“Oh my GOD, Diane!” – Brief thoughts on Bruce Jenner

The most delusional snippet of Bruce Jenner’s two hour – TWO HOUR! not even Richard Nixon got that much air time! – “interview” with the extremely accommodating, softballing Diane Sawyer who is now dead to me, was none of the following:

  • When Jenner rolled his eyes, spoke condescendingly to Sawyer and mocked her: (“Oh my GOD, Diane!”)
  • When Jenner fixed Sawyer with batshit-crazy pinwheel eyes and said “UNDERSTAND?” in a tone that every woman knows means, “Shut your mouth, bitch.”
  • When Jenner – who has no ovaries or uterus or breasts and has never had a period or a yeast infection or a pregnancy scare; who has never checked the backseat of his car for rapists and who never had to wait for his male classmates to finish using his high school or college gym so he could get in to train) said, “For all intents and purposes, I am a woman.”
  • When Jenner explained how Seriously Important his new reality show would be: “What I’m doing is going to do some good. We are going to change the world. We are going to make a difference in the world.”
  • When Jenner referred, mysteriously (in a way that forcibly reminded me of Lars von Trier) to his female self as “Her.”
  • When we found out Jenner is Republican and religious.
  • When Jenner shifted back and forth from stereotypical teen-girl body language (tipping his chin; dabbing daintily at his eyes) to full-on grown man body language (leaning forward; acting like he was about to stand up, RAWWRRRRR) when Sawyer gently suggested that some people might think he was doing this for the show.
  • The dramatic Ponytail Release!

Crazypants, but none of it surprised me: Jenner is a wealthy, famous, 65-year-old white male ex-star athlete who has always been allowed – encouraged! – to do whatever it takes to get whatever he wants, because what he wants is the most important thing in the world. The guy’s life is not, never was and never will be normal. He may not even be getting enough oxygen to his brain, considering what he’s done to his nose.

Bottom line: Jenner believes that female is a feeling in a man’s head, and that “woman” means “a specific set of gendered behaviors and preferences.” Because he believes this, every bullet point above makes total sense to him as  dream logic makes sense to the dreamer.

The coup de grace for me, the part that made me sit up straight as my pelvic floor snapped involuntarily to attention, was this quote: “I look at women all the time and think how lucky are they that they can wake in the morning and be themselves.”

WHAT WHAT WHAT

HA HA

NO SERIOUSLY FUCK BRUCE JENNER A LITTLE BIT

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or assume the duck-and-cover nuclear drill posture underneath my couch. Women can wake in the morning and be themselves! What a pleasant fiction!

Only a man thinks this; only a man believes it.

Half the Internet (the other half is porn) is comprised of articles about what women should and should not do; what we should and should not eat and wear and do with our bodies at the gym; where is safe and unsafe for us to go; how many children we should have and whether we should work after we have them; how we should and should not age and who cares about us anyway when we’re old and therefore valueless.

If women could “wake in the morning and be themselves” without suffering professional and romantic consequences, you’d be shocked by how much body hair we can grow, Bruce, and how much of our “glow” is artfully-applied makeup. I’m fairly andro in terms of presentation – barely femme-adjacent on my femmiest day – and you should see my Sephora bill, Bruce; it reads like the federal defense budget. That’s because I’m 40 now, and letting myself age naturally without expensive intervention isn’t good for my career. If I dated men, I’d need to buy makeup too, because one thing you gots to do when you’re a woman who dates men, Bruce? You gots to carefully curate an image of artless, effortless beauty.

Jenner is confused, like a lot of people are confused, about (a) what makes a woman; and (b) what it really means to be one, from they day you’re born until the day you die. I wonder if this confusion (and pain) could have been avoided if he’d been allowed to be a man who won gold medals, loved women, and wore dresses and nail polish outside without losing everything.

I wonder, too, what it means to have a “female soul” or a “female brain.” What does it mean to “feel like a woman inside”? Jenner didn’t  explain that. He didn’t have to, because Sawyer never asked. These substantive questions – the ones that didn’t address ponytails, dresses, or plastic surgery –  were left conspiciously out of the “interview,” just as they are omitted from the greater conversation in this country, at this time.

Oh my GOD, Diane.

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On Planet Fitness and the question of judgment

My parents worked hard to instill good judgment in me, because kids are born with no judgment at all: I will put this dead bug in my mouth! I refuse to wear a jacket in winter! Watch me climb up on the roof and jump off into a pile of sofa pillows I have arranged on the lawn for this purpose!

Judgment – a complex function of the brain’s frontal lobe that includes risk assessment, long-range planning, the determination of similarities and differences between things and events, and an understanding of future consequences resulting from present actions – doesn’t fully develop in humans until our mid-20s. Remember the crazy noises AOL made when you tried to get online in 1997? How you couldn’t be on the phone AND the Internet at the same time? That’s what we’re like! Attempting to connect. Page loading. Page failed to load.

Good judgment is a sign of intelligence, character and maturity. That’s why I’m baffled by Planet Fitness’ “No Judgment” policy, which is all over the news this week: A female member got booted from the gym after taking issue with a full-grown male body in the women’s locker room.

As a veteran of 25 years in various and sundry gyms, I think the “No Judgment” policy sprung from a good intention: Eyes on your own workout; don’t comment on other people’s bodies. You’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) at how free some people, usually men, are with their opinions of strangers’ physiques and techniques. Men like to step in and correct your form, or tell you that what you’re doing will make you “bulky.” I’m all for a policy addressing this. Buzz off, dude. Go do some squats at the curl rack.

But what Planet Fitness seems to mean by “No Judgment” is: “Don’t judge the unclothed male body next to you in the women’s locker room as ‘male.’ If he says he’s a woman, accept it and keep your mouth shut.”

I assume the reverse would be true – an unclothed, female-bodied person identifying as male – a trans man – could change in the men’s locker room at Planet Fitness. If that happens, how do you think the men in there will react? Do you think they’ll just go along with it? If one of them complains, do you think he’ll be called a piece-of-shit bigot? And if he IS called a bigot, do you think he’ll internalize it or feel guilty for even one second?

The right-wing news is all over the Planet Fitness story, gleefully lumping all lesbians and gays in with those who believe that male-bodied individuals should have access to female spaces whenever their feelings demand it. This story is being used as evidence of what non-heterosexual people want; what we do and what we believe. This troubles me: I don’t wish to be lumped in. I’m not on board with this, because I have a well-developed sense of judgment informing my opinion: It’s not OK for male genitalia to be bopping around in women and girls’ private space. Public-accomodations laws must be followed, but this isn’t the right way.

I’m not afraid of penii. Seen plenty. No pearls to clutch here. I’m not concerned about being raped in the locker room, either. I can squat 1.5x my bodyweight and I’ve got nice sharp teeth, so if you touch me I’ll make you sorry.

Thanks to a combination of vigilance, circumstances, and sheer luck, I’ve never experienced sexual violence. I’m not elderly; I’m not frail; I’m not a young girl; I’m not a survivor of rape or abuse. Not every woman can say all this, though, and I can’t speak for them.

Neither can Planet Fitness. Or anyone else.

The world isn’t a safe, comfy Gender Studies class where we get to sit around and discuss our preferred pronouns at leisure. Most women who live in the real world aren’t inclined to obsessively parse the question, “What is a woman, really, you know?” It’s straightforward: They don’t want penises in the locker room. They shouldn’t have to defend their reasons why. A woman who does see a penis in the locker room ought to be allowed to freak out and ask questions later without being pilloried as a bigoted asshole.

I’m keeping my judgment, and women, I support yours. Our judgment – built and honed by all our lived and learned experience – is our most valuable asset. Whether that judgement tells us to stand our ground or run away, it’s more vital to our well-being than our heaviest squat or our longest set of pull-ups.

 

P.S.: Planet Fitness is a terrible gym. There’s a reason it’s $10 a month. Go to Gold’s, seriously.

P.P.S. Feminist at Sea has written a great piece on this. Read it here.

 

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.

What Colleen Ritzer and I learned (and didn’t) in our Education classes

As more details of what happened to Ritzer start to surface, I think about the material we covered in my Master’s program:

  • How to write a five-part lesson plan
  • The importance of regular parent contact (with role-play drills!)
  • Basic methods of differentiated instruction for kids with learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, or who are learning English as a second language
  • The highlight reel of classroom management/discipline skills (greet students as they walk in; post all rules and regulations in a visible spot)
  • “Teachers can make a difference!”

…and the things I learned on the job:

  • An idealistic young female teacher who wants to “make a difference” is a perfect target for a disturbed kid who wants to take his rage out on someone.
  • Poverty — and its ugly little friends, substance abuse and domestic violence — have great bearing on child development and behavior.
  • About 20% of parents are unreachable — emails bounce back; phone is disconnected; voicemails go unanswered.
  • Some students emigrated recently from parts of the world where women are chattel.
  • Some students have been marinating in ultra-violent, misogynistic American music and videos since early childhood.
  • Some students have extensive criminal histories (teachers will not be informed of this).
  • Some suffer from profound mental illnesses.
  • Some are violent.
  • Students whose behavior frightens a teacher – behavior which in any other workplace would result in legal action– won’t be permanently removed from the classroom. Students who use aggressive profanity, make sexual remarks, or use a cell phone to surreptitiously record/film a teacher will merely “have a talk” with an assistant principal and be sent back to class, emboldened. The teacher will be told that everything is now fine.

I didn’t know these things when I started teaching, and I was 35 with extensive life experience under my belt. Young teachers like Colleen Ritzer don’t know, either. They have huge hearts and they saw “Dangerous Minds,” plus they’ve been told by corporate educrats that kids’ success or failure depends entirely on teacher commitment and skill (no talking about poverty! That’s just making excuses!) Therefore, they enthusiastically and solemnly believe that sheer force of CARING can un-do everything that’s been done to a kid.

But caring can’t un-punch a child’s face. Caring go back in time and read to him when he was a baby. Caring can’t fix a shitty diet or cure asthma acquired from living in a roach-infested apartment.

Caring can’t heal a sociopath. The crazy ship has sailed, and once sailed, sails on.

So I wish that the truth about violent criminal juveniles was part of the Education curriculum. I wish that the truth about protecting ourselves as teachers was part of it too.

I wish that parents were legally liable for their children’s violent behavior at school, and that teachers enjoyed the same protections against workplace harassment and assault that other professionals do.

And I wish that the gifted and passionate Colleen Ritzer is the teacher who finally makes that difference.

But she won’t be here to know.

On E. coli, the grassy knoll, and the second wave

I got food poisoning Friday night via some artisanal microgreens I paid too much for and was reluctant to trash. They smelled suspect but the date was OK, so I thought, “maybe it’s just one bad leaf,” and put vinegar and oil on them. Six hours later I exploded. Awful things happened to me; things I can never un-see, so I am evangelistic tonight; the Chuck Colson of food safety: If in doubt, throw it out. Fuck a triple-washed basil/fenugreek mélange if it doesn’t smell perfectly fresh, because know what’s pricier? A cart full of bland foods and E. coli-killing cleaning agents:

?????????

It was the kind of sick where your entire body gets involved in a full-court, military defense against death by bacteria; a cycle of PUKE —> 30 minutes relief —> 20 minutes moaning nausea —>PUKE —> try not to poop on your feet —> repeat for eight hours. So I couldn’t sleep, and the only thing on TV besides infomercials (Don’t Let Your Neck Reveal Your Age!) was a Kennedy assassination documentary. It’s a big anniversary. Fifty years.

I rode with the show and another like it throughout the night, trying to distract myself. During each 30-minute nausea-relief period, I’d get interested, like, Wow, Oswald had 11 seconds to fire three shots, not six seconds, which makes a huge difference, especially if one of the bullets deflected off the traffic light — and then the nausea would build oh god oh god as Jack and Jackie landed in Love Field, and then they’d turn left on Elm Street oh noooo and then Kennedy would be shot just as I puked into a mixing bowl.

The Zapruder film looked worse on my bigscreen than it did in 11th-grade history. Another thing that looked worse: Every journalist, every doctor, every government official (except Judge Sarah Hughes who swore in Lyndon Johnson; she’s the exception who proves the rule) is male. Fifty years ago, that wasn’t jarring; most people didn’t think twice about it, and they wouldn’t until about 1967. Until the second wave.

Which is why I get scared and angry when women shrug the second wave off like it’s irrelevant to their lives. Like their safe, legal birth control; sports scholarships; and law degrees just sort of…happened! A gift from an enlightened Universe! Too many women think that fifty years ago, every single one of them would have been Sarah Hughes. It’s a weird kind of exceptionalism.

The truth: No matter how special or smart you are, on Nov. 22, 1963 you’d be in the background shot, sweetheart. Most likely you’d be home crying in front of the TV, but if you “had to work,” you’d be teaching sixth grade or pounding out your nursing shift or transcribing on Dictaphone things men said. You wouldn’t get anywhere near the Warren Commission or Air Force One, or even the city desk of the Dallas Morning News. And if you did, you’d pay dearly in terms of your personal life. Men didn’t want to marry career girls; just ask Life magazine and the Ladies’ Home Journal.  And career girls who loved other career girls? Yeah, have fun. Pregnant and didn’t want to be? Raped and trying to report it to the police? Good luck with all that.

This is in the past, like nausea that’s hard to remember after it’s over. But we must remember, because lots of people would be delighted to return to that past; or can’t be arsed to imagine how it felt to actually live in that past.

If we’re smart, we’re afraid of a recurrence. We snap our heads up fast upon smelling the slightest waft of patriarchal funk. We don’t say “it’ll be fine,” and ignore tiny signs of rot in our healthy, verdant lives. Because, by the time we smell it, the rot’s gone pretty deep; and once we start to feel sick? We’re in for an ordeal.

on Emily Yoffe and the way things ought to be

Women and girls get lied to from all sides. I prefer truth.

So here are two true things: If you’re around men, and you’re drunk enough that you can’t think straight, the likelihood that a rapist will target you is higher than if you were sober. And you will be less able to defend yourself.

Unfair, I know. It ought to be enough to tell men not to rape; end of story; period.

It’s not enough.

Men rape.

As much as I hated the headline (“College Women, Stop Getting Drunk”), I read Yoffe’s entire piece on Slate. Did her critics do the same before they decided she was a mockworthy scold/rape apologist? Because her observations — that women who are drunk are often targeted by rapists, and that drunk women are less able to defend themselves — are common-sense, albeit not the way things should be.

My whole deal is this: I don’t stake my personal safety on the way things should be; nor will I encourage other women — much less teenage girls — to do so, because that would be disingenuous hypocrisy of the worst kind. As much as we thrill to rape-prevention tips for perpetrators — “Don’t put drugs in women’s drinks” — the culture changes slowly and painfully and I don’t intend to be a test case. I’m not increasing my risk of victimization to prove an ideological point. Kind of like I don’t tend to hold hands with my girlfriend as we skip past some rural redneck convention in Killdyke, AZ. It’s so wack and unfair that the onus is on my girlfriend and I to be cautious! We should be able to hold hands wherever we want, without fear of a Killdykian attacking us with a baseball bat!

“Only men can stop rape.” True.

And men rape.

Here’s another true thing I learned from spending time with 18- and 19-year-old women: They’re still developing that mental algorithm which, in women with more life experience, works automatically and quickly when we’re around men. When we walk down a dark street alone, our brains conduct an unconscious series of equations; an internal call-and-response:

I see a strange man coming towards me.

Is he alone, or are there other men nearby?

Is he walking purposefully? or erratically?

Is he carrying anything? Walking a dog?

Do I feel uncomfortable in any way?

Could I get out of this situation quickly if I had to? How would I go about doing that?

Life experience teaches us not to wait when we get that creepy, prickly danger-feeling. We don’t need to spend precious seconds analyzing it, questioning ourselves, or justifying our decision to exit stage left.

Our brains run the algorithm at parties and on dates, too. We’re less likely to stick around because we’re afraid of hurting his feelings or looking foolish. It’s a key part of getting home safe. It’s not theory. Not politics. Life is not a Gender Studies class. You want to talk “lived experience,” I got some lived experience right here for you and so do all my friends.

I care about girls and women. So I won’t tell them that their choices, in a dangerous world, are meaningless. That’s infantilizing.

Our choices matter. Our survival skills matter.

Rape is never our fault — whether the rapist is a stranger, a “friend,” or a partner. We can’t guarantee that we won’t experience sexual violence at the hands of a man, but we can stack the deck in our favor. You can choose not to stack yours in a show of insistence that women ought to be able to get drunk in the company of men without increased risk of rape. You do you.

I choose to stack mine. That’s not blaming victims. That’s me trying not to become one.