On being an impure woman

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Vultures: those vile, wonderful custodians of the earth…

“Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!” – Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Kidnapping and rape survivor Elizabeth Smart recently explained why she did not try to escape her captors despite having some opportunities to do so, and her testimony is shocking. She claims that after being raped, she remembered her teacher comparing a woman who has sex before marriage to a “chewed-up piece of gum,” and this caused her terrible guilt. Smart felt that a 14-year-old Christian girl who was no longer a virgin was not worth rescuing. Though Smart’s teachers and religious parents probably had the best of intentions, it’s worth noting that they were not preaching abstinence as a practice – they were preaching the archaic, pernicious, metaphysical concept of “purity” as a measure of worth. This is the same concept that Islamic extremists exploit when they recruit female suicide bombers using rape. Purity is a barbaric idea from a time when a family had to guard a girl’s virginity for financial reasons. And like Elizabeth Smart, I learned it in school.

Sex-wise, I have one thing to say to the young: there is no purity. There is only “I choose to have sex ’round now” and “I choose not to have sex ’round now.” I consider myself an impure woman. I hated my abstinence-only sex education class so much I jumped up and yelled at the teacher. But there were more than 30 girls in that class with me, and statistically speaking, I may be the last “virgin” standing. Women are people, not paints, extracts, or pharmaceuticals.

But the idea that a person can be pure goes beyond sex. One may consider oneself racially pure, although the geneticists will laugh at that. One may obsess over the purity of one’s diet, or the cleanliness of one’s home. And what is extremism but the desire for purity of thought? You can see why I am alarmed and repelled by anyone who tries to tell me I should be pure. Tell me I should be good, conscientious, brave, scrupulous, and reasonable, but never tell me I should be pure.

I am NOT pure. I tell morbid jokes, I’ve written erotica (that you will never, ever see), I have violent thoughts about people I dislike, I think True Blood is awesome, I love meat and chocolate, and, to the horror of my friends who have good taste in music, I have danced to Kreashawn’s “Gucci Gucci.” Vices all, but my friends have pointed out that some of my virtues are highly eccentric, and thus also impure.

As Primo Levi points out in The Periodic Table, life, and possibly the universe itself, cannot function without impurities: “In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But immaculate virtue does not exist either, or if it exists it is detestable.” This is a scientific fact. Without entropy physics collapses; without genetic mutations biology collapses. Everyone knows about how an oyster needs grit to make a pearl. And those creepy, revolting vultures in the Audubon print? Ecosystems falter without them, as the Indians learned when they accidentally decimated their vulture population with pesticides.

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I wish to be reincarnated as a vulture

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A vulture, I say!

Why, you may ask? Because they get up late and spend most of the day riding thermals with their vulture pals, keeping an eye out for roadkill but mostly just soaring and playing and soaking up the sun. Sure, there’s a gross-out factor, especially when it comes to diet, but a vulture is programmed by evolution to enjoy carrion the same way a human is programmed by evolution to enjoy a well-marbled ribeye. I’d just like my deceased ungulates a little less processed if I were a vulture. No biggie.

My diet would give me the spectacular defense mechanism of vomiting carrion onto aggressive parties. Step up on me and you’d get rancid meat in the face. Ha!

I’d be “ugly,” too, but no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. The captive turkey vulture at Ijams Nature Center believes herself a great beauty, judging by how much time she spends preening and strutting before the visitors. Even she is an exception – most birds show zero indication that they care what humans think of them. Wilderness-dwelling birds may be unaware of humans as separate entities.

The question would be: turkey vulture or black vulture? A birder can generally tell these species apart by their aura*. if you look up in a tree, see a big black bird, and think “Look, a vulture,” then you’ve probably seen a turkey vulture. If you look up in a tree, see a big black bird, and think “OH MY GOD IT’S A HARBINGER OF DOOM FROM THE DEPTHS OF HELL!” then you’ve probably seen a black vulture. Bulky, scary black vultures look badass, but I think I’d rather be a turkey vulture. Turkey vultures have a leaner shape for more graceful soaring.

A lot of people hate vultures, but I love them enough to want to be one. I guess it’s my knowledge of what a world without scavenging birds looks like, combined with the pleasure of watching my local vultures circle lazily in the summer air.

 

* Birding by intuition (getting the gist of the bird) is called “jiz birding,” because the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Bushtit v. Woodcock case that all birding slang must sound unspeakably filthy