Mind over Matter

I'm 43 years old (in human years); you'd think I'd know the symptoms. After all, I've been living with them for the better part of thirty years. A general feeling of heaviness both of body and mind; my thoughts disjointed; inability to make decisions; susceptibility to bogus Facebook flurries (see twiflash); lack of focus in my thinking; lack of direction in my work; rambling and incomprehensible blog posts: yes, it's that time of the month. I notice it most at fencing practice. Just days ago, over the weekend, I was feeling at the top of my game, able to see the moves that I needed to make; able to keep my distance, make my attacks. But on Tuesday, it was as if I'd never fenced before. There I was, dazzled by the twirly-twirly blade work some of the younger fencers were using, not able to make even a simple counter-beat in my lesson. I, literally, hadn't the foggiest notion what to do. If only I could think my way out of it.

Except that I couldn't. It's not like being sick. Being sick feels alien; one knows one's body has been invaded by something else. This just feels--horrible to think!--normal. It's only in retrospect that one realizes it was only temporary, at least, only temporary for now. It will happen again, like moon-rise, in another 28 days or so. Do I embrace it or fight it? The interesting thing is, I was never so aware of the symptoms as I am now until I started fencing. I don't mean the crabbiness and the cramps; those are--and have always been--all too obvious. Plus, there are plenty of jokes about them.* But suddenly losing one's ability to make an attack because the focus and aggression simply aren't there: that was a new one on me, until I started putting 2 and 2 together and coming up with the dreaded answer, "Hormones."

None of this is supposed to be true! I am a modern woman (a.k.a. fencing bear). I have a career and prestige and a public persona. I have competed with men all my life, academically and professionally; I am one of only fourteen women in a department of forty-four. I am a mother and a professor; a wife and a colleague. I am not daunted by the thought that I am female. And yet, there on the strip in my pre-menstrual daze, I wonder. Is this why it is so hard for women to fight for equal rights? Once a month, we simply lose the desire to compete. Or, if not the desire--I was there at practice on Tuesday and I'm going tonight with my friend Badger--then the wherewithal to do so.

I'm writing about this now because I don't seem to be able to think about anything else. I could blame it on yesterday's Facebook distraction (see above), but then why did I allow myself to be suckered in by such an obvious hoax? Okay, some of my men friends were, too, so it can't be only that my concentration is all over the place. But Wednesdays are usually a good day for me to do a post and I just couldn't yesterday evening. (I spent it reading Malcolm Gladwell's newest foray into Big Explanations; this time he's taking on social and historical context as an explanation for success. I wonder how this correlates with Nassim Taleb's black swan thesis.) It's been a long month (see previous blog posts) and I'm understandably tired. Plus, I'm worried about some of my loved ones (see Monday's prayer); and, of course, I'm missing our cat. (The ashes arrived in something that looks like nothing more than a cookie tin. We really need to find a proper urn.) But the truth of the matter is, none of this would be affecting me in quite the same way if I weren't, yes, female.

Nature or nurture? Social construction or biology? I have never been able to believe that my gender (in the sense of my social character) was all in my head; it's days like this that make me all the more certain. Some of it is in my body. Or, as my sister would caution me, not "in my body" more so than "in my mind," but a manifestation of my self as an embodied mind. At certain points in my cycle, I can fence, if not like a man, then like my best self: decisive, clear-thinking, swift moving, aggressive without being angry, calm and yet able to act. On days like Tuesday, it's as if I am literally a different person. No matter how hard I try to think myself into the proper mood, it just isn't there. It doesn't matter if I'm rested or excited or otherwise having a good day. I just can't see what to do.

And, then, suddenly, in a day or two, the fogginess is gone and it is as if it had never been. This lightening does not always correlate in any obvious way with other elements of my cycle (please, I don't have to go into that, do I?), which is one of the reasons it took me so long to appreciate. Which then makes me wonder: when am I ever really myself? Is it when I am at my best or as now, when I can barely think straight? Somehow, I'm both. Which I suppose is the definition of being Woman.

[UPDATE: Even thinking about this post now that I'm working makes me hesitate. Perhaps I'm just making excuses about my fencing on Tuesday. Don't men have "off" days, too? But I know it's different. My off-days are just too regularly spaced....]

*Thanks to my son for this reference.


  1. I know you know this podcast--check out again the Testosterone program of This American Life.
    Lack of testosterone does bring lack of competitiveness--and the sense of things being indiscriminately beautiful...
    PMS is not caused by a surge of hormones but actually a drop. Women are at the focus peak when their hormone levels are higher.


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