home economics: an appreciation (albeit perverse) prefaced by a confession (quite belated)

I have always had a hypertrophied conscience, that tends to manifest itself most powerfully and implacably around academics.  Once, in elementary school, I accidentally saw a classmate’s graded math quiz at the top of a stack on my teacher’s desk.  I may have even seen an answer or two.  My completed, graded math quiz was also in that stack, but I was gripped with panic that my inadvertent look might somehow have warped time and implanted this stolen help from a classmate in my brain while I was taking the quiz, thus giving me an unearned advantage, a transgression that seemed especially egregious precisely because I was always so lousy at, and anxious about, math.  Even then, my guilt was faster than the speed of light.

Except in the case of Home Economics.  In Home Economics, I cheated wantonly.  I cut corners on recipes and insisted – despite visual and gustatory evidence to the contrary – that I had followed the directions to the letter.  When we had to make our own clothes, I chose the easiest patterns and tearfully convinced my mom that, because I wanted so badly to succeed, because my whole sense of self hinged on being able to make this t-shirt perfectly, I needed her help with the sewing machine, then backed slowly out of the room while she set to work.  My greatest, most ignominious triumph was during the unit when we had to sew stuffed animals.  I thought I’d done a pretty great job on my little white dog, until ten minutes before class when his ear fell off.  So I asked the orchestra teacher for a few pieces of tape (never specifying why), and jerry-rigged the polyester oval onto the side of his head, and turned it in.  I didn’t feel so much as a twinge of remorse when I got an A.

Over this past long weekend, I did a lot of home economics-y type things, and there is a part of me that loves baking in the wee hours, or Swiffering, or going to Target.  I can’t discern any connections between my enjoyment of these things, or my aptitude for them, and my many years of mandatory Home Ec classes.  In a cursory stab at gender parity, or because they were concerned we might make it to high school without knowing how to cook French toast, my school district required all students to take these classes (for the record, I don’t remember much besides “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey” from the Shop classes that were also required … also, I made a small wooden carving of a seal, though girls, as I recall, weren’t allowed to use the jigsaw.)

Personally, in terms of skills acquired, I don’t think my training in Home Ec was a success.  But if the classes themselves weren’t all that useful,  the requirement in and of itself was an unintentional education in the vicissitudes of domesticity.

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Domesticity accomplished.

Being required to take Home Ec alongside all our other classes presaged an adult future in which women do more of the housework, even and especially when they work outside of the home also and earn more than their partners.   Whatever stress girls might feel when their assigned scrambled eggs burn or their dog’s ears fall off (I can’t have been the only one) prepares them, I suppose, for the adult versions of those feelings, compounded by all the other demands that they have.

Yet the fact that Home Ec was graded like any other class offered a recognition, slow to catch elsewhere, that domestic work can be quantified, and has material value.

At the same time, the institutional pressure to be visibly and verifiably good at domesticity may also have inspired sly forms of creativity – cheats, improvisations, and workarounds – to refashion or subvert these expectations.

 

consuming out of the aporia

Other than their usual correlation to snow, and end to the semester, and more baked goods, I don’t have much affinity for the holidays.  My objections are mostly personal, veering toward the curmudgeonly.  I can get behind the assertion that it’s deplorable to threaten employees into working on Thanksgiving – particularly if those employees do have an affinity for the holidays.  I’m less sympathetic to complaints about consumerism that focus on how it harms the consumers themselves, much more so to those that question how those consumption patterns harm the workers who actually make them possible.  Personally, I resent (and so tend to respond churlishly, contrarily to) events accompanied by affective mandates, most especially those festooned in expectations that I should be happy.  My family is delightful (really) and seeing them is pretty much the highlight of any such occasion (really), but other than that, I don’t really see the appeal (really), or share in the anxiety about these traditions being eroded.

Still, I get the idea of Thanksgiving, and I understand it well enough to understand that the commercials promoting the actual holiday – not Black Friday – as an ideal time to buy stuff represent an effort to modify our understanding of how, and why, the holiday ought to be celebrated. During three hours of football yesterday, I watched approximately 10,000 commercials, so I feel like I know something about this phenomenon.

Of course, there are lots of economic and market-share reasons why companies would want to transform Thanksgiving into an impetus to consume objects (metaphorically) in addition to food (literally).  But to the extent that this strategy works, I think it might reflect an instability at the core of notion of thanksgiving, institutionalized in Thanksgiving, more generally.

Jacques Derrida, in Given Time, categorized the true gift as an aporia. To be a true gift, it cannot be understood as such, lest it get pulled into an economy of exchange and obligation.  In his “Villanova Conversations,” he says:

The gift is precisely … something which cannot be reappropriated; a gift is something which never appears as such and is never equal to gratitude, to commerce, to compensation, to reward. When a gift is given … no gratitude can be proportionate to it. A gift is something that you cannot thank for.  As soon as I say ‘thank you’ for a gift I start cancelling the gift, I start destroying the gift …

Consequently, a day organized around the profession of gratitude entails its own dilemma, precisely to the extent that we experience our own gratitude as authentic and meaningful.  If the “thanks” brings with it a freight of indebtedness, of mandatory reciprocity, it can devolve quickly into resentment, quantification, and guilt.  On the other hand, to eschew thankfulness risks presuming one’s own entitlement, and a practical disconnection from networks of sociality and hospitality.  Also, everyone will think you’re an ass.

This dilemma gets exponentially more complicated in those instances where people are giving their thanks not only to those who are feeding them in the moment but also, and ultimately, to a divine or supernatural being who they believe provided the food before them.

And so, insofar as dwelling in an aporia is discomfiting and our lives are contingent on the lives, deaths, and behaviors other beings in innumerable ways, the turn to consumerism instead makes a kind of sense.  Buying a present for oneself circumvents the dilemma.  Buying one for someone else, and thus looping them into an economy of exchange, short-circuits it.

The alternative, I suppose, is a form of gratitude that is not articulated (perhaps not even internally) but experienced, silent, wordless, transformative.

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up all night, watching it freeze

Baltimore is hard at work on its outdoor ice rink.   I’d run by it at least a dozen times, uncurious, but Wednesday morning I got a notion to stop. Becky (my sunrise-running friend) and I peeked over the elliptic wall surrounding the rink, the surface of which had the furry crystalline texture of a freezer that needs defrosting. Although the rink is clearly meant to attract well-heeled visitors to downtown, one of its earliest fans is, apparently, an undomiciled man among the many who make their homes on the waterfront promenade’s benches and grates.  Almost as soon as our feet stopped moving, he offered us a voluble welcome and an update on the conditions.  Gravely, without ever removing his cigarette from his mouth, he informed us that the progress had been slow.

Warm weather, and things had not been solidifying on schedule.  But in the dark hours just before our arrival, that had started to change.  The middle would be the last part to freeze, and that was beginning to happen.  He had been up, he said, for 24 hours, no sleep at all, watching.  And now he could see it; we nodded to confirm that we could see it too.  He smiled a little (still smoking), and straightened, as if he had done it himself: chilled the air, kept the cooling generator running, selected and mixed whatever soup of chemicals comprised the liquid that would become the rink, arranged the molecules into the invisible structures that would support all those bodies.

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As we began to move away, wishing him a good morning and some rest, he stayed put.  The city left the process to happen largely unsupervised, leaving it to chemistry and machines, but maybe he thought it deserved a witness.

Of course, I can’t know for sure, but I presume that when the rink opens, he will not have the resources to pay for admission, or skate rental.  And I don’t know whether he would have any interest in doing so.  I don’t know, really, what his interest in the rink was at all – if he liked the thought of its future occupants, circling happily, or if it was just the novelty of the thing itself.

Whatever his motivation, I think there is a story here about civic spectatorship.  I’m skeptical, generally, of arguments about the power of such a thing, and there is a lot to be untangled  about power, privation, belonging, access, and justice. After all, the unrelenting cold that would preserve his vicarious masterpiece would almost certainly make his own existence much more precarious.  Another insoluble dilemma of spectatorship, maybe.  But there is something, still, about the way this man’s willingness to watch – patiently and generously – transformed him.

going blank

Writing-wise, I have been stuck for weeks.  Some of it is circumstantial: middle of the semester, other responsibilities, fatigue.  Some of it is a garden-variety set of complexes and insecurities, magnified (quite unexpectedly) by getting tenured. But there is no reasonable calculation by which these things add up to the sum of my present condition.

I’ve been able, of dire necessity and immovable deadlines, to get a few things done. The resultant work has been functional, provisional, and the preceding process disheartening and extractive.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out what the problem is.  I can map its component parts – cognitive, emotional, physical, logistical – but can’t seem to fit them together.  I suppose I could describe this feeling colloquially as my mind going blank.  When I picture it, that blank is unbroken, blindingly empty, horizonless in every direction.  No landmarks, no interruptions.  It manifests corporeally ingoogle search the sensation of something compressed and stuck behind my ribs, and a numbness in my hands that manifests when I try to type anything that isn’t an email or a lesson plan, or set on paper anything that isn’t a to-do list.  Behaviorally, it takes the form less of procrastination (I have no desire to avoid or postpone my work, quite the opposite) and more of careful, compensatory attention to other tasks, and more still of standing at the kitchen counter, eating cereal out of the box.

I take a deep breath.  I run through the litany of advice that I give to colleagues and students (who almost always return in effusive gratitude for how they are now, astonishingly, un-stuck).  Accept that doldrums are an inevitable part of the process, very likely to be followed by periods of intense, almost effortless creativity.  Stop comparing yourself to others (and ignore the posturing gaucherie of people who tell you, casually and apropos of nothing, that they wrote 25 pages in a long afternoon). Know that it isn’t just a matter of will power or brute mental force.  Soften your gaze at your own work, and write without judging.  Write about why you can’t write.  Write something, anything, just to get back in the habit of filling the page.  Don’t panic.  Let go of any attachment to the outcome.

And yet.

So I’m trying to make the experience interesting, at least, to experiment with what it feels like to be caught by something that I can’t identify, rationalize, or undo. Unable to think my way out of this, my only option is to note how it feels to be unable to think, to work around the edges of that incapacity, waiting – without expectation – for something to catalyze in that open space.