Monday, January 23, 2012

Queering "Queer"

I am what folks once upon a time would have called "a bit of a queer fellow." I'm not talking about my sexuality here: it's neither at issue in this post, nor is it particularly useful as a site of public discourse, since my identity and practice are both quite hetero-normative (I've been in a committed state-and-church-sanctioned marriage for a dozen years).

What I'm talking about is the velvet blazer, the plaid bow-tie, the fact that I'm vaguely ostentatious, flamboyant, chatty, gossipy, into theatre, concerned with home decor, the list goes on. I am, as you might say, somewhat (though not extraordinarily) "queer," and it's a persona that in this town I play up a bit.

In a sense, I'm just a test case. I've been setting off people's gaydar for years, and while that used to bother me, I realized that was mostly just homophobia (although in some cases, it was about the power of presumption). In fact, part of what I think I'm doing, here on this campus that takes its hyper-masculine mascot very very seriously, is opening up a non-normative model of masculinity in such a way that uncouples compulsory gender performance from sexuality.

This post is both a vague rumination and a query (I might say Queer-y), about the history of the word "queer" and about the politics of deploying it in a way that I might claim that identity independent of sexual practice.

I came up in a cultural moment in which ACT UP, Queer Nation (and Queer Campus), and importantly, queer theory were all changing the discourse, and reclaiming "queer" so I have little sense of how that term actually functioned before that moment. Of course it was used as a homophobic slur, but how, and when, did it make meaning as "eccentric" before Stonewall, or even between 1969 and 1990?

And is there a use in self-consciously re-claiming "eccentric" under the newer umbrella of "queer" that has developed in my adult lifetime?

I think there are some interesting precedents here, particularly in the intersection between queer activism and disability activism. This is articulated in academic work like Robert McRuer's, but also in popular culture like Lady Gaga's use of the term "freak."

And here is where some of this all comes together. In the last year, at three different times, someone has shouted some homophobic epithet at me as I walked down the street. And I've gotten these off and on my entire life. So while epithets and slurs are not the worst kind of bullying, I've been bullied a bit about being queer, but queer in the sense of eccentric--since for those young men (all of them that I can think of), they were the same thing.

As always, dear reader, your thoughts welcome, for mine at this stage are amorphous and poorly thought out.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Some readers will remember that 3 years ago, I went on a serious campaign to lose weight, and in the space of a summer, I lost 25 pounds (193 lbs down to 168). A few minor injuries and another child later, and I settled into a comfortable, though not ideal weight of around 180. Well, a long semester and just plain inertia set in in the fall, and I've found myself back up to 190. More importantly, my favorite clothes don't fit well, my strength level is down, and I feel sluggish--though admittedly, I do think of myself as stunningly handsome at any weight ;-)

Eh. But seriously. With the opportunity of a sabbatical to reestablish some better exercise and eating habits, I'm looking to get back down into the 170s sometime this year (a pretty modest goal, all things considered). And having seen the excellent success of M. Smith Lindemann I am inspired to take up the charge. The regime? Eat less, and more mindfully, and exercise in ways I enjoy: playing squash, coaching Rambunctious's soccer team, light weight-lifting, modest-but-regular cardio at the gym and at home.

We'll see how it goes, but I'd say it's at least as important as the writing goals.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Every Day is Yours to Win

Those who know me, and longer readers of this blog know that I'm quasi-obsessed with REM, and so the news of their closing-up-shop in 2011 was a blow, especially since they had released their best album in 15 years just months before.

But on that album is a typically Stipe-ean song that shares its title, one that seems at once idealistic and optimistic, while at the same time, knowingly ironic. And it is with that same combination of motivational optimism and vaguely weary ironic detachment that I trot that phrase out for my sabbatical.

Because I know that if I don't treat every day as one to be, well, won--against inertia, primarily--that the whole thing will be frittered away before I know it. And so without further adieu, here is the list of projects on the front, middle, and back burners. I won't get to them all, but I want to touch, if not complete most of them.
  • proofreading corrections to the book manuscript.
  • indexing (or arranging for indexing) of the book manuscript
  • The overdue book review.
  • The narratology essay, already 18 pages drafted
  • the pain essay (see the recent MLA program), currently in either 6 pages of prose or 22 pages of prosy notes
  • The essay on theatrical representations of terrorists and human rights, an extension of a recent essay, and maybe only a conference paper.
  • The essay on published autobiographies of autobiographical performance artists
  • The next book, which will have 8 chapters, with the following thematic titles: history, community, body, authenticity, space, gender, alterity, disability. Of those, only two chapters will be built from the ground up, and there are probably about 150 pages of extant prose to work with.

So keep your fingers crossed. To win tomorrow, I've got to touch the book review.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Books I Read and Liked: 2011

The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart by Glenn Taylor: Glenn is newly my colleague, but I am not merely being a good department-mate when I say I thought this was a pretty terrific book. What I think is best about it is that the novel thinks critically about the stereotypes of Appalachia that it traffics in, without losing the degree to which the region is deeply steeped in story. A book both suspicious of and inflected by postmodern storytelling, this book put Taylor on the scene from out of nowhere for a reason.

A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb by Amitava Kumar: A look at the war on terror from the vantage point of the bumblers and ne'er-do-wells caught on the wrong side of a global exercise of power. What Kumar does that I haven't seen elsewhere is that he looks at the injustice for those who were roped into and sometimes even entrapped in terrorist activities. So that human rights doesn't necessarily presume innocence, which is, I think, an important point to bring in. His approach is also transnational in ways that model an ethic rather than just preaching one. The book has its problems, but it's definitely worth a read.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: Egan's book, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was most interesting to me as one of a growing category of contemporary fiction that is taking the formal experiments of an earlier generation of writers, and and turning them to somewhat less solipsistic, more humanist concerns. Here Egan uses formal play with narrative time to actually comment on the ravages, possibilities, and unexpected left turns that the inexorable movement of time plays on all of us. More formally interesting interesting than I think it's given credit for, but for me, also somewhat less affecting.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: Can you believe I had never read it?

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker: So I read this while I was teaching the poetry unit in the Foundations course, and I kind of wished my students had been reading it with me, but I also know that assigning it would have been deadly. The plot is reed-thin, but it's a love letter to poetry that I was feeling pretty deeply at the time. Irrationally, perhaps my favorite read of the year.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit By Jeanette Winterson: Oddly, it took me forever to polish this one off...Partially, the crazy evangelical thing in this book hits close to home, though not in a way that is uncomfortable, but rather leaves me somewhat blase (more than one traveling evangelist prophesied a preacherly future for me...there's still time, I guess). Still, as a bit of a Winterson completist, it was important to finish and I think it picked up as it went on.

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht: While I very much enjoyed reading this, I did not find it the brilliant fabulism that the reviews sold it to be. But, she's a storyteller, and moments and threads in this were really lovely and wonderful. If by the time Obreht is done writing, this is her best book, then meh. But the potential here is really great. I do want to read her next one.

The Weight by Jeanette Winterson: I read this very early in the's a bit slight by Winterson standards, but a nifty little book, nonetheless. The image of Atlas watching Laika, the Russian astro-mutt sticks with me...

So those are the ones I remember. Up for 2012: Atwood's Penelopiad, Arthur Phillips's The Tragedy of Arthur, Julian Barnes's England, England, Safran Foer's, Tree of Codes, and maybe David Foster Wallace's The Pale King (we'll see). Of course, recommendations welcome.

So *that* was a year...

I tend to treat the new year as an opportunity to look forward rather than back, but given that 2011 was largely a very good year by most measures, a quick glance is in order I think. The highlights:

  • tenure
  • book contract
  • sabbatical approved
So those were the big professional milestones, all in some way slated for this year (contractually, or at least mentally), and so while in many ways this was a big year, it was also kind of pro forma. I know, easy for me to say. But because it was kind of pro forma, it also left me thinking and worrying about a number of other things.

Willow's job/career was one of them. Because of some unfortunate local culture issues, although she was perfectly well qualified (and in some ways over-qualified), she could not secure a permanent teaching position either at BRU or the local school system. This was, indeed, an issue, and my professional successes in the first half of the year were very much colored by her frustrations. And then, in August, sort of out of left field, this unexpectedly great opportunity arose as the Provost's Assistant, and she has gone to being deeply disenchanted with this place and this institution to being unexpectedly optimistic about her and our prospects.

This about-face has meant that my own thinking about my career path has been widely divergent, going from feeling somewhat apologetic about not only the modicum of success, but also a certain level of career commitment, to feeling oddly, not ambitious enough. All of this will sort itself out soon enough, I think, as we both acclimate to our changing professional positions and environments, but it's been a change.

The teaching year was honestly a familiar one, though at some point I may talk about the two tasks that really consumed my attention this year: developing the foundations course in the major, and become one of the department's undergraduate advisors. Both of these things sort of pulled me away from my research a smidge, but more importantly, pulled me away from my specialization, in good ways I think: forcing me to think about my specific areas of expertise in broader contexts, and to remind me of the things I haven't developed expertise on, but still nonetheless feel quite passionate about--a broad humanistic approach that is not currently emphasized in the current educational climate.

Meanwhile, our children are growing, forming personalities, achieving things, really just becoming people on their own. Willow's new job means I've been a more active parent, which has been a positive change in many ways, attuning me honestly to rhythms of childhood life that are grounding.

In sum, 2011 has been a positive year, and I'm certainly more comfortable and secure than I was at the end of 2010. How I use that security and comfort in 2012 is another matter, and perhaps this space will document that more thoroughly.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

So Resolved

There's a been, for me at least, a flurry of posts these past few days, and for this new year, my first resolution is to either post or close up shop. For reasons that will either become quite clear or remain a complete mystery (depending on the course I take) there's a lot cooking, and this space will either fit perfectly, or be singularly unsuited. We'll see.

The other resolutions are less about the new year, and more about the new sabbatical, a one-semester research break I've got for the spring semester. We'll see how I do with that one, especially since I've agreed (foolishly, perhaps, but still) to retain some major service commitments through the spring ( a large search committee, the College curriculum committee, and PhD job placement director).

Still, I'm resolving to set weekly goals, at least through April, and perhaps through August, that look like this:

Each week, I will:
  • Accomplish one major writing goal (appropriate to the writing project at hand)
  • Accomplish one project around the house
  • Exercise three times
  • Post at least once to the blog

Not too overwhelming, I don't think, but given what I already have written and in process, I hope to end my sabbatical with four articles and some progress toward the next book project. Depending on what happens for the summer and beyond, I hope to finish that book by the end of summer 2013 (fingers crossed).

About this space: Now that I am more secure in my academic position, this blog might shift in tone a bit; for what audience, I'm not sure I know. But among the new things this year, I am likely to take on something of a leadership role in the church of which I am a member, and so it's possible that I may take a break to ruminate on matters metaphysical, about which I'm sure I have very little original to say. But we'll see. Onward to 2012!