Judging Books by Covers

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If my bones were tree trunks, they’d have thirty-seven concentric circles inside. This is neither young nor old, and often I feel it is both, depending on the time of day.

Imposter syndrome is a real thing, and as I prepare for my first semester as an adjunct professor, I am wavering between excitement and nervousness, and often I feel it is both, depending on the time of day.

For years, I have yearned for my very own leather-bound, twenty-volume, tissue-paper-paged set of the Oxford English Dictionary. Since they cost around $2,000.00, my more realistic goal became to someday procure a condensed, leather-bound, two-volume version, complete with magnifying glass. They cost about $300.00, a sum I cannot see shelling out for two books, no matter how delicious they might smell. I’ve pictured their spines facing outward, sturdy and thick, on a shelf in my office, where I can reference them as I choose the perfect word for a story, or prepare a lecture that will disclose a word’s long-forgotten etymology, making a century’s old poem ring magically to a student in the back row.

Last week I found a condensed set on eBay. It was described as being in “near pristine condition,” save for a few scuffmarks on the blue leather of volume A-O and a missing magnifying glass. And they were…only…$30.00.

The dictionaries were being sold at this unbelievable price because, somehow, they had been bound upside-down. I didn’t even bid. I clicked “Buy now” and paid for standard shipping and let out a little squeal of delight.

Last Monday, S stayed home from camp and we planned a day of errands and fun. Errands first, he accompanied me to my alma mater/ new job so that I could untangle an IT issue, get my new photo ID, and secure a faculty parking pass.

The first two chores were completed quickly, but then I could not find the room where I was supposed to grab my sticker. As I stood near the window where I vaguely recalled signing for a commuter pass years ago, and as my eight-year-old boy chatted away about Pokémon and where he wanted to go for lunch, a man asked if I needed help.

I told him I needed to get a parking sticker. I asked if he knew what room.

“If you have a minute, I’ll walk you over,” he said.

We waited for him to finish up at the window and then followed him, a man twice my age, wearing shorts and running shoes, through the hallways.

About halfway down the main corridor, he looked at me and said, “Are you registering for classes this semester, dear?”

I said, “No. I’m going to get my faculty sticker.”

However, I did not say it with the power that I should have. My voice failed to convey the disgust I felt at being called “dear” by this man who was, I realized, now my colleague, and who had, I suppose, assumed that I could not be on his same level. My feminist pulse had stopped beating in that moment, and something else, something bigger, took over.

I am not completely sure anymore what he said after that, something about what department he worked in.

At the end of the hall I thanked him for his help and then found the room by myself.

As I have mentioned before, I was a student at this school, and not very long ago, because I returned to college the month after I turned thirty, on a quest to immerse myself in the study of literature and the craft of writing because it is a place that has always felt like home. I was a mother then, too, pushing against expectations about what it meant to be a student at a small liberal arts college. I knew my reaction to this man’s question was not because I objected to the notion that I could be a student, but at his assumption that I would be a student. And, most importantly, that I would somehow be okay with him calling me “dear.”

I hate admitting that my hushed reply to his question did not convey any twinge of anger. My reaction was, I think, the result of years of internalized misogyny and my own chicken shit fear of confrontation. The bitter taste that rose up in my mouth the moment this man uttered this question triggered a fight-or-flight response in me. Push back on his comment, or smile and answer politely? And perhaps because I was already feeling somewhat vulnerable, even in such a minor moment, I lost my nerve. Flight won the battle.

As S and I walked the rest of the way down the hall and then joined the zigzagging line of other drivers, I kept asking myself, “Is my outfit wrong? Is my hair too short? Too long? Is it because I am having a late-summer, stress-induced skin breakout, detracting from my wrinkles and making my skin appear adolescent? Is it my sneakers, a little too big, too squeaky, too strange-looking because I bought them on sale from my favorite boutique, and they are rope-soled and biodegradable, but in no way practical or comfortable? Is my posture wrong? My voice unsteady?”

Do I look out of place?

I got my parking sticker and took S out for lunch and back-to-school shopping. We went home and set up the sprinkler and both of us ran through it, jumping and laughing through the freezing cold spray. We played chess in the sun and saw parakeets in the maple tree. And I continued to ponder the morning, wondering how many times I fluctuate between young and old me-selves, the sprinkler-dancer and the academic, the mother and the child.

I wondered why I wondered what it was about my outward appearance that made this man make assumptions about me. I wondered how I often I make these same assumptions about others.

My upside-down dictionaries have been delivered. And they are huge and heavy and awesome.

 

“I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all” –Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays

 

Rewinding, Rereading, Repeating

“My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me” –Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts p.98

 

I just finished reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and now I’m doing that thing where I try to get my hands on everything she’s ever written. My Amazon cart is pretty full. I won’t take them out of the library because I know I will want to write all over the insides. And, I owe the library money for an overdue copy of My Dog Smells Like Dirty Socks. (Full disclosure: I still have it. It got packed in a box when we moved and I am too embarrassed to go there and confess. It’s been two years.)

I finished reading The Argonauts on the train. I closed it and put it in my bag. And then I took it back out and read all the praise on the back. And then her bio and acknowledgements. And then all the praise in the first pages of the book. And then the publishing information and that end page that tells you about cover design and font and whether it is printed on recycled paper. (It is thirty percent post consumer wastepaper. Yes.)

I wasn’t ready to put it away.

So I started to read it again, without waiting to fully digest what had happened. I wanted to wholly absorb it. Study it, like notes for an exam. Make them a part of my brain so I could recollect them easily. Remember the paragraphs like I would remember the chambers of the heart. I needed to repeat each passage immediately.

When we were kids, my sister and I loved to watch Bambi—the Disney cartoon with the baby deer whose mother gets shot by a hunter, and whose standoffish father, “The Great Prince,” can silence the entire forest with his presence.

In the beginning of the movie, a wobbly-legged Bambi meanders through the forest with his friend Thumper, and at one point the fawn-protagonist bends his head into a patch of flowers and takes a whiff, and his nose touches the nose of a tiny skunk. Bambi, who is just learning to talk, calls him a “pretty flower,” and Thumper rolls on the ground, laughing at Bambi’s faux pas and naiveté. “That’s not a…” he trails off, before the demure skunk replies, with his head pointed down, “He can call me a Flower, if he wants to.” There is giggling and much eyelash blinking, before Flower finally looks over his shoulder and sighs, “Oh, gosh.”

(Here’s a YouTube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54sZ8TFFAmY)

It is a minor scene, probably intended to introduce a new character, make a little joke, and perhaps nudge in a Shakespearean allusion to roses by any other name. But this scene was our favorite. We would obsess over it, watching it and then rewinding it over and over again, saying Flower’s lines along with him each time.

Maybe it was the sweet voice we wanted to hear again. Or it might have been the aesthetic, the soft colors of the forest and the big, overdrawn eyes of the characters. But I think it was probably the innocence of the scene that drew us in. Bambi had not yet lost his mother. The forest hadn’t burned down, and Bambi had no need to fear Man. He was just a small, shaky deer looking to make a new friend. He didn’t care about reputations. He didn’t know that skunks are reviled, avoided, the butt of jokes. Over and over, we watched this tiny moment. “He can call me Flower. If he wants to.”

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson delves deeply into complicated philosophies and psychology and literature theories to examine and tell the story of her life—her love affair with Harry, her role as a stepmother, their struggle to get pregnant—parenthood and motherhood both understood and misunderstood. Gender and queer theory marry feminism and child psychology. Judith Butler dances with Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Julia Kristeva with and Leo Bersani. And they all sing the songs that make up Nelson’s life. It is glorious.

About halfway through the book, Nelson makes a point about labels and identities, a point I’ve thought about before, a point I might even be guilty of myself. She is writing about Judith Butler, and when I read it my brain started tingling, remembering the first time I read Butler’s words as an undergrad after my adviser wrote, “Sex and gender are social constructs” in the margin of a paper I wrote. I remember reading Gender Trouble and thinking, “God, she is so fucking SMART.”

Nelson, who is also so fucking smart, writes about Butler’s observation about her own identity, how she wrote a book questioning identity politics and then became a token of lesbian identity, a victim of commodification. Nelson writes,

“[T]he simple fact that she’s a lesbian is so blinding for some, that whatever words come out of her mouth—whatever words come out of the lesbian’s mouth—certain listener’s hear only one thing: lesbian, lesbian, lesbian. It’s a quick step from there to discounting the lesbian—or, for that matter, anyone who refuses to slip quietly into a “postracial” future that resembles all too closely the racist past and present—as identitarian, when it’s actually the listener who cannot get beyond the identity that he has imputed on the speaker…”

When Bambi calls his new friend Flower, Thumper roars with laughter, proclaiming, “That’s not a flower.” He laughs because he sees this name as a mistake, for he simply sees him as a skunk, a creature known for a dreadful smell, an animal to be avoided, not befriended. Bambi, in his innocence, is unaware of these social constructs, understanding only that he has discovered a beautiful friend in a patch of flowers. Bambi calls him as he sees him. And don’t all children do that? So then, why not Flower?

But Thumper watches this exchange and sees only what he has learned. He sees skunk, skunk, skunk, and laughs at Bambi’s mistake.

“And then we scamper off to yet another conference …and shame the unsophisticated identitarians, all at the feet of yet another great white man pontificating from the podium, just as we’ve done for centuries” (54)

Flower is aware of his position in the hierarchy of the forest. And his response to Bambi shows it. He is pleased at this unexpected baptism, at this assertion of his beauty, so much so that his response is apologetic, submissive, bashful. That pregnant pause before he looks Bambi in the eye and says, “If he wants to” is stuffed with the hesitation and disbelief of someone who has been bullied, misunderstood, and shamed. What Flower seems to be saying is, “He can call me whatever he wants, if he’s going to be nice.”

Which brings me back to Nelson, when she examines language and gender and apologies and privilege. As we get closer to the end of her story, as she bares it all and uses all that she knows to understand her world, she writes, “Afraid of assertion. Always trying to get out of ‘totalizing’ language, i.e., language that rides roughshod over specificity; realizing this is another form of paranoia” (98).

Is that what is happening here? Flower is afraid of asserting himself, so used to being denied friendship because of how he is perceived. He is afraid to step out of the totalizing language, for he lives in a world where names denote characteristics: Bambi the baby deer, Thumper, the large-footed rabbit, Friend Owl, the wise (male) overseer to all the woodland creatures, and the countless times mothers are referred to only as “Mrs. (insert animal here).” Names are not specific; they are broad character generalizations.

Nelson goes on to explain women’s tendencies, her own tendency, to over-apologize. She describes the “gendered baggage” of writing with uncertainty. So accustomed to apologizing, so adapted to criticism, so familiar with character generalizations that we gaze up at the laughing men above us and are bashful when someone sees us as more than a stereotype. It’s brilliant.

So then we can understand Flower not as the punch line to a joke, but as a relatable character, so familiar to ridicule that he stumbles over himself when noticed. Who, for better or for worse, falls over with modesty when someone is kind, when someone sees him for who he is, not what he is. Flower apologizes not because of “gendered baggage,” but because of “species baggage.”

My sister and I were too young to see Flower as a male version of our stigmatized girl-selves. We were too young to understand the cruelty of essentializing. We could not comprehend the complexity of this scene, but we were drawn to it, insistent upon replaying it. We knew this scene by heart. It became a part of our routine.

I think repeatedly experiencing a piece of art in order to commit it to memory becomes an identity marker. Unknowingly relating to a cartoon skunk is, in hindsight, a testament to the internalization of gender (or species) roles. Instantly needing to reread The Argonauts made me realize how deeply I needed to read the life of someone who understands and lives with such markers. Who writes brilliantly about gender and literature, who is a mother, like me, and a spouse, like me, and struggles, like me. I’m sure I will read it again and again, in order to bask in the remarkable beauty of language and in order to see parts of me within it.

Seriously, she is so fucking SMART.