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The body politic

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I paid $50 to think about my vagina for two hours a couple of weeks ago.

            This is more time than most women spend in their lives thinking about it, according to The Vagina Monologues, so I guess it was money well spent. The evening was like a hilarious graduate seminar run by three actresses --- one of them plays Maria on Sesame Street --- who took turns telling different women's thoughtful or sad or riotously funny vagina stories. It was also a vocabulary-building experience. That's right. The same woman who taught my kids the ABCs added "coochie snorcher" and "Mimi from Miami" to my repertoire of words for "down there."

            No self-respecting movement neglects to reclaim shunned words and assign them new, empowering meanings. I don't know if vagina-awareness constitutes a movement, but every once in a while a feisty feminist will try to put a happy face on that least-loved vagina moniker: "cunt." We were treated to an interpretive spelling of the word c-u-n-t, with the actress sharing thoughts and making sound effects as she went.

            Then, for the audience participation portion, we all hollered "cunt" as loud as we dared, which, with the house only half-full (you no-shows are a bunch of pussies), wasn't very loud. But truth be told, it felt naughty --- and not in a good way --- to be shouting that word.

            "That's funny," Maria from Sesame Street said when the screaming was over. "Cookie Monster always told me 'C' is for cookie." She paused. "Maybe he's been eating the wrong thing all these years."

Normally, the life and times of my boobs are loads of fun. First, the nicknames make me laugh --- fun bags, titties, kittens in a sack --- and, I mean, just look at them! Breasts are the perfect body part: round, soft, good for sex and for feeding babies.

            But the day after The Vagina Monologues, my knockers and I had some business to attend to. We went on a field trip to the Elizabeth Wende Breast Clinic for my annual mammogram.

            In the time it takes to strip and put on a pale blue hospital gown, I went from feeling like my groovy grrl self to feeling like Grandma Moses. I wrapped one of the available shawls around my shoulders, completing the look. It was cold in that meat locker, where three-dozen women, stripped of their work and play clothes, waited to be herded in and have their boobs flattened into patties and photographed.

            As awkward as this is, the subtext is worse. With more than 12,000 new breast cancers diagnosed and 3,500 breast-cancer deaths reported in New York State every year, according to the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester, there probably wasn't a woman in the room who hadn't been affected by breast cancer.

            As usual, I was thinking about my friend Beth. She's nearing the five-year survival threshold that 97 percent of breast cancer survivors make. Beth is my role model when it comes to breast health --- she caught her own cancer in the shower one day. She felt a lump and she didn't panic. She couldn't afford to; she didn't have insurance.

            I heard my name called and I followed the technician into a dark room. She told me to grab a handle at the back of a machine that looked like a hotel ice vending machine. My face was shoved against the clear plastic ice chute --- the tech called it a "face guard" --- and she pulled my left breast onto a metal base that was colder than ice.

            She then flattened my breast beneath a sheet of glass --- with a rolling pin? vice grips? I couldn't see anything ---.and took a step back. The machine made a lot of noise for about 15 seconds. I twisted my head down to see my aching boob. It was flattened to about one-cell-layer thick and it was the size of a dinner plate.

            My breast: the other white meat.

            While I was back in the meat locker waiting for the results, I thought about Beth. Like 40 million other Americans, neither she nor her husband had insurance, even though they both worked. He's an independent music producer and, when Beth found the lump, her job as a motion picture camerawoman was part-time. She left town to go on a shoot --- a three-month movie job would make her eligible for insurance. Only after all that did she get the care she needed.

            As much as I hate all the annual poking and prodding that women have to undergo --- the mammogram, the beloved pap smear, the breast exam --- I don't ever want my friends and family to have to worry about me deferring care. I'm lucky to have insurance. I damn well better use it.

            When my name was called again, I was taken into a different room --- a tiny, bright room with no furniture. I noticed there was nowhere to sit as the nurse handed me a slip of paper.

            "You're all set," she said. "We'd like to see you back in one year." With a rush of relief --- no cancer! --- I realized there's nowhere to sit because there's no need to sit. No need to meet with the doctor. No need to cry. At least not today, at least not for me.

I was starting to wonder if women are more than their component body parts when I heard about Nazareth College's Women's Studies 20th anniversary celebration. It was a week of lectures, film and art, culminating in a performance on October 12 by drag king Diane Torr.

            Wait a sec. A drag king? At Naz? Isn't that the place where you're more likely to spot a Sister of St. Joseph wandering down the leafy path than a sister undercover as a brother?

            Not lately. Several young women wearing guy gear and sporting mustaches drawn on with --- I'm guessing --- eyeliner attended the event. So did a nun or two.

            I've got to hand it to Nazareth for bringing in Torr. The show featured bare bottoms wiggling through openings in the curtain, a lively mermaid dildo which was passed around the audience, and Torr's transformation from a coquettish female into a domineering male, complete with mustache and swagger.

            The New York-based artist drew her act from a workshop she teaches on how to be like a man. For Torr, being a drag king in public is a serious endeavor. Like an anthropologist, she studies her subject --- the American male --- in his natural habitat: sports bars, pool rooms, and men's groups.

            "It's about becoming the alter ego of a man," she says, "and utilizing that as a way to explore the world and see things from a different perspective."

            What she's observed about female behavior is bound to make even the girliest girl stop giggling and start demanding some respect.

            "Women smile constantly, they're constantly apologizing, constantly accommodating," she said in an interview. "You learn these things as a man. You just expect people to get out of your way."

            She's right. From now on, it's me first. I'm ditching the smile and donning the swagger. Gimme the remote and get the hell out of my chair.

            Okay? Sorry.

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