Tag Archives: memoir

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to (mostly) Love Oklahoma: A Tulsa Memoir Part 5

As noted, I tend to get going on a topic and then trail off (I never did wrap up my commentary on the Feminine Mystique; I never did follow through with all the Big Ideas I had for “This is Not a Lifestyle Blog” – but this is a blog, and there’s time!). Before it gets too far from my memory, I wanted to wrap up my series about growing up in the conservative south and my recent trip back “home.” (Read the rest here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)

When I last wrote, I’d been pretty thoroughly alienated from mainstream culture in Tulsa by a series of extremely negative interactions with conservative Christianity. Between that and poky grass, I was pretty much planning to get out of this place as quickly as humanly possibly. I began to elevate and romanticize the Midwest as the ideal and preferable alternative to the south. By age 15, I was using road atlases to plot an escape route and writing romance stories set on farms.

So what changed? Continue reading

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Excerpt from Pigs Are People, Too (and a Tribute to A Superhero Mama Writer)

Last week, Jen wrote about her first moves towards prioritizing writing in the middle of the frenetic life of a mother of young children and part-time teacher. She introduced our mutual friend, Shell, as an inspiration and a fellow mama-ex-academic-writer-kick-ass-person working very hard to get her own writing project off the ground.

Shell is raising money through IndieGoGo to finish and self-publish a memoir and manifesta for fat women. Shell writes, “Fat women are everywhere. And we are hungry for honest stories about what it’s like to be fat, for the truth about the conflicted feelings we have for our bodies, for funny empowering tales about body-image, and for the all-too-rare point of view that fat phobia—not just obesity–is an epidemic worth fighting… We need some experiences out there that share the truth of living fat, not the sob story of how we got there, or the success story of how we got out, but what we experienced from those around us while we were/are in it; the reality of living as a fat woman in America.”

Jen and I think this is a project worth funding. Let me tell you some things about Shell:

  • She works in a full-time administration position and also teaches nights.
  • She’s been a single mother, teen mother, welfare mother, working mother — and she is an amazing, feminist parent raising incredible young people.
  • She finished a PhD and, while not a grad school quitta, is a total quitta empathizer.
  • She taught in the same program for at-risk college students as me, and she worked miracles with young people who everyone believes can’t make it in college. No kid could resist Shell’s honesty and hilarity. I’ll never forget her story about teaching an article about homophobia in sports to a room full of football players. AWESOME. She is HARDCORE.
  • She was my doula! She pressed on my lower back while I labored with Holly, and fed me spaghetti after the birth. Check it out.

Shell & I with Holly, who is minutes old.

Basically, Shell is an extraordinary person who deserves the satisfaction of publication! She’s raising 2k to upgrade her computer and pay for some dang summer camp so she can have some time (remember, she works two jobs) to write. Please consider supporting her campaign. Read an excerpt from a work-in-progress chapter about being fat and vegan (gasp! at the same time!). Continue reading

Youth Group: A Tulsa Memoir Part 4

This is part 4 of my series about growing up in Oklahoma. Read parts 1, 2, and 3. I’ll actually be visiting the old homestead next week to see my HS BFF before she moves to Texas and hang with my AWESOME SISTER, so the timing is good. I’m kind of knee-deep in portfolio grading, so hang tight for more non-memoir, normal, regular stuff to resume when FINALS WEEK IS OVERRRR.

It wasn’t just the crazy weather and freakish, Martian landscape that weirded me out about my new home. It was also church.

As a kid, no one talked to me about religion before. I mean, not even my parents openly articulated our belief system to me: I intuited, through the skills of reading and intense listening, that we were Catholic (off and on), believed in (a?) God, and therefore in Heaven. For a brief period, when we lived in South Bend, we attended church services regularly, and I even became familiar with a few hymns. But, in a very Midwestern way, religion wasn’t openly discussed or acknowledged. We absorbed it by osmosis and it was made somehow clear that religion was something you worked out through practice and a lot of sideways glancing, mumbling, and copying the people in the pew in front of you. Church was really more of something you “did,” not a group of people you knew, or a “belief.”

When we moved there, at age 11, I was a bit startled that it was a general getting-to-know-you kind of thing in Tulsa. “Where do you go to church?” or, even more strange to my ears, “Do you have a church home?” This was often the second or third question asked of me when I met someone new. Because I was completely naïve about religion in general, and about conservative, Protestant branches of Christianity in specific, I had no idea that telling people I was Catholic was akin to saying I was a Satanist. I immediately marked myself as someone in need of saving. Early in seventh grade, several of the nicest people in the world invited me to a Christian Student Bible Meeting Fellowship Fun Group, and I accepted. I mean, I was desperate for friends and I was a bit of a goody-goody. Christian kids were probably nice, right? Continue reading

Life on the Slab: A Tulsa Memoir Part 3

This is part 3 of my series about growing up in Oklahoma, my love affair with the midwest, and other stuff. Read part 1 here and part 2 here. BTW, Jen and I are both in the throes of finals over the next week or two, so bear with us if updates aren’t as frequent!

I spent my entire life in Oklahoma defining myself as a not-Oklahoman. I knew my stay there was temporary, but I wasn’t sure how long my sentence would last. Five years? Ten? As we drove south through Illinois and then across the vast girth of Missouri to get to Tulsa for the first time, I wondered about this new place. I thought Oklahoma would be flat, dusty, and full of horses. I imagined that everyone wore cowboy hats, and tumbleweeds would bounce down my street.

But, the Tulsa I lived in looked more like this: Continue reading

Field of Dreams: A Tulsa (and Iowa) Memoir Part 2

This is part 2 of a series of posts about moving around as a kid and spending a lot of time living in Oklahoma. Check out part 1 here.

Of my immediate family, only my sister still lives in Oklahoma: my parents finally made their escape just two years after I moved away, and now live in Kansas City. Whenever I think about how much I love living in Iowa, I recall a passage from the novel Shoeless Joe by WP Kinsella. Shoeless Joe inspired the film Field of Dreams, and was written by a grad student at the University of Iowa, where I’ve been teaching and attending for eight years.

“It was near noon on a gentle Sunday when I walked out to that garden. The soil was soft and my shoes disappeared as I plodded until I was near the center. There I knelt, the soil cool on my knees. I looked up at the low gray sky; the rain had stopped and the only sound was the surrounding trees dripping fragrantly. Suddenly I plunged my hands wrist-deep in the snuffy-black earth. The air was pure. All around me the clean smell of earth and water. Keeping my hands buried I stirred the earth with my fingers and I knew I loved Iowa as much as a man could love a piece of earth.”

I bought Shoeless Joe in early 1994: I know this because the dated sticker from the used bookstore is still on the cover, a 1982, pre-Field of Dreams mass-market paperback edition. I bought it because I’d loved the movie and considered myself a Midwestern ex-pat. I wanted to connect to the place I considered my true home and my ultimate destiny. I was fourteen years old and I’d been living in Tulsa for two years. I read that passage and thought, I want to go to there.

I’d moved all over the Midwest as a young child – hopping from Missouri to Illinois and then Indiana. We moved for my father’s work in the soft drink industry (yes, we really called it that in our house). Crush, R.C. Cola, A&W: the complicated gerrymandering of your regional territories forced us in and out of quite a few states before Dad left the world of soda altogether. Certainly, there are cultural, geographical, and meteorological differences among Kansas City, Peoria, and South Bend, but they all share a soft topography and a genial, white Midwestern mildness that made them feel more similar than different. They (we?) are friendly by default, but not excessively warm; and because we (they?) abhor conflict, no one will inquire about your religion, politics, or those funny plants you’re cultivating in the backyard, as long as you return the favor.

Don’t get me wrong: Midwesterners are as opinionated, judgmental, and full of shit as anyone else in America, but this was the stew I’d grown up in and I was too young to have that kind of meta-awareness. I was a Cubs fan; I knew what snow smelled like; my houses had basements; and we drove through miles of cornfield ribbons to get to Grandma’s house. I love the look and feel of old Midwestern homes: the pastel interior paints, peeling linoleum kitchen floors; arched doorways, white clapboard siding, creaking stairs with plastic tread protectors. The powdery smell of old bathrooms; the rotten stink of well water; hooked rugs. When we bought our house in rural Iowa last year, we bought exactly the kind of home I always fantasized about: a 1937 cape cod with light, wood floors, gauzy curtains, and a telephone cubby.

Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.

My Mom’s family is Irish Catholic. She has nine brothers and sisters and they were raised in a town near Chicago. Grown up, they scattered across the Midwest, concentrated in central and western Illinois, the suburbs of Chicago, and Wisconsin. A few of the sisters – my Mom included – left the Midwest altogether. There’s just something about this family: full of charisma, music, great hair, and extreme volume, every holiday with them was an event of a lifetime. As a child, I felt like a bit of an ugly duckling, wondering how my brainy brownness fit in with these fair-haired wild wondrous people. I sat in the middle of the living room, surrounded by the noise of forty people trying to talk over one another, and was all ears. I used to write and rewrite the list of names, anniversaries, and birthdates of everyone in the family: Linda Jo, Kathleen Ann, December 1, May 10, etc etc.

  • Fact: their last name is a synonym for “angelic.”
  • Fact: as in a sitcom, each member of the family is fabulously attractive and talented.
  • Fact: this family has been known to spontaneously burst into song and dance.

After four years in Missouri (from about age 4 until 8), we spent three years living closer to family (in Peoria and then South Bend IN), and I finally got to see my many cousins more than once a year. We went to christenings, 4th of July parties, random weekend visits, and every major holiday. I couldn’t get enough of being in the mix, eavesdropping on my aunt’s conversations, wondering at my cousins, who were a thousand times more cool and plugged in to culture than I was (they introduced me to NKOTB and the entire concept of “making out”). After we moved to Tulsa when I was 12, our attendance of family gatherings dropped to once a year, maybe twice. Tulsa is in the middle of the country but it’s so much further south: it really feels a million miles from everywhere.

I felt cut off from the universe: missing Thanksgiving felt like missing the party of the year. If I wasn’t there, I was going to be forgotten, and somehow being in this family felt like my one chance at being cool. And being in that family meant being in the Midwest. Thus as a pre-teen, my whole sense of personal possibility was set in a cornfield.

(More to come…)

Birth Day (Happy!)

My oldest turns 5 today. Unbelievable. I had no idea what I was in for.

Although all the photographic evidence suggests she slept adorably, and often, I remember the hard, sleepless reality of those first few months. I went back to work full time when she was 5 weeks old. I fell asleep at my desk more than once. I forgot my social security number at the bank and wept softly while the teller stared.

“I just had a baby,” I sobbed, “and I am just so tired.”

Still, as endless as those nights seem, the time passes quickly.  She talked early and walked late. By her first birthday I was visibly pregnant with our second; my belly grew and grew and still, she crawled, asking or demanding to be carried, rocked, held. Sometimes I would peek around the corner from the kitchen into the living room and see her taking tentative steps. She would sit down immediately if she realized I was watching, refusing all my attempts to praise, encourage, plead with her to please, please, please, start walking.  It was July when she finally walked, and October when Lucy was born. Dorothy sang the Itsy Bitsy Spider and the ABCs in the car on the way home from the hospital.

When D was about 3, she asked what a brain was. Tyler and I tried to explain:

“Your brain is in your head, and it’s in charge of your body. It tells your body how to work, when to breathe, what you’re feeling. And you think with your brain. When you imagine or pretend or think or wonder about something, you’re using your brain.”

“It’s in my head?”

“Yes.”

“My brain is in my head?”

Yes.”

“With all the tiny people?”

It was impossible not to laugh. Turns out she already had a very clear idea of what was in her head: lots of tiny people, building houses and playing games.

This was perhaps the most surprising revelation about parenting, more surprising than all the conversations I have had about poop, more surprising than the realization that cosleeping is awesome because it means more sleep for everyone, more surprising than my apparent willingness to cook individual portions of everybody’s favorite foods rather than deal with hunger-induced crankiness:

Whether or not I had thought to tell her what was in her head, she had her own idea of what was going on in there.

Before becoming a parent, I had grand plans for my children. I thought about the books I would read them, the stories I would tell, the transformative experiences I would chaperone them through, the ways I would teach and influence and guide. I had no idea that children are full-on people from the moment they are born.

D is fierce, stubborn, smart, intense, imaginative, thoughtful, empathic. She is afraid to ride her bike and desperate to figure out how to get past her fear. She dresses the dinosaurs up in the My Little Pony skirts for the dinosaur ballet. She sings constantly, songs from my childhood and lately from the Muppets, songs like She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain and A You’re Adorable and You Are My Sunshine and Mana Mana. She screams bloody murder in time out, angry and frustrated not just that she isn’t getting her way but that she is being denied the opportunity to show us all that her way could work if we would just let her be in charge. She throws temper tantrums. She cries at the drop of a hat. She is learning to read, recognizing words and sounding them out, writing her name, her birthday list, little messages I find on folded scraps of paper all over the house. She talks to strangers, telling everyone within earshot how many cats we have, how many days till her birthday, Margueaux’s 2 middle names, her favorite princesses.  

We are celebrating her birthday today with butterflies, puffins (the food, not the bird), a fruit rainbow, chocolate cupcakes, and rainbow sprinkles. I hung paper lanterns and bought her a birthday girl pin and a special cup and a Muppet CD. I’m postponing all the grading, all the laundry, all the email, all the phone calls, all the bills, all the worries. Today is a birth day, a day my heart and soul and body opened up and this amazing gorgeous being emerged.

Happy birthday, D. I hope all the tiny people got together to build you something awesome.

 

 

Reading Adrienne Rich in Oklahoma with a bunch of boys

Reading Adrienne Rich was such an incendiary experience for me that I actually contemplated burning my copy of Diving Into The Wreck when we were finished with it. My friend/roommate/fellow-English-major-cum-feminist was aghast, and I realized she was right. So, my copy of Diving remained intact, though I don’t know where it is anymore. 

My sophomore year in college was epic. I was coming off a fatally fucked up relationship and had decided to do everything different that year. I walked over a mile to school on the first day of that fall semester and surfed into class on an endorphin high. I’d decided to join the women’s rugby team and be social with someone other than my former boyfriend, who’d fled the confines of our relationship to the snowy north. We read Diving Into the Wreck in Mr. Frank’s 2313 course in the English Department at the University of Oklahoma: the first required course for English majors, which schooled us in close reading analysis. It was a room full of college sophomores from a red state – I mean a deep red state; our school color was crimson – who’d idly thought we’d like to continue talking about Wordsworth and Shakespeare rather than train as accountants or engineers. We’d checked a box next to English as our major and declared war with ourselves, unknowingly, because Frank was a bit of a gatekeeper. He insisted that English majors question everything, and do so with perfect grammar. The class was full of boys, and we crammed into a seminar room the size of a tinder box: a handful of us brave enough to sit around the oak table where Frank sat at the head, the rest of the group ringing us in desks shoved against the wall, stacked in the corner.

He broke us in with Hemingway’s short stories. Each week, we wrote an intensive close reading analysis: papers that were two or three pages long, single spaced, which Frank returned covered in meticulous corrections and commentary in blue ink. He’d select one or two to read aloud as examples. We learned about synecdoche and metonymy and to never, ever “violate the chronology” of a text. He chastened me for depending too much on the dash for emphasis; when I switched to semi-colons, he advised me to actually learn how to use them before abusing them. On a friend’s essay, he drew a line under the third paragraph and next to it he wrote, “I stopped reading here.” So before we even got to Rich’s mindblowing stuff, we were poised unsteadily; shaken. Because, we’d thought we were really smart and this would be fine, and we were wrong. We had a lot to learn and a long way to go. Some people saw this as an occasion to dig in and get serious; some started seeing Frank as the devil incarnate. For me, Frank was hands down, the best teacher I had in college: the smartest, craziest, most intense, and most desperate that we actually learn. The guy was basically losing his mind trying to get a bunch of idiots to think critically. He fought the good fight, sometimes putting his purple plastic coin purse on his head to diffuse tension; sometimes pounding his fist on the table, his face red and eyes ablaze, just pissed at us.

This is supposed to be about Adrienne Rich, and it is. We read Diving into the Wreck next. I hung out with a bunch of guys in that class. We were supposed to be friends, or a study group, or something, but mostly we got together and complained about Frank’s class. Initially, we agreed he was a genius, but as the semester wore on, there was less consensus on anything beyond the certainty that he was going to have a breakdown. I was a naïve co-ed and knew nothing about feminism – real feminism, anyway – until I read Adrienne Rich. Starting my feminist education with Rich was baptism by fire: her work is polemical, striking at the foundations of cultural institutions like marriage and motherhood. I don’t remember her WORDS so much as her IDEAS, although rereading “Diving Into the Wreck” I remember spending hours trying to make sense of the knife, the camera, the book of myths; “I go down.”

Reading Rich in a closeknit group of men with something to prove was, ya know, REALLY WEIRD. I was thrilled to be one of the guys, thrilled to drink Minnesota Spew out of cans and smoke clove cigarettes on the porch, talking about poetry and cinema with other smart people. God, I’d been waiting my whole life for that. But it was uncomfortable. The more we dug into Rich’s radical concepts of gender as social construct, of women as powerful, of society as essentially, profoundly sexist, the more I turned the mirror to myself and asked unsettling questions about my relationships with and to men. I’d accepted some pretty awful treatment from my first boyfriend, and had spent most of my life seeking the approval of men. I recognized myself, and hated myself, in her words. I thought she is right, and in class I spoke up quite a bit, but I also wanted those guys to like me! I wanted them to be my pals! I wanted to date one or all of them! But our gatherings evolved increasingly into pseudo-debates about gender and sex acted out primarily through pissing contests between a few of the guys over who could tell the most offensively racist or sexist joke. Most of the jokes involved turning any conversation into an opportunity to use the punchline “Baby, why you gotta make me hurt you?”

Damn me and my penchant for funny, charismatic men: I had a huge crush on one of the worst offenders in the group. The cognitive dissonance generated by aggressively pursuing this guy and reading Rich at the same time is almost impossible to describe. We hung out some and made out some, but it didn’t really go anywhere. The next semester, I spent an insane amount of money buying a special edition of Army of Darkness as a Valentine’s Day gift; only later would I discover he had another girl in his apartment when I gave it to him. I thought I could wear him down by being his version of awesome, which meant eschewing the protofeminist within and swearing, loudly and in front of people, that if I had a chance I would definitely fuck Britney Spears.

Another confession: Mr. Frank once chewed me out for calling Adrienne Rich a “chick.”

Yes. I did that.

But in the spring, after the class had wrapped up (we finished the semester with an analysis of Vertigo using Berger’s Ways of Seeing), the shine was fading from this social group. One of our members wrote an hilarious send-up of the class that he titled Frank Club, in which Frank had us do a close reading of “Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?” We were each lampooned for our classroom quirks: Brian for always wearing a baseball cap; me for always having something to say; Matthew for taking the conversation in a twisted direction that no one could follow; and the rest of the guys (including my Crush) simply figured out a way to turn it into “Baby, why you gotta make me hurt you?” (This was a brilliant piece of satire and I wish I could reread it.)

I remember a party in early March at our friend James’s house. My Crush showed up and spent the entire time kung fu fighting with this other guy who I thought was a completely phony, pretentious jackass. And for the first time I really looked at him and asked myself how he was different from the jackass. Most of our parties, I’d realized, were really just an exercise in performances of masculinity, and this elaborate sparring was about as close to a literal cock fight as I’d ever seen. And that just no longer impressed me in any way. What was I really interested in, beyond his admittedly extremely good looks?

The next week, I wrote an essay for my Interpersonal Communications class. I had to compare and contrast two relationships in my life. I wrote about my Crush and my Friend, both guys from Frank Club. When I got the paper back, my teacher had simply written, WHAT ARE YOU GETTING OUT OF THIS RELATIONSHIP? next to the section on my Crush.

I thought about all these guys I’d been hanging out with and my extremely bad taste in men in the past and wondered why I was so attracted to charismatic dudes who were easily threatened by a powerful and smart lady. I decided to make a change, and try dating someone nice. Someone who seemed respectful and was a good listener rather than a good talker. Someone who might be threatened by Rich, but didn’t reject her outright. I picked Friend, a boy with a quiet presence, a person I always found myself looking for at parties and always happy to see. Plus, he smoked and god, it was sexy.

I invited Friend over to watch Temptation Island and waited for him to work up the guts to kiss me. It took approximately five hours. Finally, his heart pounding and palms sweaty, he kissed me: a long, soft, lovely first kiss just after midnight on March 29th. In about a month, we were making out to The Bends in his dorm room while the pear trees bloomed, and by the end of the semester, we were In Love. We got married three years later. (Happy kiss-iversary, Brian.)

It’s funny to me that so much about my Adrienne Rich story has to do with my relationships with and to white dudes, but that’s the truth. I started to expect better from the people around me, stopped changing myself to please men, and recognized myself as a smart and powerful person. Pretty soon I was reading Friedan and telling Brian that my worst nightmare would be living in the suburbs with a minivan (how I went from that to, ya know, living in the suburbs with a Camry is a whole other story). I ended up writing a feminist analysis of Anne Sexton’s poetry as an Honors thesis, directed by Mr. Frank. He also encouraged me to go to grad school in American Studies (oh well, can’t win ‘em all).

Rich planted the seeds of feminism in my fertile and doubting mind, and I started making better choices. My whole me was shaped by reading her work and for that, I am grateful.