The only thing the media seems able to cover these days is the apparent disaster that is the Affordable Care Act–its rollout, its website problems, its bureaucratic entanglements, new revelations about insurance companies dropping people they weren’t supposed to be able to drop, and so on. Underneath it all is the persistent strain of rugged individualism to which half the country clings when it suits their interests to do so, and that is: Why should I be paying for someone else’s health care?
I’m starting a feature of Songs I Would Cover Were I in a Band.
Today’s feature is “Saint John”, perhaps my favorite Cold War Kids song of all time. (It’s likely everyone’s favorite CWK song of all time.) It’s an exceptional song from their exceptional record Robbers and Cowards, and as you can see if you click on this link, it’s performed exceptionally. This one always brings the house down at their shows. I would cover this song if I were in an indie rock band named something cheesy like Sunlight and Shadows. I’d be the one banging a kettle drum and using my beer bottle as percussion.
Of all the profoundly annoying things that Midwesterners (and probably Southerners) have to endure in social situations in, say, California, is to pay homage to the coastally-entrenched belief that being from the Midwest is like a disease you have to get over. Getting out and never looking back is assumed to be the goal of anyone unfortunate enough to have been born in between Philadelphia and Phoenix. Unfortunately, this idea is so thoroughly ingrained that vast swaths of the country grow up feeling as though they have to apologize for where they’re from.
Upon reading “Beastly Appetites” in the latest issue of The New Yorker, I was struck yet again with what I guess is known as the omnivore’s dilemma: loving animals but also loving eating them, as the author of the article put it. In this case, she was mainly talking about two species beloved by North Americans yet eaten with relish in other parts of the world: whale and horse. Her point was that some species just seem too humanlike to eat. Poppycock! My take on eating animals of any kind is this: if you’re going to draw lines in the sand about what animals are OK to eat (notwithstanding endangered species or predators–I’m talking about eating a hamburger while you rail against the Japanese for harpooning whales), you absolutely cannot accede to the moral high ground. The Orwellian principle of doublethink holds true here. If you eat hamburgers, even those hamburgers made from the flesh of formerly happy, grass-fed, free-range cows, you cannot get your undies twisted up about people in the Netherlands chowing down on horsemeat burgers.
I have tattoos covering a good third of my body, which coupled with my being a woman, apparently gives people license to comment upon my personal appearance or offer their unsolicited opinions on it. Many, many times I have been advised–by people with no tattoos, and usually people with no vagina–that my ink is “pretty good” or that “this one would look cooler if X was added”. My arms have been touched and even stroked without my permission. People have told me their elaborate plans for tattoos. People have shown me some truly awful tattoos. Formerly incarcerated men are impressed by me. And people always want to know how much this shit costs. (A lot, OK? But I’m not going to tell you how much, because then you will freak out, even though I guarandamntee that you spend more on a month of cable and iPhone service than I did on my last tattoo. Plus, my tattoo’s permanent, and your iPhone will be obsolete next year. Just sayin’.)
Lest you think I am whining, let me explain. Generally speaking, people who get visible, large tattoos are not unaware that they may receive some attention because of them. And there are plenty of instances in which getting attention is not such a bad thing. Few of us are above wanting to look appealing to members of any sex, most of the time. Tattoos will definitely get you that attention, for better or worse. Some people genuinely hate them–I’ve had more people than I can count (and not all old men, either), scold me for sullying my skin with ink. Some love them. Most people fall into a sort of middle category, where they are interested in people with tattoos–and maybe they have a small one or two themselves–but they couldn’t imagine actually “going so far”.
This may be changing, however. The more I look around, the more tattoos I see. Once relatively uncommon unless you were a sideshow freak or a sailor, the generations after X have made tattoos in many circles more the norm than the exception. Generations above X are being forced to adapt, smilingly forced to hire or admit into grad school or even work for people who are covered in permanent ink. Tattoos no longer mean you’re a felon or a woman of ill repute–although plenty of felons and women of all kinds of reputes do have them. If you are one of the few people who doesn’t have one and doesn’t plan on getting one–but you do plan on talking/working/sleeping with someone who is substantially tattooed–here is a quick list of dos and don’ts that you may want to consult so as not to look like a dumbass in front of your cool new friend/coworker/sexy friend.
1. Do not touch the tattooed area without asking first. But you may want to ask yourself: why the hell do you want to touch it? A tattooed arm feels no different from a bare arm, unless it’s still healing. In which case, you really shouldn’t touch it, because it hurts.
2. If you are trying to pick up a girl that has a tattoo, you might want to think of another way to strike up a conversation other than asking about her tattoo. Realize that you are the 500th guy that day who has asked her about her tattoo(s). I’m sure you could think of a number of other things to remark upon. Those Cardinals! This crazy Missouri weather! Isn’t this a great song? What kind of beer is that? etc. etc. Personally, I find it AMAZING when men tell me that they like my outfit or my shoes, because men really never notice shit like that.
3. Do not make any value judgment on the size, location, content, or cost of the tattoo. It shouldn’t be up to the person to defend what they look like. Is the size too big for you? Well, it’s not your body. Is the location (i.e. skull, chest, face) not to your liking? Well, they’re the one who has to get a job with that. Don’t like the content? Well, you have no idea what unique and fascinating things have happened in that person’s life that may have resulted in them getting a zombie Hello Kitty tattoo. If the content is offensive, like a swastika, you should reconsider the bars you hang out in, anyway. And why are you asking how much it costs? How much do you spend on your fancy car payment? Your cable bill? Your organic kombucha? Maybe you’re the one wasting money. Also: the mantra “you get what you pay for” is true nowhere so much as the tattoo business.
4. Refrain from telling the tattooed person the many ideas for tattoos that you have and would like to get at some hazy point in the future. (When I get a job/graduate/have money/move out of my parents’, etc.) Who cares? If you are my age and you haven’t yet gotten a tattoo, chances are you probably aren’t ever going to get one, and that is totally fine. Tattooed people do not think that you are cooler for having ideas about getting tattoos and then not getting them. In fact, you are probably lamer.
5. If you have a shitty tattoo, do not show it to someone who has a really nice one, as though you are brothers in solidarity. The crooked outline of a skull you got from your ex-sister-in-law in a meth trailer with a homemade needle? Yeah, that really doesn’t compare to the 20+ hours I spent with clenched teeth as my artist carefully and laboriously brought a painting to life on my skin. Also, do not pull up your shirt or pull down your pants to show your shitty tattoo unless specifically asked to do so.
6. For the love of god, DO NOT ASK IF THE TATTOO HURT. I have no idea why people do this. I used to think I got this question because I am a female and perhaps dudes like to think that females are not as tough as they are when it comes to being tattooed. (Tattoo artists will tell you differently.) But I have heard people ask my brother and other male acquaintances whether their tattoos hurt, so despite my best efforts to make this about gender, I guess it really isn’t. The thing is this: every tattoo hurts. It’s a fucking needle being dragged and swiped and bored under your epidermis. It does not feel pleasant. Some places DO hurt more than others, but in general, tattoos=ouch.
7. Best not to ask what it “mean” or “symbolizes” or “represents”. “What is that supposed to be?” “What is that?” I feel like an idiot answering these questions. “It’s a woman picking an apple out of a tree.” “Oh, so it’s Eve?” “Well, sure. I guess Eve was the only woman who ever picked an apple out of a tree.” Some tattoos have deep meanings to people; mine generally have no meaning behind them other than I think they’ll look pretty. Surprisingly, this disappoints a lot of people (a lot of non-tattooed people) who apparently believe strongly that all tattoos should mean something very meaningful.
8. Unless you have a number of tattoos and are saying it just to be cheeky (and that’s acceptable), best to steer clear of using the word “ink”. It might be cliquish of us, but people with tattoos will just snicker behind your back if you tell them you like their “ink” or you’re thinking of getting “inked”. I’m actually snickering right now just remembering the last guy who said “ink” to me: a pudgy little dude with a goatee and miles of pasty un-tattooed flesh, who, after appraising me from head to toe, informed me without being ironic that i had “cool ink.” (Golly gee, thanks, mister!)
This is a mighty long list of don’ts–now what about some dos?
1. When you are engaged in a conversation about tattoos with someone who has them or has more of them than you, you should remember exactly that: they have them and you don’t, or they have more/bigger ones than you. So they probably know more about tattoos and getting tattooed than you do. So you should let them do most of the talking and volunteering of information. If they want to tell you how much it cost, great. If they want to tell you what it symbolizes, awesome. No value judgments on their choices, no assessments of their work–because your opinion is likely uninformed, and that’s just gauche.
2. DO ask people with great tattoos who their artist is.
3. DO exchange silly stories about tattoo experiences if you have them. Everyone loves a ridiculous tattoo story. (”I went with my friend to get her first one. We were 16 and in juvy…”)
4. DO say something complimentary and quick if you must. “That’s beautiful work” is always nice. “Good lookin’ arm.” “Great colors.”
Good luck out there!
Today, I seriously wanted to hit a woman.
I was walking toward the Independence Center, a clubhouse run by persons with severe mental illness, to meet with the adjunct instructor for whom I am a teaching assistant this semester. The Center happens to be located next door to Planned Parenthood’s headquarters in St. Louis. This is where, twice a month, anti-choice protesters gather in advance of a doctor’s arrival, seeking to harass and intimidate women who exercise their (shrinking) constitutional right to surgically terminate a pregnancy.
As a social worker, I would frequently get asked by people outside the human services field (and sometimes those within it) whether working with survivors of intimate partner violence was “depressing” or “sad”. (When I worked at a community mental health center in Michigan, I was frequently asked whether working with people with mental illness was “dangerous” or “scary”.) This question doesn’t usually bother me coming from people whose day job involves something so totally outside the realm of my own experience and interests that it seems genuinely curious. For instance, I often wonder how people who design websites can sit behind a computer for hours on end, every single day, typing and cutting and pasting little pieces of code into little windows. I’m further impressed by people who work in offices, sell real estate, or find fulfillment as a restaurant chef. The fascination is there because, well, the idea that your day job involves low pay and long hours with people who have been brutalized (and who can often be fairly brutal themselves) doesn’t compute for many people who went to school for marketing.*
Every morning when I thread my fingers through your laces, I feel my heart beat heavily against my chest in anticipation. I prefer a double knot and I have to jump up twice to make sure you’re tight but not constricting. I think about where we’re going to go as I reach toward you in a standing stretch. Out the door, down the steps of my front porch, out to the corner of Shenandoah and Magnolia and you cushion the muscles of my feet and legs as they churn and warm. And then, who knows?
Yesterday we headed south through Tower Grove Park, through the Morgan Ford business district and across the train tracks as a soft rain began to fall. I had the vaguest slip of memory from childhood, watching a ribbon of asphalt curve up Carondelet Park from the window of a passing car. I wanted to see Horseshoe Lake although I didn’t remember that’s what it was called, barely more than a puddle where once, my brother and I fed ducks with a loaf of moldy bread. I passed Chippewa and the city soured a little, rundown clapboard houses and expressionless faces regarding me from behind cigarette smoke. The windmill on Delor was static against a murky sky. It rained harder. My iPod stopped working, or I bumped the off button accidentally–I don’t know. I continued in silence, lungs pumping and sirens all around and somewhere over the Mississippi there was a halfhearted thunderclap.
By the time we reached Holly Hills the city turned on itself again, all tree-lined boulevards and sidewalks without ruts. Carondelet Park straddles the divide of poor and not-so-poor, but this city’s small enough that every other park does the same. Soaking now, soles swishing softly against the paved trail winding up through and around the park. No one else around by this time–I saw the looks from people in cars or peering out of living room windows–”Who would be out in this?” But I don’t mind it. My clothes wet all the way through, my legs pulling me up and up and up these hills–sometimes I catch myself smiling through long gulps of air and passersby think I’m smiling at them, and wave back. What I’m really happy about, though, has nothing to do with anybody else. It has everything to do with my feet kissing the ground beneath me, outside air thick around me, and my muscles propelling me on fast forward through the world. It’s just my Brooks and willpower that make it possible.
I turn north from the park’s eastern entrance and pound up Grand, past another rough part and nice part and then the sort of rough-nice part, which is where I stay. I can feel the beginnings of a blister on one baby toe from my wet socks and despite all the rainwater, sweat dripping into my eyes. I don’t want this to end but I know my body needs to rest, and my Brooks can only take so many miles. Tomorrow’s another day and another opportunity for experiencing the world on two legs, fast-forwarded.
I went to a lecture today by a visiting professor who I’d heard practiced “feminist law” (also I thought there might be free snacks. There weren’t.) The subject of the lecture was about the gender gap in academia–not the gender ACHIEVEMENT gap, which has received quite a bit of popular press recently, but your good old-fashioned gender gap: pay, benefits, promotion, etc. I wasn’t expecting to get as angry as I did. For one thing, although I consider myself–or at least, others consider me–a pretty radical Marxist-feminist who sees gender discrimination and a heterosexist paradigm where other people see an engagement party. Yet I’m also aware that I’ve had the immense privilege of spending most of my adult life working in largely supportive, female-dominated non-profits or sheltered by the four walls of a graduate school. By and large, these are both places where there are women in all kinds of roles–leadership, supporting, middle management, you name it–as well as the sort of liberal-humanist mindset that leads to recycling and yoga practice. As such, I have rarely felt as though I have been the victim of direct, institutionalized, plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face sex discrimination. If anything, Title IX has done me proud. However…
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this movie all week.
People who know me well know that 1) I’m not a big movie-goer and 2) when I do go to movies, I’m a terrible movie-watcher. However, this past Thursday I was treated to a screening of “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth”, specifically a documentary about a notorious St. Louis housing project and generally a portrait of the North American city during the past half-century. Several former Pruitt-Igoe residents spoke afterwards (to the crowd of 800 squeezed into a tiny chapel on my university campus) about this failed sociological “experiment” that continues to replicate itself on the vast frontier of hopelessness that so often characterizes our response to poverty in these United States. However, as one of the panel members was quick to point out–she had moved into Pruitt-Igoe as a child and, before its widely publicized demolition, responded to calls there as a law enforcement officer–all was not broken dreams and despair inside the walls of these gigantic high-rises. “Poverty never created immorality; poverty created want,” said a sociologist who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Pruitt-Igoe situation. I can’t agree more, and further: allowing poverty in this country is, to me, the greatest sin of all.
The title quote above is attributed to one of the professors in my department, who moderated the panel discussion following the screening. Beyond the obvious cataclysm of poverty and racism to which the movie speaks, there is an overwhelming sense–as the movie draws to a close–that nothing has really changed. That instead of addressing the real problems of class and institutionalized racism headfirst, we are attempting to put a 21st century spin on the same old shit. So now instead of white people bulldozing out to the suburbs, we have selected class of young educated professionals bulldozing into “economically depressed” neighborhoods where their very presence is enough to jack up the property values, only to leave as soon as they have kids.
The particular ways in which white flight have impacted St. Louis are also dealt with in the movie; the city–county divide is still so incredibly stark, it seems almost unreal in the 21st century. In Jonathan Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-seventh City, he thoroughly explains the (shortsighted) historical decisions that set the stage for the Gateway City’s unique boundaries and zoning laws. Unfortunately, backroom bargains by a few corrupt politicians in the 1800s have led to a world of disastrous fiscal consequences that made things like Pruitt-Igoe possible, and which continue to affect us today.