Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Like in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, when the secret to the universe is revealed to be 42, I have learned a couple of seemingly humble but mighty powerful things in grad school, things that apply to all of life-- genre theory and the theory of reciprocity.

These two theories explain everything that has ever confused me about life.

Of course, most people do not take kindly, in real-life, non-academic situations, if you cite either of these theories explicitly. Fortunately, my real friends have become used to the juxtaposition of $10 words with Southern slang and expletives.

Image by Mark Parisi from

Genre theory - defines genres as social constructions that represent specific purposes for reading and writing within different social activities.

But genre goes beyond reading and writing.

According to Charles Bazerman, a composition theorist I admire, genres are “a form of social knowledge—a mutual construing of objects, events, interests and purposes that not only links them but makes them what they are: objectified social needs. [Furthermore genres are] forms of life, ways of being … frames for social action... locations within which meaning is constructed."

In other words, genres are a social thing, mutually understood by all participants to fulfill a certain purpose in a certain way.

Genre and Real Life

More than movies, then, more than music, more than types of writing, all social activities are genres. Funerals are a genre. Job interviews. Break-ups.

When someone is being "inappropriate," it's because they aren't participating in expectations defined by the genre. Whenever you're unsure how to act in any given situation, consult the conventions of the genre.

If you can't figure it out, it's a genre problem. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the conventions of the genre. Possibly, the conventions are ill-defined, perhaps new, perhaps in flux. Possibly, you think it's one genre while the other participants are thinking it's another. Possibly participants are from different cultures that understand the genre in different ways.

Genre and the Grad Student

Genre theory is behind some of my present troubles, as it usually is.

Currently, I am struggling with the imperative to write my thesis, which the English department calls a "project." The conventions of a thesis and the conventions of a project are different, and both are well-defined in general as well as on the HSU graduate studies website.

However, in my program, the expectations are not entirely clear. What is expected seems to have elements of each genre.

Like so many things in academia, we only find out the rules when we break them: no, that's not it. OK, the only way to find out is to try something else or to glean enough information to be able to frame a question in such a way that you can present it to a friendly senior member of the academy without appearing too ignorant yourself.

Reciprocity theory - a.k.a. social exchange theory or gift theory, states that all human social behavior is essentially an exchange of material and non-material "goods" (like prestige or approval). When we give, we expect to receive, in equal amounts. Even when we think we're being altruistic, we are getting something out of it (self-esteem, vindication, relief?).

We are always seeking equilibrium in this. So when something isn't going right in relationships, there is usually a lack of equilibrium perceived by at least one party.

The gift is often unspoken, like what is exchanged in marriages, workload, mutual respect, sexual fidelity, respectability, freedom. In successful marriages, all parties agree about the value of things exchanged.

Reciprocity in Real Life

OK, so I'm on the phone with one of my girlfriends, her boyfriend is treating her badly and she's telling me all about it. It's not that complicated to figure out what's going wrong when you look at the situation through the lens of reciprocity theory. Does a good girlfriend cite reciprocity theory or does she lend a sympathetic ear instead?

Reciprocity and Hospitality

OK, so I go to a party and I bring a bottle of wine, maybe a casserole. I don't come empty-handed because my host/ess is giving me food, hospitality, etc. Whether you're a mooch or magnanimous, it's reciprocity at work.

So in Texas, when families go out to dinner together, the heads of household argue afterward about who is going to pay for everyone's dinner. Each one dramatically insists on paying. To pay for the dinner indicates affluence, success and status. Not paying indicates a lower social status, so the struggle is sincere. Not offering to pay at all is even worse. Afterward, the head of household who didn't win the struggle to pay is a little bent out of shape.

Try this elsewhere, even in California, and you will encounter only nominal resistance to paying. Californians will let you pay. If you're a Texan and this happens, you might think badly of them for that.

In California, it is less about status and more about mutuality. "You paid last time, so let me pay this time." "Well, OK then, but next time, it's my treat."

In Sweden, I noticed people "went Dutch" most of the time. Maybe this magnanimity of Americans is related to our desire to look as if we have more money than we actually have. In other words, it's less related to actual generosity than to desire for status.

Reciprocity and Entitlement

So what becomes of reciprocity in today's American culture, which gleefully expects something for nothing? We despise that 'sense of entitlement' when we identify it as the source of someone else's unpleasant behavior.

Our complete lack of awareness of the necessity of reciprocity is what leads us to things like Wal-marts and dollar stores where you can buy flimsy facsimiles of actual possessions, imagining you have a real thing.

I'm thinking of furniture you can buy at Target, which looks nice but hardly lasts a year. This is so odd when you think of antique furniture, still entirely functional 50 and 100 years later.

Reciprocity and Justice

The definition of stealing is getting something for nothing. And it can be argued that you have traded your self-respect, your clear conscience, your true status as a human, etc. There was a time and a place when thieves had a hand lopped off. In other words, when they tried to take more than their share, they ended up losing something of great value.

Reciprocity is behind that awful feeling you have when you've been ripped off, when something has been stolen from you, that incomplete feeling, the desire for justice of some kind. Reciprocity is behind our sense of justice.

And so on.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Home Sweet Home

Image courtesy of
For five nights now I have slept in my new apartment. I've cooked a few meals, made coffee every morning, taken five showers. I live there.

However, I only have a little furniture there to pad my life-- bed, couch, kitchen. The real moving day, involving dressers, desk and kitchen table, etc. happens tomorrow. Friends, bless them, are coming to the rescue!

I am also blessing the electrician who remodeled the apartment sometime in the last year; there are outlets everywhere, and everything is profoundly practical. And new. It feels as if I am the first to use it, but I am the second.

Apparently this remodel became necessary when a car spun off Murray Road and crashed into the building, taking out part of the kitchen. Can you imagine being inside when something like that happens?

So there are the pros and cons of an end apartment. On the one hand, you only share one common wall with neighbors, on the other hand you are vulnerable to meteorites and bad drivers, I suppose.

Speaking of strange events, t turns out my friend Chris from church lived in my very same apartment 20 years ago when she was in college and these apartments were funky and cheap. Small world.

Then, the first day I was there, a friendly neighbor was talking to me, and suddenly, he and I realized we knew each other from 15 years ago when our sons were little in Southern Humboldt. Small world.

Anyway, it's a nice place to come home to after work.

When I came home tonight and got out of the car, my nose was assailed by the lovely scent of the Pacific Ocean. Fresh and wonderful. When you leave the parking area by day, there on your left is a little peek of blue water.

The roar of the sea is constant, so constant that you forget you're hearing it. It's most apparent at night when the nearby freeway is quiet.

I've been too busy to take a walk to the beach just yet, but I plan to do it Saturday.

It will be a huge relief to get my office set up, since I have sections of my thesis due next week and no serene space to research and write.

At any rate, it's much, much cheaper than the house and I can actually afford it until I get my master's and stop being an impoverished grad student.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lucky Number Nine

The auspicious date 09.09.09 brought this little bundle of love into our family at 7:29 a.m.
I'll write more when I find the words.

Monday, September 7, 2009


My kärlek mug says this inside:
Jag känner mig trygg och säker omkring dig.
Efter allt vi upplevt tillsammans
vet jag hur mycket du älskar mig.
Den värmen är något som jag vill ge till dig
du är ju den person som betyder
mest för mig i mitt liv.
En sak är säker, och det här lovar jag nu
du kommer aldrig att lämna mitt hjärta.
Wisely, I never translated it until today. How do you say "bitter irony" in svenskt?

Begin to Dream Again

Diamond Road
(Sheryl Crow)

Walk with me the diamond road
Tell me every story told
Give me something of your soul
That I can hold onto

I want to wake up to the sound of waves
Crashing on a brand new day
Keep the memory of your face
But wipe the pain away

When you're lonely
When you're heart aches
It's gonna take a little time
Yeah, it's gonna take a little time

When the night falls
When you're stumbling
It's gonna take a little time
To make it to the other side

So don't miss the diamonds along the way
Every road has led us here today

Little bird, what's troubling you
You know what you have to do
What is yours you'll never lose
And what's ahead may shine

Beneath the promise of blue skies
With broken wings we'll learn to fly
Pull yourself out of the tide
And begin to dream again

So don't miss the diamonds along the way
Every road has led us here today

Won't you shine on
, Morning light
Burn the darkness away

Walk with me the Diamond Road
Tell me everything is gold
Give me something of your soul
So you don't fade away

Don't miss the diamonds along the way
Every road has led us here today
Life is what happens while you're making plans
All that you need is right here in your hands.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Life Goes On

Today, I saw my son and his girlfriend who are expecting a child, my first grandchild, in about two weeks. I was working today, but I was able to take an hour off to have lunch with them.

They are a sweet and beautiful young couple.

My son has grown into an amazing young man before my eyes. He was full of stories of his new job, making pizza at a nice local restaurant, of plans for the future, of names for his future child.

His girlfriend had the fabled luminosity of pregnancy and an air of calmness beyond her years. She talked about recent ultrasound photos of the baby where Baby Girl's face was clearly visible and you could see she has my son's mouth.

They are going to be wonderful parents, and my heart is bursting with love for them and with excited anticipation of meeting my little granddaughter very soon.
Nineteen years ago, when I was expecting my son, it was the heat of summer and he was 10 days overdue. I was exhausted, uncomfortable and impatient.

So I went to a masseuse who "specialized in the childbearing years." The massage felt great, of course, and she did some acupressure tricks to bring on labor.

More importantly, she asked me to visualize the baby.

Now I'm a skeptic, but I was a desperate skeptic that day, willing to try anything. Obediently, I closed my eyes, and without the slightest effort on my part, there appeared in my mind a beautiful baby face, in profile, rounded cheeks pink, golden hair, eyes shining.

My heart began to melt.

"Maybe the baby has something to tell you," said the masseuse.

Instantly, instantly, the words popped into my mind:

"I need you."

"And maybe you have something to tell the baby," continued the masseuse, although I had given no outward indication of any of these thoughts.

"I'll take care of you," I silently vowed. And tears began to flow.

By the next morning, I was a mother.

Tomorrow, it will be 19 years since I became a mother. In two weeks (give or take), my son will become a father. Life goes on.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Keep, Store, Donate, Toss

(Image courtesy of
By the middle of the month, I will be moving... somewhere.

It would be nice if finding a suitable place were possible, but instead I will be lucky to find something tolerable.

I've applied for a little apartment, and I will know next week if I get it. On the positive side, it is neat and tidy, has a nice kitchen and plenty of widows, and is near the beach. On the negative side, my cat has to find a new home, I won't have my washer and dryer, and it has no outside storage and no yard.

On the plus side, it's .2 miles from the ocean and 1.6 miles from my church (bicycling distance). On the negative side, instead of being able to hear the pounding surf, you can hear the freeway.

I call it the Beach House and will count myself lucky to have it. It has a second bedroom for whatever configuration of sons or guests happens by.

So now, I've started the job of packing, with an eye toward purging my possessions. I have to fit our lives into a small apartment, now, so anything extraneous has to go.

I just put four boxes out when I pack, Keep, Store, Donate, Toss. Everything must be questioned to see which box it goes in.