Friday, March 30, 2012

Hey Brownback! Over Here!

I never do this. I never get into discussions involving politics unless I am sitting next to you with a beer and a shot of whiskey and we can look each other in the eye and have an honest conversation about the issue at hand while tossing back a few and inserting a couple of jokes to relieve the tension of the topic at hand. This is a massive exception to my rule, my number one rule: never get into politics on the internet. I’m only doing this once, so don’t get used to it. This is a challenge of my bravery, and of yours. Am I brave enough to out myself to all of you, and to deal with the sideways looks and whatever other fallout ensues? I am. Are you brave enough to look me in the eye after reading this? We shall see.

Yesterday the Kansas house of representatives (or the Kansas House of Representatives La-di-Fuckin-da if you're into capitalization) passed (by an “overwhelming majority”, no less) a bill that dismisses local anti-discrimination ordinances against gays and lesbians as a violation of religious freedom. The bill is called the “Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.”  
In short, it states that if an employer, a landlord or anyone else in a position of authority over another person, decides that someone’s “lifestyle” offends their personal religious beliefs, they are allowed to terminate, fire, evict, cast out said person under the protection of the state, regardless of any other factor, even overriding local ordinances to the contrary.  Notice my abundant use of quotation marks? I hate quotation marks. That means I think this measure is heartbreakingly full of shit. Oh, Kansas. You abuse my amigos over and again, but that damn prairie holds me fast. The language in this bill doesn't specifically target the LGBT community, but the implication in Kansas is clear. When we in Kansas say something offends our religious sensibilities, we are usually talking about sex.

Let’s take a step back. Rather than dancing around it and implying the deed, let’s just talk about sex. We’re all adults here. (Please, if you’re not an adult, stop reading now and go graffiti a building or light some fireworks or whatever it is that you kids do these days to stay entertained when you’re not on the interwebs.) I am a happily married mother of three beautiful children.  I am heterosexual. I blend in nicely here in Brownbackistan. But as they say, you can't always tell by looking.  

Not that it's anyone's damn business, and not that my employer nor landlord could legally discriminate against me if they knew, I am also a super-freak in the sack. I get down in ways that would make Howard Stern blush. I won’t go into too much detail there, but let me just say that I am a devoted mother, a committed employee, and an all around generous contributor to my community. This is not in spite of my colorful sex life. It’s because of it. Get it? I am a fulfilled, happy, well-adjusted kinky chick who actually performs more adeptly and enthusiastically at my responsibilities because of my kinks...not in spite of them. I’m energized and feisty and spunky and fun and make great cookies because I’m so damn happy and free. I’m so damn happy and free because I am in a relationship with someone who not only understands and embraces, but also shares my freakiness. I'm allowed to be who I am and he's allowed to be who he is and we talk about it all the time, how great we are.

If someone were to come put a big anvil on my head by way of state legislation that said that I might be fired or thrown out of my house for doing the things that actually enrich my marriage and make my world a happier place (not to mention how happy they make my husband), I guess that might have a profound influence on my orgasms as well as my productivity. I can guarantee that it would cause me to feel disassociated from my environment, knowing that I am considered inferior and subject to the ridiculous posturing of my state representative’s or my boss’s or my landlord’s religious persecution. All they have to do is cry “Slut!” and I’m out on my ass just because I like to get down? Because the State of Kansas made it legal for them to fire me, evict me, persecute me, for of my sexual habits? Come now. It doesn’t make any sense when you paint it that way, does it?
Could it be that 76.7% of our Kansas representatives would be happiest in an ice cream store with 40 options of vanilla? How does that play out at the counter?  ”I’ll have the vanilla. No. Not that vanilla, the one to the left. Yes, that’s the vanilla I prefer.” “Oh, have you tried the vanilla third from the right? It’s so vanilla it makes the other vanillas seem like rainbow sherbet. Realllllly vanilla.” If so, is that an accurate representation of our demographic here in Kansas? Does 3/4 of the population believe that if you don't like vanilla, you are not entitled to the same civil rights as the vanilla eaters?

As a heterosexual, I have never had to deal with the threat of being legally discriminated against for what I do behind closed doors. Let me acknowledge briefly that I understand that what I am talking about has nothing to do with my sexual orientation. I am not implying that gay sex is kinky. The point I'm trying to make is that in the eyes of those who would use their religious freedom as a crutch to beat people about the head with, all the while shouting that you have offended their religious sensibilities and that it is against their religion to employ you, it is absolutely about the sex. The sex is the part that freaks them out. They don't care who you go to the movies with. They don't care who you open a joint checking account with. They don't care who holds your hand in the hospital when you die. They only care who you fuck.  

Sam needs to hear how you get it on.
I have a feeling that in the eyes of Sam Brownback, I am just as much a threat to his agenda for Kansas as the LGBT community is. I may be a bigger threat, because my agenda is to breed thoughtful human beings to counter the terrorism of intolerance and ignorance he has set upon us. When he's finished with the gays, he'll be coming for me, until all the shelves that used to hold the condoms and lube are newly stocked with Wonder White Bread and that weird bacon that doesn't have to go into the refrigerator. When Sam finally gets rid of us sexy types, all of Kansasland will have sex only for the purpose of procreating more diabetes-stricken, artless and uneducated members of his militia.

Here’s the truth. Human beings are layered. We’re complex. But that’s not scary. Sexuality is complicated, and fascinating, but it’s not that big of a deal. It’s just sex. It’s not a “lifestyle.” It’s just something you do, usually after the rest of the world has gone to sleep and there’s no one there but you and your partner, a bottle of tequila and maybe another dude or maybe not and maybe some gadgets or maybe not and maybe a rope swing and a dog collar or maybe not...  the point is, it’s something you do. It defines a very specific aspect of you, but it’s not who you are, not any more than any one single hat that you wear defines who you are.  

Who and how you screw is not who you are as a parent helping your kid with algebra, or who you are as an employee when you show up to work on time even after the really late nights when you were getting down until the sun came up. Come on. Let’s be frank about this. What we do in the sack and with whom has absolutely no negative bearing on how we perform the rest of the day if we're doing it right. The only real threat to productivity is the daydreams, and I can vouch, straight people have them too.

What are you so afraid of, Kansas? If we allow people to be who they are and do what they do...what is the worst that could happen?  

If every one of us straight, rational, sane-minded, kinky Kansans stepped forward and said hey, you know what?  I’m straight but I do freaky things in bed, and my freaky sex life is none of anyone’s damn business but I’ll tell you about it if it will get you to leave my gay friends alone already! maybe we could at least divert attention away from them for a minute.  Honestly, they’re taking a pounding here, and not the good kind. They deserve a break.

I'll go first. The first email is coming from me. It will include a recitation of my proudest achievements, the accomplishments of my three very well adjusted children, and an itemized list of the contents of the case under my bed. But I'm not showing any of you perverts.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Price of Redemption is Not $1.15

Every Sunday I wake up early and drive a little over an hour west across the beautiful Flint Hills of Kansas to work in the tiny, bright diner of my dreams.  The seven or eight hours that follow are not without challenge, but it is the most incredibly good time and most days I feel guilty that I get paid to do it.  When I leave home the sun is usually just beginning to crest the eastern horizon.  I watch the pale spread over the plains in my rearview mirror, it casts a mesmerizing amber warmth across the fields and farms.  It is the exact color of the good plates my folks used when I was a kid.  They called them “The Amber Glass Plates” and they only pulled them out for really special occasions.  Driving west with this glow pushing from behind me always causes me to recall Christmases and Thanksgivings with the little glass of wine we’d get, and my tenth birthday.  I guess when I turned ten they decided my most dangerous years were behind me, and in celebration of the idea that I might live to be an adult someday, they broke out the fancy plates.  The amber gives way to pale pinks and oranges as a giant hot pink sun rises to wash the prairie with gold.  I’ve lived a lot of places, but I’ve never seen anything as beautiful as a Kansas sunrise.  It even makes Topeka look pretty.

So I begin every Sunday with beauty in my sight and love on my mind, and whatever music I want to listen to in my ears, no one begging me to play their favorite song again, again, again or whining that it’s their turn to pick.  Sunday morning it’s always my turn to pick.  I’ve logged hundreds of hours marveling at how perfectly my harmonies blend with Tom Petty.  I can’t believe he hasn’t discovered me yet, but I’m just sure he will someday.  The two of us will embark on a short tour under phony stage names, playing in all the dingiest bars because he’ll be tired of stadium crowds and I’d be too nervous to sing in front of more than thirty people at a time.  

By the time I reach the toll plaza twenty minutes west, I’m sedated by the glow of the red sun behind me, hypnotized by the long shadows of sparse trees across the tall grass, and giddy with certainty that Tom Petty and I are going to stop to see all the weirdest roadside attractions on our tour.  

That’s where we meet: me and Kansas Turnpike Collector Lisa#1175.  Our encounters are always brief and always unpleasant.  

There are usually three lanes open at the toll station at 6:30 on Sunday morning.  I have a better chance of missing her lane than I have of ending up in it, yet I always hit her booth.  Always.  Lisa#1175 and I are cosmically linked by some invisible tether that pulls me through her lane every Sunday morning.  By the time I realize it’s her in that booth, it’s too late to do anything but move forward for another very short, very unpleasant exchange in the middle of my otherwise perfectly meditative hour and fifteen minutes.

Lisa#1175 hates me.  She really does.  At first I thought maybe she just had one of those sort of unfortunate looking faces that make a person appear to be hacked off even when they aren’t.  As our relationship has evolved over the last two and a half years, her expression has degraded from irritated to blatantly pissed off to see me.  For a while I tried to win her over with music.  “Maybe she hates Tom Petty,” I thought.  Every week I’d pull forward with different music to try to impress her.  I tried everything.  Pop, Soul, Classical, Rap, New Country, Old Country, Mariachi, Balkan Gypsy, R&B, Gospel... no change.  

Then we had the sticky money incident, and my hope of ever seeing Lisa#1175 smile was lost forever.  I’m not a scientist, but judging by the viscosity of the sticky brown coating on the change in the ashtray that particular Sunday morning, I’m going to guess that someone spilled a coke in there the previous Tuesday.  Of course, this was unknown to me until the precise moment that I reached into the ashtray to fish out my $1.15 as I approached the toll booth.  I grimaced as I counted the money out and tried hopelessly to wipe it off with a tissue.  Bits of tissue clung to the faces of the coins.  I furiously tried to wipe them off on my dress as I approached the toll station and squinted ahead at the collectors in the booths in front of me.  Someone behind me honked. I pulled into the far right lane.  From the look on Lisa#1175’s face you would have thought I’d tried to pay her in mangled human fingers.  That was two years ago, and from the look of things, I have committed an unforgivable sin in the world of the toll-taker.  We will not be friends in this lifetime.

I guess Lisa#1175 might not have as much fun at her job as I have at mine.  She probably doesn’t feel guilty that she gets paid.  But I hope she has some favorites.  I hope there are other regulars who bring at least a small smile to her naturally downturned mouth and a slight gleam to the eyes that always survey me with such contempt, maybe a hot guy in a swanky convertible who winks at her every time he hands her his $1.15.  But those guys always have a KTAG and blow past me while I’m waiting in line to pay.  Which raises a good question.  Why don’t I buy a KTAG?  It would save me time and money.  It would save me the agony of trying to avoid Lisa#1175’s booth and, upon failing to avoid her, trying desperately to redeem myself for the sticky money incident and get her to like me.  God, I hate it when someone doesn’t like me!  I would love to say that I don’t want to participate in the automation of society, that I prefer human contact and that I’d like to think I’m helping someone keep a job who might not like it but sorely needs it.  The truth is less romantic than that.  I’m just lazy and I’ve always meant to order one but I haven’t gotten around to it, and likely won’t.

Lisa#1175 and I will just continue our dance, as the universe has demanded that we must.  She will probably never like me and many years from now I will learn to be comfortable with that.  By the time I’m on the west side of Topeka, ten miles or so from her stinging, loathsome glare, the prairie starts to really open up.  The sun, higher on the horizon, begins to create amazing depth by casting long shadows from one hill to the next while mist still lingers in the pockets of the cool valleys.  The interstate begins to roll, cresting one hill and giving way to the next, and each one opens up a new horizon in front of me.  It’s a magical place, this prairie.  And I am on my way to do what I do the best in the place I was born and with people I truly love all the way in the marrow of my bones.  I give one last thought to Lisa#1175, and hope that she takes joy from something the way I do from this moment.  I hope she loves something as much as she hates me.        

Friday, March 16, 2012

Love & The Coyote

It would make sense that someone who likes to write and is as opinionated as I am would spend more time composing persuasive articles than narratives.  Believe me, I am just as heartsick and horrified by what I ingest from the news as you are.  If I thought it would do a bit of good, I'd spout off daily about what's wrong and what I think we should do about it all.  But really, you don't need another reminder of how screwed up the world is, and frankly, I don't have a magic solution to make stupid people act smarter.  Anyway, I've never had the power to persuade anyone who didn't already agree with me...though I frequently convince my husband of just how much he agrees with me.  I love a good non-fictional narrative because, while it doesn't undo the discouragement that you felt when you read that article in the Times, nor the anxiety you might feel when you listen to NPR tomorrow  morning, it is a reprieve from trauma, a moment of peeking into a less depressing, but still real, news story.  The news of my everyday.  So much about the mundane is noteworthy, I find.  Wouldn't you agree?

Tonight, while suffering the heartburn of trying to digest two back-to-back stories illustrating that racism is alive and well in the form of ugly, stereotypical quips and bumper stickers, I got to thinking about change and how scary it is for those who don't invite it.  I do, openly, invite change.  I'm a restless soul.  I am constantly tweaking the recipe for the soup of my life, and I'm happy to meet anyone who wants to dip their bread into my to speak.  I know that's not true for everyone.  That got me thinking about coyotes, and what it's like to be married to one.

I've always loved coyotes, even before I read Prodigal Summer, though Kingsolver brought a beautiful voice that reinforced the notion that they are this continent's most romantic animals.  In that novel, the heroine's quest to protect an elusive family of coyotes in lower Appalachia winds her through a series of encounters outlining the fragility of balance.  She wants to ensure balance by protecting a predator.  It isn't in everyone's nature to want to protect a killer of weaker things.  Coyotes eat your cats, your chickens, your fluffy baby sheep, even your sweet, big-eyed dog right out of your back yard.  Maybe only a biologist can appreciate the beauty in that.  Here's the thing about coyotes: they are survivors.  They have an inspiring ability to adapt to change, not because they want to (I guess they probably don't), but because they have to.  We encroach on them, they move to the hinterlands or they adapt to life among us, feeding on our pets.  Their range has actually expanded with the advancement of people across North America.  They move into regions they've never lived before.  They survive in the desert, the mountains, the prairie, the name it, coyotes will find something to eat and a way to stay alive.  They hunt small prey alone in the west, they hunt larger prey in packs in the east.  They change their hunting habits to correlate with the movements of their prey.  They eat carrion.  They eat what they can find, and they train the next generation to do whatever it takes to stay alive.  What's so romantic about that, you ask?  I'll tell you, for I am a narrator and I have a story about a coyote.

For a coyote, staying alive means finding food.  For my songwriter husband, staying alive means creating something.  Without a creative outlet, he would surely wither.  When we met, he was pretty set in the pattern of his hunt for material.  That is to say, he had a large and open hunting ground.  He didn't have to work very hard to survive.  Songs sort of fell into his lap, as did I one night when he discarded a still smoking cigarette onto the floor at my feet during a show.  I picked it up, looked him in the eye while he was mid-song, and inhaled.  It was supposed to be a brief adventure.  No one meant to fall in love.  I never intended to become his habitat.

Intentions aside, his open prairie landscape was soon replaced by days and nights in a small house with a wife and three young children.  But a coyote survives.  This man is a tremendously talented, insanely prolific songwriter.  Before life with us, he says he used to wake early in the morning, still foggy from the night before, write, then go back to sleep.  Mornings now involve getting the kids up and fed, packing lunches, signing permission slips, finding lost shoes, then shoving backpacks and lunches and children into a minivan, consulting the official rules of shotgun every damn day ( before finally depositing them at their respective schools and returning home for seven hours of being bossed by the three year old.  I go off to work some mornings, not others, but I can see that there is rarely the time or inclination to write a song.  It's a very sweet, very uninspiring life, by my estimation.  But the songs still flow.

He adapted without struggle, without effort, without resentment.  Quite naturally, his habits have shifted into the darkest hours of the night, sometime between midnight and 3am.  All through the day he is alert, observing, seeing things the rest of us miss.  When it's time to come back to hunt, he remembers everything.  The curve of a leg, something someone said in a passing conversation, a smell, a sound... it's all there, like a coyote picking field mice from a nest.  It's survival.  It's lovely and inspiring, this ability to adapt without meaning to.  It's also incredibly reassuring to know that he is made of the same stuff that the heartiest, most romantic creatures on the continent are made of.  The sound of his song always elicits the same reaction from me that a howling coyote does: I feel the hair raise up on the back of my neck, my chin lifts, slightly raising my face, and I tumble headlong into wonderment.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Diary of a Minimalist Imposter

I live in a small house with four other people who range in size from quite tiny to quite large.  The smallest fits nicely on my lap.  There are two middle sized people who don’t take up much space physically, though their ability to accumulate and spread their stuff around is mystifying.  The biggest person in our house takes up the least space.  He mostly walks around picking up after the rest of us, grumbling at the children and baring his teeth at me as he tries to defend his 25% of the hanging space in the closet he has to share with me.  This is a man who, when he passes from one room to the next, inhabits the entire space of the door frame.  Someone my Aunt Sara once called a giant hulk of a man.  But he doesn’t need much to be happy.  I think 25% is more than fair.

I consider our lifestyle to be pseudo-minimalist.  If we don’t need it or really, really want it, there is probably not room for it inside.  My girls have never really played with toys, no matter how much they thought they wanted them.  Art supplies are what they collect.  My son liked two things: books and legos, and managed to amass about 500,000 of each between the ages of 5 and 10.  I don’t mind dirt on children.  I want them to make a mess with mud outside and paints inside, but clutter really freaks me out.  I get short of breath, I feel walls closing in, I want to run outside screaming and strip off my clothes in the street.  

Lying in the tub tonight (incidentally, the one enormous feature of this house is a huge jacuzzi tub that sits smack in the middle of the master bedroom) I saw something that stopped my breath.  Hanging on the back of the door to the toilet is a shoe rack that holds all the things that would normally go into a bathroom closet, except that we don’t have one of those.  The pockets are all overflowing, bulging really, with hair products and tools.  It looks like a bizarre modern art exhibit by a deranged Walgreens addict.  I keep a small bag of cosmetics under the sink, which mostly contains various tones of slut-red lipstick, my only must-have.  But the back of the bathroom door is evidence that I am not the minimalist I sell myself as.  Every pouch is crammed full of shit that is supposed to make my curly hair straight.  I guess I’ve never found the right one, and instead of tossing the ones that don’t do what they say they’re going to do, I smash them in on top of each other in a shoe rack on the back of the bathroom door.  There are three electric heating devices to burn my curls into submission.  Then there are the lotions and gels and sprays and balms and mousses (meese?) and serums and oils and cremes of all sizes and shapes.  Each one says it can make my curly hair straight without being frizzy.  Each one lies.

“How did you get so crowded?”  I asked the shoe rack.  “Who did this to you?”
“You did,” answered the shoe rack.
“Impossible,” I said from the tub.  “I’m a minimalist.”
“Ha!” scoffed the shoe rack.  “Imposter!”
“Hey, you know what?  Screw you.  You don’t know anything, you’re a shoe rack.”
“I think my pockets speak for themselves...Curly!”  hissed the shoe rack.
I gasped.  “How can you be so mean?  I’m literally naked right now...  I’m vulnerable! And it's really humid in here. Asshole shoe rack.”   

The shoe rack was silent.  I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on relaxing.  But one eye kept peeking to see if it was still there, if it was coming for me.

It’s disturbing to realize that you’re not who you thought you were.  It’s uncomfortable to admit that perhaps, as rad as your life seems, there’s one little mental duck out of the row.  And there it is, waddling about, flaunting itself to anyone who might pass by my bathroom door.  The hair crap is obviously a symptom of a much more serious condition.  What is at the root (ugh, pardon the pun) of this chronic longing for hair that isn’t mine?  What the fuck is all this shit?

Rather than clearing out the shoe rack, I poured a glass of wine and sat down to write this out.  The answer to any problem is in the middle of page two.  That’s universal.  Got a problem?  Start writing.  The solution, or at least the real question, is halfway into the second page.  Anything beyond that, you’re overthinking it.  Which brings me to my answer.  It’s about options.  I am what my husband calls a tough broad.  I don’t like to be told what to do.  I want escape routes and I want options, and without them I will fiercely fight my way out of whatever imaginary corner I feel myself backed into.  I’m pretty sure it’s really that simple.  No one is going to tell me that I have to have curly hair just because my hair is naturally curly.  I have options, damn it.  

The trouble is that the option is not very attractive.  In its natural state, my hair is somewhere between ringlets and waves.  It’s not that really great tight curl that girls can work into awesome afros.  I’d rock that in a heartbeat!  But it appears happy and healthy enough, and not entirely hideous.  Straight, though, it becomes angry.  A few dozen disobedient hairs (wretched individuals) usually on top of my head, refuse to recognize my dominance over them, and curl skyward in rebellion.  The ends become thirsty and pissed off.  I have never achieved the sleek, edgy look that the bottles promised me.  This isn’t necessarily something that anyone else would notice, but I notice, and it’s frustrating be faced with a situation that offers no attractive options.  That’s it.  

I could launch into another six pages on the misogynist corporate machine and how it warped my brain into believing that I’m not attractive in my natural state with my curly hair and without my MAC Slut-Red #140, but that’s all been said.  It’s not that I don’t believe it, it’s just that I don’t think it matters much in this case.  I have to work from the place on page two where I realized what’s wrong with me:  I’m not realistic, I’m not satisfied, I'm vain, and I’m stubborn.

Quick confession, my style idols are those women at the farmer’s market who dress in khaki cargo shorts and t shirts with flannels over them, who wear sensible sandals and sunscreen every day, and funny hats.  They might wear lipstick a couple times a year, a muted shade like Not-Slutty-Dusty-Rose #13.  I want to be like that, but I’m not yet.  It would be a lie, an uncomfortable, transparent lie.  Last year, in a bar in Memphis (or maybe Nashville?  No, it was Memphis) a very sweet, very flamboyant flight attendant for Delta Airlines called me sex-on-a-stick.  Actually, because he was from the bayou of Louisiana, he said Honey, youuuu are seh-yux on a stee-yuk.    My husband makes almost daily reference to this phrase, whether I’m in makeup or not, whether my hair is straight or curly.  I’m not hurting for affirmation around here (one of the benefits of living with a man who really loves women), but no amount of attention can counter my stubborn dissatisfaction with not having a better looking option about my curly hair.

Now that I've revealed the truth to myself, and to increase the chance that I'll feel I'm making successful progress, I’m striving for something in between the bulimic, self-deprecating girl I was in my teens and twenties, when nothing about me was good enough, and the satisfied-with-my-all-natural-self woman I hope to be while I’m selecting heirloom tomatoes at the farmer’s market someday.  This is the best I can come up with: it’s going to have to be okay, for now, to be dissatisfied and unrealistic, as long as I’m telling the truth about it.  I have to be honest with myself and not call my shoe rack an asshole when it points out the obvious discrepancies of my personality.    

I guess the point is this: if you find yourself critiquing an aspect of yourself, physical or psychological, my advice is not to punish yourself for being dissatisfied.  Admit vanity. Of course we want to conceal blemishes, whether they're on our skin or our psyche. Just be honest about where they come from (see the middle of page two).
If you get stuck, have a conversation with your shoe rack, or your bathroom closet if you’re lucky enough to have one.