I AM AS MUCH AS YOU

These weeks have not been the nation’s finest. There have been millions of words written about the Kavanaugh/Ford hearings, and there will be many more now that he is confirmed. But I need to add my own voice to the choir.

I was traveling with my son the day of the hearing and waited until he fell asleep to watch the circus alone in my hotel room. I personally do not know Kavanaugh, but I recognized him. We are the same vintage and we went to adjacent fancy prep schools. Our parents were successful but lived in very different social strata. A great deal of my past came sweeping back —- I was rarely at these parties and never conventionally popular as a quirky, brace-faced teenager ( I had braces FOREVER), but I did observe these DC/MD/VA boys when we did intersect. I never felt at ease with the entitlement that we all had, never felt like I belonged in this kind of world, though I pretended otherwise until I knew better. As I watched Kavanaugh blow up, I recognized the cholera, the ingrained pride over the access to elite schools and country clubs, the implication that all of this was his due before he embarked on his spectacular career. And that white hot anger was also familiar when Kavanaugh challenged Senator Klobuchar and her right to ask a fair question. Instead of answering her question and awarding her the courtesy of her station while honoring the process, he parroted her like a teenager and was utterly contemptuous. He was claiming territory, even though she outranked him. He would not pull that punch with a man but would and could with her. It’s a stance, a chest gorilla thumping, that many entitled men take— I AM MORE than you. And the incredulous look on Klobuchar's face —I recognized that too — will they ever quit?

I have seen the I AM MORE my entire life. When I was younger this kind of man would try to use his self-importance as leverage over me, so I would know my place. There is little curiosity about others, particularly women, just assertion of superiority. Today I am less compelling to that particular brand of male, and I'm old enough to offer a challenge to this kind of authority. These men will recede, as will I, but the undercurrent of “I AM MORE” persists.

Last summer I was invited to a party by a new, younger friend. He was keen for me to meet his boss and maneuvered me through the cocktail party filled with swells and introduced me to his superior. His boss is a former scion of Wall Street, and it soon became clear it was up to me to make polite conversation. I asked about a mutual acquaintance of ours with whom he sits on a board. He was not interested in that connection, but did proceed to tell me just how much he does as a volunteer, all the while tossing around household names like confetti and asserting how busy he is. As he scanned the room without so much as a sideways word of inquiry, I was found wanting. My friend fidgeted next to me. Another alpha male approached and though I introduced myself to him, my friend and I were closed out as the two men hyucked about some insider bro financier stuff. My friend did not give up and mentioned that I was an artist and a writer with a big show on the horizon. The two regarded us as if we were heads of iceberg lettuce and returned to their conversation. I excused myself from the conversation and then the party.

My friend later apologized, as nice men often do for the bad behavior of other men, and then lost his diplomacy and said: “What the fuck is wrong with these guys?” I told him I appreciated his efforts but I’m used to it. I am also complicit because I put up with it. I am well groomed — I know how to socialize and place the right questions to keep the conversation flowing. I know how to nod to the male ego. I know how to pretend to listen to a bore while calculating my to-do list or while collecting inspiration for another essay or another painting. I also know how easy it is to uncover that rage that so many men have towards women. I have tolerated this kind of I AM MORE narcissism on boards, at parties and in my own family, but I don’t want to anymore. It has made me cautious with my time and the company I keep. I know I cannot inspire someone to move from entitlement to enlightenment, that I cannot compel genuine curiosity, but I can push back by raising a son who knows that his inheritance, his privilege is due to a stroke of chance, that his welfare is tied to others, and that he is part of a system that we need to change. I am teaching him how to listen and how to engage. And one day when I listen to a man talk about himself for an hour and a half without bothering to get my name straight, I will say I AM AS MUCH AS YOU.

The Map is Not the Territory

We rely on maps to navigate earthly and celestial terrain, and I feel grounded, in control somehow, when I am pulled into a fabulous map. Oh here I am! There I will go!  And then there are maps for our internal landscapes and methods we call on to steer through spiritual terrain. Mine help preserve sanity and joy—and trek through heartbreak and confusion. But they were falling short of guiding me through my own brand of American angst.

Read More

Corollaries

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and the birthdays of two out of three of my favorite men fall in its wake. One belongs to our son, Duncan, the other to my late father, Henry. I think of Henry and his footprint in our era of belligerence and deliberate ignorance where men like him are scarce. My son reminds me of him -- 

Read More

#wetoo

I want to inject them with a serum that makes them believe what I now know: that speaking is crucial, that you have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others, that education is not something you passively consume.
— Elizabeth Alexander
                       Two Women in a Mandalay market from an old 1995 sketchbook.

                      Two Women in a Mandalay market from an old 1995 sketchbook.

I joined the movement and hashtagged #metoo on social media but did not share any particulars. I still struggle with my old WASP reflexes -- do not share, do not assume that your story is of any interest to anyone else, and by all means maintain appearances -- whatever that means. But as an artist, I know better and try to override this indoctrination to plunk down my own narrative. I want a very different story for my own daughter and all the young women in my life and decided to link in with the collective for their sake and mine. I was deeply moved by all the testimonials on social media and the courage it took to expose the raw stories, the anger and pain. And I think this movement will have positive consequences for future legislation and make the world a little better for our daughters, even with a sexual predator currently in the Oval Office.

I was seven when an employee of my parents' began touching me, and this inaugurated a long passage of harassment that at times escalated into incidents of assault. Even in the post-Gloria Steinheim era, there was still a prevailing attitude that our vulnerability as women was part of the female inheritance. I heard men, and some women, say dismissive things like: “She is asking for it when she dresses (or drinks) like that.” “She should know better. ”Girls exaggerate the extent of the problem because it serves their vanity.” “Is it really that bad?”  “Shouldn’t you be flattered?” “Boys will be boys.”  When I shared one harrowing incident to a friend who I thought might be sympathetic the reply was: "At least you're not a supermodel, can you imagine the attention they get?" I second guessed myself. Maybe I was the one who was too sensitive or was inflating the problem. It felt indulgent to mention this part of my life, so I shut up and repressed my outrage--and a great deal of the memories.

Age has granted me ease of passage in a man's world, at least physically, but the cascade of #metoo stories jolted me back to a different era, and I have been telling my stunned husband about all the transgressions I thought I'd forgotten. I mourn for all women, for all the energy it takes to maintain vigilance over our own safety, from ignoring catcalls, to the constant requests to smile, to fretting about poorly lit and spooky public spaces, to the steady intrusion from strange or familiar men, to dodging workplace harassment and insinuation, to surviving sexual assault. I think of all the squandered time we expend navigating these climates and of all that noise that distracts us from doing something else, like finding a little peace. 

And I remembered a story of kindness. I lived in New York for many years and always in gay neighborhoods. This was a deliberate choice-- I felt safe, there was a solidarity that I loved, and I preferred a community that was not dead at night. One evening I was headed home around midnight from a concert uptown. I did not take a cab because I was spooked by an aggressive cabbie the previous week.  He kept asking me out on the long ride home and though I bailed out from the ride when I could, I was not keen on being trapped in a car again. So I descended the stairs to the an empty subway platfrom save two pairs of men, each on opposite ends. I centered myself between them and hoped for the best. It was the dead of winter, and I wore a hat, a voluminous scarf, a long overcoat and boots. One pair moved closer and began to comment on my appearance, wondering what I would look like without all my layers. I moved toward the other pair. My aggressors followed. As I grew closer, the other men broke off their own conversation and hustled toward me. I recognized them as men from my neighborhood. Both were strapping, and though I did not know their names, we frequented the same coffee shop and exchanged pleasantries. As they approached, the other men retreated. We boarded the train and they walked me home, even though it wasn’t their stop. When they delivered me safely, they gave me a hug and the name of a car service and waited until they saw the light on in my apartment. Here is a thank you to all the decent men, and there are many, who have kept us out of harm’s way and pushed back with us. I was lucky enough to marry one such man and am  lucky enough to be raising one. 

Postcard from Colombia

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. ”

— Gustave Flaubert

I am currently in Colombia with my family cramming as much in as we possibly can between Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena. Traveling tilts you off axis, which to my mind, is a very good thing. Our family becomes more intimate as we push into close quarters, and reliant on each other for company.

Read More

The Mean

"Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them." -Maria Popova

Read More

Arriving at My Own Door

I do regret the energy I spent trying to prove that I had something to offer. It made me vulnerable to sabotage - either through my own anxiety, or by crazymakers. I didn’t listen nearly enough to instinct...

Read More

Poetry in Motion

The other day I explained to our son why I am such a poetry junkie. I told him a good poem could blanch a bit of darkness or make me feel more connected to this vast network of ours. And that a great line will cast something familiar into a different relief and make me look again. But, most of all, poetry gives me the next clue. "Like in a treasure hunt you mean,” he said. Exactly.

Read More

Conspicuous Consumption

This year I want to create more, and consume less. I am a somewhat reformed magpie in terms of material stuff, but I want to address other kinds of consumption -- my constant nose diving into the national news for instance. It’s an addiction that is chomping into my creative life as I scramble to look at the news each morning.  My husband is a writer, and pulled me out of this self sabotage by sharing a snippet from a recent interview.

Read More