Friday, October 29, 2010

"A marketable facade"


I did not expect this video to make me cry. Much of what is produced in this vein tends toward the “But you are pretty!” variety, and I have no use for that. Not every woman is pretty.

We should not have to be, to be valued, to be considered fully human, to be considered worth as much as a beautiful woman.

The conflation of a woman’s beauty and desirability to men with her worth causes so, so much misery. You can hear it in this clip, both in the speaker’s voice and in the rising crescendo of voices and cheers from the audience.

I read one woman's response to this and it struck me. This resonates with me, she observed. But yet I still have my tummy tuck scheduled. I am still on powerful medication for acne. And I’m thinking about Botox. Why can’t I just internalize this message?

Because the message isn’t – and shouldn’t be – about how individual women need to change (although I’m not at all surprised a woman construed it as such, considering that’s the overwhelming message given to women). The message of the video is that women are deeply, painfully hurt by the fact that the most valuable asset a woman can have is, as noted in the piece, a “marketable fa├žade”.

There is enormous pressure yet on women to conform to feminine standards of beauty. Very real consequences often await those of us who fail to do so. That’s probably why you can’t just internalize the message. Hell, you can be a viable presidential candidate and still have someone publicly ridicule your perceived lack of attractiveness. If you’re a woman.

I admire any woman who is able to say no to these standards, but I don’t expect every woman to do so. This sort of thing will have to get chipped slowly away. Every woman who can say to their daughter, however, as Makkai promises to, that no, no, you will never, ever, be merely pretty, is one more piece that falls away, one woman or girl a little less hurt or fractured.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Green Pony

The Green Pony, a love symbol.

One of the things about T is that when I express a desire for something, he commences immediately to look for ways to find what I want, if it's possible or reasonable. One morning last spring I started musing about wanting a riding lawn mower, so that I might indulge my enjoyment of lawn mowing on the one hand and save the money I pay to have it done for me on the other. By afternoon he'd located one in my price range. This thing is green, old, boxy, loud and aggressive, and I like it very much. While it sometimes complains when I turn the key, it always rolls over and starts up. One cannot help but feel a bit cowboyish on it, hips loosened, head cocked to one side, one hand on the steering wheel. It makes you feel just a little bit tough.

So I named it the Green Pony, both because it is green and because it is not at all like a pony. One must do what one can in this world to keep irony alive.

Today is the Green Pony's last day of work until spring -- and consequently, my last day to enjoy an outdoor ritual for the same chunk of time.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Skipping rocks on Pine Creek

On balancing a fear of risk with a risk of fear

Shortly after I made my post about sleeping alone in the storm, Jeannie made this comment, which I pondered for a very long time, wanting to get some perspective on my experience:
Jen...not trying to rain on your parade...but I have had a problem with this hiking alone. You are LIVING everyday and making a wonderful life for yourself and your son...I guess what I'm trying to figure out is why you think you need to do this to be living a full life? Facing your fears? Haven't you already proved to yourself that you can do that, and more, when necessary? And the risk you took...what would it have meant for Sean IF something had happened to you? I don't understand the need to do it. The mama in me worries about you...
I agree that something has gone awry when risk and danger is the entire end, instead of something incidental to the end. That means you're nothing but an adrenaline junkie, a category of people for whom I've historically not had much patience or interest. However, I do maintain that measured risk can be beneficial if it's attached to another worthwhile endeavor.

The risk I took hiking and camping alone, in the location and season that I did, was really quite minimal. But even the most reasonable risks are still risks, and I did end up in a bit of a pickle. But it's important to remember that, just because the situation ripened into some danger, doesn't mean it was an unreasonable risk at the start. I could walk to lunch this afternoon and get run over by a car whose driver loses control and ends up on the sidewalk. That doesn't mean the risk in walking to lunch was unreasonable. The same obtains here. In any event, being with someone would not have eliminated the danger that morning. In fact, T, my most common backpacking partner, would likely have been even less inclined to discard the hiking plans because of the forecast than I was. (Which forecast, remember, was for scattered thunderstorms the following night!)

But what I got from that experience, reflecting on it weeks later, was deeply valuable to me and remains potent even now: I got both a validation of my fears and the knowledge that I could handle them. I learned anew a lesson that, for me at least, bears repeating throughout a lifetime -- that bad things can happen and I can live through them. If I had insisted on learning this lesson in a much more risky circumstance, I would tend to agree that I had lost the thread, that my path was off kilter. But the risk, going in, was reasonable -- I was probably in more danger on the highway driving to the trail. But life, for me, involves a constant quest for meaning and lessons. These have a sort of domino effect in that some of these lessons prepare me for subsequent ones. My mind sees symbolism and meaning in everything. I'm an ENFP; it's how I'm wired.

I give my child a great deal of my life, as I should. But I won't, can't, and shouldn't give either of us a risk-free existence. These are lessons I want him to learn and absorb. To me, facing my fears in pursuit of something larger -- like a night alone on a lake with a full moon in the sky -- and coming out on the other side is part and parcel of truly living.

On the other hand, I also genuinely understand how this might seem either completely insane or self-indulgent to someone living with large risks in their lives that were externally imposed, and not necessarily of their choosing. Make no mistake, I understand the luxury involved in my ability to do this, and to choose it for myself. And if I had been reckless or careless, I would count that in the irresponsible category, and hope I would examine the source of that and adjust accordingly.

I don't know if this answers Jeannie's thoughts -- sometimes there is just a gap of understanding and viewpoint that cannot be bridged. But I'm always grateful for her thoughtful comments.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Now this is more like it

I can put my own images as background.

Full moon over Glacier National Park, Montana, during the fires of 2003. Thus the purple haze.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Nature of the beast

I've had an interesting few days, capped off by a magical weekend. One of the most interesting questions in my mind, and one that seems to keep intersecting with me, is what happens when you let an animal be herself? What happens when you treat her as more human than animal? What happens when a human ventures into the animal world, instead of forcing the animal ever deeper into the human realm?

This question crystallized for me first when I saw Raising Sancho and got to know Carolina Vargas. My exchanges with author Jon Katz last week made me revisit the issue, and refine it even further. What I found striking about Carolina's time with Sancho was how she entered the otter world to a much greater degree than she brought Sancho into our world. Her entire interaction with Sancho was constructed around honoring Sancho as an otter. That is what made it so beautiful, and yet, poetically, is what also what illuminated the larger human lessons about life, love and loss.

When people project their humanity and their own problems and pain onto an animal, they deprive themselves of an opportunity to know another creature on a truthful level. At worst, they can actually bring harm to the animal, and by extension, other animals. But the same thing happens when people take a reductive view of animals and their natures, denying that animals have feelings, and are nothing but instinctive flesh robots.

There is a tension to be maintained, I think. What I was trying to convey about Jon Katz was that I think he maintains that tension in his work, and in his ethic about animals. It's there, in that tension, that the interesting things happen. He called it "rationality versus mysticism" in his post, and that is the sweet spot -- at the intersection between those two orientations -- where the lessons lie, for those willing to be taught something by the non-human set.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Coming clean

I acted in high school and college. I loved it. I enjoyed being on stage, and had no problem whatsoever performing in front of a large number of people. In fact, I thrived on it. Stage fright did not exist for me. It was bliss, one of the first real passions of my young life. In college, it abruptly stopped being fun. I abandoned acting completely, except for a brief foray back during a limbo period in my mid-20s. Why? Because real world drama programs want you to do more than funny roles. No way.

It was then I got the first inkling that I might have some trouble with emotional vulnerability. I would reach down into myself trying to read an emotional scene, and it was just not there. I would feel almost repulsed by the process. As a result, I failed utterly. Comedy, however, was easy. I'm hardly the first to observe that it's easy to hide oneself in humor.

I switched majors and even colleges, got a degree in political science and headed to law school. But problems with emotional vulnerability don't just go away, and they've been the source of most of my life's angst. Most of you who know me are aware that the practice of law is not my great calling, and often feels dry and confining, despite my skill at it. It makes me a good living, however, and allows me to work with my father and brother and a number of other funny, smart people, an opportunity I value deeply. And it allows me to engage in my creative pursuits, which have always felt like my first home.

But you also know that I've resisted putting my creative work out there into the current, submitting it to the world for evaluation and opinion. This has been the great conundrum of my life. I want to do this work so badly, and yet have so long lacked the will to make myself that terribly, terribly vulnerable. I created a body of work I'm fairly proud of, but I did it anonymously. Anonymity was the only thing that allowed me to take that risk of vulnerability.

Now, this has improved a great deal in the last two or so years, with the convergence of a number of events in my life. I entered and emerged from what Hugo Schwyzer refers to as the "terrible and wonderful crucible of divorce." I'm now in a relationship with a man who understands fearing vulnerability just enough himself that we've been able to create a space where, despite our occasional failures, we doggedly continue to build trust and openness. And, of course, I've spent a long time in the office of a very good therapist.

This week, something interesting happened. I've been reading Jon Katz's books and blogs for several years now, and he relentlessly implores his readers, and himself, to "live your life" and to put your work out there, and see where it goes. I'm a fan of his Bedlam Farm blog on Facebook. He's written a new book, a work of fiction this time after several memoirs about the farm and its various animal denizens. The book was recently released, and the other day he posted the first "negative" review, from the Washington Post. I clicked through, read the review, and posted the following comment:
I haven't read "Rose in a Storm" yet, and so I'm in no position to speak to the entire review. But I did notice this: "Katz's occasional forays into doggie mysticism clash oddly with the matter-of-fact narration."

I've always noticed that ...-- tension? -- dichotomy? in your work, though I don't view it as odd, or "clashing." Rather, it's part of the texture of your work. For example, you'll warn against the temptation to anthropomorphize just before you yield to it yourself in some small way or another. I see it as a recognition of and attempt to grapple with contradiction, with complexity. It's one of the things I like about your writing. So in this way, the review makes me want to read the new book to see how that plays out in your fiction. I'm not sure a "good" review would have had the same effect. So I'm thankful for this one.
This apparently struck Jon quite a bit. The tension in his work between the rational and the mystical was quite noticeable to me, and I even wrote about it here after reading A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life.* So I was a bit surprised that my observation was unique or new. But it's easy to see things about others, and not so easy to see them about ourselves.

Jon and I exchanged a few messages about the ideas I expressed and he wrote a post about them here. Although there are several layers to this onion -- and the one that struck Jon, the tension between rationality and mysticism, is one about which I have a great deal yet to say -- here is the passage that struck me with respect to what I've been confessing in this post:
You hole up writing something very personal and interior, then send it out into the world for other people to look at, accept or reject, and mull. They call it putting it out there.
As I read this, I thought of my constant exhortations to remember that dogs are just animals, and not to turn them into something else. This from a man who sat up at the top of the hill reading St. Augustine to his dogs in the middle of winter. And who in his darkest hours sang “You light up my life” to a Lab puppy in the middle of one freezing night after another. I have claimed the rational side of self in recent years, but never owned up to the other. I consider myself outed. You got me, Jennifer, nailed it. I am a crazy mystic – who else leaves his family and runs off to a farm in middle-age to find himself with a bunch of dogs, sheep and donkeys?
Here is a person who has written nineteen books and innumerable blog posts, who has braved forums with angry border collie owners who think he does it all wrong, who has shared hundreds of photographs from the time he just began to shoot, and I have "outed" him as a "crazy mystic," a part of himself that he had not, before now, owned and recognized.

And I'm too chicken to write under my own name?

I wrote him on facebook:
Jon, I have to note something else. In many ways, by "outing" you, I've outed myself. I've written and photographed a lot anonymously (read: safely) but it's always been a struggle to put that creative work into the stream under my own name and let it be carried where it will go. Your frequent admonitions to do just that have motivated me a great deal.
You have put so much of yourself out there, on display, for others. Having "outed" you, I no longer have an excuse to refrain from taking the risk of doing so myself. In that way, I deeply appreciate this conversation for my own reasons.
I no longer have an excuse.

It's fascinating, to me, how a chance Facebook interaction can produce insights so helpful to both parties. Jon thanked me for my insights, and for respecting and understanding his work.

And I thank him for deftly yet unknowingly removing the excuses from someone who badly needed them removed. By outing him, I have outed myself. And I'll continue to do so, to try to be as honest as I can, to put my work out there, and to cultivate curiosity about where it goes, instead of trying to control its destination.

And this post is the first installment of that continuing project.

*If you read that link, please note that, after exchanging several messages with Jon, I no longer wonder whether we'd get along if we "knew" each other. That question has been resolved favorably. I wonder if what I was reading in Jon's work at the time reflected some of my own rough edges that I had yet to confront, but was destined to in the coming year. Perhaps.