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~An Ode to Hugh Hefner on the Day of His Departure

Where the hell were the grown-ups

that blissful afternoon

when Geoff and I unburied

that stack of Playboys

in a Canadian closet?

 

We spent that balmy midday

draped over twin beds, hunkered

down to learn what adults had

refused to tell us

 

from those glossy pages –

the airbrushed women,

the naughty cartoons,

the articles that everyone

claimed to read.

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for Martin Espada and the other 1% on July 4, 2017

 

I read somewhere, long ago,

That in an orbit of the sun, four seasons,

Past birthdays, holidays, and one-quarter

Of an election cycle,

99% of Americans fail

To buy books of poetry. Yet,

 

We wonder what’s gone wrong with this country.

In season four of Friends, Phoebe, a vegetarian who’s pregnant with her brother’s babies (don’t worry, she’s a surrogate), starts to desperately crave meat.  Joey, known for his love of meatball subs and pepperoni pizza, offers a karmic, equal exchange with his friend; he’ll give up meat until the babies are born, so that Phoebe can satisfy her yearning. This way, no extra animals will die, and Phoebe can eat them without much guilt.

I’m proposing a similar exchange in our efforts to support each other as activists against most of what the new Republican administration in the United States is lodging. From banning refugees, to appointing incompetence, racists, and misogynists to key advisory and cabinet positions, to threatening to build billion dollar walls across our border, to the Dakota Pipeline, to impending LGBT discriminatory legislation, cuts to the arts, wiping of climate data from government sites, and on and on, this regime has come out with their guns blaring against progress and most of what makes being human have meaning. In states like New Hampshire, we also have new threats like “Right-to-Work (for less)” and our own version of Betsy DeVos pending.  Many are beginning to realize that this rapid on slaughter against all that we hold as valuable is no accident of trying to accomplish too much too soon. This is a calculated attempt to distract and wear down those of us committed to fight. We cannot let this happen.

But, we’re exhausted. So what can we do?

Last week, I had an appointment with my PCP. This was just a week or so after we’d glanced over and realized we were standing next to each other at the Women’s March in Concord. We knew each other’s politics and most of my visit was about how the current political climate was affecting my well-being. She reminded me to keep a slow, steady anger brewing, so that I do not fall into despair and inaction. I believe she was also giving this advice to herself. At the end of the visit, she  encouraged me to take occasional time off from news and prescribed Zoloft. She’s worried about my serotonin levels.

So, what does this all have to do with Joey, Phoebe, and Friends you may be asking? Well, let me tell you. We’ve all got to be willing to let someone else figuratively give up eating meat for us for a day or a week or maybe more, so that we can take care of ourselves.

As activists, let’s support each other by offering to hold up the torch for those who need a news-free weekend, or cannot take the day off to attend a deliberative session or a protest rally. I know that I can turn off news notifications for a day, if  I’ve got others paying attention while I’m not. And I, in turn, will do for others.

There is a post traveling around Facebook about how musicians carry a long note and cover for each other so that they have the chance to breath while singing. We must breath. We must support each other. We must persist and resist.

Poets are the unacknowledged legislatures of the world.

~Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

Spray paint it on the wall, black

can and a stencil worthy

of the death penalty.

 

Art, when illegal, is the only force

that’ll get us through. Williams

and Shelley knew well the danger

 

of the word. When words

penetrate a scull

fortified by propaganda is

 

(lies, and repetition, and fallacies)

antipoetry. And

the men with the guns

 

and the butter

 

will clomp a menace up the stairs

to your carefully decorated apartment-

right out of an 80s music video on MTV.

 

Then, will you hide behind gauzy

drapes or greet them

with your machete of words

and watercolors?

All you have fought for is

Threatened by a choice.

I just keep thinking

Of Rome burning

 

While Nero played.

In history the little men –

The classic narcissists:

Hitler, Napoleon –

 

Could not understand public service

Means in the service

Of others.

 

Vanity leads

His followers to doom

As those who know

The past

Watch in terror;

Their cities spark and boom,

and flare and crackle,

As he throws  on gun powder

And lighter fluid.

 

Buildings lit with amber

Fold in on  themselves,

Towers crumble like we

Have seen before.

 

And the narcissist

plays his trumpet

and strokes his ego

like a pet.

In 1991 my husband, Doug,was enrolled as a Plant Science and Conservation major at the University of Maine in Orono. He walked into the first day of his Soils and Vegetation class that fall a little early. A few other male students had also arrived. When the professor, an older male, walked in he looked around the classroom noting that none of the female students on his roster had arrived yet and declared, “Oh good! No sluts here yet.”

Doug didn’t speak up at first, but sat in horror as each young woman entered the room, notebook and pen in hand, and ready to learn. When the class ended, he immediately went to the Dean of Life Science and Agriculture to report the incident. The Dean informed him that since the professor was close to retirement, they would take no action against him.  I would like to think that today, twenty-five years later, we have made enough progress that the school would do something when a young man steps forward as an ally to the young women with whom he is sharing an education, but I’m not so sure.

This fall my daughter, my niece, and many of my female students will start college in the United States where each of them will statistically have a  1 in 4 chance of being the victim of sexual assault while a student there.

When Donald Trump refers to his recently leaked remarks about women as “just words” or  simple locker-room talk and when others defend him and claim that all men talk like that, they are doing damage to more than the orange tyrant’s campaign. Words spoken from the podium have power not only over how young women view themselves, but  over how young men view them as well.

The other day in my high school English class, Hillary’s Mirrors ad started before a Youtube clip that I was about to show to my students. As the commercial played a few boys in the class said things like, “Yah, Trump’s the man.” As I tried to pause the commercial, I failed to address the incident in a meaningful, teachable moment sort of way; these days, the political realm is so contentious, teachers are afraid to discuss the election. I now realize, however, that not only did I let down every young woman in that room, I also let down those young Trump supporters as well.

When I return to school this week, I will address not only what happened in class, but the ways in which words like those spoken by Trump are harmful to our world and have long reaching effects on the ways that women and men view themselves and each other. They must understand that actions such as domestic violence and rape can result from such contempt. The Representation Project

We need to teach young men to not only respect women, but to stand up for them when they can. Each time a man nods and smiles or laughs at disparaging comments about women without speaking out against them, he’s condoning them.

Where I teach, our feminist club is advised by a cis-gender, straight, male teacher. What a wonderful modeling of allyship for the girls and boys we educate. As much as some are claiming it, it is false that all men talk like that. Some do. Others listen to it. And some speak out against it and work with us to make things better for the women of this world.

They do not mention

Disney, just

next door to this;

 

49 absolute human

beings chopped down,

last call after the drag

 

queens had wiped off

their make-up and gone

home. No one is

 

waiting in line for Ariel’s

autograph or in the dark

cavern of Space Mountain

 

anymore. Sons texting from rest

rooms never

to be dropped off

 

into the gift-shop

at the end of the ride, where Mickey

waits in welcome.

 

Now, blood leaks

under the door of Pulse,

runs down Main Street, USA,

 

contaminates the slow stream

sliding through Pirates of the Caribbean

and pours down the face of each

 

princess. Eisner, Iger, heck,

Walt, himself, knows – every tragedy is

worse hitched to the Magic Kingdom.

I was a naive girl. I grew up on military bases from Fort Campbell, Kentucky to Fort Dix, New Jersey, which may have been some of the most racially egalitarian places in the country. Military bases often are. My neighborhood was diverse, but at the time I didn’t recognize that. Kids were kids. We all played together, went to each others birthday parties, snuck kisses behind trees, never paying attention to the color of each others skin.

Our neighborhoods were divided by military rank, so our dads were all Green Berets, or Drill Sergeants, or Rangers. We didn’t care much about that either.

I remember first learning about the United States’ history of intolerance in school: slavery, civil rights and racism. I thought how terrible things were back then. I believed that I lived in a time when people were equal. That racism was a thing of the past. I, of course, was wrong.

Although in the last week our country made strides towards equality with the Supreme Court decisions striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, it also backslid as well. Reminders of just how much racism is alive and well littered our television screens and social media. The SCOTUS decision striking down key aspects of the Voting Rights Act, reactions to the Paula Deen scandal, the George Zimmerman trial and its launching of social media vitriol against witness Rachel Jenteal are all evidence that this country is not sure about its position on just what makes something “racist” and if what to if something is deemed so.

I recently posted a Facebook status questioning the motivation of a woman in my small, New Hampshire town wildly flying a large confederate flag from the back of her pick-up truck. The responses I got clearly reflected an ambiguity about what makes something “racist.” A distinct dichotomy was present in the responses of my friends, who saw the flag as either a symbol of racial intolerance or as a symbol of southern pride.

As an American, I believe in freedom of expression. I would never take away another citizen’s right to display the confederate flag on his personal property or self. However, a person who makes the lifestyle choice to display that symbol must accept the fact that to thousands of other human beings it is an offensive one – even to other white Southerners. I know, because I’ve discussed it with some of them.

Even if the intentions of those displaying the flag are not overtly racist, the displayer must understand that to many the flag is a painful reminder of a time when the systematic oppression of others simply due to the color of their skin was an acceptable part of sustaining a good economy.  And no amount of revisionist history attempting to edit out the significance of slavery as one of the root causes of the Civil War is going to change that.

People like Paula Deen and George Zimmerman may have been raised in times or places where racism was just part of what the adults around them passed on, but they currently live in 2013. A time when they should know better.

For years church groups have attempted to send young gay people to “straight camps” to try and work the gay out of them. These have been failures, as being gay is a natural part of a human being, not a lifestyle choice as many believed. Fortunately, this practice is fast becoming a thing of the past as evidenced by the recent apology by Exodus International and the organization’s announcement that it will be shutting down its “pray away the gay” ministries.

Perhaps anti-racism camps could take the place of closing straight camps.  Unlike being gay, being racist is a trait that is learned, a lifestyle choice, and, therefore, can be cured. This somewhat naive girl still believes that.

At the beginning of the last school year, many of my English department colleagues and I decided to try free-choice reading in our high school classrooms. The practice, which has been used at the elementary and middle school levels for years, has gained popularity in the upper grades in its proven capacity to raise students’ reading ability by increasing the amount they are reading. Among the many questions we had about accountability and evaluating student progress, one question rose to the top: what if a student wants to read EL James’ 50 Shades of Grey?

Before I write on I need to make two things clear: I’m neither a prude nor a fan of censorship when it comes to reading material. When I was a teen reader, books like Judy Blume’s Forever or VC Andrew’s Flowers in the Attic were gateway books that led on to more high-brow naughty books like Peyton Place or Lady Chatterly’s Lover. These led me to discover more classics and to eventually start trying my own hand at novel writing.

One day the librarian in our small town New Hampshire library chastised me for what she deemed my inappropriate choice of a Judith Krantz novel. She shouted, “I don’t think your grandfather [who was an Episcopal priest in town] would approve of you reading this.” I knew that she was wrong. Everyone in my house was a fan of reading – everything.

However, our concerns over our high school students reading this particular naughty book caused me to think about the situation, not because I wanted to censor what my students chose – free choice reading is free choice reading – but because of the mainstream popularity these books were gathering. The trilogy of books have been best sellers for a while. Casting for the mainstream movie is taking place as I type this, with Gilmore Girl’s Alexis Bledel rumored to be one of the picks for the staring female role. At the mall you can buy 50 Shades merchandise – t-shirts with quotes from the novel and bracelets with handcuff charms. I didn’t see this merchandise in Victoria’s Secret or Frederick’s of Hollywood, though. These products were being marketed to teenagers in Icing, a store like Claire’s but for slightly older girls. And there is the problem.

The reigning story is that EL James started writing her books as Twilight fan fiction. Now, I don’t want to get too side-tracked with the quality of Stephanie Meyer’s writing, but I find the ultimate message that her books send to girls disturbing. Twilight is the story of a young woman who is manipulated by and falls in love with a man who’s nearly 100 years her senior. Throughout the course of their relationship, he is angry at her and emotionally abuses her. Eventually, she is willing to give up all of herself, including life, to be with this man. Not a good message for our young women to be receiving. Enter 50 Shades of Grey to up ante on abuse and make it seem like a normal part of a romantic relationship.

It’s one thing if girls are sneaking to read this book in the privacy of their own homes and feeling a little bit guilty about it. After all, isn’t that part of the fun of a dirty book? But people are reading this book openly at tables in restaurants. When I visited Star Island last summer, their tiny library contained the complete 50 Shades trilogy. Newsweek, while still in its print form, sported a blindfolded woman on its cover. What’s happening here is that through the relentless marketing of these books and merchandise, S & M is becoming normalized. And doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

By the end of the school year, our teacher-fears about the droves of students who’d be lining up to read 50 Shades of Grey proved unfounded. I had only one junior level student who included it on her reading reflection, and she’d read the book on her Kindle, so no one would know.

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