An Offering

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So I have spent much of this afternoon reading people’s blogs about gender fluidity and figuring out that mess, stupid bathroom laws, parents who say that they love their children but refuse to go to their gay wedding because Christ doesn’t like gays, blah blah blah. And another blogger talking about being a very feminine woman and how to be a woman of action and a formidable women, and it all just sounds to me like being a person, although possibly a person in high heels?

Why are we all struggling so much to simply be who we are? (Um, probably patriarchy?)

Why do other people seem to want to force the whole world into these terribly narrow boxes with prescribed ways of being in the world? (Well, patriarchy…)

And why can’t I just give everybody who is suffering on the interwebs today a really big HUG? (Oh, honey, I can’t help you with that one.)

Rilke Was Right

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From 1903 to 1908, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke carried on a correspondence with a young poet who wrote to him asking for advice, and long after, his letters were gathered into a book, appropriately enough titled Letters to a Young Poet. I feel a bit like that young man, putting feelers out into the world to say, “How do I do this thing? Am I doing this right? How will I know?” And I would like to thank my readers who have entered the conversation with me.

As Rilke said, “We would easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered…. [M]any signs indicate that the future enters into us in this way in order to transform itself in us long before it happens” (55). I think this is true, and probably one of the reasons that some changes or discoveries that we make about ourselves end up having either a ring of inevitability or a “D’oh! How could I not have seen that?” to them. Of course I couldn’t see it. You live into your answers very gradually.

So the two things I think I have been attempting to do with this blog is 1) articulate the questions I am learning how to live into, seeking clarity from the articulation on the one hand and feedback from others’ experiences on the other, and 2) make some poetry that can turn the feelings into art, for myself, for the world. Again, Rilke says, “A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity” (20). So a lot of questions and a little bit of art here and there, hopefully good.

A small bouquet that I can share with you.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Trans. M.D. Herter Norton. New York: Norton, 1962.

Muscles & Mascara Monday: Truthful Statements

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“Style is fundamentally a truthful statement… There are layers and layers of truth; and style, whether in dress or life, art or literature, is involved in their discovery.” –Freya Stark

I have been thinking about makeup lately. I used to think that makeup was something women put a huge amount of time and money into to get the attention of men, who often don’t even bother to shave. O, patriarchy, why you so mean?

I am lucky enough to have clear skin and dark blue eyes so I always figured that if a guy needs me to “put on my face” simply to notice me, then he’s not a person I really feel like being noticed by. I still feel that the Manhattan style of makeup is over the top, but New York has always struck me as being a hard-edged city and maybe it’s just a form of protective coloration, layers of powder rather than a sword and buckler.

Boston, as an academic city (we’ve got thirty colleges just within a few miles of the city center) tends toward the mildly androgynous. We probably have more comfortable women’s shoes in just a five-mile radius than they have in Manhattan and Los Angeles combined. And women who work/teach at these colleges are not an exception, whether they are full-time, part-time or graduate students (and the undergrads in baggy sweatpants). This always worked for me. As long as I looked “professional” and teacher-like, I figured that nobody would care if I didn’t take the time to put on makeup before running out the door guzzling my coffee and trying to remember my lesson plan. I get good student evaluations every semester. The rest is meaningless.

But in January, I started going to the monthly lesbian happy hour, which is a fascinating sociological activity. Where else are you going to find a sample of about eighty women with such a wide variety of clothing styles in the same bad bar lighting? More than half of our sample look like any other women you might see on the train every day. But there are a few types who stand out.

Fashionista/International Femme: Makeup, long hair, dress, heels. An air of being exactly where she needs to be. Even if I wore the exact same thing, if I was standing next to her, no one would notice my existence. I have had friends like this.

Grad Student Femme: Shortish wash-and-wear hair. Casual clothing, such as skinny leg jeans. Comfortable shoes, minimal makeup. The glow of youth.

College Dean-ish: An excellent haircut, whatever the length. Makeup, but never too much. Classic jewelry. Professional clothes, more femme than not. Classic but comfortable shoes, probably expensive. An air of quiet authority.

Grad Student Butch: Short hair with a little product for style. No makeup. Men’s style clothes but not necessarily menswear. Comfortable shoes, maybe spiffy. The glow of youth.

Flannel Butch: Plaid flannel shirt, dark wash jeans, expensive sneakers. Most of the jewelry is in one ear. One or more tattoos. A. The glow of youth AND/OR B. An air of quiet authority AND/OR C. Laidback attitude.

Bowtie Butch: Short hair. No makeup. Menswear, including either necktie or bowtie. Men’s style shoes. Laidback attitude.

Perhaps if I saw the same people in the bright light of day, the differences might not be apparent. But in the dim light of a bar, the women who don’t wear makeup, especially if they are over 40, look kind of grey and washed out.

So I’ve made a couple of visits to Sephora, one to get help in picking a shade of lipstick and one to get a 15-minute primer on how to apply eye shadow the right way and get help picking good colors. The young women (and one or two men) who work there are all made up to within an inch of their lives. But when they ask me what style I am going for, and I say, “Sorta like Ellen,” and they say, “Oh! You mean natural!” they are gung ho in helping me achieve a look that is as little like theirs as possible.

My shift in thinking about all this is primarily a shift in thinking from more outward–what do other people see when they look at me–to more inward–can I see my best self when I look in the mirror, blue eyes, Polish cheekbones and all.

It also helps that two of the faces of makeup companies in recent memory have been Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Ellen Degeneres (Ellen the Homophobia Slayer), both of whom have fresh light looks that don’t scream, “Look at me! I’m wearing makeup! Ask me how!” Which is funny, actually, considering that is exactly what they’re getting paid to do… Ah, marketing, why you so sneaky?

Styling Saturday: The Geometric Sock of Improvement

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At their best, men’s clothes have advantages over women’s—admittedly with grave exceptions. To my mind, good men’s clothes are structured rather than droopy. (The unfortunate trend among young men lately of wearing sweatpants with ankle cuffs is probably caused by a huge bribe to fashion designers from the Center for Population Control. Even my eighty-year-old father knows better than to wear pants like that.)

Another thing I like is that the colors are generally less saturated and more muted (think of a standard box of eight Crayola crayons. Add pale grey to each color). Such shades are kinder for my Celtic/Polish complexion and I find them much more restful most of the time.

The last advantage is the patterns, which are often calmer. If there are flowers, they are either on tropical shirts and the particular type of flower is recognizable, or the flowers are tiny, almost like irregular polka dots from a distance. None of this Women’s Section Let’s add flowers! And paisleys! To the same shirt! And matching skirt/jacket/pants! And you are much more likely to see geometric patterns as well.

But up until recently, it would never have occurred to me to attempt to shop in the men’s section (although in high school I bought my sneakers and Oxford bucks in the boy’s section; the sizes were better). But I recently bought some shirts in three different stores in the men’s section, to replace a bunch of shirts that I got rid of a while back because they either were too small or had been worn to rags.

And all these advantages in clothes even pertain to socks, which is good because the vast majority of my socks are fairly boring. And if I am going to be playing dodgeball once a month in my socks from now on, I am totally going to require New & Improved Sockage.

 

A Gentleman’s Index Poem

Taken from the book The English Gentleman: The Rise and Fall of an Ideal, by Philip Mason.

 

1 Reading List

 

Book of Snobs, The

Book of Courtiers, The

Description of England

Edwardians, The

Idea of a University, The

Ideal of a Gentleman, The

Knight on Wheels, A

Legend of Good Women, The

Way of the World, The

 

2 Qualities

 

Courtesy

Gentillesse

Gravitas

Intellectual attributes

Manners

Moral qualities

Musical ability

Physical attributes

Ruling class

Scholarship

Snobs

Sportsmen

Squire

Statesmanship

Stoicism

Troubadours

Women, attitudes to

I have been thinking about masculinity and femininity and this book uses both history and literature to examine the English idea of the “gentleman” and how it evolved from the time of the Norman Conquest through about World War I. He draws examples from Geoffrey Chaucer, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and others, all of whom as an English major I read in college, which means I absorbed this very English-ruling-class idea of masculinity without realizing it.

But I find it fascinating that Mason says in a footnote, “More than one critic who saw an early draft of this book wanted me to include some comments on the Japanese samurai. But I know nothing of Japanese culture, and I think it would take a year’s work to fit myself to write even half a page of useful comment on the samurai” (Mason 235, n. 23). This is interesting to me because I think I have also absorbed a lot of what I think it means to be a good me (masculine and/or feminine or other) from studying (primarily Japanese) martial arts for more than half my life. And although contemporary Japanese culture does make some strong distinctions between masculine and feminine, they are not always in ways Westerners would recognize, so I will have to think more about this.

Muscles & Mascara Monday: Yin, Yang, and Strategizing

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Since I sprained my ankle last August, I haven’t been doing the group class thing at my gym these last few months. My intent for Saturday was to start the Bodypump® class, guaranteed to make you burn 560 calories in an hour, but when I went to sign up online, it was already full. The following hour was Pilates, so I signed up for that instead. You could ask me if I broke a sweat in that class, but honestly, I am still aching too much in unexpected places to remember.

Pilates relies on small weights (1 or 2 lbs.), resistance bands, the body’s own weight, and small movements, repeated many times to strengthen specifically targeted “core” muscles, i.e., the muscles that support and protect the muscles and joints that actually do, as one might say, the heavy lifting.

I personally know the importance of these muscles from having subluxed one shoulder once and the other about four times. Subluxation is when a joint pops out and then pops right back in again. I’ve been loose-jointed all my life and my doctor says it will serve me well as I get older and arthritis kicks in more, thickening the joints. But I still remember the first time I did it back in karate in college. My teacher performed a simple circle block with minimal force but a very good angle and I was committed to the punch, which meant I was just stiff enough that his wrist on my wrist tugged my arm out of my shoulder for a millisecond. I was instantly on my knees, gasping.

Don’t go there, people.

At first glance, this might appear to be a convenient metaphor for masculinity and femininity: the large muscles getting the big job done, and the small muscles stabilizing the joints. It’s not a terrible metaphor. In martial arts classes, men do tend to try to use their height, weight and muscles against their opponents. As a woman who is anywhere from 3 to 12 inches shorter than most guys, I, like my women peers, tent to go more for speed, angles, and being sneaky, er, I mean strategic. For example, in a fight don’t necessarily try to kick him in the nuts. Go for the knees. Men ALWAYS protect the family jewels automatically, but in comparison forget they have knees. Also, the knees being lower, you can always reach them. And all trees are felled at ground level.

But like most metaphors about binaries, this lacks the subtleties present in real life with its wide spectrum of experience. I, too, have sometimes tried to use brute force (and failed, natch), I think in part because we live in a brute-force culture. In the west and the US in particular, we are surrounded by ideas of physical power, supersized pickup trucks, World Wildlife wrestlers, and hamburgers. When I was writing this yesterday, I was sitting in a restaurant known for its 1 lb. Godzilla burger (with 4 slices of cheese and fries, $12.99), which is actually the smallest of the “Gigantic Burgers.” There are six increasingly larger and more expensive choices, the largest being the “Eagles Challenge”: 6 lbs. of burgers, 20 pieces of bacon, 20 pieces of American cheese, 5 lbs. of fries. And a dill pickle.

Heart attack: $65.99.

Defibrillator: priceless.

Don’t get me wrong. Like every student of Asian history, I know that China and Japan and lots of smaller countries in the region have had their massacres. But the idea of balance is much more respected in the east. In some Asian countries, the officers mark their rank with flowers (rather than stars or pips). Imagine a US Marine general wearing a small gold chrysanthemum on his shoulder boards to convey his rank.

Brigadier General: “I’m a badass! I have a flower!”

General: “Ha! I have four flowers!”

Brig. Gen.: “I bow down to your extreme badassery.”

Anyway, now that the college year is ending soon, I’m going to have more time to spend at the gym. It has taken me the last six years to lose the first 20 of the extra 30 lbs. I put on in seminary. It should have taken less time, but I get into ruts, doing the same exercise routines all semester because it’s easy and at the end of the day after work I am tired. One of the advantages to group classes is that all I have to do is follow the teacher’s routine. And since the gym’s schedule and mine are very different, I probably won’t be able to take the same class twice in a week, which will change up what I am doing even more. And when I can’t make it to class, I’ll do weights or rowing. With any luck, my body won’t know what hit it.

Hopefully, being more strategic this way will give me a better outcome. My New Year’s resolution was to lose 6 lbs. this year, and although I’ve lost about an inch around the middle, because I have been building muscle, my weight hasn’t changed. I want to lose another 2 inches so that the shirts I bought 5 years ago fit again and I don’t feel semi-strangled by them. That is no fun and leads to a negative body consciousness that I had actually never experienced before. I prefer the positive body consciousness I haven’t completely had since college, the feeling that because my body can do cool things like kick your hat off, the person inside the body must be pretty badass.

And by the way, I have three flowers. (Thank you, Ebay.)

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Are You Being Sirred?

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In winter I am regularly sirred at the grocery store, probably because at first glance the checkout clerks see the outlines of my fedora and winter coat and only at second glance do they take in my makeup, earrings and facial structure, and immediately apologize. It doesn’t really bother me, but with all the brouhaha lately, with short-haired women being kicked out of restaurants for trying to use the women’s restroom, and the far worse things transgender people experience, it has given me pause. I have started to consider how I might respond if such stupidity were to happen to me.

The most prudent response would be to offer to show my driver’s license. Of course when you go to reach for it, be careful, because depending on a) how much of a nutcase the person is and b) what state you are in, if they think you are reaching for a weapon, you could end up dead. Idiot country.

The great temptation would be, if it were a man telling me not to use the women’s room, to say, “Oh, I’m sorry. Did you need to use it first? That’s okay, I can wait.” And if it were a woman, to say, “You’re just jealous because I am prettier than you.” But I feel like the people who are freaking out about this stuff probably are short on sense of humor or irony, so I doubt I would actually do that.

Shakespeare, Young Americans, Et Al.

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So I just watched the single season of Young Americans, a Dawson’s Creek spinoff, via YouTube last week. Although the main stories are about the townie, Will, and his efforts to fit in with his richer classmates, and the townie, Bela, and rich kid, Scout, who start to fall in love and then find out that they might have the same father, my favorite plot line is about Jake and Hamilton. Jake is actually Jacqueline, who has used her computer hacking skills and gender-neutral looks to enroll in the school as a boy, hoping that her absent mother will finally notice her; complications ensue when chemistry arises between “Jake” and Hamilton.

For a show about summer session at a (very white) boys’ boarding school, there is a surprising number of women in it and most of them aren’t total clichés. Bela is a mechanic working at her father’s gas station and Jake is a computer hacker who claims convincingly that s/he hacked NASA. The males are also nuanced. Finn, their rowing coach and English teacher talks a lot about literature, and Will writes poetry (and they steal a plot device from Cyrano de Bergerac, with a love poem and mistaken identity). So first of all, hooray broader representation of women and men!

You have to hand it to the WB, the television network that produced this show: they were horrible at racial diversity but they told interesting stories. The show played around with the awkwardness between Jake and Hamilton for about three and a half episodes, until Jake finally tells Hamilton that she is a girl, but since he needs to keep her secret, they end up having to let the other guys think they are gay. In the final episode, when everyone’s secrets get revealed, there is a moment when Hamilton turns to Jake and says, “Next you’re going to tell me that you are really a lesbian pretending to be a straight girl pretending to be a guy, because I might actually be into that.” This is funny mainly because the actress playing Jake, Katherine Moennig, really was exactly that, and it reminded me a lot of Shakespeare.

In Twelfth Night, we get Viola, a woman who gets shipwrecked and then dresses as a young man and works as a page for the Duke Orsino who is in love with the Lady Olivia. Viola has to pass messages between them and Olivia falls for her/him. And for audiences of the day who knew that the actor was of course a man playing a woman pretending to be a man and avoiding the lady’s advances, this was apparently just as chuckle-worthy. But I am not sure why it is so funny.

I think some of it is similar to what happens when you tell a little kid that the sky is green and they laugh hysterically because (they might say) the sky is most definitely not green, so claiming that it is seems funny. (And I should point out that in really terrible weather, such as right before a tornado, the sky can be green. Pray you never see it.) Humor often is the result of turning expectations inside out, and the stronger and more inevitable the expectation is, the funnier it is to see it transgressed, transposed or just tossed out the window. Apparently masculinity and femininity are two such expectations, or otherwise why are we still telling these stories and being entertained by them?

I feel like this matters in part because if we could figure out what we mean by masculine/feminine, male/female, we might also begin to unpack all the irrational fears underlying these ridiculous new bathroom bills. Given that transphobia is “fueled by insecurities people have about gender and gender norms” (Serano, qtd. In “Transphobia”), and can have horrific consequences when it leads to harassment and violence, our society needs to get a grip. And this is a deeply political social problem because, as Jody Norton writes, “male-to-female transgender incites transphobia through her implicit challenge to the binary division of gender upon which male cultural and political hegemony depends” (Norton).

 

Norton, Jody. “’Brain Says You’re a Girl, But I Think You’re a Sissy Boy’: Cultural Origins of Transphobia.” International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies. 2, Number 2 (2) 1997: 139–164.

“Transphobia.” Wikipedia. 12 April 2016. Web. 14 April 2016.

Poem Thing

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Late to the Party, I Join the Host

 

People who say that there is no such thing as bad weather,

Only in adequate clothes, have never spent half an hour,

With a bladder full of tea and a heart full of hope

At a bus stop in an unfamiliar town as the sun sets and rain begins.

Those who say “Go with the flow” have not considered

Such situations, where “flow” is not particularly desirable.

 

Sometimes getting there is half the battle, whether

You measure this run-in with public transportation

Or your whole life leading up to this: school and gym,

Band practice, college days spent studying in the sun,

The first job, hiking in the Alps, more school,

The teachers who changed your life for good or ill,

 

Bad dates, good dinners, and all the nights up to that

Moment when the cat patted your face to wake you and

You rose, a different person than you had been

The day before, the decade before, all of it leading you

Here to this wet bus stop trying to get across this

Town (in the correct direction this time) to find the party.