08 December 2014

All about the sex

I always hear about women having trouble having an orgasm.  About 10% of women have never had an orgasm, and I've heard plenty of male friends tell tales of girls who just "lie there".  As someone who feels sex is a very important part of life, this strikes me as extremely tragic!
First off, I want to say, I’m not anti-porn or pro-censorship and I freaking love sex – let’s just get that out of the way up front. I am definitely not one of these women, but I have talked to several of them and have always been puzzled by this issue.  (And because I'm a hetero cis female, I will speak from that point of view, so excuse me for leaving out all the lovely LBGT beauties, but that is not my experience, so I don't want to speak for anyone in that community.)
Porn gets blamed for the brokenness in male/female sexual relations a lot, but as adults. But I think the disconnect happens sooner, and it isn’t just in porn, but in the idea of what “sexy” is via the male gaze. Think about it: what we think of as “sexy” has been highly constructed. I believe the disconnect for women is that their first introduction to sexuality in our culture is entirely focused on the external than the internal — looking sexy as opposed to feeling one’s own sexuality. So in other words, women learn to act sexy according to pre-prescribed ideas of what sexy is visually…but they learn little to nothing about how to pleasure themselves. (Think about it — we don’t even really have much popular slang in this culture for women’s masturbation, but dozens of terms for the male — how do girls learn about masturbation for themselves?) So many women fall into a sort of “performative” sexuality that is disconnected from their own body and what it’s doing, instead focusing on “acting” sexy and not communicating with their partners.
Which is the key point: sex is a thing we do together, not a thing we do to one another. The best sex includes communication about what feels good and intense connection — if women are just “lying there” I’m guessing that they don’t feel good and they don’t know what will enough to communicate it to their partner, or they feel like they can’t communicate with their partner in the first place without being judged possibly. (I don’t know for sure, I’ve never been one to “just lie there”.) I’m guessing this is where the “feeling safe” idea comes into play — “feeling safe” could just mean feeling able to express themselves, however, if they don’t know what makes them feel good, then they’ll have trouble expressing that anyway.
This is compounded by the idea of “experience” — if a woman seeks to gain experience to become better at sex, she is slut-shamed…and if she talks about liking sex, forget about it. For a woman to be sex-positive is to be "dirty" or a "whore", and acknowledgement of female masturbation is almost non-existent — there are very few examples in the culture of women experiencing pleasure for themselves, it’s all performative.  If a woman is thinking about how she looks, it’s not going to be as easy to think about how she feels…or to lose herself in a sexual experience.
I believe we are all responsible for our own orgasms. It isn’t your partners job to “make” you come — sex happens in your head, and if you aren’t a full participant than having the expectation of an orgasm almost seems unreasonable to me. Conversely, under that model, a woman having an orgasm isn’t an “accomplishment” for the male, or an example of sexual prowess, which I think would take some of the performative pressure off of men (which can’t be easy).
I don’t know how we change this except to do a better job educating girls about their bodies and about pleasure!  I’m always shocked when I hear about women not communicating or just lying there…it makes me sad for both them and their partners.  They're missing out on one of the best parts of life!  

10 April 2014

So now George Bush is a painter.

(This was actually a facebook status update, but it bears repeating.  My apologies for being a lazy blogger, for the three people who might read this!)

Enough about George Bush's "paintings"! Or maybe I should say..."George Bush's" paintings?
Let's think about all this logically for just a minute, can we? Please?
We should well know by now the Republican publicity machine we're dealing with, yet once again, we're allowing them to lead us around by our noses while we squawk about mediocre paintings supposedly painted by someone the rest of the world knows as a war criminal. Let's break this all down.
1. We first learned of ol' 43's little hobby via a "hacked email". Instantly, the national conversation turned to a bizarre pair of "self portraits", echoed endlessly in the media everywhere. (The angle on the one with the mirror makes it just as logically likely, based on the pictorial space, that it's GWB looking at someone else's ass in a homoerotic encounter, but we'll leave that aside for a moment.) Umm...since when is an ex-President's email being "hacked" not the national conversation we SHOULD have at that moment? It's a major Secret Service FAIL. Where are the articles indemnifying the lax security? Why aren't the Republicans foaming at the mouth to find out who would allow their former leader to be in such danger? What's wrong with this picture?
2. Just curious: where are the articles about the prosecution of Guccifer, the hacker who was caught in Romania back in January? Now, don't get me wrong: I find Guccifer's antics fairly hysterical. Hacking Colin Powell's facebook page? Priceless. Releasing Hillary Clinton's Benghazi emails in comic sans? Epic. I'm generally fairly pro-hacker, in part, because hackers make our systems more secure and often reveal wrong-doings. However...shouldn't that be front page news? And not on Gawker, but everywhere? Shouldn't George Bush be more than "annoyed", as he expressed following the "accidental" unveiling of his hobby?
3. George Bush paints a bunch of world leaders because they're his "friends", and instead of using the vast trove of photos available in both his personal and official collections, since every move he ever made was documented by officially sanctioned photographers...he goes to google. He does the same thing a fifth grader writing a report would do, he picks the very. First. Image. On. Google. Now: aside from being the exact same crime that Shep Fairey just lost a lawsuit over, it's so extremely unimaginative that one wonders why. It just begs the question: did he choose the pictures? Did he think about them? Because...that's how painters roll. Even painters that pull images off of google.
4. We all know Jeb Bush is going to make a run for the presidency. And we ALL know who his biggest liability is. Yeah. That one.
So, here's one possible scenario: Karl Rove aka Turdblossom hired some Michaels crafts painting teacher to make those and then "leaked" them via email to start this whole ball rolling, so that we could all sit back and talk about what a silly doddering old man GWB is, and isn't it cute that he thinks he's an artist, and clear the way for JebBro's run by humanizing his evil sibling.
Now: I'm not trying to start a big conspiracy theory here. I have no proof that happened, and no reason to believe it could aside from extrapolating from past experience with the trail of lies, tricks and games this team has brought us for the past 20 years or so. Have we learned anything?
What I'm trying to do is get you to think. Of course it's fun to debate the merits of sub-par paintings, and complain that they don't deserve the attention and we should be talking about real art instead. But we're being part of the problem in that -- we could, for example, just go on talking about real art and ignore the hubbub, instead of lamenting that we aren't.
I just want everyone to think about whether or not they're being manipulated and played here. Because let's face it -- it wouldn't be the first time. We can always work on creating our own national conversation instead of following the talking points and P.R. mavens' goals for our interactions. What's in the news is rarely newsworthy these days, and I look to my fascinating collection of friends for a different, much richer, conversation. We're better than this. Stop.

12 November 2013

Untended Gardens

I hate my racism.

You white people saying you’re not racists?  You’re all liars.

Racism grows on your heart like kudzu, unwanted
untended, leaving little room for useful plants to grow
You must hack it away, burn it, revile it
Tear it back from the tender seedlings
Empathy, understanding, courage
Tear it back so you can see what lies beneath, yank it out by its grasping roots
We ALL fear the other.

“But they’re racist too!” you sputter, the toddler’s lament for justice
“you’re right”, I say, “now hush”.
We are ALL racist.  We are all filled with
Bitter stories and years of fears
Suspicion and unfulfilled curiosity
They’re racist too.  They.  Always they.
Is that your only excuse?  It’s a bad one.
We can only tend our own hearts, mend our own weakness

Your racism lives in that sidelong glance
That shiver of the shoulders when someone is behind you
It lives in the weak smile and downcast eyes
It lives in the way you read the news
First skin is suspect
Then hoodies
What next
Breathing?  Speaking?  Living?
You know you thought for a second there must be a reason
That boy was shot.
Admit it.

My momma didn’t raise me that way.
All people were equal, and I was not allowed
To let the word “hate” past my lips, not even for broccoli. 
But she couldn’t stop the world’s whispers
She couldn’t stop the parade of white faces only
On tv
And anyway
All people didn’t live in our neighborhood.  Only a few people
a lot like us.

But I was different. 

“Mom, what’s a kike”? 
She froze in place like a button had been pushed and slowly
But she didn’t tell me.
Didn’t tell me what it meant, didn’t tell me
How it applied to me.
‘Cause see, we weren’t supposed to be Jewish
we were WHITE, and that meant
we were above that name-calling
above the bad words
we had taken on the mantle of that privilege
when my parents slipped rings on now Catholic fingers
with my grandparents barely there, at the last minute
deigning to attend their only child’s forbidden marriage.
We were WHITE.   We were Catholic.  And that matzah-ball soup
Your grandma makes for you
That’s just an East Coast thing.  Pay it no mind.

Difference followed me.  Followed me like the old man
That slithered down the sidewalk after me
After he hissed, apropos of nothing,
“I’ll bet you one thin dime you’re a Jew”.
I guess he earned his dime, earned it from my bushy hair,
My big nose, my…what?  How could he know about me
What I didn’t know myself?
But by that time
I had embraced the other
Thrown it over my shoulders like a grand cape
Festooned and shaved my colored hair, hammered spikes through
The cracked black leather of my coat
Left my legs unshaven and pierced every extra flap
Of tattooed white skin
If you wanted to hate on me, I’d give you a target.
Give you a reason, take a number,
Bring it on. 
Because I could choose that.
We were WHITE. 
I could choose,
But still not pass.

We justify our hate.
We tell ourselves stories,
That it’s worthy of tending
That it’s earned
That those people over there, they’re just DIFFERENT
You don’t understand.
But I do.
I live in this country too,
And feel ashamed when I think
To lock the car door passing through certain neighborhoods
Feel ashamed when I judge
The cashier’s pronunciation of “ask”
And recognize her judgment reflected back through brown eyes
Because I am found unworthy, too
We all judge one another.
We are all unworthy.

What happened that night
Will never be known
And we can argue through all the ones remaining, but
There is only one pertinent fact
And that is
That a boy is dead.
And his body is feeding the kudzu
That chokes out other life in the south
That covers all the habitable spaces
That camoflages the world into a blanket of sameness.
There is only one pertinent fact.
A boy was shot.
And the man who shot him is free.
And a nation has forgotten to tend its garden,
And has allowed the kudzu to swallow it.

But I’m not a racist, you say.
That boy, he was suspended
He had a hoodie
He had some skittles and an iced tea
And a girl on the phone that clattered against the pavement
Before it went silent forever.
Please know this: you are.

Now: tend your garden.

03 November 2013

For P.

            I know you said you wanted to hear positive stories, but this is the only one I've got.  You get the story you get.  I can say that in the end, it is positive...hopefully it's worth it.  I don't want to depress you more, but I think there is redemption and comfort embedded in all stories.

            An hour after we were told my Father would die, my stepmonster was screaming at me by his deathbed.  For the entire week, as we took turns holding vigil even through a blizzard, I was just smoldering with rage and trying my best to push it aside and stay in the present instead of sifting through every hurt, every disappointment, every lie I'd been told, all of it.  I wracked my brain for just one happy memory and came up blank every time.  When he died, I refused to join the family and go to see the body, despite my brothers' urging (of course, it WAS my birthday, which didn't help), because though I felt I should, I didn't want to be near my stepmonster.  Instead, I went to my studio to seek solace…only to find my studio-mate with a broom, sweeping water towards the garage door.  The ceiling had collapsed and flooded the place, destroying all my works in progress in the process.  It was not a good day. 

            We muddled through the week of making plans, and she pretended she was letting us make choices even though we were only there to keep her company while she decided on appropriate flowers and song choices.  I was put in charge of the program and was told I’d be reimbursed for the expensive color printing, but of course that never happened.  We weren’t even put in the obituary (to “save money”, we were told).  She refused to speak to us at the funeral, and was enraged by my Mother’s presence.  Some of my father’s works were on display (he was a woodworker and made beautiful, hand carved replica guns); I tried to get myself to take a picture of them but I couldn’t muster the energy.  I didn’t know I wouldn’t see them again. 

            Later, we found that she had changed his will; around the time he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. (Most likely before?  Hence all the secrecy surrounding his noticeable decline?)  It was now a “Living Trust”, the terms of which we were not allowed to see.  She took everything.  My brother and I crafted a letter explaining what we wanted – the gold watch passed down through 6 generations, the family Bible, my childhood spurs.  He had promised me his tools; she had begun to sell them the minute he was out of the house and in the home where he died, miserably unhappy.  The letter went unanswered.  She knew we had no money for a lawyer.
            While we planned for the funeral, I learned new things about my Father, as always happens.  I learned that he had claimed to have earned a college degree; my Mother, who was there at the time, knew that hadn’t even started to happen.  (My hard-won claim of being the first one in the family to get a college degree – a true story, and one not without it’s own pain – was suddenly erased.)  I also learned that my father, who had hunted for our food and made succulent elk stroganoff from his own kill and surprised us with fluffy, bubble-filled beer pancakes on Sunday mornings, had never cooked again in his new life, for twenty-four years.  As my brother and I related memories of my father’s talents – salty summer sausage hung in the garage rafters to cure, rich beef burgundy over buttered noodles – my stepsister stared at us astonished.  “He never cooked!  He could cook?”  My stepmonster looked at her hands, and I recalled all the times I had been chased from her kitchen when trying to help…thought of the rigidity with which she viewed gender roles…and I began to understand something new that turned my view of him on end. 

           I had always been upset with my father for never spending time with me, never coming to my events, never seeming interested in my life.  (Amongst other things…there was a fair amount of physical violence in my relationship with him as a child, and his distant teasing was a stand-in for the affection my Mother assured me he felt on the inside.)  But now I recalled a tic in so many of our phone conversations, wherein I would ask him if we could go to lunch, ask him for help with a project, invite him to something I was doing…the answer was always, “well, I’ll have to ask Carol”.  Which at the time, I saw as being considerate…but was that all it was?  If my Father didn’t feel the freedom to pursue one of his passions, cooking, then did he feel freedom to carry on a relationship of his own with his offspring?  (Or was it that he only cooked because my Mother hated doing it so much that everything came out of a can or the freezer?)  Aside from dragging him into therapy to listen to him lie in front of my psychiatrist, I almost NEVER saw my father alone, and the times I did were the times I cherished, when we actually talked and communicated fluidly, rather than in the stilted formality that his wife’s presence seemed to inspire.  But was my father…afraid of his wife?  Was he deferring to her wishes or cowering? 

            My parents, for my sake, had hoped to stay friends.  They got divorced when I was thirteen, and though I cried, the true emotion filling my awkwardly growing body was relief.  Our house was a pit of tension; my parents barely spoke to one another and even had resorted, a couple of times, to the cliché of having me “tell your mother…” After my father moved out, I would go on Wednesday evenings to his extremely tidy apartment nearby, and he would make me gigantic salads filled with everything I loved – chickpeas, hard-boiled eggs, strawberries, olives -- that we would eat on tv trays in front of the Rockford Files.  I don’t know if my Dad ever knew I cherished these nights.  I had no way to tell him, no words to help me draw the shape of our new relationship. 

            Within a year, my Dad remarried.  The wait was only for respectability’s sake, as my new stepsister and I discovered in our Gunne Sax calico dresses at their modest wedding.  Comparing dates revealed a long affair, one of which I was sure my Mother was unaware.  My Father had already been in my new stepsister's life for some time, a person I didn’t even know existed.  In an age of secrets, this was one more to harbor. 

            Through high school, family Christmases became a bizarre bundle of tension and regret as we tried to include everyone in a merged ball of awkwardness.  My Dad and my Mom were still friends – as high school sweethearts together 25 years, how could they not retain some friendship?  But Carol was prickly and jealous, and not good at hiding it.  After we ended this charade with no amount of relief on my part, it became clear that my Father was not “allowed” to call my Mother unless it was an emergency.  This hurt me, as I knew they still loved each other, even though it had changed long ago from a romantic love to simply a deep friendship. 

            So, this was why I was being berated at my Father’s deathbed while his raspy breaths filled the room.  (Could he hear us?  Was he still in there, saddened by this conflict?)  I had, apparently, unknowingly committed a cardinal sin by bringing my Mother to see him, one last time, while he battled his considerable demons in an Alzheimer’s fog.  It was the only time I saw him smile in that place, the only time his face lit up since his brain began to turn to Swiss cheese.  Thirty years fell away like broken shingles as he beamed when he saw her and their granddaughter, standing with his more regular visitors in front of the door disguised as a bookcase to confuse potential escapees like himself.  My Mom smiled too, though I think she was shocked to see his face beardless, which it hadn’t been since the country’s bicentennial when he grew a beard on a bet.  He spoke with a quiet, wispy voice – he called it the “Hubble voice” after his Mother’s side of the family, claiming “all the Hubble’s spoke like this”.   It was a short visit, but the best one.

            And, as the stepmonster pointed out harshly – I hadn’t visited enough!  And it was true, I hadn’t.  Of course, in a lifetime of being held at arm’s length, seeing my Father monthly was an accumulation of visits that would have spanned years in our previous lives.  And of late, it had been even worse – long bouts with sicknesses had kept me away, as germs were verboten in the elder-hive.  But what’s worse, I knew in my heart I had stayed away deliberately – her accusations were true – because each visit I saw him angry, agitated, unspeaking…plotting escapes and awaiting trolleys that weren’t there to take him away.  I asked several times if I could take him on outings and was denied, the stepmonster’s iron fist didn’t even allow his children to be consulted for medical decisions, much less trips outside the walls.  So I would try to talk to him, he would look past me…I would walk him around the grounds, and he would mention his idea to throw chairs through the windows to escape.  I’ll admit: I am weak.  I would leave each time and sob alone in my car in the parking lot, across the street from the old Ft. Logan Mental Health Hospital.  How many tears were shed on those acres?  Mine were insignificant.   

            Guilty, guilty as charged.  And yet…had the tables been reversed, would my father have been visiting me more?  No…this was not about him, or I, or either of our wishes, but yet again about her.  Always about her.  As she berated me I finally snapped, “was I ever even part of this family anyway?”  And making a shocked face, her sticky mascara lashes widening, she claimed, “we were going to try to have you live with us!  We wanted to take you out of that situation with…your mother!” 

            This was ugly, horrifying news.  My mother and I have always been extremely close, but those bonds forged by the early, messy days of the divorce, with strange men coming around and hysterical crying jags for days, were deep and strong.  And to think that they had wanted me to live in that beige coldness and Southwestern-flavored sterility that they called a home, constantly annoyed by my stepsisters who were favored and coddled, not even having my own room…THIS was somehow proof that she cared?  What HAD those whispered conversations, truncated by my sudden presence, been about? 

            So who was my Father?  I am still puzzling through the handful of facts and misremembered anecdotes to construct a portrait of him.  Four years after his death, even the truck that he had babied, that my stepmonster sold me for more than the blue book value, has died.  The things I have of his are precious and few: a green army blanket that was ever-present in every vehicle he ever owned, a carved gun stock on a meticulously crafted stand that was a sample for clients to see his workmanship, the scroll-bedecked easel he made for me when I was a young artist, with his fine craftsmanship showing in the hinge he built and the care shown by plugging each screw hole with walnut.  The one thing that the stepmonster left, in a box of odds and ends she didn’t want that she left on her porch for my brother to pick up; (no further contact, no further response to our request for his heirlooms, and demands that his handcrafted guns be given to a museum) she couldn’t have known I would cherish.  My father’s briefcase filled with his drafting tools…plastic arcs and circle guides that I played with as a child, the same pens he taught me calligraphy with, a few scraps of paper with his ordered draftsmanship.  This plastic shell, monogrammed in fake gold stickers with his initials, held more memories than a million heirlooms, though just trash to her.  I still want my childhood spurs, last seen hanging on his workshop wall.

            I fed my father his last bite of food.  He had fallen, alone, outside, and hit his head.  Unbeknownst to us, as we rushed to the hospital as fast as we could late at night, the stepmonster had signed a DNR, without consulting us, as usual.  We were never included in decisions, at any point in his life, even when we were convinced he was on the wrong drugs, no one would listen.  I wouldn’t have disagreed with the DNR – my father was clearly unhappy, caged in his confusion and hallucinations.  But to be consulted would have been to be treated like a person of some sort of consequence, at least.  As we drove down Broadway that late night, I told my husband, “I think my Father is going to die”.  He reassured me, said it was fine, said all the things one says, both kindly and dutifully.  At the hospital, my Dad’s neck had been encased in a giant foam collar meant to immobilize his head, and every few minutes he would notice it was there and begin attempting to pull it over his head, like an itchy turtleneck.  He would struggle, we would calm and sooth him…eventually he exhausted himself. 

       The next day, back at the home, he sat propped in a common room in front of an endless television, lying in a recliner dwarfed by pillows.  I fed him pudding and used the spoon to scrape the excess from his thin lips, as he once had done for me I’m sure.  I could see gratefulness in his eyes, and humility, for just a brief moment.  He couldn’t speak.  But as his watery eyes locked with my red-rimmed ones, there was a short connection, that somewhere, as the subdural hematoma slowly leaked into his brain tissue, there was enough of him left to see me, to know who I was, in his last hours of consciousness.  The next time I saw him, he was asleep in his room, his breaths growing harsher and more uncertain, his newly bald chin slack, almost collapsing into his neck, as if his body was sinking deeper and deeper into itself.  The only change throughout that long week was in the timbre and length of his breaths, the effort his ribcage rose and fell with becoming more choppy and labored.  The last time I saw him, I sat by his side, alone, and said, “it’s ok Daddy…you can go.  I love you.  You can just relax and sleep.”  Did I imagine a change in his face, a slip of a muscle, a wrinkle twitching?  I’m sure I did.  We see what we want to see, always. 



29 September 2013

The Power of One Asshole

It was an amazing, stellar night, the night of my first big opening in New York.  I had done my hair up in a spectacular, crazy fashion, with pom-poms and yarn creating a colorful crown and dressed in my finest, and my friends and plenty of strangers came to admire my work.  Afterwards, exhilarated, three friends and I had walked to a nearby French restaurant in the Meatpacking district and dined sumptuously, drinking celebratory champagne served, on the house, by a charming, sweet waiter who congratulated me for what he knew was a very big deal.  Walking to the 14th street and 8th avenue subway with my friend chatting about shoes, we witnessed a guy hanging out of a car, making a grotesque noise at a lone woman.  As we passed her, we asked, “what did he say?”  And she shrugged her shoulders and said, “something stupid, no doubt”, and then asked us where the subway was, confessing that she was a bit tipsy and not in her element.  We invited her to join us, and relieved, she fell into step, joking and laughing along as we made our way to the A train. 
            I needed the L to the Q, so I parted ways with the others and headed to my train, awash in the glow of a magical night and donning my headphones so I could bob my head to Janelle Monae’s Queen while I rode home.  Sitting on the wooden benches on the Q platform filled with girls on platforms and hipsters in trucker hats, a semi-drunk guy with dark hair and a plaid shirt sat next to me and said, in a friendly voice, “Mind if I smoke”?  “Well”, I said with a smile, “as long as you’re asking, yeah, kind of”, thinking to myself that surely, I had seen at one point in time “no smoking” signs on the subway platform anyway.  He looked surprised and said, “well, I appreciate your honesty.  Most people seem to have trouble expressing themselves”.  I laughed and lifted my eyes upwards towards my elaborate hairdo and said, “clearly, that’s not a problem for me”.  He squinted and said, “Yeah, because most people, you know, they’d let me smoke”.  A low rumble behind us indicated the train, and I said, “well, sorry”, and got up to wait at the edge of the platform.  His initial friendly demeanor had given way to a scowl, and I thought to myself, “well, you DID ask, after all”.  
            When I got on the train, I carefully chose a seat between two people as opposed to the long open seat closer to where I entered the train.  The drunk guy shuffled towards where I was sitting and hesitated, scanning the seating situation, and then asked the guy next to me if “he would scoot over so he could sit next to his friend”.   My seat neighbor shifted, and alarmed, I spoke up, “hey, he’s not my friend – a two second conversation doesn’t make us friends”, and hardly glancing up from his phone, I felt my seatmate’s weight shift back to resting.  The drunk looked confused, then decided to occupy the still open seat next to my neighbor, and began talking to him as though their maleness made them compadres.  I still had my headphones on, so I ignored what he was saying until I heard the word “bitch”, and then, still staring at my open book, I discretely removed the ear bud furthest from him to monitor the situation.   “Some chicks don’t know what’s good for them, am I right?  Fucking bitches think they can say whatever they want, man, know what I mean”?  My seatmate didn’t acknowledge his solicitation for agreement, continuing to stare at the game on his phone.  If he was afraid, he didn’t show it, but I doubt he was afraid, whereas I was growing increasingly alarmed. 
            The drunk shoved the cigarette between his lips and continued muttering.  “You’re allergic to smoke?  Yeah, well I’m allergic to bubblegum”, I guess referencing the carefully placed decorations in my hair.  He continued to loudly and aggressively speak to no one.  The full train continued to stare at their books, stare at their feet, stare anywhere but at the spectacle.  Every once in awhile he asked loudly, “so really, no one minds if I smoke?” staring at me in the window opposite of us to watch for a reaction.  I continued to read the same sentence of Edwidge Danticat’s prose repeatedly, without meaning, only glancing occasionally up to check if he was still glaring.  “Yeah, tough crowd – no one wants to talk, huh?”  His protestations grew louder, over the wine and squeak of the rattling cars.  “Fucking bitch, I’ll show you what kind of asshole I am.  Yeah, you’ll see.  I’m a five star asshole, you won’t forget it.”  I began to tick off the stops in my head.  At each station, I held my breath, hoping he’d get off as the train slowly emptied, stop-by-stop.  Still, no one said anything, and he continued to rant.  “I’m a man.  Pushing a broom ain’t no job for a man.  I’ll show these fucking bitches.  Yeah, got nothing to say now, do you?  Wanna express yourself now?”  I continued to pretend I could comprehend even a word of my book, continued to pretend that the ear bud closest to him, still pounding out a quiet beat, blocked the sound of his nasty voice.   I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of existing to me, didn’t want to let him have a taste of my fear.  And yet, I also was fighting within myself, fighting with every breath not to “express myself” and let him know that he had no fucking right at all, not one fucking bit, to intimidate a carful of people going home after a night out, and not even me.  I had not wronged him – he asked a question, I answered, in as friendly a way as possible.  My rage bubbled behind my lips but the icy clutch around my heart and my common sense stifled my tongue. 
            At Atlantic-Barclay, 4 stops from mine, I knew I needed to make my move before the train emptied even more, leaving only me and my tormentor.  Tightening my grip on my bags discreetly without looking like I was going to move, I waited for the doors to open and bolted, dashing to the next car up and jumping on.  I heard his sarcastic snarl yell out “goodnight miss”, but he didn’t follow me.  I could see him through the window of the car one over as the train leaned around a corner, continuing his hostile rant.  I kept nervously glancing through the shifting windows, but didn’t catch a glimpse again.
            Getting off at the Beverly stop, I looked behind me on the platform several times to make sure I was alone, not quite believing I’d dodged this psycho.  By the time I reached the house, my chest had stopped pounding, and my sweat had crystallized to a cold veneer on my skin. 
            What right does he have?  I thought, to take a piece of my perfect night and piss all over it?  Where does he get off?  What kind of privilege allows a man to feel so entitled to do what he wants that he can terrorize another person, simply for speaking their mind? 

            This is what street harassment looks like.  It isn’t always flirtation, it isn’t always the wolf whistle or the catcall; it’s the entitlement, the emotional blackmail, the casual intimidation.  It’s feeling you have the right to be an asshole, the rest of the world be damned.

24 January 2013

Gavin Bryers: Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Written for Michelle Herman's Writing About Music Class, Winter 2012, The Ohio State University, about this song:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1lnSi7QWY8

Silence.  So much silence.  Then not, but so faint that you aren’t sure that what you’re hearing is sound, or rather, intentional sound.  What is there?  You doubt your hearing, check the volume.  There’s a croaking whisper, an old gramophone from beyond, replete with faint hiss.  An old man’s voice, draped in a cockney accent, fades into understandable, slowly, magnetically, singing, “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet, Jesus' blood never failed me yet, there’s one thing I know for he loves me so…and repeats.  His voice grows stronger in volume, but you still hear the whistle on his inhale, the emphatic pause before “yet”, as though Jesus’ blood might still fail him, for faith and doubt exist like binary stars.  In the background, other men’s voices hover, unintelligible whispers, like static, just out of reach.  After so many repetitions, (Ten?  Twenty?  You’ve lost count, yet are mesmerized) the violin creeps in, in a leisurely, glacial pace, sneaking in alongside the other muffled voices, gently filling itself, liquid between notes, the C string pulling it’s lilt upward so slightly, dragging the other strings with it.  The verse repeats, endlessly, melancholic hopefulness.  Yet each iteration of the phrase, while identical to the one before, doesn’t feel like a repetition.  He stumbles slightly over “thing”, and slides coyly into “I know”, with the “w” on know wrapping around the end of the word like a soft blanket. 

Seven minutes in, a plucked string is a gentle shock, a pull to the forefront of the trance you’ve been lulled into.  A warm note followed by a sharper ping, a muffled twang.  The old man’s voice hasn’t stumbled, hasn’t changed, he drives his song forward with the faithfulness of each foot on a long road, one in front of the other, propelled by habit and memory.  Faintly – another voice?  No, the instruments are tricking you with their minimalism, melting together into a crest, a swell, lapping at the ragged edges of the old man’s voice.  He is as crisp and straightforward as a Walker Evans photo, as dusty as the back corner of an antique shop.  The strings are drowning him slowly, so slowly you and he faintly notice, like the proverbial frog in the pot.  But by twelve minutes, he and the instruments have traded places, the velvety surge of strings pushing to the foreground while he allows his voice to dip below the surface.  He doesn’t fight it, not when a bassoon gently, subtly honks, not when a trumpet sneaks in.  His meter never changes, his volume doesn’t fight for it’s place in the foreground but is content to repeat, again, and again, “Jesus blood never failed me yet”.  There’s one thing he knows, and we know it to, and we are comforted, whether we consider the invocation of Jesus a comfort or not.  His song is steady and reliable, and that faith does not fail us, not for a single measure. 

At fifteen minutes, a seventh chord creeps in, pulling the tone upward, lilting, hopeful.  The orchestra is full, blended into one voice that gently pushes the old man’s lament into itself, inside its belly.  The music is Jesus’ blood, and it is not failing him.  It is covering him, comforting him, enveloping him.  He is just out of reach, beyond the song, subterranean.  The chords are still filling themselves, brassier, more complex, tiny hints of dissonance suggested, then pulled away from like it’s too much to endure.  A melody plucks out, coming forward here and there as tendrils wrapping themselves around the body of the pregnant, dripping chords.  Heaving upward, the man’s voice peeking through in the silence between phrases, a tiny boat amongst the waves.  Plaintive, but never losing confidence.  Yearning.  But steady, ever steady, not lost, never losing hope.  For twenty-five minutes and fifty-seven seconds, he is with us, and we are with him.  And as quietly as the instruments crept in, they fade unhurriedly with the man’s voice, in the end, leaving him alone again, whispering, fading, disappearing, but staying in your head for hours.

06 January 2013

Sugar Hill.

I had only recently discovered the power of music that I chose myself.  Not my parents’ John Denver and Neil Diamond records furtively slipped on the turntable when they weren’t home, and not the disco-heavy pop music and classic rock that permeated every invisible wave that could be captured with the bent antennae of my radio.  After I realized I could control what I heard and form my own tastes, I would sit in front of the radio on Sunday nights, cassette recorder in front of me and holding my breath so as not to pollute the background with excessive bodily noise, repeatedly pressing record and stop during the Top 40, trying to trim away the commercials and Dick Clark’s unnaturally upbeat and too-young voice from filling up even a precious millimeter of my 90 minute Memorex cassette tape.  This was my weekly ritual.  I would sit on my bed, recently swathed in a polyester comforter that my Mom let me pick out of the Sears catalog, with matching curtains.  It was my foray into adulthood, picking out the brown and orange graphic sunset and mountain range to replace the nauseatingly frilly pink that my Mom had tried to force on me for years, hoping to pull me back from the brink of tomboyhood.  Dick Clark’s picks only got 45 minutes on one side of the tape, for the other side was saved for Dr. Demento, who underwent the same laborious and largely inaccurate editing process.  For the rest of the week, that mix-tape was the soundtrack to my life, to be covered up by new selections in about a month, once I had cycled through my other hand-me-down tapes from my brother’s job at the Radio Shack.   

In the summer of 1979 I’d discovered two things that I felt heralded this coming adult-hood: kissing boys, and rap music.  Both had been discovered the same weekend, while staying at my friend Lynn’s house in Park Hill.  Park Hill was glamorously in the city, walking distance from City Park and the Museum, and miles away from our suburban townhouse nestled in the foothills of the Rockies.  Since the houses were older, Lynn lived in a modest bungalow next to what I considered a mansion, since it possessed three Victorian stories and a pool in the back. 

The pool came with two brothers, a short one, and a tall one.  The shorter one, whose name I don’t, but should remember, became my crush.  Which didn’t mean Lynn took the taller one – living next door to him, he lacked any appeal.  I had no clue how to act on this crush, though, so I kept it to myself, admiring his cannonballs off the roof of the garage into the pool and pretending that I didn’t care.  Later in the summer, he would miss, breaking his arm, but by that point my pretend lack of caring had become real, so his sympathetic cast gained him nothing but my signature in purple marker. 

Our Saturdays that summer consisted of roller-skating around the pool and listening to tapes – the brothers, of course, bought their tapes at the record store instead of relying on staticky homemade mix tapes.  One weekend, they played something none of us had heard before, something that made us stop our clumsy circling in tennis-shoe style skates and listen, rapt, for the full 15 minutes.  We spent the rest of the day rewinding and repeating the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight.  It was like nothing we’d ever heard before, and we were mesmerized. 

By the end of the day, we knew most of the words and would yell-sing along, most raucously during Wonder Mike’s part, which we would try to do without giggling:

have you ever went over a friends house to eat 
and the food just ain’t no good 
I mean the macaroni's soggy the peas are mushed 
and the chicken tastes like wood 
so you try to play it off like you think you can 
by sayin’ that you’re full 
but your friend says momma he's just being polite 
he ain’t finished at all that's bull 

This, of course, was the part of the song we could relate to.  After all, our knowledge of pimps, sperm, and bootie was limited in the seventh grade, and we were a couple of thousand miles from the Bronx. 

After a full day of rapping and roller-skating, we wound up on the third floor, far from any adult activity.  Like any hormonal pre-teens with nothing to do, there were but two options: Spin the Bottle, or Seven Minutes in Heaven.  And we didn’t have a bottle.

Lynn knew all about my crush on the short boy – we’ll call him Jack.  He was round-faced and one of the few boys around shorter than even me, with a bit of baby fat and sandy blond hair.  Before anyone else had a chance to say a word, she had picked us both out and wordlessly shoved us towards the closet.  We both protested weakly, but it was disingenuous at best.  My heart racing, we went in and closed the door with a click that seemed to echo with an unnatural loudness.

Surrounded by ghosts of coats and single mittens, he smelled moist and dirty, and faintly of Wonder Bread.   I towered over him, although I was used to being shorter than everyone else.  Without saying anything, he leaned up towards me, and stuck his tongue out, and I fought the urge to pull away.  I wondered if he had ever kissed a girl before, or if he could tell I hadn’t kissed a boy.  My friend Jackie and I had once kissed to practice, although for her I think it was less practice and more thrill, since she spent most of her time trying to concoct scenarios via which her female friends would have to disrobe.  But we drew the line at tongues, just too gross. 

Now, I was presented with Jack’s tongue, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do.  In the back of my head, I could hear “goin on n n on n on on n on the beat dont stop until the break of dawn” and I tried to mentally fast forward through the song, looking for a more appropriate-sounding lyric, maybe one that would remind me of what I was meant to do.  Our lips came together, and his salty breath steamed the bottom rim of my glasses.   His tongue, slimy, like a dead fish, lay there limply, unsure of what to do.  We pulled apart quickly, and then tried again, not much more successfully than the first try.  All I could think about was the snack his Mom had fixed us, worrying that it had lodged itself in my braces and that he was tasting it for the second time. 

When we emerged from the closet, red-faced and triumphant, our friends whooped loudly enough for the parental units two floors below to holler a stern warning regarding indoor voices.  It hadn’t been anything close to seven minutes, but no one seemed to notice.

According to what we’ve been told, that first kiss should have been the most important memory of that weekend, of that summer, of that year.  But its sweaty awkwardness could never live up to the rhythm of the boogie the beat.  Wonder Mike and Master Gee had captured my heart completely.  After all, their names, I still remember.