I used to hook up with a guy who randomly but frequently asked me the same question: “Are you worried?” Apparently my face always gave it away, even when I actually wasn’t. We’d be at a bar in the Marina, adult frat row, and I’d take a sip of my vodka-club, smile and remind him: “That’s just the way my face looks.”
Apparently I should have spent my birthday going to adult frat row or something. I got a good amount of well-intentioned, loving pressure to “properly” celebrate my birthday, to be more carefree, to be less worried.
My mom seems to be the only person I know who is pro-fear and pro-worry. Her practicality is one of my favorite things about her.
During my carefree college days, I wrote an essay about car crashes and fear — about how immune we act to the killer metal contraptions we climb into every day, how we decorate and name them to disguise their danger.
My mom was the only mom I knew who made her kids log all 60 hours of on-the-road practice required of our driver’s education. “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do that and something happened to you,” she said. I rolled my eyes at the time but use that guiding logic often.
Don’t even get me or my mom started on the danger of motorcycles and scooters. I applaud the safety of the bus. “You’re basically asking for it,” I tell a friend about driving his scooter regularly.
* * *
My dad is always making new friends; we call it “spreading joy.” He’ll chat up almost anyone with the simple hope that it might brighten their day. I roll my eyes but it almost never fails to brighten mine, and is one of my favorite things about him.
I am on the way home from downtown after a late-night basketball game — my bi-weekly break from any kind of worry. An older woman on the bus is talking to no one in particular about how her commute was delayed. I smile at her when she turns to me and we chat for a bit.
“Are you out here all alone?” she asks after a few minutes. “Well, don’t go telling everyone,” I reply quietly — only half joking. She gets serious. “It’s alright, honey — I am too.”
It’s the last night of a solo weekend trip to Portland and at one in the morning, I arrive back to my hotel. The front desk clerk looks genuinely happy to see me. “You’re back!” he exclaims. This same clerk had been driving the hotel shuttle upon my arrival to Portland. I had been the only passenger and agreed to sit in the front seat when he offered. We made friendly small talk during the short duration of the trip — my amateur attempt at spreading joy.
A few minutes after I settle into my room, there’s a knock on the door. “Guest services!”
I hadn’t ordered anything and suddenly felt uncomfortable, suddenly regretted being friendly, suddenly felt dumb for the honest, casual small talk during which I had revealed I was traveling alone. Why didn’t I tell him I was going to watch my Crossfit-certified boyfriend’s body-building competition or something? Was I asking for it?
* * *
I get a lot of well-intentioned, loving suggestions with regards to what guys I should date. Without fail, they’re described as “nice.” This description has always irked me, but I’ve struggled to pinpoint why. I thought for a while it was my general disdain for girls my age who seem to define themselves by whether or not they have a boyfriend — that I was rebelling against the idea of having someone nice simply for the sake of having someone.
After getting home from Portland, I tell a friend about the front desk clerk knocking on my door — a story that didn’t end badly but still makes me uncomfortable to think about. “No offense,” she says with a smile, “but that would happen to you. You’re too nice to people sometimes.”
I’m reminded of a conference I attended for work last year. I was helping out with a video shoot, working with the same two guys for two days in a row. They were nice. I was too. A co-worker overheard a conversation during which I made some sarcastic comment that we all laughed about. Afterward, she repeatedly insisted that I had been flirting.
A few months ago I complained about something similar to an outspoken feminist friend. I was frustrated because it seemed like I couldn’t be nice to guys without being accused of flirting or leading them on — or apparently inviting them to inappropriately knock on my hotel room door, offer me a free bottle of wine and ask to connect on Facebook. Meanwhile, guys were being applauded for niceness — were perhaps even thought to be owed something for it. I couldn’t quite articulate what I thought or what to do about it. I rambled off my concerns and complaints loudly to her in an attempt to figure it out.
“I think you’re being a bit dramatic,” my friend replied matter-of-factly. She changed the subject.
* * *
Add this to the list of life skills they don’t teach you in life skills. I can’t seem to figure out how to peel an orange gracefully or lower blinds effectively on the first try or be nice to guys without being too nice.
In Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Fear of violence limits most women in ways they’ve gotten so used to they hardly notice — and we hardly address.” The parallels with race are striking. D. Watkins outlines “rules for survival” for black people dealing with law enforcement in The Beast Side. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: “One must be without error out here. Walk in single file. Work quietly. Pack an extra number 2 pencil. Make no mistakes.”
He wonders of a killed friend: “Had he not spoke back, spoke up, would he still be here?”
I imagine my hotel room encounter, or any of the encounters that make me uncomfortable, ending badly — as such encounters have for countless women. I imagine my parents wondering: Had I sat quietly, not smiled, not insisted on traveling alone, not tried to spread any joy, been more afraid, would I still be here?
This is why I worry.
* * *
I worry about the time I was catching up with an ex-boyfriend and was excitedly telling him about a work meeting I had coming up. A Forbes reporter had been impressed with my writing and connected me with his friend for some freelance work. “He probably just wants to fuck you,” my ex said to me matter-of-factly.
I worry about the time an old roommate told me I was holding my wine glass wrong and that I should be careful about the impression that I gave off. “If you don’t care about how you hold your wine glass, I would assume it probably means you don’t care about other things … and that you’re probably easy.”
I worry when a male friend takes one look at the book jacket of Men Explain Things to Me and “jokes” the author looks like some crazy feminist.
I worry because it’s too easy to write off my worries as oversensitive, to write off a passionate woman as crazy or ranting, to write off each comment as an isolated incident.
Chuck Klosterman writes, “In and of itself nothing really matters. What really matters is nothing is ever in and of itself.”
I worry because these are just the things that get said to me.
I worry because these are just the things that actually get said out loud.
I worry because so many people around me don’t seem worried.
Solnit writes, “Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task … Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or making it impossible to go anywhere.”
* * *
On my second day in Portland, I make a new friend at Powell’s Books. He is sitting across from me reading On the Road, as I alternate between reading The Beast Side and writing a blog post. “I always liked to write but I can’t help but wonder why anyone should care about what I have to say,” he says after we strike up a conversation which inevitably turns to my profession of professing.
I tell him that I write not because I believe I am different, but because I believe I am not. It’s the same reason that I worry.
But I also write because I believe it can lead to change. If I don’t think my experiences and words and rants have that power, why would anyone else? Reading and highlighting and questioning and crossing out and scribbling are an attempt to dissect things and put them back together into something tangible, legible, sensible — into something other people can at least consider — perhaps even into progress.
It takes time and hard work, but I’m more worried about missing out on that opportunity than anything else.
* * *
I am at a birthday celebration with my friend Dave, who recently taught himself to code and has since built an app, and I ask him how much he works. “All the time,” he replies matter-of-factly. “Except for quick breaks like this.” He is seemingly unfazed by people telling him, as I’m sure they do, how to spend his time or spend his twenties. It’s one of my favorite things about him.
Dave posts a video of Ta-Nehisi Coates on Facebook just after I’ve finished Between the World and Me. I take a break from working to hear Coates says, “Breakthroughs come from an enormous amount of pressure put on yourself.”
I’ve been obsessing over niceness since my trip to Portland. It’s almost 10 p.m. on Tuesday when I finally find it — that sneaking suspicion I’d been worrying and writing and reading and re-writing about is spelled out clearly in front of me. Solnit quotes: “#YesAllWomen because if you’re too nice to them you’re ‘leading them on’ & if you’re too rude you risk violence. Either way you’re a bitch.”
I can’t articulate why quite yet, but just finding it feels like progress.
I talk to my friend Nick, who always walks around as if he’s several hours late to a very important meeting. It’s one of my favorite things about him. He tells me not to worry about how other people think I should spend my birthday. I draw four stars in orange highlighter around the quote I’ve found, dog-ear the page and power-walk home to read and write and worry some more.
I decide to spend my birthday doing the same.