When Denial Works

We tend to give denial a bad rap. Saying that someone is “in denial” is not a compliment. Telling people that you yourself are in denial is a confession. It isn’t something we brag about.

There are good reasons for this, especially among activists. It’s hard to convince anyone something must change if they’re in denial. Whatever you want to change just isn’t a problem, or maybe it doesn’t even exist. You can’t come up with plans of action that will work if you can’t look at all the moving parts. You can’t sell people on your plan unless you’re willing to accept the ins and outs of their psychology. Denial is a professional hurdle for activists.

On top of that, those of us who are skeptical or atheist activists have a certain vested–if not always properly placed–pride in seeing the world the way it is. Denial is the enemy. It doesn’t just impede our work; fighting it is our work. Sometimes, however, I think we take our antipathy for denial too far. [Read more…]

A Valentine’s Day Story

I’m not big on Valentine’s Day as a holiday. Too much pressure to “correctly” perform a form of romance that has nothing to do with the rest of our lives together. Too little imagination about the varieties of relationships that exist out there. Far too much commercializing of a particularly insidious kind.

I still celebrate the day, however, just not as a holiday. For me, it’s the anniversary of my first date with my husband, eighteen years ago.  Inspired by this Role/Reboot piece on the death of traditional courtship, I thought I’d share how we got there. [Read more…]

Intimidation

Alice Bradley has a great post up on aging out of being treated as an object.

A year ago I was at a family event and a few of my mom’s friends–older women all–were expressing amazement that I would let my hair go gray. One of them–a woman I’ve known since I was born–said, “Men don’t mind it when their hair goes gray, because gray hair makes you look more intimidating. And a woman doesn’t want to look intimidating.”

She was so well-meaning, so concerned about my looking approachable and pretty, and I know she didn’t mean anything by it. But when she said this, so much rage welled up in me. So much. I made a joke and changed the subject, but all I wanted to do was scream. Loudly.

Because: do I want to look intimidating? God, yes. I do. Yes, please, I very much fucking do.

As a young woman, I was certainly the least intimidating creature on the planet, and as such I was prey to unwanted attention from men, attention that ranged from annoying to truly scary. I know there are people who dismiss the idea that such attention is upsetting–after all, isn’t it flattering that strangers think you’re attractive? But it goes far, far beyond that. It was endless and exhausting and I don’t think it has a thing to do with how pretty you are. In fact I often felt the comments would come fast and furious on the days I felt particularly bad about myself, like I was giving off signals or hormones, like they could smell my weakness.

They can. They do. How do I know? At some point around college, I became intimidating.

[Read more…]

Stage Kiss

While I’m at ScienceOnline, my brain is usually buzzing too hard to concentrate on writing anything. To keep you entertained, a repost. This was originally posted here.

Bowling, to me, is something you do if you’re given a choice between bowling and death. And even then, it’s a toss-up.

Kissing someone onstage is perhaps the least romantic thing you can do. Well, it was for me. It wasn’t my fault, though. I swear.

I was in college when I had my one and only stage kiss. They don’t tend to be assigned in K-12 productions, for all the reasons you’d think. Parents may flip. Casting is more of a hassle when you have to worry about who will kiss whom without freaking out. Even if you cast kids who have paired up, will it last until the production is over? Then there’s all the giggling during rehearsals–or performance.

So I was quite good at leaning in close and looking adoring, but I was a college sophomore before I got my first stage direction to pucker up.

[Read more…]

Malice

She was just there one day when we walked out the door, sleek and friendly. We stopped to pet her briefly and went on our way.

She was there again in a day or two, then again after that, less sleek and dirtier every time. Still always friendly. We put out food when she showed up, but pettings were her first priority. So we pet her. Then we washed our hands.

It was when she showed up with the oil spot on her back, I think, that we took her in. There was a spare bedroom at that point where she could be quarantined until we could get her to the vet. After the gray kitten a few months before who turned out to have feline leukemia, we were careful about getting too attached, and very careful of our two other cats.

The bath was a necessity. She stank, and the oil had to go away before it got all over everything. I’ve never seen a cat enjoy a bath before, but she seemed grateful she didn’t have to clean it all up.

The vet’s visit was expensive. Spaying a pregnant cat, even if she hasn’t been pregnant long, is an expensive thing. “By the way,” the vet said, “what you have is a lynx-point Siamese.” Siamese. First heat. Well, that explained why she was now a stray. That and a certain amount of random cruelty from idiots who couldn’t handle noise.

She was clear on the feline leukemia, and there had been plenty of sniffing and pawing under the door to the spare bedroom, so it was time to introduce the cats. She went straight for the Mysticism, the older cat, the moment she saw her. That’s when she got her first name: Malice. [Read more…]

Saturday Storytime: All Cats Are Gray

I was ten. I was still terrified of what might be hidden under the bed or in the closet or anywhere else that made hiding easy. What I knew of the world that didn’t hide from the light was bad enough. What concealed itself must be worse.

I was in my bedroom. Somewhere outside of that, my parents were probably fighting. They might have been taking a break. Somewhere beyond that was a new school, a new set of kids who didn’t like the same things I did, who didn’t talk the same way I did, who didn’t even play the same games I did. Nowhere around me were the water and the trees that always accepted me.

All that mattered less than it had an hour or two before, because I was reading Lore of the Witch World by Andre Norton. I’d been reading fantasy all my life–mythology, the creatures and deeds tales of writers like C. S. Lewis, fairy tales–but this was the first time I held grown-up fantasy in my hands. This was the first time I saw people, and particularly women, dealing with both the trials of daylight (war, displacement, rape, disability, being outcaste) and the half-seen creatures of shadow. And they succeeded. Not easily, but they succeeded.

I needed that just then, perhaps more than anything in the world.

Now, I write fantasy sometimes. At that point, it was written into me. Nor am I alone, which I think is part of the uproar over Ginia Bellafante’s dismissive comments about sex being used to pander to women, who would otherwise turn up their pretty little noses at fantasy. We’re being told to chose which part of our identity is the valid part. Are we women, or do we like fantasy? It’s a silly, impossible question, and we’re not going to stand for it.

There is a bit of irony in this for me. The woman who wrote fantasy into my consciousness started writing at a time when “women didn’t write fantasy”. They did actually write it, of course, and publish it, but they did so under male names. Even Andre Norton, whose name is ambiguously gendered, published her early, science fiction stories as Andrew North.

So in honor of the woman who taught me that fantasy isn’t just for children and that the dark can be managed, here is one of those early stories. An excerpt:

Steena was strictly background stuff and that is where she mostly spent her free hours—in the smelly smoky background corners of any stellar-port dive frequented by free spacers. If you really looked for her you could spot her—just sitting there listening to the talk—listening and remembering. She didn’t open her own mouth often. But when she did spacers had learned to listen. And the lucky few who heard her rare spoken words—these will never forget Steena.

She drifted from port to port. Being an expert operator on the big calculators she found jobs wherever she cared to stay for a time. And she came to be something like the master-minded machines she tended—smooth, gray, without much personality of her own.

But it was Steena who told Bub Nelson about the Jovan moon-rites—and her warning saved Bub’s life six months later. It was Steena who identified the piece of stone Keene Clark was passing around a table one night, rightly calling it unworked Slitite. That started a rush which made ten fortunes overnight for men who were down to their last jets. And, last of all, she cracked the case of the Empress of Mars.

All the boys who had profited by her queer store of knowledge and her photographic memory tried at one time or another to balance the scales. But she wouldn’t take so much as a cup of Canal water at their expense, let alone the credits they tried to push on her. Bub Nelson was the only one who got around her refusal. It was he who brought her Bat.

Keep reading.

Duck and Cover

The older I get, the more diverse are the ages of my friends. It provides interesting insight on how rapidly bits of the world are changing.

I was talking to a friend who’s about a decade older than I am. I don’t remember exactly what prompted the subject, but I think the context was a discussion of fear. He said, “When I was a kid, we did ‘duck and cover” drills in school.”

I thought about it for a minute before responding. “We never did drills. I think we knew there was no point. If someone decided to push the button, we were just all going to die. Nothing we could do about it.”

The conversation has sat in the back of my head for a few months, getting fuzzier in its details, percolating. Then I went to the Atomic Testing Museum on our way to touring the Nevada Test Site.

There was a photo of the children in a town near the testing practicing their drills, outside on the ground. There was footage of how manikins fared in test houses built near the blasts. There was a mock-up of a basement blast shelter, complete with a manikin family smiling peacefully.

I wanted to laugh, but it would have been the wrong kind of laughter, and any kind of laughter at all was not what I wanted to be doing with Japanese tourists (no, really) in the museum. So I stopped a little past the diorama and turned to my husband and the friend taking the tour with us. We’re all the same age group for this sort of thing. I told them about the months-old conversation.

They nodded. My husband said, “I checked on a map recently. We’re not too bad off where we are now.”

I looked at him. “If it were just one bomb, one warhead.”

Another nod and a sour face. “Yeah.”

The operable phrase when I was in school was “mutually assured destruction.” Scads of nuclear weapons as a security blanket. I suppose it’s not surprising we found that sort of comfort rather cold. Hey, there’s this guy who calls ketchup a vegetable and names his best hope of defense against a nuclear attack after a fantasy with space trappings and on and on and on. We’re supposed to trust him to understand the full consequences of his actions. Oh. Yay.

The first day of ninth grade social studies class, American government, my teacher announced to the class that it would be run as a democracy. No, he couldn’t tell us how that was going to work because we were going to decide that. No, he couldn’t even tell us the scope of the decisions we’d be making as we voted.

I don’t do pass/fail scenarios with open-ended expectations.

I think he thought it was cute when I turned in my chair to face the wall. A protest! Ooh! Yay, democracy! I don’t think it stayed cute for more than a couple of days, but cute wasn’t my point. If I wasn’t allowed to transfer into the other “advanced” civics class (the school cut us off after one or two people), he could find out how much of a pain democracy could be. Then he, I, and the school could decide what that was worth for a grade.

Very shortly after the year started, all of the ninth-grade classes participated in a nuclear simulation at the same time. Our class split up into nations. Each nation got a set of scenarios: pressure on the borders, powerful foes–internal and external–posed to pounce on any misstep. As a nation, each group decided on their response: pacific, aggressive, or something in between.

Our class blew ourselves up on the first turn. One hour of contemplation, minus however long it took to explain the rules, and we had a nuclear war on our hands.

On the up-side, that was the end of the democracy experiment. A rather grim teacher announced that at the same time he announced we were done with the simulation earlier than anyone else. I have no idea whether it made a difference to me. Most of my political education came from looking up the background on Doonesbury strips and Chad Mitchell Trio songs and testing the claims of politicians and lobbyists.

The one lesson I’ll never forget from that class, however, is how easy it is to convince ourselves that we don’t have any other “real” options. That could be because I’ve never stopped hearing that as a justification for political decisions, particularly for decisions I wouldn’t have made.

I don’t know what difference it made to me or my generation to know it was out of our hands whether we lived or died. It would be easy to claim that the materialism of Generation X stems from nuclear nihilism, but we were too young to set the tone of the 80s. It wasn’t people my age buying DeLoreans, Rolexes, and coke in bulk.

I don’t know that we even had the words to talk about it among ourselves before the situation became less stark. We don’t talk about it now. Talking about our teenage years means talking about social pressures and pop culture. For all I know, it wasn’t that big a deal to anyone else.

Except for that long, quiet trip through a museum and two instant nods. Those tell me I didn’t live through that alone.

Campus Crusade I

Things are a bit busy around here, as they always are this time of year. Until I have a chance to finish one of the half dozen or so posts I really, really, really want to be writing but can’t concentrate on, here’s a fun poster I came across when I was sorting through juvenilia for The Physics Male.

No, I didn’t create this. I’ve just had a copy since college (a rather long time ago). I’ve searched to find the creator, but without luck. If you know who made this, please let me know. I’d like to give credit and let them know that I’ve held onto it all these years.

The Physics Male: A High School Ethnography

This is my first piece of writing that garnered a real response. The first draft of this, written when I was a junior in high school, was passed around, ripped apart, crumpled up, thrown in the trash, retrieved, flattened out, and taped to the chalkboard. I’m posting it here because a number of high school friends have asked whether it still exists.

In order to understand this, you need to know three things: (1) the west wing of my high school housed the arts and sports, (2) my physics club ran the concessions for the high school as a fund raiser, and (3) you don’t mess with angry, articulate high school girls. A number of us contributed to this, although the final writing should be mostly my own.

And yes, the guys all read it. Thoroughly.

The Physics Male

The physics male is a strange and hitherto unexplored species. As so little in known about his habits, habitat, and distinguishing characteristics, this has been written to enlighten on the subject of this occasionally interesting creature.

Characteristics
Physics males are most easily distinguished by their condescending attitude toward members of the opposite sex. This is displayed by patronizing behavior exhibited to the same. They are chauvinistic and seem to feel that females are neither smart enough nor strong enough to be of any use. For this lack of understanding, these physics males must be pitied.

They are also characterized by their low mentalities. This is not to say that they are unintelligent–not most of them. But, while few physics males are actually tenth graders, the predominant attitude is one of sophomoric glee.

It is easy to recognize a physics male on the basis of vocabulary alone. It consists mostly of long technical words, which when looked up, do not mean anything similar to what their context suggested, and sexual innuendo with little or no redeeming social value.

Although physics males vary greatly in plumage, fashion tends toward “conservative nerd” (with one or two exceptions). This nerd look covers much territory: anything from suit and tie to the more traditional “plain bad taste”.

Habitat
Physics males are generally to be found in the east wing of the building. As a matter of fact, aside from one semi-notable exception, most refuse even to be “caught dead” in the west wing. These specimens tend to congregate in an area called “the shop” between periods. Many remain far into their next class. (How this is explained to their other pedagogues has yet to be discovered.)

There are two trains of thought concerning this all-important “shop”. The first theory is that this area is a ritualistic “testing ground” for the young physics male. In this area, they exercise their ever-maturing attitude problems in seclusion until they have become full-fledged.

Still, others hold to the belief that this “shop” is actually nest. Here the still immature physics males find a sort of haven from the “tough world out there”. Most experts agree that it is a nesting response that draws them to this area. This nesting response is believed to be triggered by the realization that if such behavior as mentioned in the section on characteristics persists, these males will have a tough time finding someone with whom to build nests of their own.

Care and Feeding
There are only tow main points to be remembered when caring for a physics male. The first is to be sure not to upset his delicate ego. These are quite fragile and bruise easily. Such a bruising can cause the over-excitable physics male to go into strange convulsions (more widely known as temper tantrums). The second is to not overtax the physics male mind. This requires great care, as is most simple to do and can result in a bruising of the aforesaid ego.

Feeding is one of the rare things at which a physics male is quite adept. Given a few quarters and a rather simple pop/candy machine, the average physics male can procure a “highly nutritious” meal. This will consist mainly of the fifth food group–junk, represented most often by Choco Mints, and either Mountain Dew or Dr. Pepper.

Play Habits
According to experts on the subject, much of the play in which physics males take part is actually behavior necessary to their well-being. This theory is validated by the regularity with which the physics males repeat so many seemingly purposeless activities. Included in these are three main “sports”.

The first of these appears to be the favorite. It involves making lewd remarks to or about any female within sight. The goal of this seems to be to surpass one’s fellows in reaching new heights of rudeness.

The second ply is not far behind the first in popularity. It is the ritualistic “money counting” which is discussed in more depth further on.

The third activity most closely resembles the play of normal human children. This is the constant tinkering with so-called “toys”. These are, in reality, sometimes complicated and occasionally expensive physics equipment. The theory concerning this particular aspect of physics male play is that this tinkering is an attempt to replace some vital but missing part of the physics male’s childhood.

Work Habits
I have searched diligently for any information on this topic. Aside from much talk on the part of the physics males, none has been found. As far as can be determined, physics males do not work in the presence of others. Although it may be that their religion imposes such strict secrecy, it is highly unlikely. Therefore, it seems safe to assume that physics males do not work.

Mating Habits
Here, too, there is little available data. Although the subject is one the physics males themselves discuss at great length (see below), there appears to be little or no practical application. As this situation is so comparable to that of physics male work habits, it is surely not necessary to point out the rather obvious conclusion.

(Physics males live in fervent hope of sharing a physics female–or, for that matter, a chemistry female, choir female, phy. ed. female, etc. However, they take either no, ineffective, or inappropriate action. To ease their frustration at this pursuit, they often resort to creating fantastic stories regarding their amorous adventures. These stories, of course, fool no one but other physics males.)

Common Fallacies
Physics males put a lot of stock in many untruths. Most of these concern females and/or sex. One of the most widespread is the belief that money equals power equals sex appeal. For example, they believe that the one most closely related to the money has the most power. This is shown by the attempts of those with no legitimate connection to the money-counting ritual to “suck up” to the head physics male. One notable example has been quite “successful” (by his own standards) with this method. He feels himself the second in command. One would merely have to look at this person to know that in this case, power is not equal to sex appeal.

Another common fallacy among physics males concerns the way they view themselves. Some feel that they are God, while others, more humble, feel instead that they are merely His gift to the Earth or more specifically, all the females on it.

Perhaps the most common fallacies held by these specimens are reflected in their attitudes toward women. Most feel that women were put on this early only to serve them, that they are inherently less smart, and that they truly wish to be pampered and insulted by turns. T
his is one of the few groups (as a group) that still clings to these beliefs. Whether this is because they feel to threatened to acknowledge the presence of an equal–potentially greater–life form, or because they are too busy tinkering to notice the same, or both is a subject which requires further study.

(Any conclusions to be drawn from this study are left to the individual reader.)