Friday, August 23, 2013

Friday's Females: Fiction (part 1)

So I had hinted that there might be pieces of fiction appearing on this blog. This, I wish were more fictional than it is. If I had known, 12 years ago, that falling in love with those sublime almond shaped eyes would lead me to watch passively while horrible things happened to my friends, I may have just left well enough alone. But I did not. So now, I find myself fictionalizing their lives, not because it will do anything for them, but in the hopes that it leaves me less alone in my helplessness.

This is a long post, it is the first part of a short story. Part 2 will come next Friday.


She had everything; a comfortable home, a good family, land and a store she enjoyed working in, she even had a child growing inside her. She had everything. Her current situation terrified her.

They had planned to meet at a hotel near the train station, the type that rents rooms by the hour. She told her family that she was visiting her sister in the city. They were close, she visited her frequently. She had stayed with them a month last autumn during the dengue fever outbreak, first nursing her brother in law, then her niece, then finally her brother, who preferred his sisters' care to the company of the single men he shared rooms with. Her infant nephew had strong fatelines. He stayed within the mosquito net, and never fell ill. Several years earlier, when her niece was six months old, her father-in-law gave her permission to fly across the country to baby sit. Her sister was attending her first conference since becoming a mother. She had not set up a child care regime yet. Her father-in-law thought it would be good practice, back when there had been any hope of having children. It had been her first flight. She had worried how she would breathe, since the air was so much thinner at high altitudes. It surprised her to learn that the cabins were pressurized. So she spent a wonderful week with her niece in the hot lowlands at the feet of the coastal mountains, returning home more worldly, more in love with her niece, and more eager to return to her household chores and her position in the family business.

She stepped off the train and ducked into the station bathroom. In the sodden privacy of the stall, she carefully removed the coral, the conch and the iron from her wrists. She was doing this for her family, she reminded her trembling hands as they wrapped the bracelets in her handkerchief and laid them in the bottom of her bag. She took out a piece of tissue and rubbed at the vermilion in the part of her hair. It was almost impossible to remove all the traces of red from the hairline like this. She did the best she could and re-parted her hair to hide the rest, emerging from the bathroom an almost single woman.

He met her at the station, under the large clock by the ticket counter. They smiled, greeted each other warmly, if a bit awkwardly, and walked to the hotel together. He was a pleasant looking man, short, but from a family of tall men, not too dark, with a thick head of hair. He came from a good family, well respected in his village. His brother owned a business in the town she caught the train into the city from. He had recently started supplying her father-in-law's business. That was how they had met, at the family store. It would have been better if he had been completely unknown to her family, but between her responsibilities at the house and those at the shop, it was impossible for her to get time away. Only in the movies, and perhaps in the city, could one have an affair with a complete stranger. It was not as if she could ask her city dwelling sister to arrange someone for her. The man by her side was a school teacher living and teaching in a village about half an hour's rickshaw ride from the far side of the train tracks. Gossip would find it difficult to travel the near two hours between their houses, changing modes of transportation four times to wag its tongue, but it might be happy to sit at a tea stall near the station mingle. Still, this was the best she could probably do.

He was a good man, for one who was willing to have a relationship with a married woman. A couple months ago, she had convinced her husband to meet him and his brother, the sugar supplier, for a movie in town. The movie had been syrupy sweet, about lovers meeting across class and caste lines, eloping, then resolving their decisions with their families. Afterwards, they sat over tea and sweets, Her husband and his brother talking about their common business interests, leaving her free to investigate this man beside her.

They had both enjoyed the movie.

She did not watch movies in town very frequently, perhaps a few times a year. She enjoyed them in the evening on the TV at home.

He frequented this theater approximately monthly, perhaps a little more.

She used to sew during her time in front of the TV. She had a small tailoring business. She'd given it up years ago, her brother-in-law did not like the noise of the machine over the TV.

His sister also had a small blouse tailoring business. He hoped that his sister would be able to make the investment their father had made in her training pay in her husband's home.

She had given hers up after marriage, when the pressures from the chores at home and the family business left her with little time for private responsibilities.

He understood completely, and admitted that his sister may have to do the same. He spent this early mornings tutoring children from the village, his mornings and afternoons at the schools and his evenings were spent between tasks for his family and helping his brother establish his business. It meant that he had to travel to the city frequently on Saturdays.

She used to tutor children too, when she lived with her mother. Her students were much younger than his. She had never graduated high school. Did he have any family in the city?

No. Did she?

Yes, now. She had grown up in a distant village, but now two of her siblings had established themselves there. No, no one was left with her parents, her siblings had all scattered to different parts of the state. They were a close family though. They still managed to get together several times a year, on one excuse or another.

He came from a small family. It was just the three siblings. His father had grown up elsewhere, moved here after college, when he had gone into business with a friend. Isn't it a pity how the traditional large families have declined over the generations?

Her husband told her the time. If they did not leave now, they would miss the last bus. She bade the company goodnight. It had been a pleasure meeting both men.

Her husband was always polite and pleasant company, with the exception of a few months nearly a year ago, but that was her doing more than his. He was the same tonight. They discussed their business plans made that night, the foreman's mother's health, and their nephew's schooling, before falling into a comfortable silence well before the bus reached their stop. She was glad the man she had just met that night was so close to his family. They seemed to share a taste in movies, and shared some common experiences. He did not look down upon her for her education, in fact he had been very polite, even warm all night. The conversation had been very pleasant. She had married on less.

That he did not have much family in the area offered her some safety. They both had reasons to travel to the city regularly, that would give her some privacy. He would suit her purposes, she decided by the time she had walked the mile home to find her father-in-law waiting up for them by the television. She gave him his nightly medications and helped him with his mosquito net before retiring. All that needed to be done now was to ascertain that she could suit some purpose for this stranger. She lay awake for several hours after her husband had fallen asleep contemplating whether or not she should take steps to obtain that information.

It had been surprisingly easy, she recalled, contemplating in the dingy hotel lobby. She was not a frequenter of hotels, usually staying with friends and family on the few occasions she had to travel. There had been the hotel of her sister's conference, of course, where she babysat, as well as the pilgrimage she had gone on with her mother-in-law, and the trip with her sister and husband to the oceanfront during the holidays a few years ago. Even with this limited experience, she could tell this hotel was dingy. The floor looked like it was perhaps swept daily and mopped with far less frequency, she could see betel juice stains in the corners of the room, and a list of beers, cigarettes and other necessities available for purchase from reception. A cockroach scuttled into a crack underneath the stairs.

Her afternoon's companion was making the arrangements. The hardest part of gauging his interest was figuring out what to say. She considered what women in similar situations said in stories and movies, sifting through the lines for things she could say without destroying her dignity. When she had the scene planned out in her head, she arranged to accompany her husband or brother-in-law into town. That part was easy. It was harder to guess when the supplier's brother would also be there. It took about a month before they coincided. She had started to despair that she would have to start the process over. Eventually they did meet. She saw him sitting at the tea stall across from the rickshaw stand, talking to one of his ex-students. She took a moment to wish him good evening, and found herself fumbling with her words. She had no practice with this. She had not even thought to like anyone before she married. She had been too busy with her parents' farm to bother. Up until recently, she had been too occupied with her family's household and business to need anything else. Was going to lure him to her with her inexperience? If only it was not so crucial that she succeed.

The teacher bought her a cup of tea over her objections. She sat and talked with them while her brother-in-law haggled over glass bottles. The ex-student told her about the beautiful set of atlases his teacher had in his classroom. It was those atlases that had encouraged him to study geography in college. He now worked with a surveying company, traveling all over the state. It was a good job, he was grateful for the inspiration.

She listened politely. She should not be away from her brother-in-law for long, not if she wanted to return again. She finished her drink, and bid her company good evening. She had not had a chance to talk to the teacher as she wished.

He smiled at her. It had been nice to run into her again. He could usually found in town on Wednesdays and Fridays. Should he help her find her brother-in-law?

No, she could manage. She knew which shops he had to visit. She found her brother-in-law with a large crate of bottles, relieved him of the package, and headed for the vegetable stalls, he for the pharmacist.

They reunited for the journey home. Where had she slipped off early in the evening?

She had run into an old client of hers. They had fallen to gossiping. It was an easy lie, her brother-in-law had never been interested in her sewing business.

It had been difficult to convince her father-in-law to let her visit town every ten days. They only needed to go in every two weeks. Why this sudden desire for the urban? She approached her husband with the matter. He did not question her or remark on the oddness of the request. He simply promised to lobby her cause to his father. For the next two months, he took her to town every ten days. It took that long until she worked up the courage to mention to the teacher that she would be visiting the city in a week. He was a keen man, and took the opportunity to suggest meeting at the station for some privacy. His keenness made her uncomfortable.

His eagerness elevated her heart rate now as he indicated that he had the key. She followed him up the stairs. What was she doing with a man so eager to join with a married woman? He was an inspirational teacher who cared for his family, but what security did that grant her? She wished there was another way. She discretely removed the pin at her shoulder securing her sari, and stepped nervously over the threshold.

She was on a train for her sister's house an hour and a half later. They had arranged to meet again before she returned home, this time at a town halfway between the city and the town they got off at. It would mean he would accompany her on the way home. That would have to be endured, she was telling him that she wanted him. Under different circumstances, it would not have been so bad. He was a pleasant man, someone whose company she would ordinarily welcome, excepting the obvious character flaw. She would have to think of a way to end this once she had what she wanted. The earlier she thought that through, the better.

Her niece was delighted to see her. She missed being at school, and told her all about the teachers. She showed off her English and brought out all her school books. When her brother awoke, they brought in the laundry while the boy toddled beside them on the roof and took turns watching him and helping her sister with dinner. Her sister complained about politics at work and gossiped about the neighbors. She listened. For her own part, she talked about her father-in-law's health and a recent argument she had with her sister-in-law, about their neighbor's cow being ill and the prospering fish stock in their pond. She did not tell her about the afternoon's events. Her sister knew her situation, of course. At least, she knew what had instigated this drastic course of action, but she could not bring herself to update her.

Her brother-in-law came home. He asked after her family's health, and talked about recent developments at work. He had been passed up for that promotion, but was thinking of enrolling in night school.

He sat with his daughter's school work, while she and her sister caught up on the doings of the rest of the family. Their remaining sister was applying for the position at the prestigious mission school just outside the city. Her academic career was phenomenal, she was clearly the most successful of all the siblings.

Still, a position at such a good school would make it difficult for her parents to find a good match for her.

Her sister chided her small mindedness.

It was not small minded. She was concerned, that was all.

Her sister reminded her that she was capable of finding a husband for herself.

She wished her the best. It would be good to have her closer to the city, instead of living in the north of the state.

Their youngest brother was with their parents for the college break. He had called two days ago. He found it easier to study for his exams in the quiet of his parents' house.

She was glad that he was taking his exams seriously again. He had not always been to dedicated to his studies.

She fed her niece in front of the television while her sister put the boy to bed. Then she put the girl to sleep and neatened the apartment, giving her sister some time with her husband. Eventually, she joined the adults for dinner.

This was such a comfortable routine. She had been welcome in her sister's household for as long as her sister had a household to call her own. Her brother-in-law was all that one could hope for, he never made any of her siblings feel like they were anywhere other than their own home. She knew where books and clothes and keys lived in this house, what her niece's school bus schedule was, how much of a tab the family had run up at the local grocers. There had been differences over the years, of course, that was true of all families. But the siblings had always been close, she had always been very fond of this sister. They had grown up a large family in a small house. It was impossible not to share everything. A year ago, she could not have imagined ever keeping a secret from this family. Yet, as she mopped the floor where they had eaten, she could not find the courage to say the words. He sister returned from doing dishes, her brother-in-law had hung the mosquito nets. It was time to go to bed.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

In which I need to get a grip

A couple weeks ago, Mathbabe posted some thoughts on survivorship bias that got me thinking about the anecdata in my life.

In case you do not want to look up the Wikipedia article, survivorship bias is a bias introduced into data when a studied population is compared to historical averages, ignoring the fact that the studied population has certain non-average characteristics that cause it to be observed/ in the sample.

It is a sort of selection bias introduced by assuming that the portion of the sample that does not complete the study is randomly distributed, when that is not the case.

I'm not going anywhere with this. I just need to air my thoughts.

  1. I know two African Americans in my field. Someone who knows my circle of colleagues should feel free to correct me. I went to graduate school with one of these scientists. Through a series of confounding and rather stupid events, I had a conversation with him about "growing up black in the US." It turned out that he did not consider himself black, but mixed race. Given the "one drop" policy that is still an unspoken truth in much of the US, I asked him what the difference was. His answer: he did not grow up immersed in black culture. I forget the details, but it involved a small college town, and hanging out with other children of academics. I am not arguing anyone's right to identify racially however he/she chooses. I am simply struck, that of all the African Americans either my partner or I know, the only one who identifies as mixed race is a successful academic.
  2. At one of the women in my field meetings I went to several years back, I found myself sitting next to a post-doc, very insistent on the fact that there was not difference in the treatment of women and men in her field. She was often the only female in her sub-field at conferences, but that was because her field was new, and women had not yet flocked to it. Considering the field as a whole, she thought that women just needed to learn to deal with the crap a bit more. Once we did that, we were just judged on our publication record. Naive as I was at the time, I tried to argue with her on just the arguments that she presented: that she claimed that men needed to be good scientists to succeed, while women needed to be good scientists and pachiderms to succeed. Ignoring all else, wasn't the extra pachidermal requirement itself a sign of inequality? I should have kept my mouth shut. I only succeeded in spoiling my lunch. I do not know if I offered any solace to any of the other attenders. I certainly did nothing to convince my intended audience. It still rankles me on bad days.
  3. For the second time in my career, I recently attended a two part conference where I was the most senior woman for the first part. Moments like this disgust me. This conference also had the added feature that there were no female speakers in either part. That is a first for me. I am immensely grateful to the older gentleman who also pointed out the lack of female speakers. I am saddened by the number of women a pointed out the gender distribution to who did not seem to notice or mind. (To be fair, it is not as if the men I pointed the gender distribution out to really seemed to care either.) I envy the women who can go through something like this and not notice. Life must be easier for them somehow, I imagine. If you do not feel the insults that are thrust at you, consciously or not, you cannot be hurt by them.
  4. Various people close to me are in very shitty situations right now. Compared to them, I live a pampered life. Class differences in my friend set should not surprise me, but it disturbs me greatly when the situation is put before me quite so clearly. They do not have PhDs, they do not have dual income households. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of financial or emotional survival for them. They live in situations that, I am fairly certain, given my emotional and physical shortcomings would leave me crippled or dead. But they survive. Given all the advantages I have in life, I wonder what exactly it is I am doing, pretending that I can speak for women. The circles I surround myself with on a day to day basis are those of such a tiny elite.
For those of you who know my moods: yes, I just submitted a job application.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Eggmus: A world I would love to live in

Epsilon hates french toast. He hates it with the full force of his fickle three year old psyche. Unfortunately, that is what I made for breakfast Saturday morning. 

An hour of dithering and tantrums chase me from the dining room, leaving my partner at the mercy of the ritual meal time maelstorms. No longer outnumbered by adults, Epsilon turns on his father. "You are a bad Daddy."

"I am." My partner replies calmly.

"Other children at nursery have good Daddies."

"How are they good daddies?" This could be interesting.

"They stay at home and the mommies drop the children off to school." All parents learn lessions in not laughing at their children in the face of their ridiculous statements. My partner paid more attention than I did on the day they went over this detail in parent training school. He remains silent long enough for Epsilon to continue "The daddies clean the house. That is why our house is always dirty."

I would love to be a fly on a wall in the inside of my child's brain. I am not. A part of me would love to live in a world where men stayed at home to take care of the family's needs, and were reprimanded for being bad (dare I say, upity) for entering the work force. 

My partner points out that there is a reason that Epsilon's model of the universe looks like a woman's fantasy of reversed inequality. In Epsilon's world, when we are both in town, I work from my partner's office, so we both take him into nursery. If we are both in town, and only one of us takes him into nursery, it means the other person is working from home. This usually implies that some portion of the work breaks are spent cleaning the house. He observes that he comes home to a cleaner house on days that one of his parents stays at home. He observes that most of his friends parents live together most of the time. He observes that usually only the mothers drop his friends off at school. Our smart little modeler and scientist puts together the data at hand and forms a picture of the world.

I do live in a feminist fantasy. Thank you, Epsilon, for pointing this out.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Friday's Female: Courage

"Are you sure you want to finish that bottle of red? You know what they say."

She finished pouring. She had gone out for dinner then drinks with seven other colleagues. Six of them were male. "What? That I will be gang raped?"

The liquor that had urged her colleague to make vague innuendos over her glass now stuttered to find a response to this less vague accusation.  "No! Of course not. I would never mean that." The flush on his face seemed not only to be from the alcohol.

"What do they say?"

"In the part of the world I come from, they say that any woman in a group who finishes a bottle of red will be the next to become pregnant."

"I see." That was a perfectly logical and apt subject to bring up at a social dinner at a conference. "Then tell me, why have you only ever let your wife finish one bottle of red wine?"


I do not know the woman in question. I know the man well. He works down the hall from my partner. His (only) son is in the same room at the university nursery as Epsilon. The above conversation is embellished by me from my partner's recollection of a night of tapas and wine where the group of eight had consumed a horrifying number of bottles of alcohol.

My respect for the unknown woman's quick wittedness is immense. In the time that has passed since I heard this story, my respect for my partner's colleague has plummeted. My opinion of him poisoned, I now see cracks in his persona that may be indications of deeper sexism. We keep our conversations about the kids.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


A city under perpetual construction
that I once related to, erroneously, I am sure,
through my family's memory of partition,
during a rainy summer
forty-nine weeks ago.

I sit with the smokers outside the station,
a black chiffon skirt flutters in the breeze.
I can see the TV tower - shining in the sun-
that stood across the plaza from our hotel.
I know it still. He does not.

Spanish music blares from the cafe--
we shared an intimate early tapas dinner in Alexanderplatz.
I was so proud of him that night.

Tri-colored flags ripple in the wind,
the feathers of my earrings dance in my shadow.
They will not go far, they whisper.

This year has passed with me in stasis,
while he has grown and stretched and carried on.

It is time for me to catch my train.
We are no closer to reunification.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Early in the morning, a male in my bed announced that I was sexypoo. I did not kick him out. I asked him if he meant if nicely, which he did, so I gave him a hug.

Then he called me a sexy peebin. He had not meant that kindly, so we talked about it.

Sex, for Epsilon, right now, is a game played by people with armpit hair. It is a game people can play nicely, or it is a game people can play meanly. When it is played meanly, it is a REALLY bad thing. (Yes, I will get in serious trouble next time he sees one of his friends' mothers who shaves in a sleeveless shirt.) But Epsilon understands playing games nicely and meanly much better than he can understand rape or sexualizing women's bodies or sexual abuse in relationships. He understands armpit hair better than he understands puberty, and it is less vague than "big people" (he's big, why can't he play sex?)

Explaining sex is easy. Explaining sexy is hard. It is different from other bad words he picks up. Four letter words are scattered about our house with undone dishes and unpicked up toys. Fuck and shit are words that you say when you are really unhappy about something, never say them to a person, only to a situation, and not outside the house, as that will upset people-- a long set of rules, but clear. 

Stupid is not a word one says under any circumstance, even about oneself. Rascal is not nice, but a word we don't make a big deal about. After all, Puff the Magic Dragon is a rascal. One only uses that word nicely, not meanly.

We watched Peter Pan a while ago. His daycare had a pirates and mermaids themed week, the movie seemed appropriate. Ujan has started calling people savages as a result. Peter Pan said it all the time, it must be a good word. We had a long sad conversation about once upon a time people in the country we live in called people who look like us savages, and the depravation of liberties that entailed, and the people who died trying to fight that. So far, there has been a 48 hour reprieve in the use of the word in the household. It will come back. We will have another conversation, but he is starting to understand.

Sexy? What do I do with that word? It is not a bad word in its own right. It is even possible that when one of this classmates picked up the origial phrase "you're a sexy girlfriend" somewhere, the child heard it in a non-offensive context. The child probably repeated it, was told that it is not a nice thing to say, misunderstood the adults admonition, and brought it to daycare as a singsung tease. "You're a sexy girlfriend. You're a sexy peebin. You're a sexy dirty sock."

Like a bout of flu, or orange paint in his hair, Epsilon infected my house with it in all innocence. I never thought I would ever allow anyone to call me sexy, but motherhood has changed a lot of things I thought were immutable axioms in my life. Sexy is not the same as sex, even though it sounds like they should be related. How does one explain desire to someone who still thinks it is funny to fondle my breasts? Sexy is not the same thing as pretty, unless one is trying to give a zeroth level approximation of the word to a preschooler. I viscerally recoil from the idea of him calling one of his female class mates sexy, in order to tell them that they are pretty, while I do not have the same reaction at the thought of him saying that to a male. HE is not objectifying the girl, any more than he is racially motivated when he describes a new playmate at school as black, before he manages to mention that the playmate is male, and weeks before he can tell me his name. At the age of three, he is still truly describing the world as he sees it, in the order of what is apparent to him.

Still, sex and race are suh topics of power and abuse in this world, navigating this ground, teaching him to use the word sexy, fills me with unease.

Monday, August 12, 2013


Forget, for the moment, the myths from the exoticised primitive cultures of the new world and the far east or fantasies regarding our collective pagan past before Christianity civilized us all, where wise men refuse to give names because the word holds power. Forget, even, for the moment, the more hierarchical real societies of today, with complex rules for private and public places, faces, means of address, several layers of formality and verb conjugation for the simple, crucial, proper noun avoiding second person singular. Start, for the moment, in the western, modern, white society that most of my readers either hail from or have lived in for part of their training.

Consider the questions-- No humor me while I consider them. When do I use a first name? When do I use a last, or give it up for the one belonging to the man I am not married to? When do I attach a title; Ms? a Dr.? When I am so desperate for approval that I hide behind a title permitted by education or birth? When I am so tired of arguing that I add a few letters to my signature, a nip here, and extension there, to bully my way to the small daily item I need. Implicitly I say, I am more important than you. You cannot argue the point, my name says so. If you do not give this to me, either my well respected colleagues and connections, or my important family may make life a tiny bit uncomfortable for you. 

It is difficult to enjoy Qorn Yorkshire pudding in Grey College's dining room with the Earl looking down on me pityingly for not being rich, white or male.
I am fortunate enough to live in a time and place where I can, with relatively little cost to me and mine, reap the benefits of my family's name and financial status, then shun my community and their values to strike out on my own in my great American quest for individualism. But simply because I live far away from my parents' community  does not mean that I do not reap the benefits and pay the costs their name, and that of my ancestors.

"I think your sister-in-law will have a girl," says the biologist.

"Why do you think that?" asks his lover, the expectant uncle.

"Just from the way it sits," the biologist replies.

"You believe that crap?" I ask my brother.

"Of course I do." He is joking. "Anyway, it will be nice to see a female K--, other than your mother of course."

A response struggles and rises from my larynx to my uvula, where it sprints out my mouth to correct my brother. "His mother is not a K--." After all she is not, for the purposes of observing how the K-- genome will exhibit itself in the absence of a Y chromosome. That is all the biologist was asking. It is a simple question, completely natural, only mildly offensive, and one we all ask when we want to see what a newborn looks like. 

When  the words erupt, I feel ashamed. His mother is a K--. She adopted that name nearly four decades ago, and though her boys' genetics are not credited to the family bearing her maiden name, it is impossible to deny the role she played in carving her children's personalities and success out the marble the K-- name provided her.

Not THE fig tree, but close.
She put down her name and picked up a new one. She is an accomplished, organized, stayed woman. In the chaos and ebullience of my youth, I simply dropped my name on the floor. I hardly noticed. A woman who was not my mother picked it up, dusted it off, and handed it back to me. I had graduated college. Not knowing what to do with myself, I found myself in a foreign city trying to find myself, or understand my parents, or just screw my head on tightly after twenty two years of privilege and no responsibilities beyond my own education. She put my name on the kitchen table, the centerpiece of a room that opened onto a courtyard housing a fig tree, and let me look at it in context. She taught me how to hold it on my tongue, to savor the round deep guttural sound of the second syllable, instead of ignoring it, like a middle child, between the emphatic first and the soft spoken third. This happened in the briefest of moments, during a laughter softened barb aimed at my mistrained tongue unable to dance to the rhythms of the language spoken in the city I was trying to love. I had come to that city to find my identity. I left two years later, knowing my name.

I had given up on the word by then, as one gives up on a childhood friend, as familiar and comfortable as they skin one is born in, who somehow, imperceptibly through the years, did not grow up to be the person one had originally envisioned. If one is from the right family, one graduates high school, goes to college, and gives up on such friends, freeing oneself to make new ones in brand new broad world of the freshman dormitory. It was almost thus between my name and myself. It was a stranger I was inexorably tied to, a part of me I could not rid myself of, but to whom I did not need to give much thought, another sacrifice made to reap the benefits of life in a foreign culture. I did not mind losing it, I thought. I had another name, a private one, less showy, to be sure, but unsullied in its simplicity. I kept it apart from my associates, guarded it against violation from tongues that could not dance.

I have a list of names people call me. They are all approximations of that which my mother, in her attempt to endow me with something special and incorruptable, hung around my neck. My given names range from the mundane common English name to the fanciful: a Xena-esque warrior princess, or an exotic island deep in the Pacific, whose own much distorted name rolls off the Anglo tongue with dreams of garlanded women in grass skirts. The oldest on the list is a string of monosyllabic English nouns strung together by a third grader to help her teacher during roll call. I made a similar list of words to arm my brother for his first day of kindergarten. I keep this list in a shoe box, unpinning the titles given to the name on my birth certificate, laying them carefully in the dark and protecting them from dust in an accessible part of the hall closet. They are earned medals, to be polished and shown around when I have company, each makes a good story over a department tea, worth a titter when there is nothing else to talk about.

The Pacific Islands I imagine are much prettier than any pronunciation of my name.
I learned early to wear my name lightly. It was not until I sat in that kitchen that I learned to respect it. It was not until several years later, that I fully responded to the thrilling sound of those three syllables, when a man who was not my lover pronounced  them properly. In the intervening years, I have struggled with the roles of my two names, the public mutilated one, venturing into the world every day to perform the tasks that need to be done, trying to rebuild a sense of dignity and propriety for herself, and her quiet, shy, protected sister, who had never left home, who had always learned that her place was by the hearth, who is mortified at the possibility that she may be forced to wear a public face. I listen to friends tell me how this concept of two names is not so different, that in far away Thailand, they have a similar custom. I shut the door and tell the private name not to go out today.

I find another who lives with a duality of names. By intention or accident he fell upon a split world, where two circles of his life knew him by different pronouns. It seems so strange to people raised in the west that all parts of our lives, private and public, work and leisure, childhood and adulthood would not be united by one overarching word. In fact, it is the most obvious thing in the world that it should not be so, as natural as taking off one's uniform when coming home from work. I share my duality with him, I revel in the fact that he understands, in spite of the very different pathways along we reached this common state.

I live now in a third country, one that saw neither my parents' nor my own birth. It has a convoluted history with the first of these three. I find books in my parents' language in the library, and women dressed as my aunts and cousins at the bus stop. I visit my brother's lover's parents and relearn that educated, liberal, political upper middle class of this third country still see that first as one that must still be guided; a wayward child of a man who once served the household long and loyally, back in the day when servants were still easy to come by. How strange is it that the old man who watched your shoes as you entered the mosque expects to be tipped, how quaint that he smiled a great toothless smile when you gave him chewing gum instead of change. How different this queer culture is from the civilized practice of tipping the man in the cloak room at the restaurant last night. 

I will raise my son here. I do not fear that his friends will wonder if he lives in a teepee, not only because the lifestyle of the nomadic tribes of the great midwestern plains is not an integral part of childhood culture here. I take comfort in the knowledge that his peers at least know the continent of his grandparent's birth. I realize that he will face a different set of challenges, ones that resonate more closely with my experience being called Aunt Jemima on the school bus, challenges created by a hatred that is born of an over familiarity with a disdained culture. His teachers will not ask him how to pronounce his name. They have seen other names like his, children colored like him pass through their hands every year. None of them ever objected to what this country christened them. They know better. They have done this before.

I watch my son correct me over the mispronunciation of his own complicated name, lovingly hung on his neck by his parents, a jewel encrusted albatross to distinguish him in this new foreign land. The accent is on the penultimate syllable, mom, not the first. Don't you know ANYTHING? I let it go. If I am lucky, history will repeat itself fully.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Friday's Female: Advisor Abuse

I have a friend suffering from a horrible advisor. I cannot write her down. I don't have the words. He is sexist, a quite bit more than the run of the mill sexism, certainly not the worst that I've ever met anyone complain of, but that is not a fair standard to hold an advisor to. That is like saying that your science is not good because it only got the largest ESF grant in the field to date, you have not won the Nobel.

He is sexist. She faces a regular drip of comments from him. She deals. Occasionally she rants in my office. Life goes on. She admires him. She admires his science. It is amazing what lengths people in abusive relationships will go through to survive. Sometimes survival requires admiration.

She wrote me recently to tell me that he is racist as well. Not that there haven't been hints of this over the time that I have known her. Early in our relationship, she gave me a hug of delight because I could pronounce her name correctly; her advisor, apparently, sees no need to try. The other day she told me a story where she sat with her advisor and coauthor and listened to them insult her country. She dealt. Amazingly well. She wrangled an apology from the coauthor in the room, but not one from him. A partial victory, but worth applauding.

I am stunned. Not by her courage. Anyone who has ever faced humiliation and power plays, whether or not of a racist or sexist origin, knows the steel one must have instead of a spine to talk back in the face of it, while it is going on. But that courage is not impossible, and I know my friend well enough to know that these ordeals will, in the end, just be a training ground for a woman who cannot be messed with. I expect no less of her.

No, I am stunned that this type of abuse happens in public. It so rarely does. When was the last time someone you knew and interacted with regularly made a racist or sexist comment to you or action towards you in public? In my case, it has been a decade. I am not talking about the drive by catcalls or shrieks of white power or go home screamed by strangers. Those are easy to say. They will never see me again. They are possibly already drunk. They probably have a team of cronies behind them to back them up. I am talking about the consistent, regular, day to day abuse that we put ourselves at risk to whenever our entire [fill in blank here] depends on one fucked up person. Very few of these people will abuse in public. In most cases, having a witness depletes the situation of complete power they have over the target.

When it is done in public, one of two things are likely going on. Either, the person has completely lost their own sense of scale, enough to misjudge the risk of public backlash, or, the person is completely aware of the company they keep, and know the witnesses think the behavior acceptable. Her advisor is not crazy. He knows the company he keeps. That he can find company at a major university that finds it acceptable for him to pick on a woman just over half his age, that will go the extra step to join him in the act, in 2013, in a country that claims that problems with race are a thing of the past is .... Is what? Astounding? Devastating? Farcical? Enraging?

I cannot write her experience. I have no words. My native tongue has failed me. Even now, the words on the screen before me dance dangerously around the wall I have built to segregate the memories of people in my life who live with far more intensity and frequency of abuse than this instance I have no words for. I have no words for them either. I acknowledge my privilege, beg their forgiveness, and move on. It is hard to write about abuse without feeling the need to pull out the most extreme cases. Compassion and understanding are such scarce resources. It is hard to survive it and not compare your own story with others', sometimes for comfort and commiseration, sometimes for a pissing contest of pain. This is not a pissing contest. This is about one woman.

I will show my friend this post, if only to tell her I am thinking of her. Any bits of wisdom or commiseration you may have for her, I am sure will go appreciated.  

Thursday, August 8, 2013


There is a curious camaraderie of conferences,
Coffee, cake, conversation--
Colombian, Danish, Deutsche.

I hate when someone comments
on the rich diversity of an event.
I know they can count their diversity
on the fingers of one hand.
I am always one of those fingers.

In the kitchen of a shared hotel suite,
We sit over coffee and eggs
Taking about our parents, our boyfriends, our kids - real or imagined.
We are three shades of brown
With three mother tongues
From three different continents
Bound together on a fourth
by circumstance, laughter, and concern over how our talks were received.
We are the X-Y diversity of this meeting.
Together, we make half a hand.

I hold up three fingers.
I flip them upside down.
We or Me.
It is a subtle change.
It is a phenomenal shift.


I am exotic, by color and culture --
Always passing, a hair's breadth from belonging.
Twice exiled, I spend afternoons on the balcony with nomads.
The Iranian pontificates on the duties of political exiles to their home countries.
Should he go back? Should my grandfather have left?
The Lebanese discusses the dominion of depression on a thesis,
And the anxiety of an arranged marriage.
The Romanian speaks to me in Spanish -- allowing me to answer in English.
Like me, he has no identification barring his passport.

I have lost my country.
I have put aside my child.
This is all the community I have left.
It is a strange solace for my solitude.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

I disappeared several months ago, it would seem. The stress of living apart for most of the spring term got to be too much on myself and my family, and I stopped writing, at least publicly. So what have I done these last few months?
Hide it in a hiding place where no one ever goes
Put it in the pantry with your cupcakes.
I started writing privately, my partner and I took a series of steps that felt logical at the time, but have had deep repercussions on our relationship now, we both became a little lonelier, I finished my term in University F, Epsilon is supremely happy to have me living at home with him.
It's a little secret, just the Robinson's affair
Most of all you hide it from the kids.
One of the problem with four year olds is that they are very good at reading their parents. They have little else to do. So when one or both of us start acting strangely, he notices. Not that we believe in hiding anything from our child, that feels too much like lying. Just pointing out that it is not as easy to do as our parents possibly made it seem. Perhaps it becomes easier when the child is older, and less of his life revolves around our facial expressions.
Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes
Moving back to His Town, my partner and I have both realized how isolated we are. Living apart for extended periods has always had a toll on our relationship. It is hard to recalibrate with each other, especially when one or both of us are suffering from a bout of depression induced by the associated stresses.

It is not that we do not have friends. We have friends scattered across three continents. Some of them even respond to e-mails. Most of them, we manage to keep in touch with.  I know at one point, I had developed a community at this blog.  And then the D word got in the way, and I fell silent. I have no idea how much of that community I still have. If you have followed me for a while and are still reading this, let me know. I am curious.

I still find the community building aspect of blogs mystifying. A blog is a very intense view on one or two aspects of a writer's life, more personal, sometimes, than the casual reader has any right to know; personal enough that many posts that have generated encouraging comments from readers, when sent to certain friends, dumbfound with the intense nature of the communication. Perhaps I need better friends. Perhaps, like Aadam Aziz, in Midnight's Children, it is easier to deal with a person piecemeal, through a round hole cut in a white sheet.

Whatever the case may be, I think I need to stop writing without an audience. So I return to this forum. What will be different? The visual format is, for a start. At least at first, the next few entries will be a bit raw. A lot has happened these past few months that needs airing. Some of it academic. Some of it not. Nothing salacious. I will still attempt to keep this from being a diary. In the short term, there will be more poetry. I may eventually introduce a few pieces of prose fiction, though with a clear warning. I suspect this space will become less about academia, and more about gender and emmigration, but that is pure speculation at this point.