Especially the kind who reaches for their camera before saving you…
Thoughts on Life and Lemons by Rachel
The first time I went to the Pride Festival in Salt Lake City back in the 90s, it was a fairly small affair. Don’t get me wrong; it was a good sized party and plenty of people came, but not so many that you wouldn’t bump into your friends without making a big deal over it. Which was good because I didn’t have a cell phone back then. There was a free speech corner for the protesters, and there were a decent number of those. And there were booths but it didn’t have a lot of art or stuff for sale. I would say it was fun with freaky elements, but ultimately low key.
Am I telling you this to say that I liked gay people before it was cool to like gay people? Yes. And also to point out it was once possible to meet up with friends and do stuff without cell phones. But mostly I have it on my mind because I was trying to conjure that memory today while at the Pride parade and festival. I heard on NPR on Friday that thirty thousand people were expected to attend.
Thirty. Thousand. People. In Salt Lake City. UTAH!
If I had been in a coma since the 90s and awoke today to be told by my friends how far we have come on LGBTQ rights, I would have said, “There’s a ‘Q’ now? What’s that stand for?” Then, when I was fully up to speed I would have said, “Holy Shit! Is it 2048?”
And then my friends would say, “No, it’s only 2016! And your hair is still brown!”
Then I would have said, “Dudes! That is The Bomb! Now get me outta this bed, Beeotch, so we can do the Macarena!!! People still do that, right?”
I haven’t been in a coma but I was still stunned to go and see the joy and the community acceptance that is at the center of the SLC Pride celebration now. So many people came to hang out and enjoy the festival. I started to write something about “came to support…” But it didn’t really feel like that to me, today. It just felt like people having fun.
There were no protesters (that I saw). I didn’t hear any pro or con arguments of any sort. People danced and ate and wandered around. It was the party of the year and everyone was invited. And it was amazing.
The bit that really got me were the grey haired folks marching in the parade with Mormons Building Bridges, a group of Latter Day Saints that supports the LGBTQ community. There were multiple people in wheelchairs and one that was holding a sign proclaiming her love and support for her grandson. If someone would have told me about that after I came out of my imaginary coma I would have gone right back under.
When the lady in the wheelchair went by I teared up a little bit; I really did. But then I told myself to snap out of it because in trying to wipe the tears away I got sunscreen in my eyes and that hurt really bad.
We live in a truly remarkable time. We get to live our lives as authentically as we dare to. We aren’t required to live the lives that others planned for us in order to make them feel comfortable. It still isn’t easy, but so many obstacles have been cleared for us and for those who come after.
If you’ve never been to a Pride Festival and have one coming up in your area, go. Celebrate. Be your authentic self. You might not encounter someone you can make uncomfortable, but you may make an old cynic like me cry.
Sarah Silverman tells a story in her book, Tales of Courage, Redemption, and Pee (originally titled, I Said Vagina, Now Make Me Famous, but Silverman says that the publisher wouldn’t sign off on that), about her brother Jeffrey. Jeffery was an older sibling who died when he was still a baby. In the early 1970s, her parents went on a vacation and left their two young children with their grandparents. Sadly, one night the side of the crib that held baby Jeffrey collapsed as he slept. The baby slid down into the open space and became trapped. When his grandfather got up to check on him in the middle of the night he found that the baby had suffocated.
It’s a terrible story, and you feel awful for Silverman’s grandparents who were, understandably, overcome with grief and guilt over the tragedy. But the reason that she tells the story has more to do with her journey as a comedian. She is explaining how she discovered the euphoria of making others laugh at an early age, and she describes it like an addiction. She couldn’t get enough. And at the age of five, it was very easy to get a laugh by saying words that were shocking, like curse words, or inappropriate, like “tampon.” Basically anything to make adults stop and laugh in surprise.
But one day, she and her sisters were getting in the car with their grandmother and were told to put on their seatbelts. “That’s right,” she quips. “You don’t want to end up like Jeffrey.”
But instead of laughter there is silence. Followed by the devastated sobbing of her grandmother, who never forgave herself for the accidental death of her tiny grandson.
When I listened to the story I cringed so intensely that I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I remember – when I was about that age – feeling a similar craving for attention. I made a lot of profoundly bad jokes in the process of figuring out how to get what I needed from the adults around me. I never meant to be vulgar or hurtful. I just loved it when I made people laugh and it took a long time for me to figure out how that worked, exactly.
Most of the time that I got people to laugh, I didn’t really understand why. I was just a little kid. It was like trying to make a machine work by pulling levers and pushing buttons and then waiting to see what happens. I never made someone cry by joking over the death of my baby brother, but only because I didn’t have a dead baby brother. Not because I knew better.
I’m trying to think of a concrete example, and I’m having a hard time thinking of any that directly explains the potency of my reaction to Silverman’s story. I went through a period when I was four or five where I thought it was funny to give people a hug and a “kick” instead of a “kiss,” because I noticed the words were similar and the effect seemed to be shocking. My dad laughed when I did it to him. And when I heard my mom laughing when he told her about it I felt encouraged. My next two test subjects, however, were of the geriatric variety. Neither of them were amused. In fact, I think my grandfather briefly considered seeking medical attention. My mother put a stop to it after that.
I also went through a phase where I would think of something funny, but I was acutely aware that I had passed out of the “cute kid” chapter of my life and that the joke would play much better if my little sister, Andrea, delivered it. So I fed her a couple of one-liners. She nailed those jokes, as I recall. For the record, Andrea is naturally much funnier than I am. And at five, she was a professional “cute kid.”
There are elements of that story that may sound endearing. The seven-year-old future playwright developing material for her five-year-old sister. It makes me think of something my friend Sarah told to me, recently. “You are a story-teller,” she said. “And you always have been. I think that you should embrace that fact.” I think that’s true, and ultimately these memories are really about my learning how to do that.
Nonetheless, it still grosses me out to think about feeding Andrea lines. First of all, I don’t like that I put words in my sister’s mouth. It was undermining and manipulative. But what is more disconcerting is that it makes me feel like there was never a time in my life when I was without artifice. Even at an early age, I couldn’t just relax and be a person. I’ve been coping though shtick for as long as I can remember.
At least I had enough respect for the craft to know when a line would be better served by another’s delivery; I can be proud of that.
The Jeffrey Silverman story also managed to unwedge another lost memory from some deep and forgotten recess in my mind. This one has to do with a teacher and friend of my mother’s, an elderly Irish woman named Teressa (who coincidentally was the other victim of the “hug and kick” bit).
Teressa was a character. I remember – when my sisters and I were growing up – we would go to visit her at her home in the tiny town of Hagerman, Idaho. Teressa openly criticised my mom as intensely as she openly flirted with my dad, all while her aging female dalmatian – an idiotic sweetheart named Magpie – humped the legs off all visitors who sat in the living room. Those were fun weekends.
Teressa only displayed her Irish accent after the third or so glass of wine (or whiskey – she loved whiskey), usually after dinner, as the evening wove into night. I remember one such evening when I was still quite young, Teressa told me about the grief she suffered when losing her first-born daughter, who died when she was a toddler. Then she told me – her accent as thick as I had ever heard it – about the time that David, her only son, came to her a few years later and asked about his sister. He would have been five or six, I suppose.
“I was thinking,” Teressa was speaking as David, giving him a little boy’s voice, “That we could go to where she is buried and that we could dig up her skeleton. And that it could be my skeleton?”
“I’ve never been so angry with that child,” Theresa told me, going back to her full voice and curly Irish brogue. “Not before or since. I told him to get out of my sight and to never speak to me of it again.”
I didn’t know why she told the story, but it upset me. I think I thought she was trying to send me a message, of sorts. I remember feeling shaken, as if I were the one being told off for being macabre and self-centered. I don’t think that’s true, now. I think that she was a tipsy old woman in the dusk-years of a hard life, speaking in free associations. But in that was that all children are narcissists, I was convinced that the story was about me. I thought she was trying to tell me, specifically, to watch my behavior and to understand that my actions could be hurtful. And I received the message as admonishment.
My dad piped in at about this point and said, “Children at that age, they don’t have dense skeletons. She was so small. Just a baby. I don’t think there would have been any skeleton left for him to find.”
That freaked me out also, I recall. It made me feel small and impermanent, like I could just disappear into the ground. But in another way, I remember feeling a little better after Dad tossed that thought into the conversation. Because even as a little kid, still trying to learn how to be a person, I understood that wasn’t the point of Teressa’s story and was the wrong thing to say.
Wensley whimpered in his sleep this morning. Then he woke with a start and clambered to cuddle with me, pushing his way on to my chest and nuzzling his nose in under my chin. I realized he was shaking and I tried to reassure him.
He has been acting strangely all morning and won’t stray from my side. I finally put his bed next to my monitor so I could get some work done. That wasn’t close enough, however.
It’s kind of endearing , but it’s worrying also. He’s never acted like this before. What could he have dreamt about that put him in this state, even hours later?
I had a dream that Trump was elected and I woke up wanting to climb in someone’s pocket. Maybe it was a canine version of that nightmare.
I made a post to social media that inspired some response that I didn’t expect. This is what I wrote:
Another “overheard” moment… I was in line at TJMaxx and there was a pair of 40-somethings behind me. I don’t know their relationship but (going off stereotypes) picture a tidy spinster and her sassy gay friend.
She: (poking around in an impulse buy bin) This store has so much kitsch. You know, there isn’t a single item in my home that isn’t meaningful to me.
He: (snort laughs) Well Honey, your life is FULL of meaning.
I thought it was perfectly benign thing to share, but a few of my older female friends replied to say that if I didn’t know this woman I shouldn’t call her a spinster. I got the sense that the word was offensive to them, and I was surprised.
I like to refer to myself as a spinster. I am not. I’m actually a divorcée, which is a word that I hate. It is a grey word that is dour and weighty with implication and story. It is constricting and old-fashioned, like a corseted Victorian dress. Yes, I got a divorce ten years ago. But can’t I just be single now? Do I have to wear a scarlet D on my chest for the rest of my life?
If I can’t be single I would rather be a spinster. That word is lithe and awash in color. It is fun and reckless, like a wooden top, darting in unpredictable directions before flying off the table. Or a child twirling so her skirt fills the blurred space around her until she is overcome by joy and falls in the grass.
Older women don’t seem to feel the same way about the word. Perhaps to them, the connotation is darker. It is a spider in the corner of a room, dark and entombed in silk, watching the action of the home from a distance and ruminating on small insects and speculations on what might have been.
The word “spinster” actually means exactly what it says. “A female spinner of thread.” It dates to the mid fourteenth century and comes from a time that spinning thread and yarn for textiles was one of few money-making options for a woman. This would allow a woman to contribute to the house hold, but also was a way for a woman to live independently of a man’s income. In time, the term “spinster” became synonymous with a single women, and then with single women who were passed the age where they were likely to marry. By the 1600s it was used in legal documents as a shorthand for an unmarried woman.
I haven’t found this specifically stated, but I must assume that the term was always pejorative, as the idea that a woman might approach life with goals that she prioritizes above marriage and family is a new idea. (In my experience, it is even still controversial, but I live in Utah so that might be region specific.) It is clear that by the nineteenth century there was the added stigma attached to the unmarried women in the middle class, which was that they were too fussy or choosy to accept a man when they opportunity arose. Or that they had been passed by due to their inherent lack of desirability. Or, in the case of Dicken’s Miss Havisham, destroyed utterly by disappointment and her own frail heart.
Of course, the other evidence for negativity attached to the word is revealed in the search for the male equivalent. An unmarried man is considered a “bachelor,” a word that doesn’t ever seem to break or expire. A man is either an eligible bachelor or a confirmed bachelor. A state which I have never sensed is shameful, regardless of the circumstances, but especially if the man in question has chosen career over matrimony.
There appears to be a movement now to redefine or reject the term spinster. In England and Wales, the word was formally thrown over in favor of the word “single” in legal documents in 2005. In Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Kate Bolick tells her own story of following her career away from the more traditional choice of husband and family and encourages women to celebrate their singleness and reclaim the word “spinster” as a legitimate choice for the third-wave feminists of today.
I love the idea, but I personally don’t feel invited to join the party. Not simply because – as I mentioned earlier – there was a time that I chose to get married. But also because I would have welcomed the chance to have a long-term relationship competing for my attention. I am proud of what I have accomplished with my career, but I don’t feel like I am living a full life. I tried many times after the divorce to find a relationship and make it work, but it didn’t happen for me. Not yet anyway. I don’t feel like a failure as a feminist because I feel that way. But I don’t feel like I can “celebrate my chosen singleness” in earnest. It isn’t as though I made that choice. And if I am being completely honest, perhaps there is a part of me that fears becoming the spider in the corner, spinning silk and watching my nieces and nephews grow into adults, trying not to think of the things that I missed out on.
I think about these things often but I try not to write about them. It feels indulgent and whiny. I know that no one gets everything that they want. We are all compromising all the time. Furthermore, I realize that I myself am giving these words the power that they have over me.
The word “divorcée” is a pronouncement about my past. Something I would like to shed and leave behind. And the word “spinster” is an assumption about the future, which may or may not prove to be accurate. At present, I am “single,” and going forward that will be my word. I’m living in the moment, doing my best to succeed in all areas of my life. I’m letting go of the past and I’m open to whatever the future holds.
I learned my lesson a long time ago about arguing with strangers on the internet. At least, I thought I did. Actually, it turns out that I learned ONE lesson about arguing with strangers on the internet. That was not to try to persuade someone with divergent views to come around to my way of thinking. That never ends well. Or begins well. The middle is pretty bad, too.
There are times when I still make the mistake of engaging with people that I do agree with to argue about the finer points. I have this naive idea that if we are on the same side, I can point out something that the other person may not have thought of to better strengthen their arguments and hone the focus on our collective cause.
Turns out, that is completely stupid, and a recipe for nastiness. I was reminded of that fact (yet again) today when I found myself in a spat with some Bernie Sanders followers on Facebook. I won’t go into the entire thing; I just want to share a little taste. It all began over this graphic that someone posted.
I’ll let you take a moment to look it over before I overlay my thoughts on it.
Done? Okay great.
I was laying in bed last night and I tried to talk myself out of saying anything, but I couldn’t help myself. I wrote something about how I am Pro-Bernie but that I am disappointed with the cartoons. I didn’t say that it was mean and sexist, which is what I was thinking. I just said that I thought the artist is heavy handed and should let the data speak for itself.
Someone would later point out that these are charicatures, not cartoons. And I do understand what that means – it is meant to poke fun. But just compare them! Bernie actually looks better than he does in real life, as if he is being played in a movie by Bryan Cranston in old-age makeup. Hillary looks like she stuck her head in a bucket of bees.
I got a lot of responses to my comment, but I wasn’t dog piled. I should be happy about that. Still, someone told me that if I thought Hillary looked worse than Bernie I was “just rationalizing,” which makes no sense because I stated that I voted for Sanders in last week’s caucus. Several people accused me of “missing the message.” Someone else took up my cause and was called an “absolute psycho” for her trouble. The next person said we all sounded like “hypocritical jackasses.” And then someone said I should be glad that they didn’t draw Hillary with her broom. And finally, one of the Hillary supporters told the lot of us to embrace Clinton or brace for President Trump.
Seriously? This from a bunch of people who are ostensibly on the same side. No wonder there is so much blood running down the center of the aisle.
I’m going to tread more lightly going forward. At least for the rest of the cycle. Then I’ll get back to challenging my peers. Hopefully by then rational thought will have returned.
Just seven more months, my fellow Americans. Hang in there.
I have a catalpa tree in my back yard. It is beautiful, but high maintenance. All year long, it sheds something or other. Leaves, flowers, bark, and long sharp pods that will (on occasion) impale themselves in the lawn and stand vertically, at attention, until I get around to tidying the yard. It’s slightly disconcerting.
I saw what I thought was the end of a catalpa pod on the roof of my shed and knocked it off and to the ground. Only it turned out to be a banana in jerky form.
How the hell did that get there? I still can’t figure it out. My best guess is that a magpie stole it from a picnic and then left it on my roof when it realized it wasn’t a corn dog.
Wily little buggers, those magpies. I don’t mind them, but if they were much bigger – I’m thinking beagle sized – I would never leave my house.
In my last post I bragged about having overcome the sting of rejection. I all but claimed the I was the Dread Pirate Roberts, and rejection was my iocane powder.
Remember that story I spit shined and sent back into the world to take some cuts? Yeah, it took some cuts. Immediate and merciless cuts.
When you submit a story and it takes a few months to get rejected, you get this idea that maybe you made it through a few rounds before it was tossed out of consideration. But when you get rejected with 72 hours there are no such happy delusions. They had zero interest. They would have thrown it over a shoulder if they weren’t reading it on an iPad. They may have rolled their eyes at my pitiful writing and probably didn’t get past the first page. But I definitely have no talent and should stop bothering these poor people by pretending otherwise.
Most of the time writing is my passion and I know I will always write, regardless of whether I have any success with publishing, because I must. It is and has always been the way I make sense of the world.
But sometimes writing is a second job that I took on which pays only in disappointment. And sometimes I feel well paid.