Monday, April 30, 2007

Vanity Fair

“[Masculinity is] a little like having to wear an ill-fitting coat for one's entire life (by contrast, I imagine femininity to be an oppressive sense of nakedness).”

So says Paul Theroux, travel writer. This aphorism drifts around my brain like a detached pixie wing. It’s true in some ways; men do seem expected to roam thelandscape all covered up. The man’s coat might also be an ill-fit because it is his father’s; society has forced him into Dad’s constrictive mold.

Femininity can mean nakedness—women are often considered an earthy lot. “I am a body farm, I am produce,” 22-year-old-poet-me wrote. Since then, I’ve read enough about capitalism and sexuality to observe that women attract men with their bodies and then make babies with those same bodies; we offer a complete mode of production.

I certainly don’t want to wear the ill-fitting coat of masculinity. How uncomfortable. Nonetheless, a body farm may want protection and cultivation; it may wish to appear lavish and welcoming, like an English country house or a Caribbean villa. Would I prefer a corset to an ill-fitting coat, then? What about a pair of merciless control-top pantyhose, or Juicy Couture sweatpants that cling more tightly than skin and stop just centimeters from exposing the tip of my vulva?People’s dresses are really addresses; makeup and clothes write a social language. In 1899’s Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen notes that as the “chief slave,” the Anglo-American rich man’s wife is primarily responsible for displaying his wealth, and she often creates this display via her person (think trophy wives or “Real Housewives”).

Some contemporary circles view enthusiasm about adornment as a sign of a woman’s shallowness or as a badge of her submission—we should not give precious time and energy to such frippery. Life is a serious business—no lip gloss. If you appreciate beauty commodities, you commodify yourself; thou shalt not Bluefly! “Real” women, apparently, should not care about how they look.

Keeping all of this firmly in mind, I still feel that material self-fashioning generates pleasures that are both mental and sensual. I love a low neckline, for example, especially if it creates a teaspoon of gentle curve. I love the soft brush of a powder compact, the caress of a thick mascara, and the smooth soufflé of a lipstick. The lines of a bias-cut skirt appeal to me, and I appreciate a close fit through my hips.

I could put Pope’s Belinda to shame. Shallow frippery? Why, yes. Hand me those blue dangly earrings—the ones that float like cumulus clouds.

Elizabeth I’s cousin, Arbella, once remarked, “I must shape my own coat according to my cloth, but it shall not be after the fashion of this world but fit for me.” I’m with her. I may not be Juicy, but I try to be refined. If I must be one of our culture’s peacocks (female, ironically), I will select my feathers with care, and I will attempt to flutter them with grace and discretion. I remain pretty naked underneath the fancy tail.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Zen Minutes

I have been trying to meditate. Don’t laugh.

For me, meditating currently means sitting in one place in not-too-terrible posture for ten minutes, emptying my mind. It’s a struggle.

I need more calm in my life; being so raw and uneven all the time gets old. I’m looking for ways to build ballast in my head so that when a big wind blows through me, I’m not flattened. I would like to sway with the wind instead, and it seems like learning how to sit quietly will lead to greater swayability.

The increased flexibility that I’m after is really just for my well-being and perhaps the well-being of those around me. Because the larger body of life is indifferent to all of us; whether we have good days or bad, experience pleasure or stress, order chicken or fish, it remains constant and unchanging.

I can manufacture all kinds of things with my little brain. I can author any number of machinations and ensnarl you in them, too. I can cry if I want, drink if I want, have a grand time if I want. But ultimately I am one tiny being in a corner talking to myself while the rest of life goes about its business.

In addition to helping me learn to sway better and to subdue the little brain, meditation offers me a chance to respect existence. It’s going to do what it wants, anyway—I can’t manipulate it. I’m not like Yoda in a swamp, lifting a galactic fighter from murky depths. (“Ready, you are not,” that foamy little puppet probably would have told me, a long, long time ago.)

Meditation means stepping into a larger space and acquiring something I’ve never had before: context.

I just need to get through the ten minutes. My train of thought generally runs like this:

Am I doing it? Is this it? This must be it. I’m doing it. Listen to the bird. I never would have heard it if I hadn’t decided to sit here like this. How much time has gone by? Can I stop now? A garbage truck. I have to connect with the truck. I have to connect with everything. Maybe I should check my email. I have a lot I have to do today. I never folded that laundry. I have to forget the laundry right now. I have to just be. Am I doing it? Is this it? How long has it been?

And so on. Little mind is tenacious.

Recently, I was meditating on the daybed in my office. My back was against the wall, and my palms faced up. The timer that I use to mark my ten minutes rested on the quilt next to me.

I had been sitting for a little bit. I was tired. I surrendered to the restlessness of my consciousness and grew preoccupied with how many minutes had passed. Was time almost up? I really, really wanted to look at the timer.

No, I resolved sternly. I can’t look. This time is over when it is over.

I agonized for a few more minutes, and then I looked.

Two ones and two zeroes glowed up neutrally at me. Instead of hitting start, I had inadvertently added an extra minute.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Story of O


“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.” (Othello III, iii)

Desdemona loves her husband, treats everyone with kindness, and tells the truth. Her sweet actions bring about her death. This happens after her husband (and murderer) slaps her and refers to her vagina as a toad-infested swamp.

There’s little for feminists to enjoy in Othello. Women are either stupid, victimized, or stupid victims. The play offers a stinging critique of masculinity, however. We witness chest-beating, excessive pride, and possessiveness. A major reason Iago hates Othello is Othello’s passing him over for a military promotion, thus denying him a tantalizing honor. Honor? Iago asks in response. Your wife sleeps around! How does that suit your honor?

Othello falls prey to Iago’s psychological manipulations. He realizes too late that he has been deceived, and more tragedy ensues. He stabs himself over Desdemona’s strangled body.

I’m not a Moor. Laurence Fishburne will never play me in a movie, and I don’t plan on becoming a soldier. But I can be weak, and I am astonishingly susceptible to the influence of others. I’m a validation junkie and a slave to my emotions. I am Othello.

I listen to Iago too much. He convinces me that I’m an impostor. He tells me that I must constantly make up for the appalling gaps in my personality. That’s if others can even see them; I work hard to conceal them, like a beaver building a dam. What I am lucky enough to have gained, I jealously guard; I don’t really deserve any of it. I’m diligent. I hoard.

I have “loved not wisely, but too well” (V, ii). The smallest passions conquer me. I’ve strangled a few unfortunate Desdemonas in my time, and I do not have the “soft parts of conversation that chamberers have” (III, iii). Like the tragic Mauritanian hero who cries and broods across an Elizabethan stage and paces the floor of my soul, I would rather die than be cuckolded (in any fashion).

Iago sounds like “ego,” I have discovered.

Last week, I was drinking coffee and checking email. I’m waiting to hear about a job. Instead of polishing a resume, ostensibly what I was sitting at the computer to do, I replayed the interviewer’s comments in my mind —what he said about the other candidate. She brings forth such an interesting perspective, it sounds like.

Iago is alive at the end of the play. Othello dies. Some people must be too delicate to live.

I want to surrender my inner Othello. But where shall I send him? Sailing up a Venetian canal, perhaps? I’ll give him bread and tea for the trip, and I’ll kiss him on the forehead. I’ll tell him that I hope he learns to lighten up.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Ex-Wife


Alcohol and I are getting a divorce.

Ours was a passionate attachment. I used to crawl inside her liquid pouch like a little kangaroo. I told her my most private thoughts, my most secret fears. She made me feel good.

We went everywhere together. I took her to elegant lounges where we luxuriated on plush stools and under low lights. Or I brought her to shady places with darts and graffiti on the walls; we liked slumming it. We also stayed home quite a bit, curled up on the couch together, massaging my delicate melancholy.

We laughed so many times. I remember joy and exuberance—every sip was Carnaval. If she had been real, I would have followed her anywhere, through any crowd of lesser revelers. I would have scanned the streets for the swish of her raiment and strained my ears for the chimes of her voice. It probably sounded like wet fingers circling a wine glass’s thin circumference.

She was my little deceiver. It was amazing what she could make me forget: my skull burning like an iron forge, bile coating the inside of my mouth, and the conviction that if I shifted even a millimeter my flesh would split open like a water balloon.

After a few hours, though, I wouldn’t remember how she abused me. Invariably, she forgave me for being so hard on her. Making up was very, very sweet.

She wasn’t who she pretended. She didn’t want what was best for me. In fact, the worse everything got, the more I relied upon her: exactly her office. She became misery’s cause and balm.

It’s possible that I liked the suffering. I have heard about people’s repetition compulsion, i.e., doing the same idiotic, destructive things over and over. Why repeat behavior that brings you pain? Well, as a friend pointed out, we’ve all met someone who makes imprudent object choices, again and again and again. That must be me.

Her hands used to rest softly on my shoulders. But her grip tightened, and I was no longer free to move. She dug in her nails, and I couldn’t pry her off.

She dragged me to a precipice. I had a choice. I could let her take us over the edge, and we could sail into an infinite cerulean sky that would render it difficult to tell where she ended and I began. I would be so wasted that I wouldn’t even feel the crash. I wouldn’t feel my back break or my soul snap. Or I could step back and walk away.

It hasn’t been the cleanest of separations. There is no way we can be friends. Nonetheless, we are connected, like two cells weaving a scar.