Saturday, February 19, 2011

When gender matters

Yesterday I learned that my cat, Lady, is intersex. I called the woman who gave her to me to confirm that she had all her vaccinations and had been spayed. "Well, she didn't need to be spayed," the woman told me. "We call her a "she", but she actually has partially formed organs of both sexes. They named her Lady Gaga at the shelter."
"Oh," I said, startled.
"It just happens sometimes," she said calmly.

And that was it. It was the first time I'd heard anyone outside a gender studies class bring up intersexuality. And, more amazing, it was so casual. We both know Lady is a happy, healthy, very pleasant cat. There's no reason to worry about her dating life, or what kind of clothes she should wear, or whether she will want to have kittens. It's just something that "happens sometimes."

But when intersex humans are born, we freak out. In gender studies classes you always have to read the diary of Herculine Barbin, a French intersex person born in 1838. Her story paints a grim picture of Victorian gender roles. She was raised as a girl but later determined to be "more male than female", so had to start living as a man. It was impossible to get a job because she was dropped into her twenties with her past erased; while living as a man she couldn't tell people she had spent the last ten years as a ladies' maid. Destitute and forbidden to see her childhood girlfriend, she committed suicide. The diary constantly expresses the pain of not fitting in, complete with many exclamation marks. (This was the 1850s, after all.)

Around 1% of children are born with some "sexual ambiguity". Many of them are surgically altered - essentially, if your penis is too small, they cut it off so you can be raised as a girl. Many adult intersex people are not so happy about the choice doctors and parents made for them. We go through a lot of rigmarole to make people fit the binary.

Lady (...Gaga?) is sleeping beside me on the couch. Because gender doesn't matter to cats, their sex doesn't really matter either. If only we left everybody in as much peace.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Gingered spinach with almonds and raisins

I usually think I don't need a recipe to cook vegetables. But this one of those unintuitive recipes that comes out far better than you hoped.

Gingered spinach with almonds and raisins

Rinse about a pound of fresh spinach. It cooks down a lot.

Heat in a skillet on medium-high:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter

Sauté for three minutes:
some chopped almonds or pine nuts
some raisins (if they are shriveled, please soak them in a little water first)
1 teaspoon grated ginger

Remove that stuff from the pan. Put the spinach in the pan, cover, and let it cook down until it's as wilted as you want it. Stir everything together with some salt and pepper.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Couscous love

Thanks to the valentine exchange folks! The valentines are lovely!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The blues

I've been thinking about how the blues shows up in different cultures. We use the term to mean a specific kind of black American lament, but the same idea pops up all over the world.

Spain has the cante jondo, the "deep song." It's from the Roma (Gypsy) tradition - a people who have some major reasons to feel down. From what I can understand of the lyrics, they're mostly about lost love. But a lot of it doesn't even have words - it's just boiled-down sorrow expressed by a man and a guitar.

Tú a mí me lastimas
cómo aguja de muerte.
Mi sangre grita.
(You hurt me
like a death-needle.
My blood screams.)

A missing lover is also the main theme of American blues, as in Muddy Waters' "Garbage Man":

My baby, she run away with the garbage man.
Yeah, you know, my baby, she run away with the garbage man.
Please come back to me, so you can empty my garbage can.

I don't know where this little girl been, and I don't know where she going.
I don't know where this woman been, and I don't know where she going.
Please come back to me, woman - my garbage can is overflowing.

The American bluesman, like his Spanish equivalent, laments the lack of sex. But in Ireland, the equivalent of blues is a female genre. Sex is the problem in these songs. In Blackwaterside, the speaker realizes her lover is not sticking around:

That's not the promise that you made to me
When first you lay on my breast,
You could make me believe with your lying tongue
That the sun rose in the west.

There's not one girl in this whole wide world
So easily led as I
When the fish do fly and the seas run dry
It's then you'll marry I.

Although the lyrics have different themes (essentially boiling down to who gets pregnant), I'm not sure the literal content is the important thing. In all three cases, the songs of sorrow come from vulnerable people - people coming from grinding poverty and physical danger from those in power. Fats Waller was more straightforward about it than most in his "Black and Blue":

I'm white inside, but that don't help my case
Cause I can't hide what is in my face
How will it end? Ain't got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?

Pain comes out, and everybody knows it when they hear it.