31 March 2008

Ups and Downs...

Being in grad school feels, at times, a bit like being manic- It's a series of swings up and down. The last week has been full of them:

Found out that I got travel money for a conference in June--woo-hoo! (Maybe my project is insightful.) Found out a week later that all grad students got the money. (or not.)

Found out that I got leave from teaching this fall--woo-hoo! (Definitely will be defending before the end of the year.) Found out that I probably won't get a teaching job this summer. bummer.

Found out that I was a finalist for best graduate student paper at CEA last week. (and more than 5 other people entered!!!) Woo-double-hoo. Found out that I didn't get the long-shot, national fellowship that I had convinced myself I had a shot at getting (1 in 54!!). double bummer.

Found out that one of the people who acquires manuscripts for a press is interested in seeing my abstract when I'm ready...It's not an overly prestigious imprint, but I'm waiting for the other side of the coin to show itself any minute now...

It's like one moment you feel like it would be impossible not to get a job, and a moment later, you're planning your backup plan.

And while you're dealing with all of these emotional ups and downs, your toddler has turned into some sort of crazed banshee.

But then, a moment later he smiles sweetly and giggles, your students write decent proposals, and your husband brings home leftover eclairs from his class event.

First- Many thanks to those readers who have given me your insightful comments about dealing with tantrums. They haven't subsided yet, maybe th

30 March 2008

Terrific My A$$

Some people like replacing the "terrible" in the terrible twos with "terrific." These people have the idea that this "wonderful" developmental milestone is one that should not be immediately pigeon-holed as a negative period in parenthood. It should be embraced, reveled in even.

I had that mindset for about a week and a half.

Maybe not even that long.

The problem is that as wonderful as my dear, sweet Little Man is most of the time, there are moments--increasingly more frequent moments--during which some sort of anguish-ridden demon enters his body. This inevitably results in a tantrum, or a series of tantrums. For example, just in the last week, two of my favorites:

Exhibit 1: Little Man threw himself, face-down, onto the floor in the middle of the airport. It turns out, apparently, that when I hung up the pay phone and took it away from him, I somehow cut off his very happiness. His little body went limp, then stiff, then he fell to the floor. I, with stroller, multiple bags, all of our coats, and the parking information on hand stood there dumbfounded. The ladies working at the car rental booth chuckled, "I've never seen anything like that." As though I had. No, sir. This was a completely new experience for me. How lucky that I got to experience it with such a very, very large audience.

Exhibit 2: Just today, on the way home from the store, Little Man had a complete meltdown in the parking lot, when he decided that he wanted me and not his Papa to put him into the car. He refused, however, to ask nicely or to say please. Papa put him into the car, and we were treated to a symphonic melange of screams and whines for most of the drive home. Just as they subsided for a moment, we stopped to pick up some food. When he saw the drink that he couldn't have, we were treated to an encore. Or so we thought. It turns out that there was a second act. The child continued to scream and cry and kick and throw himself about for the next 20 minutes or so--it was a lovely, lovely lunch.

Here's the problem: he's not even two yet. I don't know how much more of this I can handle. Because the way I was brought up, this kind of behavior would get you a whack on the backside, and as I've written before, I'm not willing to do that to my child. I also don't believe it will work--I believe the science that says he's not in control of most of these "little" outbursts.

But somehow, I need to make it through the next, oh I dunno, year or so. So tell me-- how do I deal with tantrums without losing my cool? How can I help him learn to control himself? (And all those lurkers out there--I'm talking to you, too.) If you've never commented before, people, here is your big chance... I'm begging you.

21 March 2008

Start Spreading the News....

I have officially worked my way through Spring "Break." I have read the books I will teach in the next 7 weeks, made up study guides and questions, graded 34 mediocre midterms, annotated at least 20 articles, and took notes on 3.

I. Am. Done.

Which is convenient, because tomorrow we three jet off to the Big Apple. And I can't wait. We're going to see dinosaurs and butterflies, exploding cars and Jewish Delis, familiar grandparents* and new babies**. We're gonna eat dim sum, and pizza, and bagels, and brunch, and bagels, and bagels, and bagels for four wonderful days. It's going to be a welcome break.

New York is always a little special for me, because it's where we went for our Honeymoon. In retrospect, that wasn't the best choice we could have made. A beach would have been much, much more relaxing. But we had been talking about taking a road trip to NYC since we first started dating. We just never got around to it until the honeymoon.

We've been back two or three times since then, and this will be Little Man's second trip to the City. The last time we were there was when he wasn't quite a year old yet. He watched the ducks in the fountain by the Boat House and went to Times Square in his PJs. I'm hoping he has even more fun this time.

These little town blues .... Are melting away ....

More when we get back...

*J's parents are going to meet us in the city.
**We'll be meeting baby "N"- the three month old of some friends of ours that escaped to Manhattan about 2 years ago.

19 March 2008

Moving Beyond Black and White- Obama and Race

Yesterday, Barack Obama gave one of the most important and articulate speeches about race that I think our country has ever seen. I've been waffling between Clinton and Obama, unable and unwilling to decide which I really, really preferred. Yesterday's speech--all thirty-eight minutes of it--convinced me, unequivocally that Obama needs to be our candidate, our president.

The speech was an exercise in rhetorical brilliance. And yet, it was a dangerous speech for him to give. Responding to recently uncovered footage of his pastor giving what might be called "un-American" or "racist" sermons, he refused to disown the pastor even while he condemned what he said:

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

In this speech, he put in articulate and bluntly honest terms the racial problems that our country still faces, the problems that underlie the tensions we still feel. He quoted Faulkner, reminding us that "The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past." And he's right. For all of our reluctance to use the "N" word, racism is still a fundamental part of our national consciousness. It is ingrained in our American psyche. We still speak in the terms of "us" and "them," even those of us whose fore bearers were no more considered "white" when they first stepped off of a boat than illegal immigrants are now.

What I found powerful about Obama's speech was that he refused to turn race into an issue easily dichotomized. Instead, he uncovered and made explicit the underlying issues that still haunt us. He openly discussed the residual anger in the African American community for slavery, for discrimination, for being kept in the position of second-class citizens for hundreds of years:

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

But he also exposed the residual anger of white Americans--

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

It's an anger that underlies the fear of "the race card"--as though race can be quantified and contained in such simple terms. It's the anger that underlies my own family's racism-- the discussions of "those welfare mothers" who refuse to work and buy Cadillacs and expensive clothing for their ever-increasing number of children, the anger over affirmative action, the fear of losing some privilege or position to someone who couldn't possibly deserve it.

But Obama's speech was a dangerous one for him to make. When he could have just as easily distanced himself from the entire issue, could have continued to ignore the rhetoric about race and racism that continues to build around this campaign, he addressed it head on. By exposing the black community's anger--and by arguing that this anger can be unproductive--he risked angering the black community, being seen as a traitor. By calling out the often unspoken anger of certain segments of white America, he risked distancing those voters as well. By moving beyond simplistic divisions between black and white, he exposed the gray area--he exposed the ways that these divisive ways of thinking, talking, and acting about race keep us all at a standstill and keep the entire country stagnant. He challenged Americans of all colors to see that the only way to begin healing a wound that began when the first slave ship alighted on our shores is to deal with the complexities of the issue:

It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

But to do this it means that all Americans need to re-examine their own preconceived notions, develop a deep understanding of the historical traumas of those not like themselves, and to practice a form of empathy unlike any we have ever experienced in the more than two hundred years of the Union. It means letting go of angers and fears that define our very existence. It means recognizing that what your parents and friends taught you about how to look at and judge others may not be right. It means understanding that humanity overrides any skin color and that we are all in the same, sinking ship.

It's a job that seems monumental and impossible, but Obama gives us a first step:

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

His speech was elegant, articulate, dangerous, and beautiful in its complexity. It will not go over well. It was too long. It lacked the absolutes that Americans like from their politicians. It quoted an author that I'm sure our current president can't even read without Cliff's Notes and a cheat sheet. The signs are already there--on the NY Times Opinion Page, some readers seem angry that he refused to outright reject his pastor. They think it a grave sin that anyone (especially a black man) should speak so vehemently against white Americans, and that anyone who associates with such a man must be just like him. It's an understandable argument, but I find it odd that no one suggested that all Catholics were pedophiles when certain priests were outed and when the Church continued to cover up the issue. It seems that racism is the bigger, harder to erase and more contaminating sin.

And that, to me, is sad. Our country deserves someone who can think so complexly, who can articulate those complexities so articulately, who is willing to put a campaign in jeopardy in order to say something that needs to be said. Who is willing to call us all out in order to help us move on. I don't know if our country is or will ever be ready for it.

18 March 2008

The Two Body Problem...Plus One

I guess that makes it the three body problem.

But really, folks. Only in Academe could it be considered a "problem" to be settled and committed to an equally intelligent and driven partner. I vote for new nomenclature- how about the "two-body bonus"? Two bright individuals who will contribute and provide stability to a worthy institution.

Ok, so the Ivory Tower is a bit behind the times. They're trying to catch up, I suppose. In the 1970s, there where nepotism clauses that prevented institutions from hiring spouses. At least now we have a shot. (whoop. eee.)

But seriously, the two body problem is an issue. It's a bigger issue, though, if you have a three body problem. Or a four or five body problem. Maybe not if you're a male; somehow, having a family and kids makes you more attractive and seem more stable. If your a woman, you find yourself carefully expunging your professional website of any trace of baby--just in case that keeps your foot out of the door. Hubby, however, puts Little Man front and center: "My favorite budding economist," the caption reads beneath the picture of my two favorite guys somewhere in the middle of Central Park.

It's the three body problem that is even more difficult, because you don't have the option of living in different states for a little while (i.e., until you grow so far apart you file for divorce), because even long commutes between places aren't feasibly with a child in daycare somewhere.

This is something the second wave didn't deal with and something that today's young women are blissfully oblivious of....for now. There's a reason Hillary's campaign doesn't resonate with young women voters--they/we don't understand how monumental it is. As a woman, every avenue is open to you. The sky's the limit. There aren't "boy" jobs and "girl" jobs, there are smart people jobs and not-so-smart people jobs.

Until you have a baby, and then suddenly working like a man doesn't work anymore. And suddenly a "bump"* can hurt you in an interview. And suddenly you're on the "mommy track," even if you're not. You. Are. A. Liability. Your employer doesn't even have to offer you maternity leave if you haven't worked for them for more than 12 months.

Why is it a problem to be stable? To be committed? To be passionate about being more than one little box for people to fit you into?

I love watching the little undergrad chick-a-dees walking around without a care in the world. All doors are open to them. Nothing stands in their way. I was them once, never suspecting that the glass ceiling is a lot lower when you're wearing a baby bjorn.

*Really, people, who came up with this??

14 March 2008

Between Work and Family

"[M]otherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not."
- William Faulkner,
As I Lay Dying

In a recent Chronicle essay, the author writes that what academics really need is to have a passion outside of academia and their research--throwing pottery, writing novels, photography. In the same essay, though, he writes,

"Accept that you will not be there for everything for everyone. Certainly, a reasonable administrator will accommodate an assistant professor who, for example, cannot schedule classes on Tuesday afternoons because that's when he helps his elderly mother shop. But on the other side -- and trust me on this -- your kids will not grow up to hate you if you don't attend every soccer game and ballet recital."

My first impulse upon reading this was utter disgust. Of course he can say these things. I'm sure that his children didn't hate him for missing an occasional soccer game or ballet recital, but that's not the point. Not really.

It's not about whether your children hate you or whether they're irreparably damaged by your devotion to work. It's really about what you miss. This, for me at least, is one of the things I constantly wrestle with- how much is enough? Of work? Of family? How much do I miss when I drop Little Man off at daycare during spring break? On days when I'm not uber-productive, and just really need a break myself? How much am I willing to give up?

Because here's the thing- in the grand scheme of things, what I do professionally is not really important. No one will die if I only publish 2 articles instead of 3 one year. The world will not really be any worse off if my monograph on the way the culture of books effected the formation of a modernist canon doesn't get published next year--or ever. I am not a doctor curing diseases and healing ills; I am not a scientist working for the greater good; I am not even a lawyer protecting my clients from whatever they need protecting. No. I study literature. I love what I do--I love the rare books room and the archive; I love that I get to read for a living; I even love writing. But what I do professionally does not really change the world.

I was talking to J yesterday over lunch about this essay in the Chronicle and how frustrating it is. But it is also extraordinarily freeing. As I get closer to finishing, and as I prepare myself to be "on the market" (like a slab of beef), it's becoming more and more clear what I am willing to do.

I am willing to put everything I can into my work and produce the best work I can produce, but I am not willing to give up those 3 or 4 hours in the evening that are work-free, that are just to be with my husband and child.

I am willing to put everything I can into the job market, to make a real effort to get a tenure-track position, but I am not willing to make a second try.

I am not willing to work as an adjunct or a community college. It's not that I think those positions are beneath me, but I know that they are not me at all. At heart, I'm a researcher, a writer, an editor even, but at heart, I am not-at the very core of my being-a teacher. I like teaching. I admire my students and want the best for them. But, without the possibility to research and then incorporate that research into my teaching, without the possibility to have an upper-division course or to even supervise graduate students, teaching would eventually eat away at my soul. I'd rather work retail--seriously. PhD or not, I would take retail over adjuncting.

I am also not willing to work 60, 70, or 80 hour weeks. I refuse to give up my family life for an extra article or two that ten years from now--nay, three years from now--no one will read, no one will remember. I am willing to work hard, to be an active member of my discipline, but I am not willing to miss soccer games or ballet recitals. I have forever to get tenure; I get less than 18 years of my son's childhood. I will not give up witnessing that. Besides, no university will pay me enough to work regularly 80 hour weeks. When they start paying English profs 6 figures, I'll gladly put in my time. There's a reason I didn't go to law school.

I am willing to be open about my future. I can just as easily see myself working in publishing as I can being an assistant professor. Not getting a job next year will destroy me only a little. Then I'll pick myself up and go for plan B--maybe another baby, maybe freelance writing, maybe getting into publishing. I'm willing to accept that I don't have what it takes to be a professor at least somewhat gracefully.

Because the bottom line is that I do have other interests outside of my research. I am interested in building a life with my husband for many years to come. I am interested in raising a child who will make the world a better place through his very being in it. Those are the places where I can have an impact. My family is my primary passion. And I have hobbies besides.

The thing is, I can imagine a world where I am not an academic- where I'm not even using one of my many degrees. I cannot, however, imagine living in a world where I am not J's wife or Little Man's mother. Nor should I have to.

06 March 2008

Growing up Dago

I'm 3/4 Italian.

My dad's full-blooded, both sides of his family having come from Sicily; my mom's 1/2 on her father's side. Growing up, I was lucky enough to have known my mother's grandfather until I was into High School. I knew he came over on the boat when he was 12 or 13. I knew that he came knowing no English, that his family settled in Pennsylvania and then moved to Akron to work in the rubber factories.

Anyone who has ever seen an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond knows that Italian heritage is overwhelming. Family's--or at least my family-- stayed closely knit, remain closely knit through multiple generations and branches. Being Italian-American dominated my childhood. We made gallons of pasta sauce to freeze every summer, we danced tarantellas at every wedding, we celebrated Christmas Eve as only good transplanted Italians can.

Growing up I was always fascinated by family history. I loved knowing exactly where my family came from; I loved that I had so much Italian blood running through my veins when most people in my generation are decidedly American mutts. I loved looking at old photographs and hearing stories about where ancestors settles and how they made their livings in a new country. I wanted desperately to speak the language (I still do) and to go back to the old country.

When my plane landed in Milan in June of 2000, I was only the second in my family ever to go back there. (My mom had gone in the 70s.) Not to the towns from which my family came, but to Italy more generally. For two months I marveled at the landscape, the food, the beauty of the people. I suddenly understood that the decision to immigrate was a more monumental one than I will ever understand. Despite what must have been overwhelming poverty or economic uncertainty, to look back at the Mediterranean coast for the last time must have been heart-breaking. I loved everything about Italy, two months later I seriously considered not getting on the return flight. When I took J back there in 2005, landing in Milan after three days in Paris felt strangely like coming home. Despite wanting to see more of Europe, I consistently ache to go back to Italy and can't imagine planning any trip across the Atlantic that does not include a stopover somewhere on the Italian peninsula.

Growing up I couldn't not identify myself as Italian, but so much of this came directly from my great-grandfather. He was the one living link that we had to the old country. As he aged, living alone until his early 90s, he seemed to regress back into some sort of strange peasant lifestyle, cooking whatever was available each day in a pressure cooker while he tended his goats and chickens. Perhaps it's because no Italian grandmothers survived in my memory, perhaps it's because our family is so decidedly patriarchal (or at least that's what the women lead the men to think), perhaps it's because I was so very short sited, but I never really considered the women.

And then, two nights ago I wandered onto the Ellis Island homepage and discovered them all over again. We had always thought that my great-grandfather came over first, with his father. But on the Ellis Island website, you can search for your ancestors and see scanned ship manifests. He actually came with his mother--one of the thousands of Maria's that left Europe in the early part of the twentieth century.

Sometime in June of 1913, Maria Figurelli left the port of Naples with her 4 living children. She was only 2 or 3 years older than I am right now, but her children ranged in age from 12 to 2. She had $60 to her name, she could not read or write, she left no addresses for friends and family remaining in Italy. Sometime in June 1913, she boarded a boat with four children and every expectation that she would be able to make her way to a husband who waited for her in Williamsburg, PA.

Did anyone meet her at the docks? Had she had any contact with her husband who left almost a year earlier? Did she travel with friends or alone? The ship's manifest tells us none of these things, but it uncovered for me a new story to figure out. For so long my focus had been on the men who made a new life here. Now I think about women not much older (and on my father's side far younger) than I am now and what strength they must have had to come.

04 March 2008

Random Bullets

  • I hate writing exams. Blech. Trying to find that perfect balance between questions that are too objective--and therefore too easy--and questions that are not too subjective--and therefore ungradable--while not being "tricky" is just a nightmare. Blech again.
  • I love our singing class, Little Man loves our singing class, but I'm wondering how much longer we can keep going. It's moving from being moderately across town to way-the-heck across town, and it seems like we finish later and later. It kind of puts a cramp in one of my few class-free days to work. But he loves it.
  • I am sick of weather that can't make up its mind. It was over 60 on Sunday, and today we have snow, sleet, and freezing temps. When will spring EVER get here?
  • I am ready for Spring Break right now. I know there's another week and a half to go, but in that short time I have to grade papers, give an exam, and grade an exam. And all I really want to do is get back to work on Chapter #3.
  • Little Man is addicted to the TV. Specifically, he's addicted to Aladdin. In the last week, we've watched it at least 8 times. It's a great movie, but really...we've gotta get him into something else.
  • Is it crazy that I'm already planning his birthday (it's in April)?? I like planning things, especially parties. Especially parties where we may have a 3-D Elephant Cake. Especially parties where said elephant cake is dark chocolate with hazelnut cream and fudge filling. I just can't decide whether to do Elephants or Aladdin. He sure seems to like Aladdin too...
  • I'm kind of excited to watch the results come in tonight. I was a poli-sci major for most of my undergrad career, so politics is interesting for me. And I don't remember a primary in my lifetime being this close or unsettled. I also don't remember a primary where I was torn between two candidates. It's great- no matter who the democratic nominee is, I'm happy. As for McCain..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz Man, that guy is just boring to listen to. He could put the entire country in a coma.
  • Dear illiterate parents at the mall- see that little sign with the person holding out their hand about yay-high? That sign shows how tall you can be to play in the playground. Your 10 year old--the one that's almost as tall as me--is really, really much too big to be running around with 3 and 4 year olds. Really. You might have figured that out when you saw that the slide only comes up to your kid's kneecaps.
  • Dear literate parents at the mall who just ignore the sign- if your precious little preteen runs over my toddler one more time.......
  • Is it spring yet??