Saturday, March 28, 2009

Out West

I have been writing about a specific day in my childhood throughout my adult life. It was the first time I confronted death--or maybe the first time death confronted me. Anyway, as I said, I have written about it many times, trying to capture it in the right words, with the right tone, at the right length. There was much that happened to me afterward, too--from the time I was 11 until now. So, here's the latest attempt, which I think comes closest to the self-expression I've been searching for for years.

Out West

The girl perched on the foamy hotel-room comforter (which was by no means comfortable) and thought about Tijuana. She had been there a few days prior and wanted to love it. She had hoped to be kidnapped by Mexico, swallowed up, stuffed into a piñata, dropped off at the birthday party of a girl her age. She wanted to burst out like a blizzard of alien candy, and be invited to live in the dust with a new best friend. She would learn Spanish. She would paint. She would never to return to New York, never even to Brooklyn, which she cherished and romanticized. Mexico differed from the gray mist hanging over cold New York City. It burned bright red and orange behind her eyelids.

She found that Tijuana was not a piñata waiting to engulf her. Instead, everything was covered in a thin layer of beige dust. Children her age and younger starved and looked longingly at her Coca Cola. She couldn’t stand to look at them. She couldn’t stand that she loved Brooklyn more than Mexico. She wanted out. The city’s poverty broke her heart in more pieces than the sleeping souls sprinkled throughout the F train.

When she returned to the border with her family, a wilted sombrero in her sweaty grip and her zeal for Mexican citizenship left on the rusted bumper of a taxicab, the border guard asked her to recite the pledge of allegiance. It was the last thing she wanted to do. She couldn’t understand why he couldn’t recognize her discomfort when it rose from the sand in waves and bled everywhere. When she got older, in fact, she would be repeatedly reprimanded for not placing her hand over her heart and reciting the same saccharine words. Maybe that didn’t have to do with Mexico and the border guard. Maybe it did.

That morning, in the hotel room, she shrugged off the reality of Mexico and thought about Los Angeles. She thought she would see movie stars; it didn’t matter who. She sat in the chocolate hotel room, waiting for her sisters to finish dressing and her mother to finish touching up her eyebrows. Dully, she watched TV, as if L.A. was routine and she belonged. But her veins beat with blood and bounced with impatience. She waited. She sucked on the end of a hotel pen. She didn’t yet wear a bra, but already she yearned to smoke. Already, she thought the definition of living was coffee, a cigarette, a newspaper. Solitude, with simple pleasures.

Finally, the hot tar mixed with sun and temporarily blinded her. She walked ahead of her family, as she always did on vacation, hoping something extraordinary, or maybe a kindred spirit, would find her. Her sisters’ questions about where they were going whipped around her posture of apathy. She couldn’t let them see her care—a habit that would grow bad and rampant as she aged. Back then, when her mother took her to the movies, hot tears would burn her throat. The repression was so severe she thought she would have to scream. Like the terror of nuclear war that kept her awake and paralyzed in her bed for nights on end, she was desperate to hide her weaknesses, both good and bad. She didn’t know why.

As she crossed the parking lot, she looked at the locked-up hotel pool. She liked the abandonment otherwise lively places were heavy with in early morning. The water breathed on its own, shifting in the hazy sun like something viscous. Something sleeping. There was a smear at the pool’s bottom, fluorescent orange. Brown. The water masked its form, daring her to identify it. She asked her father if the orange smear was pool equipment and became instantly frustrated by her desire to have her existence affirmed again after such luxuriating detachment.

Her father started pacing back and forth in front of the pool gates. Racing, really. He didn’t answer her. The water teased him, too. Her mother started gasping. The sun started caving in on the girl like a woolen veil.

Her father yelled at her. She ran to the hotel lobby and felt young. Maybe she felt her age. Through her tears, she noticed that the hotel clerk couldn’t have been much older than her. She thought she commanded him to call 911. He stared at her blankly as she repeated it over again. Perhaps she didn’t say anything at all.

She heard her mother behind her, pleading with the boy and crying. She had only seen her mother cry once—actually, she had only heard her mother cry once, a few years before, when the girl’s grandfather had died days after being moved from their home to a nursing home. She had woken up in the night and heard wailing. She lay very still, knowing full well what kind of phone call in the middle of the night would produce such sobs, even without ever having woken to a ringing phone searing sleep. In the hotel lobby, though, her mother’s cries were louder, more urgent, without drifting off to softened mourning as they had when her grandfather died.

The clerk, acne spilled over his young and frightened face, stood gaping at both of them. The girl ran back outside, willing the orange smear to lift itself from the bottom of the pool and begin a joyful backstroke from one end of the pool to the other. Her father jumped in the water. Other guests had emerged from their own brown caves and decorated the curled, cement edge of the pool. They climbed the fence to watch the girl’s panicked father try to drag a body full of water from the bottom of the pool into the open morning air. But the climbing alone seemed to edify them. No one helped him.

Someone eventually produced a large hook. Wooden, it would have dragged a beefy burlesque dancer from a makeshift stage. There, one man used it to stab the water repeatedly, fighting the mocking, leaden waves as her father peeled the dead weight from the bottom of the pool. He appeared at the surface of the water, half on the hook, half off, struggling with the body. The man with the hook dragged the body poolside. Her father performed CPR. Water spilled from the mouth and nose, but only because her body was flooded.

A chasm of time ensued where there should have been police and an ambulance and maybe the girl explaining that she noticed the body between daydreams. But there was no logical connection for her between the shiny rivulets streaming over the dead girl’s face and how her family had managed to get to the car.

They were supposed to go to Disneyland that day, but her father decided to take them to the Mojave Desert instead. They all piled into the rental car, which had the foreign luxury of air conditioning, FM radio and cloth-covered seats, and her father told her to roll the windows up as tightly as possible. Even with the car sealed shut, the smog mingled with exhaustion in her mouth. Fright swathed her tongue.

The ride was infinite. They finally stopped for breakfast. More brown. She wondered if L.A. had collectively agreed that visitors should be greeted with brown carpets, imitation wood and brown vinyl. She wondered if brown was the city’s official color. The hair-sprayed, made-up waitress brightly smiled at her as she sullenly ordered sausages and hot chocolate. As if no one the girl’s own age had plummeted to the bottom of a pool, alone. As if the girl whose order was taken had not changed. As if life would go on, just as before.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Are You There, God? It's Sharon and Maria.

Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Margaret. And most young girls loved her. She was funny and honest, quiet and insecure, and completely frustrated by not becoming a woman fast enough. We both believe Margaret, and her creator, Judy Blume, were pretty big influences on us. At the very least, Judy Blume figures prominently in our growing up. Since the girls of Judy Blume's imagination were such a prominent part of our childhoods, we've decided to make her a regular part of our blog.
This week, we both re-read Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. And then we IMed about it, so you could be included in the conversation. Here's what we think.

8:03 PM Maria: overall, what did you think reading it again?

8:04 PM Sharon: I was completely prepared to think it was very immature and dated. I thought I'd be rolling my eyes a lot and going, "Thank GAWD I don't have those issues anymore."
And it wasn't! I really felt like it was still relevant.

8:05 PM Maria: Now that you say that, I felt that way, too. It didn't feel dated at all.

Sharon: Except for the whole maxi pad belt thing.

8:06 PM Maria: Well, I had a newer version of the book in which that part had been rewritten to just be maxipads. And it worked.

Sharon: I remember that scared the shit out of me before I got my period. I was like, NO. WAY. I am NOT strapping myself into something like that. Huh. I didn't realize they'd rewritten that.
8:07 PM My copy is from ... 1970. Ha.

Maria: I was always afraid that if I went swimming, my period would follow my suit like a bright red line.

Sharon: I'm still wigged out when I go swimming that my tampon string will float out behind me.
8:08 PM too much information?

Maria: No, not at all.
8:09 PM I cannot believe how prominent the period stuff became in my memory, and how minimal religion became.

Sharon: Me too! I completely forgot about the religious part.

Maria: I didn't remember that she didn't get her period until the VERY end of the book. I thought it was all periods and bras. AND I thought I remembered that she kissed Moose.

8:10 PM Sharon: I vividly remembered that Nancy Wheeler lied about getting her period. But I did NOT remember the part where her maternal grandparents disowned her mother for marrying a Jewish man. That is the part that really struck me this time.

Maria: Yes. There was a lot more going on than I remember. How much do you think Blume influenced your view of women?

8:12 PM Sharon: Thinking back, a lot more than I gave her credit for. I really sympathized with Margaret's character, but I also really liked her mom, who was this artistic, free spirit who married for love and went her own way.
8:13 PM Plus, she was one of the first female authors I read, so it was awesome to think, "hey, I could write, too."

8:14 PM Maria: I definitely read her enough to feel legitimized as a girl. I think she greatly contributed to me thinking feminism was the normal viewpoint, since so many of my ideas were formulated by reading her books repeatedly. But I never thought about how she impacted me as a writer.
8:15 PM She probably did, but I think she did more to normalize sexuality for me than anything else.

Sharon: I'd never thought about how she impacted me as a feminist, so we're even. :)

Maria: Perfect! I wish she had written something about homosexuality.
8:16 PM I'm actually surprised she hasn't (as far as I know).

Sharon: Yeah, right? We should look into that.

Maria: If she hadn't, that would be a good series of books for young girls. And we'd probably be just as banned as she was.

8:18 PM Sharon: Sidenote: when I worked at Simon and Schuster, they published a kids book about a gay duckling, and how he was different from all his other siblings and his mallard father was so mean to him for it. At the end, everyone realized that it was okay to be gay, but ... It was simultaneously empowering and refreshing and the most horrible children's book ever. The things they had the dad do to this duckling were so mean! (end sidenote)
Sharon: I am trying to remember the name of it. We all got free copies of it. I gave it to my niece for Xmas one year and she was bawling.

Maria: Oh no. :)

Sharon: My sister was like, "uhhhh ... tolerance, yay, this is awesome. But maybe not when she's 5."

8:20 PM Maria: Hahaha. You know what I also thought about while I was reading "Margaret"?
The book was banned because Margaret didn't accept a religion, NOT because of the sexuality I assumed the banning was about.

Sharon: Really??

8:21 PM Maria: I think so.

Sharon: Wow.

Maria: I mean, religion was so rampant, and really, the periods, the bras, the boys were the backdrop for her finding her religion. And she didn't. I'm sure the religious right went crazy with that--especially because Blume is Jewish.

8:22 PM Sharon: Well, and the backlash to the feminist movement probably had some influence too. "Look!! Feminism turns regular girls into godless heathens who aren't ashamed of their bodies!!!"

8:25 PM Sharon: I have one more comment on the religion front -- I guess this is really the central tenet of the book. Why did she even NEED a religion? She has a personal relationship with God that works for her.
Maria: True! That's how the book should have ended!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Domestic Disturbances

“Did I tell you about the shooting behind J.D.’s house the other night?” my husband asked the other night.

“No! What happened?” I asked. A shooting in our small cluster of towns north of Philadelphia, rated one of the top 100 places to live nationwide, was pretty shocking.

J.D. (not his real name) is my hubby’s work buddy and carpool partner, and he lives a few miles from us in a middle-class neighborhood much like ours – hilly, tree-lined streets with post-war split-level homes occupied by young families and older retired couples.

“There was a domestic dispute between this guy and his wife, and he was beating the shit out of her, according to the neighbors. Then he pulled a gun on her,” my husband explained. “Someone called the cops and when they got there, the guy fired on them, and then they shot him,” he said.

“That sucks,” I said, “But what’s really fucking awful is that he’ll get more jail time and harsher punishment for shooting at the cops than he ever would for beating his wife. And I don’t think that’s right.”

“Wait … so you’re telling me you think this guy’s abusing his wife is a worse crime than shooting at the cops,” hubby said, and shook his head. Well, yeah, I replied, For many reasons, I do.

Now, before you go all medieval on my husband, understand that, even with the high-profile passage of the 2004 Violence Against Women act, even with increased awareness about the severity and prevalence of domestic violence, it often isn’t taken seriously as an offense in and of itself. It’s still viewed by much of the mainstream population as something that happens to “The Others,” a kind of a “Not in my backyard” mentality that can extend even to highly educated, progressive people who are otherwise well-informed (like him).

And before you go all medieval on me, let me explain my position. You know what you’re signing up for when you enroll in the police academy. You are aware that there’s real danger involved; that you may end up facing down violent criminals and that you could lose your life. You understand the risks and the consequences.

Not so victims of domestic abuse, many of whom have been raised by abusive parents or for various other reasons lack confidence and self-worth and are often singled out by abusers for those exact characteristics. Many don't know any other way of life. Victims are systematically isolated from their friends, family and other support systems, making it more and more difficult to reach out for help. And even those who may be strong enough to try to leave their abusers face the very real possibility that they'll be stalked and killed.

And because of the stigma and shame abusers heap on their victims and the tendency for many abusers to ensure that any bruises, scratches and other physical signs of abuse are in places easily covered or explained away, many of these crimes go unreported, leading the general population to believe that the problem isn’t serious or widespread.

The truth is, according to the American Institute on Domestic Violence, ( 5.3 million women are abused each year. Let that sink in for a second. Five point three million. And the leading cause of injury to women is domestic violence. Chances are, someone you know is being abused by her husband, boyfriend, partner, or someone she’s dating.

Compounded by the usually dismissive way the justice system treats victims of abuse, assault, harassment, stalking and other crimes of this nature (of which the majority of the victims are women), the measures that are put in place to protect victims are so ineffective as to be pretty much useless – unless the offender commits another crime in the process.

Restraining orders? Difficult to enforce with light penalties. Legal avenues? If a victim does press charges, most court appearances turn into a case of “he said, she said,” since there are often few witnesses to domestic violence.

I’m clearly making assumptions about the situation that took place near my home. But really – you don’t just pick up a gun, point it at your wife and then take a couple shots at the police for shits and giggles. This guy was a ticking time bomb – why does it take an incident like this for his violent potential to be recognized?

Perhaps more importantly, why is the fact that a violent man being gunned down by police more shocking and noteworthy than the fact that this man was abusing his wife?


Saturday, March 21, 2009


It may seem irrelevant to blog about a French movie that was released in 2000. But, last week, in a furor to beef up my Netflix queue, I added Baise-moi to the top of the list. In fact, watching it led to the creation of Everyday Rebellion.

The description of the film warned of a brutal rape scene—the film’s title means Fuck Me and was released in some markets as Rape Me—but promised a two-girl revenge spree to follow. I thought the violence might be essential to the spree. And I like another French director, Catherine Breillat, for her brutal, frankly sexual portrayals of contemporary womanhood. I thought, perhaps, that Baise-moi would have a point.

Don’t let the revenge fantasy fool you. Following the promised brutal rape scene (which includes a close-up shot of penetration), two girls, one prostitute so overcome by rage and denial that she strangles her roommate after her roommate suggests that the prostitute’s best junkie friend uses her, and the other woman, involved in the gang rape, meet in the Metro and plan to escape to Paris. But revenge never seems to be on the menu. Instead, they embark on a senseless, gleeful, killing spree sporadically interrupted by drawn-out sex scenes.

I’m not one for censorship and I’ve seen more graphically violent and sexual films than I can count. Baise-moi , however, took the cake. Maybe that was the point—to show what happens to women when they are used up and spit out. It was the repeated blurred lines between erotica and death that repeatedly turned my stomach—not to mention the nauseating possibility of two women who hungrily stalk men, have sex with them and kill them being a potential turn-on for other viewers. The brutal rape, rather than being a shocking and sickening scene to watch, fades in signifiance as the women’s avenging violence grossly outweighs the crime while maddeningly gratuitous sex scenes turn both victims into porn stars.

Perhaps Baise-moi was meant to display rape and sex as two grossly different experiences, i.e., rape as a crime of power rather than one of sex. Maybe the film is a cautionary tale, not unlike Thelma & Louise, that displays what kind of rage misogyny can cause. The problem is that viewers will likely feel more violated than vindicated. And for women, how is that "fantasy" any different from our reality?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Any questions? I didn't think so.