My Son Is Not A Little Man: 5 Style Tips

In the early days of my pregnancy, I spent a lot of time imagining how to dress my soon-to-be son.  By the time he was born, I had carefully selected clothing for his first six months of life. The thought of raising a boy considering the political events of the past year  inspired questions. Some days, it sounded outright alarms.

In the same way that we have strong associations with certain smells, I also have very strong associations with certain fabrics and patterns from my childhood. My wish for my son was that, if he remembered his early clothing at all, the memory would be a gorgeous underpinning, a depth of time, like a mossy undergrowth in an old forest or a well-loved storybook. His memories, carefully tended pictures, a kind of redolent imagery. I wanted my son’s clothes to be part of a beautiful, intentional life. I also wanted to resist the violence of binary conventions.

I’ve been on an evolving quest, man-repelling for baby boys, only, in this case, repelling his future-man in favor of his future. As soon as I took to the baby registry, the perils emerged: my son was headed for the major leagues or the military. He also had his choice of sanctioned interests: trucks, cars, dinosaurs, outer space, and superheros.

Certain companies pay lip-service to egalitarian dressing. They mostly make ‘boy-things’ cool for girls, most especially things conferring economic advantage, STEM for babies.  This strategy emphasizes the importance to creating an accessible iconography, defining a range of interests and assigning them to our children. This ideology, geared towards creating egalitarian economic producers, is often just undermined by the aesthetics of the garments. For example, frilly, pink dresses decorated with spaceships. Sure it’s important that girls can like science, but that is certainly a separate concern from considering the fundamental disparities between the sexes. Is it important that they are still girls? After all, what are girls and boys if these simple assignations, given at birth, disappear? In the words of J.D. Salinger in a conversation from Franny and Zooey: ” . . . all legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning the differences, the illusory differences, between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold.”

Finally: Plant a flag: pink or blue.

Screenshot of Search for Baby Boy Clothes

 

Screenshot of Search for Baby Girl Clothes

I’m not blind to all of the yellows and pale greens out there, but frankly, that feels like a form of tokenism. Black, white, grey, and brown seem like better choices for color neutrality, although far from a solution. I would like to strive towards a future reality where there are no distinctions in dress between men and women, Until then, dressing my son in girl’s clothes isn’t an answer.

I’m wary of my own hang-ups: the unconscious expressions of my hopes and fears. Although there’s no way of relinquishing my ego completely, I try taking time to observe my son, as well as my gut reactions. For example:  I usually cringe a bit when someone refers to a boy as a “little man.” It feels a bit like fulfilling a prophecy we might reconsider wanting filled. We tend raise our boys to be the kind of men that we are used to seeing. Unfortunately, that is a nurture we have clearly come to regret. As Simone de Beauvoir describes the being of women as “what they have become” instead of “what they are”, so too with men. Children are not little adults.  At some point our choices will determine identity and I would like to choose wisely. To this end, I have a provisional set of guidelines:

  1. Avoid text and overt iconography.  Perhaps, it’s the explicitness that chafes. A foreclosing on the complexity that seems our birthright. Additionally, I have no interest in becoming an unpaid brand ambassador.

2.  Avoid sports and military themes.

3.  Mix & Match Color and Pattern: Combine traditionally gendered colors and themes, or choose those with weaker gender associations. All-over patterns are better than single images. Avoid ready-made sets. Select items that work together for more flexibility.

Bloomers: Lions, Flowers, Moons, Art: Satsuki Shibuya

4.   Use abstract designs and nature or animal themes.

T-Shirt, Onesie, Romper, Art: Georges Braque, Oiseaux Pour Paroles Peintes

Bodysuit, Sleepsuit, Pants, Leggings, Bodysuit, Romper, Art: Sarah York Designs

5 .  Simplicity Always Works.  Pattern, color and minimalism are not mutually exclusive.

Onesies, Shoes, Jumpsuit, Art: Karine Legér

 

I once read that Andy Warhol was “[making] the world safe for Andy.” Through some mysterious alchemy, showing the world to itself, reflecting it, making oneself simultaneously part-of and apart-from.  A mechanism for individuation. I hope that as my son moves through life, his individuality is complex and that he becomes aware of its fragility and contingency, but that he can become inspired and curious about it’s beauty.  Small choices made towards complexity increase safety and destroy illusory differences.

 

 

 

 

Cleaning

DREAMLIFE: A collection of women’s dreams, recorded and then translated here as part of the Female Background metabolism. A way in, a way out.

We were cleaning up our property which was like a crossroads where you see strangers in a campgrounds. My former neighbor was walking her dog near the perimeter and I wanted to say hello, but I also wanted to not be seen, to just watch her. She was older but still had the same walk and the same hairstyle, the same glasses and smile, walking her dog as she had ten years ago. Once she passes out of my eyesight I get back to the task of cleaning. The yard has not only been untended, it’s has been an active dumpsite of domestic waste.  Drugs and kitchen utensils are the first targets and we are making progress, but there is so much to get rid of and I am sweating now, but I’m not tired of doing it.  I’m still not sure what I’m looking for in this mess. There is an auditorium stage that appears to my far right opposite to where I was watching my neighbor walk her dog. It’s light oak and I’m drawn to it, so I walk towards it. I get closer and I see discarded odds and ends that look like I might save something. There’s a kids’ sand shovel without its bucket. My two year old might use it even though I don’t think it’s hers and when I get closer I grab that shovel, but its covered in dust and something sticky so I immediately put it back down. All of my friends and family are helping me clean up at this stage and it’s going more quickly than I can approve or disapprove of discarding, one by one, the items. So I’m a little worried that they’re just getting rid of things that I want to keep. I reach for and look at a stack of papers on the stage because they have foreign stamps and it looks like I have kept them for a long time. At first I, when I open envelopes, I see they contain letters and they’re letters my ex-husband and I wrote to one another other when I was his college student, but then I look closer. They seem to change. They’re the divorce papers and I wonder if it is all over and if this is actually my MeToo moment and I wonder what’s left for my daughter.

Future Female: Forget Balance, Go For Suffering

“Why is your wife so intense?” asked my husband’s class of graduate students. He had just finished describing my response to their lecture request. I admit I had a strong reaction, but one I am still willing to defend. Students should learn how to confront material, formulate questions, and through discourse or writing come to meaning. (I have a favorite line from the movie State and Main: “Everybody makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it isn’t fun. It’s entertainment.” Analogously, there’s no passivity in learning.)  My husband reported my outrage (a hyperbolic way of stating my case, but it makes for a better story.) Their response is not an unfamiliar one. I often have strong, and I’m not proud to say, black-and-white responses to situations. Not that my responses don’t respect a gray area, but they do so in a decidedly adamant way.

Pregnancy and an 8-month old baby have noticeably tempered this tendency. Take my dietary habits: A vegetarian for 27 years, I now eat meat. I especially love steaks and hamburgers. I fed my son grass fed steaks just today for breakfast.  This morning, as I considered my so-called intensity and this laissez-faire approach to my new diet, it occurred to me that they directly relate to my identity as female.  The bodily entanglement required by motherhood* generates ‘femaleness’. We know a mother shares her body with someone else in pregnancy. We’ve heard about the fourth trimester.  My selfhood is indeed moderated, quite literally by someone else’s. I am not me. Not entirely at any rate.

A friend recently remarked that it must be exhausting being a mother, constantly considering another’s needs. I am exhausted, but my relationship to my son’s needs is not one of active consideration any more than I consider what I’d like for dinner. I won’t draw the comparison between the consideration of my own respiration, or better yet, my heartbeat, because his needs are not quite so automatic, but they are firmly in the territory of sustenance, of biological imperatives.  There is a diffusion of identity, of ego, that comes with sharing your body with someone else. Extending it into autonomous space inhabited by another will, another ego.

I’m sure there are plenty of examples of this physical extension. As I sat in a group Vipassana meditation session, I marveled that someone else’s sneeze, across the room, should send such waves of feeling through my body. It really is as simple as an adrenaline rush from being startled. But, regardless of how I describe it to myself, the bottom line is that I’m very affected by others, who are ostensibly outside of myself.

I continued this musing as I walked my four dogs this morning, baby strapped to my chest. I experienced the slow growing rage that accompanies these walks, the subtle sensory onslaught, the gauntlet of perils that besiege the springtime morning. So let my description to follow sound less like a rant and more like a meditative investigation of my bodily response to this routine.  

It begins while trying to leave the apartment, gathering the coats, definitely the baby’s and sometimes all four dogs, depending on the season. A process no one is particularly keen on, making the challenge of lifting everyone’s spirits while completing tasks they’d rather not, all the more daunting. Coats, baby carrier, leashes, poop bags, house keys, and cell phone.  I arrange this efficiently, minimizing the always looming risk of crankiness (canine and human). I also try to minimize the number of squats I do holding a twenty pound baby.

Next, it’s getting down the five flights of stairs and two doors (heavy doors that open towards me and threaten closing on dog tails and noses.) I watch my steps amidst a tangle of leashes. I cannot see ahead of me as I step out the door, not onto a landing, but down another short flight of steps, occupied by neighbors sitting, trying to enjoy their morning. Here I come, pack in hand, bursting towards the sidewalk propelled by four urgent bladders. The wild card: will a passing dog incite this already precarious circus act into complete chaotic lunging, barking, and frantic snapping, tethered ineffectively by deep breaths. I attempt to keep my balance and some charade of equanimity. If all of this goes as smoothly as possible, it is nonetheless accompanied with the kind of hypervigilance that knows, bodily, how tenuous any calm.

The rest of the two mile journey is about the same. A woman passes by, “You’ve got a lot going on,” she cleverly observes. I laugh to myself: “Man, I’m making it look easy.” (Although, thank you to the young woman who remarked to her friends, “that lady is the MVP – she’s got four dogs and a baby!”)

Our walk (in all manner of weather conditions) is punctuated by squatting to pick up dog feces in what I’ve learned is called a hell strip. Some people call this patch of terrain the road verge. However, as I squat (remember that twenty pound, squirming baby and picture my sweater now grazing the ground), the breeze-stoked gyre of dog feces, cigarette butts, chicken bones, grease stained paper, and fluttering plastic feels more like a hell strip to be honest. I’ll give you one more image; congestion, both human and canine, approaching from all directions as I maintain this delicate balancing act. I take refuge in oncoming traffic, letting others pass as I wait to resume our morning perambulation.

I try to metabolize the energetic shrapnel. The phrase “emotional contagion” running through my mind, lest my displeasure ruin my child’s chance’s for emotional self-regulation and become a text book “don’t” for Cesar the Dog Whisperer.

Here I am. Fully dispersed by 9 AM.

 

The demands on women are overwhelming. Be thin, but not too thin, cook, clean, nurture, be more aggressive, but not too aggressive. Women aren’t fairly compensated, they do more of the household chores.  Maternity care and family leave are abysmal. The work of the so-called stay-at-home-mother is not calculated as part of GDP, and frankly, things are primarily valued in terms of productivity.  This we already know. However, it’s the response , the counter-demands, that feel simultaneously oppressive and less achievable. We are called to love our bodies as they are, to care about health and not appearance, to embrace imperfection, and to generally act in consciousness of the double standards, the oppression. Reveal our too-fat and our too-thin, show our scars, our acne, share our #metoos, and declare #timesup. Any lack of self-acceptance, self-care, self-esteem, or self-advocacy is just another way we can fail.  On top of it all, it has been proven that practicing gratitude is how mentally strong people lead healthier lives. If we fall from this high wire, it is surely through our selfishness and mental weakness.

As a palliative, there’s the endless babble about how to find, or more accurately, how to achieve (our character is hence invoked and our success or failure measures our very integrity) the ever-elusive ‘balance.’ Now, let me throw out a suggestion: balance is not desirable. We actually already have balance; we hate it. Balance is a state of perpetual tension. We actually want integration.  We don’t want to be further fractured, further pulled in multiple directions that simply pull equally in all of the directions, like some sort of new age drawing and quartering. We want all of the parts to work together instead of at opposite ends of the horse-drawn rope. Even our zen is preposterous: Be here, now. Live in the present. Don’t forget to make the maximum contribution to your 401K, your IRA.

There is one final, perhaps ultimate demand: Forge an identity. If my identity is actually moderated by this fundamental dispersion, this inexorable confluence of mutually exclusive imperatives, identity is truly a Sisyphean joke.

Last Saturday, I sat in a group Vipassana meditation.  Afterwards, there was a speaker, he said, “the path is not ‘be here now,’” but instead “the path is suffering, this [Vipassana] is a way out.”  Finally, the resonance of truth.

Where does that leave me but to embrace my bodily reality for its implicit wisdom. Surely there is power in the invisible extension into space that has become the special place relegated to women, if not by nature then surely by nurture. It seems increasingly important to inhabit that space rather than retreat into a singular, if visible, entity. This grace seems the only appropriate ground for the future female.

*Femaleness does not require motherhood, nor does bodily entanglement require pregnancy. Consider the ever fascinating, and not relegated to female, field of epigenetics.

 

There was a war.

DREAMLIFE: A collection of women’s dreams, recorded and then translated here as part of the Female Background metabolism. A way in, a way out.

 

I had some things to do before I could let it overcome me, stop me with its indifferent, tidal forces, rhythms of carnival activity, parades and acrobatics. I had so much to carry and I noticed others were in groups and sometimes had carts or sleds to help with their loads, but I struggled, making multiple trips, and also hiding. They would kill me, the war was advanced enough for that.

An older woman dressed in many layers, her lips bright red and eyes lined darkly, offered to paint my face, with “just the right highlight on the cheekbones”. This was her job and she was quite skilled, the best in fact. I thought it was about time to stop imagining that beauty might be different from craft, or to consider that honesty does not bear relation to fact or truth as we commonly suppose. The body has no natural state. The face has no natural state. And so I accepted her offer.

I found an old cart, I thought I might use this cart, like the others did, to escape the city more expeditiously. It was neglected, rusty, and one wheel looked askew. I had seen a woman using a sled, under her own power, and wanted this cart to be similar, but it was intended for oxen. I imagined that I could pull or push it just the same, even if it was not ideal. The large warehouse required some disguise if I were to enter. It was heavily attended by soldiers, a maze of rooms and floors, leaking. I abandoned that approach. I found a road out, out through a manicured lawn where people lounged as if collegiate. A woman I knew from years ago came smiling towards the lawn, her once-distinctively long hair, now short. She wore a colored leotard. She was an acrobat in the circus. This was a powerful position. Perhaps that’s why she headed in so freely. More people were coming in as I was leaving, so many people. A brigade of women holding signs, signs having to do with women – white with black hand-written letters. They were wearing orange leotards, orange hair, and with silver batons. They were in formation, quite choreographed. Leading the array were old acquaintances; they had maintained their friendships through these years, the same two that shared the ocean front condominium and swam in the rip tide, and now they were en pointe with colorful ribbons and high-kicks, moving quickly, smiling, towards war. I hurried past, disguised, recognizing old friends among the faces in the eager crowd.

I continued down the long dirt road. It was lined with grand marble government buildings each with tall columns and surrounded by green lawn. Gradually, this population of advancing people and the white buildings gave way to open fields and finally, to a still lake surrounded by trees. I began to feel relief. I saw the flocks of birds at the far end of the lake and they flew, in formation, in escalating manifestations. They began softly black, fluttering flocks in the distance, but then began to take on silvery and mechanized attributes, like sharply folded paper airplanes. Until they turned and with increasing aggression flew like arrows towards my place on the shore; I dropped to the ground and lay flat. I tried to run between the onslaughts, but that time shortened to nothing and I would have to crawl away.

He lived in the house my grandfather built.

When it was my grandmother’s house, I told him as we sat at the kitchen table in the half-lit morning, she used to keep blueberry muffins in the freezer. The refrigerator was black, she always liked to keep a black refrigerator and the freezer was at the bottom; the muffins tasted like cake. Now the refrigerator was also black but had the look of shiny and dark wooden planks. I doubt it is a coincidence that this good friend now lives in my grandmother’s house, but on the other hand, no one could have made it happen that way.

Perhaps because there were no muffins I decided to go to Wal Mart. There were people filling the parking lot under tents, as if there were a fair or festival of some sort. I realized that many were protesting and many were defending the store. I wondered how committed they were to defense; they were mostly the elderly and wearing red smocks over their elasticized jeans. They were angry at the thought that their jobs might be threatened by these protests, creating a barely suppressed violent tension. I considered the ease and pleasure even, of physically harming these defenders and simultaneously the rhetorical futility and political banality.

I found her in one tent; I realized it was the tent passing out the pamphlets, inciting revolution. One woman had long, grey-ish hair; she was smiling and calm. She seemed kind, her kindness bearing no direct relation to the moment, in the way of kindness.

They were both born in 1977.

One was not an animal-birth but an artist-birth and unlike her first birth, this one, in 1977 was in East Orange, New Jersey not far from Belleville where the animal-birth was taking place, close to family in East Orange and Newark. In the summer of 1977 Beverly Buchanan exhibited Frustula sculptures; she committed to this artist-life, ending what had come before. Much later the small animal born in Belleville would receive money in the name of Ana Mendieta. In 1977 Mendieta described the works of a group of women-artists, thereby casting a spell on the young animal, incubated nearby, these works were “point[ing] not necessarily to the injustice or incapacity of a society that has not been willing to include us, but more towards a personal will to continue being ‘other.’”

The spell would materialize in the Female Background works, the midwifery of Mendieta this time in the guise of her memorial funds. Buchanan had secrets that she did not keep. She marked a place once with a pile of rocks, an ad hoc monument in an industrial area that had only recently hired black people. She told Park McArthur that she made a little pile but that she didn’t put a sign. Did then she put the sign, when she told Park? Did Park put the sign? She once put a sculpture in a river. She told people she did so. I don’t know if it is a secret then, if it has the quality of invisibility anymore. I don’t know if you have to let other people always tell your secrets, it would be too indecent to tell them yourself. If you were to hide something, forever, only to tell someone about it, does it then matter if you ever hid it at all? Or maybe it is not the invisibility that ever mattered after all. Maybe going around hiding things and making things that no one sees is not enough, but telling people is too indecent, so instead, Beverly whispers about acts and in that whisper, no matter how soft, the act no longer exists, it is only an idea. And an idea is nothing if not visible. It is nothing if not not-‘other’. It’s function is communicability. An idea is pulled from the riverbed of endless possibilities and just in this way Beverly pulled her sculpture from the riverbed when she turned it into an idea. She didn’t want to do it, I’m sure. Perhaps culpability lies in fact with the first person who betrayed her secret, relieving her of all bad conscience . A critic worries about the “discrepancy between the [work’s] sociopolitical “affinity” and its formalist predilections: Despite Medieta’s avowal of otherness, most of the work here extols the phenomenological the lyrical …“ These Female Background pieces, these Fineries, their secrets were never betrayed, they lay in the Background refusing to “announce themselves as subject or object” adhering instead to a “nuanced complexity of form, in which intensely subjective histories grounded in the politically-informed worldview of the artist are manifest through minimal or abstract techniques.” Beverly Buchanan sacrificed her secrets so the Finery could be invisible. So that when Female Background makes small, papier mache boxes with secrets inside, someone would destroy that mummy to find reveal them. The secrets can’t be told, they only exist as secrets. The transition from potential to actual would be a real one should one open the sealed box and that alchemy, that transmogrification guards against the revelation of the original secret. Perhaps just knowing there is a secret is having revealed too much, but ‘otherness’ is by nature a secret, and one that resists translation with its life. If someone were to look straight at Female Background, it would cease to be background.

Everything was sunnier after the flood.

It was earliest spring. I remember once, when we went down to make her lunch, to talk, to discourage the installation of more carpet, that her appliance was caught in a privet briefly. And she yelled for help, and the yelling shook it loose, but we came out anyway. I could tell you were repulsed, but hiding it well.