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.


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.



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


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.


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.


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.