Wednesday, December 13, 2017

How I Write

I write on a recliner, with a laptop on a lap desk on my lap. Because my little red dog, Bisou, thinks that whenever I'm out of sight I cease to exist, and her mission is to keep me alive by being with me at all times, when I bought the recliner I made sure that the seat was wide enough to accommodate both me and her. It was a tight fit, but it worked.

But that was before the arrival of Telemann, the cat. As a kitten, he would squeeze himself between Bisou and my hip and take a nap while I wrote. Now, at ten months,  he's a ten-pound mass of assertive affection, and he too thinks that I cease to exist if he can't see me, which means that he has to be with me at all times.

So whenever I settle down to write, with Bisou next to me and the computer on my lap, he jumps up and insinuates himself in the space between my, um, breasts and the keyboard. He wiggles around a bit, taps my cheek with his little white paw, rolls onto his back and falls asleep.

His head rests on my right elbow, and his hind legs are splayed on my left elbow. It's hard for me to reach the keyboard, but I really don't want to wake him up because that will mean another session of feline lovemaking, with much purring and cheek patting and nose licking. So I hold my elbows out, and try to see the screen over his four white paws, which are sticking up in the air and occasionally twitching. Needless to say, if it weren't for spell-checker, you wouldn't be able to understand a word of what I write.

You know how writers are: we look for any excuse to get away from the blank page or screen. A cup of coffee or an extra sweater suddenly become urgent necessities. In my case, however, that means getting out from under Telemann, and the thirstier, colder, antsier I get, the more deeply he sleeps. I shift my hips and move my right elbow tentatively, but he is a dead weight, draped across me like those lead aprons they put on you when you're getting an x-ray.

If I somehow manage to get both the computer and the cat off my lap, and get that cup of coffee, I'll have to face it all again, the purring, the greeting, the turning around and settling down and going back to sleep. Plus, with all this going on,I'll probably spill hot coffee on poor innocent Bisou, or the computer, or Telemann himself.

So in the end I decide to forego the coffee and the extra sweater, and just keep writing.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


There is rage in the air these days, the rage of women. Young women, old women, tall/short/fat/thin/gorgeous/ordinary-looking women are telling their stories and shaking their fists and demanding justice. And because in this culture sweetness and passivity have always been expected of women, their rage when it emerges is doubly scary--kind of like having your pet bunny turn and bare its teeth at you.

The Greeks knew about female fury. Their mythology is full of over-the-top angry women like Medea and Clytemnestra. They even had goddesses who specialized in rage and vengeance, the Furies. Three of them, because one wasn't enough.

Outside of Greek mythology there haven't been many models for female anger, so we're making it up as we go along, from pussy hats and marches to pointing fingers at sexual harassers. And the latter are toppling like nine-pins, "good" guys along with bad.

Et tu Garrison, Al, John C.? But this is not a time to play favorites.

Remember Trump’s reaction to the accusations against Roy Moore, "He says it didn't happen. You have to listen to him, also"? Until practically yesterday, that was the response that any woman complaining of harassment would have expected to hear. Now, for the first time in human history, the victims are being listened to. They’ve even been named “Persons of the Year” by Time.

It is a kind of miracle, but will it last?

After rampaging through Ancient Greece, the Furies faded into the mists of time. And if we aren’t careful, so will the labors of today’s Furies, those who marched and protested and risked everything to speak out. The only way to ensure that this achievement isn’t lost is to put masses of women in positions of power, in the boardroom and the village council, the courts and the Congress.

Fortunately (thank Gaia, Artemis, Isis, Astarte, Sophia, and the Blessed Virgin Mary), masses of women these days are running for office, or planning to. All we have to do is elect them.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

What Were They Thinking?

If you were a plump middle-aged person with a comb-over, wouldn't you think twice about disrobing in front of a colleague, a job applicant, or an impressionable teenager? The photos of sexual harassers that decorate the news these days show that none of these men is physically attractive. If Michelangelo's David is a 10, Harvey Weinstein et al., on a good day, score a 2.

These guys must, at some point, have stood in front of a mirror, but apparently they didn't let what they saw hold them back.You have to admire their confidence, their optimism, their touching certainty that they would be adored, no matter how they looked or what they did. In fact many of them, in self defense, claim that the encounters were consensual, for what woman could fail to be enraptured by the sight of their nakedness?

Perhaps this blissful self-assurance was the fault of an overly fond  mother, who thought that whatever her little boy did was a sign of genius. But there I go, blaming the  woman.

One possible explanation is that these gruesome Peter Pans lack a trait that even some higher animals possess: theory of mind, the ability to put oneself in the other's place and imagine what she is thinking. Enveloped in a rosy fog of infant narcissism, they literally cannot see the woman in front of them. The root of the disrobing and the groping and the sexual jokes and insults is the inability, or the refusal, to see the desired object as not just a scaffolding for T&A, but as a fellow human, with ideas, tastes, and especially distastes, of her own.

But there is an even darker possibility: that these men do see the women they harass as real persons, but ones to be degraded and humiliated, precisely because they are female.

I go back and forth between these two explanations. If the first is correct, a good set of laws and penalties plus education might bring about a culture shift. But what if the second explanation is the right one? In the face of such hatred, what response can we even begin to imagine?

Monday, November 20, 2017

Temples of the Holy Ghost/Occasions of Sin

In the 1960's, long before bra straps became a fashion statement, we girls used to sew little tabs on the inside shoulder seams of our dresses to keep bra straps out of sight. To hide our incipient cleavage we used a dickey--a triangular piece of cloth that snapped into the center of a too-revealing neckline. At prom time in our Catholic high school, we were warned that if we showed up in a gown with spaghetti straps (or, God forbid, strapless), we would be sent back home. Our bodies were Temples of the Holy Ghost, but unless we were ever watchful, they could also be Occasions of Sin. 
1962 Senior Prom. Note the sin-avoiding straps on my dress.
 It was a difficult message for our hormone-marinated brains to disentangle because those same bodies, as our mothers, aunts, grandmothers and the entire culture never ceased to remind us, were our passport to the main if not the only source of personal fulfillment for women: marriage and motherhood.

Beauty and modesty were supposed to coexist in an eternally precarious equilibrium. Neglect your looks for a single day and you risked passing unnoticed by the Brylcreem-anointed boy who might have been your ticket to happiness. Disregard modesty and who knew what might happen? We certainly didn't, because it was never spelled out--nobody said the words pregnancy, or venereal disease, or rape as they might apply to us. But the consequences of immodesty were all the more alarming for being unspoken.

It was drilled into us that we had to make the most of whatever portion of beauty Providence had bestowed on us. Hair was supremely important. It had to balloon off the scalp to give us the wide-eyed, neotenic look that made us seem vulnerable and attractive. This required nightly work with brush rollers--I used to sleep with twenty-seven of them digging into my scalp--many cans of spray, and prayers for dry, windless weather.

Our skin gave us fits, being liable to erupt in pimples when we least wanted it to, despite copious applications of Clearasil. But breasts constituted the ultimate dilemma. From the movies--Sophia Loren! Marilyn Monroe! Jayne Mansfield!--we figured that they were a major asset, a helpful tool in luring the father of our future children. Yet because they also had the potential to provoke unbridled lust, they needed to be completely covered, although they could be hinted at by the artful positioning of darts in our bodices.

Legs were less of a liability, though we worried that our nylons would develop runs, a disgrace comparable to having our slip show. Until the blessed invention of pantyhose, stockings were held up by garter belts, an item that has since acquired fetishistic status but that I remember mostly as giving me severe pain in the lower back.

Sacred vessels on the one hand, agents of disgrace on the other, our bodies came to feel like two-edged swords, or UXBs that might go off unpredictably. It is a miracle that we managed to learn anything in school, worried as we were that the "rats" might be showing under the upper layers of our hair, or that the middle button on our uniform blouse might have popped open.

And yet we did learn, despite all the distractions, and ours became the first generation to aspire to having both meaningful work and a guy. And when the pill, the pantyhose, and the second wave of feminism burst simultaneously on the scene a few years later, we put away our dickeys, our garter belts and sometimes even our bras, and believed, at least for a while, that we could have it all.

Friday, November 10, 2017

My Medical Me-Too Story

A long time ago, in a city far, far away, I am having my first consult with an allergist--thinning hair, glasses, white coat. Fiftyish, like me. The treatment room is small, and my chair is next to his desk. He is taking my medical history and with each question his chair rolls a little closer to me. "Are your symptoms worse in the spring or in the fall?" he asks. I am about to answer when I feel something pushing against my knee. I look down: it is his knee.

I look up and his eyes hold mine for just a second. I move my knee away. "In the fall," I say.

"And have you had much exposure to molds?"

When the history is complete, it is time for the physical. I am sitting on the edge of the examination table and he approaches, tongue depressor in hand. "Say aah!" he says, and as he peers into my throat I feel the pressure of his pelvis against my knees.

Why am I still in this room with this creep, you ask? Because the part of my brain that is capable of observing reality, drawing conclusions, and taking action has shut down completely. It has been replaced by an oddly reassuring voice that says, "He is a doctor. You are a patient. Therefore, this cannot be happening." Zombie-like, I get through the rest of the visit, suppressing the desire to run screaming out of the office, or to kick him in the...shins.

He prescribes a series of allergy shots that, fortunately, are administered by his nurses, so in the following months I don't see much more of him.

One day, long after my treatment is over, I am sitting in the metro next to a woman I know from work. She has curly red hair,  and she giggles a lot. She's always struck me as a little flighty and flaky, and I suspect that, as the French say, she did not invent the mouse trap.

As we chat, she sneezes a couple of times, blows her nose. "Sorry," she says, "it's my allergies. I can't find a good doctor. I went to Dr.__ [and she names my knee-pressing guy], but I couldn't stand him."

"Really? How so?"

"Well," she says, putting away her tissue and flushing with anger, "you won't believe this, but the first time I went to see him, he kept pushing his knee against mine!"

"Wow! That's terrible. What did you do?"

"What do you think?" she says, clenching her little fist. "I did what any intelligent person would do: grabbed my purse and slammed the door in his face. And on the way out I told the receptionist that if she charged me for the visit I would report him to the AMA!"

Monday, November 6, 2017

Just Animals

I was watching Rachel Maddow the other night when I heard an odd splashing in the Japanese fish tub. The female of my pair of fantail goldfish was swimming on her side, twisting and writhing, clearly in pain. Instantly Rachel, Russia, and even Trump vanished from my mind. What was wrong with my fish? What if I couldn't cure her and she died? What if I had to euthanize her?

Was I overreacting? After all, it was just a goldfish, the sort of creature that people used to bring home from the fair, decant into a brandy snifter, and when it expired a few weeks later, dump unceremoniously into the toilet.

Those were also the days when newly-hatched chicks, dyed pink or blue for Easter, were given to children to play with until the birds perished from stress and their limp little bodies were thrown out with the garbage.

For that matter, when pets roamed freely in suburban streets, before spaying and neutering became the cultural norm, well-meaning people routinely drowned unwanted litters of puppies and kittens. After all, they were just animals.

Today, of course, Easter chicks are a thing of the past, and unwanted puppies and kittens are placed in foster homes, their reproductive organs are excised under anesthesia, and would-be adopters are carefully screened before they're allowed to take their new pet home.

Now there are leash laws, and no-kill shelters, and fines and jail sentences for animal abusers. Stories of people's dedication to their pets' welfare are everywhere. I have a friend who for years had to rush home from work to give her diabetic cat his insulin shot, and another whose day revolves around meeting the needs and wants of his ancient, arthritic, almost blind Lab.

This new-found sensitivity extends beyond our pets. Every winter Americans spend millions on seeds and suet for the birds, and I could name half a dozen people who, if they find a spider in the house, carefully trap it under a glass, slip a piece of paper under it, and take it outside (I am not among the latter. I clobber large spiders to death with a broom, and drown ticks in the toilet). Thanks in great part to the genius of Temple Grandin, cows and pigs can now aspire to death with at least a measure of dignity. And most grocery stores stock eggs from cage-free or even pastured hens.

There has been a sea-change, within the last half century, in our attitude towards animals. The wall between "them" and "us" has become progressively thinner, until it is an almost transparent veil. The hen on her nest, the cat at the window, are not mere machines, as Descartes infamously maintained. Thanks to Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, Jane Goodall and others we are beginning to see ourselves in them, and them in us.

Hence my preoccupation with my ailing goldfish, my friend's commitment to her cat, and the growing number of people who refuse to eat "anything with a face." There is nothing childish or silly about this, on the contrary. On days when it seems like human civilization is going down the tubes, I see in our compassion for the beasts a major reason for optimism, for it is in recognizing our kinship with the animals, and with all beings on the planet, that we finally become truly human.

Goldfish update: with the help of Google, I diagnosed swim-bladder disorder, withheld food for 24 hours, and she is now her old self again.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Some Things I Miss...

Some things I miss from my previous life:
Two goats
Ten hens
Nine garden beds
Four apple trees
A sloping hay field
A tumbledown stone wall
A swamp
The woods behind the house, and the thrush that sang in them
The imprint of fawn hooves on the driveway in mud season
The squeaky-door song of the phoebes at dawn
The frogs in the frog pond
The black bear at the bird feeder
The ermine in the garage
The milking pail, the cheese press
The me who believed she could keep it all going.

(photo by Alison Cobb)