Sunday, May 25, 2014

expectations of chivalry

Chivalry: The brave, honorable, and courteous character attributed to the ideal knight; disinterested bravery, honor, and courtesy; chivalrousness. --Oxford English Dictionary

A few weeks ago, I was riding the BART from Oakland to San Francisco. It was night, but not yet very late. I was with my sister and a friend, three women on our way home from a music show in a friend of a friend's living room. We were dressed nicely, but not extraordinarily. We were sober, tired, and probably talking about books or food. Across the aisle from us were four young men, well dressed, not boisterous. They were talking about apps and office politics.

Standing in the aisle, there was a crazy drunk.

The crazy drunk was muttering, occasionally shouting, and he smelled of drink, drink, drink. He sat down next to my friend and reached into my lap to grab my hands. He had filthy hair, filthy clothes, and his hands were so dirty that I could feel his palms sticking to my wrists. He said something and then he laughed. His eyes were very wet and very red. I thought about how unfortunate it was that I had crossed my legs with my bad knee on top. What if I kicked him and I was at a disadvantage because I have a leg that is slightly less confident in force? "Don't touch me," I said. He laughed and laughed. He was a cartoon lunatic, every now and then thrusting his chin or chest at one of us so we would clutch and wilt.

We didn't say anything because we were scared. We are physically capable women. I don't think any of us would hesitate to tell off an overeager man in a bar, to deflect a grope with a swat or a slap. But, when the harassment is both drunk and unstable, when you can't trust the efficacy of shame in returning  the situation to accepted boundaries, it seems safer to stay silent and hold still.

The four men across the aisle didn't say anything either. They looked at us out of the corner of their eyes and talked about bourbon and a co-worker's latest mistakes.

Eventually, the crazy drunk left us. He went to the other end of the car, slapped a man across the face, and started a fight. He had to be restrained by another man and pushed out of the train when we finally emerged from the tunnel that runs under the Bay.

People clapped for the man who restrained the crazy drunk. The four men across the aisle from us pointedly did not look. They talked about their plans for the weekend.

When my sister, friend, and I got off the train, we discovered that each of us was upset that the men across from us said nothing. We also discovered that each of us instantly felt guilty for feeling upset. We felt guilty for expecting a certain behavior, for expecting someone to rescue us from the situation. Why couldn't we do it ourselves? Aren't we strong? Aren't we adults? Why do we have the expectation that a person will intervene on our behalf, just because he is physically capable and a man?

We talked about how different a city is when you walk around it with a man from when you walk around it with another woman. We talked about how we have all been in situations where we were harassed, menaced, and scared by a man, but had the aggression immediately dissipate when another man leaned over and said, "are you bothering her?" Just that. "Are you bothering her?" We talked about how we have all been in similar situations where another woman asked the same thing and the harassment grew more belligerent, gleeful, unhinged. "How funny," says the man who harasses, gropes, or threatens us. "You're so angry. You look so pretty when you're angry." I have sat on a bus while a young man scraped a knife back and forth across the pole between us and told his friends that "girls like it when you have a knife, oh yeah, they think it's sexy," and I said nothing because I was scared.

It makes me feel both fussy and ridiculous to realize that I have expectations of chivalry from men. But, it makes me angry to know that, in certain situations, my desire to not be touched or threatened is not taken seriously until it is reinforced by a man. It makes me sad that experience has taught me that any upset I display has less effect than a man leaning over to say, "hey, man, are you bothering her?"

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"no one liked it when the cousins came up for air."

My sister and I had a conversation about dandyism and underground drug farms. It left me with a half-baked story idea that I may or may not end up working on because I am the laziest when it comes to doing research for stories.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"oh, Margot," said the tape recorder

I'm working on a new short story. It's a little bit ridiculous. 

A trick I've discovered: when bored with your own turns of phrase, particularly when you're as prone to lollygagging sentences as I am, it helps to draw a picture and write the words on the picture in as attractive a fashion as possible. Seeing them as actual objects on the paper makes me reconsider all those extra clotting words. I once had the pleasure of talking to Daniel Clowes. He told me that lettering by hand is sometimes the only way he can know what the word that should come next is. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

stories (mine) of 2013

I've left this blog cold and unattended for a long while. A long while in which many things happened and I acquired a taste for the sort of panicked mania that is brought on by working on something with equal amounts of passion and fear. 

(More about this one day, maybe. Sharp & Fine put on a show that put me through the wringer and that I loved to pieces. It was called Queen of Knives and adapted from Neil Gaiman's poem of the same name. Pretty pictures HERE.)

So, 2013: the year of frequent passion and terror. And, somehow, also the first year I've ever had more than one story published. I had exactly one more than one--and for someone who finishes a story only rarely due to laziness and frequent distraction, having two come out in one year seems incredibly indulgent--and I am going to savor that fact for a little moment, feel very queenly and pleased with myself, before returning to the world of dance and passions and, hopefully, a bit less fear.


The Manticore, the Mermaid, and Me (in Unnatural Creatures, ed. by Neil Gaiman and Maria Dahvana Headley, April 2013). A story about two young people who are very dear to each other, but who can't quite seem to see the same thing at the same time. Also, a story about a natural history museum, monsters, an overheated summer, and overheated hearts. Indulges my obsessions with rogue taxidermy and awkward transformations.

Because of this story, I have an email thread in which Neil asks whether I have a story he might like and to which I reply, in the wee hours of the morning, by calling Neil and Maria the cat's pajamas, making the unrelated declaration that "I HATE LOVE," and blaming all email typos on a slew of French 75s.

Eating the Pomegranate (Electric Velocipede, December 2013). A story about things that I don't normally write stories about: sisters, strange fixations on appetite, Persephone. Also, a story about the things I'm always writing about: ghosts, disasters, people leaving. The people in this story are mostly unhappy, the kind of people I'd find a drag to be around if they were real, but who somehow became bizarrely inescapable when I made them up. I told myself, very specifically, that I didn't want to write about Persephone (I mean, how annoying is she, with her whiff of piteous manipulation?), but, apparently, I couldn't help myself.


This is what I look like after a year in which I have been very, very excited and equally nervous for a long time (and, it seems, incapable of scheduling a haircut). I think I am trying to look intense. My friend Lauren made a Marat/Sade comment. I have since made friends with my hairbrush again.

Cheers, 2013.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

sharing a table with strangers

A recent coffeeshop experience.
(or, call me Miss Lonelyhearts, apparently)

(click for larger + clearer)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

thoughts on bus proximity

When I ride the bus alone, I sometimes wonder whether I am especially neurotic, or whether we are all guilty of fast-talking, interior monologues.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

playing badly

When I was a kid, I took piano lessons. I was probably around eight or ten. I don't remember much about them. I don't even remember why I wanted to take them in the first place. My parents were gentle and indulgent when it came to hobbies, and they encouraged my sister and me to try everything that we wanted to, as long as we liked it enough to take it seriously. I studied ballet, gymnastics, and horseback riding. I took lessons in drawing and writing. I read thick books filled with pictures of birds and commandeered my parents' bed as a base from which I could spend hours identifying various versions of the common sparrow.

I was not a musical child. My dad played the piano, so we always had a piano in the house, but he rarely touched it. We listened to music--classical music and oldies--and my mom would sometimes play the guitar and sing (my mom has a lovely voice), but my innate musical talent amounted to just about nothing. I took piano lessons for a little while, failed to become good at making music, failed to care enough to struggle through the discomfort of being bad at something, and stopped.

I used to dislike doing things I was bad at. They made me feel uncomfortable and stupid and conspicuously mortified, like a clown taking a pratfall with a whole neon world blinking in pity. I have always had a fear of looking stupid. It is one of my most annoying faults, the thing that will make me nod my head when I haven't the foggiest idea and sit glum on the sidelines while everyone else slides around in the mud.

I am bad at music. I have no talent or instinct for it. I have the dullest of ears and no sensitivity to the beautiful, mathematical landscapes of rhythm. Consciously remembering a melody is a struggle. I love music, am fascinated and moved and riled up by it, but I am, frankly, terrible at it.

In January, I started taking piano lessons. Once a week, I go to the Community Music Center in the Mission and am bad at playing the piano. It makes me incredibly happy. It is an enormous and alien pleasure to honestly take pleasure in the study of something I'm bad at. I have no real hope of becoming musical; my brain doesn't seem to be the right shape for it and my ideas don't speak music as a native language. When I want to say something, it never occurs to me to hum a tune. But, I love the way it feels to crawl toward minimal comprehension of a subject so enormously wonderful that it gets to stroll beloved through life. It reminds me of learning to read. Here, again, are the weird moments when a mark on a page becomes a recognizable object, then a symbol, then a block of symbols, then a magical, moveable strand of fluency. Here is a reminder that turning a page was once an awkward movement and not an invisible transition.

I get the dual thrills of struggling with the ideas and struggling with the fine motor control that underlie something that I adore, but have absolutely no stake in being good at. No one cares whether I become competent at making music or remain comically confused (except, maybe, my piano teacher, who is pure, delightful, Eastern European fanaticism). I am allowed the happiness of a slow motion plod toward small sparks of understanding, which somehow feel like little anvils falling on my head and bright little birds circling around, singing a stupidly cheerful tune.