Once again, I have several posts percolating but can’t quite find the energy to finish them, as they’re supposed to be more thoughtful pieces. I have, however, been consuming some more culture. Though it’s not like reviews are thoughtless, my thoughts on stuff I like aren’t quite so convoluted as my worries about school shootings or my musings on gender dynamics in higher education (stay tuned for those, though!).
There’s something here for everyone: documentaries, TV, drama, comedy, cults, scandals, biographies, and a sweet little musical teaser at the end. So let’s get on with it!
Turning leaves. Balding trees. Lashings of rain. Impending darkness. Howling wind. Chills in the air.
It’s enough to make a girl want to pull on her Regency gown and trample through the muddy fields, á la Lizzie Bennett. What do to mean, she didn’t trek over to Netherfield in the fall? I’ll insert my own personal romantic feelings about seasons and associated literary characters wherever I damn well please.
Anyway, yes, fall is fully upon us. Fall break has come and gone, Halloween is nigh, and it’s been decorative gourd season (mother…..) for a while now. It’s beautiful weather here in The Hague, and so I’ve been cycling around the city mornings and evenings surrounded by golden light, rapidly fading and all the more beautiful for it.
There’s much to be said for fall. Sweater weather means we can finally switch out the summer wardrobe, which has grown too-familiar,for old, comfy favorites. Knit dresses ahoy! Recent playlists on Spotify shift from beachy, laid-back tunes to moody, atmospheric tunes (Adele’s new album is being released *just* in time!). We can break out the candles again, scour the shops for new teas to love, and stock up on mini marshmallows to drunk in rich, dark, hot chocolate. Out with food truck festivals, bubbly and oysters, and pretending you enjoy sand in places where sand should never be found! In with pumpkin spice lattes, slow cooked apple butter, and cozy evenings with good wine and great friends. Sure, it’s swapping one bougie pastime/predilection for another, but without shaking things up every once in a while we become too rooted – and too bored.
But there’s more to be said for fall. More than the decorative gourds, the spiced drinks, and the unspoken permission to gain a couple of pounds (who can tell under those knit dresses, anyway!?). Fall is a pause for breath, a comma in the sentence that is the year, a moment to gather one’s thoughts as we plummet from sunny socializing to dreary drudgery. Spring and summer have us looking outward, going outside, exploring and discovering, but fall starts to drive us inside, where there is less physical space, but more opportunity to be still, be with oneself, and to reflect. That is, of course, unless you choose to drive the introspection away with Netflix and podcasts. Not that I’d know anything about that. (*cough cough*) But where summer can make one feel some serious FOMO (are all my friends out? will the weather stay this nice? will I have missed the most beautiful if I choose to have a lie in today? should I go drink al fresco AGAIN even though I’d really like to watch some Great British Bake Off?), fall allows a more laid-back approach to life (sure, I can go out and enjoy this beautiful day for an hour, but then I can go home, light some candles, make some soup, and feel productive in the process; if it’s raining, even better! All that’s needed is a blanket, a good album, an engrossing new book).
Fall is also the season where we stop feeling entitled to beautiful days and start appreciating them for just happening to us again. Gone are the “Dutch summer, eh?” critiques; all hail the “No trains again? Must be three leaves on the tracks!” jokes. We’re still close enough to summer to look forward to, rather than be stressed out by, the holidays, and the deep, dark doldrums of winter (I see you, February!) are far enough removed to feel not quite real yet.
Sadly, true, fun fall is all too fleeting. So this weekend, whether you’re celebrating Halloween or not, don’t forget to spend a little bit of mindful time with fall: dig up your squishiest socks, break out the autumnal movies (Hocus Pocus and Practical Magic are all-time favorites in my household), mull some cider, and breathe in that chill, damp essence of fall.
One of my favorite things in the world is history and narrative rewritten or re-imagined to explore the roles of (previously) marginalized groups. If that seems like a nerdy favorite thing, well, so be it. Earlier this week I wrote nearly 2,000 words on some favorite cultural artifacts, and I’ve been known to geek out over a diverse range of subjects on a regular basis, so the nerd bridge has probably been irrevocably crossed anyway.
That said, please allow me to expand on my love of Hamilton (not so briefly touched on in my previous post). But in order to keep things manageable, let’s focus on the other Hamilton: Eliza (née Schuyler). Now, know that I’m no historian. I minored in American Studies and had to read a whole bunch of the Federalist Papers, but that’s about as far as my knowledge of Hamiltonia goes – or I should say, went, as since my obsession with this musical, I’ve done a whole bunch of Wikipedia-ing. Still, this discussion of Eliza Hamilton does not aim for historical accuracy, but is a reflection on the Eliza of the Broadway show which is, if not re-imagined history, then at least restructured, re-focused, re-told. Read more…
Autumn break is getting close, so what better way to get off to an inoffensive new start than by recommending some of my favorite pop cultural things at the moment? Let’s start literary:
Pretty Girls – Karin Slaughter
For several years now, I’ve picked up the new Slaughter as soon as it comes out. Pretty Girls was one of my many summer reads, and is a strange Slaughter to recommend. It’s neither a Sara Linton (Grant County series) or Will Trent novel. The former books were Slaughter’s big break, focused on coroner/pediatrician Sara Linton, her chief of police husband Jeffrey Tolliver, and his detective protege Lena, while the latter is her current ongoing series, set mainly in Atlanta, Georgia and deals with dyslexic Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Will Trent and many different characters (tangentially) related to him. Both series have, at least in the Netherlands, a relatively rabid fanbase, which I got to witness firsthand at a reading Slaughter did in The Hague several years ago. There, many were still upset over the end to the Grant County series, even though it was some years later. Read more…
You might think it’s been a year and a half since I wrote something here. That’s not true.
My drafts folder is full of incomplete, imperfect, unfinished posts and scribbles: nearly-done posts, ideas for posts, mere suggestions of ideas. And yet… I’ve not finished a blog post in 18 months. Why?
I could blame a busy life. Since May 2014, a lot has happened: some health issues that had me couch-bound for several weeks (during the school year: an abhorrence!), a job where I had to prove myself in under a year in order to get tenure (I did!) which probably led to aforementioned health issues, a year with a tsunami of new responsibilities at work and, because none of that was enough, I also bought an apartment, which I moved into this past July.
It’s true that all these things were draining to such a degree that sometimes all I could do was collapse on the couch and rely on Netflix for comfort (sad when you read it like this, huh?). But really, it has more to do with not knowing who I am here, and out in the “real” world.
See, it is difficult for me to be anything but my authentic self: loud, opinionated, not always diplomatic, caring very hard in a variety of directions. As a teacher, however, you’re often expected to be cool, aloof, and maintaining serious distance from your students. This is particularly true at my current program. And I’m not saying this is wrong, but it’s something that doesn’t come easy to me (see also the personal nature of this blog, which is public and accessible to students).
It was possible for me to juggle personal and professional me, in person and online, for a while, and then it happened: I became a member of our exam board. In a nutshell, it means I’m responsible (together with the rest of the board, thank goodness), for safeguarding the quality of our degrees, particularly regarding testing and assessment. It’s a taxing, sometimes infuriating, often rewarding position. And even more than with teaching, it requires “professional” demeanor and distance.
The me who, as a cog in a committee machine, decides which students stay and which have to go, which student is considered an exception and who is not, and has to navigate the interests of students, faculty, management, university, legislation, and higher education at large, clashed with the me who shouts about feminism, about racism, about pop culture. Paired with complete exhaustion, it was impossible to figure out where I stood. And so I stopped writing.
The itch remained, though. I wrote so much, for so many years, that not being able to do so was more than a little depressing. So here I am again. I still haven’t figured out how to balance the different me’s, but like so many things in my life, I’m hoping I figure it out as I go. I’ll probably take the long way around again. That’s okay.
What is madness? If I had to capture it in a few words, I’d say it’s anything that is so far removed from the reality of the “norm” that it becomes incomprehensible to the “normal.”
If you followed the news over the weekend, you know what this post is about. Only I don’t want to talk about the act itself; I don’t feel like wasting any time on a person, by all accounts a human, who already got more attention through his acts that he was ever deserving of. Instead, I’d like to talk a little about the narrative that followed, which once more contained references to mental illness, personality disorders, and so on. Because I’d like to posit that at heart, this act was not far removed from the norm at all – that is, if you’re a woman who’s been paying any attention to the culture in which she lives, breathes and exists.
Let me take you back to when I was 14 years old and trying to make some summer spending money and build character by delivering magazines in a neighboring neighborhood once a week. It was relatively warm and I was wearing a shirt and tank-top. I usually delivered these magazines with my best friends; sometimes we’d walk together, but if we wanted to be done quickly, we’d split up, which we did that day. A man, a grown man, walked by and told me how sexy I looked. I, being 14 years old, kept my head down and quickly made an exit. Though this is the first encounter with street harassment I can remember, I know it wasn’t actually the first one, because I wasn’t surprised. But the thing is that usually, teen and preteen girls travel in packs, so on previous occasions where I was approached by strange men, it had happened with friends nearby – friends who were able to deflect and protect. That same summer, there was a young man who frequented the same swimming pool my friends and I did, and he took an interest. Sometimes he’d let me hang onto his car window while I rode my bike, so that I’d be home faster. He wanted to kiss me, but with friends usually around I managed to avoid that.
This was the summer I realized once and for all that this was a thing now. Men would be approaching me, and if I wasn’t interested (and I usually wasn’t, even though like many teenage girls, I still found older guys fascinating), I would have to find a way to turn down their advances or to avoid their advances altogether. I’m not alone in these experiences. In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey describes a workshop that Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, did with 200 women. Wiseman asked them to write down when they first “knew they were a woman” and Fey notes that the answers had a “very similar theme” despite the women’s varying ages and backgrounds: “Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them.” From this moment on, whether it happens at age 10 or 14 or 17, I would posit, most of us start developing a sixth sense for male sexual attention: wanted and unwanted. The unwanted sexual attention, whether they’re looks or comments or acts, starts popping up on our Creep Radar. This radar is not built overnight. It develops through experiences like making out with a 23-year old cop, who then wants to date you, at age 16, and being secretly relieved when your mother tells you that is not a thing you need in your life. You hone your skills by noticing whenever strange men look at you a little too long, have their eyes linger on certain parts of your body, turn their heads to check out your ass. And by the time you hit college, your Creep Radar is somewhat operational.
Cue the culture that birthed Men’s Rights Activists. Read more…
“Kick up! Come on! Kick!”
My dance instructor stands near me, arms outstretched, hands cupped. “Give me your leg, darnit!”
I’ve been regretting my question even since I asked it. “After I kick, jump, and twist, is my right leg or my left one forward?” It prompted my instructor to fall back on her hands-on approach, and now here we are – here I am – in this bright dance studio, facing a wall of mirrors, surrounded by other novice dancers who are also wondering how to land this jump and (possibly, secretly) gloating that I’m the guinea pig today.
“Come on, Nanna. Kick!”
I reach that point where not acting is more mortifying than acting, so I swing my left leg half-heartedly – once, twice, three times (a lady) UP! into the hands of my instructor. With what feels like snail-like speed I jump and turn 180 degrees in the air before I land: right leg forward, left leg back. Aha!
The instructor moves on to the next student, and the next. They all get to jump and twist in her capable hands – and under her discerning gaze. Ha! Now they have all of the self-consciousness and none of the glee. It doesn’t seem to affect them as badly as it does me.
I flash back to November 2013. The department talent show. Students and lecturers all performed in the university’s main auditorium: if they were out of their minds/brave enough to sign up, that is.
I sort of got roped into participating. Knowing someone was already doing Anna Kendrick’s “Cups,” I felt perfectly safe saying that was, in fact, my only talent. But as luck would have it, that person dropped out and I was in. For weeks, I felt quite comfortable with my participation, but then, a week or so before the event, coworkers and organizers started complimenting me on my bravery, and suddenly self-consciousness struck. If my participation was brave, then this must be a scary thing I was doing. What had I got myself into? Why?
If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I always finish what I start. I have a pretty good track record of this. Which meant that one November evening, I climbed the steps to the auditorium stage and faced a few hundred students and faculty with nothing but a cup and my voice – oh, and two gentlemen flanking me with microphones; after all, an artist needs her entourage. Microphones! I figured I’d just, you know, cup and sing unplugged. But no, there was one to amplify the sound of the cup and – horror of horrors! – one for me. The singer.
I’m not, nor have I ever been, a singer. I enjoy singing in the shower, and don’t mind taking the lead with birthday songs. I’ll even sing at a campfire or on the beach (provided there is enough wine, of course). But this? This was unprecedented. Microphone… Audience…I took a deep breath and did the best I could. My legs turned to jelly, my hands shook, and it took all I had to stop the tremors from audibly creeping into my voice. But like my jump, I also landed my performance: full of relief, out of breath, and probably three years older from stress, but land it I did.
I flash back to dance class, but a dance class of the recent past. We’re improvising, which in modern dance at the beginner level apparently involves a whole lot of dancing with your eyes closed.
Just moving to the rhythm of the music, swaying to the sound, with our eyes closed, in our own space, was bad enough, but now a partner component is added to the mix: one person will have their eyes closed – and follow – and the other will have their eyes open – and lead. My partner gently grabs the back of my neck and starts moving me around the room. Or I should say, makes very valiant attempts to move me around the room, because I’m having none of it. I push back, I squint through my eyelashes, I move in directions opposite to where she wants me to go. I don’t trust – or relax, or give over – easily.
The instructor takes over. She, too, grabs the back of my neck and starts leading me. “Breathe. Shoulders down. Breathe. Relax. There we go. Breathe. You’re okay. … … …. … …. … … …” The music plays, and I dance – as much as I can.
See, this one I didn’t land. I tried, but I didn’t quite get there.
It’s now one week after the dance class in the opening of this post. It’s exam/resit/project time at my university, which means mountain-like piles of grading and very little teaching. In the end, the teaching’s (obviously) why I’m in this job – and why I love it so much. But being a teacher also means that sometimes it’s easy to forget just how frightening it can be to sit on the other side of the room: the fear of not getting it, the fear of getting it wrong, the fear of others judging you and, of course, the fear of not sticking your landing.
Dancing and singing are, in the end, not that different from the things I teach – English, composition, public speaking; they are skills that you can hone through observation, but if you really want to improve, you have to get down and dirty. You have to speak and let it be wrong sometimes. You have to sing and miss your note. You have to jump and crash your landing. But the nice thing about being in a classroom or a class-like setting is that mistakes are acceptable – and often encouraged. They’re a teaching moment and a learning experience. It’s only through falling flat on your face every once in a while that you learn how to avoid doing so.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not scary as hell – particularly when you know there’s a good chance of failure or mistake-making. The tremors, the sweating, the nerves, they affect all of us and they never make us feel good. What does is our ability to power through them and, in our shining, flawed, mistake making glory, triumph over them. At least until the next time.