Saturday, November 27, 2010

On the 100th Anniversary of My Mother's Birth, I Take on the 100 Thing Challenge. In My Junk Drawer.



Here's my December column for East Village Magazine, examining the archeological dig that is my junk drawer:

A few years back a guy named Dave Bruno had had it with consumerism and decided to reduce his personal possessions to 100 things. He blogged about it and started a worldwide movement, The 100 Thing Challenge.

This month, just in time for the ceaseless barrages of the holidays, he’s publishing a book, The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul. I bet it will sell more than 100 copies.

I don’t trust people who make spirituality out of everything. I don’t trust “cleanliness is next to godliness,” for example; nature presumably made by God is frequently elegant but also messy—not to mention, bloody. And I don’t like hints that because I might be a little challenged, stuff-wise, I might be in mortal peril.

However, I was raised by a queen of clean, a housfrau of frugality, and this month would have been her 100th birthday. My mom would have loved the idea of the 100 Thing Challenge. So it seems that the stars are suggestively and neatly aligned for me to make a gesture of propitiation.

When I first heard something about Bruno’s new book on NPR, I muttered to my cats, “Hell, I’ve got more than 100 things in one damn drawer.” The cats stared back sadly.

I meant my junk drawer.

Doesn’t everybody have one? A drawer, usually in the kitchen, where we stash our tawdry little bits of anxious life? A cache of personal anthropology – mirror to our worries, the vault for small stuff, unsellable on EBay, that we “might use” someday? The junk drawer blends the impulse to hoard and that persistent need for security. And, as another Dave, the “happiness researcher” Dave Buettner has been pointing out, “evolutionarily speaking, we are hardwired more for security than freedom.” Yikes. Maybe the junk drawer is a grown-up’s safety valve.

Unlike my mom, I am not obsessed with order. But the idea of exploring my junk drawer had a certain appeal, like going on an archeological dig. The day after Thanksgiving, still high on tryptophan and pumpkin pie, I pulled it off its squealing tracks, and heaved it, making sure to bend my knees, onto the living room floor.

Sitting crosslegged on the carpet, I eventually pulled out and listed 140 things on a legal pad.

At first, it all made sense, a logical collection of utility: stapler, scissors, cat brush, three Scotch tape dispensers, two lint rollers, three soft cloths for cleaning glasses, along with the glass cleaner to do it, 17 “forever” stamps, two Listerine pocket paks, two single-use tubes of Krazy Glue, a tube of lock de-icer – never used, a gift from my traumatized hubby after we once got stranded at midnight after a party on Calumet.

And then, all the stuff obviously there because it MIGHT be useful. Who in their right mind, really, would not understand the reason for 200 rubber bands from Flint Journals and bunches of asparagus? Who would question the need for 37 paper clips, 11 black document clips – great for bags of cereal or potato chips – 9 thumbtacks, a single push pin, a half-dozen twist ties, 15 AAA batteries, 5 AA batteries, 4 C batteries, and an extra nine-volt? There’s even 47 cents in change, in case. Just in case.

But the next layer, from the neglected, dusty back, creeped me out, yielding a succession of items of mysterious origin and way past their time.

What’s this? A fold-up hiking compass! Cool, but I haven’t been on an actual hike, in the woods, for about 20 years. Two plastic canisters with undeveloped rolls of film – anachronism – I’ve had a digital camera for years. Anyway, did I really want to see what might be revealed, what aggravating family gathering, what possibly compromising party? Ah, I remember this little battery-operated hand-held fan with a Las Vegas logo – cherished gift from a compassionate friend when I was still having hot flashes – now long unused, its batteries dead.

Then, tectonic plates of heartbreak and abandoned hope: the brass nametag for my late cat Joey One, dead for five years, his ashes buried in the back yard; a “Women for Kerry/Edwards” campaign button: Rosie the Riveter, with her plucky “We can do it” logo. And a pillbox of folded-up notes I’d written to my parents – saved from their stuff after they died a dozen years ago – notes neither imaginative nor redeeming. “Dear Mom…thank you for all you’ve done for us. We love you.” “It was sure good to be here. P.S. I had a snack before I left.” Why on earth are these still here?

Finally, just a pile of random and marginally disgusting stuff: two clothespins, one red plastic, one wood; a chipped ceramic pentacle tile; a plastic attachment for a long-gone vacuum cleaner; a six-ounce bottle of green automotive touch-up paint; a dry erase marker; two heavy duty locks; a pack of grape Pez; a Ya-Ya’s moist towelette, two packs each of pepper and salt; a half roll of chewable papaya enzymes; eight tiny plastic bags of replacement buttons; a broken birthday candle; two triangular pieces of dry cat food. Easy calls, all – to the trash.

The drawer empty, finally I stood up and took a deep breath. The cats, unimpressed, sniffed around my desultory piles.

So, since I am at least a part-time academic, I retreat now from my dig to profess what this all means.

In summary, I don’t know.

There’s actually a discipline devoted to “things” these days, called, remarkably, “Thing Theory.” An English professor named Bill Brown wrote a book about it. And we poets know how William Carlos Williams declared, “no ideas but in things.” But what ideas in which things?

What I mined from my junk drawer was only this: there are things we accumulate, for whatever reason – out of torpor, hope, sentimentality, or practicality – that give us comfort. Or maybe that’s just me – me and my curious and incorrigibly disheveled existence.

Here’s what I can say for the condition of my soul, my act of contrition in honor of my mother: pared and purged down to about 70 things, the drawer slipped back onto its metal track a bit more lightly.

Would that my restless mind, busy accumulating the next drawerful of comforting trinkets, went along.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Ernest Boyer and Scholarship Reconsidered

Belatedly, considering what happened to me last year in my department (See"So Much for My Dream of the Professoriate), I am reading Ernest L. Boyer's 1990 monograph from the Carnegie Foundation, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. In his preface, he writes, "What's really being called into question is the reward system and the key issue is this: what activities of the professoriate are most highly prized? After all, it's futile to talk about improving the quality of teaching if, in the end, faculty are not given recognition for the time they spend with students."

He continues, "...following the Second World War, the faculty reward system narrowed at the very time the mission of American higher education was expanding, and we consider how many of the nation's colleges and universities are caught in the crossfire of these competing goals."

"In the current climate," he asserts, "students all too often are the losers...The reality is that, on far too many campuses, teaching is not well rewarded, and faculty who spend too much time counseling and advising students may diminish their prospects for tenure and promotion."

Boyer's thoughts. supported by a large Carnegie Foundation-sponsored "National Survey of Faculty" led to what's often referred to as "The Boyer Model" for the work of the professoriate -- four "separate, yet overlapping functions." They were "the scholarshp of discovery," "the scholarship of integration," "the scholarship of application," and "the scholarship of teaching."
"What we urgently need today," he wrote, "is a more inclusive view of what it means to be a scholar -- a recognition that knowledge is acquired through research, through synthesis, through practice, and through teaching." And he called for all four of these to be equally acknowledged in promotion and tenure-granting decisions.

That was 20 years ago. If anything, it seems to me, things have gotten worse since then. In a 2006 essay in the Chronicle Review, Stanley Katz wrote:

The new environment for higher education has created a situation in which professorial worlds are multiple, complex, and conflicting. I think I am not simply being nostalgic (though I "grew up" professionally at the end of the earlier world) when I assert that we have lost something along the way. We have lost a sense of commonality as professors, the sense that we are all in this together — "this" being a dedication to undergraduate teaching and not just specialized research.

Considering all this, at least I feel less alone in the diminishment of my real value in the professoriate, which while I was denied access to the tenured ranks, has become clearer to me. Even though things have continued tightening up, especially in resistant and hide-bound departments that keep hanging on to old ways, it is heartening to sense some pressure toward a more reasonable and responsive change in higher ed. If we don't find a way to open up to a wider view of the professoriate, we may find ourselves consigned to irrelevancy, with serious consequences for our funding, for our ongoing public support, and most of all, for our students.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Pursuing a Happy Darkness

Here's my new column for East Village Magazine (, the result of an evolving experience of confronting, accepting and sometimes even loving darkness.

Lately I’ve been renegotiating with the dark.

Darkness gets a bad rap, including in my own mind. Each year I dread the coming on of longer nights, culminating in the anachronistic switch to Daylight Savings Time. By then, it’s dark when I leave for work in the morning and dark when I get home. This long winter darkness is so claustrophobic for me, so depressing, that anticipating it is almost as bad as actually putting up with it.

The literal darkness of winter merges, of course, with metaphorical darkness – that “dark night of the soul” that 16th Century mystic Saint John of the Cross first defined. Some of the hardest, most fearful moments of my life have coalesced at roughly 4 a.m., when the world seems most terrifying, most unpromising, most dark.

I know of course that darkness harbors danger. Evil hides in unlit corners, as our faithful neighborhood watch teams rightly point out. It’s not just nocturnal critters like possums, raccoons and bats showing up, rattling our nerves and trash cans. There are human critters all too ready to capitalize on the dark, stalkers and thieves and pyromaniacs, sneaking around with their badass intentions where we can’t quite see them.

But it’s not really the dark’s fault. Back in the day we feminists used to parade around once a year or so on “Take Back the Night” marches, including several through downtown Flint, and though our efforts only seemed to apply when there were a dozen of us or more, it did feel good to shout out that the night belongs to everybody. At the heart of that movement was a call for safety. For me, there also was a less strident song – that there’s something beautiful about the night, something primally necessary to reclaim.

We spend half our lives in darkness. Life is short -- why should I squander half of it in a state of fear and resistance? Wouldn’t it seem that nature’s effect on humans, the yin and yang of day and night, might have an up side? Why should daylight get all the good press?

Could there, in short, be such a thing as happy darkness?

This question bubbled up over friendship – a friendship built on walks and a restless baby. My neighbor Vickie figured out a stroller ride calmed newborn Frannie, and asked if I’d like to come along. We’d meet after dinner and, with a baby buggy between us, explore many streets in the neighborhood. As Frannie gaped and cooed at passing details, Vickie and I talked about everything, including the languorous sun drooping behind the silver maples of Maxine, Beard, Woodside, Lynwood, Calumet, Blanchard, Kensington. We went wherever we felt like going.

Eventually Frannie learned to go to sleep without her daily wheeling, but thanks to her daddy holding down the fort, her mom and I kept walking.

As the days shortened, we found ourselves starting out in dusk, each night noting decreasing minutes of light. When finally our whole walk was in the dark, I thought we couldn’t keep it up.

There are all kinds of logical arguments, after all, for not going out after dark. It flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught as women. We’ve been marooned in fear. But we enjoyed our nightly strolls so much we didn’t want to stop. So we didn’t. We take sensible precautions, but we’ve found it quite possible to feel at home, in the neighborhood that is our home, even after dark.

Spending three or four hours a week meandering into the night like we own it has been exhilarating and liberating. It is a luxury. It’s an antidote for claustrophobia. It’s a guarantee, almost always, of a better night’s sleep.

After dark, the neighborhood yields a remarkable glowing magic. This matters to my sense of our place, which so often saddens and worries me. At night the houses look calm and inviting, their rectangles and orderly panes of indoor light distinct and intriguing. We appreciate particular front porches, where porch lights frame interesting doors, brick steps, trellises, roof angles, and climbing ivy. We wouldn’t so much notice these in daylight, when many details blend together in equalizing swathes of sunbeams.

That is, we see things differently in different kinds of light. Part of the magic is it’s never really dark. Yet night light is different from the light of day: the variegated oranges, ochres and ambers of artificial light, the silvery moonlight through canopies of hardwoods – it’s elegant, nuanced, etched in mystery.

We pick blocks to stroll that have the best streetlights, and our progress from one cone of light to another is rhythmic and metered. Like a good poem, we move from dark to light to dark to light.

One night Vickie said when you walk the neighborhood after dark, it looks like every family is happy. The quality of inside light, enjoyed from our outsiders’ view, is serene. It’s possible to imagine that lovely light means lovely life – it’s possible to imagine, a cozy, hopeful visual illusion. When we walk by the lit-up houses, in other words, they make us happy. That’s a kind of truth, a trick of the darkness and the light we all provide to counter it.

Saint John of the Cross’s poem “Dark Night of the Soul” describes a journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God. It’s instructive that that trip of the spirit takes place at night. Saint John’s pilgrimage involves the “purification of the senses,” a step the darkness accommodates very well. We rest our bodies, at night, from the daylight stimulations of eyes and ears, the way in yoga class we sometimes roll soft eyewraps around our heads to give the brain a break. People need a rest from daylight. What we find at night can be a journey rich with gifts. Even in Flint, there can be a happy darkness.