#DearDePauw

Students of color at my alma mater, DePauw University, are organizing for visibility under the hashtag #DearDePauw. If you are reading this, I urge you to check it out and support them.

I attended DePauw from 2007 to 2012. I was a student in the School of Music and the College of Liberal Arts, and I earned two degrees there. I also met my best friends and my husband there. I loved most of my professors and learned from all of them.

No campus is perfect, but DePauw, especially the College of Liberal Arts, needs to acknowledge and scrutinize its flaws. Some bullet points from my own experience:

  • White students and students of color are separated. In my CLA classes, I do not recall having more than one student of color in a class, and I only had three professors of color (one of whom was a visiting professor). Students of color and international students are often placed in different campus housing, whether that’s due to historically Black or white Greek letter organizations, special-interest housing, or substance-free housing. The result is de facto segregation on campus, and the distinct vibe that there is “Black DePauw” and “white DePauw”.
  • Sexual/gender diversity is largely ignored.  When I was at DePauw, there was one smallish blanket student organization dedicated to LGBTQ advocacy. It was a nice group of people, but it generally lacked intersectionality, as well as solid, vocal representation of bisexual, trans, intersex and asexual students. I hope this has improved.
  • Binge drinking and underage drinking are ubiquitous. DePauw requires students to take an online alcohol safety course before arriving on campus, but abstract statistics mean little to most incoming freshmen. Group activities that could be fun (e.g. campus clubs, intramural sports) are either dominated by Greek organizations or largely ignored, which can make finding friends in a risk-free setting tricky. When I had my first big struggles with depression and anxiety during my first years at DePauw, I had way more visible opportunities to self-medicate with alcohol than I did to seek help in a nonjudgmental space.
  • Hazy consent is common in sexual encounters at DePauw, as it is at many residential colleges in America. When so many 18-23 year-olds are intoxicated on any given night, and our culture does not freely give people (especially women, but really any people) the vocabulary to directly discuss consent and desire with others, the issue of consent is bound to be a mess on all sides. However, the administrations of other colleges are at least paying lip service to sexual assault on campus. I haven’t found this to be the case at DePauw. Several months ago The DePauw published an article about the issue–the author interviewed victims, saying that s/he was working on an assignment for a journalism class, then published the piece in the paper, including the victims’ names. To my knowledge, the university never made a public statement about this violation or penalized the writer, though it appears that the piece was removed from The DePauw’s archives.

These are mostly problems that are common at American schools, but DePauw’s administration is not giving marginalized students the support they deserve, that they have paid for. When my husband and I receive our quarterly issues of DePauw magazine, we read articles touting alumni successes (these alumni are usually white dudes) and new construction projects on campus. We hear nothing of campus controversies or the university’s efforts to address them. Recently, DePauw celebrated the crowning of its first WOC Old Gold Queen at that festive annual homecoming celebration. I know that the student who received the honor is deserving, but DePauw has been around for 177 years. That a woman of color hadn’t been crowned before 2014 is embarrassing, but DePauw pats itself on the back. Instead of fretting that students can’t fill an auditorium to hear speeches by social justice activists or celebrities from marginalized groups, DePauw high-fives Twitter when students line up to see Jimmy Kimmel. Instead of making a visible effort to increase multicultural and/or consent education on campus, DePauw wants to make sure we know about the new gym they built.

I had a lot of fun at DePauw. I learned a lot from my professors. But I’m deeply ashamed and embarrassed that it took me until after graduation, until moving to a large coastal city, to find feminism. To learn what “intersectionality” means.  To fully understand my sexual identity. To recognize my privilege and examine my microaggressions. To take stock of the ways in which I was marginalized/victimized as a woman on campus, and the ways in which I personally was destructive to myself and others when I engaged in DePauw’s dominant culture. Most of these things are on me, but I also believe that they are things liberal arts students should learn by virtue of being on liberal arts campuses. I could have learned them at DePauw, but I didn’t know where to look.

But that’s just me. I’m lucky. To the students who are the true victims of DePauw’s campus climate, the students who have started #DearDePauw, know this: I stand with DePauw because you are DePauw. I am sorry I didn’t see you when I was there. Stay angry. Stay loud. Tiger Pride.

Update 11/12: DePauw senior Ashton Johnston (who wrote a powerful piece for HuffPo on the #DearDePauw conversation) informed me that University President Brian Casey sent an e-mail to students, faculty and staff today, expressing solidarity for marginalized students and advocating for a multicultural education requirement. Casey said he would be holding a faculty meeting next Wednesday to discuss setting aside a school day for a campus-wide discussion of DePauw’s othering culture, as well as the possibility of implementing a multicultural requirement. Casey closed his e-mail with this excellent sentiment:

Some of you may find yourself thinking that the reported examples of racism, bias and insensitivity do not involve or represent you, that the DePauw described in these reports is not the DePauw that you know. It is precisely this disconnection that, I believe, presents us with a challenge and with real opportunity. That is the work ahead for us.

I am committed to the work that lies ahead, and I look forward to the university we can become.

Note to DePauw alumni: The Office of Alumni Engagement is currently hosting a massive drive for donations targeting GOLD alumni (Graduates Of the Last Decade). I threw them a few bucks today on behalf of Zac and me. When asked where I’d like my money to go, I checked the box labeled “student experience”. My hope is that my measly donation will go toward the creation of safe, intersectional spaces on campus. If you give, make it clear why you’re giving. When I speak with my alumni friends, we remember our time at DePauw fondly, but with the understanding (sometimes verbalized, often not), that things were amiss. It doesn’t need to be that way anymore. Vote with your dollars and add some of your own noise.

Some Updates

1. I have been married for a week and my old name is not my name anymore. I will probably have to change the URL of this blog. I am very happy with this development.

2. I have the “Too Many Cooks” song in my head, and probably will for the rest of my days. My feelings about this are a little more ambivalent.

On Showing & Telling

In beginning creative writing classes, they tell you to “show, not tell.” My stories are mostly about feelings, and it’s hard for me to show everything in action and dialogue. So, whenever I haven’t written in a while, I really worry, because I feel like I’m telling too much and not showing enough.

I’m taking a workshop at The Writing Pad right now, and the instructor gave us an Isabel Allende story to read over the week. I found it heartening. Here are some quotes from the turning point in the story, which is about a reporter who is waiting with a trapped earthquake victim for a hydraulic pump.

“That night, imperceptibly, the unyielding floodgates that had contained Rolf Carlé’s past for so many years began to open, and the torrent of all that had lain hidden in the deepest and most secret layers of memory poured out, leveling before it the obstacles that had blocked his consciousness for so long.”

“He understood that all his exploits as a reporter, the feats that had won him such recognition and fame, were merely an attempt to keep his most ancient fears at bay, a stratagem for taking refuge behind a lens to test whether reality was more tolerable from that perspective. He took excessive risks as an exercise of courage, training by day to conquer the monsters that tormented him by night.”

There’s way more–Allende goes into sharing specific memories of Rolf Carlé’s past traumas. But even if she hadn’t, in these two chunky quotes, Allende has committed, like, first-degree telling.

So, I suppose the rule is, “Show, don’t tell, unless you’re good at telling and can really rock that out.”

I Love ‘Whip It!’, But You Probably Shouldn’t: A Roller Derby Athlete Reflects

Note: I originally wrote this piece to submit to Women In Sports Week at Bitch Flicks, but I screwed up on the deadline. That’s why I’m writing about this when I guess I should be writing about Miley Cyrus.

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Photo: You Are Doing That Wrong

Whenever I meet a fellow skater and they ask me how I got into roller derby, I get a little sheepish.

“I was in college and I saw Whip It! and I decided I wanted to do that,” I say every time, hoping for a nonjudgmental reaction. Joining the sport post-Whip It! is not the coolest thing for a derby athlete to cop to. Unfortunately for me, my simple derby origin story is true. I walked into a movie theater expecting to see a frothy girl-power flick with my friend, and I did—but I also walked out figuring starter skates into my college budget. For at least the first year and a half of my derby career, until I was well past the point of knowing better, I’d watch Whip It! the night before every bout while I painted my nails in my team colors and sipped on a healthy, nonalcoholic beverage. And while I know that Whip It! Is not the best roller derby film out there, when I sat down a few nights ago to re-watch it for the first time in over a year, I cried at the same parts that always made me weepy. I love Whip It!, but I’m a sucker for it.

Whip It! Was Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. Based on a young adult novel by Shauna Cross, the screenplay centers around a seventeen-year-old misfit named Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), who spends a lot of time screwing up at the beauty pageants her mom (Marcia Gay Harding) makes her do, until she discovers roller derby while on a shopping trip to Austin. Without permission from her mom or her sports-loving dad, Bliss lies about her age, joins the 21+ league, and becomes star jammer Babe Ruthless. Problems arise when she starts dating an indie rocker she meets at a bout, when she clashes with a member of an opposing team, and when her parents find out about her secret double life. While the plot is heavy on teen and sports movie cliches, it’s also generously sprinkled with esoteric cultural references and cameos. Jimmy Fallon has a minor role as Hot Tub Johnny Rockets, a perpetually hungover announcer who just wants to get laid and Andrew Wilson (the elusive third Wilson brother!) faces off against opposing coach Har Mar Superstar. Many of the extras, skaters and non-speaking roles are respected real-life derby skaters, including one of my coaches, who plays the deaf Manson Sister #1—hi, Krissy!

It barely broke even at the box office and drew mixed reviews. Mainstream critics were on point about the film’s predictability; however, their reviews lose credibility when they make uneducated comments about derby aspects of the film. For example, one critic questioned Page’s casting in the lead role, saying she seemed too small to play roller derby. Never mind the fact that Bliss is a jammer, a position traditionally (though certainly not always) assigned to small, agile skaters. More interesting criticism came from within the roller derby community. If you ask a skater about Whip It!, she’ll probably complain about the “Play #3” scene, when Wilson’s character fields a strategy combining an elbow and a 180-degree turn. In real-life regulation play, this move is grounds for immediate ejection from a bout.

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Not okay. Photo: DVDactive.com

However, the biggest problem with Whip It! isn’t the punches and elbows—if you watch closely, you’ll notice that Barrymore’s Smashley Simpson is always ejected, anyway—it’s the erasure of certain people and philosophies that make roller derby unique among modern sports. No visibly queer characters are included in the film, which is unrealistic for a sport known for its LGBTQ superstars and being relatively trans-inclusive a few years before anyone had ever heard of Fallon Fox. The grown women who drive both the skating and business aspects of competitive roller derby are weirdly two-dimensional. A big reveal happens when Bliss learns that her team captain, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), skips afterparties because she needs to be with her young son, and another occurs when league bully Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) snarls that she’s earned her derby stardom at age thirty-six—but after that, the film lets those characters return to the background. A large part of the criticism Whip It! received from the roller derby community regarded the age of its protagonist. Roller derby is so transformative and special for women who find it in their 20s, 30s and 40s, the criticism goes. Why make teenage Bliss the heroine, when Maggie’s and Maven’s stories are much more compelling?

This is where I begin to get soft on Whip It! When I started playing roller derby at twenty-one (not quite a grown-ass woman, to be fair), I became a teenager again. My body changed and I was hungry all the time. I worried about what to wear to practice. My new passion worried my mom, and I had to be a little bit sneaky to keep everybody happy. I had to make choices about relationships and priorities that I’d never had to make before. And I could think of nothing but roller derby: after class, I’d sit in my room ogling gear, watching and re-watching league promo videos. In class, I’d doodle pictures of skates and myself wearing a jammer star on my helmet. I felt about roller derby the way I felt about my crushes in middle and high school. Maybe it’s easier to translate that giddy feeling to non-skaters if you just make the main character a typical teenage girl who is still figuring things out.

Don’t give up on film depictions of roller derby if you’re less sentimental than I am. There are better representations of derby in film, but you have to go looking for them. Brutal Beauty, a documentary which follows Portland’s Rose City Rollers through their 2010 home and travel seasons, is a great introduction to the sport, and is available for streaming on Netflix.

 

An upcoming documentary that promises to take a different approach to the topic of derby is Erica Tremblay’s The Vagine Regime, which will profile the titular pan-derby LGBTQ all-star team.

 

 Finally, my current favorite roller derby film is Turner Van Ryn’s dialogue-free short film Skater 26, which follows San Francisco skater Chantilly Mace through the weekend leading up to a high-stakes home bout. It’s breathtaking to watch, and does an incredible job of quietly creating a detailed narrative out of what is still a niche subject. Best of all, it’s available in full on YouTube.

Personal reasons for loving Whip It! aside, I’ve sat in the penalty box on delicate technical fouls enough times to scoff at “Play #3”. I can detect the tense, rehearsed quality of a new skater in many of the actors’ jumps and sprints. Johnny Rockets’s announcing places a little too much emphasis on the fishnet stockings the players wear, a trope that still crops up in mainstream coverage of derby. The underwater sex scene is truly unnecessary–so unnecessary that I won’t link to it. I cringe when Page’s Bliss tells her mom to “stop shoving your psychotic idea of ’50s womanhood down my throat,” because who actually says that?

But right after that, she throws out her hands and says, “I am in love with this.” I believe you, Bliss. I just understand why a lot of us don’t. Fortunately, there are just enough film options out there for the derby-curious.

Recommendations: Hope for Frustrated Artists

I’ve been meaning to start writing recommendations posts. I figure that even if I can’t write something long and thought-provoking, I can at least share what’s been making me happy and influencing me lately.

The past couple weeks have been difficult. I’ve been ill, I’ve found out about a friend’s illness, and I’ve been feeling ambivalent about my job. I can’t go too far into those feelings here, but basically I worry that having a day job will eventually take away from my work as a writer. I encountered two things this week that made me feel better about this particular worry. I know a lot of other people have the same fears that I do, so I’ll share them here.

 

  1. I saw Frances Ha tonight, and loved it. It’s a great story about a Millennial’s circuitous route to becoming a responsible (but still creative and fulfilled) adult. It’s also the best movie about a friendship between two women that I can think of–minus Thelma & Louise, obviously.
  2. Rookie published a great essay this week about how the fear of failure cripples creatives’ productivity. It’s always good to remind yourself that getting anything done is usually better than getting nothing done at all.

Have a great week, everyone.

Things I’ve Been Meaning to Blog About Since I Last Blogged

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Jim Behrle, from “Princess Problems”

  • Roger Ebert died. I cried in my car. Twitter still feels empty. He infiltrated my cultural consciousness very deeply, in a way that I didn’t realize until he died. I feel for his heroic wife, Chaz, and I like to watch Ebert’s TED Talk when I feel like giving up.
  • I went to a Roman Polanski double-feature, and it made me wonder: If someone who’s an excellent artist, a person whose work deals with gender and sexuality in an interesting and meditative way, turns out to be a rapist, what’s the feminist viewer’s responsibility? (Also, if the Manson family kills your wife, do you get a free pass on your own massive behavioral issues? A friend argued this; I’m not convinced. And is Woody Allen just as bad as Polanski, if we consider all factors and points of view? There’s a lot of questions here.)
  • Let’s not do Bikram yoga anymore. (May write more on this later.)
  • Losing Happy Endings was rough. If NBC cancels Hannibal, I’m going to have a bad time. (Although, on Hulu, they always pair Hannibal with food ads, and it’s a bit much.)
  • I recently had the privilege of seeing and interviewing Joey Ryan of the Milk Carton Kids. They’re a couple of real talents and showmen. A very youthful, exuberant and sincere bluegrass band opened for them. They’re called The Barefoot Movement and they are brilliant.
  • I’m about to start mentoring for WriteGirl–I’m thrilled. I’ll help a girl, meet other women writers, and write more. Pow!

A Drynuary Carol

 

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Tea became my best friend. Blurry photo via my Instagram.

 

I went alcohol-free for the month of January. When the 2012 holidays were kicking off, I read an article that detailed the effects of a month of teetotaling on the body of a normal drinker: sounder sleep, clearer skin and loss of body fat. It sounded good, but not good enough for me to spend my first post-college holiday party season dry. January! I thought, reading Women’s Health in my boyfriend’s landlady’s jacuzzi tub. I will souse my way through every excruciating holiday shindig, and then begin the new year afresh! And I did. While my parents snoozed in their chairs minutes before 12 a.m. on January 1, I savored my last mouthful of white wine until February.

 When I got back to L.A. following my New Year’s celebrations, I read this Hairpin interview with John Ore, the Awl contributor who has made first-month booze abstinence into a micromovement called Drynuary. When I saw that other people, however few, would be striving along with me, I got excited. I love participating in, and finishing, organized group challenges (I have no doubt that that comes from a strong competitive desire to win while others quit, and I don’t really have any qualms about that). The Dryness began.

 Not drinking was easy, then hard, then easy again. Here’s a story about the hard part.

 When I graduated and moved to L.A. in June, the binge-drinking culture that saturated my college gave way to the “responsible” drinking culture of the adult world. I doubt that this kind of drinking is actually responsible (compare recommended serving sizes to what you actually get at the average bar), but there’s hardly any guilt involved. Most young adults working a room don’t get frat-party wasted; instead, they go to microbreweries and say things like “This one’s not as hoppy,” or visit their friends in wine country over Thanksgiving and swish their glasses and smell it and eat a ton of cheese squares. This kind of drinking made it easy to ease self-loathing at networking events—of course I’ll have a glass; thank you for offering! It was easy to call it “moderation” until I realized that the thought of going to a stranger’s party while having a self-imposed booze embargo is terrifying.

 The party was being hosted by the brother of one of my boyfriend wilder friends, so I was expecting a big loft party where I could dance or disappear into the background when things got uncomfortable. The host turned out to be a successful lawyer who had attended our college, and we were two of about a dozen guests at his urban-chic dinner party. Oh.

 At this time (the second week of January), I was still feeling really insecure about my underemployment. (I’ve found steadier work since then. Positivity breeds positive change!) The last place I wanted to be was at a casual networking event, where I’d have to pretend like I had other things on your mind than begging the successful people around me for a connection or a job or a mentorship. I was dressed like I was attending a Sleater-Kinney concert. Everyone was asking each other about their full-time jobs with benefits. And there was so much alcohol. Before dinner was served, there were two bottles of wine open and an ice bucket filled with enough beer for each person to have a full bottle. At the dinner table, there were about six fresh wine bottles. The host said, “I didn’t make dessert, because I know people have New Year’s resolutions.” Thanks.

 At least since I’m not drinking, there’s no way I can further embarrass myself, I thought.

 But after already going around the table and saying what we do for work (“I studied writing but for now I babysit and sometimes walk a dog”), my dinner-table neighbor asked, “So, wait, what do you want to do?” I couldn’t really explain myself. Then my eyes started watering, and my words caught in my throat. “Excuse me,” I said, turning to my inquisitor, who seemed bewildered but cool with it. “I’m crying. I’ll be right back.”

 Let me elaborate: For many people, crying is a last resort, but it’s my body’s first defense. Liz Lemon on fertility drugs is me all the time. My crying is usually meaningless, but it’s still terrifying to others and not the best thing to have happen at a dinner party when I am trying to look ambitious and professional. In the bathroom, I cried some more and got extremely angry at the situation. I felt like the party had been sprung on me. I resented my boyfriend for not telling me what kind of party it was and I resented the generous host for providing so much alcohol while I couldn’t drink to diffuse my insecurity.

 But then, in less than five minutes, I turned it around, because I had to. I came back to the table embarrassed, but with my makeup intact. We had an uncomfortable laugh (and isn’t that the best kind?). My neighbor and I had a productive conversation where he talked about going after what you want in your career, and then we talked about Curb Your Enthusiasm. When we finally left, I had a couple business cards in my pocket and had made some new connections.

 I didn’t pull off an epic triumph here. It was a pretty catastrophic situation, and I’m sure all the people who were there there will remember me as the girl who cried at the dinner party. Still, making it through that party without resorting to drinking made me feel pretty invincible. Later that month, I also survived a weekend-long visit from out-of-town friends, a networking event I organized myself, and an intense couples board game night. Going straight for the water/ginger ale/guava juice only got easier. I enjoyed my first beer of February—a PBR chosen for price over taste—but I’m so grateful and relieved that I can enjoy a booze-free social life…when pressed.