Sunday, November 24, 2013

10 Random Thoughts After Watching Dirty Dancing in Your 30s

Recently re-watched that classic 80s movie, Dirty Dancing. I guess it was a lot longer since I’d watched it than I originally thought, because I feel like I remembered next to nothing about it, except the abortion. Hence, random thoughts.

10. The phrase “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” actually doesn’t make sense in the context of the movie.
9. Patrick Swayze was 35 in that movie…I am almost that old and I will never be in such good shape. (He makes black look really good!)
8. Jennifer Gray was 27 in that movie…and yet she totally looked 18. Making the age difference between her and Patrick Swayze seem kind of…gross. Though now that I know their real ages, it is totally fine. 
7. Why did Jennifer Gray ever get that nose job?
6. Jane Brucker, who plays Baby’s sister Lisa, was 29 when the movie came out, further confusing me as to whether she is supposed to be playing Baby’s older or younger sister. (I have never been clear on that!)
5. Her performance on stage singing "Hula Hana" is brilliantly awful, however.
4. The music and hair styles are just as confusingly 80s as they always seemed to be.
3. I really really need to re-watch Patrick Swayze in North and South (1985).
2. The “dirty dancing” of the movie is really…pretty dirty. Dirtier than I remembered! Forget twerking, this is way hotter.
1. Baby and Johnny Castle have sex mid-way through the movie… Totally did not remember that. But it’s hotter than I remembered…

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

“Cooking for Company”

I love old cookbooks. Especially American mid-century ones. American cookbooks from the 1950s, 60s and 70s contain bizarre recipes with ingredients in combinations best left untested (though some have certainly attempted them recently) that are often overly complicated unless you have regular “help” around the house, or they demonstrate an overreliance on canned items (technology! progress!). The illustrations and photographs are unappetizing at worst and ridiculous at best. Lastly, the commentary at the start of each section and in the recipes is absolutely priceless.

Canning and preservation technologies were celebrated in the 50s,
which fed into the mantra of home economics--being economical at home.
This led to some highly questionable food choices.

Cookbooks betray so many of the commonplaces of their time, they are like looking through a magic window into another era. For historians of her-story, they are an invaluable tool. Of course, earlier cookbooks and recipes are also wonderful. Cookbooks of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, often had many instructions about how to appear in society, whom to invite to a party, how to arrange guests at a table, and what to serve at various times of day (and what to wear!). They was also often efficiency advice, explaining how to feed a family on budget or how many housemaids, cook’s helpers and footmen were needed for family dinners versus dinners for 50.

Case in point: On Mad Men, Betty has Carla to help out at parties.
Twentieth-century cookbooks often contain the same bits of advice, especially books written before the 1990s. It’s much rarer now, in a regular cookbook, to find suggestions on what to wear during a Sunday brunch. Similarly, most cookbooks now take it as a matter of fact that one person is probably making any given dish with no extra paid help. Of course there are gourmet cookbooks even now, but the kind of everyman (everyperson) cookbooks that are out there on the shelves of Barnes and Noble or Books A Million are often catering to people with little time, money or cooking knowledge.

Mid-century cookbooks are quite different. They assume that the person reading the cookbook is a woman. Who doesn’t work, most likely. Who has access to help and/or loves to spend the entire day cooking (when, of course, she isn’t cleaning). She might be totally devoted to her children, or she may have a bouncy social life that includes heading up steering committees at the Junior League, but she has plenty of time for cooking.

I love Ann Taintor's work, like this piece, that make fun of the 50s housewives
who were so devoted to cooking, among other domestic pursuits.
I used to have an Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking, Volume 1, from the 1950s, but I misplaced it during our move. (Hopefully it’s just in a box somewhere at my parents’!) Not only did it have amazing (badly-colored) photographs of the food (see below), but it had a brilliant section at the beginning on how to plan a week’s worth of meals for each month, with complete meal plans for all three meals of the day for a family of four. There was frequently milk on the menu for children, stewed prunes for the adults, and hot cooked food for the whole family for every single meal.

The inside of the cover of The Modern Encylopedia circa 1953.
Luckily, I recently came across Helen Corbitt Cooks for Company (1974). Here is the cover:

Yes, her dress matches the wallpaper.
This book is as brilliant in its pastness as the Encyclopedia. In some ways it’s better, because it’s all about cooking for company, so the recipes are complicated and the menus are ridiculous. Additionally, there are lots of wonderful tidbits of advice from Helen herself:

Chapter 1: Mid-morning entertaining: “The atmosphere should be gay and cheery…The food should be flavorful, simple or elaborate, but dainty in size.”

Chapter 2: Brunches: “You may omit a first course or a dessert and no one will talk about you. In fact, very few hostesses today really go through the soup-to-nuts routine.”

Chapter 6: Sunday Entertaining: Sunday Night Entertaining: “Buffet—who has help on Sunday?”

Chapter 8: Cocktails and Cocktail Buffets: “For those who drink, you can no longer provide just whiskey. Wine, beer, and champagne are becoming the usual rather than the exception.”

Little tidbits like these give way to a flurry of questions in my 21st century mind:
·         Should there ever be an atmosphere at a party that is not “gay and cheery”?
·         What else is in a “soup-to-nuts” routine?
·         Who still has help?
·         Why was it ever ok to just serve whiskey?????

The suggested menus and recipes are similarly titillating and strange. The menus frequently juxtapose foods that seem ok, maybe even delicious, with foods that don’t seem to match at all. Or which one would never serve today. For example, one of the cocktail party suggested menus reads as follows:

Broiled oysters Parmesan
Honey and Mustard Spareribs
Cold Chicken Livers with Mustard Sauce
Garbanzo Salad
Artichoke hearts (canned) filled with red caviar and sieved hard-cooked eggs
Rich Chocolate Cookies

How about some Sunday entertaining?:

Tournedos of Beef, in artichoke bottoms
Green Enchiladas with sour cream
Cold lobster and king crab on rings of papaya with curried mayonnaise
Flageolet Salad
Hot bread sticks
Glazed strawberries

Almost all of the suggested menus read similarly. There is an over-reliance on things like paté, artichokes, caviar, tongue, liver, lobster and sherry. There are often several meat dishes (why so many!?) as well as dishes whose names history has long forgotten—maybe for the better?

One of my favorite recipes in the book (so far…haven’t read it cover to cover—yet) is the “Little Princess Sundae”:
“Place a ball of ice cream in a meringue shell or on a round white cake to anchor the ice cream to the plate. Place a tiny doll head (found in variety stores) in the top of the ball. Dribble whipped cream from a pastry tube or an ice tea spoon to make the ice cream ball look like a bouffant skirt. Sprinkle with silver dragees and candied flowers (buy also). You may deep freeze. Place a paper parasol over the head when you serve. Little girls from 3 to 80 love them.”

Sprinkle with a touch of racism, and it's ready!


Thursday, October 24, 2013

(Not-so) Novel Concepts

This past Tuesday, Pulitzer-prize-winning author Michael Chabon (author of Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and more) was on campus to give a talk. Squeee! Being the total literary celebrity junkie that I am, I was super jazzed to have an author of Chabon’s caliber coming to give a talk in our little town of Nowhere, Tennessee. Not that I had ever read any of Chabon’s books…that’s not the important part! The important part was that I had always wanted to read his books, anyway, so this was really just an extra-good reason to get on that project, and maybe also suck up some of his literary glow just by being in the same room with him.

Chabon is not the first writer I have gone to see live, in person. During my PhD, I had opportunities to hear academic superstars give talks, including Gayatri Spivak and Julia Kristeva. (Though I drew the line at actually taking Kristeva’s class on Proust…all of In Search of Lost Time in one semester??? No thanks!) While I lived in New York City, I got to hear Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Lethem, and Margaret Atwood read, and in DC, I went to hear John Irving do a reading. What differentiated Chabon from some of the others (like Irving, notably!) was that, well, he seemed pretty normal. Funny, self-deprecating, approachable, genuinely nice. Which is great, since we all know what a crazy-bonkers person Jonathan Franzen has become…(I like to call him the post-couch Tom Cruise of literature.) Additionally, Chabon did not do a reading of his latest novel (Telegraph Avenue, from last year), like most fiction writers when they give talks. Instead, he gave a talk about…writing.

For the most part, I am not a fan of writing about writing. It seems…fatuous, self-indulgent, redundant, and boring. Kind of like spectating instead of participating. I mean, if I have time to read about writing, why don’t I just sit down at the computer and…write? Similarly, inspirational talks are also nauseating to me, as I can’t ever get over how fake they seem. I mean, aren’t inspirational speakers basically on the same level as, say, tele-evangelists? Chabon’s talk, however, managed to be both inspirational and about writing and about himself and his inspirations without being boring, self-indulgent or self-help-y.

Chabon talked about how being a writer is like being a superhero whose power is, well, writing, of course! Superheroes, according to Chabon, get their powers from inheritance (like Superman), discipline (like Batman), and/or luck (like Spiderman). Writers must draw on all of these elements or “superpowers” for their creativity. Chabon spent the most time discussing his story-teller’s inheritance: his father’s love of word play and his mother’s attention to detail, among others. But he also spoke eloquently about the role of discipline in the writer’s profession.

“You are not born a writer.”

This is completely true. There are no writer-geniuses. While there have been mathematical or musical child-geniuses, the same does not apply with writing. There are no War & Peaces, no Pride and Prejudices, no Romeo and Juliets penned by 4-year-olds. Chabon also underscored that almost anyone can be a writer—it just takes discipline. You must become the Bruce Wayne of writing: apprentice yourself to masters, practice, take a beating, and keep going. Those of us who have finished our PhDs can appreciate this on the non-fiction level. In order to finish a dissertation, you have to put in some serious ass-in-chair time. That is basically the only difference between finishing and not. You sit and write and you get it done. End of story. No excuses.

Unfortunately, the PhD was my excuse for a long time (over six years now!) for not working on with my creative writing. I felt like my creative energy was being sapped by classes, papers, and teaching, and that I had nothing left over for my creative writing. Yet, I managed to write almost a whole novel during one semester of my Master’s degree. Of course, there is no doubt that a PhD is at least 20x harder and more taxing on the brain than an MA, but still. In order to write, all you need is 30 minutes a day. That’s it. As with reading, the more you write, the easier it becomes.

In his talk, Chabon touched on what a lot of writers have said and written about being a writer, things I often reminded myself while finishing the PhD: You must write, even when you don’t feel like it. Put in your 1,000 words a day, or whatever it is, no matter what. Some days are easier than others, but any excuse for not writing is just that, an excuse.

November is National Novel Writing Month, during which people all over the US and the world pledge to write a novel in a month, aka 50,000 words in 30 days, which equals 1,500/day, a little more than what Chabon cites as his usual daily goal of 1,000 words/day. Lastly year I tried—and failed, giving up at just over 16,000 words (a clear lack of ass-in-chair time). This year, I’m gearing up for another attempt with a different project…and I’m determined to put in the ass-in-chair time to make it to 50,000 words. Writing and publishing novels has been a dream of mine since I was a kid—why did I give up? As with having children, there is never a “good time” to write a novel. We will always have other claims on our time. Thus, we must find the time, make the time, and commit to it.

For those more academically-inclined, Academic Writing Month or Academic Book Writing Month has started to catch on as well. The idea is to set oneself a goal that would normally seem absurd for one month’s worth of time, and to, well, do it!

So, although I don’t think Michael Chabon necessarily intended to present a kind of writerly “call to arms,” I certainly left the auditorium feeling jazzed about my novel, getting back to writing, and, in general, becoming the Bruce Wayne of Writing.

For all that, I say: Thanks, Mike!
(Is it ok if I call you that? I’m going to assume, yes.)


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fall Breakdown

So, anyone who knows me knows I love a good pun. When teaching an article on the gendering of meat, I made sure to ask my students, “What is the beef the authors have with this topic?” My students chuckled ironically while looking away in mild embarrassment. I simply can’t help myself, which is why the title of this post is not “Fall Break” (too boring), but “Fall Breakdown.”

It’s also called “Fall Breakdown” because, it seems, every fall there is a breakdown for both instructors and students. For students, it’s a result of the first round of midterms coinciding with the first (or second) round of papers at the same time they have the realization that—especially in the case of freshman—they had better get their rear in gear if they’re going to get the grades they want this semester. For us teacher-folk, the breakdown is the mid-semester head-clutching that starts happening when the papers aren’t improving, student morale is flagging, and we start questioning our techniques, syllabi, and texts. This head-clutching in turn leads to long evenings “talking shop” with other instructors, complaining about these issues as well as the general poor state of the American education system, which, I think we can all agree, allows its students to graduate high school and enter college with what many would deem a sixth-grade reading comprehension and writing level.

It’s hard to see the big picture when you are confronted with sentences in papers that have no verb, no noun, no visible grammatical structure, and, in general, seem as though they had been penned by a monkey taught to type on a computer keyboard. Obviously, some mistakes are the result of laziness—often flagrantly so. Not only do students leave words misspelled that any even half-way decent spell-check program would underline in bright red, but they also occasionally misspell my name…and sometimes, even their own names. Yes, typos: the obvious sign that you wrote the paper an hour before it was due.

Then there is the next level of writer error: the writer herself has no clue that she has
a) completely misunderstood the assignment;
b) completely misunderstood the text she is writing about;
c) merely paraphrased class discussions and sprinkled in some quotations with no regard as to whether they make sense or not;
d) so many grammar errors that it is next to impossible to understand the English in the paper; or e) a combination of the above.

When I encounter ten or more of such errors in a single class of 25 people, my faith in the education system begins to crumble…

This is generally how I feel about halfway through grading a stack of papers.
In discussing these issue with colleagues, we toss out various and sundry reasons for these issues…Student laziness, No Child Left Behind, increased reliance on standardized testing, Gen Y feelings of entitlement, school administrators’ resistance to failing students at the K-12 level or fear of having too high a drop-out rate. In the case of writing and reading comprehension, the obvious factor that students just don’t read very much for pleasure (if at all) is probably a realistic factor, as reading directly correlates to good writing.

So, what is a comp teacher to do? My job is to prepare these students to write at a college level, whatever that means. I take it to mean writing in a sophisticated, formal style that would be appropriate in nearly any job, whether in a lab report, brief, patient summary, grant proposal, etc. It also has to mean that students will be ready to write a variety of papers they will encounter during college: reports, summaries, argument papers, various kinds of analytical papers, and also lab reports, paper proposals, annotated bibliographies and reflections. When I think about all of this preparation, and the fact that my students are struggling with basic issues of organization and sentence structure, not to mention that half the time they don’t seem to understand the nuanced arguments of the (relatively simple) essays we read in class, I start to feel like I will never make a dent in all the things they need to know to become good writers.

When the mid-semester breakdown gets bad, I remind myself that good writing is not achieved in a day. While I myself may have entered college at a higher reading comprehension level or level of writing sophistication, I was not perfect.  There is, in fact, no such thing as a “writer genius.” Writing is never a matter of throwing words on the page (except, perhaps in the most basic of cases such as grocery lists or post-it notes), never to return to them. Writing, as I tell my students, is a process that, in the real world, often takes many more drafts than we would ever have time for in a comp classroom. Just as they cannot write a perfect paper in one or two drafts, so they cannot become perfect writers in one or even two semesters. I can try to give them detailed feedback, encourage them, and set them on the path to good habits as writers; I can motivate them with grades; I can make assignments that challenge them and introduce them to the requirements of college. Beyond that, they simply have to get through it and go on.

 I think about the kind of writing I did as an undergrad and even as a MA student—and I cringe. Even writing from the beginning of my PhD studies pales in comparison with my dissertation. And I have no doubt that my dissertation will be but a shadow of the writing I do in the future. The more we write, the better we become. The hopeful, optimistic side of me believes that my students will become better writers during the 15 weeks they have to endure with me, even if their writing level is still much lower than what I would wish for college freshman to have. Similarly, I hope that they will keep writing in future classes and will keep improving. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t think we need more rigorous standards at all levels—we do. But, as an instructor, I have to take these students as they come to me and do what I can: make as much lemonade as possible, to strain a metaphor.

So, maybe fall breakdown doesn’t have to be a breakdown. These are the moments, after all, that motivate us as teachers, even as we (sometimes) feel paralyzed by the size of the task before us. I will probably never come to terms with just how badly some of my students write, but I do what I can to help them improve. In the end, teaching writing is yet another way that my writing improves, too. After all, how many times can you write “where is your topic sentence?” on a student paper without thinking about where are my topic sentences? Similarly, I think back on previous semesters and I know that, at some point, most of my students will turn a corner. They will start to comprehend what it means to write a college paper and how to improve their writing, and they do it. Their papers improve—for the most part. Those who don’t improve, don’t improve because they didn’t try, which is a factor that I cannot control and, consequently, do not worry about.

So don’t you worry, either…I didn’t spend all of fall break thinking about my fall breakdown! I took some time off, put things in perspective, and returned to grading with hope and optimism for the rest of the semester. And booze in the fridge.

Just kidding!
(Not really.)


Thursday, September 26, 2013

“Stugots,” or “Who Gives a F---” about Immigrants?

So, K. and I have finally gotten around to watching The Sopranos. I say “finally,” because the show was on TV from 1999-2007. There was a lot of fanfare around the show when it was on, and nowadays many culture critics cite the show as ushering in a new era of TV that focuses on complex plotting, multiple story lines, and oodles of characters, many of whom never make it to the final episode.
            The Sopranos is fairly easy to get hooked on, as it has several qualities that are generally of interest to avid TV drama viewers: mobsters, wealth, violence, and psychological depth. The main character, Tony Soprano, goes to a shrink (the show even makes a quick quip about Analyze This at one point, demonstrating that even the writers acknowledge that such a plot set up has already been done). Similarly, the characters are varied enough that we all have our favorites, and even the characters that we hate, we love to hate. Shows like Rome, Mad Men, Game of Thrones and no doubt many other HBO and Showtime series are indebted to the plotting and characterization techniques of The Sopranos, a show that frequently introduces new characters and plot lines without explaining them overtly to the audience. And like the later shows, The Sopranos has some local color—the action takes place in Northern New Jersey, among Italian Americans who are proud of their origins and often pepper their conversations with Neapolitan, Southern Italian and Sicilian dialect and pronunciation.
            As a former student of Italian language and a fan of Italy and its cultural heritage and food in general, as well as a former resident of another North Eastern enclave of Italian-Americanness (Long Island), I enjoy the show on a lot of different levels. One thing that bothers me, however, (and I’ll try to keep it just to that one thing) is that the set-up of the show does little to dispel the mythos of Italian-Americans as mafia gangsters with serious anger management problems. Sure, the show includes characters, like Dr. Melfi, her ex-husband who is a prominent member of the Italian American Anti-defamation League, and the Sopranos’ neighbors, the Cusumanos, who are Italian-American and deplore this stereotype. But this rhetoric of resistance against stereotypes seems to be the exception that proves the rule. By and large, the show focuses on Tony and his gang of capos and underlings who use explicit language and racial slurs, have no control over their anger, resort to violence at the drop of a hat, and constantly drink and smoke. That’s not to say that the Italian-American mobsters who inhabit the show don’t enjoy high culture. Tony frequently uses SAT words and makes allusions to literature; the characters often watch classic black and white films; and even Paulie takes his mother and some other senior ladies to see The Producers on Broadway. These moments, however, are often jarring or humorous precisely because we read them as a deviation from the norm.
            All these issues got me thinking about how annoying it must be for many real-life Italian-Americans to be represented so often on film and television as either poor immigrants or angry mobsters. When I thought about this a little more, I realized that immigrants in the US are almost always portrayed as either poor or gangsters—when they get a role on the screen at all. This characterization flies in the face of my own experiences. My parents moved to the United States because my father got a post-doc position at an American university. Growing up, nearly all the Polish people I met had graduate degrees, often doctorates, in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics and other lab sciences. I had friends whose parents had also immigrated to the US from other countries, like India or China, and whose parents were also solidly middle-class and educated. (One film that does represent such a “class” of immigrants is The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel.) Yet, when Poles do get time on the big (or small) screen, they are cleaners, plumbers, mechanics or other working-class characters. And I’m not even talking about just the representation of Polish immigrants (who are usually either cleaners, like on The Sopranos, or gangsters, like Ben Kingsley in the film You Kill Me. Yes, there are Polish gangsters.). Characters with Polish last names are almost always working-class characters. Consider Vince Vaugh as Gary Grobowski in The Break-Up or as Dave Wozniak in the recent Delivery Man (the title says it all). Or how about Dave Lizewski, the underdog superhero of Kick-Ass? Or the Lorkowski family that struggles to pay the bills in Sunshine Cleaning? The list could go on. Polish-American seems to equal working class in Hollywood. Why can’t there be a doctor or a lawyer with a Polish last name? Why do Polish or Polish-American characters have to be yet another version of Stanley Kowalski?
            When we consider the bigger picture, Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans are not alone. Rarely are there characters with non-Anglo names in film or television (the one exception may be Jewish characters, who are frequently depicted in entertainment media as business owners, lawyers, entertainers and doctors, among other professions). Regarding the rest of the many immigrant populations, the obvious mental block seems to be that people (read: Americans) cannot readily believe that someone named Dr. Kowalski could be a brain surgeon, or that a Ms. Abruzzo could be the CEO of a company. On the other hand, at least Italian-American actors have many roles to choose from, even if they are the same kind of role (a large percentage of the actors on The Sopranos have Italian last names, for example). When the actress playing the Polish cleaning lady on The Sopranos spoke in Polish on the show, she had an accent a mile wide. A quick check revealed that, just as I suspected, she isn’t at all Polish in real life; she’s Russian.
            But maybe the producers of the show thought we wouldn’t notice…Stugots!

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Puppy Diaries: The First Week

For K.K. and I had always known we wanted to be pet owners. From the earliest times of our relationship we discussed all our hopes and dreams, and both of us were in agreement that pets—both dogs and cats—would be in our future. We adopted our kitty, Calliope, in the fall of 2010, after some friends of ours adopted one. When I saw their adorable kitten, I decided then and there that we would not wait another month. I wanted a kitten, and I wanted it now. After several weeks of driving around to different shelters (most depressing thing ever), we finally found our little tortoise-shell miracle in a cage by herself at a large shelter on Long Island. She was about 12 weeks old and quite the bundle of energy and delight.

Calliope was a grumpy cat before Grumpy Cat.
But we still love her!
(This is at about 4 months old.)
As much as we loved Calliope, we still wanted a dog. I had grown up without pets (I don’t count my guinea pigs, which were boring and stinky, mostly) but yearned for a cat or a dog or both. I had always vowed to myself that I would get a pet as an adult. Mostly I thought of myself as a cat person, but dogs appealed to me, too. Once I took up jogging on a more regular basis in grad school, I especially liked the idea of having a dog I could go jogging or on long walks with. K.K. had always had dogs growing up and was nearly mad at the thought that we couldn’t have one in our duplex on Long Island. It just wasn’t feasible there, however, since we had no yard, a neighbor downstairs, and a picky landlord. Our move to Tennessee, though, and the house that we found with a gigantic fenced yard meant that it was puppy time.
            We picked up Bingley last Saturday from a breeder near Athens, TN. (N.B. Cookeville is near Sparta, TN. I believe there is also a Troy and a Carthage, TN. So it’s not just NY State with its delusions of Homeric grandeur.) Long ago we had decided that we wanted a breed of dog that would be predisposed to pleasing his owners, a naturally friendly and low-key breed. Around the same time, I had proposed that if Mr. Bingley, the character in the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice, were to be reincarnated as a dog, he would surely be a Golden Retriever since he was so friendly, and he always desired to please everyone. (At the same time, he was very obedient in listening to his good friend, Mr. Darcy.) Thus, it seemed the very pinnacle of perfection that we should adopt a Golden Retriever and name him Mr. Bingley.
I mean...he even looks like a Golden, amiright?
A week into puppy ownership, I have to admit I wasn’t exactly ready for what it all entails. All our friends kept warning us it would be a lot of work and pretty exhausting, but no one explained that it was more psychologically exhausting than anything else. Having a puppy in your house is like having a stranger come to live with you.  A stranger who cannot explain his needs at any given time. I find myself constantly guessing, “Is he hungry? Is he tired? Is he annoyed? Is he sleepy? Does he need to pee? Have we spent enough time outside today?” After the first two days, I went back and reread some sections of the puppy books we bought used off the internet, and I felt better when I realized that many people get a puppy and then go right back to work. Our puppy has the advantage that one of us was home almost all day long, since we teach on alternate days. Maybe I wasn’t such a bad puppy mommy after all. Similarly, the book explained (something I had missed in my earlier reading) that between 8-10 weeks, you cannot expect your puppy to do much of anything, obedience-wise. You are lucky if he doesn’t pee in the house or whine at night. (Bingley does neither, barring one small accident. But one accident in the first week seems fine to me!)
            Of course, Bingley is a little bundle of joy, too. He is probably the cutest thing with four paws every to walk the planet (except for Calliope when she was a kitten, of course). He looks a little like a teddy bear, and sometimes, when he’s rolling around on his back waiting for me to pat his belly, I swear he’s smiling at me. He’s especially adorable when he’s asleep, pooped after a day of chewing his toys, running around the yard, discovering all sorts of new smells, and occasionally growling at his trout-shaped chew-toy. But it’s hard not to smile when he comes running over to you, too, to say hello and give you a friendly lick. He’s still transitioning from being dog-oriented to being people-oriented—after all, it’s only been a week since he’s been away from his mom and dad and littermates.  But it seems like he’s adjusting pretty well. I look forward to the time when he’ll be ready to learn how to respond to commands, walk on a leash, and sit calmly when guests come to visit. (Right now he seems to think of guests as chew-toys…) For now, he’s just a puppy baby: sweet and cute even when he’s growling at a stick in the yard. And of course he’s tiny—he weighs just about the same as the cat!
Gaaaah! too cute!
And speaking of kitty…Calliope is slowly adjusting to having the pup around. We have a baby gate set up for now between the kitchen (Bingley’s domain) and the living room and the bedrooms (Calliope’s territory—for now). The first day, from behind her side of the baby gate, Calliope observed the dog in a position that clearly screamed, “I’m ready to run at any second.” Sunday morning, it was clear that Calliope had not expected that the dog would still be here. So far she has alternately ignored him, watched him carefully, hissed at him (he’s barked at her only once so far), and run away. Increasingly, she has become more curious. At first she would only come into the kitchen when we took the dog in the back yard. Then she would scramble awkwardly onto a counter and over the gate back into the living room. Last night, however, she boldly sauntered into the TV room, which is just off the mudroom/kitchen area, where K.K. and I were watching The Sopranos with Bingley asleep at our feet. While he slept, she hung out in the den, climbing up the couches, but always keeping a watchful eye on the dog. She didn’t hang around long once the dog started to wake up, but this could be the start (we hope) of an interspecies perestroika.

Monday, August 26, 2013

I Hang My Hat in Tennessee

It’s been just over two weeks since we moved into our new place in our new city, Cookeville, Tennessee.

I know, right? Tennessee.

It feels a little strange to be living in a “red state,” after living in one of the bluest states of all, New York (though upstate folks may have more in common with the average Tennessean than the average New Yorker!). Living in Tennessee, I am technically no longer married. I cannot give my job benefits to my partner. Tennessee has a state constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage and prohibiting the recognition of gay marriages from other states. When the amendment passed seven years ago in 2006, approximately 86% of Tennesseans disapproved of gay marriage. The most up-to-date polls put the number now at 64%, which is still higher than the South in general, which is at 54% disapproval.

It’s also legal in the state of Tennessee to evict someone for being gay, or to fire them for being gay. While I don’t think that those last two points will be issues while we live here, it bothers me to no end to think about how our beautiful vows to one another are legally irrelevant in my new state. I also have to try not to think about the fact that both of our current Tennessee senators and 5 out of 7 congresspersons are Republicans (including the representative of the 6th district, which Cookeville belongs to).

I’m trying not to focus on these particular realities too much, however, since the politics of a state are not the end-all, be-all. So far, I’ve discovered quite a few perks to life in Tennessee. First of all, there is no income tax.

Wow. I didn’t even know there were states where there wasn’t any! That’s a perk, even if the sales tax is pretty high in order to make up for it, at 7% minimum in the state and higher in some parts, like Nashville, where the sales tax is 9.25% (that’s higher than New York!).

Registering a car is also similarly, laughably cheap: $38 to register a car for the first time in the state, tags & everything. Nice! Maryland is four times that. Of course, our rent is also incredibly low. We pay half of what we paid on Long Island, but we have our own house with a gigantic backyard. We are also close enough to school to walk or bike if we want to. In fact, Cookeville is small enough that you can drive just about anywhere in five minutes—unless you get stuck behind a school bus, of course.

So, things are cheaper here. People are also much friendlier. That’s not to say that people in Maryland or New York aren’t friendly! What I mean to say is that people around here are polite, very polite. Everyone says “ma’am” and “sir”—everyone. It’s kind of nice. “Yes, ma’am.” “No, ma’am.” I could get used to that. Most people are also pretty chatty. I still have my NY driver license (changing that tomorrow!), and when I have to show it to use my credit card (yep, that’s happened quite a few times here), people’s reactions are pretty much uniform:

New York! Well, you’re in for a culture shock!...But I think you’re going to like it here. Cookeville is a great place to live.”

I think it’s a pretty good sign when the locals are trying to sell you on the place where they live.

Our first week here was surreal. The house seemed foreign and strange, the grass needed to be mowed, we had no furniture, and the cat was going crazy with fleas. The stuff that we managed to bring with us was scattered all over the house, and we ate pizza dinners on camp chairs we had brought with us—our only chairs. We slept on an air mattress and killed roaches constantly for the first three days. It was not fun. I knew the roaches would eventually die from the exterminator juice and our real mattress would arrive soon, but it seemed hard to remember that in those first 3 or 4 days.

Our third day the cat caught a lizard in her mouth. It squirmed until she bit its tail off and let it go. Then it was scampering like mad up and over all our junk that was scattered around the living room. Its tail lay on the ground, still moving in a little S shape. That incident did nothing to shake how surreal it felt to be in a new place with virtually no belongings.

Finally we began to acquire some stuff. Some housewares and second-hand furniture. We gave Walmart a good chunk of our savings (there is no Target in Cookeville, something I still can’t get over!). We went to so many stores so many times that I went to bed dead tired every day feeling that I never wanted to go a store again. But we had to. We had jettisoned almost all our stuff in the Big Move from New York to Maryland, from Maryland to Tennessee. Some of our stuff is still in Maryland, and some of it is in Colorado, where we sent stuff we thought we would need when we moved there. That’s how late we got the news about Tennessee.

After 4-5 days the house was more habitable. The roaches stopped showing up so frequently and the house was tidied up. We got the internet going and were connected to the world. We got some pots and pans and cooked in our own home again. To celebrate our first week in Tennessee, we drove for a day trip to Nashville. There we checked out Broadway with all its tourist shops, honky tonks, restaurants and river views. We ate delicious food at Merchant’s for lunch and checked out some vintage cars at the art museum, the Frist Center. We hiked up the hill to see the Ryman Auditorium and the Tennessee state house, only to return to Broadway and get some margaritas at Margaritaville—of course. We drove over to Opryland for dinner in Opry Mills at the Aquarium Restaurant and strolled around the mall. I noted with joy that Opry Mills has all my favorite brands (yes, that sounds incredibly consumeristic but clothes shopping in Cookeville consists of Sears, JCPenney, Old Navy and TJ Maxx).

A day in Nashville made me wish a little bit that my job was in Nashville. Nashville had a great vibe—artsy, musical, a little divey…definitely a city. And certainly some of the faculty live in Nashville and commute to Cookeville, just like at my old job where people lived in NYC and commuted to the university. But commuting has never interested me…and really, for a smaller city, Cookeville is pretty nice.

Cookeville has a tiny little downtown with some boutiques, antique stores, restaurants and pubs. The restaurants I have been to so far have had great food and extensive drink selections. There are several funky coffee shops with wifi that are not Starbucks (though there is a Starbucks in town too) as well as at least two local bookstores. The area by the highway has most of the recognizable restaurant names, including multiple  fast food joints, diners, and places like Chili’s that we all recognize and reach for in times of need. It is also big enough to have its own public library, theater, orchestra, multiplex movie theater, and Shakespeare in the Park. And maybe I exaggerated a little bit about the shopping—there is quite a bit here.

On top of all that, there is the university right in the middle of town. Everywhere you go, you see discounts for students and faculty members. There are posters that say “Purple Pride” all over town, and there are signs all around the edges of campus reminding drivers of upcoming football and soccer games. The presence of a university also helps insure greater diversity and open-mindedness in general. We’ve even seen several cars with HRC stickers around town.

All in all, I’m feeling much better now than I did two weeks ago. Cookeville is seeming more like home. Our house is comfy and pleasant and we’ve even hosted some people from work. We’ve been out and about to campus meetings and orientations. Things are moving forward and looking up. Of course, I don’t start teaching until tomorrow, so who knows what my perspective will be like in 24 hours! But that’s a whole different blog post…

Historic Downtown Cookeville at twilight.


PS In case you were wondering about the title of the post, it comes from a song by George Strait, “All my ex's live in Texas”:

“All my ex's live in Texas
And Texas is the place I'd dearly love to be
But all my ex's live in Texas
And that's why I hang my hat in Tennessee”

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Kiss Me, I'm Polish

At the end of June I traveled to visit family in Poland. My parents immigrated to the US before I was born, so my brother and I were born here. We were both taught Polish and steeped in Polish customs and traditions. We were brought up to feel proud of our Polish heritage, and I was lucky enough never to hear a Polish joke until I was a teenager, at which point I had only scorn for the teller, rather than shame for myself. In fact, it was as an adolescent and teen that I became conscious of how extremely lucky I was to grow up with a second language and a second culture, not to mention all the trips to Europe that came with having family abroad.
It looks a little like Ohio, but it's roughly the size of New Mexico
with a similar population to the country of Spain or state of California.

            Many people in the US who are not white and/or have an accent are often immediately pegged as “different”—my parents, for example, get asked in our very own hometown where they’re from, even though they’ve lived in the States for over 30 years. I, on the other hand, often “pass” as American, whatever that means, until and unless a conversation arises about foreign language skills, travel, or ethnicity. Despite my fluency in Polish, my trips to Poland, and, most importantly, my Polish-American dual citizenship, I have often had people say to me, “You aren’t Polish. You’re American.” Perhaps this is true in the sense that I have lived most of my life in the US; however, there is a very big part of me that feels intimately connected to Poland and being Polish. 

I always get excited when I see signs of fellow Polish-Americans.
I took this photo of a Polish flag flying below the American & Colorado flags at what must be
a Polish-owned motel in Glenwood Springs, CO.
            For these reasons, and many others, as an adult I’ve made every effort to go to Poland as frequently as possible—usually no less than every two years. As a college student, I studied abroad there for six months, and after college I taught English there for another eight months. Aside from that, I have visited four other times as an adult. Most recently I went for nearly three weeks just over a month ago. When I go, I usually stay with relatives, though I have made concerted efforts to visit other parts of Poland also. On this trip, however, I concentrated my time in my mother’s hometown, where my grandmother still lives. She is elderly and fragile, and I wanted to spend as much time with her as possible.
Wroclaw, where I studied abroad in college and later taught ESL.
            My grandmother is pretty amazing. She was a teen during the Second World War, and she loves reminiscing about her girlhood, the war, and her parents. My great-grandfather, her father, was killed by the Soviet army in Katyn. He was a medical officer in the Polish army, and, like thousands of others like him, he was executed in a forest and dumped in a mass grave as part of the Soviets’ plan to eliminate army officers and the Polish intelligentsia so that Poland would be ripe for the conquest once the Nazis were done with it. My great-grandmother spent the war struggling to make ends meet with my grandma and her younger brother (my great-uncle) in Kraków, where they were sent by the Nazis, who kicked them and many others out of their homes at the start of 1940 in Kalisz. I try to imagine what that would have been like—to be taken from your home at the age of 13, not knowing what has happened to your father, allowed only a couple of suitcases of your things, and taken by passenger train many hours to an unknown city during wartime… And yet that was her life. From 13 to 18 she experienced the war in all its dangers and vicissitudes. Her regular schooling, like that of millions of young Poles, was turned upside down. She was lucky to be able to get a tutor and later to attend a business high school in Kraków—the only kind the Nazis would allow to function during the war.
            Before the War, my grandma and her family lived a quiet, contented upper-middle-class life. My great-grandfather had a thriving medical clinic in Kalisz, and many of his clients were Jewish. They spent the summers in the country or at the beach. There are many photos of my great-grandmother and her sisters in fabulous dresses and hats from the 1920s and ‘30s. She had a beautiful fox-fur coat as well, which the Nazis would not let her take with her to Kraków. My grandma reminisces about the housekeeper they had before the War, who would make her breakfast. Together we looked at a photo album that my great-grandmother put together, full of photos of my ancestors and relatives, my grandma recounting to me all the family histories that she could remember, including the story of my great-uncle Zbyszek, who died a war hero during the first days of WWII when his plane was shot down by Nazis. His godmother had named him Stanisław Florian despite the parents’ wishes that he be named Zbigniew. Everyone in the family called him “Zbyszek,” and the mistake was never discovered until he enlisted in the Polish Air Force!
            My grandma and I also spent a lot of time listening to Classical music on the radio or watching ballets and operas on TV during my visit. She is extremely well-read, and she keeps up with the news of the world, so we spend a lot of time discussing the state of the world, literature, ballet, art, opera, composers and music. Together we even attended a concert by the local symphony while I was visiting. Though she may not be very active physically any more, mentally she is sharp as a tack, and I am always so grateful to have such a wonderful relationship with her.
The main square in Jelenia Gora on a cloudy day.
An old tram car serves as the tourist info point.
            On my father’s side, both of my grandparents are dead, and I never had the chance to have an adult relationship with them. My father’s sister, however, is alive and well, and I visit her and my uncle whenever I’m in Poland. They are world travelers who have been to many unusual and exciting locations: Egypt, Nepal, India, Tibet, Peru, Morocco, Indonesia, Iran, and China, among others. When they travel, they focus on taking in the natural beauties of the country they are visiting. They have hiked in the Himalayas, the Atlas Mountains, Macchu Piccu, and been to the highest peak on Cuba. They use local travel agencies to avoid tourist traps, and they are avid photographers, so there is always at least one or two sessions of looking at photos from their most recent trips. This time, my aunt showed me her photos from two different funeral rites in Indonesia—a Hindu funeral and a Muslim one. I also revisited her photos from Cuba, which were from the era when my aunt and uncle still made prints of photos and put them in an album. A visit to their place wouldn’t be complete either without French wine and fancy cheeses, as on their “off” travel years they take their vacations in various European mountain and wine regions. What a life!
            As if all this goodness wasn’t enough, my aunt and uncle also took me on some hiking excursions during my visit. I have hiked in the Karkonosze mountain range, part of the Sudeten Mountains, many times, as they are very close to where my grandmother lives. For a change of pace, we hiked Mt. Ślęża and the Góry Stołowe near Kłodzko. Mt. Ślęża is part of the Sudetes foothills, but it really seems like an anomaly, as there aren’t any other hills or mountains around it. Probably for this reason, the pre-Christian Slavs thought the mountain was sacred and used it in their religious rites, and there are several small rock circles on the mountain still in existence. In the Kłodzko Valley, we toured the Chapel of Skulls, an 18th century chapel filled with skulls and bones of people who died during the 30 years’ war as well as from the plague. Creepy and fascinating at the same time, especially since it is still a working chapel. The nun who gave the tour pulled up the trap door and showed us all the bones under the chapel, and she also showed off a couple of particularly creepy specimens of bones, such as a bone that had broken in half and grown together crooked, as well as a skull with a bullet hole through it. The rest of the day was spent hiking, first the Błędne Skały, or “Rock Labyrinth” and then the mountain named Szczeliniec (The Chink), for all the large boulders and funny chinks in the rocks. Both hikes were fascinating in their geological oddity.
The sign for the Skull Chapel.

A tight squeeze in the Rock Labyrinth.
            The end of my trip arrived all too quickly. All my Polish friends and family wanted to know when would I return and would I come with my partner next time (the tickets were too expensive for both of us to go this year). Some relatives even asked me if I would ever consider moving to Europe or Poland again and working there. The idea is not a new one for me; sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had stayed in Poland after college instead of returning and moving to New York to do my MA in English. That’s another path untaken; who knows, maybe someday I’ll have that opportunity again. But even if I never return to live there, I know there’s always Poland in my future as well as in my past and present, because I’ll always be Polish (-American) and proud of it.