An Engineering Problem

Crochet is an interesting beast.  I eschewed this art for many years because it smacked of femininity, and because my great aunt used to make these gods-awful crocheted toilet paper-cozies in shades of honey mustard and vomit, with a plastic cheapo doll body protruding from the top.  See, the cozy was supposed to be her dress skirt.  As a child it disturbed me, “What happened to her legs?!”  Nightmares of dismembered women in vomit colored dresses were soon to follow.

My grandmother knitted some.  Not much, but some.  Enough to gift me some knitting needles, to teach me to knit and purl, and set me about the task of making headbands in solid shades of scratchy acrylic.  Everything was red or ecru.  I came to loathe these colors.

Knitting and crocheting seemed time wasters for old ladies who had nothing better to do than make ugly doilies.  Most of the patterns I’d find in the yarn sections of craft stores confirmed this: bulky monstrosities in Christmas green rife with pompons and stupid ducks.  Who in their right mind would ever make these things?  Give them as gifts?  Be caught wearing them?

But stroll by the windows of any boutique clothing store, and there were sheer lace vests in rust or teal or sunflower, sweater coats of mohair in the same soft grey of a baby bird.  I’d go in knowing the price tag was absurd.  I’d look at the interlocking patterns of yarn, and wonder.  Someone designed this.  It was made.  I’d run my fingers over the material, knowing it was knit, knowing how the sleeves were stitched on, but marveling at the drape of the cloth, the absence of any other seams.

I grabbed a crochet hook one day, this clunky size Q, in order to make some plastic bags into a thing other than landfill stuffing.  I think hard about materials, about how to minimize waste.  My grandmother lived through the Great Depression, you know.  I’m a New Englander, after all.  I’m GREEN, dammit, look at the color of my hair!  After looking up a basic single crochet stitch and turning all the bags in the house into a series of strips tied in loops end to end, I managed to knot out a number of garden mats to save my knees while digging in the dirt.  So that’s crochet.  And I began thinking about mohair sweater coats vs. toilet paper cozies.

There are actually quite a few yarn shops in Tallahassee, it turns out.  The first one I crept into, I felt rather small and mouse-like.  This is not my usual thing, you see.  I tend to feel more comfy in a wood shop, even just dicking around.  It’s the drill press, the wood lathe, the table saw, you see.  I’ve known them intimately since childhood.  Yarn smacks of girliness.  And newness.  I hate being new and foolish and girly about things.  But when I started looking, I realized this was nothing like the yarn baskets my grandmother and great aunt kept.  The walls here were dominated by natural fibers in bold gashes of fuchsia, dandelion, aqua, and a thousand gorgeous shades of green.  I talked a while with the owner, learned the shop was closing permanently, and skittered out bearing three skeins of worsted wool yarn that meandered through the shade of spring’s best new leaves to royal purple and ended in magenta.  I had no idea what I was going to make with this.

Even still, I grew my collection: fragile airy crochet thread of unforgiving cotton, smooth balls of bamboo/silk mix, and ever more hanks of bright wool: sock weight, fingering, sport yarn, and abundant loose bulkies.  It was in my third shop, Wooly Bully, that I was able to pick up, feel and begin to identify yarns: this is mohair, this angora, here’s a cotton/acrylic blend.  It took a bit of help, but I was starting to understand it with both eyes and fingers.  It was in this shop, with the proprietor’s mother, that I was able to finally feel like myself, wondering aloud about tensile strength, bulk of finished product, asking questions about how to match texture to application.  I began thinking of these things in terms of engineering and materials science.  It became a beautiful question of geometry and the physical properties of my material.  All that fear of so-called girliness— which is actually a fear of perceived irrelevance and disdain from others— had evaporated.

After we’d discussed the use of odd fibers, raffia, hemp cord, stripped computer wire, she encouraged me to continue doing what seemed most natural: build the stash, play with textures, increase my knowledge that way.  Savage my test swatches.  Stress test them.  I can’t say it hurt that we started discussing yarn bombing and science fiction.

And I realized as I walked out of the shop that the last time I’d felt so at home with learning a skill was when I watched my father turn wood into cabinetry, wood into work benches, wood into objects I recognized day in and day out.  My father, who approached these things as an engineer.  I was suddenly interested in this beast.

But there’s one loose end still to attend to. I needed yarn the color of honey mustard and vomit.  To make a bag.  You know.  In case I ever find the missing legs of those TP cozy dolls.

Naiveté

Until this weekend, I had never let a stranger buy me a drink. It’s not that it hasn’t been offered on occasion, but rather that I am at least smart enough to know the vague sexual contract that drink buying can but does not always imply. I’d rather not deal with such uncomfy-making things.

I am also a junky for new experiences, large and small. So on St. Patrick’s Day, after a guy elbowed me in the head, I said yes to letting him buy me a drink. He asked me what I was drinking, and I answered “hard cider.” I quickly lost track of him in the crowd.

A little later, he approached me again and asked, “Can I buy you that drink?”

To which I replied, “Yeah, sure. Whatever.”

“You have to come with me, though.” Hmmm.

So I followed him to the bar. He asked for my number (“may I have the honor of getting your digits?”) before ever getting my name, and then introduced himself. Apparently, he was on tour with some hardcore band, and was only in town for an hour or half hour longer, then off to Orlando and from there another state. At least, that’s what he said. I countered with my fair share of lying, placing myself as a local who lived a ways away— hell if I was going to let him know I lived around the corner.

He asked for a kiss. I was okay with that. I kissed him. And then he pressed me for a place to go have sex.

“Oh honey, I’m not sure you want that.”

He insisted. (“I’ll call you a cab.” “What about my vehicle?” “We can have sex in your car.” “My car is a bike.”) So I tried to scare him off with the “I’m freakier than you can handle” defense (I’ve had mixed success with it in the past), which— lo and behold!— backfired. He was unfazed by spanking, bondage, humiliation, or feminization.

“We have to go find somewhere to have sex right now!”

This was the exact situation I did not want to be in. Horny guy who had “accidentally” bumped into me in order to talk to me, who had the very clear notion that a purchased drink means he’s getting laid, even though he’d done me an injury. All the little controls? Likely in the pick up scene. Okay. I could deal with that. I looked him dead in the eye wearing my best impish grin, and handed him back the cider.

“Enjoy your drink.”

And I proceeded to rock out for the rest of the evening.

Perspectives on (Not) Procreating

I have for years known that I don’t want kids. I have for years whined, moaned, complained, and griped about the injustice of the medical industry, denying the agency of women who want sterilization under the pretense of “oh, you’ll change your mind.” Only for women under a certain age. Because it’s for their own good. Because, y’know, they’ll regret it. And thus, I have for years gone to many a doctor, asked about tubal ligation, and been laughed at (literally), patted on the head (metaphorically), and told that I don’t know what I’m talking about (literally).

Then this magical thing happened. I hit 30. I went to see the doctor yesterday. And I discovered that all the resistance had melted away. 30 is apparently that special the age when women become adults.

The doctor didn’t ask me about why I wanted to be sterile. He didn’t ask if I had a boyfriend or a husband, or what I would do if I changed my mind. He just assumed I knew my mind. This was novel.

I’d say that maybe this isn’t so much a case of age-based discrimination, that maybe I’d just found the right doctor, except… he had that cringing look on his face when he thought I was in my 20s. Except I brought up that I had wanted the procedure for 10 years, and he replied that the resistance was likely because there is such a high rate of patient regret. Except on my way out he made a comment, a joke, about me being 30 meant I was a grown-up now.

Now I’ve done my research. Regret? I’ve seen widely varying numbers, but even the highest (see the section on “Long-Term Complications”) have it only at about 1/4 of patients expressing regret, with the average being closer to 1/10, controlling for all factors.

And the adulthood joke? Harder to interpret. I have to admit, it was well-placed, as jokes go. I’d like to look at it as a comment on how our society views younger folk as kids. In a lot of ways, American culture doesn’t let people grow up until our 30s, anyway. 25? You’re still just a kid. A kid who can legally enter contracts, mind you, but a kid all the same.

I know that when I was 25, I knew my birth control options. I knew oral contraceptives worked my system over in the worst way, and that doctors wouldn’t put an IUD in for me. I knew that Depo Provera was scary being yet another hormonal birth control, and one I wouldn’t be able to discontinue if I had the same problems that presented themselves while taking oral contraceptives. And then there was the fact that no one would believe: that I knew I didn’t ever want kids.

Well, I am finally getting my way. By my next post, I will be well on my way to having occluded fallopian tubes, scar tissue forming blockages due to feathery little inserts in tiny cages in what look like coiled metal springs. Yay, Essure! Yay, technology!

But it feels like a pyrrhic victory. I still had to wait. And wait. All those pregnancy scares, all those horrid hormones placed in my body to finally get to this point. It doesn’t seem fair, especially not when I knew what the outcome would be 10 years ago. I was sure then, too.

Touching Base

At the Gold Cosmetics kiosk in the mall, I watched a man in a beige suit sit still, relaxed back in his tall chair as another man in a polo daubed potions and poultices onto his face. He had that peaceful look written on his brow that only comes when someone is enjoying being cared for as the kiosk clerk fussed with the creams and lotions.

Seeing this, I felt my own tingle of relaxation, but the scene struck me as odd. I like watching people make contact with one another. I like it when people touch me, for the most part. With permission. When a friend brushes my hair. When I get a massage. Those instances seem so rare. What was odd about the scene before me was that the recipient was male.

By social rules in the U.S., it seems that women are allowed to touch one another far more often than men are. Hugs between women are normal. The hand laid on the shoulder, or on top of another hand.  The thought of a woman at a spa doesn’t cause an eyelash to bat.  But men?  When do you see a man go to spa, and there is no comment?  It happens, yes, but there is a bro-ish commentary that occurs before it’s okay, devaluing dude’s masculinity.  Because massages are gay.  Touch is always sexual.  A hug must be mannishly justified.  Cuddling is only for enjoying within the confines of a heterosexual relationship, and even then, the man shouldn’t actually enjoy it, And in the public sphere, you pay for touch, for human contact.

And beyond that, many such interactions are transactional: the haircut, the massage, the day at the spa, the manicure. We pay to be touched and pampered. And most of these transactions are available only to women, because we’ve constructed them as feminine things, because we’ve culturally cut men off from the need for contact. When men pay for certain types of contact? The reaction is swift: they’re obviously gay.

I maintain that contact is a human need. Even if we section off types of physical contact into pre-approved boxes, even if we define manliness as a rugged island on which half the population live in social isolation, it doesn’t take away from the fact we link pleasure with touch, well-being with physically demonstrated care. But cultural change is slow.

Did I think the man pampered at the kiosk was gay? Hell if I know. It didn’t matter. I just enjoyed that tiny voyeuristic high of watching someone receive care from someone else.

Visitable Places Redux

Perhaps it is a bona fide theme. 

Cowlick in her blonde ponytail, aqua blue scrunchy and a tee shirt like a run-mascara watercolor, a smiling girl in gray and blue sliding from the blonde one’s chest. She sits slump shouldered. I find her pretty. But here’s the hard thing for some to hear: I will not speak to her. A passing of equals, we are both on our way, bus-bound to work or school or the mall. We are busy creatures, and I know what it is to feel someone reach in and disturb my reading (she’s reading). She doesn’t want the contact. None of us ever do. It isn’t hard, then, to smile, to nod, to not say a word as she passes, unless she breaks the silence, for something like, “I like your outfit.” And leave it at that.

Is it so hard a thing? That tattooed Latino boy at the bus stop thought so, “You’re a beautiful girl. Can I get your number, call you some time? You got a boyfriend? Husband?” The bearded white guy driving the plumber’s supply truck thought so, stopping traffic to call out, “Hey, you’re pretty. I wanted you to know. Hey! Hey, look at me!”

Look, I am not pretty. I’m small, slump-shouldered when deep in thought, my book held up against the world, my headphones a strategy of isolation. I know these tricks. I use them. So I will say nothing to the blonde with the aqua scrunchy. And she will have a better day because of it.

Though I’m going to have to look for that book.

A Face for Public Consumption

Diced up, any way you slice it. Yeah, that’s the ticket: show me that flank, those corsetted tits. Lady Gaga and Tila Tequila. Katy Perry singing, “I kissed a girl, I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it.” This is the public face of female bisexuality in the good ol’ U S of A… and I hate it.

It’s all a show. That’s what they suspected all along, isn’t it? That all women are somehow for sale, and if bisexual women really do exist, they’re in for an angel’s three-way because they showed up with a cock?

Fuck you, America. Fuck you, world. I did not spend my teenage years in a panic flipping out that I might be a lesbian just to satisfy your desire for female-on-female flesh. A youth in hiding: jumping from boy crush to boy crush to keep my feelings for women at bay, to deny that the erotic dreams I’d wake from sweating were as often about my female peers as the males. To take that anguish and turn it on me with a lecherous grin and a “ur so hawt!” is to equate me with a steak. Or a basketball. Or a cum towel. Fair warning: I have a mean elbow strike, and the last time I checked, towels didn’t hit back.

Conversely, I’m tired, bone-weary of being told that I’m less pure in my feminism for dating men. That if I were really into women, I’d be giving up the dick just like that. That if I really want to date a woman for who she is, this bisexual phase is something I’ll “grow out of.” Condescending correction of the poor misguided young girls isn’t feminism anyway.

No, this is not a thing I’ll “grow out of.” I grew into my sexuality. I grew up and had to unlearn all the tropes—that bisexuals were bad, greedy, dangerous, wrong. I had to stopper my ears to the insults shot from both sides, screaming “dyke” and “liar” and “play thing.” I had to ignore the self-righteous “pity” over my “confusion.” And I have to still the quaver in my voice every time I speak of my orientation, for fear that my mother might hear… because she still doesn’t know. The rest of the world does, but she still doesn’t know.

So I kiss girls. You can’t watch and I don’t tell. I kiss boys. You didn’t ask that time, but the answer’s the same. My sex drive is mine, and it’s not for sale. Go watch a Katy Perry video, perv.

It’s Like a Place You Can Visit

I seethe. Ache, really, an old wound. It’s the unfairness of it, is all. It’s seeing how small bricks and a little bit of mortar can build a cultural edifice. To wit: coffee, an outdoor terrace, a friend. A young man walks by and I comment to my friend about this gent’s scrawny sexy physique. My companion, also male, remarks, “You’re bi; why don’t you ever comment on women the same way?”

I didn’t have to think very long for the answer, because this has been a thing near the forefront of my mind for a long while now. Like a ball tossed: “Because they hear it all the time. It’s an invasion to do that.”

“What? How the hell do you mean?”

I sipped my coffee. “Do you like it when women come up to you, don’t talk directly to you, and comment on your physical appearance?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

“Do people do that while you’re at work?”

“What? No.”

“How about in class?”

“No. That’d just be weird.”

“You’re right, it would be weird. It is weird, and there isn’t a single place where most women aren’t subjected to those kind of comments. For you, it’s an ego boost. It’s a place you can visit, but your ‘real world’ has different rules. For us, we can’t leave it.”

He leaned back, crossed his arms over his chest. “You know, it’s not very feminist to make objectifying comments about anyone.”

“You’re right. And you’d know best, wouldn’t you?” I jabbed out my cigarette.

Thelma’s Gaze

Pop songs from any era are infectious little bastards, I think. There’s a rotation on the local radio station, Clear Channel’s iron grip wearing the same few songs into the three tiny bones of our ears like barbed wire into an oak at the fence line. The 80’s station by me kind of ranges around and plays stuff from other decades. Tonight I was treated to a pair of tunes that make me twitch: “She’s So High,” by Tal Bachman, and “Jessie’s Girl,” by Rick Springfield. They’re catchy, yes, but the “girl” so crooningly sung about in each has no name, no personality– only an appearance and a status. An accessory for desire. I became a little bit frustrated and annoyed, and so went home and played through some of my own music– The Magnetic Fields came up, and I fared no better. And such things wouldn’t be a problem–everyone is the subject of their own story, and everyone else is merely an incidental actor in each other’s tale–except that women are consistently portrayed as faceless objects of desire in so many pop songs, rock songs, hip hop songs sung by men…

And men in women’s songs? They are actors. Often, they are the cause of the pain that many female artists express in song. Listen to Sheryl Crow’s music for many examples. Louise Post’s pains on Veruca Salt’s album “Resolver.” Ani DiFranco sings of strong women, but never that I’ve heard of a faceless sexualized man in her music, though she portrays many an asshole who is distinctly male. Others are perhaps a little more ambiguous.

I realized that this is something that sits uneasily in my mind. I have to shift its weight every now and again, think on it once more. Objectification, when it exists alongside other presentations, when it is shown as one portrayal of many, doesn’t strike me as terrible, because the expectation changes: the objectified party is not bound by that sole image of themselves– there are other models to emulate, other modes in which to exist. In isolation? It becomes the sole example. One is supposed to be like this narrowly defined image, and only this image– there is no other model, no other option to hold up and say, “See? We have all this at our fingertips from which to draw ideas about ourselves and our world’s interaction with those selves.” I think that what is damaging is the way such limited portrayals assign roles. I think perhaps the cure is a proliferation of alternative images.

So I decided to make a list. Lists are nice comforting things, at times. They give a sense of where things stand. This list is a list of all the songs I knew wherein a man was objectified for the female “gaze” (ear?) in a similar way to the literally thousands of songs that pose the reverse. I can only think of four, and three are by the same artist– the third only gains that status by the fact that the covering vocalist is a woman: “State Fair,” “The Olde Headboard,” and “High of Life,” all by Rasputina, and Bow Wow Wow’s recording of “I Want Candy,” by The Strangeloves. This troubles me more. There is a lot of music with which I am familiar, and this is all that comes immediately to mind. There is undoubtedly more out there– do you know any of it? Help me compile this list. Help me take apart these notions and hold them up to the light to see where the holes are. Help me lovingly dissect these notions of portrayal.

Classroom Expertise

“I did a paper on that once.” Words of an expert. Sitting comfortably in a college classroom, this person obviously knows what it’s like to live these experiences, because they “did a paper on that once.”

I am not immune, though the words will come backward out of my mouth, born like hideous beasts of privilege, I remember to tack on, like donkey tails, words that show my lack of experience. I apologize, afterward, for sounding like the pompous white kid. Old habits die hard. I say stupid things.

“I did a paper on that once.” Sati in India. The Aboriginal rights movement in Australia. What do I know from having watched The Rabbit Proof Fence? I know about. I know of. I know really nothing, issues framed in black and white bodies, issues framed around the good or bad wife. They are outside my experience. I live something different.

“I did a paper on that once,” from the safety of the classroom, you did not see. And if you saw, you did not live it (the directed you; that you does not belong to everyone who reads this; that you belongs to some former classmates, some people with whom I lived, to some people whom I’ve not yet met, who don’t understand that there are no universals). No guilt, but fact– we are different, you and I. Of action? Yes, there are things which must be done. Carrying our differences in the light, maybe now we can do with less harm, with our subjectivities disclosed.

Learning to Walk, Learning to Speak

When I was little, I was unafraid to learn things. I didn’t care what people thought of my learning because I didn’t know yet that one was supposed to care. And one is only supposed to care, in this culture, when the “appointed time” for learning is over. I think the reason people say it over and again, that “you’re never too old to learn,” is because the baseline assumption in American culture is that there is a time in one’s life that you are “too old” to learn things, and that people learning things out of their “time” is laughable, or scary, or subversive, or admirable because it is also all of those other things.

I was told by a new love this week that he is completely unintimidated when it comes to learning, to other people, to that which life contains. With a statement like that, one can only hold it in one’s hand, a stone, neither accepting nor rejecting. It does not matter if it is provable, or if his self-image differs from the way he presents himself to the world– the statement itself is powerful.

I had to pause, mid-dinner, and fitfully reflect upon those words. When had I last felt so uninhibited when it came to learning? Since graduating high school, at least, I’ve felt constrained by internal “can’ts.” I can’t learn that, I can’t do this other, I haven’t the background, I haven’t the training, it’s out of my reach. Yes, it was all out of my reach. I had defined it as so, and in this very specific way, my thinking had shaped my reality. By imposing a hurdle where there could have been none, I had stymied my own progress before it even began. This is very different from the idea that “positive thinking” will fix all my problems– I loathe this notion, and its lingering taint in the Pagan community, but that shall have to be expanded upon another time. Instead, this notion is one of thought behind action, of beliefs reflected in the doing and beliefs that shape the doing. If one does not see an option, one cannot take that option.

Why had I for so long slunk about in the dark? I feared what I would look like in the process of learning something new, how I would appear to others who already knew what I was learning when I didn’t yet grasp a concept. I am being disingenuous. I cannot place “fear” in the past tense; it is still there. I still dread this. I still dread the accusations that I don’t comprehend something because I am female, and the implication that I will never be able to simply because of my gender and sex. Bound to this body, battle lines have been drawn even in my learning process. I did not catch the basics as a child because it was thought unimportant for a girl to know; I did not learn it “in my time.” I am older now, and I am a novice: a novice bladesmith, a novice woodworker, a novice with electronics, and a novice in the math that I am relearning. There is a great resistance to my learning– old novices are judged harshly.

To cope with that resistance, I will relearn something else. I will relearn a lack of intimidation. Even if that state is unattainable in its fullness, the attempt itself is valuable: it will cause me to approach learning differently. The difference, then, is in the doing.