Styling Saturday: Dashing Owl

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Vivienne Westwood says, “You have a more interesting life when you wear impressive clothes.” Now,  Westwood is an old British fashion designer, known for bringing punk clothing into the mainstream, so on the one hand, she would think this. On the other hand…I dunno if it’s true, but it sure feels true.

Maybe the part that needs teasing out is what do we mean by impressive? Webster’s Dictionary tells us that impress means “to apply pressure so as to imprint,” which is actually kind of accurate. People we are attracted to get sort of imprinted in our heads, like an afterimage that we carry around. I am not sure how being noticed and remembered by other people leads to an interesting life, and I also recall that “may you live in interesting times” is a curse in a few cultures. But being relatively invisible does lead to a less interesting life, so let’s assume she is right.


Dashing Owl is Dashing


Having always previously thought of clothing as a way

To keep warm and unembarrassed, having always

Considered the idea of using uncomfortable clothes to attract

A man to be ridiculous, patriarchal and based only

On the law of the jungle, which I never comprehended,

I suddenly find myself reexamining the idea of style.


Nature is teeming with style. Just look around. Is it

Superficial, a coating on the outside that hides the truth

Of the inside, like the blue that makes the robin’s egg seem

Like a stone? But that blue egg hides the baby robin, so

This is a kind of protective coloration, as the chameleon

Embraces his possibly hostile environment with such


Fierceness, predators can’t even see him. But what about

The opposite, the birds who need not even open their beaks

To proclaim who they are? Parakeets imitate the jungle

Flowers, and peacocks preen their rainbow bodies, spread out

Their brocade mantles to win the peahens: their attention,

Their approval, their love—things that all of us want.


Finally, I am learning to dress to win my own attention,

To carry an image of my variegated self, so I will know

My own true value, approve, then shoot my cuffs.

The Bisexual Cento



I was on a blog the other day and the poet’s “and” list was exactly like a cento, a poem created from the single lines of other poems. I was looking at the Tag Cloud for this blog today and saw the ones that stand out:


Bisexuality, Catholic school, cufflinks,

Joss Whedon, androgyny,

butch, femme, hair, Jesus,

Katherine Moennig, ally,

lesbian, menswear, perception,


Self-Recognition is Weird, Dammit


For somebody who has been doing an exercise on perception with her college freshmen every semester for the last ten or so years, I have to admit to being slow on the uptake. In his essay, “The Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy argues that we never really see things the way they really are because we have these other things that get in the way—ideas that society gives us or that our previous experiences of similar things give us. Like the tinted gels that theaters use to cast red or blue or yellow light on the actors, these lenses color our perception of what we are looking at so that we see the color more than we see the thing. But sometimes, as with theater, if you combine all three colors, you get clean white light and can see clearly. Knowing that the lenses are there is what enables you to use them to get around the problem.

Something like this is at work when we see optical illusions, such as the duck/rabbit or an M.C. Escher print. Our friend Wikipedia explains it this way:

“To make sense of the world it is necessary to organize incoming sensations into information which is meaningful….The brain has a need to see familiar simple objects and has a tendency to create a ‘whole’ image from individual elements….[I]n order to survive it was important to see form and edges. The use of perceptual organization to create meaning out of stimuli is the principle behind other well-known illusions including impossible objects. Our brain makes sense of shapes and symbols putting them together like a jigsaw puzzle, formulating that which isn’t there to that which is believable.” (“Optical”)

So we see either what we already recognize, or what we are afraid might be hiding in wait because we have the word PREY stamped on our forehead in animal language. Or perhaps we see both at the same time; we just accept the former thing and reject the latter thing and hope desperately, and maybe unconsciously, for the best. So if I grow up in a world where the only identity visible to me is straight, that is all I am going to see. And later, when other identities become increasingly visible, but carry a stigma, I am going to stick with my familiar identity.

Then too, I remember in grad school twenty-odd years ago, when one of my male friends was taking a class on censorship and decided to write his paper on pornography (a multi-tasker, that boy). He went out and bought research materials of the soft and hard variety and, with me in mind, included a Playgirl, since he knew I had very little research experience in that area myself. The thing is, it was the end of the month, and a female friend also bought an issue with me in mind (although she intended to keep it after lending it to me; also a multi-tasker)—but hers was from the previous month and his was from the coming month, so I had two issues to compare.

My physical reaction to the sight of naked men was immediate and unmistakable, and very different from the lack of reaction I had to his soft examples on the one hand and the outright disgust I experienced looking at the hard examples on the other. People, and men in particular, can be pretty darn sick, quite frankly. But what I mostly recall feeling was relief. I had spent the previous few years writing a lot of poetry for female friends in high school and college, and although I don’t remember consciously questioning myself before this moment, the relief I felt suggests I may have had some doubts about just how straight I was.

I remember thinking often that I loved men’s bodies and women’s minds. Well, that at least hasn’t changed. It’s just that now I recognize that there may be more inside me than I had previously thought.

Recognize [from Latin re + cognoscere to know] 1: to acknowledge something formally, as a. to admit as being of a particular status b. to admit as being one entitled to be heard 2: To acknowledge the de facto existence of as a. to acknowledge with a show of appreciation 3:a. to perceive something or someone previously known.” (“Recognize”)


“Optical Illusion.” Wikipedia. 7 Mar. 2016. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

“Recognize.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictonary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003. 1039.

The Hatbrim of Perspective


I have heard it said that the person least likely to know A Terrible Truth about someone is the person him/herself. The people around them have all the information, and those closest have generally processed it unconsciously, accepted it unconsciously, and moved on. Most people are far too preoccupied with their own concerns and troubles to give much mind to those of other people unless they are explicitly asked to. I have seen this for myself more than once.

In my Catholic high school, most of our teachers were habited nuns, young, vibrant, smart and funny. When, during the fall of my freshman year, I had a powerful spiritual experience of the presence of God, I automatically felt I was going called to enter the convent. (Context is everything. Had I grown up evangelical, I probably would have just taken Jesus as my lord and savior and gotten on with my life.)

I suppose, in retrospect, it was a lot like being in love. Every song on the radio was a message from God. I still can’t hear “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” when it comes on suddenly in the grocery store or gym without tearing up. But as strongly as I felt this pull, I also knew I had to keep it to myself. Although my dad is Irish/Polish Roman Catholic, my mom is a WASP. Over the years, they would often argue “about religion”; I was in my forties before I realized that, all those times, they had really been arguing about social class markers. And my sister had refused to be confirmed and stopped going to church long since, so I knew she wouldn’t be too pleased by my decision either.

I kept this secret for three years, and I wasn’t totally wrong to do so. When my parents finally found out, my mother refused to talk to me for two weeks. My dad, who long ago had briefly considered the priesthood, understood and passed messages to me from my mom until the worst was over. But here’s the thing. When my sister came home for Thanksgiving that year, I told her, nervously anticipating her loud disapproval. Instead, she said, “Yeah, I know.”

Go figure.

At the end of my first year in college, I told God to find something else for me to do. Poverty and obedience were not problems, but lifelong celibacy was something I just didn’t think I could do. I can’t decide if irony is one of the seven virtues or one of the seven deadly vices…

Anyway, this was the mid 1980s. The only reason I knew anything at all about the existence of homosexuality was the scourge of AIDS. I graduated college and moved to Japan to try my hand at teaching English. While I was there some of the American teachers were passing around Alison Bechdel’s book Dykes to Watch Out For. I read it and things shifted in my head. At Thanksgiving the year I returned to the states, my sister brought up the subject.

“Yeah,” I said, “I know.”

One the one hand, denial is not just a river in Egypt. On the other hand, when it comes to family, it is a navigable river. I loved my sister, even if I didn’t understand her. End of story.

I am thinking of these things in part because of an experience I had the other day shopping downtown. (I know you’ve been thinking, “When are we getting to the hat? I came here for the hat!” Fear not. The hat is coming.)

So last week I went to Downtown Crossing, the shopping district in Boston, looking for something—I don’t remember what. I passed the fenced-in hole in the ground that was all that remained of a burnt-out, torn-down, and otherwise hyphenated building. This week I went back (looking for cotton crew socks, unsuccessfully; don’t even get me started) and glanced up to see a thirty-story shiny highrise in the place where just last week I could have sworn there was still a hole.

I stopped in my tracks and took off my hat to gawk. Then I put my hat back on and looked across the street again: no building. Standing where I was across the street, the three-inch brim of my hat (the Henry Jones, from Goorin Brothers, Merry Christmas to me) just cut off my view of everything above the twenty-foot fence around the highrise construction site.

So I am thinking, when it comes to perspective and perception, you can’t help the twenty-foot fence society puts up, but you can choose to take off your hat.