Saturday, November 26, 2005


I painted my kitchen over the Thanksgiving break. I told myself I was allowed to spend three days working on the kitchen, knowing I have so much other work to finish before the semester ends. I'd been wanting to paint it for four years, ever since the initial work on the house resulted in tearing out many of the "special inventions" that littered the house. Likely installed by the previous owner known as "Adelore Chevalier" by the name engraved in the attic, the "special inventions" included weird towel hangers, dangerous light switches, and other electrical stuff that might have burned the house down given the right amount of voltage. In the end, my kitchen was 5 different colors--beige, dark blue, red, yellow, and light blue--based on what had been installed at what time over the 50 years that Adelore lived in the house.

I decided to paint the kitchen yellow. In theory, it was a good idea. The kitchen would be sunny and happy and might hopefully cheer me up. Moreover, the yellow would match the 1950's era flooring that is decorated with orange and yellow flowers. In practice, it was a very bright, very garish yellow. It felt like the sun was inside my kitchen. Rather than hate it, I decided to accept it. Moreover, I decided to balance it out by hanging up even more garish art. Knowing that GradShitTowneVille is home only to the big box stores that sell reprints of Anne Geddes photographs, I decided to make my own garish art. I call it, "Spanish Swedish Chef with Cleaver." It's 22 by 28 inches big, and it's lovely.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Bad Talk, Good Talk

I went to a really good luncheon today. It was very different than the really bad talk I went to yesterday. The former was an IBM sponsored event targeted at women who are in the last stages of their PhD program and the opportunities that they have awaiting them. The latter was one academic's opinion of working in academia. Let me give you the secret title's of these talks; the actual description of the actual content of each one.

1. "In which two very distinguished, articulate, and snarky women from IBM encourage their audience to just stick with a PhD; that you have power to negotiate your completion plan with your advisor and that your thesis is only proof that you can start a big project and see it to completion, and there are plenty of opportunities in places that aren't sick, diseased, and horribly misogynistic."

2. "In which a narrowly-focused academic who has never had a job in industry perpetuates myths about how working at a top-tier university as a tenure-track professor is the greatest profession in the world which is perfectly fine opinion to have but then goes on to say that everything else is just a job; a stress-free, nine-to-five, job where no great ideas are formed and that you as an audience member should feel horribly guilty for considering anything else leaving the audience member to wonder about how teachers, waitresses, and engineers would feel about this."

I am very glad that (1) took place after (2). Yesterday I was depressed. Today I'm inspired.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Essay contest

I suppose that part of the reason I haven't been blogging is because I've been using up all my creative energies writing an essay for a contest I'm entering. I'll include the essay below, as a kind of apology for my lack of posts. My eternal thanks to the burdened few who helped me with feedback and revisions.

* * *

The Perfect Method

My college roommate was a nursing major and the first to define for me the word "episiotomy." Her initial explanation was non-verbal, a swift downward cutting gesture as she made a slicing noise through her teeth. Noting my confused stare, she added that an episiotomy is an incision made in the area of skin between the vaginal opening and the anus so that the space can be enlarged for the baby's head.

Her definition was traumatic, but I was a college kid trying to figure out the details of Thevenin and Norton circuits in my electrical engineering courses. The episiotomy was just another bit of theory to pack away in my head alphabetically, after decibels and emitters but before epsilon and Faraday. I was dedicated to my daily birth control pill. If 99.95% efficacy wasn't enough to prevent pregnancy, there was a clinic in my hometown that performed abortions. Babies were not an acceptable reality, so neither were episiotomies.

Back then, I loved my birth control pill. Twenty-one active blue tablets containing progestational and estrogenic compounds and seven inert green tablets packaged in a perfect foil blister pack. The pill was a testimony to my skills in mathematics. Figuring out how not to have a period during the three-day road trip with a new boyfriend was a matter of base-four arithmetic, counting back four weeks at a time from the desired period-free date and reducing the number of sugar pills accordingly. The pill kept me safe from pregnancy and thus safe from episiotomies.

After years of taking the pill, I decided it was a strange exercise to note a week's passage by extracting a candy pellet from a foil wrapper, placing it on my tongue and swallowing it. After the twenty-first pill, I'd throw the blister pack away in the bathroom garbage with the seven sugar pills intact. The following Monday I'd start a new pack. I'd been doing this for a year when the live-in boyfriend yelped from the bathroom one day.

"What? Why aren't you taking your pills?''

I immediately laughed. He didn't realize they were sugar pills. I thought of the episodes of Jerry Springer I'd watched about women who tried to lure men into loving them by having their baby. I imagined being on the show. I envisioned what I would wear and if I could get my hair unfashionably frosted by then. Maybe I could find that pair of splatter-paint stirrup pants I wore in 1987. If I could find
those, certainly I could find the matching hair clip which I would use to pull back my over-processed hair. I'd read my old BOP magazines to recall the methods used to give my bangs that cascaded waterfall look.

"This isn't funny!''

His yelling, as it always had, sobered me out of the situation's hilarity. My laughter hadn't given him the necessary clue. He wasn't kidding. He was angry that I would be so cavalier about getting pregnant. Quickly, too, I was angry. It wasn't the pills. I realized that he didn't know me well enough, despite our living every
day together, that I valued my education and my job too much for an accidental pregnancy in our ad-hoc relationship. He didn't realize that I was just living with him because our relationship wasn't great enough for me to consider marriage. We were only living together because he had argued and nagged about the financial advantages of co-habitation until I finally conceded.

I yelled back, "They're sugar pills!''

The conversation was over, but I had more fuel to add to my inner rage. This was in my early years when I chose silent resentment over open conflict and communication. I thought that asking for help or expressing my needs wasn't something a nice girl like me did. Instead, my anger was expressed in subtler ways. The boyfriend was left to guess why I wasn't doing his laundry anymore.

A few months later, I woke to a quiet house. Our other roommate had left the house early to walk the dog, and the boyfriend was sleeping. I went to the front door to get the mail. A note had been left on the inside of the door. It read, "DON'T GO OUT. BEES!"

I left the house through the garage and walked around to the front to find a swarm of angry bees at the front door. It was funny to see something at my own front door that I'd normally see on a public television documentary. Contemplating the situation, I was joined by the boyfriend. He had a different reaction, and barked the following orders,

"We should hose them down. Go get the hose. We'll hose them down."

It seemed like a bad idea to meddle with nature with Home Depot gardening equipment. I ignored him and watched the swarm. Fortunately, getting the hose was a woman's job, and I was spared the disaster that would come with spraying water at an already angry swarm of bees. Once in a while, a stray bee would come our way. The boyfriend would weave and dive around the yard, waving his arms until the bee returned to its swarm. I wondered about a possible PCP overdose, that he was hallucinating more bees than I saw.

It wasn't drugs. It was fear and anger. He was afraid of the bees and he was angry at the swarm at our front door. He could not tolerate the blatant injustice of the situation. He gathered up the despair felt by all those who'd been made homeless by the destructive forces of nature, and in his best Joan Crawford voice, shook a single fist at the bees and cried out to the sky above,

"We can't live like this?!"

I replied. "Like what? It's been fifteen minutes."

Determining the beginning of the end of a relationship is not easy. I don't know if it was the moment he found the pills in the garbage, or the day he wanted to pay a man $90 to take care of a bee infestation on a Saturday, rather than allow me to spray a can of $3 Raid. It might have been any one of the melees in between. I can't know the beginning of the end, but I can be thankful that there was one.

My relationship with this boy was before the advent of "The 26 Requirements." He had come before I had concocted my own recipe for my perfect mate and enforced its ingredients before unzipping my pants. He had come before my realization that I was a damn fine catch; that my combination of skills as a baker, an assembly language
programmer, a swimmer, a mechanic, a dancer, an electrical engineer, a gamer and a mountain climber was unique and high in demand in America. It was back when I was just one of those girls who didn't know any better than to fall in love a boy simply because he exhibited interest in me. I was a puppy, a twenty year old girl, starved for attention and any boy who would take eight seconds to laugh at one of my jokes was certainly worth loving. Had I written "The 26 Requirements" before meeting this particular boy, I would have been protected by items 2, 3, 7, 8, 11 and 23 through 26.

He must:

  1. Be a friend.
  2. Posses a fair sense of cleanliness.
  3. Be intelligent.
  4. Have a sense of humor.
  5. Know who he is and what he wants.
  6. Not be reliant upon white athletic socks as a wardrobe staple.
  7. Respect me and my opinions.
  8. Be capable of waiting patiently in a busy restaurant.
  9. Be able to get angry.
  10. Find me sexy.
  11. Make love to me often.
  12. Have a willingness and commitment to father children.
  13. Be able to tell stories
  14. Want to listen to mine.
  15. Be open to discussing any topic.
  16. Get along with my dog.
  17. Enjoy the outdoors.
  18. Have an ability to dance.
  19. Be able to appreciate \$6 chocolate cake.
  20. Be able to talk me out of my tree.
  21. Be able to nurture me when I'm sick or down.
  22. Not embarrass me.
  23. Not be afraid of bees.
  24. Spend more time with me than his computer.
  25. Not drink to excess.
  26. Love independent women.

Temporally speaking, these exact requirements didn't exist until after his departure, but it was the notion of "The 26 Requirements" which helped me to dump my live-in boyfriend. That, my severe mood swings and the twenty-five pounds I'd gained thanks to the pill. It had become traitor and I dumped it too.

Being boyfriendless, abstinence seemed like the new perfect method of episiotomy prevention. It's the first birth control method listed in any reproductive health textbook and it's 100% effective. In today's political climate, sometimes it's the only choice presented. It is also one of the most unrealistic forms of birth control. Certainly, people can be sanctimonious about abstinence when they don't have the opportunity for sex, but the human brain has evolved to turn off when
reproduction is on the line.

Abstinence worked well for me for two years. Once I got a new boyfriend, I needed something else. By then, I was attending graduate school in a Midwestern computer science department. The program was demanding; to the point that I was constantly in an environment consisting of 91% men, but it took me an entire year to get laid. It
wasn't even with a guy in my department. Instead, it was with a theoretical biophysicist from Minnesota who appeared to meet my requirements.

At the time, the newest form of birth control was the patch. Offered by the pharmaceutical company Ortho-McNeil under the name Ortho-Evra, women now had a hormonal method to pregnancy prevention delivered into the body via a sticker worn on the skin. It's reputed to be better than the birth control pill as women only have to think about it once a week, rather than once a day. Television commercials for the patch show a freshly showered woman giving the viewer a sneak glimpse of a perfect square adhered to her skin just above her size-four pastel panties. A calm female voice narrates as taffeta curtains billow in the windows. She assures the viewer that the patch won't fall off, and that, because it's delivered via the skin and not the liver, it doesn't affect the libido.

Like the Missile Defense Shield, the patch seemed to be the new idea that would revolutionize my world while protecting me from enemy warheads. I tried it, but unlike the woman on the television commercial, my patch was never that perfect pretty square. Instead, my patch wrinkled with the folds of my skin and within the week it had collected a black line of lint around its sticky perimeter. Over time, I came to find that the patch was never tested on other neurotic clean freaks like myself. My twice daily showers and tri-weekly lap swims made for a challenging body on which to keep a sticker for an entire week. I frequently lost the patch in the pool, left to wonder what effects it might have on the rest of the lap swimmers. I lost the patch in the bed sheets while I slept and it would sometimes fall off and reattach itself onto my clothing during the day.

After adding requirements 27, 28 and 29 to form what is now "The 29 Requirements" I dumped the physicist. That is, if dumping him meant that he dumped me in one of the worst methods of dumping in post-modern times. To reveal his method of dumping here would encourage those diseased with evil to attempt an even more abominably wicked method of dumping to include not only public humiliation on a major holiday in the suburban City of Surprise, Arizona after baking a homemade pumpkin pie, a 1000 mile road trip and $280 plane ticket to reach said public humiliation on said major holiday, but also a bratty sister, judgmental parents, a missed return flight, a missed wedding reception and six hours spent in O'Hare airport watching X-Men 2 three times at the AltiTUNES store. As a humanitarian gesture, I will not document further details here.

He must:
27. Take an active role in birth control.
28. Be able to fall in love with me.
29. Be able to tell me so when he does.

After a year of reflection and depression, my best conclusion about my relationship with the theoretical biophysicist was that he was a cowardly fool and I was a hopeful, ingenuous fool. Our relationship was built on an uneven base. I was a woman who wanted to prove herself with a great ability to have an open, loving relationship thanks in part to her new requirements. He was a man who wanted to have a last fling before graduating with his Ph.D. I fell in love quickly and hard. He never fell in love at all. I would say, "I love you." He would say, "I know." The unevenness was apparent in all that we did. I suffered. He wrote his dissertation. I waited and hoped that he would see the damn fine catch that he had. He waited and hoped I would just leave. The end came when he was no longer willing to wait.

After our relationship ended, I realized that the patch wasn't as free of side-effects as I hoped. I had to cope with the weekly sobbing that came with each Monday that I applied a new patch. I had to adjust my class schedule so I could stay home on Monday afternoons and cry. Despite my emotional disability, the patch was sexy in a white trash sort of way. Dressed in a tight camisole, I could wear it on my shoulder and broadcast to the general public that I had only a 0.05% chance of getting pregnant. It was the opposite message given by the female baboon whose gentalia increase in size when her fertility level is high. Instead, my message was, "Come hither big boy and we'll certainly fail to reproduce.''

Armed with "The 29 Requirements," it took me 14 months to find another boyfriend. This time he was a computer scientist from Texas. Even at 28 years old, I was still committed to avoiding an episiotomy. For my new method of prevention, I turned to the condom. The condom would be my new hero. While only 97% effective, there wouldn't be any hormones to wildly swing my moods. There wouldn't be anything to remember. Sex would become a simple three-step process.

  1. Locate erection.
  2. Apply condom to (1).
  3. Have sex.

The condom works fabulously for me. I can't say if this method works because the condom is a superior method, or because "The 29 Requirements" empowered me to find a more worthwhile man. I certainly suspect the latter. Arousal comes easily when the man who has his arms wrapped around you says he really loves you and "The 29 Requirements" help you to know that he really does.

So far, the condom has been the cheapest way to have reproductionless sex. It's pay as you go. I don't have to pay $20 every month for hormonal birth control whether or not I am active. Instead, by purchasing high-quality condoms on-line in bulk, I can have sex for just ninety cents a shot. Best of all, the boyfriend is involved,
since it's his erection on which the condom is applied, and he can show up with a 6-pack of Durex Avantis from time to time.

The condom also requires no prescription, which is truly advantageous if one finds herself without birth control in a foreign country. The trick is trying to figure out how the other culture feels about sexual activity. In the US, if a couple is caught without condoms, they go to an all-night drug store or a gas station. Generally, they'll be able to find a three-pack of latex Lifestyles. After avoiding eye contact with the cashier, they can make their way back to the wilderness to get in the mood again.

In Japan, drug stores only sell beauty products and health tonics while gas stations only sell gas. As a sexually active couple traveling during our summer vacation, the Texan and I had to find the Japanese equivalent to the American condom supplier. In a small part of Osaka known as "America-Town" I found Japan's interpretation of the typical US city. I'd visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Kamakura, and Osaka, but it was only in America-Town that I saw vandalism on the walls and garbage on the ground. Parked along the narrow streets, I saw low-riders, and it seemed like everyone was dressed as an extra in a 50 Cent music video. Next to the three-story McDonald's, I saw the
Condomania store. Alongside the golden arches was an animated condom urging passersby to "Stop AIDS!" and "Have Safe Sex!" The store was well-lit, the salesman well-dressed, and he even nodded at me when I gave him my selection of UMark large polyeurathane condoms. I paid my 1700 yen and he bowed slightly as he handed me my purchase in a neatly wrapped bag.

To date, there are still 29 requirements. There is still an eclectic collection of international polyeurethane and latex condoms and a prescription for Plan B in the drawer of my bedside table. To date, I've seen an evolution in my relationship with the episiotomy, just as I've seen an evolution in how I prevent from getting one. What began as trauma and theory as a sexually active twenty year old on the pill, has become fear and reality as a sexually active twenty-nine year old with a handful of Kimono Microthins. Epsiotomies are more real to me now. My friends are getting them. They talk about their birthing plans, the hours of laboring and the midwife who had previously agreed not to cut, but in the sixteenth hour admits defeat.

Because it is so real, mentioning an episiotomy to me is like mentioning a good kick in the balls to a man. My body doubles over slightly, I squeeze my thighs together and my face twists into a wince. I imagine at some point, my method of episiotomy prevention will no longer include avoiding pregnancy. I imagine I will someday make the choice to have a child and the average thirteen cm diameter skull will be making its way out my average ten cm diameter vagina. Once again, I will have to find a new perfect method.