Tuesday, September 22, 2009


My DVD player / VCR conked out while I was cooking. It gagged on and then tried to spit out a video of the Apartment. One thread of film got stuck in its teeth while the rest lolled out like a great black tongue. I guess I should snip the thread and try to extricate the carcass, but what's the point? For now the movie continues to hang there, suspended from the broken mouth of the VCR, and serve as a fabulous metaphor for life these days.

Over and over again, I pick up a book only to discover it's about death and have to put it down. Finally, in frustration, I decided to reread the first Harry Potter. HEY, GUESS WHAT THAT'S ABOUT?

I can't win. Authors, weren't either of your parents ever seriously ill? Didn't you ever need solace, comfort, humor, diversion? There are only so many Jane Austen books to reread.

Can anyone recommend something cheerful but still intelligent, please? I was hitting myself in my sleep last night; I woke up sore and sad. And this is just the beginning of what looks like a very difficult fall. My friends have been wonderful, as has Mr. Ben. Now I just need some support from art.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Early Christmas card from the Balynker-Glooms

Perfect form!
Originally uploaded by shorterstory.

Hi Everyone! Happy It's-Virtually-Christmas!

Day by day, sunlight recedes, flowers droop, tans fade, and hurricanes gear up to wallop our fair cities. Last year at this time the RNC introduced Sarah Palin and the NYT introduced Unigo! (Now that we all have some perspective, the question to ask is, Which flopped harder?)

I always get down in the dumps in September, but the fact that this summer was disappointingly unsweaty makes me even more morose.

To mark and improve these waning days, some of us decamped to Splish Splash, the water park of kings. The journey was not for the faint of heart: we had to travel into the depths of Long Island via a subway, two trains, and a shuttle bus. Ultimately, though, we arrived at a haven as splish-splashy as promised, and as removed from our daily lives as we could hope.

Even that, as it turned out, was a mere teaser for Mr. Ben's and my more extended vacation in glorious Costa Rica.

We took a puddle-jumper from San Jose to the remote Oso Pennisula, where we stayed in a hacienda owned by a family friend. He visits his mountain-top paradise four or five times a year, usually with as many guests as he can entice to join him.

Together, we explored jungles, beaches, and tropical fruits that required Inglorious Basterds-type methods to get to the insides. He took us out to eat, to hike, to meet his ex-pat friends, to fly through the air with the greatest of ease, and to fish.



Once, while relaxing on his shaded porch, with fans whirring overhead and fresh-fruit smoothies in hand, birds quarreling faintly in the trees and the sun dipping into the Pacific on the horizon, I said, "I feel like a colonialist." Turns out that's a Think, Don't Say in the developing world.

Awkward realizations aside, it really was a fantastic experience from beginning to end. Except for the back of my leg.


More pictures TK. Hope you're all well!

Ben & Ester

Friday, September 11, 2009

Boy Girl Boy Girl

The results of Gold-medal-winning runner Caster Semenya's "gender test" are in. Reportedly, she is intersex. She was born without a uterus or a womb and with unusually high levels of testosterone to go with internal testes that never descended.

Gawker set the tone with its piece yesterday:
We thought it was super crazy that South African sprinter Caster Semenya had to go through complicated tests to prove she's actually a woman, just because she....whoa, she's not actually a woman!

Breaking, whoa, I did not even know this stuff happened for real, but yes it does!
Blithe ignorance -- how charming. Five seconds of Googling answers the question of how common a condition Semenya's is. 1 out of every 100 people born has some variation in their sex organs. Besides which, I have a friend who was born without a womb or ovaries, and she is one of the most typically feminine (and beautiful) people I know. No one would have any difficulty reading the signs and declaring her a woman.

That, of course, is the problem. We have a strong societal idea of what a Woman is -- i.e., not a Man, the opposite of a Man. Soft, not hard; gentle, not rough; shorter, slighter, weaker, and so on. As more and more female athletes use their bodies the same way men do, and their bodies adapt through use to become more streamlined and muscular, the gender differences become less pronounced. So the Williams sisters wear tiny skirts and pose in bikinis, Dana Torres's baby is mentioned as often as her age, and the press was obsessed with the story of the Olympic volleyball player who lost her wedding ring in the sand.

It is these external markers that Semenya is lacking, as is evident in this Mediaite piece, titled "Pressing Matters: Media Plays ‘Boy or Girl’ with She-male Runner":
But if you have seen pictures of Semenya, let alone seen her torch her competition in a footrace (video below), you can’t help but wonder about her sex; forget how politically incorrect the thought might be, she does look like a man. So it really came as no surprise yesterday when Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported that testing by the International Association of Athletic Federation revealed that Semenya has internal testes, no womb or ovaries and produces three times the normal amount of testosterone as a normal female.
Just when you think we can't do worse than the word "hermaphrodite," which, with its monstrous connotations, is officially out-dated, Mediaite reaches in the grab bag and pulls out "She-male." And then goes on to assure the reader that "you can't help but wonder about her sex." Oh yeah, can't I? Why? Does Semenya really have a more manly face than Dana Torres?

Or than the Williams sisters?

Gender isn't something that can be tested, and sex is more complicated than gonads. Semenya was raised as a woman, trained as a woman, competed as a woman, and succeeded as a woman. Only when she came out on top was she subjected to worldwide humiliation and scorn. Even if she keeps her gold at this point, it will be tarnished, and that is a shame.

To my mind, the situation is very simple. Either the folks in charge come up with some standard for what they find acceptable and test everyone before they let them run, or they test no one. (After all, without testing, how do we know that other runners who didn't win don't have similar conditions?) Ideally the folks in charge, and the media, and the bloggers, would wrap their minds around the fact that human beings are biologically complex. However happy it makes us feel to assume that there are men and women and everyone fits neatly into one category or the other, the truth is deeper than that -- and more interesting.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

On the Edge of Things

Paradise, I've discovered, dwells in the borderlands. It makes sense: being in the center can be pleasant and safe, but it is rarely glorious. The house where Mr. Ben and I are now staying in Costa Rica sits at the top of a mountain, next to the rain forest, and at the edge of a cliff, and it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. A string of bushes beaded with coral-orange flowers separates us from everything below. In the distance and far beneath us, the Pacific Ocean foams at the mouth. Howler monkeys scream at the sun for coming up in the morning and frogs make mellow sounds at twilight.

Otherwise, insects make virtually the only noise. I knew, when I arrived, that I would have to be less jumpy about critters than I usually am. I try and I fail and I continue to try. Our first morning, in a bed-and-breakfast in Alajuela, Mr. Ben and I opened the door to the shower and something large and black flew at us from the darkness. Of course it was only a moth, but *you* try not to scream when something with wings comes at you first thing in the morning.

Our flight over Friday night had been exhausting. Half of Holland had been emptied out onto our plane for some reason. The looming, affable Dutch stood for the most of the ride, leaning over each others' seats, laughing, talking, and even breaking out into song. They ignored us completely and we in turn felt like we were flying 2,000 miles in a bar in the Hague. Of course, the flight was late, and of course there were no movies, and of course by the time the stewardess made it to the very back row with the food cart, where we sat trapped between the Nords and the bathroom, she had given away everything except little hamburgers that get microwaved in plastic bags. The vegetarian meals we had ordered had long since been handed over to someone else.

But who cares? The hunger and the inconvenience were a small price to pay to get here. Our little adventures -- finding the door of the B&B shower broken and ourselves locked in; arriving for our 9:00 AM local flight to Palmar Del Sur on time but at the wrong airport -- seemed funny as soon as they were over.

We have shopped and swum and cooked and marveled at the landscaping here at the top of Mel's mountain. Mel is the family friend whose hospitality we're enjoying. He bought his house five years ago and has transformed it into a private tropical getaway. Last night we played poker until almost midnight on the porch with a crowd of his ex-pat friends. Today we're going to go fishing for our lunch. I am supremely blissful, even while I am on the watch for scorpions. And tomorrow we head into the rain forest! With any luck, we will make it out again.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

What's Wrong?

Conversation with a co-worker:

Me: I have to go to the post office to buy a couple stamps.
Her: Why not use the stamp machine here?
Me: Because that would be stealing.
Her: Nah, everyone does it.
Me: You know, at my last office, we had a long conversation about whether it was okay to ask for a cup of water at Chipotle and then fill the cup with soda. For some reason, everyone thought that was fine!
Her: Sure!
Me: Do you do that?
Her: Of course. Well, I don't go to Chipotle. But I used to shoplift sweaters from H&M all the time. I was kind of a klepto when I was a kid. It was fun! The sweaters were too small for me, even.
Me: I was the kind of kid who never smoked, never cheated, never stole ...
Her: Ugh -- moral.
Me: Except I'm not a "good person."
Her: I know!
Me: Hey!
Her: Well, I knew what you meant.
Me: Yeah. I don't know, I just had an inborn sense, from the time that I was little, that some things were wrong and so I never wanted to do them. You know what I mean?
Her: I really liked stealing penny candy, too.