In Hysterics

sickfeetI’ve been sick. I’m now well-medicated and functioning but I’m still sick-ish after two months—a personal record. It began early this Fall, when in the space of four weeks, I had two colds and one stomping stomach flu. It wasn’t an ordinary bug that razes everything for 24 hours before blowing over. It dragged through an entire week, attacking and then relapsing on all 30 of the people who caught it at our family’s Thanksgiving potluck. My immune system cleared all of that up then opted for something other than its usual return to idling in the bod’s background. Sensing the state of me, maybe—the stress and overwork of preparing for a looming week of PhD qualifying comprehensive exams, my grief at the hard times of some of my loved ones, or tens of thousands of things—my immune system cranked the throttle open, blew me into bedridden bits for weeks.

The world of a sick person is small and terrible. Reading made me feel ill. The to-do list I’d been compiling during the months of exam preparation—catching up on satisfying household projects, overdue time with my kids—all of that was beyond me. Not even my lifelong fix, food, was available. Unable to eat much, I lost about 13% of my weight. (Never congratulate someone on sickness weight loss. It’s just suffering made visible.) But in small worlds, small me, there is still gratitude. As I lay in bed, I was glad to have a bed—a comfortable, warm bed in a safe place. I thought of my ancestors, with the same physical problems I have only trying to rest in cold, damp, crowded cottages without big tubs of running hot water to soak their bones in, and I was grateful.

I was grateful for the kindness of my family, especially my husband, especially when I’m doing nothing to earn it. I wasn’t unkind to him but I wasn’t a very thoughtful partner to him during this illness either, like when I brought him with me to the mother-of-all rounds of blood tests my doctor ordered to rule out every infection he could before putting me on a drug meant to depress my immune system. I forgot that the sound of the vials of blood coming on and off the needle makes my husby woozy, and he didn’t remind me as he stood beside me in the lab, shaky and pale having to hear it all.

Beds and caregivers—in my country, these are considered basic rights of sick people and I’m grateful that these are our collective ideals even though we fall short of them. The next thing I am grateful for is more rare. I’m grateful for spiritual guidance through my illness. While I was sick, we reached out to our faith community and someone arrived at our house with food and treats for my children, friendship, prayer, and what I must acknowledge was true inspiration. I remember our visitor saying in prayer that I needed medical attention. If I was a different kind of person, this advice might have been trite. But I am this kind of person. I am a rundown middle-aged woman with pain, fatigue, bad digestion. When physicians first coined the word “hysterical”, they were talking about me. The inspiration was at once advice and a warning. If I wanted medical attention, I would only get it through insisting, persisting.

The first doctor I saw told me I likely had bursitis in my elbow from leaning on it while holding books to read. He suggested a fancy drug I might not have thought to try myself yet called “Advil.” I cried and begged and he prescribed a stronger pain killer so at least I could sleep. When I ran out of it, I couldn’t bring myself to beg again and I ate the old pills I hoarded from my sons’ wisdom teeth extractions. The hysterical have learned to be resourceful.

The third doctor I saw told me it was just fine for someone like me to give up eating and phoned a GI specialist, talking extremely loudly, announcing my full name, birth date, and current bathroom habits to an emergency room ward crammed with people. This doctor’s medical attention came with a vague insult about my middle-aged figure and a flagrant lack of regard for my dignity and humanity. But heck, it was nothing more than I deserved for following the advice of my second doctor, my family doctor, and clogging up the ER, desperate to make an end-run around the appointment desk of a specialist’s office by gambling on seeing one in the hospital clinic. The maneuver failed and I was sent home with an assurance someone would call me with an appointment. Still waiting.

By this point, medical attention had been awful and useless. It reduced me to something mewling, dirty, sneaky, superfluous—a noisy waste of time and space. Make way for a baby with a rash, a guy who dropped something on his foot. The hysterical’s fight for medical attention can be hopeless–painful, please stop paying attention to me. I don’t want any more. I’ll go.

Truly, I would have quit and gone home to bed, given up on the life I used to think I’d have, if it weren’t for the confidence I had in the spiritual guidance I’d received. This kept me hounding the clinic until my family doctor, working outside his professional comfort zone, found the confidence of his own to prescribe the medicine I need right now. Confident is the opposite of hysterical. The spiritual provides a vantage point to see “things as they really are” rather than things as a lifetime of systemic bias against us can dupe us into accepting. Do not accept it. You need medical attention. You are worth it. Carry on.

Happy Girl

staplerOne of the nicest compliments I have ever received was from a friend I saw every day, for hours at a time, for an entire month, who told me I was the happiest person she knew. Great compliment. Hearing it made me even happier. That’s what compliments are for. That’s how it’s done.

Here’s how it’s not done. Happy people don’t know they’re happy unless they have bad days once in a while. The day the loved one who has been the happy person’s tiny and then not at all tiny companion for twenty-one years gets on an airplane and moves thousands of kilometres away tends to feel like a bad day. Yes, the day my brave and brilliant son moved to Ottawa all alone for an internship was a rough one for me. Hours after he left, I must have been dragging myself through my errands looking like I had just lost a best friend, because I had.

It was time to take my car to the tire shop to have the lug nuts on its new tires retorqued. The process is typically quick and painless. Oddly, this time, the tire technician started hollering at me. I didn’t hear him clearly but I could have guessed at what he’d said, the same way I guess in audiology booths and anytime anyone says anything out loud to me in Chinese. If I was right, it would mean this nice man who was making my car safe must also be a doofus. I didn’t want that and I gathered my hard-of-hearing status around myself and didn’t respond. Then he stepped closer, loud and grinning, unignorable. It was as I had feared. The poor doofus was saying, “Wouldn’t kill ya to smile, would it?”

No, it wouldn’t have. However, I do tend to be a bit more discriminating in making choices than simply choosing from the entire range of what would not kill me. “I don’t need to smile right now. Thank you,” I said. It was impossible to say it without sounding haughty and prim and I rushed to ask him a tire question so we could converse normally and just be pleasant without harassing each other.

I didn’t say, “Dude, I have a right to my feelings. Back off.” I didn’t offer him the justification I’ve just made here about giving up my firstborn son that morning. It’s private and I shouldn’t have to pay with explanations in order to, as we now say, exist in public, not even while sad.

I’m not going to go nuclear feminist on this, though I could. There is a widespread, widely-known problem of men exerting control over public spaces by policing the facial expressions of the women in them. The issue was raised in the national media in the context of a law school moot court competition just this week. When the man with the wrench approached me about my face, he was part of this problem. It’s real.

But sometimes, it feels like this is struggle is especially mine. It rises from things more grandadsoldierpersonal about me than mere gender. I inherited my grandfather’s face, a certain kind of Irish face which I love on him, on my baby brother, on my ginger nephew and on my middle son to whom I passed it along, but which doesn’t play so well on a woman’s head. On me, Granddad’s wise and trustworthy expression plays as nasty and not trying hard enough. Ever since my grade six teacher first complained about it to my mother, men and women who do not know me will sometimes stop me to let me know my sad-looking-not-sad face is a problem for them. There is always something of an assertion of power in these comments but I do allow that they are usually also meant as a sort of overbearing kindness—as if their special insight will liberate me.

Well, like I said in the beginning, this is not how it’s done. The number of moods improved by letting someone know their face is unpleasant is precisely none. Instead, try something like the response of another friend of mine. “Who says you look sad?” he demanded. “You’re not sad, you’re great.” Right there—that’s how it’s done.

 

I’d Rather Be a Cyborg…: The Unexpected Inter-sectional Feminism of Losing My Hearing

20170823_143656 (1)My hearing has never been good. Normal hearing is something I’ve had to work to maintain all my life with surgeries and procedures in doctors’ offices. Over time, I’ve progressed to having irretrievable below-normal hearing in the upper frequencies on my left side. I am hard of hearing, and as I age I will only become more so.

Knowing this, accepting it about myself is important in situations where faking normal hearing could cause problems, like when I’m standing in a noisy airport security line, talking to an officer, a fellow short-lady, through a pane of glass taller than both of us. Instead of gambling, guessing what she wants, I say, “Sorry, I’m hard of hearing,” explaining that I can’t meet her halfway and she needs to bear more of the burden of communication than she’s used to—which really just means she has to stop being verbally lazy and ask me about the yoghurt I forgot in my bag in a louder, clearer voice. The upper frequencies–voices of women and children–are less heard, and until they are, they need to be louder. The sexism built into my language tells me to call voices like these “shrill,” a word meant to shame people into silence, but a word which, for people like me, simply means “audible.”

My deaf sister-in-law says I need to stop introducing my condition with “Sorry…” Wheelchair users aren’t expected to stare down flights of stairs and tell anyone they’re sorry. I get it, and I’m working on it. I’ve even realized why I’ve always suffered a little stab of anger whenever someone doesn’t hear me and lets me know by saying, “Sorry.” The implication that anyone needs to apologize for not hearing—or not seeing or not walking—is ableist and backward. The idea that intruding on able-bodied privilege with requests that accommodations be made to social and physical structures that dismiss and deny special needs is something that demands an apology–I hate it. I do feel sorrow for the decline in my hearing. But I’m not responsible for it. No one owes anyone else a normal level of natural ability in anything, including hearing.

Anyways…

I noticed the decline in my hearing once I switched from working at home to studying in a large, crowded university—especially when my studies are in a new language where the skills and strategies I use in English to guess and gloss over what I don’t hear can’t be applied. While my Chinese reading and writing is quite good for someone at my level, my ability to understand what I’m listening to is bad. By the end of the month I spent living in China this summer, I realized that, some of the time, when I was giving my stock reply of “I can’t understand what you’re saying” what I really meant was “I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Coming home to my English-speaking family, I saw for the first time how much trouble I was having receiving all kinds of messages, including ones in my native language.

The audiology clinic asked me to bring an able-bodied handler with me to my hearing test, but I rebelled and came alone. The appointment was a sad trip back in time to when I was seven years old and facing my below-average hearing for the first time. Strangely enough the list of words I had to repeat in the soundproof booth hadn’t changed in all that time. The list was an odd, old-fashioned collection—and old-fashioned means sexist and Anglo-centric. The words were meant to be recognizable to elderly men. “Whitewash, inkwell, cowboy, baseball.” I asked, “Do you have lists in any languages other than English?” No, of course they didn’t. English was confounding my test results. Once I realized the list of words was taken from Tom Sawyer, once I knew I was amassing a set with a theme, I could guess them even more easily than usual.

I’ve never worn eyeglasses, and my childhood surgeries completely extinguished any interest in getting my ears pierced so I’m just now learning to tolerate a foreign object against my ear. My hearing aid penetrates much further into my head than I expected. It’s an infiltration. “I’m a cyborg,” I told the technician–not a word from the clinic’s list.

Back at our house, with my new circuitry, my youngest son was relieved I hadn’t come back with a hole drilled in my skull, and my oldest son congratulated me on my “augmented reality.” I smirked. “You mean, like your glasses?” That’s all a hearing aid should be for someone outside of Deaf culture who comes to be hard of hearing later in life. It’s eyeglasses for the ears, the restoration of a baseline. Cyborg-me knows it but does not know how to believe it yet, and sits by herself flexing her jaw, tipping the electronic node against the inside of her post-human head.

That Time I Stole a Truck

oldkeyOn the first day of this fall semester, I opened the door of my garage where, strangely enough, my car was parked. To my surprise, blocking the foot of my driveway was a skid-steer and a one-tonne flat-bed truck. I was trapped. Unless I was prepared to sprint twenty kilometres, I wasn’t going to make it to school.

The machinery belonged to the contracting company that had been repairing sidewalks on our street. But there was no trace of the men who had left it there to blockade my house. Except for me, the street was deserted.

“Hey!” I called out, just in case. “Is anyone here? Come on. You’re kidding me.”

No one was coming.

The name of the construction company was written on everything so I phoned their headquarters. I spoke to a guy who identified himself as “I Just Work Here at the Office” and I offered to arrange to have their gear towed away if it was too inconvenient to send someone back right away to move it for me.

Mr. I Just Work Here and I hung up. And while I waited to see what he could do, it occurred to me that fastidious craftsmen like these might be too meticulous to bother with details like securing their vehicles. Maybe my freedom didn’t depend on tow trucks or whims of construction workers. Maybe I could free myself.

Sure enough, the truck was unlocked and the keys were in the ignition. I climbed inside, cranked the key, backed up — beeeep, beeeep, beeeep – and, because I am a genius, moved the truck down the street to where it wouldn’t be obstructing anyone.

The work crew was back on the block by the time I had finished and walked back to my house.

“What were you thinking parking across my driveway? I had to move your truck myself.”

“You went in our truck?” the dude said. “That’s—not legal.”

Now, this is not a story of one of my finest hours. I am neither a gracious nor a composed character in this weird little suburban vignette. But give me a little credit for not saying the words “prosecutor’s wife.” Give me credit for not tossing my hair and saying, “Oh, you want to play that’s-not-legal with me, do you? Well, you forcibly confined me in my home by blocking the exit. That could be a criminal offense too, ya know.”

All I said was, “Yeah. Go ahead and recover your stolen property. It’s parked right there.”

“You can’t do that.”

“I did. And your correct response is, ‘Sorry for your inconvenience, ma’am.’”

He never said those words but he did move the skid-steer without my help and I did get to school. I felt a little bad about the scrappy conversation. The construction goofballs are just a bit older than my oldest kids, after all. I’m patient and empathetic when my own big kids mess up and this was a lapse in character for me.

But I didn’t feel sorry for moving the truck myself. Life—what’s left of my life, in particular—is too short for sitting around getting mad and late when the keys are right there, dangling from the ignition.

managehairWhile my oldest kid was working his first part-time job, as a stock-boy in a grocery store, he showed me this picture. It’s about unsatisfied but mostly civilized customers who don’t want to argue with teenaged frontline workers and primly insists on taking their extremely important retail grievances to a higher court. Notice the model in this picture is a probably little younger than me.

I’m getting closer to the age of the lady below. This is Kathy Bates in “Fried Green Tomatoes” acting out in a parking lot. I always thought this was a dumb scene – a grown-up smashing her car into someone else’s because they were rude and put her out and deserved it. The scene is still over-the-top but it’s starting to make more sense.kathy

I don’t want to talk to the manager. I don’t want to phone the office and wait for a guy. I don’t want answers anymore. I don’t want anyone to get in trouble. I just want results. It’s not about a haircut or hormones or insurance coverage (like it was for Kathy Bates’ character). It’s about time–four decades littered with the usual amount of smoking crap and a complete lack of desire to know where it came from or who put it there. I just want it gone even if I have to muck it out myself.

If the clichéd catch phrase of young women these days is supposed to be “I can’t even…” maybe the catch phrase of women my age should be “I can even…” And I if I can do it without someone  coming out of the office to help, I’d actually prefer that.

Beware women my age. Don’t box in our vehicles. Don’t start ridiculous arguments with us, panic when they’re not going well, and then try to say we came up with the whole feminism thing not because we’re actually suffering but so we can fib our way onto some bogus moral high ground. Women my age are not actually nasty or crazy. We have our wits about us. We also have skills and knowledge and experience. We aren’t hobbled by our sweet babies anymore. We have each other. We can see for miles. And we may insist on being called ma’am.

Arriving at the “Twilight” Party Years Too Late

The words have been said so often by so many millions of lads to so many millions of lasses, that they must be worn to tatters. But when you hear them for the first time, in some magic hour of your teens, they are as new and fresh and wondrous as if they had just drifted over the hedges of Eden. Madam, whoever you are, and however old you are, be honest, and admit that the first time you heard those words on the lips of some shy sweetheart, was the great moment of your life…    L.M. Montgomery, 1924

While my husband was away from home this winter, fighting crime, I fought to keep my happiness from capsizing. Little sorties became important, like roaming alone through Wal-Mart during Valentines week. It was there, in a seasonal hearts-and-flowers display, that I found a three-in-one DVD collection, the trinity of twenty-first century young adult romances, the first three movies of the Twilight series, for $9.99.

I have a secret weakness for young adult romance (secret up until a moment ago, anyways). I spent my teen years reading Greek drama and the Victorians. My idea of escapist reading was L.M. Montgomery. My idea of desperation reading was my mother’s Stephen King collection. The Sweet Valley High novels on my sister’s side of the room neither interested nor tempted me.

My appreciation for YA romance is an adult-onset phenomenon but it’s genuine. When I paid $3.33 per flick to catch up on Twilight five years too late, I expected to be indulging in a guilty pleasure. Ironically or not, I wanted to like the series. I understood a lot of people didn’t like it. But haters’ gonna hate, right? And Stephenie Meyer and I have more in common than just our professions. Rock on, Sister Meyer. Thanks for the good time. That’s what I hoped to be saying.

But instead of cheering, I was groaning my way through Twilight.

“Nooo.”

“Whyyy?”

“Dooon’t.”

Carol and Mike from the Brady Bunch

There wasn’t a lot of dialogue in the movie version of the story. The film was mostly heavily filtered frames of pretty scenery, clunky CGI action shots, quiet staring, and slick soundtrack. When there was talking, the lines were often awkward and incongruous. For instance, big daddy vampire and his bride—the Cullen “parents”—were written and played like Mike and Carol Brady.

Sometimes, when I wondered why a character says something in a certain odd way, I’d find out it was because he was repeating a stand-out line from the original novels. What was more puzzling than these strange lines were the ones that weren’t nearly strange enough—the obvious lines a writer might jot down in a first draft but then refine into something more nuanced and artful as the story matured.

“Never go for the obvious kill,” a Twilight vampire warns a werewolf, “They’ll be expecting that.”

Never a truer word…

Forty minutes into the fourth movie (yes, I keep buying them) Twilight’s appeal started to *ahem* dawn on me. By that point in the movie, nothing has happened except exactly what we knew would happen. In all that time, the couple gets married. That’s it. The plot doesn’t advance a single step. It just delivers in hair-shoes-makeup detail what it’s been promising all along. It’s “fan-service.” Twilight gives its target audience, mostly teenaged girls, precisely what they want—the pretty boys, the comfy wardrobe, the smooching, the cool parents, the social one-up-manship— everything, right down to each word of dialogue. That’s the genius behind the series. The entire endeavor is fan-service.

As a jaded old lady and a writer in my own right of fiction approaching a Gothic love story, my first reaction to Twilight—the groaning—was about weariness with cliché, disappointment with the people behind the story and the audience in front of it for going for “the obvious kill.” As a demographic of writers and readers, we can do better.

Romantic piggy-back: looks like it can be pretty boring

But L.M. Montgomery’s advice (the quote at the beginning of this piece taken from Emily Climbs, her folksy, nineteenth century flavoured, Maritime-y take on the gothic teen romance) is worth considering. So sit down, Madam—or Sir—and remember high school dating. I remember it as a cringe-worthy mess marked by a few perfect moments—iconic moments that are a lot like everyone else’s perfect moments. Epic piggy-back rides, private musical recitals, handmade jewellery, working on a car together, catching someone staring from across the parking lot, secret knocking at the window, dancing in public with everyone gawking because it’s obviously a huge deal (or so we imagined) —those aren’t just personal moments. They’re ones we share with each other and with stories like Twilight.  That’s what makes them clichés: their truth.

Twilight is criticized for the expectations it fosters in young girls about romantic love. I don’t know if there’s much anyone could do to prevent those expectations. The romantic words, the gestures within the story are fairly universal in contemporary Western adolescent relationship scripts—or, at least, in my old diaries. Maybe those expectations are just as inevitably widespread. Twilight didn’t strike a nerve with young women because it unearthed the vampire fad at just the right point in history. It resounded because it told our own stories back to us, without trying to dress up or disguise the worn out “tatters.” It didn’t so much create young women’s culture as it reflected and codified what was already there.

Here is where I could plough into the fact that movies like The Avengers and Transformers perform the same fanciful but clichéd reflective function for young men only they get away with it without the searing social commentary leveled at Twilight for no reason other than sexism. I could, but instead I’ll stick to girl-talk. I’ll continue with L.M. Montgomery and her description of what our sweet, tattered words look like to onlookers:

Everything had suddenly become ridiculous. Could anything be more ridiculous than to be caught here…That’s how other people would look at it. How could a thing be so beautiful one moment and so absurd the next?

This is what impresses me most about Twilight: its refusal to balk at its own ridiculousness, its headlong dive into the absurdity of everybody’s love story. I don’t know why she did it. I don’t know whether it was calculated or not. But I’m going to choose to believe Stephenie Meyer is a brave writer. She wrote what we all know, what so many people apparently wanted to hear repeated. And she did it with that “unflinching” spirit critics usually praise. It’s like a teenaged girl stood up and used her own fingers to flip off the entire literary world. There’s something fierce and kind of admirable in it—but nothing that can keep me from flinching my face off.

6 Ways Men Can Talk About Feminism Without Sounding Like IDIOTS

I want to help.

There’s a lot of ignorant talk about feminism in my social media feeds lately. And I want us – no, I want you, men — to be able to talk about women and feminism with all the good will you intend and without the whole thing backfiring, blowing up in your face, biting you in the butt — whatever ironic disaster metaphor best describes that awful, idiotic feeling of trying to speak respectfully only to find you’ve botched it.

“You crazy! I’s just tryin’ a help!” My favourite line from Glen in “Raising Arizona”

I’m not talking to depraved, deliberate “Hey Baby” misogynists.  And I’m not addressing domestic sexism where men talk about “babysitting” their own kids or “helping” with housework in the places where they live and eat. I’m talking to grown, educated men who attempt egalitarianism and make a mess of it. All of the following faux pas come from my own experiences. I’ve heard them said, often directly to me, by men who should know better. Sometimes they’re said combatively, sometimes just clumsily, but always ignorantly. So let me help.

Men, do not say:

1)      “I’m the only man here so I’d better be careful.” This statement, spoken by men when they’re outnumbered in a group of women, says you are behaving differently than you would if you were surrounded by men. It implies you fake deference for women in our presence but will speak more freely and truthfully when we’re absent or properly subdued by the unspoken threat latent in an abundance of male bodies. Don’t be careful. Be kind. Don’t be fake. Be honest. And if your honesty is going to offend us, fix it in a genuine way, not simply by censoring yourself. Definitely don’t expect us to be charmed or grateful you’ve put on your bogus lady-manners for us.

This “outnumbered” statement is doubly offensive because it implies women are volatile and violent and it’s only our typical lack of ability to physically dominate men that keeps us sweet. It suggests we’ve been waiting to indulge in violence against men. The further implication is that the standard male-dominated power structure is needed to preserve the peace.  The same “logic” has been used to justify racist regimes. It doesn’t apply to women either.

2)      “I wouldn’t dare have an opinion on that…” This statement is often meant to be a jocular, humble approach to women’s issues. It’s a man admitting he’s not an expert. While that’s nice, it also effectively ends conversations where women have more relevant or detailed knowledge and experience than men. Just because men may not be experts in an area, just because in the end they may have to defer to women on a subject, they are not excused from participating in discussions of these issues. All women’s issues are human issues important to all genders. Refusing to risk talking about them is not respect. It’s marginalization.

3)      “Can you explain to me how this is sexist?” Even when this is an earnest question, it’s problematic. To some of us, this question sounds like you’ve pointed to the sky on a nice day and petulantly demanded, “Explain to me how that’s blue.” Sexism is so vast and pervasive, so much a part of our worldview, it can be hard to address. We do want to talk to you about sexism. We want to help you understand the sky. But it should take some effort on your part. Do some research. Prepare yourself to talk with us about feminism. It will take time. I can’t explain decades of social theory and a lifetime of discrimination in one pithy quip you can carry in your wallet and pull out to test if things are sexist. The key to understanding sexism is empathy – looking at things the way someone else, someone of a different gender, would see them. Though empathy can never be perfect, it is a skill that can be cultivated. But no one else can do it for you.

4)      “I have a mother (wife, daughter, sisters, etc.) so it’s not like I don’t know anything about women.” Hey, everyone is related to females. That’s how our species works. You are no more of an expert on women for having a mother than anyone else born on the planet. So don’t expect us to be impressed or to add any weight to your claims just because you’ve got close genetic or legal ties to women. We can already tell you’re related to women by the way you, you know, have skin and guts and breath.

5)      “My lady-friend says feminism means XYZ and you don’t XYZ therefore you are not feminist.” There is no Feminist Rulebook, no Feminist Gestapo that storms our houses, inspects our feminism, and revokes our title if we don’t adhere to strict, narrow guidelines. Feminism is like any complex, big-tent idea system – like communism or capitalism or Islam or Christianity or other ideologies loosely shared by huge, varied groups of individuals.  One of the things holding feminism back is in-fighting between women. If you foster those schisms, you are an opponent of feminism, not an ally. Don’t think we don’t know what you’re doing. Let us agree to disagree without fomenting more discord. Especially since we don’t recognize a central arbitrator of what’s good feminism, you’d better not dare to cast yourself in that role. A woman is a feminist because she says she is. She does not have to negotiate her feminism with you.

6) Don’t talk about our gender as if it’s a magic power. Good women are good people — nurturers, caregivers, etc. — because of choices they make, not because there’s any magic determinism in our sex organs forcing us to be good. Give us some credit. Don’t understate and diminish our free will or our humanity. Just like you, we can always choose to be bad. Some of us do. An angel acting angelically isn’t all that special. A real person choosing to act angelically is and it deserves respect, not a bunch of sentimental, simplistic mumbo-jumbo.

Bonus (So I don’t have to rename the post): Enough with “beauty.” Unless you’re judging a beauty contest, it’s not appropriate to comment on strangers’ appearances. Especially when spoken to a group, it comes across as insincere, patronizing, and placatory (see item 1). It can even seem creepy. A good rule is if you wouldn’t tell men they’re beautiful in the same setting, don’t tell women they’re beautiful. Too much is said about how we look anyways. Set it aside and appreciate other things we bring to social life.

There now, back to the social media fray.

Here Baby, There Mama: Don’t Politic My Hair

Let me tell you about the angriest I’ve ever been with my husband. Our not-quite-two-year-old son needed his long, wispy, angel hair cut. He hated haircuts and would carry on like a calf getting branded. It was always awful. My husband told me he’d take care of one particular haircut by himself. He took the baby into the bathroom and buzzed his head with electric clippers.

I was furious.

Yes, the baby’s hair grew back. And no one – not my oh-so-scolded husband, not anyone – has ever buzzed it again. The baby is fifteen years old now. His hair is still light blond but it’s also thick, silky, and he wears it long. I love it. Everyone loves it.

That’s the angriest I’ve ever been at my husband. I’m very lucky. I have an excellent husband. I also have an excellent mother. Guess what makes me angriest about the way she raised me. Once again, it’s haircuts. I’m not one to try to blame my mother for everything. She was and is wonderful to me and my six siblings. But she is a demon in a hair salon.jennyshort

Her first six children were born within seven and a half years. No, she’s not crazy. She’s just talented at pregnancy and babies. My mum is never happier than when she’s raising a baby. I don’t understand it — the same way I don’t understand people who are happiest when they’re cooking or playing soccer or doing math.

With a family like that, I guess Mum needed some short-cuts – literally. Five of us are girls — though it was hard to tell from looking at us when we were kids and our mother was choosing our haircuts. Mum had this idea that short hair on girls was “stylish” and modern – that and it didn’t need any time consuming combing or binding with elastics.

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Some people look fine in short hair. These people are not in my immediate gene pool. We all looked horrible. We knew it even though our mother raved about how pert and bold we were and how boring and backward our girl-friends were with their gorgeously normal shoulder-length bobs. But we were respectful, filial girls and I didn’t rise up and put an end to my mother’s terrible haircuts until I was in the tenth grade. That was when I grew my hair long – crazy long – and never went back. My sisters have thrown off their chains and grown out their hair too.

We all have the hair we want now. We’re educated, independent women exercising control over our own bodies and using a whole lot of high-end conditioner every morning. That’s the happily ever after, right?

Unfortunately, personal preference isn’t the only thing being read into hair length lately. Some click-baiting doofus wrotesarashort an article in response to the recent Hollywood revival of the pixie cut that made my childhood so awkward. He trolls on about how women cut their hair short to perturb and alienate men. The article has been answered by far more thoughtful pieces claiming long hair can be a patriarchal weapon meant to signal reproductive receptivity and with it, submission to oppressive forms of traditional gender roles.

Actually, for most people from my ethnic group anyways, long hair is just the natural state of all hair, for men and women. It’s now been unnaturally politicized by both sides of the gender divide. One of my brothers-in-law snapped and told my sister she had to cut her hair because she looked like the wife of a fundamentalist cult leader. I guess that wasn’t the impression he wanted his colleagues to have of their successful family business. My sister keeps her hair long anyway and sometimes twists it into a tight, top ‘o the head, power-bun that is authoritarian and formidable and totally awesome.

maryshortI admit I’m still insecure enough to worry whether anyone mistakes my long hair as a sign there’s something oppressive in my relationships or worldview – something amiss with my feminism. There isn’t. I’ve written more in defense of feminism than many people will ever read in their lifetimes.  I have nothing to be insecure about.  Part of enjoying my personal autonomy is invoking my right not to cut my hair if that’s what makes me happiest.

All that anger from the beginning of this story – with my husband and my mum – it’s petty. I’ve let it go and moved on. Even in the teeth of the crises, I never had much to complain about.  Unless it’s a token of religious observance, everything that’s said about another person’s hair length seems just as petty to me. And in realms of pettiness, what’s important aren’t the choices we make but the fact that we are free to make those choices.emshort

Sometimes, as Freud is rumored to have said, a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes, a haircut is just a haircut – no social agenda, no revolution, no patriarchal violence – just pretty protein sprouting out of a scalp. When it comes to the way I wear my hair, all I’m trying to say is that I love it long – on my sons, on me, on my sisters, even on my mother herself.

Me, My Mum, and My Sisters Today