Move over freshman fifteen: make (lots of) room for the sabbatical ten.


A Narcisco Rodriguez dress that looks surprisingly comfortable.

I’ve been talking with a number of the other long-term fellows about the amazing fact that many of us have managed to gain weight while on sabbatical. Here we are, in Southern California, with its lovely weather and year-round fresh produce at local farmer’s markets several times each week, and we’re getting fatter! We’re getting fatter as we walk and bike to the library, and as we do yoga in the Chinese garden twice a week together (with classes taught by me and another fellow), and we’re all of us–or most of us, anyway–getting heavier!

Most of us live in places with winter cold and summer humidity in our real lives, and most of us drive a lot longer and further on a daily basis in our work commutes. Then there’s all of that day job tedium of teaching, meeting with students, and committee work that gets in the way of our running, walking, hiking, biking, and yoga, or what have you.  Women and men alike have remarked on this unhappy side-effect of our residency here.

What is up with this?  Continue reading

Everything changes, part I

So many European medievalists and early modernists have Latin tattoos that I’m now declaring that this is A Thing. (I know: I’m probably the last to notice!) First, we have the example of the late, great (in bloggy terms) Squadratomagico, whose tattoo is on the back of her neck & which I have met in person (scholar, neck, tattoo, and all.) Then when I got to the Huntington, I noticed that a medievalist here has a mid-thirteenth century quotation from a manuscript tattooed on the inside of his left forearm.

Finally, we have Flavia, who has celebrated her fortieth birthday and her retirement from the job market alike by getting a Latin tattoo, also on the inside of her left forearm. Her tat says “Omnia mutantur, nihil interit,” or “Everything changes, nothing perishes,” which is a thought so lovely that it makes me cry. Of course it’s from Ovid’s Metamorphoses–what else?  (Why the inside of the left forearm?  I get the inside part, as it’s more protected from the sun and other injuries, but is the choice of right versus left merely a personal one or dependent on right- or left-handedness?)

I asked my tattooed Huntington colleague if he thought so many of his medievalist colleages had tattoos because medieval scholars in particular are accustomed to ink on skin through their work on vellum documents and manuscripts.  (Vellum is a fine parchment made from lamb or kid skins, and is among the oldest paper-like technology we have for recording and preserving information.)  He agreed that this might be an interesting connection, and also said that it’s pretty popular for people to get textual tattoos these days anyway.  He also connected his tattoo to a major life change–in his experience, winning tenure, whereas for Flavia it was her fortieth birthday. Continue reading

Oliver Sacks is dying an optimist

A  great public intellectual writes about his robust good spirits in the face of a terminal diagnosis:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

.       .       .       .       .

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Continue reading

Bryn Mawr “affirms. . . institutional identity as a women’s college” and the universal She

From an email I received from the Chair of the Board of Trustees at Bryn Mawr College about the “recommendation from a Board working group that was created at the September 2014 Board meeting to examine the mission of the College with respect to transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming applicants” that was “discussed and approved” last weekend.  I’m sure this working group came in response to this story from the New York Times last fall about trans* students at Wellesley.

The working group concluded unanimously that the mission of the College at the undergraduate level is to educate women to be future leaders. In its recommendation to the Board, the working group noted that Bryn Mawr’s identity as a women’s college is fundamental to its distinctive environment, one in which women are central, faculty assume and expect excellence from women, and women assume positions of leadership. The working group also recommended that the College use language that affirms our institutional identity as a women’s college (e.g. use of gendered language) while respecting the diversity of individual identities in the community.

The working group also proposed that the College more clearly articulate the eligible undergraduate applicant pool in the context of its mission. The Board approved the working group’s recommendation that in addition to those applicants who were assigned female at birth, the applicant pool will be inclusive of transwomen and of intersex individuals who live and identify as women at the time of application. Intersex individuals who do not identify as male are also eligible for admission. Those assigned female at birth who have taken medical or legal steps to identify as male are not eligible for admission.

In cases where an applicant’s gender identity is not clearly reflected in their application materials, the College may request additional information, which could include verifiable legal or medical steps taken to affirm gender. In evaluating such additional information, the College fully intends to be as flexible and inclusive as possible. 

Within the context of our mission as a women’s college, all Bryn Mawr students will continue to be valued and supported members of the community, no matter how their gender identity shifts during their time at the College.  

Continue reading

The Vagina Dentatalogues

Just go read Elizabeth Reis on the Mount Holyoke College non-production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues at Nursing Clio:

Intersex activists have coined the insightful slogan, “No Body is Shameful®,” to draw attention to the shaming and forced cosmetic adherence to the idea of a “normal” body. Of course, here they are talking about people born with atypical sex development, like the one in 5000 infant girls born with MRKH Syndrome [Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser (MRKH) Syndrome]. Since the nineteenth century, girls born without vaginas have endured the surgical creation of such anatomy. This reconstructive “corrective” surgery, described eloquently here by Esther Morris Leidolf, in a narrative she calls the “The Missing Vagina Monologue,” has never been done for the pleasure of the girl, but as her physician bluntly explained when she was only thirteen years old: so that she “could have a normal sex life with her husband.”

This is the kind of violence that The Vagina Monologues speaks to, even though there are no intersex characters in Eve Ensler’s play. It doesn’t matter (though it would be a good idea!). Watching the play encourages us to appreciate the profound refrain, “No Body is Shameful,” whether we have a vagina, want a vagina, like vaginas, or just love hearing the word spoken rebelliously and repeatedly on stage.

I like Reis’s point about the surgical violence done to women’s bodies for men’s pleasure.  I know that many trans* people have embraced this kind of surgery as something that can make them whole or complete, but I sometimes wonder where the feminist critiques of allopathic medicine have gone sometimes in the trans* celebrations of the power of technology to alter people’s bodies through hormones and surgery. Continue reading

Beyond the Binary: Trans* History in Early America


Fall 2014 special issue

Rachel Hope Cleves has a detailed and interesting report on a panel she convened earlier this month at the Annual Meeting of the American HIstorical Association in New York City over at Notches: (Re)marks on the History of Sexuality. This panel was an outgrowth of a special issue of Early American History she edited for Fall 2014 on the subject of Beyond the Binaries:  Critical Approaches to Sex and Gender in Early America.

Cleves describes each of the four panelists’ contributions, describing their work on flexibly-gendered or trans* people and describing the conversation among the panelists and the audience on the salience of gender binaries as well as the value of reading trans* identities into the more distant past of early America.  I thought this exchange was particularly interesting on the question of viewing early America as a “golden age” of gender flexibility and trans* possibilities:

Questions from the floor followed, sparking productive disagreements. Questions from Kathryn Falvo, Maddie Williams, and Jesse Bayker, pushed [Sean] Trainor’s observation of the optimistic bent of the special issue. Trainor suggested that variations in the expression of masculinity in early America need not be treated as “assaults” but could be understood as tolerated iterations. [Greta] LaFleur stressed that her attention to the wide-range of non-binary gender expression in early America was not optimistic but intended as a corrective to the paucity of alternative stories. She announced herself willing to work in the speculative mode, not just the declarative. [Scott] Larson went further, insisting that he felt an ethical imperative to make bold claims for trans* history, and to escape the “land of caveats” in which academic history often operates.

Continue reading

A Letter About a Good Management under the Distemper of the MEASLES, at this time Spreading in the Country


Because there are so many people here in California who are as hostile to vaccinating their children as many of Cotton Mather’s neighbors in Boston at the turn of the eighteenth century were hostile to inoculation, I thought I’d do a little research on three-hundred year old measles medical management.  There was no such thing as a vaccination or inoculation for measles then, so let’s see what Mather’s 1713 advice on nursing a patient through measles looks like.  (You can click on the link to see the full PDF of his pamphlet–it’s only four pages long.)

Mather offers loads of natural remedies for the symptoms of measles.  Above all, he is against the “pernicious Method of Over-doing and Over-heating, and giving things to force Nature out of its own orderly way of proceeding.  Before we go any further, let this Advice for the Sick, be principally attended to; Don’t kill ’em!  That is to say, with mischevous Kindness.  Indeed, if we stopt here and said no more, this were enough to save more Lives, than our Wars have destroy’d,” 1.   Continue reading