A Bitch Dreams of Buddha Hillary

After twelve days of bouncing around between and among numbness, outrage, horror, and sorrow, I had a dream last night that took me close to something like hope and happiness for the first time since election night. I share the details with you because I welcome your interpretive assistance and because I figure maybe you could use a glimpse of something like hope and happiness, too.

On the surface, the dream seems mostly to be about missed connections and lost opportunities. My partner and I are at Hillary Clinton’s inauguration. (See what I mean?) In one scene, I am trying to secure space for us to stand and watch the speech. She takes off with other friends. I don’t remember where they were headed, but I wasn’t upset about their leaving. They’ll be back. I have to do some negotiating with folks around me to save enough space, but that works out. I don’t think I dreamed the part where my partner returns and we listen to the speech. There’s a gap in the dream. In the next scene, we’re standing in line in a shop or cafe to get some kind of inauguration cake. It’s very crowded. We finally get up to the counter and the guy says, “Sorry, we’re not giving out anymore cake.” I can see they still have some. “Why not?” I ask. He shakes his head no. “We’re just not.”

So, yeah: Missed connections, lost opportunities, disappointment. The hopeful part actually came before everything I’ve just described, and I love it because it’s the goofy, wonderful, only-in-a-dream part.

In this earlier scene, my partner and I are together. I may be embellishing a bit here, but it seems to me we are on the steps of the Capitol, which is, of course, where presidential inaugurations take place. We are standing very close to the action, which (and this is the goofy, dreamy part) is taking place in a big beautiful pool – something like the Capitol’s reflecting pool only much deeper. The colors of this scene are gorgeous – the whiteness of the Capitol, the blueness of the pool and sky, the crystal clarity of the water as a bright yellow sun shines upon it. We are transfixed by what is happening in the pool, because Hillary Clinton is in it, riding a porpoise. (I swear I’m not embellishing that part.) We watch as she and the porpoise dive down into the water and then pop back up. She’s in a cerulean blue suit and wearing goggles, but when she comes to the surface her hair is still perfectly coiffed and her suit looks dry and ready for primetime. What I love most about the dream is the look on her face as she sits there astride the porpoise. She must have pulled off the goggles, because she gazes out at the crowd with a look of utter, head-to-soul delight. She smiles broadly and lets out a little whoop that recalls the brilliant “Woo, okay!” she uncorked with a shoulder shimmy in the first presidential debate. It is a Buddha’s smile of kindness, composure, and understanding. It is a smile that fully embraced the moment and all who stood with her in it. It is a smile to love, honor, trust, and emulate.

The dream was so vivid to me that I shared it with my partner as soon as I woke up, wanting to cement the details in my mind. A couple of hours later, I shared it with my yoga class because the election has been a preoccupation of ours for months, and we are all working through the heartbreak of Clinton’s Electoral College defeat. As it turned out, my teacher’s theme for this morning’s class was equanimity – as in, how to recover one’s sense of calmness and even-temperedness in the wake of something as unsettling as Clinton’s defeat and #NotMyPresident’s victory. (No, I will not use his name. You are safe from that here.) My dream and Natalie’s theme work beautifully together in a delightful instance of serendipity, for smiling Hillary astride her porpoise is a compelling image of equanimity. The porpoise carries her safely on a watery journey that transforms and prepares her for what lies ahead. At journey’s end, she is serene, happy, calm, and ready to face whatever comes.

Now, you could say I have falsified or done violence to my dream in rearranging the order of the parts I recall so that it ends in happiness rather than the disappointment of all those missed connections in the other scenes. Narratively, that may be true, though I’m not a hundred percent sure about the sequencing of the various scenes. Such details are always fuzzy in Dreamland. In any case, I would argue that my telling of it captures and emphasizes what is for me the emotional truth of the dream, which is all about resilience, equanimity, and the wisdom to be discovered through play (porpoises are playful, right?). I needed to glimpse that truth after nearly two weeks of feeling paralyzed by grief and uncertainty. I needed to be reminded that I have within me great reservoirs of strength and the skills I will need to navigate my own and my country’s future. I needed to bask in the light of that kind smile in order to reconnect with my compassion toward myself and all of the flawed, hurt, vulnerable beings with whom I share space and time.

I am not a religious person, but this dream came from a place so deep within myself that I might as well call it my soul, that place beneath or beyond rational thought that Emily Dickinson described as “Where the Meanings, are.” I will call it my Buddha Hillary dream, and I will think of it whenever I need to calm and refresh myself in the challenging days that lie ahead. I offer it to you, for whatever good it may do you as you travel along on your journey. May you also be accompanied by a helpful porpoise, and may Buddha Hillary smile on you, always.

Namaste, Bitches.

Hillary Rodham Clinton

A Bitch’s Love Letter to Hillary

November 14, 2016

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Post Office Box 5256
New York, NY 10185-5256

Dear Secretary Clinton,

I am a proud Bitch for Hillary – because “Bitches get stuff done,” as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler explained during the 2008 Democratic primary.

I’ll say more about that Bitch for Hillary thing in a moment. First, though, I’d like to say thank you for your service to our country and for your generous and inspiring campaign. You rallied millions of Americans in support of our highest ideals of inclusion, fairness, and engaged, expansive citizenship. You enacted a compassionate, feminist model of leadership and earned the distinction of being the first woman to win the popular vote for the presidency. I realize the victory is incomplete and bittersweet, but it is an achievement that history will not forget.

In your powerful concession speech the other day, you briefly alluded to secret Facebook groups of Clinton supporters, urging members to come out and let their voices be heard. I happen to be the co-founder of one of those groups, Bitches for Hillary, which was launched in March of this year and now has close to 10,000 members (of all genders, races, shapes, and orientations). A friend and I started the cheekily named group not because we felt we had to be closeted in supporting you but because we wanted a space for sharing thoughts, feelings, and strategies with the like-minded. The solidarity members experience within the group has empowered them to act boldly outside it. Please don’t think we were shy or embarrassed about supporting you during the campaign. Believe me, the Bitches are not shrinking violets! We are an army of fighters for justice and possibility who advocated fiercely and publicly for your candidacy. For months, I have read with astonishment and humility reports from all over the country of group members making your case at their kitchen tables, in their work places, over the phone, and on the ground in New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

For me, Bitches for Hillary has functioned similarly to the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s or the sewing circles of the nineteenth century. Members of a marginalized group gather in nominal secrecy (I say nominal because the group has been identified by name in The New York Times and other media outlets) to generate subversive knowledge that fortifies them for engagement with an often hostile external world. Yes, it has been a refuge, but it has also been an incubator that sharpened the skills of young activists and raised the spirits of post-menopausal rabble-rousers like me who have spent decades dreaming of a woman president.

The hearts of ten thousand Bitches were broken early Wednesday morning as it became clear the glass ceiling we had all expected to come crashing down was still, thanks to the Electoral College, intact. I want you to know, however, that, in addition to reports of tears, nightmares, and a lot of stress eating, the group this week has been on fire with determination to continue fighting for the causes of social and economic justice that you have championed throughout your career. Inspired by your extraordinary resilience and perseverance, Bitches for Hillary are preparing to advocate for change in their communities and to protect those who are most vulnerable to the dangerous proposals being floated by the incoming administration. And some are getting advice on how to run for office! The dream is alive, Madam Secretary, and the hard, vital work goes on.

Change comes slowly, sometimes painfully so. I have spent my career in higher education, working to create institutional space for scholarship on women and LGBT people. (I’m an English professor who served as founding director of the University of Maryland’s LGBT Studies program.) That perhaps explains why I have identified so strongly over the years with your deliberate, detail-oriented approach to politics and policy. I hope you won’t mind that I think of you and of myself as badass incrementalists, because I see us as similarly committed to creating progressive institutional change bit by bit, over the long haul. I credit my late mother for teaching me this approach to any dauntingly large task. “How do you eat an elephant?” she used to ask when I was momentarily overwhelmed. “One bite at a time.

I’m so sorry that you and we weren’t able to take the last bite out of the elephant obstructing women’s path to the Oval Office this time around, but we will, thanks in no small part to your tenacious efforts and considerable achievements. Some day soon, a smart, feisty, wonky, wonderful, big-hearted Bitch will come along and take that last bite – and she and we will have you to thank for it.

With gratitude and admiration,

Marilee Lindemann

PS: I’ve enclosed for your amusement a picture of the cake I had made for our election party. The words on the cake resonate somewhat differently in defeat than they would have in victory, but they are still true. Bitches are rising, and you have shown them how to soar.


Nobody’s Wives, Together

Or, Thirty Years of Queer Delight

Facebook already knows how this story ends, so I might as well tell you right up front: Reader, I married her.

blackberry pineapple mojitoIt was an impulse move thirty years in the making, one made possible by the voters of Maryland and finally irresistible because of a ballsy woman named Edith Windsor. We billed it as a celebration of our thirtieth anniversary and, “by the way, a wedding,” which was our way of saying that what mattered most to us was not the change in our legal status but the three decades of shared life and love that had preceded it. It was a small, elegant, impromptu affair, which we planned and executed in three weeks in the middle of an already insanely busy semester. (How busy? The night before the wedding, I took a job candidate out to dinner while relatives and out-of-towners were gathering at the house.) We were able to pull it off because a trusted caterer happened to be available and a dear friend is an interwebz-certified secular officiant. My advice? If you’re going to get married, don’t spend more than three weeks planning and executing it. Ignore the whole marriage industrial complex. I got married in a ten-year-old suit and never got around to buying new shoes for the occasion. The suit looked great and I kicked off my old shoes an hour after the ceremony. The world didn’t end. Also: Serve mojitos. And shrimp with dry ice wafting off the platter. No one will notice your shoes if there are festive cocktails and a dry-ice haze hanging pleasantly in the air.

Fine, Madwoman, I hear you muttering. You’ve told us the how of your wedding. What about the why?

What, you can’t just congratulate me? I’m not sure I owe you an explanation, but, having publicly proclaimed myself a marriage resister, I suppose I can understand why you might expect one. It’s simple, really. I stand by everything I’ve ever said against marriage: It’s not necessarily the best way to organize intimacy, it’s a terrible way to distribute benefits and protections that all citizens should have, and it’s an obscene (and probably unconstitutional) way for states to enforce judgments about who and how people love. At the same time, it is, at the moment, the best way to secure a relationship legally and financially. The Woman Formerly Known as Goose and I have already been together for thirty years. We are not getting any younger. We’ve reached a point in our lives where such security feels both appealing and necessary. As I explained to a friend, I may be ambivalent about marriage, but I’m not ambivalent about my relationship. It’s my future. I want to protect it. Besides, I’ve been working to create change from inside institutions my entire career. I’ll treat marriage the same way I’ve treated academia: I’ll resist and subvert it from within. And I’ll continue to argue against compulsory marriage and for the full range of queer intimacies. I’ve always been a firm believer in the value of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time or, as a more eloquent pal put it on Facebook, of being able to balance the both/and.

The_trouble_with_normal_(book_cover)To the queer purists who would dismiss such talk as a load of self-justifying bourgeois crap, I say, fine. You win the cool contest. I understand the romance of precarity and marginalization in queer culture, the veneration for all things anti-normative. I enjoyed my outlaw status and have mixed feelings about giving up my strongest claim to it. I was and am proud of the sturdy, resilient alternative to legal marriage that WFKG and I lovingly built and sustained. On the other hand, I also experienced the terrible insecurity of that alternative one day in 1994, when my partner nearly bled to death on an operating table in a Catholic hospital. I sat for nine excruciating hours in a surgical waiting room, not knowing what was happening to her and not at all sure that the medical power of attorney she had given me would be respected. A volunteer at the desk had shaken my confidence when I asked her to call the OR to try to find out why the surgery was taking so much longer than expected. “You’re not family?” she said in the course of our exchange. “Well, I don’t know if the doctor will talk to you at all.” Live through a moment like that and then tell me you wouldn’t do everything you possibly could to assure you’d be able to care for the person you love in a medical crisis.

More recently, I ran into an old friend in the grocery store, someone I hadn’t seen in a few years. We chatted in the produce aisle, catching up and kvetching about the winter storm we were both preparing for. She told me she and her partner had sold their sweet bungalow and moved into a condo near the store in which we stood. “That sounds like a great idea,” I said. “I love our house, but there are days when I’m sick of taking care of it.” She smiled and nodded, then paused briefly before saying quietly, “Well, I got this diagnosis a couple of years ago.” “Oh, no!” I said, and to my quizzical look she matter-of-factly replied, “I have Alzheimer’s.” I was astonished by the news and pained for my friend, who is probably in her mid-60s and has lived as healthy and mindful a life as anyone I know. She’s a Buddhist, a vegetarian, a yoga teacher, for heaven’s sake! The encounter forcefully reminded me of things we all know but generally avoid acknowledging: That virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded, that life is a crap shoot, that the bottom can suddenly and inexplicably drop out of everything, re-arranging the world and one’s way of moving through it. That chance encounter had a lot to do with my decision to say to WFKG, “Let’s do this. Anything can happen. We need to put ourselves in the best possible position to manage the worst possible circumstances.” She agreed.

The ceremony was simple and sweet, performed in front of the fireplace in our great room thirty years to the day after we spent our first night together. We reaffirmed vows we made in our 1989 commitment ceremony while the rings we have worn since that day were passed around in a small silk bag and lovingly re-warmed by each guest. As part of my vows, I surprised WFKG by singing to her, John Lennon’s “Grow Old With Me,” which is based on a poem by Robert Browning and is one of the last songs ever written by my beloved’s favorite Beatle. I hadn’t sung in public since my killer performance as Mona Kent in Dames at Sea in high school, but the song’s tender lyric so eloquently expresses what love and commitment feel like in the middle of life that I was willing to risk humiliating myself in front of a group that included a number of professional singers and musicians. By obsessively studying Mary Chapin Carpenter’s beautiful rendition of the song I managed a creditable performance, but I did have to make one key, queer revision to Lennon’s lyric. Where he writes, “Spending our lives together,/Man and wife together,” etc., I sang

Spending our lives together,

Nobody’s wives together

World without end

World without end

In last year’s anniversary post, I wrote that the term “wife” is for me beyond reclamation, rooted in and saturated by gender-based inequalities that persist in custom if not in law. “I don’t need it,” I declared. “I don’t want it. I don’t like the feel of it in my mouth or the sound of it in my ears. It grates. It simpers. It titters and totters, uncertain of itself, as Emily Dickinson brilliantly, devastatingly shows” in her poem “I’m ‘wife’–.” A year later and newly arrived in the state of matrimony, I can state emphatically that my feelings toward the W-word have not changed one iota. I reject it. I will not use it, and I don’t want it used in reference to me or the person to whom I am legally married. (Note to the Associated Press: Partner, please. Even “spouse” feels weird to me, though WFKG and I have been trying it out this week.) I continue to believe that same-sex couples can and will queer the institution of marriage simply by occupying it. We can heighten the queering by refusing traditional roles and terms and by calling out marital privilege for what it is, which is perhaps why I can’t resist making jokes about only marrying WFKG for her money. The sentimentalists may cringe, but the truth is that, while my marriage may be legally meaningful, the change in status means little to me personally. It doesn’t change how I think or feel about myself or my relationship. It has no bearing on my sense of worth, belonging, or responsibility. To pretend otherwise would be to buy into the hierarchy of values that so troubles the speaker in Dickinson’s poem, as she looks back on a “Girl’s life” that is supposed to look “odd” from the comforting “soft Eclipse” of marriage. “Why compare?” asks the speaker, unable to bear or bridge the gap between what she feels and what heteropatriarchy tells her she is supposed to feel. “I’m ‘Wife!’ Stop there!” she frantically concludes.

Rather than stop there, I will use this occasion to say that perhaps it’s time to begin imagining a post-marriage LGBT politics. Many of us never wanted marriage to be the primary goal of LGBT activism and aspiration. We had more radical dreams for our relationships, our movement, and our world. We entered into the marriage struggle reluctantly if we entered it at all only because it became a fight to assure that discrimination against non-heterosexuals didn’t get enshrined not only in state laws but in the Constitution itself. In this extraordinary moment when we seem on the brink of full marriage equality nationwide, we should be thinking about how to mobilize support for, for example, economic justice, queer elder care, and protections for non-marital relationships. Some of us will be saying, “I do,” but all of us need to be asking, “What’s next?” There’s still plenty of work left to do, kids. The party was swell, but it’s time to get back into our comfortable shoes and put our queer shoulders to the wheel.

These gals made their first appearance on top of the cake at our "Practically a Wedding" in 1989. Being committed enviros, we reused them for last weekend's legal marriage ceremony. 3/8/14.

These gals made their first appearance on top of the cake at our “Practically a Wedding” in 1989. Being committed enviros, we reused them for last weekend’s legal marriage ceremony. 3/8/14.

News for Ladies, Globetrotting Edition

We’re getting ready to go off on an international adventure of our very own in a couple of days, so amuse yourselves with some random snippets of gynocentric news and information, culled from the all-seeing, all-knowing digital panopticon the incredible Interwebz.

Image of the Week:

Screenshot of Hillary Clinton's Twitter profile page on the day it went live, 6/10/13.

Screenshot of Hillary Clinton’s Twitter profile page on the day it went live, 6/10/13.

Question: Are you bothered by the word “wife” in the bio? I am not. I dig the progression from the traditional, stand-by-your-man model of ladyhood that opens the series of nouns Clinton offers to describe herself. The series manages, in the cool, crisp style of the Twitterverse, to remind readers of her decades of public service while cheekily taking on the ridiculous attacks on her appearance, style, and personal life that have dogged her over the years. It ends with a brilliant tease, that coy TBD, inviting readers to stay tuned to see what’s coming next from one of the world’s most fascinating and accomplished women. Is it any wonder that Clinton’s debut caused an immediate sensation? Alyssa Rosenberg in Think Progress declared it a success, comparing the pop-cultural savvy evident in Clinton’s Twitter entree to the flat-footedness of a Republican Game of Thrones parody that made the National Republican Congressional Committee look dumb and out of touch instead of cool and hip. (That’s according to Rosenberg — I do not watch GoT, so don’t expect any jokes or spoilers here. I am out of touch but not dumb.) Clinton’s embrace of the 140-character mode of communication was front-page news in this morning’s Washington Post, which even this loyal pantsuit wearer found a little hard to believe. As I type this, Clinton has more than 375,000 followers on Twitter, which is mighty impressive for a political figure. I mean, an obscure singer like Justin Bieber can rack up 40 million followers before breakfast, but a hardworking pol like NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo can barely muster 84,000.

Yes, I am following Clinton. She hasn’t returned the favor yet, but so far she is only following Bill, Chelsea, and some Clinton Foundation thingies. She also hasn’t posted anything beyond her opening Tweet, a clever shout-out to the creators of the brilliant Texts from Hillary Tumblr that boosted Clinton’s coolness ratings into the stratosphere last spring. Good move, Hillz — We denizens of the Interwebz love nothing better than a hat tip as a way of demonstrating alliance and respect. Dear Hillary: You are clearly getting excellent social media advice, but if you want more, I’m available, 24/7, here at this humble little blog or over on the Twitters. Your devoted admirer, The Madwoman

Speaking of Sheroes Battling Sexism, biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling has been doing it for decades in academia. Read all about it here. And retired Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman finally answers an incredibly sexist letter she received from a dude at the Harvard graduate school when she applied for admission in 1961. Finally, Yoko Ono has just turned 80 and feels that she is starting a new life. Dog bless you, Yoko.

On the other hand, not all women are perfect. (I know: Sad, but true.) Case in point: This woman, a mom AND a professor of gender studies (!?!) published a tortured piece of hoo-ha in Wa Po the other day about how her daughter, a straight girl, took another girl to the prom because neither of them felt like waiting for boys to ask them to attend. (H/T Julie Enszer.) Mom was rattled, because, well, “If Angel were a lesbian, attending the prom with a girl would have seemed normal. But she’s not, so I kept thinking: ‘Why not attend with a boy instead of a girl?’” Dear Anxious Mom: Please add this book to your summer reading list and send me a new screen for my laptop. I smashed mine while reading your tortured, sentimental affirmation of traditional gender norms. For the record, yep, Angel is a much better feminist than her mother is, but you know what? It ain’t a fricking contest, and if you frame it that way everybody loses. Yours sincerely, The Madwoman

Because it’s summertime, you should read one silly piece of twaddle that will make you giggle about a certain form of Lady Power in the Media, so go read this profile of Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb’s wine- and estrogen-fueled partnership. I hadn’t watched morning television in years until I caught some of the high jinks going on during their daily hour of Today. They really are hilarious. The money quote in the piece is Gifford’s description of how enriching her work and friendship with Kotb have been for her: “It’s like an old man who’s taken a young lover,” she quips. “He’s got a jaunty little step.”

All right, kids, gotta run. If you need me over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be where this woman was in this pretty to look at but not especially good film:

Under_the_tuscan_sun_posterArrivederci, darlings! I hope your summers are off to a sunny, delicious start. I’ll post from the road if I can, but you know how spotty those international Interwebz connections can be, especially when a Madwoman has had a glass or three of nice chianti. Be good and brave, and I’ll catch up with you soon. Peace out!

Sixty Things I’ve Learned in My Sixty Years

A Guest Post by the Woman Formerly Known as Goose!

[Her birthday was a couple of weeks ago, but we’re celebrating it this weekend. When I ran across Ian Martin’s “Sixty Thoughts on Turning Sixty” awhile back, I challenged WFKG to come up with a list of her own to show how wise and witty she’s become during her long sojourn on the planet. She obliged and has agreed to share it here as the Madwoman’s first official guest post. Thank you, Goose, and happy fricking birthday! So glad to have spent so much of the sojourn with you. Okay, kids, pay attention: Words of wisdom from a cranky ex-Texan coming at you in 3-2-1-0!] 

  1. Growing older? It really does get better. Or at least it has for me.
  2. Where there is great love, there are always miracles. That’s true. (Thank you, Marilee Lindemann. Oh yeah, and thank you, Willa Cather 😉
  3. Goes to show you never can tell: I have been deliriously happy with the funniest, sweetest, smartest woman in the whole world for over 29 years. There were naysayers who said it wouldn’t last.
  4. Wise is the woman, wise is the man, who refuses naysaying.
  5. Goes to show you never can tell: marriage equality really is sweeping the land. Things can change.
  6. Goes to show you never can tell: state after state, marijuana is being legalized. Things can change.
  7. A mom who stands up for the right of her 5-year-old daughter to wear PF Flyers on Romper Room is doing something much more profound than it appears at the time. Thanks, Mama! [Editor’s Note: See photo below. Goose is on the far right, in the black socks and tennis shoes, the only girl on the “Don’t Bee” side of the room.]
  8. All the problems of the world can be solved after 2 martinis.
  9. You may not be able to remember the solutions the next morning. . . .or they may not seem so wise, but still.
  10. The love of a dog is a good, no, it’s a great, bountiful thing.
  11. “The system is working” is one of the most dangerous mantras that long ago swept the land. Tripping right off the tongue, it brings calm when there has been no resolution. (Thank you, Keguro Macharia.)
  12. Calm without resolution is a volcano, and it is an active one sure to erupt. Always remember that.
  13. True friendship can in fact be, as Blake said, opposition, but it is always real treasure.
  14. Laughing at least once a day is the best medicine.
  15. Humor really can change the world.
  16. If everyone spent a few minutes every day enjoying poetry, the world would be a much more pleasant place.
  17. I still have not figured out why it’s never bothered me to get older. In fact, I used to say I was older than I was—30 when I was 27, 40 when I was 38, stuff like that. I suppose it might have something to do with the fact that if you are alive you are also always getting older (as you have while reading this post) and I like being alive.
  18. So I guess it goes without saying that I don’t mind saying “I’m 60!” In fact, I like saying it. So why do so many people assume that a woman will lie about her age, meaning lie and say she’s younger than she is?
  19. Though I really like my card that says “membership has its privileges,” I don’t understand nor have I ever cottoned to exclusive clubs, formal or informal, though I’ll confess I’ve been a part of one or two. But needing to leave out, exclude, has never made sense to me. . .and seems to indicate insecurity, always, without exception.
  20. That gorgeous spring is accompanied by pollen is just how things are—the beautiful often partners with the annoying. Without pollen, there would be no spring beauty.
  21. I have learned that sometimes people really do lie.
  22. I wonder more and more, or maybe I mean that I more and more have come to think, that most people like living in echo chambers. Real disagreement and exchange of substantially different views are more rare than I was trained to believe.
  23. One has to accept, over and over and over again, that one doesn’t always get one’s way. . .and that’s ok.
  24. One has to accept that disappointment over not getting one’s way does not necessarily get easier with age.
  25. The most important human activities are laughter, loving sex, and enjoying a beloved’s company.
  26. Many people’s love of poetry remains undiscovered self-knowledge, and that is not a good thing.
  27. There is great wisdom in knowing when a circumstance is really good enough.
  28. A smile not only lowers blood pressure—it can make one’s whole day.
  29. Done really is better than perfect. . .most of the time.
  30. Texas really is the only place on earth bluebonnets grow—see this from Nanci Griffith (skip the ad but don’t miss Nanci’s introduction).
  31. When I left “West Texas Heaven” (see Kimmie Rhodes), I probably knew deep down somewhere that I was never going back again. . .but I was not at all conscious of that fact as I stood on a plateau overlooking San Angelo.
  32. At the age of 21, “West Texas Heaven” really was the only one I’d ever known.
  33. To grow up in a land where horned toads ran around in the backyard is a very good thing—not only for the individual child but for mother Earth, who is losing such delightful creatures (who will sleep in your hand if you rub their bellies).
  34. Blessed are they who always remember the importance of having fun.
  35. One can feel like a chump for being kind, but that silly insecurity passes. Kindness is true wealth.
  36. Snobbery is laziness. And boring.
  37. Watching The Empire Strikes Back once a year is a healthy thing to do. ‘tis a great way to spend 124 or 127 min. (depending on which version you watch).
  38. My brother Bobby Earl, my mother, beloved ML, Kimmie Rhodes, Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, BZ Palubinsky, and many more all taught me just how important music is.
  39. A large group of people singing a cappella, not necessarily in harmony with one another, is nonetheless a beautiful thing. There’s power in the human voice.
  40. My father, my sister, and other dear friends who can’t sing in tune taught me that singing together does not have to be in tune to be very pleasing.
  41. An afternoon in a good museum lowers one’s blood pressure.
  42. A walk on a beautiful sunny day lowers one’s blood pressure.
  43. A walk on a cloudy day lowers one’s blood pressure.
  44. 45 minutes on the treadmill listening to Helen Leight lowers one’s blood pressure.
  45. Yoda: “There is no why.” That is often true.
  46. Yoda:  “Do or do not. There is no try.” That is always true.
  47. “I don’t believe it.” Yoda: “That is why you fail.” That truth speaks for itself.
  48. Obi-wan: “Don’t give in to hate. That leads to the dark side.” True. It’s also true about envy, jealousy, any and all despisals—listen to Muriel Rukeyser.
  49. A cocktail in the late afternoon with a dear friend is heaven on earth.
  50. “Give Peace a Chance” is so very important for individuals and groups and organizations alike. Wait a minute, it’s not just very important, it’s crucial.
  51. Life really does happen while you’re making other plans. John Lennon, who famously reminded us of this, should know.
  52. When the poets “stand back and let all be” (see “Jungleland,” Mr. Springsteen) we are in trouble, deep trouble.
  53. Winning is not really anything lasting or important—it really is how you play the game.
  54. My friend Margie is right—“ecological hope is really about love.”
  55. Staying up nearly all night talking to my friend William 36 years ago was a very good thing to do—we have the gift of true friendship and there just can’t be anything better than that.
  56. I am the wealthiest and most fortunate woman on earth—I have more than a handful of true friends who really are family.
  57. Taking stock, as I have done here, should be done more often than once every 60 years.
  58. “Ethically, I am looking for / An absolute endorsement of loving-kindness. / No loopholes except maybe mosquitoes.” The older I get, the more wise I realize are these words of my mentor and dear friend Alicia Ostriker.
  59. One doesn’t have to be Henry James to know that “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” 
  60. The road goes on forever, comrades, and the party need never end.

mn romper room

 (Photo Credit: Smith Family Archive. WFKG on Romper Room, 1958.)

Object-Oriented Mom-ology

[Clever allusion in post title explained here. Kinda.]

Today is Mother’s Day, a day I mostly loathe, perhaps because I’m not fond of commercially generated displays of rank sentimentality and perhaps because I resent that childless lesbians don’t get a special day set aside to honor their unique contributions to civilization. I mean, seriously, people, does softball mean nothing to you?

what my mother gave meNonetheless: I was driving to campus the other day and caught a few minutes of a conversation on NPR’s Tell Me More about a new collection of essays edited by Elizabeth Benedict called What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most. The conversation made the book sound far less rank than its title and cover might lead one to expect. The contributors are a diverse group of writerly women, including poet laureate Rita DoveNation columnist Katha Pollitt, and Genius grant-winning immigration activist Cecilia Muñoz. The essays clearly aren’t all saccharine and floral tributes to Saint Mom either. Some document fraught relationships with difficult women who weren’t always as present or functional as their daughters might have hoped or needed them to be, yet each writer came up with a particular gift from her mother that had, over the years, attained a special meaning and resonance: a wok, a quilt, a photograph, a necklace.

Not surprisingly, the story got me thinking. I did a mental inventory of things my mother has given me over the past half century or so of our relationship. On my right hand, I wear a small diamond ring I got for Christmas my senior year of high school. In my dining room, I have the lovely gray Wedgwood that was the special occasion china of my childhood and a set of ruby red goblets that graced every holiday dinner table. In my study, I have Brit lit anthologies filled with notes in her neat high school teacher’s hand. She gave them to me when I started graduate school. As I write these words, I gaze up at a gray and white china rabbit on a nearby shelf. It was her mother’s, and she passed it on to me after Grandma died. Photographs? I have boxes full, just waiting for me to fulfill her wish for a proper family history.

These are all beloved objects, things I love having in my daily life and world. I cherish them and, if they are intended to be used, I use them, regularly. They are gifts that matter, deeply, yet none of them seems quite the right vehicle for taking up Benedict’s challenge to her contributors to describe a gift that “magically, movingly reveals the story” of my mother and my relationship to her (xii). I thought again, harder, letting my mind wander into places it doesn’t often go, not because those places are especially painful or tragic but because they are remote. I thought less of objects than of moments, turning points in my life when my mother had made a difference. And just like that, I knew how to identify the gift that mattered most.

The Plane Ticket

It must have been over the semester break, also in my senior year of high school, but I’m fuzzy on the timing. Still, it was winter and I had time to take a trip, so that would make sense. That year was strange for me — intense, as senior years tend to be, but weird because I wasn’t living with my family. My father had gotten transferred to a new job in a town about an hour away from where I attended high school. My parents gave me the option of staying behind, boarding with a friend’s family during the week so that I could graduate with my peer group. I was editor of the yearbook. I had a (gay) boyfriend. I had seen how hard similarly badly timed moves had been on my older brother and sister, so I opted to become a commuter kid. It was a good decision, but the arrangement added to the tumult of what is always a topsy-turvy period in one’s life.

In the midst of all this upheaval, I was also of course trying to figure out where to go to college. With all the editing and writing I was doing, everyone — myself included — had been assuming I was headed toward journalism school, perhaps at Indiana University, where my parents had met in the early 1950s and from which the grandmother with the china rabbit had graduated in the late 1920s. The summer before senior year, though, I spent six weeks in France in a language-immersion program. When I stepped off the plane in early August, I had a difficult time speaking English to my parents — and all my old plans and assumptions had been upended. I had been to a ballet, seen the Mona Lisa, picnicked in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. I had visited tiny towns on the Norman coast, where grateful citizens still recalled being liberated by American troops in World War II. I had learned to tell jokes and to dream in another language. I had learned to love vegetables! Suddenly, Bloomington just didn’t seem big or glamorous enough, and I wanted more from college than a vocational training program.

McGill scrapsAnd so it was that at some point in December of 1976 or January of 1977 I found myself alone in Montreal, Quebec, checking out McGill University. I had never been to Montreal before, and I had never even heard of McGill until one of my pals in the study abroad program mentioned she was thinking about going there. “Wow,” said my impetuous young mind, “an English-speaking university in a French-speaking city known for its elegance and sophistication. Allons-y!” So I went, and of course I fell instantly and hopelessly in love. I remember nothing of campus tours or meetings with officials, though I’m sure I must have met with someone. (Remember, though, the whole campus visit industrial complex was a lot less complex in ye olden times of the 1970s than it is nowadays.) The highlights of the trip that I do recall were taking myself out for a dinner of crepes and wine and getting caught in a snowstorm that resulted in my flight home being canceled. I was already at the airport. I called home collect — remember: no cellphones! — to get advice on what to do. My mother gave me a credit card number and told me to take a cab back to my hotel. Because people were nicer and more trusting in ye olden times of the 1970s, I was able to check back into the hotel with nothing but a number on a piece of paper. I had one more deliriously happy night in Montreal and made it home the next day, determined to enroll at McGill. Which I did, for two years — but that is another story.

Why do I consider that plane ticket to Montreal the most important gift my mother ever gave me? And why do I think of the gift as coming from her when I know that my father was fully involved in this process?  I suppose that particular ticket feels monumental because it was the first time I was sent out into the world on my own, to explore and evaluate a whole new set of possibilities and make my own judgment about them. When I came home and announced my decision, no one questioned it. No one said, “Oh, honey, why do you want to go so far away to school?” or “You know, they don’t even have a journalism program.” I made a decision, and it was respected and supported, every step of the way.

I credit my mother with the gift of the ticket because she was always the one who encouraged me to fly. I adored my father, but Mom pushed me to develop my skills and talents in ways that he didn’t. I realize there was a certain amount of vicarious living going on in her embrace of my big dreams, but I also think she recognized early on that I needed to chart my own course and that it was going to be quite different from hers. Not that my mother’s life was terribly thwarted or ground in the mill of the conventional. She had a husband and four children, yes, but she also had a demanding career, first in teaching and then in publishing. She set a high bar for accomplishment, and I’ve spent my life trying to get over it.

The finest gifts are always a reflection of both the giver and the recipient. They come out of deep desires and understandings; they meet deep, often inchoate, needs and open mind and heart to new ways of seeing, being, and thinking. With the gift of a plane ticket, my mother said to me, “Fly, my darling daughter. I know you can. I know you must. Fly away, and I will survive your absence. Fly back, and I will welcome you home. Fly, daughter, fly.”

Thank you, Mom. For the ticket to everything.

The Madwoman's Mother, hamming it up for the camera. South Haven, MI, c. 1993.

The Madwoman’s Mother, hamming it up for the camera. South Haven, MI, c. 1993.

Runners’ Worlds

4:14:10 was my time in the one and only marathon I ever ran. Four hours, 14 minutes, 10 seconds. 26.2 miles. The Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. 1999. I was forty.

For the better part of a year, I had trained for the race with one of my best friends. She lived across the street from me at the time and turned forty a couple of months after I did. Running was her idea, but running a marathon was my idea. It was a dream that had somehow gotten lodged in my head years earlier, probably in the late 70s when George Sheehan was promoting running as the path to enlightenment. (For the record, dude was right. Read all about it.) I doubt that either of us alone would have committed ourselves to the preposterous notion of preparing ourselves to run 26.2 miles. Separately, we were just a couple of middle-aged chicks looking to get back into shape post-motherhood (her) and post-tenure (me). Together, we were Thelma and Louise, carb-loading instead of gun-toting. We mapped out a sensible but strenuous training plan that had us slowly building our endurance through a mix of shorter and longer runs, gradually increasing the distances of the long runs we did on weekends. We did most of our running on a beautiful paved trail just blocks from our houses. We ran occasional races to get a feel for that experience. We stuck with our plan, through rain, snow, searing heat, and the painful dissolution of my friend’s domestic partnership. Our bodies changed. Our friendship deepened, as friendships will do when the parties do things like provide cover for one another when circumstances require urinating al fresco. (Don’t ask. Or go ahead and ask. It’s not as if I’m too modest to tell you.) On race day, we stood on the starting line together with goofy grins on our faces and determination in our sculpted legs. 26.2 miles later a beefy young Marine kneeled down in front of me to remove the timing chip from my shoe. When he stood up, he put a finisher’s medal around my neck. Our eyes met. “I did it, didn’t I?” I said. “Yes, ma’am, you did,” he replied. “You did a great job.”

The Madwoman's finisher's medal and race bib from 1999 Marine Corps Marathon.

The Madwoman’s finisher’s medal and race bib from 1999 Marine Corps Marathon. With notes on time and place scribbled in above the number. Proud? To this day.

4:14:10. If I had run that time Monday in Boston, I wouldn’t have made it to the finish line by the time the bombs went off. Photos and video show the race clock at 4:09:55 when the first explosion rocked Boylston Street. I would have been among the thousands left trying to absorb both the shock of a violent event and the disappointment of not being able to complete a major milestone. A New York Times article provides a poignant glimpse of runners in precisely that situation the morning after the incident:

Marathon officials had set up an ad hoc site adjacent to the crime scene, where runners who had been stopped before the finish line could pick up their medals and bright yellow bags of belongings that they had left at the start. What would ordinarily be a moment to bask in accomplishment was a grim occasion, as runners — many with tears in their eyes — wondered what to make of a medal for a marathon they had been unable to complete.

“It’s heartbreaking to not cross the finish line, you train so hard for this,” said Lauren Field, an auctioneer who now lives in Hampstead, N.H., who was stopped blocks from the finish line. “It’s sad, but I’m safe.”

Caroline Burkhart protested gently as a volunteer handed her a medal. “I didn’t finish,” she said, explaining that she had stopped at mile 25.2. She took off the medal and examined it. “Memories,” she said, with a shudder. “Next year, I’ll wear it.”

Look, I know: People were maimed and killed in Boston on Monday. People are maimed and killed somewhere on the planet every day, and my country is often directly or indirectly responsible for the maiming and the killing. It would be obscene to compare the disappointment of a race cut short to the tragedies of lives cut short and bodies blown apart, but that isn’t what I’m doing here. In the scheme of things, the heartbreak experienced by runners like Lauren Field and Caroline Burkhart might not count for much, but it does count — for them as individuals, for all of us who now have one more scenario of ordinary moments turning into disasters to play out in our heads as we lie awake at night. I want to acknowledge and honor the heartbreak of the runners who were denied the chance to complete their races on Monday. I want to give them space not to be consoled by medals that on some level they know they don’t deserve. You don’t go to Boston to run 25.2 or 26.1 miles. You go to Boston to run 26.2 miles. Training matters, yes, and the journey counts for something, but crossing the finish line is, after all, the point. If you don’t reach it, for whatever reason, the only honest thing you can say, no matter how much it hurts, is, “I didn’t finish.”

Here’s a thought, which I offer for free to the organizers of the Boston Marathon and to all who believe that running is the path to enlightenment, as long as you finish the race:

Next year, open the race to everybody.

No qualifying times. No elite entrants. Make it as big as you can possibly make it — and here’s the really radical part:

Let the 5000 runners who weren’t allowed to finish this year lead the pack.

Yeah, it’ll be slow and messy and perhaps as much a party as a race, but perhaps a celebration is what’s called for. Marathoning is, as a friend remarked on Facebook yesterday, about endurance and striving, but it is also about “pageantry and communal joy.” I propose that next year Boston devote itself fully to communal joy. Acknowledge that a 4-, 5-, or 6-hour race is as noble and beautiful as one that is barely over 2 hours. Tell the world that on this day and in this place we run to declare that nobody wins unless everybody wins — and everybody wins if and only if everybody finishes. Today, we dedicate ourselves to getting everyone across the finish line. Come hell or high water.

Do that, Boston, and with dog as my witness I swear I will commit myself to doing what I thought I would never do: Run a second marathon. C’mon, Boston, make me do it!

Seeing Edie Windsor

I caught a glimpse of Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in United States v. Windsor, on the steps of the Supreme Court on Wednesday, moments after oral arguments in her challenge to the odious Defense of Marriage Act were concluded. I even managed to get a picture of the spunky 83-year-old, but it is awful. She is gingerly making her way down the courthouse stairs, supported on each side by a younger woman. She is looking down, and her face is almost entirely covered by her impossibly thick mane of blondish hair. You can see the hot pink scarf she wore for her day in court as well as the diamond brooch that her late wife, Thea Spyer, gave her in lieu of an engagement ring in 1967 (because the two knew that a ring would engender curiosity among Windsor’s co-workers at IBM). Still, my picture, hastily shot from the crowd waiting eagerly on the sidewalk in front of the court, has no focal point and doesn’t capture at all the energy and grace with which Windsor is playing the historic role in which she finds herself.

Fortunately, another, much more skilled, photographer managed to capture everything my own pathetic snapshot missed on Wednesday afternoon:

Edith Windsor in front of the Supreme Court. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Edith Windsor in front of the Supreme Court. 3/27/13. Photo Credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images. Via.

I am so taken by this image, which brilliantly captures the moment mostly by what it leaves out. To the right of the picture you see the edges of the press area, which was a tangled mess of people and equipment. The photographer is positioned in front of the crowd in which I was standing and to which Windsor is so exuberantly gesturing, so you see none of that motley, mostly happy crew of sign holders and smart phone documentarians. (The only unhappy people I encountered in the crowd were a couple of anti-circumcision protestors who wore white pants with strategically placed bright red paint spots. Can’t say I disagree with you, kids, but, well, there’s a time and place for everything, right?) Instead of the dozen or so cops who were stationed across the steps, you get just one debonair beefcake who seems more chorus boy than law enforcement officer. Don’t you love the way he seems to present the gorgeous, aging diva for her curtain call? The cop is also perfectly positioned to obscure the main entrance to the court, which at the moment is an unsightly opening in the canvas covering the west facade of the building. (What you see there is actually a full-size photograph of the facade, which is being restored. We apparently picked this clever trick up from Europe. Who knew?) The effect of the cop’s positioning is both to reduce clutter and to heighten the monumental superficiality (or superficial monumentality?) of the scrim enclosure. How fabulous is it that the Supreme Court of the United States is deliberating the legal status of gender in marriage behind a massive curtain/screen/photograph, a giant artifice of the edifice in which the nation’s laws are adjudicated? It is as though, in this moment of acute gender trouble, Judith Butler has been named the Architect of the Capitol. No wonder Justice Scalia is so on edge!

Also: I like the puffy white clouds and the pretty azure sky in the top third of the photo and the way Windsor’s head and left hand break up into that space. I defer to my friend Kate Flint‘s judgments on this point, but it seems to me the photograph beautifully exploits the rule of thirds to make Windsor the center of energy and attention. With her mouth and arms wide open, she looks as if she could huff and puff and blow down the monumental yet insubstantial building behind her. It is a glorious image of diva citizenship, of a New York queen who has made her pilgrimage to Washington determined to remake the intimate public sphere. Which is, of course, exactly what Edie Windsor is doing these days.

I got a few decent photos of the scene on the sidewalk in front of the court on Wednesday. I was pleased to see that there were signs of ideological diversity in the pro-marriage crowd, aside from the aforementioned opponents of circumcision. I liked seeing this smiling critic of the gender binary:

Genderqueer at SCOTUS

And these devoted, warm-blooded spouses from two countries (this one’s for you, Robert McRuer):

Binational Couple at SCOTUS

Yes, homonormativity was well and attractively represented:

Let Freedom Ring at SCOTUS

And there were actually not one but two really cute Westies in matching Ralph Lauren dog sweaters with two equally adorable guys, but this was my favorite of the several photos I snapped of the happiest queer pack in Washington:

Westie at SCOTUS

There have already been mountains of commentary, analysis, and speculation produced on the biggest, gayest week in American legal history. You don’t need more of that from me, but if you are looking for the good stuff I recommend that you check out the indispensable SCOTUSblog, which has been all over both the Windsor case as well as Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which struck down the right to same-sex marriage in the state in 2008. For queer legal analysis of both cases, check out Nan Hunter‘s Hunter of Justice blog, especially these posts: on what might happen next; on what happened in the DOMA argument; on what happened in the Prop 8 argument. Suzanne Goldberg has also done a couple of eloquent reflections on what it felt like to be a longtime LGBT legal advocate sitting in the Supreme Court during oral arguments on two such high-stakes cases. Those are posted here and here on Columbia’s Gender and Sexuality Law blog.

Queer critics of marriage have not been silent during this moment of (impending, apparent) homonormative triumph. Laura Flanders, in The Nation admits to getting teary while witnessing the same-sex wedding of a couple of close friends in Manhattan, despite her deep queer and feminist resistance to the institution. She tries to imagine that the profound pledge to love and cherish that is the core of the marriage vow might be extended outward to include all members of society, not just those to whom we are intimately tied. Lisa Duggan has been raining on the marriage parade all week on Facebook, reminding readers of HRC’s dubious history and the otherwise horrible politics of many of the corporations that have now signed on to the cause of marriage equality. She provided a link to a prescient piece she published last fall in The Scholar and the Feminist Online in which she forcefully, stirringly outlines a “beyond marriage” agenda that would “expand the forms of partnership and household recognition begun by the LGBT movement in the 1970s” rather than contract them, as the marriage movement has done.

I respect the critique and share the skepticism. I cling, proudly and stubbornly, to my own position as a queer against marriage for marriage equality, a stance outlined here and here, among other places. And yet Wednesday afternoon, I, too, found myself fighting tears as I stood in the sunshine of a spring that has been reluctant to come to the national capital area this year. Wednesday was my birthday, and I realized on Tuesday that I wanted to spend part of it demonstrating the solidarity I feel with Edith Windsor, standing on the edge of changes I could never have imagined thirty or so springs ago when I kissed a girl and felt the course of my life shift forever. Of all that I have read and heard about these cases, what has resonated for me most is perhaps a short post by Amy Davidson in her Close Read blog at The New Yorker. It’s titled “Will the Supreme Court Recognize Edith Windsor?” It really comes down to that, doesn’t it? Will the nine justices of the court — or at least five of them — recognize Edith Windsor as a person deserving of the same rights to which other persons similarly situated are entitled? Will they see her, as Jewel Samad clearly saw her, in the photo at the top of this post, as someone worthy of recognition not because she is well off and elegantly dressed but because she is alive and human and a citizen of this country?

That is all, my darlings, and, as I suspect you know, that is everything.

Twenty-Nine Years as Nobody’s Wife

roxie valentineOver on the old blog, we had a tradition of anniversary posts in which an aging — and then dead — dog waxed sentimental over a couple of cranky English profs who had managed to keep company quite happily for an impressive number of years. The first of those posts ran on March 8, 2008 and was titled “Twenty-Four Years of Queer Delight.” It was followed, because the old dog was lacking in imagination and clung to a theme as fiercely as she had ever clung to any bone, by “Twenty-Five Years of Queer Delight,” “Twenty-Six Years of Queer Delight,” and “Twenty-Seven Years of Queer Delight.” We cheated a bit in 2012 and merely acknowledged the twenty-eighth year of queer delight in a post celebrating the March 12 anniversary of the blog. March involves a lot of celebrating in our household!

This year, with a new blog and a new persona, it felt weird to drag the old tradition over here, so I celebrated on Facebook instead with a mash note to the Woman Formerly Known as Goose and a recent ridiculously adorable snapshot of the two of us. It got lots of “likes” and heartwarming comments and reminded me of why I still hang out on Facebook, despite its many flaws. I like public feelings, or the nice ones anyway, and Facebook works well for making nice feelings public. I think it works less well for the airing of not nice feelings, but that is another story.

Here, though, having not written a post called “Twenty-Nine Years of Queer Delight,” I want to reflect on this anniversary within the dramatically shifting context of marriage equality in the United States. This year, for the first time, WFKG and I commemorated our durable and genuinely delightful partnership in a state that issues marriage licenses to both same- and opposite-sex couples. That felt . . . strange. Not only that, but the Supreme Court is about to take up two cases that could restore the right to same-sex marriage in California and begin chipping away at the marital apartheid that exists at the federal level because of the odious Defense of Marriage Act. It is entirely possible that by next year, when I don’t write a post called “Thirty Years of Queer Delight,” WFKG and I will be free to enter into a marriage that would be legally identical to any opposite-sex marriage in the eyes of both our state and the federal government. That would be . . . something well beyond strange.

ice cream sundaeIn one of those anniversary posts over on the old blog, I asked readers to imagine that they were prohibited from having something that the vast majority of people were permitted to have, something that was generally available and widely thought to be good. Let’s say that something is ice cream, I said, and that you are enjoined from eating it “not because you are lactose-intolerant or diabetic or anything else that would make eating ice cream hazardous to your health. You are told you can’t eat it because you don’t deserve it. You are not good enough for ice cream. Indeed, you are so unfit for ice cream that the mere thought of your tasting it poses a threat to the goodness of ice cream. Stay away, the Committee to Protect the Deliciousness of Ice Cream screams, or the rest of us won’t be able to enjoy ice cream anymore!” Time passes. You construct a perfectly satisfying life in the shadow of this bizarre prohibition. You become, perhaps, a committed hater of ice cream, heaping scorn on those who eat it as dupes of the ice cream industrial complex. And then, one day, the prohibition is lifted! Suddenly you are permitted — nay, expected! — to become an eater of ice cream. Suddenly everyone wants to know what flavor you’d like and how many scoops and whether you’ll have it in a cup or a cone (waffle or sugar).

What do you say? What do you do? What do you want, and how is the condition of your wanting or not wanting changed by the lifting of the prohibition? It is, after all, one thing to say you don’t want ice cream when you are legally prevented from having it, quite another to step up to the counter, take a close look at all thirty-one flavors, and then say, “Thanks, but I think I will stick with the cheesecake. It’s really delicious.” Or perhaps you say, “By golly, I would like a triple scoop of butter pecan with hot fudge sauce and a cherry on top. And sprinkles, please, a whole bunch of rainbow-colored sprinkles.”

Three years later, that analogy seems more apt than ever. I stand at the counter, hesitant, slightly bewildered, trying to figure out what I want and why I want it, while a crowd of mostly younger people waits impatiently behind me. They can hardly wait to get their ice cream, and I am holding up the line. What the hell is the matter with me?

A few weeks ago, the Associated Press was widely criticized for seeming to ban the terms “husband” and “wife” to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages. Those terms would only be used “with attribution” — i.e., in quotations from one of the parties involved. A followup seeking to clarify the style policy indicated that “husband” and “wife” “could be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms (‘Smith is survived by his husband, John Jones’) or in quotes attributed to them.” The clarification wasn’t sufficient to mollify some of the policy’s critics, including law scholar Nathaniel Frank, who argued that the AP’s stance “creates the perception that it is taking sides — and the losing side — in a culture war issue.” Frank goes on to explain:

[T]hose who get married have already decided about terminology. They have chosen to become a husband or wife, and that’s what they deserve to be called. Failing to recognize this means failing to recognize what the gay marriage battle has been about: achieving equal dignity by accessing the same institutions and occupying the same symbolic spaces as everyone else.

Being “married” is, after all, a collective identity, in the same way “citizen” is. Both terms connote certain responsibilities, obligations and protections, as well as a sense of dignity and belonging for which there is no substitute. They confer equality on all those who occupy them. Using such a term fairly matters in the same way the front of the bus mattered to those banned from sitting there for no other reason than to designate them as second-class citizens.

With all due respect to Frank and the many married queers I know who toss the words “husband” and “wife” around as happily as if they were indeed the rainbow-colored sprinkles on top of an ice cream sundae, I don’t think the question of terminology is nearly as settled as this critique asserts, even among same-sex couples who have hopped on the marriage bandwagon. I also don’t think the AP’s style policy is necessarily discriminatory. (Jeffrey Bloomer also takes this position in a piece he did in Salon.) One could argue that the policy acknowledges and respects the social and linguistic variety, complexity, and creativity of the alternatives to marriage that developed in LGBT communities over the years. One could also argue that the refusal to slap the label of “husband” or “wife” on everyone who marries is an indication of progress, a sign that broadening access to marriage might actually transform the institution into something more flexible and egalitarian than it has historically been. For many of us, after all, the words “husband” and “wife” don’t confer or connote equality, as Frank implies, though what he means is equality with other married people. Those terms are rooted in and saturated by gender-based inequalities that persist in custom if not in law, and some of us want nothing to do with them. There is no dignity for me in the idea of becoming somebody’s wife, and I for one am glad the Associated Press will not automatically label me that if WFKG and I ever decide to tie the knot. (Tie the knot? Good grief, people, after twenty-nine years, could it really get any tighter?)

LGBT people know well that we don’t always get to choose the names we are called, and we’ve done an impressive job of resignifying many of the terms that have been used to wound and stigmatize us. I delight in calling myself dyke and queer and admire the courage and ingenuity of those who have fought to wrest those words away from the haters and the hurters. For me, though, the term wife is beyond reclamation. I don’t need it. I don’t want it. I don’t like the feel of it in my mouth or the sound of it in my ears. It grates. It simpers. It titters and totters, uncertain of itself, as Emily Dickinson brilliantly, devastatingly shows:

I’m “wife” — I’ve finished that —
That other state —
I’m Czar — I’m “Woman” now —
It’s safer so —

How odd the Girl’s life looks
Behind this soft Eclipse —
I think that Earth feels so
To folks in Heaven — now —

This being comfort — then
That other kind — was pain —
But why compare?
I’m “Wife”! Stop there!

The quotation marks tell you everything you need to know. Access to the word “wife” is not comparable to access to the front of the bus. For many of us, indeed, it is very nearly the opposite, implying neither dignity nor liberation but, for women throughout much of American history, the loss of many rights and an independent legal existence. I participated in the battle to bring marriage equality to my home state and am proud that we were among the first states to affirm the right to same-sex marriage through a popular vote. I am also proud, however, that here in Turtle Country the attorney general issued an opinion making it clear that clerks and administrative judges who perform marriages should not assume that anyone who marries is interested in being pronounced a “husband” or a “wife.” Asked to resolve a number of questions around implementation of the Civil Marriage Protection Act, the AG recommended that all couples be offered “a choice of different terminologies or, better yet, the opportunity to choose exactly how they will be referred to in their vows. Leaving the nomenclatural decision to the parties themselves will ensure that all parties receive the ceremony they desire and, thus, remove any question of discriminatory effect.”

Gaining access to the same institutions to which others have access doesn’t mean we have to occupy them in exactly the same way, and using different terms to name the parties to a marriage needn’t diminish the dignity or stature of the marriage. Words matter, yes. And that’s why we should choose the words by which we are known as carefully as we can, understanding full well that our nomenclatural decisions are never entirely our own. Words are public property and marriages are public acts, but the terms we use can make a difference.

Happy anniversary, darling, from the aging girl who, married to you or not, will never be your wife nor call you a wife. I love you. Let’s go get ice cream. Or cheesecake. Here’s to twenty-nine and more years of queer delight, no matter what we call it.

Saturday Afternoon Pick-Me-Up

I have a cold, a twisted ankle, and a dog who needs to have her anal glands expressed. You really don’t want to hear from me today. No, you want me to post a happy little video, get dressed, and go out to see if Jennifer Lawrence deserved that gold statue she won earlier this week. (The dog will visit the vet tomorrow. I am all for expression, but if it’s going to involve the anal glands I’m thinking a highly trained professional should take care of it. Am I right, dog owners?)

The happy little video is of feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar accepting their National Book Critics Circle Award for Lifetime Achievement. You could do worse than to spend 9 minutes listening to a couple of brave and brilliant pioneers express their gratitude and reflect on the decades of work they did together. It’s a good reminder that scholarship matters, that friendship endures, and that sometimes two heads really can be better than one. Congratulations, Susan and Sandra, and thank you, for everything.

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