Saturday, September 13, 2014

How a Conversation about "Tampon Run" Turned Into a Commentary on Academia

Because nobody should ever settle for just Temple Run, two high school students have developed a new game called Tampon Run. Basically, the player shoots tampons at enemies (who steal tampons) and must collect extra tampons so that she doesn't run out. If she runs out, it's game over (ain't that the truth.) The point of the game is to normalize female reproductive health rather than gun violence, which I think is pretty neat, at least. 

My friend Laris sent me a link to the above article this morning, and then several Snapchats of her high scores. Then, we started brainstorming ideas for improvements, creating the opportunity for a real-life, estrogen-laden menstruation gaming experience:

As per usual, that escalated quickly. Navigating our own bodies is one thing; navigating academia is another. I actually ran into something similar to that last situation a few months ago at my current graduate institution, when I received what I believe was supposed to be to be a high compliment after a perfectly mediocre (in my opinion) presentation. I was congratulated on my ability to speak in front of a room full of (here, I would have said "experts," but what really was said was:) "males." And then I was immediately confused, because I had apparently stepped into a time machine that transported me 200 years into the past.

If anybody is capable of coding the ingenious upgrades to Tampon Run, it's Laris. She can code much better than I can. But since she's a bright girl capable of designing her own future, she decided to pursue Nursing instead of Engineering. And after I told her about my ridiculous encounter with a well-intended "compliment," she told me that as a nurse she is commonly encouraged to behave timidly when interacting with doctors. Basically, she's been told not to display a sense of confidence, and to speak apologetically because she's probably wasting the valuable time of the "he-doctor" as a lowly "she-nurse." And yes, those gender pronouns are actually used in her courses. This begs the question: why would an educator ever perpetuate a culture of gender-based insecurity in the medical field, especially with nurses? Nurses, who of course are female as well as male, are invaluable resources to doctors, who of course are male as well as female. I asked her if she laughs it off like I try to, and she said that it pisses her off, but she doesn't say anything. That's generally how I feel. I'm not in imminent danger, so it doesn't seem to be worth an uproar.

Now, at my current graduate institution, our Title IX investigation has been completed, with training now required for all employees. Apparently, we did "pretty well." My male colleagues, struggling to understand how one could perform "pretty well" on something as heavy as a Title IX investigation, asked me what I thought it meant. I stated, bluntly: "Quiet women." We all laughed, of course, but I think it's true! Speaking for myself, I feel relatively safe in the lab (I mean, as safe as a woman with a decade-long struggle with PTSD can reasonably feel.) I'm not complaining. Unless somebody is in danger, I won't; my style of advocacy is private and personal until somebody's well-being is at stake.

As of June of this year, 64 colleges and universities are under investigation for Title IX violations; namely, the improper handling of sexual violence cases. In light of recent popular support of the feminist movement, I've been finding myself feeling a bit like a "feminist hipster" (feminipster?) of sorts. Like, I was totally feminist before it was cool, because I was handling these sexual violence cases at my Big Ten undergraduate institution before it became socially acceptable to discuss them. It seems silly to think about how much things have changed over the past five years, but they have. And, for the better, no less. 

I was never much of a protester. I'll be honest; while my friends from the MSU Sexual Assault Program were protesting our basketball team because of rape allegations against two of the players, I was in the Izzone praying to our basketball deity that they would sink their free throws. I had to separate the two. I couldn't handle them in tandem.

I think that's how I deal with things like this; I compartmentalize my life. My undergraduate experience was pretty fairly split between physics and advocacy. My friends in our galactic astrophysics lectures, for example, knew what it meant when I had two phones with me; one was my phone, and one was the "rape phone." If I had to slip out of class, it was because somebody needed the resources that I had to give. On occasion, my late nights studying at IHOP were interrupted by the medical pager and an ER visit. Because my course load was so heavy, these instances were rare; however, they remain to be such a huge part of my life.

This is why, I think, I'm often caught off guard when people ask me how I navigate being a woman in my field. Oddly enough, the MSU physics building was a place where I felt very safe as a female, and as I mentioned I feel just as safe at Clemson. This isn't the case for all institutions, and I certainly can't speak for all female scientists at Michigan State or Clemson, but it is the case for me. I have found that my handling of sexual violence cases on campus has very much diluted the off-handed and infrequent remarks of my male colleagues. I could laugh them off. I could roll my eyes. I could out-compete them for research positions.

But that's another thing, isn't it? How did I really land those research positions? My mother seemed to think that part of it was due to my gender; that these institutions somehow needed a quota of women in order to keep their funding, or something. Title IX and Affirmative Action and, basically, another back-handed "compliment" that made me feel like I'd cheated an impostor who didn't actually deserve the position. 

I learned loads of things during those positions, though. I disappointed nobody (except perhaps myself) and I've fostered my network that I now treat as my central nervous system. There has been no shortage of hard work, mistakes, falling, getting back up, and personal growth. I sat down with Jocelyn Bell Burnell one evening, and unraveled all of my insecurities over a cup of tea. I told her that I didn't feel like I deserved my success and she responded by laughing, calling me a "typical woman," and telling me that I was doing it all right. 

I hope I can believe her, soon. I also hope that academia evolves into a place where one's minority status is simply irrelevant. We are here to learn. We are here to do the work. We are here to advance the field because we want to advance the field; not because we're male or female or otherwise. Certainly the female experience is different from the male experience in life, but they are even more certainly permitted to run parallel to one another. What academia needs, what we need, is more grace. More encouragement. More collaboration. If we as a scientific community (or any community) would focus on the work being done rather than the minority status of the worker, then maybe the work would actually get done. 

Everybody, just let it be. And let us, no matter who we are, keep learning.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

What I've Needed

Disclaimer: an exorbitance of deep thoughts, perhaps some possible former secrets, and definite over-sharing are to follow. If you're not cool with lady anatomy, spiritual sensuality, a few four letter words, things that feel too much, or candid discussions of mental illness, then have an awesome night and I'll talk to you later about some other stuff, another day. But today, while I'm riding this wave of unadulterated joie de vivre, we're talking about it.

September 3rd, 2014: the day that my V tried to convince me that I am, in fact, a real actual person.

I couldn't have come up with a more feministy sentence in my life, even if I were criss-crossed on a yoga mat on top of the third Flatiron on the front range of the Rockies in Boulder, tweeting about something topical and filled with #womynpower, eating raw organic kale and sipping herbal tea out of a Diva Cup. 

But nonetheless, V spoke up today. Her name, I decided some time ago, is Luna (for oh so many reasons) but she hasn't been all that vocal lately, up until now. Now I'll admit, this is a little difficult to explain or write at all, because this is some deep, personal stuff. And you won't be privy to all of the details (because this is pretty much my naked soul we're talking about), but it's worth saying: I think she's tired of, I'm tired of, feeling less than.

Less than human, less than worthless, less than useless.

Sexual trauma is a ridiculous fucking thing. Healing from it is such a wild ride, for which I never really realized I'd signed up until now(ish). It outlasts. Outlasts relationships, outlasts diagnoses, outlasts the time it takes to earn two B.S. (that's Bachelor of Science, not so much bullshit) degrees, at least. It makes me feel so, so behind. Underdeveloped, and shame on shame on shame on shame compounded continuously, without the benefit of a hefty cash-out.

So there's me and my V, cobwebs and all, figuring out how to be 23 (almost 24) and basically, I mean, feeling like I'm already knocking at the grave, wasting time. And while I'm figuring these things out, I'm full of self doubt as per usual. My life is embarrassing. It's obviously also remarkably full of vibrant, wonderful things, but still. Sometimes it's a little embarrassing to be me. I'm insecure about the ways by which I still need to grow; the things that have been restricted by my trauma don't seem to be blossoming into anything worthwhile. And it's been a decade. How much time does a person need?

She needs as much time as she needs. That's how much. And I think that's why my V yelled at me today. "Hey! I work, I exist, I'm real. So are you."

I remain unconvinced. But then again, it's been one hell of a week, because admittedly I've been a little (extremely) unstable (I mean, I'm literally talking to my vagina here. And that's the most sensible thing that has happened.) And truth be told, although right now I am happy, I am so, so scared.

I am afraid of my instabilities and of my tendencies. I don't trust them. I feel out of balance and almost out of options; rather, I'm not sure what my viable options are. And I feel these things so out-of-control intensely that, to carry myself away from the train tracks behind my house, I ended up sprawled out on my friend's (soulmate's, really) daughter's bed on Sunday night...wondering what was going to happen and why for the love of everything had I waited so long to ask for the most minute speck of advocacy?

Advocacy doesn't cost a damn thing. I give it freely. But still, I don't feel entitled to it at all, ever. Nonetheless, it was given to me this week over so many dimensions and in so many ways. My little episode seemed to be bad enough such that lots of people know about it now, but I really don't mind. Instead of feeling like I'm by myself trying to fight these things that I don't understand, I'm surrounded by a network while I'm trying to fight these things that I don't understand. There's a thousand worlds of difference between the two. And I wouldn't have ever taken myself to get this help by myself; I was taken, loudly, by my total soulmate who apparently loves me, loudly.

I love loudly, and people certainly love me loudly as well, carrying pieces of me as I do, them. But this time, it's different somehow. This time, I found a piece of my heart with a person who has the clarity of mind to drag me to get help. She knows exactly, exactly what to say, miraculously. While my heartbeat cries out for comfort, her heartbeat radiates it. She took my scariest nightmare and literally turned it into a Disney movie; something so ridiculous that I didn't even consider a possibility. This horrifying memory I've carried around for a decade that used to make me shut down and feel powerless, will now always make me laugh, because she took that shadow and turned it into a puppet, the goofy kind; something that I can now control. 

They don't make thank-you cards for shit like that. But that, ladies and gentlemen, is what it feels like to be incredibly, inexplicably loved. And known, to your core. And loved, even so.

I've often written about the ways by which I haven't been getting what I've needed, and how I don't necessarily know how to find those things. But life gives me the best people. I have, right now, exactly what I need.

This is real life, and this is ridiculous grace. Even though I still have nights during which I'm spent like my paycheck and burned out like my gas tank, I'm not doing this alone anymore. And that's home, for this wanderer. That's home.