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“This Craving to Fly”

November-December 2006

Montana Miller, in her newest ethnographic milieu

Photograph by Brad Phalin/Bowling Green State University Office of Marketing and Communications


Montana Miller, in her newest ethnographic milieu

Photograph by Brad Phalin/Bowling Green State University Office of Marketing and Communications

In a darkened alley next to the Cleveland Public Theatre, the crowd stares up at a sprite in white suspended from two rings high above the ground. Bathed in a pinkish spotlight, Montana Miller 96 appears vulnerable, even as her outsized biceps contract to pull her body up between the rings and her legs slide into a perfect split. Then she wraps the ropes around her arms and is held aloft, her hands and body free, appearing to float above us all.

 

I've always wanted to fly, Miller says after the show, her tightly wound body curled up in a chair and covered with a silky black cloak. Freedom is a compulsion for me. As a young competitive gymnast, she was frustrated by moves that never catapulted her high enough. From flying dreams she awoke, disappointed. So when a family friend said shed make a good trapeze artist, Something just clicked.

Right after high school, she studied for three years at an elite circus training institute in France, performing with its fledgling troupe. Later, she translated those talents into work as a professional high diver in the gritty underworld of amusement parks. In 1996, she was among the first women to dive off the famous cliffs in Acapulco. There she stood on a rocky perch 87 feet up as the Mexican divers yelled out when the tide was highest, and took a deep breath before hurling herself off the side into the air; a straight small line falling into the green waves. Every high dive was just as scary as the last one, she says now. The fears never leave me...I just have an extraordinary willingness to overcome them.

 

At 36, Miller has built a life around defying gravityand other limits of the human condition, like age, culture, and career tracks. In her full-time work as an assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, she wants students to think critically about the world of mass media in which they are immersed: Who is promoting what symbolic messages, and why? What do the messages mean for different groups of people in society? I want them to stop taking things for granted, she says. Deeper thinking doesnt come naturally to them. But we want scholars and thinkers in the field, not just people who love pop culture and collect it or watch a lot of TV. She is lively and encouraging in class, open to students perceptions and unafraid to use the occasional dirty word, or slang, like bling (its flashy jewelry often worn by hip-hoppers).

She has certainly made an impression: one girl created a biopic about Miller that opens with her declaration: Conquering your fears is the greatest expression of freedom. Students call her the coolest teacher and friend her by the dozens on Facebook (the hugely popular on-line social network founded by Mark Zuckerberg 06). On her own profile, she reveals her favorite TV shows, quotations and movies, and her relationship status. (Her boyfriend is a 26-year-old paleontology graduate student at the University of Michigan.) Dressed in a flouncy miniskirt and cowboy boots, she could almost pass as a student herself.

Miller is a new professor. She earned her doctorate in folklore from UCLA in 2003 (after concentrating in the same subject at Harvard) and began teaching at Bowling Green last year. She thinks of herself as a phenomenologist and a nontraditional folklorist because she focuses on communication outside the conventional oral tradition. Contemporary folklorists think of Internet communication as being a form of orality, largely due to its immediacy and informality, she reports. And it is certainly possible to find the intersections between mass-media communication and ethnographythat is, what people do with what they receive through TV, how they incorporate it into their daily lives. For example, adopting customs they see modeled on TV, or participating in discussion boards about TV shows, or simply getting together with friends for ritualistic viewings of Desperate Housewives or Sex and the City.

Her research has examined the ways people perceive and play with riskathletes, gamblers, addicts, cheerleaders, and bungee-jumpers. For her dissertation, Miller traveled to high schools all over the country to study a popular nationwide drunk-driving prevention program that dramatizes a fatal accident and its aftermath in an effort to transform teenagers view of risk-taking behavior. What actually happens, Miller explains, is that everyone gets all distracted by the fun of the role-playing scenarioof being in the spotlight, eulogized and praised, and cried over, and the seductive drama of it all. People are having the experience of dying and coming back to life and giving speeches about how impactful it was. So this risk-taking behaviorDUIactually gets associated with getting lots of attention and glory.

She has created something of a field of her ownemerging traditions in American youth culturebecause I knew there was nothing that I could do with a degree in folklore, and my ri dic ulous UCLA diploma signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, she says, laughing. Bowling Green, which touts itself as the only university in the United States with a graduate department devoted to the scholarly study of popular culture, offered her a plum. I have a need to perform, which I do in the classroom, she says. I have a passion for good writing and making other peoples writing better. (She is a prolific writer herself.) And I love emerging phenomena. She has always watched loads of television (and is devoted to reality TV), and falls asleep to CNN. Im a news junkie. The Daily Show is what keeps me from getting too depressed by all the news I absorb, she adds. Jon Stewart is my hero.

 

Perhaps some of Millers courage and resourcefulness was handed down. Her grandfather was a trained paratrooper and U.S. Army general who was shot down several times in Vietnam, earning medals for bravery. Her parents, Kathleen Cushman and Edward P. Miller 70, Ed.M. 92, met by chance in college when Cushman, who was at Wellesley, placed a crank call to him using a phone number her roommate had found on the floor of a phone booth. She was 19 when she had me, Miller says. They were poor, crazy kids who somehow got through college with a baby and moved to Harvard, Mas sachusetts, and started the Harvard Post.

Miller remembers lying in bed at night, listening to the beeps, clicks, and whirs of the IBM Compugraphics machine, and the sound of my fathers fingers tapping away; my lullaby. I learned everything about putting a newspaper together and thats really my upbringing, its in my blood. I always assumed I would go into journalism and my ultimate goal was to be the editor of the New York Times. So going off to join the circus was a real detour for me. It didnt make a lot of sense except that I had this craving to fly.

Her time with the cole superieure des arts du cirque was unromantic. We were kids with soaring fantasies, but we spent our days sweating and straining and steeling ourselves against chest-gripping fear, Miller relays in a recent piece for Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature. Forty feet up, we shared the narrow perch, breathing in with the chalk dust each others ambition and anxiety. (She and her mother published Circus Dreams: The Making of a Circus Artist about the experience.) Faced with signing on with a professional circus she didnt like, Miller returned home, where she got into Harvard on early action and spent the intervening year as a solo aerialist for the Pickle Family Circus. There, she got a concussion from falling headfirst onto the stage during a pole-climbing act in which she hung by one foot with two women dangling from her. Healed after three months, she kept working until Freshman Week.

Entering Harvard in the fall of 1992 (at age 22), Miller quickly found a home with the committee on folklore and mythology and a mentor in Deborah Foster, senior lecturer, head tutor, and director of undergraduate studies. And even though she had never been on a diving board, she joined the diving team, reorienting her skills. (She was with the team all four years, but did not compete for two, after being hit by a truck while riding her bike to practice early one morning.)

Folklore, myth-making, and narrative all appeal to Millers sense of how we should understand the world of human experienceand herself. Fosters fieldwork course made clear that what I was doing in my life in taking these risks was to plunge myself into very different cultures and really live that culture for awhile, and that the powers of observation and writing that I had and used were really the skills of a fieldworker, she explains. I approach folklore as anthropology. Her senior thesis looked at how women gymnasts who become media commentators perpetuate mythologies of the sport.

After college, Miller worked for the Great American High Dive Team, which performed at Dutch Wonderland, a tourist trap and the most miserable show Ive ever been a part of, she says. I was doing five high-dive shows a day with no days off for $300 a week and living with members of the team in a trailer in close, confined quarters. Its a grueling, grueling life. Its painful and monotonous.

After moving to the relatively supportive, cushy atmosphere of academics at UCLA, Miller took advantage of Hollywoods spectacle-hungry culture, performing solo aerial acts at nightclubs, political events, award shows, schools, and private parties. She began to weave narrative into her acts: Greek mythology, and tales of people and animals who struggle, evolveand learn to fly.

These days, her work schedule imposes a limit she dislikes on her mid-air suspensions. I am struggling to find a way to integrate that without just dropping dead from exhaustion, she reports. As a new professor teaching her courses for the first time, she spends hours researching materials. (In her occupational folklore class, she used scenes from the movies Pushing Tin and United 93 to explore exoteric and esoteric ways air-traffic controllers are perceived.) Often she gets by on only three hours of sleep, and is typically awake at 4 a.m. e-mailing students.

It takes stamina to keep tabs on youthful trends. In Millers Introduction to Popular Culture class, students present week ly research projects, such as new TV networks with shows theyve dreamed up for a niche market. This was in the context of learning to think critically about the composition of the programming they consume, she says. For example, how commercials are placed deliberately in shows for specific audiences, how product placement is used in TV and movies, and how moral messages are subtly transmitted through the media. She wants students to think about audiences, and how the popular culture we consume is deliberately shaped and targeted for specific populations. And in turn, how interest groups can become more sharply defined as popular culture carves out niches for them.

Project topics have focused on alcohol, television, drugs, music, and movies. I try not to be judgmental, Miller says. These are all very much a part of their thinking and their world. And Im an ethnographerI study youth culture. I want to know the truth about what they doIm not afraid of it. I actually feel honored that they let me into their lives.

She is currently studying the Facebook phenomenon through student subjects who keep journals about how they use it. Miller herself spends a couple of hours a day observing student profiles and perusing Facebook for news of her 150 friends. Many students post sexy photos and gossip; others make serious pronouncements. One came out as gay on Facebook and dealt with the whole repercussion of that on-line, she reports. This is a whole new framework for socializingan outlet, a place to perform and experiment. What Im focusing on is what risks students will take on Facebook that they will not take in real life.

 

Just as Facebook culture does not meet standards of traditional folklore, so, too, is it shielded from the immediate, corporeal risks associated with standing in bare feet on a windy perch and throwing yourself off the side of a cliff. That is dangerous, Miller agrees. But I felt competent enough to handle that riskand thought it was worth taking in order to perform this identity of the beautiful superhuman hero that was so important to me. When I am doing that, I am projecting that image, playing that part, she continues. In the rest of my life, I feel like this boring, flawed, mundane, really ordinary person. Its only in those moments when Im flying that I borrow that identity. Thats probably why its so hard for me to give up that part of my life. Its sad to me. Its the one time that I feel beautiful and special.