Meeting (s)heroes

When I was young, I collected baseball cards. And yes, I was a serious contender. Indeed, cardboard box upon cardboard box stacked floor to ceiling remind me of the presence of my withering childhood, once praised for the potential possibility of properly placed masculinity and sexuality. Naturally (and I use this word with reserve), this hope for heterosexuality in my life was not of my desire, but of those around me. Of my family. My father. My mother. My siblings even.

Also, I collected: football cards, hockey cards, comic books, and the secret Garbage Pail Kids cards. Of these collectibles, my binders filled with Garbage Pail Kids cards remain on my shelf, always within reach. The others join the multitudinous collection of baseball cards in cardboard boxes. They collect dust–they, in the recent words of Ronald Pelias, “smell of history.” I was transported to these collections while among the academics of the ethnography division this past weekend. Standing in the presence of those whose work have become foundational necessities in the way in which I see the world through ethnographic eyes. The likes of Goodall, Pelias, Tillman, Holman Jones, Adams, Frey, Warren, Anderson, Ellis, Bochner, Berry, Poulos, and others.

Knowing me, of course, my bringing together of these worlds was in jest. It resided at the point of sense making where I think in terms of humor and in understanding. I envisioned my approaching the various Dodgers players as a child and asking for their autographs on their/my respective baseball cards. Nervous. The game would end. I was excited to have had the chance to see my Dodgers play another (terrible) game.

It was January 17th, 1994–Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I was 13 years old. Earlier that very morning what would become known as the famed “Northridge Earthquake” had occurred. Having been awakened by the rolling waves of earth for a mere 45 seconds, which felt like an hour, I was pumped to see my team play. Happy that the game was still on, me, my dad (rare happening here), my uncle Carl, and my brothers went to Dodgers Stadium. The game carried on. Dodger dog in hand, I screamed and cheered for my true Blue. A player, who I cannot recall now, was injured in the 7th inning. Tommy Lasorda, then team captain jogged to left field to assist the hurt player. Minutes passed and eventually Tommy stood up, picking the player up. The crowd cheered and congratulated the player for standing up, jeering him on. My youngst brother asks, “Why are we clapping?” My father, in jest, remarks, “we’re congratulating Tommy for making it out that far and not passing out.” I laugh and don’t quite know why.

The game closes and, as protocol would have it, my brothers and I whip out our baseball cards and head to the exit doors of the Dodger locker room. A chain link fence separates the screaming kids from our rockstar baseball players. One by one the players exit in their business casual. I was always amazed at this transformation from dirtied baseball uniform to pleated slacks and tucked in shirts. After my baseball games I only wanted two things: (1) to remove my cup and (2) to dress in sweats. These guys were hard core. As the players passed we would thumb through our stack of cards and locate the respective player then proceed to the performative screech begging an autograph or the slightest sense of acknowledgement in the world. Piazza, Hershiser, Offerman, DeShields, Butler, Mondesi, and others would walk by. On the rare occasion one would turn to their fans (us) and sign and photograph with us. They would touch our fingers. They made us/me feel worthy and real. Affirmed.

Now here I am, at NCA. It is the preconference session called, “Building Ethnographic Bridges.” I enrolled in this conference with the hopes of meeting those whose programs I want to apply to and to interact with scholars whose work has inspired me. I walk down the halls of the San Francisco Hilton. Snaking my way through long corridors, passing open doors. Alone. I walk. In clothing not of my liking but of particular demand for these spaces. I pass tables with empty cups next to water coolers. The rooms have projectors awaiting laptops and public presentations of research. A week of discourse and exchanges. I continue to find my target room. And I locate it. At the end of the hallways there sits a couch and on it 2 men and a woman. One of the men stand up and approach me asking, “are you benny.” I respond yes. He is Chris—a graduate of my program. An ally in this unstable land. He grabs my hand and welcomes me. I am introduced to others from his department, graduate students and faculty. And then he says, “Hello Caroline.” They hug. I stand. I think about the cover of my text, Ethnographic I by Caroline Ellis. Her. This woman, who is in Chris’ embrace. What I wouldn’t give for that text now. For her to sign. Like my Dodgers.

Yes, this is the humor. As I have distanced myself from those childhood realities and have melded into the academy I always found my interactions with and around those who I have become so intimately involved. Those scholars whose work has found its way into my bedroom, under my sheets, and at times, between my relationship. To extend a text to its respective author and to ask for an autograph, acknowledgement that I indeed, am your fan. That you have become my teacher by extension. That you are my mentor from afar.

My brother has baseball cards.
I have textbooks.
I laugh at the silliness of my life.
But it is what has made sense to me all along.
The authors now, however, are academics.

A year ago this occurs as well. At the queer conference at UCLA I see and interact with Edelman, Manalansan, and Boellstorff. I am beside myself seeing, for the first time, what these individuals look like. They are more than their words. And that is odd to me. What to say to them, if anything at all. For all of those that I mention above, I see them at NCA. Each time they pass, I take pause and inventory my location. I want to talk to them but am stifled by the words I’ve read fearing the “wrong” question.

“Hi (enter scholar’s name here) . Would you mind signing my text? I am such a fan of yours,”

I have grown to understand my nerdom as something to embrace, rather than something to avoid or to neglect and act as if it is insubstantial. I owe, in LARGE part, many thanks on this part to the recent addition of my boyfriend in my life who, through my messiness as an academic, appreciates my fixation on the intellect. He praises my tendency to speak head think freely. He challenges me to make accessible the dense. To bridge my world with his. To see in me, humanity despite my leaning toward academia. A ridicule and positionality rendered inhuman and undesirable by my family.

That matter. Later.

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About Benny

My name is Benny LeMaster. I am an academic, activist, and artist. I research questions of identity, culture, and representation. I am interested in exploring ways to relate to one another in critically affirming ways. In terms of identity, I identify as queer, trans, mixed-race Asian/white, fat, and, frankly, fabulous. Let's talk!
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