What is Gender?


The people in this cartoon are “doing gender.”  What does this mean? What is gender?

Gender is an embodied social program, an ideological construction of the body that we do not simply perform in language and gesture,

but also inhabit and experience somatically (from the Greek, soma), in the body .

Gender is durable, although not inevitable, because it is produced and reproduced through symbolic and physical violence that privileges a purely relational, yet rigid, conception of masculinity that is sustained over against rigid conceptions of femininity.

The privileging of masculinity over femininity is wholly arbitrary–it makes no sense and might just as easily have been reversed, had certain factors in our history been different.

The patterns according to which we have interpreted our anatomies and behaviors come from culture, not nature.  Gender is a historically constructed way of responding to biology, sure.  But it is also a historically determined way of responding to  established practices of culture.

Historians and evolutionary psychologist believe that the invention of agriculture made an enormous impact on the way that human beings think about masculinity and femininity.  See, for example, the work of Christopher Ryan.

Gender is enforced and reinforced through symbolic and physical violence.  We all undergo a certain degree of symbolic violence, and we experience it directly whenever we “apply categories constructed from the point of view of the dominant to the relations of domination, thus making them appear to be natural,” as Pierre Bourdieu explains in his stellar book, Masculine Domination (p. 35).

So, for example, when women view themselves through the constructed categories of ideal femininity in, say, women’s magazines, and perceive themselves to be hideously fat and unattractive because they do not have the elongated and emaciated bodies of the models featured there, then they are experiencing symbolic violence.

Or, when we learn, from our parents, our media, our teachers, civic leaders, and preachers, that women are less able to do math or philosophy or auto mechanics or law than men, and unconsciously choose believe these fictions, and make choices in our lives because we have accepted them, then are experiencing symbolic violence.

We see ourselves through the categories that are present in our culture. And because our culture is patriarchal, organized according to a scheme of perceptions in which things masculine are considered to be higher or better than things feminine, the categories (for example, categories of the perfect female body) through which we see ourselves are also the expression of that patriarchal order.

When we see ourselves according to these paradigmatic ways of understanding “woman,” we are victims of symbolic violence.  The culture doesn’t need to beat us up–we do it do ourselves every time we compare ourselves to these idealized images of starvation or hyperbolic nymphomania and find ourselves wanting.   We learn to think about ourselves as second, less important than men. We also learn to fear that if we do not look as though we are continually hungering for men, that they will not want us.

This, of course, is complete rubbish, since no one but an absolute ass wants someone around who slavishly caters to their idiotic desires.  And yet there are so many men who can’t seem to stand women who assert themselves, and so many women who slavishly cater, or who spend inordinate amounts of time preparing themselves to be the objects of men’s desires, and little or no time thinking about what their own desires really are.   There are also plenty of men who can’t seem to imagine that women have any legitimate desires whatsoever.

Gender works through a series of oppositions.  Men know themselves as “men” only insofar as they can declare or prove that they are not “unmen” or women.  Over against a denigrated Other, men set themselves up as men, as subject, as powerful, right.  Just as light knows itself to be light only in contrast to darkness, so masculinity is defined over against femininity.  There is no such thing as absolute masculinity or essential masculinity, just as there is no such thing as absolute or essential darkness, or absolute “down” that exists in and of itself without the concept of “up.”  Similarly, men habitually define themselves as men only in opposition to women.

But instead of understanding a reciprocal or equal relationship between men and women, we tend to set ourselves into hierarchical relationships.  That is, we understand gender as an order in which masculine always takes precedence over feminine.   But this doesn’t make any sense.   There is a reciprocal relationship between up and down, or hot and cold, or dry and wet.  You cannot think one term without the other.  That understanding makes it possible for you to see both ideas as concepts, mutually determining ideas, but not as a hierarchy.

(every wonder why the light half is usually on top?)

Yet we generally do not understand these sexual oppositions as mutually dependent and equivalent, but rather as a superior-inferior relationship, in which masculinity is always superior to femininity, always “above” that which is “below” it.  This is false thinking, an illusion of reality that has been enforced by symbolic and real violence.  Women who have defied it have been punished, branded as whores or sluts or witches or monsters or hags.  They have also been subjected to physical punishment, to beatings and rapes and mutilations and murders.  Think of Anne Hutchinson,

or wise women, or people you may know of extraordinary autonomy and intransigence who, because they have refused to play the part of the “good” woman within the patriarchal order, have been slapped down or destroyed.

Danse Macabre


So I’m listening to Mahler’s first symphony, which I love and have loved for all of my entire adult life.  Or since I was 20.  When does adult life begin?  Hard to say.  I’m about to turn 50 and still sometimes have trouble understanding myself as grown up.  But what is the 1st symphony about? It is about life, the business of life, the joy and buzzing business of the bees and the flowers and the animals and the fervor of everything that never ends, even when some of us die.

But standing here on the verge of my fiftieth decade frightens me, not least because my mother died of colon cancer when she was 55.  She was diagnosed when she was 54.   There were signs before.  The winter of her 53rd year we were in Sun Valley, and instead of skiing my mother stayed home, in agonizing pain that every one of us, my father, an orthopedic surgeon, my brother, my sister, and I interpreted as gas.  How could we all have been so stupid?  Yet we were.  What do orthopedic surgeons know abou the diseases of the internal organs?

So, she died.  By the time we caught it, the cancer has metastasized and spread throughout her body, including her lungs.  She died of asphyxiation, fluid from the cancer building up in her lungs.  It took some time…enough time for us to go on a river-rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho.  She had had the first eliminating surgery, and some chemotherapy.  We were all pretending that she was going to recover, go into remission. But she was so short of breath.  And my father knew.  I didn’t.  Not until the very end.

It was yuk.  You can’t say how awful it was so you have to understate it.  I remember driving around the hills of Santa Barbara on the days just after her death, madly playing polka music, which I didn’t actually like all that much, not least because it struck me as a kind of dance of death, that mad refusal to believe in the end, that the peasants of Bruegel or Defoe are dancing.  I was driving in delirium, the furious round and round of the mind that cannot take in what is.

The thing about death-dealing sicknesses, or bills of death, sentences of death, in short, cancer, is that the mind does not go there.  It refuses.  And death or its prognosis never makes any kind of sense.  It interrupts the rational.  It fucks you up.

So here I am witnessing the sentence pronounced on my dear sister-in-being-and-love, MJ, who has just discovered that she has ovarian cancer.  The silent killer of women.  A sort of Jack-the-Ripper of the reproductive organs, a disease for which there are few reliable diagnostic tests, and fewer cures.  When it is found in the body late, as it has been with my sister, the prognosis is not good.

Everyone said that my mother’s cancer was nothing to worry about.  O, people recover from colon cancer all the time, they said.  It’s one of the best cancers you can get.  There are no good cancers.  Each one of the is deadly.  Every cancer spreads like a noxious weed, a plant that, thriving, chokes out the life in which it grows.  And it flourished in my mother.

My mother did not acknowledge this flourishing.  This bitter root spreading throughout her.  Or she did, but thought that somehow thought could eradicate it.  She believed that if she could heal every one of her significant relationships, her connections to her brothers and her children, that miraculously the cancer would die.  This theory infuriated me because it located the source of the cancer in other people while blaming the victim.  It seemed to be a kind of mental torture program masquerading as help.  If she could only fix her relationships, she would recover.  And we were all enlisted in this recovery, of  course.  We weren’t allowed to be negative

I took this philosophy to heart, and tried to be supportive, accommodating, helpful.  I quit my job as Director of State Relations at NYU and moved home to be with her.  I was pregnant.  I needed my mother.  Nothing worked.   She died. But I was not permitted to acknowledge that she was dying.  As a good daughter and caretaker, I was enlisted in a program of upbeat thoughts and morale building.  It was worth a shot, of course.  But I never got to say goodbye, because my mother never acknowledged that she was going.   When she left, I felt it was my fault. If only I had tried harder, had believed more in the possibility of her recovery. If I had had that powerful faith, then it would have been enough.

Yes, I know.  This was an unreasonable fantasy of power.  But we are exhorted in our culture to have these fantasies, to pray, to believe in prayer, and to blame ourselves for not having prayed hard enough when our prayers fail to come true.  I did not believe that she was going to recover.  Was it therefore my fault that she died? Or am I to blame for not having been more “supportive” of the fiction that she committed herself to?

My mother seemed to be the victim of a false consciousness program propounded in books for people dying of cancer–a program that exhorted that if only the mind would change, the body would follow.  This program sold lots of books but also made lots of people who ended up dying of the cancer they couldn’t control anyway feel like losers, like people who hadn’t tried hard enough.  I hate this program.

It seems to me–and how I hope that  will not need to practice what I preach here–that when something happens to us, especially when that thing is a medical condition that we have no control over and cannot understand, that we need to accept what is and step aside from the whole program that tells us to feel responsible for the fact that we got sick and that falsely promises that we have within the power to get unsick.

Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t try to maintain a healthy body/mind connection, or that we shouldn’t eat well and take our vitamins and get plenty of exercise.  We are responsible for our health every day.  But my mother was the healthiest person I knew, a moderate drinker, a light but hardly anorexic eater, and an active exerciser.   She played tennis three or four times a week, walked vigorously for miles every day,  had good friends, a relatively happy family.  As a good if lapsed Seventh-Day Adventist, she avoided fatty foods and alcohol and caffeine and ate loads of fiber.  But she still died of colon cancer.  It wasn’t her fault.  Nor was it mine. Or anyone else’s.

I just wish she had said goodbye, that she had let me know that she knew what was going on and that she had some kind of parting wisdom for me.  But she didn’t. She just left.   And I felt really guilty about it, because it seemed that I had not done everything that  was capable of doing.  If only I had prayed harder; if only I had believed in prayer.

It’s hard.  You have this life, however short.  My younger sister, with whom I have a difficult relationship I guess because we lost her, our mother at such different stages in our lives, directs everyone who receives email from her to live each day as though it were their last.   Nice sentiment.  What if you only had a year, or six months, or two weeks, to live?  What would you do?

My first impulse is to say that I would keep on working on my book.  Or I would try to paint at least one painting, that “tree of life”painting that I’ve had in my head for all these months.  But what if I didn’t have the energy?  What would I do then?  I would like to think that I’d write letters to all the people I love, in order to tell them how much I appreciate them. I would explain what they mean to me, and how they have changed my life.  Maybe I would do nothing.

My mother did not write any letters.  She just left.  But that is not quite right. She had been telling me all her life how much she loved me, how much I meant to her.  What more could she say?  Probably something.  But that was not her style.  She would have frowned, as I would, on some perfunctory expression of love, since she would have known that no singular declaration could possibly encompass all that she felt.

In short, we forgive the dead whom we have love, we make an effort to understand how they went, under what circumstances, and to appreciate them over the course of their lives.  We do not measure them according to their last moments, or years.  We remember them fondly, openly, with love.

Does everyone who leaves us remind us of this primal loss, the death of our mother, the woman who bore us into the world?  Probably.

I don’t have the faintest idea of how to process this new confrontation with death, this reminder of my own mortality.  How are any of us to know that we do or don’t have ovarian cancer, the silent killer of women?  Why don’t we as a nation or world have better tests for detecting this killer?  This, too, is a woman’s issue.  Why should the silent killer go after one of the great woman leaders of my time, my friend and sister, MJ?  How do I know that it has not also invaded my body?  Why don’t we have better technological understanding of this disease?

I am frightened.

Fear of Writing


fellow wordpresser relates that she typed in “fear and writing” and that a lot of stuff came up.

She didn’t explain what came up,, or what prompted her to google “fear and writing,” but she did say this:

A friend and I laugh about how it’s gotten that not only do you have to write a book, you’re expected to edit it, market it, and then pulp it too. You certainly have to know exactly what shelf it’s supposed to be on.

The stress and frustration comes when the mind refuses to participate.

The fear, of course, is that we will not be able to pull off all of these different tasks, which used to be shared between various people.  And that fear taps back into the anxiety that most of us picked up when we were children, when, no matter what we did to please our parents, we were still not good enough.

Now, it appears that the writer of this blog and her friends are non-academic writers, but the anxiety she describes about presenting her work as a commodity in the marketplace before it has even become a thing, a work of art, a symbolic expression, a statement to the world, affects scholars as well.  She writes,

The marketing buzz has gotten out of hand. We are trying to market before we’ve even created. And there are writing books that actually say don’t type a word until you know your audience. Don’t let a thought fill your head until you know who you’re going to sell it to.

Although we academics and the upper-echelon university administrators for whom we work like to pretend that we transcend these petty concerns of profit and interest, although we claim to be engaged in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, the realities of the market affect us, too.  Whole books are stifled because presses are increasingly under pressure to publish only what they think they can sell.  And who wants to read an academic book other than other academics?

A friend–I say “friend” although the trust on which a friendship is built has yet to be established–let us say, the husband of a friend of mine, a man who is the child of academics and who spent long years working in academia, recently said to me, when I told him that I was still plugging away on my book,

Why?  What is the point of writing something that no one, or maybe five people will read?  What are you writing it for now that you know you’re not going to get tenure at X?

He was not exactly encouraging. I, however, was prepared for him and answered that I believed that I had a contribution to make, an original argument that deserved to be published, and that it meant something to me to express it.   Then he asked me if I had anyone reading it, an editor or fellow-writer to bounce ideas off of.  When I said that I had sought such a helper in vain, he responded,

In my experience people who don’t have a reader cannot finish their books.  You simply can’t do it.

Okay, so this really irritated me in that way that a microscopic piece of glass under the skin of your index finger irritates you. And it deflated me to a certain extent because I have heard this same refrain in my mind for years and years. And yes, to a certain extent, the echo still reverberates.   This person seemed to be encouraging me to give up and admit that I had failed and would never finish the work that I had been working on for so many years, the book that I had originally envisioned completing in two or three years.   But for some reason I didn’t hear him saying this.

When people say things like this to me, what I hear is that they would like to write and are afraid to do it.  If they can convince me to give up my project, that will justify their decision to give up theirs.  This sort of statement only comes from someone who has bought into the whole, ridiculous belief-system that a person is only real once he or she has published a book, or made a fortune, or conquered a country, and so on.  What they–we–are all afraid of is of being scorned, or ignored, or somehow evaluated as inadequate.  And this fear probably comes to us not only from our childhood, from our parents, who projected onto us their feelings of failure and unworthiness, which they experienced in their own relationships with their parents and their cultures.

This is an old, old fear, passed down from generation to generation.  But it is also a new fear, one that we encounter when we enter into the market as writers and believe that what we are selling is somehow a part of ourselves.

I do not know how to write without understanding my writing as a part of myself.  I know that lots of people do grasp this.  Popular authors invent or copy a formula and reproduce it in a fashion that is sure to sell.   I also do not know how to write without feeling the pressure to sell what I am in the process of writing, of expressing.  It’s not possible to be a writer who expects or needs to get published without being subject to market pressures.  And this is as true for scholars as it is for popular writers, for novelists and poets and self-help manual-writers.  It is not possible to create art, to be an artist, without being conscious of, or in some fashion under,  the force, the influence, of commercialism. We live in a commercialized world.

Hell, we are all forced to become capitalists.  Or we are if we are wise.  In this economy, saving money in a savings account or CD simply pays so little that, after the effect of inflation, the value of our money actually DECLINES.  We think about what is happening to our wealth as a sum, a number, in nearly every decision we make–when we decide to rent instead of to buy, when we decide to buy goods of any kind–milk, paper, educations, lawnmowers, sheep, art, companions– at exorbitant prices or at the bottom of the market.   And in our particular economy (as opposed to say, earlier forms of society, when economic values were largely held in land and people and animals, as opposed to in money and stocks), it doesn’t pay to save money without figuring out some way to make that money grow.  People don’t keep gold coins in chests anymore.  People didn’t used to believe that money could make money.  They also didn’t used to approve of lending money for interest, or of deliberately paying a person to produce a commodity a fraction of what you know you’ll get when you sell that commodity in the market.

So, we think of our selves as body/minds for sale–newscasters and politicians nearly always have to be physically appealing to succed.  And how many obese, female CEOs do you know?  We sell ourselves, our skin color, our education, our reading list, the newspapers we subscribe to, the cars we drive, the labels we wear, the dogs we care for, the accomplishments of our children, even our most intimate companions, our lovers, our wives, our husbands, these things become attributes, aspects of our abstract portfolio, our virtual net worth.  We are not evil or bad or selfish, inherently,  for thinking this way.  It’s our culture.  It’s all we’ve ever known.

So of course writing–and all art–is subject to market pressures, the need to know who your audience is, and how to market it, and where to try to sell it.  And yes, the people who are best at promoting themselves as commodities are in fact the people who make the most money.  They’re not necessarily the best at what they do.

Okay, so in very few instances, they are.  Mozart was good at selling himself, and he was great.

You could say that even the idea that we are writing for reasons other than material need is cultivated and promoted in the market as a way of trumping up the value of what we produce.  This “true expression of the spirit” is what we covet, what we as buyers want to purchase.  We put it on our bookshelves and on our walls when we are rich.

And yet there is somehow the drive, the insane push to formulate some kind of analysis or narrative of something or other, purely for sake of expressing it.  This is the same impulse that we are all under to “be creative,” to find some means of representing our “inner selves.” This, of course, cynically viewed, is just another way of buying into the idea that there is an inner self that could be expressed.

Still, there is something more than this, too, a need to contribute, to get into the conversation, with other people who also care about the past and who want their scholarship or their novel or their craft or skill to explain things in a way that will make a difference.

In the past, people like Milton believed that this wish to generate art, or to have a job best suited to his or her capabilities, was the yearning of God to show himself (Milton believed that God was male) in the world, to communicate with his creatures.  This was a radical idea, believe it or not, compared to the older belief that people worked in the fields and the stations to which they were born; they didn’t even have a concept of individual desire, inclination, or talent for one thing or another.   We are all subject to this longing–not just the writers among us, but also those of us who work in business.   In corporate culture more than anywhere, in fact, the pressure to be “creative” is felt.

I am still thinking that this may be a universal longing in the human spirit, even though I don’t actually believe in transhistorical longings on the grounds that our desires are constructed and sustained in historically specific environments.

Tara Brach writes and speaks about an ancient Tibetan wisdom which teaches that the divine abides in everyone.  She tells a classic tale about a monastery that has fallen on hard times.  There are only four monks left, and they are all old. The community is not thriving, and they have no ideas for how to continue.  One day the abbot goes to visit a rabbi.  He tells him that he is extremely worried about the future of the monastery, and asks if the rabbi has any suggestions for how to plump up their membership and coffers.  “No, I can’t think of any way for you to plump up your membership and coffers,” the rabbi says, “but I can tell you one thing.  I can tell you that one among you is the Messiah.”

The abbot is astonished to hear this and relates the news to his brethren.   Once they learn that one of them is the Messiah, the monks begin to treat one another with an extraordinary courtesy.  And an extraordinary change comes over the monastery, a light of kindness seems to glow in the faces of the monks, and bye and bye word gets out and new monks come to share in the extraordinary community.  Soon so many new members have come, the monastery swells and thrives.  All because each of them believed that one among them was the Messiah.

So Tara Brach interprets this tale according to the Tibetan wisdom that the divine inhabits each one of us, and that the god or goal we seek is already here, within us, and that our true nature is love.  This is not so different from the advice of my fellow blogger, Nina Killham, encourages us all to ignore the market and write out of love.  Love is the main ingredient, she says, of what we ought to be writing.

That’s nice.  But in fact we can’t ignore the market.  Nevertheless we could try to write out of love, not fear.  Fear comes to us, seeps into us, through the market, which transforms each of us into small children needing to be accepted and valued by “parents”–our audiences, our publishers, our critics, our rejectors, our deniers–who don’t give a shit about us, who have not entered into anything like a dignified and loving relationship with us, and who never will.

What I suggest is what Tara Brach would suggest.  Let us all put our hands upon our hearts and acknowledge with compassion the need to be loved, our longing to be accepted and valued–hell, not just valued, but SEEN, recognized, acknowledged–in this particular time-frame of human culture, and accept that this is.  Let us also see that we are seeing this.  Let us step above ourselves for a moment, and understand with love why it is that we need this, why it is that we fear writing, because of what it has come to mean for so many of us.  Let us find some way to write in spite of this anxiety, from which we cannot every fully come free.  Let us understand ourselves as writers with love, not fear, and try somehow to get across what it is that we need to get across, in order to have an intelligent conversation with someone, and to get a better sense of what it is that we are trying to understand.

under the radar


I hang out with a group of women in their forties and fifties.  A few of us in their sixties, and a few in their twenties.  What do we have in common?  You could mention loss, heartache, trauma, success, strength, chutzpah, charm, beauty, brains. You could say we are women who are awake.  What holds us together is our willingness to see one another.  To take the time, and to screw up the courage, to look one another in the eyes and see what’s there.  And to drop the masks, for a little while, to let go of the strictures and be as we are.

Okay, not everyone can or will do this.  There are probably only a few of us doing it.  And even we are only trying to drop the masks, the space-suits that we wear around ourselves and call our personas, our identities.   Isn’t it because we know that these identities are not who or what we really are that we spend so much time playing?  trying on different roles, parading, posing, acting, exaggerating, being the fool?  Isn’t this play-acting the origin of religion, of drama, of literature, of philosophy?  Or is it the other way around?

Last night I arrived in a low-cut dress and it seemed that everyone was ooing and ahing and making a big deal out of my  breasts.  Okay so I like my breasts.  Lucky that way.   But then my friends, whom I adore, and who delight me, got to talking about women they knew who had had implants.  The gauntlet had been thrown.  What else could I do but say that mine were “real and they’re spectacular.”  Ybethy got it instantly.  She’s quick.

But I got more revenge.  In a lucid campaign to prove that everyone’s breasts were beautiful, I started taking pictures.  At first I didn’t tell them that I was doing this.  I just aimed low.  But after a while it struck me that the photos would be better if I could prepare the subjects of these photos in advance.  So I asked the girls to pull or push or stick up their “girls.”  At one point I even reached in and tugged them up…all in the name of art, of course.

I think that was the moment at which someone said, “You’re a lesbian, aren’t you?”  I nodded, even though that term was not quite right.  I’m not averse to being lesbian, I just don’t think this word, big or little l, is the right term.   And no I’m not thinking tribade or some other alt. label.  There isn’t an acceptable term for what I am, or for what most people are, because our sexuality is not only what we can conceive of ourselves to be.  It is yet also something more, something in between the categories but really not exactly OF the categories.  Something in excess of them, if also them.

So I said I was “somewhere on the continuum.”

“Bixexual,” she said.

No.  Still not quite it.

“Something like that,” I said.  “I’ve always been this way.  I was born this way.”

And I wanted to tell the whole story.  But I caught myself before spilling out the whole drama, which she wouldn’t have heard.  I stopped.

How often do you meet someone who hears you?  Who listens and focuses on you long enough to grasp what it is that you are going through or trying to say?  And isn’t it a shock when you actually meet someone who stops and listens to what you have to say.  Who makes an effort to understand you, even if it is hard to do, and who tells you, silently, “you matter.”

If you find a person who listens to you, who really takes the time to pause and pay attention to what you are saying, who makes you feel as though you matter in the world, treasure that person as a gift from the heavens.  He or she is not a gift from the heavens, of course, but rather simply another human being in one place at one time.  Mortal.  Fragile.  Fallible.  But infinitely valuable, and good.

And if you know someone who is mortal, fragile, and fallible, but infinitely valuable and good, then by all means tell them how much you appreciate them by listening to them.  Don’t interrupt, don’t judge, don’t advise.  Don’t tell stories about yourself that their experience brings to mind.  Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to your mouth, but hold it, and pause, and say to yourself, “O, I am thinking x and wanting to say it.”  And then go back to listening to the person you are listening to.

You must go at it with your whole heart, with a genuine yearning to understand, to hear, to learn about the other person.  You must be patient with your impatience, and resist the urge to speak.  You must let go of your needs for the time being, and become present, awake, and attentive, to the person you love.  Because you love them.  You need to hear them.

You want to hear them.  But you haven’t yet had the patience to hear them, not really.   They have even complained, “you don’t listen to me!  You never listen to me!”  Stinging words.  But it is okay.

We are so guarded, so continually on the watch for attack that we take on the nervousness as a mode of being and lose the ability to pause and listen curiously and patiently.  Nervousness is just a habit.  If we can never completely unlearn it we can at least try to become aware of it as an habitual, emotional response to a thought, or an habitual, cognitive response to an emotion.  It’s healthy to be skeptical about our thought patterns when we are under a great deal of stress.

But we also need to play.  We need to get up and dance in a bar with our girlfriends, who miraculously can belt out all the words to all the songs on the jukebox.  We need to laugh. It takes so much energy to pretend to be the people who we are not actually that we need to go on vacation a lot.  That is to say, our brains need to take breaks.  It’s so taxing to be continually processing and analyzing and enduring the incredible tedium with which we preserve our adopted personas.  We should cut ourselves some slack, but we should also cut ourselves loose.

I think I just figured out what is really meant by the expression, “cutting loose.”  It means cutting your marionette strings and being willing to flail about for a while, mimicking and soberly attempting to digest the various paradigms for understanding reality, but finally deciding to take another path, to a better destination.

Not death.

So I’m thinking about my cat


while sitting outside my kitchen on the porch in my garden that I planted myself with peonies, roses, lavender, sage, rosemary, parsley, thyme, greek oregano, lilies, lilac, irises, baptista, or false indigo, and morning glory, and basil, cilantro, and white wisteria.  And tulips and hyacinths in the spring, when you can’t believe that anything is flowering because it has been dark and cold for so long you forgot what green looked like.

And I’m thinking that I love him, of course.  He’s the first being who came here and stayed, and only after much upset and dissatisfaction on both sides.  We never seemed to be able to please each other utterly, even though we called one another “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” and had not made such a serious commitment in years, and it has lasted way longer than we ever thought it would.  And neither one of us is even considering living somewhere else.

Sometimes he seems so aloof, so who-gives-a-shit-about you, and at other times he’s so needy I feel like I”m suffocating.  You know?  I mean, I adore him.  But he’s so difficult.  Every man who comes over, it seems, gets the royal treatment.  It’s as though he cares more for them than he does for me.  I understand that it’s just an act, a form of politeness, and that finally it’s me he loves best.  I’m the one.  And  I even get something out of the arrangement because he makes the guy feel really good, and when I say, “o, he loves you best of all,” the guy always falls for it and starts to thinking that he’s the shit, that he’s got me, that he’s in control.  When actually it is I who am manipulating him.  The cat helps me with this.

Peer Gynt Considers His Next Move

He’s big and orange and stripy, like a mini-tiger, and fat, and lazy, and lazier and fatter every year.   He complains loudly when he wants attention, or when breakfast isn’t served promptly enough.  Sometimes he even paws at my bedroom door.  Drives me crazy.  Not in a good way.  Sometimes I just don’t seem to have the energy.  I love him and think he’s gorgeous, sexy, but I just can’t go there tonight.  Thank you so much honey for understanding.  I’m soooooooo tired.  Then there are other nights when HE (can you believe it?) just couldn’t be bothered.  I mean I know he knows I’m here,  that he sees me, even wants me, but god damn if he’s going to show me that.  No.  It’s I’m just gonna sit here in this chair and stare at the wall as if you didn’t even exist.  And see how that feels.  Yeah.  That’s what he’s doing right now.  Sitting on the chair, looking off into the night, ignoring the airplane whooshing by overhead, the cloud of gold where the streetlight hits the trees, my fingers clicking.  But we sense these things and one another.  We know we’re ignoring one another, the bus roaring down Negley, the silence on the grass.  It’s too early in the summer for cicadas or crickets.  Just the dull irritation of a motorbike in the distance, the sea-shell sound of the city behind it.

A comment from a former student


A former student made the following comment on an older, now-defunct blog that I thought I had deleted.  It’s a very nice response to my blog entitled “Writing,” and I repeat it here because I like it. And also because hearing from students like Courtney means a lot to me.

hey, it’s former student Courtney – we run into each other from time to time when I am buying chocolate or on my way to work in Oakland. Just wanted to thank you for such an honest, beautiful post. Do you think some of that student resistance stems partly from the student population, or is more a shift in perspective over time? I remember when I was an undergraduate in the late nineties it seemed like most of us were there in order to engage and learn and grow, and grades, while important, weren’t owed… but there is definitely a shift happening. Regardless, I think you were, and still are, an amazing teacher and I never would have read Paradise Lost, and nominally understood it, without you!