Category Archives: Musings

At Stake Cover

Monsters

I’ve been thinking about monsters. Not the zombies I usually research and write about, but the language of monsters that lurks in our everyday speech. The rhetoric of horror is so pervasive and so present. It comes to us when we have something to speak that seems unspeakable. It is deployed to justify violence and harm. It is used to vilify and to distance. It appears in moments of trauma. The language of monsters is disastrously unavoidable.

I’ve been thinking about how we create monsters and ultimately about how we destroy them. Creation and destruction tangled together, dependent on one another. Their ubiquity begs for explanation when I have no words to give.

I’ve been thinking about monsters because I also can’t quit thinking about Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown.

Like so many people, I was heartbroken over the grand jury’s decision last week. I was also enraged and frustrated. I keep looking at my children and imagining the suffering of  Brown’s parents and all the parents that fear the same fate for their children. I don’t know their anguish; I can’t really. But, I’m haunted by autopsy sketches, the pain etched into his mother’s face, and the wounded bodies of protesters. I hug my children a bit tighter and hold them more closely. I also realize that their white skin offers them protection that Brown did not have.

I keep coming back to monsters.

In his testimony for the grand jury, Wilson described Brown, “it looks like a demon.” Dexter Thomas notes the dehumanizing language that Wilson employs with both “it” and “demon,” which resonates with a larger history of denying the humanity of African Americans. Thomas describes how the events in Ferguson feel like a bad movie playing out exactly like we feared it would. Spoilers aren’t an issue, if the pattern is the same.

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Sophie

Sophie the dog died last week.  She had surgery to fix her bladder. The surgery had complications. Sophie had to be put to sleep. These are the facts, but as is often the case, the facts leave so much unsaid.

My mother-in-law called my husband to let us know, and he told me. I cried (and I still cry when I think of Sophie). She was not my dog, but she used to be. She was my pet, and then, I had to give her up. She’s lived with my in-laws most of her life. Yet, I raised Sophie from a puppy. I struggle to mourn her loss.  I already gave her up. What right do I have to mourn? How can I not mourn her? What do I say about a dog who used to be a part of my family? What do I owe her memory? I have no good answers (I rarely do).

Instead, I’ll tell you Sophie’s story, the parts that I know. It is the least that I can do.

Sophie as a puppy.
Sophie as a puppy.

Chris and I already had one dog, Hannah, and a mean cat, Belle. We bought a new house with a large backyard, and we worried that Hannah might be lonely. We were both graduate students. We spent many hours at the university away from home.  We thought maybe another dog would be a good companion.

My mom happened to have a new litter of hound-mix puppies, so we decided to pick a puppy for Hannah. I was drawn to an off-white puppy with spots running through her fur. She had  big brown splotch over one eye, which made her look a bit like the Pokey Little Puppy. This puppy was also nervous, which amounted to much pee to be removed from carpet, and rambunctious. We named her, Sophie. The name was my choice because it sounded sweet, and she was.

When we brought her into our home, she promptly peed on the tile.

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My notebook collection in all its glory.

Notebooks

I keep a notebook for my ideas of what to write. Actually, I keep notebooks (plural), virtual (Evernote) and physical. Fragments of what I write rest in so many places. I cannot corral my words even when I try too.

None of my notebooks are even close to full. Blank pages dominate my frenetic handwriting. Each notebook represents  different moments in my life as a writer. They are evidence of my contradictions, my successes, and my failures.

There’s a black and white floral one that had plans for chapter five of my dissertation. I’m unsure whether I followed these plans. There’s a magenta notebook that feels like it is made of suede. It is not.

There are many black notebooks. One of which I cannot bring myself to open because I’m afraid of what I will find. That one is an anguished journal, in which I try to make sense of where I am at and where I have been. There are previous selves that I am not quite ready to encounter (again). There are moments I am not proud of.

At least one is repurposed. It is small and spiral-bound. The cover is green and brown. “Wine” is hastily written on the cover. Years ago, I thought I would get into wine because people I knew were into wine. I decided to document my favorites and their tasting notes. I quickly discovered that I don’t like wine that much. I feel outclassed by wine drinkers, and my tasting notes are shit. I ripped out the wine pages with much prejudice. Now, that notebook contains my thoughts on Joan Didion’s essays on self-respect and others from Slouching Toward Bethlehem, possible columns for Sexism Ed, and some colorful drawings by my daughter. Since I wrote in the notebook, she did too. A purple whale and a pink snake rest between my jottings on kindness and my summaries of episodes of The Leftovers. Writing and motherhood intermingle. Her whale makes me smile every time I thumb through that notebook. Continue reading

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Haunted

Are we all haunted?

My paternal grandparents lost their middle son, Carl, in a car accident. He was almost 20. His car collided with a parked semi truck. He died. My other uncle,  Stevie, walked away from the accident physically unharmed. I can’t speak to other harms. We never talked about it, and he died seven years ago. This tragedy came to define my father’s family. His death was a gaping wound. Sometimes, woundedness bound them together, but this loss also distanced them from one another in particularly intimate ways. Their mutual pain became distinct and separate. His absence made him even more present.

His death became a reminder of the tenuousness of life and the finality of death. He haunted them, and later, the rest of us.

I never met Carl because he died almost three years before I was born. Yet, he lingered. I was told throughout my childhood that I was like him. This was not necessarily a compliment, more often it was an accusation tossed out in anger. I learned that Carl was funny and warm, but also willful and determined. He didn’t follow the path dictated by my grandparents, and they wanted us all to follow their rules. He challenged them. I challenged them years later. I often wonder if they loved him more because of his refusal to bend while I am pretty sure that they loved me less.

The story of his life was often avoided. My mother, who divorced my father when I was three, was more apt to talk about Carl. She loved him like a brother. He brought her joy. The story of his death came to me in hushed whispers, eavesdropping, and conversations with my mom.

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Pretty

This is a piece that I wrote over nine months ago that I hesitated on publishing. Reading over this morning, I am not sure why I was hesitant or what stopped me from clicking the publish button. I’ve lightly revised, but here it is.

“Pretty”

Pretty (adj): attractive in a delicate way without being truly beautiful or handsome.

It all started with a decision about a new pair of glasses. I narrowed my choices down to two frames: one roundish, large, and delicate and the other square and academic. I fell in love with the round ones. They are bigger than my current pair and decidedly retro. These frames seemed like a new start. A new way to communicate my transition from academic to whatever I want to be. These sartorial choice was a move in the right direction, so that my style reflected my attempts to get beyond me as academic. Plus, my five-year old enthusiastically loved them because of the color combination of warm brown and russet red.

Following the advice of Warby Parker, I posted a picture on Facebook to get “necessary” feedback from others. Most commenters liked them, but one of my friends noted that I was “too cute” for these frames.

My confidence deflated. What if these glasses made me look bad? What if I wasn’t pretty in them? I tried on the frames again and again. I polled my husband, my daughter, and my sisters via text. I liked, maybe even loved, the frames, but I worried about my appearence. What would others think?

And then I got angry. At myself. Why did I even care about what someone would think about frames? I’m the one who had to wear the damn glasses. Why did I care? If I liked the way I looked, why did anything else matter?

I’d fallen into a trap that I often set about my looks. I don’t want to be pretty until I do. My relationship with pretty is contentious at best.

I’ll be the first to note that I suck at a certain type of traditional white femininity. I have a pixie cut and visible tattoos. I switch back and forth between my glasses and my contacts.  I rock skull earrings and a smirk. I’m more comfortable in jeans, boots, or flipflops than I ever am in skirts and heels. I wear some make-up (eyeliner is required) and paint my nails (often black). The best I can hope for is cute, but I’ve been told that my “attitude” sometimes gets in the way.

Me and pretty don’t abide one another. We never have. Partially because I bought into the cultural claptrap about how girls and women have to choose smart or pretty. I can handle smart. Beauty is another thing entirely. I know this is a false choice. Yet, I still judge myself by standards of beauty that I detest. I harshly catalog my appearance dwelling on ever-shifting flaws. As a teenager, I hated my nose. I would examine it in the mirror and dwell on its ugliness. Now, my nose doesn’t bother me at all, but I’ve found new “flaws” that bug me.

Why can’t I love how I look? Love seems to far out of reach. I would settle for appreciation or an apprehensive truce.

Much of my body policing, of course, will be familiar to most women. From an early age, we learn to critique ourselves. We become our own worst critics because our bodies matter so much. Cultural value weighs on our flesh and our minds.

I bought the glasses I liked. I wear them well. This is one of my many attempts to come to terms with my body and appreciate it. I want my daughter to be comfortable in her own skin. I can’t teach her that unless I learn to do it as well.