Category Archives: Navelgazing

More Philadelphia Stories

Last night I went to a house party where I only knew one person.  I hadn’t been to the house before, so I had the address in my hand as I walked quickly through the dark. Just around the corner from where I thought the house party should be, I passed another house party in full swing: I could see rooms full of costumed people standing and laughing, plastic cups in hand.

For a moment I thought about walking in. It could just as easily have been the party I was going to, and I would know almost as many people there.

But I found the right party just around the corner. I poured myself some of the applejack cocktail I’d brought and scanned the room. By the time the one person I knew appeared, I’d already met several other guests, including a kindred spirit who also “didn’t know anyone here.” The next three people I met all knew someone else I already knew, out in the world beyond this party. We all had plenty to say to each other but before too long half of these new acquaintances and I were dancing energetically in the room set aside for that purpose, sweaty and happy. I was very glad I went.


On my way home, I passed a group of men talking loudly next to a church. As I walked by, they began talking to me, theatrically abashed and fauxpologizing. Then I realized that they weren’t having an impromptu party in the churchyard, they were having an impromptu pee in the churchyard.

“Are you serious,” I exclaimed, “there are a million bars around and they all have bathrooms you know!”

Noises of agreement and disagreement. They were just as drunk as I was, and we were all rather loud and performatively staging this referendum. One of them suggested that there was no good reason not to pee in the churchyard.

“Yes there is,” I insisted, full of italics. “I live here and I don’t want pee in my neighborhood!

Ah, touché. They conceded the point but the damage was already done, and I resumed my walk home. “You’re just going to walk away?” asked their primary interlocutor plaintively. “Yes,” I said firmly, “but I hope you all have a good night. Somewhere else. Where there are bathrooms.”


I still haven’t received my new debit card from the bank to replace the one that go shut off after the ATM fiasco earlier this month, and I haven’t made it to the bank for cash. However, my cute July haircut had grown entirely out of control, and so I found myself headed to a hair salon sight unseen purely on the strengths that it was nearby, inexpensive, and accepted my credit card.

The stylist thought I looked familiar. I couldn’t think why. He asked me if I used to hang out at Double Shots, a coffee shop in Old City. I did indeed, a long time ago when I was new to Philly and wi-fi wasn’t as prevalent as it is now. I hoofed it to Double Shots to work on my grad school homework because it was the nearest cafe with wi-fi that I knew of, and because I thought one or two of the baristas were cute. Now that I remembered the time and place, I remembered the stylist coming up to me, admiring my hair (it was very long then), showing me his book and talking about what he’d like to do with my hair (in a professional capacity, I mean). At that age, I had established a routine of cutting my hair once every three years, so I didn’t think I’d need his services.  I saw him once or twice after that, I don’t really remember. He remembered me vividly, including the fact that I occasionally dyed my hair pink.

It was strange to be remembered like this. Just recently I’d been feeling like everything that happened in my twenties was a dream, that I’d moved to Philadelphia to chase a dream, that I’d dreamed my way through the first few foggy years of grad school, alternately timid and brazen, not yet fully formed  yet full of nonsense. Not that I think the reverse is now true; I’m certainly related to that earlier version, but it’s hard to believe she existed. Did I really say that? How did I ever fall in love with such a person? Why did I think this or that was important? How could I have done such a thing? But I existed. I left imprints on the world. I had flesh and fabulous pink hair.

Well, now I have a hangover and a fresh haircut, and the reminder (that I need regularly) to be present here, in this moment.


Filed under Navelgazing, Overheard in Philly, Urbanality

Many selves

Two conversations and the PQfEW that sparked their memories.

1. Between myself and my first love, a year or more after the romance had ended and the rupture it left had started to close painfully together:
I don’t remember the context – perhaps I remarked on how much he’d changed over the last year, how he’d gone from fervently religious to agnostic and back again. He said he felt that he was the same person he had always been. I’m me, he insisted. There are always certain characteristics that define me. I’m loyal. Hard-working. Passionate.
I didn’t know how to disagree aloud, but I could see cracks in these identities he had chosen. Loyal to what, at whose expense? Passionate when and at what cost?

2. Many years later, I was drinking sour ale and waiting for a table with a former flame – the flame part was already former to this occasion of waiting. We regaled one another with tales of our shared history, of what we’d been and done since then. He said, I think you’re the same. Older. More grown-up. But the same.
I said I wouldn’t like to think so; I didn’t like who I was then. I didn’t add whether I thought he was also the same. There were some continuous threads: same cockiness, an occasional startling tenderness. I remembered those characteristics from our adolescence, but in truth I felt that the object of my infatuation from so long ago was not relevant to the person drinking sour ale with me that night.
He said, you think there’s nothing in us that stays the same? That we’re endlessly changing from the forces external to us? He didn’t say it quite like that; I’m sure he said it more eloquently and with a note of tender derision.
I thought, because it seemed like so much blasphemy to say that there was no kernel that is me. Am I nothing? Just a bundle of repeated behaviors and related images? But for the sake of argument I said yes, there is nothing. I may or may not have added, the sameness that you see in me is what you desire and fear to be the same.

3. And then there is Trinh Minh-ha saying the same thing more beautifully and with more hope. She says,

A critical difference from myself means that I am not i, am within and within i. I/i can be I or i, you and me both involved. We (with capital W) sometimes include(s), other times exclude(s) me. You and I are close, we intertwine; you may stand on the other side of the hill once in a while, but you may also be me, while remaining what you are and what i am not. The differences made between entities comprehended as absolute presences – hence the notions of pure origin and true self – are an outgrowth of a dualistic system of thought peculiar to the Occident.

So then, that idea that I am myself and not more or less than that – it is just an idea. One way of comprehending the incomprehensible. She says,

“I” is, therefore, not a unified subject, a fixed identity, or that solid mass covered with layers of superficialities one has gradually to peel off before one can see its true face. “I” is, itself, infinite layers.

And if so, there is no need to limit oneself to one self. No need to find the self, in that sense that it is something concrete that got lost or covered in dust. No need to hang onto the same self that you projected when you didn’t know what that self could or ought to be. A web, infinitely built and rebuilt, not sediment. No kind of rock, precious or not.

Quotes from Woman, Native, Other.


Filed under Ideas, Navelgazing, PQfEW

PQfEW and the price of an ethical dilemma

Which is nine dollars, if you’re curious.

I had jury duty today.  I reorganized my comp class’s readings for the prior three sessions and cancelled today’s session.  I packed two books, one of which was the source for this week’s quotes.

Curiously, I was Juror Number 1.  That meant I got to be the line leader as we marched up to the second waiting room and down to the courtroom.  In the courtroom they gave us all numbered placards, which we were to hold up if we answered “yes” to any of the judge’s questions.  Would anyone be incapable of walking down nine flights in case of an emergency?  No response.  Is anyone related or closely acquainted with the defendant, any of the lawyers, or the judge?  No response.  This is a criminal trial for multiple charges.  The primary charge is murder.  There is a chance – not a certainty, but a chance – that the jury would be asked to consider capital punishment.  Does anyone have a religious, ethical, or conscientious objection with the death penalty?

Pause.  Do you?

I mean, I have a vague distaste for the death penalty.  I think the entire justice system would benefit the community more if it focused on rehabilitation instead of punishment.  Punishment might take the criminal out of the world for a little while or for life, but it doesn’t solve the conditions that lead to crime in the first place.  That’s as far as I’ve ever gotten when reflecting on the death penalty, except in cases where I was so horrified by the scope of the crime that my gut reaction was this man does not deserve to live

But to make that call?  When someone says to you, Citizen you must look at this man who may have killed a human being.  If he did, would you object to the responsibility for killing him in return?  Quick now.

Resume.  I slowly raised my placard, as did about twenty others in the sixty of us.  I’m still not sure if that was the right answer.

Being Number 1 meant that I was first to be called into a little room, where a man asked me why I raised my placard on a question about hardship.  (The trial will probably go on for a week, and I would not be able to cancel or find a substitute for all of multiple classes.)  Then I read for a little while longer, and by 1pm I was released into the hall with a dozen or so others, and was handed a check for $9. 

Interestingly, my reading for this week had much to do with law.  I was reading the introduction to Feminist Geneaologies, Colonial Legacies, and Democratic Futures in which M Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty do more than just criticize the state of globalization and the stumbling development of transnational feminism: they describe what a real democracy might look like.  To do so, they have to dismantle some of the preconceptions of Democracy (they capitalize this intentionally) in the US is practiced. 

“The citizenship machinery is not ‘blind’ to differences; in fact, it uses a legal apparatus to transform difference into inequality.  In its efforts to remain ‘blind’ to differences in the name of equal treatment, the law often perpetuates the naturalization of heterosexuality and the production of psychic economies that conform to the dictates of the ideological superiority of the heterosexual family… on questions of homosexuality the state reneges on its promise to protect all citizens from terrorist violence.”

That’s just the first of several built-in inequalities they pick apart in this introduction.  They describe the imagined recipient of welfare as a young black female (although this is not always the case) and the consequent erasure of young black females as citizens due full rights.  Alexander and Mohanty both immigrated to America, and they have quite a bit to say about the process of gaining citizenship legally and ideologically.  (By the way, how do you love “psychic economies” as a creative way of talking about ideologies?)  But the overvaluation of the heterosexual family seems like a good place to start, since ENDA was recently revised in a way that doesn’t sufficiently protect transgendered people from workplace discrimination.

Actually, discussing how not-blind the law is makes a good connection to last week’s quotes about objectivity and who is presumed to possess it… additionally, Thinking Girl recently read an article questioning whether women and blacks could be impartial judges.

The second quote is a good one for me to remember – it’s so easy when discussing the cultures of hate in our own society (not to mention other ones!) to think of the objects of this hate as, well, objects.  And victims.  The example Mohanty likes to use is the veil… Westerners just love to go on rants about the veil and the seclusion of women in other countries, but the veil can also have significant personal and religious meaning.  The trouble is not the veil itself, but the forced choice of whether to wear it or not.  Regardless, it’s not useful to think of veiled women (or any women) as victims of the veil or their womanhood, because to do so erases the personhood right out of the picture.

“Women do not imagine themselves as victims or dependents of governing structures but as agents of theur own lives.  Agency is understood here as the conscious and ongoing reproduction of the terms of one’s existence while taking responsibility for this process.”


Filed under Gender, Ideas, Navelgazing, PQfEW