Free To Be … Me: Why Do Other People’s Choices Make Us So Cranky?

America is suffering from an epidemic. No, it has nothing to do with smoking or obesity; it doesn’t even have to do with gun violence.* It has to do with unwonted bitterness and anger toward other people’s choices. No one, it seems, can be comfortable with their own decisions without justifying them by judging and/or dismissing other people’s. The trend is exemplified by Amy Sohn, who, in her recent Awl piece, cheerfully and smugly skewers everyone she knows, saying “we” just enough to allow her to criticize her community while also making it clear that she’s the observant outsider — the Mark Twain of Park Slope, if you will. (“The stoners came back with smug grins and then talked about how good the pot was, like if they didn’t talk about it, it wasn’t quite as rebellious. I decided it was time to go home.”)

Amy Sohn must be an aberration, though, right? Not these days. Everyone, it seems, now has an ax to grind. This piece in Salon is ostensibly about how being single is a legitimate life path, but in actuality drips with scorn for the alternative:

[Married people] aren’t going to pathologize you [single people] for playing around for a protracted amount of time, but eventually you’re going to have to settle. And the marker of success, the end of the romantic story, is riding off into the sunset with that person. But you don’t get to see the next 30 years of boredom, or anxiety, or terror or concern.

Look at that word choice: “Settle,” “boredom,” “anxiety,” “terror,” “concern.” What a revolutionary attitude toward marriage! Freud would be bored out of his mind by this guy. Can’t the institution just not be for him without being, well, terrible?

Slate recently ran a series about women choosing to be “child-free” that was actually about how gross & exhausting babies are. The highlight was this entry, entitled, “No Kids For Me, Thanks: I Don’t Enjoy Alien Parasites“:

So now I cheerfully tell anyone who mentions it—friend, family, co-worker, overly friendly stranger—that no, thank you, I will not have kids/parasites for reasons that will probably insult you. These include eww, gross, I-have-better-things-to-do-with-my-time, and there-are-7-billion-people-in-the-world-why-add-more. But if I can suffer through your alien ultrasound photo on Facebook or grin at your crying kids without vomiting, then you can be grateful that women like me will always be around to organize an occasional girl’s night out and to keep the population in check.

I mean, jeez, “kids/parasites”? “Without vomiting”? For many years, I felt decidedly neutral/negative on the subject of children, and especially on the subject of having them myself, but I never patted myself on the back for not going all Exorcist on someone else’s offspring just because they were making an unpleasant noise.

In Amanda Marcotte’s entry “Children Make you Happier, If Someone Else Does Most of the Work,” Marcotte contributed this gem to the hall of fame: “Not to say people are bad people for having children, but …”

But! Ha. The putting down of people who do marry and/or have kids is a theme of Marcotte’s: See also The Real Reason More Women Are Childless and Two More Reasons to be a Curmudgeonly Childless Marriage Boycotter.

And I refuse to even enter the attachment parenting fray, which has everyone taking up arms against each other on the subject of their choices, except tangentially: in another unhappy man’s case, his wife’s choice to breastfeed (and breastfeed, and breastfeed …) upsets him so much that he has taken his complaints to the Gray Lady. Perhaps he means to raise an interesting point about how a mother’s breastfeeding can affect a family’s dynamic; what he actually does is castigate huge swaths of the population and whine about how his wife’s bond with his son has affected his sex life:

So to all nursing moms, except perhaps those who used a lab technician, I say that the foundation of the parent-child bond is the parent-parent bond. Unlike the baby chicken or the fertilized egg conundrum, partnership precedes parenthood. That’s how you got into this position to begin with: by attracting a man who liked what he saw, and wanted to see more of what even the scientists researching extended breast-feeding call mammaries, not Mommaries.

How furious would you be if you were this strident fool’s wife? I’d probably rather have my husband cheat on me discreetly than slam me in a public forum. Of course, what I’d actually want is for my husband to say to me, “Honey, I totally get that breastfeeding our children serves some important function for both you and them, but can we talk about why he still has your boobs in his mouth? He can’t bring them to school in his lunchbox, after all, so it might be time to start weaning him.”

Also, of course his conclusion starts, “To all nursing moms.” Because sure, why not lump those women in who are struggling with breastfeeding, despite the numerous hurdles, for the suggested minimum 6 months, with women whose founts overflow until the kid is old enough to choose Sunny D from the fridge himself? Our society makes it difficult enough for women to nurse their children without this doofus weighing in that we’re grossing out our husbands, too.

Why the overheated self-justification? Why can’t we say, “You do what’s cool for you, and I’ll do what’s cool for me?” Why the rancor, which is just guaranteed to get everyone else reaching for their rhetorical Uzis? Isn’t it kind of exhausting?

The triggering event for this round up was my seeing, this past Sunday in the New York Times, a bitter troll complaining about how, now that his gay friends can finally get married locally, he’s being invited to too many weddings:

Same-sex weddings can also make us wince as stereotypes go on display in mixed company. Exhibit A: lesbians plodding down the aisle to the Judds. … I’m talking about one bride in a frilly Vera Wang and one in a butch pantsuit. You’re a better person than I am if that attire doesn’t make your mind wander into areas of their relationship it doesn’t belong.

In other words, “Gay people, stop enjoying your long-sought and hard-fought freedoms! They’re interfering with my weekend plans. Also, lesbians, would you please just go away? Ironically, though I am wincing at your displays of stereotypes, I am contributing to one of the more vicious stereotypes about gay men myself: that we are shallow, judgmental snobs who hate women and queer women in particular.”

A lot of this vitriol can be understood as people getting prickly because they are choosing less conventional paths: specifically not coupling up or not procreating. But is the defensiveness justified? Being single is a fully legitimate life-path, and our society has never been more accepting of it. Record numbers of people live by themselves:

Only 51% of adults today are married, according to census data. And 28% of all households now consist of just one person — the highest level in U.S. history. That second statistic may appear less dramatic than the first, but it’s actually changing much faster: The percentage of Americans living by themselves has doubled since 1960.

Singleness is, increasingly, the (or at least “a”) new norm. And single people aren’t ostracized. Look at two of the most powerful women of recent times: Condi Rice and Oprah. Not having a spouse doesn’t hold them back. We don’t burn older, unmarried ladies at the stake for being witches anymore; we appoint them to the Supreme Court.

Besides, our pop culture consistently reinforces the notion that “settling down” is for wimps, marriage is a sexless drag, and the goal is to remain young, hot, and unencumbered forever:

So what if some of your annoying relatives give you a hard time for not making it to the altar yet? That’s what annoying relatives are for. If they didn’t have your relationship status to needle you about, they’d be on you about your weight  or your mortgage payments or whether you’re going to scar your son for life if you do or don’t circumcise him.

Friends, this is very simple. If you don’t want to go to other people’s joyous ceremonies, don’t go. If you don’t want children, don’t have them. If you don’t want to get married, great! Save your money for retirement. I’m not judging you, so please do me the courtesy of not judging me. There’s no need to for all of us to turn into Katie Roiphe, is there? That’s what I thought.

 

*Sidenote: I liked Batman’s own statement on the issue of gun violence from within the universe of The Dark Knight Rises: “No guns,” he tells Selena Kyle sternly. “No guns, no killing.” My own favorite superhero Buffy feels the same way. One could argue that it may be easier for the extremely nimble, powerful, and quick to heal among us to eschew weaponry, but these avengers also live in even more dangerous times and places than we do. Besides, they’re still mortal and they face the prospect of dying on a near-daily basis. If they can choose not to pack heat, can’t the rest of us?

Cross-posted on The Huffington Post here.

B is for Bulgy

When I was almost 7 months pregnant, and almost 3 months from D-Day, I was convinced that I looked like this:

I wasn’t too far off, either. I comforted myself with the knowledge that it could be worse, of course: I could look like Cookie Monster. Then I went to Vermont for my 2-week residency. The key to pregnancy self-esteem, it turns out, is:

1) wear maternity clothes from Brooklyn outside of Brooklyn (the other fellows exclaimed over my dresses, none of which would get a second glance in Park Slope);

2) be the only pregnant lady in the immediate vicinity, which guarantees you affectionate attention; and

3) live in an artificial, artsy, heady world totally lacking in full-length mirrors.

Returning to the real world took some adjusting, of course, but it was good practice for the summer’s real challenge: attending, at 8 months pregnant, my brother’s wedding to a bona fide Santa Barbara princess at her parents’ ranch. I knew she would look gorgeous, and she did.

All hail the bride!

My brother was no slouch either in his custom-made three piece suit — he looked, as I told him, like a young Roger Sterling. The setting itself was as lush, flowering, spacious, warm, and sunny as anyone could have wished. The female guests, not to be outdone by the wedding party or location, tottered around in blow outs, tiny, brightly-colored cocktail dresses, and heels that were almost as high as their hemlines. The one pair of fancy sandals I attempted to compliment turned out to be Miu Miu; after that, I realized I was unqualified even to express admiration.

Were all the girls blond, or did it just seem that way? Regardless, altogether it was the best-looking wedding I’ve ever attended. And there I was, the groom’s short, curly-haired, boob-splosion of a sister in platforms from Aerosoles and haute couture from Madison Rose maternity that may well have cost less than my corsage, and a belly that looked like it contained a Thanksgiving turkey. In a way, it was a gift. How can you be expected to compete with a bunch of tanned, skinny Real Housewife-types when there’s a second, almost-full-term human being inside you? I probably got more sorta-compliments (“You’re carrying so well!”) than those glamazons got actual compliments.

Now I’m back and heading into the home stretch. Wedding accomplished! I made it across the country and back again, lugging around a 4.5 pound, very energetic octopus of some kind, and I even managed to dance. (The band was incredible and also, duh, attractive. Total hipster chic.) In two days, I turn 30 — THIRTY — and after that, in mere weeks, I unceremoniously expel Squee from her comfortable, portable bio-dome and become a parent. What should I be doing with my last precious minutes of youth and freedom?

Baby’s First Mobile Home Goes to VT

At lunch with coworkers today, I asked the waitress for a refill of my Diet Coke. “We don’t really do that,” she said, hesitating, so I assured her, “It’s not for me. It’s for the baby.” She laughed and said, “OK!”

Apparently last night, I was snoring and farting in my sleep, because pregnancy is beautiful. Much more of this, and I wouldn’t blame Mr. Ben for deciding that maybe we’ve been doing too much co-sleeping and we should move from Attachment Relationship-ing to an arrangement that has me in another room in a crib. [EDITOR’S NOTE: This is parenting humor. If you don’t get it, you should reward yourself with another vodka shot and one night stand.] I mean, I’ve never snored before, and “it was so loud in my dream that it was a dog,” he reported. “Then I woke up and found it was you.”

The baby totally owed me for that, so helping me get that Diet Coke was the least Squee could do.

Not to mention, if it hadn’t been for the baby, I wouldn’t have had to throw myself out of paradise after only two weeks.

VSC HQ

No, I shouldn’t complain: it was great that I could go at all & take Squee — she’ll never be so easy to transport again; in fact, I am her very first mobile home! I had a fantastic time filled with sunny gem-colored days, waterfalls, mountains, swimming holes, ping pong, pool, karaoke, three meals a day served to me in the company of friends, Adirondack chairs, old barns, even older cemeteries, horror movie showings, books, cable TV, freshly baked bread, and massages that cost $45 for an hour. Communing with animals helped me get in touch with my maternal side!

Getting to know King Kong, by Gala

 

Pretending to liberate Giraffe, by Aliza Morell

There were a couple of days in the midst of the heatwave when the humid airlessness of my studio, which was utterly unprepared for temperatures over 75 degrees, made it difficult to write. Still, I got to page 60 of my nascent novel. Plus research, plotting, charting, reading & thinking! Yeah accomplishment.

I also felt so social — thanks very little to my own extroversion and more to the set up of the fellowship. A whole slew of residents arrived in unison, a mix of young, old, poets, fiction-writers, visual artists, students, teachers, and guest lecturers, to live and eat and play together on a campus well-integrated into a picturesque little northern Vermont town. Almost immediately, I was lucky enough to fall into a cadre of talented, smart, incredibly good and beautiful girls, with whom a run to the supermarket became as entertaining as a road trip.

And I got to bond with some impressive writers & artists of various ages, including the funny, kind Matthew Guenette, with whom I did work study in the kitchens, an experience that bonds participants together much like service in ‘Nam; high priestess of Tarot, calm, and good-humor Lynne Thompson; knife-making Mountain Man with a heart of gold Nick Anger; pop culture feminist professor-poet extraordinaire Simone Muench; and others.

Far be it from me to exaggerate the quality of the work done by the other VSC residents. Check it out for yourself: the word-art of Brett Lysne, which takes over-thinking to a whole new level; the eerie, beautiful, obsessively-rendered ladies of Katy Horan; the painstakingly precise, whimsical Americana collages of Rachel Grobstein; and oh my god so many, many more.

Untitled by Katy Horan
Art by Rachel Grobstein
The World Doesn’t End!! by Rachel Grobstein

Caitlin Doyle’s creepy masterpiece about adolescence “Thirteen” stuck with me for days. (Apparently it also pleased the editors of Best New Poets 2009.) And I’m still in awe of Nomi Stone, who has managed to publish poetry while amassing Fulbrights, advanced degrees, and experiences living around the world. As I discovered this fall during my residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, it’s invigorating to be around so much skill & energy.

Leaving was hard, and I would like to go back if at all possible please. Not for me — for the baby.

A Stand-Up Kind of Town

Let it never be said that New Yorkers aren’t polite. Ever since my belly really popped over the last month or so, strangers have been showing the kind of consideration that would bring tears to your eyes.

At some point I started counting the folks who stood up for me on the subway and keeping track of demographic information, because it was fascinating. Here are the stats so far:

TOTAL: 13

MEN OF COLOR: 7

WOMEN OF COLOR: 3

WHITE MEN: 2 (both foreigners–one Russian it seemed like, one European)

WHITE WOMEN: 1

The one white woman may not even count, since she didn’t actually get up or offer me her seat; when a seat opened and we were both standing near it, she asked if I would like to take it. But it feels nicer to say 1 than 0. The men of color have been black, Hispanic, and, as of today, South Asian/Middle Eastern (I couldn’t really tell and certainly couldn’t ask). Almost all of them have been young. Another black guy not counted here also put up his hands to steady me at one point when it looked like I might fall. I smiled at him in thanks and he nodded seriously like some kind of mid-century superhero just doing his duty.

This may be the best unexpected pregnancy perk: The random, sweet interactions with strangers with whom I would otherwise have no reason to even make eye contact.

If you had asked me what I thought the demographics of this kind of courtesy would look like, I would have been entirely wrong, because I would have guessed that the people most likely to notice and offer assistance would be the people most likely to identify with me in some way. Instead, it’s been the opposite. Apart from the one white girl who only sort of counts, so far, my experience has been that the surest route to remaining on my feet in the train is to plant those feet in front of someone who looks like me. That’s pretty sobering. It makes me reflect back on my own train behavior. I have given up my seat, because my father set that kind of example for me growing up (he helped women carry baby-strollers and always held doors) but on lots of rides, I’ve also been so absorbed in whatever I was reading that I barely noticed what station we were at, let alone who standing in front of me may have needed my seat more than I did.

For now, I almost always smile and shake my head at the person trying to get me to sit, because I’m still feeling fine — walking briskly, going to the gym, wearing regular shoes. There’s no reason I need to sit down. As the summer gets hotter and this planet inside me expands further, I’ll have to adjust; but I don’t want to take advantage of anyone’s kindness before I have to.

That the kindness exists, though, makes me swell with joy.

How to Look Pretty

I am the beautiful reflection / Of my love's affection ...

The Gray Lady has been full of useful advice for the ladies the past couple of weeks! Here are some of her thoughtful suggestions:

Feeding tubes for brides. Looking to fit into that too-small wedding dress in a too-short amount of time? Why not go the Terri Schiavo route? Members of Congress might not judge you brain dead but I certainly might.

Get your husband to sponsor your waxing and obscenely-expensive footwear.

Take multiple exercise classes per day.  Take so many, in fact, that you have no time for men and totally lose sight of why you’re trying to get thin in the first place: “Ms. Greisman, who is single, said she often forfeits other social events for her workouts — ‘the gym is where my friends are,’ she said — and does not make plans on Saturday apart from three of her favorite classes, which run from 11:45 a.m. to nearly 5 p.m. Dating, she mused, ‘would be challenging.'”

* Last but not least, corsets! “Getting the look requires some grit. Tugging on a faja can become a desperate bout of woman versus fabric. Flesh must be coaxed inside, battened down by hooks and, finally, sealed with a zipper that can force the air out of your lungs. ‘The first day you can’t stand it,’ Ms. Murillo said. ‘But then it loosens it up.'”

Stumbling Toward Diversity

Pop culture doesn’t reflect the diversity of day-to-day life in America, especially in urban centers. Lena Dunham’s new series “Girls” on HBO — so wonderfully, awkwardly realistic when it comes to depicting bad job interviews, the vagaries of friendship, and bad sex — flails like a dying fish when dealing with race. Its world is so homogeneous that the show would be more accurately titled “White Girls.” NBC’s “The Office,” set in Scranton, PA, is more ethnically-mixed than Dunham’s Brooklyn; so is the Seattle of ABC’s “Gray’s Anatomy,” which led the charge with color-blind casting in 2005. According to the New York Times:

 “Grey’s Anatomy” has differentiated itself by creating a diverse world of doctors – almost half the cast are men and women of color – and then never acknowledging it. …

When Ms. Rhimes wrote the pilot, she didn’t specify the characters’ ethnicities, so her casting process was wide open: Mr. Washington, who once played a gay Republican in Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus,” was nearly cast in the role played by Patrick Dempsey, who is white; his Dr. Burke was to be played by a white actor who was forced to drop out at the last moment. Ms. Rhimes imagined “The Nazi” as a “tiny, adorable blond person with lots of ringlets,” until Chandra Wilson walked through the door (“I thought it was endearing,” Ms. Wilson said of her part. “Endearing as the word ‘Nazi’ can be.”). And even though some network executives assumed Ms. Oh’s hypercompetitive character would be white, Ms. Rhimes did not – in the pilot’s script she wasn’t even given a last name – so all it took was one “fabulous” audition from the “Sideways” star to christen the character Cristina Yang. …

Ms. Rhimes has also worked hard to extend diversity to her show’s smallest roles. Determined not to have a program in which “all the extras are white, except the lone janitor,” she has created one of the most colorful backgrounds in television, a hospital in which punked-out bike messengers and suffering Hasidim roam the corridors. “Shonda’s only rule is drug dealers and pimps cannot be black,” said Dr. Zoanne Clack, a black writer for the show who also practices medicine. Even the episodic roles – a gay African-American, a young Hispanic couple – are multicultural.

Rhimes’s choices of seven years ago were bold but incredibly successful. Why haven’t they been replicated? After all, following the enormous impact of Twilight, Young Adult bookshelves exploded with copy-cat novels about vampires and virgins and the occult in general, and one fully expects “Mommy Porn” to become its own genre in the near future now that Fifty Shades of Grey has sold 3 million paperback copies in April alone.

One answer is that Rhimes, as an auteur, breathes rarefied air. Like other writer-directors/producers — a talented but small and exclusive fraternity that includes Alan Ball, Joss Whedon, Matthew Weiner, David Chase, and David Simon — she has an unusual amount of creative control over her finished product. If diversity is a priority for her, she can make it happen. Dunham, as this frat’s newest pledge, is still trying to figure out what her priorities are, and some of them are stellar, like being funny and worth watching. As Jenna Wortham of the Hairpin writes, part of the reason that “Girls” has become a lightning rod for the frustration that people of color don’t get to see their experiences reflected on screen is because it “is actually good. It gets So. Many. Things. Right. It’s on point again and again, hitting at the high and low notes about being in your twenties ….”

Dunham prioritizes reflecting her own life experiences and those of her friends in an authentic, engaging way, and apparently this is her world: part Jewish, part WASP-y, and overall fifty shades of pale. She is hardly unique in having a friend circle that reflects her own heritage, although she may be the first well-known person to be publicly shamed for it. Salamishah Tillet in the Nation points out that this larger issue needs to be addressed, since many of us live segregated social lives, and it affects us whether we realize it or not.

Still, we can sympathize with Dunham’s choice to remain true to [her] life and simultaneously be disappointed, because it implies that Dunham, for all her creativity, ambition, wit, and skill, lacks imagination. How hard is it, after all, asks Sarah Seltzer in the NYT, to at last break free of the traditional paradigm where “Characters written as racially neutral (or even as nonwhite) are virtually always cast as white even though movie-watchers and TV watchers of all backgrounds will search for a mirror, an entrance point, among the faces they see on screen.”

Dunham is far from the only auteur, though, with this failing; as Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic points out, why should a 24-year-old just starting out be blamed for not diversifying media when the problem is a systematic one? Judd Apatow is one of Hollywood’s most successful producer-writer-directors. He’s prolific, too: a typical year finds him involved in 2-4 high-profile projects in one capacity or another. And he’s not afraid to take risks, including, most recently, working with newbie Dunham to bring “Girls” to the screen. Yet no film of his has had a single leading character that Joey Drayton would have to think twice about bringing home to her parents. (Unless Tracy and Hepburn have a problem with emotionally-stunted man-children.) The few non-white characters in Superbad, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and the others in his stable, even 40 Year Old Virgin — featuring Apatow’s most diverse cast and his smartest script — exist on the fringes of the story and are there mainly for comic effect.

His most recent foray into relationship comedy, Five Year Engagement, which I recently reviewed with writer Adam Freelander for the Billfold, wastes the talents its few non-white actors by rendering them as depressing stereotypes: the bespectacled, socially-awkward Asian guy, the dick-obsessed black man, and Mindy Kaling, who, as Adam puts it, plays “Mindy Kaling, which is technically not an ethnic stereotype, though I’m concerned it soon will be.” The movie’s inability to deal with race in any kind of sophisticated way distracts from its otherwise poignant, interesting exploration of real-life problems.

Is it better, ultimately, to write minority characters, even when you end up making an ass of yourself, or should you stick to what you know at the expense of relegating minorities to the margins, if you remember to include them at all? Put simply: Try and maybe fail, or don’t try?

Unfortunately, as long as “don’t try” is an option, too many filmmakers and showrunners will quail at the prospect of doing it wrong and getting criticized and will revert to what feels easier. We need a sustained outcry against having movie after movie and TV show after show that is as white as a “New Yorker” cartoon. This is not about Lena Dunham; this is about our culture, and how much more we will all benefit from color-blind casting in our media and, hopefully, in our lives. Studios needs to stop considering it an option to have a totally vanilla cast, or one that pretends to be a sundae just because it has a couple of sprinkles here and there. Producers need to insist on better minority characters, and to recruit minority writers, directors, and producers to help them and their staffs see around their blind spots. Everyone will be better for it.

And writers, have a little courage! Expand your boundaries. Good faith efforts are often rewarded, especially as long as the quality is there. Just ask Shonda Rhimes, whose show was just renewed for a ninth season. Channel the advice of one memorable minority character from a 1977 classic: “Do or do not. There is no ‘try.'”

 

ETA: Cross-posted to Huff Po here.

That Kind of Day

Today I appeared on Geraldo Rivera. That’s a sentence I never expected to utter. A producer approached me by email yesterday and the radio show featuring me — or rather, “Ester Bloom from the Huffington Post” — aired this morning.

The whole thing happened fast enough that my head is still spinning. Part of me keeps thinking in quips, like “I knew I had a face for radio!” Another part of me wishes my dad had lived long enough to hear me interviewed about “Mommy Porn” on a daytime talk show, even though I know full well he wouldn’t have been able to listen to the segment. I used the words “butt plug” after all. That’s more or less the only part of the conversation I remember.

A far less racy piece went up on the Billfold, a fun conversation between my friend Adam and me about the film “Five-Year Engagement.” Movie reviews in g-chat form that tell you, ultimately, how much you should pay to see a particular film (if anything). We’ve done two of them so far and I’m excited for the next. It’s slated to be a pretty regular feature, which works for me. I haven’t gotten to write about movies consistently since college.

THEN I got an exciting email from Creative Non-Fiction magazine that said that, if all goes well, a piece of mine will appear in their summer issue.

Perhaps this is what my horoscope meant?

Over all, your career will make much more progress than you’ve seen anytime until now. Mars, the ruler of your house of fame, has been retrograde (January 23 to April 13) and now is gathering steam. When a planet like active Mars goes retrograde, he does not move from 0 to 200 miles an hour instantly. Mars needs time to ramp up, and he won’t be back to full speed until early August. No matter – each day Mars gets stronger, and besides, anything is better than what you’ve experienced so far this year. You must have felt like you were walking through glue. You will like the change.

So far, I do like the change, but I remain vigilant — things have gone well before going badly before. I take nothing for granted.

 

ETA: Here’s the link to the podcast: http://wabcradio.com/sectional.asp?id=41488, from the 5/9 show whose blurb reads, “Mommy porn has become all rage across the country! For those who do not know what that is…Geraldo tells all. The book Fifty Shades of Gray is leading this phenomenon in this country. Geraldo talks to Huffington Post writer Ester Bloom about this.” I’m on from roughly minute :30 to :40.

What to Expect: Complete Inanity, Fat Shaming, And A History Lesson

Thank God for What to Expect When You’re Expecting! Without their daily emails, I would only spend one out of four minutes every day worried about body image and the bizarre physical manifestations of pregnancy; thanks to their constant carping on issues of weight, however, that increases to one out of three.

Today’s fat-phobic screed was the worst I’ve seen so far. It begins:

Here are some other [points] that might motivate you to keep your eye on the scale — and your hands out of the cookie jar (unless, of course, you’ve wisely stocked the cookie jar with soy chips).

Reader, I love you, and I even love potato chip substitutes, but if you keep a cookie jar in your house filled with soy chips, I will plant a bomb under your carriage and you will go up in flames like Archduke Ferdinand.*

*Fascinating historical note: the Archduke never did go up in flames. I just learned, doing some cursory research, that although bombs were thrown at Franz’s carriage, the assassins were incredibly inept, and none of the bombs managed to do the intended damage.

According to Wikipedia, “The motorcade passed the first assassin, Mehmedbašić. Danilo Ilić had placed him in front of the garden of the Mostar Cafe and armed him with a bomb.[60] Mehmedbašić failed to act. Ilić placed Vaso Čubrilović next to Mehmedbašić, arming him with a pistol and a bomb. He too failed to act. Further along the route, Ilić placed Nedeljko Čabrinović on the opposite side of the street near the Miljacka River arming him with a bomb. At 10:10 am,[61] Franz Ferdinand’s car approached and Čabrinović threw his bomb. The bomb bounced off the folded back convertible cover into the street.[62] The bomb’s timed detonator caused it to explode under the next car, putting that car out of action, leaving a 1-foot-diameter (0.30 m), 6.5-inch-deep (170 mm) crater,[61] and wounding a total of 20 people according to Reuters.[63]

Čabrinović swallowed his cyanide pill and jumped into the Miljacka river. Čabrinović’s suicide attempt failed as the cyanide only induced vomiting, and the Miljacka was only five inches deep. Police dragged Čabrinović out of the river, and he was severely beaten by the crowd before being taken into custody.”

Muppets.

Franz was shaken up but all right. He went about his business, complaining a little (and who can blame him?) about the attempted murder. Then, however, he echoed the mistake made by so many heroines in horror movies: HE WENT BACK INTO THE HOUSE. Er, well, car, in this case. That is like if the bullet had missed JFK and he decided to just keep joy-riding through Dallas to feel the wind in his hair. Sure enough, that decision was the death of him and the start of World War I: he was shot to death on the road.

/end note

Back to fat and how bad it is. Perhaps you were unaware, you fat fatty, that fat is bad, perhaps because you missed your regularly scheduled Fat Shaming Class or didn’t you do your reading on the Obesity Epidemic. Let’s go over the high points, shall we?

Excess weight gain increases your risk for developing hypertension and diabetes — both of which make your pregnancy much harder to manage, while creating risks for your baby. The heavier you are, the more likely your baby is to be larger, increasing the odds that a vaginal delivery will require the use of forceps or vacuum. That’s if you can deliver vaginally at all, since being overweight increases your chances of delivering by C-section — which makes for a more difficult recovery after your baby is born.

Obesity and ongoing health issues: Gain too much weight and you’re likely to retain twice as much after your baby is born than you would have if you gained within the guidelines. And if you think all you need is time and willpower to lose the extra fat, research has weighed in with a different idea: Women who gain excessively and don’t lose the extra weight within six months after the birth are at a much higher risk of being obese ten years later. Obesity often leads to significant health issues, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.

YOUR FAT WILL LEAD TO DEATH AND SHAME, not necessarily in that order, so get it together, you fat fatty! What defines a fat fatty, by the way? So glad you asked. “If you’ve been instructed to gain the standard 25-to-35-pound total in your pregnancy [i.e., by 22 weeks, or five-and-a-half-months], by this week you’re likely to have gained anywhere from ten to 16 of those pounds.”

Here is a picture of Nicole Ritchie at around 22 weeks. If that represents a weight gain of only 10-16 lbs, I’ll buy a hat just so I can eat it.

Ritchie at 5 mos

What to Expect is saying you should strive to be thinner than NICOLE RITCHIE. And look at that picture! You can still see her ribs!

Say you haven’t managed to restrict your gain to only 10-16 lbs at this stage of pregnancy. What should you do to avoid the terrible fate outlined above? Now that you’ve larded your body with all this extra fat that’s going to ensure that you’ll have a C-section and be obese forever until you die young and your corpse has to be airlifted out of your bedroom with a crane, how can you rid yourself of those pounds? TOO BAD, SUCKER. You can’t. As the email goes on to note in a parenthetical, “losing weight is always a bad idea when you’re pregnant.”

Thank you, What to Expect. I will be forwarding all further correspondence to the dumpster, where it belongs. In the future, I will be getting my health news and information from Gretchen Reynolds and the NYT.

 

NOTE: Because I am as vain and neurotic as the next person, I feel the need to mention that I have not actually gone off the deep end, weight-wise. But what if I had? Or what if I do soon? What if other people getting this email have been trying their hardest and yet have been putting on more weight than they would have liked? These kinds of emails are gross and unhelpful. Fat shaming is not productive, not even when it comes from a “good” place, as these pieces of advice ostensibly do.

A Closer Look at “Mommy Porn”

Currently, Fifty Shades of Grey—an Australian e-book by an unknown female author with no marketing budget—is fourth on USA Today’s Best-Selling Books list, behind only the “Hunger Games” trilogy. Grey’s two sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Free, have also climbed into the Top 20. And panic is gripping the nation, because these books, which are being enjoyed by The Ladies, are about The Sex.

In the past few weeks, several news pieces have addressed the issue of women getting off on these books and what that means. “Will Fifty Shades Of Grey Make ‘Mommy Porn’ The Next Big Thing?” asks Forbes.Fifty Shades of Grey has America’s national thong in a twist,” declares USA Today, adding, “However you categorize it—mommy porn, erotic fiction, Twilight fan fiction gone rogue, a symbol of moral decay—British writer E.L. James’ NC-17 bondage trilogy has gone from e-book cult favorite to publishing phenomenon.” Everyone from so-called “mommy bloggers” to hardcore feminists is hailing the tome as a triumph for women, in spite of the book’s strong themes of female submission at the hands of a high-powered man,” says FoxNews.com. The article also goes on to use the now-inescapable phrase “mommy porn.”

Captain Obvious would point out that there is no such thing as “daddy porn,” presumably because dads remain men, even after procreating. Once they give birth, women apparently morph into “mommies,” neutered creatures who may be venerated but don’t need to be taken seriously. Hence their easily-dismissed “mommy blogs” and now their “mommy porn.”

The phrase, even more than the phenomenon of married ladies reading smut on their Kindles, raises all sorts of interesting questions about how women’s sexuality is viewed by society at large. By modifying the highly-charged word “porn,” are we diminishing its power because we remain deeply uncomfortable with the idea of even adult, married women having erotic needs? According to the breathless news coverage, the answer seems to be, “Kind of, yeah!”

There is a long and storied history of women reading to build up, and blow off, steam. I first learned that “romance” was merely a polite literary euphemism for “porn” when, on a sleepover in sixth grade, a friend showed me her secret stash of paperback Harlequins, over which we stayed up for hours, wide-eyed and red-faced. In seventh grade, I found out that “historical fiction” could be another, more high-brow mask for “porn” when I stumbled on Jean M. Auel’s Earth Children series. (Plot synopsis: pre-historic hottie Ayla, raised among Neanderthals, meets sensitive Cromagnon Jondalar. Pausing only to invent throwing spears, awls, and probably an early version of the iPad, Ayla hanky-panks with Jonadalar across early Europe.) Auel’s books have sold over 45 million copies worldwide. Harlequin is one of the most profitable publishing companies anywhere; according to the New York Times, they make hundreds of millions of dollars in sales every year.

That sex sells, even to women, should not, in 2012, come as a surprise. Yet something about this publishing phenomenon seems to have gotten under our culture’s skin. What’s different about Fifty Shades of Grey? It’s kinky.

The sex in Harlequin romances tends to be extremely tame. The rugged, beefy, All-American men bursting out of their shirts on the covers of the paperbacks telegraph to the reader all she or he needs to know about what’s going to happen in the bedroom (or on the grass, or aboard the pirate ship): straight-up, classical seduction. Jondalar, who is, coincidentally, described to look like a dead-ringer for Fabio, never expresses a desire more risqué than giving Ayla pleasure. Even Sex and the City, which expanded our society’s understanding of women’s ability to both enjoy, and speak freely, about sex, portrayed women who were pretty traditional in terms of what turned them on. No main character had a hidden fetish or a desire to dominate or be dominated. In Grey, a young woman signs a contract giving an older man control over her life. The readers in Grey’s universe are not in the Kansas of Harlequin novels anymore, or even the sanitized New York City of SATC; they’ve crossed over into the darker, edgier world of the 2002 indie/cult-favorite Secretary. Except that, for the first time, their support has helped something marginal cross over into the mainstream.

Grey’s success has communicated to the news media that some women’s taste runs to BDSM and power play—enough women, in fact, to get the attention of the Gray Lady herself. To some degree, this is old news. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight, both bona fide phenomena, spawned reams of fan fiction by drawing on similar themes (especially Buffy’s Season 6, which you can hardly watch without overheating); the original draft of Grey was, in fact, Twilight fan fiction. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series leans heavily on explicit sex scenes that are anything but square. And for power play, it’s hard to beat the unorthodox use of cigars in the Starr Report, now fifteen years old. Ultimately, the BDSM buzz around Grey seems like a red herring. What shocks the media is not that women are paying to read about a naïve college student submitting to a relative stranger; it’s that women—even adult, married women with children—are jonesing to read about sex at all.

As a society, we tend to ignore Harlequin’s massive success, or treat it as some kind of anomaly; and we seem more comfortable with the long-running joke that Porn for Women is men doing housework than the idea that women also like their raunch, including material that’s less-vanilla and more Karamel Sutra. Porn is porn! Lots of people consume it and, as with sexism, we know it when we see it. Most importantly, moms don’t hang up their gonads after their kids are born; they remain sexual beings. Ye gods! Where do you think babies continue to come from? If you really don’t know, I have a book or two I could recommend.

ETA: This piece also appears on the Huffington Post! Read it here

The Mysteries of Life

Pregnancy has turned me into a baby. For stretches of time, all I want to do is eat, sleep, and cry. My needs feel impossible to articulate, so I wave my tiny fists in the air with impotent frustration, until someone holds me and I sniffle a little and am comforted.

Who said “second childishness” comes only with old age? (That’s a rhetorical question: I know who.)

In short, being knocked up is AWESOME. I get these hilarious emails from “What to Expect” that say things like:

“At 18 weeks pregnant, your baby is hitting the height chart at five and a half inches long and weighs about five ounces (the weight of that boneless chicken breast you’re making for dinner).”

Hahahahha yes! Boneless chicken breast! That’s exactly what I’m making for dinner, because I am a non-vegan, fetus-carrying version of Gwyneth Paltrow. No way will I be stumbling home from the gym and heating up some frozen Trader Joe’s entree in the microwave. Similarly, no way did I go to Five Guys for lunch today to satisfy a serious craving for french fries.

My favorite “What to Expect” tidbit was actually meant for the male half of the couple, and it said, “Soon you’ll see whether she’s carrying Daddy’s Little Princess or Daddy’s Little Slugger.” These were the options! I was like, man, what if I want a Jewish baby? Or at least one that’s not quite so aggressively gendered? Why not just tell me I get to have either a He-Man or a She-Ra?

Speaking of gender, people keep misusing that word. No one wants to say “sex,” possibly because it will remind me of what got me into this pickle. So people insist on asking, “When will you find out the gender?” I’m tempted to answer, “Oh, when squee* is in middle school, maybe, or goes through puberty–whichever comes first.” Since I’m not an asshole, though, and because being outraged all the time is exhausting, I answer the question they mean to ask and tell them, At the Week 20 Anatomy Screening, coming up soon!

It will be pretty exciting, if only because Mr. Ben and I get to narrow down names. No, I’m not sharing the options as they currently exist. Okay, fine, but keep it a secret, okay? We’re thinking Vanilla Lacrosse Galynker for a boy (“Nill” for short) and Raisinette Aloha Bloom for a girl. Or vice versa, whatever.

Back to the point: I have become a baby–selfish, emotional, needy, uncommunicative–but the world, sadly, is not baby-proofed. I still have to ride the rush-hour Q train every day, pressed up against people who are singing along to whatever’s playing too loudly on their iPods. Meetings at work are still mandatory. (Sadly, I can’t suddenly shout, “The baby doesn’t like it!” and walk away from unpleasant situations, as one good friend suggested.)

And art is not a reliable escape. Anne Lamott’s new memoir about becoming a grandmother, Some Assembly Required, could have been an adorable, stress-relieving bedtime book. Instead, its vivid, horrific description of pregnancy, labor, delivery, and early motherhood sent me down a panic spiral last night that left me hyperventilating on the floor by the bathroom. And the intense Iranian drama A Separation is a great film, but its plot hinges on a 2nd-trimester miscarriage. (Surprise!) I gotta improve my screening process.

Just over 17 weeks down; 23-ish to go. There’s still time to get the hang of things.

 

* Our gender-neutral pronoun of choice

full of pith and vinegar