Friday, June 20, 2014

you sing the body, unwelcome

       I pretty much ignored #yesallwomen. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I’m often guilty of a logical and, you know, human, failing of overreacting to efforts to draw parallels between struggles that I — arbiter of truth that I am — see as too disparate to compare meaningfully. I don’t enjoy being harassed on the street, intimidated in bars (or church basements, and btdubbs, thanks, church body, for collectively looking the other way as that went down), or, engaged sexually while I am unconscious. But I prefer it to, and find it qualitatively different  from, being shot to death. Both things are shitty; each probably requires a different approach from our community, since clearly, however our society failed the various harassers and accouters screwing with #allwomen, it managed to instill upon #thosemen that shooting people to death is not okay. 
It’s not just that it’s #notallmen who do that; it’s that it’s almost no men. Whereas, well, a lot of freaking men are engaging with some regularity in these other forms of crap behavior. 
I don’t want to rant about this phenomenon (again) — though, were you under the impression that I felt anything positive or neutral about unwanted body-centric attention, let me clear that up right now with a hearty eff that noise. Your penis notwithstanding, I do not want you to tell me anything, good or bad, about my body; what's more, I remain genuinely puzzled as to why you believe I would. I do not want you to ask me to date you on the street. I do not want to hear about it if my shirt rides up as I am walking and the sight of my bare skin upsets you or titilates you or triggers some resentment you have about women. This skin on my body in which I live is not about you, and it’s not about me thinking I’m God’s gift to Franklin Avenue. This is about my shirt being a poly blend and me having other things on my mind. LIKE I DO. 
Having cleared that up, what I want to say is this: 
To #yesallwomen. I can only know how this noise goes down for me: the specific ways it sucks and the things I want (in addition to, of course, a cessation of hostilities between my body and the strangers on the street who seem so invested in patrolling it). So, here’s what I wish we could say to each other, what I wish the #notallmen in my life would say to me. 
Your body is not exceptional. Your body is not somehow marked, or unique, or at fault — either for being too sexy or transgressing some ideal of female sexuality. Your body is important, but mostly only to you, and never as important as you. Again, -- because often I feel that I am the only person in my life who believes this --Your body is of infinitely less significance than the human being it houses. 
        Moreover, to the degree that your body signifies anything, that meaning is within your control. Whatever bullshit is running though the mind of that stranger or lover or cousin or boss when he or she comments on/gropes at/playfully slaps your body, that is going on solidly and entirely between his or her own damn ears. And it would be going on with any female body, real or imagined. No, it's not that you're so hot and they can't resist. It's that they are not exercising control, and blaming it on you is convenient and distracting. 
I thought, when I was a child, that my body had messed up by virtue of not being sexually developed — that it somehow solicited the particular kind of “playful” (demeaning and humiliating) attention older boys afforded it, by virtue of being ridiculous: flatchested, asexual, all wrong. I believe that when I had a small waist and big breasts I would have some kind of credibility, that people would take me seriously. In retrospect, I have no idea what cognitive sleight of hand allowed me to make that error -- I guess, being seven, I confused being a commodity with holding capital. I learned pretty fast.
Later, I starved myself and fed myself, worked out and threw up and dressed, not in an effort to make myself sexually desirable, but to remove whatever it was about me that kept demanding a response from these men. Often this response was positive or neutral — at least, until I failed to respond in the way the commenter had imagined — but the fact that I’d somehow done it again, that I was trying to go to work or go for a run or go grocery shopping but just couldn’t keep by body quiet while I did so, had the same effect every time: I fucked up again. What is it about me? How small and generic do I have to make my body for people to see that there is a human being inside it?
Listen, #yesallwomen: it isn’t you. Your body is both completely fine, exactly as it is, and absolutely unworthy of comment. It is your vehicle to live in, and should you choose to make it a means of some sort of expression, that's your call. But if someone else is  appropriating it when you’re trying to tell them about your day at work or trying to walk your kid home from school — however complimentary they think they are being, however G-rated the comment may be — that is their damage, and it has nothing to do with you. Carry on. 
To #notallmen: here is the thing. Those people who made you feel like you weren’t acceptable, like no one wanted you and you’d never have a girlfriend, because you listened to the wrong music or because you were too short or too skinny or ran too slow or talked to loud, were all equally stupid and wrong. Those people who marginalized you for your skin color or your weight or your poverty or whatever were equally wrong. 
         You are enough, and you are wanted, and you are valuable, even if your acne never went away or you never really mastered the kind of conversation that got girls to give you their number. Given the curious directions in which my own attractions veer, I probably had a huge crush on you in high school, or would have. You shouldn’t have had to feel shitty about yourself, because you are actually awesome and valuable. 
But here’s the other thing. My body may be some kind of symbol to you —- you may, especially if you don’t know me, see me and think “woman”, and that meaning may generate feelings about worth and acceptance and virility and value. But that body is also where I live, and my I'm over here having my own story: one no more important than yours, but no less important, either. My body’s housing the protagonist of a narrative that has shit to do with you, and when you mistake me for a character in your story, guy on the street who I do not know, you’re basically changing the channel from my story, in which I am awesome and valuable, to your story, where you call the shots and I’m — what? A nice belly? An exposed bra slip? Someone you’d like to take home? 
I think what you want, more than sex, is to feel accepted: to be able to put yourself out there and get away with it, and not get shot down. The problem is that I’m letting you get away with this, not because you’re so awesome or clever or sexy, not because your advances are finally welcome, but because you are making me feel ashamed and embarrassed and threatened
       Or may that is your intention in the first place — but I don’t think it is. I think it’s just convenient for you to ignore the fact that that is the outcome of what you are doing. That clever quip is not just furthering your narrative about you and Females. It is also making another human being, one who has interfered with your wellbeing not at all, feel like shit. 
So, I can’t stop you from behaving badly -- freedom of speech and all that. But know, guy on the street, that when you are belittling me — and reducing a human being either to a part of her body or to that body and its potential value to you is belittling, even if what you are saying is a "complement" — you are responding to a rejection or wrongdoing that has nothing to do with me. You may know other women, and they may have done things that you don’t like, and you may see my body and think about those things, because my body is also female. But I never did anything to you. In fact, if you gave me a chance, I’d probably be on your side. 
But we’ve got to stop meeting this way. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

ode to boy

So, a little over five years ago, I married.  My husband is at least among the only people in the world I could commit myself to, entirely and without reservations, for my entire life; at the risk of sounding overly earnest, he may literally be the only such person.  (As evidenced by: 1. he is the only person I still want to talk to after a fight with my parents, who matter more to me than pretty much anyone I've met since being born and 2. many days, he is the only person I'd rather talk to than read.)

Also: he is the kind of person to whom I would never have spoken in high school. To be diplomatic, my predilection for wearing my father's XXL lumberjack shirts, buzz-cutting my hair, and dragging around petitions demanding justice for Srebrenica would have struck him as exhausting and unsettling, as they ultimately struck me. My about-face from angry and defiant, to still-more-angry and engaged in a bizarre inside joke regarding my sexuality, while met with considerably more "likes" from my peers, would have been equally disconcerting to him. Not to put too fine a point on it, I married him in part because he is the first person I have dated who didn't think it was awesome and liberated, all the sex I'd had.

I like that about him, tremendously, because that was angry, lonely, bitter sex I was having, because I had it to prove that no one could hurt me with sex, because my body meant even less to me than it did to them. No one could hurt me at all, because I hated myself enough to spend considerable time and energy from age eleven on hurting myself in any number of ways about which -- if you lived through the 1990s -- you have already heard more than enough.

As unpleasant as it initially is to hear someone say that what you are doing is not okay, as threatening as it feels to hear that sentiment vis-a-vis a set of maladaptations that have kept you alive for twenty years, it feels much better than having those lousy choices praised as "liberating" or "sexy". To someone who routinely debates whether she "really needs" to replace her shampoo or eat more than a dry bagel for dinner, my husband's total commitment to a particular way of life -- to hair-washing and laundry-doing and the four food groups -- has been lifesaving.

Marriage, for me, has been transformative exactly because of the restraints it imposes. I don't want the option of pursuing every new impulse that crosses the shoddily-upkept threshold of my imagination. However I'm doing now (grateful, blessed), I am so fundamentally an addict that it's hard not to laugh sometimes at my own transparency, like one might at a kid's first attempts at subterfuge. I really will do absolutely anything to avoid feeling bad about myself, to avoid the momentary discomfort that, in a healthy person, is what makes growth possible. The idea that I screwed up feels like such a apocalypse to me that, left to my own devices, I will follow anyone down any rabbit hole for any promise, however shady-sounding, of absolution.

I am not a person who needs more flexibility in life. Every single day, I face down the choice of doing that stupid thing I said I'd do but don't want to (reporting to work, fighting over tooth brushery, doing dishes, working out, eating lunch, and all the things oh my God) or doing what sounds better to me at the moment and losing the things that matter to me most because I have shitty judgment.

Maybe this is a big difference between me and the rest of the world; maybe your average person can do exactly what they feel like at all times and not leave a trail of loss and regret in their wake. But recently, I have spent much of my time interacting with the objects of that loss and regret -- the kids who weren't as compelling as the new boyfriend or pot or job, the parents who did their best but found their mistakes too myriad and convenient once they need someone to change them more than once a shift, the girlfriend who didn't make it clear enough that she was taking one for the team and learned too late that  it doesn't cut both ways, and she should have known better.

It's way more cathartic to delineate all the reasons why the shit you feel like doing is within your rights than it is to look straight at the hurt you are causing and do the inconvenient and un-destructive thing. I have to do a tortured little daily routine involving God and lots of running and volunteer work and more God, just to be a person who I can look at and not want to kill, with my hands, on the daily. This is not because of my low self esteem; this is because my impulses are so entirely out of line with my intentions. You may be a good person -- as I'm getting to, such people exist -- but if you believe nothing else I say ever, believe me when I say that only the most omnipotent of Gods would find something worth salvaging in my character.

But! My husband, with comparatively little fanfare, just... calls people back. Remembers their birthdays. Picks up the check. Remains faithful. There is no drama; there is no wrenching from his balled up fists of every small kindness and act of generosity. I learned well after it would have been useful that if people have to explain to you why their behavior "isn't" or "shouldn't be" hurtful, the odds of their not being worth your time are formidable. This has never been a problem for him -- or, more to point, for me, being married to him.

I feel like this is relevant outside the context of my specific marriage because the pressure is so great to Not Put Up with That Thing, that thing that one's partner does -- or, often in the absence of any real flaw or wrongdoing, to Follow One's Heart.  There's this idea that the feeling that something isn't right -- a la Piper Chapman or Elizabeth Gilbert or whoever -- necessarily bears acting upon, and that changing the situation is necessarily the best solution. There is very little interest in the merits of Toughing It Out, and then it is surprising that we are hitting the middle of our lives and still feel like adolescents.

In my experience, I am frequently malcontent because I am screwing up -- and doing shitty things often makes one miserable. Badgering those around me into affirming my choice -- or seeking out someone who new, who will -- may look sexy and fun when Laura Prepon is involved (I KNOW), but as someone who has managed to ignore any number of idiotic and destructive impulses, I've found that the result is not only the non-dissolution of the best things in my life, but the added bonus of this: I am ever-so-perceptibly less wretched by nature than I was seven years ago.

BOOM. Grace. Often, apparently, the soundtrack gets edited in later.

Friday, June 13, 2014

these so-called liberals on this damn island

I have so many feels about liberals lately!

On the one hand, if by liberal, you mean, "This girl doesn't care about your penis," then we're all on the same damn side. The having or not-having of a penis never figured into my selection of sexual partners (my "ex-gay" status is more a happy coincidence for my parents than a reflection of a preference on my part -- there are several billion men in the world, but only one whose face I am able see on the daily without demanding, mid sentence, that said face be SHUT RIGHT NOW), so why would I consider it  a worthwhile investment of my finite time on Earth to patrol the anatomy of your life partner/priest/president?

Moreover, when I'm not checking myself in an effort to be diplomatic, I think we all could handle a big fat dose of WWJD when it comes to water for others versus craft beers for me (me, above all), and I think our prison, military, health care, and education systems probably are basically money making schemes that line the pockets of a veritable army of sycophants and cronies at the expense of the young, poor, sick, or ill-fortuned.

And yet.

I also think that it is a ridiculous cop-out to act like fighting with other privileged people about their political believes constitutes a response to the troubling apparatus of racial and economic privilege. Or, to be more blatantly antagonistic: there's no opinion you can have that makes you less white or less middle class -- and this includes conflating those two types of privilege, or collapsing the latter into some sort of subsidiary of the first.

There are white people whose privilege includes the assumption that they can count on having clean clothes, consistent access to food and housing, a college education; that if they work hard, they will succeed and can have a mortgage and go to the doctor when they are sick and retire before they turn eighty. And there are people who, white privilege notwithstanding, don't make those assumptions.

I'd submit that those people experience white privilege in fundamentally different ways, and that the latter group might be reasonably offended by assumption that they belong to the former. There's working hard at your internship, and there's working hard picking strawberries in the 110 degree heat, or turning an positioning the elderly and incontinent for thirty years, or cleaning the toilets of others (Did you think rich people gave more thought to aiming than your average Bonnaroo attendee? Friend, you were mistaken!) I think you can respect the hard work involved in each of these endeavors while acknowledging that they aren't the same experience. And, more to the point, having the choice between shit-cleaning and coffee-fetching is a fundamentally different experience than not having that choice.

And what I'm saying is that often, though not always, the white people who fail to "get" the enlightened economic views espoused by, like, John Stewart or Barak Obama, are speaking, not out of racism or ignorance, but out of the frustration you might feel if you spent fifty hours a week doing manual labor, with things like college and fair-trade coffee outside your realm of experience, and then were told to check your privilege by someone half your age who gets paid to blog, or to provide administrative support for the blogging efforts of others, or, yes, to teach kids or wrench tenure from the fists of a parasitic academic establishment.

I am solidly upper middle class, and have been, certainly, for my adult life. I am privileged to the point that I turned down the opportunity to pursue an academic career because I felt like it wasn't "useful". That is privilege. Having a choice about the kind of work you do is a function of privilege; for the majority of the world, including some Americans, the choice is work or starve.

I saw that experience: I ate the beans and Raman noodles and donated cheese; I learned to ignore the pointed comments about how much I must like that shirt, since I wear it, like, every Monday. None of this negates either the current economic privilege I experience or the privilege my skin afforded me even when my family was broke and scared. But it does mean that your white privilege, Huffpo blogger, may not be the same as mine.

And it does mean that the anti-gun-control, anti-government-spending, Fox-News watching segment of the population aren't chumps, at least, not to me. They are people whose experience is informed by a different set of frustrations than my own, and they are people who, from what I've seen of that experience, have legitimate reasons to prefer less government control. You might be more adamant about the second amendment, too, if you believed that the government was as likely to arrest and jail you unfairly as it is to assist you. You might want to keep your money if you'd applied for assistance yourself and been told no, or if you'd been raised not to accept help, only to wait in line with a basket full of Krasdale products while the mom in front of you rang up Breyers and Diet Coke with EBT. It's one thing to begrudge other people those things when you can have them. It's another thing to hear "We can't afford that" on trip after trip, to say that to your kids, and to see someone else buy those things with tax-funded entitlements when you can't afford them with your post-tax paycheck.

I also think it's one thing to feel angry and outraged about someone else's kids getting shot in their home or their school, and another to feel like you, personally, are not safe in your home, in your community, in your school, and then to hear that your gun -- which you see as a way of protecting yourself, something you do not trust the government or the police force to do -- is the problem.

My family kept guns because we, for a time, we lived in places where you'd get robbed and nothing would happen, where the cops mostly arrested you and beat you up rather than helping you. I think a person who doesn't trust the government might reasonably ask why the response to people breaking the law with guns should be to limit gun access to people who are willing to disregard gun control laws.

I'm not saying that person is "correct" or that the problem is that simple. But I'm saying that that person is not stupid, or blind, or indifferent to losses they see on TV. Often, I think they react that way because they see violence as an immediate threat to them, rather than a tragedy or a talking point.

I have a son, so each day, I send him into a dangerous world and assume the risk of my life simply ending according to the whim of someone else's kid. I would love to believe that a political movement, lobbying, or legislation could insulate me, because there are days where I feel like the possibility of my life being over in that particular way is lodged in my chest and I can't swallow or breath around it.

But I don't think you argue the world into a better place, and I don't think political or rhetorical solutions work for what is, at its heart, an existential problem. We cannot protect the people who comprise our lives. We never could. Changing gun laws won't change that. That problem is between you and the universe as you understand it.

But we can: feed people who are hungry. Acknowledge the crazy and dirty and intrusive people on our commutes. Help people with their homework, with their resumes. Listen to their baggage and bullshit and fight to see their humanity rather than just deconstructing their talking points. And while people can do what they want, I think people who want a less violent and incoherent world might do well to start there, rather than on Twitter.

I don't know why carrying bags of potatoes around or teaching a former inmate Microsoft Word or switching a patient from nasal cannula to venti mask for the seventh time in an hour makes it possible to continue living when a lost person could walk into a preschool or a classroom or a recording studio or a subway station and rip apart my life. But it does, whereas even the most measured political debates just feel like avoidance to me.

Similarly, I don't know what it means to check my privilege. But I do understand Luke 12:48, and I do feel like Christ was pretty clear that really what matters is how you respond when someone needs something. Not so many directives about holding the correct political views, or demanding that someone else hand over their money to even things out. Mostly: feed them, visit them, love them. Unreservedly, unconditionally, and with no illusion that those actions will protect you from pain or loss.