About Me

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Bloomington, IN, United States
Writer: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Attorney: part-time pro-bono lawyer for animal rights law and family law. Professor: literature, creative writing, special topics course (assumed identities, critical race studies, animals and ethics, etc.) at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Everything in its place: a place for everything: homeless cats and immigrant deer

"But I always change the sheets on Monday." (pet deer)

                (feral cat)

     "Forget the fireplace and the commercial cat food---I dare you . . . ."

My mother used to quote this adage: "A place for everything and everything in its place." This philosophy governed  weekly house cleaning, a task I was assigned every Saturday, like clock work, when I'd pull a bandana over my hair, and pull out the dust rags and the Hoover, and begin to rein in  the messes of my four younger siblings. Order, the antidote to chaos. Toys where toys should be. Books back on shelves.

Which brings me to the topic at hand: immigrant deer and homeless cats, and what happens when we perceive other sentient beings as not being where they're supposed to be.

The vitriolic and often mean-spirited  rhetoric around human homelessness and human immigration seem to spring from the same, or at least similar, panic about geographical space and, in this case,  who  (not what) belongs where and who doesn't belong here. (I won't go into the historic imbalances of private property allocations, etc.) "Home" in this country can mean  "house," or "apartment," not a car or a doorway, not a cardboard box, and not a pad of pavement under an overpass. There is a particular kind of uncompassionate  anxiety expressed around homelessness that results in blaming those without what we think of as "homes" or "places to go." "Home" can also mean "country" or "national identity,"  or "looking like an American" (which, for a long time, meant you know what), and is often launched like a grenade at immigrants, both documented and undocumented, particularly if they don't "look like you know what."

In addition, as we heard from our angry right-wing Tea Partyers, there's just way too much free-loading going on these days:  by the homeless (many of whom are of course damaged war vets and the mentally ill) and by the "illegal immigrants" (you know the ones who come "in search of a handout," but on whom our economy depends, the shadow labor hired cheap to drywall our remodels and landscape our expensive gardens and care for our children).  And, additionally,  if you don't look like me (whatever the "me" looks like), you really need to go "back to where you came from" or, at the very least, "go home."

But what does that mean?  Home, I mean. Globalization, human encroachment, overpopulation of people, long histories of colonization and imperialization, destruction of habitat all add up to a tectonic shift in notions of place: for better and for worse, animals and people are both moving around and being moved around, and more and more animals are showing up  "loose" in urban spaces. 

In Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, it's become increasingly noticeable  how  the same kinds of  angry rhetoric gets deployed around nonhuman animals who are not "in their place."  Consider  specifically feral cats ("homeless") and, more urgently, the urban deer ("immigrants" ), both of whose very lives are endangered by fear and ignorance of human beings, and both of whom are perceived as being in the wrong place (deer don't belong in cities and cats belong safely ensconced inside someone's house).  One is "wild" and one is "domestic."  Or so we believe. And never the twain shall meet, which is why feral cats and urban deer defy these neat categories that help us humans organize our lives. Advocate groups  like Feral Cat Friends or Alleycats, whose volunteers are devoted to the philosophy of TNR (trap, neuter, release), and defenders of the deer are dismissed as naive "bleeding hearts" (Bambi lovers, etc.).

 "Go back to the forests," we say to these deer who (a) are actually "urban," having come from private preserves in the city that were then disrupted by development, and (b) would likely die of stress myopathy if drugged and relocated. "Go back to the forests," we say, as we destroy  the forestland to develop more cookie-cutter houses (for profit), destroying habitat, and creating the perfect conditions for an edge species like deer, and other "displaced" wildlife.  And of course who's to blame?  Well, the deer, of course, who quietly wander in Bloomington, now well-adapted to urban life,  going about their cervid business.  They're the ones who are wrong, not us, we say. Not unlike the hate-filled language around the thousands of immigrants who flow into the U.S. (please note our economy depends on the labor of undocumented persons), the language around  deer includes variations on "other," outsiders, "dangerous," "predatory" (deer are actually prey animals), "free-loading" (helping themselves to gardens or bird bath below-----and note, that bird bath is for BIRDS, not deer, how dare he?).

Below is a picture of a "homeless" cat. At least that's how he was described in Photo Bucket. How do we know he's homeless? He's taking a nap under newspapers. There's no evidence of human comfort around him; instead there's flora, maybe someone's garden,  and he appears to be sleeping on a rock.  Substitute a human being under newspapers or cardboard box and add a shopping cart, maybe strip away the foliage and put in a dumpster, and you've got all the signifiers. Human garbage. Cat garbage. Homeless.

He needs a human to take him "home" and domesticate him. He must belong somewhere.

However, take this same cat and put him here:

Transformation! House cat.  Sofa. Where a human would sit.  The status of each of these cats is calculated by the relationship each cat has to the human world. One is a pet, loved and doted on. The other is a nuisance, something to eliminate.

Small aside:

The refusal to spay and neuter domestic  cats leads to their  proliferation, increasing the feral population at astronimical rates (shelters euthanize cats at a much higher rate than they euthanize dogs, etc.)   

Feral cats are not a cat problem, they are a people problem.  Urban deer are not a deer problem, they're a people problem.  And maybe instead of seeing them as "problems," we might start to think about them as urban companions, and contemplate what it means to share space with them.

The way we define ourselves in relation to urban deer and homeless cats is quite striking, and has  material impact on their very flesh and blood bodies.  We're happy to see cervids behind bars in zoos, or maybe off in the distance in a woods, or on a wintry holiday card, but not in our backyards. We love our pet indoor cat who is well-fed, vetted, and "pillowed,"  and may even match the sofa, but despise the "stray cat" who enters uninvited, a transgressor, threatening our well-organized lives, a disruption.  He doesn't look clean (with the deer, people claim they look sick).  We call animal control to take him  away.  Meaner people shoot or poison him.

These outsiders  don't belong here. For one, we  can't control them. They do things that interfere with the way we imagine our own lives.  They interrupt what we think of as "civilized life," which includes gas-guzzling cars and cables and cell phones.  It's annoying when you go to back out from the garage and there's the feral cat curled on the car hood.  It's disconcerting when you set off on a stroll through your neighborhood, and a young buck is crossing the street in front of you.   But what if we started asking different kinds of questions.  Animals  ask us to think deeply  about ourselves. We, too, are animals.  But we set limits. Why is it we enjoy these animals  as represented on the Discovery channel at a safe distance (of course we can shut them off with the remote any time we want, and we don't have to deel with the inconvenience of their physical presence up close: their actual bodies, and the bodily evidence of their presence (scat, poop, marking by male cats, flower damage by deer, etc.), but fear or despise them when they move among us?

Homeless cats. Immigrant deer.  This could be a poem.  Fur, claws, hooves, antlers, eyes, noses, ears, one a predator, the other prey, though not of each other. Sometimes  I imagine the deer and cats passing in the night. What would they say to one another? What are all these people doing here?

(More to follow)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

At the Supermarket

As a kid, I remember opening my mother's fridge, hanging off the door handle, and whining, "But there's nothing to eat."

This  wasn't the true.  What I really meant was, there's nothing I want to eat.
Big difference. Sure there were apples and oranges and bananas left out for the taking. There were nuts and my mother's homemade bread.

But sometimes a kid just wanted that toxic blast. 

We'd get it when we visited my dad's relatives, so much so, that on the drive home, we'd have turned green and were throwing up in the back seat. My dad's side of the family were a hefty bunch, as wide as they were tall, and there was no end to the sugar rush. Put simply, salad at their houses involved a lot of mayo, whipped cream, and jello.  Kids' paradise.

My mother was ahead of her generation, though at the time in my book, she was as outdated as they came. Her vegetable bin had actual vegetables, and sometimes the carrots actually had green fringe dangling off the ends. And if she bought beets, she cooked the greens! I mean, really! And there were nuts and fruits and milk and orange juice.

What, no potato chips? No Coke? No Ding-Dongs?  At my friends' houses I couldn't wait for the cornucopia of sweets, salts, and fats to make their appearance. Thank God for Fritos and Snicker's bars! Thank God for processed foods, sugared cereals, and TV dinners. Thank God for eating yourself sick.

At my house, dinner meant something cooked from scratch.  And "snack" meant popcorn.  Dessert was  ice cream, but only after you'd had all your dinner, which along with the main course, included vegetables and salads.

Years later, I am grateful to my mother. There isn't a vegetable I don't love.  There's almost nothing I won't eat.  And I'm a happy vegan.

Tonight I made one of my rare trips to the supermarket. "Supermarket" in Bloomington means either Kroger's or Marsh, or the one closest to me, O'Malia's. I should be used to it now, but I'm not. In I walk and it's as if I'm a kid again. I look around, up and down all those aisles choked with items  wrapped in plastic, boxed, and canned, and all I can do is say, "There's nothing to eat."

Up and down the aisles I go; everything's full of high fructose corn syrup, unpronounceable additives, preservatives that sound scarier than whatever you might get without them, sugar, fat, salt, etc.  Back and forth I wander. My cart is empty.  What on earth could I eat?

The produce is never local.  It's almost never organic. There may be a few limp greens or lettuce that are labeled organic,  but the bulk of the produce is eerie looking. The vegetables and fruits are over-sized, too bright, often waxed, and heavily sprayed.  They look nothing like what I grow in my organic garden. And they're expensive.   And all that "saving" they advertise? Caveat, emptor. What's being saved?

A friend of mine just told me that her daughter attended a 4-H camp this summer where all the food was vegan. Huh? I said. 4-H vegan? She said indeed it was true, that the camp had figured out that serving whole foods was cheaper than serving---well----meat, and processed foods.

The irony still lingers.  4-H, which teaches children to raise farm animals and then trade on their affections by selling them when they're nice and fat to slaughterhouses, feeds vegan food at camp. Interesting!

What strikes me as deeply sad  is that in the richest country in the world, we have the largest childhood obesity problem (not to mention adult obesity), while  we have an excess of supermarkets that offer aisles and aisles of crap, but very little "real" or "whole" foods. 

When I walk into the "supermarket," I have a freak-out moment because there's almost nothing I want to buy.  That is because I don't recognize much of what is there.  This is because there's very little "real food" in supermarkets.   What Americans have grown accustomed to is row upon row of packaged, processed foods, so removed from the source that they have to give it special names that involve words like "bits" and "fingers." Frozen tator tots don't look or taste anything like a real potato.    Every since the first TV dinner reared its ugly little head in the early 50's, convincing the American housewife that this was the wave of the modern future, we have fallen victim to the perverse machinations of greedy corporations selling us absolute crap labeled as "food." Why? Because they make so much more money doing so.

Some years ago, Nestle's was busted over a terrible scandal in Africa. They had gone into countries where women were breast-feeding their babies, and where the water sources were highly contaminated, and convinced these women that their babies would be better off drinking Nestle's formula to "protect" their children, using---well, yes---the contaminated water. Healthy babies suddenly sickened, ended up with dysentary, and died horrible, slow deaths.

Supermarkets are scary places.  You don't have to go to McDonald's to get "fast food." It's right there at the supermarket. I don't even recognize probably 80 percent of the products sold. And yet hard working people go in every day and fill up their carts with over-priced products, believing they're buying "food." Maybe there's a reason so many pharmacies can be found right in supermarkets.  Supermarkets sell stuff that makes us sick. We go to the doctor who prescribes medication for us to buy at the pharmacy. And then we're back at the supermarket picking up a few more items.  It's a vicious circle. 

Supermarkets are only part of the "food crisis" in America.  Our food system is very broken, from the corporate farming that has stolen the livelihoods of small farmers and created growing practices that have nothing to do with healthful foods, but profit.  This is why it's even more imperative nowadays to shop at farmers' markets, buy local produce, and grow your own, even if it's just a pot of tomatoes and a few greens.  When you start to eat "straight from the garden" and "straight from the trees," you'll be amazed at the flavor, and you might even feel the difference in your body!

I keep wanting to write a sci-fi story about the supermarket. We have a government that spends a lot of time and tax payers' dollars warning of the "terrorist threat," and "illegal immigrants," etc. The biggest threat to this country is  not terrorism, but our collective bad health, caused, in part, not just by our own individual choices, but the absolute corporatization of our food system. 

We are what we eat. 

P.S. This is not food:

Monday, May 14, 2012

How Do I Go Vegan

Because I get asked this so much, I'm going to write a quick post in response with Myths and Facts:

1. Myth: It must be so hard
    Fact: Being vegan is easy, but  sadly, we live in a culture that makes eating healthfully difficult. Why? Because there's profit in processed foods, packaging, etc., and not nearly as much $$$ in the "close to the source" foods.  The majority of so-called edible products in chain grocery stores and chain restaurants are not really edible.  If you can, head to the vegetable and fruit sections, and buy whatever grains and pasta you can in bulk. Start reading ingredients. If you don't know what it is, don't eat it!

2. Myth: It's so expensive
Fact: Being vegan is no more expensive than not being vegan. In fact, if you eliminate meat, you're likely to spend less. Buy in bulk. Stock up on grains, beans, nuts, and legumes. Get a spice shelf going (I recommend Indian spices!).  The fact is, eating poorly is far more costly in the long run than eating a healthy, well-balanced, close-to-the-source diet. 

3.  Myth: You need meat for protein.
Fact: Protein is the least of a vegan's worries. Protein is everywhere. The meat industry has convinced us that we need animal flesh for protein. Not so.  And the dairy industry has convinced us the same. The fact is, 80% of adult Americans are lactose-intolerant. Go figure . . . .

4.  Myth: I had a friend who went vegan and became anemic.
Fact: I can't dispute your friend's claim, but it is likely that your friend was not eating a well-rounded diet.  And meat is not the only "cure" for anemia. You can be a total junk-food vegan, starting with Oreos, Fritos, etc.  They're "vegan," but full of chemicals, salts, sugars, fats, and massive calories, with no nutrition.  There are tons of wonderful iron-rich vegan foods, starting with fresh greens, etc.

5.  Myth:  There isn't much you can eat, is there?
Fact: Meat and dairy make up a  miniscule part of the human diet. We are omnivores, and there is a world of food out there that costs less, is more healthful, and tastes delicious, and which the meat and dairy industries don't want you to know about. Remember, the Texas beef guys who sued Oprah after she made negative statements about the content of burgers?  At both state and federal levels, these industries have tons of lobbying power to insure that their profits are maintained. Remember how long it took the tobacco industry to be questioned?  When you consume commercial meats and dairy, you're also consuming antibiotics, dangerous chemicals, animal feces, pus, etc.  Yes, it's true.  And you're contributing to untold animal suffering. And for what? If you think about it, you wouldn't go eat out of your cat's litter box or scrape a dead possum off the road, now would you?  Why do you want animal flesh rotting away in your insides?

6. Myth: People need meat
Fact: Cats need meat. Raptors need meat. Human beings don't. We are not obligate carnivores. Obligate carnivores have claws and very short intestines. They kill and consume fresh meat.  While human beings can certainly eat meat, we do not need it. It's a choice.  Meat became associated with wealth in past centuries, and this led to the idea that meat was a core component of diet. It's not.  Ask who benefits? Not the consumer, who ends up with blocked heart valves, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and perhaps even dementia (associated with meat consumption---remember Mad Cow disease?).

7.  Myth: If you stop eating meat, your social life suffers.
Fact: Not at all.  Part of this involves being flexible. For example it's very difficult for me to smell flesh cooking on a barbeque,  but if I'm invited to a picnic I don't say, "Oh, gross" (even though I'm thinking it), I just bring along veggie burgers, and condiments, to share with others, many of whom like veggie burgers. Lots of my friends have been amazed how easy it is to cook a delicious vegan meal.  Who can argue with pasta primavera, or vegan chili, or gorgeous salads, or a vegan chocolate mousse, or pie? 

8.  Myth:  You have to eat raw foods if you're a vegan
Fact: No, though raw foods are wonderful for you, a raw food diet is different from veganism. What do I eat? Pizza, chocolate, fabulous salads chock full of everything, coffee, smoothies, Indian food, pastas, "burgers," etc. You can make a vegan version of just about anything, even "chicken caesar salad!"  It's all in the ingredients.

9. Myth: Give up leather? Never! I want to wear cute shoes
Fact: Vegan and non-leather shoes and boots have gone beyond cute. No one can tell the difference. Plus (secret) you pay a whole lot less.  I'm constantly being complimented on sandals, shoes, and boots that are non-leather and/or vegan. And no one was hurt in the process.

10.  Myth:  It sounds like a good idea, but it's too overwhelming
Fact: Start small. Start with one day a week. Lots of great, easy recipes can be found online or in cookbooks, if you're inclined that way. While I went vegan overnight and never looked back, I learned one really important thing: don't try to replicate meat and dairy.  In other words, don't grab the processed meats and fake cheese. What do I put on a vegan pizza?  Try roasted garlic or fresh avocado. As someone raised on dairy, I never thought I could give up cheese, but here I am, happily finally fabulous alternatives, and my arteries aren't hardening! Instead of parmesan cheese on pasta, I mix brewer's yeast, a pinch of salt, and ground walnuts. It's delish!

Final note:  Whatever you do, have a sense of humor. While animal suffering is serious business, and the meat and dairy industry don't care about public health, you can still live your life with a smile as a vegan.  Enjoy food . . . enjoy lots of different foods . . .  veganism is not about denying yourself pleasure, it's about discovering new pleasures, sharing them with friends, and knowing you're doing yourself a huge favor by being healthy. You're also doing animals a favor, at least symbolically, by refusing to participate in factory farming.

Be sure to add items like flax seeds and hemp seeds and chia seeds and nutritional yeast  to your diet to get your omegas and B's.  Try almond milk instead of cow's milk.  It's so high in protein, your feet will lift off the ground.

Make your own granola (cheap and easy and fast) instead of buying processed cereals.  You'll learn . . . have fun . . . no guilt . . . become a vegan freak and enjoy food more! Being vegan is a real joy. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bitch: The Parts of Speech

Everyone knows a female dog is referred to as a "bitch."  That's a noun. And when applied to a female human, well, it can signify a defiant,  manipulative, overbearing, termagantish, tough, no-nonsense, even Lady MacBeth-esque cold-blooded, "unnatural" woman. Earlier in its history, "bitch" referred to a sexually promiscuous woman. (There is of course no equivalent for promiscuous men. Who could object to being called a Lothario or a playboy or even a womanizer, the latter  which, while not exactly complimentary, still carries a bit of whimsy with it?)

The word "bitch"  is often used by women themselves about other women.  Who can ever forget that moment in the cult film Alien when Ellen Ripley (aka Sigourney Weaver), when confronted by massive naughty female power, screams to the alien, "Get away from her, you bitch!" All the women in the theater I attended began to clap and yell.

There are also women who will say in the hazy spirit of what some might view as "proud reappropriation," "I'm such a bitch."  But despite the fact that there's a feminist magazine called Bitch, and many young women seem to use the word as freely as their male counterparts, I remain unconvinced that the word can really be recouped.

For me,  the word has evolved specitically to denigrate women whom others view  as too strong and powerful, women who speak their minds, women who don't kowtow.  I don't mean women guilty of savagery or nastiness to others.  If that's the case, let's just say, "She's been so nasty." But why  does nastiness make her a "bitch,"  a word that is intended to divest a woman of her humanity and her strength of personhood.    That "bitch" is so often used to describe noncompliant, self-assertive, autonomous women, while behaviors in men are well-regarded, even encouraged, it is hard not to feel the visceral effects of its gendered.  Despite a long tradition of comparing people to nonhuman animals (clever as a fox, sneaky as a cat),  the terms used to distinguish between  gender  in animals carry different values. A "stud," for example, or a "young buck" translates to a  strong, virile manly figure of sexual prowess. A "studly guy" is admired and even envied.  The "bitch," however, is the female who is bred (or "fucked"), who carries her young and feeds them, often with distinctive changes to her body (large, hanging nipples, etc.).  In addition, in the purebred world, many bitches need to be restrained during breeding. In the dog fighting world, the term of art for contraptions to keep the female dogs from resisting the male is "rape stand."   Many dog fighters mutilate the bitches by removing their teeth so they can't protect themselves.   Put another way, the image of the "bitch's" body is one of helpless machine to be manipulated for the simple purpose of reproduction. 

When the noun   "bitch" is applied to a man, it signals weakness (of the feminine kind), the one who is "done to," a man who can be metaphorically "fucked."  The female  "bitch" challenges male authority, and  doesn't follow gender rules. But the very speech act itselfof calling her a "bitch"  returns her to her "proper place."  She may act high and mighty, but underneath it all, she's "nothing but an animal."

As interjection, the word can be funny or violent, but never both. As predicate nominative for an inanimate object like "It's been a bitch of a day," it’s world-weary cool. As verb, it describes the act of complaint or whininess. As adjective, it’s diminutive-ized by that cute little "y" and means someone's cranky. As participle with "ing," it’s a compliment, as in "Bitchin' outfit!"

But as direct address, it hits with the force of a rock.

The other day, mid-morning, on my way to go dog-walking with a friend, I turned, as routine would have it,  down the dirt road running east of the University cross-country running course. It is  a road also used by various vehicles like dump trucks carrying stone and earth.  Ahead of me, parked in the middle of the road and making it impassible, sat  a red car with the driver's side open.  A white-haired, chubby man, with his back to me, was urinating in the road, in full view of whoever came along. I gently tapped my horn to let him know I was there, to save him embarrassment. He wheeled around, still urinating, and screamed something at me. Then he zipped himself up and stood there, refusing to move his car. I rolled down my window and said, "Excuse me, sir, can you pull up?"
This was the beginning. In response to my request he called me a bitch. I pointed out, "Sir, you're urinating in a public road. I need to drive ahead. Can you pull up?"

I should add that he had plenty of room to do so.

But instead of simply making room for me, he began advancing toward me, red face  whipped into a fury. What came out of his mouth was a string of ugly words,ugly, I should add, because of the anger and hatred imbuing them,  but the one repeated over and over, from his gaping mouth, stretched from mono-syllable into two was "bitch." "Yew biatch!" he kept screaming.  I quickly wound up my window, watching, rattled, as he came so close his face  was just inches from mine, and only the glass between us prevented the spit flying from his mouth from hitting me.

I sat there quietly, trying to steel my nerves. I kept thinking how sad this all was, how this man must feel so utterly powerless in the world, perhaps even humiliated that I caught him urinating, but unable to give a quick apology and pull his car forward.

When I refused to react, he walked back to his car,  and got in, but  instead of pulling up a few feet where he could have easily turned around on another road, he went into reverse, coming as close to my front bumper as he could without touching it. He was making a point. He was going to force me to go backwards, too. It was far more difficult for me to drive in reverse, because  the road at this point was narrow, and I would be backing out into a busier road. So I motioned  again for him to move forward. In my mind, I was pleading with him. When he wouldn't, I thought he'd misunderstood, and motioned again.

He got back out of his car and began his tirade again.  This time he included the word "bastard" (since, as we all know, a bastard is the offspring of the aforementioned promiscuous bitch,  which I found almost funny), and then  he amped up  "bitch" with the adjective "fucking" and so I had, in that moment, become the worst kind of bitch there is, a fucking bitch, .

Fearing he might have a gun, I nodded and  began to back my car out of the way. He jumped back in his car and backed up so fast he was threatening to hit my front bumper, as if to make a point. I quickly moved aside as soon as I could, pulling up on an embankment, but he pulled up beside me and continued to scream at me through his open window, how I was a fucking bitch, he was going to have me arrested, he was on diuretics and had to urinate (even though this wasn't the point), and so on.

And then he pulled off in a cloud of dust and went tearing around the corner.

"Bitch" may be one of the most violent words I know. And no amount of reappropriation or reclamation, if it's even possible, is going to change that (even the title of  Bitch Magazine, the feisty feminist publication that critiques gender in smart way, strikes me as a misfire).   And I'm sorry, but over the years when friends of mine have thrown  variations on "fabulous bitches" parties, I just can't get behind it. I'm happy to be fabulous, but I'm not happy to be anybody's bitch.

  "Bitch"  is specifically a word that goes to the heart of being female (biological or otherwise) and all the attendant misogyny, whether spoken by a woman or a man.  Aside from the word "nigger," which in American English remains maybe the most troubled word (others have written whole articles and even a book on its history so I'll avoid my own analysis here), even when it's "re-appropriated" by African Americans, and even when  it's the affectionate "my nigga," which is arguably  a different word, though not enough different to justify its use in any setting except maybe between intimates, the word "bitch" is one of the scariest words I know.  And when the word is spoken by a man, to my face, I automatically duck, to avoid the fist.

In truth, I have never been hit by a man, though there have been some close calls. I'm not sure what percentile of lucky women that puts me into, but I have always avoided men who seem inclined, regardless of their initial charm.   I did not grow up with male violence, but I have seen plenty of it, and you don't have to look far. I've witnessed on several occasions over the years women friends being beaten by male partners who initiated the violence with the word "bitch." I lived next door here in Bloomington for two years to a man and his "woman" who I'm sure were selling drugs, and when the man, who was also fond of screaming out racist and homophobic epithets, got ready to "kick off in the woman's ass," the prelude was always "bitch." As his anger mounted, she was now  "fucking bitch."  It was always at night. Always after midnight, in fact, when the world shrinks and another person's pain is yours, too. What followed was the sickening sound of glass bottles breaking, and then a  woman's voice  screaming back, then pleading. More sounds of thumps and breakage.  Then the slam of the back door,  and footsteps out to the driveway, and then the car motor gunning, and a squeal of tires, and then that gut-wrenching word again, often accompanied with a threat, "I'm gonna kill you, you bitch!"  I would wait----a part of me just wanted him to get it over with and just do it..  A part of me wanted to die with her, so she could be relieved of the misery.  And then the man was gone, and there would come the awful  silence. A silence that hung over me like a heavy curtain, making it hard to breathe, because I didn't know if she really was dead, or if she was hiding somewhere in that sad house, weeping to herself. It's then  I would reach for the phone in the darkness of my bedroom and dial 911.

 For me the  word "bitch" unlocks a door in a man's head.  Once you're a "bitch," you deserve what you get. Once you're a bitch, the quotation marks are gone.  It's not something someone else has said, it's who you are. And once you're no longer you, you're fair game. You're the generic target at the shooting range.  You've become every woman who's ever made this man feel small.

And the figure of "the bitch" is so deeply embedded in our culture, and so opposite of what little girls are supposed to learn to be, that I doubt there's any woman in America who doesn't know what a bitch looks like and what she does. The bitch isn't maternal or soft. The bitch might even have the nerve to be selfish, to live her life for herself.

The "bitch" is ubiquitous in literature, film, and television. Often, she's the kind of woman that other women hate, too, because in addition to being smart and clever and often very successful, she's man-hungry, overly sexualized,  very attractive, hard-hearted, and manipulative. She is, in a word, competition. She's also a threat to all "good women."  She wants your man. Or she wants your woman.

Nothing good ultimately comes from the bitch. Though she "gets away" with her bad behavior for a while, she finally  gets her comeuppance one way or another. Bitches never win.

Like witches and stepmothers in fairytales of yore, the  "bitch" is a figure in a cautionary tale.  

I've been called "bitch" so many times in my life that it's a wonder my psyche doesn't look like swiss cheese. Sometimes it's been by a man who believes I am not doing what he wants me to (a stranger on the street  who insists I say hello or smile and I don't), or someone I've inadvertently challenged in some way (could even be something as simple as a mixup at the gas pump).   Each time I hear the word, something inside me shatters.  Even as I walk away, I feel my chest tighten----take a breath---for what could follow on the heels of that word. I don't dare look back. But   I am counting, one step, two steps, three steps, until the word begins to fade on the air, which means he's not coming after me.

Though I take a linguist's view of language and love the nuances and colors and sounds of words, including slang and swearing, etc., I am in deep conflict over the word "bitch."  As a First Amendment baby, and because I'm also a pragmatist, I don't believe in speech codes, and I also believe the answer to "bad speech" is "more speech."  I'm anti-censorship, and I'd rather just get it all out there where you can actually see it. But, unlike other epithets,  the word "bitch" doesn't have a good comeback. In some ways, it moves beyond language and comes about as close to physical assault as any word I know.  It's the fist in my face.

The majority of times I've been called a "bitch" it's a man yelling at me, but there's the occasional woman driver, in a fit of road rage, who will use the word, as well, as she passes at 80 miles an hour.  Cycling alone, I've often been yelled at by men who apparently think it's funny to frighten a woman on a bicycle. Biking  through San Francisco, I was heading up the impossible incline of 25th Street, and feeling the incredible rush of overloaded muscles powering on, when a carload of guys pulled up next to me. I was out of breath, and with each pedal stroke, I was pulling down with the full force of whatever last shreads of strength  I had left.  The car slowed  and paced itself next to me. The windows were down. One of the guys made a grab for my ass. I almoTo dogde him, I almost lost control. But I hung on to the handlebars. Another began to chant in a sing-song, "Push, Bitch, push. Push, Bitch, push." The ass-grab I could ignore. But the repetition of that word "bitch," as I struggled to stay on top, threw off my balance. I lost my momentum, the pedal locked on me, and I almost fell over. My sandal  actually slipped  off my foot and caught on the pedal, and   for a moment, I was hobbled. My helpless clumsiness caused great merriment---- the driver gunned the motor, and the car shot off, with the accusations of "bitch" floating back over the air.

Each time I've been called "bitch," it's as if everything I am evaporates, and I'm left with a deep, sad emptiness. It's hard to shake. Being yelled at by strangers, or intimates, is never pleasant, but that damnable word cuts through to my very being. 

I have no problem being linked to a female dog. I love dogs. I love female dogs. But the word "bitch," when spoken in contempt and rage, no longer has any connection to the cheerful, adventurous,  freedom-loving  canine I imagine lives deep within me.

I should mention that the angry man on the road that day also called me a "motherfucker." Another word with a nasty history, it's pretty lost all its taint, and has turned into what I call a "tofu word," flavorless on its own, until it's spiced up by syntax and rhythm.   Truth is,  I don't think I've ever been called a "motherfucker" before, and that didn't bother me one bit.  Maybe because a motherfucker technically refers  to a man who, well, fucks someone's mother.   Though interestingly it also has a very gendered (and racialized) history, most people using it these days never think much about what it means as they drop it with the same casualness teenagers pepper their speech with "like."

Is it possible that the word "bitch" will eventually be divested of its violence?  Could it ever be about as uninteresting as library paste? I want to say maybe, but as long as I read the overwhelming statistics on violence against women, when I help another woman file a protective order against the man who's threatened to kill her, or I read  about another woman raped and murdered as she hiked alone in a forest or  slept at home in her own bed, I can't ignore the weight of the violence in that word. "Bitch" is mother-hatred, woman-hatred.

 Usage has become so mainstream that my students rely on  it in common parlance. And they don't seem to think twice about it. The other day in class, a sweet-faced male student referred to a character we were reading about as a "bitch."  Jolted,  I quickly glanced around the room at all the women, checking their reactions before I spoke.  I was poised to step in and ask the student to explain what he meant. To challenge him to think about the nuances of the word.  But there  was absolutely no response.  No one glanced up from their books.  Someone else had already moved the conversation ahead.  I felt alone as the word slid  through me like an arrow. The truth is, it  came out the other side, clean. I was still standing.  It didn't hurt as much, maybe because it wasn't directed to a live woman, or maybe because the young man used it without anger in his voice. Maybe, just maybe, the word has gotten softer for them, less loaded. Maybe, I thought, the word slips off their tongues without the power to pierce.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How to Play An Academic on TV (or in real life)

1.  If you're a man, go for the scruffy "I stayed up all night grading papers and working on my next big book" look.  Mussed hair, five o'clock shadow, clothes that looked as if they've been slept in help-----coffee stains are de rigeur. If you're a woman, either go chic haircut and designer clothing route, or funk up an  unkempt, world-weary look with hightops and a shiny chemise, but always look haggard, war-torn, beleaguered, and put upon, but never, ever defiant. Female martyrdom is highly valued in academia.

2.  If you aren't publishing enough, be sure to start conversations with, "My next book project . . . ." or "If I could just get off all these committees, I could finish The Hegemony of  the Alterity Marginal Positionalities."  If someone mentions, say, how nice the weather is, you can always bring the conversation back to your project: "Yes, funny you should mention spring---I plan to have The Hegemony of the Alterity Marginal Positionalities completed by then."

3. If you're publishing a lot, always just happen to have the copy of your latest book or article in your hand, and never allow more than 5 seconds to pass before you make an impromptu offering to unsuspecting colleagues. Better yet, don't give away a freebie, just encourage them to admire the fancy cover!

4.  Keep your office door open, even if you're out to lunch. Leave your coat behind and your computer on so it appears you're really there. (Sort of like stuffing your bed when you were a kid so you could slip away.)

5. In conversation, use every form of the word "busy" you can think of, and throw in some synonyms, as well. Phrases like "I'm just rushed off my feet" also add a particularly anglophilic veneer that is sure to impress.

6. Always carry stacks of papers around.  It doesn't matter what kind of papers, it's the quantity that counts. Make sure there are so many that you appear to be  in danger of throwing out your back.  The colleague who generously holds the door for you clearly isn't busy if his/her hands aren't full. Be sure to say something like, "Lucky you, with free hands! I'm just so rushed off my feet . . . ."

7.  Whatever you do, don't ever look happy. Happiness is deeply suspect. It usually means you aren't busy enough.  It means you have something  satisfying going on in your life outside the hallowed halls.

8.  Name drop---lots.  If someone asks you if it's raining outside, you can always say, "It was raining so much at the Seattle conference where  I ended up having coffee with FAMOUS PERSON IN PROFESSION." If someone says, "Do you have the time?" you can always say, "Oh, time, what a funny coincidence.  Time just got away from me when I was chatting it up with FAMOUS PERSON IN PROFESSION."

9. At faculty meetings, regardless of what the topic is,  preface everything with introductory subordinate clauses that suggest you are actually going to talk about the topic:  "Well, when I was on the University Committee for _____, we talked about this . . ." or "Let's see, since that was the same year I got my big  fat grant to go to FAMOUS PLACE . . ." Always make it about you. This is particularly useful at promotion and hiring meetings where conversations are actually about other people. Quick!---make it about you.  Handy rhetorical tricks include, "Well, the year I was doing all that labor serving as elected  interim president  for the Prestigious National Committee on ______ because members were so thrilled with the connections between my intellectual work and the focus on _______, I was pleased to notice that our candidate attended one of our meetings and gave a good presentation."  There! How generous you appear, and how clever you really are.  You've upstaged the candidate.

10.  "Accidentally" leave hard evidence of all your important work in the main photocopy room-----a letter of thank you, an invitation to speak, your 3-pound vitae, etc.  Being busy is not your only job. Being important is even better.