September 30, 2004

White/Working Masculinity

Green Bay—as a unique sort of town—fosters a unique sort of identity. I could call it either a racial class identity or a classed racial identity because the town carries a single, dominant racial (white) and class (working) identity. I do not pretend that Green Bay is actually homogenous in either its racial or its class makeup—of course it contains a certain level of diversity—but, speaking of the prevalent culture of the town (and not its statistical demographics, per se), it is a White Working—or Working White—town.

Furthermore, some of the area’s cultural spaces and rituals assert a certain gendering upon the town as well, namely a White/Working Masculinity.

The preeminent cultural space of Green Bay is, without question, Lambeau Field. The famed Frozen Tundra has been home to the Green Bay Packers for generations and has ascended to the status of icon and shrine. My father is fond of calling it the “Green Bay Temple”—it’s where the city goes to worship on Sunday. An NFL stadium is significant in any American city, but when it can seat over 70% (72, 515 seats for 102, 313 residents) of that city’s population, the level of significance rises. And when the waiting list for season tickets contains over 57,000 names (an estimated thirty-year wait), then the significance simply shoots through the roof. You can put those numbers together to say that every resident in Green Bay and its surrounding communities either owns season tickets or is on the waiting list. It is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon.

Packer fans are well-known in America for their devotion (to both their beer and their team) and for the extreme forms that devotion takes. What the nation knows generally is only a glimpse of what the town knows locally: the enthusiasm for football is immeasurable. Tailgating and watching football in an open air stadium in the upper Midwest are obviously activities for the determined and the hardy. And who could be more determined and hardy than the men of Green Bay? Answer: the women of Green Bay.

Something strikes you when you hang out with Packer fans (read: any resident): the differences between the men and the women—at least during the moments football is at the social center (read: any time)—are slight, if non-existent. Women swill as many beers as men and eat as many brats. Women curse as loudly and as honorably. Women endure the conditions—rain, ice, snow, cold—as stoically. And as you scan across the bleachers in Lambeau it becomes clear that the women dress identically, at least in the coldest weather. Women will be right next to their male mates outfitted in blaze orange and camo hunting gear assuring that they add their voice to the din to win. The androgyny (literally, the male female) of dress seals the male dominance of the scene: men on the field competing with men, coached by men, commentated by men, refereed by men and men (real men and women men) in the stands cheering men, commending men, congratulating men, celebrating, complaining, or commiserating with men. All around, masculinity is being performed.

During the years I lived in Green Bay I attended only one regular season game (it wasn’t easy to come by tickets). It was against the Detroit Lions on December 22, 1990. At kickoff the temperature was 20 degrees below zero. My friend and I bundled ourselves and packed a thermos of boiling hot cocoa. We made out way with the crowd into the stadium and into our seats. I had expected the stadium to be empty on such a cold day so close to the holidays. To my surprise, the stands were filled. Twenty below zero with a wind chill of thirty-five below and you could hardly tell the difference in the crowd from a mild October game. Immediately I poured a cup of cocoa and found it already tepid. Floundering in our masculinity, Matt and I found our feet and faces too cold by the end of the third quarter. Things weren’t going well for the Packers and we decided, instead of enduring frostbite for a losing cause, that we would head home. I expected that on day so dangerously bitter that even Packer fans would understand our prudent impulse. Not so. In no uncertain terms, we were booed out of our section. Our brittle manliness shattered, we slinked away, the only women among 60,000 (the stadium had not yet been expanded) men.

Whether within the sacred space of Lambeau Field itself, or in any of Green Bay’s countless bars, or in the domestic spaces of its residents, I saw how the experience of football was interpreted in one way—the masculine way—and ritualistically played out over and over. Women passionately participated and were included, as far as I could see, in every way imaginable (although I don’t think that women have ever gone bare-chested with the men at the coldest games of the season). But their participation was clearly masculine. Contrast this to Dallas Cowboys fans—a much more white collar crowd—where football women have their own identity: slender with salon hair wearing a cute Cowboys sweatshirt decorated with a large floral broche pinned above the heart. A far cry from the other: stout with a dated perm crushed beneath a fur-lined hat clomping in Sorel pac boots and draped in blaze orange coveralls equipped with a recoil pad on the right shoulder. There is a reason you can have cowboys and cowgirls, but packers have no implicit gender—or only one: male.

Another cultural ritual makes this White/Worker world a masculine one: deer hunting. While deer hunting is, like football, a sport for both men and women, deer hunting tends to be much more for the men. In fact, men leave their wives at home when they head for the quintessential male space in northeast Wisconsin: deer camp. With as many cabins “up North” as houses “in town,” each November men call their clan together and haul a box of shells and a dozen cases of beer up to the woods where they drink all night and sit, plastered, in a tree stand, dreading the thought of seeing a deer because seeing leads to shooting and shooting is the kind of pain a hungover hunter feels when he hears a gunshot. Songs have been written romanticizing this macho space (Da Yoopers, Second Week of Deer Camp, Camp Fever, Beer Run, etc.) and even make their way onto the pop 40 stations.

The preparation for and recollection of deer camp dominates conversation among men for weeks before and after the season. Ultimately, the stories involve killing deer, but they tend to dwell more about gas, gambling, and gut rot than guns, game, and good luck. Deer camp is a swelling force in the bay of culture that engulfs the shore and obliterates the cultural islands that otherwise diversify the monotony of a Great Lake vista.

The creation of such a definitive male space outside of town creates a male void in town that has come to be filled with the widow’s camp. Women who are abandoned for more than a week during hunting season respond by calling together girlfriends with their children to make a giant slumber party of it while their men are off in the wood killing things (mostly brain cells). Different than the blended space of football where one gender is subsumed by the other, the deer camp phenomenon reifies the distinctions between the two genders. The boys who stay home—feminized under their mother’s care—will soon make passage into the world of the men. The stages of the rite are clearly marked by the first gun, the first deer camp, and, eventually, the first kill.

To someone whose family was far outside the cultural norms of Green Bay, I have always had a fascination for the particular spaces—especially the masculine ones—of the region. Football and deer hunting are, by far, the most popular. One makes men out of women, the other, while intensifying the man in the men, makes men out of boys.

Posted by ogde0004 at 12:26 PM

September 24, 2004

Reflections

Since I have conceived of this blog as more a reflective tool for myself than a forum for public reading, these are my own reflections on reflection.

I started seriously writing a journal when I was twelve years old. Ever since I have been more or less faithful about keeping a journal of my life. On my bookshelf sit a dozen volumes that cover virtually every topic of my experience. Keeping my personal journal has been important to me. I think it has accomplished three key things for me 1) it documents memories 2) it has been instrumental in formulating my identity and 3) it facilitates decision making.

Those purposes, as they pertain to the whole of my life experience, are quite worthy outcomes of keeping a journal. I have come to realize, however, that certain topics or activities invite a more focused reflection that is different than the general writing and thinking that goes on in my journal.

I think that particular projects or activities in which I am particularly involved and invested are worthwhile topics to reflect upon specifically. It has been important, at times, to keep a reflection log that is distinct from my daily, personal journal. Here it is, in the genre of a blog.

The work of the class I am teaching (EngC 1016: Community Engagement and Civic Learning) is one such project. I have invited (read: required) my students to choose an organization in the larger community and to engage themselves in the work of that organization. I am trying to stay honest by maintaining my own work in the community, as well. Though I am involved in a variety of organizations with various roles, I am concentrating on my work with the Hmong American Institute for Learning (HAIL) and its semi-annual literary journal, Paj Ntaub Voice.

Focusing on one field of engaged work will improve my involvement and deepen my learning. In the blog entries that follow in this category of "Community Engagement" I will write about my activities, experiences, and thoughts. My goal--still rather broad--is to sharpen my thinking about the work that HAIL is trying to do and to continue to innovate as we move into a year with an interim executive director. I will also be thinking about how my scholarship (writing a dissertation about the Hmong American literary arts movement) will influence the/my work. I'll ask many questions about my roles as a writer, a reader, a student, a teacher, and as a member of a particular community.

I'm on the edge of the reflecting pool. Images are beginning to take shape.

Posted by ogde0004 at 12:12 PM

September 23, 2004

White Collar, Blue Collar, Green Bay

Having been steeped in academic discourses about race, class, and gender for several years, I find it hard to perceive how the other—non-academic—discourses around me operate. It is even more difficult to recall what prevalent discourses existed in my high school and home town (left behind more than a decade ago). I think my inability—or at least my difficulty—in being able to readily describe and characterize the influential discourse systems throughout my life makes several important, if complicated, statements in itself.

  1. It reveals my tendency to restrict “discourse” to dialogue (further revealed in the points that follow) because I responded to the prompt before I read the chapter in Bettie which reminded me of the much broader possibilities for discourses.

  2. It reflects a position of privilege—the privilege that makes it possible to get along in my world without crises of race, class, or gender that would make attention to their discourses more important. But this reading already reinforces dominant hierarchies and casts race, class, and gender identity as matters of crisis. It suggests that discussion, dialogue, and discourse about race, class, and gender are quite optional if you are in the “desirable” categories (as I arguably am).

  3. It is probably a testimony to the absence of discourse in my social worlds. Beach (chapter 2) cites the observations of Feagin and O’Brien (2003) who notice that white executives and professionals operated in white-dominated spaces and so found themselves responding in racially-coded ways that the academic discourse of race finds objectionable. Those executives, like a white man from Green Bay, have no context in which to deploy a critical discourse about race. Presumably, the only place where they would have encountered such a discourse was in an academic setting, but in their “real” life—outside of school—there are few circumstances which would initiate a meaningful discourse. This raises serious questions, I think, about social space. If the only spaces for discourse on important matters are located in academic settings, then it seems unlikely that larger social attitudes about race, class, and gender will change/improve. I am inclined to argue that discursive spaces that are isolated from functional, living spaces are insufficient and futile. Not that such efforts should be abandoned (that would only deepen the divisions), but if academic spaces are the only responsive discursive spaces social justice seems a long way away.

  4. Participation in academic discourses—the “ideal” in the real/ideal binary—has probably blurred my memory of discourses that I have been privy to in the past. I simply find it hard to recall experiencing discourse in Green Bay because I have willed myself to forget some of the racist things that I heard. Certain ones are too impressive to forget (like the tendency of people in the mall to approach large, athletic looking black men asking for their autograph assuming—a common assumption—that all black men in Green Bay played for the Packers) but many, I’m sure, haven’t registered. Returning to the first point, since racist attitudes don’t “affect me directly”—i.e. they don’t cause a crisis—they aren’t memorable.

With that being said, there certainly are important discourses that I can sketch if I try hard enough. In a paper mill town like Green Bay, discourses about class are probably the easiest to identify. I lived in the village of Allouez. Allouez is really more like a subdivision (or a microsuburb) than a separate municipality. It shares the southern boundary of the city of Green Bay and is just upstream on the Fox River. Residential neighborhoods make a contiguous connection between the village and the city—there is no obvious break or distinct geographic demarcation. The village uses many of the city’s public services, including the educational system. Allouez is the “neighborhood of doctors”, although I’ve never seen any demographic statistics to confirm the popular notion that a disproportionate number of the areas physicians live in the neighborhood (anecdotally, however, I can readily think of six doctors among the parents of my closest friends who lived in Allouez). We were known as the rich kids, even though many lived in modest circumstances (no one was really working class, however).

Although the village was under two miles from one of the four pairs of middle schools and high schools in the Green Bay school district, we were bussed across the river to Southwest High School—the newest school populated by several Allouez-esque neighborhoods but also by far the furthest schools from the neighborhood. The bus ride was 30 minutes and we passed through the vicinity of three other schools—two in Green Bay and one in another village across the river. Southwest was known as the cliquey school. Since the geography of Green Bay follows the Fox River (which runs from south to north), the paper mills and city center were in the north close to the Bay and as you went south along the river the neighborhoods became increasingly suburban in their architecture, design, and demographic.

Southwest High was, then, furthest from the mills and the blue collar neighborhoods that staffed them. Kids in East and West High were tough, working class kids (we probably thought of them as poor and dangerous) and Preble igh (the only high school with a non-directional name) was ubiquitously known as “Cow Pie High” and its students were farmers—or at least Future Farmers of America. Preble drew the largest geography and did draw in an area of family farms east of town and someone, no matter how much I doubted the stereotype, the school had a huge FFA program. So, the farmers, the mill workers, and the professionals created the triad of a caste system. While I found people generally quite friendly (far friendly across class lines than the Dallas suburbanites we left to move to Wisconsin), class status was readily apparent to us and social structures followed it. Green Bay was, and still is in many ways, a town where college attendance was certainly not presumed. The paper industry has been the economic bedrock of the area for generations and I can remember classmates talking about earning $17 an hour right out of high school (this was 1991). Children of mill workers often had their summer jobs set—they did hard, physical work on the third shift, but they earned far more than those of us would took a mailroom job in dad’s corporate office or who filed medical records at dad’s clinic.

College bound students reminded ourselves of our long term goals: white collar work, higher salaries, and—in a vengeful way—dominance over the mill workers. I don’t remember it being overt, but the lines were clearly drawn and your caste was predetermined. I’ve never made it back to any reunions to follow up on my classmates. The grapevine has informed me that blue collar kids who surprised us by going to college flunked (or drunk) out and are back in Green Bay at the mills. Many of us who went to college have failed to return to Green Bay, considering it too small and culturally retrograde for us. Many days, I think I miss it.

Posted by ogde0004 at 2:18 PM

September 22, 2004

Opening the box

Today is Wednesday, September 22, 2004

It was November 11, 1996 when I posted my first home page on the web. I remember feeling a euphoric rush to think that anyone anywhere in the world could read what I wrote. I was published. I was public.

But in the mid- to late-90s none of us maintained our home pages. I was more interested in experimenting with HTML and once I had tried my hand at it, I had no motivation to add or to update. That was before web editing software made it so easy. That was before blogs. My site sat like a relic for years until the server collapsed.

Now I'm teaching a first-year composition course and I'm thinking about the need for writers to write often and to think about our writing. If I'm going to encourage my students to become bloggers, I'd better know what's up.

I ask myself the same question I did in 1996: Even though it's publically available, will anyone anywhere in the world really read this? I thought there was a lot of web content in 1996. I stagger when I consider the vastness of it eight years later. So I'm content to believe that no one ever will read these words. If they do, that's gravy. Writing more often and writing to an imagined audience are sufficient ends in themselves.

Welcome, Mitch, to Blogden.

Posted by ogde0004 at 8:36 AM

September 16, 2004

Figured Worlds and Singles Wards

My experiences with romance are contained within one particular figured world—the Latter-day Saint (LDS) Singles Ward. Single members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between eighteen and thirty years old have the option to attend church in a congregation (“ward,” in our terminology) comprised of their peers rather than the geographically defined ward (so called “Family Ward” to distinguish one distinct figured world from another) in which they live. In the Twin Cities, the two existing Singles Wards each have approximately 150 members who meet weekly for regular church meetings and organize and participate in a variety of social and spiritual activities as well. They are very close, active communities with strong social and spiritual ties.

Brigham Young University, a private LDS school, creates its own kind of figured world as young college-aged Latter-day Saints converge upon one geographic location—Provo, Utah—and pursue their college education. I never enrolled in BYU and never experienced that figured world directly, but its cultural influence is felt, in a variety of ways, in the figured worlds of Singles Wards, both in and out of the United States. In many respects, the figured world of BYU and its student wards is a model for singles wards around the country, and even around the world.

These distinct figured worlds are, without question, sites of romantic activity. The well-known Mormon emphasis on marriage and family is plainly visible in the figured world of young single adults. Holland, et al, give a “narrative account of the life of a good [Nepali] woman” (53-54) which is based upon “Hindu moral and religious texts.” A parallel narrative will be quite useful for sketching the figured world of LDS romance:

Narrative account of the life of a good Latter-day Saint Young Single Adult

  • LDS Adolescents do not date until they are at least 16 years old.

  • After high school, LDS adolescents move towards an independent, adult life by entering college, pursuing vocational training, or working full-time. They embody a strong work ethic and hold a value for continuing education.

  • LDS Single Adults remain active in attending church and maintaining their personal spirituality.

  • An active social life—including a network of conscientious LDS Single Adult friends—is vital to spiritual, psychological, and social health.

  • Young men will volunteer for two years of missionary service around the age of 19. (Young women may also volunteer but are eligible to do so later, at age 21).

  • Single Adults will date frequently, getting to know a variety of people. Old-fashioned “Ice Cream Parlor” courtship is very popular and friendly dates—dates between Platonic friends—are common.

  • Over time, a more serious relationship between a man and a woman will develop, they will begin dating exclusively, they will become engaged, and they will be married (“sealed,” in LDS parlance) in a Latter-day Saint temple.

  • Throughout all of this, chastity will absolutely be maintained (meaning abstinence from intercourse as well as modest expressions of affection (i.e. hugs, hand-holding and nice, clean kisses, but no groping or sexual contact of any kind).
  • Like the instance of the good Nepali woman, this narrative is supported and directed by spiritual doctrine and deep-seated beliefs and convictions. Owing to the “strictness” of the standards expected (and required for admission to a temple for marriage), generally only LDS Single Adults who have established their own personal convictions—apart from social and cultural pressures and expectations—find themselves sufficiently motivated to “play by the rules.” Within the larger LDS life experience, the years of courtship are ones in which spiritual strength are often established as a foundation for the years that follow.

    There are a number of artifacts—including doctrine (which gives way to proverbial wisdom), vocabulary, and social arrangements—that mediate this figured world. The doctrines of marriage and family—too complex to address here—are central to the entire figure world which revolves around the opportunity to find a compatible companion to whom you will be sealed (a common synonym for marriage) for eternity and with whom you will raise children, enjoying the growth and experiences of parenthood. Family as an eternal social unit and as a part in the design for mortal experience are key concepts that govern how romance operates in the LDS community. Language use—including humor—also reflects the importance of dating and marriage within the community. Living with (same gender) roommates, planning group dates, staying aware of various cultural activities in the community, attending dances are all vital activities within the world of dating and romance in the figured world of LDS single adults.

    If dating rituals are generally performative acts (think of the mating dances of certain birds), then it certainly is performative in the figured world of the singles ward. Considering public performances—in an annual singles ward variety show—might be one productive area to illustrate how romance functions in this figured world. Since 1996 the Dinkytown Singles Ward has held an annual “Latter-day Night Live” variety show. In keeping with the spirit of the punning name’s source, Saturday Night Live, most of the performances are comedy sketches (rather than the amateur talent acts that often comprise church variety shows) and most of these sketches involve—either directly or indirectly—questions of dating and marriage. Examples of some of the acts over the years, and an outsider’s comments about the whole Latter-day Night Live enterprise, will be insightful.

    One act capitalized on an (in)famous quote from the prophet Brigham Young: “Any man who is single after the age of twenty-seven is a menace to society.” While it is likely that the straight-shooting Young made such a comment, it has become somewhat apocryphal: no authoritative source has been identified and the age of menacehood ranges from twenty-three to thirty. In a 60 Minutes interview, Young’s quarterback great-grandson, Steve, when asked about his single status, made reference to the comment, joking that he was, himself, a menace. Whereas it originally was a condemnation, it is invoked today more often as a jest. A young man, who had just turned twenty-seven, wrote a short operetta entitled “The Menace of Society” wherein he 1) laments his single “menace” status 2) loses his sweetheart to a younger, more recently returned missionary (a common trope in LDS dating culture) 3) suffers the sudden, premature death of another sweetheart 4) collapses in despair 5) is revived and given hope by a former menace who didn’t marry until age 30 (played by a man who actually fit the bill). The “Menace,” I am pleased to announce, was married a year and a half later.

    Other acts include the spoofing of Alanis Morisette’s “Ironic” as “Platonic”—a lament of a woman’s abundant platonic relationships; an X-Men style skit (LDX-Men) wherein the super-mutant drama revolves around a sinister plot to enforce the singles ward upper age limit by expelling singles over thirty from the ward (to languish, forever single, in “dread family wards); and a rewriting of Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham,” in which the object of disdain is not a tinted breakfast but the (stereo)typical women available to date (“I do not like them meek or mild. I do not like them somewhat wild.”).

    The players in each of these acts have all since married, with the exception of the narrator of the Suess-esque tale. He is living out the anxiety found at the core of each of these performances: a devout Latter-day Saint in his late thirties still single. Although each of the acts are designed as comic and good-humored, they are also self-deprecating and riddled with an anxiety that is real and complex.

    My sister-in-law, not a member of the LDS Church, attended one of these Latter-day Night Live events when I was engaged to her sister. Her comment at the end of it was telling: “These people are obsessed with marriage!” The humor intended for—and relished by—an insider audience escaped her, and she saw instead an almost pathological “single-mindedness” that was disconcerting.

    Her comment, good-humored and intentionally comedic as it was, has always left me wondering what she thinks about me, a man who grew up in such a figured world, and her sister, who voluntarily adopted this figured world when she joined the Church and who, shortly thereafter, met and rescued a 28-year-old “menace.”

    Posted by ogde0004 at 4:04 PM