Welcoming a son

This afternoon, my wife gave birth to a beautiful, healthy, 8 pound 12 ounce baby boy. We have a younger brother for Heloise; our family is expanding and we’re thrilled. No name yet, but we’ll announce in due course.

I’ll be taking some time away from my regular writing gigs to be with Eira and our children. It is a very happy time.

Daring to Disappoint: On Choosing Happiness over Obligation

Do the sacrifices of our parents, our ancestors, and our culture constitute obligations? I get that question in one form or another every semester in my women’s history class; my answer is always the same: a qualified but firm no. Rather, personal happiness is gratitude made manifest.

From 2006:

In a comment below last Friday’s post about virginity and expectations, a wonderful former student of mine named Connie writes:

Hugo, my question is this, how do we deal with the pressure of knowing our parents sacrifice so much so that we can succeed?

My parents have always given me everything I ask for and expect nothing in return except that I excel in my academics so that I can be successful, live a good life and help them out when they get old. What frustrates me is that this seems like such a simple request that I should be able to fulfill it with ease. Yet, because the notion seems so simple, there is more pressure and if I can’t do something as simple as studying and getting good grades, I am a failure. Having an education is simply not enough. I have to be at the top of my class. Sometimes I wonder if that’s part of my parents’ paradigm or mine because I am always striving to be the best. I guess I fear letting my parents down if I settle for average and as a result, I let myself down. I just want to be happy but I can’t be unless my parents are. I love my parents immensely and am forever grateful for everything they’ve sacrificed for me, I would just like to prove that to them and give them something in return.

Connie fits into the same demographic of many of the students I’m writing about: the child of Asian immigrants, raised with one foot firmly in this culture and another elsewhere, trying so hard to live up to what are, as she makes clear, intense and sometimes overwhelming expectations.

I’ve thought a lot about what it means to teach feminism to a classroom filled with young women whose parents believe that their daughters owe them something. It took me a long time to come to grips with just how crushing those expectations are that women like Connie describe. (I was fortunate: my parents told me that while they hoped I would do well, they would be perfectly satisfied if I merely earned the "gentlemen’s C".  Yes, when I was at Cal in the late-80s, some folks still used that expression without a trace of irony!)  And while male students from certain working-class or immigrant backgrounds also are hit with the burden of parental expectations for success, they usually get to escape the simultaneous requirement that they be virginal while earning straight As!

For so many young women from these backgrounds, sexual purity is less about a private spiritual decision and more about honoring an obligation to a mother and father who have invariably sacrificed so much so that their daughter could have a "better life."  Most of my first-generation students at the community college are acutely aware of just how hard their parents have worked to give them the chance at an education and a promising career.  Though their parents may or may not have strong religious beliefs, they almost always teach their girls that pre-marital sex represents a threat not merely to their daughter’s personal success but to the well-being of the entire family.  Just as in the most tradition-bound of societies, a daughter’s virginity is still all- too-often powerfully connected to the hopes and dreams and sacrifices of a mother and father who have come so very far and worked so very hard for a better life.

And virginity is also of course a symbol for all of the other things a dutiful and hard-working daughter owes to her parents.  In most traditional cultures, daughters and daughters-in-law will be the primary providers of elder care.  Connie writes that her parents expect her to take care of them when they get old. Of course, they’d probably like her to get married and give them grandchildren.  And if she marries a man from a similar background, his parents may expect their daughter-in-law to care for them when they become elderly.  And she’ll do this while holding down a terrific job of which her parents can be suitably proud, and being an excellent mother to their grandkids.  And somehow, women like Connie describe this as "a simple request"!

So you deny your sexuality through your entire adolescence, and put off sexual relationships until you’re finished with college.   Ideally, you find the husband (whom the ‘rents hope will be from the same ethnic group) just as you begin to climb the corporate (or medical) ladder.  You have kids while somehow holding down the job.  You prepare marvelous meals that reflect the best traditions of your ancestral cuisine, your hair and makeup are immaculate, your body is trim, your husband is kept happy, and two sets of doting grandparents are given well-behaved children.  You then begin to care for those grandparents while still holding down the job, still raising the kids, still cooking the superb whatever from the old recipes, still keeping your husband happy.  Sister, ain’t nothing simple about it!  From a feminist perspective, it looks like one long litany of sacrifice, one long list of obligations, one long reminder that as a dutiful daughter, wife, and mother, one’s happiness is always contingent on the joy one brings to others.

I think I’m fairly close to accurately describing the pressures with which so many of my students contend.  But identifying the problem, and enumerating the pressures, is not the same as offering a workable solution.  And of course, there isn’t an easy solution.  Just as many folks have told me this week that when it comes to my comment policy I can’t please everyone, so too many of my students will have to make the hard choice to either continue to exhaust and deny themselves or to choose to rebel.  And it’s my explicit hope that they will choose the latter.

In advocating rebellion, I am not advocating dropping out.  I’m not advocating reckless or self-destructive personal behavior. I am advocating that these young women begin to ask themselves the hard question: what do I want?   I want them to begin the immensely difficult task of silencing those nagging internal (and external) voices that urge self-denial, endless sacrifice, endless sublimation. I want them to talk to each other, to seek support from other young women in similar straits — to plot strategy, share family war stories, and offer encouragement to take the first tentative steps of feminist rebellion.  This "feminist rebellion" will look different for different women.  For one, it might involve telling Mom and Dad she wants to major in history rather than chemistry or business.  For another, it might involve learning to masturbate — without guilt.  For another, it might involve choosing to move out rather than stay at home as her parents expect.  For another, it might involve bringing home a young man from a different ethnicity.  Or bringing home a girl.  If the parents are Catholic, it might involve becoming a Pentecostal.  Or if parents are Presbyterian, it might involve becoming a Buddhist.  The one thing all of these rebellions will have in common is that they will be small steps towards self-discovery and towards personal growth and joy.

Usually at this point, the young women to whom I’m directing this interrupt me:

Hugo, it’s so easy for you to say all of this!  You’re a man, you’re white, you have no idea just how hard it is to ‘rebel’!  You don’t understand the consequences of what you’re saying; you don’t have any idea of how much guilt I’ll feel if I disappoint my parents!

In one sense, they’re right.  I can’t truly know what it’s like to be a first-generation female college student, carrying the hopes and dreams of my parents and my ancestors on my shoulders, on my heart –or on my hymen.  Sure, I’m privileged in ways that I probably don’t even fully understand.  But I do believe that at the heart of the feminist project is this: women ought to have the right to pursue happiness.  That happiness will manifest differently in the lives of different women; some will find their most sublime joy in marriage and motherhood while others will find it in on an archaeological dig while others will find it in the arms of another woman.  And if feminists can agree on one thing, it’s this: the collective sacrifices of your parents, ancestors, and culture do not trump your own personal right to be happy.

I do not hold this belief in contradiction to my Christian faith.  Rather, it is reinforced by it.  In Matthew 10:35, Jesus makes it clear that service to God is always more important than duty to family:

For I have come to turn  a man against his father,a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.

While Jesus is referring specifically to what it will cost to follow Him, the broader implication is clear: in the final analysis, there are things that matter more than loyalty to one’s parents.  Honoring mom and dad is indeed one of the commandments, but honor is not a synonym for obedience.  The Christian journey is partly about discovering the unique purpose for which we each were made, own’s own unique role in building the Kingdom; the feminist journey is about essentially the same process.  Though both feminism and Christianity are about building community, they are also about an ultimately solitary journey of transformation and joy.  As a Christian and a pro-feminist, a teacher and a youth leader, I want to build community while encouraging young folks to set out on their own personal journeys.

I have no illusions that the feminist project will be an easy one for most of my students.  But the choice, ultimately, is often a stark one: a lifetime trying to live up to a crushing set of obligations or a series of difficult but ultimately liberating confrontations with one’s family.  Those confrontations don’t have to take place all at once; some rebellions will be private and small and secret while others will be major and dramatic.  But in the end, big or small, these rebellions need to happen.  And we who care about feminism, who care about the lives and the happiness of young women, have to not only encourage rebellion, we have to walk with them through it and be with them as they cope with the fallout of telling the truth about their own wants, hopes and desires. To the best of my ability, that’s what I’m trying to do.

In the end. we can comfort ourselves with this: the greatest way we can honor our parents may not be through living up to their hopes and expectations.  The greatest way in which we can honor them is to choose to live lives of personal happiness and public service.  Their sacrifices, like the sacrifices of their parents before them, were not in vain if we reject their values: our personal choice to be happy, even if it scandalizes and bewilders our family, is nonetheless a testament to all that they gave up for us.  Whether our parents accept that or not, we can use that thought to encourage and reassure those who are tormented with guilt or doubt about claiming their own happiness on their own terms.

But it still isn’t easy.

Do I have a 13 year-old son? Responding to some questions

I can’t recall a post or an article I’ve written that’s caused more consternation — and such wildly divergent reactions– than my column yesterday at the Good Men Project: I May Have a Son, But I’ll Never Know for Sure. Both at GMP and at Jezebel, where the piece was reprinted, there’s been an outpouring of criticism (and a fair amount of praise) for the decisions a woman I’m calling “Jill” and I made 14 years ago.

A sample of the emails I’ve gotten:

You are a horrible human being and should face the consequences of
your actions. You and Jill conned another human being into a fake
life, giving his love to a child which is not his. Who are you to
determine what fatherhood is for Ted and what is it relation to

I have a beautiful son and if he was not mine my world would end. And
yes, I would no longer love him if he didn’t have my genes. My genes
makes him my son before all the environmental influences. This is my
love it is my choice who to give it to.
— “Amir.”

On the other hand:

This may be my favorite thing you’ve ever written. I had respect for you before, of course, but it’s been doubled. You and Jill made the right decision. I hope you never have a moment of doubt about it, and I hope that Jill doesn’t either. Love to you and your family, and love to that family in the Midwest which is stronger because of what you didn’t do.
— “Naomi.”

And of course, lots of comments fall in between these two extremes. (In general, the most virulent and hateful comments and emails have come from men, but plenty of women have taken issue with what I did — and, especially, what Jill chose to do.)

A few clarifications below the fold, based on questions that have come up in emails and comments on the two versions of the column. Continue reading

“Your ancestors want you to be happy”: marriage, exogamy, and rejecting the fetishization of the past

Feministe has a guest post today from “Cindy”: Diversity in Dating. An undergrad at UCONN and a Chinese-American woman who has a history of dating white guys, Cindy reflects on the rise in interracial marriages. As Cindy notes, the fetishizing of the “other” is alive and well (see the website for the recent J.G. Davies book “I Got the Fever: Love, What’s Race Got to Do with It?”), as is the enduring opposition, 44 years after Loving v. Virginia to what was once known as miscegenation.

Unlike Cindy, I never had much of a racial type. I’ve dated women from almost every race, body type, height, religious affiliation, and sexual orientation. (My second wife came out as a lesbian after our divorce, which was a shock to no one except for me. Love blinded my normally acute gaydar.) When I was single, I described my type as Potter Stewart (probably apocryphally) said of pornography: I can’t define it, but I sure do know it when I see it.

My first wife was half Chinese, half Filipina. (My first mother-in-law was born in L.A. to Cantonese immigrants, my first father-in-law was a native son of Manila.) Much like Cindy, my first wife grew up in a largely white environment, and preferred dating white guys. When we started dating at Berkeley in 1987, I heard the derisive term “yellow fever” for the first time. Many folks assumed that I was the stereotypical nerdy white dude who longed for a pretty, submissive “China doll.” It wasn’t an accurate slur, as I had no particular interest in Asian women. But I remember the hostile stares she and I sometimes got when we’d walk through San Francisco’s Chinatown — or stop in small (then) all-white towns in the Central Valley.

My second wife (the one who ended up with women) and my third wife (the Pentecostal psychotherapist) were both white, as WASPy as could be, from pioneer California families like my mother’s. Similar cultural backgrounds were no guarantor of compatibility, as I quickly discovered. (My first marriage had foundered because of my multiple addictions, and not because of any problem around our different cultural backgrounds. But I’d briefly told myself otherwise, until two more divorces thoroughly disabused me of that notion.)

My fourth wife and I have been married nearly six years and we’ve lived together for more than eight. She’s mixed race; born to a Colombian mother of mixed African, Spanish, and indigenous heritage and a Croatian-American father from Montana. Eira’s first language was castellano; raised by a single mom, she is more her mother’s daughter than her father’s. My wife “passes” for white but, not surprisingly, black people see her as black. When she tells white people that she’s 1/4 Nigerian, they look astonished; “Oh, I can’t see it”, they say. Most African-Americans see it instantly and don’t have to ask. When we’re in black neighborhoods of L.A., we’re marked as an interracial couple — but everywhere else, we’re not.

My daughter Heloise “looks” white. In the hateful language of Jim Crow and the one-drop rule, her one-eighth African ancestry would make her an “octoroon,” That might not seem like much, but it’s worth remembering another octoroon: Homer Plessy, whose unsuccessful lawsuit to desegregate Louisiana’s train cars led to the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Plessy wasn’t “white enough” for a New Orleans train conductor, and if this were another era, neither would my daughter. That’s a history worth remembering, and one I will (in time) pass on to our daughter.

Heloise goes to the Kabbalah Children’s Academy for preschool, where the language of instruction is bilingual: English and Hebrew. (She already calls her parents “abba” and “ima”.) At home, we speak to her in English and Spanish; my mastery of the latter is far from certain but it’s good enough to speak to her. As I’ve written before, we want to raise her aware of but at the same time unburdened by the struggles of her ancestors. Heloise will know that her great-great-grandmother (on my side) perished in Auschwitz and that some of her maternal ancestors were indigenous Colombians whose culture was all but annihilated. But these will be facts of interest only. They are part of a story she should know, but a story that asks nothing of her save to be remembered. Continue reading

An Easter note from the sandwich son

We made a whirlwind trip up to Northern California yesterday to spend Easter with my family. Heloise, Eira, and I caught the first morning flight from LAX up to San Jose, and took the last return flight last night. In between, we spent a few happy hours on my family’s ranch on the slopes of Mission Peak.

Growing up in a secular family, we had a quartet of major holidays and a series of minor celebrations. (Among the minor celebrations, I grew up eating cherry cakes and pies on Washington’s birthday, and making nosegays to leave anonymously on neighbors’ doorsteps on May 1). The Big Four: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July. Just as Christmas always had more to do with the tree than with either the solstice or the birth of Christ, Easter has always been about fine baskets and egg hunts rather than the resurrection.

When I saw on the calendar that this year’s Easter was to be the latest since 1943 (and the second-latest day upon which it can ever fall), I felt confident we’d have lovely weather at the Ranch for my daughter’s first proper egg hunt. Last year rain fell on the Ranch and my daughter crawled around on a floor and grabbed a handful of very obvious plastic orbs. But Heloise is 27 months old now, talkative and active and agile. (The last she doesn’t get from her father.) We had been telling her about “Easter at the Ranch” all week, and she was eager. But the weather was cool and damp, and so her private hunt, accompanied by flashbulbs and many ooohs and aaahs from parents, grandmother, and cousins, took place on a porch rather than on our all-too-soaked lawns.

In the afternoon, before it was time to return to the airport and after Heloise had fallen asleep for her nap, my cousins and I played three quick croquet matches. Croquet on the Ranch bears only a passing resemblance to its genteel origins. It’s been played on the place since World War One, if not before, and I grew up watching my uncles, aunts and cousins swear and bluster their way around the course. Gopher holes make natural obstacles, and ranch rules forbid the clearing of even the largest bits of natural debris that might find their way on to the grass. I hadn’t played in a couple of years, and it was great fun. The thwack! of the mallet striking the ball, the ceaseless roisterous patter from the competitors and the sound of ice clicking against glass in the drinks all held — these were the sounds of my childhood and yesterday, they were once again the sounds of my now. It was a very fine thing.

Less than a month shy of my 44th birthday, I belong firmly to the “sandwich generation” of the American middle-aged. For those of us in that bracket, our parents are aging, increasingly frail, and dying while our own children are still very young. (While in many parts of America and the world, to be first-time parents at our ages would be unusually old, it’s not unusual in my family and in our circles. We have many friends of both sexes who’ve who’ve had their first kid on the high side of 40 and who will be eligible for Social Security before their youngest is out of high school.) Many of us in the sandwich generation can already feel our own mortality; we’re not as young and energetic as we were a decade or two ago. On the other hand, we’ve got access to both material and emotional resources we didn’t have before; it wasn’t until my late thirties that I found a very deep reservoir of patience that I had no idea previously existed.

I watched my septuagenerian mother, aunts, and cousins closely yesterday. I watched my daughter with an even more tender eye. To be in the middle generation is to know the anxiety that comes not as a single spy but in matched pairs of worry. We know that the day our parents and other older loved ones will die draws ever closer, just as we know (or pray) that a child grows steadily less dependent. We are preparing ourselves to be left, I realized yesterday, accepting that those who raised us and those whom we raise must separate from us sooner or later. It can be a frightening thought, but there is comfort in it as well.

Even secular families sometimes think about death on Easter. I thought about death and resurrection yesterday as we drove away in our rented Hyundai Tucson, waving out the window to relatives and to the place I love best on this earth. I looked from my white-haired mother, her hand raised in farewell, to my daughter, babbling happily in her car seat, to my yawning wife, anticipating a short nap. A line from Jeffers came into my head: deep love endures to the end and far past the end.

That’s right, I said under my breath, that’s right. Happy Easter.

On mama’s Christmas party

I’m in what I consider my hometown, Carmel. With my grades turned in and a respite from other projects scheduled, I’m enjoying a holiday break. My wife and daughter will come up north on Thursday, so for now I’m alone with my mama in the house I grew up in. While Los Angeles is getting historic rainfall, it’s dry and cool here on California’s central coast.

My mother held her Christmas party last night, the same party she’s thrown 36 out of the last 37 years. From 1973-2003, she had 31 straight parties; she spent Xmas 2004 in England, and resumed the tradition in 2005. I missed that ’05 party as Eira and I were in South Africa, but I’ve been at each and every other party mama has had.

The Party has rules.

It is never held earlier than December 18, nor later than December 21. It is not to be held on a Sunday, as one of my mother’s dear friends also has a Christmas Party that has been on the third Sunday in December every year since the Kennedy Administration. Since my mother’s gathering only dates to the final year of Richard Nixon’s presidency, she defers. The Party is always scheduled from 4:00-6:00PM. Guests start trickling in at about 4:15, and invariably, some family members will linger until 7:00 or beyond. We are lenient with departure times! Peak attendance tends to be around 5:00, when my mother’s little cottage nearly bursts with people.

For most of the past 37 years, we’ve served the same menu: cold cuts and cheeses, assorted cookies and brownies, lots of chips and dips. In my childhood, we made and decorated Christmas cookies; with her sons grown, my mother buys them now at the store. (She still makes her famously unkosher clam quiches and her “midnight meringues”.) We serve mulled wine, made according to a recipe that requires lots of cinnamon sticks, sugar, and huge gallon jugs of cheap Gallo red. I helped make the wine when I was a child too young to drink; now I make it as a sober alcoholic who no longer drinks. (There were only a handful of parties where I was both old enough to drink the wine and not already trying to get sober!) We serve a non-alcoholic punch, which is made of cran-rasbperry drink mixed with diet 7-Up. Sounds dreadful, but it’s served in a lovely ancient punch bowl. The store-bought cookies and cheeses taste all the better on 19th century silver, too.

Growing up WASP (OKOP) means having lots of store-bought things served on heirloom china and family silver. (I came to learn, as I went out into the world, that others cared more about the taste than the presentation, preferring home-cooked delicacies served on paper or plastic. Diff’rent strokes.)

Some fashions have changed. In the 1970s, one of my jobs was to help lay out the cigarettes. We had Vantage and Merit and Camel on offer, cunningly arranged in little silver trays. My christening cup was useful for holding cigarettes, and we had lighters placed handily about. Ashtrays were ubiquitous, and emptying them during the party was nearly as important as passing hors’ d’oeuvres. We began to phase out cigarettes around the time that disco lost its appeal, and by the time I had graduated high school, smoking was only done outside. The christening cup now holds candy canes, but no one ever takes one. It is not as useful and needed as once it was.

I’ve also become much more helpful. In 1973, I was six, and my main job was to police my three year-old brother during the party, something I did with excessive vigor and a grave sense of responsibility. As we grew up, my brother and I evolved into indispensable co-hosts. Mama is 73 now, and can’t do what she used to do with the same ease. I watch her now to make sure she doesn’t get over-tired during the party, just as she once watched me to make sure I wasn’t eating too many meringues.

And of course, the guests are so much older. I, who so often am the oldest person in the room when working with young people, was the youngest by two decades at last night’s gathering. My mother was in her mid-thirties when she started her Christmas parties, and most of her friends were her peers, young parents and fellow professors; friends from her poetry club, the League of Women Voters, and various local boards and commissions. There were older guests as well, but not many. And there were children for my brother and me to play with. We often needed to whip up an emergency extra batch of mulled wine. Some who left the party ought not to have been driving.

But no more. So many of those who came in the past have gone on to the brighter party from which none need take their leave. Those who do still come grow frailer each year, something I notice keenly as I only see most of these guests for an hour each December. There are canes and wheelchairs to be managed. They eat and drink half what they did in their younger years, but from their faces, with no less pleasure. Those who in my childhood were towering and vigorous, younger than I am now, are gray and stooped. Their fingers shake when I hand them a cup of wine, and they take my arm when I lead them up and down the garden path to and from the party and their cars.

Last night, I walked one of my mother’s recently widowed friends out to her car, carefully made sure she was situated safely behind the wheel, and watched her drive off. Carmel has no street lamps, and the street was pitch black at 6 in the evening. But as I looked back at our house, I saw the tree aglow in the window, saw the light radiating out, smelled the wood smoke from the fireplace. It might have been blasphemous, but as I stood on the cold dark street and stared at the glow from the house in which I was raised, the words of John 1:5 came to my lips. I felt the pinpricks of tears in my eyes, as I realized that these parties won’t keep going forever. My mother finds them a bit more tiring every year; each year less and less is eaten; each year the guest list shrinks inexorably.

But mother is not quite done.

As a sentimentalist to my core, I like my Tennyson, and as I stood on the roadway, I remembered something else, a line from his most loved poem: death closes all: but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done. In the grand scheme of things, a Christmas party is not a great work of noble note. But when we gather around the tree and the fire once again, with rain and chill outside, and catch a scene or two from the last act of a play we’ve been watching all our lives, we are bearing witness to the light. And the darkness will not overcome it.

From a long line of Dekes: on Yale, Cal, privilege, fear and misogyny

One of my favorite family photographs — taken nearly eighty-five years ago — hangs in our living room. In it, some three dozen well-dressed young men smile at the camera from the front steps of a sprawling, Craftsman-inspired house. Some sit, others stand; some have hands in pockets, others have arms draped affectionately over the lads next to them. My maternal grandfather, Arthur Moore, sits next to his best friend Jerry Bishop. The two would eventually marry sisters, my grandmother and my great aunt. Next to Jerry sits Arthur’s cousin, Allan Starr. Behind them, standing on the porch, stands Allen Chickering, the man who — at the time this photo was taken — was engaged to the woman whom my grandfather Arthur would eventually marry. (The happy family story is that Allen broke off the engagement with my grandmother around 1929, and she married his friend Arthur instead. In 1991, both long since widowed, my grandmother and Allen Chickering married, 62 years after ending their original engagement.) Other family friends, including many who lived into my childhood and whom I knew well, are recognizable in the picture. To the best of my knowledge, every man in the photo is dead now; the youngest would be at least 102 were any still alive.

These were the brothers of Delta Kappa Epsilon, Theta Zeta chapter, at the the University of California, Berkeley. In 1926.

“Deke”, as it was called, was the “family fraternity”. Many of the older men who most deeply influenced my life were Dekes, including my uncle Stanley, Arthur’s younger brother, who became a renowned philosopher and communist. And it was thus with chagrin, but no great surprise, that I read of the vile behavior of DKE pledges at Yale University this month. As part of an ongoing initiation, the pledges marched around campus chanting “No Means Yes and Yes Means Anal” and other appalling misogynistic slogans. A video on Youtube brought the ugliness to national attention.

Michael Kimmel, the nation’s foremost historian of masculinity, has a great piece about the DKE pledge incident at Ms: The Men, And Women, Of Yale. He deftly explains the sexual anxiety that undergirds the chant the pledges repeated. The goal of the first part, “No Means Yes” (which was recited repeatedly in front of Yale’s Women’s Center, the safest place for women on campus) is clear enough. As Kimmel writes:It’s a reminder that men still rule, that bro’s will always come before “ho’s”. Even the Women’s Center can’t protect you. That is, it’s a way to make even the safe unsafe. In a world where more women go to college than men, in a world where women and minorities have made tremendous strides, the chant is an ugly attempt to reassert traditional dominance: “We are Dekes, and we are older and more powerful than the rules that protect the vulnerable.”

But Kimmel notes the second part of the chant is more telling, the bit about “yes means anal.” Continue reading

A quick note on the name Heloise

Just got a very rude comment that I deleted from my moderation feed. Intended to appear below the post immediately below on teacher-student sexual relationships, it was mostly profane and nastily ad hominem. But in between the unpleasantness, the commenter did include a question asking why my wife and I had named our daughter Heloise, given my views on sexual relationships between profs and students.

The most famous Heloise, of course, was the French nun and scholar whose affair with her own teacher, Peter Abelard, became one of the most celebrated love stories of the Middle Ages.

I’ve long loved the name Heloise because of that great abbess and philosopher. When I think of Heloise, I don’t think of a woman made famous for an affair with her tutor; I think of one of the great medieval female intellectuals. As someone trained as a medievalist, and coming from a family where first-born children are often given a name that begins with “H” (Huberts and Heinrichs and other Hugos lie in my genealogical chart), Heloise made lovely sense as a first name for our darling girl. Naturally, we did think about the implications of someone with my reputation having a daughter named after the student in the most famous teacher-student love affair in European history, but we reminded ourselves that the original Heloise was far more than Abelard’s lover.

Hers was a fierce mind, and it was that legacy we bequeathed to our child.

The name, by the way, means “famous warrior.”

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Five years with Herschel

A personal post.

This Saturday, my wife and I will mark our fifth wedding anniversary.

As I’ve written at other times, I do as much as I can on this blog to honor my wife’s privacy. I am, at least in a small way, a public person. I write frequently about myself, not because I am so terribly interesting but because my experiences have played a vital role in shaping my world view. I have also been blessed to experience transformation and redemption; I am in an ongoing conversion process that continues to bring surprise. But some of what I share is, for lack of a better term, shocking to a few readers.

My academic interests revolve around faith and feminism, God and sex; the personal and the ideological and the vocational are all intertwined in my work. That makes it more obvious that I would write about the personal — but that doesn’t make me an easy person to whom to be married. Though Eira herself only checks in on my blog on occasion, our friends and her family are among my regular readers. She fields plenty of curious questions, though fewer than she did when I first started blogging.

This fourth and final marriage has now lasted nearly as long as my first three put together. The temptation to draw comparison between this relationship and those that came before recedes steadily; my wife and I are in uncharted territory not just chronologically, but emotionally, sexually, and spiritually. We have had our storms and our stresses, including all the familiar trials that come with parenting. But we’ve navigated through those tempests, motivated as we each are by deep love and a relentless commitment to building something extraordinary.

If you know my wife, you know she’s a force of nature. Eira is tall and strong, a former soccer star and kickboxer, a jock and a businesswoman. She does confrontation better than anyone I’ve ever known; I’ve watched her intimidate prima donna celebrities and their agents into stunned silence during negotiations. One of my many nicknames for my beautiful partner is “Herschel”. Herschel Walker was a star running back for the Georgia Bulldogs, Minnesota Vikings, and Dallas Cowboys. I remember that when he won the Heisman trophy in 1982, Walker was asked what he wanted to do after football. “I want to join the FBI”, he said. When asked why, Herschel replied “Because I like to meet people. And in the FBI, you get to go out and meet people — whether they like it or not.” That seems to capture my wife’s unyielding but indisputably charming gregariousness.

Eira is also one of the kindest and gentlest people I’ve ever met, and of course, those qualities shine most (though not only) with our daughter. There are few joys comparable, I think, to watching the person you love most in the world nurture the child you made together. As is common wisdom, becoming a parent changes a relationship dramatically. Heloise’s arrival in our lives 19 months ago turned everything predictably upside down, but it made us a stronger, better team. We’re actually accomplishing more together than we were before the baby came; parenthood has forced us to be ever better stewards of our own and each other’s time.

Intimacy changes. Last night, we both had loads of work to do when we got home. I got Heloise fed and ready for bed, and then Eira put her to sleep (a fairly lengthy process). She had late night conference calls with colleagues abroad; I had writing to do. Before disappearing into separate rooms, each of us clutching a baby monitor, we sat for a moment on the couch. We checked in, held hands, shared our days. Then we leaned in, touching foreheads, recharging together, resting in the certainty of everything we are and everything we’ve built. And with a whispered “see you tomorrow”, we went off to our duties and to our five hours of sleep.

Not everyone’s ideal of marriage is the same (and many, of course, don’t have a marriage ideal, nor do they need one). We have the requisite love and desire. But more importantly, what Eira and I have after five years as spouses and eight years as a couple is a sustained vision for transforming the world around us. For us, marriage is a kind of spiritual docking station to which we each return after running down our batteries in our many wonderful, interesting, occasionally tedious and often exhausting tasks. We are shoulder to shoulder and oar to oar more than eye to eye — but as it turns out, shoulder to shoulder seems to be the best way for us to be heart to heart.

I have been blessed by second, third, fourth, and ninety-seventh chances. I’m blessed by the gift of being able to learn the lessons of a troubled past without being incapacitated by the memory of pain. What was is not the best predictor of what will be, despite the conventional wisdom. I have never been happier or more confident, never felt more certain of what it is I am called to do in the world. My favorite poem these past few years has been Justice’s “Men at Forty”. These final lines are not just about me, but about Eira as well — she too feels what the poet describes here:

Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

We are being filled. Whatever image you prefer, we are climbing the mountain together, rowing across the sea together, pushing, as Lewis so famously said, “further up and further in”. Together, with our breathtaking daughter at our side or in our arms, we’re crossing over, ascending, answering the call we both hear.

My wife, my partner, my best friend, my love, my “Herschel”, my Eira. Thank you for your faith, your passion, your tenderness, your relentless, your stern conviction. Thank you for your forgiveness and your humor and your sweat and your fire.

Thank you for pledging your life to this “lightwork” five years ago. Happy anniversary.