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how learning I was sick got me healthy: a story about bodies and brains and love

26 Jun

Until earlier this year, I did not know that I am allergic to the overwhelming majority of the food I used to eat. I spent, then, twenty four years not knowing how to care for my body or what a healthy body feels like. I didn’t know what it meant to feel full or hungry without being in pain; I didn’t know that most people don’t get crippling stomach pain a few hours after a meal, that most people don’t wake up aching and nauseous every morning, that most people don’t spend most nights holding their distended stomachs, wondering when this round of pain would end. Surprise, Martina! That was not normal. You did not have to live like that. Who knew…

That was not normal.

Since finding out about my impressive array of food allergies a few months ago, I’ve changed my diet radically and become, it sometimes feels, the proud inhabitant of a whole new body. The effects of my lifestyle change have been huge, noticeable, and almost totally positive. First and foremost, I feel better physically; my digestion works, I’m not malnourished and bloated anymore, and I can keep food down. These are the basics, you know? But I also feel different in ways that have totally surprised me; I can focus better and longer, I no longer have severe headaches all the time (the amount of money I save on ibuprofin almost makes up for the increased cost of my groceries), I sleep so much better and I wake up without joint pain. My hair is thicker and shinier. My skin is healthier. I don’t even have seasonal allergies this year. It’s amazing what treating your body as it wants to be treated will do for you!

But as I said above, I also feel like I am inhabiting a new space. My relationship to my body has been profoundly altered by addressing my allergies, affording me a measure of peace within myself that I have never felt before. It’s like this:

As with many people, I’ve long harbored a resentment and distrust of my body. Why doesn’t it do what I want it to do? What doesn’t it look like the bodies I see in the media around me? Why does it hunger and ache and desire in ways that I do not want it to? Think about the implications of these all-too-common sentiments. What underlies them is a distinct sense that the self and the body are separate, that the body is a physical vessel for an autonomous brain. How curious a thing to think. And yet how absolutely common! Men and women alike walk around with this body-brain division playing out in our internal speech, telling ourselves (schismed as we are) that we shouldn’t want or need or hunger as we do, that we are somehow separate from the thing that is wanting and needing and hungering. How imprisoned we are by this conversation. Whatever individual form it takes, however it manifests for each individual, this is, I believe, nearly universal (though I believe women experience this with an acuteness that the majority of men don’t, unless of course those men are not able-bodied or cisgendered or are otherwise under the lens of culture in the way that all female bodies are). How sad for us as a species. My older sister and mother (both valiant survivors of eating disorders), my friends, my students… so many of us seem to tell this particular tale about the body we live in and the brain that does the living.

…that’s what treating my food allergies has taught me: that food, hunger, the need for sustenance, is not an obstacle to be overcome but a source of joy and love and nourishment.

I‘ve lived my whole life with this story about myself, that I was fat and weak and a problem. While I’ve never had an eating disorder, I would characterize my eating behavior as disordered in that eating was always a problem to be overcome, not a profoundly important act of self care and self love. And that’s what treating my food allergies has taught me: that food, hunger, the need for sustenance, is not an obstacle to be overcome but a source of joy and love and nourishment. And how surprised I’ve been to learn this lesson! Because truly, eating is more physically time-consuming now than it ever has been. I’m now (mostly) a vegan, so I find that I eat constantly to keep myself feeling full (so much green leafy vegetables! so many legumes!). Because my food allergies are complex and pervasive, I also have to think more about food than ever before; if I’m hungry when I’m out and about, I can’t just wander into a cafe and order from the menu. In fact, I’ve not been able to simply order from a menu since I was diagnosed. I have to plan ahead and eat strategically and be vigilant about checking ingredients and carry safe foods with me and all manner of other things that I never had to do before. This means that feeding myself is a lot more involved than it ever was before. This certainly sounds, I know, like eating is exactly the obstacle I one paragraph ago claimed it was not.

And yet. And yet my brain is surprisingly free of the negative speech with which it used to be inundated. And yet I find myself feeling joy when I sit down to a plate full of food. And yet I feel satisfaction when I rise, sated, from my now-empty plate. And yet the voice in the back of my brain — the slick and insidious Martina who would slink to whisper in my ear after a meal that I was worthless and fat and that my longing for food betokened a deeply flawed character — has lost what once seemed its indescribable power to make me feel horrible, wretched, despairing. And yet I do not desire the foods upon which I used to binge. And yet food now seems not like a drug with which I can momentarily dull psychic pain, not like a way to fill some psychic hole within me, but like a tool to bring pleasure to my mouth and energy to my body. And yet I eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full and do not feel ashamed to experience those physical states. And yet I no longer wear my body like a costume awkwardly hemmed for a different woman, but like a custom made gown that fits my me like a well-loved glove.

When I committed to feeding myself respectfully and with kindness, when I committed to accepting my body for what it is (a body without the enzymes necessary to digest milk and eggs, among other things), I had to also accept the other things that my body is (knobby-kneed, prone to bruising, freckled and spotted all over, graying, among other things).

How strange, and what a gift. How profoundly surprised I have been to discover this new relationship to my body. I am not saying that I never feel bad about my body. I pessimistically believe that there is no way to live in this world without feeling conflicted about one’s body — there are too many systems that exist solely to encourage that experience for anyone to be wholly untouched by those messages. But I am saying that in taking on the grand project of Getting Better and Learning How to Take Care of Myself, I reoriented my notion of my body, of my self, and of the role that food — nourishment, sustenance — played in that relationship. When I committed to feeding myself respectfully and with kindness, when I committed to accepting my body for what it is (a body without the enzymes necessary to digest milk and eggs, among other things), I had to also accept the other things that my body is (knobby-kneed, prone to bruising, freckled and spotted all over, graying, among other things). And when my body accepted my kindness and returned to me kindness of manifold greater amounts (no more stomach pain, no more blinding headaches, among other things), the positive feedback loop was established and, without trying, a kind of love between myself and my body blossomed until, as true love can often do, the difference between my body and my brain or myself no longer seemed clear. How lucky I feel, now, to have gotten sick.

What often surprises me most when I talk to people about my allergies or my diet or my relationship to food is their shock that I would be able to give up such delicious things as cheese and omelets and hamburgers. More people than I would have believed have said to me some variation of, “if I were you, I think I would just eat those things anyhow. I mean, how can you give up ice cream?” And certainly I understand this sentiment at least in part; yes, I have looked at gorgeous displays of sumptuous cheeses and glistening avocados and thought, “my how I miss those tastes.” But I have not eaten them, because as delicious as I remember those fleeting tastes to be, the physical pain is what I remember most. And out of respect for my body — out of respect, that is, for my self — I do not desire those things that cause me pain. Those people, then, who have said that they would rather the pain of eating than the momentary discomfort of abstaining seem to me caught in the greatest lie of all, the lie I lived in for my whole life: that food is about pain, about a constant seesaw from pleasure to pain and back again, and that if food is delicious, we ought to be punished for enjoying it. They seem almost to accept the pain as deserved, as their comeuppance for the crime of pleasure or desire. But my body forced me out of this lie and so no, I don’t crave cheese or pineapple or rice the way I thought I would because the experience of comfort within my body — physically and psychically — is greater than any desire. Because food now is about joy and nourishment and energy and fuel and satisfaction, not about whether my physical self conforms to some narrow delineation of a Good Body. I might not be free from societal narratives about my worth, but I feel that I can now see my fetters and, in seeing them, am now aware that it was never my body holding me down, it was the shackles of those cruel myths about my body that trapped me, helpless, in a cycle of self-loathing and self-recrimination.

Learning that I was sick … forced me to accept that I did not deserve pain.

So getting sick taught me to love myself, as cliched and simple as that sounds. Learning that I was sick — not just in my body but in my relationship to my body — forced me to learn what health looks like, feels like, lives like. It forced me to listen to my pain and take it seriously. It forced me to take seriously that I needed to care for myself. It forced me to accept that I did not deserve pain. It encouraged me to enjoy the feeling of health and satisfaction. It brought me to a new kind of respect for the way these human forms work. Ultimately, it made me love the body I live within and no longer think about my self as separate from that body. So this is a story about the body and the brain and the love that unites them. This is a story about pain and pleasure. This is a story about food.

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in which I will brook none of that nonsense

18 May

Fair warning to all sad, sorry young men trolling the streets of my city: if you cat-call me (as one unfortunate boy discovered the other day), I will not take it.

I will instead stop my bike, ask you to please explain precisely why you think it’s acceptable to speak to me that way, and spend the next five to seven minutes schooling you on just exactly how sad and sorry you are; the bigger the audience, the better, because if you think that you can shame me for being a woman, then I’d very much like you to be as shamed as possible in as public an arena as possible. If you shout at me on the street, I will shout back because you are putting my body on display and expecting my silent acquiescence. If you think that my female subjectivity makes my body forfeit, then you are, in this case, sadly goddamn mistaken. I’m not interested in that game, so I’m going to shout and lecture and belittle you — I am going to get in your face — I am going to make you look at my eyes and not at my tits — I’m going to make a big goddamn scene — I’m going to crush you with my intellect and my voice and my power so that what is now on display is your pathetic misogyny, not my body.

I am decidedly not your “baby girl.” You seem to be unclear about why that’s an insulting thing to call me, a grown-ass woman, so let me explain; by calling me “baby girl,” you are attempting to reduce my subjectivity to the kind of small, manageable size that allows you to overpower me, to disregard my personhood, and to ignore my humanity. By calling me “baby girl,” you elide me. That’s not to say that the term baby girl never be one of endearment or kindness, but if you’ll recall, I don’t know and therefore cannot endear you. If I gave you permission to speak to me in that way, it would be a different matter but, hey! I didn’t, so shut your mouth. I am no one’s baby, I am not a girl, and, more importantly, I am not the kind of woman who allows herself to be spoken to in that manner. Should I repeat myself? I’ll repeat myself: if you call me out on the street, expect that I will speak back. You want a monologue, but you’ve damn well walked into a dialogue, and now we’re going to have a conversation. It’s not as much fun when your victim talks back, is it?

I apologize for the fact that we live in a culture that trains you to think that you can somehow enhance your masculinity through that kind of behavior, but my sadness will not diminish the righteous fury of my talking back. I am sorry that you’ve been led to believe that you will be bigger, better, and more manly if you belittle women. I’m sorry that your own male subjectivity means you’ve been locked into unequal, unjust networks of power. Your personhood is just as restricted as mine by these systems and that means that misogyny is a goddamn tragedy for the both of us. But you still have more privilege than I do, straight white man, and thus it is your responsibility to actively work to change those systems. You are a beneficiary of your privilege, but you don’t have to be a signatory to my oppression. If you want to actually prove yourself to be a person of worth, then you will join in the fight against this kind of bullshit instead of actively engaging in it.

And to the other men, standing around embarrassed and silent while I yelled at your friend? You are tacitly approving of his behavior by not taking a stance against it. Call him out, don’t let him save face, don’t put up with that bullshit. Because I’m about to bike away and then it will be up to you to take the next step. Do you want to be men of quality, or do you want to be passive supporters of inequality?

In sum, young sir, you picked the wrong bitch to mess with.

Follow-up #1
Follow-up #2

how I spent my first day of spring

20 Mar

Thanks, first of all, to everyone who commented on my last post about tattoos. You all are amazingly smart people with really great things to say. I was really interested to hear your opinions about and experience with tattoos, tattooed educators (at all levels), and the emotional connection you have to marking the stages of your life (be that in ink or otherwise). I’m super delighted to have such amazing readers who not only read my blabbering, but share these little pieces of themselves with me.

And anyhow, here’s how I spent my first day of spring:

Better pictures to come, but suffice it to say: I am in love with my new piece of art and I can’t wait to watch it grow on and with and through me.

(p.s. People in Eugene, OR: I really recommend the artist Splat at High Priestess. Not only is he just a super delightful person, but he’s an amazing artist with a super light touch. I barely even felt this thing!)

Sunday afternoon thought break: tattooed professors

18 Mar

I’m knee-deep in end of the term business — papers and exams and grading and fun! — but I’m taking a break to ponder tattoos and academia.

Why would you ponder that, Martina? Good question, blank computer screen onto which I’m projecting the thoughts of my potential readers!

The answer is: because I just scheduled a consultation for my next tattoo. The plan is for the first line of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” to be inked onto the inside of my left arm, just below the elbow. And I’m pretty damn excited about it. But there are those who are not so excited about tattoos, especially visible ones, and their impact on one’s potential future employment. So here, in no particular order, are my thoughts on the matter.

  1. If my tattoo is really the thing that keeps me from getting a job, they probably wouldn’t have liked me as an employee anyway. It’s highly unlikely that the kinds of places that are strictly and officially anti-body art would even be an option for an academic like myself. I mean, this Jew-with-a-gay-mom-who-writes-about-abortion-and-the-apocalypse thing that I’ve got going on pretty much takes me out of the running for working at a school like Missouri Southern State University or George Fox University. And no love lost there for me!
  2. The question is whether institutions without formal rules banning tattoos will nevertheless be biased against me if I have tattoos. Good question. People are judgmental about a whole lot of things, especially bodies. But if I can successfully cover my wrist tattoo (can and occasionally do!), then I think the middle of my arm should be easily concealable. And truly, I think that the face of my field is changing such that a tattooed English professor isn’t really a concern for most.
  3. The further question is: what will my students think. Easy answer: they’ll think whatever the hell they want to think. And I’ll still be the one who gets to grade them at the end of the term! Blamo: teachers have the power! But really, studies have shown that many students actually respond positively to tattooed faculty, so I’m not actually concerned about it. Plus, I try not to show off too much of my body to my students as is, so they might never even see the new piece of work, and since I’m a curvaceous woman, they’re probably more likely to be fixated on (ahem) other parts of my body than my arms.
  4. The truth is, it’s my damn body and I’m going to mark it and decorate it and dress it and love it however I damn well please. And adding this piece of artwork to my arm is a way to mark, decorate, dress, and love myself that feels sanctified and right. So I’m going to do it and when I look at it, I’m going to love myself, and that is worth the time, the money, the pain, and whatever judgment I might get. I truly don’t understand why I shouldn’t honor my life’s progress and process in a physical way. I like making manifest what is otherwise intangible; I like the idea of writing my life onto my skin, inscribing upon myself my joy and sadness and triumphs and failures. I like when Margaret Cho says that she “love[s] heavily tattooed women” because she “imagine[s that] their lives are filled with sensuality and excess, madness and generosity, impulsive natures and fights. They look like they have endured much pain and sadness, yet have the ability to transcend all of it by documenting it on the body.” I like documenting. So I’ve chosen, for the second time now, to document in flesh and ink and word and color. Good.

Those are my thoughts, inarticulate as they may be.

But what I really want to know is this: what do you all think? Are you tattooed and, if so, what has been your experience wearing your skin out into the world? Do you want tattoos, or want to add to your collection? If so, why? What do they mean to or do for you? And of course, if you’re not so hot on tattoos, I’d love to know why that’s so!

Update: in case you’re reading this (and aren’t a subscriber to the blog) and are wondering “did she do it?”, then check out this follow-up post to see the low-quality picture of my beautiful new tattoo!

MLA for beginners: in which I attend the Modern Language Association’s annual convention for the first time and all you guys get is this post

16 Jan

So because it’s a snow day today (!!!) and we already had the day off (which is low on the list of reasons we should all be thanking the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., and all of those who worked towards his dreams), I decided it was finally time to tell you all the epic story of my time attending and presenting at the MLA Annual Convention.

Every year, the Modern Language Association — which is the governing organization for all Modern Language professionals and which does so much more than determine how you should cite sources in your English classes — holds a convention during which hundreds of people give talks on hundreds of panels, hundreds of job interviews are held, and one major metropol is pretty much taken over by nerds. It’s kind of a big deal. And by “big deal” I mean “extraordinarily overwhelming, expensive, and exhausting event wherein every few minutes your emotions will ricochet from boredom to terror to insight to fascination to pure delight.”

This year, the convention was held in Seattle and, by a stroke of dumb luck that I still haven’t quite sorted out (sidebar: almost published this with the phrase “dumb lick” instead of “dumb luck,” which I think would imply an altogether different sort of convention), I got a talk accepted to a panel and thus was off to the MLA to try not to embarrass myself too much. So here’s my recounting of how it went, what it was like, and what you might expect if you go to or present at the MLA convention or another major academic convention.

What presenting at and attending the MLA Annual Convention was like:

1. I arrived in Seattle the evening of the conference’s first day because I was slated to present in the morning off the second day. This means I missed a whole day of presentations; I am totally okay with that. It takes a lot out of this body to sit all day, in a suit, listening to people talk, especially after a 6 hour train ride. I also left a day early because I needed to get back home in time for the term to start, so I missed about half of the convention. I think that was a good thing.

2. The build up to my presentation, to my surprise, was not as laden with panic as I had expected it to be. I attribute this to two things: the first is that I worked damn hard on that talk and was pretty damn pleased with what I was saying and how I was saying it. I thought about the ideas for about 10 months. I spent three weeks writing the presentation. I rehearsed it on my own and with a friend. It felt good. But the second reason I wasn’t too panicked is because I watched a panel present before me. Now, here’s probably the most unkind thing I’ve ever said on this blog: some people are not very interesting, and one of those people was a presenter on the panel before mine. This isn’t to say that she wasn’t smart or that her work wasn’t worthwhile, it’s just that she wasn’t a good performer. Academia is all about thinking thoughts and writing them down, so not a lot of people get trained to perform those thoughts the way you have to in a presentation setting (see more on this below, in my advice section). Because I spent my youth in the theater, I have tons of training as a performer and so I knew that, no matter how good or bad my ideas were, I would be able to perform those ideas well. This was, needless to say, a huge relief.

3. The MLA panel presentation itself was a blast. Seriously, it was so much fun! A panel usually consists of 3-4 speaks, possibly with a respondent who will begin the Q&A style conversation after the panelists have delivered their papers. My panel was made up of just three of us, organized by the loose topic of Pacific Northwest Folklore. The first two papers had to do with car cultures in the NW; my paper was a literary exploration of two fictive representations of the Pacific Northwest in a postapocalyptic setting. So I knew that my paper was going to be a little more… flashy than the other two. Oh well. But since I was last on the list, I got to just sit and listen while the first two papers were given — and I learned a whole bunch of cool new things! Then, I got to present. The other two members of my panel had delivered their papers from the table, but I like to stand and move, so I got up and went to the podium. Then, just as I had rehearsed it, I gave my talk. Afterwards, I sat down and answered the questions sent my way. It was a blast. I think what made the experience the most rewarding for me was that I treated the Q&A like an interesting conversation, not like a chance to show everyone how much smarter than them I am (because, you know, I’m not). So my Q&A was like a friendly chat, except that I’m an expert on this stuff and no one else there was. Fun!

4. After I presented, I just got to attend all the panels I wanted to hear. I chose based solely on how interesting the papers sounded, not on how many hoity-toities I thought would be in attendance with me. I think this was a good idea. Moreover, I decided that, while I would have business cards at the ready and would contribute to the conversations if I had something meaningful, I would not jockey for position or insert myself into conversations simply to promote myself. Not only am I early enough in my career than it’s not really all that useful or necessary for me to sell myself in that way, but I also think that it can do more harm than good to seem like you’re desperate for status. Maybe this means that I get slightly less notice than others, but I think it means that the notice I get is all positive.

5. In the evening, I went out with friends for drinks and dinner. It was a great idea.

My takeaway impressions and slivers of advice for MLA Annual Convention attendees and presenters:

1. Don’t worry about it. Yep, everyone there is smart. Yep, someone there is way smarter and way more famous or influential than you. But everyone who is there deserves to be there just exactly as much as you do, so relax a little. It’s just one big homecoming dance for a lot of folks, so if you relax and just have a good time, then you’ll come off a lot more interesting and impressive than the other people who seem like they’re constantly intriguing to be the Homecoming Queen or whatever.

2. If you’re presenting, for the love of comfortable shoes, MAKE EYE CONTACT occasionally. There were a number of panels that I sat through where my notes mostly consisted of doodles and the following note, written in my swirliest handwriting: “is it just me, or is this the worst?” There are brilliant people saying brilliant things on pretty much every panel. But no matter how brilliant, if the process of listening to those things is akin to watching to CSPAN while the Senate’s in recess, then no one is going to be interested in or attentive to those brilliant things. Delivering a paper at a conference is NOT the same as writing a paper for publication, because listening to a paper at a conference is not the same as reading one. As sad as it may be to admit this, papers delivered by lively, engaging speakers who look at the audience, throw in a joke or two, appear confident, and treat the process like the start of a really good conversation will be more successful and useful than even the most astute, most astounding paper delivered in a monotone, while the speakers stares down at his or her notes, without emotion.

3. If you’re presenting, stay within the time limit! Not only is it, you know, common courtesy, but it’s also, I think, indicative of a real intelligence. The best and most impressive speakers I saw were those who appeared to actually treat their presentation as a chance to think through their work in a new and specific way. If I know that I have only fifteen minutes to present this whole slew of ideas, then I’m going to be selective and careful and creative in how I fit it all together, which is not only more interesting to listen to, but shows that I really understand my project in a profound way. This is how you want to impress people.

4. If you’re asking questions, make them real questions and not just opportunities to tell everyone else how smart you are and how amazing you would have been if you had spoken on that panel. The Q&A should be a chance to interrogate the claims made by the panelists, present a counter-point, suggest a new area for this work to go in, add a wrinkle or complication to the claims, get clear on something you didn’t follow. The Q&A should not be some guy in the back waxing rhapsodic about his latest research paper and why its material totally relates to the panel’s topic and should have been taken into account by all the speakers before they began. That guy is really annoying.


5. If you’re on a panel, be a good listener while your other panel-members speak.
There is nothing I find more rude than people who read over their own speech while another paper is being delivered. Don’t make notes on your talk, don’t check your cell-phone for the time, be discrete if you zone out or need to check your watch, and don’t distract the audience with jittering or wiggling. It’s just so rude.

6. If you’re on a panel, treat the Q&A like a conversation, not like another chance to take the floor. And be sure to share the space and the time with your fellow panelists. This doesn’t mean that you should be deferential — I mean, you are an expert in this stuff and you should own that power — but it does mean that you should be a collaborator and not try to be the star of the show.

7. If you’re on a panel, try not to seem nervous. I know that this is really hard for a lot of folks. I really feel for those of you who were not born with the willingness to always throw yourself into the public gaze, even if it means making an ass of yourself (I was born with this gene), because I think that it helps my career that I comfortable speaking in public. But I don’t think that you have to be a natural exhibitionist, like me, to become a great speaker. Here’s what you do: take deep breaths. Wiggle your toes and feel yourself solidly planted on the floor. Think before you speak. Keep your hands off your face and don’t giggle. Practice giving your talk and answering potential questions while doing all of these things in the mirror at home, with a friend, and then with an advisor. When your time is approaching, start taking measured steps to prepare yourself against worst case scenarios. Try to get a good night’s sleep and eat something before you present. Set extra alarms, give yourself extra time, and let a friend carry a copy of your talk in case your purse gets eaten by bears. Be kind to yourself if you are scared and create a buffer zone around yourself so that you don’t make things worse. Above all else, remember that you deserve to be there, that you know what you are talking about, and that you are a confident scholar whose work matters.

8. Bring a pen and a pad of paper. This is a great way to look like an active, engaged listener whether you’re taking notes furiously out of enthusiasm or doodling to keep from falling asleep out of boredom. Having a tic-tac also helps for the latter problem.

This kitty is taking notes and so should you.

9. Finally, just have fun. Walk around and talk to people. Bring a book or some grading for when you take a break. Have a granola bar in your briefcase and don’t be ashamed to sit down and eat it if you’re famished.

Fashion advice for those attending an academic convention:

1. Dress like an adult professional. I saw way too many bad outfits: overly tight pants and skirts, low cut blouses, stilettos that make my feet shudder in sympathy, sister-wife dresses, shoulder pads, bow ties, toupees (!), kindergarten teacher separates, death metal tee-shirts. Look, I think and talk and write a lot about fashion; I think, as I believe you all know, that the self-expression we experience through our clothing is extremely important to our presentations of self. And I proudly rock my tattoo and my bold jewelry and scarf collection. But come on, the largest and most prestigious convention in your professional field is NOT the best time to wear the latest trends or your comfiest drawstring pants. You’re a professional, so act like one; it shows professionalism, class, and respect. This doesn’t mean that you dress like someone else, just that you figure out the best way to mix professional pieces with your individual style. I personally wore a fabulous black suit with a blue button-up blouse underneath, but I added my favorite strand of chunky pink beads to the look. It was me, but more polished. And don’t wear jeans or leggings — this is just not the time or place!

She looks fabulous in this suit and so should you.

2. I don’t think you should look stodgy or too formal, but a simple, classic suit is never a bad thing to invest in. Plus, when layered with the blazer from your suit,  a whole bunch of other items — skirts, dresses, cardigans! — become totally appropriate. Accessorize with something individual and unique, but leave the major fashion statements for another time. You want to get attention for your ideas, not your outfit. This doesn’t, by the way, have to cost a fortune; everything I wore to the convention was second-hand, because I stalk my local consignment store for professorial separates and then — say it with me, friends! — I have those pieces tailored to perfection. If the pants were $5 and the tailor $10, then it’s still a bonkers deal.

3. Try out your look ahead of time; you don’t want to suddenly realize that this hairstyle needs more pins or those pants give you a wedgie or that shirt won’t stay tucked in. If you’re presenting, keep your hands off your hair, face, and outfit while you’re at the podium; it’s distracting and makes you look juvenile. And make sure everything fits and is properly tailored! It’s embarrassing to see people stepping all over their hems or unable to raise their arms because their blazer is too tight in the shoulders.

4. Sweet holy thesaurus, wear comfortable shoes and an outfit that you can breathe in. No one looks less professional that the people hobbling around in spike heels or bursting out of their trousers.

5. Convention centers can be hot or cold, often depending on which room you’re in and in utter disregard for how hot or cold it might be outside, so bring light layers that don’t weigh you down if you have to take them off and carry them. I recommend bringing a briefcase so that you can divest yourself of that cardigan you’re sweating through or so that you can carry in a wrap for when the A/C kicks on. Also, convention centers are dry, weird environments. The air is constantly being filtered and recirculated, so if you’re like me, you’ll need to bring lip balm and hand lotion; plus, you’ll be washing your hands constantly, and that soap might be really harsh.

6. If you’re going to have an interview, ladies, wear pants: I’ve been told that these interviews happen in hotel rooms or hotel bars with regularity, so you don’t want to suddenly find that you have to perch at the edge of an overstuffed chair or — gulp — hotel bed just so that you don’t flash your underpants at a hiring committee.

10 ways to keep your sanity as a Ph.D. / Graduate student (part 1)

15 Jan

As I head into another term as an English Ph.D. student, I’m thinking back on what I’ve learned over the past year and a half as an English Ph.D. student and what keeps me — or what I now know doesn’t keep me — safe, sane, and occasionally exuberantly happy as I take classes, teach classes, try to manage the “more things to do than time available to do them in” dance of academic research, navigate the politics of the university, and try — oh, how I try! — to craft a meaningful career out of academia.

1. Do something completely creative or fulfilling that is NOT related to your graduate work and that is entirely without high stakes at least once a day. Seriously. This is, I think, the hardest thing to really commit yourself to, because it can, in many ways, feel like such a waste of time. But that’s actually the whole point: that you “waste” some time, every day, doing something that brings you joy. I mean, there’s no way you’re not going to waste some time, so wouldn’t it be better if, while wasting this time, you enriched your life? Instead of just looking at silly puppy videos on YouTube (which, okay, I do a lot and which, yes, I think is actually a totally useful way to spend a few minutes), spend that time journaling or going for a walk or taking photos of the sunset or soaking in a bath or volunteering at an animal shelter or, if you’re me, blogging. It’s not that any one of these activities is better or worse than any other “waste of time” activity, but they all give something back to you. And you deserve to be given back to. Moreover, everything we do in grad school feels like life or death. Didn’t get the grant proposal in on time? You lose your funding! Didn’t finish reading that article? You’re going to fail your exams! You get the picture… And while all of these things might not actually be quite so high-stakes, they all feel like it. So pick a hobby that makes you feel good and that isn’t itself just another thing I have to get done before I go to bed.

2. Practice being kind to yourself for at least five minutes everyday. I don’t know what this looks like for you, because I think we all need different sorts of kindness, but for me it means the following: for five minutes while I get dressed in the morning and then five more minutes while I get ready for bed at night, I commit to only saying kind things about myself. While I put on makeup, I say that I am smart and creative instead of putting myself down for the spots on my face or harping on why I feel I need to wear makeup. While I get dressed, I say that I am smart and creative instead of telling myself that I’m fat or wishing my breasts were smaller. While I brush my teeth at night, I tell myself that I am smart and creative instead of reading back to myself the litany of things I could have done better during the day. Why do I repeat this mantra? Why is this advice particular for grad students? Well, we get told all the time, by our instructors and our peers and ourselves, that we should be trying harder, that we aren’t going to make it, that the odds are against us, that we are miles behind, that our best isn’t good enough. And as a woman, I’m sent similar messages about my worth from the media and the hegemonic systems of patriarchal power that we all live within. A little reminder that I am, in fact, smart and creative and worthy is a rare and precious thing.  Therefore, the simple act of not repeating those negative academic and social messages and in fact countering those messages is, I believe, revolutionary and, more importantly, makes me feel a little better, a little more hopeful, a little more human.

3. Don’t forget to enjoy your work. If you love that novel that was assigned for a class, read it and love it and experience the joy of loving it. If you’re excited about your research, gush about it to a friend and fantasize about what it could lead to. Grad school is not all thankless, but enough of it is, so we should make particularly sure that we don’t take the joy out of what we already love.

4. Be proud of your accomplishments. How often do we politely deflect praise, nitpick our performance, or tell ourselves that, no matter what, we could have done that better? If you’re me, the answer would be: a lot. Instead, take the opportunity to be immodest. Crow occasionally. Be satisfied with the work you’ve done. Find something to love about the way you’re spending your time. You not only deserve this kind of treatment, but you need to realize that you’ll only be fulfilled in your work if you like it, regardless of what others are telling you about it.

5. Make lists. Nothing is more stressful than I know I’m forgetting something. So write it down: to do lists for the weekend, to do lists for your chores, to do lists for things you need to tell your students, to do lists for emails you need to write, timelines for your research, timelines for your academic datelines, etc. Not only will you feel better knowing that you can rely on the list instead of your (stress- or lack of sleep- or occasionally booze-addled) mind. Plus, studies show that simply the act of writing — of converting intangible memory to tactile words, of using both sides of your brain — helps to solidify your memory!

6. Make consistent lists. It’s not worth much if you can’t ever find that super important note that I just know I wrote down on some slip of paper — it must be here somewhere. Is it in my desk at home? I’ve been there, and that’s why I now take notes in one or the other of exactly TWO and only two places: my day planner or, if for some reason it’s not on me, my cell phone. Hats off to those of you who’ve combined the two — my technological capacity is still slightly lower.

7. Create structure and set goals. While it can be thrilling to have the whole summer to work through your exams’ reading list or to be finished with coursework and therefore have tons of time to work on your dissertation, this open-ended time can, in contrast, be crushing, overwhelming, paralyzing. So break things down and make them into manageable tasks: I will read one chapter and one one article a day. I will write one chapter a week. I will make three pages of notes for each thing I read. Do the math — how much do you have to do and how much time do you have to do it in and how long does it take you to do each item? Add it up and divide it out — this will not only keep you going, it will also help reduce your anxiety because you’ll be able to trust that you will get through that WHOLE list soon enough. An important note: make sure that the goals you set are accomplishable. While it’s good to challenge yourself, if those challenges cannot be met, you’re setting yourself up not only for failure, but also for lowered confidence and self-esteem, which helps no one.

8. Create accountability. This is especially important for the kind of work we do without much supervision, like teaching and studying for exams and dissertating. It’s easy to make those lists and build that structure, but if you have no one to report to but yourself, it can also be easy to slip into a cycle of not meeting your own expectations, making excuses, feeling shitty, and then getting overwhelmed by the mounting overflow work. Instead, make a weekly date with a friend where you report to each other how things are going or create study groups, even if you’re not all working on the exact same materials. Not only will this make sure you don’t drop the ball, but just spending that time explaining what you’ve been working on will help solidify it in your mind and be valuable practice for when you have to explain yourself to — gulp! — exam panels or dissertation chairs or hiring committees.

9. Give yourself rewards. I have a lovely friend — Hi, Chelsea! — who rewards herself with a delicious bottle of our favorite wine every time she finishes a dissertation chapter. Brilliant! There’s some Pavlovian stuff going on there: she now associates finishing a chapter with yummy wines. But there’s also a celebratory aspect that I think is equally important; when we have four, five, six chapters to write, and then edit, and then submit for review, and then edit again, and then…. it can begin, I’d argue, to feel like a never-ending, thankless task. So what Chels is doing is celebrating the small accomplishments as they come, which (if the rest of this list is to be believed) is of the utmost importance for our sanity.

10. Work hard, play hard, and spend some time just lying in bed renewing. It’s important to put in a good day’s work. It’s equally important to go out with friends and have a whole heap of fun. It’s also equally important to, when the mood strikes, spend the evening in your pajamas, drinking cocoa and knitting and watching silly movies. Don’t diminish any of those tasks. Don’t feel like you need to justify yourself for not going out to the pub because you want to finish grading, or going out to the pub when you have more grading to do, or choosing grilled cheese and reruns of House over a shopping trip with the gals. You need to figure out your own balance and then honor that.

So there’s my two (ten?) cents on the matter — but now it’s your turn: what are the tips and tricks you all use to keep your sanity in grad school?

wordy: some thoughts from my classroom on bodies, perceptions, and teachable moments

6 Aug

Camp is over now. My tenure in the classroom, with these wonderful and invigorating and frustrating kids, is over for this summer. And as much as I hope I taught them a thing or two, I’m mostly still thinking about the things they taught me. Wednesday, I had an interesting moment with some of my students and I’ve been thinking about it since. And since this space is supposed to be where I reflect on teaching and self-representation, I think it’s a pretty fitting time to bring it up.

Some background: one of the courses I’m teaching this summer is an introduction to media literacy course that I’ve titled “Reading the World Well.” The overall goal is to help students learn how to read media images more critically and become more analytical, skeptical, and conscious consumers. Our first week focused on advertising images and my students proved to be amazingly adept at discerning the hidden messages that advertising sends us about our bodies, our selves, and our society. In this second week, we look at how we represent and “sell” ourselves, focusing on how  internet platforms like facebook, twitter, and personal blogs change the way we present ourselves and interact with others.


(click for link to the source)

This image — from a recent Ralph Lauren campaign — is one that we discuss at length. One of the things I try to get my students to realize is that we see images like this and we find them disgusting, horrible, and repellent. We see this and we protest the unreasonable, unattainable, inhuman images pitched to us by advertising firms that are banking on our self-loathing spurring us to spend money on their product. But we only challenge what we notice and we only notice stuff like this image, where the model has been so drastically photoshopped that she looks like a praying mantis. What we don’t notice is the subtle alterations that blanket our media landscape and that may be the biggest problem.


(click for link to the source)

We spend more time on this image and the subtle, skilled photoshoping that’s been done to make Katy Perry “acceptable” for the cover of Rolling Stone. We discuss how much time, energy, makeup, lighting, etc., went into making Perry look how she does in the before, how demonstrably beautiful she is, how unattainable her body is for many women. And then how even despite all this supposed perfection, the physical Perry isn’t good enough and she must still be digitally altered and transformed into the impossible image we see on the cover. Is this not as troubling as the Ralph Lauren ad?

So in this class we try to make the connection between the images of bodies (and female bodies in particular) and how we feel about our own bodies, how we imagine our selves: on Wednesday, we spent time talking about how we want to be seen and what we do to make that happen. Do we de-tag pictures of ourselves that we think make us look unattractive, that make us look boring, that make us look fat? Do we edit ourselves to make our image acceptable, to others and to ourselves, to fit into that impossible beauty ideal? For example, I told them all that it’s important to me that I am seen as smart, so I try to use proper grammar, a large vocabulary, and I make reference to myself engaging in “smart” activities (like reading the New York Times, being a Ph.D. student, or enjoying poetry). I think my candor helped them open up about how they, too, are doing this and we got a very interesting discussion going.

It was during this discussion that a student said something I was, am, and (I expect) will continue to be floored by:

“I want to be seen as confident in my body,” she said, “but I’m not skinny or fat enough.”
I paused, completely unsure of how to respond. “I’m sorry, can you explain that to me?” I asked.
“Well,” she elaborated, “it’s like, if I was really skinny and pretty, I could be confident in my body, because I’d be pretty enough, you know? Or, since we all, like, know we’re not supposed to feel bad about our bodies, I could be confident if I was bigger. But I’m, like, just a normal size, so I feel like it looks weird if I am all, like, confident and strutting my stuff and whatever.”

I didn’t know how to handle that statement. I just stood there, mouth agape, looking at this young girl. She’s 13 years old. By my eye, she’s beautiful, with the kind of coltish enthusiasm and awkward grace that I can already see growing into the real beauty of womanhood. Moreover, she’s someone who I would call thin. She looks healthy, well taken care of, comfortably growing and changing and turning into an adult. And yet. And yet she feels unsure of how to treat her body because she’s just, well, just healthy. Because the images of beauty and of ideal femininity that she sees most often do not look like her, do not resemble her body. And yet she feels like she cannot be confident because her body — healthy, average, etc. — is not something she sees regularly.

I think I missed a real teachable moment here, because I couldn’t articulate just how sad, astute, and important her statement was. Because I couldn’t imagine how to stand in front of my classroom and say that yes, I, too, wonder where the women who look like me are. That I, too, wonder what exactly a “healthy” body is supposed to look like, what an “able” body is, what it means to feel “pretty”. That I, too, sometimes look in the mirror and hate my body — a body that treats me well, that works the way I want it to, that exists in a comfortable equilibrium with itself — and then, on the same day, look at pictures of myself on this blog and love what I see. That I, too, am uncertain of the standards I’m holding myself to.

I talk to my students regularly about what a “good” body is. I repeat, over and over, that a good body is the body that we’re in. That a good body is a body wherein the cells continue to split via that miracle of mitosis, wherein the blood still delivers the lungs’ oxygen to our muscles and our fingertips and our brain. And yet. And yet this idea of what a good body and a good woman and a good image might be is not so simple as just rejoicing in the efficacy of our physical selves because it’s absolutely bound up in how those selves are sold to us.

I think back on the girl I was at her age and think, yes. Yes I hated myself, then, for being neither so thin that I was acceptable nor so strong that I could not care. And I’ve regularly looked back at pictures of myself in embarrassment, unsure of how to love myself in retrospection when I still feel the sting of the shame and self-loathing I foisted upon myself then.

We moved on. I lost the moment. I didn’t say anything to this girl. But her statement stuck with me such that I sat there that day, typing that explanation, that question, while students in my next class were writing their short stories. While the class was imagining something new, crafting fictive worlds of their own creation, I was thinking back on that one girl in that one class and wondering what the world will look like for her, for them, as they all grow up. And now here I am, reading over these words, days later, and wondering what I could have said then, to her and to them and to myself at that age, about how we know ourselves, how we see ourselves, how we relate to ourselves and why, sweet goodness, why we are being taught to so very much loathe ourselves.