Tag Archives: Jay Parr

Why I Do My Job: A Letter From a Graduate

by Jay Parr

I was recently cleaning out a pile of old papers in my office—going through each one, because anything with FERPA-protected information must be shredded—when I stumbled across this old email sent by an alumna just after she graduated in August 2011. It reminded me of why I do this job.

Dawn Humphrey (right), serving as a marshal at the May 2011 commencement.

Dawn Humphrey (right), serving as a marshal at the May 2011 commencement.

Dear Jay,

For decades I called myself a high school graduate. Today I call myself a graduate student. What a change the BLS program has made in my life!

Three years ago I made a courageous decision to complete my bachelor’s degree, although I was in what some would consider my “golden years.” I sought your advice and you recommended I complete my Associates degree. I subsequently enrolled at a community college in the fall of 2009 and graduated with an AA degree in August of 2010, earning a 4.0 GPA.

contemporaryshortstory

Last August, just one short year ago, I began my studies as a BLS student at UNCG while working full time. I managed to complete all the BLS requirements within one year, graduating on August 12, 2011, and again attaining a GPA of 4.0. I completed 3 hours more than was necessary in order to qualify for Latin Honors [summa cum laude] and the potential nod of Phi Beta Kappa.

As with most adult students, I was eager to complete the degree, yet I also juggled a career and a household and struggled with finances. Fortunately, the academic community has begun recognizing the needs of the online student, with time and convenience being paramount to address a work-life balance.

While I certainly have no desire to become a poster child, future candidates are inspired when they realize their dreams are so close to becoming a reality, thus hearing my story may provide the motivation to pursue their goal. I also had the pleasure of serving as a University Marshal, indicative of the BLS students who are becoming involved in more traditional campus activities and honors.

mysterymayhemmurder

While my time in the BLS program was swift, my educational experience was excellent, graced by exemplary professors and a robust curriculum. Hard work and late nights, blended with lively discussion boards and insightful professors, proved rewarding beyond all my expectations.

Just one month shy of my 55th birthday, I have fulfilled my dream thanks to the wonderful BLS program at UNCG and the guidance of their attentive staff. It is my hope that other potential students will see that via the BLS program, the end of the rainbow may be closer than they think.

On a closing note, please accept my sincere thanks for your advice and encouragement through the years. Our early conversations were the catalyst that sparked the inspiration and courage to return to UNCG after a 30 year hiatus.

Many thanks,
Dawn L. Humphrey
Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies Candidate

Dawn Humphrey receiving her Master of Arts from the chancellor one year after this letter.

Dawn Humphrey receiving her Master of Arts from the chancellor one year later.

Ms. Humphrey finished her Master of Arts in the MALS program one year later—faster than any previous MALS student, and with yet another perfect 4.0—and she now serves as a teaching and research assistant for Dr. Stephen Ruzicka, one of the senior faculty in that program (also a committee member and occasional teacher in the BLS Program). She writes that the pay is negligible (she still has another career), but that “it is the delight of interacting with students that calls me back to the MALS table each semester.”

Thank you Dawn!

Baby’s Hungry: A Daddy’s Perspective on Nursing (and Nursing in Public)

by Jay Parr

A quiet moment in the country.

That special bond between a mother and her child.

I was about twelve, riding the DC Metrobus home from school, when a woman started complaining loudly about another woman breastfeeding her baby on the bus. I didn’t see anything, so I don’t know if the nursing mother was covered up or not, but that’s irrelevant here. The complaining woman made her way up to the driver, a taciturn and tough-looking man who looked like he would as soon cut your throat as say hello (I remember him because he drove that route often). He focused on the afternoon traffic as the woman complained, until he came to a light and she demanded, “Well? Aren’t you going to do something?”

The driver looked out at the cross traffic for a moment, absently drumming his fingers on the fare box, then turned to the woman and shrugged.

“Baby’s hungry.”

BLS 348: Representing Women

BLS 348: Representing Women

I can’t say for certain that the woman immediately stopped complaining, either to the driver or to the other passengers around her, but I do remember that as far as the driver was concerned, the conversation was over.

Baby’s hungry. So feed the baby. ‘Cuz if baby ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Until thirty years later when I became a father, I never thought much about breastfeeding. I knew some people did it and some people didn’t. I knew medical opinion was evolving back in the pro-breastfeeding direction—the implicit concession being that millennia of natural selection just might trump a few decades of medical inquiry. I knew I was more likely to see women breastfeeding their children when the acoustic band I worked sound for played at places like hippie music festivals and communal farms, and I found it vaguely amusing that the medical establishment and the crunchy-living community seemed to be on the same page about something for once. That was about as far as it went.

Then we had a baby, and everything changed.

Selfie with week-old Baby Girl.

Selfie with week-old Baby Girl.

Common words like “latch” and “letdown” suddenly took on new and highly-specialized meanings. The entire household became centered around the mother-baby nursing nest. I learned that breastfeeding, while clearly the most natural process, was not without its setbacks and complications (and blood and tears). I learned about the important contributions of lactation consultants. I learned that some people who aren’t breastfeeding would much rather be breastfeeding, but can’t for some reason or other. I learned about breast-milk-sharing networks, and the amazingly selfless mothers who contribute to them. And much to my dismay I learned that breastfeeding—especially breastfeeding in public—is an absurdly controversial topic in this country.

WPA poster, circa 1937.

WPA poster, circa 1937.

But let’s back up a little. The benefits of breastfeeding are numerous and well-documented. For example, the nursing mother’s immune system works in tandem with her child’s, detecting pathogens to which the child has been exposed and producing antibodies that are passed through breast milk (if you’ve ever wondered why mothers have a strange compulsion to kiss their newborns’ hands, one theory is that it’s related to this immune support). Nursing produces hormones that encourage bonding, relaxation and a sense of well-being for both mother and child. Night milk contains tryptophan, that legendary compound that makes you so sleepy after feasting on your Thanksgiving turkey. The composition of a mother’s milk changes over time as the baby matures, to meet the baby’s changing nutritional needs. The mother’s diet affects the flavor of her milk from day to day, and children who have been exposed to that variety of flavors  at the breast tend to be much less finicky about new foods than children who have been raised on a single flavor of formula. Even among toddlers who are eating mostly solids, mothers’ milk provides a high-quality nutritional supplement, and continues to bolster the child’s still-maturing immune system—all the way up to school age. The list goes on, but I think I’ve made my point. And where the medical establishment swayed toward formula in the mid-20th century, that opinion has swung strongly back in favor of nursing in recent decades, despite the best efforts of a well-funded formula industry to keep its foot in the door.

Still, even with all that backup from the scientific and medical communities, and even with prevailing attitudes renormalizing breastfeeding—even with laws from both liberal and conservative state governments protecting a mother’s right to nurse wherever she and her child are both allowed to be—we as a culture just can’t help but be a little squeamish about the whole topic.

There seem to be two main points of debate about breastfeeding in this country: 1) How public is “too public,” and 2) how old is “too old.”

How public is too public? According to the North Carolina statute addressing indecent exposure, there is no such thing: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a woman may breast feed in any public or private location where she is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother’s breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breast feeding” (§14-190.9).

INFACT Canada transit poster, World Breastfeeding Week 2000.

INFACT Canada transit poster, World Breastfeeding Week 2000.

Does that mean a business owner or manager can’t ask a nursing mother to leave the establishment under the state’s trespassing laws? As far as I know, that part remains unclear. And of course, the laws vary widely from state to state.

Just last week a woman in Austin asked to use a fitting room at a Victoria’s Secret to nurse her child (you know, so she could nurse discreetly without flashing her breast all over, of all places, Victoria’s Secret), and was told no, thanks for your purchase and all, but go use the alley instead. She went to the news, and the story went viral, and Victoria’s Secret issued a statement distancing itself from the actions of its employee, but the fact remains that the business may have the legal right to deny anyone (even a customer who just made a $150 purchase) the use of a fitting room for any purpose other than to try on merchandise. She may have been more legally within her rights to sit down right out in front of the store and oh-so-shamelessly whip out some boob right there under the Texas sun, like a good in-your-face lactivist. Because we all know every nursing mother is really just looking for some public humiliation and controversy, right?

David Horsey / LA Times, 12 July 2012

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2012.

To look at the comments in the media, especially social media, public opinion seems to be that anything a nursing mother does (short of, perhaps, staying at home) is wrong. The mother who asked to use a dressing room was asking a private business to risk losing sales (you know, if all the other dressing rooms filled up and someone got really impatient). The mother sitting outside the store should have sought a more private space, like maybe a dressing room. The mother with her baby under a nursing blanket should have gone out to her car. The mother nursing in her car should have gone inside to a bathroom (would you eat your lunch in a public bathroom?). The mother in the restaurant should have—oh I don’t know, something. Just gone home, maybe? And we haven’t even gotten to the mother whose baby won’t tolerate being covered up, or the one who’s struggling with latch issues or has some other reason she needs to constantly watch and adjust the nursing baby.

The public’s uninhibited judgment of parents in general is pretty harsh, but the public’s judgment of nursing mothers is amazing. Check out any article about someone encountering trouble for nursing in public, and you’ll find all kinds of enlightened comments from the hoi-polloi. Anyone who’s not going about it exactly as the commenter would do it is some kind of radical or attention-monger (to use a polite euphemism), trying to cram her breast down the public’s throats. You’ll see breastfeeding equated to public masturbation, public fellatio, and even public defecation. Excuse me? Feeding the baby is a sex act? Sodomy, even? Nursing a hungry baby is equivalent to dropping a deuce in public? Now you just sound like someone who has never actually had to change a crappy diaper in a public place. It’s a hoot, let me tell you.

This commercial takes on the issue with just the right touch of humor:

Baby Mama has referred to herself as an “accidental lactivist.” Baby Girl would never tolerate nursing under a cover. Her latch was horrible early on (and has always been tentative), needing a lot of revision and pop-off re-latching. Oh, and we’re in no rush to wean, so she’s still nursing at eighteen months. Which brings us to the second major point of debate.

Kayapó mother and child in Brazil.

Kayapó mother and child in Brazil.

How old is too old? We in the United States are in an awfully big hurry to wean, and despite the fact that most of the developing world (and much of the developed world) recognizes the benefits of extended breastfeeding, we seem to view anyone who nurses beyond a year as some kind of radical. Baby Girl’s favorite toddler-class teacher recently asked Baby Mama not to nurse her in the classroom at pick-up time anymore. She justified the request with an insinuation that new dads coming in to pick up their children might be somehow “offended,” but we can’t help but wonder if it’s really driven by an opinion that at eighteen months, she shouldn’t be nursing any longer. Especially among our parents’ generation, there seems to be an opinion that if the child is still nursing at her first birthday, it’s time to cut her off (which is one lousy birthday present, if you ask me). Others will say that if she’s old enough to ask for it, she’s old enough to wean. We’re more of the opinion (as is much of the world, I think) that if it’s not working for both mother and child, well then it’s just not working, but as long as it’s still working for both, why mess with it? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, you know?

We’re not alone in that opinion. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding alongside appropriate solid foods “up to two years of age or beyond” (WHO). Here in the States, there’s something of a movement afoot toward extended breastfeeding, going hand-in-hand with the movement toward what has been dubbed “attachment parenting.” In a nutshell, attachment parenting is built around the notion that humans are naturally an offspring-carrying species (à la higher primates), not a nesting species like dogs or cats or birds. As such, the argument goes, we are more within our natural element carrying our babies, or wearing them, or co-sleeping with them at night, than we are to plop them in a stroller or a bouncy seat or a playpen or a crib (as were most of us as children). Far from spoiling the child (as the old-schoolers would say we were doing), the theory is that keeping our children physically close to us—carrying them on our chests or backs when we’re out and about, engaging them with direct attention, allowing them to sleep close to us or even with us—helps the child grow into a secure, empathetic, and nurturing adult.

Attachment parenting has something of a guru in a fellow named Dr. Sears (actually the elder of several Dr. Searses), who may in fact have even coined the term. I’m not much of a joiner, and Baby Mama will attest that I’m horrible about doing my parenting homework, so I’m not really an expert on the Doctors Sears or the current theory and research around attachment parenting. I only know that the general precepts make sense to me. Children are hardwired to bond with their core caregivers (parents, et al.), and to be more secure around them than around relative strangers such as rotating day-care providers. To get all Darwinian, it’s reproductively advantageous for children to hew toward the adults who are most driven to look out for their safety and welfare. It just makes sense.

Cover article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting, Time, May 31, 2013

Cover article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting, Time, May 31, 2013

To judge by the subtitle on this Time cover, attachment parenting is not without its detractors. Nor is extended breastfeeding. And of course, there are going to be extremists on both sides of any argument, because the world is full of nutjobs. We could talk about how part of the problem is our culture’s hypersexualization of the breast—our hypersexualization of any kind of nudity or intimate physical contact, really—and how that creates a cycle of shame and repression. We could talk about the role of patriarchal traditions and systemic misogyny (‘cuz let’s face it, fellas; those yummies aren’t there for us). We could talk about how all this is compounded by our country’s pitiful maternity leave policies, and the ways in which we make work and parenting mutually incompatible. But I’m running way too long already, and I’m bucking my deadline, so all that will just have to wait for another time.

So how public is too public? If you ask me, there is no such thing. Riding a bus, sitting in a restaurant, in uniform, in Parliament, in front of the Pope—you name it. A nursing baby is so much more pleasant than a cranky, hungry baby. Don’t want to see it? That’s simple: Don’t look.

And how old is too old? As far as I’m concerned, as long as breastfeeding is still working for both mother and child, no one else really has much right to chime in. If you’re not the mother, it’s not your body and it’s not your child, so it’s not your business.

BLS 385: American Motherhood

BLS 385: American Motherhood

In short, as the partner of a nursing mother and the father of a happy and healthy breastfed toddler, I believe that no mother should ever be made to feel that she has somehow transgressed public decency simply by feeding her infant or soothing her child. It’s not an act of rebellion. It’s not an attention-seeking spectacle. In fact, it’s not about you at all. It’s an act of love between a mother and her child. Baby’s hungry.

Why Venus Can’t Find a Modeling Gig

by Jay Parr

We have a print of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus hanging on our wall at home, and lately it occurs to me that if Botticelli’s Venus were looking for work as a model today, she would never find a job.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

I should clarify my credentials here by saying that I am neither a gender-studies scholar nor an art historian. On the gender-studies front, I’m basically just an all-around egalitarian … just feminist enough to recognize my own male-gaze tendencies. On the art-studies front, I did minor in visual art as an undergrad, but my concentration was in photography. I do also have a Master of Fine Arts, but the “art” in question there is putting lies on paper … um … fiction.

Oh, and I have no credentials in the fashion world, either. Beyond, that is, being subjected to its daily assaults along with the rest of us.

Rihanna looks like this?

Rihanna’s everyday look. No, really.

But compare that canonical painting to the images of women that bombard us from all directions today, and you will plainly see that this goddess–the very quintessence of feminine beauty in 1486 when she was painted–need only go through a supermarket checkout to learn just how desperately lacking she is in “feminine allure” today. The cover of any Vogue, Allure, Vanity Fair, or any of the other myriad fashion/celebrity-gossip/consumerist-culture magazines will inform her, without a single word and without a hint of a doubt, that she stands no chance of competing with the professionally made-up, professionally lit, professionally photographed, and professionally photoshopped images of feminine beauty that set the standard today.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Just go do an image search on the word “beauty,” and guess what you’ll find. Screen after screen after screen of women’s faces, all obviously (and heavily) coated in cosmetics, professionally coiffed, professionally photographed, and then photoshopped to the point that they bear little if any resemblance to what was actually in front of the camera lens. When I did that search while working on this post, one relatively natural-looking face jumped out at me. So I followed the link to discover that no, she was actually pretty heavily made up, with perfectly plucked eyebrows and perfectly mascaraed lashes and perfectly subtle “natural” makeup, and the hair that was out of place was, in fact, that way by design. Even better, the image was an ad for a full-service spa-salon offering such treatments as laser hair removal, microdermabrasion, skin peels, spray tanning, eyelash perming, and lash extensions. No, really. Eyelash perming. Lash Extensions.

Because that’s what women look like, right? They have thin eyebrows and thick eyelashes and translucent, perfectly-toned skin and plump, moist lips and delicate little noses and big, round eyes and tiny waists and full bosoms that utterly defy gravity.

What I look like when I wake up.

What I look like when I wake up.

Even the hippie-living magazine that somehow found its way into our house is guilty. What’s the biggest headline? SEXY SKIN! What’s the standard set by the cover? A healthy and unusually attractive young woman peering over her naked, smooth-skinned shoulder, with straight white teeth peeking through her smile, subtle “natural” lip color, “natural” makeup on her sun-kissed and lightly freckled cheeks, perfectly threaded eyebrows, and what would not be too much of a stretch to describe as something of a come-hither look in her eyes. Oh, and what was that about the out-of-place hair being that way by design? Yeah.

Birth of Venus detail

Detail of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

And that is why Botticelli’s Venus cannot find a job. I mean, just look at her. Her brows are okay, I suppose, but her eyelashes are too anemic, and her skin is too motley, and her nose is too crude and lumpy, and her mouth is too small and her lips are too blurry, and her chin is too big, and her jaw is too heavy, and her hair is all split ends and tangles (but not wild enough to be interesting), and with her brownish auburn hair and medium-brown eyes and dun skin-tone, she’s all one washed-out color. No punch. No pizazz. No waifish, delicate, might-be-dead-tomorrow magnetism here. No sir.

And that’s just her face. Look at her figure through the eyes of the porn fashion industry and you’ll see that her belly’s too soft and her waist is too thick and her breasts are both too small and too low, and her shoulders are too sloped, and her arms are too thick, and her hips are too square, and she could use a manicure.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

I mean, she doesn’t look at all like Keira Knightley on this cover of Allure, so heavily made up and post-processed that the closer you look the more she looks like a video-game avatar. Ms. Knightley doesn’t even look plastic here. Because she doesn’t even look that realistic. She looks like pure CGI. Oh, and what’s with the open fly and the sequined bolero jacket with nothing in between? Correction, nothing but body makeup and post-processing. Is this the new fashion? ‘Cuz I work on a campus with a lot of young women on it, and I ain’t seen no one walking around dressed quite like that.

I’m reminded of the first viral video of that Dove “real beauty” campaign, which, despite getting some harsh criticism from pretty much every direction, actually did a little bit to maybe get people thinking about just how realistic the images in that supermarket checkout (or on that billboard) really aren’t. At least for a moment.

Is it any wonder we have a distorted standard of feminine beauty in our culture? When the high-fashion publications and high-fashion advertising bombard us with images that are more fiction than fact? When even the “real” images are so idealized? When Venus herself looks frumpy and plain?

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Not that men in the public eye are entirely exempt from unrealistic standards of (and undue emphasis on) physical beauty. It’s certainly to a lesser extent, and less all-consuming, but I have a feeling that no one who looks like Abraham Lincoln would stand  much of a chance of being elected president these days. The fashion industry does have its unrealistic images of masculine beauty, of course. Open any high-fashion magazine and you’re going to see the images of the guys with their waxed chests and shaped eyebrows and flawless skin, because the ideal for either gender is a post-pubescent physique, minus the hormone-ravaged skin, with prepubescent hair growth (i.e., none to speak of). And the cosmetics industry does keep making attempts to get its toe in the door of the male market, with some success (skin care, shaving accoutrements, deodorants, gray-hair color and the like), but not nearly to the extent that it dominates the female market. A guy who’s out on the weekend unshaven in rumpled clothes and bed head is still just being a guy on the weekend. A girl who does the same thing is being unkempt and needs to clean up her act. No double standard there at all.

Thinking about this issue makes me miss that little Quaker college six miles west of here where I finished my bachelor’s degree. The traditional college years are an age when a lot of people experiment with nonconformity anyway, so combine that with an institution that was founded by nonconformists and actively encourages individuality and nonconformity in its students? It’s a thing of beauty, let me tell you. You’re more likely to find a copy of Adbusters lying around than a copy of Vogue. Attractive young women eschewed cosmetics, cut their hair into wake-and-go hairstyles, grew out their armpits, unibrows, mustaches, and leg hair, dressed in comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes, and headed out to class. Or to question authority. Or both.

I dug around for a while trying to find a picture from those days, but the closest I could come was this image of English-German author Charlotte Roche looking like she could have been one of my classmates there.

Charlotte Roche

Charlotte Roche

Around that time there was a billboard in town for a laser hair-removal “clinic” with a heavily-retouched photo of a hairless young woman in a postage stamp of a bikini, smooth pits open to the camera, with the legend, “You didn’t shave. You didn’t have to.” I wanted to make a spoof of that ad, same image same pose, same bikini, same legend, only with one of my classmates who was just as fit as the model in the original, except, and this is the important part, spectacularly furry.

But we’re all brainwashed. We’re so saturated with the industry’s definitions of beauty that our capacity for critical thinking just doesn’t even bother to kick in, because we see no reason to question it. I don’t think I realized quite how bad it was until just now, when I was doing the search that led to the Charlotte Roche image. Almost everything I found on the internet was ridiculing those women. Because clearly any woman would have to be a bit crazy to admit she had hair in her armpits. Or on her legs. Or in her pants. Or that she had a little bit of fat protecting her abdomen. Or that her breasts were lower than her pectoral muscles.

And that, my friends, is why Botticelli’s Venus can’t find a modeling gig.

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus,

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863

Cabanel’s Venus, on the other hand, might manage to find work, at least as a plus-size model. I mean, she does kinda look a little like Christina Hendricks.

On Sitting In, and Standing Up

by Jay Parr

I had a completely different blog entry ready to go this morning, but then I woke from a dream that got me thinking about something more important.

Woolworth's Sit-In

In the dream I was walking into a diner that was attached to a basic travel hotel. There were three or four young women — college athletes dressed in team sweatshirts or some such (you know how vague dreams can be) — sitting on the bench waiting to be seated. The host offered to seat me (and my companions?), when I pointed out that those young women had been there first.

That was when it came to my attention that the diner would not seat unaccompanied women.

I’m proud of my dream self, because I went ballistic. I started off ranting at the poor young host. He was, of course, just an employee, who could either do what he was told or find himself without even this subsistence-level job. In fact, as I pointed past him at the unoccupied counter seating, traditionally used by those who are eating “unaccompanied,” his face kind of looked like the the counter clerk’s in that famous image at the top of this post: Surely sympathetic (I mean, the guy in that picture couldn’t even eat at the counter where he worked), but in no position to even comment on the disparity, much less do anything about it.

Newt Gingrich being Very Important

Newt Gingrich being Very Important

 After a vague dream-transition I found myself talking to the man in charge. And a police officer. Both were white men. The manager/owner was older, white-haired, and reeked of privilege. Actually, looking back at the dream, he kind of reminds me of Newt Gingrich. He was spewing some nonsense about the morality of allowing unaccompanied young women to come into a family establishment and distract the poor unsuspecting fathers from their families. Because that’s obviously what these college athletes were up to, in their team sweatshirts, with no makeup on, hair pulled up in practical athletic ties, ignoring everyone else and talking shop amongst themselves. Surely it was all a ruse, and they were really there to steal me from my wife and daughter. Oh, and somehow it was their fault that I just might be too weak-willed to control myself? And of course, were I to have such a moment of weakness it would be inconceivable that they might, you know, reject my advances or something.

The cop had been called because some hothead was making a scene.

That’s about all I remember of the dream. That and something about large vehicles getting tangled up at highway speeds (anxiety much?). But as I was setting the coffee to brew this morning I started wondering what I really would have done, had I found myself in a similar situation, say, perhaps at that Woolworth’s counter down on Elm Street on that Monday afternoon in the winter of ’60. I like to think I would have pointed out those four scared but stoic freshmen and politely said, “They were here before me; I’ll wait until they’ve been served.” I mean, I know I wouldn’t have been among the hecklers shouting racist epithets (I’ve always been a little too Quaker for that), but would I have just quietly gotten my order and gone on with my day? Would I have gone home and mentioned the incident to my wife? Would I have been among the Woman’s College (UNCG) or Guilford College students who came downtown to clog the counters with white “customers” insisting that the the black protesters be served first? Or would I have been too busy supporting my family (or perhaps “too busy supporting my family”) to do much more than follow the articles in the newspaper?

pride_flag

The Pride Flag, because not all families are heteronormative.

I definitely connect that issue with North Carolina’s “Amendment One” vote last May. I was vocally against it, not just because I support same-sex marriage (which I do), but all the more so because its wording is so much broader and insidious that it affects any unmarried couple in the state, gay or straight. Oh, and their children.

I learned of the bill’s introduction in the state legislature shortly after an old coworker of mine lost his partner of thirty years and had to endure absurd legal challenges because the state considered my marriage — my second marriage, mind you, which was less than three years old at the time and had been performed in another state — more valid than his decades-long partnership, which had begun before my wife was even born. She and I have been flying a pride flag on our house since the referendum bill passed in the legislature. It’s a small gesture, but it’s how we feel about the issue.

UNCG students having fun at at a Muslim Student Association picnic.

UNCG students having fun at at a Muslim Student Association picnic.

The fact that those being denied service in my dream were women also points (albeit circuitously) to mainstream America’s complicated and uncomfortable relationship with Islamic nations, Muslim Americans, and Islam in general. I have a problem with any legal system or culture that limits the options of any group merely by virtue of their membership in that group. That goes for nations that curtail the rights of women — some of which do so on religious grounds, and some of which (not all the same ones) are Islamic nations — but it also goes for western nations and institutions that want to limit the rights of Muslim women to wear hijab, niqab, or even burqas. My wife has childhood friends, two sisters, who are Muslim. One of the sisters is divorced from an abusive husband — and the Muslim divorce was a lot simpler than the American legal divorce. The other sister once set aside the injunction against being alone with a man other than her husband, simply so that her sister’s childhood friend’s husband (i.e., yours truly) didn’t have to sit and wait alone. Brought me delicious cardamom tea and we had a delightful conversation amidst the din of playing children. Southern hospitality at its finest. These women are American born and raised. They are not oppressed by a misogynistic culture (well, that’s debatable, but that’s a whole different conversation). Their choice to wear hijab is not a symptom of their oppression, but an expression of their cultural identity. Yes, there are women who wear hijab (and niqab, and burqas) because they are legally bound to do so by oppressive theocratic legal systems. Yes, there are places in the world where unaccompanied women cannot be seated in a restaurant, or drive a car, or even walk down the street, because those in power have deemed it inappropriate. And yes, there are radical Muslim elements that view America(ns) as the godless enemy. But we can’t allow ourselves to conflate an expression of religious and cultural identity (wearing hijab) with sympathy for oppressive governments or violent radicals. Really. It makes as much sense to declare anyone with a crucifix or a rosary in league with the IRA bombers (and don’t get me started on how our media always point out the religious affiliation of “Islamic terrorists” but never that of Christian terrorists). But I digress.

I suppose this post could be an examination of my responsibilities as one who benefits from the privilege of the straight white male, or more broadly, the responsibilities of anyone who benefits from the privilege of majority status. Because I really do feel that whenever I encounter situations in which someone is being denied equal treatment or equal access to resources because of their gender — or their race, or their economic background, or their sexual identity, or their cultural identity, or their citizenship status — that it is my responsibility to call attention to the disparity, to voice my opposition to it, and to subvert it in any way that I can. And I guess that’s why, even in that dream that got me started on this rambling post, I caused enough of a ruckus that someone called the cops. Because really, it’s what I think any of us should do.

What bothers me most, though, is that it never occurred to me to simply say of those unaccompanied girls, “Oh, they’re with me.”

Thank You, Al. You Will Be Missed.

Al Briscoe, vacationing in Italy last summer.

We are very sad to announce that Al Briscoe, Jr. passed away late Sunday night, after a long illness. Al’s name may not be familiar to students in the BLS Program, but as an instructional technology consultant for the College of Arts and Sciences, he has given vital assistance to our faculty and staff since our program’s beginning. Al came to UNCG in 2002, after completing his M.Ed. in instructional technology at Wayne State University in Detroit. His many involvements with BLS Program courses include course website design, online multimedia and video hosting, course Blackboard design and maintenance, routine updates to online courses between one session and the next, and the management of end-of-session student course ratings. He also helped faculty in the College employ technology in the classroom by providing software support, training and resources.

Al spent his youth as the oldest child of a large, poor family in Baltimore, and overcame many hardships and obstacles to successfully complete a graduate-school education and become a vital member of the academic community. He was 58 years old. He is survived in the UNCG community by his partner of 20 years, Dr. John Tomkiel, Associate Professor of Biology.

Online Learning: Accidentally Green

This is where I admit I’m a little bit of a green freak. I use an electric lawn mower, an electric weed eater, and an electric leaf blower at my house, partly because they’re less expensive to fuel and maintain, but mostly because it allows me to avoid the wasted fossil fuels and absurd emissions of small gasoline engines. I can’t afford an electric car on an academic’s salary, but I did manage to find an electric scooter that I could afford, and I ride it to work any time the weather’s not too horrible…and as an old motorcycle lover and bicycle nut, I have a ridiculously liberal definition of “not too horrible” for riding. So yeah. Green freak. That’s me. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.When I first started working with the BLS Program in 2004, our primary goal was not to provide a green method of delivering our classes. In fact, it was the least of our considerations. We were mostly concerned with meeting the needs of the nontraditional students who wanted to complete a bachelor’s degree, but didn’t have the leisure to make it to regularly-scheduled classes on campus. The people we thought about were working 8-to-5 and weren’t served by the evening offerings on campus. Or they were working parents and couldn’t afford childcare to go to class. Or maybe they worked in some field with unpredictable hours, such as emergency services, or the medical field, or the airline industry, or even the good old restaurant business (and we have since had students in all of those fields). Whatever they were doing to pay the mortgage and support their children, we wanted to make classes that they could complete from home, in the hours they could manage to carve out of their schedules. From what I hear from our students, I think we’ve been pretty successful at that goal.

What we didn’t plan was the myriad ways in which our online classes are so much more resource-conserving than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Here are a few that come to mind.

No Driving — Instead of having each of our students burn a few gallons of gasoline getting to class (a lot of them are pretty far from campus), we use a few watts of electricity to deliver their classes electronically. They can participate in their classes anywhere they can get online, whether that’s at home, at work on a quiet night shift, at their favorite coffee shop, or from their hotel room while they’re traveling on business. It goes even further than that, because many of our faculty also teach their classes from home. Given that we have faculty who live in the Triangle, in Charlotte, and even out of state, that adds up to a lot of driving avoided by teaching and taking classes online.

No Buildings — We don’t need big spaces to gather faculty and students in the same room, so we don’t have to spend a bunch of money and resources building, heating, cooling, and lighting classroom buildings. That means fewer buildings and more green space for everyone, and it adds up to a substantial savings in terms of resource usage. Even with smart climate-control systems, classroom buildings take a vast amount of energy to heat and cool, and because of their scale, they have to be heated and cooled around the clock, even at night when no one’s around. By delivering our classes online to our students, we help reduce the pressure to build and maintain more resource-hogging classroom space. In fact, an online class full of students using their laptops at home, even if they leave them on all the time, still uses less electricity than it takes just to run the nighttime security lighting in a classroom building.

No Paper — Using online discussion boards, and writing, receiving, critiquing, and grading essays online saves reams of paper (literally) for each online class. My writing-intensive class has ten discussion boards, a prospectus, an essay, and a final revision. With twenty-five students in that class, assuming one full page each for the discussion boards, two pages for the prospectus, and ten pages each for the essay and revision, that’s (*does some math*) eight hundred pages that aren’t getting printed. Add in a syllabus that doesn’t have to get printed and handed out to the class, and that one 25-student online class has saved two whole reams of paper. Multiply that by the twenty-four classes we are offering this semester, and that’s a nice, heavy case of paper that isn’t getting deforested, pulped, packaged, shipped, and most likely ending up in a landfill somewhere at the end of it all.

So, less driving, less construction, less heating and cooling, and less paper. As a green freak, I gotta say that’s not too shabby as an accidental side effect. And here we were just trying to make it easier for you to go to class in your pajamas!

The Significance of a Simple Ring

By Jay Parr

A few months ago, I was at a training seminar when I observed that the main presenter was wearing a wedding ring. I didn’t think much about it, not consciously anyway, but I realized later that somewhere at a deeply subconscious, perhaps even unconscious level, I had made a whole set of assumptions about him based solely on that little piece of metal. I assumed he had a wife, of course. Given his age, I assumed the likelihood of children, probably in elementary school, or maybe in high school if they had gotten started young. I assumed all the trappings of the suburban middle-class academic’s life: A house with a mortgage and a lawn, a couple of modest but versatile cars, a household balancing the various pressures of work and home life, quiet evenings at home in front of the tube, subtle jokes about having become boring homebodies … sound familiar? Yeah, me too.

But then it came up later in the seminar that he was not married. Not legally, anyway. Not in North Carolina. He couldn’t have been, because he was in a committed relationship with another man.

I felt cheated. I felt as if he had violated some sort of social contract by wearing that ring. For that one visceral moment I felt as if he had committed some egregious act of deception. He had completely misrepresented himself to me, as if he were some meth-dealing pimp coached by his defense attorney to cut his hair and wear a suit, glasses, and a wedding ring to court so he could beat that drug-related murder rap. Liar!

Extreme? Yes, it was. But for that one fraction of a second, that’s exactly how I felt. And I literally felt it. In my gut. Much as I had felt it when my oldest brother’s telephone-filtered voice told me that our father had died. My reaction was that strong, and that visceral.

The irony is that the training seminar I was attending was so that I could become a certified Safe Zone ally, so that I could advertise to the university that, hey, if you’re an LGBTQ member of our community and you need someone to talk with about that, I’m here for you. You see, I’ve been an “ally” since back before the queer community had such a concise word for us odd, friendly breeders. Back when I was in high school during the AIDS crisis, something like two-thirds of my closest friends were gay or lesbian. The parties I went to were mostly gay folks. The nightspots I went to were mostly gay hangouts. Any girl I was currently crushing on, the odds were about two-to-one she didn’t bat for my team. I didn’t think about it a lot; it was just the way things were. As often as one of my friends disappointed me with “no, she’s gay,” one of them was disappointing someone else about me with “no, he’s straight.” The joys and the dramas of the relationships in my circle didn’t seem to be much affected by the genders or orientations of the people in them. People hooked up. They fell in love. They had relationships. Sometimes those relationships were glorious. Sometimes they were quietly successful. Sometimes they needed work, and sometimes they just didn’t work out. Once in a while, someone would throw us all a curve-ball and jump the fence. Sometimes it was a momentary experiment. Sometimes it was the beginning of a twenty-year relationship. Gay, straight, male, female, or anywhere in the liminal spaces in between, it didn’t really have a significant impact on the overall pattern. Love was love, in all its inspiring, insane, messy, and complicated glory.

I’ve also had a strongly egalitarian mindset for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure of the source of that mindset. Maybe it comes from growing up in a little farming town where folks were just folks, whether they were the mayor or the town drunk. Maybe it comes from identifying strongly with my mother in a still-misogynistic rural culture. Maybe it comes from spending my tween years as the poor white kid in a professional black neighborhood. Maybe it comes from seeing the crap my gay high-school friends caught just for being gay. Regardless, I have long been of the opinion that everyone deserves the same rights I enjoy as a straight, white, native-born American male. For decades, that has included the belief that committed same-sex couples deserve all the legal rights and recognitions of their heterosexual counterparts. It took me a while to come around about the word “marriage,” but that was largely because I felt it was a hot-button word that was more likely to incite a knee-jerk reaction from the conservative religious right, and that toning down the semantics (“civil union” or “domestic partnership”) would be a little more pragmatic in terms of getting it through the legislature.

So why did I, with that background, have such a gut-level reaction to one man’s ring? Especially given the context of the setting, and of my own professed open-mindedness, I was disturbed by my reaction, and I had to take some time to reflect on it. In the end, I could only come up with one thing: We as a culture implicitly associate the wearing of a wedding ring not just with the social status of being in a committed relationship, but also with the legal status of licensed marriage. And no such legal status exists between a man and another man in the state of North Carolina.

The implicit statement made by that lack of legal status, though it may not be intentional, is that no relationship between members of the same gender could ever be stable enough, or legitimate enough, to “deserve” a ring. It says that my marriage with my wife, which is just past the three-year mark, is somehow more legitimate than my friend G’s relationship with his partner of over thirty years. More insidiously, it means that anyone who wants to exclude him from visiting his partner in the hospital, or who wants to withhold information about his partner’s medical condition, is free to do so without recourse, because he is not legally a family member. It means that in order for him to make medical decisions on his partner’s behalf, he is required to produce a legal document, signed and notarized, granting him medical power of attorney. It adds layers of legal complexity to the holding of any joint property, such as real estate, cars, and bank accounts, and it means that when one of them dies, the surviving partner is not automatically guaranteed the right of survivorship in the disposition of those assets, as would be the case in my relatively brief, but state-sanctioned marriage. It means that without a ream of legal documentation, a belligerent  and homophobic sibling who has not seen the deceased partner in decades could, literally, step in as next of kin and deny the surviving partner any access to the deceased partner’s assets or end-of-life decisions.

In a very literal, legal sense, the lack of legal recognition of committed same-sex relationships relegates the partners in those relationships to the status of second-class citizens. They have almost none of the legal rights that their legally-married, heterosexual counterparts take for granted. To make matters worse, the North Carolina legislature has recently approved a referendum on a “Defense of Marriage” constitutional amendment stating that “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State” (PDF). That amendment will go to a popular vote in the May primary election, when historically only a small portion of the population bothers to vote. When that happens, it is entirely possible that a small minority of North Carolina voters could etch those definitions into the legal bedrock of our state constitution. I think it’s pretty obvious how I feel about that possibility.

We in the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program try to look at the world from as many various points of view as we can reasonably accommodate. The literature course I most frequently teach looks at the world through the eyes of various socioeconomic classes, of immigrants of various stripes, of disenfranchised minorities and comfortable socialites, of poor rural and middle-class urban African-Americans, of drafted soldiers and reservation-dwelling Native Americans. One of the readings in that class follows a middle-class youth coming to terms with his own homosexuality. Many other classes in the BLS Program have much the same emphasis on the variety of human experience. I am tempted to fall back on a tired metaphor of life as a sculpture, and not a painting, as something that can look very different from different points of view, and that cannot be fully appreciated without taking in as many angles as possible. The truth is that if any of us only views the world from within our own, limited, point of view, we are missing out on the wonderful variety and diversity of the human experience.

When it comes right down to it, for all I know some of my assumptions about that man with his ring are probably correct. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that he and his partner do have a house with a mortgage and a lawn, a couple of modest but versatile cars, a household balancing the various pressures of work and home life, quiet evenings at home in front of the tube, and subtle jokes about having become boring homebodies. Sound familiar? Yeah. Me too.

########

If you want to read further, here’s the history of the “Defense of Marriage” bill in North Carolina’s 2011-2012 legislative session (primary sources):

 

Is the Future of Racing a Thing of the Past?

By Jay Parr

NASCAR

As anyone who has made the mistake of taking I-85 past Concord on a race day knows, NASCAR is one of the largest professional sporting organizations in the country. Major events draw more than a hundred thousand spectators to the stands, and sometimes millions of viewers watching from home or their favorite sports bar. Total revenues are in the billions of dollars, and the revenues of the top teams are in the tens of millions of dollars apiece. It’s a huge business.

We tend to think of auto racing as being at the forefront of high-performance technology, but that’s not actually the case in NASCAR. The regulations in that organization dictate that the cars must be front engine and rear wheel drive, despite the fact that the street versions of those cars are almost all front-wheel drive. But it doesn’t stop there. The engines must have carburetors, not the fuel injection of most cars on the road today. They must be naturally aspirated, so they can’t have the turbochargers that are becoming so common in passenger cars today. They must have pushrod-operated valves, so they can’t even have the overhead cams found in a twenty-year-old Saturn. Far from being at the leading edge of engine technology, NASCAR engines use hundred-year-old technology that is arguably fifty years out of date.

Tour de France

Auto racing is not the only racing sport where the rules place big restrictions on the technology used. If you’ve ever watched the Tour de France or any other major bicycle race, you may have noticed that all the bikes look almost identical. That is not a coincidence, and it is not because the bike you see is the best configuration for performance. Nearly a century ago, shortly after the familiar diamond-framed “safety bicycle” took over popularity from the dangerous old high-wheeled “ordinary bicycle,” a Frenchman by the name of Charles Mochet designed the first commercially-produced recumbent bicycle. The rider sat back as if on a chaise lounge, with his feet stretched out in front of him and the rear wheel behind his back. It won several major races, and in 1934 it broke the one-hour world record when his rider covered 28 miles—and the wins and the record were all piloted by second-tier cyclists. At their very next meeting, the International Cyclist’s Union (UCI) decided that recumbent bicycles could not compete against diamond-framed bicycles in any major bicycle race. That is why you never see a recumbent bicycle in the Tour de France—despite the fact that they’re faster, more aerodynamic, more comfortable to race, and much safer in an accident.

Recumbent bicycles

In both of these racing venues—motorized and human-powered—political decisions have kept the sport from evolving toward superior technologies. The philosophy in both cases is to put the emphasis on human competition, but the technological ramifications reach far beyond the racetrack. In the past, the highly-funded and competitive environment of racing has led to major advances in both efficiency and safety. Your brake lights, rear-view mirrors, seat belts, and radial tires were all pioneered in race cars, as were many other features you take for granted, like the side-impact bars in your doors, the fuel injection that has doubled your gas mileage, and the variable timing advance that allows your engine to run efficiently at a wide variety of RPMs. Even on a dime-store bicycle, the gearing and brake technology were perfected in the racing world before trickling down to the kids’ beater bikes.

Restricting the natural advance of racing technology has a negative impact, not only on racing sports, but on the society as a whole. Consumer technology tends to mimic high-performance technology, and to benefit from high-tech advances in a trickle-down effect. Imagine how the world might look if the UCI had forbidden the chain-driven safety bicycle. Would the serious cyclists be teetering around on top of huge 54-inch wheels? Would we be afraid to teach our children to ride bikes for fear they might take a header and break their necks? Now, imagine it the other way, if the UCI had not forbidden the recumbent. Would most of us be cruising around on comfy lawn chairs? Would we stare in amusement when we saw one of those old dangerous head-first relics? Would our kids be more likely to land on a nice soft buttock instead of a fragile face or wrist when they dumped their bikes?

What if NASCAR technology had been allowed to develop unchecked? Pit stops happen on the clock, so it’s entirely conceivable that racing engineers would have poured a lot of attention into increasing fuel efficiency to minimize those stops. If they had been allowed to experiment unchecked, would we have race cars that could complete a 600-mile race on ten gallons of fuel? Imagine how that technology would trickle down to a little Nissan on the highway. Think about that next time you’re fueling up for that trip down I-85.

Cyclist Sam Whittingham exceeds 82 mph in a streamlined recumbent bicycle.