Friday, January 31, 2014

Sexuality and a Woman's Right to Privacy

Earlier in the week, I stood in line at the pharmacy. This is nothing new for me. I take several different medications to treat a multitude of chronic illnesses. The workers there know me by name. I’m what you might call a good customer. Living the life of a professional patient has its own demands and obligations.

I live in a part of the city adjacent to a major university. During my daily errands, I frequently encounter undergraduate students taking a break from class. Ahead of me in the queue that afternoon was a stressed out, worried young woman. When it came her time, I saw an immediate look of concern in the clerk behind the counter. Perhaps without meaning to, the cashier made a great show of her purchase. Though she held the label of the box upside down, ostensibly to protect the student’s confidentiality, I could still see its contents. It contained Plan B.

Whether the woman working at the pharmacy was aware of it or not, her behavior reinforced a cultural narrative. By implication, she gave the impression that the purchase was something shameful or embarrassing. While she may not have intended to embarrass or guilt her customer, she unintentionally contributed to an existing culture of silence. Even now, women blanch at the thought of talking openly about their gynecological exams, pap smears, or mammograms.

Feminists have sought to demystify a woman’s reproductive life, sexuality, lady bits, and every decision that she makes of her own volition. They’ve encouraged women to speak openly about their abortions, their miscarriages, and their pregnancy scares. Staying mute about such things implies that there is something mortifying and unmentionable about a woman’s sexuality and reproductive system. Men may not wish to speak about erectile dysfunction or prostate issues, but they are less hemmed in or stigmatized. Others without the same reproductive organs have not sought to regulate or control their use.

I imagined the circumstances of the young woman’s plight. I envisioned a hookup gone awry, a broken condom, each a part of the nascent sexual experimentation that many of us experience while in college. Unfortunately, there can be a terrifying and unsettling aspect to this new freedom. That said, many of us have been there a time or two. I’m not a woman, so there’s a limit to my comprehension, but I know fear and panic when I see it. From that perspective, I pitied her and hoped for the best.

When I was in college, one of my good friends exhausted the whole of her paycheck paying for Plan B. She probably had nothing to worry about, but she didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances. She had sex with her boyfriend regularly, usually without protection, but understandably didn’t trust the results of the withdrawal method. Pregnancy scares became fearsome things that required constant certainty, even if her approach might have been excessive.      

In high school, I counseled a male friend of mine in a similar state of panic. He was deathly afraid he’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant. Fortunately, this was not the case. Greatly relieved, the two of them resolved to be more careful next time. Each of us learns similar lessons in related ways. When we are learning about sexuality we are also learning about ourselves. We are testing the limits of our autonomy as newly minted adults, and sex is part of that exploration.

Though I may plead for locked doors to open and women to speak, I can only make a respectful request. For many, privacy isn’t always oppressive. Though the details of my own life are always available to the curious, I know that others would prefer a very different approach. What is comfortable to one person might be oversharing to another. I remain of the opinion that it is only when our common life experiences shine through that we recognize our struggles are not really that unique.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


A work of fiction. 

She set before me a glass of water and an apple, as though I was a little child. I was her lover, but she associated me in some ways with her teenage daughter. Always the mother figure. What might have been sensuous for a younger woman was maternal for an older one.

It had been a while since she’d sought a partner, especially one as young as me. Other women her age had found themselves unable to reconcile the years that separated our date of birth. They had grown sons my age or a little younger, and that fact was enough to make them choose total abstinence from me. I severely doubt a man would draw the same sharp distinctions. Having daughters the same age wouldn't be a similar impediment.

The first time I pursued a woman much older than myself, we met at a downtown bar on a rainy day. She’d responded to my online ad, and I found her sweet and sympathetic. We overcompensated a little in conversation, which is commonplace when you want another person to feel at ease and accepted. Compliments were effusive and the date went well. By the end of it, we even ended up making out at one corner of the bar, which I enjoyed quite a lot.

She e-mailed again the following morning, saying she had second thoughts. As for what they were, I was never provided any definitive information, but I could read between the lines. I've been at this for a while. She couldn’t get over being fifteen years older than me. In her defense, I’m not sure I could ever be with someone fifteen years younger than me. The pairing would only work with an old soul, someone with wisdom and maturity beyond her years.

We return to the present. The husband of my latest girlfriend had passed away a couple of years earlier. She had barely grieved. She didn’t hate him, but she held him responsible for keeping her hostage. She’d had to live for decades on end in an unfamiliar city, when she’d never wanted to leave New York. Where the two had settled was his city, never hers. Mostly she’d resented him in a going-through-the-motions sort of way. They’d stayed married for twenty-five years and over the years she'd devised a thousand rationalizations and compartments to justify staying.

Then he got brain cancer and wasted away steadily for two and a half years. Left behind was their daughter, who was about to enroll in college for her first semester. For the first time ever, my now-official girlfriend had total independence. Her daughter was now enrolled in a different part of the country. She proceeded to use this new found agency with impunity.

I’ll be honest. I’d been around for a while, but on the sly. We’d been sneaking around for months. He was too impaired to notice. The plan she’d hatched was for me to move in with the family to assist with her husband’s care. Then, when he passed away, I would take his place, kind of like the changing of the guard. 

It wasn’t a bad arrangement. He was so ill that we could get away with being a little incautious every now and again. The diagnosis had been terminal from the beginning, so we waited patiently. I helped with washing sheets, cleaning bathrooms, and keeping things neat and orderly. He never suspected a thing. He was a quiet sort, and appeared to like me.

She had only one rule. While he was still living, we could never use the bedroom she and her husband shared. Instead, she completely remodeled the attic, installing a reasonably comfortable bed in one corner. The only drawback is that it was unheated in winter and boiling hot in summer. But, for what it was worth, it worked for a time. It worked because we had no choice. The sex was too good to turn down.

When her husband left this life, I made my way at last into the inner sanctum, a place I’d never been allowed to enter until that very moment. The transfer was conducted like a coronation, with grave seriousness. She’d gone to the trouble to put clean, smooth sheets on the bed. What was a very adult act was contradicted somewhat by my afternoon snack, which arrived, unasked for, after a quick trip to the kitchen. I could have complained about it, but kept my mouth shut. I took a perfunctory bite or two of apple and drank all the water in the cup.

Finally she was ready. The ceremony commenced. The only thing I didn’t like about our lovemaking is that she was a very poor kisser. She had thin, pursing lips, and mine were much more generous in size. Kissing her always felt a little like kissing a Muppet. I’ve always found kissing very sensuous, and it disappointed me that we couldn’t seem to strike a balance. That act being mostly useless, I decided to explore elsewhere.

The labia and all outwards parts of the vagina had completely lost all elasticity with time. They drooped downward so precipitously that it was difficult to know where the opening began. Her breasts, lamentably, had taken the same path. They had no remaining definition and elasticity. They sagged. I’d been a touch rough on them the first time we’d had sex, and she quickly corrected me.

You’re going to have to be gentle. She smiled.

I was gentle, but she was not gentle with me. She told a story of a sadistic male gynecologist who’d taken pleasure in conducting an unnecessary surgery that had greatly cut down on her sexual sensitivity. Because of this, and at her strict direction, I contorted my body in a thousand different ways to produce her own orgasm. It was not easy, and her arms always wrapped tightly around mine, pushing hard, side to side against both shoulder blades.

But when it was finished, the result was always the same. I accomplished my intended purpose. I was pleased for that. Her eyes rolled back in her head, then she regained full consciousness. It was as though she had slowly returned to earth from somewhere else, very far away. Rushing immediately to the toilet, she laughed when my seed spilled out of her. I never found the act as amusing as she did, but I concede I may be a bit of a prude sometimes.

There were other examples of her silly, offbeat sense of humor. The first meal we ate together, post-coitus, was hot dogs. That was all she had remaining in the refrigerator. She thanked me later by e-mail for “the hot dog” she’d received, the meaning of which is fairly easy to decode. Again, I was not amused, but I tried to be.

She had other quirks. I was never told her real age. If I had to guess, I’d say she was somewhere in her early fifties. I was never told her real name. Instead, I had to use a particular nickname that she’d chosen for herself and insisted on being called. Her paranoia and obsessive behavior knew no limits. I never understood what she was afraid of, really. I thought that if I was the most important person to her, then surely I would be entrusted with a few personal details here and there. But this was not to be.

I was strongly attracted to her and always had been. In the beginning, I could barely believe my good luck. For the first several months, we had sex two and three times a day, especially on weekends. She was not difficult to seduce and was appreciative of my company. Yet, I did learn a very important lesson. Sex can’t sustain a relationship indefinitely, but it can at least patch over significant problems for a little while.

One day, as we were lying together, side by side, she spoke her mind. She hoped I’d support her in her old age. This gave me reason for pause. When in middle age, I would be reasonably young and she would be a senior citizen. I’d just taken a lengthy part in the caretaker role, albeit not by myself. When it came her time, I might be able to count on her daughter for assistance, but most of the burden would fall upon me.

She’d made her sacrifices and so had I. For the duration, I'd had to cut ties entirely with my family, who disapproved strongly of my relationship. They made their displeasure known loudly. Even with the pain of estrangement, I stayed with her for four long years, because at least there I had some degree of stability. I had a place to stay, food to eat, a woman who loved me, and everything else I was sure I could handle with the passage of time.

But after a while, I couldn’t handle the daily third degree when I received came home from work. She was secretive about every last one of her personal dealings. I couldn’t pick up prescription drugs for her, like most couples do. She had to do them herself. I couldn't even do routine errands that involved her.

The same was true when we considered a joint checking account. I would have learned her real name, real date of birth, and other sensitive information. I couldn’t understand her fears and she rarely explained them in much detail. I chalked it up to a kind of untreated neurosis and gritted my teeth.

After a while, I’d had enough. It wasn’t the looks I got from the faces of her friends and my friends. Those I had long since blocked out entirely. I hadn’t gotten bored with her. It was her daily scrutiny and the lack of transparency that prevented us from having a functional relationship. I’d thought I could handle it, but after a time it began to drive me crazy. She pleaded with me to stay, but I couldn’t do it any longer. I missed my family and negating all her insecurities had worn me out.

I’m told by mutual friends that she went into a period of mourning following my departure. She even dressed entirely in black for a full year, with clothes she bought specially for the occasion. I took no satisfaction in upsetting her, but I always have the satisfaction of knowing that I tried. Her complexes and eccentricities became too much for me to handle. Our relationship was not a disaster, but after a time, I felt a little like William Holden’s character in Sunset Boulevard. I was the prisoner of aged actress Norma Desmond, an accidental gigolo for hire.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fan Mail

Word to the wise, if you're going to try to entice me to subscribe to your porn website, spell my pseudonym correctly. It's cabaretic, with an i in between the t and the c.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Comes a Time

Comes a time
when you're driftin'
Comes a time
when you settle down

Comes a light
feelin's liftin'
Lift that baby
right up off the ground.

Oh, this old world
keeps spinning round
It's a wonder tall trees
ain't layin' down

There comes a time.

You and I we were captured
We took our souls
and we flew away

We were right
we were giving
That's how we kept
what we gave away.

Oh, this old world
keeps spinning round
It's a wonder tall trees
ain't layin' down

There comes a time.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Inviting the Divine into Our Lives

I began a vocal ministry during Meeting for Worship yesterday by discussing an anecdote told by the writer Robert Fulghum. As the story goes, Fulghum had a profound religious experience in the most unlikely of venues, a grocery store in Pocatello, Idaho. Profundities greeted him in every corner, in every nook and cranny. I don’t recall all of them, but I do remember one that has always stuck with me.

By the cash register, a sign instructed customers to please accept their change and to take it with them. Ah, Fulghum thought, I will accept my change and take it with me. The intention of this anecdote was to speak to those of us who expect miracles, theatrics, and solid proof from God before they will believe. Those were the same demands placed upon Jesus, who was implored by many to work magic once more if he wanted his freedom, to say nothing of his life. He was careful to never put God to a foolish test and we would be wise to act in kind. Once again, we are seeing things in human terms.

I’ve never spied a burning bush and I can’t heal the lame, but I have attuned myself enough with God that I have learned to not miss the signs of his existence plainly in front of me. Encouraging this discipline in others is difficult, because one cannot look inside at another’s inner convictions. Fostering Spiritual introspection in those seated before me is my goal each and every time I rise to speak. Once I sat and centered down again, my message finished, the response was several minute's worth of complete and total silence. In a Meeting that can be quite conversational, this was no small feat.

Paul talked openly about his limitations as a public speaker. In his own words, “I may be unskilled as a speaker, but I'm not lacking in knowledge.” He was a brilliant writer and a strong witness for what was then merely an emerging Jewish sect. But his talents did not extend to oratory.

I know that what I do is God’s work because in any other context, I could never fight off considerable stage fright and introversion. A couple of months back, a young adult group of a different faith came to visit. They requested a ten-minute talk about Quaker 101. I spoke before them, explaining the particulars of my own religion. Though I managed to get through it and did a good job, I was barely able to maintain my composure.

God gave me a great gift, one that manages to momentarily heal a diagnosed health condition. One of my limitations is a severe anxiety disorder that has always complicated my life. This liberation from constant discomfort only seems to apply to Worship, but to have even five minutes respite from it is amazing. I may not have been healed, depending on how one defines it, but for a moment in time I am freed from my awkwardness and insecurity. This is proof enough for me.

In many Quaker Meetings, the same few Friends speak on a routine basis. If I’d lived some years in the past, I might well have applied for and perhaps been designated a recorded minister. Among most Friends, this is a separate distinction no longer made. Many interpret the Testimony of Equality to mean that there should be no special recognition made for any Friend, for any reason. I understand the reasoning behind it, but I think that it overlooks a particular truth. Though each of us may be equal, our skills are not granted equally.

A knowledge and understanding of God makes us stand out in our own way. A recorded minister may possess the gift of prophetic ministry, but within the body of Christ, everyone’s input and participation is needed and necessary. I know that God has the ability to speak through every attender.

New York Yearly Meeting speaks about vocal ministry in this way.

Vocal ministry in the meeting for worship should arise from inward prompting, an experience that may come at times to all earnest worshipers. A simple thought, briefly expressed by a timid speaker, may be the message most needed; the shy worshiper is encouraged to speak, however haltingly.

There is a need to make room for everyone’s contribution. My own vocal ministry has improved dramatically over the course of the last several years, and I hope the process continues. Practice makes perfect, but I always know the source of my eloquence. I work hand-in-hand with God, and I know there will never come a time where I will cast him aside, believing I can manage by myself.

In the meantime, I will continue to find ways to facilitate an experience with the Divine for everyone, attender, member, or visitor. God has the ultimate say, but where we do have control is whether or not we are receptive to the message. Distractions and skeptical voices always threaten to get in the way of true spiritual grounding. Let's learn to think beyond ourselves for a moment, and then delight at the reward we receive.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Quote of the Week

"Those that speak against the Power of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord speaking in a woman, simply, by reason of her Sex, or because she is a Woman, not regarding the Seed, and Spirit, and Power that speaks in her; such speak against Christ, and his Church, and are of the Seed of the Serpent, wherein lodgeth enmity."- Margaret Fell, the Mother of Quakerism

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Gender Segregation Has Its Drawbacks, Too

Feminist writer Ann Friedman published a recent column in New York Magazine she entitled "Why It’s Worth Banishing Men Once in a While.” Over the years, Friedman has pushed strongly for gender parity in the workplace and especially an increased representation of women in publication. In her latest piece, she discusses the virtues of exclusively female gatherings.

Unlike the male friends and acquaintances she cites, I am not intimidated. Should a group of women decide to meet separately, with no men present, it matters little to me. I understand the importance of spaces designated specifically for women and the great good that can result from them. There is value to be found when societal pressure to impress, compete, and conform is lessened. These behaviors can be directly expressed or so automatic that they are very nearly subliminal.

For my part, I’ve participated in Quaker LGBT conferences where everyone was welcome, regardless of sexual orientation. Inclusivity was strongly stressed, especially towards straight allies. Almost everyone who turned up, however, was at least one shade of queer or the other. We were instructed to never make assumptions about anyone's sexual orientation. Asking point blank would have been considered rude. A few people here and there self-disclosed, but there seemed to be few reasons to do so.

The gathering had been originally set up in the 1970's for gay and lesbian Friends who had been shunned by their local Meetings. Including bisexual and transgender attenders had been a controversial move that was initially opposed fiercely by some. With time, this distinction ceased to be offensive. By the time I attended, no one seemed to care one way or the other.

It was a peculiar space, for sure, one where conventional demographics were flipped upside down. Those who usually made up 10% of the population were suddenly in the majority. Being present felt, to me, simultaneously euphoric and strange. What added to the surreal quality were the number of young Asian girls present who had been adopted, usually by lesbian couples.

I have only one pressing, outstanding personal issue that gives me reason to question the thrust of Friedman's argument. Men-only spaces have never felt especially comfortable to me. Years ago, I found an online advocacy group for men who had, like me, been sexually abused as children. Eager to participate in their annual conference, the sticker shock was profound.

I found the cost extremely prohibitive, no doubt eliminating many worthwhile participants. No scholarships were offered, but if you asked nicely enough, their website implied that a few dollars might be provided here and there. My financial need was more than could be provided, which ended that discussion. I asked for a scholarship, provided the amount of money I requested, and was never contacted again.

I remain a touch annoyed at being excluded and passed over. The implication, whether by design or by accident, was that only wealthy survivors were capable of achieving increased emotional and social health. Financial discrimination is sometimes much worse than any other injustice. Those who schedule conferences like these may merely be guilty of not thinking beyond face value. These kinds of oversights, I have learned, affect everyone equally.

In a religious context, I’ve taken part in gender-segregated groups. Though they always filled me with great unease, I managed to keep my wits about me as we broke down into smaller groups separated by gender. Six to eight of us formed each team. We were actively encouraged to consider profound topics with each other. Guided discussion led everyone in the room towards often-uncomfortable honesty, though we always felt gratified afterwards.

Conferences and gatherings are only one dynamic present here. While they are intense and powerful, they are ephemeral, though they tend to produce persistently strong and lasting memories. We cannot capture lightning in a bottle. Day to day life, as we know, is something very different. This is where the real work begins.

The statistical breakdown of Washington, DC, where I live, skews heavily female. Where I Worship reflects this discrepancy. Should the idea of a men-only worship group be proposed, I can safely surmise that there wouldn't be many male members around who would be able to commit to forming it. A women-only group, by contrast, would be large enough to need to be broken down into two or three separate smaller gatherings.

Religious groups are one of the few consistently female-dominated spaces in our culture. Having been a church attender my entire life, I am very familiar with those dynamics. It has been my experience that women-only gatherings are usually established in similar ways. In the beginning, a particularly motivated woman or pair of motivated women working in tandem take it upon themselves to put everything together. Justifying their need, they express forcefully and passionately their desire for gender-segregated spaces. Formal planning begins shortly afterward. The rest is history.

Despite my squeamishness, I have observed great tenderness and comfort in the words and attitudes of men, more than I would have ever expected. I’ve introduced vulnerability and sensitivity into intimate settings and been affirmed for it, not discounted or insulted as not sufficiently masculine. But even with those breakthroughs, I must say I was always glad when time was up. When I returned an environment in which men and women resumed their interaction with each other, rather than apart, I was most content there. True comfort for me, for my own reasons, involves both the participation of both sexes.

Friedman writes,

Any feminist will tell you that the movement has to include men in order to succeed. We also live in a gender-fluid age when many, many people don’t identify with either “man” or “woman,” and in order to segregate by gender, you need to force people to choose one. (For the record, my rule is that no matter how you were born or how you like to dress, if you consider yourself a woman, you’re eligible to attend.)

I don’t always feel masculine or male. I've dressed to reflect this sense of gender confusion and outright contradiction for a long time. According to her definition, do I consider myself a woman? That’s tricky. Most of my friends and acquaintances are women, assuming that single fact taken in isolation makes me somehow less than male. What I will say is that I might feel more comfortable with myself had I been born a woman.

But at the same instant I recognize that I often act like a man. I’ve absorbed particular lessons since childhood. These have taught me how I am to verbally respond in particular situations and how I ought to form and present my thoughts. That's the template upon which I communicate to the world around me. Over time, I've noticed that I copy my father’s mannerisms and turns of phrase without meaning to do it. None of that can be undone.

Mostly, I feel like a gender hermaphrodite. Being around men makes me aware of the places where I am not male, and being around women produces the same effect in a different way. This is a difficult concept to explain to skeptical people, and I would much rather have to wrestle with either male or female, but not both at the same time. That is not, however, my fate. I’ve never been one for self-pity and I won't start here. Maybe the trick is to not focus on the inevitable differences and to try to find comfort where one can.

Friedman’s conclusion shows not much in the way of love towards her critics.

When everyone’s a woman, your actions aren’t even remotely associated with your gender, but rather, with you as a person. That, I think, is a feeling even men could benefit from once in awhile. Which is why I encourage my male friends who feel left out to start their own annual holiday. They’ll never be invited to mine.

With the blanketing anxiety that has been a constant throughout my life, I’m not sure I could ever escape myself or benefit from any gender-segregated experience. My self-scrutiny is intense enough that even the most uplifting, comforting group would not grant me the ability to purge my insecurities, or at least leave them at the door. This might not be exactly what it’s like to be a woman in American society, but, based on what I’ve read and observed, it surely sounds close.

Ann Friedman's exercise in gender purity is complicated. Knowing how to interpret anecdotal evidence with any satisfaction may never provide more than interesting analysis. Our conclusions may be as different as we are.

Saturday Video

What's the ugliest
Part of your body?
What's the ugliest
Part of your body?

Some say your nose
Some say your toes
(I think it's your mind)

But I think it's your mind
(Your mind)
I think it's your mind, woo woo


Where did Annie go
When she went to town?
Who are all those creeps
That she brings around?


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Bisexuality: What We Have Here is Failure to Communicate

I seem to have kicked up controversy among a few gay men due to my remarks about Andrew Sullivan’s biphobia. I am pleased to respond and take no offense to the criticism. Queer men of a generation beyond my own have taken liberties with an earlier post and have let their displeasure be known loudly. As is the case with many groups of people who have been repeatedly judged and shamed over the course of a lifetime, some now assume the same from me. I understand their concern, which is my motivation for qualifying my remarks.

Before I begin, I should add that my earlier words of constructive criticism are not directed at any particular person or persons. The opinions I’ve shared are partially my own and partially those of others who identify as I do. I speak my truth as I have understood it, and others are certainly free to speak theirs. Or to put it another way, what we have here is failure to communicate.

It’s mind-boggling how quickly mainstream acceptance of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender has progressed. I am a child of the 1980’s and the early 1990’s. At the time I came of age, staying closeted remained a much more attractive option than it is today. In high school, I came out to myself, then to a select few of my classmates. Most of them, I’m happy to say, were accepting of me as I was. Ironically, they were more understanding and tolerant of me than I ever was about myself.

For some gay men, especially those a decade or two older than me, the term "bisexual" was often used as a stepping stone. At times, even I heard that bisexuality didn't really exist. Fortunately, both approaches are far less prevalent today. Bisexuality is taken seriously, not seen as a transitional phase. What Andrew Sullivan implies about the young British diver Tom Daley, who once dated women and is now prominently dating a man, is that a homosexual relationship is the athlete’s final step in self-discovery and somehow indicative of his real identity.

We can’t look inside Daley’s mind, and until we can, making judgments based on absolutely zero solid evidence is a losing proposition. If Daley eventually comes out as exclusively homosexual, Sullivan and many others will get to gloat about it. But if he does not, Andrew Sullivan will have to come to terms with his short-sighted attitudes. It used to be much easier to make glib pronouncements like these, but no longer.

I’ve known men and women both who have had relationships at separate times with a person of their own gender and the opposite gender. In fact, I myself fall into this category. To cite another example, a friend of mine first chose to partner with a woman. Her lesbian friends applauded her. Then when the relationship was over, she decided to date a man. Many of those same friends were dismayed and shocked. A more fluid sexuality should not cause a rejection of a person simply if he or she is neither completely one way nor entirely all another.

My friend wasn’t the one at fault here. Instead, the blame rests upon the attitudes of those who have yet to understand how complicated sexual orientation really is. We really can’t (and shouldn't) presume where a person will eventually land or where they'll end up. We can't read each other's minds and we surely can't know their preferences based on supposition and conjecture. So let's stop trying.

Cynthia Nixon was in a long term relationship with a man and now is married to a woman. Anne Heche partnered with men and women, but returned to men after dating Ellen. The late rock star Lou Reed had relationships with both sexes and was given electroshock therapy in adolescence to somehow “cure” him of his homosexual thoughts. There are many other examples I could use to illustrate the same idea. These people were not delusional. I'm fairly sure they thought through every decision they made when it came to who they intended to date.

I doubted my bisexuality at first. But, I found that if I pushed my fears aside, having sex with a man was very arousing and a lot of fun. At the end of a fairly meaningless and short-term tryst, I had an comforting epiphany. I really was bisexual. I could have sex with both men and women...because I was attracted to both men and women. This was not a case of mistaken identity on my part. For the first time in my life, the two felt very right lined up neatly next to each other. That day was one of the happiest ones of my life.

We must be willing to get past our pain, our past rejection, and look beyond what is easy and comfortable. I’m 33 now. The Millennials I observe on the bus seem sometimes to be speaking a foreign language. I try to observe their lingo and attitudes, in the hopes that I might keep abreast of the issues important to them. At the same time, I feel a very natural tendency to reject their perspectives sometimes because, quite frankly, it makes me feel old. And if I don't watch myself, I find myself too upset and perplexed, consumed with my own worries and phobias to really accept them on their own terms.

As I get even older, the effect will increase in magnitude. Young adults will show me the future by their very existence, whether I want them to or not. They'll have their own slang, their own clothing, and their own technological devices, to name a few. My immediate emotional and intellectual response to subsequent generations will likely be a profound sense of misunderstanding, coupled with a sense of not belonging in the spaces they inhabit.

Yet, I do have great hope for the future, as I am fairly certain their attitudes towards sexuality, gender, and sexual orientation will be vastly liberated compared to my own at the same age. The march of time continues. Let’s not get hemmed in by our past. Instead, let’s work hard to accept the present and future to come.

Mellow Yellow

I'm just mad about Saffron
Saffron's mad about me
I'm just mad about Saffron
She's just mad about me

They call me mellow yellow
(Quite rightly)
They call me mellow yellow
(Quite rightly)
They call me mellow yellow

I'm just mad about Fourteen
Fourteen's mad about me
I'm just mad about Fourteen
She's just mad about me

Born high, forever to fly
Wind velocity nil
Born high too ever to fly
If you want your cup our fill

Electrical banana
Is gonna be a sudden craze
Electrical banana
Is bound to be the very next phase

They call it mellow yellow
(Quite rightly)
They call me mellow yellow
(Quite rightly)
They call me mellow yellow

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Mirror's Contemplation

A work of fiction.

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. We 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. 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. 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.

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 increasing the volume to underscore how attractive she thought he was.

I had to agree. Ryan was the resident heartthrob of our group of friends, the one always in demand. As is often the case with the popular kids, he had, without even meaning to do it, a cult of personality built around him. People in his orbit tended to fall into one of three categories. The first were his inner circle and close confidants. The second were the wannabes who would give their right arm to be his friend. The third were the spiteful castaways who secretly wanted him but were too socially defective and self-doubting to ever contend for the honor.

Stephanie talked a good game, but her confidence sometimes left 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 silly and over-the-top, which disguised a deep insecurity 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.

They were really flat before. Stephanie said this while preening in front of a mirror.

I need to get one, I found myself saying. Sometimes even 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.

We paused briefly to prepare ourselves for the sea and sand. Stephanie enjoyed playing the role of the high femme, the girly girl, and her clothes 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. While she might have wanted to come across as regal, her slightly awkward behavior contradicted what must surely have been her best intentions.

So what do you think about the party? I’m really excited.

I wasn’t sure what to think about it, so I nodded, indicating that I, too, was excited. Parties sometimes promised more than they provided, but we put our best face on, time and time again, in search of the boy of our dreams.   

Let’s get obliviated. 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 drunk, not even once. She was more inclined to nurse a solitary beer or drink for hours. She told me that she associated intoxication with being out of control, and the phobia 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 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. One of them had approached her in an unskillful way. 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.

Can you help me with this?

I competently tied the straps of a revealing string bikini across her tanned back. Earlier, I couldn’t help but notice all the ways she had enhanced her physical appearance for maximum effect. Immaculately tanned, pierced navel, fake breasts, Brazilian waxed, she wanted to look somewhere between model and porn star.

What do you think?  She faced the bathroom mirror again, observing her reflection. Stephanie could have been fishing for a compliment, or this could have been a period of momentary discomfort. I was never sure whether I was observing ego or lack of confidence. Perhaps it could have been a little of both.    

You look really cute. I lied. Now it was my turn to be jealous. 

I wrestled with myself, believing I had more self-respect than that, but I have my own baggage.

It was time to go, finally. I tried to adjust my eyes to the blinding sunlight and my feet to the unfamiliar texture of sand. Once again, I would play innocent bystander and second fiddle. The guys rarely came running to me, but I held out hope for at least one of them. Being Stephanie’s friend made me question openly how I had been raised and the values I held dear. In the end, was getting what you wanted all a question of money and time?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

It's Coming Down

Perfect for a snow day.

It's coming down
It's coming down
It's raining outside
You've nowhere to hide

She's asking you why you think it's funny
It's coming down
It's coming down
She's leaving your house

She had to get out
She's mad
and she'll take her mattress with her

It's coming down
It's coming down
It's coming down
You lie on the floor

She's slamming your door
She's gone and she's wearing your red sweater
It's coming down
It's coming down

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Tonya Harding Scandal, Twenty Years Later

This past week a sports documentary ran as part of ESPN Film’s critically praised 30 for 30 series. Entitled “The Price of Gold”, director Nanette Burstein’s film takes us back twenty years, to 1994. Its release was intended to coincide with the latest Winter Olympics, which will begin in Sochi, Russia, in a little less than a month. We lay our scene at a moment of high drama that consumed the nation and the news media.

We, the audience, are placed directly in the middle of the salacious, bizarre Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan ice skating scandal. In this account, Tonya Harding is portrayed much more sympathetically than many past accounts. The film focuses squarely on the diminutive, blonde-haired tomboy from working class Portland, Oregon. Nancy Kerrigan, surprisingly, remains a static character from start to finish. We don’t really get to know her intimately, but then, that is the point. This is Tonya’s show.

The story that unfolds before us shows the life of a talented female athlete who was her own worst enemy, a renegade skater who refused to play by the rules. Her unfortunate predilection to make bad judgments and to follow even worse advice proved to be Harding’s undoing. As director Burstein concedes at the outset of the film, it’s easy, perhaps too easy, to see Nancy Kerrigan as the victim in this drama. The same cannot be easily said for her now disgraced challenger.

It is true that Kerrigan endured pain and emotional trauma. From the very beginning of this strange soap opera, the elegant ice princess won the sympathies of the entire country. But upon closer examination, Kerrigan’s rival, Tonya Harding, was in some ways a victim herself. In particular, Harding was a victim of circumstance, a determined, stubborn woman who nevertheless surrounded herself with an inner circle comprised entirely of complete losers. One such ne’er do well was her first husband, Jeff Gillooly. Gillooly’s motives for hatching an ill-fated plan to remove a skilled skater from Olympic competition were purely monetary.

Should Harding win gold in the upcoming 1994 Winter Olympics, lucrative endorsement deals were almost certain to come her way. She was never fully accepted by the staid establishment of the sport, for a variety of reasons, but was unbeatable when at the top of her game. Gillooly knew that well. He was a man without much in the way of ambition, who when he married Tonya was working for little more than minimum wage in a warehouse. Lifting boxes of hard liquor was dull, unsatisfying work, and Gillooly saw his wife as a meal ticket out of that life.

Gillooly concocted a plot with three equally clueless goons who somehow managed to successfully pull off the attack in spite of themselves. Alas, they were quickly fingered for the crime for loudly bragging about it to almost everyone who would listen. At first, Tonya Harding was presumed to know nothing about the conspiracy, but under increasing pressure, in addition to ravenous media scrutiny, valid questions began to surface. She skillfully evaded probing inquiries for a time, but eventually admitted only that she’d known a few mostly superficial details about the plot for a long time.

Law enforcement convicted Tonya on a minor charge, for which she spent no time in jail. The United States Figure Skating Alliance, however, concluded its own investigation with a very different result. It found that Harding was aware of the plot from the beginning. As a result, Harding was completely banned from the sport and stripped of her first place 1994 finish at the US Nationals competition, a result which had qualified her for the Olympic games to follow.

Now a pariah, blackballed from most skating contests, her star faded and her name became a punchline. Twenty years later, Harding is understandably bitter about the experience. She still swears she had nothing to do with the planning and execution of the attack. Her life since retirement from the rink has been up and down, full of minor skirmishes with the law and attempts to court fame and fortune once again.

After one considers the pitiful circumstances of Tonya Harding’s youth, it makes one wonder whether or not any person can ever completely escape the environment of his or her birth. Harding’s mother was an alcoholic. She was frequently verbally and sometimes physically abusive towards her daughter. In addition, she held Tonya to an impossibly high standard, which in part spurred her on to greater heights, but at times shattered her confidence. As a skater, Tonya displayed great strength but also great vulnerability.

Tonya sought to escape her mother’s caustic tongue and unstable home life by marrying Gillooly. Instead she ended up with a husband who was just as prone to hit her as well as to scream his displeasure in her face. He was her first boyfriend ever and their tumultuous marriage would eventually end in divorce four years later. Making sense of her difficult upbringing is crucial to understanding her actions and motivations.

As a young girl, Harding lived a hand-to-mouth existence, many times not knowing where her next meal would come from. A prodigy, she devoted her life to ice skating at the expense of everything else. By the age of 6, she showed a kind of maturity and presence on the ice that was rare for a girl not yet out of elementary school. Tonya learned several hard lessons over the course of her mostly forgettable childhood, one of which is that proficiency and skill alone are not always enough for success or contentment.

Ice skating is a sport that rewards demure, classical feminine beauty. It is very similar to a beauty pageant, despite the fact that it is a physically demanding sport that requires constant practice and training. Harding looked like the product of a trailer park to many seasoned observers and was totally unwilling to tone down her rough-around-the-edges image. While never a refined, graceful skater, she possessed physical strength on par with many male skaters and a doggedly ambitious blue collar work ethic. In an elitist sport where physical appearances mattered greatly, Tonya could never be, nor ever wanted to be the epitome of feminine grace and charm.

Americans have a somewhat schizophrenic relationship with the unconventional. A measure of our adoration is a craving for that which is edgy and rebellious, but too much panache and daring can be easily seen as disrespectful and arrogant. Harding never learned to play the game, or maybe that was something for which she never much cared. Her fall was due, in part, to the dysfunction that formed her and an inability to escape toxic environments. She jumped from the frying pan into the fire, exchanging one unhealthy situation with another. Some of us leave dysfunction behind, and some of us are forever defined by it. The life of Tonya Harding is, first and foremost, a tragedy.    

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Quote of the Week

"There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."-Franklin D. Roosevelt

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Saturday Video

Something different and very silly.

Friday, January 17, 2014

God's Measure of Success

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.- 1 Corinthians 15:56

Sometimes we hesitate to do good because we don't see any results. Our standards are earthly, full of the shortcomings of other living creatures like us. It has been said, quite rightly, that we are physical beings having a spiritual experience. If we are able to maintain a heavenly perspective, we have some insight as to the great conundrums of life.

To name but two, Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does effort, education, and good intentions alone not always prevent and successfully address problems? At times, we do not see the great good that results from our efforts and, if we are to be honest with ourselves, we may never. That's a tough pill to swallow.

For the highly motivated healers and fixers among us, this is a difficult lesson to digest. If we truly believe that Christ has won the ultimate victory over death, that fact should keep us grounded. We shouldn't let discouragement over an apparent lack of results keep us from working together towards a much superior goal. By all means, let's do good, use our opportunities, but never forget that worthwhile work will never provide us eternal life. The imperfections and contradictions of our current form will never satisfy anyone, neither seeker, nor firm believer.

Three years of committee service, recently concluded, led me to rely upon a particular saying. I recognized my purpose was to serve God, not to serve other people. Along the way, my models and mentors were sometimes frustratingly unhelpful, and I frequently lost my patience. I looked for tangible results and, at times, found very few of them.

Placing my trust in God means that I swallow my ego and temper my expectations. It requires surrender. What lies before me are the metrics of his plan, not mine. I seek to keep this in mind in difficult times when I crave even a crumb of good news. Each of us longs for a shot in the arm, a confidence boost, and the satisfaction of building something functional and permanent from the ground up.

Looking at things from a Godly perspective means that, unless I correct my attitude, I might well remain mired in what I consider to be obscurity and frustration for the entirety of my life. But to reiterate, as Jesus corrected Peter, if I do this, I am looking at things merely from a human point of view. Let's examine ourselves. We are biological machines. Each of us is given a finite amount of time before we expire and turn back to dust. The clock is running from the moment we are born, and our physical selves will eventually give way and break down. We will all grow old and frail. We will all die.

Liberal Quakers, especially, are uncomfortable with the notion of the afterlife. Critics of organized religion make a case that living only for a heavenly reward means that we ignore the problems of our physical existence. Not so. We shouldn't shirk our responsibility to do good. We are commanded to care for the less fortunate, the poor, the infirm, and those whose plight is routinely ignored.

Heaven has been described by these detractors as a beautiful fantasy, but I beg to differ. Eternal life cannot be measured and comprehended by our finite, limited brains. I've given up imagining what is to follow, refusing to live a life dictated by works, jumping through the hoops in sequence like a trained pony. I'm more concerned now with taking things in stride, even though I'm an impatient person. Each of us has a cross (or two) to bear.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Cool It Down

Somebody took the papers
And somebody's got the key
And somebody nailed the door shut
That says hey what you think that you see

But me l'm down around the corner
You know I'm lookin' for Miss Linda Lee
Because she's got the power
to love me by the hour
Gives me W-L-O-V-E

Hey baby if you want it so fast
Don't you know that it ain't gonna last
Of course you know
it makes no difference to me

Somebody's got the time time
Somebody's got the right
All of the other people
Tryin' to use up the night

But now me l'm out on the corner
You know I'm lookin' for Miss Linda Lee
Because she's got the power
to love me by the hour
Gives me W- L-O-V-E

Ooh if you want it so fast
Don't you know honey you can get it so fast
But of course you know
it makes no difference to me

Oh oh oh you'd better cool it down
You know you'd better cool it down
You know you'd better cool it down
You know you'd better cool it down

Oh hey if you want it so fast
Now lookie baby don't you want it to last
But of course you know
that it makes no difference to me

Oh you'd better cool it down
You know you'd better cool it down
You know you'd better cool it down

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Martin Luther King, Jr. and America's Moral Attitudes

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Had he not been assassinated in 1968, King would have turned 85 today. On Monday we will formally celebrate the day of his birth, but I wanted to say a few words before next week's adoration. On a holiday devoted to a martyr and inspirational leader, it's hard to cut through the clutter and the passionate tributes. Though I appreciate King's genius and ability, I've sought to keep a realistic perspective. If you will, I seek to bury King, not necessarily to praise him.

Past Quaker Meetings for Worship prior to the holiday have been a room full of starry-eyed tributes. Regardless of what some might call the moral arc of justice, I mostly believe that we bet on the right horse. Liberals aimed for the moral high ground and, much to our credit, we achieved our objective. Though celebration is in order, reducing a complicated man with a complicated legacy to a victory lap helps no one.

King's detractors have always brought up his history of marital infidelity. They have also pointed to evidence of plagiarism in his academic research papers, his doctoral dissertation, and his speeches. For figures in the public eye, no personal life is safe from scrutiny. MLK, Jr. was considered dangerous by notoriously paranoid FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and it is from this surveillance that allegations of skirt-chasing have surfaced.

Over time, King's inner circle has provided at least a partially sanitized version for public consumption. I find we can more easily forgive and rationalize extramarital affairs if they happen to someone we don't know personally. If they are present in a husband, wife, mother, or father, the pain and psychological damage are real. I've written before about my maternal grandfather, who was an incurable womanizer. Regardless of how you spin it out, his behavior created substantial problems for the entire family. It caused some of his children to have issues with trust and intimacy in their own lives, with their own partners.

Every human life exists in shades of grey. For convenience sake, we like to believe life is all one way or all another. Puritanical attitudes continue to guilt and shame us into falling in line. It's fashionable for Americans to point to French perspectives towards the matter of infidelity. They are far more private than we are and, for them, cheating isn't a big deal. Men cheat. Politicians cheat. That's just how men are.

That hasn't stopped the latest sex scandal involving President Francois Hollande, but the French people have a more live-and-let live attitude.

And do the French care? Well, according to a poll published in the Journal du Dimanche, 77% of respondents said the affair was a personal matter. And 84% said it had done nothing to change their opinion of Hollande.

In contrast, this country has gone as far as impeaching a President for having a dalliance with a younger woman. To be fair, infidelity was only part of the reason why. Some of it was retribution for Richard Nixon and Watergate. Much of it was purely politics, though many Republicans played pious for the cameras. No one really wanted to reform Capitol Hill culture, where affairs outside of marriage have been plentiful from the beginning.

These are public figures living in a fishbowl. I've called Washington, DC, home for nearly five years and I've come to understand the nature of the tiny Kingdom that inhabits a very small portion of the District of Columbia. Should one work on the Hill, a span of a few blocks contains everything of paramount importance. If one does not work on the Hill, then it's merely a striking landmark one periodically passes by on the way elsewhere.

At times, I'm not sure what to think about Martin Luther King, Jr. I appreciate his strong Christian faith. I am thankful for the way that he used Scripture to produce eloquent speeches that are thoughtful and beautifully crafted. To this day, even secular humanists and atheists who revere King would do well to have at least a basic understanding of the Bible.

This Christian nomenclature is essential to know King as he was and to understand his motives. I wish I could be as nonchalant and permissive as the French, though neither do I romanticize their attitudes. I should point out that their supposedly libertine posture does not always apply to same-sex relationships, or to heterosexual women.

What I think is important, but what we think is even more important. Many of the most prominent political figures of our country were philanderers. Like my hard-scrabble grandparents who lived a life of poverty during the Depression, I idolize Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR died while on a visit to his mistress of 30 years in Warm Springs, Georgia. The facts were repressed for years and not printed under any circumstance at the time.

Part of the reason George W. Bush won in 2000 was a result of values voters who could not excuse Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. I still remember the bumper stickers on the cars of Republican voters. Each was only two words long. "Character Matters." If it had been up to my home state of Alabama, Clinton would have been removed from office. The bitterness that resulted from the failed impeachment riled up and motivated the Republican base.  

Each of us make rationalizations for those with whom we have an emotional bond. I don't find that rationalizations are inherently bad, provided we recognize our motives. We have to resort to rationalization sometimes because our lives are culturally dictated by exacting standards that may never be plausible or even possible. There's no easy way to change the dictates of societal attitudes. How we form our opinions have much to do with us and our life's experience, less to do with objective facts and controversial revelations.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Keep on Running

I have a sinus infection that has made my singing voice sound stuffy. The first round of antibiotics wasn't enough, so now I'm on a powerful penicillin regimen. I look forward to the day the problem subsides completely. This is my first bout with a bacterial infection that has mutated in such a way to be resistant to conventional treatment. It reminds me yet again of how many antibiotics are losing their effectiveness due to being over prescribed.

Keep on running, keep on hiding
One fine day I'm gonna be the one
To make you understand
Oh, yeah, I'm gonna be your man.

Keep on running, running from my arms
One fine day I'm gonna be the one
To make you understand
Oh yeah, I'm gonna be your man.

Hey, hey, hey
Everyone is talking about me
It makes me feel so sad.
Hey, hey, hey
Everyone is laughing at me,
It makes me feel so bad,
So keep on running

Keep on running, running from my arms
One fine day I'm gonna be the one
To make you understand
Oh, yeah, I'm gonna be your man

Monday, January 13, 2014

You're No Rock 'N Roll Fun

You're no rock 'n roll fun
like a party that's over
before it's begun

You're no walk in the park
more like a shot in the dark
with clues left for no one

And all the boys in the band
know how to get down
fill our Christmas socks
with whiskey drinks
and chocolate bars

and when the evening ends we won't
be thinking of you then
Although the best man
won't hang out with the girl band!

You're no rock 'n roll fun
like a piece of art
that no one can touch

Your head is always up in the clouds
writing your songs
won't you ever come down?

And all the boys in the band
know how to get down
fill our Christmas socks
with whiskey drinks
and chocolate bars

and when the evening ends we won't
be thinking of you then
Even if your song
is playing on the jukebox

You wanna party with the lights on
Come on, I like it dark!
You always wanna hear the same old song
Come on play another song!

You're no rock 'n roll fun

Giving Back to an Audience

In the past several days, two feminist female writers have bravely shared their struggles with frequent online harassment. Once again, I am reminded of how it pains me that the very phrase “feminism” has become a pejorative to many. Despite efforts to reclaim the word anew, “feminist” is a qualifier usually only introduced into discussion when it is safe. And by safe, we mean when the word and its related concepts can be safely shared among other women, a handful of male allies, and an otherwise vastly limited audience.

I grew up with a mother who was strongly influenced by the women’s movement of the 1970’s. When she began raising myself and my two younger sisters, she no longer had the time to keep abreast of the direction of the movement. I doubt this was an unusual occurrence for women of her age. College education hopefully begins an eagerness to soak in knowledge and apply it to our lives, but outside of the bubble of academia, learning can atrophy with time. Many Americans think that feminism is a social movement that died decades ago. What it stands for now, to many, is a long litany of perceived failings. Many see the entire ideology as poisonous, leaving no room or inclination to know what it really teaches.

That is what a new generation of feminists have sought to correct. At first I, a man, hesitated to get involved, for reasons mentioned above. I wanted to honor my mother’s sacrifice and the valid criticisms of a sexist society she regularly raised during my childhood, but I wasn’t sure there would be space for me at the table. Having immersed myself in online feminist activism for months, I now wanted to contribute to the dialogue.

I read voraciously both online and in book form. It was my intention to eventually add my own voice in the hopes of helping to guide the discourse. I never went into the process expecting that it would be easy, but neither did I expect to be ignored and feared by those who I thought to be my allies. Knowing what I know now about the constant online harassment female feminist writers experience, I have a greater context to use for reference.

I wish I had known it before I first started. My motives were noble, or at least I thought so. I could not understand why I was treated frostily at first. I did not comprehend why my written remarks were scrutinized and even at times cruelly mocked. This seemed contrary to the ideas the movement claimed it supported and championed.

I read that third-wave feminism needed male allies and I was more than willing to sign up for the job. I knew I’d have my male privilege called out and questioned. I knew full well that there were other factors about myself that gave me an unfair leg up. I took little offense when told to check my privilege or if I was speaking out of turn. It was the cold shoulder I received from my supposed equals that struck me as unfair.

One of my flaws, or perhaps one of my strengths, is my unwillingness to hold anything back. I have never minded sharing my fears and insecurities with my readers or my confidantes. These same rules are in force with a group of friends who, beyond the internet, know me in person. Based on information that took five years to surface, I can now better understand the wariness that greeted my arrival into feminist spaces. If only I could have somehow been made aware of it.

Unbeknownst to me, a group of tight-knit writers and mutual collaborators on a frequently-read feminist blog decided to circle the wagons as a means of coping. Due to a series of past regrettable events, they were often on high alert any time a man decided to actively participate or to comment. I’m not blaming them for their reaction, but I do find their lack of transparency a little disturbing.

At first, this group wasn’t sure who I was or even what I wanted. They formed judgments about me without caring to know the facts. I was being punished for the sins of others who had come before me. As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.

I didn’t help myself when, in the middle of a nervous breakdown (routine for someone with bipolar disorder) I e-mailed several regular contributors. What I was asking for was validation, maybe even a few sympathetic words to tell me that what I was experiencing was irrational and would not last forever. Anyone with an understanding of sexual abuse would know that my reaction was not uncommon.

I concede I was not fully in control of my pain, nor was I in control of my response to it. But I never thought I was asking too much. I was terrified and absolutely had to vocalize the way I was feeling, even if those feelings were laid at the feet of complete strangers.

My written pleas were not worded aggressively and I made no demands or threats, but it appeared to me as if the writers already felt they had ample reason to fear, to ignore me, or to push me aside. Some of them pitied me. Most held me at arm’s length, even though that was the very last thing I needed. Feminists of today might find it in their power and understanding to know how to separate those in pain from those who intend to inflict it upon others. It’s really not that difficult.

A stated agenda of the feminist movement is to fight to protect the rights of victims of sexual assault. I was one such person with one such history. Having said that, you’d think this confluence of ideas and activism would be the ideal audience for me. I believe now that my gender and the baseless fears it created in others overshadowed the the narrative of the abuse I’d experienced.

Let’s be clear. I never wanted anyone to go out of his or her way to be an impromptu support network. I don’t make demands on busy people. Nevertheless, it disappointed me that people who were motivated and eager to be the tireless advocates for victims of sexual and physical abuse in the abstract somehow had no time for me.

Building a publication name and a public profile is the name of the game for many, but ignoring the valid concerns of readers is not acceptable behavior. I don’t always know who my readers are, but the ones who do e-mail or leave comments almost always receive my attention. Four years ago, I went to a meetup of young feminists, most of whom were college students enrolled in women’s studies programs. They knew me well because we’d engaged in frequent dialogue by way of the comment section. The editors and regular writers present didn’t seem to care about who their audience was or even what it might need from them.

If we have enough energy and motivation to inspire and educate an audience, we must also nurture them. Feminism, in theory, provides a voice for those who have rarely been able to express themselves without censure. We cannot float above and merely be a news service, or cynically use our readership as a bargaining chip for career advancement.

I recognize that editors and contributors want to increase their profile on a national scale. This is the motive of every writer, journalist, and blogger. Myself included. But what should never be forgotten are, to use but two examples, the college freshman enrolled in her first gender studies class or the young woman who finds herself pregnant, alone, and afraid. We are not social workers or counselors, but on some level we owe those who derive inspiration from us. We are more than a disembodied voice way up in the clouds, regardless of how often we’ve been hurt in the past.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Quote of the Week

"Men weren’t really the enemy — they were fellow victims suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill."-Betty Friedan

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Saturday Video

Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide
Got nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide.

It's not love, I'm running from,
It's the heartbreak I know will come.

'Cause I know you're no good for me,
but you've become a part of me.
Ev'rywhere I go, your face I see,
ev'ry step I take, you take with me yeah

Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide
Got nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide.
I know you're not good for me,
but free of you I'll never be, no.

Each night as I sleep, into my heart you creep.
I wake up feelin' sorry I met you,
hoping soon that I'll forget you.

When I look in the mirror to comb my hair
I see your face just a smiling there.

Nowhere to run,
nowhere to hide from you baby,
Got nowhere to run to, baby,
nowhere to hide.

I know you're no good for me,
but you've become a part of me,
How can I fight a lover,
that shouldn't be, when it's so deep,

So deep, deep inside of me
My love reaches so high I can't get over it
It's so wide I can't get around it, no

Nowhere to run,
nowhere to hide from you baby
Just can't get away from you baby,
no matter how I try to

I know you're no good for me,
but free of you I'll never be,
Nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide,
got nowhere to run to baby.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Work of Fiction

Written by an unreliable narrator.

She called from a cell phone somewhere downtown. It wasn't her own. A voice with a British accent introduced the call, stating that she'd agreed to let a stranger use her phone, but only for no longer than a couple of minutes. The woman I'd been corresponding with via e-mail for most of a day came on the line next. I knew she was homeless, or at least in the process of finding a soft place to land. These days, most people don't have to rely upon the charity of public libraries to check their inbox.

I was to pick her up in a part of town I usually avoided because it was mostly a tourist trap. Unfamiliar with this section of the city, I struggled to find a parking space for most of an hour. Once I did get situated, I found her nervously pacing back and forth in front of Planet Hollywood. She looked impatient and a little angry, but smiled when I established my identity. She followed me to my car, then began a conversation.

I had no idea what a quickie was. If I had, I'd never have gotten myself in such trouble. You may find it hard to believe, but I thought I was receiving at least a couple of hours worth of company. If it progressed beyond the platonic, I wouldn't turn it down, but her choice in words had been sparse and vague. I'll admit I was feeling needy. That familiar persistent tugging wouldn't leave me alone.

During our trip to where she was currently staying, we crossed over the tracks into an area blighted with crime and neglect. She pointed out the location of every crack house within a mile radius from my apartment, which we'd passed by on our way elsewhere. It was a piece of information that was as informative as it was unsettling. Such is the nature of living in recently gentrified parts of the city. I'd driven through the same area a thousand times on my way to other places, ignorant of the housing projects and what could be found there. Now I could never forget.

We'd initially planned to go back to my place, but she pleaded with me to take her home first. It seems she was planning on leaving and moving elsewhere, but wasn't sure where yet. One option was her gay brother and his boyfriend, but according to her they were anal retentive and obsessive about little things that didn't matter. She wasn't sure where to go and was trying to live a day at a time. I had no room for her at my place, though I momentarily considered that she might stay with me for a day or two.

I was trying to be a good person, but I didn't recognize that my life was in danger. I was wary of unfamiliar surroundings, but like in a film noir, I didn't realize the extent of my predicament until it was too late. The dingy, dark room of the house I entered contained a bed occupied by two nearly naked women and three televisions resting upon a beat up dresser.

Each set was tuned to the same pornography feed. The sound was fully muted on every one. I was invited to perform oral sex upon one of two women, and out of fear I obliged. Nothing is free in life. This was a lesson I learned later that evening and have not forgotten. I was naive enough to believe that the act itself was provided free of charge. Instead, I only increased my tab, and parted with even less of my money.

What saved me was my prowess, which was partially skill and partially abject terror. Even the man with the gun was impressed, admiring my handiwork. How did you learn how to do that? For a half-second I almost relaxed, glad for the praise. Praise was better than threats, better than psychological extortion. Compliments were effusive all around, but the woman who had originally set up this quickie felt a little threatened. In her mind, I was her john alone. I would never have taken part in any of this drama if I hadn't feared for my life.

Following the sexual interlude, I was taken to a separate room. The door was shut behind me. I was implored to buy a used electric drill which came with a thousand separate attachments, a heavy plastic container, and a shade of orange. I had no need for it, but I entertained his sales pitch for ten excruciating minutes. He made many assumptions about the extent of my income, each of which were equally wrong. While I recognized by now that I'd been taken for a sucker, my desire to escape kept my anger in check. What would it take to get back home, cut my losses, and resolve to never do something foolish like this again?

Paying a ransom, I reasoned, would allow me to leave without being physically hurt. I'd depart without being the latest crime statistic for the local news the next morning. I knew he would kill me if I didn't buy him something he wanted. We took off in my car. He indicated that he was after an expensive watch. The exact model he wanted cost $100. I reluctantly took the money out of the ATM outside the store and handed it over. This entire interlude had cost me over $300 already. While I may have been after something different, this wasn't the kind of different I had in mind.

She begged to stay with me. Her fear, which was not unreasonable, is that her W2 would get stolen. She'd stowed it away deep inside a canvass knapsack. She'd yet to file her taxes and knew that the forthcoming tax return provided needed funds. My trust had been violated and I was in no mood to accommodate any more of her pleas. I'd walked right into a trap that she had set. Because of that, I ignored her. I dropped her and her W2 at the residence where I'd just spent a terrifying hour, and headed directly for home.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

That's Alright Mama

Short but sweet. I've been dealing with The Cold that Will Not Die, which is why I sound congested.

Well, that's alright now, mama
That's alright for you
That's alright now mama, just anyway you do

Well, that's alright, that's alright.
That's alright now mama, anyway you do

Mama she done told me,
Papa done told me too
'Son, that gal your foolin' with,
She ain't no good for you'

But, that's alright, that's alright.
That's alright now mama, anyway you do

I'm leaving town, baby
I'm leaving town for sure
Well, then you wont be bothered with
Me hanging 'round your door

Well, that's alright, that's alright.
That's alright now mama, anyway you do

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Internet: Still the Wild West

In the past several months, cyber blackmail tactics like revenge porn have been widely publicized. These crimes fall disproportionately upon women. The victims of these attacks have conceded that law enforcement has been inexcusably slow to adapt to the changes of the modern age. A variety of activities and tactics meant to shame and humiliate victims have been used by mostly anonymous harassers and cowardly bullies. While it is factual that a younger set is more devoted to the internet, it should be noted that this intimidation is not something that only happens to young adults.

Recently, I've explored the morass that passes for the comment section in a variety of online publications. Ordinarily this is an activity I usually take great pains to avoid, because such places are always are full of harsh criticism and jaded spleen. Even if I enter with the intention to stay calm, it doesn't take long before my blood starts to boil. Though I concede my decision may have been only an exercise in masochism, it wasn't a total loss, either. In any case, I've been able to understand better the motivations and psychology of those who post inflammatory content in an online forum.

For many, the bickering is fun, and not to be taken seriously. It's a way to vent usually repressed hostilities and frustrations. While on the subject, I am reminded of a trip to Boston several years back. The person driving me around town enjoyed riding the bumper of rude drivers, letting them know she was not about to let them get away with it. It made for a terrifying ride, made even more frightening by her frequent loud peals of laughter. This was a kind of competition, somewhat akin to a game of chicken. And as for whether or not this was the best way to seek to even the score, I will say only that there may have been healthier options available.

My father finds feminism enraging, and if he were to really verbalize his thoughts, he would admit that he is afraid of unsmiling, emasculating feminists making unreasonable, curtly worded demands. When I read the comments of an article written by a woman or a group of women who are feminists, I see echoes of Dad's perspective everywhere.

The movement threatens him and, in his mind, the radical voices of a bygone era symbolize the views of everyone who takes up the mantle. In reality, feminism was hardly any codified movement, even in its watershed days. Eventually it broke apart due to the fissures and disagreements that had been evident for years. Today, it is predicated upon a few prominent issues and intersections, but no set orthodoxy exists and it never has.

Curiously, my father married my mother. She was a devotee to what was then usually called women's liberation. Despite the sometimes massive differences in political opinion, they've been married almost forty years and will likely remain together forever. This only proves that even strongly held political views can take a subordinate role to love and devotion. As for ideology, my mother drifted away from feminism when she started having kids. It's hard to have an evolved and informed consciousness while in the middle of changing diapers and breastfeeding. But it didn't completely ride off into the sunset.

Men are weak. This was my mother's mantra. While she might not have had the stamina, as a young mother, to remain on the cutting edge, it gave her no small amount of pleasure to get a dig in here and there. This remark was usually directed towards male public figures who became ensnared in sex scandals, or those who out of impulsive lust made risky, boneheaded decisions. Everyone has his or her own Achilles's heel, but I happen to know that men and women both have extramarital affairs. The clincher here is that a man's fall from grace may make a more emphatic sound.

Dad and I recently watched MSNBC for five minutes while Rachel Maddow's show was airing. It completely set him off. He was livid. Can't you see how angry she is? I kept my mouth shut to avoid an argument that would have never headed anywhere productive. I've not once thought of Rachel Maddow in those terms. Her analysis has always appeared to these eyes as even-handed and respectful. My father's response had everything to do with himself and nothing to do with a woman in a studio speaking to a television audience.

Feminism, especially when it is first introduced by a woman, makes many men see red. Once again, it's zero-sum game thinking, where everything a woman achieves will come at the expense of men. This drives the hateful, violent commentary that women with any stature receive with frequency. Amanda Hess's column linked above discusses in depth the risks that women writers take, the ones that inevitably that follow every post or publication.

After I received my most recent round of threats, I asked Jessica Valenti, a prominent feminist writer (and the founder of the blog Feministing), who’s been repeatedly targeted with online threats, for her advice, and then I asked her to share her story. “It’s not really one story. This has happened a number of times over the past seven years,” she told me. When rape and death threats first started pouring into her inbox, she vacated her apartment for a week, changed her bank accounts, and got a new cell number.

When the next wave of threats came, she got in touch with law enforcement officials, who warned her that though the men emailing her were unlikely to follow through on their threats, the level of vitriol indicated that she should be vigilant for a far less identifiable threat: silent “hunters” who lurk behind the tweeting “hollerers.” The FBI advised Valenti to leave her home until the threats blew over, to never walk outside of her apartment alone, and to keep aware of any cars or men who might show up repeatedly outside her door. “It was totally impossible advice,” she says. “You have to be paranoid about everything. You can’t just not be in a public place.”

Since reading the above article, I've sought to understand the psychology of online blackmailers and trolls. Some of them, in my experience, are provocative only to needle and to get a desired response. But even then, I know that there is a vast amount of difference between an insulting, injurious comment and a death threat.

Death threats, rape threats, and those threatening imminent physical harm should always be taken seriously, but the vast majority of the childish games featured here are mostly designed to produce indignation, anger, frustration, and fear. I've ignored my own detractors as best I can. While I may think they've gone away for good, some always resurface months later. Their behavior is nothing I can control. All they really want is attention in the worst way possible.

I have not received death threats, but I have dealt with one particularly persistent troll. He insults me on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, then is nowhere to be found. When I least expect it, he's back, this time with a new username. By contrast, when I post to Daily Kos, I receive usually respectful comments from readers.

Even so, I run into a few people here and there who isolate and misinterpret a specific passage of my latest diary, deliberately confusing it with the theme of the entire post. Hairsplitters look for ways to be contrary, and I do lose my patience with them before long. They hone in on particular phrases and then take the entire main idea out of context, intending only to be right, not to be enlightened or informed.

Internet-based discussions can be rewarding but they can also be a little traumatizing. It makes me wonder why we just can't be honest with ourselves. Instead, we disguise who we are and let loose with avalanches of negativity and insults. Each of these thoughts comes from within us, somewhere. Mean-spirited comments have been percolating in the minds of many for a long while before they are voiced in a public forum.

It's difficult for me to see that of God in everyone on a website or a listserve. Even among people of faith, the false sense of anonymity makes our discussions vituperative. We lash out at the people who we ought to love the most. I wonder if we can lessen and diminish this problem with greater innovation. Until then, the Internet is still the Wild West, a mostly unregulated universe evolving and growing, even if we don't know where we'll be next.