Notes From Underground*

September 3, 2022

*Apologies to Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I’ve been musing about the changes in telephone customs over the course of my life.

In the 70s (in Ohio) social performance around phones centered on etiquette. Except in an emergency or when expressly invited, you called between 9:00 am and 9:00 pm, except between 6:00 and 7:00 pm, the supposed dinner hour. Calling during dinner hour was height of rudeness. Calling after 9:00 pm was unthinkable. The only permissible ways of answering were to state your name or to chirp “hello?” in a pleasant voice. If it was a wrong number, you politely informed the caller and assured them that they were forgiven before gently replacing the receiver. You limited your phone call to 30 minutes max. Other people might be trying to call.

As teenagers we made fun of these rules, dreaming of the day when we had our own number. Smartasses who took Spanish class said “Bueno” when they answered the phone. What rascals we were.

Rich people had lots of phone extensions. See, the house had to be wired for each extension. The richer you were, the less steps you took to answer the phone. Really rich people had a separate phone line for the children. I don’t think I knew anybody who had a maid answering their phone. If somebody other than family or friends or babysitter answered the phone, it was some kind of nurse and that person was very sick.

Rich people also might have answering services. It was considered reasonable for people, even important people like doctors, to be unavailable for hours at a stretch. When babysitting, the parents might leave a number of a restaurant or other place they would be going, but they usually didn’t. If there was an emergency with the child, you had to call your own mother.

Innovations in phone usage trended toward choice and convenience. The first big one I recall was being able to own your telephone, instead of renting it from the phone company. It was a small step toward freedom. Then it became common for houses to be wired with multiple phone jacks from the start, so convenience spread to more people. It wasn’t odd anymore for someone to have a phone in their garage or basement. The biggest step toward freedom was the answering machine. No longer did you wait by the phone for a call that never came.

Call screening answering machines upped the game considerably. You didn’t have to talk to friends and family if you didn’t feel like it, and you didn’t have to talk to bill collectors at all.

Car phones (big bulky things) came in the 80s, again for rich people (and realtors). In 1990 I got my first “you’ll never guess where I’m calling you from” call. It was a group of friends, driving a mucky-muck’s borrowed car, calling from my driveway as a lark.

The package of premium phone services that appeared in the mid-90s (call waiting, speed dialing, caller ID, etc. etc.) was again geared toward convenience. Little did we know that we had reached the turning point.

Cell phones became accessible to everyone, and we began a journey back to inconvenience that was disguised as cutting edge.

At first most people just had a cell in addition to their landline. Or people who couldn’t have a landline, due to homelessness or illegal activities, suddenly had phone service. An improvement. During the era of the flip phone, you didn’t give your cell number out to everyone. People who had your cell number tried you at home first and didn’t call unless they truly needed you at that moment.

Then students and others on a budget decided to drop the landline and just use the cell. It didn’t make sense to pay for both. People with hot deals in the works or with expensive gadgety phones that had to be justified said “Just call me on my cell.” A phone became something that was not necessarily a few steps away, but something that had to be dug out of a purse or backpack or briefcase, usually in another room if the call came while you were at home. Even worse, the phone was often forgotten or mislaid or even stolen or out of range. All the money spent bringing phone service to rural customers became pointless, as rural areas became “dead zones” with no cell reception. Some people think the answer to dead zones is more cell towers spoiling the landscape. Telephone lines themselves are an eyesore, but do we really need or want to be connected all the time? The last time I summited Mount Marcy, the tallest mountain in New York, almost everyone had their cell phone out saying “Guess where I’m calling you from?” What is wilderness really about?

Domestic violence abusers buy phones so they can track the movements of their victims. Amateurs just call on the half hour, but real pros know someone who can track the phone. Bosses, of course, love cell phone technology, which brings me to my personal grievance against the cell phone.

When mobile phones first became available to the masses, I was employed as a psychiatric social worker. I worked in children’s residential treatment. I wouldn’t say anyone ever abused my availability, but I didn’t enjoy hearing from them. When someone from work was trying to reach me, it was never good. Never ever. And there’s something about a stressful job where you have to be available 24/7 that raises your base anxiety level. You can never truly let your hair down.

Later I worked on-call at a hospital emergency department, and again it wasn’t good news when someone needed to reach me. In this job, my times on-call alternated with time truly off, so it was less stressful. But still, I began to savor the times when no one could reach me.

When money became tight several years ago, I dropped the flip phone and kept the landline. A lot of people would have done the opposite, but I live in a rural area where there are a lot of dead zones, and I hear tons of complaints about cell tower outages, dropped calls, cell plans that only work with certain towers due to cutthroat business practices of mobile phone carriers….on and on. Plus, I usually don’t need to make a phone call if I’m not at work or at home. Yes, I have friends, but they can leave a message on my machine or online. They can call me at home, where I have mutltiple phone extensions and am never far away.

The first inkling that I was losing my lone battle against the cell phone was after I bought my last car. I discovered there was no music player in the car. No CD or mp3 player, and in my area radio reception is iffy. The saleswoman explained that the car was equipped to work with a cell phone for music streaming or satellite radio. Oh well, it worked with an iPod.

Next I found a workaround for those people who say, “Don’t call or leave a voicemail or an email. Send me a text.” I don’t need those kind of friends, but one of the people saying this was my landlord. I discovered you can text to a phone from a desktop or laptop, using Google Voice.

There’s probably no workaround for the increasing tendency of businesses and organizations to dispense with flyers and leaflets in favor of info that’s scanned into a smartphone. Because everybody has a smartphone, right? A phone that works with cell towers in my vicinity and streams music that can be stored offline (because the phone doesn’t work in most places) costs $700. It is guaranteed for software support for two years, meaning in about five years it will be obsolete, so it makes more sense to lease the phone through the wireless provider. This, to me, brings a disquieting taste of deja vu. Though there are certainly cheaper phones without my own set of limitations (or my own reasons for even having a cell), this is not a good option for low income people.

Venmo is the stickiest problem. Itinerent retailers and lots of ordinary people only want to be paid by Venmo, and you can’t pay with Venmo from a computer. Smortphone seems to be the way we’re moving to a cashless society, and there’s an entrance fee.

When I started my last job everybody wanted my cell number. They were aghast when I said I didn’t have one. “What if we need to reach you?” The thing about cell phones is they give you no excuse for being unavailable (although in my case I suppose I could claim I was out of range of the tower). It’s a small step from being able to reached at all times to being required to be available at all times. The cell phone is a leash.

Apple recently announced they are discontinuing the iPod. I see another workaround in my future.

I get asked for my cell number at least three times a week by someone who is not a potential friend. That used to be a rude question. The last time was by my insurance broker. I guess there conceivably are times when an insurance agent would need to call me on my cell, but wouldn’t I initiate the call in that kind of emergency?

I don’t have a cell phone; I am at a secret location.

When I moved into my latest apartment, it was not even wired for a landline. In what is certainly a bone-headed move, the phone company charges a lot of money to wire a building and to turn on new service. Don’t they realize that times have changed? Though I concede that I will eventually lose this battle, I found a workaround by using home phone service through the Internet company. The landlord explained that he didn’t think anyone would want a landline in this day and age when everybody used cell phones.

At least he didn’t ask to be paid in Venmo.

Punked Again

March 25, 2022

When I was working in residential substance abuse treatment, I sometimes got outwitted by my patients, though I tried to stay one step ahead of them. Despite my best efforts, occasionally a resident would obtain something – a communication, an object, a privilege – that was contrary to his recovery or to the rights and needs of others. I didn’t get stressed about this, though I marveled at the dudgeon some of my co-workers would get into in these situations. I would chuckle to myself and say: Well, an addict got the better of me; not the first time and probably not the last.

But I’m not so philosophical about an incident that happened to me in a non-therapeutic setting. I realized yesterday that I had been badly punked by a narcissistic-sociopathic person a few months ago, and it has taken all this time for me to tumble to it. And then it was so obvious I was dumbstruck. The problem is that, not being a narcissistic-sociopath myself, I sometimes don’t recognize the behavior. It doesn’t occur to me that another woman is capable of such extreme harmful lying aiming to destroy another who has never harmed her, when there is no tangible benefit to her for doing so. I recognized the pathology in this woman long ago, but I still am challenged in recognizing her moves. I think one of the reasons I underestimated her is that she is so incompetent in so many areas. Yet narcissistic-sociopaths can be highly efficient in manipulation – or perhaps good people are challenged in recognizing the moves. I should have known.

One trap I’m not falling into is wondering why she did it. You learn quickly, as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, that “why” is not a useful question. “What” is always more important than “why.” I haven’t done anything to harm this woman, who is bent on destroying my life, and the screwy head-scratching reasons she gives for her behavior might even be the truth.

A film by John Waters, called Serial Mom, I find comforting in these situations. It’s a spoof on true-crime exposes, about a middle-aged female serial killer, that has a deceptively simple lesson: it doesn’t matter why. There is a reason she does what she does, but it’s not going to make sense to any sane person. The sociopathic justification might even be as ridiculous as punishing someone for wearing white shoes after labor day. It doesn’t matter why.

So recognize what evil people are capable of, but don’t bother asking yourself “why they do it”: when dealing with a narcissistic-sociopath, logic only gets in your way.

The Saga Continues

February 18, 2022

Okay, I’m only getting a new apartment and moving, but it’s challenging this time. Not just because there’s an acute housing shortage in the area at the moment: I haven’t moved in over 13 years.

For most of my adult life, I lived in a place for three years tops, and usually I moved every year. I don’t know why I’ve stayed here this long; I kept meaning to move on but never did. While living here I wrote five books, an idea for the next one taking hold on the heels of the last. I’m a process oriented person: I’m not interested in what I’ve written once it’s completed, so I’m a willing channel for the muse.

Creativity thrives in stability, routines, and predictability. Paradoxically, this is where originality blooms. Since finding out that I have to move, it’s been difficult to focus even on this blog. Thirteen years and change. I’m going through accumulated stuff that should have been dealt with years ago, thinking “Why haven’t I thrown away these cassette tapes?’ and “What was I thinking when I bought this dress?”

I still have to figure out what to do with all my unpublished and unpublishable writing. I’m tempted to ditch all of it, but that is a decision that doesn’t have to be made yet. There are arguments to be made either way.

Weeding through books may not be an option. Local used bookstores are not buying; thrift stores and libraries don’t want anything that isn’t new fiction. In the past, my old books were snapped up eagerly, but I don’t live in a particularly intellectual locale. Maybe I’m meant to hang on to them.

I won’t have a clear idea of everything I need to keep until I find another home. In the meantime, I can throw away crusty old spice jars and nearly empty tubes of ointments that have cluttered the bathroom for years. There’s a lot I have no problem letting go of.

Full of Surprises

February 11, 2022

So last week I got notice that I have to move out of the place where I’ve lived for the past 14 years. Did not see that coming. Housing in the area is tight now, so I’m putting serious effort into finding another home for me and the Temple of the Doves.

Hamster Apocalypse

January 28, 2022

Dealing with COVID-19 sometimes feels like being on a hamster wheel. We’re in the middle of another wave, and doesn’t it feel like we’ve been here before? And before…and before…

You may or may not have heard about the hamster culling going on in Hong Kong. COVID was detected in a hamster on the island, leading authorities to demand people relinquish all their pet hamsters for testing and extermination.

COVID brings to the forefront many truths about human behavior.

  1. Humans have a tendency to over-correct. After initially ignoring the threat of COVID, China has pursued a zero tolerance policy, that has had some success, albeit with costs.
  2. When a policy works, humans tend to employ it until it doesn’t work, ignoring signs that the environment is changing. Zero COVID is unlikely to be possible without allowing the more infectious variants to run their course. But governments will be slow to recognize this.

To the children of Hong Kong who have lost their furry little buddies: So sorry for your loss. I agree, adults can be mean.

Hair of the Blog

January 21, 2022

People sometimes ask me, Is that your natural hair color? Referring, of course, to my beautiful long red hair. In my opinion, this is one of the ruder hair questions out there. But for enquiring minds who have to know, the answer is “no” – at this point, there’s a lot of gray “naturally” in my hair.

My born-to hair color was hard to describe. Some people called it brown, some called it blond, a boy in the fifth grade who liked me called it “fawn brown.” I had to be careful with hair products because it had a tendency to take on an orangish hue my mother called “brassy.” It was an unusual multi-textured shade people often commented on, and I had no thought of changing it.

But I did use neutral henna to condition my hair. I fell into this habit when I lived on wimmin’s land. Wimmin’s land is a rural collective living arrangement for feminists that is closed to men. The wimmin’s land where I lived was in sourthern Arizona, and women on the wimmin’s land circuit flocked to this place in the winter. They would take this opportunity in their low-budget traveling lives to condition their hair with colorless henna, which could be purchased cheaply from the co-op in bulk, sunbathing naked in the desert sun except for the muddy goo wrapped in plastic film on their heads.

You probably know where this is going. Somehow the red henna got mixed up with the neutral henna at the co-op. Maybe somebody left a baggy laying around and it got poured back into the wrong jar. All I know is that I washed the conditioning henna out of my hair one afternoon and got the shock of my life. Nor was I the only one; the co-op heard from a number of angry women. One particularly incensed woman demanded that the co-op pay her restoration bill from the hair salon, which they promptly did.

Red henna in most hair only imparts a lustrous sheen that may appear slightly reddish in strong sunlight. In blond hair, or hair that has a tendency to take on orange highlights, it turns a bright rusty color. Usually this washes out in two to four weeks, making it too labor intensive for a hair dye, but for a lucky (or unlucky) few, the hair strands absorb and hang onto the color, and it will not wash out. The furious woman who went to the beauty parlor was still a strawberry blond six weeks later.

Myself, I decided I liked the effect, once the shock wore off. My friends asserted that it fit my personality, and I rather agreed. Since that time, I’ve treated myself to more henna as the roots grow out, using only packaged red henna from a reputable source, of course. I can tell from the roots that my hair is graying beautifully, as my grandmother’s did, so it sometimes seems a shame to be covering it up. But the red does seem more “me,” like a corrective action the Goddess herself decided to take. I was taught growing up that completely dyed hair on an older woman, like long hair on an older woman, is verboten. It doesn’t look natural, having young hair with an old face. But I’ve decided I don’t care. It is natural. It’s me.

Of bisexuals, lesbians, and “febfems”: Defining sexuality

January 7, 2022

I understand the impulse to apply a rigorous definition of “lesbian” in the current climate, with trans-identified men (transwomen) claiming to be lesbian. There should probably be a better definition for bisexual women in same-sex relationships. But there are a few thorny issues that need to be considered.

The old “political” definition of lesbian was a woman who had romantic/sexual relationships with women only. Thus “lesbian” was defined more by what you did than by what you were. In the last century, most “lesbians” were not so keen to scrutinize the motivations of women choosing to describe themselves as lesbian. That may have partly originated from the need to increase numbers in the fight against homophobia. Or maybe most women simply didn’t care. The male lesbian was a bad joke.

Lesbians who self-identified as political tended to be extremely critical of women who had sexual relationships with men. Women who had sex with men were supposedly lightweight in their political analysis, unable to scrutinize their oppression out of a need to appease male partners or potential partners. But (possibly political or possibly born-this-way) lesbian Adrienne Rich pointed out that mothers of sons face very strong incentive to accommodate patriarchy, regardless of their sexuality.

I have noticed some lesbians using their definition of lesbian to set boundaries against criticism of the lesbian community. A firm boundary can protect against self-reflection. Many political lesbians have been willing to speak out about unhealthy behaviors within lesbian communities, and there’s a lot of heteropatriarchy in lesbian communities to unpack. With strict but unverifiable definitions, Lesbians speaking out in unpopular ways can be dismissed by speculating that they secretly want to fuck a man are “political lesbians.”

Then there’s the whole issue of compulsory heterosexuality. Rich and other lesbians argued that ALL women are essentially lesbian, and that socialization creates sexual desire for men. That still leaves room to differentiate women who are attracted to men from women unattracted to men, but it’s difficult to reconcile compulsory heterosexuality with the born-this-way idea.

Another problem with strict definitions (and maybe it’s not a problem) is that Sappho herself would not qualify as lesbian (except on geographic grounds) if we’re defining it as never experiencing sexual desire for a man. Sappho preferred women but had at least one self-attested male flame. Rich was married and had two sons. So we’re going to weed out a lot of our lesbian sheroes if we insist on being very firm about boundaries. Yet at the same time, these firm boundaries, rooted in desire, are self-identified and thus impossible to verify. Maybe Rich never had an orgasm with her husband. How would we know? Do we even want to know?

But we’re dealing with 21st century politics and problems. Bisexual women who claim they are lesbian while being in relationships with male “lesbians” are undermining the whole lesbian community. If you never care about the sex of the people you socialize with, it’s no problem. If you’re looking for a true women’s community, it’s a big problem.

The word “febfem” has been proposed to refer to women who are essentially same-sex in their lifestyle but have felt sexually attracted to men at some point. It’s asserted that this word came from bisexual women, but I would like to see proof, because I see it promoted by lesbians who want lesbianism defined by an internal feeling rather than by actions. The sound of the word is nasty. It sticks in your throat. It sounds worse than “cis,” which also has an ugly sound to it, and it’s coming from the same place as “cis”: people forcing a definition onto another group to accommodate their own self-definition.

There might need to be a word for bisexual women, whether they are exclusively in same-sex relationships or not, because bisexual women are so different from bisexual men. Bisexual men do not face the possibility of pregnancy, for example. Bisexual men face oppression when in same-sex relationships, but do not face oppression based on their sex. Bisexual women are at a disadvantage when in relationship with a man, whether or not he is bisexual, so choosing a heterosexual relationship is not a way out of oppression for a woman, the way it is for a bisexual man. (This, by the way, was one of the biggest reasons 70s and 80s political lesbians tried to convince all women to become lesbian. The idea was that same-sex relationships, even considering the rampant homophobia of the time, were less harmful for women.)

I am not a separatist, in the sense of seeing it as imperitive to socially segretate from men at all times. But I do think women-only space is important, at least sometimes, and to have that space we have to define what a woman is. Fortunately, it’s not difficult. Adult human female. Everyone knows what that means. Other definitions are fuzzier. I think women have a right to make definitions and set boundaries, whatever those are, including kicking Sappho out of lesbian-only space. But I’m not necessarily endorsing or agreeing with these firm boundaries based on sexual identity.

In sum, I think there does need to be a word for bisexual women who prefer same-sex relationships. I think we need words for women’s sexualities that do not include men. Transwomen are not lesbians. Bisexual men and women inhabit very different spheres. I hate the word febfem. I hate the word and I hate the concept behind the word: that it is critical to definitively separate women from one another. I think what is most critical is to definitively separate women from men.

Happy New Year!

December 31, 2021

This marks the TENTH YEAR that I have been blogging. I have updated this site weekly, except for last week when I forgot. (?!) I was going to share my favorite Christmas movies. Now you’ll have to wait another year.

Wishing you a joyous, prosperous, and blessed year ahead.

Happy Thanksgiving

November 22, 2021

I am grateful to you, my readers, for almost ten years of blogging!

Photo: Larry Smith

I once had a turkey challenge me to a race. I was cycling down a country road, and the turkey trotted along beside me. I started cycling faster, and then the turkey started racing me! The encounter ended at a draw when we reached a copse of trees and the turkey had to take wing.

Giants of the Northeast Woodlands

September 17, 2021

There have been persistent reports of large human or human-like beings who inhabit the woods in the northeastern United States and Canada. They are hairy and very shy. They reportedly like to throw sticks and rocks at cars, but otherwise are seldom seen.

A word for these beings used by Algonquian-speaking tribes is Yakwawi (plural: Yakwawiak). They are sometimes called Sasquatch, a word which comes from the American Pacific coast. The ubiquity of reports of these beings around the world has led some to speculate that they are not-too-distant cousins of homo sapiens, another offshoot of homo erectus. Natives of the northeast woodlands describe Yakwawi as a type of bear.

I have never seen a Yakwawi, although I have heard things hit my car a few times. I’m always interested in the reports of others.