Monday, June 29, 2009

Getting Punched in the Face

The first time I got punched in the face, I cried. Well, technically it was probably the fourteenth or so time I got punched in the face, but times one through fourteen all came in rapid succession. I had been studying kickboxing for half a year, and was just starting to feel like the roundhouse kicks and southpaw right jabs I was throwing at training pads weren’t completely ridiculous.

My friend from the class, June, asked me if I wanted to do an extra workout with her. She seemed awfully advanced to me at the time, although in retrospect I know that, in a sport that takes decades to master, her two years of training made her only a little less of a neophyte than I was. After we trained with pads for a bit, June dressed me up in some borrowed headgear and declared that we should do some sparring.

Fast forward three minutes and I am desperately trying to stop this embarrassing crying. I don’t feel upset or scared or in pain. It’s more like that involuntary reaction that you have when someone you don’t know very well dies, and suddenly you find yourself weeping and you’re not sure why exactly.

“It’s okay,” June said. “We all cry when we spar.” She looked around the empty gym where we were training, and then leaned in and whispered, “Just don’t ever let the boys see you.”

I am now fairly used to getting punched in the face, but still, on an off day, three or for strong blows to my head still provokes a strong emotional response. All the women who I’ve talked to about it freely admit that they have cried after stressful sparring sessions; I’ve often seen them crying in locker rooms, not sobbing outright, but choking back tears as they curse through their teeth, “Why does she always have to go so fucking hard?”

The common wisdom among martial artists is that women fight much more emotionally than men. “Those women are brutal,” the men will say. “They really get upset.”

I always wonder if women really do respond more to fighting with more emotion, or whether men have simply been conditioned not to express those feelings, even to themselves. I sometimes ask my male martial arts friends if they ever feel like crying, and they say that they don’t, though they report feeling angry, upset, or terrified at times. Not liking to get hit seems to be one of the major reasons that people I know, men and women, give up martial arts.

My friend Frank was talking about someone who quit our kickboxing class after participating in one informal competition.

“He decided wrestling was a better sport for him than kickboxing,” he said. “He doesn’t like getting punched in the face.”

“No one likes getting punched in the face,” I replied.

Frank smiled sheepishly. “I like it,” he said.

That’s how you need to feel about it, I suppose. Why would you do something year after year if you didn’t like it, we reason to ourselves as we ice our bruises. So we stay with our abuser, and learn to think of the abuse as a kind of love.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Short Skirts

It is summer, and the women at Las Pecinas College have donned their teeny skirts in celebration. They shuffle across the library in strappy sandals, tugging at their hemlines with every fifth step, hugging themselves and shivering in the chill of the air conditioning. They lean against their boyfriends, who wear long, baggy shorts that hang past their knees, oversized hooded sweatshirts, and basketball shoes. The backs of female thighs are suddenly visible everywhere, like blossoms emerging all at once from their winter slumbers—plump and dimpled, or bony and skinny, flattened across the back from sitting, sometimes marked with the faintly visible imprints of fabric chairs or slatted benches.

Why are they wearing these skirts, which seem to make them so chilly and uncomfortable? To look stylish? That’s not so bad. To show off their bodies? That seems okay.

Because they don’t feel sexy unless they look like they are wearing lingerie? That’s what I find a little disturbing.

As I understand it, the purpose of lingerie is to make its wearer as sexually appetizing as possible. It’s like the grill marks on a steak or the pumpkin sauce drizzled sparingly over ravioli; it stirs our appetite and increases our desire.

It seems appropriate to decorate your lover like you would decorate food during the moment of consumption—when you are about to have sex. But for women to feel that they must be maximally appetizing at all times, as they study in the library or attend a college class, seems perverse and tragic.

Notably, there is no lingerie for men—at least not for straight men. Their “sexy” underwear is all about status, Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger logos on waistbands that extend up over the tops of their pants.

My students, who are mostly between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, often believe that the genders are equal now. I thought that, too, when I was their age. It’s an easy thing to think when you’ve been brought up in a modern school system where girls are increasingly more successful in school than boys and where advanced math and science classes are now taken by equal numbers of boys and girls.

Sometimes I and the other over-thirty-year-olds in the room try to enlighten our young compatriots about the gender inequity that has shaped our experience of work, relationships, families, and politics. When you explain to an eighteen-year-old woman the difficulties of getting adequate maternity leave or child care, her eyes become wide with respectful awe, as though you are recounting your experiences of the Great Depression. She nods politely, maybe utters a little “wow” under her breath, and you have suddenly attained the grandmotherly rank of historical relic, even though you’re talking about the present.

This is, after all, the same generation who says things like, “Well, this article about white privilege was written back in 1987, and there was probably a lot of racism back in those days.”

One area where gender inequity certainly touches their lives is the double standard concerning sexual behavior for men and women. They recognize this unfairness, and joke about it: a guy who sleeps around is a playa, a girl who sleeps around is a ho. Talking about this doesn’t really help them understand inequality, though, because even though they recognize this double standard, ultimately they subscribe to it themselves. The idea that men and women should have the same rights to have sex with whomever they please is like the idea that their parents were once young people just like themselves; they know it’s true in theory, but in practice they don’t really buy it.

If men and women are equal, then why aren’t all the men walking around campus in tiny shorts on the first slightly warm day of the year? Finally, I see nods of real recognition. “When our society is equal,” I say, “then when the weather turns warm, all the boys will be out with fake tans and hot pants and cropped tank tops.” Some girls laugh and nod, while others make disturbed faces. All the boys look disturbed.

“No one wants to see that,” one guy says.

He means he doesn’t want to see it. As a heterosexual male, what he wants to see is what everyone wants to see, and what he doesn’t want to see is what no one wants to see. That’s the meaning of hegemony.

“No, I mean, most of the guys I know wouldn’t look too good in skimpy clothes.” He points at his own stomach. “We’re really hairy and pale and out of shape.”

Well, men, if you want to be equal with women, I suggest you get to the tanning booth, or buy that convenient spray-on body tanner. All unsightly body hair should be waxed off. Then instead of eating breakfast, go for a run, and make sure to do lunges and crunches every day.

As with so many social inequities, there has been some progress on this front. Men are developing eating disorders now—manorexics, they are called, to distinguish their disease from the normal, female anorexia. Like nurses, models, and whores, anorexia is still necessarily feminine unless otherwise specified. But we can expect that in a few decades, young men will be rushing out to buy this season’s new short shorts, before all their football buddies do, and when the air turns a bit warm, their ass cheeks will be peeking tantalizingly out from under their clothing alongside those of their female equals.

Thanks to Adam Caldwell for the illustration. Check out his work at

Monday, June 22, 2009


It’s Wednesday morning. I am car pooling to work, and my ride will be in front of my apartment in four minutes. I am slapping peanut butter onto whole wheat bread, because I woke up too late to prepare a proper lunch. We have to be at work at nine, and work is a half-hour drive away. We can’t spare the extra twenty minutes it would take to cook the pasta with vegetables and tofu that I was supposed to get up early to make.

There is no actual reason we have to be at work at nine. My coworker’s first class isn’t until ten, and mine is at twelve-thirty, but my office hours officially start at nine. If I were twenty minutes late, my boss—the college dean—might walk by my office and find I wasn’t there during the hours that are part of my contractual obligation, and then he would have to have a talk with me and it would be awkward for everyone. Maybe a student would come looking for me, and I wouldn’t be there. Or maybe I wouldn’t get last week’s quizzes graded before my class, and the students would have to wait two more days to find out their scores.

Looking at the sad peanut-butter-and-nothing sandwiches that will be my breakfast and lunch, I ask myself: does it really matter if I’m twenty minutes late? Which begs the inevitable question: does it matter if I come in at all? And if not, then what is it I am spending my life doing, exactly?

This is the question that haunts us as workers, caught in the conflicting ideologies of working for survival and working to make our lives meaningful. Do we work to support our basic physical needs, or to feed some deeper need in our souls? Ideally both, our culture tells us: do what you love, and the money will follow.

But if we do what we love and the money doesn’t follow, we will be told: get a real job, you lazy bum. So the next best thing is to find a job that is bearable and pays okay.

On this same morning, my friend David is riding public transportation to his job at a nonprofit organization. He hates his job, but he can’t imagine a job he would like better. His believes that his job is important—he writes grants and solicits donations for a fund that supports indigenous workers in developing countries. The main thing he hates about the job is that it feels like begging. Also he hates having lunch meetings with wealthy philanthropists. And finally he hates the fact that he feels as if he is just moving money around, rather than producing anything tangible of worth. Then again, most of what gets produced at jobs is useless junk, like video games and whitening toothpaste and “flavor-blasted” crackers. So the problem may be less his particular job and more the simple fact of having to work at all.

This is what David thinks:

Once our jobs mattered in a tangible way, because if we didn’t do them, our communities would suffer in a visible way. If the tailor stopped working, the villagers went without new clothes. If the baker stopped working, there wouldn’t be any bread, and if the farmer stopped working, there wouldn’t be any food at all.

Imagine the gratification of knowing exactly why and how your profession benefited your community.

In a modern, capitalistic society, we bear the burden of choice, and the burden of having chosen our professions. If the tailor hated his job sometimes, that was just an inevitable part of life, like hating his family sometimes. His family and his job were the same thing, because that job had been handed down to him like his brown eyes and curly hair, and there was no point in hating any of it.

But when our work is a choice, then we are responsible for it, and when it is miserable, we can only blame our own poor judgment.

My friend Ruby is already at work; she has to open the office at eight every morning, so she gets in at seven-thirty. Ruby doesn’t mind running the office; the engineers are pretty nice and she finds the organization and paperwork kind of gratifying. But almost every day when she comes back from her lunch break, she becomes overwhelmed with the meaninglessness of what she does for forty hours a week. I’m wasting my life, she thinks, doing little chores to support a company that has nothing to do with me. What could be more spiritually empty than sorting legal papers and payroll documents for a company that builds machinery whose purpose you can’t understand?

Usually these spells of malaise only last about forty-five minutes; after that, she falls back into the rhythm of the work, and before she knows it, her work day has ended and it’s time to go home.

There are only sixteen hours left to work this week, she thinks as she walks to her car. And then seventy-two hours until the end of the month, payday. And 992 hours until her Christmas vacation. And 59,520 hours until she can retire—but of course, the company will probably be long gone by then, along with all that paperwork that she has spent the last three years of her life organizing.

What Goes Without Saying

This blog is inspired by the book Mythologies by literary critic Roland Barthes. In this book, Barthes wrote about the mythological significance of common artifacts, events, and institutions from his society, 1950s France, covering such disparate topics as toys, wine, steak, literary criticism, wrestling, and poverty. Barthes writes:

“The starting point of these reflections was usually a feeling of impatience at the sight of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art, and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history. In short, I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there.”

The essays and stories on this blog reflect my view of what-goes-without-saying in my own culture: early twenty-first century America, California, the Bay Area, Oakland.

If you enjoy this blog, you might want to check out my serial novel, Hold this Pose.