Saturday, July 26, 2014


I am currently living and working in Middlebury, Vermont, as an Instructor in Environmental Humanities at the Middlebury School of the Environment. For my class "Understanding Place: Lake Champlain" our students are writing final papers on a place of their own choosing—preferably a place that means a lot to them—and reflecting on all the aspects of a place—geological, biological, ecological, cultural, historical, &c.—that come together to make a "sense of place." Last week my students organized an open-mic night in town, and I wrote and read the following poem in response to this assignment.

A Brooklyn scene, May 2014


east river

1843, Mother Russia, Jew
1894, Statue of Liberty
beard swaying, with suitcases
Buenos Aires, Cangallo Street
March 11, 1903, Ellis Island
tongue depressors
Rio de Janiero
187 Franklin Street, Greenpoint

George, Georgio, Jorge
1890, 1891, Buenos Aires, Jew
May 7, 1904, Ellis Island
loud voices whispering
187 Franklin Street, Greenpoint
los estados unidos, nueva york
bananas, Venezuela
1914, Bayonne
2013 86th Street, Bensonhurst
leather shoes and sandwiches

1892, Lower East Side, Jew
26th Street, Bayonne
2013 86th Street, Bensonhurst
leather shoes and sandwiches
Yiddish, people talking

1916, Bayonne, Jew
2013 86th Street, Bensonhurst
Brooklyn College

1923, New Orleans, jewelry, jewish
1367 Shore Parkway
South Brooklyn, 1950s, Jews, Italians
749 Flanders Drive, North Woodmere, Long Island
575 Oxford Road, Cedarhurst
Jones Beach, Mr. Robert Moses presiding
leaving Brooklyn
white flight—eastward to Long Island
—westward to Buffalo
—eastward to Schenectady

1983, Schenectady, who am I?
118 Stafford Lane
Mohegan Road
John Cage and Steve Reich
Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld
From San Francisco to Prospect Park
From California to Maine to Schenectady to Troy to Catskill
2009, 17th Street, Mannahatta
Mannahatta with flannel
Mannahatta with coffee
Mannahatta with snowfall
Mannahatta with candles
Mannahatta with people, people dancing, people angry and laughing, smoking, marching, screaming, slippery people—strangers uncaring, straphangers asleep; anonymity; silence within the noise
Mannahatta, Mannahatta

January 24, 2014, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
I walked fifteen miles in snow, carrying my life
out of Harlem, into Williamsburg
you who will cross one week hence, I see you
you who crosses one year hence, I see you
I see the face of gentrification
I see the face of money and privilege and unknowingness
I see you face to face!
What are you to me, you boisterous borough?
you cacophony of chords struck with skateboards and sharpies
What are you, you skinny jeans? you afros? you grannies? you prayerful? you sinners?
What are you, you Gowanus? you Bed-Stuy? you Bay Ridge? you two and a half million? you nobodies?
One hundred years hence, just as I have eaten pie, you will here eat pie
Just as I have watched the windows blaze red in the ruins of a factory, you, too, will blaze red
Just as I have watched the fish burp, the women in burkas carry their children, the men without shirts, smoking weed, listening to music, smiling, so you will see them
You will see a park with white people on one side and black people on the other
You will see men on bicycles with bags hanging from forearms, taking food to unhungry people
You will see the Jewish kids playing basketball, the Muslim kids playing with remote-controlled cars, the Russian ladies waiting in line at the bank with the beavers and the Indians emblazoned in gold above the tellers' windows
You will see a bag stuck in a tree, flapping in the wind, like some kind of national flag
You will see the mice in the cupboard, the roaches on the counter, the silverfish in the bathtub
You will watch them with your binoculars. You will fear them
You will fear them like the Dutch first feared the Canarsie
they planted corn and stuck it in their walls
they walked our roads
they paved this town with clamshells—white with a little bit of purple in it—the most valuable thing in the world
Jamaica Bay was all and there and you will not see it like that today or ever again
the Dutch came
but where did the Canarsie go?
We grew food here, food for Mannahatta
the English made roads, roads to connect Dutch towns, towns to connect Canarsie roads, roads to connect the forest to the grasslands to the sea
One big meadow
Ablaze, under fire; shining, under the moon

Irish squatters and free blacks
they came; towns united, Brooklyn
from the river to the sea
from the King of England, a county, a city, a place: Brooklyn
Walt Whitman saw them coming east! and west
1890, 1900, Abraham, Joseph, Jack, George, Henrietta
Jewish people
They imagined their great-grandchildren
They imagined me!

dumpster divers
queer dancers
poetry readers
lip rings
dollar slices
herring and
Oh, sea-green beach cruiser: take me where the beards sweep the streets on Jew Parkway!
pants rolled up, cut off, just off
hairy legs, oiled chests, bikini bottoms,
fat-bottomed people amid mangoes and Mr. Softee trucks
churros, and a little Latin music; everyone has got their phones out; everyone is awkward
everyone has a white baby; it doesn't matter what race you are: you have a white baby
they grow like money
but there the baby evicted, the baby hungry, the dead baby
There the prayerful; there the sinners
There the Jamaicans; there the Pakistanis
I sleep under stars at night, guarded by an angry opossum
It is quiet on Tehama Street
the trees whistle as day turns
big bees aim for my head; crows perch on satellite television dishes
they cry out at twilight, as the Chinese characters in neon sing their goodnight song above the railroad, where the man pushes the shopping cart uphill: it's like he will never get to where he is going, and the sun will never again rise

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Planning—No, Finishing—the Dissertation

Arriving or departing? Maritime New York, May 2014

It has been one year since I last updated my "Planning the Dissertation" series. If you missed it, Part I appeared here in May 2012, and Part II in July 2013. Now, with autumn winds approaching—yes, I can hear them whistling on the horizon—it is time for Part III, the last part, the grand finale: Finishing the Dissertation.

As per custom, let's look at the goals I set for myself last summer, and how well I have met them:

Summer 2013:
Research: One month of research at the Huntington Library in California; three weeks of research in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, at various libraries and repositories. 
Writing: Finish full drafts of chapter 5 (on guano), chapter 6 (on California), and chapter 7 (on sugar).
RESULTS: Done and done: I had my California Research Adventure in July-August 2013, and my Hawaiʻi Research Adventure in August-September. As of July 1, I had full drafts of chapters 5-7, so I'm not even sure why that was on my list of goals for the summer!

Fall 2013:
Research: One month of research at the Bancroft Library in California. 
Writing: Get back comments on my chapter 2 (on sandalwood), chapter 3 (whaling), and chapter 4 (whaling). Turn in chapters 5, 6, and 7. Finish full draft of chapter 1 (on the body) and begin writing the Introduction.
RESULTS: Done and sort of done. I had my California Research Adventure in Berkeley in November 2013. I revised chapters 2-4, but I did not turn in chapters 5-7. I did, however, finish a full draft of both chapter 1 and my introduction. Unexpectedly, I also applied for a few academic jobs and had the good learning experience of interviewing at a few institutions.

Spring 2014:
Research: none. 
Writing: Revising any and all chapters as needed. Finish full draft of Introduction and Conclusion. Now the whole thing, in draft form, has taken shape. Once my advisor begins approving some of these chapters I can also begin to circulate them among other committee members and outside readers for further feedback.
RESULTS: Yes, I have continued to revise and edit my seven chapters and introduction. I started to draft a conclusion, but it is not yet finished. I did share my introduction with all committee members and outside reader, and I have begun to share select chapters with them, as well.

Summer 2014:
Research: Two final weeks in Hawaiʻi to check sources, get help with translations, and otherwise make sure that the dissertation research is solid. (If possible, and if I've also got the funds to do so, I'd like to visit Samoa, site of a possible "second book project.")
Writing: Editing, revising, resubmitting, rethinking, rewriting, lots of tinkering. 
Job prep: Putting together my job portfolio and really, deeply thinking through how I want to present myself when I go on the market. Getting sound advice from others. Making sure my suit fits well.
RESULTS: Well, I got a job teaching at Middlebury College this summer, so that means that I do not go to Hawaiʻi this summer. (I also obviously am not going to Samoa. I did quite a bit of preliminary research for that possible project, but it is no longer on the top of my pile of "second book projects.") I do need to go back to Hawaiʻi one last time, however. More on that later.
As for writing, I haven't touched the dissertation all summer. Really. :)
As for job prep, having gone on the job market last year was great preparation for this year. Academic jobs are now just starting to appear online. Let the games begin.

I also wrote up plans for the 2014-15 year, so let's look at those and see how I might want to change them:

Fall 2014:
No guarantee of funding at this point.
Research: none. Unless I'm crafting ideas for that elusive "second book project."
Editing, revising, resubmitting, rethinking, rewriting, tinkering. Everyone should be reading my dissertation right now: my advisor, other committee members, outside readers.
I hope to defend my dissertation during the fall semester of 2014.
Job prep:
Scanning the academic job market, near and far, high and low, and applying to as many jobs and job-related opportunities as possible.
Funding: check. I have been honored with a 2014-15 Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.
Research: I plan to do more reading in secondary literature: more on the Pacific World; more on economic history and Marxist theory; more on the history of poverty and the working class.
Writing: I plan to significantly revise and tighten up my introduction. Otherwise I need to solicit more feedback from readers on the dissertation's seven chapters, and continue to tinker with them. I need to finish drafting the conclusion. I also want to work on revising two journal articles currently in progress, and send them out for publication.
Defense: No. We have decided to do the defense in spring 2015.
Job prep: Yes. Applying near and far, high and low is a major priority for this fall.

Spring 2015:
Finish up everything that ever mattered (and even the stuff that seems to have no meaning or relevance) so that I can close the book on six years of doctoral study, and seven and a half years of total graduate study. Clean out my department office. Hopefully some employer somewhere contacts me and offers me something, even if it is just for a year...somewhere to go, so that when I box up the hundreds of books in my office, at least I know what to write in black marker on the outside of those boxes.
This is where things get interesting.
I am probably leaving New York City for good circa February 2015. It is not for certain, but I am planning optimistically on the possibility of landing a good academic job somewhere outside of this famous city. It's not what I want to do. I want to stay in New York. But the reality is that I will probably find a job somewhere else, and that is okay.
So, with the winds of a year-long fellowship at my back, I intend to move to Honolulu for at least a month, but perhaps as many as four months starting in February. Here's what it will look like:
Research: Yes. Whatever I need to look at anew or afresh in Hawaiian archives, I can do that in February-March in Honolulu. I also intend to go to Maui for the first time, as there are historic sites there that play a major role in my dissertation. More importantly, with a full draft of my dissertation in hand, I intend to meet with numerous scholars at UH and elsewhere, to get their feedback on my work, to check my Hawaiian-language translations, and to think about where this work is going in its post-dissertation future.
Writing: dotting "i"s and crossing "t"s.
Defense: I should get the full, complete dissertation draft to my committee sometime in February. We can schedule a defense date for anytime between late March and early May. I graduate on May 21. Fingers crossed.
Job market: Interviews at the AHA in January in New York City? Campus visits in February or March? Fingers doubly crossed.

Summer 2015:
I did not include summer 2015 in my earlier plans, but now I know that I have been honored with a fellowship that covers two months' study in four New England repositories. This will take me to Harvard in June and to sites in Boston and Mystic, Connecticut, in July. Yay!

So this is how one finishes a dissertation. It's like a landslide passing through a funnel and all the separate rocks bang and crash together until just one rock—like a big turd—pops out: that's the dissertation.

In the past few years, I have averaged spending three or four months a year outside of New York. It's been a hell of a ride. From my vantage point here in Vermont this summer I can now look forward to six more months in Brooklyn, but those will likely be my last months in New York. In 2015 I am likely to spend just one month in New York City (January), then four months in Hawaiʻi (February-May), then two months in greater Boston (June-July), then five months in who-knows-where.

Is that scary? or exciting? or maybe a little of both?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

My Mohawk

I am currently living and working in Middlebury, Vermont, as an Instructor in Environmental Humanities at the Middlebury School of the Environment. For my class "Environmentalism and the Poor" my students and I each wrote personal reflection essays on the convergence of class, privilege, and environmental awareness and values in our lives. The following is my response to the assignment.

Mohawk River scene, November 2013

My Mohawk

I grew up just a few miles upland from the Mohawk River, but I did not know it. My father, mother, older brother and I all lived in a big house on a road named for the native peoples who once lived here. They were the Mohicans, and our street, plotted on a map for the first time probably in the early twentieth century, was named Mohegan Road. It intersects with Stuyvesant Road (named for the seventeenth-century Dutch governor of this land) and runs parallel to Algonquin Road (named for the larger group of native peoples that included Mohicans but not the Mohawks). As for the Mohawks, they were the “keepers of the eastern door.” They were members of the Iroquois confederacy—the Haudenosaunee—a great polity stretching westward from the Mohawk River to Niagara Falls, and stretching backward in time from the present to at least five hundred years ago. The Mohawk River is named for the people who lived along it. I never met a Mohawk until I moved to New York City, and I did not know that I lived along the Mohawk River. I lived a few miles upland. A river and its people flowed unknowingly beneath me through space and time.

Canal boats, barges, fishing boats, and high school crew teams can be seen going upstream and downstream each day along the river. In high school, my sweetheart participated on the crew team. I once attended one of their matches on the Mohawk. It was my first time actually on the river. Earlier, when we first fell in the love, she drove me down to the river one night and dared me to go skinny-dipping with her. I would not, but I watched her through the cracks in my fingers as she stripped down and made her body mysteriously disappear into the river.

She knew the river through the act of boating on it and swimming in it. I, on the other hand, was afraid to put a toe in it. We grew up hearing from anxious parents and schoolyard rumors that General Electric, the big corporation just a few miles upstream, had dumped heavy metals and toxins into the river for generations. It was not safe to swim in the Mohawk River. This was the narrative I learned and accepted as truth. But people swam in the river nevertheless. When I was older—sometime after college—I moved back to the Mohawk and lived in an apartment on my own for the first time in the city of Schenectady. Sometimes I would go down to the river and enjoy it with my senses from a safe distance. I watched the African-American children wading in and swimming in the inlet, laughing and splashing as they enjoyed the cool feel of the water on their overheated bodies. Were their apartments hot and stuffy, lacking air conditioning and fans? I felt the same heat as them, but why did they cool off in the river and I did not? Were our knowledges of and apprehensions of the level of pollution in the river wildly different? As for me, I was above swimming in the river. I swam at the Jewish Community Center in the chlorinated pool. I could swim at Union College where my dad worked. To each their own toxins: they chose industrial waste streams; I chose chlorine and kiddie pool piss.

One day I saw a swirling eddy of garbage floating in the Mohawk as it wound around Schenectady. I went home, opened a phone book, and called the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to file a report. The woman on the other end of the line told me that, “oh, someone probably just dumped a load of garbage into the river. Assholes.” I later reflected on our conversation: who was the asshole? Why would anyone dump waste into the Mohawk River?

Downstream of us is the sewage treatment plant. Electricity is utilized to process my poop, separate it into liquids and solids, treat the liquid content, and then flush it all into the Mohawk. I'm not sure if we directly drink that water, but perhaps someone does. The electricity to run the sewage plant once came from the river itself. The Mohawk is dammed up so many times over from its headwaters in the Adirondacks to its outlet near Albany. Old hydroelectric plants sit as ruins along the water's edge. Today much of our energy comes from coal—mined in Appalachia, or perhaps somewhere else. I don't really know. Do the wires above our heads carry the current of hot coal from your river to mine? River currents can only go in one direction, down. Every river must end. But electrical currents go in all and every direction. The Mohawk used to be a corridor for electricity just as it is for water. Now it carries treated poop and heavy metals. No one knows where our electricity comes from.

General Electric began laying off employees at its Schenectady plant in the 1970s. Was it one hundred here and one hundred there, or did they lock out ten thousand all at once? By the time I came of age along the river, only two to three thousand workers still punched their timecards. When tens of thousands left, the population of our city went into free fall, and a neighborhood built expressly for company workers was soon a slum for the city's poorest. African-Americans became a majority of this neighborhood's residents, and white people increasingly stayed away. Anxious parents warned us not to go to Hamilton Hill. On the hill above the flats above the river, the poor, the dispossessed, and people of color got locked in—stuck in situ by the anger and despair of a crumbling white working class, a people on the defensive and in retreat, a people who once referred to the glowing “G.E.” sign above the canal with pride of place.

Globalization was good to our river. General Electric moved production overseas where labor was cheaper and environmental regulations less stringent or non-existent. Their motto, “we bring good things to life,” was unveiled when they left town. G.E. had brought good things to Schenectady—a sparkling downtown; men in fine suits, woman in party dresses; blue-collar men and women marching up and down Hamilton Hill, going to and from jobs that were sufficient and honorable; union meeting halls resounding with the sound of exhortations and proclamations by workers, for workers; marches up and down State Street; socialists taking over City Hall in the 1910s, creating parks for the poor, places of respite for the downtrodden. When G.E. left, the lights turned off. So began the post-industrial apocalypse. The people thinned out, and spread out. The pollution stopped. The river cleared up. People cleaned it up. The Mohawk was brought back to life, and we have globalization to thank for that.

But now men and women walk to work at General Electric-India and General Electric-China, where new rivers are receiving the brunt of our old pollution. We may clean up our own rivers by using compact fluorescent lightbulbs; the dams along the Mohawk can be smashed to smithereens, allowing fish to swim freely up and downstream if we want them to, because we are energy-efficient consumers and we no longer need “white coal” from the river. But who is putting the mercury in our compact fluorescent bulbs? Who is bringing good things to life in the twenty-first century?

I grew up close to, but distant from, the Mohawk River. Later, as I grew older, I came to love it very much. I love it passionately, but passively from a respectable distance. It is an expression of my class and my upbringing, of my station in society and in the world, and of my relationship to (or alienation from) work. I do not swim in the river. I do not boat on it. I try not to drink it. I most certainly poop into it. I don't want to pollute it, and I will do my part to clean it up, but I don't know and I can't care if I am polluting someone else's river to do so. When I turn on the lights in my parents' house, what good things are brought to life, and what good things are destroyed? If the energy we consume is not coming from the river, then where is it coming from? If I can't use the river to get from one place to another, or to power a single light bulb, then what use is it? Three hundred years ago, Dutch, English, and French traders and trappers traveled one way on the river while Mohawks traveled in the other direction. The river was a meeting place—a flashpoint in globalization. Great battles in our Revolutionary War were fought along its shores. The Erie Canal was built tracing its edge. One of the world's great corporations took root in the flats along the river in that great age of steam, iron, consolidation, unionization, immigration, socialism, upheaval, and progress. You never step into the same river twice, and that could easily be said of the Mohawk.

My Mohawk is not anyone else's Mohawk. Mine is an idea. To someone else, it is a river.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Year in Review: Fourth Anniversary

Let's celebrate the fourth year of this blog's existence! You can see recaps of Year One, Year Two, and Year Three here. Now it is time to reflect back on Year Four.

Last year's anniversary post was published on March 24, 2013. I began this blog in March 2010. That is why we always celebrate each anniversary in March. So let's begin this year's wrap-up with March 24, 2013 and the days that followed...

It was Passover season.

My seder plate. March 26, 2013

In early April I traveled to Toronto to attend the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History. My blog post was mostly about how I was stopped by the Canadian border police and interrogated about what my true intentions were in entering Canada. A very interesting and chilling experience. But I also wrote about what a cool place Toronto is!

And then it was May. 
May Day, to be precise. I did not blog about our Stony Brook May Day Celebration on May 1, 2013, but there is ample media elsewhere on the web that is left over from that event. You can see our 2013 homepage here, and from there link to other pages such as our media page which includes a link to lots of photos and video from the event!

Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU / CWA Local 1104) rally at May Day Stony Brook. May 1, 2013

March on the President's Office, May Day Stony Brook. May 1, 2013

Soon I was off to Ithaca, New York, for a week to attend Cornell University's Summer Institute on Contested Landscapes. I wrote about my experiences, and especially about our field trip to northern Pennsylvania to investigate fracking (hydraulic fracturing) and its social impacts. It was an eye-opening trip.

 In late May 2013 I attended the large March Against Monsanto at Union Square (march to Washington Square). As usual, I took tons of photographs and video of the event, which attracted a crowd of several thousand participants.

March Against Monsanto, entering Washington Square Park. May 25, 2013

March Against Monsanto, New York City. May 25, 2013

On June 1, I was back at Zuccotti Park for an #occupygezi demonstration in support of the protests in Turkey.

#OccupyGezi Solidarity Demonstration, Zuccotti Park. June 1, 2013

What did I do in June?
I house-sat in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, for two weeks, and thus paid my obligatory (and first) visit to Fort Greene Park. (Little did I know that I would end up living in Brooklyn just nine months later.)

Fort Greene Park. June 14, 2013

On my wedding anniversary I went upstate to the Catskill Mountains. Went camping. :)

Our Camp at North-South Lake, Catskill Mountains. June 23, 2013

July 4th: the anniversary of American Independence. I attended the big Restore the Fourth (Amendment) rally at Union Square and marched down Broadway. This was in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations about the NSA.

Restore the Fourth, march down Broadway with banner "Yes We Scan." July 4, 2013

A few days later I got back to blogging and wrote this update to my series on "Planning the Dissertation."

And then I was off to California, and then to Hawaiʻi, for a long summer away from home...
As always, I wrote about my California Research Adventure, this time in eight segments:

San Marino, July 2013 (part I of narrative)

Los Angeles, July 2013 (part II of narrative)

Los Angeles, July 2013 (part III of narrative)

San Marino, July 2013 (part IV of narrative)

Ventura County & Channel Islands, July 2013 (part V of narrative)

Pasadena, July 2013 (part VI of narrative)

San Marino, August 2013 (part VII of narrative)

Orange County, August 2013 (part VIII of narrative)

After returning home from Cali in mid-August, I was off, almost immediately again, to Cincinnati for a wedding.

Cincinnati Art Museum, August 17, 2013

Then, the morning after the wedding bash, I was on a plane to Honolulu for my Hawaiʻi Research Adventure, in seven segments:

Honolulu, August 2013 (part I of narrative)

Honolulu, August 2013 (part II of narrative)

Windward Coast, Oʻahu, August 2013 (part III of narrative)

North Shore & Central Oʻahu, August 2013 (part IV of narrative)

Central Oʻahu and Mānoa, August 2013 (part V of narrative)

Waiʻanae Coast, Oʻahu, August 2013 (part VI of narrative)

Koko Head and Waikīkī, September 2013 (part VII of narrative)

Although I returned from Hawaiʻi in early September, I did not write up those last two Research Adventure reports until mid-October. Meanwhile, in late September I visited home and spent some time with a good old friend, an old creek that I once loved as a young man:
The Lisha Kill, Niskayuna, New York, September 29, 2013

In early October I visited Tucson, Arizona, to attend the annual meeting of the Western History Association:

View from my hotel patio, Tucson, Arizona, October 9, 2013

In late October, on the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, I wrote a post to remember what it was like—at least what I experienced—as I encountered devastation amid the relief effort.

Then, in the last days of October, it was off to Cali for another California Research Adventure! This time in the Bay Area, and this time in nine parts:

Berkeley, October 2013 (part I of narrative)

San Francisco, November 2013 (part II of narrative)

Berkeley, November 2013 (part III of narrative)

Fort Ross & Point Reyes, November 2013 (part IV of narrative)

Oakland, November 2013 (part V of narrative)

San Francisco, November 2013 (part VI of narrative)

Monterey, November 2013 (part VII of narrative)

Berkeley, November 2013 (part VIII of narrative)

Berkeley, November 2013 (part IX of narrative)

I returned from California around Thanksgiving. Then I moved to Harlem on December 1st. 

View of Central Harlem from the 135th Street YMCA, December 1, 2013

I lived in Harlem for two months. I witnessed quite a few beautiful snowstorms, and I otherwise fell in love with the new neighborhood.

Snowstorm in the North Woods of Central Park, December 10, 2013

Come late December, I began to reflect back on the year—and on my entire life, actually. I decided to buy my name [dot] com and have my own website all about me! And I also wrote about this project: my effort to celebrate all of my life, not just the academic side. What I call "The Human C.V."

Then it was 2014. As I continued to think about life on a more existential level, and I took a few months off from academic research and writing, I did not write anything here on this blog.

On my birthday, in late January, I walked fifteen miles from Central Harlem to Williamsburg. It was a birthday march, and it symbolized my imminent move from Harlem to Brooklyn...

 Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, January 24, 2014

 On February 1st, I moved to Brooklyn!

Welcome to Brooklyn! February 3, 2014

February. February. I traveled to Kansas for a week. I traveled to Vermont for a week. At one point late in the month I calculated that I had spent only about 50% of the nights in February in my own (new) bed in Brooklyn. It was a month of movement—of change—of transition.

In early March I published my first post of 2014, a post about gender and sexuality. A very personal post. But one that certainly continues the themes that I raised in "The Human C.V."

March 2014.

Greenwood Cemetery in snow. March 8, 2014.

It is a tradition of these anniversary posts to suggest a few things about the future. That is, what will the year from March 2014 to March 2015 look like? Well, here goes:

I will still be in school and still be a doctoral candidate through March 2015.

I will live in Brooklyn at least through January 2015 if not longer. If I am not living in Brooklyn as of March 2015, I will still be in the New York City area, as I will not graduate with my doctoral degree until May 2015. 

There will be at least one more research adventure: another trip to Hawaiʻi, probably sometime in the fall just before job hunting season turns to its in-person interviews (and hence, the potential need to be in the mainland United States with some regularity... unless I look for work overseas). The in-person period of the job hunt seems to be January through March, so I should plan my Hawaiʻi Research Adventure for late fall 2014. 

Yes, job hunting will be part of next year's program of activities. So will my dissertation defense. So will, basically, wrapping up my dissertation. Life will twist and turn into 2015. By March I may know where I am living and working in 2016... but perhaps not. 
 To another year: hear hear! rah rah!

Monday, March 3, 2014

My Very Own Closet

The phrase "coming out of the closet" is generally reserved for those who previously identified as "straight," or they didn't identify as anything (because society just assumed them to be straight), and then, turning a corner, they chose to publicly identify as "gay."

But what about everyone else who doesn't go from one side of this sexuality binary to the other? What about all those for who the binary of gay/straight is meaningless, or at least hollow? What about those who "come out" in different directions, who start from unusual starting points and end at equally unusual endings?

I have long believed that most people are neither "straight" nor "gay." Riffing on Kinsey here, I think that most of us fall somewhere in between hetero and homo. Indeed, although I am generally attracted to female-bodied persons, that has not been true 100% of the time in my life. I am generally attracted to people with feminine qualities, but not wholly so. The same goes for gender: most people are neither wholly male nor wholly female in my reckoning; most people are neither wholly masculine nor purely feminine. I myself have always had a feminine streak: in middle and high school I wanted to wear women's clothing, but I kept myself from doing it; in high school I sometimes wore glitter to school, which was, dare I say, fabulous. But more to the point: I'd rather talk about my feelings and relationships all day than watch or play sports or video games. But these are just crude gender stereotypes, and at worst I am just reinforcing that useless old binary that holds that some things are "masculine" while others are "feminine" and never the twain shall meet. But they do meet. They meet in me. In my heart. In my head. In my body and in my desires.

I think that everyone is "in the closet," really. But we each have our very own closet, a closet of our own making—something we built up around ourselves, under societal, familial, ideological, and moral pressures, to make life "easier" for ourselves. A grand delusion, in fact. Because performing "straight" and performing "gay" are easy enough in that the stereotypical behaviors and ways-of-being are so commonly known and almost universally accepted and shared throughout our society that it is easier to just be one of those things than to be something different. I know, because I've been performing "straight" for the great majority of my life. I have also long performed "male." These were and are my closets. These are the boxes that I have made for myself—boxes that limit my experience of the world and of this one special life that I get to live.

Although I have been perceived as "gay" by friends and acquaintances at least since high school, and I was even the victim of a minor hate crime in college based on my perceived sexual identity as "gay," the truth is that my closet wasn't made by those who assumed things about me, who bullied me, and who wanted me to feel bad about myself because of my gender expression and my perceived sexual orientation. No, I made my very own closet by pressuring myself to do the very opposite of these assumed things: to be more male, to be more straight. I've always been down on myself for not being masculine enough, for not being straight enough. I always worried that I would never be successful in a heterosexual relationship because I just couldn't get myself to perform the male/straight role in a satisfactory way. I put these pressures on myself. I have long believed that either I must succeed at being a "straight man" or else I will not be happy.

It is strange to find myself grasping in the dark for the doorknob of this closet. I have no idea—and I'm frankly a bit scared—of what I will discover on the other side. But I know that I want to smash this closet into pieces. I want to smash the gender binary. I want to smash the sexuality binary. I want to love every part of myself, all 100%, and not feel bad or embarrassed about any part of me that fails to conform to any one prescribed way of being or another.

In his History of Sexuality, did not Michel Foucault argue that the concept of being straight and being gay was a relatively modern phenomenon? That in the past people engaged in heterosexual or homosexual acts, but the idea of being one way or the other was not commonly understood? I wonder if we might not want to go back to that older way of thinking about sex. I understand that there are many, many labels out there, and that many of these labels are empowering and liberating to those who adopt them. But, personally, I don't want a label. I don't want to be any kind of sexuality except my own. I don't want to be any gender except my own. What am I? If you ask me that, I will say: I am Gregory. I am a beautiful person. I am full of love. What else is there to know?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Human C.V.

I've finally decided, after about four or five years of having one—and after watching it grow from one to four pages—to post my c.v. online: my curriculum vitae.

But to do so is painful. That's because I know that some people read a c.v. as if it is the person. "It says everything that you need to know about Gregory."

No... it does not. Not. Even. Close.

self-portrait (c. 1995)

A friend recently asked me in casual conversation: what is a c.v.? And what a question! But do I have a good answer? At first blush, I responded that it was like a resume, simply longer. The resume is traditionally one page, but the c.v. is as long as it can be or wants to be. Once you get really old, your c.v. might be fifty pages long, and that is okay. That's what we mean by "curriculum vitae": the course of one's life.

I kind of think it is impressive that I can now fill up four pages of my c.v. with stuff about me, but it is also sad, because if you would let me I would fill up four hundred pages to tell my story. So the question "what is a c.v.?" is not so much a question of how long it should be, but really: what does/should it say? What part of my four-hundred-page story becomes the condensed four-page mini-narrative? And how could anyone get away with thinking that those measly four pages represent me?

So while I am right that a c.v. can be as long as you want it to be, you cannot simply put anything on it. You do not include a list of all your romantic relationships, which ones reached different milestones such as sex or marriage, and then little filler information between certain relationships to explain why you were, say, single between 2003 and 2005—because people are really going to want to know that about you! No. I repeat: this information does not go into your c.v.

You do not list all the different pets that you have had over time: their names, their ages at time of death, et cetera. Nope, no pets.

You do not record when you first stood upright and you walked on two feet. You do not record when you said your first word and what that word was. You likewise do not record the funerals you have attended, the people close to you who have died, and what your relationship with them was.

In fact, almost anyone and everyone important in your life will never get onto the pages of your c.v. It's as if they never existed, and you were never impacted by their lives.

So what do you list on a c.v.? Well, you list 1) texts that you have published (and sometimes you can sneak in a few that you have written even if they are not published, but they must be eminently publishable); you list 2) public presentations that you have given; you list 3) the schools and programs you have received degrees from; you may list 4) organizations that you are a member of (but only if they are professional organizations similar to the professions held by the people reading your c.v.!).

Now you might think to yourself: the only person who is going to be able to fill up multiple pages of a c.v. with that kind of stuff is some kind of detached, soulless intellectual, am I right?!

Yes, you are right.

In fact, most people on Earth—wonderful, beautiful, creative, loving people—don't have c.v.s, and in the realm of c.v.-dom they just don't count.

Now, take a breath, and look away from the screen for a second. There are a select group of people on this Earth fretting and worrying about the format and placement of one thing or another on this piece (or pieces) of paper that only matter to a small group of other yet similar people. Meanwhile, good people—the best on Earth—are living their lives, helping others, doing amazing things, and none of it is chiseled into stone on a c.v.

So, to return to the question, "what is a c.v.?" Perhaps the best answer is that it is some kind of language or code that a small, select group of people use to judge and evaluate each other. Kind of like how an Olympic judge gives a seemingly random numeral grade for a floor routine in the field of gymnastics: the only people who really understand the nature of that grading system are the judges and the gymnasts. Right? I mean, how would I, for example, know what is a 9.1 performance versus a 9.9?

Anyone, with some work, can learn the code. Frankly, anyone can master it. There are people who actually get paid to listen to you talk about your life so that they can write up a c.v. for you. It's like, "tell me the 'course of your life' and I will turn that mundane English phrase into a Latin one!" :)

I'm not saying that the c.v. is all bad. Perhaps it serves an important purpose, although I do think that we who use and evaluate c.v.s are generally too competitive with each other and we think way too much about one-upmanship, about how one person's c.v. ranks against another's. But stop for a moment and think about how utterly stupid that is. You are taking one person's "course of their life" and then ranking it against someone else's. When and why did we ever start thinking that somehow human lives are comparable and rankable in this way? And what does it say about us that we so habitually do this to ourselves and to each other?

Of course, I do not mean just to criticize. The question now becomes: what can we do differently?

I believe there are three possible solutions to the problem of the c.v. One is to ban all c.v.s. Let's ban resumes, too. Or not ban them, but in all hiring situations we should simply ask people to send in whatever they want about themselves in whatever format they want. They can send in a written narrative, a resume or c.v., an audiotape or video recording, a portfolio of creative works or products, a basket of scented or tasty goodies, an envelope stuffed with cash. Really. Let people send in whatever they want.

I know what I would send in. I would write a super-duper-long cover letter, because I always want to write really long cover letters. I want to explain where I've come from and where I think I'm going, and how I believe this job/position fits into the trajectory of my life's adventure—my 'life's course' (aka curriculum vitae!). But I might also send in a few photographs of myself: pictures of me smiling and interacting with other people, to show that I am a personable guy and that I love working with others. (Indeed, one of the best jobs that I ever had was won—at least partly—by me sharing unsolicited photographs like the ones I just described! I am telling you: send in those smiling pictures!)

The second possible solution is: let's force everyone to have a c.v. Not just writers and thinkers and academics. But farmers, astronauts, nurses, politicians, plumbers, freelancers, breakdancers. Everyone should have a c.v. This way we would have to inevitably break down the artificial taxonomy of what goes in and what stays out of a c.v. The breakdancer would list all of their accomplishments as a dancer. The plumber list the skills s/he has acquired and the various jobs s/he has successfully completed. The academic will list their published books and articles. To everything there is a season; for everyone there is a c.v.

And how would that change my c.v.? Well, if you listed your experiences dancing, I'd probably list mine, too. (I performed with my college's modern dance company for one year in 2002-2003, but that's not on my current c.v. Too bad!). I have no experience as a plumber or an astronaut, but I have worked a bit on an organic vegetable farm. That's not on my c.v. But really, why not?

Finally, there is a third way—a middle path: the human c.v.

What do I mean by "human c.v."? Well, it's kind of like what I am describing above under option two. If you ever performed in a dance company, list it! If you ever walked one hundred miles across the desert without stop, and you slept on the side of the road, list it! If you fell deeply in love, had your heart broken, and wrote a poem about it, list it! If you had a child, or you lost a grandparent, list it!

Now don't go listing everything. Because who is going to read a four-hundred-page c.v. I'll read your four-hundred-page autobiography if you write it, but not a c.v. Sure, the human c.v. can be a little hybrid of the two: you can tell some narratives rather than just listing everything. I mean, whose "course of life" unfolded like a bunch of lists? Not mine. My life is more like a bunch of snaking stories that wind in and out of each other's ways, sometimes getting tangled up. Once in a while a story-snake just crokes, or gets chopped into two, and usually they simply splinter up into multiple new snakes like a many-headed hydra.

Tell your story. That's what the "human c.v." is all about. And who are you telling it to? Well... the world! Tell it. Not because you need to, or because you want people to judge or evaluate you—that's what the boring old normal c.v. is for. Tell your story because you are proud of it, and because when people ask you "who are you?" you can confidently point to your "human c.v." and say: that's me. (Of course it isn't. The only thing that is you is you. But being able to express yourself in words or images—to tell your story the way you want to tell it—may be an important and liberating adventure. It's worth a try!)

All I know is that my c.v. is not me and I am not my c.v. (It's like the Buddhist monk who once ripped up all his cards—his driver's license, his social security card, his credit cards—and with each rip said: "this card is not me. I am not this card.") The c.v. is, in the end, just some kind of fantastic and twisted mirror of one's self. It reflects a sort of "way of being" that I can perform, but it hardly reflects a "course of life" that I have lived and am still living. I think that this is the key difference between a c.v. and a "human c.v." The former is a tool for attaining a goal; the latter is a story that gives meaning to our lives.

I have never made a "human c.v." before, but I am working on one here. (And now I've got to go add that modern dance company line to it!). Please let me know what you think about this idea and project. And if you have a "human c.v." to share, I would love to see it! (No judgement. No evaluation. Just loving-kindness, respect, and appreciation for one's willingness to share their 'life course.')

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Goodbye, California

California Research Adventure: Days 64-69

Hey, this is my 100th blog post! [Three cheers!]

Berkeley Fire Trail at dawn

Can you believe that I have "research-adventured" for seventy days in the Golden State? That's well over two months. But as I said in an earlier post, I have spent about four months away from home in 2013. I'm a traveling man. And in 2014 it won't be very much different. I don't plan to "research-adventure" anymore—that is, visit archives—but I am planning to spend time in Harlem, maybe D.C., Kansas in February, back to S.F. in March, Atlanta in April, and who knows what happens from there!

So how did I spend my last few days in Berkeley? Well, on Saturday morning I decided to wake up very early and start walking uphill—through town—through campus—up into Strawberry Canyon. There I hooked up with the fire trail(s), a set of footpaths through the hills above UC-Berkeley. I ended up hiking at least seven miles, and moving nonstop for about 3-4 hours. It felt great!

 Looking all the way to Oakland from the fire trail

View of Berkeley (and even the Golden Gate) from the fire trail
After a lovely hike, I then hiked myself all the way back down the hill to campus where I hooked up with the Berkeley Art Museum. The museum happens to have almost exclusively Asian art on display at the moment, which is fine by me. But I found this kind of interesting and I wonder if it is part of the mission of the museum or whether I just happened to find them in this fleeting vogue. 
Check out this museum floor plan! As you walk through, you get no real sense of being on the "first floor" or the "second floor." Rather each room is its own floor—its own space floating within a bigger space. Very strange and kind of beautiful. 
Berkeley Art Museum, built c. 1970[?]
I enjoyed the museum, then made my way back to the Y to rest my feet and read and relax in the glowing sunlight pouring in through my window.

The next day—Sunday—I woke to this:

The Berkeley Half Marathon, as seen (and heard) through my window at 8 AM!

If I knew this was going to happen, I would have sold tickets for spectators to come up to my YMCA room for the view. :)

Berkeley Half Marathoners running past my window
Watching all these runners motivated me to throw on my clothes and run outside, too. I ran as far as the sidewalk, at which point I discovered that all the marathoners were long gone on their journey to the finish line. My run became a walk and I moseyed down to the local coffeehouse to sip coffee and read a book. Take that, Exercise. (But, as you know, I have been faithfully attending 7 AM yoga on most days on most weeks this past month. I am definitely more fit than I have been for the past two to three years.)

After a lovely weekend, on both Monday and Tuesday I visited the library for the last time(s). I have finished my dissertation research. Yes, I can say that now. :)

Tonight I am meeting up with an old friend (it's been six years) for dinner. Tomorrow morning meeting an old friend (it's been five years). Then getting on a plane to New York City. I will arrive in the cold, rainy, messy city around midnight on Thanksgiving morning. Then I've got to take a bus upstate. Should be at my childhood home by 11 AM on Thanksgiving... also first day of Hanukkah. 

Happy holidays! and Happy travels!