Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Swinging the Other Way

“Your lifestyle is evil,” says the brown-robed monk to the medieval layman. “You must change your ways.”

“But I’ve always been like this,” says the man.

“It is unacceptable to the church,” says the monk.

The punch line of this comic strip, which hangs on the door of the office next to mine, is that the layman is not, as the narrative hints, gay. Rather, he is left-handed. The implied commentary is that Christianity’s condemnation of homosexuality is equally ridiculous as its earlier condemnation of left-handedness.

While the comic strip is set in what appears to be medieval times, the situation it depicts is much less antiquated than that. Both of my grandmothers were naturally left-handed. Both were converted in grade school to writing with their right hands, and they spent the rest of their lives passing as right-handed. My father’s mother wanted me to be similarly converted; I remember her exhorting me to color with my right hand when she would babysit me, until my right-handed parents told her to cut it out.

I really like the comic strip because I have always felt that the gay and the left-handed were natural compatriots. We are a similar sort of minority, a minority based on an unusual behavior or preference rather than something visual like race or cultural like religion. We are aberrations that pop up within a family, whereas most other minorities are raised in a family of others like themselves.

For those whose gayness or left-handedness revealed itself at an early age, both conditions have been attributed variously to genetics, hormone exposure in the womb, and early childhood influences, though none of these connections can be proven absolutely. And just as homosexuality can, for many people, be a conscious choice made in adulthood, so left-handedness can be learned by those not naturally inclined towards it, generally because someone lost the use of his or her right hand.

This issue of innate characteristic versus choice is a high-stakes debate where homosexuality is concerned. George Lakoff points out that liberals tend to see homosexuality as a genetic fact, while conservatives tend to see it as a choice. I ask my students why this would be, and they always figure it out right away:

If something is a choice, then it can be a wrong choice.

I always think the entire premise of the debate is odd, because I have met many gay people who have known they were gay since their earliest memories, and many others who made conscious decisions to become gay in their twenties and thirties because they felt logically that they would have better relationships with people of their same gender (though yes, predictably, these were all women).

Ultimately, whether it is an innate behavior or a conscious choice doesn’t really matter; what matters is that everyone should have the right to do what is most comfortable or desirable for them, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else.

I first discovered being left-handed was an identity category, and an abnormal one, when I joined my first-grade class, a week after school had started (I had been moved from a different class).

“Are you right-handed or left-handed?” the teacher asked me in front of all of my new classmates, immediately after introducing me.

I must have looked confused, because she clarified: “Which hand do you write with?”

I thought about it for a moment and then raised my left hand.

“Great,” she sighed, her voice annoyed. “You’re the only one. Now we’re going to have to order you some scissors.”

Throughout grade school, I faced similar minor persecutions. I was chastised constantly for my poor handwriting, my inadequate scissor-handling skills, my difficulty mirroring moves in gym class that were modeled by a right-handed teacher. In sixth grade, we were required to write in-class essays in erasable pen, which is impossible for left-handed people such as myself, who, due to the enforcement of right-slanting letters in our remedial cursive classes, write with our hands curled above the pen, thereby smearing the runny ink all over the pages and our hands. In what I still think was a really masterful stroke of smart-assed passive aggressiveness, I learned to write upside-down for these in-class essays, a skill I still have to this day.

These inconveniences were small, the same kinds of little indignities that all kids face, but they reinforced the idea that being in the minority was something to minimize, to work around, to avoid inconveniencing others with. As an adult, I have seen so many left-handed people try to learn to kickbox right-handed because they did not want to keep asking for special explanations of how to do things. It seemed easier to just do what everyone else was doing. Some of those people, like me, had teachers who caught their deception and forced them to train left-handed; others trained for years in a less-comfortable stance before attempting to retrain themselves as southpaws.

These kickboxers make me think of my grandmothers spending their entire lives writing with their less-coordinated hand. I think of all the gay people forced to pass as straight through the ages, those who got married and carried on affairs on the side, or perhaps just dreamed of it. I think of all the left-handed people writing and working and doing sports with their non-dominant hands, and how many never reached their full potential as athletes and artisans and even writers because they could not use their more-skilled hand.

The needs of minorities are always seen by the majority as frivolous and inconvenient, whether they are needs for political representation, needs to read about people like ourselves in school, needs to be able to marry our life partner of choice, or even just needs for scissors that have the left blade rather than the right blade on top. We need to stand up for people’s rights to have these needs met, especially when we find ourselves in the majority, when it would be easy enough not to care.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


When I woke up on Saturday morning, my cat was already begging to go outside. “Meow,” she said, shooting a meaningful look towards the front door as I passed her on my way to the bathroom.

“Now?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.

I live in an apartment building, so my cat can’t wander the halls unsupervised. I didn’t feel like following her around the building; I wanted to sit around, drink tea, and read things on the internet.

“Meow,” she said again, walking briskly from the door to my feet and then back to the door.

“Wait until I make tea,” I said.

A few minutes later, tea in hand, I grudgingly opened the door. Despite all of her expressed urgency, she hesitated to venture out into the hallway once the opportunity became available.

“Out,” I said, pushing her into the hall with the side of my foot.

She put on a little show of being indecisive about where to go, with so many options available. But I knew exactly where she was headed. Soon enough, she had turned towards the staircase. I followed her down the stairs and into the hallway below. She stopped briefly to sniff the crack under the second door before continuing to her ultimate destination, the one she had been visiting faithfully every day for the last two weeks.

It was a greasy-looking spot on the floor between the second and third doors. She stopped, sniffed it, then abruptly threw herself head first onto it, rolling nimbly onto her back as the side of her face hit the ground. She rolled around on the spot for a moment, then regained her composure. She seated herself at the side of the spot and proceeded to sniff it again, her expression contemplative. Her concentration remained unbroken as a large male neighbor came lumbering past her, something that normally would have sent her flying back up the stairs towards home.

“What’s so interesting?” I asked her, leaning against the wall and blowing on my steaming tea. “Did a dog pee there? Did someone’s garbage leak?”

She was too busy to answer me. She stayed in the spot for five minutes with no sign of growing bored, her nose to the ground, while I sipped my tea.

Finally I couldn’t stand it any more.

“That’s plenty,” I said, scooping her up with my non-tea hand. I carried her back upstairs to the apartment, where she immediately began to meow again.

“No,” I said. “Too boring.”

I took my half cup of tea over to my desk and sat in front of my laptop. I sipped it as I replied to an email. Then I logged into Facebook, where I examined a series of photographs that a friend-of-a-friend took on a trip to Italy with her girlfriend. Her girlfriend is cute, I decided.

My cat sat on the floor next to my chair as I clicked through pictures of the cheerful couple riding in a gondola. I think I heard her sigh audibly as she watched me.

My cat Pesty died just before Thanksgiving this year. I wrote this piece about her in September, before I knew just how sick she was. I was lucky to have her for twelve years; she was a wonderful, lovely kitty.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Testing Your Boundaries

I lay on my stomach on wrestling mats while a strong man pressed what felt like his fist or elbow, or maybe some other kind of blunt weapon, into my lower back, putting the full weight of his body behind it. I tried to focus on breathing, drawing in breaths as deep and regular as I could make them, because this hurt a lot. The spot he was pressing into felt like the precise origin of the nerve that had been cramping up my lower back, tightening my right hip, sending flashes of pain down my calf and into my ankle.

Despite the fact that I had been in almost constant pain for several months, this fist or elbow accessed extra-deep pain that I didn’t realize was hiding there, like the pea under the mattresses, a crippling vulnerability that I did not know I had.

“Hmph,” said the thai massage practitioner, releasing the elbow. “You’ve been testing your boundaries.”

Testing my boundaries? What do you mean?

“Have you been throwing roundhouse kicks?” he asked me.

Of course, I wanted to say, scandalized. I could feel my face conveying my horror. Please, please don’t tell me I can’t throw roundhouse kicks again.

When I had my first encounter with the sciatica, I couldn’t stand upright for a day, could barely walk for a week, couldn’t touch my toes or lift my leg more than two feet off the ground for two months. It was now a month and a half since I had started throwing roundhouse kicks again, and I didn’t know what I would do with myself if he told me I had to stop.

“Yes, but…” I said, about to explain how I was throwing them so carefully, light, not full-power.

“For someone coming off sciatica, it’s pretty risky to be throwing them at all,” he said. “That’s testing your boundaries. Seeing how much you can do before you get injured again.”

I started to protest, to justify my actions: No, no, I was being careful.

“It’s okay, everyone does it,” he said. “Everybody wants to test their boundaries. That’s why we do so much stuff that hurts us.”

I know lots of people who seem perfectly content within their boundaries, who don’t feel the compulsive drive towards self-destructive activities, whether they are "healthy" or "unhealthy." Still, I had to agree that for most people I know who are heavily involved in any athletic activity, there is an element of self-destructiveness driving them. This isn’t just true of martial artists, though the self-destructiveness is a bit more self-evident in their sport. But I’ve seen people pursue hobbies like spinning or Pilates with equal reckless abandon, working out through colds, flus, bad backs, sprained shoulders.

My friend Julian plays soccer with a compulsiveness that could easily be called an addiction. He continues to play through all sorts of injuries that should rightfully preclude him from athletic activity, not just a game here and there, but all-day marathons. His Facebook updates regularly look something like: Supposed to be resting my hurt knee. Playing three games today, two scheduled and one sub.

It’s an addiction, certainly. But at least it’s a healthy addiction, people tell me, usually after pointing out that running sprints in between two kickboxing classes might be seen as a bit compulsive.

One common definition of addiction is behavior that we cannot or will not stop, despite its negative consequences. Are our twisted knees and sprained ankles and wrenched backs and broken toes and fingers negative enough consequences to counteract all the positive outcomes of our training? Are our healthy addictions really so different than all of our other types of compulsive boundary testing?

My adorable punker student Miranda was complaining about one of her friends:

“I hate going out with Sammy because she just wants to get drunk. I keep trying to explain that I don’t do that,” Miranda says.

“You don’t drink at all?” I ask her.

“No, I don’t see the point,” she said. “Sammy is like, ‘Let’s get a bottle of chartreuse and drink the whole thing.’ And I say, ‘That’s going to make you throw up.’ And Sammy smiles and says, ‘That’s okay.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? That’s what you want? Really?’ I don’t get it.”

It’s good that she doesn’t get it, but I do, and there’s a good chance that you do, too. All too clearly, I remember that drive to drink myself half-unconscious, the weird unlikely pleasure of stumbling around like a half-witted idiot, of feeling poison in my body that was not quite enough to make me sick, but almost.

When I began doing martial arts, I suddenly lost all interest in drinking. The reason was not, as my friends presumed, because I needed to be rested and healthy for my workouts, although that was certainly a concern. Instead, the part of my psyche that had decided that semi-oblivious intoxication was a great idea was now sated. Throwing roundhouse kicks by the hundreds, continuous punches for minutes on end, running on a treadmill after class when I was so tired that even walking was difficult, getting punched in the face and kicked in the leg and slammed to the ground—these activities seemed to satisfy the same need for self-punishment and sickness that drinking previously had.

Miranda has approximately eight piercings in her face and ears, several tattoos, and is considering getting designs branded into her skin.

“Do you think your friend enjoys drinking the way you enjoy getting piercings?” I ask her.

She wrinkles her nose skeptically. “Maybe,” she says, indulging me.

She might disagree, but it seems to me that the negative consequences are part of the appeal of so much that we do. Why else do we work out until we’re sick and broken? Why do we poke holes through our bodies and inject ink under our skin? Why do we purposely cultivate unnaturally large muscles, drink poison for fun, eat chemicals that make us hallucinate, follow strangers home from the bar, work until 5 a.m., drive down country roads at 120 miles per hour, pick fights with people we care about, breathe in burning smoke to help us “relax,” fall in love with people who make us miserable? Why would we hurt ourselves if it didn’t make us feel good?

This illustration is a drawing I did during my first year of martial arts training, depicting my love-hate relationship with bruises.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Being Aggressive

A girl comes flying in at me, her arms whirling like a pinwheel, throwing punches and kicks all at the same time, a writhing ball of fury and rage.

What did I do to this girl again? I search my mind for some past offense. Did I make fun of her poor arithmetic skills back in fifth grade? Or did I unwittingly erect a shopping mall on top of her ancestral homeland? Did she think I was flirting with her boyfriend? Because I definitely wasn’t, but you know how some girls get. Or maybe she overheard me making a dismissive comment about her pink boxing gloves…

Oh right—this girl wants to beat me up because we are in a kickboxing tournament. So I suppose that’s her job. Come to think of it, wanting to beat her up is my job, too.

Why did I want this job again?

In the moments before this fight, I thought: I am going to lose, and I don’t care at all. Actually, that sentiment might be backwards. What I was really thinking was, I don’t care at all, and so I am going to lose.

I knew that’s a bad way to think, so I began saying a mantra to myself: Want to win, want to win. It wasn’t a statement but a command. You need to want to win.

I felt like I was faking wanting to win through the entire fight. I knew that body kicks were supposed to score the most points, so I thought, You want to win, so throw more body kicks. I made sure that every time my opponent threw any punch or kick, I would throw one or two body kicks in return.

That should be enough to win this thing, I thought, counting up the kicks. Because I want to win.

But this girl wasn’t counting her kicks. I’m not sure what she was thinking, actually. She was flying around so quickly that she never planted enough to hit me with anything that hurt at all. So I don’t know if she was really trying to hurt me—if that were her goal, she probably could have done it. (And I don't say that to dismiss her abilities, because I wasn't trying to hurt her, either). But she definitely wanted to win, wanted it with all her being; every movement manifested desire to dominate, to aggress, to be the best, to be on top.

This desire for dominance is perhaps something I just don’t have in me. I love “friendly” sparring, with my friends or with strangers. I love seeing if I can keep up with an opponent, seeing if I can withstand whatever that opponent throws at me, figuring out ways to trick that opponent into opening himself--or occasionally herself--up for a kick or punch.

I don’t know if those feelings will ever translate into me being a good competitor. I do get angry and competitive when I spar sometimes, usually when I feel like someone is hurting me. That never happened during my fight. I never felt scared, hurt, attacked, all the things I am used to feeling during my regular sparring with people who are bigger and stronger than me. I felt more annoyed, irritated, like being poked over and over by an annoying twelve-year-old playmate.

I had anticipated that once something hurt, my desire to hurt my opponent back would kick in. That’s what fighters always tell you: You think you don’t want to throw hard punches at this person, until he starts throwing hard punches at you.

I have experienced this enough times in my training, times when I was terrified, when I felt, with good reason, that someone was trying to hurt me. The thought that always comes into my head at these moments is: I am going to fucking kill you.

I've always thought I would be scared of my competitor in a tournament, and always expected that this desire to kill would be a central feature of any competition I did, for better or for worse. But that self-defensive rage never kicked in during my fight against this 106 pound ball of antagonism. I mean really, can’t we settle this in some more civilized manner? Why am I fighting you again? I felt completely calm, logical, aloof. That’s actually how I had wanted to feel, and I had worked very hard on being calm and collected as I approached the tournament. Unfortunately, being calm and collected may not actually be the best way to goad oneself into an irrational fury.

The worst part about my want to win mantra is that I then did feel angry and upset when I lost. But I was counting, I thought, indignantly. I threw like a million body kicks! If I just needed to look more aggressive to win, I wouldn’t have bothered throwing all those kicks.

Being disappointed that you lost is the most horrible part of not wanting to win enough, because then your not wanting to win seems like the most pitiful sort of sour grapes: well, I didn’t want to win anyway. So really, I am not sure if I did or didn’t. But I do know what I thought as I watched my opponent jumping up and down before each round began, barely able to contain herself, as I stood waiting quietly: Whatever she’s feeling over there that’s making her act that way, I can’t imagine feeling like that.

One of my teachers told me that I needed to do at least one more competition. “You need to do one more so that you can win,” he said.

“I won’t win,” I said. “If I’m doing it just to win, I’ll lose, and then I’ll have to keep doing them and it will just make me lose more and more.”

“Don’t think like that!” he chastised me.

But it’s true, or at least I can’t see any other truth at the moment. I know this is not a particularly objective or logical moment, a week after this fight, when I am trying to process what it meant and how to think about it. And I know that these conflicting feelings are part of the point of competing, that it is supposed to teach us deep lessons about who we are and what our place in the world is. Right now, I feel my place in the world is not in a competition or a performance, not testing myself in some formalized public way, or that if I do so, it’s only for what I got from this, which was some really helpful video footage that I can study to improve my sparring. Right now, I feel that I will always lose, because I just can’t imagine wanting to win enough to make it happen.

One of my favorite things I got from this fight are the photographs my friend Amy took of me, with perfect lighting for drawing. And yes, I did this one myself, with heavy coaching from Adam. I have been working on my coachability.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Being Skinny

For the last few months, I have been having an experience that I gather would be envied by most adult Americans; I have been losing weight without trying to. A few small changes to my diet and exercise regimen have had the inordinate effect of causing me to drop about ten pounds, which is almost eight percent of my former body weight.

This weight loss has exposed me to something else that I wasn’t pursuing: unsolicited approval from casual acquaintances. This is especially true at one of my kickboxing schools, where I have been receiving a number of compliments.

A sweet but slightly unhinged middle-aged woman who takes every chance she gets to try to knock my head off with wide, looping haymaker punches appears behind me as I am warming up and pats me on the shoulder.

“You’ve lost a lot of weight,” she says, smiling, as I turn to face her.

“I suppose,” I mumble back, embarrassed at being complimented for this.

She smiles encouragingly at me. “You look good,” she adds, before heading off to grab a jump rope.

A friendly young kickboxer stops me on my way out of the gym. “You’ve really slimmed down,” he says.

I nod and shrug, not sure how else to respond.

“You’re not psyched about it?” he asks me.

“I wasn’t really trying to lose weight,” I reply.

Now he looks unsure of how to respond. We are clearly speaking different languages.

“Well, you look really fit,” he says finally.

This is a compliment that I can comfortably, even happily accept. “Thanks,” I say.

Of course, I have to appreciate their desire to say nice things about my physique; still, a part of me is tempted to respond with snotty answers:

I just got over pneumonia.
I have cancer.
I have an eating disorder.

After all, it seems to me a bold assumption that a person who has lost weight a) did so intentionally, b) did so in a healthy fashion, and c) is happy about it.

I’ve never felt good about being complimented on my weight, and I don’t compliment other people on theirs. Weight is bound to fluctuate, so the backhanded compliment is always implied: you look good now, but when you gain that weight back you won’t look as good.

The praise that I have been getting communicates to me that I needed to lose weight, which I don’t believe I did. Ten pounds ago, I was far from overweight; I was what most people would call thin, curvy, and athletic in build. I ate an extremely healthy and light diet, my weight was smack-dab in the middle of the “normal” BMI range, and I trained vigorously about fifteen hours per week.

I wasn’t trying to lose weight, nor have I ever tried to lose a significant amount of weight as an adult. The changes in diet and exercise were just to increase my fitness level, adding daily pull-ups, increasing my running speed, cutting some starch out of my diet. These were all things that I have done in the past, for limited periods of time; but for reasons I am not totally sure about, right now seems to have been the perfect time for these changes to stick. I can understand that I look fitter at this weight, but I resent the implicit suggestion that I was significantly less fit, or really less acceptable in any way, at my previous weight.

Perhaps the greatest reason I am not “psyched” is because I don’t feel that I necessarily look better at a lower weight. I have been enjoying looking more muscular and less soft, but I’m not sure this look is what I’d call attractive, at least not in any feminine sort of way. I associate my own skinniness with hard work, self-discipline, and a certain level of deprivation. Ever since I was a teenager, I have noticed that I am sexually validated for being skinny, yet I feel more ascetic and disembodied at my lowest weight. My figure is too spare to be sexy--my chest and hips are smaller, and my clothing floats around me like it's on a clothes hanger.

When I think of the woman and men I find attractive, they generally have a decent portion of body fat covering their nice, limber, hard-earned muscles. Sexuality seems like it should be associated with appetite, with indulgence, not with plain beans and steamed kale.

A friend of mine wrote an article once discussing women’s feelings of inadequacy when they compare themselves to models in fashion magazines. She urged women to think of these “perfect” models as objects of attraction, and to ask themselves: Am I attracted to this skinny, fashionable, painted woman? If not, what kind of women am I attracted to?

My own answer was easy: strong women, physically and mentally, smart women, creative women, women with wicked, clever facial expressions, brave women, women who are as wonderful with a BMI of 27 as they are with a BMI of 18.5.
Thanks to Sondra Gates for letting me use the drawing of She-Hulk, which she purchased at an auction benefitting breast cancer research. I was especially excited to learn where she got the drawing, since one of my favorite strong, brave, and creative women is currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and yet somehow manages to throw crazy scary hooks and roundhouse kicks every week.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Messing Up

As I walked through the Las Pecinas College library last week, I saw a student sitting with a drawing pad in his lap, holding his left hand suspended in a fixed pose over the paper.

His bodily position looked a bit odd to me, but also uncannily familiar. I realized that he was drawing his own hand, which is something that I’ve also been doing a lot lately. My friend Adam has been teaching me to draw, and a person’s own hand is one of the best things to draw, because it allows the student to work on showing planes and angles and foreshortening and, more importantly, it’s always available.

I looked down at the student’s pad, and was disheartened to see that the hand on his paper was way better than those I’ve been drawing. The lines were crisp, assertive, conveying a confident sense of the shape and bulk and gesture of the hand.

In contrast, my lines have a quality that I have seen described as labored. That’s a good term for them. It’s obvious, looking at the heavy, jagged borders of my drawings that I dragged my pencil over them slowly, painstakingly, agonizing over each minute change of direction.

I like to carve my lines in little tiny increments, like frosting a cake, manipulating and smoothing them as I go. This technique feels comfortable, but it’s all wrong. It produces lines that are cramped and fussy. “Don’t hen-peck your lines,” Adam says, standing over me as I draw. “Stop scratching at them.”

If I were writing, the lines I am drawing would be an overuse of adjectives, or flowery description, or excessively quippy narration: they draw attention to the creator of the drawing rather than to the drawing itself. A viewer shouldn’t be noticing the lines of my drawing any more than he should be thinking, “Check out that descriptive language!” when he reads a novel. Instead he should be thinking: there’s a hand.

I know that I need to learn to make the beautiful, confident lines that Adam urges me to create. But when I try, my drawings become distorted and misshapen, because my lines, while assertive, are in the wrong place. That’s the difficulty with being assertive about something that you are just learning; you may be asserting the wrong thing.

“It doesn’t matter,” Adam says. “No amount of drawing hen-pecky lines will teach you to draw a good line. You have to draw the good lines even if they’re wrong.”

That’s the problem with learning confidence: before you earn it, you have to fake it. It’s like wrestling. To execute a take-down, you have to shoot in with confidence, even if that confidence is completely unwarranted. For somebody who has great respect for wisdom and experience, it feels counterintuitive to assume a position of confidence when I know there is perhaps an eighty percent likelihood that I am going to screw the move up.

Luckily, I have now studied enough art forms to know that it’s often necessary to mess things up in order to make them better.

It’s like in kickboxing. You can tell a kickboxer again and again to fix her roundhouse kick, but she won’t want to. Step out, you’ll say. No, in that direction. She steps out properly once, twice. The third time, she reverts back to her old footwork. That’s because the new footwork, while technically superior, doesn’t let her throw the kick as hard, doesn’t feel as balanced and comfortable, can’t be done as quickly. Some day, the new footwork will make her kick twice as hard, but not without a period of frustrating awkwardness.

I’ve been that kickboxer a dozen times, not wanting to mess up my roundhouse kick in order to fix it. I remember throwing kicks at a pad, and I was throwing them hard, I thought, based on the gratifying banging noise my leg was making against the pad. But the holder of the pad pointed at my front arm and said, “You’re dropping that arm every time you throw the kick,” which meant that my face was unprotected for a moment.

Fixing my mistake prevented me from getting the same momentum into my hips. As I practiced with my hands properly blocking my face, my kicks became lighter, quieter, less gratifying. It took me months to regain the same force, although I finally did, and now my hands were in the correct position.

One of the other things I have learned about mistakes is that they are never new. I now know that my small hand drop is a common mistake, one that I see many experienced kickboxers make when they are trying to get extra power into their kicks. We flatter ourselves to think that our mistakes are novel and that we are disappointing our teachers through our unprecedented errors. But errors are predictable, as is our perception that they are unique.

When I started to do yoga, I would always cross my legs the wrong way in one particular pose. “Why do I always do that?” I asked, when my teacher had corrected me for the third week in a row.

Now, throughout the several years I have studied yoga, I have heard my teacher make the same correction countless times, to countless new students. And about fifty percent of the time, the corrected student reacts just as I did, down to the word: “Why do I always do that?” the student asks aloud.

These students are like me, wondering why they would reverse their leg position, lacking the perspective to recognize the answer: because everybody does that.

My students do the same thing, berating themselves for the same difficulties and mistakes that I have seen in a thousand student essays, including my own.

“I can never figure out how much to summarize the plot,” says a student writing about a novel. “I always put in way too much summary.”

Everybody does that, I tell the student. It’s not just you. You’re not the only one who writes vague or confusing thesis statements, who cannot find any way express an abstract, complex idea except through a grotesquely gnarled and winding sentence, who struggles with the transition from one paragraph to the next, who gets to the end of the essay only to realize that you now believe the opposite of what you originally set out to argue. These are the same difficulties writers have faced throughout history, since the dawn of time—the same clichés that will negatively affect their writing in the following areas: clarity, originality, and the ability to make critical arguments—the same opportunities that have been handed down to us as a gift from those who came before us and have made all of our mistakes a thousand times over.

Now the student will need to go back through his essay, clearing out the extraneous plot summary in each paragraph and replacing it with fresh, healthy argumentation. It will take a lot of work, and he’ll lose over a page of hard-earned writing that he was counting on to meet his four-page minimum. But when he turns in those final four pages, they will be stronger for the loss, free of sloppy lines, assertive and accurate and confident.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Woman as Sexual Dictator

So few women recognize the power that they hold over men. If women only realized how badly men wanted them, they would use their sexuality to get whatever they want.

A particular country-inflected pop star has been in the news as often for the fluctuations in her weight as for her musical successes. She was the darling of the entertainment magazines when she lost about ten pounds off of her already slim figure in order to have the tightest possible buttocks for a role in a movie that required her to wear tiny shorts. She was then chastised heartily by the same magazines when, several years later, she gained over ten pounds, bringing her five-foot three-inch frame from a svelte 110 pounds to a “chubby” 124 pounds.

She eventually lost that weight, but then recently made the cover of virtually every major entertainment magazine because, at a recent performance, she looked to have gained about twenty pounds. All of the photographs on the magazines were from the same single performance, as though she had only gained the weight for that one day. Now she has lost much of that weight, although one magazine recently noted that she was so distraught of the unexpected death of her dog that she had “stopped losing weight.”

Of course, by regular-people standards, this woman has never been close to overweight. Her low weight of 110 pounds, according to the body mass index (which is just a fancy name for a height/weight ratio), was at the low end of the “normal” range, while her gained-twenty-pounds weight of 135 puts her at 23, near the top of that normal range.

And BMI aside (it’s a poor judge of healthy weight at any rate), in the normal world, a 135-pound, five-foot-three-inch woman is what we would consider average.

I think of this woman, of her rise to hotness glory and her fall from hotness grace, whenever I hear people say that women have a deep, untapped source of power stemming from the fact that men want to have sex with them.

I’ve heard tell of this mystical power for as long as I can remember. I raged over it in my teenaged journals: this power that isn’t power at all, the power not to do something but of somebody wanting to do something to you, power that can turn on you at any moment and leave you ugly, undesirable and humiliated.

Now with more perspective, I’m still skeptical about my potential ability to lord despotically over men based on my chromosomes and anatomy.

As power goes, it’s a backwards sort of power, in the sense that it is conferred by the person who is supposed to be the subject of that power. When a dictator takes power over a nation, he does not need the approval of the people that he will lord over. If a Mafioso has the power to kill you and your family if you don’t seat him at the table he wants at your restaurant, your decision that this power is not real or valid will not change the reality of the situation.

So I suppose that sexual power is more like a democracy, where power is given willingly and can be taken away at will also. In a democracy, a leader must cater to the wishes and whims of his constituents, and that changes the kind of power that he has, which is why we more often call it service than power.

Likewise, the woman who wants to use her sexuality as power must cater to the whims of the men she seeks to dominate, in this case, maintaining her sexual desirability, which often lies in inverse proportion to her domineering nature. So for example, if a girlfriend wants to use her sexual power to make her boyfriend clean the apartment once in a while, he may just decide to cast his vote for a new challenger in place of the incumbent.

If a woman wants to wield her sexuality as power, and you decide that you don’t want to have sex with her to start with, her power is gone, instantly, and she is disgraced. Take the example of the famous pop star. As long as she weighs 110 pounds and wears tiny shorts, she is at the pinnacle of feminine power. But when she weighs 135 pounds and wears an unfortunate pair of unflattering jeans, she is humiliated, a laughing stock, she has let herself go, despite the fact that she is considerably slimmer than the average American woman.

When people talk about women’s sexual power, they are fantasizing that women could have dictator-like power over men, when in fact, at the very best, she is more like a civil servant.

This myth of woman as sexual dictator comes from the fantasy that male desire could be bottled and put to some use. I imagine the thought process, at least for men, goes something like this:

I am soooo attracted to Woman X and Woman Y and Woman Z. I don’t think those women could have any idea how much I desire them. But if they knew, they could use it against me in some way. And I wouldn’t even mind, because it would be erotically thrilling to have my desire used against me.

But of course, the power of Woman X, Woman Y, and Woman Z only comes from the fact that this fellow, Man XY, cannot be with them. The moment Woman X became the lover of Man XY, Woman Y and Woman Z’s power would skyrocket.

Not to mention Woman Q, who has been admiring man XY for years, but is not his type. She has no power over Man XY at all. Which is too bad, because she’s the only one who really wants it.

It reminds me of a scene in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Before Paul D. has sex with Sethe, he finds the web of scars on her back to be irresistibly compelling—a living, breathing tree growing on her back, calling to him with its powerful life force. But as soon as he has sex with her, it devolves into a grotesque, seething injury.

So as compelled as we are by the myth of the all-powerful pussy, this power is as ephemeral and undefined as the power of the British royalty, as unwieldy a weapon as those F-22 stealth jets whose production was halted because they couldn’t fly well in the rain. It is cotton-candy power, sweet and tempting until you put it in your mouth, at which point it disappears.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Heavens

My friend Adam is a skeptic. He doesn’t believe in unseen, unprovable phenomina like conspiracy theories, ghosts, or gods. If he’s going to believe in something, he wants empirical proof.

One day when we were talking, I mentioned something about horoscopes. “You don’t actually believe in that, do you?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure how to answer. If he was asking whether I believe that people’s personalities are shaped by celestial patterns, that all people born on a particular day, or even during the same month, would share a set of identifiable traits based on the position of the planets—then no. If he was asking whether I believe that knowing somebody’s astrological sign affords some worthwhile insight into his or her personality—then, I suppose, yes.

I’ve always been interested in astrology and horoscopes, and it seemed dense of me that I had never thought about whether I actually believed in them. They’ve always just been there, like Democrats and Republicans, black, white, Asian and Latino people, like terriers and schnauzers, and every other useful but probably fictitious categories we classify things and people by.

Horoscopes had always been one of my ways of understanding all sorts of personal relationships, starting with my family. My mother and sister are a Cancer and Pisces, respectively, both signs known for their emotionalism and sensitivity. My father, on the other hand, is a Virgo, a logical, Mr. Spock kind of sign. My own sign, Gemini, represents duality, which seemed to explain my status as the peacemaker between the two factions.

Our professions also reflect these traits. My emotional mother is an artist, while my logical father is a computer engineer. My sensitive sister is a psychologist. And I, the mediator, am an English teacher, which means that my job is largely to help people with different viewpoints and perspectives to communicate with one another.

My first serious boyfriend was a Virgo, born on the same date as my father. After we broke up, I looked up our compatability in a book my roommate owned called Love by the Stars. The book said the following about Gemini-Virgo couples:

You are join
ed by your mutual interest in intellectual pursuits. However, aside from that fundamental similarity, you are not naturally compatible. The Gemini will perceive the Virgo as uptight, rigid, and overly serious, while the Virgo will find the Gemini to be flighty, disorganized, and prone to silly distractions.

I couldn’t believe it; the description seemed to have been written by someone who knew me and my ex-boyfriend personally. It turned out that my next relationship, with yet another logical, serious Virgo, followed this pattern as well.

How could I not believe in astrology, after all of this evidence of its predictive and explanatory powers? And yet how could I believe in something so patently untrue, from a strictly empirical point of view?

Reflecting on these patterns, I realized that they are less a belief than a mythology, a pattern more literary or symbolic than scientific. Certainly not every Virgo in the world behaves like my father or first two boyfriends, and not every Gemini acts like me. Still, these categories have always been a part of my consciousness. They have shaped the way I understand the world for so long that if I decided to excise them as illogical, I would lose a shade of meaning as rich as art or music.

It’s a lot like religion, really, because I use that to explain my life, too, even though I don’t strictly believe in it.

Monday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Proper Jews stayed home from work and attended services, praying and fasting until sunset.

I didn’t do doing anything at all to observe the holiday this year, and I haven’t for many years. I used to observe this holiday every year, you might say religiously. It took on a special significance to my family when I was seventeen, just after my mother’s father died. Yom Kippur was on his birthday that year, and my mother, sister and I fasted and attended services on Stanford campus near our house (my father was never much for synagogue; he went to work). My mother brought printed copies of my grandfather’s eulogy, since my sister and I had not been able to go to the east coast for his funeral. After the service, we sat on the grass and read the eulogy, and then we shared memories of my grandfather. It was a very sweet and sad afternoon, its significance heightened by the dreaminess of hunger.

By the time we were ready to go home, my mother felt too lightheaded to drive, so I drove, being extra attentive to traffic since I was also fairly woozy. When we got home we could not find the copies of the eulogy, which had been in a folder along with some pictures and documents. It turns out I had left them on the roof of the car, back on Stanford campus. I drove back to Stanford, now in a really surreal haze, and found the folder, scarred by a dusty tire-print, in the parking lot. I expected my mother to be angry with me, but she said, “It’s okay. We’re all just really out of it.”

This was a special day for my family, and for a while, Yom Kippur became a meaningful family tradition in a way that other Jewish holidays were not. My mother still observes Yom Kippur fastidiously each year, but I stopped long ago. It seemed that the significance of the day was more about family history and the headiness of hunger than about religion. Even if there is a God, I don’t think It would be interested in micromanaging us to this level. With all the activity and matter in the universe, what kind of Supreme Being would busy Itself worrying about what I eat?

Cartoon--"Compare and Contrast: God Versus Superman" written by Karin Spirn and illustrated by Adam Caldwell.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hard Work

If you ask Chris Evert who was the better athlete, herself or Martina Navratilova, she’ll tell you it was Martina. The former rivals (who are also close friends) went on Oprah together last year. "Martina's a natural athlete," Evert said. "She could have been a champion at any sport she chose. I wasn't like that. I was a champion in tennis because I loved the sport so much, and I focused so hard on my game” (or something along those lines; I’m paraphrasing).

Evert’s statement suggests that there are two ways to achieve greatness: through talent or through hard work. Of course, in practice a successful person would need some combination of both of those things; no one would argue that Evert wasn’t athletic or that Navratilova didn’t work hard.

But we often expect that talent trumps hard work, that a person cannot excel at a sport or hobby or profession or field of study without some observable, natural proclivity for it.

As teachers, we can’t help but judge our students this way. Some students are just never going to get it, we say, often about students who have been given very few chances to get it before now.

Students judge themselves this way, too. I’m just not good at English, they’ll say, often in an introductory English course, like someone walking into a new yoga class and declaring, Don’t bother teaching me; I am horrible at yoga.

Whenever I parallel my own teaching to the subjects that I currently get taught at, mainly martial arts, I think, This whole school thing should be less about assessing and judging and more about learning. A student who can’t write a grammatical sentence shouldn’t be chastised and humiliated any more than a student who can’t throw a straight right cross; both students just need instruction and practice.

Although I am reminded of my role as a teacher each time I attend a kickboxing or yoga class as a student, sports taught me how to be a good teacher before I ever knew I would become a teacher myself.

When I was in high school, I was pretty good at all the subjects I studied in school—except physical education. I wasn’t horrible at it. But if there was a C on my report card, it was probably next to the letters P.E. Most of my gym teachers ignored the kids like me who weren't great at catching a fly ball or running a mile. And while I always enjoyed running around and getting exercise, P.E. was always my least favorite subject because it was frustrating and humiliating to have my teacher rolling his eyes and insulting me if I couldn’t master the art of the layup during our two weeks of allotted basketball instruction.

I had one great P.E. teacher in high school: Mr. Hart. He was also the photography teacher. He seemed like a pretty interesting guy. He was the only P.E. teacher I ever had who actually ran and did sports with us instead of just watching. He was into windsurfing and scuba-diving, and he brought his own equipment so we could try it in the swimming pool.

But my favorite thing that Mr. Hart did was create obstacle courses. It was a requirement of P.E. classes that we run three times a week. Sometimes, instead of just running the track, Mr. Hart would have us run all around the P.E. area, up and down the bleachers, through the trails in the bushes, jumping over hurdles, stopping at the pull-up bar to each do a pull-up. I could never do pull-ups, and my other P.E. teachers would have just yelled at me to try harder. But Mr. Hart came and lifted up all the students who couldn't do pull-ups, and encouraged us to pull as hard as we could to train our muscles so we could learn to do them on our own.

In Mr. Hart's class, I discovered that I could be good at sports and working out. It's not my natural area of strength, but I like to work hard, and I can learn a lot if someone will teach me.

Now that a large portion of my adult life revolves around a sport, I regret that I so often sat on the sidelines as a teenager because I didn't think I could do a good job.

Back during Mr. Hart's class, I had a revelation that has stayed with me throughout my years of being a student and a teacher. I thought: You know, those other teachers never bothered teaching me to do sports because I wasn't good at them naturally. But if someone would just teach me, I could learn. I became angry at the years of teachers who hadn’t taught me anything, who had ignored me or insulted me because I wasn’t naturally gifted in a subject that it was their job to teach me.

And then, for the first time I can remember, I thought in horror of all the students who weren't naturally good at math and English and other academic subjects (which I was naturally good at) and how their teachers might be treating them the same way, as hopeless cases not worth teaching.

When I tell my friend Marie this story, she says, “Like all my math teachers. They just ignored me and hoped I’d go away.”

When I became a teacher, I vowed to be there, like Mr. Hart, for students like Marie in math and me in P.E., students who are ready to learn, if only someone would be patient and teach them. In the time that I have worked in a community college, where we accept all students at any skill level, I have met some English Martina Navratilovas, superstars who are just waiting to unleash their innate skills upon the world.

But I’ve also met dozens of English Chris Everts, and I have seen them rise to great success and achieve things that their teachers would never have thought possible—that I wouldn’t have thought possible—because they are tough and scrappy and ready to fight for the knowledge and skills that are their birthright as humans.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Like You’ve Never Been Hurt

Dance Like No One’s Watching. Love Like You’ve Never Been Hurt.

These words of inspiration annoy me a little whenever I pass the car, parked along my bike route to my favorite tea shop, that bears the bumper sticker upon which they are inscribed.

Wouldn’t you be an idiot to love like you’ve never been hurt? That’s how you love the first time you’re in love—when you haven’t been hurt yet, at least not by somebody you’re in love with—and look how that ends.

If you’re thinking, Well, I’m still with the first person I was in love with, and it hasn’t ended in horrible pain yet—just wait. I’m not being cynical; it’s going to end, one way or the other.

I remember the first time I was in love. I thought I was meant to be with this person, thought we should go to graduate school together, get a matching set of English PhDs, find one of those double job openings that are oh-so-common in the academic world, which would fortuitously enough be in some wonderful exotic city, and spend the rest of our lives writing obscure books and having babies.

When this plan did not pan out, we decided to continue living together in our three-bedroom apartment as roommates anyway, because, we reasoned, we were best friends and mature adults. You can imagine how that went. Suffice it to say, we drove our third roommate away by provoking horrible childhood memories of his parents’ divorce. My now-ex-boyfriend was forced to date women in secret for fear of upsetting me, and I lost ten pounds because I couldn’t stomach any food if he was in the apartment.

I’ve been in love a few times since then. I can’t say that I loved the same way, with the naïve expectation that the relationship would last forever, that this person was the one, my soul mate, that if this relationship fails then a part of my life has failed. I will never think any of that again, and if you’ve paid attention when you’ve been hurt, you probably won’t think it, either.

The advice on this bumper sticker, which, I just found out, dishearteningly enough, was written by Mark Twain (I assumed it was written by the same committee of hippy marketing experts who coined such bumper-sticker wisdom as Mean people suck), reminds me of something that my kickboxing teacher frequently says to me:

Don’t be scared to come in.

By come in, he doesn’t mean into my kickboxing school, although if I were thinking logically I would probably be scared to walk through the front door. No, my teacher says this when I am staring at a man who outweighs me by at least thirty pounds, who is faster and more experienced than I am, and who without a doubt will throw a very powerful, fast side kick at my stomach the moment I come six inches closer to him than I am now. Since I know he is going to do this, I should be able to avoid it happening, but so far, the only way I can prevent it is by staying approximately three feet away from him at all times, which is not conducive to fighting somebody.

Don’t be scared to come in, says my teacher, watching me tango with this opponent. He moves a step closer; I back up a step. He moves to the left; I move to the right.

Don’t be scared to come in. I know better than to be an insolent student, but I can’t help myself—I shoot my teacher an indignant look. Don’t be scared? Do I look like an idiot? Do you see his front leg, cocked and ready to throw the side kick at me before I have any chance of reaching him with any part of my body? Of course I’m scared!

I know what my teacher means: Don’t let your fear prevent you from coming in. That’s what we usually mean when we say “Don’t be scared”—be scared, but do it anyway. That’s the definition of bravery.

And I know what Mark Twain meant, too: don’t let your past experiences of being hurt affect your ability to love, without reservations, in the present and future. Just like fighting: when you get kicked hard in the stomach, you don’t stop fighting; you go back in. But you don’t go in like you’ve never been kicked in the stomach. You’d be an idiot to do that.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Presidents

“I wanted a less prestigious job with a lower salary,” said the man on the radio.

He had left his job as a politician to become a pediatric nurse. He would be interviewed on a show coming up later tonight; this was just a promotional sound-bite.

“But seriously, he loves his new job,” said the radio announcer.

I was surprised, because I had assumed his comment was serious. Was it really so absurd that someone would want to escape the pressures of a prestigious, high-paying job? Wouldn’t lots of people want to switch to something with less stress, less responsibility, even less money? What about CEOs, movie stars, politicians? What about the president?

I have watched a number of people attempt to become president of a number of things during the last few years. The process that it takes to become a president would itself be enough to make most people wish for a less-prestigious and lower-paying position.

There was, of course, the race to become president of the United States. Lots of people wanted that job; they raised millions of dollars, campaigned day and night, hired speech writers and campaign managers to craft elaborate strategies for outsmarting the other people who also wanted to be president. This president was chosen democratically, and almost every adult citizen of the country was allowed to cast a vote for his or her choice. So the people who wanted to be president needed to try to please large numbers of citizens.

There was also the selection of the president of my college. While the people who wanted this job did not have to raise money or hire helpers to design their campaigns, they did go to great lengths to try to get the job. One flew all the way from Chicago to interview; another gave a speech to representatives of the entire college despite the fact that she had broken her leg the evening before. She must have really wanted the job.

This process gave the impression of some democratic overtones, in that members of the campus community got to submit their opinions about the job finalists. These opinions were passed on to the board of our college, who were free to read them, consider them, and then choose whichever candidate they wanted. The candidates’ job was to please the campus community but to please the board even more.

One other race that followed a democratic model was for the presidency of the college’s academic senate (which is like student government for teachers). All the teachers at my school had the opportunity to vote. The democratic integrity of this process was marred, however, by the fact that only one candidate chose to run, and only after some fairly intense coercion.

This last presidential election was the only one I could really relate to. I can’t imagine myself attempting to become president of anything—the country, a college, the campus book club—except under some pretty serious duress. I definitely wouldn’t be running against anybody, because if someone else wants the job, by all means, she can have it.

Sometimes I try to imagine wanting to be a president. It’s a stressful job, certainly. The president of my college needs to make crucial decisions about our budget and policies. She knows she will often face criticism for those decisions, and if her decisions aren’t good, she could damage or destroy the entire school. That seems pretty stressful.

On top of that, there is the stress of having to be the face and voice of the college. I don’t really feel that I represent my job when I am not there, at least not in an active way. If I decide to spend the weekends wandering around the local mall in ripped-up sweatpants, no one will say, “I can’t believe an English teacher from Las Pecinas College walks around dressed like a slob!” I am allowed to make negative comments about my school, if I so choose, without violating the specifications of my job description. But being the president of a college is a twenty-four-hour job. No matter what the president is doing, whether walking her dog or shopping at the store or, say, visiting a strip club, as long as she is publically viewable, she represents our college and is expected to act accordingly, which means that she should avoid strip clubs if she wants to be seen as doing her job properly.

Why would somebody want this job, I wondered, as I watched the candidates giving their speeches to the college. Sure, it pays a lot more than my job, but I don’t see that the added responsibility is worth the money. I would opt for the lower-paying, less-prestigious job any day.

Now imagine being president of this entire country. Think of all the things you could never be caught doing: making an insulting or critical comment about your own country. Making an off-color joke, an insensitive remark. Spacing out and forgetting what you were talking about mid-sentence. Forgetting the name of a country. Farting in public. Playing air guitar. Getting drunker than you meant to. Making obscene hand gestures. Buying pornography. Going to a sex shop or a swingers’ party, even with your spouse.

It’s like being a celebrity, except you make less money and are expected to maintain your dignity all the time.

Because I don’t want to be president—of my country, my college, my academic senate—I really appreciate those who are willing to do those jobs. I guess I think of them sort of like the person who cleans the toilets; it’s a dirty job, and I’m really glad somebody is doing it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Sex Writing

Note: If you have been reading this blog to your small child before bed, you might want to skip this post.

Recently I’ve been enjoying a column about bondage and discipline (otherwise known as BDSM, which stands for some slightly convoluted and contested mash-up of bondage and discipline, dominant and submissive, and sadism and masochism), written by a dominatrix called Mistress Matisse. I found the column through the website of my personal guru, Dan Savage.

I have always enjoyed reading about sexuality, and it has often dawned on me (usually because my friends tend to point it out) that this interest seems incongruous with other parts of my life.

This is what they’re getting at: I am the kind of person whose frequency of having sex correlates directly to me dating or being in a relationship with somebody. And I often go years without dating or being in a relationship. You can finish the syllogism yourself.

So why do I like reading about sexuality so much, when so often the information is not immediately applicable to my life? It’s not because it’s arousing—a lot of writing about sex is strikingly un-sexy, involving a lot of technical details, tips about technique, philosophical discussions of various kinks that the reader may find distinctly not to his or her taste.

The thing I enjoy about sex writing is that it deals with the philosophy of how our bodies interact with our psyches. Sexuality is like food or illness or disability or athletics. It’s difficult to integrate the biological realities of our body with our sense of ourselves as social and intellectual beings.

This conflict between physical and social self is one of my favorite subjects to think about, and sexuality is one of the most entertaining venues through which to consider it. A lot of what is written about sexuality applies to how we understand our own identities. For example, in his advice column, Dan Savage responds to a reader who describes himself as “slightly homophobic,” and who was therefore horrified to have engaged in sexual acts with a male friend during an ecstasy-fueled party that turned into an orgy. Dan Savage responds:

“Studies have shown that homophobia, slight or otherwise, correlates neatly with homosexual urges. Why? Because a guy who has 98.2% hetero desires and just 1.8% heterosexual will, to protect himself from his homosexual urges, cultivate a slight case of homophobia. This slight case of homophobia serves to reassure the 98.2% straight guy that he’s really 100% straight.”

This response, while well-phrased, is common wisdom, but in combination with the question that elicited it, it’s fascinating. The reader is distraught because he committed a number of sexual acts that didn’t fit with his sense of self. Instead of viewing the situation factually—I had a sexual experience with a man; therefore, it seems that, occasionally and under very specialized circumstances, I am attracted to men—his response is mortification, thinking that he has gone crazy and made a horrible mistake.

Savage’s response begs the question: why would somebody who is 98.2% straight need to convince himself that he is 100% straight? I think, among other reasons (like living in a homophobic society), that this points to fear about fluidity of our identities. We spend a lot of time and energy constructing consistent personae, and we often stake quite a bit on those personae: our relationships, our friendships, our jobs, our status. If a straight man is a little bit gay, or a masculine man is a little bit womanly, he feels his sense of who he is, what he likes, what he represents is threatened.

Even if we don’t live in terror of having our sexual or gender identities disturbed, we are scared of losing our identities in other way, often for good reason. A momentary lapse of identity could cost us our jobs—for example, if we decide to forget our identity as employee and scream at our boss. For some people, it could cost us our lives, such as if an otherwise brave and resourceful soldier has a lapse in those qualities.

At the same time, Savage’s response also alludes to how limiting it is to not have any flexibility in one’s identity. Having a rigid identity means that we cannot be empathetic, because we cannot find some part of ourselves that is different from our overriding identities. If I cannot accept the possibility that I have parts of myself that are gay or straight or male or female, how can I understand those who are gay or straight or male or female? How can I understand those who do not fit into these categories so neatly?

I have particularly enjoyed reading Mistress Matisse’s column because of the connection it draws to life beyond the bedroom, the dungeon, or the Folsom Street Fair. And not just because of the ways that we are dominant or submissive in our regular lives, which is a common explanation of how BDSM connects to non-erotic life. What I like about her column, and about much writing about BDSM is that it focuses so explicitly on the physical realities of sexuality, and, by extension, the physical realities of having a body and being human.

Most people presumably have sex assuming or hoping that it will be exciting—i.e. sexy—but BDSM practitioners work actively at creating that excitement. People who are into BDSM have to plan their erotic encounters carefully. They have to buy special equipment and learn techniques for causing intense sensations (a.k.a. pain).

This leads them to think a lot about how bodies work. For example, Mistress Matisse wrote the following (in her personal blog, not her column) about her first time inserting her fist into a man’s rectum:

“It’s tremendously intimate, too. I could feel his heart beating. It’s sort of amazing to feel that and think, Well, yeah - your hand isn’t that far away from it!

In this situation, Matisse isn’t just having a sexual encounter, but learning more about the capacities of our bodies, and how our bodies and psyches react to extreme circumstances. I don’t foresee a situation in which I will need much of the practical information in this blog post, and yet I learned a lot from it, not the least of which was what it feels like to have your hand fully inside of another person’s body—and isn’t that something worth learning about?

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Legislation is like sausage. You want the outcome but you don’t want to see how its made.

This metaphor, sausage-making, has been all over the news for the last month as the federal government tries to create a health care plan. At first, the NPR announcers would explain the full simile every time they discussed the issue: You know, it’s like what they say about lawmaking…

Now they no longer bother to explain the origin of the metaphor; they simply refer to the legislating process as sausage-making. When the intricacies of one proposed health-care model get too complicated to discuss any further, the commentator dismisses the line of discussion with, It’s all part of the sausage-making process. Or when a guest expert is questioned on some flaw in his or her favored plan, the expert will say, But this is all just the sausage-making. The implication is that these details are so messy and unpleasant that the public would do better to just shut them out—cover our ears, shut our eyes, la la la I can’t hear you making that sausage—and enjoy the delicious outcome when it is delivered from the kitchen in its appetizing and seemingly sanitary state.

And yes, in this metaphor, the senate is the kitchen. The chefs are on August recess this month, so today I heard this on the radio: The Obama administration is still trying to make sausage even though there are no senators in the kitchen.

Clearly sausage-making has become a conventionalized term, a micro-cliché meant to encapsulate both the ugliness of the legislative process as well as the implication that the public would be better off not knowing about this ugliness. Like most clichés, it started with a clever idea but has now become a lazy shorthand, an expression that permits us not to dwell too long on its meaning.

This type of lazy analogy seems like a bad thing, but the analogies at the beginning of the sub-prime mortgage crisis were even worse. These analogies did not have a conventionalized meaning; instead, they were being used to actively argue for a particular course of action.

Think about it, the expert on the radio show would say. If your car is about to go off a cliff, you don’t slam on the breaks. You steer away from the cliff.

This, self-evidently, proved that the government should impose a moratorium on foreclosures. Or maybe it was that the government should not impose a moratorium; I can’t remember what the cliff represented exactly. The commentator didn’t have much time to speak, and in lieu of explaining why his plan would work, he used the metaphor. He probably thought that it would be attention-catching and memorable, which it was; unfortunately, I can’t remember his actual argument.

I heard so many of these analogies on the topic of the mortgage and banking crisis that I needed to write them down to remember them all:

The economy is like an ocean; it rises and falls, and consumers are like a boat… For a plant to grow, it needs sunlight and water; it won’t grow if you stick it in a closet… If a person is overweight, he needs to cut out unnecessary parts of his diet but not key nutrients…

All of these analogies would have been fine illustrations of an argument, but, in almost all cases, they were given as the main explanation in support of a particular argument. Why do you think regulations would stifle the creative forces of the market? Because the economy is like an ocean. Why do you think we need to invest government money in the housing market? Because the economy is like a plant.

I heard one analogy that I thought was actually helpful: “People say that the mortgage and banking sectors should be unregulated, that the market will regulate itself. You wouldn’t say that about the meat industry.” We regulate the meat industry because we know we can’t count on the market to protect something as important as our health; likewise (according to the analogy), we can’t count on the market to protect the public from poor lending practices and their disastrous results for the economy. This analogy, which compared regulation in several areas, actually seemed to be part of the argument, as opposed to a metaphor that was being inflated into something more.

The critical thinking textbook I teach from says this about false analogies: “In a false analogy, one compares two things in which the key features are different.” I always tell my students that I don’t quite agree with this definition, since almost any analogy compares things that are different; that’s the whole point of an analogy. The book gives an example of a mountain climber who argues that while his sport is dangerous, people die taking showers, too. The book claims that this analogy is false because mountain climbing and showering are different: “To construct a more convincing analogy, the mountain climber should compare the risk in mountain climbing with that in another high-risk sport such as race car driving.”

This suggestion seems strange to me. If the mountain climber’s point was that many daily activities contain an element of risk, why would he compare climbing to race car driving? What would it do for his argument to compare two similar things?

However, when I think about the metaphors used for the economic crisis, I start to agree with the authors of my textbook, that sometimes analogizing similar things is more persuasive than different ones. The housing industry works something like the meat industry, and it is helpful to compare the role that regulations play in both markets.

I believe that the purpose of the analogy is what determines whether it is false. When you’re trying to illuminate an abstract concept (such as the value and necessity of taking risks), you may need to bring together wildly different ideas and draw unlikely connections. Mountain climbing is nothing like taking a shower—and yet, how fascinating to think that many people die showering each year, and yet we never fear taking a shower, while we might fear mountain climbing based on one horrific story. So difference works in this kind of example.

However, when you are trying to advocate for a law or government policy, and your sole argument is a horribly oversimplified analogy, I’ll have to object: the economy is not a plant, a car, the ocean, or a sausage!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Jennifer—Used to keep up with world news before I got on Facebook. Now I never look at the major news sites. I feel guilty!

David—But I bet none of your friends write for the major news sites.

Karin Spirn's Note: Six Thoughts About Facebook
1. When I was growing up, I never got excited about looking at anything on a computer. The computer was for typing my homework and maybe playing a video game if there was nothing else to do. I never came home after a long day and planted myself in front of the computer to relax. I never looked at the computer every ten minutes while doing chores or talking on the phone. I never got out of bed during a 3 a.m. bout of insomnia and sat in front of the computer.

It seems like another world, looking back, a strange and incomprehensible place.

2. When I was sixteen, my father took me to his Silicon Valley office to look at something on the computer.

“I want to show you this new thing,” he said. “It’s called the Worldwide Web. Groups or businesses can have a page on here, and you can look at it.”

I tried to imagine what he was talking about: a sort of giant, computerized want ads.

“The colleges you want to apply to will all have sites on here,” he told me with excitement. He fiddled around, typing in something or other.

“See, like Berkeley has a site, right here.”

He showed me the U.C. Berkeley home page, which had some logos and pictures of the campus. It looked about as exciting as a brochure.

“Wow,” I said, giving the screen a cursory glance.

“You should play around on this site,” he said. “See, you can click on these buttons and it will tell you about the school.”

I sat down and did some polite clicking around. Admissions policies, campus map, photographs of a few buildings. I had seen most of this before, on paper or in person. The fact that it was now on a computer made it if anything less accessible, not more.

3. Click on the link for “almost twenty years later,” and you’ll find me checking my email and Facebook account any time there is a computer nearby. My students, most of them teenagers, as I was when I found the internet too boring to be bothered with, cannot stop staring at the computer screen. Teachers don’t want their classes scheduled in a classroom with computers because the students will compulsively check email, MySpace, Facebook.

The most obvious reason for this shift in the appeal of the computer is the vast wealth of information available on the internet. But when my students are screwing around online during class, they are not reading about current events or even celebrity gossip. They are on MySpace and Facebook, reading about themselves. They are looking at pictures of themselves and their friends. They are writing silly notes and reading their friends’ silly responses. They are scanning their friends’ pages, hoping to find some juicy bit of information to cheer up their depressing day of schoolwork, a photograph of the boy or girl they like, some hint that he or she likes them back.

That’s what makes the internet more than just a regular source of information, so much more exciting than a library, bookstore, or newsstand. It is filled with news not just about the outside world, but about ourselves, our friends, what our friends think about us. Large parts of our identity are housed online, on our homepages, our profiles, our blogs, and those of our friends. The computer has gone from being something utilitarian, as neutral as a stopwatch or a calculator, to become a part of ourselves.

Karin—should stop rambling on about Facebook and go to bed.

4. If your work involves sitting in front of a computer, Facebook is almost like having all your friends at work with you in a big, virtual room. It’s ingenious, really. We’re all sitting in front of our computers, stressed out and lonely, all day long. Why shouldn’t we be exchanging witty quips with our friends? Then we can almost pretend that we are not at work at all, that we are out at the bar, some strange sort of bar where our childhood best friend and that nice girl from our yoga class suddenly team up to advise us on our love lives or career choices.

5. I wonder if our need to create this bar scene as we work is an indication of our alienation as workers. Sitting in front of a computer is a lonely sort of work. Perhaps if we were out working on the farm or tending to the house with our herd of assorted children, we wouldn’t feel the need to be connected to the simulacra of friends who are miles and miles away.

Marie to Karin—you said you needed to go to bed. Why are you still on here?

6. Then again, I share an office with a friend, and we sometimes use Facebook to communicate. We have been known to write Facebook comments to each other while sitting in the room at the same time. We are both typing on computers, so sometimes it makes sense to continue communicating using that tool. Plus if we were to simply make our amusing comment aloud, it would not be on display to entertain the others in our online work-bar.

Karin—This reminds me of that joke we used to make about how our students take a walk.

Marie—Two students take a walk wearing headphones, listening to their ipods, and texting each other for conversation.
Karin—We’re just like them.
Marie—Well, they are the future. Scary, isn’t it?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Going Hard

The timer rang, indicating the round had begun. I threw a few light jabs at my partner. She stepped in and returned a hard cross to my head. Not quite I’m-trying-to-knock-you-out-hard, but hard enough to make my brain feel a little bruised. We exchanged a few more punches, and again the hard cross landed on my nose, followed by a powerful hook that hit me in the temple.

I stopped. “Are we supposed to be going that hard?” I asked her.

This was my first time really sparring in the new boxing teacher’s class. Two days ago I had taken this class and we had done light sparring, with no headgear, lightly tapping each other with our punches. He hadn’t given us any direction on how hard to hit now that we were wearing full gear. I had assumed it would be harder, but not this hard; this was like a real fight.

“What’s going on over there?” the teacher asked.

“She wants to know how hard we’re supposed to go,” my partner said.

The teacher turned to me, his face serious and angry. “Don’t stop fighting to talk,” he said. “If you have a question, ask me.”

He paused for a moment to let this instruction sink in, then added, “Go hard!”

So, with those expectations clear, I began to throw hard punches back at my partner, and she threw hard punches back at me. By the end of the first round, she looked a little shaken and she informed me that my nose was bleeding.

We each fought five more rounds like that, two with each other and then three with other partners. The entire time we were sparring, our teacher was yelling insulting comments, some of them at us, but blessedly, more of them at the other students.

“You look horrible out there,” I heard him saying to a grim-faced young kickboxer. “You should be doing better. You’ve competed, in kickboxing not boxing, but it’s all the same thing, competition. You just look horrible.” He shook his head, his facial expression conveying a mixture of disappointment and disgust.

After class, the teacher instructed us to huddle around as he made a speech.

“I’m not angry,” he said. “I may seem angry, but I’m not angry. I’m just frustrated. I just want you all to get better so that if you keep sparring or maybe compete, you’ll be used to what it’s like in a fight. I don’t believe in learning at the fight; I’ve always been against that.”

I’m a teacher, and what I’ve always been against is any type of pedagogy that involves insulting students. Teachers who scrawl Not English in the margin next to a grammatical error committed by a recent immigrant or who use the phrase I’m disappointed in their final comments have always horrified me. How are the students supposed to learn if the teacher takes every mistake as a personal affront? Do we really want students’ main goal as they write to be avoiding mistakes?

One of the reasons I love teaching writing is that it is a process, and there is always room for improvement. Even the most disastrous essay on Shakespeare or Michael Moore or An Educational Experience That Had a Positive Impact on My Life contains the seeds of great writing. Much of the greatest writing begins as a shitty first draft, and focusing on the negative is not only depressing, but counterproductive, since it is both the teacher’s and student’s job to find those moments of potential and nurture them; simply avoiding crappy writing is not enough to constitute great writing. A writer who fears grammatical errors, clichés, missing topic sentences, or incorrect analyses will become too paralyzed to write anything at all. So mistakes are encouraged, especially those sorts of mistakes that come from experiment, pushing a bit further, taking risks and trying new strategies.

On the other hand, I realize that we have a certain privilege, as writers, to be able to make mistakes. What if I were teaching my students something that they could not afford to mess up, something like heart surgery or bridge design or how to pilot a commercial jet? My liberal, nurturing, let-them-make-mistakes attitude would hardly work in those cases. Even for my friend who works in a machine shop, a tiny miscalculation can lead to the destruction of a ten-thousand dollar piece of metal or having to start an almost-complete project all over again.

In fields where a mistake could cost people their lives, the training reflects a no-mistakes-permitted philosophy and is often geared towards weeding out those who are prone to error. The training to become a doctor has become so competitive in terms of factual knowledge that I often fear that the doctors of my generation will all have horrible social skills, since they have to compete ruthlessly with their colleagues and forgo most social events just to make it into medical school. And while this does worry me, truthfully, if somebody is taking a scalpel to my brain, heart, or any other important part of my body, their fabulous bedside manner means nothing if they can’t remember the correct place to make the incision.

I know that the tough-love attitude of such areas of study has its own rewards. My friend who just finished her medical residency told me that not only was the arduous schedule worthwhile, but that she actually enjoyed the long, sleepless nights.

“I think there’s some self selection,” she told me. “The people who get into this field enjoy this sort of thing, working thirty-six hour shifts. You kind of get into it. Actually, the older doctors always say we have it easy. They worked like fifty hours in a row during their residencies.”

I often wonder, could people learn to be good doctors without going through this ordeal? Do the long hours contribute significant knowledge that could only be obtained through the efficiency of a sleepless apprenticeship? Or does this apprenticeship simply serve to weed out those who, under the pressure of overwork and exhaustion, might get confused about which finger they were supposed to be amputating? Either way, one can see the value in having to jump through a few fiery hoops on your own before you attempt to do so carrying a passenger on your back.

This brings me back to my boxing training. On the scale of necessary perfectionism, boxing falls somewhere between English class and brain surgery. It’s a lot more dangerous than writing essays, but no matter how much you mess it up, no one but (in the very worst case scenario) yourself is going to die. But the question remains: if I don’t go hard while I practice, will I be able to handle going hard in a competition or street fight?

My fear is that I won’t—yet I don’t want to train that hard, at least not on a weekly basis, which I suppose explains why I make my living as an English teacher and not a boxer or a brain surgeon. Still, I always wonder if I am doing a disservice to my learning when I choose light sparring over the harder sort.

And yet, when I find myself in a situation such as this boxing class, where I am unexpectedly faced with harder sparring than I had expected, or a spazzy, dangerous partner, or a distractingly critical teacher, I actually do fine. I landed about as many hard punches on my partner as she landed on me, possible even more. And once I realized how forceful her punches were going to be, I evaded almost all of them. I did all of this using the same techniques I had been practicing in my light sparring class, against an opponent who was much more accustomed to this higher level of impact than I was.

So perhaps I don’t need to feel guilty about my English-teacher sparring. Maybe it’s preparing me for brain-surgeon boxing after all.