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. Continue reading “1.8 Insults a Day”
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
I used to find writing agonizing.
Probably not from the very beginning, because at first, the only people who read things I wrote were my parents, and they loved everything. And I mean, I was a weird kid. Recently, when I was visiting them, I found this…book? Comic? Field guide? that I created about flying pigs, which you can see the last page of above. I’m not sure when I started drawing pigs with wings, probably soon after I became obsessed with the work of Sandra Boynton, a leading purveyor of humorous pig, elephant, and turkey illustrations (if you’re unfamiliar, her website will reveal her wonders to you). For a while, flying pigs were just my favorite doodle, and then I guess I decided that the pictures deserved some sort of narrative/mockumentary structure. It was six pages long, and it got rave reviews from Mom and Dad, and probably odd looks from everyone else.
The first writing I can remember doing for school that I decided to get creative with was also well-received. In third or fourth grade, we got a terrarium in our classroom, and we had to make notes in our workbooks about what was going on with the various fauna living in them. Rather than simply doing your boring report, I kind of went to town, telling what happened as if it were a story, and not just any story, more like a Spielberg movie. I don’t remember all of it, but I remember writing “And then came THE SALAMANDERS!” in all block letters (I also had a phase of being really into drawing block letters, often with stripes. Basically, anything I could draw, I was really into drawing). There was also a picture of a salamander, and a very elaborate description of these creatures and how I felt about them. It was cute. I was cute. I got a good grade. I felt that I could do no wrong.
But eventually, I learned that not everything that came out of my pencil/pen was perfect. This was something of a shock, because, as someone who found learning fun and school therefore easy, for a long time, I was used to getting everything right without too much effort. At some point, however — I think it might have been once I started taking geometry — a teacher suggested that I start checking my work. This sounded like a waste of time to me, because either I knew the answer or I didn’t (and I thought I nearly always did), so what was the point? As it turned out, though, he was saying this because sometimes, I actually made mistakes. They started to show up on my tests, and I mean, I could not believe it. I would look back at a page of work and see that I had forgotten to carry the two, or justify a portion of a proof, or, God forbid, misspelled. Apparently, I was not infallible, but that wasn’t exactly my issue — as an unpopular pre-teen and then teen, who, outside of academics, seemed to always unfailingly say or do something embarrassing, I was already well acquainted with that reality. It was more the idea that I would have to do work more than once. I mean, how boring was that? If I’d already done the problem, or written the sentence, why in the heck would I want to do it again?? I liked doing things and having them be done. I was a completist. And the concept of writing something that you knew wasn’t right from the very beginning, that you’d just have to go back and fix? How utterly ridiculous.
But I couldn’t turn in work that wasn’t as good as I could make it, so now that I knew that I made errors in my writing, my new “method” was to keep revising it as I went. As you can imagine, I was greatly enabled in this by the advent of consumer-level word processing. Starting with the typewriter I got in high school that could store one sentence before printing it, and moving on, by my freshman year of college, to one that could store an entire page at a time (though it could only show you whatever portion of what you’d written would fit in a tiny little window above the keys, so basically a third of a sentence. You had to scroll through your writing very patiently if you wanted to read it back — which needless to say, was not my forte), I was now able to make corrections as I went without crossing out my mistakes until I basically had a page of black lines with illegible words scrawled in above them, around them, and falling off the margins, which was how I’d done it before. However, I now developed another problem: writers’ block, or at least writers’ anxiety. Basically, I had trouble moving on from a sentence until I felt that it was perfect, and while I thought that having a word-processor was going to make this easier, in a way, it made it worse. It was so easy to tweak and tweak and tweak and never actually finish anything, that by the time I got to the end of whatever I was writing, I was so entirely sick of it that it had to be done, regardless of whether it was in any shape to be turned in. I certainly wasn’t going to go back and rewrite something that I never wanted to look at again. As a result, my papers at that time were inevitably a mix of clever, off-the-top-of-the-head insights and terrible, reworked-until-dead filler, saddled with the perfunctory endings that come more from exhaustion than reaching any satisfying conclusion. And this terrible process made me procrastinate too, since who exactly looks forward to doing anything that’s slow, painful, and results in something just not all that good?
When I started writing screenplays in graduate school, things weren’t much better. I still tried to get everything right the first time, which actually meant, because we were taught to come up with a clear three-act structure in an outline before beginning a script, I now agonized over getting everything right even before I actually wrote anything. This was not helped by the fact that (as I’ve mentioned before) I had a couple of writing workshops with my classmates which were kind like Ultimate Fighting tournaments: you knew you were going to get your ass verbally kicked by somebody just for getting in the ring – which naturally led to even more anxiety about doing a good job. And that was as if the whole pressure of competition with my peers (many of whom, from the git-go thought less of me because I was a girl — ditto the professors), and the industry, which beat the steady refrain in my head of “Everyone and their dog wants to be a successful screenwriter, so this script has to be good enough to make you one of the soul-crushingly tiny percentage of aspiring ones to succeed” weren’t enough. But even once, after film school, I found myself in a supportive screenwriting group where people knew how to give feedback (after the unsupportive one, run by a dude who had no screenwriting credits and never submitted any of his own writing, yet ran the group like a fiefdom in which he had sole power to decide whether or not your script was ready to be discussed, and who saw no point whatsoever in scripts that didn’t fit strict genre conventions, or had female main characters), I still had trouble getting what was in my brain out on to the page. Sometimes, I’d just spend hours trying to find the right names for characters. I mean, that is important: when you’re writing a person, and you want it to feel like a real person, sometimes you have a hard time picturing them or hearing their voice in your head until you get to the point where you’re like, “Yes, she is such a Lorraine!” But if your writing style is to wait around until that name presents itself for every character in your script, you’ll never finish anything, because basically your “style” is an excuse for not writing any actual words.
Then, at some point during this period, I started blogging. It was just for fun. Well, and venting. I wasn’t trying to sell anything, or get published (at least not at first), it was really just a way for me to express some feelings that I had about the film business and get some perspective on this weird, often frustrating day-to-day existence I was living. So I wasn’t at all worried about who read it, or if anyone did, and that took the pressure off. Also around that time, I started going to therapy, which taught me the really important lesson of sometimes, just sometimes, letting myself off the hook. Therapy helped me figure out that the reason I so hated making mistakes was that I blamed myself for them — for all of them, every single one that I could remember, and I could remember a lot. I had trouble accepting the fact that maybe I actually couldn’t have seen every one coming, that maybe there was no real way to correct life as I went along, so I could make it all come out right the first time. And trying to do that, and the fear of failing at it, was holding me back in a million ways, not just in my writing, but in everything. It was why I had trouble trying new things, and being spontaneous, and making changes. It was why I had a problem getting into relationships, or even dating. My brain was always obsessively trying to look into the future and asking, What’s wrong with this guy that’s going to spoil everything in the end? What’s the point if I think I can already see, from the beginning, how this experience is definitely not going to be perfect? Why bother with anything or anyone unless you knew for sure that it or he or she was going to be exactly right? Well, I finally started to realize, probably because if you didn’t take the risk of trying and failing, then you never did anything very interesting at all, ever. Maybe sometimes, even if, like me, you were the opposite of a gambler, you just had to let it ride for a bit.
So I started to try writing in this novel way: as if my life did not depend on it. Like, what if the first thing I wrote was not only not perfect, it was possibly not anything like what the final version would be? It sounded crazy to me: why the heck would you want to not get it right the first time? But I was also at an age, finally — approaching my mid-30s — when I was seeing that nothing in my life had ever really turned out right the first time — because I didn’t actually know everything already. In fact, I’d been wrong about a lot of stuff that I’d thought I’d known in my teens and 20s, and not just a little wrong, a lot wrong. So why couldn’t writing be the same way?
So I started writing in drafts: just getting something on the page the first time, and then going back and revising it later. And I discovered that when I went back and looked at something I’d written a second time, it didn’t look the same. Stuff that I hadn’t figured out how to express at all in the first draft — so I’d just let it lie, knowing it was shitty and temporary — would, upon return, spark a whole new round of thoughts and words in my head that somehow hadn’t appeared before. Concepts that I hadn’t been able to figure out how to make funny the first time, probably because just trying to get out a semi-original thought was hard enough, I could actually now kind of make funny-ish — and then later on, with another draft, maybe even genuinely amusing – while stuff I’d thought was a cute and worthwhile digression when I wrote the first draft I’d now be able to see was entirely cuttable. Eventually, I realized that I was using two different parts of my brain, one that was a writer, and one that was a rewriter, and these were not the same parts. They didn’t like the same working conditions, had different senses of humor, maybe even different favorite foods — and they needed to be kept out of each other’s way. For instance, allowing the writer to work on days when I had an early call and an hour to kill on the train while the rewriter was pretending that having to stand on the Q at 6 am was just a nightmare from which it would shortly awake, could actually provide a lot of raw material that could be reworked later. On the other hand, there would be days when I was feeling completely uninspired, not up to the task of coming up with something new, but the rewriter was ready to go in and say, “Well, someone might actually want to read that if you wrote it like this instead.” (You can see why my inner rewriter must sometimes be sedated or benched: she really is that snarky. But seeing as you’re here, you probably already knew that.)
This way of doing things fed back into my life as a whole. It’s no coincidence that, when I had a serious breakup less than six months after I started writing my first blog, I decided not to sit around and obsess about how broken my future was, but to put everything in storage and go travel in Guatemala for seven weeks — because fuck, I’d never done anything like that before. And then I did the same thing in Argentina and Chile the following year. And then the following year I drove to Maine with a stranger I hardly knew to start a new documentary that ended up becoming Flat Daddy. And in none of those situations did I know what was going to happen. I just decided that I would let it ride for a little while and figure it out later.
Now, I wouldn’t exactly say that this is the secret to my success, since I’m still not particularly successful by the standards of most people — fame, fortune, perfect hair — but I sure have experienced a lot more interesting things, and created more work that I’m pleased with, than I ever would have done otherwise (with all the fucking up along the way providing reams of additional material). Of course, a lot of what you do in life you can’t revise. But with the things you can, you’d be surprised at how much better things turn out the second time. Or the third.
I was on the Q train recently, coming home from Manhattan. It was approaching rush hour, and the train was full, but not as packed as it often gets, when you find yourself sardined against your neighbor’s armpit, using them to hold you up because your hand won’t reach a rail. You know what I’m talking about, straphangers.
For the record: I hate the term “straphangers.” There haven’t been actual straps in the subway since I moved to New York in 1990 (and according to this Quora answer, which I consider accurate since it was written by a fellow with a masters in urban and regional planning from Columbia, they were replaced in the the mid-70s). Plus, it just sounds kind of nasty, like something you’d never want to be because eew, straphangers…which I have to say feels true a lot of the time. New Yorkers all have this feeling that the subways have been getting worse in recent years — slower, less reliable — and the evidence of how often trains break down or have delays backs that up, apparently. As the system deteriorates, the city just doesn’t have enough money to maintain it. But all in all, it’s our sometimes crappy system, and it’s still mostly functional 24 hours a day seven days a week, and I’m happy that I live in a city where public transportation is a major part of our lifestyle – even if it (the subway system – but okay, also the lifestyle) is far from perfect.
Anyway, on this particular day, I’d just gotten on the train, I was tired and looking for a seat, when a woman standing near me said, “Did you see what happened with that bag?”
I looked at where she was pointing, toward a paper Trader Joe’s bag that was sitting on the floor a few feet away.
“No,” I replied.
“Some guy just left it there and ran off the train.”
“It’s just garbage,” offered a man standing next to the bag.
I walked over to look in the bag. Indeed, there just appeared to be an open box of crackers and some other half-used food product and its accompanying trash. But it was enough stuff that I couldn’t see all the way to the bottom of the bag. There could have been something hidden underneath all that.
“He kind of looked around and then ran off the train,” said the woman. “It was weird.”
“Well, we should tell someone,” I said.
You get that refrain drummed into you here, and maybe these days in any big city: see something, say something. Over the loudspeaker in every subway station and train car, you’ll be told, “If you see a suspicious package on the platform or train…” and then the rest is usually so garbled as to be unhear-able, or I’ve already tuned it out. But the gist is, you report it, and this was clearly one of those situations.
I realized we were in the front car of the train, so I said to the woman, “I think the conductor is right here,” and started walking it that direction. The woman started walking with me, and as we pushed our way through people, she was walking pretty fast, and ended up in front of me. I wondered, Is she just trying to get as far away from the bag as possible? I suppose the fact that that thought had occurred to me might’ve made it seem like maybe I was doing the same. But I’d announced my intention was to go tell someone, and it wasn’t like we would be able to escape whatever was going to happen as long as we were on the same train car — I’d already thought that one through too. It seemed far more likely that some mildly disturbed or forgetful or inconsiderate person had left a paper Trader Joe’s bag of junk on the train than that they’d put a bomb in one, but the headlines and action movie explosions flashed through my head nonetheless, as these things do. We see the world in narrative, and that’s certainly the narrative that the person writing this script would have written, at least if they wanted it to have any hope of getting made.
We got to the front of the train around when it arrived at the next stop. I could kind of see the conductor through the window in his little capsule, but it looked like that little window didn’t open. The easiest way to talk to the him seemed to be to just get off the train. So I got off. The woman followed.
“Somebody left a paper Trader Joe’s bag on that car,” I said, pointing. “It just looked like there was food and junk in it, but she thought he was acting weird when he got off…” I indicated the woman who’d accompanied me. She nodded.
“Uh huh, okay,” said the conductor. He said something to a guy who was with him, and that guy headed back toward the train car. “I’ll have him go check it out. He’s a trainee, so I can’t leave him alone in here. But thank you, thank you for letting me know.”
And then he closed the window, and the doors, and pulled the train out of the station, leaving us behind. Which wasn’t what I’d expected him to do. I’d expected him to wait, have the other guy check it out, and then, once he’d made sure everything was okay, then go to the next station. That seemed like the protocol to me, if you really thought there might be something in that bag. But on the other hand, the conductor had probably seen this a million times: a couple of paranoid New Yorkers who freaked out over something entirely inconsequential – and then he got flack for holding up train service. And I’d been that other passenger way more often, the incredibly annoyed one having to wait while my train sat on the tracks, due to “an investigation.” Still, again, my brain went to the visual image of the train blowing up in the tunnel — both from inside and outside the train, since my imagination is comprehensive like that, and which angle you pick depends on whose story you’re telling at that point. And I also pictured everything being fine…with me now having to wait for another train.
“Thanks for reporting it,” said the other woman, who seemed pleased with how everything had gone down. “It really did seem weird.”
“Sure,” I said, “I’m glad we did.”
Only I wasn’t entirely glad, because I suddenly felt bad that I hadn’t gotten back on the train. I could have. There was a moment there before the doors closed when I had been able to make that choice, but I didn’t. And while I hadn’t gotten off because I was trying to save my own skin, once I was off, and had a split second to decide whether or not to get back on, the thought did pass through my mind that it was better not to be on that train. It’s not like there was anything else I could have done at that point to help if there was a bomb in that bag. The conductor made a choice, and I made a choice. And maybe his choice could have turned out to be stupid if things had gone differently, and my choice would have turned out to be smart. But instead, it just felt small and cowardly. It kind of still does.
As I’ve written about before, sometimes it’s hard to know the right thing to do in this city. After 9-11, in particular, a lot of us had hard time trying to figure out how we were supposed to go on with our daily lives. Many people I knew talked seriously about moving. In some ways, at the time, it seemed like a sensible thing to do. I just decided that I wasn’t going to live like that: in fear. And while that day in some ways seems like it’s in the distant past, now, more than ever, I think we’re living in an era where way too many people are choosing to make their day-to-day decisions out of fear — of terrorism and violence, of losing what little they have, or just of a changing world that they don’t completely understand and in which they don’t know where exactly they belong.
I don’t ever want to be one of them. I hope I’m not. Because as stupid as it is to obsess about whether you did the right thing when you found an abandoned bag on the Q train…it kind of matters. Now more than ever, it’s important to be brave. We might not all be Emma Gonzales, or Danica Roem (although I hope more and more of us continue to stand up and do what they’re doing), but we all have to decide the type of world we want to live in every day.