December 16, 2004

Identity Activities

One of the primary modes/models of learning in our class has been the practice of reflecting in advance on a defined topic and then reflecting together in a small group in the classroom. Given how much time we spent in these conversations, it was evident that this learning style was being given a high priority.

This pedagogical approach is a distinct contrast to my seminar work in my home department and other departments. The topic of our course—literacy and identity—has been intentionally integrated into the culture and structure of the class. Our identity—or many facets of our identity—have been central to the conversations. In a sense, we have put our money where our mouth is: if identity is such an vital concept in learning, then our personal identities should be a part of our learning about identity as a sort of theoretical position. Often our courses are designed in such a way that leaves a tremendous gulf between the concept(s) and the pedagogy. For example, a seminar that explores Marxist ideals of labor and material may never stop to examine the kind of labor being produced in the seminar, the relationship between student and teacher, the materialistic trappings of the class and its members, the bourgeois values of the class and the university culture, and the irony in the terminology of meeting weekly in an exclusive, privileged “class” given the Marxist attention to class consciousness.

However, for all the focus and attention on our own identities throughout the semester, we have lacked a conscious dialogue about the fact that in studying identity and literacy we were practicing identity and literacy as a means to that study. For example, we never discussed how writing in these journals shaped our sense of identity. For me the intellectual and literate work of sitting down to write these—knowing that I would share them with a peer and an instructor and post them publicly, as well—did a great deal to shape and reshape my identity anew and in new ways. In many cases, I was writing for the first time about my experiences and identities. It was clear that this literate act was doing a lot of work. We also never discussed what it meant to write for a (semi)public audience rather than writing in a personal, confidential diary.

In the concepts we have covered in the class, I am interested in considering classroom uses of the figured world idea put forward by Holland, et al. I think introducing students to that model would provide a useful tool to consider cultural, fictional, social, and political structures in a way that encourages critical distance that in turn promotes critical thinking. Inasmuch as I ask my students to read texts that are unfamiliar to them (19th century American or British writing, for example, as well as more contemporary “multicultural” literature) trying to frame the text in a description of a figured world could be a powerful way to begin an extended conversation about a particular work of literature. I will have to look elsewhere for an approachable text (the Holland text is probably a bit too expansive and complicated for first- and second-year students), but I think that students would readily grasp the idea and be able to apply it to a variety of contexts.

The research texts that we have read provide my first insight into empirical research methods of literacy and identity. While I doubt that I will embrace the methodologies of education research, I think that many of the lenses the authors develop in analyzing their data are very useful. The identification of narratives that informs Rymes’ study could obviously be useful to any teacher who can listen carefully to the conversations of students about the class, about their college experience, about the readings, or about their lives and identity that may extend beyond the academic environment. If I can identify some typical, repeated narratives of students it will be useful to evaluate some of the attitudes and learning of my classes and will also provide avenues of entry for discussion about topics that surface in their narrative construction.

The way that Kelly deals with popular media and the construction of (alternative) youth culture and identity is also useful, I think to my teaching. At the foundation of Kelly’s work is an intense attention paid to the actual pop culture/media forces at work in her students’ lives. If a teacher can always stay in touch to some degree with the “figured world” of her students, the possibility to have richer connections and conversations in class and class assignments is magnified many times over. The use of popular media, including films, music, web content, and television, can complement the more “traditional” literary texts and provide a springboard for students to engage with the literature. Her observations about “borrowed” identities might also provide a way to encourage the possibility of student readers being willing to “borrow” the cultural world of literary texts. This might be a stretch, but if Caribbean Canadians can “borrow” African American popular culture, than perhaps Minnesota college students can “borrow” Colonial Puritanism for a few weeks. Now that I actually write it down, it sounds like a potentially dangerous project that could encourage caricatures and stereotypes instead of more complete considering of the complexities of certain identities. On second thought, I think I’ll steer clear of that idea.

Posted by ogde0004 at 11:59 AM

November 10, 2004

What I Talk About When I Talk About “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

I realize that all of my response are simply my way of talking about what I read. These thoughts come without excessive premeditation, and so they resemble Carver’s narrative in the ordinary, around-the-kitchen-table banter central to it. This is what I talk about when I talk about “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

This wasn’t my first time to read this story. In fact, my first time reading this story was this past summer when I assigned it to my “Introduction to American Literature” class. Like many things I teach, I assigned it without reading it in advance and I read it only shortly before we covered it in class. As I reread the story for our class I remembered that this was one of the stories (we often read three or four for a given day of class) that we never made our way to discussing. Our class discussions were designed to be organic, following the interests of the students and the questions and responses they have to the assigned texts. My first response to this text, then, was, “I’ve read this. If I remember right, although I found it reasonably interesting, we never ended up talking about it in class.”

My other responses are more directly aligned with the narrative and characters.

I relate to the shape of the narrative: sitting around the table and talking. That certainly seems like a familiar setting and the fluidity of the conversation seems “natural.” I’ve experienced conversations like this, in fact I quite enjoy them. So I can understand writing a short fictional piece that never leaves the table and that is consumed with the unplanned conversation of four characters, two couples.

Mel McGinnis is an odd character that I cannot quite figure out. He is assigned a certain respectability and intelligence by virtue of his profession as a physician, but he appears broken and, frankly, a bit off. It doesn’t seem to me that it is simply the booze that alters his speech and thinking. Mel has some fundamental anguish or sorrow that remains unresolved.

Terri is a fittingly mysterious match for Mel. She has her own shadowed past with her ex-husband, Ed. Her relationship to Mel seems strange and the terms in which they sometimes describe their love seems particularly pragmatic and unemotional. Terri is a kind soul—probably too forgiving and too accommodating, but these features probably qualify her to be a companion to Mel with his controlling tendencies.

Nick and Laura are the “regular” folks of the story. They are the people that we all imagine that we are. In the context of love, we like to see ourselves as they seem: in love with each other in a way that seems both romantic (magical) and practical (pragmatic). They seem to be well matched without seeming to be a fairy tale couple that gives us reason to feel incredulous or resentful. They are patient friends who know Mel well and put up with him without complaint. They are the “nice neighbors” that we all hope to have or to be.

My other responses include responses to the concepts and definitions of love that the two couples toss around the table in their conversations. Inasmuch as they present a number of different models of love, I find it is easy—and almost expected—to respond to each one in turn, deciding as I read whether or not I agree with it. I find the theories of love presented generally unacceptable, if a little uninteresting.

For some reason, I find this story pleasurable, or at least pleasant, without ever feeling very engaged. I find myself wondering why I enjoy it, when so little about it seems notable. I wonder why it appeared in the anthology I chose for class and I try to remember what arbitrary conditions led me to choose it for the class. And yet, I would be willing to defend the story on the basis that it is rather unpretentious and ordinary—that it seemingly seeks to be plain and unadorned, and that its “greatness,” if it aspires to that, is contained within it simplicity and everydayness.

My final response is a reaction to my responses. I find that I am drawn to evaluate the characters in this story as if they were people that came into my social circle, as if they were people that I would have to sort out in the social organization of my personal life. I therefore judge and assess the characters as people—not as literary characters—and I make statements that reveal who I would likely invite into my life and who I would keep a safe distance from.

Similarly, I respond to the plot (or the absence thereof) as a situation that I might experience in the routine of my own life. It becomes evident that my response is a process of drawing this text very close to me and making it a very personal experience, or an experience which is evaluated on very personal criteria. I wonder if it is the nature of the storytelling itself that causes me to respond in this way. If the story was more dramatic, the characters more spectacular, the plot more active, would I be forced to hold the text at a greater critical distance? Would it be more difficulty for me first to consider myself as a part of the narrative? I think that I do see the conversation around the kitchen table and imagine myself sitting there in ways that might be impossible if the setting and context where more spectacular or dramatic.

Posted by ogde0004 at 10:57 PM

November 4, 2004

Indulging in the Reality of the Unreal

If there is a guilty pleasure in my media consumption, it is the reality TV shows that have been promulgated on prime time television over the past years. I’m talking about the shows that, while they share a certain ancestry with the first non-cable network reality show success, Survivor with its premise of physical challenges and resourceful innovation, are more directly descended from the Bachelor and its over-hyped and sensationalized romantic (melo)drama.

Shortly after getting married, my wife and I began to relax by indulging in Joe Millionaire (NBC), where, in addition to the normal intrigue of the romantic competition, deception and false appearances lie at the heart of the narrative (Joe was no millionaire catch at all, just a handsome construction worker scouted to introduce the essential twist necessary to distinguish one such romance reality show from another). This lead us to Average Joe (FOX), both the first and second versions, where the twist was that the typical model-esque female protagonist—the one who chooses the guy—was confronted by very ordinary guys to choose from. Some were too fat and some were too skinny and none of them, in a superficial Hollywood/Goldilocks way, were “just right.” The first twist, as if not distinguishing enough, was to then bring in a band of “hunks”—the more typical cast for such a reality show—to compete with the Average Joes for the heart of the girl.

We ate it up.

And we liked it for the simple reason that it was not us on the screen. Whereas Jane Greer’s readers confessed that “some of their stories [in confessional magazines] are like my life, I guess,” we were smugly pleased that these situations were so contrived and so decidedly awful that we couldn’t relate at all. While these shows purport to be reflections of “reality” they are instead distorted projections and fabrications of hyperfictions set forth as unconvincing façades of real life. The accommodations are palatial, the social interactions contrived, the decisions ludicrous (represented well byFor Love or Money), and the presentation—cunningly edited footage—equally unbelievable. Such incredible settings create a safe distance from “reality” so we can enjoy the parade of human sorrow and suffering all the time believing that our humanity is fully engaged and intact when, in fact, we have surrendered our humanity in the name of cheap entertainment.

So many moments in these weekly dramas are embarrassing, even humiliating, and while we cringe at their suffering (like typical reactions to a much earlier form of “reality” TV America’s Funniest Home Videos ala the ever present “kid accidentally hits father in the groin with a baseball bat/baseball/umbrella/watering can” incident), we were really just grateful that we had never done anything that stupid before, at least not on national television.

The pleasure of “I’m glad it’s not me” voyeurism is right in line, I think, with the general appeal that makes these shows both so successful and so utterly addicting: the exhilaration of the comfortable spectator of uncomfortable human drama. On the surface, we think we are connecting with our humanity by choosing the “real” (as represented in the Bachelorette) over the “false” (as represented by Friends) and are spending our TV time watching and learning from “real” people rather than the constructed characters depicted in fictional sitcoms or dramas. The depth of that appeal is non-existent. Neither show presents a “reality,” at least so far as that term means a genuine human experience, and one simply hires amateur “actors” at a fraction of the price they would pay for Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry. The producers’ aim in both cases is the same: lure advertisers and audiences.

I never watched the first wave of reality shows; I only came on board once the producers felt compelled to introduce the multiple twists that would make their shows stand out amidst the abundant preview hype. That those twists deeply undercut the legitimacy of the “reality” designation and made the whole project a farce, on one level or another, made it possible for me to enjoy the shows given my academic identity of a critical and selective television viewer with overtones of an aspiring academic. Such an identity makes it difficult for me to buy into a phenomenon that seems to sell itself to the public so seriously as the first wave of reality TV shows did. Once the genre established itself as a surefire ratings success, it could afford to relax and indulge in a playful twist. For me, this brought the previews and the promotions to the level of the ludicrous—and it held the appeal of films that fall in the class of “dumb comedies” (Dumb and Dumber as the quintessential example). I could enjoy something that was obviously aware of how over-the-top it was, whereas I shunned the melodramas that seemed oblivious to their melo- quality.

As a white, middle class man, I think that the whiteness of the shows made it easy for me to watch them without thinking very deeply about them. Reflecting on the participants, the homogeneity is striking. The discourse and figured world of white, middle class, American, young dating were familiar and unchallenging to me. Those features certainly limit the demographic of likely viewers, excluding many who do not share these identities, or who do not desire to identify with them or their values.

Posted by ogde0004 at 1:08 PM

October 28, 2004

The Mai Neng Moua Case Study

Since the beginning of the term I have been certain that I wanted to devote my case study to Mai Neng Moua. Mai Neng is the founder and long-time editor of Paj Ntaub Voice, the only literary arts journal for Hmong writers. She has been at it for ten years and has been responsible for a dozen issues of the magazine, an anthology (Bamboo Among the Oaks), and the sponsorship of 135 writers to date. She is a primary force in the emerging movement of Hmong (American) literature; she is a potent visionary with unswerving determination.

Mai Neng is also a poem and memoirist. She is preparing to take a year to return more purposefully to her craft through the Bush Fellowship. For the better part of her adult life, Mai Neng has been an activist and an advocate for literacy and literary arts in a community that has been otherwise occupied by the demands of being refugees and immigrants in America.

Mai Neng is bilingual but experiences distinct tensions between her linguistic abilities—specifically the disparity between her English fluency and flagging Hmong ability. She speaks often of her desire to record and translate Hmong language rituals and orature, but she also expresses the dismay of her linguistic limitations. She feels that she is missing something, that something is in danger of being lost. When she addresses these concerns, she is clearly referring to the communal and cultural losses, but it is also apparent that she harbors certain personal anxieties about what such losses will entail for her own identity.

She and I are very close friends and have worked together for more than four years on a wide variety of projects. This case study provides the opportunity for us to focus our conversation—and to record its outcomes—and incentive for both of us to return to the transcript and analyze its content. As a key figure in the world of Hmong (American) literature, I would be pleased to see a chapter of my dissertation develop from these focused conversations.

I have scheduled three one-hour conversations with Mai Neng that I will transcribe and share with her for her corrections, clarifications, comments, and for further conversation.

FOCUSED QUESTIONS

You have spent ten years creating and sustaining a literary arts movement. How has this shaped your own identity? To what extent does this work define how you conceive of yourself?

In the beginning you seem to think of yourself as a writer. Now you write less, organize and administer more. How have your changes purposes for your literacy (writing poetry versus writing grants) affected your identity?

Your own writing has waned in the past years. Now you are preparing to take leave on a fellowship. How will you structure your writing? What writing tasks will you tackle first?

What are your writing goals for your fellowship? How will you measure those goals? What mechanisms have you built to facilitate achieving those goals?

When you write, how do you write? What tools/technologies do you use? How do you structure your time? What process do you take? How does it differ between different purposes/genres?

What are the connections between basic literacy skills and literary production?

You have written often about your mother. What can you tell me about her literacy practices? How has she been a literacy teacher to you? How has she facilitated your writing? How has she impeded it?

You have written about the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. Think about inscription, memory, and memorializing. What is the significance of the names in that wall? Comment on the Hmong Veterans Memorial that has more recently been erected.

Writers assume a certain role in society. What is your role as a writer? Do you define that role within a Hmong society, or society more generally? Why one over the other? How do writers function differently in the Hmong community now? What role will they play in the future?

Much of your work has been focused on building up Hmong writers and giving them opportunities to succeed. You are impressively positive. Are there any ways in which Hmong writers are failing themselves and their community at this time?

Trace your own basic literacy--in each of the relevant languages. How did that literacy develop? Describe the tools, spaces, programs, people, and institutions that contributed to (or impeded) that development.

Consider a hypothetical (albeit impossible): If you had to choose between reading and writing—meaning that you would completely lose the skill not chosen—which would you choose? Would you produce texts or consume texts? Why? How does your answer relate to your sense of your identity?

Who are you? Who do you write yourself to be (in a poem or in a grant, for example)? How does the self that you write shape the self that you are?

[The interview guide that follows was a tool I developed for a literacy study I developed for a previous class. The project was influenced profoundly by my exposure to Deb Brandt’s Literacy in American Lives. I set out to write the beginnings of Literacy in Hmong American Lives. I may use these questions—or forms of them—in the current case study.]

INTERVIEW GUIDE:
“EXPERIENCES WITH AND ATTITUDES TOWARDS LITERACY IN THE HMONG COMMUNITY”

BACKGROUND QUESTIONS
What is your name? (this question is strictly to identify the respondent and will not be used in any report. All names will be altered and the principle investigator will have sole access to the key.)

Where were you born?

When were you born?

Where have you lived since then and how long have you lived there?

When did you arrive in the United States?

What languages do you speak?

FIRST LANGUAGE (L1)
What was the first language that you learned to speak (L1)?

Can you read and write in L1?

If not:
Have you ever tried to learn?
What were the experiences of trying to learn?
Why do you feel you have not been successful at learning to read and write L1?

If so:
Please explain how you learned to read and write L1.
What was difficult about learning to read and write L1?
What impressed you about learning to read and write L1?
How have you used your literacy in L1?
Would you like to improve upon your skills in L1? If so, in what ways would you like to improve them?

SECOND LANGUAGE (L2)
What was the second language that you learned to speak (L2)?

Can you read and write in L2?

If not:
Have you ever tried to learn?
What were the experiences of trying to learn?
Why do you feel you have not been successful at learning to read and write L2?

If so:
Please explain how you learned to read and write L2.
What was difficult about learning to read and write L2?
What impressed you about learning to read and write L2?
How have you used your literacy in L2?
Would you like to improve upon your skills in L2? If so, in what ways would you like to improve them?

[REPEAT THIS SERIES OF QUESTIONS FOR EACH SPOKEN LANGUAGE]

APPLICATION QUESTIONS
How is reading and writing, in any language, important to you? To the Hmong community?

How is reading and writing in Hmong important to you? To the Hmong community?

How is reading and writing in English important to you? To the Hmong community?

What is the most important thing about being able to read and write in any language and in any particular language?

How does the ability to read and write in a language affect your speaking and listening abilities in that same language?

How does the ability to read and write in a language affect your speaking and listening abilities in another language?

How do you use your literacy on a day-to-day basis?

Posted by ogde0004 at 1:50 PM

October 20, 2004

Fan A(n)tics

I am not a fan of anything.

Fanaticism, it seems, is not part of my character. Moderate in so many ways, I resist the perceived “imbalance” of being too devoted or dedicated to any particular cultural object or activity. I’ve never owned a t-shirt advertising a musical group. I’ve never tacked up a poster of a Hollywood celebrity (except Alf during my confused adolescence). I’ve never attended a conference (“con”) for devotees of any literary, television, or film series. Even as a teenager my interest in Dungeons & Dragons was on again, off again. If not a fan, then, what am I?

I am a flash-in-the-pan fan.

I’m not admitting to being part of the bandwagon crowd that spoils good things (like Pearl Jam and the Dave Matthews Band), but rather I’m a fan as determined by social context. Perhaps it is more accurate to say:

I’m a crowd-pleaser fan.

I exploit cultural icons for social gains. For example, if at some soiree Tom Hanks—a Hollywood actor I generally respect—comes up in conversation, I draw my respect into admiration, admiration into enthusiasm. For an hour, I am a Tom Hanks fan. I enjoy pleasant conversation, establish positive social connections, and observe the euphoria of enthusiasts in action all while maintaining a safe distance from fan status myself. All of the benefits of fanhood with none of the risks of actual fanaticism. I don’t want to be a part of it, and yet I flirt around the edges because I recognize the cultural and social currency it carries.

Case in point: the first time I met my wife’s parents it was a Monday night. The Vikings were playing. I walked into their home and was greeted by Michele, who later became my mother-in-law, outfitted in a Randy Moss jersey. Hung over the back of a kitchen chair was a Chris Carter jersey. I knew it was for me. I willingly donned it. I knew football was part of the family culture and I wanted in. Now—a man generally disinterested in sports and from Green Bay to boot—I cheer for the Vikings, at least when I’m visiting my in-laws. Otherwise, I tend to forget that it’s football season. However, playing the fan goes a long way to extending the pleasure of my family life.

Having firmly established my status as a non-fan, I can safely divulge a recent “fanatic episode,” as I call it. My first child was born this summer. That naturally brought a great deal of changes to how my wife and I spent our time. Shortly after the baby was born, my mother-in-law (great media fan that she is) loaned us the first season of Alias on DVD. My wife and I had both seen a few episodes of this high drama spy thriller and enjoyed it. The writing, acting, and production were of very high quality, approaching the cinematic standards, in my opinion. Our son ate on a three-hour cycle and, if we didn’t go to bed right after feeding time, it seemed a waste to sleep for an hour only to wake up again. Many nights, therefore, we found ourselves waiting to go to bed, and Alias filled our time.

We started watching just a single episode but soon found ourselves falling victim to the cliffhanger formula. Sitting on the couch with a sleeping or feeding infant, we would look at each other and I would tentatively ask, “Can we watch another?” To my delight, Christa was just as invested as I and we settled in to indulge in another episode—or two. I think at the height of our mania, we watched four consecutive episodes. Pure pleasure.

We finished Season One within a couple of weeks, just before my birthday. My gift from my in-laws was my own copy of the second season on DVD. About this time, my mother came into town to help with the baby. I was concerned that she would regard my addiction to Alias as retrograde, but after watching an episode with us she was similarly hooked. The prevailing image of the first month of my son’s life is his grandmother, mother, and father sitting on the couch—eyes fixed on the television—passing him back and forth as our arms grew tired or he became hungry. We were a vision of virtual experience.

Thoughts of the show—fascination with its many twists and turns as well as genuine concern for its characters—pervaded my thinking. Hot days of summer and long nights of new parenthood passed pleasantly. But when it was all done, knowing that Season Three would be available until September, I was free. The fanatic episode was over. Christa and I resumed more varied ways to fill our time and my mother picked up a novel. I phased out of my fan frenzy by watching some of the bonus material on the DVDs. Our conversation, which had for weeks been dominated by the show and its storyline, became increasingly diverse until Alias faded away altogether. Now it has taken a place in family lore and memory. And when I see the boxed DVD set in the cabinet, I wonder what I’ll ever do with it.

A flash in the fan pan. A short season of celebrity fascination. The story of my pop cultural life.

Posted by ogde0004 at 9:47 AM

October 14, 2004

Writing My Humanity(ies)

Besides the writing that I did in school as a child, I was a prolific contributor to my personal journal, writing nearly every day during some stretches of my youth. While my school writing kept my attention on writing in an academic setting, my journal gave opportunity for expressive and reflective personal writing. In my journal, naturally, I felt free to experiment and to write with a certain playful spirit.

As I moved into high school, I spent some time (as seems mandatory for American teenagers) writing poetry. My interest in creative writing extended to short fiction late in high school when my family bought our first home computer. At the time, the demands of general academic writing, as taught through the public school system, didn’t seem too restrictive or particular. Writing a long term paper about the early logging industry in Wisconsin (during my environmentalist phase) seemed to require substantial facts and data from my research, but allowed—as far as I could tell—the same casual presentation that I used to enumerate and examine my daily experiences in my journal as well as a touch of the narrative from my fiction writing. To me, writing felt holistic; I didn’t feel any competition between the several genres I experienced.

It is important to note, however, that science writing was exceptional. While the writing component in my first science classes was minimal (if not nonexistent), my chemistry and physics classes of my latter years each included a stringent writing requirement. Each quarter we compiled an extensive lab book wherein weekly experiments were written up in detail, rigorously following the standard “scientific method” as it was taught to us. These lab books were infamous in the school culture and were the first introduction to all-nighters for many conscientious, but procrastinating, students. The challenge of writing these lab reports was valuable, but it never achieved the status of “writing” to me; it was matter-of-fact reportage that failed to indulge in any of the practices—creative narrative, personal reflection, inventive prose, lush description, etc.—that I enjoyed about writing. Science reporting was mechanical whereas writing—everything else—was magical.

In my naiveté, I approached my early college writing the same way I had my high school writing: relegating science writing as “the other” and unaware of any other generic variations or disciplinary expectations. In my first year, although I had thoroughly enjoyed my science classes in high school, I avoided the physical science departments, preferring the stimulating expansiveness of the humanities to the confining empiricism of science. I did little science writing in my first year.

The rest of my writing—undertaken in the rather uncomplicated approach I had developed in high school—was received well and left me satisfied with both my grades and my learning experiences. When I returned to college after a two-year hiatus to begin my sophomore year, I suddenly remembered my affinity for the sciences and within the year, after explored various science fields, I settled on a major in chemistry. After completing the general courses (which required minimal writing) that year, my junior year found me immersed in intensive laboratory classes that demanded extensive lab reports that conformed to the conventions of academic journals. The only writing instruction I received in college (I purposefully—perhaps arrogantly—found a way to avoid freshman composition) was self-administered during this phase of my coursework. I invested intensive effort to understanding and mimicking the style of professional science writing.

I found it difficult, but it eventually became a game: how could I distill my characteristically abundant prose into the succinct syntax expected of scientists? I relished in writing the Methods section wherein two days of lab procedures might be expressed in as little as ten lines of text. The purpose, scope, and audience of this kind of writing were so precisely defined that it allowed me to focus almost exclusively on crafting minimalist prose and deploying terminology efficiently and accurately. Whereas my humanities writing had been expansive, far-reaching, and global, my science writing was incisive, restricted, and local to the point of being microscopic. In these ways, I found the respective disciplinary goals—“big picture” analysis on one hand and assays of minute detail on the other—to be manifest in the conventions of writing within the disciplines.

My composition and revision practices shifted in accordance with the nature of science writing as I continued to focus on the genre of the lab report. Always particular about details on the sentence level, my natural tendency was amplified by the value placed upon sparse, exact language. Writing to such exacting expectations and within a prescriptive outline (the formatting formula of specific sections: introduction, materials, methods, results, discussion, conclusion) facilitated the decline of my ability and incentive to make major revisions or experiment with form.

As I contemplated a career in chemistry, I became increasingly certain that I didn’t want one. I found myself stifled and unenthused about my school work. Returning to the humanities classes that had so stimulated me in my early college career, I felt refreshed. It was the writing—as much as the subjects and modes of learning—that rejuvenated me. Writing became more closely associated with thinking—writing generated new thoughts rather than being a practice of documenting data and articulating old, linear conclusions. Science was challenging (heaven knows I didn’t understand half of the concepts expected of me), but its complexities and complications were dealt with formulaically. I yearned for a methodology that was generative and complicated in itself. I needed less order.

Ultimately, I’ve ended up in graduate school in the English department. In itself, that is telling. Learning to write substantial seminar papers that engaged literary theory as well as literary texts has been another process of self-instruction. I have struggled to understand a new set of generic conventions and stylistic expectations that, in many ways, diametrically oppose those of science writing. While it is generally refreshing, at times it is frustrating as I find myself unable to write to the standards of my professional discourse community. Some of the ways of thinking, it seems, are not my own. Furthermore, I resist the detached, disembodied (impersonal) tone of much of the writing—a residual effect of science’s insistence on removal of personality in the name of objective, rational investigation.

At the end of my second year of my graduate studies, a feminist rhetorician in our department introduced me to discourses that validate the personal voice in academic writing and acknowledge the deception behind a thin veil of objective, impersonal language. Writing in her seminar included responses to readings that permitted—and even privileged—the personal. Such personal reflection wedded with rigorous thinking brought me full circle to where I began my writing career (and this account of it). Writing became, once again, a practice that was integral with my identity, not in opposition to it. As I contemplate writing a dissertation—that magnus opus—I am confident that, while my analysis and interpretation requires the same precision and attention my science training developed in me, the project cannot be divorced—in methodology or compositional style—from my identity, my personality, my humanity.

Posted by ogde0004 at 8:37 AM

October 5, 2004

REFLECTION on Getting Up in Green Bay

When I set out to write my narrative of moving to Green Bay, I hadn't planned on focusing on its spiritual aspects. I thought I would describe the challenge—and my response to it—in more secular terms of struggle and learning and experience. Seeing what the piece ended up looking like, however, reveals that the spiritual narrative is obviously a central force upon my memory of that episode.

Motifs of darkness crept into the narrative without premeditation. Of course, it was January in Wisconsin and naturally very dark, but the metaphor of darkness is convenient for the drama of my memory. For as many times as I invoke darkness, however, I didn't turn to its logical complement of light to describe the spiritual processes of prayer and faith. If I resisted that impulse, perhaps it is because my memories are spliced to the context of darkness visually and affectively. When I recall the scenes in my mind—clear and vivid still—they are defined by darkness and grayness, including the moments of spiritual "enlightenment." It is curious and interesting to me that light does not figure into the narrative. If I were to similarly narrate other moments of spiritual growth they probably would include metaphors of light. Is it my relapse to teenage angst that keeps light out of my narrative?

The details that emerged are striking to me as well. The memory of my dad's dinnertime prayers—one of the first memories that appeared in my mind as I started to write—seems to have influenced how the rest of the narrative goes. In recalling his sincere supplication, I appreciated anew his love and concern for our family. He is a gentle, and a pious, man. While I have told this story many times in many contexts, that detail of his prayers has rarely been a part of it. I think it has a great deal to do with how my story was shaped this time, and with how my experience turned out. Each time I tell this story, the experiences and the lessons learned assume a little more meaning. Whereas it bewildered and overwhelmed me at the time, reflection has revealed its meaning. Or perhaps reflection and retelling has given it meaning, created meaning from a set of events that, retrospectively, can be considered symbolically.

The other prominent details (my first encounter with our new house and the smell of that rotten apartment complex) are also surprises to me. Obviously my memory of those things is vivid, but, again, those details, while never forgotten, have never figured prominently into the story. Reading the story as a critic, I can't even tell what relevance they have, whether they do more than just provide some concrete images to ground the reader. Does my disappointed disgust with our house reveal a psychological state? Is the apartment odor a metaphor for my disdain for relocating? I'm quite sure that this tale isn't crafted carefully enough to claim any such effects intentionally.

For as much emphasis as I place on personal prayer, attending church figures into the story in a rather minor way, even though it was very important to me. My mother similarly takes a pretty small role despite the fact that she was my vigilant companion and champion.

I guess narratives like this tend to be narcissistic—neglecting many of the people around me—and my narratives tend to indulge in the nostalgia of the details. Hence the random assemblage of facts and trivia. However, the inclusion of these details points to the great importance of the context and conditions of our move. I see my experiences with the buy outs as my participation in the corporate culture of the 1980s. With it I secure my membership in the "Victims of 1980s Corporate America" club.

My first response to our new house is a moment I am still particularly ashamed of. My parents were really crestfallen and I have always felt guilty for my instinctive response. I really don't think that I even thought it was a bad-looking house. The combination of the stress of the move and the instant of just waking up after a long drive generated such a response. In addition to feeling guilty for making my poor parents feel bad, I think I know that it was untrue and there is nothing that bothers me so much as telling a negative lie when there was absolutely no reason to. Why didn't I just say, "Wow! It's big!" That was probably what I was thinking.

In addition to Dad's prayers, I also really remember the way that he worried for those several months. He didn't eat well, he lost weight, and I was unsettled that one of my life's pillars seemed so weak. Here again is perhaps another reason for why I take time to comment on his anxiety: in a moment when he appeared particularly weak, he was actually quite strong. His humility and submission lead him to rely more particularly upon Providential protection, a pattern I so admired that I imitated it when I was in my own moment of distress. This most recent retelling of the story highlights for me how vital my relationship with my father was and how critical his example of faith was to my survival.

Constructing this narrative has been a provocative experience of really constructing what I believe about this particular event in my life. While the lessons that I take from it now do not differ radically from my previous perceptions, there are nuanced differences in how I perceive it. I suppose that is one lesson of literacy in general and storytelling more specifically: they are practices which create identity.

Posted by ogde0004 at 7:49 AM

Getting Up in Green Bay

It was dark as pitch on Saturday, January 16, 1988 when we pulled up to our new home at 3230 Normandy Lane in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was our second day of driving from Plano, Texas and the dog, Murphy, and I were sleeping in the back seat of our Mercury Marquis. I awoke as the car stopped and my mother said, "We're here!"

I opened my eyes to discover that we were in the driveway of a big, awkward brown house. Deep piles of snow loomed at the edges of the driveway. Before I could clear my mind to think better of it I blurted, "This is it?!?" I regretted my words as soon as they slipped out.

I was thirteen and the last child at home, my older brother and sister both having left for college already. My parents were very anxious about moving, especially for my sake. They knew it would be difficult to leave the only home and friends I had ever known in Texas for new ones. We've talked about it since, and my disparaging response to our new home really deflated mom and dad.

It wasn't such a bad house. It was spacious and, in a 1970s kind of way, attractive. If I'm honest, it's the house that hold my most treasured memories of my youth. That two-story cul-de-sac house was the setting for the most formative experiences of my life.

But they begin in an funky smelling apartment a half mile away.

My father, a research food scientist, was the victim of multiple corporate buy outs. Anderson Clayton Foods had first been purchased by Quaker Oats (the parent of Ralston Purina) to acquire the Gains/Cycle dog food line. Having got what they came for, Quaker put the company back up on the auction block and Kraft picked up what was left to get their hands on the Seven Seas salad dressing label. It was the way of the food industry in the 1980s--conglomeration and corporate takeovers of your competition. Kraft retained very few employees so my father, 55 years old, found himself on the job market.

He was anxious. He didn't eat much. He led long family prayers around the dinner table desperately pleading for help for our family. I've never been so moved, before or since, by his prayers. He polished his resume, donned a new suit, and launched into the networking game with determination.

My dad's a brilliant man and a dedicated worker. I don't think I ever really had a doubt that he would find a job, but I certainly felt the anxiety of the uncertainty of our situation. Within a few months of Kraft's announcement to close Anderson Clayton, he had a number of interviews and several good prospects.

Frigo Foods, an Italian cheese company in Green Bay, turned out to be the match. Frigo was excited to have my dad and I think my dad, although he was eager to take any job that paid, was excited about the work as well. But Green Bay threw me. I had no idea where Wisconsin was. I didn't know what people did there. I had no way to know what to expect, but, to my thirteen-year-old way of thinking, if Green Bay wasn't the edge of the earth, surely you could see it from there.

Over the summer we prepared our house in Plano to sell. I started eighth grade and my dad started work at Frigo in October. They put him up in one of these sprawling, one-story 1970s apartment complexes with long hallways that looked like they had been borrowed from a cheap hotel. Its most distinguishing feature was a really odd--and unpleasant--odor that permeated the whole place. The way the timing to close on our new house worked out, we would spend our first week in Green Bay at the apartment.

Arriving that Saturday night, we went to church on Sunday morning. I found it a welcoming place and I genuinely appreciated the familiar structure of an LDS worship community. But I was never really worried about attending church--these were people with whom we shared sacred faith and beliefs. The whole enterprise was about being kind, loving people; I didn't figure I had much to worry about there.

School, however, was another matter. No one went to middle school to become a more generous Christian. To say I was anxious understates the ulcerating pit in my stomach. Sunday night I slept poorly on the couch in that fragrant apartment and I awoke early. For a long time I laid there, staring at the ceiling through the predawn darkness of the upper Midwest in January. I don't know that I've ever seen anything so dark since.

That morning (and every morning for months after) I felt absolutely sick. The nagging nausea that greeted me escalated with my worry to a sense of dread that was absolutely overwhelming to my thirteen-year-old self. I will never forget how, laying on that couch in the unfamiliarity of the clinging darkness and discomforting fume, I started to pray. I had said many prayers before and had been well instructed in the purposes and promise of prayer, but that morning, somewhere around 4:00 a.m. with gloom clinging to my heart, I believe I really talked to God. I needed to.

I needed help to stand up. I prayed for it. I needed help to eat a light breakfast without throwing up. I prayed for it. I needed help to shower and get dressed. I prayed for it. For the first time in my life, I was overcome. I had been afraid before, but nothing had so completely debilitated me. It sounds like melodrama now, but I simply had no power to function. Internally, I was spent.

And because spiritual effort, like so many things, is rewarded in direct proportion to its intensity, my pathetic prayers were answered. I got what I asked for--no more and no less. When I needed to get into the car with my mother to drive across town to school, I did because I had prayed that I would. When I needed to survive the loneliest lunch hour of my life, I managed because I prayed that I would. Though I had been sure of prayer's efficacy before, it became a particularly sacred practice to me that day. It was more than a spiritual exercise, more than a duty of the pious, more than a vehicle to express gratitude. It was nothing less than communication with a God who knew me and, for all of my insignificance in a majestic universe, cared about me.

It was that God to whom my father had pleaded so desperately for sustenance for our family, and while I had been moved by his intense sincerity and honest humility I knew better now what it was to be a participant in a conversation with God rather than just a spectator.

The transition to life in Green Bay was difficult, to be sure. It took time before I was able to prepare for each day without encountering intense anxiety. It took time before I made a few friends and began to feel reasonably comfortable at school. It took time--time enough to cement my relationship with God and to inscribe certain lessons upon my soul.

My parents moved away from Green Bay in 1999. I haven't been back to visit for many years. My wife has never been there. And yet I frequently, even daily, reflect back upon that episode of my life. In addition to--or as a result of--my burgeoning spirituality, I mark those early Wisconsin years as the beginning of the process of maturation that continues to culminate in the perpetual (re)formation of my social and cultural identity. It was an awakening and a struggling that has influenced my life ever since.

Posted by ogde0004 at 5:04 AM

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 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 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