Friday, December 23, 2011

I saw this poster on Dearborn and Congress. I took a lousy picture of it with my camera phone, so it's hard to see.

It says, The Gentleman Shaver. Member, the Brotherhood of Shaving. "'He-time' is hard to come by."

Later I discovered a film that matches.

The Gentleman Shaver (Dir Cut) from Ben Briand on Vimeo.

Isn't it charming, with the man his bowtie rakish and handsomely slack, his trim body bending like rubber, and his lady friend, scantily clad and blissfully unaware, so caught up is she in her own grooming. With the black and white, and the French music, ooh la la.

There's a comment here, in all the work I've been doing about what it means to be a woman who cares about the way she looks in a world who demands that women look a certain way. It's percolating.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


When I was sixteen I rear ended someone. I was on Kemper Road headed west back toward Springdale, where I lived. My friend Angela and I had come back from taking the SATs (I think) and I'd taken my eyes off the road for a second and the guy in front of me stopped short and I didn't see it. There wasn't much damage to my car, and I don't remember much damage to his. An ambulance on its way elsewhere stopped and checked out Angela. She was black, straight hair, braces and a voice like a Disney fairy. In my memory she was always frail, underweight. I remember the police came, and I spent some time sobbing in the back of the cruiser while he wrote me a ticket. I remember Angela going to see a doctor for some physical therapy, and my parents being miffed that she'd done so and hadn't told me, hadn't at least warned me that she'd been through some series of PT and hadn't communicated with me about it. We weren't really friends after that.
When I was 24 I was in a hit-and-run. I was on Western Avenue turning east onto North Avenue when a woman turned into me headlong. I looked at her and she looked at me. Then she continued her turn onto Western and I never saw her again. This time the car was full of people. I remember shouting out her license plate number to my friend in the passenger seat so he could write it down. Then, once I turned onto North, I flagged down a squad of Chicago's finest and told them I'd just been in a hit-and-run. They told me that it wasn't their beat, and if I wanted police help, I'd have to call the police and ask for it. Never mind that I'm a citizen who pays taxes and lives in (and loves) Chicago. I ran up to a cop on the street asking for help and he/she (they) denied it. We were on our way to a party; I didn't want to ruin my friends' good time by waiting at this enormously busy intersection for someone to show up who might be as much (read: little) help as the previous officers had been. So we went on to the party.

In 2008 I rear ended a Jeep. Same scenario as the first, only we were at Wilson Ave getting onto Lake Shore Drive. I'd recently moved in with the man I married, and we'd just had a fight about something, I don't know what. I was on my way downtown to meet a publisher who liked my work on Chicago Public Radio and wanted to talk to me about a long-form project. She hasn't responded to my emails since then. The Jeep driver was very nice. He said I'd just hit his frame, and since I drive a roller skate and he drove a solid vehicle designed to haul, he said it was probably fine; we traded info just the same. My front was pretty jacked up: the hood was dented up and the bumper was really struggling. I limped home, back to my apartment in Lincoln Square and buried my face in my honey's shoulder.

Two days ago I was sitting at a stoplight on LaSalle at Clark Street. I hate that intersection. There's so much going on over there, so many streets, it seems, headed in strange curving directions, so many lanes merging or creating, and with the construction it's just worse. It was 4:40. All Things Considered was on the radio. I'd just bought some things for the Christmas table I'm setting this weekend, and I was on my way to the North Side--a few presents to buy and then therapy. The green arrow flashed, signaling a left turn onto Clark, and seconds later I heard a loud BAM and I and the car were rocked forward. Hard. I shouted something into my empty vehicle. I put on my hazard lights. The guy behind me got out of his car, and I slowly got out of mine. I was afraid of another hit-and-run, but he was polite and concerned for me. Behind us someone honked their horn, then traffic started snaking around us. We pulled into the BP on that corner and had a conversation, he in broken English because Spanish was his primary language, me in broken English because I was terrified. The cars were okay: he'd knocked his license plate off one screw, and that missing screw had gouged a hole in my back bumper, about an inch long. He gave me his name and phone number, and an approximation of where his car insurance office is located. It seemed to me that he would rather keep the insurance out of it, but it was hard to tell because he spoke in phrases, not full sentences. "If you need anything, call me, just... let me know, don't... If I can help... Please call me..." I can remember him waving his hands at me, his palms facing me, in a kind of surrendered gesture. At some point I wanted him to stop talking and kept saying, "Okay, I understand. Thank you." I got in my car. My best friend, my husband, was away in Ohio, visiting his family. I had two choices: go somewhere and get help, get checked out, or continue with my day. I am my mother's daughter: when we have to get shit done, we get shit done. So, after a failed attempt at filing a police report over the phone, I got back on LaSalle and made my way onto Lake Shore Drive, like I'd been trying to do all along.

PTSD, no nightmares (that last more than a week), no head trauma or lasting damage. But I wonder what it does to you to have things constantly ramming themselves into you. After this last accident, I felt antagonistic: I wanted to fight, I wanted to ram something or someone back, to somehow expel whatever had just been pushed into me without my permission. My body hurt; I had twinges of pain in my neck and shoulders, and when, 40 minutes later, I got out of my car and walked into Target, my hips were complaining, too. I wasn't mad at the driver. He mad a stupid mistake. I've made plenty of stupid mistakes, as evidenced by accidents 1 and 3. But I was mad at somebody, and I wanted to smash something, to be violent in order to get rid of whatever I was carrying around in my body as a result of the accident.

My husband used to know a woman, a kind of freaky-deaky, polyamorous, dominatrix sex kitten; and to use language like this demeans and judges her, and I don't mean to do that. I only mean to highlight the contrast between her and I, who think when we do it with the lights on we're being freaky. Anyway, this woman, he said, often had a longing for the physical activity, not of sex, but of like, Greco-Roman wrestling, or something. She wanted to throw her body against another's, to pull and twist and snap and yank on another human being, and to have someone do the same to her. I don't know what that communicates about her. That's also not how I feel. I feel like something has radiated through my muscles and tissues, and rather than let it pass through me, I need to transmit it or transfer it. I don't have an outlet for a lot of that feeling. I can take my husband with me to the gym and we can play racquetball, but slamming a ball around a wood-and-glass room isn't the thing. I feel like I'm walking around with an earthquake inside me and I need to release it in order to feel whole again. I'm short-tempered, I'm distracted-- but those could be the really strong muscle relaxant I got from the doctor at the urgent care across the street from my building.

(Sidebar: I was so scared after the last wreck because for months I've been trying--and failing--to get health insurance. After the way I was feeling, I thought something might really be wrong with me, and I'd lack the resources to deal with the problem. When I walked into the clinic yesterday morning and asked to see a doctor, the admin asked for insurance and I told her I didn't have any. "Oh, it's going to be awfully expensive," she said to me, a look of smug disapproval and pity on her face.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, the visit is 169 before any of the x-rays or blood work or anything--"
"Well do I need an x-ray?"
"I don't know, I don't know the extent of your injury."
It could have just been me, but this woman seemed to take some delight in my situation. There was a kind of self-satisfied smile on her face. Small, but still it was there. It hurt me.
"Well, maybe I can talk to the doctor before--"
"They don't really like to do that, consultations can get sticky--"
"I'm not talking about a consultation. I want to talk to the doctor before they perform a battery of tests on me."
"Oh, of course."
"I mean, she can't perform an x-ray without my consent, right?"
"That's right."
I filled out the rest of her paperwork and sat down. This did not help the violent tremor-feeling I'm carrying in my body. I wanted to tell her, Look Lady, it's not my fault I don't have health insurance. As much as I love where I work, they don't value me enough to provide me with health insurance to help me take care of myself, and the THREE companies where I've applied have all either dropped me or declined me because I have a "feminine problem" that I can live with but that makes me generally uncomfortable and may compromise my ability to conceive, but all the health insurance companies can think about is incurring the cost of another "female surgery" a surgery which, by the way, I don't even want, but it's the only way doctors in this country have figured out how to deal with this condition. But I'm trying. So why don't you wipe that smirk off your face and help me? I can pay your $169 or whatever, one way or another, but what I CAN'T do is feel like a valuable human being because I can't get any help from this totally fucked up system.
It's not nice that on top of feeling the need to break something I also felt humiliated for my lack of ability to play by the system's rules, because they deny me a spot at the table.)

As I was saying, the drugs I got ($4 generics from Target) are really strong, so all of my distraction and short temper could be from how groggy and incapacitated they make me. But I can't shake this feeling, that when that guy in the Honda rear-ended me, he put something in me, and it's something that I'm struggling to get out.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Late Blooming

Last time I wrote here, I was writing about makeup, right? I was astonished by the change that's become a part of me, the idea that, like a Kate Chopin short story in Cosmo, I've undergone some cosmetic awakening that's freed me from bonds under which I was previously burdened. I've been thinking about this a lot--how it could be that a change like this takes place in me, what circumstances allow me to feel good about doing a complete 180, and what makeup is in the world today, how it relates to beauty, etc. I've discovered a lot of haters, but that's mostly on the internet, and let's be real, the internet is crawling with haters, right?

This morning I was checking out TheRumpus and saw this video.

Okay. I am not going to spend my energy hating on this girl. I am not going to turn this blog into a feminist (or even biological) commentary about the relationship between makeup and mate selection. I want to point out that this girl is exactly the kind of girl I was talking about in my last blog: a girl who thinks about boys and how to snag them, and who thinks about what she does with her body (examples from the video include showering, brushing your hair, and you guessed it, wearing makeup) in order to attract a boy.

This attitude is so pervasive when it comes to makeup. Lots of women, and many men, suspect that the only reason a woman would wear makeup is to snag a man--there's little to no discussion of men wearing makeup in the small amount of online "research" I'm doing (almost exclusively YouTube video at this point, and some nominal book research), so we're working with a pretty heterosexual paradigm here. Men are bitching about what women do to themselves to be found attractive and heralding the wisdom and beauty of the natural look, and saying some really mean (ahem, misogyny?) things in the process. On top of which, some women are saying, "gee I wished this feature of my body was different so I looked better" or they're also saying hateful, hurtful things about women who like wearing makeup. But so many of these people are positing that the reason women wear makeup is to attract the attention, affection and provision potential of men.

So I said that this wasn't a biological treatise and it's not. But I do want to point out that for many of the other species on our planet, when choosing a mate, it's the males who adorn themselves, who go through battles of strength and supremacy, who preen and parade and primp, in order to win the affections of the females. Lions, babboons, rams, deer, peacocks--and those are the only ones I can remember from 9th grade science and Wild Kingdom videos. I'm no scientist.

I can remember my mother encouraging me to wear shorter skirts, to wear my hair down, in high school and college, in order to look more attractive. "You have great legs," she'd say, "you should show them off more." I always wondered why she never said that about my studies-- "You should take a creative writing class; you have such an aptitude for language." The more I reflect on my mother's influence on my upbringing it's clear to me that she thought she'd be doing the best for me if she encouraged me to have the life that she wanted as a youg person: if she prevented the pain and mistakes she encountered in her own life and helped me attain the things she wanted, and maybe never got in her own. I can't fault her for that--every parent wants that for her kid--except for in the places where she pursued her own agenda for me and sacrificed my agenda for me. But being cute, attracting boys, it was just not a part of my world.

It bums me out that so many people perceive makeup this way, as a tool in the box of feminine wiles that women use to trap men. It simply does not exist in that space for me. I can dig that I sound ludicrously naive, but so what? It's a shame to me that for so many, makeup exists in the space of a necessity in order to alter the perceptions of others--and I get the irony of this statement, given the reality of things like concealer, which are supposed to reduce appearances of qualities of your face, and foundation, which is designed to even out skin tone that may be several shades to begin with. But what if it's not about trapping a man? What if it's not about making others thinking you have perfect skin? There's a lot that we do for other people, whether they know it or not, but maybe makeup can live in the space of something that we do for ourselves. We choose how we want to look based on how we feel and what we want. If a woman has the right to her safety despite wearing a miniskirt, she should have the right to her intellect and wisdom despite wearing eyeliner.

I'm obviously still figuring this out. But the vitriol, the defensiveness (including my own) around this subject is both interesting and puzzling.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


I'm awake at 6 am this morning because an hour ago I was lying in bed and I turned funny and my neck put a giant stop sign in my way. I've been trying a lot of RICE-- rest, ice compression, elevation--in the last hour, along with as many anti-inflammatories I can find, so that I can show up at my last class today. (I've been taking a class with one of my favorite writers and learning from her about writing and teaching and all kinds of good stuff.) But class isn't for two more hours, so while I breathe deeply and hope for healing, thought I'd return to this space and see what I have to say.

So on a different note, something new and wonderful and really interesting has happened to me: I've discovered makeup.
You're thinking, duh, Jess, now get yourself a smart phone (which I don't have) and a Facebook account (which I do have, see mixed feelings here) and we might be able to welcome you to the 21st century. But somehow I made it into my 30s knowing little and caring even less about makeup. On the contrary, I'd say my relationship to makeup was an actively antagonistic one. What little I knew about makeup was that my mother used it occasionally (but never showed me how to) and lots of girls at school used it. But I wasn't friends with those girls. They were the ones who knew boys and when boys talked to them, they could say things that didn't make them sound too smart or too bitchy, a skill I hadn't mastered when I was in high school. They were the ones who thought for more than 30 seconds about what they were wearing out of the house that day, and who wanted everyone to like them and to think they were cool. They were cool. They were effortlessly, perfectly cool, and I was a giant nerd, and wearing makeup just made me look like I was trying too hard and so I would have none of the feminine wiles they were offering like nectar to the gods of Varsity High. Of my closest girl friends who did use makeup, well, we didn't talk about that stuff. We talked about band and orchestra and what part we were hoping for in the school play and our I.B. exams.

I must have been worrying about my GPA and practicing my clarinet (yes!) and trying to graduate with a latin degree while every other girl was learning about blush and eyeshadow. That's one of the only ways I can account for the fact that I didn't start wearing makeup until after I graduated from college.

But now. something has happened. The stars have lined up a different way. I've given myself the permission to want to look pretty, and to feel good about it. That's never happened before. I always thought that if I looked too pretty, no one would take me seriously. Oddly enough, I've also always thought that those women who were so pretty were the ones who had all the advantages, all the charm and grace of social interaction that I just didn't understand. But I think the thing that's dawned on me is that I don't care what other people think of me anymore. I mean, I care that my boss thinks I'm good at my job, and that my students believe I'm dedicated to their growth; I care that my fellow writers think that I'm the kind of artist who is open and absorbing to many things and that I'm a professional joy to work with. But if I put on red lipstick and they think that makes me look all girly, they want to call me Princess, well they can stuff it. I'm no longer a woman threatened by the idea of looking feminine or attractive as a part of my self.

This feels a little rambly, and maybe it's the early morning hour or the fact that I'm in a lot of pain. Or maybe it's the newness of this idea. But I'll try to keep thinking and talking about it here. Don't worry--no beuaty tips or tricks. But I'm compelled by this journey that each woman chooses to make or not to make as she forms and discovers how she'll become a woman.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

love langauge

I love shopping. But I hate Christmas shopping.

I was talking with someone the other day and we agreed that Christmas shopping is easiest when you're buying for yourself because you know what you want. Buying for others is impossible. I'm taking a quick break in the middle of some shopping to vent/reflect on what the anxiety I'm feeling about plunking down money to buy things for people I don't know well in the hopes that they'll like what I get.

I want to buy good gifts for my loved ones--gifts that they'll like or appreciate that they'll use sometime in the calendar year before the next occasion comes around to buy again. In our house, this is not what defines a good gift. My husband's study is full of "good gifts" that he hasn't touched since opening them, months or even years ago. He swears that there still good gifts, that they show thoughtfulness and care and love. I have a hard time believing him. The shrink wrap is still on some, for crying out loud.If it was a good gift, wouldn't it be doing something in our home other than taking up space and collecting dust? Wouldn't it be read or used or loved in some way?

I realize this morning that I don't want to waste my money in buying gifts for people. I want to give something that they'll use because I want to know that however much time or energy or money I gave up to get the thing that it's getting used. If I buy a hundred-and-fifty-dollar sweater for my sister-in-law (to be? maybe?) I want to know she's going to wear it, not that it'll sit in the back of her closet because it's the wrong color or fabric. If I buy my father a moleskin pocket journal because I see him using an off-brand one and he doesn't use it, it will hurt my feelings. (It did.)

Maybe once I give a thing I have to let go of its gift destiny. I have to allow for the fact that once I give a thing away that it becomes whatever the owner can use it for: a sweater, a pillow, a water balloon slingshot, an item on a shelf, an item to be donated to someone else. Maybe it's about the gesture of the gift, and not the item itself.

But gift-giving has never really been the thing for me, the best way for someone to show me they love and care for me. I'm the person who will feel loved because you've spent the afternoon talking with me, not because you've bought me something expensive, or rare, or even exactly what I asked for. I get that you love me when you pony up, but it's not the best way to show me love.

So there's some kind of academic response in this about Gary Chapman's The Five Love Languages, but this morning I've got other things on my mind that I want to deconstruct. Today I just wanted to take a little time and think about why gift giving is so challenging.

This is the place where I talk about giving gifts while growing up--my mother is crazy for gifts, giving and receiving them. She loves it--loves to spend her money on folks, to be generous in her giving, and she loves to receive things that are classy, pretty, feminine and expensive. She gave gifts that were either really great (ie. How to Make Everything Vegetarian) or that completely missed the mark (I won't enumerate them here, but some that are more in the pursuit of me being someone other than I am). So the fact that gifts weren't the thing I really wanted from my parents escaped them--hell, I didn't even know it until recently. But it always made gift giving a loaded activity.

I'm not looking forward to finishing the buying. But I guess I just have to remember to try for a sincere representation of my affection, and to let go of any expectations of how the gifts get used.