Tag Archives: bodies

On Dignity

me-bonesI have so many things to say they jam up my brain sometimes. I have even more I want to learn, and then pass on. I have so many things to care about. In July my health insurance is getting cut off. I have looked through my options and concluded that for now, I have none. I make very little money, as a result, I haven’t had a place to live since 2009. It is too little to afford insurance (& I suspect next year I will have to start paying penalties for that fact). But at about 20-25k a year and no address, there is no assistance for me.

I could give up my career and look for a job, but there’s no jobs, and I don’t handle offices well. And frankly, I like my career. It doesn’t pay much, but I believe what I do is important and not many people can or will do it. We spend a lot of time equating financial success with meaningful work, and both with deserving healthcare, but I think all of that is bullshit, and I won’t live my life that way.

No; giving up being me is not an option. I am not a shiftless and lost person. I am busy, and involved and I live with tremendous purpose and hope. But I live in a society that does not value me. That doesn’t mean I don’t, though.

I’m 40 now. In many ways it feels like the beginning. I have tons of energy, I know my life’s work. It’s not easy, and I don’t know if I can get all the things I need to done, but it’s coming together. It was a hard fucking road here. Strange and hard beyond what most people imagine a life can be. For getting here, I’m grateful. This is also a time when the body changes, when medical considerations change. I’ll do the health things that make sense to do without insurance, I still love and value my life and want all of it I can get. But I’m not bothering with a mammogram. What could I do about it anyway? I’d rather put my time and energy into my work, what time my society will leave me. Because I live in a society that has decided people like me should die if they get ill.

But I still have choice in how that happens. If I get a lump in my breast or a hole in my heart or gut, I’m not going to spend my precious remaining time begging for help from the public or indifferent bureaucracies, while I get weaker and drown in pain. I watched people beg for scraps from an America that doesn’t care about them. You may have chosen that I will die, America, but I don’t have to be polite about it.

When the time comes that I am out of options and facing illness, I intend to dictate and write the final notes on I can on my work, and then take my own life before disease and indifference do. I would go out of this world the same way I came in — screaming and strong.

Fuck dying quietly.

50 years of cyborgs: I have not the words.


(This is a post for Tim Maly’s #50cyborgs project, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the word cyborg entering the language. He starts the project here, and collects it here.

For a sense of place to my moment, I will tell you I am on a wireless keyboard, swinging on a homemade swing on the first floor in the three story high living room of the person that would be my it’s complicated on Facebook if I had a Facebook.

My computer itself is on the second floor. As I type these words into the air I have no way of knowing for sure that they are not ephemeral, nothing to confirm my progress and therefore distract me from my thoughts. I strongly suspect that for all the weirdness of the moment, they are (in fact) among the least ephemeral words penned by mankind, the majority of which are lost to the vagaries of mulberry bark and vellum, then paper, then pre-web computing.

We are sitting in a maker/artist community in a converted factory in Oakland called the Vulcan, one of the many ground zeros for the Maker movement. We are positively surrounded by burners and recently returned from Burning Man ourselves, where we spent a week in the desert pouring our own and our society’s resources into a weeklong art festival and dance party, which is meant to vanish without a trace shortly after Labor Day.

He (the Facebook “it’s complicated”) is playing an xbox game where little cartoon zombies trundle into his yard trying to eat his brain while he quickly plants transgenic killer plants (with eyes) that do things like shoot giant peas at them. It’s called Plants vs Zombies. It’s very popular right now, taping into the historical moment’s zeitgeist of anxieties. After all, in an automated society that consumes knowledge workers, what’s a better symbol than a shambling soulless throng that wants to eat your mind and make you irrevocably one of them? As for the transgenic killer plants on the perfectly manicured American backyard lawn as tower defense, that’s so rife with cultural suggestion I get dizzy at the thought of looking too closely. And, to be honest, a touch nauseous.

So in a way, I feel whatever I can tell you about the extraordinariness of the cyborg might be a bit mooted by the strangeness of our present moment. If we’ve learned anything in the last 50 years, it’s definitely that there’s more that one way to skin the culture’s collective cat.)

The early vision of the cyborg was about man changing himself in preparation for his rocket age. It was about “the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space,” according to Wikipedia, right now. Man would add to and modify the body to make the impossible doable, to ease the way into an environment of extreme hostility. It was all bionic arms and lungs and artificial exo and edo skeletons, powered jump suits and then brain computer interfaces as we went on talking about it. But the Space age was DOA, it never really made the changes we’d dreamed up, and by the time my post-moon generation was growing up in the 70s and 80s, it was all looking like a wash.

But a cyborg revolution was happening the same year Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline coined the term. A hostile environment was being tamed by a newly and artificially capable people. It escaped notice and critique though, because the modified weren’t men, and then environment wasn’t space. The modified were women, and the environment was men. The women of the 60s were the first to modify and control their uteruses. (Yes, menfolk, you can be a pretty brutal environment.)

Two years before the We Will Go to the Moon speech, Enovid, the first birth control pill, hit the market. The IUD came into its own in 1968 with the copper T, the year before we landed on the moon. While the Jetsons were giving us a space future to look at, the heirs of Margaret Sanger were quietly destroying the social institution it portrayed. And for all the attention and resources the Space Race consumed, and it consumed a world, the world was changed by the women freed from the tyranny of biology and no longer (as) subject to the whims of men.

Over 100 million women worldwide are probably using an IUD right now, though it’s really hard to count that kind of thing. Each is mechanically modified to invisibly control biology with near perfect success. It’s the most popular form of reversible birth control, though the number of women using IUDs is still smaller than the number of women sterilized, made forever into unmothers-to-be by surgery that otherwise leaves them strong, healthy, and invisibly different. Last citation I could find estimated 138 million women sterilized in the developing world, millions more in the OECD. Yet millions more are using pills, sponges, creams, gewgaws, doodads and even female condoms to exist in a world full of fucking and no particular desire to shoulder an equal burden of childrearing afterwards.

And then, in the last 50 years, women got seriously uppity. “Cyborgs not only disrupt orderly power structures and fixed interests but also signify a challenge to settled politics, which assumes that binary oppositions or identities are natural distinctions.” – ripped from context, but you can google it with the quotes intact. What single bit of technology has changed society more in so short a time? She looks so innocently fuckable, but what cyborgs were so quickly ubiquitous, and so invisible?

I don’t think we’ll ever notice the age of cyborgs, because we do these things one at a time. We roll them out in small ways, and increment them across society. We quietly piece together a know-everything machine, make its connections invisible, then put it in a small box we built as a talk-to-anyone-machine, and carry it around with us. (The first and ultimate prosthetic of the species being community, and so our most powerful magics will always be incantations to one another.) We hand out drugs to everyone that make them more ready for capitalism as a warm, tasty beverage. While we talk about powersuits and armies of robots, we get into metal boxes next to explosion chambers and extend our proprioception to their edges. We do this so that we can then hurtle down ribbons of death we’ve built all around the landscape at speeds not naturally found very often this side of celestial interaction. We call this commuting and consider it one of the most boring things humans do.

An Aside

(Despite all my cyborgian features and posthuman ways, my augmented senses and depleted neurotransmitters, my postmodern sexuality and self-conscious interaction with my environment, I still have to remove the waste of bacteria from my mouth by scraping it off with a soft brush and a thin string. I still have to remember to pull the string below the gumline on both sides of each tooth everyday of my life. I’m king of annoyed that I can have a phone with GPS and even an interface to countless mechanical turks, I can have a Northpaw and I can control my fertility, I can fly anywhere in hours with money I don’t have on a plastic card and be merely contracting rather than earning or stealing, but I have to scrape my teeth in an ever losing battle to keep them, still. I mean, seriously, WTF?)

It seems like the discussion of cyborgs in the time since 1960, echoing the discussion of robotics, bounced between news of DARPA and DARPA-like Sci-fi projects none of us will ever really see and Critiques on how We’d All Been Cyborgs, Really, Since We First Picked Up Sticks. I want a middle ground. I want to say there are inflection points where the scale of things changes the nature of what they do. And my fucking smartphone is not a stick, even if it uses the same neural infrastructure in me. I want to say I will beat you with a stick if you say it is, which is funny and you know I’m joking because despite the fact that I am talking to you I am not even in the same room as you. So you know that at my worst, I would have to use the phone to call you and make stick slapping noises.

We need new language to talk about the shit we don’t see. Cyborg is a start, but it was coined by the very forces of big phallic rocket male domination that cyborgs were about to fuck up in the darkened alleys of the collection consciousness. Like, that day. We need language that lets us talk about the terrorism of little changes. Be they good or bad, they are terrible in aggregate.

Also 50 years on, we need another word, one that describes the inverse of the cyborg, to describe what we are filling the world with. What I mean by inverse is this:

In 2006 in a NATO report I found the description of a particular anti-coalition IED encountered in the field in Iraq. It works like this: the insurgent digs out a hole in the wall, and plants a grenade sans pin there. (S)He (When the hell is English going to get a gender neutral pronoun to match our newly gender neutral roles, damnit?) Anyway, s(he) pastes an anti-coalition propaganda poster on top of it. When the American soldier comes along and tears down the poster, (s)he pulls the lever. There are many booby traps, what makes this one of interest is that part of its mechanism is a specific frame of mind in its victim. This is a device augmented with an organism. It’s not just, or even mainly incorporating the mind of its creator from the moment of its creation, but the mind of the victim in the moment of its function.

But we don’t have a word for organically augmented machinery, even though they are fast filling the new and vacated niches of the environment. It’s there when an API calls up Mechanical Turk, it’s there when Google uses the soft, human touches of links to create meaningful relationships for an otherwise indifferent server farm to traverse. It was noticed even in 1968, next door temporally to the copper T, by Alan Kay: “The user at the console is considered to be inside a process description which in turn is interior to the FLEX system and environment.” It turned out we didn’t always have to obviously merge with our machines to become cyborgs, and the reverse holds. They don’t have to merge with us to become something more, something augmented beyond what they could have possible hoped to contain within their endogenous mechanics. They can just use us, too. But how do we talk about it without sounding mad when we have to reuse language meant for other things?

We have not the words.


With many thanks to @genmon, @mala, @sgtkeso, and @tezcatlipoca for their eyes, ears, and minds.

Cyborgian Mates

My friend Matt Dickerson recently told me of the existence of centaur chess, alternatively called cyborg chess or, harder to google, advanced chess. Advanced chess is Kasparov’s pretty lame name, so I’m going to called it centaur chess. It’s a simple concept. Instead of trying to beat Deep Blue, Kasparov decided to join him.

I read a lot of essays of the general form of When We Can Engineer Our Babies, Will We Be Human Post Feminist Cyborg Identity Constructs, or Post Human Post Feminist Cyborg Identity Constructs? and they generally don’t do much for me. I don’t understand why academics and thinkers feel like they need sci-fi technologies to start talking about what augmentation is going to do to us, given how much is floating around not only in our present, but our past. Beyond that, I find what we’ve already done to be difficult enough to understand, implication-wise, that we can chew on that a good long while without having to speculate about how as yet undeveloped technologies might change society.

Seriously, keeping up with now could be a full industry on its own.

Centaur chess is yet another example of the interestingness of now. The computer and human play as a team, building on each other’s strengths in a kind of UI enabled decision making synthesis. The consensus seems to be the computer is good at tactics, and the human is good at strategy.

There were briefly tournaments, but these floundered. I suspect this is because while the point for Kasparov was to become the perfect chess player, it’s not clear that watching perfect chess players would be any more fun that watching a very well maintained threshing machine. We enjoy sports because they are imperfect.

What makes more sense is that several sources (including my friend Matt) have suggested that centaur chess has quietly taken over correspondence and online chess. Being the more perfect player is a lot more fun than watching. Scores of people out there are learning how to augment- to surrender the weaker parts of their ability to their computers and reintegrate the ability of the computer into a new identity without surrendering their egos. We do this all the time with certain mental capacities, but not the very special mental areas we think of as things like smartness or wisdom. That’s changing now. It bodes ill for other games like poker, and well for expanded human capacity.

1000 Ledes n + 14: When simply asking isn’t appropriate

Faces can be deceptive on this point. The eyes, specifically, can be all over the place. Clothing, mannerisms, wrinkles or their lack, colloquialisms, shape-size-haircolor-teeth, waddles on chin or upper arms. Location, length or amount of hair. All can be intensionally or unintentionally miscues.

If you want to know someone’s age, look at the back of their hands.

Regarding the senses, and a Northpaw update

There is no more powerful teacher about the nature of human senses than the migraine. Within the headache’s state senses are heightened to the point of vicious permeating pain. Light stabs you, smells choke you, sounds can hit you with the force of a shovel. It is an argument whether you are sensing more or filtering less- I am with the latter camp.

Once, about 30 minutes post Imitrex during the worst of my migraine seasons the pain passed enough for me to process the sensory data incoming. I was walking along a one-way street in Cambridge with Aaron. I started telling him what each type of car was as it came up behind us, based on the sound of its engine and suspension. I could have guessed that some people can distinguish cars by sound, people *really* into cars, but I had no idea I was one of them. I found my new ability unsettling, as much for wondering what other canons of knowledge my brain wasn’t telling me about as for the oppression of unexpected information. At dinner I heard all the adjacent conversations simultaneously. I repeated snippets back to Aaron. I wanted to convey how entirely strange this experience was, but that was hopeless- describing senses themselves, rather than their integrated gestalt, is nearly impossible.

I found this to be true as well with the magnet. To this day I have still never found a way of explaining what it was like: electrical, oscillatory, a pure sensation, ‘like putting your hand in an ultrasonic cleaner’, sharp but not painful, tangy, metallic, synthetic, fluctuating, warm, tugging. I feel that I’m a good writer, in particular I’ve been told more than once that I have a gift for explanation. Explaining a sense, just the sense, stumps me.

I have the least useful, most common, barely present, probably most boring form of synesthesia there is. Every so often I taste colors. I don’t taste something and see the color, I don’t taste and associate the color, I just taste the color. It’s useless to ask me what, say, red tastes like. It’s not hot or sweet or anything like that, it tastes like red. It’s an awareness of an element of red in my food, on parr with sweet or hot rather than suggestive of them. That’s what tasting a color means. It happens to me once a year at most. It used to happen more, but it’s declined as I’ve gotten older. It was so natural, so clearly part of the food, that for most of my life I didn’t believe it was synesthesia. Everyone had to taste those occasional colors, they were just there. Come on. It was finally a pharmacist friend in Las Vegas that pinned it down. I had a drink that was pink, and tasted pink. That was unusual, tasted colors rarely matched visual colors, and it amused me a great deal. I handed it to my friend and said “Taste this! It tastes pink!” He said “Ok…” dragging out the k long enough to make it a 15 cent word at least. He tasted it, and told me I was a synesthete.

I suspect all new senses are somewhat synesthetic. You are leveraging an existing sensory infrastructure, running something new on old roads into associative areas of the brain. I ‘felt’ electricity, right now I ‘feel’ north on the left of my left ankle. Feel is touch, but touch is not a state of awareness. When it’s working as a sense my awareness is not the buzzing, it’s the awareness of north from the buzzing Northpaw. I make it dance around by spinning my office chair. Sometimes it doesn’t keep up. I believe I get nauseous and dizzy much quicker wearing the Northpaw than I do spinning my office chair without it. Right now I can feel it buzzing, and I can feel north. The Northpaw gives you a recombinant sense.

Here is the thing about a new sense: calibration in a bitch, because experiencing it subjectively is kind of the point. That a new sense is unreliable goes with the territory – all your senses are unreliable. Senses not about accuracy, but they kind of require that you think they are about accuracy. Senses are integrative. They create the world that you inhabit- but it’s important to understand that they create a world you can inhabit rather than the whole of, or even a slice of, the objective truth of your environment. This is one of the many reasons people make terrible eye witnesses.

What lets you process a new sense isn’t that it’s right, wrong, precise, superpowerful, or pathological, it’s that integration. What you need from a new sense is consistency, or it becomes part of the noise you are filtering all the time. You need to train and force yourself to rely on it just enough that it gets plugged into the continual associative process of creating the useful fiction you spend your days wrapped in. Integration and consistency means far more to us than accuracy.

The Northpaw is not always, in fact not usually, integrated into my perception. That was never really a problem with the magnet, so this is a bit of uncharted territory for me. Admittedly it’s only been three weeks since I first put one on, so it might actually be coming along nicely thankyouverymuch. I can say it’s begun to uproot and reassemble DC in my mind, which I’m thankful for. The two spacial maps were distressing, and at one point got me lost more than I was without the Northpaw. That is past, though I can’t say I never get lost. It hasn’t done that for me. The experience is similar to the magnet in that it’s been more realigning of reality than useful. It tells me more about how the world works rather than giving me immediately practical information. Grids aren’t quite so griddy anymore. As a native of LA, that’s actually quite an insight into the nature of the city.

My Northpaw article is due soon, but I hope to keep on with my study and reporting on it. I think there is more to learn from this little thing. (No idea what I’m talking about? See all entries on the Northpaw.)

Northpaw, end of first week.

No problem getting it through TSA. I even had my story ready, and it turned out to be entirely unneeded.

The Northpaw doesn’t work well when tilted. It’s unstable while driving, or a few other similar conditions. This seems reasonable for a compass, but it can be disorienting. I have now worn it in two cities, DC and SF, and I hope to add NY to the mix. As soon as I figure out where I’m living. My DC house flooded while I was in SF, and my life is pretty disrupted at the moment.

Since returning to DC I have found out that my mental spacial map of DC swapped north for west. I have found out that my idea of north isn’t quite what I thought it was. My mental north seems to be less a cardinal direction as the dominant direction, the top, the most important thing. I wonder if north is simply, from any direction, where Ada or the Pacific Ocean are. The map I have of DC is pretty hard, and turns out to be difficult and disorienting to dislodge. Much of my experience of the Northpaw is more about disrupting a mythical sense than augmenting life with a new one. I am trying to let the Northpaw win, but it’s slow going.

The one part that is broadening my horizons is how the Northpaw corrects the extreme smoothing we do to get along. Straight things aren’t as straight as we perceive them. Skory told me that in the time he was wearing this Northpaw he found that hiking trails are much more twisted that he thought they were. I find roads, paths, and bit of buildings drift in ways usually too subtle to notice. Not always, but just enough to be unsettling. I am beginning to wonder how much maps are myths we tell ourselves about man’s mastery of nature.

The fact that it goes wrong quite a bit is making it hard to integrate as a sensory experience. Whatever is happening with plane of inclination or possible software or hardware glitches, there’s also those times when something is just mucking with the magnetic field. Riding on the subway, both the BART and the Metro, is very magnetically unstable. And it’s not the Northpaw- if I put my hand compass on the floor, it goes crazy as well. I plan to try re-calibrating it by circling the compass with a rare earth magnet and seeing if that helps me find the proper locations for the buzzers- a non trivial task.

In LeDroit Park a man on a moped stopped me while I was on my bike and asked me about the anklet. He was clearly interested. I explained the concept behind the Northpaw and my project, and his eyes and smile grew. I pointed to north. He was nearly giddy. People love this thing, though I occasionally get comments that it looks like I’m under house arrest. Still, this idea of widening perception consistently fascinates people.

The Northpaw, Day 1: A new sense I didn’t know I didn’t have.

The magnetic implant had a magical quality to it. A long journey ending in a moment of bloodletting in a ritualistic setting, surrounded by cryptically ornamented people, and suddenly I had the full force of an entirely new sensation. I could see a new thing in the world. I practiced, but there was still something of the etherial to the situation, enhanced by the ritual with which it all began. The loss was just as otherworldly. One day without an apparent precipitating event my finger grew swollen and angry. It turned black and painful and I developed a fever, and as quickly as it had come, the new sense was gone. All I had left was the apparent the anger of the gods at my hubristic magic, to be satisfied only by a weeklong course of Cipro.

I was very sad. A dear friend gave me a hug and said “There, there. We’ll get you another new sense.”

The Northpaw feels a lot more like technology than magic. It’s based on the Feelspace, a project by the Cognitive Psychology department of Universität Osnabrück in Germany. It works by a series of mild buzzers hooked to an electronic compass and arrayed along a belt. the buzzers signal north to the wearer. The wearer gets used to it. They just begin to always know where they are, and have perfect direction sense. The Northpaw, a kit under development by some friends at Noisebridge, does this in an anklet.

I am an extremely alpha tester of the Northpaw. We’ve run into some hardware problems, software problems, and problems caused by the size of my ankle and the direction of the zipper on my strap. We’ve fiddled, by which I mean Adam Skory has fiddled, while I watched and offered to make tea. I have served my universal purpose though- exposing flaws by suddenly having everything fall apart the second I touch it. (This is no criticism of Skory’s work. This happens with major corporations and large governmental computer systems as well. I’m just amazing at breaking things.)

After some trial I figured it was almost working right, good enough to take home and try to calibrate later. Calibration in this case is moving the motors slightly on the strip to make sure that they are actually in the right place for north on the small circumference offered by my ankle. I’ve always had a good native sense of direction, so I felt I could tell when the Northpaw was off.

I got out my compass and wandered around. Yes, I have a great sense of direction. It’s just wrong most of the time. I get around by what I have realized is extreme smoothing. It wanders well off the cardinal directions, and then gets yanked back by points of reference. I also hold an independent compass in my head for buildings I know that defines north as whatever I think of as the top of the building and has not much relationship to the cardinal directions.

The Northpaw isn’t perfect, but so far it’s better than I turn out to be. I am still in the alarming newness phase of awareness, figuring out how much I was wrong about things I didn’t know I thought about.

I will blog the experience as I go, and will be writing an article for h+ magazine summing up my time of augmentation.

Plastic surgery as art: choices and alienation

I attended the opening reception of an art gallery exhibition on plastic and reconstructive surgery called I Am Art.

There were two ethos of surgery on display, the first involved rectifying gross disfigurement and injury, and the second was about perfectibility. I think, after the fact, that the curators and gallery had tried very hard to get rid of that distinction and it was we, the viewers, who insisted on dividing up the room and clumping the procedures. Two videos ran in loop- one of an infant getting cleft palette surgery and the other of a particularly nauseating rhinoplasty, more so (for me at least) because of the shaky cam than the pulling back of the skin. Both of them were difficult watching and showed off the craft of surgery well, but one was heart rendingly sympathetic and the other was a nose job. Cosmetic was interwoven with and displayed similarly to reconstructive, but we all picked out the ones we thought were of choice, which patients were brave, which patients were vain. We based those inevitable assessments on nothing more than the blanket presentation of imagery. They lacked stories or personal statements about how these people came to be art under the knives of their surgeons. In that way, it was a mere mug shot gallery of physical change.

A woman who befriended me near the tummy tuck and boob job display said of the tucking and boobing surgeon, “He likes to cut up women.” There was a cut up quality to his choices of pictures- all headless and legless torsos, each with a scar that looked like the curve of a valley on a far horizon stretching between their hips, where the pouches they had carried their children in had been cut away. When he made his women into art, he made it so they had no heads to think or express, or legs to run. But he clearly made his women as Perfected as he could, as his canvas would allow. He made saggy breasts cartoonish in their constructed opposition to gravity, and pulled the skin back from their belly buttons aggressively. It reminded me of Hello Kitty, iconically and algorithmically pleasing, and mouthless.

In one case, a double radical mastectomy, He had constructed whole new breasts from the pregnancy pouch. I stared at those images for a while, wondering at this strange incarnation and adaptation of motherhood. I wished I could have seen her face. I wanted to know how her synthetic breasts did.  Did they make riding on the subway easier or harder? Did anyone reject her? Did they save her marriage? Give her the courage to leave it? I had nothing but torsos to go on.

I also found myself shopping. No matter how you feel about your body, you start remaking it a bit looking at this kind of surgery photography. It’s a little like how you begin to mentally redecorate your house when reading a certain type of magazine. You just do.

There were a few gaggles of Surgically Perfected Women in attendance, something like how I pictured the daughter in David Foster Wallace’s Tri-Stan. They had an otherness to them that I realized was demographic, the same way body modders must look a bit alien to people that aren’t me. Their surgical choices were not inscrutable to me, but the obvious effort they made on make-up was. The sacrifice and pain of surgery I get, the daily drudgery and expense of heavy and meticulous make-up confounds me. I tried to get into conversations with them a couple times, but failed. Perhaps a tired looking t-shirt and sneakers wearing girl with scraggly hair, too many bags and no make-up at all was as demographically alien to them and they were to me. The women who talked to me largely criticized them, calling them Stepford and worse; the men stayed silent. For the evening, it seemed, I was put on a team in a fight I didn’t know existed and was probably ideologically opposed to. I felt as well that something New York was happening, and I was far too Californian to understand it, and therefore far too likely to suggest hugging as an answer to have anyone want to explain it to me.

I can say for sure, despite the criticisms of team imPerfect, the Surgically Perfected Woman were not spineless and compliant creatures. They strutted, proud of what they were, showing off the breasts and lips doctors had created for them with no shame. And it made sense, why work so hard on your appearance only to be ashamed? I could admire them as having taken a stand to inhabit a cultural norm with as much fury and conscious determination as the extreme modders with their facial tattoos, horns, and metal studs had taken their stand to reject it.

My new friend’s animus was more complex than this. When she was 12 her parents, people who had terribly feared losing their looks,  went to the plastic surgeon and gotten faces lifts together. I had a tender image of them sitting together in that doctor’s office holding hands, keeping each other company and working up the courage, but for her it had been horrifying. They’d returned with huge swollen heads, medicated for pain and bandaged. Here she mimed them with her own hands far out to the sides of her head, bouncing back and forth like a bobble. She had been terrified, but also couldn’t look away. What they had done to themselves they had done to her. As is the way of parents, they were too far from the egocentric enmeshment of childhood to see that they were doing it to her. She had spent 17 years slowly writing a musical about the experience.

I mentioned that my mom had gotten into body piecing when I was a teenager. “That is not ok!” she announced vigorously, “It is not ok for parents to be cooler than their child!” I told her I was always fine with it, that my mother never felt like she was threatening to outcool me. The same thing, this same quality of parent’s actions washing out into the lives of child had happened to me as well, but gone the other way. I happily realized that I could get pierced or tattooed and it wouldn’t be a rebellion- I had a license no one else had, and I liked it. I didn’t use it, I wouldn’t get modified for many years, but I liked that if I did, my mother would already understand it. The same thing that had horrified and alienated her had given me choices.

The exhibit was about a complex topic, more so than I think the people that did it understood. It needed to explain the relationships and the choices, to talk about who the people were. It didn’t rise to the challenge. Looking back, I feel like this talk of our parents, all while surrounded by pictures and videos of graphic surgeries, before and after mug shots,  and cliques of post surgical women added the context the exhibition so needed. We were all stepping in and out of alienation, wearing our choices on our faces.