For all booksellers who lived through The Secret

Hanna sent me this link this morning from the blog Wondermark Lite. I thought particularly of all of you who worked with me at Barnes & Noble when a certain book was at the height of its popularity.


Introducing Minerva

Straight from the awesomely talented hands of my brother Brian comes the Future Feminist Librarian-Activist patron goddess, Minerva (or, as I affectionately call her, "Minnie").

Minerva was, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Roman goddess of "handicrafts, the professions, the arts, and . . . war." I thought this was a good combination for those of us seeking to put scholarly interests to work in a real-world, politically aware, context.

Sartorially, she owes her style to the American suffragists, with a nod to the European bluestockings of a slightly earlier area. I like to imagine she will be watching me sharply from behind those spectacles, making sure I remember what I came here to school to learn, and briskly challenging me to do something meaningful with my education on the other end.

Please join me in giving her a warm and respectful welcome.


The radical idea that boys are people

In the same vein as the post I wrote on teen fatherhood a couple of weeks ago, Jill over at the blog Feministe has written about a recent study on how teenage boys understand their sexual and romantic relationships. Results? Contrary to popular "common sense" assumptions that boys are driven by their physical sexuality and interested in girls only as sexual objects, the teenage participants in the study indicated that they value relationships in a much more holistic way.

Go check out the post!


Campus Safety: Panic or Pragmatism?

I've been meaning to write about the way safety is handled on the Simmons residence campus for a while now, but this photograph finally provoked me into action:

This poster, courtesy of the "gotcha" campaign, in which residence staff come around at random hours to check and see if dorm room doors are locked, is only the latest in a whole series of educational tactics students here at Simmons have been exposed to over the school year. We have also been warned against "piggybacking" (letting someone unknown into the dorm with your swipe card) with posters that describe in ominous terms incidences in which women have been raped and murdered by assailants in their dorm rooms because of an unlocked door.

We also receive campus safety alerts via email, which alert us to acts of aggression that happen in the neighborhood of the college. Each email concludes with a list of basic safety measures:
As always, the College is concerned for the safety of our community members. We recommend the following precautions to maximize your safety:

• Be aware of your surroundings
• Do not walk alone at night whenever possible
• Do not listen to your iPod while walking
• Always make sure to walk on well lit streets staying on the same side as the street lights
• Be aware of the people around you
• If you carry a cell phone, make sure the battery is charged and it is turned on
• If you are walking alone at night tell a friend when you are leaving and when you expect to arrive at your destination

If you see anything suspicious or would like a walking escort between campuses, please call the Simmons College Public Safety Department
While these emails are usually matter-of-fact and probably the best approach to keeping students informed about what is happening around the campus, I also wonder about the ubiquity of these awareness campaigns, and how they feed into a culture of fear about life in an urban environment--particularly life as a woman in an urban environment.

Clearly, as a woman in my mid-twenties, having lived and traveled alone in a variety of places, the question of personal safety is not a new one. And to some extent, I agree with the common-sense advice of the campus officials: it's usually a good idea to keep your door locked (if for no other reason that the desire not to have someone steal your computer), and to "be aware of your surroundings." However, it becomes a particularly interesting question to consider in the context of a college campus, surrounded by college-age women who are being sent particular messages about danger in the world and how they ought to protect themselves from it.

As a feminist, violence against women is something I am aware of in a political, philosophical, and personal sense. In feminist circles, we refer to a "rape schedule"--the idea that ability to move freely in the world is curtailed by our awareness of the possibility of physical violence. As Jessica Valenti explains in a Salon interview:
Can you explain the concept of a "rape schedule"?

I first heard about it in my women's studies classes. It's the idea that every woman in one way or another lives on a rape schedule. Every action you take is built on an awareness that you could be attacked: from walking with your keys in your hand, to locking your car doors at an intersection, to deciding to go home a half-hour earlier. There is no public space for women; the whole world is a prison where you have to be constantly aware at all times that you're a potential victim. What's more terrifying is that it's not necessarily preventative. Most rapes are committed by people you know and trust and let your guard down with.
So there are concrete ways in which my being-in-the-world is limited because of the fact of my sex: I fantasize about going backpacking in the Adirondacks, for example, but solo camping in remote areas is out; and on the other extreme my freedom to move about urban environments after dark is a constant question mark.

On the other hand, feminists in the last twenty years have raised the question of how much the media spotlight on particular acts of violence (for example, random attacks by strangers) get highlighted while other acts of violence (such as those perpetrated by intimate partners, who presumably would have access to your dorm at your invitation) are not the focus of these scare campaigns.

Also, it is important to note the assumptions this email makes--particularly that it is possible to arrange to walk in company, and that you have an individual whom you can make aware of your daily movements. I don't believe the advice not to walk alone would be a piece of advice offered to men as a matter of course. And I wonder what those of us who live alone are supposed to do? Call up our closest relative and tell them when we leave work in the evening? What's with this "while you are sleeping" line in the "gotcha" poster? Coming, as it does, on the tail of flyers that describe the violent rape and murder of a young college girl in her bed while she was sleeping, there's a definite over-tone not merely of material security against theft but also of sexual violence.

So I am troubled by the way in which women at Simmons college are constantly reminded of their vulnerability (however statistically unlikely) to violent attack. I wonder whether it is simple pragmatism, or whether it is schooling young women into a sense of danger that is, overall, misleading and socially controlling. Thoughts?


The Deadwood of the British Empire

This week, in GCS410 (Gender, Race & Imperialism), we read and discussed the book Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World, by Trevor Burnard. Thomas Thistlewood was the younger son of a farming family back in England who ventured into Britain's colonial territories in search of a better life. He ended up in Jamaica where he worked as an overseer on several plantations before eventually buying his own land and becoming a moderately successful planter and master of slaves. Over the course of his nearly forty years in Jamaica, he kept a minutely detailed (if emotionally opaque) diary, detailing in list form such things as the punishments meted out to his slaves, the books he read, money he owned, and each of his many sexual encounters.

What I thought of when reading the book was how similar 18th century Jamaica seemed in its system of violent domination to Deadwood, at least as portrayed in the HBO series which tells the story of (largely white) settlers in the Black Hills during the late 19th century. Jamaica was a dangerous proposition for European immigrants--people tended to live fast and die young. You really would have no incentive to move there unless you had nothing to lose. Thistlewood would have been right at home working for Swearengen or Cy.

Some of the students in class questioned the utility and ethics of spending so much time examining the life of a violent white imperialist. When does such scrutiny of such a person, they seemed to be asking, tip over into forgiveness? When does explanation pave the way for apologia? I don't know what this says about me, but I believe it is often the examination of those historical characters whom we find the most abhorrent or the most inexplicable that prove the most valuable in understanding the past. Texts such as Thistlewood's diary--precisely because they are problematic--require our attention as historians. If we limited our historical inquiry to those people with whom we sympathized entirely, we would probably find ourselves with a very short list of acceptable topics. And we would learn nothing we did not wish to know about the human condition.


What Women Want: Insecure Men?

don't worry boys: we'll be your interpreters for the evening

Just in time for Valentine's Day, the Wednesday edition of the Boston Globe had a feature story on the website www.hertaste.com, the gist of which is summed up in their tagline: "you are being overlooked by women for details you didn't even know mattered." The Globe explains:
"Guys think it looks good," says [site co-founder] Panagopoulos . . . "But what men think looks good and what women think looks good are two different things." Adds [co-founder] Kassner: "What guys miss is that women are picking up on little details. It's like a secret world that guys don't have a clue about."
And what, pray tell, are the the "little details" men know nothing about? The categories on the Hertaste homepage are "fashion," "garage," "pad," and "gifts." That's right: guys categorically, it seems, don't know how to 1) dress themselves, 2) purchase the right car or car accessories, 3) furnish a house or apartment, or 4) shop for gifts that say "I actually know and really like you." Those life skills are all part of the secret world we women live in that guys are clueless about. So the women of Hertaste are here to save the day.

I find this incredibly offensive to women and to men alike.

The premise of the website is this: That men must--but don't know how to--make themselves attractive to (hot) women (as evidenced by the chicks lounging on the homepage). This narrative of male incompetence at understanding women draws on the tired pop psychology theory that "men are from Mars and women are from Venus." Such thinking dehumanizes women by suggesting they are so different from normal human beings (men) that they aren't even from the same planet. It also belittles men by suggesting that they're such idiots that they're incapable of actually relating to their fellow human beings (women) without an intermediary to translate women's mysterious feelings and motives.

Specifically, in this case, Hertaste deploys this pervasive narrative of gender difference as part of a time-honored marketing strategy: building on, or manufacturing, insecurities in order to sell stuff. Dudes! Women will think you're a loser if you don't buy expensive clothes, electronics, drive a suave car, or give her expensive jewelry. What ever happened to romantic notions like--uh--having a real conversation? Enjoying a shared interest in literature or movies? Or even--more prosaically--simply prioritizing student loans over a black leather couch?

Fundamentally, my problem with this website is summed up in its very name: her taste. This isn't a website about learning how to better express who you really are, but rather a site that encourages people to perform the sort of gendered identity they think "women" as a group will have the hots for. I can't speak for all women out there, but let me just say that's about one of the biggest turn-offs I can think of.


Dr. Victoria and Her Frankenstein*

I was just talking to Hanna last night about what a time travel junkie I am: if the novel has time travel in it, I'm there. I blame this on Jack Finney's Time and Again, although it's possible that exposure to the chronological idiosyncrasies in The Chronicles of Narnia as a child weakened my immunity.

Over winter break, I picked up entirely by chance a first novel by author Camille DeAngelis, which is, in its own way, a story of time-displacement. Mary Modern, a beautiful and heartbreaking re-telling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, is set in the near future. Lucy Morrigan, a brilliant young geneticist, turns to her father's mysterious basement laboratory when all attempts to conceive a child with her boyfriend Grey fail. She successfully clones her grandmother Mary, but instead of an infant she ends up with a twenty-two year old woman with memories of a life she never lived and a husband who is long dead.

It is Lucy's irrevocable actions that drive the narrative forward, but it is Mary's voice and strength of character that capture our attention as she wrestles with the unutterable solitude of her existence and the question of how to move forward into an unknown future.

*Thanks to brother Brian for the title of this post, which is shamelessly stolen from the "Girlz n' Monsterz" series by J. Scott Cambell.


Friday Night in Grad School

I just got back from Hanna's apartment in Allston (which will be mine also come May!), where we drank a lovely zinfandel, ate baked potatoes, watched Mansfield Park, Miss Austen Regrets, the last third of A Room With a View, and played a lively game of Name That British Actor(tm). I am usually a lousy competitor, but I won full marks (and lots of chocolate kisses) tonight for identifying an obscure character from Miss Austen Regrets as the terrifyingly brutal Mr. Grandcourt from Daniel Deronda (2002).

It was a sorely needed Friday evening respite after a dizzying week of academic settling-in. I met with my history professor this afternoon about my research project--in its current incarnation (subject to change in the face of extant primary sources), I plan to consider the question of who Euro-Americans, particularly Euro-American feminists, considered to be "fit" mothers and what they saw as proper mothering during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I want particularly to focus on Indian Schools and white women's involvement in the attempt to assimilate Native Americans into white culture through forcible removal of children from their birth homes.

Earlier in the week, Aiden and I had the pleasure of testing out the oral history recording equipment on one another in practice oral history interviews; once I learn how to edit the digital audio files, I might try to upload a few clips and post them to the site, just so you can check out our bumbling attempts--I, in particular, have this habit of throwing my hands around when I'm talking and jostling the table when I get excited, which I fear leads to unproductive background noise.

Tomorrow, I'm buckling down to run test OPAC (Open Public Access Catalog) database searches for my Cataloging class, with the carrot at the end of the day being Benjamin Britten's opera version of The Turn of the Screw which Hanna and I are attending at the Boston Conservatory Theater. Review to follow soon!


Susan B. Anthony: Pro-life Icon?

Today at the MHS I attending a brown-bag luncheon seminar with one of our current longterm fellows, Lisa Tetrault, who is researching the way that American feminist creation stories (particularly the centered on the Seneca Falls Convention) were created and contested in the late 19th century.

In the post-presentation discussion, we were talking about the current political implications of interpreting women's and feminist history, when she happened to mention that an anti-choice group has purchased Susan B. Anthony's birthplace in Adams, Massachusetts, and turned it into a house museum. Why? Apparently, Anthony--who was, indeed, against abortion in her own very different political and social context--has become a pro-life icon. Rochester, New York, the site of another of Anthony's homes, is, Lisa tells me, peppered with anti-choice billboards targeting the women's history pilgrims who travel to upstate New York to visit the site.

Susan B. Anthony's birthday is February 15th. At the Susan B. Anthony house in Rochester, NY, guest speaker Susan Faludi, most recently the author of, The Terror Dream, an analysis of gender and the media post-9/11, will be featured at their annual celebration luncheon. The Birthplace of Susan B. Anthony asks us to ponder this question:
We've given up our bra burning and hating men, but how would Anthony and her colleagues react to one unpopular view, particularly among youth, that we support abortion on demand?
It's easy to get pissy about advocates of anti-choice policies asserting their "ownership" of one of the historical icons of American feminist history--and believe me, I'm irritated. But the historian part of my brain is fascinated by this one local example of the very political struggle over who narrates history and what version of history gets told.

And I just have to repeat: Susan B. Anthony--Pro-life Icon? That's frickin' weird!

image from America's Library.


Teen Fatherhood: The Cautionary, the Quirky

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about representation of teen sexuality, particularly in young adult literature, and what those representations say about how adults interpret, fear, and attempt to contain teen access to erotic material. In the course of this research, I've become aware of the dearth of male narrators in young adult novels that revolve around romantic and sexual relationships. There are exceptions of course, such as the work of David Levithan, one of my oft-cited favorite authors who has just come out with a new collection of love-themed short stories, many of which are narrated by boys. But the majority of YA literature about relationships is written about young women.

There are reasons for this, of course, many having to do with the way American adults have come to understand American teenagers: girls, the narrative goes, are primarily interested in love, while boys are on the lookout for sex. Social science research, not to mention the flesh-and-blood boys and men in my life, leave me disinclined to believe that male human beings are any less interested in, or capable of, forming intimate human relationships than female human beings. Therefore, I've been on the lookout for books that actually describe adolescent romance and sexual exploration from a guy perspective (if any of you have favorites, please leave them in the comments!).

At this point in my thought and research process, two relatively new novels aimed at the adolescent set and narrated by boys landed on my bedside table. Both of them are narratives of teen parenthood, though these narratives unfold in very different settings and contain radically different messages about what it means to take on the adult responsibility of fatherhood.

Slam, by Nick Hornby, is a contemporary story about a fifteen-year-old named Sam whose girlfriend of a few brief weeks, Alicia, gets pregnant after the pair fail to use their birth control correctly. When Alicia decides to carry the pregnancy to term, Sam struggles to incorporate his impending parenthood into the life he has hitherto only hazily planned.

While I adore Nick Hornby's nonfiction, I have always had difficulty getting into his fiction, and have, I admit, never actually finished a Hornby novel (an approach to reading that he himself advocates quite persuasively in the introduction to his second volume of essays). However, from my incomplete experience, it seems to me that Sam, the protagonist of Slam, bears an intense resemblance to a the lead characters in other Hornby novels, the only difference being his younger age. He moves through the narrative in a fog of befuddlement, more acted upon than acting, a message reinforced by sequences in which he is mysteriously transported forward in time, where he is suddenly thrust into his parental role without the faintest idea what is expected of him. While Sam genuinely comes to love his son, and do his best to support Alicia, the overall effect of the tale is Cautionary with a capital P: have sex with your girlfriend and the next thing you know, she could be Pregnant and you could become a Parent.

There is truth to this message, of course--it is, and should be, Alicia's decision whether or not to go through with the pregnancy (though there is, sadly, little real discussion between the two about their options). Yet I couldn't help feeling that Hornby was, well, doing his bit to prop up the stereotype of adolescents as impulsive, hormone-driven beings incapable of a) using birth control, b) knowing and listening to their own instincts. The real tragedy of the story, to me, is not that the pair end up having to deal with an unplanned pregnancy, but that their sexual relationship has little to do with the feelings they have for each other. Alicia's motives for sexual intimacy appear largely driven by unresolved issues with her ex-boyfriend. Sam, for his part, ignores his intuitive sense that he's not ready: "When I'd worked out what was going on, it didn't feel right," he tells us, "There were three of us in her bedroom that night, me, her and him, and I decided that because it was my first time, I'd prefer to keep the numbers down" (44). Yet he fails to act on this self-awareness, and ends up a father.

Jake, the protagonist in Robin McKinley's latest novel, Dragonhaven, also ends up a parent--though in this instance it is the result of acting on his instincts rather than ignoring them. Dragonhaven is roughly contemporary, but set in an America in which dragons are an extant species kept on reservations and largely invisible to the human public. On his first solo overnight trek into the park (as son of the park director, he's grown up on the reservation) Jake stumbles upon a mother dragon murdered by a poacher and commits the federal crime of rescuing the one dragonlet still alive. I doubt that Robin McKinley was writing Dragonhaven as a story about teen fatherhood, but since I picked it up at the same time as I was reading Slam, what jumped out at me from its pages (aside from the realization that I will happily read anything she ever writes) is that it is, in part, a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy who, overnight, becomes a parent.

When Jake adopts the dragonlet, whom he names Lois, the illegal nature of the act--combined with the fact that the orphan bonds with him in lieu of her dead mother--means that Jake is the primary parent of a very needy infant. He has other residents on the reservation to support him, but the fact remains that Jake is the one responsible for feeding, cleaning, nurturing this totally dependent infant creature. And as Lois grows, he's also the parent who has to learn how to let her become her own, independent being.

This isn't a book primarily about sexuality or romantic relationships--though they aren't entirely absent from the plot--but I was struck nonetheless with the portrait of adolescence Dragonhaven presents, juxtaposed against the fogged-in bumbling awareness of the teenagers in Slam--particularly Sam, the teenage boy. Throughout Slam, Sam's behavior is subtly contrasted with Alicia's, and Sam's immaturity and inability to comprehend what Alicia is experiencing--as his girlfriend, as a pregnant woman, and later as young mother--are integral to his character development.

Dragonhaven, meanwhile, refuses this stereotypical "teenage boys are idiots" frame of reference. Jake is a boy, yes, but he's first and foremost a person struggling to come to terms with the overwhelming responsibility that circumstance has presented him with. It's a responsibility that, more often than not, resembles our conception of new motherhood: the sporadic sleep schedule, the inescapable necessity of being physically tied to a dependent infant, and over-riding all the discomfort and exhaustion, Jake's irrational adoration and urge to protect his charge. If, at times, he appears a little slow at connecting the dots, the reason is not his age or his hormones, but rather circumstance: he's a sleep-deprived new parent. No one, over the course of the novel, ever suggests he is less ready, able, or willing to take on the responsibility just because he's a boy.

I'd like to think that
some of Jack's self-possession, even in the face of such unexpected and life-altering experiences, comes from his home-based (or, in this case, reservation-based) education and childhood experience. He's spent his life in community with adults who, while they make allowances for youth, also forget to talk "down" to the few children at Dragonhaven. Unlike Sam, Jake hasn't learned what it means to be a teenage boy by our cultural standards--instead, he's learned what it means to be a human being who cares the vulnerable beings (animal orphans, children, dragons) who cross his path. Regardless of where Jake's compassion, self-awareness and responsibility comes from, however, I think Dragonhaven is a thoughtful (and fun and fantastical!) story about a young man learning, however quirkily, what it means to be a parent.

And I think it has a lot of respect for teenage boys and their ability to be human beings.


Down the Rabbit Hole

As I type this, it's sleeting outside on the streets of Boston: a strange beginning to February. But Hanna assures me it's supposed to be 50 degrees and sunny tomorrow, so if the groundhog comes out in the Boston Common (where does s/he come out, anyway? I can never recall) then we'll be all right for a mild winter (or is it a long winter?). Clearly I need to brush up on my rodent folklore.

As groundhogs are popping up, I am headed down into the rabbit hole of another semester of graduate school. Classes started in earnest this week, and I'm happy to report that I am "totally stoked!" as my friend Marilee used to say. (Do you still say that Marilee? I don't recall hearing it lately). This semester is going to be chock-full of intense work, but all of it is exciting work.

I have a great deal of leeway in designing my projects in both my Gender, Race & Imperialism class and in Oral History, and cataloging satisfies the organizational part of my brain. Again, Marilee says, "That's funny, I didn't remember that you were organizational." I explained to her that I am very selective about my organization: My bookshelves are currently arranged by the Library of Congress classification system, but my bed is never made!

My Spring Semester courses are as follows:

  • GCS 410: Gender, Race & Imperialism. This is a class being taught by my history adviser, Laura Prieto, who had me in History Methods last fall. It's a graduate-student-only course, open to students in the History and Gender Studies programs. As the title suggests, we are going to be interrogating the history of European & American imperialism through the lens of race and gender. I am hoping to do my research project on some aspect of reproductive politics and imperialism, hopefully looking at the way feminist women from the metropole (the imperial center) and the native women from the colony negotiated a particular practice or policy having to do with reproductive health and sexuality. Details to follow in a week or two.
  • LIS 433: Oral History. The first day of this class seriously made me want to weep with joy, I was so excited. If you think I'm exaggerating, you can ask my friend Aiden, who is taking it with me. The professor has a serious Oregon Extension vibe, and is a farrier and folklorist as well as professor in library science. He explained to us he believes it's important to have a profession and a vocation because it "frees you to speak your mind." Damn straight. I get to select an oral history project to work on over the course of the semester, and I am currently waffling between Boston area home educators and doulas. I'll keep you posted.
  • LIS 415: Organization of Information. Otherwise known as "cataloging." This is one of the core requirements of the GSLIS program, and I will be learning all the different classification systems, such as the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress system, and how to create good "metadata," which is--as was explained to me in class today when I asked--data about data, which is what it sounds like, right? It's all the bits of information that help us identify and locate the information or things we need (so catalog records, descriptive terms, computer programming, etc.).
This semester, my plan is to put up a little something every Friday on what I've been doing academically during the week . . . we'll see how that plays out over the next fifteen weeks!

Image lifted from the Bas Bleu catalog website.