Posting Up, While Female

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In basketball, to “post up” is to establish your position at an area near the basket.

A few years ago, my (adult) daughter and I decided to spend a mother/daughter weekend in San Francisco.  We chose a small hotel in the heart of Union Square, a place where, it seemed, all of the people were.  It was early December, chilly and damp, and so festive with the sparkling holiday lights and overly-decorated trees and roaming carolers and huge crowds of shoppers loaded down with Christmas gifts.  I remember a female opera singer who stunned the sidewalk still and quiet with her a cappella of Little Drummer Boy.  On our first evening, we went to a tiny Irish bar right behind our hotel for a drink before finding dinner.  We sat at the bar.  We’d had a great day.  We hadn’t been there long when a tall man in a t-shirt and jeans cozied up behind and between us to order a drink.  He squeezed between and said hello to us.  We ignored him and kept face-forward, and also kept up our conversation.  He said hello again.  And again.  My daughter finally turned and said politely, “I’m sorry, excuse us, but I’m trying to talk to my mom.”  He waited a few seconds and then put his hand on my daughter’s arm, wrapping his long fingers around her forearm.  She instantly shook herself free and hauled around and said, “Don’t fucking touch me!”  He snickered, stood there a little longer to hold his ground, and finally moved on.

There was a thick crowd at the bar.  Two busy bartenders.  Everyone, including my daughter and me, pretended like nothing had happened.

Today I saw this short video at Slate.com of a woman walking through New York City.  The video itself is less than 2 minutes long, and yet that was more than enough for me to get it, for me to understand how crowded and harassed and even fearful this woman would be.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/10/28/street_harassment_video_a_hidden_camera_records_what_women_go_through_on.html

The woman never, never once, engages with the men.  And yet they feel perfectly fine getting in her space, talking to her, hitting on her, asking why oh why she won’t answer them, won’t engage because, after all, hey, they’re just giving her a compliment by “noticing her” and shouldn’t she be thankful?

Even though her posture remains neutral, a few of them get angry and get closer.  She claims her space, small as it is walking down the sidewalk.  She is posting up, establishing her position in the world.  But no matter.  The men are relentless, and even affronted by her lack of attention to them.

I am thinking now of that mother/daughter weekend in the city.  We were just 2 women wanting to spend time together.  We were covered up and dressed in winter clothes (not that that should matter, but we’ve all heard, over and over, how much it matters); we kept to ourselves; we were exhausted; we were not looking for attention.  And yet.

How many times does this happen over and over again, and we keep quiet about it?

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To post up is to establish your position, to say, “I am here.”

Red

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Last week I had lunch with my cousin Eric.  We have not seen each other for 30 years.

Eric’s father is the oldest, and my mother is the youngest girl.  Of 9.  I have 22 cousins; 22, and yet I know so few of them.

Eric’s father escaped our clan in Southeast Missouri and got as far away as he could, all the way to the coastal edge of California, and when I was little I had fantasies about running away and becoming part of their family.  They only came ‘home’ for a few visits, but I distinctly remember how happy they seemed, how ‘light’, how loving; I remember being 11 yrs old and sitting on the front stoop at Grandpa Red’s and Grandma Ann’s and watching them drive away, desperately wishing they would take me, oh please please please take me, with them.

Our lunch was hours long and, as you might imagine, ‘interesting.’  We both shared family stories and tried to puzzle together where we came from.  The most shocking thing I learned (and there were several) was that our Grandpa Red tried to circumcise himself.  He was drunk.  Of course he was.  But he was in his 20’s and wanted to fit in and thought he could do it and the next thing he knew he almost had the job done.

Red almost bled to death.

I keep trying to picture it.  Where was he?  Outside?  In a bathroom, a garage, a front lawn, an alley, a bar?  What kind of knife, was anyone else there, how did it start, when did he know, or did someone else know, he needed a doctor?  What in the world prompted this?

There is a Dorothy Allison quote from her 1995 interview with Charlie Rose:  It’s the macho standard, and it’s as Southern as it is … you know, they talk about Spanish men and black men, [but] working class men have this ethic of ‘a man don’t talk,’ ‘a man is John Wayne.’  John Wayne is the model for most of my uncles trying to swagger through their lives showing no pain. It meant they couldn’t ask for help even when they knew they needed help. They didn’t dare.”

When I’m working on my book, I’m so focused on the women that I sometimes forget the men. And their pain.

I recently wrote a post about how Grandpa Red abused my grandmother and her children, including my mother, and yet I need to know, as the writer, as the documentarian, 2 generations later, who was Red Brockmire?  Who in the hell was he?  Because by the time I came along he was skinny and sick with emphysema and was so frail and out of breath he could barely go up and down the stairs or garden or cook or even have chat, without a rest.  Many rests.  The Red I knew was defeated.  The Red I knew was exhausted, harmless.  The Red I knew had surrendered.  But that wasn’t who Red was.

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What have you learned lately about your family history?

The Anti – iPhone Plan

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I’ve gotten into the worst habit.  I used to take a book with me everywhere; carried what I was reading in my coat pocket or purse or backpack; to bed and to the bathtub; even to the kitchen to read for those few minutes it takes the water to boil.  These days, I take my phone.  I recently had to admit to myself that I — a lifelong book addict — could not even remember the last book I finished.  How pitiful is that?

So this week I conducted an experiment.  I left my phone in the car or on the kitchen counter and carried a book instead.  I re-read THE EMPRESS CHRONICLES and remembered how incredibly smart the converging story lines are (I loved it even more this time through), and I’m just now on page 61 of RECONSTRUCTING AMELIAwhich I picked up along with the others in the above stack.  At a brick-and-mortar bookstore.  Where I spent more than an hour without my phone.

It turns out I don’t have to see every text message the instant it comes in; I don’t have to return emails at mach ten speed; and I don’t have to follow anyone’s Twitter feed or press the “like” button.  It turns out that I still need what I’ve always needed:  real, live, in the flesh books.  And I need to carry them with me everywhere I go.

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What are you reading these days?

 

Circles

When my youngest dog hits her exhaustion threshold, she does this thing where she winds up her body and runs around in crazy circles, hackles raised, barking and growling at the older dog.  She runs this rant until either I or the older dog snap her out of it making her back off and stand still for some minutes.  Until she gives in.  Until she surrenders.  It’s like she just has to get that last “something” out and the next thing you know she’s sprawled in a corner, out cold, at peace.

A woman recently asked a group of writers, “Who are you writing for, who’s your ideal reader?”  In theory, you’re supposed to have a target audience in mind — one person, or a group of persons (people??) — and so I thought about this question for the longest time but couldn’t come up with an answer.  Right now I’m writing like no one is going to read a single word.  That isn’t to say that I’m writing a bunch of secrets or mind-blowing scenes; just that sometimes going quiet on the outside is the one way I can let loose on the inside.  On the inside I don’t have to be polite or good or agreeable; I can write loud.

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The other night I was at the dinner table with a group of folks and stuck my nose, or rather my voice, into a debate about (hold your applause) corporate tax law.  Most of the table went quiet (who wouldn’t?) as a few (okay, two) of us ranted and I heard myself getting louder and louder, and at some point I saw myself as my young dog, running around in circles and barking and growling until, finally, thankfully!, somebody got up to leave and snapped me out of it.

The next day, when I told a friend how we’d spent the end of the evening, her response was, simply, “Yawn.”  I laughed.  She was right.  And I felt sorry for the other people at the table who had to sit there and tolerate our loud circular debate to nowhere.  Yawn was right.

I’m writing everyday, for what or whom, I don’t know right now, but it’s obvious that something in me is wound tight and making me barrel like crazy, ’round and ’round in circles.  One last loud and exhausting charge, before inevitable surrender?

I wasn’t, I realize now, even arguing about corporate tax law at the dinner table the other night.  Not really.  It was just late and I was tired and I’d had too much wine and too much food and I was, like my young dog, exhausted by being good and agreeable and quiet, and I was making that last explosion around the room, running in circles, just trying to feel heard.

 

Sense of Direction

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I have a lousy sense of direction.  So lousy that, when I look at a map my instincts urge me hard go the opposite way of what the map right in front of me says; so lousy that if I stay in a hotel for a week, I will walk out of my room and go the wrong way to the elevator every single day; so lousy that when I used to travel every week for work, my mother (totally justified) worried like crazy; so lousy that I once went hiking with a friend and our dogs in deep new snow and our one hour turned into three-plus because both of us thought the other was paying attention and all of the markers were buried in a sea of white.

If I’m in the city and park in a garage, I have to look behind me several times as I’m leaving the car to mark the landscape for later, for when I’m coming back.  Look for this, I think, and this …  I once lost my car in the Minneapolis airport garage:  did I park in green or gold or up or down?  It was ten o’clock at night and I could not, for the life of me, remember a single point of reference, and I was so embarrassed and so exhausted that I finally hauled my luggage back inside and down to the rental car counter and rented a car, drove home, and came back the next morning to drive around the entire garage to find my car.  And wow, there it was, right where I left it.

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All that said, getting lost and being lost is something I’m used to.  Getting lost rarely bothers me.  I don’t panic much.  I don’t get mad.  I stop to get my bearings and try a new course.  And if the new course doesn’t work out I stop, recalculate, and try again.  And again.  As fun as this is *not*, I realize this is what I have to work with, and so I work with it.  I surrender.

Writing on the sprawling blank page is so much like this, isn’t it?

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This morning I loaded up the dog and went for a hike in an unfamiliar wilderness preserve.  I pulled up the online map and studied it, then saved it to my phone.  It turns out the preserve is relatively small, and on this gorgeous Sunday in October there were hikers and dog walkers and bicyclists and even horseback riders.  Not enough to feel crowded, but enough that I wasn’t worried about getting a little lost.  Which, of course, I did.  For about a half hour.

Many people passed as I checked and rechecked and triple checked my map.  But I didn’t ask for their help.  I wanted to do this myself.  I knew I could if I kept at it.  I wanted to see if I could figure it out, if I could follow the the right signs, if I could focus hard enough on the winding trails to find my own way out and, of course, eventually I found the right trail and the parking lot and my car.

And doing so reminded me that even a girl with a lifelong lousy sense of direction can find her way.  She sure as hell can.

The Suit Makes the Mom

It started at Jones New York Country in Minneapolis.

It started at Jones New York Country, not for the fancy or the “in” or the style, but for the need:  I needed a uniform.  I needed a uniform and Jones New York Country, right up the road and not in a mall, it seemed then, had exactly what would fix me.

I’ve never been a shopper or even much interested in clothes or the latest fashion.  I wear jeans almost exclusively.  I am not familiar with an iron or ironing board.  I’m one of those girls whose girlfriends go shopping without her and have her meet them later.  For lunch.  For a cocktail.  For a party.  But shopping?  No.  Never.

styleblog 346And yet in the Winter of 1996, I’d barely turned 31 and all I could think about were clothes:  pleated, shapeless khakis and baggy sweaters and square jackets and silky scarves and big handbags that could carry ‘stuff’, and flat, sensible, blocky shoes.  Brown shoes.  I’d just gotten married and become a new mom, a full-time stepmother, to a 9 yr old boy and 15 yr old girl.  I saw myself in the skinny jeans I’d worn one night for a date with my soon-to-be husband — torn and frayed at one knee and torn even more in the back, right below my butt, and whoa.  Whoa hey!  Those jeans, dear lord, those jeans had to go; I could not dare to be seen in them in the carpool lane.  At (gasp!) a teacher conference.  At a sleepover drop-off.  Those jeans, my favorite old standbys, belonged to another life, another woman; those jeans had to go.

How often we try to dress ourselves for who we are not, for who we are expected to be.

When I remember my life in my 20s in corporate America, I think of ecru and off-black pantyhose and creamy silk blouses and fitted, knee-length skirts.  Of houndstooth and brass buttons.  Of how I felt like I belonged in that uniform — no matter how I sweated out my pits or sent runners up the hose — and how my uniform made me one of them, made me belong.  Made me sigh with, jesusHchrist, relief.

I see now what a hard time I had the year I became a wife and mother with — as ridiculous as it sounds — my clothes.  I look at photos of myself from that first year or two and think, who is that woman?

But I also remember how desperately I wanted to be accepted.  I wanted to be the mom, the real mom, taking pictures of my new daughter and her friends for her Homecoming Dance without comment from the other mothers.  I wanted to sit in the line of metal chairs and have a normal conference with my new son’s teacher (Mr. Moynihan, I recall) and have him like me, respect me, even though my son hated him.  I wanted to belong there, and for no one to notice.  I see now, of course, how unrealistic this was.  It was like being the new girl in school:  “who is she and what is she doing here?”  How desperately I craved this belonging, this blending in.

Thankfully, my kids helped and a few (very very few) of the parents helped, and I eased up.  When Spring came, I tossed my torn, skinny jeans into the Goodwill pile, but I didn’t need a total makeover or Jones New York Country, and it’s a good thing because the next time I showed up there, the store had closed.  Lack of business, lack of need.  The windows papered over.  Gone.  Waiting for the next big thing, the next big deal, the next fashion, the next not-me.

Jones New York Country no longer exists.  And neither does that version of me.

 

Five O’Clock

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I miss my mother most at five o’clock.

When I was a kid and came home after school, the TV was my babysitter — Gilligan’s Island at 3:30 followed by The Brady Bunch followed by The Partridge Family — until five o’clock came and it was time to do the few chores my mother had left for me (as fast as possible) before she got home.  I stayed with my grandparents in the summers.  My mother, if she was working the right shift, the good 7 to 3 shift, would sit for an hour or so at the kitchen table with my grandmother, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and gossiping, until we went home, just the 2 of us, around five.  As a teenager, I would dink around with friends after school, knowing I had to be home by five, that my mother would be waiting for me to help her with supper.  It was our time, our hour or two in the kitchen, just the two of us, before her new farmer husband came in from working in the field and the night became all about him.

I miss my mother most at five o’clock.

I remember being in my 20s, away from my hometown and working in cubicles and traveling all over the country.  Feeling successful, but untethered.  I called my mother at the end of most workdays.  Hey mom, what are you doing?  Nothing, what are you doing?  Going to grab some food, you?  Making supper.  When I got married, became a mom, and quit my job — all in about a 6 month span — I’d find myself in the kitchen alone around five, trying to figure out how to make a not-boring, edible dinner for my family of four.  Husband not home from work; kids doing homework or watching “The Simpsons”; and me pulling random items from the refrigerator.  I’d pour a glass of wine and call my mother.  Hey, mom, what are you doing?  Making supper.  Me, too, what are you making?  Chicken.  How are you making it?  Well … fried of course!  And we would laugh.

I miss my mother most at five o’clock.

In my mid-30s, I remember thinking that one good thing about having a sick mother was that she was always home, always there, to answer on the first ring.  I would start dinner, pour a glass of wine, and dial.  Hey mom, what are you doing?  Nothing, what are you doing?  Making dinner.  What are you making?  She was no longer able to cook, so she cooked vicariously through me.  Sometimes I lied and pretended I was making things I had no clue how to make — Chicken Cordon Bleu — to change up the conversation, to give us something else to talk about besides doctor appointments and inhalers and the shortening of time.  I’d even make up the ingredients, the steps, the ease of making something new; anything to distract us, to entertain.  All chicken, I would say, doesn’t need to be fried!  

I miss my mother most at five o’clock.

These days, when my husband and I decide we’re getting fat and it’s time to cut back, he will suggest skipping dinner.  Often I’ll agree:  what a great idea that is, we can just have a little snack, nothing big, you’re right.  But I never follow through.  I blame it on the clock.  On time.  It doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer, daylight savings or dark by five, I pour my glass of wine and open the refrigerator door, ready to finish off the day the only way I know how.  It’s five o’clock.  What are you doing?  Making dinner. 

 

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