booknotes: bloodshot

Hanna and I are off to Maine for a four-day weekend today and I thought I'd leave you with a little summer reading to pass the time. Last week, when the temperatures climbed passed 100 degrees fahrenheit here in Boston and we took refuge after work at the Prudential Center mall, Hanna bought me a copy of Cherie Priest's Bloodshot, the first installment of a promising series called the Cheshire Red Reports.

This is my first Cherie Priest novel and you bet I'll be going back for more. Bloodshot follows the adventures of a free-lance (thief? private investigator?) named Raylene who lives in Seattle and happens to be a vampire. Bored and ready for a challenge, Raylene accepts a job offered to her from a fellow vampire -- even though he warns her it could be dangerous -- and ends up with the feds on her tail and the lives of the few people she cares about at stake.

I was a particular fan of the character of Raylene, whose hard-boiled detective persona doesn't feel overly forced. Priest managed to walk the fine line between making a female protagonist so matcho it hurts (and screams "fuck femininity and all it stands for!") and making Raylene a vampire vamp. Raylene is also fallible and unreliable without falling into the trap of some other urban fantasy women (yes, Anita Blake, I'm thinking of you) of constantly seeking male attention or affirmation. I think she and Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson would possibly get on well together. The other characters include Ian Stott, vampire, and his hipster ghoul Cal; Pepper and Dominique, two Baker Street Irregulars who squat in one of Raylene's properties in exchange for their observation skills; and Adrian deJesus/Sister Rose an ex-military man turned drag queen. Most of whom look to be returning for installment two: Hellbent. So if you're looking for some good summer reading, this one comes highly recommended. Particularly since, if you like it Cherie Priest has written lots more.


30 @ 30: chosen families [#3]

What I've been trying to do in this series is reflect on the ways in which I have changed between "then" (my childhood and young adulthood) and "now" (at age thirty). Yet there are some aspects of my life that I think have maintained a strong consistency in terms of underlying values or inclinations. To some extent, I realize that we humans feel compelled to look back at our own autobiographies and seek continuity (thus the ever-popular emphasis on the innate nature of sexual orientation, which I'm going to tackle in a few weeks). However, our narratives of childhood development also often describe childhood as something of a foreign country, wholly different from the experience of being an adult. Obviously the truth lies somewhere murkily in between.

This post on chosen families explores the remarkable consistency of my own internal (not always entirely conscious) vision of what sort of family and community I long to be a part of as I grow up and grow older.

During the first year I was living in Boston (my first permanent move away from West Michigan), I had a particularly vivid dream. I don't, as a general rule, have very exciting and/or deeply symbolic dreams. This one, however, I recalled with uncharacteristic clarity when I woke up. In the dream, I was a middle-aged woman with a teenaged son. I lived and worked in some sort of sprawling farmhouse doing some sort of social justice activism (the dream was unclear on exactly what, or I have forgotten). The dream centered around a dinner party at this house.

Maybe the house was something like this.
Lined with bookcases, obviously.
At the dinner table were myself and my son, a woman who in the dream was my closest friend from childhood, her children, the woman's abusive husband -- from whom she had come to my home to escape -- and the father of my son, who had not been present in our lives for some years. Possibly since the child had been born.

Over the course of the dinner and the after-dinner mingling, a couple of important things happened. I told the abusive husband he was not welcome in my home if he intimidated his wife, and he left -- leaving his wife and children to live with me. I also remember a conversation with the father of my child wherein it was clear we were on warm, companionable terms, but that he would not be staying with us or acting as a hands-on parent to the child we had brought into the world. In the dream, I was comfortable with that. What I remember more than anything else is the pride with which I presided over the home-space that was mine and served as a refuge for the people who came to stay with me, as long as they were kind to one another. Bullying behavior was not tolerated, and those who remained in the space were caring and supportive of one another. It didn't matter that our made family was a household headed by two women (the implication was that my childhood friend -- or possibly more than a "friend"? -- would remain, with her children), with children at different life-stages and one father who would drift in and out of the home-space, both part of it and not entirely at home.

The dinner looked something like this.
Also imagine the final feast in "Mostly Martha"

Obviously this was just one dream, and its details make rather murky sense (if sense at all). I don't read it as a portent of literal experiences to come. Yet part of why I took note of the dream at the time I had it was the way in which it fit in with a decades-long pattern of my imaginings in which my created family spaces are far from heteronormative.

As a child (say between ages of six and twelve), I wrote and told countless stories about chosen families. Some of these stories involved orphans banding together to establish a home. Some of these stories were more elaborate imaginings, proto-fan fiction if you will, in which I brought all of my favorite fictional characters together under one roof in a parallel world where we maintained a sprawling estate called Willowbanks. There were pairings within that parallel universe, and children conceived and birthed ... but though in those days my conscious sexual pairings were all opposite-sex, just as important as the couplings were the same-sex intimate friendships and sibling bonds (I read a lot of British children's literature that generally specializes in sibling groups ... the Pevencies, the Walkers, the Blacketts, the Bastables, etc.). Ours was a world in which the adults all cooperatively parented the children and one was just as likely to fall asleep in the bed of an intimate female friend as with one's husband.

As a teenager, I wrote fantasy novels. Long fantasy novels. In these novels, likewise, themes of sibling relationships, intimate female friendships, lovingly detailed descriptions of the home-spaces, and sprawling relationship networks dominated. I remember one particular saga (I wrote at least five novels in this universe) involved a pair of teenage protagonists, male and female (the girl was transparently me), who make their way into a fantasy world universe in which they have to save the heir to the throne blah blah blah your typical fantasy novel plot elements. What I spent the most time on, however, was describing in loving detail the time my two protagonists spent in the home of their mentor. She was a powerful mage who lived inside a gigantic living tree with a central staircase and rooms that moved and changed as needed. She lived alone, her husband having died in some magical battle (I forget the details), and was pregnant with their only child. The me-character was definitely as (if not more) interested in this mage than she was in her fellow protagonist whom I assumed the plot dictated her falling in love with. The mage, the two teenagers, the infant, and the mage's relatives (who moved in and out of the story and the tree house) lived and supported one another as needed throughout the saga ... and separation from the place and the group often meant intense agony for the characters involved.

Part of what has always drawn me to feminist and queer spaces has been the willingness of people in those spaces to question what constitutes a family. I'm not exactly sure where this interest in alternatives to the heteronormative family structure originates, since I come from (and thoroughly enjoyed being part of) a basically, well, heteronormative family. My dad was the full-time wage earner. My mother was the full-time parent. They've been married for over thirty-five years. I was the eldest of three kids and we lived in a home my parents bought just before they got married. Yet I'm going to go out on a limb here and argue that the way my parents chose to structure of family life (particularly as parents who chose to home educate their kids) actually encouraged me to seek out alternative structures. My childhood encouraged me to believe in the power of close sibling relationships and cross-generational relationships that weren't necessarily dictated by hierarchical power dynamics. Our circle of close family friends included single adults, single-parent families, families with adopted children. We maintained a somewhat open-door policy when it came to folks moving in and out of our home, joining the core family members for dinner, etc.  (I mean this somewhat literally: I didn't possess a house key until I was in my twenties because my parents never locked the door except when we went away on family vacations). Our household did have a clear sense of "parents" and "children," with parents as care-takers and children as, well, children, who participated to the best of their abilities but were not expected to be adults.  Yet there was never the sense that in order to be a legitimate family, or a family that met the needs of every individual member, there had to be one father breadwinner, one mother caretakers, and children all with clearly delineated responsibilities. We kinda made it up as we went along, improvising as needs and abilities changed.

Which I think is why my (on the surface) heteronormative upbringing fostered openness in both my child-self and my adult-self to look beyond the expected structure of things and ask "what is the arrangement that would work well for all of the people involved here?" In fact, beyond a willingness to ask I'd say it was a nearly overwhelming impulse to come up with a circle of care that meets everyone's needs -- as long as they are willing to participate in the production and reproduction of that circle of care. (My mother would tell you this impulse to care was evident months after I was born and attempting to care for other infants our weekly playgroup.) The impulse recurs, resurfaces: in my childhood fantasies about the parallel universe of Willowbanks; in my adolescent fiction about magical families; in my subconscious dreamings about a future home in which all those who are willing to regard one another with lovingkindness are welcome.


multimedia monday: cambridge porn debate

The author of one of the sexuality education blogs I follow, The Sexademic, was invited to Cambridge (England) to debate the pros and cons of pornography. Specifically: Does pornography perform a "good public service" yay or nay?

I would totally debate pornography in a room like this.
The full debate was recently made available by the Cambridge Union Society. You'll have to click through the link for the actual video as it won't let me embed (it's over an hour long, too, so be forewarned!). If you can't or don't want to be bothered watching the whole thing, The Sexademic provides her own commentary on/synopsis of the event in a post written back in February before she realized the event would be made available online.

Again: Click through to the Cambridge Union Society for the full video.


in which I'm unexpectedly proud...

... to receive this in today's post:

My work simply would not have been possible without the generosity of everyone who shared their oral histories and personal papers with me. Thank you, everyone! My work simply would not have been possible without the generosity of everyone who shared their oral histories and personal papers with me. Thank you, everyone! And I promise I will get over my bashfulness and post a link to the PDF of my thesis tomorrow over at the OE Oral History project blog.

UPDATE: Here is the post: how to live: the oregon extension as experiment in living, 1964--1980 [thesis]. A link to the PDF in DropBox can be found after the jump.


ficnotes: his awkward sod

These guys totally milk the fandom slash
It's the return of the ficnote!

A week ago, I was at a house party with four other lovely ladies (five women + cat + peach basil ice cream: life is good!) where we spent a significant portion of the evening discussing the joys of fanfiction. And can I just say how wonderful it is to arrive at one's thirtieth year and be reminded that growing up can be about owning one's pleasures, not giving them up or shamefully hiding them because you believe others will think you foolish? I love being in the company of people who just enjoy being creative, and taking pleasure in others' creativity, in such an omnivorous way. The beautiful thing about fan-created fiction and art is that it's 99.999% amateur. People do it in their leisure time simply because they love it or because they have friends who beg for it.

Reading fan fiction, one of my favorite things is to see how people in such a diversity of situations and background interpret certain characters, pairings, or story lines, and how they engineer those elements to create stories where, more often than not, the main characters' needs are being met in constructive ways. This spring, at one point, I observed that a certain fic involving Sherlock/John/Sarah was really a story about "a surfeit of needs being met." While not every fic, obviously, is about successful relationships I actually think it's fascinating to see how so much of fic is people working out what it takes to make a relationship successful ... and the myriad answers to that question they come up with.

Enough nattering on: to the fic rec! This one is another I've nicked from Minerva @ Hypomnemata from a post she did on the fan fiction of Inspector Lewis. "Inspector Lewis" fanfic predominantly tackles the pairing of Detective Inspector Robert Lewis with his young second James Hathaway, a former candidate for the priesthood turned police detective. As the back story for Lewis involves a murdered wife and grown children, most fic authors have to negotiate in some way or another Lewis's successful heterosexual relationship and (usually assumed) straight identity as the backdrop for his growing desire for Hathaway. Hathaway's character, meanwhile, has a much more fluid sexual identity in the series, but is struggling with religious guilt over same-sex desires. There are also intimations of childhood sexual trauma in Hathaway's past. Suffice to say, there's a lot of really interesting stuff to work with -- and a lot of potential for that fanfic staple hurt/comfort fic.  Sadly, I don't think the majority of Lewis fic has plumbed the potential for Lewis's self-examination as a middle-aged man with a hitherto straight identity who now finds himself in love with another man. Pairing Lewis's positive (hetero)sexual experience with Hathaway's more fraught sexual history could have some really interesting results ... something that might eventually drive me to write a story arc of my own!

But in the meantime, I bring you a sweet little number that is one of my favorite pieces thus far discovered:

Title: His Awkward Sod
Author: Sarren
Pairing: Robert Lewis/James Hathaway
Author Rating: Explicit
Author Summary: "Lewis and Hathaway pretend to be a couple to catch a killer."
Length: 1 part, 11,964 words
Available At: AO3.
Have fun, happy Friday, and you might be lucky enough to get another fic rec next week!


30 @ 30: body modification [#2]

or possibly a fourth earring?
I thought after my post last week that took on the fairly weighty question of identity, I'd turn to something comparatively lighter this week and talk about body modification. Why? Well, it's actually something about which my personal feelings have changed substantially over time ... in that as a child and young teenager I was pretty categorically opposed to any bodily alteration, and today I find myself trying to decide where exactly my second tattoo should go, and whether or not a nose or nipple piercing is a wise investment.

Mostly, my youthful opposition to such things was a pretty simple matter: I was not a fan of pain. I was not anti-girly things as a child (though I insisted they went hand-in-hand with traditionally unfeminine things; more on that later). I was in love with my grandmother's clip-on earring collection, for instance. But pierced ears sounded to me like the quintessential example of a bad time. Voluntarily allow someone to punch holes in your ears with a staple gun type thingy? I think not.

But the summer I was twelve this friend of mine visited from Canada, a fellow homeschooler from whom I learned a lot of worldly things. Such as what exactly a hickey was, and why it would be uncool to ask your mother what it was, or allow her to see that you'd received one from your boyfriend with the purple hair. Actually, the hickey-and-hair incident wouldn't happen until we were a year or two older. The summer of 1994 we were thirteen years old and still spending our lazy afternoons reading through the vast canon of L. M. Montgomery and arguing over which of the young men in the cast of Swing Kids made our hearts flutter most fervently (I had a soft spot for Arvid myself). The point, though, is that my friend was, to my mind, a more worldly adolescent. While I was not entirely sure I wanted to be more worldly myself, I also knew I wished to impress upon her the fact I was not un-worldly.

Which is where pierced ears come in, insofar as she convinced me that to grow any older in our sophisticated day and age without pierced ears was simply not to be tolerated. And therefore, I screwed up my courage and we trouped down to a local jewelry shop to have the deed done. (The shop is still there on 8th street and still pierces ears, I saw the sign in the window when I was back in Holland last May). I wave brave, and it hurt less than I anticipated. Though I didn't repeat the process until the summer of 2009 when, almost completely on a whim, Hanna and I went into a Claire's in Downtown Crossing here in Boston and added to the collection (two more holes in my left ear, one additional one in the right). I can't say I do a lot with them, since I can't be bothered to change out the rings, but I do take pleasure in the fact that I'm a professional librarian with five ear piercings.

there will be a no. 2
I'm just not sure where, what or when
And now a tattoo. I'll be upfront and say I harbored, for way too long, social prejudice against tattoos as something tacky and faintly unhygienic and frighteningly permanent. In my early twenties a friend of a friend got an ankle tattoo for her sixtieth birthday and I thought that maybe I could picture something like that ... far into the future ... when I had a better sense of who I was, and what I might want to say with ink worked into the very fabric of my skin. Maybe.

But in my mid-to-late thirties, my opposition started to melt. In part due to exposure to some exceptionally gorgeous ink on friends and acquaintances. I won't lie: beautiful tats are much more visible here in Boston than they were in West Michigan. I see them on co-workers, professional colleagues, the coffee shop baristas, commuters on the T. When you see that much beautiful art around you, it's hard not to start thinking, "If I ever ... then I might ...".

I figured completing graduate school was as good a place as any to start. You can read all about why, what and how here.

Maybe I grew into myself faster than I used to imagine I would. Or perhaps I'm more comfortable with the notion that we are continually changing but that it's okay if our bodies carry the scars of our previous selves: joyful and visible ones as well as painful and/or invisible ones. Chosen as well as involuntarily acquired. Human-created rather than physiologically made.

I'm still wary of body modification, in part because I'm just not that into pain and also because I try to be as accepting as I can be of my body as it is, rather than attempting through intervention to make it conform to my own (or to societal) expectations of how a body should be.

But ink, particularly, is something I've grown to believe can serve to celebrate the body as it is. After all, it draws attention to one's physical presence, and insofar as it is a self-chosen form of visual symbolism communicates aspects of ourselves that go far beyond what we have been trained to assess when we visually assess our fellow human beings on the street. Tattoos demand that we be understood not just as bodies of a certain shape, skin color, weight. They also demand that we be understood as bodies. As physical presences that have been purposefully decorated in ways that are meaningful to the individual body in question. Tattoos are a way of tying our metaphysical, meaning-making selves to our corporeal, physical, taking-up-space selves. Much of their power, I would argue, comes from the fact that they are an art form that bridges that boundary between metaphysical and material being-in-the-world, and grounds that bridge-building in individual human flesh.

Not sure where I'll be inking (or piercing) myself next, but you'll likely hear about it on this blog. So stay tuned!


in which I write letters: dear netflix

Okay, so Hanna and I joined the tens of thousands of Netflix customers who expressed their displeasure at the planned price hikes for the popular DVD rental and online video streaming service, and particularly the way in which the company announced the price changes.  I'm not going to replicate the whole thing here, but I have thrown the letter into a PDF document so anyone who's interested can read it and/or steal from it.

Mostly, I wanted to offer the contact details I was given by the customer service representative who answered the phone when I called the 1-800 number. Why did I use the telephone you ask? Because I'm apparently the only Netflix user on the planet who managed to discover and then forget that Netflix doesn't like actually receiving meaningful customer feedback. Nowhere on their site do they have a form for communicating with them about any aspect of their services, nor do they have a customer service email through which to express positive or negative feedback about their company. Instead, I had to call on the phone and insist on obtaining a mailing address where I could direct the letter. I'm serious: the (very courteous) man whom I spoke to really really really wanted to take my feedback via telephone. I explained I already had it all written out and wanted to send it by email or mail thank you very much. He put me on hold and then finally said he'd been given "permission" to give me the corporate headquarters address to send the letter to.

I'm supposed to address it "Attn: Corporate."

they don't get it either
I mean, even the Massachusetts Historical Society has someone who handles PR, right? We're an organization of fifty employees! And you're telling me that Netflix doesn't have a Customer Service office staffed by people whose sole responsibility is to field incoming letters, emails, telephone calls, texts, tweets, Facebook messages, you name it?? I'm supposed to send my letter to corporate?

Excuse me while I pause to feel a little teeny tiny bit jerked around.

Anyway, here's the address if you want to lodge a complaint:
Attn: Corporate
100 Winchester Circle
Los Gatos, CA
Or, apparently, you can use the popular method of leaving a message on their Facebook page.


multimedia monday: gaming can make a better world

Via On the Media.

(If you click on "share" you can enable subtitles in a variety of languages; TED is awesome).

Some excepts (courtesy of OTM):
So an epic win is an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive, you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it. And when you get there, you are shocked to discover what you’re truly capable of. And this is the face that we need to see on millions of problem solvers all over the world, as we try to tackle the obstacles of the next century. When we're in game worlds, I believe that many of us become the best version of ourselves, the most likely to stick with a problem as long as it takes, to get up after failure and try again. In real life, when we face failure, when we confront obstacles, we often don't feel that way. We feel anxious, maybe depressed, frustrated or cynical. We never have those feelings when we're playing games. Whenever you show up in one of these online games, especially in World of Warcraft, there are lots and lots of different characters who are willing to trust you with a world-saving mission, right away. But not just any mission, it’s a mission that is perfectly matched with your current level in the game, but it is on the, the verge of what you’re capable of, so you have to try hard. There’s no unemployment in World of Warcraft. There’s always something specific and important to be done. And there are also tons of collaborators ready to work with you to achieve your epic mission. Now, the problem with collaborative online environments like World of Warcraft, it’s so satisfying, we decide to spend all our time in these game worlds. So, so far, collectively, all the World of Warcraft gamers have spent 5.93 million years solving the virtual problems of Azeroth. Now, to put that in context, 5.93 million years ago was when our earliest primate human ancestors stood up. So when we talk about how much time we're currently investing in playing games, the only way it makes sense is to talk about time at the magnitude of human evolution, which is an extraordinary thing. But it’s also apt, because it turns out that by spending all this time playing games we're actually changing what we are capable of as human beings. We're evolving to be a more collaborative and hearty species.
The four potentially world-saving characteristics of hardcore gamers:

The first is urgent optimism. Urgent optimism is the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success. Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible and that it’s always worth trying, and trying now. Okay. Gamers are virtuosos at weaving a tight social fabric. There’s a lot of interesting research that shows that we like people better after we play a game with them, even if they've beaten us badly. And the reason is it takes a lot of trust to play a game with someone. We trust that they will spend their time with us, that they will play by the same rules, value the same goal, they'll stay with the game until it's over. And so, playing a game together actually builds up bonds and trust and cooperation, and build stronger social relationships, as a result. Blissful productivity, I love it. You know, there is a reason why the average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 22 hours a week. It's because we know when we're playing a game that we're actually happier working hard than we are relaxing. And gamers are willing to work hard all the time, if they're given the right work. Finally, epic meaning. Gamers love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions. They have compiled more information about World of Warcraft on the Internet than any other topic covered on any other wiki in the world. They are building an epic knowledge [LAUGHS] resource about the World of Warcraft. Okay, so these are four superpowers that add up to one thing. Gamers believe that they are individually capable of changing the world. And the only problem is they believe that they are capable of changing virtual worlds and not the real world. That's the problem that I'm trying to solve.
Watch the whole thing. It's totally worth it. I'm actually wondering if there isn't some comperable discussion to be had about fan communities ... talk about blissful productivity and tight social fabric! ... but that's a post for another day.


by special request from the birthday boy

Dad suggested I share these pictures from a bike ride we took together around Loch Katrine in The Trossachs, Scotland on May 2004. It was at the tail end of a trip during which we had gorgeous weather. I'm not complaining about that, since it allowed us to complete the West Highland Way on foot without getting drenched. But the rain caught up with us on this particular day.

Loch Katrine is a water source for the city of Glasgow, so the only
boat allowed on the lake is the Sir Walter Scott steam launch.
It's eerily quiet, whether you are riding it or watching from the shore.
You rent cycles and can ride the ferry across the loch,
then cycle back to where you started.
This is where the rain caught up with us.
You can see, if you look closely, the raindrops on the surface of the loch.
We made it back in time for afternoon tea,
and to watch the launch return!
And a lovely couple who worked at the site gave us a ride back to Stirling, saving us the cost of a cab fare.

60 @ 60? Make that 100 @ 60!

I turned thirty this year which means my dad turns sixty. Today is his birthday.

Happy Birthday Dad!

He celebrated this weekend by cycling in the Holland Hundred, a one hundred mile bicycle tour sponsored by the Macatawa Cycling Club.

My family members know that bicycling generally isn't my thing (though I'm thinking of getting in on Boston's new point-to-point bike rental initiative), but -- knock on wood -- I hope my genes and physical activity will get me to my sixtieth birthday in good enough shape that I could bicycle a hundred miles in a day if I wanted to. With a little training, at least.

Here's to many more happy and active returns of the day.


booknotes: the clamorgans

Last week, I picked up an advanced review copy of Julie Winch's The Clamorgans: One Family's History of Race in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011) from the free book cart at work. It was a relatively quick, though also a bit daunting, read. Winch, an historian based at the University of Massachusetts - Boston, focuses on the "lives and genealogies" of African-Americans in the Revolutionary War era and the period of the Early Republic. Her previous books focus on elite black families and individuals in Philadelphia; in The Clamorgans she turns her attention to a multiracial family based in St. Louis, beginning in the decades before the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and navigating its labyrinthian way to the mid-twentieth century.

The Clamorgan clan, at least as Winch documents it, began with a French entrepeneur (read: shady financial speculator) named Jacques Clamorgan in the 1780s, who settled in St. Louis when it was still (nominally) part of the Spanish empire. He had a number of children by three different women, all of whom were black and during one point during their lives were enslaved (some owned by Jacques himself). From this root, Winch traces in exhaustively-documented detail the fates of the descendents of this family tree. She is aided by the fact that Jacques Clamorgan was a litigious man who turned to the courts whenever he was unhappy with how his affairs (financial and familial) had been settled ... and that his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren followed suit. Jacques died in the early 1800s with extensive land claims, which he had finessed from the Spanish administrators, left unresolved following the Louisiana Purchase and the entrance of St. Louis and its environs into the expanding boundaries of the United States. For subsequent generations, these land claims became the promise of riches they turned to again and again whenever their (rapidly rising and falling) fortunes waivered.

The Clamorgan story is one not only of economic and social class but, inevitably, also a story of race, since all of Jacques Clamorgan's descendents were in some measure mixed race, and often able to "pass" as white or of Native American ancestory. In a period where black and white society was so sharply divided, the relative ease of each Clamorgan descendent to move with ease in and out of white and black communities directed effected their economic and social fortunes. Some Clamorgans chose (or had no option other than) to rise to the top of the black elite in St. Louis or other locales around North and Central America. Other branches of the family were light-skinned enough that they attempted to cross the racial divide and pass themselves and their children off as "white," usually for specific social and economic advancement (access to "white" jobs, schools, and neighborhoods).

The strength of this book is the sheer volume of research Winch has undertaken (I imagine with a bevy of student assistants and a very good data management system, though I could be mistaken!). Through the minute details offered up in court documents, newspaper columns, census records, and other archival sources Winch opens a window for readers onto the gritty details of how one specific American family struggled to gain a viable foothold in the volatile economic climate of the nineteenth century. Anyone who claims that our "addiction" to credit or predatory lending is an invention of our current epoch really just exposes themselves as a poor student of economic history: lines of credit, properties bought and sold on speculation, double-dealing lawyers -- all of these make more than cameo appearances in The Clamorgans saga.

What I found myself wishing for more of, as both a reader-for-pleasure and an historian, was more analysis  and context. Winch provides us with a rich narrative of one family's history ... what I wanted to know was how their journey up and down the economic ladder and back and forth across the color line fit into broader national patterns. Was their story typical? Atypical? How so? Was their recourse to the law usual for the time and place in which they lived, or did it set them apart? What contribution does the Clamorgan family story make to our understanding of how race and class (and to a lesser extent, though indubitably present, gender) function in American society? How do all of the details Winch has uncovered about the Clamorgan clan inform the work of other historians on these topics? Do they fit into previous hypotheses about how social categories functioned during this period, or do they challenge those interpretations in new ways? It was this historiographical discussion that I found myself missing. I hope that historians who utilize Winch's work in the future will be able to fill this gap in the scholarship.

Final verdict: Incredibly useful for historians who are studying this period or topics related to the history of race and class in America ... engaging for anyone else who is willing to put in the effort to keep the sprawling clan Clamorgan straight for however long it takes to read the book!


30 @ 30: questions of identity [#1]

Glen Nevis, Inverness-shire, Scotland (May 2004)
When I was seventeen I enrolled in a college writing course the title of which was Questions of Identity. It was a required course intended to teach incoming first-year students what was expected of in terms of written work during their college years, but each faculty member was allowed a fair amount of autonomy in terms of content. My professor (for whom I harbored a major schoolgirl crush) framed it in terms of memoir. We read Annie Dillard's An American Childhood and Tobias Wolf's This Boy's Life (I still remember the bit about the beaver in the attic). We read creative nonfiction essays about everything from the Holocaust to Italian cookery. We wrote autobiographical essays.

I loved it so much, I turned around and took another class from the same professor the following semester, where I wrote more memoir, and the semester after that as well.

What strikes me, looking back on the content of those essays is what the subjects of those papers reveal about my primary question(s) of identity. They were not questions of sex or gender, of religion or race ... though I'm sure one could find markers of these aspects of identity throughout, they were not the categories I was then thinking in. I was simultaneously taking Christian Feminism and Feminist Theology, so sex and gender, sexual orientation and religion were very much on the table ... but not what preoccupied me when it came to identity. I already took for granted being a feminist; sexual orientation was puzzling but not a burning concern. By 1998 I'd pretty much given up on the church, though I found theology a powerful language with which to discuss human rights and justice.

I didn't choose these subjects to write about in English class. What I chose to write about, primarily, was friendship, family, and my experience with home education. Looking back, I would argue that these essays all implicitly explore how the experience of home education helped shape the nature of my closest relationships. As a teenager, I was working hard to establish relationships outside my primary kinship network (which I planned to maintain, but was ready to expand beyond). And I wasn't particularly sure how -- or, more particularly, how to do it well.

Two of my major papers during that academic year hinged on an examination of intense friendships -- one a intimate childhood friendship that had ended painfully, another a portrait of a young man I had worked with the summer before and felt both attraction toward and irritation over. The following autumn brought a third paper that was a profile of my then-closest friend, a young man with whom I carried on a passionate correspondence (yes, these were the days when pen-pals actually used pens). I also authored two papers specifically about the history of home education -- my own family's experience and the broader movement -- as well as pieces about my childhood family life and one paper for which I shadowed a friend who attended the local Christian high school.

Home education played a central role in all three friendship essays. The childhood friendship (looking back I would argue this was my first romantic female friendship) was with a girl from another family that home educated and our two families were extremely close until I was in my early teens. I made connections with my pen-friend (still a good friend today) through a long-distance homeschool writing group, and the man for whom I harbored complicated love-hate feelings was a grown homeschooler. Part of the attraction I had for him was the seduction of being close to someone seven years older than I who was an adult, but had had a (superficially) similar childhood experience to mine. While I didn't necessarily conceptualize it this way at the time, looking back I would argue that part of the work these papers were doing was helping me to understand  how central my experience as a homeschooler had been to my childhood, and how central it would continue to be as I moved into adulthood. Would it color the relationships I formed? Would it be easier for me to form bonds with people who, like me, had grown up outside of institutional education? Would the experience of college alter my identity as a homeschooler, and if so what would that mean? What was my relationship as an individual to the larger (and wildly heterogeneous) community of other home-schooled people? To what extent did being a home-educated person make me "weird" or cause communication or cultural translation problems with my fellow students at college and the faculty under whom I studied? How would I be able to move into a culture (college) where I was no longer surrounded by like-minded individuals (fellow homeschoolers) and still retain those aspects of my identity that I felt were important?

When I was a young child my mother once asked me how many children  I thought were homeschooled like us. "Oh, about half," I told her, after a moments consideration. This was an accurate reflection of the proportion of people we interacted with regularly who were home-educated or in more traditional situations. In other words, as a young child I assumed that my experience was normal. As I grew older and faced the skepticism and suspicion and saw friends approaching learning in radically different ways from my own family, I came to understand that our family's choices were very different from those of the dominant culture. I realized that home education was something that marked me as an outsider. Those things that we feel mark us as different (from the implicit norm) are a more conscious part of our identity than those things that seem normal.

By the time I was seventeen, home education had become a self-conscious part of my identity, but also one that was precarious as I moved into college coursework. It became a project to understand what, exactly, that part of my identity meant to who I was as a whole person, and what it meant in terms of my relationship to others.

In some ways, this exploration is still ongoing. I don't think it is a mistake that Hanna is also a grown homeschooler: in some ways our experiences were quite different, but nonetheless it is a part of our growing up that neither of us has to explain to the other, or defend to the other as an insider speaking to an outsider. While I've had close friendships over the years with people who never homeschooled, I continue to feel a particular kinship with those who have. And, as the subject of my Master's thesis shows, my consideration of educational alternatives has continued to be central to my identity as a thinker and academic.

At the same time, the anxiety that attended my written exploration of my education and its connection to my intimate relationship bonds has abated considerably. I still think about how my growing up has shaped the person I've become (a lot!), but then I think a lot about most things in my life. It's just the way I work. I still have a special place in my heart for home-based education, and feel that spark of automatic affiliation with folks who are homeschooled or homeschooling. Yet it isn't so present in my life as it once was. At seventeen, it would have been one of the primary ways I introduced myself to others; now, new acquaintances often know me for months or years before, depending on the conversations we have, the topic arises. At seventeen, I likely would have felt unable to be known to others if home education remained undiscussed. At thirty, I am more relaxed about letting my personal history weave itself in to present-day narratives in its own time.

Recently, I've been thinking about what it would be like to mentor younger folks in the home education community; and I still have that oral history project with grown homeschoolers I'd love to complete! We'll see in the next thirty, sixty, or ninety years how much it continues to play a role in my life.

You can read more about my reflections about home education in this interview I gave over at I'm Unschooled. Yes, I can Write.


multimedia monday: history of the menstrual cup

via Tenured Radical.

Just a quick disclaimer: I personally use and love the menstrual cup, which is our house is referred to as "the horrendous device." But before that I used and thanked the Goddess every month for tampons. So while I will happily share my positive experience with the menstrual cup I am not judgy about other peoples' preferences if they happen to differ from my own. Bodies are all different!


harpy fortnight: can't believe it's july! edition

god, this just makes me want to watch Angels in America again
The last few weeks have been a bit rocky over at The Pursuit of Harpyness as we were dealing with some nasty malware that took out no fewer than three of my work computers and several other personal computers of the Harpy team ... not for good, but certain a pain in the ass. Thanks to blogger foureleven's husband we are today virus free and back to our regular blogging schedule. My contributions since June 19 have included the following:

I'm obviously not the only one being harpylike these days: BeckySharper gives some kudos to the NYPD, SarahMC has a few words about the American justice system vis a vis the Casey Anthony verdict (did anyone else miss that this was a thing until last week?), Marie Anelle offers "mental hallucinations" in honor of Canada Day, and Michelle Dean (via BeckySharper) writes about the creep that is Princess Diana fanfic.

Do come join the party!


30 @ 30: series introduction

So back at the end of March I threatened more posts about turning thirty. I've finally decided to follow through on that threat (promise?) with a series of posts I'm going to call "30 @ 30."

I've been thinking a lot these passed few months about the discourses surrounding childhood and adulthood, the supposed merits or limitations of each phase of life, and the markers of maturity or immaturity our culture fixates on (having a "real" job, being financially independent, owning a house, marrying and having children, etc.). At first I was thinking about writing a pair of posts talking about why being a child isn't all it's cracked up to be (in response to those who complain about how adult life sucks) and about the reasons I'm glad to be an adult and don't auto-dread being called "ma'am" or turning forty.

But that seemed, in the end, too negative. And destined to make friends of mine who have more conflicted feelings about adulthood pissy. So instead, I'm going to try and write a series of posts reflecting on how my own thought and experience has evolved between my childhood and my (as-of-now) adulthood. Not necessarily in a better/worse way, but in more of a continuity-and-change way. Because that's the sort of person I am: I tend to emphasize the constants while also thinking about the way the external manifestation of those constants can radically change over time. Maybe along the way I'll discover some of the subjects on which my thought and experience has changed dramatically over the years. Some topics I plan to explore (in no particular order of importance):

  • food tastes
  • sexuality
  • pornography and feminism
  • favorite fictional characters
  • physical movement
  • gender
  • identity and labels
  • asking "why"
  • the internet
  • friendship
  • urban living
  • England
  • wearing jeans
  • coffee
  • french kissing
  • body modification
  • school
  • money
  • travel
  • work / vocation
  • children and childcare

Stop by each Wednesday for series installments. This is also part of my attempt to haul this blog back into being more diverse than a book  and fic review space. As enjoyable as that is (and I plan to continue, no mistake!), I've missed more narrative and personal writing.


booknotes: stuff I've been reading

Given my recent travels and the reading time sitting on the airplane affords, my "to be reviewed" pile of books has grown to a critical mass ... right when I find myself with a bit less time than I had in the spring to write blog posts. So rather than let the responses I had grow stale, I thought I'd do one massive round-up of "stuff I've been reading" to welcome you back from the holiday weekend.

Here goes.

The Pledge: A History of the Pledge of Allegiance by Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2010). This is a highly readable, entertaining account of how the pledge of allegiance first came to be written in the 1890s and how, over the course of the twentieth century, it went from being essentially a marketing gimmick for a children's magazine hoping to sell American flags to school children to an activity so enshrined in our national political landscape that questioning it can lead to serious penalties. The one failing of the authors is that, despite chronicaling -- quite critically (and rightly so)! -- all of the ways in which the pledge has been used as a weapon, they end up affirming the pledge as an activity that creates unity. When they've just spent an entire book documenting how it does exactly the opposite. As someone who doesn't know the pledge and never recited it growing up, I can't say I feel less American for the lack -- and I was offended by the implication that learning the pledge is an essential part of growing up in the United States. In the end, though, I'm glad I read it for the history if not the agenda.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010). Having read Bonk when it first came out, I have to say I firmly believe that Mary Roach is one of the most hilarious science writers on the planet. In this book, she tackles the science behind human survival in space ... from the psychological effects of long-term isolation with a small group of fellow crew members to the logistics of bodily elimination ... from the question of sex in space (is it possible?) to what kills space travelers when something goes wrong upon re-entry. Roach is the kid in your college class who was always willing to ask the potentially stupid-sounding questions most of us were too self-conscious to ask, and as a result gets some of the best (and funniest) answers to her queries. Which she then shares with us. Even if you don't think the science of space travel is for you, pick up this book and read the first chapter before giving it a miss.

Changed For Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical by Stacey Ellen Wolf (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Wolf takes us through a rolicking, thoughtful tour of American musical theatre (1950s-present), using the recent nation-wide hit Wicked as her beginning and end-point, exploring how the conventions of twentieth-century musical theatre are re-appropriated in Wicked to tell what she argues is a female-centric and potentially "queer" (lesbian) story. As someone who grew up steeped in the musical theatre she writes about, it was a pleasure to explore the history of musicals from this perspective. Wolf obviously knows her musical theatre, and I enjoyed learning from someone who has more intimate knowledge of the form than I do. I would have been interested in more use of audience/fan interpretations and re-appropriations, particularly of the musicals whose narratives seem to be fairly hostile to female characters (Man of La Mancha), or portray women as passive (as in Phantom of the Opera). While Wolf talks about the fan culture around Wicked in depth, she draws primarily on critical reviews to discuss the reception of her other examples. I missed any in-depth discussion of the female characters in Rent which Wolf mentioned as influential but never discussed in detail -- perhaps because it has been treated at length elsewhere.

I also quibbled with some of her readings of Wicked, but mainly because I read Maguire's novel before the musical came out, and so my interpretation of the musical relies heavily on my history with the original text. Wolf's analysis might have been strengthened if she had drawn upon the original novel and asked by certain choices were made in the adaption of the book to the musical stage. For example, she argues that Elphaba (the Wicked Witch) is not portrayed as either a physically disabled Other or an ethnic Other in the musical ... whereas in the novel, she is quite clearly written as an Other who is marked by what others interpret as physical deformity. Her green skin, far from being just coloring, renders her sensitive to water to the extent she must bathe in buttermilk, and there is some suggestion that her genitalia is non-normative. While I understand Wolf's decision to focus on the musical adaptation I feel she missed an opportunity to discuss why certain production decisions were made (I would argue for the sake of mainstream popularity).

His Majesty's Dragon (Temeraire, Book #1) by Naomi Novik (New York: Dell Ray, 2006). A friend of ours has loaned us the first five installments in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, of which the sixth volume is due out this summer. Set in an alternate universe, the world of these novels is that of Regency England and the Napoelonic Wars ... only with dragons. Imagine Jane Austen crossed with Horatio Hornblower with a dash of Anne McCaffrey's Pern universe and you've got His Majesty's Dragon. Though the series, I hasten to say, does not feel derivitive in the least. Temeraire (the main dragon-protagonist) has the most compellingly charming literary voice I've come across in ages. I'm only to book three so far (Black Powder War ) but have been thoroughly enjoying the ride.

Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whelan Turner (New York: Greenwillow, 2010). I somehow missed that this book -- the fourth in Turner's Thief series -- came out last year until the last issue of LibraryJournal did a spread on "crossover" young adult fiction -- that is, YA lit that people over the age of eighteen also enjoy. (I personally don't get the division ... I've known adults all my life who read fiction marketed to teens, but I guess it's a new thing to talk about in library circles.)  Don't want to risk spoliers, but suffice to say this latest installment didn't disappoint. It picks up shortly after book three (The King of Attolia) left off and is told from the point of view of Sophos, heir to the kingdom of Sounis, whom we first met in book one (The Thief) but who has never been center-stage to the drama. I was at first disappointed that Eugenides and the Queen of Attolia (the two characters who are center stage in books two and three) did not get more air time, but Sophos' story didn't disappoint ... and intersected in some unexpected ways with the lives of Eugenides, the Queen of Attolia, and the Queen of Eddis.

Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery (1937). Who among us failed to go through an L. M. Montgomery phase? Okay, some of you might have skipped it. But I didn't. I knew Anne of Green Gables since before I could properly read myself, but when I was twelve a friend of mine sat me down and introduced me to the full canon of Montgomery's work ... oh, the romantic agony of it! I fell hard for Emily of New Moon, Kilmeny of the Orchard, for Blue Castle and Along the Shore. Somehow, though, I neglected to read Jane of Lantern Hill and when Hanna found out recently about my dirty little secret she set out to rectify the situation as quickly as possible! It's the same mix of homoeroticism ("kindred spirits" indeed), sneering rich relatives, fantasies about un-broken families and domesticity (at some points verring toward the disturbingly oedipal!), and salvation-via-rural living, specifically on Prince Edward Island, that we all know and love.