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I have migrated!

Hello, dear readers. I have elected to shift my writing operation from wordpress to the newsletter service, Substack. I hope you will see fit to subscribe (it’s currently free. Of course, once I become famous, I will definitely charge money).

My hope is to write weekly (maybe twice monthly, realistically) so you won’t be inundated, but it will be more regular than this blog. Not everything will be a fully formed essay, and I will be trying things out as I go.

I hope I will see some of you there, and thank you for being a blog reader!

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With autumn waning into winter, the days of #HotNerdFall are fading away. In recognition of this, I wanted to compile and expand upon the tweet threads I started back in September. This was a series I entitled: The Hot Nerd in the Popular Imagination

Search “hot nerd girl” on the internet and you will get countless images like this of women in workout pants and crop tops.

IMG_3859What is “nerdy” about such women? After all, normally there is tension between nerd and jock, between a life of the mind and attention to the bodily form. What makes this apparent gym goer ostensibly a nerd? Glasses. Glasses, it seems, are the universal signifier, and only visual constant, in all images of hot nerd girls. Indeed, clothes are not, and cannot be, the signifier, since even in porn, the category “nerd” will yield you a lot of naked women, but all have glasses on.

There are not, it seems, any actual activities that universally signify nerd-dom. Not being on a computer, or holding books, though these tropes do commonly appear. Hot nerdness, then, is not dependent on a particular behavior; many hot nerds on the internet are, in fact, doing nothing at all, unless you count gazing suggestively at the camera as an activity.

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If, in fact, glasses make the nerd, what makes the nerd hot? Laying aside for now the prerequisites to hotness enforced by the culture (whiteness, thinness), it appears that hot nerds often wear glasses, but do not look through them.

The coy, indirect gaze is not hot nerd specific. It’s common across sexy pics of women of all genres, and has been seemingly forever–old timey women peep over the edge of a paper fan in engravings and drawings, never looking directly at a man. For the nerd, glasses are that prop.

The “looking over the glasses and biting on a pen” pose is a common one in depictions of the hot nerd girl. The irony, of course, lies in the kernel of truth in the nerd-glasses association. Nerds often do wear glasses, because they need them so desperately. Without mine, I cannot drive, or read, or even run, so altered is my depth perception.

If I were to gaze up at you over my glasses from the profundity of my myopia, you would be blurry edged, maybe doubled, unless I squinted like this:

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If glasses are critical to nerdness, then why are the hot nerds so often looking over them at the camera? The hot nerd in such pics has been interrupted, her attention fractured. She looks up, pen in hand, or mouth, because she’s a nerd and she was working, thinking, writing, but now she’s looking at you, because you demanded her attention, much as Dan Bacon, Dating and Relationship Expert for Men, and author of the blog post “How to Talk to a Woman Wearing Headphones” advised (you’ll need to scroll down a bit to get to the how-to bit, but it is absolutely worth it).

The interruption of focus is pertinent to interacting with nerd girls, because, after all, the nerdness of the nerd comes from an intellectual pursuit of some kind. A mind trained on an idea, or a task. Nerds at work will often look something like this, not at all interested in or aware of the camera:

 

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photo by Kristen Covino

Would a nerd dressed in a spiked skateboard helmet, a flower bandana, and a child sized yellow rain slicker who is scowling at a spring balance in the sun ever qualify as a #hotnerd? Maybe, but hot nerds are almost invariably looking at the camera. The exceptions to that rule are instructive.

What are the constraints on HotNerdGirl behavior? She can, presumably, do slightly more than bite a pen while looking over her glasses. Stock photos indicate that she can, for instance, look at a book. But what are the rules?

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If she does intend to read a book, it appears she must be just coming back from, or just about to leave for, an aerobics class. She should be having some thermoregulation challenges that warrant, for example, a combination of a hoodie or sweater, boy shorts, and leg warmers.

She must indicate, through some combination of gestures, that she is nonetheless aware of being looked at and admired. In this example, note the pointing of the toes, which signals this awareness since no person alone and unselfconsciously reading a book would adopt this posture.

If a Nerd previously deemed Hot decides to read in a posture less self-consciously hot, and does so in a wool sweater several sizes too big and a pair of jeans not ever worn outside the house, does she forfeit her hot status? When does the HotNerdGirl become merely a Nerd? In other words, if a NerdGirl reads a book without a man or a camera around to determine her hotness, is she still hot? Is hotness something bestowed by the beholder? Is hotness a state of being, or an activity? If an activity, is it a passive or an active verb?

There is another exception to the rule of needing to gaze at the camera/man for hot nerd girls, and that is the HotNerd, Gamer Phenotype. HotGamerNerdGirls, unlike other HotNerdGirls, do not have to wear glasses. I’m wearing mine here because I genuinely can’t see without them.

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Let’s search the image for familiar tropes. We see workout wear (crop top, leggings): the typical attire for any HotNerdGirl not in a plaid miniskirt and knee socks. Even a cursory internet search indicates that glasses are not actually required of this phenotype. Why this privilege granted to this particular type of HotNerd? I posit that, gaming does not require the myopic intellectualism of other nerd pursuits, while still demanding the flow state/focus/withdrawal from the world that defines the nerd.

This photo took many takes to properly imitate the originals. The combination of enough bodily display, while incorporating the controller into the frame, and making a facial expression that suggests concentration, but still a self-consciousness of sexily being on display was tough. If you look at the faces of people actually immersed in a video game, they do not look self-conscious. They look like this.

The stock photos of HotGamerGirls lack this quality of immersion, which is what defines the nerd, and the subjects in the photos look like maybe they aren’t playing video games at all–like maybe the controller isn’t even connected to anything. There’s a joke in these images, like, “would you believe a girl is gaming?!” Is the girl in on it, or is it like the line in Mad Men where Freddy refers to listening to Peggy think as, “Like watching a dog play the piano.” Clearly not done well, but the very idea is astonishing.

Regardless, we have now run into the fundamental tension in the phrase “Hot Nerd.” A nerd is inward facing, consumed and concentrated, in a flow state, heedless of the regard of others. Hotness seems to require acute awareness of another’s gaze, and an attentiveness to it. Perhaps that’s where the absurdity at the heart of HotNerdGirl stock photos comes from; the incompatibility of the two modifiers. So, is it actually impossible for ANY nerd to be hot? Can that needle be threaded? Can it be threaded by women?

If you search not “hot nerd girl,” but simply “hot nerd” you will get a gender mix but not much racial diversity. Megan Thee Stallion, who originated the hashtag #HotNerdFall appears for that reason, but the images are otherwise dominated by white folks. John Oliver features prominently, and so does Chris Hayes. Most of the non-famous, stock photo HotNerd guys are well muscled, in tight fitting oxford shirts and sweater vests, thick-framed glasses settled above their aggressively angled cheekbones. The silliness, and the tension here is in our perceptions of how nerds allocate their time. The conflict lies between how much effort and hours at the gym would be needed to sculpt such a body, and the intellectual rigor that defines the nerd. Of course, we should ask ourselves, why couldn’t the toned specimen on the treadmill next to yours who is one careless flex away from tearing every seam in his clothing be listening to a recording of Hadley Wickham’s “A Layered Grammar of Graphics” or an audiobook of de Tocqueville on those earbuds?

At least for men, there might be some room for a conception of the hot nerd as one with appetites both mental and physical. Scholar-athletes, philosophical warriors, virile poets; history holds such men in high regard. But what about women?

In her essay “Women, Race, and Memory,” Toni Morrison writes, “rigorous intellect, commonly thought of a male preserve, has never been confined to men, but it has always been regarded as a masculine trait.” This seems contradictory. Male, and masculine, but not seen only in men. Where then, outside of a man, can we find rigorous intellect? Women throughout history have possessed it, but in Morrison’s construct, these women have been definitionally excluded from traditional femininity. Once a woman demonstrates fierce intelligence, she is cast outside the pale. She is, to put it another way, “not like other girls,” and is, in fact, not like a girl at all. She is engaging in men’s work, and committing a transgression.

Nerd-dom, the state of immersion, the training of a formidable intellect on an object of complete focus is inward-oriented. It is a looking-away, a loss of awareness of the body. The stock photo HotNerdGirl looking into the camera, and at the presumptive man behind it, reflects the joke at the heart of it; she can’t be a nerd and be looking at you like that. The nerdness and the hotness cannot exist in the same place and time for a woman. The amplitude of the two waves are opposite and cancel each other.

I tried to make a photo of myself in a genuine state of nerdiness. I set my camera on a timer and set it beside me while I worked so I would forget it was there and see what I look like when I am not aware of being observed. I clothed myself in the layers of corduroy and wool and fleece that I choose when I am home alone in winter, heedless of the opinions of others. But still, there was a trace in each photo that I was conscious of the lens. There was the faintest trace of a smile in all of them, that classically female social signal. I know my face at rest, alone, focused. To most people it looks mad, bitchy. But that is my flow state, my immersed intellect. It is inherently anti-social, and, it would seem, not entirely compatible with being a woman.

 

 

 

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Resident/Transient

On the first day of two weeks’ vacation in the middle of Maine, I ran past an old farmstead. A stone wall fronted a barbed wire fence, and most of the stones were the tumbled, irregular ones common to New England, but a couple were the precious flat stones, easy to stack, nice for paths. Two of these were propped against each other perpendicular, one on end as support, the other a roof bridging it and the jumble of ordinary stones in the rest of the wall. The flat stones described two sides of an open doorway through the wall, with nothing passing through it now in late summer, but likely in spring, making a sluiceway for snow melt and manure slurry to leave the paddock. The sight of this carefully constructed and balanced passage ran my heart through, for no reason I could discern. I ran on past, and kept thinking of it. Someone a long time ago built that doorway for the mud to go through, and now, no one hardly notices it, down low in the ditch, below the eye line of drivers.

I was still thinking about it when a man in a weather beaten car with his weather beaten arm out the window called out, “Where’s this road go?” “Don’t know,” I told him, “I’m not from here. But I ran with it a while and turned back. It kept going.” He nodded and drove off the other way, not chancing it.

We were staying in a rented cabin for the two weeks, getting to know its ways. The water pressure was so poor that showering felt like being drooled on by a tall man. The arrangement of utensils in the kitchen drawers followed someone else’s mysterious logic. On the walls were formal portraits of several generations of someone’s family. A man in a too-big suit, a collar like a yoke around his neck sat with his wife standing behind him, her hand gripping his shoulder, his face suggesting a hostage situation.

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My father and I fish during the two weeks of vacation, and at no other time of the year. The rest of the seasons his boat sits in a corner of my wooded property, overturned on a couple of boards. When we went to load it before our trip, we turned it over to see an opossum bundled into a pile of leaves she’d plowed up against the gunwale. When she saw us and the light coming in, she rose and shambled off, seemingly unperturbed, leaving a cast of her body in the leaves.

In the borrowed cabin, I read over the “Fishing Hotspots” map of the lake.  It gave species list, depth profiles, and markers of shallow rocks and other hazards to the mariner unfamiliar with these waters. In the description it said, “sporting opportunities abound for both the resident and transient.” I liked the frankness of that word, transient. Most brochures and other materials call us visitors, vacationers, or at least tourists. Here we were, described with a term applicable to hobos, itinerants, those sheltering under overpasses.

I ran most days, and the late summer insects flew into me, down my throat, and up my nose. The locusts, gray armored, would fly, revealing their black crepe wings with yellow trim, bustling ahead like Victorian ladies hoisting their skirts to scurry. Frogs sheltered under the upturned kayaks every night, and a mouse that had died in the attic and was stinking was carted out of the house on a canoe paddle, like a pizza. Everything was high summer fetid and either breeding or rotting.

I liked to run up the hill and look far out to the lake below. An old jungle gym, heaved out of level by decades of frost, still stood in someone’s yard, closer in time now to the next generation than the one that first used it; been there so long, might as well wait for grandkids. Across the street a whole hillside had the purplish cast of a lowbush blueberry heath, scattered ablation till and a few ragged pines. The kind of farm you give up and abandon for the black prairie earths out west, once you hear about them, and let the woods seal over this place. At the elementary school, the signboard says, “Palermo Talent Show Canceled,” and nothing more.

Two weeks is enough to wear some patterns in a place. The same side of the bed, the same chair to read in at night, the kitchen drawers start to make some sense. But then our time is up, and we pack our things. The cabin is for sale, and it’s unclear if anyone else uses it. We found a newspaper from a few months before, but besides us, there may be no one staying here for a long time. When it’s time to go and drive back south, and pull the boat out of the lake and stow it another 50 weeks in the woods, we close and lock the door on the eddying dust streaming in the light beams, our sloughed skin and the wings of insects dried on the windowsills, and the spores of fungus, and the pollen clouds we moved through and then left. The dust settles and won’t be disturbed for some long time. What little wakes we leave.

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To the year and to the land

Plenty of writing brewing in the brain, but for now, please enjoy this view of our year on the trails. With gratitude for public lands, and their stewards.

 

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Better part of valor

IMG_0053.jpgThe plan, for this overnight backpacking trip, was to hike in to a backcountry camp site in the shadow of Mt. Jefferson, camp out, get up in the morning and hike to the summit, and return out the way we came. Malcolm, my elder son, was my companion, his younger brother having opted to stay home with his father. Malcolm, for some reason, has taken to backpacking the way I did, when, out of the blue at the age of 16, I announced my wish to begin sleeping in the woods from time to time. No one in my family had ever done, nor desired to do, such a thing. We did not even camp at campgrounds. Every summer, we rented a cabin on Lake Ossipee and that was the extent of things. But I had some splinter in my soul that would not work out until I’d ventured into the woods.

My parents bought me a pack and a few other items that year for Christmas, and away I went from there, doing occasional trips into the White Mountains, with no particular goal in mind but to walk in, sleep, walk out.

Since then, I have found out about peakbaggers, and redliners, and sectionhikers–all outdoors people working on particular lists of achievements: all the summits in New Hampshire above 4,000 feet, or every trail in the White Mountains, or the whole Appalachian Trail in fits and starts. It’s hard not to get swept up by goals like that, and I do keep a list of which 4000 footers I have climbed, though I am not in any rush. Still, it’s hard not to feel an urge to climb all the way up a mountain when you’re halfway up anyway, and that’s where Malcolm and I found ourselves when we camped five miles in on the Great Gulf Trail, at 3,000 or so feet of elevation.

We set up camp there Sunday evening, with no one else anywhere around. We ate, and as the temperature declined into the 40s, retreated to the tent to read. He ran out of books and asked me to read to him from what I had, so he listened to a magazine article about the sodium levels in frozen pizza, and one about the search for a natural-origin  blue dye for candy. Eventually, he fell asleep.

img_0059In the night, the forecast winds picked up. Tucked up by the headwall in the ravine below Jefferson, we could hear the wind tearing down the Presidential ridge from the north over and over. The force of it bore down across the exposed reaches a thousand feet and more above our heads. Hardly any wind reached us down where we were, but my stomach tensed all the same for the biggest gusts. We were like mice crouched under the floorboards as a great cat swept its frustrated paw across the knothole where we hid.

I slept fitfully as I always do the first night out, and in the morning, Jefferson was rimed in ice and the winds had not diminished. It took me a few moments to understand that snow was falling already at our elevation. It was not a day to venture above treeline with what gear we had. I told Malcolm, telling him why it was unwise to go up, though I was trying to convince myself as much as him.

We headed back down Great Gulf Trail; the temperatures moderated with the elevation loss and the sun’s progress. I had to look back at Jefferson again and again to see its ashy gray and white complexion, and be reminded of the wisdom of my choice.

img_0078We drove home, with no additional peak to record on the form that shows my slow progress on the list since I first climbed Mt. Washington in 1997. Malcolm is closer to the age I was then than I am now. I have a picture of me sitting in a log shelter in the wilderness that since fell into disrepair and was dismantled. Malcolm is fascinated by how long ago that was. He’s fascinated by how long it is taking me to get around to all 48 4000 foot peaks. He’s fascinated by how very, very old I am.

In my turn, I am fascinated by him too. He is like me in certain ways, small, and so bony we can’t ever seem to get our packs cinched tight enough around our hips. Diffident. He talked at length as we walked about BMX bike tricks, a subject about which I know nothing. He’s on the brink of not being a little kid anymore. He can hike about as fast as I want to go. There are few things on Earth I love to watch more than his beautiful stride at a full sprint.

I was disappointed at having failed to reach Jefferson’s summit. I can console myself with the usual saw about the journey being what matters, but I do crave those mountaintops, and it’s clear that he does too. But I had one more day of the numbered days when he will still curl up with me in the tent, and ask me to read to him. He will no longer hold my hand, but he will be my ballast when the morning comes and the wind finds us there finally, hiding in our hole, thinking better of it, scurrying down in the spindrift.

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Solitary animals

Last week, I went off on my annual solo overnight backpacking trip in the time between when I finish teaching and when my kids finish school. I headed up to the trailhead on Haystack Rd. to hike over North Twin mountain on my way to Garfield Ridge. Easy walking brought me to a crossing of the Little River that, though not at all high water, looked daunting. This was not a dry footed crossing. A sign across the water clearly indicated where the trail picked up again, but on my side, a bootleg trail ran up along the water’s edge where countless hikers had paced up and back, nervously scouting for a better crossing spot. There were none to be had, but I also followed the worn herd path out of the same vain hope. I passed a garter snake, to which I spoke briefly. I turned back after a while, trying to find the main trail and the official crossing spot again. The trails faded and reappeared, approached and left the river’s edge. I looked for the turn where I had taken a little connecting path, and saw the same snake. Normally, animals make poor landmarks, but this one was distinctively teal blue in its markings, and was sunning himself just where I’d left him. I thanked him and faced the river again.

IMG_8297 2There was nothing for it but to roll up my pants, unbuckle my pack straps, and pick my way across. For part of the way, there were rocks to step on just under the surface, but most of the time, I had to cross in water mid-way up my shins. I gripped my trekking poles, probing with them into pockets in the rocks, and I heard the Voice of Authority in my head saying, “Six inches of fast moving water can knock a person over.” Stepping down in places, my leg went sideways. Moving up river, I fought the drag of my waterlogged shoes. I reached the other shore. There were two more crossings like this, and I cursed the trail, and tried to trust in the wisdom of the trailwrights. After the second crossing, I met a woman coming down the trail toward me. “Have you seen a bald guy?” she asked. “I haven’t seen a soul,” I told her. She kept going, and then five minutes later I heard her behind me again. “No sign?” I asked. “We’ve been crossing back and forth at different places. We were scratching notes in the dirt, Bs and Es, but I haven’t seen anything in a while.” I didn’t see her again after that, but I did come upon her symbol in the dirt: a capital E with an arrow showing which way she’d gone. I decided her name was Evelyn, though this was ludicrously old fashioned for how young she was. Her hiking partner was Bald. I never saw his sign in the dirt. After a mile, even her signs disappeared. I wondered about Evelyn and Bald, star-crossed river crossers braiding their paths into the mountains. Was Bald her friend? Husband? Father? I was alone on the trail again, thinking solitary thoughts about what I would do if I were the last person on Earth. Probably commit suicide. Though how to know you’re the last? What if there’s a small, tenacious community somewhere in Mongolia and you go and kill yourself? But then, they’re dead to you because how would you reach them? There are no pilots, no captains to bring you across, and the Bering land bridge is currently closed.

IMG_8300 2I got up over North Twin and then to South Twin, which had been socked in by fog when I last came through a year or so before. I stopped in to Galehead Hut for water and to talk with passers-through and to choke down a meal bar that gave a chemical burn sensation in the throat. Then I headed for Garfield Ridge campsite a few miles on. My overnight there was quiet, and I was up at 4 to head back down. I’d decided I never wanted to cross the Little River again, so I took the Gale River trail down instead, electing to take a long road walk at the bottom to my car. For the last two trail miles, I followed moose tracks in the mud, smeared over and fresher than any human ones. Big as plates, each a cloven heart, they pointed down the trail where I looked and looked, hoping to see my first ever of the giant creatures. By 7:15 I was at the Gale River trailhead, crestfallen at the kiosk map that indicated a much longer road walk than my map had shown. I began trotting down the road, walk-running and calculating how long it would take to cover the five or so miles. A pickup truck came trundling up the gravel and a man leaned out the window to ask the way to Galehead parking, and I told him he was very nearly there, and then, making a fast assessment, determined him to be neither rapist nor killer, and asked if he’d give me a lift back to my car.

IMG_8302 2His name was Stephen King, a name, he tells me, that gets hotel clerks’ attention when he calls to book a room. The cab was strewn with hiking gear, maps and old water bottles. I’d never been as grateful for transportation. On the slow ride over dirt roads, he told me about his misadventures—hypothermic staggerings in Vermont, a November fall into the icy, cursed, Little River, sleeping on the porches of empty summer cottages along the Appalachian Trail, encounters with many, many snakes. On Route 3, just as we prepared to turn off onto another dirt road, I saw a moose loping across the road into the woods on the far side. We were pulled over onto the shoulder, and other cars slowed to look.

When we got to my car, he asked if I wanted to go hike Mt. Hale with him, a summit we’ve both, as it turns out, been avoiding or putting off. Reluctantly, I declined, having to get back south for an appointment. He went barreling down the road in his truck while I cautiously picked my way down in my low-slung Prius. I was back home in southern New Hampshire by 11am, unpacking my things and stowing them away. I thought of the solo hiker, a woman, who’d drowned in the Gale River last fall, swept miles down in the rain-bloated current. She was found eventually, after a protracted search, snagged up someplace near where we saw the moose. Maybe she’d have died anyway, even if she’d been with a companion, or a group. But at least someone else would have known where to look for her. Lone hikers lost are found by bands of searchers. Search parties. More eyes to see with.  I went into the woods alone, but when I saw the moose, I had someone to show it to.

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