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“Consciously Cultivating Eccentricity”: Ithaca College Professor Will Not Be Invisible


Dr. Katharyn Howd Machan, sitting in a large rocking chair, wears a shirt adorned with a large unicorn suspended in a galaxy and leggings that sparkled in the winter sun.

“What I love about unicorns is that you can see them only from the periphery of your eye,”  she said. “You have to look straight ahead and there they are, off to the side if you are lucky.”  The colorful outfit complimented her vivid pink and blue hair. The Ithaca College writing professor said she is deliberately battling becoming invisible as she ages.

“Graphically, for example, walking up Buffalo street or Seneca street on the way to Collegetown, several times I was just almost knocked off the sidewalk. They didn’t even see me, the Cornell students, who were walking… It truly is just not being seen as a woman with gray hair,” said Machan as she explained what being invisible means for aging women.

We were sitting in Machan’s office, which was packed with little trinkets of fantasy creatures like unicorns and dragons, collectible princess dolls and paintings of frogs, not to mention a carpet full of glitter. It is hard to believe that a woman who exudes this much brightness and sparkle could possibly be ignored.

Professor Machan’s office is full of little trinkets like these frogs (GIF by Gianna Folz made with imgPlay)

“I believe strongly that my role is to be a mentor to people, especially young people who are afraid about getting old, for example,” she said, “I want to be a good example that survival is more than just the body looking pretty. That we can keep going with our own strengths.”

And she has done just that. Machan has been a professor at Ithaca College for over 40 years, published 30 poetry collections, written over 9,000 poems, and has appeared in many anthologies, magazines, and textbooks.

Throughout most of her career, she has also been belly dancing with the Mirage Belly Dance Troupe of Ithaca. Machan dances as the name, “Zajal,” which, when translated from Arabic, is a form of competitive poetry.

“What I like about dancing is the affirmation of light and survival,” she said. “It moves every muscle in the body, including, the way I like to think of it, the smile muscles.”

She performs with the troupe at parties, nursing homes, retirement communities and events like Apple Fest. Sometimes, she story dances for children as the sugar plum fairy.

Machan leads her belly dance troupe, Mirage, in a warmup (GIF by Gianna Folz made with imgPlay)

Jackie Ferretti has been belly dancing with Machan for nearly 40 years. “She just looks at things differently and colorfully,” she said. “When she tells me about the things she does with her class, it makes me want to go to college.”

Renee Comings, a junior in Machan’s science fiction and fantasy class, can attest to why students enjoy her classes.

“She establishes vulnerability and silliness right off the bat,” Comings said, “She is able to become this eccentric understanding character that makes everybody feel more comfortable with themselves.”

Even though she is a published poet, teaching is a huge part of Machan’s life.

“Would I give up teaching, just to write? Absolutely not,” she said. “I am not interested in retirement. I don’t even like it with sabbatical leaves, being forced not to teach during that time.”

Machan waved her hands around when she talked, showing off nails that were painted the same vivid colors as her hair. “A woman, just because she is a crone, past that great contribution to society, supposedly, of having children and taking care of them, can still be a teacher, a mentor.”

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