Friday, November 29, 2013

Becoming Flesh and Blood

Southern women are expected to fit a certain mold. You wear a skirt or dress with a girdle or control-top panty hose, high heels, plenty of feminine jewelry, perfume, the works. Your hair is "fixed," hardened with hair spray, and your nails are "done." When you walk out the door, you assume the pose: head up, shoulders back, stomach in, fake smile pasted on. Poke out those boobs, ladies. And when you stand for a picture, have one foot slightly in front of the other to distribute your weight. If you have an excess of five pounds or greater, always have someone stand a little in front of you to hide those extra pounds. Never say what you really think or feel, and put on a slightly high-pitched voice when you pick up the phone. You are an image, not a person.

I would apologize for offending anyone by saying this, but fuck that shit. I'm tired of being an image. I'm just me.

I grew up as a "non girly-girl" who was constantly scolding for either not smiling or for smiling too hard. My mom would make me practice in front of the mirror so that my eyes wouldn't squint so much. None of my pictures were good enough with the exception of a few, and their existence was a burden. "Look at this picture - see how pretty you look? If you would just smile, comb your hair out of your face, and stand up straight, you would look that pretty in all your pictures. No, just look at the picture. That's all I want - just do that for all your pictures."

My wedding pictures are gorgeous. I'm not being vain; I'm just being objective and saying that yep, those are some damn good pictures, of both me and my husband. My eyes are full of stars, my smile is genuine, my body is relaxed (not quite poker straight, but the dress was forgiving). Everyone said I was "glowing."

My pictures will probably not look like that ever again. I will be just as happy when my children are born, maybe even happier, but I'll look like shit because I just had a kid. Happiness and joy aren't always clean and pretty. And joy isn't always happy either.

Therein is the trouble. In order to even look at the problem, the issue of becoming human, I am unable to think of myself. First I have to look at pictures and images of myself, and even that is painful.


In her sort-of-memoir Bossy Pants, Tina Fey explains why the image problem has gotten even worse, no matter how liberal or conservative, secular or religious you are:

"Back in my Wildwood days with Janet, you were either blessed with a beautiful body or you were not. And if you were not, you could just chill out and learn a trade. Now if you're not "hot," you are expected to work on it until you are."

Oh Tina. In New Jersey in the 70s, it may have been that simple, but it has never been that simple for a Southern woman, not unless you were poor and had to work so hard that you just hoped you could keep your teeth. All Southern women are required to be in a constant state of panic where looks are concerned, and if you're not panicking then that means you're "common." No woman of class would feel comfortable enough to walk outside without a full face of makeup. So it is now, so it was in 1940 when my grandmama was in college, and so it was in the days of Scarlet O'Hara. Forever and ever, Amen.

Southern women could never just "chill out and learn a trade," unless they had iron wills that kept out the steady stream of masculine and feminine disapproval. Masculine disapproval? Oh yes honey. Men would never say something to a lady's face, but behind her back they will look archly at a photo and say "If the barn needs painting, paint it." They will, according to a co-worker I had, touch their teenage daughter's legs and say "What is this? Is this stubble? Why is that there?" (The same co-worker proudly noted that he need never say this to her, his wife.) They will tell their younger cousins that leg shaving is an every day chore, no exceptions. They will wonder aloud why someone at church let her varicose veins show. No, not all men, but enough that it matters. And these men don't have to be paragons of fashion either - just ordinary men with "reasonable expectations."


When Simcha Fisher wrote her brilliant call to arms entitled "Pants!," there was some confusion about why, exactly, men were so concerned about the attire of women who are not their wives. The sentence most vilified, justly, was the writer's "Make it good for us" statement, which managed to be creepy and grammatically nonsensical all at once. Unlike some readers, I was not surprised. This is what happens when all women everywhere are given "reasonable expectations" for everyday use, and it is business as usual in the South. The difference between now and, say, 40 years ago, is that Tina Fey could walk on a New Jersey beach and know that some women are blessed and some are not. Now, we have the Jersey Shore, yo. Different rules than at a PTA meeting in Mississippi (I got a panic attack just typing that). But the principle is the same: women=images.The Southern woman has been exported nationally, with local color added depending on the region. And it makes me madder than hell.

That's right, mad. The angry feminist is raging, ahhhh! Run for your lives! No apologies, folks. There's good reason to be mad, when the poison has seeped into every facet of society. That's why liberals blame conservatives for slut shaming, and conservatives blame liberals for immodest dress, and they're both right. The closer we get to the utopia of Truly Feminine, the less real flesh and blood we have to cope with. If you are expected to be an image, then you will realize that flesh and blood bodies are unimportant - an impediment to be overcome. The logical outcome that no one is really "naked" in this world. All women are thoroughly covered: it's just that different cultural groups embrace different coverings.

During the last decade after 9/11, it was popular to decry the horrors of those who wear hijab. American women with chemically-treated hair, Brazilian-waxed pelvises, bleached teeth, and blue-colored contacts were happy to report that they were "free" enough to show their bodies.

Some days I want to be a conservative Muslim so I can throw on a burqa and say fuck it, I'm not shaving my legs or washing my hair today.


So here's my "call to arms." Stop blaming magazines. Stop blaming Pinterest. Stop blaming all the usual suspects, depending on "whose side you're on": Hollywood, Muslims, Christians, Protestants, Catholics, capitalists, liberals, conservatives, feminists, homosexuals, transsexuals, fundamentalists, working women, SAHMs, blah blah blah.

Start with your own word for "natural." What does that mean to you? Does it mean that your face is completely clear and "neutral" looking? Does it mean a total lack of wrinkles, freckles, pimples, crows feet, skin tags, hair? If you've got a dark complexion, does it mean you need to be "white"? If you're pale, does it mean you need a tan?

Mothers of little girls, this may be easier for you, because you don't have to use yourself as a reference point. Remember when she was born, all red and covered in goo, screaming her head off, squinty-eyed? Tell me that child was not the most beautiful, the most natural thing you'd ever seen.

When you're daughter comes home with a school picture and her smile is so big that it makes her eyes squint, be proud of that smile. That's a natural, happy smile. If you criticize it now, if you make her "practice smiling" now, don't be surprised when her teenage pictures are gloom and doom. Don't tell her that "you don't need to wear tons of makeup, I'm just asking you to cover up that shine on your nose," and then express shock and awe when she turns up covered in black makeup and goth gear.  You've already implied to your daughter that she is an image, remember? Don't be surprised when she decides that she wants to determine her own image, to rebel against your image of what she needs to be.

In other words, don't be a Gnostic. We women are flesh and blood, just as flesh and blood as men. We were redeemed by a flesh and blood Savior. We were born red and gooey, and we will die grey and decayed, and both states are natural. It's only in-between that we create graven images and hold them in front of our faces.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Five Favorites: Southern Thanksgiving

My parents are coming up to DC to celebrate Thanksgiving with me and my husband. Somehow, we will make a full Thanksgiving meal for 4 in the glorified box that is our kitchen. I woke up in the middle of the night wondering how, exactly, we would do this in a kitchen with one drawer (too narrow for a silverware drawer), about 2 feet of counter space, and a shallow single sink. But I refuse to admit defeat - not when I have the thought of these delicious foods driving me:

Sweet Potato Casserole 
If I can't have anything else for Thanksgiving, I want this - yes, more than turkey, which is overrated. Ours isn't as sweet as most people's and the topping is pecans, not marshmallows. We also add sour cream (that's our surprise ingredient that makes it so creamy and good).

Let me explain what I mean by dressing. I mean cornbread dressing. It is baked in a pan, not stuffed in a bird. It has chicken broth, crumbled corn bread, bread crumbs or some other filler if desired, sage (lots of sage), and poultry seasoning. It is topped with gravy. It is moist and thick and to die for. The first time I had Yankee "stuffing" I thought wow, these people don't know what they're missing. 

Squash Casserole 
The rest of the sour cream will go in this dish. Here's what you do: chop up a bunch of summer squash and an equal amount of sweet onion. Bring to a boil in just a little water, then simmer. The Southern term is "cook it down," i.e. cook it until it's mush. Put the mush in a baking dish and mix in sour cream to taste, then top with canned French fried onions (not bread crumbs - these are so much better). So easy, so gooey, so caloric and divine. 

Cranberry Sauce

None of this canned crap will do at Thanksgiving. Buy bags of fresh cranberries and follow the directions on the back. All you need is sugar, water, and cranberries, and time for it to gel in the fridge. This is the cranberry sauce your grandma made, and it is so good on leftover turkey sandwiches.

I realized that most people don't know what I mean by cornbread (i.e. what constitutes most of dressing). Real cornbread does not have any wheat flour. ANY. AT ALL. It also does not have sugar or "sweet milk" (that's what old time Southerners call regular milk to distinguish it from butter milk). Here is how you make cornbread: 

Get a cast iron skillet and put about 1/2 inch vegetable oil or bacon grease in it. Stick it in the oven and turn the oven to 450. Meanwhile, mix equal parts cornmeal (white) with buttermilk (whole fat), beat in 1 or 2 eggs (2 if you're using more than 2 cups cornmeal), and 1/8 teaspoon baking soda unless you're using self-rising cornmeal, and a little salt. When the oven is hot, pull out the skillet (with mitts - it's hot!) and pour the excess grease into the mixing bowl. Stir it up and pour into the skillet. Cook about 35 minutes or until golden-brown. Eat with butter, not honey. If you're making it for dressing, stick it in the fridge to cool so it's easier to crumble.

Add some sweet tea, butterbeans, and turkey with gravy, and you've got yourself a Southern Thanksgiving dinner. Can't wait.

* Just realized that Hallie won't be doing Five Favorites this week. Fail.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Remembering others

This is life for thousands this time of year. Insert your own name for the personal pronouns. For additional clarity, sit on your front steps while reading. Leave your warm coat and gloves inside.

We're all out by 6. You have to leave the shelter at 6 a.m. or be arrested for vagrancy, so we all get up earlier than that, maybe 5:40. When you don't have to take a shower or change clothes getting ready doesn't take very long, so I try to sleep as long as possible. Most days it's so loud that I get up anyway though.

We go out in a herd as we flee the building in search of two things: food and somewhere warm. I feel like cattle now, because that's how it feels - stabled in close-quarters at night, out in the open while it's still dark, and milked for all we're worth by exhaustion. No matter how tired I am, I try to keep moving. It's too cold to stand still in the dark, not to mention dangerous.

The shelter's in a bad part of town. The men's shelter is right across the street; some genius thought it was a good plan to empty a bunch of men and women at the same time every morning, pre-dawn, into the street. I'll let you fill in the blank. I haven't been raped. I refuse to add "yet;" that would admit defeat. I've heard the stories, but now I shut my ears to them. When someone tries to tell me I walk away. I still get nightmares from the stories I've heard, and I need my sleep. Compassion is a luxury I can't afford.

I always leave that neighborhood during the day for two reasons. One, it's not safe for a homeless woman, like I said. Two, you can't get any money or food or anything from people who have nothing to give.

Every day is scheduled like a clock. Get up, leave the shelter by 6. Find a food pantry. The church I go to opens at 8 a.m. on weekdays. You have to hurry to get in line so that the food doesn't run out. The lines are always longer in winter....

The people at the church are very nice; they don't try to force any messages down our throats along with the food. One time I went to a church where they made you sit and listen to a sermon before you could eat. You know, when you're tired and cold and hungry, all you can think of is food. The only thing that sermon does is make you mad, and sick. We told everybody to avoid that church.

I try to drag out breakfast as long as possible because the church is warm. I sit with the same friends every day. You have to be careful who you trust. I don't talk to anyone that I know is on drugs or alcohol, because I don't trust them. At first I didn't trust anybody, but that was so lonely I couldn't stand it. So then I started talking to some of the older women who know the rounds, got their advice. This one woman in particular became my mentor. You have to have a good mentor, that what I tell all the newbies. We have to stick together and help each other, because the city sure won't do that.

Next part of the day is trying to make some money. I panhandle in the tourist district because they're less jaded. The business crowd will walk right by you, and they never look at you. You might as well be a light pole. Kids will sometimes talk to me because they haven't learned that I'm not a person, but if their parents are there they get jerked away and told not to talk to strangers. And I get that. But these adults, these men who walk by - what do they think I'll do? One time I yelled "I don't bite!" At least that got them to run away, so they acknowledged my existence.

In the tourist district, your best bet is to be as personable as possible. Make a sign, that always helps, and say that you'll take food or coffee. Sometimes there are people who won't give money but they'll buy a cup of coffee or a sandwich, which is nice. It won't help me pay for the bus or laundromat, but it helps. My sign says "I'm homeless because I left my abusive husband." That's different and true, and it gets people's attention. That's what my mentor told me: be unique. Everyone says "help the homeless get something to eat." People learn to ignore that.

The best is if you can play an instrument; people like to be entertained. I don't play an instrument and I can't sing, but a good friend of mine is a Baritone. He likes to sing praise music, and sometimes Christians will give him something. Most of them just say "God Bless You," which is nice, but it won't help your hunger at all. He's such a sweet man, he always shares with me.

But whatever you do, don't talk to yourself. People are scared of crazy people, and they think it's a sign of sanity to be happy and smiley when you're cold and hungry. I think the crazy ones are sane, and I wish I was sane like that. Maybe it's easier to bear, emotionally, when you can talk about politics or the hit man that's after you. Gives you something to get up for besides just avoiding arrest.

I close up shop before it gets dark. This time of year, that's around 4:30. If I have the money I take the bus back to the shelter neighborhood, because now the clock is running. The lines at the shelter are long, and so usually they do a lottery to see who gets in. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don't, but I time it so that I've got a fighting chance. Those of us who don't make it stay together, because there's warmth and safety in numbers. Sometimes I give my lottery number to someone who's older, especially if my mentor didn't make it in time.

We sleep right outside the shelter because it's safer than wandering the streets. Night-time is always the worst no matter where you sleep. If I make it to the shelter, I don't get up to use the bathroom, so I always go first thing and then stay put. The restrooms aren't safe in the middle of the night because that's where people go to make drug deals. If I'm stuck outside, I also hold it because I don't want to have to go out alone. Also, I only use the bathroom outside if I'm desperate. I still have pride even if it's taken a beating.

I thought that I had been afraid before I was homeless. I didn't know then what it was like to live with fear, eat it, breath it, feel it all the time. I didn't know what it was like to have no where truly safe to go, to never be alone except in a public restroom stall, to never be able to lock a door and take a deep sigh of relief. My skin is constantly tense; my mind is always on alert. I think that even when I'm sleeping, some part of my body is ready to jump. My hearing and eyesight have never been so good; they never had to be.

I thought I had been cold before too, but that was a joke. I never knew the cold that never leaves your bones, the cold that can only be escaped temporarily. I never knew what it was like to dread the early morning so much, to dread being kicked outside in the icy dark. I never knew what it was like to plan my day around the weather, to miss out on afternoon cash because it's sleeting, to know where all the public libraries are.

I thought I knew what loneliness was, but back then I knew I was a person. And everyone else knew it too. People might not have liked me, but I wasn't ignored, treated like an innatimate object. I never saw the quickly averted eyes, the hurried feet, the turned head. I never knew what it was like to be lectured for my "greed," for my "entitlement" by people holding Starbucks lattes in leather gloves. I never knew what it was like to rip out the brand name from the jacket I found in a dumpster, because if people see a brand name they berate you for "wasting money."

If I ever get out of here, I'm going to buy a shack. I don't care what it looks like as long as I own it, as long as a landlord can't kick me out if I miss a payment. And I will look at every single homeless person I see and ask what they need the most. And I will hug every woman and tell her to hold on.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Seven Quick Takes: Why Scrubs is the Best Show Ever


My husband has always said so, and I scoffed until I watched it all the way through. And yes, it is the best show ever with the exception of MASH (similar shows though, in many ways). Check it (spoilers!):

The Janitor

Much has been said about the character simply known as "the Janitor," JD's arch nemesis. The actor tended to add-lib, to the show's general improvement.  The writers did not intend on him becoming a major character, but who can deny destiny? 

The Treatment of Sex

Let me be clear: it's not exactly a show I'd watch my grandma, and there's plenty of fornication to go around. However, the show's treatment of sex is different from that of most TV shows in the past decade or so, because it treats it seriously, as a part of life that changes your relationships and even who you are. When JD and Elliot decide to become "sex buddies," it backfires, and JD is faced with the fact that sex is tied to emotional attachment. When JD and Kim fool around but avoid actual intercourse, they are shocked to discover that Kim is pregnant, and JD must grapple with the burden of unexpected fatherhood. And one of the most beautiful scenes in the show is when Dr. Cox and Jordan realize that they have "grown up" and need real, genuine intimacy that is not hidden by sarcasm and irony.

Grief and Pain 

There are some episodes that hit me in the gut every single time and make me bawl. Others make me just quiet, thoughtful, in need of a walk alone outside. And just like real life, the mood can turn on a dime. This is one of my favorite instances of this technique:

Relationships within Families

Scrubs has a lovely way of delving into the characters' pasts without being Freudian or weird about it. The treatment can be subtle: Elliot has a truly dysfunctional past, as does Dr. Cox, but JD's past is a little more nuanced. Best of all, it shows how part of growing up is seeing our parents as people in their own right, not just how their lives affect ours. In this wonderful episode about parents, JD reflects on his father as a person separate from the father role: 

The Philosophy of Sickness and Death

Scrubs throws a light on this crazy world we live in, where death comes in sterile hospital rooms and patients die surrounded by medical personnel instead of their families. Scrubs talks about the elderly, dying pregnant mothers, suicides, the death of children, the fear of death, and the macabre humor that medical staff must use to keep their sanity. One day, I want to have the perspective of this wonderful woman:

It is the funniest damn show ever

If you can't laugh at Scrubs, you are unconscious. It has something for everyone, whether you like snark or dry wit or slap-stick or pop culture references or relationships or just the zany craziness of life. And by the way, this show is considered the most realistic of all doctor shows, by other doctors. My father in law, a pediatrician, adores this show because it shows what it's really like for residents at public hospitals. Y'all, people complain about how much doctors make, but they deserve every penny. Consider the following: long hours, insane student loans, 4 years of med school, 4 years of residency with poverty-level pay, and unbelievable anti-law suit insurance. It is impossible to have your own practice in some states due to insurance rates (but that's a rant that I won't go into...).

So folks, appreciate your doctors. They have a hard job, especially now that folks go in thinking they know a lot because they looked on Web MD. Give them a card at Christmas or something, especially the pediatricians. There are bad doctors of course, but the good ones really care about their patients.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Remembering my Southern grandmama

The first thing I think of is lipstick. Until Alzheimer's had ravaged her brain, I never saw her without it. When my then-boyfriend, now husband, met her in the nursing home, I heard her talking to my aunt through the closed door as we approached, "Well get me my lipstick, I'm about to meet somebody."As a girl she wore bright red with her panty hose and house dresses and pumps; as the woman I knew, she changed to pink because "it looks better with grey hair."

She could be exacting in the old Southern style: "Head up, shoulders back!" "Pull your stomach in." "Get a move on you." She despaired of my poor posture and had me stand against the wall or walk around with a book on my head, a failed endeavor if ever there was one. But she was also kind, generous to a fault, a powerful thinker and a tower of strength. She loved the image of God as a rock. At her husband's funeral, she struggled to stand and was afraid she would faint. In her weakness, she heard the inner voice of God say "You will not faint; you are standing on a rock." She used to play Rock of Ages on the piano with vim and vigor, and when we found her Bible after she died, every reference to God as a rock was underlined.

She had an almost photographic memory, which made Alzheimer's an especially cruel joke. She held in her mind a life-like depiction of the family tree going back more than 200 years, complete with intricate details and hilarious stories. She could tell you exactly how we were related to other citizens in that county of Alabama where she lived most of her life. We kept saying "let's get a voice recording before we forget" and then it was too late. But we do have pictures of her dancing in her apron while my aunt played the harmonica....

She was the most truly generous person I've ever known. Wealthy benefactors use their surplus after spending on luxuries; she re-used tin foil and mended underwear so she could give to her charities, both personal and official, family and otherwise. We didn't realize the full extent of her giving until her death, even though we knew how freely she gave to us, her children and grandchildren. She gave the gifts of her time, her intellect, her leadership and wisdom. When my cousin was in college he called the local pastor for guidance, which made the minister feel quite proud. It was a bit of a downer when my cousin said "I wouldn't have troubled you but my grandmama isn't in town."

And the food. Oh my. I still feel the crispness of hoe cake, hear the rattling of the jigger on the pressure cooker, feel the warmth of hambone vegetable soup with okra and butterbeans, see her pouring a bottle of wine over her fruit cake. She came from a time when Southern women served "dinner" at noon with mint iced tea. At 9 a.m. she would start things going, and somehow every cooking pot in the house would get used, and the heat would fill up the kitchen until you escaped to the 95 degree heat outside for a breath of fresh air.

Such, in fact, was our tendency - to see her gifts instead of her. To see the things she provided instead of the rich crackling voice, the knobby hands, the deepness of a soul who lived a full but quiet life in an obscure small town. The tendency was to pour out my heart instead of opening to hers....