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As I launch into the writing of my third and final term paper of the Høst 2014 semester, it occurs to me that I never did share my reading lists with you, my readers, many of whom like lists of books almost as you enjoy the actual reading of the books themselves. I'm like that, too. Reviewing a soundly curated book list is like taking an imagination break and walking the stacks of a library of the mind. So, I thought I'd post a couple of the lists here for your pleasure/edification. (Course descriptions have been cribbed from the UiO website.)

Women Writing: Feminist Fiction in English (ENG 4363)

This is a course in English-language feminist fiction from the nineteenth and/or twentieth century. Students will study a selection of novels and/or short stories that focus on women's lives and reflect on what it means to be a woman and a feminist from various sexual, racial, class, and national perspectives. The course will consider the development and thematics of feminist fiction and its contribution to the development of new narrative techniques.

  • Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)
  • Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)
  • Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
  • Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)
  • Sarah Hall, Daughters of the North (2007)
  • Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox (2011)
  • Joyce Carol Oates, 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?' (1966) (available online)

This was my favorite reading list of the semester, and not because I'm a raging feminist, either. I simple responded well to the variety of voices. Every book was unique and uniquely suited to the aspect of Women's Writing we discussed that week. Mr. Fox was, far and away, the strangest, but being the most contemporary, that didn't surprise me. A Room of One's Own was the book I couldn't believe I hadn't encountered prior to this course (having graduated with my B.A. in English from UC Davis in 2006 and my M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Lesley University in 2012). And Wide Sargasso Sea is the book I'm not recommending to people who tell me their favorite classic was Jane Eyre

Time & Money in the American Novel (ENG 4416)

Time and money are two of the main forces that shape human ends.  Our conception of time has a profound impact on how we understand ourselves, and on how we draw the boundary between the possible and the unreasonable.  In a similar fashion, our collective understanding of money exerts a sharp influence on how we order our personal and communal lives.  This course will examine these two forces through the lens of literature. It will use the reading and analysis of a select group of American novels as a way of interrogating the links between time, money, and literature.

In this course, we will examine the ways in which novels work to naturalize or challenge social conceptions of time and money.  More importantly, we will consider all the ways in which the reading of novels helps us reflect on the nature of time and money, and we will think about the way these reflections are connected to issues of race, sexuality, subjectivity, and community.

  • Frank Norris, The Octopus
  • W.E.B. Du Bois, The Quest of the Silver Fleece
  • James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
  • Nella Larsen, Passing
  • James T. Farrell, Judgment Day
  • Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis
  • Richard Powers, Gain

Honestly, I think this course needs to be renamed. Time, Money & Race in the American Novel would have been spot on. These were challenging texts, all. The Octopus was exceedingly long, but beautiful, and it was a perfect fit for the class. The Quest of the Silver Fleece is the book that will stick with me longest, I think, and I enjoyed writing my final paper on it. Here I'll admit that I did not read Judgment Day. I was in California for the class discussion and had already selected a different text as my qualifying essay topic, so I gave myself a break. And between the surreal Cosmopolis and the enigmatic Gain, I'd have to say that this was the most eclectic class reading list I've ever encountered.

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Suffice it to say that there's a lot of garbage out there on the interwebs. It's tough to sift through the majority of it to find the relevant, articulate, credible stuff. Social Media is sometimes the worst way to do it. Then again, social media guarantees that I--deep in my liberal bubble lined with back issues of The New Yorker--won't miss out on at least a few bits of priceless crap. Like this one: THE SEXODUS, PART 1: THE MEN GIVING UP ON WOMEN AND CHECKING OUT OF SOCIETY. Please don't click on it. You don't need to read it. Chances are it will offend you, as it offended me, and as it would offend anyone who believes that the ultimate goals of humanity should be love, respect, intelligence, and dignity for all. 

For those who aren't aware of it, there's a movement that has begun to swell. It's a group, mostly men, who believe that the American way of life has been bastardized by the Feminists, and that the rights of men have been severely trampled by the advancement of women over the last century. These men rally. They march. They rant.

It looks, in fact, a lot like the very beginnings of the Feminist movement must have looked so long ago. Whiny and irrelevant. And we all know what happened there, so maybe we'd better keep an eye on these guys.

Or not. Because there actually is no deep Feminist plot to keep men down and put women in all the high places.

Which is one of the major differences between the Feminist movement and the, shall we say, Masculinist movement. When Feminists call for "women's rights," they're talking about rights which previously have been granted to men, but not women in equal measure. When Masculinists call for "men's rights," they're talking about rights which used to be theirs exclusively, and have been allegedly usurped by women. So, these are rights that the men want back. 

What rights are the Masculinists talking about? For starters: American education has, allegedly, been so twisted by the Feminist "establishment," with the focus placed entirely and obsessively on the needs of girls, that boys have stopped being accommodated at all. This has, according to the Masculinists, led to a decline in male literacy, male high school completion, and male college attendance/degree acquisition. Teaching has been Feminized, and the poor little boys are suffering.

I'll grant you that the decline of male educational achievement is no myth, but the only way you can blame that decline on Feminists is if you simultaneously admit that women have never been the weaker sex... simply the dormant one. If you believe what these Masculinists are preaching, the only logical conclusion is that, the second women stood up to fight on fairer ground, men sat down. Which is ridiculous. 

Unfortunately, Masculinist propaganda like this Sexodus piece manages to reach its intended audience: men who aren't part of that movement, but who due to personal circumstances and/or upbringing, believe they are entitled to more than they have actually earned, and are looking for someone to blame. These guys grew up watching Disney's Cinderella, too. But where the girls were being negatively saturated with the image of a helpless, stoic, beautiful girl who is rescued from her plight by a nameless prince... the boys were being negatively saturated by the image of a nameless prince whose only task was to ride up on the horse with a glass slipper to have the beautiful, silent girl throw herself into his arms. Now, we're reaping the consequences.

I love the marriage Jonathan and I have built. And there may be people out there who are surprised to learn that our relationship includes almost zero power struggle. We split the tasks required of us based on personal prerogative and aptitude. It could be that our conservative Christian upbringing has positioned us to maintain some kind of modern relationship hybrid in the liberal setting to which we've moved ourselves--including the best parts of love, sex, monogamy, fidelity, partnership, respect, and equality. Or not. Maybe it's all luck. But I'm writing this piece while barefoot, pregnant, and in the midst of sending my husband off to the office with a kiss... and I'm still a Feminist. And so is he.

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Either way, for this child, I was already wishing for a warm heart, a curious nature, a quick wit, a thirst for adventure, and enough courage and empathy to stand up for himself/herself, as well as for others. I was already wishing for a love of books, a best friend, an independent spirit. None of these things changed when the ultrasound tech made the call.

"You're having a girl."

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There was never any question. I wanted to know the sex of our child, and I wanted to know it long before that final, stressful, painful, desperate, overwhelming, emotional day of my pregnancy. It was a decision that ran much deeper than a simple "because I can", and I've wondered about it a lot in the last few weeks. Why did I care? Why did I need to know?

It's true that boys and girls are different, but it's more true that children are all different from one another. The boy/girl dichotomy is a spectrum like anything else. I've seen it. I've lived it. 

The pulsing kernel at the center of my being is striped both pink and blue. My energy at different points in my life has been both masculine and feminine. I suspect this is true for most people, but the way our society structures things in terms of gender norms bullies us into selecting a side based on our biologically-determined sexual apparatus. This is the way sensitive, nurturing boys get pegged as sissies, and the way assertive, confident girls get called bossy.

That's not a view of the world I want to perpetuate. And after careful consideration, I can't imagine a single lesson which would be appropriate for me to teach this girl as I nurture her toward womanhood but would be inappropriate for me to teach to a boy on his way to being a man.

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Dot

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"There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind." ― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Dorothy Ann Pancoast (nee Bercher) was born in Cicero, Illinois in November of 1923. Her mother called her Dots. Cicero was a small town, and most people knew the Berchers because Dot's Uncle Frank was the mailman. The families in Dot's neighborhood grew their own vegetables and raised chickens, geese, ducks, and goats in their backyards. As a child growing up during the Great Depression, Dot was more aware of her family's circumstances than they realized. She knew not to ask for toys or treats or store-bought clothes. So long as there was food on the table, she knew her family was okay, better off than many others. 

At night, Dot would lean on the window sill and stare out at the fluttering softness of two huge maple trees in her front yard, dreaming about becoming a beautiful woman. Later she would claim she never became beautiful, but determined quickly that she would be a very interesting old lady instead. I think she accomplished both.

In January of 1949, Dot graduated with a Bachelor of Science, cum laude from the University of Illinois.

My grandmother's college degree definitely set her apart. According to this study, there were only 530,000 American women enrolled in college in 1947. Less than 15% of the girls who graduated from high school went on to university at all. Dot was a trendsetter, as it turned out. Over the next 40 years, the number of women in college increased to 7.1 million (1988). Today, women vastly outnumber men in both their pursuit of higher education and the number of degrees and graduate degrees awarded every year.

I love seeing these photos of my grandma as a young woman, leaning over her typewriter or laughing with classmates, showing off her enviable calves. These are years we have in common, and our passions of the age are shared, as well. One of my most treasured possessions is an "English Romantic Poets" textbook which belonged to Dots at U of I. Her pencil-notes in the margins are so similar to my own. (She was fascinated by the young age of Keats when he was writing his most important works. She admired Wordsworth's contribution to the canon.) Before my grandmother was a wife or mother, she was a curious, intelligent, ambitious young woman with dreams of world travel and a career.

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In high school, I had a poster taped up in my bedroom that read:

You run like a girl. You hit like a girl. You throw like a girl. You serve 60 mph in their face like a girl.

Which, I think, is why I kicked so much ass.

But this is not to say I didn't understand that "like a girl" was meant to be an insult. As a child, one of my favorite movies was The Sandlot, a film about a troop of best buddies playing sandlot baseball over one amazing childhood summer. In a key scene, the sandlot players are confronted by a bike-riding crew of Little Leaguers, and the two sets of eleven-year-old males trade insults. They say some pretty sick, plausibly child-imagined stuff. But the crescendo, hollered by Ham--the heavy, freckled catcher--is, of course: "You play ball like a girl!" Someone snort-laughs.

The boys shoot one another panicked looks. As though, with this, Ham might have gone a bit too far.

It never got to me. Because I was one scrappy chick. I ran faster, hit harder, threw longer than any boy in my neighborhood. When I watched The Sandlot, I was Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez, not his little sister. Not the main character, Scotty Smalls, who can't catch a baseball to save his own life. Sure, when my hormones began sparking, I developed a crush on Benny, but in my daydreams, I never sat in the bleachers to cheer him on. I was on the field, too.


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You're either a feminist or you're not; and if you're not, I have no time for you. Today is too important to spend even a moment bickering about the definition of the word, or whether my desire for equal position, equal expectation, equal opportunity, equal pay, equal protection, and equal value in this world might make you and the rest of the non-feminists uncomfortable. You either believe your daughter is worth the same as your son, and can accomplish all the same things, and deserves the same size piece of the world, or you don't. And if you don't, I have no time for you. Your time is over. This is 2014, and we're sick of being statistics, sick of suffering the status quo. You think I'm exaggerating the problem? I'm not. Residual prejudice against our gender affects all women. The threat of violence affects all women. Yes all women.

Because a woman walking home alone at night knows how to carry her keys like a weapon.

Because women make up more than 50% of the US population, but only 20% of the Senate and only 18% of the House.

Because I minimize the time I was sexually assaulted, justifying that there was no penetration or skin-on-skin contact.

Because when you hear the words doctor or lawyer or dentist or cop, you're more likely to think "he" than "she".

Because a gentleman walks a lady home. This isn't untrue, just sad because it's necessary.

Because Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are taught far more than Anne of Green Gables in public schools.

Because microaggressions add up.

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My score is a 9. I put my cold feet on my husband's legs at night to warm them. I never dress for breakfast, nor do I personally put my children to bed. I can't play a musical instrument, and I've never darned a sock in my life. Silly isn't it? But in 1930, these shortcomings would have made me an unequivocal failure as a wife, at least according to Dr. George W. Crane.

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Dr. Crane wanted to know what made a good wife good. He interviewed 600 husbands, asking, "What does your wife do that annoys you?" He then took the 50 most common complaints and created a quiz for couples--conceivably to help improve their marriages. Today, the list is dated to the point of hilarity. Trying to apply the quiz to my modern day marriage is a hoot.

I mean, on one hand, the seams of my hose are never crooked (merit). On the other hand, I don't wear hose (demerit). I run around bare-legged. Bare-footed, in fact, and my visible toenails are almost always some shade of red (demerit). 

On one hand, I don't not like children (merit). On the other hand, I have elected not to have children, something which wasn't even contemplated by Dr. Crane, because... duh (demerit).

On one hand, I do manage to keep my house neat and tidy (merit). On the other hand, my personal definition of both neat and tidy are likely different from those of good wives in the 1930s. Ask my dust bunnies; I'm sure they'll back me up on that (demerit).

The real bummer is that neither my prowess as a conversationalist (merit), nor my willingness to let Jonathan sleep late on Sundays (merit) outweigh the ten points I lose for not taking my children to Sunday school (demerit). Shoot. 

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Go ahead and call me bossy. I've heard it my whole life.

"Audrey, quit bossing your brothers."

"Audrey is a bright child, but she's bossy in the classroom."

As Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out in the last few months, the word bossy is aimed almost exclusively at girls and women, and it always has a negative connotation. Where a boy shouting orders to a passel of kids on a playground is commended for his leadership skills, a girl is pulled aside and told that what she's doing is wrong.

"Nobody will want to play with you if you're too bossy."

You should have seen me. I owned the playground and everyone in it (who would listen to me, and there were certainly those who didn't). At school or at home, I was the one who invented the games, made the rules, refereed, and facilitated play. Not that any of this lingo was a part of my vocabulary at the time. It all fell under the purview of bossy, which should have been the purview of leadership, but nobody thought to vocalize that difference until more recently.

In my neighborhood, I was the sole girl among about a dozen boys, all my age and younger. And I called the shots.

"Today we're playing cops and robbers. Cops get bikes. Robbers get a ten second head start. The light pole in the little field is home base. Go!"

Bottom line: there was a T-shaped parking lot off of Joaquin Murieta Boulevard in Newark, California where, if you wanted to play a game outside, you had to play my game. So, we played. I bossed the hell out of those boys, and I'm sure it bothered them, but the games never stopped. It was endless hours of Cops-n-Robbers, Cowboys-n-Indians, football, whiffle ball, basketball, swimming, bike riding, kickball, four-square, Hide-n-Seek. We played tackle football, and it took three of them to bring me down and push my face into the turf. Even when they didn't like me, they loved me.

To those who were in a position of oversight, it was plain that, if little Audrey were added to the equation of a classroom exercise, for example, there were few other kids whose personalities would stand a chance against mine. Our fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Busselen, used to ask us to divide into groups of four and dole out responsibilities: Leader, Time Keeper, Scribe, and Presenter. I was born with a hatred of group projects, mostly because I liked doing well in school and didn't trust the other kids to do what needed to be done in order to get an A. Unfortunately for me, fifth grade isn't one giant aptitude test for sixth grade, the way we're led to believe it is at the time. Rather, fifth grade is about preparing all children with the skills they'll need to, for example, cooperate with other people for the rest of their lives. To eleven-year-old me, cooperation only seemed necessary for more subservient types. That's why I was so torn between the roles of Leader and Presenter when these group sessions arose. I wanted to run the show, but I also wanted to be the face of the group when it came time to give the report.

Here I should point out two things: 1) Bossy girls aren't dumb. We know that by snatching the most important roles for ourselves and directing the action thereafter, we're also putting the burden of responsibility for the grade on our own small shoulders, and 2) most other eleven-year-olds are happy to cede that responsibility without a fight.

It took Mrs. Busselen a few weeks of group projects to realize that I was signing up for the position of Presenter, allowing someone else to put his/her name in the Leader spot, and then I was playing the role of de facto Leader anyway. Her answer was to forbid me to do any more presenting.

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Maybe it's because I'm a writer, but I love it when life looks, smells, tastes, sounds, or feels like fiction. When I stumble upon something (or someone) so perfectly proportioned, so quizzical and memorable, that it couldn't be coincidence. Or fate. Or chance. Or anything true. No. When the hair rises on the back of my neck due to the poetry of a place, a name, or even a set of meteorological elements, it's because, had I found the same stuff between the pages of a book, I would be in awe of the craft of it. The intention of a creator. At random, these perfections in an imperfect world make me look up and say thank you.

I'm not making any sense, huh? Here's an example:

Yesterday, I was doing some research. My serendipitous journey began with an essay titled The Lives of Girls and Women: The Writing of Alice Munro. This essay, originally published by The Center for Fiction had been reprinted by the VIDA blog. It caught my eye because Alice Munro won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, and while I have read and enjoyed one of her short story collections (Runaway), I'm curious to read more from and about this literary heavyweight. 

The essay entertained and educated, as good essays are supposed to do. It also forced me to recalibrate my own thinking in a matter of just a few sentences:

"[Munro] is making a political point, one that's radical because it's so enormous and so unsettling. The point is that the lives of girls and women, even of those who lead narrow and constricted lives, those who wield no influence, who have a limited experience in the world, are just as significant and important as the lives of boys and men, those who take drugs, ride across the border, drift down the river or hunt whales."

This recalibration is what prompted me to look up the essay's author, Roxana Robinson. She's a successful novelist, and her most recent book, Sparta, is about a young American veteran returning from war in the Middle East. She is also the author of a Georgia O'Keefe biography. All this made me want to contact Ms. Robinson to request an interview with her for The Postmasters Podcast. Unfortunately, she didn't have any personal contact information listed on her website. What she did have was a small regiment of people set up between herself and me. A publicist, an agent, and someone who coordinates speaking events. I decided the publicist was most relevant to my goal, and that's when the magic happened.

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It's so easy. Too easy. 

A man sins, breaks his vows, lies, gets caught, denies it all, gets confronted, confesses, apologizes, begs for forgiveness... and we judge him. Disgusting. Unworthy of the public trust. And his wife holds his hand. Forgives. Steps with him back out of the spotlight. Helps him repair his marriage. And his image. He stands up again, calls for attention, swears he's changed, improved. Credits his wife for her deep understanding, patience, mercy, and love. Nowadays, this is enough for the public to grant him that second chance we believe everyone deserves. 

Then the man sins again.

Because, as a very wise friend of mine has said, "People can change; they just can't change a whole helluva lot."

That's not the easy part, though. It's human nature, sure. This is how we fail. Over and over and at our own weakest point. We recognize the pattern. It's predictable, but no, the failing part isn't easy.

What happens next is the breeze.

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Moving to Europe, I expected some downsizing. The average private vehicle size, for instance, is far more compact here than in the U.S. When we see big trucks on the road, they are a novelty. We take notice and assume a wealthy American decided he couldn't transfer to the Norwegian branch of his oil company without his trusty Dodge. Cars here are just smaller. Ditto city apartments, meal portions, playgrounds, and storage spaces of all kinds. 

This last is best demonstrated by the average size of refrigerators in apartments across Oslo.

On the left, you can see our kitchen the week I moved in, back in April 2011. The poor, little guy had been retrieved from the bowels of our building's basement by our landlord. Who knows how long he'd been decommissioned before that. To say we've crammed him full of food is something of an understatement. As a car-free couple, the grocery haul must be restricted to what we can fit into a backpack and reusable bags. Even then, if both of us went to the market, we were able to bring back enough food to make that tiny fridge bulge at its aging seams. There isn't enough room to hold all (or even most!) of the beer cans Jonathan's friends bring over on game nights, either.

Plastic drawers were cracked. The door bleated in protest each time we swung it open. The freezer wouldn't close all the way without effort. The temperature inside the fridge swung wildly from just cold enough to keep the milk good to so cold I couldn't pour soda past the iceberg that had formed within the bottle.

And then last week, as we sat in the living room minding our own business, Jonathan and I heard an enormous crack! One of the glass shelves had split right down the middle. And there was almost nothing on this shelf, so we knew it wasn't our fault. Little Fridgy had simply given up.

I would have felt sentimental about the whole thing had our landlord not acted so quickly to replace it. I worried about having enough time to say goodbye... and then the new hunk showed up. Gleaming. A foot taller, inches deeper. With baskets that could accommodate frozen pizzas. With shelves in the door that could hold soda bottles... get this... standing up!

I stripped Little Fridgy of his magnets and sent him on his way. Because magnets, in my world, are the way I show love to my kitchen appliance. And it was time to magnetize the new guy. Tenderly. One bit of memory at a time.

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My running shoes are neon pink.

This morning, I laced them up and stepped onto the treadmill at my gym, just as I have many mornings in the last few weeks. And I ran.

I ran toward the glossy faces of the broadcasters on CNN and the BBC as they told the story. Two bombs exploded in quick succession near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, yesterday. At least three are dead. At least 144 are injured. Critical injuries include amputated limbs. Among the fatalities is an eight-year-old boy from Dorchester. 

My feet thumped and thumped and thumped on the spinning road of the treadmill. I was going nowhere. And the newsmen and newswomen repeated the little we know, and all that we don't know, over and over. 

Yesterday, I was watching the live stream of the Boston Marathon as the elite runners churned through the miles between the halfway point and the finish. I was watching as Yolanda Beatriz Caballero Pérez of Columbia pulled ahead of the women's lead pack by more than thirty seconds. 

A year older than me, Caballero looked strong and fluid, pumping along at a blistering pace (at Mile 12, her split was 5:26). The announcers ran through the details of Caballero's life as she ran straight toward the camera. Last year, she lost her husband of five years to a stroke. He'd been her best friend, her true love, and her running coach, taking her from a daily jogger to a marathon champion. Last year, she placed 8th at the Boston Marathon and earned a selection for the Summer 2012 Olympic Games.

After a couple more miles, I watched as Caballero was overtaken by Portugal's Ana Dulce Felix, her long, blond ponytail swishing in time with her stride.

Already, I was looking forward to my next day's workout, inspired by these incredible lady athletes who make it clear what the human body is capable of.

Once the elites had crossed the finish line, I stopped checking the Boston Marathon Twitter feed. We had a birthday to celebrate. While thousands of people continued to run from Hopkinton to Boston, I sang Happy Birthday to Jonathan and carried his angel food cake into the living room. The candles wavered. He made a wish and blew them out.

Just about then, there was blood in the streets of Boston.

President Obama has warned against jumping to conclusions, but promises that whomever is responsible, be it an individual or a group, they will feel "the full weight" of justice. 

Detonated for maximum carnage, the "crude devices" placed among the crowds at the finish were timed to coincide with the moment that the most runners would be crossing the finish or arriving in the last miles. Thus, we are reminded of the evil which human beings are also capable of.

Could there be anything more sadistic than cutting off a runner at the knees?

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Which black hole has Audrey fallen down today, you ask? Well, I'll be happy to share. 

This video clip is one of dozens which has been posted by a Baptist preacher out of Tempe, Arizona in the last few years. This guy is a NUT JOB. Unfortunately, he's handsome (Jack from Lost, anyone?), affable, articulate, has ample proof of his personal virility (seven kids), and enjoys wearing a suit and tie. I say unfortunately because all of these things make him prime preacher material, whether or not he has any real handle on the Truth. 

Today alone, I've watched him preach on the role of women (surprise, he doesn't like Feminists), gender (he thinks women shouldn't wear pants), and our President (Barack Obama is the devil... "and get the hell out of my church if you don't want to hear it!"). 

In the clip I've posted, Pastor Steve Anderson holds forth on the "righteous government" which at least one of the original thirteen colonies had in place back in 1639. This government did away with jolly old religiously-persecutorial England's rule of law which included a whopping 150 crimes which were punishable by death. Whew. Because killing someone who forged a check is just dotty! And then the New Haveners in the Connecticut colony instated the Hebrew rule of law which had a much more reasonable list of 11 crimes punishable by death. 

You're wondering how this is better than the old British standard the colonists escaped, aren't you? Good news for check forgers: they just get time in the stocks. But the new and improved list includes the following crimes: 

  1. Murder
  2. Treason
  3. Perjury against the life of another
  4. Kidnapping
  5. Beastiality
  6. Sodomy ("Which is homosexuality... being GAY!" Wait for the jazz hands. Seriously excellent.)
  7. Adultery
  8. Blasphemy in the highest degree
  9. Idolatry
  10. Witchcraft
  11. Rebellion against parents

Now, I'm not going to get into a debate with anyone about capital punishment. At least not here. So, why post this? 

Because it frightens me and I want to call it out of the darkness by name.

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Before Willa Cather died in 1947, she specifically requested that none of her personal correspondence ever be published or even quoted from. Executors of her estate have adhered to that personal request ever since. Until now. Roughly 500 of Cather's estimated 3,000 letters will be published shortly, and are set to answer long-time questions about Cather's life, including her sexuality and her literary relationships. I'm fascinated, but conflicted.

Reading the personal correspondence of writers I admire is always a treat. It's a raw look at their personalities and belief systems. It's a chance to see something closer to a first draft. Without editors or publishers or even an audience to worry about, how does Hemingway think? How does O'Connor express her emotions? To say nothing of revelations about characters and stories limited to the public by the words The End. Fans want to know whether somewhere, deep in the gray matter, their favorites live on.

But what of privacy? 

This blog and the girl behind it are part of an exhibitionist culture which has only grown over the last decade, fueled by Facebook and Twitter. 

Today, people take photos of their breakfasts and post them for the world to see. Eggs and bacon frying in a pan look like eggs and bacon frying in a pan. But one hit with the Instagram stick, and you've got yourself something closer to art. Breakfasts and lunches and dinners and midnight snacks clog the arteries of the internet. 

Then there are my personal favorites: Status updates and photos of failed attempts at potty training.

I unfollowed my favorite professional athlete the other day because her younger son didn't make it to his potty on time, and all 126,000 followers got to see the result. We're talking number two. When I peruse my news feed, I don't want to hear about (or see!) other people's adventures with excrement. Either from their animals or their little children. Unlike.

But then again... 

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"It is a woman's job to write about the wild."

When I take notes at writing lectures and seminars, I have a system. There are concepts I list, gleaned from the speakers' talking points. There are snippets of dialogue, summaries of observations. If they recommend books, I drop an asterisk. If they recommend authors, I superscript the line with an A. If they say something vital to the rest of my life, as an author and a woman and a human, I make sure to write it down exactly as they spoke it, clutched between quotation marks. Underlined, if it's something I never want to forget. 

This weekend, I found myself underlining lots of true quotes, and the best ones came from Pam Houston.

Pam has been my favorite author for many years. One of her fellow professors at UC Davis suggested Cowboys Are My Weakness to me just before I graduated, to pique my creativity. Pam's first book is a dazzling collection of short stories. And when I say dazzling, I mean it more in the sense of sunlight on river rapids than of diamonds. Reading Pam is about excitement, adventure, and the rugged realities of the wild (and of human relationships). Though Pam has long taught Creative Writing at Davis, I never took the opportunity to meet her. Starstruck, I suppose.

I have been able to admire her from afar, though. I read her books as they come out, eagerly, expectantly. When she's featured in a new interview or posts an essay somewhere, I track it down and eat it up. I follow her on both Facebook and Twitter. We've even corresponded via social media a couple of times! But at this year's AWP conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) in Boston last week, I got a chance to shake her hand!

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Are you Pro-Life or Pro-Choice? 

It's a stand which American society demands its participants take. This could have something to do with the rampant rise of ferociously conservative Christians in the Tea Party. Or it could be the natural aftermath of a still-raw wound since the strident political progress Feminists made in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Probably both. But the result is that everyone, even those technically untouched by the debate, must pick a side, and there is no secret option C.

As a Christian, I am familiar with this fight. There was a time when I gave Pro-Life speeches, debated Roe vs. Wade on the side of Wade. I manipulated statistics so they sounded as bad as possible. I played on sympathy and guilt. I used the famous photo of a doctor's finger being grabbed by the infinitesimal hand of a 21-week-old baby still in utero. Yes, I knew all the tactics cold. 

I was sixteen. As far as I knew, none of my friends or acquaintances had had an abortion. The three girls I knew who got pregnant in high school all opted to have and keep their children. More than that, I knew it was a choice I'd never have to make myself. I was committed to remaining sexually abstinent until marriage. This was a decision I made before converting to Christianity. I was influenced by my parents, who instilled in me a huge amount of self-respect when I was very young. Later, when the Church was vying for its young people to make purity promises to the Lord, I was a prime candidate to preach that one from the rooftops.

It was easy to be Pro-Life. 

Then life happened.

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Dear Mr. President,

I voted for you.

Home. My husband and I moved to Norway from the United States for adventure, opportunity and the chance to try something new. We stay because, given our new perspective, it is difficult for us to believe that moving "home" would be in our best interest. Norway is consistently listed as one of the "happiest" and "best" places to live in the world. This is due to the country's high standard of living, access to higher education, national wealth, cleanliness, and independence. Children are healthier, better educated, and safer. We pay high taxes, but in return we receive tremendous benefits. Watching the vitriol of the last election from afar, I was ashamed. All that fighting, all those hard lines, all those promises, all that MONEY... and in return, what? I can't say Norway is a better country than the United States, but nor can I say that the U.S. is the best country in the world. And wouldn't you want to live and raise your family in the best country in the world? Please do what you can to make me want to come home.

Signed,

Audrey Camp from Oslo, Norway

Four years ago, I was as idealistic as any other 25-year-old. Well, that doesn't mean much. Kids today become so jaded so quickly. Maybe I'll say it this way... Four years ago I was as idealistic as young Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, just before he ascended to the Presidency. The man wanted to bridge gaps, soothe the rancor of Washington, and accomplish lots of important stuff. In 2008, I liked his message, but I didn't vote for him. I believed he was too young and inexperienced to make headway in our white-haired White House, let alone the big, bad world of international relations. He won without my vote. And almost immediately, I was thrilled about that. Even in the face of a GOP machine intent on making him, young Barack Obama, a Democrat, fail in four years, whether or not that hurt our country, the man himself strove to meet his own ideals. Four years later, he earned my vote with guts, humility, and the overall optimism and decency of his party's platform.

I'm no longer a shiny-cheeked idealist, but neither, I'd guess, is President Obama. Yet, he seems to remain optimistic.

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I write in the margins and on the blank pages of books authored by other writers. It's a habit. When I happen upon those scribblings later, it's always a treat. The following is an essay I penned on a trip to Northern Italy in 2009. All summer long I'd been following the Green Revolution in Iran. I'd seen the blood pool in the street beneath the body of Neda Agha-Soltan after she was gunned down during a protest in June. Her death scarred me. I wanted to know about the lives of other young women in Iran. To that end, I picked up Dr. Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran to read on our vacation...

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I am seated on a bench in the northern Italian mountains. There is a white church steeple and a brass weather vane in the shape of a rooster straining in the brisk wind.  Muddy brown sparrows hop from branch to branch in the midget pines to my right. Jonathan's head is tilted back and his eyes are closed.  We are waiting for something, breath bated, and hopeful.

Clouds engulf the head of Monte Cervino, the exotic Italian name for this side of The Matterhorn.  Even as the radiant blue sky is visible over our heads in all directions, a remarkable dome, this mysterious mountain is coy. She has wrangled her own weather this morning and wears it like a white headscarf. For an instant, she reveals her eyes. She watches me. I am yearning for more, lusting for her full, perfect face. But she is well aware of her status as a check box, one of many on this trip, and isn't about to give me the satisfaction.  That's her call.  I snort with ambivalence and, in response, she tucks even her pretty, snowcapped eyes away from us again.

While we wait, I read. Reading Lolita in Tehran has accompanied me every mile of the way on our trip through France, Monaco, and Italy. The 2003 memoir by Dr. Azar Nafisi chronicles the clandestine activities of a group of young Muslim women in the mid-1990s. In search of literary truth and personal independence, they risked their safety to congregate in the private home of their teacher.  There they could shed their heavy scarves and robes, sit in a circle, and study the great novels of history.  

A verbal scalpel slices the cover of Lolita and allows the students to see past the prose and into the heart and guts of the work, its intentions and its context.  I can recall the cover of my own copy of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece, purchased at the UC Davis bookstore at the beginning of my junior year.  It is a photo in grayscale, saddle shoes and girlish ankles.  Tiny white socks folded down in delicate cuffs.  

Reading Lolita in my Introduction to Literary Criticism class startled me. Humbert Humbert, the perverse romantic, the child rapist poet, was the first narrator to make me feel sick.  I wanted to hate the book.  I wanted to plant my feet staunchly on the moral high ground and pitch the book into the fire.

It took a good teacher to change my mind and heart.

I cannot remember his name, but his gait, crippled, lurching and rolling, is burned into my mind's eye.  He'd been in a bicycle accident as a child, shattering his fragile leg bone beyond hope of anything more than a cursory repair. Yet, thirty years after that event rendered him weak and unstable for life, he paced the breadth of his classroom at Davis without more than a nod to his disability, and he willed his classful of eager English majors to reconsider Lolita as something more than the senseless ramblings of a pedophile.

He wanted me to mine Humbert's grotesque justifications for something deeper.  Consider the author's intentions, my teacher urged me.  Nobokov was not a depraved man with a penchant for little girls. Nabokov didn't want to suck the marrow from the skeletons of their fairy tales. He was a Russian author with a genius for gaining access to another plane of thought and fancy, and he excelled at granting that access to his readers in turn.  Nobokov invented Humbert as he invented so many other protagonists. He constructed an individual dispossessed of the stranglehold of our realities and allowed that individual to run free.

Nafisi introduced this same concept to the young women who'd gathered in her cozy, curtained apartment in Tehran.  Her six students also struggled with appreciating Lolita as something other than the confessions of a sexual predator.  

"Why do we enjoy books like this?  Isn't that wrong?" they asked each other.
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You've just landed on Planet Zuto. Thus begins a recent article in The Atlantic titled Why the U.S. Economy Is Biased Against Men. The author, Marty Nemko, plants his readers on this fictitious planet to demonstrate that, given a blind test, the facts of the U.S. marketplace actually add up to a bias against men rather than women. It's fascinating to see someone try and state the position of the other side in the modern realm of gender bias, and Nemko makes many important points: 

  • Across all careers, surveys report that childless women under 30 make more than men.
  • More than 90 percent of workplace deaths, military deaths, and severe workplace injuries occur to men.
  • Women but not men are encouraged to form committees and caucuses to advance their sex's causes in the workplace.
  • U.S. unemployment is higher for men than women. 

Unfortunately, many of the Nemko's objections are still rooted in the classic chauvinism which rightly contributed to the rise of Feminism in the first place: that men are designed to work more, harder, and in higher positions than women, and that women are destined to make the sacrifices required by at least one parent in order to rear children. 

It is as though Nemko has no idea that while Feminism is a collection of movements aimed at defining and defending equal rights for women, it also seeks gender equality by acknowledging that men are also harmed by sexism and gender roles. 

For example, Nemko points out that women's advocacy groups pressured the government to create "The Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows employees to... take up to 12 weeks every year... to care for a relative, with a guarantee that their job will be held for them until they choose to return." It's hard to believe, but Nemko is pointing to this advance in employee benefits as a symptom of the anti-male problem (because women take the majority of FMLA days), as though attempting to even this playing field in a way that benefits both parties is fruitless because no man will ever truly desire to take the family leave he's allowed today to help raise his family.

If Nemko is correct, men are suffering a bias which exploits their unwillingness to take benefits they are offered, a bias which discourages them from taking action to help themselves. Nemko says, "Men's efforts to organize into groups have largely been ridiculed, for example, portraying men's groups as troglodytes tromping into the woods to beat tom-toms. And men's organizations have been pressured to admit women, for example, the service clubs: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions."

He apparently finds it unimaginable that any man would want to join a successful women's business organization, making it a gender neutral business organization, when he could create a men's organization and go up against his rival women. Here I must point out that, had men been quicker to open the doors of Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions clubs to women in the first place, to help promote the cause of young people regardless of gender, there wouldn't have been a need for NOW or Catalyst or any of the other myriad women-specific groups. 
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