Women do not

Here it is then, my first post for 2015 – not quite what I thought I’d write, I was hoping for a more enlightened brain-child, since it was such a long time coming, but the muse spoke and I did not argue (much). I do apologise for the lengthy silence – I was off trying to fit all sorts of living into my life. I am back, albeit rather hungover (and not only in the physical sense of the word), broke, and harried. In other words, nothing’s changed much.

John Lennon (apparently) said that life is what happens when we’re making other plans, and I for one am not keen to question his wisdom (although I must point out the irony in the fact that death is kinda what happened to him while he was making other plans – as I assume it will for all of us).   This post is what happened while I was making more grandiose plans (I was going to write about the true meaning of the word “home”), and I hope that it may bring you at least some small sense of recognition, unless of course you truly are the perfect woman. In that case, or in the case of high sensitivity, perhaps go read something else. This post is full of rather gross topics such as the intricacies of pooing and sex (not at the same time, I hope), and yes, it was in fact rather awkward for me to post it on my blog. But I really needed to get it off my chest, having increasingly run into the odd assumptions I and others have cultivated about ourselves and our roles.

To be exact: I have been working on supposedly easy things such as not armpit-hair shaming others, going to the toilet when others know what I’m doing in there, dealing with sweaty palms, semi-quitting makeup – and it has been surprisingly hard. There seems to be two ways of being, if you’re a woman: 1. shave, deodorise and perfume, mouthwash and floss and brush, shampoo and condition, pluck eyebrows, cutex toenails, scrub and lotion and buff and use toner and put on makeup and wax the bikini-line and drink lots of water and exercise, and don’t get anything else done ever. 2. Don’t do these things, but constantly feel behind and apologetic, especially should you ever find yourself in a compromising situation (what’s worse than getting frisky with someone and then remembering you haven’t shaved your legs?), and basically unwomanly. So here’s my list of stuff I know I’m supposed to not be doing but am having some trouble not-doing all at once.

– A woman does not allow her armpit-hair to grow past, at most, three days’ worth. Also not her leg-hair, and if she has a hint of a moustache she waxes it, and if she has to wear a bikini she ensures that no stray curlies peek through. Even if that means having her asshole waxed – I don’t know about other people, but that’s the one area I tend to forget about, which then bites me in the ass when I find that my bikini is doing some ass-biting of its own. Also, am I the only one who worries about asshole-fluff during sex from behind? I always spend an inordinate amount of time wondering whether it is ruining the view.

– Women do not sweat, they perspire (to quote a teacher who once, albeit tongue-in-cheek, told our class this). In other words: they do sweat when they are working out (which of course they faithfully do), but in that case it’s simply an attractive sheen, or a cute little trickle seductively sliding down some ample cleavage. There is no such thing as armpit sweat (just in case there might be, we shave). There is especially no such thing as crotch-sweat, and sweaty palms belong wholly to the teenage-boy universe. This poses a slight problem to me, as I have an overeager thyroid which overeagerly delivers water to my hands and feet. I have spent entire relationships avoiding ever holding my boyfriend’s hand or taking off my shoes. I have even repeatedly tried hands-free sex. This, as you might imagine, is not the funnest sex you might find, unless (I would assume) you’re bound to the bedpost, which I was not. My job also involves holding (and sharing) a microphone, which can become rather embarrassing when I have to hand it over to my unsuspecting colleague. And ordinary stuff like playing the piano or writing with an inky pen becomes a waking nightmare.

– Women do not have ingrown toenails, ingrown hairs (especially on their bikini-line), blackheads, or (god forbid) boils. If they do, they may only talk about these in hushed tones with female friends, profusely apologising for the disgusting topic beforehand, and only to ask advice about getting rid of these magnificently unfeminine problems (periods, birth control, orgasms – all of these we may discuss, but not boils). Men shall not ever be informed of the problem. If a woman has a pimple on her butt, she shall sit down resolutely whenever needs be and ignore the fact that said pimple is caught between a rock and a hard place. Beauty is pain. No guts, no glory; and my favourite: fake it till you make it (this also seems to apply to orgasms, but that’s a whole post of its own).

– Women do not stink. If they ever do stink, it’s of sex, which is forgivable as long as the scent of man is the leading note. Sweat, of course, is unforgivable, especially when it’s that acrid sweating-under-dozens-of-sweaters-because-it’s-actually-winter smell. Smelly feet, if possible, are worse. Bad breath is understandable, but may only occur first thing in the morning, and must be gotten out of the way as soon as possible. And any other substance a woman secretes must be gotten rid of as discreetly as possible, before it can leave any olfactory hint of its existence. Even if that means buying those terrifying feminine wipe thingies that people freshen up with, even if it means perfumed tampons and pads and, I don’t know, douches.

– This brings me to one of the most pervasive “women do nots” in my own life: women do not shit (and it goes without saying that women do not fart). My one friend used to be so appalled by the realisation that women do actually need to do more than pee, that he and I started referring to it as “making butterflies”  whenever the topic arose, mostly as a joke, but also to spare his sensitivities. The truth is ugly, my friend. But we have found ways to mask it, as almost all of my female friends can attest to. (I am aware that not only women suffer from shy colons. I am not disregarding men’s often equally excruciating problem with this, but one must admit that it is amplified under the pressures of having to be feminine.)

Here are some of the solutions I have employed in order to not remind anyone of what I am doing in the bathroom:

1. Spray deodorant (instead of toilet spray, that gives the game away) beforehand, also under through the door so it creates a “seal” for any other smells to remain where they are.

2. Use lots and lots of layers of toilet paper, thereby breaking the fall of any deposits, and, as it be, cushioning the noise. Flushing the toilet at the exact moment you let rip also helps, especially if you have eaten something odd and are expecting some stray sound effects (this does require exquisite timing, though).

3. Wait until everybody is definitely fast asleep to tiptoe to the bathroom. If you have waited a few days, even better: you won’t even need to set your alarm for 3 a.m., your intestines will keep you awake until then, or wake you up just as you drift off into toilet-filled dreams.

4. Wait until you’re at the mall, or the movies. Then go, and when you come back, complain about the endless rows. Everybody knows going to a public ladies’ room takes ages. Someone might suspect something, but they can’t prove it.

5. This is my favourite, and it is guaranteed to work: don’t go to the toilet. Just don’t. If you really need to pee, but you’re afraid your rectum might grab the opportunity, pee in tiny doses. Trickle…wait….trickle….wait…trickle. Else, just hold it in. Yes, this might also involve having to hold in farts that become progressively worse as the day lengthens, but that’s all in a day’s work. You are either feminine, or you shit. There is no both.

If complying to the above things seems to take up a lot of time, despair not. Other women throughout the ages have managed to do so. In fact, nowadays women manage to have kids, have careers, have relationships, stay well-read and up to date on life, even blog, and sometimes sleep, all while looking incandescently manicured and very lightly perspirey.  It is my firm belief that the need to shit will eventually disappear into thin air if we keep at it long enough. This is what I tell myself, in any case. No, it doesn’t make me feel any better, quite the opposite, but thanks for asking. But ask me again in ten years’ time – I might have found a solution, or even better, stopped caring, who knows. This is what I’m really hoping for: that there is an option 3, namely to stop caring. In my case, don’t hold your breath, though.

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Under the spell of beauty

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Two things are often more beautiful than reality: the looking forward to something, and the memory of it. One thing is more poignant than joy: nostalgia, in all of its forms.

Imagine this situation: you are walking through a park. It’s spring. Countless trees are blossoming; the grass is so green it hurts your eyes. There is a breeze, but it’s light enough to carry only soft scents with no accompanying shiver. The sky is adamantly, disconcertingly blue. You feel both very light and too heavy for your environs. You are filled with an odd joy that is at once wonder and pain, and beneath it, an understanding that this moment will one day in the near future become more than the sum of its parts: you will look back on this park and remember it with a stab of joy and – especially – belonging which you had not attained while walking through it.

Because walking through this beauty, you know that in fact you are not quite part of it. To others, catching a glimpse of your smile as you look around, it might seem so, but you know better. You are forever isolated slightly from the beauty around you by your humanness, by the thoughts of rent and body and food and human slights and time and lists filling your mind. You cannot let go at will, not entirely, because letting go would mean losing all sense of self, and self-awareness is the human condition, a condition at once wonderful and limiting.

This awareness is what enables you to see the breathtaking glory of your environment. Think about it: the birds flitting about are not aware of the fact that they are beautiful. They are digging for worms and carrying on territorial wars and preening in search of mates and building nests. They do not stop and think: ‘I am creating beauty.’ Neither do the squirrels. Neither does the grass, or even the blossoms, or the gnarly branches on that isolated oak tree standing in woebegone wisdom, though to look at it one would think that it could surely not be unaware of its own majesty.

Now imagine that you walk past a couple sitting on a park bench. They are completely caught up in each other’s eyes, loosely holding hands, laughing at something. You can see in the way they sit, in the way their voices intertwine, in the way one of them quickly leans forward for a kiss, that they are barely aware of their surroundings. Perhaps the spring in its splendour contributes to their joy, but they hardly know it. Certainly they do not notice you noticing them.

Or imagine you walk past a little boy digging in the dirt. He has hair standing on end to the one side, tongue sticking out in concentration, hands already grubby and face drawn into an absorbed frown. You look at his scuffed legs and his dirty pants-seat and at the way he is entirely caught up in the moment, unaware of the picture he is creating.

What do you feel? Chances are, you emotions are mixed. You feel appreciation. You feel joy for their sake. You also feel an unnamed emotion, which, for lack of a better word, we will simply call ‘feeling touched’. And then, admittedly, there are slightly less pleasant emotions. You want to be part of this beautiful tableau – one might even call it jealousy. You think back to your childhood and wonder why you were so eager to grow up. You think back to someone you love or loved and wish they were here, and you wish love were always as simple and uncomplicated as that couple makes it seem. For a moment, you think that perhaps it could indeed be this simple. You feel nostalgic for hordes of unnamed experiences, both in the past and in the hoped-for future. If you’re like me, you walk away daydreaming about all the wonderful things you still plan on doing, adding “sitting on a park bench with someone I love” to the list. Like a friend of mine once told the girl he liked: “You make me miss something I’ve never had before.”

We are like Dickensian children standing barefoot in the snow, peeking into other people’s houses where they have a large Christmas tree put up, lights strung from it, sitting around eating oranges and Christmas cake and laughing. We envy them and we feel the cold, suddenly, much more sharply because it is being compared to the scene in front of us. Yet that detracts nothing from the beauty we are keenly aware of experiencing.

And yet we have been given a gift, walking through that park, which those birds and that couple and that boy did not know at that very moment. We were the ones who saw unselfconscious beauty. They felt contentment. They felt happiness. But only afterward – while rushing to work, while in the midst of an argument or at night feeling lonely, or all grown-up in twenty years’ time – will they look back and feel what we felt when we looked at them. Only then will they appreciate the beauty they created whilst completely unaware of doing so.

Looking at other people’s happiness – others’ beauty – can be difficult. It’s hard to admit, but it’s true. We are filled with conflicting emotions when we see others happy, as when we listen to beautiful music and are left feeling both wondrously romantic and oddly lonely; like when we read great books and are filled with equal amounts of wonder and the desire to immediately emulate this author by writing copious poems (which we read afterwards and immediately erase in embarrassment).

This is what beauty does (and seeing happiness is seeing beauty): it creates within us a river threatening to gush from its banks, a need to create and to cause beauty as well, a longing to somehow become part of the beauty we see. When we see something which moves us, we want to recreate it. We long to be inside it, instead of outside it. And so we are at odds with ourselves, because we know that this longing in itself is the source of beauty, the driving force behind it, but we cannot be satisfied with it alone – the very longing would disappear were we to be satisfied with it. Desire is the driving force behind creativity. Longing and frustration are the birthplace of fulfilment. They co-exist in a constant give and take, a swinging back and forth between wanting and having.

And so it seems we cannot have both our cake and eat it. But we can take turns eating it and pondering on it in awed appreciation, whether before or after the actual eating. And there is balance in that; there is an odd kind of fairness to it. Because we also know, whether we want to embrace this knowledge or not, that joy is at its best when placed against contrasts. We know that gratitude comes from the knowledge that this moment cannot carry on forever. In Andrew Solomon’s heartrendingly familiar words: “I tend to find the ecstasy hidden in ordinary joys, because I did not expect those joys to be ordinary to me.”

The best we can do is to try to practice awareness: when in the moment of joy, still being gratefully aware of its sublimeness. And in the same manner we could practise letting go of our self-consciousness when standing outside the edges of happiness, allowing no thoughts of ourselves to penetrate the will to participate fully in what we see.

And when we fail at this – which we will –, when we are once again struck by our desires and our dissatisfaction and our own not-having; or when we live through a beautiful moment only to catch ourselves wondering, later, why we did not appreciate it fully, we can let it be. We can use the impetus of longing to create and, in time, to appreciate. And we can allow enjoyment to be uncomplicated. And perhaps we can learn to accept our humanness, this condition which leaves us always either achingly aware outside of a small circle of beauty, or achingly unaware inside of it, or – usually – both.

The (f)art of seduction

So recently I (tried to) read Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction. No, not because I’m planning on becoming the next Bathsheba and am in fact having a strategically placed outdoor bath installed as we speak (ever thought about the fact that Bathsheba has the word ‘bath’ in it? That suddenly struck me as pretty funny). Mostly because I got the book for free and with a title like that, it was bound not to remain unopened for very long.

Also, keeping Greene’s other books in mind (The 48 laws of power especially springing to mind, though I shan’t pretend I’ve read it either), I thought this one would be aimed at the world at large, especially the business world, meant to provide one with clues on how to charm the hell out of basically any obstacle. In fact, I rather thought Greene had picked the romantically laden title simply to seduce his readers into buying it, upon which he would inform the victim that, in fact, this book was meant to make you a business mogul. I mean, seduction? How does one write a whole (and immense) book on that with regards to personal relationships without sounding both conniving and repetitive?

Well, it turns out, you don’t. Not that the book wasn’t rather fantastic (the 300 pages I read before finally deciding I might not have seduction in me after all), peopled with larger-than-life examples like Cleopatra, Napoleon, Rasputin and Lenin (after Lenin I kept waiting for Hitler to pop up, but it turns out there are places even Robert Greene doesn’t go), seducers of individuals and seducers of whole countries enjoying equal attention. Also, its tone was gently acidic enough to make one take his frequent references to the seducee as the “prey” and “victim” not quite so very seriously. Or at least to make one suspect the author was grinning in his sleeve as he was writing.

The thing is, it seems most of the examples in there are best applied to one person, in a terrifyingly pickup-artisty manner. Now, while I rather like the idea of having some magical trick up my sleeve which can provide me with a pay-raise and perhaps even some infamy, relentlessly bashing some unfortunate person over the head with an array of tricks to thereby obtain his wholehearted attention felt pretty…empty. Here’s a choice quote:

“A perfectly satisfied person cannot be seduced. Tension and disharmony must be instilled in your targets’ minds. Stir within them feelings of discontent, an unhappiness with their circumstances and themselves. The feeling of inadequacy that you create will give you space to insinuate yourself, to make them see you as the answer to their problems. Pain and anxiety are the proper precursors to pleasure. Learn to manufacture the need that you can fill.”

Basically, what I kept thinking as I read was that it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to devote such an immense amount of research to an idea where it seems a given that executing it would be unfeasible, unsustainable and lonely. I kept waiting for the moment there would be stuff I could really take seriously – and for sure, there were a few good points and even some things that might be incorporated into real life. Maybe. But seduction done the way it is in this book (and in a variety of other sources too, though those actually take themselves seriously, which is terrifyingly worse) is pretty much impossible, unless you:

  1. Urgently need to take over the world.
  2. Won’t survive the day if you can’t manage to make the emperor fall everlastingly in love with you.
  3. Relish the idea of making a desperate and insecure person your slave and companion for life (if, and only if, you can manage your end of the bargain, namely remaining elusive and unreal forever).
  4. Are basically a very bored and evil person.
  5. All of the above.

Enough with the criticism. I am not a critic. I didn’t even finish the book. Also, I don’t think everything in it was meant to be taken seriously and faithfully copied. Why I brought up The Art of Seduction was actually mostly because of the fact that it somehow echoes with an idea which I think we have all bought into at some stage, namely that we can make someone love us. Always just around the bend, in the next book, in the next magazine, in the next website, the elusive formula will be provided, making us irresistible, while of course still being loved for ourselves. We will change certain things (and yet nothing important), and, bham!, love will be achieved.

I know that I myself have often marched to the tune of “take it or leave it”, proclaiming loudly that I would never change anything for anyone. And then, upon developing the slightest crush, I would suddenly find myself agonising over every single action: Should I talk less? Should I talk more? Should I try to cultivate an air of mysterious melancholy? Or perhaps I should always look chirpy so as to make my mysterious happiness-formula the attraction? Maybe I should drink whiskey instead of beer. No, maybe I should drink beer. Maybe I should stop smoking and look responsible. No, maybe I should smoke more, and I could blow my smoke into the distance, like Katharine Hepburn, wearing a faraway look in my eyes. Maybe I should be more cute. No, wait, I want to be taken seriously – maybe I should be angry and swear a lot and hate men just enough to be a challenge. Maybe I should talk about Really Intelligent Things. Or should I let them talk about that and just gaze on admiringly?

As Solomon (master of seduction) said: Vanity, it’s all vanity. And vanity is not sustainable. It is a hollow echoing sad thing which needs to be filled again and again, emptying any poor participator of reserves (not even mentioning the exhaustion the seducer him/herself must be subject to) and offering nothing in return.

So here’s why I think seduction is like a fart: it causes a big stink and attracts attention, but before you know it, it has disappeared into thin air. There is nothing worthwhile about it except, at best, its capacity to cause a few laughs/gasps and perhaps provide a good story afterwards – it creates reaction to something you do rather than to who you are. To keep the attention you need to do it again and again, unless you can manage a clever bait and switch – in the case of a fart, substituting your flatulence with (hopefully) some more pleasant form of entertainment; in the case of seduction, sneaking in some of your worthwhile characteristics and somehow managing to get your victim addicted to these instead of to the initial allure you seemed to have. Basically, this kind of seduction stinks.

In my limited experience, being successful at seduction (where seduction implies some image of oneself being created which is not a true and at least semi-complete representation) is pretty catastrophic. I mean, what does one do after that? Just keep on fluttering those Greta Garbo lashes and muttering something benign every time real life happens? The truth is bound to come out. Wondering how to keep the interest once you’ve snared the bunny can be quite stressful. The opposite is also true – do you really want to snare that kind of bunny? And how do you get rid of it when you realise you’ve been exceedingly stupid? If insecurity is the glue, then pulling away is going to make the victim stick closer instead.

Here I should probably add that I could well imagine injecting some seductive qualities into one’s way of life as bearing fruit – and by being seductive I do not mean only towards the opposite sex, but rather being appealing to whomever you want to win over. Certainly making the best of your charms is not a bad idea – after all, why be abrasive and awkward when you can be charming? Honey catches more flies than does vinegar, they say. Besides, a certain level of seduction is pretty instinctive. We hardly need whole books to teach us.

Apart from the above, though, seduction seems to be mostly smoke and mirrors. It’s attractive because it looks like an instant cure to loneliness and feelings of inadequacy, but nothing instant is worth having. Except maybe KFC.

And besides, to actually seduce someone successfully by following the ideas held forth in many a popular magazine and website (because The Art of Seduction is at least a well-researched book, and an interesting one at that. But try visiting Cosmopolitan’s website), I know I for one would need a spreadsheet, an irrefutable mission statement which I would keep in my back pocket for inspiration, and a detailed strategy – one I would narrowly follow, ticking off items as they are successfully completed. Furthermore a tiny genie destined to accompany me for life, tapping me on the shoulder whenever I am deviating from the rules, would be a great help. And then there would still be moments of “did I make coy eye contact? Dammit, you fool, how could you forget about that?”. Basically, it’s all just very bad for your peace of mind, and if there is one thing that seems not to be good for any relationships (and when I keep referring to relationships I don’t solely speak of romantic ones), it is having unpeace among your personal mental gremlins.

There was a small point in Seduction which did ring a bell with me and which I think relationships could probably benefit from (meaning, of course, that I have not really tried this approach yet but that I do know the opposite doesn’t work all that well), namely a slight maintaining of mystery, or basically not dumping your whole being onto someone else in an overenthusiastic attempt at full disclosure. After all, familiarity breeds contempt. Contempt is definitely the opposite of what one wants, namely respect. And yet somehow I cannot imagine respect and manipulation going hand in hand for a very long time either. So perhaps somewhere there is a middle ground, a place where we can be refreshingly ourselves without being an emotional flasher or a whiney little fruit fly, where respect is created and maintained through authenticity.

A few years ago, my mom gave me advice, advice which I still remind myself of every time I catch myself debating the finer points of ways to cross my legs enchantingly or when I berate myself for having talked too much: “just be the best version of yourself.” Sounds benign but it’s actually pretty potent if you think about it. In the first place, it means knowing who that “yourself” is, while also being comfortable with the fact that it’s going to change as all things do. It means holding yourself to a high standard while also knowing your limitations. It means being both comfortable in your skin and willing to grow. There’s nothing instant about it. It doesn’t even promise you’ll thereby find someone who will love you maddeningly and think it delightful that you chew even your soup. What it does provide, however, is satisfaction, the kind you can only get from feeling as if you, just you, are enough.