Saturday, June 28, 2008

Rowe Jr. High Camp: Week One

In March of this year I attended a three-day training at Boston's Planned Parenthood to become a certified sex educator. I had two reasons for doing this: one, I do a sex education workshop for all campers every year at camp, and two, I needed the research (the main character of my novel works in a youth clinic and does sex education outreach).

Yesterday the workshop ran for nearly three hours. This is simply too long to ask 12-15 year old Americans to attend to anything, although they did rather well considering the heat. We structured the talk using the Good Vibrations Teen Sexual Bill of Rights, which is as follows:

1. You have the right to appreciate your own and each others' bodies.

2. You have the right to know how things work.

3. You have the right to pleasure.

4. You have the right to know that sex is more than intercourse.

5. You have the right to realistic expectations.

6. You have the right to make responsible choices.

7. You have the right to sexual equality.

8. You have the right to sexual diversity.

9. You have the right to consent.

10. You have the right to resources.

Some of these seem obvious, but I love that we emphasize the importance of communication and consent. We talk about getting a "yes," as opposed to the absence of a "no," and while there's not much I can do to protect them from the inevitable fumblings, I feel passionately that talking to them about the possibility that they might do something they don't want to, at some point, is one of the more important pieces of sexual education. No one ever talked to me about that.

No one ever described a process for discovering "readiness" when I was younger. I think adults forget what it is like to not know their own desires and preferences. Adults lie to themselves--they might spend years telling a story to themselves about their preferences that turns out to be based on faulty or irrational perceptions. But young people often don't come up with answers. If they ask themselves "am I ready for this?" they often feel like they just don't know, and many of the questions that ended up in our Q&A box reflect this. "What is a good age to have sex?" "How do I know when I'm ready?"

How do you answer that question? I remember a teacher once who said, "You'll just know." How unhelpful. At 14, I just knew that I was more sexual than my immediate culture of family, christianity, and friends, seemed to be able to accommodate. I had no idea what that meant concretely, since the excitement of trying new behaviors mixed up a bit with the fear of those behaviors in the moment.

In the Sex Talk I do at Rowe, I do my best to set communication standards for the kids that are realistic and helpful. I talk with them about relationships that have unhealthy elements of control. I teach them about the differences between biological sex, gender expression, and sexual orientation, in hopes that they will quit calling boys in skinny pants "fag." We go over the basics of STI symptoms that should send them to a doctor, how to put on a condom, the importance of lubrication to a pleasurable experience for everyone, and we normalize masturbation. These are all fundamentals. They are desperately important. Also, I grieve the fact that I am operating from within a culture that is so repressive and conflicted about sex that it is a tiny revolution for the kids to see me comfortably using the word "vagina" in front of them.

The study of human sexuality is much like the study of psychology: everyone thinks that because they have a brain, they know something about psych, and everyone thinks that because they've got genitals, they know something about sex. In fact there's vast and minutely faceted aesthetic, political, sociological, and philosophical history to the way we conceptualize sex and sexuality. What little of it I know inspires much of my academic work and threads its way through my creative work constantly.

I truly believe that the history of a culture's sexual education, be it formal, ritualistic, or through some other method, and the history of a culture's aesthetic eroticism are intertwined in incredibly complex and fascinating ways. I don't think it's as simple as some researchers I've read hypothosize: that a repressive cultre has kinky porn, and an open culture has less explicit erotica. It's much more nuanced and idiosyncratic (per community) and messy than that, AND, even those categories are informed by certain cultural assumptions about what is more "normal" behavior vs. what is paraphilic. The media culture my campers share offers them such complicated notions of sexuality it's shocking to me that any of them are able to discuss their expectations with any clarity. I get impatient with the schools, parents, and teachers around them who haven't gotten over their own embarassment, because it's hurting the young ones who are ready to KNOW. One in four teenage girls has an STI--and there are parents, still, who won't vaccinate their daughters against HPV because they're afraid it will "encourage" the girls to have unprotected sex. What "encourages" girls to have unprotected sex is the deeply painful insecurity they have that they will not ever be loved unless they do what their equally insecure boy lovers initiate. Which is very much something parents could combat from early childhood if they were conscious enough.

So I'll keep putting condoms on cucumbers in a way that amuses and educates the kids I work with, but I'm angry, really angry, about how unsupported they will be in their efforts to become whole, sexual people once they've left Rowe. I want them to graduate from Sex 101 to more advanced and interesting levels, because I think their curiosity should be considered a creative force.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Rowe Junior High Camp: Pre-camp

I'm out in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, nearing the end of a week of staff training and camp planning sessions. My sister Kelsey is here, which means that for the first time in my life someone from my family is experiencing Rowe for themselves. My co-director Ben and I have been leading discussions on basic adolescent psychology, interactional techniques, legal issues, how to have successful self-care in the high-pressure life of camp, and all kinds of other nuts and bolts. We've also sunk into the sparkling depths of brainstorming--one of my favorite qualities of this environment is the incredible value placed on creating programming that transcends the normal summer camp activities.

For example. Many of our meals have themes. One theme that's on the calendar for this year is "They Toastly come out at night...Toastly." What does it mean? It's an allusion to a line from the movie Alien, where the little girl answers a question about the aliens with "they mostly come out at night...mostly." This theme meal involves two major components: toast, and, some sort of alien appearance. Either, there will be a way for aliens to pop out of some of the food, or, if that is logistically impossible, one of the staff will likely have some kind of alien attack happen during the meal. It's elaborate. It's absurd. It's the kind of humor that certain junior high age campers feel utterly bewildered by, but some feel incredibly at home in immediately.

What I think is important about this kind of programming is that it teaches young people that the copying/aping of their favorite artists, TV shows, etc., that they do all day long is actually not that creative. It opens up doors for them to be imaginative again, at a time when their social rules tell them not to. We have a social norm at Rowe Junior High camp that emphasizes creativity and the dissolving of cliques.

We'll be playing a gameshow called "Ask the Creep," which was invented on the fly a few years back during a particularly bad rainstorm that forced a cancellation of an outdoor activity. "Ask The Creep" involves a regular trivia-show format, except that your "lifeline" is not a friend. If you want to ask for help on a question, you have to ask a character called the Creep, played by one of the staff, who says something surly, that may or may not be the answer. Campers get to hear a lot of their own language (which is often particularly surly) used in such a way that it is exposed for what it is: uninformative. Surprisingly, they absolutely love the game.

So I'm basking in the creative glow, and the green of the fern-floored forest, and the incredible vegetarian food my old friend Dan is making for us. I'm also carrying around the impending responsibility of 100 lives. So we'll see how all that pans out.

Oh! We also have a black bear who keeps getting into the compost. He's a teenager too.

I'm frenetic, but often laughing.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Taking The Medicine

I took a blogging hiatus to end my semester, quit my jobs, and travel to Italy (via a few days in France) for nearly three weeks. The day after I came home, I had a cup of coffee with Max, who said I looked different. When I asked how, he said, "You look like you've taken your medicine." It was a perceptive moment on his part, and it's stuck with me. Now that I'm in the middle of a huge life transition back to California at the end of the summer, I'm emptied of all the assumptions, certainties, and confidences that guided me through the past few years. At the same time, I'm bolstered by a fundamental belief in the necessity of what I'm doing. This leads me to be very calm, and very excitable, and in a state of heightened attentiveness. I have grief and elation every day.

In Italy, I felt an expansion of What is Possible, because of all the newness, all the beauty, all the stacking up of incredible moments. Every day was dense with noticing: buildings, sidewalks, churches, food, food, food, each other.

The trip changed me. Here is some journaling:

“On the road from Vence, we marched into Italia to the sound of the national anthem. We watched the cuteness get even deeper, brighter, greener, more overwhelming, and then we stopped to eat rabbits and crustaceans at a terrace restaurant in the ocean town of Bordighera. We drove down some stairs, I peed behind a boulder, then put my feet in the bluest ocean, with the most luscious rounded rocks massaging my feet. The sun was caressing warm without any burning touch. We drank cappuccino and ate gelato in a shop covered in a mural of the tropics. Then a few more hours in the car, watching cute towns clustered on hills, bell towers staring down any potential irreverence. My hair is gummy with beach air, my body thrumming with pleasure, lightness.

“We discovered Albergo Julia, the 300-year-old high-ceilinged tower room and it’s a trip outside inside upside down because we saw a glimpse of the ghostly Duomo at night in Mr. Toads wild tour of Milano.

“An Italian family fortress built earnest brick by earnest brick at Michele and Franca’s, where pasta, fresh parmesan, salami, prociutto, cantaloupe, gelato, tiny teacups of espresso, and a quiet framework for intimacy—made me cry. On the way back to Casano D’Adda after an evening in Milano, I’m cuddled up in train-theater seats thinking about the family huddled under a yellow deck umbrella across the street from the Duomo, in the pounding rain. What a joy to know that forever I will have that moment—sparkling and perfect, our song, our laughter cracking the world open like the lightning behind those swirling Gothic spires.

“Today we explored Venezia and the Dazzling Array—gloves glass masks bags pizza shoes beads shirts and trinkets of every size, shape, color, in baskets and bowls and carts. Ten minutes in the Piazza San Marco to stare in amazed confusion at what is possible.

“I’m wired with circuits that get tripped by newness, so my body buzzes along even when my feet hurt (I wore sandals to a rainy Venice instead of my walking shoes), my eyes burn, and my hunger makes it difficult to think. Look! Look! Look! Every little neuron screams.

“Last night we discovered an effervescent hilarity at a strip-club-turned-restaurant where 100 fascists watched Linz, Carolyn and I giggle ourselves to tears. We zoomed around the mountain to a bar lit with amber sconces, danced and drank and shouted along to a synthesizer and a karaoke singer. Linz and Louie played and sang, and the sound of Linz hollering ‘Ciao ragazzi!’ at the crowd reverberated into my sleep. I drank wine, Grappa, limoncello, and became a mermaid in my fishnets and rhinestone sweater.

“Every day the horizons of beauty get pushed further and further out—my understanding of What Can Possibly Be keeps getting re-imagined, like a dream house with infinite rooms.

“The delirium of a 3-hour buss-walk-train adventure nightmare farcical tragic-comedy from Firenze to Barga involved SO many rotunda, signs read with only one contact lens in, quick decisions and moments of dismay and elation I’m not sure I can remember it clearly even now, immediately after. At one point I was squinting with my one good eye at the map, while Linz tried to stay awake down a feverishly turmoiled mountain road, and we had to stop, get sleepy Anth to drive, and then stop again, to get a 20-minute lesson in “You Should Not Have Left The Autostrade” from a cute Tuscan in an electrician’s van who led us as far as he could.

“Now I am stuffed with visions—Lucca, Viareggio, Livorno, Bagni di Lucca, the paninni caffe gelato focaccia mercato of my daily life exploding through the cracks and seams of my body, room, mouth, dreams. In Livorno, we squealed up a mountain to watch an island emerge from the clouds. Last night I warmed in the glow of Carolyn’s love as a perfect salamino piccante focaccine informed me about what beauty I might create in this world. In Lucca, I rode an old bike through stone alleyways, looking for the inspiration that would make me brave. I found it in a piazza, in a black licorice gelato, in the unbreakable commitment to friendship with Anth.

“Tonight in Livorno the sky turned a solemn indigo and then suddenly the amber streetlamps, perfect spherical worlds hovering above these shining streets, were beacons in the storm. The storm had no silly habits like most rain, no uni-directional simplicity—it was total Element. Water from all sides. Anth, Linz, and I huddled in a doorway and squealed at the lightning, yelling and yelling at how marvelous it is to be tropical in Italy.

"I'm alone for a few minutes on the beach, in Nice. The technicolor water, like a child would draw, all turquoise and sparkle, the art-deco modern buildings and the cliffs, coast, craggy rocks--all fill me with equal parts gratitude and desire."

Sunday, June 1, 2008

How it Will Happen

With pictures of Italia
With a new struggle for the right words
With no more trepidation about making the life I want
with violet flavored gelato and the sun of the Riviera imprinted
like a brand on the retina of imagination