Monthly Archives: March 2015

The C Word

I failed today. Just now, in the office.

I overheard a conversation and I didn’t step in to say how inappropriate and offensive it was. So, I’m going to take a lower risk maneuver and write it here.

Overheard at  work:

Man one: Thinking about it makes me so mad again. There’s a four letter word for someone like her. It rhymes with bundt.

Man two: I wonder what that could be.

Man one: Yeah, but I typically call women muffins instead, so I don’t have to cuss.

Man two: But why muffin?

Man one: Well,…

…and so forth.

I know many women have reclaimed the word cunt. Thanks in part to the book of the same name and to the Vagina Monologues, cunt’s use is similar to my use of ‘queer’ to describe myself and my friends who also identify with the term. But still, there is a way to use the word for empowerment and respect and a way to use the word as a demeaning insult. To use it intentionally with malice.

The fact of this conversation–even though they never even said the word–open, loud, in the middle of an office, and around women, is more infuriating than the use or discussion of ‘cunt’ being used.

Along similar lines, I’ve tried to take the word “dick” as an expletive out of my vocabulary–I say jerk instead; it’s more accurate to what I mean.

And, it hasn’t been lost on me that ‘dick’ is more commonly-accepted, a “lighter” word to use than ‘cunt’ in similar instances. Is this because it’s more offensive to be a nasty woman? Since women, after all, are supposed to be sweet and men are supposed to be jerks.

Sigh.

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A March Madness Win

I miss you. I learned SO much working with you and days like today make me realize just exactly how much. Or rather, that I didn’t understand exactly how much. 🙂

I was tired and most likely grumbling about the things I needed to do the next day when I got this message from a former student. I hadn’t had this student in a formal classroom since the spring semester of 2013.

Many teachers need a win at this point (March Madness isn’t all about basketball after all), when the academic year is so close and yet so far from over. I needed a win. So, thanks, former student.

Writing is one of those subjects that creeps up on you. A person can improve by leaps and bounds, but it’s a slow process–compared to many other learn-it-or-don’t subjects college students take. This particular student took an upper level course with me, but one of the thoughts that keeps me energized for freshmen comp classes each semester is the idea that somewhere, down the road, they will use these skills and habits formed in my composition class to help them succeed, and that will have made a difference. Teaching writing is not for those who need instant gratification. And that gratification, when it does arrive, is all the sweeter for it.

Moving the Earth

The essay’s engine is curiosity; it’s territory is the open road.–Cheryl Strayed

I was having a particularly awful set of days last week. Thursday morning was all minor set backs and fits. It took a couple of hours after waking around 5:00AM for a the desolate mood to set in. I had a slew of meetings to attend, to prep, to run, or to observe, as I had had every day for the previous two weeks. And I was nearing the end of my push to observe twenty-two of my student staff hosting review sessions for various classes around campus. The observations themselves weren’t the main factor keeping my mind-heart balance in a funk. Maybe it was the full moon. Maybe seasonal depression was finally catching up to me–since it was March and still below 20 degrees. Maybe it was all the things that I’ve been forced to realize in the last year about my life and relationships–you see, this is how dramatic it felt. Like I was some sci-fi extra waking up from a dream-reality to realize I’m sitting in a pod of primordial ooze. Like I’d been foolish to think life was on track.  And yet, even though I could reasonably see and feel that I was simply focusing on the wrong things and that nothing had really changed in the last two days to warrant this sudden jarring of my positive outlook, I couldn’t unthink the things I was thinking. My mood didn’t lift until sometime Friday night.

~

And nothing was ever the same again.

Cheryl Strayed guides her students with the idea that this is the “invisible, unwritten last line” of every essay–that as writers the goal is to move our readers by shifting the earth around them. I like to think of reading experiences–the really good ones–as keys that unlock something inside of us. Something that once unlocked, can’t be locked again.

~

D had been on the side lines of my terrible, horrible, no good very bad day all Thursday, and when Friday morning wasn’t showing signs of being different, she texted: “Seriously. Do something for yourself.” She was trying to get me to take a half day and visit a friend who was enjoying a day off herself in Chicago. I settled for leaving right after my last meeting of the day–which ended at 3:00PM.

I was on the open road by 3:30PM toward Ravenswood and my friend J, armed with my will to be happier and an overnight bag. At some point in the evening, J and I decided to turn the music off and step away from the crackers and port wine cheese. We moved our beers from the couch to the kitchen table and swapped reading material. We were talking about our nonfiction origins and loves–pieces that had awoken something inside of us when we read them, the ones that had stayed with us ever since. I told J that my students had recently read Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Voladoras” in preparation for a sentence workshop. I told her that I couldn’t say anything else about it until she had read it herself. She sat me down with a copy of David Quammen’s “Strawberries on Ice.”

~

“Joyas Voladoras” was not assigned reading in my graduate studies. I read it only after I’d purchased the Best American Essays 2005, years after graduate school, on a hunt for fantastic nonfiction reading assignments for writing students. I can see myself, in my upstairs office at school, during the last weeks of summer sun pouring in through the broken blinds, books piling up on my desk in preparation for the semester’s syllabi. I was assigning “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog”–a whimsical essay by Kitty Burns Florey remembering a time in American school life when diagramming sentences was king–and there it was. Doyle’s flash essay precedes the Burns Florey piece in the book’s line up. Looking at the table of contents, a mandatory ritual after any Best American purchase, the Latinate title was a flashing sign that said Danger, beware of boredom up ahead! I didn’t recognize Doyle’s name. I was worried that whatever the topic was, it would be out of my realm of interests. I was nervous that the prose would be laborious. I was assuming that I wouldn’t enjoy it. (So, basically, I was thinking like a typical under-motivated student.) And, I was wrong.

Once I had read the first sentence, I couldn’t stop until I devoured the thing whole.

~

D met up with J and I last Friday at some point and we had a family evening–making food together and enjoying the laughter of people you love. I was amazed that only hours before I had felt the world spinning off into a dark place I’ve been before.  With “Joyas Voladoras” as it is with other pieces close to my heart–pun intended (read the piece)–the element of surprise is the main delight. This piece embodies the way nonfiction can start logically, interestingly, and firmly rooted in verifiable facts and concrete science only to shatter the expectations of itself it had just built to end up somewhere abstract and deep in the emotional world. I knew I wasn’t out of the woods, as they say, but I had to marvel at how human expectations are so easily upturned and how a good piece can move the earth ever so slightly into place.