Cottonwood seeds, my dad, and me: 20 years and a day after a funeral

I wasn’t going to write a post about the 20 year anniversary of my dad’s death. That was on May 15th. I thought I might write about the 20 year anniversary of his funeral, which was on May 19th. Reflecting on the funeral ritual and tying it to my own identity development, I thought, might be reasonable sociology content for whatever my blog is becoming. I also thought it would probably be more personal and self indulgent than I feel like being right now, so I was going to let the anniversaries pass without comment.

Then, this morning, May 20th, I was driving to our district high school to vote on the school budget. I was imagining some snarky tweets like “I vote yes in school budget elections just to piss off the ‘cut my taxes’ crowd.” I was mentally crafting some pretty terrific tweets as I turned on to Grand Avenue and headed for the school when the windblown cottonwood seeds engulfed my car and entered the open windows.

My dad used to say, as best I remember the saying*, “when the cottonwood’s a-flying, the fish are a bitin’.” I think he fished less than he would have liked, but I actually have a good number of fishing related memories of time we spent together. I never much liked fishing or fish, and today fishing is about the last thing I’d do to pass the time. Nonetheless, every spring when the cottonwood flies I think of that saying, I think of my dad, and I think of his funeral procession.

It was on the ride from the church to the cemetery that the saying really got burned into my memories of my father. I was riding with my family in an SUV behind the hearse (did we call them SUVs, then?), we were heading north on Janesville’s Ringold street, approaching my elementary school, and for some reason the ‘Snow’ song “Informer” is strongly associated with this memory (was it on the radio? No way, right?). And of course the cottonwood was flying. My mom quoted my father’s fishing wisdom, ensuring that every spring since, at unexpected moments, memories of my dad would enter my thoughts through an open car window.

I held on to a few of my father’s things after he died: a fishing knife I lost sometime during college; a business card I’ve misplaced somewhere in my messy home office; and a jeweler’s loupe I pull out occasionally for no real reason. These material things symbolize memories of my dad, sure, but they do more than that too. They keep the relationship with my dad alive. That’s why I kept them and why I occasionally spend time with them. But it’s the cottonwood seeds more than anything else that makes my dad feel present. I’m not religious and I don’t believe in afterlife or souls. I do, however, believe in memory and emotion, and in their fundamental place in identity. The memories and emotions the cottonwood seeds trigger are a function of that relationship with my dad, which continues to structure who I am 20 years later.


*the accuracy of the memory is less important than the existence of the memory

I’m a man, man: Failed sex categorization in daily life

I’m a man who is quite regularly mistaken for a woman. It has been happening for years, it happens every six months or so, and it happened again just last Friday at the dining hall here at Le Moyne as a female colleague and I paid for our lunch. The cashier was a bit occupied and, seeing the two of us approach said, “I’ll be right there ladies.” She noticed and said sorry; we paid and went on our way. My sociologist colleague and I threw around some possible reasons that I’m so regularly confusing: I’m short; my hair is curly to the point it’s a natural perm; I was with a woman and the cashier saw her first. I don’t recall the first time it happened and I’d guess it probably bothered me, but it happens enough now that when somebody does it I often turn into a field sociologist and ask them why they thought I was a woman. Nobody ever gives a very clear answer, and almost everybody is fairly flustered by their called out sex miscategorization. I may never know why this happens, but it makes me think about some fun sociological questions too: How does it affect the interaction? Why do people say sorry? Can I learn anything about gender identity in daily life?


Self on the Shelf: Music and Relationships

What is music? This is one of those classic questions that seems easy on the face of it, but then becomes remarkably complicated when you think about it for a minute or two. I’ll skip that mess, and ask a different question: what is the meaning of a music collection? I’ve got a relatively large music collection by some people’s standards, but an embarrassingly small collection next to some people I know. What’s that collection say about me? I estimate that I’ve got around 800 CDs, and there are about 7,000 songs on my iPod. I don’t own any vinyl, and only a handful of cassette tapes, most of which  are mixes I made from CDs to play in my first car. In terms of genre, my music collection is heavily 80s and 90s alternative, Americana, and a bit of punk. I’m a product of my time and social location, and I’d argue my music collection is good evidence of that. (I swear the GSS used to list a finding about people saying their favorite music was what they listened to in high school, but I can’t find it anywhere). A sociological discussion of music would probably consider the relationships between race, class, and gender, among other variables, and one’s tastes. It would be an exploration of social capital, and I know it’s been done. But, what about the meaning of a music collection? (more…)

Where nobody knows your name: communities of the anonymous

Anonymity is often identified as a key variable for explaining the quality and content of online interaction.  I’ve done it myself in this article written with Le Moyne political scientist Dr. Delia Popescu and appearing in Information, Communication & Society.  Anonymity is conceived by some as a cause of the well known Internet activity of trolling or flaming, but others see it as the key ingredient of what they view as the revolutionary potential of the Internet.  Revolutionaries are thought to be empowered by their ability to hide from authority figures, while Internet bullies are portrayed as those cowering behind unidentifiable screen names and tossing insults they likely wouldn’t in a face to face setting. Of course, these claims need to be considered skeptically. Governments, or the more powerful revolutionary factions, can shut down the Internet if they choose, and the government still has tanks and tear gas. Anonymous trolls, like Reddit’s Violent Acrez, can be tracked down, site administrators can delete accounts, and we hear as much about bullying on the non-anonymous Facebook as we do on other websites.

The offline consequences of Internet anonymity are only part of what is sociologically fascinating about online social life. In terms of web mediated social interaction, if we stop after pointing out that screen names are often not ‘real’ names, I think we miss some of the richest action on the Internet. I spend a lot of time on the web forums of the Syracuse Post Standard reading the threads that appear after most articles, and sometimes commenting. (more…)

Time was the end of Facebook fun: The past, the future, and the self

This post was inspired by a great series of essays about, broadly, the self on Facebook by Nathan Jurgenson, Rob Horning, and Whitney Erin Boesel. They’ve given more careful thought to these issues and you really should read their essays if you are interested in identity and ‘the web.’ Here I’ll just say a little bit about why I quit Facebook and how I think quitting was related to the performance of self and social time.

I was on Facebook for about 4 years, and I was a very active user. I know people who are reluctant to make status updates or share things, but I wasn’t one of those people. I made a large number of mostly inane status updates. I’d sit and wait for new status updates like an addict. For a long time it was a lot of fun. I didn’t play a lot of the games; for me creating and reading status updates was the fun. Like a lot of people, I didn’t like how often I was hitting refresh, but I didn’t quit Facebook because it was taking up too much of my day.