Weddings! And symbolism, and lavish spending

In terms of gender role performance, I think I’m about 30% girl-typical, 25% boy-typical, and 45% neutral. One of the ways in which I’m girl-typical is that I’m interested in weddings. When I was little, I read all of Emily Post’s Etiquette multiple times, but especially the wedding section. I would draw dresses and come up with exact, detailed plans for what my flowers would be, and what the wedding party would wear, and what our invitations would look like, and all of that. Sometimes it was a breezy casual beach wedding, sometimes it was an elaborate formal affair with 25 pearl buttons on my dress. I didn’t ever think that what I was planning was the actual wedding I would actually have someday; I just enjoyed making the plans. (I did the same thing with families, planning how many kids and their names and how I’d space them and where we’d live and which kids would be musical and which would be introverts and all of that.)

To be actually planning my actual wedding gives me a weird, disjointed feeling: kind of like when you rehearse a performance over and over, and then you finally go on stage and it feels entirely different from the rehearsal, but also weirdly the same, and you can’t quite convince yourself that this time it’s the real thing.

To me weddings, like a lot of rituals, provide a unique opportunity to express yourself in the context of your culture. Each wedding is a blend of “things you do because that’s what your culture does” and “things you do because it appeals to your individual taste.” Rituals are all about symbolism, and being, as I am, something of a junkie for symbolic self-expression, I think a ton about what the symbolism of each aspect of the wedding ritual is and how I want to embrace, reject, or modify that symbol. It becomes a very particular expression of identity. Planning my hypothetical future wedding was about trying on different possible identities; planning an actual upcoming wedding is about settling on one; looking back on my wedding as I attend other people’s will be about comparing and contrasting what my wedding said about me with what their wedding says about them.

So! If all of that sounds ridiculous and/or boring to you, you can skip this and any other post tagged “wedding” I may write in the future. If you’re still here in the next paragraph, I am going to assume you have at least a passing interest in in-depth discussion of contemporary US wedding customs and the symbolism therein.

First contemporary US wedding custom: Spending a ton of money.
It’s easy to dismiss this one as out-of-control advertising and rampant materialism and whatever else, and that’s all certainly part of it, but let’s eschew the knee-jerk dismissive response shall we? What I see in the “obscene cost” aspect of weddings is a desire to play rich for once in your life. It’s like your own private Oscar ceremony, your chance to live like a movie star for one day, where all attention is on you and everything is lavish and decadent. Most Americans can’t afford to do this more than once in their lives, and the wedding has become the time when you do it: live in glorious splendor, spend like a millionaire, and remember it all your days.

I am not uncritical of the lavish-spending custom; in fact I have been known to throw around words like “ridiculous” and “insane” as well as the above-featured “obscene.” And, as I’ll discuss in a minute, I am entirely not on board with it for my own wedding. But I do understand, I think, where the desire comes from, and I can see my way to conceding that once in a lifetime, spending half a year’s salary on a really great party could be a good choice for some people. The downside, of course, is that the market created by people who want to have the star-for-a-day wedding experience makes it rather difficult for people to have a less expensive wedding if they choose. “Wedding” anything can be expected to cost more than the same thing NOT intended for weddings, just because the producers know that consumers will pay it. A modest wedding still costs thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, depending how you define “modest.”

My personal spin on this custom: laughing in its face as it speeds by.
I don’t really have an option here: we’re broke and pretty much on our own for footing wedding costs. But even if I had money to spend, even if I had quite a lot of money to spend, I’d be shooting for the four-digit end of the wedding-cost spectrum. The idea of a big, expensive wedding last appealed to me in early college years: since then I’ve been thinking of my wedding as “celebration with friends” rather than “chance to live it up big.” We have a lot of people who love us and are excited to participate and contribute, so we’re drawing on their various talents, and letting it be a pretty homespun affair. I’m keeping track of all our expenses, so that when people ask me “How can I possibly throw a wedding for less than $X?” I’ll be able to tell them how we did it.

The number on the scale: yes, I’m going there

A fit of madness has seized me, and I am going to talk about weight. Normally this is a subject I do not discuss. I don’t like when people talk about their weight; I don’t like when people compliment me on looking “thin”; and I really, really don’t like it when people talk about other people’s weight. I had a relatively brief phase of body-image self-loathing crap in college, and it was bad enough that I maintain pretty rigid defenses against those kinds of thoughts entering my world.

It’s important to me that I look good, and I think there are a lot of ways to look good, and I’m comfortable with my own way, which is soft and curvy all over, but still within the socially-accepted range of figure types for the most part. (Which is another reason I don’t like to talk about weight, by the way: I have some privilege here, and there are other people much more qualified to talk about body-size stigma and body-image disorders and the like.) It’s also important to me that I be reasonably healthy, and the way I do that is make sure I’m maintaining a moderate amount of physical activity, and eating lots of nutritious food, and not going completely overboard on junk food. I never weigh myself for my own benefit: the number on the scale isn’t going to tell me whether I look good, or whether I’m healthy, so I don’t do it.

Now I have two elderly cats, though, and as part of keeping an eye on their overall health, I’m weighing them on a regular basis. And by far the easiest way to do this is to pick up the cat, weigh myself holding the cat, and then weigh myself without the cat and subtract. Which means that, for the first time in many years, I know what I weigh.

Which brings me back to one of the reasons I never weigh myself for my own sake, because the number on the scale is invariably way, way higher than I think it should be. Which is stupid, because I have no reasonable basis for judging what that number should be. When I was a teenager, and too young to realize the multiple levels of stupid involved in this task, I went through an article in a magazine talking about different stars and how much they weighed, trying to get a sense (by comparing myself to the ones who were about my height) of how much I should weigh in order to be perfect. Like I said, stupid. Anyway, the number I came up with was around 130 pounds, which I then upgraded to 135 because, you know, these magazines exaggerate stuff (oooh, look at me being a critical consumer *cough*), and then found that I still weighed a full 15 pounds more than I should! The horror! At that time my body-image issues had not kicked in yet. I thought I looked pretty good, but this little exercise sowed the first seeds of doubt: I thought I looked good, but the magazine told me I didn’t, and proved it with math! Clearly, it was time to start fretting about my body.

Anyway. Fast-forward thirteen years, and what strikes me is that never, in all that time, have I heard a (non-pregnant) woman admit to weighing more than 130 pounds. Sometimes it’s a lot less. Like I said, I don’t listen to or participate in a lot of weight talk, but on the few times I’ve heard a number mentioned, it’s always been 125. Or 120. And often it’s “Yes, I’m 125, I really need to drop a few pounds.” So somewhere in my mind there’s this anchoring effect around the number 130, that that is a good and normal and attractive weight to be, and that I know I’m a little plush so I probably weigh more than that, so probably I weigh around 135 or 140. Which is what I’ve given my weight as every time I’ve needed to do so in the last decade, because that’s a number I can say that fits my self-image.

Well, I actually weigh 160. Which, when I discovered that, sent me into a little mental panic spiral that I had to firmly talk down, with only limited success. (I’m still firmly talking it down.) In my mind, 160 is way too much. Not because I have any idea what a doctor who didn’t have their head up their ass would say about my body’s health, not because I have any idea what’s average for my height, just because the only women who talk about their weight loud enough that I can hear claim to be 30 to 40 pounds lower than that, and because I read this magazine feature once. I have to actually remind myself that my body looks the same as it did before I stepped on the scale with my cat, and if I was happy with it then it would be stupid not to be happy with it now, just because I now know a fact I previously didn’t know.

So I wanted to post this just to correct the information imbalance that I, at least, was suffering from, even though I think the whole number-on-a-scale thing is bullshit. Apparently some fabulous-looking women weigh 160, and I bet some fabulous-looking women weigh a lot more, but I have no idea because I don’t know their number, I just know I think they look fabulous. The point here is that a number cannot tell you whether you look good or not. It just can’t. And for too long, I’ve let a number have that power, and only my elderly cats’ health has forced me to confront that little brain parasite and try to eradicate it. And this post is part of my attempt to do that.

(Admin note: this post has a zero-tolerance policy for fatphobic comments, or any comments that imply that a woman has an obligation to tailor her body to someone else’s satisfaction. I rarely delete comments but that shit will be deleted without apology. My blog, my rules.)

On reality

Six days ago, Shaun and I were sitting in a green room, and I said to him, “These people are all really nice to us… they seem to like us and to respect our ‘lifestyle.’ And I think they probably do like and respect us, because what’s not to like? But what’s bothering me is that even if they thought were were immature, immoral people who are destroying the fabric of America, I believe they’d be behaving in exactly the same way.”

After our appearance on the show, when we were roundly scolded by Father Albert and the audience, I said something very similar. “He probably does disapprove of us and think committed relationships should be exclusive and that we’re making destructive choices. But if I found out afterward that in his private life he thinks open relationships are terrific, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”

The whole time we were on the set, it was clear to me that everything was a performance. The words, the gestures, the attitudes… perhaps they agreed with the performer’s underlying feelings, but if so it was little more than coincidence. Everything was deliberate and dramatized, designed to produce an effect.

Shaun felt that Father Albert was cold and hostile to him; what I felt was that he was simply not present, with either of us. He was focused on his performance, and our presence there as human beings wasn’t really relevant. Much of the audience probably perceived him as warm and present, because he was playing to them. When he asked us a harsh question, he barely met our eyes.

When we got offstage, my impression of its all having been performance was solidified by the way everybody treated us. They were friendly, they were smiling, they were exactly the same in manner as they’d been before the show. You’d never know that we’d just been excoriated onstage. It wasn’t real, you see. We were stage villains, playing a part, and there was no more hostility between us and them than there is between actors playing Macbeth and MacDuff.

I haven’t said much about it here, but I hate and have always hated reality TV. I love fiction, I love drama, I love playing make-believe; but I have always suspected, and now I know, that dramatic “reality-based” television is the worst kind of lie. It is fiction pretending to be reality. Lies and truth are so intermingled as to be nearly indistinguishable.

We were told, the whole time leading up to our appearance onstage, that we were just there to tell our story. To explain our non-monogamous relationship and to tell people how and why it works for us. I am not naïve, so I was prepared for a surprise, but what’s bothering me now is that I don’t know, and probably never will know, exactly where the deception took place. Were Jen and Steph, the women I thought of as our “handlers,” misled by the producers? Were they simply flatly lying to us? Was there a change of plan at some point and a decision not to tell us? Did Father Albert go off-book? My guess is that they hadn’t decided until, say, late Thursday night or Friday morning exactly what angle they were going to take, and that having decided, they avoided telling us for one of many reasons. I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. But the fact that it doesn’t matter is strange to me. Usually when someone lies to me or conspires against me, it’s recognized by both of us that we are enemies. Here, it’s just the way they do business, so it doesn’t matter who exactly was doing the lying and conspiring.

The audience was nearly unanimously against us and booed and hissed at most of what we had to say, with one exception. I said at one point, “I don’t have to worry about Shaun looking at other women behind my back, because he’s doing it in front of my face.” At which the audience — largely composed of women — gave a collected “ohhh!” of recognition and understanding. I wish I could have explained myself further, because in retrospect many of them probably interpreted that statement as “I know he’s going to check out other women because he’s a man and all men are pigs, but I prefer the security of knowing what he’s thinking.” Which is not at all what I meant. What I meant was, “I know he’s going to check out other women because he’s human and being in love with one person does not automatically turn off your interest in other people… and I want to know him, as he is, not someone he pretends to be, even with the best of intentions. And his attractions, the women he finds beautiful, the pain of rejection and the joy of connection, are all part of who he is, and so I want to know these things too.” That’s what I’d have liked to say.

I hate reality TV because I love reality. Truth, pure and unfiltered, is probably unattainable to human minds, but I want to come as close to it as possible. I want to know the reality of Shaun’s mind and his heart, even the things that have the potential to make me jealous or insecure. I don’t at all regret going on the show, but in the week since I have almost wept with gratitude for the openness and sincerity of our relationship.

Driving the truck

I will be driving a 17′ moving truck tomorrow, through not-overwide city streets. I’m not looking forward to it. The first time I drove a vehicle that size was five months ago, when we last moved.* I hated it then; I like driving little, zippy cars, cars that feel like just a really big metal suit with an engine, cars like my much-lamented Yaris. Driving the truck was big and clunky and slow.

Oh, and scary. Did I mention scary? Driving that giant thing along narrow streets, getting lost, having to loop around and try again, not being sure of the dimensions and constantly worried that I was going to hit something or someone with the ponderous mass I was steering… By the time I got that truck home my shoulders were already sore from tension, and I hadn’t started carrying any boxes yet.

Those who know me know that I have a competence ego as big as any man’s. (Well, not any man’s, there are plenty of men and women too who are worse off than me. What I’m saying is I fall solidly under the male-typical arc of the bell curve.) I wanna do it myself, I wanna figure it out without help, and I get prickly if unwanted assistance is offered. I’m not sure what magic ingredients in my genetics and upbringing gave rise to this delusion, but I truly do believe that I am capable of learning to do anything and everything, without direct assistance from anybody else. Now I’m a grownup, so like most of us with an overblown competence ego, I’ve learned that sometimes I do indeed need help, sometimes other people will do something better than I will even if I try really, really hard, and that my worth as a person is not lessened by either of these truths.**

In the last couple of years, though, I’ve thought more deeply about gender roles, and played more deliberately with adopting both masculine and feminine roles in different situations. So five months ago, driving that beast of a truck through crowded Decatur streets, gritting my teeth and trying to deny my fear, because dammit, I am competent and I can do things like drive giant trucks — it occured to me that if I wanted to, I could put on my “girly” hat and say to the boyfriend, in a quavering little voice, “Driving the truck was really scary, will you do it for the rest of the trip?” Because in the feminine role, it is totally okay to not want to drive giant trucks down tiny city streets. Being too scared or simply feeling incapable is not a weakness in the feminine role. I could admit to that feeling and continue undiminished.

It was an interesting moment of appreciating the different freedoms available to the gender-conforming on both sides. In the masculine “I can do it” role, I would have to push back against my fear, ignore it or overcome it and drive the damn truck: saying I couldn’t was not a viable option. On the plus side, I would walk away with greater competency, because in truth I could drive the truck, and the more I did it the less scary it would get. In the feminine “please help me” role, I would have the freedom to acknowledge my feelings, to say, “Whoa, that is a big-ass truck and driving it here is scary!” I would also have the freedom to let go and let someone else do the task that I felt very uncomfortable doing.

What I actually did, when I got the truck home to Shaun, was report this whole chain of thought to him. And he did drive the truck for most of the rest of the move, which was nice for me. And there was a big difference between taking on the feminine “Please help me” role because it was the only one available to me, and taking it on after consideration and in full acknowledgement that I could go the other way if I chose.

And here’s where part of that difference comes in. My original plan was for tomorrow’s move to be Thursday’s move, and for Shaun and me to go together to the truck rental place, and for him to do all the truck-driving. But due to circumstances entirely within my control***, we have to move on Wednesday instead which means I have to get the truck by myself. It’s the best of a number of bad options, and so I’m going to have to suck it up and channel my dudely competence ego, telling myself that not only can I drive a stupidly huge vehicle, but I can do it in a city I’ve never driven before, and it will be no problem because I am awesome and can do anything.

It’s good to be able to push through fears and anxieties. It’s good to be able to acknowledge them and let someone else carry the load. And it’s especially good to be able to do either one, depending on what’s best for my family.

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Bitter personal rants section

* You notice that, that our last move was five months ago? And it was a particularly hellish one, so that both of us are suffering some post-traumatic issues as we pack up all our things yet again. Moving again so soon wasn’t in the plan, and it just goes to show you that all that stuff your mom and dad said about negotiating clearly with people you’re going to be working/living with, and steering clear of situations with a lot of inherent volatility, were very smart. Going to be tiresomely grownup about such things in the future.

** In leisure pursuits, where nothing but my own enjoyment is at stake, I completely revert to type and am liable to bite someone’s head off for trying to tell me “Do it this way instead.” I think 50% of Shaun’s and my fights have been caused by him trying to give me tips when I’m playing StarCraft.

*** We set our move date as the 30th because that was convenient for us, and I sort of forgot that it was end-of-month, and probably a very popular move day. As a result, I only went to reserve the truck yesterday, by which time there were none available for the 30th. Which means that instead of this:

8:00 – Wake up, eat, pack up last few things

10:00 – Pick up truck with Shaun, Shaun drives the thing, we load, drive, and unload

5:00 – Return truck, settle into new place

my moving day now looks like this:

6:00 – Wake up, eat hurried breakfast, pick up truck

8:00 – Drop truck off at home, get on train to go to work

12:00 – Finish work, sprint out of there to get earliest possible train home

1:00 – Help Shaun load all the stuff he couldn’t carry by himself, as well as all the stuff that couldn’t go on the truck yet because we needed to leave plenty of room for the big stuff; drive and unload. Do all this as fast as possible because we only have five hours left with the truck.

It’s my own damn fault for not reserving the truck sooner, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.

Hierarchy of needs

My lovely man posted recently about why he hasn’t been posting as much recently — a thing which I refuse to allow myself to do, because once I get in the habit then half my posts began with “Sorry I haven’t posted in a while…” The blog will be updated when the blog is updated. (I also stop myself from making any but the vaguest promises about upcoming content. I learned on my earlier blogs — of which there have been an embarrassingly large amount, but that’s another issue — that any time I obligated my future self to write on a particular topic, my future self would go on strike and whole weeks would pass without a new post.)

But this isn’t about my bad blogging habits, this is about Shaun’s lack of posting, and my similar issues with reading. (My posting frequency hasn’t suffered, mostly because I wasn’t very regular to begin with, and also because getting a plug from the wonderful Figleaf was very motivating.) But my reading, let me tell you. While I keep up with all the wonderfully thinky blogs in my feed, I have had zero motivation to actually seek out new writings in the vein of philosophy, politics, religion, and sexuality. Whenever I discover a new blog that I like I go through a full archive trawl, basking in the rich wisdom, gaining new perspectives, learning about new issues.

But now? Now I struggle to even keep up with my subscription feed, and I find I have to skim over discussions of current events that upset or anger me (which seems to be a lot of them right now.) I find myself getting way, way too agitated and cranky and despondent. And the idea of reading some clever philosophy or commentary is just exhausting to me. What have I been doing instead? I’ve been archive-trawling some of my favorite daily-life blogs, people who write about knitting and home life. I open up my computer, I do the requisite subscription-reading, and then I go to whichever blog I’m currently trawling and read it for hours. These are archives I’ve read before. There’s nothing new here. It’s like re-reading a book (which, in fairness, I do a lot) except it’s re-reading a blog.

And when I think about writing, I want to write about the pretty lace scarf I’m creating, about my cats, about the interesting people I passed on the street. I don’t want to write anything that requires wrangling with tough issues, that invites argument and criticism (although normally I’m very open to both things.) I want to read, write, and watch things that are fun, light, and pleasant, and eschew the difficult, complex, and controversial.

I would beat myself up for this, but it’s happened enough before that I think I know what’s going on. It’s a hierarcy of needs thing. I’m living in a new city where exactly one person knows and loves me, between us my boyfriend and I have half a job, and we probably have to move again in two months. Right now I’m hanging around levels 2 and 3 of Maslow’s hierarchy, struggling to get my physical and basic emotional needs met, and I don’t have a lot of space for the “morality, creativity, problem-solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts” level.

It helps to recognize that this is temporary, it’s a stage-of-life thing, and that endlessly reading cozy knitting blogs does not mean that I’ve permanently lost my ability to tackle tough issues. (Not that knitting blogs are dumb and mindless: please don’t think that. Knitters are smart, creative, often politically engaged, and waaay cuter and hipper than you might think. Reading knitting blogs isn’t like eating potato chips, it’s like eating mashed potatoes: substantial and comforting.)

Anyway. Goodness knows what you’ll see on this blog in the weeks to come, while we get our lives sorted out. I’ll try to keep it thinky, at least from time to time, but there may be more day-in-the-life stuff, and possibly even (sorry!) a knitting post or two.