Is it time for a career change?

January 12, 2015

This might be a mid-life crisis (if I live to 100), but I’ve been thinking about a career change. I absolutely love being a university professor. I’ve got thousands of former students who are out in the world doing amazing things, perhaps influenced by something I talked about in a classroom or an idea I shared. One student, after my discussion linking the power theory of Ralf Dahrendorf to the genocide in Darfur, headed for Sudan after graduation to work with refugees. I have plenty of students like her.

That part of being a professor is infinitely rewarding. In my 20 years at my current university, I have created a legacy that has ripple effects around the world and will continue for generations. I know the world is a better place because of my work. But the part of the job that most people do not see is the bureaucracy that drives universities that is something out of a Kafka novel. I’m not one to tell tales out of school, just watch the Anthony Hopkins film The Human Stain (2003), to get a picture of the dynamic that pits administrators against faculty and students. It’s exhausting.

So I might do something different for a while. In 2011, I published my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart: A Rock Novel. It was loosely based on my own issues with depression at the turn of the century. I based the structure on an Electric Light Orchestra album I had when I was a kid called A New World Record (1976). I know you know the songs. Each chapter in the novel riffs on a song from the album. When I started writing it, I had no idea how it would end, but writing it saved my life.

It did pretty well for a self-published novel. (50 Shades of Grey started out the same way.) It made it to #2 on the Powell’s Small Press Best Seller list and has been optioned by a very talented screenwriter in Hollywood for a film. It’s a long road but you might see me walking Andrea and Cozy down the red carpet someday. Hey, I’m a Pisces. Let me dream!

But the feedback from that book was been it’s own reward. Singer Storm Large was an early champion of the Kindle version. The reviews were all pretty amazing. But best was a military veteran who told me the book convinced her not to commit suicide and stick around for life. That’s enough. I could never write another word and have that.

But I love to write and university politics and committees have eaten into my writing space. There is no joy like sitting in the coffee shop with a blank page (or screen) and just letting it come. When I free myself from the technical requirements of academic writing, something transformative happens. The Irish call it the muse (something Bono once told me about). It’s a stream that you can just step in and let it take you away.

She might not be a literary giant, but my true influence here comes from singer Susanna Hoffs, of The Bangles. We were spending a lot of time together in the 80s and she asked me what I really wanted to do after college. “Be a writer,” I said. I was writing a lot of music journalism and had fantasies of being a new Jack Kerouac.

“How often do you write?”

“Uh, what?”

“Randy, if you want to be a writer, you need to write everyday.”

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That was the start of my tenure as a poet and I got good. I hosted a popular monthly reading in Atlanta and got to put together some of the spoken-word events for Lollapalooza ’94. In 2011, when The Bangles came to Portland, I gave Susanna a copy of the novel and thanked her for getting me started on this path.

So now it’s time to write again. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been writing. I’ve been working on a book on 4th Wave feminism and a memoir about my rock star friends (Hi Bono and Susanna!) and I have a short story about the ghost of Elvis coming out this year. But it’s time to really write.

Cozy and I just got back from my favorite Portland coffee shop, Random Order. She stared out of her stroller while I wrote the first page of the new novel. It’s called The Dream Police and uses the Cheap Trick album as a structure. It picks up with some of the main characters from Mission and their struggles to come to terms with some of the suffering of life in modern America. There are no aliens in this one, but there is some time travel. It will be more post-modern this time. (I was hugely influenced by Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad (2010), which made me just want to write like a madman.)

So I’m going to take a break from being a professor for a while. I know the university will be there when I’m ready to go back. Maybe I could find one that’s run by students, or elves, or bags of rocks. Sometimes your soul needs a break from the fight. There are other ways to reach people, and this book is gonna be great.

OK, here is the opening sentence: The dark expansive room was knee deep in steaming water, coming in waves from all angles.

These books were mentioned in this blog post. You can buy them at Powell’s by clicking the cover images below.

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Parenting Advice from the Pez

January 7, 2015

If babies could all have a bumpersticker on their rubber baby buggy bumpers, it would say, “If it feels good, do it.” We’re all born these raging Freudian ids who just want it now. Honestly, babies are selfish little beasts. They don’t care if it’s the middle of the night, they want the tit! They don’t care if you have a weak stomach, they want that WTF poop wiped out of their crack!

If babies weren’t so cute, it might be easier to put tape on their mouths. They have no concept of delayed gratification. I was just getting ready to feed Cozy but the bottle was too warm. The problem was she could see it setting on the dresser to cool. She flipped out. “Give me that damn bottle! Baby needs a hit!” She was fixated and I could feel the hate directed at me. “Stop fucking with me, Dad!”

I tried to explain to her that the anticipation is the best part. Christmas Day sucks compared to the lead up, right? By 3 pm on December 25th you just feel deflated. When it’s over, it’s just a memory. When I went off to college my big act of independence was to get a subscription to Playboy magazine. (Sorry.) Very quickly it was clear that the best part of the magazine was the anticipation  of receiving it, not actually “reading” it. In fact, my favorite part of the magazine was the last page that let you know who was going to be interviewed (and naked) in the next issue.

I’m sure I will discuss the Playboy thing in some post. That subscription is decades gone (but my Beatlefan subscription has been uninterrupted since 1984). I now look forward to my Voice Male magazine, but I actually read those from cover to cover.

When I first moved to Portland I was volunteering in a residential facility for juvenile offenders. One night I was sitting around with a half dozen teenage car thieves and gang bangers, showing them my Spiderman Pez dispenser. They had never seen Pez! (Obviously why they became cruddy JDs.) I explained to them how you take the candy out of the foil and load it into the dispenser (as one candy lodged in sideways).

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“Why don’t you just eat the candy?” one kid asked. Good question, I thought. “Because you get to put in the dispenser and make each piece pop out of Spiderman’s neck.” It didn’t seem like a very satisfying answer. I mean, think about it. Maybe that was “fun” in 1975, but these kids had Xbox.

In that moment I saw the importance of Pez and metaphor for delayed gratification in our culture. These kids were essentially babies. If it felt good, they did it. And since they were boys, that included violence and criminality.

So the challenge is to make Cozy wait, but to enjoy the waiting. To sit in the moment and anticipate what’s to arrive; a bottle of milk, a birthday present, a bachelor’s degree in pottery. Tom Petty once sang, “the waiting is the hardest part,” but sometimes it’s the best part.

She doesn’t get it at the moment at only 4 1/2 months old, so I’m still OK to spoil her. I’ll get this lesson started later. And enjoy the anticipation.

Feminist Herstory Pt. 1 – It is discovered that Women are PEOPLE!!!

Some people find history boring. Then they go watch an episode of Downton Abbey. I love history and the history of feminist theory is pretty wild. In feminism we talk a lot about waves. (Are you a second or third wave feminist?) I’ve been working on a book on 4th wave feminism, but before we get there, we need some history. So I will periodically drop in some excerpts from my, hopefully not boring, “herstory.”

Feminist Herstory Pt. 1 – Roots, Galileo and Frankenstein

There’s a famous quote I use at the beginning of my social theory class by Cambridge professor Geoffrey Hawthorn,  “The sociologist who begins a history of social theories is at once very tempted to stop.” Finding starting points for ideas is only asking for trouble. Capitalism existed long before Adam Smith became the father of it. Punk rock existed before Patti Smith became the godmother of it. So finding a starting point is an exercise in futility. And then everyone is going to complain about what and whom you left out. “How could you not mention Emma Goldman in your history of feminism???”

For me, the whole thing started in second grade, when I heard Helen Reddy’s song, “I Am Woman,” on the radio. I loved that song. I loved that it used the word “embryo” as a rhyme. I loved how it went into the minor key for the “Yes, I’m wise” part. I loved seeing my mom sing it in the car. The song was source of discussion among my friends at school and in the neighborhood. Apparently there was this thing called Women’s Lib and (some) women were as pissed off as (all) black people. That was about the extent of my feminist consciousness at age seven. But I can still do a mean version of that song at karaoke after a few whiskeys.

So any history is incomplete, insufficient, and inconsistent.  It is important to say, though, that at every step of the evolution of feminist thought, men have been there. Sometimes just as supportive husbands and sometimes as primary movers and shakers. Famous male thinkers, like John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, had plenty to say on the equality of women. One of the first European intellectuals to identify patriarchy as a root cause of social inequality was Friedrich Engles in his 1884 book, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Engles was Karl Marx primary collaborator and addressing the core matters of feminism.

This complex history has two threads in it and it’s not what Rush Limbaugh and his army  of “femi-nazi” haters think.  It is not that feminists think that women are the same as men or better than men (although some individuals may think that). It is that women and girls are human and therefore deserve the same basic rights that men and boys do. The second thread is that there is a structured system that benefits men and disadvantages women (patriarchy). We feminists think there is a better way to organize society, but our views are shaped by the times we live in. As C. Wright Mills once pointed out, our history is our biography.

Galileo’s head was on the block

You could make the case that 6000 years ago, you didn’t need feminists as pretty much all people living in civilized settings were feminists. As discussed in the work of Riane Eisler, those cultures did not view males and females as occupying an inherent power imbalance. It wasn’t until the advent of patriarchal religions that “original sinners” got demoted to bitches and hos.

The long reign of the Catholic Church plunged Europe into a dark age of patriarchal violence. Women (and men) who challenged the new order were tortured and executed. At the peak of the witch trials (1480- 1750) it is estimated that 100,000 people were executed as witches.

But the hegemony of the papacy wouldn’t last forever. The Protestant Reformation worked to put non-Latin Bibles in Christian hands and help folks figure out the meaning of the Gospels for themselves (which many used to justify slavery and more oppression of women). Perhaps more significantly was the finding of one man, Galileo Galilei. Using the theories of Copernicus, in the early 1600s Galileo discovered that the earth was rotating around the sun, not the other way around as proscribed by The Bible and the Church.

Galileo began to promote this heliocentric view of the universe and, boy, was the Church pissed off. If the Bible was wrong on this simple point, what other lies had the Church been covering up? Galileo was denounced by the Roman Inquisition in 1615 and placed under house arrest as a heretic. The good news is that the Catholic Church eventually pardoned Galileo. In the year 1992.

The observations of the little astronomer from Pisa represented the beginning of the end of the Dark Ages and the birth of the Age of Enlightenment. Enlightenment thought based knowledge on rationality and empirical evidence, not in blind faith of the unseen and the autocratic authority of church officials. Enlightenment philosophers across Europe and America ushered in a new age of science, philosophy, economics, and political thought, undermining the “divine right of kings.” Revolutions in America and France swept away monarchies and established governance based on the ancient rational process known as democracy.

It was in this period that the modern championing of women’s humanity began to take hold. You could argue that there is a long history of women standing up to the Man, or doing the job better than men, but it was never really based on a critique of patriarchal power. Joan of Arc was a badass, but she wasn’t a feminist. But in the 1700s, a chorus of voices took up the cause of female equality. American revolutionary Thomas Paine, author of The Age of Reason, argued that his new nation could not be completely free if its citizens could own slaves and its women could not vote. In 1775 he wrote:

“Nature herself, in forming beings so susceptible and tender, appears to have been more attentive to their charms than to their happiness. Continually surrounded with griefs and fears, the women more than share all our miseries, and are besides subjected to ills which are particularly their own. They cannot be the means of life without exposing themselves to the loss of it.”

If there is one name that stands out as the Enlightenment feminist, it is Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). Wollstonecraft, who influence the work of Paine and others, was a British writer who covered many subjects. As a product of the Age of Reason, she applied the ethic of rationality to the wave of social change that was occurring in the late 18th Century. In A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790), she assailed the aristocracy that had survived the French Revolution and advocated for true democratic forms of government. Her next book, A Vindication for the Rights of Woman (1792) is generally seen as the first feminist work published for a large audience. In Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft makes what we would think of now as a standard sociological case on gender; that the passivity of women is not due to biology, but socialization. She advocated for educations as the primary method to change the role of women.

A Vindication for the Rights of Woman was still written in the language of the era (there is much discussion of how women’s role as mothers is crucial), but for the first time the language was clear, females are as human as males. They could be wives, but as full humans they could be her husband’s companion, not his ornament. She links racism and sexism, stating that the justification for gender roles as tradition is the same for the justification of slavery as tradition. “If women be educated for dependence; that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop?” she writes.

If Mary Wollstonecraft had been born a hundred years earlier, she probably would have been burned at the stake. Instead her short life produced some of the most radical writings of her time. She died in childbirth at the age of 38 and her daughter, Mary, became one of the most famous female authors of all time. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein 20 years after her mother’s death. Pretty much everyone knows Frankenstein. Not enough people know about the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft.

The following books were mentioned in this blog post and can purchased from Powell’s by clicking on the covers below.

Coming Soon: Part 2: Birth of the First Wave

My Unhealthy Attraction to Kelly Ripa

January 2, 2015 OK, first let me be clear. I am madly in love with my super foxy wife. She is the be all and end all of all I will ever need. This is not about another  woman. It is about the weird state of daytime TV that I have recently been exposed to. Now back to our regularly scheduled blog.

My morning routine of heading off to work on bike to dazzle Portland State students with feminist theory and stories of Nazi skinheads has been put on hold while I’m on parental leave. Here’s the new dad routine:

7 am Get up and make coffee and help my wife get ready for work.

8:30 Take Andrea to work at Planned Parenthood.

9 am Clean the kitchen with baby in her frog chair and we listen to podcasts.

10 am Maybe baby naps so I can work on this blog. She’s probably crying so I’ll give her some applesauce and try to not let my blood pressure explode. But a baby face covered in applesauce is pretty cute.

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11 am Bottle Time! Baby gets her first bottle of mother’s milk while we watch some Regis & Kathie Lee.

Noon Some tummy time and exercise. I put the baby in the bouncy seat and try to do some housework. I check to see if I won the lottery and check how many emails I can ignore. Eat a sandwich.

1 pm Often we go to pick up a fresh bottle of milk from mom and go to the store to get food for dinner. I notice that bars are open.

2 pm Nap time please sweet baby Jesus.

3 pm 2nd Bottle Time! We put on Ellen, Cozy’s favorite show. She falls asleep by the first guest.

4 pm More housework before mom gets home. I might squeeze in an episode of Justified for my manly moment.

5 pm Go pick up Mom! Baby gurgles in happiness.

It’s surprising how fast the day goes (how little gets done). It’s given me a chance to drop back into the world of network daytime TV and it sucks. When I was a kid, daytime TV was geared towards stay-at-home housewives, so there were lots of soap operas designed to bring a little passion into their dull day. (Oh, All My Children, take me to Pine Valley.) There were also plenty of mindlessly fun gameshows, like Hollywood Squares, Matchgame and Joker’s Wild. A day home from school meant The $25,000 Pyramid and the Price Is Right prize models.

The daytime line-up seems more geared to women than ever. From The View to The Chew, fashion, cooking and celebrity gossip seem to still be the main themes. But between the informercials for Proactive and Kathie Lee and Hoda baking cupcakes with firemen there are some bright spots. This is not 1965. In 2015 it is understood that women actually have brains and can tackle tough issues between their shopping tips. I think the legendary battle between Rosie O’Donnell and Elisabeth Hasslebeck over the Iraq War in 2007 on The View was a turning point on television. But like the “debate” on evolution (Sorry, creationists, you lost a while ago), the chatter is never framed in larger issues of oppression. Maybe I’ve missed Whoopi Goldberg’s position statement on patriarchy and intersectionality. Has Angela Davis been a guest on The Talk? At this point I’d settle for bell hooks as a contestant on Let’s Make a Deal dressed as a mariachi.

And of course Ellen DeGeneres has single handedly turned the tide on marriage equality. What red state Ellen fan is going to say, “Those queers are all going to hell. Except for Ellen.” Her dancing has won hearts and minds. Or maybe it’s the cute baby videos. Or the heteronormative hunk-fest. But we’ll give Ellen a pass on that one. Demographics!

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There is some real entertainment value sprinkled in. I find Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan (Live!) a real highlight in our TV day. I remember Ripa’s first arrival on All My Children in 1990 as the rocker kid Hayley Vaughan. Her hair was dyed black and she was headed to a Metaluna concert (Great fake band name). She had a spark then and now the 44-year-old mom is tearing up daytime TV with her neurotic energy (Sometimes she spins around so fast I worry that her bobble head will come flying off). Her chemistry with Strahan on Live! is infectious and, like a train full of beautiful people crashing into a bus full of serial killers, you can’t look away. I have to wonder how a chat show featuring a petite white woman and a large black man would have gone over in 1965, but in 2015 it’s more about the manic energy of Ripa played against her gentle giant than any larger social issues, for better or worse. I’d say better. Who wants a debate on GMOs when Ripa is on a six left-turn tangent? Watching Kelly is like having Sugar Mountain liquified by the bright light of the sun and carried by a Keystone XL pipeline straight into your cerebellum. You think the baby drools a lot. But it’s a drool of bliss.

Taking care of a baby can be tiring. Sleep is not an option. I just want to thank Kelly for providing me an alternative to snorting lines of crank. Kelly Ripa is the new crank!

Yeah, I should use this time to read more. (I’m almost done with Linda Ronstadt’s autobiography.) I’ve got a volume on Eco-feminism to get to but it’s hard when the baby is crying. The TV is a pacifier. It always has been. But dad needs a binky, too.

UPDATE: Here is another reason to love Kelly Ripa:

Kelly Ripa Gives Inspiring Speech at 2015 GLAAD Media Awards

This book is available at Powell’s by clicking the cover below.