Several months ago, I got two parking tickets. Only in reality, I didn’t get them. I just went out to get in my car, only to discover that it wasn’t where I thought I’d left on the corner across from my apartment building. This in and of itself isn’t that strange, because a) Your average New Yorker doesn’t drive every day and therefore might only visit their car once a week when street cleaning regulations force them to do so; b) Your average person who works in film production is used to finding themselves parking their car after a 12+ hour day topped off with an hour of searching for a parking spot at 3:30 am, the details of which they might not recall in full; c) your average 50-something-year-old entering menopause has a brain under attack by hormones that make it much more spongey than it used to be, and d) I am, yes, all three of these things. But because I’d been unusually coherent when I’d parked it after grocery shopping a few days earlier, and because I was also fairly sure that I’d seen a truck from my electricity supplier, Consolidated Edison, on that corner the day before, I felt pretty confident that my car had not, in fact, been kidnapped by aliens (which, considering the shape it’s in, with the front bumper now out of joint from having recently been knocked off and reattached with a couple of well-placed screws, seemed more likely than its having been stolen).Continue reading “How I Learned That My Sanity Is Worth More Than $230”
Things I like about fall in New York City:
1) It stops smelling so “New Yorky.”
(aka like urine)
2) Less sweating.
Summer in New York is just one long odyssey of walking walking walking between air conditioned spaces and un-air-conditioned hell holes packed full of people and sweat, much of it mine. I’ve always been quick to overheat from any physical exertion, but that wasn’t a huge issue until I moved to a city where it was humid and I was always in a hurry. But soon after I moved here in 1990, I found the perfect tool for dealing with that: iced coffee. Walking around with an iced coffee in my hand was basically how I controlled my body temperature, because I really didn’t seem able to do it any other way. To my mind, there are no other iced beverages. Iced tea, either sweetened or not, is gross, and soft drinks aren’t my thing. I do love lemonade, but can’t drink that now because of my acid reflux — which is why I had to give up the coffee.
I steal pens.
I’m not entirely sure when I started doing it, but I’m pretty sure it happened at a hotel. Of course, the pens in hotels are kind of meant to be taken, so it’s not really “stealing,” they’re free advertising because they have the name of the hotel on them. Plus, they’re never very good pens to begin with, they are always your most basic ballpoint, plus they obviously come from some place that uses the cheapest plastic and smallest inkwells, because, again, they’re not so much meant to be writing implements as tiny, disposable billboards. So I have never really felt that bad about taking them home and using them as long as they last, which, considering how seldom I need to hand-write anything these days, can be quite a while. But this is why, if you ever meet me, and you ask to borrow a pen, there’s an excellent chance you’ll get one from a Hampton Inn.Continue reading “I steal pens.”
When I was growing up, I didn’t really have to think too much about what it meant to be a Jewish American. A large part of that was living in New Jersey, where being a member of the tribe isn’t exactly an anomaly. In Newark, pretty much all of my friends were Jewish or Black, until I spent 2nd grade in Catholic School. You’d think that might make it weird, but even then, it wasn’t. All my new friends just had Irish and Italian names, and I got to sit in the back during mass and read, which is the dream of every second grader. And when we moved to the suburbs, things became, if anything, more Jewy. We joined Temple Israel and actually tried going to services every once in a while, and I went to Hebrew school on Saturdays. At my suburban public grade school, I learned the term “Jappy” something my friends and I called other girls that we considered spoiled, regardless of whether or not they were Jewish, and in junior high, the school bus that came from the most wealthy, Jewish neighborhood in town was sometimes referred to as “The Jew Canoe.” Who did we learn these terms from? Other Jews. We were the ones trading in the laughable stereotypes, because that’s American Jewish culture all over: we joke because we can. It’s never been in doubt in my lifetime that we belong here, to the degree that we are comfortable poking fun at ourselves, enough that while we are very aware that we aren’t and will never be the majority — and if you forget that, you always have the 30 to 60 days of Christmas to remind you — we are perfectly okay with that; and enough to feel safe in the knowledge that the past is the past, because in the Tri-State Area in the 1970s and 80s, anti-Semitism was about as real to me as Star Wars: something that existed long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. The same thing with Nazis. Nazis were the movie villains nobody got upset about. Nobody ever said, “Why do the Nazis always have to be the bad guys?” Why? Because they were the bad guys.Continue reading “The Four (Thousand, New) Questions”
On inauguration day in 2017, which was also, sadly, my birthday, Damon and I were feeling shitty about the world, and so one way we decided to resist was by creating a Twitter bot called About a Bully, with the handle @insultingdonald. For those of you who don’t know what a Twitter bot is, it’s a Twitter account that you digitally alter to run automatically. Most bots tweet on a regular schedule or in response to certain stimuli, like people tweeting at it who want to see what it will come up with when it answers them. You can make it generate its own material if you know enough about AI (although if you think you know about AI and you don’t you can end up creating something like this, so it’s best not to fuck around), or you can create a bunch of material that it can mix up according to formulae you give it and send out at random. The material we chose for About a Bully was Trump’s insults, but rewritten so that they are directed at him. So if you follow @insultingdonald, about three times a day you will see it tweet out things like “Trump is a liar!”, or “Sleazebag President Donald Trump,” or “Never in the history of our Country has the ‘president’ been more dishonest than he is today.” If you’re familiar with our current president, you will recognize a lot of these tweets for who they are typically directed at. For instance, from time to time you’ll see something like “Donald Trump, who I call Pocahontas,” which refers to Elizabeth Warren, or something about “FAKE TRUMP,” which fills in for his many tweets railing at the media, and of course lots of “Crooked Donald”s — which you’d have to be living under a rock to not know was in its original form “Crooked Hilary,” something that also comes up at lot because he’s still regularly tweeting about her this way, two and half years after the 2016 election, especially when he’s feeling defensive about the Mueller probe, which is basically always.
Which brings me to something that I didn’t anticipate when we created this bot. Because Damon is the coder in our duo, I do most of the analog end of our work. To maintain About a Bully, this means that I am the one who has to go in every few months and collect and adapt Trump’s insults, which means I have to comb through months of his tweets at a stretch. Given how industrious he is in this one area (as opposed to pretty much anything else, other than maybe watching Fox), that generally means I spend several hours immersing myself in…well, just garbage. A stream of pure, steaming, foul-smelling offal. At least that’s how it feels.
This is not what most people experience when they follow the president on Twitter. For them, he’s just one person in their feed, that flow of tweets from all of the people they follow, that appears basically in real time. If you’re following maybe 200 people, one of whom is Trump, you’ll see his tweets mixed up with everyone else’s, popping up a few times a day — which is why lots of people I’ve always assumed are sane, like some of my friends as well as Jordan Peele, Chris Pratt, Chris Rock, Seth Meyers, and John Cusack, who don’t have to follow him for work like journalists or politicians presumably do, can tolerate following him (although the comedians do also need to generate material, so there’s that).
But if you go to Trump’s Twitter page and read three to six months of tweets at a stretch, the picture is very different. First of all, you see just how much he repeats himself, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and just keep going with the overs. He hammers away at the same claims, complaints and attacks, day after day — sometimes the exact same, when he retweets himself, as he frequently does, or when he uses his regular slogans, like some version of “THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA IS THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.” He also repeatedly uses the same words or phrases, such as
- sacred (this one’s especially bizarre, given all that we know about him)
- NO COLLUSION
- PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT (ironic)
- not smart / low IQ (also ironic, for someone who threatened his high school and college not to divulge his transcripts or SAT scores)
- crazy (okay, let’s just say they are all ironic)
- disgrace / disgraceful
- conflicted (used to describe someone or something that has a conflict of interest, not someone who feels conflicted. Yeah, took me a while to figure that one out, since my reaction was always, “I don’t really think Bob Mueller is conflicted at all about the Russia investigation.”)
- fake or FAKE
- failed, or failing
- lying or lyin’
- Crooked, as I already mentioned, always capitalized because it’s always used as part of, or a substitute for, Hilary Clinton’s name.
Whether this repetitiveness is a strategy or something of which he’s unaware, or a combination of the two, is hard to say since we can’t actually go inside his mind (although reading his tweets gets pretty close, which, again, is why I feel covered in filth after doing it for a few hours). Regardless, it is mind-numbing, and thus hard not to read as both the work of someone absent-minded and slightly deranged, and propaganda. Especially because, second, his tweets are just full of flat-out lies, which he also repeats. This is a technique we’ve seen perfected at Fox News and then passed on to the entire Republican Party as “staying on message,” but it’s especially necessary if you’re trying to generate a “fact” out of thin air. Here are just the ones that he said so far today:
- “The Wall is being built and is well under construction.” People on both sides of the aisle (most blatantly his friend and foe Ann Coulter) have pointed out repeatedly how untrue this is.
- “We are apprehending record numbers of illegal immigrants – but we need the Wall to help our great Border Patrol Agents!” Impossible, since only 521K were apprehended in 2018, and the trend is downward overall, from a high of 1.5 million in 2000. He actually claimed himself that the numbers were down throughout 2017 and 2018, as proof that his border policies were working, and has only now 180-ed on that to prove we have a “state of emergency.”
- “Both the Judge and the lawyer in the Paul Manafort case stated loudly and for the world to hear that there was NO COLLUSION with Russia.” What the judge actually said was that Manafort was “not before this court for anything having to do with collusion with the Russian government to influence this election,” which is not at all the same thing, and the lawyer who said there was no collusion was Manafort’s lawyer, who also claimed he wasn’t guilty of bank fraud or cheating on his taxes, two things of which he was just convicted.
And this is not an unusual amount, since, according to the Washington Post the president averaged 15 false claims a day in 2018.
Third, his tweets are full of incorrect grammar and spelling. Typos like “hamberders” and “Covfefe” have become the most famous instances, but nearly every tweet has something wrong with it. There’s erroneous capitalization (most of which he claims is for added emphasis, but in the case of, for example, “Where are the new Texts between Agent Lisa Page and her Agent lover, Peter S?”, what is there to emphasize about Texts?). There is the weird/incorrect use of punctuation, like dashes and scare quotes where they don’t belong and missing apostrophes where they do (here’s one that contains all three!: “Without strong Borders, we don’t have a Country – and the voters are on board with us. Be strong and smart, don’t fall into the Democrats “trap” of Open Borders and Crime!”). And there are the most basic mistakes like spelling “lose” as “loose,” “heal” as “heel” (very Freudian), “there” as “their” and vice versa, “too” or “two” as “to,” etc etc. Of course with any of these, you can say that lots of people make these kinds of mistakes, but you must always remember, they aren’t the president of the United States.
Which is what’s so remarkable and disturbing about diving into this stream of spew: it’s yet another appalling example of something we’ve just accepted Trump does that you cannot imagine any other president would have been caught dead doing, of something that is not normal that we’ve just gotten used to. Even W, who we all thought was not the sharpest tool in the shed, knew enough to delegate things he wasn’t good at (and if the world as we know it is fucked because he delegated too many of them to Dick Cheney, that’s not because Cheney was not competent at achieving what he wanted, but because he was). Trump’s Twitter feed shows him not only to be just as stupid and arrogant as you think — because he figures that all of this thoughtless, repetitive crap that comes into his head and then out of his tiny fingers is exciting, beautiful, tremendous!, just as it is, and thus doesn’t need to be vetted or edited, even when it potentially obstructs justice or reveals information damaging to national security — but even more self-promoting, defensive, childish, crude, and vindictive, and obsessively so. It’s the feed of someone who so believes that the only truth is what he wants it to be, and that he can make the whole world that way if he just continues to hammer it into submission, repeatedly, day after day after day. And on a lot of those days, it seems that America keeps proving him right. Republican lawmakers are certainly trying.
Perhaps the saddest thing that we’ve figured out since 2015, when the New York Times started collecting his insults (and we give them full credit for tracking this phenomenon before we did), is that Trump has averaged 1.8 per day. And that means, since he actually can go for days without an insult if things are going well for him or if he just feels like retweeting other people (and we only include the insults that originate with him), that the concentration of insults you’ll encounter on a given day can often be an impressive four or five. Now, I’m sure we all know people who average more insults than this — the worst bully you ever encountered in junior high, the most horrible boss you ever had, the crazy neighbor down the hall who made your life hell, Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh — but again, none of these people are the President of the United States, to whom we somehow chose to give more power than anyone else in the nation, and in doing so, perhaps the world.
One other thing I noticed this time around, though, was that there are now a lot of people trolling Trump. More people who are anti-Trump than pro respond to his tweets these days, and there are people who do it relentlessly. Sometimes they have cogent arguments with evidence to support them, but a lot of the posts just include memes and name-calling. Then the MAGA people troll the trolls, and then other people troll them, and on and on, until all the yelling and insults surrounding his feed become a reflection of it. It’s sort like what our bot does, only we created our thing to purposely hold up a funhouse mirror to Trump’s tweets and point out their ugly absurdity, whereas this flow of comment bile just shows how he’s actually reshaped so much of the way people “talk” about politics now into a warped reflection of himself. And yes, you can and must also blame the internet for that, and Newt Gingrich, and Steve Bannon, and Roger Ailes, but Trump is their golem, the ultimate manifestation of what we let them do, brought to life in such horrible fashion that many days it still doesn’t seem real to me. And then I go read his fucking tweets.
I used to think that if your average Republican — not his die-hard supporters, because I’ve given up on them — read his feed the way that I do, with all the repetition and lies and mistakes, and repetition of the lies and mistakes, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and hopefully you get it now, they’d recognize how appalling it is that Trump is our president, and realize they can’t vote for him in 2020. But now I think maybe they’d just see it all as normal, as the way we talk about issues, the way we talk about each other: us vs. them, good vs. bad, my truth vs. your truth because I make mine real, everything justified in this zero-sum conflict which is best expressed not in conversation, but in insults. And where do you go from there?
1. Forgot to move my car and got a street cleaning ticket.
I know, those of you who don’t live in New York may not know what this is or why it’s embarrassing, but here we have something called alternate side of the street parking, and it’s how car owners organize their lives. You know that you’ll have to move your car once or twice a week, depending where you park it, and so you must plan for this every time you take your car out – or don’t. Because there have been times I chose not to drive somewhere because I knew I’d have a hell of a time parking when I got home from work at midnight on a Monday — Monday night being the worst in my neighborhood of Tuesday, Wednesday, Tuesday-Thursday, and Monday-Thursday spots — so I decided, instead, to take the subway, even thought it added an hour to my commute (I know I’m lucky to have a decent public transportation option when a lot of people don’t, and I do try to use it whenever possible. It’s just that when getting to Greenpoint at 5 am can be either a 20 minute car ride or a 1.5-hour odyssey on the train if everything goes according to plan, and these days it rarely does, one does tend to opt for using the fossil fuels. I’m sorry). You also become obsessed with spots. Even when you’re walking around like a normal New Yorker, you’ll just notice a really juicy one and think, “Ooh, that’s a good spot!” After all those nights of driving in circles and scanning the streets while having to keep your eyes propped open because you’ve already been awake for 16 hours, is it any wonder that your mind becomes trained in this way?
Which is why it’s so ridiculous that I was fifteen minutes late to move my car on Wednesday. I mean, I know all the moves — the temporary double park, the fifteen minute car sit (I actually know people who plan to sit in their cars for the full 1.5 hours of street cleaning twice a week), I even have all the technology, deploying the Best Parking app for both lots and spots, setting alerts for this shit on my calendar, texting my husband to ask/remind him to move it when I’m not there (he finds it funny when I say I’m “reminding” him and it’s the first time he’s heard of it), and the fact that I managed to forget to ask him on this particular Tuesday, but then actually remembered when we got home at 10 pm, despite having had two beet martinis, then made the critical decision to get up at 8 am to move the car before the 9:30 am street clean, instead of doing the desperate night crawl, then completely forgot when I woke up the next day, is just not something that should happen. It’s been a few years since I got a ticket for this, which I guess means I’m doing something right, but as someone who’s lived in NYC for going on 29 years, and had a car for about half that time, it’s still sad.
2. Ate a lot of cheese and ice cream, even though I’m lactose intolerant.
Because turning 50 sucks, and they are delicious. And because I’m lucky to have a spouse who is very understanding.
3. Forgot to bring my mouse to work at my editing job, then bought a mouse and returned it the same day.
Part one – being that forgetful – sounds like something I shouldn’t really be doing for another ten or 15 years. Part two sounds like something I should have stopped doing in my teens, around the time when I learned how dumb it was to try calling the high school office claiming to be my mother to get back my confiscated Walkman (they didn’t buy it for a second).
For the record, I took very good care of the mouse. I didn’t even eat while working the way I usually do.
4. Walked into one of those huge maps encased in metal and glass on the subway platform while reading my phone. Again.
I first did this some time in 2018, hitting myself squarely in the forehead. This time, I looked up just as I was about to hit the thing, so I hit it with my hand instead. It still hurt. It still felt stupid.
I can say for a fact that this isn’t just about phone addiction, because I was reading the New Yorker on my phone at the time, and as a kid, I used to try and read books while walking to and from school. So this is really more about love of reading, or perhaps the use of reading as a means of escape, which I absolutely still do. I feel like maybe that’s somehow less immature than walking into something stationary while checking my Instagram for likes or taking a selfie. (For the record, I never take selfies, unless they’re of me reflected in something interesting, where my reflection is just one element of an attempt at being artsy. So there’s that.)
Yesterday, my hand was hurting and I couldn’t remember why. This is the great thing about being old and immature at the same time.
5. Lost to my husband at ping pong and Asteroids, but I did beat him at foosball.
My degree of skill at playing games that require good reflexes is pretty much the same as always: completely random. I often start off doing surprisingly well, then my opponent gets better as playing goes on, because that’s what’s supposed to happen when you remember how to do something, while, if anything, I get worse, because I lose focus and get distracted. If anything, my attention span has gotten shorter as I’ve gotten older, like most of us, because of how technology encourages that. I can’t get through writing this piece without checking my email and text messages and oh look that’s a notification that it’s my turn in Carcassonne…None of this applies to strategy games, oddly enough, which I do seem to improve at over time. Maybe it’s because I don’t have to use my brain and my body at the same time.
You might think the bigger question is, Why were you playing ping pong, Asteroids and foosball on your birthday (because that’s when we played these games)? But at this point you might not, since it kind of fits in with the whole narrative I’m building here.
6. Drank too much.
When I was younger, drinking too much meant getting sick or getting a hangover (rarely, because I was one of those lucky people who had to drink a lot to get either hungover or throw up. I’ve only been sick from drinking or hungover maybe twice each in my life), or, more likely, making an idiot out of myself. That was pretty much the worst thing that happened to me in my younger drinking years, because while I liked being relieved of my inhibitions, of which I have many because I’m a control freak, I very much don’t enjoy the idea of people noticing that I am relieved of my inhibitions, because I’m a control freak. But I can’t even get to any of those points these days, because now, drinking too much means just getting to the point of my acid reflux acting up, which, sadly, or not, happens after far fewer drinks than any of that other stuff. It’s also cumulative: if I drink four days during the week, I can probably get away with feeling okay on the first or second day, but by the fourth day, the jig is definitely up. Of course, this being the week of my 50th birthday, I went out four nights and drank on all of them, and now I feel pretty crappy. Maybe this doesn’t really count for this list, though, since I’ve only had the acid reflux thing for about five years. My body keeps changing as I get older and I’m constantly having to learn new rules about how it’s going to react to stuff. So it’s not 50 years, but five also does seem long enough to have figured this shit out by now.
7. Spent way too much time applying for something I know I’m not going to get (and may not actually want).
When I was younger, I applied to big writing and screenwriting competitions, the kind that everyone applies to, like the Nicholl Fellowship. I never won anything. Then I started getting more scientific about it, and started at what specific contests looked for, and looking for smaller competitions, like at smaller literary magazines, or competitions only for women, or only for women over 40, and started applying for those. I made it to one quarterfinal, and got a couple of nice rejection letters, and I did get some of my essays published in online magazines. I didn’t stop writing (blogging in particular did give me a small amount of instant gratification so I wasn’t going to quit doing that), but when it came to sending my writing out, I felt like I had better ways to spend my time. One of them was making documentaries — but that, of course, meant applying for grants and festivals. I got a few, and, more importantly, got some finished films out of that process that I was proud of, whereas the screenplays never got made, and so that seemed like progress. Then in the past few years I started trying to change careers and applying for editing and teaching jobs. Out of countless applications over several years, I’ve gotten maybe six interviews, but I’ve learned to streamline the process and only do applications that aren’t crazy complicated — especially because it seems like all of the editing jobs want recent college grads who are willing to work stupid hours for $40K a year and don’t care if they have health insurance.
For some reason, recently, I started adding the screenwriting applications back in. I don’t really know why. Maybe I’m hoping the world is actually changing and that people are now going to be more interested in the stuff I write, which is mostly about women, and I do see more women with writing and directing jobs in TV. But you can’t streamline an application that has 42 questions and requires you to upload a completed screenplay and a video of yourself (those of you who are aspiring screenwriters probably know the application I’m talking about because you also spent an absurd amount of time on it). And the worst part is that I probably spent as much time trying to decide whether or not to apply as I did on the actual application. Because I’m just that good at wasting time. And if I did by some miracle get this thing, I’d have to stand up and pitch my project in front of a room full of people, which is basically my worst nightmare — especially now that I’ve experienced a preview of that in the 12 takes I did of the video, and seen every little thing wrong with my word choice, and that annoying thing I do with my chin, and oh my God why can’t I stop blinking?
8. Repeatedly replayed several conversations I’ve had in the past week in my head, thinking about the stupid things I said and what I should have said instead.
I will point out that I did not do this with every conversation I’ve had in the past week, so, again, progress! But since one of those conversations was a Facebook argument about something political, I’m breaking even on this one at best.
9. Decided to write a blog called “Ten Things I Did This Week That Prove I Have Learned Nothing in 50 Years,” and then only came up with eight.
I’m lucky: I grew up in a family where thinking was encouraged. My parents treated me and my brother like we were brilliant, which makes you want to be brilliant, and come up with your own ideas. They liked to talk about stuff, and, while they definitely treated us like kids, they also didn’t really shelter us too much. My mother was always ruining TV shows for me by pointing out the sexist moments in television, from reruns of The Brady Bunch and Star Trek, to Charlie’s Angels, Three’s Company and, well, it was the 70s and 80s, so pretty much all TV shows. But they still let us watch them, as well as R-rated movies which may not have been age-appropriate, and while they told us not to smoke pot, when we found out that they smoked pot, they gave us reasons for why it was okay for them and not us (since they “weren’t going to have any more children,” which seemed to make sense at the time). Another thing they did was encourage us to take responsibility for our own decisions from a fairly young age, which meant that you could stay up until 10 or 11 pm on a school night if you really wanted to, but it’d be your fault when you felt like shit all the next day. One can debate the pros and cons of this method of child-rearing (pro: de-mystifying drug use and other taboo behaviors to the degree that they actually start to seem uncool; encouraging kids to develop strong ethical compass and think through their actions; con: kids are even more weird compared to their peers, and precociously develop anxiety and guilt about their own actions). Nevertheless, it did start me on the road to learning the value of thinking for myself.
I didn’t really come into my own as a critical thinker until junior high, however, when I spent two years in a program for gifted students. First, isolation from my peers at a time when I was supposed to be learning the social skills of adulthood and the bullying that naturally flowed from that taught me to look for other people’s faults as a means of self-defense. That made me critical, if not necessarily thoughtful. But then I also had two years of Mr. Snyder teaching me social studies. Many of us in the gifted program had all of the same teachers for all of our academic subjects two years running. This meant that we got to know those teachers really well, and, in the case of Mr. Snyder, came to greatly admire and be shaped by his worldview. Mr. Snyder wasn’t an obvious candidate for intellectual guru to early adolescents. He wasn’t particularly handsome, and he’d had polio as a child and walked with a prominent limp. But he was funny and charismatic, gave terrific lectures that were like brilliant comedy monologues or TED talks, and knew how to make his students feel smart and special — in part because we had made it into his class, but still. We liked him so much that several of us would get to class early every day so that we could draw cartoons of him on the blackboard with clever word bubble-jokes, and he loved that. Too see him come into the room and look at our clever depictions of him and smile and make jokes right back at us, to feel appreciated for our intelligence and creativity, a sensation could be hard to come by as a suburban New Jersey youngster, was wonderful. The class was a mutual admiration society and a bit of a cult of personality that I think hugely affected all of us who took it.
I learned a lot there, as we studied political systems, geography and the history of the ancient world, among other things. We were assigned projects that were unlike anything you’d typically get in junior high or even high school, a combination of fun, self-driven exploration, and out-of-control amounts of work. We had to make a map of the world that included every single country, city, major mountain range and body of water, using color-coded overlays — something that I would have enjoyed, and sort of did, except that, since I was in 7th grade, I was terrible at judging how long it would take and left it until the last minute, and had to repeatedly re-letter the smudged plastic to make it readable in my 12-year-old handwriting. The following year, when we did separate units on Greece and Rome, we had to either fill in an entire outline that he provided with a paragraph or more on every subject, or do a handful of more creative projects designed to help us probe the topics in more interesting detail. After choosing to do the outline for Greece, thinking it would be easier, and ending up with several pounds of handwritten paper (I could not type) on everything from Sparta to Socrates to Doric columns that was probably 75+ pages long, Mr. Snyder had stared at the pile and admitted to me that he hadn’t really expected anyone to choose that option, that he’d made the outline so absurdly long to encourage people to do the creative projects. I probably got an A more because he didn’t want to read the whole damn thing than anything else, and on Rome, I did the projects, like going to a Roman-Catholic service and writing about it — which I did by interviewing my Catholic friend, Tara, instead of actually going to the service myself — or going to the Met to observe and then expound upon the differences one observed between the Greek and Roman statues — which I did after 15 minutes of taking furious notes on a Sunday when we arrived just as they were getting ready to close. Just because I loved Mr. Snyder didn’t mean that I, like any other kid, wasn’t always trying to get out of doing homework in any way I could.
The thing I learned and remember best, however, was not the facts, but the method. We had a class about political and economic systems — communism, socialism, capitalism, authoritarianism — and the first thing Mr. Snyder did was define these terms for us, explaining that they weren’t what we’d been told they were. Specifically, “communism,” the way it was looked at in the budding Reagan Era of the early 1980s, wasn’t actually communism at all. Real communism was an economic system that someone named Karl Marx had come up with, in which everyone owned everything, nobody was rich or poor or more powerful than anyone else, and that was, in fact, kind of the opposite of what the Soviet Union had become. This somewhat blew my mind. Here was the boogeyman that everyone talked about as the great evil threatening us with destruction — and remember, in the world of an American kid who had trouble sleeping at night because she obsessed with how we were one button push away from nuclear war, that meant genuine annihilation — and it wasn’t even what it really was. How was this possible? How was everything that we saw on TV and in the newspapers and at the movies just plain wrong? It turned out that, once you delved into it, the evolution of the term “communism” in the popular vernacular was an education in how concepts entered the public consciousness and then were propagated endlessly in the echo chamber of the media and society until they became something else entirely, usually in the service of some political or social end. Sound familiar? It wasn’t the same then as it is now that we have the Wild West known as the Internet, in some ways it was easier to get an entire culture to basically think one incorrect thing rather than many insane things, but the ability to miseducate a huge swath a people without their questioning it? Yes, that existed, and understanding that was a very big deal to me. It meant that you always had to look deeper than the surface of things to be sure you understood the reality, even when it came to what those things were called.
Why doesn’t everyone get taught to think this way? Well, like most things in life, it gets increasingly harder to learn as you get older. The more set in our ways we get, the tougher it becomes to look at ourselves critically (which is essential to critical thinking, because to truly get that you must dissect and assess the viability of ideas, you have to start with your own assumptions), much less change the way our brains function in terms of adopting new ways of doing anything that’s really embedded in there, much less ways of doing everything, which is kind what it means to change the way you think. Plus, it’s in the best interest of those in power to keep the bulk of the human race from doing it. It’s tough to build an army of people who don’t automatically follow orders, or have a religion made up of people who are always questioning the word of God, or build a movement if the followers are continually asking the leaders, “Is that really true?” And so we’ve arrived at this situation where we have so much information out there now to make sense out of, and the bulk of us without the tools to figure out how to do that — and many who reject those tools because they’re told education is just liberal elite brainwashing. Instead, you see a lot of people turn to a kind of twisted, easy version of “critical” “thinking” espoused on the fringes of the left and right, which disposes with the thinking part and instead just espouses wholesale rejection of anything dubbed “establishment” or “mainstream,” no matter how awful the alternative may be (and at this point we know: it’s pretty awful). Add to that the folks who skillfully exploit the overwhelm of information and lack of analytical skills to support their own greed, lust for power and desire to win at all cost, and you end up with an awesome new and different kind of embedded orthodoxy, that encourages us to silo ourselves within “our” (really their) belief systems, walled in with “alternative facts” and media that support them, and defending it all tooth and nail with false equivalencies that encourage us not to critique thoughtfully based on evidence, but to to pick apart every idea that doesn’t fit or even makes us uncomfortable (“Well, every politician lies” was one of the most egregious ones I heard used recently to defend the president).
And, when it comes right down to it, can you blame people? Thinking is exhausting, especially in this environment, and even human beings with the best intentions manage to ruin everything good anyway. Like, even though my parents didn’t make us believe their ideas, of course they still managed to inculcate in us their most mundane opinions. My father was particularly good at doing this, particularly when it came to eating (yup, Jews), like how fast food and chain restaurants should be avoided not based on nutrition but on lack of flavor (which I guess is why we still ate at White Castle), or how chocolate was really the only kind of acceptable dessert. It’s amazing that, no matter how far I’ve come as an adult, I still find it really hard to shake these ideas — like I saw a conversation on Facebook about how pie was superior to cake, and I just thought, Huh? But there aren’t any good chocolate pies. Another case in point: by the time I was a senior, Mr. Snyder had moved up to the high school, and was teaching an AP history class that I had the option to take. I decided to take economics instead, because I had never studied it, because one of my best friends was taking it, and, on some level I’m sure, to show that I didn’t need the wisdom of this idol of my 7th and 8th grade self, now that I was all of 16. I heard from people who took Snyder’s class that in his first opening monologue of the year he mocked those of his former students who had decided not to take his class — which I think might have just been me. That wasn’t really an appropriate thing for a teacher to do, especially since I was kind of doing what he’d taught us: to move on, do my own thinking and evaluate him critically. But as a human being, it’s hard to be a charismatic leader and just let that go — which is why the world has so many despots, and celebrities, and despotic celebrities. On other hand, my economics class was a terrible waste of time because it turned out that I didn’t like economics and the teacher was boring, so perhaps my premature rejection of Mr. Snyder and my 8th grade way of thinking, just to prove that I could do it, hadn’t been the best decision either. It’s hard not to wonder if I’d be just a slightly better, smarter person today if I’d accepted one more opportunity to take his class.
I’ll never know, but I guess the fact that I’m telling you this story means I haven’t given up on critical thinking. Maybe it’s because self-flagellating comes naturally to me, but these days, more than ever, I try to employ those skills as much as I can, even as it grows increasingly fucking hard. On top of all that media landscape stuff I mentioned a few paragraphs back, I also have this stupid menopause business I mentioned in my last blog post, which just amplifies all of the emotion that drives me as a human to err on the side of insanity, as if there weren’t already enough bad news, and bad “news,” out there driving a person in that direction. There are so many bad actors with so many tools that can be used to manipulate our fear and greed and lust into steamrolling our thinking these days, and all we have to fight back are these little broken piles of poop in our heads. And yet, we all do have them, aka brains, and so we have the ability to use them. And as one of those cynical-on-top-but-at-bottom-idealistic folks who believes we all also have the capacity to change, no matter how hard it might seem, until the day we die, I think we all have the ability to learn how to use them better. And yes, that means you, and your friends, and your kids, and even your cousins in Florida maybe, if we all just try a little harder.
I’m not sure what Mr. Snyder would say about me now, as I try to get people to think about stuff with this blog that almost nobody reads, but considering how many years he spent trying to teach adolescents about Platonic ideals, I’d imagine he’d approve. So in honor of him, and any teacher you’ve had who inspired you to think more, and more better, let’s advocate in 2019 not just for “our values,” but for the value of intelligent thought, even if we have to do it one mind at a time.
Adolescence was kind of a mystery when I was a tween. Actually, we didn’t call tweens “tweens” in the late 70s/early 80s, sort of the Iron Age of coming up with clever, merged names for stuff, and there were lots of other things of whose names we did not speak. My mother was a full-fledged feminist at that point, but a large part of her era’s brand of feminism was about minimizing the differences between men and women. Maybe this is why I didn’t know anything about getting my period — heck, I don’t think I even knew it was going to happen — until I read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. In fact, there’s a fair amount I wouldn’t know about the world if it weren’t for Judy Blume. Not that I enjoyed her books, which also included vivid details about wet dreams (Then Again, Maybe I Won’t) and teenaged sex (Forever, a book of which I think I may only have read the “good” pages — the ones my friends dog-eared so they could share them, or maybe read them over again alone in their rooms, which was something that never occurred to me to do since masturbation was another thing nobody ever told me about). I didn’t like them, partly because even at that age I could tell that “literary” was not a primary value considered by the dog-ear-and-share teen set, but mainly because those books scared the shit out of me. I was an immature kid, a year younger than most of the girls in my grade, and I’d been very happy in the dark, thank you. I didn’t want to know about any of this stuff, which seemed entirely gross and overwhelming. Trying to figure out why girls wore skirts when they could wear infinitely more comfortable shorts or overalls was way too complicated for me, I certainly couldn’t imagine celebrating when I started bleeding out of my vagina. In fact, I don’t know anyone who did, in spite of what Judy wrote. And while my mom was helpful about it when I finally had it (late. I was 14 or 15, which seemed eons after everyone else), she didn’t use tampons, so I still had to figure all of that out by myself. But to me, being a teenager was basically about feeling stupid nearly all the time, so to have this one additional thing I was utterly clueless about just seemed normal.
Little did I know how many more holes there were in my knowledge (a lot of it, coincidentally, regarding orifices). I didn’t start masturbating until my 20s, since I basically didn’t even know I had a clitoris until I was introduced to it by my first real boyfriend at age 21, so I guess that’s when I started to understand and pay attention to my sex drive, but I still didn’t notice any connection between it and my cycle. Once I got on the pill, I was very regular, and didn’t have period symptoms like moodiness or bloating or cramps, so, aside from taking birth control and my uneventful annual gynecological checkup, I never had a need to think about what was going on in my uterus at all besides the usual monthly messiness. Until, that is, my 30s. That’s when the hormones hit the fan. It didn’t help, no doubt, that my mid-30s was when my midlife crisis started — and yes, I do mean this one, the one that’s still going on. I know that probably sounds precocious, and I certainly don’t have plans to die at age 68, but that’s when I started thinking about my biological clock — or, once again not at all precociously, even realized I had one. So that’s when I really had to start considering what the heck I was doing with my life: what my current relationship was all about, where my career was going or not going, and how I was going to make the rest of my life happen — the one that I’d always imagined would start when I sold my first screenplay or made my first feature and then continue successfully from there to all the other things I wanted like kids, money, property ownership. Because it clearly was not happening so far.
As you might imagine, the first step in all that was therapy, and it was my therapist who introduced me to the term “perimenopause.” As in, “Maybe part of the reason you’re moody and depressed is that you’re going through perimenopause.” Which is not something that a woman who is hoping to have several more years of fertility wants to hear, even if she doesn’t know what it is, exactly, because it has the word “menopause” in it, and that is definitely bad. So my gynecologist gave me tests for my hormones and everything looked normal, but still, I could feel that it wasn’t — or at least, not the normal that I’d been used to. If I wasn’t having perimenopause, I was definitely having something, because all of this stuff was happening to me. For one thing, my sex drive had definitely gotten stronger. I wanted sex every day, if not more than once a day, even if my boyfriend didn’t. Which was weird. I hadn’t been taught that that degree of desire would ever be, well, me. Yes, I’d missed regular sex during the nine years I hadn’t had a boyfriend, and that was why I’d learned to masturbate and occasionally made bad choices about men. Still, my need to get laid had never been so strong that I’d made really bad choices, like I knew it drove a lot of other people to do. Now, suddenly, I felt like I could relate a little more to those who felt driven by their genitalia. I had chalked it up to the fact that I was having good, regular sex, after being starved of it for so long, but I was starting to realize that there was more to it than just the horniness. I was also a lot moodier — depressed, anxious, irritable — and it was indeed a lot worse around my period.
I resisted the idea that this was happening for a long time, because it’s the worst type of stereotype that women are ruled by their cycles and made irrational, “hysterical” by our hyster-areas, rather than the way that society beats us down and makes us hate ourselves. But it was impossible not to notice that it wasn’t just these outside forces having an impact on me, something was going on inside me too. And it did seem like, finally, some of my friends were talking about it — like we were finally realizing, in our 30s, it was time to pay attention to what was actually going on with us, rather than what everyone told was supposed to be going on. And of course there was the Internet, although, as usual, whether that was helping or hurting was something of a toss up. You sure could find a lot about how women were at their sexual peak in their 30s, because that was hot, but scientifically established research about all of this other female hormonal business? Not really. So this became my major introduction to the fact that not just my body, but the mind and emotions attached to it, that I always thought of as wholly independent and under my control, were going to change as I got older whether I liked it or not. I could pretend it wasn’t happening, or I could accept it and find ways to cope.
Little did I know that there was to be even more stuff for me to find out, a lot of it had to do with having babies, or not having babies. The pain women go through during childbirth, the likelihood of maternal mortality, how many things can go wrong — these were all things I only discovered when friends started having children or trying to get pregnant. I found out only long after it happened that two of my friends had come pretty close to dying during childbirth — and then they each went on to have more kids! This floored me. Then I had four miscarriages/non-viable pregnancies myself and wrote about it, and all my friends were suddenly telling me about their experiences with that. I mean, it was as if these were things we were all just supposed to go through and then shut up about, because nobody wanted to hear the gory details. Post-#metoo, it strikes me as being very similar to sexual harassment and assault. Women have always just been expected to suffer through all sorts of things and never complain, never talk. Because a large part of our value was in how well we lived up to all of the roles of womanhood — ingenue, sex kitten, helpmate, housewife, caretaker, subordinate but necessary breadwinner — without letting our personhood get in the way.
And now, finally, menopause. Which is like all of these things but also worse, because it also has to do with getting old, and that is something, as women, we can never talk about. Again, it’s supposed to be each woman’s dirty little secret, hidden by hair dye, Botox, and plastic surgery. Aging is a process that happens to literally every human being, but yet again, women are made to feel like there’s something wrong with us when we can’t stop time. And then, to add insult to injury, we stop being fertile, which means we lose the final thing we had going for us if we weren’t hot or good cooks: we could at least make babies. Then, we get all of the fun symptoms that go along with that: hot flashes, lowered libido, dry vaginas, mood swings, irregular periods…You thought you hated your period before, but at least with most of us it was predictable, now it’s not even that. Some women bleed a lot more, some bleed more often, like every three weeks or so instead of four, but not exactly, so you always have to be prepared, carrying your not-so-little bag of tampons and mini-pads around basically 24-7. And the moodiness becomes practically a month-round thing too (and it’s not just grumpiness at never knowing when you’re going to start bleeding — although can you imagine men putting up with that? Offices filled with middle-aged, menopausal men — upper management at any corporation, perhaps the entire insurance industry — would basically cease to function).
All of this is normal for women, but you’d never know it from popular culture. Except for the occasional joke about hot flashes and the movie Something’s Got To Give, menopause doesn’t exist there. So how are we supposed to know that what we’re going through is what everyone else is going through? Not just to get advice or support, but even to get a sense whether or not something is wrong. I mean, how soon you’re supposed to call your doctor if you have a Viagra mishap? We all pretty much know that now because it’s been the punchline in so many rom coms and sitcoms and other kinds of coms. Menopause? Still too icky to make jokes about, apparently. If men don’t experience it, I guess it’s not “universal” enough to be funny.
I think some of this has changed. My friends who have girls certainly talk to them about a lot more than we talked about with our parents. But I still think the message of our culture is that our experiences of womanhood, the good and the bad, the sad and the fucking hilarious because it’s so terrible, are not worth sharing — unless they‘re a turn-on, which, I’m sorry, most things in life just aren’t. I have to wonder, when are we going to stop internalizing the message that what happens to us just doesn’t matter as much as what happens to them?
Growing up as a girl in the 80s was no picnic, and I don’t mean because of the big hair and the shoulder pads. It was an era of very confusing messages. On TV, you had Dynasty, Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company battling with reruns of the Brady Bunch, which meant that the only female empowerment on offer came scantily clad and at some point generally descended into a catfight. The movie landscape was one of Bond girls, bitches, and minimally developed love interests, where we were lucky to get one strong woman main character in some of the blockbusters of the time (Raiders of the Lost Ark, the original Star Wars trilogy – although even Princess Leia was forced to wear a metal bikini), while the movies directed at us teens, like those of John Hughes, combined sympathetic female characters with plot lines that made comedy out of bizarrely awful racial and gender stereotypes (Long Duck Dong, all of the older girls in Sixteen Candles, and almost everything in Weird Science), date rape (what Jake and Farmer Ted did to the prom queen), and sexual assault and harassment (what Bender does to Claire throughout The Breakfast Club) (and if you don’t remember what I’m talking about, read this piece by Molly Ringwald).
This cultural landscape was often reflected back at us in our interactions at school, where my biggest problem, like so many adolescents, was that I always cared way too much what people thought of me — and I never seemed able to get them to think the right things. If I did well in my classes, I got shit for being a nerd. I played lacrosse, but even though I could run, I was too uncoordinated to cradle or shoot well, and got taunted for that. And being a year young, I was always behind in how we were supposed to interact with boys — first we were supposed to be friends with them, then we weren’t, then we were supposed to flirt with them, whatever that meant — and I was mocked for that too. Eventually I developed a fairly crusty shell to help me cope, but it didn’t mean I still didn’t crave the approval of my peers, I just pretended not to. Things weren’t really good for girls who were the opposite of me, though, either. Doing poorly in school made you more popular, which was why a lot of girls played dumb, but then people also made jokes about how dumb you were. Being too good at sports made you too butch and that was unattractive too. And being “good” with boys, of course, made you a slut. In short, everything you were told to be as a girl was a double-edged sword. Sure, if you were socially savvy enough, you could turn any of those negatives around. The easiest way to do that, though, was to pick on some other girl and point out what was wrong with her, usually behind her back — which, if you had any scruples, had its own downside of making you feel like shit. It seemed like your full-time job was to try to walk the very fine line between bitch, geek, butch and slut, never able to find the perfect spot where you could be both liked and respected. Needless to say, I was not a very happy teen.
It was also bad for boys, but the way in which it was bad, and the way that boys achieved, was entirely different. That double-edged sword didn’t exist for them. Although you could be too geeky, you could easily be both a popular boy and a top student — it was even expected. Similarly, there really was no downside to doing well in sports as a boy. You could be called a dumb jock, but if you were a good enough dumb jock, nobody really cared. And success with girls? That was always a plus. No, the hard thing for boys was that they were expected to compete in all of these areas with the other boys, because winning was what earned you both respect and friends. That’s why one of the top put-downs of the era was, “He’s a loser.”
College did end up saving me from much of this. Mainly, I was finally allowed to be smart, I could be athletic without being good at team sports (because the Stanford teams were too good for most high school athletes), and there were plenty of friends to commiserate with over being clueless about guys. What did continue at Stanford, though, as at many schools, was how groups of guys interacted. This was particularly true in fraternities, which just amplified all of these terrible aspects of male bonding (or “male bondage” as one friend of mine aptly called it). That’s why, to this day, we default to the term “frat boys” when talking about a certain kind of male behavior: making everything into a game between them and their pals, where winning and showing off for each other is a central part of male friendship.
A large part of that competition centered around alcohol — which was now easier to access than ever before, particularly at frat parties — and women. With men talking about what “base” they got to and “scoring,” and men the “players” (though okay, that’s really more of a 90s term), could it be any clearer that succeeding with women — which meant getting as close to sex as you could with as many women as you could — was just another thing for them to compete at? And that competition was verbal as well as physical, because even if you couldn’t actually score, you could tell your friends you did, and that was the important thing. Actually connecting with or pleasing women didn’t count for anything with your male friends — or it counted in a negative way and made you p-whipped. In these groups of guys, women weren’t people, we were trophies. If they weren’t trying to compete for us, they were passing us around between them as a gesture of what good pals they were. I can think of several times in my 20s I saw a man trying to get a (drunk) woman who was clearly into him to go home with his friend instead. At least once this meant literally pushing her into a cab with the other guy.
It took me a while to figure out how to deal with this type of man, because they were everywhere in the 80s and early 90s, and their confidence and bravado and popularity with other guys made them attractive to me, in the same way that it made them “winners” in our culture. In college and grad school, I had plenty of male friends who weren’t like that, but it was sometimes hard to tell the difference. Even the frat boys could be decent when you dealt with them one-on-one, and by the same token, when you got practically any group of young men together and added alcohol, even the least fratty among them could get sucked into that macho bullshit group dynamic. I saw it happen constantly, the urge to be one of the guys was that powerful. Plus, because how men interacted in groups of men was how they networked, talking about women was often as important to their careers as talking about sports: if you didn’t know how to do it, guys didn’t relate to or respect you, and you didn’t get ahead. So that two-faced duality, between how they acted with men and how they acted with women, was an accepted aspect of the culture.
This was a huge part of what was so challenging for me entering adulthood, and I’m sure tons of other women like me, who were trying to live and succeed in a male-dominated world: if you knew this was how men interacted with other men, how could you be smart and capable, attractive and sexual, likeable and respected? Often it felt pretty near impossible, and with many men it was — although it took me years to truly get that. I wasted so much time in grad school hanging out with groups of my male peers, feeling like I was accomplishing something by “being one of the guys.” There were some by whom I think I was considered an equal, maybe. But with most of them, it was only after literally years of planning and making films with them, going out drinking with them, listening to them talk for endless hours (because most of them didn’t listen when I talked), that I finally realized that, no matter how much they liked me, I was never going to be one of them. They would never be able to value me the way they valued their male friends/colleagues, and trying to make it so and failing was only making me feel bad about myself.
Having romantic relationships was, if anything, more difficult, because I already knew how all of those guys I hung out with talked about women. When I developed a crush on someone I went to school or worked with, I was always trying to get to a point where I felt sure the guy respected me as a three-dimensional human being before anything happened, so by the time I felt secure enough in that that I was ready to make a move (not that I knew how to do that either without feeling like a slut) the guy had already hooked up with someone else. This happened to me multiple times. In truth, I’ve only had eight sexual partners total in my life, about half of whom were one night stands, and those deliberately so, because when I decided to have sex with someone on a first date, I’d pretty much already made the decision never to see them again. Not because I thought casual sex was wrong, but because it was too complicated for me to have sex with someone and then worry about what they thought about me afterwards, or, worse, said to other guys I knew. It was just easier not to care at all and walk away. Because I knew the odds were that they wouldn’t respect me, and would talk with their guy friends about me, because that was what the groups of guys I knew did. Maybe that’s not true in all industries, but the film business was certainly then, and now in many ways still is, basically a big fraternity. From Polanski to Weinstein to Lauer to Rose to Moonves, if #MeToo hasn’t proven that, it hasn’t proven anything.
So when you wonder why women have fought tooth and nail against Brett Kavanaugh, why we believe his accusers and feel so devastated about the future of women’s rights now that he’s on on the Supreme Court, it’s because we were there. Not in the rooms, necessarily, where he did what he did, but in ones very much like them, with drunk guys exactly like him. And the reason we never reported it? Because everything we saw and heard at the time told us it was normal. I think this is what I find so chilling when Kavanaugh says he’s not guilty of sexual assault: he doesn’t think he is guilty of it, because at the time, none of us got that that’s what it was. We just thought it was something that happened, that women were made to feel culpable for because, after all, we chose to be there, we went to those parties, we drank and hung out with those guys. So no matter how much we hated and were damaged by what we lived through, we just felt like we were expected to let it go — like Ford did, like Ramirez did, even like Julie Swetnick probably did, because even while she’s been dismissed by practically everyone as not credible, we know how guys spiked the punch at parties with something to get women drunk enough to have sex with them all the fucking time. But nobody was going to do anything about it, and if we’d said something we’d have paid a price, either amongst our peers, who would be angry with us for telling, or with authority figures, who would blame us for putting ourselves in those situations, or in our careers, when both of those groups of people wouldn’t want to hire or work with us later on. Plus, knowing those guys and how they think, I’d guess that in Kavanaugh’s mind, what he did wasn’t even really about sex. That’s what you heard in Ford’s testimony: when asked what she remembered most, she said Brett Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge laughing “with each other.” For the two of them, it wasn’t about her. It was just two frat boys sharing a good time, the way they always did.
The world is such a different place now than it was in the 80s, but after last week, it feels like women haven’t moved the needle one iota on respect. It’s clear in the way that men still can’t come clean on the stupid and harmful things they did as teenagers 30 years ago, much less the the way they treated women before then, because we all know that as bad as the 80s were, all the decades before that were worse. Even if Grassley, Hatch and Graham never said the word “boof,” the way they won’t listen to us now, the way they claim that we are somehow “mixed up” about things that we know for a fact, the way they still won’t put women in positions of power because they claim that we don’t want to do the work, the way everything they seek to legislate they’re doing for their “fellow man” while ignoring things like control over our bodies, pay parity, and protection under the law from rape, abuse and harassment that women need just to be equal, tells us that they didn’t respect us then, and they still don’t now.
We know how it was. We lived it. And if you’re a woman, you’re still living with it. You feel it in how, even now, decades later, you still have trouble reconciling men and sex and respect, and you probably always will. And if we, as a culture, can’t take responsibility for that, if we still refuse to talk about it honestly, how are we ever going to move forward?
In 1996, my best friend from high school invited me to go on a two-week cross-country trip with her and three of her friends — which turned out to be four for the first six days, when one of them decided to bring an extra person, until we dropped him off in California. I’d never driven across the country, and was excited to give it a try, so I said yes. It was an incredibly fun and also eye-opening experience, not only because it was my first visit to sites like the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and the Corn Palace, but because four of the people in the van — and once we dropped off our California-bound late-addition, everyone except for me — were people of color. How did this matter? Well, for starters, when we’d land in places like a fishing town on the Oregon Coast, and everyone would stare. As a fairly generic-looking white woman of 27, I was used to passing without a second glance in most of the places I’d been to that point (basically the States, Europe and Canada), certainly anywhere I’d been in the U.S. It very quickly became obvious to me that this wasn’t the case if you were were Black or Asian American, like the friends I was traveling with. Turned out there were parts of the country — and a lot more parts than I’d suspected — where you were going to get noticed, and not in a friendly way. But there was also stuff I learned on that trip that wasn’t as obvious. Like what it meant when we went out to lunch in a nice restaurant in Santa Fe and got terrible service. My impulse was to just chalk that up to the fact that we were all in our 20s and didn’t look like we had money — particularly after spending more than a week’s worth of nights either camping, sleeping on friends’ floors, or in Motel 6s (the night we splurged on the $40/night Excalibur in Vegas, it felt like we were staying at the Plaza). Because that was what I’d dealt with before. My friends, however, felt pretty strongly that the way we were being ignored and slighted had something to do with race, because they’d dealt with that before. And so, while it’s not like this had never occurred to me until then, that trip helped drive home in a tangible way that 1) my experience of going through the world was not the same as everyone else’s, and 2) that that body of experience, that history that each of us had, was going to lead us to view the same situations very differently.
These concepts weren’t hard for me to get, not just because I had friends of color, but because of what I’d been experiencing in my own life and career, starting with graduate school. Since moving to New York to become a filmmaker six years earlier, I’d often had this feeling that I was being treated differently, but in ways so hard to prove, even to myself, that I’d mostly just accepted it was all in my head. When guys I’d shot films for as a first year at NYU, who’d been really happy with my work, instead chose the same other guy to shoot for them in second year, I chalked it up to my not being “technical enough,” or not having the confident decisiveness to take charge of the set the way the DP was supposed to — until I realized that no women were shooting films for men at all, unless they were their girlfriends. When I arrived on professional sets, it started sinking in more and more that men really were always telling me to smile, or offering to “help” me with my job when their jobs were unrelated to mine and I hadn’t asked for their help, or treating me as an object of flirtation, even if they were my superiors. I eventually learned to handle all of that by being more tolerant, competent, and professional than they were, but what I had the hardest time with was what I cared about the most: sending out scripts, or soliciting constructive feedback from peers in writing workshops, and receiving constant rejection or rude/patronizing remarks. Okay sure, cruelty is considered par for the course in a business where success is so elusive and so coveted that people are just expected to accept all kinds of abuse — verbal, sexual, physical — in order to get somewhere. But that only makes it more infuriating when there are additional comments or obstacles that other people don’t seem to be dealing with. Like when I wrote a film about a friendship between two teenaged girls, and one of the men in my writing group couldn’t understand the point of the script unless they had a lesbian relationship. Or when I submitted a script to a production company and the coverage I received said that the reader had no interest in the story, which featured two female main characters and one love interest who was a man of color, until the second love interest, a white guy, showed up. Yeah, that’s when things got good, he said. I was starting to see that I was stuck in a system where the white male arbiters of good and bad had all the power not just to decide whether my work was one or the other, but to define what the terms “good” and “bad” even meant. So it was easy for them to claim — and fully believe — that the failure of women to scale their ranks wasn’t due to our gender, it was due to their inability to master “the craft.” All they had to say was, “I couldn’t get into the story,” or, “I didn’t care about the characters,” and those were considered legitimate critiques based on merit, when of course there was way, way, way…basically everything more to it than that.
This is what makes unequal treatment such a hard thing to pinpoint: it has everything to do with who’s distinguishing and quantifying “good” and “bad” in an entrenched system. So it’s only when you look at the big picture over time, quantified in data, and see the work of women and people of color highly underrepresented in nearly every area of the arts — music, painting, sculpture, literature, theater, cinema, etc — that you can see discrimination is happening because the system itself is fucked.
What I was going through wasn’t the same as what my friends from that trip were going through, not at all. Each of us is a different person. But we all knew that we were being treated differently, based on countless experiences we’d had that added up. And we knew, because we’d experienced that too, that the kind of discrimination we were dealing with was so insidious and damaging precisely because people who hadn’t faced it were going to scoff and chalk it up to something entirely innocuous, and say it didn’t even exist.
I was reminded of all this last weekend, when I watched the women’s final of the 2018 U.S. Open. I don’t think most people would say that Serena Williams behaved perfectly when she argued with umpire Carlos Ramos and then later broke her racket when she threw it down in anger. But the question is not whether she did something wrong, it’s whether she was treated differently. Of course you can say that Ramos was just following the rules, that she shouldn’t be getting special treatment because she’s the great Serena Williams, and that plenty of men have been penalized like she was — with articles like this jumping on opportunities to bring all of that up and say “What about…?” But if you dig a little deeper, you find way more examples of white men behaving worse in less important matches, even toward that same umpire, and not having him penalize them so severely as to ruin a tournament final for everyone involved. In other words, yes, there are rules, but if they aren’t applied in the same way across the board, we are back at “He said, she said,” and it’s always the “He said” that comes first. Always.
The Whatabouters always say, “Why does everything have to be about race/sex?” Well, yeah, it’d be great not to have to talk about discrimination, but you can’t when it won’t leave you alone – even when you’re arguably the best athlete in the world. If you’re a woman and/or a person of color, your experience has told you that it nearly always is about that. It just is. Then the Whatabouters say, “Then you’re asking for special treatment when you break the rules.” Well, that’s because the rules, by which I mean all of the laws of this country dating back to the Constitution, were, from the very beginning, designed to treat women and people of color differently – creating a world in which the norm is special treatment for white men. Again, it just is.
And how often have our laws and rules that were not designed to be unfair been applied evenly and fairly? Let’s face it, the U.S. Open’s got nothing on the American justice system. Why do we refuse to recognize that when fallible people who do “bad” have to be punished, and when other fallible humans are doing the judging about how “bad” they are, there’s going to be all sorts of bias and unequal treatment? If the recent news isn’t convincing to you, we’ve now got data to prove that Black people are much more likely to be on the receiving end of police violence; have been far more likely to receive the death penalty in capital cases; that crack users in the 80s, who were more often Black, received far stiffer sentences than white users of powdered cocaine; that Black people were far more likely be searched and arrested for possession of marijuana than white people (two of the reasons, in case you were wondering, why so many more people of color have been incarcerated en mass during the War on Drugs); and that Black schoolchildren are likely to be more severely punished, suspended, or even have the cops called on them than white children for the same transgressive behavior.
And systems by which people are considered “good,” like at their jobs, and promoted? Again, completely dependent on the fallible judgments of those in power, so that only in the aggregate can we see how Black employees receive extra scrutiny from their bosses, Asian Americans are the least likely racial group to be promoted to management positions, women are punished and considered “bad” at their jobs for traits that are considered “good” in men, like ambition, speaking up, or doing too well in school; and how, of course, women of color are the least likely to be supported or promoted for equally good work.
I know what the Whatabouters are saying now: “Yes, people in the past were wrong, but now, moving forward, we’re the ones trying to treat everyone the same.” Um, really? We’re supposed to believe that? We’ve had this whole lifetime of experience that tells us otherwise, and you’re dismissing that, again? You’re claiming that, at long last, in this tennis match, or court of law, or screenwriting competition, or job review, or state senate, when it comes down to questions of “rules” and “fairness” and “objectivity,” we should continue to just trust the white guys? Yeah, right.
If you’ve been wondering why so many women and people of color are running for office this election season, well, here you go: we’re just sick of being treated differently. For a long time, we’ve trusted the white guys who say they’re going to fix things and finally respect our rights the same way they respect their own. Now we’re finally deciding that the only way things are going to change is for us to get in there and make the rules, and apply them ourselves.
Can you blame us?