November 2007

I was listening to His Royal Princeliness the other day and reflecting upon the fact (anecdotal, it’s true, but borne out by years of experience and, as any of my girlfriends can tell you, I have made an exhaustive multi-decade study of white male culture and habits) that straight white boys almost universally don’t like Prince, or rather they display a kind of embarrassed squeamishness about his music, as if listening to it will magically paint them with the broad brush of Biracial Metrosexuality and Possible Gayness (despite His Purpleness’s having addressed the issue of sexuality in “Uptown,” and despite his legendary success with the ladies).

As I’ve already addressed in these pages, white males like, or pretend to like, Joni Mitchell, and if you can explain why, I’d be delighted to send you a lifetime supply of ear plugs. And white males like Elvis Costello, which is something I’ve also never understood, because to me Elvis Costello is the F. Scott Fitzgerald of music: the best thing about him is his titles. Seriously. This Side of Paradise, for example. The Beautiful and Damned. These titles have an evocative elegance that’s impossible to top, and Elvis Costello’s jauntily ironic Brutal Youth and My Aim is True do the same thing for pop music. Unfortunately, none of the works in question really lives up to the title (call me a Philistine, but I agree with Fitzgerald: “I’m sick of all this shoddy realism.” After all, who reads novels or listens to pop music for realism? Especially the realism of the overprivileged, disaffected, callow white male? Don’t we have enough of that in life?). But still, in my day there always seemed to be legions of straight white males who loved Elvis Costello in the same way that eighteen-year-old lesbians loved Ani Difranco. I think of Elvis Costello as the everyman for the American college male. Of course I’m dating myself, and maybe now James Blunt is the everyman.

But anyway, somehow it’s cool for your average twenty- to thirty-something straight white male (you know, those people who still get paid more than the rest of us) to like Elvis Costello, but it’s not cool for him to like The Artist. The Artist is somehow too swishy, too funky, too flirty, too damned good-looking, and what’s up with that falsetto, anyway? In fact, the only way to make Prince palatable to Joe Quarterback Punk is to cover his songs; when I met my husband, he owned only one album of Prince’s music, a covers album by Yo La Tengo’s bassist called That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice?, which makes it OK to appreciate Prince’s songwriting, just not his eyeliner (it’s worthy of note that Dump, a.k.a. James McNew, is “pasty, overweight, and …not really unhandsome,” according to Flak Magazine, and it’s my theory that McNew’s dumpiness cancels out the frightening prettiness of Prince).

Of course, since he married me, K. has become the proud joint owner of many of Prince’s fine works, including the original motion picture soundtrack cassette (yeah, mofos!) of Purple Rain (recently named “Best Soundtrack Ever” by the editors of Vanity Fair) and the three cd-set Prince: The Hits/The B-Sides, which has kept me company on many a long drive. But he still displays a marked squeamishness when it comes to actually listening to them. He agrees with me when I claim that Prince is a musical genius, one of the few true polymaths to hit pop music in the last fifty years, a person of astonishing talent, skill, and inspiration. And yet when it comes time to press ‘play’ he hems and haws and usually mutters something like “can’t we listen to someone kind of scrubby and lopsided, like Thom Yorke, or paunchy and dumpy, like Mark Kozelek?”

Not that there’s anything wrong with the music of Red House Painters or Radiohead. It’s pleasant and pretty and really, really white: comfortingly undanceable and whinily eloquent on the subject of self-image and personal experience, those luxuries of the middle class. But even die-hard Radiohead fans (e.g. my husband) concede that Prince has the superior musicianship. And yet he remains conspicuously absent from their record collections. Why?

I think the answer is simple: Prince fucks with Joe Quarterback’s idea of masculinity. For one thing, he knows who he is, and he doesn’t have to write songs about his self-image, which is unfathomable to your average white college boy in baggy jeans. Prince needs no baggy jeans. And it’s not just that he’s too pretty; he can also dance! His music is way too funky and way too flagrantly wanton. And not only that, he wears makeup and girly clothes, custom-tailored to his tiny frame, and the overall effect is a kind of feline sexiness reminiscent of a pin-up calendar. But Prince’s discomfiting habit of transcending stereotype doesn’t end there; he also happens to swear like a mofo (or he did, before Jehovah came on the scene), attract all the ladies like sugar water in an ant colony, and be the biracial product of a black father and a white mother (one of the deepest insecurities of white America), and if you think the average white American male is comfortable with the idea of a delicately fairylike mulatto in tights stealing all the women, well, you’re more of an optimist than I.

In fact, I’ve only had one white American male friend who was an avid Prince fan, and he finally came out of the closet.

So, for example, when Radiohead offers In Rainbows for download, these average white American males and the women they influence think this is a radical new idea, even though Prince did it years ago. And when Pete Doherty wears eyeliner and acts debauched, they think he’s rakish, charming, and inventive, even though Prince did it years ago. And when Britney address issues of her media image in overproduced, ghostwritten neo-hip-hop songs, everyone, even Ken Tucker, thinks she’s being trenchant and ironic, even though Prince did that years ago too (only without the “ghostwritten” and “overproduced” parts).

It’s like when my colleague asked me if I thought Barack Obama had a chance, and I said “that would be awfully nice; maybe in fifty years.” There’s a huge part of America that just isn’t ready for a biracial black man. But for the rest of us — everyone who’s not Joe Quarterback — Prince continues to reign.

Like most people, I frequently wonder what I’m doing married or, as I was telling my uncle-in-law the other day, what to do with the person I’m married to, because after I’m done working and vacuuming and getting spit up on and reading stories and issuing positive discipline and paying the phone bill and filing my taxes there’s often not a lot left over for my long-suffering spouse, who persists in claiming to find me attractive despite my general state of haphazard disarray. The last few days have been especially busy, and I had a meeting for our son’s co-op playschool last night that started at eight, so when I dashed out of the house just before bedtime I figured this would be yet another night of one of us crawling into bed to find the other long unconscious (although usually I’m the one who passes out before prime time). So imagine my surprise when I dashed home, exhausted and slightly drunk from the 1.5 Sapphire and sodas I’d consumed at the meeting (hey, even ‘curriculum planning’ deserves a little party, right?), and feeling a little maudlin about the fact that the one time I got to hang out and consume alcohol with some friendly adults, it was at the cost of missing yet another opportunity to have ‘adult time’ with my spouse, to find the lights still on and the house all clean and my husband kind of wandering sheepishly around the kitchen, waiting for me, and I was glad because if he’d been asleep, I would have missed him.

“I am not a crapweasel. I am a supportive and loving husband and partner.”

I probably would have posted this earlier in the week, but I’ve been trying to sublimate the dread I have for Thanksgiving. You could say I’m a party pooper, and you’d be right, but I have no use whatsoever for Thanksgiving, except perhaps as an exercise in self-flagellation.

Anyone with an interest in American history can tell you that the Native Americans have gotten a pretty shitty deal. I was reminded of this recently, when my husband forced me to watch the heinous Colin Farrell-mobile The New World, in which scores of sweaty, grimy colonialist goons exemplify the ethos of the title, i.e. that This World is New Because We Didn’t Know About it Before, in a plodding celebration of the white man’s mental limitations. Not even the presence of the talented Christian Bale, here totally emasculated by a role that shows him slavishly lapping up Farrell’s leavings (in the person of Jewel’s Peruvian cousin), can redeem more than two hours of this kind of self-congratulatory drivel. But I digress. This movie is only relevant to Thanksgiving in the sense that it gives a pretty accurate idea of what Thanksgiving celebrates, which is that Europeans came to America and fucked it up and the inhabitants saved their asses anyway with a gift of corn and beans before being rounded up and herded off to Oklahoma.

Are you hungry yet?

So anyway, somehow Thanksgiving just doesn’t give me the urge to stuff myself full of massive quantities of stuffed bird swimming in greasy gravy filled with giblets, and since I spent eighteen years as a vegetarian before succumbing to the lure of foie gras on the Ile St.-Louis one spring afternoon, I don’t fully understand what giblets are, anyway. I think they come in a clammy, string-wrapped bag. I suspect them of being gristly. Or maybe just gummy. I must admit I’m not quite comfortable with them. I have no quarrel with giblets, but they should keep to their own.

My personal history with Thanksgiving doesn’t help this aversion. Since my parents’ divorce when I was in middle school, all holidays involved splitting the day in half; a noonday meal at Dad’s followed by a chilly trek down to the 54 bus, which was running on “holiday” schedule and inevitably made me wait an hour, followed by a grimy ride with an assortment of bums, crazy ladies, and other odorous folk reduced to bus-riding as a survival tactic, followed by having to shove down a second holiday dinner at Mom’s. Of course, not eating was not an option either place; Dad is, of course, Chinese and would have found it massively insulting had I not eaten Herculean quantities of his over-salted meal, whereas Mom, occupying second tier as usual, might have felt slighted had I not done her undercooked Brussels sprouts justice (and for added guilt, it was usually her birthday).

So having to convincingly dig in to two Thanksgiving dinners is probably enough to give any adolescent a dislike of the process, but there’s another piece to the puzzle: the hereditary eating disorder. Those who have experienced this know what a scourge it is and how difficult it is to escape: you spend your early childhood watching your mom act out her bizarre relationship to the refrigerator, sometimes even implicating you in it (in my case, her refrain was, “Oh, Honey, why did you make me eat so much?” — as if a six-year-old could make a thirty-five-year-old consume an entire half cheesecake). You watch your mother glance in mirrors and moan about how fat she is, and when you hit puberty you decide that that’s what womanhood is, it’s a cycle of self-loathing and guilt-mongering, and you also become convinced that you are fat, so fat that it’s repulsive to even look at you. Even if you are 5’4″ and weigh 86 lb., because (thank God) you take after your dad’s side of the family. Even if the other half of your heritage involves competitive speed-eating. With chopsticks.

So that was my Thanksgiving: two dinners, lots of guilt, the trauma of the parental schism reenacted viciously (he wouldn’t so much as give us a ride in her direction, she couldn’t mention him without tearing up). And then there was my sister.

I’ve written about my sister in these pages before, and I think it’s only fair to get a third party description of her, um, unique character. So I’ll give you my dear friend Grant’s assessment, in the context of a conversation we had some years ago. I had apparently told him about something my sister planned to do that, to me with my skewed vision of reality, didn’t seem that outlandish, and he responded,

“Yeah, but your sister is ka-RAZY.

Out of the spirit of generosity, I should say that in this case, we can lay the blame for my sister’s insanity directly at my parents’ door. Not only did they pass on the twin streams of Chinese eating duty and hereditary Body Dysmorphic Disorder, but sis was a little younger than I when the Iron Curtain of Hatred fell down between our parents, so maybe it wormed its way deeper into her subconscious. By the time she was fourteen, she was subsisting on a diet of water and lettuce. Every three weeks she’d indulge on a Roman scale and eat a whole loaf of bread in one sitting, and then presumably hate herself, but her net daily calorie intake was still probably only in the double digits. She was all too eager to walk a mile through frigid rain to the bus stop (having been kicked off the track team), and she didn’t even mind the hour-long wait, which gave her the opportunity to jog in place in the little ditch on the side of the highway while we both got hit with sheets of rain churned up by passing cars, but once we sat down at the table, she was no picnic.

My parents were united in their bafflement at her refusal to ingest food, so they tactfully ignored it and urged me to eat twice as much to make up for it. And, well, my sense of self-preservation wasn’t so strong in those days. So by five o’clock on Thanksgiving Day, I was usually either lying on the floor as my bowels rioted in protest, or trying not to throw up in the ditch by the bus stop.

Once I moved away for college, I never came back for Thanksgiving. I spent a lot of happy holiday afternoons strolling around upper Broadway, eating Tasti D-Lite and loitering in the Barnes and Noble when the weather got bad. But now I have the great misfortune of living in my hometown, and we’re invited to my mom’s house for Thanksgiving (I am thankful that my dad has since moved away; does that count?), and, the pièce de résistance, my sister is now living with my mother (having fled her latest fucked-up relationship once again), and so we will all be together.

I can barely contain myself. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to commemorate the day, except maybe being forced to march a thousand miles in bare feet and smallpox blankets.

What are you thankful for?

My cousin gave us some of her toddler’s hand-me-down sweatpants that are gathered at the ankle and are so much too long on our kid that they resemble the harem pants worn by Barbara Eden in 1964. So our son’s running around wearing them and K. remarks, “He looks like a samovar!”

“A Russian teapot?” I query.

“OK, maybe not a samovar,” he says. “A scimitar?”

At least he got the region right that time.

Of course, it’s better than the student who wrote to me last week: “Sorry I messed that up. I must of been having a severed blond Moment!”

In her particular case, I’d be more than happy to sever the blond. Of course, she’s small potatoes compared to one of the participants in the Multiple Repeaters Writing Skills class I taught at New York City Tech some years ago, who wrote (they were all ex-cons) in an essay “I will never forget I missed my Sons birth because I was incastrated.”

It’s a hard knock life.

I like to think I have a reasonably Zen-like humility, at least in my good moments. I like to think that I am capable of at least having enough perspective to realize that, in the long run, any slights to my own self-importance are simply reminders of my infinitesimally small place in the universe, reminders that both free me and allow me to more fully live my life without the intrusion of ego.

Still, it bothers me that my in-laws don’t remember my name.

Oh, they remember my first name. But they keep sending me cards and checks addressed to some mythical person with my husband’s last name or, sometimes, with my last name demoted to a middle name, à la Hillary Rodham Clinton. (They’re big ones for checks. Birthday checks, anniversary checks, Christmas checks, birth of a child checks, etc., and while I feel a smidgen the ingrate getting snarky when I’m holding a check in my hand — I know the bank will cash it, they always do — I can’t help it, because this mythical person who took my husband’s last name exists only in their imagination, and I am not sure I like her.)

It boggles my mind. Really. Because we reiterate, several times a year, that my last name is not the same as theirs, that I did not change my last name when I got married, that we are a two last name household. Recently, it’s become even more of an issue, because we gave our daughter my last name, and for the more than seven weeks of her existence she has been the recipient of dozens of thoughtful gifts, all misaddressed; she has his last name as a middle name and mine as her last name, and somehow all the relatives on his side manage to blithely invert this in favor of the patriarchy.

Now, part of me knows that they are probably well-intentioned, it’s just that people have a hard time divorcing themselves from their expectations, and their expectations are that We Will Carry On the Family Name of the Adult Member of this Household Who Has A Penis because That is The Way Things Are. I get that. I understand it. But another, larger, part of me wonders how anyone can be so colossally dense, in the year 2007, that they don’t see the way things are rather than simply the way they expect things to be, that they can’t wake up and smell the century of civil rights expansion and realize that a few aspects of life have changed, maybe for the better. We no longer levy poll taxes on African Americans. We no longer refuse to admit the testimony of Asian Americans in court. And we don’t have to change our names if we get married, which is part of a larger cultural change that allows us to not change our identities if we get married and, specifically, to not subordinate our personal identities to our marriages (any more than is absolutely necessary).

So, yeah, when they forget that I elected not to become Mrs. So-and-so I’m a little surprised. Faintly amazed. Mildly appalled.

I shouldn’t be. We had been talking about marriage for weeks before, in the course of a casual conversation (I think about checks again, which just goes to show how we’re ruled by our bank accounts), my then-boyfriend revealed that he thought I’d be taking his last name. Or, more to the point, that it never occurred to him that I wouldn’t. He was amazed that I was amazed. Me, I was just. dumbfounded. Totally. You know when you think you know someone, you feel comfortable in your understanding of them, and then they go and do something totally out of character, like when you found out that the Dalai Lama ate a hamburger and then you learned that he was eating meat all along and he was not the person you believed he was? Yup. Like that.

So one of the major points of our engagement was the name talk. “Why wouldn’t you change your name?” he asked. “Why wouldn’t you change yours?” I riposted. We agreed that, in this case, separate but equal was inherently equal.

Of course, when we discussed naming our first child the same thing happened. “So, what last name do you want to give the baby?” I asked. After he finishing picking his eyeballs up off the floor, he gave me to understand that he assumed his son would have his last name. That was a longer talk, but eventually we agreed on my name as the middle name, then his as the last name. I gave in out of compassion for the fact that this was all very new to the poor man, he was obviously thrown by the concept of doing anything other than giving everyone, including the family cat, his last name, and, though he was trying to stretch his imagination to include a world where woman aren’t the factotum/sex toy combo plate in the restaurant of men’s lives, and he was almost making it there, there was still a little bitty comprehension gap.

But of course he eventually came around, which is why we’re still married, and when I proposed that we flip the middle name/last name combo for our second kid, resulting in her legal last name being the same as mine, I detected only mild resistance (“Don’t you think our kids should have the same last name?” “Not really; we don’t, so why should they?” “Well, okay then”), and I was very proud of him for overcoming his unreflective adherence to the status quo.

But his family is another story.

I’m actually stunned that his mother took his father’s name; they were married in 1978, both students at Reed College at the time, supposedly very liberal, enlightened feminists. I used to wonder what in the world possessed her. But we were talking about it the other day, and she remarked, “You know, when I got married a lot of people were shocked that I changed my name. But I had no problem with it.”

This is a statement that continues to haunt me. I know it seems innocuous, but it’s not; it’s insidiously anti-feminist and, in fact, anti-change of any sort, the kind of argument used to maintain school segregation during the Civil Rights movement, and all the more effective because it makes it difficult to disagree. After all, you wouldn’t want to be a person who had a problem with it, would you? You wouldn’t want your mother-in-law to have a problem with it when she was clearly over her issues and it was those pesky, interfering feminists (men and women, I might add, which is probably obvious to those who know anything about the Reed College scene in the late ’70s) who had a problem. The day after that conversation, I woke up with the phrase echoing in my head and I thought, hell yes, I have a problem with it. I have a problem with the implication that anyone who encourages a woman to consider keeping her name when she marries is somehow a troublemaker, or emotionally disturbed, or unable to just be cool and enjoy life. I have a problem with the idea that the only reason you should keep your name when you marry is if you have a problem with the idea of taking your husband’s, like maybe if his name is Hooker or Fuchs or (I swear this is a real name) Dumbkowski. I have a problem with the idea that a decision that is about identity and individuality should signal to others that you are somehow conflicted, a person with issues, unresolved, deficient.

But I was unable to articulate exactly why it bothered me so much, so I just went around with that little phrase working its way deeper into my skin like a tick that will eventually give you a bullseye rash and a dangerous disease, until I read this letter in Cary Tennis’s Salon advice column. Cary’s advice is gorgeous in its accuracy: choosing to keep your own name is “a way of extending a certain idea of freedom into the future and into future generations. It is a powerful step. It is a reminder.” He goes on to remind the letter writer that “every time we encounter a woman who has a different last name from that of her husband we are reminded: Yes, you can do that. Whereas when we encounter a woman who has the same name as her husband, although this, too, was a choice, we are not reminded, oh, yes, you can do that. Not so much. We more slip into the historical slumber of the status quo.”

Before I read that letter, the closest I got to stating why it was so important for me to keep my own name, and to pass it on, was to wax eloquent about the five thousand years of Chinese culture, about the fact that my name is the first of the Hundred Names, about how I’d spent my childhood being teased and ridiculed for my name and my epicanthal folds on the playground and, now that I’d finally grown into the name, I’d be damned if I was going to give it up. These things are all true, but they are not the whole story.

The whole story is that even though a lot of people, a lot of women even, think “feminism” is a dirty word or think “refusing” to take your husband’s name means you don’t love him or you have issues or you’re just a castrating bitch, I don’t think that’s what it means. I think it means you recognize the importance of both your history and your future. I think it means you view marriage as a partnership and not as a transfer of property. I agree with a reader who wrote in to respond to Cary’s column, describing her predicament as a national of a country that does not allow married women to keep their names and saying “There are many options that are consistent with a feminist world view. Taking his name, is not one.”

So this week, I’m grateful to Cary Tennis. My ‘problem’ is now something a lot more affirmative. I am a reminder. I am a person who reminds others of the way it is possible for the world to be, of the values of acting on ideals rather than out of pragmatism, of the importance of examining your choices and not sinking into complacency or cowardice. I knew this about myself — I do, after all, have a day job that motivates me chiefly because it gives me the opportunity to remind young and not-so-young adults of all the choices they have and all the knowledge that’s available and all the things education can be — but I haven’t often put it into words. It’s hard to lay your idealism on the line. It’s not cool. It opens you up to ridicule, to prejudice, to the suggestion that maybe you should just get over your problem. Get over it, and bake some muffins.

Well, I’m happy to do the baking (especially since I’m the one with the sweet tooth). But I wish more people would think about the implications of these conventions we have and consider starting new conventions, ones that more accurately reflect what we’d like marriage to be. And I’m keeping my name.

Now if only I could get my in-laws to remember it.

I was writing the date on a bottle of expressed milk this morning and out of the depths of my consciousness some awareness that this date might be significant came surfacing. The first thing I thought of was my mother’s birthday, which is next week, but finally it came to me: November 17, November 17, of course. It’s Franz’s birthday.

Franz is the person in my life I was in a relationship with for the longest (although, since I don’t plan to get divorced anytime soon — despite my frequent threats — I expect that will soon change), mostly in days of college and grad school, mostly in New York. He was a Germanist, I was a French major, and if you imagine him stomping down the street with Wagnerian gravitas and me flitting about making postmodern remarks about the transparency of reality, you’re not far off. He loved music and literature with almost desperate passion and admired artistry in all its forms, an admiration that was colored heavily by self-derision; he had low expectations of humanity that were usually fulfilled and constantly iterated a general negativity and malaise that was, to me at the time, both unintelligible and distressing. When I met Franz he was still married to a Taiwanese succubus who had apparently sucked him dry of any faith in human nature, although he clearly hadn’t quite cut those ties (despite a year of separation); he had, like many Scorpios, a strong predilection toward expressing his creativity and emotion only through sex and occasionally reminded me of Claudine‘s comment, “he has no authority except when he is making love,” except that it was not only his only authority, but his only spontaneity and grace. He was fitness-obsessed to the point of giving himself multiple stress fractures in both legs by running around the 6-mile loop in Central Park as many as three times a day, every day; he called it “trying to outrun my demons” (and, obviously, failing). My friends called him “Problem Boy” and frequently reminded me of the Robyn Hitchcock lyrics, “If he treats you horribly, he’s probably a Scorpio,” not without justification. Yet we stayed together, on and off but mostly on, for five years.

Endearing things about Franz: he used to stuff the little holes on the outside of his headphones with paper or glue so that he could more effectively blow out his ears on those long runs through the snowy New York landscape. He got teary listening to Gorecki by moonlight; in general, the closest he ever came to losing his thick screen of This Is How Much the World Sucks involved music, which makes it poetic justice that he was named for Schubert. He sent me a copy of Nicholson Baker’s novel Vox, about phone sex, with the inscription “for My Baby, because my dick isn’t long enough.” (An inscription that both makes me smile and ache a little for his inability to ever stop with the self-deprecation.) He eventually relaxed from his ferocious vigilance into something that could almost be called sweetness. He used to pronounce his name with thickly Bavarian rolled r’s, despite the fact that he was from not Bavaria, but Wisconsin. He loved his friend Bryan (who was eminently lovable) with a devotion only occasionally tarnished by his cynical worldview, and which revealed a little something about the person he wanted to allow himself to be.

Those five years were no picnic, and since they ended I’ve been at a loss to articulate why that particular relationship with that particular person, fraught as it was, held such an important place in my life for so long. But the other day, my mom brought it up. “I used to ask you why you stayed with him,” she said, “and you know what you said?”

I had no idea what I said.

“You said, ‘it’s never boring.”

And I realized that I meant that sincerely, that the thing about Franz that compelled me to him, and I hope something not dissimilar compelled him to me, was that, unlike most of the other people I’d dated, Franz wasn’t boring, that despite his overwhelming negativity and the torturous relationship he had with things like sex and work and fidelity, which for me had been, up to that point, rather simple and straightforward pleasures, something about the dynamic between him and me allowed for some recognition of the complexity of the person beneath and, occasionally, some appreciation, and even care-taking, thereof. It wasn’t boring, and it wasn’t boring because Franz penetrated my defenses and my insouciance and my reluctance (well-hidden, judging from the number of relationships that failed to even notice it) to really get involved and became, like the Velveteen Rabbit, real, although perhaps it was his reality that brought about the caring instead of the other way around. It wasn’t boring because I cared, and it was fraught at least in part because, at the time, caring was something I was ill-equipped to do.

But it was never boring. It was real.

So happy birthday, Franz Peter. Thank you for that.

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