A [writer]’s dilemma

In the argumentation class I teach at a local university, I love teaching the Post Hoc Ergo Procter Hoc fallacy: after this, therefore because of this. The freshmen composition students and I talk about how humans try to make sense of the world, even when we don’t have all the information, and about how sometimes our logic is faulty because we tend to see chronology as an indicator of cause and effect in places where there are other options to describe how something came to exist or be the way it is.

IllustratedPostHoc2

(Picture taken from the lovely Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments you can find here.)

I observe this fallacy in my students’ papers and in-class discussions. I catch myself doing it too sometimes–looking for a simple answer when I know there are other factors, more complicated, less of my control.

*

9 January 2015
Mandy Len’s New York Times article–for which she was interviewed on the Diane Rehm show yesterday (10 February 2015).

Not only did this article force me to look at my own relationship and consider what we (humans, not me and my partner–although I guess I mean that too) know about love, but it forced me, once again, as I am so often forced, to rejoice in the knowledge that I know talented folks. That people I went to graduate school with a decade ago are “making it through” and being writers and being published in the the New York Times as well as [insert a lot of other really awesome publications here].

I really wanted to post a response, but I kept putting the three-day student-staff training I was organizing ahead of it.

25 January 2015
Ann Bauer’s Salon piece calling for more honesty in the writing community about How-It’s-All-Possible. The article offers the idea that time and the luxury to focus on writing may not be as handcuffed to motivation or hard work (alone) as many play it up to be.

I saw this first as a tweeted link from a writing student I had four years ago, in my first class at the school where I’m currently teaching. I haven’t asked what my former student–now a writer/editor making her own way through–saw in the piece, why she retweeted it, but I imagine it’s because the piece publicly acknowledges that class and socioeconomic status ARE tied to our dreams more than the writing community (or the US public at large) like to admit.  Or perhaps that’s why I retweeted it.

Retweeting is a lot easier than posting a piece, but isn’t as authentic to my thoughts as a post would have been. Tweeting keeps me involved in the writerly world when everything else in my life is pulling me away. So I tweet, and I’m happy, and I regret.

7 February 2015

Laura Bogart’s response (also from Salon) to Bauer wherein she turns the false dilemma between “thriving and surviving” as an artist on its side and references the idea that many of us mortal writers are looking for a way through, not out, of our real lives (from Strauss’s piece on Wild for Elle).

With this piece, the cycle starts over again, doubling out. I again am thankful for the level of success and accomplishment that writers I know are achieving. It’s a reason to be hopeful. I’ve seen more people from grad school posting their own stuff in the last year than I have in the previous 6 years combined. It’s as if we are all finally arriving in the dock after a slow and seasick ride across the ocean.

And then I realize that I’m still on the boat and that this metaphor sucks anyway because it erroneously assumes that there IS a dock when I know what’s more likely happening is that my friends are simply getting on a different boat or moving up to a higher deck, where they have a room with a view.

I again ask myself how I got where am I, and why I’m not somewhere else, and I again am torn between causations and blame, feeling one thing but knowing another.

*

Like Laura Bogart, Sallie Mae–now Navient–gives me a monthly bruise. I’m still working my way through, or trying to find a way through, but I’m not seeing many windows, and that’s a scary thing. So how do I know if I’m taking the logical fallacy route and simply finding blame and causation where it’s easiest for me to feel the most guilty–especially when there’s no evidence that I’m a particularly lazy individual or unmotivated? How do other struggling writers–the ones I don’t see posting on my social media feeds–handle all the years of not making it through or around?

Perhaps they force themselves to write and post crappy first drafts on the same deadlines they give their upper-level writing students.

As a thirtysomething between Gen Xers and Millennials (the world sometimes forgets the Jared Catalano Generation) I am constantly reconsidering my identity, my past, my path. Comparing myself to others is also a soul-crushing part of being a writer. And even as I type this, I’m second guessing whether I truly identify as a writer anymore. But I know that I’ve written today–and my former teacher and super success story EJ Levy says: you’re a writer when you’re writing.

(Students: this is 876 words)

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What’s on yours? (The BumperSticker Assignment)

The following post is my own answer to the prompt I will be giving my students on the first day of class in a little over a week. I’m posting it as an example and as a sign of good faith that I will also be posting on a deadline this spring.

By the time I was halfway through high school, I couldn’t wait to get out of the state, for good. I wasn’t a world traveler, but I knew enough to want something different than north Texas heat and a particular type of religious politics. It took me six years—finishing high school and college—to do it, but two months after my college graduation I set out alone, with my azure 1997 Mitsubishi Mirage (Molly) traversing 1300 miles from Mansfield, Texas to Washington D.C. to start my new, broke life as a writer. I only brought what I could cram in my car—which was mainly books, clothes, and cds. I purchased some cheap Swedish furniture for the room I rented in a house with three other twenty-somethings and borrowed a futon.

Ten years later, I’ve taught in DC, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, and Wisconsin, but not in Texas. There are fewer and fewer reasons for me to go back. In fact, before my recent trip to Ft. Worth, the last time I’d been back was 2011. But even though it is far from my body it is close to my mind. I think about Texas often, but I don’t ache to return the way I once yearned to leave. It is a complicated love, but it is love. I believe in leaving home to understand how you feel about it.

When considering who I’ve become since I left home, I can easily list in a minute several things I believe in, but my identity is most connected lately to two things: The first is that I live to see and understand connections–that’s part of what good writing is: making a connection between what I’m just now seeing, knowing, discovering and things that I’ve already seen, known, or discovered. If my life were a car, the bumper might read #NerdAlert expressly because I think that if we look at anything close enough and consider it carefully enough, it isn’t boring. Boring means you haven’t given it a chance to be not-boring. I like the phrase “Geeking Out” better, only partially because I relished the short-lived late 90s show Freaks and Geeks, but alas, I am not as technological as I think the word “geek” signifies. Nerd, on the other hand, seems to imply not only that I know a thing or two but that more importantly, I LIKE learning.

I think English–and composition specifically–chose me because when a person studies writing, it means she is studying how other people think, react, create, and understand. And, you are forced to consider and question how it is that YOU think, react, create, and understand. As a writing instructor, every subject in the world is available to me. Because as students of communication, we can and should use many perspectives and tools. I love that writing, as a form of communication, can involve all of the other fields of study. #NerdAlert

The second thing my identity is most connected to these days is a sense of priority. I think that with each passing semester and year I’m getting wiser at choosing my short-term priorities and my long-term priorities so that I have no regrets about how I’ve spent my day, my week, my month, etc. I’m not there yet–having absolutely no regrets–but I’ve come a long way, and I can celebrate that. For instance, I will be teaching two different courses this spring, directing the PARC with its tutors and SI Leaders, training for and running some races, and being a first reader for Creative Nonfiction–among the other everyday things (like spending time with my Drew and our cats [and watching Netflix through our Apple TV when we can’t bring ourselves to just go to bed already]). Like all of you, I struggle with what needs to get done each day and with making the time for the things that truly matter in the long run to me, but (hopefully also like you) I’m making smarter decisions about how I spend my time and who I spend it with. I believe in continually redefining [your]self. I am excited that I get to work and learn from a new group of writers this semester as I continue to work on becoming more like the person I’m meant to be each day.

The truth about empathy in teaching

As I sat there, reconstructing the cheekbone and eye socket of my clay face, I knew I still wasn’t doing it right. I couldn’t visualize how to build up everything around the eyes so that it looked more human, more real. Sure enough, my Advanced 3D studio art professor came around another time before class was over and poked his big thumbs deep into her skull.

That’s where the eyes should be.” He must have told me three or four times exactly what I was doing wrong. And, of course, using his thumbs, he would try to help correct it. Then he would walk away.

***

Visualizing the types of writing that I now ask my undergrad students to do is a big part of the way I explain and teach when assigning new projects. I also draw in a notebook as the students talk in my office hours, translating what they’re saying into a visual shorthand so that we can look at the shape of the draft they are crafting. The topics, for all of my students, for all of their projects, are self-inflicted.

***

In undergrad studio art classes, I was increasingly unable to create anything for art’s sake. Way more devoted to abstract ideas and the process of making art than the end result, I struggled in assignments when I didn’t have an immediate concept to build from. I never trusted myself to simply create a “draft” and then make it better through revision. In fact, I don’t think I learned to properly revise writing until the end of grad school. My favorite studio pieces–both of mine and others–were those that were heavy on concept and visually intriguing. After taking an atelier at NYU between my junior and senior years, I really understood what that meant. My heart wasn’t in the things I did without concept, and they suffered.

***

Revision is the hardest part of writing, and it’s a foreign concept for students who’v been told their whole lives that they write well, until they take some kind of creative writing class, or are forced to do revisions in a senior seminar or other “super hard” class. I’m convinced that it’s the revisions innate in these courses that make students fall in love with [and paradoxically hate] writing, at least the ones who continue to do it well. Revisions turn people into good writers.

Today I assigned a braided narrative project in my advance writing class–made up of junior and senior undergrad students. Before class started, a draft of their previous assignment was due in an online dropbox–a spiraled essay. The spiral has traditionally been the hardest concept for the students to master, so I try every semester to make my explanations better, more thorough, to assign better examples and have more discussions about the spiral in selected readings. I know I’m not completely failing because there is at least one someone every semester that writes a spiraled essay on the first attempt; however, most drafts have to be heavily revised into a spiral once they’ve been turned in–using the revision grade up on mastering the shape instead of focusing on polish.

braid

Today, as I went to the board and drew the familiar two-tone wave recreated in Bascom’s “Picturing the Personal Essay”–like a simplified and horizontal 2D representation of DNA–I saw recognition in their faces. For braided narratives, a writer has to submerge one storyline while talking about another. Sumberge is a good visual cue because the narrative is simply out of sight, not out of mind. A good braided narrative will utilize jargon of one narrative in descriptions of the other, to keep the relevancy of one story to the other alive in the reader’s mind. Swtich, rinse, repeat.

“What would happen if one’s ‘spiraled’ draft was actually a braid?”

“One would have to revise.” I smiled in condolence at the class–hoping that they were better than I had been as an undergrad.  At least a few students immediately understood that the essays they had turned in for me were in fact braids, not spirals, and in a week’s time when I hand them back, some of the shock will be dissipated.

***

I never correctly deepened the eye sockets of fake-clay-face. Even though I trusted my art prof, I didn’t trust what I couldn’t visualize myself. I ended up making a cartoonish version of a face in relief on a rectangular slab of background that I later had to bronze. We were learning the lost Renaissance art. There was no real assignment prompt for the bronze piece, and at the time, I still really needed prompts. So I settled on something I thought would be difficult to render in clay: a face concentrating, with one eye puckered closed, looking at something just past her thumb. Her hand would be in relief, coming out of the bottom right corner of the frame and her face would take up a lot of the left half. I had at first thought that maybe she was threading a needle–that’s what the face portrayed, but I never ended up creating a needle to go in her hand. Ultimately, the art object that resulted from me learning the lost wax method process was a huge failure. It wasn’t beautiful, accurate, or useful. And, it was heavy. Cast in bronze, my relief face-with-hand-in-slab was an ugly reminder that I was not cut out for this. The resulting 12″ x 18″ (and roughly 10 lbs) failure spent some years outside in my mother’s flower beds before I finally got rid of it.

***

“So then what is the difference between a spiral and a braid?”

I drew a random constellation of different shapes on the board under the diagram of the submerged braid. And then I connected the different ‘dots’ one at time, drawing a spiral as a I went, and explained that with each new piece of your spiral, you are still talking about the same concept. “The pieces may seem random at first, but you connect each one back to the larger idea. There is one main topic, and you keep approaching it in different ways so that readers travel with you, piecing together their own understanding until all the segments are there and a fully developed image of your one concept shows up–like a picture in a connect-the-dots-coloring book.”

After class, a student wants to talk about using his path of religion and spirituality for the braided narrative and asks if that could be two braids.

“It sounds like one narrative to me. Think about the braided narrative assignment like a really long extended metaphor or comparison of two objects that at first glance do not seem alike. Except, instead of objects, both are narratives. Once you have your first narrative in mind (for you: the story of your spirituality, how you came to be here), consider what other thing in the universe moves in the same way as that first narrative, or has similar characteristics. Surprise your reader. Alternate between the stories, using juxtaposition, to highlight their similarities.”

To me, this is a discovery moment, a moment when I feel I’ve stumbled across a new way of explaining something I’ve explained many times before. I try to harden it in amber so that I can pull it out in a later semester and use it again. But almost as quickly as my moment of victory came, and the student walked out the door seemingly on course, I started to second guess myself.

***

I see myself in my undergrad students. I see a good writer that doesn’t know how yet to be a good writer–and I don’t take it for granted that that kind of student is always on the verge of going elsewhere, of deciding her most recent failure is a sign to get out of this wordy mess. So, I want to always be saying the one thing that fits in the lock and opens the door. I want the essays I assign to be understood on some primal level, so that we can dig easily with our fingers below the surface where the meaning is submerged.

In grad school nonfiction workshops, I had one professor who liked to use a found metaphor of “reading tea leaves” when talking about crafting CNF. I heard and overheard her use this comparison several times with various students. It is a good comparison. Yet there are two true things I know about it: I only partially understood what she meant at the time, and I’ve never once used her comparison myself as an instructor of writing.

And so the real discovery is that the types of explanations instructors and professors latch onto are most likely the ones that help our own selves understand the concepts better. And if we don’t keep looking for more, we’ll only be teaching ourselves. I think this may factor into “The Source of Bad Writing”–or its equivalent in face-to-face instruction. I may see myself in my students, but I should continuously search for who they are when explaining concepts.

***

How does seeing yourself in the people you work with or work for help you empathize and understand them? Are there limitations in your field for doing this?

Surprising Students

Last fall I heard a story about an international student who had the audacity to stop by a prof’s office hours and ask “how many cuts” she permitted. It wasn’t a surprise to find out the student had already missed a couple classes and wasn’t doing that well in class participation. It also wasn’t a surprise to hear that the professor sent a scathing email to said student (and copied others). Not only had he misinterpreted how to approach her and what to ask, but he also had the temerity to leave as quickly as he came, without discussing his negligible performance in class. While I feel for both the professor and the student in this situation, the professor’s many-paragraphed response–especially the spite with which it was delivered–was uncalled for and didn’t further any purposes beyond making the student feel small. It must have felt great to write. I know because I’ve written responses like it, right before I’ve erased them and rewritten a response more appropriate to my rhetorical situation.

***

“Teach, Don’t Mock” is a Jared Berezin article up on Inside HigherEd that contemplates the student side of email. In terms of function, these student interactions “shed light on [a] student’s rhetorical awareness, or lack thereof, amidst a moment of self-advocacy.” As soon as I started reading, I felt the familiar Us vs Them costume cape pressing on my shoulders.

It immediately took me back to a FaceBook share from a fellow teacher I read a few months ago. It was a spunky This-Is-How-It-Is post that seemed to address students about their annoying behaviors, but in actuality it was by a prof for other profs. It whined about true things, things that ARE annoying (such as missing class and coming in the next day with “Did I miss anything important?” on their lips), and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was like being at happy hour with a colleague, a chance to grow closer with the teaching community by sharing a common enemy. I had been the victim of all the annoying student types in the piece, and I felt vindicated reading it, like my frustrations were heard. But they weren’t really heard. Not by the people who commit the crimes in the first place. And I felt icky about sharing it on my own wall (and I didn’t) because I want my moments of negativity about my job and my students to be fleeting. I want them to stay in the bar, spoken into my beer, and then drained with my beverage. And this is why I kept reading Berezin’s post.

He is a kindred spirit–someone who “rather than passively requiring explicit instructions on how to communicate effectively in every situation, [wants] students to proactively harness their rhetorical confidence when advocating for themselves in a variety of contexts.” (Proactively Harness should have been my nickname in college. It wasn’t. I learned the hard way just like many of my students are doing now.) He advocates for “guerilla teaching” during email responses that catches students “by surprise…likely mak[ing] the interaction all the more memorable.” And he acknowledges that time is not on our side and probably hinders those of us who would respond more analytically to our students. But he challenges himself anyway.

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/03/24/essay-suggests-student-emails-are-chance-teaching-not-mocking#ixzz2wytJQBy3
Inside Higher Ed

***

I caught a student by surprise once.

In the fall of 2012 I had a student emailing back and forth with me about a Dropbox assignment that wasn’t showing up. She emailed to see if I got it, I told her I hadn’t. She emailed me again, a few days later having not received my reply email (the whole university email system had been messed up for a few hours). I wrote back again, quickly, saying that I had received her email but not her assignment and that I was going to start grading them that evening. (I was intentionally not being explicit about whether she would receive a zero or not or whether she could send me the digital assignment another way or not.) Then she asked if she should email me the assignment, which is when I wanted to explode a little. Instead, this is what I wrote:

Yes, an attachment with the first email you sent would have been wise if you were worried about me not having it. Any time you are worried that a professor doesn’t have your work, it is best to attach the work asap to the email where you ask instead of waiting for a reply. It’s like asking for forgiveness over permission. (From experience, I know that I’m more willing to consider assignments via email if the student sends the work along as he/she is asking if I’ll take it.)

The email had a smaller less practical paragraph after this one too which offered my sympathy about her computer and D2L struggles as well as information on which web browsers were preferred and how to locate the computer gurus on campus. I had failed her in my response the first couple of times. But I got it right this time. Or so I thought. I knew she was concerned, but she didn’t email me back. The next day I reached out again, having reread my other email.

I’m worried that my tone via email is harsher than I intend it to be. I didn’t mean to offend you if I did, but I am still on the look out for your draft!

She emailed a long (for a student) reply–maybe a ten-line paragraph or so. She admitted she was taken aback by my email but mainly due to stress and that I was “right” and that she wasn’t thinking and then she broke the wall: she let me in to her struggle a little by giving me details about her intersectionality. She opened up. I couldn’t tell if it was merely a forced confession or a truer moment of connection.

In the weeks that followed, she wasn’t as participatory in class as she had been before. I was worried that I’d turned one of my hardest working students against me, all for the sake of teaching her a lesson outside the classroom. I was careful around her in class until finally there wasn’t any class anymore. The only things left were for them to turn in their final projects (via dropbox) and, should they choose, to turn in a printed reflection on the course outcomes and what they really got out of the class this semester (as an extra credit assignment). Her reflection piece was the most thoughtful one. It discussed each of the outcomes and, while it didn’t bring up our email chain mid semester, it focused on the transferable concepts and skills she realized she was already using for her other classes.

Perhaps it was a simple case of a wonderful student, but I’d like to think that my “being real” with her was part of what made her get so much out of the course.

In semesters since, I’ve been more intentional about my guerilla teaching responses during the first few weeks, when I’m getting emails from my new students about questions easily answered by reading the syllabus that’s been posted online since I opened the class website three weeks early. I can’t really know if my efforts are helping their future teachers get fewer poorly constructed, unaddressed, unsigned, un-subjected emails about questions whose answers are just a click or two away on a website, but I know I am getting fewer. And that makes it more than worth it.

 

 

 

Point Taken

So I’m sitting at my “desk,” which is a counter-height square table off the side of my living room, and I’m going back and forth between Word Track Changes and the online learning management system for school (we use D2L), commenting on dropboxed transcripts from my upperlevel students. The transcripts are a step in the process toward writing a shaped profile piece on either or person, a place, or a concept of their choosing.

During the read-through of the transcript for a piece about the downsides to hive-mind and information overload (among other things) that Facebook controls, my phone lights up–four different times–to update me about people commenting on a FB post upon which I’d also commented.

Gender-Bender Award for November–I’ll take it!

Thanks, Tiffany!

I appreciate playing a small role in your efforts to raise awareness and activism for gender-related ideas and concerns.

Tiffany’s Gender-Bender Award is an opportunity to celebrate those who challenge and disrupt the gender binary!

Each month, I will feature a post that in some way takes us beyond the paradigm of gender oppression.  Many types of content will be considered – poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, even visual art.  I will also consider a variety of perspectives, everything from 1800s “first-wave” Western feminism to women’s uprisings in the Muslim world today, from Stonewall-era gay liberation to 21st century activism for transgender rights and dignity.

This Month, I am awarding The N Weekly for “Gendurance“.

Gendurance

When I order shirts during the registration process for a race, ninety percent of the time, I end up with something I can’t wear—well, I end up with something I won’t wear because it doesn’t fit. If it’s unisex sizing, the shirt will most likely be too wide for my frame in addition to being too long. I will be able to fit two of my arms into each sleeve. It isn’t because I’m ordering a size bigger than I normally would.  If the race carries both women and men sizes, I try to figure out which would be better—the awkwardly hour-glass, skin-hugging women’s size or the usual “unisex” look. If I go with women’s—do I order a size up? If it’s a race shirt, it might be super tiny. But if I order a size up and it’s too big, I will regret it. This was my thought process as I filled out the Chicago Marathon registration last spring. I went with my normal size, in women’s. I thought it might be a little tiny, but I also hoped that after marathon training, I too would be a little tiny.

My fiancé has a similar problem with sizing. She is a petite woman as well, who prefers the shape of men’s clothing. She orders the men’s option all the time, except when men sizes don’t go down to xs. (And what is that about anyway—there are PLENTY of tiny runners, both men and women.) She is happy when she does have the option of ordering the xs, which will most likely be only a little large on her. However, ordering a size and that size being available when she goes to pick it up are two different things. We are not fools.

The Chicago Marathon did not have a men’s xs, so she too was wondering: will the men’s small be too big or just right? Should she go with the women’s instead?

***

When we were finally home after spending 1.5 hours getting down to the Expo, 2 hours in the Expo, 30 minutes getting out of the parking garage, 30 minutes trying to find a way back north to Wrigleyville—it’s like the city had a few closed streets or something—and then another 30 minutes driving back up, we spread out like kids on Christmas morning. “Home” base was actually Jean’s apartment. We sat around her coffee table and went through the goodies in our race bags. One of the first things I pulled out of my bag was a temporary tattoo from Naked Wines the size of a half dollar coin. A few minutes later, Jean found her tattoo. Drew didn’t have one. It made sense to me: “It’s because you got a guy-bag.” Because Drew had signed up for the men’s size in shirt, she had gotten a “men’s” bag.

She kept pulling things out, and eagerly asking us if we got it too. The answer was always: yes.

“I just want there to be one something that I have that y’all don’t.”

The three of us, like Strayed opening a resupply box, carefully took each item out one at a time and triaged it—keeping for tomorrow (race day); recycling; keeping for later. The tattoo ended up being the only difference. The only one.

This was curious. First, the tattoo was from a wine company. A wine company with “naked” in its name. The tattoo is a reminder that women are supposed to like wine, while men are allowed to like beer. It is a reminder that I should want to put something on my body that says Naked! because it will make people think about me in a sexy way. Because as a woman, I must always be trying to make other people think I am sexy.  It is a reminder that men are supposed to not want something that says Naked! on their bodies because to be naked is to be feminine.

K112625TITIAN 3

It makes me think of Titian paintings and Barbie, how deep our western roots cling to the expectation that women, being feminine, should bare all and men, being masculine, are supposed to be covered up.

***

I was actually really excited about the Expo. Before we went, my schema was about all the different shoes and socks and interesting samples of running food I would see and experience. Drew couldn’t wait to get her hands on some race gear. Jean wanted a pair of running sunglasses, which she had been training without. All of us were planning on spending more money than we could afford, simply because we expected to love everything that we saw. We expected to want it all.

After getting our bibs, on the way to get our shirts and bags, we passed the Nike official race merchandise “booth”—a full Nike store on the floor of the Expo. I was drooling. Everything we could see was a bright neon green with black accents. There were a lot of people, and we promised ourselves we’d come back. I actually started getting excited to purchase marathon gear! What a cool color for the race. I was silently very impressed that they were able to choose a bright color—because its for runners—that is “suitable” for men and women alike, especially because many of the women I know are constantly complaining about how the men’s athletic gear is always so much cooler than the women’s styles. I didn’t have enough money to spend on a Chicago Marathon shirt, and I hadn’t planned on buying any clothing, besides socks, but as I went to get my bag, the calculations in my head argued otherwise.

MensJacket
Just one of many super-fun men’s pieces.

By the time we made it back, the place was still rocking with people. It was hard to move through. We went straight to the green and black jackets and tanks. Fifty-seconds later, I understood I had been mistaken. The sizes I saw at first were all Ls. Then I saw an M, and finally an S. I saw no XS. Pulling the S off the rack was a tiny blow to my heart. It was a men’s small—way too large for me to pretend to wear running, when smaller clothes are more efficient. I went to another rack, scouring the whole place for women’s sizes.

It was clear: the green and black attire here was only men’s sizes. But there was hope: I had missed a whole other side to the store. I raced over to find sizes I could actually try on with some expectation of fitting.

I went through a doorway, created by a gap between two makeshift walls, and was greeted with rack after rack of salmon-colored, lower quality attire. I double checked—scanning everything in a slow 360 pan. No green. (For the record, I’m not against salmon as a color. I just don’t understand why both men and women couldn’t have both options.) I did find one jacket and then another I thought would fit, but they were all so overly “feminized”—some puckering around the zipper, others with infantilized pockets—that they weren’t worth a try on.

By far the best women's style.
By far the best women’s style.

***

After going through our bags, we took duct tape to our outfits and put our names on the front and back of our racing shirts. None of us were going to wear the blue Chicago Marathon tech-t we had received that day at the Expo. Jean would wear her Red Cross shirt, Drew needed to wear a tank top; I had chosen poorly—the race shirt fit, but was too much like skin to feel comfortable for the 5+ hours it would take us to run.

My Nike tank top was orange and magenta and white. Jean had white tape so I put NICK on both the front and the back, in the magenta areas so it would stand out. I’d never worn my name on my shirt for a race, but had been jealous many times when seeing that others had.

Wearing your name actually makes people want to cheer for you. Volunteers are awesome, and if you’ve ever volunteered, you know that for the duration of the event, you are stuck with saying the same handful of phrases, over and over again. It is nice to be able to shout out someone’s name and know that they know you are speaking directly to them.

I don’t regret putting my name on my shirt. All of those tiny interactions with stranger after stranger after stranger were a huge part of why running the marathon was so much fun. And yet, I still got called the wrong name by 30% of the spectators who were cheering me on. I will allow that sometimes it’s hard to read names on shirts, and that if you see the first part of my name, without getting a clear view of the whole thing at once, that you might jump to the conclusion that there is a Y or an I at the end of my name. But 30% suggests that it wasn’t all reading/viewing error. In my life outside of running, I get called Nikky all the time—by people who should know better, and by people to whom I’VE JUST INTRODUCED MYSELF AS NICK, especially by people to whom I’ve just introduced myself. For some reason, looking at me, and saying “Nick” is hard. For a lot of people.

“Keep running, Nicky!”

“You’ve got this Nikki!”

“Go Jean! Go Drew! Go Nicki!”

***

When I think about gender and the marathon, I wonder if the three of us are aware of our gender in ways some people may have the privilege not to be. I don’t mean to imply that there are people who don’t worry about their gender. No one escapes that. That moment, standing in front of your closet a few days before a big interview. That moment, your eighth-grade eyes lock with someone across the gym floor. Running into someone you haven’t seen in a while. Going out for drinks casually with new friends. Going out for drinks with old friends, with old friends and their new partners. People watching on the Metro. The weekly meeting with your staff. Family gatherings. And yet, some people may not be as bothered, have not ever felt boxed in, when it comes to hair, clothing, expectations. They are few, they are mystical beings in my mind, but I have to believe that there might be two of them on Earth.

In actuality, I think we are all running a long-distance race with gender expectations. We are all the master and makeup of our gender; we are all the victim. Even so, society still makes it easier for girls who like pink and boys who like black. Being queer doesn’t make me any more worried, any more the victim, any more the victor of my own situation. But it does strike a particular chord. I recognize that I’ve been training for the race my whole life. Most people who are prejudiced against LGBT folks manifest that prejudice in forms of gender discrimination. (For an example, consider all of the boys in middle school who get called fags daily for not being muscular or sporty enough. Consider all the girls who are whispered about because they don’t wear makeup or because they can out-throw the baseball team.) Indeed, this focus on being the right kind of feminine and the right kind of masculine is what pulls the Trans communities so close to the LGB communities in the first place. The hurt stems from the same place: a boy who isn’t boyish, a girl who isn’t girlish.

Thinking about the feminine and the masculine is such a common occurrence in my life that I’ve grown accustomed to feeling it. I don’t think about gender anymore. The implications beat me rhythmically like the tide on a primal level. The consequences of gender have become an insider joke between my close friends. On our last long-run of training—the Magellean 20-miler—Jean pointed to a Gatorade stand, signified by the two large flags on either side which read: G-endurance. She had been seeing them all summer and was tickled to finally show us. Drew and I were equally as nerdy, giggling back.

During the marathon, these flags became a beacon, a lifeline: not only because of their practicality—providing electrolytes—but also because of the spiritual affirmation of what we all do, all the time.

“Looking strong, Jean!”

“Go get ‘em, Drew!”

“Keep rockin’, Nick!”

It says Nick.
It says Nick.

The Hard Way

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A few weeks ago on a mid-week training run I saw a hummingbird. I was at the university where I teach, having run the four miles there and doing some stretching before running the four miles home. Hummingbird came right up to my face and left in an instant, fluttering about the landscaping. The sky shown a soft blue about twenty minutes after sunrise, and there weren’t a lot of cars in the parking lot or people walking past as I practiced some yoga poses that would be rather embarrassing in another time of day. 

The hummingbird seemed like a miracle. The morning was the first day this season it was down around 50 degrees for a morning run. A real treat after the humid and sunny runs that I’d suffered through during what seemed like a never-ending JulyAugustSeptember. The bird was moving too fast for me to see what colors it was, but every once in a while I’d catch the sun bouncing off of it in a flash, like a magician vanishing a coin. I immediately thought of Brian Doyle and his piece “Joyas Voladoras” I read ten times a year, which starts with a sinewy contemplation of humming birds–the machine marvel that they are. But the moment was not for sitting and thinking again about the loss of animal and plant diversity, about the limits of a hummingbird heart or the whale’s or our own. It was for a calm before continued forward momentum, it was for the path home to a steamy shower and a long day’s work. 

***

I’ve come to really love the breaks that marathon training has necessitated into my runs . When I first got back into running, in graduate school, it was merely a cheap form of exercise. But I took pride in jogging down Connecticut Avenue to the Van Ness Metro stop and then back up the long hill toward home. At about a three-mile round trip path, it got me out and working on hills and speed four to five times a week. I realized that even when I started not to need the two to three breaks at different stoplights I’d inevitably hit, I always felt really strong afterward. But I started feeling like I was cheating. Like it mattered more that I didn’t stop at all. Once I progressed to a certain level of tolerance and boredom for the course, I moved on. And I moved, literally, away from Conn Ave a few miles away on the other side of the red line. My new apartment was near Rock Creek Park where stoplights are very few and far between. I spent a good two years perfecting my hill work and my no-stop running routine. Before I moved to New York, my weekend long runs consisted of forty-five minute outs and forty-minute backs, always pressing myself to keep increasing my speed. I never carried hydration and my skin was a salt-lick every Saturday morning. I didn’t let myself stop for anything once I left until I returned. And then I started running races. 

When I ran my first half-marathon, I trained alone, and I ran alone. It was hard. I signed up to be a part of a charity group, but a month or so in, I dropped out. I worked until midnight on Friday nights and could rarely get up early to meet the group for runs on Saturday mornings. But I kept up with the training plan they had sent me, working it into my weird late-early-late-early-LATE work week schedule. And I never once, in all of those first months of running longer distances than I had ever run, I never once thought stopping to walk or stretch was a good thing. I only allowed myself those weaknesses when I felt utterly vanquished. And so, on half-marathon-the-first day, I ran until my pace got as slow as a walk and then kept running. Eventually, around mile 12 I realized that if I started walking, I’d probably be going faster. So I started walking. For two minutes. It felt glorious. My body thanked me with everything it had to give, and then I made it give some more. I started to jog the last mile of the longest race of my life–seriously, up to this point I’ve never been out on a race course for as long as 2:36–and my body hated me. It didn’t understand why I needed to keep going. It complained and continued to complain long after I’d finished the race. While I was glad that I shuffled across that finish line in my body’s closest pantomime of a jog, I wasn’t having very much fun. 

I’ve run four more half-marathons since, and haven’t felt nearly as bad or needed to walk as desperately as I did that first time. In fact, I didn’t stop at all for two of them. And I felt great afterward. Not stopping had always been the unstated rule, the goal above only finishing and underneath the goal of personal record. I was training as much to beat myself as I was to ensure that I wouldn’t need to stop or walk or stretch in order to finish.

The marathon has changed all of this though, for now. The goal is to finish, there is no personal record recorded, and stops are a health-conscious must.

These past few years running Ragnar Relays and training with people of different endurances and speeds has made stops more common and natural, even if my personal solo-running was still non-stop. But when I signed up to run the marathon with Jean and Drew, I signed up to run with a group, to train with a group, and to get stronger as a group. It was different. It is different. I am slower than I’ve ever been. And while some days, especially when the training run is not very long at all, I feel like I’ve forgotten how to run fast, I also have to admit to myself that I am happier than I’ve ever been. I’ve never had so much joy running alone as I’ve had training for this marathon. And while my running partners are a huge part of that, I’ve been slowly realizing that my perception has changed. I used to run past people who were walking, only to later have them jaunt quickly past me, and then walk again as I kept my stoic pace. This would happen about eight or ten times in a half marathon. I would think why on earth would you do that if you could get the same results by just powering through?  I used to tie my success to how many times I didn’t stop to walk when I wanted to. I used to measure my happiness about runs only in the time and speed it took me to get to the end. Maybe someday that version of me will come back, but as I prepare these final three days before the Bank of America Chicago Marathon 2013, I am deeply aware that time and speed are minuscule on Sunday. I’ve been training with stops every four miles to two miles. I’ve been completing the routes, crossing off the miles, and taking my sweet time to stretch and hydrate and eat something regularly while out on a long run. I can’t believe I was ever doing this the hard way. 

***

As I watched the bird flit from species to species in the plant bed lining the theatre of the school for a few moments longer than I would have stayed otherwise before setting my eyes toward home and hitting “continue” on my watch, I realized that I was not a hummingbird anymore, a pedigree who needs to keep moving to stay alive. With those five minutes of yoga behind me like a big red dot on my GPS map, I didn’t know then I would run my last few miles of the day faster than I’d run all summer, with more joy in my heart.

Why I haven’t graded your papers

This week, from this moment last week until now, has been grueling. Besides all the classes themselves and the life business of being a fiance, a cat mom, and a person who likes a clean kitchen, since roughly 3pm last Tuesday, I have graded three sets of class papers, started a fourth set, commented on thesis statements and proposed outlines for the next drafts, graded some online quizzes and in-class daily assignments, suffered through the stress of handing back the poorer first-assignments, and hemmed and hawed through class preparation, TA-meetings, all-college meetings, and the sad Bears game on Sunday. This is nothing new, and to many teachers, this is really nothing new, nothing unique about which to complain. What is different is me.

Six years ago, I wouldn’t be taking this small amount of time out of my day–still in my sweat pants T-minus 2 hours from class and counting–to even reflect on my mental state. As soon as I would have put down one assignment set, I’d automatically grab the next and force myself to squeeze every minute until my next class or meeting into grading productivity, knowing it was futile. Knowing there is no way I would spontaneously learn how to thoughtfully comment on each draft in one fourth of the time. Knowing that even though I might get through one or two more papers before forcing myself to put on professional-esque clothes and get to campus, I’m still going to be up as late as it takes to get all of the rest finished after all the students have left campus and I’m left alone with my coffee cup and a pen.

But not this week. Even though [I still haven’t finished class prep for tomorrow] I will need to teach class for three hours yet today, and even though I have 16 papers left to grade before 10am, some baked goods to make for a noon meeting, a proposal to plan for the Art Department visit that is double booked with the noon meeting tomorrow, and a cat meowing at my ankle, I have finally arrived at that special place in every professor’s trajectory where (sleep + health) >  the grading deadline. Writing is about my health these days. It’s not a necessity, and it certainly isn’t art. And that’s okay too.

And of course, as I type this, my mind is ever negotiating time and the physics of how much I will get done before I allow myself to sleep tonight. I might get it all done. (And it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve given into grades-are-more-important-than-you mantra that slipped in when we teachers let our guards down.) But I’m, in the immortal words of Elizabeth Bishop, Write It!, going to be okay with taking half an hour today to not grade. To watch the minutes go by and see the giant stack of grading inescapable but not ineffable or incapacitating.

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Being a Groupie: a runner’s guide to relationships

Why people run has been cataloged in many places and my friend Jean has been quoted more recently here.  In fact, I was asked just this past week how I got into running by a student. I started rambling about my past and by the time I got finished, I realized that the first reason I run hasn’t changed at all. The world is still chaotic and I still need a sense of control. However, the way I run has changed.

While I used to independently pound down Connecticut Ave in NW DC to the sound of Magneta Lane’s garage rock, or delight in quieter Rock Creek hours spent dictating lesson plans to myself, now I much prefer to find my place among a pack, where others contribute to the mental scenery. In the past year and a half, I’ve gone from strictly running alone, intimidated and anxious about the compatibility of any possible partner, to running with at least one other person 95% of the time.

It might not be a secret that running with someone creates an easy platform to leap from when analyzing friendships–or group dynamics even. And, as with other intimate relationship goings-on, there is a huge difference  (ahem) between doing it alone and doing it with someone else. This guide can help you traverse these tricky trails.

What I’ve [re]discovered: Running with a group or with a partner is a tiny–but serious–relationship in itself, sometimes only lasting as long as your trainers are on, and should be treated as such. Follow these tips to get the most out of your time with a running buddy or group.

1) Risk Management
Regardless of how far or how long you plan on being out, things you should always have when running that come in handy especially when you are running with others: identification, money*, cell phone/GPS transmitter. As a solo runner, it may be obvious that these items can greatly e-ffect the outcome of any possible snags in your running preparation or execution. Having a running buddy does make adventure safer–safety in numbers–but you should still bring the necessities. When running with a partner or with a group this rule is like having protected sex on a date. Failing to bring one of these items will distance immediate solutions to potential health risks. No one is saying that these items are brought because using them is the plan, but not planning to bring them could enable danger.

Case in point: two weeks ago, I went for a 14-mile jog with my fiance and the aforementioned Jean along Chicago’s lake front path (LFP). We ended up not running a door-to-door route and hence, once we had struggled through our last miles, our much-needed post-run protein shakes sat chilling in a refrigerator about a mile away. In pain and dehydrated–we hadn’t carried enough water–we didn’t want to run the extra mile, but we also didn’t want to wait to get something in our bodies. Five minutes spent in a well-known pharmacy and convenience store chain on the walk back and we were three proteined and electrolited smiles by the time we could take our shoes off. While our long-term health wasn’t in extreme danger in this instance, our muscles were glad to have the immediate hydration that some cash made real.

2) Vulnerability with yourself versus vulnerability with others
Regardless of whether you want to be vulnerable or not, running outside is an act of vulnerability. The better you are at being vulnerable, the better the run. Lacing up and stepping out onto the path means you exert against the weather, against time, against other responsibilities and against your own strength to keep going. But make no mistake, running alone is not the same kind of vulnerable as running in a pack or in a pair. When you run with others, you need to accept their vulnerability as a part of the plan while offering your own limits and struggles up to them.

Running in a pair, for instance, can be majorly stressful if neither of you is willing to admit you want to slow down or to speed up or to stop or stretch. These silences can also lead to injury. A greater sense of knowing yourself is needed on buddy-runs because you aren’t just catering to your own goals and limitations. You need to be able to share both with others.

Drew and I have become quite good at this. We talk about plans and routes over several days so there are no surprises. We keep tabs on how each of us are feeling about the upcoming run as well.  However, there are days when I forget to tell her I’m not at all excited about running five miles in the morning (for instance, this moment, as I type) or and she forgets to tell me she is trying to figure out if she can run at the work-gym instead. These can lead to awkward moments or upset feelings, like when your partner is bright eyed and ready to go, giving you no sympathy, while on your end, forcing each eye to stay open feels like throwing a hand full of crushed limestone into a skinned knee. I have been on both ends of this. Remember, your run-buddy can’t help you, motivate you, or give you the tough love you need if she doesn’t know you need it.

3) Have a plan/be flexible
this is similar to the other two mentioned already, but it needs to have its own number anyway. Having a plan isn’t just about carrying the necessities or about communicating your pre- and day-of needs to a buddy. Having a plan means really considering where you will start, where you will finish, where you will place water (or who will carry it) and how much, if you will want or need to stop and where, what you might wear or bring to the start so that you can have it when you’re done…The more you plan with a buddy, the more comfortable you will feel talking on the run and making split decisions if necessary–to ditch the Camelback or add the extra 1/2 loop. In short, “having a plan” is less about being vulnerable and more about being street smart so that when life doesn’t go according to plan, it doesn’t phase you (that much). So much of my relationships (ones that fail and ones that succeed) are about how people plan together and what occurs when the plan isn’t an option anymore. If you can’t compromise on a plan, it’s a sign that you need to find a new buddy.

Being flexible is about understanding the vulnerability of others and incorporating that into your plan, as well as being understanding with yourself when your body is not as willing as your mind. The more flexible you can become, the better the running relationship.

4) You must be willing to share
I’ve already mentioned goals and limitations–but those aren’t the only things you share on a long run. To get the most out of running with someone else, you should leave the mp3 player at home and make time for conversation and intermittent silence. This is bonding time afterall. And this is what turns a gaggle of individuals running in proximity to one another into an actual running group. Until you spot a tree in the distance whose leaves look a little like a jutting eagle beak and have no problem just blurting it out to see if anyone else see it, you are missing out.

Back on the 14-miler a couple of weeks ago, we were running down to Chicago’s Museum Campus–Jean, Drew, and myself. I spotted the Ferris wheel and told them about the first episode of the newer Dr. Who series. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, and Drew mentioned a moment in Men in Black that has a similar concept, which led Jean to think about two things: 1) the new Field Museum exhibit coming up that will have old artifacts from the World’s Fair and 2) the type of dramatic irony used in shows that keeps us yelling at our screens. This conversation was a delight. Had I been wrapped up in Nikki Williams or Bastille, songs I hear too frequently anyway, I would have missed out.

And remember that silences can be a blessing too on a group jog. Running is a real-life moving picture experience, where you can gaze at the sights and people watch, knowing there is a common experience happening that doesn’t need immediate, whispered commentary. Think of it as collecting notes for the after party.