I spent the first ten years of my life as the only girl amongst a group of a half dozen or so boys, my older brother, his friends - boys who accepted my presence amongst them with a shrug. Corn and tobacco farm country, with houses spread out along the roads - not quite suburbia, but most definitely not the city. Our days were spent running in the cornfield next to my house, or in the woods, tobacco fields and turf farms beyond. Mostly, we played at “War” - which consisted of breaking up into teams, then separating for a tenth of a mile or so, with toy rifles (or just a long wooden stick to represent one) clutched in our hands. We’d make plans of attack, then converge on one another in a clearing or empty tobacco barn, in brief battle. I remember I could never quite replicate the sound of a machine gun like the boys, but I was fast and stealthy. Because the boys most likely didn’t feel comfortable “shooting” at a girl, I had a talent for getting behind enemy lines. I was a good sniper and generally one of the last left standing, at which point, the battle would disintegrate as boys would descend into arguments over who was “dead” and who wasn’t. The play would reset then, and repeat itself a few times, only to end when one of us found something interesting - a dead animal, a mysterious piece of old, rusting farm equipment - for all of us to investigate. At the end of the day, as the sun crept down to the horizon through the trees, we would be called home to dinner.
For the most part, we ran wild and free in those woods and fields. It was a great childhood. The was well before the era of “playdates” and controlled, adult-supervised interaction with peers; my parents wouldn’t dream of actually taking time out of their hardworking lives to drive me to a girl’s house to have some gender specific play. My Mother bemoaned the fact that I preferred to wear pants and tee shirts instead of frilly dresses, and I would howl when she tried to brush my long hair. I was a “tomboy” not only by situation but also by preference, and knew intuitively: there was more freedom being a boy.
I became accustomed to the sarcastic interactions that account for showing affection between boys (but might be perceived as mean or humiliating by the girls I knew from grammar school, most of whom thought I was “weird” when I behaved “like a boy.”) I often observed boys posturing for social dominance, the moment turning quiet and tense, then abruptly and violently physical when de-escalation techniques like placation or sarcasm didn’t work.
I got into a scuffle or two myself. No punches were thrown, but we confusedly wrestled for a moment or two, annoyed with each other and frustrated by some trivial impasse. Then the shoving and pushing would stop abruptly, and I remember our awkwardness afterwards, the realization dawning on them that I was not in fact a “boy,” but a girl, and they’d been told they should never put their hands on a girl in anger. We’d step back, panting and red faced and look at each other, teeth clenched. And, then the anger would seep out from both of us, and they’d look away and mumble “Sorry” and I would, too, straightening my clothes and shaking off confused feelings. We’d go on with a new game or just walk away from one another, the awkward moment over, compartmentalized. There would be no grudges held, no apparent bitterness when play resumed, a “bygones be bygones” attitude to aggression that I have observed to be almost exclusively male.
One of the kids had an anger in him that could erupt unprovoked. He often sought to intimidate, and could be nasty; the older boys would generally handle him by physically dominating him, literally holding him down, when he took things too far. He was never exactly cruel to me, but I feared him a little; he was two years older, and he was the only one who was curious about me sexually far too soon for either of us. He’d try to laughingly grab my chest or genitals sometimes. I avoided being alone with him.
In my 11th year, 70s style raised ranches started popping as the farmland was sold off and turned into subdivisions. A pair of twin girls my age moved nearby, and at that time, things shifted in the neighborhood for me. They were the first girls I’d ever played with outside of school, and they initially preferred quieter, indoor play, Barbies and their EasyBake Oven, which I enjoyed for a while, but I soon became frustrated at being confined. I’d encourage the girls to join me outside, making forts and exploring the old barns, something they’d never done before, and they soon abandoned their Barbies for the woods and streams that wove through and behind the housing units.
Things shifted not only in our neighborhood, and the group of playing children, but also in our bodies, too. I got my first period around this time, my breasts bloomed early, and my days of running in the woods with the boys holding a fake gun ended, not only because the twins found my proclivity for playing “War” odd, but because we were all growing into different bodies. The boys, some already well on their way to becoming teenagers with chin stubble and cracking voices, began to treat me differently - not as one of them, but as a girl. There was a new awkwardness between us, a hesitancy and curiosity, too.
My childhood gave me a window on the male psyche and male behaviors that few women my age might otherwise have. I do feel more at ease with men in social situations than women because of it, and have only a few close female friends. Adult men interact with the same teasing, posturing banter and sarcasm that colored their childhood socialization, and it amuses me because it’s familiar and often funny. They laugh and turn serious at turns with one another. They support each other and bond with friendly competition. But, like all of us, they have a dark side, too.
Behaviors that are socially unacceptable - boorish or verbally aggressive - are met with a profound stillness in their bodies, a closed face, and an abiding silence, waiting for the tension to either subside or escalate. Sometimes these moments are followed by deflection and distraction amongst the adult male group, and if women are around, these techniques are employed more often. But, when that doesn’t work, they use their bodies, puffing up and growing taller, louder, sometimes violent.
(We are primates, after all.)
Last night at a local roadhouse we frequent - the community center here in the remote Hilltown I call home - a man I didn’t recognize, somewhere in his late fifties was standing amongst the locals at the bar, two empty highball glasses already in front of him, a beer in his hand. It’s a small place, and he was filling it with boisterous laughter, overblown in his growing drunkenness. The men sitting on either side of him were quiet and still, hunched over their beers and burgers, and when we sat down at a table adjacent, I sensed immediately the tension in the air around him. A few minutes later, he turned away from the bar, and accidentally-on-purpose shook the back of my brother-in-law’s chair, saying, “Oh, am I crowding you??”
My brother-in-law is a big man, a logger who takes no shit, but he matter-of-factly said, “I’m just sitting here. I’m good….How are you?” The man laughed, thought better of his aggression, and turned back to the bar and his drink. A little while later on, he did the same to my husband as he passed him on the way to the men’s room, placing his hand on the back of his chair and booming, “Oh, do you need more room here??!” My husband, also a big man, went still and calm, but he smiled good-naturedly and said, “No, I’m fine, I can move if you need me to.”
“Oh, no, no, you’re good.” He glanced over at me, then moved towards the bathroom. I sensed a layer of hostility in him that lurked just beneath the falsely happy surface - and he was holding the entire place hostage to it. We were all doing our best to placate him, to keep him calm. He returned to the bar without incident, and we began to eat our meal. A while later, my husband got up to go to the men’s. The man turned again from the bar, moved towards me and grabbed the back of my chair, saying loudly, “Hey! Move your fucking chair!” He gave it a slight shove.
I’m forced forward, shocked and angry. There is no need for this; there is plenty of room behind the chair. I look at him and say, “Excuse me?!”
He laughs, and says, “Don’t get so upset, I’m only joking!!”
I say nothing, but, seething with anger at his aggression and gas lighting, I take a breath, stand, move my chair close to the table, and then slowly sit back down. He walks around me then, close enough that he’s touching me, and he places his hand on my shoulder as he passes, rubbing it, and says, “Awww, don’t be mad, I was only joking!!” I want to tell this fucker not to touch me, but I know that if I do, the situation will escalate: he may become violent and release the anger that’s been brewing in him, for decades maybe, against me, against my nearby family. I say nothing, but hold myself very stiffly, forcing my breath to slow down.
My daughter is in the chair next to me. She bartends a couple of nights a week at this place, and as I said, while it’s a roadhouse, it’s also a wonderful community center. Everyone knows everyone else, takes care of everyone else, the food is simple and decent, the staff is great, and the beers are cold. She’s had to throw drunks out, and she knows what to say to this guy. She looks him straight in the eye and says calmly, “Bad joke,” with a smile on her face that is not quite a smile, but more a message of “Don’t fuck with us.”
He focuses on her. “What?!” My daughter is extremely beautiful, with long, auburn hair and huge brown eyes and a megawatt smile that she uses now on him, saying once more, slowly, “Bad. Joke.” And then she laughs lightly and looks down at her phone and shuts him out. He is staring at her, unsure, but I see him growing hungry for her attention.
I don’t like him looking at her that way. Disgusted, but also weary now, because I am tired of this - so tired of still having to do this, of needing to fearfully manipulate and cajole some men out of their endless craving for control, attention, acknowledgement, and their anger - and sometimes violence - in response to not getting it.
I try distraction and placation and say, “Hey, my name is Michelle, what’s your name, where are you from?” I hold out my hand, take his and shake it. He puts his other arm more firmly around me now, tells me his name and the name of his tiny Hilltown, but he is still looking at my daughter. I am loathing the hot heaviness of his arm on my shoulders, but want him to stop looking at my daughter, so I try distraction again and ask, “Did you come here on a motorcycle?” which he confirms. He asks where we are from. I am tempted to lie, but don’t and tell him. We say a few more insignificant things. My husband returns from the men’s, and the man immediately releases me, only to look like a hungry wolf at my beautiful daughter even more. She is still ignoring him, looking down at her phone and typing away. He turns to me and says, “How old is she?”
What a fucking creep this guy is, I think.
I look him in the eye for a moment, considering what to say to this pathetic, angry, lonely, frightened old man who is clearly suffering, who probably feels life is empty and meaningless, who fears losing control, who knows he will die some day, and who can’t deal with his endless pain, other than getting blind drunk and spreading intimidation and fear all around him. I am filled with a mix of loathing and compassion. It's a fine line, between showing compassion, and enabling toxic behavior, and I am not sure what the right choice is in this situation.
I trust my instincts and say, “She’s 22,” and stare pointedly at him. No words are needed. He knows he’s crossing a big line with me now, I am the mama bear, and he becomes quieter, sheepish, mumbles, “Mom, you made a very beautiful daughter.” I let out a huffing short laugh and say nothing but continue to look at him, disgust mixed with pity. He says, “Well, goodnight,” and leaves.
The tension in the bar subsides, the group around us, both men and women, all begin talking at once about him - how he was “creepy” and they sensed how “off” he was. I feel relief that the man is gone, but also just want to go home and forget about the fear that coursed through me, and my frustration and anger because I could not physically protect myself or my daughter from this angry, disturbed, drunken man. I am weary because I had to turn to the age-old methods that women - and men,too but mostly women - have long employed to keep themselves safe from angry, potentially violent men.
We are far too often held hostage by hurt people who need to hurt people in order to feel…better? alive? seen? powerful? People who are so in pain that they need to lash out, make other people feel scared and small, so that they feel less scared and small. What’s happening in our country right now is an enormous, painful outpouring of centuries of collective fear and violence. We are all becoming profoundly aware of this pain. It is in all of us, including and especially those of us who have privilege and power, and who fear losing that privilege and power. This is why so much of what is happening feels frightening and out of control right now. We don’t know if an angry, powerful man is going to snap finally, and hurt us or kill us. (And, I believe that is how most people of color have felt for a very long time here.)
Some of us are staying very still and quiet, out of fear or in denial, hoping the tension subsides. And, some of us are using distraction, placating or manipulation to stay safe. But, none of these tactics are really working, because the men who run our country, our planet, are just like this drunken, pain-filled guy - except they have entire militarized and enslaved armed forces to perpetrate their need for control and power. Who can stop them if/when they choose to use it against us? We have seen what our leadership does to those who question their authority. Choke holds, pepper spray, concussion grenades are the least of it. Who among us will stand up when they deliberately spread pain and fear, perpetuating their endless need to control and bully? Because to stand up to oppression, whether it’s some angry drunk in a bar or a petty despot, means we literally put ourselves or our loved ones at risk.
And, for some of us, well, the pain is too great to live with, too.
Anthony Bourdain has killed himself earlier on this day, and I am sad and weary because of this, as well. I never ate in a restaurant the same after reading his revealing, brilliant Kitchen Confidential. His descriptions of life in the kitchen amongst the staff were familiar, just like the snarky, bantering, posturing, fast-paced, boy-dominated world of my childhood. And, the places he visited all around the world were not unlike my local roadhouse - filled with simple, decent people just trying to enjoy a drink and something good to eat, grabbing a moment of refueling and respite from their own struggles, their own pain and suffering.
Clearly, he struggled more than most of us do, but rather than turning his pain outwards in cruelty and malice, he modeled a better way of being; he showed nobility and true bravery through empathy, finding joy in the creativity, talent and beauty of the diversity of human beings he met on his travels. Seeing the good in us. He showed us how we should not fear each other, but embrace one another with tolerance, trust and acceptance. He didn’t seek to ease his pain through making others suffer, but instead, stood up for the downtrodden, and refused to stay silent in the face of cruelty or oppression - especially when the oppressed were women or people of color.
He was a true man, bantering and funny, wise and kind, and a brief, bright light that helped make our weary world a less scary, less unfamiliar place. He inspired me to trust and be brave and to travel and explore, and better yet, showed me how to travel and explore: without judgment or biases. He helped me see our world more clearly, and gave me hope for it and us. Yes, he chose to end his own deep, ceaseless pain. Perhaps that is the bravest thing he ever did, and may he be at peace now. But, while he lived, nonetheless he did so emphatically, empathically, gloriously and beautifully, and we are a better world because he was in it for a brief time with us.
In our own brief time here, may we all meet the world and the people we share it with like he did: with humor, clarity, compassion, wisdom - and above all, bravery.
Smile on your brother, try to love one another, right now.