Confession: I don’t know how to take a joke.
My parents used to chant cantcha jake a toke? over and over at me in my more intense moments of meltdown, when someone had poked fun at me. Super-serious, super-earnest. So much seriousness that it prompted my high school French teacher to whisper burnout in my ear and nudge me during our quizzes, in a (failed) attempt to loosen me up.
After falling in love in a sweaty artist commune in Nebraska, driving across the country and crashing in my friend Val’s loft in the Marigny for a month, Lost Boy and I set up house together to embark on what might be the most romantic–or most insane–love story. “What a great story!” friends often say, foily-sticker stars pocked in their eyes and faces. Or, if it’s one of my intelligentsia friends, “What a great narrative!”
“Really?” Lost Boy asked at one point, honestly incredulous. “You know people who talk like that?”
Yes. Yes they/we do. Because we are careful about words. Serious about them. Always translating how life lived would look, in words, arranged on paper.
Do I talk like that?
What determines someone’s membership in academic intelligentsia is kind of fuzzy to me, sort of akin to the murk about what entitles a person to claim they’re a “native” New Orleanian, as explored here earlier this year by curator Julia Carey. Nothing throws where you belong into question like falling in love with someone who speaks a different version of your language, and sees with eyes that use different associations to make sense of place.
Flashback to August 2013.
Hammer in one hand, nails in another, I stood to measure the plywood for a pot hanger contraption I was building at the Nebraska artist commune one afternoon. Lost Boy shifted from foot to foot, eager to help me with my basic carpentry, but anxious to show me that he respected my can-do-it attitude.
Then he broke the silence. “What’s a predicate?” he asked. I looked down from where I crouched on the kitchen counter, about to secure one of the hooks to my pot hanger.
And I couldn’t answer. And couldn’t answer. Well, shit, I thought. What IS a predicate?
“Geez, I thought all you English teachers lived and breathed things like predicates. And here I was, feeling inadequate that I was ignorant about predicates!” He laughed, a little stiffly–who was this chick who summoned him to the middle of Nebraska, anyway?
We remedied the situation with a quick Google of Mr Morton a la Schoolhouse Rocks and all was well–or was it? Had I squirreled too far into my unemployment as writer-for-no one-so-no-one-cares-if-I can’t define a predicate? (Word to potential employers in the educational field: I know what a predicate is. It’s just, well, the term was in my Rarely-Used drawer, which I assure you is super-close to my Everyday Tools box. I find discussions around the “doing parts” of sentences so much more, well, dynamic. Or, why can’t we just talk “verbs” and call it a day??)
My point in revealing this embarrassing moment in my life is not so much to try to describe just how mesmerizing and all-encompassing the Art Farm and falling in love with Lost Boy was and is, to wow you with the intensity of it all by showing you that terms like “predicate” fell out of my teacher-head. (Though I could.) My point is that sometimes I think we get lazy about our language, and that makes us lazy about how we decide where we “belong” professionally. Lazy is the wrong word. We make assumptions once we shoebox ourselves, and we stop working at one level of a professional language. There is a lining of arrogance there when it comes to any involvement in academia. The sign and the signifier loosen their connection, to use words my intelligentsia would understand.
I remember speaking with a dear friend about her job search earlier this spring. She holds a Ph.D. in a specific literature, and much of her work has focused on exploring the gendered situations authors experience in their education and she has demonstrated how this inequality and struggle reflects in their language of their work. Truly a detail-oriented and determined scholar, I admire her focus, not to mention her otherworldly ability to tolerate the politics in her university department long enough to finish the degree. She studied out of the country, but the same could be true of domestic departments, I’m sure. She has been forced to apply to jobs outside of her narrow professional tenure track aspirations, and was baffled when women’s mental health centers didn’t respond to her job applications.
“But I know more about women’s mental health than most people working in those centers!” she cried once in desperation.
Well, er, she does–on paper. And in theory. And, well, maybe in another time period. This is what is so hard for people like me to understand amidst this crumbling-reshifting-of-educational-infrastructure moment in time we’re living: we know how stuff gets conceptualized on paper. I mean, my cousin didn’t have a Ph.D. in delusional disorders that cause violent outbursts, but after six months working reception at a mental health facility, it’s safe to say she’s an expert on the triggers, warning signs, and patterns around psychosis. But we’re speaking different languages.
Another example: I thought if I studied chain of custody standards for seafood traceability, I would get a job working behind the seafood counter at Whole Foods. I should have flirted with the dudes who were clearly open to a girl joining their ranks, asked them their advice before I went upstairs to speak to their supervisor and plead my case. My bad feminist meter goes off–that too I got implanted in academia. “Oh, I get it,” said a guy I dated once in the middle of an argument. “Being perceived intelligent and independent is important to you.” Shitty as that was to hear flung at me in the middle of an argument, he’s right. (He was a whole ‘nother story.) If I’m without an answer or a probable explanation for something, I feel like I’ve failed as a thinking person. I’ve been trained to develop an argument and present it, over and over, until the logic outweighs the holes. I was raised by a man who had every argument tactic in the book, and would use any and all of them. I’m trying to re-train myself out of thinking everything is an argument, and everyone presents a threat to my logic.
I can talk about it now, and sometimes even laugh (through gritted teeth) , but a year and a half ago, that was my approach to leaving the education and academic field: study the terms and be ready to rattle off the information at a moment’s notice. Basically, I thought if I studied and was a good girl, someone would ask the right questions and I would show them I had the answers. Isn’t that how you succeed, how you demonstrate your right to belong professionally?
Lost Boy comes from a world where talk is cheap and actions are everything. You’re only as good as your last dive. If that were true for professors or artists, we’d be toast. I’m not complaining or trying to draw, as they say, problematic binaries here. I’m just trying to explain the stuff that comes up when two people in different fields fall in love.
Once in New Orleans, we attended my cousin’s wedding together at the French Quarter House of Blues, which is a super-sweet and in my opinion not a bad homage to outsider art that conjures Crossroads of all sorts. We had maybe spent two solid months together total–ever in our lives–and we had just signed a lease. I told him about the wedding a month before, and steeled myself for the reaction I usually got from past partners: “Oh, I don’t know.” or “I can’t plan that far in advance.” Despite his erratic work schedule, which actually does prevent him from planning, on my cousin’s big day, Lost Boy bought new dress shoes and showed up freshly shaved, in a blazer and a big grin for everyone he met. It was pretty sweet to have a hunk on my arm for once-one who actually seemed to want to be there–at a wedding. My family, accustomed to my constant Bridget Jones reprise, showed various signs of shock and disbelief. But to their credit, they worked to hide it.
During the reception, we were seated with the bride’s mother’s college friends. The House of Blues attendants had begun serving hurricanes to guests before the ceremony, so by the time we reached our table at the reception, conversation flowed freely and our table-mates, my aunt’s college friends, a group of sophisticated sixty-somethings, were revealing that they too operate from the Alison Barker camp of wedding guests: dance all night and make ’em pay for that open bar.
During a break in the music, we sat and fanned ourselves while Lost Boy went in search of water. My aunt’s best friend, conspiratorial mischief glistening in her dark eyes, told me in a super-serious-secret voice: “I understand what it’s like to go for the bad boy.” She smiled, touched me lightly on the arm and said, “Believe me, I know—I get it.” I liked that I was being included in this powerful elder’s embrace..to be drawn aside by a grand dame at a reception is kind of badass. But the bad boy thing…that was not a good thing, right?
I wasn’t sure what prompted this–Lost Boy and I had just unveiled our super sexynasty grinding moves on the dance floor. But it felt deeper than that. Had she caught on to our collision of worlds? Was my failed-academic jive and his shit-in-one sock frankness an obvious doomed meeting of the minds? My head spun, partly due to copious amounts of booze, and partly because I am obsessed with doing things the Right Way, and going for the Bad Boy did not seem like the Right Way to go about anything. Bad Boy Bad Boy. Was Lost Boy a Bad Boy?
I smiled to show her we were in cahoots and when I turned toward my date, I caught the tail-end of his conversation with another woman at the table. “Well, the prison system in California has put a lot of money into the literacy program,” he said. Her eyes widened, and a smile stayed plastered on her face as if forcibly tacked to cover a growing fear. “So she was able to work with me a great deal, one-on-one.”
“Ha! Who could have predicted?” he laughed and reached an arm around me and squeezed tight. “The convict and the English teacher!”
She caught my eyes and her smile turned delicious, indulgent. She was in on a juicy, made-up secret. The glimmer brewed in her eyes, too. I let him have the moment, and it became mine, too. We all laughed, sharing it in different ways.
Crossroads. To approach them and get to the other side, I think we have to take the stories we tell about ourselves a little less seriously.