imagesA young playwright named Dan taught me to do flip turns.  It was 1993, and he was teaching a swim class at NYU, where we were both graduate students.

Once, we met on Mercer Street, and I startled him when I said hello.  “I didn’t recognize you in your clothes,” he said.  I rather liked that Playwright Dan only saw me in my swimsuit, but I was hurt when I learned that he didn’t think I was a very good swimmer.   After watching me swim, he asked what kind of exercise I did.  Just swimming, I told him.  Couldn’t he see that?  I’d taught myself to breathe on alternate sides, and I’d built up my stamina so that I could swim 40 lengths—twice what I could do in college.   But I’d never been on a team, and no one had helped me with technique.  Dan helped me improve my freestyle stroke, taught me to practice with a pull buoy, and finally, got me to try doing flip turns.  But it was quite some time before I actually mastered them.

I learnt a lot about mistakes when I was a literacy teacher.  Literacy teachers aren’t just role models in terms of reading and writing — they’re also responsible for modeling self-esteem.  In fact, back when I was a literacy teacher, I’d intentionally misspell a word on the board, then look at it sideways.  “Hmm, did I spell that right?” I’d muse.  “Tom, would you check the dictionary?”  Not only would Tom leap at that dictionary, but he’d also love telling me how to spell the word correctly.  I’d correct my spelling, publicly, without any shame, and the more I did this, the more the kids would check their own spellings and help one another other out, instead of bullying one another.  Peace and much learning ensued.

Mistakes are how we learn.  It’s the same with sex and gender.  And in a culture of perfectionism, it’s hard to remember that.

I was musing about this when I read that sex columnist Dan Savage had been glitterbombed at the University of Oregon while he was giving a talk.  The glitterbombers, who called themselves the “Dan Savage Welcoming Committee,” announced that Savage was transphobic, a misogynist and a rape-apologist.  But Savage doesn’t dodge such accusations.   “I certainly have had a journey in the last 20 years — as have we all — on trans issues,” Savage recently said.  “When I started writing Savage Love 20 years ago, and you can yank quotes 15, 18 years ago and flat them up today and say, ‘You know, that’s transphobic,’ I’d probably agree with you. Fifteen years ago I didn’t know as much as I know now — nor did anybody.”

What I like about this is what it models for the rest of us:  We all slip up.  We all make mistakes.  What’s more important is that we try, learn, grow.

A friend of mine got upset recently when we were discussing the “gender binary” (the myth that there are just two genders and nothing in between).  We were talking about men’s and women’s restrooms, and whether, today, we needed them to be separate.  (My friend, incidentally, had always believed they should be separate).  I mentioned how hard it is to be a transgender male (for instance) in that situation.  Do you go into the women’s room, when you identify as male but are female in terms of biological sex?  Confusing, right?  Going to the restroom becomes a stressful experience.  People glare if you use the women’s because you are clearly male-identified, but you might have to wait for the stall if you go into the men’s.

In response, my friend felt terrible.  She hadn’t intended to leave anyone out.  But I reminded her that there was nothing to feel bad about.  When society teaches us untruths, it’s society’s fault.  And this is why we have to keep airing these issues and making mistakes, so we’re able to learn.

But while kids are attending sex education classes where the teacher is scared to speak, the students are afraid of being mocked, and the lessons themselves keeps to a careful script, how will they ever learn to ask the stupid question, receive a thoughtful answer, and change their minds?  They need to see adult role-models slipping up and owning it.  Not with condoms, consent and safe sex (those are basic building blocks) but with political correctness, sexual skills, and gender binaries galore.  They need to understand that making mistakes is how we grow.  Intellectually, they need to be adventurers, thirsty to explore, happy to learn.

So let’s go out there, adult people, and not blush terribly when we muddle up our pronouns, or say “fuck” when we didn’t plan to, or feel confused about the difference between water-based and gel-based lube.  Let’s get out there, and in it, and muck ourselves up.  Let’s ask the stupid question.

Because if we won’t grow, who will?

 

Cling

By Arielle Bernstein

Essay

I was happy to see a baby at the funeral. It was a big baby, with creamy white skin and lots of baby fat, a docile and calm thing.  When his mother went to put earth on my grandmother’s grave, as part of the Jewish tradition of burial, she didn’t even put him down. She kept him pressed close to her abdomen and heart; he waited silently, wrapped around her waist, while she shoveled big heavy clumps of red earth into the empty space of the grave. I hadn’t been nearly as effective. I took tentative little handfuls of soil and grazed them over the top of the pine box.

When Alexandra Wallace posted a YouTube video of herself complaining about the “hordes” of Asian students at UCLA and how their existence on campus interfered with her student performance (in the video Wallace mocks the way Asian students speak on their cell phones in the library. “Ching Chong, Ting Tong, Ling Long” she sneers, holding an imaginary phone up to her ear) the response was venomous. Tons of insulted students of all races, creeds and genders logged online to insult her back, oftentimes relying on racist and sexist stereotypes designed to insult and intimidate. Most of these insults drew attention to her cleavage and the fact that she was a “stupid, slutty little white girl”, rather than a bigot. Though the rage that Wallace provoked was certainly merited, as noted on blogs like Racialicious and Colorlines, the use of equally appalling slurs to shame her begs the question of what kind of dialogue we aim to promote in our current culture. Though there has been considerable backlash about what is politically correct and incorrect to say in our culture, the constant influx of these type of insult matches demonstrates how often discussions about racism, sexism, orany other “ism” end with piled on insults and relying on hurtful stereotypes in order to shame the other. This is the current landscape of 2011, a far cry from the days where politically correct labels were slapped on to anything in order to minimize conflict. These days, people want their conflicts right out there in the open. The question is, are these types of conversations actually working to minimize hate?

* floating

* blindness

* morning naps

* confidently communicating in nonsense

* chewing Lincoln Logs

* building Lincoln Logs

* peeing with pants down around ankles

* concern over no other persons’ well-being but my own

* bedroom

* thumbsucking

* anti-thumbsucking ointment on thumb

* wearing a bullwhip made from leather shoelaces

Joyously Obscene

By Mary Hendrie

Essay

I learned to curse from the kids down the road. I don’t know where they learned it. Maybe they snuck into the living room late one night and watched Cinemax. Or maybe someone let them listen to that George Carlin bit (Carlin, of course, has become my cursing idol – what an appreciation for language that man has). They knew all the basics and a few interesting combinations. I didn’t know what “fuck” meant but understood it to be foul and taboo, so the combination “buttfuckers” struck me as joyously obscene. We were the kind of kids who integrated new words into our vocabulary by shouting them while jumping on the trampoline, leaping off the bed or bounding from one piece of furniture to another trying not to touch the floor — lava, obviously. If you had first encountered cursing in such a magnificent, joyful, wild atmosphere, you would love it, too. Few things entertain me more than the thought of my eight-year-old self in mid-air shouting “buttfuckers” with glee.

I love cursing the way I love beer. It is a guilty love, one that cannot possibly be good for me, one that concerns my mother a little. In high school, she heard me singing along with Ani DiFranco: “I may not be able to save the whole fucking world, but I can be the million that you never made.” Mom sighed. “I guess you and your friends all talk like that, don’t you?” I recently sent an invitation to a small sampling of my rather large Catholic family — only to the ones who already know i don’t go to church — inviting them to read my blog. It was another tentative step into the online world of self-promotion in which the line between enthusiasm and shamelessness is thinning by the day. The invitation included a suggestion that my family members could share the blog with anyone they know who might be interested, but it also came with a warning: “If you know anyone with a strong aversion to four-letter words, this may not be the kind of thing they’ll want to read.”

This e-mail lead to a conversation with my Mom in which I explained how I really do need to improve my vocabulary and she said how she loved Julie and Julia except for all the cursing, which she found not so much offensive as simply unnecessary and distracting. I could relate. I’m always talking about how writers have annoying and distracting habits that they seem to have been trying out for effect, but the effect just didn’t come out so well.

But I also believe cursing can be used to great effect, like the time my brother talked our mom and sister into a staged argument in the mall parking lot. My sister Katie, generally recognized as the polite one in the family, called shotgun as we all went to get in the car. My mother, more commonly known as the nicest lady ever born, voiced her objection.

Mom: No, I want to ride in the front.

Katie: But you always get to ride in front.

Mom: Fuck you, Katie.

Seriously, it was priceless. Just the briefest moment of shock passed until we all realized our mom would never use that word. John, who had orchestrated the scene, couldn’t contain his smile. Mom has probably blocked it out, but to me it was completely unforgettable.

Cursing does a lot for me, actually. There are those who call it cheap, low class, anti-intellectual, a sign of a weak mind, a foul temper and a lacking vocabulary. All these things are true, of course. But sometimes, my mind is weak, my temper foul, and my vocabulary lacking — there’s no getting around it — I run out of words sometimes.

In college, I took a women’s self-defense class for credit. I was OK at sparring. I learned the moves and did the exercises, even lost a couple pounds. Found out I could hit pretty hard, too. For the final exam, we had to fend off an attacker (a former cop or something, a man paid to show up in padding and a cup and threaten us). I was terrified. I had stage fright, for one thing. I knew I could hold my own against a classmate; I’d even given my friend a bloody lip by accident one time. But I was afraid of the pressure of not getting mugged (or raped or killed) in front of the whole class. I was afraid I couldn’t let fly witht he fists on a total stranger. Our teacher had instructed us to keep shouting “no” at the attacker as we fought him, and being raised in the polite tradition of “yes,” I was afraid I couldn’t raise my voice against him.

When my turn came, we stood in the center of the room, encircled by my classmates, acting convincingly like total strangers until he said, “Hey lady, can I play with your titties?” No kidding. Fucker gets paid to say this shit. I was shocked, but the adrenaline rushed in like a title wave as I shouted, “Fuck no!”

My classmates laughed a little. We were all surprised by my voice, considering I’d been labeled as “the nice one” by our teacher. The attacker grabbed my arm, and then I fought him. I fought him like hell, and I didn’t care anymore if he had a cup on. My classmates were chanting, “No! No! No!” with every punch, and I was going to ruin his day. Ruin his life. Ruin his family tree. After class, he took off his protective gear and we all talked for a few minutes. He was a nice guy, in his 50s, a grandfather, but still terribly fit. He was harmless after all, and he’d been there to help us learn our own strength. He helped me find my own voice, that’s for sure. And as vulgar as anyone may think it is, I know exactly what I’ll say if a real attacker ever tries to touch me.

What I told Mom was that when you’re trying to hang with geniuses, professional journalists, people with PhDs and book contracts and all you’ve got going for yourself is a spunky attitude and a foul mouth, it leaves something to be desired. It can make you feel pretty ignorant. And yet, there’s something satisfying about being a high school girl and using the word “cunt” to unsettle boys who’d never seen one. Truthfully, after exchanging e-mails with certain very literate friends, I do hit dictionary.com pretty hard, but let us never underestimate the power of a well-placed “fuck.”