Playlists

The emotional peaks and valleys of this semester have been uncommonly extreme. On the one hand, I have taken another, exciting step towards achieving my goal of writing creative non-fiction for wider audiences. The wonderful people at The Hairpin published an essay that I wrote about 90’s roller rinks, nostalgia, and teenage sexual awakening (You can check it out here: http://thehairpin.com/2014/04/fantasy-on-wheels-my-roller-rink-sexual-awakening). This in and of itself was a tremendous honor, not to mention a thrill; I love The Hairpin and very much believe in their goal of promoting woman-centered writing. Then, at the end of the same week, as I absent-mindedly perused my Twitter feed, I found that The Paris Review had highlighted the piece. Talk about a compliment – I very nearly vomited in appreciation (Is there such a thing as glee-vomiting? One of these days I might make it so – unwillingly, mind you). And in the meantime, people have shared such wonderful memories with me. The gift economy of writing is both so enriching and fulfilling. I want to spend my life swapping stories and ideas with people through every available venue, and I am committed to doing exactly that.

And yet, it has been in other ways a very humbling and frustrating semester. Not everything has gone as I would have hoped–not even close–and I have had to grapple with several disappointments. Such is life. In the midst of one rough patch, I was feeling particularly in need of a little sonic morale boost. So with the help of some friends, I compiled a “graduate student empowerment” playlist. It is available on Spotify, and because I had so much wonderful input from other folks, I feel quite comfortable saying that the playlist kicks ass. Whether or not you are a graduate student, I highly recommend that you give it a listen (you can blame me for all of the Robyn).

A couple of weeks after making this playlist, I read a wonderful essay by Buzzfeed writer Summer Anne Burton, entitled “The Fine Art of Mixtape Seduction” (http://www.buzzfeed.com/summeranne/crush-mixtapes). Mind you, I am no slick fox, so I have never performed my own seductions via mixtape – or via any other means, for that matter. I have always loved a good music mix, though. And in middle school, high school, and college, I made a number of them for my friends. In high school, my mixtapes always included track listings with detailed rationales for each of my selections. The rationale was always a mélange of autobiography, pseudo-philosophical musing, and “isn’t this song just, like, the best?!” Moreover, the process of compiling the mixtape’s content was itself a craft. One could not record the songs willy-nilly; order was crucial. Putting “Both Hands” (with the orchestral accompaniment, of course) after “Bullets With Butterfly Wings” would have been a grave mixtape transgression, as would including too many songs by the same artist. Any music snob worth her salt knows that she must represent her taste as both refined and varied.

I have always turned to music for emotional sustenance, and this semester, with its many ups and downs, has certainly been no exception. Between putting together the Graduate Student Empowerment mix and reading Burton’s fantastic piece, I have also been reminiscing about my music mixing days and the track listings that probably took me as long to compose as any English paper. I thought, for the heck of it, that I might revisit this exercise and put together a “mix” of the first ten songs that came to mind – ones strongly tied to specific memories. Lately my students and I have been thinking a great deal about biographies and memoirs–we just finished Audre Lorde’s Zami–and so we have had many conversations about how we remember and revise our histories, not to mention the associations that provoke or accompany memories. Often the memories that cling most tenaciously or perpetually resurface cannot be arranged into a cohesive narrative. So, what I am saying is that seventeen-year-old Rachel would probably sneer at this playlist. But I will ignore her pretentiousness and sally forth.

1. “Time Ago” by Black Lab: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kI_Y4hgsXYY

When I first heard this song, I was eleven years old, sitting underneath the window in my bedroom with my portable CD player in front of me. Immediately after, I concluded that it was the sexiest song I had ever heard. I had recognized “sexy” as an adjective since I was maybe nine. As an eleven year old awash in a complex web of new feelings, I all of a sudden realized that certain things, certain people, were sexy to me. Still, I could not quite articulate what that meant. I looked primarily to music and movies to cultivate my understanding of the term, and so I learned the following: 1. Having sex outside was sexy. 2. Having sex in a car was also sexy, especially if said car did not belong to you (ah, Titanic, the dreamscapes you inspired). Black Lab wooed me with the lyrics “All by ourselves we made love under the sleeping, moonless night,” because, as you will observe, they refer to bumping uglies in the outdoors (possibly on the hood of a car!), and THAT is sexy. But I was also a sucker for any song that articulated a man’s pained and nostalgic longing for a woman. I wanted to be that woman for somebody and was fearful that I never would be. And so, each time the local DJ fulfilled my wish and played this hyperbolically earnest one hit wonder, I would imagine it as the soundtrack to my first tryst with whoever I fancied that term.

2. “I Would Do Anything For Love” by Meatloaf: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOikQWAL8qc

One night, during our sophomore year, plagued by too many English papers, midterms, and theatre rehearsals, my friend Kellyn and I–roommates at the time–determined that there was only one way to mitigate our collective stress. We sought out Meatloaf in Kellyn’s iTunes library, turned the volume up as high as our RA would permit, and treated the rest of the floor to our vocal stylings. We stood defiantly, if precariously, on our wobbly desk chairs, hairbrushes clutched in our hands (microphones, you see). Within a few minutes, our neighbor Sarah LeCates rushed in to join us (we shared a hairbrush). While we were both quite friendly with Sarah, we were not close friends. But we shared a fleeting intimacy that night, even if our impromptu karaoke did not significantly change the nature of our friendship. The next year, Sarah left campus to study abroad in Senegal. Before returning to the States, she fell ill and died shortly thereafter. My sadness, while profound, could not be the same as the sorrow felt by those close to her – and, being a warm, vibrant person, she had many dear friends. But I never hear a note of this song without thinking of her.

3. “Jackie’s Strength” by Tori Amos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7WET8khBc4 

If I were a Tori Amos song, I would be “Jackie’s Strength” – at least according to the Buzzfeed quizmeisters. Apparently this has something to do with my penchant for the dramatic, so clearly their algorithm failed. Truly, though, I could not help but feel a bit of pleasure with my result. This song became my lullaby in eighth grade, its ethereal chorus engulfing me, forming what felt like a protective shell around my vulnerable, insecurities-riddled body. At school it would often play in my head, materializing into armor just beneath my skin and guarding me against the harsh social climate of my middle school. And it was there when I could not be brave – when I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling, wishing that I could be anyone or anything but what I was.

4. “I Will” by The Beatles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rx_APcTyIUg

At the reception following my first wedding, two of my ex-husband’s relatives sang this song, accompanied by another one of his relatives on guitar. It was a beautiful tribute to what I thought at the time would be a long marriage. For a couple of years following our divorce, I could not listen to this song without pangs of guilt and an acute sense of shame. Hell, sometimes I would listen to it as a form of self-punishment. Now the song conjures a fraught mix of associations: Paul, my ex-husband, the family of which I was once a part, my second wedding, steadily approaching on June 7. I can accept the joy with the pain now – and that is all I can do. I do not expect that this is an association that will ever weaken.

5. “Shake it Out” by Florence + the Machine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbN0nX61rIs

Oh Florence, you Pre-Raphaelite goddess. You do you, always.

No word play will make my connection to this song less hokey, but the associations are significant to me. I listened to this song as I walked from Paul’s house on my way to the bus stop one morning (and then many mornings, afternoons, and evenings after that). We had been dating for several months, but I was still licking my wounds from the previous, hellish year, when I both married and separated. Unsurprisingly I was particularly affected by the lyrics, “…it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back, so shake him off.”  I wish I could say that Florence’s wisdom healed me on the spot. Of course it didn’t, though it did make it into many a Facebook status message. Yet it reminded me that I had a right to be in love with Paul and to embrace all of the accompanying feelings. I am pretty sure that I sent him a stupidly cheesy text message before the song ended.

6. “Jumper” by Third Eye Blind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lObgLdtXYpU

“Rachel, I wanna listen to the song where he goes ‘Yiyiyiyiyow,'” said my youngest sister, then in pre-school, many, many times.

I readily obliged, for reasons she did not know.

7. “The Freshman” by The Verve Pipe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1umEXpGHc0E

I spent over four years desperately in love with a guy who did not love me. He and his friends, all freshly-minted high school graduates, had formed a band years ago and were spending the summer before college playing coffee house gigs. Those gigs were the place to be that summer, and I, a rising junior who did not yet have her license, frantically sought out a ride to each one. When my job as a grocery market cashier prevented attendance, I felt deeply bereft. My crush’s band would often cover this song – and well, I might add. Perhaps it was the explicit connection to high school, the song’s hyper-solemnity, or some combination of the two, I don’t know. But this song, more than all of the others on their set list, reminded me that my crush, the frontman, was moving on to the greener pastures of collegiate life. And no matter what Wet Seal halter top I wore to his shows, he would not return my affection the way I wanted him to.

8. “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcNo07Xp8aQ

Throwing punches alone in my apartment, attempting to channel everything I imagine Robyn to be, I would dance until I broke a sweat. Desolate and guilty, this song fortified the backbone that enabled me to leave my marriage.

9. “Stand Inside Your Love” by Smashing Pumpkins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nm4xv3firw

A Pumpkins devotee since age ten, I could not wait to share every last one of their songs with Paul. Predictably enough, we began with “Tonight, Tonight” (I probably join the population of a small country when I say that this is one of my favorite songs). After the preliminaries, I thought I would woo my beau with one of their more traditional love songs. Barely thirty seconds in, Paul nervously caught my attention–I was, of course, in raptures–and said, “Umm, could we maybe turn this off?” Believe it or not, not everybody enjoys Billy Corgan’s voice (I know, right?). In fact, some find it downright intolerable. Much to my horror, I learned that night that Paul is one of these people. I briefly reconsidered our relationship, but thought that one offense, however grave, was not sufficient reason to call it off.

10. “Portions for Foxes” by Rilo Kiley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtNV3pOqcjI

Writing this blog post has made me aware of my apparent affinity for red-headed ladies who sing. And each time I hear this song–or any that they played at their show, really–I can only dwell on the exquisiteness of Jenny Lewis and just how badly I want to braid her silky hair.

Your guess is as good as mine as to how these songs would sound played in succession. I’m curious to see for myself. And because I decided to write about the first ten songs/memories that occurred to me, it is interesting now to think of the bands and songs that did not make it onto the playlist. For instance, the absence of Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and The National feels conspicuous. Surely I have memories that I associate with them, and I know the image-conscious bones in my body tingled as I realized that those bands would not make the (albeit self-imposed) cut. But this was an experiment rather than an attempt to establish myself as the keenest of music aficionados. Seventeen-year-old Rachel will just have to eat that.

The Spill

When I was a kid, I spilled everything. Liquids were my particular specialty, but my clumsiness knew no bounds. If it could splatter, then I could spill it.

Nowadays I take especial care to not let my butter fingers wreak havoc, and I navigate my surroundings less like a bull in a china shop. I’m more like a well-meaning giraffe in a china shop – I still knock things over, but I’m much more ginger and apologetic about it.  I have also stockpiled an arsenal of excuses so that, when I do spill something, I am prepared to explain why it was absolutely and without a shadow of doubt not my fault. I’m not sure how compelling Paul finds my “explanations” for the avalanche of granulated sugar cascading down to the kitchen floor or the pea soup oozing its way across the stove, but I am confident that my powers of persuasion will only improve with practice.

Truth be told, most of my “adult spills” occur because, despite my best intentions, I have a tendency to make my way around our cubicle-sized kitchen like an awkward oaf. They are small-scale disasters of which I am the sole perpetrator, and they signify nothing more than my regrettable lack of common sense.

Sometimes, though, the universe seems to take a cue from Hollywood and try its hand at a little dark metaphor. And as it turns out, the universe has a particular fondness for the symbolic potential of “the spill.”

On Tuesday morning, I dragged myself to campus after a positively miserable start to the week. I had spent a fitful night trying–and failing–to snag a few hours of sleep before my alarm summoned me at an ungodly hour to finish my lesson plans. When I staggered into my university’s coffee shop, I was feeling particularly weighed down by discouragement. And I was just tired – so, so tired. I ordered my usual: a grande mocha with an extra shot of espresso (I was lately shamed by a barista for ordering a flavored coffee – but, mercifully, it was not the one who took my order on Tuesday. I could not finish my dissertation if I was banned from the college coffee shop). Carefully–really, I mean it–I brought my steaming hot beverage over to the counter so that I could cover it with a lid.

Now, humor me for a moment while I tell you a bit about the coffee lids provided at the university coffee shop: they suck. You could construct a better, and less flimsy, coffee lid from a Dixie cup. They also barely fit around the circumference of the top of the to-go cup and thus require extremely delicate application. The slightest slip of the finger would result in a caffeine catastrophe. (The takeaway point? None of what follows was in any way my fault.)

I’ve been aware of the hazards surrounding coffee lid application since I began patronizing this particular establishment and, thus far, have largely avoided any mishaps. But as I have already intimated, the universe was feeling cinematic on Tuesday. “Universe,” it asked itself, “What frequently happens in a movie montage when someone is having a bad day?” The Universe paused to reflect, as a downtrodden Rachel fumbled with the coffee lids. But before long, inspiration struck. “Aha! In movies, when people are having a bad day, they…they…USUALLY SPILL THEIR COFFEE ALL OVER THEMSELVES! That gag NEVER gets old!”

And so, once I pressed the sides of my lid over the lip of my cup, the moment transformed into one of dark poetry, and I became the saddest of clichés. Before I had any opportunity to react, the lid popped off of my coffee cup, and the cup, filled to the brim, bounced off the counter and onto me. I was drenched in piping hot mocha latte from neck to foot.  The flood of self-pity and frustration coursing within me paralleled, in the most hackneyed, symbolic fashion, the coffee streaming down my person. A puddle formed rapidly at my feet as I stood, frozen with shock.

For a moment, I thought I might burst into tears. At 11 a.m. it seemed that it was already time to give up on Tuesday. I was now wearing the extra shot of espresso that I had so desperately needed, and, judging from the way my skin was tingling, a first degree burn did not seem out of the realm of possibilities. After alerting a barista to the coffee explosion (which, let’s be honest, had impacted me more than the coffee shop floor), I hightailed it to the restroom to bathe in the sink. I taught my class wearing a drenched-to-the-point-of-dripping cardigan, tank top, and jeans – like a timid contestant in a wet tee-shirt contest (or, as a friend called it, a wet cardigan contest). I explained the circumstances that had led to my soggy, disheveled state, likely solidifying any inklings my students may have had that I am a real-life incarnation of Liz Lemon.

And then, my class went well. My students had great insights about the novel we are reading, and I remembered that I am a good teacher. And I realized that, while I was soaked and sticky and smelled of wet wool and coffee, what had happened was actually pretty hilarious. I even felt slightly grateful for the absurdist climax to what had been a particularly unpleasant twenty-four hours and an aggravating several weeks. It seemed like a rather heavy-handed sign that I was taking everything way too seriously and needed to lighten the heck up. When it comes to setbacks and disappointments, that is not easy for me to do. It can be hard to shake the feeling that each time I try for something–anything–I am inviting a tidal wave of rejection to wash me away in waves of humiliation and frustration. But at the same time, I am so much stronger than I was when I began graduate school, and I will become stronger still. If nothing else, it helps to know that sometimes the world is a ridiculous and stupid place – a place where freak coffee accidents lead to teaching Stone Butch Blues while standing in a puddle of coffee-tinted water.

It’s a healthy little reminder that not everything is about me.

This is the Academia I Want

This evening, I read a wonderful blog post called “It’s Not on the Syllabus: Cultivating Collegiality as a Graduate Student.” If you’re an academic or considering pursuing an academic life, I strongly urge you to read it. The author is Melissa Ridley Elmes, a doctoral student in English and Women’s and Gender Studies.

(Link: http://melissaridleyelmes.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/its-not-on-the-syllabus-cultivating-collegiality-as-a-graduate-student/)

Ridley Elmes makes a number of brilliant remarks over the course of her piece, but one that really sticks is her assertion that academic conferences should be safe spaces. I want to take this even further and argue that academia should, in all of its different facets, be a safe space. I do not, of course, mean that academia should cease to be a venue for provocation, intellectual stimulation, and debate. But it should be a space where we can share–and challenge–ideas without diminishing one another.

As is probably evident by the above, Ridley Elmes has inspired me to do a bit of thinking about the academic world that I would like to see. I pointedly do not refer to this as my “ideal” academia. All that I want–and hope for–is attainable if we navigate the field with empathy and intellectual generosity as guiding principles.

So, without further ado, here are some key aspects of The Academia I Want:

1. I want an academia where expressing vulnerability does not come at the cost of seeming less professional or competent. (I wrote about this topic briefly in my BWD post: https://positiveandpromise.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/the-bwd/)

2. I want an academia where we are encouraged–and encourage each other–to live varied and full lives.

3. As such, I want an academia where we support parents–especially mothers–who are striving to both raise a family and succeed in the field.

4. I want an academia that is aware, as Ian McEwan writes in Atonement, that we are all every bit as real as each another. Behind a professional demeanor there is always, always a vibrant and complex inner life. Behind a professional demeanor there is often suffering. When we remember these things, I believe that we are kinder to one another.

5. I want an academia that WANTS to be guided by kindness.

6. I want an academia where we discuss our ideas more than we discuss departmental gossip or politics.

7. I want an academia where the humanities are valued and supported financially. (Okay, here I might be drifting into idealism…unfortunately.)

8. I want an academia where our pedagogy is shaped by feminism.

9. Hell, I want a feminist, sex-positive, queer-friendly, diverse academia.

10. I want an academia where we are comfortable sharing in the successes of others because we are not encouraged, however implicitly, to compare ourselves to one another.

11. I want an academia that is always mindful of the ways it can shape the world at large and eager to do exactly that. We can all of us be activists – and we should be.

In composing this list, I do not mean to say that all of these things are currently nonexistent in the academic world. I am fortunate to know so many kind-hearted and intellectually generous people, both within and outside of my field. I know people who fight actively for animal rights, and others who inspire me as working mothers. I am a fortunate woman if I can make a career in a field where so many brilliant, warm, and charitable people exist.

But we can do better. I can do better. And as I work on my dissertation and think more concretely about the sort of life I want as a professional–a life that includes being a mother and a creative writer as well as an academic–I feel a greater urgency to help reshape academia’s less collegial dimensions. It is doable, of that I am certain. I hope that readers will respond in the comments with their thoughts on this topic. What sort of academia do you want?