April 06, 2010

Whisper of a Wince

By Delia Christina

First, the links:

Jill Scott says something.
And Ta-Nehisi Coates says this.
Then Racialicious said some other things.
And then Coates had a PS.
And then we wrap up the week with Kevin Powell writing all us black folk a letter.

And now, the stories (which aren't prescriptive, merely illustrative):

When my friend Prof. L- sent me the Coates link I wrote him back. 'When ppl open their mouths and tell me how they 'feel' when they see another person's relationship choice I want to tell them to keep their personal issues to themselves. If they aren't about to say 'I hope they're happy,' then folks need to STFU.'

And Prof. L- replied,'Is there much of a distance from discomfort to disapproval?' ...
Here's another story:
When I was in therapy, my therapist (a WOC) started to dig deeper into my family background when our sessions began to concentrate on intimacy and relationships and why I felt I was such crap at them.  She wanted to know about my relationship to my father; what it was like to grow up in my old Baptist church; how I felt growing up in such a patriarchal and religious environment; what I really needed in a relationship.

My relationship to my father: I love the man, and I'm his 'duffle bag' (don't ask) but he was/is also the only man to make me ramp up to rage in under 10 minutes when the subject is women, men, politics or women in the bible/church.

What it was like growing up in my old Baptist church: it was like being a visitor from the future and you landed in 1898. BC.

How I felt growing up in such an environment: I was angry at all the bloviating old black dudes who were traditional, controlling, bullying, manipulative, insecure, and completely transparent with their greed and ambition. I hated that I had to compete with them for my father's attention.  Because I was better than they were, I had contempt for them.

What I needed most in a relationship:  Safety; recognition; personal integrity; comfort; to be taken care of; trust; mutual, unconditional support. 

Dr. C- would ask, 'And you can't find this in black men?'

I'd say, 'I probably could, but I don't give them the chance to show me. I am so angry, I can't see straight. All I can think of is those men in that church or I'm anticipating how they are going to turn into those types of men.'

Dr. C- would ask, 'Those men in the church. What was your primary method of dealing with them?'

I'd say, 'Competition. I had to beat them. I had to be smarter than they were, than their children were. I had to be a better church person than they were. Understand the bible better than they were. Even if they didn't let me preach, I had to be better at preaching.'


'So my dad would tell me 'good job,' or something. They didn't think a woman could be a leader in anything and I had to show them I was better than they were.'

Dr. C- (who was married to a very nice black man) would say, 'What do you think about trying to date a black man?'

I'd say, 'Well....ok. If you think that will help.'

And she'd say, 'It always helps to challenge our fears.'

And I tried.  But every conversation I'd have with a black man would either remind me of a tired R&B song or fill me with such panic attack anxiety I took a break and fell back into a liaison with B-, which was even more unsatisfying because it was finally clear to me that he was utterly incapble of giving me the things I needed most.

But at least he didn't remind me of that old Baptist church.

Then, when I was at the point of letting my account expire, I met M-.  A white guy. Who didn't graduate college. Who worked blue collar most of his life. Who wouldn't know Foucault if Michel bit him on his ass. Who, when he drove me home on our first date, said he wanted to make me a mixed CD and cancel his Match account the next day.  And I never spoke to, or saw, B- again.  Because of a white guy.  The Other.

This month marks our 1-year anniversary. It is the most emotionally satisfying relationship I've had since grad school.
A third, and final, story (which long-time readers may have already heard):

When it was time for me to go off to grad school, my cracker barrel, deeply southern godfather pulled me aside after evening church services.  I was leaving for Michigan in a couple of days and I was excited. Scared, too, but excited. In my imagination, Ann Arbor looked like Boston. (Yes, I was completely inaccurate but the main point was it was 2000 miles away from my provincial church.)

It was clear my godfather was trying to do the avuncular thing and this was the sterling piece of advice that he gave me:

'Don't jump the fence.'

What kind of backwoods, country folk-ism was this? I was blank-faced for a few seconds until his fierce gaze and the eventual, firing synapses in my brain made me stiffen. Don't jump the fence.  Don't leave your side of the social divide. Don't get involved with a white guy. Don't sleep with a white guy. Don't have sex with a white guy. Don't betray your people.  I wanted to slap his southern face.

'My father 'jumped the fence,' James.'

'Well, now. That's a little different. You just be careful. Don't jump the fence. Stay where you belong.'

I stomped away and seethed for hours. That was the last time I spoke to him.

Just this past year, my father told me that old James had died and it was revealed that he had had an affair with a married woman in the church for years. My old anger at his goatish hypocrisy rushed back at me and all I could do was sputter over the phone about that 'fucking old man.'
The 'heart wants what the heart wants' and it's usually because of something pushed so way down deep, you can't even recognize it.  So I get Scott's wince.  I do.  (I'm a student of African American history and literature; I've read the same history books and wondered why everyone gets play but a black girl.)

But I've got a wince of my own and the whisper of it makes me almost ashamed; I almost want to hand in my own Black Card of Racial Solidarity because of it. Almost. This is not to say that my triggers are the fault of others. It's not all black men's fault that I have this whisper of a wince. But I have it.  It has caused me to close one type of door between me and black men.  Other doors (filial, platonic or professional ones) remain open; just not intimate ones. In this regard, the man who has given me what I need is a white man.

Not all white men. Not every white man. A white man.

When we are together, the looks or stares (or whether someone may or may not have a wince) people send us don't register with me.  He is more aware of it than I am. And he is now more aware of the complex ways that our being together works as a kind of social shorthand in different parts of the city.  (He'd never say it that way; he just tells me, 'My Mexican neighbors like me better now because of you.')  But shorthand or not, when he looks at me he tells me that he has been waiting his whole life for me and I know that because of him, my heart is bigger.

So wince away, you Scotts of the world.  You can't help it.  It's not your fault.

December 16, 2009

Do You Trust Women?

By Bitch Phd

This article was written in 2005 after the death of radical feminist, anarchist and spokesperson for the anti-pornography movement, Andrea Dworkin.

The feminist blogger Cleis points to an essay by Katha Pollitt that mentions in passing that apparently Naomi Wolf had written an article "calling for the banning of abortion after the first trimester."


Here is the issue. Recently, elsewhere, there was a very long discussion in which someone argued that I had said men had no right to an opinion about abortion, and that men who object to abortion do so only out of a desire to control women. Now, I never said either of those things, but the beliefs I do have could be interpreted that way, by an unsubtle or defensive auditor. Naomi Wolf gives me a good opportunity to explain, precisely because she is a feminist (though not my kind of feminist), and a woman.

The bottom line about abortion is this. Do you trust women to make their own moral judgments? If you are anti-abortion, then no. You do not. You have an absolute moral position that you don't trust anyone to question, and therefore you think that abortion should be illegal. But the second you start making exceptions for rape or incest, you are indicating that your moral position is not absolute. That moral judgment is involved. And that right there is where I start to get angry and frustrated, because unless you have an absolute position that all human life (arguably, all life period, but that isn't the argument I'm engaging with right now) are equally valuable (in which case, no exceptions for the death penalty, and I expect you to agonize over women who die trying to abort, and I also expect you to work your ass off making this a more just world in which women don't have to choose abortions, but this is also not the argument I'm engaging right now), then there is no ground whatsoever for saying that there should be laws or limitations on abortion other than that you do not trust women. I am completely serious about this.

Let me unpack a bit, because I know this sounds polemical, since I am clearly stating a bottom line. When pro-choice feminists like Wolf, or liberal men, or a lot of women, even, say things like, "I'm pro-choice, but I am uncomfortable with... [third-trimester abortion / sex-selection / women who have multiple abortions / women who have abortions for "convenience" / etc.]" then what you are saying is that your discomfort matters more than an individual woman's ability to assess her own circumstances. That you don't think that women who have abortions think through the very questions that you, sitting there in your easy chair, can come up with. That a woman who is contemplating an invasive, expensive, and uncomfortable medical procedure doesn't think it through first. In short, that your judgment is better than hers.

Think about the hubris of that. Your judgment of some hypothetical scenario is more reliable than some woman's judgment about her own, very real, life situation?

And you think that's not sexist? That that doesn't demonstrate, at bottom, a distrust of women? A blindness to their equality? A reluctance to give up control over someone else's decision?

Because if you cannot see that, then I don't care who you are. Male, female, feminist, reactionary asshole. You are acting as a conduit for a social distrust of women so strong that it's almost invisible, that it gets read as "normal." The fact that abortion is even a debate in this country demonstrates that we do not trust women.

A second, related point. Pollitt mentions Wolf in the following context:

...the public face of organizational feminism is perched atop a power suit and frozen in a deferential smile. Perhaps some childcare? Insurance coverage for contraception? Legal abortion, tragic though it surely is? Or maybe not so much legal abortion--when I ran into Naomi Wolf the other day, she had just finished an article calling for the banning of abortion after the first trimester. Cream and sugar with that abortion ban, sir?

This, I think, is a real problem, and like Pollitt, I've found that Dworkin's death has crystallized a lot of things. As Bitch has gotten bigger--and particularly because a lot of its recent growth has come about because of some pretty pissed-off ranting directed at supposedly well-meaning men--I've started getting more troll behavior, more nasty emails, and I've seen some fair to serious bitch-bashing. This, of course, is the price of fame, even ridiculous bloggy fame. It's not like I didn't know that there were people out there who hate feminism, feminists, children, and so on. And it's not like I didn't know--and this is more important--that there are people out there who don't hate women, but who do feel acutely uncomfortable around "bitchy" women. That is, women who don't ask for permission before speaking; women who don't just state their opinion and then back off to let you decide if you want to hear it or not, but who insist on having their arguments acknowledged; women who feel entitled to be angry; women who want to be heard more than they want to be liked. Hell, one reason this blog is anonymous is because I have a hard time with that myself, sometimes: I can be just as ranty in person, but no, I don't generally take people on to their face. Here, though, I can and do.

Am tempted to duck away from the self-invovlement of that last paragraph (and have deleted a couple of abortive attempts at a self-involved follow-up to it), but no. I was talking not long ago to a friend of mine, a man, who is a great teacher. And he said, "I'm a great teacher." And I said, "wow, no woman would say that," and--though hyperbolic--I think that's largely true. I know that when pseudonymous kid brags, Mr. B. and I usually agree with him: "yes, you are very smart"--and I know that when my sister and I used to brag as children, my mom would say, "showoffs always fall on their ass." And I sure as hell know that when a man talks about his qualifications, people generally listen, and when a woman does, people often think she's being insufferable. So I'll leave that paragraph, but still, I want to make a broader point with it.

In some ways, this Dworkin/anger/bitch thing is, like abortion, a bottom-line issue. How do you react to women's political anger? Is it okay for a woman to have strong opinions as long as she doesn't make anyone uncomfortable? If she sounds angry, does that automatically invalidate what she's saying? Do you think that feminists would be more effective if they were nicer? If there's a disagreement between a woman and a man, do you instinctiively see "his side"? Do you mistake strong convinctions for personal attacks? Do you value civility over fairness? Because if so, then that, too, is a kind of distrust, hubris, a reluctance to cede control.

I am not advocating a free-for-all; and I think that considering the rhetorical effect of one's words matters; and I value good manners as much as anyone. There is an important difference between private anger and public anger, and it is the latter I am talking about. It is important to recognize that the ability to remain "civil" about injustice is a demonstration of power, and, arguably, is itself a kind of violence--more subtle than yelling, and for that reason, far more damaging. Because it is easy to isolate the angry woman, to shun her because of her anger. Many people will not see past the anger, and therefore many people will find it justified; she is, after all, being "unreasonable." After all, just as with abortion, women are not supposed to make people "uncomfortable." But when that happens, that amounts to denying women the right to public speech: the angry woman's anger is taken personally, as an indictment of her character, rather than as a legitimate political expression. (And then, of course, men say things like "women don't feel comfortable arguing.")

If you're pro-choice, you have to give up the right to have a "say" in someone else's choice. If you're pro-feminist, you have to give up the right to expect your personal feelings to be more important than women's public rights--including the right to be unpleasant, if, in her judgement, unpleasantness is called for.

September 14, 2009

A Quickie

By Bitch Ph.D.

Laptop backed up; currently working. Going into shop tomorrow (sigh, I can't afford more debt). Luckily, Mr. B. has a laptop too (mine is also my work machine), so I will borrow his for work this week and maybe do a little blogging too. Though I really will have to let him have it when I am at home, since I'll be taking it away from him all day. He might otherwise go into withdrawal.

I had a kind of revelation today. A lot of my readers say, "I get the idea of open marriage intellectually, but I could never do it myself." And a lot of other readers say, "but shouldn't you try to work out your problems with Mr. B., not with other people?" And I suddenly realized, these are the same question. Yes, I (anyone) should try to work out my problems with my husband. And, in fact, I do. But getting what my (our) problems are intellectually doesn't mean that we can, actually, stop having them. Just like intellectually being "ok" with open marriage doesn't mean that you could actually do it yourself.

For some reason, I find that I can, sometimes, not have those same problems with other people. This is, I assume, because other people have slightly different personality configurations; they don't, maybe, push my buttons in quite the same way, or because they are new I am more polite, or because they aren't my life partner of 15 years (20, if you count the time we dated before marrying), I'm just less in a rut with them. So, say Dateboy does something that Mr. B. does, and it drives me crazy when Mr. B. does it, and I almost always yell at him. And I've tried, really hard, not to yell at him about it but it really just drives me so fucking crazy and I know he's doing it on purpose and why do you always do that? Really? Those of you who have been in relationships (i.e., everyone) knows what I mean.

But Dateboy does it. And because he's not my partner, I find that I don't particularly care, so I don't say anything. Or I do mind, but because he's just my fuckbuddy, I don't think I have the right to yell at him, so I don't. Maybe I sort of mildly object, or maybe I just let it go. And then I realize--I feel, as distinct from intellectually knowing--that actually, this really wasn't that big a fucking deal. It didn't ruin the evening or anything. And I sort of have this little epiphany and I realize that even when Mr. B. does it, it's not that big a deal. And now I know how it feels to let it go, and move on. So next time he does it, I recall the feeling I had with Dateboy, the not-caring-so-much, and I don't yell. And Mr. B. notices (or maybe he doesn't, but let's say he does), and he sort of stops what he's doing. He has time enough, you see, to realize what he's doing because I haven't immediately yelled at him and put him on the defensive. So he realizes, and he goes, "oh, I'm doing that thing you hate. I'll stop now," and I go "omg! That's all it took? Me not yelling?" and we both feel much better. Or maybe he doesn't notice, and he does it, and I sort of roll my eyes and that's it. And then I feel, afterwards, like "wow, that was kind of irksome, but you know, not yelling actually makes me feel less stressed over it than yelling and starting a fight."

I don't know if that makes sense. I'm just saying, knowing something with your brain and knowing it in your gut are not the same. Sometimes it's hard to learn things with your gut with some people, for some reason that one usually can't figure out. So sometimes you can learn them with your gut with someone else. And once learned, they're yours to keep.

I promise to try to blog about the work/cheating connection some more--hopefully soon, on Mr. B.'s laptop. It'll all be anecdotal and personal, so very fun in a voyueristic, "omg this person is so fucked up, I can't believe she has a job" kind of way. I'm sure you'll all enjoy it. And, in fact, it is also true that my job hangups are something I am very definitely learning about from some of my boyfrirends, who have job hangups very like mine (which Mr. B. doesn't), or from other boyfriends, who are totally free from those kind of hangups. So there again, in figuring out this shit with them, I'm hopefully, in the end, going to make Mr. B.'s life easier in the long run.

Stay tuned. Ann Althouse, stupid as ever, seems to think that my comment about this uncharacteristically banal post over at EotaW is somehow not insulting her as well as the post's author. Just so the record's clear, Ann: I'm accusing Scott of being *almost* as boring and idiotic as you are everyday. (Also for the record: it's fucking obvious that Obama isn't paying attention to the young woman in the red dress. NOT THAT ANYONE SHOULD GIVE A SHIT.) Luckily some of her commenters get it.

August 29, 2009

The Best Revenge

By M. LeBlanc

Since I graduated from law school and began my practice as a lawyer, I've been surprised by two things: 1) how I have not had to deal with even the faintest whiffs of sexism from other people in my office; 2) the extent to which I have had to deal with sexism/racism/ageism from nearly everyone outside my organization. I wrote about this topic previously here.

The first one makes sense, I guess. A lot of women who work at corporate law firms seem to have to deal with a fair amount of sexism and/or sexual harassment. But I have only worked at civil rights organizations, where people are rather inclined to behave differently. Indeed, they are inclined to see the world differently. I can't even explain how gratifying it has been to work under men in their 40s and 50s who have the utmost confidence in my abilities. They are happy to let me carry out depositions and trials, praise my work, listen to my opinion and discuss strategy with me as equals. Coming from a world where women are subjected to constant slights in every academic environment from professors and fellow students, and the rest of the working world, I consider my workplace an incredible haven that is free from sexism.

Apart from the fact that I adore the work and that I feel incredibly passionate about it, it is one of the primary reasons that I intend to continue working in civil rights organizations in the United States. People often ask me whether I want to return to Egypt to live and work. I don't—because I simply don't think I could function as a professional with the level of sexism I'd be forced to face. I feel mildly ill just thinking about it. I am incredibly privileged to be able to live here and work with people who uniformly share my vision of social justice, who share my vision of a world free of invidious discrimination. Do these people still harbor prejudice? Of course. I still harbor prejudice; nearly all of us do. Anyone who claims they're completely free of prejudice is full of something else.

So I continue to be shocked when faced with #2. In my current job, I've had to do a lot less interaction with lawyers outside our organization, so I've been a bit surprised when I'm reminded of how other older, male lawyers treat me. For the past few days my supervising attorney and I have been taking depositions for a major case we're working on. We deposed nine people; he took 4, I took 5. And this was not the first time we'd met the opposing counsel. They had taken depositions of our witnesses last month, and I defended 5 of the 6 they took.

But none of the lawyers for either of the two defendants seem to be able to remember my name. Even though I've introduced myself countless times to them, to each witness, to the court reporters, to their clients, spelled my name for the record. This is in addition to all the phone calls I've made, emails I've sent, pleadings upon which my name has been written.

So when, at the beginning of the 8th of 9 depositions, I seemed slightly exasperated when one of the lawyers came around to introduce me to the witness and looked at me blankly, it was pretty understandable. I raised my eyebrows, paused and then said my name slowly and clearly for the umpteenth time. And then the other lawyer, who was sitting next to me, turned to me and said:

"You know, we only have two kinds of people here in [name of town]. People with blue eyes, and people with brown eyes."

I stared at him. Unable to formulate a response.

"You know, we just don't have a lot of diversity here."

More staring from me.

I truly couldn't think of anything to say, so I looked away and said "are we ready to begin?" and the reporter swore the witness in. I curse everything on heaven and earth that that exchange wasn't on the record.

These lawyers, like every other lawyer I've gone against, keep seeming surprised that I'm there. They keep seeming surprised as I question and cross-examine witnesses, take depositions, argue motions, and make objections while my male supervisor sits there quietly and watches. And they let me know what they think of me by barely acknowledging me. By conveniently refusing to remember my name, by mistakenly attributing things I've said or arguments I've made to my (male) boss. By apologizing to me for using profanity or making crude remarks, as if to remind me: you're not supposed to be here. By asking me whether I'm an attorney, by asking me how long I've been an attorney, by asking me where I went to school and whether I'm married or whether I have children, questions that my male colleagues never seem have put to them.

And occasionally, by making openly sexist or racist remarks like the one I heard yesterday.

I was too stunned to respond. But after the deposition was over, and I chatted with my co-counsel and my client and they confirmed my "wtf?!" reaction, I had to excuse myself to the bathroom to shed a few hot tears. I'm fucking tired of being ignored, forgotten, disregarded, condescended to, and treated like a curiosity.

I'm not too humble to say that by the standard of my experience, I'm a superb lawyer, negotiator, and advocate for my clients. I think I am by any standard, in fact. Last night, I was relaying all this to The Bear, and he said something I've heard many times before, that beating them, being better than them, is the best revenge. And I must confess that I've taken great pleasure in winning cases over counsel who have slighted me in the past.

But I don't want "revenge." And I become weary of the notion that I have to work to "prove" myself to these people. It's a burden, sometimes an unbearable burden. I hate the burden of feeling that any mistake I make, any omission or error, any time when I don't perform not only well, but stunningly, I am confirming their racist, sexist, and ageist opinion of me as incompetent. I do not want to "prove" myself to them, because they will never reconsider their initial opinion of me just because I happen to beat them. My stellar performance will never mean, to them, that they were wrong to disregard me because I'm a young brown-looking woman. It will only mean that I am an exception, that I am an oddity, that I am "special." Or perhaps it will mean that there was some other reason I bested them, that it was that I had a better case, or the jury was biased, or the laws were unfair or the judge was against them. It will never vindicate me.

I don't want revenge. I want respect.

August 17, 2009

Ta-Nahesi is Wise

By Bitch Ph.D.

I think his musings in this piece about the intersections of racism, sexism, economic insecurity, and social insecurity hit the nail right on the head.

One thing to keep in mind is that race, and racism, have rarely ever acted alone. One of the best points that Phillip Dray makes in his classic history of lynching is that epidemics of lynching often coincided, not just with an expansion of black rights, but with increased labor mobility among white women. So fear of white women, and their independence, as well as fear of sexual competition, all worked in concert. It wasn't simply "I hate niggers"-- it never is. It was "I don't much like black people, and prices are going up, and I have to let my wife work, so I can survive, and I'm scared she won't stay with me if she's not dependent on me and I'd die if she left me for a black guy." Or some such.

It's the "or some such" that pinpoints it, weirdly. Of *course* people who feel worried about vague abstractions like "the economy" or "declining values" or "socialism" or whatever don't--and can't--precisely pinpoint what the concern actually is. Not because they're dumb or dishonest, but because the very nature of that kind of anxiety is that it's broad and inchoate.

It's the anxiety that we try to counter by telling ourselves that we have nothing to worry about because even *if* we lose our jobs we won't end up living under a bridge--we have family, or friends, there's unemployment. Or that even if we fail at graduate school, we won't *really* end up working at McD's for the rest of our lives. Or that even though we got a terrible performance review at work, our cat still loves us.

Which is why getting pissed off at these people and pointing out how racist or ignorant or unconstructive or fucking hateful they're being probably isn't itself very constructive. Then again, you can't really therapize an entire subset of the population. And to be fair, I think it is also true that the political manifestation of such anxieties by crowds does indeed generally fall to the right, and has a long history of being used by the right.

That said, I also think that fantasies of "America Becoming Nazi Germany!!!" are also manifestations of that vague anxiety--although, as Sara's pointing out, if you're (say) an undocumented immigrant, that whole "being herded into camps guarded by a combination of private and public troops" thing isn't a fiction, and if you're an abortion provider or clinic worker, the fact that there really are organized political groups that want you dead is old news. And I genuinely find the whole teabaggers-shouting-down-town-meetings -and-making-death-threats thing seriously worrying (as I did the Bush administration's "loyalty oaths" for their rallies).

Clearly people are freaked all around. Maybe it's not the revisitation of the 1930s we were all worried about a few months ago, but then again, probably even at the time most Americans saw the now-iconic pictures of the dust bowl or migrations west or lynchings as pictures in the newspaper (if they saw them at all), just as we see videos on youtube now.

And notice that shouting about "illegals" was part of the "protest" in that case.

Okay, so this has turned out to be much more castrophic than I expected it to. My original intent was just to point to Ta-Nehisi's good post. I think the upshot is that yes, what we're seeing happen has some really really ugly undercurrents, and those undercurrents do (and have) had ugly results; but that it is also true that those ugly undercurrents aren't (and won't be) clearly traceable until after the fact. Whether they turn into a flood or just eddy away into mucky little pools? We'll see, I guess.

August 03, 2009


A note from your editor:

By Mary Hannington

You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Everybody's a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We're all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.

David Cronenberg

Red Sox Steve said something the other day about my being a perfectionist.

It really stung.

But he is right. I waste time and energy trying to make everything perfect and therefore nothing is and never will be.

He has seen my house and the chaos that exists in it. It’s hardly perfect and though I admit I’d like it to be better, more perfect… I’m also a realist and know that will take massive effort and time. Something that I seem to lack in increasingly greater amounts these days, but massive effort? That something I’m used to.

The truth is almost nothing is perfect about my life.

There are days when I have so much to do I forget to eat.

It is impossible to do everything perfectly, so some things fall by the wayside.

“So WHAT if all the columns aren’t edited and don’t have pictures.” Says Steve “Your main focus has to be taking care of Ms. 91.”

He’s right. It is.

And sometimes I’m bad at that too.

I forgot to fill her all-important synthroid prescription yesterday and she had to go without. I haven’t made her dermatologist or her dentist appointments yet, finished the room upstairs in case she needs it or swept her room downstairs which does… need it.

And I run a business too that at the moment I have to restructure.

I work freelance as a designer.


I’m currently working on a pitch due in September on a film in London.

Slouchy wrote the script, is producing the film, and is a full partner on any backend profits, but I’m not a shoe in for the part I’m looking for, Production Designer.

I’ll have to devote some considerable time into not just helping Slouch with development, but a mood book and a treatment of the tone of the film and specific scenes. That's a lot to have on a plate for a perfectionist like me, but I'm not looking for sympathy.

It's my roller coaster life. Either it is slowing to a crawl at the top of the incline or running full speed to the bottom of the hill.

Then there is this place that I’m writing and creating in, you think it’s chaotic now?

Oh just wait!

Cause the truth is I suck at this too.

I built just what Guru wanted, which was something from the past. Past dreams are powerful things and Guru is a talented guy, who certainly deserves his dreams, but he knows as well as I that dreams are often shattered.

We move on...

Quest into the unknown... or the 21st century.

So when we think something is not working around here. I’ll turn it upside down, broom it around or just plain blow it up!

This may lead to reader frustration, confusion or they may just be chaotic people like Matt and I and dig the surges of creativity and lulls of crises that go along with real life.

So Fuck Perfectionism. Nothing is EVER perfect!

My work here and elsewhere will always the best it can be. BUT it is a creative process and that is subject to change, to evolution that takes an ever better path and change can be chaotic.

Change is also necessary for us to grow, redefine and become, if not perfect, better.

June 29, 2009

Procrastination As Play

By Bitch Ph. D

In fact, I am not procrastinating. It is the weekend, and after last week's fucking meltdown, I have decided I need to give myself permission to take weekends off again. I give myself that permission a lot, and in fact I do take weekends off (graduate students now reading, yes, we do, and you should too) and then I will start to freak out or have a "big" something that I am worried about and I will start sitting at my desk on the weekend--not working, mind you, checking email and other things, on which more in a minute, but pretending that I'm going to start working "any second now" until the day is over and I am a fucking neurotic mess. I know we all know what that's like. So anyway, after doing that to myself yet again last week, I am now on a no-weekend-working jag, goddamnit. Though I still feel a teeny tiny bit like, "well, but wouldn't it be a good idea to look at the essays in that one reader and maybe get a jump start on putting together that course pack this week?" because, as we all know, work that you "sneak" in when it's not "officially" working time and you're doing it just because you're curious about what's in that essay you're going to actually officially read on Monday is, in fact, much easier to do for some reason.

But I am procrastinating in the sense that I am now writing a second blog entry rather than going and fixing lunch for me and pseudonymous kid (who is, bless him, playing quietly on the bedroom floor while I sit with my laptop). I am procrastinating by blogging in order to try to save myself from my other procrastination habit, the one that nearly sunk me this last week and that I am now inspired to "confess" both because of my last post and because Dr. Crazy gave me the intellectual justification I've been searching for as I've been trying to figure out, all week, why I feel compelled to make my confession on this blog. I've been not doing it because of the surveillance thing I talked about in my last post, partly, but more because, without some reason why I'm doing it, it merely seems self-indulgent, and not in a good way. But I think with Dr. Crazy's help I've finally put my finger on it.

This week, I've been procrastinating horribly by hanging out on sex chat rooms and talking dirty to total strangers over the internet. It's the kind of thing one can do while at the computer, so one has the illusion that one is going to start working "any minute now" but it also, of course, occupies the mind well enough to overwhelm the anxiety of sitting at the computer. It would probably be a much healthier habit, work-wise, if I were actually going out, getting drunk, and fucking strangers, since at least I would get some exercise and get away from my desk, but I live in a tiny town and there is just no way I am taking that risk. Because not only am I a professor, I am married. This is not a problem for me or my husband, mind you, but it is a major problem in terms of not being perceived as a whore, professionally speaking. It's one reason why I have got to move out of small-town midwesternness: I know people do freaky shit in the small town midwest, but it is a lot easier to get away with in a city somewhere. Actually, I think what I want is just the knowledge that I could do freaky shit if I chose to: I'm not out there joining swinger's clubs or inviting people to have threesomes. My sex life is in fact fairly sedate and shockingly monogamous--I just reserve the right to be not-sedate and not-monogamous if I want to, damnit. This secret side of me has gotten more play, mentally and emotionally speaking, since I moved here, and it's obviously got everything to do with being a displaced way of acting out my resistance, not to my marriage (which is in fact fine, thanks for asking) but to the whole women-professors-as-asexual-beings thing (thank you, Laura Kipnis). Which is ridiculous, since virtually all the women I know in academia are very comfortable with their own sexuality, thank you very much. But still.

Interestingly, however, I have been thinking about writing porn on the side, and that I would be willing to do under my real name: why not? Anyone who worked with me would "know" that it's "just writing." Again, we have the divide between the body and the text that we are all so very invested in pretending exists. I don't think I'm advocating for a seamless integration of the two--that would be ridiculous, and I'm not under the illusions that people in other lines of work freely talk about their sex lives on the job. But I do think that in other lines of work, there is a more accepted understanding that the division between professional and personal identity is fairly clear. Less so, perhaps, for other professions that, like "professor," have this aura of sainthood about them: you don't want to know that your doctor is a sadist, for example. Still, though, I think ours is a profession with a shockingly limited sense of range. Note that I say "sense" and not reality: surely there must be many ways of being a professor, and certainly there are tons of people out there who get up to all sorts of things in their spare time. And we are all aware of women who have written their dissertations on working in strip clubs and the like. I knew someone once who was quite open about going to the fetish clubs on the weekends. But there's always a sense that these things are "okay" (if they're okay at all) only if they are properly intellectualized: "I'm interested in the aesthetics of fetish gear." Intellectualizing that shit is fun; but the shit is also fun on its own, isn't it? Like NASCAR?

The goal, I think, is that work and play don't have to be mutually exclusive.

June 22, 2009

Who Cares What I Look Like?

By Bitch Ph.D
Editor's note: This is one part of a long discussion on anonymity, sexuality and academic blogging. You can read profgrrrrl and Graham Leushke's thoughts for more on the debate.

That anonymity discussion is still on my mind too. I am interested in, and bothered by, the fact that so many of us seem to feel somewhat defensive about our decision to blog anonymously. I am put out by the implications in some of the comments over there that somehow anonymous blogging should be beneath academics. I feel compelled to cover up my irritation --i.e., initially acknowledging it only in the comments to profgrrrl's blog rather than over at leushke or on my own blog, and that annoys me too.

And now I have this feeling that, having gotten a couple trackbacks and gotten readers--which I'm very glad for--suddenly I'm "on the radar" and even though I'm anonymous, I feel more constrained about the subject matter I can/should write about here. There are things that are on my mind that now I think don't "belong" on an academic blog--another kind of blog, maybe. And yet, for solid professional reasons including my research area and the whole question of gender and academic identity, I know that these topics can and probably should be addressed; more to the point, I want to write about them. So actually, it isn't I that think they don't belong on an academic blog; I think other people might think that. I started an anonymous blog not just to bitch, but also to talk about these things, and yet now that people are reading the darn thing, I am nervous again. It's heinous.

Having put that out there, no doubt I will talk about some of those things, many of which--as profgrrrl's post implies--have to do with sex and sexuality. So, I started out my comment on her blog (which you are now reading here instead) with a couple of anecdotes: a colleague once told me something I was wearing was "too sexy" to teach in. Another colleague--he was joking, and I took it as such, but still--referred to my "hooker boots" once at a meeting. No, I do not wear fetish wear to work: but I do prefer clothes that are somewhat tailored and/or body-conscious. At my urban Ph.D. institution, this was just fine; I merely looked stylish. Here, at small midwestern town, I get comments. Interestingly, however, the students (grad and undergrad) seem to "get" that style is not the same as a come-on. Occasionally they will compliment my boots, but that is about as far as it seems to go. They merely seem to assume that I live in nearby Big City, and are always surprised when they spot me around town: "oh, you live here??"

Now, I can hear in my mind's ear someone saying, "oh, you think the students get it but I'm sure it's a distraction, especially for the young men, blah blah." But I look at it differently. I've taught now for nearly a decade, and I have had a lot of conversations with students about feminism, women and careers, children and careers, style, fashion, and work/life balance. My sense is that--especially for young women, but also and not unimportantly for young men--seeing a youngish woman standing at the front of the class wearing fashionable red boots and a well-tailored dress is a formidable statement. When that same prof is approachable and friendly--"oh, you like my boots? Thanks, me too. Where did I get them? They were on sale at Nordstrom's last week, you might still find a pair in your size if you go this weekend"--and extremely professional--"ok, enough about clothes for today, let's get started, pop quiz everyone!"--it accomplishes a few things that I think are important.

1. It shows students that feminism is not a dirty word; it is a pity that so many people still hold the "feminists are hairy-legged man haters" stereotype, but the fact is they do, and I think looking femme and being quite open about also being a feminist is not a bad thing to do. Especially since I always nip comments like, "well, but you're not like most feminists" right in the bud, and we talk about fashion, style, social conventions, and how they work. When these discussions come up, I make a point of asking the students to think very hard about whether my "exceptionalism" (i.e., my femme appearance) is not part of why they are, paradoxically, willing to take my feminism more seriously rather than disappearing it as merely sour grapes, and what this says about the continued expectations put on women to look "good" before anything else.

2. I have had tons of feedback from female students on this issue. Impeccably groomed young women tell me they think more critically about why they spend so much time on their appearance, and what the costs and benefits of it are; quiet pretty girls who sit in the back of the class sometimes begin raising their hands and offering surprisingly insightful critiques of misogyny in the texts we're reading (I am thinking in particular of one extremely conservative young woman with manicured nails who got married right after graduating--I recently wrote her a glowing recommendation to graduate school); already politicized community activist types confide after class that they never realized that their disdain for the sorority types was itself a form of internalized sexism.

3. The men, too. They start listening better to the women in class; they point out that fashion is not just a female issue, that achieving the "right" casual guy-type look is also a lot of work; they talk about the various cultural meanings of male fashion (goth, punk, emo, frat boy, jock) and speculate on whether the "hairy feminist" stereotype might not have its parallels for men (e.g., "all frat boys are date-rapists"); they tell me that wow, I thought this was just going to fulfill a distribution requirement, but now I am thinking of taking other courses in X subject, is so-and-so's course next semester any good?

In other words, the sleek boots and tailored clothing help me create a functioning feminist classroom. The private stuff that I fear is "unacademic" is very much a part of my academic identity; the bitching about job stress is a personal and self-indulgent but no less important critique of academic culture. The fact of anonymous academic blogging is itself the object of study; this stuff doesn't belong in a locked diary somewhere, it belongs out there where people can think about it. That so many of us put it out there without our names on it might be perceived, not as a problem, but as a gift.

June 06, 2009

Linkfest: Tiller Sotomayor

By Bitch Ph. D

1. Here's an awesome memorial to George Tiller: the George Tiller Memorial Abortion fund.
The George Tiller Memorial Abortion Fund will provide assistance to the same women Dr. Tiller served: women seeking abortions in their second-trimesters, women facing extreme obstacles to abortion, and women who often must travel from their homes to obtain the abortion care they need. The Fund will assist with the cost of the procedures as well as the costs of travel and lodging. Notably, this Fund will be available to patients of the late Dr. Tiller's clinic, Women's Health Care Services in Wichita, at such time when the clinic is able to regroup and reopen.
You can donate at the link.

2. Dana at EotAW breaks down some stats on third-trimester abortions. Be sure and read the comment thread, too, where North breaks them down even further and offers an anecdote that demonstrates how really, really difficult it can be to obtain a needed late abortion. (Illustrating, I hope, why the fund linked above is so important.)

3. Interesting essay about the science of life and how it helps redefine the abortion debate. I really like the conclusion, that
If the social and political arrangement of a group puts stress on the autonomy of its individual responsible members (which ours does, and I like it that way), deciding what the criteria are for being judged an “individual responsible member” is of primary importance. Who gets to vote? Who gets to drive a car? Who decides when to unplug the respirator? Who is of “sound mind”? Who is a person?
and I think it's a challenging question for feminists and progressives of a certain stripe (including me) who do, actually, think that we overemphasize autonomy in some arenas.

4. I missed this piece at TAPPED last week, about the conservative case for Affirmative Action. Really well put.
The conservative freakout over Sotomayor's remarks, as opposed to the way Alito's were marketed as a selling point for him as a judge, makes a remarkably salient case for why we still need affirmative action. Two judges made similar points--one was an Italian American man, the other was a Latino woman, both accomplished on the bench--but what was sold as a strength for Alito makes Sotomayor a racist. Taylor and Buchanan, while attacking Sotomayor, have inadvertently made the case for a policy they'd like to see eliminated, by proving that all things being equal, a minority woman is held to a different standard than the white man of similar background and experience.

5. Another jaw-dropping statement that belies conservative squawking about the racism of noticing race. Yes, I know these are a dime-a-dozen, but this one is a real doozy: according to Manny Miranda, Hispanics think just like everyone else. We’re not like African-Americans. We think just like everybody else.

6. After reading all that, how about a little dessert?

You Tube Link

Book 2.0

June 01, 2009

Beyond Belief, But Not Beyond Good and Evil

By Amba

Robert Anton Wilson, quoted by Commenter "Nick" at Church of the Churchless:


This remark was made, in these very words, by John Gribbin, physics editor of New Scientist magazine, in a BBC-TV debate with Malcolm Muggeridge, and it provoked incredulity on the part of most viewers. It seems to be a hangover of the medieval Catholic era that causes most people, even the educated, to think that everybody must "believe" something or other, that if one is not a theist, one must be a dogmatic atheist, and if one does not think Capitalism is perfect, one must believe fervently in Socialism, and if one does not have blind faith in X, one must alternatively have blind faith in not-X or the reverse of X.

My own opinion is that belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence. The more certitude one assumes, the less there is left to think about, and a person sure of everything would never have any need to think about anything and might be considered clinically dead under current medical standards, where absence of brain activity is taken to mean that life has ended.

My attitude is identical to that of Dr. Gribbin and the majority of physicists today, and is known in physics as "the Copenhagen Interpretation," because it was formulated in Copenhagen by Dr. Niels Bohr and his co-workers c. 1926-28. The Copenhagen Interpretation is sometimes called "model agnosticism" and holds that any grid we use to organize our experience of the world is a model of the world and should not be confused with the world itself. Alfred Korzybski, the semanticist, tried to popularize this outside physics with the slogan, "The map is not the territory." Alan Watts, a talented exegete of Oriental philosophy, restated it more vividly as "The menu is not the meal."

Belief in the traditional sense, or certitude, or dogma, amounts to the grandiose delusion, "My current model" -- or grid, or map, or reality-tunnel -- "contains the whole universe and will never need to be revised." In terms of the history of science and knowledge in general, this appears absurd and arrogant to me, and I am perpetually astonished that so many people still manage to live with such a medieval attitude.

Resonates with this:

One of Universism’s goals is to see if the opposite of faith, uncertainty, can be embraced with the same fervor people have for religious certitudes. If we can replace humankind's dangerous urge toward blind faith with a commitment to an ongoing quest, or at least a steadfast open-mindedness, the world will be much better off.

People would behave in strikingly different ways if they were not certain of the unproven beliefs that faiths promulgate. People who question look at the world more attentively, and at their fellow searchers more forgivingly.

Resonates with this:

God Without Religion offers a way for individuals to discover and define God on their own rather than accepting the interpretation of a particular religious doctrine. Instead of providing answers about God as organized religions do, the book encourages readers to explore their ideas of God by asking a series of questions that ultimately expand their sense of identity. I call this "worshiping by wondering." Wonder is the gateway to spiritual knowledge. The more questions we ask about the nature of God, the more profound the answers will be, leading to deeper questions which broaden our perceptions and expand our sense of self. Constantly challenging our conclusions and refining our knowledge of God promotes the deep spiritual growth needed to transcend the violence so prevalent in the world today.

Resonates with this:

“Outsiders” have all the same human needs [as traditionalists] -- for community, for a conceptual operating system, for metaphysical and not just physical shelter -- but they find themselves unable to deny the central fact of our time: that all the old certainties are being destroyed by two great new transforming forces, science and globalization. (Science is now evolving so fast it’s trashing its own certainties.) To defend any crumbling fortress of certainty today is to go to war not only with the defenders of other certainties, but with reality itself. The reality is that we’re being hurled back to square one, to a naked primordial unknowing face to face with the universe that challenges us to rediscover it from the ground up. [ . . . ]

But the same forces that are stripping away the answers are equipping us as never before to live in the open questions. When you swear exclusive allegiance to no one tradition, their multiplicity is no longer a threat but a vast resource: the record of over 10,000 years of research, a grand reference library for the study of reality [ . . . ]

The crucial divide, as this new millennium opens, isn’t “God or Not” [ . . . ] It’s between those who are sure they know the answers (or know the only place to find the answers) and those who are living the questions. This could actually prove to be a matter of life and death. Daring not to know may be the only way humans will survive our nuclear-armed reunion, because it’s ignorance and wonder that unite us. Even two groups of people who are killing each other over their answers have the same questions.

Is it fair to say this -- humanity moving, in Elaine Pagels' words, Beyond Belief -- is one of the central emerging memes of our time? However, here is the great danger:

In any situation, moral judgments are the sole responsibility of those involved. Every decision and behavior occurs in the context of unique circumstances and relationships, and should never be subjected to universal religious codes or absolute philosophical principles. "Good or evil" is a false choice that belies the complexity of our universe and the people in it.

Or, as quoted by Robert Anton Wilson, whom this post began with:

Nothing is true. All is permitted.
~ Hasan i Sabbah


The central emerging question of our time that shadows this meme is: Can we who enshrine uncertainty and wonder avoid being arrogant in our doubt? Can we dethrone our own personal, convenient, self-permissive interpretation of the "truth" when the objective evidence of experience contradicts it, in replicable experiments repeated countless times down the millennia? Can we have the humility to admit that that objective evidence (which you can obtain for yourself at any time by flapping your arms and falling on your ass) often coincides with the core wisdom, the timeless part of many traditions?

Basically the two halves of the book project I'm working on -- the yes-but. From the proposal:

We are at a crossroads between two very different kinds of uncertainty. One is uncertainty as humility in the face of the tough task of figuring out what’s best. The other is uncertainty as carte blanche to “create your own reality” and decide what’s best -- for you.

I want us to go with humility.

When it comes to metaphysics, we really don’t know. When it comes to morals, we do. Buddhism doesn’t posit a God, yet it’s in agreement with Judeo-Christian tradition that you shouldn’t kill, lie, steal, or screw around, and in agreement with Islam that you shouldn’t get drunk or stoned. There’s a purported Native American story circulating on the Web (as yet unauthenticated) about the “two wolves fighting within” –“the one that wins is the one you feed” -- that corresponds exactly to the Jewish idea of the yetzer ha-ra and the yetzer ha-tov, the inner inclinations to natural selfishness and spiritual kindness. This suggests that good and evil do express something about the “inherent nature of the universe,” or at least about our inherent nature and experience.

Throughout the human heritage -- our “grand reference library for the study of reality” – we find the insight that morality, in its essentials, is objective. It’s not a matter of “should,” it’s a matter of “is.” Experience has proven, over and over again, the truth of consequences: “If you do x, you get y.” And these reproducible experimental results, which have great predictive power, are summed up in the set of axioms called “wisdom.” Wisdom is the science of the spirit.

For example, just as one of the basic laws of Newtonian physics is “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” one of the basic laws of moral physics is “What goes around comes around.” Or as Martin Luther King put it: "The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." In the East, that’s called the Law of Karma; in the West it’s “Be not deceived; God is not mocked; for as ye sow, so shall ye reap.” Don’t kid yourself: the universe is not a blank slate for your will to write on. You’re perfectly free to try to bend its laws, but it’s you who will break. You could try living “free from universal truths” like the law of gravity, too. Only in dreams and in fantasies like “The Matrix” can we fly unaided.

Embedded in the time-dated customs and myths of every tradition is a core of timeless truth about what works and what doesn’t. Spiritual nomads go for that core. They don’t restrict themselves to one tradition any more than scientists will only study science done in one country. The point is to bring together the truest and most lifesaving information about reality. So spiritual nomads deliberately take their moral compass from all points of the compass.

That resonates with this:

Cosmopolitans believe in universal truth, too, though we are less certain that we already have all of it. It is not skepticism about the very idea of truth that guides us; it is realism about how hard the truth is to find. One tenet we hold to, however, is that every human being has obligations to every other. Everybody matters: that is our central idea. And again, it sharply limits the scope of our tolerance.

And with this:

The Open Source Truth Process aims to ensure that the Yoan Community's core writings and beliefs will evolve over time, as everyone—based on each person's own direct experience of Reality—is invited to provide input and improvements. Through this process, participants will gradually uncover, refine, and document the Truth.

By "Truth" we simply mean the clearest expression of a system of ideas and beliefs that is most consistent with Reality as it is directly experienced. Ours is a truth that you can test and experience directly, with your own senses and mind. Our truth is not based on narrow human authority (dogma, received wisdom, and "imposed truths"). Rather, it is based on the broad authority of the collective, human experience of being-in-the-world, i.e., the human experience of reality. [ . . . ]

Our Truth Process depends on the increasing involvement of many people with diverse life experiences. Only through such diversity will our truths always be improving.

Amba has been a freelance critic, writer and author since 1969, has written for nearly every major women's magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Village Voice and The Nation.

May 25, 2009

Jesus Fucking Christ!

By Bitch Ph. D.

You know, honestly. I have long loathed Bill Donohue. But I truly never imagined that even he was capable of this level of offensiveness:
Reuters is reporting that “Irish Priests Beat, Raped Children,” yet the report does not justify this wild and irresponsible claim. . . . The Irish report suffers from conflating minor instances of abuse with serious ones, thus demeaning the latter. When most people hear of the term abuse, they do not think about being slapped, being chilly, being ignored or, for that matter, having someone stare at you in the shower. They think about rape.

By cheapening rape, the report demeans the big victims. But, of course, there is a huge market for such distortions, especially when the accused is the Catholic Church.
I am not even kidding here: the man is saying, in so many words, that children who are, as a matter of routine:

- beaten
- forced to stay up all night with farm animals they were afraid of--in winter, without extra clothing for warmth
- kept on the brink of starvation, so that they regularly fought over bad food, or so that girls put in charge of infants would steal milk from the babies in order to feed themselves
- not provided with soap, toothbrushes, sanitary napkins or tampons
- forced to perform unpaid hard labor beginning as early as the age of five (including handwashing the nuns' sanitary cloths in cold water with bare hands)
- forced to work instead of learn

are somehow "demeaned" by the report because they weren't actually raped. Donohue thinks that this kind of treatment is "hardly draconian," and anyway, "most of [the children were] delinquents." So what--probably they deserved to be beaten, starved, and treated as domestic slaves?

Moreover. The "delinquents" who Donohue thinks deserved to be beaten--after all, nothing short of rape really counts--included:

- illegitimate children, who were often transferred to these homes as soon as their mothers were released from the mother and baby homes where they gave birth.
- foster children, whose parents were unemployed, neglectful, alcoholics, abusive, etc.
- children whose mothers or fathers had died or abandoned the family.

Children admitted because of delinquency?
One hundred and eleven (111) witnesses (14%), 107 male and four female, reported that their conviction for criminal offences was the major factor leading to their admission to a School. The nature of the offences mainly involved theft of food, fuel, bicycles, clothing or money. There were eight reports from male witnesses of admission as a result of charges for more serious offences such as ‘breaking and entering’ and ‘attacks on the person’.
Eight. Out of 791.

According to Donohue, it's "wild and irresponsible" to say priests raped children if only 12% of priests did so, but if 14% of kids steal food, or eight children out of 791 are guilty of breaking and entering or assault, that makes the entire group "most[ly] delinquents."

It gets even worse.
Rape, on the other hand, constituted 12 percent of the cases. As for the charge that “Irish Priests” were responsible, some of the abuse was carried out by lay persons, much of it was done by Brothers, and about 12 percent of the abusers were priests (most of whom were not rapists).
Only 12% of the kids were raped! And only 12% of the people who raped and beat children were priests! Clearly the title of the report is "wild and irresponsible" and grossly unfair to the poor, poor Catholic church.

Note that the abuses I described above are listed in the report under "everyday life." The things listed under *abuses*--not including rape--well, let's quote the report here:
witnesses at times described daily, casual and random physical abuse as normal and wished to report only the times when the frequency and severity of the abuse was such that they were injured or in fear for their lives.
Donohue deliberately misrepresents (or excuses?) children being injured or in fear for their lives as
Not nice, to be sure, but hardly draconian, especially given the time line. . . . quite frankly, corporal punishment was not exactly unknown in many homes during these times.
Abuses that Donohue apprently considers normal include being forced to eat vomit (eight separate people reported this); being stripped naked, held down, and beaten in front of witnesses; being beaten to the point of having their earlobes severed or bones broken.

And it's not as if Donohue didn't look at the details. He's obviously read the report, because he quotes a section describing some of the sexual abuses perpetrated. But he takes the quotes--"kissing" and "inappropriate sexual contact" out of context, deliberately citing the least shocking offense and using a phrase without giving details about what it means. Here is the complete passage, which gives a better sense of the kind of "inappropriate sexual contact" we're talking about:
Witnesses reported sexual assaults in the forms of vaginal and anal rape, oral/genital contact, digital penetration, penetration by an object, masturbation and other forms of inappropriate contact, including molestation and kissing. Witnesses also reported several forms of non-contact sexual abuse including indecent exposure, inappropriate sexual talk, voyeurism and forced public nudity.
I kinda doubt that the "kissing" here is of the benign, affectionate sort.

To be fair, Donohue concedes that "none of this is defensible"--before immediately going on to defend it. He egregiously sums up what the report details as "oral/genital contact, digital penetration, penetration by an object, [and] masturbation" as, in Donohue's words, "e.g. . . . inappropriate sexual talk," and then goes on to the idea that nothing short of rape really counts.

Let's quote the conclusion of his statement again.
. . . none of it qualifies as rape. . . . The Irish report suffers from conflating minor instances of abuse with serious ones, thus demeaning the latter. When most people hear of the term abuse, they do not think about being slapped, being chilly, being ignored or, for that matter, having someone stare at you in the shower. They think about rape.
When people hear abuse they don't generally think of being fingered by a nun, either. That's because such things are, to those who haven't experienced them or read the report, unthinkable. Donohue has read the report. He knows, as I do, that it clearly separates corporal punishments and forced labor (still unacceptable, and described in chapters describing "Everyday Life") from outrageous abuse (in chapters describing "Abuses"). He, not it, is the one conflating minor instances of abuse, like "inappropriate sexual talk" with serious ones, like digital penetration.

Let's sum up.

Bill Donohue is defending a powerful institution, the Catholic Church, by minimizing and excusing the abuse and neglect of children, including deliberately overlooking oral rape, digital rape, rape with objects, or forced masturbation.

Bill Donohue claims to defend "Catholic interests" and to represent Catholics.

If Donohue is as representative of Catholicism as he claims, then he has just proved that Catholics and the Catholic Church do indeed defend and excuse nuns and priests who abuse children. At least, as long as they don't actually rape them.

I pray to the blessed virgin that Donohue is not representative of most Catholics. He sure as shit doesn't represent me.

May 18, 2009

Chutes and Ladders

By Amba

Okay, since economics is what we find ourselves talking about, I’ll bite: here’s an aspect of economics, contentious and critical to economic policymaking, that strikes me as important and fascinating.

It’s the study of how impulses, incentives, and consequences shape human behavior. I think it’s called behavioral economics:

Economic Man makes logical, rational, self-interested decisions that weigh costs against benefits and maximize value and profit to himself. Economic Man is an intelligent, analytic, selfish creature who has perfect self-regulation in pursuit of his future goals and is unswayed by bodily states and feelings. And Economic Man is a marvelously convenient pawn for building academic theories. But Economic Man has one fatal flaw: he does not exist.

When we turn to actual human beings, we find, instead of robot-like logic, all manner of irrational, self-sabotaging, and even altruistic behavior. [...]

Nonetheless, neoclassical economics sidelined such psychological insights. As recently as 15 years ago, the sub-discipline called behavioral economics—the study of how real people actually make choices, which draws on insights from both psychology and economics—was a marginal, exotic endeavor. Today, behavioral economics is a young, robust, burgeoning sector in mainstream economics, and can claim a Nobel Prize, a critical mass of empirical research, and a history of upending the neoclassical theories that dominated the discipline for so long.

This new field doesn’t just pick the brains of psychologists (to whom, one senses, it could give a whole new useful life), but those of neurologists, and, implicitly, of sociobiologists, who view these hard-wired behavioral mechanisms as winners of the competition to survive:

“Economists specialize in taking really complex things and boiling them down to simple principles,” says David Laibson. “So, rather than treat the brain as billions of neurons, or trillions of neurotransmitters, we want to ask, what is the right level of analysis? It turns out that the brain has two key subsystems. One, the limbic and paralimbic system, rules the intuitive and affective parts of our psyches. It’s shared by all mammals and seems to do a lot of emotional cognition—how we feel emotionally, how we respond to other humans, or to being treated unfairly. This system seems to function unconsciously; we don’t have access to it and maybe can’t even control it. It’s experiential and rapid in function.

“Contrast that with the analytic system, centered in the frontal and parietal cortexes,” Laibson continues. “It controls a lot of the thought processes we learn to do: calculated, conscious, future-oriented thinking. It’s not based on past experience; you could have the rules of a brand-new game explained and the analytic system would be able to figure out how to play.”

Brain researchers have shown that an interaction of the limbic and analytic systems governs human decision-making. The limbic system seems to radically discount the future. While the analytic system’s role remains constant from the present moment onward, the limbic system assumes overriding importance in the present moment, but rapidly recedes as rewards move into the future and the emotional brain reduces its activation. This explains impulsiveness: the slice of pizza that’s available right now trumps the dietary plan that the analytic brain has formulated. Seizing available rewards now might be a response pattern with evolutionary advantages, as future benefits are always uncertain.

There it is right there: the seat of no-tomorrowism!

Strangely, even more interesting to me than the study of human motivation (which is only going to end up proving what the wise have always known, verifying millennia of maxims and canny clichés) is the engineering angle: the study of how to motivate humans. It interests me, I think, because it’s what so much of the disagreement between right and left comes down to. What optimizes motivation? Struggle or security?

America, relatively speaking, lacks a social safety net. There’s a feeling — I’ve felt it — that you have to succeed to survive. It’s very starkly Darwinian: there isn’t much middle ground. Is it this anxiety that spurs us on to great heights as a nation? Or does it actually sap creativity, condemning all but the entrepreneurially fierce and fit to waste their lives and gifts struggling to get by? Does assuring people’s basic survival, at the root of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, free them to climb that tree and be curious and creative? Or does it take the edge off and make them lazy and dependent? I don’t know the answer, but suspect it’s not totally either/or. On the one hand, our nervous systems are tuned to peril and triumph. On the other hand, beyond a certain degree of stress we lapse into “learned helplessness,” the depressed state of experimental animals that have learned there’s nothing they can do to predict, avoid, or prevent random electric shocks. The Maslovian view posits way too much Rousseauian optimism about human nature. The social-Darwinian view selects for manic extraversion, creating a bit of a one-note culture. Introverts must medicate to keep up.

A related question is: what is definitely in society’s collective interest to provide, overriding concerns about the effects on individual self-reliance and moral fiber? The common defense, clearly. The internal version of defense — law and policing, the maintenance of public order. Sanitation, a no-brainer. I think a strong case can be made for education: not that the public sector should monopolize education, but that it should make it available to all as the default. Very much in the collective interest — anyone care to count the ways? Scientific competitiveness (from Sputnik to the new spur of globalization) is only one.

Far more controversial: various forms of the basic income guarantee, and health care. To many liberals it seems self-evident that providing single-payer health care is in the collective interest. Conservatives say that market incentives make American health care, for all its problems, much more innovative and effective. You saw the arguments that Natasha Richardson would not have died in the U.S.

Incentives and consequences are the most fascinating part of the picture, on every level. The elusive preventive aspect of health care, for instance. This is one of the areas where the limbic system presents a major stumbling block. When the supermarket is packed with snacks and advertising issues perpetual siren songs for supersized this and that, how do you help the analytical forebrain override the impulse with remote concerns about longevity, economy, and even vanity, a limbic reward that requires an analytical abstinence? The limbic brain doesn’t get the time lag between eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and gaining a pound.

And then, when there are penalties for good behavior, and rewards for bad behavior, what do you think you’re going to get?

Front page story of today’s NYT discusses the small, well managed, profitable, risk averse banks.

Indeed, as Chris Whalen has so frequently noted, the vast majority of banks in the United States are Triple A by his standards. Its just that these 6,500 banks hold a minority of the total deposits in the nation, with biggest dozen or so banks sitting on 65% or so.

Talk about burying the lead: The Times also noted — in the very last paragraphs — how the big incompetent banks and their very pricey bailouts are screwing these small healthy banks:

“At DeMotte [State Bank, an 11-branch operation in the northwest part of Indiana, Bank President] Mr. Goetz is bracing for a steep increase in a crucial overhead cost: the bill from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which is basically an insurance fund underwritten by banks.

Last year, DeMotte paid $42,000 into the fund. This year, because of failures in other parts of the country and particularly among national banks, that sum will rise to $500,000 or more.

“Isn’t that the American way?” he says, folding his arms. “Whoever is left standing, whoever was prudent, is always the one who has to pick up the pieces.”

Thus, yet another reason why these bailouts are so absurd: They punish the risk averse and reward the irresponsible . . .

Why do we have different standards for large institutions and little guys? I’ve long been fascinated by what I think of as “selective Darwinism” — applying the stringency of survival of the fittest to some categories while bailing out others. (I guess you could argue that getting too big to fail is a form of fitness, a special case of the general point that mega-success is the surest path to survival.) Our thinking, both right and left, seems extremely muddled in this regard. Incentives and consequences — chutes and ladders — are what it’s all about. Both the sages and the neurologists will tell you that.

I wish I could do a better job of thinking this through, but I’ve already stolen too much time from work. Please jump in.

Amba has been a freelance critic, writer and author since 1969, has written for nearly every major women's magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Village Voice and The Nation.

May 11, 2009

Critical Reporting

By M. LeBlanc

Via Matthew Yglesias, I am incensed by this Jeffrey Rosen piece in The New Republic about Sonia Sotomayor. Rosen's point is as follows: he talked to some people, none of whom he names as sources, and he doesn't know much and didn't talk to enough people, he admits, but yet he feels qualified to opine that Sonia Sotomayor Is Kinda Dumb.

I don't know who this article is directed at, but as a lawyer who knows at least a little bit about judges, this rankled me so hard:
The most consistent concern was that Sotomayor, although an able lawyer, was "not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench," as one former Second Circuit clerk for another judge put it. "She has an inflated opinion of herself, and is domineering during oral arguments, but her questions aren't penetrating and don't get to the heart of the issue." (During one argument, an elderly judicial colleague is said to have leaned over and said, "Will you please stop talking and let them talk?")

This is a perfect example of why we need more women and especially feminists in the media. If someone said this to me, I would not uncritically report it in a national magazine as if this were an unproblematic assertion.

Seriously? A bully on the bench? If you've been to almost any oral argument anywhere ever, you know that this is nearly impossible under the standards that most judgess set by their behavior. The point of oral argument is for judges to ask you questions, not for you to stand and make a speech. Furthermore, the assertion that she's not that smart and is a "bully on the bench" hoists a giant sexism flag, to me. Take, for example, one of the judges I've seen in action multiple times: Richard Posner. He's on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Richard Posner is a complete asshole on the bench. He interrupts, he opines, he's dismissive. But do people write articles in the New Republic saying he's not qualified to be a Supreme Court Justice because he's a "bully on the bench"? No, he's hailed as a genius. In fact, he's probably the most famous federal judge there is. And as to "don't get to the heart of the issue," well, judges of all kinds are notorious for getting hung up on tangential questions. That's why they have the phrase "finer points of law."

I'm not trying to say Posner isn't smart. He is. My point is that even if they are right that Sotomayor asks a ton of questions from the bench, that makes her no different from hundreds of male judges who do exactly the same. If anything, it makes her different from the rest of the female judges who are less aggressive (though Ginsburg is no shrinking violet).

And her colleague who leaned over and told her to shut up? That's evidence of nothing except that her colleague is an uncollegial asshole. You just don't do that to a fellow judge. Assuming the anecdote is true, and the fact that the colleague is described as an "elderly" judge, I smell sexism all over it. But does Rosen consider that? That Sotomayor might have been unfairly regarded by the other judges and those judges' clerks (who were undoubtedly influenced by the judges they worked for), who were prejudiced against Sotomayor because how could a woman—a Puerto Rican, for god's sake!—think she could have as much right to speak and to question and to dominate as they do? But let's move on, shall we? Rosen continues:
This provoked Judge Cabranes, a fellow Clinton appointee, to object to the panel's opinion that contained "no reference whatsoever to the constitutional issues at the core of this case." (The extent of Sotomayor's involvement in the opinion itself is not publicly known.)
Let me get this straight. One liberal judge criticized the opinion written by a panel that contained another liberal judge. We don't know whether she wrote the opinion. And judges criticize opinions written by other judges all the time. As it turns out, that's what appellate courts are for. But yet, this is evidence that Sotomayor is a big dummy!

Also, the "no reference whatsoever" comment was in a dissent. This would hardly be the first time that a dissenting justice criticized an opinion that they were, you know, dissenting from.

To assert that she doesn't have the "intellectual firepower" to be a Supreme Court Justice, especially with no evidence other than some questionable assertions like "she talks too much" and "other justices have criticized opinions that she may or may not have written" smacks of sexism and racism. Because it just so happens that you never hear these assertions about a white man being considered for the bench. You hear that his philosophy is too liberal, too conservative, too activist, too constructionist, too this or that. You hear that he's an unknown quantity, which could be good or bad depending on context. You hear that he may not have enough experience. But you never, ever hear that hey, he just doesn't have the innate intellectual ability.

But I don't think Jeffrey Rosen ever even considered that his so-called sources' opinions of Sotomayor might be colored by their own sexism and racism, or by the sexism and racism of the judges they worked for, who their perceptions were being filtered through. I'm just a lowly blogger, but isn't evaluating the credibility of your sources one of the primary things you're supposed to do, as a journalist?

I have one final point. What earthly reason is there to quote anonymous sources here? Sources don't get to be anonymous just because they want to baselessly trash someone else's reputation and not have to answer for it. They don't get to be anonymous just because they want to. This article contains an example of a situation where unnamed sources are necessary:
"Sometimes the only way to get a story is to promise confidentiality," says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press advocacy group. Ms. Dalglish, a former reporter in Minnesota, remembers relying on anonymous sources to expose the illegal dumping of toxic waste in a pond. "Those folks were never going to come forth and admit to doing what they did if I identified them," she says. "They were afraid they'd be arrested, intimidated or sued. The important thing is that the place got cleaned up."
See any parallel between that situation and Rosen's article? I didn't think so.

M. LeBlanc writes for Bitch PhD an intelligent, thought-provoking and always witty feminist blog. You can never have enough Bitches, find them here.

May 04, 2009

The Dark Wood: Turning 50 (Ask Dreams)

We (a small group, not quite sure who) were in a theater, but we were sitting on the railing of a balcony (more like a box), facing away from the stage.  (Stage represents "real life"??!)  On this balcony floor a creature is writhing around -- sort of like a salamander or some many-bodied version of one, going through all sorts of contortions, changing colors, reeling, writhing and metamorphosing in a quite upsetting way.  (How I've got all my loved ones and friends to turn away from what's really going on and gaze at my unseemly midlife agonies.)

This dream was shared with me by a friend, fifty-one, who had been intensely depressed and had just started taking hormones.  By "real life" and "what's really going on," my friend evidently meant her urgent responsibilities to her job and family members -- the performance onstage, the sense of "the show must go on" that ironically peaks just at this time of "quite upsetting" metamorphosis.

Welcome to the Dark Wood.

To me, that name is far more evocative of what we go through to get from youth to middle age than our pedestrian "midlife crisis."  It comes from a masterwork by a poet of a certain age:

In the middle of this journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
For the right way was lost . . .

Those are the opening lines of Dante's Inferno, written in midlife and in exile almost seven hundred years ago.  Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) had literally been thrown out of Florence, the home of his proud political youth, and into the wilderness.  But you don't have to lose your worldly standing -- job, home, marriage -- to feel downcast and bewildered by the changes in your body, the realization of your mortality, the departure of your children, and perhaps most of all, the vanishing of the mirage of arrival that you've been striving toward all your life.  For Dante, these two experiences of exile became one, and it sent him on a quest for the spiritual foundations of life and the deeper justice of the universe that became The Divine Comedy.  That's why he says of the Dark Wood:

So bitter it is, death is hardly more so;
Yet there was good there . . .

You'll know your own Dark Wood when you get there by the deathly gloom and the disappearance of the path.  This is a place that calls in question everything you've lived for -- the dreams you've fulfilled just as much as the ones you haven't.  For instance, my childlessness haunts me, yet I see that having children has not spared my friends and siblings the same haunting emptiness.  Success and failure both lead here; all roads converge and vanish in the Dark Wood.  You may be lost in it for quite a while or only briefly, but even a short stay feels endless while it lasts.  And you may wander in and out of it several times over several years.  There's nothing you can do during those times but keep on going, in the hope that eventually a glimmer of light, a signpost, or a guide will appear.  As Dante's own guide, the ghost of the Classical poet Virgil, told him, "The way out is the way through."

The tricky part is, you have to live in the Dark Wood and the real world simultaneously.  What you're doing may never have seemed so futile or nonsensical, yet it has never been more important that you do it.  People -- adolescent children, frail parents, colleagues, clients, students -- are depending on you.  (These days, even infants or toddlers may be depending on you -- a defiance of nature's timetable that exacts a high price in exhaustion.)  You are one of the pillars of their world, so you can't let them know that the whole human enterprise sometimes strikes you as a) hopeless, b) pointless, c) ridiculous.  And then there's your weary duty to yourself:  the dread that this is your last chance to prove you're not a has-been (if you have been) or a failure (if you haven't), to insure that you won't end up murmuring "Rosebud" or living on cat food.

These are not objective truths about your situation.  (Your last chance?  Not likely.)  These are the death throes of your youth.  And it may be only those absurd, burdensome responsibilities that hold you firmly in place and get you through.  As you hold them up, you are upheld by the young, who are still enchanted by life, and the old or sick, who are just glad to be alive.  Meanwhile, what's dying in you feels like your soul, but it's only (!) your fantasies.  (Who knew fantasy was so intimately entwined with the purpose and the love of life?)

No one in our own time understood the Dark Wood so well, or spoke of it so bluntly, as the great psychologist C.G. Jung:

Once the parental transferences and the youthful illusions have been mastered, or are at least ripe for mastery, then we must speak of these things. . . . We are no longer concerned with how to remove the obstacles to a man's profession, or to his marriage, or to anything that means a widening of his life, but are confronted with the task of finding a meaning that will enable him to continue living at all -- a meaning more than blank resignation and mournful retrospect.

Whew!  The man didn't mince words, and he obviously had been there -- and lived to tell the tale. In fact, both Jung and Dante ultimately succeeded in "finding a meaning" that enabled them not only to go on living, but to create their greatest work.  (So much for last chances!)  Only after being painfully stripped of youth's desires, ambitions, and illusions could they fully spread their souls' wings.  If they hadn't done time in the Dark Wood, we might hardly even have heard of them.  So take heart:  the darkness that can close in around your 50th birthday (give or take a year or two) isn't a coffin, it's a chrysalis.

If you braced for the big midlife bummer around your 40th, though, you're apt to be pleasantly surprised -- and lulled into a false sense of security.  We've pushed back the Dark Wood by a good decade, but that doesn't mean we've clearcut it.  The trouble is, the only maps we have of the life cycle are the old ones, and they're outdated and misleading.  As I hit 40, I had vivid memories of my father and his best friend mourning that milestone over a bottle of Jack Daniels. the Prozac of the World War II set.  I'd grown up with their generation's bad jokes about how "Life begins at forty" (yeah, right) and "Is there sex after forty?"  And I'd read that Dante, exiled at 37, wrote about being lost in a dark wood when he was 41 or 43.  (But Dante was 56 when he died -- and Jung was 86, as many more of us will live to be.)  So I was prematurely prepared for the worst.  When, instead, I found myself in the lush coda of youth that is now the early 40s, it induced a mild delusion that I'd never have to grow any older, and could stay in this sexy state of suspended animation forever -- which only made the badlands on the far side of 45 all the more of a shock.

To give you a slightly better idea of what to expect in the wilds of midlife, here's my sketch for a new map of the territory.  Your expedition will probably take a somewhat different route, but I think you'll still recognize the landscape:

The absolute peak of life:
age 34  Why 34?  Because while your body has already started downhill at that age, unless you're a total couch potato or a professional athlete, the decline is negligible.  (I was 34 when I got my black belt in karate.)  Your mind, meanwhile, is still on its way up.  Never again will the two of them be together at such a high altitude.  (But then, neither of them has wings.)  A few years later, the afterglow of that summit is just beginning to fade.  You're entering . . .

The old age of youth:  37-44, a time when the faint chill of lengthening shadows can make your life's fire flare up in scary, exciting way.  It can be a dangerous age, right around forty -- your last crack at being young, with all the potency, fertility, and folly that implies.  Whatever earthly good you've always dreamed of -- the brass ring, authentic passion, a great adventure, a baby -- now is when you may make a lunge for it, putting mature powers at the service of defiant youthful desires.   It can be a time of daring business schemes, marriage-shattering love affairs, impassioned quests to conceive or adopt.  There's a lot of hot-dogging on those steepening slopes.

And yet, at least for a woman -- despite the shrilling biological alarm clock and the alleged lottery odds of finding a mate -- the early forties can be the best of times.  What you've lost in dewy freshness, you more than make up for in kick-ass confidence; you can still turn a man's head, but you've thrown off the chains of male approval.  Sexiness, independence, power, maybe even still fertility:  you've got it all.  If only we could stop the clock, this is when I would have done it.

But we can't.  The aging process has the most astonishing inexorability.  Helpless as a leaf on a river, exclaiming "How can this be happening to me?", you're swept right past "Wait!  That's enough!" and into the rapids of the death of youth:  45-51.

Somewhere along that stretch awaits the Dark Wood.

My dreams, deeply impressed by that image from Dante, kept asking, "Are we there yet?"  But as long as I could still cling to the remnants of youth, they found nothing more menacing in midlife than some beat-up furniture:

[Age 44]  Carrying, with another woman, an old scarred dark wood table into the next room for someone.  The next room was a desert landscape with high dune cliffs, which we happily fell over and slid down, table and all.  The cliffs were covered with glossy, heavy yellow satin, the kind with a gliding, gleaming surface so slippery it feels wet. . . . [After leaving and returning], to my disappointment, the landscape had been turned into a room; the desert cliffs had been hidden away behind wallboard. . . . I decided to climb anyway, tried to pull out drawers of a dark wood dresser to stand on, found them too brittle, like orange crates, coudln't get up.

As my late forties wore on, dream after dream was set in some ironic, and often rather grand, indoor version of Dante's wilderness:  [45]  "A big, shadowy loft -- old dark wood.""  [48]  "Staying in some sort of dark-wood dormitory/mansion."  [48]  "In a hotel, at the top of a glamorously dim dark-wood staircase."  In one dream at 49, I flew into a rage and smashed up some of that damned dark-wood furniture!  But not until after turning 50 did I get there for real:

[Age 51]  There was a party.  I was in a house with girls -- sisters?  They were going to the party.  I had to stay home and work.  But then I went out and tried to find my way.  Right, left . . . down, into a dim wild forest which was both awesome and deathly -- very rugged rocky path, huge shafts of redwood trees, but all very still and jumbled and monochrome, as if covered with dust or ash or graphite, or "metal dust" from a lathe.  I was dressed for the party, in high heels, clambering down, down to the "bottom" -- a gorge or cleft between steep slopes -- all in this ashy twilight gray. . . .

And again:

I looked up at towering trees as massive as redwoods, but that seemed to be dead; they had spiderweb hanging from them like Spanish moss.  Everything was monochrome, like an engraving; the place had an Underworld feel to it, a forest of the shades.  It was supposed to be a familiar place I was returning to.

Months after my dreams guided me down to that desolate place, I came across almost its exact image in Gustave Doré's engravings for Dante's Inferno.  But by then, a final dream had made its meaning clear.

[Age 51]  I had an amazing dream:  that my twin had died.  As she was carried out on a stretcher, covered with a very white sheet, I saw the dark top of her head.  She had no gray hair.  I didn't particularly want to see her (me) dead, but someone pulled the sheet back from her face.  Her eyes were a little swollen and gummed shut.

What's strange is that the whiteness of the sheet puts a positive spin on it.  It strikes me that the sheet was as bright white as the walls next door
[an adjoining studio that I had just renovated and repainted].  So funny to see that paint job, which makes me so happy, as the shroud over my youth.  Renewal as finality.  She is my young self, definitely -- the enormous rearrangement of my whole way of thinking sometimes feels so extreme it's as if I'm becoming an entirely different person than I was. So now that process is complete and she's being carried out.

Maybe her eyes are stuck shut because she didn't want to see.

Amba has been a freelance critic, writer and author since 1969, has written for nearly every major women's magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Village Voice and The Nation.

April 27, 2009

Plan Be

By M. Leblanc

As many of you have no doubt heard, the FDA has lowered the age requirement to get Plan B over the counter from 18 to 17. This is great news, but it doesn't go far enough. I see no reason why there should be an age requirement on it. It's nothing but an attempt to control teenage women, borne of paternalistic fears at the thought that they might--gasp!--have sex.

Here's the thing: If you're old enough to be having sex, you're old enough to be using Plan B. Clinical trials have shown that it's actually extremely safe, and there are absolutely no health reasons for restricting it to women 17 and older, or 18 and older. There simply aren't. There are only political reasons and moral reasons.

And those moral reasons aren't coherent. Because if a 15-year-old woman is freely consenting to sex, and there is some kind of mishap that leads her to need plan B, she should be able to get it. And if a 15-year-old isn't freely consenting to sex, but a man is raping her, then she needs plan B even more. Why does the government think that possibly being saddled with a pregnancy will make men stop raping women? It hasn't worked before. Men still find ways to rape women, even when the threat of pregnancy is there. Men still found ways to rape women before there was birth control. Which is why this post by Robert Stacey McCain is shocking in how revolting it is:
Plan B -- the drug that allows guys to breathe a sigh of relief the morning after using some chick for selfish pleasure -- will now be available to 17-year-olds without a prescription.

Who cares that she's not even old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes legally? Get her drunk on wine coolers, get what you want, then the next morning, take her to CVS to get Plan B and make sure there's no chance the slut will show up in a few months talking child support payments and DNA tests.

So guys, if you screw a 17-year-old and "forget" to use a condom, remember: Nothing says "thanks a lot, you cheap whore" like the gift of Plan B! (via Pandagon).

It is so evident in this passage that McCain doesn't believe that women are human beings. It never occurs to him that a 17-year-old might need plan B because she decided she wanted to have sex. No, to him, young women are only receptacles for men's desire and men's semen. If she's not old enough to buy cigarettes, she's apparently not old enough to have volitional thought. And of course he mentions "child support payments and DNA tests"--because that's all these men worry about: the possibility that they might get saddled with a monthly financial obligation because they produced another human being. Don't you know? Women get pregnant just to get THA MONEY! Dolla bills y'all!

Though you won't be hearing any FDA officials or politicians spouting off the same vile shit that McCain is, their hesitancy about making Plan B available to all young women is borne of the same disregard for young women as volitional human beings. I understand that there's a legal presumption that women under 17 are not able to consent to sex. I understand that that's a bright-line rule and, in general, I think statutory rape laws are good ones. But making Plan B available to women younger than 17 is not at all at odds with principle that, in general, a woman under 17 is not able to legally consent to sex with a man over 17. Because they do it anyway. Some of them do it consensually, and some of them have it done to them non-consensually, i.e. men rape them. And both of these groups need access to birth control, which is medicine. Don't forget that.

I needed Plan B once. It was over two years ago. I'd just started dating my boyfriend, and we were very, very excited about the newly-blossoming relationship. In fact, it was probably one of the craziest times in my life in terms of emotional upheaval. One of the first few times we had sex, the condom stayed inside me after he pulled out. With all the semen in it, of course. I didn't freak out, but I was definitely scared. First, there was the no easy task of getting the thing out, which was quite an ordeal. And it hurt. Then there was the "what the fuck do we do now?" It was my first condom mishap ever, and his too. Even after we'd decided to get Plan B, there was still the "what if I get pregnant anyway?" We talked about it.

The problem: it was about 1 a.m. We were both leaving in the early morning, on separate flights, for a trip to New York. I really didn't want to be running around New York City while I was on a quasi-business trip trying to find a pharmacy to give me Plan B while the 72 hours were ticking. So we looked online and found a 24-hour pharmacy a couple miles away. It was late and it was January-cold, so we hopped in a cab together.

I didn't want him to come in with me. I don't know why. The social context of the drug made me feel like walking in with a dude in the middle of the night and asking for contraception...I just couldn't do it. I went in alone. Of course, I had to find the pharmacist, and ask for it, and he asked me for ID. Thank god I had some on me. That night, I learned my boyfriend's ATM pin just days after we started dating because he insisted on paying for the thing, but I refused to let him come in with me.

I'm a little ashamed to say that the whole ordeal was scarier than I expected. I felt like I wasn't in control, and I was worried about having to get the stuff from the pharmacist. Now, remember that at this time I'm a 24-year-old woman, about to get a professional degree, in a relationship that, if not yet stable, is certainly not emotionally abusive or problematic. And I considered it a very small ordeal.

Now imagine a young woman, 15, or 16. Who doesn't yet have even as much bearing as I did about sex, and relationships, and relating to men and dealing with contraception. And you want to tell me that these young women shouldn't be able to do what I did? They shouldn't be able to decide that, well, they'd rather not get pregnant and they'd rather play it safe? Instead they should have to get a prescription for an over-the-counter drug? And somehow manage to get an appointment with a doctor, and figure out how to pay for the doctor's appointment (not to mention pay for the drug itself), and negotiate talking to their parents about it, all within the space of 72 hours? Especially considering that the effectiveness goes down the longer you wait?

That's what you want? Well, fuck you.

Women are human beings. Even 15-year-old ones.

M. LeBlanc writes for Bitch PhD an intelligent, thought-provoking and always witty feminist blog. You can never have enough Bitches, find them here.

April 26, 2009

Red, White and Oh So Blue

By M. Hannington

I bleed. I can staunch the flow, twas only a small blow.

YOU bleed and I’ll clean the wound? They bleed and I moan.

All your stuff in tow, can’t keep everything YOU own.

A single mother weeps you know, down in the hood, go.

Red bleeding

White healing

I wash the dripping blood from off of YOU.

Oh the bruises, man, yeah they’re blue so blue.

Americans are nervous about how he’ll serve us.

The mother gets on her bus, she works hard but…

YOU look down at her, at her boyfriend who battered.

To YOU it don’t matter, look at the blood that you spattered!



Do YOU even know how babies are born?

Do it and then cover your eyes in scorn?

Red blood on my white skin, red blood on yours darkened.

I drive in my old car, no work and it’s seems far…

The bruises and a deep scar, the blue bruises on America.

It’s just like they hit you, like your old man that whipped you.

14K Curtain

Fuck hurtin'

I'll be back that's for certain and POW that's for her man

YOU fuckers from back then, shut up can't you listen?

Our blood's in your oil wells, your don't ask, your don't tell.

Tortured prisoner's in a prison cell, made this place a living hell.

What don't YOU think? Well? Your moronic stink, while... Ow!

He bashes in her skull and YOU scream that the DOW fell?

Red bleeding

White healing

I wash the dripping blood from off of YOU.

Oh the bruises, man, yeah they’re blue so blue.

There was a 74% percent increase from 2004 to 2005 alone in domestic violence incidents in Detroit, where existing shelters for women are over crowded and area hotlines are flooded with calls. On March 27, 2009 Armenta White was found dead in her apartment after her boyfriend called 911 to report he had strangled her. White's son was found alone next to his dead mother, who was laying face down on the floor. They had moved to Detroit from Louisville to try and make a fresh start in what was only a four month relationship.

Crime experts state that the recent economic woes in Michigan have caused a sharp rise in domestic violence. Michigan is one of several states where a man convicted of spousal murder receives a lighter sentence than a man murdering a complete stranger.

From 2001 to 2006 seven black prostitutes were found dead in abandoned buildings in Detroit. Left naked to die with their legs spread open after being beaten in the head with bricks, chunks of cement and in one case a chair leg. On Wednesday, March 07, 2007, Shelly Andre Brooks was found guilty of first-degree murder for a 2002 murder and faces charges for five of the other women.

In 2004 former President George W. Bush cut the Clintons COPS program, which provides grants for state and local agencies to hire police officers, from $499 million to $22 million. These programs also helped fund shelters for battered woman in many states.

Editor's Note: No women were abused in the creation of this article.

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April 20, 2009

One-Eyed "Values" - Left and Right

By Amba

When challenged on "value"; progressives inevitably rejoinder that "moral values" also include peace, social justice, care for the poor and for the environment. In this article Fort Myers News-Press, that argument is eloquently -- and typically -- expressed by a local rabbi:

Rabbi Bruce Diamond celebrated the 50th anniversary of Temple Beth El in Fort Myers Saturday by discussing how biblical values relate to the economy, to war and to issues beyond abortion and gay rights.

"There is kind of a sexual obsession that masquerades as morality," Diamond said.  "Morality covers a whole range of human activities.  We need to wake up out of this puritanical stupor and look at the real challenges of this nation."

Values must also be part of decision making on poverty and homelessness in America, war and health care, Diamond said.

"Those of us who are Bible believers take that very seriously.  Jesus was a healer," the rabbi said.  "What do you think he would say about health care?"

Mostly true -- but . . .

The proponents of progressive morality -- just like the proponents of conservative morality -- are very good at pointing out the other guy's blind spot.  If only progressives would insist that "values" include all of the above in addition to high standards of sexual and familial conduct.  But that isn't really what they're saying -- as witness the rabbi's scornful dismissal of the latter concerns.  Progressives are saying that peace, economic justice, compassion and environmental protection should be our values instead of, or at least way ahead of, sexual morality.  Conservatives are saying the opposite:  that "family values" are exclusively about traditional sexual conduct (not at all about the "value" of a job, a home, an education, health security) and that a "culture of life" applies mostly to the unborn products of such conduct. 

Bring up the notion of any restraints on sex, and liberals simply evade the issue, change the subject.  Bring up Jesus' radical teachings on wealth, poverty, and violence, and conservatives change the subject.  That's why we can't have a conversation, much less a dialogue, on "values."

To get Biblical about it, when it comes to deadly sins, the Left gives a free pass to Lust; the Right gives a free pass to Greed.  Liberals need to confront the necessity for a sexual morality, not of straights vs. gays, but of commitment vs. exploitation, meaning vs. addiction, creation vs. consumption.  Conservatives need to confront Jesus' warnings about the dicey relationship between wealth and heaven and our crucial responsibility for "the least of you." 

Then we can talk.

- amba

Amba has been a freelance critic, writer and author since 1969, has written for nearly every major women's magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Village Voice and The Nation.

April 13, 2009

Pseudonymous Kid

By Bitch Ph.D.

Apparently Good Friday is an important public school holiday in the liberal hotbed of California, war on Xmas notwithstanding.* In other words, even though spring break was last week, PK has no school today.

And yet I am up, because I can't remember when my reassigned small claims court date was. For some reason, I had thought it was the 11th, but this morning as Mr. B.'s bath water running woke me up I realized that tomorrow is the 11th, and it's unlikely I have a court date tomorrow what with its being Saturday and all. So, like insomniacs everywhere, of course I suddenly Couldn't Go Back To Sleep! and got up to look for the court papers. Which unsurprisingly I can't find.

Fuck it. Obviously the court date isn't tomorrow. I'll look again later today and call for a postponement if needed, blah blah papers still having not been served, etc.

*I'm ashamed to say that my state of birth and choice, having chalked up a big fat Fail on the whole "progressive" thing last fall, is now being lapped by Iowa and Vermont. As is New York, which is also (imho) an awesome place. That said, I want to put in a plug for Iowa (I've never been to Vermont), which actually a state filled with common sense and is fairly liberal as a result. New York's got an idiot campaign to try to get gays to make a "pilgrimage" to Stonewall this year (motto: "Still treating you like second-class citizens all these years later! Please give us your money!"; I recommend Iowa instead. After all, NY and SF are so over, gay-rights-wise, and if there's anything the gays care about, it's not being passe.

But back to my neurotic gut-spilling and demonstrating that I'm the last person who should ever offer advice to anyone. So I spent most of this week feeling like crap about being a shitty wife, a fond but incompetent mother, and having torpedoed a career I spent years getting qualified for. I mean seriously; on Tuesday I was revisiting the old days of reminding myself that suicide is not an option because of what it would do to PK and no, killing PK as well as myself is not the way out of that problem.** (Mr. B. called and made me feel better by spontaneously offering to do the dishes when he got home, and the moment passed, so chill.)

Then yesterday during a playdate between PK and a school friend who is totally awesome, I realized something about my parenting that I really have been doing wrong. And bizarrely, this realization made me feel better. And I think in an oblique way it also speaks to the surprisingly (to me) contentious discussion on this post, which seems to me to be getting hung up on the intersection of generalizations and personality in kind of a cruddy way; that is, for whatever reason we seem to be muddying the distinction between "what one should do" and "what kind of person would do that?!? in kind of unproductive ways.

So come, let us gaze into my navel, and see if we can learn anything there.

Example of my parental imperfections: PK has a temper, and is pretty blunt and graphic about his feelings. He has a younger cousin who, like him, is a bit of a shit-stirrer; she's good enough at it, in fact, that she has stirred PK's very own shit for him more than once, which really pisses him off. (Kid can dish it out, but is not so fond of taking it.) Anyway, so he has decided that he loathes cousin X. Which fine, he's a kid, he's allowed to have preferences about who he likes and who drives him nuts, and I suspect that as they both get older and acquire better interpersonal skills, things will smooth out.

But a while back he was at Grandpa's house, and my sis called. Cousin X is in a phase of wanting to talk on the phone, and unlike PK she doesn't actually dislike her equally button-pushing cousin. (And why should she, since she tends to get the better of him, the little minx?) Anyhoo, so she wanted to talk to cousin PK, and he was amazingly polite about it, apparently: spoke civilly to her, didn't say anything mean. But the entire time, he was sort of edging away from the speaker phone towards the door, and later on he told Grandpa that he hates Cousin X and wishes he could stab her.

Which Grandpa, dammit, went and repeated to my sister. He and sister are both concerned about PK's saying this, which is understandable. So PK and I had a talk about how yes, I know that you don't really want to stab Cousin X (PK: "Yes I do!!") and I am really proud of you for talking nicely to her on the phone even though you didn't want to do it. But. When you say things about people to other people, it can really upset them, especially if those other people like the person you're talking about. So blah blah this is why we don't talk about hurting other people, even if we don't actually intend to do it and are only venting perfectly normal hostile feelings. And by the way, you know how you want Tia Y to paint a mural in your new room? And how she's said she'd be happy to do it? Well Tia Y is Cousin X's mama, and how do you think it makes her feel to hear you say things like that about her grunty? And I know you like Tia Y...

IOW, what I think I'm doing is trying to get PK to understand how his actions affect others. What PK thinks I am doing is guilt-tripping him (his words). I've never really understood this, but watching him play with his friend yesterday, and being aware of how differently I behave with friends of his than I do with him, I suddenly got it.

See, I'm really good at the Aunt role. You know: let's do this fun thing, sure you can have ice cream, wow, look at you on that scooter! Letting kids I like know that I like and admire them? Yep, I can do that.

But with PK, as he's gotten older, I've more and more turned to letting him know I like him through teasing. Which I don't think is bad per se: he "gets" it and enjoys it and teases me right back. But the straightforward affection and frank admiration I gave him a lot when he was younger, for some reason I've been less forthcoming with as he's gotten older. I don't know for sure why this is: residual issues from my own upbringing, the fact that he's a boy rather than a girl, trying to balance unconditional love with the role of teaching him social norms, an ad-hoc response to the fact that he really does have a hell of a temper and that humor rather than earnest "tell me how you're feeeeeeeeeeling" stuff is the best way to redirect it. Probably all of the above plus other shit, too.

But so yeah, yesterday I realized that you know, he's right: I *do* guilt trip him a lot. And it's not like it would be that hard to explain, say, the Cousin X situation in a non-guilt-trippy way, by focusing on being considerate of Tia Y's feelings because doing so is kind and you, PK, are a kind person (which is true, temper notwithstanding). Rather than being considerate of Tia Y's feelings because look how nice Tia Y is to *you*!

Parents and people who've been through therapy will recognize this pedestrian revelation of mine as pretty standard psychology: focus on the positive, praise the qualities you want to see in people, reinforce good rather than negative behaviors, yadda yadda. But you know how it is: you can know this stuff but still screw it up without realizing it.

Oddly, as I said, noticing that wow, I could (as a parent and a person) think more about doing a or b because it's kind, rather than because it's The Right Thing To Do, made me feel better rather than worse. The meta lesson here is that I could be kinder to myself, too, by being less insistent on thinking in terms of generalized rules of behavior and Being A Good Person, and just being okay with, you know, the idea that it's okay to take feelings into account even if those feelings are idiosyncratic. Given that PK tends, like his mama, to be very motivated by a sense of justice, and to have a strong (even fierce) protective instinct towards vulnerable living creatures (like, oh, say, mice or kittens) and underdogs, kindness rather than Right and Wrong seems, ironically, to be an easy enough Rule for him to internalize.

And given that, more and more, he seems to be prone (again, like his mama) to a little anxiety, combined with procrastination, combined with very high expectations of himself indeed, he could probably stand to learn to be kind to himself sooner rather than later.

** No, you do not need to call 911. Years ago, pre-proper-medications, this kind of thing was sort of a frequent thought, complete with how would I do it? Fantasies; on Tuesday, it was an especially shitty half hour in the midst of an especially shitty day. I mention it for the same reason I talk about all my personal shit: because I'm an idiot a born teacher and I happen to think that sunlight in dark corners is better than shame.

April 06, 2009

This Will Break Your Heart and Freeze Your Blood.

By Amba

A thorough, serious and significant report from Human Rights Watch: No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons. It's pandemic, and adminstrators and guards turn a blind eye to it; inmates plead for protection in vain. Some tough guy out there will go, "Commit a crime, you get what you deserve," but the report revealed that in large part it's nonviolent offenders who are the victims, and who may turn either suicidal or violent as a result. From the preface:

I've been sentenced for a D.U.I. offense. My 3rd one. When I first came to prison, I had no idea what to expect. Certainly none of this. I'm a tall white male, who unfortunately has a small amount of feminine characteristics. And very shy. These characteristics have got me raped so many times I have no more feelings physically. I have been raped by up to 5 black men and two white men at a time. I've had knifes at my head and throat. I had fought and been beat so hard that I didn't ever think I'd see straight again. One time when I refused to enter a cell, I was brutally attacked by staff and taken to segragation though I had only wanted to prevent the same and worse by not locking up with my cell mate. There is no supervision after lockdown. I was given a conduct report. I explained to the hearing officer what the issue was. He told me that off the record, He suggests I find a man I would/could willingly have sex with to prevent these things from happening. I've requested protective custody only to be denied. It is not available here. He also said there was no where to run to, and it would be best for me to accept things . . . .I probably have AIDS now. I have great difficulty raising food to my mouth from shaking after nightmares or thinking to hard on all this . . . . I've laid down without physical fight to be sodomized. To prevent so much damage in struggles, ripping and tearing. Though in not fighting, it caused my heart and spirit to be raped as well. Something I don't know if I'll ever forgive myself for.

Looks to me like we're sending people to Hell for venial sins before they're even dead.

Amba has been a freelance critic, writer and author since 1969, has written for nearly every major women's magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Village Voice and The Nation.


March 23, 2009


By Bitch PhD
It's official. I would like to thank Flea over at One Good Thing, who is not only a blogging goddess but also owns a sex shop, so she knows what she's talking about, for publicly declaring me "a Libertarian's worst nightmare." I couldn't be any prouder.

(Standing, in my award ceremony attire of trashy lingerie, clutching my TongueJoy Vibrator to my scantily clad, heaving bosom):

"Gosh, I never expected to win. Thank you so much for everyone who believed in me, all of you who thought that I was, indeed, the biggest social problem since the welfare queens of the 1980s. Wow, what an honor. I'm sorry I was a bit late to the ceremony, but as it happens I was off in big city yet again this weekend, fucking yet another person I met online, and having a really grand old time. When I heard I'd won, I went running downstairs yelling "YES!! GUESS WHAT!! I WON A PRIZE FOR BEING SUCH A SLUT!!" so now all the neighbors know as well, probably. I can hardly wait for my career to take off, now that I've finally been recognized by the academy, and I promise never to wear a latex catsuit like Halle Berry, or at least I won't wear one of those weird cat masks, anyway. Cross my heart and hope to die."

I would also like to thank, in writing, the gentlemen whose roles helped highlight my performance. There are a few supporting actors, as well, but these are the main leading men:

1. Dateboy. You've all met him before. He's an up-and coming arty type who's going to take obscene pictures of me in a couple of weeks, but I shan't be posting them here. However, when he undoubtedly becomes famous (actually, I'm not totally joking--he really does do something arty, and from what I can tell, he actually is doing it successfully), doubtless you will see them in a gallery near you, funded by the NEA, and being picketed by humorless wingnuts. Hopefully, however, I'll have tenure by then.

2. Oscar. Who I was with last night. A nice guy who finds me witty and laughs at my bitter mockery of his home state--and who can argue with that? He, too, has an interesting job, one that requires travel, so that in fact he just arrived this week from Hong Kong, making him the man who has probably travelled furthest just for the pleasure of sleeping with me.

3. The Connoisseur. Who is smart and witty and an autodidact (which impresses the crap outta me), who seduced me online by talking to me about the latest David Foster Wallace short story collection--in a goddamn sex chat room, ignoring the overhead of "hey baby, suck my big fat cock"; how classy is that?--and who is flying into Big City next month specifically in order to shack up with me in a nice hotel, wine me and dine me, and cart me around town buying expensive lingerie. Seriously.

4. The French law student. The suave guy whose admittedly bullshit flattery (he has no idea whether I'm beautiful or not) I posted here a few days ago, and who is charmingly willing to tutor me in French as long as I correct his very rare mistakes in written English.

5. Homeboy. Not only is homeboy my first online fuckbuddy, he is also from the city I would desperately love to move back to. I've never met him, but we have totally become bestest online friends. (He is such a darling that he put together my reserve list the other day while I was busy freaking out about something else.) Like every other one of these guys (except the Connoisseur) Homeboy has a job that requires him to write for a living--hence my earlier theory about how sex-chat is an absolute boon for smart people. He writes fantastic porn, though this isn't, in fact, his day job; and he also writes one hell of a love letter.

6. Mr. B., of course, always charming in the role of uxorious cuckold. He has helped Homeboy with his computer, cleaned the car before my first date with Dateboy, and taken my calls from Oscar's hotel room at midnight asking if it was okay if I spent the night because, really, I would rather not drive all the way home. When I asked him what he thought of me spending a long weekend with the Connoisseur, he declared that it all sounded way too much like a Cary Grant movie for any sensible woman to pass up, and then said, "so will you mind if pseudonymous kid and I take off for NYC while you're out?" Always with the brilliant comic timing, the Nick to my Nora.

Dr. B. writes for Bitch PhD an intelligent, thought-provoking and always witty feminist blog. You can never have enough Bitches, find them here.

March 16, 2009

From the Ranch

By M. LeBlanc

Dude: Did you know that I call you my "partner"?

Me: Actually I didn't know that.

Dude: What do you think about it?

Me: Huh. I like it. It's much better than "girlfriend," but I don't know why.

Dude: Well, I like to think of us that way.

Me: Plus "girlfriend" and "boyfriend" have certain connotations. Like "husband" and "wife." I hate the word "wife." I can't imagine anyone referring to me as "my wife."

Dude: Really?

Me: Yes. If we get married, don't refer to me as wife.

Dude: Ok. Seriously, though, you like "partner"? Because that's how I refer to you in interviews and stuff.

Me: I think it's great. Both because it's not gendered, and because it conveys a certain seriousness without having to invoke marriage or engagement or whatever. The only thing is, people might think you're gay.

Dude: So?

Me: I don't know. I guess you wouldn't care if people think you're gay.

Dude: I don't give a shit.

Me: But they might discriminate against you!

Dude: Well, if they're the sort of people who would discriminate against me because they think I'm gay, then I don't want to work for them, do I?

Me: Good point.

M. LeBlanc writes for Bitch PhD an intelligent, thought-provoking and always witty feminist blog. You can never have enough Bitches, find them here.

March 02, 2009

Why I Sometimes Hate Science.

TIME's article titled "Why Dreams Mean Less Than We Think."

Smug and stupid.  There's no mystery, only ignorance.  Like we don't need more meaning, not less.  In a world devoid of meaning, science -- mostly pharmaceutical science -- will rule.  A pill, not a thought, for every existential discomfort.  You're just a machine, your experience a side effect of neurological indigestion.  The Traumwerk, the dreamwork of processing experience, struggling to make a work of art out of your life instead of a meaningless jumble -- this is mere metabolism, the mental equivalent of a bubble of gas in the intestine? 

Without dreams, life would be poor and literal, a drab work of socialist realism.  Dreams are the other half of life, the downward-growing trees reflected in puddles after a good rain, making the earth transparent. 

Dreams harrow the hardened earth of habit and allow something new to germinate.

Dreams take the "day residue," and a part random, part inspired selection of other contents going back to our infancy and the infancy of our species (genus?  class?  kingdom?), and shake them up as if in a kaleidoscope to allow new patterns to form, patterns not chained to time, logic, physical laws, or causality.  Great scientific problems have been solved in dreams, as well as great works of art sparked and great personal problems illuminated.  The joy of flying has been experienced without a machine. 

The mixed emotions have been purified to their essences.  (Rilke wrote of an apothecary jar with the words Sobrisio saltat. on it -- smile of acrobat.)  You say if there is meaning there it's "only" because we put it there?  So why are we presented with these custom Rorschach blots to find meaning in?  It's a system of sheer genius, natural poetry.  If it evolved by natural selection, it must have done so because it enhanced our possession of meaning and mystery, which in turn enhanced our feeling that there was some point in surviving. 

Now science is going to explain all this away


Amba has been a freelance critic, writer and author since 1969, has written for nearly every major women's magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Village Voice and The Nation.

February 09, 2009


I went to a funeral today. Mary, same name as me. I sat next to David, who misses his Dad and Judy, who'll never go into a box from the bag, but be put in an urn with her AC/DC flag.

It was sad.

It's how I feel.

I miss days with friends by my side and the dog that could make me laugh out loud. Dad made me grin with his intellectual pride. The catholic priest tells us, "Don't worry, they're up on a cloud."

They still bring me joy.

That's how I feel.

Those satyrs, who woo me, make me run 'til they fill me. Things that entice me and spice me, it's not ALL just some fad. When youth doesn't listen it just makes me mad.

I don't like to be mad.

It's just how I feel.

They'll all go into the earth's welcome mat. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust... To be eaten by worms, who become a lone Robin's lust and the bird soon becomes a meal for a cat.

And the old cat dies and crumbles like rust.

And it covers the trees and it follows the breeze and sooner or later it's all part of us.

Part of everything...

It's how I feel.