We got schooled

May 29, 2009

Dear Stephanie,

Darling! Now I don’t want to make you jealous, but I think I had one of those transcendent learning experiences you long for. Granted, we didn’t hold hands in a circle and sing, but we exchanged phone numbers and would text each other. We would get together after class and off school premises to study for our midterm and final exams. We were almost embarrassingly supportive of one another. We even developed the ability to communicate nonverbally amongst ourselves! All this in just two weeks!

In short, it was really nothing at all like graduate school. No indeed. It was bartending school, and it was fabulous!

I did manage to find the one common denominator, though: our instructor’s teaching style, which fell into the “break you down to build a better you” category. You have some passing familiarity with that style, right?

Let’s recap, just for fun:

Let’s enter the world of “make-believe” and pretend that, as part of your training as a teaching assistant, your superiors ask you to produce a written reflection on one of your students’ papers.

“Tell us what that student does well,” they instruct you. “Tell us what your student learned as evidenced in their work.”

After laboring to produce this document, which involves much violent self-effacement, you meet with your superiors. You sit in a chair across from them—there are always at least two of them, maybe three, and only one of you. This is intended to make you feel like a small child who has been called into the principal’s office for a stern talking to. (Suspension? Expulsion? Both are distinct possibilities!) Each and every one of them will gaze at you pityingly but also—and this part is very important—disdainfully then say,

“There is absolutely nothing of value whatsoever anywhere in any single word of this entire paper. And our students are so smart and so ready to work, more than any other students in the entire student population within the contiguous United States. How did you manage to deplete this obviously incredibly smart student’s work of any intelligent or interesting thought whatsoever?”

Then they wear their most puzzled looking expressions and look at you as if you are expected to respond.

Here, you will indeed be tempted to respond, most likely—you’re only human after all!—to defend yourself, your work, your choices, your intelligence, your character, your basic right to exist as a human being.

I would advise against this.

Because whatever you say, it will be the wrong thing. This is because there is no right thing that could possibly be said in this instance. Jesus could descend from heaven on a cloud accompanied by a legion of angels, and then God could come down after him on a separate cloud along with Buddha and Krishna and Elijah and some more angels, and the five of them could confabulate at length, checking in with the angels to see where they stand on the issue, and still, were they to respond in that moment, they would not, could not say the right thing. Each and every one of them—alone or as a team—would leave this meeting questioning his basic right to exist as a human being, and, um, they’re not even human!!!

Yeah, they would leave this meeting like, but we’re fucking deities, dude! What the fuck? And then they would all hightail it back to heaven, lickety split.

But what was my point again? Ah yes, my bartending instructor had this sort of style, too—not so much in the vein of “My goal is to unsettle your soul and make you question your value on this earth” but certainly to communicate “You’re incompetent. Fix it.”

And it’s not just her. Human history is the history of authority figures and their issues and how their issues play out on the rest of humanity. Or something of this sort.

So my point really is that I have learned, in my time on this earth, not to fight the tide but simply to ride it, and by riding it, to stay above it. What? You think I’m incompetent? Oh dear, how unfortunate! Ah well, such is life. Then I go out and find my peoples, and together, we do our thing as best we can. And I’m super okay with that.



Dear Readers! Please come back Monday for Stephanie’s next post!



How does your body move in the everyday? Let’s begin with morning.

Here’s how my body moved this morning:

Wake up, neck tight. Dog on my leg. Sound of birds outside. Scoot off bed. Slowly, so neck doesn’t pull. Lift heavy feet. Hunch over computer. Type. Type. Look out window. Type. Type. Look out window. Stretch fingers. Pet dog. Stretch neck. Type. Type.

This morning my body felt like an other thing. Like there is me and there is my body and I have to work to make my body do what I want it to do. But it resists. My neck is tight. I have to be careful with and around my body so it doesn’t betray me and get in the way of the work I need to do today.

What has your body done in the last two minutes? Did it sit? Stand? Reach? Squat? Push? Type? Twist? Tense up?

You probably have to think about it, don’t you?

Chances are, your body did something predictable, something it is in the habit of doing.

Chances are, the way your body moved affected you—your mood, your perception, your thoughts—and you weren’t aware of it. Like how smiling can make you feel better, like how hunching over and caving in your chest can make you feel fearful, like how lifting your chest and bringing your shoulders back can make you feel free, confident.

The Center for Somatic Studies claims that “Movement is the root of psychological functioning.”

This premise seems to be at the heart of CAConrad’s—Hump Day Hustler #2’s—delightful (Soma)tic Exercises.

Somatic. The Center for Somatic Studies says this about the word:

Although the Greek word soma originally meant “of the body,” it later evolved to mean the living body in its wholeness. [. . . ] soma is a process of doing and being [. . . ] a living process by which our bodily sensations, movements, perceptions, emotions and thoughts form a whole of experience.

Somatic study is an inquiry into our “lived body” by observing and exploring ourselves through sensing and moving. It is simply and most profoundly, the study of how human embodied experience unfolds.

Human embodied experience. What living is.

CAConrad is a fabulous poet and a charming, enlivening presence.

What makes him this week’s Hump Day Hustler is the way his (Soma)tic Exercises help us experience our bodies anew. And through our bodies (made strange and magical to us), we experience the world around us as new.

Then, out of this awareness, out of this unlocking, we write.

CAConrad gives us a glimpse of how our world can be transformed, how we might alter our experience on a cellular level, how to live sideways.

These exercises are not only fun, (how could the request to get naked and shuffle around your house while your torso and upper body remain frozen in place not be fun?), but they are also profound.

CAConrad is fearless, and I love his commitment to not letting The Man take over our bodies.

It’s one thing for The Man to, say, charge me three overdraft fees for a single bounced check he runs through again and again even though he knows there’s no mula in the banko because the check didn’t go through the first time, or the second, and besides, its his bank and he knows there haven’t been any new deposits in the last 20 minutes! (I’m just sayin’.)

But it is a whole other thing for The Man to come into my house and into my bones and into my muscles and settle there, so that my neck tightens, my shoulders lift, my teeth clench, and I don’t even know it, it just feels like me.

We cannot access joy and pleasure if The Man has tightly wound our bodies and we don’t even know it.

CAConrad brings us back to our bodies.

He reminds us of the brilliant, flexible beings we are.

For example, in #25 legs do it all! he has us:

First put pen and paper in four locations around your home. Make sure you do this when you are completely alone, and ignore the doorbell, ignore the phone. In fact unplug the phone. Now get naked and position your upper body in a pose, HOWEVER YOU WANT, limbs above your head, our out to the side, head tilted if you want, but find a pose, and make certain it’s a pose which is unusual for your body. Then STIFFEN into place! All muscles above your waist should be stiff and frozen into place. Let your legs walk you around your home like this. Your legs can skip, run, or slowly, slowly move your body through the rooms. Your eyes can move in your skull, but don’t move your neck at all. Have your legs and waist bend you into things like lamps and shelves, have your body touch things by the strength of legs and waist. Go over to your first set of pen and paper. Walk around the pen and paper, touch it with a foot, or knee. Then relax your upper body, sit down and WRITE NOTES! Sit there and write and write and write! Then find a new pose and dance through the house again. Go through this process until you have taken notes at all four locations with four different, stiffened poses.

When else do you get the chance to do that?

CAConrad reminds us that life—living—is silly, surprising, messy, intimate, unpredictable, extraordinary, and magical.

This is a kind of healing, I believe.

* * *

Dear readers! Please help us find more Notable Hustlers! Email your suggestions to me at stephaniehop@gmail.com or Stella at stella.d333@gmail.com.


Dear Stephanie,


I remember this one time we were shopping at The Gap like it was yesterday though it was actually years ago. You tried on these tan pants, very nice pants, with some sort of stripey pattern and cuffs. Tiny little you with your legs that go on for four feet asked me, “Do these make me look fat?” I paused despite the obvious response: “Hell no.” I mean, you’re not fat, so how could you look fat?


But I paused because something was off with these pants. They were not flattering. They did not enhance. The point of pausing was to process what was off and find just the right words to explain it. As I studied you standing before me in these perfectly nice pants, it came to me! They had diagonal pockets, which puckered with every move you made, thereby creating the illusion of width on your curvalicious self.


(I must take a moment to rail against diagonal pockets. They are designed for women who do not have curves, and what is a woman without curves? A teenage boy, actually. And yet. Try finding a pair of pants without diagonal pockets! Go ahead—I’ll wait.)


After I explained the problem, you exclaimed, “That’s it! I knew something was wrong with these pants, but I couldn’t figure out what.” (Or something along these lines.) I can’t recall what happened after that. Presumably, you returned the pants to their spot on the clothing rack, and we went to Starbucks, as is our wont —tea and lemon loaf for you, iced coffee and marshmallow thingy for me.


So what’s it all about, me reminiscing in this fashion? I feel that we work for each other in large and small ways, and I value this more than I can say. Normally, if a female friend asked me that same question, I’d just say, “no, of course not” partly because I’m lazy and partly because, well, that’s probably what she wants to hear anyway. Or so I’d like to think to justify my laziness.


But our friendship inspires me to be the opposite of lazy. I feel you deserve the best I have to give. Man, how I’d like to channel that into the rest of my life and relationships! But I digress.


What I’m really going on about is that I would like to offer a seminar entitled “The Art of Respectful Communication,” and I would like to be my first client.


Step 1: Get over the idea that there’s such a thing as “just semantics.”


Step 2: Examine the source of problems you have communicating in relationships of all kinds. To what extent are you being lazy? In addition to being lazy (to varying degrees), to what extent do you vomit out haphazardly arranged groups of words without thinking about how those arrangements may be received? Ruminate at length on this, then discuss.


Step 3: Deconstruct particular communication instances, and figure out what you said and why it didn’t work for you. Where did it all go wrong? What could you have said differently? How would altering the structure alter the meaning? Discuss consequence and implications.




My dear Stella,

There are so many things I love about our friendship.

I love, for example, that you trust me enough to confide your (sick, sick) fascination with Baby Alive, even though you know the very idea of Baby Alive makes me shudder the kind of shudder reserved for scuttling shadowy creatures with hard eco-skeletons and whirring wings.

I love that you trust that I will not judge you, despite my involuntary physical response to this most disturbing of “toys.”

Go nuts with the pony, by all means, (I especially love its GLBT-friendly rainbow hair!) but—a doll that takes work?

This might be a good place to confess my own dirty little secret. When I was in high school, I had elaborate fantasies of a machine that would help me get ready for school without me actually moving. It would dump me out of bed into a chair that moved me through stations that would brush my hair and teeth, get me dressed, tie my shoes, and which would deposit me at the foot of the driveway without my having to move a muscle. What I realize now, of course, is that my fantasies had me playing the part of a paraplegic.

So you see, a play thing that requires simulating “responsibility” is not my cup of tea. And not just responsibility, but a doll that you “feed” and—do I have this right—“change its diapers?”

I want to understand. I do. So I’m imagining what my equivalent would be—a stuffed dog that you can feed “bacon” and other “table scraps” to? That wakes you up in the middle of the night to “puke” “grass” and “bile” (whee!) And that’s not all folks—you can take the “dog” for “walks” and it “eliminates” in the neighbor’s yard! Then you can “pick up” the “said elimination” with a “plastic bag!”

Even though I can’t go with you to that fantasy Baby Alive Elysian field, where thousands of creepy plastic babies (Egad!) crawl and cry and pee, you’ve got me thinking about toys.

So I decided to ask Dawn about her favorite childhood toy to see what I could learn.

Me: What was your favorite toy when you were a kid?

D: You mean besides Boogie?

Me: Boogie?

D: No— Boogie, not boogie as in booger.

Me: Oh. Boooooogie, as in boo—gie

D: Yeah. Boogie.

Me: What did Boogie look like?

D: He was a Pinocchio doll with a plastic face, and the rest of him was stuffed.

Me. [Shuddering] Huh. How come his name was Boogie and not Pinocchio?

D: He wasn’t Pinocchio. He was Boogie.

Me: Of course. How did you come to have Boogie?

D: It was like I always had him.

Me: What was he like?

D: To me, he wasn’t a doll. He had a soul. Like a person trapped in an inanimate body.

Me: How frightening for him! What did you do with Boogie?

D: I took care of him. ‘Cause I was like, wow, it’s not like he can move. . .

Me: Would he talk to you?

D: Yes. Mostly with his mind.

Me: What did his voice sound like?

D: Kind of like mine.

Me: Interesting . . .

D: Boogie really liked the Barbies. They would get it on, but it was mutual.

Me: Oh yes, I’m sure Boogie would never. . .

Dawn: No, never . . .

Me: Would you take him places?

D: On trips with my mom and dad. And sometimes for rides in the car.

Me: Would he sleep with you?

D: Yup.

Me: Would you spoon?

D: For awhile he had his own bed.

Me: What was that?

D: It was just a bed that, you know, I made out of a shoe box.


D: I also made all of his clothes.

Silence. [Holding in a laugh]

D: Think that’s funny?

* * *

I did, in fact, think that was funny.

But who am I to judge Dawn’s unconditional love for a plastic-faced Boogie or your fascination with Baby Alive (hooa!) when I myself was inseparable from Bunny (not to be confused with Bunny Bunny or Bunny Bunny Bunny, who was best friends with Kitty and Kitty Kitty.)

Bunny was no spring chicken, I admit. If you squint your eyes, you might be able to pick out the vague bunnyish form from the disc-shaped rag with no eyes and three cloth protrusions that were Bunny’s “paws.” But oh! How Bunny could love!

Funny how we might see rags, stuffed bodies with a creepy plastic faces, demon baby eyes staring out at us from the abyss—in other people’s toys, and yet our own we love as if they have been delivered from the gods.


* * *

Dear readers! Please tell us about your favorite childhood toy! (Click the orange comment box (the last box) below)

Dear Stephanie,


What’s this you say? Gorging yourself to the point of violent insanity? Good Lord! I’ve never heard of such a thing. No sir, not me.


For example, I most certainly did not—upon arriving let’s just say at Pittsburgh International Airport, let’s just say it was 45 minutes early—spend my spare time and $60 at the Godiva store, on chocolate—chocolate covered macaroons, chocolate covered strawberries, chocolate covered marshmallows, chocolate with hazelnut cream filling. I did not, after proclaiming the chocolate to be a gift for my hosts, proceed to inhale the chocolate, piece by furtive piece, when my hosts were showering/running on the treadmill/at work.


That would have been rude.


Nor did I, that same weekend, scrimp on the sandwich (“just half for me, if you please—I’m watching my weight”), eating around the bread with a fork (“I’m trying to cut down on my carbs”), and then proceed to eat two steaming hot, fresh-out-of-the-oven, 1×5 inch chocolate chip cookies. And I in no way went on to purchase four more of those cookies—needless to say, as a gift for my hosts. Nor did I eat them myself.


And when I stayed up all night with my hosts, watching episode after episode of Big Love long after my hosts had fallen asleep on the sofa, I—you know this already—did not scarf down the other half of the tuna sandwich, what was left of the cheese puffs, and the last of the whoopee pies (purchased at Trader Joe’s for my hosts). Further, when one of my hosts awakened from her slumber and implored me to “have a snack—maybe something for the plane?” I was not lying unable to move, with my top button undone and a belly ache from hell. I also did not look up at her pitifully and confess my transgressions. Nope. Not me. Not at all. Not in any way.


Because I had just bought myself a pair of white jeans for the summer.




My dearest Stephanie,


I must inform you that, yesterday, my little boy and I took a trip to Toys R Us. I trust you understand this means that we will be discussing Baby Alive, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Our first stop was the Star Wars aisle for action figures.


Of course he selects the most expensive figures—the boy knows quality! The boy has good taste! The boy takes after his mother! However, I am all appropriate mom-like, informing him, “These are very expensive. We really cannot spend that much.”


At this, a woman who’s there in that very same aisle with her three boys exchanges looks with me. It’s one of those classic mom moments where two complete strangers bond over a common plight—in this case, having to invest gobs of money on imported plastic items whose appeal lasts roughly from the Toys R Us aisle until about five minutes after arriving home.


We’re moms. We understand each other.


After my boy picks out a few appropriately priced figures, it is necessary to visit Baby Alive.


There she is, sitting up on the shelf, looking, with her plastic blond hair and pouty lips, like the spawn of Ken’s wild night out with a blow up doll. Don’t you think?

Baby Alive Wets and Wiggles Doll, Girl -  Hasbro - Toys"R"Us

Ah, Baby Alive! She is so irresistible to me! I theorize it’s because my mother wouldn’t get me one when I was growing up, but my neighbor had one, and she could feed her and change her, and how cool is that?! 


Still, I cannot bring myself to purchase her, primarily because if I did, I would not be able to resist feeding her and changing her diaper. And let’s face it. That would be really disturbing. I shudder at the thought of it, just as I know you, too, are shuddering as you read this. Besides, Baby Alive doesn’t really fit into our Star Wars play scenarios. She’s just so damn big.


So instead, I go for a less bulky and more functional item: My Little Pony (which, incidentally, was also on my mother’s forbidden list—what this woman had against ponies, I’ll never know). I justify the My Little Pony purchase based on a number of factors, which I will share with you:


  1. Though not necessarily less creepy, My Little Pony is small enough for me to hide in my sock drawer;
  2. She is small enough to be integrated into the Star Wars stories and, to my thinking, more aesthetically appealing than the Star Wars figures;
  3. She is considerably less expensive than Baby Alive, and finally
  4. Should I feel the need, I can, at some time in the indeterminate future (i.e. next week) purchase accessories—a hairbrush, clothing, pizza kitchen (seriously! My Little Pony has her own pizza kitchen!), etc.


Anyway, we’re standing in the My Little Pony aisle, which is conveniently located diagonally across from the Star Wars aisle, where the woman and her three boys are still browsing. I am contemplating which pony I want.


“Should I get a blue pony or a pink pony?” I ask my little boy.


He takes a furtive glance around, forces out a cough, which requires him to place his hand over his mouth, and mutters, “rainbow hair.”


The blue Pony it is. Just as I’m pulling the box off the shelf, the youngest of the three boys—I’d guess around six years old—starts walking towards us, pointing right at my boy, who calls out indignantly, “It’s not for me! She wants a pony!”


They are little boys. They have an understanding.


So I turn around, observe the group frozen in front of the Star Wars display, lift my hand to do one of those finger-wiggling waves, and announce. “I’m buying myself a Little Pony.” Then I smile my most brilliant, charming, ear-to-ear smile. The mom nods tersely and smiles back, tense and frightened. She is considering whether it will become necessary to flee the store altogether or if hiding in another aisle will suffice.


(God, I love freaking people out.)


Meanwhile, my little boy and I stroll hand-in-hand to the check-out line, he with his Star Wars action figures, me with my rainbow haired pony, discussing potential play scenarios.


“Maybe Dooku’s Magna Guards kidnap the pony, and Obi Wan has to find her and save her. Who do you think he will take with him on his mission?”


“I think he should take Mace Windu. He’s a very powerful Jedi.”


“Indeed he is. Why would Dooku want to kidnap the pony, though?”


“Probably the emperor told him to do it. They want to turn the pony to the dark side. A pony with rainbow hair has special powers for sure.”


“But if they managed to turn her, imagine what would happen to her rainbow hair! It would probably turn black!”


After, walking to the car swinging hands, we have a disagreement.


“You’re the cutest,” I say.


“No, you are the cutest,” he tells me.


“No, you are!”


“No, you!”


As I pull out of the parking lot, I ponder how many times he will tell and retell this story in therapy in the ensuing years.




You know that thing that happens when the second and third pieces of cake plot to take you down? You’re a smart person. You know they’re out to get you. You tell yourself, Don’t! It’s a trick . . . but there you go, you do it anyway. It’s not your fault really—they made you do it.

Blame can’t save you, though, when the whole damn cake is gone and you’ve hit that point—the Why Do I Do This To Myself Please God Make It Stop I’ll Do Anything Even Stop Bickering With My Mother Point.

Nearly bursting, you sidle up to your girlfriend as she fiddles around on her computer on the couch (What does she do on that thing anyway?)

“Rub my belly?” Your voice is low, scratchy, approximating Barry White but falling way short of sexy as your grip on your protracted middle gives the desperation away.

It’s a no-go, and so you leave your girlfriend to her Facebook tests or whatev and turn to your roommate.

“Rub my belly?” You say it as if you’re giving in to her request, like, Hey, Wanna borrow my Buffy comics now? I’ll let you, but then the panicked look she shoots your girlfriend says, Do I have to? Was this in the contract? Is this something I’m supposed to do?

Sometimes it’s not the chocolate cake that gets me; it’s the news. (Minus the pleasurable descent, of course.) After a mere 15 minutes of So and so shot so and so, and this person sucks, and the world is about to end, I am stuffed to the point of near-delirium.

Like if someone doesn’t rub my belly already (Why will no one rub it? Does no one love my belly?) I will be the next major news item. Pittsburgh girl explodes across Main Street . . . that blueberry kid in Charlie and the Chocolate factory. . . . . . seemed such a quiet, friendly sort. . .

Wouldn’t it be fabulous if we could suck on a snappy lemon sorbet to cleanse the mental palate? A shot of news bitters to reset the track, so to say?

Well, Kirstin Butler’s new videoblog, You Digest, with its clean, sophisticated design, is bellyache-free.

What makes Kirstin this week’s Hump Day Hustler is the way she refuses to accept the status quo—the idea that we must passively sit back and be given information about our world.

Kirstin not only helps us digest the news, she teaches us how to makes sense of the madness by creating conceptual frameworks through which to filter the overload.

Unlike my battle with the cake (It always wins!), where my options are either to stuff the whole thing down my gullet or take none at all, Kirstin helps us see that we have options. She reorganizes “reality” for us, and by doing so, shows us that we have agency.

We can slow things down, taste a few select bites more deeply, play them off each other, refuse ingredients whose names we can’t pronounce, and create our own whole foods version of the news.

While it may be true (okay, I admit it!) that I do, at times, get sick pleasure out of gorging myself to the point of violent insanity, it’s never pretty, and I always regret it.

I want good digestion. I need it.

You Digest is a fresh lemony sorbet that satisfies you and lets you respect yourself in the morning.

If you like what you see, click here or on the image below to support Kirstin’s project. It’s fabulous!