The war in utero.

Who knew? It turns out that Washington state law forbids the paying of surrogate mothers. I learned this today by reading a piece in The Seattle Times about efforts to change that law.

Funny, isn’t it, how so many people spend energy keeping tabs on womb traffic, but fall down on the job when it comes to reproductive choices and health?

–From the minute abortion became legal, the fight was on to turn back the clock.

–When a vaccine became available for the sexually transmitted HPV virus that can cause cancer, some factions argued that it would encourage promiscuity. (I guess the day Viagra hit the market those sex police were off attending a workshop on clinic-bombing techniques.)

–Big HMOs and many private docs alike do not routinely offer women screening for sexually transmitted diseases. The subject may not come up at all in an annual physical, and not even in a medical visit intended to address some other gynecological issue.

The bill proposed in Washington is not a bad one. There are many reasons to worry about hiring women to bear children, especially the potential for exploitation. NOW and other women’s rights groups say this law will protect surrogates, which of course is a good thing.

But underneath the legal debate, I believe, lurks our society’s ambivalence about giving women full and private control of their reproductive abilities.



Blame the victim, create the victim. We do both.

The story about the aftermath of an attack on a CBS newswoman in Tahir Square and the obituary for B.N. Nathanson, the famous abortion defender-turned-opponent don’t bear any similarities on the surface. But both reveal the power of provocative views spoken loud.

After Lara Logan was separated from her news crew, beaten and assaulted by a mob, a number of  bloggers, Tweeters and “columnists” took her to task for being there in the first place. And we’re not talking about anonymous idiots; these are commentators with big, visible platforms. (No, I’m not going to link to them. )

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who quickly went after the hateful Logan-bashing writers, as did Kim Barker, ProPublica journalist, also writing for the NYTimes. Other writers are still responding with articulate anger. One of the common points is that Logan is being punished for her sex and looks (attractive, blonde female); more than one writer points out that no one would berate a man for being mobbed and sodomized.

There are two reasons for this kind of blame-the-victim spewing: The spewer is a publicity-seeking fuckwit willing to use any shocking rhetoric to stand out. Or, s/he needs to believe that evil things happen for reasons, e.g. you get raped  if you’re too pretty. The reality of random hate crimes is too frightening to acknowledge. (There is now actually debate over whether Logan was raped or “just” sexually assaulted.)

Now, Nathanson. This intelligent activist doctor had a lot to do with legalizing abortion and moving it from a back-alley butcher’s job to the safe medical procedure that is the right of every woman. Later, upset by the large numbers of procedures he carried out and supervised, he spoke up as an opponent to the procedure. In both incarnations he wielded great power over public opinion. He founded what became the powerful pro-choice group NARAL and he gave the anti-abortion faction their favorite line when he pointed out a fetus’s “silent scream” while narrating a sonogram of an abortion in progress.

The other similarity between these news stories is that they reveal the only-sometimes-veiled misogyny that still exists in our society. Nathanson was okay with abortion as long as not many women exercised their right to make decisions about their own bodies, lives and health. Commentators (and others who silently agree and don’t challenge them) mouth politically correct sentiments about women being equal to men in the world of journalism, until they get a chance to berate them for being too attractive, too female, and for asking for trouble.

In both cases, I wonder how this sexism would hold up if the tables were turned: The hate-blogger gets left alone with an angry mob or the anti-choicer is told that he cannot elect a medically safe surgery, but must instead sneak off with a fistful of cash to a dangerous, illegal appointment.

“Cry to Heaven” by Anne Rice

“Cry to Heaven” (Knopf) came out in 1982 and it is the first Anne Rice work I’ve read. It’s rich and brilliant, the story of 17th century castrati, castrated males with unearthly, beautiful voices. These revered artists were courted by the Vatican and high society, but were also outcasts: eunuchs who existed in an excruciating gender limbo surrounded by complicated societal mores and attitudes. The boys who were sold by parents, then “cut,” did not all become stars. The ones who lost their voices or never developed the talent needed for the stage are among history’s most tragic figures. The story tells of Tonio Treschi, a Venetian nobleman kidnapped and castrated, who rises through the ranks of this odd society. His teachers, lovers, audiences and family are all swept up by his unearthly gift, for which everyone pays a price. Read this and prepare to dream about the story at night. Rice is a clever literary witch.

Pretty in pink. Yeah, but it’s still cancer.

For some time now, I’ve wondered what it is that seems wrong to me about the breast-cancer awareness barrage — all the pink on the NFL gridiron; the rallies, the walks, the t-shirts, the slogans. Surely it’s a good thing to make people more aware of this disease, right?

Well, yes. But there’s more to it than that. A piece by Peggy Orenstein in The New York Times answers my question: Anything that gets more women to do exams is good…and promoting open conversation about cancer is very good. But the pep rally nature of all of this has also obscured some of the realities. Orenstein had breast cancer. She writes:

“But a funny thing happened on the way to destigmatization. The experience of actual women with cancer…got lost. Rather than truly breaking silences, acceptable narratives of coping emerged, each tied up with a pretty pink bow. There were the pink teddy bears that, as Barbara Ehrenreich observed, infantilized patients in a reassuringly feminine fashion. “Men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars,” she wrote in her book “Bright-Sided.”

Alternatively, there are what Gayle Sulik, author of “Pink Ribbon Blues,” calls “She-roes” — rhymes with “heroes.” These aggressive warriors in heels kick cancer’s butt (and look fab doing it). Like the bear huggers, they say what people want to hear: that not only have they survived cancer, but the disease has made them better people and better women. She-roes, it goes without saying, do not contract late-stage disease, nor do they die.”

Orestein describes a wave of new attention-getting t-shirts and slogans, meant to attract and educate young women. Some really are funny and clever. (“Save the Ta-Tas” made me laugh, I admit it.) But there’s a real danger that this disease becomes a big pink event, especially for those younger women. Orenstein writes:

“I hate to be a buzz kill, but breast cancer is just not sexy. It’s not ennobling. It’s not a feminine rite of passage. And, though it pains me to say it, it’s also not very much fun. I get that the irreverence is meant to combat crisis fatigue, the complacency brought on by the annual onslaught of pink, yet it similarly risks turning people cynical. By making consumers feel good without actually doing anything meaningful, it discourages understanding, undermining the search for better detection, safer treatments, causes and cures for a disease that still afflicts 250,000 women annually (and speaking of figures, the number who die has remained unchanged — hovering around 40,000 — for more than a decade).”

I don’t think Orenstein wants the breast-cancer walks to stop, and I don’t think she’s claiming that all women share her view. Many feel empowered and supported by this movement. But she does a great service when she asks that we remember that this is a disease, not an ad campaign.

It’s true: It gets better.

For anyone who is getting bullied, left out, harassed because of her or his sexual orientation…or really, any “difference” from the so-called norm…this video project initiated by writer Dan Savage will strike a chord. He’s a professional speaker, so his video is more polished than the others, but the theme is the same: We all just want to be accepted for who we are. The project was initiated as a way to honor a young man who took his own life, and it has grown quite quickly. Check it out.

Yup, the little woman is clever.

Last week I wrote a long overdue fan letter to our health care provider about the terrific attention my husband received from hospital staff more than a year ago.

A note came back promptly from Member Relations, addressed to him, which said:

“Thank you for the letter submitted by your wife in which she expressed your satisfaction…”

It’s not often that a big health care operation seizes the opportunity to thank a guy for his wife’s actions.

All the news that fits. And solves.

I’ve only read some of the stories and ads in three sections in Sunday’s New York Times (Book Review, Business and Week in Review) and here’s what I’ve already learned:

Most new fiction is deeply flawed. A five-line letter from Ronald Reagan to his old actress friend Kitty Carlisle Hart is worth $6,100. Whales and dolphins are as smart as we are, and probably nicer. Congo is still the rape capital on earth. Congress still has absolutely no balls when it comes to regulating Wall Street. Our cellphones are built with materials that are obtained at human cost. Author Danielle Steele and legal pot growers in Colorado work harder than the rest of us. Camile Paglia says “female Viagra” pharmaceuticals will not cure the sexual malaise blanketing America.

It seems so clear:

Send sexually disappointed whiners to witness real problems in Congo.  Sell collections of witless Presidential missives as e-books in order to fund the increased cost of cruelty-free cellphone manufacturing. Deploy the hyper-prolific Ms. Steele to the pot-growing operations for one week. Swear in Ms. Paglia, stand her up in front of Congress, and let her spell it out for them: No balls, no glory.

If that last thing doesn’t work, vote for a whale or a dolphin next time.

Our bodies, our worse-off selves.

I have occasion to regularly visit a wonderful vintage jewelry/resale clothing business in town. The owners defy small-business odds: thriving as a family-owned venture, they’re now serving the second- and third-generations of regulars.

Most of the customers are women, and they feel so at home that personal conversation flows easily. There’s a bit of that airplane-travel phenomenon, in which seatmates trade stories about intimate stuff  precisely because they are strangers. Not surprisingly, a lot of the chatting centers on the trials of aging.

As it turns out, this is a sort of competitive sport for middle-aged women.

I can just about guarantee that if four women are within hearing distance of each other, and one mentions her hot flashes, at least one of the remaining three will describe waking up more often, with soggier nightwear and a less sympathetic husband.

If you need reading glasses, someone else can’t even find hers, she’s so blind.

Bras suddenly too tight? She can hardly breathe.

Feet wider? Her shoes look like flippers.

Don’t even get started on haircuts.

Men this age take the opposite approach. I bet if you eavesdrop on a group of 50ish men in a locker room and if one of them happens to blurt out some age-related failing, the others will maintain a respectful silence. Or change the subject.

Much is written about the ways men and women communicate with each other, but I’m still waiting for the book titled  “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. And, Girlfriend, My Flight to Venus was Bumpier than Yours.”

Yes, I know. You’d read it if you could find your damn glasses.

Meat on our bones

A new study proves–are you paying attention?–that women with partners gain more weight than women without partners.

This finding comes out of a 10-year-long Australian study involving 6,000 women. I know scientists need statistical heft in order to confirm any finding, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t need to take so long or so many to drive this point home.

Women know it’s true because we’ve all experienced that combat-ready mindset that marks our mate-hunting years. We also know that I-can-live-on-coffee-and-air euphoria that comes with courtship. Nature wires us to snap out of such behavior the same way it programs bears to wake up in the Spring. Too much calorie-free bliss or too-long asleep in the hollow log will spell disaster.

The academics and other experts quoted by Nicholas Bakalar in the New York Times article are walking on eggshells as they offer theories for the weight gain of paired-off females. Because I’m not worried about tenure or angry readers, I can say what they’re afraid to:

We gain weight because we’re not on the market anymore.

There, I said it. When seeking a mate (or even a date for that upcoming family wedding) it makes sense that we work hard to achieve whatever constitutes attractiveness in our sphere. Usually, in this time and place in history, that means thinner vs. fatter. It can also mean adopting certain styles of dress or behaviors. (See index for “bra, push-up” and “friends, pretending to like”.)

Men, of course, have their own versions of adaptive mating-season behavior. I’m sure if any professional ballet company kept personal stats on attendees, the number of men in the audience who were on early dates would out-number the husbands by, oh, about twenty to one. (I’m stereotyping hetero guys here, but the principle expands to include any genre.)

I’m guessing that if this study monitored the diets of these same 6,000 women it would turn up some more revealing trends. We may have weighed less back in the day, but we did it fueled by Tab and Cheez-Its instead of the whole-grains and spinach we inhale now.

So, what’s better–a thin and unattached woman riddled with chemicals or a sturdier partnered female powered by fiber and sporting iron levels high enough to build a bridge? Evolution, gotta love it.

What we know still hurts us

The question of when a woman should begin annual mammograms is getting a lot of ink, air-time and, yes, close scrutiny in Congress, not a gang I reflexively list under the heading, “People I trust with my personal health-care decisions.”

(I’m trying not to veer into paranoia here, so I won’t dwell on my impression that such waffling never seems to happen around, say, male health problems.)

Most women I know, hear, or read about are quite peeved (or at least, unsettled) that there is such sharp disagreement in the medical-expert world over this. I share their peevedness, and at the same time, I keep thinking about how reluctant we often are to use good preventative-health info when we DO have it.


Thanks to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, we know that that drinking gets rolling early in our lives, immediately boosting the odds for all manner of regrets, from car crashes to quickie marriages at the Vegas Elvis Chapel.

We know that booze is harder on women, and not simply because we tend to be smaller than men. To paraphrase the NIAAA folks, we’ve got less water inside us, so that Strawberry Mojito gets to the brain faster and makes us stupid sooner.

We adult women are more likely to get certain cancers and bone disease from too much alcohol. It takes surprisingly little alcohol to wreck our skin, addle our brains permanently, and cause us to mix up our meds. And although it is rarely written about, over-cocktailing by women is pretty much a direct ticket to picking dangerous/disappointing partners and ensuring a rotten sex life.

Okay, okay, so where does all this blogdignation get me? It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the progress made on many health fronts, including awareness of the risks of alcohol abuse. Nor do I think the folks who set health-screening standards should throw in the towel because we American women often thumb our nose at the solid wellness info we do have. I’m not even lobbying for Congress to get out of my doc’s exam room, exactly. (They’d just sneak back in anyway.)

I guess I’m just wishing that while the experts screw around with the mammogram-timing standards, we use some of the down time to pay attention to the solid life-saving facts that have already smacked us right in the kisser.

Partner = Best + Friend

You know those “sponsored” links that show up on the bottom of some news sites? This morning some clever algorithmic gnome decided I should read this blog called The Frisky: Love. Lives. Stars. Style.”

The link took me to “Girl Talk: Should Your Boyfriend Be Your Best Friend?” — a headline I couldn’t resist, for some unfathomable reason.

The author, one Jessica Wakeman, has her doubts about whether it is wise to put all your emotional eggs in one basket. Doesn’t that put a huge load of responsibility on one person? What if I suffocate this person with all my needs?

Or, more truthfully: Aren’t I more vulnerable if my partner is my best bud? As Wakeman so winningly puts it:

“It has occurred to me that if my boyfriend were to be (God forbid) hit by a Walmart 18-wheeler, I would be isolated.”

Jessica, I know I’m way outside The Frisky’s target demographic. (It’s possible I was never in it.) But trust me: If you’ve found a boyfriend who fits the Best Friend bill as well, you should grab him.

To paraphrase (and slightly mangle) the wisdom of vaudevillian Sophie Tucker: I’ve been partnered by a best friend, and I’ve been partnered by a non-best friend, and a best friend is better.

Me and The Frisky, right in sync. Yeah, I’m cooler than I look.

Oppression 3.0

I’ve been thinking about division of labor lately and I realize just how dramatically the who-does-what-around-the-house process has changed for me.

Twenty years ago, the question of who emptied the dishwasher was a feminist issue. Ten years before that it was completely non-negotiable because I flatly refused to do any “traditionally female” activities. This hard-ass attitude was less impressive than it might have been, given that I had neither dishwasher nor many dishes in my household…nor, come to think of it, a man. But, hey, the principle was still valid.

I’m not less of a feminist now; in fact I may be giving off a higher reading on the Sisterhood Geiger Counter. But two things have changed, one of them positive, the other anything but.

The positive is that I’m married to a man who is a feminist, which means a load of laundry is just a pile of dirty clothes, not a teaching moment. On the downside, I’m more worried about other kinds of bigotry–that based on race and class.

I wonder what my younger self would have thought if someone had prophesied about the open-ended ransom being paid now to banks and other protected corporations, while the folks ponying up the dough are losing homes, cars, jobs. Or what I would have made of the spreading Neo-Klan mentality that’s come to light during the discourse on that Congressional moron insulting the President.

It’s enough to make me miss the days when my big worry was who did the vacuuming.

A Labor Day reflection: Sherrie, Chuck and me

The summer I was 16 I rebelled at working for my mother’s small newspaper. I was determined to be independent. Which I was, just as soon as she got through twisting a local factory owner’s arm to give me a job in return for a break on the company’s overdue advertising bill.

So I found myself at First-Rate Packaging Inc., housed in the basement of an old brick shoe factory. There I stood for the summer of 1973, eight hours a day, stapling bags containing clothes and accessories for a line of knock-off Barbie and Ken dolls, cleverly renamed Sherrie and Chuck.

At first glance, the plastic duo looked like their pricier counterparts. Sherrie had the same blonde ponytail and permanently arched feet; Chuck obviously worked out a lot. But on closer examination, Sherrie’s nose lacked the requisite perky tilt and there was something not quite right about Chuck’s neck.

The bags packed on my line held synthetic doll dresses and pants that molted like a flock of dying geese, and by day’s end we’d all be hacking and rubbing our eyes. I probably ingested enough polyester that summer to weave a circus tent.

The owner was a hulking middle-aged redhead everyone called Big Jean. Her swaggering, good-looking son and his silent, heavily pregnant wife worked on the line with us. Big Jean never spoke in anything but a yell, and started or ended nearly every sentence with “for shit’s sake!”

She didn’t like any unnecessary talking and went apoplectic if anyone took one second over the allotted 30 minutes for lunch. We could listen to the radio, but keeping time with a foot, head or hip was forbidden. To this day, whenever I hear “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight, my feet start killing me and I have to pee.

Most of the other workers were ancient-looking Polish and Italian women who were probably in their 40s. Each woman had one hand noticeably bigger than the other from years of operating huge industrial staplers and hot-press machines that sealed package parts together.

They made the most of the lunch break, snapping open countless Tupperware containers of homemade pierogi, meatballs and cannelloni, and passing them around. When I opened my lunch bag the first day and pulled out a limp peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a shocked silence fell over the table. Then all of them began pushing food my way, insisting I eat up.

One morning in July, the woman operating the biggest hot-press machine let out a loud whoop and jumped back. We all froze, imagining the worst. Big Jean ran the length of the room to the press.

“Well, for shit’s sake,” she boomed. “I thought you’d cut off your goddamn finger.” Big Jean stomped back to her office, glaring at us. “The rest of you get back to work!”

It turned out that the barrel of bathing-suit clad Sherries and Chucks awaiting packaging held a stunning surprise: Somehow a male doll had ended up in the female-doll plastic molder back at the toy factory. The result was a Chuck with breasts.

This was the funniest thing any of us could imagine. No amount of hollering by Big Jean could suppress us. For the rest of the day, every few minutes someone would start giggling and then we’d all start again. Even the usually mute daughter-in-law laughed, holding her huge pregnant belly.

We placed Chuck-with-breasts in the center of the lunch table, modestly draped in a paper-napkin poncho. Big Jean let us keep him there all summer.

Happy (?) Anniversary, Stonewall

An ad in the New York Times Sunday Styles section commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, that legendary 1969 uprising in a Greenwich Village gay bar. Rousts by police were not uncommon in these settings, but a combination of especially swift police brutality and We’ve-Had-Enough patron sentiments resulted in a roaring riot. What we would now call the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender crowd drove the police back and kept them there for days.

If such an ad didn’t say enough about the changed attitudes, the one below it sure did: A furniture and carpet store entreats:

Love love love…the partnership registry…co-create your home from the ground up.

A more cynical person might say that much of the progress towards acceptance of LGBT folks is, in fact, market driven. A really cynical person might say that the poor economy will push this acceptance to a new high. Retailers who want to survive will market across all lines: gender, class, shoe size.

I, however, am marking this historic occasion by shrugging off such thoughts, lifting my coffee mug and toasting the people who still worry that their sexual orientation or their place along the gender continuum might cause them to be fired, humiliated, hurt or killed. Sisters and brothers: I’m with you.

A recommendation to my blog readers: Go find a copy of “Stone Butch Blues” by Leslie Feinberg. (Other Feinberg insights can be found on the writer’s Transgender Warrior site.) You might have to get your favorite independent bookseller to order it for you, as it may now be out of print. This is a remarkable, heartbreaking book. (Along lines of “Fat Girl” by Judith Moore, another bit of painful genius in book form.) I could not put “Stone Butch Blues” down and it prompted me to get other works by Feinberg, including the essay collection “Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue.”

Feinberg isn’t the voice for all LGBT people any more than Ann Coulter is a spokesperson for me, another white female writer. But the story of oppression, uprising, triumph and hope is everyone’s story.


A shameful reality

An estimated 65,000 gay and lesbian troops are on active duty in our military now, and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” regulation means they have to keep their sexual orientation a secret while in uniform. This New York Times short video profile gives me an inkling of the huge price paid by the partners, friends and families of those troops. Imagine if heterosexual troops had to keep their spouses and civilian lives secret, pretending to be something they are not and lying to their comrades every minute of every day.