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.

Advertisements

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.

Body Parts

It is a hideously dreary weekend, and I am thinking about my body.

I love bodies. I love the myriad of ways they register the world, their exquisite vulnerabilities. I love the beauty created by bodies. I love to think about these things.

And, for the most part, I love to be aware of my own body. Perhaps I should turn that sentence around: I love to be aware of most parts of my body.

A few weeks ago, I visited my student health center for a check-up. First things first, blood pressure and weight. As I stepped onto the scale, I celebrated the small convenience of being able to keep on my shoes (this almost never happens). Then, I waited as the nurse pushed the metal arrows to the right and left. She kept pushing to the right. Further to the right always means fatter.

As I waited for the nurse practitioner to call me into an examination room, I fretted over the number the first nurse had recorded. I don’t own a scale, and I don’t remember whether this year’s number is larger than the one from last year. I am vaguely aware that, whatever the number, I would not be satisfied.

Finally I am summoned, and I head to one of the dingy, dinky little rooms to meet with the nurse practitioner. I ask her about my weight, and she squints at the computer. “Oh,” she says. “Mmm.”

Shit.

She turns to me with a look of pity that would seem more suitable if she were about to issue a cancer diagnosis. According to the hallowed and revered BMI index, I have edged into the “overweight zone.” “It’s not that you have a weight PROBLEM,” she assures me. “You’re just overweight.”

I sit with this information for a moment and am silent. The nurse wants to be helpful. “Would you like to make an appointment with a nutrition counselor?” she asks, eagerly handing me brochures. I feign appreciation and stuff the brochures in my bag. I go home. I curl up in bed, cry, and feel like a wad of wet dough. Later that night, I realize that I am actually fortunate because I am twenty-eight, and this is the first time–to my knowledge–that I have ever been identified by someone as “overweight.”

I don’t care what percentage of people would agree with that nurse practitioner – or rather, with the BMI chart upon which she based her own assessment. I only know that I hate how we make each other feel about our bodies – how we inhibit each other’s ability to love our flesh. And I’m sick of women being made to feel as if we take up too much space. We diminish ourselves in the name of Health. Really, we are only performing expectations that are utter impossibilities.

This week a friend drew my attention to the “No Makeup Selfie” campaign that has been making the rounds on social media. She participated and asked me to do the same. I had just changed my Facebook profile picture to one of the only close ups of my face that I do not hate. The friend who took the picture is a professional photographer, and I sure as hell am wearing makeup. I have begun to pride myself on my creativity in the cosmetic arts and tell myself that I am finding new ways to “enhance” my facial features. This is probably mostly bullshit.

I support my friend for participating in the campaign and tell her she looks beautiful because she does and she is. But for a few days, I refrain, cowardly. One evening I take a photo of myself without makeup, but think that posting it publicly would make me nauseous. The next morning I try again. Without looking too hard at the picture, I post it to Facebook.

I hate that photo of me so much that I can hardly bear the sight of it. I endure it only to respond to the comments of wonderful friends who say supportive, kind things. But I’m still glad that I took the photo, and that it is there. I think it is good for me to sit with the discomfort of having broadcasted an image of myself unadorned. Still, I don’t know that I could do it again.

Today I am feeling the heaviness that comes of a weekend spent eating appetizers at a conference (free food means not paying for groceries, after all). I will go to the gym tomorrow morning and tell myself that the most important reason for doing so is to “feel good.” Really, I want to be in shape when my family sees me in my wedding dress in June. I don’t want my body to take up too much space when I walk down the aisle. I’m doing this for all of the wrong reasons, but I keep hoping that will change.

I keep hoping that the next time I have the energy to write about my feminist politics, that the energy will derive from a better ability to separate myself from gendered social expectations. Today is not one of those days, but it will come. I am determined for it to come.

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?

Why I Like to Teach Sex

This past week, Paul showed a room of graduate students and professors just how foxy Harvey Keitel is in the sack.

Disambiguation: Paul was a panelist for a workshop on how to teach film in literature courses. He delivered a mini-presentation on how to analyze a scene, focusing particularly on sound and music. He chose, as his sample, a scene from Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” which is, let me tell you, one of the most exquisite films that I have ever seen. It is also the only film that, to my knowledge, features Harvey Keitel as an explicit object of desire. When we see Harvey (or rather, when you see Harvey, because I probably cannot sit through any of his other, much more violent, films), it tends to be in this sort of context:

Image taken from badassdigest.com

In “The Piano,” Harvey Keitel’s character has also adorned himself with tattoos, but they are limited to his face and signify his assimilation into the tribal communities of 19th Century New Zealand. Whether or not said tattoos work for him would likely generate some debate. But, in any case, they seem to work for one of the film’s female characters, because she falls deeply in love with him. And after these characters express their mutual feelings, they engage in a rather lengthy and graphic bout of love-making. This is the scene that Paul showed us as part of his presentation. Nervous laughter ensued.

A number of factors contributed to the giggles that rippled through the audience. First, Paul warned that the scene includes partial nudity, and there is simply nothing “partial” about it – unless, of course, anything less than full-frontal shots of genitalia is, in your opinion, child’s play. That said, taking into consideration that we do not see the women from the front, and assuming Harvey is relatively endowed, I would put the extent of the nudity in this scene at about 95 percent. Perhaps if we had only caught a quick glimpse of the love-making, then the effect would not have been so dramatic. But oh, how the camera lingers. We see caresses. We see smoochies. We see Harvey mount and penetrate with a determined thrust. And all the while, the music is gorgeous!

Paul did, ultimately, cut short the viewing, having forgotten just how long we are privy to the lovers bumping uglies. And, honestly, it is a shame that he felt that compulsion, however understandable it was. Jokes aside, the scene was perfect for the point Paul wanted to convey to us, and it productively accompanied his brilliant feminist analysis (I won’t divulge said analysis to you because I hope he publishes it someday).  Afterwards, my friend and colleague, Katie Stanutz, the organizer of these teaching workshops, joked that Paul was responsible for the first nudity to make its way into the series. She also hatched what I think is a brilliant idea for another workshop: how to teach controversial material. After the panel, a few of us, including Katie, began to talk about how presenting or discussing explicit material is always a challenge. It also can have varying–sometimes difficult–effects on the space of a classroom or lecture hall. Of course, everyone who attended this workshop loves Paul and appreciated precisely why he had shown us that film clip. But the affect of amused discomfort was palpable as we gradually recognized that this was a long scene of no-holds-barred sex – one that we were watching in public, amongst professional colleagues. Afterwards we realized that this was one of those “teaching moments” to which we all refer (sometimes with a dollop of sarcasm).

I am by no means immune to the impacts of encountering controversial material, whatever the nature of its content. However, I also do not shy away from teaching it. Because my research interests include human sexuality, the topic tends to make its way into just about any course I teach, and in a variety of manifestations. I have incorporated “The Piano” into a women’s literature class before (with Paul’s help, I should add). This semester, in my Introduction to LGBT Literatures class, I will teach poetry by the brilliant Essex Hemphill. When I teach within my comfort zone, i.e. the Victorian period, I assign Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick, and challenge my students to think about the ways writers articulated their erotic desires in a climate that was far more conservative. It is especially important to me to teach women’s sexuality because of the ways it has been–and continues to be–scrutinized, fetishized, and exploited, both within literature and outside of it. Some of my very favorite lines of poetry–lines that strengthen me whenever I feel judged by others–are from Victorian poet Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway.” Webster’s poem imagines the interiority of a kept woman struggling with her “fall” from sexual propriety while still asserting her self-worth:  “I have looked coolly on my what and why / And I accept myself.” Sometimes it is nearly impossible for me to speak those words aloud without getting choked up.

My students generally come to know me as a teacher who will “go there.” I am comfortable with this, both because I try to make those moments productive and because I think it is critical TO go “there” — in other words, to the sex. We see evidence every day that society still does not know what to do with sexuality. However often we read humor pieces about the trials and tribulations of forgetting your vibrator when you visit your parents, talking sex tends to make us nervous unless we do it in a private setting. I recognize that everyone has limits to what s/he wants to discuss, and I am by no means arguing that we should all broadcast our sex lives, heedless of our audiences. Despite being a very sex-positive person, there is a great deal–although perhaps it does not always seem like it–that I prefer to keep to myself. And there are details about my life that others simply need not know. But as an instructor, I believe in challenging my students to question the boundaries that shape their comfort zones. Discomfort can be one of the most productive things we feel, so long as we are willing to reflect on what has generated it. I want my students to read material that makes them uncomfortable. Doing so enables us to have vibrant and healthy discussions about what that discomfort means – what social or institutional forces influence and perpetuate it.

As long as we continue to tiptoe around discussions of sex in the abstract, we will not be capable of fully facing the social problems that derive from sexual anxieties. For instance, until we can recognize the validity of sex workers, it will be one more factor that contributes to a culture of slut-shaming. So too, will be the systemic silencing and blaming of sexual assault victims, many of whom are women. For as long as we fetishize and exploit same-sex eroticism, queer people will not be encouraged to regard their love as valid and beautiful, just as all love is. (For some of the latest in outrageous lesbian fetishization, see Shakira’s latest music video. My opinion of her has lowered considerably: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3mP3mJDL2k. And no, Macklemore does not make it all better.) I could go on at length, and it would just depress us all. It’s Friday, so I don’t want to do that.

But there is so much that we need to do. We need to talk with our students about the line between the pornographic and the erotic, and why that matters (see Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic” if you want to do a little outside reading that will inspire you to start a revolution). We need to create supportive and generative spaces where words like “vagina” and “aroused” don’t get caught in our students’ throats as they attempt to make points about the day’s reading. We need to teach tolerance for sexuality and, in so doing, emphasize the difference between choosing to maintain one’s privacy and feeling compelled to hide a fundamental part of oneself.

When I teach sexually explicit material, I hope that I am able to impart some of these lessons — or, at least, to create a pedagogical climate conducive to these conversations. Because, while I want to challenge my students (and myself, too), I always, always want them to feel safe.

And if all else fails, I guess I can just show my students a naked, tattooed Harvey Keitel over, and over, and over again. (Thanks, Paul!)

Teaching Pretty: The Politics of Fashion for Women Instructors

My relationship with high heeled shoes is a fraught one.

Aesthetically, I am dazzled by them. They compliment my body’s shape and infuse more conservative outfits with a bit of pizzazz.  I feel intoxicatingly powerful when I manage to trip across sidewalk grating in high heels without getting stuck or face-planting in a spectacular display of bipedal ineptitude. (I may or may not tempt fate on a semi-regular basis in hopes of experiencing this high. I do know the name of a very good cobbler.) Entering a crowded room in high heels generates a similar sense of confidence and assertiveness – and it generally does not result in bodily harm.

The positive affective powers of the high heel has propelled me to teach most of my classes in them. And when I do, those high heels are almost certainly paired with a dress, or a skirt, blouse, and blazer. But by the time class has ended, and I have trekked back to my office, my feet have sent my brain a read-only version of the Bill of Rights, with the Eighth Amendment circled in red, and arrows pointing at it for good measure. And therein lies the rub: Can I walk in high heels? Yes. Does it eventually hurt like hell? Emphatic yes. As an especially energetic teacher, I often will walk around my classroom, and, no matter how many reviews I read assuring me that “you can totally wear these high heels ALL DAY and you won’t even notice them,” I do notice. I notice big time. Perhaps one day, I will locate the miracle heels that I really can wear for eight hours without chomping at the bit to kick them off, but that day has not arrived.

The day has also not arrived where I have discovered panty hose or tights with an elastic band that does not eventually make me anxious to wriggle free. And fitted blouses? I am forever nervous that one wild gesticulation too many will result in torn fabric.

But regardless of the above, I do love to dress up and take a great deal of pride in my sartorial decisions. I recognize that, while I do seek to fill my wardrobe with clothes that are both classy and comfortable, high heeled shoes that feel like a pair of TOMS are a scientific impossibility. And, if I want to wear high heels, patterned tights, and cute, fitted blouses, then I am simply going to have to accept the accompanying bodily constraints. That is my choice, and I make it willingly.

The real question is why I insist on wearing this sort of highly-feminized attire when I teach. Yes, “looking professional,” however that is to be interpreted, is indeed important to me. I do firmly believe that more formal attire projects dedication to my work as a teacher and a scholar. I am here to work, to teach, to learn, and I take all of that very, very seriously. And, as I said, donning heels and a dress makes me feel quite confident. In my fancy duds, I am prepared to deliver a fantastic lesson, presentation, or to engage in an intellectually rigorous conversation with one of my mentors. Generally, I wait until the middle of the semester to wear pants to class, and when I do, I almost certainly pair them with heels.

But–and I know this is not revelatory–one does not need to wear high heels to look professional. A female-bodied person does not need to wear conventionally feminine clothes in order to look professional. The hesitancy I feel whenever I put on a pair of ballet flats has nothing to do with whether or not I will appear too casual for an academic environment. Along these same lines, my decision to start wearing blush and lip color this year does not impact my overall professional image – in fact, I doubt if anyone has noticed but me. Waiting until the ninth week of the semester to wear pants and heels instead of sporting them by the fourth or fifth week probably has no effect on my pedagogical ethos. So then, why do I set these guidelines for myself?

My sense is that they are the result of inculcated gender expectations – what I believe I need to do as a twenty-something woman in order to command respect from my students and from my peers. For instance, when I walked to my classroom the other day, I passed a male instructor wearing shorts, a tee-shirt, and sneakers. My first thoughts focused on whether he had sustained severe nerve damage. Personally, I cannot not conceive of venturing outside in 30-degree weather without every inch of my body covered, save for maybe one eye. But it also occurred to me that I would absolutely never–never–teach a class dressed the way this man was dressed.

A few things: First of all, I am not attempting to construct a gendered binary where “male” equals “less concerned with professional appearance because…patriarchy.” Part of my surprise at this instructor’s attire simply derived from its being, in my estimation, inappropriate for an academic environment. I of course know many male instructors who take great care in their appearance, particularly on days that they teach. And plenty of female instructors dress more casually than I do, all the while projecting airs of professionalism and confidence. There is, as always, no viable binary to create here. But that said, the fact that I do not feel comfortable dressing casually when I teach is, to a large extent, an issue of gender. And the fact that I encounter far more male instructors who are comfortable dressing informally in front of their students is, too, a result of gendered socialization. Having had conversations on this topic with a number of my colleagues, I have the sense that far fewer women would teach class in a tee-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. The reasons for this extends beyond the simple question of what we consider “professional dress.”

After all, clothes themselves are gendered identity markers. We use them both to send messages and to interpret one another as personalities and as bodies. There is no need for me to recount for you the history of regulated female attire or, for that matter, the anxieties that still surround transvestism. People tend to feel most comfortable when the cultural codes that mark a body parallel their interpretation of the body itself. Somewhere in my social conditioning, I came to an unconscious realization that people would respond to me more favorably if my attire matched my feminine persona and female body – and that I enjoyed the benefits of fulfilling these expectations. For reasons gendered and otherwise–excluding a few years of elementary school–I liked pretty clothes and wanted to wear them whenever the occasion permitted. Once I started my doctorate and began teaching college-level courses, I must have interpreted female professionalism as being, to some degree, tethered to conventional depictions of acceptable hyper-femininity – in other words, dresses that flatter one’s figure (but not too tight, and for goodness sake, not too low cut!); heels that accentuate the legs (but not too high – that’s trashy!); and full make up (but tastefully applied, please!).

I do not mean these snarky asides to suggest that teachers should walk into their classrooms wearing pleather catsuits and crimson lipstick (although, a universe where that was the norm might be kind of fun). What interests me is that female professionals are implicitly encouraged to be modest, yet fetching, and in a markedly feminine way. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we are encouraged to be sexy – thus the cache of “Hot for Teacher” films and outfits deemed–approvingly–“sexy librarian.” “Sexy nerd” is most certainly a thing in academia, for men and for women. But society encourages women to be attractive to everybody, including our students, even while the official discourse promotes conservatism. And of course, take “sexy” too far, and may the slut-shaming commence.

As is probably painfully clear, I can offer no solutions here. I only know that the way female professional dress is scrutinized is highly problematic, as are the many conflicting messages society sends regarding heteronormative expectations of female workplace appearance. I am only becoming more fully aware of how these various forces have shaped me and, more specifically, my sartorial choices. I realize that many of these decisions materialize because, as a woman, I am especially concerned with my professional visibility. I feel most visible, it seems, when I am dressing the way society asks me to dress. This is a problem.

The matter becomes increasingly complicated because I cannot parse my desire to present myself in a “professional manner” from my clearly socialized conceptions of appropriate dress. I do not know that these issues can be extricated from one another. Do I get dressed with the intent of attracting attention? No, but I wonder to what extent the desire is inherent in the efforts I put forth, even if my “teacher clothes” are neither provocative nor flashy. Visceral aesthetic delight aside, why do I take such pleasure in looking “pretty” when I dress for school? To what extent I am actually dressing for my own benefit?

Ultimately, these questions can be crazy-making. I do want to continue to dress up when I teach and attend department functions. After all, normalizing informal attire in the workplace would only generate new gendered fashion conventions. And I do benefit from the fashion decisions I make, even if I simultaneously am skeptical of their origins. Feeling confident enables me to do my job more effectively. Besides, we all have the right to feel beautiful, whatever that entails for each of us.

What I think we need is a more sustained conversation about what professional attire means for all genders and to what extent we are troubled by the expectations that shape fashion norms. What sorts of privilege are at work here? (I am, for example, fully aware that my ability to dress the way I do derives from a certain amount of economic privilege.) How, above all, do we make our work environments empowering spaces for all who occupy them?

I hope that you will help me to grapple with these questions. In the meantime, I will do my best to leave the high heels at home a bit more often. My feet could use a little respite, and I could use the practice.

When Geeks Collide: Life with a Movie Critic

Before I began my relationship with Paul, I might have known that February is designated by the film-savvy community as “Oscars Season.” But in all likelihood, me possessing that information would be predicated upon someone hosting an Oscar party or bringing up the Oscars in a way that prompted me to ask, “Oh yeah. Those. When do those happen again?”

There are few things I claim to know with certainty, but one thing I can say without qualification is that I will never again NOT know that it is Oscars Season. If you stepped inside our living room, you would immediately understand why: crammed into that tiny space is a veritable cornucopia of DVDs and film scores on compact disc. Biographies of such personages as Orson Welles, Tim Burton and Jim Henson burst from our jam-packed, loosely-titled “American Literature” bookcase.  Above our television (an appropriate enough location), an original Chuck Jones illustration adorns the wall. To be fair, some of the DVDs belonged to me before they became part of the larger Cote-Vorona collective (though, for the record, “Spice World” belonged to Paul). Regardless, beginning a life with Paul meant that my Victorian novels and Pre-Raphaelite picture books could not consume every spare millimeter of the bookcases. And I would have to accept that, given Paul’s aesthetic preferences, it would be unfair for me to smother the walls in Pre-Raphaelite artwork and 19th Century magazine prints. As it stands, our living room exists in a liminal aesthetic space between 20th Century American pop culture and Victoriana. If you leave the framed Oingo Boingo record cover out of the equation, I’m dealing pretty well with this.

My purpose of writing this post was not, however, to grieve my inability to decorate our apartment like the parlors of Thornfield, Thrushcross Grange, or Pemberley. I have always loved movies: watching them in the theatre, thinking about them, and debating their various strengths and limitations with friends. I am a card carrying worshipper of Emma Thompson. Thanks to Tom Hiddleston, I have a renewed interest in Norse mythology. But I do not love movies as much as Paul does. Nor do I possess the inherent ability to unpack them and assess them in the brilliant way that he can. He is a rare, film-whispering, breed of a guy. I love this about him. But I am not always capable of accommodating his passion.

A little modification: When I wrote in the above paragraph that I do not love movies as much as Paul does, I should have added that, in all likelihood, 95 percent of the population does not either. And truly, I believe that it is his depth of perception and innate ability to understand the filmic genre that cultivates his profound appreciation for it. That does not change the insane fact that you could awaken Paul at 3:30 a.m., ask him to rank Martin Scorcese’s five best films, and he would do so with barely a yawn and a blink (in part because there is a very decent chance that Paul would still be awake, watching a movie or writing about one). We once, in the fledgling stages of our romance, completed the grueling, 12 hour ordeal of moving me out of one apartment and into to another. As we staggered back to his place to shower our aching bodies and settle into sleep’s luscious oblivion, I made an offhand comment about a Woody Allen film.** I was under the impression that Paul, like me, was struggling to maintain both consciousness and an upright position as we headed home. And perhaps that was the case…until I brought up Woody. Renewed by the sweet nectar of filmic discourse, Paul dwelled on Woody Allen’s oeuvre for the rest of our walk home – and perhaps even after that. My memory of the circumstances remains foggy because, as astonished as I was by this impromptu verbal dissertation, I was, as I mentioned, exhausted as hell. Yet, even in that bleary, half-conscious state, my mind somehow grasped the realization that Paul had a very particular relationship with film, one that I had never before witnessed. And it was intense.

My own limitations regarding film-talk arise most frequently when Paul and I actually see a movie together. Previously, I tended to be rather lazy about going to the movies. Unless a movie had me frothing at the mouth (i.e.”Titanic” in 7th grade), I would not prioritize seeing it. In fact, I’ve been doing a fair amount of mouth-frothing lately over the new Dickens film, “The Invisible Woman,” and I still haven’t seen that. Being of the loquacious variety, I generally gravitate toward activities that do not require me to sit still and be silent for two hours. Paul, on the other hand, integrates movies into his schedule. He will catch a matinée by himself, on the way home – a practice that has always made perfect sense, but has never been something my exceedingly-extroverted self has been able to try. Sit in a dark theater silently and completely absorbed in a film ALONE? But who will I crawl over when I need to go to the bathroom?

Now that it is Oscar Season, Paul’s “need to see” list of films has both lengthened and become more urgent. (Note: I do not think, before dating Paul, that I ever said that I “needed” to see a movie, which just goes to show how oblivious I was to the critical work involved in viewing a film and, more generally, working in the field.) For one thing, as a member of the International Film Music Critics Association, he needs to vote on the best scores of the year. Working on film in an academic context also means that he needs to be up-to-date on the films being released, especially because he writes on contemporary directors like Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson. And, like me, he blogs–albeit in a more professional context–and it does not make much sense to write a movie review three weeks after a release date.

So, Paul and I have been seeing a number of movies together this winter, and there are more to cross off the list. And while he never complains, I can only imagine that I am a pretty aggravating movie-going companion. If I am confused during the film, I will almost certainly nudge Paul to ask him to explain (I always assume that Paul knows how a plot will unfold by the end of the opening scene). But after the film has ended, I often require a 24 hour grace period before I will enter into any sort of sustained discussion that is not primarily superficial. And if I really loved a movie, I refuse to hear any critique–no matter how small–until the afterglow has dissipated. This can be problematic, because, once the credits are rolling, Paul has about fifty different thoughts prepared to spring from his mouth simultaneously. And these generally are not thoughts of the “OMG NO SHE DID NOT” variety.

For example, while I have been thinking about Spike Jonze’s “Her” almost nonstop since seeing it, my initial conversation with Paul while leaving the theater went something like this:

Me: (sniffling) Wow. That was amazing. Wow wowee wow wowsers.

Paul: Yeah, that was really great.

Me: (immediately indignant because Paul’s reasonable level of enthusiasm does not match my off-the-rails, tearful effusion) IT WAS AMAZING AND FANTASTIC AND I LOVED IT.

Paul: Oh, I did too. It was a phenomenal film.

Rachel: (almost screeching with euphoria) And the performances! I was so impressed with Scarlett Johansson, and that is not something I would normally say.

Paul: (of the mistaken opinion that we are finally getting somewhere in this conversation) She was wonderful, yes, and the relationship between Samantha and Theodore really makes me wonder whether that is the most accurate depiction of romantic intimacy on-screen to date.

Rachel: (Paul’s intellectual remark cannot be matched while inside The Cloud of Many Feelings. Want to feel the feelings, not think the thinks. Unreasonable levels of indignation return.) I don’t wanna talk about this anymore tonight.

Paul: Ooooookay…?

This is not an uncommon scenario in the life of the Cote-Voronas. In many ways, I am probably the filmmaker’s version of Wolfgang Iser’s Ideal Reader. Unless my skepticism precludes–and that means I must find a film VERY problematic–I generally feel just about everything that a film wants me to feel. I am an emotional sponge, absorbing and emitting in equal measure. When Feist released the song “I Feel It All,” I was deeply grateful to her for penning a line that I could steal for all of my online bios. So, when I am moved by a film–particularly one that I loved as much as “Her”–I have to let the emotional waves subside before I can do much critical thinking or be open to hearing any pointed critique. For about twenty-four hours, any variety of the latter will feel like utter blasphemy, and the former will feel like a cold shower.

This is not to say that Paul does not experience these films as profoundly as I do – the beginning of this post testifies to his keen enthusiasm. In fact, one of the things that drew us to one another was the similar way that we experience an especially riveting movie score. Danny Elfman’s “Black Beauty” (yes, I do like Elfman after he sheds the ridiculouslessness of Oingo Boingo), Michael Nyman’s “The Piano,” Patrick Doyle’s “Great Expectations,” Elliot Goldenthal’s “Frida,” Thomas Newman’s “Little Women,” Dario Marinelli’s “Jane Eyre” — Paul and I love listening to this music together, and it all claims, in various ways, intense emotional importance in my life. “Black Beauty” and “Little Women” in particular will always remind me of my childhood with my little sisters, in part because we watched these movies on a weekly basis growing up, but also, more simply, because the music seems to articulate how I love them both. Similarly, many of the scores Paul and I enjoy together become reimagined texts for the ways I love him. (I will also divulge that I cannot so much as hear the first notes of the music from the Season Five finale of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” without dissolving into sobs. By now, the response is almost Pavlovian.)

Paul possesses a more emotionally measured disposition than I do (surprise!), and, at this point, he is a seasoned film critic. So he can exist in a space where he is both experiencing the affective impact of a film and, simultaneously, thinking about its technical intricacies and larger implications. I often wish that I could do the same so that I was a better movie buddy for him. Still, my experience of watching movies seems to be an enjoyable experience for him (primarily a comical one). And while his film-critic mind might not be as compelled by the “WHY DID HE HAVE TO LEAVE HER?” “WASN’T IT SO MEAN WHEN SHE SAID THAT? JEEZY CREEZY!” variety of questions, these are the sorts of things I need to talk about while I am still emotionally processing a film. He gets that, I think, and he humors me accordingly.

And, in turn, he knows that he can always wake me up in the middle of the night after watching “Breaking Bad” in order to tell me of the horrors he has just witnessed. Because even the most experienced film critics have their limitations. (I have not watched “Breaking Bad” myself, but have rather experienced it vicariously through Paul. I am his “Breaking Bad” trauma counselor, if you will.)

As Oscar Season continues, and Paul and I continue to work through his list of must-sees (many of which are on my list too), I anticipate all manner of conversations: the post-viewing chats that inevitably will end with me in a snit and, the following night, long debates over wine – when I am finally willing to submit that, no, that movie was not the Platonic ideal of cinema and, yes, there is more to discuss than its most melodramatic of plot twists.

What’s more, I was actually just as excited for the release of the Oscar nominees as Paul was this year. I guess his enthusiasm has been catching over the years, as much as I loathe to give him credit for that (ask him one day about what a delight I am). And I am eager to watch the Oscars with him–his Superbowl, for those whose minds are turned to that particular sporting event today. The fact that I refer to it as a “sporting event” probably gives you a sense of my own investment in the game as well, although I do hope there will be cute animals in some of the commercials. Also, regarding the Oscars, red carpet fashion, anyone?

Ultimately, I suppose I can say with confidence that our individualized movie viewing experiences will not tear asunder the bonds my beloved and I have forged. That is, unless he persists in criticizing Michael Fassbender’s performance as Rochester in the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. My charity only extends so far.

**NOTE: At the time that I made this comment, I was unaware that Allen had been accused of sexual assault. Having just read Dylan Farrow’s open letter, I do not know that I will be able to watch another one of his films. We do worlds of harm when we suppress the voices of those who have suffered such violence and cruelty – and even more so when we continue to champion their (in this case, probable) perpetrators.