Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Day Three: "Where The Wild Things Are (Still)"

Muskox in winter

Day Three

When I rise this morning, there is fresh coffee in my friend's kitchen, and cream in the refrigerator. The house is warm and the bed is comfortable and there are beautiful quilts to sleep under at night if the house gets chilly. From every window, I can see trees and treetops - birches and tall spruce - and the snow is white and sparkling in the early sun. I am remembering, this morning, my first visit to Fairbanks and I have decided that having a good friend with a spare bedroom is an asset when you come to visit this town. My friend, Lillian, is known as "Dr. Corti" at the university, though she retired this past year. When we taught together, our offices were next door to each other. I could smell the tea steeping in her hot pot each afternoon. She could hear my music through the wall. We'd worked together, alongside each other, much the way women have since they entered the halls of academia years ago – though not so terribly long ago that we aren't still a minority there – and have been glad for each other's company in a place almost wholly-run by men.

What can I say here that won't get me into trouble or sound like some kind of petty stereotyping of men? Men, by nature and by nurture, are accustomed to quarrelling and bellowing and threatening, trying to bully their way – or argue their way – into the alpha-male position. It's how they've come to understand the world, and the workplace, even in academia, is a microcosm of that larger world. They have had years to get very good at what they do. It is their "club" after all. And while I like to think I can "fence" with the best of them, I confess that I often prefer the easy quietude – and the certitude – of my female colleagues. I enjoy their laughter and the way they seem not to forever be competing with each other. I admire the way they make, of their offices, a comfortable space for themselves and the students who come to see them.

Of course, there are always exceptions to these example of ambitious and overbearing men: I'm thinking, in particular, of my colleagues Dr. Mark Box and Dr. Burns Cooper, both of whom are unassuming, intelligent men with inviting offices, both of whom manage to be inspired teachers, impeccable researchers/scholars, and both of whom have a moral integrity that is rivaled by none. And haven't we all, by now, seen faculty professors who are women who are also ill-behaved?

In the earliest years of my time at UAF, when I was just "tenure-track" and not yet tenured, Lillian was one of my favorite people, as a colleague and as a friend. She still is. And she had been one of two women who had been charged with "entertaining" me on that second cold afternoon ten years ago while others had gone off to teach their classes.


The three days of my campus interview visit in 1999 were a whirlwind of activity as I was handed off from one small group of faculty members to graduate writers to the next group of faculty hosts. There was, I discovered quickly, more than just a polite question-and-answer interview process for candidates hoping to teach in this program. The potential hire had to be "hardy," undaunted by the long months of darkness and the weeks of sub-zero temperatures. We three finalists – all women – were being "tested" by the climate and the conditions and the hectic pace. If any one of those overwhelmed us, if we showed any weakness or distaste for the "far-north life," the job wouldn't be offered; it would go to someone hardier. Most of us knew that early in the campus interview.

I had certainly figured out that the new poet would have to "hold her own" and stand shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the scholars and critics who made up the majority of the faculty in the English Department. So what if I had a book out? So what if I'd had two prestigious fellowships in poetry? Big deal, that I had a terminal degree. What they wanted to see was that I knew the tradition out of which I came, the one in which I wrote. . .and, if I was fortunate, out of which I would teach. There would be no "faking it" with these scholars: know the theory; know the terminology and use it. Relentlessly. Be clear about what your specialty is. Respect others' fields of study and expertise. Know your place.

It was the work-place, real-world version of the instruction I was given as a girl growing up in the deep South: Speak only when you are spoken to. Otherwise, silence. And for heaven's sake, smile. But not too much. You don't want them to think you're dim-witted. Or needy. Stop wearing your heart on your sleeve. Keep your personal life and tastes to yourself; let the mystery prevail.

So what if, by the time you've come and gone again from anywhere, no one can claim to have known you? So what if you are near-invisible no matter where you go? What if you feel most alone on a city street full of people and less alone in a wilderness? So what if you must console yourself all winter and spring with your work: student papers and graduate theses and lesson plans? So what if you end up serving on endless committees and putting together a tenure file instead of writing and having a life in the larger world as you'd imagined you'd be living? And what if your writing gets sidelined again and again because you've spent all your creative energy on student work?

Again and again over the years, I have asked myself if they were worth it, those wild beasts I'd come face-to-face with at the roadside on that interview visit? Were they worth the five years of endless student conferences and classes and meetings and committees and readings and pot-luck dinners. Did they provide a balance for me, somehow, those beasts I saw for the first time when I stood boot-deep in a snow-bank and watched them lumber out of the ice-fog towards the fence that separated me from them? What did they see in me that humans hadn't, that I hadn't? Or did they just sense another kind of beast in me, something a little reckless and fenced-in like they were, some part of me that needed to be brought back from the brink of extinction? What made me think they had come that morning, stepping out of some more ancient age, to meet me at that roadside?

To hear the caretaker's version of the "attraction" between the beasts and me that afternoon, it was an old physiological drive that sent them grunting and huffing and lumbering towards Lillian and Renee and me. He'd heard them rutting and had come out to warn us.

Back away, he'd said quietly. Don't do anything sudden. They're agitated. I'll be out in a minute.

We did as he said, backing off to what we thought of as a safe distance from the fence that separated them from us. When he joined us there at the roadside, he'd watched them as he questioned us about what might have agitated them. No, we hadn't talked to them or thrown anything. No, we didn't have food. No, we hadn't shaken the fence.

Finally he asked, Are one of you menstruating?

Lillian shook her head vehemently and said she was beyond all that now. Renee laughed loudly and said she wasn't "beyond it" yet but she wasn't having her period now. That left me. I nodded and sighed.

Me. It's me.

I'd been standing among them all, barely listening to the conversation, surprised and a little pleased that a man had said the word "menstruating" without getting squirmy and uncomfortable. I thought it probably had something to do with him being a biologist. Biologists tend to prefer accurate terminology over the less-accurate euphemisms others use like, "being on the rag" or "wearing my cousin's red dress" or "falling off the roof" or even "having that time of the month."

The young man went on then, nodding in the direction of the muskox, speaking to me: That big fellow nearest the fence – all that huffing and snorting and rearing his head – that's mating behavior. Courtship is what that is. He "wants" you.

Mating behavior? Courtship? Wants me?

I felt my neck get warm, then my face, and I knew it for what it was: I was blushing. Brightly. Just as I had in my childhood, wearing my embarrassment on my face. But neither of the two women I was with seemed to notice or care. They were laughing. All the way back through the snowy ditch, through the drifts at the roadside, back to the car, the two women laughed and repeated the tale. . .and I was pretty certain they'd be repeating it later to the rest of the department too. I imagined the tale being told in the conference room later that afternoon as they gathered to decide which of the three finalists would be a better "fit" for the department. And I imagined the laughter all around the table. I'd be forever known there as the candidate courted by a muskox. A real arctic romance tale: shy little Southerner comes to Alaska and the beasts go into rut. So much for making a good impression. So much for being silent and letting the mystery prevail. . . .