I don’t know what to title this

[Content warning: suicide]

I have had a blog post draft that I have been avoiding since last fall. I remember opening and closing it a few times back then, trying to put into words how I felt after losing a friend in mid-October. It is not the first or only time in recent memory that I have grieved a lost friend, but it was the first time someone close to me took their own life. I wanted to write about my friendship with this man, the ways in which I miss him, things I wish I could share with him. I wanted to write an open letter to all of my loved ones, to plead a case for you all to live and stay in my life. Nothing I put into words seemed sufficient. Eventually, I gave up. Whenever I opened my drafts to add text to one of my running tallies of the books I’ve been reading, there the abandoned draft remained, a quiet monument to the fruitlessness of this effort.

Today all of my social media feeds are mourning Anthony Bourdain. I can close those tabs, but not the murmurs that drift over our cubicle walls as my colleagues talk about his life and work. So today I thought, maybe it’s time to revisit those thoughts I couldn’t finish in October. Maybe I can add something to this cultural moment we’re having. So I opened the draft called “I don’t know what to title this,” last edited October 30, 2017 at 11 a.m.

It was empty.

A blank space. What’s a better metaphor to describe loss?

But just so you know–you, a reader, a friend, a person who exists in the world and has touched lives whether you acknowledge it or not–grief feels nothing like an empty space. If you, my reader, have imagined that the world might not be moved or wounded by your absence, let me assure you that missing someone is painfully heavy and crowded with feelings.

Grief can manifest physically. In the first few weeks after I learned about my friend’s death, I wanted to walk. I walked long distances, I trudged to Center City and back, usually carrying on rambling conversations on the phone or with friends I convinced to walk with me. Often on these walks, my guts would seize up and send me running for the nearest coffee shop. I bought a lot of apology coffees in those early weeks. I didn’t like to eat.

Every afternoon like clockwork for the first couple of months, my heart would start pounding, my throat would close, and I would struggle to breathe. It felt like a panic attack, but became as familiar as a heartbeat, so instead of panicking I would make myself tea and wait for the hot liquid to release the tightness in my chest. I relied on work to keep me focused and calm, but my mind wandered, my brain clouded like it does when my hypothyroidism isn’t adequately medicated. I often found my cheeks wet without realizing I was crying.

Then there is the emotional chaos of grief. Sadness, sure. Also guilt, obviously: even when you know objectively that you could not have prevented a death, a quiet insistent voice will keep asking: what if you could, though? Horror: at the suffering my friend must have endured, at the suffering his family and friends still endure, at the fragility and fruitless brevity of our lives, including mine. Regret. Nausea. Anger.

In the months before my friend took his life, I saw him almost every week. I should be careful here; I think it’s common for those of us grieving a suicide to inflate our importance in the life of the deceased, to cope with our personal feelings of loss and horror by magnifying the points of contact in our lives. But these are the facts: for years I spent time with my friend every few months or so, usually for theater or music or parties, the good stuff, the fun stuff. After he attempted suicide and spent some time in a clinic last summer, I spent time with him about once a week. He lived nearby, we both enjoyed cooking and television adaptations of classic literature, so once a week we’d meet at his place or mine and have dinner and watch costume dramas. Sometimes we talked about the steps he was taking toward recovery; I believed him to be in recovery, and perhaps I chose not to see evidence to the contrary. Mostly, though, we talked about books and television and my cats, one of whom would lay belly-up next to him on the couch and snore mightily while he petted her. We talked about him adopting a cat of his own.

Two weeks before he took his life, I said goodnight to him on my stoop and told him it would be two weeks before I could schedule another dinner. I would be out of town for a wedding for a few days, and when I returned, my workplace would be opening a new exhibition and I had obligations every weeknight leading up to it. I told him I looked forward to seeing him again after the opening so that we could finish watching the BBC adaptation of War & Peace and start on something new.

I don’t need to spell it out for you. I never saw him again. We will not be starting anything new. And I am furious and sad and remorseful all over again whenever I think about it, which is often.

Smarter people than myself have written more meaningful words than I ever could about the lies depression tells you, the contradictory loops of illogic with which it argues that you don’t matter and that you are exceptional and isolated in this not-mattering, other people matter but you don’t, other people think you matter but they are wrong. I would like to fight your depression about this but I am scared that it would pull the loops tighter, like an anaconda or an abusive partner.

So consider this entirely separate premise that is unrelated to your personal worth as a human being. A life lost to depression or addiction is an inherently violent death. A violent death does not leave a blank space. It unleashes a force, like a violent storm or an explosion. It is dangerous and unpredictable. It will cause pain and trauma. The person who unleashes this force doesn’t control it and has no way to predict or control who will be hurt by it or how much. There will be collateral damage.

And if you have any doubts about that at all, see me, tearful again, unable to focus on my work again, sitting under a tree outside of my office and typing into my phone about a man I’ve never met and a friend I will never meet again.

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Some poems about apples

Years and years ago, I started a writers’ group that met once every three weeks. We’d read and comment on a poem or a piece of short fiction written by one of us, which more often than not led to a piercingly intimate dissection of the bad breaks or bad lovers which inspired us. Then we’d drink several bottles of wine and play one or two silly writing games, such as “Dirty Napkin,” which yielded a great deal of wine-soaked laughter. These are very fond memories.

I still wrote the occasional poem in those days, when I was reading more poetry and the habit of it came more easily. Among them was a suite of poems inspired by René Magritte paintings–and also by a crushing break-up, which supplied the melancholy tone. I always thought about sending these to one of the food magazines I’ve written for, but since I don’t write poetry regularly it didn’t make sense to try to publish them. But then I put together a Magritte-inspired Food Music Playlist, and I thought, Why not? This is my blog, I can do what I want. Public and yet not published, here lies the fruit of a wounded younger version of myself.

apple1 apple2 apple3 apple4 apple5

Job hunting real talk: second edition

At the beginning of 2015, I posted a roundup of all the job applications I sent out and the responses I received. Several friends responded in person that it was helpful for them to see my ratios of applications to interviews to offers. As I noted in my previous post, when you’re in the midst of jobseeking it can feel like you’re sending out a million applications with zero returns, and it can be reassuring to see (a) that is an exaggeration and (b) you are not the only one having that experience.

The job I landed after that particular search did not work out in the long term. It would not have been long-term anyway, since it was a part-time position. In addition to that, it was a deeply troubled workplace, and every day I spent in the office was tense and uncomfortable. I worried for awhile that the problem was me, that I simply hated work. Now that I am safely installed at a job that I really enjoy, I know that isn’t true.

I was so unhappy at that job that I put in my notice before I had something else lined up–always a risky move, and there were two uncomfortable months of unemployment that summer. Another complicating factor is that I was still trying to finish at least a draft of my dissertation by the year’s end, and I already knew that I couldn’t balance that with a full-time job. So, this job seeking report is divided into two parts to address two very different job searches over the last year.

Phase 1: Seeking part-time employment

From May to July 2015, I looked primarily for part-time or freelance employment. My goals were to secure a baseline level of income and a schedule that would permit long uninterrupted stretches of time for dissertation writing. I cast my net wide–retail, customer service, clerical–but I was hoping for something that offer some continuity with my previous work experience, so I also applied to jobs in editing, copywriting, etc. Some were remote, but many were right here in Philadelphia. It’s not uncommon for nonprofit organizations to offer part-time positions because they can’t afford a full-time staffperson; I was careful to avoid “part-time” jobs that specified 30 hours or more a week.

During this period, I sent approximately 24 applications.
I was invited to 7 interviews, 1 of which was by phone.
I declined 1 interview (job was grossly misrepresented in its listing) and withdrew my application after 1 interview (pay too low).
I had no second interviews.
I was offered 3 jobs, all of which I accepted.

The three jobs I accepted did not really follow the conventional application-interview-offer arc. First, I simply asked a local grocer if I could clerk in their soon-to-be-opened branch. No interview, no application; I had been a long-time customer in my more financially stable days, and I started as soon as the new branch was opened. Meanwhile,  I responded to a Craigslist ad to clerk at a store that sold local wine. I was familiar with the shop and wrote a poetic email about doing a tasting there with my family; the manager replied almost immediately to set up an interview. He also hired me during the interview, which is not common, and which for some jobs would be a red flag–in fact it made me a little nervous–but this decision made sense when I got to know the job and the manager a little better. Between the grocery store and the wine store, I was working 40 hours a week, but this still helped meet my goals: both shops were small; I was often alone; I was permitted to work on my computer between customers.

The third job was unusual. I applied to be a tour guide at a local historical site even before I left my unhappy marketing position. I did not get an interview, and I wrote back to ask why. There is a non-obnoxious way to do this, but that is not the way I did it. For some reason, though, the hiring manager responded by inviting me for an interview. I did not get the job. Some months later, though, she reached out to offer me a slightly different job: historical tours, but at night. I took it. This job involved a night shift five nights a week during one month, which mostly precluded getting any writing done that month, but it was a cool experience and I was grateful for the money.

Sometimes, fellow academics who are new to non-academic jobseeking ask whether their educational background will be an impediment to their job search. Overall I would say not, although of course this varies by employer; one firm responded to my application with “Your beautiful resume certainly shows your creativity and attention to detail, but we are concerned with your happiness in an admin position.” I also had a few interviews for part-time jobs that would have better suited my academic and professional interests: audience engagement manager at a local art center, advertising coordinator for a sculpture magazine, program assistant at a university writing center. I do not know (since we usually never get to know) why I wasn’t offered those jobs, but if anything it’s likely that the timeline of my education was a factor. Employers don’t expect people to stay in part-time jobs forever, but few want to hire and train an employee who is going to take off in less than a year.

Aside from that, the lesson here is that higher ed and professional experience don’t make you unfit for jobs like the ones I took; my application-to-interview ratio wasn’t terrible, and many managers are just happy to hire someone who seems competent and knowledgeable. There are certainly challenges to working behind a counter: customers all day long; a high likelihood of poor management; the unnecessary yet involuntary embarrassment when answering the question “What are you up to these days?” But all three experiences offered opportunities to learn and meet people, and I did scrape by financially and complete my dissertation. I can’t say  that I regret that period of underemployment.

Phase 2: Returning to full-time employment

Once I had a complete draft, I began looking for full-time work. From December to June, I applied to jobs that drew directly on my writing and marketing experience as well as a few that were more administrative in nature; my primary goal was to achieve financial stability and start paying off the credit card debt I accrued in my underemployment. In February I reapplied to the historical site as a daytime tour guide, and left the wine and grocery clerk positions. This turned out to be the best possible decision: the historical site offered slightly better pay, excellent co-workers, and a fascinating day-to-day, but I still really needed the flexible schedule it offered to finish dissertation revisions. I left for my current full-time job in July.

During this period, I sent approximately 34 applications.
I was invited to 7 interviews.
I declined 2 of these interviews; one was offered after I accepted my new position, and the other turned out to be a pyramid scheme.
I had 1 second interview.
I was offered 2 jobs–the historical site and my current position a few months later–and I accepted both.

I also interviewed with two staffing companies that claim to place marketing and communications professionals in local jobs. These interviews felt thorough and promising, but I applied to approximately 50 positions between the of two them and got zero interviews, so I can’t really recommend this strategy. I haven’t included this tally with the rest in part because it didn’t take much time–just click and submit through a website once you’ve uploaded a one-size-fits-most application–and because I don’t really know what the deal is with these companies. If this is a scam, the con must be on the the other end, as the process didn’t cost me anything. Maybe they are just badly managed; one staffing company did helpfully reach out just last week to see if I was interested in interviewing for a specific position. I am 3 months into my new job; 7 months since I’ve spoken with anyone from that company. I choose not to inflate my tallies with these outliers.

The lesson here is that it is a little harder to land full-time, salaried, specialized work; the jobs are there, but the applicants are numerous. All the same, patience and perseverance do pay off. My interviews were for positions with a variety of responsibilities: editor for a travel magazine; project coordinator for a med school research program; marketing and communications manager for a couple of different museums. Any of these would have suited; landing one or the other was partly a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

 

 

Circles and Traces

For a side project, I’ve been scouring over the notes and bibliographies of books I haven’t read in some years. For example: Cooking, Eating, Thinking, an anthology of philosophical approaches to food studies which I came across early in my research and haven’t revisited since, though I thought it was a solid collection. As I opened my copy, my fingers brushed against a familiar texture: an embossed seal on the first page, the kind that an overzealous bibliophile might use to stamp her name in books she’d prefer not to lose. Okay, to be specific: I have such an embossing tool, a gift from my mom actually, and I impress “Library of Sara Elizabeth Davis” on any book that I lend.

I had no recollection of lending this anthology, so I looked closer and saw that the seal was not mine at all: it reads “Library of Sarah Lucia Hoagland.” I realized that I must have ordered a used copy of this book online some time ago, and I didn’t give it further thought as I paged through the bibliographies.

But because I was looking so closely at the notes, I came across a familiar name at the end of one chapter:
Hoagland, Sarah Lucia. Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Value. Palo Alto: Institute of Lesbian Studies, 1988.

I flipped back and forth between the front page and bibliography. How did this happen? Did she just happen to buy this book that cites her work? That seems unlikely. Did she get a gratis copy for reviewing it? I don’t see such a review online. Was it perhaps a gift from the editors, were they friends? That seems plausible; the previous owner of my book and one of the editors of the book were both publishing in the same feminist journals in the late 80s, perhaps they knew one another. But then why give it away?

I cull my bookshelf mercilessly every time I have to move, particularly in the last few years. I had amassed a large collection of assigned reading for graduate school, and at first I kept all of the books, believing myself to be building a library of selections for the survey and intro courses I would inevitably teach. But my life changed course, and I shed classic and canonical texts like a distressed bird sheds feathers. Did I press my mark into any of them? Is anyone reading my former schoolbooks, wondering who SED is and why she gave them away?
Will my brilliant, talented, published and to-be-published friends and I ever get to a point where we’ve given each other so many of our own books that each book is not a little miracle but something to be disposed of or replaced?

***

One day my gentleman friend came by for a visit with a T-shirt and a story. “I’m not sure if you’ll want this…” he began, tentatively, but the story is that he was hanging out with some friends of his in a bar (one of my favorite bars, too) and one of his friends found the shirt, just abandoned at one of the tables littered with curled-up menus and plastic spider rings. The friend thought she’d keep the shirt, but she forgot to take it with her. Thus the shirt passed into the gentleman’s possession, and he took it home and laundered it and brought it to me, because it advertises The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, an awfully bad movie that I enjoyed an awful lot and gleefully reenact whenever I have the opportunity.

Astonishingly, the T-shirt fits. It is designed for women but is not a babydoll tee or similar horror; it accommodates my figure and has long enough sleeves to cover my shoulder tattoos.

What are the odds? Where was this T-shirt last time I was at that bar? Are there often T-shirts just lying around there? (This would not be surprising, actually, but I have never witnessed such a thing.) Who left this shirt there and where did she get it (and are there more of them, because my friends want some)? Why did she take it off or drop it? Does she miss it? Because I’m not sure I would give it back. This shirt is Relevant To My Interests. I love the happy accident of it, the ridiculous serendipity.

***

Here’s another story I like to tell about serendipity. When I last looked for a new apartment, I had some difficulty with a realtor who advertised some amenities that the apartment didn’t have, and then waffled about when and how he would go about adding them. I wanted that apartment badly: it was located on a convenient corner in my comfortable neighborhood, had gorgeous parquet floors, an extra little room for a study. I gave the realtor an application and a partial deposit for the apartment, telling him that I would be happy to sign the lease just as soon as he committed to adding the promised amenities and put an outside date for that in writing.

A busy week went by and I didn’t hear anything, so I gave the realtor a call. I could come pick up my deposit at my convenience, he said, as he’d rented the apartment to another tenant.

This left me in a bad position, since it was near the end of the month and I’d already put in my notice on the apartment where I lived. I got back on the market in a hurry, calling realtors on my lunch break and visiting apartments after work every day. I had my eye on one apartment above a nice restaurant, but the realtor wouldn’t take me there until the tenant moved out, saying that he was rather bad-tempered and she didn’t want to rile him up.

But a day or two before I was scheduled to look at the place, I walked past the apartment to catch a bus and saw the bad-tempered tenant moving out. I apologized for interrupting his move but wanted to ask him a question or two, since I’d be seeing the apartment in a couple of days. He was actually quite friendly and offered to show me the place himself. So while movers came and went with his boxes, he walked me through the narrow but pretty apartment, talking about the good points and bad. The realtor was included among the latter, and he told me about the troubles and frustrations he had when the property was bought up by an aggressive neighborhood company. “Oh, I could tell you about frustrating rental experiences in this neighborhood,” I said, and offered up the story of my lost parqueted apartment.
When I finished, he was quiet for a moment, then asked me if the address of that apartment was ### Nearby Street.
It was, actually.
I was touring the soon-to-be-former apartment of the tenant who became the lessee of the apartment I thought I had put a deposit on.

I told this story to a coworker shortly after it happened. “Wow!” she replied, then paused. “So are you dating that guy now, or what?”
I thought this was a hilarious question, so I told it to another friend. “Well, yeah,” she said. “I was gonna ask the same thing.”

I suppose that would be a fair question if we were in a book or a film, in which two worlds never collide except in service of an overarching plot. This would have been an excellent premise for such a plot: the man had inadvertantly taken away something I wanted, offering the perfect excuse to start a pointless rivalry that devolves into attraction, or to form a forced team in pursuit of real estate justice.

Even if we abandon the narrative tropes of romance, we still expect a certain amount of plot resolution from our coincidences. In a book or film narrative, if your plot arc coincides with the arc of another person or thing once, it will likely do so again and again. Fictional coincidences are the sign of a cosmic arrangement or a divine sense of symmetry that brings together what fits together. Insignificant choices would be proven significant by virtue of a shared trajectory: the book is a foreshadowing of an academic future, the shirt is the trace of another geeky girl’s past.

In reality, a coincidence happens precisely because different trajectories don’t intersect at more than one point. The arcs only cross once, and the only thing I can be definitely said to have in common with the owners of the book and shirt is that we inhabited the same place once, albeit at different times. I marveled and wondered at my used book and my rescued shirt, but they don’t make really good stories because the questions they raise must go unanswered.

So here is what happened after the momentous apartment coincidence was revealed. I sincerely wished the not-actually-bad-tempered tenant good luck with his new terrible realtor, and I moved into another nice apartment above a flower shop, leased by an entirely different company. As for the tenant, he presumably moved into that apartment with the lovely parquet floors, and may still be there. Perhaps the backstory I shared about the slippery realtor became a shield or a weapon he could use to insist on his tenant’s rights. Perhaps he never had an issue with the place and never gave it another thought. But I never saw him again, so I do not and may never know.

Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

gauguin

Painting by Paul Gauguin

Ten years ago, I conducted ghost tours in New Orleans. This era of my life has become one of my party tricks, an ace tucked in the sleeve: the job title itself is an attention grabber, but with it comes a cast of colorful characters, a louche lifestyle, and a sort of appealing tenebrousness that surprises new acquaintances nearly as much as my tattoos do. My opportunistic storytelling–this reminds me of the time I learned to read palms and that sort of thing–is what prompted a Toast commentor to encourage me to pitch something to the site, which I did.

It’s easier to tell that reminds me of a time stories than it is to string one together in a coherent arc. I didn’t want to use the piece to retell the ghost stories themselves–they are really all over the internet, and in fact I’d need to use internet versions to reconstruct my own, since the memory of my scripted tour spiel has eroded with time. So instead I wrote about my impressions: how the streets looked, what was said, how it felt. These were much easier to remember, especially with the help of my old journals. I had a lot of time on my hands in those days, and have numerous files  and notebooks full of prose dedicated to the particular chartreuse light by the river and the winter fogs and the sound of hooves.

My journals also record my preoccupations of that time: yearning for a purpose or career, frustration with my lack of focus, hopeless crushes, detailed play-by-plays of parties or fun nights out. These were startling: in them I can very clearly see myself as I am now, ten years later. In some entries I am only just starting to articulate the values I hold now, or casting about for the language to describe observations I now hold as beliefs, but “I” am already there in those entries, such as “I” am.

It has always been important to me to think that I have changed, and that change is always possible. Everything I believe in depends on the conviction that people can and do evolve. Writing 101: your fictional character should change as events unfold. How surprising to think that maybe we don’t. How humbling to see my emotional core exposed, wanting the same things it has always wanted.


About a month ago I hosted a friend who had once lived in my city and was returning to see it, and me. We took a stroll in West Philly: he wanted to see the campus where he’d gone to college, and as we walked around he pointed out places where he had lived, gone to classes, had parties, met girls. “What do you think your self at 20 would think of yourself today?” he asked me.

I was surprised by his question and even more by my answer. I think that myself at 20 would admire myself in my early thirties. On paper I sound pretty good. I have an extensive education and an interesting job in a related field. I write when I can, and sometimes the things I write earn me attention and even money. I have a nice apartment, a comfortably busy social life, no spouse, no kids. That is more or less what 20-year-old me imagined as glamourous, desirable adulthood.

This was surprising because I spend no small amount of time complaining about my job, my bank account, my degree, and my perfectly lovely apartment. The question made me feel a little defensive, as though I had to justify my restlessness to this younger version of me.

20-year-old me is not necessarily the expert on who I am and what I want. 20-year-old me knew a lot less and experienced very little of the world, and she was likely to be impressed by things that seem stale or uncertain to me now. I don’t think that experience is the opposite of innocence: the life my 20-year-old self wanted isn’t more true or pure just because I wanted it first.

Still, that’s something to think about. What she wanted, and why. What I now want, and why. Why want is the core constant.


My mom has been going through our old things: notebooks, drawings, photos upon photos from when we still took our film to the drug store and got extra copies of everything. Some time ago she sent me a package that included a peach-colored envelope on which my teenaged self had written:

LIFE RULES
1. If you know what you want, find a way to get it.
2. Always be friendly, but don’t always make the first move.
3. Pay close attention to people, but seem to not notice them if they’re not talking to you.
4. To be happy you must be independent. To be independent you must be strong.
5. Should a cat walk by herself? Only if she feels like it.

I posted it on Facebook because I thought it very funny. How Machiavellian of my teenaged self. I wonder what I was reading or doing to prompt a back-of-envelope manifesto.

It’s also funny because the list so recognizably me. Rule #3 became a deeply rooted self-preservation instinct. Rule #4 is the north star of my love life. Rule #5, of course, refers to Kipling’s Just-So cat who refuses to be domesticated yet insinuates himself into domestic comforts such as warmth and milk. I’m still like that, I still don’t see why I can’t have it both ways.

I want to tell a story about myself that goes in a straight line, preferably forward and up: I endured and now I am stronger; I learned and now I know. But how many times have I had to relearn the lessons I tried to teach myself on the back of an envelope so many years ago? Suppose a character arc doesn’t arc at all, but loops back itself over and over? What can I do differently? What should I?

A blog post that ends in a question begs an answer. A painting that ends in a question provides itself as the answer: an landscape, a mood, something that exists in space and not in time. That’s how I intend this post. It’s an artifact, something to return to in a later year and ask again.

On not caring if you like it

This afternoon, I visited a building across campus for a lunchtime meeting. It’s not a familiar place, so I don’t have a sense of who comes and goes during the day, but just then the lobby was fairly deserted. Even the security guard was away from his desk; in fact, he’d taken the elevator to another floor just before I got there. I pushed the button and waited.

Behind me, I heard a man say “Hey. . . you’re beautiful.”

I turned my head very slightly to look out of the corner of my eye. There wasn’t anyone else nearby, just a man seated at his ease in the small lounge area.  “Thank you,” I said with a curt nod, and faced the elevator again.

A pause, and then the man laughed ingratiatingly and said he didn’t mean any harm by it.

I didn’t answer, but I was thinking I know. And also, I don’t care what you mean.

Let’s review. I walk into a strange place and hear a man possibly addressing me. I look very carefully but not overtly to see if he was addressing me, so that if he wasn’t looking directly at me he might not see my glance and decide to target me for attention or ridicule. I then answer him coolly but politely, a tone that in my experience corresponds with a low incidence of escalation (yelling, demanding my attention, following, that sort of thing). And in the few seconds it takes for me to make nice, I have time to size up the situation and decide that the man was not using an aggressive posture or tone. More importantly, I didn’t feel that he was a threat, and after a decade of living and walking alone in major cities, I trust my instincts.

So yeah, I felt reasonably secure that he didn’t mean any harm by it. But I still don’t fucking care what he thinks. And he could just have well have kept it to himself; my day would have been better without it.

On my old blogs, some time ago, I would frequently describe my encounters with strangers out in the world: the young man who followed me to show me cat pictures on his phone, the young man who followed me until I lied that I was meeting my boyfriend for dinner, the older man who followed me while asking questions about my ethnic heritage, and so on. Early on, I didn’t have the language to deconstruct why these episodes troubled me and what they implied about the world I moved around in as a woman, so the stories would come bubbling out part complaint and part humorous vignettes: ugh, men on the street, amirite? But telling the stories helped me find words for what I could feel was wrong–it wasn’t fair that an imaginary boyfriend’s feelings mattered more than mine, that I was supposed to feel flattered but I just felt scared and angry, that neither verbal or nonverbal cues could navigate those conversations the way I wanted them to go (away from me).

I don’t usually tell these stories anymore unless they are particularly funny. I understand more of the sticky social web that strings these behaviors together with others that target women. I don’t need the catharsis as much. And, to be frank, it happens less often as I get older, fatter, and more inked. (I was wearing a modest tattoo-concealing cardigan today; I suppose that was my mistake.)

I’ve had worse, lots of us have had worse, but I’m picking on this poor mild means-no-harm guy today because he presented a textbook illustration of two capital-T TRUTHS I’ve read recently.

One is from Shakesville, in which Melissa McEwan writes about her experience walking with her husband to their car, and all the things that she sees that her husband doesn’t see. She unpacks all of the involuntary mental work she does silently: noticing a man in the parking lot, guessing his trajectory and point of interception, intuiting what he wants and whether he’s likely to be violent. To paraphrase one of the commenters, Do you have any idea how much RAM it takes to run these processes all the time? I like that metaphor: some of us, through experience, develop a few programs that hum unobtrusively in the background whenever we are in public. I’ve sometimes observed that if I walk home when my judgement is impaired–when I’m very tired, or a little drunk–I feel hyper-aware, like all my senses are escalated. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m just running these processes less elegantly, so they take over more of my perception.

The other was in the wake of some loser writing about how hot Sophia Vergara is at 42. (She is! I get it! Save it for your blog, paid writerman!) At New Republic, Rebecca Traister wrote about how sick and tired she is of male writers, male pundits, male everyone and women too weighing in on whether they think this woman or that woman is sexy. She quotes a story about Amy Poehler that Tina Fey tells in Bossypants:

Amy Poehler, then new to “Saturday Night Live,” was engaging in some loud and unladylike vulgarity in the writers’ room when the show’s then-star Jimmy Fallon jokingly told her to cut it out, saying, “It’s not cute! I don’t like it!” In Fey’s retelling, Poehler “went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him,” forcefully informing him: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”

This anecdote stayed with me long after I read Bossypants, and I surely already possessed great barren fields of fucks to give, but it actually did help a great deal that I had this recent reminder. It’s an excellent mantra, and I recommend repeating it until it sticks to something, anything:

I don’t fucking care if you like it. Really, I don’t. Unless we’re dating, or good friends, or I’ve done something deliberate and spectacular to my physical appearance (fantastic makeup?) or with my physical appearance . . . perhaps this is a good time to relink to this classic Lindy West manual of when to compliment women?