Friday, April 27, 2012

Summer blonde

Opinions on my hair color vary. I think of myself as blonde, because I was very blonde as a child. Jeff alternately thinks of my hair as brown (because he met me when I was 21) or as blonde (because my current hair color is the same as his cousin's, who was also blonde as a child and whose hair color Jeff has not mentally updated in the last few decades). My best friend in high school aptly called it "hair-colored hair."

So when spring came, I started my usual habit of waiting for buses with my hair spread out on my shoulders, trying to catch as much sun as possible to lighten it a bit. But after a few weeks of this, I wondered if this wasn't the year to invest $1.05 in a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. It seemed like cheating, but how was a five-minute application of chemicals really worse than standing around outdoors waiting for UV damage?

After a little experimenting, my hair was lighter. Not quite the streaky gold that normally happens in summer, but a flatter yellow. It looked okay. I hoped people wouldn't notice that I had changed it.

But a few of them did (though not Jeff, who couldn't see the difference even after I told him.) Various coworkers and acquaintances asked, "Did you lighten your hair? I like it!" At first I was annoyed that they were calling attention to it - didn't they realize it was shameful to dye your hair? Eventually I realized they didn't see it that way. After all, most American women dye their hair at some point. But I, in my Victorian way, thought of it as vain and fake.

Other people, even ones who see me often, said nothing. I hoped that meant they hadn't noticed.

And then last week I went to the New England Folk Festival and saw about 80,000 old friends, many of whom commented on the change. Hearing all that made it clear that the change was noticeable. And that people who hadn't commented - such as my entire family - had probably been going by the "if you don't have anything nice to say" rule.

Most horrifyingly, a couple of people identified me as a redhead. I knew that people's color vision varies, and I'd had that argument about whether the shirt is purple or blue, but it had never occurred to me that this would apply to my head. If there was anything I didn't want to look like more than a woman who dyes her hair, it was a woman who dyes her hair red. And roots! I assumed people with their roots showing were kind of lazy, but somehow dark roots appeared instantly. I hated looking like a bottle blonde. (Or a bottle redhead.)

We can talk about the social justice implications of this if you want. We can talk about my internalized sexism, my artificial definition of "natural", and the fact that I've read too much Louisa May Alcott. But ultimately, I just wanted to not be embarrassed about my head.

So today, in order to look like the kind of woman who doesn't dye her hair, I dyed my hair again. It's back to its regular color (which is, according to the Revlon box, "lightest golden brown"). The act finished, I went outside to catch the bus into Medford center. I went back to my springtime ritual of standing with my back to the sun.

A man, one elbow leaning out his car window, leered at me as he passed. "Hey, Goldilocks!" he shouted.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Remember their names

I was at the New England Folk Festival this weekend, listening to a ballad singer from Kentucky singing “Pretty Polly.” It's a classic murder ballad in which Polly's jealous lover brings her to the woods:

Oh Willie, oh Willie, I'm afraid of your ways
I'm afraid you will lead my poor body astray.

Pretty Polly, pretty Polly, your guess is just right
I dug on your grave the best part of last night.

He stabbed her to the heart and her heart's blood did flow
And into the grave pretty Polly did go.

And it struck me, as it sometimes does, how full this tradition is of violence to women. Yes, there are ballads where men get killed by other men. And there is a little female-on-female violence, as in “The Twa Sisters.” There's plenty of suicide and occasional infanticide.

But most often, it's men killing women. A ballad about a female wrongdoer is one where she cheats on her lover. A ballad about a male wrongdoer is usually one where he murders his lover.

There's the supremely creepy “Longlankin”:

My lady came down
Not thinking any harm
Longlankin stood ready
To catch her in his arms.

There's blood in the kitchen
There's blood in the hall
There's blood in the parlor
Where my lady did fall.

There's the highwayman ballad “All Alone and Lonely” (with a very amateur robber who somehow doesn't have any better weapon than a penknife):

It's will you be a robber's wife?
All alone and lonely
Or will you die by my penknife?
Down by the green woodsidey-o

I will not be a robber's wife
All alone and lonely
And so he took her own sweet life
Down by the green woodsidey-o.

As a teenager, I loved the gory ballads. Now I feel the weight of them. From the forests of England to the deserts of Juarez, the murders are real. A few weeks ago I saw Peggy Seeger singing “Tom Dula”, about an actual murder from 1866.

You killed poor Laura Foster,
And you know you're bound to die.

Peggy paused the song and said, “I want to remember their names, the women who died.”

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Just breathe

I'm shocked every time I meet someone who didn't know how to breathe.

I mean, they know how to breathe, or they'd be dead. But if they try to take a deep breath, their belly tenses and their shoulders go up. They don't know how to breathe to their best advantage.

I was taught to breathe properly by everyone from my choir director to my gynecologist. But I keep meeting people at the psych hospital who don't know how to slow down and deepen their breathing. Which is pretty much the first skill anyone with a mental illness should learn, because your breath is the quickest and easiest way to adjust your stress response. Psychiatrists have a bad rap for pushing meds at the expense of other methods, but I love that the doctor on my team makes patients practice deep breathing.

If you've gotten this far in your life without learning deep breathing, do it now. It is your best tool against everything from rage to stage fright.

When you take in air, your belly should expand. (It's not really your belly muscles that are working, but your diaphragm below your lungs.) If you put your hand on your belly, you should be able to feel the expansion as you breathe in. Your chest will also be expanding, but focus on the diaphragm area.

Now slow it down. Make your exhale last for a count of 10.

Try it for thirty seconds. You can do one, or a couple, whenever you need them.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dinner and discussion at our house

Jeff and I have periodic gatherings where friends talk about effective giving and how that fits into our lives. There's one tomorrow. If you're in Boston, you should come!

Wednesday April 18th, 6pm

We can give rides to the Red Line at the end of the evening.

Email me (juliawise07atgmaildotcom) if you think you'll come, and let me know if you have special food needs.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Child things

I'm not entirely sure if Jeff and I should have kids. I've seen the evidence that parents are less happy than non-parents. I understand that I'm the product of many, many generations of mammals that successfully reproduced, and that we are all selected to be good at parenting. And I understand that evolution does not have my personal interests at heart, and that it may have bred me to want something that will not actually make me happy.

But boy, do I want it.

Any actual babies need to wait until I've finished school and have had a job long enough to get medical leave. So in the mean time, I'm sewing stuff.

A mouse in an Altoid tin bed, from this idea.

A marble maze, from this idea.

And a Waldorf-style weighted doll.

(Watching a woman and her 10-year-old grandson at the bus stop the other day gave me food for thought. They were cursing at each other, threatening to knock each other into traffic. At one point she rounded on me and said, "You have kids? Don't have none!" I gave her a half-smile and thought, "I bet the findings on parental happiness are dragged down by people with terrible parenting skills. I'm sure I can do better than this.")

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Project: Easter hat

A few weeks ago I thrifted a pink taffeta party dress with an unfortunate frill down the front. I ripped off the frill, made it into some flowers for the bodice, and it's now ready for dancing.

I decided this dress could also make an appearance at Easter, and having leftover fabric from the frill meant I could make a matching hat. There are few occasions in modern life to wear a fancy hat, and I sure am not letting Easter pass me by.

First step: a cardboard base held together with masking tape and staples. I'm pretty sure this method came from some distant memory of Halloween costume instructions in a Childcraft book.

I wrapped some quilt batting over it to smooth it out and tacked on some white fabric and lace from a thrifted skirt.

I made a flower from the leftover frill and a button, plus a veil cannibalized from a hand-me-down vintage hat. I tried it without the veil, but a pillbox hat with no veil makes you look like a flight attendant.

And voila, a pleasantly 60's Easter outfit. Except if it were really the 60's I would have gloves and a matching jacket as well, which is a bit much.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Nerd life

I just finished Brian Nugent's very enjoyable book American Nerd.
There are sections on the history of nerds, nerds and Japan, nerds and Jewishness, old nerds, nerds and jocks, fake nerds, nerds and autism, nerds and polyamory, nerds and escapism, nerds and science fiction, nerds and debate clubs, nerds and ham radio, nerds and the SCA, nerds and roleplaying games.

Except almost nothing on gender. What?

So, to fill that gap, a few vignettes from my life as a girl nerd:

It's lunchtime in fourth grade. I am explaining to Leslie, who has no friends but me, why we should stick together. “We're both rejects,” I tell her. She draws back, affronted. “We're not rejects!” she says. I'm puzzled. It hadn't occurred to me that she wanted to be normal.


It's the first week of eighth grade. In a lesson on prehistory, the teacher is trying and failing to pronounce “Australopithecus.” I blurt out the correct pronunciation (which my father taught me in early childhood because he thought it was fun to say). The boy next to me gives me a glare and begins looking for alliterative insults. “Fruity female” is the best he can manage. “Geek girl” seems more apt, but I don't suggest it.


It's lunchtime in seventh grade. I'm sitting next to my two best friends, Bridget and Christine, on one side of a cafeteria table. We have been obsessed with Star Wars for a year now, and the school's two male Star Wars fans are seated opposite us. Under Greyson's leadership, we are making up roleplaying characters. I begin describing my character, a space-traveling musician named Anya. “Why are your characters always girls?” Grayson complains. “Just because you're girls doesn't mean your characters have to be.”

“Your characters are always boys,” we retort. He's right, though – female characters are an anomaly in the Star Wars universe. George Lucas (a boy) populated his trilogy with 97% male characters.


It's Bridget's thirteenth birthday, and four of us are spending the night at her house. While her parents sleep, we are roleplaying that we have been captured by Imperials and are escaping a detention cell. This is not papers-and-dice roleplaying, but advanced make-believe with lots of pretend blaster battles and dodging behind furniture.

Christine and Cass, aspiring writers, use roleplaying as a way to test out plots in which they make daring raids and die nobly. Bridget, a future lawyer, and I, a future social worker, use it as a way to test out moral principles. Bridget has been trying to persuade us that the Empire is a legitimate government and we shouldn't be trying to overthrow it at all. I've been trying to persuade Amy that shooting stormtroopers is wrong. They are having none of it.

We all like daring escapes, though, so we do plenty of that.


It's two weeks after the Columbine shootings, and the local paper has run an editorial denouncing parents who raise "geeks and goths." I write my first-ever letter to the editor, defending geeks as kids parents should be proud of. A girl sidles up to me at the lunch table. "I really liked your letter in the paper," she mutters, and skitters away.


It's tenth grade, and I can't bring myself to tell the president of the chess club how desperately I love him. One day I go to chess club just to be near him. There is only one other girl there, and she's really good at chess. I'm not, and I spend the meeting leaning silently on a wall because I can't stand to lose to a boy. Anyway, I despise the girls who join robotics club to be near boys they like, and I don't want to be one of them.


It's eleventh grade, and we are gathered after school to play Dungeons and Dragons. (My father, who originally forbid me to play D&D because he had heard it would lead us to hack each other to pieces with axes, has relented.) Christine is Dungeonmaster, and she has recruited two feckless boys to play with us. One of them is in love with her.

(Nugent points out that D&D is essentially combat reworked for physically awkward people, a way of reducing battle to dice rolls and calculations. Christine has been trained by her uncle in the typical swords-and-sorcery style of play, but when she and I play the culture is different. All our adventures feature pauses for our characters to make tea and omelets.)

On this afternoon, our characters are venturing into the countryside and come across two emaciated farmers who tell us their fields are unplowed because dark elves from the forest keep attacking them. “They're going to starve if they don't get a crop in the ground,” I declare. “We've got to plow at least one field.” The boys go along with this plan.

“The farmers tell you their plow has rusted and doesn't work,” the Dungeonmaster informs us from behind her screen.

I persist. “There's got to be something we can use. I look around to see if there's anything else pointy I can use as a plow.”

The Dungeonmaster considers. “There's a metal gate,” she decides.

“Okay, I rig up some kind of harness and hitch it to the pony.”

“It's rusty too,” intones the Dungeonmaster, “and pieces of it keep breaking off. Look, you're not supposed to be farming. You're supposed to go into the forest and find the dark elves. I don't have anything else about the farmers. The elves are the adventure.” Reluctantly, I give up my agricultural rescue plan and we go into the forest to hack at elves.


I'm 25 and Jeff's sister's boyfriend is complaining that he never gets to play Magic: the Gathering because he doesn't know anyone who plays. “You could play with Julia,” Jeff suggests.
“Very funny,” says Danner, rolling his eyes.
Jeff and I look at each other. I realize geeks no longer read me as a geek. I still love ideas, love alternate imaginings of how life could be, love being right, but now I care about seeming normal.
“...I wasn't joking,” Jeff says.
“It's okay,” I reassure Danner. “I used to play every day, but I've pretty much forgotten how.”