Rock, Paper, Sister

Private Practice: 30 Years Later

June 8

Nick had presence. He was a tall, solid bodybuilder. Sharp, chiseled angles defined his jaw and shoulders. He wore a worn green T-shirt and jeans to his first therapy session. The muscles in his chest and arms were more defined than on anyone I’d ever seen. When he shook my hand, it felt like he wore a catcher’s mitt. I could barely get my hand around his.

I don’t intimidate easily, but I felt humbled by his size. He seemed a yin-yang blend of power and stillness.

aaaaaaa

Cris Mazza is the author of more than 17 books, including Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Mazza has co-edited three anthologies, including Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. In addition to fiction, Mazza has authored a collection of personal essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. Currently living 50 miles west of Chicago, she is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Her recent memoir, Something Wrong With Her, told in real time, is about Mazza’s experience with sexual dysfunction and her evolution in coming to understand it. Mazza recently reached out to Los Angeles writer Ashley Perez after Perez wrote an essay regarding sexual pain and bondage. The two women discovered they had a lot in common, sat down, and talked very candidly about what they thought they were supposed to feel in terms of sexuality, masturbation, sexual expectations in life and in literature, and the feeling deep down that something is wrong.

The Ministry of Thin_FINALAlice and I are walking down the aisle marked Dairy. I take four small tubs of Total 0% Greek yogurt, a couple of raspberry-flavor Müller Lights. I add a four-pack of vanilla probiotic Activias, then a two-pint carton of skim milk. My sister grimaces at the red-top milk—“Skim? That stuff looks like dirty water.” I nod cheerfully, “I know, tastes like it too.” We turn the corner into the aisle marked Meat, where it’s Al’s turn to stock up: bacon, chicken, and some kind of fish.

At the checkout line, we look at our baskets: butter, bacon, and eggs in hers; muesli, pita bread, Greek yogurt in mine. I also have apples, broccoli, bananas; Al has sparkling water, salmon, avocado.

See what she’s doing, and see what I’m doing? Without even thinking about it, we both have our forbidden foods—or, if not entirely forbidden, substances we steer clear of. Al never buys coffee or wine, although she will have the occasional cappuccino or glass of wine when she’s out. I literally don’t go near butter, and I wouldn’t know how to cook any of the meat she buys. Odder than her wariness of caffeine, and my strict vegetarianism, is our avoidance of whole food groups. I don’t do fat; she doesn’t do carbs. A few decades ago these might have seemed strange rules to follow, but these days they’re pretty normal. In the twenty-first century most women police their diets in some way.

The-Best-Food-Writing-of-2013I made it through 32 years without tasting a McRib. Over three decades spent tasting and eating all other manner of offensive foods—yet a McRib had never passed my lips, until last Thursday. I can’t say I regret my meal. It goes deeper than that: a sense that I gave in, sheeplike, to a national phenomenon whose promises—no matter how meager—were always going to fall short of my expectations.

hochWhich recipes do you suggest for the amateur to try? 

Making hard cider couldn’t be easier. You can even start with the unpasteurized, no-alcohol apple cider sold at local orchards in fall. You need not add any sugar to it and it will yield a sweet and tasty, low-alcohol drink in just a few weeks. Once you’ve learned the basic steps, you can improve the end result with blends of apples for better flavor and adding natural carbonation. Ginger beer is another quick and rewarding drink for novices to learn. Like cider, you can start with readily available ingredients and in a short period of time get a simple drink with fresh flavor and low-alcohol content.

hochAs colorful as the history and mythology of moonshine is, absinthe’s may be even more lurid. The herb-flavored and herb-tinted liquor was known as the “Green Fairy” and developed a following among the artists, writers and other bohemians living in France in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its devotees claimed that it promoted visions, that it was more psychoactive than mere alcohol. It was reported that Van Gogh cut off his ear under the deranging influence of absinthe.

Carl-Grimes-in-action-The-Walking-Dead
 

Being a parent is hard. We all know that. Sleepless nights, hours spent elbow-deep in vomit, pressure to do the right thing by your kids every waking hour of the day. You love them unconditionally, but you’re never off the clock. Most days you’re lucky if you find a minute to sit down and breathe.

But if you think you’ve got it hard, spare a thought for the characters in AMC’s hit TV show The Walking Dead. Scheduling nap times can be a bitch, but it’s a virtual impossibility when you’re dragging your kids through a violent post-apocalyptic hell, populated by looters, homegrown gun-toting militia, and flesh-eating corpses. You may fret over how much TV your kid should watch, but trust me – you’ve never encountered a true parenting dilemma until your son has helped deliver his baby sister in a prison block, then shot and killed his mother to keep her from turning into a slavering people-eater. Suddenly an extra hour of Sesame Street doesn’t seem so terrible.

freeloading cover imageThe Future, on Repeat

On a January morning in 2010, nervous congregants gathered in a San Francisco auditorium. They awaited revelation, if not rapture. Silicon Valley’s far-flung diaspora joined the revival from afar, holding virtual vigil. With bent backs and glazed eyes, they stared at the live video feed streaming across their computer screens. Soon, the prophet of the information age would reward his followers and offer a new vision unto the people.

Inside the auditorium, eager eyes darted back and forth across the stage, straining to see their digital media savior. There he was! Applause thundered: dressed in his uniform of black turtleneck and blue jeans, Steve Jobs finally entered from stage left.

Ally McBeal vs. Liz Lemon

 

Robin:

Career deadlines, marriage deadlines, parenthood deadlines— all the internal deadlines for adult milestones have gotten later since the Baby Boomers’ day. Traditionally, five milestones have been used to define adulthood— completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a first child. Millennials pass through all the Big Five, on average, about five years later than Baby Boomers did. It’s become a feedback loop: as the milestones are commonly achieved deeper into post-adolescence, cultural expectations shift even further back.

Today’s young people don’t expect to marry until their late twenties, don’t expect to start a family until their thirties, don’t expect to be on an actual career track until much later than their parents were. So they make decisions about their futures that reflect this wider time frame. Many would not be ready to take on the trappings of adulthood any earlier even if the opportunity arose; they haven’t braced themselves for it.


For the last few years I’ve scratched a meager living as a travel writer. If that conjures images of five-star luxury and all expenses paid cruises around the Baltic, then I apologize. The reality was more like a cut-price buffet at a roach-infested diner, squatting in the ass-end of nowhere. While there have been perks – lots of travel, a few unexpected adventures, some truly global friendships – there were plenty of bad times too. It turns out that travel writers dress like bums for a reason. Those guys you see scrawling on scraps of card at the side of the road aren’t begging for small change – they’re on assignment for National Geographic.

I am having my second miscarriage in a row. I am waiting for my body to expel a much wanted pregnancy that in our sense of joy and good fortune, my husband and I had already announced to family and friends. My first miscarriage this spring was very early (5.5 weeks) and I recovered from it with relative ease. But this morning, suddenly no longer pregnant at 7.5 weeks, I was flooded by a tidal wave of rage.

I yelled at my 5-year-old daughter who was impaling a potted plant with her light saber. I tried to pick a fight with my husband, who wasn’t in the mood to oblige.

And then, it hit me.

1. You are not, and will never be, a mother.

In this age of growing equality – sexual, racial, interspecies – men are still second class citizens when it comes to parenthood. Never mind that your sperm helped make the whole kid and caboodle: your lack of breasts and a vagina will forever be held against you. In fact, if you do grow breasts – or a vagina – it will only make matters worse. Men are still portrayed in the media as cartoonish fools, incompetent diaper-illiterate Stooges who are about as capable of looking after a baby as they are of making a casserole. Women, we are told, have an innate ability to nurture, which includes a genetic predisposition for cleaning up poop with moistened wipes, and a built-in Spidey-sense that detects squalling infants at a range of up to five miles. Men, meanwhile, are quite good at playing games. Or pulling faces. Or, in the case of the truly talented, both at once.

 

HOW TO RIDE AN ELEVATOR

Several years ago when the relationship I assumed was both nearly perfect and my last turned out to be neither and ended car-off-cliff style, I experienced an unexpected and profound personal awakening.

This awakening arrived convincingly disguised as the most miserable and debilitating period of my life; a life which would now be trimmed short from the disease of ruination.

So complete was this state of psychological collapse, it even followed me into elevators.

I am a good friend. If I am your good friend, I promise I will pick you up from the airport, buy you a drink, support your writing, painting, music, IT and accounting skills, and assure you that your hair looks good even after haircuts gone very wrong. I will not save your life by sacrificing my own, loan you books, give you my last Diet Pepsi, or hold your hand during your vasectomy.

I was misled.

Silas asked me to drive him to and from a “minor surgery.” As said “minor surgery” required that I pick him up at 5:30 AM, I suggested that he take the train and offered to pick him up when normal people were awake. He said he wanted me there. He sounded nervous. I did not want to invade his privacy and ask the nature of the surgery (yes, I did), and assumed, when told the surgery would take place at Planned Parenthood, that he had something growing on him that should not, something that required uncomfortable cotton swabbing, or something stuck somewhere it should not be stuck. I thought his vagueness was meant to protect me.

Silas and I dated for about five minutes, then became good friends. Just before we were formally introduced at a mutual friend’s birthday party, I overheard him say he did not want children. Umm, ok, hi, nice to meet you, guy who doesn’t want kids. I’m girl who does want kids. Five minutes was a pretty lengthy relationship, given our respective procreative intentions.

On the drive there, my 6’6” life of the party friend was pale and squeaky. I asked, and learned that I was chauffeuring him to his vasectomy.

Anyone here think a vasectomy is minor surgery? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

The disclosure was followed by the confession that he wasn’t sure he wanted to go through with it. 5:45am on the Bay Bridge. I offered to buy him a box of condoms and drive us both home. He squeaked his resistance. You can’t turn around on the bridge anyway.

We arrived, Silas filled out some forms, and I pulled out my laptop to begin dcumenting. He fidgeted. I tried to distract, noticing his English pallor was paper white; his hands served as a fortress for his offering.  Though he did not want Silas, Jr. to be implicated in the creation of a different kind of Silas, Jr., his reticence was understandable. The choice between having a kid he didn’t want and having someone touch his parts in a way he did not like his parts to be touched was like that one Sophie had. He was not going to win. Not that day.

The wait was long. He got squeakier, whiter. Then silent. I asked if he wanted me to come in. Part of me wanted him to say yes. Not many women – even wives and girlfriends – observe the minor, yet major, snip. The part that hoped he wouldn’t take me up on the offer didn’t care to (a) observe Silas’ genitalia, or (b) pass out, puke, and/or laugh.

He declined. The nurse retrieved him and they disappeared around a corner. Seconds later, he returned and waved me in.

The doctor asked if I was Silas’ wife or girlfriend. We both said no, fast. Bruce got chatty with me. Dude looks at vas deferens all day. And girls at Planned Parenthood are generally there to prevent things or get antibiotics for things, or, you know, to do things a guy doesn’t want to know right away about a girl. I was a mystery who wasn’t afraid to watch.

Silas was not happy with Bruce’s attempts at speed dating. His stuff was getting taped up against his belly. For access. I held his hand. It was limp, too. Doctor Bruce gave him a hand mirror so he could watch.

It was quick.  It was fascinating. I won’t describe: I am a good friend. I will not abuse my power to invoke widespread wooziness. All I’ll say is we both faltered when we saw smoke coming from his boy parts. This was not a he was so turned on his loins were on fire situation. Silas was not experiencing pre-coital metaphorical heat. There was smoke. Down there.

He lowered the mirror. I felt slightly dizzy and put my head between my legs. A few minutes later, he was taken to a room with other limping men for crackers and juice. I didn’t get any juice.

I drove Silas home. Carefully. He called me every day to tell me what color it was. He asked if I wanted to see it. I said I knew what black, green, blue, and yellow look like. The next time I saw him, I gave him a card with a picture of a kid who looked a little like him. The kid was making a goofy face and had French fries stuck up his nose and crammed in his mouth. I wrote “Congratulations. You are not having one of these.”

He asked if I wanted to see it. I asked what color it was. He smiled. I told him I knew what that color looks like. The card is still on his refrigerator.

 

 

A friend of mine is going through an emotional upheaval. She’s in her forties, married, with two children. She is no longer effervescent. She tells me that she is incapacitated by sadness and fear. Things are happening in her life that drain her of her will to live.

“What kind of things?” I ask.

Family things,” she whispers.

Because she won’t tell me, I fear the worst. Though I’ve asked, she refuses to tell me exactly what is happening. She’s painfully shy, secretive about the things she cherishes most. To better cope with her inner turmoil, she’s taken up smoking again. Whatever happened has affected her for months, yet she cannot bring herself to tell another living soul about it.

In an email, she writes about the weight she’s lost since whatever happened happened—“down to [x lbs], my weight at time of marriage–but I look fabulous!” Because I know her to be sensitive about her appearance, I read this as a proud boast. I write back that this is good news, but what I really think is how profound her depression must be to have caused this loss of appetite.

A number of weeks ago, an article on MSNBC.com caught my eye. A woman who survived a lupus-induced stroke tells of how impressed her friends of her resulting severe weight loss.

“The crazy thing was people thought I looked great because I was so thin. They’d ask if I was working out and I didn’t have one muscle. You could see every bone protruding out of my shoulders, my elbows, my wrists.”

She tried to tell people how dire her weight loss was, how much it jeopardized her health, yet her friends prodded her for diet tips.

“It was like the skinnier I got, the more I heard about how great I looked. Men, in particular, thought my body looked fabulous. I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s really sick. I have to be anorexic to make you think I’m attractive.’”

Stories like this get to me. I’ve been writing a novel lampooning how obsessed we can be with false ideas of feminine beauty. Much has been written elsewhere about the psychologically damaging effects that our culture’s focus on body image can have on women, yet it still startles me to see how alarmingly short-sighted people can be. What’s the value of weight loss when it is achieved as a consequence of emotional despair? Or life-threatening medical conditions?

When beauty is concerned, misplaced priorities are rampant.

In August, Jane Fonda appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. The occasion? A new movie by the two-time Oscar-winning actress? A new political cause for this activist who has helped shape public opinion about crucial events for over forty years? Nope. Appearing in a revealingly sheer Stella McCartney dress, the 73-year-old Fonda announces to the world that she is still beautiful.

Fonda, who has an artificial hip and an artificial knee (“I set off as many bells and whistles at an airport as I did [at a Cannes fashion show.]”), freely concedes vanity. She still has the need to show off her figure. “I wear what will show off my best parts, which are my waist and my butt.”

While I have nothing against people taking pride in their personal appearance, it’s appalling that someone as accomplished as Fonda feels she can only assert her continued relevance through brash boasts of youthful beauty. Beauty is confining pedestal. One senses from reading Fonda’s comments that its pursuit has obscured her ability to take satisfaction from other facets of her life.

One needn’t be a cynic to suspect that a septuagenarian’s the outward appearance of beauty is maintained by a fair amount of make-up and, perhaps, cosmetic surgery. Beauty is a wasteful pursuit. Worldwide, the cosmetics industry raked in $170 billion in 2007 (the most recent year for which I can locate reliable figures). Anti-aging facial serums are the most expensive products. A 1.7 ounce jar of La Prairie “Cellular Cream Platinum Rare” will set you back a cool grand at Neiman Marcus.

Do these products work? A 2005 Forbes article suggests maybe not. While the cosmetic industry touts these products as “clinically proven” to reduce wrinkles, their studies lacked clinical control groups to test their findings. As Forbes writes, “If these studies were repeated using, say, olive oil, or even a generic lotion of any kind, it is possible that the results would be the same.”

Dollars are not the only thing that being wasted in the pursuit of beauty. Anxieties and false expectations are being needlessly thrust upon women.

I feel sorry for Fonda.

“I was raised in the ’50s,” Fonda says. “I was taught by my father that how I looked was all that mattered, frankly. He was a good man, and I was mad for him, but he sent messages to me that fathers should not send: Unless you look perfect, you’re not going to be loved.”

As a father of a six-year-old girl, I hope never to wittingly or unwittingly impart that same message. Yet some days, it’s a struggle. My daughter now has longish hair, hair that frankly gets untidy if not brushed. Am I sending her the wrong message every time I brush her hair before she goes to school?

As much as we like to believe that we’ve washed away the blatant sexism that has existed to subjugate or otherwise limit opportunities for women in our society, the expectations we place on women to maintain physical beauty place them at a tremendous disadvantage. Just think of how much time Fonda put in over the years maintaining the comeliness of her butt. Now think of all that she might have accomplished with that time had she devoted it to some other cause.

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton still fiercely contested for the Democratic nomination, Michael Kinsley wrote a Washington Post thought piece about how much time candidates spent each morning readying their physical appearances. Whereas a man can quickly shower, brush his hair, and toss on a suit, greater care is expected from women. Attention must be given to the color co-ordination of their wardrobe. They must apply make-up and style their hair. Sadly, appearances matter as much as policy stances. Should a hastily made-up female politician greet an audience or television interviewer, votes would likely be lost.

These extra preparations, Kinsley conservatively estimated, cost Hillary Clinton twenty minutes more each morning than Barack Obama.

“In most occupations this 20 minutes doesn’t make much difference — especially compared with the disproportionate time that women still spend housekeeping and child-rearing. It will make no difference after the election; no one will care if the president is well-coiffed when answering that 3 a.m. phone call. But in a close-fought election campaign, every minute counts. If you figure 20 minutes a day over a year and a half of 14-hour days and six-day weeks, it comes out to an extra two weeks of campaigning or sleep for a male candidate.”

Just as no one really cares what a president may look like at 3 a.m., I doubt anyone really cares about the state of an actress’s derriere. When a friend emails us at three a.m. with her emotional woes, we don’t really care if she’s lost a lot of weight lately. We don’t ask about the wrinkles that might be crowing her eyes, or the brand of lipstick she might be swishing over her lips. What we want is her emotional well-being, which seems to be the first thing we lose sight of when our thoughts turn to beauty.