Required Reading (January 1-2, 2012)

It’s January of a new year, which means I’ve embarked upon what is for most of us an annual ritual of pulling together a few vague senses of things that we’d like to improve about ourselves over the next 12 months. Among the most concrete of my resolutions is resolve to turn off the television and read more. Hopefully this will result in more posts to this blog, as my inspiration is usually stuff I’ve found on the internet. But if nothing else, I thought I might also pass along the stuff that strikes a cord and maybe let you know why if I have time to articulate it. And so, I present the very first installment of what I hope will be a regular feature: Required Reading!

The Same Situation (Emily Books): A quote from this essay:

It’s not a flattering or acceptably feminist image, the one of you with your self-esteem perpetually tethered to a man’s interest and opinion of you.

Ugh.Is there a woman on the planet who can claim that she has never handed power over her self-esteem to a man? I probably shouldn’t wander so confidently out on the limbs of trees I know so little about, but I’m going to assume that even lesbians have experienced this phenomenon, either before they understood their sexuality, or in relation to their fathers or other male figures in their lives. In another forest that I’ve learned about only through books by Neil Strauss and more than a decade of occasionally gut-wrenchingly intimate conversations with my friend Joe, I’ll look up toward the barren branches and imagine that many men have experienced this phenomenon — that many men have had their entire self-worth rise and fall with a woman’s changing whims. But I suspect the phenomenon is nowhere near as universal among men as it is with women, or at least, the impacts are nowhere near as long-ranging.

It’s been many years since my self-esteem ceased changing like the tides. I suspect I’m so boarded up at this point that a potential partner would need to obtain a demolition permit from the city before he could get close enough to hurt me in more than a passing manner. But I can tell you precisely the foundation of my now near-impenetrable fortress: I was in fifth grade, and most of my best friends were boys: Andrew, Timmy, Eddie, and John. I hadn’t begun to like boys yet. I recall in 4th grade, Andrew began dating a girl named Anna, and it felt like a betrayal. Not because I wanted him to date me, but because he was my best friend, and now he was spending time with someone else. I just didn’t understand the motivation.

And so I was sitting in my fifth grade classroom one afternoon when I overheard a conversation that wasn’t meant for my ears: I don’t recall who exactly was involved, but I know John and Eddie were there because I remember what they said. They were talking about their favorite girls in the class, and Eddie named me in his top five. John balked upon hearing this. Apparently I wasn’t pretty; not in his eyes, at least. Nor did Eddie argue this assessment. Rather, he responded that I was “smart and cool,” and those things were important. As my heart ached painfully in my chest, my head agreed with Eddie that those things were important, and I felt gratitude toward him for sticking up for me. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but wish that he’d said I was pretty.

Of the four, I was least close with John. He’d only arrived to my K-8 grade school in 4th grade. He’d made fast friends with Andrew and Timmy and Eddie, so I guess I just kind of came along as part of the package. But as these things tend to go, John’s opinion of me carried the most weight. John was a good looking kid, and even though I didn’t yet understand quite why that mattered, I knew that it did matter. He was in commercials on TV — one for Hanes underwear and another for a toy called Dino Riders. That year, I went to a birthday party at his house, and I remember his bedroom was painted dark blue. I’d never seen a bedroom painted anything other than muted, unoffensive, usually gender-neutral colors, and I was fascinated by the paint. He always had Jolly Ranchers for snacks with lunch, and he always had enough to share.

And so, to hear him say that I wasn’t one of his favorite girls because I wasn’t pretty crushed me. And I did the same thing I still do today: I agreed that I wasn’t pretty enough. I pretended I didn’t care. I began to pull away from John because even though I told myself I didn’t care, I cared so fucking much, and I worried that if I stayed close, he’d hurt me even worse. I undervalued my positive traits — even though Eddie thought I was smart and cool, I knew a boy could never like me because of those things. I turned inward on myself and started building a fortress for protection.

Rinse, wash, repeat throughout my teens and 20s. By my 30s, I was surrounded by a fortress so tall and claustrophobic that I found myself alone inside it with only my own opinion of myself. And I realized that my opinion of myself is the one that matters most. Even more importantly, I understood that my own opinion is the only one over which I have any control and any power to change. I wish I’d arrived to this place much sooner and as a result of a healthier journey, but regardless, I’m grateful that I finally made it. It’s my new foundation, and after a few years of attention to it (including a handful of setbacks), it’s finally begun feeling sturdy enough to build something new upon it. Perhaps it’s time to start dismantling the old walls.

A World on Fire (Boston Review): This is a beautifully-told (true) story about eight young people who died in a New Orleans squat fire in December 2010. The young people in this story are travelers, kids who packed what they could carry on their backs and headed off into the world in search of adventure and meaning, often finding it in experiences that take them to the edge and sometimes over it. I appreciated the humanity of the story: the author does not romanticize the life these kids chose, nor does she toss the kids aside as misdirected, ungrateful slackers. Rather, she attempts to understand them, and that’s a beautiful gift both to anyone who reads this story, as well as to the friends and family of the kids who died in this fire.

Yo, Is This Racist? Andrew Ti’s Tumblr Has Your (Hilarious) Answer (COLORLINES): One man’s attempt to rattle people into the understanding that their own experience of the world is nothing more than one experience and carries no more weight than any one person carries. Everyone else’s experiences are just as valid and should be considered as we blunder about our existences.

The resource that seems most needed based on the questions in general and the hatemail from indignant white people is just an examination of white privilege, and of all privilege in America. That’s what I try to bring to the table, without being too serious about it: an examination of privilege. Because at the end of the day, I’m making jokes and making fun of people, and if that sting of embarrassment can make one in a hundred people think, ‘why is that? Why do I feel this way?’ That’s what I can bring.

Also see: Andrew Ti’s Tumlr.

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