Convert or perish: On Germaine Greer

This post is a collaboration with the brilliant Hypotaxis.

Regular readers of our blogs don’t need an introduction to the canonical liberation feminist work of Germaine Greer, nor do they need a recap of what’s happening to her in the news this week. But, to sum up: Greer is under fire for hurting Bruce Jenner’s feels – and by extension, the feels of other men who say they are women – for maintaining that they are not, in fact, women, and that misogyny is the basis of Glamour magazine’s decision to consider Bruce Jenner for its Woman of the Year award, i.e., Jenner’s pretty hair, makeup, nails and fashion make him a better woman than someone who was simply born a woman.

Because of this, Cardiff University – Greer’s own academic institution – will not offer her an honorary degree; nor will it allow her a platform to speak. A petition with nearly 2,000 signatures accuses Greer of  “demonstrating misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether.”

These are lies.

In this six-minute interview clip, Greer makes it very clear she believes male-to-female transsexuals should “carry on,” should do what they need to do to feel comfortable; and that she’s happy to use “female speech forms as a courtesy.”:

However, here’s where she doesn’t bend: Male-to-female transsexuals are men, and Bruce Jenner is angling for the kind of attention lavished on the Kardashian women.

“I’m not saying that people should not be allowed to go through the procedure,” Greer says. “What I’m saying is it doesn’t make them a woman. It happens to be an opinion; it’s not a prohibition.”

The interviewer persists in dragging the discussion into various side alleys – What about intersex, huh? What about someone who has a uterus and testes, huh? Aren’t you being insulting? Some people think this kind of speech incites violence.

Greer, patiently, re-iterates that intersex conditions and transsexuality are two different things; reminds the interviewer that trans has never been her issue (because, guess what, her issue is WOMEN); and then cracks herself up laughing at the recollection of the many times she herself has been insulted.

“Try being an old woman!” she says, and we know what she means: An old woman is invisible; is offensive by continuing to exist long after her beauty and fertility and usefulness to men are gone.

In fact, hey – look at the first comments posted here underneath the interview:


No one is accusing these commenters – especially the second – of violent, hateful, dehumanizing speech, as they would if the comment were directed toward, say, Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner: that’s because Greer is female; is elderly; is firm in her unpopular, non-male-centered opinion. So it doesn’t matter what people say about her. She no longer counts.

While older men are celebrated for their wisdom and important insight (think, for example, an entire Oscar-winning documentary, The Fog of War, centered on the musings of an eighty-something McNamara), society does not regard older women in the same way. We do not afford older women the opportunity to be heard – unless they are willing, as say, Betty White, to perform for our amusement.

The liberal feminist movement itself is consumed in a deep, profound hatred of older women who are feminists. “Second Wave” has become a pejorative, principally because what the Second Wave represented was women’s refusal to cater to the needs and demands of men; to emancipate themselves from patriarchy.

Liberal feminists work tirelessly to distance themselves from the women who came before – be they Second Wave or suffragette. Liberal feminists have been conditioned to cut themselves off from their predecessors because their predecessors did not prioritize the way men might feel if women earned the right to vote, take birth control, start a group, publish a book, found a magazine, apply for credit, or get a job.

Second Wave feminists, in particular, were not afraid to say men and men’s needs were the primary cause of women’s suffering – even Betty Friedan, founder of NOW, got freaked out and attempted to distance herself as feminists of the 60s and 70s started to openly, unabashedly name the problem. And though we can’t speak for Friedan, we would hazard that she knew men were the problem, but distanced herself from the claim in order that she not end up, at the tail end of her career and life, villainized the way Greer is being villainized now. (And yes, we are also aware Friedan was afraid of being labeled a lesbian, and saw lesbians as a detriment to the movement.)

Even Gloria Steinem came out in support of the idea of ladybrain – and we don’t think she believes it any more than Greer does. But because the current liberal feminist mandate is that female is a feeling in a man’s head, Greer and Steinem have both been faced with a difficult choice: Say you’ve converted to Genderism (even if you haven’t) or be prepared to have your entire life’s work eclipsed by our culture’s staid belief that hurting a man’s feelings amounts to blasphemy.  

Convert or perish.

Young liberal feminist women have been given terms like “queer” and “cis” to confuse them into believing that their suffering is not real or, if it is real, it does not result from being born female.

When older sisters, like Greer, speak, when they say, “Listen! Women and girls have real, actual problems that have nothing to do with a man’s ability to craft the visage of ‘woman’” we, as a society, are quick to censure them, to call them “mad,” to infer they are insane with old age.

This is a trope, a motif. We see this in countless so-called “classic” and “beloved” tales: Great Expectations, Sunset Boulevard, Snow White, Macbeth, to name a very small few. We see this pattern, too, in our pop culture, in our politics: an aging woman is an angry woman, is jealous, is insane, is a being (not quite human, not quite woman) bent on evil.

The only “good woman” over fifty is one who is silent, deferential, nurturing, OR willing to make a fucking fool of herself.

But if one was to actually listen to a single word Greer has said on the topic, one would hear that hers are not the belligerent ravings of a madwoman, but rational, intelligent responses to a lunatic conversation she has been relentlessly dragged into despite the fact, as she has repeatedly stated, that she has zero interest whatsoever in discussing the matter, or thinking about the matter.

Here’s the bizarre reality: this interviewer is seated across from Germaine Greer – brilliant scholar, feminist icon, a woman who has nearly eighty years of experience and insight – and the best she can do is ask her about Bruce fucking Jenner?

But we, I suppose, are in the minority in that we value older women; we have friendships with women who are twenty, thirty, forty years our senior; we look to our elder sisters for advice, and are eager to hear their perspectives. We do not see women like Greer as freakish “others.”

Cardiff will not give Greer her earned and deserved honorary degree because she, unlike Steinem, refuses to espouse a belief in ladybrain. Greer will not betray a lifetime of scholarship and activism, she will not disappear her convictions, in order to cradle the fragile male ego, in order to pander to bullshit liberal feminism, and to perpetuate what we all know is a gigantic fucking lie.

But you know who wasn’t denied an honorary degree? Mike Tyson, a man who raped and beat women. Mike Tyson, who BIT ANOTHER MAN’S EAR OFF ON LIVE TELEVISION.

Who else; who else. Oh, yeah: Kanye West, author of immortal rap lyrics including  ”We got this bitch shaking like Parkinson’s,” “Black dick all in your spouse again,” and “I keep it 300, like the Romans/300 bitches, where’s the Trojans?” has an honorary doctorate.

So does Kermit the Frog. No shit. From Southampton College.

Roman Polanski anally-raped a female child. He gets LOTS of awards and makes LOTS of speeches.  

Hurt feelings — hell, hurt bodies —  in no way jeopardize a man’s public career. Very few men are maligned for talking shit about women, and absolutely no man is shamed for speaking, as Greer has, in simple, verifiable facts.

Go back a second, though, to Kanye’s Trojans, because this whole Greer thing forcibly reminds us of the ancient Greek myth of Apollo and Cassandra.

Despite his good looks, Apollo didn’t have such a great reputation with the ladies. He had a history of attempted rape (which, in ancient mythology, is not regarded as too great a transgression), and of bribing women for sex.  For Apollo, a figure who is supposed to represent the “perfect man” in form and intellect, all women could be bought, and when they could not be bought, they could be forced, and if they could not be bought or forced, they would be cursed.

When he offered Cassandra, a Trojan woman, the power of prophecy in exchange for sex, she gave it some thought but ultimately rejected him. Apollo, in turn, cursed her: she would have prophetic gifts, but never be believed.

In fact, she would be thought a liar and a madwoman.

And so, when Cassandra foresaw the Trojan War, no one listened.

When she insisted, “The Trojan Horse is full of men hiding!” people laughed at and insulted her.

Finally, she grabbed an axe and a burning torch and ran toward the horse, in an effort to destroy it before it destroyed Troy – but the Trojans stopped her, therefore ensuring their own destruction.

The men hiding in the horse were tremendously relieved.

“Herself” – Does anyone really listen to what a naked woman says?

Herself, a new “feminist” photo project currently making the rounds online, features lots of naked women. Created by a TV actress, Herself purports to “highlight’s women’s sexuality on their own terms” and “help demystify the female form, to assist in the erasure of coveting it, and to help celebrate the ever changing face of it.”

Sounds legit! I don’t know what “the erasure of coveting it” means (“you guys, let’s stop being jealous of each other’s boobs”)? but I’m all for demystifying the female form. If we can do that, why, perhaps we can successfully address female genital mutilation, breast cancer, bad hetero sex, child marriage, maternal death, the practice of raping virgins to cure AIDS, and starvation dieting!

More background from the creator of Herself, who (offensively, to me) identifies as “a lesbian who has a male partner”:

My vagina has been an unending and constant source of turmoil for me – not that vaginas are intrinsically female, it’s just happened to be a big part of womanhood for me personally – UTI’s, PH imbalances, sexual dysfunction, pain, discomfort. Sexual education is no way near comprehensive enough as all of these things I’ve had to learn myself, treat myself and diagnose myself. I’m still struggling to gain control over my body, over my vagina.

Not that vaginas are intrinsically…okay, whatever; let’s just evaluate the project on its merits.

We consider a woman’s sexuality so linked to her physicality that for a woman to appear naked publicly is automatically an act of sex and not for herself.

Now we’re getting there, wherever the fuck “there” is. Why is appearing naked on the Internet something a woman does, or should do, “for herself”? What does she get, “for herself,” out of being viewed, naked, by strangers? What does she get that she can’t get by writing a song; throwing a pot; playing a sport? What is this special thing, and why does a woman need it so much, “for herself”?

Also: When was the last time you saw a man naked on the Internet “for himself”? Men love to get things for themselves, so you can bet that if the thing was something worth getting, there’d be naked men all over the Internet, cradling their ballsacks in their hands and calling it “agency.”

Men don’t appear naked online for reasons of personal empowerment. They don’t have to, they don’t want to, and they won’t because they know: Any empowerment you get from being looked at naked is false empowerment.

And men should know! That’s the false empowerment they hand out all the time!

Annnd more from the creator of Herself:

There’s also a very specific construct of woman we are all used to seeing, and while those women are no less women, I was so desperate to see different faces, different bodies.

But…but these photos look like anything you’d see in Playboy – coy three-quarter views; a woman holding her breasts aloft; lots of lifted arms, parted lips and non-threatening gazing into the middle distance. Oh, wait – I see two African-American women. One has a snake curling around her neck. Yowza! A snake! So transgressive!

More observations: All the shots here are portrait-style. None of the women is doing anything that a subject would do – no running, swimming, lifting or jumping. Just posing. Like an object does.

There are interviews to accompany the photos, but they don’t go very deep (“What is feminism?” “Feminism is a woman’s right to choose.”)

I’d have followed that question up with “Choose what, exactly? In which sociopolitical power structures do these choices present themselves? Do these power structures offer authentic choices, or just the least worst of a lot of bad options? Are these choices available to all women? Finally, do you have access to any websites or newspapers in which you might read about the actual state of women’s lives and rights in most of the world?”

I don’t see any truly obese or disabled women (although there is one woman with one breast two cup sizes larger than the other).

I don’t see visible muscle. Where are my bodybuilders?

I don’t see any short haircuts.

I don’t see any scars, burns, or prostheses.

I don’t see any old-fashioned pubic hair; the kind that makes your Area 51 look like an upside-down troll doll.

Most importantly, I don’t see any women over 35, the threshold of sexual invisibility. No gray hair here; no wrinkles. It has not yet occurred to the 24-year-old creator of this piece what aging-related invisibility feels like; what it does. The moments when you are made to understand that you don’t matter anymore because you’re a middle-aged woman? If your “empowerment” comes, historically, from being looked at naked – well, you will die a thousand times before they finally plant you.

The creator’s inspiration for the project?

It was really born out of hearing the incredible stories of the women around me, both socially and online. With #yesallwomen and #freethenipple I was opened up to a whole world of women struggling for equality, demanding to be heard and finding empowerment through honesty and solidarity.

How does posing naked on the Internet aid our struggle for equality? Is it going to affect the pay gap? Or domestic violence trends? Or does it just make us have powerful feelz, like when we listen to Sleater-Kinney whilst ironing?

And, as for “demanding to be heard” – does anyone really listen to what a naked woman says? Especially when you can see a naked woman online for free any time of day or night?

The creator of this piece thinks she’s reclaiming “ownership” of women’s bodies by showing them naked on the Internet. She thinks she’s being transgressive; she thinks she’s subverting a larger cultural narrative.

But that’s bullshit, because what does “ownership” mean? It means “something salable.” It’s the language of commodification. And again, no one talks about a man’s “ownership” of, or “agency” over his body, because that would be ridiculous, because those things are givens when you are male in this world.

Herself, while well-intended, is the same-as-it-ever-was narrative; the same male-gaze. But it’s a lot sadder than that. Herself is the male gaze filtered through a female lens. These women (like most women in the world) see themselves through men’s eyes. They close mirrored doors around themselves to see a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. We do this because we cannot help ourselves; because the messaging is so strong and so consistent and so deeply intentional that we cannot tell ourselves the truth: The call is coming from inside the house.

I am my own wreckage; I am my own black box

Last week, I became someone who never had children.

Before then, I was someone who simply didn’t have them.  In March, though, I joined the waiting list for sperm from a bank that gives its donors names like “Woody” (or “Kim,” if they’re Asian). I read 17 pages of my guy’s family history and listened to his 10-minute interview.

“What advice would you like to pass on to your future child?” the interviewer asked.

“Life is hard,” he replied. “But if you can stay interested in things, it’s also a great adventure.”

“Staying interested in things,” simple as it sounds, is a full-spectrum anti-depression light box for the soul. Put me down for four vials! (It was a twofer deal). I loved this guy!

I even loved that he was only five foot eight. His family was full of short men married to tall women, so I figured they must really have it going on in terms of personality. Short men have to build character if they want to pass on their genes, my dad says. My dad is five foot six. He told me to “stop messing around and just pick the tallest donor in the catalog.”

But before I made the decision; before I shelled out $1200 for the first insemination cycle, I got my hormones and egg reserve checked. I’d been peeing on ovulation test sticks for three months but never saw the digital “O” in the window; the little open mouth of anticipation.

I felt like the urine was too close to the angels gathering here

I felt like the urine was too close to the angels gathering here.

After the doctor took my blood, she wrote me a prescription for Clomid “to get going on all fronts.” But that blister pack of pills might as well have contained Skittles, because when my lab work came back we saw that Nature had made her position clear in hard, unassailable numbers. Looking at them I felt neither pain nor surprise, which, I am told, is the case when a bullet strikes the heart.

I was too late.

The world’s most facile metaphor rose out of a rogue memory circa 1994: my friend Eddie’s alarm clock when we were sophomores in college. Eddie was not a morning person, and he had hit the snooze button so many times – and so hard – that there was a fingerprint-sized dent in it.

There was never a right time. That’s a thing people say:  “There’s never a right time to have kids! So just be brave and have them!”

Would the right time have been when I was 18 and sleeping with a dumb guy who eagerly awaited his issue of Guns & Ammo every month? When I was 22 with no work experience and struggling in a shaky marriage? When I was 27 and obsessed with a drummer who ghosted after a couple of months because I wasn’t an orthodox Jew? When I was 28 and coming out as a lesbian? When I was 32, living illegally in Canada with a transsexual who hated kids? When I was alone again, a broke graduate student at 35? Or when I was 37 and fell in in love with a woman who already had two teenagers and lived 400 miles away?

I mean, really. When?

Women do have children in these circumstances (and much worse) with no regrets, but it felt wrong to me. Irresponsible. I bought books about single motherhood (“Knock Yourself Up”) but they were geared toward women with money or a support system, neither of which I had. There was no big, warm, multigenerational family who’d say, “Congratulations, P! What’s one more kid! Come into the kitchen and help cook a big hot dish!”

Of course, I did make choices: I pursued several different partners who weren’t interested in children, and passed up several who were. I chose not to select a partner who was just OK, in the interests of having a family. When I was working as a nanny, I saw this breed of partnership close up – the woman was 30something and running out of eggs and time and fucks to give in terms of whether or not the man (or woman) she married was anything but…OK. Solid. Workable.

No shade: that’s a satisfying choice for many women. Just not for me.

So the years went by. And every time I came back to the question, I imagined all the awesome – the way babies laugh incredulously at random stuff; how they rub the hair off the backs of their heads and get bald spots like little old men; the sudden shift in consciousness when they turn three years old and become more of a real person and less of a dog or a cat who can talk. I imagined watching my seven-year-old develop near-Jesuitical argumentative skills and star in the school play as a radish. I imagined a wry, funny middle schooler; a houseful of my bright teenager’s wacky friends.

I forced myself to imagine these things, too:

  • Sitting alone with a feverish baby in a crowded clinic, afraid it’s a staph infection from day care and knowing I’ve run out of paid time off work.
  • Watching a child take her first steps, without anyone for me to turn to and say, “LOOK LOOK SHE’S WALKING!”
  • Hearing screaming in the night and being so bone-deep exhausted that I’m physically unable to get out of bed for a full 10 minutes.
  • A partner whose heart just isn’t in it. A child who sees that.
  • Getting up for work at 6 a.m. over and over and over again, after being awake all night – that unreal, hovering-above-my-own-head feeling of sleep deprivation; those grains of sand underneath the eyelids.
  • Living in a crappy school district because $$$. Knowing exactly what that means for my child.
  • A pediatrician saying, “Yes, there’s definitely cause for concern. I’m going to refer you to a specialist, but your insurance won’t cover it.”

And in the end, what I wanted was a family. That seemed like the fun part; the co-creative adventure. A family, not just me-and-a-kid. And that didn’t happen. It just didn’t.

I think of who my daughter might have been. Compact; husky-voiced. Good at math like my mother; a seismologist of the mood and motivations in any given room, like my father. An obsessive athlete; a poet; a too-fast driver with a laugh like a handful of coins tossed in the air.

I had a name for her.

Nature, though, is smart and may be offering an ineluctable mercy. Much as I’d like to be the kind of person who could handle a child with Down syndrome or the kind of severe autism that makes kids wail inconsolably and bite their own hands, I’m not. When I see middle-aged developmentally-disabled adults walking the aisles of Safeway with their tired, elderly mothers – who, when they die, will leave these grown children to the mercies of institutions or the streets – I know I couldn’t handle it. Or, fine, I could “handle” it, but I’d have a hell of a time prising the joys out of the pain, disappointment and worry. I always thought that “Dear Abby” fable about Italy vs. Holland was oversimplified; more disingenuous and twee than inspiring.

And even if adoption was easy – even if I could get a healthy baby tomorrow morning – I find much to dissuade me in this blog. I’m troubled by a system that tells women, Sorry, but you’re too poor/too young/too single to be a mother and tells the child, The woman who gave birth to you loved you so much, she gave you away. But then we chose you, so be grateful!

I wanted a part of life I won’t get, but the other parts aren’t exactly consolation prizes: Travel, friendship, books, sleep, a rock-hard set of abs, and the company of good and gentle animals. I won’t see my eyes in someone else’s face, but I’ll see a Tuscan sunset at the end of a two-week cycling trip through Europe. I’ll see Galapagos. I’ll see…whatever the version of me with a child wouldn’t get to see.

My life will have a different meaning, that’s all.

I’m not bothered by people who say I’ve missed out on the Most Important and Profound Thing a Woman Can Ever Do, because deep down I don’t think that’s true. The idea is unimaginative and misogynist across the board. Important and profound, for sure. The be-all and end-all of female existence? No.

It’s true, the only people who’d visit me in old-person assisted-living will be there by choice and can stop coming by anytime, but (a) I’ll be able to afford assisted living with the money I’m not spending on children; (b) It’s an excellent motivation to seek out, retain, and invest in friends-as-family; (c) I could die of a surprise heart defect or in the Global Water Wars long before then; and (d) People with kids die alone all the time.

Perk #1 of middle age:  Realizing just how much I’m not in control of.

Perk #2: Knowing I’m not special, and neither are my genes, and not passing them on isn’t a tragedy.

Perk #3: Understanding I can’t transfuse the meaning of, or the answers to, my own life into someone else’s, whether I’d had kids or not. I can’t recuse myself from the task of meaning- and answer-making. No one else can be the black box in the middle of my wreckage.

The older we get, the further our possibilities narrow. We begin with an infinite number of possible lives, and every day, that number decreases. One day in third grade, you have the potential to be an Olympic gymnast; the next day, you break your arm or lose interest in the vault…and then you don’t. In high school, you get a ‘C’ in physics and Yale is no longer a possibility. Day after day, you don’t leave your sad marriage, and one day you hit a tipping point and know that no one else will ever touch you again.

You choose a city, a home, a partner, a career, an addiction, and soon the only way to experience anything else is through fiction and/or lies. Avenue after avenue closes down, and all of a sudden, you’re in one specific neighborhood with a cul-de-sac. You sit there reading the last page of a Choose Your Own Adventure book you loved as a kid, and then someone comes along and takes the book away.

That’s one reason we have babies: behind their blinking, muttering faces are impossibly intricate networks of possible lives, and we’re comforted by this. We’re inspired. As we should be. As is right.

I don’t have an ending for this post that wraps around neatly to reference the beginning.

I don’t know how it ends.

Congratulations, and I’m sorry: An imaginary time-travel instant-message conversation with my 16-year-old self

Phona39: Hi

phona16: hi

Phona39: How are you?

phona16: fat. everyone knows you’re supposed to see three diamonds between your legs when you stand with your feet together in front of a full-length mirror. how much do you weigh?

Phona39: About a hundred and twelve pounds.

phona16: gross. why did you let yourself go? is it because you’re old and like it doesn’t matter anymore?

Phona39: Let me tell you something about your body, little P; and about the bodies of all the women in our family: You are on something of a time delay, with a rockin’ behind –

phona16; hee hee ew “behind” stop so lame

Phona39: – which will not even begin to reach its full potential until your mid-to-late twenties. You also have a predisposition for putting on muscle, and you are very strong. It turns out you find a lot of joy in movement.

phona16: i hate exercise

Phona39: No, you don’t. What you hate – and I don’t blame you – is second-period P.E. class at Gila Javelina High School in Tucson, Arizona. You hate running around in a field of sunburnt grass, being made fun of by the teacher and that little asshole Jason Collier, who, by the way, will serve six years in prison on drug-related conspiracy charges in the mid-90’s. Any sensible person would hate this. You hate the heat and you hate running and you’re basically a hologram before ten o’clock in the morning, and none of this will change, but there’s a lot you’re going to love, too.

phona16: like, i’ll love my family, right? do you have a lawyer husband?

Phona39: Not anymore.

phona16: WHY NOT. THAT WAS THE PLAN. don’t you have three children?

phona39:  No.

Phona16: oh, my god. you’re all alone?!????

Phona39: It’s really not that simple.

phona16: why did we even set this thing up

Phona39: What?

phona16: this wack talking thing

Phona39: Here’s the only way I can phrase it that you’ll sort of understand: Plans don’t always work out. Some things happen, and other things don’t happen. Sometimes we make deliberate choices; other times we get dramatic surprises. Sometimes we get our hearts broken in very important ways. Sometimes we realize we don’t want the things we thought we wanted – and actually, it turns out we actually want the things we were afraid of and trying to avoid.

phona16: well great, because for a minute i thought you were gonna be VAGUE about this

Phona39: It’s like – well, you know how you love Nestle Crunch bars? Milk chocolate with little bits of rice in it you get for 35 cents from the school vending machine? How that’s all you want sometimes, even though you try so hard not to?

phona16: um yeah

Phona39: It’s like that on a grand scale. A dozen years from now, you won’t want those at all.  They’ll taste like wax, because you’ll know better treats – raw cacao paired with a lush red wine in a basement club in Prague; a transcendent aged cheese plate with a group of smart, funny friends in Toronto; a cracking bowl of impromptu pasta and fresh veggies your girlfriend makes for the two of you share in bed.

phona 16: ???

Phona39: There are…circumstances. There are conditions at play that, were you living in a different culture, nation, or time, you would understand as fate, justice, or the will of the gods. Right now, you live in black and white, but the grays are coming and they’re coming for you. Congratulations, and I’m sorry.

phona16: what wait what

Phona39: Anyway. What happens is, you end up having a huge capacity for love of varying stripes, not just the kinds you believe right now are worthwhile and acceptable. You find a lot of people, things, and ideas to fall in love with, and the only thing you wish you could go back and do differently – besides moving to Canada to marry a pre-op transsexual you’d never seen in direct sunlight –

phona16: what’s a

Phona39: – are the hours you’ve spent, and will spend between the you that is you and the you that is me, hating your body and finding it disgusting. Plus, you’ll also wish you’d taken up weight training early. Everything else is a learning experience.

phona16: weights are for boys

Phona39: Oh, honey.

phona16: whatever. is our hair grown out to our waist, at least?

Phona39: Um

phona16: never mind. i don’t actually want to know anymore. it’s ok

Phona39: It is OK. It’s really all OK. Better, even. I promise.

phona16: mmmhm. see you

Phona39: See you.


cut on the bias

Ever seen a cat walk around with a piece of tape stuck on the bottom of its foot, all kerflummoxed and sad? That was me at the Ann Taylor store this weekend; also Talbot’s, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers Women, J. Jill, J. Crew. Oh, and the Armani Exchange. They sell giant crosses and Italian horns.

Normally, I avoid Ann Taylor — I am cognitive dissonance itself in a cardigan twin set — but needed a size-0 Grown-Up Lady Costume (GULC) for a professional event. So I betook myself to the fancy-person outdoor mall in Scottsdale, where all the late-middle-aged women had beautiful, terrifying faces that forcibly reminded me of a baby’s butt: Two smooth, round cheeks waaay up high. The “vampire facial” is a thing in Scottsdale. A doctor INJECTS YOUR OWN GELLED BLOOD INTO YOUR FACE.

Kohlrabi smoothies are big there, too.

Teachers generally wear jeans in case they have to flush a pack of stoners out of the heating ducts, so I always just try on four pairs at Lucky, pick the ones that aren’t too tight on my CrossFit thighs, and have them hemmed because who the hell has a 36-inch inseam? Casual clothes shopping in my late thirties is easy because my body has taken on a shape and a horizon. It’s basically what it’s going to be. The cement has set here. Barring some freak metabolic illness, I’ll never again put on or drop 20 pounds in three weeks.

But I haven’t needed dress-ups in years, which is why, if you were at the outdoor Scottsdale mall this weekend, you saw me weeping on a bench outside Ann Taylor’s. I needed a suit and a shell to wear under the suit that wasn’t a tank top and also “neutral pumps” and nylons to go with them. It reminded me of doing a Rubik’s Cube as a kid, where I’d get one side all lined up and then realize that, in doing so, I’d screwed up the other side. Every GULC I tried on was either:

tight, frilly, patterned, itchy, like I was about to sing Gloria Gaynor onstage in bad drag


gray, boxy Shamewear for women who’ve had the audacity to age and still appear in public.

I felt hideous and greasy and bloated. In the World’s Most Facile Metaphor, I got stuck with a dress over my head and panicked. My short haircut, which I love, was suddenly wrong for every outfit. In the feminine stuff, it just looked mismatched; in the Shamewear I became a Pocket Bulldyke.  (I love bulldykes, but I’m not one).

There’s something wrong with my body, I thought. The gym isn’t working. I eat too many carbs. The florescent light showed every little dimple, every rolling hill-ette. What looked so strong and powerful doing box jumps and power cleans the day before was suddenly all wrong wrong wrong. I was 15 again.

I am fat fuck, I texted my girlfriend. I go on big big diet. 

She was, as always, the best — You have a beautiful body. You just need to find a style that works for you — and sent me a dozen links to non-shame-spirally things.  I sat down and drank a mineral water. A shoe saleslady hit on me (“You should…come back after your event and tell me how it goes”). I re-achieved equilibrium and thanked God I didn’t have to shop more often, because apparently, I still feel despair about my body given the right set of culturo-retail circumstances. And I’m a size 0 who owns every book Andrea Dworkin ever wrote.

Shit. No wonder we’re all going nuts.

Remember; resist, do not comply.*

i don't get it

I watched this monstrosity go up outside the downtown library in the summer of 1990. It was the summer I wore teal Hammer pants with tiny wild animal graphics; the summer before I could drive; the Third Summer Of Not Eating. There used to be grass here, not brick, so I lay a few feet away as the workmen pounded and hoisted. I wondered what it was supposed to be.

“It’s art,” intoned a homeless woman sharing the grass with me, as though she could read my thoughts. Which maybe she could. “It’s alien art.” She raised her bottle and took a swig.

1990 was the hottest summer on record here. A hundred and seventeen degrees and I had lost “home alone privileges” because the therapy wasn’t working too well. Why couldn’t I mix chocolate Slim-Fast with water and chase it with a Dulcolax? What was wrong with swimming 500 laps in the pool?

The world doesn’t need another eating-disorder narrative. We’re all stocked up on manic-languorous accounts of little fingertips tracing bone and jabbing uvula. The only important things I can say go like this: You start out having it and it ends up having you. It keeps you MUCH longer than you want to stay. It’s a religion in which you are the deity. It’s the loneliest church in the world.

I was 15 then and I’m 38 now, and the monstrosity outside the library still stands. The cultural jabs re: how I should look and the measure of my overall power and worth have changed since 1990. Only the cruelty is the same. “Forty-year-old woman” is a synonym for many things, yes? But I have a secret weapon against the terror of aging (not to mention fitspo) that a woman who didn’t spend years learning how not to starve and puke; a woman who didn’t discover radical feminist theory might lack. I understand that:

1. The game is rigged;


2. You don’t have to play.

There’s visceral relief mixed in with the horror when you realize: Women are all objects. Young, old, fat, thin, powerful, vulnerable, conventionally attractive or odd-looking — generally speaking, in most of the world, that’s the dominant message. Read the news. Read more and more. Think in full paragraphs. Every minute you throw some new/improved version of yourself into the fire and wait for oracular approval is a minute wasted. It’s like reading an endless scroll of YouTube comments: You cannot come away unhurt. And you’ll look up to find it’s 23 years later.

Don’t waste that kind of time. Don’t watch the shows. Don’t look at the photos. Don’t participate in conversations about “thigh gap” or how old is too old to have a baby. As far as you’re able, disturb the narrative. Of course, none of us are exceptions and none of us can opt out totally, but Margaret Cho said it best:

“…one day I just said, ‘Hey, what if this is it? What if this is just what I look like and nothing I do changes that? So how much time would I save if I stopped taking that extra second every time I look in the mirror to call myself a big fat fuck? How much time would I save if I just let myself walk by a plate-glass window without sucking in my gut and throwing back my shoulders? How much time would I save?’ And it turns out I save about 97 minutes a week. I can take a pottery class.”

With a device that in 1990 was still science fiction, I took this photo in front of the library today. The sculpture is the same, all spidery red gloss and pigeon spikes. It is here, and I am gone.


*Andrea Dworkin (but you knew that already).

Breaking up with CrossFit

CrossFit is like a beautiful, crazy woman I can’t stop loving, no matter how many times she sets fire to my house. So this could be a weenie “breakup” wherein I go back later with fresh hopes, or a weenie “taking a break” wherein I never do.

I’ve done CrossFit for three years. Four days a week, I lace up my Ivov-8’s, check the whiteboard, and get after whatever’s on tap for the day. I’m strong, fast, and agile — likely in the top fittest 10% of any random group of 38-year-old women as long as we keep the Eastern Europeans out of the mix. CrossFit has helped get me there, and it’s been exhilarating — the timer goes off and my heart starts to pound before I even move because the challenge is to be the fastest, strongest, and most agile version of myself for the next 8 or 12 or 20 minutes.

I love throwing heavy weights over my head; I love jumping 35 inches into the air. CF has given me physical confidence that transfers into other areas of my life — if I can do this, I can face down 140 teenagers every day at work; I can say no to toxic relationships; I can trust myself.

CrossFit has gotten more hands around more barbells than anything else in the history of weight training. It asks women to lift seriously; to sweat; to build muscular strength and power – and for this, in a sea of candy-colored 2- and 3-pound dumbbells and Tracy Anderson tone-up shysters, I am grateful. But. Here are my problems with CrossFit (hat tip to Beth French at Lift Big, Make It Beautiful):

  • The sexualization of women’s fitness. I’m sick of the “snatch” jokes; the Lulu booty shorts; and the Reebok sponsorship tie-in tagline: “Turning Sevens into Tens” (CF makes average-looking women into knockouts, as measured by the time-honored frat-boy rating system) No pressure on male athletes to be sexxxay AND badass; just the women. One popular CF T-shirt reads, “Cheat On Your Girlfriend, Not Your Workout.” Another reads, “Strong Is The New Skinny,” which translates to “CrossFit: Exchanging One Form Of Miserable Body Dysmorphia For Another.”
  • The injury trap. Do most CrossFit workouts the way they’re written, and you will get hurt. For example: Heavy high-rep snatches for time. The snatch is a highly technical Olympic  lift; a lift which, if you fuck it up, has the potential to rip your shoulders out of their sockets. The best way to fuck up an Oly lift is to do it lots and lots of times, with heavy weight, against a clock. This is a recipe for sloppiness.  Sloppiness means injury.  I was once laid up for three weeks after giving myself snatch-related whiplash (insert joke here).
  • The emphasis on making the numbers. Got an obsessive element to your personality, or a history of eating disorders? CF can act as gasoline on that fire. Never mind that whoever wrote the workout doesn’t know you, your body, or your fitness level — by God, the whiteboard says 30 clean-and-jerks for time; you’re gonna clean and jerk as fast as possible — even when your form degrades. That’s how I did something to my back three months ago that still hurts.
  • The disingenuous way some CF coaches/gyms tell you to “know your limits” while simultaneously pushing pushing pushing you past them. Then, when you get hurt? You’re the asshole who didn’t know your limits, so your injury is your fault. Have fun waiting two weeks to get in to see an orthopedist, and I hope you’ve set aside $500 for that MRI.
  • The false correlation between injury and being a badass. It’s part of CrossFit’s bravado  culture to insist that pain is mental; to get that last…rep…no…matter…what. Grinding pain in your knee/shoulder/elbow? Sharp agony in your lower back? Push past it! Too many people at my gym have suffered moderate-to-severe injuries — cervical disc damage; elbow fractures; torn ligaments. Can you imagine how painful and disabling those injuries are going to be in 10,15, 30 years? The point of exercise is to feel better, not worse — to age with strength, not worsen the inevitable aches and pains. I mean, we’re not at war here, OK? There’s, like, some nice Kombucha in the gym fridge just across from the racks. No reason to be a hero.
  • Inadequate training for CF coaches. Want to get certified? It’ll cost you about $1,000 for a two-day course and a 50-question multiple-choice test. Then you’re qualified to hold a stopwatch and scream, “GO GO GO, YOU GOT THIS!” Some coaches are excellent; some are clueless, and there’s no real quality control. The onus is on you to make sure your coach is skilled — difficult to discern if you’re not already an expert yourself.
  • The expense. CF’s $150/month price point tends to attract only upper-middle-class people. The CF Games are, fundamentally, a selection process to identify the world’s whitest person with the most disposable income.
  • The competitive trap. Ostensibly, you only compete with yourself, but it’s near-impossible not to look at the athlete next to you, powering through those high-rep snatches, and not try to surpass her/him. Unfortunately, the athlete next to you may be 60 pounds heavier and 8 inches taller; or 20 years younger; or independently wealthy with nothing else to do but CF and shop for cool Lululemon shit online.
  • The competitions themselves, and problematic emphasis on same. CF is not a sport, mkay? It’s a competitive activity, but it’s generalist, not a sport. Four frantic minutes of 65/100 pound thrusters and chest-to-bar-pullups? Not a sport, especially when you have athletes of wildly disparate size and weight competing against one another. But the energy funneled into competition makes some coaches neglect regular members — the ones scrimping and pinching $150 a month to belong to the gym.
  • The refusal to take aging into consideration. CrossFit considers athletes “masters” at the age of 45 or 40, depending. Ages 18 and 39? No difference. There’s nothing quite like being coached by a 22-year-old woman who yells, “Your mind will give out LONG before your body does!” I’m pushing 39, and it’s the reverse: My body turns in its notice WAY before my mind. For example, I’d LOVE to dance and drink and sex all night and still feel OK when it’s time to go to work at 7 a.m. — my mind is up for that! — but my body can no longer handle it. I won’t put my trust in a coach who’s never experienced that reality; who’s never felt her body refuse to do anything she told it to. She gets hurt? A little ice; good to go. I get hurt? I’m out of the gym for weeks.  Exercise is integral to my mental health, so I can’t afford weeks. My age is not some excuse I’m pulling out of my ass to avoid working hard.
  • Calling it “training” instead of “exercising” or “working out.” Training is something you do for a specific event or accomplishment – say, running a marathon or making the CrossFit Games. Very few people legitimately “train.” The rest of us just exercise.
  • The Paleo diet is mostly bullshit pseudoscience. Grains aren’t poison, humans can metabolize soy, and “the cavemen” lived to be 35 years old and were kind of dumb. Experts in evolutionary physiology work at universities, not your local CF box. I’m not eating goddamn bone marrow and organ meats for breakfast. Colon cancer is bad. One time I saw a guy sit on a plyo box and drink a pineapple juice/calf’s liver smoothie, and it grossed me out forever.

So, for now, I’ve dusted off my P90X DVD’s and the barbell in my garage. No yelling or clocks for awhile. I miss my CF friends already, but I’m going to enjoy working on my technique; improving my focus; and hitting the pause button once in a while. In sweatpants.

what are you for?

I’ll turn 76 in the year 2050. By then, according to this piece in The Nation, there’ll be over 80,000 homeless elderly people in the San Francisco area. Many (most?) will be women. Extrapolate this trend to every large, expensive city in America — let alone smaller cities, towns, and rural areas — and there’ll be millions of older women trying to sleep in hard plastic chairs at the senior center so they don’t get raped on the streets.

It’s hard to get people to care about old women. Or even middle-aged ones. We’re jokes; objects of contempt; in the way. Even the most successful among us feel the laser shield of invisibility grow stronger around us with every year that passes. It’s when you realize: All that power I used to have? It was false.

That’s why women we fight aging so hard. It’s not vanity; it’s survival. When men start to look at you like, What are you for? Go away, it’s a shocker even if you never cared what men thought, even if their new disinterest comes as a relief. Because when that happens,  you realize the edge is closer than you think. The edge gets closer every year, in direct proportion to your waning fuckability, and the edge involves the terror of vulnerability and humiliation. It involves being at the mercy of those who may or may not show you any.

If you’re a single woman (which, don’t kid yourself, could happen anytime) suffering financial/physical/mental misfortune when you’re too young for Social Security but too old to pick yourself up and start over, the world is going to ignore you at best and beat the shit out of you at worst. We don’t live in multi-generational village dwellings anymore, and no one is going to venerate you as one of the Lady Olds. It’s probably going to be bad. Especially if they keep privatizing public services, slashing the HUD budget, busting the unions, cutting back on welfare, and letting income inequality get more egregious.

We’re all headed there, you know. Unless we die young.

Money (= security) gets us where we live. And I’ve noticed some weirdness among lesbians about it. I know exactly two dykes with a lot of money — not heiresses; not independently wealthy, just great jobs — and in both cases, other dykes give them shit. Not sisterly, kind-hearted shit like, “Hey, will you buy your own country and let me live in it?” but shit like “Rich prick.” It’s as though having money is a feminist betrayal or a moral failing. I think that kind of condemnation comes from fear (plastic chairs! cardboard-box shantytowns!) and from resentment at another woman’s freedom from fear: Why does she get that, when I don’t?

Whatever we’ve got to work with, I suggest we all invest some time in helping out at least one older woman who needs it. Spend some hours volunteering at a care home; ask your neighbor if she needs you to run an errand, etc. While this individual action doesn’t touch the root of the systemic horror, it does make a difference to that older woman — and gives us a realistic glimpse of what’s in store. Which might motivate us to invent alternative ways of living as we age. Couldn’t some of us plan to live together someday; and invest whatever money we’ve got in the best housing we can? Couldn’t we start thinking about that WAY early, in our 20s and 30s? Because the default setting for aging as a woman in America — I mean, I’d rather walk past the senior center and head straight for the Golden Gate Bridge.

“Tell me exactly what you saw and what you think it means.” — Alfred Hitchcock

I’m developing a Rear Window-style fascination with my neighbor. The only thing missing is my wheelchair.

I think of her as “Linda” because she’s about 60. She lives just south of me in a house all her own — a rare thing in this neighborhood. Because my apartment is on the second floor, I can see right into her windows when I’m cooking dinner (usually I buy frozen crap from Trader Joe’s so it took me six weeks to realize the oven wasn’t working, but then I joined a CSA.  Now I have cool things like kohlrabi with farm dirt still on it. If I knew what the fuck to do with kohlrabi).

Not to be a creeper, as the kids say, but I love to watch Linda’s roaming-through-the-house circuit at night. She salamanders languidly from room to room clicking lights on and off but mostly on. Sometimes she makes a snack and brings it into the living room, where I can see the top of her greying hair in the blue TV-screen light.  She must be in her mid-50s; early 60s, and I think there must be a cat or two, otherwise she wouldn’t open her side door so often.

I wonder if Linda’s a professor, or a widow, or a dyke. Maybe an artist? I wonder where she goes in the SUV she can hardly fit into her garage. She always has to do a mathematically-precise four-point turn. I always give her a fist-pump, which she never sees. Whenever I can’t sleep, I feel better when I know she’s also awake. She keeps me company, though she doesn’t know it.

Maybe I watch her because she’s alone too, and she’s doing it better than I am. She seems content in her small universe. Her energy is peaceful, whereas mine would be bitterly resigned trying to dress itself up as peaceful.  I don’t know how to be a woman growing old alone. They don’t teach us that. And I can’t think of anything scarier.

I knew a woman who planned on buying a motel for her and her friends’ golden years so they’d always have each other. Sometimes I think about moving to Womyn’s Land when I turn 65. (I don’t know how to do any of the Womyn’s Land stuff , and I’m always getting the drum circles off-rhythm at Michfest, and I need to snort a Xanax just thinking about the conversations):

Womyn With A Bowl Haircut, Holding Up A Jar Of Organic Cashew Butter: “Um, I would like to have a dialogue with you? About this cashew butter?”

Me: “Hi, Kat. Huh?”

WWABH: “I need to set a boundary around my cashew butter? It’s not Land cashew butter; it’s mine, and I just find that I get really triggered when someone uses it? Because it’s something of a personal-space issue?

Me: “Oh, yeah, I guess I did sneak a spoonful of that. Sorry. I’ll replace it.”

Womyn Who Reeks of White Sage: “I have something to add to the dialogue, so I hope it’s OK if we make it a tri-alogue? I had some of the cashew butter after Kat gave me permission, and I noticed there was a little honey on the spoon you used. We’re vegans, so I found that really problematic as well, because the simple fact is that bees are enslaved. If you deconstruct the institutionalized Dominionism…”

…but! Maybe I could be the friendly Land Slut: a ray of light for the single-yet-libidinous dykes; a relationship-spicer-upper for coupled ladies in want of a third. A true friend to womankind! Surely there’d be tacit get-out-of-cashew-butter-free pass.

Maybe I’ll go over and bring Linda something, like a nice succulent with round leaves full of water or the rest of my box of kohlrabi. Hello, I’ll say. I’m your neighbor. I live over there on the second floor. I’m the one who’s always eating a Pop-Tart with no shirt on. Me, not the Pop-Tart. I want to crawl into your lap but instead I brought you this plant. And I have some extra kohlrabi. Here, I even washed off the dirt. Will you help me? Will you tell me how?


Hospice volunteering is the most honest work I’ve ever done. Pain and death terrify me, but what made it OK was that by the time I got there with my bag of plastic gloves and Grisham novels,* pain was medicated to the gills and death was a done deal. Hospice doesn’t send a volunteer until the patient is into the last 3-6 months, so the only goal remaining is to help give that person a comfortable, dignified death on his or her own terms. The peach-pit/blood recycling/energy healing wonder treatments are off the table, and the family — who probably hasn’t left the house in days — just needs a bit of relief.

Hospice is midwifing someone out of the world instead of into it. You help someone check things off on her last list and make sure all the lights are turned off before she locks the door. Dying, done right, is a project. It’s work. Dying people look still and quiet because they’re very busy in the eye of the storm, thinking and reviewing as the eternal Footman picks up their coats. This doesn’t mean they’re always wrestling with some profound epiphany, though. People get stuck on the oddest things — their older sisters didn’t ask them to be maid of honor in 1952; the sun is fading their wall art; this is the wrong kind of yogurt! Go back to the store and get the kind with the fruit mixed in!

My first patient, Elaine, was 58 but looked 80. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Elaine’s thing was to take the oxygen plugs out of her nostrils, turn her emaciated body away from the oxygen tank, and take a big drag off an unfiltered Camel. Her other thing was to try and save my soul. She was a Southern Baptist in the South, and she really wanted me to find a nice man. I think I reminded her of her youngest daughter, who lived in Atlanta with a “lady roommate.” They were estranged. At that time, my own mother hadn’t spoken to me in several years, so I knew the daughter had her own side of the story. I tried to get them to talk. No dice. Elaine had a snaggletoothed cat and a DVD of “The Passion of the Christ.” She wanted me to read the Aramaic-to-English subtitles out loud, but I kept putting her off. We watched “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” instead.

My last patient, Sheila, reminded me so much of my mother that I dreaded my shifts. I loved her. She’d sold almost everything she owned to pay for the care facility, so all her possessions fit in one room. The detritus of her life, reduced to a few clothes hanging in a closet. A TV. Some framed photos. But she had a truckload of letters and cards from her children, siblings, former co-workers, friends, her mother. Sheila was crazy about anything sweet, so I’d bring cookies and cake — all the stuff I was baking that my girlfriend wouldn’t eat. Elaine had to be hand-fed carefully, so she wouldn’t aspirate anything and develop pneumonia. While she ate, I held the fork and talked about my long, agonizing breakup and about my mother (who by this time hadn’t spoken to me in five years). One night, after fighting a snowstorm for an hour on my way to her, I started to cry. She put her hand on my head. We stayed like that awhile. “I promise you, your mother loves you,” she said.

Sheila’s brain tumor meant that she saw weird stuff. Eating dinner one night, she said,  “That looks like Cher’s hair.”

“What does?” I asked, looking around.

“That,” she said, pointing to the long white window curtain by the bed, beyond which moved the unceasing traffic of Avenue Road. “Look how big it is. White. Like Cher’s hair; like she had it that one time.”

A few minutes went by. She looked at the plate with its slender lone cheesecake slice and said, “Is that a grasshopper? On the plate, there?”

She sounded so sure, I actually checked. “Nope, just cheesecake. Your perceptions are really cool, though. Like a cracked-out club kid at 4 a.m.”

She closed her eyes. “I have an interesting head…full of…items.” She paused. “I hear people coming down the hall. They have Portuguese accents. That’s a good sign.”

After dinner one December night, I put on some Christmas music. The first track was called El Tutu; full of delicate harp-y arpeggios like a handful of coins tossed in the air.

“What would you wear, dancing to this?” Sheila asked, fingering the sleeve of my wool sweater. She did that a lot. Textures fascinated her more every time I visited; as her sight and hearing went, the feel of things remained. “It should be something silver. Something floaty.”

“Did you like to dance, before you got sick?”

“Ohh, yes,” she said. “I was like a dervish. And I know I’ll dance again.”


*Also plastic. But Hospice patients love John Grisham; don’t ask me why.