It’s nice to see you here in the æther, Brad, and to read your “We Are What We Think.” It’s been a while, and we do not really know one another, yet I’ve always thought you a fellow good egg, so I shall presume to speak freely, as one egg to another. When I read your comment, I begin to dream about what it might be like to think of gender issues as simple and as something that could be gone beyond. The thing is, I don’t have that luxury. Indeed, #SomeOfUs, at some times, might experience the inverse: as if every mince of meat in the pie is wrapped within a tight crust of gender socialization. All the veggies and spices are held in check; it’s hot and uncomfortable in there. I observe how frequently constructions like, “it’s not just gender” come up. (Again, socialization: I myself included a formulation not entirely unlike this in my earlier text.) If I had a dollar for every time I read, “it’s not just gender,” I’d have . . . $0.73 on the dollar.
(I’ve had this détournement on hand for some time.)
I think we also think what we are. Moreover, depending who holds what sort of power and how much, we are effectively what others think we are, whether or not we think so. One could run around like a chicken with her head cut off if she continued to be and think this way.
This is my vantage point: rather than nibbling on the gender aspect as the chicken in the soup, I drink it in as the stock. It’s always there, hydrating (or drowning) the rest of the ingredients, and it has caloric, if not always measurable, effects. I often refer to the “second shift”—a term that has been used to describe women’s domestic “homework,” completed after returning home from the workday. But the shifts are more than two: as “the gender” (a term a colleague applied to me once), I have a second shift in managing the chromosomal matters that come up from day to day. On the occasions when issues of equity threaten to affect my performance and/or well-being, my third shift—seeking remedy—commences. The price for all this is high. Often the dishes go unwashed. For days at a time.
I am intrigued by what you write in your 2007 essay, and I am sorry it was not embraced for more traditional publication. I especially appreciate the inward-lookingness, which is all too rare in the contexts and culture(s) you describe. Many of your stated concerns intersect with my own. Along these lines, I have been conceiving of a project to do with the intersection of ethics and the arts—perhaps less frighteningly described as values and the arts. My dream is to foster more attention to the implicit habits of mind that stock our soup and thus to the more explicit, if still unquantifiable, fruits and poisons of those habits. Perhaps there is more discussion to be had on this topic. Ironically, although gender is one of the main factors—if not the only one—that led me to reflect on values and ethics as related to artistic activity, the requirements presented by my many shifts preclude my moving forward on this endeavor at the moment. It’s too bad, because I think such a project would contribute much to the field and its culture, and I would like to make such a contribution. Maybe someday.
I remember that Paul told me about your blog when I was diagnosed with cancer, and I think we were experiencing life-threatening illness at the same time. Perhaps there is something to the notion that such an experience can clarify and distill one’s values and goals. Although that sounds cliché, for me one aspect of such reorienting may be that clichés cease to feel so clichéd; that values feel more urgent, more communal, less rarified. Of course, I do not know whether this was your experience, so I would be curious to know. For my part, I fired up the still and started on the moonshine some time before my diagnosis, so I was already under the influence of thoughts about impermanence before I met my tumors. As I get older and continue breathing, I debate whether I want to spend my remaining years stirring against the current, or whether it would be more useful to twirl over to the blender to make gazpacho instead.
You mention “the sense of protection and entitlement that leads to an unhealthy insularity.” #NotAll would choose to reflect, and openly, on this sort of privilege and its effects. I suspect we might have some similar thoughts about the current political, cultural, and academic climate. My eyes have been opened of late as I have learned more about the experiences of adjunct faculty across the country, as well as of tenure-track and tenured faculty who teach at institutions that permit less hermetic luxury. And there are the recent threats to academic freedom, which seem to be arising at regular intervals.
As a fellow presumed good egg, perhaps you will be interested to hear that such a sense of safety and ease is is largely foreign to my experience. My sense is of disenfranchisement and exposure to the elements—so much so that my saying even this much may well open me to professional risk. Even though I am a full professor with a distinguished record, I do not believe my tenure to be secure. I know that I do not have access to academic freedom. My environment is not insular; on the contrary, I travel largely on my own, outside the clubhouse. This is a shame and a shock, for such stability is one of the great perks of knocking oneself out as a junior professor (the others, of course, being able to work at home in pajamas, and having good health care if and when the overwork catches up—if that is, one thinks materialistically about such matters). And I fear not only for my job security, livelihood, and wardrobe, but for my overall well-being and my very survival. Stirring against the current takes a toll. Again, it is an unquantifiable one, but it can be deadly in various ways, both literally and metaphorically. I’m only joking about the pajamas, of course: it’s the vocation itself that draws me. And so I am sorry to find that, even after paying my proverbial dues—plus the gender tax levied on top—I am hindered from “contributing to the field,” as we say when we advocate for our mentees in all those letters of recommendation, thwarted in my efforts to share the wisdom I have gained along the way.
In the stream of your self-reflection, you write, “I could also hide behind the tired excuse: ‘I’ve already written/said/discussed this before, so why drag it out and bore everyone again?’ Been there. Done that.” That is another difference. I sweat in the heat but am denied the license to get out of the kitchen. I do not have the luxury of choosing not to be bored, or electing not to bore you. As with life-threatening illness, one cannot take a break from gender disparity and disrespect. Moreover, crafting a productive response to counterproductive circumstances is much harder than writing a dissertation or compiling a portfolio for promotion. (Hmm—perhaps we could give tax credit to junior professors for gender duty?) I’m damned if I cluck and damned if I don’t. Instead, in order to survive, I must continue to cough up eggs even as my limbs are being chopped off. How long before there are none left to sacrifice? It’s like The Giving Tree, which I cannot but call “The Tree of Codependence.” Or like the Monty Python’s disembodied knight. (He perseveres, armless, to scoff at his opponent: “Chicken!”)
I’m not exaggerating when I say that it is worse than cancer. Much worse. I strode to my mastectomy, but I trudge to the concert hall.
In regard to the nature of the concert hall and thinking outside the box, I believe this matter too to be deserving of attention and inquiry. I agree, in 2014, about the restrictions you identified in 2007. But I have to play prep cook first and ask, whose box is it? And how do those who have yet to make our way in step outside of it? (By the way, hasn’t the fantasy of “thinking outside the box” become rather boxy itself since 2007? Funny how that happens. Times have changed. Do you agree? Should we at least ask the chicken’s name and make sure she’s got room to stretch?)
Do I remember correctly that when you came to the Princeton conference some years ago you performed solo, something kind of folky? I remember having a resistance to that, in a way that will not surprise you given what you write/wrote in your essay. And that’s a good experience to have. I would not have the same response today, I bet. What might it mean that “something folky” is what puts someone off in the concert hall in the ivy? (Or perhaps that was someone else. It’s been a while.)
Fast forward to 2014, last night’s gig: I was ticket-seller for the Thursday-night Ceilidh here in Cape Breton. There is a sign at the entrance to the Sessions Lounge that says, “Beer Belly Boulevard.” Local musicians, mostly amateur, and (“and,” not “but”) supremely skilled and devoted; their music is moving and inspiring. I got a $5 tip!—from a hulking, very drunk man who called me “sweetheart.” I tried to refuse the money, suggesting he reallocate his funds to the bartender who was working for minimum wage and tips, but he firmly pushed the bill into my hand. (Given his disinhibited state, I didn’t think it would be productive to undertake a discussion on his unwanted largesse.) A fleeting moment, but neither simple nor beyondable: a physically intimidating man refused to accept that I would not accept his money and assumed license to address me with a term of infringement. I toyed with the thought of disclosing to him my salary, whether the $0 per Ceilidh I get for taking tickets or the vast sum I receive for my multiple shifts at the university. (In an immaterial sense, I am no longer sure which is more lucrative.) Instead I took the colorful fiver and bought my duo partner a Bud. Then I joined in the weekly jam session and played some jigs and reels on my bass clarinet, swimming along with the circle of generous and welcoming local virtuosi. At ease.
And now, I must take my leave. There is a very nice man across the room who has just cooked me an omelette. (It’s actually French toast, but sometimes you gotta break an egg to make sour-grape lemonade, eh? If I can’t catch a break, I’ll take poetic license. With maple syrup.)
I am curious: how have your thoughts crystallized and/or shifted since your 2007 essay? Anything new? And to the larger—here I use such a word advisedly—issue: how is your health? Good, I hope, in all ways, small and big. (And let me know if you do not self-identify as a good egg; it’s not for me to say.)
—Posted by IAmNotMakingThisUp