Feeds:
Posts
Comments

I See Her

Had a great pair session with my mentee yesterday. We haven’t met in a couple of weeks because of my work schedule and her summer vacation, so it was extra especially nice to see her. She’s started doing the summer assignments she got for the AP classes she’ll be taking in the fall. For one of those assignments, she’s reading a book I hadn’t heard of, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs. In addition to reading, she has to do some reflective writing after every 20 pages. Never mind that I love this idea and think I should start doing it my own self with every book I read. It also inspired our writing for today.

I asked if there was a line or section that really stood out for her already – she’s only just started the book. She showed me a passage about Robert Peace’s mother, Jackie, that ended with this line: “She had a baby boy and she never saw a trace of pity or scorn in his eyes.”

And we started writing.

I thought I knew where I was going, but I went somewhere else entirely. And where I went shouldn’t be surprising, but it caught me off guard all the same.

* * *

“She had a baby boy and she never saw a trace of pity or scorn in his eyes.”

Because isn’t that part of what you hope for when you have children, that they will just love you, one hundred percent love you? No judgment, no anger or shame. Pure love. Of course.

And I think about my mother’s reaction after she read my first Hunger essay. She felt bad about herself as a mother, wondered how she never knew about the camp counselor, the man at church, the boy, how she never knew about these bad things that happened to me, how she never knew about any of the bad thinking that was going on in my head.

But how would she have known? She wasn’t with me every minute, and that would have been the only way she could have protected me from bad things, from bad people. And that wasn’t possible. And she isn’t psychic, so she certainly couldn’t have known about anything I was thinking if I didn’t tell her.

Her feeling bad about her mothering of me makes me sad. And it makes me think of that famous Anne Lamott quote, one of my favorite things I’ve read, ever: You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

My mother did behave better. She was a great mother. Was she perfect? Of course not. Perfection would surely have made her an awful mother. Not perfect, but mine. And I have never looked at her with anything but love. Sometimes a desperate love, but always love. She’s my mother. I know that answer isn’t a given. But it is for me. Even when I haven’t agreed with her or wanted to do or be what she’s wanted me to do or be, my mother has always been one of those people who I love completely. And maybe part of that is that I’ve always known that she loves me the same way. Even when she hasn’t understood me, when she’s been puzzled or disturbed by me, when she’s wished I’d go another way, she has always been fiercely in love with me. How can I not reciprocate?

I own everything that’s happened to me. And I’m telling my stories. But I don’t want the barbs strung through my stories to catch her soft, smooth skin. I don’t want to hurt her, to make her question my love for her. I will write about her warmly … but I will also tell other parts of our story. Yes, her sending me to Weight Watchers when I was 13 was a mistake. Yes, a mistake that came from a place of love, but still a mistake. And all these things can be true at once – her love for me and not knowing how to make the world safe for me, my love for her and my honesty about her impact on my life.

I like to tell this funny thing about my mother. I’ve always said how lucky I am because I don’t have to worry about how my mother will react to the things I write about her … because she has always read my work backwards: when I’ve written stories that weren’t about her, she’s read them and asked how I’ve remembered so many of the details. When I’ve written things that were absolutely about her, she’s marveled at the power of my imagination. And that was sort of perfect. But it is clearly now done. I’m telling my stories, and she’s seeing herself in the lines.

There are a lot more Hunger essays to come. I don’t know if any of them will be as hard for her to read as that first one, but there will definitely be hard moments. And I worry.

I worry about how she will respond to things I write, how she’ll see herself in my words. I don’t want her to ever think that I see her with even the barest trace of pity or scorn. I see her. I see the woman she was trying to be in the face of the world she was in. I see her learning how to make a way every time the floor disappeared from under her. I see her standing up for us, her three very different, not at all easy children. I see her. I am impressed by who she is, who she was, all the ways she stays open to learning and growing.

Do I wish things for her? Of course. But not to change the past. That’s something I told her when we talked about that Hunger essay and she was wishing I’d been born to a better mother. Change one thing, change the world. If she’d been whatever that idea of a “perfect mother” was, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. “I like who you are today,” she said. Yeah. Me, too. And the person she is. I like how we’ve grown up to have this powerful, loving friendship, and that I can still count on her to mother me the way I sometimes need mothering.

So I keep digging, keep writing. I know there will be hard moments for her. And I know we’ll come through them. No pity. No scorn. Only love.



I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

 

Advertisements

Three Years On

Three years ago, a boy was killed. For no good reason, but for a lot of bad ones. He was murdered and left to bake in the August sun. And after his murder, a lot of people worked hard — and are still working hard — to convince anyone who’d listen that his death was his own fault. After all, they said, he wasn’t a good person anyway. And, they said, the man who murdered him — despite that man’s training, despite his holding all the power in that encounter — should be both lauded and pitied for making it through the ordeal of killing the boy. We should, they said, understand how afraid he must have been as he stood armed with a deadly weapon facing a child.

Three years ago, that boy’s murder was the next in a long line of murders, a long line of dead folks we were instructed to blame for their deaths at the hands of more powerful, deadly people. Dead folks like the seven-year-old girl who had the audacity to be sound asleep when she was shot to death. Dead folks like the the 22-year-old man who thought he had the right to shop for toys in a department store. Dead folks like the 22-year-old woman who seemed unaware that hanging out with friends in a local park was a capital offense. The boy murdered three years ago today was one more in a long, long line. Just one more.

But not just one more. A tipping point. Somehow that boy, that murder, that moment. Changed everything.

Changed everything. Not just for me, but definitely for me. I had spent years being sad and sadder and sadder still. Years waiting for an end to the killing of Black folks by police and their surrogates. Years waiting for killers to be held accountable, to be punished. Years, being sad and sadder and sadder still. Years feasting on disgust, disappointment, despair.

And then Michael Brown was murdered. And my despair turn to rage. And I embraced that rage, and gorged on that rage, and nurtured and listened to and learned from that rage. And I have never been the same.

And I am not alone. Brown’s murder didn’t only spark me. It birthed the Movement for Black Lives, our new Civil Rights Movement. A movement that has grown and continues to grow. A movement that has forced and sustained a focus on this country’s forever-inability to honestly face, acknowledge and dismantle racism.

***

Michael Brown should be prepping for his senior year in college. Should be finishing up the last days or weeks of that summer internship or study-abroad program he was so happy to get into. Should be texting with his mom about whether she’ll have time to run him by the back-to-school sale at Target so he can stock up on notebooks and his favorite Pilot gel pens. Should be thinking about the fact that his favorite professor will be back on campus after a year’s sabbatical. Should be hoping his course load and schedule will leave room for him to work part time at the campus library.

Instead, he is dead.

Instead, he is dead.

Instead, he is dead.

***

But we are not dead. Not yet.

We are still here, and we are still angry, and we are still committed to this fight. These three years have not been kind to us. But we are still here. And we aren’t going anywhere. We aren’t sitting down. We aren’t shutting up.

Today is a sad anniversary, but it is also a thank you. To one boy whose loss helped so many of us find our voices, find our way, find one another.

Rest in Power, Michael. We carry on.



I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

One of the first things that struck me in Hunger was Gay’s statement that her body is a cage of her own making. The truth of that resonated for me, even though I have never thought of my body as a cage. Like Gay, I made myself fat as a form of protection and a way to become invisible. I wasn’t as aware as she was of what I was doing, not in the beginning, but even after I became aware, I kept right on building the wall of my body. And now that I have come to a place where I no longer think I need the wall, the wall remains. There is more, of course, to tearing down a protective shield than just deciding I might be fine without it.

Why does it still feel safer in the cage than out of it?

***

I wasn’t fat when I was fourteen. I was fat when I was fifteen. A couple of years ago, a friend from high school sent me scanned snapshots of 9th-grader me performing in our school musical. The shock of seeing those photos was of seeing how completely not at all fat I was. I have no memory of looking the way I look in those pictures. I thought I was fat then. I thought I’d always been fat.

That’s a thing I say, that I’ve always been fat. Even though I know it’s not true. I see myself in childhood photos, and I’m not fat. A picture of myself as a 12-year-old at summer camp shows me as a leggy, curvy adolescent, not as a fat person. The pictures of me belting out my big number in that musical show me as a not-in-any-way fat teenager.

And then I’m fifteen, and I’m fat. Not as fat as I’d eventually get, but definitely fat. So clearly, fourteen years old is ground zero. The reason for building the wall of flesh I live in.

It’s easy to point to some clear catalysts for building the wall. No, I was never brutalized the way Roxane Gay was. I can’t imagine finding a way to survive, to hold on to any part of myself after such an ordeal. I was raped in my 20s, but I still can’t imagine Gay’s experience and the strength she had to marshal to survive.

But when I was fourteen, I became visible to boys and men. Or, more exactly, I became more visible and more easily available to boys and men.

I’d been visible to men for years. I was eight the first time a man exposed himself to me, nine the first time a boy tried to touch me in a sexual way, the first time I was shown porn in an attempt to arouse me. I was twelve the first time I kissed a boy, the first time there were boys who wanted to kiss me who I also wanted to kiss, thirteen the first time an adult man propositioned me.

That was likely the beginning of seeing my body as a problem, of associating my body with the dangers presented by men. That man was a counselor at the summer camp I’d attended from seven to twelve years old. He’d known me since I was nine, and yet he had no qualms asking if I was a prostitute, if I was interested in money for favors.

I didn’t understand what he was asking me, but I understood how uncomfortable he made me, how uncomfortable I felt under the look he gave me. I understood that it wasn’t okay, that he shouldn’t have been asking, that no one was supposed to look at me the way he did, certainly not someone I thought of as a teacher, someone who was a grown-up, like my father. In truth, the man was probably in his early 20s, but I was thirteen. Whatever his age, he shouldn’t have been asking me about selling sex.

So, even before I was fourteen, men had become a problem, my body had become a problem.

I was thirteen the first time my mother put me on a diet. She signed me up for Weight Watchers. It was my first summer home, not at camp. All of the other people in the group were women, were my mother’s age and older. And there I was: thirteen, confused … and not at all fat.

I wasn’t aware of not being fat. There was clearly something wrong with my body or I wouldn’t have been having so many problems, wouldn’t have met with my mother’s displeasure. So I accepted that I was fat.

I’ve come to realize that, rather than fat, what I was was terrifying: I was grown-looking. I suddenly had a woman’s body — breasts and hips — and I think the reality of that scared the crap out of my mother. I think she hoped that, if I lost weight, I wouldn’t look so womanly. My friends were all small, skinny girls. Maybe she thought she could whittle me down to look more like them.

She had worked hard to keep my body under wraps, dressing me like a toddler until I was eleven or twelve, then transitioning me from a child’s clothes to a matron’s. Looking through family photos at the change in my appearance is interesting. There I am at ten in a sundress so short it reveals the matching bloomers I’m wearing underneath. There I am at eleven in a short babydoll dress and patent leather Mary Janes, an outfit that would be more appropriate on a five or six year old. There I am at twelve in short-shorts and a tie-dyed midriff top — surely the outfit that solidified my mother’s fear. There I am at thirteen on summer vacation in a coat-length, baggy cardigan and a turtleneck next to my older brother and younger sister who are in shorts and tees and who look like my children. There I am at fourteen in a 70s suburban mom uniform of 1000% polyester, sewn-in-crease slacks while everyone else in the family is wearing jeans and shorts.

There was no denying the body under the clothes, however. And dieting only served to accentuate my voluptuous hourglass, setting me up for even more male attention, the entirely opposite thing from what my mother had hoped.

***

I was fourteen, me and my newly-slender woman’s body, me with my no idea how to deal with boys or men, and no way to learn much of anything. We lived in a very white place, a place where there would be no white boys looking to date unacceptably not-white me.

But there was still the opportunity to come into contact with men and boys. No one wanted to date me, but that didn’t mean no one noticed me. I was molested twice when I was fourteen, repeatedly by a boy close to my age and once by a man at my church.

(I think about that man at my church and about that counselor at camp. I’m sickened when I think about them. What is wrong with men that they think it’s okay to decide an adolescent girl is fair game for their sexual advances? What is wrong with our society that we have allowed them to feel entirely within their rights to prey on children? Yes, in our current apocalypse-world with a president who brags about being a sexual predator, I can’t truly be surprised. THOTUS wasn’t spawned whole from the ether. He was cultivated, steeped in a culture that had no problem with his behavior, that has no problem with most men’s behavior when it comes to women and girls.)

I told one of my friends, a boy, about the man at my church. He became very protective of me, sticking close to me when that man was around. And that was a good thing. It meant the man never had another opportunity to be alone with me.

I never told anyone about the boy who molested me. That situation was much more dangerous, fraught with terrible consequences that I couldn’t make myself cause.

He was a little older than me, and not at all interested in or attracted to me. I know this because he made sure to tell me, to tell me that he couldn’t find me attractive because of how I looked, that if I looked more like [insert name of whichever (white) cheerleader he currently lusted after], maybe I would be desirable. He told me all of that while doing a lot of unpleasant and often painful things to my body — the body he didn’t find desirable.

There was no penetration, and for that I’m grateful.

***

Here I am in the school musical, playing the Acid Queen in our production of Tommy (seriously.)


Today I look at those pictures, and I can see that I was cute as fuck, that there was not one thing wrong with my body. And I wonder how differently my life would have played out if I’d known that then. Would I also have known that I deserved better treatment? Would I have allowed that boy’s abuse to go on for as long as it did?

***

I was fourteen and I knew some things clearly: I wasn’t attractive, my body was unacceptable, my body drew unwanted attention from men and boys even if they didn’t find me desirable.

And deep in my psyche, on a level I wasn’t aware of, I made the decision to change my body, to erase it, to remove it from the focus of that problematic attention.

This was when I started to think of my body as separate from me, as “other,” a burden I had to deal with but not who I was.

Maybe I could have gone the other way, tried to disappear myself with anorexia. But I knew that wasn’t the answer — skinny girls got attention. Thinness made my body a target, so it seemed reasonable to assume that skinniness would make me more of a target. Skinniness equaled weakness and vulnerability, so I wouldn’t be skinny.

***

I got fat quickly. those Acid Queen pictures are from the fall of 9th grade, right after I turned fourteen. By spring of sophomore year — halfway through being fifteen — I was fat.

Since I have no memory of getting fat, since I have only recently been forced to acknowledge that I wasn’t always fat, I can’t say much about that period, that quick-march toward obesity. How were people responding to the changes in my body? What did my mother think was happening? How did we afford to buy me an entire new wardrobe when money was always tight but I couldn’t fit my old clothes? No idea. I wasn’t fat. And then I was.

***

Being fat had the desired effect: I stopped having to deal with unwanted male attention because there was no attention. So, in some ways, the body I built created freedom and safety. I had managed to remove myself from the equation of men’s lust.

But I made myself invisible right at the moment when I was starting to be interested in boys and would have welcomed some non-violent attention. But my body closed the door on everyone, not just the predators. (This isn’t the story of my whole life here. There were, eventually, men I was interested in who were interested in me. But high school and the world are decidedly different places.)

***

Not all stories of fat have their origins in sexual abuse … or at least I imagine that to be true. I wonder how many do, however. My own story has more to it than sexual violence. There was the dissolution of my parents’ marriage, which triggered a low-grade depression that resulted in fortifications being added to the wall. But there was also an attempted rape while I was at college, an actual rape in my early 20s.

Whatever the catalysts, here I am, many years later, much larger than I was at fifteen, the wall miles thick at this point and nearly as high. And me nestled inside with my books and pens, my knitting. Still protected, but also held back, trapped.



One in a series of essays inspired by reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. Thank you.

The plan for 2017 was to be on my #GriotGrind, to write an essay a week … except I’m MONTHS behind! I’m determined to, somehow, catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.

I started reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger a few weeks ago. I both wanted and didn’t want to read this book. Wanted to read it because I like Roxane Gay’s writing and the way she thinks, and I was curious to see how she would talk about her body, her weight. But I knew reading the book would be hard, that it would call up all kinds of things about my own body, my weight, my life. And, as comfortable as I am with myself, I wasn’t sure how ready I was to have all those things–or unexpected things–surfaced.

As I knew out would be, reading the book has been challenging. I’ve had to put it down more than once and walk away. That’s why I’m a few weeks in and still nowhere near done. Any other book of this length and readability, I’d have blown through in a couple of days. With this one, I have no idea how much longer I’ll take to push myself to the end.

As I get started with writing here about the book, my body, my weight, this is a good moment to put some cards on the table. Not all, not yet, but some key introductory ones. Talking about being fat is charged and difficult, so I’m posting some ground rules.

Card #1: I am fat. Very fat. I’ve been fat for decades. I’ve been both fatter and less fat than I am today, but never in my adult life have I not been fat.

Card #2: My decision to talk here about my body, my fat, is not an invitation for any attempt at education, intervention, or counseling. I’m not interested in anyone’s nutritional or medical advice, in predictions about what my future will hold or what dire outcomes I’m waddling toward if I don’t change my lazy, evil ways posthaste.

Card #2a: I’m also not here for all the “You’re not that fat!” reassurances folks like to give. I’m not actually sure what that’s supposed to mean, anyway. There’s no set of gradations I’m measuring myself against. I am fat. Punto. It’s not a negative or positive thing, it’s simply a descriptor of my size, differentiating me from thin people, or stocky people or waif-like people, or whoever. I. am. fat. It is in no way flattering for anyone to deny the reality of my body. That’s in the same category as people who tell me they don’t think of me as Black–and, in case there’s any question, I am decidedly, unquestionably, and unashamedly Black.

Card #3: This is the first of what will be a number–perhaps a significant number–of  “Fat Talk” essays. Essays about my body, about being fat. Now that I’ve opened this flood gate, it’s open. I’m sure there will be folks for whom all this fatgirl talk will get wearing or boring or troubling. If that’s you, I won’t be offended if you step away, choose to stop reading. But I will be pissed if you violate Card #2.

Card #4: Spoilers! If you’re planning to read Hunger and haven’t yet, you should know that I will give away things from the book. Hunger isn’t a mystery and there are unlikely to be any surprise twists, but if you’re like me, you still won’t enjoy hearing what happens before you’ve read it. I’ll try to remember to give spoiler warnings as I go, but I know I’ll forget–in fact, I’m likely to blow it straight out of the gate–so just be aware of what’s in store.

I think that’s enough cards for now.

I’ve gone back to reading Hunger. I picked it up yesterday after an almost two-week break. I’m not sure I’m actually ready to dive back in, but not reading it is starting to make me feel cowardly. I’ve walked away from other books. And I’ve finished books I wish I’d avoided (the night- and daymare horror of reading Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder comes readily to mind!). But I want to finish this book, so I will. And it’s high time I wrote more directly and sustainédly¹ about being a fat Black woman in this world, so I’ll read … and then I’ll write as many of the things the book surfaces for me as I can. And I’ll share them here. Perhaps not all. Most probably not all. But some.

Depending on how people respond to all this direct and sustained fat talk, I may have to add some more ground-rules cards as we go.

__________
¹ No, it’s not a word, but I like thinking it is.



I’m not sure this really, truly counts as an essay … but I’m counting it anyway!

The plan for 2017 was to be on my #GriotGrind, to write an essay a week … except I’m MONTHS behind! I’m determined to, somehow, catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.

I grew up quiet. I was docile, compliant, held my tongue when I should have spoken. This isn’t a thing to be proud of, and I’m not proud of it. I should have spoken the first time a man flashed me. I was eight. I should have spoken the first time a boy tried to pressure me into letting him touch me. I was nine. But I was a “good girl,” a seen-but-not-heard girl. So I stayed quiet.

Eventually—though not for many too many years—I realized that staying quiet is a form of self harm, that silence can equal death.

Writing ended my silence. When I started blogging ten years ago, I started posting things I didn’t say out loud, started telling stories I hadn’t told: the first time I was called a nigger, the night I was raped, the acceptance of my inability to have children. And when I wrote, people read. And I found I had more things to say. And more people read … and more and more, reading and reading and reading. Silence stopped being my default position. It became, instead, an occasional choice, a choice made to serve my needs, not anyone else’s.

In recent years, I have been anything but silent. My pain and rage have been loud and sustained. The steady drumbeat of devaluation and death that has been the storyline of Black and Brown communities calls up my voice again and again and again, has spilled across pages and pages, come to mic-ed spaces like this one to spill over audiences like you.

***

When I looked up “backslide,” I was surprised to have page after page of religious websites come up in the search results. At first I ignored them because nothing I think about when I think about backsliding has anything to do with religion.

I searched again. I was looking for something that might steer me away from the negative definition of the word that was dominating my writing. All my searches came up religious. Finally, I gave in and clicked the first site, “Ask a Minister” (seriously). And what to my wondering eyes should appear but definitions of backsliding that resonated more powerfully than the standard, “relapsing into bad ways or error.” Ask a Minister gave me:

Revolt
Refuse to harken
Pull away
Rebel

Suddenly backsliding looked like a badge of honor, something to which I could and should aspire. Biblically, of course, it’s all bad—backsliders were folks who “refused to harken” to religious rules, to the word of God. Okay, fine. But is that always necessarily a bad thing? Questioning authority—speaking up instead of keeping silent—can be exactly right, exactly the thing that saves your life.

And there it was—the memory of quiet, go-along-to-get-along me, and the memory of all the ways the stress and damage of my silence manifested in my health, in my bad relationships, in my fear of embracing my anger.

But no more. I have become a proud backslider. I have—to paraphrase my favorite of the “Ask a Minister” bits—refused to harken and turned a backsliding shoulder and made my ears heavy that they should not hear.

One. Hundred. Percent.

***

I was born on a Tuesday, and I used to like thinking about that old poem: Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace …  I liked thinking that I might ever be seen as even the least bit graceful. And somehow my silence was part of that.

When I mentioned this to a friend, she sent me the biblical definition of grace: the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. I do tend to think of myself as the recipient of the free (and generally unmerited) favor of God, so perhaps I’ve achieved gracefulness after all. This graceful backsliding is such a relief. Freedom, finally, to just be my own authentic, un-quiet, angry, rebellious, refusing-to-harken self.



This piece was written for the July 24th Big Words, Etc. reading, the theme for which was “Backslide.”

The plan for 2017 was to be on my #GriotGrind, to write an essay a week … except I’m MONTHS behind! I’m determined to, somehow, catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.

A day or so after I hearing the Invisibilia piece that inspired my post about Max Hawkins and his life-randomizing nonsense I saw a kindness.org video of a guy named Joe. Joe has a few things in common with Max. Both are young men, both have floppy hair, both have beards and mustaches, both are slender (though Joe looks a bit more muscular than Max), both are cute (though Joe is more straight-up, conventionally cute as opposed to Max and his nerdboy appeal). There are differences, of course. Max is bespectacled, Joe isn’t. Max is white, Joe is Black.

They share an interest in upending the way they approach human interaction, an interest in bringing more strangers into their lives.

But when I watched Joe’s video, I was left with none of the feelings I had after hearing the NPR piece on Max. Joe’s random acts of service or kindness are putting him in contact with a number of strangers, all kinds of strangers, strangers Max’s apps would never find. Joe is sharing time with some of these people — sometimes only a moment, but other times longer. He is broadening his world, randomizing his life. So why is he not annoying and upsetting me the way Max does?

Well, of course, it’s because he’s not stalking people’s private events and gate-crashing their parties. Of course it’s because he isn’t starting FB groups that encourage other people to disregard folks’ privacy. Of course it’s because he isn’t creating apps that will help abusive husbands and stalker boyfriends and fatal attraction girlfriends and thieves track people’s whereabouts. Of course.

But it’s more than that. It’s “other” than that. It’s the mindset behind Joe’s actions. One of the things that really angered me about Max’s story was his entitlement, his confidence in his right to invade other people’s spaces, his sense that — because he was bored and looking for new and fun things to do — it was okay for him to stride into someone else’s life and make himself at home.

There’s none of that with Joe. Joe’s motivation is to show some human kindness and maybe meet some nice people in the bargain. He approaches strangers and offers himself to them. There’s no sense of his feeling entitled to their time and attention, no inviting himself into their private parties and gatherings.

And he backs away when his offers are rejected. I’m sure Max would do the same if people didn’t welcome him in — he does seem like a nice guy, after all — but the NPR piece gives the impression that he was welcomed everywhere he went, so I’ll just have to have faith that he would have backed off.

In the video, we see a few instances of people rejecting Joe’s offer. A couple in a park can’t think of anything they need. An older woman doesn’t need help with her bags. And we see two women who don’t want to be approached by a man they don’t know.

Joe doesn’t annoy me. He charms me. He makes me wish I was on the street in London being approached by him. I don’t actually need any help, but maybe I’d ask him for directions or a recommendation of someplace nice to go for dinner. Something. Whereas I would close my door in Max’s face.

I want Joe and Max to meet. I want them to talk about their approaches to strangers and randomizing their lives. Would Max be able to see enough of the difference in what they’re doing, the ways that Joe offering himself up to strangers isn’t grounded in what Joe can get from the experience?

Because that’s a thing that speaks to me in these stories. Max’s plans began with his desire to do something for himself, his desire to make his life more interesting, to broaden the focus of his lens. It’s likely that the people who welcome Max into their events and their homes get something from the encounter, from Max. Of course. Imagining that is simple because Max seems likable and interesting. The fact of his random appearance at an event, at a dinner table, would automatically make for lively conversation. So the people whose space Max invades get something in the deal. Yes, but the primary focus of that transaction is Max, the transaction happens for his benefit.

I imagine Joe gets quite a lot from his interactions. And surely a good part of his decision to do this experiment is to feel good about himself, as one of the women in the video says. But it’s more than that. He was inspired because of a friend’s birthday and wanting to honor that day, celebrate the way he valued that person. Notice how there’s nothing in there about what he needs, what he’ll get

I’m not trying to paint Joe as selfless and saintly. He seems like a regular guy, not perfect, not awful. He seems like a kind, gentle man. And he seems like a person who’s able to see beyond himself more clearly than Max can. And his ability to see beyond himself makes all the difference, is a large part of what makes his story endearing while Max’s mostly just pisses me off.

There are more layers to this — as to all things. Seeing Joe’s video made me think about what it means that it’s men in both cases. Are there videos of women running around putting themselves in the hands of strangers? I want to hope there are, though I haven’t found one yet. Because a woman doing this would be different — for her and for the people with whom she interacted. Maleness is something Max and Joe share, and neither man calls attention to or in any way makes clear his awareness of the freedom, the privilege, that comes along with that maleness.

Both present as men. The way men are seen by strangers varies depending on the man. There’s no indication in the Invisibilia piece that Max ran into any negative responses to his maleness. With Joe, however, there are two instances in which young women reject his offer — or attempt to offer. In both instances, it’s easy to imagine that those women are reacting to the discomfort of having a strange man walk up and start asking something.

But then we add race. Would either of those young women who fast-walk away from Joe have paused to hear Max out? Would the woman who tells Joe she’s fine with her bags have accepted Max’s offer of help? It’s impossible to know, of course, but the question sits heavy for me.

Race aside, I’m still thinking about how Joe and Max navigate the response — or potential response — to maleness. We see two young woman give Joe the brush off. In the second instance in particular, we see Joe do a quick about-face away from her. Something in his quickness spoke to me … of his awareness of and respect for her space and feelings.

And I know I said “race aside,” but that about-face also spoke to me of Joe’s awareness of others’ perceptions of and responses to him as a Black man. Where Max, for all that he and Joe share many physical characteristics, might be perceived as harmless, Joe is more likely to be perceived as a threat.

Which isn’t Max’s fault, and isn’t something he necessarily needs to take into account when he makes decisions about approaching strangers. I think we’re meant to assume this is the privilege we’re told Max acknowledges, but there was nothing in the piece to show that awareness. Inherent bias isn’t Max’s fault, but Joe’s about-face — his need to be aware of bias in ways that Max will likely never have to be aware — spoke loudly to me.

In the end, what’s true is that I like Joe and find his video heartwarming. I like Joe. I like that he reaches out to both children and adults. I like his English accent. I like that he’s a pretty brown man with locs and facial hair (my most favorite kind of pretty men!).

Naturally, I wonder if I’m partial to Joe because he’s a pretty brown man with locs and facial hair. I probably am. I am aware of my preferences, my biases. But I’m also able to see them and try to think past them. Beyond Joe’s sweet face and charming accent, I like how invested he is in thinking about his relationships with others — the people who are his friends and people he doesn’t know. I like that he seems aware of the space he takes up, and that he wants to be intentional about how he takes that space.

The differences between Max and Joe are stark in my eyes. And the two men play interestingly off one another in my head. Without Max, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate exactly why I like Joe so much. Without Joe, I would have continued to wonder if I was being too hard on Max. It isn’t the idea of life-randomization that’s problematic. It’s possible to randomize your day to day without the ugly side-effects. Focusing beyond ourselves as Joe does, seems to be the key — thinking about ways we can help other people, not only about how we can make our own lives more fun or interesting.



I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week … except that I’m WAY behind! I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.

Yesterday, in my casual scroll through my FB feed, I saw a post from a woman I know, and I clicked on it. This woman is someone who usually posts about race, about spirituality, about ways we should live better together as human, about how she feels when people show her how incapable they are of living well together as humans. She also posts a fair amount of live commentary on these topics. She posts funny things from time to time, but when I see her in my feed, I have come to expect a post that has some weight, that will hit on some points that will make me think or share some information I’ll find interesting.

The piece I clicked on yesterday, however, disturbed me. She had posted a link to a piece about the death of George Zimmerman (let’s be clear right now: Zimmerman is NOT dead). I hadn’t been listening to the news — where I assume I’d have heard that story if it was a real story — so I was surprised and clicked through to see what had happened to him. I didn’t read the piece. I didn’t need to. As soon as the link opened, the banner across the page read “Create a Prank!” So the “article” was supposed to be a joke, supposed to sucker us in and then say, “Gotcha!” when we reached the end.

Never mind whether it’s funny to make jokes about people’s deaths (I leave the Kathy Griffin argument on the side for now). This site disturbed me because it encourages people to make fake news … for fun. Now, the site covers its ass by proclaiming that I am 100% wrong. At the bottom of the page is this note: “We do NOT support FAKE NEWS!!! This is a Prank website that is intended for Fun. Bullying, Violent Threats or posts that Violate Public Order are NOT permitted on this Website.” Duly noted. Maybe that means no one can sue you. But you’ve set up a site that creates news-like content for people to post on social media. That would seem to be the textbook definition of fake news.

We are living in a moment when we are actively encouraged to distrust the press, when THOTUS and his masters and minions¹ tell us daily that the press is our enemy and cannot be trusted, when actual purveyors of fake news are given stronger platforms from which to spew their filth. And into this toxic soup someone thinks it’s a good idea to introduce a prank site that will make the fake facts that much easier to produce.

I’m sure many people will use this site to make silliness that will amuse their friends and make for a slew of great comments. Which will be harmless because folks’ friends will be able to tell right off that the “article” is fake, is meant to be funny.

But then there are folks who will use it to make headlines about George Zimmerman’s death, headlines that will catch our attention because they are about people or events that aren’t joking matters. And there are the folks who will use it to make headlines to further their conspiracy theories or insane claims about one political party or another, about one country or another, about one religious group or another.

And maybe that would be fine if people would be able to tell even without clicking the link that they’re being pranked. But the prank “article” is attributed to “Channel 45 News” and, as an FB share, looks the way most shared news links look. As long as the headline and accompanying photo aren’t too outlandish, the prank article will look pretty real. And given the numbers of people who just read headlines and keep scrolling, that could be a problem.

I’m actually not interested in being a killjoy, in keeping folks from having wacky fun with fake news. I just question if this is the time for such wacky fun. When THOTUS and his masters and minions are working hard to make us disbelieve everything we hear from major news outlets, is this really the right moment for adding straight up lies to anyone’s timeline? I vote no.

Public trust in the media has been severely damaged, and nonsense like this won’t help right that ship. I’m not a big flag-waver for the media in general — there are so many things that need fixing, so many ways the media needs to try harder and be better — but we need an independent press. Period. It’s one of the things we’ve always chosen to brag about in relationship to the state-controlled presses in other places. And yet here we are, with a government that is hell bent on driving our somewhat-independent press into the ground.

Do I think this prank site will ring the death knell of real news? No. Of course not. But it’s not helping. There are people in this country who can hear a “news” story about Hillary Clinton running a child slavery ring out of a pizza shop and show up strapped, ready to rescue the babies. I mean. When this is who we are, we shouldn’t be playing with fire.

__________

¹ THOTUS is still Titular Head of These United States, but I’ve added in his coterie of evil because it’s not enough to only point my finger at him.



I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week … except that I’m WAY behind! I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.