I’ve consumed quite a bit of the post-Elliot Rodger online literature: #NotAllMen and #YesAllWomen and women’s reactions to #NotAllMen and men’s reactions to #YesAllWomen and women’s reactions to men’s reactions to #YesAllWomen and rape culture and slut culture and mental illness and gun rights and casual misogyny and gendered violence and media portrayals and objectification and on and on down the wormhole of a pingpong game that is the internet after a tragedy. Until the next celebrity says something racist, at least.
I’ve been clicking on articles more than I usually do whenever a grand national outrage is playing out, and by and large, I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen that’s gone viral all the way from bigger, more mainstream outlets like Slate, to smaller blogs about dating in nerd culture. (I ignore MRA and PUA in the same spirit I do birthers and Holocaust deniers.) Basically, the popular sentiment seems to be: “Misogyny and rape culture are real and insidious problems. We can’t derail this conversation by saying what happened is only about mental health and gun access. We, as a society, need to do better.”
I have read many a beautiful rallying cry for just that, penned by men and women alike. Good job, America. The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one…still.
Over the past week, I have also read some things that just…landed slightly askew. Left a very subtle aftertaste that I couldn’t identify but didn’t like. And on the surface, it was hard to say why something was off and it was difficult to distinguish from the rest of the pack that seemed to be saying exactly the same thing. But then I came across this blog, entitled “A Gentleman’s Guide to Rape Culture” which was shared over and over on my Facebook news feed, and it crystalized for me. This is by far the most overt and extreme example I’ve found, but what it made me realize was this:
Dude. You’re trying too hard. And it’s not helping.
To the author of this post (whose main points I will summarize below): Hey man, you’re ok by me. In fact, I think you’re more enlightened than most. But I also think you’re being less helpful than you think you are. And because you seem to be a respectful, introspective guy who is willing to listen and expand his views, I’ll tell you why.
The hastag #NotAllMen seemed to arise from the hysterical (lulz) defensive reaction of all the “good guys” out there who don’t post novella-length screeds against women and then go out and murder people. “Not all men rape!” “Not all men are misogynists!” “Not all men hate women!” And to that, most of the media and women everywhere said, “Yeah, great. Everybody knows. We’re not fucking talking about you. Calm down.”
The author of the “Gentleman’s Guide”— who identifies himself as Zaron— says that all men, even the “good” ones crying no rape, participate in and perpetuate rape culture. Which is undoubtedly true. But he’s missing the other piece of the puzzle, which is that just about all women also participate in and perpetuate rape culture, actively or passively. You do it. I do it. I make a snarky comment about a girl whose dress is really revealing. I ignore misogynistic comments in the workplace. I consume media that objectifies women…which is basically all of it. I’m not perfect and I never will be. I can only be more aware. Rape culture isn’t a bunch of individual assholes fucking things up for the rest of us; it’s a structure that we all have to live inside and navigate through.
So after Zaron makes that point, things start to go off the rails a bit. He continually says things like:
But just imagine moving through the world, always afraid you could be raped.
I’ve come to learn that women spend most of their social lives with ever-present, unavoidable feelings of vulnerability. Stop and think about that. Imagine always feeling like you could be at risk, like you were living with glass skin.
A woman must consider where she is going, what time of day it is, what time she will arrive at her destination and what time she will leave her destination, what day of the week is it, if she will be left alone at any point … the considerations go on and on because they are far more numerous than you or I can imagine.
73% of the time a woman knows her rapist. Now, if she can’t trust and accurately assess the intentions of men she knows, how can you expect her to ever feel that she can accurately assess you, a complete stranger?
When I cross a parking lot at night and see a woman ahead of me, I do whatever I feel is appropriate to make her aware of me so that a) I don’t startle her b) she has time to make herself feel safe/comfortable and c) if it’s possible, I can approach in a way that’s clearly friendly, in order to let her know I’m not a threat. I do this because I’m a man.
Basically, I acknowledge every woman I meet on the street, or in an elevator, or in a stairway, or wherever, in a way that indicates she’s safe. I want her to feel just as comfortable as if I weren’t there. I accept that any woman I encounter in public doesn’t know me, and thus, all she sees is a man — one who is suddenly near her. I have to keep in mind her sense of space and that my presence might make her feel vulnerable.
At this point, I became unclear as to whether Zaron was talking about actual, real, live women or just very, very skittish horses who drive cars and live inside.
I cannot speak for all women, but I do not live my life around the fear of getting raped or assaulted or hassled. (I mostly live it around the fear of not being able to pay rent and/or making my parents regret paying for my education.) I do not conduct myself in social situations with an “ever-present, unavoidable” feeling of vulnerability. I don’t cringe and wither away from men I “meet on the street, or in an elevator, or in a stairway, or wherever” because I’m an adult who has to move though the world and get shit done. My skin is not glass. I am not fragile. I am not afraid of you. I don’t need you to make me aware of you in a parking lot. I don’t need you to acknowledge me benignly as I pass. I don’t want you to approach me in a way that is “clearly friendly”— whatever that means— in order to avoid “startling” me. What I need you to do, all you well-intentioned nice guys out there, is not treat me differently from other human beings simply because I’m a woman.
And here’s the real problem I have with this:
While this view is sensitive and empathetic, it rather unhelpfully casts women as weak, scared others in a perpetual state of potential victimhood. Delicate creatures not to be startled. “Shh! Look at the woman. Looklooklook. So mysterious and beautiful. No sudden rapey movements! You’ll scare her!”
This “vulnerable” state is one that necessitates that the good, enlightened men do something to protect us from the other “bad” men who want to catcall and hassle and assault us. (More on what Zaron thinks about that in a moment.) It also allows all the #NotAllMen men to still feel powerful, still feel in charge, and still be dominant over the brittle, frightened creatures they have sworn to protect. “I could rape you, but look how much I’m making an effort to show you I won’t!”
Dude. Just…be a person. Like yeah, I could stab you in face but I’m not gonna be all, “Hey, I’m NOT gonna to stab you in the face!” because then you’d be all, “…why are you thinking about stabbing me in the face at all??!”
Zaron goes on to lay out his philosophy for taking action when he sees men giving women a hard time.
When I’m out in public and I see a man hassling a woman, I stop for a moment. I make sure the woman sees me. I want her to know I’m fully aware of what’s happening. I wait for a moment for a clear indication from her of whether she needs help. Sometimes, the couple will continue right on fighting like I’m just a hickory tree. Other times, the woman will make it clear she’d like backup and I approach the situation. I’ve never had to get violent. Usually, my presence alone makes the guy leave if he’s a stranger, or explain himself if they’re familiar. It changes the dynamic. That’s why I always stop when I see a woman getting hassled in public. For any reason. I make sure any woman, in what could become a violent situation, one I may or may not be correctly assessing, feels that she has the opportunity to signal to me if she needs assistance.
Ok. A lot going on here. First of all, kudos to you for being willing to break up an abusive situation in public. A lot of people go all jelly-legged when a fellow human being needs help. Though…I’m not sure that a couple yelling at one another in public qualifies. It’s pretty gauche, sure, but it’s also…not your business? Again, when you assume that any female you see alone is in need of reassurance that she’s safe, and now that any female you see interacting with a male in an antagonistic (but not physically threatening) way needs some back up… How are you not perpetuating gender stereotypes and undercutting women’s agency again?
And yes, a lot of the time when you see a woman getting hit on or pestered, she’s not super happy it’s happening. And if you intervene, she might be grateful. She also might be embarrassed at the probable scene you, a stranger, are going to cause on her behalf, for what seems like no reason, since this shit happens to her all the time. If some guy were trying to get my number at a bar, or if I was fighting with my boyfriend in public, and some random guy started in with the whole, “Do we have a problem here?” schtick, I would be pretty pissed. It’s like if a stranger came over and ordered for you at a restaurant.
Good for you if you break up something scary and real. Thank you for stepping up. But 99% of the time, you’re going to be white-knighting and participating in the same male-dictated power dynamic that led to the guy hassling her in the first place.
The reason why is akin to the motivation behind not using “I have a boyfriend” as an excuse to get a guy to stop hitting on you. This article explains it better than I could, so give it a read. Here’s the gist:
Male privilege is “I have a boyfriend” being the only thing that can actually stop someone from hitting on you because they respect another male-bodied person more than they respect your rejection/lack of interest.
(Caveat: If you feel physically unsafe, you say whatever the fuck you need to get yourself out of the situation.)
So you see where I’m going with this. By intervening on a woman’s behalf, by, as Zaron says, “changing the dynamic” of the situation, you are inserting yourself as the authority and speaking for what the woman “really” wants and needs but can’t get on her own because she’s a woman. “Hey buddy, let’s leave the lady alone.” Subtext: “You respect me, a man, so you’ll listen to me.”
It’s a way for men to not check their privilege, to continue to speak for and over women, while still feeling like the good guy. Everybody wins! (Everyone that matters, anyway!)
And it’s not purposeful. It’s coming from the right place. And it’s a start— using your privilege to help a woman rather than bully and demean her. But it’s not solving the underlying problem because male power and privilege don’t actually shift; they just get redirected. It doesn’t fix anything except for men not having to face all the ugly, hard-hitting, inward-facing truths that were unearthed by Elliot Rodger this week.
I’m not saying, “Don’t help women in uncomfortable situations.” I’m saying, “Help everyone in uncomfortable situations.” And I’m certainly not saying that these are not problems that we all need to be addressing in everyday situations because we live in a culture where it’s basically socially acceptable to badger a woman for conversation, for her number, for sex, and then to despise her when she doesn’t give it to you. Or despise her because she does give it to you or because she gives it to someone else— that slut.
These are real problems. If I’m wearing not-pants, I get catcalled almost every day in New York City. I’ve been told to smile, baby more times than I care to give the finger to. I’ve had to tell men no, no, really, no, thank you, I’m not interested, I don’t want a drink— yes, I drink, but I don’t want you to buy me one. I’ve had to ask, “You assume that if I didn’t have a boyfriend, I would go for you?” I’ve been called a bitch, an ice princess, a heart breaker, a dick— because men didn’t get what they wanted from me. I’ve been slut shamed. I’ve been sexually assaulted. And almost none of these affronts were from strangers, and not all of them were from men.
Look, Zaron. You’ve got the right idea. But when you start talking about how women are and how they feel and how they feel about men…I get sorta like…you know that scene in Mean Girls?
It’s not your conversation. But please continue to listen. We want you on our side, but we don’t need you out in front. We don’t need saviors. We don’t need Misogyny Police who can “take it from here.” We all, men and women, have to do better and hold one another more accountable. We don’t need men to “fix it” for us. You can put the white horse away.
I didn’t always keep my nails long and neat. For most of my childhood, I bit them to nubs whenever my hands weren’t otherwise occupied. I never thought of myself as an anxious person, but really, all of my anxiety over the years just ended up sublimated as nail biting, jaw clenching, and back tension. Apparently I’m a basket case, but only an autopsy could prove it.
My grandmothers had long, manicured nails during my childhood. They both had acrylics− but good ones− and went regularly to the salon to have their polish changed. That I devoured my own nails to the point of drawing blood was distressing to both of them, and though my dad’s mother tried many times to shame me out of my habit, my mom’s mother− Nanny, as my brother and I called her− was the one who finally got me to break it. Nanny promised that if I stopped biting my nails, she would take me to get them done for the first time ever for my birthday. I was turning eleven.
This was inescapably alluring. For as long as I could remember, I had heard my grandmother talk about Candy, the woman who did her nails. It seemed like she saw Candy as often as she saw us, and I realize now, knowing about how long a typical manicure lasts, that she probably went every two or three weeks for years and years.
While both my dad’s mother and Nanny had manicured nails, my dad’s mother’s didn’t strike me as being nearly as pretty or classy. Hers were less likely to be brilliantly shiny and brightly painted, and about three hundred times more likely to have bits of raw meat stuck under them. She was a fantastic cook, but she learned to make everything from her mother, who was a poor immigrant, and who, I can only surmise, never had enough money to purchase any cooking utensils. Everything from ground beef to salad was mixed by hand, and often by the same hand after being perfunctorily wiped with a dishtowel. Nanny, on the other hand, had plenty of spoons and tongs, and nails that reflected this luxury.
Given the current fad of painting the ring finger nail a different color or decorating it in some way, I have to say that Nanny− or maybe Candy− was way ahead of her time. I remember marveling one Christmas Eve at her freshly refurbished hands, the nail on the ring finger of one of them encrusted with a little Christmas tree made out of tiny jewels. I boggled at the miniature work of art on her finger, which she had expressly shown me, knowing I would be delighted. How could I not accept Nanny’s challenge not to bite my nails when so many wonders awaited me at Candy’s Nail Salon?
Somehow, I managed not to bite my nails for a sufficient amount of time, and Nanny took me to Candy’s for my birthday. I was stoked as I climbed into her tan Toyota station wagon− a car I later inherited− not knowing how long the journey would take or which exotic neighboring suburb we were bound for.
When we pulled up to the salon, I was shocked that I knew exactly where it was. It was a small “cottage” with aluminum siding and a large gravel parking lot slightly recessed from a busy road that ran through the middle of our town. I had passed this very place what felt like a million times before and could have given someone directions to some of the more notable buildings around it.
My surprise only deepened when we walked in, up a few plywood stairs, and I could see that the splendid entirety of Candy’s Nail Salon was two or three manicure stations and a back area that housed a small bathroom and one tanning bed. I assume there was also somewhere for pedicures to be done, but that escapes my memory. The floors were tan tile, the kind you might find in the halls of an old school.
Where were the fancy ladies and complimentary champagne? Where was the soothing classical music piped in over the state-of-the-art sound system? And where were the people gliding around in robes with green faces and cucumbers over their eyes? This was all, quite frankly, very unexpected.
Candy herself was a loquacious, bubbly, overweight woman dressed in jeans and an old men’s-style dress shirt that might have had a Looney Toons character embroidered on the pocket. And she was a Yinzer!− meaning she spoke with an abhorrent Pittsburghese accent. If you’ve never heard a Pittsburghese accent, imagine if a Cockney person grew up in West Virginia, and you might get somewhere near an approximation of the awfulness. When Candy laughed, she did so with the characteristic wheeze of a longtime smoker.
Surely, this was wrong. Surely, this was where my other grandmother got her nails done− not my sophisticated Nanny. She was the most cultured person I knew by a long shot. Throughout my childhood and beyond, she was the source of nearly every artistic experience I had. The ballet, symphony, museums, musicals− all Nanny’s idea. She gave me books to read that she thought I’d like. She’d clip out interesting articles and poems for me from magazines or the newspaper. When we were at her place, the only radio station ever playing was the public one that broadcast classical music exclusively. That meant something when you were eleven. It spoke of elevation. Distinction. Taste.
Not only was what she did classy, but to my young eyes, her appearance was as well. Her house− and later, her apartment− was always spotless, the lone exception being a stain or two on a piece of upholstery from being neglectful while eating her beloved chocolate popsicles, usually because she was reading something. She dressed nicely, rarely wore jeans, and had a seemingly endless cache of sleek, quiet jewelry, which she wore every day. She didn’t wear much makeup, but I would almost never see her without her hair done and earrings on. She hummed or whistled vague, familiar melodies almost constantly; I assumed that if I were better educated in the world of classical music, I could identify them. She said “white” with the aspirated “H”. Even when she chewed gum and would save it for later, she would demurely stick the little green or white marble of gum to a porcelain dish in the kitchen or by her chair, one that was placed there expressly for that purpose.
Kids bounce back pretty fast, they say, and I got over my shock quickly enough to have Candy do my nails. Truly, she was a very good nail technician. I picked a powder blue color, which she applied so flawlessly that it had an almost mirror shine.
“You want some jewels or something, hun?” Candy asked as we finished up.
Oh, sweet lord, did I ever! I hadn’t dared to imagine that on my very first manicure I could ask for− let alone be so casually offered− jewels for my nails. Candy expertly placed three little black faceted stones in a diagonal parade across the ring finger nail of my right hand. It was perfection.
Nanny smiled at me, humming and chewing gum.
Seeing where Nanny got her nails done was perhaps the first key to unlocking my multi-stage understanding of who she was as a person, not just a grandmother. Yes, she was a sophisticated lady, but she was a sophisticated lady living in the suburbs of a small, Midwesternish city. Yes, she loved classical music, but she also loved Taco Bell. True, she wore nice clothes, but she was incapable of wearing a white shirt without dribbling food down the front of it. The humming? Turns out it was just as improvised as her little songs, classics such as “Shannie Bananie Fell on Her Fanny.” She also taught me the correct way to put on a bra: bend over and let your arms dangle after you fasten it so that your breasts settle into the cups when you stand up. Sure, she read a lot, but then she would have a narcoleptic fit and slump over on the couch, snoring and mumbling. And indeed, she said “hwhite”, but she could also stop a dinner conversation cold by saying, “Did you hear about the man who got attacked by a llama? It bit his genitals right off!”
What I first dismissed as inconsistencies of character I came to recognize as richness and depth. Nanny became a full, real, person for me much in the same way learning about my other grandmother’s prescription drug addiction humanized her. (That grandmother is another essay I haven’t come to terms with writing yet.)
For much of our young lives, grandparents are the bringers of treats and hugs and happiness and we love them perfectly because in our eyes they are perfect. But deep, aware, enlightened love is not the love of something perfect. That’s too easy. But by the time we grow up and realize that our grandparents are these marvelously flawed, strange, beautiful people and not just weekend Santa Clauses, they are gone.
I think in many cases, by the time we begin to truly appreciate our grandparents as real people, it’s too late. I certainly felt that way about Nanny’s counterpart, who my brother and I called Poppy. Just as I was becoming more aware of my grandparents as human beings, he began sliding further into his Parkinson’s. The disease is not one that snuffs a person; Parkinson’s has a long-term dampening effect. Over many years, Poppy dimmed to a watercolor version of himself. A sort of ghost-grandpa who became increasingly immobile and could answer questions briefly in a raspy, unintelligible whisper. He had always been a quiet man, more observant than assertive, but when his voice was stolen, it made a difference.
After the deaths of both my grandparents about eighteen months apart, my mother found a stack of note cards on which Poppy had written short phrases, things he thought would be useful on a daily basis for communicating with Nanny as his voice became less reliable. In shaky handwriting, the cards say things like, “I’ll go see if the mail is in” and “What’s up!” and “Are they forecasting rain today.” My favorite is, “Goodnight babe.” I keep them in my jewelry box, which holds a lot of Nanny’s jewelry, in an envelope with four $2 bills in it. A note on the front of the envelope indicates that they are for each of his grandchildren.
Another discovery my mother made when cleaning out my grandparents’ apartment was a remarkable manila folder entitled “Comments and Suggestions” in Poppy’s blocky print. In it were dozens of pages of information− insurance policies, bank accounts, stockholdings, retirement funds− about what to do with everything after, as he correctly predicted, he first and then my grandmother died. Most pages were later updated with increasingly wobbly tidbits scrawled in the margins. Poppy had never mentioned this folder. I doubt if Nanny knew it existed.
“I wish I had known some of this!” my mother had said as we sat with my uncles in our living room, marveling over the excruciating care and detail. She and Nanny had muddled through these things themselves after Poppy died, but the guidance wouldn’t have been unwelcome. Why he hadn’t told my mother about this folder when for most of her adult life he would hand her clippings from financial magazines with investment suggestions, I don’t know. But that was Poppy: reliable, helpful, logical, stoic, and ever unobtrusive, even from the grave.
I probably wasn’t much older than when I got my first manicure when Nanny told me that she thought Poppy had “a soul like a boiled ham.” This was a phrase she had read somewhere, she said, and had instantly identified it with my grandfather. I have tracked the phrase to Bhowani Junction, a 1965 novel by John Masters. The full paragraph reads:
“I said, ‘Marry you! You, with ten thumbs and a soul like a boiled ham! Do you think I’m going to marry you and have children like you and sit in a house like this all my life[…]?’”
She confided this in me at our local mall. We were sitting on a bench outside one of the large department stores that bookended the building. We each had a frozen coffee drink from a chocolate shop, which I suspected was the real reason we went to the mall at all, and that was fine by me. The moment she said it, that Poppy had a soul like a boiled ham, I knew that I had just heard something that I was much too young to hear. I often felt that way with Nanny, and I loved that about her.
When I was ten, I scandalized my fourth grade teacher by bringing a copy of Jaws in for Sustained Silent Reading Time. I thought it was a great book.
“Does your mom know you have this?” Miss Croyle asked, skeptically reading the back cover.
I shrugged. “It’s a good book,” I said.
I doubted that my mom would have cared either way. By the time I was eight I was reading five grade levels ahead, and soon after anything became fair game. I don’t know where I got a copy of Jaws, but if my parents thought they could stop me from reading anything in the house that wasn’t locked away somewhere, they were mistaken. They knew I read insatiably and didn’t try to stop me.
Jaws presented no reading comprehension issues whatsoever. While some of the concepts may have been over my head, the language complexity and vocabulary were not. I only ever felt too young for the book once, and it was during a scene where− and you’ll forgive me for not remembering names or details− the shark expert guy is driving along with the police chief’s wife, and he’s got his hand in her panties, and he fantasizes about if they were to get in a car accident at that very moment, how they would find this woman with “her vagina yawning open for all to see”. It was just that phrase− “vagina yawning open”− that stuck out to me as the only inappropriate part about that scene, and it has clearly been lodged in my head for the better part of my life.
The second I read that I thought, “Oh. I shouldn’t have read that.” It was kind of embarrassing and kind of exhilarating. I was privy to something I didn’t understand, and knew that it was probably for the best that I didn’t. It was probably the closest I got to feeling like I was in trouble. It was scandalously fun, and kind of scary.
I didn’t get to feel that way often. I was a very precocious, intelligent, worldly little smarty-pants. A know-it-all. And not at all shy about talking to grownups. It was hard to make me feel too young for something. Vaginas on display could do it.
And sometimes, conversations with my Nanny could do it, too.
I respected Nanny because she told me the truth. Most of my family I could please by standing around flailing my arms, but Nanny wasn’t such a pushover. Once when I co-narrated a Christmas pageant at church, Nanny told me afterward, “You were good. The other girl was better. She was louder.” I was humiliated. But I also knew she was right. Nanny became the bar over which I strove to jump.
Fortunately for me, she always loved and encouraged my writing. Nanny was allowed to read everything, from diary entries to bizarre, ill-conceived attempts at writing a fantasy novel about a girl who was really the Loch Ness Monster. She always read pages promptly, and offered a constructive critique and ample praise. My poetry, too, she was happy to take a look at. Perhaps more meaningful than the fact that she was willing to read all my goofy stories and sappy poems, was that she took them seriously. She spoke to me frankly, as someone worthy of consideration, which I now realize is how she always spoke to me.
In college, I looked forward to not only jumping over the Nanny Bar, but blowing it out of the water. Wouldn’t she be so proud of me, starring in a play? Wouldn’t she love the short story I wrote that won first prize in the university literary magazine? As I excelled and surpassed my own markers for quality little by little, I looked to Nanny to gauge my development. Strangely, she didn’t always notice my progress. Though I was in a half-dozen or so shows in college in leading roles or directing, the very first high school musical I ever did remained the pinnacle of my theatrical achievement in her mind. I had played an old lady and was in maybe two scenes. Similarly, a story I had won a prize for in the eighth grade was fixed forever for her as the best thing I’d ever written, no matter how many more stories I wrote or prizes I won for them.
This plateau effect baffled me, and forced me, for the umpteenth time in my relationship with my grandmother, to reevaluate my expectations of her. Though paradoxically so after my big nail salon epiphany, I still considered her to be the cultural and artistic authority in my family. The inkling, then the idea, then the realization that in some areas, namely, theater and writing, I had surpassed Nanny in knowledge and discernment startled me. It shouldn’t be like that, right?
But then again, why not? I was the one who had spent five years and a lot of my parents’ money at a world class university specifically training myself to do exactly that: to be an artist, and to be an informed consumer and purveyor of cultural products and experiences. I stopped seeking her approval because, I reasoned, I didn’t need it anymore. And if I hadn’t necessarily surpassed my grandmother, then I had definitely left the territory familiar to her. A lateral move, but one off the reservation nonetheless.
When Nanny was dying of ovarian cancer, she spent her last few weeks in the hospital and in hospice care, but before that she lived with us. I was finishing my master’s, but I got the full effect when I was home for Christmas break. A bed was set up in our living room, and Nanny was confined to puttering around the first floor of our house, once hers and Poppy’s, as her health rather rapidly deteriorated.
I admit that I liked having her there. I felt more secure knowing she was tucked away here, rather than drifting alone through her spotless, beautifully decorated apartment. I would watch TV with her, or sit and chat, or bat the dog away when the visiting nurse would come.
It was pretty clear she was depressed. For Christmas, I got her a book that, months before her diagnosis, she had read a review of and wanted to read. It sounded monumentally boring to me and had a horrible title to boot, but I purchased it for her, hoping she would read and enjoy it, even though she was sick. You know, give her back a little bit of the joy she once took in reading. But it sat on a side table unread, and months after her death it was sold to a book reseller, never having been read at all.
One night, Nanny padded back into the living room from the bathroom in the den. She sat on the couch between my mother and me, huffing and wheezing from the exertion of walking maybe fifty feet.
“I can’t do it,” she whispered through her panting. “I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it anymore.”
My mom and I each took one of her hands, and leaned in, squeezing her between us. As we comforted her, saying soft, meaningless things, we all cried. Because the truth was palpable and we were three women who did not normally shy away from it. But we told her it would be ok and not to worry, because this was an exception.
I found myself next to Nanny’s hospital bed a few weeks later, rubbing lotion on her hands. Her primary care doctor, a women she’d been seeing for years, had just left. She’d come in to say goodbye to my grandmother, and not because she was moving to the hospice down the street.
One of the last things I ever did for my grandmother that was give her a truncated manicure that night, filing her nails and rubbing lotion on her hands. Nanny’s hands and forearms were dry, and one was swollen from having the IV in it. Her nails, of course, were short and plain, ghosts of their former glory. I massaged her puffy arm firmly as we chatted, which she said felt good. When the swelling began to go down, I felt like I had scored a very significant win. I clung to every little triumph, such as the unexpected success of a book called Conversations With My Mother, a fill-in-the-blank style book with questions to ask your elderly mother about her life. “What was your first car?” “What did you want your children to know when they got married?” “Describe the first date you had with your husband.”
It was cheesy, I admit. I didn’t expect it to go over well with the woman who forbade my uncle from saying, in her eulogy, that she had died after a “valiant battle with cancer” because she thought that was hokey. Surprisingly, she liked the questions. They served as a distraction, she said, from the excruciating burning pain in her ass from her bedsores. I took the tiny victory.
After we exhausted her patience with the book of questions, she asked me about my independent study project, which was unexpectedly gaining a momentum and scope beyond my department. It was a model of public deliberation that crossed theatrical performance and policy discussion, called Deliberative Theater. I had proposed the model as a senior capstone project the year before, and now, a little less than a year later, two such events had been held and a third was in the works, one of a grander scale with one hundred participants, to be broadcast at a local television station. There would be press coverage, and, though I didn’t know it then, subsequent productions. I wrote the scripts and advised on logistics of the theatrical elements.
Nanny listened attentively, probably hoping to further distract herself. “That sounds like such a good idea,” she said, her words very slow and delicate, like she had cotton in her mouth.
I was a bit taken aback by her unadulterated enthusiasm, such as she could muster. “You think so?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” she affirmed in the same dreamy, cottony voice. “I don’t see how it could fail.”
Warmed by this, I began rambling about starting a theater company entirely dedicated to such events. She agreed unilaterally with everything I said. She told me she knew I could do it− that of course I would do it.
“All our hopes are on you, babe,” she said.
When she said it, I almost buckled under the enormity of the statement. The “our,” I felt− perhaps incorrectly but who can know these things?− was spoken on behalf of herself, yes, but also her sisters, maybe even all the women she knew in her generation who had lived a lifetime of quotidian tragedies, some of their own making, and were self-aware enough to regret them. An emotionally-unavailable husband who controlled her finances; bouts of depression and anxiety; knowing she was a smart, intelligent, capable woman who came of age in the 1950’s, which meant meager options for her future; having children you weren’t equipped to raise, and then later being saddled with guilt about how you raised them.
She called herself a terrible mother, always. And she didn’t do it so that her children would tell her otherwise. She knew her children agreed and she didn’t like herself for it. If there is one thing I can say about the women on my mother’s side, it’s that they are their own worst enemies, shredding themselves from the inside, regrets dragged behind them like trash in the gravitational pull of their imploded self-esteem. You should have heard the Nichols sisters talk, read their letters to one another. I use the words morbid and depressing without much, if any, exaggeration.
I’m not saying her whole life was a disaster. Her children were all successful, she herself was a damned good nurse, she and Poppy traveled extensively. She enjoyed− adored− her grandchildren. Even in the last year of her life, she was active in her church and had lunch dates with her friends. And of course, she had books, and music, and art, and relished finally installing the crown molding she always wanted after Poppy died. She didn’t live a sad, horrible life. Neither did her sisters. But her opinion of herself was always much bleaker than I thought she merited, given the wonderful woman I knew and what she gave me. It was as if she could not believe nice things about herself.
In that one “our,” I heard all that. And I heard her say, as she had said before, that my mother had been an extremely shy, anxious child, who needed a different mother, a better mother, a mother who was not her. How she still thought that after she watched my mother become a highly educated woman and an amazing mother to my brother and me, I do not know. But she maintained it to her death.
Through that one statement, I heard her acknowledge that already, I had been different from my mother in that way. Already I had been a confident, happy, secure child, and I had done exciting things. And now, with the weight of her entire life behind her, she was hoping that I would continue on. That I would be more. That I would find satisfaction in my life and happiness in myself in the dark places where she had not.
“All our hopes are on you, babe.”
That was the last conversation I ever had with Nanny. When I came back to see her the next week, she was asleep. She had been since that morning, and she would be until she died.
I was supposed to come out the night before, but I had class all day, maybe rehearsal. I was tired. I took a nap. When I woke up, it was late. I called my parents. “I’ll just come tomorrow instead, when I can spend the whole day.”
When it became clear to me that our last conversation had been our last, I was gripped with a panicky guilt. How could I have not gone out to see her that night? How could I have thought anything was more important? And as I began to develop what was perhaps the first true regret of my life, I gained yet another insight into my grandmother.
I am grateful that was our last conversation. It was a good one, long and warm. And it stressed the importance of what she said. “All our hopes…” Because whether or not it was her intention, she has raised the bar one last time, and I am happy to live my life in pursuit of her approval.
If you aren’t familiar with the app Dots, it’s an excellent way to avoid bettering yourself by reading on public transportation.
The game looks like this:
The object is to connect like-colored dots, at which point they disappear and new ones take their place. If you connect the dots into a complete square— poof!— all the dots of that color disappear from the whole board. You have to disappear as many dots as possible in 60 seconds with the aid of the three tools at the bottom: a 5-second time freeze; a “shrinker” which gets rid of a troublesome dot with a double-tap; and an “expander” that wipes all dots of a color of your choosing off the board. The tools are “purchased” with the dots you collect; in other words, your score— which accumulates round after round as you play— is also your bank account. Five time freezes are 1,000 dots. Five shrinkers are 500. Five expanders cost I don’t even know how much because it’s a dumb tool and I never use it. My high score is 539.
It seems impossible that I would have learned anything from this game except that it is a handy way to avoid eye contact with weirdies on the subway, but I had an honest-to-goodness “Oooooh!” moment while playing it a little while ago.
I was on a particularly long subway ride somewhere and I had recently been gifted a buttload of dots from the game’s creators. Whenever the app has a glitch or rolls out a new feature, they’ll give everyone a bunch of dots as a little apology or thank you or to drum up interest in playing the game again. And they don’t just give you like, a thousand dots. No, no. They give you FORTY THOUSAND dots. And there was a certain period of time where these dot windfalls happened in rather rapid succession.
So anyway, I’m playing Dots, on a half-hour subway ride to wherever, and I’m really getting into a groove with it— consistently scoring in the 400’s like a bosssss. And I’m buying a lot of shrinkers. Like I’m not even really thinking about it, but whenever I need them, I buy them and use them. And sometimes even if I don’t need a shrinker, but it’s just more convenient to use one, then I’ll still buy them.
So I’m just buying buying buying in order to get through the game in the best and most fun way possible, and I suddenly realize that I haven’t checked my bank in a looooong time. Like at least 10 subway stops. Fearing I might be totally broke, I look at my score page and…I still have about the same amount of dots as when I started! I still have tens of thousands of dots, and there is almost no way now that I could ever play so much that the amount of tools I need to play would ever completely draw down the bank, because just by playing that much I am generating more and more dots on top of a nice big cushion I’ve already got.
This makes me happier than perhaps it should. It means that I can just play as much as I want and buy as much as I need and never have to worry about the number of dots in my bank. Contentedly, I continue playing. And I realize, pathetically, that this is what it must feel like to have enough money.
That tiny little flicker of freedom I felt when I realized I could get what I needed, whenever I needed it in the game must be the best goddamn bonfire of a feeling when that happens to you in real life. To buy groceries, go to the doctor’s office, book travel home for Christmas, buy a gift, or write a rent check without scrambling to look at how much money is in your checking account must feel incredible. To know you can never use up all your dots. To know you can always get what you need and even some of what you want. It lets you live in the moment, be spontaneous, live with less dread and fear and stress.
And I’m not saying I can’t have a fun and meaningful life and cultivate worthwhile relationships while I’m poor, because I can— I am. But I AM saying that on the long list of things about my life now that make me happy— my family, my boyfriend, my roommates, my theater projects, the artists I’m privileged to work with— “not having enough money” doesn’t make the cut. “Not having enough money” will never be a positive thing. To everyone who says that money can’t buy happiness, you are absolutely right! But you know what doesn’t make happiness any easier to come by? Constantly stressing about your finances.
To say that Dots taught me what it feels like to be rich is perhaps a bit of an overstatement. But it does make me feel— for the duration of a subway ride, at least— like I can finally relax.
Scrolling through Facebook half-awake one morning last week, I saw some article about “holiday trees.”
Now, I’m not a Christian and I’m about as liberal as they come. I support gay marriage, single-payer health care, the right to choose, and less defense spending. I don’t think religion has a place in schools or our government, but I do think that there should be equal opportunities and protections against discrimination in place for those who wish to practice ANY religion, not just Christianity. I support inclusion, tolerance, and a celebration of differences.
But guys. It’s a fucking Christmas tree.
In our effort to be PC, to be tolerant and inclusive, to communicate that Christianity is not the only religion in this country that we observe, have we really started calling Christmas trees “holiday trees”? A “holiday tree” is not a thing. What you mean are those things that Christians appropriated from pagan traditions in 16th century Germany as a way to observe the Feast of Adam and Eve on December 24th. What you mean are the things that German immigrants brought to America in the 1700’s. Those things? Those are Christmas trees. No, Jesus didn’t dictate the use of Christmas trees to celebrate his birth, but in the past 400 years, they have become integrated into the practices of the church such that they are now synonymous with Christmas.
"Happy Holidays" I can understand. Christmas is not the only holiday celebrated that time of year, and to assume that everyone celebrates Christmas and should be wished to have a merry one is exclusive and blatantly incorrect. "Happy Holidays" is inclusive and embracing of diversity, rather than overly broad and effacing of individuality. Admittedly, the embracing/effacing line is a hard one to walk, but I feel pretty strongly that “holiday trees” crosses it. No one would dream of calling a menorah a “holiday candelabra,” so why should Christmas trees be stripped of their religious affiliation?
Just because there is a Christian majority in this country— and the Christian right often ruffles feathers with quasi- and outright-xenophobic assertions— doesn’t mean that Christian cultural contributions to what it means to be American should be denigrated and minimized. No, Christianity doesn’t need the same amount of protection as minority religions, but rather than water-down Christmas to be politically correct, how about expand the definition of the holiday season and concentrate on elevating and celebrating other religious holidays?
There is, in this debate, an argument to be made for the pervasiveness of secular Christmas, which undeniably reaches beyond the Christian faithful. My family are not Christians, yet we have always celebrated Christmas, tree and all. A study I saw recently found that 30% of Jewish families had Christmas trees. Christmas has absolutely transcended the religious community. But is that grounds for stripping its accoutrements of their historical and religious heritage? I say no.
I say no because I don’t think integration and acceptance are the same homogenization and dilution; we should strive for the former without perpetrating the latter. I say no because there is richness in exposure to different cultures and religions. I say no because we grow stronger through a conscious cultivation of diversity. I say no because there is value in growing up in a country that supports a citizen’s choice of religious and cultural expression. I think “happy holidays” does that; I think “holidays trees” makes it seem like we’re pretending Christmas doesn’t exist.
Christmas is not the only holiday coming up this winter, but Christmas is also a holiday coming up this winter! If you want to have a Christmas tree, have a Christmas tree. If you want a holiday tree…you’re going to have to figure out what that is, because I can’t help you.
And I mean that title with the utmost of respect.
I’ve been a denizen of this fair[ly crappy] city my entire life, in one way or another. I spent some time in LA during college, but don’t worry, I got over it. The one thing, though, that I’ve consistently heard from around the US is that New York is a rude city.
This is, I feel, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what this place is.
I have three cats, all of whom sit along the spectrum of social retardation, from idiosyncratic quirkball to hateful urchin. One pees in the bathroom sink; one stares into your eyes, terrified but sadly resigned, whenever you pet her; one can’t be in the same room as a human that is moving— you know, things that would usually make them completely unadoptable had they been within the normal shelter system. But I didn’t get them from a shelter. I got them locally sourced from the dumpsters behind my college apartment in Pittsburgh, like any true cat hipster.
“Oh, you got your cats safely and legally? And they like you? That’s so mainstream.”
My cats most decidedly did not like me when I used Animal Control traps to capture them from their home in the middle of the night, carted them off to a veterinary clinic to be stabbed with needles and have their reproductive organs rendered moot, and then decided, in defiance of every IQ point I possess, to just let them loose in my apartment and keep them as pets. They were not fond of me at all.
To all my (now) fellow alumni of Carnegie Mellon University who graduated today and are entering the “real world” without a job or a new academic home in the fall, I have a message for you. It will be brief, because you’ve just spent the last semester getting— and will spend the next n-months hearing— “advice” from all kinds of people about the “next chapter” and “moving on” and “taking your place in the world.”
I was one of you just two years ago, leaving my cozy CMU joy-bubble after 5 years with a master’s degree and $40,000 in debt and not even an internship to speak of. It was hard. It is hard. It’s hard to be smart, accomplished, active, and appreciated your whole academic life and then with the toss of a cap have virtually none of that matter. You are now unemployed, poor, undervalued, and unseen. And I’m not here to say, “It gets better!” or “You can do it!” or “Just believe in yourself!” because those are hollow platitudes. And blowing a bunch of sunshine up your ass doesn’t help; it only makes you feel like you must be doing something wrong because it’s not working out.
So here is my simple message, you bright, shiny, brilliant, exhausted, and broke people: Have courage.
Have courage, because you are smart. Have courage, because you are devastatingly competent. Have courage, because you know how to work hard. Have courage, because you are a problem solver. Have courage, because you have been given— you have earned— a toolbox.
There is one thing that you will always have, that no one can take away from you, reject you from, or give to someone else: Your education. And it was damned good.
So have courage, unemployed Tartans. You’ll need it. You deserve it.
My boyfriend Joshua has a terrible disease. It’s tragic and incurable. And annoying. It’s called “Selective Blindness”, and it basically means that Joshua can’t find shit for shit.
But like, actually, guys. If Joshua doesn’t know where something is immediately, no amount of looking will ever uncover it. Even things that are always confined to a finite space− things that go in the fridge, for instance− will evade him in perpetuity if the item is not precisely in the spot he expects it to be.
Allow me to present a generalized but representative scenario:
Moments before the onset of the Selective Blindness, I will have said something like, “Josh, will you get out the Romano cheese?” because we are cooking dinner, and whatever we are cooking requires Romano cheese, probably because it is delicious. I know exactly where the Romano cheese is, because when Joshua opens the fridge to get it, I see it. Because it is there. In the fridge. Where it can easily be seen. It is not a furtive cheese.
Naively confident that he will see it too, I go back to chopping or sautéing whatever it was that prevented me from getting out the Romano cheese myself. Seconds pass. Joshua, bent over and peering into the fridge, is suspiciously silent. He cannot find the Romano cheese. What I imagine happens to him is this:
Once he fails to locate the Romano cheese in less than 1 second, every other food item and container in the fridge becomes wiped of its identity and any characteristic properties. All food and foodstuffs become blanks: Uniform, opaque cartons and Tupperware; label-less bottles and jars; empty, colorless lumps that were once easily identifiable produce items. All significance and means of differentiation are washed out of this chilly microcosm in a blink. What chance does he stand of finding the Romano cheese now? How can he tell one faceless product from the next? Within a few brief moments of staring at these soulless items staring back at him, he begins a rapid spiral of self-doubt: Maybe we never had any Romano cheese in the first place. And even if we did, what chance have I of extracting it from this anonymous army of goods? All is lost, ALL IS LOST!
There is no other way I can explain his utterly amazing struggle to find things that are literally right in front of him. Almost daily.