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Archive for the ‘Women’ Category

Bellyaching

At work I look at myself in the mirror in the women’s restroom and think, “You don’t look so good.” Is it the lighting? I hope so. Or it could have something to do with the motley collection of clothes I’ve pressed into service as “business casual.” But whatever the reason, when I’m at home and catch sight of myself in the mirror, I’m not nearly as depressed. At home I can mostly look in the mirror and not feel bad. Except for seeing my belly reflected back at me, especially in profile – but that’s a separate story.

It’s true. My belly has a story. It’s been carried through fifty-three years of action, and now precedes the rest of me (except maybe the tips of my toes) through doors and down the street or along the trail. It has the trying habit of not wanting to be zipped up in pants, but the redeeming quality of seeming to hold me up when I float on my back in the Bay. Like a built-in balloon.

It used to be flat, and quiet. Now it’s prominent, and growls at me fairly often. Seen and heard. I remember the summer I fell asleep in the sun with my hand on it and wore a permanent handprint for the rest of the season. Bikini days of my teenage years, long gone now.

It’s grumbly and cantankerous, zipper-defying and refusing to budge, this pudge. I keep with it an uneasy truce. Please don’t get bigger, I ask. But it continues to want potato chips at lunch and cookies after dinner. I feed it, and then I walk it around. Trying to keep it quiet and subdued.

I suppose I should admit my belly has served me and it serves me still. “What do you want from me?” it’s probably asking. “I’m doing the best I can in here without a gallbladder! Criminy.” And then it goes back to grumbling, softly.

I’d like to think it keeps me warm in the winter months, but I’m not even sure of that. All I know for certain is we’re stuck with each other, my belly and I.

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Speak Your Truth

This is a re-post of an old essay, in honor of Audre Lorde’s birthday. She would be 78 this week.

“Speak your truth, even if your voice shakes.”
                                                Audre Lorde

I heard this quote at a program I attended recently, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  The woman speaking invoked Audre Lorde’s words to talk about coming out as a queer (gay, lesbian or bisexual) person.

I had a strong reaction to the quote – mainly, that the words could have been directed at me personally.  Not so much in terms of coming out, which I first did 20 years ago. While I recognize it’s a lifelong process and I “come out” again and again as new situations arise, I wasn’t thinking about that.  I was thinking specifically about my voice.

My voice has always been kind of thin and tremulous – but it’s become downright croaky in middle age.  Ever since I passed 40, it’s become increasingly undependable.  It catches and shakes at the slightest provocation: nerves, excitement, strong emotion, or the simple fact that it’s early morning and I haven’t yet warmed up my vocal cords.  Especially when there’s something important riding on my words, it feels as though no matter how thoughtfully I choose them, that breathless, quavery voice of mine betrays me. It humiliates me.

Then I find myself sitting in a Sunday afternoon PFLAG meeting and a woman I’ve never met before gets up and quotes Audre Lorde: “Speak your truth, even if your voice shakes.”

I’ve thought about those words ever since.  I’ve contemplated the power of speaking, of opening: the mouth, the soul, and the psyche. It seems to me that breaking the silence and “speaking your truth” is like calling yourself into being. It is an act of manifestation, of  “real-izing.”

I’m reminded of stories I used to read (ok, I confess – sometimes still do) that deal with wizards.  In these stories the most awe-inspiring power of a great wizard is the power of Summoning. The act of Summoning is not about illusion – it’s not a trick, meant to entertain or deceive.  In times of great crisis, a Summoner can actually call up and harness the essential forces of the universe, the many forms of energy and spirit.  Not unlike what happens when we open our mouths and speak truth.

I can’t help but observe that the wizards in these stories are of a similar and very specific type.  They are almost always men, and mature men at that: they usually have long white beards, and carry heavy staffs (very Freudian…) Their craggy features are ordinarily set in stern expressions, and they speak with voices that boom like thunder.

Nothing like me, at all.

And nothing like Audre Lorde: a woman, a lesbian, a feminist and a person of color.  She looked even less like the wizards of medieval fantasy and folklore than I do.  Although she’s no longer with us in the flesh, her words reached me the other day through a stranger speaking at a meeting I might just as easily have not attended.  Her words flew to me like an arrow to a bulls-eye and said: “Speak – even if your voice shakes.”

And I realized that the power is not in the thunderous sound of a voice, or a white beard, or an oaken staff, or the title of wizard, or in any other title, for that matter.

The power is in truth, and in the act of speaking. Audre Lorde’s words reached me the other day to remind me that I have that power.

You have it too.  Even if your voice shakes.

 

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Just Desserts (Cottage July 24)

Cleaning and going through the contents of the cottage (and the garage) is a bit like opening a time capsule. The process has yielded some rare – and humorous – finds. In addition to the artifacts I knew were here, like my Dad’s old canoe paddle (a relic from his bachelor days) or my favorite Little Golden Book, Bobby the Dog (the captivating tale of a small black and white dog who lives in France and eats croissants for breakfast), every now and then we turn up something totally unexpected. The other night, Sally came in from the garage with a little kids’ potty seat – the kind that goes on top of the big people’s toilet – and suggested we nail it to the porch wall as a decoration. I hooted with laughter – although I have to confess it was actually quite a nice potty chair, solid maple and although dusty, in mint condition.

When you’re working your way through a time capsule, you never know what you’re going to find. Today I was going through a stack of cookbooks when I came across a real gem: a little pamphlet emblazoned with the title Cakes Men Like in garish letters above a photo of a cake, looking almost lurid in the super-saturated colors of 1950s photography.

My first reaction to the title was to laugh; but the laugh was more of a raspberry – a sputtering that had as much to do with disbelief as mirth. Right away I was thinking, “Yeah, that’s about right” – and then I pondered my reaction. Loud and clear, I was hearing male privilege, and status. The booklet’s title is not Cakes Kids Like or Cakes Grandma Likes or even directed at the person whose labor will create the cake, as in Cakes You’re Going to Love. Because it doesn’t matter what the woman baking likes, or what the rest of the family likes – the whole object of the cake-baking endeavor is to please the man, the lord of the manor. (I found a companion pamphlet too, Desserts Men Like.)

There was another implication, this one more humorous to me: the idea that a certain type of cake appeals exclusively to men – that there exists a sort of male archetype of a cake. Thinking along these lines, I would expect the recipes to include something like a lumberjack cake – dense and hearty, stick-to-the-ribs; a wedge of which you could picture dropped onto a tin plate in the chow line. The ingredients might include cornmeal and beef jerky. Or for a German-style manly cake, something made with beer (dark beer goes well with chocolate, after all) and decorated with small pretzels. (Personally, I love chocolate-covered pretzels – but oops, it’s not supposed to appeal to me – just to men.)

On the contrary, the pamphlet (which was a General Motors publication – my Dad worked there pretty much his whole career) contains nothing of the kind. It includes recipes for very standard cakes: chocolate, marble, fudge; pineapple upside-down cake. Even more surprising, there’s a recipe for angel food cake, and the illustration shows it covered in pink frosting. I couldn’t help but wonder: how’d that get into Cakes Men Like?

A glance at the inside cover, and I discovered the cookbook was created by the Tested Recipe Institute, Inc., of Long Island, NY. The five staff members listed are all women, except for the photographer. So there you have it – the cookbook was created by women, and most likely they imposed their own tastes on the recipes, then slapped on the title: Cakes Men Like. (Still – I think Albert the photographer might have protested when they showed him the pink-frosted angel food cake for page 8. I’ve got some questions about him…)

The title of the cookbook, far from being descriptive of a particular set of recipes, has more to do with reassuring women that their baking efforts will endear them to their husbands. On the one hand, it’s nice in any era to do something special to please your partner. On the other, there’s something disquieting about the rigidity of gender roles and the imbalance of power conveyed in one little cookbook (purportedly “Published for GM Men and Women,” it says on the back). At the time, men were bringing home most if not all of the bacon – a reality that made it a matter of survival for their women to please them. (Hey, how about a bacon cake? With maple icing? Ok, I’ll stop now.)

It’s an eye-opening experience, coming upon a cultural artifact unexpectedly. It’s yet another unique aspect of the cottage: my parents built it in 1958, and unlike their succession of homes down-state, occupied it continuously until they died. It’s like an archaeological site. I’m enjoying the excavation.

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Paunch Power

When I woke up this morning, lying on my side, I felt it there – my paunch – like a small, round bowl under my skin.  Most of the time lately, I hate my belly.  Sign of old age, blight on my personal landscape; it makes it hard to bend over, or feel comfortable in my clothes.

Maybe it’s the meditation class I’ve been attending, but this morning I started thinking: what if I tried to like it?  What if I tried to start loving my belly?

I tried picturing it as holding something other than fat, or pounds.  What if my belly was a collection of something valuable – like wisdom, or memory?  What if it held stuff that can actually help me, in time of need – knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years?  (There is, of course, the obvious survival value.  Should I ever be lost in the wilderness, I must have easily an extra seven or eight pounds of fat in there, which would probably give the rescue crew an additional week or so to find me.)  Maybe I could think of my belly as something like a toolkit – they often weigh a lot, too. 

Wisdom and memory are mostly seated in the brain, I guess.  They’re not really in my belly.  But still, we do refer to “gut” feelings as something to be trusted.  So can’t I start seeing my belly as my friend?

I know it’s not going to be easy, what with not being able to fit into any of my pants again this year – it’s become an annual event, the replacing of the pants.  I start to see more clearly why some women like to wear skirts – long, loose, flowing skirts that drape in big folds from the bottom of one’s rib cage.  Still – my belly deserves better than I’ve been giving it.  Even if metaphorical, it’s a sign of age and maturity.  If not wisdom, I’ve certainly acquired something valuable over fifty years of living – experience, and memories.

As unattractive and unappealing as it is deemed in our culture, my old lady belly deserves a little respect.  I’m resolving to treat it better – say hello to it in the morning, find it clothes that don’t bind, warn it before I bend down to tie my shoes.  I’m going to stop poking it and prodding it and studying it in the mirror with a scowl on my face.  As if any of this – midlife – is my belly’s fault.  This is just where we are, my gut and I, and I need to embrace it.  Power to the paunchy!  And as Mavis Staples sings, “Respect yourself.”

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Campfire Story

This past weekend my partner and I went camping. We drove a few hours north, where years ago a river was dammed and formed a long pond surrounded by high dunes. A couple of summers ago we discovered a beautiful campsite here that is only accessible by boat. We pack our gear into our kayaks and paddle to the site, which sits up on a little promontory, about 30 feet above the water.

This pond is not exactly wilderness – there are numerous fishermen casting about in its waters at all times of day, and now and then a speedboat zips up and down its sinuous length, marring the silence. Still, it has a wild charm to it. When the waters of the river backed up behind the dam, they covered miles of trees. You can see stumps poking up here and there, just at the surface, and old tree trunks litter the shallows, giving turtles a place to sun. Deer roam the forested banks, and a flock of trumpeter swans glides about the coves, occasionally breaking into a fit of bugling.

The pent water of the river left uncovered only the highest points of the topography, some of which are now islands. The largest of these was right across from our campsite, and we paddled over to explore after setting up camp. We tramped through woods sprinkled with trillium, then sipped a leisurely Molson from a perch on the western shore, overlooking a peaceful lagoon and surrounded by wild strawberry plants. It was a lovely cocktail hour.

Now, back at the site, dinner was over and we were sitting by our small campfire with nothing to do (ah, the bliss of camping). As I poked around in the fire, rearranging the embers, I was craving a story. I asked Sally to tell me one, but she declined. I persisted. Rocking back in my portable camp chair (truly a marvel of technology), I asked her to describe her room, in childhood. That got us moving backward into the past and we compared memories as the sun sank, the twilight deepened, and the loons began to call to each other up and down the pond.

“Tell me a secret,” Sally requested. I thought for a moment. After ten years together, it seems to me that she already knows most of my secrets. After casting about in my psyche for some hidden story, I found something.

“I stole a kid’s toy gun once,” I said. As I said it I remembered how secret an act it had felt, at the time. Sally didn’t seem all that phased – just curious. “Why?,” she asked. So I told her the story.

I was in 1st or 2nd grade – no older than seven. One of my classmates – a boy – brought his toy gun to school, probably for show and tell. I can’t remember the kid’s name, but I can picture him. He had pretty, straw-blond hair that fell in bangs across his forehead, and he was tall for a second-grader.

As I related the story to Sally, I had to think about her question: why I wanted this gun, and why I felt the need to steal it.

I had a toy gun – two, in fact; a pair of six-shooters. They had ivory-colored plastic handles, meant to look like horn, and came with a rawhide holster. I remember the holster was printed in blue with a picture of the Alamo. My sister had a pair of six-shooters too. I don’t recall ever asking for these guns. I think our parents just thought they’d be fun: necessary accoutrement for playing wild west, which we often did, dressing up in neck-kerchiefs and straw Stetsons.

The thing is, my cap guns not only looked like toys, they evoked a sort of happy nostalgia for the Old West. You could picture my six-shooters being shot into the air in a show of high spirits at the conclusion of a long cattle drive, for instance, or perhaps dispatching a rattlesnake that had invaded the chuck wagon. The gun my classmate brought to school was different. It was a modern-looking pistol, all dark metal, square lines and hard edges. This gun was all grim business. It was clearly made for espionage, or war. It looked real, and it looked dangerous.

I coveted that gun from the moment I saw it. When no one was looking, I took it from the pocket of my classmate’s coat, left hanging in the cloakroom. At this point in the story I felt compelled to tell Sally that as a kid I never stole anything – which I believe is pretty much true. Sally confessed that at three or four she’d tried to pocket some chewing gum in the checkout line at the grocery store, while with her Mom. But I don’t even recall doing anything like that.

So why did I steal the gun?

At seven, I already knew this was not a girl’s toy. I wanted it, badly. But if I asked my parents to get me one, I believed (accurately, I think) I would be questioned, my request challenged. I would have had to explain why I, a girl, a female, wanted to hold that symbol of power in my hand.

I knew that explanation was way beyond me. So I stole the gun.

I don’t remember what I did with it, ultimately. It seems to me that I found myself in the same situation as a billionaire who has hired someone to steal a famous painting – I had to keep it shut up and completely to myself. I couldn’t really let my parents find out I had it – they would have known right away it wasn’t mine. I picture myself hiding it, and taking it out to look at it once in a while, alone in my bedroom. I’m sure I soon tired of that exercise – and then I think I just got rid of it.

Sally, unlike me, has brothers – four, to be exact. She tried to picture their toy guns. Like me and my sister, she had six-shooters; one of her older brothers had a BB gun. But mostly she recalled everyone – herself and her brothers – playing war while armed with tennis rackets.

She understood my story, though. “You couldn’t explain why you wanted it,” she said, nodding. We sat in silence, in the golden light that is so much a part of evening, in warmer months, in northern latitudes.

“Look,” she said, “There’s the moon.” Sure enough, the slenderest of silver crescents was rising between the branches of the pine trees, accompanied by some bright planet – Venus, probably? We sat, and waited for the stars.

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Some Days…

Some days I’ve really had it with being a middle-aged lesbian.

It’s not just the physical aspects of getting older. Sure, I have a roll below my navel (I refer to it as “old lady belly”) and it’s clearly not going away, as it’s been there for almost a decade, ever since I turned 40. (Of course, it might help if I went on a serious diet, but this seems like no time to be giving up red wine or cheese popcorn…)

And it’s not just the wrinkles, although I’m getting a few. I sometimes wonder if I need botox for the pucker in my forehead, which is mainly due to squinting. The new bifocals I got this year have only made it worse. When I look down at my feet, as for instance when I’m walking, I’m in the “reading” portion of the lens and everything’s a blur. When I’m reading, I have to get the lower portion of the lens into position for whatever I’m looking at: book, computer screen, nutritional information on the Fritos bag. I guess the bright side is that all of these facial contortions must be burning calories.

And it’s not just the hormonal situation, although that’s not great, either. I’m not menopausal yet but it’s just around the corner, lending an added element of surprise to my life: it’s anyone’s guess what’s happening to my cycle. Meanwhile a random whisker appears on my chin or neck with increasing frequency, and it’s like my body’s saying: Yeah, you may be relieved when you don’t have to deal with cramps or feminine protection any more, but watch out girlfriend – your beard’s about to come in.

It’s a lot of pressure, and in the midst of it I feel a little like Rodney Dangerfield: I get no respect.

I’ve lately realized that even after 9 years with my partner, nearly half a century of living and 20 years as a lesbian, I still hesitate to give her a peck on the lips in public. Sure, it’s ok when we’re with a group of gay people – there’s strength in numbers – but when we’re out alone, without a visibly gay couple in sight, it’s intimidating.

I suppose we’re probably not going to be physically attacked or chased out of a restaurant by angry villagers with pitchforks like in a Frankenstein movie, but I also fear stares. Sneers. Potential snide remarks. Or the experience I recently heard about from a young lesbian couple I know. They were walking down the street holding hands in what’s considered a pretty progressive neighborhood when a car drove by and a man stuck his head out and shouted, “Why don’t you suck some c__k!”

I have to ask myself, every day, do I feel like holding hands today? It could take a lot out of me… And being nearly 50, I’m sometimes really tired…

But I’m determined to work on gay rights issues, so I volunteer for the local advocacy organization. They send me email alerts, keeping me up to date on what’s happening in the courts, or the legislature. Sometimes the email encourages me to contact my elected representatives, and provides a link.

But when I try to click on it, I can’t get through. Why? Because I’m on my break at work, and my employer has blocked website access for anything having to do with gays and lesbians. (These are “dirty” words, don’t you know.) “Restricted Access” comes up in bold red letters, and I feel like I got “caught” doing something nefarious, even though all I was trying to do was express my support for a law against school bullying.

When I ask management why the site is blocked, their answer is that they block my local gay rights organization for the same reason they block lingerie sites. Gee, I didn’t know there’s an advocacy group for lingerie. I wonder what it’s called? National Bustier Association (protecting your right to bare arms – and cleavage)? I can’t help but reflect that I would get a lot more support around here for the right to bare my cleavage (such as it is) than for the right to marry the woman of my choice.

And then there’s always some ridiculous moment that just ices the cake. One day my partner and I sat at a red light just around the corner from our condo. Dangling from the trailer hitch on the pickup truck in front of us was a pair of plastic testicles.

Now it’s a free country and we’ve all got a right to express ourselves, but I just don’t see any valid reason to display one’s gonads on one’s automobile. Hey, I’m proud of my gender too, but I’m not going to drive around town with plastic ovaries hanging off my bumper.

What’s an aging lesbian to do?

I’ve considered moving to Canada (more respect for gay rights plus universal health care), but I’d need a green card and my partner thinks it’s too cold. There’s drinking heavily, but there are so many drawbacks: hangovers, costly bar tabs, and alienating all your friends by getting teary and maudlin when you’ve had too much. In my darker moods, I consider acts of guerilla warfare, something like commandeering a t.v. station during the evening news and interrupting a Viagra commercial with a public service announcement for Planned Parenthood. (Logistically a nightmare, and could send me to federal prison for messing with the airwaves.)

So I ask again, what’s an old lesbian like me to do?

I’m remembering a concert we attended a couple of years ago. I dragged my partner to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the local mega-dome. I was inspired by the sight of those four aging hippies, still sticking it to the Establishment. When David Crosby sang, “Almost Cut My Hair,” it had a fresh meaning for me.

I’m going to let my freak flag fly.

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The "B" Word

In the wake of a workplace controversy over the use of the “B” word, I’ve been doing some thinking about it.

As a noun, the usage I’m familiar with is this: a woman who is mean, nasty, short-tempered, even spiteful: aggressively and ruthlessly pursuing her own ends without regard to the interests of others.

Our society seems to have grown fairly comfortable with the word used in this sense. It’s fairly ubiquitous, pretty acceptable as a piece of more or less casual profanity. I’ve used it (although I’m now rethinking that); I probably hear others use it or see it in print on average once or twice a week.

But recently, I experienced the word in a darker way, used not just as insult but also as intimidation. I began to think about the misogynist and hierarchical underpinnings of this word whose use we’ve come to accept, or at least overlook.

I did a little web research on the origins of “bitch.” I think everyone knows that it started out as a word meaning a female dog. What I didn’t previously realize, though, is that its earliest usage in English to describe a human female likened her to not just a dog, but a dog in heat. The thrust of the insult was not to her personality – originally, it was to condemn her as a woman with a sexual appetite. Significantly, the slur originally slandered a woman for intruding into the province of men – for being a sexual being.

Then I started thinking about my own experience with it: who uses the “B” word, and on whom. Women use it to describe other women, and men use it to describe women. Gay men also use it to describe each other.

As I thought about it, it became clear that the application of the “B” word depends on hierarchy. Gay men use it on each other because, although they’re not female, they’ve taken on at some times and to some degree a more feminine – and therefore, subordinate – role in our society. Therefore the “B” word can apply. (It seems worth noting, though, that I don’t think I’ve ever heard an outsider use the word to describe a gay man – I’ve never heard a woman or a hetero man call a gay man “bitch.”)

Which leads me to the one group of people who in my experience is never called “bitch” – heterosexual men. At first blush this may appear to be because the “B” word is reserved for females – but as we’ve seen, that’s not true. It’s reserved for people in a subordinate role – and therefore, straight men do not suffer the indignity of the “B” word. (One exception I’ve read about: men in prison use it on each other, again to enforce hierarchy and subordinate each other).

This is why the “B” word coming out of the mouth of a straight man to describe a woman can be so offensive. Unlike a gay man, a straight man will not use this word to describe someone like himself – his fellow, his equal. He will only use it to describe a woman; and to a degree that means that at the same time he is saying she is mean and nasty, he is also saying “she is beneath me.”

I tried recently, in the privacy of my own head, calling some straight men “bitch.” I thought of a man or two I’ve known who had displays of temper, often seemed selfish and unreasonable, and completely disregarded the feelings of others while pursuing his own aims. Mentally I pictured each of them and then applied the label – “bitch.”

The effect was interesting. I had a sudden feeling of power. I did feel that I had subordinated them, simply by using the word. It put me at the top of the hierarchy, for a change; or at least I brought those straight men right down with me, for a moment.

Although a somewhat heady experience, I quickly recognized that this exercise is probably going over to “the dark side.” There must be better ways to pursue an egalitarian society than to start demanding equal opportunity for calling each other ugly names.

On the other hand, whenever someone calls for a moratorium on the word “bitch,” they’re roundly accused of being politically correct, oversensitive, and just plain ridiculous.

So I guess I’m wondering: if we’re not going to expunge the word from our vocabularies, why not at least demand equal usage? If we’re still going to use the word “bitch” to describe women, why not start using it to describe men?

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