Autumn in New York

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. 

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I steal pens.

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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.

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The Four (Thousand, New) Questions

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.

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1.8 Insults a Day

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. Continue reading “1.8 Insults a Day”

Ten Things I Did This Week That Prove I Have Learned Nothing in 50 Years

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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?

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Critical Thinking is Hard

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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.

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The Next Thing We Don’t Get To Talk About

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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.

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Women, Frat Boys, and the Conundrum of Respect

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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).

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Tired of Being Treated Differently

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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.

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Principle vs. Vanity, and Fear

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I’ve had grey hair for at least the past six or seven years now. It shows up in the part on top of my head and in the front, around my temples. I’ve been lucky enough that, up to now, it’s pretty much blended in. My hair is kind of a light brown, but there have always been just enough blond highlights that the grays can kind of hide in there and not be too obvious, for the most part.

It’s not like I grew up with my hair being perfect or anything — Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha, no. In fact, I was kind of prescient about how much it (and by extension, femininity as a whole) was going to be a trial for me in that I completely refused to deal with it for the first twelve years of my life, allowing my mother to do what she wanted with it when I was little, and then wearing it in pigtails or a ponytail any time I was in public from pretty much second to sixth grade. Sure enough, once I started to pay attention to my hair, I struggled with it endlessly. Like most women I know, I found it to be yet another aspect of my appearance — along with my weight, my height, my nose, the circles under my eyes, my arms, my butt, my stomach, my front teeth…you get the point — that I forever was trying to wrestle into the perfect cultural norm, no matter how that cultural norm changed or conflicted with what it naturally wanted to be. In high school in the late 80s, hair had to be straight or precisely feathered, so my weapons of choice were a blow dryer and one of those round brushes, and, at one point, a curling iron, though I can’t really remember what I did with that other than burn myself. By sophomore year of college, it was supposed to be curly, so I got a perm that I kept through I think senior year, when I finally, at some point, gave in to the fact that my hair didn’t really get curly, even with a perm, it just got wavier. It was the first time it occurred to me that my life would be easier if I tried to work with it rather than against it, so I got a diffuser and tried to just make the waves do something I liked. This principle of just working with what I had (although not the diffuser, which I ditched soon after) became my MO for most of my 20s and 30s. It justified doing very little when I was going to work on set at 6 am, when I both didn’t want to attract attention to the fact that I was female and didn’t want to get up any earlier, and made it possible to go for a certain kind of wavy bigness when I went out that I deemed its most positive result, by using mousse, gel, spray, scrunching, finger-wrapping, blowdrying upside down, and whatever other techniques I saw or heard about other people using (I didn’t actually spend money on fashion magazines because fuck that scam, but I still queried my friends and hairdressers). At the same time, I was so obsessed with the obsession hair can be for women (and for some men) that I made my first documentary about it, exploring the connection it forms for many of us between appearance and identity.

Which of course led to me to deconstruct how my hair related to my identity even more, and some time in my late 30s, I entered my most recent stage of hair “care”: the stage of not caring. I stopped blowdrying my hair altogether, except in the winter, if I had to prevent it from freezing, then I basically stopped using product when I went traveling for weeks on end in Latin America and having it meant just having one more thing to carry. I did still want to attract people, because I was still single, so I would make an effort to do something with it if I was going out or had a date, but once I met my husband at age 40, that was pretty much the end of even that. In the past year or two, my intricate, personal hair ritual has become washing it every other day (this was a concession to the drying effect of the grays, but it also fit in nicely with my growing feelings of apathy), brushing it upside down (somehow that just stuck, even though I don’t think it does anything if you don’t use product) and then going right-side-up and making sure there’s something of a part. That’s it, and it takes all of maybe eight minutes, including the washing part — without that, it takes two. And that has seemed about right for a while now. On set, my job is really just to blend in, so I basically have to look just well-kept enough that nobody will think there’s something something seriously wrong with me, at least not in any way that would be distracting to the actors. So, yeah, that’s what I ask of my hair: just don’t make me look crazy. I do still have several bottles and tubes of product that I’ve acquired over the years, so when I’ve got to go to a wedding or a bar mitzvah or something, I might roll the dice and use one of those, even if it’s expired. But in general I’ve felt like, given all of the other things going on in my life, this was expending about as much energy toward my hair as it deserved, and so I had to be okay with the results. Even when I saw pictures of myself later on and wasn’t all that thrilled, that’s hardly a new experience for me, considering how, as you might have guessed, I have never developed an attractive look to present in photographs. Want examples? Of course you do. Here, here, here (based on how often I have my eyes closed and my mouth open in photos, I must both blink and talk more than other people), here (granted, it doesn’t help when someone is squishing your face — I doubt a Kardashian would ever allow that), and here (yes, I’ve just reached the top of Machu Picchu, and still I don’t look happy).

A couple of months ago, though, something felt like it changed — or maybe it was a combination of things. For one, I got a less good haircut than usual. Again, I have nobody to blame for this but myself, since I get my $35 haircuts from a local hairdresser that seems to be popular more as a barbershop-like neighborhood hangout than as a consistent, up-to-trend stylist, and I often don’t pay attention to what’s being done. This last time I was exhausted from work and so I was literally asleep at the wheel — I kind of knew she was parting it too close to the middle, but eh. For another, I bought a different shampoo than the one I’ve been using for maybe ten years plus, since they were out of it at the Park Slope Food Coop — again, my fault for relying upon the Park Slope Food Coop to be consistent with their stocking, and for choosing instead to try a “thickening shampoo” even though my hair isn’t thinning, because eh.

But honestly, I think the real culprit is just the gray. It’s reached a critical mass that can’t really be ignored any more — not so much the color, as what it’s doing to the texture. It’s wiry. It doesn’t behave. It looks messy and dirty, and in a way that no hipster could pretend was intentional. It looks bad.

When I realized this, I took an informal poll of my friends about their hair. Which means, I was at a wedding with my high school friends, and then a get-together with my college friends, and then looking at photos sent by my other college friends. And the upshot was, basically, everybody dyes. Out of all of my female friends who are at the age when I know that they must have gray hair by now, I seem to have only two who actually do.

That’s pretty crazy. I guess I was kind of hoping that by the time I got to be this age, we’d have all of this shit worked out already. I just thought we were going to take that final step forward and be the generation of feminists who were allowed to get old, who could truly accept ourselves for who we are rather than how society expects us to be – forever young and thin – and be valued for the wisdom, experience and skill that make us distinguished, the way we think of older men, rather than extinguished. When I looked at my friends on an individual basis and noticed they were dying their hair, I told myself, Well, she’s always been very pretty and it’s hard to let go of that, or, She works in an industry that’s very competitive, or, She’s someone who is very in control and it’s just another a way of expressing that, or, Well, she lives in Texas. But as I started to get more uncomfortable with the changes to my own appearance as I got older, I started to realize, No, this getting old shit is just hard, and it doesn’t really get easier, no matter how enlightened you may tell yourself you are. It’s kind of just one new hurdle after another, as one more aspect of your appearance starts to go. Now that it’s my hair that isn’t looking good to me, the idea of dying doesn’t seem so unthinkable. So maybe it wasn’t ever that I was more feminist, or less vain, or less…Texan than they were. Maybe I was just lucky.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, you’re not supposed to surrender your principles when they become inconvenient for you. In this political moment, that seems more important than ever. On the other hand, couldn’t I just fucking go easy on myself for once? Rather than trying to pretend that I don’t care about getting old, because I don’t want to care, shouldn’t I be entitled to whatever is going to make that process slightly less sucky? It’s hard enough having more people noticeably ignore you, knowing that means not only that the world doesn’t any longer think of you as attractive, but also doesn’t think of you period – meaning you’re far more likely to fail, not just because you’re old and you have less time, but because people will give you far fewer opportunities than you had when you were younger. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to do anything that continues to give me more of a fighting chance? But then my other mind comes back with, But where does that end? Am I going to decide that I next need Botox to make myself happy, or a full-on facelift, if that’s what my friends are doing? I know some people probably don’t see this as a continuum, but I can’t help it. Once you surrender to what society thinks you should be, rather than what you believe about yourself or aspire to be, where does it end? Am I going to be the friend who makes it okay for someone else to get a tummy tuck, because they tell themselves, “Well, Betsy did it, and she’s a feminist, so…”

These are hard questions to answer, and so I’ve chosen…spray-in conditioner. It’s helping to make my hair be less dry and unruly — in other words, it continues to make the gray continue to blend in. Is that on the continuum? I suppose that it is. If I really wanted to make the statement that women should be allowed to go gray, I’d just do nothing and let it be that way in all of its unruly glory. But I guess the personal compromise I’ve learned to make between the social norms of beauty, and feminism, and my identity therein, is to work with what I have — not trying to “fix” myself, but not ignoring wholesale what the world thinks either. Because you can’t. It’s in your head, it just is.

So I’m not here to judge how you do it — every woman has to figure out how to walk that line for herself. But I can also still dream of the day we won’t have to any more, can’t I?