Poetry by Victoria Leigh Bennett: “The Nature of the Offense”

Winning Writers subscriber Victoria Leigh Bennett recently made my acquaintance online to announce her forthcoming collection, Poems from the Northeast (Olympia Publishing). She is a fellow Massachusetts poet, though born in West Virginia. Victoria says, “A poet’s spiritual homeland is oftentimes not exactly the same as his or her homeland by birth. This book is a book of poems composed over a lifetime lived entirely in the northeastern United States and Toronto, Canada.”

Victoria has kindly allowed me to share this new poem of hers, which appealed to me because of its wordplay and gentle but pointed repartee.

The Nature of the Offense

Well, the most you can say for him is that he’s inoffensive,
Fairly inoffensive,
Pretty much noncommittal, and
Well, just inoffensive,
You said.

That’s a hell of a lot to say,
Say I,
And after all,
Think of how everyone in our world
Who’s parleyed and had to negotiate
For a cessation of the offenses
Committed against them
In perpetuity from the past, at least,
It seems,
Would like him,
Find him a valuable asset
As a companion.

Oh, yeah, you say,
He’s pretty wishy-washy,
And everyone complaining these days
About everything ever done to them
Whether on purpose or not,
Maybe just in a moment of inattention
Or thoughtlessness,
Yeah, I can see how they might value him.

Well, say I,
As to the “wishy” part,
I think he wishes a lot for others
To be comfortable and happy
In his presence,
And for the “washy” part,
He’s continually washing
His own soul hands
Against the washing away
Of others’ vital differences,
Which are important to them.
He wouldn’t give offense,
Is the issue.

Maybe not, you say,
Maybe not.
Though some would prefer
An outright enemy
To a halfway committer.

But he’s not falsely committed
To anything,
Say I,
And anyway, people
Really don’t want enemies.

Some people just like to quarrel,
You decide.
Anyway,
You say,
I’ll just bet you’re tired of him
In a year, or a month,
Or a fortnight.
I can still call it a fortnight,
Can’t I,
Without giving offense
To your peace-loving friends?
I have no idea, I say,
No one’s ever told me anything
Different from that yet.

Yeah, I’ll bet you’re tired of him
Before long.
Where’s the passion,
Where’s the thrust of sexual contention?

Where’s the love,
Where’s the melting-togetherness
Of passionate agreement? Say I.

You’ll get tired of him, I’ll just bet.
I’ll take that bet, I say,
All in one breath,
See you and raise you,
As maybe your parents
Should’ve seen you
And raised you better,
To be more inoffensive.

Witch Kitsch

We went to Salem.

This Massachusetts coastal town has made a peculiar tourist industry out of the fact that it executed 19 people (and two dogs) on charges of witchcraft in 1692. Four others died in prison or under interrogation.

All respect to Giles Corey, the crotchety octogenarian who let himself be pressed to death rather than admit the court’s authority to try him.

In one of history’s ironic twists, Salem is now an epicenter of modern witchcraft culture and fashion. You can hardly walk a block downtown without coming across a shop selling pentacle jewelry, mini cauldrons, psychic readings, crystals, candles, and dolls in pointy hats. Not to mention, this tribute to Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha in “Bewitched”.

Visiting Salem as an actual, serious, practicing witch was an adventure in cognitive dissonance and complex emotions–not to mention a temptation to spend way too much money on Goth swag, like this Baphomet pillow I bought to make myself feel better about not getting top surgery.

Aiming for equal parts entertainment and scares, Salem’s witch-tourist museums go in for waxwork tableaux and sensationalist re-enactments of what they call the “witchcraft hysteria”. The presentations include some helpful historical context about the plagues and warfare that stressed the Puritan settlement to the point of irrational scapegoating. Then as now, people were desperate to blame someone for the disconnect between their suffering and the divine blessings they were promised. But of course it would be too controversial to draw those connections for the paying customers, so the popular image of the Puritans remains exotic and remote from the world of their descendants. The official story on the placards is that “of course” witchcraft isn’t real–even as the alternative spirituality business is booming, right outside the door.

Should I, then, mourn Salem’s executed witches as my spiritual ancestors? It’s hard to say, because there’s no good evidence that they considered themselves witches (tortured confessions don’t count). Even if some of them did practice folk magic in secret–practices like hexing or fertility charms having always coexisted alongside official Christianity–the 17th-century witches’ values and cosmology were likely more similar to the Puritans’ than to my Temple of Witchcraft class’s Buddhist-inflected, queer-friendly worldview. Magic is a technology that doesn’t necessarily create common ground among its practitioners. The concentrated collective prayers of right-wing Christians could be seen as a hex designed to wipe out queer people. I began practicing magic in earnest during the Trump years because I perceived a spiritual warfare component to the GOP’s attacks on human rights and Mother Nature. (In my opinion, it’s not really Jesus they are worshiping, but I digress.)

The gender politics of the “hysteria” also left me with unanswered questions. It’s actually remarkable that pre-teen girls’ accusations against prominent men, such as minister George Burroughs, were taken seriously by the church and court system. A number of witches were convicted on the “spectral evidence” of girls’ nightmares and sensations of being pinched by invisible hands. To me this sounded like abuse flashbacks, which can take the form of body memories. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that Burroughs was the real perpetrator; don’t haunt me, George.) In dismissing the entire trials as delusional, we may play into the patriarchal script that anything that can’t be confirmed by outside observers is not credible.

The irreverence of the waxwork history tours troubled me at first, but then I recognized it as a form of “whistling past the graveyard”. At Halloween, we dress up as what we fear, to make our mortal vulnerability manageable through play. We put our heads in the stocks as a joke, to dispel the unease of imagining our own neighbors turning on us.

Salem was also the birthplace of the great fiction writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), whose work you can read for free at AmericanLiterature.com. I wrote my college thesis on original sin in his stories “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The Birthmark”, two Gothic fantasies about prideful scientists whose drive for “perfection” destroys the women they love most (to the extent that a narcissist can love!). A descendant of witch-trials judge John Hathorne, Nathaniel changed the spelling of his name to distance himself from that history. I understand him better after visiting the Witch City. Throughout his work, he struggles with inherited sin. On the one hand, he wants to hope that descendants can break a cursed pattern, even if the cost to themselves is high. On the other hand, he’s enough of a Puritan to remind progress-intoxicated Americans that human nature is permanently flawed. We trade religion for science, we scoff at the past, but the same impulses that drove the witch trials remain in our hearts.

I don’t think Hawthorne would be a fan of the “Scarlet Letter” coffee mugs in the House of Seven Gables Gift Shop, but this fan art by Wendy Snow-Lang shows why Melville thought Nat was such a snack:

Transition goals, am I right?

More Than Their Worst Act

Tomorrow will be my 49th birthday. Closer to 50 than I like to think about. Midlife musings: Do I have enough hair to be worth dyeing, or should I emulate Quentin Crisp and accentuate a youthful face with gray hair? Are 71 button-down shirts really enough? Are some life paths foreclosed to me because I transitioned late, or because compromise is just the human condition? Everyone is embedded in relationships and situations that their younger self set in motion. Coming out, at any age, doesn’t reset the clock.

When I’m in this frame of mind, the opening lines of Donald Justice’s poem “Men at Forty” keep coming back to me:

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

And then I inevitably think of disgraced male feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer, on whose website I discovered that poem, over a decade ago. Close to my age and already on his fourth marriage, Hugo wrote poignantly (and perhaps sincerely, at the time) about turning away from sex and love addiction, toward commitment and acceptance of limitations. The feminism I’d encountered in school in the 1980s-90s had all been gender-binary and bio-essentialist. His writing was my first indication that there was space in the movement for someone as male-identified as myself. And then it all went to shit in 2013: revelations of affairs with female students and sex workers, his own confession of a failed murder-suicide attempt with his ex-girlfriend in 1998, harassment of Black feminists online, and drug and alcohol relapses.

Yes, Hugo is as cancelled as cancelled gets. I don’t fault anyone for refusing to engage with his work, or the work of any prominent figure whose legacy includes both abusive behavior and work that’s transformed people’s lives: John Howard Yoder, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Jean Vanier, etc., etc. In a society where competition for attention is fierce, many feel that morally compromised figures don’t deserve one more minute of it. Damnatio memoriae was reportedly a punishment in the ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman world, where a disgraced person’s name and work were erased from official accounts. It seems like poetic justice today, when we imagine the unknown scholars and artists whose contributions were forestalled by a predatory authority figure in their field.

But…

I also think of death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean’s maxim that “we are more than the worst act we commit”.

Nobody has to forgive these wrongdoers. Nobody is obligated to offer them redemption or look for the silver lining. Let me be clear about that. But if any of us, despite ourselves, still take heart from something they said, or continue to be inspired by one small flower blooming in the big shitpile–I’d like to think that we’re giving them an opportunity to be more than their worst act, too.

This feeling doesn’t make us better or worse than someone who has to slam the book closed forever. It isn’t a “Go thou and do likewise”. Just a way to make peace with being grateful to a really fucked-up person. I’m never going back to that room, but I’m here because I was once there.

July Links Roundup: Free at Last

Readers of this blog may remember my pen pal “Conway”, the poet and artist who was serving 25-to-life under California’s three-strikes sentencing law for stealing a motorcycle. This Independence Day finally has real meaning for him, because he is FREE! He is thriving in a re-entry program in Los Angeles, reuniting with his devoted daughters and learning how to use the Internet. He dreams of opening up his own auto repair shop and tattoo parlor. Read more of his poetry here and here, or browse the Prison Letters category on this blog.

Several factors converged to make this miracle happen (if you can really call it a miracle for a man to spend 29 years of his life in jail for petty theft). The new Los Angeles County D.A. is no longer opposing early-release petitions under Prop 36, the 2008 referendum that retroactively repealed the harsh sentencing law. Stanford Law School’s pro bono clinic continues to help my friend navigate the legal system that profits from keeping people under perpetual surveillance, even when they’ve served their time–and then some. And I applied the full force of four months of witchcraft training to send him protective energy and courage.

Though Conway’s exodus is cause for tremendous rejoicing, millions more Americans are still trapped in prisons and jails that violate their human rights to medical care, adequate food and shelter, voting access, and speedy trial, among other indignities. In June, Harper’s Bazaar, in partnership with the PEN Prison Writing Program, published this worthwhile feature: “5 Formerly or Currently Incarcerated Writers on What Freedom Means to Them”. The personal essays include criminal justice reform leader Vivian D. Nixon on reclaiming the freedom to use African-American Vernacular English, and Elizabeth Hawes on music and literature as a lifeline behind bars.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Native American and Canadian Indigenous children suffered another type of unjust incarceration in euphemistically named “residential schools”. Governments run by white people stole the children from their families, with the goal of eradicating Native languages and cultures. This genocidal project has been in the news lately with the discoveries of mass graves on the sites of some schools. Many more doubtless remain to be unearthed, as conditions at the schools were brutal. This online curriculum from Facing History describes the shameful role of Christian missionaries and educators in running these institutions.

To help bring justice to Native Americans today, consider donating to Lakota People’s Law Project. Their initiatives include fighting for voting rights, creating community centers for Native youth, and protecting the land and water from pipeline pollution.

Truly the best essay I’ve read in a long time is queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” from the 2002 anthology Touching Feeling. Eve understands what’s wrong with The Discourse. Does debunking everything make you feel better? Does it help you understand what to do about the brokenness of the world? Especially in 2021, is the trash fire even news? Suspicion is not always the most progressive hermeneutic. Nor is exposure automatically effective at producing change, because people may still be apathetic, wedded to fake news, or too hopeless to act on what they’ve learned. Sedgwick suggests that one can see systemic oppression clearly, yet still be committed to a reparative approach that aims at maximizing love and pleasure, rather than the paranoid priority of avoiding all bad surprises.

45 Shining Harvey Milk Quotes - SayingImages.com

The Poet Spiel: “On Swallowing”

As Father’s Day is this weekend, here’s a poignant poem by longtime reader and contributor The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, about role reversal and a kind of closure for a difficult father-son relationship. Spiel’s recent books include the illustrated retrospective Revealing Self in Pictures and Words.

On Swallowing

To think on such a day that I might make a joke about the Jello,
about it being what I liked about my stays in such sterile facilities.
How they bring you Jello on a tray.
But my father’s mind was traveling elsewhere;
was wondering if I’d walk him down a hall that was not there
to someone only he could see—
he was leaving us but barely knew which place he was,
nor did I.

So, I tempted him with milk, I said:
You remember how we’ve always loved our milk, you and I,
here, take this straw, can you hold this in your mouth
between your lips. I know you’ve always loved your milk, Amos.
Try a sip of milk, I’ll help you with it.
Try it from this straw.

But he had no suck and it dribbled down his chin;
his throat forgot to swallow and his eyes wandered down a hall
that only he could see, wishing that I’d walk with him
to where he thought that it was time to go.
Let’s go, he’d said:
this man who’d told me just the day before
he’d had enough of life
and now it was his time to go.
Let’s go, he said,
but I was baffled by the plural of let us.

I simply did not know to whom he spoke nor whom
it was that he might see to walk with down that hall
that only he could see,
and yet he’d earlier called me by my name,
just as the day before when much to my surprise
he had given me the gift that surely every son must wish:
he had told me that he’d come to see me as a man,
that he honored me—
this man who could no longer swallow,

whose trembling disease would also rob his heart of the impulse
of when to beat,
and it would happen in this place
and on this day with milk upon his gown and green jello on his tray,
while I stepped outside his room to breathe
and consider what I’d seen
in a decade where his body lost its tune and he could not hold it still.
His mind on track but could not send its signals
from a soup spoon to his mouth;
humiliation at the spills upon his lap,
coordination lacking at his knees.

Can I help you, I would ask.
Then anger in his eyes that he might need,
that he would need at all.
This determined man who taught me as a child
how to swallow milk shakes from a straw.

No, I can do it, he would say, I can make my knees go,
as I stood aside and suffered with him as he fell off of his bike.
As he taped his bleeding wounds,
as he lamented he’d no longer have the pleasure of a spin
down to the Platte River to watch the waters that he loved,
where he loved to rest in peace
off on his own away from Fern and her restlessness of mind.
That he no longer drove a nail without a finger getting smashed,
his hands so out of sorts that he could not turn a screw.
That he would never ride another horse, nor tend the birthing of a calf.
That in a restaurant, the children stared because he shook so bad.
That even though he wished that he could live to care for Fern,
he’d reached the point where he was through;
he’d had enough of what he could no longer swallow,
and I understood,
I truly understood
as I wandered round those halls.

So much of life I had complained of all the horrors of life
I could not swallow.
He’d insisted that I look upon the brighter side.
But now, he said he too had had enough of what he could not swallow.

Then, I heard the code blue call.

I knew it was for him
but by the time I got back to his room,
his doctor had blocked the door; the door was shut.
His doctor’s face was telling me
my father’s life had ceased.
I pressed my head against the door
as his doctor spoke, He’s gone.

I banged my head against the door
and loudly uttered fuck,
the word my father most despised
but might expect me to have said;
I shouted FUCK
but never doubted that he walked on down that hall I could not see
with a companion at his side;
and of my shout, he’d found a way to swallow it.

And on the day before this day,
he’d honored me as man.

June Links Roundup: Floored

When my parents sold the Lower East Side apartment we’d had since 1974, I was sad that I’d never again see our familiar kitchen linoleum. We had painted the whole room bright orange and egg-yolk yellow to match it. (Like I said, it was 1974.)

Thanks to Twitter last month, I discovered that this classic brickwork pattern was called Armstrong Flooring #5352, and that it was the best-selling design of the 20th century!

armstrong flooring 5252 yellow orange

The website Retro Renovation will give you the scoop on its creator, Hazel Dell Brown (1892-1982), whose influential interior design ads for Armstrong showed homemakers how to enliven spaces with bold color schemes. I imagine she would have been proud of our sunny-hued kitchen.

Something else from the 70s, which hasn’t aged as well: The men of folk-singing group Peter, Paul & Mary seemed the epitome of sensitive non-toxic masculinity, so I was shocked to read that Peter Yarrow had been convicted of molesting a 14-year-old girl. #PuffToo? Apparently Yarrow was pardoned by then-President Jimmy Carter on his last day in office. Newsweek reported this past February that a lawsuit pursuant to the Child Victims Act was recently filed against Yarrow based on a 1969 incident:

Documents claim that Yarrow, now 82, met the victim a number of times before the incident took place in a Manhattan hotel room. He then “took an interest in her,” acting what in what the minor thought was “paternal way,” per to the filing. The lawsuit claims that the then-teenager ran away from her St. Paul, Minnesota home and met Yarrow at a Lower East Side hotel, where he allegedly raped her.

I suppose that leaves Billy Porter as one of my last remaining cis-male role models. The “Pose” star and gender-bending fashion icon came out as HIV+ last month, in an effort to end the stigma around the disease. According to the Hollywood Reporter:

In the 14 years since [his 2007 diagnosis], the Emmy-winning star of “Pose” has told next to no one, fearing marginalization and retaliation in an industry that hasn’t always been kind to him. Instead, the 51-year-old, who has cultivated a fervent fan base in recent years on the basis of his talent and authenticity, says he’s been using Pray Tell, his HIV-positive character on the FX series, as his proxy. “I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate,” he reveals, acknowledging that nobody involved with the show had any idea he was drawing from his own life.

In this interview on the Tamron Hall Show, Porter said something I found very relatable about the levels of trauma healing. Talking about his background as a child sexual abuse survivor, he observed that he had created a great life for himself but couldn’t inhabit it in an emotionally present way. The catharsis and honesty of playing Pray Tell, plus the meditative pause of COVID lockdown, made him take his recovery to another level.

Looking for more masculine inspiration? Read “The Forgotten Trans History of the Wild West” at Atlas Obscura.

Despite a seeming absence from the historical record, people who did not conform to traditional gender norms were a part of daily life in the Old West, according to Peter Boag, a historian at Washington State University and the author of Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past. While researching a book about the gay history of Portland, Boag stumbled upon hundreds and hundreds of stories concerning people who dressed against their assigned gender…

It wasn’t that this time and place was more open or accepting of trans people, but that it was more diffuse and unruly, which may have enabled more people to live according to their true identities, Boag says. “My theory is that people who were transgender in the East could read these stories that gave a kind of validation to their lives,” he says. “They saw the West as a place where they could live and get jobs and carry on a life that they couldn’t have in the more congested East.” Consider Joseph Lobdell, born and assigned female in Albany, New York. When he surfaced in Meeker County, Minnesota, he became known as “The Slayer of Hundreds of Bears and Wild-Cats.”

Is modern life just too hard to understand? A “Sopranos” satire account called @MoltisantiThots tweets malaprop-filled takes on current events from the perspective of dimwitted Mafioso Christopher. In his writing newsletter Counter Craft, Lincoln Michel explains how bungled dialogue can be great for revealing character. Don’t miss Michel’s cosmic horror story “Dark Air” at Granta, cited as an example in the article.

Finally, the socialist magazine Current Affairs departed from its usual intelligent doom-forecasting to wax poetic on the divine qualities of felines, in Nick Slater’s “Let Us Praise and Honor Cats”. In a passage reminiscent of Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno”, Slater writes:

While observing the daily life of a cat can give clues as to the unique ways she may be revered, it also has a more important function of clarifying why the cat should be revered. In other words, observation reveals the sacred vibes embodied by the cat. These are five in number, and they are:

  1. Cultivating a deep connection to one’s place—a cat is constantly strengthening his bonds to his home
  2. Balancing one’s needs with the needs of others—a cat will compromise, but only to a point
  3. Making wise discernments—a cat recalls the situations when she can safely relax, and when she must be vigilant
  4. Drinking in the world—a cat seeks to imbibe every aspect of his surroundings
  5. Giving and accepting love without craving—a cat shows love to others when she is moved to do so (and only then), and receives the love of others when it feels good to do so (and only then)

Slater’s advice on mindful cat-observation has deepened my connection to my time-share cat, Polly (our downstairs tenants’ mouser, whom I spoil rotten when they’re away). She will sit on my lap for exactly as long as I’m holding a bag of treats. I adore her.

But does she approve of the linoleum, I wonder?

Reconsidering Zionism

Last weekend I did something I never thought I’d do: I attended a rally for Palestinian rights.

I’m not telling you anything new when I say that Zionism is the near-untouchable issue for American Jews. Only recently (as in, like, yesterday) did I notice the similarity to the taboos around being LGBTQ-affirming in evangelical Christian circles. I’ve always appreciated Judaism’s openness to debate, rational evidence, and new ideas. It seems out of character for our community to require hypocrisy and knowingly-not-knowing about any important issue.

Now, I am no longer a follower of any Bible-based religion. I was brought up “spiritual but not religious” yet with a clear cultural identity as a descendant of Jewish heritage. This included pride in our people’s intellectual and creative achievements, and vigilance about our minority status in America. My mothers were born in the 1940s. My maternal grandmother’s family (on my bio mother’s side) were first-generation immigrants from Poland who got out just in time. I grew up reading Holocaust stories and hearing about how President Roosevelt turned away a boat of Jewish refugees during World War II. My mother got me a passport as an infant “in case we have to flee to Israel”. The resurgence of neo-Nazism during the Trump administration would seem to bear out her fears.

I don’t remember why I started questioning the stories I’d been told about Israel-Palestine. It might have started with Palestinian-American writer Lisa Suhair Majaj’s essay “Journeys to Jerusalem”, which won our Winning Writers essay contest in 2016. It could have been something I read in the Interlink Publishing newsletter, a Northampton-based literary press run by Palestinian Michel Moushabeck. This year I ended up on the email list for the left-wing magazine Jewish Currents when I ordered their Bernie Sanders inauguration meme mug. I found a wealth of Jewish journalists and historians who made a compelling case for transforming Israel into a secular democracy where all religious and ethnic groups are equal. See the web version of their newsletter issue “Contextualizing the Crisis in Israel/Palestine” for a crash course in the history, and their page “A Guide to the Current Crisis” for background on the events of this past month.

That last sentence sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Isn’t that the American ideal?

Part of my problem is that I simply wasn’t aware what a “Jewish state” meant in practice. I was taught it meant: the one place that Jews could be secure, where we’d never be a persecuted minority. But a state designated as “for” one ethnic or religious group is likely to become a state that disadvantages every other group. The more I learned about the treatment of Palestinians as second-class citizens, the worse it seemed. I finally understood why the Black Lives Matter policy platform includes a pro-Palestine statement. The story I’d been told about the founding of Israel–a/k/a the Nakba, the great catastrophe that killed or displaced 700,000 Palestinians–sounded suspiciously like classic arguments for Europeans stealing land from Native Americans: we improved it, it was a desert, they were doing nothing with it until we came.

Thus I found myself last week holding a sign that said “Stop U.S. Aid to Apartheid Israel” or something like that. I felt queasy and shaky, standing outside my Congressman’s office in Northampton with some 50 other people, while passing cars honked appreciatively and an old fellow weaved across traffic yelling “Fuck Netanyahu!”

I am still wary about the rhetoric we use in support of Palestine, given that anti-Semitism remains a threat. It is tricky to avoid “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” territory when there is actually a powerful Jewish lobby and an international money machine that props up the Israeli government with U.S. cash and weapons. American evangelicals bear significant responsibility, too, for making U.S. foreign policy hawkish on Israel for apocalyptic reasons of their own. They’re happy to let Jews take the heat for Zionism, while they’re planning for our mass conversion or damnation.

I’m not telling this story for ally cookies. My point is that decolonization has a lot of stages and dimensions, and has to proceed by offering alternate solutions for the fears that drive ethnic supremacy. I’m less invested in whiteness than I am in Zionism because the latter speaks to my political vulnerability. I don’t need whiteness as much as some people, because I have money and education. I do need protection for the Jews. What’s changed is that I am facing the cost of Zionism and it seems too high–for all of us. The better answer is the same in Israel as in the diaspora: a multiethnic democracy with human rights for everyone.

Here Comes Mommy-Man

Several of my trans male and nonbinary acquaintances were mothers before they transitioned, and are now exploring alternative ways for their children to address them. I’ve started to introduce myself to new people as “Shane’s parent” but I haven’t asked him to call me anything different. On his own, my creative boy decided to call me “Mommy-Man”, or sometimes “Mommy-Sir”. He usually saves these titles for when he especially wants to please me (“Mommy-Sir, can I play Minecraft?”).

At 9 years old, puberty is on the horizon, Cthulhu help us all. My son seems to love his masculinity, and is playing around with flirty phrases he learns from YouTube (“Hey baybeee”). The Oedipus Complex is real. I feel like he needs and appreciates both my new dad-like qualities, playing ball in the backyard and admiring how thoroughly he can coat himself with mud at Wilderness Survival Camp, and my mom-like nurturing with food and snuggles.

As an adoptive parent who overcame institutional prejudices and personal sabotage (from my bio mom!) to have a baby, I feel attached to my hard-won title of “Mom” despite its misgendering connotations. Because I didn’t give birth to him, on some level I still worry about disrupting his attachment to me, undermining my legitimacy as his parent, if I give up my behavioral claim to motherhood.

I’m also a diva, honestly–I don’t want to share Father’s Day with Adam, I want my own day!

My gay friend and artistic mentor John Ollom, a choreographer in NYC, calls himself “Mother” and his artists’ community “The Haus of Ollom”, in the tradition of the Harlem ballroom houses depicted in the TV show “Pose”–a family-of-choice for queer refugees from bigoted homes, headed by a fiercely protective and nurturing elder. That is the kind of motherhood I can emulate as a trans mommy-man.

The gospel of Elektra Abundance. Transgender actress Dominique Jackson… | by Jonathan Poletti |  | Medium

Mother Elektra Abundance is not taking any sass from you.

May Links Roundup: Rock Polishing

I promise, I was not Googling “sexy stalactites”. I was innocently browsing Twitter the other day when @sbearbergman decided we all needed to be cheered up by “Do Not Fuck This Rock” discourse. Tumblr user Astolat’s picture of what seems to be a naturally occurring malachite dildo prompted a scientific thread about why the pH and temperature of the human vagina can dissolve rocks. Then it swerves into a useful and timely political example:

The good news? Biochemically speaking, you’re probably ok to put it in your butt. It’s not as acidic or salty in there, plus there’s a huuuuuge stockpile of gut microbes right upstream that can quickly repopulate the colon after spelunking is complete. However this stalactite is not flared at the base so it is the wrong shape for putting in your butt. Do not put this stalactite in your butt.

This all looks like fun and games, but I think it’s really interesting that the internet’s mistake in concluding that this stalactite is fuckable is very similar to the mistake made by the Flint water management system. Hear me out.

Central to the Flint lead poisoning crisis is that authorities only looked at & tested Flint’s water in its central treatment plant before it went out through the pipes. Not after it went through the pipes. They did not consider what would happen biochemically as it went through the pipes and metals started dissolving.

Similarly, in concluding that the stalactite is fuckable, the internet only considered the stalactite itself. Not the biochemical processes that would happen to it as it, welp, went through the pipes.

Media frequently reports that the Flint River’s water is “corrosive,” leading many to believe the river is full of industrial waste. This ain’t the case. You’d need industry to fill a river with industrial waste, and industry left decades ago. That’s why Flint’s so poor. So what IS in the water? Road salt. Plain old stupid road salt. The old Detroit-based source didn’t have salt because it came from Lake Huron which has a large, mostly rural watershed. Meanwhile the Flint River runs through a lot of towns, making it slightly salty as everything melts down in spring. And as we recall from the stalactite experience, a little salt is all it takes to get metals to dissolve…

Morals of the story: when dealing with a biological system pls consider asking a biologist, your vagina and/or city could depend on this.

If you’re not already in awe of pussy power, check out Vice’s list of “Vagina Dentata Myths from Around the World”. For example, a Russian folktale tells of:

…a beautiful young woman who is married off to a gross, old man. In order to avoid having sex with the guy, the young bride puts a fish head in her vagina so its teeth will cut him every time he tries. The husband is traumatized, she “calls him a fool for not knowing that young girls’ vaginas usually have teeth,” and she lives the rest of her life without having sex with him.

The blog When You Work at A Museum… recounted an incident in 2016 where a “Christian school” teacher asked for her high school students’ tour to avoid any artwork with sex, violence, or “pieces that glory in immorality”. As the blogger noted, that leaves out the vast majority of museum holdings:

Obviously anything with nudity is out. That shuts down much of the sculpture wing and the NeoClassical, Rococo, and Mannerist collection, which ironically includes many of the Christian paintings.

Could we show them the armor or weaponry collection? Probably not, since links directly to graphic violence.

What about a mural depicting slavery? That’s unquestionably immoral.

A follow-up post featured the satirical “Universal Never-Nude Art Museum Tour Map”.

Last night I attended an enjoyable online reading by Callum Angus from his new story collection A Natural History of Transition. He read a magical-realist piece titled “Rock Jenny” about a young woman who transitions from boy, to girl, to mountain, and beyond. It made me feel momentarily liberated from the pressure to choose a binary gender expression that would be legible to the mainstream. London-based DJ and performance artist Dahc Dermur VIII expresses a similar attitude in his “Extreme Beauty Routine” video for Vogue Magazine, demonstrating how he creates his over-the-top Goth couture looks. In his vestment-inspired, operatic gowns, Dahc has reclaimed the flamboyant majesty of the Christianity that once oppressed him.

At Jewish Currents, Jules Gill-Peterson, author of Histories of the Transgender Child, contends that “The Anti-Trans Lobby’s Real Agenda” is to redefine citizenship in cis-het white Christian terms.

Since at least the antebellum period, as historians have detailed, the racial innocence invested in the figure of the white child has served as an anchor of proper American political feeling. Statecraft and governance often invoke the hypothetical child’s welfare and protection as a justification for dismissing real people’s political demands. The politics of “protecting” the innocent white child have rationalized the disposability of entire populations, like immigrants, the descendants of enslaved people, criminals, people with disabilities, and so-called deviants. Today we are witnessing trans children’s addition to this list.

Meanwhile, in Current Affairs, journalist Noah Berlatsky (whose teenage daughter recently came out as trans) wonders “Why the Panic Over Trans Kids?” He debunks pseudo-scientific studies about “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” and “trans trenders” as the skewed perspectives of parents who can’t accept that their children have independent private lives. Moreover, even if peer influence and the greater visibility of trans discourse online helped some kids latch onto this identity, why is that a problem? “If we had a study showing that kids are more likely to want to be poets if they’re friends with other kids who consider themselves poets, that wouldn’t make love of poetry a dangerous plague. Even if our gender identities are affected by those around us, or the media we take in, unless you are transphobic—i.e. you think it’s bad to be trans—then [so what]?”

They might even become trans poets!

April Bonus Links: A Rainbow of Eyes

More and gayer links that didn’t fit in the last post!

Janelle Shane’s adventures in AI learning are always good for a laugh. She trains neural networks to generate plausible new members of a data set, such as paint colors or rock band names. If you thought real pick-up lines were pretty terrible, computers are even more clueless. “Your eyes are like two rainbows and a rainbow of eyes” shows a shaky grasp of human anatomy, and I’m not even sure what this kink is about: “Will you sit on my breadbox while I cook or is there some kind of speed limit on that thing?” Although I would definitely swipe right on “You’re looking good today. Want snacks?”

When I was a romantic young girl, I dreamed of the day when I would wear a Jessica McClintock wedding dress. Though the word “calico” now gives me flashbacks, I had a sweet pang of nostalgia when I read the designer’s obit in the New York Times daily briefing email. “Jessica McClintock dressed generations of women in calico, lace and beribboned pastiches known as granny dresses. Her clients included Vanna White and a 27-year-old Hillary Rodham for her 1975 wedding to Bill Clinton. McClintock died at 90.”

Last month I attended an online book launch for the new edition of lesbian photographer Joan E. Biren’s (JEB) Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, a groundbreaking work of photojournalism from 1979. Local archivist Debbie Richards posted many historical background links in the chat, including this 2015 profile of JEB in the photography magazine Aperture, “Sophie Hackett on Queer Looking”. At the book launch, I was struck by JEB’s reworking of the language around the photographer-subject relationship. Rather than the dominant phrasing of “shoot” or “capture”, she envisioned an equilateral triangle of relations among the photographer, her muse, and the viewer. The Aperture article discusses this paradigm shift, as well as JEB’s way of reading archival photos for queer subtext.

A lot of us picked up interesting hobbies during the pandemic. Music journalist Moritz Weber decided to re-translate Romantic composer Frédéric Chopin’s letters, and concluded that the Polish hero had been straightwashed, according to this article in the Irish Times:

Frédéric Chopin’s archivists and biographers have for centuries turned a deliberate blind eye to the composer’s homoerotic letters in order to make the Polish national icon conform to conservative norms, it has been alleged.

Chopin’s Men, a two-hour radio programme that aired on Swiss public broadcaster SRF’s arts channel, argues that the composer’s letters have been at times deliberately mistranslated, rumours of affairs with women exaggerated, and hints at an apparent interest in “cottaging”, or looking for sexual partners in public toilets, simply ignored…

…In an 1829 letter to Tytus Woyciechowski cited on the programme, Chopin refers to “my ideal, whom I faithfully serve, […] about whom I dream”, and who inspired an adagio in his recent concerto. Weber argues that the context of the letter makes it clear that this “ideal” is the letter’s addressee himself.

Yet a translation of Chopin’s letters published in 2016 by Warsaw’s Fryderyk Chopin Institute assigns the “ideal” in the letter a feminine pronoun (“not having spoken to her for half a year now”) even though the Polish noun is masculine.

Them Magazine’s photo feature by Amanda Chemeche on “8 Drag Kings You Need to Know” made me want to whip out my eyeliner pencil and draw a mustache on myself.

Pokémon’s hapless but endearing villains, Jessie and James of Team Rocket, are queer icons for their flamboyant hair and dramatic voices. But did you know that their Bronx-accented feline sidekick, Meowth, was voiced by trans actress Maddie Blaustein? David Levesley tells “The Inspiring Story of the Trans Actress Behind Your Favorite Pokémon” in Them Magazine.

In a eulogy written after Blaustein’s death in 2008, Aaron McQuade, a friend of Maddie’s, claimed that her decision to transition and come out to her co-workers was inspired by an episode of Pokémon. In “Go West, Young Meowth,” we learn the story of how Meowth learned to speak like a human: He fell in love with another Meowth, and decided to learn English and to stand upright to impress her. It failed horribly, and the female Meowth called him a freak. “Meowth,” explained McQuade, “was a human trapped in a Pokémon’s body.”

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James, is that a Jessica McClintock gown?