My Life with Misophonia

I had my first negative experience with sound when I was about eight years old. I was having a friend over for a playdate, and we were eating waffles. Over the course of what should have been a benign breakfast, I discovered that I hated the sound of people chewing loudly. It enraged me, and all I wanted to do was take that plate of waffles and hurl it at the wall. Even now as an adult, I cringe when I think back to that incident. The worst part is that I love waffles.

Why did my friend’s eating make me so angry?

It’s because I likely have a mild iteration of a disorder of misophonia. People with misophonia become unusually angry at certain sounds, to the point of feeling rage or pain whenever they hear it. Chewing and other eating-related sounds are the most common triggers, but any repetitive sound can potentially garner a hostile reaction. I can’t stand whispering, for instance, or high-heeled shoes on hard surfaces, or excessive pen-clicking. And those are just a few examples. Believe me, you don’t want to read the full list.

No one is quite sure what causes misophonia at this point. Since it’s not officially listed in the DSM-V, it’s hard to get an official diagnosis at this point (note I said ” likely”) but you’ll find plenty of websites offering descriptions or support, both to sufferers and their families.

So what’s it like to have misophonia? It’s different for everyone, but for me, it’s manageable. I’ve read stories about people who can’t leave their houses or eat in the same rooms as their families, so my issues are pretty mild by comparison. Still, it’s not always easy. Having misophonia means dreading working lunches, or grimacing when people start whispering because it feels like you’re being pricked with tiny, invisible needles. It means not going to the movies very often because, between the whispering and the popcorn chomping, there’s not much pleasure in it. It means abhorring open office plans because somebody’s probably going to eat, type, or talk. It means hiding your irritation, and the shame you feel knowing that a harmless sound has made you so angry.

That’s the peculiar thing about misophonia. You know that your responses are irrational. I remember thinking I was out of my mind when I tried explaining it to my parents as a teenager. To this day, the only people who really know are my immediate family and Brandon, because I don’t want to make other people feel uncomfortable or self-conscious about something that isn’t their fault. This is my problem.

So why am I writing about this then? I hope in part it will serve as an apology for all the folks who’ve ever wondered why I can sometimes be curt at lunch meetings or other occasions. It’s hard to be affable when you’re fighting an irrational vexation. With all the literature circulating out there about misophonia, I also wanted to add another personal perspective. I’d like to show that it’s possible to thrive in spite of it. I still go to movies, concerts, and other events. I can sit through working lunches and contribute. I may not like open offices, but I managed to successfully work in one for a year when I was interning at the Dallas Museum of Art. Everybody has their own struggles. In the grand scheme of things, my aversion to sound is very manageable.

And what if you know someone with misophonia? I can’t speak for everyone, but my advice is to take it seriously. I don’t expect you to bend over backward to accommodate me because I know that’s unreasonable. The world can’t shut itself off just because I don’t like certain sounds. But don’t laugh it off either. Misophonia may be something I have to ultimately cope with alone, but the effects are very real to me.

And if all else fails, chew quietly.

Conference Abstracts, or How to Talk About Your Research in Different Ways

An event that many graduate students will be familiar with is the academic conference. It’s a chance to network, get feedback on your work, see someplace new, and add something to your CV. Schools love it when their students go to conferences, and students usually enjoy getting the chance to interact with people outside their home department.

October foliage in Taos, where I once presented a paper on Howard Cook.

If you’re going to a conference as an attendee or volunteer only, all you need to do is register, but if you want to present, you have to go through a process known as the abstract submission. First, you get forwarded a call for papers, usually from your department head or registrar. If you research aligns with the conference theme, you write an abstract, or a 300-word summary describing what you’ll be talking about and why. You also generally submit a CV or resume to show what you’ve done so far. From there, you wait to see whether you got in or not. It’s rare that you get accepted to every conference you submit an abstract to, so submitting is no guarantee that you’ll get in. If you do, great, if not, you’ve still got an abstract that could become the basis of a term paper, article, or even another conference paper.

Hanging out at the Great Salt Lake. I traveled here in 2016 to participate in the conference, Branding the American West.

I’ve been fortunate enough to present at several conferences already, especially when I was working in Roswell. Most calls for papers are eligible to graduate students only, but once in a while I’d get an announcement for conferences open to other scholars such as curators or artists. If I was working on an exhibition whose subject aligned with a conference topic, I’d submit an abstract. As a result, I was able to travel to places such as Utah, Oklahoma, and California, all while introducing the collection to new audiences.

I don’t believe in resting on your laurels, though, so I’ve been working on new conference abstracts. What’s been most interesting to me is how my focus has changed. When I was working in Roswell, I presented on whatever exhibition I was researching at that time, whether it was the World War II drawings of Howard Cook or the pueblo studies of Peter Moran. No two papers were alike, and with the exception of my work on Peter Hurd, they didn’t result in publications.

Instead, these conferences gave me the opportunity to share the collection with audiences outside of Roswell while rebranding myself as an Americanist. With a background in Old Master painting, I worried about the discrepancy between my academic work and my museum work, especially when I decided to apply to American-focused programs. By participating in several conferences, I demonstrated that my work as an Americanist was serious enough to warrant interest.

Not surprisingly, the Roswell Museum plays an important role in my current abstracts, though it is not the core focus either.

Nowadays, however, my objectives are quite different. Since I’m already in an academic program, I’m much more focused on my work with community art centers, as this will be the focus of my dissertation. As a result, instead of submitting abstracts on different topics, they’re all variations on community art centers, with the fundamental questions or focus reflecting the theme of the conference.

I’ve submitted four abstracts so far since coming to William and Mary, with each one focusing on a different facet of the community art centers. What I’ve appreciated about writing these abstracts is that they’ve helped me redirect my focus away from the Roswell Museum, and more broadly on the Community Art Center Project itself. Don’t get me wrong, Roswell plays an important role in my research, but I need to begin situating it into a larger narrative about art and its reception during the New Deal era. Conference abstracts are a great way to begin thinking about broader framing questions.

One of the exhibitions at the Roswell Museum included small mosaic studies for larger projects such as this one, “Recreation in Long Beach,” now located at the Harvey Milk Promenade Park and Equality Placa in California. Image courtesy of
Textiles designs by Ruth Reeves were also shown at the Roswell Museum. Read more about these works here.

In one conference exploring the sensorium in art, for instance, I proposed talking about sense-experience as conveyed through the traveling exhibitions hosted at community art centers. For a while now I’ve noticed that the Roswell’s traveling shows included a lot of tactile objects such as mosaics, tapestries, and even floral bouquets, and writing an abstract gave me an opportunity to focus my loose observations. Another abstract focused on the challenges of sending traveling exhibitions to New Mexico and other places located far from New York and other metropolitan centers. A third abstract proposed exploring the exhibition spaces of the art centers themselves. While the Roswell Museum was housed in a building designed as a gallery space, most community art centers used storefronts, libraries, and other extant, available spaces. Since I intend to focus my dissertation on several art centers, a preliminary exploration of these spaces could be useful for future research and writing. Other conferences focus on art patronage and audience building.

The Southside Community Art Center, recently declared a national treasure, operates out of an old house. It is the only true extant federal art center still in operation. Other survivors like the Roswell Museum or the Walker Art Center have evolved into different institutions. I definitely need to focus more attention on this art center moving forward.

Working on these abstracts has been a great way to think about my work from different perspectives and articulate my observations into potential research questions. I don’t expect to acceptance to all of them, but even if I don’t go to a conference, the abstract I wrote for it becomes a great framing device for future chapters or articlest. If nothing else, abstract submissions are wonderful exercises in clear thinking, and should be written regularly.

As it turns out though, I’ll be presenting at two different conferences this summer, so now I’ve got some papers to get ready. Luckily for me, I enjoy traveling, so here’s to more opportunities to get on the road.

Ongoing Art Project: Colors of Winter

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to work on my art on a more regular basis. Although I did a lot of painting and sketching over the break, I barely drew anything during the semester itself. Shortly after the semester ended then, I picked up a small sketchnook that I could carry around in my bag, perfect for small, impromptu drawings.

The main way I’ve been staying creative, however, is through my color blocks:

Colors of Williamsburg, January

The color blocks are 2″ x 3″ pieces of watercolor paper I cut up over the break. Each day, I take one of these papers and paint an abstraction based on something I’ve seen during the day. Some are inspired by sunsets, for example, while others take a cue from tree bark or the plumage of birds.

Colors of Williamsburg, February

Essentially, anything is fair game, as long as it’s based on something I’ve observed.

This isn’t the first time I’ve painted color blocks. The practice goes back to my time in New Mexico, when I painted several small studies over the course of a year. Aside from their own merits as tiny paintings, I used these color blocks as templates and incorporated their hues into other projects. Since I was only just developing the concept, I didn’t paint them in a methodical manner, just whenever the mood struck me. This time, however, I’ve decided to make it a daily activity.

This scene is based on a cluster of dried grasses I saw outside my apartment, and is reminiscent of the work of Elmer Schooley.

What I like about this project is that it encourages me to look around more closely. As an artist, I create pieces in dialogue with my local surroundings, so painting color blocks is a natural extension of that work. In seeking out striking color combinations, patterns, or textures, I actively look at the world around me rather than passively move through it. In short, it encourages me to slow down and be more observant.

It’s also a great opportunity to experiment stylistically. As an artist, I respect abstraction, but I struggle to incorporate it into my practice. With these color blocks, however, I have a chance to play around with pattern and line. The block above, for instance, is inspired by the plumage of a hooded merganser. This is among the most abstract things I’ve done in a while, yet it still takes its cue from direct observation.

I already have ideas for these color studies in terms of larger projects, but for now I’m just focusing on painting the blocks themselves. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with stopping to smell the roses, so this exercise will continue.

Flammable Hippo

Back in October last year I went out to Chicago to visit my best friend from college. These days she’s finishing up her Ph.D. at the University of Kansas. The last time I saw her was Lawrence itself in 2016, but this time we decided to meet up in Chicago, as October 2018 was not only homecoming weekend, but the 10th anniversary of our graduation (yikes!). We figured the best way to celebrate was to do what we had always done as undergraduates: skip the parade and go to Chicago.

Chicago’s a big city and we only had one day in it, so we decided to revisit one of our favorite places, The Field Museum. We used to spend whole days at this place, so we’re pretty familiar with the exhibits, but there is always plenty to see and talk about, particularly within the frameworks of colonialism, anthropology, paleontology. Like a lot of museums, the Field has been making a greater effort toward addressing the racist, colonialist aspects of its collections, but this work is by no means complete. The main attraction, by far, was their newest dinosaur acquisition, Maximo the Titanosaur.

Behold Maximo. SUE is upstairs now.

While the dinosaurs get the most attention, even the established exhibits are so expansive that you’re likely to notice something new every time you visit. Such was the case with this display:

This is a celluloid hippopotamus made in the 1930s under the auspices of the WPA. Based on a cast of an actual hippo, it was likely created as an alternative to the taxidermied specimens that had been popular at the turn of the century. With the Great Depression still active, I suspect the budget for specimen-collection expeditions was curtailed, so having the ability to produce exhibition-quality models without relying on collecting and preserving hides would have been advantageous. As an early plastic, celluloid is highly flammable though, so this hippo has to remain behind glass to ensure visitor safety.

Exhibition label for the flammable hippo.

Aside from thinking that “Flammable Hippo” would make a great name for a rock band, the connection between the Field Museum and the Works Progress Administration intrigued me. While I’m pretty familiar with the Field Museum’s affiliations with the 1893 Columbia Exposition, I did not know about its associations with the WPA. According to the exhibition label, the WPA actually created quite a few installations for the museum, including celluloid models such as this one. Naturally I started wondering whether there were other surviving models in the collection, and which other museums featured WPA-created displays.

More recently, the flammable hippo has had me thinking about a book of essays I read in my independent study, Cultural Excursions by Neil Harris. Though not a recent publication, it’s seminal in the field of social history and cultural studies, as Harris was one of the first historians to note the kinship between museums, world’s fairs, and department stores. His writings on consumer culture have been particularly influential, as he recognized that the act of buying and using material stuff isn’t just a mindless activity. Rather, consumerism is an assertion of aspiration, with our possessions becoming a representation of our ideal selves.

As with any book, there were parts I liked about his argument and parts I disagreed with, but one statement that particularly bothered me was his assessment of museums in the interwar period. Essentially, he concluded that they were treading water, and that department stores and world’s fairs were the primary innovators in exhibition display and design. In my opinion, this assessment stems in part from the knowledge of what museums would become in the postwar period, and that, intentionally or not, they’re being retroactively assigned a role they may not have been expected to fulfill in this period.

I tend to be suspicious of any broad statement about a particular time period or era, however, so I’ve made a point of paying closer attention to what museums were doing during this time period. As the flammable hippo suggests, museums were producing new things. The next step would be to find out how this fellow was actually used, and whether he had any celluloid friends.

Rock on, flammable hippo.

Will this become a future project? Perhaps, but if nothing else, it demonstrates how omnipresent the WPA really is once you start to look for it.