Airing my dirty laundry …

At the end of December, I moved house. Goodbye to the many-splendored joys of living in Crown Heights, and hello to … Sunset Park! I’ve moved to south Brooklyn, to a neighborhood with which I already have a love relationship, having worked here happily for a dozen years. Sunset Park is a wonderful community. And my apartment is beautiful. And I have unobstructed views from my windows to let in sunlight and starshine and all of that.

BUT

My heart remains … if not fully broken, then still badly bruised. I realized just before Christmas that my response to having to leave my Crown Heights home was translated in my body to the response I have after a break up. I was grieving a lost love, licking my wounds, crying myself a river. Leaving Crown Heights was breaking my heart.

I wish I’d figured that out sooner. My move would have been far less difficult. All the while I was pining, I wasn’t doing any packing. So I didn’t start getting shit into boxes until three days before the move. Seriously. Three days. To pack a large apartment with a 10-year accumulation of mess.

Predictably, I failed. And failed on a luminously-technicolor scale. The movers arrived on the morning of the 30th, and maybe a hair more than half my house was ready to go. When that happens, what it means is that the movers pack your stuff. When that happens, what it means is that your things go into giant boxes any which way, and there’s no handy labeling of anything so you end up not knowing where things are.

It also means I let the truck head for the new place knowing that I hadn’t packed much of the kitchen or finished the closets in my bedroom or front hall. And that was stupid, but I just couldn’t bear to take any more time getting things in the truck, couldn’t bear to have strangers—men—pack my clothes, my underwear and bras. Couldn’t bear to have them handling my world of purses and scarves, my jewelry.

When that happens, it means you spend the better part of the next two days schlepping back to your old apartment to pack the things you left behind and cart those things in (expensive) cabs to your new apartment.

Sigh.

This was the worst move of my life. No question.

There’s one way this move could have gone more smoothly. Many friends offered to help me pack. They understood that I didn’t have much time between signing my lease and move-in day, and some of them knew I have a shoulder injury that would make packing difficult. So they stepped up.

I turned them all down.

I had so many reasons. I wanted to be able to sort through everything, do some enormous culling of my possessions so I could move with less stuff. I wanted to have the boxes organized and carefully labeled. Also, and most importantly, I totally underestimated the amount of stuff I own … which happens when you’re not paying full attention because you’re busy grieving your lost love. When everything’s put away, it doesn’t look like all that much. Start pulling things out of cabinets and cubbies … and you suddenly have ten fucking years’ worth of accumulate to somehow cram into far too few boxes.

But all of this—while also true—is just the story I told myself about why I couldn’t accept help. The real story is uglier, sadder.

*

I recently contributed an essay to Wendy Angulo’s “Lifting the Burden of Shame” project. Very specifically, I wrote about the shame I was taught to feel about being Black. So much of that essay seemed to fall out of my pen. But there was also the part that snuck up on me and smacked me upside the head … with a sledgehammer.

I thought I was aware of the ways and places shame manifested in my life. The ways and places it still manifests in my life. Writing that essay showed me how wrong I was, how sneaky and insidious shame is. That sounds obvious, but it surprised me all the same.

Writing that essay and then getting myself moved also made me think of Cisneros’ “A Smart Cookie” in The House on Mango Street, of Esperanza’s mother stirring oatmeal at the stove, angry, saying, “Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down.” So far down. So firmly down. So adeptly down that you don’t notice the damage until someone or something slaps you hard enough to wake you up, force you to see the hole you’ve allowed yourself to dig, the dirt and leaves you’re covering yourself with.

 

Yeah. What does this have to do with the hell of my moving? Everything. Every last thing. I couldn’t accept anyone’s offer of help because of shame, because I didn’t want any of those people—my friends—to see me.

People think they know me. I’m a middle-aged Black woman with a fair amount of education, a sense of humor, some creative skills. But I’m like Dorian Gray and his creepy-ass portrait, looking good on the outside … but behind the scenes I’m all chaos and disaster, oozing noxious slime. Behind the scenes is the real me, and the real me is a mess.

To let people come help me pack would have meant letting them see the slovenly way I keep house, letting them see that I am a borderline hoarder, letting them see how not at all together I actually am. It was easier to have the worst move of my life, to spend hundreds of dollars I couldn’t afford on cabs than to expose my shamefully disorganized, dirty, disgusting underbelly to people who like and respect me.

*

Was my shame-induced hiding successful? Of course not. Yes, the movers got to see me, but they were strangers I’d never see again, so I could manage the mortification their judgment caused. No. One of my friends came on moving day morning, and instead of helping oversee the move-in end of things, she wound up spending hours—HOURS—packing, seeing my mess, dealing with dirt and trash.

My heart ached the whole time. How was our friendship supposed to survive everything she had to see?

I tried talking to my mom about it the next day when she asked why I hadn’t invited help. She told me, unsurprisingly, that I was being overly hard on myself, that everyone has dirt and dust behind their bookcases, that no one’s house looks good when you start stripping away the decorative distractions. And I love her for that … but I don’t think she understood the true state of my apartment.

This terror of having anyone see my filthy house, it’s more than just shame. It feels connected to Impostor Syndrome. I present as someone who has her shit more or less together, and letting people see how badly I keep house lays bare that lie, makes plain just how much I don’t have together, opens the door to questions about what else in my life is in utter disarray, what else in my life I’m lying about.

 

Welp. My ugly secret is exposed. As he wheeled my bed down the hall to my new bedroom, the mover looked at me and nodded. “This is a nice apartment,” he said. I could imagine the rest of his thought: “And you’re going to fill it with crap and keep it as badly as you did the old one, aren’t you?”

*

So I’m in my new apartment, in my new neighborhood. I finally finished the move last weekend, bringing the final things from the old place, and I have begun to settle in—my kitchen is unpacked, I’ve broken down a bunch of boxes, my cats no longer spend hours in hiding. It’ll be a long time before I begin to feel settled. How long will it be before I begin to root out and deal with my shame? Unpacking is slow and exhausting. Eradicating shame is work. But it’s clearly time I got down to it.

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Don’t Try This at Home

NPR’s podcast, Invisibilia, just ran a piece about Max Hawkins, “a kind of unassuming white guy.” Maybe you know Max because he arrived, uninvited, at your Passover seder, or the sushi-making party you threw last year. Because that’s his thing: using technology to find and show up at private events.

And—surprise!—strangers welcome him gladly! Relationships are formed, and good times are had by all!

The piece is skewed to read as wacky, charming, renewing-your-faith-in-the-basic-goodness-of-your-fellow-citydwellers. All that. Definitely played for sweetness: young man realizes he lives in a bubble and uses tech to try new things and meet people he wouldn’t have otherwise met. You can listen to it on the NPR site. It’s a great story.

And it enrages me.

For real. On so many levels: as a woman, as a Black person, as a private citizen who doesn’t have a lot of love for colonizers and gate crashers. This story reeks of privilege, and NPR’s inability or unwillingness to call that out in a real way is frustrating in the extreme. There is a half-second nod to Hawkins’ privilege. But that’s it. The idea is almost acknowledged, and we’re told that Hawkins acknowledges it, too … and then we move right back to the smiley, feel-goodness of this zany tale.

But it’s not that simple. In 2017, in MAGA America, it cannot be that simple.

In the past, you could do an interview like this and never have to include even token acknowledgement of the power of whiteness. Why would you? It was expected that stories would be told from the point of view of white folk, quite often from the vantage point of white men. The white person’s point of view was, simply, the “norm,” and the rest of us were welcome to fit ourselves in around the margins if we could, but we were expected to accept our exclusion and erasure and keep quiet. Inclusion? Not possible.

Also impossible? The idea that anyone else’s feelings or interests or privacy need be respected. The white people are having fun, and that was the only point. Never mind if their “fun” disturbed or damaged someone else, one of those nameless “other” people who count so very much less.

This story is presented as funny and clever, something we should all try because surely all of us could benefit from stepping out of our comfort zones and meeting new people. Really? How well would that work for me as a woman alone to go present myself at the homes of strangers? How well would it work of for me as a Black person? How well would it work for a Black man?

Let’s pause for a moment to consider how unnecessary any of this is. In a city like San Francisco, there are plenty of public events that could have helped Max break free of his homogenous bubble. There are gallery openings, readings, performance art installations, open houses. He could volunteer with an organization working in a neighborhood he’s curious about but never visited. He could join his community board and meet some of the old-timey residents who have yet to be priced out by his gentrifying butt. Why am I supposed to think it’s okay for him to insert himself in other people’s lives because his own life feels boring or stuck in a rut?

As I said, the story does take a quick glance over the wall at privilege: “as a kind of unassuming white guy, [Max] actually didn’t [have to worry about people not responding positively.] (And Max acknowledges this privilege.)” Oh. Okay, then. Max acknowledges his privilege. Carry on.

This hat tip to white male privilege isn’t enough. No points for that little wink and nod. What privilege is it that Max is aware of? We have no idea because we’re just given that pat on the head, no actual information. No, sorry. NPR and Invisibilia, you have failed. You need to take that further. In the case of this profile of Max, a lot of my anger would have melted away if the reporter creating this story had stepped away from the cutesy narrative and said plainly:

Max was able to get away with his shenanigans because he is a young white man who is not aggressively muscular and looks goofily non-threatening. Given the realities of our current society’s entrenchment in rape culture, this kind of reliance on the kindness of strangers isn’t recommended for women. Given our adherence to the belief that all Black bodies are dangerous and criminal and in need of neutralization, showing up at strangers’ doors and demanding entrance to their parties is discouraged for Black folks … well, hell, for all people of color.

But my anger runs along another path as well. Yes, the white male privilege of Max being able to feel safe and comfortable putting himself in places he doesn’t belong would be enough to piss me right off. But there’s more. There’s the raging sense of entitlement that allows Max to decide he has the right to show up at strangers’ homes, at strangers’ private events. That entitlement allows him to made decisions about other people’s lives, allows him to decide that whatever he sees that he wants, he can have. And that is just the whitest thing in the world.

It’s easy for me to believe Max Hawkins is a nice guy. Look at his almost cartoonishly goofy face:

He really looks like a nice guy. That’s not the point, however. Nice people do shitty things all the time. Nice people take full, comfortable advantage of their privilege all the time. They may even, like Max, acknowledge that they have privilege. But when Invisiblia reports on all of that without acknowledging any of it, that’s the problem, that’s what sparks my rage.

Back in December, Storycorps raised hackles by framing an awful story as a heartwarming one, just in time for the holidays … and then refused to take full responsibility for their crap when listeners and readers called them out.

Now it’s Invisibilia’s turn. There is no excuse for presenting a story like this without context, without explicit acknowledgement of the ways in which Max’s life-randomizing hijinks are also dangerous, intrusive, and dripping with privilege.

Is it fair for me to expect more from Invisibilia, from NPR? I say yes. The Washington Post’s new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” tells me that the paper must be held to an even higher level of accountability for its journalism, for its honesty, for its calling out of wrongs and lies. Not that it shouldn’t be held to high standards simply because it’s a major national newspaper. But when you slap that kind of high and mighty line on yourself, you are asking to be put under a more exacting microscope. I mean, Fox News was terrible for years, but when they started describing themselves as “fair and balanced,” that was clearly a call for pointing out every instance of their utter lack of fairness or balance.

NPR presents itself as the news organization that goes beneath the surface, that takes more time with its stories, digs deep for the hidden bits that are crucial to understanding, to informed, critical thinking. That standard of reporting has to apply to all of the reporting. That standard of reporting has to be followed even when a reporter is faced with “a kind of unassuming white guy” who’s doing some madcap thing that seems the perfect idea for a fluff piece. You sell your wares based on the promise of critical analysis. Throwing the words, “And Max acknowledges this privilege” at me is laziness. It’s telling me, “Look, we know there’s more here, some deep mess that needs dissecting, but we’re not in the mood. We like this guy and don’t feel like examining the seamy underbelly of his privilege, don’t want to make him feel bad about this adorably crazy thing he’s done.”

That laziness is bad journalism. There are people who don’t understand what privilege is or how it works, who don’t know how to spot it, who can’t see that it’s lurking in harmless spaces like Max’s decision to amp up the interesting-quotient in his life. It’s up to quality, responsible journalism to point that out.

The decision to ignore the negative aspect of Max’s story is bad for Max, too. As I said, it’s easy to believe Max is a nice guy. He probably means well and didn’t set out to harm anyone. The I-can’t-fully-open-my-eyes, nerdboy look of him makes that easier to believe. He’s a nice guy. By not calling his attention to what he’s doing, by not picking apart his “awareness” of his privilege, he gets to continue running headlong down his slippery slope.

Max’s slope? Monetizing his behavior and taking it public. He is developing a “suite of randomization apps.” Of course he is. Because what he’s done is so fun and clever, and of course lots of other people should do the same.

He hopes to introduce [the apps] for public use in the coming months. He has also created a Facebook group that encourages people to attend strangers’ publicly listed events and offers tips and tricks for doing so.

(I’m not even going to list all the ways I’ve already imagined for this to go horribly wrong, all the folks with ill intent who could take full and painful advantage of Max’s apps. No, we’ll just pretend he’s done something fun and clever and of course lots of other people should do the same.)

When we don’t push people to think about the problematic things they’re doing, they will keep doing them. And, in some cases, they will expand them, and make money from them, and get other people to start doing them, too. Swell.

Being a nice guy shouldn’t give you a pass when you’re doing something wrong. By finding Max clever and off-beat, NPR lost sight of the work it’s supposed to be doing, the quality journalism we’ve been led to expect.

I expect my purveyors of quality news to be aware of the larger world, even in a puff piece about a bored hipster who’s created an app for that.



In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind. I committed to writing an essay a week … but fell behind behind pretty quickly. I’m determined to catch up, committed to 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride.

My Life as a Cougar

No, this isn’t some poignant tale from my Swedish childhood.¹  This is me struggling with the weird reality of going out with a guy young enough to be my son.  You know, dealing with the discovery that I am a “cougar.”²

Ok, so I’ve said it.  I’ve said both “it”s — I’ve gone on dates with someone who isn’t AC, and that not-AC someone is ridiculously young.  Take a moment to denounce me if you like.

Done?  I’m not sure I am, but let’s continue.

We’ll call the little whippersnapper I’ve been talking to Tarik.  On our third date I made the mistake of asking his age.  I knew he was young.  Even in the dark dance club where we met, it was clear I was the senior partner in our couple.  It’s just that I had convinced myself ours was a single-digit age gap.  Yeah, not so much.

I am finding this May-December thing decidedly icky.  And I’m surprised by how much it bothers me.  I don’t know if Tarik ever had any kind of boyfriend potential, but I do know that learning his age chilled my interest.  How annoying that I care.  Why do I care?  After all, AC is younger than I am, too.  Ok, only by two years.  We’re practically separated at birth compared to me and Tarik.  But really, what’s the big deal?  A man “of a certain age” dating a woman in her 20s would be envied and admired — ok, maybe not by everyone, but by many.  But when it’s an older woman and a younger man, suddenly there’s something animal and creepy going on:³

Shall I photoshop my face in there?

Again, what’s the big deal?  According to this handy chart I found on the internets, Tarik’s in my half-plus-seven dating range:

Mercifully, I will be saving myself from having to agonize over this too much longer.  It seems that my little trip to Cougar Town is going to be a short one.  Tarik is mostly irking the mess out of me these days, and is about to get that final goodbye.  I just wish I could figure out whether or not he’d irk me half as much if he weren’t half my age.

__________

¹ Tell me you never saw that movie.  What’s Netflix for, friends?

² Oh, so many issues with this use of “cougar.”  I suppose it’s better than “cradle robber,” but what is it really supposed to be saying?  And, while we’re figuring stuff out, how is it that I’m finding myself in this category?

³ Check out The Gender Blender Blog for a good articulation of some of my problems with this whole cougar business.

Where’s Aunt Sally when I need her?

I had a strange dream early this morning.  It was the kind of dream in which my conscious self knows that I’m dreaming and even talks to me as the action of the dream is unfolding about the fact that I’m dreaming.  It was my conscious self that ended the dream, that made the decision to open my eyes and wake up so that the dream would stop.

In the dream, my worst ex was in my apartment.  This isn’t the Morphine Man or Vlad or any other ex I’ve mentioned.  This is the dangerous, abusive man I never talk about here.  And he didn’t show up in this apartment.  I was living in some enormous loft/performance space, similar to the loft I lived in when I was dating that man, only much, much bigger (and with the performance space my actual apartment, sadly, lacked).

This man — let’s call him Michael — came into my room and woke me up, yelling and threatening me with … I don’t know what.  I had done something to piss him off and he had come to exact some revenge.  He was advancing through the apartment, breaking things, tearing things off of shelves and flinging them against the walls.

I was scared, but I was also surprised to see him, surprised that he would suddenly be there, in my house, in my life.  I watched him come toward me, watched the mess he was making of my home, but didn’t do anything.  And that was when I noticed that a) my apartment was a performance space and b) it was full of people, including my brother and some of my friends from college.  I used the distraction of the crowded room to slip out of bed (because of course all of this was happening while I was in bed) and hide, first at one end of the apartment and then at the other. 

My conscious self was annoyed, kept rejecting the idea that Michael would ever come after me in any kind of violent way.  Yes, he was abusive, but not physically.  I started reviewing all the terrible things that happened between us and pointed out to my dreaming self that none of them had involved physical violence.  Dream me was unconvinced and continued to look for a hiding place.

I caught my brother’s eye, and he smiled and patted the air with his hand as if to say, “Calm down.  Everything’s going to be fine.”

I could hear Michael behind me and crouched down so I could crawl under a table … and that was when conscious me decided I’d had enough and snapped my eyes open into my just-before-sunrise room, and I was awake.

WTF?!

Years ago, I read Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Number Runner with my class.  That book was a great experience, gave me a chance to learn so much more from my students than they learned from me.  One day they taught me about number books, about interpreting their dreams so they’d know which number to play.  This was a world I knew nothing about.  Happily, there were plenty of places that still sold those books, and I bought a few to bring to class.  My favorite was Aunt Sally’s Policy Players Dream Book.  My students and I had a great time with the dream books, recording and interpreting our dreams. 

I still have Aunt Sally around here somewhere.  I need to find her.  This is the first dream I’ve remembered in a long time, and the most vivid I’ve had in ages.  Surely my lucky number is in there somewhere.  Hitting Powerball from a dream about Michael would be excellent.  Finally, something positive would come from that unfortunate relationship.

Ebb Tide (An Update)

My abject terror (see previous post) is receding.  Not entirely gone, but so much better than two weeks ago.  In an email to Fox, I talked a little bit about my book-induced fear.

Fox had a very simple response to my trauma: I might be less frightened at home if I started locking my front door.

Yeah, you can laugh.  No, really.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Because I hadn’t been locking my door.  Not that you could just walk into my house from the street or anything, there’s a big iron gate between that door and the street.  But she was right, and I knew it.  When I came home scared that first night, I thought about locking the door, but didn’t do it, didn’t want to give in to the book, let it dictate my behavior.   Right.

I held out for another day after getting Fox’s email, then locked my door.

And I had the first almost-good night’s sleep I’d had since the terror started.  How’s that for unbelievably ridiculous?

Heridas de Amor: capitulo 4

Break time tonight finds Valerie in my office, folding her teeny tiny self into the five centimeters of space left on the guest chair that’s full of my bags and books.  “Don’t worry,” she says when I reach to shift my crap to the floor, “I’m skinny.”  Is she ever.  Enough to worry me.

But I am off topic.  Her painful thinness is not why she’s here.  No.  She has only come for a second.  And that is to tell me — uncharacteristically quietly and shyly — that she and Jeovany are back together.

(Which explains his over the top exhuberance on Tuesday.)

I am happy for them.  Of course.  They have wanted to be back together since the moment they broke up.  And I like them together.  They are a terrifying fascination.

But —

I’m just not sure.  There is the ‘terrifying’ in the fascination, after all.  Yes, both have grown a little in the last few months.  But both are still very young for their ages.  Neither has a particularly stable hold on her or his volatile temper.  Neither knows how not to fight dirty.

Would any of these things have improved if they’d stayed apart a little longer?  Maybe.  But yeah, maybe not.  Maybe it’s better for them to be together for as long as they can sustain the white heat of their attraction, burn it out of their systems and move on.  Certainly I, with my life history of failed relationships, am not the one to know the wiser choice.  And even if I did know, it’s not for me to tell them what to do, how to offer up their hearts and to whom.

So the saga continues.  I’ll just stand over here, doling out hugs and kisses, crossing my fingers, hoping for the best.

Drunk-dialing My Ex …

Ok, no. I don’t do this. But that’s surely only because I haven’t been drunk in years and years. I am a ‘use your words’ girl but also a bit of a coward, so my equivalent of drunk-dialing is writing a letter. I compose all manner of missives — weepy, vituperative, conciliatory, shaming, loving, befuddled … And, sadly, sometimes I send them.

I haven’t sent one to every ex (so if any of you are reading this and wondering where yours might be, sorry!), but some have had the distinction of receiving several. I’m not sure I would call this an honor.

The letters accomplish nothing positive. Ever. Ok, that’s not true. Two of the letters had very acceptable results, but two is hardly a bumper crop.

And why am I going on about this? Yeah. I have been writing a letter in my head for about a week.  No, not to AC.  AC and I have reached an oddly workable place where I get to go on assured that we are well and truly broken up and he gets to go on thinking we might maybe-possibly still be together or get back together or be friends with benefits or … just something that doesn’t mean we’re well and truly broken up.  Whatever.  It’s foolish, but it’s easier this way.  We no longer have to fight on the phone and instead have some very nice, even affectionate conversations.  Whenever I get back to JA, I can sort all of that out.  No, this letter is to The Morphine Man. Tuesday night as I baked strawberry bread and cookies into the wee hours, I sat down and wrote it out.

Oh I know: I shouldn’t send this letter. I know that. I know that. I know that.

What?