Monday, October 29, 2007

Better watch out for the "flying debris of history"

So I am finally and very belatedly reviewing this anthology on radicalism in the south. It has been a chore all the way through and every time I pick it up I curse myself for having agreed to do it. Then I put it down for long stretches and that is how my good name with the AHR is now in danger because this review is so stupidly late!

Anyway, here is, dear readers, just a tiny taste of why this book has been such a chore to review:

" how Kennedy, Kahn, and Salinas both look back into the flying debris of history while turning Benjamin's angel to face the coming sun and gaze with intimacy into the possible."

Aack. I'm as PoMo as most folks who came out of Michigan humanities/social sciences in the 1990s, but this triggers even my gag reflex.

BTW, for those who didn't have to suffer through him in order to pass prelims, the reference is to Walter Benjamin and his "Angel of History."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Dispatch from Portland #2 -- Touch

Friday was a long day. Breakfast/plenary, sessions, lunch/plenary, sessions, sessions, reception... and then a lovely escape to dinner and local craft brews with only my best grad school buddy. I'm not complaining, my session went well and was far better than the other sessions I attended that day. I kept hearing "presentations" about what people intended to research or think about, rather than actual research and analysis. You can tell me over coffee what you are thinking about, but at a professional panel, I expect to hear well developed and supported interpretations. Argue something and have evidence please! [rant over]

Anyway, when I finally staggered back into my hotel room a bit before 10pm, the exhaustion hit me. Granted all I had been doing was sitting around all day -- but I was sitting in my fancy clothes with my professional face in place and my brain on ready to process insight or run with inspiration. The experience made me realize how surreal it is to spend entire days living only in that part of my brain without the other pieces of my life that I probably take for granted. The one that came to mind was touch. I had not really touched another human being all day. Oh sure, I shook a few hands and there was probably at least one friendly arm grab in there, but nothing real. This makes me appreciate all the touch I usually have in my life from the kids hugging me when they get up most mornings to my huggy hippie buddies to those most excellent spousal footrubs. I think I need a snuggle.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Dispatch from Portland #1 -- of flights and friends

Two hours late in arriving in Maine. One hour spent waiting in DTW, one hour of waiting on the runway... Then an hour of turbulence in the air (my Georgina, aren't you looking green...).

Muscle my bags up the steps of the old hotel (with its loud environmental systems and such low ceilings that Matt would need to duck and I can feel my claustrophobia switch being jiggled). Find my grad school friends, plus our adopted buddy, almost immediately and get big hugs. The four of us hold off all the others to escape to dinner with no outsiders. We told them it was a "working" dinner and they all fled. We "worked" on a lovely meal and a bottle of Malbec 'til the restaurant closed.

Surprisingly, in the flurry of talk, we did not get down to the usual all-cards-on-the-table assessment of our lives. R told the most, but then her divorce just went through mediation and her life has changed the most since we all were together last. I told them maybe 1% of what is happening my life and I got only slivers of the rest of theirs. Just so much ground to cover not having seen them since Phoenix last year and this being a professional conference so professional talk takes up lots of our time.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow I will give my talk and then see a bit of the city and taste many of their brews with V. The two of us will talk about it all.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cold Feet

I've been trying to outfit myself for fall riding on a shoestring budget by pulling together things I already own and picking up this and that from local thrift stores. I've got silk and microfiber underwear, turtlenecks, and wool which will work as baselayers and a biking jacket poached from a friend that, while ridiculously big on me, is proving useful. I picked up a bright yellow slicker, a vest, and some windproof, flannel lined pants at the Salvation Army to fill in some of the gaps in my wardrobe. I won't be a fashion plate on the bike, but at least I'll be warm enough to be on the bike.

This morning's ride was certainly a test of how well I'm doing in this project -- it was bright and crisp at 8:00am and layers were very much in order. I rode E to school and realized the gloves wouldn't cut it... so I looped back home for gloves to pull over bike gloves (check) and a fleece headband to keep ears warm (check). Somewhere after mile 7, however, I realized my feet were getting pretty cold. It didn't get better until mile 10, but I think that was more just me getting used to it. When I got home and took my shoes off, I had unhappy, cold feet. So, the feet are my weak link for cool-weather riding.

I know they make booties to go over bike shoes for just such occasions, but that is not the cheap fix for which I am looking. I do want to work this out, though... Ford Lake was so pretty with a still-low morning sun, colorful trees, and no wind.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bike Ypsi: Your friends do!

I was just a growing bundles of nerves as the ride time got closer. I was no-way in charge, but I'd helped to organize, to publicize, and to refine the route. I definitely felt responsibility for how it would go. And then, 10 minutes before we departed, I got drafted to lead a third group. We hadn't expected needing a third group so those originally supposed to be sweepers (Natalie and myself) became leaders. I'm self-conscious about my erratic speed when riding with others, inexperienced in judging how long it will take a big group to get through a light, and stingy in my hand signals... but I knew the route, I bike plenty, I figured it would be good for me to try something new, and it needed to be done because:

Folks just kept rolling up.... all types of bikes, all types of people. We had young 'uns in trailers and on tag-alongs, we had people on $4000 road bikes and others $20 garage salers. It was beautiful. Group one looked good. Group two was too big, but they went anyway and managed to get everyone around. Our group, group #3, with two rookie ride leaders up front was nicely-sized at 15. The pace was slow, but the ride was pleasant. The folks were swell -- several in our group said they didn't think they could ride that far, most have never been on a group ride (myself included!), all were forgiving of our under-organization on a few minor points (note: stagger start times on the next ride!), and while one bike crapped out near the end, we ALL made it to the Corner Brewery with smiles on our faces.

Wrap up: 62 people (including organizers), 17 miles, 50 new e-mail contacts, heaps of good biking energy, several contacts made and casual rides set up, a threat to ride every Sunday at 2:10 (see Terry's comment on the myspace Bike Ypsi page), and some will to do more. I love Ypsi. I heart bikes. And biker chicks are so sexy...

Thanks to Mark Maynard and Mary for the photos! There are lots more on the Bike Ypsi page.

Feeling good in my skin

Long ago, I was bulimic. I had body "issues," I was in a power struggle with my (I felt) overly-involved mother, and I spent 4+ nights a week engaged in an activity that rewarded excessive thinness (ballet). Growing up, moving out, getting rewards for my smarts, and finding love and acceptance not rooted in my physical being did much to free me from bulimia. As I had more power to control other aspects of my life, I could let the obsessive food control go. I never lost the body issues or control reflexes entirely, however. In all honesty (and considering what I am writing about, why hold back now?), my 17+ year vegetarianism is probably a low-level version of the desire for the control that is bulimia -- just one that also happens to fit with my political leanings, ethics, and personal tastes. I am at peace with this part of my life.

What makes me think of all this and appreciate the rather amazing transition that I just glossed over in that last paragraph is that I have taken to sleeping naked again -- something I haven't done consistently since the bulimia days when being alone and naked in bed was a chance to affirm my wacked out power over myself. As I let go of the bulimia, I think I was afraid to have that kind of reckoning with my body so I started wearing nightshirts. As a chronically cold person, I could tell myself that sleeping naked was not comfortable -- but the reality is that I wasn't feeling good enough in my body to want to do it.

So as I lay in bed (yes, naked) this morning in the minutes before the household would need to awaken I was pondering my rediscovery of naked sleeping. Certainly the addition of a huge down comforter helped -- I'm now actually warm enough -- but it is more than that. I can feel the changes of my body over the last twenty years: weight that has gone up and down, formerly C cup breasts that have settled in now as A's, a body that has grown two big babies, a hip that has gone bad (but hopefully will soon be repaired), a knee torn on an icy ski slope, arthritic toes from all that dancing.... but I don't feel bad about any of those things. When I am naked in the dark in the wee small hours of the morning I feel remarkably accepting of these things because I can also appreciate the softness of my skin, the feel of my ribs and hip bones, the curve of my hips, the wiriness of my fuzz, the definition of my quads from a summer of biking... I actually don't really separate out these things as good or bad -- they are all just sort of there. That is a new kind of feeling of power attached to my body and I feel good in my nearly 40-year old skin.

So then there is that part of me that would love to have 10 minutes with my 16-year old self to try and explain. This kind of peace is something I never imagined when I was young and seized with the idea that my body would only "get worse" or that having kids would "ruin" me or that my worth as a person was intimately bound up with my body. My 16 year old self did not see (and maybe had few good models of) women with real bodies who felt strong and attractive -- I could not fathom it then and, at times, like this morning, I am a still a little stunned to find I feel that way. It is not that I have made my life outside my body (which was the coping strategy of my 20s - work on the big brain and pretend to not have a corporeal existence) but that I have a life that integrates mind and body fairly peacefully.

I guess I have just come around to one of those cliched "if I only knew then" kind of posts, but, ah well, its my party and I can blog if I want to...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Words and Music

I came home to write this afternoon -- I'm on a bit of a roll these days even though I am writing something of a puff piece at the moment -- and there is lovely music coming from my basement. Sometimes it is just a beautiful thing to live with a musician. Right now he is playing/singing a Jay tune from long ago... from a band he was in back in our Atlanta days... from a time when we didn't have real jobs, when we didn't have children, when we rented and drove crappy cars. Now I'm all swirly and nostalgic. I think it will be nice mood from which to write.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

It's Alright

Last night I got the chance to hear, in my very own hometown, one of the creators of the soundtrack of my life: Bob Dylan. I've see him live a couple of times in the past -- once in Boston in the late eighties when, I think, he played with the Indigo Girls in a ginormous outdoor venue akin to Pine Knob, and once in at a music festival in midtown Atlanta in the mid-1990s when he was pretty messed up and couldn't finish the set. Last night was waaaaaaay better than either of those.

It ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don't matter, anyhow
An' it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If you don't know by now
When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window and I'll be gone
You're the reason I'm trav'lin' on
Don't think twice, it's alright

I've been off the big shows for the last many years -- feeling like I wasn't getting as much out of them as I was paying in time and money to go. That this was Bob Dylan, that Elvis Costello was opening for him, and that I could bike to it, however, prompted me to get a ticket. While I knew many, many people there, I actually wasn't sitting with any of them. I liked that -- I went into zone-y music headspace immediately and had a lovely time not commuicating with anyone.

It ain't no use in turnin' on your light, babe
That light I never knowed
An' it ain't no use in turnin' on your light, babe
I'm on the dark side of the road
Still I wish there was somethin' you would do or say
To try and make me change my mind and stay
We never did too much talkin' anyway
So don't think twice, it's alright

Dylan was very much the Dylan of his latest album, Modern Times, all gravel-voiced and dapper in his suit and hat, but he started with olde tunes and then punctuated the new music with the old throughout.

It ain't no use in callin' out my name, gal
Like you never did before
It ain't no use in callin' out my name, gal
I can't hear you any more
I'm a-thinkin' and a-wond'rin' all the way down the road
I once loved a woman, a child I'm told
I give her my heart but she wanted my soul
But don't think twice, it's alright

He charmed me with the choice of his second song, a long-time favorite, Don't Think Twice It's Alright. The first time I heard -- or at least noticed -- this song was around a campfire at the welcome camp of a Rainbow gathering in Quebec. Like so many Dylan tunes, it was probably a couple of years later -- long after I had learned the song (I played a bit o' guitar back then) --that I ever heard Dylan's version. Something about the bittersweet tone of the lyrics and the pithy wording of attempts to reclaim personal power at the end of each verse have always drawn me in -- whoever was singing it.

I'm walkin' down that long, lonesome road, babe
Where I'm bound, I can't tell
But goodbye's too good a word, gal
So I'll just say fare thee well
I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don't mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don't think twice, it's all right

Last night he changed the phrasing -- rushing the lines ahead of the music -- and the band put a funny little up tempo end on it. I liked it all. Not so much for that particular rendition but more because it felt like he respected the music of his past -- music that is also a part of my past, too. I could hear the other folks around me twitch with excitement over Memphis Blues, Watchtower, and Masters of War, but for me, it was this song that settled me in and made me think, "I'm glad I'm here."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Miles of Bliss

I have just returned from the best mountain biking experience to date, out on the trails of western Michigan, near Freesoil.

A delayed weekend jaunt to the North Country trail and the Big M trail in Manistee National Forest turned out to be just lovely... Beautiful sunny weather. Long, winding, undulating trails. Brightly colored leaves fluttering down as the breeze blew. Wild turkeys roaming across our path. A campsite on public land, away from civilization, but on a two track that met up with the dirt road, that met up with the trail head -- a perfect bikey commute. A river to wash off in and potable water just down the road a mile or two. And an eager, adventurous, and well supplied companion.

The widget registered 21 miles on Sunday and 34 miles on Monday. I've never ridden so much dirt in two days. I'm loving on the new bike, feeling decent about my pedals/shoes, and enjoying my new-found ability to go over log piles. Okay, none of these obstacles (or should I say "features") was very hard/huge -- these are well-tended trails -- but there was still a mental hesitation to be overcome. Cranking up the speed to go through a difficult bit is counterintuitive but necessary. With some well-placed encouragement, I did it and I feel good about it. Unlike the rocky and rooty trails I've been on over the last few weeks, these trails are good for long distances without any need to get off the bike for hazards or extreme hills. I needed that. I had time to settle into the bike. I could look about and enjoy. I could ride fast in some bits. I enjoyed the gentle rises -- both going up and down them. Certainly there were the challenging bits (climbs and sand), but my overall impression was of zipping along pretty trails for miles and miles and miles.

The bike has quite the advantage over hiking. As we rolled along the trail, it was easier to see how the forest changed -- and how small the various sections really were. There might be a quarter mile of pine -- and pines only, a stunning sight -- before the landscape changed to hard woods. A drop into a low spot and trees would give way to brush and the smell would become more peaty. Then the trail would rise and there would be open spots with sun and (unfortunately) sand. At some points, red leaves covered the trail, but then it would be yellow only, then just brown, or pine needles. We rode about as late as we could into the evening, which meant we were treated to lovely shifts in the light in the final hour of the sun. There was one shade of yellow in particular that just popped -- almost glowed -- in the woods with the last bit of sun. Some of the areas with small pine looked hazy as we passed through. The tall pines looked eerie. Very cool.

The inevitable crunchy bits of driving, camping, biking, and sustained physical exertion were few and came and went without spoiling what was a truly damn fine experience. This trip was exactly what I wanted -- I just wanted to be out in the woods.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Swirling brain

The good thing about already having written a book is that I can reassure myself that my current angst is normal. I've been in this place before -- the place where one no longer knows what it is that one was supposed to be doing. But I've also emerged from this place before -- sources were found, chapters got written -- and all was well. So I am taking comfort in knowing that this is "just a phase."

Basically, the first part of my current book project is stuck. I blithely assumed I knew what I was doing in this section (having already written on the early twentieth century and related topics many, many times over the last 15 years), knew what it would look like, and left the piddly little details of which stories I would actually tell to be decided "later." So off I went, researching and writing away on the second half of the book over the last couple of years. But now, well, we have arrived at "later." It is time to move on the early parts of the book and I don't seem to know what the fuck I am doing.

I've pulled lots of sources and they give evidence of people and organizations doing all the things I knew they were doing (building boarding houses and hotels for women, lunchrooms, restrooms, campaigning for street lighting and covered streetcar stops, etc.) but I've got a big ole nothin' in terms of why they are doing what they are doing. Oh, they have their reasons -- lots of references to the civic good and protecting the most vulnerable -- but it is not quite what I wanted. What did I want? I no longer am sure... I just know that it isn't this. I can't make the connections I thought I could. I don't seem to have anything new to say. So I'm shifting... The work of reformers now seems much less significant to me when I consider that commercial institutions looking to profit off a changing economic structure and shifting social patterns of sociability did as much to reshape the social and physical urban geography as those pesky middle-class Progressives -- and that just shoots to hell the parallels I had hoped to draw. And what then, do I actually focus on in this part of the book? Which cities? Which changes?

Aargh. Even as I write this I still can't put my finger on what is not working for me. Guess this dying fish needs to flop on the dock a bit longer.

Time to turn to my current coping mechanism of choice.... the sun is out, I'm going for a ride. I'll let the bits stew while I crank the pedals.

Monday, October 1, 2007


My grandmother died. On Thursday. It was not a lingering illness, but neither was it a surprise. She was 90. It was a peaceful end -- she had been only lightly conscious in days previous and on Thursday afternoon, she just quietly stopped breathing.

My dad was with her when she died, which, if she realized he was there at all, probably pleased her. She was closer -- in a buddy sort of way -- to her daughter and my dad's half-sister, but Dad was her "pride and joy."

I was not there. I pondered and even agonized a bit about going down to Florida as her health deteriorated over the last few weeks, but my dad kept saying "no, you won't want to remember her this way." What I finally figured out is that HE didn't want me to see her that way and once I realized that, it made it easier not to go. From all reports, she wouldn't have known one way or the other if I were there. I wanted to go anyway, but I could respect the somewhat misguided desire in my dad's head that I remember my grandmother listening to Tiger's game with us, taking us to the pool, or decorating that hilarious silver Christmas tree (the kind with the light wheel aimed at it that turned it blue, red, and green). I'm pretty sure that I could hold the hand of a frail and dying woman and still remember those things, but if it made it easier on my dad for me to not be there, I could do that too. He needed to tend her and himself; not me.

My grandmother was a funny woman. She was intensely social (which sort of explains my dad, for those of you that know him). She never learned to drive but even over the last 22 years, since my grandfather died, she never had need of a car because of her huge and close social network. She did not opt to think too deeply about the world around her and she tended to take things at face value but that also translated into a very matter of fact approach to life. She liked what she liked, she told you what that was, and she enjoyed it. She liked Rolling Rock beer and intense shades of red (red lipstick, red sweaters, red pants... and often all together, but never the same shade of red, much to my mother's chagrin). She told me once long ago, after expressing a bit of confusion as to why I lived with W but hadn't gone ahead and married him, "I loved to two men and had the good fortune to marry them both." She far outlived both her husbands, something she also took in stride, as was her practice.

She was not a touchy-feeling, deeply involved kind of grandma but she was probably one of the better members of my family in terms of expressing familial connection. Her cards always arrived in time for every holiday and birthday and while they rarely said much, they always said things like, "I love you" and "I'm proud of you" -- things the rest of my family would probably do well to say more often.

After my dad called me with the news of her death, I started to experience the "stress" (not sure of the right word) of dealing with her death as an intense tiredness. I still made it through my days: kids got to school, grant applications got filed, articles got read, dinner was made, and some guests were even hosted. But my overriding desire was to just sleep. I did make it through a family wedding on Saturday. The groom is my cousin from that side of the family -- so he was facing losing his grandmother days before his wedding. I was not originally going to attend this wedding, but the family -- mostly my dad and his sister -- wanted grandma's family (there aren't that many of us) to gather. So I went. And I made it through that -- though still in my zombie-like state. I talked with both my cousins -- particularly the one closest to my grandma. I hugged my aunt and uncle. I had a glass of wine with my dad.

While I felt fairly removed from the happenings of the wedding -- I am not particularly close to that extended family -- I felt good for having gone. And finally, sometime after midnight, the tiredness lifted. It was beautiful outside and I went for a walk.