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decoration day

May 30th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Tom Vek: Leisure Seizure (2011)

Until the first famous president from Texas made it a federal law in 1966, Memorial Day was a holiday observed at various times throughout the year depending, of course, on the state and community. In Texas, Decoration Day was celebrated on the birthday of the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis (June 3rd). A statue of Davis sits on the quad here at the University of Texas greeting visitors as part of the marble statue welcome wagon, the infamous “Littlefield Gateway,” perched among other notable confederate leaders and, er, George Washington.

(George W. Littlefield was among the first wealthy regents of the University of Texas and a powerful figure in its governance in the early 20th century; a plantation worker and eventually owner, as well as a Civil War veteran, Littlefield sought to make UT a university that preserved the history of the south—in other words, he wanted to make UT the preserver of confederate heritage and southern pride.)

In other parts of the country, such as in South Carolina among African American communities, and especially in the northern states, Decoration Day was celebrated on May 30th to honor fallen Union soldiers. Many in the south refused to recognize the holiday, which is why they did their own decorating on June 3rd. LBJ changed all of that, as did the country, when the angry, white, southern part of it saw the light (the rest had already let the light in).

The shift in name from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day” means a lot of rhetorical maneuvering had to have went down–there’s a dissertation in that. Regardless, the holiday was originally so-named in reference to the practice of literally decorating the graves of interred soldiers with flowers, trinkets, flags, and so forth. The holiday is a decidedly morbid tradition that harkens to cemetery life in the 19th century. Many of us are far removed from this funerary culture, one in which the cemetery was understood as a park, a place to go with the family and have a picnic, to commune with the dead. Changing the name of the holiday, in many ways, reflects a change in how we think about death (it’s no longer part of the living room), as well as how we think about war. Modern warfare combined with various forms of technology—weaponry and communication, which are now mind-bogglingly fused—have erased the traces of bodies. Government officials and those who dedicate their lives to public service are closer to the tradition, and the U.S. government does a lot to make sure the citizenry doesn’t forget what the holiday is about (remember the dead soldier).

The strangeness of Memorial Day, to me, is that it has become almost thoughtless. Whether it’s the rabid, nationalist-type celebrating god, guns, and glory, or the cynical, anti-war type who had just rather avoid the crazy nationalist-types, it’s hard to find a middle-road for remembrance here. Well, I say that it’s hard, but it’s really not; I think because of our hyper-apocalyptic media cycles, it’s simply difficult to imagine a subjectivity in which quiet remembrance at home, alone, without a grill in sight or someone telling you how to think—is possible. It is (I’m writing this, anyhoo.) This afternoon at 3:00 p.m., I will take a moment—as many are starting to do—to really think about our dead soldiers, the profound sacrifices they made, the complexities of war (and it’s unfortunate necessity), the mistakes those who wage wars made, how I wish war—as “fun” as it is to some folks—was a thing of the past (how we’d be better off making love, but with protection), and so on. I am fortunate that, while many members of my family have been in wars, and a handful of my friends, none have died. I suppose memorial day is odd to me because (thankfully) I do not have a grave to decorate. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know someone who does.

And, finally, I want to think about memorial day the way it originally went down: it’s about racism and hate, and the people who were motivated to fight in league with these motives or against them. Memorial Day is ultimately a holiday that concerns the horror of slavery. Perhaps this is why the name of the holiday has changed? Perhaps we no longer decorate graves because the practice localizes demoralization memorialization to a specific, geography that too easily evokes “north” and “south?” Perhaps we have changed the name of the holiday, and expanded the dead to include any solider in any war, because we have finally moved beyond hate and racism?

Well, that is perhaps too optimistic. One person’s “moving forward” is another person’s “historical amnesia,” right? Very few of the students walking past the statue of Jefferson Davis will realize his connection to the holiday today. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing—that a divided North/South is no longer a defining point of one’s identity—or if it’s something to lament. But it’s something, nonetheless, and an indefinable, vexed, and complicated “something” is usually what holidays centered on death are about anyway. So let’s be ambivalent about Memorial Day. And let’s be comfortable and undecided about that ambivalence. We have this luxury. The interred soldier does not . . . and, in a complicated, non-clichéd sense, all the more reason to honor him or her.

it’s synth-pop friday!

May 27th, 2011 by slewfoot

r.i.p. janet the wonder-rescue kitty (unknown, 19XX—may 23, 2011).

May 23rd, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: The Decemberists: The King is Dead (2011)

I’ve returned from the vet, having made the decision to put my last foster kitty to sleep. This is the third cat I’ve put down in as many years, so I do think my career as a rescue foster is over. It’s too much; I’m just not cut out for the sad part of fostering.

I came home today to find Janet trapped in the handle of a basket (where I have an electric blanket for the cats). At first it was comical, until I noticed after I freed her she was having convulsions. I rushed her to the vet, where she was quickly diagnosed with hypoglycemic shock. Apparently, her insulin dose was too high (she was diagnosed as diabetic only five weeks ago). I was told it was a “uphill battle” to save her, and even then, she may have brain damage. The uphill battle for the next two days was $1400 (two days in the kitty hospital). I decided the best course was to let her go. A hard decision, but in the end, I think a humane one. The vet techs and doctors agreed, so that was a comfort.

I’ll miss this fierce old lady—she came back from the brink of death more than once. She was a fighter. She was also aggressive with her affections, and determined to wake me at the crack of dawn every morning.

Her story is a sad one (I detail it here). But, in the end, she did have some good years while she was with me. And for that I am grateful. Goodbye sweet Janet.

on depression

May 22nd, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Bon Iver: self-titled (2011)

A friend and colleague passed along a link to an interesting article in Scientific American about proposed revisions for the DSM-5, slated for publication in 2013. Currently, the manual specifies a two-month waiting period for the diagnosing the aggrieved with clinical depression. Grieving is a fact of life, something all of us have or will endure, and feelings of sadness after the passing of a loved one are generally recognized as “normal” from just about any perspective. The psychological community only deems a sadness persisting more than two months as a possible, clinical depression. The proposed revisions would lift this two-month test, making the treatment of depression possible to grievers almost immediately after the event of their loved-one’s death.

The article is interesting and relevant to my personal life at the moment. I have been mourning my granny’s death, and then more recently, the death of a dear friend’s sister. As I said to a buddy recently smoking a pipe on my patio, “How have I been? Well, sad. I’m in a depression.” At my age, I don’t have any problem calling a thing what it is; if I’m depressed, I just say so. If I’m happy, I just say so. I name it. I’m depressed. Period. It’s not despondency. It’s not wanting to get out of bed. It’s not the thought of razor blades. It’s not having a desire to work or write or research or grade. It’s just, so, . . meh.

Perhaps I use the word “depression” too immoderately, which is the core issue of the DSM controversy (for professionals, what’s at stake in the revision is pharmaceutical profits—surprise!). Depression, in general, refers to an unwarranted sadness—a sadness that is deemed to be too profound for the exigency, either in depth or duration. Having been in long-term, loving relationships with the clinically depressed, I understand why the DSM defines the condition as it does; I’ve seen it.

Of course, in psychoanalytic theory depression is not always defined as a pathological condition; for Melanie Klein the “depressive position” is one in which the subject realizes others are autonomous wholes. One worries about harming others in such a position, and by working through depression one comes to a more ethical relationship to others. The lesson Klein teaches us is that depression is not bad, that being depressed my be instructive and goad one toward a more humane disposition toward other people.

Regardless, since I’m very clearly in a space of sadness—and because I’m wont to intellectualize my feelings as a way of working-through—I’ve been thinking a lot today about the difference between sadness and depression. Obviously the “two month” waiting period for diagnosing the first as really the second is completely arbitrary . . . but I want to say I side with those who resist the revision to the new edition of the DSM, and not on socialist grounds (viz., my objection to pharmaceutical capitalism). Mouring and grieving are inevitable, human experiences and we all must “deal.” Enduring one’s grief and pain is a good thing, crying is good, it allows one to experience an life that is largely unconscious most of the time. In dreams we encounter our mortality, often in terms of the nightmare. But rarely are we made to confront the raw emotion of death as a senseless inevitability. And I think that confrontation is good and necessary.

If we were only made to confront the fragility of life and the senselessness of death more often, perhaps Klein was right: we’d be more ethical people. We certainly wouldn’t get so mad when that bad driver cuts us off on I-35.

Eh, I guess it comes down to the felt certitude that I don’t want to die, and I don’t want you to die either. That we both will go that way is reason enough to get depressed. But, depression is not always a bad thing. Yes, depression is frequently so miserable that it is a bad thing, and I very much want the depths of the clinical disorder cured. But I think what I mean to say is that sadness, in general, is a humanizing affect that we should not banish. There is even enjoyment in sadness, a kind of enjoyment that makes us be better toward one another.

I’ve noticed these past few weeks I’ve been the most moral, best version of myself in the wake of death; there’s a reason for that. I’d like to be the grieving me toward others all the time, but without, you know, the grief.

sleeping troubles

May 20th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Bon Iver: [self-titled] (2011)

I have troubles. Among them, sleeping troubles. I never had these troubles until graduate school, and they have worsened over the years. It’s often like my psyche is a hard drive that refuses to “spin down,” and with little or no control of images from the day, conversations and so forth, as they circulate. I’ve worked with my doctor to find an alternative to my favorite sleep aid (bourbon), and we’ve tried a number of things.

Mostly, though, the best remedy is to live a less stressed life and to exercise. I have achieved at least one of these (the exercise). Who knew professorship was so stressful? Well, my professors I suppose. But I wasn’t told that. My nighttime anxieties have lessened significantly since tenure, as there is a sense of security in that, now in these increasingly dire economic times. Right now benedryl is my “aid” of choice. I have also found that when school is not in session, I can usually get to sleep without having any aid. That tells me something about “school” . . . .

To help me with sleeping, I make sure my bed is also one of the most comfortable places to be. Some years ago I bought a king size memory foam mattress, which I love (after I got used to it). I have a few sets of very expensive bedclothes, and a weighty but still not too hot cover. I have a bazillion pillows. It’s all very comfy, and I reasoned, if I’m going to splurge on something, the bed is not a bad place to do so.

One of the biggest issues I have with sleeping is not getting to sleep, but staying there. I’m usually in my deepest, most satisfying sleep in the later morning hours between four and seven or so. I usually try to get up around 8:00 a.m., however, since school has been out I’ve been rising at nine. Unfortunately, early morning is where the troubles often begin.

Today I had planned to “sleep in” as long as I wished. The first trouble is that my bladder would not comply. About five a.m. I took care of bidness, and hopped back into bed. As soon as I got back to sleep, Janet the rescue kitty decided it was time for me to get up and started meowing, loudly. I threw a pillow at her. Unphased, Janet continued, ever-louder, until I had to get up to investigate. She usually wants water, so I went to fill her water bowl only to discover it was full. I told her to shut up and got back in bed.

My neighbor two doors down, whom I adore, recently adopted a dog, Andy, whom I hate with the passion of a thousand young stars. About seven or so my neighbor releases the Cracken Andy into the front yard to do his business, which, alas, is not peeing but barking. Right outside my bedroom window. A high pitched, little-shit-of-a-dog bark. I’m wide awake.

The effing dog finally shuts up, and I go back to sleep. Here comes Janet again, meowing . . . . She shuts up, but the my other cat Psappho pushes a food bowl off the counter and it crashes into the tile floor.

Fuck it. I’m up. It’s 8:00 a.m. I give up. Might as well just dance:

it’s synth-pop friday!

May 20th, 2011 by slewfoot

what’s a regent, exactly?

May 18th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Bon Iver: [self titled] (2011)

Most of the readers of Rosechron are my friends, and then interested academic types, as many of the things I discuss here have an academic character. I’m not afraid to share my ignorance or my learning process, and this post is in that vein: I don’t quite understand what a Board of Regents is, or what it actually does, in respect to the governance of a university.

How can I be a tenured professor and not know what a board of regents does?

Well, it happens. As a junior you are encouraged to put your head down and do your work and teach. The service-hydra doesn’t emerge until after you are “vested.” And then you look up and start to notice this massive machine whirring . . . administrators, complicators . . . er, governors.

Part of my ignorance has to do with the wide variability of such a critter state-to-state: in some states, regents have an advisorly role; in some states, regents have a lot of power over university governance. In some private school sectors, the regency takes on a fundraising role. And here in Texas, there are multiple regencies. It’s all very confusing to the younger academic who does not have the historical background.

As a “side hobby,” I’ve decided that this summer I will dedicate a little free time to exploring the nature of university governance and how the system works. My interest is sparked, obviously, by the recent political events regarding Governor Good Hair, the appointment of regents to the A&M and UT systems, and the so-called “flagship wars” occurring here in Texas. The newspapers have been running story after story about Perry’s appointees to these regencies, their ties to a conservative political think-tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the neoliberal policies this foundation champions. Reading all of these stories, it occurred to me I just don’t understand what the Board of Regents is or what it actually does.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think 85% of my colleagues, if that, knows this stuff either. Like any contemporary system, each of its parts does its little job, not having a full grasp of the whole.

I had thought for years, since the Texas boards consist of various appointees mostly from the big bidness world (including “big oil”), that the regency was largely a fundraising and advisorly committee, as well as the brains behind financing the whole shebang—the chancellor is the CEO, etc. It’s clear, however, the Board of Regents of both the A&M and UT system play a much larger role than I had assumed. I know that, at the inception of the state university system, they ran the whole show. I also thought that, over the century, they became something like Blavatsky’s Secret Chiefs—advising from a distance. I know they’ve got the power to fire the university president, and they’ve done so in the past. But I’m still a bit fuzzy about the power structure and how this all works.

I had planned to blog tonight about the recent events here at the University of Texas; the story dropped today that at the same time the regents were endorsing the chancellor’s recent statements regarding the autonomy of the university, at least one regent was on a micromanaging bent behind the scenes. But as I started writing the post it occurred to me I cannot say anything truly informative unless I was informed myself—unless I knew what the true nature of the regency was, their power, and their role. Talking to my friend Rosa tonight on the phone, it became clear I’m too ignorant to actually say something substantive at all.

So, stay tuned. When I learn, I’ll pass it on.

. . . and the gnashing of teeph.

May 16th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: The Echelon Effect: Seasons ¼ (2011)

While I am on the topic of the educational apocalypse in Texas, a one-two punch in leading national educational policy pulse-reading rags came out in the New York Times and Inside Higher Ed (and, of course, Jamie pointed us to the damning critique of educational administrators in The Nation last week). Many of the problems in higher education that these pieces discuss have been discussed for years. I can only assume these issues are getting more popular attention because of spectacular state budget slashing (For example, formula One racing is getting 25 million a year from Texas taxpayers, while the senate and house dither over whether they cut the university budget by 16% or 20% percent). The basic exigency here is simply that few if any educated adults think that education is bad. Cutting education budgets is akin to Sophie’s choice or self-amputation, so it makes sense that we are seeing more and more popular assessments of higher education. Call it a public hand-wringing of national import.

I think we can also make the case that these popular stories are part of a larger mourning process. Some of the authors disagree about whether there was a “golden age” of education (I’m inclined to agree with those who say there never was a “good time”), but they are united in their melancholy tones and admissions: the university has been corporatized. It’s done. The way the work of mourning gets done, however, is interesting.

The Times Op-Ed “Your So-Called Education” argues that public education has been dumbed-down, and this is the result of a shift from an apprentice to a factory model (my analogy, not theirs). Students are reading and writing less in their classes, and outcome assessment is geared toward customer service. Because students feel more empowered and because educational faculty and administrators have increasingly less authority over the classroom, the implication is that, before long, all universities will operate like the University of Phoenix.

To improve the poor quality of a college education, the authors argue, we need to re-empower administrators and instructors. Resources aside, empowering both requires educators to rely less on teaching evaluations, which they argue create “perverse” incentives to dumb-down content and inflate grades. Give power back to the faculty, and learn to assess in ways that are geared toward education, not satisfaction.

This suggestion seems to me both correct and naive. The ideology of neoliberalism, you’ll recall, functions by reducing all value to the number, all quality to calculation. This is, of course, at odds with teaching, which often trucks in affect and bodily intangibles (such as the role, for example, of excitement or curiosity about ideas). Now, the authors of the op-ed are right in calling for a change in how we assess—that, say, relying more on peer reviews of teaching and less on student satisfaction surveys better captures curiosity and excitement (presumably in narrative). But this, seems to me, is impossible to enact when states are everywhere imposing new measures of accountability that do precisely the opposite. Here in Texas, for example, the push is reduce the state-sanctioned value of every professor in terms of the number of students s/he teaches (see the story here). In fact, word on the beat is that the A&M chancellor resigned last week because of this assessment fiasco (apparently his attempt to weight professor ratings by accommodating more complex measures was met with disapproval). The assessment of faculty is no longer a simple, self-directed matter; it is political factor and will continue to remain so unless we public university employees push for what may be inevitable privatization (which Penn State is apparently doing).

Inside Higher Ed’s piece, “In For Nasty Weather: Life for College Professors is No Longer What it Once Was,” is much more pessimistic. This peace focuses on the job or role of the professor and how it has changed over the last thirty years or so. The author does an excellent job explaining the systemic problem of higher education, rightfully detailing how neoliberalism is the ideology behind it and showing multiple strands of causality: the rise of adjuncts and the general decline of the tenured professoriate; the increasingly pervasive, cultural suspicion of “academic elites”; the replacement of a model of expertise with the service model; and “brain drain.” This essay advances an interesting counterpart to the NYT op-ed: if the quality of education is growing poorer because it’s being “dumbed-down” in the service of the market, then the professoriate is, well, we’re “dumbing-down” too. The suggestion is that our most brilliant and gifted young minds are simply choosing to not become an educator because they are, well, because they are smart. The result is an army of adjuncts apparently too dumb to realize they are being explointed.

Now, there are all sorts of problems with the implications of this essay (who doesn’t know an adjunct who is brilliant and awesome?), but in general I think the author catches the complexity of the situation.

I must move on to grading, which is a part of my job that, I confess, I would be thrilled to outsource! I have two reactions to these and related essays. First: they don’t discuss why those of us who are educators are educators. We like it. There is something addictive about research, about ideas, and about getting students excited about learning. Somehow this “magical” part of our job doesn’t get discussed. If the question asked by some of these pulse-readers is, “why would anyone in their right-mind go into education?” the answer has something to do with words like “passion” or “romantic” or “addiction.” Neoliberalism has colonized the academy like the bodysnatcher aliens, to be sure, but have we become interchangeable clones? No. So while I agree with the apocalyptic mood, I wish these essays also admitted there is a little joy in this chosen profession.

Second: these essays, and others like them over the years, annoy me because they ignore service-course driven fields, like communication or rhetoric and composition. They begin from assumptions that are not true of most fields that were born in the land-grant university era. I find just about every assertion about faculty—that they can’t be bothered to teach ugrads, or that they have no face time with ugrads, or that we teach irrelevant stuff, etc.—-patently false when communication studies is taken into account.

It may be helpful for this national dialogue for someone from communication studies and/or composition studies to craft a short essay targeted to NYT or IHE that singles out communication studies as a “style” of education or what have you that is uniquely poised to meet some of our contemporary challenges. I’m not saying how we do it is perfect, but I do think our land grant based origins creates a completely different attitude toward students that our field has had from its inception. I need to think more through it, but in the three departments I’ve been a member of, I have simply never had the sense that we are not in regular contact with ugrads; quite the opposite. Nor is my department (or college) overrun with adjuncts.

What do we do, then, that’s so different from departments of anthropology or physics? And how can we recommend that up? I couldn’t take the lead on such a piece because I am ignorant of most administrative issues in higher ed; but I’d be willing to help.

falling hammers

May 11th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Ray Wylie Hubbard: A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There is No C) (2010)

Political showman and state senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio successfully had his “conceal-and-carry” bill appended to a higher education budget bill, which passed today. It appears this bill is a done deal. Another bill passed that forgoes parental permission for paddling in public schools, too. The ominous parallels. Ominous. Parallels.

As I reported in February, in keeping with the observations of Barry Brummett, the proposed legislation has been misreported—and in part because of Wentworth’s own rhetoric. The conceal-and-carry permissions only extend to those Texas citizens who already have a conceal-and-carry license, which are not available to most undergraduates (who are not old enough). Still, Wentworth is portraying this a bill to help students arm themselves against the next crazed rampage. Nope. Most of the students who will be able to legally pack heat would be graduate students. Yes, this begs the question, but I isn’t gonna ask that one.

These bills were just a part of a larger storm of educational politics in Texas. UT President Bill Powers gave an interesting speech on Monday that announced things will need to change at UT, while holding steadfast to “flagship” policy written into the Texas constitution. Unquestionably Powers’ speech was designed toward two ends: (1) to “rally” the base—powerful alums and faculty and such—and let them know there’s a “war goin’ on” and to let “us” know that he will not let Texas politics dismantle the “first class” status of UT; and (2) to deploy the politically savvy suggestion that UT is already down with a program of reform, as if to take the wind out of the sails of the more anti-intellectual crowd (four of whom were appointed by Perry to the regency recently). The rhetoric of the university administration is usually fairly restrained, so I find the UT president’s recent verbosity something to take note of.

Although I would stop short of saying UT educational politics is transparent, the fact is that the system’s numbers are fairly, well, transparent. Salaries of every state employee are freely available, and budgetary numbers are not difficult to find. Some years ago, preparing for the worst, the UT administration started trimming and cutting and making a war chest. Anticipating cuts, 15% of the budget has been trimmed in anticipation of what the legislature will do (and this based on a “heads-up” Perry issued some years ago in a series of memos). Currently this anticipation is in keeping with the senate bill, which hovers around %16.1 . . . but the worry is the house bill, which is suggesting around 20%. Word on the beat is that legislators will not settle on a budget by the May 20th deadline, and thus will hurl into a special session—incurring more nail biting. Educational policy wonks are saying the delay may be good for UT, in the end, as it will give time for people to get upset about their kid’s educational cut-backs and inspire phone-calls and such.

I’m not sure, however, what to make of all this hubbub. Given the rather dire things that are happening to friends across the country (my field, Communication Studies, is solidly a land-grant/state school kind of department), it’s easy to imagine all sorts of apocalyptic scenarios. When I started this gig in higher education, I came to the conclusion that apocalyptic rhetoric was grafted into the university as such; I’ve never not known of coming doom as an educator. When I started graduate school, my department was in danger of dissolution—the dark mood started then. I confess I just wrote it off as part of the culture; it’s certainly a part of disciplinarity.

But, having now become a “partner” in this particular academic firm, I’m taking the time to look up from my work and get a lay of the land—I’m trying to get a sense of the bigger picture in academe. As an assistant professor, my job was to keep my head down, to teach and to research. As I did this job longer, my responsibilities increased: now I’m trying to help others become teacher-scholars, and so the investment is more, well, more invested. And when you start worrying about the welfare of your students, you start thinking about the institutional environment and structures. I’m still not so jaded as to discourage students from going to graduate school. I still believe “service fields” like Communication Studies and Rhetoric and Composition will always have a place at the educational table because we teach basic literacies—literacies that are vital for civil society. I am, however, almost prepared to join Team Chicken-Little.

If Texas is seen as a symptom—and for all sorts of reasons, this state often is—then the current battles between the university system and the legislature and politicians should be troubling. For me, the trouble is not that the university has moved over to the business model; that one is a done deal. It’s lamentable, but unless you work for Hampshire College, it’s done-gone happened. The trouble is what kind of model is being pushed through, “accountability” and “outcome based” stuff, measuring teaching effectiveness in terms of degrees granted and how much money professors bring in to the institution, trying to double enrollments by requiring online courses, and so forth.

Today I had a former student—from 2006—visiting me during office hours to ask if I would write her a letter of recommendation for law school. She works for a non-profit, non-partisan child-advocacy lobbying group working to help disadvantaged youth. She said she decided to go to law school because she wants to work on policy, and right now she doesn’t have the credentials. She said our class together was inspirational, and that’s why she thought of me as a potential letter writer. The basic problem with the bottom-line models advocated by non-educator politicians is this: how do you quantify this kind of passion? My class didn’t motivate this young person to pursue a life of public service. I know this. But the class did encourage her to think about issues in ways that connect to values, public-belonging, and . . . well, nothing that can be quantified.

More importantly: this former student thought it was important to drive three hours to have a face-to-face meeting, in “real space.” She could have just emailed the request. That she did not tells us something about education. Online is fine, but only as a supplement. When we eliminate bodies-in-space from education entirely, we’re not educating the whole.

arboreal

May 9th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Twilight Singers: Dynamite Steps (2011)

Jeanette was eighteen at the time of this photograph. She was the fifth of six children; she was born in 1920 to pick cotton but figured out her own path, away from the sun—but never far from cotton; when she didn’t sow and pick it, she sewed it. The photograph is from 1938, a year before she would marry my grandfather and, I think, not long after she moved from Centerville to Atlanta, Georgia. The image bespeaks hope, perhaps rebellion.

Centerville was, and in some sense remains, a rural place. Barbed wire still lines the fields, even though the farms have shrunk and given way to a Waffle House and a McDonalds and a post office. Just three miles down Zoar Church Road, where my grandmother lived a life, Rockbridge Baptist Church still stands on highway 124, still with both sanctuaries. The old sanctuary had pinewood paneled walls and has this painting hanging over the altar. The new building was erected when granny took me there, in my preteens. I don’t know what it looks like now, twenty years since I sat in its pews. I do know that no one I know still goes there. The church went charismatic; pews were apparently removed for floor mats, for the laying on of hands. That’s when granny left, when the values laid deep resisted the hypnotic pulpit. Still, I remember the raised palms and nascent tongues—it was, as it always has been, only a matter of time.

My grandmother was a teenage punk. It’s the hat, and the lipstick.

The plummeting neckline on the summer dress is not Centerville. The vectors slant back, to the left, a Western conceit that connotes “looking back.” She’s looking back to the small, unincorporated town where she was born and raised, with the best smile she can muster for the camera (granny smiled a lot, often laughed, but getting her to do this “natural” gesture for the camera was always a challenge). She moved to Atlanta to start a new life as a seamstress in a factory. My family doesn’t know much about the two years she was there; she married Bob in 1939, we reckon they met in high school, but the details are fuzzy. By 1940 she was back in Centerville and starting a family, had my aunt Hilda, and then Bob was conscripted and off to war (pilot, crane operator, fought in Germany). When Bob came back he wasn’t the same. Over the next thirty years he would drink himself to death, at the year of my birth.

I never knew my grandfather. Over the years I’ve had snippets of stories, but mostly, he is (deliberately) not discussed. Last year for Christmas my mother gifted me a scrapbook she made about my grandfather, filling in some of the history I do not have. Mostly it consists of photographs. And there are some letters, handwritten notes he penned my grandmother from overseas, and they are lovely and dear and hard to square with contemporary life; these are letters written with the subtext of possible, unpredictable death over the second World War. My mother also gave me some postcards—not included in the scrapbook, as they depict naked women. And a few notes with dirty limericks he penned.

It’s easy to romanticize this old photograph of my 18-year-old grandmother, looking back on a farming life, now living in the “big city,” the lipstick proclaiming a certain independence, that neckline gesturing a certain confidence, that smile a resolute strength. It’s easy because my granny was the unknowing mother, a woman who raised me but who did not have the obligation of molding me (even though, we know, she did; I spent more time with her than I did with my mother in some important and formative years). As most of our grandparents do not do, she never passed judgment—she didn’t complain about the length of my hair, or tell me I was straying from the righteous path. She took me to church, every Sunday. She fed me buttermilk biscuits. And she taught me how to catch possums in a trap (and then let them go).

So much of my young life was spent on Zoar Church road, on granny’s porch; across the street I talked to the cows and, sometimes, even petted them through the barbed wire fence. Sometimes I walked through the small cemetery on the other side of the road; the church kept the gravel fresh. Small, pea-sized gravel, not the big chunks that made for driveways (I think that was on purpose).

I phoned and talked to my mother today, as we do every Sunday. It goes without saying—although I need to say it—that this was a harder Mother’s Day than I remember. Granny died last week. She was dying for a long time, stroke after stroke, eyes cloudy and ever cloudy, and I had mourned her death many years ago, when I first beheld her vacant eyes, in the home, where old people are sent to die. God, I hated that place.

Nursing homes are hospices; they smell of death and rotting flesh and callused caring; they sound of moans and cursing mouths routed from brains whose censors have rotted away.

But, in her death, I don’t hate—her place or mine or my mother’s or anyone’s. I’m in a sad place, a mournful one to be sure. Granny was a parent, and losing a parent is always hard, for everyone. I know. But, she was my granny, my confidant and for so many years my constant, my Waffle House dining companion and my gardening coach. And so now she’s gone, and today is an echo of so many years, of memories flitting in my head of a time of waiting, of waiting to grow up. Being a grown-up is a reckoning with death. It’s easy to understand, in the wake, why we are prone to romanticize the small stuff, or revise history, or justify the casserole (I’m sorry, one-dish meals still suck).

I miss you granny—I miss you Jeanette. I miss your laughter. I miss your “You be good now.” I miss our bi-annual trips to the Waffle House when I came home. I even miss your stubborn refusal to die.