Monday, April 30, 2007

Feminism: Burning Bras or Burning Bridges

I liked Helen Reddy, or rather her song, "I am Woman." I liked her haircut too. I belted out her song in the shower. I've roared in my husband's dumbfounded face. But I really always thought I was doing it for my personhood more than my womanhood.

I've never called myself a feminist per se, although I've espoused feminist viewpoints. But, for me, the term conjures an image of the "radical" feminists of the 60's. About the only thing I did in that decade that put me in step with the feminist movement was to go braless-- though I never burned mine-- but I always sort of thought braless-ness pleased men; I never quite understood the reason feminists chose that particular action. Wasn't feminism supposed to be about doing what you wanted regardless of men?

"Jessica Valenti, author of the new book "Full Frontal Feminism," discusses sex positivity, activism and boob flashing as a feminist statement," says Rebecca Traister on

Traister goes on to say Valenti "is trying to win over a population of women she believes might think to themselves, "I'm not a feminist, but it is total bullshit that Wal-Mart won't fill my birth control prescription."

Well, that's me. Or that would be me if I still needed birth control. Logical woman see the discrepancies between what's fair and what's life, and they work toward change. It helps to work in tandem, but at what point does the group "feminist" hue and cry backfire?

While I might have agreed with the viewpoint of the "bra-burners" of my day, I couldn't see beyond the media portrayals of screaming woman, marching and flailing, "demanding equality." It looked like an ugly tantrum, and I was turned off. And women were mocked.

If feminism means respecting women, then call me a feminist, as long as it also means respecting men. If feminism means displaying your strengths with no apology, then I'm all for it, as long as it respects others. If feminism means respecting our gender, count me in, but let's respect men as well.

In my classroom, I refuse to even out groups along gender lines. I refuse to pick first a girl, then a boy, then a girl. I don't believe in, "It a girl's turn now."

My students have challenged me on this. "Hey, Mrs. D. You picked a boy last time, " a girl will protest. Or, "You picked three girls in a row," a disgruntled boy will say.

"I'm picking people," I say. "It doesn't matter if they're a girl or a boy. I'm picking people."

They've stopped whining. I think they're starting to get it. We're all in this together. We all matter. We need to look out for each other, male or female.
From Here is Valenti's quiz about feminism:

V~"Do you think it's fair that a guy will make more money doing the same job as you?

Me~It's not fair if it is the exact same job in everyway.

V~Does it piss you off and scare you when you find out about your friends getting raped?

Me~I am fortunate in that none of my friends have been raped. Would it "piss me off?" That would not be the emotion I'd have. Would I be scared? No. Pinning rape on the male gender is not fair, any more than saying women ask for it is fair. Would I be "pissed off" if the men were not given an appropriate sentence for rape? Yes. Would I be pissed of if men were blamed for rape they didn't commit ( Duke Lacrosse team)? Yes.

V~Do you ever feel like shit about your body?

Me~Not like"shit" but, yeah, I don't measure up to the "ideal," but I can't blame that on men. It's womens' magazines that are the worst offenders in defining beauty unrealistically to give women unattainable ideas of perfection. It's women who spend big bucks on cosmetics. Don't blame that on men. Blame it on marketing.

V~Do you ever feel like something is wrong with you because you don't fit into this bizarre ideal of what girls are supposed to be like?

Me~No, never. I've never fit the "bizarre ideal" and never wanted to. I like who I am. Mostly.

V~Well, my friend, I hate to break it to you, but you're a hardcore feminist. I swear."

Me~If that's a hardcore feminist . . . how shallow. I still want no part of it.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

When we get older~

Sometimes in the midst of the serious problems in life, I dwell on problems of less significance-- like a saggy chin. (Maybe I should call it a double chin, but right now it is only double if I look down, so saggy will do for --hopefully-- many more years.)

I know it all has to do with the aging process, and gravity. Most of my doctor visits in the past few years have included such comments from doctors and dentists as: "When we get older our (fill in body part) start to (choose from: sag, hurt, fall out, become more abundant). None of which is encouraging. Or attractive.

I had a chin wake-up call the other day. I was in my role as "reporter" for the local paper. I'd been asked to come see the town's Emergency Operations Center by its director, a man who is a retired Drug Enforcement Agent.

He was in his glory in his "bunker" in the basement of the town office building. He wanted to give me the "25-cent tour." I could put a cat to shame with my curiosity; I was ready for the tour.

"Stand beside the TV," he told me, positioning me like I was a manikin.

"Here?" I asked.

He moved me closer to the TV, which was on the local cable station. I stood awkwardly, arms at my side watching while he fiddled with buttons and dials across the room. Beam me up, Scotty?

"Look, look!" he said pointing at the TV screen.

I turned my head and looked. There I was in profile view, saggy chin and all. Saggy chin was all, in my eyes. Instinctively I used my right index finger to gave my chin a lift, like I do in the bathroom mirror every morning.

"In an emergency I can preempt the cable station," he said. "You just went out all across Bridgewater."

"Wow!" I said. Holy shit, I thought. My chin went out across the town. Followed by my finger lift.

But those who watch local cable at noon on a sunny Saturday probably have worse things than a saggy chin. So I recovered quickly and took the rest of the tour: the closed door labeled "Geiger counters," the "command center" that was once used to help the state do something, and the long, narrow concrete shooting range that he told me was where he would hunker down in an extreme emergency to help repopulate the human race. The concubine room, he called it. Ha, ha.

"Lots of room for sleeping bags in there," I laughed. Are you serious? I thought? Then, How do I volunteer? My fertility level drooped with my chin, but I can change diapers. It's all about survival.

I went home and typed up my story while doing those grimace-y facial exercises while I wrote. Ugly, but worth a try.

"When we get older," gravity displays its handiwork.

Monday, April 23, 2007

There is a season~

Yesterday when school reopened after spring vacation, teachers learned through a whispered grapevine that a high school girl-- a junior in the district-- had died during vacation week.

The details were sketchy as they often are in such stories. People try not to be overly graphic when sharing details, which is probably for the best, but this leaves me grappling with images that come anyway.

She was crushed by a car, we heard. Later a friend said the girl had been sneaking out. Not wanting to wake her parents she didn't start the car. Instead, she shifted into neutral to let it roll silently down the driveway. Something went wrong-- she was half in, half out of the car. The car wouldn't steer-- and she was crushed somehow. The paper carrier discovered her body at 4:30 in the morning. Her family was still asleep.

Her friends know things-- and her family must, too-- that I don't know. Like, where she was going. To meet a boyfriend? To get together with girlfriends? To drink? Someone had found a buyer, maybe? Was there a party her parents had said "no" to? Had she been grounded? Did her friends encourage her to sneak out?

She doesn't get a second chance to "learn from her mistake," to cry and say, "I'm so sorry, Mom and Dad. I'll never do it again. I promise."

And her parents don't get a chance to discipline her, to tell her they're doing it because they love her, because they never want anything to happen to her. They don't get a chance to tell her they forgive her.

She'll never know that her parents had done something similar when they were seventeen. Her parents will never know why they lived, and she didn't.
Today I learned why this girl-- who they say is a "good" girl-- was sneaking out. It was none of my speculations. She was going to spy on her boyfriend. They'd had a fight; she thought he was cheating on her.

I remember the intensity of teenage love, the jealousy and insecutities, how all encompassing it is. My mother used to tell me there were other fish in the sea, but I only wanted my familiar flounder. I thought he cheated on me, too,this highschool boyfriend, if you can even call it cheating at 17. What if I had snuck out to see what he was up to? What if I'd died doing it? I later broke up with him in college. Maybe this girl would have done the same if she'd lived.

My ex-boyfriend committed suicide at age 40 when his marriage was breaking up. He jumped out of a Piper Cub in an attempt to land on his lawn, a punishment for his wife-- and himself.

And this girl's boyfriend . . . what becomes of him?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Knitting a life~

I live in a college town. The same college I commuted to so many years ago. I commute now to my former hometown where I teach at the middle school, courtesy of the degree I earned in college. That so much of my life has been lived within such a small circle bothers me a little, but it is not important at all in the grand scheme of things. That so much of my life has been lived is what counts.

Today I walk across the Bridgewater State College campus to the Administration Building that stands behind a half-mast flag in recognition of the bond shared with Virginia Tech. There but for the grace of God . . .. 

In the shadow of the flag stands a group of potential students and their parents taking a tour of the campus, carefully scrutinizing, assessing, evaluating, deciding: is this college for me? 

It breaks my heart. 

I think of the 32 students killed at Virginia Tech, gunned down in cold blood by one who made the 33rd death the final one. 

Each chose Virginia Tech thoughtfully, for personal reasons-- my father went there, I got a scholarship, it has the degree program I want-- but none knew they might die because of their choice. Or the choice made by another. 

And such is life. Our lives are knit together, adding the yarn of others to our own strands. Hopefully something beautiful is created. Sometimes it all unravels. Long before the garment is finished. 

Those of us with kids going off to college have no more to fear than we ever did, really, though we may feel more vulnerable. Death has always interrupted-- anywhere, anytime, large scale or small, planned in madness or executed by random accident. 

Make your choices for the best reasons you know. Knit like there is no tomorrow. 

For those of us who have made it to midlife living 18 miles as the crow flies from our childhood home, be glad. Some decisions work for the good. Some knit a complete sweater, some don't. 

Life goes on with all its threats and promises. On campuses across the nation, hard lessons are learned, lessons for which there are no grade point averages. And the lives that are being knitted will be both tougher and more tender for the knots that tie the broken fibers together. 

When bells tolled across the nation at noon on April 20-- joining with the chimes at Virginia Tech-- in memory of lives lost, I felt the threads pull, weaving me more tightly into the warp of the larger tapestry that we all share. 

Those who mourn do not mourn alone. They are wrapped in a shawl knit by love and concern of those they may never know. 

Monday, April 16, 2007

Just another day~

It's just another day. . . for me anyway. A state holiday, the day of the Boston Marathon, the Boston Red Sox played and beat the Angels. The tail end of a nor'easter wags like a puppy dog; the rain has stopped, the power is back on, and there's just a lot of chilly wind.

There's no school, the start of vacation week, no big plans-- grocery shopping, a nap, a little writing, reading, laundry, stuff and roast a chicken. A day like any other.

Then a friend posts a link to the Pulitzer Prize winners on the Internet Writing Workshop, and I click to check it out. I'm short on time, so I jump to the feature photography winner: Renee Byer. I'll start here, and check the others later.

I have no expectations. I click through the black and white photos of mother and son-- I'm a mother of sons-- and am overtaken by the stark honesty, the terrible honesty, sad, bleak, no-hope-at-all honesty in the pictures of the mother whose young son is dying of cancer.

I don't want to see this, but I can't look away, and I view picture after picture through a haze of tears that don't fall. They could, if I let them, but I don't. Maybe I should have. Stuffing them back is hard, and I'm left with a melancholy cloud that hovers. I think of that mother. I feel for that mother.

Later I click on the news while I prepare supper. "The Virginia Tech massacre . . ," I hear. And I sit and stare at the TV, at more pictures, pictures and words, that will wrench the hearts of thirty-three mothers, wrench the hearts of all mothers.

One of those senseless shootings, and thirty-three college students are shot, killed, and the innocence of many others dies as well. My tears are there again. I feel this.

I've seen these things before: death of babies, death of children, death of loved ones, if not mine, somebody's. If not in my country, somebody's. It hurts.

I stand beside my son David waiting for him to fish something out of the refrigerator, so I can put the butter away. He'll be off to college in five months. He's my baby. I want to grab him and hold him in an iron hug. I want to tell him to be careful, that I love him, that I . . . but he knows this. I just stand and wait. He straightens and walks to the table with the milk. As he passes me he pokes me in the ribs.

"Awwgh," I say. I poke him back.

Sometimes a poke is as good as a hug.
Pulitzer Prize Winners

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Coffee and Donuts~

I got two nice responses from friends to my post on "Renewing My Vows" where I rededicate myself to my former New Years Resolution, now known as Spring Rebirth Wish.

I was/am planning to step back onto the treadmill and "watch" what I eat. The old exercise more/eat less theme.

The first response was from a woman, Frances, who said in the very first line, "I empathize with this . . .." She used the word feelings-- twice.

Frances understood. I sighed with pleasure.

The other was from Gary, a guy I respect, admire, and happen to like a lot. And while I'm absolutely positive he doesn't live on Mars, he had either just returned from a party with the guys, or his inherent Mars genetic traits resurfaced at the chance to give advice. He is, after all, a man, God love him. He had just the fix I need; he just knew it.

His response was funny, lots of humor. It made me laugh. I sighed with pleasure.

Gary started with advice: one rule, and two exceptions.

And I thought, I can do this. It's so simple, really. Eat nothing white.

And then I got a strong desire to plunge my hand into the box of Frosted Flakes, and grab a fistful to eat dry, like peanuts. Technically, they're brown, despite their refined white beginning.

What Gary doesn't know is that I have this thing about rules hidden inside me like a flaw in a diamond. I'm not good at rules. My first thought is often, that's a stupid rule; who made that one up? My second thought is always, how can I break this one, or skirt it at least?

With my "girl-next-door, everybody's sister" demeanor, I've managed to break many, and get away with it-- for the most part.

My husband is most annoyed with my proclivity to "write my own rules," as he calls it. He especially hates when I call one of football's many rules "stupid." And I hate it when he tries to explain why it isn't stupid. But this is for another post.

The day after reading Gary's Rules, I came down for breakfast, hungry, and saw the box of donuts, brown ones, on the counter. How bad could it be if I ate the brown glazed crust and left the white centers? (Yes, I know the brown crust counts as white, Gary, and I know why, but . . . stupid rule, who thought that one up?)

So I picked off the crust and ate it, along with black coffee. On my behalf, I only ate from half a donut, and then went on to have a very dark breakfast, per Gary's rules.

Also on my behalf, I already eat most of the foods on Gary's list. So might my problem be that I don't follow the rules precisely? Any advice, Gary? Now what?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Renewing my vows~

I recommitted myself today.

I'd been so sure I'd remain faithful to my vow. In the honeymoon period, I was involved and invested. I made my promise the focus of my life. I thought I'd be one of the lucky ones to maintain a long-term relationship, not just one of the failures.

I'm talking about that New Year's resolution I made at the stroke of midnight January 2007.

Same old, same old: Lose weight and exercise more. What else?

I remember when I didn't need to "resolve" to do this. I just did it. It was a life style. I'm not sure when it became such work, or why.

I'm sure it had something to do with having three kids, working full time, ending a marriage, starting another, caring for a dying parent. Stress increases cortisol, they say, and that causes weight gain. So does getting older, and being betrayed by slowing metabolism. Oh, and not sleeping well, my fallback excuse, which is now supposed to make one gain weight.

The bottom line? Those are all excuses. I know they are. They may be factors in weight gain, but if I don't counteract them, they are nothing but excuses.

On the way home from school today, I stopped at the college track and walked laps.

As my muscles warmed and my limbs loosened, my mind opened too. Thoughts that had been tangled like a twisted in a skein of yarn, pulled free and flowed. Like I was traveling in parallel worlds, I was both on the track and somewhere else. Moving automatically in my physical body, I went from past to present and on into the future in my mind.

And when my sunglasses fogged and I felt a trickle of sweat run down my spine, I stopped. Why do I resist this? It felt good.

I'm going to make my New Year's resolutions in April from now on, when the earth really does feel fresh and new. When hope springs eternal.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

A remote chance~

I'm home alone. My husband's at a meeting, son at his girlfriend's, daughter at her boyfriend's. It's just me, myself and I. Yes!

I love being alone, always have. I relish the quiet, the lack of interruptions, the lack of raised eyebrows if I want to take a nap in the middle of the day. The lack of needing to cook supper in this case.

I did some writing, some emailing, some critiques on my writing workshop, and now I think I'll read. The couch is free, the spot I'd choose if my husband didn't commandeer it, and tonight I'm mistress of the remote.

I decide to put on the Lifetime channel--TV for women-- softly in the background as is my modus operandi when I *do* watch TV. My book takes precedence, but I'll glance up now and then when I sense a "relationship" scene.

This is when my time alone takes a downward turn. There is no one to yell to for help. "How do I turn on the TV again?"

I know that sounds pathetic. Especially for a smart woman. People tell me I'm smart; some use the words "you're so intelligent." But none of those people have ever seen me with a remote. Nor would I want them to.

I point the remote at the TV and click confidently. Nothing happens, so I aim more carefully to where I think the magic spot is. Nothing. I move closer and click harder. Silence.

I'm using the wrong remote-- there are four to choose from-- but I discover this mistake in record time. A sure sign of my intelligence. The real one is a little different shade of grey and just a tad longer. Part of it pokes out from under the afghan.

A remote is very systematic. It does exactly what you tell it to do. I still have not figured out the remote language for the DVD player, CD player, and radio-- which is called a "receiver" on one remote. But no big deal. For those, I just put my glasses on, get down on my hands and knees, and push the power button on the machine itself. Voila! Remoteless response in an instant. This irks my husband when he catches me at it.

I've pretty much learned the language of the TV remote, though. I point and click, and hear the electronic connection. The picture is on. But it's silent. I click audio, then power, as I've been instructed to do many, many times. But it's still silent. I push the up arrow and think I hear voices, but no, must be wishful thinking. Still silent.

Damn! I shut everything off and start again from scratch. The only thing that ever works for me is the shutting off part. Slowly, I follow my husband voice, delivering directions as I remember them. Silent picture. Double damn!

I debate calling my husband on his cell phone, but quickly discard that idea. This is one of those well-kept secrets that needs to remain well kept.

I don't watch much TV anyway. Who needs it when you have a good book in your lap?

Damn! How smart do you have to be?

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

A round of applause~

They surge into class, pinked cheeked, hair mussed, with the puppy dog smell ten year-olds get after racing around at recess for fifteen minutes. They sharpen pencils, and get out science notebooks; I chat with those who curve around my desk to talk.

I settle them. They write their "inquiry questions," as I call them, ignoring the redundancy. I put a topic on the board for them to "inquire" about. Sometimes it's free choice-- they can ask questions about anything that pops into their minds.

All I ask is they write three questions a day, but some write more. John has logged 452 questions since September. They've numbered their questions consecutively since the first day of school when I told them I hoped they always had more questions in life than answers.

Peace reigns. They like this brief exercise before shifting into the lesson. They share their questions, and learn from my answers. If I can't answer, I tell them to research, and teach me. Some actually do.

Ready to move on, I stride to the front of the room, energetic teacher style, and walk hard into a chair that no one returned to the table.

To my credit, I didn't say, "Shit!" though I thought it. I'd hit my shinbone hard against the seat of the chair. The pain took my breath away, and I bent to do my bruise control thing, pressing both hands firmly on the bump to stem the internal bleeding. I have a personal theory this might lessen the bruise.

Because I can't do much until the pain fades, I stand hunched over, hands pressing shin, and ask what they know about bruises, and capillaries, and soft tissue. I answer their questions. They soak up information, attentive, focused, inquisitive, until noise erupts in the hallway.

Loud voices; deep, boisterous, adolescent laughter; weird vocalizations boys make. Something is thrown and caught, someone is shoved . . . Nothing criminal, just thoughtless, just boys.

I step into the hall and say, "Excuse me guys. We're trying to have a class here."

"Sorry," one said. Eight pairs of eyes stare.

They're eighth graders in a part of the building off-limits to them. Principal's rules: "All teachers are responsible for enforcing a set of uniform rules." Not my style, really, but I say, "You guys don't belong down this hall anyway."

They had reasons and excuses, none of which would have held up in a court of law. They wanted to challenge me. They were safe in a pack.

"But we're . . ."

"I just . . ."

"He said . . ."

I interrupt. "Just turn around and go the way you should."

They do.

I walk back into the room. My class bursts into applause.

"Good going, Mrs. Douillette," Matt said.

It's things like this, the unexpected appreciation, that soften the sharp edges of a school day, and make me look forward to the next.