Friday, December 3, 2010

Bad Object: Musings from the Periphery of Femininity

I have been a bad object for as long as I have wanted to be a good object. During my preschool years, my sister and I spent a lot of time with the sons of our mother’s best friend at the time. The eldest boy was obviously smitten with my little sister who was closer to his age. I asked him if he thought I was pretty too. He considered my question and after a while answered, “You have a better personality. Sarah is prettier.” (I know, I know, but these are the children of college professors; that is the way he spoke.) A half-decade later, my godfather confided that he would much rather be me than my sister, implying that the benefits of intelligence outstrip the fleeting and superficial magic of beauty.

As an early teen, my best friend Dayle and I spent a fair amount of time with a boy who was 18, an orphan who lived in a garage conversion and had his own car—paltry solace offered in part from a sympathetic aunt and the Social Security Benefits due orphans. While Dayle and I looked nothing alike, we were a fair match on the continuum of beauty for a couple of years when I could still be considered thick, as opposed to chunky. Where I was thick, she was plainer of face. Her hair was a beautiful natural red, but it was thin and lank. My hair was thick and full, but medium brown of no distinction. She was petite with huge boobs. My boobs were huge too, but I was curvy from head to toe, solid, while Dayle was waifish. She was not skinny, but there wasn’t an ounce on her body to spare. I, on the other hand, well, I had not completely puffed up, but you could see it coming—clearly I would either grow 3 inches taller or grow up to be the plumpling I am. The 18 year old was in love with Dayle, and there was nothing I could do about it.

As we aged, Mike had the hots for Dayle, too. Tom wanted Dayle. Keith, the blond guy we met at Pizza Chalet wanted Dayle. Everyone wanted Dayle. Hell, sometimes I wanted Dayle. Some of the guys who wanted Dayle figured out that they would have more undisturbed time with Dayle if they brought along a homely friend for me. Why homely? I don’t know, except that perhaps I have hugely over-estimated my success at being a good object at that time. The friend proffered for my consumption was invariably not only a little chunky, like me, but also, not particularly attractive as a person—neurotic, creepily shy, or damaged in ways that paled to my own. Perhaps I have also underestimated my own damage and its obviousness to others. Maybe what others saw in me was more accurate than the person I saw when I looked inward. But, then I think about the damage my girlfriends carried during those years and know that I was no more or less damaged than any of them. The theory that damage is unattractive just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the girls with the most serious afflictions were often the girls who had boys lined up anxiously awaiting their turn.

The more vulnerable the girl, the more likely the boys were to pursue her, damaged or not. I was not vulnerable. There was nothing soft or inviting about my personality. I made few concessions to modulating my personality for the comfort of male companions. I want to say that my body may have been soft, but my heart was hard, even at 14 years old.  However that isn’t the full truth. I wanted desperately to be wanted, cherished, consumed, devoured, swept away, taken, held rapturously in the embrace of physical and emotional symbiosis. What I was not was accommodating. I did not and did not understand how to conform my behavior or appearance to the narrow bandwidth in which women are supposed to exist. I was a bad object.

Costuming was a problem. Also, I couldn’t get the makeup right. In eighth grade, my mother said I looked like a whore, but before I started wearing the full face of makeup my friends encouraged, they had said I looked too innocent, too much like a little girl with tinted lip balm on a clean face atop fashions my mother helped me select for their timelessness and the tastefully demure impression they were supposed to impart. By the end of junior high, no one commented anymore. The complaints from all quarters died down as I reached a sort of homeostasis. One friend admiringly opined that I looked like a plus size model. High praise that, but not what I wanted to hear. Plus sized models were freaks, freaks no one wanted to make out with in high school where I was headed. I had finally gotten it right: I fit snugly into a cultural role, but it was one that wouldn’t get me the results I wanted. Teen aged boys aren’t interested in plus sized models. Very few full grown men are interested in plus sized models. I had managed to fail upward, but I was still failing. More than costuming and cosmetics, the problem, clearly, was my body. My body was wrong.

Unfortunately, even then, I knew that the bodies of all women are wrong. None of us could be skinny enough. None of us could have breasts large enough, and if they were large, they weren’t pretty enough. None of us could have buttocks free of cellulite and fill out a pair of jeans nicely. None of us smelled like summer fields of newly mown grass. We looked like normal girls with pussies that smelled like pussies.

That knowledge made it easy to say, “Fuck it” and become a punk rocker. My friend Laurie cut off all my permed curls in the lounge of our alternative and experimental education program one high school afternoon. When I came home, my mother cried, “You’ve ruined yourself!” Apparently, plus sized model had been good enough for her. Teen aged boys aren’t particularly interested in Goth queens either, but the power inherent in being vaguely intimidating can be more intoxicating than the power inherent in being desired, especially when being desired is a rare occurrence and being intimidating can be a comforting and consoling constant.

Ruin is an interesting concept in the world of the failed object. Existing in the narrow bandwidth of culturally acceptable female self-presentation often means (or meant in the early ‘80s) avoiding looking or acting like a bad woman, a slut, a whore, a woman unsure of her own worth. Conform because the person you emerged from childhood being is incorrect, but be confident in the new person you present, even though she is, at best, a sock puppet with yarn hair and smeared pink lipstick hastily pulled on when the rules changed. I was already “ruined” in my own mind at 13 because the person I knew as myself was inadequate. However, I was not yet “ruined” in my mother’s mind because I was a virgin and was still presenting the scrubbed face, soft curls, and daintily dressed girl child she felt was appropriate to my age. No one was sophisticated enough at the time to emphasize the only socially and personally useful concept lurking underneath all of these rules: self worth.

My godfather tried to explain the connection between self worth and sexuality through stories: When he would go on leave in the Army, he and his friends would always try to find the ugly girls so they could score easily. Before that, playing on the rooftops in Brooklyn, he and his cousin would play with the boobs of a neighborhood girl who, amazingly, would let them. And this signaled an insecurity in her that they exploited. He felt bad about that looking back.

The combination of demeanor and costuming that signals self worth has escaped me in every context save church and office, where the uniforms are easy to mimic. Demeanor I’ll have to get back to you on…still working on figuring out how to be sexual but not desperate, how to desire and still invite desiring. Sort of.

I do want to be “diminished” by the ogling stares of strangers. When I was 13 or 14, I had a French terry cloth shorts set in a coral-tinged pink. The cloth clung to my body. The t-shirt had a deep neckline, and the shorts were short. I would change into this outfit after school and mount my new ten-speed to ride down Olive Avenue to the construction sites just before Teracina Street. I sat up straight as I pedaled past the construction site. The workers whistled appreciatively. I went back again and again. I was a good object in that moment: They wanted to fuck me. Unfortunately, I knew enough to know there was something wrong with full grown men who wanted to fuck 13 year old girls, even if the 13 year old in question could pass for 20 in the right light, with enough atmospheric perspective to blur her still baby face. 

That self-consciousness is part of being a bad object. Consciousness of one’s attractiveness, of others’ reaction to one’s attractiveness, of the larger cultural context of attraction and desire is fundamentally counter to being a good object. Guilelessness is what is needed. Guilelessness is one of the reasons some people go searching for “barely legal” porn or purchase “schoolgirl” costumes for their female sex partners.

The passive role of desired object is hard to get right. Apparently I’m supposed to be desired while not being degraded by said desire. Everyone should want to fuck me, but no one dare? No that’s the domina. She exists outside these petty rules. Everyone should want to sleep with me, but it should be clear that I am not available? That’s the good churchwoman or wife and mother. That may be the age appropriate role for me now, but it’s kind of boring. Everyone should want to fuck me, but be a little bit unsure of whether or not they would meet my demanding expectations? That’s closer, but not quite it. Be fuckable, but unfucked? Closer still, but still not quite capturing the complete picture. Desired without being complicated by one’s own desire. Lacking guile. Lacking the intellectual means to purposefully inspire lust. One’s attractiveness must be accidental, instinctual, untested.

I left high school convinced that the world of admiring suitors was not one with which I would have any familiarity. When I turned 18, I got my first tattoo, a black heart with a dagger through it. I was hard hearted. Cynical. I assumed that whatever was going on with the hearts of others wasn’t something in which I was going to be able to participate.  I assumed I would be able to fuck other similarly desperate and/or disaffected souls. I went to parties dressed to amuse myself and with no illusions about being able to hookup. It just simply wasn’t going to happen. Sometimes I flirted aggressively, knowing that my overtures were easy to dismiss at best and frightening at worst. I bludgeoned the man-children around me with an adult sexuality born of an encyclopedic familiarity with Penthouse letters.

With almost no real experience, I went years without so much as kissing another person. Then when my need outweighed the shame inherent in possibly failing, I would get as drunk as I needed to be and find someone, anyone. I now know that this pattern of behavior is similar to that of some closeted or uncomfortable gay men, which may explain my deep affinity with gay men. Gay men get me in ways straight men never will.

The getting has something to do with understanding what it is to be deeply, desperately sexual and not be able to effectively deploy that sexuality in the world with any hope of receiving the approval of others. (Undesirable women who have the nerve to still desire reap the rage of men. Our existence is cause for anger. I can piss men off sitting still reading a book, perhaps the more so for having a dim glimmer of what I could be if: If I wore the right clothes, if I lost fifty pounds, if I bothered to wear more than lipstick, if I were younger, if I were myself skinny, dressed by a stylist, and twenty years younger. Otherwise, I am easily ignored. Otherwise, I am invisible.) The getting of me by gay men also has something to do with a particular bearing born of a need for dignity despite the indignities of unmet desire. All of which is to say, John Waters would worship me. David Sedaris might be deeply fond of me; John Wayne would find me distasteful were he alive to pass judgment.

Being a good object ripples across a woman’s entire life, not just her sex life. Being a good object is a moral imperative. Consider those good Christian ladies for whom appropriate clothing, hair, makeup and deportment are part of what it means to be a good Christian lady. For these women, it is important to be desired by not only one’s own husband (which, let’s face it, is shooting ducks in a barrel), but to be desired by most men. Being mildly desired is part of being pleasant and of good cheer. The unstated, and probably unacknowledged, goal is to be desired by all the men at the Knights of Columbus hall, and at the same time put forward the impression that none dare ask. Desired, but unsulliable. Hence the deliciousness of stories like the Marquis’ “Justine.” Hence the anger, playful and good-natured or not, behind such stories and fantasies. The underlying theme being, Oh come on, lady, you know you want it.

[Note: Beloved said that paragraph gives him pause because that underlying theme is part of the thinking that justifies rape.  Yes, it is, but it is also why men have rage about or toward bad objects: all women are responsible for the lust or lack thereof we inspire in others. How we are perceived is our fault as is how people (male people usually) react to that perception. That slippage (being responsible for the reactions/actions of others) is one of the sources of the complexity of BDSM relationships. Who is in power if the passive object is responsible for the psychological state and physical responses of the active subject?]

The imperative that we be good objects and at the same time "not want it," while processing the anger of men over whether we have succeeded or failed (both equally occasions for anger and/or resentment) is a double bind that made me miserable as a young teen. As an adult, playing with that anger consciously is deliciously fun in multiple contexts.

Being a good and moral object means making an effort to conform to societal norms of beauty, but not slipping into the dangerous and threatening waters of the seductive or in any way erotic. When I was a couple of years out from starting my period, my mother was anxious that I style my hair and wear some lipstick before leaving the house. Dark eye makeup and red lipstick, however, made her even more anxious.

Aha! you say, what about the MILF? Thinking naively that you have unraveled my brilliant analysis of beauty bondage. Oh please, get over yourself, I counter. I have spent more time obsessing about this than you have spent in lifetime aggregate styling your hair. The MILF falls under the cleansing male ownership of a husband, and is therefore not sullied. The MILF is not a young single mother in the popular imagination. In the popular imagination the MILF is a middle-aged, married woman of some civic and moral standing in the community. She is the MILF, not that whore who lives up around the corner with her husband. She is the MILF, not that hot piece of ass with the kid. She is the MILF, not my friend with the toddler. MILF is other: she exists in relation to the friends of her own children (and perhaps some of her husband's friends) but the term originated with adolescent boys owning up to their fantasies about some of the mothers in the neighborhood. The MILF is wholesome in her fuckability. It is precisely her lack of overt sexuality that is so titillating. Her tight jeans are accidentally delicious. Her big breasts got that way the old fashioned way, breastfeeding. Her subtle use of cosmetics and carefully pleasant while not the least bit purposefully seductive dress place her in the middle-aged section of the neighborhood occupied by the bespectacled hot nerd girl, who likewise is accidentally hot.

The bespectacled hot nerd girl has a hot bod, but it’s hidden under baggy and practical clothes. Her face is beautiful, but without any makeup it’s hard to distinguish her among her more colorful twenty- and thirty-something peers. She identifies as a mind primarily and does not conceive of herself as particularly attractive. Popular mythology says she’s a ravenous sex fiend when you coax her into relaxing enough to show you the tigress inside her. Her emergence as a popular icon, I would argue, coincides with the emergence of raunch culture. As it has become acceptable in some circles for young women to wear T-shirts proclaiming “Slut” and “Porn Star,” that is, as it has become acceptable for young women to admit sexuality and sexual longing, the hot nerd takes the stage. This is progress, but the hot nerd is still responsible for the actions and reactions of others in ways she shouldn’t be, and her hotness is partly due to her lack of guile.

When I was in school there was much discussion of “rape culture.” I don’t dispute the prevalence of “rape culture,” but I have problems with any political or philosophical rubric in which I cannot, in Trent Reznor’s words, “fuck like an animal” or be fucked like an animal. Nine Inch Nails’ song “Closer” received more tsking and headshaking than it should have back in the ‘90s. The psychological complexity of the song was lost on many. I like to fuck. Five years from now when I am fifty, I expect will continue to enjoy fucking. I am not anti-sex, and want to stress that to question rigid definitions of attractiveness and gender roles is a position far from anti-sex. Rather, I am planting a flag of conquest for all the aging women of questionable attractiveness who nonetheless enjoy a sound rogering, a vigorous fuck, an active sex life.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cracker Barrel: Love Thy Neighbor?

Many years ago, I watched Out in America, an HBO documentary including the profiles of a cold call stockbroker whose coworkers painted a Jolly Roger on the hood of his black sports car, and a woman working in the kitchen of a Cracker Barrel in some backwater state—I want to say Alabama, but it could have been Mississippi or any of those other southern states whose public image is indelibly linked to images of children grinning under the mangled and lifeless guest of honor at a lynching or photos of the car in which civil rights activists were last seen alive. The third profile was of a man who lived in some similar backwater who was murdered because he asked the wrong man for a date. His friends and relatives were interviewed one after the other, alongside a dirt road, in front of a two-pump gas station, or outside the bar in which the greatest number of people last saw the man alive.(

The woman worked for many years as a cook in the kitchen of a Cracker Barrel restaurant. She and her lover were raising a son who attended public school. Cracker Barrel corporate issued a memo delineating corporate policy that no employee of Cracker Barrel could be homosexual as the employee’s sexual orientation or “lifestyle choice” was not consistent with the public image of the corporation as a family friendly establishment. The woman figured the memo wasn’t about her; she didn’t interact with the public. She was back in the kitchen cooking. Her manager interpreted the corporate policy differently. She was terminated. She sued. During the lawsuit, her son suffered exactly the kind of bullying abuse at school one might expect. She eventually won her lawsuit. I like to think she took her money and moved north and coastal.

The documentary must have aired over a dozen years ago, but I haven’t forgotten it. And until recently, I had never eaten at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, despite many road trips on which a Cracker Barrel would have been a reasonable alternative to a steady diet of gas station snacks and Happy Meals.

Visiting Cracker Barrel was a socio-political experiment in expanding my cultural literacy as much as a dining experience, like ordering grits, fried green tomatoes or fried okra in the South. I live in Indiana. There are Cracker Barrels everywhere. This surprises me as much as seeing a Waffle Hut in downtown Los Angeles might. Or a rebel flag hung on the flagpole of a house in Province Town or Fire Island. Indiana was a Union state, and yet rural southern Indiana is dotted with houses whose front porches are hung with Confederate flags. Paddle faster, I think driving past them.

A Confederate flag snapping in the Atlantic breeze above a house on Fire Island. Now, that’s an image! There is no way for anyone encountering such an image to not giggle a little at the incongruity. Like Lee Iacocca and Liz Taylor zipping around on Harleys, a Confederate flag on Fire Island would be ironic; it could be nothing else. It would be a smartass decoration for a hoedown-themed brunch or a wry attempt at annoying despicably self-satisfied and pretentious neighbors. No one in the real world of college degrees and gainful employment takes such things seriously, right?

While watching Sunday Morning a few weeks ago, Beloved huffed in annoyance over the report that a majority of polled Americans do not support the Health Care Reform bill. The poll asked people whether they supported President Obama’s bill. A majority said they did not support the historic reform.  However, of the majority, a large percentage believed the president didn’t push for enough reform: they believed he didn’t go far enough. The newscaster reporting this failed to mention the point that a majority are glad it passed and most of those people think the bill was watered down and should have done more, more not less, to piss off Republicans and corporate interests. 

My beloved said, “This is exactly Bob Cesca’s point!”

Bob Cesca wrote in a recent blog post that America is a left of center country but has been convinced that it is something else.  Cesca argues that various media and polls frame the political debate with the presupposition that to be liberal is to be un-American. The questions asked in polls skew the results that wind up in the news. Bob Cesca opined that what these polls really ought to ask is whether or not the poll participant is a “vaguely gay elitist who hates America.” I said, “Hey! I need that on a T-shirt!”

Beloved said he’d look into getting me a t-shirt, and added, as he does often lately, that we really do live in two countries: one educated and urban, the other uneducated, disempowered and rural. Together, Beloved and I often marvel at the skill involved in convincing that other demographic that the Republican Party is actually on their side. The American Dream (anyone can make it, any Joe the Plumber can hit it rich if he works hard enough, prays hard enough, does what needs doing) is held before the workingman like a sad and withered carrot. Sad and withered!? Sad and withered?!

Yeah. You heard me right. Sad and withered. Sure that stuff happens. People win the lottery. People settle out of court for undisclosed sums. People start with one corner shop and soon have twenty. Oh. Wait. Wal-Mart put all of those guys out of business. Ok, people start with one Taco Bell franchise and buy another and another until they own fifty. Sure. That stuff happens. Far off in the distance, and to someone else. In forty-five years on the planet, I’ve been acquainted with only one person who has gone from something to millionaire in a private jet. Notice he started as something, in this case, a dentist. 

When’s the last time you heard of anyone going from the crap side of Anytown to Central Park East? (Rappers and rock stars don’t count. Athletes either. Why? What percentage of the American population are they? 2 percent? Less than half a percentage point?)

Most of us get as much education as we can (or as we can stand) and vie for the sweet job at the Wal-Mart distribution plant, with City or State government, UPS, Federal Express, the airport, a hospital, or Eli Lilly. That’s the list for central Indiana. Failing one of those, the service economy always needs wait staff and sales people.

Back to Cracker Barrel. Cracker Barrel is decorated nostalgically. The nostalgia is, apparently, for a rural “country” America of a long gone past: low country farm house architecture with a big front porch (like the one in the happy ending of the movie The Jerk), washboards and simple wooden board games (checkers and the golf tee game) that harken back to a time before the era of the high tech. There is no place for a computer in this decorating scheme. Admittedly cash registers are complex pieces of technology, but they don’t scream “digital age” the way an Apple desktop might. Inside the Cracker Barrel, even the registers are concealed behind board and batten siding like that one might find on the side of a barn. A small family farm barn, not the big corporate feedlots and dairy barns that comprise the majority of the beef and milk business nowadays.

The gift shop portion of the store includes children’s clothing, candy, country wall décor and knick-knacks. A large display is devoted to novelty candy in packaging from the first half of the twentieth century. Cracker Barrel is Christian, not spiritual, nor does it cater to any other concept of God. Bill Gaither books and CDs  are displayed for sale, as are Gaither-endorsed china platters and wall hangings. (The menu features Sunday Dinner specials.) Automobile parts—sparkplug boxes, cases of engine oil in early 20th century packaging are displayed in tasteful tableaux on the tops of shelving units in the country store. Cracker Barrel is agrarian: farmer’s popcorn still on the cob is offered for sale, the objets d’art offered are made of cornhusks or decorated with barnyard animals, milk cans of many colors and sizes are used as display receptacles for toy swords and princess wands. Note, though, that this is an imagined agrarian past of bucolic small family farms, not the squalor of subsistence that I would argue exists solely in Appalachia as the only remnant of family farming.

Decorative wall hangings in the dining area include late 19th century portraits of ancestors one can only assume represent the glorious past now Gone with the Wind. (One, having grown up with a Southern mother, would be familiar with the complex set of associations such family objects carry.) Tin advertisement signs for cola and other products from the early 20th century, notably not Coca Cola, but brands that are either fictional or long defunct hang on the walls around diners.

Cracker Barrel is the antithesis of the digital age.  Cracker Barrel is agrarian. Cracker Barrel is nostalgic for an America that existed at least 60 years ago, maybe longer. The oil lamps on the tables touted in a current billboard campaign along Interstate 65 come from a newly industrial America before electricity made it all the way out of the major cities. One of the wall hangings is a sign extolling rural electrification projects. Cracker Barrel imagines a world that is not urban, sophisticated, or by extension, liberal. If Cracker Barrel were a movie set, I would place the setting in the late 1920s and 1930s but the only set dressing that pushes Cracker Barrel further into the 20th century are the nostalgia candies for sale from several decades spanning the middle of the 20th century and the sign for rural electrification. Overall, this is an imagined rural community left behind, blissfully untouched by the complications and stresses of urbanity, technology, and an information age economy.

Cracker Barrel must then serve as a salve and comfort to the masses who identify with this particular brand of Bible Belt hospitality. Somewhere in the meaning of what it is to enjoy dining at Cracker Barrel lays an explanation of why those living far from even the margins of any constituency that could be said to benefit from Republican policy would believe in the rhetoric of the Republican Party.

Policy is not rhetoric. I find it difficult to believe that Cracker Barrel types agree with Republican Policy except where it must coincide with the more craven race baiting and fear mongering rhetoric that wins elections. Is it fair to say that true blue ‘Mericans, These Colors Don’t Run types are vaguely racist and homophobic? Well . . . if we did a full mouth of teeth count among those Americans brandishing sock monkeys at political rallies . . . what would those poll numbers be?

Wait. Sorry. Disrespectful. All too easy for elitist Left Coast me who has always had access to dental care, if not dental insurance, to cast dispersions on those who haven't and don't. What I meant to say is maybe there's a statistical correlation between owning clothing with John Deere or NASCAR logos and having a neck that is slightly red? Sorry. Someone stop me! It's hard to summon compassion for people who frighten us . . . and maybe that's the point here.

What I meant to say was—maybe people who are overwhelmed by late capitalism with its lightning fast processing speeds, its global village of ideologies complicating homespun truths that were once so comforting, its Fox News with constant reminders of which people of color are most frightening this week, its Entertainment Tonight with those horrible drunken lesbian girls flashing their bits and pieces, its Negro Presidents, its fierce competition for good middle class jobs that have evaporated with the fall of the unions—maybe those good, honest, hardworking people who used to be guaranteed a certain place in the world because they and all their friends always had been guaranteed a steady job, a decent home, and a neighborhood school free of the kind of shenanigans going on in those crazy urban neighborhoods—maybe those honest, hardworking people aren’t getting their slice of the American Dream Pie anymore and they’re looking around for someone to blame.

Fox News is already telling them morning, noon and night. Glenn Beck will tell them where blame belongs. Rush Limbaugh will tell them. The PTL Club has been telling them for years. The Republican Party will give a wink and a smile while tapping its toes to the faint strains of banjo music. And when all of that noise gets too loud, they can retreat to a quiet Sunday Dinner at the local Cracker Barrel where they can imagine they live in a small rural town, far apart from the syncopated frenetic rhythms of the big city. They can sit in rocking chairs on a big front porch and smile beatifically at neighbors who are easy to love because they look and act so much like themselves.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

While I've Been Away . . . Virtually

While I’ve been away, I learned to play World of Warcraft, not very well (level 46 Night Elf, a level 10 Troll named GoatEater, and a level 7 Rogue named Wllndorf). My friend, Gamer taught me to play. Away from my friend’s taunting and frequent retorts of “Such a noob!” the snowy world of the rogue is a peacefully quiet, almost meditative environment. Doing quests and running dungeons with the elf is more visually stunning; Elune’s temple and the city of Darnassus are beautifully awash in the colors one associates with airbrushed renderings of Pegasus flying over rainbows, and being able to fly a Hippogryph over an animated ocean as the sun sets over ships docked at Teldrassil is a virtual experience that’s worth making it to level 20 (or maybe that was the prerequisite for getting a “mount”—mine a white saber tooth, which looks like a huge tiger). It is exactly this sort of slipshod attention to the details of the game that most annoys the gamer buddy who introduced me to the virtual world.

Gamer buddy thinks the details of the game lie in gear scores, one’s ability to remember that “stam buff” means Fortitude spell, knowing which characters are able to pick locks. Apparently it is important to have a guild because there are benefits associated with membership. So far, I have only been able to make use of the guild to the extent that I know whom to pair with for dungeon runs based on the guild membership list that includes character levels. (A 46 can’t be paired with an 80 in a random dungeon. No need for despair, Whobbs has offered his services as my tank!)

One night on the docks of Darkshore, a level 80 Night Elf approached my friend and I and chatted us up. We ran a few quests, told a few jokes. My friend excused himself to run a raid, and I was left chatting with Kainis alone on the docks. We “friended” one another in the game. Soon after Kainis checked in with me whenever he saw I was “ingame.”  Which was helpful.

One of the pitfalls of being a “noob” is that finding your way back to the entrance of the dungeon (in which a fire monster, troll, or scarlet zombie monk has just smote you) can be next to impossible, especially if the charming man who has introduced you to the game fails to mention that the little torches leading away from the burial ground will take you directly back to the dungeon. Or maybe, I’m just too big a “lame fail noob tard” to have figured that one out on my own.

Kainis would frequently ask how I ended up in the middle of nowhere (since he could see my location on his friend list), and he would talk me back to the dungeon or the cemetery depending on how much I wanted to continue pretending I knew how to play. (From the cemetery a player can resurrect with the angel who hovers there, transport “home,” and be done with the dungeon run.)

One night I’m playing in a dungeon I’ve never been to before and whose burial ground is in the middle of some crazy desert landscape with cliffs, and I am so lost for so long that my dungeon mates have “kicked” me. Not only am I running around a desert full of monsters who want to kill me, but I have no one to ask for help because once the group “kicks” you, you can’t talk to them anymore. Out of nowhere Kainis messages me: “I see you’re in the middle of nowhere. What are you doing out there? Are you lost again?”

Being the knightly dungeon master that he is, he offers to come to me and help me home. He does find me and leads our toons to the top of a cliff where the toons lie down beside one another and we proceed to talk about the sort of thing single men and women discuss when they find themselves alone under a desert sky atop a cliff. I confess: I talked dirty online with Kainis, which may or may not be his real or assumed name either in real life or in game. 
 “But wait!” you say. “You are not single and the night sky is not real. Further, you are not a night elf, nor are you six feet tall and weight maybe 140 pounds with a huge portion of your total weight being devoted to your gravity defying purple cleavage!”

Cognitive dissonance, I believe, may be the term we’re looking for here. It is and it isn’t. It’s real, but it’s not. It feels real, but it doesn’t count in the same way meeting the real man behind the toon, Kainis, at a hotel midday would count. Or does it?

This may be a quaint confession in the minds of some. Twenty years ago a friend confessed to me that he liked to call 900 number chat lines to masturbate while talking with women who he was fairly certain were middle-aged pros who could no longer support themselves on the street. In my mind, there is a parallel here—anonymity, assumed personas and pretend bodies (every penis huge, every woman beautiful), the gentleman’s agreement inherent in the zipless fuck (that agreement being continued anonymity and emotional detachment), the pay-to-play element of gaming and 900 numbers—and the parallel is unsavory.  I couldn’t take communion the next day because the act of contrition in every mass just didn’t seem adequate to my sin. In my mind, I had been intimate with another man. My husband thought I was being silly.  It’s nothing like actually being intimate, he said; it’s virtual.

Virtual. But it feels real.

My trash-talking gamer friend talks trash on-line like an adolescent boy. Trash Talk, it seems, is the lingua franca of the gaming world, combining entries from The Urban Dictionary website with dozens style assignations. Gamer delighted himself with introducing “me” as “a top into chocolate sauce”—which is not anything you would want to be introduced as (unless your fetishes ran in that direction—think German shitze films, which I feel compelled to note I’ve never seen and in which I have no interest).  My toon fell into the role of providing comic relief: My elf would ask, “Are we talking about ice cream? I prefer chocolate ice cream, no topping, or vanilla with fruit, but I’m really a savory foods person. I like my fat with salt, not sugar” to the virtual howls of my dungeon group.

There are many things I’d never seen prior to entering the virtual world of gaming and gamers. The Internet certainly gets its freak on. Lemon Party, Goatse, and Tub Girl are iconic images of hardcore fetish the savvy send as links to noobs. The unsuspecting open the link and freak out, to the delight of the epic. Lemon Party didn’t freak me out—just seemed like a threesome of middle-aged men enjoying one another’s company naked. I have no judgments about Goatse, but I do worry for him; while it is his body, that can’t be healthy. Something about Tub Girl just doesn’t seem consensual, and that really bothers me, as does the dark video involving a man and a horse in Seattle. I sincerely hope the accompanying news stories are a hoax—otherwise, I have been unwittingly duped into watching a snuff film. My imagination, my sexuality, I don’t run anywhere near as dark as that stuff. If images leave the realm of the consensual and enter the realm of the tragic, I don’t want anything to do with them. Unfortunately, once you’ve seen something, you’ve seen something.

Have I done something though? How responsible am I for the feelings of the man lurking somewhere out there behind Kainis? Is it possible to hurt someone in the virtual world? Am I accountable for the promises my toon makes? I think the answer to all those questions is “YES, absolutely.”

My impression, though, is that many people would argue with me. They would say the lack of accountability is the point of the virtual world. They would say it’s all theater, make-believe play, pretend. They would say the power of the virtual world lies precisely in its ability to nullify the signifiers at play in real social interaction: class, race, gender, education, beauty, experience, age, geography, you name it. In the virtual world, we are who we say we are and no one will know any different. In the virtual world, I look like Angelina Jolie in Hackers and I’m a super smart, super confident 29 year-old vixen who owns not only her own sexuality, but likes to make anyone who takes an interest in it into her bitch. I wear shiny shiny, shiny boots of leather online.

Over the last few months I’ve “met” many new people—a stunning variety of personalities. Scuutor was especially helpful ingame; he helped me with gearing up my toon and explained some of the benefits of guild membership. My game realm, Proudmore is home to LGBT gamers. One member of the guild was a 16 year old exploring her real world options in the virtual world of gaming. She had a girlfriend in the real world, but allowed as how boys were not icky entirely. The adults in the guild, of whom I may have been the youngest, surrounded her protectively. The tone and content of conversation shifted rapidly to coming out stories and college entrance essays as soon as she revealed her age. The members of BloodBathandBeyond are models of virtual accountability and ethical behavior.

Some relationships I’m still confused about for a variety of reasons. “Stranger” may be ready to hire an attorney and sue me, or he may just be pushing for more talk of the sort we started out throwing at one another. Whichever the case, my husband said, block this guy. And I did, but not from chat. Because the conversation we shared was intense and edgy, part of me feels responsible for whatever psychodrama I lifted the curtain on. While we were talking, he asked if I were “real,” and I answered, “Yes, I’m real,” but I qualified that I was “playing” with him. “Pretend,” as any actor will tell you, feels “real” whether it’s in person or online, physical or virtual. And then he said something to me that I had said to my gamer friend; “It feels real, though.” If he needs to talk with me again, he can.

When I said, “It feels real, though” to my gamer friend, he had reduced me to tears ingame. By that, I mean I was sitting alone at my keyboard with tears trickling down my face typing furiously about how unfair he was being. I was frustrated and my feelings were hurt. I was trying so hard to master World of Warcraft, and nothing I did that night met with anything but taunts and criticism from him in the public chat line of the dungeon group.

Even in a pretend world, levels of public and private disclosure are in play. It was one thing for Gamer to taunt me through private “whispers,” quite another to be dressed down in front of the dungeon party or, worse, on the trade lines, which broadcast to the entire virtual city. Before I learned these distinctions, I accidentally told one of those stories (for which we only use the “whisper” feature of messaging in real life) on the guild chat. Or, at least, I think I did. When one of the female guild members whispered, “Are you ok?” in response to what I thought I had told only Gamer, I realized my mistake.  I was too embarrassed to pursue confirming my gaffe, and rapidly realized that no one but Gamer knew who I really am, in real life. How embarrassed can I be on behalf of my toon? She isn’t me, after all, is she?

“In real life,” IRL in the virtual world shrouds itself in hazy golden light. In the virtual world, to reveal one’s irl self is to invite the possibility of irl friendship. Irl friendship is revered online. Other players defer to irl friendships. If Gamer revealed to a dungeon party that I was his irl friend, the tone and content of conversation changed to align with his tone and level of familiarity. Even on line, on a LGBT server, in a world populated with men pretending to be women (albeit of various species), the socially prophylactic properties of falling under the “ownership” of a man are at play.

Irrationally, one would expect the virtual world to conform to our fantasies of a libertine world unfettered by the signifiers that shackle us irl. The only problem is that we inhabit the virtual world and bring ourselves with us when we log on.

Friday, May 21, 2010

First Fruits: Not Barren

We are called to offer the universe the best of what we have to offer. This arrangement works out nicely as it is often in our best work that we find our most joy. Even before I could read, it was clear my greatest talents lay in language. I attempted my first novel, a romance, when I was in third grade. It was three typed pages long. It was horrible and endearing. The following year, I wrote doggerel poems for my spelling words instead of sentences and read a few dozen Nancy Drew novels. Writing is my succor and in it, I am saved. And yet, the idea that I am meant to write whether anyone else thinks so or not, I have struggled most to accept. More than my mortality—it is easier to accept that I will cease to be, than it is to accept that I am meant to do something that might not be exceptional, but that even to me might be merely acceptable.

Acceptable to others? Accepting that following my calling might be humiliating at best has been its own struggle. The calling is what it is. The harvest is almost beside the point: the planting and tending make the garden. There are no fruits without gardening. The choice, then, is between productivity and barrenness.  Better to yield a few withered yellow zucchini than maintain a patch of rocky soil.

During my late adolescence, I had episodes of major depression, dropped out of college and dropped back in.

Slogging through the fog of unrecognized and untreated depression is maddening in itself. On top of the symptoms of depression itself—insomnia or exhaustion or despair or everyday sadness that is notable only in that it never lifts—not knowing what is wrong with oneself is an extra layer of madness. The internal dialogue of unrecognized depression is this: if I can just get enough sleep, I’ll be able to whatever, or if I stay up all night working on this since I can’t sleep anyway, that will help (never mind that it’s the third night in a row), or I’m failing. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I wake up in the morning? Why have I suddenly become an idiot? Why don’t I understand this? Why isn’t anything sticking? I read and nothing gets in. Everything—reading, conversation, people’s names, experiences—washes over the depressed and is gone; nothing is retained. Living in a fog, the depressed can’t see what depression is until she’s left it and is standing on a hill somewhere looking down on its dark mass. As long as she’s in it, her visibility is limited. Occasionally something emerges from the fog or she stumbles into a clearing, but mostly she lives in it, until she doesn’t. Unless she gets treated.

Writing was always the clearing. As long as I was writing, describing the experience, I was safe. Everything else might be a stinking smoking compost pile, but within the context of creative work there was clarity, purpose, accomplishment, even the occasional joy. I never sang merrily with the forest creatures, but the sunlight filtered through the trees revealing the rocks, grass, trees and flowers in the hyper-focus of the bright parts of chiaroscuro.

The problem with creative work that saves us is that it often saves no one else; that is, it sucks. It is interesting merely as the byproduct of some trauma. It often is incapable of standing on its own in the company of the pros. It is precious to us and us alone. If it accomplishes something of value, it is as curiosity not as masterpiece; the literary equivalent of coffee mug scrawls and the twee odes to catastrophe or God sold as framed prints in mail order catalogues.

On a pleasant afternoon, probably a Thursday because we were gathered for poetry writing workshop, some classmates and I were standing on the back terrace of the English and Comparative Lit Building under the shredded bark of eucalyptus trees. I told them ruefully, that I was an idiot savant. I was absolutely certain that the only reason I was accepted to graduate school was my talent: having a spotty undergraduate record and the lukewarm support of my undergraduate mentor, my portfolio must have been the only thing that got me in—that and a letter of recommendation from an important editor. My work and I had charmed him when he took up the post of my mentor, who had taken the obligatory post-tenure tour-of-Europe sabbatical.

When I still felt doors opening along my path as an undergraduate, my editor/teacher/friend agreed to an independent study consisting entirely of sending out poems for publication under his direction. I sent poems out. I got a few published in places astonishing for both their cynicism and lack of editorial standards—Win cash! Poetry contest! – and a few in places astonishing for the chutzpah of their editor/publishers, who were not much older than myself—zines associated with the punk rock subculture.

I did my best in graduate school, but when graduate school was over, I had impressed no one, least of all myself.

I knew I’d had enough of whatever it was that was the graduate school experience. And if that meant I wasn’t going to be a writer, or if it meant I’d be a different kind of writer, so be it. I was exhausted and directionless. Creative work had soured with the attempt to “professionalize” it.  Somehow being a professional writer had become entwined with learning how to teach recalcitrant teens how to write short essays and research papers.

The career center had no sage advice beyond referring me to the job board and suggesting I attend one of the corporate recruitment days. I couldn’t live off the job board offerings, and I didn’t understand how a person with experience mostly in music store sales and university physical plant work would manage to land a corporate position of any type, especially in the thick of the recession that was 1992. (In Orange County, California— an area that includes the coastal wealth of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and Balboa Island— people were so desperate, they were voting democratic.)  I didn’t know what to do next.

Sitting at my desk in the living room of an apartment adjacent to what we called “Drug Street” in Santa Ana, I continued to write halfheartedly, promising myself that it would save me.  It would change everything: All I had to do was continue to write and my life would become what it should become.

I didn’t, but it did.

And now, here I am, twenty years later, having tried to find my calling down other avenues. I never really stopped writing. There were always journals. There were extension courses. Novels begun and abandoned. A screenplay about meth addiction and prostitutionbegun under the direction of friend whose own gambling and other habits seemed strangely similar to that of our protagonist—also abandoned. Forays into writer’s groups that fizzled out. Letter writing on a prodigious scale. I never really stopped writing, but I never really started either.

I was busy making a living. Getting married. Having children. Trying to find a career. All of those goals are still in process.

Some writing students enter and leave school with a kind of crippling grandiosity. Some students like myself. I never subscribed to the ridiculous ideas about artists being subject to rules different than mere mortals. Sure, there’s much to be learned along the road of excess, but dissipation as vocation just seemed stupid to me. My particular Janus head of doom consisted of grandiosity paired with its ever-present twin, self-loathing doubt. The grandiosity amounted to a delusional belief in my talent as something far different and superior. The truth—that talent is as individual and as common as, well, individuals—floated at the top of a pool of self-loathing around work ethic, procrastination, self-doubt and fallow periods of creativity. Accepting that what makes a writer is work has been hard won for me.

When Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman were promoting their movie Runaway Jury, Hoffman told an interviewer that being an actor starting out in one’s career is hard because you don’t know if you’re conning yourself. The same can be said for writers. You don’t know if you’re conning yourself at precisely the point when blind faith is most needed, that is, when you have no publishing history to assuage worries that whatever made you think you were entitled to a career in writing was wholly misguided and delusional. At precisely the moment when you’re called to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life, the idea that all that hard work and poverty might net nothing slouches in the corner snickering, smoking a Gauloises. The grandiose can’t help but ask what the point is, if one isn’t going to be A Great Writer. Juvenile. Embarrassing.  But there you have it.

So, there is a pruning process during which the number of writers whittles down to those too crazy to do anything else or too cocksure to admit any other possibility.  I fell into neither category. I just kept writing or sublimating creative energy into other outlets thinking that the world of real creative work was something outside and beyond whatever it was that I happened to be doing at the moment.

Like being in love, having a baby provides an important circumspect vantage point. Having produced a living human being, I’m less inclined toward preciousness regarding my creative work. I’ve made a person: what do I need to prove beyond that? The people I’ve created are a source of wonder and are more remarkable every day. What do any concerns about one’s career status ultimately matter? We are here briefly. We don’t know what’s important until after we are long gone from this life.  Think in astronomical terms. Or geological. What remains of us? What remains of what we do or of what we fail to do? Our actions are infinitely important and infinitely unimportant.

For this lifespan in the millions of years that is life on earth, what will I offer the universe?

All I am capable of offering.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Further Negotiations: Glamoured

When I was in my early twenties my confirming church, First United Methodist, called to wonder where I’d been and if I was still a member. I told the caller that I was no longer worshipping a white male god; I was a feminist pagan.  In my social milieu, people wore jackets customized with emblems, slogans, and images that broadcast one’s worldview. Some wore black leather with skeletons dancing across the back. Some wore Air Force hooded fatigue coats with red, white and blue bulls eyes carefully painted in primary acrylic. My Levi’s jacket had a white women’s symbol, the tail an upside down cross, the circle a peace sign, all outlined in metallic gold. Around this central motif twined a five- candled wreath of purple flowers, green leaves and curling vines. 

I could probably wear this jacket, if it still fit, without much consternation. It summarizes nicely where my spiritual head is at. I do not subscribe to a stern father model of God. I do not believe God is gendered. I do believe that “feminine” energy is the source of creation—how could it not be? —Why would a universe organize the visible world around a symbol system that is diametrically opposed to the spiritual world? I don’t think it would. Though, admittedly, the upside down cross now strikes me as disrespectful, juvenile and overly simplistic.

In the 80s an upside down or X’ed over cross, such as those on Bad Religion T-shirts, sought to comment not on Christ or the crucifixion, but on the organized religion the cross symbolized to those of us up on tip toe peaking in the church windows — or kicking at the turf from a safe distance across the street.  Tammy Faye Baker, Robert Tilton, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, the Trinity Broadcast Network’s talking, weeping, and painted heads—the airwaves were full of an image of Christianity that was obscene and far off Gospel message. Sex scandal after scandal involved “righteous” men who had many judgmental and moralizing opinions about the sex lives of others.  Jerry Falwell declared AIDS a plague wrought by god to punish sin. While they weren’t busy opposing the Equal Rights Amendment and proclaiming God’s hatred of homosexuals, they were busy laying the groundwork for a prosperity gospel—they were happy shiny people who were happy and shiny because God wanted them to be the happy shiny owners of air-conditioned dog houses. In the thick of it Bono chided from the concert stage, “My god ain’t short on cash, mister.” 

For people raised outside an organized faith tradition in which they otherwise might have familiarity with the Gospel message, Christianity looked pretty vacant: self-righteous, self-involved, narcissistic, money mongering, whore mongering. As the “Religious Right” aligned itself with the Republican Party, the jokes about how the hookers don’t like to work the Republican Convention because those guys are really twisted when it comes to their predilections applied equally to Religious Right practitioners. They were one; upon regressive politics and policy they could both agree, and upon the subjugation of women they could both agree. By extension, the Democrats embracing their sexuality and essentially fallen state, had a healthier relationship with sexuality all around and weren’t dabbling in anything half as dark as the kinky freaks across the isle.  Or so it appeared to many others and me.

For those familiar with the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount, the spectacle of weeping and/or penitent millionaires was simply obscene. I suspect I am not the only person who turned away from Christianity when its public image coalesced with the Technicolor show that was the Religious Right. (Thank God for Bill Moyers and Sister Wendy!) 

When I turned away, I turned toward a practical application of The Beatitudes—which in my mind means some form of socialism or a form of pure Marxism divorced from the nastiness of some of its previous incarnations. For instance, I once read about an agrarian province in India in which universal healthcare and near 100% literacy are the norms. No one is wealthy, but no one has a starving intellect or belly, either. Like Steinbeck’s preacher, I like to think that once and only those needs are met, spiritual hunger will lessen as well. It’s hard to believe in a benevolent Universe if your starving child lies in your lap too weak to swat flies. 

Mysticism is my natural inclination. I like to think about God much more than I like to do God’s work. So I spent a lot of time thinking about God as understood apart from the Religious Right—as far apart as I could get. My bumper sticker at the time: Sappho’s Coming

My sister is making me a rosary to commemorate my confirmation into the Catholic Church. It will be made of garnet beads. She isn’t making it with a crucifix; she is opposed to crosses and crucifixes. As she explained in a recent phone call, “It’s like memorializing Holocaust victims with shower heads. It’s the least important part of the story.” (I’m certain a phalanx of Catholic priests would disagree.)  She intends to include a goddess figurine where the crucifix would normally go. I see no problem with that. None. I am a cultural relativist. My god isn’t their “God.” “They” are people who are not cultural relativists. My god certainly isn’t some bearded and middle-aged 16th century Italian with white hair. My god is nebulous: The Universe. My god is everything that reminds me I am infinitely insignificant and infinitely connected in relation to everyone and everything else. My god is an acknowledgement that none of us mortals know what god is or isn’t. Not me. Not the magisterium. Not the priesthood. Not the Pope. S/He who cannot be named is my god.  

Around Easter I made a new friend at work, Mote It Be, whose own blog (because he’s a big fat copycat) can be found at  Mote It Be made no secret of his interest in paganism. He quickly became my friend. This relationship has raised questions. If I am drawn to a Wiccan newbie right as I am learning the Nicene Creed by heart, what is the Universe trying to tell me? If I am drawn into an intense friendship with a man who is everything I have renounced for the sake of my marriage, in what is the Universe trying to school me?

This morning my youngest daughter carefully applied lipstick and sat in my white leather living room chair cradling the lipstick in her hands. The lipstick was tucked succinctly into the purse case it lives in, usually at the back of big sister’s bathroom drawer. (Big sister inherited all of her grandma’s makeup.) The purse case this tube lives in once held my only tube of Chanel lipstick, which cost somewhere beyond $20. The lone and prized tube of Chanel ate it when big sister drew on a wall or all over her clothes or completed some other tragic comedy years ago. Mote It Be is my tube of Chanel lipstick.

It has been nine years since I was free to get up in the morning and decide my day free of the influence and obligation of a committee of domestic terrorists. I am on-call 24 hours a day. I chose that. I still love what it means to be a mother and wife, but nine years is a very long time—long enough to forget that it is not unreasonable to ask for and receive several hours a week to one’s self.  It is not unreasonable to maintain friendships that have nothing to do with one’s husband’s professional contacts, one’s children’s playmates, the network of mommies and daddies and neighbors and colleagues and church friends that make up the routine life and friendships of the stay-at-home mom. Mote It Be, then, is my tube of Chanel lipstick, garnet with flecks of bronze and smelling like, well, Chanel lipstick (though he actually smells like some spell oil intended to incite lust—smoky, sweet and masculine essential oils).

Over the last few years on Face Book, I have been gathering my friends who knew me when nothing about me was a secret. Mote It Be is the kind of friend I used to have before being someone’s wife and other people’s mother primarily defined me. Being known, it turns out, is important. Being known for the person you truly are when you are without fear, humble and naked before the universe is important because being that person and being ok with being that person—that buoyant homeostasis—like savasana—is one of those times when the universe bends down and kisses your forehead tenderly. Profoundly connected, whole, at one.

I have been drawn to Catholicism from the start because it echoes paganism. The liturgical calendar follows the seasons of birth, growth, and death—maiden, mother, crone—at least in the northern hemisphere. The Virgin Mary’s primacy in Catholicism is particular to Catholicism, but it is also an echo of the Goddesses that historically precede her and an obvious cooptation of the fertility cults the Roman Empire supplanted. (According to the Encyclopedia of Women’s Myths and Secrets, several Madonna and Child statues in the United Kingdom, when examined carefully, reveal themselves as pairs of female figures.) Communion has its parallels across more than one faith tradition, including paganism. Voodoo is an amalgam of Catholicism and West African faith practices. And in these ways, Catholicism holds more attractive symbolism than do the mainstream Protestant traditions with which I’ve had experience.  My heathen soul is glamoured by the allure of The Mother Church.