But like millions before me, I saw no harm in a little curiosity, some entirely legitimate
scientific spirit of inquiry, and I tragically misjudged the slippery slope that my wide-eyed, guileless poking at the unknown should lead me onto.
The unknown of differing political viewpoints, that is. Radical, exotic, tantalizingly extravagant viewpoints. Elitist, even (don’t blame me, elite sounds so charmingly French! How was I to know the word that once meant ‘choice’ and later meant ‘of great quality’ is now yet another bad thing)?
Honestly, I thought I could quit any time. Even as my descent into flower-powered liberaldom was already painfully obvious to innocent bystanders, I still firmly believed myself the poster-child of the Moderate Independent. You know, the girl who goes both ways. The reasonable one who balances the scales and chooses political candidates not based on party affiliation but on (oh, dear) common sense.
It took nothing less than a full frontal intervention by a trusted buddy for me to see the terrifying truth. Engaged in the time-honored military maneuver known as “Hurry Up and Wait” we were completing a tactical analysis (debating which Hollywood movie contains the biggest FUBARs in terms of depicting the military), when Murphy (don’t ask) declared in a matter of fact tone: “You’re such a Liberal!”
Naturally, my response was a decisive “Am NOT!”
“Am SO not!”
“Are so, too!”
Yes, we’re the people entrusted with your safety.
And it all had started out so well
Granted, mom has always been a staunch Democrat. The proud blue collar daughter of 3rd generation German immigrants (add a generous dash of Louisiana French for spice, and of course there’s great-uncle George the cranky Alaskan but every family needs one of those) has always been pro unions, pro reasonable taxation in exchange for social safety nets, and has some rather fierce views on healthcare. Yet to many of her fellow Democrats in the Empire State her political leanings tend rather a bit too far right of Mr Bill Clinton, disqualifying her from the “Centrist” label by 20 degrees starboard of fiscal responsibility. And please don’t get her started on Mrs Clinton. Or Mr Sanders, for that matter.
One wonders how she ever gets along with the Republican she married -holy cow – in 1967. Or perhaps not, seeing as the gentle Scandinavian bear, self-chosen blue collar son of a white collar East Coast clan, declares himself a Moderate Republican (when he can be bothered to have any label affixed to his broad shoulders). Far, far out of right-swirling waters in matters of environment and education, he was (and is) nonetheless the poster-man of Reagan voters (“Bad actor. Good president”), and still champions supply-side economics and much of the Gipper’s free-market philosophy. Dad also quite reasonably decided that voting for Bush the Elder and (less enthusiastically) the Younger, gave and gives him license to exercise his 1st Amendment rights at his leisure by offering mild rebukes and occasionally scathing commentary on either’s performance in the White House. Please don’t get him started on Mr Trump. Seriously. Please don’t.
So what happened?
How does a child destined to walk the moderate, centrist ground of politics suddenly find herself tumbling out of that comfortable, stable middle ground and slide headlong into the rabbit hole of the (gasp) Libertarian Left?
As a good Snowflake/Hippie/[insert insult of your choice here] should, I blame my parents. That’s right, the ex-Catholic (aka Agnostic with an Attitude) Democrat and the laid-back Protestant Republican, who huddle snugly in the political middle. The couple who for over 50 years now have made an art of not merely coexisting with a different opinion, but celebrating their differences (admittedly, that celebration sometimes involves ballistic kitchenware from the Democrat and pithy retorts worthy of a Spartan warrior from the Republican).
On the political compass it’s astonishing just how close these two warring lovebirds are –both are floating companionably near Winston Churchill in the middle to lower left of the blue, with mom but a bunny-hop and a skip left of dad on the economic scale, and him (my goodness) beating her and any other self-respecting Republican on the social scale with a noticeable southward drift. “Must have been the porn questions” spoke the Viking and went to stack some firewood.
Mother dearest disputes this conclusion and places the blame squarely on his insufferable feminism. Sometimes I really can’t tell when she’s joking.
And I guess therein lies the rub. They don’t fit the stereotypes. Despite loud (or laconic) protestations to the contrary, my parents are fierce individualists, liberal in the literal sense of the word. The “Believer in Liberty” sense. The “Freedom and Pursuit of Happiness” sense. Each of them may have chosen to align with a party that most closely resembles their views, but within that framework they refuse to be pinned down, corralled, labeled, or herded along party lines.
How did they end up raising a scion who snuggles up with Nelson Mandela (not that I’m not mildly flattered, if bewildered) in the green square?
the First Amendment (please don’t get them started on the Second, though. The last time that discussion happened we had to evacuate half the county and apologize to Canada for that friendly-fire teacup), in self determination and inalienable rights. Including their daughter’s right to be a gun toting Hippie, a grown-ass woman in uniform who volunteers for animal rescues and pesters the commissary for more organic food (I draw the line at kale, though), who believes that putting her hind end on the line for her country means she damn well can argue for renewable energies and better health care. And don’t get me started on minority rights, or protecting my beloved rivers, lakes and mountains. Seriously, don’t. My weapon was made by the lowest bidder.
The Oxymoron resolved
How does this individualism square with the lovebirds’ relatively high scores on the authoritarian scale, and mine own willing endurance of the most hierarchical command structure available?
I recall asking dad many years ago, before donning my own uniform, how he had resolved the dilemma for himself. Thusly spoke the Viking: “Freedom isn’t saying no to authority just because it’s authority. It’s saying yes when and because you choose to. Now go help your mother with the horses.”
There are perks – amazing ones – to being stationed in Germany, rather than tracking Santa via NORAD from another sandbox. All throughout the Holiday Season there are distractions galore. Magical Christmas Markets beckon. Small towns and major cities engage in a quintessentially German competition over who has the best decorations, the most whimsical attractions, the finest foods, the most awesome events. You can tell they’re German, because they’d rather traverse the Arctic in pink satin shorts than be caught doing anything tacky, overblown, … *coff coff* American *coff*. No, it’s elegant understatement for the Teutons, or if you have to go all in, do it in a playful, not quite taking yourself seriously way. So you get rows of miniature log cabins decorated with intricate woodwork and tasteful lighting, serving food and drink and selling handmade toys … right next to a bunch of donkeys with Santa hats. Yes, live donkeys, and a rather bored looking cow. Do watch your just purchased Lebkuchen around the longears.
With Gluhwein and Bratwurst Semmel warming your insides, and your new best friend Josef the donkey searching your pockets for leftover crumbs, the pangs of homesickness are just that. Little bittersweet specks of frost in the warm glow.
But it still sucks.
The native population – an attraction in their own right – will not let you dwell, however. Not once they’ve adopted you, like one would a friendly, if rather quirky and not very bright puppy. Now that you’re theirs, you’re dragged to ski trips, beer league hockey games, and cheerful gatherings at the local inn. These will resemble pagan revelry and involve the lighting of candles (unless Ms Sabine accidentally burns down the wreath again), a mildly inebriated Mr. Florian playing the Zither (or a three man band in Lederhosen bringing the house down), and ever more fantastic dishes. If you thought you knew Bavarian cuisine – you ain’t seen nothing yet, brother.
You will also be introduced to the Jagerbomb’s big older brother – the Jaegertee. Do not let the sedate name fool you – this stuff is made for Bavarian stomachs fortified by pigs’ feet and fiery horseradish, and it will end with bewildered Americans stumbling from one snowdrift to the next while caroling like lovesick moose (meese? mooses?).
But it still sucks.
Because as Christmas Eve rolls around wrapped in freezing mist and all grows quiet, as the base falls into a watchful doze with those who were lucky enough to catch a flight home long gone, as the natives retreat into the loving or at least drunken embrace of their families, you look around and see those familiar faces.
The Ones Who Stay Behind
They’re not the same every year. PCS is part of military life, and the guy you worked with and had beers with last year is sending a Christmas card from Benning this year. But they are familiar in that they all have familiar expressions. Some slightly forlorn, some melancholy, some determined to make the best of it, some just grateful for a bit of peace and quiet, some settling into the routine of holding down the fort. All of them with nowhere else to go.
I’m one of the luckier specimens, with two dependents and sufficient rank to live in a nicer military housing area. We didn’t go home this year for various reasons, and my two military brats have been in this situation more than once. They take it in stride. And they, too, see those members of their tribe who got the shortest end of the Christmas tree. They’re as familiar with them as they are with the smell of lived-in ACUs, muddy boots, and DoD schools.
So a few years ago we started our own Holiday tradition. We call it Christmas for simplicity, though we’re neither Christians nor attend mass, but in a nod to our Scandinavian ancestry we have a tree and lights and a fine feast (we’re also stubbornly trying to import the Jólabókaflóð – so far with limited, but mildly encouraging success). And on the 25th we’re gathering up the stray members of our tribe. The young single soldier and the divorcee without the money to go home, the grizzled war horse who stuck around pulling duty so those with families can catch a break, the unattached SGT with estranged parents. Bring your friends. Yes, that quirky 11Bravo can come, as long as he doesn’t try to puppy-nap our dog again.
The Longest Night
Take away the ornaments, the reindeer, the carols and the shopping craze for the perfect gift, and I still believe we would huddle together as the days grow short and the light wanes. We’d still seek out our families – blood or no – and draw close to the hearth fires. Because somewhere in the ancient, primal parts of our brains that howl at the moon and don’t buy into the modern gimmicks just yet, we feel the cold claws of winter coming to take the most vulnerable of our pack.
Is it a coincidence that Christianity picked the time celebrated as the return of the light for as long as humanity has existed for their own expression of hope? And deep down, does it matter as long as the message is carried onward?
Even the longest night ends. The world keeps turning, the seasons change. The circle of life keeps rolling on. And in Ned Stark’s words: “When Winter comes the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives”. So gather your own and raise a glass to life, roast that bird and sing a song, because we’re all in this together.
It sucks not being home. Home with your first tribe, your family and old friends. Home, where everything is familiar and comforting. Even drunk uncle Harry and his hopelessly ancient and out of tune guitar. Maybe especially him.
But it’s OK. It really is.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Mother and children and a fluffy dog, 14 uniformed personnel decidedly out of uniform (though that ugly sweater should qualify as psych warfare), 1 DoD civilian and a stray spouse, one large turkey, a-wassailing they go…
Christians, heathens, a SGT declaring himself the mandatory Jew and cheerfully drowning out the “Jingle Bells” crowing atheist (yes they do exist in foxholes) with an off-key rendition of something with a Dreidel. “Die Hard” and “Miracle on 34th Street”. Surprisingly little shop talk. A happy dog gorged on ham and bird. Stories of home. Bittersweet.
A Happy Yuletide to All, a Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, Peace and Hope and Chocolate!
Picture it: Bavaria, 2017. A cold wind stirs the snow over the nightly hills, and inside a charming, rustic inn a small group of American soldiers huddles up to friendly natives. The intoxicating aroma of ancient Bavarian brewing art mingles with the scent of pine branches, wet dog, and just a hint of cowshed. In the background a small TV set mumbles on about soccer stats, occasionally acknowledged by the indigenous population with a small groan or a satisfied huff. All is peaceful. Until … a strange man appears on the screen, his frowning visage framed by the familiar colors of the American flag. The soldiers tense. One of them discreetly scans for viable escape routes. But they are in luck. As the man with the toupee waves and gestures, his uncharacteristically stilted speech drowned by the far more pleasant German translator, the natives barely acknowledge him beyond an occasional eye roll. They have more pressing matters to attend to – one of the hunters has brought in a boar that afternoon, and there is disagreement over the sauce (Madeira. The answer is Madeira). The soldiers however keep casting wary glances at the TV – this is their Commander in Chief speaking. And his speech, painfully obvious as it is that he is parroting someone else’s words, does not do much to soothe their uneasy hearts. But whether it is the famous Bavarian aplomb with which the natives dismiss the strange man, or the rich, mouthwatering scents that begin to waft from the kitchen, or the unbroken stream of beer glasses flowing forth from the gates of Bavarian heaven – slowly, the soldiers relax. Let themselves be drawn back into the magical realm where peace on earth is found among the clinking of glasses and the telling of badly translated jokes, and a muddy dog snoring beneath the table…
When you least expect it – German Blitz
“So, exactly how is ‘America First’ different from ‘Deutschland uber alles’ anyways?”
It wasn’t so much the question itself – left field though it was – that caused the delicious Weizen beer to end up in the wrong pipe, and prompted some good natured “Americans can’t handle ze real beer” heckling as I desperately tried to stop coughing before Max the volunteer fireman succeeded in pounding my lungs out though my ears (the Bavarian approach to people choking on their beer is as robust as it is effective – a slap to the back that plants your face on the table, followed by what feels like an elephant performing the “In the air tonight” drum-solo on your ribs until shock and survival instinct prompt a huge intake of air and frantic “I’m fine!” waving of arms).
It was rather the casual, ‘a propos’, tone of the question. The mildly inquisitive expression, as if Mr Florian were trying to puzzle out the reason why Americans shun
the delicious Obazda but will eat every scrap of liver cheese in sight. It was the fact that the very same people who, for all their nonchalant approach to any number of sensitive subjects, almost unilaterally shut down at the mention of Hitler, Nazis and suchlike, suddenly tossed this Blitz-question into an unsuspecting American’s lap. It was admittedly also the implication. The unspoken but perceived “Why are you allowed to say this, but we are evil when we do?”
My first instinct was to say “Because we don’t mean it like that!” Not in the “Germany above all” sense. The “We are better than everyone else” sense.
But with a band of agreeable Teutons waiting patiently for the American to gather and line up her scattered ducks, I choked on the words worse than I had on the beer.
How is it different?
Because it’s US saying it
It was the second thought popping into my head, and it felt imminently reasonable. Cheap, yes. A classic cop-out of the high horsed sort. But it makes sense, right?
We’re the country who fought the Nazis, for crying out loud. We’re the Shining City on
the Hill. The champion of the underdog, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We’ve sacrificed our own, all over the world, to help others.
Yes, fine, the Brits fought the bad guys, too, and the French and the Russians did, after the Reich had overrun them with brutal German efficiency, but we saved the day, right? And maybe others have done some good around the world since those days, and built functioning democracies with Liberty and Justice for all, but we’re the ones who came up with it. We the People got the ball rolling.
So we get to say it, right? We got the moral high ground, the highest horse in the stable. If we want to put this awesome thing first, this admittedly still flawed country that nonetheless is ours, and the only one we got, and it’s a good thing we have … we get to say it. Right? Because it is different.
Why are they looking at me like that?
Because economy, stupid
They’ll understand that. Germans are practical. Infuriatingly so.
Because we really don’t mean it in the “we’re better” way, but in the “We need to look to our own people first” way. Sure, our current administration blows trade deficits out of proportion and sometimes flat out lies about important economic issues. Sure, their way of going about it could stand some scrutiny (alright, a lot of scrutiny), but the sentiment is valid. Right?
Because we’re not talking about isolationism, just maybe scaling back the globalization a little bit until we can sort out the troubles at home. Yes I know we’re depending on the world market to an extensive degree, and protectionism is a short term fix, if that. Yes I know our government is selling it as our deliverance from evil, which it is not, but…
Stuff the excuses, buttercup
Arguing economy with Germans is like playing table tennis with an octopus. Arguing nationalism with the guys whose grandparents invented flag waving hyper-patriotism
and mood lighting with 1000 torches, is entering a spitting contest with a llama on steroids.
America First. Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles, uber alles in der Welt.
So, with my capacity for speech restored and my ribs mildly bruised, I cowgirl’d up. Dismissing the first, second, and third sorry excuse my frantic mind had conjured up as the bison-sized dungheap they are, I looked my friends squarely in the eyes.
“It isn’t, guys. Not really. Not the way my people are using it right now.”
But hear me out…
It’s no secret my opinion of the current administration has gone from an unenthusiastic “Meh” about a year ago, to an irked “Do any of them have a clue what they’re doing?” around summer, to an all out irate “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, anyone? F*ckssakes!” by now.
Neither is it a secret that I’ve sworn an oath to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States, with my life if need be, and that I damn well meant those words when I said them. That I love my home, right or wrong, and may whatever deity you believe in have mercy on you if you try to harm it. Because you’ll get none from me.
But do my hackles rise automatically when I hear “USA!” chants, see people cheerfully wave Old Glory (I do cringe when she’s drunkenly dropped in the mud, or pretty airheads – looking at you, Tomi Lahren – think it’s OK to cut her up and wear her like a cheap scarf), or when anyone crows about how awesome our country is, and what a marvelous place to be? Hell to the no. Somewhat jaded, cynical battle horse that I am, I still smile at that kind of oh so American enthusiasm.
It’s the intent that matters. And that’s where our “America First” crowd has gone tragically off the rails.
Not only in their “National Sovereignty over Alliances” approach, because no man is an island, and even a superpower can not stand alone. Not only in their perceived moral superiority, because guess what guys, we’ve forfeited that for the time being. Not only in their at least somewhat understandable “Economic anxiety” roundhouse kick, because trade is simply never a zero-sum game, and anyone claiming otherwise might want to find a dictionary and look up the word “Recession”.
But also, distressingly, in their tolerance, even open acceptance of the “Blood and Soil” crowd, the David Dukes of KKK fame, the white supremacists and ultra-right religious groups; in the legitimizing and normalizing of hatred, blatant racism, and mad conspiracy theories (looking at you, Alex Jones. Gay frogs indeed). When you’re listening to these people, really listening, you will soon hear the theme beyond the hogwash. The “Me first! Me first! Only me!” that wraps itself in a patriotic fanfare. In their world, there is no united America that must come first, there is only their respective group. Or rather, they are America, and the rest of us are not. So naturally, being the only real Americans, they must come first, and everyone else may comply or leave at their leisure. Or die. That offer is extended disturbingly often.
Sorry, guys. Mr Duke, Mr Jones, Mr citronella tiki-torch. You’re messing with the wrong country.
We are Americans. Our ancestors actually fought a war against would-be dictators. And then another, because we didn’t quite get that “Unalienable Rights” with the “Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness” part right the first time around.
There’s actually a lot we got wrong during our short existence. But not everything. Never everything.
Unless and until you understand this, that true love sees flaws and accepts them, takes them as incentive to do better, to become greater, you’ll never put America first. Until you realize that an ideal is something that can never reasonably be fulfilled, but is nonetheless worth striving for, fighting for, moving mountains for and changing history for, you’ll never even glimpse a shadow of what it means to be great. Unless you accept that admitting “we were wrong” is not unpatriotic and weak, but taking responsibility and reclaiming your own humanity, you’ll forever be stuck feeling like a victim and carrying silly torches to protest the mean, mean world daring to change and move on without you.
Unless and until you dare to open your eyes and look at this marvelous country we had the impossibly dumb luck to be born to, and see it, see all of it, the ideals we built it on and the countless ways we found and still find to mess up, always getting back up and trying again, trying harder, how can you love it? Really love it, in that stupid, inexplicable, unreasonable way that, yes!, makes you put it First?
“So it is different, and it isn’t”
At least, that is how Mr Florian summed up our lively debate, nodding sagely over the foaming crown of his Weizen. I did mention that German practicality, yes?
I’ll have Knodel with my Wildschwein, thank you.
“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the tributary streams of our modern world flowing into the big river of awareness. Then the conventional media outlets caught on and before we knew it, the Weinstein dam broke and it was Land Under in Hollywood.
I’ll admit, my brain went into ‘white noise’ mode after the first few hundred Tweets. It seemed yet another sad, frustrating déjà vu moment in history – I’ve already seen this, and not once but twice, three times … it’s like we’re forming a brave bucket brigade on the Titanic, shouting encouragement to each other while that sad, lonely SOS echoes over the frozen Atlantic. If anybody out there really gave a damn, wouldn’t they have answered by now?
So, I was resigned to have another talk with my teenage girls about why life isn’t fair,
about politics and the legal system, and that there really, really still are good men out there. I thought about calling my dad – the guy who always has, and always will top that list for me – and tell him I love him. Not in those words, maybe. He’s a sardonic, oft taciturn fellow who shows you how he feels rather than prattle on about it. I thought about checking in on an old friend, who struggles to this day with the aftermath of an abusive relationship. Offer support in case her Facebook feed had her puking and crying. Keep bailing water while the band plays on. And tomorrow we’re on to other news. Again.
Only it didn’t stop. Not this time.
When the Bough Breaks
Encouraged by the sudden, inexplicable shift in the winds, that unexpected turn of the tide, women told their stories. One after the other. A great many of them no doubt felt like having stumbled into a kind of Narnia – a magical land where suddenly the laws governing the world no longer applied and women were believed instead of dismissed, ridiculed, silenced.
But it was the stories you don’t find in newspapers that stood out for me. While the
reckoning that caught the rich and powerful like a tide was important, even crucial, it was a glimpse at the ocean from a sandy beach. Or an iceberg, as it were.
Among those stories from the depths of the ocean was one one of my favorite bloggers who broke her long silence, making a quiet but powerful statement about the “Silence of The Abused”
Like my friend, this sweet, funny, generous lady was and is suffering. Yes, even years later. Like my friend, she struggles against the dragnet keeping her down, keeping her silent, every knot made of fear and shame and dismissal.
This one hit me hard.
I have amazing parents, loyal friends, and have never been described as a shy girl, or timid woman (rather the opposite – I often have to convince people that I’m actually quite a sweetheart). And I still have #MeToo stories. Stories I don’t like to tell, because of the “Naaaww, you? Get outta here!” reactions. Because of the “You just want some payback on a guy who ditched you!” bulldung. Because it’s tiresome. Because bucket brigade.
But for my friend, and that blogger whose posts I’ve always enjoyed, and for anyone whom it may help, I’ll take my skiff out and hunt marlins (pardon the shameless Hemingway reference). Because even women who kick arse and take names know what it’s like to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. And because you need to know we have your six if you need it. All you have to do is ask.
Damn right. Hashtag Me, too.
I was 16, and had just grown from the cute tomboy into your “All American Girl Next Door” – though with the vestiges of the tomboy still clinging to me. That, combined with the facts that I was a late bloomer and that my interest in boys was still mostly limited to how well they could shoot a hockey puck, had thus far saved me from much unwanted attention – in school and elsewhere. Well, that, and Billy’s black eye after he pulled my hair in 7th grade (guess who got detention).
Mother nature caught up with me eventually, and though I never saw the point of overly highlighting my figure which suddenly resembled a 50ies pinup girl rather than a baby giraffe, it did attract notice. Like most girls, I put up with the catcalls, swatted away hands attached to grabby teenage boys and employed the occasional strategically placed elbow if the gentler methods had no effect. I gained a reputation as a “mean bitch” for not responding well to what to my mind was just plain rudeness.
But life in a small town in Northern NY, with a well known and respected veteran for a father and a veritable firebrand for a mother has its advantages – and granted me a reprieve I now know many women never had.
Until it didn’t.
As sexual assault tales go, my first is almost embarrassingly brief and undramatic. Just a young woman working a summer job at the hardware store, trying to save up a few bucks for that old pickup truck I had my eyes on. Jeans and a tshirt, some solid boots – simple, sturdy clothes for when an elderly customer needed help hauling stuff around. I was as oblivious to the men’s weird “hardwood flooring” jokes as a gerbil to quantum physics. And as stunned as a hockey player who takes a puck to the head when one of those men cornered me behind some shelves and slid a hand under my tshirt to yank at my bra.
I remember the smell of sawdust. I remember freezing like a deer in the headlights, trapped between a guy who outweighed me by at least 50 pounds, and the wood. And I remember that it hurt, worse than stupid Billy pulling my hair, and then the rush of fear followed by pure anger.
I don’t remember what I said, but my boss later told me he’d never heard such language from me before. I don’t remember kicking the guy hard enough to make him yelp, though apparently I did, earning me an ‘attagirl’ from bossman’s wife. I don’t even recall said bossman pulling the sonofabitch off me after he heard the ruckus, only that shaky feeling you get after being slammed into the boards at a hockey game. Adrenaline, fight or flight.
It stuck with me in such annoying detail not because it was horrifying (I was more angry and disgusted than frightened), but because it marked a sad end to innocence. And because of the aftermath, which is a story every victim and survivor can tell like a litany
in Catholic Church, the same old song, over and over, only the singers change.
“Are you sure you did not encourage him?” YES I’m sure!
“Could you have misunderstood?” Hard to misunderstand being pinned and groped to the point of pain!
“But you were leading him to that secluded section” It’s where the oak wood is
“You claim you did not understand the … hum hum … hardwood jokes?” I did not. I do now.
“But you realize how it might have seemed you were…” NO.
“But we never had any trouble with him” How nice for you.
“Well, no harm done, right?” Are you f*ing kidding me right now?
Believe it or not, I was lucky. Though that police officer had me doubt my own sanity for a minute, my boss’s testimony was convincing enough (a fact which didn’t much help my anger – why do you believe him but not me?). The guy walked away with a slap on the wrist, but he was no longer welcome at the store and at several other local businesses. I had to put up with some whispers about being a tease, and the already familiar “mean girl” as well as “probably a lesbian”. The fact that it required another man – in this case my dad – to silence most of those with some well placed, gruff comments and his trademark calm, no-bullshit attitude …. it should have bothered me, but didn’t. I had better things to do. Like buying that truck.
And just when you thought it was safe…
Older, not much wiser, with still a bit of that sweet naïveté but thinking I knew it all … you guessed it. College.
And of course I was asking for it, working as a barkeep in the evenings, right? Wearing those snug, comfy old jeans and v-neck shirts that let you see just enough cleavage to leave the girl a nice tip. Never mind said girl is a margarita wizard and plants your Bud Light in front of your nose before you finished the ‘ght’. Never mind it’s hot and loud and she’s working hard, and already sweating worse than Sidney Crosby in round seven of the playoffs, she should have worn a baggy turtleneck.
Don’t get me wrong – I met some awesome guys at that bar. Sports fans shooting the breeze, appreciating a girl who knows a linebacker from a left winger and can rattle off her favorite players’ stats rather than gush about their cute behinds. Quiet guys, talkative guys, sad drunks, happy drunks. All of them fine men.
I learned to handle the unpleasant ones. The octopus who seems to grow more arms every time you smack one away, the would-be poet who’ll croon odes to your female attributes and switches to crude insults when you explain you have other customers. Or don’t give him your number. Or politely decline a drink.
Again, it often took one of my ‘regulars’ to step in and remove those guys. Because a woman saying ‘stop that nonsense’ was not enough, it needed another man. Vexing, but you deal with it. Paying customers waiting. Four Molsons, coming up. Down, boy, I ain’t got time for this.
Until the night two men decided to wait for that “Cocktease bitch” and teach her a lesson. With any other crime, this would have been called ‘premeditated’. They had planned it well, scouting out which car I drove, where it was parked, when my shift ended. The forced nonchalance of “Who do we have here?” wouldn’t have fooled a blind goose wrapped in cabbage leaves. It didn’t fool me. But until they actually put their hands on me, I remained in that “they’re rude assholes, but they wouldn’t cross the line to criminals” state of denial.
I’ve never been tiny or frail. I thank my father’s Scandinavian blood every day, not only for a lovely, gravity-defying rack and legs that won’t quit, but a 5’7″ frame of sturdy bones, and a left hook that will make you hear the Valkyries sing. But I had no hopes of outmatching the weight and muscle of two grown males. So yes, I panicked. The moment my arms were wrenched behind me and I was shoved behind a large SUV, the moment that hand went for the waistband of my jeans, denial took a hike and survival instinct roared to life. Complete tunnel vision. I cared about nothing but getting those guys off me. By whatever means. Kicking, scratching, biting, slamming my forehead into a nose. I still hear that sound, and the guy’s howl. The curses. The “You’re gonna get it, bitch”. Still feel the backhand blow that made stars dance before my eyes.
I was saved again by other men attracted by the yelling – they thought it was a bar fight spilled out onto the street and went in to separate the combatants. Go figure.
And just like that, the litany started once more. Nursing a swollen, bleeding lip and more bruises than I could count, I got to explain to a dubious law enforcement officer that I had neither invited, instigated, nor sent mixed messages. That I hadn’t broken a poor man’s nose for a harmless butt-pinch. That I hadn’t flirted with the poor besotted guys and then changed my mind. That I wasn’t a college girl gone wild who then couldn’t handle what she had coming.
“But you talked to them. In the bar.” I’m serving the drinks, talking is required!
“If you saw them waiting by your car, why did you keep approaching them? If you felt threatened, why not go back inside?” I underestimated the threat. Next time I shoot first and ask questions later. Would that suffice?
“How much have you been drinking?” Nothing
“You tend bar, and no one bought you a drink?” I don’t drink alcohol at work.
“Why didn’t you call for help?” I don’t know. I thought I did.
“You realize broken nose guy is pressing charges?” Oh? What paragraph covers ‘I was prevented from raping a woman’?
“There is self defense, but you really went after those guys.” I. Was. Scared.
“You don’t look scared.” Tell it to the mother-effing Marines. I want to go home.
Again, it was the testimony of other men that changed the tune. My regulars at the bar, explaining patiently that I was not in the habit of beating up men. That those guys had shown some issues with boundaries before. A man saying “If those *%&#$ers show their faces again I’ll bury them” was shrugged off as chivalry. Me saying “I wish I had broken more than his nose” was considered vicious and vindictive.
And again, don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the cavalry charging to my aid. I’ll never forget the guy who gave me his jacket to cover my torn and bloody shirt, and I’ll never forget the police officer who finally barked a “You shitting me? The girl is bleeding. I’m taking her to the hospital. Get the statement later!” Much of the rest is a blur. There was a soft spoken nurse, and bone deep exhaustion. Simmering anger and frustration, more questions. Always more questions.
In the end, I was cleared of the charges – but the mere fact I had to defend myself for, well, defending myself, left a bitter aftertaste. That I was once more the mean girl who had tempted upstanding citizens into rash actions, and now was crying rape – and they didn’t even get to do it, the poor guys. Punished without getting a piece of the action. What a bitch.
Cry me a river, cry me a sea
Not at all surprisingly, the pushback in form of “Feminazis want us all oppressed” and “What about Muslim women? You don’t care about them, do you? (newsflash: I do) – bitches don’t know how good you have it” and other agonized cries of “I’m being punished for being a man!” and “I’m afraid to be chivalrous now, they’ll misunderstand and make me look bad!” is already in full swing.
Never mind that if a guy so fears being hated by women, he just might have a reason. Never mind that the horror of ‘politically correct libtards’ is all too often identical with your own nana telling you to mind your manners or there’ll be no cookies. Never mind that physically opening doors and slamming metaphorical ones into women’s faces is not chivalry.
This post isn’t about blame. Do I hope those guys learned something in the end? That maybe their grandmothers gave them a good ding behind the ear and their fathers sat them down and rehearsed common decency 101 with them? I do, actually.
But I wrote it for the women. The ones who still feel somehow their SOS calls are disappearing into the void because they’re not important enough, because their stories are not horrifying enough, because their tormentors are too close, too powerful still. The ones who are still scared to speak up. The ones who think their pain and fear makes them weak. Who still believe in some corner of their soul that they share at least part of the blame.
I hear you.
You’re not alone.
And the good guys are out there.
Any Port in a Storm
It feels as if women are navigating an ocean where not all boats are equal, and some seem to stumble from storm to storm while others sail cheerfully across the seven seas, only bumping into the odd reef here and there. It’s neither fair nor right that I got my start as a well armed frigate straight out of a fine East Coast shipyard, while others have to brave the roiling waves with a leaky dinghy. It’s neither fair nor right that I have a solid home port to put in for repairs if and when I do run into trouble, while so many others are still frantically searching for a welcoming light, and harbor. Any harbor.
What does one do with such privilege? For now and always, never less than the best I can do. I’ll keep patrolling the seas, answer any and all distress calls I can reach, and keep my guns at the ready. And right now, I’ll make that call and say thank you to my dad.
Thank you for teaching me to stand up for myself. For teaching me right from wrong, and to fight for those who can’t defend themselves.
Thank you for showing me how a good man treats his woman (and yes, I know that over the past 50 years your wry comments drove her up one wall and down another so many times, there’s a groove in the ceiling. She loves you anyways. I know. She told me.)
Thank you for having my back, again and again, even when it looked to all the world that I might have been in the wrong. Even when I myself was not sure. Thank you for telling those gossiping biddies “I taught my girl to never start a fight, but to damn well finish it. So bring your beef to me.”
Thank you for teaching me it’s OK to sometimes not bother with the bastards because I’m tired of the drama, and that I’m not weak for calling in the cavalry.
Thank you for letting me fall on my face sometimes, so I could learn to get up. And for being there with the band-aids and an attagirl.
Thank you for showing me that a hard-as-steel veteran can sniffle away tears when his first grandchild is happily dozing off in his arms. That you learned how to bake for your grandchildren (and after you retired took over the kitchen completely – mom loves your cooking!)