Vassar’s Creative Writing Program – Pros and Cons

Below is a comment I posted on the “Don’t Let Vassar Silence Writers” Facebook page in 2010, a group that was trying to prevent deep cuts to the Vassar Creative Writing program. I’ve also included (with permission) the comments of some of my fellow alums, all of whom were active with me in the student-run literary magazine Helicon. Students a year or two ahead of me founded the magazine. I served as Helicon’s Managing Editor during my senior year (1994-1995).

I had aspirations to become a published poet and “woman of letters” when I enrolled at Vassar. I was very confident — perhaps even arrogant — about my writing abilities. Vassar’s English department completely destroyed that confidence. This was in the early 90s, when the entire extent of the Creative Writing program consisted of Composition, Narrative Writing, Verse Writing, and Senior Composition. I took them all except for Senior Comp. That year, the only slot given to a poet went to a young man I’d never met.

The education I got at Vassar was very good, and the English literature program is rigorous and outstanding. On reflection, I’m not sure that I would change my decision to study at Vassar. But it definitely stifled my ability to write creatively. As a writer, I’m still recovering from that experience almost 15 years later.

Sarah Fnord Avery: My experience in the classroom at Vassar was overwhelmingly positive…until the Senior Creative Writing Seminar. The professor teaching it that semester was clueless about poetry, actively hostile toward genre fiction, and occasionally offensive to women in his choice of assigned model texts. All three of the poets in the seminar that year were consistently frustrated. I learned far more from my classmates than from the prof.

Strangely, the thing that happened at Vassar that came closest to silencing me as a writer was that my professors encouraged me to go to grad school. They thought they were helping me establish a writing life, but the academic job market and the process of preparing for it had changed so much between the 70s, when they got their degrees and positions, and the 90s, they had no idea what they were urging me into.Vassar I would definitely choose over again, but not grad school. Rutgers was a mitigated disaster, but a disaster nonetheless.
January 11, 2010 at 08:08pm

Sara Susanna Moore: I took only one writing course at Vassar, a required course for my degree– I think it was Composition. It was taught by Heinz Insu Fenkl, on whom I had a terrible crush. So of course I took his critiques of my work very personally and was terrified to talk to him. Plus, I was the only senior in a class of first-years, so we mostly sat in silence, as everyone was terrified to talk. It was possibly the worst class I had at Vassar, not entirely Prof. Fenkl’s fault, though it might have been his first teaching position. At the end of the semester, right before graduation, I screwed up my courage and went to his office hours, and put one question to him: “What kind of job would a PhD in English give me in the current job market?” He answered: “*Maybe* a position at a community college.” And then proceeded to layer on more things that were intended to discourage me from pursuing that degree, at all, ever.

So I never went down that road, though later I applied to Bennington’s “low impact residency” poetry MFA program (“rhyming by mail” as one friend put it) and didn’t get in. Another friend applied to the Bennington MFA in memoir, got in, and was disappointed. So, altogether I’m glad I pursued poetry on my own terms and instead went to grad school for something that looks like it will be pretty marketable. (Check back in with my later in the summer about that.)Back to Vassar: I took two classes in poetry, namely modern and romantic poets. I took them at the same time, the first semester of my senior year. I think we were doing Blake and Pound at the same time when the US invaded Haiti, using the 10th Mtn. Division (whose home is the army base near where I grew up) as the lead force. The combination of those poets and that event nearly gave me a nervous breakdown. I’m not kidding. But that’s not the fault of the professors.The Vassar English Department did me one solid on the poetry front: Eamon Grennan agreed to see me on a semi-regular basis and discuss my poetry with me. So I kind of had a non-credited tutoring arrangement with him, which I enjoyed. But I really got my poetry nurtured and improved by Helicon (tipping my hat to Sarah and Adriane). That was an amazing collective.
January 12, 2010 at 12:24am

Karen Schmeelk-Cone: As one of the scientist members of Helicon, it was great to be able to write and get encouragement since even getting into English classes was difficult. I wanted to take a creative writing course, but ended up in Expository Writing, I think in my Junior year. Interestingly taught by Dr. Joyce (I think) – he used a computer program which was somewhat like the web – you could link parts of your writing back to other parts or to things others had written. And the class used a program that seems a lot like FB – students commented back and forth during the class – so you could have 2-3 discussions at a time. And he was quite liberal with his version of expository writing. I remember coming up with a college catalog version of the requirements and courses in a fictional Homicide major. It was lots of fun to write.

But it really seemed like an impossible task to first get into English classes, then to achieve anything greater than a B if you weren’t an English major. Really one of my few frustrations at Vassar. But then, I was there for biopsychology and not writing.
January 12, 2010 at 10:18am

Bisexual Visibility Week: On the Definition of a Lesbian

In honor of Bisexual Visibility Week, I present to you an essay I first posted to the Garden in my early twenties. It’s gone through many iterations since then. Over the decades, the details of my love life have changed, but the fact of my bisexuality — or my queerness, if you reject the binary gender model — remains constant.

On the Definition of a Lesbian

Depending on who you talk to, I am or am not a lesbian. If you define a lesbian as someone who resides on a small island off the coast of Greece, then I am not a lesbian. If you define a lesbian as a woman who is exclusively attracted to women, then I am not a lesbian. If you define a lesbian as a woman who emotionally, sexually, and spiritually centers her life around women, then I am a lesbian. [Editor’s Note: These days, I have a male partner. So I guess I have to give my toaster back and stop calling myself a lesbian.]

I’m much more comfortable with the term “bisexual” than I was when I was a young, confused baby dyke in the early 90s. I shied away from the term partly because of my own internalized biphobia, but mainly because the GL part of GLBT has always been the more respectable side of the rainbow. It can be difficult for people to accept bisexuality as a bona fide identity rather than some phase I’m going through. Lesbians don’t trust us, and men usually get glassy-eyed and say “I’ll be in my bunk.” Or if they’re particularly clueless, they might ask the following questions:

  • “Can I watch?”
  • “Did you ever do it with both at the same time?”
  • “Will you do it with me and my girlfriend?”
  • “Can I watch?”

Depending on how polite they are, they may or may not ask these questions outright. In the past, the ones who did usually got these responses: No, Yes, Probably Not, No.

I suppose there are any number of reasons why many straight men are so fascinated with lesbians. My favorite explanation is that they’re threatened by any situation in which they’re irrelevant, and that colonizing the lesbian experience through voyeurism somehow soothes their fragile egos. Hence the large volume of by-men-for-men “lesbian” porn. Pro tip: most dykes don’t have long nails. It’s hard to get your hands in the right places if you do. Even femme dykes usually keep the first two nails on their dominant hands short for just this reason. Unless they’re total pillow queens. Or prefer… well, there’s infinite variety to human sexual behavior. But this essay is about identity politics more than sex. So let’s talk about identity, and the labels we use to define our sexuality. Or better yet, let me just tell you about mine.

Early in my twenties, I generally identified as a lesbian, even though I continued to be attracted to both sexes. Sometimes I said I was a lesbian. Sometimes I said I was gay. Sometimes I would ironically (but not really ironically) say that I was a traitor to my own kind. Sometimes I said I liked girls and boys. And if I was feeling the need to be really, really exact, I’d say I was a lesbian-identified bisexual. In fact, that’s still the term I prefer today. Why do I use it even though my partner is a man? For the same reason I used it when my partner was a woman: just to piss you off.

Bi community? What’s that?

When I moved from upstate New York to Connecticut in 1996, I found a thriving gay and lesbian community. But I got this vibe off the lesbians I met that bisexuality was not an option. This kind of attitude was not uncommon. And considering the struggle for lesbian identity that went on in the 1970s and 1980s, it was understandable. I myself had fallen prey to the ol’ stereotype of the bi-curious female who just wants to experiment a little but isn’t really gay and oh look, I just dropped my towel but I’m not really gay, I just like toying with your affections. I never mentioned my relationships with men to these friends for fear of being cast out of a community it had taken me so long to find.

Then I discovered a group of people who didn’t have any trouble at all calling themselves bisexual. I went to a Bi Net USA conference in August of 1997, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to play the pronoun game. In fact, very little I said shocked them. It was through that organization that I connected with members of Conn Bi Nation, an activist and social support group based in Hartford. This group was an important part of my own coming-out process, and it gave me a feeling of community in a time and place where gay-ness of any kind was not generally accepted.

For a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, I’m no longer much connected with the bi movement (or with queer activist groups, which tend to cater to young, single people with plenty of energy). It appears to be alive and well, though. Bi Net USA has a nationwide listing of groups on its website. I’ve found a number of groups on Facebook and am sure they exist elsewhere on the Tubes as well. Boston — my current home — is also home to the Bisexual Resource Center, a wonderful organization spearheaded by Robyn Ochs, a Harvard professor and long-time bi activist. Robyn is the editor of a number of great books and newsletters, including Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World and the recently published Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men. The BBWN’s Bi Women Quarterly is one of the few ways I connect with a larger community of bi and queer women. We’re easily mis-identified — even by our own — and especially when we’re paired up.

Some queers have said to me, “I’ve come out once. I don’t want to do it again.” But for me, the whole point of coming out was about being true to myself and my sexuality. In America, it’s easier to be one or the other, and it’s still not very easy to be gay in many parts of the country. But I’ve never been one to do things the easy way. And at the end of the day, living a lie is way more difficult than embracing the truth about your sexual needs and desires, whatever they may be.

The Paradox of Body Acceptance

Image of street art reading "Love your fat body"
Photo credit: Green Kozi, via Flickr

Fat acceptance isn’t always about loving your body. It’s not always about standing up and proclaiming that fat is flabulous. Sometimes fat acceptance is just about accepting your body as it is at this moment.

My road to fat acceptance has been a long and winding one. Unlike some of the larger voices in the movement, I’m not a lifelong fattie. I’ve fluctuated up and down in body size since childhood, although I’ve been holding steady at my current size for the last decade or so. My first introduction was back in 1996, when my mother gave me a book called Nothing to Lose: A Guide to Sane Living in a Larger Body, by Cheri Erdman. This was long before the fatosphere — even before the blogosphere — and it was the first time I was exposed to the idea that fat people shouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies. I’d already gone through two large fluctuations in weight at that point: once in the sixth grade, and once again in college. In the sixth grade, my mother took me aside one day and told me that obesity ran in our family, and that I “had to be careful.” I joined the YMCA and began to run every day. I still remember one of the neighborhood kids looking at me incredulously and saying, “You can’t run!” I went ahead and ran anyway. Puberty caught up with me and I grew out of my ugly ducking phase.

Over the next few years, I continued a regular exercise routine. Like most teenaged girls, I was ashamed of my wobbly bits, but looking back now I can see that I was — like most dewy-skinned teenagers — quite attractive. Plenty of boys seemed to think so. At the end of my senior year, I came down with a chronic illness that runs in my family. I spent the last six weeks of high school in the hospital, missed my prom, and almost missed my own graduation. The drugs used to treat my illness made me foggy-headed and sluggish. They also gave me intense cravings. Over the course of two months, I gained about thirty pounds. HMO coverage being what it was in the early 1990s, the follow-up care I received was negligible. I spent my first semester of college seriously overmedicated, nodding off in classes and uncomfortable in my own skin.

A photograph of the author at age 19
Skinny and depressed at 19

That January, I discontinued the medication and joined Weight Watchers. Every Wednesday evening, I’d drive from campus to the local strip-mall, line up to get weighed, pay my $10, and sit in a meeting where a skinny lady taught us fatties how to take better care of ourselves. It wasn’t a diet, it was a lifestyle change! Nine months later, I was 60 pounds lighter. People on campus were nicer to me. My love life resurrected itself. And I was terribly, terribly depressed. Depression following a major weight loss is actually a fairly common occurrence — and many women would, apparently, rather be depressed than overweight. Three years later, I’d gained all the weight back and then some.

When I picked up Erdman’s book in 1996, I was at one of the low points in my life. My post-college ambition to move to New York had failed, as had my first live-in relationship (she left me for a man 20 years our senior). I was 23 years old, living in a shitty little town in central Connecticut, with no friends and no job. Reading Erdman’s book was a real revelation to me. It energized me and gave me permission to stop postponing positive changes in my life until after I lost the weight. After I found a job, I overcame my body shame enough to join a gym and become more physically active. I began to look in the mirror and say, “It’s the only body I’ll have, so I might as well learn to love it.”

And here, for the first time, I experienced the paradox of body acceptance. While I was busy loving and enjoying my body, I lost about sixty pounds without any conscious effort or intention.

When I met Quick in 1998, I’d become slender enough to shop in “normal” clothing stores. My collarbone, ribs, and hipbones had become visible again. My butt would hurt when I sat on a hard surface. I came by all these changes organically, and I had mixed feelings about them. I was uncomfortable with the extra attention and praise that people gave me, because inherent in it was a condemnation of what my body had been before. As Margaret Atwood wrote in one of her novels (I think it was Cat’s Eye), it was as though I always carried around two bodies — a fat one and a skinny one.

When I moved to Boston, I found a job at a company with headquarters in Sweden. Surrounded by Nordic beauties — we all worked out at the same gym — I couldn’t help but feel inferior. Looking back, I can also see how Quick’s crazy fat-phobic attitudes eroded at my sense of self. For a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, my weight began to creep back up again. I also began to look at my eating behaviors. I joined a 12-step fellowship for people with eating problems. While this fellowship does seem to help a lot of being, my body shame and crazy ideas about how I “should” be eating exploded during my membership. There’s no official position in the organization on what kinds of food people should eat, but Boston area meetings have a long history of insisting that people cut out all forms of sugar and flour.

People would proudly declare how many years it had been since they’d last eaten bread or pasta. They’d say that they no longer had the capacity to know when they were full or when they were hungry. Many people weighed and measured everything they ate – even at restaurants. I tried and failed to follow every variation of food plan these women used, all the while becoming more and more obsessed with food and ashamed of my body.

A photograph of the author at a larger size
Fat and happy on the beach at 39

For the next several years I suffered through a living hell of judgment, denial, secret eating, and shame. Looking back at it, I see how needless all of that suffering was. The irony of all ironies is that the more I tried to deny my own hunger, the more my weight crept up. Then in 2009 I began working with a nutritionist who specialized in eating disorders. The first thing she did was tell me to eat more food — not more chocolate in secret, but more healthy, nutritious food more often than three times at day. She encouraged me to enjoy my food, a concept that had become utterly foreign to me by then. It took a good year, but I slowly began to experience some relief from the constant obsession, hunger, and shame that dogged my thoughts. And the longer I nurtured my body with good food on a regular basis, the more my weight gain slowed. For the first time in years, I began to maintain a consistent weight.

Reading fat acceptance literature has been an important part of my ongoing process of loving and accepting my body as it is. I recommend Marilyn Wann’s book Fat!So?, Lesley Kenzel’s Two Whole Cakes, Linda Bacon’s Health at Every Size, and Hanne Blank’s ample oeuvre – especially Big, Big Love and The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts. Hearing the voices of other people with a similar experience has always been helpful for me. Hearing voices that challenge the mainstream belief that fat=death is revolutionary.

Contrary to all the dire predictions surrounding America’s so-called obesity epidemic, I have never developed diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, or any of the other illnesses people like to blame on being fat. My chronic illness is not related to my body size, although some of the drugs I take to control it probably contribute to my being overweight. I’m not the healthiest person on the planet, but I’m also not the sickest. This body has walked ten miles in a single day, climbed mountains, and bench-pressed close to 200 pounds. It’s held babies in its arms, made delicious meals for my friends, given me a rather breathtaking variety of sexual pleasure, written volumes, created art, planted gardens, worshiped the goddess, and housed my spirit for 40 years. I try to treat it with the same dignity and respect that I would any close friend.

The subject of fat is a highly divisive issue. It’s difficult to talk about it in the public sphere; to do so opens one up to an avalanche of hate speech. Lesley Kinzel’s co-moderator at Fatshionista found the constant online battling so draining that she quit the fatosphere. As with all controversy, the loudest voices seem to be the most extreme. It’s probably for this reason that people still find my website because of a letter I wrote to a catalog company about their plus-size offerings back in 2012. It’s definitely the reason I had to close comments on that post. But my body is not an issue for public debate. It is not a battleground. It’s just my body – special, delicate, sexy, frumpy, sweaty, meaty, and mutable. It’s the only body I’m going to get in this lifetime, so I might as well enjoy it while it’s here.

[NOTE: This post was featured on Gender Focus on September 15, 2014. Shout out to Jarrah Hodge, its creator and moderator, for all her work in the feminist blogosphere.]

What Lokito’s Death Reminded Me About the Gifts of Being Present During Painful Moments

My relationship with Quick was far from perfect. On one of the multiple occasions when she kicked me out of the house, I packed up our cat Loki in a carrier and took him with me. She cried over Loki’s departure, not mine. More than ten years after our breakup, we came together to be with him — and with with each other — in his final hours.

photograph of a cat and a kitten on a suburban lawn
Old man Walter and young pup Loki

I was visiting a good friend in Hartford, CT on a fine spring day in 1998 when a passel of kittens tumbled across her neighbor’s driveway and onto the grass, mewing and scratching and generally working their kitten magic. From that litter I adopted Loki, a tiger/calico mix with kohl-like markings around his eyes. It seemed appropriate to name a kitten after the Norse god of mischief.

He lived up to his name. On Saturday mornings he would skitter over the hardwood floors of my apartment and under my futon, scratching the underside of it and then running away again. He and Leo, the cat who adopted my mom while she was loading newspapers into her car in the dead of night, would roughhouse in that apartment, jumping three feet or higher at moths, flies, and — in one case — a bat who flew in through the chimney. Other times he would sit and stare at a blank wall for hours. At night he would plop his soft body down next to mine and purr and rub his forehead against my face.

When I moved to Boston to live with Quick in 1999, Loki began sleeping on her side of the bed. She would nudge me and say, “Look at this little animal.” I would grumble that he used to be my little animal.

My relationship with Quick was far from perfect. On one of the multiple occasions when she kicked me out of the house — or when I tried to leave her — I packed up Loki in a carrier and took him with me. She cried over Loki’s departure, not mine. I finally succeeded in breaking away in 2003, just a few months before gay marriage became the law of the land in Massachusetts. When I did, I left him with her. A lawyer, she used to say (more than half seriously) that we had joint custody, but she had physical custody.

Loki developed many health problems later in life. Quick’s obsessive tendencies proved a boon for Loki. She kept him alive through FLUTD, diabetes, lymphoma, IBD, and cancer. Loki was a faithful companion to her through all of it. His health really started to deteriorate in November. Quick kept him alive for six more months,.

Quick called me from Angell Memorial on a Friday night at about 5:30. When I arrived, he was panting in an oxygen tent, unable to raise his head. He’d lost about one-third of his body weight. I could see by his eyes the prison that his body had become. Quick and I had both wanted him to die at home, not on a metal slab surrounded by the cries of other sick animals. But he was so sick, there was no way for us to take him home without causing him even worse pain. Over the course of the next few hours, I helped Quick make the difficult decision to end his life rather than prolong his suffering. Sixteen years after I saw him tumble across my friend’s back garden, Quick and I said our goodbyes to him in that oxygen tent.

I used to say that lovers come and go, but that kitties are forever. They live shorter lives than us though, and it’s inevitable that we will be with them from birth to death. The inevitability doesn’t make the pain of their passing any easier though. Loki’s passing underscores the passing of my own youth — my maiden years. I’m happy to release some of the pain and bewilderment of those years, even as I become aware of my own life’s finite nature. I’m grateful that Quick allowed me to be there with her and Loki, to make those difficult decisions with her and for her, and to be his other mother again during his final hours.

Not everyone understands why I hold on to relationships with ex-lovers. I’ve always found the traditional “straight” approach to love relationhips rather troubling: here is someone you’ve spent most of your waking hours with, for years or even decades, and then you’re supposed to pretend like they don’t exist? I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a period of separation, but at some point in the future I think it’s healthy to remain on at least civil terms with an ex. It’s a way of validating the beauty and connection that happened between you, even if it didn’t result in shared property or kids or whatever else society tells us it means to win at love.

The world of lesbian and queer women is so small, there’s extra pressure to remain on civil terms with an ex. Otherwise, you’d very quickly run out of friends and hangout spots. But there’s another, deeper reason why I hold on to my relationship with Quick. We both know what it’s like to be a woman living alone in a city with no family nearby. Even though we’re no longer partners or lovers, even though we don’t see one another very often anymore, I still consider her to be my family. She’s shown up for me during some very trying times and I’ve done the same for her. I view maintaining the relationship as a way for me to make living amends for the ways in which I wasn’t able to be there for her when we were together. And as I get older and friends move away — or die — I value more and more the longevity of relationships.

When I was in my 20s, I was so full of my own suffering — and my own vision of how the world should be — I couldn’t really pay attention to the experience of other people. Since that time I’ve become more comfortable with ambiguity, more accepting of the world’s imperfections.

I’ve learned what a gift it can be to have someone witness your pain and suffering without trying to fix it, deny it, or appropriate it. Since experiencing that gift myself, there have been a few occasions where I’ve been able to pass it on. This time was particularly powerful. I felt that I could be present not just for Loki, not just for Quick, but also for all those younger versions of myself who fell in love with Loki, who raised him, who met and fell in love with Quick, who suffered through the breakup, and who came out the other side.

One Year After the Boston Marathon Bombing

Image of military vehicles in Boston in the aftermath of the 2013 marathon bombing.
Photo credit: Jeff Cutler (Flickr Creative Commons)

Ever since moving to Boston in 1999, I’ve been keenly aware of the ways in which I am separate from the city’s mainstream culture. As a queer woman, as a poet, as a [insert any one of a variety of labels that apply to me], I’m used to feeling different, apart, separate. About this time last year though, an odd thing happened.

In the hours and the days following the Boston Marathon bombing, I began to feel like I was part of a unified whole. That the Boston portrayed in the national press, the Boston of skinny white women sporting Tiffany bracelets in the Back Bay, the Boston of drunken Red Sox fans on the Green Line, the Boston of disaffected immigrants in search of a reason for living — that all of these Bostons — was also the Boston that I know: the Boston of slam poets congregating at the Cantab in Cambridge, the Boston of nerds in black turtlenecks eating sushi and joking about obscure internet memes, the Boston of queers congregating in living rooms and church basements, the Boston of police brutality and entrenched segregation.

I’ve known for years that shared trauma will draw people together, whether they’re college freshmen or Iraq war veterans. But I’m not sure that I’ve ever experienced the phenomenon with such force. My childhood involved years of loneliness and neglect, highlighted by a few moments of abject terror. It’s not an unusual story; there’s piles of books written by people who had shitty childhoods. But what’s particularly crazy-making about my experience was the sense of isolation it engendered. I spent all of my childhood and a good chunk of my adult life denying and minimizing what happened to me. It was a powerful tool, one that allowed me to excel academically, earn a degree from a good college, and scrape together enough marketable skills to pull myself out of the poverty I grew up in. But it had its consequences, which in their worst form can make me question the very nature of reality.

So to see a horrible thing happen, and to see millions of people all agreeing that it was a horrible thing, was a real revelation for me. Sure, some snarky New Yorkers bitched and moaned about the Amtrak shutdown. But most of Boston was happy to shelter in place the day after the Tsarnaev brother killed two more people the next morning. My poet friend Wendy Drexler describes it well:

…the city was a dark harbor,

hardened and congealed, the streets

furrowed with chase, with grief,

and turns — hairpin, wrong — and dead

ends, a desert of dead ends without

provision or cure

(“Shelter in Place,” published on the Cognoscenti website April 19, 2014)

Shock, horror, and grief brought us all together that day, and in the days that followed. We could all agree that a terrible thing had happened and we were unified in that agreement. In particular, I remember seeing a video interview of one of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s classmates. The Tsarnaevs lived just a few streets away from me in Cambridge, and I used to walk past his high school several times a week. The young man apologized for his tears at the end of the video, but they touched me deeply. I understood his feeling of betrayal, because I felt it too.

Cambridge suffers from the same problems endemic to Boston: ridiculous housing costs, entrenched segregation, and a growing wealth gap. And yet Cambridge, with its zeitgeist of multiculturalism, lefty politics, intellectual curiosity, and community spirit, embodies for me all the best things about Boston. That someone could come of age in such a place, and then choose to create weapons of mass destruction from an object designed to cook food — it seemed unthinkable.

And yet not so. From what little I read about them in the press, the Tsarnaev family led a difficult existence. To feel isolated and alone in one’s suffering — especially when surrounded by happiness on all sides — is a terrible thing. It can warp a soul and lead a person to do something he’d never consider otherwise.

Most of us emerge from the experience just warped enough to be interesting. The most horrible thing we might do is bounce a few checks or yell at our loved ones. But it’s a year later and I’m I noticing all the ads for plastic surgeons, heterosexual meat markets, and half-million-dollar condos in Boston magazine. Posts about the Red Sox are cluttering up my Facebook feed. I stayed away from Marathon route and its draconian security measures.  My sensation of being part of a unified whole is passing away. Which, as any Buddhist teacher would tell me, is what happens to all sensations.

 

In Memoriam: Trayvon Martin

I’ve been largely silent regarding the issue of Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal. As a white woman living in Boston, I don’t see the ongoing effects of racism in the same way that I did when I was living on the north side of Poughkeepsie, or growing up in a housing project in Stamford. But racism still affects me and those I love. I’d like to take a moment to honor the friends and loved ones whom I know deal with racism on a daily basis — and the friends and loved ones I never met or never got to know well because of the racist and segregated society in which I live.

From a New York Times editorial published July 14, 2013:

While Mr. Zimmerman’s conviction might have provided an emotional catharsis, we would still be a country plagued by racism, which persists in ever more insidious forms despite the Supreme Court’s sanguine assessment that “things have changed dramatically,” as it said in last month’s ruling striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act.

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Okelle’s Career Path

A gentleman I’ve never met but would like to some day asked on Facebook, “What was your strangest job?”

It wasn’t my strangest job, but my most memorable and also my first real-paycheck job: ushering for the Palace Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. The pay was crap — some people actually just volunteered in exchange for watching the shows — but its rewards have stayed with me through the decades. I saw Ella Fitzgerald (twice), Chuck Berry, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, George Carlin, and countless plays, operas, ballets, and symphonies. And I didn’t appreciate it a bit. Well — maybe a little bit. God knows I do now.

At Vassar I worked in the Financial Aid Office, the Student Employment Office, the Summer Programs Office, the Powerhouse Theater Box Office, and the Bursar’s Office (student accounts) — those are the offices I can remember. And those were just my summer jobs.

During the school year, I worked the late shift for Campus Patrol because you got an extra 50 cents an hour if you took the after-midnight shift. Campus Patrol was the highest-paying job on campus that didn’t involve taking your clothes off, and I did it until a fellow English major busted me one rainy night for reading Henry James in my booth for longer than 10 minutes.

The highest-paying job on campus was working as an artist model for the studio art department. That paid $8 an hour. For my first gig, I stood up on a pedestal in thigh-length red stockings – which the instructor asked me to remove because they were too distracting — and nothing else. One student pulled his chair behind me, and I told him it cost extra to draw my ass. This was years before I understood the effect that my ass would have on some people — I was mostly just terribly nervous. I was a talkative and sassy mode, and probably lost work because of it. Working for the Vassar studio art program was just the beginning, though. I parlayed that experience into off-campus modeling gigs at Bartlett House (I was happy to see that this community-based arts education center in downtown Poughkeepsie, NY is still running strong), Dutchess Community College, and the home of a private art instructor who lived a few blocks off campus. I’ve carried a single nude sketch from that instructor’s basement across hundreds of miles and it’s taped to the wall of my study today. It’s occurred to me that I should frame it before it meets a terrible end.

During my freshman year I worked as a research assistant for a cranky old philosophy professor who would leave me handwritten pages of citations (not uncommon for those days). I would look up the articles in the college library system and make copies of them for him. What’s now done digitally involved a fair amount of legwork back then. I thought I was pretty crafty when I learned how to log on to the library catalog system via VAX (older folk will nod their heads knowingly here) to see which items were in the stacks and which would require a special order before I left Rockefeller Hall to brave whatever craptastic weather upstate New York felt like throwing at us.

It was because of the work I did for him and for another professor named Uma Narayan that I found a place to stay that first summer after my freshman year. I’d been ready to leave home when I was a sophomore in high school and didn’t really want to spend a hot, sweaty summer in my hometown answering phones for a bunch of stuffed shirts. Professor Narayan quite graciously let me stay in her flat across the street from the main campus while she was away doing awesome professor things in the summer. It was the first time I’d had a quasi-place of my own. I used the futon in her study rather than sleep in her bedroom and with all the innocent clumsiness of youth moved all her carefully sorted papers off a set of iron shelves so I could store my clothing somewhere. It was such a wonderful revelation to have my own kitchen to prepare meals in. Looking back, the apartment wasn’t anything special, but to a 17-year-old raised in the projects, it was ultimate luxury.

I remember watching the 1992 Democratic National Convention in her living room, feeling like a grown-up for the first time. I’d just turned 18, and the ’92 election was the first time I ever voted. That was the first of three summers I spent on the Vassar Campus between terms, and the summers contain some of my favorite memories from those years.

I also transcribed interviews for professors in the Philosophy Department, and later for Professor Steven Moore, who was starting an English Department-sponsored literary magazine called the Vassar Review of Arts and Letters. The transcribing machine had a foot pedal you could use to play, pause, rewind, and fast-forward through the tape. With my foot on the pedal and my hands on the keyboard, I would imagine myself as a sort of living conduit between two machines. I did my best to keep up, and I’m sure it improved my typing skills a great deal.

My experience with Professor Moore and on the board of the student-run lit-mag Helicon led me to meeting and working with Jason Stern and Amara Prolansky at Chronogram. A the time, it was a fairly new monthly publication of cultural events in the Mid-Hudson Valley — mostly a calendar of events and ads. In 1995 — the year I graduated — Jason asked me to help Chronogram develop a literary section. I selected poetry and edited articles that went into that first issue. It was also the first time I ever telecommuted for work: Amara drove from New Paltz to my tiny apartment in Poughkeepsie with an AOL disk and set me up with my first non-college internet account. Nowadays, anyone with an AOL email address pretty much screams “not tech savvy,” but back then the choices were pretty much AOL and CompuServe (whose email addresses were always numbers) — if you were lucky, there was a local ISP in your area.

The year after I graduated from Vassar, I worked a variety of temporary secretarial positions — except that I insisted people call me an Administrative Assistant. By far the most bizarre was Blocksom & Company, a small manufacturer of mattress components with its home office somewhere in Indiana. The manufacturing process was fairly simple: bales of coconut fiber (that hairy stuff you see on the outside of a coconut) came by train to the factory. Forklift drivers unloaded it and placed it next to a giant machine. Workers cut open the bales, fed the fiber into the machine, and out the other end came flat mats sized for twin, full, queen, or king-size beds. These were then bundled together and set on the loading dock to be trucked to the mattress factories that ordered them. My most important job was to print the labels placed on the finished jobs. I also prepared the Bill of Ladings for the truck drivers. But mostly my job involved avoiding the wrath of my manager, a cranky, heavyset woman of Italian extraction whose misery and rage affected everyone in the front office.

The entire plant was surrounded in a cloud of brown dust, an unfortunate side effect of chopping open bales of coconut fiber all day. In addition, a good number of people who worked at the place — front office or back — smoked on the job. The vast majority of the men (and they were all men) who worked on the factory floor were African American. They earned minimum wage or just above it. White men occupied all the higher-paying jobs: foreman, forklift driver, plant manager, salesman — all white men. One of them, however, turned out to be a closeted drag queen. Every year on Halloween, he would go all out and dress like a woman. He took it very seriously, shaving and making himself up, so that I could tell he wasn’t doing it for a joke. He used to drive me to work every day, and once when we was visiting with me and April he asked us if we would help him “become a woman.” Neither April nor I were particularly enlightened about transgender issues at the time. I think of him from time to time now, regretting that I wasn’t a better ally and hoping that he’s found some love and support in a part of the country where queers are very isolated.

It was during the few months that I worked at the matress factor that I learned how much straight men like lesbians — and not in a “sure, I’ll help you move in with your girlfriend” kind of way, but in a “can I watch, and maybe join in?” kind of way.  It was also during that time that I learned the effect that my posterior — or, as my girlfriend called hers, “el hugamundo gluteus maximus” — had on men of African extraction. The attention was flattering, of course, but I was also hugely aware of the cultural and class differences that separated me from my coworkers there, regardless of race. Poughkeepsie was a lonely, lonely place to be a leftish lesbian in the mid 1990s. That was the only job that I ever had the satisfaction of quitting on impulse — and I have never regretted the decision.

As I write these words, more and more stories from that first year out of college rise in my memory:

  • The parolee who disappeared after he got his first paycheck, only to call three days later, saying “I can’t drink in safety.” I felt badly for him and remembered my own father who died of alcoholism before he was 40.
  • The large, well-made floor worker who made advances toward me, whom I later learned had nine different children by five different women. I had the satisfaction of filling out the paperwork that would ensure they received child support payments. Such enforcement mechanisms hadn’t been in place when my mother was raising two children three thousand miles away from her abusive ex-husband.
  • The man who accused me of trying to scare him away because I used the phrase “empirical evidence.” Later he tried to seduce my girlfriend away from me. He was sure I must have corrupted her but that he could lead her back into the fold of Jesus or something — this in spite of the fact that she’d been out of the closet years before me.
  • The man who called the office from the state mental hospital asking for his last paycheck (It never did materialize, and my boss was certain that he was trying to swindle us out of another one). By that time, I’d already seen the inside of psych hospitals three different times. I started to visit him, bringing him magazines and cigarettes and shampoo. He’d been put there for depression after his daughter died, and as an uninsured black man — and a big black man at that — he definitely received a very different kind of care than I had at the tender age of 15, covered by my mother’s health insurance. Months later, he saw me on the street and came running toward me, his face joyful and open. I didn’t recognize him, but he remembered me and thanked me profusely, gave me a terrific hug. After he left, April turned to me and said, “You never said he was so good-looking!” Honestly, I hadn’t noticed given the context in which we met. He had one time stolen a kiss from me, but I’d scolded him soundly about it and he never tried it again. I’d wanted to relate to him from a place of friendship and mutual experience, not in an erotic or romantic way. And we did. Seeing him come toward me with that open, happy face was one of the best rewards I’ve ever gotten from someone for being of service. We were able to connect across the cultural divides of race, gender, sexual orientation, and class because of our mutual experience of suffering. It’s an experience that’s stayed with me for two decades.

During that first year after college, I spent a lot of time and effort applying to publishing jobs in New York City. I did the two-hour train ride from one end of the Hudson Line to the other multiple times but never landed a job, and perhaps that was for the best. My life was imploding under pressure coming from many different directions: our joint income didn’t fit the federal definition of poverty, but it sure felt like poverty to me. Aside from friends we knew at Vassar — most of whom had left town after graduation — we had few queer friends. We were young and stupid and didn’t really know how to have a loving partnership with one another. I bounced from temp job to temp job, resenting the fact that April earned less money than me as a journalist while I subsidized our rent. Eventually, things went far enough south that I gave up and moved back to Connecticut. I’d expected to move in with my Mom, but she surprised me by giving me enough money to get my own apartment. I took over her paper routes in gratitude while I looked for a day job in Hartford.

Through a series of fortunate events, my job application at the Hartford Courant ended up in the hands of a former employee. She hired me as a writer and editor for this newfangled thing called a website. You can read a bit more about my writing chops on the About the Gardener page.

I hadn’t given up the hope of becoming a New Yorker, and there were lots of “content provider” jobs in the New Media industry at the time. I interviewed for a few, but my experience and salary requirements took me out of the running for most of the entry-level jobs, and I didn’t have the confidence (or, quite frankly, the chops) to apply for the more senior openings. Eventually, I set my sights on Boston. It seemed like a more manageable alternative. By happy coincidence, I met a woman in P-town who lived in Boston. While we were dating, a took a new job at a multimedia firm in Norwalk. It paid more, but boy did they get their money’s worth. My 40-hour work week ballooned to 60-70 hours, with an extra three hours of commuting on top of it. After about six months of that, it seemed like a no-brainer to move in with my girlfriend in Boston.

Unfortunately, content jobs — especially ones that don’t involve marketing copy writing — are a lot harder to come by in Boston than they are in NYC. My career took a right turn into web development. It’s much more lucrative than writing, but money isn’t everything. After 20 years in the field, I’m making plans to return to my first love. I expect it will involve a massive pay cut, but I’m fortunate enough to have a partner who’s willing to take that risk with me — something I never expected or wanted, but for which I’m incredibly grateful. More will be revealed.