On Rules

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“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, III.i)

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (Emerson, “Self-Reliance”)

“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” (H.L. Mencken)

“But people don’t do such things!” (everything by Ibsen)

My therapist, to her credit, has the self-discipline to control her facial expressions and body language whenever I say things that are, obviously to both of us, absurd.

So when I mention that I’ve lately been accused of acting as though the rules don’t apply to me, she nods sagely, reaches for her pen and notepad, and focuses intently on adding to her abundant session notes – gestures I’ve come to interpret as her tactful way of suppressing the urge to guffaw uproariously and ask “Have these accusers of yours ever met you??”

—Because we’ve both had to endure hours of me anxiously perseverating over every rule, convention, and policy that brushes up against my life, and which I fretfully try to obey, even as I’m flinching and chafing at their touch. Far, far from thinking that the rules don’t apply to me, I go to therapy because somewhere along the line I became convinced, in the perverse self-centeredness of the incorrigible neurotic, that ALL of the rules apply to me, or should, or someone else thinks they should, or I think that someone thinks that I should think that they should. Not that any of that obsessive thinking guarantees that I (can/will/do) follow all of the rules, and not that all of the rules that govern my daily life are the ones that my shadowy accusers, sadly lacking in imagination, would expect. Nevertheless, far from leading a lawless, ungoverned, ungovernable existence, the problem of how, and whether, to follow rules (and what will happen to me if I can’t/won’t/don’t follow them) occupies much of my waking conscious thought.

There are three categories of rules (because of course there are rules for taxonomizing rules)

  1. I think we can all agree that some rules are necessary, beneficial, even inarguable, such as those governing gravity, etiquette, and grammar; plus all the guiding commandments, shared by major religions, ethics, and traffic law, to do with not damaging, maiming, or destroying what belongs to others, like portable property, bodies, feelings, or ecosystems. The problem for me here is not adhering to these rules myself; on the contrary, I take these rules—rules—so seriously that I suffer agonies of indignant distress when they’re flouted and abused by others. That language, traffic, social interaction, and our relationship to the natural world all *work* so much better, so much more pleasingly, when we’re all consensually-organized with the same principles, a literal or figurative grammar for life –  seems so obvious, that those who violate these rules are, at best, to be pitied and offered help to overcome their incapacity, or, at worst should be ostracized, cast out, put somewhere out of harm’s way, where their depraved indifference to the welfare of others can be contained. …. which remediation doesn’t happen nearly enough (as in: at all) leaving me a miserably-helpless witness to the unnecessary chaos and violence that seems to characterize the world.
  2. As if that’s not enough, then there are the idiosyncratic, personalized rules of my day to day existence (which I think should govern everyone else, but which I’ve come to realize are unenforcible beyond the confines of my own fraught inner life). The pricks against which I kick are, as often as not, my own invention, or (so I’ve been told) superstition, or an exaggeration of some punctilio that doesn’t matter a whit to anyone as much as it matters to me. As a small sample:
    • You must finish what you start – which is all very protestant and productive until it becomes compulsive. This rule got me through grad school, and got me married. It’s also why I hated grad school, and certainly, if ironically, contributed to me not being married. This rule also doesn’t serve me well when it comes to boxes of chocolates or doughnuts (see a related rule about avoiding asymmetry and uneven quantities). The inverse (perverse) hazard with this rule is that if finishing whatever it is you’re starting involves risk (to body, career, bruised and delicate heart) then you can obviate that risk by simply becoming paralyzed, hence never starting the thing in the first place.
    • Or: You have to eat dinner before dessert, unless it’s an afternoon cookie, which then has to be consumed during the time of day recognized as “day,” because if you eat it at say 5pm, that’s obviously evening, and hence roughly the province of dinner, and to eat a cookie right before a salad is not only to invoke the ancient curse (“you’ll spoil your appetite!”) but is an inversion of the natural order of things, and, simply, anarchy.  – Until dinner is over, and then it’s time for desserts involving sugar, but never anything savory from the conclusion of dinner to the start of breakfast – which meal is, of course, more in the realm of sweet – unless it’s brunch, and then you’ve just fallen through the looking glass of culinary surreality. Brunch, as you can imagine, makes me a little stressed. The combination of pineapple on pizza is an unthinkable abomination.
    • Or: You must not backtrack. You must be active and burn calories. You must not spend money frivolously on things like cabs or subway tickets. Taken separately, each rule might be innocuous enough; but combine them into one tyrannical diktat, and even the most banal trip to work or gym becomes a small military campaign, and every holiday a grueling forced march. This meta-rule requires spending hours pouring over maps of the smallest of hamlets – like Paris or San Francisco – to plot elaborate peregrinations, from every must-see museum to culturally-representative bakery to macabre guidebook oddity, in 12-hour circuits of 20 kilometers or more, which originate and terminate at, but cannot include, the hotel, until the circuit is actually complete, by which time you’re faint and footsore and kind of hating Paris or San Francisco, not to mention yourself.
    • And, variously: It’s bad luck to let pennies lie. If you spill salt, you have to toss some over your shoulder, wherever you are, including crowded public transit. If you don’t carry gear for every weather or health eventuality, the one thing you’re not kitted out for will be the thing that leaves you wet, bedraggled, overheated, hypothermic, or learning the words for “rash” and “ointment” in multiple languages as you negotiate the health care systems of multiple countries. If you see the first star of the night, or have birthday candles to blow out, you *have* to make a wish, BUT the wish has to be utterly stripped of any actual desire that Fate could trace back to you. And as has been well-codified by tales of fishermen, cobblers, idle princesses, and that ghastly story about a monkey’s paw, you must never, ever, give shape through words, to other people, or inside your own head, to things that you really want to be true, such as “this love-interest will return my affections!”; “that stab of pain I felt does not mean that I just tore something that is vital to my ongoing athletic performance and mental health!”; “this article that I’ve been hiding under my bed will get published by the first editor I show it to, thus opening the door to writerly success and hitherto unprecedented, non-neurotic, artistic self assurance!” That is, everyone knows you must NEVER make a selfish wish or one that seems benevolent but can have disastrous consequences because obviously you’ll invoke the wrath of malign and capricious supernatural powers.
  3. Finally (no delusions here, there’s nothing finite about this list), there’s the boundless morass of rules that are invoked as policies or guidelines, or (ghastly) assessable outcomes, which hold sway over our professional and personal lives with Newtonian rigor, even as they exhibit quantum capriciousness: uncertain, unpredictable, refusing to hold still long enough to be measured, grasped, or challenged. These are rules that might be enshrined in handbooks and conduct codes and goal statements; they might have the status of lore, that which doesn’t need to be documented because vague, paranoid fear has far more oppressive power than any mere bullet point in a memo. These are the rules which cause degrees of symbolic violence, where arbitrary differences of power and belonging are given the status of natural facts. These are the rules that are simply The Done Thing, common sense, taken for granted. And these are the rules that make me truly a little nutty: a deep-seated impulse to be obedient and win approval compels me to follow them; a streak of contrariness – orneriness – compels me to question them; some lapse in my youth or childhood renders me incapable of following them with docility or even good grace; at which point the mania to Stay Out of Trouble kicks in, but not sufficiently to keep me in line, just enough to make me agitated that though I want to want to comply, I just can’t/won’t/don’t.

This last is the category of neo-liberal, industrialized, capitalist, life: 9-5 schedules; dress codes; pretty much any policy or habit formulated for the perpetuation of a bureaucracy; acting one’s age; several levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; and, in fact, most things that we’ve been taught ought to occur on figurative pyramids, ladders, escalators, or scales, like the acquisition of property, career goals, sexuality, or the conduct of relationships.

I’m a pragmatic person, really, and, as we’ve established, a bit compulsive and classically neurotic, which means that since childhood I’ve been very good at following these rules, bending my own will to do The Done Thing in exchange for whatever phantasm of a reward is on offer: money, promotion, the relief (comfort!) of having all the levels of all the pyramids, scales, and ladders in place – to the extent that I’m now in a position in life where I’m supposed to formulate, perpetuate, and enforce them for others. Sometimes people even ask me for advice about how they can follow the rules as well as I do, which makes me feel, perversely, simultaneously gratified (I’ve managed to Stay Out of Trouble!) and disappointed with myself. Because the big promise of doing The Done Thing is that sooner or later, all the things will be Done, and you don’t have to keep doing them anymore – which is all, of course, nonsense, because the giant panopticon of our lives ensures that if it seems like the world is running out of things for us to DO, our internalized sense of shame and fear of being caught not Doing fabricates some new item to add to our existential To-Do list. These rules are the instructions for carrying out discipline, that is to say, of  ensuring that society keeps functioning by keeping us all preoccupied with Staying Out of Trouble. Because, as the ethicists remind us (now on major broadcast television and streaming), if we’re ever tempted to not Do the Done Thing, we can test it: if everyone stopped doing that thing (or if everyone decided to do whatever harebrained anti-social anarchic thing is in question) what would happen to society? Answer: society would fall apart. Fall. Apart. People Don’t Do Such Things – except some do, and while occasionally they get slapped down for their impertinence, sometimes they actually shift the collective notion of what is done, what must be done, to what could be done…and the planet keeps turning, and everyone is actually better for it, and wonders why no-one did something sooner.

As much as the world falters with the rules of category #1, the more I’ll champion them. These rules are the the mechanism by which we meet our obligations to one another and our poor planet, and far from asserting freedom by flouting them, we make everything worse for one another (unless you’re trying to do clever things with gravity, in which case, that’s cool). And as I get older, I become more and more fond of the rules in category #2, because they’re just me, and I’m learning to be fonder and more patient with myself – which has the totally predictable consequence of allowing me to be more lax with some of my stricter dictates (but not the ones about pizza or making wishes – if you think you can take chances with either, then when the punishing Fates come knocking, I don’t know you). 

But the rules of category 3 are just so much oppressive brainwashing, and we all need badly to be deprogrammed.

Doing that work on yourself is hard, as our therapists’ copious, patient note-taking could attest. If you’ve been well-indoctrinated to ensure that you Stay Out of Trouble, it’s hard to believe how living life in Trouble could be advisable, let alone navigable. Where’s the safe path between foolish consistency and living in a box in an alley??

Trying to answer that question (live it) is an ongoing project. Perhaps one first step any of us could take is to catch ourselves: if we’re upset when someone breaks one of our category 3 rules, before we point, whisper, and accuse: “who do they think they are, acting as though the rules don’t apply to them?” ask ourselves, “where did I ever get the idea that the rules have to apply to me?” 

And before we shun, or enforce, or inform, thinking, “But people don’t do such things!” we could challenge ourselves:

“I wouldn’t do such a thing…but it might be fun if I could.

And I can.

I will.”

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On Urgency

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“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor)

“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” (Samuel Johnson)

One of the stories that we like, is the one where the main character is somehow confronted with their mortality – perhaps a diagnosis of fatal illness, or the experience of a catastrophic accident, or the confrontation with another’s brutality and violence, or the visitation of a succession of spirits from past, present, and future. Maybe the character survives, preferably, for narrative purposes, undergoing an escape or rehabilitation that is almost as traumatic as the initial crisis (learning to walk again, cutting off one’s own arm to escape dying alone in a crevasse). Or, maybe, there’s no option but to surrender to death. The appeal in these stories is partly the suspense: will he survive the surgery/find a doctor who can cure him/learn to walk/cut off his own arm in order to escape the crevasse?? But we also like the didactic thrust: whether the character is able to learn the lesson or not, we can learn – we should learn – that there’s nothing quite like a brush with death to clarify one’s priorities.  Our protagonist is forced to stare into the existential abyss, and, confronted with the prospect of ceasing to exist, of no longer being with friends or loved ones, of being mourned – or, most horrifying, not being mourned at all –  realizes that everything he’s thought gives meaning to his existence (usually heedless greed, self-absorption, the pursuit of wealth and power at the expense of compassion and connection) has been not just pointless, but wrong. If he’s lucky, he gets the chance to start over, with priorities radically re-aligned. But whatever the outcome for the protagonist, the lesson for us is that we don’t have to, and must not, wait for such tragedy to befall us. We can act to change our lives now.

These are stories of individual fragility, and of moral urgency. Time is the figurative loaded gun that is aimed at all of us; mortality will take each of us out sooner or later: so what are we waiting for? But it’s easy to mistake a complacent recognition of this very abstract thought for actual action. Yes, sure, the story has taught me that life is short, and I must cherish it, so now I’ll go to yoga and have a bath; maybe I’ll have an extra glass of wine. Lesson learned. And then the story gets forgotten, pushed aside by the exigencies of the everyday: work to do, bills to pay, immediate obligations to be met to keep ourselves out of trouble in the short term, and maybe to buy us comfort in the long term. And after all, things aren’t so perilous in the here and now, I’m not in any immediate danger, there is no crevasse, no random serial killer, no supernatural meddling, no real gun, no real threat.

Except, of course, that there is.

And never mind the usual hypotheticals, like disease or accident, that are more personally menacing in our imaginations. Don’t tell me you haven’t been paying attention to the news. Climate change is the loaded gun pointed at all of us, threatening catastrophe.

We know how this story is supposed to go: the urgency of the peril is supposed to prompt clarity, to re-align our priorities, to get us to wake up and act. It’s not like we’re helpless – we have the knowledge, and the technology we need, we just need to use it, collectively, and on a global scale. And yet, we do…not enough, and anything short of enough, in this case, is nothing.

What are we waiting for?

Since this isn’t a clever, fictional, morality tale, but our actual mortal lives we’re talking about here, the question isn’t rhetorical. We should not – must not, cannot – wait.

And yet – what are you doing right now? Reading this while at the gym? while you’re eating soup at your desk before going to that meeting about that bureaucratic thing? while you’re sitting on the couch watching some series about a dystopian future? while you’re sitting in the tub with your wine practicing good self care, because you know how to enjoy life and be in the moment? while you’re writing your little blog because you’re hoping that words count as action, though you’re pretty sure that’s not going to be sufficient?

What are we waiting for?

I’m kind of surprised – at myself, as much as anyone else – that we all continue to go to work and school every day, spending our time as though nothing out of the ordinary is happening. Spending our energy.

Spending.

 – As opposed to dropping everything we’re doing to overhaul our society and economy NOW.

I suppose many of us are waiting to be told that everything’s going to be ok, that the threat is overblown, that everything’s going to be fine (please, will it be?). Maybe it seems a bit of a luxury to be worried. Too many of us are run ragged trying to keep our heads above water in this economy – paying bills, going to meetings, working for the mortgage, the minimum payment on the credit card, the hot water heater that just blew, the kids’ college fund, the health insurance that won’t be enough to cover the treatment. Too many of us have our ambitions held hostage by inequality, injustice, oppression. If we’re lucky, we’re merely tired, burned out, and lacking time, money, energy. Perhaps we don’t have the permission or power to change, or believe we don’t. All good reasons, we think – if we can think – to keep on doing what we’re doing. 

And I suppose a lot of us are taking it for granted that if there’s something important to be dealt with, our government is will take care of it. Yes, that “government,” the one that’s been ground to an absolute stand-still in a paroxysm of bigotry, childish pettiness, and breathtaking idiocy. We’re all hoping that the people’s representatives will get shaken out of their fit of hysteria soon enough to take intelligent, enlightened action – but perhaps the rest of us can’t afford to wait for that to happen.

But then – what would that really involve? When we read the moving stories, and nod thoughtfully, and get inspired, and think: I must change my life…we usually only take fleeting, superficial action, not because we’re superficial necessarily, but because to really change your life, to really change the way we all live, to reject everything we’ve been taught is valuable and reliable, and live in a way that is truly different (because our survival depends on it) – where do we even start? Shouldn’t someone else go first? What choices would we make differently? What would we cut loose as inessential? What radical action would we take to protect what truly matters?

And if I have to act, and you have to act, and we have to act together…we’re in the embarrassing position of realizing that we’ve lost the skill, the habit, of collective action, of taking risks, and making sacrifices for a larger, necessary, good.  We don’t want things to be different. We don’t want to be uncomfortable.

But it just doesn’t matter if we’re insulated by denial (if we’re lucky), paralyzed by terror if we’re not. This isn’t fiction, that we can respond to, or not, from the safe remove of the quotidian and familiar.

We need to wake up, and act.

The priorities are simple.

Consume less. Waste less.

And make more – knowledge, art, care. Teach, create, give, nurture.

Nothing could be simpler.

Nothing could be harder.

We’re staring down the barrel of a loaded gun (our own, that we thought we could  handle, and which, in the nature of guns, has been turned against us).

That gun is on a hair trigger.

What are we waiting for?

How do we want the story to go?

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On the Energy Needed to Overcome Activation Barriers

Things that don’t conduce to getting writing done:

emergencies; interruptions; personal failings; hobbies; other people’s good writing; other people’s intimidatingly- better writing; good tv; dirty bathrooms and dirtier laundry; baking bread; running; ballet; ecstatic dance; lyrical dance; naked dance; snowshoeing; friendship; romance; sex; cuban sandwiches and manhattans; travel planning, travel pleasure; germs; pain; maintenance of the Strong Independent Woman – Urban Edition (hair, nails, massages, personal training, doctor, dentist, pharmacist, imaging, therapy); inefficient transit; poor sleep hygiene; not being a morning person; anxiety; obsessive compulsive traits; tedious students and colleagues; interesting and inspiring students and colleagues; committee meetings; email; social and political instability; activism and protests; stupid bureaucratic things that should take 5 minutes and take 50; stupid technological things, ditto; gifs of baby otters and swearing parrots; dictionaries; language courses; malfunctioning smoke detectors; family; sunny days; trees; birds; water; sky; wonder; curiosity; restlessness; shame; desire; envy; sloth; greed; anger; gluttony; needing to stop and look up the Seven Deadly Sins because no-one can ever remember all of them at once; not enough peace and quiet; too much peace and quiet and oppressive silence and loneliness; devices; cold; darkness; accidents; the unpredictable; the uncontrollable; pernicious neurosis; the weird tension of needing to create something and not being able to get over oneself long enough to settle down and just write.

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On Welcoming the Discomfort of Tears

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“After adolescence, human empathy matures, and adults might cry in reaction to the suffering of others…Strong positive emotions from a reunion, team victory or moving artistic performance might cause adults to cry, too….[But] there are two major consistent triggers for adult crying. ‘The first is helplessness and powerlessness…the second, separation and loss.’

… If you think your emotions are regularly getting the best of you, chat with your doctor about it just in case — an underlying condition like depression or anxiety could be causing you to cry a lot. ‘There is no specific amount of crying that is a problem.’”

(“How to Stop Yourself from Crying,” The New York Times, 15 October 2018)

One of the most influential and venerable sources of information in the country just told me that I don’t have to cry.

It’s an odd article—the author isn’t telling me that I shouldn’t cry, or not exactly. But the framing of the advice, not to mention the fact that both author and at least one editor thought the article ought to exist in the first place, suggest that crying is a bad thing that readers can, might want, and ought to avoid. At a minimum, you don’t want to be caught crying…anywhere? At work, certainly not. 

An accompanying article on “Why you shouldn’t feel bad about crying at work” makes it very clear that you should feel bad about crying at work, as the author and his interview subject explain how, if you must cry, you can downplay its occurrence. We get the idea that while some mild welling up is an acceptable excess of emotion, crying excessively (honestly?) in the presence of others is a sign of weakness, instability, and might (just incidentally) be a sign that an employee is in trouble. Or that the employee is trouble: if you’re crying all the time, “your boss is probably going to worry about how much stress you’re under and whether you can handle the demands of the job.”

What I’m hearing – when I and everyone around me seems on the verge of tears multiple times a day – is that the thing to do with our emotions is NOT examine them for what they can tell us (about, for example, whether our working, social, political, and environmental lives are profoundly out of balance) – but rather, to do what it takes to avoid crying in front of others….Because others might be embarrassed and confused by your feelings? Because you’re not surrounded with people who understand and care for you and want to comfort you, but because you’re an anomaly in a world of otherwise stoic, disciplined people who are all Getting On With It, and your indulgence of frustration, grief, anger, and alienation is just getting in the way…?

“If you identify potentially fraught situations beforehand, you can limit your emotional response.”

Let’s just slow down and examine that oddly disembodied claim, shall we?

Here’s a sample of potentially fraught situations which might prompt me to cry:

  • being tired
  • having your mind and energy colonized by an onslaught of bureaucratic tasks of varying urgency and uncertain purpose
  • not being listened to
  • being interrupted, and still not listened to
  • being lonely
  • promising yourself that you’ll go to dance class to rejuvenate your spirit after an especially soul-sucking day only to find the class has been cancelled
  • being so busy (with what?) that you don’t have the time to eat (or stay hydrated, or close your eyes, or go to the bathroom, or take a pill for the headache/nausea/anxiety that you can’t seem to shake)
  • being confused by what it is exactly that you’re supposed to DO to change ANYTHING and even if you had the least clue, not being sure where to start
  • needing to get somewhere and having all public infrastructure fail you
  • being betrayed by someone you trusted
  • missing someone you love
  • being too far away from friends and family
  • being terrified by the absolute peril facing this whole planet
  • being grief-stricken at the depletion of our environment
  • being outraged by seeing your elected government slide further into fascism and oppression every day
  • witnessing your fellow human beings being disrespected, unregarded, and violated in more ways than you could think possible
  • ignorance
  • cruelty
  • selfishness
  • indifference
  • being really, really tired.

The question I have is not, how do I stop myself from crying? Rather: how is it that we’re all going about our business—working, shopping, investing, sitting in meetings, sitting through tv—as though everything is normal?

Why do I want to limit my emotional response? Why should I? Why should any of us?

I think we need more tears. I suspect that the first steps in trying to enact revolutionary change are NOT

  • saving face
  • denying your own emotions to protect other people’s comfort (and by “comfort”  I mean, a desire not to confront the fact that we’re all going to have to get a lot more uncomfortable if we want to save everything we really love)
  • denying that we care, that the suffering of others hurts.

Today, I think we should all go out into the world, and in exactly those places where crying would be least welcome, least convenient, most messy, most provocative—we should let the tears flow. We should weep, snivel, howl, gasp, cry.

We should feel.

We should demand that the others around us feel too, as an essential impetus to think.

We should turn to one another for comfort.

Then we should decide what to do next.

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On Exposure

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I guess it was inevitable, something we all knew was going to happen. Can’t stop the march of time and all of that. I’ve crossed some kind of boundary, passed a marker on the path, and the days of naive youth are beyond me.

What I mean is that I’ve entered that phase of life where I can regularly be seen naked in public.

I’ve been more naked, more often, in the last two years than since I was two. 

“But people don’t do such things!” … is what someone always cries out in an Ibsen play right before a major character is driven by overwhelming personal and social forces to do exactly the thing that she oughtn’t’ve, in a shocking fashion.

Exactly. How much of our socialization insists on our NOT being nakedly exposed to the world? The conditioning to keep covered up, literally and figuratively, goes pretty deep, reinforced with threats of the direst consequences. I’ve had that anxiety dream playing regularly in my poor unconscious my whole adult life. You know the one, where you’re walking down a street, or standing in a crowded bar, and suddenly, by some accident, you find yourself without clothes, and very confused about how next to behave (“maybe if I don’t let on that I know I’m naked, no-one will notice…?”), but, oddly, no-one seems to care, until out of nowhere there appears – middle of the street, middle of the bar – a toilet which begins to overflow uncontrollably, and when you try frantically to stop it (somehow it’s all your fault) THEN everyone notices you’re completely starkers, and every neurotic fear of being singled out and judged is happening All. At. Once. In your dreams, people do do such things, and promptly find themselves fleeing from a tide of effluent while the whole world watches. 

My current experiment in public nakedness is not at all like that. There has been surprisingly little anxiety (at least on my part, though I can’t speak for onlookers), and, so far (mercifully), no overflowing toilets. More pertinently, there hasn’t been anything accidental about it. It turns out that, in waking life, professional, respectable, North American, women-who-are-no-longer-twenty must do a certain amount of planning, and often exert themselves considerably, to be purposefully naked in public.

I started a couple of summers ago, by dipping my toes, and a few other parts, in the water, with some innocuous skinny dipping, which I can now authoritatively say is nudity for amateurs (that is, there wasn’t enough of an audience). One escapade took place well under cover of darkness, as part of a very tipsy reunion with dear high school friends, at the beach where we used to hang out (clothed, if any of our mothers are reading this). A few weeks later, at a suburban lake, I was bolder, and bared it all during daylight. Well, I was bare under the water – I only had my bikini off while submerged, and even that didn’t last long, as my companion lost his nerve, worried that we’d make the police blotter in the town newspaper: “Police identified the suspects, found nakedly enjoying a cool swim on hot day, as a once-reputable local businessman in the company of a suspicious woman from the city.”

Nothing too madcap about either of those instances (is there?) – but the seeds of temptation were sown. After a long, cold, overly-layered winter, when the chance to visit a clothing-optional beach presented itself (once, and then again, and then another time after that), I took it. Yes: opportunity knocked, and I opened the door wearing nothing but a sun hat and a smile.

Insofar as youth is wasted on the young, when I actually was 20, painfully self-loathing, and prematurely, dourly, responsible, you couldn’t have paid me (and by you, I mean one – you can stop blushing and looking awkward) to take my clothes off in front of other people. Unlike now, when I would happily strip off for money (in the context of modeling for ART, thank you, because I’m classy like that). Once, in college, my boyfriend and his friends thought it would be great fun to spend the day at Wreck Beach in Vancouver. Once there, everyone in the group shucked off their clothes, and gloried in their lack of inhibitions – which only made me cling all the more stubbornly to mine, plus a few extra on their behalf. I was surrounded by nakedness – I was excruciatingly  aware that, with clothes on, in that social setting, I was being not just recalcitrant, but weird…and having that pointed out to me by some of those smugly-disinhibited friends was exactly what resolved me to stay that way. 

Years have passed, and now, here I am, making other people uncomfortable with my self-satisfied discovery of bodily liberty. Somehow, something shifted in my thinking, and my reasons for staying covered up began to seem less important than my reasons for stripping down.

I might sometimes go starkers (as in “bare naked”), but I haven’t gone starkers (as in “barking mad”). The climate where I live is inimical to nudity, if not fatal, for a good portion of the year, and forbiddingly uncomfortable for most of the rest of it. But, with the right combination of sun and water (preferably in combination with travel, where the weather’s better and no-one knows me) being naked outdoors is really quite nice. I still think those friends were smug all those years ago, and should have just accepted my modesty without making me feel badly about it – but they were right about the pleasures of having nothing but a LOT of high-SPF sunscreen between you and nature. 

And you often get a lot of that nature almost completely to yourself. There are certainly places (not the American Northeast) where nakedness is no big deal, to the extent that nudists, naturists, and the naked-curious can spread out their, um, belongings in designated sections on the most crowded public beaches. But in parts of the world where going au naturel is considered de trop, the clothing-optional beaches tend to be thoroughly off the beaten path. Once found through word of mouth, nowadays the internet makes them easier to research and find, but you have to be be looking for them, and usually involves a lot of truly-harrowing hiking on steep cliffs to get to them. This is where the exertion comes in, along with motivation, and a profound determination not to end up a regrettable headline in a Google search about all the weird ways in which your compatriots have died in the world: “Canadian killed in fool-hardy attempt to flaunt naked body in hostile natural setting.” Having survived the trek, you can’t be blamed for feeling a certain sense of entitlement, that you’ve earned the right to be however clothed or naked as you damn well please. And, thanks to that same remoteness, there really aren’t many people there to protest. Interesting social effect: people determined to remain dressed are made so uncomfortable by determinedly-naked people that, combined with the relative inaccessibility (and, often, dearth of bathrooms) the former happily cede the field to the latter.

Many naturists – and I, apparently, have become one of them – believe, earnestly if eccentrically, in the elevating experience of being completely at one with the elements. Recent research has found that nature bathing has a measurable effect on both physical and mental health – and it stands to reason that if you get some benefit even while swaddled head to toe in quick-drying technical pants and no-wrinkle camping shirts, those benefits can only increase the less you have between yourself and le plein air.

So, total immersion in natural splendor is definitely one of the more appealing reasons to seek out a clothing-optional beach. But—obviously—they also make for fantastic people watching. You get to see, well, everything, whether you want to or not. There is no better place to do anthropological field research on contemporary trends in body hair. At a minimum, you’ll see ALL the variations of male genitalia and you’ll have your suspicions confirmed, that men like to keep track of where everything is by holding onto it. Often, that’s a completely benign action (I’ve had this conversation, where a male friend says, “what, you mean women don’t watch hockey or The Great British Baking Show with their hands down their pants?” to which I reply on behalf of all women, “um, obv, NO, gross.” To which he replies, with genuine sympathy, “that’s too bad!”) But sure, it’s possible (likely) that you’ll see some creepy guy out of the corner of your eye (don’t look directly!) and not be quite sure what you’re looking at, but, yep, that’s what he’s doing all right – hanging out on the beach, just masturbating, NBD. 

Somewhat unsurprisingly (with that previous image still in mind), the politics of the gendered body follow us to the nude beach. You see more naked men than women at clothing optional beaches, and fewer by themselves. The beach itself might be quite safe, but it’s hard for women to feel safe, alone, in any kind of public space; and if it’s one thing to fend off uninvited conversation, let alone unwelcome advances, when you’ve got a parka on in the middle of the rush-hour commute, it’s quite another – more than many of us have the energy for – to deal with that behavior when you’re in the middle of nowhere with no clothes on at all. So it’s more typical to see women at nude beaches in a group, or at least (and this is not an endorsement of patriarchy, just a resigned, pragmatic concession) with a man. Even so, you have to remain vigilant, and, again, determined to avoid the headlines: “Canadian killed on remote nude beach after accepting kind offer from stranger to show her an interesting view from that isolated stand of bushes over there.” That’s where it’s useful to have some company, preferably male, at a minimum someone who’s a bit more alert and worldly than one’s trusting Canadian self.

The people who are sketchy at the nude beach would be sketchy and unwelcome anywhere. What’s really cool about nude beaches, and the naked world in general, is just how respectful the majority of people are. It’s not that such spaces exist in some kind of edenic, prelapsarian, asexual innocence; on the contrary, if we’re prone to sexual speculation when we’re in fully-dressed company, or when we’re only partly dressed (you know, like at the beach), then being naked amongst naked people isn’t going to make such thoughts any less likely. I mean, you can see them, and they can see you – sex is going to cross your mind. But if you believe that “clothing-optional” guarantees “a seething mass of infamous and perverse behavior” where neither adults, children, or pets are safe from molestation, you’ve been looking at too much fictional nakedness on the internet. Of course, there are clothing optional beaches which are popular for their, um, social potential; I’ve been told that there are resorts set up with the explicit (in all senses of the word) intention of facilitating shenanigans between consenting adults. But for as many people who want to get naked there are as many who simply want to get naked, and do nothing more racy than eat a ham sandwich, read The New Yorker, and enjoy the sunshine. Here’s a mind blowing idea: sex – do you feel like it, do you deserve it, can you enjoy it, are you safe from it, do you just want to forget about it for 5 damn minutes – is more of an imposition, a problem, when you’re surrounded by confused, shamed, shaming, clothed people, than when you’re one naked person amongst many.

You know what kind of people go naked in public? Mostly, just ordinary types like me or you, of all ages, shapes, and conditions: college kids, families with children, couples, groups of friends, those who are beautiful because of fitness and good fortune, those who are beautiful in their honest, unapologetic humanness.

When, at 20, I refused to take my clothes off on the nude beach that was because, in a fundamental way, I thought my body was ugly compared to the others I was with – well, compared to all others, really. I hate that I felt that way then, and that I’ve wasted so much mental energy, passed up so much fun, feeling that way about myself ever since. I wish I’d been able to see, then, what I’m learning to see now: those naked people – this naked person – can be happy in their nakedness. It’s a relief to just BE, amongst other people who are also just there to BE. Of course, there’s still observation and comparison and competition playing in the minds of at least some of us – that’s the mindset too many of us are trained in, and deprogramming yourself doesn’t come easily – but this is important: being naked with all these strangers, you find that trust and acceptance (of them, of yourself) comes much more easily than judgement.

Last year, a friend and I took part in our first World Naked Bike Ride (yep, it’s a thing, and I did it again this year). We spent an hour going back and forth between talking ourselves into it, and giving one another a chance to back out – but finally we gripped hands, took a deep breath, and the next thing we knew, we and a couple hundred of our neighbors were wearing a lot of body paint and few to no clothes, riding our bikes through the streets of our city on a Saturday night to raise awareness for cyclist safety and body positivity. People stopped in their tracks; they left their tables and rushed to restaurant windows; the kitchen staff left dinners on the stove and ran out onto the sidewalk; college girls looked with desperate awkwardness at their phones; twelve-year old boys gawked in grateful amazement. We sang, we danced, we took off more clothes, we made an absolute spectacle of ourselves. We were seen – and photographed, and filmed, and posted – by I-don’t-even-know-how-many passers-by. It was absolutely exhilarating. We almost certainly offended a good many people, and confused a lot of others. But mostly, onlookers were cheering, and laughing, not with derision, but with delight – did they think we were crazy? almost certainly. Did they also kind of admire us for our brazenness? I’m pretty sure they did.

More importantly – I admired us for our bravery. I admired myself, exposed to everything, ashamed of nothing. 

Naked.

Too often, we dress and undress not to protect, adorn, celebrate, or show respect, but to exploit, shame, and police ourselves and one another. Why? Don’t we have better, healthier, kinder things to do? I’d be the first person to point out that there are plenty of very good reasons (weather and chafing, for starters) NOT to take one’s clothes off in public; indeed, sometimes, for some of us, modesty can be the more powerful, radical choice. What matters is that, whether we choose a lot of clothes or few, we get to decide; we get to ignore the disapproving, shaming voices around us, within us, and, instead we can make the conscious, deliberate, terrifying, exuberant choice about how to care for, live in, and love these fabulous bodies of ours. 

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On Being an Immigrant in the New Regime, January 28, 2017.

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No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne, Meditation XVII


I’m not a citizen, but I have lived in this country for many years, obeying its laws, investing in its economy, shopping in its malls, paying its taxes, and – incidentally –  working to educate its youth. About five years ago, I also finally managed to navigate my way through this country’s byzantine immigration laws, moving painstakingly from one category of visa to another, achieving permanent resident status.

Many of those who have always been citizens here have no idea what’s involved in getting that “green card.” Some believe that to be a permanent resident is the same as being a citizen (nowhere close); it’s a common assumption that getting a green card is as easy as getting a twitter account, and about as expensive. It comes as a surprise to many Americans when I tell them how complicated and burdensome the process actually is. You have to get a special medical exam (and not from your own doctor – you have to a special, certified doctor, and it’s not covered by insurance). You have to prove that you don’t have any communicable diseases, such as the leprosy or yellow fever well known to be endemic in Canada. My lawyer was, I thought, recklessly confident that I could get an “expedited” green card if I applied as an “outstanding researcher/professor.” We pulled it off somehow, thanks to her cunning, and my labor: I had to assemble a massive dossier on myself, 300 pages of every credential I’ve ever possessed, from my birth certificate to my doctoral diploma, and every professional thing I’ve ever written, along with ten reference letters about my productivity and character. There was a criminal background check (I came up clean). I had to testify, on the application form, that I was not a communist or a terrorist, and that I had not been a member of the National Socialist Party of Germany between the years 1936-1945. And, because I was sponsored by neither a spouse, a relative, nor an employer, and because there was no way an ordinary person could penetrate the arcane mysteries of US immigration law, the fees for this whole process, paid in part to the government, but mainly to my  lawyer, cost me about $10,000.

In other words, it takes a lot of time, work, privilege, and money to get a green card, which is why lots of immigrants never get one at all, why they can’t get one. It’s also why, when you encounter an immigrant to the US in possession of a green card, you can rest assured that 1) they have been very, very thoroughly vetted; 2) they don’t have leprosy; 3) they were very earnestly committed to making a decent, safe life for themselves in this country.


When I got my green card five years ago, according to the little letter of congratulation that came with it in the mail, I had ceased to be merely an “Alien” – here on suffrance, regarded with suspicion – and instead was acknowledged as a “US Person.”

Up until a few hours ago, I assumed that being a card-carrying Person, had, in fact, guaranteed me legal personhood – that I and this country had a formal agreement whereby I would meet my obligations to it, and in return it would grant certain basic protections to me. I thought we had some kind of deal; I naively assumed that we had a contract.

Except earlier today, I and hundreds of thousands of other green card holders – US Persons, remember – just found out that that was a dumb assumption indeed. Thousands of US Persons have just been denied entrance to the country where they have jobs, property bought via those jobs, obligations, friends, lives. The explanation from the government is that these US Persons are, in fact, not – they are bogeymen, monsters, threats, made hateful because of their difference. Purporting never to have heard of any comparable, grotesque precedent in history, this government has summarily denied US Persons their human and legal right to be treated as persons.

This action is supposed to make this country safer, stronger, more great – as though denying human rights ever makes anything better. And if you think that a wall here, a registry there, this little police action, that little act of totalitarianism is no big deal, that things will be all right (as I have been told by well-intentioned, complacently-safe, white, male, citizens)… are you sure? Because if you think that government will stop with just those people, and that people like me have nothing to worry about, because people like me are just like you, and that surely our rights are safe…well, history would tell you otherwise. When some “people” seize the power to define, categorize, register, and limit who gets to be a person – you can comfort yourself that you are “us” and not “them” all you like, but you’ve already lost your rights, along with theirs, and mine. What you would like to think is safe, secure, legal – is not, not when it gets in the way of those driven by power, fear, hatred, and violence. Your safety, and that of your neighbors, is just about as inviolable, as inalienable as a 2×3 inch piece of green, laminated plastic.

That’s what happened today. Let’s brace ourselves for what happens tomorrow.

 

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On Deeds, Not Words

Today, I’ll be walking, chanting, listening, and generally being with thousands of people like myself—that is, humans who care about one another’s wellbeing—at the Women’s March on Washington. 

In preparation for this demonstration—and for the sister marches taking place throughout the US, and in many cities around the world—many of us felt we had to explain #whyimarch. In various social media sites, on t-shirts, on signs on our office doors, on the posters we’ll carry with us, to friends, to family, to staffers of elected officials on the other end of the phone line—we tried to articulate the many, many reasons motivating us. You know—surely, you know by now—the details. You’ve followed the news, the analysis, your friends’ Facebook posts; you’ve become exhausted by the exhaustive coverage of the seemingly-inexhaustible supply of outrages perpetrated, or threatened to be perpetrated, against the people of this country by its most recent batch of elected officials. 

So very many words, expressing dismay, disillusionment, disgust, hatred, fear, hope, and urgency: we can’t let this happen; it mustn’t happen; it is happening and we have to stop it now (surely we can stop it…what if we can’t stop it??). 

Speaking for myself—well, actually I can’t. Speak, that is. This…situation (crisis? disaster? dystopian tale come to life?) has left me mute. Words that once tumbled onto the page like so many eager puppies, now refuse to come, hanging back, recalcitrant, unbiddable. 

For months before the election, I was feeling a sense of menace, dragging at the edges of my concentration. Through a determined process of distraction, I could keep the dread at bay, though at the cost of the attention necessary to write anything more complex or effective than hectoring work emails. When I woke up to the inconceivable-made-manifest in November, I initially assumed that my shock wouldn’t last. “Shock”?: not even. This has been the stunned, concussing, blankness of being hit by a boy on a swing, leaving you lying on the ground waiting to inhale after all the air has been suddenly crushed out of you. I’ve been waiting to get my breath back ever since, assuming that, eventually, that hysterical tendency, that slight nervous depression, would recede, allowing me to say something, to use my skill, my small reach, to write Important Things about where we find ourselves, how we got here, and where we can hope to go.

Nothing doing. 

Words fail.

What is there to say, after all? 

A person (and I use the term grudgingly) has lied, and connived, and injured, in plain sight, HIS WHOLE LIFE—and is was just sworn in to the highest political office, whereupon he is authorizing the most appalling band of misogynist, racist, queer-phobic, anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, unethical bridge trolls to carry out more lying, conniving, and injury. This should not have happened, and yet millions of people in this country made sure—actively and passively—that it did, that it will. 

Again—you know all this. If you’re reading this, it’s almost a certainty that you and I have read, watched, and heard the same things, and have had the same reactions, and want the same things—namely for these horrible people to sink back into the mire and leave the rest of us to get on with the business of caring for one another. 

But that’s the problem—what can I say to you, that you don’t already know, or fear, or want? You’ve been informed, and persuaded, by better, less tongue-tied writers than me. Anything I say now will be repetition; any agreement that you offer in return will be almost reflexive. The best result I could hope for would be that we would feel some gratifying sense of commiseration, some sympathy, in the exchange—but I can’t move you to believe differently, because you already do, and we already agree.

And look how far that got us. 

Even if hundreds of thousands of us affirm our shared commitment to our progressive manifesto today–what if it’s not enough? It might not be anything to all those we don’t know (or whom we once knew, but have, out of disgust and exasperation, cut from our lives). We couldn’t reach them with the most informed, well-intentioned, impassioned arguments before…because we were never actually talking to them anyway, nor were they inclined to listen (they, them, those people who are not like me, who now want to disenfranchise people like me). All along, when we thought we were reaching everyone, we were only reaching one another—which matters, of course! it counts for something—but which, it turns out, was doing as much harm as good.

Researchers in behavioral science (whose funding will doubtless be on the chopping block next week) have found that once people (regardless of ideology) have adopted a position—about politics, for example, or health—they get perversely, intractably stubborn about accepting information that might change their minds. We get vain about our knowledge, insecure about admitting we’re wrong…and very skilled at filtering out troublesome information, only allowing in what confirms and validates what we need to think is certainty.

It’s very, very hard to change this kind of committed, focused, narrow-mindedness (of which one is never, oneself, guilty). And in this current situation/disaster/catastrophe/dystopian Dark Timeline, even if I could summon the skill to make the attempt, I don’t know where any of us could reach that benighted audience; nor can I summon the optimism that those people—who don’t appreciate being called “those people,” never mind “benighted”—would let their guard down enough to listen. 

That said—or rather, painstakingly NOT said—there are strategies that work. (One feels the need to offer some positive strategy, at least). It’s not easy though—you can’t stay comfortably, non-confrontationally, introvertedly insulated behind the written word; rather, you have to meet those other people, and talk to them as though you and they are not so different, as though you and they want and need the same things. I know. Right now, I’m still so…angry, hurt, and frankly terrified, that as soon as I start to mentally rehearse any kind of exchange with the other, I become instantly speechless, wordless even to myself. To be honest, what comes most easily right now is a desire to hurt back. 

I know that we can’t allow ourselves to give in to those impulses. I’m sure it’s important to think positively, to be forgiving and compassionate, to have faith, and hope, that reason will prevail…I’m sure that’s the right frame of mind to be in—and what I know I’ll share with the people around me today, all marching out of our shared need for safety (above all), freedom, reason. I’m quite sure that this will be only the start of a larger movement. 

I really hope we can save one another. 

Why march? Because words have failed, and we are moved to ACTION. Why march? Because, on this day of all days, how else, where else, can we begin?

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