Desecrated as the body is, a vengeful ghost survives and hovers over it to scare. Espied by some timid man-of-war or blundering discovery-vessel from afar, when the distance obscuring the swarming fowls, nevertheless still shows the white mass floating in the sun, and the white spray heaving high against it; straightway the whale’s unharming corpse, with trembling fingers is set down in the log- shoals, rocks, and breakers hereabout: beware! And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum, because their leader originally leaped there when a stick was held. There’s your law of precedents; there’s your utility of traditions; there’s the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering in the air! There’s orthodoxy!

The Funeral, Chapter 69

This is a short chapter in which the remainder of a processed whale’s carcass is tossed overboard–a “funeral,” of sorts.  And as such, it takes on all the human superstition of the grave.  The paragraph above tells how, for years to come, sailors will avoid that site.  It’s about “Orthodoxy” or:

Why do we do it that way?

Because that’s how the guys before us did it; it is how it has always been done.


A funny word.  How do you even define “always”?

For how long did the earth spin before we first stood upright on its surface?  For how long did the detritus speed round the vortex of our sun before colliding enough with itself, in its many scattered places to create the rough sphere on which we first stood?  And what of that sun?  A youngster compared to some we have perceived, and to, no doubt, the many we have never perceived.

So always?  The way it has always been done?

When I first entered the formal educational system at age 5, things were done a little differently.  Even if my own memory of 1969 is a bit vague, I have good evidence that it was a different world in the form of one of these little books my all-perfect mother seemed to find the time to purchase, if not (I’m relieved to say), fill out completely.  Each grade has an envelope designed like a page to be filled out on the front and back, with the indicated “Enclosures” placed inside the envelope.  The fact that one could fit ones report card, class picture, awards, acheivements, mementos, reading, writing and arithmetic samples all within this packet make me wonder how much we have inflated our rewards and mementos in the subsequent years.

Of course, this little record book has some major clueless flaws, like, if you were reading and writing in kindergarten in 1969 in Dublin California, they promoted you to first grade half way through the year, even though, with your summer birthday, this made you a full two years younger than the other students who had all been doing first grade for four months while you had been visiting the fire station and pretending to take naps.  The pertinent information for each year is stated clearly:

I am happy to see my perfect mother did not know my weight, nor did she seem to recall the first day of school.  That she recorded no friends, achievements, nor awards is probably accurate– though, I seem to recall a mid-year promotion was treated as an accomplishment.

But, I’m getting off topic, what I wanted to point out, what has always struck me is the bottom of the second page:

These are my choices?

It’s what has always been done.  Little boys dream of being cowboys and astronauts, little girls of being mommies and models.

The indoctrination must have struck me even then as obscenely distasteful.  Given these option year after year I finally broke down in second grade and gave my answer.  By the end of third grade, it had not changed:

What do you want to be?

I want to be alone.


And what?

And what else?

There has to be something else?


Okay. . and ride a horse.

Times have changed.  I changed schools after third grade and entered my sheltered world.  It was a world where girls linked arms and spent recess in our shared imaginations, and French braided each other’s hair.  A girl was class president, a girl was captain of the field hockey team.  The debating team, the LaCrosse team, the math club, the Latin club—all girls. The message was clear, you can be anything.  There is nothing to hold you back.  The women’s movement had begun and we were told, you could be president someday.

Then I got my period.  It happens.  It’s not fun, I wasn’t giddy to see arrive, not by a long stretch.  It was an inconvenience.  It led to embarrassing stains and the contraptions available to deal with it were uncomfortable and archaic and, really I have never enjoyed lingering in the process of undocking the  biological material no longer in use.

It didn’t help that my first period never stopped.  It began in the spring and I bled and bled.  It was finally August when my mother asked how on earth it was that I was going through so many pads when I asked her to buy yet another palate of maxis.

At fifteen (I was a late bloomer) I must have known this wasn’t how it was supposed to go.  Why hadn’t I said anything earlier?  Why hadn’t my mother noticed earlier?  Why did I assume she would have figured it out when I didn’t tell her?  Why didn’t I tell her?

We came back from vacation and my mother called her OB-GYN.  There was an exam and some tests, a fuzzy sonogram, and, in the end, no answer I understood. The solution was a hormonal treatment.  To stop the bleeding, the incapacitating aenemia, the feeling of “I thought I could be president, but now I just want to go take a nap—“ I was put on oral contraceptives.

That night at supper my father looked up from his plate.  I sat at the other end of the long table from him.  He had become more and more withdrawn during this period of our lives.  A man with only glimpses of humor, a shadow of his former self, and a merciless temper.  When we heard him pull into the driveway each night we would run to our rooms.  My mother, I think, had romantic visions of what it would be like to be a doctor’s wife.  This was not her dream.

I looked up to catch my father’s eyes but he looked back down at his plate and then said:

“Just because you’re on the pill doesn’t mean you can have sex.”

That floored me.  I thought “What the hell?  I’ve never gone on a date.  I go to an all girl’s school.  If there is one thing that we all knew in those glass halls it was this:  You get pregnant all bets are off.  Teenage pregnancy was the kiss of death.

What happens to a dream deferred?. . .

“I’m not going to have sex.”  I told him.

Do you even know me?

For many years I was on the pill, and for many of those I remained a virgin in no rush to be anything but, until virginity itself became a burden, a mark.  I threw it away because I was tired of the way men judged my value with their testosterone.

So, pardon if I delve for a moment into the political, but I want Rush Limbagh gone.  I am a huge believer in forgiveness, but the kind of mind who can take a woman’s friendship, for another woman who is bleeding into aenemia, and twist it into a justification of his own sexual exploitation of this woman.

I wonder, Mr. Limbaugh,

have you ever been raped?

Have you ever been violated in a manner so dehumanizing you are for a moment—that may stretch into weeks–stripped of all ability to feel alive?

You apologize for a poor word choice?

You think it is the words you chose, not the thing you said,  that knocked the breath out of women when it rolled out from the filthy cave of your thoughts?

But you’re a good moral Christian, and your fight is about the good moral fight–isn’t that how you justify this?

There’s your law of precedents; there’s your utility of traditions; there’s the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth.

That’s orthodoxy.