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Monthly Archives: January 2014

I don’t want to give the wrong impression, my parents were both pretty good about most things. However, I spoke to my sister on the phone today and she reminded me that our mother had once been anorexic. That’s easy for me to forget because for most of my life she’s been obese. She has told us many times that she feels that she suffers from an eating disorder.

The poem by Philip Larkin that I quoted in the title goes on to say

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

For most of my adult life, I had a BMI of approximately 20. Unlike my mother, I was never anorexic. I first started dieting at about the age of twelve. As far as I know, I was not officially overweight and the doctor had said nothing. I dieted for my appearance. That began years of being obsessed with my weight. Although I was not anorexic, I do think I suffered from what is called body dysmorphia. I wore a size zero dress and a size two pant, but I thought I still needed to lose weight and felt ugly. I weighed myself everyday and kept a diary tracking my weight. I could probably tell you my weight at any given life milestone. How much I weighed the day I met my ex-husband, when I graduated from college, when I got married, and so on.

My blood pressure was eighty over sixty and I would get dizzy if I stood up too quickly. Probably I never became anorexic because the symptoms of low blood pressure would become problematic when I dropped below one hundred and eight or nine pounds.

Although I’ve never been diagnosed with body dysmorphia, I have been diagnosed with some of the illnesses with which it is associated, general anxiety, social anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. I was hospitalized for a major depressive episode about two years ago. My mother, of course, knows about the hospitalization.

A few years ago, before I got depressed, I made a resolution to stop weighing myself daily. Somehow, one day I woke up and looked at my behavior and said to myself, “This is a little too much. This isn’t healthy.” Since then, I’ve been trying to detach my sense of self from my weight. My “beauty strike” came a couple of years after I stopped weighing myself on a daily basis. I stopped taking an interest in my appearance after I got depressed and asked people, including my mother, not to talk to me about it. Part of the idea behind the beauty strike in the first place was to attempt to distinguish between how I wanted to look and how other people wanted me to look. Within the past few months, I’ve started to be interested my appearance again. In a way, this is one of the most vulnerable moments for me. Far more vulnerable than the turning inward that the strike represented. I should have known better than to involve my mother.

One thing you may have noticed is that I haven’t said a word about health other than mental health. It must be understood that all this dieting as been entirely about appearance. I may very well be healthier now than when I was thinner and I am not medically obese now. I actually exercise more now. I was not thin because I exercised. I was thin because I didn’t eat.

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I’m no longer thin and I’m no longer pretty. Women are worthless in the eyes of the world except for their bodies. Our minds are nothing. Our hearts are nothing. Why am I alive?

What many people might not know is a few years ago I went on something called a beauty strike. I’ve been meaning to write about it, but since it started before I began blogging it didn’t seem pressing at any given moment. The essential point is that after having one man after another tell me how I should look I began feeling as if I didn’t know how I wanted to look. It was part of my depression, but I wasn’t looking bad because I was depressed, I was depressed because I couldn’t live up to how other people wanted me to look.

When I was in Paris, I broke my strike. Now, you all may be thinking, “Ah, well, Paris, of course,” and I’m sure it was a contributing factor. However, as I’ve said before, I’m not a fashion hound and that’s not the main reason I like Paris. I’ve actually never paid much attention to the way I looked on previous visits, and didn’t for the first half of that one. What I began realizing was that it had to do with the fact that Paris has a street life. Prior to my beauty strike, I’d been living in New York, then I moved to Baltimore. In Paris, I became aware that the way you look is not only about trying to look pretty. It’s your public face. It’s how you present yourself to the world, a visual calling card so to speak.

I knew that when I lived in New York, but I forgot it in Baltimore, because Baltimore doesn’t have the same sort of street life. I don’t interact with strangers on a daily basis here the way I do in either Paris or New York. This doesn’t mean that in New York I was walking around looking dressy every day. It just means that you’re a little less likely to say to yourself, “Oh, fuck it. That’ll do.” It’s not just that I don’t have a motivation to put on pumps and a full face of make-up. I wouldn’t have a reason to dye my hair pink and shave off half my head either.

So, when I was in Paris, I went on a little shopping spree. A little one. Or maybe a big one for little things. I bought lingerie. Now, maybe I’m crazy, but I dress from the bottom up. When I was young and was planning on being with a man, I’d actually think about what I’d look like at each stage of undress. “How will this outfit look if my pants are still on by my top is off?” Then there’s the matter of sensuality. I never wore hairstyles that required a ton of product because the tactile sense is as important as the visual one. I don’t really go to that extreme any more. Perhaps because I don’t currently have a boyfriend. However, I still like to think that if the opportunity arose I wouldn’t be worrying about wearing ragged, stained underpants with holes in them.

So, when I say that I have a lingerie fetish, but I’m not talking Agent Provocateur playsuits with protruding bows that you can’t wear under clothing. I’m talking about pretty things that you can actually wear under clothes. I never understood how the playsuit things work. Do you make an appointment to have sex? I like to think that I’m ready to take off my clothes at anytime.

Okay, so, I broke my beauty strike. I got my hair cut and dyed, bought some boots and a shirt and a lot of underwear. Pretty underwear, in matching sets, with a garter belt. Technically it’s a “waist cincher” with garters. I believe that’s “suspenders” if you’re British.

However, I got home to realize that I don’t have any clothes that I can wear over it. One thing men don’t realize is that we don’t wear those incredibly ugly, substantial beige or brown things, those tee-shirt bras, old lady underpants and pantyhose to spite them. We wear them because they’re the only things that don’t look awful under certain types of outfits: miniskirts, thin clingy fabric, any kind of stretch fabric. Some of the sexiest clothes can’t be worn with the sexiest underwear. I know, it makes me unhappy too, boys. Now, I realize going to the store and trying to find a dress that I can wear over this is going to be hell.

So, I come up with the brilliant idea of sewing a dress myself. Please, go ahead and read that word “brilliant” as sarcastically as you like. Furthermore, I get the even more brilliant idea of involving my mother in this project. I wanted to do it over the weekend, so I look through a pile of patterns that I bought last year and never made. One of them is a fairly simple dress. It has darts, so it’s fitted, but it’s not tight and it’s not designed to be made with stretch fabric. It looks a little business-like in the picture, but that’s one of the great aspects of making it yourself. I was thinking if I make the neckline a little deeper and make it in a different fabric, it could be exactly the sort of thing I need.

I go over to my mother’s and I show her the pattern. “You don’t think your hips are a little too big for that.” I felt like I wanted to cry. The steam has been taken out of my sails. I want to put on a sweat suit and sit home.

We go to the fabric store anyway and she’s sneering at everything. Everything I pull out, she rolls her eyes at. I don’t see anything I like either, but my eagerness has been so deflated it’s hard to know if there really isn’t anything suitable in the store or I’m just feeling depressed. I start thinking that maybe I could just get some white cotton and some fabric paint and do something creative, but I don’t dare mention that idea to my mother.

If fashion isn’t fun, I want no part of it. I hate what I think of as the fashion of fear. Are my hips too big, is my bust too small, how do I disguise my thighs. It’s just so damned negative. It’s not about aesthetics. It’s not about craft.

Sometimes I think that for just one week I’d like to be the person I wish I could be.

I have absolutely no standing whatsoever to review a movie and my main reason for doing so is to encourage people to not miss this one. This is the season of film awards and suddenly, after eleven months of desert, the theaters are deluged with an excess of quality movies demanding your attention. The Great Beauty is the Italian entry to the Oscars’ category of Best Foreign Language Film and it just won the comparable category at the Golden Globes.

After seeing Black 47 on New Years Eve and drinking a rather lot I expected that I would be spending a large part of New Years Day lolling in bed. Much to my surprise I woke up earlier than I expected. I tried to do some sketching, but it was just a tad too cold to be still out of doors. Eventually, I decided to take advantage of the fact that I was in New York to see a movie that might not make it to Baltimore and I walked down to the Angelica on Houston Street figuring that I would just get a ticket for whatever was playing next. I bought a ticket for the next showing of The Great Beauty, not knowing anything about it other than the fact that it was in Italian and the bare bones description pasted in the window of the box office. I was entirely unprepared for the sensual, hypnotic beauty that would unfold before my eyes over the course of the next two hours.

From the Janus Films website:

Journalist Jep Gambardella (the dazzling Toni Servillo, Il divo and Gomorrah) has charmed and seduced his way through the lavish nightlife of Rome for decades. Since the legendary success of his one and only novel, he has been a permanent fixture in the city’s literary and social circles, but when his sixty-fifth birthday coincides with a shock from the past, Jep finds himself unexpectedly taking stock of his life, turning his cutting wit on himself and his contemporaries, and looking past the extravagant nightclubs, parties, and cafés to find Rome in all its glory: a timeless landscape of absurd, exquisite beauty.

I’m almost hesitant to link to the website of the film because the trailer does not begin to do the film justice, nor does the synopsis. The website makes it look like a pretentious travelogue tacked onto a cliché. The idea of someone living the high life “taking stock of his life” might lead you to fear that he may come to see that his life is empty and hollow and reject it in favor of something more profound. Do not worry. This movie goes nowhere anything so predictable and tedious as that.

Jep is a sybarite, a sensualist, an aesthete – words to which I can relate – and he remains all those things at the end. It is revealed to us, the audience, through his eyes, how the beauty of the world is intimately linked to decay and death. This is conveyed through a heightened reality, at moments bordering on magic realism, that I’m tempted to liken to Mannerism, though perhaps it is the location of the film that puts that in my mind. At moments, I was unsure of what was going on, but it was visually stunning. It was one of those movies where the entire audience sat until the end of the credits and, even after they were over, only began to get out of their seats slowly and quietly, as if they were waking from a dream. I couldn’t help but notice that not a few people wore a faint, beatific smile.

It opened more widely yesterday.

You know that day when you realize that your period really is late? I didn’t keep track of things on a calendar or anything like that. There was just a sense that it had been a while and I was mulling it over and trying to remember what I was doing the last time I got my period so I could peg a date on it. Was it three weeks? A month? I’ve always been absurdly regular. So I got off my ass and headed down the hill to the nearest drugstore. Walking back carrying the pregnancy test kit, I was calculating how we would make it all work out. I’d taken a year off from graduate school. Maybe that would turn out to be a good thing. Certainly having a child would rearrange our previous ideas about who would go to school and who would work and when. Cheri working while I went to school and took care of a child would make sense. Then, by the time I was done with school, the child would be old enough for daycare or nursery school. Without a graduate degree, I wouldn’t earn more than we’d spend on daycare anyway. On the other hand, could I manage school and a child at the same time? Maybe there was a way I could take on extra work during the next few months so we could save up a little money for the future. What a shame Quebec scrapped the baby bonus only a year earlier. It was hard to figure out an ideal plan, but it seemed to me that there were at least two or three workable plans. I wasn’t quite sure exactly how we’d handle it, but I arrived home with the home pregnancy test feeling pretty comfortable with the notion that we could handle it.

Cheri was home when I walked in the door. I went upstairs and put the bag on the platform next to the tub. I don’t remember if Cheri was already upstairs or if he followed me upstairs, but I remember sitting down on the edge of the tub as we talked. I told him where I had been, what I had gone out to buy and why. He raised his eyebrows and gave me the sort of look a parent or a teacher gives a child who has done something wrong. “You’re going to have an abortion, of course.”

The phrase “of course” came crashing down on me. Of course seemed like such a strange thing to say. And why the declarative sentence? At least if it was an imperative it would have had some honesty. When we married we discussed having children and we both agreed that we wanted them. It was odd for me because, before meeting Cheri, I never really wanted them, but he loved children and wanted them. With him, for the first time in my life, I could see having children and I changed my mind. We were still trying to get on our feet, still trying to get our careers launched, so children were not part of our immediate plan. At the same time, over the years we had gone beyond being imperfect in our use of birth control. We had essentially abandoned it. True, we were not trying to conceive, but we were doing nothing to avert it either. We were married and we wanted children, or so I thought.

Had he said to me that this was an especially bad juncture in our lives to have kids and could we talk about whether or not it was really what we wanted to do, I would not have been so startled. Ironically, I probably would have agreed to whatever he wanted anyway if he had approached it in that manner.

“No, not of course,” I said.

He raised his eyebrows again.

“I thought you wanted children.”

“I changed my mind,” he said.

“When?”

He shrugged. “A while ago.”

“And when where you going to tell me about it?”

He shrugged again.

“You could have at least put on a fucking condom then.”

“How likely do you think it is that you’re pregnant?”

Now it was my turn to shrug. “Not very, but I figured why speculate.”

“Then there’s no reason for us to discuss this until we know.”

The next morning the test came out negative and a few days later I got my period. The ultimate confrontation was deferred, but it was another crack in the foundation of our marriage. How could he make such a major life decision without consulting me, or even informing me after it had been made? That he could go on having unprotected sex with me seemed to display a callous disregard for my general well being.

“Of course.” I kept hearing his voice saying “of course” over and over again in my mind.

It was the end of  this past December. A friend had invited me to a “First Night Celebration” in New Hampshire. At first, I was eager to go. I had no plans for New Years Eve and I was happy to be invited anyplace at all. I tried to push down the fact that I was ideologically opposed to the concept of “First Night.” I am a firm believer in the importance of the Dionysian impulse as an integral part of the human experience, and there are few opportunities we have for fully exploring those impulses. The trend away from “New Year’s Eve” celebrations to “First Night” celebrations strikes me as a puritanism as misguided as Prohibition. The only reason I considered it at all was the source of the invitation. I hadn’t seen my friend in a while, someone I’d known since I was sixteen.

Meanwhile, some exchanges on the internet put me in mind of a band I hadn’t thought of in a long time. I typed the name into a search engine and came up with a list of videos. One was of a song I once knew but hadn’t heard in a long time. The video that’s online for the song “40 Shades of Blue” has footage of the East Village as I remember it when I first started spending much of my time there at the age of eighteen or nineteen and into my late twenties. The video opens with a shot of the Bowery Mission, only a few blocks away from where my boyfriend grew up in the housing projects on Pitt Street. His bedroom window faced north and from there we could see a line of buildings along Second Street that were nothing more than shells. My boyfriend told me about how one summer in the seventies he felt that he watch building after building going up in flames, usually a result of arson. That big bad New York of the past wasn’t in the past yet. Crime was still at an all time high. Those shells of tenements feature prominently in the video and I recognized many of the other locations. I even remembered some of the graffiti. I started feeling, not only nostalgic, but homesick.

Part of the East Village was a Ukrainian neighborhood and Luscious’ parents were living in a building on Tompkins Square Park when she was born. By the time I knew her, her mother had died and her father was long since living out on Long Island and she lived in Chelsea. Sometimes we’d end a night of bar hopping at Veselka Coffee Shop, or another place whose name I’m forgetting, and argue about the right way to make pierogi. She was, as I mentioned before, a rock and roll obsessive. She would phone me dramatically declaring that there was some band we “had” to go see. She was tall, beautiful and flamboyant and I felt it was almost a privilege to be her little sidekick. I was very aware that without her I would not be half so aware of what was going on.

So one day she called me and the band we “had” to go see was named Black 47 and they were playing at some bar I’d never heard of with an Irish sounding name. She knew it, she said. Of course, she knew every place. When we walked into the place we were early, which was unusual for us, and it was crowded. An older man in his mid-thirties, looking like he had taken off his jacket and tie before leaving the office so he wouldn’t stand out too much, asked Luscious if he could buy her a beer. She smiled slowly and broadly. “I’ll allow you to buy me a drink only if you buy my friend here a drink,” she said gesturing to her faithful sidekick. She took the beers from his hands, passed one to me, and promptly turned her back on him. She was a bitch and I loved her for it. She spun me around and pushed me toward the stage.

Black 47 was based in New York and played pretty much all the time. We went to see them a few more times. A few years later I moved out of New York. Eventually, I drifted back, but by then I had no idea what had become of Luscious. The friends I was still in touch with didn’t go out that much anymore. Some of them did things like jogging on New Years Eve. As everybody knows by now, a few years ago I left New York yet again, pushed out by rising rents and stagnating income.

As I’ve been writing down my memories, one challenge has been to figure out when certain events happened. Usually there’s a clue that places it in a window of time. Sometimes larger, sometimes smaller. I probably would have put that night with Luscious down a couple of years too early. But I poked around the internet some more and I found out the, much to my surprise, Black 47 is still around but they’re planning on disbanding on the 25th anniversary of their first performance. I also saw that they were playing on New Years Eve. I thought to myself, “What the fuck,” and bought a train ticket to New York.

At the last minute, I began to wonder if it wasn’t a dumb idea. Perhaps they wouldn’t be as good as I remembered and I’d feel let down. I needn’t have worried. I don’t have the knowledge to make this a review of the show. They have a hell of a lot of energy for guys their age… um… I mean my age. They have a lot of time under their belts playing live and it shows. There’s nothing on earth that I enjoy more than a live band in a small place, except the obvious. It felt good to be back in New York.

So, apparently they’ll be around until November of this year. They’re really good live. If you’re in New York you should consider seeking them out.

I’ve got to say, I never really thought that I’d be writing a post that combined those two subjects to quite the extent that they are going to be combined in this post. For the record, I’m adopted and I’m an atheist.

A few days ago, I was watching the Daily Show with my mother on her brand new tv. She’s a big Jon Stewart fan. Steve Coogan was on talking about his latest movie, Philomena. My mother said she had seen it already but she would see it again with me.

After seeing the movie last night, I asked my mother if she felt her reaction to the movie was any different being someone who adopted two children. She said that it reminded her of my birth mother. Specifically, it reminded her of the moment when she was in the offices of the adoption agency and she read the paper they had given her describing my birth mother. I have an older sister and she said that reading about her mother didn’t make her sad. My sister’s mother was in her twenties. She came from a stable family, had a career and had had an affair with her boss. My mother said, “It’s sad, but not that sad.”

“But your mother, she was just a child herself. Her parents were divorced. She was shuttled from home to home. I wanted to adopt her too. She asked the agency if there wasn’t any way that she could keep you. It just made me incredibly, incredibly sad.”

Then she turned the question on me. One moment in the movie stood out. The main character, Martin, goes to the graveyard near the home for unwed mothers run by the Roman Catholic Church and he discovers the graves of women and children who died in childbirth. The camera pans across the neglected field of black crosses over grown with weeds. Then it rests on one and the text comes into focus. “Aged 14.” The audience gasped. I thought of my biological mother who was fourteen when I was born. Thank goodness she received proper medical care when she was pregnant.

Philomena, if you haven’t yet seen it, is about a former journalist who has recently lost his job in the Labour government and is now sort of depressed or something. At loose ends and casting about for a project, he decides, rather cynically, to try a human interest story. He apparently has no interest whatsoever in the (ridiculously obvious) larger themes of the stigma of single motherhood, the power of the Roman Catholic Church, forced labor, inadequate health care, gender and class based injustices, the relative poverty of Ireland vis-a-vis the rest of the Western World, etc., etc. I mean, the Roman Catholic Church, one of the most powerful institutions in the world, was forcing poor Irish women into slavery, or near slavery, through contracts with the Irish government and enforced by the police who would return any escapees, allowing a disproportionate number of them, and their children, to die in childbirth, and selling their children to wealthy Americans. Really? This guy is a journalist?

Okay, so now to make a few bucks this depressed journalist decides to help a woman who was coerced to relinquish her child for adoption fifty years earlier track him down. Spoiler alert: He’s dead. However, in the end, Mr. Snottypants learns a thing a two about the indomitablity (is that a word?) of the human spirit through the simple heart of this salt-of-the-earth Irish woman. And it’s not nearly as bad as I just made it sound.

The skilled acting and excellent direction plaster over the holes in a pretty shoddy script. There’s a point when Martin and Philomena are in a field… (Why? It’s Ireland. Ireland’s green. So people drive to fields to have conversations, apparently.) They’re in a field talking about sexual pleasure. The landscape is beautiful. The sun is setting. Steven Coogan’s hair is ringed by sunlight, like an angel. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, I would so totally fuck you… it’s too bad you’re an actor… on a screen… with a wife way hotter than I am… I think Steven Coogan’s fan base of dumpy middle-aged American women just increased exponentially.

It moves along at a nice pace. My mother didn’t fall asleep once. Just when the subject starts getting a bit serious, there’s some humor to lighten it up and make it more bearable. Coogan (may I call you Steve?) is a comedian, among other things, and he co-wrote the script.

It was hard for me to enjoy the movie, to suspend disbelief, because I spent too much of the time thinking about the unspoken assumptions about society, about adoption, about atheism and about class that are whirling about this story. One critic called it a “middle-brow feel-good movie.” Apparently, the bar on feeling good must have been dramatically lowered because my mother cried throughout. So did the woman sitting on my left. Meanwhile, I’m sitting there thinking, “I don’t buy the waitress latching onto a party goer to tell him her mother’s sob story, I don’t buy him storming into the private quarters to confront nuns, and I sure as hell don’t buy that stupid bit about the Celtic harp.”

Now I feel bad. I like Steve Coogan, I mean as much as I can considering that I don’t know him. He has that sort of hang-dog look that makes you want to start petting him. Considering that this movie has been criticized by a small portion of Catholics who have seen it as “anti-Catholic,” I feel like he certainly doesn’t need me jumping on him accusing him of class bias, but it’s hard to avoid that Philomena and Martin are broadly drawn stereotypes. I mean, really, would an actual Englishman (If you’re an Englishman please feel free to comment.) sit in an Irish abbey and declare that a piece of fruit cake is like “pandolce?” Doesn’t the English writer speak English?

At one of the most grotesque moments of the movie, Martin says on the phone something to the effect of “I have now seen what a steady diet of romance novels and the Daily Mail can do to the human mind.” That pretty much sums up the movie.  Martin is smart, educated, upper middle class, professional, and an atheist. Philomena is slow, uneducated, working class and religious. Needless to say, most of the jokes come at her expense. As comic characters they work. As dramatic characters, they fall short.

I said to my mother that I felt that it wouldn’t be very hard to find individuals who are more complex. I recall once reading a book titled The Other Mother  by Carol Schaefer, about a woman who was sent to a home for unwed mothers run by the Catholic Church and, years later, searched for the son she was forced to abandon. She is in college and in a steady relationship when she gets pregnant. One of the motivations for her to place her child with another family is to be able to finish her education. She falls away from the Catholic Church, although she does not become an atheist. Birth mothers have suffered from a great deal of stereotyping. I can recall growing up having other kids taunting me telling me that my biological mother must have been stupid or a slut, sometimes that implication that I, too, must be stupid was not left unspoken. Like Carol Schaefer, the experience of having a child out-of-wedlock turned my biological mother against orthodox forms of religion. She asked the adoption agency to not place me with a religious family.

This also feeds into stereotypes about atheists, that they’re a bunch of privileged white guys. When discussing the question of religion with my mother, I said, “I imagine some of those women must have distanced themselves from the Catholic Church.” My mother suggest that perhaps it was a function of education. I pointed out that my Philomena, as a nurse, would have had a higher level of education than my biological mother.

I almost feel bad making all these criticisms about a light, funny, tear-jerker of a movie. Almost.

I was adopted through a secular agency. At twenty-four I went to the agency to try to find my biological mother. Within a month they had put me in contact with her.

I just got finished reading Amanda Marcotte’s piece on Salon about the offer of a group of Satanists to put up a monument in Oklahoma. I’ve got such a backlog of posts I don’t want to even take time to write about it. About six or seven years ago, I had a date with a guy, that’s six or seven years before the brouhaha brewing in Oklahoma, who called himself a Satanist. When I was in college back in the eighties, the girl in the dorm room above mine also called herself a Satanist and I became interested in the subject for a time. Marcotte’s piece could easily give the wrong impression that this Satanist group has formed for no other reason than to promote this statue. Various groups calling themselves Satanists have existed for quite some time. I don’t have the time to go into all of them, but there’s a Wikipedia article on it. People who belong to these groups do see it as more than a “prank.” This is important because the question of public religious symbols in Oklahoma should be a constitutional question and I fear that it might devolve into an examination of which religions are real.

The group seeking to erect the monument in Oklahoma is the Satanic Temple. I believe this was the group to which the man with whom I had a date belonged. If you want to know what they believe, I suggest you go to their website. I wish I had time to write more about it. It seems that there’s a ton of ignorance flying around.

I don’t reblog often, but over lunch I was doing a little bit of blog reading and I came across the phrase “militant atheist” twice in about twenty minutes and I thought it might be worth highlighting a post I first read a few weeks ago.

I have to confess that the phrase “militant atheist” has never jumped out at me. Perhaps, because as someone who rarely tries to convince anyone to give up his or her belief, I don’t quite fall into that category. Perhaps it is because when I was younger I was frequently called a militant feminist. Perhaps it is because the word militant in French means something much milder than it does in English. My first language is English, but atheist activism, aka “New Atheism”, didn’t come into its own until I’d been called a “militante” of several different political currents.

Whatever the reason, “militant atheist” never caused me to raise an eyebrow. However, Irish Atheist has a very different, and I think important, view of the word.

Words are complicated things. If I look at blogs tagged with “atheism”, I can usually tell the orientation of the writer by the end of the second or third sentence, not by the content, but by the choice of words. Any propagandist will tell you that words matter. Our choice of words reveals things about ourselves that we don’t even always intend.

Irish Atheist’s post reminded me of why I grew up in a pluralistic environment. I have mentioned that both my parents were atheists. What I may not have mentioned is that my mother came from a Catholic family and my father came from a Protestant family. Except for the fact that his parents didn’t write him out of their wills, my father’s family essentially disowned him. For this reason, I barely knew my paternal grandparents, uncles or cousins. It was especially ridiculous since no one was particularly religious. It was just stupid tribalism. For me, however, it had a positive result, I grew up in an environment where individuals were not defined by their ethnicity or religion. My classmates came from families belonging to a wide variety of sects, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, other branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Reformed Church (my father’s family), Presbyterian, Congregationalist, United Church of Christ, Methodist, Baptist, Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, Radical Reform Judaism, Buddhists, Taoists, and, of course, none of the above. In fact, many of my friends had roots in multiple ethnicities. If the future is pluralist, then I’ve seen the future and the future is good. There was little conflict on ethnic or religious grounds. I would like to say there was none, but I recall an incident when a swastika was painted on the Reformed Temple, so I can’t honestly say that.

We must never forget the bloody history of the Wars of Religion in Europe which gave rise to modern notions of secularism. Some people seem to confuse secularism with atheism or non-belief. In fact, secularism is the concept that allows people of different religions to live side by side without killing one another. For this reason, I am more interested in promoting secularism than in promoting atheism. My town of my childhood was highly secular, but many people there were quite religious. I probably should have written a post about this when the holidays were still upon us.

The Irish Atheist obviously grew up in an environment almost the exact opposite of my own. (I didn’t use the WordPress reblogging tool because I had more to say than I could write in the little box they provide, but I encourage people to go over to this post.)

The ‘M’ Word: The importance of using the exact right word

I’ve been called a lot of names over the years. Some are more inventive than others.

My personal favourite is “Gypo whore.” Racism, misogyny, and lies all packed into two syllables. Another one is ‘moss-wipe’. Don’t ask.

I think most atheists have had the same experience on one level or another. The name-calling comes mainly from Christians and Muslims and other religious groups who regard atheists as a dangerous faction of anti-morality activists. Devil-worshipper, amoral, Satanist, the list goes on. And I’ll establish right here that many atheists are just as guilty. Let’s not shy away from it. Go on Twitter and see how many atheists there are calling Christians retarded, delusional, idiotic or brain-dead.

read more…

[Some of these memories are out of order because I want to get them down when I think of them and I’m in the mood to write. I’m putting links to the posts on the page titled “Memories” and I’m trying to put them in the proper order over there.]

So, I was the new kid in school. I was more than a little bit nervous having been bullied, and essentially run out of, my previous school. Add to that the social conflicts of the months before and I’m surprised I wasn’t more of a wreck. Was I calm or was I just pretending to be calm? It’s hard to know. One thing I did know was that human beings are like sharks who can sense blood in the water. Show vulnerability and you’ll be attacked. Show power and people suck up to you. Pathetic, but all too often true. The night before, I spent a long time thinking of what to wear, erring on the side of the bland. Once I got a feel for the school, for its cliques and social circles, I could perhaps dress in a more flamboyant manner. For the first day, however, bland, but not too bland, was in order. Don’t look rich. Don’t look poor. Look up-to-date, but not cutting edge. Did girls there wear make-up? I didn’t know. A little lip gloss, a little mascara. No heavy eye liner, no visible rouge. The song “I Don’t Like Mondays” played on the radio as I got dressed.

My mother dropped me off at the back of the school. There was a steep hill and I sat on the grass waiting for school to start. It was quite a long wait. Finally, students started gravitating to the school and congregating around the door. There were some glances in my direction, but I was waiting far enough away that I didn’t attract much notice. The bell rang, the doors opened and I began to descend the concrete steps. As I neared the other students, I heard whispers. “Who’s that?” “Is she a new student?” Those whispers followed me down the hallway, up the staircase and into the classroom. Because I’m slightly near-sighted, I prefer the first row in a class because then I don’t need glasses. However, sitting in the first row has social implications, so I couldn’t sit there until I had an established reputation or else I’d get the reputation of an ass licker. I sat in the middle, slightly off to the side, near the windows but not next to the windows, the most socially neutral spot in a classroom by my estimation.

I settled in my seat. I placed my notebook on my desk, but slightly angled, off to the side, ready, but not too ready. See, everyone, I’m not a nerd but not a goof-off either. Suddenly, splat, something fell on my desk. I looked down in front of me. On the imitation wood-grain laminate of the desk was the unmistakable, square outline of a condom still in its wrapper. Laughter went around the room. Adrenaline made my thoughts speed up and time stand still, just as it might during a car accident or an emergency. I’m sure you’ve had this experience. It will take you far longer to read the account of my thought process than it took me to think it. It all happened in a few seconds. This was the moment I against which I was bracing myself all morning. The moment I would be tested. Fail this test and you could be sent to social hell for a month, or, in a worse case scenario, for as long as I was at the school. Responding correctly was of the utmost importance. The laughter told me that everyone had seen the condom land on my desk, so brushing it off and pretending I didn’t know wasn’t an option. I knew why it was a condom. I may have been developing my own ideas about sexuality, but I still had to live in a world where people held very different beliefs. The desired reaction on the part of the person who tossed it was that I would yell “Eeew” and make a big fuss. Everyone would laugh and proclaim me a prude or a baby. Socially, I could probably live that down, but there had to be a better response. I toyed with the idea of calmly pocketing the condom, but then they would call me a whore or a slut. Now, that might never be lived down. I needed to turn the tables on the prankster, put the focus on him, not me. I picked up the condom between my thumb and forefinger, stood up and held it aloft above my head like I was the Statue of Liberty. I turned around and slowly and scanned the room. “I believe someone has lost something,” I said, loudly and clearly, as if maybe, just maybe, I was being helpful.

There was some poking going on among several boys a couple of rows behind me. One of them came forward, “Um, yeah, it’s mine.” I handed him the condom and he slunk back to his desk. Everyone burst into laughter. I had turned the tables. I sat down as if nothing had ever happened. I heard a whisper, “She’s cool.”

After everything I’d been through, I was feeling more than a little pleased with myself. “You got that straight, man,” I thought. “Butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth. Now don’t fuck with me.”