A Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille

sawdust

The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose. The signs hanging on the busy walls (those filled with animal heads, kitsch, and signatures in black marker) described how the Red Dog bar in Juneau had been built in 1912, to entertain the gold rushers here. I pictured the classic Wild West setup, with girls named Kitty in scandalous clothing, men in hats playing loud poker at the tables, and swinging saloon doors. They’d done a beautiful job making this space feel just like that. Crowded walls, greasy food, cheap beer, and a man who looked like an old-timey prospector playing the guitar on the small stage up front.

He sang a melancholy Johnny Cash song while I ordered a rum and Coke, casually observing the other patrons. The employees were dressed in period costumes. I pictured them here every day, making drinks, fries, and oyster shots for the thousands of cruise passengers who docked in the city in for mere hours. The tourists hit this gem of a town like a plague of locusts, buzzing in and out, consuming everything, until they flew back to their buffets, drinks, and pools aboard the ship. Two or three ships every day, clogging the streets, then leaving the place quiet in the evenings, for just the locals and the more long-term tourists, the ones more like me.

Four white couples sat all around me, and at least three of them were shit-faced drunk. At 8 pm on a Sunday night. The other couple, they never looked up from their phones, and I never saw them sip their beers. I casually listened to the stutters of conversation I could hear around me, but I tuned them out and instead focused on the singer. His leathered skin, his twisting white mustache, the oak barrel country twang in his voice, it was all just delicious. I sipped my drink as he sang.

“This next song is a favorite of mine,” the singer announced. “It’s by my old friend, Kenny Rogers. He told me about this woman, the one named Lucille, personally. He wrote a song about her! Sing along with the chorus if you know it.” He clearly didn’t actually know Kenny Rogers, but it somehow added to the authenticity of the experience.

And in his beautiful register, he began “Lucille.” This song automatically conjured up a bitter and happy nostalgia within me. How many times had I heard this classic country song in my teenage years, when my stepfather was in one of his good moods, filling the house with joy, love, and consistency. But those periods always followed an incident of extreme violence. Someone struck with an open hand, or grounded for weeks for with no cause, or called names until they cried, and then on came the happy music. Into the room came “Lucille.” Had I even heard this song in the two decades of my life since my stepfather had been gone? It felt strange to hear it now.

He sang, using Rogers’ words, of the bar in Toledo where a lonely and overwhelmed Lucille walked in and sat on a nearby stool, pounding back a few drinks. You don’t learn until later in the song that Lucille is trapped in a bad marriage with four hungry children and an overworked farmer for a husband. But in the second line of the song, you learn how she takes off her wedding ring, and she shortly announces that she’s looking for a good time.

But the singer changed things, trying to get a laugh. He sang, “On a barstool, she took off her clothes.” He stopped playing, then said, “Oh, did I say clothes? I of course meant ring!” He cackled, then kept laughing as the drunk crowd just talked over his music. The words tell of the singer moving down next to Lucille, seeing an opportunity with a willing woman, but immediately the singer saw the woman’s husband enter, a mountain of a man with calloused hands. The first chorus echoed that man’s words to his wife, and I sang along loudly.

“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille, with four hungry children and a crop in the field. I’ve had some bad times, lived through some sad times, but this time the hurtin’ won’t heal. You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.'”

After the chorus, the singer stopped, explaining that that wasn’t the way it really happened. In the real story, as Rogers had told it to him, he said, Lucille’s husband had come in and let Lucille just how he felt. He’d walked in yelling, telling Lucille exactly what she was.

“The real chorus goes like this. It’s almost the same, but just sing it like this,” he said. “‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.‘ Then you just call out what her husband called her in that bar. ‘You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Those are the actual words used in the real story! See, just try it with me. ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Hey, you did great! Doesn’t that feel good! Let’s try the chorus all together now! ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut! ‘With four hungry children, and a crop in the field!'” 

I was astounded. The audience all around me screamed the words out enthusiastically, eager to slut-shame Lucille as much as possible, or perhaps just thrilled to get to shout those words in public. The girl in front of me, the whitest white girl of all, shouted the words extra loud and with enthusiasm, her middle fingers raised up for effect. “You bitch! You whore! You slut!” she repeated, before taking a swig of her beer, drunk laughing, then leaning over to her husband and whispering a secret. “That’s hilarious, that slut!”

The song went on, into the third voice. The singer ordered whiskey and took Lucille back to his hotel room, but was unable to go through with it, because he couldn’t stop thinking about what the husband said. Cue the second chorus, and the audience happily called Lucille a whore and a bitch one more time.

The singer took his hand off the guitar and leaned into the microphone. “Now, on the radio, that was the end of the song. Kenny Rogers couldn’t get away with publishing the fourth verse, the censors wouldn’t allow it. But he told it to me. Ladies and gentlemen, right here, in the Red Dog, you can hear the real ending of the classic song, Lucille, are you ready?” The crowd cheered. I felt a little nervous. This man was not treating Lucille well, and I just knew it was about to get worse.

In the secret fourth verse, he sang about how Lucille had left the hotel room, and so the singer had returned to the bar, where he had met two sisters. He took both sisters back to his hotel room, took of their clothes, and was about to fool around with both of them, when Lucille came back into the hotel room, still wanting to be with him, apparently. And to get her to go away, now that he had better prospects, the singer had repeated the husband’s words in a third chorus.

“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!'”

I walked out of Red Dog, my mind spinning with the whole experience. I felt disgusted. I felt strangely protective of Lucille, though she was fictional. She had once represented happy times in my home. I didn’t like how the crowd had slut-shamed her, blaming her for seeking an escape from her tortured marriage. I didn’t like the man in the song and how he’d shamed Lucille while he himself was trying to sleep with two sisters. I knew it was all supposed to be a joke, that people there had been laughing, but I kept hearing the crowd chanting bitch, slut, and whore, and I kept seeing that woman with her raised middle fingers. They shamed Lucille for sexualized behavior while screaming with enthusiasm for Kenny Rogers and his supposed debauchery. It was gross. Lucille didn’t deserve that, I decided. And then I remembered the venue, the atmosphere of the people there.

The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose.

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Period.

Growing up, I was totally grossed out by girls. It wasn’t just me, the straight boys around me were also disgusted. Even girls seemed grossed out by other girls, sometimes by themselves. That’s how it seemed to five year old me.

In kindergarten, we had to carry imaginary cans of ‘Cootie Spray’ in case a girl touched us, that way we could get rid of any invisible infections, cause Cooties were even worse than germs. Even at that age, I remember the guys in class having recess discussions about which girls were the hottest, ranking them right down to the ugliest. There were even discussions about girls’ private parts. We didn’t know much, but we knew they didn’t have a penis, and that was just weird. Boobs were cool, though. I agreed in order  to fit in.

Around the age of 7, I was curious, and took the clothes off of my sister’s Barbie doll, but there was nothing there. Barbie’s slim waist was a smooth plastic surface, lacking any definition. On the back, she had a smooth line in the center of her rounded hips, giving her a butt, but there was nothing on the front. (An inspection of the Ken Doll yielded similar results. No penis. This couldn’t be right.) So later, I called my little sister in the bathroom, in an ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’ moment, and we showed each other. Mine dangled. But for her, there was nothing there, just a little opening of some kind. Huh. Okay. That was that.

All through adolescence, my peers continued talking about boobs and hot girls, but the conversation topics somehow shifted into virginity, and how one might lose it. I didn’t know what that meant until 15 or so, except that it meant inserting the penis into the vagina, but we never talked about the vagina, and guys always seemed a bit grossed out by it. Guys also constantly cracked jokes about PMS, about how if a girl was upset, annoyed, moody, or angry, she must be on her period, that mysterious time of month when girls had to use tampons to mitigate blood flow, and during when they could get lots of headaches, stomach cramps, and mood swings. PMS jokes were rampant, though I don’t remember a single girl ever laughing at one of those jokes ever.

I don’t recall ever speaking to my mother about vaginas, or periods, or PMS, or menopause. But I was the sixth of seven children, with five sisters, and settled in between two sisters in the birth order, one that was 3.5 years older than me, and one that was 3.5 years younger. I saw the feminine hygiene products in the cupboard, and I remember discussions about periods being irregular, and voiced reluctance for either sister to see a ‘lady doctor’, the phrase used to avoid using the word ‘gynecologist’. I didn’t know the difference between a tampon and a maxi-pad, I just knew there was blood, and I knew that everyone thought it was gross.

In my third year of college, in a Human Behavior in the Social Environment class, the teacher made time for one of the students, Shanna, to perform for the class. She had been rehearsing a piece from the Vagina Monologues. She boldly stood before the class, sharing the story of a woman who had grown up thinking her vagina was disgusting and how she eventually learned to love it. I remember sitting in the back of the class, in my Mormon mindset, and feeling disgusted that she felt the need to talk about the vagina at all, which I thought of as some sort of sacred lady part that should only be discussed by wives with their husbands, or maybe with their ‘lady doctors.’ After class, I told her good job, but secretly I was grossed out.

It wasn’t until many years later, when I started becoming more aware of feminism and female issues, that I realized the shame with which American society treats female bodies. This opens all sorts of wider discussions on abortion, genital mutilation, rape culture, diet culture, and a myriad of other issues, but at its very basis, I’m realizing that I grew up in a world where we were taught to be embarrassed about vaginas,  reproductive cycles, gynecology, and periods. When those discussions did happen, they were with derision, disgust, shame, or belittling. And that is entirely unacceptable.

During the brutal election last year, Donald Trump was at odds with newswoman Megyn Kelly. In an interview about her, he stated, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. In my opinion, she was off base” A presidential candidate, one notorious for his marriages, divorces, and affairs, tried to shame a professional woman because, he hinted, she might be on her period. It was vagina-shaming, period-shaming, at a national level. I remember experiencing disgust and revulsion at his comments, at a bully of a man who was shaming a woman simply for being a woman. And I remember being repulsed that he was finding support from Americans who defended his comments.

As a gay man with two sons, I am not a good advocate for women’s rights. But I am an ally. We shouldn’t be laughing at, feeling disgusted by, or body-shaming our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and friends for being women, for having vaginas, or for having natural, biological, healthy functions like periods. Health care for their own bodies should be in their control. And we should be able to have grown-up conversations about it.

And that’s all there is to say.

Period.

period

Mr. Karen Carpenter

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Just days before her wedding, Karen Carpenter discovered her fiancee was a liar.

Karen had been dating high profile men for years, sometimes casually and sometimes seriously. Alan Osmond and Steve Martin and Tony Danza. She was 5’4”, petite and small with an enormous smile. She looked healthy and strong at around 115 lbs, but she was hard on herself, often starving herself while using laxatives to empty her system and uppers to boost her metabolism and energy, and her weight would sometimes drop to 90, 85, or even 80 pounds, giving her the look of a skeleton covered in skin.

Her voice, though, her voice was unchanging. She kept an impossible schedule, touring the world and making music with her smoky and sultry voice in its lower register, somehow conveying the emotional weight of every word, whether she sang of falling in love or of being desperately lonely or of being heartbroken.

Talking to myself and feeling old, sometimes I’d like to quit, nothin’ ever seems to fit, hanging around, nothing to do but frown, rainy days and Mondays always get me down

and

why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near? just like me, they long to be close to you

and

what to say to make you come again, come back to me again and play your sad guitar, don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby?

Karen’s mother, Agnes, ruled the household with strong words and harsh expectations. She saw her son, Richard, as a musical prodigy who would have a successful career playing the piano, and she saw Karen as a talented young woman who could support Richard in his rise to fame and then perhaps Karen could become the wife and mother she was meant to be. Karen started her music career behind a set of drums, playing for her brother’s band, but when they heard her sing, she was moved out in front as the lead singer. She was the one everyone saw and heard and remembered.

Karen and Richard were dubbed the squeaky-clean rock stars, full of innocence and virginity, during their era, and their personal lives matched that at first; they even lived at home with their parents until they were in their mid-20s, for years after they had become famous. In time, Richard struggled through drug addiction while Karen fell in and out of love, hoping to find a unicorn of a man, who could love her, give her a family, be independent and devoted, and be able to handle her fame.

Karen met Tom Burris during a difficult time in her life. She had just tried launching her own musical career, her own solo album. She had smiled and beamed through the hard work of making her disco album, but after a year of hard work, her family and friends had discouraged her from releasing it, hearing the tracks and telling her it would be unsuccessful. And so she shelved the album, and it would only be released years after her death.

Tom had appeared perfect, and he came at just the right time. He was handsome with a flashy smile and a nice career and stories of vast wealth, and he was blonde and blue-eyed and seemingly devoted to Karen. He claimed he had never heard of her, though she was world famous. A decade older, Tom rushed a divorce with his current wife and proposed to Karen, promising to give her everything she ever wanted, and Karen, hesitant at first, said yes. Then, weeks before the wedding, Tom told her that he had had a vasectomy and that he couldn’t give her children. Karen was heartbroken and furious. He had lied to her. She called off the wedding, but her mother had already sent out the invitations and Karen was pressured into continuing.

And so, Karen Carpenter married Tom Burris married on August 31, 1980. She cut the honeymoon short, immediately unhappy, and then Tom began asking for money, having lied about his personal fortunes. He bought her a car, but they later repossessed it for missing payments. After months of unhappiness, Karen began working on the divorce proceedings, changing her will to keep Tom mostly out of it.

Karen’s health was failing, her body unable to operate without food and sustenance, abused by pills and laxatives. She started treatment and wanted fast results. The therapist was rough on her and Karen began facing harsh truths, especially in a therapy session where her mother could admit love for Richard but not for Karen, not out loud at least.

And so Karen was 32 when she woke up one morning, started a cup of coffee, and then collapsed naked on the floor in her room in her mother’s basement, her heart giving out on her. She died minutes later. It was 1983.

I was five when Karen died. I grew up listening to her amazing voice. It was heavenly, and it made me feel all the feelings. And now, I’m 38, older than she was at the time of her death, and I’m learning about her life. I’ve played her music for the week while I’ve read about her, and I’ve watched her old interviews as she denied having an eating disorder late in her career. I’ve watched her awkward singing behind a set of drums early in her career, and her extreme confidence as she flirted with the audience masterfully in the middle of her career. And this morning, I sit and type about her sad story, one talented and beautiful young woman who wanted love and happiness just like anyone else. And  I realize, it’s a rainy day and a Monday, and I’m feeling down.

But good Lord, that voice…

 

 

Righteous Indignation

Girlpower

“There had better be righteous indignation,” my ex-wife told me, a mix of humor and outrage in her voice.

I laughed. “Okay, I think I can manage a bit of that. Let me have it.”

I heard her clear her throat over the phone and then take in a long breath. “Okay, you remember how I wanted to change my last name back to my maiden name?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, if you remember, when we got married, we had to get the wedding license and then it only cost like $15 to change my last name to yours. I filled out a form and then just informed the companies. I had to get all my identifications changed over, like my driver’s license. It was a hassle, but relatively easy.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Okay, so I went in the other day to see if I could change my name back. I was informed that if I had wanted to do this at the time of our divorce, it would have been a simple process. I request the name change, I pay the $15, and the name is changed back. But now… now since it has been a few years since the divorce, I have to go through this whole process. Apparently it costs around $450! And, get this, I have to have your permission to change it back! We’ve been divorced for years!”

“Wait, what?”

“Yes! She told me that you have to give a letter of consent to change it back.”

“If you were getting married again and wanted to change your name, what then?”

“$15. No hassle. But if I, as a single independent woman, want to change it, it’s several hundred dollars and permission from my ex-husband.”

I sat back and absorbed all of this for a moment, trying to make rational sense of it, turning on the analytical part of my brain. “Okay, part of this doesn’t surprise me. We live in Utah, obviously. There was a mandatory 3 month waiting period before the divorce was granted, and they made us take that divorce class where the presenter basically kept asking, ‘are you sure you want to get divorced? really really sure?’ Plus, Mormon men can marry a woman in the temple, get divorced, marry another woman in the temple and still be considered married to the first woman. Women get married in the temple, get divorced, and if they want to get married in the temple a second time, they have to get permission from their ex-husband to have a temple divorce first. Clearly, this policy stems from the culture.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t make it any less outrageous!”

I thought for a split second before deciding to make a joke of the whole thing, knowing her sense of humor. “Well, if you wanted special privileges in Utah, maybe you should have just been born with a penis.”

I could almost hear her rolling her eyes over the phone. “Ha-ha,” she responded without humor.

“It really is horrible, Meg. Truly. I don’t know what to say.”

“Men!” She answered, half-joking and half-serious. “Seriously, this whole system is set up for men. And here I am talking to a white man!” We both laughed, then she added, “Except you’re gay, so that makes you just slightly more tolerable.”

We ended the call shortly after that, and I sat reflecting on the state of the world, where such needless barriers were put in place. I pictured myself bringing this example up in one of my old social justice classes that I taught in college, using this as an example of oppression. One of the white male, Mormon students in the back would have raised his hand and given an argument like “I’m a white male, and I like women, so I’m not sexist. And I don’t think the law is either. If it was a man who had changed his name to his wife’s last name and he wanted to change his name back, he would have to go through the same process.” And then I would have quipped with a speech about the societal pressure and value that is placed on couples to marry young and for the woman to take on the man’s last name. We would have gone back and forth for a time, two white men arguing about women’s rights.

I sat down on the couch, a bit exhausted with all of it, and wondered how different the world might be if at least 50 per cent of the elected leaders were women; truly, more than that is what is needed, because how long have men been at it, and how much more fair might the world be if women took the lead.

Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide

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Sally Ride loved science more than anything.

And when her parents fostered a sense of purpose in her, during her upbringing primarily in California, Sally knew could do anything she wanted, at a time when many women did not realize their potential. In fact, after she made history by being the first American woman in space (two Soviet women beat her to it), she devoted decades of her life afterwards to inspiring middle school age girls to love and be inspired by science.

And when Sally recognized that girls are vastly under-represented in the fields of science (including math and engineering), she realized that 13 year old boys who get a C in science are told they can grow up to be anything, and that 13 year old girls who get an A in science are encouraged to be nurses and housewives.

And when Sally herself realized she was willing to live up to nothing less than her potential, while hitting tennis rackets on a nearly professional level, she put herself through college, excelling in a field dominated by  men.

And when NASA, after decades, finally opened up its recruitment to women, Sally applied, and moved to Texas to train as an astronaut. She worked tirelessly, using her analytical brain to solve complex problems, practicing for untold hours until she was skilled and it all made sense.

And when Sally was selected to be the first woman from the program to launch, she herself became an international celebrity, something she was quite unready for. In fact, Sally was a very private person. She had never even told her husband Steve, at the time, about being a lesbian, about falling in love with a woman in college. For, like so many others, it took her time to sort out her feelings from the expectations of her culture.

And when, for months before and after the launch, Sally endured exhausting questions from reporters: What makeup will you wear in space and If the pressure gets to be too much, will you just weep and They are working you so hard, you have no choice but to submit, I guess it is like being raped, you might as well just lay back and enjoy it and do you worry that the flight will harm your reproductive organs, and Johnny Carson made jokes about her bra on television, and Billy Joel immortalized her name in the song We Didn’t Start the Fire, tucking her smoothly in between Wheel of Fortune and heavy metal, suicide in his complicated lyrics, Sally smiled, nodded, quipped back, and asked the reporters why they weren’t asking these same questions to the male astronauts on her team, a team of equals.

And when Sally received her NASA uniform, she had the tag read, simply, Sally, not Ride or Dr. Ride, just Sally. 

And when Sally chose to be an astronaut, and her sister chose to be a minister, Sally’s mother joked that at least one of her daughters would make it to Heaven.

And when the Challenger exploded, and later the Columbia, Sally worked tirelessly until she found out why, exposing corruption within the industry that had resulted in the deaths of her peers.

And when Sally fell in love with Tam O’Shaughnessy, a beautiful and independent woman she had met years before, she quietly left her husband and moved in, telling no one, even her family.

And when Sally got cancer far too young, she suffered quietly, telling no one except her closest loved ones until the very end. And when Tam planned a memorial for Sally, and wondered how she should define their relationship, Sally thoughtfully considered coming out of the closet finally, but worried about its impact on NASA.

And when Sally died at age 61, and Tam told the world about their decades long relationship finally, the critics came out of the woodwork. The homophobic were outraged that a lesbian was such a public name. And among the LGBT community, they berated Sally for not coming out as a gay icon years before. And Sally’s family grieved on their own terms.

And when Sally’s name was used on scholarships and elementary schools and even a mountain range on the moon, Sally must have smiled, somewhere somehow.

Because Sally Ride loved science more than anything.