12.30.2008

Uber-networking event, part 2

I had a good day today at the uber-networking event. Got a little more depth in one of the panels I attended, which was on (and by) high-achieving women. They shared a bit about their life trajectories and the choices that got them there, with a particular emphasis on work/family balance issues. Some of the women said that they'd decided not to have kids or even partners because they didn't feel that they could have the career success they wanted and also have a family. Others seemed to have been able to have both, but generally that was because of cooperative partners. One woman, for instance, got on the path that led to her being a college president because her husband lost his job and stayed home with their toddlers for three years.

There was a real emphasis in the panel on personal choices. Several panelists reiterated the idea that what's most important is you doing what's right for you. While I don't disagree with that, I was glad when a few women noted the kinds of political and structural issues that can constrain our choices. One panelist pointed out that women make up half of those hired at law firms, but only 17% of law partners are women--so there's something going on there (her point was that firms need to do a better job of making it possible for people to have law careers and families).

The group did talk a bit about the fact that these kinds of challenges need to be ones that men are facing, too. At one point in the panel, the group turned to a twenty-something guy who was in the room and asked him how he'd feel if his wife made more money than he did. The idea in asking him was, I think, that they wanted corroboration for their contention that things are much better now, that the younger generation doesn't have the same hang ups that older generations had about empowered women. Sadly, 20-something guy said that he and his friends would feel that their masculinity was being undermined if their wives made more, and that they'd feel that they were letting their families down. I think it's easy to be overly optimistic about how much our attitudes about gender have changed, but this guy showed that patriarchal notions of men's and women's roles are still hanging in there.

12.29.2008

Uber-networking event, part 1

For the past two days I've been at an uber-networking event in Charleston, an invitation-only event that brings together impressive folks from many different professions (astronauts, former CIA agents, CEOs) to share ideas. Although I'm tired and will be brief, I thought I'd report some of my observations from the field.

  • Many of the people at this event have a very good attitude. They are cheerful and welcoming, which I appreciate.
  • I, however, seem to have a bad attitude. Or not bad so much as critical. I'm noticing, for instance, that this event is overwhelmingly white, and that although probably an equal number of men and women are attendees, the panels so far have been predominantly male. I also find myself observing that it's easier to be cheerful if you have lots and lots of money, as many of the folks at this event seemingly do.
  • This event is set up for breadth rather than depth. I'm used to academic conferences, where you go to a panel consisting of scholars who have done a lot of research on one particular topic, and you get in-depth information about that topic. A typical panel at this event, by contrast, will feature 10-20 people, each of whom is given a very small amount of time--like two minutes--to offer thoughts on a broad topic (the family, or what I wish I could do to make the world better). So you get a smattering of thoughts, with the idea being that you can connect with folks later to follow up on the ideas you found provocative.
  • I have not yet followed up with anyone.
  • I have, however, had two good conversations with folks at meals.

12.21.2008

Maybelle

Sometimes, after she goes to bed at night, Biffle and I look at pictures of her.

12.16.2008

Writing group

Debbie over at Girl with Pen had a post about the challenges of starting a writing project, and she asked readers what strategies they've developed to help them see a project through. Her query was the motivation I needed to write about something I've been wanting to share for some time now: the importance of having a writing group.

A little more than three years ago, I was at the beginning of writing my book on zines by girls and women. I'd spent a whole summer researching and attempting to write a chapter about the materiality of zines and why that materiality matters, and I had struggled, coming up with draft after draft that had no core, no heart, no momentum. I couldn't figure out what I wanted to say, and I got to the point of realizing that my writing days were done. Unbeknownst to me, I had already written the last intelligent thing I was ever going to write. The semester was about to start, I hadn't finished a chapter, and I was sliding into a pit of despair.

Fortunately, I encountered Conseula at a campus meeting on a day that I was trying not to cry, and she, too, was feeling pretty despairing about her own writing project. So we decided to start a writing group.

Claire, Conseula, and I have been a writing group ever since. It's fantastic. The group buoys us emotionally, keeping us from staying long in those places where we feel like we have nothing to say, and it helps us to be productive: all three of us have finished book manuscripts in the time we've been together.

So here's the structure that makes our writing group work. Please feel free to take these guidelines and use them to create a group of your own.

1. Have no more than three (maybe four) people in the group. It helps if they're people who aren't doing exactly what you're doing, but have some common ground with you.
2. Every week the group reads one person's writing. The person whose turn it is emails us her writing a day or two before our meeting, and we read and comment on it in advance, and then discuss our comments and suggestions during our meeting. You don't want to have more than three (or at maximum four) people in your group because you don't want to wait too long between turns.
3. Try to allow two hours for each meeting. You'll need time to have your catching up on life conversations and to discuss the writing. Don't try to skip the catching up on life conversations, because they're important, but be sure to get to the writing.
4. Offer real critiques. In our group we do a good job of pointing out the things that are working well in the writing--a very important thing--and we take seriously our task of helping each other make our writing better. The writing group provides an opportunity for all of us to see how our writing plays to an audience and to get feedback on how to reorganize, clarify. Many, many times my writing group has helped me to realize what the three key ideas in my chapters were, when I wasn't sure that I even had any key ideas.
5. You never get to skip your week. This is probably the most important rule of all. The writing group works in great part because it makes you accountable. In an academic life (honestly, probably in anybody's life) there are always things that are more urgent than your writing, and so the writing will always be on the back burner. If you had the option of skipping your turn in writing group, you would do that all the time, and then the writing group would be pointless. Even if all you can do for your turn is spend fifteen minutes writing some stream of consciousness crap that you email to the group the night before your turn, then that's fine. That counts.
6. It helps to have a name. In the acknowledgments to Sisterhood, Interrupted, Debbie thanks the Invisible Institute--which I presume is her writing group. I thought that was really cool, so we named our group the Super Ninja Writing Force. It's hard to be cooler than that.

12.04.2008

How's her heart?

When we first had Maybelle, I was on an emotional roller coaster. Five days in the hospital (for me), another five for her, and the physical and emotional stresses of giving birth were all pretty demanding, and I needed time to isolate and recover. In addition to all that, I had to process and come to terms with the fact that Maybelle has Down syndrome. I was emotionally vulnerable, and I didn't want to have conversation after conversation where I broke the news about Maybelle's diagnosis to friends and colleagues. This is mainly because I didn't want to have to navigate their uncertainty or their expressions of sorrow. When a neonatal doctor in the nursery where Maybelle was staying looked at me sympathetically and told me she was sorry and that she knew this must be hard, I thanked her but told her, "I don't want my daughter's life to be taken as a tragedy." I didn't want to have that conversation again and again.

Biffle had a conversational strategy for this. When he was talking to friends or fellow musicians about Maybelle, he'd tell them when she was born, how big she was, how she was doing, and then say--very matter-of-factly--"Oh, and she has Down syndrome." Usually his tone managed to forestall expressions of grief. But I didn't want to have to navigate these conversations at all, so I had the close friends who'd been there in the hospital with me send the word out through the friend networks and the College of Charleston campus. I wanted everyone I encountered to have worked through their own awkwardness or whatever by the time they came into contact with emotionally fragile me.

What this has meant is that I'm not always sure if someone I'm talking to has been reached by the grapevine, if they know that Maybelle has Down syndrome. It generally doesn't matter at all, particularly now that I'm not emotionally fragile about her diagnosis, but in some conversations I do want to know if we're all on the same page. I've discovered that the code people will use, to clue me in that they know, is to ask, "How's her heart?" If someone, out of the blue, asks about my child's heart, then I know they know she has Down syndrome, and that they know enough about ds to know that many children with it have heart defects. It's an interesting code. Very polite and southern. Cracking the conversational door open, but not forcing anybody through it. I sort of like it.

For the record, Maybelle's heart is just great. And, these days, so is mine.

12.02.2008

Walking the dog

I didn't used to be a dog person. In my family growing up, we typically had cats. We had dogs, too, but they lived out in the back yard and weren't really full-fledged members of the family. I always knew that as an adult I'd have lots of cats, but I never thought I'd have dogs. Biffle and Ursa were the ones who turned me around. Sometime in our third year together, Biffle adopted a chow puppy named Ursula, and although I was initially pretty skeptical, I quickly grew to appreciate her. She was almost pathologically unwilling to let anyone come into the house--the barking was incredible (this is because she was a chow, I think), but she was very sweet and smart, incredibly devoted, and when she died, the house felt really empty to me. Within a few months we adopted Baxter, and the rest is history.

I remember one day when I was walking Baxter, realizing how different a walk feels when you have a dog along. I'd taken lots of walks throughout my life, of course, but I realized that when I was walking with Baxter, I got to enjoy her enjoyment, her sniffs and tail-wagging; I got to notice the things she was noticing and talk with her, tell her "Good dog" just for the joy of watching how much faster she'd walk. With Baxter, my walks had new textures and layers, new resonances that I didn't know I was missing before I became a dog person.

One of the reasons I wanted to have a kid is that I figured the same thing would happen. I figured there are whole parts of the world that were invisible to me, that would become visible if I had a kid. And that does seem to be the case. Tonight, walking home from a friend's house, Maybelle was strapped to my chest, and I talked to her the whole way. She was peering out of the top of her Baby Bjorn, and I kept being attentive to see what she was noticing--the street lights, the tree branches, the smell of fried fish, the sound of a siren far away.


She was wearing a fetching outfit today, so we took some pictures of her. Note how much bigger she's gotten since her first photo shoot with Benya.


11.27.2008

Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, rather than offer my annual homage to Sarah Josepha Hale, I wanted to reflect on things I'm grateful for. I've gotten so many kind, concerned, reassuring responses to my last post, both on and offline, and I really appreciate them, but I want to let everybody know that anxiety doesn't singlehandedly define my life these days. I'm definitely an anxious person, but I'm also really thankful.

I'm thankful for my family--the little bitty family of Biffle, Maybelle, and I (along with Baxter, Benya, Zooey, Inky, and George Jones)--and the expanding layers of family that surround and support us. I'm getting to experience the importance of our parents and siblings in a whole new way now that we have Maybelle. It's really cool to see my brothers and sisters-in-law become aunts and uncles. And our friends have moved up in importance, too--we're getting the kind of unconditional love and help from them that I associate with family. Although life with an infant can sometimes feel isolated--when you're sitting in the bedroom, trying to get a baby to fall asleep, for instance--but we're certainly not isolated. Maybelle is part of a big, fat community that loves her, and I'm really grateful.

I'm thankful that I have a job I love. It's a job that gave me the fall off, and that's an incredible benefit that I appreciate, but being away from work has shown me just how much I love my job. I'm eager to go back in January. (I'm sure I'll have some posts here about my mixed feelings about leaving Maybelle with someone else during the day, but right now I'm focusing on the positives.)

I'm thankful for my relationship with Biffle. I've always liked him fairly well, but it's such a gift to get to experience him as a father. It makes me love him more. Plus, I can't imagine doing this parenting thing alone.

And I'm thankful for Maybelle, who is expanding my consciousness about as quickly as she herself is expanding (note that today she outgrew the outfit she's wearing in this picture, which was taken three days ago). Biffle and I decided we wanted to be parents because we wanted to have a larger world, richer and more meaningful, and Maybelle has already started us on that path.

11.21.2008

Anxiety, perfectionism, and control, or How parenting brings out all my character defects

It will surprise no one to learn that I'm an anxious parent. I've always been a sort of high-adrenaline person in almost every facet of my life, and parenting is no exception.

Actually, I will say that it has surprised me a bit. I had this idea that I'd be what one of my friends terms an Adventure Mom--intrepid, carrying Maybelle with me out into the world, fearlessly facing what comes with her strapped to my back, all good attitude and high spirits. And while I do have traits of the Adventure Mom--not a day has passed since Maybelle came home that we haven't gone out and done things in the world--in many ways I'd be better described as a Control Mom than an Adventure Mom.

Having Maybelle in my life has shown me just how ingrained some of my character defects are. For one thing, I'm realizing how much I like things to be predictable. While I don't want a life where every day is the same, I do really like to have a sense of how things will probably go, and why. This, of course, is about control: predictability means being able to chart a path and determine an outcome. And this level of predictability and rationality just doesn't seem to apply to life with an infant. Experienced parents have told me this in lots of different ways. My mom assures me that as soon as you settle into a pattern with a baby, it changes. When I expressed my frustration over Maybelle's suddenly new bedtime habits to my friend Jay, he said, "Get used to that feeling." Virtually all my friends with kids have said, "Welcome to parenthood" when I've shared any of these anxieties.

In some sense these glib responses are comforting, because another source of anxiety for me is my sense that there must be a solution that I'm just not coming up with. So I often believe that if I think or work just a bit harder, I'll solve the problem. The constant reminders that I need to get used to feeling frustrated are reality checks, reminding me that this just isn't how parenting works. My anxieties or frustrations aren't evidence that I'm doing something wrong--they're just part of the ride. I guess the thing I'm doing wrong is expecting this ride to be different than it is.

And here's a happy Maybelle update, with video: she seems to be learning to smile!

11.16.2008

Thoughts on a Sunday morning

Well, Biffle got up early this morning and laid the dog-poop newspaper trap for our Sunday paper thief, but alas, the thief didn't come by. The poop-filled paper still sits on our porch, unmolested. At least we got the real Sunday paper and got to hang out drinking coffee and reading it together. As Biffle mentioned, it's not a great paper, but it's usually entertaining. This morning's edition featured a glowing letter to the editor about the Bob Hope tribute a woman took her mother to see ("The ending of the show was magical. While the cast sang 'God Bless America,' one by one the audience stood and joined in singing. There wasn't a dry eye in the place.") and an article about the International Clown Ministry, which the Post & Courier apparently loves because they've featured them before.

We've also helped Maybelle with her morning workout, which we documented in a video.

11.13.2008

Sunday Papers

Well, our paper is being stolen again. Alison--and me, too, to some degree--has hung in there with the actual paper paper. Although it's a really, really bad newspaper, we continue to get The Post and Courier seven days a week.

The deal is, though, we've long had the tradition of sitting in the morning drinking our coffee, and--even in these post-Maybellian days--we play editor for each other, reading stories we think the other might find of interest. This morning, for instance, i read Leonard Pitts. We both like Leonard Pitts.

We don't want to give this tradition up.

A paper that's particularly important to us is the Sunday edition: nothin' goin' on on a Sunday, you just sit and enjoy. Only problem is, for the past two weeks we've woken up and found our beloved Sunday paper gone missing. Now, while the Post and Courier may be a lousy paper, Charleston is still a tiny town. This is the kind of town where you know your mail carrier's address. The personal delivery service of the paper is exceptional. On mornings when there has been rain our delivery person even knows to throw the paper a little left of the front door--a small puddle collects in the usual spot. So I know it isn't their fault. No, there's mischief afoot and i know it because our squeaky iron gate, which i close behind me without fail whenever i come in or out, has been slightly ajar for the past two Sundays. And besides, we've been through this before...

This same thing happened when Alison and i lived on Lischey back in Nashville. We let it go on for about six Sundays. We suspected some local sexton--on their way to turn on the church's heat or a.c. as the case may be--was dropping by and casually saving themselves a couple of dollars. After all, who else is up that early every Sunday?

Fed up, Alison and i decided to lay a trap. We figured the paper showed up somewhere between 4 and 5 in the morning, and we set the alarm clock accordingly.


The alarm went off at the appointed hour...and we promptly turned it off and went right back to sleep. Somehow, however, old eagle-ears Piepmeier heard the tell-tale thump of the paper in the yard a little after 5. Alison shoved me awake and we jumped out of bed, ran out into the yard and grabbed it. We shook it out of its little blue plastic bag and laid that morning's paper on the kitchen table. We then took a big pile of recycled newspapers and made a convincing maquette of the real thing. We even put some shiny circulars from Circuit City in there. The last step was to go into the backyard and find the previous night's best gooey pile of Baxter shit. This we plopped right into the center and topped that with a couple of litter-encrusted cat turds. We then folded the paper up, slid it into its bag, and put it back in the bush where the less-than-personal Nashville delivery person perpetually threw it.

And our paper never went missing again.

10.31.2008

10.28.2008

Hey there, Maybelle!

If Maybelle...

...grows up to become incredibly strong...she'll be called Barbelle.

...ever becomes the strawboss...she'll be called Haybelle.

...becomes a famous composer, her name will be Maybelius.

When she turns 13, im sure she'll become Rebellious.

If she has a very high voice, people will call her Trebelle.

10.26.2008

Breast milk

There are lots of things you learn about only after you have a child. One of those things for me has been the insane value of breast milk. We all know that breast milk is good for babies. I learned a number of academic facts about breast milk in my few days in the hospital, like the fact that colostrum is so loaded with antibodies and nutritional value that even a few drops rubbed on the lips of a child in the NICU is useful. But this isn't what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is how highly, almost irrationally, significant breast milk becomes to moms who pump.

I've been pumping since Maybelle was born, first to boost my milk supply so that she'd gain more weight, and now because I'm stockpiling milk in the freezer for when I go back to work in January. I've developed a kind of neurotic anxiety about the milk, only wanting to heat up an ounce at a time to feed Maybelle if she's hungry and I'm gone. Anything you heat up that she doesn't eat within an hour has to be thrown away, and I can't stand to pour the milk down the drain. Biffle calls me a breast milk fascist.

What I've learned is that this is a common phenomenon. A mild-mannered colleague shared the experience of her husband heating up way too much of her frozen milk to feed their son, and she described herself getting uncharacteristically angry. A friend told me about being painfully engorged when her child was young and having to express milk into a public toilet. "I cried," she said, "because I couldn't stand to waste it!" At a La Leche League meeting a woman shared the trauma of her deep freezer breaking and hundreds of ounces of frozen milk going bad, and every woman in the room gasped as though she'd described a death. This afternoon I talked with a woman in Texas who's going to sell me her breast pump, and unprompted she made mention of the tensions surrounding breast milk: "I always got so upset if too much of it got heated up and it had to be thrown away!"

The good news is, it's not just me being neurotic. It's a pretty wild thing to be able to create food out of your body--a wonderful thing and a potentially scary one, too. While I find the experience of breastfeeding to be mostly sweet and convenient, it's not pleasant to pump. And while I'm proud of how well Maybelle is growing, it can be somewhat anxiety-provoking to realize that another being's health and well-being depends on this stuff that my body is producing. Given all this, I find that it's comforting to look into the refrigerator and freezer and see plenty of milk there. So comforting that I'd almost rather just keep it there than use it.

10.25.2008

maybelle and alison, oct. 25

That Just Wasn't the Point

Y'all ever heard of the Patagonian Toothfish? Back a few years ago it was just some humble and ugly fish swimming happy and anonymously around in the ocean. However, it was also plentiful, rather large and made good eating, so fisheries all over wanted to find a way to put it on your plate. So with the help of a good branding firm and a new name, the fancy new Chilean Sea Bass was fished to near extinction in just a few years.

I tell this story because a guy here in Charleston advertises something similar on Craigslist almost everyday and it's bothering me. He's selling "Brazilian Cherry." He writes:

Brazilian Cherry! Rediculous price!!!! $1.75 a sq. ft.

Must Sale!!!! Call now only with serious questions!!!

$1.75 a sq. ft!

call 843.555.1212!!!!



Brazilian Cherry is not a Cherry tree. It doesn't darken with age or smell good like American Cherry does. It does smell really bad (the tree's seed pods have given the tree the name Stink Tree in South America), it is incredibly super duper hard and is vaguely red, which is why i guess it's getting called Cherry instead of it's local name of Jatoba. The most important thing about this tree, though, is that it grows in the heart of South American rainforests. To get that wood here to charleston--so this monkey boy can sell it for $1.50 a square foot--it must be logged in out-of-the-way places, reached by destructive logging roads (the slippery slope into Brazilian Beef), placed on a giant container ship that belches dirty diesel smoke and shipped all the way into the northern hemisphere just so someone can have a cheap floor.

I look in the building materials section of craigslist almost everyday looking for recyclable materials for construction projects and after months and months of this guy over-posting this commercial ad i wrote a new ad for him.

Brazilian Cherry! Best of the Rainforest! $1.10 a foot!

Rediculous! Get this wood before the entire rainforest is gone!!!

3" and 5" material sold offered for sale here on Craigslist everyday by professional too cheap to advertise through proper mediums!
Must Sell Asap!! (and have been needing to sell "ASAP" for at least three months now!
PLEASE PLEASE only call if your serious and in NEED of Solid Wood Flooring!!!

After all, too many people have called to simply complain at my atroshus behavoir and spelling!!!
Thanks


Here's the problem: I've gotten almost 40 serious responses for this ad. "Do you have 400' still left?" write Susan. "What lengths?" writes Bob.

It's almost as bad as the hundreds of responses i've gotten for bannedfromwalmart.com asking for t-shirts because someone got busted for trying to shoplift handguns or cigarettes or something.

10.22.2008

Maternal instinct

I've been doing a little reading about the gift economy, a concept of an economy based on generosity rather than exchange. Some of what I've been reading argues that the gift economy is grounded in the mother-child relationship, the instinctual generosity of mothers toward their children.

That's gotten me thinking about the whole idea of maternal instinct. I definitely don't buy it. My relationship with Maybelle hasn't been instinctual, or particularly intuitive. After eight weeks, I feel like I'm beginning to get to know her, but it has definitely been a process of learning rather than instinct. I feel comfortable picking her up, snuggling her, changing her diapers, putting clothes on her, moving her into various different positions when she's fussy--but these were all learned skills, none of which were in place when she first came home. For a long time my friends who'd had babies were better with her than I was. It's only in the last week or so that I've felt that I have skills with her that rival theirs.

It helps that she's getting to know me, too. She smacks her lips sometimes when I talk to her.

10.11.2008

Things going on in the lives of the Biffles and Piepmeiers

Biffle is quizzing us on things on the globe. Who can name a country that borders on the Republic of Congo?

I'm being prodded to look up random things on the internet, like umbilical hernias and the SNL parody of the Presidential debate.

Trey and Megan are playing with Maybelle, putting socks on her hands, cuddling her, dancing with her. Megan is pulling Maybelle's diaper up, saying, "Look at you--you're sagging already."

Biffle's parents are making hamburgers.

Life is good.

10.05.2008

Buddy Walk

Today Walter, Maybelle, and I took part in this year's Buddy Walk, an annual event sponsored by Down syndrome associations around the country. I found the event pretty uplifting, in great part because it was so normal and normalizing. For instance, early on in the afternoon, I saw a five or six year old boy with Down syndrome standing with another boy around his same age. While I was watching, the second boy kicked the first one. This interaction was reassuring to me because these were just two kids being kids--nobody was being super-careful with the boy who had Down syndrome. It was similarly reassuring later on when I saw a toddler with DS having a meltdown. People often tell us how sweet people with DS are, and while I believe this is true, I also want Maybelle to have a range of emotions--I don't think she's going to be a person whose whole approach to the world is "sweet." So I liked seeing a kid having a normal toddler tantrum after a very high-energy afternoon.

We saw lots of other normalizing stuff: a very little boy gleefully running headlong away from his dad, who was having to really hoof it to catch up with him. A girl and her dad riding bikes home from the event. A little boy riding on his dad's shoulders, clapping and laughing. A teenaged boy with funky skater hair and shorts. And perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise, but one of the nice surprises of the day for me was the fact that it wasn't easy picking out which folks had DS and which didn't--I would scan the crowd and try to identify kids, and I was often wrong.

Okay, this picture has nothing to do with the Buddy Walk, but I wanted to post it because tonight Maybelle is wearing one of my favorite outfits, which won't fit her that much longer.

9.29.2008

September 29, 2008

Today was Maybelle's due date. It's so weird to think that I was supposed to have been pregnant for the last five weeks--that today we were supposed to have had our home birth and met Maybelle for the first time. That for the last five weeks I would have been living my same old life. Don't get me wrong--there was nothing wrong with my same old life. I liked it a lot and hope that certain parts of it will remain intact in this new life I've entered. But things these days are so much richer. I'm really glad she's here.

9.24.2008

Tiny person

I keep making plans to post here--perhaps a story or two from Maybelle's birth, or something about the thoughts I'm having about motherhood, about my aspirations for Maybelle, but then it gets to be 10:45 at night, and I'm too tired.

So here are some pictures that show how small Maybelle is. I want to document her smallness because she's growing quite effectively, so she won't be this small much longer.

9.14.2008

Holland


Maybelle had her first big party yesterday--a delayed baby shower (it had been scheduled for the weekend that Maybelle actually decided to be born) that doubled as a sort of coming-out party for her, where lots of our Charleston friends got to meet her for the first time and hang out with her. It was a lot of fun, and she accumulated bunches of adorable baby supplies and the beginnings of an impressive library.


Biffle and I were reflecting on the party this morning, and on what an incredible community we and Maybelle have. Maybelle has Down syndrome--something that was on our radar while I was pregnant, but that we didn't know until she was born. In the days after her birth, a friend from Nashville sent me an essay by Emily Perl Kingsley called "Welcome to Holland," about what it's like to be the parent of a special needs child. It's a great (short) essay--you should go read it if you haven't already. Kingsley talks about having a special needs child being like planning a trip to Italy and then ending up in Holland--how disconcerting this can be, and yet how Holland ends up being a lovely place with its own delights, a place well worth visiting.

The thing that Biffle and I were talking about this morning is the fact that near the end of the essay, Kingsley writes, "But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there."

This doesn't really fit with our experience. So far our experience has been that our friends and family who've been to Italy aren't saying, "Hey, enjoy Holland--take care." Instead, quite a lot of the folks we love are saying, "Okay, we're going to Holland! That sounds cool! Let's go!" They're coming to Holland with us. They're buying books on speech therapy for kids with Down syndrome. They're enrolling their children in programs where they'll get to be peer mentors for kids with special needs. They're consulting with family members who have training in special education. They're volunteering themselves and their children for babysitting. And in general they're expressing unadulterated enthusiasm for Maybelle and her presence on this planet ("on the outside," as Anne Lamott says).

There have been times in my life that I've longed for a sense of community, and right now I have it so emphatically that it makes me a little weepy.

9.10.2008

Life with Maybelle

A few quick thoughts while Maybelle is napping.

Having an infant around the house has changed my life considerably, as you might imagine. I'm used to being the kind of person who has a full daily planner, with activities mapped out in hourly increments, things efficiently crossed off when they're completed, a busy life full of teaching, research, and administrative tasks. These days my life revolves around a very different set of tasks--mostly lactation and diaper changes, with lots of time spent just looking at the baby. Some days we don't even leave the house-or we'll intend to and somehow not get around to it. This isn't bad, just different. It feels a little weird. I know it's temporary, which is helping me to enjoy it and not get freaked out by the weirdness.

One of the many nice things about breastfeeding is that it provides a lot of time for reading. I just finished rereading Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions: A Journal of my Son's First Year. It was great when I first read it years ago and was even better this time. One of the things she wrote that really resonated with me:

"No one ever tells you about the tedium. (A friend of mine says it's because of the age difference.) And no one ever tells you about how crazy you'll be, how mind-numbingly wasted you'll be all the time. I had no idea. None. But just like when my brothers are I were trying to take care of our dad, it turns out that you've already gone ahead and done it before you realize you couldn't possibly do it, not in a million years."
Things aren't that bad around here--but it resonated nonetheless. And also this:
"Maybe Sam will grow up and be one of the people who can turn some of this stuff around. I will raise him to be the leader of the rebel forces."
And also this:
"People say he's the loveliest baby they've ever seen, even though his hair is falling out. Of course, they also say this to babies who look like water ouzels."

9.06.2008

Maybelle Biffle-Piepmeier

The recent blog silence here has been because Biffle and I've been pretty busy. Our daughter Maybelle was born on August 24, 2008--about five weeks early--and got to come home on September 1, so life has changed quite a bit over here. She is beautiful and increasingly charming (now that she's spending a bit more time awake).
Expect more Maybelle blogging soon, but in the meantime if you'd like to see more pictures of her, check out www.maybellebiffle-piepmeier.com. For videos, go to Biffle's Vimeo page.

8.20.2008

Specialization

Since we haven't heard from Biffle in a while, I thought I'd offer a small posting on his behalf.

I've been collecting quotes from Biffle for a few months now, things that he randomly says that amuse me. Most of them are probably too nonsensical for public consumption, but this quote on my brother's Tumblog made me want to share a recent Biffleism:

"I'm much closer to the Jeffersonian ideal than any of this crap running around America today."
As we all should know by now, when the apocalypse comes, Biffle's the man.

8.14.2008

Parenting discourse

Entering into the world of parenthood has been reminding me lately a little bit of starting grad school. My first semester in grad school, one of the things that was most difficult was the fact that I was walking into conversations that were well underway, conversations that had whole histories and baggage that I knew nothing about, and in general the people having these conversations (mostly in books I was assigned to read, but sometimes in class discussions, too) weren't taking time to explain the back story to newcomers. They were just moving ahead with the discussion, and newbies had to scramble to catch up. To complicate matters further, these conversations were making use of all kinds of vocabulary--references, shorthand, allusions--that I didn't understand. It was clear to me that the stakes were high, because even without the requisite jargon I could pick up on the emotional tenor of the discussions, but it took me a long time to figure out just what the stakes were.

The discourse around parenting is a bit like that. There are conversations happening that I know nothing about. When the childbirth educator asks, "What are your thoughts on vaccination?" I know that this is a loaded question--but in fact I have no thoughts on vaccination. I'm fortunate that in this case, at least, I know what it is that we're actually talking about, but that's not always true. There's a lot of parenting jargon that's not unlike grad school jargon. People will throw out terms and concepts--attachment parenting, "babywise," cosleeping, demand vs. scheduled feeding--and my emotional antennae can sense that these are highly-charged terms, terms about which people have strong opinions, but I'm not always sure even what's being discussed. It's very odd to walk again into a conversation where people are arguing fervently about something that I have never heard about or thought about.

As with grad school, I'm feeling my way around this new discourse terrain and trying to see if I have an opinion--or want to develop one--about these subjects. I have the clear sense that what Biffle and I decide will put us in a particular camp, and might alienate us from folks who identify with another camp. So it seems that the stakes are high, not just in terms of the small person who'll be experiencing the vaccinations or scheduled feedings but in terms of the larger community of parents to which we'll belong.

Biffle and I both made it through grad school, so I imagine we'll make it through this, too.

8.04.2008

What's in a name? Or, can you break with tradition without pissing people off?

Recently I was asked to write a little something on short notice for a feminist publication. Although I was the only one who was going to get credit, Biffle and I collaborated on the piece, a mostly-true (although condensed and simplified) account of some of the challenges of coming up with a last name for our soon-to-be-in-the-world progeny. It turns out that it wasn't quite right for the publication that requested it, so I figured I'd post it here.


One evening early in my pregnancy, my husband was talking with his parents about the baby.

“Well, son,” his father said, “I hope if it’s a boy you name him James Walter Biffle III.”

“I don’t think we’re going to do that,” Walter warily admitted. “In fact, I don’t think the baby’s last name is going to be Biffle. It’s going to be Biffle-Piepmeier.”

There was a long, long pause before his father finally asked, “Why is that?”

Walter pointed out there are two people in our family currently, each of whom has a different last name, so why should the baby’s last name automatically be just Biffle? While the silence continued, Walter tried harder to explain. He talked about our efforts to create an egalitarian marriage, about changing cultural norms around family names, even attempted a brief history of the patriarchy, but none of it made sense to them. His parents had never bothered to question tradition, and in fact, rather liked it. Their feelings were hurt, they said. Worse, they were embarrassed. Was this a rejection of them? Their family? What would their friends think? What would our child think?

Many straight couples with different last names opt to give their kids the husband’s last name, and I can see why: it’s the normal practice, and people understand it. A hyphenated last name like our baby will have can be cumbersome. What's more, there’s no drama when you go with the father’s last name. The man’s family is happy, and the woman’s family probably won’t be upset. People don’t freak out when you follow tradition.

After he got off the phone that night, Walter and I talked. We’d suspected that his parents probably wouldn’t approve of our naming choices, but we’d underestimated how hurt they’d be. Of course our decision wasn’t a rejection of them—-Biffle is going to be part of the baby’s last name!-—but there didn’t seem to be any way of getting them to see that.

I considered capitulating, going with the choice that would appease two of the new baby’s grandparents. Was it worth it to upset Walter’s parents for the sake of our principles?

The answer, we both realized, is yes. For us, the last name of this new person signifies something we believe, not just where one of us came from. This baby will be equal parts Biffle and Piepmeier and will be part of a family that’s striving to recognize both parents’ contributions, a family in which both of us are head of the household. Why should we go along with a practice we don’t agree with just because it’s familiar and easy and keeps people from being upset? But good traditions are important, and that’s why we’re trying to create some new ones. In this case, a tradition that recognizes the power of an equal partnership, not a partnership based on the principle of one person having to give something up.

Yes, Biffle-Piepmeier is possibly the world’s most inelegant last name, but we’ve decided that there are worse things than being inelegant. And worse things than upsetting our families.

Besides, many of my friends with kids have assured me that this is only the first of many parenting choices we’ll make that will upset one set of in-laws or the other, so we might as well get used to it.

7.29.2008

Tonight's Gig

Below is a simple cut and paste of a semi-mass email i sent out to some buddies here in Charleston today. If you live within 5 or 6 hours of Charleston, you may want to consider jumping in the car right now and getting yerself on down here. These are the most fun gigs i've ever played in my life.

Hi all:

I have been kindly asked by many folks to let them know when i'm playing a gig. I've been asked to update my Myspace page , send a small email, give the tiniest hint as to when i'd playing a show. I haven't done any of that...until now...

Tonight--and evidently every Tuesday for the rest of the summer--i am being given the privilege of sitting in with Bob Sachs and the Maniacs out at Dunleavey's on Sullivan's Island. We start at 7 and finish up most the time around ten.

I don't know if you've ever heard these guys play, but you need to: Roger Bellow, on fiddle and banjo and guitar and vocals, is probably the best musician i've ever been honored to play with and funnier than Groucho Marx. Mandolin playing wizard and high tenor, Bob Sachs, is a veteran of some great New England buegrass bands, Gary Hewitt on bass has been said by many a musician here in Charleston to have the "deepest groove in town." We play anything from texas swing to old country to new bluegrass to jazz standards to tin pan alley to...you get the point. Actually, you might not: last week, for instance, we played that great hit from the roaring 20's The Sheik of Araby with a visiting ukulele expert, followed that up with the Merle Haggard's the Bottle Let Me Down (with one verse in Spanish) and finished up with a twenty minute medley that ended with three part harmony on Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Really.


Come on out and see us.

walter

7.26.2008

My desk


I love stacks of books. I think they're an art form all their own that tell you about the inside of a person's head. Or, I supposed they don't tell you as much as they suggest, evoke, invite. You can imagine and suppose a lot about Biffle and me from the books Baxter's reclining among on the masthead of our blog.

I was getting ready to clean off my desk this morning and decided I'd record the books stacked there before reshelving them all. I'm finishing up my own book (not finished yet, but the end is in sight), and these are the books that have been accumulating beside me as I work.

7.24.2008

Why NOT to Give a Camera to a Piepmeier

Alison used to do photo albums. We have a cabinet full of beautifully dated and arranged photo albums. Since we went digital, however, all that's kinda fallen by the wayside and we just keep everything on my computer. It's a shame really, cause while we get those photo albums out a lot, we rarely look at pictures on the computer.

Anyway, back when we used those photo albums, Alison was the one who took on the chore of editing the shots and placing the photos on their little sticky pages. Since the format change that job has been mine. That's cool, but we there's a problem: while Alison had no problem with the tactile problem of assembling the photos in a book, she can't stand the more abstract editing of the digital realm (probably one of the reasons some folks continue to make zines in a bloggy kind of world , right Alison?)

So. Where this disconnect of A's leaves me is often with a 9 gillion gig photo card full of images of people's shoes, blurry images of dog faces and various ill-framed shots of visiting feminist scholars. And it's my job to go through and sort the wheat from the chaff. And there's a lot of chaff.

You may recall Alison's visit to the Ben and Jerry's factory up in Vermont. She wrote about it here complete with a pretty little photo of her in front of a bus. It looked like this:





Below, however, is the process of what it took to get there:















7.22.2008

Feminists don't have a sense of humor

I know I'm behind the times on this one, but maybe some of you missed it:

7.18.2008

A Few Words About The Banjo


































Not Really. What i really want to talk about here is the article of clothing i'm wearing in these photographs: A sarong.


I went to visit my friend Sarah recently and she had one of these that she let me borrow. More or less, it was just a really large tube of cloth that one steps into, turns the top over to assure a proper length, folds it back on itself to assure a fit around the waist and then simply rolls down the top to hold the thing on. It takes all of 15 seconds to do, which is about 2 or 3 seconds more than it takes to actually make on a sewing machine.

For the one i have on in this picture, Alison and i went to the fabric store and bought two yards of cloth (44" inches wide--the standard width). It was on sale for a couple dollars a yard. It had selvaged edges which only required me to sew one end of the cloth to the other with a straight stitch on the sewing machine and voila! a sarong!

Now, for the more obvious problem: I'm wearin' a skirt. While it doesn't matter a hill of beans to me if i'm wearin' a skirt, i've kinda reached an age where i've gotten weary of scandalizing other people. While, if given the chance, i think i would wear nothing but these for years to come, i'm just not sure how that would go over in Charleston. I sure wish i could though...What could be sarong with that?

7.17.2008

One ring to rule them all

Because I'm pregnant in the heat of the Charleston summer, my feet and ankles have swollen, and it turns out my fingers have, too. I discovered several days ago that I couldn't get my wedding ring off. We tried everything we could think of, learn from friends or our midwife, or find on the internet: dishwashing soap, Windex, butter, etc. Nothing worked. The ring wasn't hurting yet or cutting off circulation, but I was starting to feel a little claustrophobic.

Here's a photo essay to show what happened on Monday.

It was first thing in the morning, when the swelling was at its lowest. I held my hand over my head for ten minutes, with my ring finger wrapped in ice.

Biffle then rubbed banana on my finger, acting on the belief that banana is a superior lubricant. He also supplemented the banana with dishwashing liquid.

My midwife suggested we use strands of dental floss to pull the ring off--that way Biffle could get a good grip without his fingers being all greasy. You can see in this picture that the ring is going nowhere, despite aggressive pulling.

So Biffle, being the incredibly handy person that he is, got out the vice and the jeweler's saw blades. That tiny thing under the ring is the saw blade. He didn't have handles, so he had to use pliers, but they worked really well.

Ta da! A clean cut across the ring, so clean that Biffle will be able to solder the ring back together for me when the swelling has gone down. Note the gold dust sprinkled across my finger.

And here is the finger, freed from the ring. The red line toward the knuckle is the bruise I/we caused by all the pulling. It's a little odd not to be wearing a wedding ring, but as my dad pointed out, Biffle and I are so fully committed that it's visible from a mile away without any symbolic markers.

7.14.2008

Pregnancy and conversation

Something I've learned through my interactions as a visibly pregnant person with loads of folks in the world is that pregnancy doesn't give you a lot to talk about. People really seem to want to talk, but after the basics--"When are you due?" "Do you know the sex?" "Is it your first?"--there's just not a whole lot more to say without verging into the very personal. (I have plenty to say about the various physical things going on in my science-experiment-like body, but I'm kindly refraining from sharing that stuff with casual acquaintances.)

I had the clever plan for a while to make people into my own social experiment. If someone I didn't know, someone I wasn't likely to see again, asked whether the baby was a boy or a girl, I was going to tell them one or the other (even though we don't know and aren't going to know). The idea was to see how their responses differed.

This was a great idea, but the problem was that people didn't have much to say. I'd throw out, "It's a girl!" or "It's a boy!" and they'd respond, smiling, "Ohhh!"

I suspect that if I'd kept it up I would have encountered some useful differences of opinion, but I wasn't committed enough. I will say that the world at large seems to believe that the baby Biffle-Piepmeier is male. Two of my good friends have had dreams that the baby's a boy, and our next door neighbor is adamant that it's male.

"Let me rub on that boy!" she'll say if we meet each other on the sidewalk.

I'm not sure if this is some sort of subconscious male preference expressing itself or not.

One other thought I had: because pregnancy doesn't provide much material for casual conversation, people get creative with how they ask questions. They'll say things like, "How's the expansion project coming?", or my personal favorite, "When are you going to subdivide?"

7.12.2008

Tender Mercies

Biffle suggests that pregnancy has awakened in me a sense of wonder for the world around me, and he may be onto something there. I find that some of my bitter cynicism and relentless analysis is joined these days by a tiny bit more comfort with the sweet and the undefinable.

Perhaps this explains why I feel so compelled by a movie we watched last night, Tender Mercies.

This is an old movie (1983) which both of us had never happened to see before. It came up independently in several different conversations in recent months, so we decided we should have a look.

I want to reflect on the movie as a whole, so I guess I should give a spoiler alert here. If you don't want to know what happens, don't keep reading. It's hard to imagine much of a spoiler for this film, though, because it's not in any way a plot-driven movie. There's no twist. There's no moment at which the action picks up and things proceed along an unalterable trajectory. In fact, not a lot happens in the movie at all.

Robert Duvall plays Mac Sledge, an alcoholic country music singer and songwriter who winds up at a tiny hotel in the middle of nowhere Texas. There he meets Rosa Lee, played by Tess Harper, and her son Sonny. Through several scenes set a few months apart from each other, Rosa and Mac fall in love, get married, and proceed to live a very low-key, contented life. It's the least romantic romance sequence I've ever seen: Mac is weeding the garden with Rosa, and he says, "I guess it's no surprise how I feel about you," and Biffle and I exchanged confused glances--it hadn't been apparent to either of us that he had any feelings for her at all.

I'm not even going to tell you any more of the plot because it doesn't matter. What matters is the tone.

Rosa, Mac, and Sonny are incredibly low-key. Look at their expressions on the movie poster--those are pretty much the expressions they wear throughout the entire movie. The whole film is restrained--but not restrained in the sense of a great deal of tension being held tightly in check. Restrained like someone who's seen a lot of drama and just isn't interested in that anymore. Perhaps it's less restraint and more surrender. The mundane events of life--hanging the laundry, or laughing at a grouchy comment by a child--get as much attention and emphasis in this film as the death of Mac's long-lost daughter. In fact, the one character who doesn't show restraint--Mac's ex-wife Dixie Scott, who wails and screams and has to be drugged when her daughter dies--comes across as sadly self-indulgent, immature.

The film shows one scene happening after another, in a kind of unrushed pace that reminds you of real life. Mac has the opportunity to record some new songs, but the point of the movie is not that Mac returns to stardom and fame. Far from it. It seemed to me that this event in the life of the characters was equally weighted with other little happinesses: Rosa's smile when Sonny and Mac both get baptized, and Sonny's realization in a conversation with another boy that he likes his stepfather.

After Mac and Dixie's daughter dies, Mac does have a (quiet) moment of questioning the justice of the universe. He asks why she died and he didn't, and why Sonny's father died and Mac got to have this sweet life with Rosa and Sonny. The film doesn't answer these questions. Shortly after, Mac heads across the street to toss a football in an open field with Sonny. Biffle and I both steeled ourselves at this point for something awful to happen, for a huge truck to come barreling onto the screen and mow Mac down, or the boy. But that didn't happen. Nothing happened except that Mac tossed the ball and experienced one more mundane, indefensible moment of happiness in the life he'd found his way into.

7.09.2008

Some thoughts on nature vs. nurture

The other day Biffle and I were watching a video that was posted on my brother Trey's Tumblog. I would have ignored it, as I do most things on Trey's Tumblog*, but my other brother, Aaron, emailed and recommended it. It was actually really good--it was this guy talking about, among other things, how we educate the creativity out of kids because our whole education system is built on the notion that the end goal is for us to be academics, people who see their bodies as transport mechanisms to get their heads to meetings.

He makes a pretty good point there, although I'd contend these days we're much less interested in educating kids to be academics and much more interested in making them in to little pod people to sit in Dilbert-style business cubicles.

But that's not the point of this post. The point of the post is that, as we were watching the video, the guy made a joke (he was very jokey) about the fact that women are built to multitask, while men are built to do one thing at a time. He talked about how his wife can cook dinner, talk on the phone, monitor the kids' homework, and surf the internet all at the same time, while when he cooks dinner, he shuts the kitchen door and barks at anyone who tries to talk to him.

The audience laughed. I snorted dismissively.

"Can't stand anything biological," Biffle diagnosed grumpily in my general direction. "God forbid anybody say anything is based on biology!"

It's true. I make that same dismissive snort virtually anytime someone claims that complex gender roles are based on some sort of biological imperative. People love to claim that things are biologically based because that lets them off the hook for society's inequitable arrangements of status and power. If it's just biological that women do jobs that make less money, then there's really no reason to fuss about the (still hanging in there!) wage gap. If women are biologically not as strong as men, then of course men need to be the protectors and women need to not walk around at night by themselves. And if women are biologically better at multitasking, then we can't blame men for not being as much help around the house, can we?

All that stuff is bullshit. Biffle is just as good at multitasking as I am. In fact, I have encountered very few things in my life that strike me as fundamentally grounded in biology rather than in societal constructions.

Even pregnancy, which is loaded with biological components, is something that I'm always experiencing through this very complex set of societal lenses. More about that later--now we have to leave for an appointment with our midwife.

*Joke! That was a joke! I read the Tumblog every day (even though I'm still not quite sure what a Tumblog is.)

7.05.2008

Why I'm married to the right person

Recently I was having a conversation I've had many times during this pregnancy. Here's how it goes:

Person: Congratulations!
Me: Thanks! We're really excited.
Person: So, do you know if it's a boy or a girl?
Me: No, we're not going to find out. I was curious, but Biffle thought it was a bad idea. He said that people would start gendering the baby before it was even born, and he's right, of course.
Person: Wow, you are married to the right person.

It's true. Although we've had our share of challenges, the fact that Biffle and I have such compatible ideological views makes a world of difference in our relationship. I did find the tone of amazement in this questioner's voice a little sad--it was like she couldn't imagine my luck in finding a guy as feminist as I am. I don't think it's impossible to find a feminist guy, but I am pretty lucky to have found someone with Biffle's politics and also his array of quirks that make him such a great match for me.

Two events from yesterday will serve as useful examples of what I mean.

We had a great 4th of July. We had brunch at the Honky Cracker (politically very, very bad--we both know this) and then went and spent Biffle's parents' money on a stroller and carseat for Baby Biffle-Piepmeier. After taking the dogs for a swim at the dog park, we came home and grilled out.
Here is Biffle grilling. It's such a beautiful image of gender bending I almost can't stand it. He's enacting this canonical male ritual of grilling--not only meats but sausages, for god's sake, how much more phallic can you get?--and he's wearing a skirt. Could he be any cuter? He wasn't actually making any sort of political statement--it was just hot, and the skirt was comfortable.

Later in the evening we assembled the stroller and carseat and, once again proving what bad people we are, we decided to test the ensemble out with a passenger.
Inky actually liked it a lot and was a little grumpy when we made him get out so we could fold the whole thing up. This was probably aided by the fact that we didn't make him wear a onesie this time.

6.29.2008

Pictures from Vermont--look at in conjunction with yesterday's post

The Montpelier Farmer's Market. Aaron took the picture which is why it's an aerial shot.

Here we are enjoying a delicious cider doughnut, fresh from the deep fryer. They aren't glazed or sugared, so I think they'd lose a little something if they got cold, but hot they were fantastic.

Ben & Jerry's! I ate waaaaay too much ice cream in one sitting, but it was delicious. I think Aaron's flavor was slightly more delicious than mine: he had the 30th anniversary birthday cake ice cream, which was yellow cake batter and a chocolate frosting swirl.

6.28.2008

Live blogging from Vermontpelier, or Montpeculiar

I'm in Vermont this weekend visiting Aaron and Mary--a trip that is probably one of my last, if not my last, of this pregnancy. Vermont is a beautiful state, and Montpelier is ridiculously cute. It's like what all the cute neighborhoods in other cities--Hillsboro Village or Little Five Points in Nashville, Five Points in Atlanta--are trying to be. Except the whole town is that way--walkable, with locally-owned stores crowded together, bookstores, diners that serve all locally-grown organic foods, bakeries and restaurants run by the culinary institute where Mary is a student, independent art movie theaters.

We've been eating outstanding food since I got here. Last night Aaron and I had dinner at one of the aforementioned culinary school restaurants. Today we had brunch at the organic local-food diner, then went to the Farmer's Market where I couldn't resist trying all the free samples of things like farmer's cheese from a dairy down the road. Mary gave me a bite of a nasturtium, which was surprisingly tasty (she bought a few to grow for salads). Even though we were all so full we thought we'd throw up, we split a dopyaza--a delicious Pakistani hot pocket filled with crispy, fresh, hot veggies, that are for sale there every weekend.

Later, after we dropped Mary off at work, we went to a cider press where we got fresh doughnuts, then we did the Ben & Jerry's factory tour! Sadly, I can't post pictures right now, but I'll try to do it later. I had the world's largest ice cream cone of a new flavor called "seven layer coconut bar," or something. I don't know what we're going to eat tonight, but I'm sure it'll be fantastic, and organic, and good to the environment, and locally-grown, and everything associated with it will be recycled, and all the employees will be paid a living wage.

It's a good thing that Biffle didn't come with me this weekend, because I'm not sure I'd be able to convince him to go back to Charleston.

6.24.2008

Thoughts from NWSA 2008

I've just returned from the National Women's Studies Association's 2008 conference. I had a great time catching up with my brilliant scholarly friends from around North America and participating in what I think will be some of the originating moments of the NWSA as the leading organization in the country for the academic work of Women's (and Gender) Studies. Mark my words! We've had our problems in the past, but we are going to be a respectable scholarly organization on par with the American Studies Association!

I'm not going to offer substantive thoughts on the conference just now. I might be inspired to do this at some point, but I'm an officer in the NWSA and fairly easily identifiable (it's easier to dish when you're anonymous, as some bloggers have done), so for today I'm going to share random moments from my travels.

  • Airsickness bags used: one (apparently I'm not a great air traveler now that I'm pregnant. On the way to Cincinnati I ate a box of Crunch and Munch and then threw it all back up while the stranger sitting next to me pretended to be interested in what was happening outside the window.)
  • "Thank God for the cervix!" --one of my conference friends at the dance, upon seeing me flinging my body around the dance floor (which I could only do for three songs before I became exhausted and had to sit down.)
  • People I met whose books are sitting on my desk right now: two (Patricia Hill Collins and Chela Sandoval).
  • People I hung out with who I'm quoting in my upcoming book: three (Astrid Henry, Lisa Johnson, and Heather Hewett).
  • "We should all be our own vibe monitors." --from a Governing Council meeting in which someone suggested reinstating the now defunct position of "vibe monitor"--an honest-to-God position that the NWSA has had at various public meetings, and a position which, for obvious reasons, works against our efforts to be a respectable scholarly organization.
  • New academic crushes developed: one (Beverly Guy Sheftall, incoming president of the NWSA)
  • Books purchased: zero (Biffle and I are now trying to save up for the wood studio he'll be building in our backyard, which I'm sure he'll tell you about at some point.)

6.23.2008

Death

For my fortieth birthday post i wrote about some survival-ish type things i think i do well. One of the things i did not implicitly include on that list is a talent at making things dead. You know: leaving a plant to die, killing and butchering livestock, euthanasia.
Those things weren't on that list because i suck at them. That's bad because killing and/or death is just part of the daily events in a subsistence type of lifestyle.

I remember one time my grandfather summarily dispatching all but one from a litter of kittens. He'd lived within a hundred yards of his birth place for 80 years and he knew exactly how many cats he needed for things to operate correctly around there. One day while trying to drill a hole in any one of the random things that need drilling on a farm , a wasp kept pestering him. He squashed that wasp with his thumb. He shot things that tried to get in the hen house, he rung the necks of chicks, opened the jugulars of large pigs.

I thought of him yesterday when i discovered the bird in the backyard.

I went out into the yard yesterday to hang some clothes on the line and found the ground littered with feathers. Cats--and i'm assuming our cats--had mutilated a pigeon. From the number of feathers laying around i figured it was already dead and hoped that they hadn't pulled it under the house to get all stinky and stuff. I didn't see it anywhere and so went on about my hanging. And then i saw it: half a wing gone, it sat on the ground there in front of me stunned, but very much among the living. The pigeon--a Ring-Necked Pigeon--flapped away from me when i tried to inspect it, but i could tell that it wasn't really going to be recovering from what had happened. I knew i had to kill it.

Once, back when i was living at the Craft Center, me and Justin and Cute Paul off-ed a squirrel that had got caught in some bird lime. That time, we just put the squirrel in a shoe box, taped the box shut, cut a small hole in the side and held it to the exhaust of a car. The squirrel was dead in a matter of thirty seconds or so. I thought about doing the bird the same way, but for some reason didn't. Instead i came inside and googled "how to euthanize a bird." Among the many suggestions, it started with holding the bird in your hands, grasping the head firmly in between your thumb and first finger...it went on and explained how the sound was unsettling to some people, how some people had the sensation of life leaving another's body. Gee whiz, man.

Anyhow, although i tried as best i could to summon the existential acceptance concerning life's passage here on earth embodied in my farm-dwelling ancestors, i just couldn't bring myself to hold that bird in my hands and snap its neck. I opted for the second plan suggested by the web site:

I went outside and i caught the bird in a light-weight bag--the kind they might give you at some sort of conference as a gift/way to carry around all your instructions. The bag had long-ish handles on it. I swooped up the bird in the bag and vigorously swung it around in a wide wide circle. At the last second i gave the bag (and bird) a really good flick of the wrist and sent it to a dead stop against the side of a Pecan tree. When the bag hit the tree it said *thuck*. While i probably should have checked on the condition of the bird immediately, i opted instead to kind of randomly run around in circles and shake my hands while saying "euuuuwwwwghhh! awwwweeehhh!!!"

Finished with that, i looked in the bag and found that the bird was indeed as dead as a coffin nail.

6.14.2008

Pregnancy stereotypes

I often accuse Biffle of having oppositional defiant disorder--he sometimes seems to oppose things just for the sake of being able to argue--but I am recognizing my own tendencies in this direction when it comes to the stereotypes surrounding pregnancy. I am defiantly opposed to them--a kind of knee-jerk reaction--regardless of their validity or innocuousness. This is probably pathological. See what you think.

I've enjoyed the extra edge pregnancy seems to have given me, the willingness to be angry or irritable, but I have assiduously resisted any other emotional reactions to being pregnant. On the occasions when I've found myself getting teary (watching a Humane Society commercial, for instance, or the film The Business of Being Born), I clamp it down. I am not going to be the weepy pregnant woman.

Another example: I got a great haircut this week, but every time Biffle suggested that it was a Mom haircut, I was deeply offended. Let's be clear:

This is a mom haircut:

This is not:

Ian suggested nesting as a pregnancy stereotype that our shopping expedition to Ikea would seem to uphold. Yes, we did buy some baby stuff, but I don't think I adhere to any of the other nesting qualities--I am a complete slob who doesn't clean, organize, or improve the house. That is all Biffle. Case in point: He's outside right now sweeping grass clippings off the sidewalk he built out of bricks with his own hands. What am I doing? Blogging.

Even the need for extra rest--which isn't probably a stereotype so much as it is a biological imperative--I resist.

Let's be honest here: there's really nothing wrong with someone being emotional, getting a practical haircut, cleaning house, or resting--whether that person is pregnant or not. Clearly I have got a problem.

Here's one more example that should prove this. My therapist yesterday told me a story about Pat Summitt, head coach of the award-winning Lady Vols basketball team. When she was near the end of her pregnancy with one of her children, she was on a recruiting trip. She was at the home of a potential Lady Vol when she went into labor. She excused herself and called her doctor, who told her to hop on her private plane and come back home. She didn't; instead, she continued with the recruiting visit, checking in periodically with her doctor, until she'd finished with her professional obligations. Only then did she fly back home to the hospital.

My therapist told me this as a kind of warning story--don't be like Pat Summitt! My response, however, was, Right on. Nobody can use her as an example of why women shouldn't be Presidents, or CEOs.

It occurs to me that one stereotype I maybe haven't fully deconstructed in my own mind is the Superwoman.

6.09.2008

Buying a crib, and other thoughts on impending parenthood

Biffle and I spent the weekend in Atlanta, visiting the Ikea to load up on stuff for the house. The main thing we bought was a giant wardrobe unit--nearly 12' x 8'--so that we can get rid of the array of weird and only vaguely functional bedroom furniture we've collected or inherited or found on the side of the road over the years. (Please don't assume that this comment is meant in any way to disparage furniture found on the side of the road--Biffle has done some amazing things with other people's rejected furniture.)

We also bought a crib--this one--and some of Ikea's ridiculously cute, random stuff for a baby's room. There are certain aspects of this whole pregnancy/impending parenthood process that are freaky for me, and buying a crib was one of them. I kept saying, "Biffle, we're buying a crib. Did you ever think we'd be buying a crib?" He seemed unbothered. But to me the crib represented something--a piece of furniture, solid and material, in our house, is different than the baby clothes and knitting people have given us. Maybe it's that the clothes seem fun, playful, while the crib is Serious Business. When you have a crib, it means you are Having a Baby.

Not that this is a surprise to me, given the way I look these days.

Speaking of which, that's another thing that has been occasionally freaky to me. When I was in Tennessee a couple of weeks ago, Megan asked if Biffle had been taking any artsy pregnant photos of me. He hasn't. For a while there we were taking a picture every Sunday night, to document the progress, but when I really started to show we got lax and stopped taking the pictures--I think because the progress was so evident to us at that point. So when I got back home, Biffle did try to capture one representative--and perhaps artsy--moment of me standing in the kitchen, eating a bowl of cold cereal (one of 12,000 bowls of cold cereal I've eaten so far in this pregnancy).

Here's the picture. When I saw it for the first time, I thought, "Oh my god, there's me in a pregnant suit." It looks just like me, only pregnant. The thing that freaks me out is not the size issue--I know some women do feel weird about getting larger, since we're in a society that relentlessly tells us to slim down--but that I actually look so pregnant. Unambiguously pregnant. Now I'm at the point where people take one look and congratulate me.

So why does it weird me out that I'm looking pregnant? Perhaps because this is more unambiguous evidence that things are changing. Even if I do eventually get my pre-pregnancy body back, things--as people with children regularly remind me--will never be the same again.

And, of course, this is what we wanted. If we'd wanted things to stay the way they were, there were plenty of ways we could have helped that to happen, and procreating wouldn't have been our game plan. But actually facing the changes, for someone like me who is so wary of change, can be a bit freaky.

Later on, if you want, I'll blog about my efforts to resist all stereotypes of pregnant womanhood.