Because the Brookline Public Library is awesome (they even have an awesome box … shaped like a TARDIS!) someone on the staff ordered a copy of acafan Anne Jamison’s Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World (Smart Pop, 2013). And there I found it, sitting innocently upon the new books shelves (have I mentioned how much I adore public libraries’ new books shelves? it’s like browsing in a bookstore except you can take everything home for free!). I’ve found so much eclectic good stuff on the new books wall at Brookline over the past few years, and Fic is no exception. Jamison is a literature professor with a background in English literature and culture, 18th century to the present. As an academic whose scholarly interest is in participatory literary culture, it is no surprise that fanworks captured her interest. This volume is one part narrative history of fanfiction from its “prehistory” in the 1800s to the present, and one part riotous celebration of various fan cultures through both Jamison’s own analysis as well as the contributions of fanfic and “profic” writers (at times one and the same!) and other acafen as well. Not quite an anthology, as Jamison’s narrative is the “spine” of the text, the contributions by others dodge and weave within the volume providing alternative perspectives, counternarratives, “missing scenes,” and many a reading recommendation for the fic-hungry fan. Continue reading
I spent today away from the computer, writing a letter to a friend and annotating another friend’s book manuscript by hand and reading a book and taking a walk around Columbia Point with Hanna. It was a good day. I also spent a lot of time thinking about some of the interactions I’ve had, and continue to witness, in professional arenas, that evidence a really strong element of dismissal or erasure of the basic fact of life that (as adults) most of us should have grasped by now: Our lived experience is not identical to other peoples’ lived experience.
I’ve seen a LOT of interactions lately — on the A&A listserv, around the SAA Code of Conduct, in some offline professional conversations, and in some blogging contexts — where the exchange comes down to Person A ignoring, questioning, dismissing, denying the experience of Person B because Person A has not experienced the same thing in exactly the same way.
There are variations, of course, but the basic theme is always roughly the same:
Person B: I propose that the group do X.
Person A: I don’t like that idea! Why would we do X? We don’t need to do X. We’ve always done Y. I’m perfectly happy with Y. Why aren’t you happy with Y? If only you understood / were more mature / more professional / acted more like me you would also appreciate the value of Y!
Person B (response 1): I wasn’t saying that Y is a bad option, but maybe we could try X also?
Person B (response 2): Since you asked, here are the problems I see with Y. [lists them.] Maybe Y is comfortable for you, but it is causing the problems I just articulated for other people in this group / at this blog / in the world and I find that troubling. With the changes I have proposed in scenario X some if not all of these problems would be alleviated and more people would experience less stress / marginalization / suffering than currently do in scenario Y.
Person A: You are hysterical / delusional / idealistic / young and X would be impossible to implement / isn’t needed anyway / would silence people like me / make me feel uncomfortable.
Person B: Um, what? Look at these situations L, M, N, O, and P where the problems I have described occurred and are well documented. Can you not see that situation Y — while it may not be causing you any immediate problems — is, in fact, damaging a large number of people in ways Q, R, S, T, U, and V? Couldn’t we talk about solutions that would meet the needs of people like you and the needs of people like me in more equitable measure?
Person A: YOU ARE CLEARLY OFF YOUR ROCKER AND THREATENING TO TAKE THINGS AWAY FROM ME AND MY KIND YOU GREEDY UPSTART / VINDICTIVE OVERLORD.
Person B: Um, I — what? Look, we may not be on exactly equal footing here, but it’s more that you’re older / higher-ranking / socially privileged / TALKING IN ALL CAPS here and I’m trying to accommodate a broader range of voices. I’m trying to remain calm and reasonable here, but you’re pissing me off acting like a jerk. I find your aggressiveness pretty much the opposite of awesome here. Look. NO ONE IS TRYING TO TAKE YOUR TOYS. We’d just like to play too. SHARING IS THE DECENT THING TO DO.
Person A: Wow, you have a completely unhelpful attitude. Seriously. You should get some professional help because I don’t think we (I) should have to listen to you complain and abuse us (me).
I just keep turning these exchanges around and around in my head and feeling like I’m Finn, in the clip above, doing a little jig in front of Person A in a desperate plea for them to slow down and consider that regardless of whether they believe — and they may have a legitimate case to make — that Person B is asking for the impossible or the problematic, the request is coming from a legitimate real-life experience equally valid to the experience of Person A.
Person A doesn’t magically get to be the arbiter of what is Most True in the world. (Neither does Person B, but honestly? Most Person Bs in these situations have never labored under that particular illusion.) Both Person A and Person B matter. Equally. As human beings.
And Person A would, frankly, get a lot more empathy from me (and probably other people as well) if they showed any evidence of actually believing that Person B was a) a human being whose b) experience of the world mattered.
And, you know, might have ideas and suggestions and unique perspectives of value to Person A … if Person A would just take an effing moment to listen instead of shouting and shaming.
Is all I’m saying.
Now go have a restorative, empathy-filled weekend.
Footnote mining from Paying for the Party, I ordered Patrick Carr and Maria Kefelas’ Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America (Beacon Press, 2009) through ILL and read it last week. This slim volume is based on an ethnographic study Carr and Kefelas of three hundred high school graduates from a small, rural town in Iowa they call “Ellis.” With a population of about two thousand, Ellis’ economy is primarily agriculture and industrial; high school graduates who go on to college rarely return. Those who remain struggle with social isolation and financial solvency. Carr and Kefelas surveyed over three hundred Ellis high school graduates from the 1990s (who at the time of their study were about ten years out from the end of twelfth grade) and conducted approximately one hundred interviews of young adults who had either stayed in, left, or returned to their hometown. Hollowing Out attempts to describe the motivations and experiences of each group of individuals, and ends with some reflections on the role that social policy can (and cannot) play in supporting and reinvesting in rural life nationwide.
What Carr and Kefelas found was that high school graduates were tracked / self-sorted into a handful of broad categories: the Achievers and Seekers, the Stayers and Returners. Achievers were tracked from a very young age by their parents, school system, and socioeconomic status, to leave Ellis and attend a four-year college and possibly graduate school. Most will never return to live in their hometown, having built lives elsewhere with career opportunities and social connections. Seekers don’t have the resources to attend a four-year college, even a good state school, and so often join the military; they will leave to explore the world, but have limited socioeconomic mobility and often struggle to find a place in the world beyond the armed forces. Stayers have dropped out of high school or obtained limited qualifications, usually struggle with un- or underemployment, wed and/or become parents much earlier than those who leave. They, and the Returners, often have negative perceptions of the world beyond their small town community — either because they tried and failed to find a foothold there, or because they have no desire to leave the familiar. Returners are usually “Boomerang” individuals (often women) who may have relocated for an associates degree or attempted a four-year college education but never established connections that made them feel comfortable beyond Ellis. They can also sometimes be Achievers who, for a variety of individual reasons, return home (familial responsibilities, political ambitions, occasionally the right job at the right time). However, these “High Flyers” — the ones so desperately sought by states with struggling economies — are few and far between.
In the end, Carr and Kefelas encourage policy-makers to focus less on trying to lure these “High Flyers” back to their states, since individual motivations usually have little to do with initiatives to woo the Achievers into returning, and instead focus their resources on the Stayers and Returners who are already the backbones of their communities and remain an un- and undertapped social and economic resource.
The authors do, eventually, touch upon some of the non-economic reasons that Achievers and others who leave Ellis may resist returning — reasons such as prioritizing racial diversity or acceptance of queer identity and relationships — that I think should have been foregrounded a bit more. Granted, interesting work is currently being done to highlight the lives of queer folk in rural America. Rural Americans are not inherently more or less prejudiced toward Othered groups than urban or suburban Americans. However, smaller communities are often self-selecting and more homogeneous; they’re also often extremely isolating for those who are somehow different, even if they (we) don’t experience overt prejudice or violence. Simply put, it was harder for me, as a bi woman, to find potential female partners (and even potential male partners!) in a medium-sized Midwestern town than it is.
And now, as a married lesbian, I have structural as well as cultural reasons not to return to Michigan: our marriage would not be honored by the state government. So whenever I read about state campaigns for professional Michiganders to return and invest in the state where I grew up — and which I continue to love in many respects — I admit I’m not exactly feeling the love. Many of us Leavers have left precisely because our communities scarred us, deeply, and returning to live there would open old wounds.
But in the end, I was uneasy with the way in which the authors’ solution seems to encourage a “circling the wagons” approach to social policy, where the parochial reasons that people leave certain communities are glossed over rather than challenged. I wanted them to dig more into the ways, for example, racial prejudice, the gendered division of labor in working class communities, or anti-gay sentiment not only drives Achievers away but harms those who stay behind. Not every person who embodies a marginalized identity (queer, physically disabled, non-white, Muslim, etc.) has the resources to “get out of Dodge” even though we may have strong push-pull factors to do so. While I’m comfortable with studies of rural America that ask us to reconsider our prejudices toward “hicks” living in “flyover” states, the fact that homogeneity was a fact of small town life the authors’ touched on but never developed is something I found troubling.
Still, I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in how education and social policy reproduce class and cultural divides here in America. The personal narratives woven throughout the sociological analysis will resonate with many readers who grew up in rural or quasi-rural Midwestern communities (raises hand), and provoke reflection beyond personal experience toward broader social trends.
Amanda Hess at Slate recently reminded me that I had meant to read Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton’s longitudinal, ethnographic study of a cohort of undergraduate women, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard Univ. Press, 2013). Armstrong and Hamilton’s research team spent a year in residence at “Midwest University” living with a group of first-year women assigned to one of the school’s party dorms; they continued to follow the cohort on their floor for five years — the typical four years to degree and one year after. What began as a study of young women’s sexual agency at a large public university quickly turned into a study of class, and how strongly pre-existing socioeconomic conditions in the lives of each student determined her trajectory through college and into her immediate post-college circumstances. Hess’ article at Slate highlights some of what the research team did discover about the sexualization of college women during their work; Paying for the Party delves into the class issues that define many young women’s path through university.
The central thesis of Party is that undergraduates at large state universities (the researchers hesitate to generalize from a single case study) are constrained by the available cultures of their schools — and often the specific dorms to which they are assigned — in ways that limit the ability of less privileged students to utilize college as a tool for class mobility.
What the researchers found was that the majority of students entered MU on course to take one of three readily-available “pathways” through the college years: the party pathway, the professional pathway, and the mobility pathway. The researchers acknowledge that other pathways exist, both at MU and elsewhere, but for the cohort they studied, these were the three dominant ways of approaching college. The dominant pathway was the “party” pathway; the elite and upper-middle-class women of the cohort arrived on campus with plans to strengthen their already-privileged social networks through the Greek system, tracked to areas of study that facilitated this way of life, and left college with low GPAs and degrees that would have been useless without their high-powered family connections and financial resources. Less privileged women who attempted to access the party pathway typically suffered a high loss of resources and low return. The party pathway also ruthlessly policed the performance of femininity according to a very specific set of elite standards which required money and time to cultivate and maintain.
In addition to the struggles of women on the party pathway who were unable to compete with the elite partiers in terms of time, resources, social connections, and conventional beauty, Paying for the Party also chronicles the way the party pathway culture encroaches on those beyond its borders. Even women who tried to follow the professional or mobility pathway found their efforts stymied by the dominant party cohort. The researchers argue that non-elite students need more robust support for non-party alternatives in order for college to be both cost effective and life enhancing.
There are limitations to the study. For example, I couldn’t help but feel that even taking broad social categories into account, the party/professional/mobility pathways schema left out crucial segments of the undergrad population. Perhaps because the research team chose a “party” dorm, or perhaps because they were at a land grant research university instead of a liberal arts college, they failed to identify the pathway that I and many of my closest friends were on: What I might call the “how to live” pathway. This is the pathway that treats learning as a goal in and of itself, and self-knowledge — as well as wider horizons — as a valuable part of the college experience on par with skill acquisition/job training. And it’s not a pathway exclusively available to the rich; I know students across the economic spectrum who used college as a step-stone to a meaningful life (not necessarily a well-heeled one). Armstrong and Hamilton hint at such rewards toward the end of the book when they profile a student who had limited economic resources, struggled in school, and yet one year after graduating is building a meaningful life for herself working as a ski instructor and living with her partner in the wilderness setting that drew them together.
They also suggest throughout the book that MU has other subcultures of students whose subcultures provide a robust alternative to the party pathway and help students succeed: the arts students, the African-American learning community, the LGBT group. But it seems that none of their cohort originally assigned to the party dorm found their way to these rich subcultures, a telling finding in and of itself that shows how segregated a campus can be, and how the crap shoot of first-year campus housing may make or break students. Particularly the most vulnerable ones whose families have little or no experience navigating higher education.
Despite the study’s necessarily narrow focus on its original cohort, I highly recommend Paying for the Party to anyone interested in higher education, economic inequality, and the ways in which gender plays out in specific ways in both social class and college contexts.
|Photograph by Laura Wulf|
I had my annual physical last week, and for the first time in a couple of years I actually looked at the reading on the scale when they did all the usual readings. Typically, I stand on the scale facing away from the screen and the nurses at our awesome community health center don’t offer the information unless I ask.
I’d gained about ten pounds since the last time I’d bothered to check.
I was (surprising even myself) pretty unconcerned about this state of affairs.
I’m not going to share the exact number or the number(s) I’m comparing it to. The minute I did so virtually every woman reading this post would do the calculation and contrast and compare. Either I’d be smaller, and some part of them would feel jealous, or I’d be larger, and some part of them would feel virtuous. They might judge themselves for feeling that way (I do when I catch myself doing it), but for most of us it’s an involuntary reflex.
There’s a reason I don’t own a scale, and weigh myself at the doctor’s office blind.
As photographs on this blog demonstrate, I’m a 5′ 10″ woman who falls within the median weight range for American women — which is to say that my clothing sizes are usually available in many styles in most stores. This is a form of privilege, one I’ve become even more acutely aware of married to a woman whose body is actively marginalized by our fatphobic, sizest culture.
But, like virtually every women and many a man will tell you, being a body of normative size in a culture “at war” against fat (and people we judge for their size) is no proof against a disordered relationship with one’s physical self. While never diagnosed with a formal eating disorder, I spent most of my teens obsessing over food and weight, counting calories, bingeing, eating until my stomach hurt and falling asleep each night (yes: every night for nearly a decade) wishing I could just purge and have done with it.
I ended every day — every day — from age sixteen to twenty-four feeling some measure of failure for what I had eaten, and what I had done, with my body.
My own struggle with disordered eating was complicated by the fact that my thyroid condition, managed with medication until age twenty-five, meant I was almost always hungry. My appetite was not a reliable measure of what my body actually needed as fuel — my hormones were telling me I was hungry. I could (and did) eat gallons of ice cream at a sitting and my body would still tell me I was hungry.
When I finally received medical treatment that treated my condition more effectively, I got my libido back and learned what it was like to have an appetite: to eat and feel full. And not think about food every waking moment of every day.
While I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, I was at my thinnest — received the most praise from acquaintances for having “lost weight!” — when my hyperactive thyroid was raging out of control. Did I glow with “pride” at the praise? Some part of me did. The other part of me recognized how fucked up our culture is congratulating a young woman for thinness — as if body size is some sort of merit metric. When instead, in my case, it was actually a pathological symptom.
One I knew even at the time part of me would miss, because being “effortlessly” thin (while, as I said above, obsessing about my weight and food intake on an hourly basis) was something society rewarded me for.
I was scared, when I chose the treatment that would help me heal — that would give me my sex drive back (though no doctors thought to mention this as a perk) — that would allow me to experience appetites and satisfaction — when I chose the treatment that would give me these things, I was scared that I’d just become “fat.”
Because of course, that’s what we’re taught to fear most of all.
So it was remarkable to me, last week, when I walked into the doctor’s office and discovered that I now weigh about thirty pounds more than I weighed at the point when I was the sickest (and most obsessive — and most frequently praised). It was remarkable that I didn’t much care.
I’m growing into myself. That’s what I thought. I’m growing older. And my mind meant that in a positive way. I’m thirty-three now; nearly ten years older than I was then. Bodies change. As I grow into my middle age, I may continue to gain weight slowly, incrementally. If family size and shape is any guide, I’ve likely settled more or less at the point where I will probably stay as I grow older.
And even if I grow larger, become more, I resist the notion that this is something I should categorically fear, manically avoid, judge myself in relation to. I’ve got other things to focus on, thank you very much. I refuse to spend my energy struggling to control my body size when there’s overwhelming evidence to suggest that such efforts are both futile and unrelated to one’s overall health outcomes.
I refuse to fear in myself what I embrace in others: embodiment in the selves we have.
I’m grateful for how little the number mattered. It’s been a long journey to this point, but well worth the climb.
Note to non-archivist/librarian readers: this blog post is largely professional insider discussion and, while it may be interesting to some of you it will likely be tl;dr for many others. You have been warned!
a radical feminist cabal (via)
In the three weeks since I published my post about professionalism, privilege, and power, discussing the Archives & Archivists listserv, I’ve had further interesting adventures — both inspiring and dispiriting — around what I wrote, how I wrote it, and the manner in which it was shared. Having (mostly) weathered that storm, I offer a few further thoughts about what went down, and how, and the manner in which I’ve chosen to participate in this conversation moving forward.
My last substantive listserv email on this subject went out to the listserv on June 5th and can be read here. The two listserv threads to which that message refer can be read in their entirety here and here. What I would like to share in this post are two items of gratitude, four items of critical reflection, and finally an invitation.
please see my sounding of interest.
I’m back in encyclopedia entry writing mode this month, and one of the subjects I volunteered to tackle was the life and work of Phyllis Schlafly in 750 words. One of the things I have gathered from Donald Critchlow’s excellent Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (Princeton, 2005) is that Schlafly herself would likely approve of this creative discipline. She has, after all, built a career out of voraciously consuming and digesting the work of conservative intellectuals — and then translating them into a form easily communicable to the grassroots: speeches, pamphlets, articles, press releases, and runaway bestsellers.
Plus, did you know she comes from a family of lady librarians?
It is a mark of Critchlow’s excellence as a biographer that he is able to humanize his subject and make her interesting and compelling to even this lefty feminist who categorically disagrees with Schlafly on almost every political and social issue she has ever engaged on. Critchlow’s is an intellectual-political biography, touching on Schlafly’s personal details — family background, class status, marriage, children — as background for the larger points he wishes to make regarding her public career. Schlafly, he argues, is both a driving force behind — and emblematic of — the grassroots political organizing that flourished in America’s postwar years of supposedly “liberal consensus.” A voracious autodidact and driven student from a lower-middle-class background (she worked night to put herself through college), Schlafly completed a Master’s degree at Radcliffe in 1945 and took herself to Washington D.C. just as the Second World War was ending, landing a job at the fledgling American Enterprise Association (now Institute). By all accounts she had (and still has) a talent for digesting densely-written works of conservative political theory and translating them into vernacular, politically-motivating works. During the 1950s and ’60s her focus was on anti-communism, fiscal conservatism, and national defense; in the 1970s she discovered (anti)feminism and turned from international concerns to domestic policy and cultural issues — earning the hatred of many a committed feminist through her successful STOP ERA campaign, which killed what many had assumed was a foregone Constitutional amendment explicitly outlawing discrimination on the basis of sex.
I am too young to remember first-hand the bitter disappointment of the ERA’s defeat, or the shocked sense of betrayal I think many American feminist felt when she discovered that not all women believed in feminist goals. Perhaps because of this, I have the emotional distance to appreciate the way Critchlow is not overtly partisan — either for or against — the Schlafly perspective. Instead, he clearly articulates how her work connected, and continues to connect, to the concerns and goals of the resurgent political and cultural right during the latter half of the twentieth century. I cannot say I share those concerns or goals, but perhaps I understand where they came from and how they came to be articulated a bit better than I did before.
My only disappointment with Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism is perhaps an unfair one — that Critchlow only glosses events following the defeat of the ERA and Reagan’s rise to the presidency in the early 1980s. Since Schlafly and her Eagle Forum continue at a tireless pace today, a deeper analysis of Schlafly’s enduring influence would have been welcome. Too, I would have been interested in a more substantial tour of her opponents’ (often muddled) rebuttals and (often failed) strategies. One comes away from Critchlow’s examination with the sense that Schlafly was always effectively on-message. Surely even the most charismatic of public figures has an off day.
It’s been a month you guys!
We can still see the rug on our bedroom floor, and the only thing under the bed are dust bunnies and the occasional cat.
I don’t have anything super-noteworthy to say, I just wanted to mark the day. It really is hard to believe we’ve been living a month in our new place. Some eclectic observations:
- I don’t miss our old neighborhood as much as I thought I would. Is that disloyal? I’m not sure yet. Part of the reason is that we still live in the same city and maybe 80% of our time is spent in the same spaces as before the move. Hanna and I both miss walking passed the brookline booksmith more days than not, and being near Trader Joe’s, and 4A Coffee on Harvard Ave. but other than that … I’m so actively happy to be where we are in so many ways, I don’t have room to miss the old. I wonder if I ever will? Maybe I’m done with that chapter and ready to move on.
- Maple trees have a distinctive presence and sound to them; I grew up in a house surrounded by old maples and hadn’t realized until moving to JP that I missed them. Now when its windy or rains and I hear the trees outside I can relax. Sleeping has been a wonderful thing because the sounds are right again.
- Having a porch expands the size of our apartment beyond its already wonderfully expansive 860 square feet.
- A ceiling fan (in our living room) is amazing as a tool for cooling the space on hot days.
- Kitchen counters! Kitchen counters! Kitchen counters!
- For some reason, Hanna and I decided to start using the dishwasher when we moved here, despite the fact we never used the “adult box” that was in our old apartment. I am really surprised at how much it lowers the stress level of our evenings and makes cooking together a pleasurable activity. Sometimes, labor-saving devices are worth the hype.
- We now live in a neighborhood with a much higher Latino/a population than Allston, and that’s something else that feels like home (Michigan) to me in a way I hadn’t noticed missing until we were passing neighbors on our way home with a much broader range of ethnic diversity than on our previous commute. Even the music from the car stereos that pass our front windows feels more familiar. (And yum! the Cuban restaurant up the road makes the best horchata!).
- Gentrification. It’s a thing, and I’ve been thinking about it. I have days where I’m like, “What’s so elitist and destructive about wanting to live within walking distance of where you work?” That is, after all, the way most workers have gotten to work for centuries. But I’m also aware that as early-career professionals, Hanna and I fit a profile — one of people who are actively courted and catered to. While our neighbors here are often invisible at best and actively erased at worst. According to the Boston Globe, only about 15% of market-rate housing in JP is “affordable” … for families making $80k per year. There’s a lot of upward pressure on this already impossible market. We’re working to do what we can not to contribute to that, while embracing JP as a (hopefully long-term) home for us as well.
- Did I mention how wonderful a back porch is to enjoy?
- And neighbors that invite you to their barbecues instead of engaging in intimate partner violence on a near-nightly basis?
It’s been awhile, what with one thing and another, since I actually did a book review post. I’m hoping to get at least one per week posted during the summer, so to kick us off here’s this week’s title: Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness by Melanie Notkin (Seal Press, 2014).
I ordered Otherhood through inter-library loan after seeing it mentioned in positive terms in a piece on how the media fuels women’s panic and self-judgement around pregnancy and fertility. From the gloss in the essay, I expected a study of women who found themselves single and/or childless as they reached the end of their fertility, and how they made peace with that circumstance. Perhaps it was poor or wishful reading on my part, because this book is not that book. Instead, this book is a hybrid personal memoir longform journalism piece in which Notkin seeks to connect her personal experience, and the experiences of her single, childless (but child-wanting) friends, to broader social and cultural narratives and trends about this demographic.
Apart from it not being the book I expected (which is hardly grounds for critique of the book it actually is), I had three major problems with Otherhood: its solipsism, its heterocentrism, and the way it embraced notions of gender complementarity and retrograde gender roles. All of these problems interconnect, because when one is writing about personal experience as universal experience, then obviously one’s own wants and needs eclipse the diversity of human desire. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Notkin yearning for a man willing to treat her to lavish dates, for example, but there is something very wrong about her making the argument that “we women” want a man who knows what kind of high-priced alcohol to order for every occasion. In Notkin’s world of high-powered New York businesswomen in their late thirties and early forties, all women are straight, looking for male booty, looking for a man interested in a long-term relationship and kids, expecting that man to fit a very specific type of masculinity, and unwilling to revisit those expectations when the world doesn’t deliver.
It’s not that I think Notkin and company are “too picky” or “desperate” and that’s what makes them unappealing. As someone who didn’t date at all for the first twenty-seven years of my life, because no one I met piqued my interest enough, I hardly have a leg to stand on. It’s just that I find Notkin’s list of priorities for a partner kind of obnoxious, and I find it even more obnoxious that she assumes we all (as “women”) share them.
Otherhood is also at war with its own thesis, which is that older single women (like Notkin) aren’t waiting around for Mr. Right but are instead focused on living otherwise fulfilling lives, even in the absence of the partner and/or children they have always desired. Most of the narrative is, in fact, taken up with stories about she and her friends working their asses off dating one guy after another — each of whom proves a disappointment — and obsessing about their decreasing fertility. I finished the book feeling more than a little whip-lashed.
At its best Otherhood argues that, in the fullness of any single life situation, sometimes the price just isn’t worth it. Even if you always imagined, and continue to desire, having children of your own. Notkin is trying to push back against the cultural narrative (of her elite circle) that single women nearing the end of their fertile years should just go it alone and get pregnant solo — or else they’re somehow less dedicated to their vocation as women than the ladies who freeze their eggs at twenty-five and start IVF at thirty-five whether they have a partner or not. There’s some really interesting stuff to unpack there, in the cultural pressure of women to become mothers at any cost because somehow it is our ladylike destiny. But Notkin doesn’t push her inquiry to the level where I would find it most interesting or pertinent — the level where the gendered framework of dating and parenthood is, itself, called into critical question.
In the end, I felt sorry for Notkin and her circle of friends for the way in which their narrow view of “male” and “female” gender performance seemed to be limiting their ability to build authentic relationships that went beyond judging themselves and their partners in relation to socialized gender expectations. The dating dance they describe is one I never participated in with men — or women for that matter — and it doesn’t sound like a very fun way to get to know someone. Notkin and her friends deride some of their potential dates for wanting casual hang-out time, or an evening in enjoying sex and a pizza — the sort of get-togethers that sound pretty awesome to me. I finished the book wishing I could just get all the people therein (women and men alike) to just relax around one another a little more.
Reading Otherhood I felt a flood of gratitude for queer visibility. For all the talk of a “gayby boom,” and the increasing normality of same-sex parenting, queer couples have a long and storied history of not parenting. Perhaps because our sexual intimacy doesn’t bring with it the expectation of pregnancy — because parenting must be deliberately pursued, often at a high price, and with legal and social roadblocks in our way — queer culture doesn’t demand that we make the pursuit of children a primary objective in life. Even before I felt able to identify as queer, I drifted toward lesbian and queer spaces for the alternate visions of family they offer up for consideration. These are visions I found world-expanding and life-affirming when I was “straight,” and I wish that more women like Notkin (and perhaps the men she is struggling to connect with) would turn to these examples for a renewed sense of possibility.
In short? If you’re interested in thinking about a life unpartnered and/or not parenting, ditch Notkin’s side-swipes at “spinsters” and women who don’t “keep up appearances” and go read some queer history instead. There’s lots of inspiration out there, if you know where to look.
We continue to feel so lucky in finding this apartment, particularly on sunny Sundays in June, when our back balcony is a breezy, cozy sanctuary; a liminality between in and out, private home and neighborhood society.
We enjoyed brunch together last weekend, along with a little light reading.
Repotted some happy plants…
… and got creative drying the week’s laundry in the fine weather.
The porch is a new experience for the cats, who are practicing giving their mother attacks of the nerves by exploring the top of the (second floor! far from the ground!) railing without a net. We feel they should could equipped with safety tethers.
Geraldine seems largely content to chill in the shade or sun and survey her surroundings.
The clean laundry is obviously the best place for a black cat to settle in for a nap.
Meanwhile, our next door neighbors M and J have gotten a head start over us in the gardening department, with lots of promising seedlings that spent the weekend drinking up the sun and water they were afforded.
Hope y’all are finding ways of being in this early-summer moment. Happy June.