Confession: I’m Fashion Obsessed

closet picI’ve spent a lot of time feeling guilty about how much I love clothes. My mother tells me that I come by the trait honestly – she even apologizes to my husband when I get excited about another new pair of boots. “I made her this way,” she says. Still, I feel like I should learn to back away from the new Anthropologie catalog with a bit more grace. So I’ve made some drastic efforts to break free from my sartorial obsessions.

I’ve purged the closet – three or four times over, once with professional help from a stylist friend. I started shopping in second hand stores. I’ve learned to be systematic about these outings – I can work the racks quickly and spot the junk straight away. My friends and I swap clothes. We’ve held quiet fundraisers that are really just private garage sales. We buy clothes from each other for bargain prices and then donate the pot of money to charity. Voila: new outfits, guilt free.

But my most austere experiment taught me the most.

Two summers ago I lived out of my backpack for 30 days. Fashion was the last thing I expected to learn about in the backcountry, but in retrospect living with one t-shirt, one pair of shorts, and one sports bra was empowering. The obvious is true: there are no clothing decisions to make when you only have one thing to wear. Clothing is about utility in the backcountry – what works and what gets in the way. At a certain point, I forgot what I was wearing – there were too many other things to worry about. Like where to dig cat holes.cody and sj backpack

But something else happened too. There were ten women on my trip – we outnumbered the guys by one. Alliances formed quickly, and though they weren’t always along gender lines, the women bonded in a predictable sort of way. We scrubbed our faces with minty, biodegradable soap. We shared hairbrushes and moisturizer (worth every ounce of their extra weight). We washed our hair in the creek and compared hairy armpits. One of the toughest women tried to shave her legs with a knife. Even our instructor – a woman who has logged more backcountry time than I can even contemplate – admitted to mailing herself nail polish just so she could “do something girly in the mountains.”mountaintop fashion

Not all women bond over fashion and beauty, and there are many men who love clothes and makeup and fashion week. But I learned that there is something distinct about the space we carve out to take care of our physical selves. It is not just about how we look. On day 18 of a month-long expedition, everyone looks gross. It’s not about exercise or strength. Anyone willing to carry a heavy pack that long is strong and fit. It’s about identity and self-knowledge, about shared and intimate space, that for me is distinctly feminine. I don’t dress or wear make-up for anyone but myself. I like to feel good so I run and lift weights and wear high heels. I put on make-up because it is fun and it makes me feel good. When it’s not fun, I skip it. My obsession with fashion isn’t about how many clothes I have in my closet; it’s about reminding myself of who I am.

I sometimes worry that I won’t be taken seriously if look like I care about my appearance. But I think I’ve learned that the opposite is true. I have never felt more comfortable in my skin than I did in the mountains two years ago. I didn’t have fashionable clothing or makeup with me. I didn’t even look in a mirror for thirty days. But I did make time for myself in the daily rituals of personal care, and I shared that space with strong, diverse women. Dressing for the day helps me know what I need to accomplish – whether it’s climbing a peak or teaching contemporary poetry.

I try not to feel guilty anymore. The fact is I love clothes and makeup and shoes. I love fashion magazines and nail polish. I also know that I can live without all of the trappings of the industry. Like most people, I am full of contradictions and every day I get up and try to do my best – with every part of myself. Getting dressed is just the first step.  ~ Sarahjules and sj dressed up

What do I know about fashion? Not much!


Not long ago, I came into the Writing Center on the way to my office, and suggested forcefully that I thought an English Department uniform would be a great idea. I was, I announced, totally tired of having to decide on what the wear every morning, and if we could just decide on a uniform, I wouldn’t have to make that decision. ( An aside, I confess, I can’t make decisions when I am looking at a menu either and have to see what other people are having before I can make a choice. I think it’s some kind of character flaw, since I can make big decisions with relative ease.)

I was thinking along the lines of jeans and white shirts or black pants and blue shirts, something like that. My colleagues, thank goodness, laughed at me. When I ran this by my graduate -student son, he said we should all wear our academic robes every day. This would definitely have been noticeable in our small community college.

However, not long after this announcement, I was showing one of my classes video clips of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, and realized in that moment what uniforms can do. The young people in those pictures had no individuality, and moved with a uniformity that made them seem robotic. We are all familiar with Communist Chinese dress. But look at pictures of any military unit and the same thing happens. There is, purposefully, no sense of individuality, no sense of individual personhood. This is a necessary part of the indoctrination process.

As I was thinking about uniforms, and realizing that they can serve a frightening purpose, I also realized two things: 1) I did not want a department uniform. (The idea of all of us, very different individuals dressing identically actually became hilarious and material for some kind of bad skit sometime.) and 2) I already had a uniform, my uniform, that I had been wearing for most of the school year.

My uniform consists of blue jeans and a plain t-shirt of some kind, long-sleeved in the winter, short- sleeved as it gets warmer, plus some “accessory”, a scarf, or a necklace. I have worn the same pair of earrings for about the last two years, so I didn’t have to make a decision there and the scarf/necklace decision is usually easy. I choose from several favorites.

The day I made that announcement in the department was probably a day when my two pairs of jeans were both in the laundry and I had to choose the black pants, or heaven forbid, a skirt. It’s easy to tell from this that “fashion” is not really part of my life, convenience and comfort are.

But I realize that what I want is not a department uniform, or a school uniform, but a way to make clothing decisions easy and I realize that I have found that.. jeans, t-shirt and scarf/necklace. It works for me. Sometimes I will break out of it. Today I wore a skirt and dangly earrings. My colleagues noticed (or at least the fashion-conscious ones did, and I like the way it felt, but tomorrow, I will probably go back to the “uniform.”

It’s my uniform. I am not part of a larger “uniformed” collective, I am using clothes as I wish, not as some authority dictates. What could be more fashionable?







Are You Going to Wear THAT!?

My mother on Memorial Day 2008

My mother on Memorial Day 2008

Like most people, my mother influenced my fashion sense. She raised me with rules like don’t wear white after Labor Day; match your shoes with your belt, bag, and jacket; never wear white before Easter; and don’t mix blue and black. To this day, those rules still govern what I wear, and yet, those rules are challenged as I discover my own style and my new-found joy of fashion.

The other day, I mentioned to Sarah that I was always the weird kid in school who wore red and purple together…remembering my classmates’ sneers in childhood at my horrendous color choices.

She looked confused, “but that’s OK!” she said.

That one statement shook my world. What!? It’s OK?

A few weeks earlier, she informed me that it’s OK to wear black and blue together. I was just getting used to mixing the color of my shoes, belt, and jacket! What’s next?? Wearing white before Easter!? I would never do that!

Keri in Easter Dress at 4 Years Old

My Easter Dress at 4 Years Old

For my mom, Easter not only marked the beginning of spring, but it marked the addition of pastels and other bright colors to my wardrobe. Although the rule technically was “No White Before Memorial Day,” my mother broke that rule for Easter. She would dress me in flowery, pastel dresses, and take my picture. Before then, we dressed in black, brown, or other dark, muted colors. I would whine about the dark clothes I was forced to wear, arguing for light colors. When she worked, I would convince the babysitter that I could dress myself, and I’d run to school in my favorite purple pants and red shirt.

When my mother dressed me, I wore olive green pants with yellow or orange—her favorite colors. Of course, this was in the 1970’s—a fashion style that I laugh at now. (It seems to me that wearing red and purple together should not have been considered a fashion “sin.” In fact, I even found a 1974 image of a woman wearing red & purple together! I must have been a Maverick, and that’s why the kids laughed! They just didn’t know any better themselves!)

So, my fashion sense was built on shame: what could I dare to wear and not get laughed at? Unfortunately, it was all trial and error. So, at this early, impressionable age, I learned about fashion: t-shirts and jeans are always in style.

My fashion sense as a teenager: t-shirts & jeans

My fashion sense as a teenager: t-shirts & jeans

As I continue to wade through fashion pros and cons, I’m thankful for technology and fashion-forward friends who will tell me what looks good and what doesn’t. dress2dress1

The other day as I dressed, I pulled on a V-neck shirt with swirls of colors. There was red and purple in the shirt—along with green, blue, and yellow. I hesitated—should I wear this? Does it look silly on me? Does it match my pants? What shoes should I wear? But then I asked the important question: Do I enjoy wearing it?

It occurs to me that fashion is a sign of our times: we have fewer rules in fashion just like we have fewer rules in social norms. It’s acceptable to wear red and purple…just like it’s acceptable for same-sex couples to legally marry (well…we’re getting there). The more we’re encouraged to follow our own identity, then the blurrier fashion lines become.

And I’m OK with that.

~ Keri

Sorry. I can’t really write anything worth a damn – I’m still recovering from my vacation.

Its official name is desynchronosis. According to the Mayo Clinic it can cause muscle pain, insomnia, excessive sleepiness, dehydration, malaise, fatigue, headache, irritability, concentration problems, and indigestion. Some doctors treat it with Provigil, Ambien, or light therapy. It can take days, even a week to get over and yet, every day tens of thousands of us lineup happily for the experience. jet lag

And I’m here to tell you: jet leg is no joke.

I hate flying. I hate it for all of the usual reasons: crowds, delays, little dirty airplane seats. I also turn into a giant ball of anxiety – I’d be better off stuffed in an overhead bin than sitting next to some perfectly nice grandfather from Georgia. But I think the worst part of flying is jet lag. It’s not so bad on the way to the beach or a city hotel, but coming home to work and dirty laundry and two a.m. wakeups is torture.

Scientists from NASA have calculated that it takes days to recover from an overseas flight – specifically a day for every time zone the plane crosses. Because they fly around the globe for training with international space programs, astronauts are good test cases for jetlag remedies. NASA astronauts recover from jetlag two to three times faster than us mere mortals. Researchers have learned that our circadian rhythms go haywire when we fly through time zones mostly because of light. And like rock stars, astronauts wear dark glasses on airplanes – to control their exposure to light. Whether it’s natural sunlight or the ubiquitous glow of our smart phones, light at the wrong time can send our body clocks into a death spiral. Cavers, who sometimes spend weeks underground in the dark, report significant jetlag symptoms when they come up for air. They don’t cross over any time zones, but they do go weeks without any source of natural light. According to NASA, if we can control the light around us, we can minimize our jetlag symptoms. There’s no chance we will totally escape the time zone crunch, but we can learn to bounce back more quickly.

I was up at sunrise the day after we returned to Wyoming from Hawaii. Not because I was seeking light therapy – my alarm went off for the third time just as the sun hit the horizon. At my house we’ve largely ignored NASA’s advice but it’s true that the warm sun peeking over the just greening spring grass helped me peel myself out of bed for work. I’ll admit we aren’t readjusting very quickly from our four hour time leap. I’ve had to haul myself out of bed, but all three of my boys have enjoyed a slower, more relaxed reentry. We haven’t readjusted our internal clocks much at all. We’ve all a little woozy. Still, despite experiencing every jet lag symptom, our trip was worth every squeamish side effect.

Beach sunsetDiamond head hikeAs for now, I’m more interested in maintaining the illusion that we’re still on vacation. We sleep in and stay up late. We eat special treats. We lay like vegetables. Eventually our home will find its way back to homeostasis. And just as so many of us are willing to swallow the other discomforts of modern air travel for the chance to change perspectives; I’m willing to deal with 2 a.m. wake-ups and grumpy tweens in exchange for a few days of sand and sunshine. Next time maybe I will keep my sunglasses on for the flight home.

Pictures ….. from the traveling world..




So, it’s Spring Break and Keri and Sarah are both off to Hawaii. My husband and I are off to Florida on Monday, where we will visit his mother and also spend time on the beach and swimming in the Gulf. But as I began to think about this blog post, at first I was going to write about the joys of traveling alone, and about a particular trip I took by myself to a small island off the coast of England, but that’s not the way it’s going  to be.  Rather I am going to write a series of mosaics, small photos of travelers and would-be travelers.

Our Writing Center at Sheridan College is a dynamic and interesting place where people work, write, talk about writing but also talk about many other things. Allison, one of our student-consultants came in the other day and announced that she had decided that she was going to go to Bucharest. She has never been to Europe, knows little about Romania, but someone told it was cheap to live there.  I do not know if she will actually go, but she well might, and if she does, she’ll come home a different person.

Thomas, another student-consultant, announced a few days ago that he was going to Detroit. Now, in my mind, Detroit has none of the charm of Bucharest, but that is perhaps only because I have a romanticized view of Eastern Europe and a not-particularly positive view of decaying American cities. Thomas told me that someone told him that Detroit was “funky” and had an interesting music scene. Who knows? But Thomas is riding the bus from Sheridan, Wyoming, to Detroit and back this spring break. He will come home changed.

Last week, Jake, our third student-consultant, was madly filling out the last of his college applications for the institutions where he wants to finish his college education. All of his choices are in New York City. He will love the city, but he will also gain a new appreciation for his home town while he is gone.

One of my sisters once, in the 1970’s, took a cross country bus trip just because she wanted to. She got terribly homesick when she was 3,000 miles from home, but she made it back and was glad she did it.

When my daughter was a senior in college in 1999, she traveled to Vietnam with a group of students and two faculty members from her college. They spent a semester based in Hanoi, but also traveled around the country. She brought home a smattering of Vietnamese language, silk clothing, a set of small rice bowls that live in my cupboard, and an appreciation and love of a country and culture very foreign from her own.  I have a photo of her in a Vietnamese dress, and wearing the conical straw hat, straddling a bicycle on the street.  She doesn’t quite fit in, but she doesn’t quite stand out either.

When I was in my 50’s,  I went to England to visit my son and his family, but then I traveled alone from Carlisle, England, where he lives, to the Isle of Iona, on the Scottish coast. Iona is tiny. It is 3 miles long and 1 mile wide. It is the home of the Iona Abbey first built by St. Columba in 600 CE. It is a place of pilgrimage and meditation. Most of the permanent residents on the island (about 200) do not have cars, and other cars are not allowed on the island which is accessible by ferry from the Isle of Mull. Iona is a barren and wind-swept place. The abbey itself, reconstructed in the 19th Century, is beautiful and peaceful.  I spent part of a day on a whale-watching boat. We saw no whales, but many puffins and more barren islands. I left Iona on my third morning there in a cold, driving rain. But the train ride back to Glasgow, and then to Carlisle felt like I was re-entering another world. I carried the bells of the Iona Abbey with me in my heart.