Notes from the chalkboard

I wanted to teach AP English. I had plans involving brilliant Toni Morrison exegeses, candlelit slam poetry, and Princeton acceptance letters.

But I got regular English. At first I felt like Renessa, the trainer in Jackie Warner’s 1-on-1 Work Out video who has to do the modified version of every exercise (push-ups on her knees, etc.) even though she’s a beastlike physical specimen. Not fair! I wanted to see Renessa do all the military-style push-ups she was capable of. I wanted to slow down the DVD so I didn’t…miss…a second.

Anyway. I am surprised and thrilled by many of my students. I have scads of math-and-science types; visual artists; advanced dance kids and one role-playing aficionado (who ironically hates group work). I have half the football team, which is great in terms of classroom discipline: They can’t play ball if they act like dicks. Hence, there has been no dick-acting.

One student, Enrique, just turned 18 and lives alone because both his parents are in prison. Two nights ago, someone robbed his apartment. I found out when I asked the kids to draw a picture of their houses, and his drawing featured broken windows and punched-in drywall. No matter what happens this year, I will not become discouraged or dread my workday: Enrique is there. He gets up, goes to school, and works hard five days a week so he can maybe go to college as well as hold down a full-time job. I’d show up for him even if no one else came to class.

Also, I have six out LGB* kids! I asked to sponsor our Gay-Straight Allliance, so I am now Head Gay in Charge of Gays. My classroom will be a safe place, where everyone can be exactly who they are, and Justin R. can talk about elite gymnastics and Hugo Boss all he wants to, and no one can stop him!

The out kids are really out. “No one cares,” a bisexual named Rina told me cheerfully. For a second I felt like someone who’d lost a lung to bacterial pneumonia watching someone else flash her brand-new penicillin prescription.

I told Rina that back in my day, kids would have rather eaten a big plate of their own hair than admit to being a friend of Dorothy; a bird with lavender feathers; a Sister of the Inclination. “We didn’t have these Internets,” I said. “We had ‘Homosexuality’ in the library card catalog and some Bikini Kill mix tapes, and we were grateful to get them.” 

But she was already bored. She asked if I’d sponsor the rugby team, too.

 

* No T’s yet.

Evolution of a Lesbian Radfem, Part The Third: Treading Water in the Well of Loneliness

Summer, 1999: I’m 25 and divorcing a man I haven’t slept with in three years. I think there’s something wrong with me. He agrees. I move into a shoebox apartment on the corner of Park and University in San Diego, directly across from a dyke bar called The Flame! At night its neon sign buzzes on and off: The Flame!…The Flame!…The Flame! It drives me crazy, there in my shoebox. I would like to investigate. What’s going on behind those opaque glass doors?

Across from The Flame! is a men’s bar, and every time their door opens, foam comes floating out on music: “DO YOU BE-LIEVE IN LIFE AFTER LOVE…AFTER LOVE…AFTER LOVE?” They hoot and holler. They’re having a blast. But when The Flame! closes at 3 a.m., I hear:

Woman #1 (boots stomping): “What’s wrong, baby?”

Woman #2 (high heels clicking): “If you have to ask, I’m not going to tell you!”

Woman #1 (sighing): “Aw, baby. She came up and talked to me. I didn’t wanna be rude. And then I came right back to where you were.”

Woman #2 (sniffling; tripping over heels): “Oh, whatever. What-EVER!”

One night, I visit The Flame! but I’ve never had a bar life so I don’t understand that showing up at 9:30 p.m. won’t get me anywhere. I lurk by the jukebox, nursing a Chardonnay and giving off a sketchy bi-curious vibe. That doesn’t work, so I start hitting the LGBT bookstore to chat up the woman working there (if your definition of “chat up” includes the opener, “Hi! So, hi. I like to read. You have a lot of books here. Are any of them, you know, good?”

Her name is Jamie. She wears tiny men’s clothes and walks around the store in bare feet. This slays me. She recommends Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, so I spend $15 I don’t have and run home with it tucked underneath my arm. Jamie goes to Costa Rica to save the rain forest for two months, after which I get a phone call: Would I like to come over and look at her Costa Rica photographs?

Would I like a million dollars? Would I like the sky to fill with rainbows? I’ll be right over! Don’t move!

Jamie answers the door with a cup of beans and rice in her hand, the smell blending evenly with Nag Champa incense. Her tiny apartment is decorated in circa 1999 California Dyke Classic: twin bed covered with an Indian print spread; huge CD collection; cat on a papasan chair; big poster of Ani DiFranco’s Living in Clip cover with a lipstick print on the bottom.

“You should see the birds in Costa Rica,” Jamie says after I turn down a bite of her beans and rice. “They’re so intense. I felt like I was walking with the Goddess every day. It gave me this total creative force.”

She flops down on the bed. Ani’s Up Up Up Up Up Up album is on repeat. From the height of the Pacific to the depths of Everest/from the height of the Pacific to the depths of Everest.

I flop down next to her. It’s a little weird that we’re on her bed, but she doesn’t have a couch. Maybe this is just what lesbians do when they hang out?

We talk about this and that. And every little while, I scooch closer to her. Inch by premeditated inch. After a couple of hours, my arm is touching her arm and she isn’t moving her arm away. And then her lips are in my hair. I feel like I’m falling out of a plane, but I’m still in my head and I think, Maybe this is the ultimate act of self-acceptance: holding and kissing a body just like your own. Or maybe it’s the ultimate act of egotism.

My arousal shocks me because it’s so familiar, yet taken out of context. A liquid doing a solid’s job. Like those photo prints I saw at the mall where an escalator somehow descends on the beach, waves pounding its serrated steps.

Ani sings: god’s work isn’t done by god/it’s done by people. Jamie’s tiny hands are surprisingly strong.

“These are the best pictures of Costa Rica I have ever fucking seen,” I say into her ear at 4 a.m.

Jamie pulls away; sits on her haunches. “I think we went to a very deep place just now,” she says. “I have to be careful with deep places.”

This somehow turns into a conversation about:

1. Jamie’s ex-girlfriend
a. The processing she’s still doing surrounding their relationship
i. Jamie is a Sagittarius but Amy is an Aries, so you know, it was pretty fraught from the beginning
ii. Amy is the redhead who works at Jamba Juice; do I know her?
b. Jamie is totally not ready for anything serious; is that cool?

2. STD’s in lesbians
a. Sex should always be safe
i. Because it’s not just AIDS, it’s things like Hepatitis C
b. Jamie is totally out of gloves, so.

I’m OK with that. Gloves?

We watch the sun come up through Jamie’s crooked miniblinds as Ani sings: She crawls out on a limb/and begins to build her home/and it’s enough just to look around/and know she’s not alone.

 

Next, in Part the Fourth: I move to central California and fall in Big Giant Huge lesbian love for the first time.

Evolution of a Lesbian Radfem, Part the Second

September 1988: I am 14, composed almost entirely of frizzy hair and socks. Because hair products haven’t yet gone beyond Aqua Net and Dippity Do, I am bullied and invisible by turns. One day, I catch the flu and lose several pounds. I feel light and airy. How much lighter and airier could I get? By spring, I weigh 86 pounds. My parents check me into a private psychiatric hospital , where I talk about my “control issues” and develop a huge crush on my female therapist. One day, a male orderly says I have big legs, so I throw pieces of my lunch under the table and lose a “level,” e.g. they confiscate my Walkman and I can no longer listen obsessively to my Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars cassette (“I quit/I give up/nothing’s good enough for anybody else/it seems“). When I get out, my family goes on a cruise to Barbados. The ship rocks back and forth with food, and I am the only person who eschews, rather than chews,* the midnight buffet. I feel powerful. I do not want to talk and I do not want to play shuffleboard. Neither does my mother. My father is furious. They are both unhappy with the suffocating constancy of bad wallpaper.

June 1989: I develop a huge crush on Dana, my outpatient therapist. I tell her I don’t know how to be a girl; I want to escape into the woods and never come back. I wrap and unwrap the fingers of my right hand around my left wrist to show her how thin I am. She lends me a scholarly book about women as “relational psychosocial auxiliaries” to men that makes a lot of sense after I look up “psychosocial” and “auxiliary” in Webster’s. I find other books: Geneen Roth’s Feeding the Hungry Heart, Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue, and everything I can find by Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Susan Brownmiller, Robin Morgan, Mary Daly. An old copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” proves simultaneously informative and titillating. Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse: ???. Marilyn French makes my head explode, so I give a copy of “The Women’s Room” to my mother. She doesn’t read it. But her mother, my grandmother already has — plus she subscribes to Ms. magazine; odd for a 65-year-old Mormon and military wife. Ms. magazine’s back page shows good advertisements that show women climbing mountains and ruling boardrooms, and bad ones that make women look like animals or something to eat. My grandfather rolls his eyes and says something about “strident bitches.”

July 1989: Sullen and inarticulate with everyone except my grandmother, I get sent to The Mormons in Mesa. The Mormons are my extended family — dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins who rise at 4:30 a.m. to pick vegetables for their End Of The World stashes. Stumbling through the cornfields, I sing 19th-century labor songs like “Solidarity Forever.” I really project. When I call God “She” — I’ve just read a book about patriarchal religion called “The Skeptical Feminist” — one of my eleven great-aunts freaks out. “What man has hurt you?” she asks. I don’t answer. It’s not like I can narrow it down. Hasn’t she read Marilyn French? The abortion wars are all over the news, all summer. I know enough to take it personally. When I go home, I start volunteering at Planned Parenthood even though I won’t have any kind of sex for another several years. As we seal envelopes together, one of the older volunteers asks me, if I’ve started my “moon time” yet. I don’t get it.

Sept. 1990: My parents divorce. The texture and flavor of their grief makes me think of Luminol sprayed on crime scenes — everything looks fine until OH DEAR GOD. I cannot stop eating. I drive to the drugstore for chocolate-covered cherries; jars of peanut butter; six-packs of soda — then eat in the car and throw up at home. My mouth tastes of chemicals. My gut cramps with laxatives. I’m 25 pounds heavier than I was in the hospital, and people are starting to express “concern” about my dating possibilities: Don’t I know men don’t like fat women? That if I keep on this way, I’m going to be unhappy? The difference between their concern now and their concern when I was thin is, they blame me. I am no longer fragile. I am offensive.

Shortly thereafter, I get hit with a severe bout of obsessive OCD. I have Bad Thoughts, primarily about religion and sex, and they scare me senseless. There is obviously something Very Wrong. I start praying and join Young Life (the evangelical high school youth organization). I try to live for Jesus; to have a clean mind and a spotless soul. I get baptized, but I also start cutting a lot of school because I can’t concentrate. I’m pretty sure Jesus is coming back soon. My best friend, Kaylee, has the most beautiful red hair I’ve ever seen and I want to be with her all the time. I hate her boyfriend. He’ s an idiot. I’m always having to wait for them to finish making out before Kaylee and I can go anywhere.

August 1992: I’m a freshman again, this time at a Southern Baptist university. I find myself looking up Women of the Bible and trying to figure out how they managed to be so righteous. I have a boyfriend two hours away in my hometown, primarily because a girl needs a boyfriend. A husband. Feminist books still buzz in my head, and I’m pretty liberal as far as students here go — I don’t, for example, think all Democrats are baby killers — but I feel terror at the thought of displeasing God. The OCD gets worse. Then I meet Amy, a walking collection of Darwinian estrogenic markers. My father says she looks like a TV star — and indeed, many years later when the WB network debuts, I’ll be reminded strongly of Amy’s perfectly symmetrical face. Every guy in our brother dorm goes nuts, in a Baptist gentleman sort of way. There are flowers, invitations, “God told me to marry you”s galore. I seethe and have no idea why.

Next, in Part Three!: I decide to marry a guy I’ve known for five months.

*Yeah, I know. Sorry.

I’m at an awkward age for a lesbian

…too old to wear a fauxhawk and start becoming a man; too young to have made spin art out of my menstrual blood at the Moonwomon Collective. I did hand-mirror my cervix at MichFest a few years ago, but it felt self-consciously retro, like watching Reefer Madness or making a meatloaf from scratch.

I enjoy the company of vintage lesbians online and at 70th-birthday potlucks. These dykes* can eat and talk and eat and talk for HOURS. That’s hard for me because sitting down too long aggravates my obsessive-compulsive tendencies.** The only time I ever stayed seated voluntarily from 6-10 p.m was election night 2004, and I was higher than shit for the duration.

This seasoned company means great presents. One couple, L. and A., who’ve been together as long as I’ve been alive, gave me a box of books left over from the women’s bookstore they owned together in New York. The back jacket blurbs are full of coy ellipses and weird butchy nicknames. Most fit neatly into the following subcategories:

1. 1980’s lesbian detective mysteries: “Jazz Gordon, cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist, begins a relentless pursuit of a killer at a a down-and-out English girls school, and discovers that lovers and friends all have something to hide…”)

2. Bar dyke romances set in Greenwich Village: “Chris cannot satisfy the alluring, capricious Dizz, and now Dizz has become interested in George. But Dizz knows very well her power over Chris…”

3. Science-fiction novels set in a future where all males die: “America is under forcible quarantine by a world desperate to protect itself from a virus aptly named the Red Death. But one enclaves, a mysterious, uninfected women’s community known as the Gaians offers sanctuary…if they can be found.”

4. Earnest books about sexuality, such as Pat(rick, now) Califia’s “Sapphistry”: “When some lesbians have sex, they may see patterns or colors or hear snatches*** of music.”) There seems to have been political controversy re: dildos and leather. One copy of “The Joy of Lesbian Sex” has a long, carefully-written note on the flyleaf, but I can only discern a word or two (“Kat” and “forever”) because SOMEONE GOT ANGRY AND SCRATCHED OUT EACH LINE WITH GREAT FORCE. So, you know — not always dolphins and flowers back in the day.

5. Out-of-print poetry collections that make me weep: “I’m not a girl/I’m a hatchet/I’m not a hole/I’m a whole mountain/I’m not a fool/I’m a survivor/I’m not a pearl/I’m the Atlantic Ocean/I’m not a good lay/I’m a straight razor/look at me as if you had never seen a woman before/I have red, red hands and much bitterness” (Judy Grahn).

Knowing older lesbians is a better gift than any book. They whacked their way through homosocial territory before there were maps. No Internet, no Curve magazine, no Daughters of Bilitis, even — just themselves; their friends; their hopes and fears. Because of them, I’ll never have to watch my butch lover be humiliated on the sidewalk outside a dyke bar — “How many items of women’s clothing are you wearing?” Hideous as that story was, the whole room laughed hysterically when L. and A. told it — because how very, very long ago! How very, very far away! A cartoonish anecdote to tell from the head of a beautiful table; as made-up-sounding as the Red Death Gaian quarantine.

Their partnerships comfort me, too — someday, I can celebrate a long life with a lover in a home of our own.

I don’t want to “stand on the shoulders of giants” when it comes to my older friends and mentors — I want to stand WITH them. They can’t be replaced, and they should never take a backseat to anyone.

 

*Sometimes they don’t like that word, because it was hurled at them so many times before we sort-of reclaimed it. They prefer “Lesbian” — pronounce it with a capital L, like you’re reading the back flap of an Ann Bannon paperback — and “woman-loving-woman.” Yeah, it’s a lot of syllables, but it’s the least you can do.

**Like, I’ll start counting the number of words in people’s sentences, and then the number of sentences per person divided by the number of people at the table.

*** Hee hee omg lol snatches

Evolution of a Lesbian Radfem, Part 1

Here be overarching themes! ~ Devotion and displays thereof; the power of language; women who are good at what they do; women who grok me; athletes; empaths; honesty; justice; humor; ability to put legs over head. What else is there?

1976-1977, inclusive: Every morning at six, I pad into the living room to see Yoga Lady on TV. Yoga Lady has a long, dark braid, and she can put her legs above her head. “Hello, class,” she says. I steeple my hands; bow my head: “Hewwo, cwass.” I understand about TV not being real; still, Yoga Lady and I are doing this bendy thing together. I don’t yet have the words, “She looks into my soul,” but that’s what Yoga Lady does. “Namaste,” she says. “Namaste,” I reply.
May, 1978: Last day of preschool. My mother is standing over me, explaining that it’s summertime, and we’re going to swim and go to the zoo and do all kinds of fun things; won’t they be fun? but I don’t care because I’m having a meltdown over leaving my teacher, Ms. Howe. My snotty face is buried in her lap, and she’s stroking my hair. I love Ms. Howe because she understands things, like why I always choose a cot instead of a mat at nap time. I don’t yet have the word “contempt,” but that’s what I feel towards the kids who choose a mat. Who would sleep on flat sweaty plastic when they could have a cot? From a cot, I am three inches off the ground and can watch everyone else sleeping. I don’t yet know the word “suckers,” but that’s what I feel towards the kids who choose a mat (and the ones who fall asleep when they could stay awake). Ms. Howe understands this, and I love her. I want to make a case for living here at preschool forever, but I am three-and-a-half and my language is unequal to the task. I shut my eyes tight so nobody can see me.
June, 1983: I’m obsessed with Mrs. L., my third-grade teacher. I want to be near her and I also want to be her, which is confusing. Why I am so into her is this: She is hilarious; tells jokes and stories just a little bit above our heads, and often I’m the only one who gets them. She talks to me with a frankness that I appreciate, because it means she takes me seriously. Also, Mrs. L. calls me on obnoxious behavior such as stomping around the classroom when I’m in a bad mood. Those times, she refers to me as “Lucy” — the tough, butchy Charlie Brown character — which I love, but I also get the message. Also, Mrs. L. is good-looking — not pretty exactly, but with interesting bones and kinetic energy. Sometimes she takes us outside to show us different birds. One day I see a red one and ask her what it is. “It’s a cardinal,” she tells me. She knows everything! I don’t yet have the words, “Goddamn, it’s amazing to know a woman of your caliber,”so what I say is, “Let’s name it ‘Frank.'” On the last day of school, I hand her a letter on my best blue stationary. It says “I love you,” hidden in the middle of lots of other words thanking her for everything. I am a little freaked out about giving it to her, but I do. Fourth grade stinks from start to finish. I watch the third graders with obsessive jealousy.
August, 1984: My camp counselor is named Sandy. Big-boned and blonde, she coaches all the team sports, which I hate, but she also has a special talent: She can tie a string around a Junebug so it flies in circles around her head. I’ve never seen anything cooler or more brave: Junebugs are huge, click when they fly, and smell like dungeons. Sandy is also in charge of the camp newspaper, so I try out for the editorship. She chooses a blond, athletic, adult-sucky-up boy over me. He’s a big fake and I hate his stupid guts, so I ask Sandy how come he got picked. She tells me she evaluated us “on a point system,” and he got more points than me. I am crushed. Betrayed. I don’t yet have the words, but what I think is, “Fuck your bullshit point system.” After that, whenever I see her on the softball field, I don’t know whether to start crying and run away — would she come after me and comfort me and maybe pet my head? — or to be tough and cold, like I don’t care. When camp ends I go home, immediately take over the elementary school newspaper and start bossing everyone around. I write a lot of nascent pop-culture articles about Madonna.
September, 1985-August, 1992: Every time it comes up, I smoosh it down. No one can know. There are a couple more teachers in here; a friend’s sister; a Young Life advisor who looks just like Amy Grant, etc.
Next, in Part 2: My across-the-hall freshman dorm neighbor has eyes like…like big pools of eyes.

u-hauling

I’ve been living alone for over two years now. I started out in this apartment with a stripped-down version of everything: six white dishes; four white sheets; one white jar of sea salt. I wanted lots of space between each white thing. I wanted to start clean and spare, like a Carmelite nun. As the months went by and the heartbreak receded, I started adding color — crazy Marimekko prints; cobalts and indigos; carmine and pumpkin. All your basic gay-man shades.

I’m moving out now and the place looks pretty good, given that my parents chose it while I was on my way back from Toronto. The first thing I thought upon seeing the faux-wood wall paneling was, “Oh, THANKS for renting me the apartment of someone who NEVER GETS LAID AT ALL.”

I did, though. And each woman helped put me back together again — D., the tireless hiker/physician’s assistant with whom I argued about the ethics of porn; T., who’d been dumped after a 14-year relationship; C., who weighed 250 pounds, had a laugh like pigeons cooing in the roof, and reduced me to hysterical laugh-crying as we made a show of dry-humping on the hood of my car in the feminist bookstore parking lot; and more and more. One after another they came, so I forgot to watch the pot of my own grief until I realized it had boiled down to nothing and I was far away from this Craigslist post I wrote in 2007:

***

Looking for the perfect post-breakup apartment

I thought I was done renting forever, but hey! Not so much! Surprise! Happy mid-30s to me!

So. Here’s what will help me re-join the human race, living-sitch-wise:

– Tininess. The ex is taking most of our stuff, and the last thing I need is a big, empty apartment to remind me.

– Funkiness. Nothing too institutional or “unit”-looking. I’d love a miniature guest house or small, informal complex. A row of tan-colored doors with identical, increasing numbers is going to make me more suicidal than I am right now, and I’m already listening to Leonard Cohen to cheer up.

– Darkness. The sun, she mocks me. Also, I have reverse seasonal-affective disorder, so I need a place that doesn’t have BRIGHT! HEAT! POUNDING! EVERYWHERE! Shadows are good. I’d like to wake up and have no idea what time it is. I guess I could always do the windows in foil and duct tape, if you’re cool with that. Or curtains or whatever.

– Liberalness of cat policy. I have three, but one of them is dying of progressive heart disease. He’ll probably kick it within a few weeks of moving in (thus delaying my emotional recovery for months) plus he’s hairless, so no problem there. The other two are traditional cats. They’ve never damaged anything, unless you count the time they absconded with a box of tampons and used them to make little nests all over the house. I owned a house. Did I say?

-Northwesterliness or U of A-ness. Proximity to family or to cool student types? Cannot decide, so either is good.

-Month-to-monthiness. I plan on staying a year, but what if she decides she can’t live without me and wants me back? This is most likely wishful thinking. But. Still.

What else…I don’t play loud music — any music, really, since everything reminds me of her — and I won’t throwing any loud parties. Mostly, I just cry and shop for replacement kitchen items. I’ll pay you on time and won’t get crazy with interior paint.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

P.S. On-site laundry would be nice.

Dear butch lesbians,

I love you.

Not that you’re an indistinguishable entity, of course. You’re assorted — a strawberry creme next to a dark toffee next to one of those things with the ganache, and some nuts. But what you (mostly) have in common rises mightily from the multilayered box* of you with a WHOOSH, knocking me on my ass like the Goddess just planted her knees on my shoulders and bit my bottom lip.

I love that you are womyn; that you look the way all womyn would if they didn’t pluck and wax and tan and bleach and totter around on high heels: femaleness distilled and undiluted. I love how you keep being who you are no matter what kind of looks/comments you get on the street.

I love that you aren’t men — not jealous of men;  not wanna-be men; not passing as men; not bois. Thanks for leaving your breasts alone.

I love that you choose action over talk. You don’t drone on about “gender as performance” or “queering the dialogue” or whatever. You’re doers.

I especially love all you Lindas and Kathys over 60: You didn’t have Ellen DeGeneres, The L Word, Curve personals, or any other palatable, fuckable, mainstream lesbian chic. You got arrested, demonized, and ignored. Nobody made it easy. Nobody let it be easy. But you got up every morning, put on your wing tips, and navigated the world successfully. You made money; created families; took care of each other.

Thank you for showing me that aging well means passion and vitality; motion and rage. Thank you for refusing to get out of the way; for valuing your lived experience and knowing that “the voices of young feminists” are in no danger of going unheard. Thank you for not “passing the torch.” Thank you for insisting that we work together without dismissing or retiring anyone.

Thank you for helping me set up my tent at Michfest so the rain never gets in.

The potlucks are a lot of fun, too.

Love,

Phonaesthetica

 

*heh