Brokeback radfem: sometimes the metaphors write themselves

Did you know that a teenager can break her back, but not know it until after her 40th birthday when a neurosurgeon spots the break on an MRI? It’s true!

This means I traversed high school, college, and grad school; was married and divorced; came out; worked 23 consecutive jobs in a half-dozen careers; lived in 19 different apartments and houses; emigrated to Canada and back; and spent five years on a six-day-a-week Crossfit schedule – all with a fractured spine. Which is horrifying, but also…kinda metal, if I do say so myself.

My surgeon is going to take the vertebra in question and bone-graft it into a spinal tea cozy to protect the new manufactured vertebra, then attach the whole shebang together with screws that look oddly like what you get at Ikea. He said the break happened when I was between 10 and 16. A childhood spinal fracture is a bit like tree rings – you can pinpoint its age by the bone growth around it – and most people never feel the injury if the vertebrae settles far enough away from the nerves.

You can walk around with a broken back for a long time.

I didn’t start limping until about six months ago, but I always had a sense of some essential wrongness about my back. A crunched-up feeling; an urgent desire to pull the tiny bones apart and let air into the spaces. One doctor said it was a bulging disc; another said it was a too-pronounced S-curve, and both these things were true, but didn’t explain the abject dread I felt when pondering my own spine. A dissolving sort of feeling, as if one day I’d wake up in a pile of tiny ivory shards dust-layered upon one another. My back and I, our very own anthropological site.

It’s an easy feminist metaphor: All women know something devastating happens to us between the ages of 10 and 16, if not before. The culture tells us it’s because of this or that – sexual abuse; not enough access to sports facilities; bullying; dating violence, cyberstalking, too many magazines with skinny cover models – and as correct as all this is, it doesn’t go deep or far enough.

Patriarchal culture (and liberal feminism) obsessed with individual stories and solutions, never says “broken.”

Patriarchal culture (and liberal feminism) calls it all a misunderstanding that can be ironed out if men and women just listen to one another, the way my middle school headmaster was sure the bullying would stop if the bully and I just “talked.” As through the power structure was equal; as though the kid wouldn’t punish me tenfold the minute headmaster’s back was turned.

Patriarchal culture (and liberal feminism) never admits that men as a class do not see women as a class as fully human.

Patriarchal culture (and liberal feminism) maintains that the theft of our labor, resources and bodies is a thing that…just sort of happens. The thief usually goes unnamed, or defended, because “not all…”

Radical feminism says: This situation is intentional: Men as a class benefit from our oppression in ways they really like.

Therefore, unless women find the right language in the right books (or on the right screens or in the right company) we don’t have the words to unlock and translate the WHY of what’s systemically as well as individually happening to us, as a class, in the world. That’s why there’s such an effort to obfuscate and control our language as well as our spaces.

We know something is wrong but we don’t know (or want to know) that it’s an honest-to-God break, so we limp along to chiropractor after chiropractor. We buy special pillows to align ourselves. We curl up into quiet balls, or we keep empowerfully deadlifting and squatting and taking fistfuls of painkillers to get by.

You can walk around with a broken back for a long time.

We live like this, and then we die without the language we need to say what’s true; to use a clean scalpel to rebuild ourselves and each other. We die quietly, like my grandmother Tess, who knew what a husband’s fist felt like, or angrily like my great-grandmother Toula, who was never allowed to learn to read.

We can only fix the break if we have the words to describe it. Only then can we walk without a limp.

OutLIARS (or menmenmenmenmen)

*This piece was a joint effort with the ever-genius Hypotaxis.

Unsurprisingly, Dana McCallum, a man who identifies as a woman, was given a little slap on the wrist after pleading guilty to spousal abuse and rape. Most males, like McCallum, do not receive sentences that are in any way proportionate to the trauma inflicted upon their victims.

Also unsurprisingly, LGBT media outlets have been clumsily and desperately trying to lionize poor Dana McCallum as a troubled soul with a drinking problem, instead of naming him, accurately, for the abusive man he is despite his lady presentation. “But she Tweeted in support of rape victims” one LGBT publication lamented. So? So that means what? He’s not a rapist? He’s not an abuser? Because he thumbed out 140 characters in support of abused women? The logic of the modern-day LGBT “movement” seldom approaches anything resembling a sane and rational thought.

Frankly, I am now firmly of the conviction that not only is the current LGBT movement anti-woman, but actively hostile toward women, particularly lesbians. As a dyke, as a feminist, I see nothing in the LGBT “world” that in any way benefits me (rather, I see much that is blatantly harmful to my existence).

What I see is a batshit insane assemblage of males wringing their hands and whining when women don’t speak and act in a way that conforms to their delusions.

But I digress. Back to McCallum. An incident like this, where a public figure like McCallum assaults his wife, illustrates precisely why words must mean things; why language – despite all queerifying to the contrary – matters, and why the linguistic tools we have been given as human beings have real-world implications for women.

Because McCallum identifies as a woman, his male aggression is being contextualized as a women’s issue and has fostered some discussion of woman-on-woman violence in liberal publications. In a world where male aggression and violence is epidemic, where women, the whole globe over, are killed (by males) every fucking day (even as I write this blog post), and in a world where women are not allowed to name this problem, a discussion of woman-on-woman violence is patently absurd.

Sure, we can talk about violence on an individual level – some women are violent and some men are not violent – but that defeats the whole fucking purpose of addressing a problem that impacts a CLASS OF PEOPLE. The queer/trans/LBGTWHATEVERTHEFUCK loves their precious individuality, loves taking into account the myriad anomalies of each and every person and using those as evidence to contradict every socio-political (and biological) FACT in existence, but this kind of discourse is not productive. This kind of discourse does not lead to any sort of meaningful or beneficial change. This kind of discourse is the intellectual equivalent of running your brain through a goddamn wood chipper.

The Daily Beast, yesterday, published a marvelously stupid article in which the author (a woman) argues that McCallum’s abusiveness provides us with an opportunity to discuss “woman-on-woman violence.”

Let’s have a look-see, shall we?

“What is surprising is that the alleged rapist is a well-regarded feminist and LGBT advocate, Dana McCallum, a transgender woman who was named by Business Insider as the fifth-most important LGBT person in the tech world.” 

This is not “surprising.” It is not surprising that a male has risen high in the tech world ranks, given that the tech world (like virtually every professional corner of the economy) is dominated by males. And no, it is not surprising that the alleged rapist is a male. Males rape. They do that a lot.

“Unfortunately, the relative silence around McCallum’s trial, let alone the issue of woman-on-woman rape and sexual assault, is deafening and disturbing. In researching for this article, I posted queries in multiple forums for female journalists for resources or recommended experts for female-on-female rape. I received only one response. I’ve seen only a handful of articles reporting on the McCallum case and they are generally absent of any criticism.”

There’s so much in this little passage that makes me want to beat my head against a wall. 1) As a class, women do not rape. Period. End of story. If someone doesn’t want to have sex with us, we feel sad and go home and write about it in our journals. 2) Dana McCallum is male. 3) “I posted queries in multiple forums . . . I received only one response” – yeah, you know why, genius? BECAUSE WOMEN DON’T RAPE EACH OTHER. Are there outliers? Sure. There are outliers for all sorts of things – some guy in Morocco can run a 3:43 mile; and it snowed eight inches in Tucson, AZ on Christmas Day, 1987 – but outliers do not negate reality. Outliers shouldn’t distract from the central mass of data, and in statistics, they don’t. In trans and misogynist politics, however, outliers become the North Star pointing us straight into disingenuous territory.

One popular trans/queer trope goes: “What about intersex? Huh? Huh? Huh?” – Yeah, a very small number of people born with ambiguous genitalia. That does not mean that female is a feeling in a man’s head, or that female is something you can buy – but the trans/queer circular logic jump has been made: Transwomen are women transwomen are women transwomen are women.

Consequently, because a man who “feels like a woman” rapes his wife, women have to be scrutinized and discussed as though they, too, are attackers. This insulting nonsense serves to arm MRAs and misogynists who say, “But women rape, toooo!” – thereby distracting from the central mass of data, which has always been mathematically clear: Rapists are men, not women.

THIS is the fuckery we are being sold by the trans/queer movement, ladies. THIS is why words actually do matter. If he is a woman (and he’s not) and he is a rapist (and he is) then in keeping with the gender-sick zeitgeist, you, my sisters, are now potential rapists because HE (pronouns, pronouns) raped his wife. Transwomen are women transwomen are women transwomen are women. Got that?

We are now going down this road. If we weren’t allowed to name the problem of male violence before, it’s going to be ever more difficult now that males can decide they feel like, and therefore are, females – while continuing definitively male behavior such as rape. I can assure you in the coming years we will see a proliferation of discussions around “woman on woman” rape and violence, not because females are running around raping and beating one another, but because males with super-special identities are doing it.

And it won’t matter, sisters, that we are not perpetrators. There will be no distinction made between our behavior and that of the men who buy accessories to parody us through their misogynist lens and call it “reality.” Does that sound harsh? Does that sound histrionic? Read the fucking Daily Beast article. Do a Google news search for this case. It’s already happening.

Oh, and this will also, no doubt, be positioned as a lesbian issue. Males who feel like ladies will be totally off the hook for their brutality, because women will have to accept the blame. Lesbians will have to shoulder the stigma of being “rampant abusers.”

“The fact that there is pushback against discussing female-perpetuated assault, especially by women whom we hold up as progressive role models, is disturbing.” 

I KNOW, right?! It sucks that we never had an open, honest, culture-wide conversation about how Oprah beat on Steadman. Or about how Ellen is a serial rapist. Or about how Eleanor fucking Roosevelt was routinely clocking her admirers. Oh, that’s right, those things NEVER HAPPENED. Next.

“This type of argument is based on fear—fear that when we admit that famous or powerful women can be aggressors, it will disempower other women, namely female victims of male domestic violence.” 

Yeah, you know what? Blaming women for male aggression does disempower women. Blaming lesbians for rape committed by males does erase the victims of male violence, and it does allow the real perpetrators to hide.

This is the current state of LGBT affairs: Dana McCallum – male, rapist, abuser – is a “well-regarded feminist and LGBT advocate” who gets to keep his high-status job, while women who dare to state that penis is male and that men rape are “bigots,” “transphobes” and “TERFS.”

Sisters, is this what’s to become of everything we’ve built? Is this the sad, twisted final chapter of the book of us, written out by Sappho and Jane Addams and Gertrude Stein and all those badass ladies in the WACS and on The Ladder? Did the Daughters of Bilitis envision being classed one day with rapists? Is this the harvest of our lobbying, our marches, our art and music; our coming-outs with trembling hands?

Think hard.

Is this the ending you want?

Why I don’t own a gun

If you visit me in Arizona, I’ll collect you at the airport and tell you: Remember, you’re never more than a few dozen feet from a gun. People here keep guns in their homes, their cars, strapped to the insides of their boots. If we stop at the grocery store for popcorn, strawberries and beer (that’s what we’d have for dinner at my house) at least one man will be casually wearing a handgun on his belt. Twenty others will be carrying concealed weapons. You do not want to get into it with a stranger in this part of the country. He wants to cut in the checkout line? Let him.

Yesterday at work, a couple of ladies were happily discussing their personal arsenals.

“I have four guns right now,” one said. “The biggest one is Czechoslovakian, and I keep it right on my nightstand.”

I allowed as to how sleeping with a gun that close might creep me out a little.

“Well, it’s not gonna get up and shoot someone all its own SELF,” she told me. “I’d be scareder of sleeping with a clown doll on the nightstand.”

Can’t argue with that! It’s not gonna get up and shoot someone all its own self! But what if:

(a) I accidentally exercise my Second Amendment rights and blow my own foot off? (I’m a woman whose pens inksplode all over her fingers at the slightest provocation; who’s afraid to own a gas mower because of what happened that time with the rocks and the anthill). What if one of the cats knocks it off the nightstand? I don’t even have any decent drinking glasses left; that’s how much those goddamned cats knock shit off my nightstand) OR

(b) I, sleepy and afraid, uphold the Founding Fathers’ inimitable American vision by shooting one of my idiot friends who decides to make me a surprise visit (when I brought this up, the the work ladies said, in unison, “They should call first!”) OR

© Some unarmed nutjob breaks into the house, sees the gun, and is inspired to take his ordinary burglary up a level?

Talking to the work ladies about their guns, I picked up on a lot of fear – specifically, fear of rape.

I’m not afraid of rape. I’ve cut down on my risk by not dating men – it’s usually a guy you know – and I’m over 40 and I stay alert and sober in bad neighborhoods and I walk like a woman who benches her own bodyweight (because I can) and all of this stacks the deck in my favor. Not, of course, that hundred-year-old ladies haven’t been raped in their own beds, but I choose to look at the larger statistical picture. And I decline to live in fear.

The only rapist I’m afraid of is one with a gun. If he’s got a gun, it would behoove me to have one as well. I could decide to become one of millions of Arizonans who feel the need to have the means of lethal force on their person at all times, even at goddamn Panera Bread or Lucky Strike Lanes. But there’s an emotional and mental cost related to owning a gun, and to being surrounded by firearms in casual, everyday contexts. This is a dangerous world, you’re saying with your very own personal gun. I need this weapon to protect myself and my family so we will be safe. 

It’s a simple individualistic response to a complex, growing, shared social problem. You hear the same argument for breast implants: I’m doing it for me! It’s empowering! 

This is when you know people have given up on looking for root causes. This is when you can be sure no analyses are forthcoming re: the whys and wherefores.

If you look at NRA and other gun-marketing materials directed at women, you’ll see a lot of pink; a lot of fashion-oriented concealed-carry items; a lot of fear-based Mama-bear stuff. What you won’t see is anything remotely honest about who women are protecting themselves from (again, your rapist and/or murderer is usually a man with whom you share a home) or about the ingrained sex-class system that allows and encourages men to make women afraid because men stand to gain a lot from women’s fear. They stand to gain lots of money (guns are spendy!) and power (the NRA is, well…the NRA).

Men who do not cherish women’s interests stand to gain when women think the solution to male violence is to be found within the violent male power structure.

You can’t paint that shit pink and expect me to buy it.

 

“He For She” (or, “What About the Men?”)

This is a joint post with the brilliant Hypotaxis.


 

It’s review day. Let’s clarify, once more, the differences between radical and liberal feminism.

Liberal feminism asserts that women’s liberation comes through equality with men, and therefore positions men as a benchmark, the “best possible case,” the default setting, the gold standard, the brass ring – if only to be respected like a man, if only to be paid like a man, or to be free to “choose pornography” or fuck anything that moves like a man. In liberal feminism, male is aspirational.

In liberal feminism, society itself isn’t broken, we just need to learn how to better exist within it – like men.

Radical feminism, on the other hand, understands that if you polish a turd, it’s still a turd. Radical feminism posits that the system itself is broken and the game is rigged. Radical feminism asserts that pornography and gender are designed to further subjugate women, while liberal feminism celebrates these as sources of female empowerment. Radical feminism is not concerned with appealing to males, or with making males feel comfortable, because radical feminists believe feminism should be a movement that prioritizes women, and that works to address and dismantle systems that contribute to female oppression – even when it makes men uncomfortable or angry, or divests them of some of their power.

Radical feminism isn’t very sexy.

So I’m never surprised that when the “f-word” comes up in popular culture, it is liberal – not radical – feminism on display. Liberal feminism is decidedly more palatable. Liberal feminism is totally safe and really poses no threat to the integrity of patriarchal infrastructures – on the contrary, liberal feminism often repurposes and supports the most pernicious elements of patriarchy.

This Emma-Watson-at-the-UN speech has been making the rounds on the internets, and I finally had a listen. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything radical, anything revolutionary, anything that challenged the dominant paradigms. Which saved me from disappointment, because it wasn’t there.

Watson was at the UN to promote a new campaign, called “He for She” – which is basically about reassuring men that feminists don’t hate them and that they should care about things like child marriage and rape because, um, gender can hurt men too.

While well intentioned, the speech is rife with liberal feminist “theory,” and I felt, given the popularity of the speech, it might be helpful to hit upon a few moments from Watson’s talk to illustrate some problems within liberal feminism, from a radical feminist perspective.

Exemplifying the rhetorical zeitgeist, Watson makes use of the term “gender equality.” What’s fascinating is the reliance on this term “gender equality” without any critique whatsoever of “gender” – e.g., men are, and are purposed for, Things A-L; while women are, and are purposed for, Things M-Z. (Hint: Things M-Z aren’t very fun. At best, they’re uncomfortable and limiting; at worst, they sign you up for violence and murder).

And on the heels of proclaiming the need for “gender equality,” Watson asserts, not unlike so many of her liberal feminist peers, “Men are imprisoned by gender stereotypes.”

Uh, no. That would be women. Are men impacted by gendered stereotypes? Absolutely. Do we “fix” men who stray from masculine stereotypes (as a way of upholding said stereotypes) by convincing them they are female? Yep. Are men imprisoned by gender stereotypes? That seems, how shall I say, a bit histrionic to me especially when gender itself, by design, exists to subjugate women. Even within the gender constraints, men seem, on the whole, to be enjoying a huge amount of freedom in contrast with these women or these or these even as compared to Watson herself, who, for making some truly non-controversial claims about women’s equality has been threatened by men’s rights groups.

Watson also addresses the notion that people are reticent to embrace the word “feminism” in large part because the word has become synonymous with “man hating.” “Why has the word become an unpopular one?” she asks, following up with “If there is one thing I know for certain it’s that this has to stop.”

This of course is not the first time this question has been asked, and unanswered.

The word “feminism,” I would argue, has always been unpopular because it connotes a desire to free women from the prisons, literal and figurative, built by men. The unpopularity of the word “feminism,” as long as it retains its actual meaning, will never stop, because the very notion of true, unadulterated women’s liberation is deeply unattractive to men – and unattractive also to many women who have been so steeped in male bullshit they cannot fathom a life without it, or they do not know how to define themselves independent of the trappings of patriarchy. (Think: Plato’s “Cave.” Think also: #WomenAgainstFeminism.

Watson also mentions that feminists are viewed as “too strong, too aggressive, anti-men, unattractive.”

Whether the 24-year-old, straight Watson knows it or not, this reads like an old, tired code for “lesbian.”

So.

What if we ARE very strong, both physically and intellectually? Like, with bulging muscles and a Ph.D? Like, bigger and smarter than all the men in any given room?

What if we ARE aggressive? (You know, like political activists tend to be?)

What if we ARE anti-what men as a class do to women as a class? What if we understand that individual stories, however interesting or inspiring – “My husband does half the housework and volunteers full-time at the rape crisis center!” – don’t take the place of class analysis; of statistics; of what we see going on around us every day?

And what if we are – horrors! – unattractive? Older than 24? Fat? Disabled? Big-nosed? Short-haired? Uninterested in couture and coiffure? Are we just a big dykey patch of shade thrown across the grand liberal feminist vision?

Granted, mainstream feminism has zero to do with liberating women, but the – ahem — stigma of the original meaning has remained. Even Watson says, “it’s not the word that is important.” In our world of hyper-relativism, ain’t that the truth.

Feminism should be unattractive to men, because men benefit from women’s oppression – from the theft of our labor as well as sexual and reproductive resources. Real, actual liberation movements shouldn’t give any fucks about what the oppressor thinks or feels. That’s for social clubs. And this ain’t the Rotary.

Liberal feminism posits that men and women share the same values, desires and goals across the board, because “We’re all just people, right?”

Radical feminism understands that men and women do NOT share values, desires and goals across the board (e.g. women don’t rape, nor do they generally make war, traffic in human beings or pillage the Earth for all available resources).

More importantly: radical feminists understand that we’ll all be “just people” after the first 24-hour truce during which there is no rape. We’ll all be “just people” on the day that no female infant is murdered for being female (having no way to “identify” her way out of it); on the day that no twelve- or ten- or five-year-old is sold in “marriage” to a grown man; on the day I can go where I want when I want without carrying a terrifying vulnerability between my legs. On that day we can be “just people,” but not before.

And as for speeches like Watson’s, as for campaigns like “He for She,” as for simply saying the word feminism, as for begging men to support its aims, or aspiring toward some abstract “equality” within a system that was built, from the ground up, with women’s subjugation in mind? This doesn’t work. This has never worked. This is merely an attempt to renovate a home that should by right be condemned and demolished.

relay races and affirmations

We had a tween girls’ group running around yesterday at my gym. It’s great to see a dozen multiracial 8-11 year old girls enjoying female-only activities; especially when the goal is to build confidence through physical accomplishment, but from what I saw I think they may be caught in the same dusty trap.

The first part of their activity was sitting in a circle with their coach, doing a short lesson on eating disorders.

“Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that makes people lose more weight than is considered healthy for their age and height,” one little moppet read aloud from the handout. “People with anorexia may have an intense fear of weight gain, even when they are underweight. They may diet or exercise too much or use other ways to lose weight.”

Cool, fine. It’s not like I expected them to get into patriarchal beauty standards as a method of male power, control and distraction (not that they’re too young; I’m just not expecting it) and at least they were getting a few facts before middle school starts eating their brains, but then they went out on the gym floor and started a relay race game. This involved starting at one end of the gym and running hell-bent-for-leather to the other, gasping and laughing and catching their breath before they yelled out an affirmation:

“I AM SOOOO SMART!”

Hmm. OK. This was not de rigeur when I was a kid, when the ego-stroking of oneself was known as “bragging,” and also we knew not everyone was smart, but then again we didn’t have 24-hour entertainment/celebrity channels or criminally-actionable cyberbullying. So maybe kids today need to really bust it out in order to offset all that.

“I AM SOOOO PRETTY!”

Shit. Really? No adult with this program thought that one out?

“EVERYBODY LIKES ME!”

Aw, no. This is not a good affirmation! This is not a good goal! If everybody likes you, either you’re a co-dependent shape-shifter, false  to yourself in order to please others, or you have no discernible personality at all, in which case someone’s bound to dislike you because you don’t have a mind of your own.

Plus: I happen to know that one indispensable ingredient to a full-fledged, weapons-grade eating disorder is wanting everyone to like you. Add that to believing “pretty’ = “desirable character trait that buoys self-esteem,” mix in some toxic misogyny such as these girls are steeped in every minute, and you’ve just undone your worthy goal of inoculating them against self-destructive dieting and exercise behavior.

Maybe I could volunteer with this program. My  affirmations will be:

“THE ONLY FEELINGS I AM RESPONSIBLE FOR ARE MY OWN!”

“I PICK FRIENDS BASED ON COMPATIBILITY AND SHARED VALUES!”

“WHEN I GROW UP, I WILL BE FINANCIALLY INDEPENDENT!”

“I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK!”

All Appears Normal

Right on developmental schedule (I’ve gone and turned 40) I’m compelled to start writing memoir. It’s like studying Kabbalah – the rabbis won’t let you do it until your 40th birthday because only then, they say, do you have the depth and maturity to even make the attempt.

I will, however, resist the urge to take up acoustic guitar. 


All Appears Normal

The second I got legal permission to work in Canada, I quit my under-the-table nanny gig and applied for a job as a night security guard. I wanted to work 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., to live my days backwards, to slip in and out of work in the dark and eat spaghetti for dinner at sunrise.

A broken heart is worse in the light. A broken heart mocks you in the light. A broken heart in the broad, clear light of day is like looking at your own impetigo without a bandage. I didn’t want to be wakeful in busy daytime Toronto; didn’t want to watch couples living the happy lives they planned for – the bungalow houses and Bugaboo strollers – and then, somehow! pulled off. I needed to be up all night, wearing a sexless khaki uniform and keeping things secure that wouldn’t be secure if I (a person who was afraid of everything from garden slugs to deportation) wasn’t there. I needed, as the sun came up, to be as exhausted as I was alone.

I needed an epidural for my heart: You’re still dilated and racked with pain; you just don’t care. “Pathetic,” when numbed out a bit, can dig around in the dress-ups box, find a swoopy cape and a helmet, and disguise itself as “tough.”

The security company gave me a giant flashlight and a radio, but made me buy my own needle-proof gloves and boots.

“In case you step on a needle,” said the man who hired me. “No worries, eh!”

Within a month, I’d stepped around needles in a variety of locations – mostly the alleyways, parking garages and foyers in and around high-rise poverty pockets in the Jane and Finch neighborhood of Toronto. The “good” residents were recent legal immigrants from Africa and South America, but they were nestled among a large assortment of gang-affiliated criminals and garden-variety creeps representing the dregs of a hundred nations. They all loved to chew khat, a psychoactive leaf from southern Arabia that acts like amphetamine and worsens symptoms of mental illness in people who are already batshit crazy. When they ran out of khat, a needle would do.

It was odd: I was 34, and since middle school I’ve had recurring nightmares about getting stuck with an HIV-infected syringe. The dreams ware always vivid and literal: OK, rinse the puncture with bleach water for three minutes while squeezing the tip of my finger; get to the Emergency Department and request post-exposure prophylaxis.

I blame Ronald Reagan for every one of these dreams, stemming as they do from several years of borderline-hysterical AIDS education in the late 1980s. It’s one of my two recurring dreams – in the other, I try over and over to dial the number of someone I desperately need to talk to – or just need – but my fingers are clumsy and slip, or something is wrong with my eyes and I can’t see the numbers. In this dream, I misdial over and over again, crying with frustration and fear, hearing nothing but a dead line or a dial tone.

“Stay away from the windows,” said the girl who trained me at the site. She was a delicate blonde who’d dyed her hair jet-black and arranged it carefully into pinking-shear spikes. “People throw things. One guard almost died last year. Boom box.”

The buildings themselves were crumbling Soviet-style honeycombs with slanting hallways and horror-flick stairwells (another great place to find a needle). Part of my job was to sweep through the building every hour, then write, “All appears normal” in the security ledger. I faked a squared-off, blocky penmanship to feel tougher; less like a pathetic wuss who cried alone in bed every night and averted my eyes every time the subway train approached my ex-girlfriend’s stop (Here’s where we always used to buy hot pretzels at the kiosk!)

I was FINE. I was NOT UPSET. How could a person wearing needle-proof, steel-toed boots be upset?

In the parking garages, my heart pounded like a druggy rave bass line. Were the stompy sounds of my boots giving me away? Could the rapist/murderer crouched behind the row of decrepit cars tell exactly where I was by my sound; by my light? Underground, my radio lost reception and died. It was row after row of yellow and white lines; oil stains; unidentified susurrating sounds. A person – say, a dangerous, violent person with nowhere else to go – could live unnoticed in a large Toronto parking garage for quite a long time, only surfacing at night to go through the trash or eviscerate a security guard with a homemade shank.

No one would know where I was if I needed help. They’d just find me in the morning, stuffed behind a Dumpster or splayed out in plain sight. I would be even more of a cautionary tale for women everywhere, uniformed or not.

“This is real fear,” I’d say out loud, forcing myself to stay in the parking garage as long as possible with my flashlight off. And it was. Fear for my actual life, as opposed to fears on a more luxurious level of Maslow’s hierarchy; ambiguous or fixable fears such as “not being loved enough for who I really am” or “never making more than $10 an hour.” Blind in that dirty, cemented dark, a useless radio hanging from my pocket, was the only time my terror of what my life had become quieted a bit. Because I was still alive right now. And now. And this minute, now.

Back in the high-rise, as I swaggered past each thin, chipped door – some with sad, persistent decorations for the fall and winter holidays – I’d bump into odors solid as furniture. That’s how I learned what crack cocaine smells like – a toxic, plastic, somehow threatening smell. Get a hint of it in your nostrils and you start worrying about brain damage; liver cancer; secondhand psychosis.

“Wait ‘til you smell crack mixed with buttsex!” my spiky colleague said cheerfully. “They start smoking up; they can go all night. Sometimes we have to knock on the door, tell ‘em to keep it down.”

My shifts in the gay neighborhood at Church and Wellesley streets were more fun. There may have been buttsex, but the apartment lobbies were always tasteful, or at least kitchy in a good-humored way. I’d watch the men enter and leave in different combinations, their pretty heads popping out of winter scarves like hothouse flowers.

Occasionally, my uniform and I would be invited to a dyke party, which is how I got my next gig as a weekend bouncer at a dyke club. What people don’t know about bouncers is this: Bouncers do NOT enjoy getting on anyone’s case. Mostly you just stand there with your Bouncer Face, bored yet alert, and pray that no one fights, cries, or gets so drunk that the bar is liable for any nightmare scenarios that might ensue. Also, you listen to dance hits from the 90’s. If you woke me up out of a dead sleep and asked me to recite the lyrics to “I See You Baby” by Groove Armada featuring Gram’ma Funk, I’d sit bolt upright in bed and shout, “THIS IS THE HOUSE THAT FUNK BUILT.”

One weekend in February, my assignment was the 10,000-square-foot soap factory warehouse by the river. The Famous Soap Company had recently hired dozens of new immigrants (thereby giving them a well-deserved respite from Jane and Finch). The new workers’ rock-bottom wages effectively busted a union of men who had worked at the warehouse for thirty years or more, and they were angry. Angry enough to set up camp outside the warehouse gates and picket there all night, drinking and grumbling.

I loved the picketers’ resolve; their unwillingness to take shit from anybody. Were they hiding their faces in mute hurt and impotent rage, sobbing, Why can’t the Famous Soap Company just love me again? No. No, they were not. They set up camp by the screaming snowy mouth of the river and said, Oh, you want us gone? Come here and get rid of us, then, motherfuckers. We dare you.

My job: Park the security car just inside the warehouse gates, keep an eye on the picketers and don’t fall asleep. The hardest part was not falling asleep. I was used to my vampire schedule, but sitting in a car alone for 12 hours? A person wanes. I had a short list of activities to help keep me alert:

  1. Turning the heat on and off. Unfortunately, “heat on” also meant “engine on,” which caused me to worry even more about brain damage,
  2. Playing dance music and doing rave lights on the car’s ceiling with my flashlight,
  3. Taking off my polyester uniform slacks and masturbating, and
  4. Calling my stoner friend, Jason, and emotionally manipulating him into bringing me snacks from the convenience store.

“Oh, heeyyyyyy,” Jason would breathe into the phone. “Are you still, like, out by the lake, defending the Famous Soap factory from all enemies foreign and domestic?”

“I need dark chocolate Kit-Kats,” I’d tell him, in the same tone of voice one would use to say, “I need my electric wheelchair,” or “I need you to love me.”

While Jason was on his way, I’d do my “sweep” of the warehouse itself. I could smell the inside of the building from the parking lot, because it was full – from floor to ceiling – with pallets of soap, shampoo, dish and laundry detergent. It was the cleanest smell I’ve ever smelled, before or since.

The warehouse was a vacuum of sound – the kind of quiet that lets you hear the rush of blood in your ears. Once inside, my job was to stalk the corridors between the pallets and make sure no one had sneaked in. I didn’t really know what I WAS supposed to do, exactly, if someone popped out from between moisturizing bars and powder flakes, so I just got into it and pretended to be a stealth op. I ducked behind forklifts and practiced my night vision; I climbed up and across shelves like a ninja. I practiced my singing. If you’ve never sung “Ave Maria” at three o’clock in the morning in a 10,000 square warehouse on a winter’s night – well, take the opportunity if it ever arises.

Outside, it was cold enough to need a balaclava – or, as I called it before I knew what it was, a “face hat.” It made me look like a tiny murderer. I slipped it on over my eyes, nose, and chin, then walked out designs in the hip-high snow. I’d make a heart and then stomp the shit out of it (cathartic!); write my name with flourishes (this fucking snow is mine!) or lie down and make an angel (now my butt is frozen!)

One night, I peeked around the wall to check on the picketers. They were throwing wood onto their campfire, some of which had paint on it (more brain damage) and whooping it up over cans of Molson.

“Hi,” I said. I was so lonely.

They were friendly, especially one grey-bearded sixty-something who seemed to be the leader: “You poor kid, sitting out there in the car all by yourself! Come sit by the fire! We just put more wood!”

I sat down, as upwind as I could get, and the picketers and I shot the shit. Where was everybody from? How did we get into manufacturing and security? Who was married? Who had children? Who wanted another beer? EVERYBODY!

“Do any of you guys know old labor songs?” I asked, stomping my ice-block feet and remembering an album Ani DiFranco recorded with Utah Phillips. “Does anyone know ‘Bread and Roses?’”

They didn’t. “I’ll sing it for you,” I offered. Possibly the burning paint fumes were kicking in.

“RALPH! ANDY! SHUT THE HELL UP AND LET THE LADY SING!” said my grey-bearded champion.

“OK, I said. “Ready?”

As we go marching, marching

In the beauty of the day


A million darkened kitchens


A thousand mill lofts gray

Are touched with all the radiance

That a sudden sun discloses


For the people hear us singing


Bread and roses, bread and roses

Our lives shall not be sweetened


From birth until life closes


Hearts starve as well as bodies


Give us bread but give us roses

Thunderous applause, and then they wanted to learn it. Years later, after I became a teacher, I would remember their pure and furious commitment to learn this song (whether due to drunkenness or a passion for the labor movement) and the ferocity with which they coached each other (“Mill lofts, dumbass! MILL LOFTS!”) They had never sung in a chorus before, but by God, that wasn’t going to stop them.

“Pretend the sound is coming from a hole in the top of your head,” I coached like Mrs. Dorsey used to when I was a soprano in the Tucson Girls’ Chorus a lifetime before. I took them through the scales – octave up; octave down; major; minor; arpeggio. What they lacked in talent they made up for in beery panache.

As the first threads of light came up over the horizon, we sang “Solidarity Forever,” which I’d memorized during my History of Justice class as a high school sophomore in order to protest tunefully while my father made me pull weeds in the backyard. We sang, and we smelled like paint and smoke and soap. We sang, and the wind stabbed us from the river. We sang, and without our brain and muscle not a single wheel could turn.

The sun pushed up hard from the horizon. All appears normal, I wrote in the security ledger before I went home for my spaghetti breakfast. In my own, my real, handwriting.

In ancient Sparta

phonaesthetica:

Truth. And brilliantly written.

Originally posted on Hypotaxis:

There’s a play/movie that I like called Doubt. I have an affinity for nuns, and the play centers around nuns, so there’s that. In any case, in the film version, Meryl Streep delivers a line that often resurfaces in my head: “In ancient Sparta, important matters were decided by who shouted loudest. Fortunately, we are not in ancient Sparta.”

But we are in ancient Sparta, in a way. All too often the opportunity to have reasoned, rational discourse around gender, women’s space, women’s boundaries, women’s lives is hijacked and destroyed by those who “shout loudest.” Worse still, perhaps, is the fact that women who speak openly, who are willing to assert their positions (and who are unapologetic about those positions) are fiercely attacked — mocked, berated with misogynistic slurs, threatened with sexual violence. Those who most often engage in these tactics are male. Or, sometimes, they are employed by women…

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