Everyday Sexism: Grabbed

Yesterday, women around the world talked about their experiences being #grabbed. The thread is a dismaying read, to say the least. It confirms to outsiders what many women have known their entire lives. When you get into an elevator alone with a man, he might made a sexual comment on your body. When you sit on a bus or a train, the man next to you may stroke your thigh or brush your breasts while you pray for the ride to end. When you walk across a crowded club, men may grab your buttocks or try to penetrate you with their fingers. But we knew this already.
I knew it from the time I was ten, being one of those “lucky” girls whose breasts developed early. On a crowded city bus with my parents, the man next to me grabbed my breast and squeezed hard enough to leave a bruise. He never even turned his head to look at me. He simply stared out of the window nonchalantly. At ten, you doubt yourself. Did that just happen? How do I tell my dad, with whom I’ve never even said the word “breast,” that a stranger has intimately touched me? So I stood there, turning red, trying not to cry, and let the bus ride finish.
I knew it in high school, when I walked into a coat room to hang something and a male friend walked in after me. Inexplicably, the lights in the closet went out and in the sudden darkness, he grabbed me, held me against the wall, groped my breasts and forcibly kissed me. After a few minutes of fumbling protest, the lights came back on and he left.
It sickened me to realize, years later, that the lights had likely been turned off by the male teacher in the outer classroom. He saw the boy follow me into the closet and set me up to be grabbed.
I knew it the next year, when studying to become an emergency medical technician. At a lesson on evaluating injuries, I was asked to be a practice patient for several students. All of them did fine, except for one man, who, during the evaluation, grabbed both of my breasts and squeezed them. Let me tell you now, that is not part of any type of injury evaluation. The female adult in charge was clearly mortified, as was I. However, instead of the male student being disciplined, I was yanked from the volunteer group and given snack table duty.
Let me repeat that. A man inappropriately touched me and *I* was asked to leave. He continued on with his practice. My day of learning was over because of his inability to self-regulate. How does a woman leave that situation without feeling as if she is the transgressor?
I knew it as a freshman in college, when a known sexual predator sat down to eat lunch with me in the dining hall. Two hundred other students sat and watched him pretend to be a friendly man, interested in my company, as his questions became increasingly more personal. Two hundred other humans watched a nineteen-year-old girl with a man who was known to stalk women and did nothing. You know how I knew they were watching? Because when one brave stranger came up and invited me to join her for lunch, pretending we had class notes to compare, the entire dining hall burst out in applause. They were relieved that someone had saved the naive frosh — because they sure as hell weren’t going to.
And I knew it two years ago, at a dinner party with friends. One of the guests (a man in his 40s), grabbed first the buttocks, then the breast of another guest (a woman in her 50s). We were all friends. Her husband watched from five feet away, and no one knew what to do. No one wanted to chastise a friend. She offered a polite, “Stop it,” and I told him to go away. He chided both of us for not being able to take a joke, then proceeded to approach each woman in the room, asking the color of their bra. It was shrugged off as, “Oh, Mike is just a dirty old man.”
I saw people on the #grabbed thread advocating a “kick to the balls” to stop a grabber. As if, after being assaulted, we women would like to subsequently start a physical fight with our assailant. Because that’s an improvement in the situation — a 200-pound man with no impulse control is now injured, angry, and directing his force at us.
At the tail end of the day, several of those exact men showed up on the #grabbed thread. They were angry and hateful toward the women sharing their stories. They sneered that no wonder the women had been grabbed, they were hot. They posted photos of erect penises and invited women to grab them. They posted a graphic picture of a severed hand and claimed they had grabbed a “feminazi.” These are the grabbers; men whose response to being called out as inappropriate is to become off-the-charts hateful and violent. And you want us to kick them in the balls…
Mary Gardiner offers an excellent rebuttal to the worst anti-harassment advice ever.
Twenty years after graduation, the boy from the coat room sent me a Facebook friend request. My breath caught when I saw his accompanying message: “Remember that day in the closet. Yum.”

Giving Up On Sophie

I’m friends with Sophie on Facebook. She was an acquaintance during high school; we might have spoken in passing a handful of times, but we weren’t really friends. We connected on Facebook in that early newcomer frenzy of requesting anyone who had graduated in your class.
It’s now twenty years after high school and through her posts, I see that Sophie and I have a common passion for sewing. She posts weekly updates about her projects, which are beautiful, and I’ve been commenting on them since we became “friends.” I’ve mentioned how lovely her work is, I’ve thanked her for sharing, I’ve even asked a related question. No response. Ever. She will reply to comments around mine, and always leave me unacknowledged.
I’ve tried to put myself in her shoes. Perhaps she can’t remember who I am and why we’re friends. Or she doesn’t like my other (often political) posts. Maybe she just doesn’t like me, period. Even so, nothing precludes her from simply answering, “Thanks.”
Today, I’m unfollowing Sophie. And here’s the thing. I have a new house with two dozen huge, bare windows. Sophie is an interior designer whose work I enjoy. I was hoping, after striking up a conversation, to hire her (for pay) to consult on window treatments for my home. Now, when I see her name, I feel rejected and I think unkind thoughts. She has lost my business.
My takeaway lesson is to be more responsive. I don’t need to be best buddies with everyone, but I will do my best to offer an acknowledgement when someone has connected with me — especially in a positive way or over a shared interest. Just think, Sophie could be cashing a check from me right now.

Starting With The End

About a third of the way into my current novel, I was lost in a forest of good ideas. You know how it is when you first encounter an intriguing book idea — there’s excitement, drama, and a never-ending flow of possibilities.
I had put all of those possibilities into the first three chapters of the book. Every last neat-o tech gadget. All of the fun science-y conceits. I found myself in a really cool world going nowhere fast.
I puttered around on the book for a few days weeks. I started to lose interest. Maybe it wasn’t such a good story, after all. Then, inspiration struck.
I wrote my query letter. Query letters — the note introducing my novel in a couple of riveting paragraphs to literary agents — would typically come at the end of the writing and editing process. Doing it now would force me to show what was at stake for my hero.
I started my query:
My main character sees a hole in the… Who cares?
The protagonist has to help fix the… Why does he *have* to?
This guy wants to figure out… *click* <– The sound of an agent deleting my email
There’s nothing quite like condensing the (lack of) action down to two paragraphs to make it very clear that you have a really neat idea, but not a whit of conflict or momentum. I scrapped the first third of the book and put some stakes in there.
When you hear the phrase, “kill your darlings,” it doesn’t just mean characters. It can indicate, as it did for me, that you have to surgically remove all traces of the very cool science fiction idea that prompted you to write the story in the first place. Ouch, that was hard. But it didn’t make sense to the narrative. There were better ideas that created more conflict. I set the original idea aside for a sequel and wrote from there.
Today, I’m happy to report that the remaining two-thirds of the book were written in two frenzied words-tumbling-over-words weeks. Once there were proper reasons for the action, the story practically unfolded on its own.
Sometimes, when you’re stuck at the beginning, you have to start with the end.

The Kindergarten Mafia

The first time I ran for office, and won, I was part of a three-person school board which happened to already have two other smart, hard-working women on it. They were the ones who encouraged me to run, because women… we tend to wait for invitations to run for office. (Something I learned from EMILY’s List and never forgot.)
I was so proud and so intimidated. I worked hard studying acronyms, learning complex tax systems, and forging relationships with townsfolk and teachers. We lowered taxes and helped build a strong leadership team in the school. We completed long-stagnant projects and solved problems like hungry children in classrooms and lack of affordable child care in our county. In short, we rocked that shit. Hard.
Empirically, we couldn’t have possibly been doing more right. Taxes were down, the school budget was down, teacher turnover was down, test scores were up, kids were getting three meals and two snacks per day for free, we had free preschool and free before and after school child care. We re-roofed the school, replaced the leaky windows, and updated our playground equipment. Our teachers were so satisfied, they declined to join the local union, saying we were offering better deals than the union could negotiate. Heck, we even continued to offer an ailing teacher health insurance two years after she became ill and had to quit.
One day, someone in town said to me in passing, “You know what they call you three, right?” I had no idea. “The Kindergarten Mafia!” he said with glee. I was devastated.
The phrase was not meant kindly. It was shorthand for, “You uppity bitches came in here and steamrolled through everything you wanted. We liked things the way they were, no matter how fucked up, so screw you.” It took the wind out my sails for a while.
Another time, two taxpayers ran into our meeting, screamed threats at us about the school budget, then ran back out. No matter how many times we offered to go through the numbers, right there, line by line, they screamed louder. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that many words for vagina in one sentence.
It happened again and again. Incomprehensible rage. Nonsensical arguments. Just plain down and dirty hate coming our way. I learned when to block it out. I learned when to call the sheriff.
Over time, as I ran for other offices, it dawned on me. The hatred, the vitriol, it was shorthand for other things: “Things are changing. I’m scared.” “I don’t understand, but I’m too embarrassed to ask.” “I don’t think I’m on the right side of the argument, and I need to call you names to save face.”
I have a better understanding of this knee-jerk reaction. I don’t condone it, but at least there’s some insight. It’s stunning just how strong the bonds of communal hatred can be. That doesn’t put anyone on the right side of history, it just makes them louder. And you can be as loud as you want, because I’m the fucking Kindergarten Mafia.

From The Summer of Done to Short Fiction Fall

The Summer of Done was a roaring success by any measure. I finished the first drafts of two different novels; a contemporary fantasy and a YA science fiction. I’m about halfway through the first editing pass on the YA book and the fantasy is still a raw draft. I always underestimate how painful editing can be.
Now that the Summer of Done is over, my self-imposed moratorium on short story writing is also gone. Thank goodness… I have a long list of ideas from over the summer that I’m dying to work on. My fall goal is to write one story per week and submit at least half of them for publication by the end of the season. Fridays are short story days and here’s a little taste of the one I’m working on today:
I was born with a tiny plastic doll shoe in my hand. A high heel, butter yellow.
No more for you! Wait until someone offers to publish it—or I trunk it and post it here.