On A Hashtag Moment

I've found a decent steady-state in my relationship with Twitter. I don't pretend like I can keep up with it, but check in pretty often and find something I like about it every time I do. A couple days ago what I found was a very brief video, recorded by a black woman confronting the white woman who had been following her while she was out walking her dog. A verbal confrontation turns briefly, almost comically, physical, and the ending to the story is the white woman getting arrested for assault.

There is an "in medias res" quality to the video, but what's immediately apparent is that the black woman is scared. She is nervous, and uncomfortable, and trying really hard to be polite, and you can hear it in her voice. She's creeped out and trying to stay calm in the face of a woman muttering about "south Miami" and "I'm gonna report you." She's recording the whole thing because she's worried that an old white lady has started something that could turn ugly. And it did. The white woman escalated the situation, provoking a physical response from the black woman, and then howls in this disbelieving way about getting hit. It's at this point where the black woman seems to tick over from fear to (understandable, justifiable) anger, and it's so satisfying, and the white woman is so whiny, almost cartoonishly deserving of the smack she got and still trying to go after that camera because on some level she probably knows she's a creep. Then there's a second where the black woman pauses in the middle of her pretty righteous tirade, the camera moves and you see a cute little dog on a purple leash, and then you hear "MOVE MOJITO!" Like, "Goddamn it, Mojito, I'm busy, okay?" Like, "Ugh, Mojito, if you didn't need to poop outdoors this would never have even happened!" Like, "Mojito, if you bite this lady, I'm probably going to get into trouble, and I might already be in trouble so knock it off!"

#MoveMojito, inevitably, was the brief hashtag party that resulted.

It was a fun little party, there's t-shirts and everything now, and it was the sort of small-stakes thing that lets you laugh past the underlying ugliness of it all, but the more I thought about it, the more bothered I was by how it began. It began with a woman doing absolutely nothing wrong, confronted by someone who felt entitled to challenge her for no goddamn reason. (Is this your property? Am I trespassing? No? Then why are you following me? What do you want of me?) She's afraid, and it turns out she's right to be afraid. She's afraid of an elderly white woman for good reason. She records the encounter because that's the sort of thing you need to do if you want other people to believe you and take you seriously.

And then literally the day after that #MoveMojito party, two black people were murdered by police officers. Same song, different key. I don't really know how people are able to live with that level of justifiable fear, but it's not right.

ETA: Here's a more triumphant take, which I can fully get with.

Bathroom Laws and Baby Faces

I started wearing my hair super-short when I was in elementary school. Hard to say exactly when, but certainly by third grade I had tried it out. That combined with the way I preferred to dress and a somewhat-late and sudden puberty meant that I spent years being routinely mistaken for a boy. Every time it happened I was delighted.

A lot of stories start that way, it seems. Stories of exploration and identity-forming and very often alienation or despair. Often, it seems to me, those stories end with a realization and a label mapping back to gender identity or sexuality. That wasn't ever my story, though. Whatever self-knowledge I had at eight was enough to give me certainty that I was (a) a girl who (b) liked boys. I liked boys so much I studied their clothes and hair and copied them for myself because I thought they looked so good. My parents never pressured me one way or another, nor did the peers whose opinions mattered to me. That lack of doubt, maybe, is what made it so delightful to be called "young man" by strangers. That was fun.* But the really fun part was correcting every one of those strangers with a big show of faux offense and the hasty recalculations and backpedaling that always resulted. Fucking with people was the delight, and playing with gender was just a really effective way to do that. And because it was strangers, in casual interactions like paying for a hot dog, and because I was a child, always so small, even the people I upset could just blow right past the moment. I could never let the illusion hold for very long because I was so eager to get to the fuck-with-them part. I don't remember anyone ever being angry or worrying that I'd started some real shit. Just fun. Except.

There was this one restaurant bathroom. It was at a neighborhood-y place I went to with my parents for matzoh ball soup and tongue sandwiches and impossibly-tall slices of cake from a case that rotated near the front door. The decor was dated, the prices modest and the clientele skewed very strongly Jewish and Elderly. And my childish genderbending made them angry. Women who could've been my grandmother would cross paths with me entering or leaving the bathroom at this restaurant and get seriously confrontational. What they said was generally something like "You don't belong in here" or "This is the ladies room" and they seemed offended. Like always, I'd inform them at top volume that "Actually, I'm a girl" and they mostly backed off like everybody. But I remember my parents having to weigh in on one occasion, with someone who wouldn't actually take me at my word. Old ladies at a matzoh ball soup restaurant are not especially intimidating, but I've never really forgotten their anger. Why did I make them mad? Did I scare them? What could they have been afraid of, exactly?

I've been thinking a lot about those encounters lately, as public bathrooms have become so...public and fraught, and wondering what sort of treatment I'd get if I were that same little kid today. I think it would not be as fun in 2016 as it was in 1986. I might also have not been so sure of myself about the Being A Girl and Liking Boys thing, though I'm pretty sure I would have ended up coming to the same conclusions eventually anyway. I think in some ways right now it is easier to be a little girl who looks like a little boy whose looking-like-a-little-boy means something more than fucking around. But it is maybe not as easy to be a little girl who looks like a little boy for relatively inconsequential reasons? That's a good tradeoff, I think, but I think there should be room for inconsequential fucking around with gender too, and it seems like there's less room for that.

Down with binaries is what I suppose I'm saying, down with consequences for fuckery, and why the hell do poeple care so much about who's in the the next stall?

* I'm not trying to get into it here, but I don't want to skip saying that for a very long time I was the sort of girl who was pretty disdainful towards a lot of other girls, and the things girls are commonly interested in, and thought I was somehow better than them because I had so many friends who were boys. I was such a little shit about this that I carefully noticed whether my dude friends habitually hung out with women in general, or whether I was unusual among their friends for being female, taking extra pride in friendships with the latter type. And of course I always considered myself the most righteous of feminists. I am somewhat less of a shit on this matter now. I do still have a harder time forming friendships with women than men, but rather than pride myself on it, I try to push back against it. Anyway, part of the fun of getting taken for a boy may have been some of this shittiness, and I want to acknowledge that.

This Week's Distraction

This very lengthy MetaFilter thread about emotional labor, and how strongly it's gender-coded, is fascinating me to the point of distraction. I've emailed it to a few colleagues, can't shut up about it to Andy, and every time I refresh the thread, there's a whole batch of new comments that I've been reading all week, ten minutes or so at a time. The concept is not new to me, nor is the feminist angle on it, but there's something about the sheer weight of anecdote and just-below-the-surface rage in the comments that's turning that knowledge from something intellectual into something visceral. I've also mostly considered emotional labor as labor, as an element of workplace labor, and never really thought about its role in personal relationships. It's prompted some introspection, a little bit of critical distance, some examining of my own behavior, upbringing and family relationships, and a lot of uncertainty. Because, yet again, I find that the 'Men do this, women do this' generalization doesn't hold for me, and a lot of the "Men are treated like this, women are treated like this" doesn't either.

A big part of the frustration that comes across from commenters is about what they feel obligated to do, about the consequences that come when, as is so often suggested, a person Nopes out of some bit of work they don't enjoy, or receive reciprocation for, and how those consequences are often enforced by the very people who dismiss the value of the labor, or don't even recognize it as labor in the first place. There are so many sad variations on: "Why do you martyr yourself planning get-togethers with my family, who you don't enjoy spending time with?" "Good point, I'm going to stop doing that." "Gosh, I never see my family anymore and that makes me sad! Whatever shall I do!" "HEADDESK." Each of my parents Noped out of certain family obligations (my dad very explicitly and deliberately, my mom more as a function of distance) and having that example, plus being an only child, probably taught me that relationships can be an optional thing, and helped me figure out what sort of relationships were valuable enough for me to have in my life. I have an independent streak that is just shy of pathological, but I also know a lot of wonderful people whose presence in my life makes it better than a solitary life would be. The work of maintaining those relationships is something that I think is valuable, even as I recognize that I don't reliably do the work.

I think this concept is also fueling comments like "Romantic relationships take work!" that have always felt sort of weird to me. I don't feel that way about my relationship. I feel like my partner is basically my favorite person in the world, and spending time with him makes me happy on a consistent basis, and I like the idea that I do the same for him. There isn't a lot of obligation there, and whenever I do something that, all else being equal, I'd rather Nope out of, I do it for him because I want to do things for my favorite person in the world. And he does stuff for me, including letting me Nope out of things without getting upset. He does a lot of emotional labor, in fact, including a lot of family relationship maintenance that, were I in his shoes, I might have Noped out of long ago. He also does more than his share of housework, lets me unload about the emotional labor I do at work*, and notices and acknowledges the stuff I do for him. He noticed a while back that the hosts of this podcast I listen to, which is in no way the sort of podcast he'd be into, were doing a live appearance in Cambridge, and gave me a heads up about it. Then he got me tickets to the appearance for my birthday. Then he listened to an episode of the podcast, even, and that right there was effort, and the more I think about it, the happier it makes me.

So maybe the biggest takeaway me has not been some kind of Problem That Has No Name realization (though I did start to understand why feminist consciousness-raising groups became a Thing while scrolling through all that pain) but more a growing understanding that I am fully capable of doing more than I am on this front, especially in my personal life, and that I am kind of excited about it. Because although I am kind of a slacker with this stuff, I also know that I'm pretty good at it, and I do find it satisfying, probably because I've unconsciously engineered my life to make it an entirely voluntary thing, and I only volunteer for the things that are worth it. Andy is totally worth it! So he shouldn't have to always be the one to clean the bathroom, even though I would probably never clean the bathroom if I lived all alone and have only a basic awareness of when it 'needs' to be cleaned. And the language of emotional labor, thinking about cleaning the bathroom as Doing Something To Make Someone Else's Life Nicer, makes me more interested in cleaning the bathroom than I ever have been in my life. So that's pretty cool, and I hope I can change some on that front.

But then there's this, deep down in the days-later portion of the whole thing, which finally, really, truly blew my mind: "It's kind of weird to think that it actually takes a boatload of effort to be fully human." And thinking about it that way is sort of...liberating. Being a person, a fully-alive person who exists in the world and is a part of the lives of other people, is not a thing that magically happens, and even the most solitary and antisocial and Noped out among us actually is doing some of that kind of work all the time. It can be the most rewarding sort of work - the kind of work that makes you feel good for having done it, that is acknowledged and compensated (usually in reciprocated labor) - but it requires actual real effort, and that is a hell of a useful thing to point to when you can't quite figure out why a particular relationship is making you happy or not, or what it is about that dude at the office that rubs you the wrong way, or why it's so satisfying to see the surprise on the face of the person at the sandwich place when you make eye contact and take a second to say "Hi, how are you?" before giving your order. It's not far off from a truism that, when I'm at my best, I do a good job of always keeping in mind: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Everybody is actually working hard. Life's hard. But some of us work harder than others. And many of us work too much. The least we could do is recognize and acknowledge it, and the wonderful thing about this whole outpouring is that it created, almost from scratch, a vocabulary for doing it.

* My mom once told me that she never encouraged me to follow her example and pursue a career in nursing because, basically, I'm just not nice or caring enough to be good at that. And she's not wrong. But I did end up in a job that requires a lot of emotional labor, but it's all kind of coded as politics, and formalized as my role, and I get recognized and compensated for it. Hell, senior management jobs are almost entirely emotional labor, which may be why so many people make shitty managers and why it's not a good idea to assume that being good at a task means you'd be good at managing people who do that task. But there's a reason why I make jokes like "I don't give it away for free" when I find myself in a position to "manage" a "project" in my non-work life.
Another relevant quote from the MeFi thread: "The people in your outfit, especially the women, who make the plans, take care of the details, and know the people on their team well enough to resolve conflicts and keep everything running smoothly aren't doing "women's work" or "emotional labor." They're the leaders. What they're doing is called leadership. Promote them appropriately, back them up assiduously, and give them assistants as necessary." My workplace actually does this! I went through a whole Leadership training program that was six entire days of learning how to be empathetic and considerate and mindful of the fact that everybody you work with is a person and yeah, it's worth taking extra effort and time to make people feel good in addition to Getting Things Done! It was pretty great!

Ways To Listen

Last December, a couple rounds into the night, a friend and I decided to go to Barcelona in the spring for Primavera Sound. Unlike a lot of semi-drunk good ideas, we followed through on this one, and now the trip is just a little more than a week away, so I'm spending a lot of time with the festival-curated Spotify playlist, mostly in my office in the gaps between meetings. Listening to music at work these days is something I do on a pretty nice set of speakers (with a subwoofer even!) that were a gift for Andy about 13 years ago. They're good. So good that Andy won't use them at home because they'd annoy our downstairs neighbor, who does not deserve to be annoyed. So we use an even older, weaker set of speakers at home, from a computer that I had in college, only now we plug iPhones into it instead of a beige desktop computer tower, and the nice speakers live in my office. I arrive later than most people to work, and stay later too, and sometimes when everyone is gone but I'm still around, I turn the volume way way up and get startled when someone pokes their head through my door to ask what I'm listening to. I've stuck post-it notes to one of the speakers, with lists of songs that I like, maybe candidates for a mix, and the most recent post-it reads "Geographer, Brighton Music Hall 5/19." It was placed initially to remind me to buy a ticket to the show, and now it's there to remind me to go to the show.

Since changing jobs, I have mostly traded my 20-ish minute bicycle commute for a 20-ish minute walking commute, along side streets in Mid-Cambridge that are quiet at 9 AM and give me the mistaken impression that I am alone in the city. The thing to do with a nominally-empty city street, if you are walking to work with earbuds in, is to find ways to walk while also dancing. Adjust your stride so that your footfalls keep time with the beat. Lip-sync, of course, with greater or lesser enthusiasm depending on the risk that you'll turn a corner and come face-to-face with another late-riser. Nod your head intently and maybe gesture with your hands abstractly, or beat a rhythm against your thigh with an open hand. Pause at corners to wait out traffic or a red light and take the opportunity to involve your hips. But subtly. There are people looking. Or maybe less subtly, because there are people looking.

On account of all the walking, I naturally chose the 'Make a Music Video' option for the final project in my class this semester. I managed to recruite a couple of people to let me film them in a crowded city park, and on streets around Central Square, doing that Dance Like Nobody's Watching thing. Except, of course, that everybody is watching, even moreso because there's a camera involved. They were heroically game. "What should I do next?" one asked, after I'd gotten footage of her head bobbing and foot tapping, and I said "So, uh, would you climb up on top of this picnic table and, like, kick this plastic cup off the table, and throw the paperback book you've got in your hand?" and she said "Hell yes." Eventually it was her and me and her two kids all dancing on the picnic table, and Andy behind the camera while a dozen picnickers tried to be subtle about their staring. A week later, a similar conversation, a "You're lucky I've been drinking all afternoon!" and waving pedestrians right through a shot because it looks even better if you know that there are other people around to see it all. We did three or four passes on one chorus in front of a mural, and every time I stopped recording she'd say, hopefully, "Should I do it again?!" and I said "Of course!" but ended up using the first take in the end. That's the one where she threw her purse to the ground so her arms would be free as she spun in semi-sober circles in impractical shoes. I get carried away... the chorus begins, and though it's not really about getting carried away that way, it's still the moment where smaller gestures turn big, and I cut to a wide shot, and behind the camera, every time, I danced too.

One Year Later

The first day of spring is going to be strange for me for a while, I think. Last year it was the day my grandfather died, and from now on it will be an anniversary I observe whether I'm aware of it or not. His death hit me harder than I expected it to, and it was probably for the best that I didn't see my family until a month later for his memorial, because I was a little bit less of a mess by then. Not so much less that I didn't blubber through the bit of hastily-written disorganized eulogizing I'd scrawled on hotel room notepad pages, but enough that I could get through half an hour of solitude without crying, which was a nice marker of progress. My commute these days, a mile-and-a-half-ish walk down Cambridge side streets, is generally a half hour of solitude, and for the first couple of weeks I had a web page open on my phone's browser with a long list of funny lines from Archer. About ten minutes from the office, I'd look at it to force myself to stop crying and give myself time to regain my composure. I've long since stopped needing to do that, but on Friday I found myself back there again. I'd been aware of the looming milestone, but it still took me by surprise. It didn't help that I've been spending time the last couple of weeks in this leadership training program at work that is heavily tilted towards fostering empathy in the workplace and forcing all the participants to do some heavy introspection. It's bringing emotions in general a little closer to the surface than I normally like them, especially when it comes to the workplace.

So here is another story about my grandfather, to mark one year without him.

I spent big chunks of my elementary school summers staying with my grandparents, in an arrangement that was probably just as much about saving money on childcare than about keeping them present in my life. While my dad's mother in LA really catered to my presence with shopping trips and Disneyland excursions, my mom's parents just integrated me into their routines and schedule. One big element of their routine was that my grandfather would go out for long walks early in the morning before sitting down to breakfast with me and my grandmother. I've never been much of an early riser, but one morning I was invited to get up super-early to join my grandfather for one of these walks, and thrilled at being invited into something that seemed so private. I'm not sure how far we walked, and I don't remember much of what we talked about beyond the moment where he stopped to point out a spot along the road where a family dog had been killed by a car decades ago. The most vivid memory I have was of somehow smacking into a cactus and getting a bunch of spines stuck in the palms of my hands. Eventually his vision got bad enough that he had to stick to familiar streets, and eventually couldn't really venture much beyond the house on his own*, and that day wound up being the only time I went out with him on one of these walks. The walk itself, obviously, wasn't even particularly memorable, but I remember it all the same, usually when I take an indirect route home from work to give myself a bit more alone time, or get deliberately lost on foot in a new city. The virtues of travel on foot - the reliability and independence of it, the slow steadiness, the flexibility to go literally anywhere, to move at a pace that allows you to really see the things around you - all seem like qualities that describe my grandfather as well. He was never, I think, in much of a hurry to get anywhere, but still managed to cover a lot of ground in his life. I never knew whether he followed a particular route on those walks, or just wandered, but I like to think that he did both, deciding each morning what sort of day it was.

* It took a long time to get to this point, though. For a while he would run local errands on an adult-sized tricycle. He was probably legally blind already at the time. He was definitely legally blind when he was 93 years old and climbing a ladder in the backyard to manhandle a scarecrow into a cherry tree, and the time he swore up and down that he could totally cut down a tree in the front yard with a chainsaw unassisted.

Habits Related To Weather

I have a snow day ritual that is sort of counterintuitive, born on a weekend in 2003 when I got stuck at a friend's house in Watertown by a snowstorm and got so stir-crazy that I borrowed a pair of Doc Martens from her and, fortified with Chambord-spiked hot chocolate, walked to Harvard Square. When I know a big storm is coming, I delay any errands, avoid the laying in of supplies, and wait, if I can, until the peak of a storm to leave the house. I travel on foot to the neighborhood grocery store that is furthest from my house and buy the ingredients for a spinach lasagna that is such a pain in the ass to make that I basically only bother when I've been gifted a day off of work for weather-related reasons, or when a very close friend gives birth to a baby. Sometimes there's a box of brownie mix in the grocery bag as well. I walk in the center of empty streets, enjoying the temporary defeat and burial of all cars, listening to songs carefully chosen to make stomping through snowpiles sound like heroism rather than drudgery. If this happens after dark, so much the better. I take my time. I walk into the wind. I stop to admire the contrast between dark bare tree branches and the white that sits on top of them. I forget to raise the hood of my coat, and it fills with blown-in snow. I brush myself off on thresholds and shake my head like a wet dog so that I don't drip on already-wet floors, and knock my feet against doorjambs in a deliberate pattern - left instep twice, left toe, right instep twice, right toe.

Friday night I walked the two miles to an apartment in East Cambridge for a small social event. It was cold enough out to make me consider shortening the trip by hopping on a bus, but too cold to actually stand around waiting for a bus, so I didn't. Before I left, I reached deep into a mass of scarves hanging in the closet  to pull out the last of the winter layers - a giant gray handknit wool thing that I can wrap twice around my neck, high enough to cover my face to the nose, and still have enough length left at the ends to spread in a double-layer across my chest. I hadn't worn it yet this winter because it's the warmest scarf that I own, and I like the reassurance of knowing that whatever I am wearing, there is something warmer in reserve. At some point every year I resign myself to wearing a coat*, to a hat that covers my ears, to gloves, but I always resist these concessions, holding off as long as possible and have walked around deep into January with bare hands jammed into the pockets of a thick hoodie and no hat on. And when temperatures rise briefly, I shuck off the layers and revel in how well I've adapted, so that what was miserable in November is glorious in February. Today, when I made the grocery run, the first store didn't have one thing I needed. The second didn't either, but the third did, so there will be lasagna tonight. I wore my warmest hat, but the warmest scarf is back in the closet.

And even when I've dressed in my thickest layers and warmest garments, I have one final resort. The Chicago winters of my childhood are a talisman now, the K-12 years that never yielded a single snow day and the feel of feeble heat lamps on el platforms. It's windier here, usually snowier, but never as cold, and that knowledge keeps me warm.

* For a long time after I moved to Boston I never actually wore a proper coat, even though I did own one. That time I walked home from Watertown I was wearing a zip-up hoodie from Target under a nylon windbreaker.

Seeing Yourself

It's a neat coincidence that the day a set of remarkably un-diverse Oscar nominations were announced, and the week Eddie Huang threw a bit of a call-out bomb, and a couple of days before we saw Selma, Andy and I finished a three-day binge-watch of Transparent.

I didn't know much about the show, and what I did now had mostly to do with its A-plot premise, an older person's gender transition and the story of how she comes out to her family and how they respond. None of that is particularly relatable to me, but relatability isn't something I intentionally seek out in stories - often it's the opposite - and a well-told story is usually well-told because it creates relatability out of utterly unrelatable situations or characters. So the fact that the family in question is a Jewish one, made up of two divorced parents and their secular-ish Southern California-raised adult children was a mild surprise. The bigger surprise was how intensely familiar that family was to me, right down to the architecture and floor plan of the family home, and how much that familiarity meant to me. It sent me scrambling, actually, mentally collecting details that I had filed under "My Family (On My Dad's Side)" and hastily moving them over to "California Jews," the shorthand Andy always used for my Dad's family and I never fully bought into until it was reflected back to me by a totally (okay, mostly) fictional family. I can't quite point to specifics (beyond that house, oh my god that house) just a gut feeling of recognition and understanding.

And the realization that something you always thought of as sui generis, your own particular weirdo thing, is actually a capital-T Thing - that not-aloneness - is something I can't recall ever experiencing in such a bone-deep way. This despite the fact that I'm so disconnected from my California Jewishness that I probably haven't mentioned it once here since way back in 2005, when my California Jewish grandmother died. A lot of what I know about Jewishness wasn't inherited, it was learned - a series of children's books here, living in a partly-Hasidic neighborhood there - and I'm reluctant at times to even claim the identity in any real way. I like to tell people the story about the time I went to a Catholic school's trivia night fundraiser and mopped the floor with the rest of the room in the category of 'Yiddish Vocabulary,' joking that I'd never felt more Jewish in my life. The truth, though, is that of the ten questions, I could only answer one based on something I learned growing up as a kid. The rest came from a random book I happened to read, more as a hobby sociolinguist than a Jew.*

So it's real easy for me right now to understand why such a seemingly-trivial thing like "Are The Oscar Nominations Diverse Enough?" can matter profoundly to a person, even though it won't save someone getting killed by a cop, or erase the household wealth disparity. Because stories are important to us. We narrativize everything** in part to make meaning out of the unpredictable chaos of our lives, and use shared stories as a way to talk about ourselves with each other. And if nobody is telling your story - your lived experience of whatever it is that makes you feel like you - people who are not-you lose out on a way to understand you, and you lose a way to tell people about yourself. Having stories and characters to identify with feels like a flimsy thing, hard to give much weight and easy to write off, and I've certainly been guilty of rolling my eyes at "I'm such a Carrie Bradshaw!"-type comments, but it's powerful. I knew that before, I guess. I read The Celluloid Closet, even! But oh, that house. I remember that house in my body, and arguments over a funeral deli order, too, and how guilt-laden simple expressions of love can be, and that's only just the tiniest bit of who I am but it means so so much. I don't generally feel invisible, like there are no mirrors that show my reflection, but if I did? If I didn't have any other stories to point to to help tell the story of who I am? That shock of realization would have laid me out instead of just taking up residence in a corner of my head long enough to simmer into a blog post. Yes, it matters.

* The story of how I learned that one word is a gem of a memory. My grandmother's partner Hank was someone I adored growing up - smart, funny, mean, a poet, interested in everything - and he was driving me around one day in his giant van when another driver cut him off. He leaned on the horn perfunctorily and yelled "Schmuck!" and I asked from the passenger seat, "What's a schmuck, Hank?" I don't know how old I was, but I was definitely so short my feet didn't reach the floor of the van. "It's a penis, honey," he said mildly, already over the brief moment of anger.
** Dude, sports.  Sports is just a framework for storytelling - set up some constraints and see how many variants on the same story we can spin out of it. How many stories can we get? Infinity, that's how many.

Not All Women

There used to be a dive-y bar on the outskirts of Central Square that I didn't like to walk past. It wasn't a dive bar like the ones my friends and I liked, where the diviness was sort of cultivated and semi-ironic. It was a serious dive, for serious drinkers, and every time I passed it one of the patrons would say something to me that I didn't like hearing. So I didn't walk past it. I crossed the street to avoid it, and I always thought twice about ordering takeout from the Thai place on the same block even though I liked the Thai place. Sometimes if I was hanging out with a dude, I'd suggest we get Thai takeout for dinner, just so I could get Thai food without having to cringe while walking past the stupid dive bar. The dive bar is long gone now, its patrons scattered to who-knows-where, and the Thai place is gone too, and there aren't any places I cross the street to avoid now. There never were any other places I crossed the street to avoid. The dive bar stays with me because it was so contrary to every other part of my lived experience.

Street harrassment seems to be a topic that pops up every few months: a Hollaback video or Daily Show segment here, a hashtag frenzy there, and every time it does, I find myself startled by the universality of something that basically doesn't exist for me. That's not to say that I am totally invisible in public, but the qantity and tenor of my interactions with strangers, with strange men, are rare and neutral enough that they barely seem worth remembering. Talking to strangers in general is something I kind of enjoy, and that's true of men and women, but strangers generally leave me alone. And in the aftermath of the video or the frenzy, when someone oboxious and disingenuous says "Gosh, but men are just trying to be NICE and COMPLIMENTARY and FRIENDLY, what's wrong with that?" I almost kind of buy the argument, which is really disorienting. But then I remember crossing the street to avoid the dive bar.

And I wonder, too. What it is about me that makes me exempt. How the unconscious and instant calculus of glancing eye contact reads in things about me and concludes "No. Not this one." Is it the ever-present earbuds and resting bitchface? Is it the relative rarity of makeup or shoes-that-are-not-sneakers? Is it that sidewalks are more exposed than bike lanes? The peculiarities of Boston relative to other walkable cities where strangers come face-to-face all the time?* The whatever-it-is that has led many lesbians to assume I'm one? Does dresssing mostly like a twelve-year-old boy coupled with my height truly signal 'child' rather than 'woman'? Do I just miss it all because I tend to look down at the ground a lot when I walk? No, seriously, is my bitchface just that powerful? These theories become more and more convoluted and implausible as I exhaust the simpler ones and inch closer to the one I don't want to consider: That I am simply ugly. Not invisible at all. Noticeable, just not worth the noticing, and that's a painful possibility.

But mostly I am grateful for my exemption. It seems to have spared me from some of the rituals that women undertake: the streets that get crossed to avoid the bars, the deliberate hardening of face and thousand-yard-stare, the never-wear-your-hair-in-a-ponytail-while-walking-at-night, and not having to do those things is a privilege. Not even stopping to consider that I might want to do those things before deciding not to do them is an even greater one. I talked about it with an older woman a couple years ago and she seemed almost awed, then disbelieving. She asked questions that probed back to adolescence, maybe thinking I had just chosen or forced myself to forget an avalanche of rotten experiences, and forgotten I'd done it. When I walked past the dive bar, it was like passing through a portal to #YesAllWomen-land, and I know I would not enjoy living there. So I remember it, and think "It's probaby the bitchface" as I walk where I want to and never cross the street unless I need to get to the other side.

* This one, actually, is something I'm pretty sure of, and it doesn't surprise me that many of the horror-story first-person accounts come from women who live in New York City. The city's reputation for unfriendliness makes no sense to me, and I do get acknowledged by strangers way more often in New York than I do in Boston. But even there it's always felt friendly, never threatening, even at 4 AM from a drunk guy looking for directions to a strip club. Hell, the last time I was in Manhattan somebody chatted me up in a bar and forced a phone number on me, which had never happened before in my life. (The somebody was a straight woman.)

A Dozen Years, Give or Take

On Saturday I went hunting for an old entry I wrote back in 2002 and passed a couple of hours remembering things that I did and said and felt during the first couple of months after Andy showed up semi-unexpectedly at my 24th birthday party with the sign from a CTA bus stop and a Kurosawa Critierion Collection DVD. He stayed late, sitting with me on the back porch as we carefully talked around some things that didn't get said out loud for another few weeks, during another conversation on that back porch. In the middle of all of it is a private entry that begins "So that I don't forget this," and I had, so am glad I thought to put it in writing. Some of what I wrote back then has shifted in meaning with time. There's one tossed-off transcription of a short conversation he had with a mutual friend of ours that's downright sad now, though less sad than it would have been if I unearthed it before this year. The core of it, the thing where mutual friend summed up his perception of Andy and me, that's still true. My favorite is a bit of stream-of-consciousness story-type-thing featuring an underwater dance with a giant squid and a home-cooked meal. It, too, has shaded in meaning over time, despite being a total invention, and the tossed-off reference to three countries I have never visited at the end seems significant, especially because I've been to so many other countries in the meantime.

I dug around in old emails after that, too, looking for the response to the squid-thing that he sent, and found the one from July 18th, 2002. That's the date I count forward from, when I bother to count, and I always have to look up the email to find the exact date. I remember other details, though, like how far away we were sitting from each other when we first kissed, and which way I leaned to reach him, and not the exact words, but the formality of the statements that came before the kissing, because we were both a little wary, both technically on the rebound, both probably unsure. That's something I really don't remember - feeling even the tiniest bit uncomfortable around him - but it was real.

The email of July 18th, 2002, subject line "Nope," says only this:
"Not regretting.

So there.


If I were a more careful and sentimental person, I would have sent an identical email every July 18th since then, but I am not. Still, it would be true every time.


A perennial travel debate is New versus Familiar. It's a good debate because there are no right or wrong answers, and there is real value in each approach, but my international travel has always been heavily tilted towards the New.* Sometimes I split the difference by going somewhere New that is also relatively Familiar, like my visit to Morocco the year after I went to Turkey, or Indonesia the year after Vietnam, but on both occasions I found that I enjoyed myself more when I stopped focusing on the Familiar (and how it wasn't entirely familiar) over the New. I dabbled this January in Familiar, spending a day in Panama City eight years after my last visit, but I went even further with it over the last two weeks, making a return trip to Turkey, a place I fell in love with seven years ago. I came back intending to return someday, and told enough people about the reasons why that I was able to do it with company this time.**

I am still in love with Turkey, and I know that it's real because Turkey has changed, and so have I, and we accept that about each other. I know now that certain attractions in Istanbul require waiting in line, and that things are more expensive, that the overnight buses have seat-back entertainment units, and that the ticket stubs for cultural heritage sights have been redesigned and are quite lovely both individually and collectively. My parents did not insist that I keep them notified of my location this time around, and I'm not entirely sure they knew when I was actually out of town. But the fundamentals are still in place, and so are the shockingly friendly people, the Old Book Bazaar, the pigeons clustered around the Yeni Camii and the rock tomb at the end of that one street in Kaş that's just sort of there the way that the Old State House in Boston is just there, history that you get so comfortable with it becomes a mere wayfinding device. Turn left here for the entrance to the subway station, at the place where they read the Declaration of Independence for the first time in public. I bought a light scarf before my last trip to wear in mosques, and it came back with me, as did the tiny phrasebook and an Orhan Pamuk paperback that is not the same Orhan Pamuk paperback I took last time, but is close enough, both in theme and in how much it weighs in a half-full backpack.

I stayed mostly on the Aegean coast this time, covering less ground, taking fewer long-distance night buses and in less of a hurry in general, though the list of Things I Saw And Did is still quite substantial, especially once I was traveling solo and free to assume the persona that Andy once called "The Little General" after the forced march of one of my itineraries in Barcelona. The Little General exhausted the sightseeing possibilities in a pretty major coastal town in like 24 hours and was like "So I'll just go to Greece tomorrow" where she did pretty much the same thing to the old city of Rhodes. I went back to Kaş, for a couple of hours; and Ephesus, for a morning; and the Blue Mosque, for a few minutes, and to a lot of places for the first time, including some things I was sad about missing back in 2007. I didn't try any majorly new foods, just ate all the things I'd been craving for seven years in multiple varieties. Olives for breakfast is still something I think the rest of the world should get on.

My homecoming was not profoundly different than last time. I went to sleep earlier is the biggest thing.

* Domestically, though, it's pretty funny how frequently I travel and how few places I travel to. It's the handful of big coastal cities you'd expect just to look at me: Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Portland, Seattle, blah blah blah. I get to one new American destination a year, tops, if I'm deliberate about it and lucky.
** Alone or With Company, of course, is a whole other perennial travel debate that I have a pretty solid opinion on. But as with the other, I'm finding some value in flexibility, and will have had company at least part of the time on 2 of my 3 international trips this year. And, wow, I'll have taken three international vacations this year! My life is pretty great.