse still, while every college and university across the nation considers composition a foundation of their educational program, it is largely taught by contingent faculty...mostly women...who are far too generous with their time in comparison to the pay they receive, which is among the lowest at any university. Darkness visible: importance undervalued.

I didn't actually sign up for a teaching career. Like most things in my life, it fell into my lap. My Pell Grant was suddenly cut off, and I was forced to graduate. I spent a summer wondering, "What the hell?" And then I got a call from a college friend. The Intensive English Program needed a warm body to stand in front of a class of international students. "Could you be that body?" I was desperate, so I took the job. I remember buying cheap "professional" clothes from Wal-Mart after I accepted my offer. They (the clothes, not the offer) were (a) too big and (b) so unfashionable even for the time that, if you tagged me in a picture of myself wearing them on Facebook, I'd have to unfriend and then block you (after untagging myself, of course).

The funny thing is no one in my new department wanted to teach writing. Being the n00b, I eventually became the expert in teaching writing to students for whom English was a second language...through experience and gut instinct...not through any sort of training. Sure, I read some articles, tried some stuff, and eventually disposed of it because it didn't really get at the reality of how people learn to write well.

You know, I've been writing since before I could write. I'd pen stories I spoke out loud as I wrote down chicken scratches that I thought looked something like the alphabet. I'd show them to my mother: "Sansy, you'll learn to write soon enough." She was wrong. In first grade, I was not taught to write. I was taught to copy. I was also taught that variation from the norm is forbidden. This set of rules for behavior was known as "penmanship," and it taught me that words ending in -ship are often not trustworthy: hardship, censorship, partisanship (not a real thing), membership (generally leads to responsibilities one does not want), kinship (backstabbing, in-fighting, general carnage), etc. So I took to my granddad's typewriter (a Remington that celebrated it's 92nd birthday in July) and did my own thing sans a fat pencil, a Big Chief tablet, or a template. (I'm going all Lady Gaga and seeing how many times I can work my own nickname into each post. See?). It also taught me that if you really want to learn to do something, you have to take matters into your own hands. That's how I learned to actually write, and it didn't feel soon enough. Even at that young age, I had something to say, I wanted to say it, and I felt like forces were holding me back.

My mom and I discovered, when I was in high school, that the reason I was never assigned homework is because I actually was. I just didn't understand the concept. The teacher would tell the class to read this and fill out that, so I did it when I was bored and waiting for everyone else to catch up with whatever the teacher was droning on about (which I had already read in the textbook). I thought that was what we were supposed to do...keep busy. I didn't know I was supposed to sit there quietly doing nothing while all that homework piled up for us to take home.

My bad.

At least I had glorious afternoons playing in the weird back yard that was designed by a concrete manufacturer in 1884: a reflection pool, a rock garden, an octagonal fish pond with island and bridge, a six-foot high bird bath, a wisteria arbor. Hell, the man even encircled the clothesline with sidewalk. My house was THE place to be after school. And when everyone got called in for supper and I had finished eating, I went to the typewriter.

One day, in fifth grade, I ran out of homework to not take home. So I wrote a poem about what was going on in the classroom. I observed things I had never noticed before; it made me pay attention (I even made it rhyme, and, yeah, I know, "E Gad!"). I copied it, by hand (I didn't have access to the lovely pasty smell of the ditto machine) and gave it to my teacher as a sort of present. She gave it to the school secretary, and thus I became a published author for the first the school newsletter. Later that year, I was given an assignment to write a biography about someone famous (good grief, why do these subjects withstand the test of time?). I naturally wrote an essay about one of my ancestors, Benjamin Franklin, whom my dad was named after, and I got the highest grade of anyone for that assignment. I was only interested in my subject because my dad had studied Ben's life backwards and forwards, in all its tarnished glory, and had regaled me with the more kid-friendly of our progenitor's exploits. After I had written the paper, I asked my dad to check it. I don't know if he was laughing at my naivete or with joy that he had taught me something. Probably both. At any rate, he kindly and verbally corrected some parts and told me how proud he was of me. Through so many experiences like these, I learned the power of observation and that I was a WRITER.

If you want to write well, here's what you need to know:
  • If you want to write, just do it.
  • No matter how bad it's going, wait for the moment when it all turns right. It'll happen.
  • It doesn't hurt to share. Some will love you; others will rip you apart. Somewhere in the middle is the truth.
  • Motivation is key; you need to want something bigger than yourself and your own little world.
  • You'll mess up a lot (typewriters are good for reminding you of this).
  • Find a way in to every project.
  • It isn't cheating if you ask for help.
There, I bubble-wrapped it, put it in a cardboard box filled with Styrofoam peanuts, taped up the box, drove it to your house, knocked on your door, and handed it to you. Delivered.

There are several problems with this metaphor, however. Once something has been delivered, what happens to it?
  • What if the customer doesn't like it and wants to return it? (I thought I wanted Product X, but I've changed my mind.)
  • What if the customer wants an exchange? (I want a better version of Product X.)
  • What if he/she never opens the box (In one week, I'm no longer interested in Product X. In fact, I'm so uninterested by Product X, I won't even take the time to open the box or inquire about a possible return. I'm actually willing to lose money on it by not returning it.)
  • What if your consumer only consumes part way and gives up in frustration? (I can't understand the instructions; I'll just leave it in the garage half done.)
  • What if the product is a "gift" the consumer didn't want?
  • What if the product doesn't meet the customers expectations because they didn't understand the product's description? (Wait, I bought a hardware key logger so I wouldn't lose all my stuff in the event of the Zombie Uprising, and you're telling me I can't use it with a laptop?)

Begin digression. 4 That last one was oddly specific, wasn't it? 3End digression.

There are a number of problems with this metaphor. The first of which is that students are not consumers and teaching does not result in a product. Consumers are people who buy, let's be literal, food and eat it. I don't want the "products" of their consumption landing on my desk. And maybe that's why student writing is so often crappy...because we've adopted the wrong metaphors for understanding what writing actually is and we refuse to see that learning how to do it will be different for every single person. No method is prêt-à-porter. Also, you can't deliver learning and expect anything to happen. You have to create opportunities for people to learn, and the classroom is probably the worst place for opportunity with its hierarchy so obviously laid out in rows.

To make matters worse, if I were still in the delivery business, as a member of the contingent faculty, I would have the additional threat of being drawn and quartered hanging over my already taut nerves. The Four Horses of the Apocalypse who would ensure the failure of my delivery would be as follows:
  • My creditor: the person who renews my contract, i.e. my chair.
  • My landlord: the state that pays me.
  • My competition: the other composition programs out there who drive every program to act according to the same model.
  • My customers: the people I'm supposed to serve out of the goodness of my heart.
Let me break it down. My creditor wants me to maintain standards, which means certain grades should form a bell-shaped curve. (The books must be balanced!) My landlord wants me to concentrate on retention which means I should do whatever it takes to make sure students pass my class. (You must pass all regulatory inspections.) My competition wants me to stay within the accepted rules of how we deliver our goods; this doesn't affect me personally, but it certainly dictates the methods by which we assess our program. (We are the standard-setters for this particular business; never mind your unique circumstances. Our guidelines should be met by everyone.) And finally, there are the customers. The people I'm supposed to serve out of love for teaching. And if I could have gotten loose of my restraints, believe me, I would have made my getaway on their horse. Unfortunately, there's already a master holding the bridles, and that master's name is "Lottery College Scholarship."

These students have been told they stand a fighting chance, and they want it. We tell them that writing is about exploration, and they feel invited. And then we slap a grade on their fledgling attempts, and I'm sorry for the mixed metaphor (but, hell, I'm the queen of the mixed metaphor and there are so many in this text already, what's one more?), we expect them to fly?

This model is broken because it pits the teacher against everyone else.

Students want to maintain their scholarships; chairs want a bell-shaped curve. The legislature wants to move the college graduation rate above 18%. I'm not sure standards have ever actually entered the minds of any legislator in this respect. My imaginary elected official thinks something like this: "Give college students the Easy A, damn it! Knowledge-based industries like Google will never figure out how woefully inadequate our workers are until we've attracted them with our tax incentive packages, and then it'll be too late!" Beg your pardon, legislators, the information age is actively looking for brain capital, and they know we don't have it.

In the meantime, the Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) sets standards for class size and assessment guidelines that go against anything any administrator in this state has the money to agree to thanks to the legislature that subsidizes every public school of higher education here. This is the very same legislature that decided to award unprepared students scholarships for college with stipulations they can't meet.

And this is why everything must go. And by everything I mean grades, standards, enforced curricula (assignments, textbooks, methods of teaching, especially the tabula rasa model), and the disenfranchisement of women in the discipline.

Oh, and grading 640 papers a semester? That was the first thing I put into the trash.

Photo Credit: Bearfaced via a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivs License.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Yes, I'm the Woman Judging Your Purchases in the Grocery Line

Okay, so I challenged everyone to guess the three products whose ingredients I posted (ahem) SEVERAL weeks ago and promised I would reveal them the following week. However, I got busy writing something else instead. You get what you pay for.

I know how many of you visit this site (and where you reside...a big welcome to visitors from Australia and Indonesia), and yet no one wagered a guess. I imagine it was easy enough to surmise that one was a savory product and the other two were sweet, but, other than that, there aren't a lot of clues regarding the nature of the products in the ingredients lists. They are as follows:

1. "devil's food cake" mix,
2. "milk chocolate" icing,
3. a packet of "brown gravy" mix.

I put the food names in quotation marks because one cannot call any of these items real food. Having looked at recipes for the first product, I gotta say that I don't see the necessity of buying it "pre-made." There aren't a whole lot of ingredients in the homemade version. But let's suppose you work 40 hours a week (as I do) and want your evenings and weekends relatively free (as we all do). In a few minutes, you could mix the following ingredients together, put them in a sealable, re-usable container, and put them in the freezer (yes, I'm assuming a lot by assuming you have a could keep it in the cupboard, just be aware that whole wheat flour goes rancid in high temps). You could even double or triple the batch for more cake later.

Healthier Devil's Food Cake PreMix
In one bag, mix together:
1 cup brown cane sugar
3/4 cup cane sugar

In another bag, mix together:
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat cake flour (yes, there is such a thing)
1 cup unsweetened baking cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

Now, when you're ready to bake a cake, pull your two bags out of the freezer.

Remember the French saying, "mise en place" and get the following ingredients on the counter. Next to your mixing bowl:

1 1/2 sticks organic butter
4 large organic free-range eggs (if you can, look for someone who sells eggs from chickens who roam around eating insects all day)

Cream 1 1/2 sticks of softened organic butter with the sugars. Add four eggs to this mixture one at a time, beating well. Then add the rest of the mix. Stir a few times (just enough to get everything mixed). Pour half into two 8-inch cake pans. Bake 30-35 minutes.

You're done...well, unless you want icing on your cake, but there are a million recipes for it online, and it too is fairly easy to make.

Now, I also said I would explain how I came up with the total calories for the meal. If you'll recall, that was 1208 in toto. A serving of cake with icing and a serving of the brown gravy add up to 435 calories. I figured the brown gravy was probably for a pot roast; that's 334 calories for a single serving of beef. I also assumed that mashed potatoes were one of the most likely side dishes. That's another 237 calories. There would be at least one other side dish in the meal: how about green beans cooked down with a slice of bacon and some onion for 90 calories? Then add a King's Hawaiian sweet roll for 180 calories, and it actually comes out to more than 1208 calories. I picked King's because I see their rolls everywhere, so I'm guessing a lot of people eat them around here. A meat and two, plus bread and dessert seems like a fairly typical American meal to me. Unless you're at my house.

First, I became pescatarian (more or less) about two months ago (except for Sundays when the Holy Eucharist comes in the form of bacon and champagne...and unlimited opportunities for receiving the body and the Cathedral of St. Michelangelo on Toad Suck Square in good ol' Conwag). I did this for a lot of reasons: my health and the need to economize (my husband goes fishing seven kidding...a week). But mainly I did it because I want to eliminate my relationship with the corporate food industry. I can't live with the moral questions raised by eating meat that comes from animals I know were inhumanely slaughtered by humans working in inhumane conditions. Not only that, the two main backbones of the convenience-food industry are GM soybeans and GM corn. I can't bring myself to support an industry (*cough* Monsanto) that lies about its mission, which isn't to feed a projected 9 billion people in the future. Their true mission is what they tell their shareholders: to make money. And GM corn is what they feed to animals that did not evolve to eat it. And I want to ask, how well will Monsanto be feeding the world given the drought most of the country is in right now? Genetically modified corn might tolerate Round Up, but it can't withstand Mother Nature any better than a regular crop.

Second, I'm picky. I don't like sweets, so the Western version of breakfast doesn't generally cut it. I often do as the Japanese and Koreans and eat the same things I eat for lunch and dinner: a bowl of soup, some tuna from a can, a little scattered sushi, some steamed vegetables. Except for the tuna (which I take no credit for), everything is made on Sunday. If I need something really quick, I make a single serving of organic popcorn and eat an apple or frozen berries. All things that, when they come out of their packages, are identifiable as food.

So, yes, I'm the one behind you in the supermarket watching every single item you put on the conveyor. But I'm not really judging you. I'm judging what corporations have done to our food system...eliminating the small butcher shop, the bakery store, the corner market in every neighborhood that you could walk to when you forgot the milk and eggs. I don't want you to buy the ground beef. I don't want you to buy it because it's bad for you, the environment, the animals sacrificed for it, and the economy of the middle class. I don't want you to buy the Healthy Choice cookies and Lean Cuisine entree because, despite all marketing implications to the contrary, they will not make you thin. I don't want you to buy convenience foods like brown gravy packets, cake mix, and ready-made icing because they will eventually lead you to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

That being said, would anyone like a free box of cake mix with a package of icing and a brown gravy packet? Anyone?

Photo credit: Patrick Hoesly via Creative Commons Attribution License. Some Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Guess the Product, or How I Learned to Love Pigweed

I guess in the past two years I've become something of a Food Nazi...for good reason. I've read Fast Food Nation and Twinkie Deconstructed. I've watched Supersize Me; Food, Inc.; and The Corporation. And there's only one conclusion I'm able to draw: We're being a broken food chain (which we broke), a culture of convenience, and the greed of giant conglomerates that seem to be run by some inhuman(e) force. Whether it's in the form of e. coli, salmonella, or some other food-born pathogen or by toxic ingredients or methods of food production, poison is poison just like "a rose by any other name."

So after The Hubs and I got back from the grocery Sunday and I found a bag full of unlikely purchases, I was a little aghast. Apparently, we had accidentally picked up someone else's stuff. On the one hand, I feel a little guilty that they paid for something they didn't receive. On the other hand, no one should eat these things. See if you can guess what they are (no cheating by Googling them!):

Number One
Enriched and bleached flour, sugar, cocoa processed with alkali, corn syrup, leavening, corn starch, modified corn starch, partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil, carob powder, propylene glycol, mono and diesters of fatty acids, distilled monglycerides, salt, dicalcium phosphate, sodium stearyl lactylate, xanthan gum, cellulose gum, artificial flavor.

Number Two
Sugar, water, partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oils, corn syrup, coca processed with alkili, corn starch, salt, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 60, modified corn starch, citric acid, potassium sorbate, artificial color, soy lecithin.

Number Three
Enriched wheat flour, wheat starch, salt, beef fat, hydrolized soy protein, onion, caramel color, corn syrup solids, sodium caseinate, spices, garlic, natural flavor, disodium inosinate and guanylate, extractives of paprika, and yeast extract.

In exchange for the 435 calories, 31% of your day's recommended intake of fat, and 32% of your day's recommended intake of sodium per what the manufacturers consider a serving if you ate all three in a single meal, you get 16% of your recommended daily intake of iron and 8% of your calcium. So, virtually nothing.

And that's not even the whole meal. I'm guessing that the person who was thwarted in her/his attempt to buy these products probably eats from a lot of boxes. So I estimate, judging from processed food websites, that another 800 calories would go into the meal for a total of 1208 calories, and I tried to be modest in my assessment, choosing components of the meal that made sense to me based on cooking magazines and sticking to the serving sizes suggested by the company websites.

Now, for those of my audience who don't know me personally, I never touch anything that tastes remotely sweet (it's the reason I don't eat bread...too sweet), yet as far as your health and the health of the environment is concerned, sugar is the most innocuous ingredient in the lists above. However, at 39 grams of the stuff (the government has not established a recommended daily allowance for sugars), that's 156 empty calories, so I'm not advocating the liberal consumption of sweet stuff, especially if it's in the form of high fructose corn syrup for reasons I'll outline below.

4Backstory. The first time my parents allowed me to stay home alone was a Saturday when I was twelve and an apparent moron. They went antique shopping; I went on a Pepsi and candy bar binge. I remember that I drank twelve soda pops in the 16 oz bottles (yep, they came in glass back then, kids). I remember because I was pretty proud of having downed two six packs of Pepsi. I don't remember how many candy bars I ate, enough that at some point, my stomach revolted, and I was still barfing when my folks came home around supper time. My mom literally sent me to bed without any dinner...probably more to end the puking than out of anger. At any rate, that episode cured me of my sweet tooth. I switched to carrot and celery sticks. Oh, and apples. In fact, one time I ate 14 Johnnie apples in one day, and I was pretty proud of myself. Until I started throwing them all up...kind of like bobbing for apples in reverse. Yes, I might have OCD. No, I'm not a big fan of apples anymore, either. 3End backstory.

The four ingredients that are the worst in the product lists, in my opinion, are the flour, the soy (all the different forms of it, including soy lecithin), the cottonseed oil, and the corn (all the different forms of it, probably including the monoglycerides). Here's why.

Enriched white flour is pure starch and nothing else...until the millers add back all the vitamins they stripped out of the flour in the first place, which seems like a monumentally inefficient system. So you might be getting the same vitamins, but you're not getting any fiber (which helps you to poo, it's true). Worse, Americans consume far too much of this starch in pasta, bread, stuffing, cereal, cookies, etc., etc. Think about what grocers call "The Prison" section of the store (so-called because if you put a few carts and a 3-D display in the aisle, you're probably not going to get out alive or without making at least one impulse purchase). Most of what's contained in it are boxes, cans, and jars containing white flour. ("Jars don't contain anything with white flour in it," you say? How about Manischewitz matzo ball soup?)

Convenience foods.

I see flour as an important cause of our rising obesity rate, which, yes, is an incredibly complex phenomenon, and flour alone is not the culprit. But it didn't help that the USDA advocated 6-11 servings of grain-based foods a day in the outdated Food Pyramid. If I tried to eat grains to the exclusion of everything else, I still wouldn't be able to consume that outrageous amount every single day, and I'd probably lose all my teeth from malnutrition if I tried. Not to mention the fact that the encouragement to eat whole grains over the processed stuff that comes in your box of Fruit Loops was in pretty damned fine print. Also not mentioned on the Pyramid is the fact that there is fiber in beans, fruits, and vegetables as well as more vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. See, there is a Big Grain (think Archer Daniels Midland), but there is no Big Bean, Fruit, and Vegetable because the producers of onions, strawberries, and butter beans, etc. are largely independent (or worse, located in other countries which increases the carbon footprint of their produce). Big Grain has a big lobby, so they got a huge piece of the Pyramid pie where fruits and vegetables get less than half the space. And beans are inexplicably lumped in with meat. Beans contain virtually no fat, are practically free if you buy them dried, and they're damned filling. But my government is going to sit there and tell me I should be careful and not eat too much of them? That's just stupid. But it goes to show what happens when your crop doesn't have a lobby to advocate for it with the USDA (US Department of Asshattery).

We can lump soy, cottonseed oil, and corn all into the same group because, in my opinion, they're bad for you and the environment for the same reasons. Monsanto* started out as a seed company, switched to the chemical business, and then became a chemical and seed company. Some scientists who work for them got the idea to develop an herbicide from a chemical called glyphosate (far more environmentally friendly than atrazine, previously one of the more common herbicides, I freely admit). Then, they took their profits a step further by genetically modifying soybean, cotton, corn, and canola seeds. In the case of soybeans, for example, they splice the bean's genes (tee hee) with some genes from a bacterium that produces an enzyme that makes the plants invulnerable to glyphosate; hence, "weeds" die, crops don't. (N.B.: It's supposed to be a single gene, but my understanding is that it's impossible to remove the one gene without also removing a couple of others and these have become a part of the genetic material of the modified seeds. If I'm wrong on this count, you may leave a message in the comments with a correction. I point it out for informational purposes only.) And here's the deal: 94% of all soybeans, 73% of all cottonseed, and 72% of all corn (excepting sweet corn, which is a tiny crop in comparison to the stuff you see driving on the freeway) comes from genetically modified seed.

In an ironic twist, "weeds" have proven that natural hybridization can happen as quickly and efficiently as the brilliant scientists who work for the aforementioned company can come up with new ways to genetically and recklessly alter life. In other words, the "weeds" glyphosate is supposed to combat are quickly becoming resistant to it, to the point that 12 million acres1 of U.S. cropland is overrun by Monster "Weeds." In the south it's pigweed, an edible, highly nutritious plant (which is why "weeds" is in quotation marks: one woman's "weed" is another woman's salad). The result of these Monster "Weeds" arriving on the scene is that farmers are either using more and more glyphosate on their GM crops or are applying atrazine as well as glyphosate.

Let's break it down: "herb," from the Latin herba meaning "grass" or "herb"; "-cide" from the Latin cidium, a form of the verb caedere meaning "to kill." These are poisons. Both the aforementioned company and the EPA have maintained that the product does not cause any harm to humans or animals, but the evidence is mounting that, in fact, it does2.

4Sidenote. Linda J. Fisher, who was president of Monsanto from 1995-2000, worked as an adiminstrator of the EPA under George W. Bush. She is now a vice president of DuPont. Just thought I'd throw that in there. 3End sidenote.

There is the possibility that glyphosate is responsible for a wide number of negative effects ranging from birth defects to dilation of the heart. And it is definitely toxic to aquatic life, which is why products containing it state on their labels that you should not pour your leftover herbicide down the drain. And if you think that rinsing these crops with water removes the herbicide, you are mistaken. Research has shown that the majority of chemicals applied to fruits and vegetables remain...even after washing them with a produce detergent3. (You should still rinse your produce because it IS effective at removing pathogens.) For these reasons, it seems to me that more application of glyphosate is not a good thing. Any application of atrazine is definitely not a good thing. And if the Monster "Weeds" continue taking over cropland, countries around the globe that depend on the U.S. for much of their food supply could be looking famine straight in it's skinny little face. Starving to death is not very good for anyone's health.

So I challenge you. Guess the products if you can. More importantly, vote with your dollars. Stop buying over-processed food with ingredients whose name you can't pronounce. Grill a bunch of vegetables and a lean meat for dinner; have cut up fruit for dessert. Better yet, go pescetarian, vegetarian, or flexitarian (someone who eats meat only occasionally). Make it a game to figure out how to transform a food you generally don't have time to make into a "from-scratch convenience" food. Love blueberry pancakes? Triple the batter, divide it up, and throw what you don't eat into the freezer. Try to buy as many organic products as you can afford. If not, you'd better start looking up recipes for pigweed because you may be eating a lot of it in the near least here in the sunny South.

I'll reveal the products and the imaginary meal I conjured up for the 1208 calorie dinner next Wednesday along with some suggestions for substituting "from-scratch convenience" foods. Oh, and pigweed. I'll have a recipe for pigweed...which will get you through the glyphosate catastrophe and the zombie apocalypse.

*The company in question has a nasty habit of sending cease and desist letters to anyone who might exercise her first amendment right to express a negative opinion of said company. All views expressed here are opinion only.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tyler Durden Is a Dear Friend of Mine

So I've spent two mornings waking up at 4:45 to catch the suspect in my gaslighting case.

The first morning was a rainy one...very rainy. The entire state was under a flash flood watch and there was concern the Arkansas River would swell out of its banks. I figured the culprit wouldn't show up to tap on my window, and I was right.

I laid my trap last night by opening the curtains to the bedroom window and sleeping on the divan, just under the window the perp had tapped on Tuesday morning. I was awakened by my alarm at 4:45 and lay in wait to see if I could catch the tapper in the act. Fifteen tense minutes went by as I wondered what I would do if it were someone I knew. Should I call the police? Yell at her/him? What?

Then, at 5:07 on the dot:


And both cats went running...

for their automatic feeder.


Apparently it makes an occasional "ticking" noise before it advances which perfectly explains everything that happened: the 15 days between the two events, the consistency of the time, a 'Fraidy. Cat bolting off the bed...not in fear but in jubilation, cat paws running toward the kitchen (not under the bed...The Hubs heard it the 2nd time and says no vats came into the bedroom.

So, yeah, I've pretty much been gaslighting myself.

At least I'm not crazy.

And you're welcome.