Aside

Well, I intende…

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Well, I intended to write about something else altogether. I went to a screening of the outstanding documentary Miss Representation today, so I was going to write about the appalling lack of female leadership in the United States (did you know that there have been, to date, only 34 female governors in the United States, all since 1975? I didn’t either); how children of both sexes are bombarded with images of women and girls that are sexualized to the point of absurdity every single day, and how the malleable human brain doesn’t completely form until the early twenties, making it impossible even for teenagers, much less five-year-olds, to make reasonable decisions based upon what they see in media; how the United States ranks 90th in the world for the number of women in national legislatures; how utterly vulgar and hate-filled is the speech of male television “pundits” of all political stripes toward female political leaders. By the time the 90-minute film ended, I had a giant lump of outrage in my throat, choking me. I could not wait to go home and write it all down.

And then came the panel discussion and questions from the audience. You see, I went to the screening at the downtown Detroit YMCA with my friend Janet. We were two of only a small handful of white women (and no men) there. Most of the rest of the group watching were teenaged girls who were seeing the film thanks to the sponsorship of the Skillman Foundation. Many were with groups from alternative girls’ schools such as the Catherine Ferguson Academy, Vista Maria, and Alternatives for Girls. All but a few were black. They spoke of being mothers, of losing mothers, of having mothers who never cared about them, who kicked them out of the house when they got raped, who no longer spoke to them at all. They spoke about their dreams, their fears, what they want for their children, what thoughtless adults have said to them, of illnesses and death, of grandmothers who raised them and encouraged them, fathers who left them, boys who “only wanted one thing,” and of being completely alone in the world. Almost all of them cried when telling their stories–probably out of relief for just being heard.

These are the girls the world has thrown away. They’re the “very poor” that Mitt Romney doesn’t care about because he assumes a magical safety net will appear at just the right time to–what? Rock them to sleep every night? They’re the “welfare queens” that Ronald Reagan imagined driving around in Cadillacs and that Bill Clinton “reformed” out of the system altogether. Helping them to develop media literacy is a step in the right direction, but developing their actual literacy–in a city with a sensationally reported adult functional illiteracy rate of 47 percent–is a matter of grave urgency. And these girls are the lucky ones because they found their way to extraordinary schools like Catherine Ferguson, where they will have a greater than 90 percent chance of graduating despite a society that thinks of them as “crack hos,” if it thinks of them at all. Untold others in Detroit and virtually every other large American city will fall asleep trying to heat their crummy rental shacks with a kerosene heater, and they and their children and nieces and nephews will die in a senseless house fire, having no working smoke detectors. It happens all the time.

Is this a bleak view of life for urban-dwelling girls in America? Yes and no. A 2010 report found that in some Detroit neighborhoods as many as one in four births was to a teenaged mother. At the same time, the overall dropout rate for girls in Detroit has gone down to 14 percent from 20 percent. Alternative schools, mentoring programs, and local media figures who are willing to give out their e-mail addresses at YMCA film screenings can be the difference between the tragic house-fire scenario and a confident, successful young mother who controls her own subjectivity.

All girls need to know that they have options. And I’m not talking about the option of being either a princess or a fairy, which is the one option that seems to be consistently offered to girls. Having options in life shouldn’t be limited to those of us in positions of privilege (i.e., middle-class white suburban women like me). But how do you know you have options when not one female you see on television or in movies looks like you do? You will inevitably have this problem if you are over 40 and weigh more than 89 pounds. But what if you are an unmarried black teenaged female with two or three kids? Nobody wants to put you on TV, except perhaps to exploit you on a reality show. To whom can you relate? The bikini-clad dancers stuffing dollar bills down their g-strings in a rap video or Gabourney Sidibe in the movie Precious? There isn’t a lot of space in-between.

So I left the film screening shaken and angry and disturbed in a way hadn’t foreseen. I was angry about what I’d seen onscreen–and I do strongly recommend seeing Miss Representation–but, true to the experience of seeing an excellent film that opens your eyes–I was angrier about what I saw when I looked around me. Angry about those girls, young enough to be my daughters, who never had a damn chance for their lives to be any different but who desperately want to give their own kids a chance.

I don’t pretend to know where the problem begins. Do violent and sexualized media images play a role in the social breakdown that leads to family distress, teen pregnancy, and high school dropouts? Will awareness of the level of media manipulation help? Well, it can’t hurt. My concern is that so many girls are in so much trouble that staying on top of that one issue is the least of their problems.

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Sluts and Bitches and Whores–Oh My!

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I became completely unhinged at a stranger the other day. I won’t say I felt remorse afterward, because I didn’t really. What I did feel was a violent, almost intestinal, need to be understood. It was on a Facebook thread about–try to act surprised when you read this part–Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke. I realize that this all sounds terribly predictable; it’s hardly the first time a “feminazi” has gotten irate about a public misogynist and gone hysterical. Plato popularized the idea of the wandering uterus, the trouble-making organ that was believed to travel around inside a woman’s body causing all manner of emotional problems, circa 360 BCE, and the theory had existed for at least a couple of centuries before that. So it’s not like I’m the first woman to go cuckoo on a guy. It’s because of my uterus, see?

Neither is Limbaugh the first, nor necessarily even the worst, male public figure to issue an offense against women. Kirsten Powers noted in a column in the Daily Beast (March 4, 2012) how common it is for male media commentators, including Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, and, most egregiously according to Powers, Bill Maher, to make misogynist remarks about political women. And do I have to bring up the abyssmally sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton when she ran for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States?

Yet I think there is something fundamentally different in Bill Maher referring to Sarah Palin as a “cocktail waitress” and Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a “slut.” First of all, there’s nothing inherently shameful about being a cocktail waitress. It’s not an easy job, and many women work hard at it. Second, Maher was speaking primarily about Palin’s demeanor, which, if we are going to be honest at all with ourselves, is, in fact, unpresidential. With her obvious people skills and natural flirtatiousness, Palin probably would make a pretty good cocktail waitress. The case of Ed Schultz calling Laura Ingraham a “right-wing slut” is different, and he was rightly suspended from the air and ordered to apologize to Ingraham.

So what is it about the word “slut” that crosses the line? Most women are used to being called “bitches,” and some of us have reclaimed and remodeled the word into a metaphor for power and strength. “Psychotic bitch” is a special usage that typically comes from a boyfriend when we are in our twenties and begin to realize that the relationship actually is making us psychotic. We’ve all heard cat-calls. They stopped being an issue when Coca-Cola aired a commercial showing a lineup of women oogling a handsome construction worker back in the late 1980s-early 1990s. And every one of us has at one time or another had our physical appearance deconstructed, sometimes by men and sometimes by other women and usually unkindly.

Germaine Greer reminds us (London Telegraph, May 12, 2011) that the word “slut” traces its origins to class, not sexual, status: “A now obsolete meaning connects it with a kitchen maid, whose life was lived in soot and grease. She was too dirty to be allowed above stairs, but drudged out her painful life scraping pans and riddling ash, for 16 hours a day, and then retreated to her squalid lodging where hot water could not be had. The corner she left unswept was the slut corner; the fluff that collected under the furniture was a slut ball. People who thought of sex as dirt suspected the lazy kitchen maid of being unclean in that way as well.”

Contemporary usage, though, associates “slut” not just with sex but also with prostitution, and ultimately conflates it with “whore.” Limbaugh said of Fluke: “What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex–what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right?” Then, to clarify what he meant, in case you misunderstood, he continued: “It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.” Now, the relatively new movement to dignify prostitution by calling it “sex work” and unionize it notwithstanding, there really is nothing worse you can call a woman, and this transcends time and place. Jesus hung out with whores–the lowest of the low.

What we mean when we say a woman is a “slut” isn’t so much that she’s selling her body; it’s that she’s selling her soul. There is no equivalent word for men in English, no word with an equally heavy weight of insult. You can call a man a “cocksucker,” and he may be offended, but only if he is anxious about being perceived as “gay.” Of course, there are and always have been male prostitutes. But that fact is only problematic for men in general when it means men are having sex with men, not because men are getting paid to have sex. “Gigolos” are portrayed as a sexy and fun way for an older woman of means to spice up her life.

The standard response to the Limbaugh episode from conservative men (including the one at whom I lost my mind) is that they disagree with the way he said it, but they agree with what he said. I am trying to exercise my brain in such a way that this makes sense, without success. You wouldn’t have called a woman who would like her birth control pills to be covered by the health insurance company to which she pays premiums a slut but you still think she’s a slut? “I don’t think the government [my emphasis] should pay for it.” The government? She’s not on Medicaid or public assistance, is she? Do you understand how insurance works? At this point I was called an “inarticulate” and “hysterical” “liberal.” Well, I did sputter some prime curses and call him an asshole, but the key word here is “hysterical.” As in, I am controlled by my scary, cavernous uterus and cannot help but be insane. Silly girl!

I heard another guy elsewhere proclaim that “taxpayers” shouldn’t have to foot the bill for “risky behavior.” Sex is “risky”? Yes. We know sex is risky. The female of the species discovered this shortly after she climbed out of the primordial ooze, stopped laying eggs, and started having live babies. This amazing factor of risk has been reinforced continually throughout human history, most notably during every single pregnancy and the outbreak of sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis in the late Middle Ages and early-Modern period. Do we really have to go over the history of HIV/AIDS and talk about the millions of women who’ve been infected by their husbands and then given birth to HIV-positive babies? Believe me, my dear man, we understand the risks of sex. Do you understand the risks of beer and doughnuts and smoking and driving a car and getting out of bed? In 2007 the University of California-Davis compiled a list of known and suspected human carcinogens from information supplied by the Occupational and Safety Health Administration, the American Conference of Industrial Hygienists, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, the National Institutes of Health National Toxicology Program, and the State of California. There are 1,188 substances on that list. Not including formaldehyde, which was added in 2011.

So the next time you find yourself complaining about having to “pay” for some “slut’s” birth control pills, I’m going to have to ask you to provide me a list of all the carcinogens and possible carcinogens you’ve exposed yourself to over the course of your lifetime so that I can make a note to bill you for the tiny percentage of my cumulative monthly insurance premiums that might possibly go toward your cancer treatments. (Not that I’m wishing cancer on you.) Oh, and I’m also going to need backpay for that time you fell off a ladder and needed stitches, all the antibiotics you’ve taken throughout your life, your dental work if you’ve ever eaten candy, your blood pressure pills, that case of “urinary burning” you had in college, and also your circumcision, since being born male statistically puts you at risk of risky behavior.

Who’s the slut now, bitches?

Because I’m Kind of Pissed Off

My friend Ron has a stutter. I suppose it’s not something you can miss when you’re talking to him, but, truthfully, I don’t notice it anymore because we’ve been friends for a million years and it’s just part of who he is, like his blond hair and habit of keeping his hands in his pockets and lightly rocking forward and backward when he’s talking to me. I don’t remember if I thought anything of it when we were teenagers. It always seemed as though he was more aware of it than anyone in our circle of friends. Which is, of course, as it should be–he’s lived with it forever and it’s caused him a great deal of grief over the years. When he talks about his stutter, it’s easy for me to brush it off as something he should just let go of, as if it were as simple as releasing a balloon into the wind. It’s easy for me because I don’t have to live with it. And while it seems as though saying something like, “Really, it’s not a big deal, nobody will even notice,” is supportive and kind, I wonder if instead it comes across as false and unserious. Of course people will notice. It’s not something you don’t notice unless you’ve had time to learn not to notice. But, because I don’t have to live with a stutter of my own, I have no idea how his awareness of it permeates everything he does or tries to do.

What do we really know about the differences among us? “They” say reality is perception, perception is reality. Really? My perception of my friend’s stutter is that it doesn’t matter a whit. His perception is that it stands in the way of all of his hopes and dreams. Whose perception is reality? Ron has recently entered a prestigious science and technology institute, where he is in class with traditional college students half his age. He hears them snickering when he speaks in class. His professor cuts him off, too impatient to wait for his mouth to catch up with his brain. To say it affects his confidence would be an almost insulting understatement. Yet when he shares his fears and frustrations, my impulse is to turn into a tough-love life coach: “Quit yer bellyachin’ and get it done! Rah rah!” Again, it’s easy. I don’t have to live with that particular way of being different.

In another part of the universe, a little girl I know refuses to wear the Star Wars sneakers she loves because the other kids have told her they’re for boys. Whether or not this blow to her confidence–she did, after all, pick out those sneakers herself, using her own native judgment about what she likes and dislikes–will affect her for life or for just a few days, no one can say. And I am not likening the experience of a kindergartner having her choices demeaned to an adult who has lived with a disability. But once again we are left to wonder about perceptions and reality. Is Star Wars really “for boys”? What would Princess Leia have to say about that? I suspect she would pick up her weapon and blow a hole through the idea.

If you are a parent of a school-age child, you know that anti-bullying programs have become ubiquitous in American classrooms. I’m not sure I buy all of it. Every little slight, it seems, can now be classified as bullying. If your child didn’t get invited to a birthday party, you can claim he’s being bullied. And I’m not sure I believe that all children are inherently tribal and cruel, Lord of the Flies notwithstanding. I think a better way to address the issue would be to develop anti-bullying programs for parents along with kids, because that’s where I see a lot of the behavior originating. If you put a lot of time and effort into moving out of one neighborhood and into another because you want to get away from the blacks/Jews/Arabs/Asians/gays/immigrants/etc., do you think your kids don’t notice? Give them some credit. If you complain about the autistic child at preschool being a distraction, your kid will pick up on it. Kids are like that.

So perhaps that’s how we can explain the attitude of students in a top-drawer science, technology, and math program toward a fellow student with a stutter–maybe their parents are assholes. But shouldn’t these kids–and I use that term loosely to describe 18- to 21-year-old legal adults–be the cream of the crop? Surely they don’t lack subtle thinking skills; they’re majoring in advanced mathematics, for Christ’s sake. If they met Stephen Hawking, would they snigger behind his back? If they get jobs developing robotic prosthetics, will they be able to look at legless clients with a straight face? Will they avoid doing research on autism because they can’t stop laughing at its victims? These are no small questions. We’re told there’s a near-tragic dearth of engineers in the United States, yet some of our best candidates to fill those spots don’t have the maturity or emotional intelligence to cope with someone else’s minor disability. So let’s say Junior is going on his first job interview, and the person in charge of hiring is a black woman with a speech impediment who wears a hijab and masculine shoes. Does Junior get the job? Do you want to put money on that?

We perceive ourselves as a nation of individuals, rugged or not. But in reality we’ve become so mired in fear and conformity–beginning in preschool–that it threatens not just our national character but our economic and industrial success. Two generations ago, 18-year-olds volunteered for military service so they could help stop the spread of fascism. Today they can’t stop giggling at their peers. Princess Leia would never put up with that kind of shit. I’m saving the galaxy and you’re worried about my shoes? Neither would Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who took on the English crown and had his head cut off; Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross; and Samuel L. Jackson, who is a professional badass. Stutterers all. Go ahead and laugh.

Swimming with the Sharks of Love

I’m sitting on a tile bench with a bunch of other parents during our kids’ swimming lessons at the local civic center. My five-year-old son is with his Tadpoles class, all of whom are just as cute as baby peas, taking turns floating around on a big piece of foam shaped like a fish. He keeps turning around and waving at me vigorously. He is happy and proud. My seven-year-old daughter is not. She is all the way across the pool from where I sit. She is in the water, but even from this distance I can see that something is wrong. One of her two classmates, a little girl with long black curls and a kind smile, pops out of the water and bounds up the steps to the diving board. With total confidence and enthusiasm, she walks to the end of the board, plugs her nose, and jumps in. She comes to the surface, still smiling, and swims over to Viv, whose head is bowed down; she keeps pulling off her goggles and wiping her eyes. The smiling girl pats her on the shoulder while their other classmate, a reedy little boy who tends to flail around a lot in the water, takes his turn off the board. He, too, is clearly buoyed by success–in this case, not drowning–and swims over to the wall. And then it’s my daughter’s turn. She really drags out the walk up to the diving board. Once up there, she stands at the end, and I can see that her shoulders are slumped downward and heaving. She is shaking her head “no” as she looks down at the teacher in the water. She is sobbing.

I shift around uncomfortably, glancing sideways at the other parents. They’re all watching their own kids. And nobody else in the pool seems to be paying any attention to the crying girl on the diving board, except her smiling little compatriot, who gives her a sympathetic thumbs-up. It seems to go on forever, and I am hurtling into agony, trying to suppress the urge to sprint across the wet tile floor and carry her off that cruel diving board in my loving arms, murmuring into her ear, “Sweetie, you don’t have to jump off. You don’t ever have to do anything so terrible and scary. Mama is here.” Instead, I sit on my hands and hold my breath. Just when I feel like I’m going to explode if this goes on any longer, the smart young swimming teacher hops out of the pool, walks up to the end of the board, takes Viv’s hand, and jumps into the water with her. I didn’t see this coming. I straighten my back and wait for them to reappear. They come up together. The teacher high-fives Viv, who still looks miserable but maybe slightly less so. She’s done something that was impossible thirty seconds ago. She’s going to be okay.

Until the next week’s lesson, when the crying begins before we even leave the house. I play the game with her that I play with myself when something scares me: Take it to its logical conclusion. “When you jumped off the diving board,” I ask her, “what happened?” “I don’t know what you mean.” “Well, did you die?” She looks at me like I’ve said something utterly inappropriate. “No.” “Did you get hurt?” “No.” “Okay, so other than scaring you, nothing really bad happened.” “But I really didn’t like it.” “I understand that. But do you think I would sign you up to do something that would hurt you? I think you have to make a choice. You can either jump off the board when it’s your turn. Or you can ask your teacher to jump off with you. Or you can tell her you would rather not do it this week. It’s up to you.” So the crying calmed down and she made it across the pool with a kickboard and then there was more heaving and weeping and some discussion that I couldn’t hear, and finally she got out of the pool and vvvveeeeeerrrrryyyyyy gingerly jumped into her teacher’s arms off the side. And then she swam, by herself, the entire length of the pool for the first time in her life. Crying the whole way, but she still did it.

Now here is my true confession: Nothing I have ever done or tried to do in my entire life has made me feel so completely incompetent as motherhood. Nothing. When I was a fat, ugly kid who got laughed at every day I still more or less knew what I was doing. I could make the other kids laugh, I could get good grades with little effort, and I could get along well with my teachers. Easy. In fact, if I’m to be really  honest, most of what I’ve tried throughout my life has come easily. I can’t claim that the outcomes are perfect or that I haven’t suffered mightily in this life. But in general I’ve worked hard (and sometimes not) and done well. So that feeling of competence comes naturally to me. Maybe it’s arrogance. Regardless. It’s worked out.

Do you know that feeling of confidence? Do you know what it’s like to know that you’ll be all right no matter what? If one thing didn’t work out, I tried something else. There were always options. Once you bring a life into the world, though, your only option is to do right by it. There is no changing direction. You cannot say, “Oh, well, that wasn’t what I thought it would be. I’ll set it aside and try this now.” No. You have to be on course all the time. If you had a shitty day and all you want is to eat six bagels and go to bed, too bad. Not an option. If it suddenly occurs to you one day while you’re sitting at your desk that you really were meant to teach yoga to the indigent, you, darling–in this case “you” being “me”–had better get a grip and hustle to finish that deadline even it means you set your alarm for two in the morning and work until it’s time for the kids to get up for school. I’m not complaining; this is simply the reality of life with children.

So, when somebody like me (i.e., selfish and cocky) encounters an exercise such as parenting, it’s like a bag of bricks to the face. I have no fucking idea what I’m doing at any given moment. None. I am my daughter standing on the edge of the diving board looking down into a giant pit of water and weeping, wishing I was anywhere but here but knowing that I’ve got no other choice. There is no turning and running at this point. These people are here, they’re circling, and they’re hungry. What do you do?

Stand and cry?

Jump?

Jump.

Object Lessons

Many of my friends will recall when two perfect yellow glass gourd lamps came into my life a couple of years ago. I had seen the first one, marked $29.99 at HomeGoods, knew it was home-lighting perfection, and briefly despaired that there wasn’t another. It would not be an exaggeration to say I heard a chorus of heavenly cherubim when I turned the corner to the next aisle and saw the matching lamp. Okay, at this point my heart is pounding and I’m starting to sweat. These are the lamps of my dreams for a room that’s both my favorite one in the house and a decorating challenge. But times are tough, and I still have to justify spending $60 plus tax on lamps. I go home and mull it over. Mulling is one of my great gifts. I can turn a simple pair of lamps into sleepless nights and existential despair. And finally I resort to the magical-thinking rationale common to all smart shoppers: I decide to go back to the store to see if both lamps are still there; if they are, then obviously Providence intended them to be mine.

So, anyway, the lamps were there and I bought them and they changed my world even more so than the $29.99 Ikea coffee table that I finally settled on for that room after a four-year-long quest. Kismet! And my discount lamps and my cheap coffee table and my clearance-center yellow-and-orange windowpane-plaid chaise that the salesman didn’t believe I really wanted and I lived happily ever after, drinking tea and reading books and gazing at each other in wonder.

And this is what they looked like:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pretty, no?

And then this happened:

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then this happened:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then this happened:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NNNNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! I came home from an errand to find the ivy unpotted, the lamp broken on the floor, and everything covered in dirt. Total devastation. Too upset even to make a sound, I silently repotted the ivy, vacuumed up the glass shards, and ignored the chastened dog, who had, after all, only been living with us for a few months at that point and, worse, had come to us from a tragic past full of unwanted litters and obvious signs of abuse.

Now, I do try to stay chill about these things. People are starving; this is a lamp. On any given day my bathroom sink looks like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have two children who illustrate Freud’s assertion that all youngsters are savages; two dogs with issues; two cats, one of whom is sickeningly obese and the other of whom has what the feline neurologist thinks is some kind of slow-growing mass in her ear canal, so she periodically falls off things; a husband with the worst karma ever; and I myself am what could politely be called accident-prone. I don’t expect perfection. In fact, I don’t even like it, which is why I have so many old things that wear their histories in defiance of time and space. It used to live there with that person and be used for that purpose, but now it lives here with me and is used for this purpose. If you let me go into your basement, I guarantee I will find at least a few things you think are ugly and useless and I’ll convince you to pass them on to me because I can make them happy again. (Anthropomorphizing objects is another gift. Who else feels sorry for the plate at the bottom of the stack that never gets used?)

So I moved on. I found that if I turned the lamp just so and plumped up the pillow on the loveseat just enough, I could sort of make the lamp’s gaping wound slightly less noticeable. Yes, I would have to warn visitors about a possible laceration hazard, but I could live with that. I could still love my lamp in its imperfect state.

Well, then one day this week the mailman came, as he does every single day, and while you might expect someone to get used to the fact that the mailman comes every single day so that that someone would not feel the need to go batshit nuts every single time the mailman comes, clearly you would be grossly overestimating that someone’s ability to control herself. So even though neither the ivy nor the lamp fell this time, the beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime candid pictures of my kids at the beach in a lovely frame that I got in the clearance bin for $4.99 went sailing off the table onto the marble hearth. It didn’t break, but I did hear the distinct sound of cracking glass come from the lamp as it got shoved out of the way so someone could have her regularly scheduled daily freak out at the mailman.

When I Googled “yellow glass gourd lamp” I was both pleased and crushed to find that my lamps look exactly like one designed by Jonathan Adler that retails for no less than $160. I am high-fiving you in my mind as I write, “Damn, did I score a deal or what?!” On the other hand, if spending $60 on two lamps kept me up at night, spending $160 on one is simply out of the question. People are starving. This is a lamp.

It’s also a lesson in impermanence and intrinsic worth. Do I love my lamps? Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes. But I would saw off my own legs and eat them for my batshit crazy dogs, my maniacal children, my brain-damaged and fat cats, and my karmicly challenged husband. Shit happens.

I Say I Want a Revolution

I regularly wonder what John Lennon would think of the state of the world. I was in sixth grade when he was murdered and had only recently discovered the Beatles when my much-older brother bought me a cassette tape of Yesterday . . . and Today for my birthday in the fourth grade. One thing led to another, and Lennon became a personal hero to me–the kind of hero who, by virtue of being aware of his own considerable flaws, is all the more heroic. How many times have I listened to “Revolution” and nodded my head in agreement: “You better free your mind instead”?

We Americans are enchanted by the idea of revolution, as if we were all directly descended from the original revolutionaries. Some of us walk around in tri-corner hats and go to rallies where fife-and-drum corps play chirpy music. Those types complain a lot about taxes but appear to be blissfully unaware that the public spaces in which they gather are maintained by tax dollars. They also have a fondness for weaponry, because nothing says “liberty” like a cache of weapons. And they may, actually, be right about that. Others of us go to performances that benefit our favorite causes, sign petitions, wear t-shirts, write strongly worded letters, and maybe even buy some of the pink items that are widely available during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Because when we make frozen margaritas in our pink blenders, we want to be aware of breast cancer. Only a very few of us are willing to get arrested for our beliefs–usually oddball Ralph Nader types and renegade nuns.

I personally am one of the petition-signing, t-shirt-wearing, strongly-worded-letter-writing kind. It’s lame, I know. But I’m busy. Dinner has to be cooked And there’s school volunteering to be done. And deadlines to meet. And, quite frankly, sometimes I’m just too tired to be outraged. Not tonight, honey–I have a headache. I get angry; I get fired up; I get distracted; I get angry about something else. Etc.

So of course watching events unfold in Egypt was riveting. Wait a minute–these people are hungry, and unemployed, and oppressed, and many have been imprisoned and tortured . . . and they still managed to organize and carry out a successful revolution to overturn their government? Geez, I have a hard time keeping up with all the pertinent news and analysis every day without falling into a funk of heartburn and ennui. And what’s really wrong with suburban complacency, after all? Somebody has to hold up what little is left of the middle class, right?

And then came the 112th Congress. Some of us have felt alienated from our constitutional rights for the better part of the last decade. And even before that, I can’t say I was thrilled with NAFTA or welfare reform. The past couple of weeks, however, have come as a peculiarly sharp slap in the face to American women, as it’s become clear that this Congress is openly and unrepentantly misogynistic and determined to strip us not just of our constitutional rights but of our very personhood—attempting to change the definition of rape to exclude any unwanted sexual contact not deemed “forcible” (including the rape of mentally impaired women and girls and statutory rape), proposing legislation that would label the murder of doctors who perform abortions “justifiable homicide,” attempting to ban federal funding of all health services provided by Planned Parenthood, and, according to a report published by Think Progress (February 16, 2011), “The continuing resolution [CR] proposed by Republicans also slashes or eliminates funding for many programs crucial to women’s health: it would completely eliminate the Title X domestic family planning programs, and would also dramatically cut, by $758 million, the Women Infant Children (WIC) program, which provides food for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women. The Republican CR proposal also includes a $210 million cut in Maternal and Child Health block grants.”

Now, all of this would be bad enough, but then came the news that Georgia Republican state representative Bobby Franklin has proposed legislation that would require a criminal investigation into all miscarriages to ensure they were not caused deliberately. This being the same man who has also introduced legislation to change the term rape “victim” to rape “accuser,” because he worries rapists might be hurt by the inference that they actually committed the crime, no one ought to be surprised that he considers women of lesser legal stature than men. Fetal overidentification is a common if bizarre preoccupation among a certain group of middle-aged American males (one wonders if there has been any attempt among specialists to psychoanalyze the condition, which in some cases appears to be worthy of its own entry in the DSM IV), but the suggestion that women en masse would cause their own miscarriages is so outrageous, so counterintuitive, so insulting that it almost defies reason. Almost. But consider that, according to the results of a Gallup poll published in May 2009, 54 percent of American men surveyed consider themselves “pro-life” (versus 49 percent of American women). Consider that almost all acts of domestic terrorism committed against clinics that provide abortion services (in addition to other women’s health services) and against the doctors who perform them have been perpetrated by men (Eric Rudolph, James Kopp, Paul Jennings Hill, Scott Roeder, Michael Griffin, Peter James Knight). Consider this from the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 2008 report Research on Rape and Violence: “According to a study conducted by the National Victim Center, 1.3 women (age 18 and over) in the United States are forcibly raped each minute. That translates to 78 per hour, 1,871 per day, or 683,000 per year.” That’s just “forcible” rape (here we go again), and just women ages eighteen and older. Other studies indicate that the majority (51 percent) of sexual assaults are committed against women ages sixteen to twenty-one, and children younger than eighteen have an overall rate of sexual assault victimization 1.7 times higher than adults. And finally, the Family Violence Prevention Fund estimates that as many as 324,000 women per year experience intimate partner violence during their pregnancies.

So let’s not start taking too seriously Mr. Franklin’ concerns for the lost pregnancies of women he’ll never meet—women whose feelings of grief, guilt, shame, and emptiness already threaten to pull them under the black waves of despair. Because let’s be honest here: If Representative Franklin really cared about the health of fetuses, he—along with his elected brethren Texas Governor Rick Perry, Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, each of whom has proposed particularly obnoxious new legislation recently—perhaps might want to consider working to strengthen domestic violence laws, including those that involve stalking, harassment, and, yes, rape, so that women in relationships with violent men might be able to get out before they or their children are killed; supporting, rather than decimating, funding for clinics that provide free or low-cost health care for poor women and their babies, especially family planning services and prenatal care, so that miscarriages caused by poor nutrition, bad habits, and general ill health prior to pregnancy might be avoided; working to revamp state foster care and adoption systems so that children whose mothers are unable to care for them aren’t placed into abusive homes or left to linger in the system until they’re turned loose into society at age eighteen, never having known the love of a nurturing family; encouraging an end to the laughable abstinence-only sex education programs that have led to so much turmoil in so many young lives and increased the number of teenage pregnancies in states that mandate them; and maybe even think about getting their noses out of their Bibles and pay attention to the real world, where proscribed gender roles and mass marketing have joined forces to give girls as young as two a portrait of their future selves as barely literate, and barely clothed, puppets, with no direction, no goals, and no self-worth outside of how well their bottoms fill out a pair of expensive low-slung jeans.

Dear readers, I’m going to suggest that this isn’t merely the usual degradation of women and girls that we’ve lived with since the dawn of industry and agriculture, when earlier egalitarian societies were subsumed by patriarchy. I’m going to suggest that what we are seeing in this 112th Congress—and beyond, encompassing everything from advertising and popular culture to the widespread adoption of fundamentalist religion to the very food available to us, which contains compounds that are throwing American girls as young as six into premature puberty—is a systematic attempt to dehumanize women and, by extension, their children. This is cultural violence. We are having our rights, our dignity, our personhood stripped away. Even local governments are making it clear that women’s needs simply do not count. Did you know, for example, that the Frederick County, Maryland, Republican-led Board of Commissioners recently voted to discontinue all funding for the county’s Head Start programs because, according to Commissioners C. Paul Smith and Kirby Delauter, women should be married and nonworking if they have children? According to Delauter: “My wife, college educated, could go out and get a very good job. She gave that up for 18 years so she could stay home with our kids, we had to give up a lot to do that. I agree again with Commissioner Smith, you know, the marriage thing is very important. I mean, education of your kids starts at home, okay? I never relied on anyone else to guarantee the education of my kids.” Never mind that 39.3 percent of American women are the primary income earners in their households.

Are you angry yet? If not, you can go now, because you’re really not going to like what comes next. You see, my blood pressure is reaching maximum capacity. I quite simply can’t take anymore. I hear that the average age of onset of menstruation for African-American girls is now eight years; then I hear that children have a rate of sexual assault 1.7 times higher than adults, and that most children who are sexually assaulted know or are related to their attacker; then I hear that relatively wealthy grown white men who have ostensibly been elected to serve the people in reality want to push through an agenda that would outlaw all abortion for any reason whatsoever and have proposed prosecution for anyone who “harms” a fetus. Do you see where this is going? I will tell you this: If you would force an eight-year-old girl who has been raped by a relative to carry a pregnancy to term because of some perverse interpretation of morality, then both you and your god are monsters. If you would deny to women the ability to plan and space their pregnancies so that mother and children could achieve maximum physical and economic health, you have no soul. If you believe children should have children instead of educations, you are depraved. And if you would have any mother watch her child suffer—from abuse, from illness, from poor nutrition, from lack of education or fresh air or wholesome food—then I respectfully request you give that mother ten minutes alone in a room with you and a baseball bat.

Revolution? I’m ready. For most of my life I’ve wondered why women weren’t rioting in the streets. Maybe we needed to be prodded from our stupor by the appearance of abject evil among us. And if you don’t think what’s going on is evil, I ask you to look into your daughter’s eyes for one solid minute. Look at her promise, her integrity, her vulnerability. And then tell me you’re too busy to do anything about how she’s going to suffer if one day she finds herself alone and without resources. Without health care, maybe her cervical cancer will go undetected and she’ll die in her twenties. Without education, maybe she’ll work in a dead-end, soul-sucking job her entire life. Without a strong sense of herself as a useful, dignified contributor to her culture, maybe she’ll marry a batterer and have to fight for her life every day.

So yes, John, I do say I want a revolution. You brought up many excellent points about how we should spend time in serious self-examination before we do anything drastic. Well, I’ve examined and examined and examined. And I’m ready. Now where the hell is Yoko?

Dear Mr. President

I hope you will pardon me if this seems a bit forward, but after everything we’ve been through together the past ten years (you know what I’m talking about, so let’s not hash it all up again; sometimes I bore myself being a liberal in these United States), you’ll understand if I feel entitled to speak openly with you. You and your lovely wife are, after all, the political figures I can most picture myself attending a neighborhood potluck with. We could talk about women’s rights and heirloom tomatoes, you know?

Anyway, what I want to express is my overwhelming disappointment in your response to the issue of gay and lesbian rights. Now, please don’t feel that I’m pooping all over your work. I know it’s a big job, and I know you’re dealing with some top-drawer tea-drinking sociopaths. I get that we’re fortunate not to have the Homecoming Queen as our vice president. And I do appreciate the intelligence, subtlety of reasoning, and, frankly, class you’ve brought to the office of president. During your campaign my husband and I took our young children to the rally you held, with Mr. Biden and both your wives, in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts. And what a glorious day it was in Detroit! The Secret Service agents I spoke with good-humoredly suggested it might be best not to try hauling two toddlers and a Radio Flyer wagon filled with child-related necessities beyond the metal barriers to get closer to the dais surrounded by sharpshooters, so we settled on the grass, watching the proceedings on a giant television monitor. We bonded with a family from Canada, who shared our excitement at the possibility of a new chapter for our battered country. Midtown Detroit was crowded with walkers that day, and even the few protesters gave up and left early because there was no dampening the enthusiasm. You probably already know that Detroit is one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. But you wouldn’t have noticed on that day.

So there’s that. And it’s what I’ve clung to for two years now–your ability to bring people together, to break down the divisions and make us believe we could work together. But I have to say now that your approach to extending civil rights to all Americans leaves a lot to be desired. I seem to recall a lot of hoopla surrounding your plans to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Speeches were given before applauding crowds. Proclamations were issued. You said, sir, that you would end the policy. Yet nearly two years into your four-year term you have not only not ended DADT; you’ve got your administration tangled up in the courts over your apparent refusal to end it.

This would be bad enough for its evident hypocrisy or futile attempt to placate the unplacatable gay-haters among us or whatever reasoning you’re using to justify breaking a promise to the people who elected you. But then there came the rash of suicides and your lukewarm contribution to the It Gets Better YouTube campaign. Now, again, I recognize that it is an extraordinary move on the part of the president of the United States to take part in a grassroots Internet movement to improve the lives of young gays and lesbians. But, Mr. President: Why did your video have to come after that of your secretary of state? Is no one advising you on these things? Do you not know that YOU should be setting the tone for your staff, not vice-versa? Ms. Clinton delivered a strong, impassioned, take-no-prisoners defense of LGBT youth. You talked about how nobody deserves to be bullied. Well. Duh.

Now let’s talk about the civil rights part of this. I assume you know, as the child of a mixed-race couple and as a constitutional scholar, that the last of the U.S. miscegenation laws were repealed by Loving v. Virginia in 1967. Obviously you know you were born in 1961. So here we are forty-three years after the legalization of marriage between people of any racial or ethnic background. The United States has its first biracial president. As a mother, I was consciously aware from the start that either or both of my children could be gay. So could yours. And yet you–our first black president–stand poised to deny my children their fundamental civil rights as citizens of the United States. It’s a simple thing, to stand up for the rights of your fellow human beings. Yet in your eyes they should remain still separate, still not equal.

Power is a funny thing, isn’t it?

Eminent Domain

Something I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago caused quite a little stir. That in itself isn’t unusual or problematic, but, considering the subject matter, the response surprised me. The post was an essay in the New York Times by Dominique Browning, former editor-in-chief of the magazine House and Garden, in which Browning wrote about the trauma she experienced when the magazine was shuttered and she had to sell her house and reconsider her career in midlife. The piece was beautifully written, as all of Browning’s works are, and, as a woman experiencing similar existential circumstances myself (and who isn’t experiencing similar existential circumstances these days?), I thought it was worth sharing.

I did not expect the post to elicit such resentment and anger, almost venom. One friend referred to Browning as a “spoilt rich kid having a hissy fit,” and the general consensus was that, as a (former) member of the elite Manhattan publishing world, her descent into despair after losing her job was histrionic to say the least. Raising the most ire was the way in which Browning mourned the sale of what she calls her “forever home”–the house she had expected to keep for the rest of her life–and her subsequent move into a midcentury modern house with ocean views on Rhode Island. Now, nobody here is going to say it isn’t almost unreasonably fortunate for a recently unemployed person to have the means to make a move like that. Still, I felt for her when she fretted over what the new owners would do to her garden. I understood what she meant about suddenly being torn from everything familiar and safe–displaced, cast out. No longer needed or relevant. Surely these were universally understood experiences.

Or perhaps not. What was I missing? Has the social discord and economic disparity that surround us nullified empathy? Those with financial security blame the less secure for their own problems. They had no business buying houses in the first place; if they lose them, it’s the system correcting itself. Those struggling to get by–and I include my own family in that category–are quick to fall back on the language of class conflict. Injustices abound. And nobody wants to go to a pity party thrown by the wealthy. Still, losing a job is losing a job. And it’s especially hurtful when your entire industry is in crisis and threatened with extinction. Obsolescence is probably no one’s idea of a good time.

Which made me think about Detroit. Somebody told me recently that I should leave “that shithole.” Which is certainly true enough. Very few people with any sense whatsoever would argue that living just outside the city of Detroit at this moment in history is a must-do life experience. My house has lost more than half of its value in four years. “Underwater” doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s more like being pinned face-down in a pool of muck by a psychotic gun-wielding thug in the middle of a road with elephant-led caravans repeatedly stomping over. It can feel a little hopeless at times. As in many other parts of the country, an eroding tax base, due to a combination of lower property values, vacancies, and foreclosures, has caused a deficit that can only be addressed by cutting services. Libraries, schools, recreation, and maintenance are all up for cuts; public safety will likely be next. I couldn’t sell my house right now even if I had to. This might be my forever home by default. Unless, of course, we foreclose.

In the city itself, the situation is vastly worse. Most people who have only seen pictures describe it as looking like a war zone. In 2007 the FBI listed Detroit’s population as 860,971, with a total of 19,708 violent crimes committed that year. That’s a high rate when you consider that New York City, with a population of 8,220,196, had a total of 50,453 violent crimes in 2007. Still, the downtown area of Detroit actually has a violent crime rate significantly below the national average. Did you know that? If you come to Detroit, you will likely have a fine time downtown, and nothing bad will happen to you. You will probably leave thinking that it’s a great place to visit, and you will tell all your friends about the breathtaking Detroit Institute of Arts (the Diego Rivera murals alone are worth the trip), the outstanding brisket you ate at Slow’s Barbeque, and the shots you did with a total stranger who became your bosom friend at some nondescript bar. Perhaps you will even have ventured across 8 Mile (you’re familiar with that road from the movie) to listen to jazz at the legendary Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. But you wouldn’t want to live there. No, really. You wouldn’t.

It is possible to drive blocks and blocks through the neighborhoods of the city and see only a few legally inhabited houses, punctuated by unbelievable mounds of trash. The others have been long abandoned, burned by arsonists, or taken over by crackheads. And there is lots and lots of open space, left by the houses that have, mercifully, been torn down. There are fully inhabited, well-kept neighborhoods. But they typically represent little pockets of relative success rather than the norm. Historic districts like Indian Village and Boston Edison contain outstanding examples of the kinds of mansions the wealthy built themselves a century ago, still lived in, loved, and often toured by architecture fans. Everyone in the United States has heard by now that you can buy a house in Detroit for a dollar, but did you know that the infrastructure is so decrepit that there are streets that become utterly impassable in winter due to water main breaks that freeze? Residents are frozen into their homes for weeks on end. And then there’s the poverty, which is chronic and crushing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites an official unemployment rate of 30 percent. An additional 20 percent are considered underemployed. Let’s not even talk about the corruption; you already know about the former mayor and his felony convictions.

Why, then, would anyone willingly stay? Detroit is about 143 square miles; Manhattan, by contrast, is 23 square miles. There is talk of launching a radical plan to relocate those few stalwarts who remain in severely underpopulated areas to newer, more livable, neighborhoods, presumably using laws of eminent domain, and then razing the houses and redeveloping the vacant land, possibly into urban farmland and other green spaces. And if you, gentle reader, are thinking right now that these people–many of whom are elderly and infirm and have been stuck in their lifeless neighborhoods for decades–must be dropping to their knees in gratitude over the idea of this plan, well, you would be wrong. In fact, most are vehemently opposed to leaving their houses and neighborhoods. They are proud of what they have and consider themselves the glue holding the city together. They are like postapocalyptic lighthouse keepers, ensuring some level of order against the ever-encroaching chaos. We can speculate endlessly about the sociological and psychological factors of their truculence, but in simple terms they don’t want to leave their forever homes anymore than Dominique Browning wanted to leave hers. Or than you or I want to leave ours, even if we are only living in those homes in our dreams. You might love the view, or the wood floors, or the garden you’ve nurtured for years. You might have no real attachment to the structure at all, except that it contains all of your memories and fears and triumphs and every bit of evidence that you ever existed. If it was sold or torn down, would you still exist as you have up to this point?

Psychologists tell us that the death of a spouse, divorce, and moving are three of the most stressful events a person can experience. Losing a job is up there as well. We are not adept at coping with impermanence. As a species, we think too much. Why am I still worried about the lilies I planted in the yard at the house I sold four years ago? And what about the light fixture I still regret not bringing with me? Is it still there? Did they change the color of my daughter’s room? Because in my head it will always be her room–the room we made for her when she entered the world. When you move to a new house, you have no immediate access to the proof of your life. Everything is in boxes and if you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night you will probably hurt yourself trying to navigate in the dark. You are temporarily snuffed out and have to get to the work of recreating yourself. Which is painful and riddled with anxiety. There are things I still can’t find from the last move. Well. Anyway. You know the clichés. It might be a shithole, but home is home.