Hey, Four Eyes!

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I’VE BEEN AS NEARSIGHTED as Mr. Magoo from birth. In grade school, I never had to be ordered to sit in the front of the class. I couldn’t imagine why any kid would head for the back, where they would never be able to see. In senior high, a boy on a date took off my glasses, but instead of saying, “Really, Miss Jones, you look beautiful,” he said, “Wow! You have eyes!” I guess those lenses were thick.

LASIK didn’t tempt me, since I had worn glasses since third grade and they felt as natural to me as skin. But my eyesight was worsening, my optometrist told me he couldn’t improve my vision enough to make me less crabby about it, and the permutations of eyewear were getting too numerous to schlep around in a normal-sized handbag.

When a new prescription for contacts, readers, and bifocals cost nearly as much as the surgery, I called the Chu Laser Institute in Edina. It’s very swank, a serious upgrade from the cramped waiting room I was used to at my pediatrician. Staffing is swank, too: There is enough of it, for one thing, and each person I met remembered my name, something there isn’t enough of in health care.

I met with Dr. Ralph Chu, who told me the risks, had my eyes tested, and said the results reported I was a good LASIK candidate. I handed my credit card to the nice lady from the business office, we scheduled surgery for the following Friday, and I went home with two prescriptions for eye medications to get filled during the week.

I brought them with my on surgery day. I had never taken Valium before in my life, but I said “yes” when the nurse offered one. I thought it had no effect. My husband said it did. His arguing would normally have irritated me, but I felt calm, so heck, maybe the Valium was working.

Chu put drops in my eyes to anesthetize and dilate them. He explained everything he did before he did it, a lovely trait in a physician. One eye at a time, he “slipped in” a device to hold my lids open. I never saw this invention; in my imagination, it did not look friendly. It didn’t hurt, but I had to do a little yoga breathing to handle my inability to blink.

To slice the cornea (which also doesn’t hurt, though it sounds nasty), a large slicer machine was passed over my eye. I felt like roast beef at Byerly’s deli counter. After the slice happened, everything got even blurrier, which I appreciated. I couldn’t see the laser or any machinery, which was A-OK with me. Chu said I would now see pulses of red light for a few seconds. Then, he gently folded the cornea flap back in place and stroked the eye with some sort of soft cloth. Then he took the lid separator out—a relief, since it was starting to feel scratchy.

My right eye, needing less correction, went even faster. Total time? Under 15 minutes. I sat up and, from across the room, saw—well, sort of—my husband. He was still blurry, but a more defined blur. Magic.

Following Chu’s advice, I wore goofy-looking goggles to keep from rubbing my eyes while they healed, so I didn’t feel glasses-free (or more glamorous) yet. He told me to go home and rest, so I did. I was so fascinated by being able to see the television from the bed without glasses that I watched a movie, though my vision was still too fuzzy to follow the action very well. By Monday, I was back at work.

Reading and writing close up was out of focus, but Chu told me it was likely I’d still need reading glasses more or less permanently after LASIK. I went to Walgreen’s and bought a pair. Now I could manage close work and I could see at a distance just fine. And there were odd little pleasures, like waking up able to see without hunting for glasses, and pulling a turtleneck over my head without getting it caught on the bows.

But there was a problem. My mid-distance vision—the distance, say, from my eye to my sock drawer—was ill-defined. After a day or two of having to ask my children to come help me dress, I handled this challenge maturely by throwing a tantrum, and my socks, around the room. “I just traded nearsightedness for farsightedness!” I yelled. On the way to work, I went back to Walgreen’s and bought five pairs of reading glasses in varying strengths. “I still have a purse full of glasses!” I wailed. My husband called Chu.

No worries, said Chu. LASIK corrects the eye, but then the eye tries to go back to its former shape. After another week or so, chances were good this problem would be gone. “And if it’s not,” said Chu, “I’ll fix it.”

It got better, but it still bugged me. I didn’t want to complain, but Chu pushed me to be honest. “I am so sure I can make this right,” he said. “Why be irritated? Let’s fix it.” The second surgery was even faster than the first.

Today, I use my reading glasses only occasionally. I can now see into my sock drawer just fine, thank you, though some close-up and mid-range tasks, like putting on makeup, require using different mirrors set at different lengths from my nose. But hey, I now can at least see my nose, which used to be weighed down by those rose-tinted aviator glasses in the ’60s and those cat-eye rhinestones in the ’50s.

And now, with near 20/20 vision, I can finally pass the one test in school I always flunked: E, F, P, T, O, Z…

This appeared in Minnesota Monthly magazine, May 2002, p. 75

Gales of November

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THERE IS THE meditative beauty of what is undisturbed, what seems to be content with itself, what allows itself to be entered and explored. And then there is the beauty of turmoil. Of tempests. Of warring forces that forged the earth. Some like the water placid, still, serene as the color blue. But some like the look of a lady when she’s angry. There are things revealed only when the spirit moves beyond restless, things to be seen when the water reaches for the sky and when the sky reaches back and whips the sea. There are those who love the lake when she is quiet. And there are those who love the storms.

 

This accompanied a photo essay of Lake Superior by Bob Firth, Jay Steinke, Richard Hamilton Smith, and Craig Blacklock. It ran in Minnesota Monthly magazine in November, 2002.

Brave Sperm and Demure Eggs: Fallopian Gender Politics on YouTube

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ABSTRACT

A narrative analysis of videos of human conception from medical and non-medical sources aired in the democratic space of YouTube finds that stereotypical gender roles are consistently assigned to cellular behavior. Sperm are represented as little men and embodiments of hegemonic masculinity, with heroic sperm winning the egg prize after a competitive athletic contest fraught with peril. Eggs are represented as featureless planets floating in a murky voice and are without agency or action.Almost every video is about the “journey” or “adventure” of the sperm; the egg has no adventure. These videos represent a view of a persistent gendered narrative of human fertilization that does not coalesce with emerging scientific narratives that appear to attempt to be more gender-neutral in accounts of conception. The imposition of gendered social scripts onto biology—even pop culture biology—may work to obscure common understanding of the nature of gender and of humanity, and reveal vivid and enduring stereotypes.

 

This article will appear in November 2014 in Feminist Formations.

The illustration is from the YouTube video “Sperm: The Easter Musical.”

You can view the article as a PDF here.

Domestic Violence in Men’s and Women’s Magazines: Women Are Guilty of Choosing the Wrong Men, Men Are Not Guilty of Hitting Women

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ABSTRACT

Men’s and women’s magazine discourse on domestic violence

characterizes women as guilty of choosing the wrong men but

does not hold men responsible for hitting women. Using qualitative

narrative analysis on 10 leading titles over 10 years, I find an

ongoing tolerance for and celebration of domestic violence in

men’s magazines and an enduring expectation in women’s that

women bear responsibility for both genders. No magazines

discuss patriarchal cultural structures that enable violence against

women.

 

Women’s Studies in Communication, Vol. 34, No. 2, (2011), pp. 139-160.

DOI: 10.1080/07491409.2011.618240

Read it here.

Her Pride On Ice

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I’M BETTER AT IT NOW than I used to be. At first, I didn’t know how to be a hockey mom. The problem was, I grew up with five sisters, and male paraphernalia (both recreational and biological) were totally foreign to me. This was compounded by my divorce, which left my son with just a single mom and not a man in sight.

I registered him for hockey when he was seven. He needed equipment, they told me. I figured this meant a stick and a jock strap, and I thought I was pretty savvy to even know about the jock strap part.

I brought him to a sports store and discovered that only pimply teen-aged boys will wait on women. Solo mothers are, apparently, lowest of the low and Not To Be Dealt With By Senior Staff. I pointed an adolescent with a name tag on his football jersey toward my son and said: “Hockey. Do it.”

Four hundred dollars later, every part of his body was padded and armored with stuff designed to retain body odors and resist cleaning. And this was before he told me that he wanted to be a goalie.

He played his first game at an outdoor rink. The kids hit the ice, and 19 dads plus me surrounded it, standing knee-deep in snow. There were no seats, or warmth, or announcers. Ignorant of all sporting rules, I paid a ten-year-old standing next to me a quarter to tell me when to cheer.

Actually, when second graders play hockey, there isn’t a lot to cheer about anyway. Their heads barely peek over the boards surrounding the rink. They wobble around on ankles so weak it makes you seriously consider duct-taping them into their skates. They lean heavily on their sticks for balance, and when the rare opportunity to shoot the puck presents itself, it must be carefully weighed against the strong likelihood that lifting their sticks from the ice will result in a pratfall and probably isn’t worth the effort anyway. For periods of three or four full minutes, the puck lies unattended and alone (as do the goalies) while children, clustered like grapes, fight with each other to untangle their feet. It costs $100 just to register them for the right to do this, and that’s without figuring in your own Eddie Bauer investment that will keep you warm enough to watch them.

At the first game, three evil boys from an opposing suburb (détente, heck; it’s Edina versus the rest of us) slammed into my son and sent him cartwheeling across the ice. He landed conveniently near the snow bank I had carved out as a box seat, so I leaned over the boards and said—unfortunately, loudly enough for his coach to hear—“Honey? Are you all right?” he fixed me with a murderous glare that telegraphed one message to my doting mother’s heart: testosterone had kicked in and I had lost my little boy forever.

As the seasons wore on, his manliness continued to assert itself. He volunteered for goalie. His coach asked me if I minded. I didn’t know what there was to mind, so I let him do it. I remained unconcerned until I finally grasped the point that people were going to try to kill him by shooting pucks at his head. He earned the dubious right to be permanent goalie by throwing himself on top of every puck that came near him and lying there placidly while the visiting team beat him with their sticks. By the end of the year, he was using language on the ice that I would have washed his mouth out for, had I heard it at home. “It’s okay, Mom,” he said. “We have to talk like that.”

Six seasons have passed. I’ve often been the only mom in a locker room filled with boys and their fathers, but these days he’s old enough to lace his own skates and goes in alone (this equals climbing on the kindergarten bus as a passage toward adulthood). I now know what a “breakaway” means (someone else’s snotty kid has the puck and he’s heading toward my son—where the heck is the defense, anyway?). I still can not define “offside” to save my life, but I can quote chapter and verse on the relative merits of Vaughan Legacy goalie pads versus Miller and Cooper.

And, I possess a clearer understanding of the Rules for Hockey Mothers, as explained to me by my son. I do not know if these same rules apply to hockey dads, and I do not know if daughters who play hockey insist that these be enforced. However, I offer them to you as a general guide should you be unfamiliar with organized sports for children.

1. If he is hurt, do not jump up and run to him.

If you do this, he will never come home again. There is a manly ritual called “shaking it off” that must be honored here. Let him sit up slowly, flex his arms, move his head from side to side, and then climb to his feet while the spectators offer approving applause.

2. If he is really hurt, affect a lack of concern and amble over.

Conceal your phone in your pocket and dial 911 while you clamber over the icy snowbanks to get to his patch of the rink. Or, if you’re lucky enough to play indoors, lean against the glass and mouth “How you doin’, bud?” This goes for whether he just tipped over or has actually managed to dent the ice. In hockey, they play through concussions.

3. Abandon all affectionate family nicknames.

“Sweetie,” “punkin,” “angel,” and “sugar” must not be spoken, unless you want him to be pelted with jock straps the moment you leave the locker room. And yelling, “You get ’em, honey!” to a streaking forward does not inspire fear in the defense. Instead, try “Rambo! Remember what your parole officer said!”

4. Do not ask his coach how you are supposed to know which size jock strap to purchase.

I will never be forgiven for this one, but I still don’t know how I’m expected to figure this out.

Growing up in a girls-only household where we all took dance and no one’s school even had girl teams in anything but gymnastics, I’ve actually enjoyed visting this secret world of boys, men, and sports. It can feel a little harsh, but I can’t deny the pride I see my son take in the rough praise given him by coaches and hockey dads. And, on our side, every year I see more braids swinging out of helmets and more jerseys reading “Jennifer” and “Cassandra.” Which I support, until she’s heading down the ice on a fast breakaway toward my son, the goalie.

 

This appear in Minnesota Monthly magazine, March 1993.

Checking Out the Fish Bait

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TRUE FISHERPERSONS have certain responsibilities during the first few weeks of the season. Fishing vest pockets must be scraped clean of the once-squirming and now-shriveled night crawlers from last year. In tackle boxes, forgotten peanut-butter sandwiches must be retrieved; all hooks, sinkers, and Band-Aids, reorganized. Then, happiest task of all, the bait shop must be visited to ascertain exactly what the fish will eat this year.

Live bait is whatever dies as soon as you leave the tackle store: minnows, worms, and insects in a stage of development that does not involve legs. This season’s hit, according to those in the know, is euro larvae—wormy-looking things dyed brilliant blue, pink, or yellow.

Lures, on the other hand, are fake bugs made of some combination of metal, plastic, hairy stuff, fuzzy bits, and things found in your clothes-dryer vent. The theory here is that you can reuse them, fish after fish, and that humans can think up more delicious-looking insects than God did. Some appear to be floating eyeballs, apparently a desirable thing, and others are assembled into bits of thoraxes and midsections, making no anatomical sense. Then lures are hung with wicked-looking hooks in one or two or twelve places and painted so that their little fake faces carry stunned expressions.

The names are incredibly silly: Hackel-Ant, Bad Dog, ThunderStick, the Enhanced Original Worm and (no kidding) the Swedish Pimple. Hula Hoopers look like weirdly spotted minnows appetizingly chewed in half. Slimy Slugs and Moss Mouses are fairly self-descriptive, and aimed at attracting bass. Who knew bass ate mice? Who knew mice liked to swim? Perhaps most disgusting and imaginative are the faux amphibians (glowing chartreuse frogs) and plastic chordates (slugs wearing sequins).

The biggest trend in lures is to produce all these varieties in violently glow-in-the-dark colors, says helpful fisher-guy Pat Crouse of Osseo’s North Country Hunting & Fishing Sports shop. “Electric green, blue, and pink are hot this year.” So now you know. Go tell the fish.

This was published in Mpls/St. Paul magazine in June, 1995.

Flying Cowboys

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A Day At the Rodeo.

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT a cowboy. The hat pulled down over the eyes, the nothing-but-blue-jeans wardrobe, that leather-chaps strut. He’s a time traveler, a piece of living history, as romantic as the cover of a gothic novel or a silver-screen hero with a white hat and a palomino for a best friend.

The myth of the American cowboy is so dashing, so rugged, so “Aw shucks, ma’am” irresistible that 20th-century guys who could find jobs that don’t require daily chiropractic treatment still choose to ride ’em, rope ’em, and wrestle ’em at rodeos across the country. And lots of women—along with families, ranchers, city folks, and little boys who want to grow up to be cowboys—love to watch ’em.

Rodeos in the United States attract some 20 million people every year, and that’s only counting the sensible ones who sit in the bleachers. Another 6,000 or so contestants register with organizations like the Profesional Rodeo Cowboys Association to compete. And every one of them wears a hat.

I wore my own buckskin-colored Resistol cowboy hat to the State Fair last year and left my dress-up Stetson at home. Good thing. Halfway through the saddle bronc riding event, right in front of my ringside seat, a horse went south, the rider went north, and clods of arena mud rained down on me, my hat, and my popcorn. Well, I hope it was mud.

What goes on in a rodeo is fascinating to watch, even if you’re a city girl silly enough to ask the fellow sitting next to her if all bulls are males. I’m not saying I did, and I’m not saying I didn’t. How can they get a horse to stop dead in its tracks the moment they’ve got a calf roped, when I can’t train dog to heel? It’s impressive to watch the way the horses work with their riders, and the way the riders hold onto their mounts. There is barrel racing, team roping, and breathtaking trick riding. There are clowns, announcers on horseback, and girls riding ponies and carrying flags. Then those Belgian and Clydesdale monsters come out pulling that beer wagon and make you believe in dinosaurs all over again.

It’s a sport with its own culture. In a rodeo area, God is mentioned without shame, as is the flag and the family. Red, white, and blue bunting is everywhere. People, even people from Duluth, suddenly speak with Texas accents. Touching the bring of your hat and nodding is an accepted form of communication. Men have courtly manner—“Yes, ma’am,” “No, ma’am,” “Take my seat, pretty lady”—but the emcees tell jokes based on gastrointestinal processes, and the clowns perform slapstick with chickens. Cowgirls compete, too, and it must be great exercise, because not one of them was bigger than a size six.

I ride a horse once every five years, so it took me a while to decipher the rodeo program. For the first half of the show, I thought lots of guys named their horses Skoal until I figured out that cowboys, like race care drivers, have corporate sponsors. Horses actually have much cooler names, like Howlinathemoon, Flaming Mite, and Pants on Fire. Lake basketball, rodeo has its legends—such as Tuff Hedeman, a three-time world-champion bull rider who looks like a model in a Calvin Klein jeans ad, or six-time World All-Around Cowboy Ty Murray. And like basketball stars, rodeo legends endorse products, only they sell western shirts, boots, and jeans instead of soft drinks and sneakers.

Rodeo is the only sport in the world that developed from skills required in a work situation. unless changing a diaper with one hand tied behind your back ever catches on with ESPN. Calf roping was necessary to catch and immobilize sick or injured calves for treatment, and bareback riding came from breaking horses. Steer wrestling doesn’t seem like a very sensible event, though. A cowboy slides down the side of his horse until he reaches the steer’s horns—neither steer nor horse is standing still during this, mind you—grabs them, digs his heels in the dirt, and uses leverage (oh, sure) to bring down the steer in three seconds. Seems dangerous.

“Well, yeah, sometimes you get a horn in your side and it kinda rubs on you and hurts,” cowboy Brian Whittaker of Victoria Farms in Victoria, MN told me. A horn in your side. Kinda hurts. Uh-huh.

If a cowboy doesn’t rope his steer fast enough or falls off his bucking something-or-other before he was supposed to, then he must brush off all that brown stuff he fell in and stagger painfully back to the fence while listening to the announcer shame him publicly. “Tim, have you ever don’t this before?” “Well, Bobby, you failed.” “Your time was worse that a 47-year-old man” got a big laugh. It he wins, he might get a belt buckle or something. Top cowpersons may break into six figures annually, but if a competitor doesn’t place, he and she doesn’t bring home any jingle.

They all do, however, get to join the ranks of Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper and John Wayne. They get to sit tall in the saddle, ride one more time around the ring, wave to the crowds and be the thing all of us have wanted to be since we were old enough to dream about riding off into the sunset—a real, live, American hero.

This was published in Minnesota Monthly, July 1996, p. 16-18.

Muskies Among Us

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URBAN LEGENDS are, I suppose, merely citified versions of charming, folksy tall tales. The thing folksy folk seem to possess that urbanites apparently do not, however, is common sense. No one ever really believed that Paul Bunyan konked 14-pound mosquitoes with an oversized frying pan, whereas city fools like you and I readily accept urban legends as truth and argue that it is indeed conceivable that a hapless bloke spontaneously combusted while standing at the bus stop.

But here’s an urban legend that I can attest is the truth and nothing but. Lurking mere feet from the walking and running paths of the chain of lakes that snake through Minneapolis’s populous and tony neighborhoods is a Minnesota version of Jaws.

Jaws as long as my forearm. The jaws that bite, the claws the catch. And I’m not talking about some frumious Bandersnatch. Very real jaws swim beneath the Minneapolis city waves, waiting to snap, snicker-snack, upon the chubby behinds of inner-tube floating humans innocently bobbling there.

But first, a little aside from an August 27, 2004 Duluth News Tribune story by outdoor writer Sam Cook, who reports that 11-year-old Mason DeRosier was attacked in Island Lake—by a fish. A fish that delivered three stitches worth of chomping on Mason’s foot and another eight stitches worth on his hand when Mason tried to beat the dang thing off. Coulda been a northern pike, coulda been a muskellunge.

Keeping that thought in mind, let’s take a little walk on the water of Lake Harriet standing up in the flat-bottomed boat with a muskie guide, manuvering only inches from the public dock, within wading distance of the kiddie beach.

For those of you who have never tried to cast a rod hung with a six-pound piece of wood painted to look like a frightened perch, let me try to explain the lure of muskie fishing. Muskies are fascinating creatures, suspicious enough to eye a bit of bait for what seems like hours without yielding up a nibble. Muskie fishers say it takes 10,000 casts to get one bite, but it’s worth the wait: the fish are fierce fighters and startlingly enormous, growing to half the length of the boat or more. After a long career of catching sunfish and bullheads, I wanted to catch-and-release myself a muskie.

Well, “catch” is a hopeful term. Getting one on your line is so rare that fisherpersons count as successes just seeing the fish at all. Getting it to follow your bait is noteworthy, and snaring the elusive “slurp,” a sort of sniff the muskie gives a lure to scent if it’s desirable eats or not, is a story to retell around the campfire (while you eat some other kind of fish that is much easier to catch).

Necessary to muskie hunting are polarized sunglasses, and let me suggest that you pop on a pair, sit on the dock sometime, and look down toward your toes. You just might jerk ’em right up out of the water.

Muskies like the shallows. As we slowly snaked around the lake in water no deeper than my armpits, I kept seeing logs in the water. Logs with eyes. Logs with teeth. Logs as long as me, for crying out loud.

I applaud the state for peopling our waters with these magnificent game fish, but…yikes. Big ’uns. Right there with their teeth hanging out, inches from guys launching their boats and toddlers splashing after beach balls.

The happy news is, of course, that it is nearly impossible to force muskies to nibble, much less get them to make a shore lunch out of your knees. For hours, I cast a schoolbus-yellow wooden lure made to look like a baby duck with one injured wing that plop-plopped, plop-plopped pathetically all the way back to the boat as I reeled it in. I tried a segmented fish-like thing with extra eyes that was dipped in smelly goo. I tried a fake hopping frog. I tried a fake swimming frog.

Eight sightings, two follows, and one slurp. These are things muskie fishers count, because the big fish just don’t bite. But if they ever turned, if they ever screened Hitchcock’s “The Birds” underwater and the muskies schemed a copycat takeover of the humand world, if the muskies ever decided to go to lunch at the beach…get outta the water.