At first, it just seemed like a big adventure. "We're moving east; Daddy has a new job in New York." New York! To a little girl on the high plains of
Having freed myself from the tyranny of StoryADay’s prompts, I am moving on to my real reason for taking up this challenge. I wanted to turn my blog posts from my trip to Nebraska last fall into a personal narrative. I realized that there were many stories running through my nearly-daily entries, from personal reminiscences and to discoveries about my political and spiritual identities. Bear with me; this is a draft of a revision of a series of drafts.
At first, it just seemed like a big adventure. "We're moving east; Daddy has a new job in New York." New York! To a little girl on the high plains of
I cannot tell a lie. No, really. The best I can do is just keep my mouth shut and hope that people interpret my silence as agreement. That's probably why writing history comes easily for me, with its comforting foundation of dates, quotations, and artifacts. Whatever interpretation one wants to draw from the evidence, the evidence is there for anyone to handle and inspect. Boys used to wear dresses. There was no "girl color", pink or otherwise. Make of it what you will, but the facts won't go away. After he was forced to recant his claim that the earth orbits the sun, Galileo allegedly muttered "And yet it moves", because there really are such things as facts.
Yet all my life I have longed to write fiction and poetry. I usually explain my inability to make up stories in terms of my innate honesty; I cannot tell a lie, therefore I must write nonfiction. But over the last few years, a strange transformation has occurred in my brain. Whether I am in conversation, watching the news, or just planning my day, I become aware of a second, ghostlike consciousness telling the same story, but with a twist. The most vivid version of this has been in meetings, where "surface Jo" is listening politely or offering her measured opinion, but "alternate Jo" chimes in. Her voice getting louder and louder, she makes rude comments or imagines more and more fanciful variations of what is actually going on. I used to worry that her words would suddenly appear running across my forehead for all to see, like a movie marquee, until the day a few weeks ago when I said them right out loud. I clapped both hands over my mouth, but it was too late.
I take this as a sign. Either I am showing early signs of some kind of cognitive decline -- impulsive behaviors are associated with Parkinson's Disease, or various forms of dementia -- or my inner storyteller is trying to be heard. It could be both, but either way, it feels like it is time to pay attention to alt-Jo and transcribe those stories.
Here's the curious thing: I still cannot tell a lie. My stories will be true, although they may not be factual.
I usually work at home on Mondays and Wednesdays, but the last week of classes is always special, meaning dotted with extra meetings. So I went to campus for a debriefing session regarding our capstone sequence, wherein American Studies majors plan and execute their senior projects. It was a thoughtful, fairly productive meeting, to I contributed two "fucks" and one "we've been diddled". A clear sign that it's time to turn in my chalk.
So I headed to the coffee shop to get my daily story done -- not my best, but the goal is a daily writing habit, not the Nobel prize for literature. and now, the week behind me, and nothing between me and sweet freedom but a pile of grading, one more meeting and two commencement ceremonies, it's time for a beer. Meet my new best friend, Chester Copperpot.
This day was the toughest one: my last day of classes. I fell in love with teaching from my first day in the classroom, despite having avoided teaching up to that point. So walking away from the classroom was hard. Hell, even thinking about it was hard.
The day was made easier by an unexpected email from my first office mate, now an emeritus professor himself, wanting to meet for coffee. He ended up hanging around for part of my 12:30 class, and entertaining them with a couple of stories while I ran around setting up and solving technical issues. Thanks, Vince. The student projects were satisfyingly good, even though the stupid classroom had more of its stupid audio problems. I would love to take a blowtorch to Tawes 0328; they need to start from scratch and do it right.
in my last last class, we did a simple mind mapping exercise while I played my "encouraging" playlist and they polished off the rest of my baked goodies. I wanted no part of a farewell speech or a formal good-bye, so I told them that when they finished uploading their mind maos, they were free to go. After a while, it was just Natasha, Eliece, and Dawson, then just Eliece and Dawson. And me.
Dawson has been reading this blog and asked if he could suggest a topic. Here's part of what he asked: What are three things I learned about myself by being a professor?
1. Like a shark that needs motion to breathe (or so I hear), I need teaching to learn. Most of what I have learned about writing and about research I have learned by teaching students to write and to do research. I worry about how I will learn "on my own" without my students.
2. I have good instincts, and can usually trust them. When I started teaching, I would script everything, absolutely convinced that if I didn't plan every phrase and every question, I would fail. But my best work has been improvisational, whether in a class discussion or mentoring a student one-on-one.
3. I once aspired to be a great lecturer. In fact, I thought you had to be a terrific speechifyer to be a professor. But that wasn't me, and never will be.
Yesterday was the next-to-last day of classes, and the day of my retirement party. I cleverly designed the last few classes to be either showcases (student presentations) or optional workshops, to save my energy to deal with the students who need extra attention and TLC at the end of the semester. This spring there seemed to be a bumper crop of students who have been sick, overworked, or otherwise not at their best. Frankly, the whole world seems to be in a constant state of trauma, so I just keep listening to my "Encouragement" playlist and humming along.
It's just long enough to get me from home to campus, and then I listen to bits and pieces as I walk between buildings and rooms. Always on shuffle, but it seems to know which tunes I need in what order.
The retirement party was such great fun. There were students and colleagues there from my days in Textiles and Consumer Economics, including Camy, who had been in my very first classes in 1976-77. There was a Costume Society buddy I swear I had not seen in a decade or more. My favorite co-teacher. My first office mate. The Irish Band I helped found over 25 years ago came and did a couple of tunes, and I sang a solo (sort of) on Parting Class with new, retirement-appropriate lyrics.
A few people got up and said nice things about me. The waiter congratulated me on retiring early, because he thought I was in my 50s. They gave me two growlers of beer, a gift certificate for more beer, and a very generous donation toward my next Amtrak journey. If they know me so well, the nice things they said must have been true! And my kids were there, being all grown-up and wonderful.
Then it was all weird, because I had to wake up this morning and do professor work because I am not actually retired yet. But between stints of professoring, I made brownies and cookies for my classes. That will make the Last Day of Classes a little sweeter.
My plan was to savor this last semester, but of course life got in the way, as it always does. First there was pneumonia, then catching up from pneumonia, then spring break, then catching up from spring break, then the Popular Culture Association conference, then catching up. Now it's the last week of classes, and I am determined to be attentive each day.
On Mondays I usually work at home, but today we had a faculty meeting, so I did some correspondence and editing in the morning, then hopped on the UM shuttle, arriving a bit after the meeting had started. Such is the bus commuter life. I also did a quick draft of today's story, which I will post anon.
My very first faculty meeting was January, 1975, at the University of Rhode Island. I was a lowly master's student, and graduate students usually did not attend faculty meetings. But because I had full responsibility for a course, instead of assisting with one, they decided I should come to the meetings. The initial experience was not unlike running into your teacher in the locker room at the local gym for the first time. All their authority was stripped away, as they called each other by their first names and chatted about their families and their weekends. I can't remember saying anything in the first meeting, or ever, in the three semesters I taught at URI. but I enjoyed the meetings, or at least can't remember disliking them.
The faculty meetings in the Textiles and Consumer Economics department at the University of Maryland, in contrast, were brutal. In the first place, they were on Friday afternoons, and they lasted two or three hours. The only good thing was that we repaired afterwards as a body to Happy Hour in the old tavern across the street. But our meetings were usually substantive and often contentious, so Happy Hour was necessary. I believe we met every other week, the day paychecks came out. So if you wanted your paycheck that day, you had to show up.
(I pause for a prayer of gratitude for direct deposit.)
Since 1993, I have been in the American Studies department, a kinder, gentler culture when it comes to meetings. They have been few and far between, nearly always genial, and the advent of wifi has made it possible to multitask during discussions. Today was my last faculty meeting, or as I like to think if it, my LAST. FACULTY. MEETING. EVER. I like my department, and I like my colleagues. They are a smart, friendly bunch. I look forward to future meetings, but meetings with no agendas except good conversation.
At first, it just seemed like a big adventure. "We're moving east; Daddy has a new job in New York." New York! To a little girl on the high plains of Nebraska, New York was as magical as Oz. The Empire State Building! The Statue of Liberty! A Christmas tree as tall as the Pawnee Hotel! I was the envy of my third grade class.
As our old Chevy pulled away from the stucco bungalow on Willow Street, I waved excitedly at my best friend Jane, who smiled wanly at me from her own front yard across the street. "We're off!" Mommy said, a little too loudly. In the back seat, Bobby and I leaned against the curved rear window of the Chevy for a last look at North Platte.
A year later, in my bedroom in our new home, I sobbed at the memory of the Willow Street house, with its lilacs and rhubarb plants. I thought of Jane and cried even harder, berating myself bitterly. "I smiled! I smiled!" How could I have been so stupid, so blind, so ignorant of what "moving away" would mean?
Nebraska was so far away, and New Jersey was so different. Bobby was sent home from school for wearing jeans. My classmates teased me for my clothes, my accent -- everything, it seemed. I learned quickly never to mention Nebraska or North Platte, which would set their eyes rolling as they mimicked her flat nasal tones. The family had arrived just before Christmas, and so I'd been left out of the class gift exchange. Even worse, I was behind in arithmetic. We'd been just about to start column addition in North Platte; in New Jersey they were already passed it. My teacher, Miss Saneska, had been teaching the children to play the recorder and speak French, but hadn't counted on having a new student arrive midyear. So three times a week, I was sent to the library to read while her classmates sang "Sur le Pont d'Avignon" or played their instruments. Life in New Jersey was miserable.
By three months after the move, I had added a line to my bedtime prayer.
"Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
And please let me wake up in North Platte."
But it wasn't a dream, and I never went back to North Platte. I moved again and again, from New Jersey to Connecticut to upstate New York to Massachusetts to Pennsylvania to Rhode Island and finally to Maryland. I learned to relish being "the new girl", and having the chance to reinvent myself with each new home. I took on the role of welcomer, helping other newcomers to settle in.
Getting dressed has been an easy routine for years. I pick my shoes first, based on the weather and how much walking is involved in my day. If I am working at home, it's bare feet or slippers. Then I pick my jeans or capris (again, it depends on the weather and if it's a campus day or a home day). A solid color T-shirt. Sometimes the shirt is sleeveless, and the neckline varies. If I am going away from home, I might add a scarf. I always wear earrings. I rarely wear a skirt or dress once the temperature falls below 60 degrees, and I never wear jeans once the mercury is above 80.
I will admit to not being much of a fashionista. I would rather spend my time and energy (and money, which I earn with my time and energy) on a few things I can wear 90% of the time than on many items I seldom wear. The 10% items in my wardrobe are special, and I enjoy the rare occasions when I pull them out.
When I travel, I pack light. For a week at my favorite retreat, Star Island, I take a pair of capris, a multicolored skirt, seven T-shirts, and a sweater for chilly mornings and evening. Here's my wardrobe, which doubles as a calendar as I move through the week. I got there on a Saturday. Can you tell what day I took this photo?
From my 1976 Journal
From early September:
And here's the thing: the terror, the fear of being unprepared never completely went away. I still have stage fright before every class, even just a little bit. I still have the same dream the night before the first day of classes -- I am late for my flight and discover I left something at home, and go back to get it, making me even later.
So it's hard not to laugh at the inauspicious start to my "last first day": I realized after Jim dropped me off at the Bagel Place that I had left my office keys and ID at home. Since I need them to not only open my office door, but to access my classroom and ride the university shuttle, this was not good. Happily, my luck changed; I found a taxi quickly and was able -- for a price -- go home and get the keys and get back to campus before my first meeting.
I had debated whether or not to let my students in on the significance of this semester, but finally decided what the hell. I informed my 12:30 class that this was my last first day, and gave some special love to my 3:30 class -- my last first class ever. I wish I could say I savored the entire day, as planned, but the truth is that it was a good day, but I am glad it's over. Pneumonia takes the starch out of you, big time. I could not help but notice how easy and comfortable I felt, with only a little bit of first day adrenaline.
And no midnight cockroach massacre in the kitchen this time.
My Gender Mystique blog focuses on my work on clothing, sex, and gender. That's not all I do, so this blog is about everything else.