2013년 10월 29일 화요일

Waiting for Disaster in Vain


The following is a revised version of "a day in my life," originally written a few days ago at a friend's request for her blog project. Since my mother's hospitalization last December and then my return to work in March, it became increasingly difficult to make myself sit down to write. Since mom's passing at the end of April, I was even afraid to come to my own blog. Writing this, however, reminded me how much I needed this. Thanks, Cheryl, for dragging me back here; you may not know this, but you did.
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6:50 am. I wake up without much trouble. No nightmare or weird aftertaste of strange dreams. No active pain in any part of the body. Not a bad start of a day.

9:00 am. After breakfast, I walk out the door to go to work.

9:25 am. In office, the usual grind begins. I look through the file of mid-term exams but put off grading. Read excerpt from The History of Sexuality for Monday's class.

1:00 pm. I rummage food in the office, find organic muesli + soybean milk + cranberry scone + coffee, instead of bothering to go out for lunch. Keep reading for class, outlining a teaching scenario and making notes of usable examples.

3:00 pm. Prof P arrives on campus and calls me. I go downstairs to greet him and escort him to the faculty lounge. He's the speaker of today's Special Guest Lecture, an ongoing program that I design and implement as part of the department's extracurricular academic projects. It is over two years since I saw him last. He seems glad to see me well. I am grateful that he doesn't say much about the past two years during which time I was out of radar for most of my professional acquaintances. His face, when gazing at my prematurely greying hair, is telling, though, and I appreciate that subdued sympathy in his gaze. We mostly talk about work, for we are both involved in a theatrical production of a classical text as academic counsel.

3:30 pm. P's lecture begins. About 20 grad students show up, plus a few faculty members and a few undergrads. A pretty good turnout, and my anxiety somewhat subsides. I never heard him speak publicly before, and P turns out to be funny and engaging. A known sexual harasser with interesting scholarship, better than expected. Not just good showmanship but substance that he deftly deploys in his delivery. A girl in my undergrad class asks smart questions about desire for knowledge in the text and I feel proud as if her smarts were all my doing. That foolish moment is my fix for the day.

6:00 pm. After the 2-hour lecture, I take P to dinner as is customary. Not too excited, for a few days ago two close friends in other departments, who also know P, politely declined my invitation to dinner. It was actually their boycotting of P's visit to our campus altogether. While it's understandable that those two do not want to fraternize with P, I feel ambiguous about them making me entertain this P by myself. Then I feel bad about myself feeling ambiguous about them. This is my responsibility and I should be able to handle the situation instead of expecting male friends to shield me from possible problems. For lack of choice I invited P despite some reservation about his reputation, thinking that words sometimes circulate without ground. It's just unfortunate that the two friends confirmed his reputation with what they know (not merely "heard") of him only after P's visit was finalized and publicized. Still, it's better to be alerted; and I respect my friends for refusing to hide their judgment, when many people I know would do otherwise. 
   As for me, I find it difficult to act upon my principles here, since I am the one who unknowingly invited P for his academic expertise. For now, however, I prefer to think that I need to maintain a neutral ground of formal hospitality at least while I perform the role of a good host. I am not worried about being harassed myself. It is extremely unlikely, for I am well past that desirable therefore vulnerable age and even in my youth I had (and still have) a reputation for verbal impatience at unwanted advances. Now my medical history adds a new twist to it. But I am careful not to invite graduate students to dinner as we sometimes do. Fortunately two colleagues willingly join in, and my burden considerably lessens. I tell them nothing, for only a preposterous fool would misbehave in this setting now.
   I stay politely watchful nonetheless, and I can see that he is a big drinker, silently picky with food. With us three women, even after a few drinks P is so well-behaved throughout dinner that it's hard to decide whether I should be relieved or disappointed. I almost feel like a villain waiting for disaster in vain. He's suave and clever. Charming, even. I wonder what I would think of him under different circumstances. But he too seems a little different from before. Though P never offended or bothered me before, from my few previous encounters I remember him to have been intensely attentive with the kind of slick nicety that could easily morph into sleazy flirtatiousness, and I assumed that was the extent of his reputation. His reputation turns out not without ground, but after all, a man like P gets tired and mellow too, I suppose, which isn't too bad a thing. Maybe he smartened up, which would be even better. All the while, though, I lament inside that, in this day and age and even in this profession full of self-appointed progressives, gender and sexual dynamics still causes such headaches and still requires such a maneuvering. I also ponder upon the fate of a man whose reputation always precedes him and exceeds his reality.

8:00 pm. I drive P to his destination after early dinner. Nothing but gentlemanly propriety with a suitable amount of conviviality. Perhaps he realized that I am close friends with the two who did not show up today? Despite my usual sensitivity to other people's emotions and inclinations, I cannot figure him out. Good news, though, is that I don't have to figure him out. More significantly, my students seem to have enjoyed his lecture and with that my mission is accomplished. What a load off. In early November, I'll have to see P again on the play's opening night, but it should be fine.
   I am glad that the day's event is over. I am thankful that there was no need whatsoever for outright hostility or cold withdrawal or even tactful mediation on my part. I am happy not to have been exposed to anything inappropriate or unpleasant. Yet I cannot shake off the idea that it is cowardice that I did not cancel the whole thing and uninvite him right away, or at least turn him a cold shoulder instead of the poker-face congeniality. But a known incident of sexual harassment--is it all he is? Then again, it speaks of what he is, if not all; and in many cases, one known incident is an indicator of multiple unknown recurrences, and not just an isolated occurrence. One of the friends who told me of P's incident is SK, who rarely ever talks about others, must less speaks ill of them. Coming from SK, the story carries especial weight. My non-reaction may not be all that different from an overall endorsement of P. How, then, should I adjust my relationship with him? Why do I keep thinking that theoretical, textbook answers are not enough? In my dealings with sexual harassers and offenders at the Center for Gender Equality, none of them were my personal acquaintances. Passing judgment and acting upon it is less difficult when there is no personal interest at stake. This entire situation puts everything in a different light. I should reconsider whether I am level-headed and fair-minded enough to serve at the Center for Gender Equality. These heavy thoughts wrap up a long day without giving me answers.
   

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