Monday, March 20, 2017

Blog #10: Reflections on gender, sewing with grandma, and giving up/rediscovering STEM!

For me, a lot of physical making practices are inextricably mixed up with self-monitoring. Since I was a little kid, I've always been terrible at drawing straight lines, or gluing the pieces together so that there's not a little wedge of light showing through, or cutting things cleanly. The expectation of precision in any kind of crafting or physical creation immediately fills me with dread.

I remembered this feeling of dread when I felt it, again, walking up to the sewing machine in class last week and realizing there was no way I could make the ends match up correctly. I made sure to finish my little hand warmer pouch as quickly as possible, with as little time examining the badly-matching ends as I could manage.

But even as the tasks of sewing felt stressful and already doomed, I found myself noticing the physicality of the sewing machine: how the accelerating speed of the needle created vibrations I could feel through the foot pedal, the whirring of the machine. These sensations connected me to something more than my individual performance or precision --

I remembered when I was about 5 or 6, when our family still lived in the outskirts of Chicago. My grandma used to let me play with her sewing machine - the foot pedal was usually not working, and I would just sew little scraps of flannel and cotton fabrics together in nonsense patterns. The sewing machine had its own little desk with a chair, next to another desk where my grandma would write letters. I associate a lot of things with that apartment - running around with my cousins, watching tennis with my grandpa in lay-z-boy chairs, dropping water balloons from their tiny deck to the parking lot and irritating the geese that roamed the lawns. But the sewing machine was apart from that flow of loud, action-adventure cousin time. It belonged to this warm, relaxed world in which my grandmother spent her time, and which felt in some ways mysterious - what was she writing, and to whom?! - but always effortless, and not based on doing or sewing or saying the right thing the right way.

As we read about cultural discourses of making across generations in the United States, and as we have these new encounters (or re-encounters) with making practices in class, I've been thinking a lot about gender, making, and self-expression in my childhood. That quiet, uncompetitive space of making I shared with my grandmother was gradually replaced by a wide variety of after school science programs, computer camps, and Cub Scout retreats. As part of an upper-middle class white latina family, I had access to these kinds of activities, as well as gifts of woodworking sets (never figured out how to use that), pocket knives engraved with my old name (never really wanted to use that), and model rockets (definitely used and loved those!) But perhaps the biggest gift at that time for me was autonomy - because I was doing well in school and showed an interest in computers, I was given lots of time alone making animations on the family computer or writing poems for girls up in my room. After reading the third chapter of Innocent Experiments, I can better understand why my father might have felt positively about my eccentricity and self-directed science-ish time, growing up in postwar South Texas as a science geek/hothead jock hybrid.

At the same time, all of these subtle and indirect encouragements came with unspoken gendered expectations. I felt I had to love math in the way the boys around me loved math (competing at Mathlete competitions or stoically toiling away), or become a science-y person the way that young men went to college to study physics. It's impossible to separate out the feelings I had about numbers or experiments or STEM careers with the more profound sense of dread I felt imagining myself growing old as a man (I literally could never visualize it). This sense of a dead end was a big reason why I completely stopped trying in all of my math and science classes in high school, decided to be a writer/musician, and went to a liberal arts school where a single course on Dinosaurs (yay!) satisfied my science requirement for a bachelor's degree.

But looking back, alongside the dysphoria and doom-inciting expectations, there was always that warm, quiet, expressive possibility to making technical and physical things. I found it with my grandma sewing, and I found it again writing dumb games for myself and maintaining extensive LiveJournals and, much later, making radio documentaries with diverse community members. For me, it wasn't really a question of certain activities being feminine-coded, so much as having the space to breathe and relax into myself and step outside of the expectations projected upon me, and then to make something, if only for a moment.

A few years ago, shortly after coming out as transgender, I was riding a ferry out of Seattle with my friend Sophie (a lovely and talented web comic artist) and told her about a comic I had found on tumblr about a trans woman who realized a lot of her gender feels while learning to sew with her grandmother. This wasn't my story exactly (I left a lot out), but so much of the warmth and ease expressed in the comic rang true for me. In one of the more ridiculous coincidences of my life, Sophie had actually drawn the comic many years before we met and published it anonymously! It fits in well with what I've written here, so if you're curious, she redrew and republished the comic shortly after our conversation.

I share these still-forming (sorry!) personal reflections because I believe our personal histories of making are rich places where discourses and histories and inequalities and possibilities in making converge. Hopefully they spark some rambly reflections in you, too! ^_^

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