Tuesday, April 15, 2014

This is not a funny post.

No, seriously. This is not my average, vaguely humorous, cat-referencing entry. This is a tirade made of outrage, riveted together with a deep emotional and intellectual exhaustion. 

This is a post about feminism. There will be profanity. There will be uncomfortable, unpopular opinions, and I guarantee I will lose a few followers over this one. 

And it's worth it, because I am fucking over sexism. 

My name is Avalon, and I need feminism. 

I need feminism because sexism is very much alive and well in our world. 

I need feminism because when I biked to my night job last week, a drunk man stopped my progress and talked about how my hips were "some next level shit," and when I told him twice to back off, he didn't. I need feminism because when I rode around him and finally made it to work, I recounted the episode to a coworker, who answered, "You live in New Orleans," like the fact that we live in a big city was an acceptable excuse for unwanted, unsolicited, and unwelcome sexual harassment. 

I need feminism because, despite their definitive and unquestionable lack of uteruses, there are collections of white men attempting to regulate my reproductive health and choices. You can bet every last shred of American tender you have that if men could get pregnant, birth control would be utterly uncontested, plan B medication would be an over-the-counter procurable in packs of 30, and you could get abortions at every corner drugstore. I need feminism because some people think that their campaigns to impose their moral or religious tenants on others are more important than my right to make my own choices about my body and my future. 

I need feminism because we excuse the impulsive or aggressive behavior of our young sons by saying, "Boys will be boys," and then act surprised when our grown boys enact and incite violence against others.

I need feminism because we teach our daughters that when a boy rough-houses with you on the playground, it means he likes you, and then we shake our heads in confusion when they come to us with black eyes and shattered bones claiming that, "He really loves me," or, "It wasn't his fault."

I need feminism because pop culture has taught girls for decades that they are prizes to be won, trophies to be awarded to the male heroes for their ability to be better at being male than other males. I need feminism because the most cherished movies of our youths taught us that women are at our best when we are voiceless, when we are seen and not heard, and that our value exists only in our relationships to men, that we are only waiting to be saved by someone else's story. (This is the story of Snow White, of Sleeping Beauty, of Cinderella, of The Little Mermaid, of countless others.) I need feminism because I am the protagonist of my own goddam story and if anyone lives in an illusion regarding this, then they are, at best, an antagonist. 

I need feminism because women are treated in the media and in advertising as objects. I need feminism because marketers seem to think that it is okay to portray women as at their best when they are acting as much like pretty, inanimate decorations as possible. 

I need feminism because some men, and some movements, dare to tell women how to be beautiful. 

I need feminism because eating disorders and their effects are lauded in our culture. 

I need feminism because some men don't understand why catcalling is offensive, threatening, and intolerable

I need feminism because 3 in 5 college-aged males say that they would commit rape if we referred to it as "forced sex" rather than "rape." I need feminism because 35 percent of men say they would commit rape if there was little to no likelihood that they would be caught or punished. 

I need feminism because 1 in every 4 college-aged women reports being the victim of a sexual assault. I need feminism because 62 percent of them knew their attackers. I need feminism because almost half of rape victims admit to not reporting the assault. 

I need feminism because women make approximately .88 cents for every dollar made by a male in a similar job with similar qualifications and experience. I need feminism because last week, every Republican in Senate voted against the Equal Pay Act. Every. Single. One. 

I need feminism because I was taught as a teenager that when you walk alone at night, you use the shop windows around you to make sure no one is following you too closely. I was taught to walk towards the edge of the sidewalk so that I'd be as far from alleys and doors as possible. I was taught to not be raped. I need feminism because we teach our daughters how to avoid being raped rather than teaching our sons not to rape

I need feminism because there is widespread debate about what "consent" means. I need feminism because I thought that was a pretty cut-and-dried idea, but legislators seem to think it's a subjective issue. 

I need feminism because when a woman is raped, prosecutors still ask what she was wearing, like it matters. I need feminism because we're still blaming the victims. I need feminism because our culture still works so hard to make victims feel guilty or ashamed for the violence perpetrated against them. 

I need feminism because when a coworker told a rape joke the other night, everyone laughed. I need feminism because when I told him it wasn't funny, everyone looked at me like I was a killjoy. 

I need feminism because violence against transwomen in the US is statistically the highest rate of violence against a subgroup in today's society. 

I need feminism because some men think we wear makeup or certain outfits for them rather than for us. 

I need feminism because when I bought a chest binder, I did it for all the comfort of a sports bra without the sports bra, but I realized that when I dressed androgynously, strangers gave me more room on the sidewalk. 

I need feminism because young women are taught, overtly or not, to take up less space. I need feminism because we're trained to cross our legs and keep our arms in so that the men around us can occupy more physical space. I need feminism because no one should learn that they deserve to take up less space than their physical existence warrants

I need feminism because at the school where I teach, the boys are let outside to play at lunch almost twice as often as the girls are. I need feminism because they notice this, and are never provided a rationale. I need feminism because we are teaching my female students that they have less right to the world than men do. 

I need feminism because my students call one another "bitches" or "hoes" and come away believing that the use of these terms can ever be anything less than deeply and subversively derogatory.

I need feminism because when one of my male students tells another one to "stop being such a little girl," I have to slam the brakes on what I'm teaching in order to help my students learn that my gender is not an insult

I need feminism because some people are tired of hearing about feminism. 

I need feminism because the visibility and daily reality of sexism and female oppression is enormous, but we are told again and again to shut up about it. I need feminism because the word "feminazi" exists. 

I need feminism because the "strong female protagonist" trope is a thing in modern literature and film. I need feminism because people are still thinking about heroes as being qualified by gender, rather than the characteristics of heroism. 

I need feminism because the Bechdel Test continues to be relevant. 

I need feminism because in some places in the world, girls are made to undergo torturously painful and dangerous procedures, like genital mutilation, in order to ensure that the man they eventually marry will perceive them as valuable. 

I need feminism because more than 18,000 people are trafficked in the US every year, many of whom are children, most of whom are forced into sex slavery. I need feminism because every year, every single US state acts as a setting for human trafficking and slavery. 

I need feminism because these thoughts physically keep me up at night. I need feminism because watching a stranger gaze at my chest fills my blood with violence and my throat with bile. I need feminism because I would rather wear hoodies in 90 degree heat than dare to let another person believe that my body exists for their idle pleasure. 

I need feminism because I teach. I need feminism because I watch my students, male and female, become indoctrinated in a system which believes that men can do anything, and so can women, as long as they're quiet about it and don't pursue a life of singlehood or childlessness, because those choices automatically render them as anomalous and amiss. 

I need feminism because only about 30 percent of doctorates awarded in the US every year are awarded to women. I need feminism because the STEM fields are dominated by males in the US – by more than two thirds. I need feminism because only about 5 percent of math doctorates in the US go to women each year. 

I need feminism because people still ask me why I'm not married yet, like I am some wild animal who needs a man to tame her. I need feminism because I might be full of lions, but that doesn't mean I need to be domesticated. 

I need feminism because about 70 percent of mothers in the US work full- or part-time while serving as the primary caregiver for their children, but only about 30 percent of fathers in the country do the same. 

I need feminism because some men believe that their kindness or generosity or active listening or sharing of meals entitles them to sex. I need feminism because they don't know how wrong they are. 

I need feminism because we are taught that our voices are simply the windows into our emotional instability. I need feminism because when a man screams, you wonder what's wrong, or what he's going to do – but when a woman screams, you wonder what's wrong with her. 

I need feminism because pads and tampons are expensive as hell, are not covered by health care plans, and not a single woman has ever asked to need them every month. 

I need feminism because we have never had a female president. I need feminism because women in positions of power are called "bossy" rather than "assertive." I need feminism because most of what I have learned about professional mentoring, I have learned from men. I need feminism because when a woman addresses an assembly of people, be it online or on the news or in person, people who disagree with her attack her looks rather than her ideals. I need feminism because many people seem more concerned with how a female Supreme Court Justice appears than how she thinks and acts

I need feminism because mens' rights groups are a thing that exists. 

I need feminism because people think our softness and our curves and our openness are signs of weakness. I need feminism because when women aren't soft or open, they are condemned for attempting to be masculine. 

I need feminism because I do not fit into any of the boxes our society has built for women, and I refuse to try. I need feminism because my parents taught me to be the very best possible version of myself, and they taught me that I was good, and that I was powerful, but so many girls don't get taught those things. 

I need feminism because some people reading this think I'm overreacting. I need feminism because you might think these aren't your problems. I need feminism because you may be attempting to write me off as an extremist, as a feminazi, as a bra-burner, as a PMSer on a soapbox. I need feminism because you can dare to believe at any moment that feminism is not important, relevant, or crucial

I need feminism because I am a white, cisgender female who has led a privileged life, and I, with all the social, economic, and personal advantages my life has afforded, still experience sexism every day. I need feminism because I cannot imagine how hard every day can become for my sisters who are of color, or who are trans, or who are lesbian or bi or pan or a, or who identify otherwise, or who come from different or less fortunate backgrounds. 

I need feminism because this war is real, and you are on its front line. I need feminism because this is a fight that I wake up to every day. I need feminism because every woman I know who leaves her home every morning subjects herself to incredible unfairness, oppression, inequity, and prejudice – things she endures so frequently that she often fails to recognize them. I need feminism because women are strong enough to do that, and because they shouldn't have to be. 

I need feminism because, to quote Joss Whedon, we will never not be fighting this fight.

And you need feminism because there is no middle ground for you, here. You either believe that women are people, or you don't. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Synaesthesia Problems

My name is Avalon, and I have synaesthesia

For those of you who, like me until I was, like, 22, have no idea what synaesthesia is, here's the rundown: During the early stages of childhood development, the brain undergoes a pruning process, wherein the synapses and more unused connections in the brain are severed from one another to make room for all those other things you have to learn now, like language and how to use a toilet. In synaesthetes, though, that pruning process skips some steps, so some areas in our brains, particularly involving the gathering and analyzing of sensory information, are a little more connected than they should be. The most common manifestations of synaesthesia are lexical and numerical, wherein the synaesthete perceives letters, numbers, words, and/or names as being inherently colored, no matter how they actually appear.

But there are myriad forms of synaesthesia, in varying degrees of severity and life impact, and most synaesthetes have multiple kinds. I don't have lexical-numeral synaesthesia, but I do have what's commonly called sound-color synaesthesia, as well as what some refer to as "aura" synaesthesia, but which is more accurately referred to as "emotion-color" synaesthesia. This means that, for me, every sound is overlaid with a sort of cloud of color and texture that's really difficult to describe, and also that I perceive peoples' expressions and body language as inherently colored. Days of the week, months, and certain activities also have hues in my head, so if I don't keep my planner carefully color-coordinated it feels like it's lying to me, a bit. 

Now, the thing about synaesthetes is that most of us don't realize we perceive the world any differently from anyone else until adulthood, if even then. Because here's the thing about most synaesthetes: they tend to assume throughout their youths that everybody sees the same way they do, so they never bring up the wild sensory experiences they have, because they think everybody else has them, too. It reminds me of when I was very young and my parents realized that I needed glasses, and when I finally put on my first pair of bifocals at age 7, I realized that I could see individual leaves on trees. I hadn't realized until that moment that trees were more than blobs of hazy green and brown, and the revelation that other people saw leaves on those trees was completely mind-blowing. It wasn't something I'd ever thought about before, and so I'd never talked about it. Likewise, naturally assuming that everyone experiences music through sheaves and mists of color meant that I never brought it up, because I thought it was as normal and unaccountable as my taste in books or food. 

So in my junior year of college, as I was sitting in the back of my evolutionary biology class, and my professor mentioned that a small percentage of people have a genetic mutation which means they see colors as they hear sounds, my mind skipped a beat. Wait, I thought. Wait, wait, wait. Sound as color. I see that thing. That's a thing I see. Does not everybody see that? Wait. What? I think I successfully derailed the rest of that class with really poorly-formed questions about what that experience was like, and when the class ended, I went immediately to the professor's office. Turns out, he has lexical-numerial synaesthesia, and was happy to talk me through what synaesthesia was and how it worked. In the end, I got to do my thesis project on syneasthesia and its evolutionary benefits, which was pretty cool. 

In the years since I discovered that I perceive the world differently from other people on a very foundational level, I've learned a lot about how synaesthesia impacts my daily life. As a teacher, I have lots of opportunities to use my synaesthesia to my advantage – like recognizing students' voices when my back is turned. I'm sure that everybody does this, is able to identify who is speaking even when you're not looking, but synaesthesia means that I understand this process through color. Frequently, I'll be sitting at my desk or helping another student, and I'll have to call out someone on the other side of the room for being off-task or speaking inappropriately. Yesterday, I did just this, and the student I called out became upset and spat, "How do you always know it's me??" and I wanted to answer, "Because your voice is rust-colored and cloudy," but that's not a thing that normal people say, apparently, so I just pretend I'm magic. It's been a pretty helpful trait. 

I keep a couple of calendars in my classroom, which I update every day. The markers and chalk that I use to maintain the calendars has a nasty habit of disappearing, and the increasingly limited color choices are frustrating to me, synaesthetically-speaking, because dammit, guys, April is beige and I don't have any beige chalk and the closest I can come is this weird lavender color and it's not quite right and this is really stressful even though it shouldn't be and I just really need to reconcile the color the month is written in with the color it is in my head okay. I work needlessly hard to keep my calendars and planners in the appropriately color stories for each month and day of the week. Mondays are red and that's just how it is, and Thursdays are taupe and that makes them better than Mondays, and 2007 is a deep crimson, and that's how I understand the passing of time. 

The sound-color synaesthesia is by far the most significant form of the disorder that I experience, though. ("Disorder," as my professor once noted, is such a nasty term to describe synaesthesia, though that's technically what it is; I find "mutation" or "neurological misstep" to be so much more fair.) I listen to music that looks pretty to me, and because every music-color synaesthete experiences their sensory crossover differently, that means we get into some pretty lively (read: vitriolic) online discussions about what songs look like what, or how instruments sound/look, etc. Every song, to me, is a blend of color and texture and movement and action, so every bar is different from the last and instruments can take on different hues depending on how they're used. So when I listen to Bon Iver, I experience mostly icy blue, with gray and white and black and burgundy and brown lines and stars and bursts. I listen to Bon Iver a lot. Coldplay is white and green and sky blue and tawny. Piano music is less color and more texture, staircases and impact bursts of light. Cellos are gold. Always, lines of rushing gold. This means that the music I play in my classroom is composed of patterns and colors which sooth me and may or may not sooth my students, like the XX or Morcheeba. It also means that I find Skrillex and bounce music (a genre of horror-noise specific to New Orleans) basely intolerable. 

Many synaesthetes experience, at one time or another, what's called "sensory overload," where, because they're tired or stressed or overstimulated or otherwise distressed, their synaesthetic experiences overwhelm their ability to access and understand stimuli. It can create awful headaches, panic attacks, anxiety, depression, irritability, and can sometimes be crippling. I have never been brought to my knees by sensory overload, but I know synaesthetes who have, and it's rough. I come close to being overwhelmed by the "aura" synaesthesia in big crowds when I'm already really close to my emotional thresholds, and I despise the bar scene. It's too loud, too dark, too crowded, too pulsing and gray and ashy and it's just too much. This means, ultimately, that I don't go to many work socials, because I know I'm going to become irritable and withdrawn and unhappy, and won't be good company at all. 

I love live music, though. My first year teaching, a friend and I went to a Death Cab for Cutie concert here in New Orleans, and I freaking lost it. I started just openly weeping because Transatlanticism was just...amazing. I saw it in a way I didn't on their album, all sweeping wings of color and light and I couldn't handle it. Certain other songs always make me cry if I don't consciously turn down the synaesthetic experience by focusing on something else, too: some songs draw me in and capture me in golds and blues and bursts, and I cry for no other reason than just that it's an incredible thing to experience. The "When You Believe" song from The Prince of Egypt is like that.

The emotion-color vein of synaesthesia heavily influences how I perceive and relate to other people. Again, I'm sure that synaesthesia here is just morphing how I understand other humans into a world of color and texture, because that's how my brain do, but everybody has those flash instincts about others in the first moments after meeting them. Sometimes we meet someone new and they intrigue us, or they strike us as contagiously happy, or as creepy and awful and not someone we want to be around. For me, those same instincts just appear in a spectrum: a fascinating person might be blue, or green, or yellow (though I find I tend to have trouble getting along with yellows), and a happy person might be purple or pink or white, and a creeper might be red or black. Sometimes, I'll encounter a person and my whole brain will go NOPE because he's just a spatter of blood-colored stain and it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Is there any validity to these random flash analyses? Maybe, maybe not. But they're never steered me wrong so far.

I love having synaesthesia. It means that I can drown my world in music and close my eyes and just be saturated in the sound. It also means that I can't let my students write in pencil, because I cannot stand the horrible shrieking gray noise the graphite makes on paper. It means I sometimes weep at concerts, and that I hate dive bars. But what I find most interesting about it is when others ask me what it's like, because, invariably, they make me think of something that I didn't know was specific to my synaesthesia. They might ask what it means when I "see" sound, and then I'll flounder for descriptions for a solid eight minutes, because I don't know words for how I experience it. It's like English is a step behind what syneasthetic experiences demand of a language, and without the words to describe it, I can't adequately vocalize it because I don't really understand it. It's the same when people ask me what color they "are," because it's not ever a solid, stagnant, frozen thing. My dad is orange-brown-earth-white-sunlight-fire shades, but since the colors are always moving and shaping and changing, it's impossible to name or settle on one shade. Mom is green-white-blue-brown-silver, and I can't describe it well enough because I literally just don't know what words I could use. I don't think they exist. Language is restricting and the words we know shape our thoughts; I wonder if bees or cuttlefish or mantis shrimp, who see in exponentially more spectrums than we, could name them. If they could talk, I guess. And if the shrimp would stop hitting stuff for a while.