Thursday, January 29, 2009

Duff and the Nudie Mag

So, didn't know Playboy still used the "great articles" shtick (though, honestly, the Shel Silverstein pieces really were incredible--try "Hamlet as Told on the Street" and "The Great Smoke Off"). But, here they go again:

Duff's writing a column for Playboy

on finance.

I have no words.

No, I lie.

Simple pefection, this are.

I've used his story with students before; non-traditionals really dig it. They'll LOVE this.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fourteen Years

This posts marks the second time in less than a year that I've had cause to use this particular title; last time regarded Sir Duff's continuing sobriety. This post is about my father; another male figure of some importance, one might imagine, in my life.

That both anniversaries would call to mind the same title and, as it happens, song, is unsurprising, given that we are dealing in anniversaries, one from a life (though not mine)-changing event in May of 1994, and the other was life-ending event from January of 1995.

On the 21st of January, 1995, I was 19 years old, a mother of a 9 month-old son, a nanny for three boys, and a full-time college student, though I can no longer recall what courses I was taking...possible this was the General Psych, Child Psych, Marriage & Family, American History Semester, but I don't really recall. It may have been American Lit, Advanced Comp, and assorted other courses. None of that is particularly important, save that I dutifully attended all of my classes in the week after the 21st, a fact that has occasionally made me irritable with students who disappear after local deaths. Just keep moving.

Anyway, by the time that Saturday rolled around, my father had been dying to one degree or another for at least 4 years. He was diagnosed with a nasty, slow-growing brain cancer, Astrocytoma (grade II, I think--but it may have been Anaplastic even from the get-go of his awareness) when I was about 15; he had surgery to remove what they could and radiation to retard further growth. His chances for long-term survival were never particularly good, though I wasn't completely aware of that at the time, I think. The first surgery and rounds of radiation did the job, and, to his oncologist's great surprise, the damn tumor began to shrink. Doc planned to write this one up of a journal, according to my father, because the shrinkage was out of left field. As it happens, we can better understand what the tumor was doing as a temporary retreat, because two and a half or so years later, while I was pregnant with Tough Guy, the bastard came back fast, massive, and lethal.

We had not had a good relationship in years, owing to my bitchy teengirl antics, his own discomfort with fatherhood (realizing this 11 years into fatherhood is a bit problematic; later telling his 13 year old, high strung daughter that he didn't want to be a father? Seriously bad news), and some classically bad divorce politics. Let me put it this way: you know how when people mention the death of a parent, many folks respond with "I can't imagine what that must be like"? Well, I still have that response even now, largely because he'd not been around for so long before then; I have to remind myself that I do have some insight into the matter. Anyway, he had seen Tough Guy when kiddo was 6 weeks old, and Dad was already looking rough and having serious balance problems by then, but I don't think I saw him again until 1995, when he asked me to join him and my stepmother for New Years Day 1995 and to bring Tough Guy along; I was a bit fearful of the encounter--what might transpire, but I did join them.

When she extended the invitation, Peggy was quite matter-of-fact. Dad was dying and this was a last opportunity to spend time with him. He had asked her to contact me as a matter of a final request of sorts. The end was nigh, and he had a few things he wanted to say (none of which do I remember--other images having become the most poignant from that day), an item to bequeath, and photos he wanted taken with me and with Tough Guy, who was now walking and beginning to yammer.

Dad looked awful. My Navy Officer father, never a great dresser when let loose from his uniform, looked sallow in the long-sleeved, stained white shirt, the brownish corduroys, and the awful mustard yellow suspenders, which have remained a focal point for me for my last memories of him. He was slow, weak, barely able to hold Tough Guy or to move across the room. His only moments of absolute clarity were in showing me the new trash compactor and the in-ceiling Bose speakers in their newly finished house.

I heir my geekdom honestly.

He died on the 21st of that month, after apparently lapsing into a coma about a week before. My stepmother, perhaps fearing an outburst or some histrionic behavior, did not contact me. I found out only because my grandmother happened to call my father's house, and his mother-in-law spilled the beans. I saw him on the 21st, there in the VA Hospice, hours before he died. I said my goodbyes, cried while holding his hand, tried to at least maintain a modicum of composure in the face of Peggy's anger at me and his impending death, and then went home. I wasn't in the house more than five minutes, when Tough Guy's paternal grandfather ushered me to the study to answer the phone. It was my grandmother; Dad died while I was driving home on I-64, a road that has tied together so many peculiar moments in my life. I even wrote a poem about the damn thing once upon a time.

I left Tough Guy with his grandparents and returned to Hampton, where I was afforded the opportunity to see my father's body before the cremation. I had already said my goodbyes, so this was merely a weird moment, not nearly so significant as the yellow suspenders in my memories of him.

Like many people with poor relationships with parents, I have wondered over the years whether we would have been able to come to terms with our mutual disappointments or if he would have been proud of me. I was too young and too disconnected from him to even hazard a guess, and, I suppose, it doesn't really matter in the end, what he would have thought. Is that just my teenage angst rearing, though--to remain dismissive of his opinions?

In the throes of my teengirl years, I used to write letters to him, including lyrics from various songs that seemed especially meaningful--most of them were about abandonment and anger. As I've mentioned before, I spent a great many years in dark places, and those letters, which I hope he burned in order to purge them from his existence, exemplified that darkness. I did not trust my own words to convey my emotions properly, so I relied on the music and lyrics of the bands I had plastered all over my room. I might have even made him a mix tape of some of them; in fact, I am almost positive that I did.

So, Dad,

It's been a good ride so far; I hope you have had an opportunity to see the grandson who looks so much like you. He's every bit my son--headstrong and obnoxious, and every bit your grandson, for the same reasons. I have less of a clue now on how to address you than I did then, though I believe I've managed to accumulate a bit more insight. I hope I have, at any rate.

If you ever have the chance and feel like crossing the mortal veil or what have you, I do have several questions for you. Would like a bit of insight into the photo album with the pictures of Bahrain, which your sister tells me you adored. I never knew that when you were alive; if you ever mentioned it in my presence, I don't recall what you said. Would have been great if you had labelled any of the pictures, but it does make for an interesting mystery to solve someday, should I ever make it to Bahrain. It's definitely changed since you were there...I imagine you would be gobstruck by just how much.

I thought you hated travel; how in the world did I get that impression? And Slaughterhouse-5 was your favorite book? I adore Vonnegut...I'd love to know what your take was, exactly. What drew you in?

Anyway, I hope that this note doesn't constitute some sort of awful post-mortality interruption to whatever. I sincerely hope that where/what/however you are that "well" is a good descriptor. I'd leave with "hang in there," but I am a child of Hellraiser, and the variety of mental images available to me with that remark tend toward the unpleasant, so let's just leave with a "stay well," okay?

Much love. Miss you...can't believe it's been 14 years already.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Good Morning, America. How are ya?

"...Don't you know me/I'm your native son./ I'm the train they call/ the City of New Orleans..."

Ah, thank you Arlo, for getting into my head this morning. Have a listen if it's been a while for you:

As melancholy as Goodman's song is, it has always reminded me of the hope and promise of America--growth and ingenuity, occasionally at our personal expense. The railway was once the showpiece of American promise--the laying of rail across the continent was a feat of engineering and wealth, even as wrapped up as the act was in social politics (race and class, most strikingly).

Today, Barack Obama will take the Oath of Office of the President of the United States of America; he has, for many, become a symbol of hope and promise similar to the rails of yesteryear. Enduring ingenuity and a craving for wisdom (a polar bear mentality, you might recall), rather than fear and punishment. I hold hope for reconciliation among American voices; we need not bear the same opinions; indeed, we should not, but I do hope for increased civility in our discourse.

Obama, Biden, and their families began the Inauguration events on Saturday, when they took a train into Washington D.C..

"And the sons of pullman porters/And the sons of engineers/Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel."

So today, the son of a used car salesman who had found himself down on his luck, and the son of students of the 60's--an American and a Kenyan in Hawaii, will take Oaths in promise of leading the U.S. of A. Though Obama, born in 1961, is by some accounts, a member of the Baby Boom generation (albeit at the tail end), on the cusp with the advent of Generation X. Some have identified this group--born roughly between 1954 & 1965 as Generation Jones.

I'm going to simply with with Boomers and Xers...because it makes the most sense to me, false though the distinctions will ever remain (generalizations being what they are). Obama will be the first president elected since Kennedy to have no memory of J. Kennedy's assassination, and to have memories of the assassinations of King and R. Kennedy gilded in childhood, though he no doubt grew up in the shadows of these deaths. This is a major distinction between Boomers and Xers...the signifying moments. Xers were too young (even the upper end) to experience the "Summer of Love" directly, having it instead translated by pop culture; our friends did not die in Vietnam, though our older siblings might have. But we grew in it's shadow.

We grew in a shadow of Nixon, of Ford, Carter, Reagan, a military that watched events in Iran and Iraq with trepidation, an energy crisis (which would be oft symbolized in the orange stickers on switch plates in our schools, reminding us to Turn the Lights Off!). Fourteen years younger than Obama, I was even more in shadow for many of these events than he would have been, but in the umbra we were, nevertheless. Boomers were, at that time (at least in the late seventies and eighties), beginning their ascent to power in their ever memorable power suits.

As one who sits on the cusp, he embodies the shifts in the mindsets of generations. Railroads have been on the brink of failure for his entire existence (well, Amtrak did have a fine year this year), and we have been abandoning the rails--or transforming them to trails--by degrees throughout his years. Perhaps the rails still hold promise for us--a greener America, a more civil and connected America, not rooted in the individual car, but in the shared transport of train. Not in the skies that lift us above the fray, but in the train cars that pull us beside it.

Best wishes to you, Mr. President. I'm rooting for you.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cows on Mars!

Interesting news from the Mars frontier--> methane has been detected on Mars, without any apparent geological activity to explain it. Which could, of course, be a signal of life on the Red Planet.

And for your above-average geek, it's a rather groovy notion. Of course, when G. was telling me this last night, what should pop out of my mouth in response? "Oh, so there are cows on Mars, then?*"

The remark was rewarded with a look of adoring concern for my sanity, before the joke finally arrived at the intended destination.

Silly fart humor aside, I think I have arrived at the proper name for the punk band of my dreams: cows on Mars.

Sort of a Ziggy-Stardust-cum-Dead-Milkmen kind of vibe, you know?

*Please note the remark included in the CNN article. I love techies; I really do:

"To date no viable method has been devised to capture this gas as it erupts from either end of the cow."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Seeking, Polar Bear Style

On my typical morning, I read the newspaper (bless the poor local one, it doesn't take very long), a couple of web-papers, and several blogs, just to see what might be out there. On Thursdays, I read Duff's notes on the world, and when fate is with me, slacktivist posts on the same day.

Today is one of those fine days; much reading enjoyment. I'm also listening to People of the Book whilst driving between campuses, so just be aware that somehow this is all creating an odd confluence in my mind.

So...polar bears. Fred (slacktivist) remarks that

Grandin also discussed another case of compulsive animal behavior -- a polar bear named Gus who had taken to pacing back and forth in his zoo habitat. Gus' behavior, Grandin said, was motivated by "seeking." Being both very intelligent and a predator, Gus was simply going out of his mind with boredom.

That term "seeking" was new to me in this context. Dr. Grandin explained that she was using the terminology of Panksepp's core emotions -- fear, rage, separation anxiety and seeking.

Read the article, it is worth the time; good thoughts on our "gerbil" habits, versus our "polar bear" ones. The seeking bear simply wanted stimulation of some sort, rather than a closed, predictable environment. Oh, how I do identify with that bear.

Duff wrote about mountain climbing today, and in the course of his notes, he remarked upon the obsessive habits of the alcoholic---something rather familiar hereabouts--and noted that he could feel the pull to the summit when he was a mere 300ft away, but had to turn back; he did listen to his climbing partner and descended safely, a remarkable change from the Duff of 15 years ago who not only would not have been climbing any icy mountain safely, but who almost certainly wouldn't have put safety and wisdom over opportunity.

What Duff is describing, I think--and what I've written about as well--is a matter of seeking. Some alcoholics are motivated by fear, and many sober alcoholics are. I can't tell you how many books I have come across that simply work to manipulate the fear instinct in alcoholics--fear the drink. And that is not necessarily a bad thing, by the way...a bit of fear of what you were willing to do while drunk is a healthy thing indeed. Step 5 in AA--"Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs" is precisely about this--reminding yourself (and at least one other person) what you did. What you were willing to do. Who you hurt.

But, for a certain set of us, the need to, as Duff remarks, "fill the void," requires something other than just fear. We require activity--outlets for energy that had previously been spent consuming. The energy (which while an active drunk has many different expressions), doesn't disappear. Either we begin the polar bear pace, which leads to boredom and, unfortunately also leads, too often, back to the bottle, or we fill that space--we seek. We seek physical stimulation (climbing mountains, running, etc.), and we seek, as is used in Fred's article above, because we are curious. That curiosity was always resident, but alcohol may have masked it. Alcoholics often turn to the church, not just out of fear, but out of this desire to know, to understand. Others, like myself, turn to just wanting to know the answers--as the book I'm listening to puts it-- "to move the ball forward, even a millimeter" in the scope of human knowledge.

Alcohol had the effect of creating the "safe space" of the artificial Arctic environment; drunk might look good, might even feel good for a time, but it is self-limiting and only falsely-safe. We begin to pace, which leads to drinking more until we hit a wall or otherwise arrest ourselves from the perpetual back-and-forth. Drunk and guilty. Drunk and sad. As I've said before, I often drank to just stop the thoughts for a little while. Get everything to slow down.

I don't worry over that anymore; I let my thoughts race where they take me....sort of like in this post. My perusals into the relationship between, say, punk and Romanticism may not be life-changing, but they move the ball forward with each connection that becomes apparent. Staying sane appears to require embracing the seeker (DO NOT read any Harry Potter connotations here!) resident in me...and in most of us..I guess. Am I being overly optimistic about the human race again?

Sadly, much of this makes me think of Gravity's Rainbow, a fact that is disturbing as hell. More on that later.

Off to ponder. And to avoid reading Pynchon.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Ziggy Stardust Wonder Shoes

First, allow me to thank my faithful and ever-patient husband, G, here. He braved the mall with me today. Moreover, he braved the shoe department in three different department stores.

He is a good and fearless man, clearly.

I was tentatively seeking red shoes, more or less because I don't have a pair, and they just seem like something I should own. I had an excellent pair of red heels once upon a time, but they are long since buried...worn to shreds. And G is quite fond of red heels, so I am happy to oblige. Unfortunately, I was not successful in that particular quest.

BUT, I found something even better: Ziggy Stardust shoes. Platinum Doc Martens.

20 eye platinum Docs.

On clearance no less (imagine that).

Eons ago I had black and white paisley Docs, which I adored to their grave. I have looked on occasion for boots that would equal their level of kitsch, but until today, I found none. I'm just not a purple, sparkly Doc kind of girl. Platinum, on the other hand, is right up my alley.

G also spied a pair of silver docs, the 8 eye variety, which I tried on as well, and while fabulous, they lacked that certain something that the silver on black (what I am calling platinum) have. I am proud of my Ziggy boots, and I fully intend to play Bowie in the office when I wear them, though Diamanda Galas has been the most oft-played artist of late. She seems to both amuse and disturb most people, which is rather what I am aiming for. Try her The Sporting Life (the link takes you to a video for "Do You Take this Man") if you love John Paul Jones, by the way--the CD is amazing. Truthfully, there is nothing of hers that I wouldn't recommend, but that CD is pretty accessible and filled with bass wonderfulness.

But, as usual, I digress, but please do take this as proof that my listening habits do occasionally manage to encompass artists in addition to Duff. Shocking, I realize.

So, here's to great boots and a fabulous husband who buys great boots just because his wife loves kitsch. You rock, love.

I'm considering wearing them tomorrow when I am installed as an Elder in the church, lest I begin to take myself too seriously. Perhaps with a black velvet dress.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Day One: Don Quixote in Academia

Well, theoretically, I began my new administrative job today, but, being Jan 1 and the college being closed, I've had little to do with the job-life, save for a few emails regarding new carpet installation.

Woohoo, man.

Usually,I identify with Candide and his learning curves--absolute idealism to pessimism to balance. Most days, I find myself hanging out in idealism, and that is, quite seriously, why I found myself teaching in a community college. A fine place to advocate for change. Today, I'm feeling a bit more like Don Quixote, as I am presented with problems that appear DESPERATELY IMPORTANT, but are often incidental to the more significant issues or not really problems at all. But, I tend to have to play as if, "yes, yes, that is a big scary monster," even when I see the windmill clearly, lest I belittle the fears of the person I am talking to. Sometimes, I think it is a big, scary monster too, until I have a chance to step back from the speaker's fear and see the picture more clearly.

Consequently, I find myself tilting at windmills frequently, and I think that is probably what I am meant to do. Sometimes there are dragons in those windmills, you know? And sometimes, people just need the damn monsters slain, whether they are windmills or dragons or carpet fumes.

I've been an administrator since 2007; this job represents a step up the rung--and the title certainly doesn't suck. But, one little thing has been bothering me for a while, and all the more as recently the transition begin...for a system that prides itself in talking about eliminating false hierarchy, we surely on them. The walls that divide staff, faculty, and administrator are, of course, entirely fabricated, often by imagined power and, more frequently, elitism. We are all there in support of education; we merely have different roles in that support structure. So, sometimes Plant Ops directs how and when changes will occur; sometimes Academic Affairs takes leadership, and often Student Affairs leads our way, but always, we work in service to education.

So, what does this mean in practice? All too often, I hear my fellow faculty demeaning the role of administration or of staff; I've heard time and again that we are becoming a "staff-run" school (I need to find out what the fear that drives this remark is, precisely) and that Plant Ops, for instance shouldn't dictate scheduling for moving, painting, etc. (who else is going to, as they are charged with doing the work??). And, in truth, none of the decisions faculty are discussing in these remarks were made without conversation among each of the constituents and/or their representatives.

But, if you are one of the folks who are not the representatives, it may not feel like your thoughts were heard or considered.

I'm wondering if keeping an Academic blog would be useful--one that conveyed current conversations and offered a place for opinions to be voiced; I am not a fan of anonymous comments (we academics can be such a vicious lot), but I also understand the fear of retribution. I don't think such retribution will occur in our particular climate, but we are undergoing a fair amount of change. I'd like to see those divides drop, especially ones fueled by anything smacking of elitism.

So, I guess I'm still trying to save the world; I'm just starting in a microcosm of my campus. First grocery parking lots, now...THE WORLD!

Or something like that. Point me toward the windmills, er, monsters...tilting I must go!