Never write to settle scores.
This, of course, is a great temptation for writers abused in some way. Rather than fisticuffs or face-to-face confrontation, we seek our pound of flesh through the weapons we know how to wield best: words.
This week, my own poison pen was dripping with the ink of outrage stemming from a sexually explicit and altogether inappropriate joke told at a business meeting. The experience brought to mind the dark side of the construction industry where I once worked. When someone made a racy joke, you had to laugh or be seen as uptight, uncool or –heaven forbid– a Nazi feminist lesbian, as one former coworker suggested. (I am still unclear how lesbian feminists and Nazis go together, but he seemed sure of the assertion.)
If you didn’t go along with these jokes, you weren’t a team player. To succeed, you had to be one of the guys, spunky and energetic, but also ready to fall in line. Ingrained in the culture, off-color remarks were uttered so casually that calling attention to them felt more hostile than the jokes themselves. It was all in good fun, right? Why single someone out, especially if he has more seniority? Talk with HR and you’re labeled a hyper-sensitive traitor. Shortly before I left my job, I reported physical sexual harassment to my boss who smiled, shrugged and said, “I guess you know now to stay away from Jerry.” Institutional harassment and sexism perpetuate in this quiet, fetid dark; the older generation teaches the younger how to behave, both men and women. Rarely does someone speak up to stop or question it. Some of us just leave.
So, there we were, this professional acquaintance and I, discussing new project leads. Suddenly, he felt compelled to tell a joke about a rival college, warning me that it was really bad; he accepted my go-ahead nod as absolution for its content. The joke ended up being less about a particular college and more about a shaming sexual slur aimed at a co-ed. If he had changed the butt of the joke from a female to a black or a gay student, the NAACP and Human Rights Campaign would have been on him in two seconds. In fact, he probably wouldn’t have brought it up outside his circle of white, straight male friends, knowing on some level that it was wrong, at least in the sense of not wanting to get caught saying it. Thus, I sat in dazed wonderment: why would he think that I would find a joke about a wanton, dim-witted girl having sex with her father funny?
I masked my shock with a polite moving on of the conversation, but as I considered it later, I became irritated, both at him and myself. What right did he have to tell that joke and why didn’t I say something? He mentioned it was an old one, meaning that he had been telling it for years — meaning that no one else had called him on it before. Though he sensed he was toeing a line, he was betting I wouldn’t, either.
This week’s blog post was going to be a well-argued evisceration of our exchange, detailing the hours I spent composing a response to him, balanced with evidence of institutional sexist hierarchy reinforced in the workplace today. Despite feeling self-righteous, I chose my words with painstaking care; I didn’t want to come off as militant or angry, which made me angrier. Why did it feel like I was doing something wrong by addressing his inappropriate joke? Why did I feel the need to minimize what was clearly a continuation of an old-boys’ industry that objectified and disempowered women? I felt a need to point out that small things like this mattered.
I came home Friday night with links to a host of articles that would substantiate my position. Then, on Saturday morning, my yoga teacher cried as she opened class. She didn’t mention the landslide in Oso by name, but as soon as her voice cracked when she talked about loss, we knew exactly what she was referring to. It’s been impossible to escape the coverage on television, social media and radio, but for the strong news presence, I realized I hadn’t taken a moment to acknowledge the loss experienced by the Oso’s families. I was too busy feeling outraged.
“Even as a teacher, I don’t know how to talk about this,” Beth said in between sobs that she tried to calm. She suggested that we dedicate our practice to those who had lost loved ones. “Use this opportunity to send something good out into the world.” After a few hitching sentences of guidance, she admitted, “This hasn’t happened all week, but I feel a bond with this class; I need you all right now.”
As soon as she revealed her vulnerability, tears appeared in my eyes, too. All week, I listened to journalistic reports, feeling a sense of concern, but not empathy; I read articles to stay informed but I didn’t exhibit deep caring. The gift of Beth’s emotions filling the room pulled us from our apathetic stupor; if everyone else was like me, their thoughts had been on trivial matters, like the day’s errands or the blog posts they were going to write. She wiped her cheeks and concluded, “Picture that there is no tomorrow. This is the last practice you will ever experience. Bring whatever you have to that. Practice like it’s the last time you will ever be in your body.”
Her request took me back to 9/11. I had just started art school and was taking an introductory course at The Art Institute of Seattle. Our assignment was to apply a certain style of painting to an original work; I chose cubism to depict a frozen-in-time moment of the twin towers mid-implosion. I transformed the plumes of smoke and licking flames into black and red shards, the buildings into pointed green-gray stalagmites. The painting’s elements were sharp and angular, the warped windows of the buildings becoming daggers.
When critiquing the work, my teacher was puzzled. “I hear you talking with such passion and emotion,” Tony observed to the class, referring to my tears at describing the scene I portrayed with acrylics, “but I don’t see it. I see something restrained, stilted. It’s like you can’t reach the place you’re trying to go. Maybe it’s not the right vehicle for what you’re trying to express.” At the time, I accepted his analysis; Tony, after all, was a professional artist and generally wise in his counsel. I shrugged, disappointed in my lack of ability, and threw away the painting after class.
Looking back, I understand why I chose those flat, crystalline forms to convey my heartbreak. It was too big to feel all at once, this empathy for strangers who jumped out of broken high-rise windows to their deaths, gave their lives to subdue terrorists armed with box cutters or shepherded people down smoky staircases of the World Trade Center without concern for their own safety. I absorbed their suffering deeply, feeling proud of their bravery and devastated for the children who clung to voicemail messages from parents they would never see again. I didn’t know what to do with all of that; I had to freeze frame. Turns out, my painting was not about what happened on the ground but the shock I was feeling inside. Though I didn’t know any 9/11 victims personally, I continued to cry months later when I thought of them.
On any given day, world tragedy –terrorist bombings, military coups, natural disasters– happens so far away that the stories read like fiction if we don’t stop to consider them. I realized in Beth’s class that, even in the case of the Oso landslide, which happened far closer to my home, I had accepted the news reports like plot lines about characters I would never meet who experienced trauma that I would [hopefully] never understand. It wasn’t until she cried that I was reminded of the power of human empathy; that being alive is indeed a precious and precarious state, the loss of which is worth tears. She reminded me that Oso is a tragedy, not just another tragedy — that each of us can be snuffed out so quickly that we wouldn’t have time to remove our hands from the steering wheel before the mudslide hit. Events like this are worth mourning, worth sitting with even for a short time, rather than skipping over altogether.
Whether constructive or petty, the small things that we do matter — the pay-it-forward coffees as much as snarky gossip, the sexist jokes or helping neighbors recover photo albums after a disaster. Small good things, like the willingness to be vulnerable in public or to speak up for what you believe is right regardless of personal cost — these acts are worth doing, no matter how busy we think we are. This is the legacy we should be sharing from one generation to another.
Last night, I spent the evening with Tammie and her family, an ongoing ritual that involves her kids helping to prepare dinner (better sous chefs you have never seen) and playing board games. They have an original game of Life, perennially a favorite, although last night they taught me how to play the Settlers of Catan. On another night, I might have complained about the inappropriate joke to Tammie while chopping vegetables, darkening my colleague’s villainous portrait. Instead, we talked with the kids about school dances, sports and life. Suddenly, the small things seemed more important than confirming again with another audience that I was right.
The tumult was over anyway. On Friday, I suggested to my colleague that he consider how the joke reflected on his personal brand and that of his employer. He agreed quickly, if with lukewarm atonement (I had been warned it was a crass joke, he reminded me) that it might be time to retire it. In the end, saying something was the victory, an act I haven’t braved when faced with similar situations in the past. It wasn’t about settling a score, but about the possibility of change based on a single, small act.
Last night when I looked across the table at Tammie’s children –funny and talented and creative– I realized what substantial little things our game nights are in comparison. Chocolate-smeared and messy, these precious moments are what makes life worth living and tragedy so tragic when they are lost. They are venues for the kind of learning that blossoms, bit by bit, over a person’s lifetime. They are the reason that we wade through this destroyed, muddy world, hope beating in our hearts, even when people insist that it’s pointless to search on.
Here in the little moments, we teach each other empathy, integrity and selflessness — strengths we’ll draw upon when big moments come. They are what guide us to look out for others, to do what is right. There is nothing small about that.
P.S. While I don’t endorse any particular organization, I encourage you to donate to the relief effort for the town of Oso, Washington. The American Red Cross is one of many organizations accepting aid for the families affected by this disaster.