On the Basis of Sex and the Open Discussion Project

The boys returned to school on Monday, and today Oliver stayed home sick. He is the easiest, most darling sick kid ever, and as today was frigid, we enjoyed a roaring fire while reading for book club, doing homework, and so forth. I got a bit of work done, though not as much as I’d hoped or planned. I am lucky that that’s OK, but it can be hard to not feel disappointed at times- at the loss of time, of the quiet hours counted on but taken. Tom and I showed the kids The Pursuit of Happyness last weekend, in part because it’s such a good movie but also for perspective; how on the line so many people are constantly, and the stress in that. It’s excruciating.

I didn’t think about it all too much until we picked up Jack and a friend and, as everyone had finished homework, went to see On the Basis of Sex. I felt this intense determination to see it. Today. I bribed my children with candy; Jack’s pal said, “Oh, that sounds wonderful. I’d love to see that.” I swear to god sometimes being with other people’s kids makes you believe that while you may not always see your lessons coming to fruition in your own spawn, you can have some faith that they are and will. Interacting with other kids with good parents lets you see that they can and do apply their skills and loveliness when the time is right. I see this all the time in my students too. Ah, parenting.

Anyway, after plying the children with all manner of “food,” we settled in to our seats, and I exhaled deeply. I’ve felt fitsy all week- tired, and an unsavory blend of worried and furious. The shutdown continues, hurting and stressing so many Americans. It continues because of an ignorant, mean man and the craven, pitiful people who enable him. It continues because of a greedy desire for power, nothing more. This shutdown has nothing to do with protection, nothing to do with security. It is wasteful and rude and the wall is stupid and ineffective.

I mention that because on Sunday I begin participating in the Open Discussion Project. I am both thrilled and honored to have been selected to do so, and yet, as the time approaches, I find myself nervous. The ODP, a joint project of six American bookstores, including my beloved Politics & Prose here in DC, is an effort to talk over the chasm of polarization dividing our country. You can learn more about it here, but in short, it brings together groups of people from across the political spectrum to talk and read books about current events and discuss them. “The goal of this effort is not conversion but conversation and understanding.”

I applied as soon as I read about the opportunity. I exclaimed aloud when I was accepted. I have studiously read our assigned book, highlighting and making mental notes all the while. And yet, I am nervous. I’m nervous because I’m furious. I’m nervous because although I value emotion and fully believe it comes from places of feeling and love I also recognize that it can counter reason, inhibit objectivism, and cloud and fuck things up. Emotion has always been part Achilles heel for me, part gift. We have a skeptical relationship, I think it’s fair to say.

In any case, I admit to feeling extremely correct in my belief that our country is in seriously bad straits, and I am sick to death of racism, sexism, bigotry, religion, and exclusivist conservatism cornering the fucking market on “real” and “salt of the earth” Americans.

No.

I, too, am a real American. A patriot. I am an atheist, an active anti-racist who recognizes that I will always have work to do, a feminist, and a proud progressive. I do not want walls built, on our borders or in our society. And so I worry that I will be unable to hear arguments for the wall. I worry that I will react badly to support for this “president.” I will try to listen, try to understand, but I’m nervous.

Back to the movie. We all loved it, the 7th graders and me especially. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a boss. Incredible human. I cried at the end and found myself struggling not to cheer or retch aloud several times throughout.

“Please introduce yourselves and tell us why you deserve a spot that would otherwise have gone to a man.”
”You used to be pretty and so smart. Now you sound shrill and bitter.”
”You’re just not a fit. I mean, our firm is a family. The wives get jealous.”
”The natural order of things…Caretakers are women.”

Jesus christ. It’s enough to make me insane. Talk about rousing emotions. I was nearly apoplectic at times. And yet still, women carry the bulk of the familial load, the mental load, the emotional load, and so on. We manage the expectations of how to look, how to act, how to be. But most women can never actually win. Not really. Can never strive without seeming strident. Can never assert without seeming shrill. I mean, just look at “grab them by the pussy and take what you want” having zero consequence versus “I want to impeach that motherfucker” being talked about ad nauseum for days. (Trump, Tlaib, respectively.) Really?

I think I carry all this with me into the ODP. I am mad. And driven. And worried. And strong. But that leash of propriety is still around my neck, yanking me back at times. Into expectation or submission or appropriateness or whatever.

It’s infuriating and in instills fear, often simultaneously. And I’m white.

Angry AF

I am mad. Mad for women, on behalf of women, as a woman. I have a wonderful father, a wonderful husband, marvelous sons, and even an incredibly wonderful male cat. I love them. Generally speaking, I love men. This isn’t about Men. I am not, as my father’s extended family used to “joke,” a femi-Nazi. (PS- not funny then, not funny now.)

This anger is about patriarchy and men who persist in behaving badly and who feel entitled and sanctimonious and smug. Toxic masculinity. General bullshit. Assault, cat calls, unequal playing fields, unequal standards, unequal pay, the male experience being the default, the woman having to prove and compensate and do more. The ways women are and are not allowed to emote. The expectations about how women experience their sexuality and how men do, and what is normative in each realm. Sluts versus youthful men sowing oats: nonsense like that. For the record, I’ve known a lot of male sluts. None was ever called a slut or a whore. How about we all just accept that anyone can love sex and choose to engage in lots of it, and none of that is any of our business whether that person is male or female. Thanx.

I am mad that despite the ease of that simple wish of gender parity and a realistic approach to libido, holier than thou men and women wish to abstinence-education away sex and so kids are neither given sex ed nor equipped to deal with their hormonal urges and burgeoning sexuality, and oh, let me think, which one gets pregnant and is then judged by/saddled with a child? That would be the female. See this link if you really do not understand that men are awfully responsible for pregnancy and maybe we all just need to accept that and find ways of encouraging all sexually active people to be both safe AND respectful of the fact that just one partner gets pregnant. Even if you understand this, you should still read that thread. And also, abortion should be absolutely legal and safely accessible in part BECAUSE not enough people seem to understand how pregnancy happens.

I am mad that because Brett Kavanaugh coached his daughter’s basketball team, it appears to be inconceivable to far too many that he ALSO seems to have assaulted a peer while drunk at a party and that maybe he doesn’t respect women and legal precedent enough to not overturn Roe. You know what’s infinitely conceivable? That a comfortable white guy with every advantage in the world since birth both did assault a peer AND has since coached his daughter’s basketball team. That shit is not mutually exclusive. Also, it’s very likely that he will vote to overturn Roe which is rich since he A) does not have a vagina or the ability to get pregnant and B) has said just enough about legal precedent to make GOP women feel warm and fuzzy about confirming his ass. Susan Collins, you are dead to me and I hope you lose HUGE in November. Do you remember all you said about how Franken MUST resign? No claim against him involved forceable assault of an underage woman. Your hypocrisy on behalf of party is ugly.

This Kavanaugh crap mirrors in gross ways shit we’ve already seen and struggled with. Per the remarkable Rebecca Traister, “27 years later, almost to the week, there will be another hearing into alleged sexual abuses of a SCOTUS nominee. Also almost a year to the week of the Weinstein story, two years to the week of Access Hollywood tape. 229 years since women’s riot kicked off French Revolution.” Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Harvey, our “president,” Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Les Moonves, and on and on. Is someone kidding?

I am real mad at women in history getting the shaft as the present and future march on. Who saw Hidden Figures? Also, Texas just voted to remove Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton from their school history curriculums. This is not remotely surprising but it is enraging on multiple fronts. Why not excise a man or two from the curriculum? And why does Texas still wield such power over the textbooks the entire country of America uses to “educate” its kids? This article, written in 2012 and fully corroborative of the paper I wrote at Harvard in 2005 about Texas’s influence (bad) on American texts, still holds today. And it’s why American kids in public schools are getting screwed more and more when it comes to real education as facts and science would have it.

I am peeved to the max that my female students report having to work extra hard to be heard and appreciated in their STEM classes (versus their male classmates), and I am angry that the statistics on women in STEM in America show a major drop from interest to degree attained and then another drop from degree attained to actual field worked in.

I am also mad at women who behave badly, lest you continue to think this is a gendered issue. Tomi Lahren, Anne Coulter, and Dana Loesch? Hard pass on all three. They are toxic, venomous, soulless vessels who put nothing positive into the world. That repulsive white cop in Dallas, Amber Guyger, who murdered the man in the apartment directly above hers? That bird needs to go to jail for the rest of her life.

And don’t even get me started on the racism in this case. In so many cases. This tweet says it all in that respect:

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I’m also mad at women who throw other women under the bus. Mad because they sometimes feel like they have to because women are fighting for a tiny slice of the pie and available attention and sometimes figure they need to throw their lot in with the men. Any woman north of 20 years old has experienced being hurt, betrayed, or even ghosted by another woman for (often) no reason beyond some manifestation of competition.

And lastly, I am damn tired of emotion being equated with behavior. Emotions are what any sentient person experiences when in touch with their inner selves: disappointment, fear, exhilaration, pride, love, sadness, fury, jealousy. The better acquainted we are with our feelings and the better we are at articulating them makes us better able to empathize with, support, understand, disagree, and live. The healthy expression of emotion is valid but is NOT the same thing as shitty behavior. My kids can be frustrated with me but that gives them no right to break my belongings.

While I’m at it, let me voice another potentially inflammatory opinion by stating that I disagree 1000% with the National Organization for Women’s petition to dismiss Carlos Ramos from umpiring professional tennis because of his calls during the US Open final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. By all accounts, from men and women alike, Ramos has long had a reputation for being strict but fair, an excellent ump. NOW’s demand befits only the stereotype of women as one-dimensional hysterics, and I found it appalling. Did Ramos officiate perfectly? No. Did Serena Williams behave perfectly? No. You know who was flawless? Naomi Osaka, the player who won and then apologized for winning because everyone’s disappointment in that was abundantly clear. For more on this perspective, please see Martina Navratilova’s opinion piece and also this piece by Juliet Macur.

Jesmyn Ward

Last night I had the profound fortune to meet Jesmyn Ward and to hear her discuss her most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, with Aminatta Forna. I have been an enormous fan of Ms. Ward's since reading Sing, Unburied, Sing early this year, after which I immediately read Salvage the Bones. She won the National Book Award for both books, the first woman ever to do so. I'm now reading her memoir, Men We Reaped, and have in my stack of to-reads the essay collection she edited, The Fire This Time

If you're not familiar with Jesmyn Ward, please acquaint yourself for she is a stunningly gifted writer. Born in Oakland to Mississippi-bred parents, she was raised in DeLisle, Mississippi, as her parents moved back when Jesmyn was three. She was the first in her family to attend college, earning a BA and MA from Stanford. She also has an MFA from the University of Michigan and is now a professor at Tulane. Her family home flooded during Hurricane Katrina, and the storm, as well as south Mississippi, makes a regular appearance in her work. 

A few months ago, when I heard she would be speaking here in DC, I bought a ticket as quickly as I could, and last night, no amount of fatigue or running around all afternoon with the kids could keep me from getting to the event 50 minutes early to obtain the best seat possible (thank you, dear T, for leaving work early to meet me in the parking lot and whisk the children away so I could scurry inside). 

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Like the lit nerd I most definitely am, I went armed with a tote bag full of Ms. Ward's books, sat in my seat like the eager student I also am, and felt positively star struck when she walked on stage. She is a luminous human with real humility and a quietly powerful presence. I could not help but beam at her throughout the evening and even mustered the courage to ask a question which, per my usual nerdiness (who remembers the three-part question I addressed to Gabrielle Hamilton?), turned into a two-part query that she was kind enough to answer in full.   

She talked about how she writes, told us that beginnings are difficult for her but that she has to write linearly so soldiers on until the beginning is as it should be, that she is not the most confident writer, that her characters just come to her and then she follows them through their journeys. She doesn't like to write villians because “They’re flat and don’t engender empathy or interest. People are complicated. I don’t want my readers to feel easy emotions.”

She talked about why she writes, and why, despite her "love-hate" relationship with Mississippi, she moved back home after her brother's untimely death. 

"I am trying to bring forgotten stories from the violent past back into the light and into the public memory and imagination." Stories before her time but also during, as the only black student at an all-white high school one of her mother's employers paid for her to attend. Stories about beloved men -brothers, friends, family- lost to poverty, drugs, racism, and happenstance.

Why?

"Because there is an effort to disavow and rewrite that history. That results in its continuation." Same root, same violence. We see it every day.

Regarding home. "I left as soon as I could. But I have a huge family, and they are all there. I was missing out, time I couldn't get back...Living at home keeps me honest and lends urgency to my work." For, as Ward softly averred, "The violence of America endures." When asked by Ms. Forna if she believed a truth and reconciliation effort a la Canada's might be needed here, Ms. Ward replied, "Yes." Firmly, resolutely, "yes. But is there the will? Not now."

Ms. Forna replied that indeed, "the absence of a will to reconcile with its past is shocking for visitors to America." 

I hope desperately that in the immediate future we become willing, as a country, to own and atone for our past. I think efforts like the newly unveiled lynching memorial in Montgomery, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, are excellent starts but we need a national movement and a national reckoning. Ms. Ward suggested that we all read Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism post haste. I have ordered it already.

After reading several passages, shyly really, or perhaps just humbly, and answering all our questions, Ms. Ward received a standing ovation that brought me to tears. Then, in a largely polite fashion, people queued by number to have books signed and share a few words. Fortunately for the five books I had in my tote, the limit on signed copies was five. I had one inscribed for a dear friend and the others for starstruck me.

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I was grateful to have the brief chance to be near Jesmyn Ward, to thank her for sharing her profound gifts, to wish her the best in her next endeavors. I was grateful to have a supportive spouse, to live in a city with such rich resources and opportunities, to bear witness to the strength and resilience and diverse beauty that really are what make America special. 

I was pensive on my drive home, speechless really. Tom and the kids were playing Monopoly despite the late hour. I poured a bourbon and made some scrambled eggs and sat at our kitchen table considering that Ms. Ward might still be signing books and hoping that she felt full in good ways. That she could feel and ingest our gratitude and admiration and that perhaps those sensations might offer her some company when her confidence falters or the loneliness of a blank page is undesired.