*Editor’s note:  This is the first edition of a new column at TNB featuring links of interest from around the web.

Roxane Gay comments on the resurgent birth control debate over at The Rumpus, in an essay entitled “The Alienable Rights of Women.”

If I told you my birth control method of choice, which I kind of swear by, you’d look at me like I was slightly insane. Suffice it to say, I will take a pill every day when men have that same option. We should all be in this together, right? One of my favorite moments is when a guy, at that certain point in a relationship, says something desperately hopeful like, “Are you on the pill?” I simply say, “No, are you?”

 

Unless you live in a sound-proof cave protected by fire ants, you know that ten days ago, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh went on a tirade and deemed Georgetown University Law School’s Sandra Fluke “a slut” for testifying before Congress that her school’s health insurance should cover birth control. And, of course, national outrage ensued. Due to a lightning-fast, coordinated online effort targeting Limbaugh’s sponsors and urging them to drop him, dozens of Limbaugh’s sponsors bailed or suspended their sponsorship, and their numbers grow ever higher. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly quickly proclaimed his unequivocal support of Limbaugh’s position.

That’s where I stepped in.

I would like to proactively begin this essay with Supplemental Materials to this essay:

OIL ON CANVAS

Jackson Pollack was less an artist than a psychic predicting the Exxon Valdez disaster. Or the captain of that ship, Joseph Hazelwood, drinking all night, wanted to pay tribute to his favorite painter, getting loaded and crashing his vehicle bigger that same way.

Please place a “1” before any of the following statements that cause an improvement in your mood:

_ We all have problems.
_ It could always be worse.
_ Everyone feels that way.
_ This, too, shall pass.

Now, add your scores.

Despite my lack of psychic abilities, I predict you scored zero. Therefore, you’re probably considering paying a visit to a psychiatrist. Guess what? You’re right: Paying is one thing you’ll definitely be doing, and plenty of it. Meanwhile, you imagine being treated by a person who practices what Merriam-Webster calls “a branch of medicine that deals with mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders,” a/k/a psychiatry. It sounds like some kind of love. It sounds astonishing. It sounds like it’ll take your breath away… and it just might!

But before the breaking of your brain’s hymen, remember that, in layman’s terms, once fucked by a psychiatrist, your mind will never be a virgin again. Therefore, aim for abstinence, the only form of mind control that’s 100% effective in preventing brain impregnation by drugs for which the average psychiatrist has never bothered reading the manufacturer’s prescribing instructions, much less the truth.

We understand you may have passed the point of caring. For whatever reason, you’re determined to sacrifice your virginity. You’re only human.  So, assuming that you’ll act upon this decision, you shall now be guided through the process of brain impregnation and, we hope, avoid getting pregnant upside-down.

First, let’s get real. Psychiatry is only rarely practiced in the United States. The goal proved too difficult and the profit margin too slim for almost anyone to bother trying. Psychiatry was abandoned for easily-attainable and profitable goals, that being guesswork, drug dice throwing, abject apathy, and, of course, check cashing. Derived from Freud’s daughter Anna, this brand of malpractice is unknown as capitalanalysis. This has never been disclosed, and no one will admit it, yet capitalanalysis has been and remains the almost-ubiquitous form of “mental health care.” They even still call it psychiatry! But it’s still capitalanalysis, and the only things analyzed are the degree to which any psychiatrist is not a doctor and the degree to which any psychiatrist is not a psychiatrist. A minus sign precedes almost all such ratings.

You shall now be walked through your first visit to Johnny the capitalanalysist. You’ve come this far, and you might as well come all the way. However, surrendering your virginity need not equate the surrendering of your self-authority. Tell yourself, “If you’re going to stick it to me, buster, you’d better treat me real good.”

So let’s begin with the proper greeting. Upon entering the capitalanalysist’s office, which capitalanalysists call “the brain’s bedroom,” immediately shout, “Where’s the mustache, Adolf?” Now you’ve told Johnny, “I know the facts, Jack:” Exactly what do you know? That you’ve accepted the risk of entering the bedroom of a “medical field” born in Nazi “medicine.”

Next, while being “evaluated,” you must evaluate the psychiatrist. The latter carries all the weight, while the former bears none. The purpose of this process can be easily remembered by the acronym ASIF (Avoid Sadistic Ignorant Fascists). The odds of your accomplishing this task have been estimated in Vegas as approximately 1 in 9,234. Whether you ever accomplish that mission depends on how much money you can blow. Capitalanalysis entails the fact that only the wealthy can afford psychiatry-psychiatry, not psychiatry. Don’t try to keep this straight in your head; it’s crooked on purpose.

As the evaluation continues, interrupt one of the “doctor’s” boilerplate questions and state, “Just to be clear, I’m employing you, not the other way around.” You’re the authority figure. You take charge even in the capitalanalysist’s own bedroom. After all, it’s your virginity on the grill.

Soon, you’ll be diagnosed. You may or may not be told your diagnosis. The diagnosis is the capitalanalsyst’s theory. From this point forward, the capitalanalsyst’s sole concern is proving his theory correct. No capitalanalsyst can feel what you feel, nor would any capitalanalsyst care. Your treatment is entirely designed to prove the capitalanalsyst’s theory, and you will be blamed if you fail to assist in proving that theory. The theory is never wrong; you’re wrong. Otherwise, the insurance companies might cost Johnny his virginity in the last place he wants to lose it.

Or so you’re told. Demand your diagnosis. Johnny might refuse. He cares even less than the average capitalanalysist, if that’s possible. Are you going to stand for this from the first Johnny who fingers your frontal lobe? Of course not. Repeat your demand for the diagnosis. When Johnny finally belches the diagnosis and code, and no matter how accurate the diagnosis may seem, say, “Bullshit!” If Johnny runs, he doesn’t even care enough to despise you for stopping him at third base. Congratulations: You’ve terminated your first capitalanalsyst, and you’re still a virgin. It’s too late to abort the capitalanalsyst, but at least you won’t have to terminate Johnny again.

If Johnny doesn’t run, he will produce his prescription pad as if it’s a magician’s rabbit. Where was it? On the desk the whole time; you’ve been duped by Johnny again. Didn’t you know Johnny slips everybody mickeys?

Stop!  Pause and refresh your memory. What was that diagnosis, again? Oh, yes. Odds are it was bipolar disorder. That’s because almost no other disorder “requires” so many drugs as bipolar disorder, making it a very appetizing theory indeed for capitalanalsysts. In fact, it’s their favorite excuse for cocktail hour, but you’ll be the only one swallowing anything. Get used to it. You may swallow a hundred different cocktails and never get to where you planned. Don’t worry: You can’t get your brain pregnant by swallowing, silly!

More than likely, you’ve been misdiagnosed. You’ll notice this after two years of a depression six feet deep: You might as well be dead. Hopefully, just in the nick of time, you’ll finally figure out what’s been making you “sane” made you disappear! Now you’re Johnny’s rabbit, and you’re all but pulling tricks unless you confront that dirty rotten son of bitch. You tell Johnny, “You’re not getting to home plate with me! And use your fingers on yourself, fuckface.”

Yes, even after all this time, your brain is still a virgin no matter how many time’s it’s been fingered. By now, you’ve probably figured something else out, too: You weren’t bipolar, just anxious. But you have to prove it to a capitalanalsyst, and words won’t do the trick. You wanted it, so get naked. Act exactly the way you feel. You might consider smashing the capitalanalsyst’s degree over his head. Don’t fret: That won’t hurt any capitalanalsyst. There’s nothing in their heads!

Learned your lesson yet? Rather than giving it up to any old Johnny who calls himself a doctor when he isn’t a doctor any more than he’s an Olympic athlete, keep that abstinence until you can’t stand it any longer. Your brain deserves love, not just a lousy lay Johnny will give anybody in town who calls him “Doctor.”

Finally, whatever you do, keep your eye on those mickeys. Some are worse than heroin, but don’t expect a capitalanalsyst to tell you that! With the best mickey he can give in his self-interest and the worst you can take in your self-interest, a capitalanalsyst supports whole industries, from drug manufacturers to rehabilitation centers.

Have you learned your lesson? Abstinence first! And even then, swallowing might catch you a virus they call addiction. We call it capitalanalysis, and we don’t take dick from Johnny!

My dishwasher and I have been at war for some time. This war is being waged on two fronts. On one side is my ongoing search for a bowl or plate or pot so dirty the dishwasher cannot clean it, but so far I’ve found nothing, including a recent plate coated with the super glue residue of leftover fried eggs. The other battle is a certain steak knife I’ve run through the wash at least five straight times. There is a bit of unrecognizable debris stuck to the tip of the blade that no amount of hot water and dish detergent will dislodge. I could easily scrape the debris off with a fingernail but that would be like conceding defeat. This is a ridiculous war because the dishwasher obviously possesses the horsepower to clean any dish it wants but refuses to acknowledge the steak knife. I think it’s mocking me.

* * *

I don’t watch a lot of television, and I don’t have cable, so the only way I get national news is to read it on the Internet. But I don’t even do that as often as I probably should. I’m too busy looking for that little red alert on Facebook that tells you when someone leaves a comment or sends you a message. Other sites I read with regularity are this one and DamnYouAutocorrect.com. But that’s not what this is about. This is about everyone sitting around watching cable news all day and then complaining how everything is wrong with America. The thing about America is there is so little wrong with it that we have the luxury of watching theater disguised as news and then complaining about how put upon we are. Of course what’s wrong depends on which network you watch. None of them can agree what’s wrong, only that something definitely is. The cable news networks also seem to agree they should compose theme songs for important news stories. Can you imagine being a musician who makes a living this way? Hey, Mutt! We need a quick ten second theme to introduce the war in Afghanistan. Can you whip up something by nine? But Mutt is expensive, and so are satellite trucks, so the way networks pay for their broadcasts is with prescription drug commercials. These advertisements are invariably more interesting than the news itself because they, a) suggest you diagnose yourself with an illness, and b) consume most of their precious air time warning you about side effects. Like this pill will stop you from peeing so often, but you also might shit out of your ears or die or see the future. Whose bright idea was it to put the lay public in charge of prescribing drugs to themselves? Am I the only person in the world who doesn’t understand this logic?

* * *

In downtown Memphis, moments after I emerge from the hotel, a man approaches me and begins to chat. It’s nine-thirty at night. I’m starving. The friendly fellows quickly ascertains I’m looking for a restaurant, away from the tourists, and helps me locate one. I know this game but pretend like I don’t. We talk all the way to the restaurant. He learns I’m a writer and promises to visit my web site and send me an email. I learn he has a “fifteen-mile walk home in the rain.” When I inquire about a potential bus fare, the amount he quotes is about the same as one of the vodka-laced Red Bulls I will consume with dinner. This sounds like a fair investment to me, so I give him the bus fare and go inside.

The restaurant isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough. There’s a bar, a few tables, and a stage where a live jazz band is preparing to play. The crowd is mainly young professionals, dressed a lot like me, having drinks and watching the local pro basketball team on flat screen televisions. I sit down and order a drink and a burger, and while I wait for my order to arrive I send flirty text messages on my iPhone. The band is decent and I snap a few pictures and text those, too. Eventually a girl walks up to the bar and stands next to me. I realize she’s the same blonde I noticed earlier at an adjacent table. She just stands there, drinking water, and I realize she expects me to say something to her. So I do, and when the girl turns to me I can see she is very pretty, like model pretty. She tells me about her job, about how she doesn’t like it, and asks where I’m from. I keep looking back at the table behind us because I’m pretty sure that guy over there in the pink shirt is her boyfriend. It could also be the guy in the suit, but my bet’s on Pink. I’ve got a nice buzz, and I should be feeling happy, but instead I’m confused. Why is this petite supermodel chick talking to me where Pink can clearly see her? And why am I pretending to care about her boring job? I’m texting someone who isn’t here and occasionally being chatted by someone who is, who apparently doesn’t want to talk to her boyfriend, and everything seems absurd to me. I’m listening to jazz music in a Memphis bar, and though it’s pretty good music I start to think how odd it is to be sitting in bar full of locals, listening to a band play jazz because they sort of have to, being in Memphis, like I’m watching all these actors play their parts. When the blonde and I run out of things to talk about, she wanders back over to her boyfriend and the rest of their group, and I turn my attention to the television. Occasionally my phone buzzes, and the conversation moves forward, albeit glacially, and I wonder if my text buddy were here in person, would we be on our phones talking to other people who were not here?

The guy who directed me to the restaurant never sends an email.

* * *

On the interstate, on the way home, I listen to stand up comedians to distract myself from the reality of a six-hour drive. I listen to music. I wonder what draws us to listen to music, to these same melodic rhythms again and again. Sometimes music evokes emotion in us, sometimes it inspires us, but very often we listen simply because we cannot bear the silence. On a normal day you might be working in a cubicle or in your living room, your hours might be filled with the concerns of other human beings, and time flies by with little knowledge of its passing. But when you’re on the road you’ve got nothing but six hours of asphalt and tractor trailers and drivers who won’t get out of the left lane, and suddenly the hours assert themselves. They become worlds, planet-sized, immensity so great you can barely detect their curvature. Which is why you distract yourself with pleasing melodies and rhythms, drumbeats that count off the many moments so you might forget about them.

And you wonder if maybe that’s what you’re really doing every day. Distracting yourself.

* * *

If our bodies are electrochemical machines, the core programming code instructs us to survive long enough to engineer successful offspring. But human minds, perhaps uniquely, possess the ability to override genetic commands. We use latex or hormones to defy industrious little swimmers. But to what end? For some, bearing children is the next, obvious step in their forward-marching journey. Others give no thought to the gravity of bringing life into the world. And maybe a few of us, consciously or not, look at parenthood as a concession of defeat, just one more reminder of the meaningless void. Maybe we see those smiling baby faces as the army that will eventually defeat us.

* * *

In the end, though music may often be a distraction, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes you hear a melody so beautiful you are compelled to stop the forward march and give yourself fully to the moment directly in front of you. Sometimes you make perfect contact with the golf ball and launch it four-and-one-half football fields into the distance. One day your first novel sells and the only response you can think of is to cry. Another day your eight-year old niece calls you on video chat and you read her a bedtime story over the Internet tubes.

If that smiling face is the beginning of military occupation, it’s certainly difficult to resist.

* * *

Today I ran the dishwasher. This time the blade of the steak knife emerged clean, pristine, like it was brand new all over again. I don’t know if it matters or not, but I won that battle.

We were going to have sex.

Not right then and there, I mean. But it was in the cards. We’d been together a month, taking it slow, but things were steadily becoming more aggressive physically, with hours spent mapping the terrain of each other’s bodies with hand and kiss. We would have done it already, except for that particular monthly quirk of her biology. It was inconvenient but not earth-shattering. I’d already waited twenty years, so it wouldn’t kill me to wait a little longer. Especially when the sex was quite literally a promise.

My lack of experience wasn’t for a lack of trying. But when you spend your adolescence as the only “out” atheist in class after class of conservative Christian kids, conjugal invitations are not exactly forthcoming. College was a much better environment for that sort of thing, even if it did take me a while to wind up with a girl who was interested in more than just some marathon make-out sessions and heavy petting.

She had been sexually active for a couple of years, which was a huge relief; at least one of us would have some idea of what she was doing. For myself, I was confident my immense enthusiasm would compensate for any lack of skill (note: this is my go-to policy for most situations in life). It helped that she was sweet about my virginity, and seemed to relish the prospect of deflowering me.

But my masculine pride would not go completely unappeased, and I still felt obligated to bring something other than a can-do! attitude to the table–er, bedroom. After a little time pondering the issue, it hit me: birth control. There was no reason I should leave the onus for protection on her. If I was going to engage in sexual intercourse, it was my job—no, duty—as an enlightened male of the new 21st century to actively pursue and engage in responsible birth control.

A rare non-square high school pal had given me a three-pack of basic Trojan condoms as an off-to-college present but they were past their expiration date, so I threw them out. It would be a simple matter, I thought, to procure some more. So I shrugged into the full-length black trench coat I wore at every opportunity back in those days, and set out to walk the mile or so distance to the nearest Walgreens. It was a serendipitous wardrobe choice, as I’d left my umbrella at home and halfway there the winter clouds unleashed a torrent of rain, huge frigid drops lashing against my face. I kept walking, head down into the wind, coat wrapped around me, refusing to retreat in the face of the unforgiving elements. I was a man on a mission.

My bravado collapsed the moment I reached the store. For starters, I had no real idea where the desired item might be located, as I’d never had cause to purchase them before. Searching for the aisle marked “Birth Control” proved futile, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask. I finally found a section euphemistically labeled “Family Planning” at the far end of the same aisle as the feminine hygiene products. An inordinate amount of female shoppers seemed to be in the area, so I circled the store a few times, collecting a basket of household items I didn’t need as camouflage for my real goal. When the coast finally seemed clear I made my move.

As usual, I was unprepared for what I was getting myself into. The selection was more than I’d bargained for, column after column of brightly colored boxes, each advertising some different flavor, texture, or scent. Trojan Magnum. Durex Xtra Pleasure. Lifestyles Tropical Scents. Condoms that advertised raised ridges, bumps, reservoir tips, vibrating rings, additives like spermicide or benzocaine. Natural condoms claiming to be made out of lambskin (lambskin?! Eww!).

Like every other California public school kid I’d had my mandatory Sex Ed classes and witnessed the ritual with the condom and the banana, but I was woefully unprepared for phrases like “zesty mint” and “ecstasy twist.” Did these things matter? Was the female reproductive orifice actually endowed with such a discriminatory sense of touch (and apparently, one of taste as well)?

And the lubricants! All those little bottles, lined up like soldiers on the shelves below, ready to be sent into the sexual battlefield. What in the hell were they for?! Did some people really need a ¼ gallon of personal lubricant at a time?

And most importantly, should I buy some?

I stood there, frozen in a state of priapic doubt in the middle of the drugstore aisle, befuddled by the sheer volume of available options for my sexual needs.

Other shoppers tossed wary glances at me as they passed by, and they were right to do so. I was damp, disheveled, wearing a black trench coat, and staring ardently at a wall of prophylactics. The basket at my feet already contained ballpoint pens, shoe polish, razor blades, rubber dishwashing gloves, and a jar of peanut butter, so who knows what kind of deviant evening they thought I had planned. Even I thought I was some brand of pervert, and it was certainly only a matter of time before the employees showed me the door. Or just called the police.

I finally settled on a 12-count variety pack, trusting to my girlfriend’s greater experience in the matter to make the final selection when the time came.

As soon as the choice was made and the box was in my hand, something came unlocked inside me. In one instant I went from being the poster boy for anxiety, self-conscious on cosmic levels at being seen with my purchase, and in the next I completely quit caring what any asshole thought about it. Because it was in that moment, box in hand, that the reality of the situation finally crystallized:

We were going to have sex.

I had condoms, and a girlfriend, and would soon be enjoying both in tandem. Let the world envy my fortune!

I abandoned my basket of unwanted items there in the aisle and strutted up to the register, “Stayin’ Alive” spinning on my mental jukebox. The cashier was a bored-looking girl about my age, who only made the bare minimum eye contact with me when she saw what I put in front of her. Her eyes flicked up to my face once, and then away, but long enough for me to see the light of curiosity in them. Oh, yeah, I thought. She knows.

“Is this is all for you today?” she asked.

“Damn straight,” I said. I paid cash and told her I didn’t need a bag, and she blushed as she handed them back to me. I didn’t. I held up my hand for a high-five. “C’mon!” I said, “Give it up for safe sex!” With another blush and an embarrassed smile she did, lightly slapping her palm against mine.

“Have a nice evening,” she said.

I didn’t answer. Slipping the box into my coat pocket, I ambled out the door, strutting all the way home. I didn’t give a damn that it was still raining.


SACRAMENTO, CA-

I’ve noticed lately that I think a lot more about my health in real terms.

I don’t just think about the cold I have or the weird pains in my legs as something that will cure themselves in the next couple days. Instead I find myself wondering what the cause is, what it means in the long term.

Most of the weird things I see happening to my body lately can be traced directly back to birth control pills. The pain in my legs, which I swear is hypertension or blood clotting, is listed as a possible side effect of the pill. So is the melasma, or sunspot, found on my upper lip that makes me look like I have a mustache.

Maybe these things are also just caused by a poor diet and general aging. I’m not so sure though, so I’ve decided to do an experiment. I’ve decided to go off the pill. And in this decision I realized that, holy cow!, I’ve been taking birth control for nearly 10 years. No wonder the “possible” side effects are becoming a reality.

When I was 18 and started taking birth control to regulate my menstrual cycle I didn’t think anything about it. After all, my doctor wouldn’t prescribe me something that could hurt me, would she?

But today, I find myself questioning medication more and more often.

I’m very skeptical of the pharmaceutical industry. Whatever happened to trying to live a healthy life, rather than trying to medicate yourself to health?

I’m especially skeptical of medication taken to “prevent” anything. Why medicate yourself when you’re perfectly healthy? I feel like all of this medication is actually making us weaker and more dependent on medication than if we just let our bodies work it out like nature intended. But then I worry that I sound like some crazy herbalist fanatic.

I’m just saying I’m skeptical.

Medication

Let me give you a for instance: Tamoxifen.

I’ve been doing research for an article about medications to treat and prevent breast cancer. Tamoxifen has been the longest standing competitor in this field, having been used since the 1970s to treat breast cancer. The problem now is it’s being used to “prevent” breast cancer in women age 35 and older with a 1.67 percent risk of getting breast cancer.

One of the most common side effects in women who take Tamoxifen is uterian cancer. Although the risks of getting this cancer are low, I’m not sure I’d like to trade in my 1.67 percent chance of getting one cancer for the risk of another cancer. How about you show me my cancer before you start giving me dangerous medications to treat it?

I don’t see doctors offering chemotherapy to “at risk” patients. But because something can be taken in a pill form it’s somehow deemed less dangerous.

This is where my new aversion for the birth control pill comes in. I’m already seeing weird side effects and I’m only 27 years old. New studies show that the pill doesn’t contribute to any kind of cancer, but older studies state the opposite. Having a history of cancer in my family, with both my paternal grandfather and grandmother having had cancer, I’m just not willing to take the chance that the new studies (probably paid for by the manufactures of the pill) are wrong.

Our food already has enough hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals in it, do I really need to be adding more?

My biggest hope though is that this experiment turns out to be beneficial. I hope the damage from the pill isn’t permanent. I want to be able to sit in a car for an hour and not have my legs feel like they’re going to explode. And I really want this damn sun spot on my face to go away. If these things continue however, I’ll have to admit that it wasn’t the birth control pill after all, which means admitting I’m wrong. And I hate admitting I’m wrong.

One last thing and then I’ll shut up. I was telling a couple of my friends about this the other day and both of them said they recently went off the pill for similar reasons. It made me feel less weird and less worried about doing it. Weird that at this age we’re all starting to feel/see/imagine the effects of what we’ve done to our bodies in the past. Next thing I know we’re all going to be health food freaks, eating flaxseed with everything …