Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Ageing, feminism and desire

My recent birthday seems to have sparked a bit of self-examination in terms of how I relate to men. Credit is also due to Kameron Hurley for the following blog post, which also helped to get me thinking about the same subject.
Kameron's post was focused specifically on girl-on-girl crushes, but I'd like to take her idea and expand it out a bit more.
I have always tended to confuse emotional and physical intimacy. I don't mean that I'm one of those unfortunate souls who is constantly jumping into bed with people in the hope that it will turn into a relationship, or that having sex with someone will make the person love them. In fact, I'm the queen of monogamous long-term relationships. I haven't been single for more than 3 or 4 months at a time since I started dating as a teenager. Romantic relationships come easily for me, and always have. Whether that's a good thing or something that may inhibit my personal growth in some ways is in interesting question, and one that I'm not sure that I can answer.
How to define what I mean when I say that I tend to confuse physical and emotional intimacy? I have never had a close male friend with whom I have not at least considered becoming physically intimate. I don't mean that I've actually attempted to hop in the sack with most of my male friends, or that I've ever planned to do so. What I mean is that I can't think of a single close male friend who I don't find attractive in some way, or who I might not be willing to consider as a lover if we were both single at the same time. I used to assume that this was just the way everyone thought, and that all human beings were naturally drawn to people whom they found attractive and tended to end up making friends with them. However, as I've gotten old enough to actually realise that not everyone thinks the same way I do I am beginning to realise that this may not be the case. Other people seem to have opposite friends who they would never in a million years be sexually or romantically interested in. So, what's going on with me? Am I sexualising my relationships, or am I only forming close friendships with men who I was already sttracted to?
I think that what's going on is linked into something that came up on Kameron's blog. In general I tend to be a very demonstrative, affectionate person. I cuddle people a lot. I kiss friends hello and goodbye. My parents were both very demonstrative, and I grew up around their friends, most of whom were equally affectionate. I tend to assume a certain degree of physical intimacy between people who are emotionally intimate. This has gotten me into trouble in the past - people who aren't quite as cuddly in general often interpret my cuddliness as my making a pass, which it typically not the case (when I'm making an actual pass I'm not inclined to be subtle, and it's pretty hard to miss). The only people with whom I'm not demonstrative are people I don't like, or people who I think would be made uncomfortable by too much physical affection. Unsurprisingly, this means that people who tend not to be comfortable with physical demonstrations of affection tend to get eliminated from my group of friends fairly quickly.
What I took away from the discussion at Kameron's blog was this - many of us tend to develop romantic attachments, and a desire for physical intimacy, with people whom we like and admire, people who we feel comfortable with. In itself this is not a bad thing. It is, however, not a thing that is well accepted by our culture, especially if any of the people involved are in a group who we aren't "supposed" to have romantic or sexual feelings towards (people who are in relationships, who are not of the gender we typically see ourselves as being interested in). For many people the "look but don't touch, and you should feel guilty for even thinking about it" category includes close friends. For me it doesn't. Why is that? Am I the only one, or is this actually a common thing that our society has decided to stigmatise and sweep under the rug?
The "crush" idea also got me thinking about what I actually want when I find myself in one of those relationships where I become aware of an attraction to a close friend. I don't think I actually want to have sex with them, necessarily, especially not if I'm already involved with someone (which I usually am). What I really want is to be allowed to be physically inimate up to a point that stops far short of actual intercourse. What I really want is more like what as kids we referred to as "making out" - I want to be able to lie around and cuddle, to kiss them, to fall asleep in front of the TV after drinking a bottle of wine the way that all my friends did when we were teenagers. I resent that fact that once we pass a certain age, that no longer seems to be acceptable behavior. I've thought about why I don't really want to have sex with any of my friends, per se, but do wish that it was OK to be more physically intimate than is generally "allowed". I think that, for me at least, the difference in relationships with men that are romantic and those that are not romantic is not one of kind so much as one of degree. In a way I kind of fall in love with all my friends. What's odd is that doesn't threaten my main relationship at all, and I'm always confused as to why people think it should. Doesn't everyone kind of fall in love with their dearest friends, or am I just wierd? And where do we draw the line between what is acceptable intimacy with a friend, and what isn't? Is that line different for all of us? I'm not sure, but I've been musing about this a lot lately and it would be interesting to hear other people's perspectives.
Another interesting observation...other than for a very brief period in high school, I've always had more close male than female friends. This is particularly interesting in view of the situation I've outlined above. It's more than that, though - I honestly think that in general men like me more than women do, which is an odd situation to be in for a feminist. It's intersting to see that the same pattern is replicating online as in real life. Can anyone clue me in as to what's going on here? I'm honestly puzzled as to why this pattern always repeats itself.

And on another wierd is it that I've started to have boys literally young enough to be my kids checking me out? Last week a kid of about 15 or 16 stopped me in the street to tell me I have nice legs, and then proceeded to follow me down the street trying to make conversation. If a guy my age did the same thing I might feel a bit creeped out or threatend, but how to react when the power disparity is so clearly in my favour? It seems silly to feel threatened. What the hell does a 32 year old woman say to a teenager who's checking out her legs? Maybe I should start wearing longer skirts...

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Moon Over Bourbon Street

I've been thinking about New Orleans, and about the Gulf Coast as a whole, constantly over the past few days, but haven't been quite sure what to say. Anything I can say about the current disaster would seem so trite, so meaningless in the face of all the death and destruction. My own musings over the bombings in my beloved London seem selfish in comparison - London has laready recovered, but will New Orleans ever be the same again?
The Big Easy has always held a special place in my heart. I went there for the first time at 8, a desert-raised kid new to the South, and was instantly enchanted by the place. The gorgeous old wooden buildings with their elaborate shutters in the French Quarter, the cemetary, the huge and amazing houses of the Garden District, the palaces of's one of the loveliest cities in the world. And it's almost completely gone.
A little anecdote that I think captures the spirit of the city...when I first arrived there I had never met a single black person (embarrasing to admit, huh?). I remember wandering around staring at all the jazz performers in the public squares and street corners (I'd never heard jazz before THAT was a revelation). At one point an old guy who was playing the trumpet noticed little 8-year-old me standing there with a wide-eyed stare drinking it all in. He beckoned me over, and so I slipped away from my mother and went running up to him. He bent down and said something like "where are you from, honey?" and I said "I'm from Scotland!" in my best little very non-Southern accent. I don't remember what else the guy said to me, but I remember him pretending to find a gold-covered chocolate coin behind my ear and handing it to me with a whispered "don't tell your Mom!". By the time my Mom found me I was standing on tiptoe giving the old man a kiss and asking him all kinds of nosy questions about what he was wearing and why his band played on the street and what did they do if it rained? I remember the guy grinning at my mother as she tried to extract me, apologising for my "bothering" him, telling her I was no bother, and patting me on the butt as I left with a "you get along with your Mom now" and a wink.
What really stuck out for me was how nice to me everyone was. Even at that age I knew that black people in the South had plenty of reasons to hate white people, and every justification for resenting the presence of annoyingly precocious little white kids who ask nosy questions and interrupt people when they're trying to work, and yet everywhere I went people went out of their way to be kind to me. I've been thinking about that trip as I watch the news reports about the aftermath of the hurricane. People have known for years that something like this could happen. It's not like the weaknesses of the levee system were a huge surprise. Why didn't anyone take the actions necessary to protect the city? Why wasn't there an evacuation plan beyond "get in your car and drive north"? People in New Orleans are POOR. 25% of the city lives before the poverty line. Why didn't someone take preventative action to protect those people?
The deep-seated racism of this country never fails to amaze me. If New Orleans wasn't 67% black, would this have been allowed to happen? If Savannah was in danger does anyone really think that preventative measures wouldn't have been in place? And what the hell is the deal with all those TV presenters who keep talking about "looting"? Newsflash, assholes - if a person in a disaster zone breaks into a store to get food, water and diapers, that's not looting, it's survival. Notice that no-one accuses any of the white people in the same circumstances of looting. If anyone had any remaining doubts about how deeply racism is entrenched in this country, this situation should make it cyrstal clear. What in the hell is wrong with this country? What will it take to remove the poison of bigotry from American society?
Now there's talk about not rebuilding the city, or about redeveloping the land (condo city here we come). Has everyone gone mad? New Orleans is a historic treasure, and it's utterly irreplaceable. The city has contributed far more to American culture than it has ever gotten back (look at the musical history alone). It's about time that the rest of the country gave something back, and I don't mean drunk frat and sorority kids on spring break. We owe it to the people who lived there to give them their homes back. This is the richest country in the world - can we really not provide decent distaster relief and adequate redevelopment and restoration funds?

Addendum - last time I went to NOLA was about 6 years ago. I went to one of my favourite restaurants in the world, a little hole in the wall called "Mother's" which has been there forever. The staff is all old (not a one under 50 that I've ever seen), they serve a simple menu of jambalaya and red beans and rice and buttermilk biscuits, and it's absolutely perfect. Last time I was there there was a waitress in her sixties who stood there telling me stories about old New Orleans amd twining one of my curls around her finger while waiting for my biscuits to be ready. She reminded me of my grandmother, same shape, same kindness, same enthusiasm for life. I'll bet she didn't have the money to get out of the city in time, or probably even a car to go in. I hope she's OK. I hope her kids and grandkids are OK. Every penny-pinching bureaucrat who allowed this to happen should be ashamed of him/herself. How fucked up do you have to be not to care what happens to your fellow citizens just because they're poor, or have different skin? I hope that the people who let this happen are haunted by the ghosts of every person who died as a result of their selfishness. What will it take to make people develop some basic compassion?