Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Smile Imperative

Yesterday morning, as I was walking up the busy street to the train station, a truck driver yelled at me "You don't look very happy today!" I was surprised out of my normal walking (minding my own business, thank you very much)reverie, and smiled at him rather lopsidedly the way you do when someone shouts something at you that you don't immediately process. Afterwards, I felt stupid for smiling at him, the dolt.

All of my life (and the same is true for many women, from what I can tell), I've repeatedly had strange men telling me to smile. I've had "Come on baby, things can't be that bad", "Show me that beautiful smile," "Come on momma, smile for me now," "You'd be beautiful if you smiled," and more variations on the theme than I can even remember. My reaction is almost always the same. Since the comment usually interrupts me from some daydream, I smile slightly at the guy as I become aware that he's saying something to me, but before I register what that something is. By the time I get what he's just said, I've usually passed him, and it's too late to make a biting comment the way I'd so often like to.

What I'd like to say is: "DON'T TELL ME TO SMILE, MOTHERFUCKER!!"

It's a constant mystery to me as to why some men think it's acceptable to demand that a woman put on a facial expression purely to please the man. Because I can't see a woman saying that to a strange man, can you? "Hey buddy, where's that smile?", "Hey guy, you'd be more handsome if you smiled." I'm sorry, but not going to happen. And men certainly are not going to say that to other men. What's with guys who think they have the right to comment on a woman's facial expression?

The funny thing is, that I've noticed that I'm much more likely to get attention from passing men if I look visibly upset than if I'm happy. Last summer, walking tearily through 3 am urine-soaked streets in New Orleans after a stressful, sweaty week, I had more men express concern to me than in all my years of bouncing around happily, grinning, laughing, and dancing. Granted, I didn't trust that any of them had my best interests at heart, but it was nice to feel like someone cared, even if only for a fleeting moment. What is that? On one hand, I'm supposed to be smiling all the time, but on the other hand, I don't get any attention unless I look upset?

It's an old saw, that women are supposed to be happy and content and sexy and virtuous and maternal and glowing and beautiful and all that. We've all heard it before. But it's 2007, man! Haven't times changed at all? Isn't it generally accepted that women have brains and can use them? That we're not just arm-candy anymore?

Some of my guy friends have suggested that these smile guys are trying in their clumsy way to flirt with me. I suppose I can buy that. Men aren't always known for their social prowess. But far from making me interested in talking to the poor uncreative sap, it just makes me want to make some snide comment that'll burn his ears with shame.

One thing I've noticed with chagrin is that after a man requests that I smile, I actually feel self-conscious about my normal resting facial expression. "Do I look too serious?" I ask myself anxiously, "Is that why guys don't seem to want to date me?" I find myself walking around with a strange sort of half-smile expression on my face. Not really a full smile, because that would be weird, but not really my normal expression either, because I was just told that that's not acceptable to men. And when I find myself thinking these things, I want to go find the smile-demander and make a comment on the size of his package. Or something equally as demeaning.

I've recently begun to get interested in why these men say things like this, and one day I'd really like to stop and ask one of them. It's the same feeling I have about those guys who will slow down in their cars as I walk on the sidewalk and ask me if I want a ride. I always want to ask "Does that EVER work?" But since most of the time I'm wandering in my own little cranial world when some genius utters the suggestion that I smile, I've never once been quick-witted enough to stop and talk to him. Right now, I'm working on curbing my Pavlovian impulse to smile automatically at anyone who's blabbing anything at me. Smiling, in some species, is thought to be a sign of deference, of indicating that the smiler is no threat to the smilee, and it's something women habitually do more than men, as if to say "Don't hurt me, big strong he-man!" While I enjoy smiling, and will willingly smile when I think of it, I am most certainly not going to do it on demand. Next time, guys, just try hello.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

I just read two posts that made me say "Yes!" (Well, in my head, anyway, since I was browsing at work. No use getting all worked up at work. Ha!)

The first item is from's advice columnist, and has to do with writing. (Here's the full article.) This is in answer to a letter-writer who claims to have lost the desire to write after going through a difficult time that involved other writers. He/she writes "now I find myself associating writing with the sleazy narcissism of those few bad apples". Cary Tennis writes:
Writing is a life-and-death act of consciousness. It must be or we cannot continue. It brings us face-to-face with who we are. Hence the disgust and nausea. Hence the need for compassion. Hence the need for understanding. Hence the need for honesty. And so the cycle goes. Note the above letter writer's use of the word "cycle." Say we write something and as a result we are hurt. We seek to avoid hurt. So we stop writing in order to avoid the hurt. But writing is also a way to heal the hurt. So when we stop writing we fail to heal.

The original letter and the answer made me think about why I write this blog, not knowing if anyone is out there reading besides the few people who have let me know they are. I've gone back and forth about it. Isn't blogging a form of narcissism? Why do I (and millions of other bloggers) assume anyone wants to read about our lives? I've considered deleting this blog at certain low points of my life, thinking that I should concentrate on so-called "serious writing". That is, I think, writing that pays the bills.

But I realize that no matter what, even at the times I say "I'm done with writing. It doesn't make any difference to anyone, or to myself", that I always come back to writing. It's a compulsion; something I do to understand myself. It's a way to make sense of things, to digest things, to put things into perspective. This blog isn't for anyone else; it's for myself. The public nature of this particular medium just provides an extra challenge for me. It makes me write better, think better, and, hopefully, make more sense of out the things I write about because I'm trying, in this writing, to connect my personal experiences and feelings with the experiences of others out there. It's a way for me to make my writing - and my experiences - mean more, be about more than just myself.

At the end of the article, the author writes

Why not be revolutionary and claim the right to exist as we are -- to exist as we have revealed ourselves to be, in all our flawed majesty and brilliant failure? Why not step forward and say yes, this is who I am, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. After all, we must remember that we are not entirely responsible for who we are. We did not create ourselves. We'd like to be better, maybe, but this is who we are. Must we apologize? To whom? To what king? To what judge?

Why not celebrate ourselves instead? For soon we will be gone! Now at least we exist. Our "mere" existence, as far as I can tell, is some kind of miracle.

So writing, even bad writing, becomes an act of revolutionary assertion: I am who I am. Deal with it.

The second item, though gentler, is also about self-acceptance, the kind of radical self-acceptance that's so hard for the human animal to reach.

On his beautiful, minimalist blog, broke writes:
We need to love our thoughts, love our feelings, love ourselves. We need to love all that we are, now - need to love the fact that we don't love ourselves, love the fear, love the doubt, love the hate. We need to love our lives as they are now. To begin by accepting that this is it where 'it' is the fact of our lives now, where 'it' is the fact of ourselves now. Not the life we crave, not the self we desire, but what is now. What is now will include our craving, our restlessness, our dissatisfaction. Love that too, as it is.
Both of these, it seems to me, offer windows into that place within each of us where we are, finally and without guilt or doubt, OK the way we are. The place we're all trying to reach with the therapy and the support groups and the hours-long phone calls with friends and the chemicals (of the prescription and non-prescription variety) and the blogging and the reading of books by self-help gurus, and the yoga and the qi gong, and the herbs and supplements and meditation and acupuncture and acupressure and Reiki and the shopping and home improvement and new relationships ...and...and...and....

The place we all dearly want to return. The home in our hearts. That place at the center of our being where we no longer have to apologize for ourselves - I don't mean apologize for what we've done but apologize for our very SELVES, our very existence. The place that welcomes us in our wholeness, with all the cracks and flaws. The place that is always there, inside us, if we care to sit down and look.

Writing helps me get there, sometimes, even if my inner critic can sometimes be snotty and vicious. At the very least, writing helps me connect to the part of me that wants to be at home there, in the center of things, where I no longer need to be different than I am.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Plant me in the garden
Don’t you let me roam

Cuz love is a feeling like a warm dark stone

- The Be Good Tanyas

The sun is setting, just. Below the sharp edge of inevitable summer fog, it shines white into my window. The month is August, but the cold is biting and the wind sharp. I’m warm with wine and there’s emotion and strings on the stereo, and I’m thinking of someone I love still, but can’t be with. It’s a peculiar sort of bittersweet joy, partly the music, partly the familiar smell of basil on my fingers, partly the wine. He taught me to appreciate music, wine, cities, and the magic of the garden – a city boy who couldn’t help but feel awe in the face of nature.

A year or so ago – last summer, it must have been – we made pesto, partly from basil I grew, partly from storebought plants, because my garden hadn’t yielded enough. He’s compulsive about many things (including alcohol), and making just the perfect pesto was one of them. All I could do was stand by like a surgeon’s assistant, handing him his tools at the right moments while he manipulated the blender the way an experienced sculptor manipulates the carving tools. I froze my portion of the pesto and still have about a third of the container left. I had some last night with a handful of the summer’s first ripe cherry tomatoes and a few fresh basil leaves. It’s good: rich and creamy with the parmesan that precludes the need to add salt, pungent with basil and garlic.

Now, when I see the peppers and the basil growing, I think of him. It’s inevitable, the way smelling the tomato plants makes me think of my mother’s garden when I was growing up. When I buy a pound of jalapeno peppers (as soon as I can make it to a farmer’s market) to pickle, I’ll think of his love for spicy things. I got my appreciation of peppers from him, too.

He used to talk about how his ex-girlfriends had taught him certain things: how to efficiently chop garlic, for instance. I think even the pesto compulsion came out of an old relationship, and now that knowledge, coming as it has from his past, is embedded in my mind, is part of my present and future, and will maybe someday be added to the store of knowledge of a future lover. I’ve often thought that what lovers teach each other is more important than what happens, in the end, to the relationship.

For each of my relationships, even the very short-lived ones, I can think of at least one thing that I know now that I didn’t before the relationship: How to make good pesto, a perfect martini, and appreciate hot peppers, Los Angeles, and psychedelics; the wonders of Fiona Apple, and that in negotiations for money, people respect you more if you set your price high; how to drive a stick shift, write simple HTML code, and where to go to get a drink in Milwaukee; how not to respond when someone just wants to get a rise out of you. These lessons have ingrained themselves into my brain and are a part of me now. I couldn’t imagine not knowing them, and they’re a testament to those people and relationships that have come along in my life.

An acquaintance yesterday commented that even when people leave – a room, a relationship, a town - their energy still lingers in the places they frequented, and it’s the same in our heads: the people who used to take up room inside our brains are still in there, in the knowledge and memories that are intertwined with our experiences of them. It’s comforting for me to remember that, even with all the mistakes I and others have made in relationships, the good things – the reasons we were drawn to each other in the first place – still exist, in a sense. That now when I smell basil or eat peppers, wander through the redwoods, hike a certain trail, or walk down a certain San Francisco street, these benevolent ghosts appreciate those experiences with me. I’m not so alone, after all.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

I lay on my back in the San Francisco sun, admiring the creampuff-colored spires of Sts. Peter & Paul Church set against a deep-blue late July sky. The occasional white seagull wheeled elegantly past the spires, and wisps of fog - or was it smoke from the three different booths offering nearly-identical Thai food? - snaked by on the wind. It was the North Beach Jazz Festival, although the music pounding the speakers wasn't jazz (As if you'd expect a guy named 'DJ Tom Thump' to play jazz.)

I always forget how cool - and tourist-laden - North Beach is. The interior away from the main drag of Columbus and Broadway reminds me a bit of the French Quarter in New Orleans - small streets, crammed-together apartment buildings, little shops, quaint architecture in various states of dereliction, and plenty of bars. It's taken me years to get my head around how things are situated in North Beach, although I still wouldn't suggest asking me for directions.

Today, Sunday, I had gone there to meet a group of people who were not where they said they'd be. Since I don't have a cell phone and forgot to bring the number with me anyway, I couldn't find them. So I had a sausage from the one non-Thai food booth and a sangria poured by a man in a Porn Star t-shirt. Socializing attempts that weekend (and the previous one, come to think of it) had basically fallen on their faces. I was alone (surprise), and had hours to kill before dark. I was in North Beach, and I didn't feel like going home in defeat as I had the day before. I also didn't particularly feel like drinking alcohol or coffee, eating anything further, buying expensive trendy clothes, or browsing in City Lights., which is really all North Beach has to offer.

I compromised. I found a bar with a window open to the unseasonally nice July day, ordered a glass of wine, doctored it with ice and water, and sat down in the window to nurse it. As generations of Italians know, having a glass of wine isn't really 'drinking.'

For some reason, there were two watermelon slices sharing that counter with me that were there before I arrived. I didn't dare touch them, just looked at them furtively as I sipped. At one point I saw a lady walk by with a basket of watermelon slices, and she seemed to silently acknowledge those lone slices on the counter beside me, like familiar acquaintances.

The day was quite pleasant, and it was a perfect place for people-watching. I saw tourists, hipsters, drunkards, SUV drivers squeezing their behemoths through the narrow street, musicians, more tourists, more hipsters, and even two horse-drawn carriages. If they had been mules, I would have had full-blown New Orleans deja vu. I could see the top of the Transamerica Pyramid peeking out from behind the quintessential San Francisco-style buildings, and if I leaned out of the window, I could see 580 California Street, with its weird (in its true original meaning) statues of wraiths on all four sides of the roof.

Across the street was a little market, and as I watched, a true San Francisco character came out. He was a skinny middle-aged gentleman, wearing a mismatched blue suit, an old-style blue frilly tuxedo shirt, and a lime-green scarf knotted around his neck. He had a cloud of grey hair standing out all around his head. I laughed at the image, and before I knew it, he had disappeared from my view, and then reappeared opposite me at the window of the bar. He greeted me, introduced himself, and invited me to the bar down the street, where his band was about to go on.

Of course I decided this was the adventure I'd been waiting for, so after about half an hour (can't seem too eager, you know) I headed down to the bar, which is the oldest saloon in San Francisco - all sloping floor, musty wood, a tall, carved, wooden bar from the 1900's, and mirrors. It was a true character's bar. Not a yuppie or hipster in the crowd, but plenty of old hippies and beats, and mainly just a bunch of crusty characters. Ahhhh. At last, I was home.

The frizzy-headed guy was named John, and he very graciously bought me a drink, (And the drinks in this place were cheap, too! if I could only airlift it across the bay to my neck of the woods...) then went off to play the bass in the blues band that was crammed onto the tiny stage in the back of the bar. The guitarist looked disturbingly like William Burroughs, and I realized who the bass player John reminded me of: Mel Brooks!

Around the same time the band started, a guy in the crowd caught my eye. He was tall and his eyes were hidden by shooting glasses. He looked liked Sam Shepard. A few minutes later - what sort of vibes had I been throwing off that day, anyway? - he was behind me and handed me a small charm that was a red-and-green rose in clear plastic. Then he let me try on his glasses, which were very cool, with purplish lenses. After about two minutes of talking to him, I realized that he was absolutely nuttier than a bag of squirrels. Stark raving. His eyes were wacko, and he kept talking about how the charm he had given me would save my life one day. Plus he mumbled a lot about his dead wife and Jesus. Too bad, because he was cute.

The band was very entertaining. William Burroughs roamed around, with some kind of wireless device on his belt that let him wander the bar without being tied down with electrical cords or cables. He went outside, while the two sax players followed him. He sat on the bar. At one point (actually, two points) he got up on the bar and walked the length of it, still playing, then jumped off and did a bit of a Jimi Hendrix lying-on-the-floor bit, still playing.

The drunk fat man next to me gave the girl next to him a $5 bill to put in William Burroughs' proverbial G-string while he was standing above her on the bar, but she was too embarrassed. Later, slurring his words, the man asked me what was really important to me, and at one point an old hippie-type came over to tell me I looked like Sheryl Crow, which is a crock, but still entertaining. I was starting to think young women didn't go into that bar very often. Sam Shepard left, saying something about how he was "too old for this shit," but not before he asked me if I wanted to spend the night at his apartment "just to sleep." I danced a bit, including with an Indian-looking fellow who always seemed about to break into laughter.

The band stopped playing early, about 8:30, and I walked back down to BART, laughing and sort of bemused at the night's events. I'm not even sure why I'm writing this story down, except that I think it's significant, somehow. I wonder if John was supposed to come into my life as some kind of wise, kooky teacher. He had that energy. Or if I'm supposed to realize that among the freaks and outcasts is where I truly belong. Whatever it is, it felt like something out of a movie. one starring Sam Shepard, Mel Brooks, William Burroughs, and Sheryl Crow. Or not.