More trumpery, and questions of “meaning”

found poem mind map

I didn’t intend to do another “found” poem from a Trump speech, but the following passage, sent by my friend Sallie Reynolds, was irresistible. It’s one single sentence.

You choose: read it first, or read the two poems below it first: by me and Winkie Ma, a high-school senior whom I mentor in a writing program. Found poetry was one of our assignments. I brought the passage to a mentoring session and each of us tackled it.

Here goes, hold on to your rational mind:  Read more

The Trojan Purse and the subversive woman

trojan-purseThis ten-foot high wooden purse on wheels was part of a week-long art festival in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Happily for me the artist, Ethan Crenson, was on hand the day I came upon it, conducting dialogues with curious passersby.

Why a “Trojan” purse? Was it filled with some kind of subversive material? No, Crenson told me. It was empty. The idea was that everyone could project their own feelings or ideas into it—anger at capitalism, the political system, whatever. I didn’t ask him why he’d chosen to make it a purse—probably because my own imagination immediately supplied a rationale.

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Self-sacrificing women: free tipsheet for you

An issue that hasn’t gone away

Breaking women's culture of self-sacrificeHow many men would eat food they don’t like because their wife likes it? Or wear clothes they don’t like because she wants them to look a certain way? Women do these things all the time. I did them with my former husband.

In my book Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice, which uses Andersen’s Little Mermaid as an image of the ultimate self-sacrificing woman, I investigated why so many women feel obliged to put other people’s needs first—even when they don’t want to. I discovered that the self-sacrificing impulse comes from women’s history, not their nature.

Recently a therapist contacted me to say that excessive self-sacrifice was a big problem for her clients, and I decided to revisit this subject. I did more research and reporting, and the result is a brief new ebook, Mermaid No More: Breaking Women’s Culture of Sacrifice,  available for preorder at 99¢ at all ebook retailers (see sidebar) and in all formats.

Mermaid No more offers pragmatic, specific strategies for figuring out whether you too are a “modern mermaid” and for overcoming your own personal pull toward unhealthy self-sacrifice.

In the meantime, you can preview it by downloading my free tipsheet (see sidebar). Most women are prone to unconscious, involuntary, self-defeating self-sacrifice, due to our training in what I call the “culture of sacrifice.” See if you recognize yourself in any of the indicators.

And you can leave your own thoughts about self-sacrifice on the Mermaid No More web page.

Coney Island: playground of the unconscious

Alas, this one lost its tail.

Alas, this one lost its tail.

I only visited Coney Island once as a child; I lived on Long Island, and Brooklyn was far away. But in my memory it’s magical: the huge carousel horses with waving manes and real tails (a horse-crazy kid could pretend her mount was alive); the polished wooden slides, so tall I was afraid to go down them; the Steeplechase ride, whose mechanical horses coursed along a long outdoors track (I longed to go but was too timid); the Tilt-a-Whirl, which made me sick.

By the time I returned as an adult, the Steeplechase had been torn down, the streets were shabby and seedy, the remaining rides nothing special (and I got sick on the Wonder Wheel, even in a fixed cabin). The magic was gone.

So I went to the Brooklyn Museum exhibit “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008” looking to find it again. Old photos made me wish my kid self had had more guts. The horses with real tails were there, but they looked small to me now. Mostly I found a Coney I never saw as a child: a site of the transgressive. The exhibit was a blowout of libido, grotesque freaks of nature, and fearful images bursting from the collective unconscious.   Read more

These shoes will kill you

Some years ago I was walking down a city street with a male friend. We passed a shoe store, and my head swiveled involuntarily to check out the contents of the window.

“What is it with women and shoes?” he exclaimed. “Why are you so fascinated by them?”

Good question. It came up again when I saw an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum aptly titled “Killer Heels,” which made it evident that the answer is: power and sex.

Chopine from Renaissance Italy. They could go as high as 20 inches.

Chopine from Renaissance Italy. They could go as high as 20 inches.

It turns out that people have been making and wearing tall shoes for thousands of years, and centuries’ worth were on display—from ancient Chinese and early Renaissance platforms to the so-called Fetish Ballerine of 2007 by Christian Louboutin, whose 8-inch heel put the wearer’s feet in toe-shoe position (“only made for lying on your back,” says the designer, although a photo showed a woman apparently walking in them). And the themes hadn’t changed at all.

In the past, high-platform shoes denoted wealth and high status. And in a contemporary video at the exhibit, the camera looked up at the stern, contemptuous faces of women stomping their pastel-hued stiletto soles down toward it, as female voices insisted that heels made them feel more powerful and commanding—not to say potent.

Fetish ballerines

Fetish ballerines

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But much of the significance of tall shoes isn’t generated by women—it’s projected onto them. Another video showed scenes of sadomasochism: two long fishnet-sheathed legs using their pointy-toed black stilettos to demolish—in the most deliberate, pitiless way—a bright red toy car. Once it was in pieces the scene switched to another pair of legs wearing two different black dominatrix heels—one bristling with spikes—walking across the naked chest of a gorgeous blindfolded young man lying supine. (Although the body they belonged to was presumably suspended by some sort of harness, since the heels didn’t sink into his flesh.) Fetish indeed—complete woman not needed.

Certainly the entire exhibit was drenched in sex, from the curves of heels, calves, and arches, punctuated by strategically located straps, to the suggestive vulnerability of women teetering on heels so high they could barely move. In an old film, fifties pinup star Bettie Page slowly pulls on her stockings, rolls up her garters, then holds each 5-inch heel up to the camera like a priest elevating the host, before ceremoniously sliding it onto a foot. The climax: she stands and totters a few steps.

Portrait shoe, Vivienne Westwood

Portrait shoe, 1990, by Vivienne Westwood: “Shoes must have very high heels and platforms to put women’s beauty on a pedestal.”

While the exhibit was heavily dedicated to celebrating current designers (it was sponsored by Nordstrom and W magazine), the museum conscientiously covered the downside as well. Another video (so excruciating I couldn’t watch it all) consisted of closeups of bruised flesh being squeezed into pumps that cut into it painfully, accompanied by loud gasps and moans on the soundtrack. I stopped wearing heels years ago—I couldn’t handle the pain. But 43% of women surveyed recently by ABC News kept wearing heels even though their feet hurt all the time—because, as one put it, “They make me feel great!” (That is, sexy.) Another: “They lift everything up! Well, not everything.” Very true. Last year I got a pair of ankle boots with soft flexible soles and a tiny one-inch heel, and I love them—they make me feel great.

I’ve learned that not all males are immune to shoe obsession, like my friend. Winkie Ma, my teenage writing mentee, reports that young guys are obsessed by sneakers. They covet the latest style, the brands that sports stars wear, and they take care to prevent any speck of dirt from landing on them. She pointed me to YouTube videos of “sneakerhead” culture, where a “limited edition” pair can go for $1000 or more.

Still, I have a feeling the motivation isn’t quite the same. And besides, you can even run in sneakers.

Moon over decentralized system

moon doctoredI’m posting this photo mainly because I like it. Visually it’s one of my better efforts, but I also see in it a certain irony: above the sweet full moon caught in the branches is a sparkly light that belongs to a police helicopter surveilling the demonstration at Foley Square in Manhattan the other night, protesting a grand jury’s failure to indict the policeman who killed Eric Garner.

Four thousand people (according to one report) showed up in the square (thousands more elsewhere in the city). Overall the action was peaceful; no die-ins blocking traffic that I could see. Lots of chanting about racist police murderers, but to me it didn’t seem nearly as provocative as “off the pigs” was back in the day.

Best sign I saw:

The system isn’t broken—it’s fixed.

Really interesting: This was a demo without a head: no speakers, no focal point. Instead separate groups across the park chanted and performed a kind of street theatre (like the marchers bearing coffins inscribed with the names of people killed by police—there were quite a few coffins). It worked; nobody got in anyone else’s way.

Apparently this decentralized structure—totally unlike last September’s climate march—was a direct result of grassroots organizing via social media. According to Mashable, “Some organizers believe that social media has given a new scale to the protests” (especially Twitter; scroll down for the hashtag map). I learned of it by email, but as I stood in the square I began to regret that I hadn’t yet put Twitter on my phone, so I couldn’t find out what was going on even on the other side of the park, where I couldn’t see. I had to ask the woman next to me, who didn’t know either. So last century.

The Times noted that the protests were “organized in one way” but also “unpredictable.” As one protester explained, though the gathering location was chosen, the rest “happens organically.” This fluidity is new. And I realized that I liked the absence of the usual long parade of speakers, carefully divvied up among the groups sponsoring the event. It’s a new form of protest, like Occupy, so we’ll see whether this new practice produces a more organic result.

In any case it was heartening to see such numbers, and such a wide range of ages, races, genders, and backgrounds—and especially so many young people.

crowd doctored

A happy, peaceful demo

Coming to this late, but I’ve been ruminating.

The People’s Climate March was perhaps the most enjoyable demo I’ve ever been on. Maybe partly because I marched with my Buddhist group, and our staging area was on a block of West 58th St with many different faith groups, including a variety of other Buddhists. That was a new flavor for me—in the past I marched with political groups.

At the back of the block where we were, during a looong wait before we got to start walking, people were friendly, even joyful. The crowd was so dense toward the other end, where there were speakers, that we never got close enough to hear what they were saying. I walked around where I could and checked out who was there. Here are some of them (click any image for a full-res view):

A woman from the Earth Initiative of the Zen Mountain Monastery told me her group was studying the beliefs of “the other side,” in order to avoid “liberal self-righteousness.” I loved that motive. Someone should do the same for leftist self-righteousness. Any self-righteousness is like a pair of blinders. We want to apply our spiritual values to how we treat the planet, but what about our attitude toward those who don’t agree with us? I remember a friend saying she loved going on demonstrations because you could yell at people at the top of your voice. Of course anger (of which self-righteousness is one form) may initially motivate us, but is it a good way to get people to change?

A few more:

hawaiian leaves

These words are Hawaiian for “care for the earth.” These young women carried the leaves for a friend who couldn’t be there. They themselves were marching with the Episcopalians.

black institute

Walking down Sixth Avenue

 Franciscan friar

Franciscan friar

At last we got moving and merged into the larger demo which included many young people shouting the standard slogans: “Hey hey hey, ho ho ho, climate change has got to go!” “What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!!!!”

But they weren’t angry and confrontational in the way I recall from demos dating back to Vietnam. The widely hailed “people power” of this march felt different from “Power to the people!”

The police too were different, especially in how they deployed barricades. I don’t know whether to credit Mayor de Blasio’s new policies or the nature of the march itself, but there was not that sense of being corralled and threatened that I felt at the antiwar demos of the past decade.

Meditators in Central Park. Sign reads "Earth Vigil"

Meditators in Central Park along the march route. Sign reads “Earth Vigil”

Two ironies:

On the subway going home I sat opposite two women who had a shopping cart loaded with copies of the newspaper of a far-left political party. Open-heartedness evaporated, self-righteousness surfaced: my first thought was “Hah! Glad they couldn’t get rid of all those papers.” I avoided eye contact so as not to have a paper shoved at me and be proselytized. But as I got up at my stop they called out to me. I pretended not to hear but they persisted so I finally looked at them.

“What brand are your shoes?” one called out.

“Keens,” I said.

“Oh, we thought so,” she exclaimed, and pointed to her friend’s feet, sporting Keens in a different style. There would have been some shoe discussion, but I had to get off before the doors closed. So, a lesson in finding commonality even with hard-line Communists.

Then I came home and learned that a friend in California was standing by ready to be evacuated because the roaring King fire was blasting its way toward her house through a forest dry as tinder due to the long drought there. A nervous few days, until the wind cooperated and the thousands of firefighters controlled the blaze. I marched, but she suffered.


When did the universe begin—or did it? And what are we doing in our little piece of it? And …

Click image for larger photo and more info

Two galaxies colliding.
Credit: Debra Meloy Elmegreen (Vassar College), et al., & the Hubble Heritage Team (Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA)

Theoretical physics doesn’t come easily to me, but Sean Carroll manages to put more of it across than I’d have thought possible for someone whose math education stopped at intermediate algebra. His book From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time asks the question: Why does time only move in one direction?

The answer, says Carroll, is connected to the phenomenon of entropy, which also goes only one way: it increases. Exploring this connection leads him through some of the deepest questions scientists ponder: relativity, spacetime, quantum physics, the nature of the universe, and, ultimately, the meaning of human life. Why are we here? Is it by design of someone or something? Carroll rejects the argument from design. He sees us “not as a central player in the life of the cosmos, but as a tiny epiphenomenon.” Meaning and purpose don’t arise from any “laws of nature” created by a divinity; they’re for us to determine. And he takes pride in the scientific struggle to understand those laws.

But I have another question: should we even be asking?

It turns out that these same grand questions were hot philosophical topics during the Buddha’s time. Many people wanted him to answer them, but he refused. There is a list of 10 of these “unanswerable” questions (14 in some traditions), including:

  • Is the universe eternal or not?
  • Is it finite or infinite?
  • Are the soul and body the same thing or different?
  • Does an enlightened person still exist after death?

And so on. The Buddha explained that trying to answer these questions doesn’t help end suffering but actually increases it, and furthermore doesn’t lead to awakening, or enlightenment. The questions are only a distraction.

Nor is he the only sage to take this position. A very highly realized teacher I was fortunate to see several times—said to be enlightened himself—was asked, “When did the universe begin?” He responded, “The question is meaningless: there is no time and space.” When someone else wanted to know, “What is the meaning of life?” he said, “You can’t ever know the answer to that, so why think about it?”

Click image for more info from HubbleSite

Never before seen galaxies that existed shortly after the Big Bang, billions of years distant, photographed by the Hubble telescope. Credit: NASA, European Space Agency, S. Beckwith (STScI), and the HUDF Team. Click image for more info from HubbleSite.

So why did I want to read the Carroll book? Because I would like to know the nature of the universe, especially since that might shed light on the nature of the self, another of those unanswerable questions that interests me even more.

I’ve struggled a bit with this desire to know, and concluded that my interest isn’t just metaphysical; it’s practical. That is, I don’t want simply to define the self in absolute terms, but still more to understand how the ways we conceptualize it affect us, as individuals and as a society. We may aspire to the realm of the absolute, but we also lead everyday, relative lives, and on this plane how we define our self is important, because it determines how we live, and our impact on everyone around us.

No doubt knowing the answers to the unanswerable questions would enable us to construct an absolute definition of ourselves. But since we can’t, best to admit that all the definitions we have made are relative. So perhaps the best answer to the questions in the title of this post is: Who knows?