After a couple of hectic days, I am getting ready for New Orleans this weekend. I did some sketchy packing, made mental lists of the kinds of souvenirs that I should acquire, made half written lists of the things I want to see or visit, and generally got myself all worked up. I also packed up a round of books to sell off in hopes of a couple extra dollars of funding for all of this extravagance. (And yes, I am broke enough that selling books for beignets is actually plausible and required.)
I’m presenting at the Popular Culture Association Conference, talking about tattoos and employment, particularly in the retail sector. (I will be chairing the panel on Consumer Culture.) I started out thinking about how to discuss tattoos in retail workplaces. My research began with calling lots of businesses and simply asking if employees could have visible tattoos at work. I wanted to get up in front of my audience and pontificate about all the reasons that businesses brand people as products. However, what I found was that most companies really had no clue what to do with their tattooed employees. Their rules were loose and sketchy. Most decided that tattoos were okay as long as there were not “too many” or they weren’t “offensive” or maybe just “too big.” Nobody could answer how many was “too many,” when exactly a tattoo became “offensive” or how big was “too big.” Lots of managers shamelessly told me to come in and just let them look. Umm??? No, thank you. Other times, managers showed off for me and proclaimed that they wanted me to have my individuality…as long as it wasn’t “offensive.”
So that’s what my presentation is going to be about–dealing with that ambiguity and making sense of rules that can bend to fit anything a company decides after getting a good look at the interviewee. It’s a problematic system that pretty much guarantees unfairness. I don’t know how we fix that, only that it is part of a much larger problem and a symptom of all of the superficial ways in which we discriminate. It sort of feels like pointing out the obvious without any solution. Clearly, my best work.
There is also going to be an open mic night, which means I will have the chance to trot out my finest fiction before a crowd of semi-interested listeners. I haven’t decided what to read yet. I pretty much have funny or disturbing…and maybe a small pile of stories that commit to both. Honestly, this little impromptu opportunity to read my fiction is probably the most exciting part of the conference for me. I like presenting “scholarship” and it will be fun to be the bossypants of the panel, but sharing my creative work is more interesting.
Maybe I feel a little detached from scholarly work. I want it to go well and be appreciated, but ultimately it is just something that I did and tried. I don’t think that I am going to blow the lid off the retail employment mess and show the world how creepy it all is…please tell me that we already know that the goals of capitalism and competition are inherently odd. What I really want to share is the creative stuff, the stuff that matters to me. Of course, sharing that stuff is a little more awkward because with scholarly work there is a sort of goal, if you will. “Take this message. Be open minded about tattoos. If you are not open minded about tattoos, be somehow shamed into agreement by the notable presence of mine as I present! Think about capitalism and then, think about community. Think about how pointless money and competition are and go off the grid with me!” You know, something like that.
But with fiction things get weird. “I made up this story where some weird sex stuff happens and then some other people get all lonely and depressed and then some other stuff happens…soooo….I hope you are into that.” (Not an actual story synopsis, but it seems kind of right.) What is the defensive defense to haul out? “Please feel something. Please think this thing is funny and then feel human with me. Note my flouting of certain literary conventions and my adoption of others.” I’m making a human connection that is not as cerebral as the scholarly work. I’m trying to hit at something a little more primal. I’m talking to the wild part of us that is all uncivilized emotions and impatient thoughts and doubts. It’s awkward and a bit like asking for someone to pee in front of you and then feeling endeared when they do because it makes you feel close to them. Most of me is just a silly animal dressed up in clothes. I want to eat lots of things, sleep when tired, feel happy and peaceful, stay away from irritants, run around in the woods and play…it’s pretty basic.
So that’s the person talking about Consumer Culture. The one that is not overly concerned with belongings. I don’t want or need much. If I have any money to blow on goods, I usually want books or something like that. I like clothes, but not designer clothes. I just like things that I feel happy wearing, since my little animal being has to go out into the world under the guise of being civilized. Not having much money doesn’t really matter to me in most scenarios, but meaning does. I want to spend time on things with meaning, not killing off my days with long hours of punishing work that in turn allow me to buy a newer and nicer car that others can be jealous of and waste their time sweating to purchase. I don’t need the car and I don’t desire the jealousy. I don’t want to spread that kind of negativity over so much metal.
My greatest luxury is my time and health. I want to enjoy them.