Saturday, January 20, 2018

Sex and the Feminist Womyn

As a teenager, I read the following books from my mother's house (technically: apartment) because they were there and they intrigued me: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, The Women's Room by Marilyn French, The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking by Alex Comfort (1972 edition), Our Bodies Ourselves from The Boston Women's Health Club Collective (1973), Women and Madness by Phyllis Chesler, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor, Sula by Toni Morrison, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou; You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down, In Search of our Mother's Gardens, The Temple of My Familiar, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

In my father's house, I found The Sensuous Woman by J, "the first how-to book for the female who yearns to be all woman." This, among a dozen biographies of powerful men, the complete series of Patrick O'Brien, and myriad other seafaring titles, struck me as exceptional. It had no corollary; there was no Sensuous Man anywhere. (I searched long and hard for it.) More's the pity!

By the way, it ought to have been titled The Sensual Woman, because sensuous refers to arousal of the intellect, whereas sensual refers to carnal arousal. I'm just saying, J was right about a lot of things, but she got the title wrong. (J, btw, was Joan Theresa Garrity, nice girl from Missouri, born in 1940, same age as my dad.)

In college, I took "Foundations of Feminism," the pre-requisite course for taking any other class in Women's Studies at UMass.

We read: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, and A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. We read other books too, but these are the ones I remember and can list off the top of my head 33 years after I read them.

There were one or two guys in that class to start, but they quickly dropped out when they realized that on the whole planet, this classroom was by far the worst possible place to meet girls.

We studied patriarchy, objectification, inculturation, ethnocentrism, homophobia, racism, sexism, human trafficking; and institutional and economic oppression.

We learned about masters raping slaves, violence in pornography, rest cures, adversive conditioning, the cycle of poverty, the prevalence of rape, incest, sexual harassment....

This was simply no place for a guy to ingratiate himself with women.

We women, freaked out as we were, could barely tolerate each other. We argued with each other. No one seemed to agree about anything.

Some women responded to the horrific reveals in our reading by choosing to be celibate or lesbian. Some stopped wearing restrictive undergarments....

I wasn't sure how to respond, or what to do with my shock, anger and sadness. I had grown up  in a feminist home. For years, I had been dressing butch without realizing it.

It was a confusing time.  More or less straight,  I was grateful to have a sports bra and I was beginning to discover a more feminine personal style.

I did not know how to respond to this new reality.

The new reality was a way of seeing that did not idealize the heterosexual "hegemony," or dominant cultural norms, or "Father Knows Best" image of the world.

Factoring in oppression, sexism, racism, and homophobia, the world as I was seeing it took on infinitely greater complexity--by which I mean it seemed shadowy and shameful in some places, horrendous and tragic in others.

Here's a riddle:

What's the difference between a Women's Studies major at Harvard, and a Women's Studies major at U.Mass?

Answer: The Harvard student goes to law school and become a public defender or founds a women's law collective. The U.Mass student discovers pornography in her boyfriend's sock drawer and tries but fails to draw blood from her veins with the intention of smearing protest graffiti all over the walls of their apartment.

I wrote a paper on the book, Female Sexual Slavery by Kathleen L. Barry, published in 1984. (My paper probably constituted plagiarism.) I was so shocked and appalled by the statistics in that book,  I kept glancing down at the footnotes to see where the  author was getting her numbers. She got them from the International Police Organization, INTERPOL (192 member countries at this writing, per the INTERPOL website).

What was I, as an insecure 19-year-old, supposed to do about all of these horrors?

At around this time, I went to see a documentary in Central Square, Cambridge about violence and pornography. It followed the story of a young woman who starts out strong, independent, and comfortable with trading in sex for a living. But, by the end of the movie, she sees that pornography is a clear expression of violence against women.

Pornography, which had intrigued me since I was six or seven years old and found a stack of Playboy magazines in a trunk in the basement, was now OUT. Which meant, by some Catholic line of reasoning, that all thoughts that seemed pornographic must also be an expression of violence against women--and by extension, of my own self-loathing and identification with the patriarchy.

I will come right out and tell you that this delayed my experience of female orgasm until well into my twenties. For years, I believed that female orgasm was not really a thing.

And then, one night, I was volunteering at a suicide & crisis center in Honolulu, age 22, when I had a conversation over the phone with a lesbian that blew my mind. Not only was she not a feminist, she also went to strip clubs to watch and hit on strippers.

This was the most radically weird and exotic thing I'd ever heard in my entire short life.  I did not know what to make of that at all.

This was at about the same time that I read Andrea Dworkin's WOMAN HATING, which effectively argues that all of the fairy tales to which young girls cling are in fact extremely toxic. The step-mothers are all plotting to murder their step-daughters, whose fathers are somehow helpless to intervene on their daughter's behalf. Snow White in her catatonic state (waiting to be awoken by a kiss from her prince) is necrophilic...There is NO sense of sisterhood between Cinderella and her step-sisters, obviously....

Rapunzel had particular resonance for me then.  As she languished in her tower waiting to be rescued by her prince, I languished in a tower also, in Aiea, Hawaii, where I did not know a soul and was lonely, waiting for my submarine officer (prince) to return from sea and rescue me from my loneliness and, btw, lack of purpose.

Odd, wasn't it, that despite the constant intake of feminist literature, I continued to participate fully in the heterosexual hegemony.

After finally dumping the guy I lived with in college (following a full year of working up the nerve to hurt his feelings), I fell in love (more or less) with one guy after another, until, at 25, I married a very princely Navy officer in a very public setting, in a white wedding dress with a very cute pillbox hat, demi-veil, and matching shoes.

The top cinched at the waist and flared over my hips above a long form-fitting A-line...

It would not have been out of place on the set of Mad Men.  It was that retro.
Almost ironic. Almost.

Perhaps that just goes to show that everything is lost on me.

But then, too, there is the whole question of feminism in the Nineties, when suddenly feminists were assuming ownership of pornography in a way that struck me as weirdly heretical.

Branches of my family were beside themselves when one of their most talented academics announced that she was taking a Ph.D. in, of all things, feminist pornography. Or feminism and pornography. Or just pornography--but she was still a feminist.

Personally, I was not aghast, but I was confused. And rather delighted. But mostly confused.

And here's something else that confused me, at first: Women of my mother's generation were having children and reaching an agreement between themselves that one of them would be the "mother" and the other would be the "not-mother."

I found it beyond interesting to learn that lesbian couples becoming parents were sometimes (not always) adopting traditional hetero-culture gender roles: Mom, Dad (or if not "dad," then Mom 1-A and Mom 2-B).

Sometimes, they had an understanding at the beginning, but, over time, relationship dynamics changed and evolved into something more organic and less deliberate or intentional.

But what struck me was the idea that, barring biologically-ordained gender roles, someone might choose to embrace the traditional role assigned to women: mother as primary caretaker.

This was helpful to me as I became a parent. I knew that I wanted to be the primary caretaker--Mom A-1.  Because I knew women for whom this was a choice and an option--I felt like I was making an affirmative decision based on what I wanted and not based on default cultural norms and assumptions.

And now, here we are, 2017.  Feminism, as ever, remains under attack, but has nonetheless managed to strike a significant blow against the presumptive male privilege of sexual predation in the workplace.

Somehow, and I think we have the Millennials to thank for this, sexual harassment in the workplace has become totally unacceptable--at least in certain high-profile quarters of the hegemony (if I'm using that term correctly--I rarely use it and should probably stop using it now).

I was recently struck by a different perspective from France on sexual harassment.

Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve both signed a letter of disagreement, more or less, basically saying that all forms of sexual discourse in the workplace between a man and a woman should not be condemned out of hand; a man should not be shamed or penalized for attempting to seduce a co-worker--even a subordinate. Seduction is nice. Flirtation is nice. Hands off French values, American feminists!

But then other voices piped up and clarified that sexual HARASSMENT was not simply the failure to seduce, but frequently resulted in gross abuses of power, including unwanted advances, demands, threats, rape, and various forms of real sexual trauma not to be treated lightly, dismissed or miscatagorized as flirtation (or seduction).

Oh, said Catherine Deneuve, who is great. She took the point, and apologized publicly for appearing dismissive of women (and men) who were victims of that kind of sexual harassment (the bad kind).

Brigitte Bardot, however, basically maintained that American feminists had no joie de vivre.  (Personally, I'm not altogether surprised that Ms. Bardot would defend the institutions that glorified her objectification, but, whatever.)

I think the French do have a point, however. I've enjoyed some history of flirtation in the workplace, and I would hate to imagine how dull that brief but thrilling time would have been without it.  I have no regrets.  But also, I was not sexually harassed.  No one who had power over me made any untoward demands.  There may be a feminist argument to be made that I played a wifely role, or the role of an ingenue, depending, in relation to my boss, and that this had its own weird aspects. Probably, yes. But, be that as it may, I would say NOT sexual harassment.

My flirtations, etcetera, were among peers. All's fair in love and war among peers...As long as no one spreads vicious rumors afterwards. Even peers can handle indiscretion unprofessionally.

Where do we draw the line?  Not in the same place, probably.

Back in my twenties, I had what I thought was the most marvelous aerobics instructor ever. He was fit, handsome, sexy, and flirtatious. He played great, sexy music. The whole atmosphere  seemed charged with electricity and pheromones. I loved it when he danced over to me and offered encouragement. He never touched me in an erogenous zone--I'm sure I would have remembered--but his touch was erotic. He gave me a major thrill. (Have I made that quite clear?)

On the other hand, at least one woman in the class felt offended or threatened or triggered by the same instructor's demeanor and approach.  There were complaints, and suddenly, he was gone!

I was devastated. I can't remember his name, but I remember how he moved. I remember that it seemed like "Little Red Corvette" was always playing when he was in the room. I remember his energy, and the unique heat and vibe of the room, all of us jumping and dancing like Shakers trying to exorcise all of that sexual energy...

God bless that man.

I can see, from the perspective of women who have been repeatedly victimized, sexually, that my aerobics instructor might have triggered them.  I understand that bad things frequently happen to women and to men, and that it is not yet and has never been a level playing field.  I get that. I respect that. But at the same time...

Let me just say this: The bleak stuff that I learned about in Foundations of Feminism is all true. But,  I also found books to read about women who broke the mold:  Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Gertrude Stein, Anais Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, Beryl Markham, Isak Dinesen, Mary Baker Eddy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sojourner Truth, Annie name a few.  There should be more. There should be many more books written about Harriet Tubman, and as many movies made about her. She is America's greatest action hero.  And Pocahontas, leading Lewis and Clark from Missouri to the Northwest with a baby in tow.  Where are the movies about that!?

Herstory is not a simple one. It is not all misery and oppression. It is a lot of misery and oppression, but it is much, much more...And we have only just begun to tell the stories--with movies (and books) like "Hidden Figures" and, yes, even "Wonder Woman" (though she's not real).

Where or where are the Harriet Tubman movies? Did I mention that Harriet Tubman returned to the Deep South again and again, like, a hundred times, to rescue soul after soul at enormous risk to herself--and did it at an incredible rate of success that defies the imagination? Where is that movie?

Anyway, what was I saying?  I miss my aerobics instructor.

To summarize, I may not be the best feminist, but I am a feminist.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Insert Funny Title About Dying Fantasies Here

Radiology sent me a letter saying my right breast warranted a second look. 

My first thought was, Thank you

My second thought: Oh my God, I have cancer!

The letter came on Saturday. My follow-up appointment is not until Thursday, and this is only Tuesday.

I can think of nothing but the prospect of dying: 

Everyone who has ever felt a fond feeling for me will flock to my beside when they hear the news.

Even my ex-husband, who hasn't spoken to me in ten years, will probably send a large bouquet of red roses with a note: "Hope you're on the upswing soon." 

(He knows perfectly well there will be  no upswing.)

Those from whom I've been estranged will be stunned to learn of my imminent demise. They will visit or write or call to say that I had never been far from their thoughts. 

I have been an important person in their life. 

Despite whatever came between us all those years ago (who can even remember what it was?) they never forgot me for more than six or eight months at a stretch.

Dying has a certain appeal. If I were truly dying, I could throw a big party and everyone would have to show up. 

All of my loved ones, past and present, would gather together in a spirit of love and remembrance...of me!  

Then again, is it my duty to inform people who have deliberately opted out of my life that I am dying, and that this is their last chance to return to the fold?  

Dare I ask those people to journey back to me one last time--at the risk being told that I have been dead to them already for a very long time?  

That's not what a dying person needs to hear.

And how would I notify them?  Would it be like a birth announcement or an obituary? 

Notification of a change of address?  

I would order cards with nice calligraphy.

Greetings from Wisconsin!  I am sorry to tell you that I am dying. I would love to see you one more time, maybe two.  What does your schedule look like?  RSVP

Perhaps, instead of a party, I could expect a steady trickle of attention from a large field of acquaintances. 

Women from church would bring food. 

Cards would arrive, two or three a day, like Christmas. 

I will read the cards, and think to myself, Who are these people?

As my hour glass grows bottom-heavy, sweetly stinky bouquets would crowd my beside table, making it even more difficult to breathe.   

I could go to Hawaii, where I have some friends, and we would have a great time. Later, at the airport with my luggage, I turn back one last time and mouth the words, "Friends, I'm dying! Aloha! Good-bye!"  

 Or would it be better and more courageous to slink silently off into the night to die alone under the hedge, like a cat?

I struggle with these questions. Whether or not to die nobly or in extremely poor form, what difference would it make?  The end will justify the means.

What about the people who are going to be so freaked out by the whole business of death and dying that they will avoid me altogether, for that reason alone?  

Such a reaction could come from anywhere, creating a Judas of denial from anyone who cannot bear to step foot inside a hospital for anyone.  

I'd be all like, "Where is so-and-so, my dearest, best friend? Why aren't they here at such a time?"

And my dad would harrumph and explain, "So-and-so's an asshole." 

But, I will be saintly and tell everyone who is blowing me off while I am dying that I forgive them. 

I'll be a martyr, a real martyr, with the back of one hand against my humid brow and the other making the sign of the cross. 

"Godspeed, my brother, whilst I die over here, all sweaty."

I'll dole out absolution to every lost soul who's ever screwed me over, no matter how great or trivial the sin. 

For friends and lovers from my past who have already buried me in theirs, I shall leave word: 

"Fret not, dear soul. We're cool. No worries." 

Of course, I too have apologies to make. 

I would quickly point out, however, that I have never done anything to merit an early death. Nothing that you would actually hang me for.

I could associate some degree of shame with most of the people who are not talking to me. 

I can see myself calling them to apologize as part of my process of taking inventory, tidying up my soul, and so on. Preparing to meet my God. Judgment Day, etcetera

That could be a solid excuse, actually, to call and just let it drop that I'm dying. 

Thursday, 4 pm.  Am not dying. False alarm. Oh, well! Tomorrow's Friday!

[Originally drafted in 2008.]

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Leaving Black Magic Behind

This is the beginning of a new year, but in many ways  it feels oddly similar to last January.  Last year, it was the Women's March and pussy hats. This year, it's "Me, too" and Oprah's speech.

The cat who was so sick last year has a red and enflamed lip now. I give her a special antihistamine that cats can tolerate. It seems to help, but if I forget it for one day, her lip swells up. There is something about January that does not agree with my cat.

Two days of rain is predicted, to be followed by plunging temperatures that will create the same icy conditions that crippled my horse last year.

I received a card today from the American Association of Equine Practitioners informing me that our local veterinary clinic had made a donation in Belle's honor. They hoped that the kindness of that gesture might lesson my grief.

I decided, the other day, to reframe my understanding of why my horse died. Previously, I interpreted it as a punishment.  According to my logic, I had written a post about my dad, who didn't like it, and so, since Belle was a posthumous gift from him, he decided to rescind his gift.

I know. It was not the sort of magical thinking that magically made me feel better. It was the kind magical thinking that magically made me feel worse.

Which is why I don't like the expression "magical thinking." If I could do magic, I would not have chosen to make myself feel worse.

But maybe magical thinking is a colorful expression for any thinking that isn't grounded in hard science. The fact that a ghost played a part in it would, in that respect, make it magical.

I no longer choose to believe that my father killed my horse. I don't think he would ever smite a horse for any reason, no matter how mad or hurt he felt about anything.

Under the new magical regime, I believe that it was simply Belle's time.  Yes, I would have preferred that she live to a ripe old age, and she was only 12. Nonetheless, if it was her time, it was her time, and I'd rather have her die of some ridiculously obscure disease that I never could have anticipated or prevented, than have her die due to any neglect on my part--for which I could never forgive myself.

If anything, my father would have come up with that as a remedy. I can imagine him arguing with the authorities: first, about the horse having to die so young, and then, having lost that argument, and after much obsessing and not allowing anyone to think about anything else or get any of their work done, finally convincing them to have Belle die of an incredibly rare disease so that at least, when I lost her, I wouldn't blame myself.

Except, of course, I did; and what's worse, I implicated my father in the taking.

Well, that's one thing I won't be bringing into the new year. I can clearly see the mercy in my horse's weird disease.

I no longer have Belle in my barn, but I have her in the house. I found an amazing deal on canvas photos.  Despite Shutterfly telling me forever that the resolution of all my photos was too low to print  larger than 4 x 6, this company in Germany sent back these huge, vivid images of  Belle.

I'll show you:

I had almost abandoned the idea of ever having tangible forms of my photographs, resigned to having  them on clouds, Facebook, and Instagram--where I would have to wade through thousands to find any one in particular.

Ultimately, I bought five of them, all photos of Belle. They're in the living room, dining room, kitchen, and my bedroom.  She is in almost every room, in every season, in all her sorrel splendor.  There are more photos that I could blow up, and maybe next year I will.  For now, it's enough.

The day that she died was so full of horror, I won't ever be able to forget it.  But I don't have to think of it every time I think of her.  I can look at these photo of better memories many times a day.  I will take happy memories of Belle with me into 2018.

I also received an email today notifying me in the nicest terms that my manuscript was being politely rejected. I looked back at my spreadsheet: I had submitted the manuscript to this agent in March of last year.   If they had never responded at all, it would have made no difference to me. I was way past the point of anticipation.

I will not be spending this year revising my manuscript. I spent last year doing that. In my opinion,  it was better in 2016.

I received extensive critical feedback in 2017 from two different parties, and they were both in perfect disagreement. I have no idea how to proceed. I'm completely out of my depth.

I swear to God, I would write the same page a little differently every single day of my life. If it seemed at all purposeful, I could just keep doing that forever.

That does not seem at all purposeful.

So, I won't be taking that into the new year.

I am working on drumming up freelance work. My resume is a shambles. It's so much easier to write other people's resumes and cover letters than my own. My darkly magical thinking poisons the quill: I haven't done anything. My skills are outdated. I don't know anyone and one knows me....

I know that I am not alone in feeling insecure when faced with the daunting task of selling myself.

This will be the year of reinventing myself...My phoenix year.

And this will be the year when I am forced to come to terms with my failure to see my manuscript made into a published novel.

While I am comfortable with the choice to not continue with endless revisions, I have not yet made my peace with, nor do I fully understand, the end of this long-time effort.  I don't have a sense of closure--or direction.

So, unavoidably, this will be the year in which I interpret and accept or address the apparent failure of this long-labored-over manuscript--which will be no mean feat in itself.

By contrast, this blog has been a constant companion that never demands attention, approbation, or conclusion.  From year to year, it gathers my thoughts and connects me to friends, family, and far-flung readers who never dash off a harsh word in response to any of my constant opining (for which I am eternally grateful).

Needless to say, you're coming with me into 2018.