Dangers of honky-tonk dancing

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ONE CAN FIND many ways to have fun in west Texas. Some people sit on their front porches and count the number of cars with only one headlight that go by. Some had spent tons of hours surfing on internet for sewing machine reviews. Meanwhile, others see how far they can throw bottle caps. It is considered a lot of fun to go to a church bake sale to discover who bought a pie from the grocery store instead of baking one. Despite continual warnings from the area’s religious and moral leaders, a small minority of west Texans embrace darker pursuits. Of such pursuits, none is darker or more dangerous than dancing in honky-tonks.

Leon Dycus went to a honky-tonk in Plainview and danced with a woman who gave him the flu. She had not even told him she was sick.

David Wilkes visited a honky-tonk in Electra and polkaed with a woman who was unaccustomed to dancing. This woman, who was wearing very large shoes, broke his kneecap with one of them during a fast tune, even though he was wearing heavy chaps.

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Delray Schmiedeskamp was in a honky-tonk in Impact, dancing with his wife, when the lights went out. When the lights came back on, he was dancing with a man.

Uncertainty about with whom one will finish a dance in a honky-tonk is

only a small part of the wrong kind of fun in west Texas. The following discussion will show that for a wide variety of reasons dancing in honky-tonks is really not how anyone ought to have fun. The writer intends not to pass moral judgment on the behavior of persons who believe such things are fun but only to ask them if their behavior is worth the cost that might thereby be incurred.

Honky-tonks first developed in west Texas during the late 1800s. The shortage of women, however, kept people from dancing with anyone other than themselves. Cowboys had no women to teach them proper dance steps and would simply whirl around to guitar music until they fell down from exhaustion. Musicians soon learned to play shorter tunes, so that cowboys would have time to rest between dances. Although one may object to the drinking that occurred at such places, at least it was not combined with dancing in a way that reflected poorly upon the fair sex.

When women finally arrived in west Texas, they were so badly needed that many of them rushed to the honky-tonks without unpacking their suitcases and began straightaway to offer dance lessons. Despite the cowboys’ demand for it, such instruction was not all to the good. Women, knowing that they were in short supply, would force lonely cowboys to sign long-term contracts for instruction in the simplest of dances. Indeed, not realizing how quickly one normally learns the dance, one man signed up for forty-seven years of weekly polka lessons. Even short-term contracts left much to be desired. One cowboy, obviously drunk, was duped into paying $65,000 for a year of twice-a-week schottische lessons. Once the “instructress” got this man into the class, she soaked him further by inducing him to buy “whiskies” for her; they were really only caramel-colored water.

This unethical trade abated when west Texas general stores began to import books on dancing and to sell them to cowboys. Cowboys would walk into a honky-tonk, fall to the floor, and spread out long sheets of paper on which had been printed outlines of human foot-prints, marked “L” for left and “R” for right. When the music started, the cowboys would walk around the footprints in time to the music. Profiteering dance instructresses soon became wallflowers in the face of this competitive onslaught. Many lost everything and moved to Oklahoma, where books on dance instruction were as yet unheard of.

In the 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression, honky-tonks became breeding grounds for gangs of so-called “dance criminals,” who would use their honky-tonk-dancing skills to disguise the most dangerous sorts of lawbreaking. Some would dance into convenience stores and rob them. Others would dance while misadjusting electric meters in order to make the power company undercharge them for electricity. In the cities whole groups of pickpockets would dance into rodeos, stock shows, and other places where large numbers of people congregated, pick everyone’s pocket, and then dance out again.

In response, a large number of anti-dancing laws were passed and vigorously enforced. In 1937 the notorious criminal Thurlow Weed was brought to heel when, in a single day, he was charged with dancing across state lines for immoral purposes, dancing to avoid prosecution, dancing in excess of sixty miles per hour, and reckless dancing. He is still in prison.

The rise of dance gangs forced many west Texas communities not simply to control dancing, through the types of laws that finished Thurlow Weed, but to outlaw it altogether. Clandestine dancing became common. Desperate men would dance in the locked back rooms of honky-tonks, or even in broom closets. Women would step into a restroom, on the pretext of answering a call of nature, and do the Cotton-Eyed Joe. Clubs were raided and sometimes a town’s leading citizens would find themselves looking through jail bars, still wearing the ballet or tap shoes that had aroused the initial suspicions of the police. In many communities to this day one may face prosecution for “possession of dancing equipment” or for “unlawful rhythmic movement.”

When law-abiding citizens realized that these laws were insufficient to stop dancing in west Texas outright, some people began to take the law into their own hands. “Dance vigilance” associations appeared in various parts of the region. Known dancers, after a night on the town, would often return home to find a pair of burning patent-leather pumps or a flaming top hat glowing in the front yard. Night riders burned honky-tonks and ran their owners out of the state. In some towns even moving your legs became dangerous. Whirling around more than once would guarantee a suit of tar and feathers.

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Rising unemployment and attendant social confusion linked to farm and oil-field problems have led to a recent increase in honky-tonk dancing by west Texans, but people are still ashamed to do it. Now that good roads exist throughout the area, some hide their behavior by stealing away to distant honky-tonks in Oklahoma or New Mexico, or by dancing in huge mobile units that move secretly from place to place, guided by CB radios that tell them when the police are near. Others try to disguise the honky-tonks themselves. One honky-tonk, outside of Lubbock, has been built as a perfect replica of Mount Rushmore, while another, near Abilene, looks exactly like the Statue of Liberty. Only their flashing neon beer signs give them away.

Religious and moral leaders in west Texas deplore honky-tonk dancing on grounds of simple decency. While I understand these objections, I note that they appeal only to persons who share the values of such leaders. The preceding discussion, however, shows the dangers of honky-tonk dancing on objective grounds. Honky-tonk dancing leads to high prices, armed robbery, pickpocketry, broken limbs, the flu, spouseswapping, and general sneakiness of a high order. If these facts do not serve as indictments of honky-tonk dancing, then facts do not serve as indictments of anything. One can find better ways to have fun in west Texas.

Duvall’s aim is off in ‘Assassination’

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Byline: Gary Arnold, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Assassination Tango” is a vanity production that backfires rather laughably on Robert Duvall, doing himself no discernible favors as writer, director or leading man.

Obviously, you don’t have to be a pretty face to miscalculate a vanity production. Craggy and wrinkled and decked out with a tautly backswept hairdo that culminates in a miniature ponytail, Mr. Duvall lets almost two hours of shambling plot feel like a pitiless four or five while pretending to be a hit man from Coney Island who gets a bit distracted while waiting to whack a victim in Buenos Aires.

The fundamentally disreputable protagonist, named John J. Anderson, is introduced hanging out at a club called Frankie’s that is operated by his mob patron, the avuncular and seemingly authentic Frank Gio as Frankie.

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John J. has a consort, played by Kathy Baker, who once seemed destined for more rewarding roles. He is devoted to her daughter, Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller). It gives him great satisfaction to provide the girl with such privileges as equestrian lessons. Miss Baker gets to comment, a bit unwarily. “She’s like the daughter you never had.”

If there’s a dig in there, John J. seems to overlook it. Maybe she’s lucky, because it pleases Mr. Duvall to show John J. losing his temper on short notice at other times. He gets belligerent with a Brooklyn cop who just seems to be passing the time of day. He has one of those phone-slamming and kicking outbursts that actors long ago diminished to primal cliche.

Relocated in exotic Buenos Aires, John J. seems to be dependent on a goofy set of conspirators that includes Ruben Blades as a cabbie named Miguel. One has the vague impression that Mr. Duvall and Mr. Blades are attempting to improvise an argumentative comedy act of some kind but failing to make plausible headway.

The intended victim is a former military despot who seems to be out of town indefinitely. John J. is provided with a derringer to do the job when and if lethal opportunity knocks. He repeatedly pleads for a high-powered rifle in order to shoot from a high tower that looks down conspicuously on the target’s back yard. Evidently, Miguel and friends aren’t stocking any weapons that are larger than the palm of your hand.

While soaking up the local color, John J. becomes enthralled with a tango dancer named Manuela, embodied by the less than smoldering Luciana Pedraza. A slim and handsome figure while dancing, Miss Pedraza clearly is a newcomer to the acting trade and betrays little urgency about acquiring some technique. Her voice definitely is a find of the giddy sort: a softly accented monotone that has an uncanny somnolent effect. Woody Allen could have used it to induce trances in “The Curse of the Jade Dragon.”

John J. and Manuela dabble in flirtation while she consents to guide him through a few tango lessons. She introduces him to other adepts, including a toothy sister. This widening circle of legit acquaintances in the tango community allows Mr. Duvall to neglect the hit-man business at considerable length. It’s difficult to deny that tango lore and imagery seem the far more civilized alternative. Because it doesn’t emerge as a decisive alternative, the movie’s weaknesses are never transcended.

It might be amusing if John J. decided to become a bigamist, splitting his time between Coney Island and Buenos Aires. After all, Manuela has a little girl who also could use a doting daddy. Unfortunately, the assassination suddenly is on again, and one gathers that being a pro makes John J. some kind of serial killer and wanted man in Buenos Aires. However, he has taken to wearing so many funny false beards that the authorities may be helpless. If memory serves, one of those beards may have originated with Woody Allen in “Bananas.”

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Mr. Duvall seems to be going tediously bananas in “Assassination Tango.” Trying to account for this deadly fiasco, one can surmise that he wanted to explore the aggressive and sensitive contradictions in a personality, the good as well as the bad, but no explanation will help rescue the movie from its inertia. Copywriters seem to have missed a chance at a classic synopsis: “He came. He danced. He killed. He left.”

+++++

ONE AND ONE-HALF STARS

TITLE: “Assassination Tango

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Robert Duvall. Cinematography by Felix Monti.

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

CAPTION(S):

Robert Duvall as hit man John J. Anderson dances with Luciana Pedraza as a tango instructor in “Assassination Tango.” [NO CREDIT]

Moving in Lock step: The Montreal choreographer changes his style

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Is middle age mellowing Canada’s onetime enfant terrible of contemporary dance? It’s a tempting question as 44-year-old Edouard Lock brings his latest creation, Salt, to Canada. The title, after all, refers to what remains “when the sea is gone,” according to Lock. But before anyone can draw a parallel with the drying up of creative juices, the lanky choreographer with the dark, brooding eyes dismisses the idea. Lock says he feels just as young as he ever did – and Salt, a critically acclaimed meditation on the relentless passage of time, shows no diminution in his art.

Born in Morocco to Spanish parents and raised in Montreal since he was 3, Lock founded his famed dance troupe, now called La La La Human Steps, in 1980. Montreal was then a cauldron of dance experimentation that would soon give it an international reputation. Lock rapidly achieved the almost unheard-of status of being simultaneously serious and popular. By 1985, when he unveiled his breakthrough work, Human Sex, he was being hailed by critics for his ability to create innovative movement in a mixed media package that combined film, live music, stage props, lighting and decor. Lock was more than a choreographer. He proved himself a theatrical magician, one ready to tap into the sensibility of the MTV generation. It was no surprise when David Bowie and later Frank Zappa hired him to bring flair to their tours.

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Human Sex was the beginning of what Lock calls his “extreme” phase, which continued with such works as New Demons (1987) and Infante, c’est destroy (1991). Everything about those pieces assaulted the senses: the loud rock music, the visual spectacle, the provocative imagery, the nudity and, above all, the movement. Lock’s choreography could switch without warning from a nonverbal language of hand gestures to seismic bursts that sent bodies hurtling horizontally through space in death- and gravity-defying body spins.

Through all this, one La La La dancer in particular refracted Lock’s vision, his muse and sometime lover, Louise Lecavalier. Her tough, sinewy body projected passion and a strangely asexual sensuality. With her muscles worked to exhaustion, Lecavalier became a lighting rod for Lock’s own brand of existential angst. “She put an inordinate amount of effort into everything and her discipline was certainly an attraction for me,” Lock once remarked. “It was – and is – a shared esthetic. For both of us, nothing else mattered.”

Lock’s extremism began to soften with his 1995 work, the enigmatically titled 2. It presented Lecavalier in two roles, as herself and as an old woman. Lock says 2 was a response to the death of his 85-year-old father. In it he confronted the poles of life and death, youth and old age. Lock says his choreography has continually evolved. “As I reject certain concepts and principles, others become more interesting to me.”

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Like all of Lock’s works, Salt – which had its Canadian premiAre in Ottawa on Jan. 29 and travelled to Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto through February – will change during the course of its planned two- year international tour. Although he has choreographed ballerinas in pointe shoes for such companies as the Dutch National Ballet and Les Grands Ballet Canadiens, Salt will be Lock’s first pointe work for the six women and four men of La La La. “It moves me more towards vertical movement. Pointe shoes divorce the wearer from the ground. They give the sense of not quite belonging to the space you’re dancing in.”

Lock could well be describing the effect his work has on audiences. As an artist who likes to challenge expectations, he takes people to another level of experience and rarely lets them down gently.

>>> View more: A Voice Raised in Joy

A Voice Raised in Joy

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Byline: Tracy McNicoll

How singer Fatoumata Diawara fought back against the Islamists overrunning Mali.

swaddled in a tendril of vivid scarves, like fireworks about her face, Fatoumata Diawara nurses an espresso in a corner banquette, all infectious triumph. Outside this cozy cafe near the Malian singer’s Paris home, gray figures hunch against an afternoon drizzle. Today in Mali, just over 2,000 miles due south, French forces are pursuing a campaign against al Qaeda-linked jihadists. And at long last, the storied desert city of Timbuktu is free. A cultural capital forever steeped in sound–where zealots had dared ban music itself–can sing again. But Diawara’s vanquishing verve isn’t strictly about the war, or not entirely.

As Islamist fighters flee northern Mali’s cities and dig into hideouts deep in the Sahel Desert, Diawara knows the war has yet to be won. (She once lets slip the word “victory,” only to reel it back quickly.) But that won’t stop her from savoring success today in more personal battles.

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On a December visit to Bamako, Mali’s capital, after long months touring Europe and North America to support her critically acclaimed debut album, the 30-year-old chanteuse issued a battle cry of her own. “I no longer recognized my country,” Diawara says. Inspired, she wrote a jangly guitar melody and called together an unprecedented musical supergroup. Forty of Mali’s top stars signed on. The blind husband-and-wife duo Amadou & Mariam, venerated songstress Oumou Sangare, legendary kora player Toumani Diabate, master ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate, and major Malian rappers joined in, with Ivory Coast’s Tiken Jah Fakoly adding his star power.

The result is “Mali-ko (Peace/La Paix),” a seven-minute song and video that blasts the fundamentalist conquest of the north and urges unity to quell resentment against the Tuareg minority whom some blame for abetting the incursion. “Our weapons were the only things we had: our guitars, our koras, our ngonis, to rap at the door,” Diawara says.

Of the jihadists then poised to descend on the capital, she says, “I didn’t know that France was going to intervene. The African Union wasn’t reacting, and those people were arriving with such force.” She had felt better informed living in Europe than while visiting Bamako, where news was scarce. “I needed to scream with this song, ‘Wake up! We are losing Mali! We are losing our culture, our tradition, our origins, our roots!’ ” Diawara says. “It was so strong in my heart and my soul. So when France intervened–I put out the record [just] days later–it was as if God had heard us.”

Mali, a landlocked West African nation that ranks among the world’s poorest, is home to some of the richest musical traditions in the world. The moral authority of music is difficult to overstate socially, culturally, or politically in a nation where, for centuries, the hereditary caste of griots, or traditional praise singers, has been charged with relaying oral history, resolving disputes, and performing at ceremonies. “Music is at the heart of everything,” Diawara explains. “When a couple is divorcing, to calm it one must call a griot to intervene with song to say don’t separate for the children,” she says. “With beautiful voices, people have heard messages better than with talk.”

A precious soft-power asset, Mali’s musicians are cultural ambassadors. The annual Festival in the Desert, near Timbuktu, enjoys cult statu

s with Western tourists and has featured guest performances by Robert Plant and Bono. Indeed, Mali, a wellspring of African-American blues (and, as such, currents of rock, jazz, and soul), is arguably a sort of ground zero for a wide swath of popular music.

“Without music, Mali is no longer Mali,” Diawara says. “And that power was in danger with the Islamists who wanted to stop the music.” Under the strict application of Sharia in the northern two thirds of the country under fundamentalist control, offenders are said to have been punished with public floggings, stonings, and amputations. And music was banned outright. Acting authorities reportedly issued beatings for cellphone ringtones, smashed instruments and recording equipment, and pledged to amputate musicians’ fingers. Timbuktu singer Khaira Arby has said fundamentalists threatened to cut out her tongue. Arby appears on “Mali-ko (Peace/La Paix),” belting out its first solo couplet: “Men and women of Mali, let’s stand together/Our country is not warlike.”

The irony of Diawara taking the lead in a musical bid to emancipate Mali and rescue its traditions isn’t lost on her. After all, Diawara emancipated herself first. Keen to break a cycle of oppressive custom, she fled Mali 10 years ago for Paris–with police in pursuit.

Born to Malian parents in Ivory Coast in 1982, Diawara performed in her father’s dance troupe as a child. At 12, her parents dispatched their rebellious daughter to Bamako hoping an actress aunt could keep her in line. Discovered on a movie set, Diawara began acting at 14, winning fame in popular West African films. At 18, she traveled to Paris for a stage role. But soon her family insisted she bow to custom and marry, even forcing her to announce on live television that she was quitting acting. When a French impresario traveled to Bamako to invite her to join the prestigious Royal de Luxe theater company, her family refused permission. So, at 20, Diawara ran away, boarding a flight to Paris before police could halt her.

“If I had let that slip by, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d have minimum nine children and be very, very old. Breasts sagging already. No job because I don’t have diplomas,” Diawara says. “I was going to be a homemaker, like plenty of other women who could change Mali’s history. But who, under pressure from family and tradition, don’t get to participate in the development of their country because they have other worries.”

Today, Diawara is married to an Italian man. (“We chose one another.”) She spent five years with Royal de Luxe and toured the world singing back-up and dancing for Oumou Sangare and Dee Dee Bridgewater. She has lent vocals to albums by Herbie Hancock and Bobby Womack. The eclectic Blur frontman Damon Albarn has borrowed Diawara’s chops for three recent projects, and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen chipped in on her own debut.

Diawara wrote every song on her album Fatou, a groovy mix of beats from her ancestral Wassoulou region, rock, pop, and folk. Singing in Bambara, in a warm timbre at turns silky and ragged, she strums first-person tales of alienated youth, desperate migrants, forced marriage, even female genital mutilation.
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Her songs aim, however gently, to change minds. “African women live through too much hell and suffering/We should look again at our ancestral beliefs and assess them/Keep what’s good for us and reject all that harms us,” she sings on “Boloko,” about female genital mutilation. “Life is short. Let women blossom for the little life that they have. I was excised–it brought me nothing, only problems,” she says.

“I had the chance to travel from a young age and a lot of people in Mali don’t have that chance. So it’s my duty to share my experience,” Diawara says. “I’ve seen that in Europe women fought to get to where they are.”

The songstress admits she waited in vain last year for Mali’s musical elders to call on her for a project like “Mali-ko.” Family members warned her against taking a risky political stand herself. Yet Diawara’s supergroup anthem seems to have resolved more than she planned. Her family, leery for years of her free-spirited career, had mostly come around–but their pride at her assembling true musical royalty is manifest. And she has proven something more. “I’m young, sure. But with what I have lived through, I can take on big responsibilities now. There was a point where I understood that and said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ ”

My tomboy heaven: let’s not be so quick to deem kids transgendered

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THE transgender trend has reached down to children. I wonder what people would have thought of my gender identity as a child. My experience says, yes, gender identity is complicated, but no, we shouldn’t be making life-changing decisions based on the impulses of kids.

In my earliest memory, I stand next to my mother, and there are strange women around her. I am outraged at being down here while everything interesting is going on up there.

My mother’s memory of this first and last cocktail party in our home is that, in a panic over the other faculty wives’ snottiness (they all lived in town, and we didn’t), she downed a couple strong ones early on and was too numb to intervene while my two siblings and I crumbled the unfamiliar potato chips onto the carpet and danced on them. Well, it was all for the best, she used to say years later.

The way-up there and the way-down here are more or less the story of my happy childhood. I loved grass and weeds and dirt and bugs and rodents and barnyard fowl, engineering- and transport-type toys that you spread out on the floor, and wrestling–with boys, because girls either didn’t follow the rules or didn’t put their will into it. Meanwhile, I could spend hours merely hunting sorrel to eat, or milkweed pods or other interesting seed-heads to take apart.

I didn’t actually hunt; I learned how to shoot with a rifle and a shotgun but hated killing animals and refused my father’s invitations to the hunting camp where he went with other faculty, and where women and girls were welcome. But I wasn’t suffered to be “prissy” about putting animals out of their misery–those hit on the road, for example: If I found it and could conveniently kill it, I had to. It was impressed on me how evil it was to indulge prim sensibility at the expense of another creature’s pain.

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I remember only once devoting serious time to a thoroughly girly toy. I owned (who knows why?–I certainly hadn’t asked for it) a prettily dressed and coiffed, battery-powered walking doll, and I switched it repeatedly on and off and stared at its rooted-looking shuffle, to try to understand why such objects might appeal to other girls. (My sister and I inherited a large collection of Barbies and their clothes from our teenage cousins, and my best friend Jessica had a Barbie car and a Ken-type doll–but not a real Ken: This one not only had a smooth, inauthentic crotch, but also sat with his legs at almost a 90-degree angle. I will leave to your hopefully inadequate imagination, gentle reader, what Caligulan perversions this and the bizarre shapes and tarty outfits of the female dolls prompted us to put the playthings through. Such, such were the joys …)

More than the ground and its denizens, I loved climbing, and I was very well circumstanced for that. We had only an acre and a quarter (plus another rented acre later on for my pony), but this had been the headquarters of a large farm, and our barn was a giant old one with the inscription CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO TREAT YOURSELF TO THE BEST on one end. Up above the chew was a tiny window reachable by a ladder from one hayloft. A small platform, really just a perch, in front of the window allowed you to sit and keep watch for a mile or so, across the fields and down the highway to the university’s forest, used for biology teaching and research.

That forest contained my usual targets for climbing, the timber that, though second-growth, was untouched for many decades and thus densely set and massive. What contributed a lot to my sense of good luck in being alive was my great diversity of options for nice places to read. I could of course lie on a shed floor or in the weeds and read, out of the way and undisturbed. But the forest had a number of thick and sturdy wild grape vines that could be used almost like hammocks. I recall seeking out a favorite vine at the age of–maybe–14 to see what all this fuss over Leaves of Grass was about. Not much, in my opinion; I sympathized, and still do, with John Greenleaf Whittier, who threw his copy into the fire. The only thing that proved painful about my study of ancient languages, which started at 16, was that the books were so big that you needed to keep them flat on a table or desk.

Even when I went to the woods to read, I would also make a lunatic expedition up some monstrous oak or maple; up past thick foliage to where there was an actual view; to where you would sway in the wind; to where you couldn’t stay long, because there was a raptor nest nearby and the mother was circling you and screaming.

My parents knew all this but didn’t intervene, partly because of an episode from my toddlerhood. To help me and my siblings climb to our tree house, they had installed a rope ladder. I fell off the ladder and broke my left arm at the elbow, the type of injury that in toddlers usually comes from an assault, not a fall. Several of my cousins, summer guests, had witnessed the fall, so the inquiry quickly reached an impasse. “Well, what’s a four-year-old doing climbing a tree?” the social worker asked my mother. My mother replied that I had been climbing for years.

In fact, part of the post-op physical-therapy solution, to start the bone and muscle growing again and keep the arm from withering, was more climbing, and a pair of gymnastic rings hung between the kitchen and the laundry room, where I was allowed to twist and ricochet and roll through the air at will. I was never told anything that would make me fearful, and especially nothing that would lead me to favor the left arm. (“You are strong,” gasped the amateur mountain climber, a Swiss fellow resident of the graduate dormitory at Harvard a decade and a half later. He had won our arm-wrestling match, but not easily.)

Of course I hated girly clothes, which would have proven highly impractical and embarrassing. But I didn’t stand out: This was a rural community, teeming with tomboys encouraged to develop the toughness and versatility they would need as farmwives. What proved embarrassing was my freakish decision, one day in sixth grade, to wear a dress to school. People identify a boy in a photo of me at 13, wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap.

But I now rack my brain for a juncture, in all of that, when I doubted I was meant to be female or wanted to be male. Thank God no one suggested it, given my (stereotypically female) taste for drama. These days, a girl such as I was can easily be induced to change her name, pointedly cross-dress, delay puberty with powerful drugs, and demand mutilation and sterilization, to the profit and aggrandizement of gender-identity consultants.

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The greatest bliss of my life comes from the chance to work out gender roles for myself, complicated as they are: so that I can display to my husband Tom the tree-stump root system–like a deformed giant squid–I’ve dug up with my bare hands; and so that he can present me with his latest coleslaw variation, bragging, “I am a river to my people.”

Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar at Brown University.