Mid-Age Mutant Ninja Hurdles (Really, Jo?)
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
Unless you identify as female, or have a female partner, mother, sister, daughter, or close female friend you probably don’t want to read this one. Just skip down to Paul's nice photos, read about wicked-cool parrot fish sex, watch my nerdy, parrot fish, rap video, and then get on with your femme-vacant life. Or just click here and read about the animal with the longest penis relative to body size. Really, It’s OK. But for anyone else, I’m writing this now because I wish someone had written it for me. And because parrot fish sexuality can school us mere humans on a thing or two.
Sex education in the US, as I experienced it, is shameful, and I mean that in every sense of the word. If you were a kid in the 1970’s rural South like me you were kept in the taboo-dark when you asked about those mysterious, wrapped packages that older sisters kept on a high shelf in the single bathroom. (The bathroom that one always had to wait for. Hence my ease at peeing in the woods . . . or lilacs.) You also believed your older friends who told you babies came from the supermarket. (I never looked at heads of cabbage the same way again and lived in fear of accidentally swallowing a watermelon seed.*) Then, when menstruation arrived, if you were like me, you may have felt like the grass-stained-rug of Tom-boy freedom got yanked out from under your filthy-healthy feet. (What?! Among other limitations and horrid cramps, no swimming for an entire week every month?! What?! Boys could suddenly beat me at running hurdles? No one prepared me for that!)
If you were like teenage me in the 80’s you may also have found yourself in Driver’s Education class beside a couple peers with fetally-distended bellies and dumbfounded at the scheduling of Driver’s Ed before Sex Ed. (Not that we really learned much practical stuff when we finally did have it. Sex Ed, that is, but my cohort and I can work a stick shift, baby!) And, of course, if (Ha! Gotcha. When) you became sexually active like me and weren’t married then you carried around an emotional scarlet letter of guilt for your own biology. Well into the ‘90’s there was still shame around possessing a noticeably fertile, female body so you, like me, may have had to keep it under loose-fitting wraps so as not to make anyone uncomfortable. It wasn’t until I was almost 30 and a nursing mother that I felt like I had a body that was acceptable to society at large. Well, as long as I went into nip-hiding every few hours when my son was hungry. (What’s the deal? I mean, guys have nipples too, ya know.) At that point, if you were a young, sleepless, and neurotic mom like me, you may have landed in a traditional marriage where suddenly it wasn’t just OK to have sex, you were EXPECTED to. Not exactly an aphrodisiac for an exhausted and contrary woman at the end of the day. (Sorry, fellas, if you’re actually reading this, but I warned you.) Then, for me, there was the repressed, public high school, Biology teaching position I took in which I had to promise to teach “Abstinence-Only” during the sex ed component. (Seriously? What are we? A bunch of hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys with our hands occluding our common sense?) Fortunately for my hormone-bound students I had my fingers crossed under the table when I got hired and so didn’t teach them, like the good textbook said, that their natural urges were shameful. (Absurd details on that interview at the end of this post.**)
(Pics of me: free-wheelin' Pre-reproductive, Reproductive, and Don't-Give-A-F#%K Post-reproductive)
What was next? Ah! Thirty-something divorce, and a raging libido coupled with sexual freedom (Yippie!) in a new millennium, yet still a surprising amount of double-standard, slut-shaming (Come on, fellas!?!). I was fortunate, though, and found myself turning 40 with the man who has since grown into being the mutually aggravating (think sand in an oyster who twitches and grows a pearl) love of my life. Boom. Done. Check. Happily-ever-after and all that smooth elevator jazz now that I had everything figured out. No more shame-filled surprises, right? I just need to accept that wrinkles, sags, and a husky voice will happen along with maybe some hot flashes and darker mustache-zone fuzz, right? Ha! Did I mention that sex ed in our country is abysmal? You see, no one told me that with menopause’s blessed loss of blood loss (Yeah! I’ll be less of a shark magnet.) there also come some serious hurdles to . . . let’s just call it intimacy to be polite. WTF?! Seriously? I just finally got in the groove, so to speak. Hmmm. Time to consult the fishes. Parrot fish to be specific. Just go with me on this.
If you’ve snorkeled or dived anywhere in the tropics you’ve seen parrot fish. My above, leading illustration shows the distinguishing features of the 5 species found here in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. A few of the nearly 100 species worldwide are a cute, diminutive 5 inches (Guys, if you’re reading this, DON’T read into that.) while others attain a whopping 4 feet. Like everyone in the wrasse family they have a funny looking swim-gait since they don’t really move their tails but use their pectoral fins to sort of kayak-paddle along. Parrot fish are most recognizable though by their beaky, fused teeth that they employ to scrape yummy algae from rock and coral reefs. Parrot fish used to get a bad ecological rap since we wrongly believed that they were eating live coral polyps. It turns out, however, that the vast majority of species are actually herbivores who HELP the growth of corals by scraping off suffocating, fast-growing algae and sponges from them! (Paul's pic below shows a Blueline/Bluechin scraping algae from a brain coral.)
In fact, we now know that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef relies solely on parrot fish as cleaners since they are the only species there who eat algae off of coral. Parrot fish also perform the ecological duty of bioerosion. Essentially, with each scrape of algae a little bit of rock or stony-coral skeleton is also scraped off and swallowed, providing nice sandy islands and beaches. For real. A single large humphead parrot fish can poop out 90kg (200 lbs.) of clean sand yearly for your annual beach vacation! On average, among parrot fish scrapers, they each excrete 250g (9 oz) of sumptuous sand per day.
OK, I know you’re fishing for parrot fish sexuality and I’m definitely getting there, but first, consider their miraculous mucus! (Get a postcard NOW, write just that sentence on the back, and send it to someone you love.) See Paul’s photo below and notice that there’s some sort of gauzy film over that sleeping, Azure parrot fish’s head:
That’s a self-made, mucus-body-wrapper which is employed at night to cover their scent so they can rest without a hungry eel or shark sniffing around. And way better than our flu-season snot, parrot fish slime is packed with antioxidants that help repair wounds and repel parasites. (Hmmm . . . Perhaps it should be studied as a menopause cream? I mean, not so much for the parasites, though.) Alright class, it’s time for parrot fish sex ed!
When you’re snorkeling and spy a parrot fish it’s likely the big, gaudy, bright-colored male who gets your initial attention. But hover there a while and you’ll notice that he's corralling a harem of smaller, duller-colored females. That big, showy male is guarding the ladies to make sure no challenging males or . . . get this . . . sneaky fuckers (Sorry, but I swear that’s the original scientific term for kleptogamy) swoop in. You see, kleptogamy is when fertile, beta dudes disguised as dudettes sneak in and blend in to try and spawn with an alpha male’s harem. That’s all pretty interesting but if you ask me the coolest thing is that every single male parrot fish started out as female! (Paul's pic below shows a terminal phase male at top and a female transitioning into a male at bottom . . . or wait! Is she/he really a sneaky fucker sneaking in to his harem?!)
Yep. Parrot fish, and wrasses in general, are trans-gendered. Technically they are sequential hermaphrodites - starting life as one sex and later changing into the opposite. Just like human females, sexually mature female (Initial Phase) parrot fish have a lot of estrogen (in the form of estradiol . . . the same stuff I recently tried rubbing into the skin of my arm to get back some of my own female receptivity and immediately threw out with a mad flourish since it made me feel like I was a crampy, moody 13-year-old again!). In later life, as the harem’s leading male becomes less able to make male testosterone and fish-specific II-ketotestosterone, one of the older female’s biochemistry responds by ceasing to make estrogen in favor of, you guessed it, testosterone and II-ketotestosterone. Now she/they/he becomes the (Terminal Phase) sperm-making lord of the harem! And we humans thought we created the sex-change when quite a number of animals have been doing it for millions of years! In honor of these marvels of mutability I made a rap (and a glorious fool of myself) about parrot fish in the Sea of Cortez:
Here’s the next part you squeamish peeps may want to skip. So, you ask, what has menopausal-me learned from swimming with these graceful, mutating parrot fish that can help me with my new struggles with intimacy? It’s simple to comprehend, just not easy for us control-hungry humans to do. I simply need to let go of how I WAS (fertile-phase female) and accept, even welcome, the changes as they become what IS (non-fertile-phase, alpha female . . . thank you). Much human suffering comes, I believe, from fighting inevitable change.
Take for example your past teenage self and your feisty family. You are not that kid anymore. Not even at a cellular/neurological level.*** That kid-you is as good as dead, and thank goodness, right? That’s why going home for the holidays can be so aggravating. Your family members are fighting the fact of your change from that self-centered, reactive, goofball kid you once were (well, speaking for myself) and so they continue treat you as if you were still that person when you’re not. And of course, you tend to do the same to them regarding their past selves and thus we all simmer and suffer when instead we should be enjoying our green-bean casserole and cranberries. Humans, in our own ways, are also mutable. If we can simply allow ourselves and others to change, to mutate like parrot fish do, whether it’s biological, cultural, emotional, political, etc. we’d all be a lot more accepting and joyful. Of course, regarding the changes that come with menopause, our culture generally reveres females only when we’re in our curvaceous, sexually receptive phase as opposed to our wise and wrinkled phase.
I don’t know about you but in my American-woman fertile years I spent an enormous amount of time and energy focused on sex. I mean it. If my culture taught me one thing early on about sex and female sexuality it was that getting/having it, respectively, was the only way someone could love me. I devoted an embarrassing amount of energy trying to meet the narrow parameters of what a desirable woman “should” look like (thanks again to my cultural steeping). I also spent a lot of my life energy on choosing partners, trying not to get pregnant, then trying to get pregnant, carrying and then nurturing a child (The last I surely do not regret). Now I’m free of all that hormone-driven WANT and desire. I have some wisdom that comes from experience and more time and energy to give to conservation work, including writing and illustrating this blog to share with you some of the incredible life on this watery planet. Personally, I think I am now ready to welcome my new, less overtly fertile-female and less sex-focused self into existence. Intimacy, after all, doesn’t need to be narrowly experienced through any one act. (And the fact that it has been culturally presented that way and over emphasized and romanticized has screwed us all up, men and women, IMO.)
But I am going to need to be a Taoist warrior in order to battle a society that says I now have a female “problem” and need to do something (AKA buy something) to “fix” it. I plan to ignore, and even defy, those targeted messages on my phone that sends me lists like “10 things you should never wear over 50”. So, if you see my current, feral, braless self out dancing, with turkey-wattle-arms and elephant-wrinkled knees showing below a brightly colored mini-sundress that would rival a flashy male parrot fish’s hues . . . oh well. It’ll be a sign that I’m giving up trying to control my changing body; control being an illusion anyway. Admittedly, though (and this understandably confuses Paul), I’ll likely keep using a razor to ninja-battle leg hair and keep swiping a sword of lipstick across my smile whenever I venture out into the wilds of “civilization” for groceries. Perhaps some cultural expectations are just too much to overcome . . . unless you’re a parrot fish. (Paul's video of me evidently breaking the dancing law in Mexico:)
* Our kid selves try so hard to make rational sense of all the nonsense we’re told. Take my lifelong avoidance of watermelon seeds: Here’s the conflicting information kid-me was given as to where babies come from: 1. They come from the supermarket. (Thanks Mark Driver) 2. Mothers-to-be carry their growing babies in their tummies. (Firsthand observation.) 3. If you eat a black watermelon seed a baby will grow in your tummy. (Thanks sister Henri(etta)) Naturally, my mind went: OK, adults don’t mean that babies directly come from the supermarket. It’s indirect in that you buy a watermelon at the A & P, swallow a seed, and then you grow a baby.
** Oh, gosh, the absurdity of that job interview. It was another of those times that I thought I was going to die of laughter. I was all but hired but the very conservative superintendent of schools insisted on a final grilling of anyone being hired. So, there I sat, in his fancy, round, ground-level office with large floor-to-ceiling windows behind the Super’s back. They provided me with a pleasing view of the wild Sonoran desert, again, behind his back. As he was asking me that question about teaching abstinence-only (and I swear I’m not making this up) a female and very eager-to-mate male Gambel’s Quail showed up at the base of the window. The excited male actually backed the female up against the glass, mounted her back, and began to wobble thrust his head into the window with his ridiculous-looking topknot, doodle-bob, head thingy flop-banging over and over into the glass. I couldn’t stifle an irony-induced laugh and ended up pointing out the scene to the Super. He did not seem amused, but I did get the job.
*** For a human’s essential guide to the neurobiological reasons we do what we do and how and why we change, check out Stanford neuroscientist Robert M. Sapolsky’s astonishingly readable BEHAVE: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.