Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Mirror's Contemplation, Take 2

Regular readers may be familiar with this story already. I put it in competition once already, a few months back, and had no luck with it. So, as always, back to the revision board. As I often do, here's a teaser, a few pages of a much longer work.

____________

Trading sips of a long-necked beer in brown glass, which we passed back and forth between us, Stephanie and I entered the bathroom to change. She set the bottle on top of the closed toilet seat, a
surface just flat enough for our purposes. A day of sunbathing, people watching, and mostly meaningless flirtation would eventually culminate in a party that night. It had already reached mythic proportions and hadn't even happened yet.

We were both giddy and feeling playful. The two of us were nineteen. Still a year or two from being able to drink legally, this fact somehow did not dissuade our efforts. There were always ways. Someone with a decent fake ID or compliant older brother had purchased an obscene amount of alcohol. The boldest among us could drink for hours without stopping. Neither she nor I were drinkers, lightweights really, but it seemed like the thing to do. We were already feeling buzzed and silly.

In long accustomed fashion, I played foil to Stephanie’s loquaciousness and exaggeration. I was quiet and she was loud. This was the nature of our friendship and it had always been this way. As if to
illustrate the distinction further, today she was clothed completely in black but I was dressed completely in white. She was dressed to kill while I was dressed for comfort, mostly.

And all I gotta say is that Ryan is fine! She gave the word “fine” a particularly strong emphasis,
stretching out the vowels and consonants, in addition to slightly increasing the volume to underscore how attractive she thought he was.

Stephanie always talked a good game, but her confidence sometimes deserted her in crucial moments.
In my company, she did not feel restrained to express her true feelings. Among crowds, rivals, and
uncertainty, she overcompensated by way of her vocal cords. Her humor was always goofy and over-
the-top, which disguised a deep need for validation she rarely ever acknowledged. I saw it, but, respecting our friendship, I did not call attention to it. I never wanted to rain on her parade, but I did wonder at times whether I should gently call attention to her flaws.

She was the only person I’d ever known who had gotten a boob job. Her parents paid for the whole thing, as though it was some life-threatening surgery, which was another way that the two of us differed vastly. My folks would have made me save up and completely subsidize myself a procedure they found to be unnecessary and distasteful. Truthfully, I liked them just fine before the surgery, but I held my tongue.

They were really flat before. Stephanie said this while preening in front of a mirror. She was tipsy already after one beer and a little unsteady on her feet.

I need to get one
, I found myself saying this, but without much conviction. Sometimes even in my most self-conscious days I wondered if I’d benefit from breast augmentation. It seemed to work well enough for her. She got four times the attention now, if attention was the entire goal in having them done. When I was in high school, a couple years before, I’d gotten my navel pierced at the request of my then-boyfriend. It was one of the first times I’d done something colossally stupid for a boy, or at least for boys as an entire group. And yet I kept it, mostly as a reminder to think twice before making the same mistake.

I was not quite as adventurous as Stephanie was. She quickly shimmied into a black bikini, while I put on a more modest one-piece. I was an observer more than an active participant. Our friendship was built upon opposites in personality. I rarely made decisions and usually deferred to hers. I felt like a movie camera that never shut off, silently documenting the events placed before it, only documenting, never participating.

It was time to go back out again, as I rubbed suntan lotion onto every exposed patch of skin. I was usually absent when it came time for another carefree mug shot before the camera because I always was the person behind the viewfinder. I couldn’t bring myself to ask Stephanie's motivations. It shocked me how quickly I’d validated her methods by even contemplating the very same thing myself, if only for a few seconds. Peer pressure, even when it isn’t overt, can be a powerful force.

I saw evidence of this earlier when we were walking the beach, the waves lapping against my feet. The number of bad tattoos I saw walking the shore's edge was astonishing. The trend must have started somewhere. The scrapbooks my parents kept of their own summer holidays before I was born showed no evidence of ink. I always felt that tattoos, tastefully placed and limited in number, were acceptable. But few people kept such restraint or discretion.

We paused briefly to prepare ourselves for the sea and sand. Before then, we’d simply dithered along the farthest expanse of the waves, not dressed to jump into the water and swim. In all circumstances, Stephanie enjoyed playing the role of the high femme, the girly girl, and her clothes and behavior reflected it. Aside from a hat to keep out the sun that looked like it had been purchased in the fishing department of a sporting goods store, the rest of her appearance was immaculate. For the moment, she wore a black tank top, tight and revealing shorts, and not much else.

Let’s get obliviated tonight. Stephanie meant obliterated and though I knew she was wrong, I never corrected her. I enjoyed her banter and silly boasting. It was all for show. I’d never seen Stephanie rip-roaring drunk, not even once. She may have been a little buzzed at the moment, but not much. She was more inclined to nurse a solitary beer for hours. She told me, in a rare moment of naked honesty, that she associated intoxication with being out of control. The phobia it produced was intense enough to keep her always more or less sober.

The men’s bathroom was placed only a door down from the women’s facilities. At times, clueless or
disoriented men staggering towards the building from a combination of intense heat and intoxication
would halfway open the wrong door. Realizing immediately their error, they would mumble an apology and then swiftly depart.

There’s a lot of perverts here now, don’t you think?

Stephanie launched into a litany of complaints and minor annoyances about the boys in our group of
friends. It was all for show. One of them had approached her in an unskillful way earlier in the day. He’d come across too strong, something men often did. She liked playing indignant, but relished any dollop of attention and praise she could find.

I’m like, what are you doing? I’m like, what, put that thing back in your pants.

I laughed. She wasn’t really annoyed, as I’d suspected. Truth be told, Stephanie never turned down any man's company, and here was a perfect example of her mock exasperation with men. Some women would take offense to the occasional bad pickup line or the arrogance of a delusional ladies’ man.

Stephanie knew enough to brush them aside, knowing them for what they were. Like many women who got a lot of attention, she’d seen and heard it all. I envied her successes, even when I questioned her tactics. Stephanie got a lot of phone numbers, most of which she quickly discarded. I felt sorry for the worthwhile guys who misunderstood her real intentions. She enjoyed being desired more than she sought a boyfriend or even going to bed. As long as she was single, she had any number of frequent ego boosts at her disposal.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Drugs Don't Work




A candidate for one of the most depressing songs of all time, but the melody is attractive. I abbreviated this version because at 4 minutes plus it's already a long song.

All this talk of getting old
It's getting me down my love
Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown
This time I'm comin' down

And I hope you're thinking of me
As you lay down on your side
Now the drugs don't work
They just make you worse
But I know I'll see your face again

Now the drugs don't work
They just make you worse
But I know I'll see your face again

But I know I'm on a losing streak
'Cause I passed down my old street
And if you wanna show, then just let me know
And I'll sing in your ear again

Now the drugs don't work
They just make you worse
But I know I'll see your face again

'Cause baby, ooh, if heaven calls, I'm coming, too
Just like you said, you leave my life, I'm better off dead

All this talk of getting old
It's getting me down my love
Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown
This time I'm comin' down

Now the drugs don't work
They just make you worse
But I know I'll see your face again

'Cause baby, ooh, if heaven calls, I'm coming, too
Just like you said, you leave my life, I'm better off dead

But if you wanna show, just let me know
And I'll sing in your ear again

Now the drugs don't work
They just make you worse
But I know I'll see your face again

Yeah, I know I'll see your face again
Yeah, I know I'll see your face again
Yeah, I know I'll see your face again
Yeah, I know I'll see your face again

Monday, September 15, 2014

Good News for People Who Like Bad News




I was 13 years old. The combined forces of high estrogen and high testosterone had turned my classmates into strange creatures, alien even to ourselves. We had no idea what to expect next from day to day, as we waited for the bus stop. The fact that we spent eight hours a day together in classrooms without windows and painted cinderblock walls made us feel claustrophobic, increasing the already stout pressures each of us felt, though we could barely speak of our feelings. I never quite figured out who I was or what was expected of me. If someone had told me to march in some general cardinal direction, I would have gladly followed, desperate to escape this anarchic struggle.

One of the great peculiarities of my life was my refusal to take part in the prerequisites of jock royalty. I could have had a popular girl or even a cheerleader of my very own. One by one, when each time I was much too shy to take part in a conversation, they vied for my attention. They were silly and teasing. I acted as though my head was about to explode. I was never sure why they or any woman would be interested in me. Because I was a star, albeit a reluctant football player and they were popular girls, I was considered something of a catch by default. I wonder now how many of them were in hot pursuit more for the status of what I represented to others rather any genuine interest.

At the time, I didn’t know what the girls felt about me. I was too shy and self-doubting to believe myself boyfriend material for anyone. And yet they kept trying. What I meant to them could well have been a complete reversal, full of confidence to how I felt about myself. One especially persistent girl kept asking if she could borrow my brain. She was alluding to my unquestioned status as the smartest, most intellectually precocious kid in school. Accordingly, she would pick a large vocabulary word and quiz me on it, desperate for me to parrot the proper answer in her company. She was persuasive, but I always wondered about an ulterior motive on her part.

I could have had any number of sweet Southern Belles, except that sweet Southern Belles bored me to tears. If my priorities were very different, the process could have worked well for me. If I’d started going out with a popular girl, my stature would have risen considerably. It makes me happy that this awkward game is years in my past. What I really wanted were the intelligent girls who were high achievers and a little geeky. Winning the hand of one took a lot of convincing and patience, as I was responding to the very same reservations in someone else that I felt in myself.

Writing this piece was meant to underscore that the decisions we make ought not to be only about a rise in our personal stature. This might be one particularly compelling part of the puzzle, but there is more to romance than ego. I can truthfully say that I never regretted dodging the popular girls. It taught me life lessons. It revealed to me how easy that game is to play for some and how difficult it was for myself when I was looking for something very much outside the box. Some of my classmates were groomed to believe otherwise.

I am not a woman, but I wonder if some lingering aspects of failed, adolescence romance persists into the current day of adulthood. We still rate ourselves based on who we find attractive and who finds us attractive. I do, even though I am in my mid-thirties, though I wish I didn't. Even today one observes the lasting power of hierarchy, especially when it comes down to romance. As Quakers, we seek to be non-hierarchical, but we live in a society which is extremely so.

Fluffy magazines and websites reinforce this notion of worth being simply a matter of physical beauty and the ability to fit a set pattern of attractiveness. I suppose I should have been flattered that I got so much attention earlier in life, but I tossed it aside, voluntarily. As middle school became high school, some overgrown boys I knew dated popular girls because they got the dual benefit of having arm candy and, for some, sex. That could have been me, too, but sex isn’t everything.

This is a post partially in support of men. There are good men and bad men. Men fail when they do not police their own or they let their desire for popularity and belonging to a group become more important than justice. Men fail when they are accessories or guilty of what has been termed in recent years rape culture.

But both men and women find many examples in their own lives and in the lives of other friends and associates of a deplorably sad and greatly commonplace set of problems. This is especially true for those with poor moral character and a manipulative attitude. Every woman seems to have known a man who fooled her, valuing her only for her physical appearance, and that memory is never forgotten. Every man seems to know a woman who is either unfaithful or selfish. We don’t forget them, either.

Looking past our own baggage is a life’s work. And it doesn’t mean stopping the process of identifying the societal problems that are often overlooked. I often think of the title of a Modest Mouse album. It is entitled Good News for People Who Like Bad News. In my day to day work, I feel that I’m always seeking to provide Good News for the People Who Like Bad News. We can fall in love with Bad News, just as soon as we can fall in love with a cloying, optimistic notion that only whitewashes the real problem. Neither discipline can be adequately taught in any form, in my opinion. Ours must be a lived experience that comes from experience and wisdom. Few solutions can be adequately conveyed in a college class, by attending the right conference, or by reading the right book.

We may dwell for a time being part of the Bad News brigade, and find our needs satisfied there. I think all of us go there for a little while, with the right set of circumstances that push our buttons. But if we can’t express our opinions in ways that aren’t merely hurry-up-and-pay-attention-to-me righteous indignation, we’re only seeing part of the problem. For some, this is a just a phase, and the arrival of pending middle age for myself has provided needed insight. The tools we’ve once used to wound others are now kept on our metaphorical mantelpiece, next to other heirlooms, a reminder of a different time where our priorities were very different.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Quote of the Week



"There is no escape — man drags man down, or man lifts man up"- Booker T. Washington.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Saturday Video



Yeah
Lookin' back on the track for a little green bag
Got to find just a kind or losin' my mind
Outside in the night, outside in the day

Lookin' back on the track gonna do it my way
Outside in the night, outside in the day
Lookin' back on the track gonna do it my way
Lookin' back

Lookin' for some happiness
But there is only  loneliness to find
Turn to the left turn to the right
Lookin' upstairs lookin' behind

Lookin' for some happiness
But there is so a loneliness to find
Turn to the left turn to the right
Lookin' upstairs, lookin' behind

Lookin' back on the track for a little green bag
Got to find just a kind or losin' my mind
Outside in the night, outside in the day
Lookin' back on the track, gonna do it my way

Lookin' back on the track for a little little green bag
Got to find just a kind or losin' my mind
Lookin' for some happiness
But there is only loneliness to find

Turn to the left turn to the right
Lookin' upstairs lookin' behind
Lookin' for some happiness
But there is so a loneliness to find

Turn to the left turn to the right
Lookin' upstairs lookin' behind

Friday, September 12, 2014

Bisexuality and the Real Truth


"Do you have any problems with dating a bisexual?" This is question three, following the ever-popular "Do you want children?" when on a first date with a woman. There's no need to beat around the bush, especially when the answer might be a disqualifying entry. Best to know up front. I'm a blunt person by nature, seeking someone else who speaks the truth without coated by the insincere.

To a woman, they always indicate no. It wouldn't be fair of me to lie on their behalf. This is a particularly sensitive series of inquiries which has caused me considerable pain. I expect honesty from a partner, and though superficially I obtain it, the truth may take longer to work its way to the surface. With all the strides made regarding sexual orientation, women still automatically fear that I might leave them for another man.

At odd moments and in the right circumstance, I find out their true thoughts by sharing my own. At those times, I confess that I have no desire to end up with another man and that I'm quite happy with them as they are. I see them breathe a sign of relief, though I wish they'd never worry about my fidelity. I feel wronged and mistrusted, but being angry doesn't do much good. At best, I try to instruct, to even challenge my partners as to what bisexual really is and how they have nothing about which to worry.

I knew I was bisexual at a very young age.  I realized what I was when I dressed out during middle school gym class. As I prepared to play basketball or whatever creative game the PE teacher had devised, my face was always turned towards my locker, not daring to look around. We only dressed down to our underwear, which was fortunate, because I would have been twice as nervous had everyone stripped down all the way.

By the time I was seventeen, I was open with who I was to almost everyone. Few people were hostile to who I was, but one of my friends was. It had not been his doing. His mother was extremely homophobic and how she found out about me is a mystery. As I've written before, my parents were not particularly accepting, and I spent a summer away from them as punishment. Every time a female partner expressed fear at who I was or what I represented to them, it was like I was reliving the past.

I always believed that tolerance could be reached with enough willful practice and education. It would be easy for to write off my past girlfriends as victims of our still-bigoted culture. I use myself as proof of who LGBTs are and how we're not all that much different from heterosexuals. The behavior and assumptions of past relationship partners were never taken with great offense by me, as I knew their attitudes often took the form of guilt and misunderstanding. Some confused me as homosexual and some weren't sure what to think. Truly cruel behaviors were few and far between. What I mostly received was discomfort.

My mother, upon her recent retirement, has become a cause lady. She observed my struggles with bipolar disorder and has worked with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), speaking to parents with children who have mental illness. In her capacity, she has educated parents who have mentally ill kids, giving them hope that their kids can improve. I am proud of her for transforming her personal pain to give comfort to caregivers. The largest problem in my life has been bipolar disorder first and sexual orientation second.

In my own brutal honesty, the intent is for me to function in much the same way my mother does. What I volunteer to others may be too much too soon, but I know I'm sure that I would make no helpful impact at all if I didn't make an effort to initiate communication. My intent is to share my sexual orientation with someone else with whom I have no desire to keep secrets, regardless of what role they take in my life. I desire a best friend, not a distant partner who has little to no understanding of who I am.

One of the oldest feminist tropes is that it is not the responsibility of the marginalized to educate people of privilege. While I agree with this sentiment on its face, I have found that many people don't take the opportunity unless forced to do so. I may educate, or I may encourage others towards the same direction that I have long understood myself. It may not be wasted time to teach an informal lesson on Bisexuality 101. If that had been the case with the Civil Rights Movement, white people would have gotten it without the need for marches and movements. It would have only been a matter of self-study and simple enlightenment. I'm not sure we're there yet.

Having now been acquainted with of the truth, a real relationship can proceed. Intellectual discussions are hollow and empty, though we may think they have some redeeming benefits. It is too often reconciliation on the cheap. We must risk being wrong, even when those who dare to do so have may speak out of ignorance, though they must keep their tempers in check when questioned. Truth can be jarring, but sanitizing it away does no one much good. I would like to have an honest discussion about bisexuality with an audience who is genuinely uncertain, not trolling to enrage. The same is true for many similar issues, race, class, and wealth being only three.

Apologies

I've had a lengthy issue with my Internet connection, but I am working on something new at this very moment. Sorry about that.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The World May Never Know



I can't remember what is wrong
I've been happy now for way too long
and oh, we got a lot more to go

I put a trash can by the road
and filled it up just to lighten my load
but oh, I got nowhere to go

Someone alone fell asleep by the phone
Waiting like a dog for a bone
How can it be that a fish in the sea
Could feel like it's completely alone?
the world may never know

I know it hurt you, 'cause you cried
I know it killed you, but nobody died
and oh, the city ain't nothin' but show

I found a needle in the hay
I found the sunshine at the end of the day
and oh, I found a pearl in the snow

Someone alone fell asleep by the phone
Waiting like a dog for a bone
How can it be that a fish in the sea
Could feel like it's completely alone?
The world may never know