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Monthly Archives: February 2014

I’ve been in something of a funny mood for the past few days, peaking with a strange uncomfortable feeling when I woke up this morning. Since I was diagnosed with depression, I’ve found myself engaging in a ritual that I think of as “emotional temperature taking.” Sleepy at an odd hour. Hmm, is this depression or are you just tired. Cranky? Are you just hungry or is this the sign of something worse? Most of the time, it is something more banal and not a sign of a greater problem. Still, it’s a necessary question to ask.

So, my behavior’s been odd for the past several days, irregular sleep, lack of concentration, and it culminated in feeling rather awful when I woke up this morning. There’s a few possible threads feeding into this, but I’ll stick to one for now. I’ve mentioned a few times something I’ve called my “beauty strike.” One day, I’ll have to write about this at length. Except for a couple of emotional outbursts, I’ve avoided discussing body image issues on my blog. It feels so frankly frivolous. Every once in a while, someone writes a post questioning why people would spend an effort worrying about problem B when problem A is so much more serious. Frequently, when I read this, especially as it applies to people other than myself or my own problems, I’m inclined to agree with a post Greta Christina put up, “Whatever Activism Gets them Excited.”

Are there issues in the world that are, by some objective measure if there is such a thing, more important than atheism? Yes. Absolutely. But atheism is what I’m excited about….  Atheism got me deeply involved in social change, in a way that no other issue ever did. I don’t know why that is: I don’t think it’s entirely rational, and I don’t think that decision is entirely rational for a lot of activists, atheist or otherwise. But I would rather have me — and others — getting deeply and passionately involved in atheist activism than getting half-assedly involved in something else… or not involved in anything.

So while I can get pretty excited about issues regarding sex and sexuality and feminism, both of those can intersect with issues of body image, yet that strikes me as frivolous. I know other people out there write about body image, and I would never dismiss their efforts, yet in discussing it I feel uncomfortable on so many different levels, not least of which is because it feels self-indulgent.

So, I’ve been browsing blogs which have listed things under the feminism tag quite a bit over the last few days, and I feel like I have lots of random bits in my mind which are refusing to coalesce into anything coherent, mainly around the subjects of sex, sexuality, women’s bodies and so on.

Maybe I need to paint a bit. Sometimes when I can’t figure something out logically, I turn to painting. In fact, that’s when I like painting best, when it reaches something logic can’t reach. One of the things I came across to today was a sketch that I really liked. It put me in mind of another post I’ve recently read, “Jack Vettriano – The Necessity of Misogyny” by suzimartin. As someone who has done a lot of art work with sexual imagery, which some people describe as erotica, I’m interested in people’s opinions of work which contains sexual content. I don’t know Vetttiano’s work well enough have an opinion on the post.

Anyway, that’s all the mucky stuff that’s been colliding in my head recently.

a nude woman wrapped in a snake floating through space

One of my own paintings.

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So, why did I go to see him that day? The answer to this question seems obvious to me, but at the same time I am aware that anyone without an intimate knowledge of my life at the time, my effort to visit him that day must seem odd.

The school I’d been attending for the two and a half years prior to that moment had approximately eight hundred students on a campus isolated in a rural area. I know some people who have turned inwards when they encountered social problems at school. They threw themselves into their work and excelled. I couldn’t do that for some reason. I was falling apart. I wanted, indeed needed, a friend. That I found this particular man physically desirable was a secondary interest to me. I rarely have lacked for lovers. I have on occasion lacked friends.

The school I was attending had an unusually long winter break, ostensibly to allow time for independent research projects or internships. My first year there, I tried to arrange one only to find that no professor wanted the extra work. Almost no one else did one either. My sister’s school was back in session, and I decided to go visit her as part of my attempts to strengthen connections to people beyond my own little school. The man I had met on New Years Eve was attending a school that was accessible by commuter train not far from the school my sister was attending. In fact, on several occasion I had gone with her and some of her friends to that neighborhood for some of the nightlife there. The school was the top school in the country for the subject he was studying and had an additional appeal for him as well – the school was a Catholic university.

While I was visiting my sister towards the end of January, I phoned and asked if I could visit. He said, “Yes.” However, when I arrived, I wondered if he had meant that yes. A couple of other friends were visiting and at times I had the distinct impression of being the third wheel, although there were four of us. At this remove, I can no longer recall details of the conversation, but I do recall having the uncomfortable feeling of receiving mixed messages as to whether or not I was wanted there and whether I should stay or go. It was awkward. Yet, at the same time, it seemed to be presumed I would be spending the night.

At one point in the evening, the man said that he wanted to stop by the store located on campus to pick up a pack of cigarettes. When we got there, there was a line and one of his friends offered to give him some cigarettes from his own pack. “Thanks,” the man said, “but I want to get something else as well.” When we finally found ourselves at the counter, in addition to the cigarettes he asked for condoms. The clerk behind the counter replied that they didn’t sell them.

The rooms of the dormitory were arranged in suites, with several rooms surrounding a common area. The man let his friends have his bed and we took some blankets and made an improvised bed on the floor of the common area. Alone, the awkwardness went away and I enjoyed his company again. We agreed that we would not have intercourse since we had been unable to buy condoms. Since I had enjoyed fondling him at the party so much, it seemed possible. In retrospect, it was an amazingly naive idea. Alone with a modicum of privacy and everyone else asleep, we did not stop at fondling.

The following day, the four of us went to an art museum. At first, when they discussed going, I assumed that they would go without me and I would return to my sister’s. Then he specifically invited me. Yet, while I was with them, that feeling of awkwardness returned.

On the way back to my sister’s, I couldn’t figure out if seeing him again had been a good idea or not, nor could I figure out if he was interested in me. It didn’t weigh on my mind too much. I concluded simply that, having extended myself once, that I wouldn’t do it again and wait and see if he contacted me.

Well, this will need a little explanation. Yesterday, in my post I made a reference to turning into a “salivating bulging-eyed feminist monster of Rush Limbaugh’s nightmares.” Since I haven’t done a drawing in a while, I thought I’d make a little caricature poking fun of myself. Just so I’m not misunderstood, I do call myself a feminist and I’m just making fun of myself, not feminists in general.

Self-portrait. Surprisingly like.

Self-portrait. Surprisingly like.

The other evening, I was walking home from the grocery story and two people were walking at the same pace behind me, allowing me to hear clearly a portion of their conversation. It went like this:

Woman: Did you know that they’re developing a cure for baldness that seems to actually work?

Man: Hmm.

Woman: Only thing is that it uses babies’ foreskins.

Silence

Woman: Well, they cut the things off anyway, so they might as well be put to use.

More silence

Somehow, I get the feeling that if a man had been talking so casually about lopped off labia I would have turned into the dreaded salivating bulging-eyed feminist monster of Rush Limbaugh’s nightmares.

I’ve gotten to an age when I can look back and see where ideologies have led me to mistakes and where I’ve gotten things right. One thing I believed when I was younger, and experience has only strengthened that belief, is the importance of bodily integrity or bodily autonomy. For instance, once upon a time I knew even less about trans issues than I do today, but I was probably prevented from doing or saying hurtful things because of a general belief in bodily autonomy coupled with the notion that one person cannot tell another that other person can or should feel.

It seems like a rather banal thing to say, but a man has a right to do as he likes with his own penis. However, it’s quite obvious that many parents, especially in the U.S., don’t feel that way. I’m gratified to see that rates of non-therapeutic circumcision have declined in the U.S., but I would really like to see it become non-normative. I was just really disturbed to hear the blase way this young woman was talking about other people’s bodies.

I’d been looking forward to this party for a couple of months already. Puppy and Kitty threw a huge joint party at their mother’s apartment in Manhattan every New Year’s Eve during high school and they continued doing it throughout college. We had known each other as toddlers and our families had taken vacations together every summer until Puppy and Kitty’s parents got divorced and they moved with their mother to New York City. I was glad to see I was not forgotten.

The college I was attending had eight hundred students. We were isolated, a little academic island in a rural area. After two and a half years, the social situation there had become complicated for me. I found myself essentially friendless, except for this guy everyone called Stoneface because he was so impassive. I was frankly elated to be heading to a party where there would be no one connected to the social mess I had made of my life at school. I was looking forward to strengthening my connections to some old friends and perhaps, with luck, making some new ones. If I was going to make it through the next year and a half, I was going to have to expand my social life beyond my school.

Many of the people at the party I’d met before, albeit only briefly. I recognized many faces but couldn’t always put names to them. There were a few exceptions. Hera, a family friend, and her boyfriend, who had, entirely by coincidence, gone to high school with me. Hera was one of those math whizzes who was bad at everything else. She was in the process of turning from a banal suburban girl into a sultry beauty with a vaguely Mediterranean appearance. Her eyes always put me in mind of a line from Homer. I liked her, and always felt that she returned the feeling, but we simply do not have enough to say to one another to be close. All my male friends who see her ask to be fixed up. I don’t know how to tell them politely that she likes really buff guys half her age. Thirty years ago, however, she was still with her high school boyfriend.

Then there was Aussie. Very tall and lanky, he was Puppy’s closest friend. That meant that I saw him at regular intervals of birthdays and visits to Kitty over the years. A year or two earlier, after running into Aussie for the millionth time, I got a phone call from him. I took the bus into New York City and we spent the day together. It didn’t go anywhere romantically, but I got to know Aussie a little bit better and he was warmer and friendlier after that.

Beyond those people, it was mainly a sea of half-remembered faces that filled Puppy and Kitty’s mother’s sprawling prewar apartment. They had moved in back in the seventies when apartments like that could still be had by people who were not fabulously wealthy. There were two entrances, one that led to the kitchen and another that led to the proper entry. Off the entry, which contained a piano and some other furniture, was the dining room and living room. A long corridor led to the bedrooms. Coats were being tossed on Puppy’s bed. The floor of Kitty’s room had some quilts and sleeping bags on it. Hera and I would both be staying over night since neither of us lived in the city and the last bus would have long since departed by the time the party was over. A second corridor going in the other direction wound through a pantry and past a small room that would have once been the maid’s room and terminated in the kitchen.

Each year the party got a little bit bigger and, as we got older, a little more drunken. Their mother would leave for the evening and let them have the place to themselves. The first year, we were all under age and what little alcohol there was was brought in surreptitiously. By the year I’m describing, about half the party was of age to drink and everyone, or almost everyone, would have expected there to be liquor. Although Puppy and Kitty were thoroughly American, this was Manhattan and they had gone to a fancy private school. Their parties frequently had a disproportionate number of foreign-born guests.

After the party was already underway, a small group of latecomers arrived. I was surprised to learn that they had gone to high school with Puppy and Kitty because their faces were unfamiliar to me. Light haired and light eyed with unusually pale skin and very clean-cut, he was not my type and I might not have noticed him except he was taller than everyone except Aussie.

Sometime shortly after midnight, I felt that I had had quite enough to drink. I was tipsy enough to feel that I was floating through the party and I didn’t want to become so drunk that I was stumbling through the party. The rest of the crowd was getting a little rowdier than they had during parties past and I started searching for a small conversation off to the edges. Aussie was unavailable. He had brought his young, sixteen year old sister with him and was being highly protective of her. Hera was in another corner smooching with her boyfriend. I wandered down the hallway that led past the pantry, away from the music and into the kitchen. There, I found a small group of about four people actively debating moral philosophy. I got myself a glass of water. There was the tall man with the pale skin and one of the others from group that came in with him. The tall one sounded as if he was English. The other was clearly American. There were two women, also one English and one American, or so I thought. A bit too symmetrical, I wondered if perhaps they were two couples and that my presence would be disruptive. I paused for a moment to listen to the conversation. The man with the English accent stopped to introduce himself and I took that as a cue that it was alright to stay.

The party elsewhere began to wind down while the five of us talked. One woman left, then the other. Eventually, only the one man and I remained. We sat on the floor and continued to argue in a friendly, cheerful way. His earnestness started looking adorable and I began to think that he wasn’t bad-looking. Trying to make a point, he took my hand. We continued to hold hands has we argued. Eventually he was stroking my cheek and my hair. It had that tension and eroticism that only happens when you can’t do what you really want to do. Kitty came in.

“Are you going to sleep soon?”

“Soon, I guess.” It seemed like the only polite thing to say. I really had no desire whatsoever to stop talking to whatshisname and could have easily stayed up all night with him.

“Okay. Well, I’m going to bed. Stay up as long as you like. Try to be quiet when you come in. Hera’s already asleep.

“Can you let yourself out when you’re ready to go. Kid, don’t forget to lock the door behind him.” With that she disappeared down the hallway.

“Mmm, where were we?” he said, continuing the argument.

With everyone gone, we found ourselves lying side by side on the hard kitchen floor. At the end of the party like that, it must have been dirty, but we were too intent on one another to notice. We kept our clothes on, but did as much as we could given that fact. I don’t know if it was the environment, the circumstance, the argument, or maybe it was just the man, but I found myself entirely intoxicated with arousal. He fondled me until I orgasmed. We embraced for a little while longer. Eventually he left and I quietly went to bed.

A few years ago, out of the blue, I received a phone call from someone I knew in high school. For a short while, we were best buddies but I hadn’t heard from him in nearly thirty years. A few weeks later, he stopped by. He asked about my family, and specifically about my father. I informed him that my father had passed away a few years earlier. He told me something that I thought was incredibly lovely.

He had been very badly abused by his father as a child, as had all his siblings. Furthermore, he was gay and came out of the closet in high school, a situation which made his relationship with his father even worse. In fact, one of the reasons we lost contact is that he left home at the first opportunity. He told me how important my father had been to him because he set an example for him that let him know that a man can be gentle and kind. Indeed, my father was a very kind and gentle person, and I think it would have gratified him to know how my friend felt.

I was reminded of this by a post I read today. It’s only very tangentially related, but I thought I would share it with everyone because I think it’s very sweet.

She walked in the classroom cool and slow. It was five minutes into the class and the room was quiet except for the professor, who was speaking. She had a saunter that made me weak at the knees, or would have had I been standing. She walked around to an empty chair. Her motorcycle helmet hit the table with a disruptive clunk. She sat down with her legs spread and her arms draped over the arms of the chair, taking up as much space as her small frame possibly could.

“Spike,” the professor said, “Do you have anything to add to the conversation?”

Spike lifted her arms and made a gesture with her hands, palms down, pointing outwards, as if she was dancing. “She said, ‘Doctor!'”

It was so incongruous, no one could help laughing. The professor smiled indulgently, in a way that professors only smile at a favored student. She must be smart, I thought. I was intrigued. So, apparently, was a pretty blond-haired, blue-eyed woman who was also in the class.

It was not long before I saw them walking around campus hand in hand with one another, and for a time, I forgot about Spike. But the pretty blond-haired blue-eyed woman would soon go back to her boyfriend. She committed the unspeakable. She dumped Spike for a man.

My first boyfriend wore a black leather jacket, rode a motorcycle and played guitar. My first girlfriend wore a black leather jacket, rode a motorcycle and played guitar. You could say I have a type.

As luck would have it, she was friends with some of my friends. One evening, she offered to make a snack run. I immediately volunteered to go with her. We climbed into the gold Dodge Dart she was always working on. The space between us was wide and there was no suave way to span the gap, so I reached over in the least clumsy way possible and put my hand on her knee.

She glanced at me with surprise. “You? I would have never guessed. Well, then come a little closer.”

She wore her hair short and a cowlick caused it to kick up in the front making her resemble the bird she kept, the bird that kept trying to peck at me as I lay on her bed the next morning, as she sat at the foot of the bed playing her guitar. It had been such a revelation the night before to peel off all those loose-fitting clothes to find such a beautiful body underneath.

I’d had some minimal experience with women before, but this was the first open relationship I had with a woman who was out of the closet. She had been out since high school, perhaps longer. Smart, funny, confident, she was something of the big dyke on campus. She had a high libido. Politically active, she explained to me how concepts like butch and femme were an anathema to all right thinking lesbians. Butch and femme, she told me, were a sad imitation of heterosexual gender roles and should have no place in a lesbian relationship. Then she asked me to wear a skirt with no underpants so I would be sexually available to her whenever she wanted.

When no one was looking, she’d push me up against a wall and put her hand up my skirt. She’d finger me until my breath grew short and my face flushed. This was a little game she liked to play.

Drummer Boy had two posters taped to the cinder block walls of his dormitory room. One was of a man with a saxophone. “Who’s that?” I asked a little bit tentatively.

“You don’t know Bird!” He said with evident surprise. For a moment I was afraid he was going to run me down for being lowbrow. I’d gathered from the picture that the man was probably a jazz musician and my experience with jazz lovers was that they were a bunch of snobs. Much to my surprise, Drummer Boy gestured for me to sit down. “Well, you’re in for a treat” and with he slapped a record on the turntable. He was more interested in sharing what he loved than in playing a game of one-upmanship.  I’d only met him about a half an hour earlier and he was already throwing my stereotypes out the window.

We sat on his bed listening to records for much of that afternoon. Mainly we just listened, but sometimes he pointed out something he liked about a particular piece. Eventually, I asked about the other poster, not what it was, because I could see that it was the text of the Bill of Rights, but where he had gotten it.

“My father works for the ACLU.” Drummer Boy would turn out to have two passions, music and civil liberties.

A few days later we were lying in the grass in sloping field outside of some classrooms. By that point, we had both become aware that our acquaintance would remain platonic. Still, I enjoyed his company and continued to spend time with him. He was telling me about an older musician he knew growing up in New York and how he was a role model for him, not only as a musician, but he saw him as a role model for what it meant “to be a man.” It was a difficult thing to for me to relate to. I couldn’t think of anyone teaching me what it meant “to be a woman.” I couldn’t even conceive of the concept. So I encouraged him to talk.

He fumbled for words a bit. I don’t think he had ever had to articulate exactly what it meant. It had a lot to do with ethical behavior. How to treat women was part of it. He put it in terms of gallantry and chivalry that seemed a bit out of step for someone whose politics clearly fell to the left of center. I questioned him a little about that, but the conversation remained friendly. Another matter was taking care of any children you may have. As someone who had grown up in a more sheltered, suburban world, I don’t think I understood the context from which this was emerging. I had grown up always being told, by all the adults around me, that my biological parents had done the right thing in putting me up for adoption. In fact, I would venture to say that I had never heard a contrary opinion. Certainly, no one had ever so much as suggested to me that there would have been anything virtuous in two, terribly unprepared, young people trying to raise a child. No one ever suggested that biological father should have “been a man.”

Then, considering the passion he felt for civil liberties, he shocked the hell out of me. “If I were to get a woman pregnant and she wanted to have an abortion, I’d file a lawsuit to force her to go through with the pregnancy.” As he saw it, he had rights and the law did not acknowledge those rights. We argued about this until we were interrupted by another of his friends. At the point we let it drop, neither of us had made any headway in convincing the other or our positions. He did impress upon me the strength of his feeling on the subject. In the discussions about unwanted pregnancies that I’d had throughout high school, most of the focus had been on the pure horror of the idea. It was taken for granted that a man always wants to escape from the situation. The notion that a man, in that situation, might actually want the child, and not simply oppose an abortion but actively want to raise a child, had never occurred to me, at least not seriously.

After that conversation, I canvassed a few of my male friends and acquaintances about their feelings. I was quite surprised. Although Drummer Boy was the only one who would want to go as far as forcing a woman to continue with a pregnancy against her will, several of them did say that they, too, would want a child. Every single one of them said that they would want to know and would like to at least be consulted before the woman made a decision. This really presented me with something of a quandary.

In many ways, I feel that being raised without a religion forced me to think deeply about ethics starting at a young age. I don’t mean that people who are raised in a religion don’t ever think about it, but I didn’t have a ready-made set of behaviors that I could fall back on, no one to tell me what to think when I couldn’t figure it out myself. In the end, I had to acknowledge that Drummer Boy had made an important point. Although I didn’t, and still can’t, see how it could be practically implemented from a legal stand point, I did conclude that, from an ethical standpoint, a woman should consider the man’s desires and take them very seriously.

This is not simply a good post; it’s an important post. I beg everyone to take the time to read it.

Pandaemonium

rushdie avedon

When he was a child Salman Rushdie’s father read to him ‘the great wonder tales of the East’ – the stories of Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights; the animal fables of the ancient Indian Panchatantra; ‘the marvels that poured like a waterfall from the Kathasaritsagara’, the famous 11th-century Sanskrit collection of myths; the ‘tales of the mighty heroes collected in the Hamzanama’ that tell of the legendary exploits of Amir Hamza, uncle to the Prophet Mohammed; and the ancient Persian classic, The Adventures of Hatim Tai. Rushdie’s father ‘told them and retold them and remade them and reinvented them in his own way’.

To grow up ‘steeped in these tellings’, Rushdie writes in his memoir Joseph Anton, ‘was to learn two unforgettable lessons’. First, that ‘stories were not true… but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the…

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