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I got a little exercised about Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, after I watched, in 2013, women being dragged out of the North Carolina and Texas legislatures and arrested for peaceful protest on their Capitol steps. I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about it because I found it utterly depressing.  She was writing in the 18th century, but she could have been describing the home in which I grew up in the 1960s as well as attitudes still on display today.  But in thinking about two remarkable women, Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, I decided to give it a go and hope this doesn’t devolve into a feminist tirade.  When men do it, it’s called rhetoric; but when women do it, it’s called being emotional/on the rag and is automatically discounted, even though emotion and menstruation is how any of us happen to be alive at all.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Mary Wollstonecraft does a very canny thing: she draws a parallel between the socialization of women with that of the aristocracy and the military. In all three cases, values, behaviors, and perceptions are distorted to the point that members are not allowed to be fully human.  “Women, in general, as well as the rich of both sexes, have acquired all the follies and vices of civilization, and missed the useful fruit.”  I like to think this comparison roped in many more sympathetic readers and opened the minds of others, both men and women.

Here are some of her astonishingly contemporary observations:

She refers to books for and about women “written by men who considering females rather as woman than human.  .  .have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers.  .  .treated as a kind of subordinate beings, and not part of the human species,” and men have “found it convenient” to believe “the whole creation was only created for his convenience or pleasure.”   This convenience creates a regal and “specious homage,” a false refinement that can be intoxicating, but is ultimately degrading.  Today, unfortunately, these kinds of books are written mostly by women.

Mary W. addresses something that women today are still defensive about: the typical way women have found power: “Women are so degraded by mistaken notions of female excellence.  .  . produces a propensity to tyrannize, and gives birth to cunning, the natural opponent of (physical)strength.”    She locates “feminine wiles” in a context informed by both sexes.  If a relationship is not egalitarian, the alternative is sadism and passive aggression as a means of survival, not as consensual play.

In an advice book of the day, a Dr. Gregory asserts that a fondness for dress is “natural” to women.  Mary W’s response gave me a full smile for 10 minutes after I read it: “I am unable to comprehend what either he or Rousseau mean when they frequently use this indefinite term.  If they told us that in a pre-existent state the soul was found of dress, and brought this inclination with it into a new body, I should listen to them with a half smile, as I often do when I hear a rant about innate elegance.   .   .It is not natural; but arises, like false ambition in men, from a love of power.”

She discusses how passion and romance gives way to friendship and love but that wives, however,  are not considered friend material: “She was created to be the toy of man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears whenever.  .  .he chooses to be amused.”  

She asks, “Do passive, indolent women make the best wives?.  .  . However convenient it may be found in a companion—that companion will ever be considered an inferior, and only inspire a vapid tenderness which easily degenerates into contempt.”

Here’s something that many "feminists" today still do not understand, but that Mary W. articulated beautifully over 200 years ago. First she cites Rousseau: “Educate women like men, and the more they resemble our sex the less power they will have over us.”  Rousseau means well, but his is still a male-centric point of view.  Mary W. skewers his comment, “I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves.”  I might add that men have as much to learn from women as the other way around.  Take that, Rousseau.

After reading Mary W’s impassioned and clearly articulated essay, it’s interesting to see how her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley turned out: “I am not a person of opinions.  .  .Some have a passion for reforming the world. That my parents and Shelley were of the former class makes me respect it.  .  .If I have never written to vindicate the rights of women, I have ever defended women when oppressed.  .  .” Rattling the cages of  19th century norms may have skipped a generation in the Wollstonecraft family, but Mary Shelley wrote with the genius, grace, and insight that would have catapulted a man into the canon immediately.

It’s telling that Mary Shelley wrote about doppelgängers and split personalities.  She must have felt both split and doubled within herself.  She wrote Frankenstein when she was just 20 years old, and created a myth which entered the Zeitgeist and has not exited yet.  One of her short stories, “Transformation,” is included in the Norton.  It was an astonishing read.  Astonishing because I think she’s a writer equal to her contemporaries in the male canon; and she is only getting the respect due her 200 years after her death.

The Marys are not anomalies.  Dorothy Wordsworth was a writer and thinker equal to her famous brother William and their good friend Coleridge. How many more intelligent, articulate and provocative women there must be! The edition of the Norton anthology we used when I was in college, had admitted, as I re-call, three women into their canon: Virginia Woolf, Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  The 4th edition of Volume Two, which I am reading this summer, presents 14 different women writers. The 9th Edition presents 35.  It’s nowhere near an equal percentage but definitely a good trend.

And incidentally, Wollstonecraft: what a great name!


Jessica Valenti writes eloquently about women in The Nation.  After her latest article, someone named Ice Cream Cone left a comment that said in part:

“Needless to say I am very much against rape. If a man has to resort to rape to have sex with any woman he is not much of a man anyway.  .  .  I don't believe we live in a "rape culture.” I would ask Ms. Valenti or anyone else what her solutions to this "rape culture" she believes we live in are.  My question is not asked in any sarcasm or rudeness.   I would also ask how she thinks that men should behave in order to prevent this ‘rape culture.’”

It was the “or anyone else” that freed me.  I would like to respond to Ice Cream Cone:

Behavior is preceded by thoughts. One thing that needs to happen is that more men need to develop out of the prevailing social paradigm sufficiently to know that men don’t resort to rape in order to have sex.  Men rape because it makes them feel powerful.

Let me address the “rape culture” phrase which seems to stick in Ice Cream Cone’s throat. I would invite him to imagine an alley in a high crime part of town where he doesn’t feel safe.  Now imagine it is night and for whatever reason, he’s there.  The fear or uneasiness he feels?  This fear and uneasiness is woven into the unconscious and in many cases, the conscious substance of every woman in the world in the daytime, at night, in any part of town, and in her own home.

Now imagine—and I have to cross metaphors here because I think there’s a relation—someone grabs him from behind and rams an AK 47 up his rectum.  How do you think that would feel, Ice Cream Cone?  Now imagine that someone, probably from the gun lobby, came out and said that you shouldn’t have been where you were and you shouldn’t have been wearing such tight pants, otherwise this wouldn’t have happened.  Now imagine a police station, a jury and a Congress full of women jeering at you because either you made this up or you asked for it.  You know what men do with guns.  You can’t take that away from them.

Let’s go further: Imagine as a small boy you were told to keep your penis taped down against your leg because no one should ever see a bulge there.  You should always keep that part of your body covered.  Or as a teen being told: don’t ever take your shirt off.  I don’t care if it’s 90 degrees in the shade, if women see your nipples, they get ideas.

You know what: WOMEN THINK ABOUT SEX ALL THE TIME, TOO because they are HUMAN BEINGS, just like men are.  It’s just that many women see sex as something more complex than a penis in an orifice.

Let’s keep going: suppose bills were being introduced and passed all over the US that mandated you keep track of every erection and every single sperm that comes out of you.  You know those sperm are alive?  Those are potential human beings.  You are responsible for every seed you spill upon the ground as well as every egg one of those guys fertilizes.  Every time you have sex, you must submit to tests to determine how many eggs you have fertilized and how many human beings were lost as a result of the ones that aborted.  We’ll need to have you into a female doctor’s office and then into the court of a female judge and jury to determine whether or not your sperm was the reason some of those eggs didn’t fertilize.  Women will determine which of the women you had sex with you will have to support because of the embryos that ensued plus change diapers, do night-time feedings and take time off work when any child of yours that came to term is ill.  Because this is going to impact your productivity, we will make up for that by paying you 25% less per hour than people not in your situation.  In addition you must pay restitution for any aborted embryo because you are probably culpable.  And by the way, insurance is not going to cover Viagra.  We’re not paying for you to have sex.

If this sounds ludicrous then you haven’t been paying attention to the current political obsession with women’s bodies and reproductive systems.   Because when women are not seen as having full autonomy over their own bodies, the rape is already happening. In your paradigm, the only alternative for men obsessively controlling and demeaning women is for women to control and demean men. There are other worlds than this.

To develop out of the prevailing social paradigm, a person, say Ice Cream Cone for example, needs to figure out what’s in it for him.  He needs to figure out that the way women are controlled, demeaned and infantilized in our culture also demeans and infantilizes men.  When anything feminine, anything having to do with women is smirked at, condescended to, mocked, or disenfranchised, it makes it harder for men to admit they have all those qualities and attributes within themselves, waiting to be developed.  Until a person --male or female--realizes that the complete panoply of what we call masculine and feminine is available in some degree to everyone and that  it’s the work of a lifetime to be open to one’s capacity for human-ness, that person is going to wonder what is all the fuss about this "rape culture."


Sat Oct 27, 2012 at 01:08 PM PDT

That Rapey, Womany Thing

by FrenchUltramarine

They’re like moles in the lawn popping up in front and behind, these weird men with their weird ideas about sex, women’s physiology, pregnancy and rape. Early on –remember the mandatory vaginal probes?-- I thought it was so bizarre, nothing could come of it.  But then something did.The probes became law in Virginia, which to its shame, at this writing, is still a toss-up state in the election.  Then men in Michigan who haven’t even rudimentary sex education locked a congresswoman out of the house because she used the word vagina. They said it upset the decorum of the house.  What was actually upset was their plan to legislate against vaginas without saying the word.  It’s possible some of them don’t know what a vagina is.

Then there was Paul Ryan saying some rapes are “forcible” and some are not.  Then Todd Akins saying that in a legitimate rape, the female body has a way of shutting down the possibility of pregnancy.   Finally we have Richard Mourdock telling us that all life is a gift from (his) God so that even if conception takes place as a result of a rape, it’s a sin to abort the embryo.  Except he wasn’t that clear.  He sounded like he thought—as Paul Ryan has said—that  rape was just another form of conception and as such, the whole business down there was a gift from (his) God.  Maybe we should bless the rapist?

These guys are worried that women are getting away with something.  They wouldn’t know a woman’s reproductive system from a plumbing diagram but they think women are getting away with faking rape, what, for the fun of it?  That’s projection on their part.  Stunningly absent from the language of Mourdock and Atkins is an understanding of even what it means to have a body, let alone what it means to be raped.  Rape is a violation.  Rape is an assault.  And markedly absent is any empathy for women as human beings.  They are talking about women as though we aren’t human. We don’t feel anything. That’s also projection.

They are the ones who show no feeling.  I look at videos of these two men earnestly trying to explain how much they care about life, about the unborn, about women, about children, about our country, the constitution, peace, harmony, truth and goodness and love.  I hear them recite how awful it is for a woman to be raped.  I know men who talk like this in public.  I’ve seen these paragons sob over injustice in the world and then go home and violate the minds of members of their own families while continuing to recite how they love with the love of Christ, whatever currency that has any more.  There’s a frightening amount of disassociation going on.

I thought for a while that these are men who don’t have sisters, wives, or daughters.  That’s not the case.  Then I thought maybe they have never known anyone who has been violated, assaulted, raped.  That’s the not the case either.   Here’s what all these guys have in common: the conservative evangelical church, whether Catholic or Protestant.  They live their lives in a belief-cult. I know about this because I was raised in a belief-cult.  As a young adult, it was a shock to learn there are other ways of thinking, that people can disagree, that the existence of God is not provable, and what, if anything, you believe about God is a private matter.  It took years to learn that people can disagree without anyone being violated.

But these evangelicals who have risen through the ranks in the last twenty years are brain-wired to a single paradigm: control or be controlled.  The idea that everyone can be free and autonomous without anyone being violated has not given birth in their minds because they allow for no penetration.

Here’s the scariest part of all: There are women who live with the same paradigm. They support these ideas.  Here’s what I have to say to them: Believe whatever you like, believe that life begins at the onset of menses if you want, believe that Mitt Romney is going to be better for the economy and that’s more important than this whole woman thing.  Go ahead and vote for him if that’s what you believe.  Then start measuring yourselves for the foot binding, the corset and the stays because it’s not going to matter whether the economy is roaring or sniveling, if you don’t have full human rights including the right to make your own decisions about your life and your body, you are completely screwed.

Another thing about moles: they don’t operate in the light because they can’t see.  They scurry into their holes where they feel safe and everyone thinks the same way.


Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 08:13 AM PDT

We're Choppin' Broccoli

by FrenchUltramarine

A few weeks ago I decided I would allow myself only one news story to get upset about.  There isn’t enough time in my day to work myself into as many frenzies as I am capable of.  So I chose to Stand with the Sisters, the nuns who are bearing up with such grace under the bishops’ unseemly prosecution of them.  The bishops are all men who have probably not even spoken to a woman in 50 years.

When I decided to begin reading the entire works of Shakespeare, my preoccupation with the nun story shrunk to pre-Internet, if not bucolic standards.  Then we got the announcement that there would be an announcement about the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act hereafter known as the Obama Cares Act.  I had been dreading the day that the ruling was to come down.  Last Thursday morning I didn’t want to open the computer at all-didn’t even want to get out of bed- but I have a responsibility to my Scrabble partners.

When I got on Facebook to play Scrabble, I saw the post of a friend who shall go unnamed because she guards her FB privacy in ways that I don’t pretend to understand so I’d best take no chances.  The post said, “We can have our broccoli and eat it, too.”

“Oh my god!” I thought. “I don’t believe it!” I raced to the New York Times to read the full story.  I was stunned.  The Supreme Court upheld the A.C.A. pretty much as it was written.

In case you don’t know, the broccoli comment was an allusion to Antonin Scalia’s famously fatuous argument against the individual mandate in the A.C.A, the bit where all Americans are required to have health insurance just like all drivers must have car insurance:

“Can the federal government make you buy broccoli?” he asked.

What is it with these guys and broccoli anyway? George Bush maligned it, and Scalia is afraid he might be forced to have it in his grocery bag, hobnobbing with the lemons he must regularly eat.

In any case, this country has finally taken a step toward doing something about our abysmal health care situation and a lot of us feel relieved.  That relief would have kept me afloat all day on Thursday but there was a comic short to accompany the major feature.  Shortly after the ruling came down, Facebook and Twitter exploded with the outrage of people who were not happy with the ruling.  They were, en masse it seemed, all non-ironically moving to Canada to get away from this stupid, socialist country.  Canada. Which has had publicly funded medical care since 1966.

Now that I’ve gotten all that out of my system, I’ll get to my larger point, something I’ve been thinking about as I’ve listened to people expressing their opinions about the law.  To some folks, it’s signaling the end of the world: Obama is finished. The Dems will never get back the house after this. This law now guarantees a nanny state.  It will bankrupt us.  I don’t want to have to pay for your contraception.  From other perspectives: Finally I can get some decent insurance. The Constitution, the States, and the People won!  Yay for America!

What struck me was how certain we all are of what we think this ruling will mean for us as individuals, for our state, for the country, for our standing in the world.  We are all. so. sure.   Guarantees are what we go looking for when the anxiety is overwhelming.  We’ve never done anything quite like this in our country so it’s uncharted territory. Adam Philips who I like to read when I think the world is coming to an end, says we are all experts when it comes to experiences we haven’t had.

Up until now, with such expensive but lousy insurance as I’ve had, I have known I was screwed. This health care ruling signals an experience I haven’t had.  There’s a long way to go before all the wrinkles are ironed out and the country actually experience any changes, good or bad.  Meantime I am optimistic.  Now excuse me, I’ve got broccoli on the stove.


Wed Jun 06, 2012 at 05:50 PM PDT

Everybody's a Victim

by FrenchUltramarine

“I have no interest in being constantly catered to or forcing my beliefs on others,” confesses a former conservative. Recently I found my way to his web site via a blog post called “Things I Can’t Do Anymore.”

One of the things this particular individual can’t do anymore is feel a sense of entitlement.  That’s not something I hear very often.  When I track the battles of the Entitlement Factions in this country I think of the exhausting, high-maintenance people who show up at family holidays or who highjack other people’s parties.

It was the word catered in the above quote that caught me, having, as it does, an association with food. It took me back to childhood meals when my mother was the center of attention.  She controlled the conversation even when the rest of us sat in the dining room and she was in the kitchen rescuing her Parker House rolls from the oven.  She carried on a (full voiced) monologue of her own without reference to the conversation in the dining room.

Back at the table she interrupted whoever was speaking in order to introduce her rolls which were a bit brown around the edges but most of them turned out all right there’s butter and jam - what did you do with the raspberry jam?--oh here it is now where were we?  Everyone dutifully took a Parker House roll, passed the basket to his neighbor and waited for my mother to introduce her next topic.

The lull pushed her into a supervisory position: “Aren’t you eating any peas? Mrs.Snodgrass can I pass you the gravy oh you don’t?  Here’s the potatoes why is no one eating the salad did I forget the dressing?”

No. Mom. The reason no one is eating the salad is because currently no one wants to.  People are eating what they want to eat.  It’s not about you.

That’s what I want to say to groups of people who privilege their own entitlements and prescribe the country’s beliefs and activities: It’s not about you. You can want what you want for yourselves, but that’s it. You don’t get to force feed the rest of us your salad and dressing.  There’s nothing more exhausting than to be around someone who can only get what she wants by making everyone else do what she wants.

I once spend two interminable weeks with a family whose main entertainment was parsing what and wasn’t sin and how to make something that seemed like sin be something that technically wasn’t so they could commit it with impunity.  The woman was reading a book that was going to tell her, me, and everyone else in the world if it was a sin for Christians to drink alcohol
In those days I didn’t say things like, “Go ahead and commit the sin and go to hell.  It couldn’t be any worse than what you’ve got going on here.”

We’ve got people whining they can’t have their crèches in public places. Meanwhile someone else complains that the people in her office are all talking about what they are giving up for lent and they aren’t even Christians.  Lent doesn’t mean anything to them.  Evangelicals say they are discriminated against in college classrooms.  Everyone is someone’s victim.

These are worthless preoccupations and alienating pronouncements.  But I expect people have always been this way. It’s just that in the past it was confined to the family dining room and one could ultimately get away from it by going to (a private liberal arts) college. Human beings are never going to feel, think, or behave in a unity of spirit. No one is going to get everything she wants.  Kindness matters.  And not sucking the life out of holidays.


Sat May 19, 2012 at 07:52 AM PDT

Swerving and Centering

by FrenchUltramarine

Here in Seattle we have had a week of lovely early summer weather.   It was warm enough to sit under my magnificent 40 year old lilac trees at six in the morning, drink tea and read.  I was so engrossed in the new book by Stephen Greenblatt called Swerve that I read it straight through, started over and read it again.  It’s the story of a poem called De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things ) by a Roman named Lucretius Carus (99-55 BCE) who put in verse the philosophy of Epicurus (341-270 BCE).  Now I am working my way through the actual poem.  It’s going to take more than a week of nice weather because it’s 7800 lines.  But I’m hooked.

I will leave it to scholars to squabble about the poet, the philosopher, the physics involved, and the author of Swerve.  Me, I had an Epicurean experience just from reading the book.  Sitting under my lilacs watching hummingbirds zipping around the branches and my cats quivering with all their senses, it was easy to believe that I am made of the same substance as the world around me.  And that is the core of what Epicurus and Lucretius have to say.

“The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction.” (Stephen Greenblatt, Swerve)

This is not a startling idea nowadays but it was first proposed as a philosophy in classical Greece long before modern day physicists got a hold of it.  Having no science/math background I had only encountered the idea from studying eastern religions. Its logical conclusion is that when we die, we cease to be anything other than the particles of which we are made.

We may be reassured that in our Death
We have no cause for fear, we cannot be
Wretched in non-existence.
Death alone has immortality, and takes away
Our mortal life.  It does not matter a bit
If once we lived before.

(From De rerum natura , Rolfe Humphries translation)

When I read these words something happened that I was not expecting: warmth, comfort and relief washed through me. These were ideas that felt at home in my internal world.  This doesn’t mean I have now become a complete Epicurean. It’s just that in the surprising appeal of this idea I learned something new about myself: that I wouldn’t mind if when I died, that was it for me.  What was once Me might join the dance of motes in the sunbeam and I would simply cease.

Stephen Greenblatt in his preface—which I’m glad I read because I hardly ever read prefaces—says that the poem struck a deep chord in him because at its core it is a “profound, therapeutic meditation on the fear of death, and that fear dominated my entire childhood.”  He goes on to say that “art always penetrates the particular fissures of one’s own psychic life.”

The same could be said about religion (and by religion I mean any particular structure and language whereby one can apprehend the spiritual dimension).    Religion and art affect us where we are most vulnerable and idiosyncratic which is why it is so important to listen to each other and let each other be.  Interfering with other people’s spiritual processes, demanding they believe something they simply do not believe is like cleaving a sculpture at a crack in its surface.

I learned something else in this remarkable book, Swerve, something I might already have known if I had paid better attention to classics lectures in college.  I learned about Ciceronian conversation: the “discussion itself is what most matters, the fact that we can reason together easily, with a blend of wit and seriousness.  .  .  always allowing room for alternative views.”

There is arrogance, indignation and narcissistic rage in both public and private interaction these days.  We think our ideas are correct and anyone who disagrees is incorrect.  We are out to convert anyone who disagrees with us and have no use for anyone who doesn’t succumb to our arguments.  We are afraid of looking stupid. We are afraid of what might fracture if we were open to another’s influence.   There’s a good reason for that fear.  We don’t expose our vulnerabilities when the atmosphere is hostile.

When I was in analysis and would practically levitate off the couch with anxiety over something my analyst said, he would sometimes remind me, “These are just thoughts.  We’re just talking here. That’s all.”

I am as bad as anyone at staying detached and curious, and I’d like to get better.  I crave conversation.  I want to treat ideas like motes in a sunbeam.  To that end I started a page on Facebook called Civilities.  If you’re interested, go have a look. We might disagree but we can still go home friends.


Wed May 09, 2012 at 09:49 AM PDT

Leave God Out of It

by FrenchUltramarine

When I read that an American pastor says that women are shameless, shouldn’t be allowed to vote and have no patience or love, I think we’ve got an uneducated man with a psychological disorder and an ax to grind.  That he’s un-ironically allowed on Fox news is pure commerce.  But would this profoundly disturbed individual been given any attention at all if he wasn't claiming to be speaking for "God?"

Even those of us who can talk semi-rationally about emotional topics tend to lose our heads, our grammar, and our command of swear words in the neighborhood of religion. We heave around terms and labels with an assumption that our definitions and understanding are identical. Recently I gave myself an exercise of creating some definitions without consulting Merriam-Webster or Wikipedia.  Here’s what I came up with:

Thoughts are words, images and ideas that flit continually through our minds.

Beliefs are the thoughts that re-occur often enough that we choose to believe they have taken up residence and can’t flit.

Spirituality has to do with our private, personal, idiosyncratic thoughts and senses about who we are, how we got here, and what happens to us when we die; and what we believe, if anything, about forces that seem larger than our own minds.

Religions are structures that attempt to codify behavior and beliefs for a group of people, using the culture’s or sub-culture’s ideas about spirituality.

Fundamentalism is a belief that certain ideals are inviolate truths which apply to all people, all times and all places.

Evangelicalism is an attitude that attempts to persuade others to believe something on the basis that it's better than what they currently believe.

Government is a structure that addresses the immediate physical concerns of people currently alive.

If this was one of those exams where they ask “which does not belong?” we could safely dispense with government. Government does not belong with religion. Full stop.

The most problematic concepts left on the list are, for me, fundamentalism and evangelicalism. We all have some of both.  We all get excited about things and make statements like “You’ll love this book,” the subtext being “because I did.” That’s a rather benign evangelicalism.  We all have our own fundamentals, our non-negotiables, our deal-breakers, the logic of our own integrity.  For some of us, these can change over the course of a life-time as we change and as our circumstances change.  This is a different paradigm than one which ascribes all authority to someone or something outside herself: a scripture, a deity, a pope, a party platform, parents, a tradition, a man. So far, so good because we all do that some of the time, too.

Fundamental thinking gets ugly when the logic of someone else’s integrity is smeared all over the rest of us. There’s an organization called “Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented” which says: “What you believe is not the problem. What you believe I should believe is the problem.” .

In music, a note is sometimes called the fundamental.  You sing the pitch or strike the note on the piano and when the sound is alive, you hear overtones, little shoots of other fundamentals. You hear/feel the sound resonating in different places other than right there in the vocal cords or on the piano keyboard.  If the sound is dead, you hear the clunk of the note, but no ringing, no whistling, and you feel no vibrations, nothing to suggest music of the heavenly spheres.

Singers experience a fundamental as a range, not a discrete point of sound.  Singers can push a note to its edges and enter a quarter-tone. In the western scale, we don’t have a special name for a pitch that’s a quarter-tone sharp.  We still call it the fundamental.

To me, the most fascinating part of the tone is its core.  Once I enter what seems like the core, it moves.  I move with it.  I follow the core of the tone all around what we are still calling the fundamental.  If I decide the center is a discrete place to concentrate my breath, the tone goes dead.  It’s the movement that keeps the sound alive.  But when the note is entered with grace and when its acoustics are arranged with care, it can resonate with life.

Life is like this.  There is no center. The core moves.  No one owns it, no one gets it all to herself. When I enter it, that’s grace.  When I lose track of it but I know it’s still somewhere, that’s faith.


Two months ago a woman in Michigan named Karen Teegarden called her friend Desiree Jordan in New York.  They both wondered why women all over this country weren’t marching in the streets in response to hundreds of pieces of state legislation that many of us feel are whittling away at women’s dignity, autonomy and rights as human beings.  Karen started a Facebook page that night and called it  The next morning 500 people had signed on. By last Saturday morning, there were nearly 38,000.

Nancy, my friend who can tell me every time I have deconstructed a thought, and I met up with several hundred of them at Westlake Center.   I hadn’t been to a rally since I went with Nancy to see Bill Clinton, or in this case, his hair, at Westlake Center in 1992.   I almost never do anything that puts me in a crowd.  By Friday evening, I was wondering if it was enough to say I was going even if I instead stayed home and ate popcorn.

But Nancy suggested we go together and take signs.   Slogans poured out of her like water.  We settled on these: Ejaculation is a Choice.  Preach Condoms.  Conception Begins at Erection.  I decided that I would go all out and get a poster made from a cartoon that I have been circulating quietly among my friends because I am just middle-aged enough to feel self-conscious about the word vagina. (OK I've wasted the morning trying to figure out how to put up the cartoon.  It's the one of the gynecologist performing a pap who says, "I see the problem. You have Republicans in your vagina.")

Thanks to folks like Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, a lot of us are using the v-word more freely. Gov. McDonnell is the one who nearly signed into law the infamous trans-vaginal ultra-sound required before an abortion.  The bill was reconsidered when it was pointed out how invasive the mandated trans-vaginal ultrasound truly is, how similar it was to rape in other words.  This had to be pointed out.  Then there’s Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania.  He wants to sign into law mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortions but he says, “I’m not making anybody watch, ok. Because you just have to close your eyes.”

When I was in college we were told not to struggle if we were attacked and raped because we could be hurt even worse if we fought back.  Is that what they tell people who go into the armed forces?  One of the effects of declaring a section of the population subjugated, dependent, and defenseless is that the rest of the population can despise them.  That is what we do with adults who don’t fight back when others abuse or try to control them.  We despise them.

This isn’t just about ignorant male politicians.  Truly, the only sour note in the day came from an exceptionally sour-faced woman who looked at the Preach Condoms sign and said, “You should preach abstinence.  That’s what the Bible says.”   If it were possible to have a conversation with anyone who makes statements that involve the phrase “the Bible says,” I would have told her that what the Bible does or doesn’t say was irrelevant to me.  But for the record, the Bible doesn’t say any such thing.

There were a lot of great signs at Westlake. The only one I didn’t like was: “No Uterus? No opinion.”   I don’t agree with that.  I know the risk we run with allowing uterus-less persons to have opinions is that they may have the Wrong One. (For the one or two fundamentalists mistakenly reading this blog, that is a joke.) But the larger point is that if you are male and want your opinion about pregnancy, abortion and birth to be respected, than you’d better plan to spend 20 years of your life shouldering 50% of the responsibility for the consequences of your sperm.

Women are not alone in feeling this way: One of the most delightful aspects of the afternoon was the male support for our signs.  We got thumbs-up and comments like “We’re with you!” and “It’s not just about women!”  And our favorite : “That’s the best fucking sign I’ve ever seen! High five!”



Wed Apr 25, 2012 at 09:23 AM PDT

The Meaning of Life

by FrenchUltramarine

The birth control/ abortion controversy does not belong anywhere near politics but since it’s there, here’s the way it is being used:  One contingency has decided to use their arbitrary stance on abortion to gain votes from people who actually care about the process of pregnancy and birth.  While the so called pro-life movement has become a tool of the political right, it could just as easily have been a tool of the left because it’s consistent with left-ish views on capital punishment and wars.  The pro-choice stance could have easily fit into the political right’s notions of individual freedoms and rights.  But it went the other way and is used quite cynically on both sides.  People who care about the dilemma are being used on both sides by people who care about themselves.

The current permutation in the war is an argument about when Life actually begins. We used to think life began when we were born. Then it was in the 3rd trimester of a pregnancy.  More recently the case was trying to be made that life begins at conception.  But that’s already passé.  In Delaware a city council passed a resolution to urge Congress to pass laws that grant personhood to eggs and sperms.  Or egg-persons and sperm- persons.  That clocks life as beginning at ovulation and ejaculation.  That was topped by Arizona where they have decided that life begins at the onset of menses.  I swear this is not a bit from Saturday Night Live.

Since 1972 abortions have been legal in this country.  Pro-Choice has stood for A Woman’s Right to Choose.  Pro-Life has been squirming to come up with new and better ways to make abortion considered murder.  We are given only two choices just like we are given two choices in the Monkey trials: evolution or creation, vote for one.  And like a bunch of monkeys we make a choice about something that is too complex to be reduced to a fundamental choice.  Our minds need to be permeated with the complexity of the dilemma.  That’s not going to happen as long as politicians are running the war.
The officers in the abortion wars really don’t care what happens one way or another.  They are after something else. Power. Attention. The reassurance they have the Truth and therefore aren’t going to hell or they aren’t going to catch it when their father gets home.  Something like that.  Whatever will ease their terror.

Reflective people –and to be fair, there are those in Congress who are—grapple with the complexity of questions about life, birth, birth control, abortions, women as Persons, men as responsible fathers, over-population.  The public fight is too simplistic to be anything but problematic.  It’s followed the route of addiction.  First there was the dependence on one’s chosen belief.  Then the fight between the polar opposites became the problem itself.  This country needs a conversation that goes places the public fight has never gotten close to.

Having said that, I understand why it’s useful to have a legal definition of when life begins.  I believe that governments are structures to address the physical needs of human beings currently walking around on the earth.  Congress trampling all over the mystery of life with its big clown feet would be comical if it weren’t so frightening.
 Life itself is a question that philosophers, poets, theologians, and mystics have been musing over for centuries. Pardon me for pointing this out, but I don’t believe your average politician has the smarts or the humility to join this company.  Reason enough for keeping the question of when life begins out of their jurisdiction.  


It was supposed to have been my vacation and I spent far too much of it being infuriated by the Catholic Bishops.  And I’m not even Catholic.  But they remind me of the elders in my childhood churches and of Mitt Romney when in response to women wanting to be treated with respect in the Mormon Church was described as having the attitude, ‘Why do you have to stir things up? It has nothing to do with the church and women should be satisfied with what they have.”
Is that so?  
I don’t think of Mitt Romney as someone who is satisfied with what he has. I’ve been pissed at him this week, too, but that’s another blog post.
The Bishops in the Catholic Church are trying to shut up the nuns because they “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”
There’s been enough ironic comment about that last bold faced lie. If only in an effort to calm down, I’ve been trying to think about why women stay in the Catholic Church when their perspectives, concerns, opinions, and obvious moral authority is treated so shamefully.  Why do women put up with it?
I often hear people say “I love the Catholic Church,” sometimes in the past tense but even so.  I’ve never heard anyone say, “I love the Protestant Church.”  Even the smarmiest of the denominations don’t have “I HEART the Baptist Church” bumper stickers.  At least not in the Pacific Northwest.  Protestants tend to say “I love the Lord,” which given my own peculiar theology sounds both smarmy and suspect.
I did what everyone does nowadays when they need to ask a technical question.  I googled “why do people love the Catholic church.”
There was the expected: Mary, the Saints, christening gowns, incense, candles, midnight mass, Easter vigil, feast days, St. Joseph's altars. In other words, the kinds of cultural richness that made me envy my childhood Catholic friends when I had to sit in plain brown church pews and listen to men in their business suits drone on about sin.  I get that ritual is comforting and meaningful.  The sacraments (baptism, confirmation, holy Eucharist, extreme unction, penance, holy orders, matrimony –I went to Late Nite Catechism eight times) are called the “outward sign of an inward grace.”   I,too, love the depths of these concepts.

Here’s where I am troubled:   The Sacraments don’t apply to women as Persons.  They apply to people acting the role of women according to men’s approximations.  I expect women who “love the Catholic Church” scrape what they can for themselves from the sacraments.  There’s a lot of richness and meaning that has not yet been overtaken by any sense of how much they are being screwed.  

That rides tandem with another troubling reason people said they love the Catholic Church: One doesn’t have the burden of trying to interpret the Bible on one’s own.  
In other words, one doesn’t have to think, or to actively participate in one’s own life. One doesn’t feel the need to revolt when women are treated unequally and their wisdom is disregarded and disrespected, when divorce is considered a sin, when the church’s stand on abortion beggars reason, when an old out-of-touch man and his minions tell them how to live, when priests seem to be disproportionately represented by pedophiles and when so many people passively disregard what the old men at the top say anyway.  Where exactly is the substance of this great traditional church?

Here is the most poignant reason someone gave for why they loved the Catholic Church:  I love the fact that this is the church that Christ started, and it truly can be traced back to him.

No, it can’t.

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