Auntie Fatcat's

Sit down, have a cookie, and chat for a spell.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Stuff We Don't Talk About: Sex

Of all the things we're not supposed to discuss in polite company, sex has got to be number one. And yet, we talk about sex all the time. You can't watch TV, walk into a bookstore, or even drive down the street without getting smacked in the face with somebody's attempt to titillate you into buying something. We eat up "news" articles about who's having sex with whom or how to get more and better sex. And the public arena is dominated by two loud voices: one trying to control everyone else's sex life and the other demanding approval of whatever they choose to do with their genitals.

Enough, already.

Sex will always be one of those shiny objects people just have to look at when they see it, and people trying to sell things (including news) will always put their shiniest objects forward. That I can't change. But I do have a modest proposal for limiting the constant need to discuss sex as a policy issue.

First, for the "I demand approval!" people:

Please recognize that insofar as your sexual actions affect the public at large, society as a whole does have some right to set limits on what is socially acceptable. That means if you want acceptance, you have to kindly minimize negative impacts on other people.

For example, the public has a right to protect itself from sexual abuse. So you should get meaningful consent from anyone and everyone you want to engage in sex acts with. Meaningful means everyone giving consent must do so of their own free will, without coercion or bullying. It also means they must be capable of understanding what is being asked, including the ramifications of their choice. (That means no animals, children, intoxicated or comatose people, or people with mental problems that prevent them from thinking clearly, among others.) Consent means informed consent to all significant aspects of the acts you wish to perform with them. Obtaining consent via lies of commission ("I'm on the pill"), omission (not mentioning you have an STD), or deliberate vagueness about your intentions is not okay. And even if you get consent, it should be understood that this consent may be revoked at any time by any party who becomes uncomfortable with it. (Okay, revoking it afterwards is too late, but if anybody says "Stop!" you have to stop.)

The public also has a right to protect itself from inadvertently witnessing your sex acts. Sure, people who deliberately go to sex clubs, peek in windows, read sexually oriented email lists, or watch X-rated movies can't complain if they see or hear something naughty. But regular folks going about their everyday business should reasonably expect not to suddenly find themselves confronted with you and your co-worker groping each other in the copy room. And all those people on the bus with you don't need to hear you yakking loudly on your cell phone about all the explicit details of the great sex you had last night.

Finally, the public has a right to protect itself from the biological consequences of your sexual choices. That means if anybody has or could have an STD, use protection. And if the sex you're having could result in conception, please be sure all parties involved want and are prepared to have a child before you decide you don't need birth control. If you are sorry afterwards that you didn't do these things, please have the guts not to blame other people for your choices.

Anything you want to do within the above guidelines should be socially acceptable, if not universally appealing. (Yes, this includes some stuff I personally find icky. But I don't have to participate in it or witness it, so I'm willing to deal.) Be happy with that. Don't try to argue that society has a moral obligation to let you "act naturally" with no strings attached, or claim that anybody who isn't interested in doing what you're doing, watching you do it, and/or throwing you a party afterwards to celebrate must be unnaturally repressed. That kind of stuff gives sexual freedom a bad name and sends folks over to the other side.

Now for the "You can't do that!" people:

Please recognize that while other people's sex acts may offend you, violate your religious morals, or gross you out, they're not actually your business unless they affect you or the public clearly and directly. (And no, "contributing to the general moral decline of society" doesn't count, especially if your proof that it does is that James Dobson said so.) If everybody around you is properly keeping their fun and its consequences to themselves and their consenting associates, you should be able to live an active, virtuous life without taking part in or witnessing any sexual acts that bother you. Be happy with that. Don't try to argue that society has a moral obligation to impose your every sexual rule on the world, or that people who disagree with your rules are unnaturally perverted and generally evil. That kind of stuff gives sexual morality a bad name and sends folks over to the other side.

Now that that's settled, can we please talk about something else?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Shakti is a Good Girl

Most people who have spent more than five minutes with me know that Rick and I have two sixteen-year-old cats, Morgana and Shakti. With children, the rules of parenting state that you're not supposed to admit to having a favorite, but since the cats aren't likely to read this, I can tell you that I have always loved Morgana just a wee bit more.

Most cat-tolerant visitors agree that Morgana is easy to love. She's adorable to look at: dainty build, delicate face, fluffy ruff and tail, black-and-auburn tortie markings, and tiny black paws. She's generally well behaved: always uses the litter box, grooms herself nigh-obsessively, won't scratch or bite unprovoked. But mostly people love her because she's a people cat. She welcomes adult human company, likes to keep tabs on what everyone's doing, and often charms guests into letting her do things she's not supposed to. Though she's not as fond of children because they're noisy, she tolerates a great deal from them and has even been known to voluntarily sit on my delighted three-year-old nephew's lap. She "talks" frequently with a wide vocabulary of songlike miaows that cajole, admonish, praise, announce, and exult quite clearly. And the lavishness with which she bestows affection on her chosen ones certainly gratifies the ego.

Shakti, on the other hand, is an acquired taste. The gray tabby fur on her back sticks up in little tufts and bunches because she's too fat to reach anything but her chest and stomach when she decides to clean herself--and she pitches a hissy fit every single morning when I try to brush her. Somewhere along the line she decided that the appropriate potty material is carpet, so we live in a house with all hardwood and tile floors and blanket the litter box area with a set of special "pee rugs" that have to be laundered every couple of days. Her voice sounds like she's had a pack-a-day cigarette habit for forty years. And when it comes down to it, the only people she's really nice to are Rick and my brother, who fed her chicken mole exactly once during a visit five years ago and somehow won a permanent spot in her cranky little heart. When she's in a good mood or wants attention, she's willing to settle for me (the source of food) or Auntie Linda (who feeds her when we're away). But she prefers to avoid pretty much everyone else, and those who attempt to force themselves on her usually come away in need of Bactine and possibly stitches.

In short, if Morgana were a person, she'd be a society matron wearing a vintage Chanel suit and red lipstick to host a charity luncheon. Shakti would be a tough old broad wearing stretch pants and a food-stained blouse to yell at the neighbor kids to get out of her yard.

Morgana is easy to love because she embodies all the things society tells us make a woman lovable: beauty, proper behavior, friendliness, expressiveness, and sweetness. Shakti takes more patience because she acts more like a real person--like me. I'm fat too, and my hair tends to stick up no matter how much I fuss with it. I don't pee on the rug, but my frequent need to find a bathroom combined with my pickiness about bathroom quality can be socially awkward. I get cranky often enough, particularly around people I don't like. And the list of people I like is not all that long.

Morgana is still my favorite--I can't help it--but I'm now aware that the difference in my affections doesn't reflect how I feel about Shakti so much as it reflects how I feel about myself. Now that I'm paying attention, I can see that Shakti also shares many of my good qualities: intelligence, persistence, perceptiveness, and the ability to devise creative entertainments for herself, among others. So every morning when I sit up and Shakti jumps on the bed to demand attention, I make sure to pet her in the special rough way she likes so she knows I think she's a good girl too. And I keep on petting her until I love myself for real.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Good Folks: My Beloved

I first met Rick in high school when I was a sophomore, he was a junior, and we were both on the Knowledge Bowl team. Remember that previous blog entry where I said intelligence turns me on? Rick blew me away with his deliciously plump brain chock full of information on every subject Knowledge Bowl covered: math, sciences, history, arts, languages, civics. And he didn't just know a lot of random stuff; he could also apply and express his knowledge. I vividly recall walking into a classroom and seeing him sitting cross-legged on a desk surrounded by four or five other "smart kids" all arguing against him. They kept haranguing and baiting him, but he stayed calm and talked more sense than the rest put together. The only thing that stopped me from falling for him then and there was that I had just started a brand-spanking-new relationship with somebody else.

A year later the bloom was off that particular rose, and I ran into Rick increasingly often as our twin geek circles of science club and Dungeons & Dragons group intersected. I took a chance and flirted with him; he liked it, we wrote poetry at each other for a couple of weeks, I dumped the other guy, and we've been together ever since. That makes 21 years, 3 months, and 28 days so far.

When you find the love of your life at 16, you grow up together. Your beliefs, quirks, and habits haven't crystallized yet, so you have the unique opportunity to rub off all the prickly spots and shape each other so you fit together perfectly. With the wrong person this could work out very badly, but half the reason I adore Rick is that the little nudges he gives me have always made me stronger, braver, wiser, deeper, and happier. With him I fret less, play more, and appreciate life. And the shaping process has worked so well that we are sometimes scarily in sync. You know those significant looks couples give each other to say things like "Let's get out of here"? On a good day, he can tell I'm saying, "Let's get out of here, pick up Indian food, stop by Scarecrow Video, and spend the evening watching an Oscar-nominated drama with British actors, preferably including Kate Winslet." He knows this because that's exactly what he wants to do too.

I love my love for these big things, but also for a host of little reasons. Rick appreciates quality; I can trust him to discern not only the difference between a good thing and a bad thing, but also the difference between something good and something excellent. When he makes a mistake it's usually because he didn't do what he meant to, rather than because he chose badly. He makes an effort to like everyone and everything I like, and on the rare occasions when he fails he makes it hard to tell. He's charming, compassionate, enthusiastic, nuanced, and just the sort of guy you want around if your basement is flooding or the conversation has turned awkward. If I ask him to, he'll willingly go upstairs and make me a sandwich just the way I like it, even if he knows the only reason I asked was because I didn't feel like doing it myself.

Oh, and lest I forget to mention it, Rick is also very easy on the eyes. Not "my wife thinks I'm cute" cute, but "cuter than baby animals" cute. And I can prove it. One time we went to a baby animal petting zoo and this strange woman walked up, asked if she could pet him, and started stroking his hair without waiting for an answer. Next thing we knew, there were several of them and they were forming a line. (I'm not making this up.) Baby chicks, ducks, goats, lambs, and even bunnies all around us waited for pets, but nearly every adult woman in the place lined up to put her hands on him instead. I rest my case.

Like any couple Rick and I have our ups and downs, and just as he is uniquely able to delight me, he is also uniquely able to drive me nuts. But on the whole I count myself very, very blessed that all the well-meaning people who told us "Young love never lasts" turned out to be wrong.

So happy Valentine's Day, querido. I still love you best.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Stuff We Don't Talk About: Religion

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
--Stephen Roberts

Do you believe in God?

The people who ask this question expect one of three answers: yes (theist), no (atheist), or I don't know (agnostic). As a kid, I was brought up to say yes; I recited the Apostles' Creed so many times I can still remember it word for word. In college, I was exposed to a variety of alternative beliefs and couldn't think of any good reason to believe they were less truthful than my own. So I briefly tried them all out: first simultaneously, then a Frankenstein's monster bits-and-pieces approach. Eventually I figured out that shopping for the most appealing religious beliefs wasn't a good method for arriving at truth, so I gave up and said I didn't know. Then I read somewhere--Marx, I think--that agnostics are just atheists who lack the courage of their convictions. While I doubt that's true for all agnostics, I decided it was for me. So my short answer is now no.

But my real answer is another question: Does it matter?

Most of the people I hear arguing for the necessity of belief in God claim that their primary reason is to save folks from going to hell. Now, as Presbyterian Sunday school taught it to me, lack of faith in a guy who refuses on principle to definitively demonstrate his own existence is enough to get me on God's bad-girl-go-to-hell list. And faith is a matter of belief, not of action; I must believe genuinely, on both intellectual and emotional levels. Merely professing to believe or acting as if it's true just in case--that doesn't count with God. (Which is fine by me; I wouldn't want lip service from people who were just hedging their bets either.)

Some folks do believe deep down in their hearts. If you're one of them, and it makes you a happier, better person, then good for you. I remember how that feels and honestly don't want to take that from you. But I need pretty clear evidence--the kind God specifically chooses not to provide--to continue believing things that deeply. Have you ever tried to make yourself truly believe something you had serious doubts about, even something you really wanted to believe? The only way to do it is to close your mind and heart to all possibility of contrary evidence. If you remain too open to wondering if you're wrong, then you can't commit fully to your belief. The foxes of doubt creep in and spoil the vineyard.

So according to the "believe, that thou might be saved" crowd, God wants--no, demands--that whenever I see a reason to question his existence, I must close my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears, and sing "La la la" until it goes away. For me at least, persistent, willful self-delusion is worse than hell. It's hard enough to find truth when I'm looking for it; deliberately not looking isn't going to help. (Those of you, like my mother, who are now concerned about my eternal soul may take comfort in the fact that striving to keep my mind open means that if evidence of God does present itself, I'm more likely to see it. Eventually.) If mind-blindness is what it takes for me to be saved, then sign me up for the other place.

Another popular reason for believing in God is that it's necessary to make one a moral person, either because we need God to define what's right and wrong or because we need the carrot and stick of heaven and hell to motivate us. There's a grain of truth to that; belief in God and his rules probably does make moral behavior easier for people who either can't or don't care to ponder ethical issues for themselves. But it's hardly necessary. Right and wrong are not arbitrary; there are reasons why some acts are moral and others immoral, and those reasons are generally neither inscrutable nor ineffable. There's certainly room to argue about specifics and the validity of any given reason, but because there are reasons, I can figure out a basic code of ethics without divine aid. Then I can compare my thoughts to others' to continuously refine and expand my ethical ideals. And because I understand why various acts are right or wrong, I don't need the threat of punishment or promise of reward to motivate good behavior. I can be good simply because it makes sense.

So if I don't need to believe in God to save myself from hell or be a moral person, I come back to my question: Does it matter if I believe?

I noticed a funny thing on my careening path through the various stages of faith and skepticism: whatever changes I made in my beliefs about God didn't seem to have much effect on what I actually did. Okay, so I stopped going to church, I don't read the bible very often, and I no longer say my prayers (other than the occasional fervent "Please let it not be time to get up yet," directed presumably at my alarm clock). But I still have the same values, the same desire to improve myself, the same capacity for joy, the same ability to feel spiritually moved by art, nature, and the human world around me. All that changed was a few labels in my head, a sort of mental rearranging of furniture.

So no, I don't think it matters. And I'm glad, because it sucks not to be able to definitively answer a question that matters.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Hot Mamas

The other day I read an article in the Seattle Times about how hip mothers don't want to dress "like moms" anymore. Inspired by TV moms like Teri Hatcher's character on Desperate Housewives, they're apparently changing diapers in stiletto heels and raiding their teen daughters' closets for low-rise jeans and navel-baring tops. The "hottie moms" interviewed for the article asserted that dressing this way made them feel powerful and allowed them to reclaim their sexuality.

Now I'm not a mom, and the one and only time I intentionally displayed my belly button in public was at a pool party in 1984, so maybe I'm not qualified to talk about this. But something smells wrong here.

I have no problem with the idea of mothers as powerful, sexual beings. Breaking down the old madonna/whore stereotypes is a good thing by me. I also eagerly applaud the disappearance of the once-popular "mom uniform" of sweat pants, T-shirt, and hair scrunchie. As those of you who have witnessed my marathon morning routine know, I advocate lavish self-pampering and stylish dressing as a confidence booster. So my discomfort with this article isn't a knee-jerk anti-sex or anti-fashion response.

The image of a woman changing diapers in stilettos disturbs me because they aren't appropriate for the activity. Wearing stilettos to do childcare is just as bad as wearing sneakers for a night on the town. And dressing seductively all the time makes it seem like these moms have not only reclaimed their sexuality, but allowed it to reclaim them. There is and should be a time to be sexy, but there's also a time to run through the sprinklers with your kids--and if you do that in stilettos we'll both be embarrassed, because I'm going to wet myself laughing.

The image of a woman raiding her teen daughter's closet for skin-baring clothes also bothers me. I can get over the part about the teen daughter having such clothes in the first place because I understand the desire to show off what you've got while you've still got it (hence the pool party incident). But styles designed for a teenager generally don't look right on her mother--no matter what Mom has or hasn't still got. British fashionistas Trinny and Susannah from the BBC show What Not to Wear call this phenomenon "mutton dressed as lamb" and decry it as bad style. But I have deeper issues with it as well.

In her book Scheherazade Goes West, Islamic sociology professor Fatima Mernissi explores artistic and literary images of the sexually desirable woman in both Islamic and Western cultures. She concludes that while Islamic culture confines women with veils and harem walls, Western culture confines women by limiting its image of the sexually ideal woman to a teenage girl: young, slim, naive, and submissive. I initially thought this idea, though interesting, was an oversimplified interpretation. Then this article showed me mothers of teenagers--women old enough to know a few things and at least somewhat successful at the mating game--equating dressing like teenage girls with reclaiming their sexual power. That's disturbing.

I'd like to think that Western culture also allows for the sexy older woman, a woman whose hard-earned knowledge, experience, confidence, and leadership serve her as well in love as they do in life. I'd also like to think that this woman wouldn't want to raid her daughter's closet because her own would be well stocked with clothes that attract attention in a more sophisticated way. Even if our romantic peers reject this image to chase young girls--and the ones worth having generally don't--we need to embrace it for ourselves and celebrate it in others. Because if we allow ourselves to be trapped by the idea that only youth is sexy and beautiful, we get stuck playing a game that time won't let us win.

Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.