Hey, it's good to be back home again

Yesterday Uncle Trey, Maybelle, and I made the drive from Cookeville, TN, to Charleston, SC.  It's an eight hour drive, which can be a challenge for a three year old.

Guess how many stops we had to make.

Waiting for waffles on the roadBiffle generously guessed 25.  A little hyperbolic, but could have been within the right range.

But this time the answer is one. 

In some tiny town in North Carolina we stopped for lunch at a Waffle House.  A tangent:  I recognize that it's a bit odd that I could document a month of good times through stories of Waffle House.  Trey asked how often we eat at Waffle House during our regular lives, and I said once a week, on average.  I get that this is a little much for most folks, but, you know, Maybelle seriously loves her some Waffle House.  And she charms the pants off every Waffle House server she's ever interacted with.  Her gleeful request for a waffle, and then her hands-in-the-air delight when the waffle arrives--well, that's a high point on the Waffle House shift.  I see it once a week on average, and it's a delight for me, too.

At any rate, we made just one stop, and got back to Charleston with such ease that it was sort of astonishing.  Maybelle watched two videos on the computer, and she read books, listened to her playlist, sang songs, and whined a minimal amount.  Didn't nap at all, and was still easy to get along with.

Trey and I had a series of good conversations, and I got to listen to his podcast, Jawgrind, for the first time ever.  If you are a sweet human being with a love of nerds and dedication to Star Trek, you should check out this podcast.  I know this applies to several of you reading this blog.

It's now Saturday morning.  Not yet 2012, but officially new year's weekend, so we're celebrating.  In just a few minutes we're headed out to the beach (because, you know, late December weather in Charleston is 65 degrees), and we're going to soak in every minute of our time together.  We'll try to convince Uncle Trey to stay here longer than he was planning to.  Strategies:  beach time!  Biscuits and ham for breakfast!  Some sort of fabulous Charleston lunch!  Sherlock Holmes tonight on the big screen tv!  Hugs from the naked Maybelle!  Etc.

I'll let you know how it goes.


More fun stuff

Here's Maybelle having lunch at one of her two favorite restaurants.  Waffle House was yesterday.  Today was Cracker Barrel, where she snarfed an entire pancake and a whole bottle of syrup--and remarkably had none on her shirt at the end of the meal.

Saying "Toot toot!" in the train car
Here she's enjoying our morning exploring the historic train cars at the Cookeville Depot. These were new to me--we got to go inside three separate train cars, sit on things, climb up, look through windows, and say, "Toot toot!" to our hearts' content.

Other fun things:
  • The weather is perfect winter:  sunny, blue skies, and cold (but not too cold).
  • I finished a book that I was reading just for pleasure.
  • I've now eaten three Ralph's butter twists.
  • I have a wonderful mother who was willing to stay up with Maybelle last night.  After mom and I had tag-teamed three hours of lying in bed with an energetically awake Maybelle (7:30-10:30 pm), I let Maybelle come downstairs.  By 11:30 I was too tired to stay awake any longer.  Maybelle?  Raring to go.  So mom stayed up with her, until she finally fell asleep at 1:00 am.
And I'll end with what I find to be a very satisfying picture of Gabe and her cousin e.v. running together.


A bit of the back story

I'm sharing lots of upbeat holiday stories here, and I'm doing so intentionally.  There actually are a lot of ridiculously fun things going on here over the last week--at my parents' house, in my travels with Maybelle and Biffle--and I want to be consciously aware of them.  I'm making an effort to pay attention to these hilarious, or pleasant, or comfortable moments.

Maybelle and PoppiI realize, though, that reading this series of posts, someone might be led to believe that my holiday break is nothing but delirious happiness.  In fact, if I read these posts, I might well think, "Damn, am I the only person having a hard time over the holidays?"

So here's some of the back story:  the holidays are rough for me.  And I know they're rough for a lot of my friends, too.  This is a time for some pretty painful anniversaries--my own anniversary of the seizure that led to the diagnosis of my brain tumor, a best friend's anniversary of her father's death.  Right now one of my in-laws is experiencing a medical crisis significant enough that they're probably approaching this as their last Christmas together.  That's pretty triggering to me.  I'm so, so sad for their family, but I've also had to keep my distance because it's too easy for me to get caught up in the "that could be us!" whirlpool of thought.

I know from other close friends that the holidays are rough even if there's not a life-threatening event or a painful anniversary.  One friend said, "My depression is lurking but not yet rearing.  Tomorrow may not be so good."  My mom shared that in many past holidays, she hasn't realized how anxious she was until her stomach started hurting physically--that this was a normative part of the holiday experience for her.

I've had some core ideas in place this holiday that I've been trying to keep in use:

  • My self-care is my top priority.
  • It's all experimental.
  • It's okay to go with the flow.
  • Pay attention to how I'm feeling.
  • Keep expectations minimal:  one or two goals a day.
  • Pay attention to the moments of pleasure.
That last one has been the motivator for nearly a month of blog posts.  Things are just fine.  And I'm working hard, with lots of support from people I love.  So that's a bit of the back story here in Biffle-Piepmeier land.


Random good-time holiday stuff

My parents' house has been full of people this holiday season, so my dad declared that we were all going to use plastic cups with our names on them (and therefore avoid the dishwasher being continually full of everybody's 27 dirty glasses). He put out a stack of cups and a Sharpie.

Unlabeled cup
Well, as it turns out*, my brother Trey is a talented cartoonist, so he decorated everybody's cup.  Here, for instance, is a cup that nobody labeled.  The cowboy here says, "Ahm an outlaw what has no label."

Mary's cup
Here, on Mary's cup, Wolverine explains, "I'm the best there is at eating nog."  On the right side, his claws are snicking out, but I couldn't get them in the picture.

Trey's cup
Trey's cup shows an unnamed person who seems to me to be a past (shaved) version of Trey, grouchily proclaiming, "This is not coffee."  There were obviously many others, including Spock saying, "This beverage is not logical," and Watson (on my mug) saying, "This bev is elementary."  We even had an appearance by David Bowie from Labyrinth saying, "You remind me of the babe."

*Completely unrelated to the cups is our realization this holiday that "as it turns out" is a great time-buyer if you're trying to make up a story.  If someone says, "Aaron, tell us a great joke about a sweet potato," then his best bet is to start by saying, "Well, as it turns out..."


Dance party

The Piepmeier bunch went to Catherine's family's house last night, and after we ate a large quantity of Sarah's homemade cookies (and ONE store-bought cookie, which we had to identify--very challenging), we spent quite a while dancing to Michael Jackson songs.

Let me tell you, I take this stuff seriously, as this picture taken by Trey will document.  I was quite sweaty after each round.  I'm not one of these Wii dance competitors who just moves my right arm.  No, I am putting my entire body into the dance.  Because I love a dance party.

Catherine does, too.  In fact, all of us had a really great time.


Hanging with the nerd herd

The nerd herd at the coffee shopHere was a fun holiday afternoon: hanging out in a coffee shop and meeting up with friends, family, and family and friends of the friends and family.  We drank coffee, ate cupcakes, and played telephone pictionary, which included clues like, "Wet boobs and a laptop computer" and "Princess Leia shooting a rectangle."

One of my big goals for this holiday is to go with the flow, to let go of my habit of scheduling and planning and just see what happens.  This afternoon was a great example of that.


Holiday high points

Maybelle's first experience at Ralph's DonutsOne of my top priorities for this holiday was having what is indisputably the world's best donut.

Let me make sure you all got that:  the world's best donut.

A lot of people and businesses in the world have opinions about donuts.  People love the hot donuts at Krispy Kreme (those are tasty), and some Northerners swear by Dunkin Donuts.  People get weepy over various apple fritters, donuts filled with all kinds of things, etc.  That's fine.  But they're wrong.  Because the world's best donut is a fresh butter twist made at Ralph's Donuts in Cookeville, TN.

Ralph's has been in operation in Cookeville forever.  Or, you know, since my parents were in college.  Now it's unfortunately not open for 24 hours a day, but it used to be that you could go there on Sunday at 2 in the morning, getting yourself geared up for Monday morning classes by drinking coffee, talking with some of the old timers, and eating a butter twist.  I'll make the off the cuff estimate that I spent 20% of my nights in college at Ralph's--a lot of high school, too, but maybe not as much.

So I love and value the Ralph's experience.  But even beyond the excellent experience of being there, the donut itself is fantastic.  Crispy but not greasy fried on the outside, and the glazing gets all caught up in the twisty part.  It really is a funky twist, not just a twirl--they actually turn the donut sort of inside out to give it its shape.  The inside is delicious and doughy, but not like a regular donut, where you're thinking, "Good grief, there's so little glaze for so much tasteless white bread!"  There's the perfect ratio of glaze to bread in a Ralph's butter twist.  And it's real yeasty bread, unlike the Krispy Kremes, where you sort of feel like you're eating greasy air, and then you realize you've eaten too many and you feel sick.

If I had to make a list of the best fried bread deserts, they would be
1.  Ralph's butter twist
2.  Malasadas from New Bedford, MA (can't remember the name of the restaurant).
3.  Funnel cakes from a county fair (really any county fair)

We took Maybelle last night, our first night in Cookeville.  Let's say that she didn't yet love the butter twist itself, but she seemed to enjoy the Ralph's experience very much.



I'll give you more information once we've had a bit more time here, but let me say this:  There is a pancake house every 15 feet in Gatlinburg, but they all close at 3pm.  We arrived in Gatlinburg around 5, having promised a hungry Maybelle that she was going to get pancakes for dinner.  She was eager to get out of the car, desperate for a pancake, and we drove and drove and drove.

By 6 we'd made it to Pigeon Forge, which had a Cracker Barrel--halleluia, they serve pancakes all day.  So that was our first meal in Gatlinburg.

Then we came back to our hotel room and tried to get Maybelle to go to sleep.  By 9 she finally had done so.  Now it's early morning, and I'm sitting in the hotel bathroom, blogging a bit in private so that I won't wake Maybelle up.

Our drive yesterday was a lot of fun.  I'm not sure yet how to assess this hotel time with a toddler.  In a few minutes the free continental breakfast bar downstairs will open, and I'll go get some coffee.  That will help me achieve some clarity.


Holiday updates and one interesting article

I've fallen off on my regular holiday happiness posts, in part because we've been making it through the flu here in our household.  After one night of vomiting every 45 minutes and two days of pretty much lying in bed all day, Maybelle is almost back to her normal, curious, energetic self.

I suspect you'll be getting some happy posts from us over the next few days, because the holiday vacation officially starts today!  We're headed to Gatlinburg, home of unbelievable holiday tackiness, a space needle, and a pancake house about every fifteen feet.  Oh, and the Great Smoky Mountains, too, but it's actually the tackiness we're going for.  Then we're headed to middle Tennessee to hook up with all Maybelle's grandparents and aunts and uncles.

Speaking of which, here's an interesting article that Feministing pointed me to.  Its main point is
Backing up a child who doesn’t want to be kissed or hugged does not mean that Grandma, or Great Aunt Edna, or Uncle Bob or Cousin Sara are doing anything wrong, but it does demonstrate that touch and play for affection or fun is your child’s choice in all situations.
Biffle and I have been intuitively doing this with Maybelle all along.  We ask if we can have a kiss, and if she says no, that's totally legitimate.  Our families have respected this, as well.  I think it's incredibly important that Maybelle learns that it's her body.

I've also given her some information that's perhaps confusing--the other day, when she was fluish and lashed out at me, I said, "Maybelle, you don't hit people unless you really, really need to."  I guess we'll have to talk later about what "really, really need to" might mean.


End of the semester = fun day

The remains of lunchYesterday Biffle and I had a date.  We went out to lunch at Husk, one of the restaurants that makes Charleston a place people visit (Bon Appetit restaurant of the year, etc). It's fantastic. Every bite we took was noteworthy.  I won't be like the NYTimes food writer who said things like, "The dish managed to evoke the marshy salinity of the air that rises off the flats of the Cooper River at low tide, as dogs run into the water below the Carolina Yacht Club."  As I read the NYTimes piece hanging on the wall at Husk, I observed to Biffle, "If one of my students wrote something like this, I'd say, 'Scale back the drama!'"

At any rate, there's our empty table.  We had fresh bread with pork butter (nothing better than pork fat to make butter even more delicious), fried green tomatoes, pimiento cheese and ham on toast, greens, fried bologna, and a huge incredibly fresh salad.  Here's what I'd write if I were reviewing Husk for the NYTimes:  "The fried bologna was so good even Jim Biffle would have liked it."  This is quite the compliment, given that Biffle's dad Jim is the kind of guy who has eaten fried bologna on a regular basis throughout his Southern childhood and adulthood.

If Jim Biffle were reviewing Husk for the NYTimes, he'd say, "That bologna was so good it made my tongue slap my brains out."

I don't think Jim would have liked the pimiento cheese.

Last night we went to the Festival of Lights at James Island County Park.  Like Husk restaurant, this is one of those things that is worth doing if you come to Charleston.  It's this phenomenon of one billion lights hung up in a park, so you can drive through this three mile light show, and you can also walk around, visit Santa, hear a horn quartet playing carols, and ride a carousel.  This year Maybelle was big enough that we did, in fact, get out and walk around.

Here's my advice for those of you who haven't yet visited:  the marshmallows are really big.  If you get a marshmallow stick, burn all the marshmallows to delicious smithereens at one of the fire pits, and eat them all yourself, you're probably going to feel a little sick.


I'm a feminist because...

Please go visit a tumblr that two of my students created.  It's fantastic.  They've been a bit astonished at how much attention it's gotten in the 30 hours its been online, but when you go over, you'll see why:  it's interesting, the photography is stunning, and the explanations of feminism are smart and clever.

Let me just say right now, I want in!



We had a great time Sunday night at the DSAL Holiday Party. Here are Maybelle and I dancing together to Toni Basil's "Mickey," the song that is currently one of Maybelle's top three for dancing.  The dancing was such an attraction to her that the second we walked into the room where the party was being held, Maybelle ran to the dance floor, and that was it.  And you know me, I love a dance party!

And here she's getting her present from Santa.  She was a bit terrified of Santa when he came in the room, loudly "Ho ho ho"-ing into the microphone, but when all the other kids went running to see him, so did she.  "It's the abject," I said to Walter as I got up to follow her.  "She's repelled, but she has to see."  This year, for the first time, she seemed to fully understand the notion that the present was hers and that she got to open it.

One of my DSAL/blog friends took these pictures, and now they're on Facebook.  I'm still not sure I understand how Facebook works, but if you're my friend and go to my homepage, I think all the pictures from the party that feature me are part of my Facebook photo album.  Or something.  Thanks, Michelle!



Here's something else I'm grateful for:  recommendations for excellent tv watching.  Cate suggested that Biffle and I have a look at a fairly new BBC series called Sherlock.  It's a telling of the Sherlock Holmes stories set in contemporary London, but with many many of the other details of the Holmes universe intact.

The back story:  Biffle has an almost pathological love for Sherlock Holmes.  He has a volume of all Arthur Conan Doyle's writings which he's had since his early teen years.  The thing is literally falling apart, and has his marginalia throughout.  He rereads the whole book probably once a year, and has quite the memory for the details of the Sherlock Holmes universe.

And my back story:  I like adventure-ish tv shows and movies that feature two smart guys who are working together and also kind of flirting with each other.

So we watched the first episode last night and both loved it.  They make clever use of technology:  often Holmes's observations are typed on the screen (he sees the word "Rache" scratched into the floor and the German definition of the word pops up for a moment), and he constantly uses text messaging.  The whole show was exciting, even if (as in the case of Biffle) you have the entire Holmes universe memorized.  They know that many in their audience will have read the Doyle stories repeatedly, so they offered playful references for those folks.

Here's the bummer:  there aren't a million more episodes for us to download.  The first year has, like, three episodes.  Then we, along with everybody else who's discovered this series, will have to wait for the BBC to release series 2.


Final exam

I'm sitting in a classroom, answering emails and taking care of scheduling matters while students sit in rows in front of me, taking a final exam.

This is my little bit of gratitude for the day:  I'm grateful to be giving a final exam rather than taking one.  I do have to grade them, but grading them isn't stressful, and it doesn't require loads of late-night studying ahead of time.  I'm definitely busy this time of year, but it's easier being a professor right now than being a student.


Feminist gang in the office

IMG_9780 ed med
See below for info on this picture.
We have quite the community of feminist icons in the Women's and Gender Studies office at the College of Charleston.  Some of them are actual empowered-woman-icons on their own, without reinterpretation needed--Rosie the Riveter and Princess Leia would be two examples.  Others have experienced paradigm shifts as they've become part of the WGS community.

Darth Tater's lightsaber has become a placard on which he proudly displays "This is what a FEMINIST looks like" stickers, and Han Solo has discovered that his sexual orientation is more fluid than he'd realized, as he's had meaningful relationships with Darth Tater and Becky--and now Princess Leia has arrived and is making things more complicated for him.

Becky--a Barbie doll who uses a wheelchair--has become a feminist disability activist, carrying signs and sporting a funky short haircut.  In fact, she's also now wearing Dutch shoes, a gift from a master's student from Amsterdam who's been studying masculinity at CofC this semester.

All these folks have been gifts, and they often experience paradigm shifts while I'm not around.  Many of the WGS students feel comfortable rearranging these folks and having a say in the activist messages they should proclaim.  I'm grateful that when you walk in the door to the WGS office, this is the community you meet.

And thank you to Trey for the Princess Leia bobblehead!

And thank you to my student Hannah for taking this great picture of the office gang!  The previous picture--a terrible one, taken with my cell phone, can be found here.


A brief gratitude post

I find I'm feeling fairly unpleasant toward the holidays this year.  Driving home today from a visit with my neuro-oncologist at Duke, I decided that I'd like to put a little energy into acknowledging the things I'm grateful for.

So let's start here:  the visit with Jim, my neuro-oncologist, went quite well, and I'm grateful for him.  He's a good guy who's clear, speaks to me as a human being, and comes into the meeting room carrying nothing.  He just sits in a chair and talks to me--no flipping through the chart.  He doesn't expect me to sit in the exam chair, and he's fine with us arranging the room in weird ways (for instance, Catherine sat in the exam chair today so that I didn't have to).  He also answers my emails and phone calls.

Presents in a hotel roomI'm also grateful for Catherine, who accompanied me on the trip.  Check out the presents she managed to squeeze into her luggage and bring in honor of my birthday (even though we'd decided we don't do birthday presents anymore)!  There are too many good things to say about Catherine for me to fit them in a blog post, so let me just acknowledge that I'm grateful.

Tomorrow I think I'll show you an updated picture of the unruly feminist cohort of toys at my office, something else I'm grateful for.


Review of The Shape of the Eye

Here’s my big sales pitch for The Shape of the Eye:  this is a memoir that doesn’t enrage me.

I’m sort of compelled to read new memoirs by parents of kids with disabilities, particularly parents of kids with Down syndrome.  It’s an unhealthy compulsion, because my intense frustration with most of these memoirs is so evident that Biffle has often asked me to stop reading them.  The other day I was mad for some complete other reason, and Biffle said, “Are you reading a memoir?”

I get angry because the memoir writers often spend much of the memoir detailing their misery:  here’s how terrible it is to have a child with Down syndrome.  This story is at this point so old it’s clich├ęd, and it’s not functional in the ways I think these parents ultimately want it to be.  They end the memoir at a place of love for their child, and they seem to want the reader to feel that love as well, but what the reader more likely feels is some version of, “I'm glad that’s not my kid.  But bless their hearts.”

The Shape of the Eye doesn’t do this. 

George Estreich certainly acknowledges profoundly mixed feelings when his daughter Laura was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome.  For instance, he writes, “I felt that Laura’s life was valuable, that she was a child, a sister and daughter and granddaughter above all, that she might learn and thrive.  I also felt that our lives were over, that her birth was a tragedy, and that we were condemned to a half-life of hospitals, acronyms, therapists, and forms” (xiii).  So here’s what he does:  he acknowledges this emotional place of paradox, and then he launches into a thoughtful reflection (even analysis, although I get that this word doesn’t turn other people on the way it does me) about how he and his family create meaning and love in the midst of a culture that, by and large, doesn’t do particularly well with disabilities, particularly with cognitive ones.

And he discovers that life with Laura is like life with a child:  delightful, challenging, hilarious, frustrating.  This is not a book about Laura’s birth being a tragedy.  It is, as is true for all memoirs, a book about George Estreich, about his growth, his family heritage, his struggles with depression and his expansion into the role of father/writer/activist.

And what I particularly appreciated is that it’s a book about how we understand Down syndrome, how we talk about it.  Estreich (like me!) is critical of many of the familiar stories that are out there, and he notes, “Each time I shared the news, I faced the difficulties of narrative” (26) (interestingly, I was making this very point Wednesday in a lunch with another scholar who studies disability).  He actually has lots of good points about the importance of narrative—about the problematic descriptions of kids with Down syndrome as “sweet”:  he even calls out the “little angels” description that pisses me off so much.

He writes about his own process of beginning to write about Laura.  He does some reading—medical and historical—about Down syndrome and discovers that the way it’s described is often nauseatingly bad:  unforgivably inaccurate (one fairly recent medical book describes people with Down syndrome as “trainable”) and offensive.  He discovers that “What Down syndrome ‘was’ mattered less than the way it was described” (151).   

By the time I got to this part of the book, I knew I’d found an ally, somebody who should come hang out with us at the NDSC Convention (come on, George!), and someone I should talk to about my research into prenatal testing. 

I’ve gone through this review resisting the urge to offer tons of quotes from the book, but let me end with this one:

If our technologies are to benefit people with Down syndrome, then their lives need to become more real to us.  Science can illuminate one part of that reality, and technology can affect it.  But only story can convey it (208).

I completely agree.

Full info about the book:  Estreich, George. The Shape of the Eye:  Down Syndrome, Family, and the Stories We Inherit.  Dallas:  Southern Methodist University Press, 2011.