Dating Across Party Lines

In the spring of 2017, I went on a date with someone I met online. It was Bumble, the supposedly feminist dating app, which is different because men can’t message a woman unless she messages him first, so basically women are stuck with more of the work. I have been on many online dates since my divorce four years ago, and this one didn’t necessarily start out any different, but we had chemistry, and I was fairly confident we would see each other again. I wasn’t sure what would happen beyond that because we were somewhat different. We didn’t talk about it, but there were signs. I had recently marched in Washington, D.C. in protest of the inauguration of Donald Trump, and he drove a big white truck with a YETI sticker on the bumper.

If we met a few years ago, I may not have gone out with him again. I might have crafted a T-chart, with things like “wears cowboy boots” on one side and “makes me happy” on the other, as if those were equivalent in importance. Luckily, I had experience dating post-divorce and after many break ups and some good therapy sessions I learned that I should not plan my entire future with, or without, someone on the first date. Maybe instead I should just have fun and see what happens, which feels like driving down a dark, canopy road with no headlights. As someone who prefers to plan ahead, I want my dating endeavors to be like doing taxes with Turbotax, “You are now 75% done!”

With this particular person, I climbed up into his front seat and just went along for the ride. During the first several weeks, I was having too much fun to perform any kind of assessment, and I never felt insecure enough to freak out because he was different than most of the other guys I had dated, meaning that he was not a jerk, married, or dead inside. We did not discuss our political opinions at the beginning, and sometimes that was a bit of a cloud, leaving me wondering if it would eventually rain on our love parade.

As a writer, who writes about my personal life and opinions, it is difficult to keep my ideologies out of the public sphere. I am one quick Google search away from being an open book. One night leaned up against a railing staring at the Gulf of Mexico, we bridged the subject. He said he did not want to be with someone who was his mirror image. I agreed. I work with a radical feminist group in Tallahassee, and when I first mentioned that I was going to a meeting, I called it “a women’s group” as if we were gathering to talk about the new edition of our local cookbook and not working to topple the patriarchy. He was not fooled and told me he was proud that I fight for what I believe. With that moment, I metaphorically inched a little closer to him in the cab of his truck.

Now, I have space in a closet he cleared out for me at his house. He moved some suits that he never wears and a few jackets to make room, but left a half-dozen shotguns. Every time I slide open the closet door, I see them lined up between my row of strappy sandals and the ruffled hems of my sundresses. They are a reminder that life is most interesting when it offers up the unexpected. We do not often talk about politics when we are together. That is why I have a Twitter account. When an issue does come up, I am usually able to at least understand why he would feel that way, unless he mentions something about emails. What I have realized is that I love him more than I love being right, and I am not sure I could have felt that way in a relationship before my 40th decade. We probably won’t ever celebrate 50 years together, unless both of us make some serious lifestyle changes, like cryogenics, but I am thankful every day that I did not meet him a moment sooner.

 

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Stand up. Fight Back.

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On a hazy January morning, we started to walk with the crowds towards the National Mall, not knowing the exact destination just simply moving with the current. The dome of the United States Capitol peeked out above a line of rectangular bureaucratic buildings. The faces of these buildings were stone and unadorned. They stood stoic and quiet, impenetrable. The crowd was still loose enough to allow gaps between the women and girls and dots of men who carried signs and upbeat voices.

We made it to a cross street, and I watched the people ahead of me as they made the turn, their eyes focused down the street, some lifted phones over their heads to take photos, others just stared, but they all kept moving. As we entered the wide expanse of the intersection, I saw what they saw. We were at the top of a hill staring down Independence Avenue. At the bottom the crowds were so dense and bright there was no indication of street or sidewalk, of where buildings stopped and the tiny dots of all those people and their declarations began.

We turned and walked down the hill, small conversations and observations with the people walking with us, there was laughter and shout outs looking for a member of our group not easily visible, “Where is she?”

“Oh, there she is.”

There were chants from the crowd, “When women’s rights are under attack, what do we do?” and the crowd responds, “Stand up! Fight back!”

“What do we do?”

“Stand up! Fight back!”

Above all the empowerment and solidarity there was also a cloud of everyone’s collective anxiety. Because we were not going to a festival. This was not fucking Bonnaroo. We were marching into a crowd larger than I had ever seen. We did not know how this day would unfold, where we would end up, how we would get home. We did not know if the crowds would be peaceful and generous. We did not know what force majeure awaited us. We also did not know if there was something insidious waiting in the future of the day. Nobody checked our clear backpacks. Nobody looked under my bulky jacket.

“When I say sisters, you say rise!”

“Rise!”

“Sisters!”

“Rise!”

We kept walking. My anxiety presents itself as jitters, stemming from the epicenter of my nerves and branching out. An overall sense that I might just simply pass out. I have had this experience before, when the stimulus overwhelms my capability to react. It is as if every vessel expands just a fraction and there is not enough room in my body for all my energy. My experience at this march was overwhelmingly positive and at times even fun, but I was nervous. I have two kids at home. As a mother, my life is not my own. I don’t have the luxury to be reckless. They are not my raison d’etre, but I belong to them. I breathe deep and keep walking.

“The people! United! Will never be defeated!”

“The people! United! Will never be defeated!”

I glance around and look for the familiar coats and jackets and pink hats of my marching crew. Everyone is wearing pink pussy hats, but I know which ones are mine. If I lose sight of my sisters, then I scan for our “Women’s Strike” signs. Black with white lettering. Unapologetic. The mood of the crowd is not somber. We talk and point out signs that make us proud or make us laugh.

Keep your god out of my bod.

Tiny hands, big asshole.

Everyone moves forward calmly but willfully. Officials in green vests stand in intersections and suggest we make turns, doing signs with their arms as if directing traffic, but instead of cars it is a mass of people—women, men, children, and strollers. Bumps into shoulders are quickly met with a call of “Sorry” and a response of “It’s ok” because we are women and we are taught to make no ripples. But on this day in January we form a tidal wave. By the hundreds of thousands, we put a dent in the center of the National Mall, making a mark on history. Our collective footprint like a space boot on the moon.

The women’s march was considered successful because of the incredible number of protesters in Washington D.C. and because of the solidarity shown around the country and even internationally. From what I could see the march was more than just white women. There was representation from women of color, maybe even more than I had expected, even though there still exists the valid concern of why white women are now finally marching out from behind our picket fences. Where the hell have we been?

This march was also peaceful. There were no arrests. No tear gas. No rubber bullets. There was barely even a police presence at all. I saw less than a dozen police, mostly standing against cinder block buildings, one knee propped up like a casual flamingo. The only interaction I had with the police was when I waved down a uniformed officer to get help for a woman who had tripped on a curb and landed on her face and suffered a cut above her right eyebrow. However, this protest was not successful because it was peaceful. Those two factors must remain mutually exclusive.

This protest was attended by women, men, and families just like me, who are kept just comfortable enough to be unwilling to storm the White House. We had the numbers, and maybe it is because a group of women would not usually destroy such a beautiful home. We had enough of a presence that we could have commandeered the White House, emptied it of all the precious antiques, and then burned it to the ground. But we didn’t. We wore our pink hats, told our bladders, “Not Today!” and took peaceful control of the National Mall. Then we left and went back to our spaces of comfort, hugged our children, and now many of us are continuing to organize in our local communities.

The march was important and successful. The night after the march, I was renewed and felt a sense of optimism about the people of this country and our precious democracy. However, the march was also benign. If we consider this march in relationship to the two Americas presented by Martin Luther King, Jr. then this march was attended by those living in the America where “People have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them.” We the people of this America are unwilling to throw bricks because that could substantially disrupt our glass houses. We are accustomed to silent conformity.

Also, we have been so conditioned to the idea that rioting is non-productive and only further divides groups. How many times have I heard the phrase “those people” sprout and erupt around times of rioting and violent protest? We use rioting as a scapegoat for othering. King is celebrated by the white community and we get a day off from work to celebrate him because of his promotion of nonviolence. Ask any school kid in America and that adjective will be the one that is most closely associated with his legacy.  I am still waiting for my kids to come home from school with their detailed reports on Malcolm X.

Looking more closely at King’s “Other America” speech, he talks about the use of nonviolence as a more effective measure than rioting because “A riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt” and he continues to state that he cannot condemn riots without also condemning the conditions that promote them because “A riot is the language of the unheard.” King was arrested 30 times for protesting against segregation. Nonviolent is not the same as nondisruptive.

As a white woman who walked into this march maybe feeling the anxiety for the first time of a possible fear of police presence, I realize that I have no excuse for not standing up before now. Maybe I should have been standing shoulder to shoulder with all the marginalized voices throwing bricks into business windows. Even better, there is (as King taught us) a space between a protest with no arrests and an outright violent demonstration. We are going to have to be more disruptive to fight against a bully of this magnitude. We cannot just walk the streets and expect to be heard. My name is now likely on some type of list. A big black checkmark beside my H. And the thing is that I don’t even know if I have the courage to come out from behind the protection of my glass house. I am still questioning how much I am willing to sacrifice. As I sit here being heard, I am a parcel of hypocrisy.

My unwillingness to let go of my space of comfort is exactly what the Trump administration, headed by Grand Wizard Steve Bannon, is counting on. They are expecting that middle class white people will abandon the disenfranchised when it comes time for real protest, that the huge crowds of people will soon just be a few groups living in tents and playing hacky sack while the rest of us are at home watching CNN and tucking our children into warm beds. That is what Trump and his band of villains are using to place all their bets. Giant stacks of chips made from compressed pieces of our freedom and betting on apathy. Our gazes down as we have passed by our history of inequality and violence fueled by discrimination of anything that is not white, wealthy, and patriarchal are what got us here. Fear and division put extremism in the White House. We are going to have to use courage and solidarity to get us out. We have the numbers. We have the education. The awareness. Morality. Empathy. History. This administration thinks we are bluffing. We need to firmly demonstrate that we are serious about maintaining the rights of all the people and not just a select few.

When democracy is under attack, what do we do?

Stand up! Fight back!

Dark Water

I am a big fan of using the steam room at my gym. I like to sit quietly in the fog until I am dripping in sweat and then leave and replenish all those liquids with champagne. If the average person’s body is 70% water, mine is often just 70% bubbles. I am sure if I do enough research I can find an important study that suggests this is the secret to longevity. If nothing else, it will help prevent death by drowning, which will come in handy because most of the time when I am near the water, I am really drunk.

The water is one of many places that can be dangerous for women, like in the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. The main character, Clyde, a poor boy who is working (somewhat deviously) to move up in the social class ranks accidentally gets a farm girl pregnant. Unable to accept this fate as his life’s end-game, he decides to take young Roberta out in a canoe on an isolated lake so he can drown her. As they are paddling, Clyde internally wrestles with his decision and his intentions while Roberta sings songs and drags her fingers sweetly in the water. Then at one point she notices the look on his face, staring at her from the other end of the canoe; he probably looks as if he has just seen a ghost, and she starts to crawl towards him in a move of comfort, and then he hits her across the face with a camera, an “unintentional blow” so hard that she falls out. He stands to grasp for her as she is falling, and then the canoe tips. She gets hit in the head with the bow and since she cannot swim he is sort of like, well that was convenient.

Actually, she looks directly at him and cries “Help! Help!” and he just watches her head sink underwater with relief. He swims to shore and eventually gets caught and sentenced to death by a mostly rural and unsympathetic jury. One of the big questions from this novel is seeded in the title and begs the question about what is the uniquely American tragedy here? I am not sure exactly the answer, and I refuse to believe it is his execution, but I am willing to move towards pointing a finger at a cruel system that promotes cut-throat (or “unintentional blows” and condoned drownings) paths up the economic ladder. The tragedy most likely ends up as the systemic problem of an economy that suppresses social mobility and fosters greed.

However, what I took from this novel was that maybe I should be more careful about going out into open water with men. I have also read the book Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen where a husband pushes his wife off the balcony of a cruise ship. When she hits the water and lives, her thought is did that asshole just push me off a cruise ship? It is relatable, like when the man I was married to and had two children with bought me an iTunes gift card for my birthday. Did that really just happen?

Although I know to be cautious, like with most things in my life, I see the line that I should not cross and then I run down the dock in a bikini and jump on board! I once went on a second date with a man, whom I met on Tinder, to an isolated river where we kayaked up stream into the wilderness, far away from where people could hear me scream. I did not bring my cell phone because I didn’t want it to get wet and die—that would be absurd. It never occurred to me to be concerned until we were about an hour into our paddle, and I had a realization of panic. I stopped paddling and watched him moving forward in the dark water, leaving a momentary wake behind his kayak and then no trace as he glided forward. I scanned the banks and saw only trees. Nobody knows we are here.

But I survived. On the morning after our third date, I mentioned that although I enjoyed the kayaking, I did have a fleeting moment when I thought he might murder me.

“What would be my motive?” he asked.

A question that was both important to consider and disturbing. But he was right. I present no obstacle to his life. I pondered this because it is an important issue for women, often when domestic violence happens, it is because the victim poses some barrier between the aggressor and happiness or freedom. Like for Clyde, he just wanted to marry a wealthy girl and live happily ever after, but Roberta with her womb and her ovaries, got in the way of that dream. So she had to die.

Of course, sometimes violence is random, so he could have still murdered me while we were kayaking for no good reason, but that is not necessarily something I can guard against. I can’t live in fear of random acts of violence, then he interrupted my thoughts with a question, “What kind of wood doesn’t float?”

“What? I don’t know.”

“Natalie Wood.”

I laughed awkwardly. Then it got eerily quiet. I realized that I could probably try to avoid dates that put me in isolated areas with strange men, but also maybe men could put in a solid effort to not murder me. If something did happen, then it would likely be portrayed as me making a foolish decision. Even my children would be told that I met someone on Tinder and followed him into the woods, as if I was asking for it. The same way we justify that the girl in the horror movie who runs outside to check on the sawing noise coming from the woods deserves to die. What a dummy! While the murderer is seen as being on an unwavering trajectory to kill and unable to change or make alternative decisions. Sort of like Clyde, once they were in the canoe she was sentenced to die, and part of the interest of that section of the novel is watching Clyde wrestle with that supposedly unavoidable fact. Even though he could just as easily not drown her. Not hit her across the face with a camera. Not watch her sink underwater while she calls his name.

He could have changed the plan at any time. Even a man wandering around the woods with a chain saw could make better choices, but it is accepted that it is his manifest destiny to move across the dark forest or the misty harbor town killing everyone in his path. Slashing people up is just what he does. For the rest of us—the vulnerable characters—it is our job to stay out of his way.

Then I was drawn back into the bedroom, “Why didn’t Natalie Wood take a shower on the boat?”

“Are you fucking kidding me? You know two Natalie Wood jokes?”

I would like to say that this was the creepy thing that ended this brief relationship, but in all honesty, I was probably the one who made it weird. I won’t go into details, but I may have sent some drunk texts. This was during my brief but exciting skinny margarita phase, also known as January 2016.

I recently read the details about Wood’s death from the memoir by coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi. She drowned Thanksgiving weekend in 1981. He tells the events objectively, but it is difficult to read that report without feeling like there is blame placed on Wood for her actions—that she tried to get into her dingy at night without properly assessing the wind and not realizing the weight of her down jacket. She had been drinking. It is as if the take away is that she should have been more careful and because she wasn’t it is acceptable to make her death (and thus her life) into a punchline. When she died, she left behind two young daughters.

I have been taught to protect myself since I was a young girl. I should not walk alone, especially at night. I should lock the doors to my house and my car. Park under a street light. Don’t get into a stranger’s car. Don’t let a stranger into my house. These warnings are so intrinsic that defying them is viewed as in violation of common sense—she should have been more careful. But where are all the pamphlets teaching people not to be predators? Teaching about respecting women and their bodies? Teaching our boys not to rape our girls no matter what they are doing or wearing? Instead we are modeling predatory behavior as a perk of power. We have now even dressed it in a suit, sprayed it with fake tan, and given it the job of being leader of the free world.

I have heard that a man should never touch another man’s hat. The act of touching another man’s headwear is impetus to fight, but our girls should put on a sweater, get a longer skirt, or get a friend to walk them home. By doing so we are telling girls that they will remain the vulnerable characters. Men are not warned to avoid wearing hats. The warning is in the imperative: Don’t touch my hat! Lyle Lovett even wrote a song about it.

The World Health Organization estimates that one out of every three women has experienced violence by either an intimate sexual partner, or she has experienced sexual violence from a non-partner. 38% of murders of women are committed by a male sexual partner. Studies suggest that intimate partner violence can be reduced by improving women’s economic and social status. Otherwise they remain the vulnerable characters—they remain prey. We are choosing the ambulance in the valley instead of the fence on the cliff and just watching our girls fall. If we have different guidelines for boys and girls, especially about safety, then that signifies a problem. We can do better.

I want my daughter to be safe everywhere even if she makes mistakes. Even if she follows a boy into the wilderness. Because if she is like me, she probably will. It is intoxicating, like the bubbles that keep me afloat when all signs suggest that I should be drowning.

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So the fucking Ghostbusters thing . . .

I heard about the new movie earlier this year when a male friend texted me, “They are making a new Ghostbusters with all women. I am not going to see it.”

My first thought was that I do not give a shit. Are we going to list all the movies that we aren’t going to see? Because I have more important things to do, like staring blankly at my computer screen and crying. This is also from a guy that has texted me, “Did you know the Atlanta airport is the busiest in the world?”

I just responded with an exasperated, “Yes.” And then a winky face, so I would not appear patronizing. I have recently cut this person from my life out of a conscious effort to burn down all the bridges that never should have been built.

I did not take his dislike of the casting selections seriously. He is not the barometer. But then more recently, I have noticed there is serious and actual backlash about the movie Ghostbusters being remade with an all female cast. People are speaking out. They are outraged! They are taking to Twitter to declare that this new movie has—somehow retroactively—ruined their childhoods. And then they try to mask their misogyny under the guise of being film connoisseurs by stating they are boycotting, not because of the female cast, but because it looks like it is just going to be a terrible movie (and also because there are all those damn women in it).

Then as women start to play self-defense, twitter lights up with backlash against the backlash because all these feminists have their panties in a proverbial wad. Feminists—and last I checked feminism simply means advocating for political, social, and economic equality for women—inevitably find ourselves forced into a circle jerk when it comes to defending our right to be treated equally. Someone says women should not be able to play the Ghostbusters, and then women speak out and then men act as if they have just caught us with our hands deep in the cookie jar, and they pin a big fat F to our chests. Women are just left watching men get off on their own misguided assumptions.

Obviously, anyone who criticizes the new movie because it is a crime against the original has never seen Ghostbusters II. This is the film where Sigourney Weaver’s baby carriage is possessed and speeding through the streets of Manhattan.

They cast a baby.

A review from June 1989 in the New York Daily News declares that the baby might be the only thing to save the film, and it might do better at the box office if they renamed it “Four Ghostbusters and a Baby.” Also, let’s be clear, the original Ghostbusters was not a cinematic masterpiece. It was funny because of the concept—the fact that they are Ghostbusters is the joke. It was a blockbuster, one of those summer hits that parents and kids can both enjoy, a movie that is absolutely geared towards sequels and remakes because it is not sacred. Ghostbusters is not art. It is a franchise.

I knew I had to write about Ghostbusters because the argument originates from the idea that women aren’t funny. I would have loved to let that go. I have a busy life. I need to work on my book. I need to determine if I should, or should not, go back on Tinder. I also need to catch up on The Americans, but goddammit, I have to interject. And honestly, this is the portion of this essay that I have struggled with because there is no basis to the argument, no jutting rocks that I can grasp to pull myself up to confront a platform. Women are funny. Simple fact.

I once had an intensely stoned guy tell me that we were living in the belly of a whale. The correct response to this would have been, “Yeah man. Totally,” but instead I questioned it. I looked around at my surroundings, the pine trees and the manicured back yard of a house in the suburbs, and I argued with this person. I even tried to get him to hedge his statement to just a metaphor, “You mean we have been devoured by some enormous institution?” I asked.

“No, we are in the belly of an actual whale!”

When men state that women can’t be funny, I internally run through all the women I have laughed with personally, and then a reel of funny women from Lucille Ball to Gilda Radner to Amy Schumer plays in my mind, and I know that the statement comes from a place of insecurity and oblivion, and I should just say, “Yeah man. Totally.”

But then I keep scrolling through my Twitter feed. One thread is all people arguing that this new, all female version is going to reduce Ghostbusters to an Adam Sandler flick. One tweeter suggested with a chirpy scowl that Melissa McCarthy is just the new Adam Sandler, and if they mean a big name in comedy that can draw customers to the box office, then they are right. Although, McCarthy can deliver a line and execute physical comedy, so she is conceivably two steps ahead of Sandler. He is more easily compared to someone that is a cardboard replica of himself and uses a type of humor that is simplistic enough to appeal to the masses . . . here is a news flash, boys, Adam Sandler is just the new Dan Aykroyd.

What gives the original Ghostbusters any intelligent, legitimate humor is the casting of Bill Murray. His deadpan delivery makes even the most mundane lines comedic, “I like her because she sleeps above the covers, four feet above the covers.” But he is Bill Murray. There is a scene in Rushmore where Murray is in the elevator and lights another cigarette while he is already smoking a cigarette, and then as he exits he says, “I’m a little bit lonely these days.” It is so witty because it says so much more, like that sometimes there just aren’t enough cigarettes. That is comedic genius—the ability to make your audience laugh, not at you, but with you, and he brought that to Ghostbusters, and you may want to swallow your lunch, but women can also deliver legit comedy.

Kristen Wiig can do the thinking woman’s comedy thing. What Murray offers is a variation on the straight man. His reactions to the other characters are a big part of the humor, but he is also able to play these neurotic characters that are funny all on their own. Maybe (let’s just try this on, it will be okay, everything will be okay) Kristen Wiig is the new Bill Murray. Bridesmaids is damn funny, and it is Wiig’s comedic essence that fuels the film. The scene where she meets the Melissa McCarthy character at the bridal shower, and McCarthy tells her she fell off a cruise ship, and Wiig just says, “Oh Shit,” is enough to make me excited about the new Ghostbusters casting.

There is another argument echoing through the twitterverse that suggests Sony Pictures is engaging in some kind of affirmative action campaign by casting these women, as if they are doing women some kind of favor. The idea that Sony would make any decision based on a desire to advocate for equality among the sexes makes me giddy with pleasure, but it is by far the most moronic argument in this horse shit race.  Sony only cares about making money. These women are all big names who bring in dollar bills. And Sony doesn’t even have to pay them as much! Also they want to market to the audience that is going to buy the most tickets, and you know who is going to the movies and buying lots of tickets, dragging along entire neighborhoods of people who will all spill their Cokes on her sandaled feet? MOMS!

The fact that men give a shit about the roles in Ghostbusters being played by women has made me question—life for starters—but also what sacred male traditions are they protecting here? The entire premise of the movie is that the Ghostbusters are buffoons, but they are still able to be heroes, so maybe it is hard to swallow the idea that women could also be heroes on accident, just by existing and having bad ideas. Let’s also remember that the subplot of the movie is about a team of men dominating the Sigourney Weaver character, who starts out as a somewhat harsh and serious woman, then is possessed, turned into a female dog, they save her, and by the end of the movie she is much softer and in love with Bill Murray. This led me to the terrifying conclusion that perhaps Ghostbusters represents “Again”—the ambiguous, utopian time period when America was great. Let’s make America great AGAIN! Like back to 1984 (stop it) when men could be idiots, bring mass destruction onto a city because of their own carelessness, literally suck the life out of a woman, then save the day and get a hefty round of applause. Again!

And here is the thing that matters. If a group of women playing the fucking Ghostbusters causes a stir, even a slight ripple that gently laps at the edges of our cups of comfort, then women still have considerable ground to cover. In Virginia Woolf’s 1931 speech turned essay, “Professions for Women”, she states, “Even when the path is nominally open—when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant—there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe, looming in her way.”

I will let that linger. For just a moment.

These women were hired as actors to play ghostbusters in a summer blockbuster movie. They got the job. The path is open. And I am going to assume that by the end of the film, the ladies annihilate a shit ton of ghosts. The ghosts will be visible and thus able to be taken down with their powerful jet pack streams. But they are still battling phantoms, and as Woolf adds, “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality.” Anytime a woman takes on a task and is questioned about her ability to perform effectively because of her gender, the phantoms are circling. This conversation reveals them like dust in a beam of sunlight. Perhaps, if we work together—cross our streams—we can dismantle a few of these obstacles.

I don’t go to the movies often because I have better things to do, like working on my next hangover, but I will set aside time and fifty dollars to take my kids to see this movie. I want them to know that women can be used as pawns in the capitalist game just as well as men. And I want to teach them that men don’t have a monopoly on humor. Women are funny. They can play the lead. And they can destroy the fucking phantoms.

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Self Portrait as My Traitor

“The work of all women writers is jeopardized when individual female authors are taken to task for the content of their writing.” –bell hooks from Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work

Two months before I filed for divorce, I published an essay titled Match.com (later published in The Funny Times in November 2013). In the essay, I consider Martha Stewart’s foray into online dating, and I suggest that her profile and her appearance on talk shows where she would actually meet with men who responded to her—men with gilded silver hair who looked like they were fresh off the golf course—was all just a publicity stunt for her new book. I noted that I was a married woman who was “not necessarily looking”, but I suggested that most likely neither was Martha. At this time, my marriage was in the process of being declared a federal disaster zone. Aerial footage would show our marital home as a pile of tiny splinters, cars turned upside down, trees pulled up to expose their enormous red clay packed roots. As a former inhabitant, all I could do was stare at the aftermath. I knew everything was gone. It was over. But I did not know where to start in an effort to move forward.

I approached the Match.com essay the way I approach most essays, with a problem. As I considered the issue through the mock profile, I came to the conclusion that what I really needed was for someone to accept me despite all my flaws. Much like Martha Stewart’s Match profile, my fake one was not about going on any real dates, it was a way for me to explore what it would take, realistically and comically (often bedmates), to fix that unhappiness.

My ex-husband “discovered” the essay during our divorce process and tried to use it against me. He wanted that essay to serve as evidence that I was cheating on him before I filed for divorce. He wanted my writing to be an exposé of my character. He also just didn’t get it, which is why he never had an interest in reading my work in the first place. I rarely shared my writing with him because he did not like that version of me. That version that is in my own words. That version where I am in control of how I am perceived. He wanted to see me in a certain way, and the honest accounts of my life and my perceptions stood in opposition to his version of how he wanted me to be.

It is also about control. Using my writing as a way to call my value systems into question is a way to revise me and to alter the meaning of my words. It is also an issue that adds bricks to the immense wall of gender bias. More recently, I have been taken to task by my employer for the essay I wrote called Some Bunny to Love. As a woman—as a mother—there are ways that I should act. Adrienne Rich describes how her poetry writing suffered after the birth of her first child because she was worried that if she appeared unhappy in her work, if there were “periods of null depression or active despairing” then she could be deemed some type of monster (I published an essay about this in September 2012). Of course, Rich had her children in the 1950s, but it seems we are still persecuting women for their honest commentary. bell hooks warns:

“Critics will exercise the power to publicly judge and morally condemn the subject of women’s writing when it transgresses the boundaries of conservative convention and mainstream decorum.”

Depending on where the female author resides, the boundaries of conservative convention can usually be stretched to blanket almost anything, especially if related to female sexuality—unless the works are capitalist blockbusters, like Fifty Shades of Grey, then that is okay because it is about the economy, stupid. Oh wait, and about a man sexually dominating a woman.

There is an Afterword that Vladimir Nabokov added to the 1956 edition of Lolita titled, “On a Book Entitled Lolita” that has always interested me. I find value in reading an author, especially one such as Nabakov, reflecting on his work in his own words—it is the Inside the Actor’s Studio of my field. Also, this afterword is where we get such moments of inspiration like his declaration that “reality” is “one of the few words that mean nothing without quotes.” But what has attracted me the most from this short essay is his discussion about what inspired him to write Lolita. He simply provides this anecdote:

“As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

I interpret this passage to mean that sometimes, if we look through another’s eyes, we may not like what we see. What we see could leave us haunted. This certainly applies to Humbert Humbert because this book—to me—is mostly about the contradictions, nuances, and shock of first person narration. This small revelation from Nabakov, tacked on at the end of one of the most morally disputed novels in the canon (because it does still make it in—resolutely inside the academic tower), can be applied to the work of female authors, especially those of us who are autobiographical. As I share my experience, it may stand in opposition to how I am expected to act. Think. Feel. When a reader peers out from my eyes, he may not like what he sees. It is like viewing a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Each artist has her own bars of the cage and when depicted honestly, it just might make people squirm.

I aim to write authentically about the myriad of experiences that constitute my life, most often my personal life (or lack thereof), my role as a remedial parent, and my career as a writer. A recurring theme for me is writing about what it is like to be a single woman with two kids in a small southern town, and how that can make it difficult for me to find love. I am also a romantic, which is a real cockblocker. I recently took an online quiz to determine which Shakespeare story best matches my love life. Of course I got Romeo and Juliet. The advice I take from this important and real diagnosis is that I have unrealistic expectations, and I should go directly to the nearest apothecary so I can be put out of my misery. That is what cages me. I have nobody to blame for the fact that I have struggled to find a suitable partner—someone intelligent and kind, and not to be greedy, but also a sense of humor. And I would like to be pretty damn close to as important to him as the sun. And it would be great if he has a yacht or a helicopter or both (ISO someone with a helipad), and he should be a sommelier.

Although I love to employ humor, both in my writing and as a defense mechanism, the truth is that being alone is a major part of my life. Most nights after I put the kids to bed, I wish I had a hand to hold on the couch. In the house we have rented for the past two years, I have only had two men spend the night. One was a man I dated this past winter, and we spent time together here on a weekend when my kids were with their father. The other was a man I dated long distance for almost a year, and then he lived with us for four months. We created a happy but somewhat artificial semblance of a family life, based on a real and deeply rooted friendship, and I will never regret that time. My children laughed with him and through that experience I was able to see how generously they are able to love—without spite or jealousy or loss of feelings for their own father. They can love exponentially and that made me immensely proud.

As a woman—an educated, independent woman—I am not supposed to be sad because I am single. I cannot be the Julia Roberts character from Knotting Hill and say that I am just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her (I have learned this the hard way). I am supposed to just be amazing and live each day as if I can actually do this on my own and hope that the right person will show up when I am not looking, or when I am having a bad hair day (never going to happen). But I have never been good at doing what I am supposed to do. I am a rebel. And I will not be silenced. According to bell hooks, “Given the power of censorship and antifeminist backlash we should all be insisting that women writers continue to resist silencing.” My resistance comes in the only form I know: to just keep writing.

My craft is humor writing, and I have carved a decent niche in a difficult genre. Humor writing cannot be riddled with clichés. It has to be fresh. It must evoke recognition of shared experience but with a twist that reveals something more—perhaps something more sinister, more extreme, or even more pathetic. It has to grab people to arouse laughter. I employ a voice in my humor writing that is dangerously honest. She puts the elephant in the center of the room and decorates it with garlands of daisies and daggers. Through the process of creative expression, I am more able to accept my flaws and love myself just the way I am, which is all I have ever asked of those around me.

My ex-husband’s attempt to use the Match.com essay against me during the divorce was not the first or the last time I have been taken to task for the content of my writing. And I have no doubt that the last time will occur only after I stop writing all together. What I have to take away from this is that my writing must actually matter. People are paying attention. And there is something I am doing that is rattling the cage.

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bell hooks’ work is from her book Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work published by Holt and Company in 1999.

Adrienne Rich’s ideas about the intersection of writing and motherhood is from her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” published in College English in 1972.

The excerpt From “On a Work Entitled Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov is from “Lolita” on iBooks, Second Vintage International Edition published by Vintage Books. https://itun.es/us/FRlez.l

 

Asshole Matrix

Because I have a voice . . .

I recently watched a video where a man, with a gun in a holster on his hip, explained his guide to women using what he likes to call the hot crazy matrix. The chart looks like the basic graph that would be shown in an economics class: there are two axes, one for a woman’s level of crazy and another for how hot she is. The crazy axis starts at a four because all women are at least somewhat crazy. The hot axis is a standard scale of zero to ten, but according to the expert, any woman who is below a five on the hot scale is a “No go.” The key is to target women at the appropriate level of hot to crazy. She should be between a five to seven crazy and above an eight hot.

After watching this informative video, I came up with my own matrix for men called the “has a pulse to asshole matrix.” My asshole axis starts at a four because there is no such thing as a man who is not an asshole unless he is dead, a little baby, or has downs syndrome. The has a pulse axis is simply from 0 to 1. Either a man has one or he does not. The key then is for women to find a man who is both alive and relatively low on the asshole scale. This matrix does not have a “No go” zone, but it does have a “Regret and shame” zone that exists whenever a woman dates anyone who is above an eight for asshole. This generally includes guys who work for Merrill Lynch, many members of the NFL, and guys who make charts generalizing women based on a hot to crazy matrix. Above a ten for asshole is the “getting the shit beat out of you in an elevator” zone and the “getting shot while you are in the bathroom” zone, which women should certainly try to avoid.

Finding a man with a heartbeat—even if it is irregular or even if he is in some kind of chemically induced coma—who is also between a five to seven for asshole is a difficult task, but we must be diligent. Of course, this only applies to women who are above an eight for hot and between a five to seven crazy, the rest of you can just stay home with your 27 cats and your poster of Corey Haim because you are not even eligible. Men who are only assholes half the time are there ready to date us, and to under appreciate us, and to leave us with more than our fair share of the housework, and to get paid more for doing the same job. They are there to decide our value based on how we look and to label us “crazy” when we fail to be complacent to their terms. However, since all men can easily be categorized using a two-dimensional chart, we now have the knowledge we need to get up on that sweet, sweet action, and if we pay close attention and stay in the target zone, they might not even beat/rape/murder us.

asshole matrix

The penis represents the asshole/has a pulse line. It is your responsibility, as a woman, to keep this line in mind and to make smart choices. Men can’t be expected to do this, so you might not want to wear a low-cut tank top or a short skirt unless you want this line inside you.

Going Down Swinging

I started writing about Monica Lewinsky earlier this week when I first heard that she was speaking out in the June issue of Vanity Fair, before I even read her article. I had been writing a piece about Chelsea Clinton, post-baby news, but I was unable to find the heart of my story. I had a good one liner, “Sometimes I wish my inner Chelsea was a little bit more Clinton and a little bit less Handler,” and a funny bit about my family being a long line of Roger Clintons. I also noted that my dad never had sex with an intern, but only because no one in their right mind would have ever given him an intern.

Al I could really get at was that I had nothing in common with Chelsea. She never chose to go the rebel route. She is the perfect daughter: going Ivy League, working for their foundation, marrying the right kind of guy, getting pregnant at the perfect moment for positive family publicity. She wears the pantsuit well. Making a contrast between us was arbitrary at best. Then Monica poked her head up from under the proverbial desk, and I shouted, “Eureka!” Well maybe I didn’t shout, maybe I just grabbed my phone and started scribbling notes, mostly about how she was collateral damage, even the feminists left her stranded—they saw her on the beach, waving her blue beret in the air, HELP etched into the sand, and they barely winced as they kept scanning their binoculars out over open water. Nothing to see here folks, just a bright young intern who was trampled by the male-dominated political machine. How could feminists reconcile supporting her and attempting to rescue a well-liked, feminist-leaning democrat? I always thought of her as someone who must have felt deeply isolated.

When the article was released in the digital edition, I downloaded it and devoured her story. It is insightful, well-written, and charming. It also made me sad. She begins by recalling a scene where she was asked by an interviewer for an HBO documentary how she felt about being “America’s premier blow-job queen.” She uses the scenario to demonstrate how humiliated she was, for herself, for her entire family and then addresses her present reader, “It may surprise you to learn that I am actually a person.” She admits that what she needed back then and never received publicly was, “good old-fashioned, girl-on-girl support.”  I was also happy to see her speak out about the relationship itself, refuting the blow-job-only narrative and describing her relationship with Clinton as more fully evolved, and bravely confessing that from her point of view, “It was an authentic connection, with emotional intimacy, frequent visits, plans made, phone calls and gifts exchanged.” Her description of a relationship between two human beings runs completely counter to the widely held narrative of her as an almost inanimate object perched beneath a desk—the white-collar man’s glory hole. I can think of few examples that place a woman so squarely in the position of object as the story of Monica Lewinsky.

Lewinsky and I are the same age and when the story broke in 1998, I remember being stunned that someone my age was actually working in the White House. I was very busy failing out of community college and not showing up for my job as a courier for a law firm. I was later replaced by a much more reliable and less smart-ass fax machine. I recall her interview with Barbara Walters, and her appearances on SNL, playing herself next to John Goodman’s more memorable Linda Tripp. She was trying to tell her story, but the only outlets available were always based on her as a sexual token. Her story was a running blow job joke. I didn’t question her decision to retreat into silence. All these years, I hoped that she was sitting back somewhere receiving royalties and speaking out about the benefits of keeping up with the laundry. I also thought that we, as a country, moved on, like even possibly evolved.

Unfortunately, my optimism was squelched. Lewinsky describes her difficulty in landing jobs because of the possible negative publicity that it could bring to potential employers. She also describes how she is recognized every single day. This made me pause to consider the gravity of her position as “That woman.” The idea that people recognize her based on what she did behind closed doors is like an entire life led doing the walk of shame—eyeliner smeared down to the cheeks, high heels in the daylight, a thong in the purse—but it isn’t just a nosy neighbor that sees her, like the old lady that lives next door and probably hasn’t been laid since the Carter administration, it is everyone. Everyone in America. All the time.

My biggest issue with the Monica Lewinsky story is that it is the “Monica Lewinsky” story. It is clearly her shame on the line and not Bill Clinton’s—he is more beloved now than ever. He is a philanthropist. He is the explainer-in-chief. He is resilient. Lewinsky was not the one who was married. She was also not responsible to the American people. He had considerable more responsibility to any sense of morality, and he was the one who got off. She was very possibly attracted to the most powerful man in the world. Maybe she was flattered that this man showed her attention—maybe she was motivated by actual feelings of attraction, and she acted on them, with his approval and assistance, at the least, and much more likely with his urging. The issue is the hypocrisy inherent in her carrying the burden of shame, while he carries the badge of virility.

Lewinsky was twenty-two when she was first reportedly sexually involved with President Clinton—when I was twenty-two I would have had sex with almost anyone. Thanks for buying me that beer! Thanks for delivering this pizza! Thanks for leading our country out of a recession! Her story reminds me to be thankful that I was nailing losers. In her article in Vanity Fair, she repeatedly calls her affair with Clinton “consensual,” which is important because the only female that could be more vilified and objectified than one who gives blow jobs under desks (the slut) or most certainly does not give blow jobs under desks (the wife) is the woman who claims she was sexually assaulted (the opportunist). There is a box within this framework where all the women can be neatly placed and handled accordingly. When it really comes down to it, women were the real losers in this scandal. Women got nothing out of it—the entire situation was one big metaphoric blow job.

bench shot

 

Abort Mission

Sometimes I worry about sharing too much with my writing. Maybe because recently people have warned me by saying things like, “You should be more careful about revealing who you are,” or “You should probably get a lawyer.” Sometimes I worry they are right, and then I am overly self-conscious and my writing loses the cold shock that tends to make it strong. Today instead of writing I opened files and rearranged sentences on old pieces that have failed to take shape.

Then I played with a list of metaphors on scraps of yellow legal pad paper:

Inadequacy is a Boy Scout tent in the yard of a mansion.

Censorship is an old woman who refuses to put in her hearing aid.

Desire is a hungry alligator sunning in the soggy grass, eyes fixed on my quickening pace.

Impatience is engines revving. Boom. Backfire.

Then I went on Facebook for about an hour. Then I thought about how I would be represented if I were a set of Russian nesting dolls. I decided that my outermost doll would be Dorothy Parker with a typewriter, then a Wonder Woman doll in spandex standing with hands on hip, then Phyllis Diller with a slender cigarette, then Amanda Bynes in a platinum wig, then a Nick Nolte mug shot doll, and then the innermost doll would just be a naked fetus smoking a crack pipe.

Terrifying. Back space. Back space. Back space.

Then I remembered that this week marks the twenty-first anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I felt a writing spark ignite—I rubbed my hands together gleefully, the way a mad scientist might when he realizes the monster he created is out there destroying entire villages. I have never had an abortion. Not because I was chaste, but because my mother, who found out she was pregnant with my sister during her first semester at the University of Georgia, stressed that the most important thing in my teenage life was not getting pregnant. She even took me to a male gynecologist when I was in high school—and still a virgin—so I could get birth control. I did not have a boyfriend or any reasonable prospects, but she thought I should be prepared for when that special day arrived, or that night when I just wanted to get it over with so I had sex with a boy I sort of liked on a picnic table.

The doctor took me into his office and asked me about my sexual history. It made me uncomfortable that this old man even knew that I had a vagina. I certainly did not want him asking me questions about what I had ever done with it. I still used maxi pads. I had no clue what was going on down there. After our terribly awkward conversation the nurse walked me down the hall and left me alone in the exam room to change into a gown. I considered crawling out of the shoebox-sized window above my head. I stood up on the chair and peeked out into the parking lot. I tapped on the glass and then hoisted up one leg to see if I could reach. I couldn’t. I hopped down and put on the paper gown with the opening towards the front.

Without birth control—preventive and reactive, accessible, affordable, and shame-free—we have no control. If we are kept fearful of unwanted pregnancy then we are sexual prey, caught in the yellow-eyed gaze of the hungry gator. Birth control is the front line of women’s rights. Somehow, I did not get pregnant until I was thirty years old and ready. This is why my career has never suffered because I have kids. Wait. This is why I have never been criticized for sexual behavior. Wait. This is why I am in complete control of my body, my sexuality, my life. Wait. This why being a woman is complicated.

I want to be fearless, but I often feel that I have to be careful about what I put forth in writing because I am a woman. Because I am a mother. I am not supposed to write about my tits (or how nice they are). I am not supposed to write about sleeping with someone on the first date (or before, most likely). I am not supposed to keep mentioning maxi pads (or the liberation I experienced when I started using tampons, except for that one time after going on a water slide). Maybe I write about these things because they allow me to play outside the neatly wrapped box of what I am supposed to be. If my voice is not heard—the voice that sees the line of what is acceptable and then backs up, revs the engine and fishtails across it—then I risk being silenced.

If I were to get an abortion the expectation is that it would be the biggest regret of my life. Even when women are granted access to legal, safe abortions, the act itself is still perceived as shameful. Bad. Disturbing. That maintains order. But what if women had complete control of their bodies, freely, readily across the globe? What if my Russian nesting dolls went in reverse? What if women’s bodies were not valued by how many times they were exposed? Order would be disturbed. An earthquake would split the ocean floor and a tsunami would crash onto shore, turning buildings into splinters. Disrupting misogynistic empires. Toppling patriarchal norms.

What if I felt free enough to write whatever the fuck I want?

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