The King of Starting Over

A different version of this piece appeared in November 2006.

Several years ago, my friend Lauren came up with a terrific idea: Project Help Us Help Ourselves, a collaborative blogosphere effort to provide a clearing house for information about how to cope with money, scarce resources, and bureaucracy. It elicited some great responses, but is now (alas) no longer available online.

I read Lauren’s proposal, and felt, well, stuck. Though I could certainly use more money, I’ve been blessed with a certain degree of comfort and security. I haven’t had to cope without health insurance, I haven’t fought an expensive custody battle, I haven’t had to worry about the same sort of things my peers have had to worry about. I thought about just linking to Lauren’s post and urging more experienced readers to send in detailed, clear tips on how to negotiate this complex and difficult world. And then I started to rack my brain for what practical things I “know.”

As someone who has spent his entire life in academia (every fall since 1969, when I started nursery school at the “Humpty-Dumpty House” in Santa Barbara, not quite three, I have been either a student or a teacher in some sort of educational institution), I’ve never held a full-time job other than college instructor. I know how to prepare a good lecture. I know how to evaluate written work quickly. I know how to pretend to pay attention in department meetings.

What else do I know that’s useful? I know how to train for and run marathons. I know how to start a weight-lifting program. I could probably teach an introductory Pilates mat class, or a spinning class. I know how to pick the right pair of running shoes. I can dress myself without clashing. Important skills for survival? Uh, no.

What can I do that’s truly useful? I can’t change my own oil. I hate doing any kind of carpentry or assembling. The old WASP joke:

How many WASPs does it take to change a lightbulb?

Two. One to mix martinis and the other to call the electrician.

Yeah, that’s close to home. I can do the light bulb, actually, but I’ve been calling repair people and handy people for virtually everything most of my life. My body may be lean and toned, but the few muscles I have, sadly, rarely get put to practical use.

So now a post designed to link to another post about economic survival has turned into a musing on my own profound incompetence — an incompetence rooted in privilege. (And should I even mention I didn’t know how to pump my own gas until I was… oh, forget it). This paean to learned helplessness isn’t going to win me any friends.

But in addition to knowing how to give a lecture, and knowing how to finish a hard marathon, I know something else far more useful: I know how to start over. Three times I’ve been divorced. Three times, I’ve moved out of a home I shared with a spouse and into a tiny, cramped apartment. Three times, I’ve bought (or rented) furniture. Three times, I’ve raced to Crate and Barrel or Target to buy another set of dishes, another set of pots and pans, another set of sheets. (In general, my exes all kept the housewares.) Three times, I’ve loaded all of my possessions into a car or a truck and driven away to begin again.

Three times, I’ve left a marriage with major credit card debt. Three times, I paid it back down. Obviously, the debts got exponentially bigger each time.

The amount of stuff that I left with after my third divorce in 2002 was considerably more than after my first one a decade earlier. By the third divorce, I could actually pay movers to come and take my things away, something that had not been possible the first two times. Three times, I’ve said goodbye to beloved pets (I had dogs with all of my ex-wives, and they always kept ‘em), and tearfully driven away to start a new life. Trust me, it got harder each time.

I learned that a microwave, a coffee maker, and a fridge are really all you need. (I’ve bought three post-divorce microwaves and two nice Kenmore refrigerators). On my own post-divorce, months would pass and I would never touch a stove. Lean Cuisines can be bought in bulk at Costco — word to the wise. After my second divorce, I lived on Rosarita refried beans, Uncle Ben’s rice, Pace Picante sauce, Knudsen sour cream, and corn tortillas. (What one friend called “the vile concoction.”) I figure each divorce was good for some significant weight loss.

But the real lesson, of course, was that I could survive. If there’s any virtue at all in telling this story, it’s that I have learned that you can begin again — and again — and again. My cousin calls me the “king of starting over”, and after so many years of new beginnings, upheaval, heartache, and separations, I know with every fiber of my being that it is possible to love again, trust again, begin again. It is possible to both learn from previous mistakes and learn to take healthy risks one more time. It is possible to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars; lose out on a vision of a happy future; kiss the Labrador goodbye for the last time as she licks away your tears; spend those first few awful nights in a dingy little over-priced studio; and, after all of that agony, be willing to try again.

Lord willing, I will never, ever, ever get divorced from she who is my wife today. I know so much more about how to be a good and present husband than I did in my first three marriages, and I have married a woman with whom I am spiritually and emotionally and physically profoundly compatible. That’s an unmerited blessing on one level, of course, but it’s also something I earned as a consequence of being willing to learn from my mistakes, being willing to start over, being willing to trust again. Too many folks I know get burned (or burn themselves) a time or three and they give up. Call it stupidity or call it faith or a mixture of the two, but I have a relentless optimism born less of my nature than of my experience. I know that broken hearts heal and that new dishes can be bought over and over again. I know that dollar for dollar, it’s hard to beat Sears brand appliances. I know that having a coffee maker, even a cheap one, is vital for the first morning after you move into your new bachelor quarters. And I know that no matter what, the hurt and pain of any given moment will pass more quickly than I dare hope, and that love and joy and promise can come again and again and again.

This I know.

On sowing “wild” oats

This post originally appeared in September, 2006.

I was talking last week with a young woman who works as an aide to a colleague of mine. She’s 19, and has a boyfriend the same age. “He cheated on me”, she blurted out to my colleague and me yesterday; “We broke up.” We made vaguely soothing noises, and listened to her story as best we could. One part in particular struck me:

“He told me he can’t be faithful right now. He’s got too many ‘wild oats’ to sow.”

And this made me realize I’ve never posted about “wild oats.” Doing five minutes of quick Internet research reveals that the expression “sowing wild oats” to refer to reckless, usually promiscuous behavior on the part of young men, goes back to at least the 17th century. And while many old-fashioned phrases have vanished from the idiom of today’s college-age population, most of them are quite familiar with the “wild oats” notion.

The popular “wild oats” thesis is basically this: young men (usually in their late teens and twenties), have an enormous amount of sexual and creative energy. (Depending on whom you talk to, this is attributed to their “essential masculine nature” or “testosterone” or the “Y chromosome”.) It is natural and good and right for men in this age bracket to be a bit wild, a bit irresponsible, and to be unwilling to make enduring commitments. Those who love them — and are wounded by the carelessness of young oat sowers –are given the cold comfort of being told “Sooner or later, they grow out of it. They just have to get them (the oats?) out of their system.”

I’ve noticed that the “wild oats” theory is closely linked to the “get it all out of your system” idea. The latter notion is that we men have a finite amount of “wildness” within us. After we’ve sown our oats for three years, or five, or ten, we’ll be “done.” After we’ve slept with 5 women, or 25, or 250, we’ll presumably be “all out of oats” and ready to settle down into monogamy and responsibility.

There are a couple of things I loathe about this theory. One, women rarely get to use the “wild oats” excuse. Teenage and twenty-something women who exhibit reckless or sexually adventurous behavior get shamed as sluts. Since we all “know” that “women don’t really have wild oats”, a woman who behaves as if she does is “unnatural”, “perverse”, a “whore.”

Now, I spent a fair amount of time on a ranch growing up. I know a bit about oats. (Like the fact that if they were really “wild”, we wouldn’t sow them in the first place. But “he needs to sow his domesticated oats” lacks a certain ring.) Men don’t have them, women don’t have them — be they wild or genetically modified, oats are not found in the human body unless they enter through the mouth and get processed through the digestive tract. Now, both men and women — particularly when young — have adventurous spirits. Both men and women have strong sex drives, though we tend to want to deny that women’s libidos make much of an appearance before 32. But nobody got no “oats” no how.

The other great problem with the wild oats theory is more subtle. It suggests that if we indulge irresponsible and reckless male sexual behavior for a given period of time, young men will just “grow out of it.” Remember, the implication is that the number of oats inside each lad is finite. Once he’s sown them, he’ll be “done” and be ready for settling down. Clearly, this isn’t an accurate description of how most of us work! When we do something pleasurable and exciting, the more we want to do it. Rather than getting rid of our wild oats, we become more and more accustomed to the lifestyle of sowing them. If there are oats inside young men, and I don’t think there are, then the better understanding would be to say that the more we sow, the more oats we grow.

We all know many men who have prolonged their adolescence into their thirties, forties, and beyond. Some fellas out there have been sowing their oats fairly consistently since the early days of disco, and their internal barn shows no sign of being depleted any time soon. Pity the poor woman who waited years and years for Johnny to finally “get it out of his system.” I can think of half a dozen male friends of mine, all well my senior, whose “systems” keep right on producing the urge to be irresponsible and commitment-phobic.

We learn to do things by practicing them. If we practice recklessness, we become more reckless, not less. If we practice dishonesty, it becomes easier to lie — not harder. It’s bad psychology to suggest that engaging repeatedly in a pleasurable activity will ever get it “out of one’s system”. Rather, the more one does it, the harder it will be to change in the future.

When I was in college, I was encouraged to “sow my wild oats.” I sowed them. I enjoyed sowing them. And then I tried to transition seamlessly into my first marriage. I found that, whoops, I still had more oats. So that marriage ended. Back to sowing, in the hopes of getting rid of the last little clusters still lurking. I got married a second time. Wouldn’t you know it? The dang oats were still there! Second divorce (not yet thirty). I went on a wild oats rampage for a couple of years, ending only with a dramatic series of events that led to my complete emotional collapse and spiritual conversion. Trying to get “done” and get all the oats out nearly killed me, and it broke the hearts of quite a few other people in the process!

Years ago, not long before my final collapse, I had a particularly spectacular “oats sowing” experience involving a coke-and-Ecstasy-fueled menage a trois. After all was concluded, I walked one woman to her car, a woman I had only met hours earlier. As we made the kind of awkward small talk that often seems to follow these sorts of encounters, I looked into her eyes and said “You know, I can’t keep doing this.” “Why?”, she asked. “Because I want to be a father someday, and when you’re a Dad, you can’t do this sort of thing.” The gal took a step back as if I had slapped her. Her eyes welled up, and she stared into the distance. She shuddered once, and then looked back at me with a firm gaze, saying with great intensity: “No, you can’t keep doing this. Not if you want that.” She kissed me on the cheek (an odd thing to do, considering what had just happened between us) and climbed into her car. I never spoke to her again.

I don’t know why I said what I did. It wasn’t because I felt “done” with my oats-sowing. But I knew that as much fun as I was having, it was slowly killing me. Having the same experience over and over again with different people was as fun as ever — but it was making me progressively more and more miserable. I had just assumed, you see, that I would “grow out of it” naturally. But at the time I said this to this young woman, I was over thirty and showing no signs of “slowing down.” If my life changed, it would have to be because of grace — and, of at least equal importance, my commitment to changing my behavior despite the enduring desire to “sow oats” until the cows came home. (The cows, in my experience, never came home.)

So the point of this rambling, personal essay is simple: we do a great disservice to both young men and women when we encourage and indulge the reckless sowing of wild oats. While adolescents and twenty-somethings should have new and interesting experiences, we make a mistake in assuming that all of them will inevitably outgrow the desire to behave wildly. Put another way, if there are wild oats inside us, then it’s pretty clear that a lot of young women have them too. And it’s pretty clear that some of us have an inexhaustible supply, one that is endlessly replenished. What we practice at 19, I’ve found, becomes what we still want to do at 29, 39, 49, and beyond. That may not be true for all, but it’s true for enough to make the “just let him sow his oats” remark a very dangerous bit of advice indeed.

Witnessing together: handling 9/11 in the classroom

As we hit the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I’ll share this quick memory of how I handled that Tuesday morning with my students.

I was scheduled to teach four classes that day, the first one beginning at 7:30AM Pacific Time.  I had woken up just before 6:00AM, and turned on CNN (something I do most mornings) just after the second plane had gone into the towers.  I watched TV until it was time to leave for school; the first tower collapsed while I was in the car on the way to school, the second just as I walked into my first class.

We had a television in the classroom, and I made the decision to turn it on.  I told the students who hadn’t heard (a surprising number had made it to school that morning unaware), and we sat and watched coverage together.  I told them I was available to talk, and I sat with them all morning as we watched the local NBC affiliate (the only station that came in clearly).  I did the same thing with all of my classes that day — sitting in the classroom, television on, inviting students to sit with me.  If they wanted to go home, I let them go. If they wanted to step into the hall and chat, we did (only a few wanted to talk).  If they wanted to sit and watch the towers fall, over and over again, they could do that with me nearby.

The only other time I’ve ever interrupted class to turn on the TV for a live news event was in October 1995, when the OJ Simpson verdict was read aloud.  That was a planned event (we’d heard about the time of the jury announcement the day before), and though my students were stunned (and divided), that was a very different occasion.  Both then and on 9/11, I sat with my students who wanted to talk and “process” their feelings about what had occurred.  It had been a lot more fun with OJ.

One key side effect of this: I was so focused on how my students were feeling, I didn’t really think about how I felt.   My own emotional response was delayed until I watched the memorial service the following Friday from the National Cathedral; when the military choir sang the terrible and beautiful “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, I finally cried.  But I was alone.

Did I handle 9/11 the right way?  I don’t know.  Some of my colleagues kept right on teaching, some canceled classes and themselves went home.  I couldn’t teach, but I didn’t want to leave the students who might want a comforting presence there to watch with them.   Having someone to witness with matters, and that’s the best I could provide that day.

Learning to be a Husband, Not a Son

My first post with this brand-new blog format is a link to this morning’s column at The Good Men Project:  Learning to be a Husband, Not a Son.  Excerpt:

In three previous marriages and a handful of other long-term relationships (I haven’t been single for long since I was 16), I found myself—like so many men—taking on the parts of the “naughty boy” and the “helpless child.”  Time and again, I turned wives and girlfriends into mother-figures, and the result was inevitably disastrous.

I know that I’m not the only man who found “courtship” easier than “relationship.”  Over and over again, I devoted time and energy to “getting the girl”, and when I succeeded, soon felt vaguely let down and confused about my role. Like so many men, I was good at the chase, and lousy at maintaining the relationship I’d worked so hard to get started. After I’d been dating someone new for a few months, I invariably began to become increasingly childlike. I figured out that most of my partners were students of my emotions (it’s what we raise women to do), and most of them were eager to make the relationship work.  So they were the ones who took over the “feeling work” of the relationship while I settled into amiable uxoriousness.

The First Day of School and Imposter Syndrome

An updated version of a post that appeared last year.

The fall semester begins today at Pasadena City College. If you look back through my archives, you’ll see that I usually have a “first day of school” post up on the last Monday in August. This year shall be no exception.

My mother tells me that my formal education began forty-one forty-two autumns ago, in September 1969. I was two when I first went to Santa Barbara’s long-vanished Humpty Dumpty Nursery School. Since that year of Woodstock and moon landings and the amazing Mets, I’ve been in school every fall without fail. I went from nursery school to graduate school without a break, and began teaching full-time at the community college while still finishing Ph.D. work at UCLA. I’m in my fifth decade in the educational system, which astounds me. And I’m beginning my eighteenth 19th year as a professor at PCC; this year, my youngest students will have been born after I started teaching here.

In August 2004, I wrote about still having butterflies in my stomach the first time I met a class. Six Seven years later, things remain very much the same in my innards. I wrote then of the reasons for my nervousness:

The obvious question is this one: why, after all this time, do I still get so nervous about the first day of school? It’s not stagefright; public speaking has never been a fear of mine. It’s not new material, at least not this year; all four courses I am teaching this fall are courses I have taught in the past. It’s not fear that my students won’t like me; though I do struggle with vanity, it’s not at the root of my jumpiness this morning. All three of these might be small factors at different times, but the core reason for this almost-pleasant state of anxiety is more basic: I still believe that I have the best job in the whole dang world, and I can’t believe they pay me to do it.

Even after all these years of full-time teaching (the last six 13 with tenure), I still expect someone to show up, and with an apologetic and yet officious tone, tell me “We’re sorry, Hugo, we made a mistake hiring you. There was this terrible mix-up, you see; we intended to get someone else. Though I can assure my readers that I did not lie or stretch the truth when I applied for this job, somehow after all this time I still suspect that I “got away with something” when I was hired to teach here.

I’ve talked about this with my parents and other colleagues who teach. My father (who taught philosophy for forty years at Alberta and UCSB) calls this feeling the suspicion of one’s own fraudulence. That phrase seems to sum things up nicely. Whenever I share these feelings, I note that it is often my most talented colleagues, students, and friends who say Really? That’s how I feel too! (One of the worst teachers I ever worked with, now thankfully retired, claimed never to feel this way.) I wonder if there isn’t some connection between periodic bouts of self-doubt (the imposter syndrome) and the drive to prove one’s self. Actually, that’s silly: I don’t wonder that at all, I know it with total certainty!

My office is a cheerful mess, I’m caffeinated and be-BrooksBrothered and readier than ever to begin the grand journey again.

UPDATE: Both in person in the hallways, and on my Facebook page, former and soon-to-be-current students have wished me “good luck” today. This isn’t new; I’m wished good luck each time a new semester begins. It might seem odd to wish it to the tenured professor; I’m not applying for anything, I’m not being evaluated this semester, and I’m not trying to get into a class. But I’m wished luck nonetheless.

I like to think it’s more than just a pleasantry offered when someone begins something new (or in my case, resumes an old and familiar task.) I like to think that it’s because even the very young recognize that there is an element of chance and mystery in teaching; some classes sizzle with chemistry while others, as we all acknowledge, are duds. Perhaps they are wishing me great students, or wishing me success in avoiding spilling on myself or teaching with my fly unzipped. Or perhaps they know that anything really can happen in the classroom, from the marvelous to the heartbreaking, and they are wishing me luck and grace and strength to cope with whatever comes, and to be as present and effective as I can be for all whom I will call my students.

Wrapping up Spermgate

It’s been an interesting week, as the original story I wrote about a boy who might or might not be my biological child caused a minor kerfuffle in the blogosphere. My friend Katie sent me a text Monday night, saying “it’s spermgate!!!” I liked the term, and so I started using it, even though I risk ridicule for naming my own little scandal rather than waiting for someone else to do it.

Spermgate has been popular at Good Men Project and Jezebel; at this blog, I’ve had my best week of traffic since last fall. (When this became my most popular post ever.)

I’ve done two follow-ups to the original column, including one that was reprinted at Good Men Project. The best summary of the story comes from one of the few bloggers to write approvingly of how “Jill” and I handled the original situation. Zach at 8BitDad writes

Long story short (and apologies to Schwyzer for summarizing everything in a couple sentences), he met a gal, and the gal met someone else as well. She got pregnant somewhere along the way, and Schwyzer never really resolved whether the baby was his, or the other dude’s. The gal ended up getting engaged and married to the other guy – possibly because he was more stable and wanted to be a father, while Schwyzer partied and lived his single life. The gal had more kids with her husband, and they live a presumably happy life.

That’s about the size of it.

The reaction has been both gendered and generally hostile. Google my name and you’ll find the blogposts and stories out there; the one discussion I found that was worthwhile and balanced took place here. The rest have been nearly all godawful.

Nothing I’ve read this week has changed my feelings about what happened with Jill, Ted, and Alastair. This was a complicated ethical situation of the sort that eludes easy answers. I was absolutely in the wrong to have been as sexually reckless as I was. And given my recklessness, I don’t have any position from which to criticize my old friend Jill. I might have chosen differently had I been in her shoes, but that is a moot point. I was in no position to do much of anything constructive back in the mid-1990s when this story began; all these years later, the most destructive thing I could do would be to reinsert myself into the lives of this family I have every reason to believe is happy. In other words, while there might be some ambiguity about what the right thing to do was back in the day, there is no such uncertainty now. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it 10,000 times again: in every imaginable way that matters, Ted is Alastair’s father. There is no doubt of that whatsoever, even if (and it’s a huge if) Alastair was conceived with my sperm.

I wrote this snippet of autobiography to illustrate a complex moral and emotional dilemma, and I wrote it to make a point about fatherhood. I’m pleased that it’s fostered a lot of discussion, even if a lot of that discussion has been unconstructive and tinged with violent invective. I’m grateful to the friends who have been so supportive in person and in writing — and grateful to the friends who’ve trusted our relationship enough that they can feel comfortable publicly or privately criticizing my stance. I’ve been around along enough to know the distinction between a thoughtful challenge and mean-spirited invective. I’ve had lots of opportunity to be reminded this week of that distinction.

My friend Harmony sent me a quote last night, from the artist Madelon Vriesendorp: “If you’re hated by the right people, it’s a compliment.” When someone says something hateful to me, I often ask myself, “Who else — or what else — do they despise?” While it’s not always true that the enemy of one’s enemy is automatically a friend, there is something to be said for being lucky in one’s opponents. I am indeed fortunate in my enemies!

I stand by the position that confessional writing matters. It’s certainly not the only kind of writing I do, and it’s not the only kind of writing I enjoy reading. But it has its place in fostering discussion about how it is we can construct happier lives for ourselves. Reading the intensely personal stories of other writers has helped me understand my world and myself. Of course, too much of a focus on individual experience is unhelpful; endless navel-gazing isn’t constructive. But it is a serious mistake to refuse to place personal experience alongside reason as a vital tool for understanding how to live.

I’ll leave the comment sections open on the older spermgate posts, at least for a few more days. But I’m ready to move on to other discussions, and with a few exceptions, I’d imagine most of my readers are as well.

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

The Son Who May — or May Not — Be Mine

My Good Men Project column runs one day early this week, and it’s turned out to be a controversial one: I May Have a Son, But I’ll Never Know for Sure. It’s a true story I tell, one I’ve not written about before. I had wanted to write a piece on the Casey Anthony trial, focusing on the anonymity of the father of little Caylee, but I thought better of stoking that fire.


In a medium-sized city in the Midwest, there’s a boy who will turn 13 next month. He lives with his parents, who were wed three months before he was born. He is tall, with dirty blonde hair and blue eyes. His name is Alastair*, and he may –- or may not -– be my son…

Fourteen autumns ago, I was casually dating a woman I’ll call Jill*. We had unprotected intercourse a handful of times in late October and early November. And just before Thanksgiving, Jill discovered she was pregnant.

She didn’t tell me until after New Year’s Day. While Jill and I had been in a “friends with benefits” arrangement, she’d also been growing more serious about another man, Ted.* She’d first slept with him for the first time two nights before she had last slept with me. It was that week that Jill got pregnant, and as she would later tell me, there was no way to know for sure which one of us was the father.

But there was no question which one of us was a better bet as a romantic partner. Jill had broken things off with me as soon as she and Ted had decided on an exclusive relationship (just before she found out she was pregnant.) Ted was several years older than I was, professionally and emotionally stable, and clearly falling in love with Jill. I was drinking, partying, with some time to go before I’d hit my rock bottom. Jill wanted to be a mom. Ted wanted to be a dad. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. In her mind, these facts settled it: the baby was Ted’s. Or it needed to be Ted’s…

At the Good Men Project and at Jezebel, where the piece was reposted this afternoon my choices — and the choices of a woman I slept with many years ago — are under intense debate. (The only thing I’m regretting at the moment is the pompous phrase “fourteen autumns ago”.) Not surprisingly, the GMP and Jezebel commenting communities don’t always agree.

Read the whole thing here or here.

“Let Me Show You What I Like”: Sex, Perfection, Reassurance

My latest is up at Sir Richard’s Condom Company. Revisiting some of what I wrote about in my old “bowflex boy” posts, the piece talks about body image, making love with the lights on, and how to reassure an insecure lover that you think his (or her) body’s hot.

Mama, you’ll want to give this one a miss.


I got an email from a woman named Clara*, who has a great new guy in her life. Things are awesome, including in the bedroom – except for one thing. Reggie, Clara’s boyfriend, only wants to get naked when the lights are off. Clara writes:

“It took me until I was 25 or so to get over my own anxieties so that I could be comfortable having sex in daylight. When I was a teen, even in my first serious relationship, I always wanted to keep some clothes on or do it in the darkness. I was so embarrassed about my body, thinking I was too fat and too pale. I thought a guy wouldn’t want me if he could actually see all of me.So I finally get to the place where I can accept my body. And I end up falling for a dude who feels the same way I used to feel. Do other straight men have this problem? How can I help him see that I want to see him?”

The first part of Clara’s question is easy to answer. Statistics show that poor body image is on the rise among young heterosexual men. Our stereotype is that young women and gay men are the ones most likely to be concerned with appearance. While that’s still true, the pressure on all guys to be toned and hard (with, of course, a six-pack) is growing rapidly, thanks to a media that increasingly features images of male perfection.

The insecurity that these images foster does often manifest in the bedroom. A student in my interdisciplinary “Beauty and the Body” course told me last year that he has a hard time believing a woman can be attracted to any body type other than the slender, lightly muscled ideal he sees on the cover of men’s fitness magazines. As a result, he’s scared to be naked with a girlfriend – just like Clara’s Reggie. As with any body image issue, there’s no magic quick fix. Talking about it openly and offering a partner reassurance is important. But as they say, talk is cheap. Putting actions to your words can help, I told Clara. And I shared with her something a friend of mine did to help me with a very similar issue.

Read the whole thing.

Some people never forgive you: on recovery and reputation

I’ve been on the receiving end of some fairly strong cyber-calumny over the past few weeks. Google my name, and you’ll find it. I’m not asking for defenders or for legal advice (I have both, happily, in spades.) But I am interested in answering a question I got the other day:

How do you deal with the fact that so many people don’t think you’ve changed? How do you deal with all that animosity coming your way?

First off, I know there are worse things than being called names by folks who don’t know me. I have it easy. Second of all, I do come from the “if you’re not making enemies, you’re not doing your job” school of activism. You can tell a lot about people by the nature of those who hate them most. Continue reading

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