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Archive for February, 2011

One thing that’s always fascinated me is how people view weather conversations. Talking about the weather is something of a synonym for boredom these days. It has, in large part, come to mean that your conversation is no longer interesting, and it works for almost every kind of conversation. Let’s take a look.

A date:

“So where are you from?”
“New York.”
“Oh yeah? Where at?”
“The city.”
“Was that cool growing up there?”
“It was okay.”
“Ah, gotcha.”
[Several beats. Several awkward, awkward beats]
“So, pretty hot these last couple days, right?”

A family party:

“How have you been? Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Oh, you know, I’ve been doing okay. Just plugging along. And you? Anything new?”
“Nah, not really. But man, I wasn’t expecting snow this soon.”
“I know, me either. Really wasn’t looking forward to shoveling.”

A town hall meeting with a local politician, small borough version:

“So, what’s on your minds? What can I do for you?”


“Anything?”
“Can you stop my neighbors from planting roses? I don’t like roses.”
“No, I can’t do that. Sorry.”
“Well, aren’t you helpful.”


“You, you in the back, yes.”
“Why is it so goddamn humid?”

Anyway, you get the idea. But I have to say that while discussing weather might be a sign that your conversation is not interesting, a lot of people end up talking about the weather. I don’t mean extreme or catastrophic weather events, I mean the weather that occurs in the deepest days of summer, when people are bitching about heat and humidity. It happens every year, but every year people talk about it.

And that’s fine to me, because there’s always weather happening. Wherever you are, there’s some sort of weather. It’s not a big deal most days…it’s just there. Some days it’s worth complaining about. Some days make you look outside and say, “Wow, it’s a really nice day outside today.” Some days the weather seems to lower the ceiling of the atmosphere, making everything claustrophobic and gray. Some days the weather makes you talk about how it blew the car door shut on your shins. Some days, some days, some days.

Well, a lot of people don’t expect they’ll talk about the weather before they end up talking about the weather. A lot of people don’t expect some days. But a lot of people are waiting for someday.

It’s currently raining in my area, one of those steady rains that goes on all night but never makes you think it’s going to flood. It’s not an aggressive rain. And it’s not a thunderstorm. It’s just rain. It’s the kind of rain that continues all day and slows everything down, that makes people want to stretch out on the couch, reading a book. It’s jigsaw puzzle rain.

Perhaps most appropriately, it’s the kind of rain that makes you to want to turn off the alarm and stay in bed until you cannot possibly sleep more. And even then, it’s the kind of rain that makes you want to stay in bed, awake and unthinking.

You hear the idiom, “Save it for a rainy day.” And the gist of the saying is that you should keep something, often money, in reserve so you have it whenever you might need it. But the idiom’s somewhat limited, to me. Or maybe just the usage, because you don’t have to save anything tangible for rainy days.

People are busy. In general, people in modern society are busy, busy people who don’t have time to do many things that they would otherwise like to do, or start to do, or mean to do. People have work responsibilities, family obligations, and random crises that pop up. Very rarely do busy people find themselves caught up and surrounded by relaxation. And planned relaxation almost doesn’t count, because it’s just one more thing you’ve scheduled. You know it’s coming, so you can’t sit back and appreciate the organic moment.

But eventually, the rain starts to fall. Drop after drop hits the window panes of your house, or smacks the roofs of the cars parked outside of your apartment. It covers the asphalt like a Jackson Pollock before saturating the ground entirely.

And you might find that you aren’t as busy as usual, that you finally have some time to think. Only now, with the background noise of the rain, you feel like someone’s hung anvils on your eyelids and lifted the yoke from your shoulders. You want to be worried about something, because you often are and that’s de rigueur, but you search your brain and nothing comes up.

And you might decide that you don’t have any money you want to spend, but you do have a bed, and it’s looking pretty inviting. So you climb in and melt under the covers, spreading out, cool but warm. And you sleep.

And it seems like busy, busy people will never have this moment, because there is never an end in sight. But there is. You don’t need to sock away money for a rainy day, you need to sock away hope. Because you don’t save for a rainy day. A rainy day saves you.

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Build that fence.

Whenever I write about feminism, or volunteer for a domestic violence organization I recently got involved with, or argue with friends or co-workers or random old men in bathrooms* about feminist issues, or explain to someone why I got into any of this, I think about how authentic or honest I’m actually being.

Mostly it’s when I write. I can’t write unless I have authority over my words and ideas. It’s not that I need to present one flawless idea or thesis in everything I write. I waffle. I waffle a lot. But I do need to have conviction that whatever words and ideas I write accurately represent me, as a person and an actor in everyday life.

But words and ideas are malleable, and you can squeeze them to look like anything you want them to look like — or more directly, you can write about yourself in ways that you think you are like, or that you want yourself to look like. Even though you type the words yourself, you can make them lie.

And so I wonder if I have ever done this with regard to feminism. Have I ever written something, then turned around and acted in a non-feminist way, rendering my words hypocritical at worst, or at least preachy? I have also wondered this after volunteering. I recently worked a booth for the organization at a bridal show, and spent several hours talking to brides-to-be, mothers, boyfriends, and sisters about our organization.

That is a huge amount of trust to put in a person who you are not paying. And I worried about it the whole day. Could I adequately answer questions? Could I actually help to this organization? It’s easy to sit in a room and talk about issues with a staffer and think you know everything about domestic violence and the power/control wheel. It’s another thing to speak extemporaneously about it. It’s easy to sit and read a story about a flagrantly non-feminist action. It’s another thing to apply feminist principles to all of your words and actions.

Because for me, feminism is not ingrained, not yet. I’m not alone in this regard, and as personal struggles go, this is a minor one. It’s up to me to make thinking about things in a feminist way a reflex, it’s up to me to make my actions feminist, it’s up to me to learn and soak up information. It’s up to me to use what information I’ve learned in a positive way.

Yet, a year is not long enough to do that, and it’s not a seamless transition. I will occasionally say something that is, to some degree, misogynist or not a good feminist reaction. I will occasionally write something soaked in male privilege. I will immediately correct those mistakes when I realize I have screwed up. But that’s the reflex I have to unlearn. Hey, I went to a Catholic grade school, an all-male Jesuit high school. I’m male, I’m cisgender. And I never thought about much in a feminist way until the last year.

Because of that, I wonder if I’m being phony when I write about something from a feminist perspective. Phony is probably too dramatic a word. I have the ability to identify if many things are misogynist, and certain phrases now get my feminist radar beeping. And I am not dishonest in my pursuit of being feminist. I physically cringed when several people suggested that volunteering would be a great way to meet women. That would be an unforgivable betrayal.

But I am no expert. So the idea that I’m not being authentic occurs at the intersection of Developing Feminist Ave. and Being A Writer Blvd. Am I still able — still allowed — to write about feminism if I am not in every moment feminist?

I’ll withhold answering that question to explain why I have the reservations I do. And it has to do with my sister and a fence.

I’ve always tried to be nice and polite, even if I know there are times in which I’ve not been a respectful person. This is not to say that I have always been an aggressively misogynist asshole. But I’ve been judgmental. I’ve been an asshole. Well, let’s take my sister.

We’ve been told we look like twins, and even though I’m more than two years older, there are times when this could pass as true — mostly when the same thought passes through our heads at the exact same moment. We have a gigantic mental library of inside jokes, and it’s fantastic. To be honest, her library is much better, and her ability to mimic voices is legendary in these parts. She could imitate a kaleidoscope. I don’t laugh out loud a whole lot and I don’t giggle a ton, but when I do, there’s a good chance she’s the cause.

And I have not always treated my sister as well as she should be treated.

We went to the same college, and even though I was two years ahead, I am extremely glad she chose the same school. For one, she definitely enjoyed the place. So regardless of my being there, I’m happy she had fun as an undergrad, and I’m happy she met her best friend — truly, her best friend — there. That’s worth the price of tuition itself. But also, my senior year pushed me to my mental and physical limits. And occasionally we’d get together for a little reprieve — cooking something in my apartment, bumming loads of laundry in her building. She could tell me a story about how she got contact high and ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED CAKE that was in her fridge. Whatever, really. They were nice and fun times.

And I once told my sister that her outfit made her look like a nun or librarian. My family frequently makes fun of how people look, but that was cruel.

We once shopped for accessories for her to wear to Atlantic City. This was after I acted as a pseudo-consultant for her outfit, and said she shouldn’t give a damn about what other people’s reactions were to what she wore, or how it came off to people she didn’t know. As long as she felt good and wanted to rock it, then that’s all that matters. That was recently. This past year, in fact.

And about two and a half or three years ago, I told her she couldn’t build a fence.

She brought up the idea that she wanted to replace one that time has turned into a tangled twist of metal. Support posts are missing, crossbars are bent and disconnected. It doesn’t fence anything in, anymore. And she was extremely excited about this possibility. My reaction was a mixture of incredulity, disbelief, and presumptuousness.

Had she ever installed a fence before? No. Had I? Also no. So why was my reaction so negative? Because she’s a girl?

If I had suggested replacing the fence, I would have expected for people to take me seriously, and if not seriously, then at least like it’s something I could feasibly do. It’s not like she was 10 years old and suggesting this. She was a grown person. There might have been other factors, but I don’t think that reflex — the instant criticism and judgment that she would not have been successful — would have kicked in if she was instead a similarly aged male brother or cousin.

It was a terrible reaction, just like any other time I’ve suggested, through actions or words, she wouldn’t be able to do something not considered feminine. Just like any other time I’ve gone ahead and done something, rather than explain it to her like an actual human being. I can’t recall these moments offhand, but I’ll bet you she can. Just like she can remember having to act unnaturally pleasant because that’s how people expect her — and women, in general — to act if she doesn’t want to be considered a bitch.

I’ve kept moments like that in mind over the last year, so when she asks me about her outfit, I don’t pass judgment. So when we’re outside getting ready to put up Christmas lights, I don’t presume she can’t use the hedge trimmer.

And I’m not perfect about it. As long as I’m trying my best to have a fully functional feminist reflex, and as long as I’m trying to get others to do the same, that’s the best I can do. So does that mean I’m not able to write about feminism and observations of non-feminist behavior? Well, no. That would be absurd and it wouldn’t help anyone. Nobody’s flawless. But maybe it just means that for as often as I use this site as a microscope to examine others, I should put myself under the cover slip.

*****

(*This past Friday night, I attended a college formal. Well into the night, I went to the bathroom only to find an older guy chatting it up, making Guy Talk. The dude had to be about 55 years old. He said, “The way these girls are dressed, if you can’t get laid tonight, you’re queer.” I talked back, saying something like, “Yeah, because obviously we’re just entitled to sleep with anybody wearing something revealing.” I have no idea if he heard me, or if I added anything else. But geez, what a creep.)

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You know, there aren’t too many people who write about Valentine’s Day, and as someone who is on the cutting edge, I feel obliged to blaze this trail. This is especially true now, a few days after the fact, and about 24 hours since the department store gremlins have snatched up every trace of Valentine’s Day merchandise. The shelves are completely scrubbed.

But anyway, there’s nothing wrong with giving yourself a little time to reflect. Life isn’t a daily paper; everything written doesn’t need to have immediate news value. In this case, I’m reflecting on something I decided to do for Valentine’s Day, something I’ve wanted to do for the last eight years or so, but didn’t have the means or the opportunity to do until this year.

I bought a bouquet of muted white roses Sunday night, and stashed them out of view in my basement, with the idea of going Kris Kringle the following day. Late that night, I placed one in my mom’s car, and one in my sister’s car. Monday afternoon I tied three together, and stuck them in the door handle of a friend who lives maybe 200 yards away, as the bird flies. Yes, I did type that. But the house is a few streets away, across a creek from my house. The three roses were for her, her mom, and a friend. Today I made another delivery. All of these were anonymous, though it didn’t take very long for them to figure out who did it. It’s a very OrangeRhymed thing to do.

Now, I didn’t do this out of romance. I did it for a few reasons, foremost of which was a desire to make some small gesture that I cared about these people. I also did it because I like sneaking around to give people small, cute surprises. And I also did it because I tend to take contrarian stances on social norms. While the most contrarian thing to do would have been to ignore the day, I can’t hate on it completely.

I don’t like the pressure that Valentine’s Day places on people, and don’t like how it’s commercialized love, and how it’s the one day out of the year designated to express your love (when you can and should do that any day), and how it enforces very specific societal roles.

But at the very least, it is an opportunity to show someone you care. And if you do that throughout the year, through actions and words, it’s fine. So I took the opportunity.

Yet…

Always a yet. I thought about what those gestures say in terms of gender or sex roles. I gave the roses to women only. Even though I had no romantic intent, what I did matched what society expects of heterosexual men on Valentine’s Day. It’s a very cisgender action, but it doesn’t strike me as very feminist in retrospect.

If my goal was to express something to people I care about, I got it only half right. Making those gestures to just women means I either have romantic intent or I am treating them as a separate class of people, in need of wooing or gentlemanly courtship, and I think it was the latter. This is not to say the individuals to whom I gave the roses did not want them — they all liked them, and I thought they would. That’s why I did it.

But not every woman wants flowers on Valentine’s Day, and not every woman wants to celebrate it. That’s why I limited the deliveries to those six women. And if I’m truthful, the amount of love I have for others, the love I have for friends and family, is not reserved exclusively for women.

So I need to rectify that. And I’ll start here.

My longest-lasting, non-familial friendships have been with a group of five men with whom I went to high school. We’ve been friends since freshman year, 1998. That’s about half my life. And yes, throughout college our correspondence wasn’t as heavy — I know I kind of dropped off the map. But we did stay in touch, got together on holiday breaks, and hang out when we have the chance. We’ve written a server’s-worth of e-mails since about 2006, and I’m responsible for a lot of that. I’ve been a groomsman for two of them, and will be in two more weddings this year. While I don’t talk with them in person every day, I still care about them and what’s going on in their lives.

I also recognize, and care about, how they’ve helped me. For instance, I remember the first time I felt comfortable enough to open up about personal problems. It was around 2003 or 2004, and I was riding back from the shore with one of them. I have no idea what transpired that weekend, but I’m sure it was a laugh riot, maybe even a slight shitshow. Our get-togethers tend to center around playing poker, making hilarious jokes at each others’ expense, drinking, and talking about sports. And they really are fun times.

So we’re driving back — we lived near one another and car-pooled sometimes — and I wasn’t saying much, now that the fun was over. I have a feeling I was probably just looking out the window, thinking. And he simply asked me what was going on in my life, providing space and understanding for what I had to say. And I really appreciated it. Still do.

While I will not be delivering any of them flowers — it’s not something I think any of them, as individuals, would want — I will take the belated opportunity to express a bit of thanks that we are all still friends, 13 years after starting our high school journey.

I will also take the belated opportunity to say I am thrilled to pieces that their lives are going pretty damn well, all things considered. And I’d be first in line to help if they needed it.

They’re as deserving of those gestures as anyone else, and hardly the only ones. The same sentiment applies to my brother and grandfather, wonderful men both. But with that said — and I hope it’s sufficient — Happy Valentine’s Day, fellas.

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Yes, This Is A Body

One of the nastiest incarnations of patriarchal thinking is the constant judgment of women’s bodies. It’s a reflex for many men, and a habit I have touched on before. It’s not just mean, it’s dangerous and insidious.

Now, for years I struggled with massive body image issues and an eating disorder, and it was a terrible time in my life, particularly because I could hide it so well. I had to hide it. So I did.

I could create excuses for why I wasn’t eating higher-calorie foods, conjure reasons why I had to ride my bike so much — it seemed that I was somehow always in ‘training’ — and relied on people not to say something in order to continue my habits.

And I’ve never totally figured out where it all started. How did I get it into my head that I wanted to — needed to — be as thin and light as possible? Thin for thinness’ sake? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it had to do with watching the Tour de France and seeing the climbers fly up the hills. I think I figured if I could just be more thin, I’d be an awesome climber, and I reveled in this goal, health be damned. Maybe that was a trigger.

But some guys are built for climbing, and generally they do not stand six feet tall with broadish shoulders, like me. I am a much healthier person, and a much better cyclist, when I carry more than 125 pounds.

With that all said, I can’t remember ever being judged for my appearance. There were some comments, but I can’t remember someone insinuating I wasn’t a person because I was fat or had a “weird” face, or made me conscious of cellulite on my legs, or telling me I needed to get fit for swimsuit season, or that I wasn’t wearing the right clothes to attract members of the opposite sex (because that’s my primary goal in life), or that I wasn’t living up to some unrealistic and undefined ideal. It has never been a necessity for me to look a certain way in order to fully function in society.

And when people told me I was too thin, that was a reflection of my health more than of my appearance. This is not to say that men cannot be judged for their appearance, and it’s not to say that all judgments of appearance lead to eating disorders, but it is saying that I never had to put up with the onslaught of judgments that women do.

My own body image issues were not the result of a flood of critical messages from TV shows, advertising, and magazines that nitpick every little detail about my body to keep me thinking about every little detail about my body and how to improve it (because you can only improve something that’s wrong, natch).

Men’s magazines do this in a way, too, but it’s mostly under the guise of fitness, and anyway, there is not a judgment industry of men’s bodies. Men are not brought up to think that their appearance has so many consequences. We are allowed to basically look like whatever the fuck we want to. Also, those judgments are not used as a way to evaluate a man’s total human worth, in ways they are for women. It’s just not even remotely close. I sat in a bookstore the other week reading The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, with one hand keeping the book open and the other over my mouth.

And so I wonder how that can stop. Every time a co-worker or friend makes a snap judgment about a woman’s appearance, and stops caring about her as a person there, I cringe. Sometimes I yell.

And sometimes I see the UConn women’s basketball site. I chose this because the UConn women’s team has been the best college women’s hoops team for a while. It’s the sport’s standard-bearer. So check out the women’s roster. Now look at the men’s.

Notice anything different, other than names? That’s right. The women’s roster has no listed weights.

It seems slightly insulting, but I’m not totally sure. If you have men’s listed weights, and not women’s, you are basically saying that a woman’s weight is taboo, something to be ashamed of. It is not, of course, but I also can’t sit here and tell someone what to think.

So maybe nobody’s measurements ought to be on these rosters, because height and weight don’t determine basketball skill? I could also understand if you want to argue that they are somewhat useful for basketball evaluation purposes. And I could also understand if you want to give people the choice to reveal the measurements.

But it’s pretty clearly standard practice. Baylor, Temple, Stanford are all the same way. Someone’s deciding not to put the weights there, and I have to wonder if it is because whoever is in charge of those pages thinks it’s impolite and doesn’t realize that it’s making it seem like there’s something to hide. I mean, I’m not sitting here DYING to know and don’t care if I ever know specific weights. The double-standard only seems revealing. A woman should be able to be open about the truths of her body, if she wants, and not be judged. Ideally, a number’s just a number, and that would be all it means.

Of course, we are not living in an ideal world. If the weights were listed, many people in many places on many internet pages would make terrible jokes and snide comments. Some of those people would be my co-workers.

I had a panic attack about five minutes after I posted this the first time, wondering if my white cis male privilege showed and I made a terrible point. And I think I did. I would bet actual money that it is still in here, though I hope it’s not. If it is, I’m going back to shutting up and just reading what knowledgeable people have to say about these issues.

But the point is that no women bear the responsibility for creating a non-judgmental environment when it comes to their bodies (unless it’s, I don’t know, a photo editor of a mag that Photoshops pictures to death?). It’s up to those making judgments to stop making judgments, so we can have an environment in which a person does not use weight — or any other detail — as a way to cut away a woman’s humanity, as a way to reduce her worth to a snapshot.

So, guys: cut the shit comments and don’t judge. Don’t act like you have any say in a woman’s body or appearance. Let go of the control. These are, of course, quite revolutionary ideas and I’m glad it took me 1,100 words to say something that should be so very, very basic.

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