A Nursery Rhyme

When I was eleven years old, I

sat on the front porch and wrote

my first poem. I used the soft lead pencil I favored,

but time has not.

It had twelve lines, six couplets, three stanzas.

I rhymed it a-a-b-b, just like every poem should be.

I got to the end and sighed,

squinting into the sun and the summer-pink petunias,

and wrote at the bottom of the page of my notebook, spiral-bound,

in bigger print,

“I think I am finally becoming a real person.”

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Achilles’ Shield

It’s not Achilles’ shield,

singularly struck by Hephaestus,

god-made and anger-wielded.

It’s not graven with the life of star, man, and beast upon it,

this silver-plate tea tray from the bottom shelf

of an Upstate Salvation Army,

but minted by the thousand for Penny’s or Horne’s,

meant to gather in the saucers and cookie crumbs.

It’s not Achilles’ shield, I thought,

polishing off the black,

making plain the over-flourished pattern

of dimpled scallops and fleur-de-lis.

My grandmother gave me these rags, her dish towels,

though they lie crumpled and sulfurous now.

My father taught me how to bother to polish,

how to own a thing – a beautiful thing!-

who’s beauty didn’t lie in what it cost

(4.99)

or how it looked,

(at the bottom of this stack on the bottom shelf)

but how one brushed it, or wrapped it,

or put it back just so.

My mother had just the same tea-tray, a perfect facsimile,

used to set the Christmas table

with nut horns and thumbprints.

And now another bride’s wedding gift

is mirror-bright, and has me reflective

about the life of every star,

and man,

and beast.

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What is a Squirrel?

A squirrel is a living sine wave

arcing from telephone pole to telephone pole.

It is a wavelet racing across the rising swell of highway,

crest and trough just the same; an eye

winking in the sun or headlights-

just a pebble in the surf.

Like the curve a dogged mathematician draws

filling page after page, searching

with the line into the dark

and after the light;

a squirrel is a timorous, shivering

waver that is

ever pursuing onward.

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How Does the DJ Know to Only Play Songs About You?

Love, or falling into it, is

a walk back at night

in winter, under snow and

silent, spreading clouds,

crossing the pools of lamplight and

ignored by sleeping houses,

heading off into the dark and

the cold,

hands bunched in pockets,

radio buzzing in the ears,

fire burning in the heart.

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Deer Crossing

I caught just a fragment of her,

on the hillside,

in my headlights,

only an image to identify.

Brown belly and soft ears glaring in halogen light.

Then we both twitched in fear –

and separated.

A hundred feet down the road there was blood

where fear and light were not so well met.

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“Amusing Ourselves To Death” Is Not So Amusing, Is Mostly Dead.

This is my "Infinite Jest" Jack'O Lantern.

This is my “Infinite Jest” Jack’O Lantern.

Sometime in high school I read Neil Postman’s criticism of “modern” television-focused culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death.  It was first published in 1984, so reading when I did in the early 2000’s, it was already an artifact of another era.  I remember finding it very moving at the time, thoroughly convincing.  I’m sure it was the kind of book I carried around and would repeatedly jab a finger at whenever making the kind of strained-philosophic point that high-schoolers are prone to. It was an appeal to authority that I doubt resonated with many but felt then like it ought to.  Postman knew his shit! Or so I thought.

I don’t know if it was a kind of nostalgia for that time in my life or discontentment with my consumption of media in general that kept reminding me of this book lately.  Truth is, both are commonplace enough emotions for me.  But when thinking about this book all I could remember was that I loved it and that it tore the much touted mini-series, Voyage of the Mimi, which I had watched in elementary school, to shreds.  Why exactly was it so wonderful?  I couldn’t remember at all.  So I checked it out at the library, which remarkably still had a copy of this thirty-year-old cultural critique on the shelves.

When I reread this book I felt like I understood the atmosphere that I grew up in better.  Postman name-checks dozens of politicians, sports figures, celebrities, business and religious leaders. I had forgotten exactly how few women existed in prominent positions of power or influence in my youth but the book makes this fact abundantly clear.  The women he does mention he makes fun of as silly.  Men are critiqued.  Women, ridiculed.  It’s painful to read sometimes.  When describing an early tele-evangelist, Reverend Terry, he describes her, “…in her early fifties, and features a coiffure of which it has been said that it cannot be mussed, only broken.”  To contrast he chooses Pat Robertson.  Yeah.  The same one you’re thinking of.  Postman says of Mr. Robertson, “He is modest, intelligent, and has the kind of charm television viewers would associate with a cool-headed talk-show host.  His appeal to godliness is considerably more sophisticated than Reverend Terry’s.”  Now, maybe there was a time before Mr. Robertson went off the deep-end and started warning about bringing home demon-possessed sweaters from the thrift store or that accepting LGBTQ people put communities at risk of being hit by meteors.  Or maybe Reverend Terry is super-awful*.  I find it very difficult to imagine a worse example of a religious person than Pat Robertson.  But apparently, Rev. Terry is worse.  I mean, think of that silly hair.

Postman claims to have, “watched forty-two hours of television’s version of religion.”  Then he lists the names of six people’s shows who comprised most of that time.  They are all men, white, Christian, and Protestant.  That is a particular view of religion indeed. For God’s sake, a third of them are named “Jim”.

Postman draws heavily from Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase, “the media is the message.”  Yet time and time again he fails to note how often the media is driven and delivered by presumably straight, white, Protestant cis-men.  That too is a message, and an incredibly loud one.  Is it that Postman is a straight, white, cis-man that it is a message he is culturally deaf to?  The medium of long lists of male names, checked to show facility with culture and history speaks a message for sure.  It says, male names are worth remembering.  They go down in history and up in lights.

Postman, in a book that delves deeply into the message of the medium, never asks about the messenger.  A story delivered over television, he claims, is vastly different than one delivered on paper.  But the difference between it being delivered by a white talking head or a black one?  It never occurs to him to ask the question.  He never gets into identity as a medium, though identity politics first came into being a decade earlier.  I’m not sure he’s ever genuinely thought about identity as a message.  I’m not sure it’s been demanded of him yet, living in his sweet, mid-80’s cocoon of academia.  Do you know how to finish this sentence, “I am woman, _______”?  Or this one, “Black is ____”?  Those have respectively one and two decades on this book.  Identity already had clear, ascribable meaning by this time.  But it wasn’t Postman’s identity and he missed it.

In his lengthy disparagement of the otherwise beloved (and racially and gender diversely-cast) Voyage of the Mimi, Postman complains that children are being taught about whales and navigating at sea, “singularly inappropriate for most students in big cities,” when they should be taught to, “inquire into the ways in which media of all kinds – including television – shape people’s attitudes and perceptions.”  I agree with the second point indeed and wonder how Postman missed how centuries of straight, white, male authority and cultural figures shaped our attitudes and perceptions.  He falls right in line.  Later in the book he again bemoans current educational standards (remember I was in high school at the time and ate this kind of nonsense right up – it didn’t matter if the critique was older than myself, if I could pin it on my school then I would) by saying that students couldn’t tell you when the alphabet was invented, or hell, that it was invented at all.  “It is the very nature of myth, as Roland Barthes pointed out, that it transforms history into nature…”  I suspect this mythologizing of history into nature is the very spell Postman has fallen under.  Straight, white men have always been in power, they are in power, they always shall be in power.  It’s not a happenstance of history anymore, it’s a law of nature.  It becomes impossible to question.  It’s like asking why do things fall down?  Well, what direction do you expect them to fall?  South-SouthWest?  What kind of world would that be?

And that’s the exact spell I too labored under when I read this book.  I have no recollection of reading these pages and asking myself, where is everyone else?  No thought that life in 1984 was oddly masculine and white-washed or that it was purged of queer or disabled people.  My thoughts now as I read it ping between anger at how tiny Postman allows his world to be and frustration at how long I inhabited that world.  Postman failed to examine his world for racism and sexism in the mid 80’s, but I read this book early in the new millennium, shouldn’t my experience as a reader have had some profound differences?  I am concerned at how blithely unconcerned I was.

All in all, the more time elapses the poorer and poorer this book has fared.  Postman commits the great sin of media critics, minimizing the Next Big Thing that is outside his domain of expertise, “…I believe the computer to be a vastly overrated technology.”  In fact, whenever he spoke about computers I had to translate for myself, microcomputers means desktop computer, word-processing means DOS.  Postman seems to think that television and the kind of media consumption that it drives is monolithic and unchangeable as if it hadn’t changed from the first broadcast to reruns of Cheers (the finest of television in his opinion) and would never change in the future.  Could he envision the ironic t.v.-ad-watching circularity of Mad Men or the female-story driven Orange is the New Black?  These are definitely neither Cheers or 60 Minutes (which garners all kinds of Postman hate).   Could he have imagined Netflix?  Youtube and the democratization of video production?  Regular and accessible critiques of media for content and style, indeed that critiquing media, for it’s meaning no less and not just it’s quality, would become it’s own high-demand genre?  Never.  It was an infinite stretch of tele-evangelists and evening news programs and political commercials and Cheers, Cheers, Cheers.  No wonder he shuddered and lost hope for humankind.  We’ve come a long way since 1984.

*It’s hard to tell – when I googled her name and her “prosperity Campaign Kits” which was the only sort of identifying information/personal-branding in the chapter and all I got were references to Postman’s book referencing her.  I actually doubt her existence a little and wonder if she’s actually  an amalgam of different tele-evangelists constructed before readers could check up on these things easily.  Her show name, channel, geographical region, church or denomination are not given.  Even her last name isn’t listed.  Just Rev. Terry.  I’ve looked through several lists of prominent and fallen tele-evangelists and found no individual with the name Terry who is a woman.  She’s not listed in the bibliography, or at least not as Terry.  To be honest, I’m not even sure if I should be looking for a Rev. Terry Something or a Rev. Something Terry.

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Queering Haeckel

Coming out queer as an adult, to myself as well as to the world, reveals some knots in experiences had previously seemed like simple and smooth parts of my past.  Detangling memories of a probably-queer-but-a-million-miles-from-being-recognized-as-such childhood has been taking up a lot of my free day-dreaming time.  As I’ve gotten my current life a little more clear I’ve turned the searchlight and magnifying glass of scrutiny on years receding further and further away.   There’s no way to go back in time and relive lost days, to interrogate old friends for hidden truths, to pull back the curtain of sheltered ignorance and anxieties to reveal a different “real” self than the one I thought I knew so well.

Queerness a part of my grown-up reality that I lay down on top of my childhood experiences like a character drawn on a transparency laid over scenery.  Sometimes it’s out of place and doesn’t belong but sometimes it’s so natural the secondary medium disappears (the transparency, the imposition of a new paradigm from my future self) and the picture is  complete and whole and seamless.  Sometimes the fit is so neat and perfect that I can almost remember knowing myself to be queer at a young age.  I know this not to be true in a factual sense.  I did not identify as bi until I was twenty-eight years old and I hadn’t really come close to that identity any earlier.

But still.

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

***

There’s a particular knot I’ve been working to unpick, the constant youthful confusion of girls I wanted to be like and girls I just plain liked.  Those lists aren’t exclusive, in fact they create a Venn diagram with a whole lot of Venn going on.  It’s not possible to draw any kind of bright distinction between the different kinds of liking going on; the whole mess muddled together impossibly and I simply named and understood it in the way everyone else seemed to – that I had esteem for certain people with admirable traits and wanted to be like and sometimes liked by them.  But that could be a perfectly straight interpretation.  I sometimes forget that I was not actually a perfectly straight child and that my experiences were simply long misinterpreted.  I had always assumed that everyone had a long list of female t.v. and movie characters they found themselves watching while leaning in a little closer to the t.v. and shushing anyone who starting talking over their lines.  In fact, other girls mostly did not do these things.  I never called them crushes as a child or adolescent, but maybe that would have been more honest.  Then, it would have seemed entirely wrong.  It’s only now, sometimes only when I rewatch a program that I saw as a child, with fresh eyes,  that it dawns on me how I actually felt back then.  “Oh,” I’ll say, “Ooohhhh….”

***

When I was in kindergarten I remember being scolded for three things: not being able to zip my own winter coat, refusing to help scoop out the mushy innards of the class jack o’lantern, and for kissing another girl in the middle of circle time.  I can’t remember much about that event except that the little girl was my best friend at that time and how genuinely shocked I was that I was getting yelled at for kissing someone.  Kissing was, to my six-year-old self, the pinnacle of niceness and love, why was I getting in trouble for deploying niceness and love?!  I couldn’t have been more baffled.  I wish this event was less baffling to me now.  Why did I kiss her?  What did we say about it between ourselves?  Or think about it at the time?  Did my teacher tell my parents?  I don’t know the answers to these things at all, I can only barely conjure up the vaguest memory of this event.

***

When I put on my lace-up patent leather shoes, my new go-to “dress-up” shoes that replace fifteen unhappy years of heels and I’m keenly aware of how similar they are to the little black & white oxfords I grew up wearing.  I didn’t pick out those shoes to begin with, my mother did.  My sister wore the same shoes too for a while.  But I liked them better and remember picking them out to buy until they stopped coming in my size.

***

The school board at my high school didn’t want to sell tickets to prom to anyone but opposite-sex couples.  Their reasoning was that they didn’t want large groups of “friends” to show up together.  Other than being the most bizarre objection imaginable this was also pretty blatantly discriminatory to same-sex couples (or genderqueer couples).  A friend and I were going to try and buy a ticket together as a not quite so opposite sex couple.  To do so we were told we would have to go in front of the school board and declare ourselves gay and then, ta-da! they’d sell it to us.  Again, so bizarre.  I guess this seemed a little extreme for us or we got scared.  We didn’t do it.  I regret that to this day.

Wouldn’t that have been the strangest first act of queerness, to come out in a school board meeting, as the wrong thing (I’m not gay, but bi, though that’s a distinction one might find hard to make to the senior citizens running the board), a decade before I knew it to be true.  Chekhov said that a gun on the wall in the first act must go off by the third.  I wonder if everyone who contemplates a fake coming out must eventually actually come out?

***

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

How one becomes betrays what one is to become.  Somewhere back there in my memories is all the evidence and experience that went into creating queer me and eventually convincing me that I was queer.  Although for twenty eight years I lived a straight life and wore straight clothes and brushed straight hair and ate straight food and spoke straight words and studied straight classes the day the queer-light went on I said to myself, “Shit, I’m not straight,” because I wasn’t and I knew it.  It wasn’t a question or a maybe or a doubt.  For a moment all the me’s, from baby-me and toddler-me and first-grader-me, just learned-to-ride-a-bike-me, middle, high-school, and college me’s were all lined up and for that queasy, dizzying moment were in agreement on this.  They left out the, “shit” part, it didn’t seem the shock to my historical selves as it was to my current self.  I had not experienced that kind of wholeness with my own history since I had lost my faith.  It was very powerful and there was no disagreeing with that many of me.

And that’s the watershed moment where I go from an old me to a new me. From the person I am now to the person I scrutinize through the mists of time.  An unlikely occurrence for a regular Tuesday or Friday or whatever kind of day it was, to have one’s life bifurcated between breakfast and lunch.  But I guess that’s just how it goes.

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All About the Bass, Not So Much About the Patriarchy

I like this song and it’s video.  Really like it.  The sound is catchy, bouncy, and pleasingly retro.  The video is bright, diversely cast, and the over-the-top doll-house theme is appealingly funny.  The overall message of the song, “Every inch of you is perfect, from the bottom to the top,” is obviously a positive message for everyone to hear, especially the girls and young women who are presumably the target audience for any new young pop star.  I think this song, and it’s rocket to popularity, are great signs for our culture’s progressing along in the conversation about self-image, women’s voices, and the variety of body types shown in pop culture.

But, this song and video are hardly without fault.  Maybe, a lot of fault.  When I first heard this song I flinched at the lines, “You know I won’t be no stick figure silicone Barbie doll,” and, “Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that…”  It’s great that Ms. Trainor feels great about her body, but it doesn’t seem fair to feel great by bringing others down.  Isn’t this part of the whole problem Ms. Trainor is taking exception to?  Thin-shaming isn’t any better than fat-shaming, though perhaps it is a little less common.  Maybe leaving any kind of body-shaming out of a song about embracing your body would be for the best?

The other thing about those lines that I didn’t like, that’s a little more hidden and insidious?  They are, on one level, about not-skinny people shaming skinny people – yikes.  But it’s also about women shaming and body-policing other women – super-yikes.  As the great Ms. Albright taught us, there certainly is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.  And throwing around the tired phrase, “skinny bitch” is certainly not helping anyone.  Not every woman has to be in every other woman’s corner every single day – we’re just people with ups and downs, opinions and disagreements, good days and bad.  However, putting the phrase, “stick figure, silicone Barbie doll,” an incredibly offensive, delegitimizing, anti-woman phrase, to incessantly ear-wormy music?  That’s a feminist foul. Or, maybe just foul.

A friend of mine on FB noted that as much as he personally liked the song he didn’t plan on letting his kids listen to it, and it wasn’t for the reasons I outlined above.  Rather, what irked him were the lines, ostensibly advice being delivered by a mom, “Yeah my mama she told me don’t worry about your size / She says, ‘Boys like a little more booty to hold at night.’ ”  He disliked the notion that girls should be overly concerned about their bodies just so that they could have bodies that would be pleasing to boys rather than for themselves.  That’s is indeed the seemingly literal meaning of these lines and I suspect it’s the only message that many young people would be able to parse from these lines.  But I don’t actually think that’s the message Ms. Trainor means to be sending, or indeed is sending, with this music video.  If that’s the essential story behind this video could it ever have had the incredible resonance among women as it’s enjoyed?  I’ve seen it quite a bit on my newsfeed, shared by folks who love strong, independent, happy ideals for women.  Let me explain why I think these lines, and some other truly problematic lines, are part of a larger, rosier picture.

The whole video’s theme is fairly juvenile.  There is a childhood bedroom, a doll-house, balloons, a tea party, pink-bike riding, and even dancers frozen with bent arms, karate-chop hands, and starchily coiffed hair – the perfect caricature of Mattel dolls.  There’s even a floral headband, a riff off of childhood’s daisy-chain crowns if I ever saw one.  Ms. Trainor and her video girlfriends are alternately dressed in pastel Pleasantville-style clothes and brightly colored mini-dresses, the 1950’s being our culture’s idiom for our collective childhood experience and the 1960’s for our collective adolescence.  I think this video is based squarely in that dreaded “tween” time, the developmental grey area between childhood and the later teen years.  This is where imagination, play, and still-sought parental advice are the only tools kids have to help them navigate the increasingly more grown-up questions they face like:

“What kind of person am I?”

“What kind of world do I live in?”

“Am I someone that is likeable?”

“Will I have a boy/girlfriend someday?”

If you can bear to do it, try to remember being that age, 12 or 13.  Your level of worry about social acceptance, was it pretty chill and low or was it numbingly, terrifyingly high?  I’m guessing it was astronomically high – it certainly was for me.  Young teens are very, very worried about how other people, especially their peers, perceive them.  This worry can certainly have some unhealthy consequences if it gets out of hand, but it seems that by itself it’s just a regular step on the way to developing into a healthy adult.  Young teens worry that their peers won’t accept them as friends or as potential romantic partners for a whole host of reasons.  They worry a lot about being liked, about being cool or at least, being normal.

That’s the worry that I imagine the song’s mom speaking to.  “Don’t worry about your size…Boys like a little more booty to hold at night” would be an outrageously inappropriate thing to say to a six year-old, who shouldn’t be worried at all about her body (except perhaps how she can get it to climb trees better or when her scraped knees will heal) and will only be confused by the innuendo.  It’s also inappropriate to say to a 26-year old, who’s old enough to make up her mind about her own body and what she’d like to look like and about any partners who might or might not pass judgement on her.  But a young woman, without experience or wisdom of her own yet, but needing to start making decisions about her dating life?  Maybe some good mom-advice is exactly what’s useful.

It might do a teen, of any gender, a lot of good to be told the very true truths that fashion magazines lie (“workin’ that Photoshop”), that different people find different body types attractive (the oft repeated “more booty” line), and that people who can’t respect them for who they are aren’t worth their time (“So if that’s what you’re into then go ahead and move along”).  Those things are empowering messages and not always obvious to kids (or adults!).  Teens don’t walk out into the dating/relationship world having all the facts straight already.  Telling them the truth when it’s useful and appropriate isn’t overly sexualizing children or taking their power from them.  It’s just one of the ways they have to learn about this particular world.  It’s a complicated world and teens need whatever help they get.

It wouldn’t be empowering or positive if the song’s mom said, “Don’t worry about being chunky, your butt’s pretty attractive, you’re still sexually marketable and therefore have worth.”  Scraped down to plain lyrics, I understand why some people hear this message in All About the Bass.  It’s a message unfortunately echoed in the first verses lines,

But I can shake it, shake it
Like I’m supposed to do
‘Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase
And all the right junk in all the right places

These lines set up a normative body that is “right” and what’s “supposed” to be for women.  And that body is most definitely sexualized with a “boom boom” (what!?) that “all the boys* chase.” People hear, “I’m built right, with a nice butt, that’s valuable to boys, exactly as it ought to be.”  And that’s hard to argue with on one level, it’s right there.  And indeed, that is a frustratingly essentialist and limiting sentiment. You are as valuable as your butt.  Your butt is as valuable as the boys that chase it.  Blergh.  That is awful.

But here’s how I choose to read these lyrics, and the song as a whole.  I say “choose” because like any other piece of media I recognize this song has many fair understandings some of which may cause people to come to vastly different decisions about how to interact with it.  I choose hear a young woman, caught in the weird years between playing with dolls and going to prom, gathering the collected wisdom of her life so far: storybook morals (“Every inch of you is perfect…”), pop culture (“I’m bringing booty back”), and parental advice (“Yeah my mama she told me…”),and turning it into her own words and her own moral-of-the-story, “I’m all about the bass.”  Her version isn’t perfect or without clunky bits, but what would we expect that out of a young teen?  The point is that out of that sometimes-a-mess reasoning she came out with the right idea, that she herself likes herself just as she is.  She is all about the bass**.  All about it!  She says it 32 times.  I counted.  That is clearly the overwhelming message of the song.  This growing and discovering young woman, she is growing and discovering she likes her curvy self, just as it is.  Full stop.

And that’s the emotional powerhouse behind the love for this song.

That emotional wallop is why I’m will to engage in some pretty heavy criticism of this music, but still scan the radio looking for it.  There is practically no music out there that’s immune from some criticism (Itsy-Bitsy Spider, maybe?), but it’s worth our time and energy to engage our minds and values in judging what we take in from the world around us.  Criticism is a way to mitigate the bad parts of media, to recognize, name, and call out bad actors and wrong beliefs for being hurtful.  I do it not only so that media is less damaging to me but so that I can find it more enjoyable.  My friend on FB might consider this simple justification for a great tune – a sentiment I understand, it’s how I feel when anyone has anything even vaguely positive to say about the rape-apologist song Blurred Lines.   But I don’t, I find it a useful way to manage living with the world as it currently is, where even the best and most progressive media outlets are tainted with sexism, racism, and xenophobia (and queerphobia, and resentment of the poor, and victim-blaming, and violence and, and, and….).  However, I recognize that there is a lot of terrible junk out there and we’ve all got different ways of filtering what gets to us (and any kids!) and we’re going to come to different decisions about individual media items.  So while I used my friend’s thoughts as a jumping off point to discuss this song’s vices and virtues, which I think I see differently from him, I’m not suggesting he’s wrong to determine that this is out of bounds for his kids.  The patriarchy is awful and if this is a step he sees is important to take to protect his kids from it – great.  I am pro-kid and anti-patriarchy everyday of the week.

I was also inspired to write this post by reading this by Samantha at Defeating the Dragons where she writes about Taylor Swift’s new music video for Shake It Off and it’s multiple issues with racist stereotypes and cultural appropriations.  The article is very good, even if I don’t agree with every single point. It is also kind of sad, because without the racism this music video would be pretty amazing.  Yes, I just said a very qualified something nice about Taylor Swift.  And it’s on the internet so it’s forever.  The things I do for this blog.

*This is also a very cis/heteronormative song – All the boys are interested in this girl? I doubt it.  If this song is meant to be generalized to all body-conscious girls, why only addresses how boys might feel about “a little more booty,” and not what other girls or genderqueer people might think?  Plenty of girls are worrying themselves over girls and genderqueer  people right now in middle schools all over this great nation.  Possible not-straining-to-sound-inclusive-but-magically-is: “Folks like a little more booty…”.  It scans the same!  The queer oversight is funny, because in the video the only people to even take notice of any women’s bottoms are other women.  There’s even butt-grabbing by a woman!  Though, to be fair, she does look terrified when she does it (why is that a terrifying act?) and does not give the impression of being especially attracted to this particular lady-butt.

**I also LOVE the metaphor of depth of sound for size/curviness.  There are so few ways to talk about size and weight, even when using euphemisms (sometimes especially when using euphemisms) that stay away from labeling one end of the size spectrum as good and the other as bad.  But bass/treble is totally value-neutral and yet clear in it’s meaning.  It’s a rich and creative metaphor and I think our idiom is the better for it’s creation. Personally, I also think that deeper voices are quite attractive for women, I think women who sing as tenors (which is usually annotated along a bass line) are pretty awesome.

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Hello, World!

PRIDE

PRIDE

Six months ago I wrote a post about losing my faith in God.  That post took me seven years to be able to write.  And although I had intended on it being just part of my reentry into blogging I found it nearly impossible to follow that post up with anything else.  Everything felt trite and empty of compelling energy.  Because as important as it was for me to write about my deconversion I was really writing a totally different post in a sort of code.  I was half way through the post myself before I saw it.  I was really writing this post.  I needed this story to be heard but didn’t have the courage to tell it.

Perhaps we only have a few stories we tell ourselves about our lives and our experiences, no matter how diverse, always cling to these few patterns.  This is one of my stories: I am always leaving home for a journey I am not happy about, am ill-prepared for and without any idea of the end goal.  It’s certainly not a unique story; it is, in fact, archetypal.  I wrote that last post about leaving my home in Christianity, faith, and God and going on a journey into the unknown dark beyond faith.  This post is about leaving the home of my identity as a straight person and leaving on a journey into the unknown spectrum of queerdom.  I still don’t really know where I’m going but now my car has a bi-pride magnet on it.

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Your Author, aged tiny. It would be another 15 years or so until I even learned the word “bisexual.” What if it had been that long until I learned the words, “American,” or “Catholic” or “woman”?

None of the people I’ve come out to personally have expressed surprise when I’ve told them, cryptically, I’m afraid, “I’m not straight.”* I think, that it has been a matter of politeness rather than a case of “we all knew dear.” But still, I found the lack of surprise surprising.  Because, damn it, I was surprised.

I wasn’t someone who knew from childhood that I was somehow different from my peers.  I wandered along the straight and narrow – dating, falling in love, marrying – without genuinely questioning my actual orientation.  Until one day a woman laughed – I blinked -and the world I knew came apart.  That straight and narrow path had led me right off a cliff, and like Wile E. Coyote, I briefly stood there groundless and confused but aloft and with a remarkable new perspective.   At that one moment I knew for a fact I wasn’t straight, that it wasn’t going to be a secret I could keep forever, but that ultimately everything would work out ok.  The change in perspective was instantaneous, complete, and it struck a chord of authenticity in me that had been silent for far too long.

Then, a la Looney Tunes, gravity kicked in and I began a long fall.  I forgot everything that had been so clear just moments before.  What I call the “Oh-shit” cascade began.  One terrible thought thudded into another, crowding out reason.

Oh shit, what if I’m not straight?

Oh shit, but I’m married.

Oh shit, what if my husband finds out I’m not straight?

Oh shit, what if he thinks I’ve been lying?

Oh shit, have I been lying?

Oh shit, I don’t even know anything.

Oh shit, what if this freaks my friends out?

Oh shit, shit, shit, here’s this thing out of no where and it’s made me a liar to my spouse and my friends and myself and if it ever gets out I’ll be alone forever.  Shit.

This is where, at the grown-up age of my late twenties, I locked myself in a bathroom.  I held onto the walls more for psychological stability than physical and ran the taps to cover the conspicuous lack of normal bathroom noises.  I tried to come up with some excuse for why my day had suddenly taken such a crazy turn: I must be mistaken, overtired, or some other bizarre excuse I thought up for why all of a sudden questioning my orientation seemed 100% legitimate and extremely urgent.  I thought a few good night’s rests would solve my problem, or maybe more vitamin D in my diet, or maybe just ignoring it altogether would work.  “That’s the ticket!” I thought, “Don’t talk to anyone, or think about it further and it will all disappear like a bad dream.”

You know, a grown-up sized version of this costume wouldn't be inappropriate for PRIDE, huh?

Your Author, 8.  You know, a grown-up sized version of this costume wouldn’t be inappropriate for PRIDE, huh?

Ah, nope.

It couldn’t be wished or willed away.  It couldn’t be ignored into oblivion either.  But I promised myself that I would go to my grave before I ever told another soul about not being straight (I hadn’t yet gotten out the LGBTQ p-touch and made myself a label yet, all I knew was that “straight” was no longer cutting it).  I’m surely not the first or last to try those remedies for an inconvenient self-revelation.  What I could do was make myself miserable, anxious, and isolated by refusing to share this fact about myself that I was seriously stressing over with anybody.  I could manage to pick fights with my spouse and other friends because I was incredibly wound up and convinced everybody could tell what was wrong with me but didn’t want to talk about it because it was too embarrassing/terrible/shameful.  I could lose sleep.  I could cry in my car.  I could see all the bad things I feared would happen if I allowed this disruptive non-straightness even an inch into my life happening anyway.  Happening even as I worked so hard to quash it.

To the grave.  To the grave.  To the grave.

That was my depressing, defeating, limiting, harassing mantra.

To the grave.

In quiet moments that called for self-revelation I’d press my lips together as if to physically stop words from coming out of my mouth, turn around and leave the room.

To the grave.

The phrase tolled through my head as I had conversations with friends and kept me from seeking the encouragement and advice I needed.

To the grave.

I’d think about it in the dark at night.  I’d gone another day without saying anything; I was one day closer to my goal.

To-

It was at once numbing and consuming in it’s repetitiveness.

The-

I walked to its morbid waltz-like beat, chewed to it, breathed to it.

Grave-

I could imagine my secret buried in my heart, my hands folded over a dead chest holding the secret in, buried under feet of dirt, but still I could see that secret rising ghost-like and haunting.  If taking my secret to the grave wasn’t far enough to hide it, how much further could I take it?  I felt incredibly defeated.

I didn’t have the distance to see it at the time, but it is obvious now that it was the deception that was toxic and not queerness.  What use was the secret if I was going to suffer everything I feared if I were out?  Might as well be hung for the ewe as for the lamb. I had lasted two months in the closet.  What I was supposed to take to my grave I tearily and haltingly confided to my husband on Christmas Eve.  And he took the news in the most perfectly loving, perfectly supportive, perfectly perfect way.  Then he asked me if I was going to say I was pregnant next; I assured him that was definitely not the direction of this conversation.  With a minute’s reflection he was more at peace with my revelation than I was.  I went from terrified to grateful.  What a Christmas present!

All I wanted from my confessional coming out was for my marriage not to end, for my husband not to think I was a terrible, gross liar whom he was sorry to have married.  It was a low bar, to be sure, and I was pretty sure the two of us could clear it.  What I was aiming for a mix of toleration and forgetfulness.  I wanted to be loved in spite of being bi.  My husband did much better; he aimed much higher.  He wasn’t intimidated by the seriousness of my revelation or the dourness with which I delivered it.  Nor did he believe it was something either of us could just forget about.  He didn’t love me in spite of who I am, but because of who I am.

Your author, 6 (ish?), and most definitely keeping it real in polka dots.  I'm still real.

Your author, 6 (ish?), and most definitely keeping it real in polka dots. I’m still real.

My story turns on his supportive response.  I finally had a confidant and a shoulder to cry on – much better than sniffling alone leaning against the steering wheel of my car.  I had felt so cut off at the time of the “Oh-shit” cascade: cut off from my spouse because of the seeming impediment of my orientation, cut off from my family and friends by the closet I suddenly found myself in, cut off from the greater queer support networks by the fear that more than a quarter century of straight-identification disqualified me from even walking in the door, cut off from myself by this sudden, traumatic break with my previous sense of identity.  Now it was time to rebuild these bridges.

To integrate bisexuality into my own sense of myself was not simple.  The fears and anxieties that had piled up for months mixed with all the internalized bias from my upbringing in a Catholic home.  But the remarkable sense of authenticity that I felt by identifying as bi was more powerful than my fear.  Every time that I hit a wall and got discouraged, wishing I could just “go back” to my old identity I could see how ill-fitting it really was, like trying to wear a pair of shoes two sizes too small.  It was like for my whole life I had been getting around by jumping on one foot and I had finally put down my other foot.   Identifying as straight, jumping on one foot, worked – kind of – but was exhausting.  Going back would be like picking up that foot again – too tiring a thought to even contemplate.  Two feet please!  I like men and women, people who are like my own gender and who are not like my own gender.  Knowing this made my friendships made more sense.  It made my childhood and adolescence make more sense.  I might not have realized I was queer as a kid, but it’s pretty clear to me now that’s pretty likely what I was. The sense of genuineness, and how good being genuine feels, slowly won over the negativity swirling from both inside and outside of me.

My first forays out of the closet were extremely hesitant, more like chucking some hangers and socks out at people and seeing what happened.  I told my most liberal, already-out-themselves friends.  They were not shocked. They were not appalled.  They asked me a question I found so incredible I had them repeat it,

“So, what do you want to do now?”

Your Author, a little south of 2, I wasn't gross or scary then, I'm not gross or scary now.  I admit though, I might be a tad less adorable than my baby-self in an Easter dress and hat with a bunny.

Your Author, a little south of 2, I wasn’t gross or scary then, I’m not gross or scary now. I admit though, I might be a tad less adorable than my baby-self in an Easter dress and hat with a bunny.

I didn’t have to be at the mercy of my orientation happening to me.  I could make decisions.  And it was okay for those decisions to be about what was best for me.  I could come out to everyone I knew! Or, I never had to tell another person.  I could get involved in local queer groups and be politically active for LGBTQ rights or I could decide that being bi, while an interesting thing to know about myself, didn’t affect my day to day life so it could be set aside.  But I could choose.  What a wonderful feeling!  I had felt forced to be miserable, but I could definitely choose to be happy.  So I did.

I wanted to be happy and I did not want to leave my bisexuality in the closet.  I chose to come out to some friends and family, though the process was slow and kind of awkward.  A lot of people thought I was maybe trying to say I was pregnant, or maybe had a terminal disease.  But, once I was clear about what news I was actually delivering, no one freaked out like I was afraid they would.  I joined my school’s LGBTQ group and was pleased to find that no one demanded some kind of notarized queer credentials upon entering the meeting room (or since).  I went to my first Pride parade and stuck the rainbow magnets on my car.

And if you are reading this, I chose to be out to you.  Yay!

Happy coming outs are all alike; every unhappy coming out is unhappy in its own way (with thanks to Leo).  Every person who comes out has to deal with both.  Happiness in living in their own truth and reducing the stigma of the LBGTQ community and unhappiness in the potential breakdown of important relationships.  But being out means being free.  It means not having to lie or hedge the truth.  It means simplicity, authenticity, and genuineness.   Being out is a big sigh of relief.

Being out means identifying with the LGBTQ community as a member and not only as an ally, having skin in the game. I am very happy that being out is a way that I can combat the bizarrely prevalent bi-phobic ideas that bisexuality is fake, gross, scary, or is about being confused or undecided. I am real. I am not scary or gross. I am not confused or undecided. I am definitely bisexual. Being out also helps combat bi-erasure. Did anyone of you assume that because I am a woman and am married to a man that I must be straight? Well, I’m not blaming you, because I did too! But straightness is just not something that can be assumed. Nor can people in same-gender relationships be assumed to be gay or lesbian unless they identify that way. Bisexuality is the** invisible, forgotten, but ever-present possibility. I think that bisexuality still makes non-bi people uncomfortable the way that gay and lesbian folk used to make straight people uncomfortable and that’s why the largest segment of the LGBT community remains largely unacknowledged.

Your Author, 2, Here I am getting Make-Believe shit done.  I am not indecisive.

Your Author, 2, Here I am getting Make-Believe shit done. I am not indecisive.

It means I might become a polarizing subject for some friends and family members.  I hope it doesn’t.  Being bi hasn’t changed how I feel about my family and friends; I don’t love them one iota less because of it.  Why would I?  I’m really hoping it doesn’t change anyone’s feelings about me.  But I know it’s a possibility that it will.

Sadly, I know this is especially true when it comes to people I know from the churches I used to belong to.  Certainly not all Christians nor all Christian denominations believe ugly, false-witness bearing things about the LGBTQ community, but some Christians seem to be trying to outdo each other in cruelty.   One of the hardest things for me to accept when I first started coming to terms with my own bisexuality was the enormous, queer-shaped stumbling block that I saw developing between me and my old church. I love them so much and I fear the sharp shape their rejection might take.  As at peace with myself as I might be I still don’t know how deep and wide that chasm of their fear and exclusion might be.

It’s not like I ever thought I could really go back to the church, considering my atheistically backslidden ways, but I could pretend.  That pretending was very comforting.  But my bisexuality, from the beginning, seemed different from my atheism and more permanent.  Atheism is a difference of opinion, it lives in the mind, it is changeable.  Atheism describes my lack of belief in divinity but it isn’t really about me, just my thoughts and opinions.  If people can refrain from name-calling then I’m happy to playfully spar on religious/theological topics all day and it’s no skin off my nose.  My bisexuality is a fact; it is not negotiable.  It’s part of my heart and body and it isn’t really up for discussion.  It’s a heavier and more important thing on my part and I’m afraid for the church it is a more disconcerting and partisan subject.  I’ll be waiting on their reaction for a while, uncomfortably.  I am holding on to hope though, that like the humanizing-through-early-childhood-adorableness I attempted in this post, my church families will look at me and say, “Oh? That’s a queer person? She’s not some scary other! She made bookmarks for the hymnals.”  And that, I hope, hope, hope, can lead people to rethinking their less-than-loving views or emboldening them in their loving views on LGBTQ people.

Thank you for reading – I genuinely hope my story has been worth something to you.  Telling it has been worth a lot to me.  Hopefully I can get back to the kind of blogging I love – anger-trolling and Henry antics.  I mean, that’s what the internet is for, right?

I swear, when I first heard this song my blood went cold.  I was convinced the chorus went, “…Come out to me, come out to me now!”  But I was not ready yet.  So here you go Charli 10/60 (40/10?), now I’m out to you too.

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*Isn’t that a funny way to put it? It’s obviously not straight-forward (ha-ha?). Was it a fear of the word bisexual? A minimization of the truth? As in, “I’m not straight, but I’m also not a lima bean.  So what?”

**Or, ‘a’ possibility, if you like.  I’m using “bisexuality” in its umbrella meaning here, to stand in for any non-monosexual orientation of which there are several.

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Losing Faith

MaryI was twenty one when I realized I no longer believed in God.

It was the summer between my junior and senior year of college.  I was living in a tiny, hot one room apartment with my fiance.  I remember feeling like there was no where to go get away from my thoughts and feelings that weighed me down like the terrible Maryland mugginess.  I read War and Peace that summer, sitting in the tub full of cool water, and I cried along with each character’s tragedy and joy.

The realization itself itself had been so seemingly tiny, a little addendum of internal monologue attached to an eyeroll.  A particularly lubricious church-planter speaking at an event, everyone nodding politely, and I think to myself, “Why am I putting up with this?  I don’t even believe in this.”  I remember sitting at the picnic table, frozen in my fear, trying not to cry into my potato salad.  That was it.

People talk about being argued into or out of believing in God.  They talk about abandoning belief because of the inconvenience of it’s moral strictures or, conversely, about only believing as a crutch to lean on in difficult times.  But I found that both my belief and my unbelief were events that seemed out of my control.  Instead, they were the culmination of many external factors.  My only active participation was in the response to these realizations.

When I was young I was incredibly embarrassed to talk about God or my faith.  I hated even reading aloud in my religious education classes knowing that I’d have to pronounce words like, “sacrament” and “Jesus” audibly.  Everyone could hear how I felt about those things by how I pronounced them, I could just tell, and I was horribly uncomfortable.  I was taught that feeling uncomfortable talking about God was sinful, as it showed shame.  I was taught that feeling embarrassed when discussing your faith was unloving, because it showed you were uninterested in the eternal fate of those around you.  These lessons always confused me.  The stronger I felt about my faith the less I wanted to casually share it.  It was too valuable and too tender to expose so wantonly.  My faith was a treasure, a pearl of great price, and I kept it guarded closely.

My religious instructors would have been better off had they used the word, “introvert,” instead of, “ashamed” to describe me.  I didn’t self-reveal about anything important or personal.  Self-revelation has always felt so dangerous, like every admission was a weapon put into someone else’s hands.

Without God it felt like my world had collapsed.  It felt like there was an unending earthquake going on, that every time I went to put my foot down, I wouldn’t know where it would fall.  I couldn’t figure out how to be me, or how to be any of the things be I needed to be (friend, sister, fiancee, student).  I hurt in a way that I didn’t know how to say, so I mostly didn’t say it.  Silenced pain and confusion doesn’t go away though, it makes itself heard through other avenues, I started getting sick in all these strange ways.

With extreme reluctance, and after great prodding, I started talking.  Some people were simply supportive, the kind of people who offer hugs and mugs of tea and an ear to listen. Some people tried to convince me, with the best of intentions, of the error of my way.  These conversations were very painful, they plied me with Bible verses and personal stories of doubt and conversion.  I wanted very much for them to convince me, but I also knew, absolutely, that they would not.  And some people took the news of my disbelief very badly indeed.  I wanted solace and understanding, but found disappointment and rejection.  Sometimes I didn’t tell someone about my own disbelief, but I heard them talk about atheists or other unbelievers, and I grew afraid to tell them how I had stepped out of the warm light of the great cloud of witnesses and into dark of the unknown beyond.

I had revealed my lack of faith in small, but growing concentric circles of friendship and safety.  I had felt so much relief knowing that I was understood and loved by those around me, even if I was a godless heathen now.  When I hit the wall of hostility I stopped talking.  I stopped finding relief.  I was lucky enough that I had a wide enough circle of support that I gradually healed.  The mysterious illnesses cleared up.  The earth started holding still.

Nearly eight years have passed since I lost my faith, and it’s no longer really a secret.  There are people I’ve never articulated my atheism to, but if they asked me, I’d be honest.       The loss of my faith isn’t the defining feature of my day to day life anymore and I’ve rebuilt my understanding of myself and my relationship to others without the mediator of Christianity.  My faith has become a historical artifact associated with dates and places and people, but no longer a living thing that I guard and nurture.  I can talk about it now because it isn’t personal.

But there are always things that do remain personal.  There are things that I find hard to talk about now and things that I will find hard to talk about in the future.  It’s a hard lesson for me to learn: that I need to be willing to be honest about my interior life with the people around me.  My supportive friends and family are what buoyed me up when I was sinking so fast under the heavy burden of my secret faithlessness.  I’ve also tried to become more gentle and supportive of my self-revelation-phobic friend’s tender spots.  You’d think that introverts would be great at treating other introverts exactly as they like to be treated, right?  Nope, we gotta learn just like our enthusiastically extroverted sisters and brothers.  I’m learning both lessons, slowly, and as much in the open as possible.

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