Archive for May, 2010


First, the boring-ass back story:

So last week my friend Paul was out of town, and because as a freelance type I have time during the day, and because I like cats, I offered to feed his kitty while he was gone. Paul lives in Northeast Portland, I live in Southeast Portland, and as I am currently Without Bike, this meant daily bus trips to the Northeast side.

More, less-boring back story:

I am in my late 20s, and look it; I am unmistakeably white; and have lived in the very-white Pacific Northwest my entire life. My current home is Portland, which is on the one hand known for being rather self-congratulating for its liberalism and tolerance, and on the other considered one of the most racist cities west of the Mississippi.

I’m also (and now we get to the SEXY PART) fairly thin and not especially well-endowed in the chestal region; what I do possess is fairly self-supporting. Which is fine by me for a variety of reasons, one of which is that if it’s, say, a hot, sunny day, and I feel like wearing a halter top whose back is too low to properly accommodate a bra, I can eschew that layer of undergarment and go about my business.

Or not, as it turns out!

Because what happens last Friday is that I’m sitting across from the bus stop at Lloyd Center, waiting for my transfer for the bus that will take me to the Alberta district, where Paul lives. It’s about noon (sorry, Paul! I know I said I would come in the mornings, but my definition of “morning” is a little problematic sometimes! Even for me!) and the bus shelter for the stop is occupied by three teenaged black girls who are talking about normal teenage girl stuff, including the occasional detailed bitchy critique of so-and-so’s hair.

Whenever I hear teenagers talking this way, I’m slightly annoyed and saddened and also enormously grateful that I’m no longer a teenager myself. It’s not that I never find myself in a position to worry about what my friends think of my hair, or my clothes, or my love life or lack thereof, but that I can generally trust grown women and men to level with me (and allow me to do likewise) in a way that simply doesn’t happen in the world of adolescent girls.

If I’ve lost you on that last bit (it turns out that a lot of people have never been teenage girls!), allow me to demonstrate!

So I’m sitting across from these girls, reading a book, trying not to pay attention to their conversation, and I pause briefly to check my phone. At this point one of the girls says, “Excuse me?”

I look in her direction and confirm that it is, in fact, my attention she is trying to get.

“You know, Victoria’s Secret is having a sale on bras. Maybe you should get one.”

So, I deal with teenagers quite a bit at one of my volunteer jobs, and I find that when they get attitudinal, it’s sometimes entirely appropriate to respond with an equal amount of attitude, or with humor. I can’t really say now what motivated me, but it might be in that spirit that I say to her, “I’m in if you’re buying.”

She says, “Uh, no this isn’t for me, I mean….”

I say (and I am cringing as I write this), “Well, maybe you should put your money where your mouth is.”

She’s a little flustered at this point, part of which is her genuinely being caught off guard by the fact that I would call bullshit on her, and partly the feigned surprise and indignance that I remember very well from my own teenage years, with the defense that every single teenage girl who ever gave me “advice” about my appearance employed: “I’m just trying to be nice, is all.”

“No. You’re not,” I say. “You shouldn’t talk to adults that way. You shouldn’t – don’t talk to me at all.”

She continues muttering about how she was just trying to be nice and her friends giggle nervously. I glare at her for a second, return to my book, and then, finally, my bus arrives.

Here’s the thing: I am sure I could have done worse. I communicated that I knew she was in no way trying to be “nice,” that there is nothing nice about advising a perfect stranger about what to wear. And a little “respect your elders” never hurt any teenager ever.

Still. I’m ashamed.

I’m ashamed that I got visibly angry.

Because once that happened, I became a figure of amusement, which is exactly what this girl wanted.

And because when men on the bus or on the street say cruel or crass things to me I can defend myself without losing my temper.

And because I momentarily felt and acted like a teenage girl again.

And because I was flippant, and rude, and in the moment, so angry that I could have been ruder.

Years ago I was riding the number 6 bus up Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd in Portland, the neighborhood in Northeast where I lived at the time. It was a hot day and everyone on the bus was in a bad mood. When it came time to get off the bus, I – along with a couple of others who wanted the same stop – were having a hard time moving because a cluster of black teenage boys was standing near the front of the bus, making it hard for people to get through – and morever, there was plenty of seating.

One of the others trying to get off at this stop, a woman who lived about a block away from me and who I’d met a couple of times (I may note right here that she was sort of rude to me!), said to these young men as she pushed past them, “You guys should go to the back of the bus.”

Oh Jesus. Thing is she sort of had a point. They WERE being pretty rude! They should have moved or at least acted with a little more open consideration of their fellow passengers!

On the other hand, UM HELLO JESUS CHRIST. If you’re (micro level here) white and you live in a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood historically occupied by black folks, and notice that everyone’s having a shitty day and the loitery-rudeness of some of the black folks on the bus is not making it easier on anyone, black or white…if (macro level!) you’re a white person living anywhere and being moderately inconvenienced by a person of color anywhere, uh, maybe, JUST MAYBE there’s a way to address that rudeness without instructing the offending party to do something black folks were forced by legislation – often enforced by entitled white ladies, by the by! – to do for generations! I mean, I’m just saying. That probably doesn’t improve anyone’s day. It might sort of undermine your whole “don’t act like a jerk” message!

And, I mean, “mind your elders” is one thing, but how many steps away is it from “Mind the white lady!” or “Don’t you get uppity with me”?

In my teenage years, when I told mean kids they’d never amount to anything. I knew pretty well that, for a lot of reasons, I was far more likely to succeed in ways they wouldn’t: I’d get out of town, get an education, and do work that involved my brain and not my hands (which, now that I’ve got carpal tunnels and a major upper back injury, seems a foolhardy life decision, but these things are very important when you’re 14 and live in a farm town). And most of them wouldn’t do any of those things, and the most hostile of my peers came from backgrounds that suggested this outcome was particularly unlikely.

Maybe they hated me because of that alone; maybe they hated me because I was so certain I’d escape town and come into my own that I flaunted my don’t-give-a-fuck-ness, by doing things like, say, shave my head. It’s not that I didn’t care about fitting in; I just knew that the rewards of fitting in would be temporary at best. Why bother, when I’d go to college and make Real Friends? I mean, that wasn’t the only reason I wasn’t good at winning friends and influencing people when I was a kid, but.

Is that maybe the reason that impoverished communities – be they rural or urban, white, black or Latino – are so often rigidly conformist and so punishing of those who rebel?

It turns out to be a great privilege not to give a fuck what others think of any aspect of your presentation: including the question of whether your nipples are visibly erect.

So I boarded my bus last Friday thinking I’d failed utterly as a feminist, because I felt surely there must be some Teachable Moment there. The same way that when a man makes a crude remark on the street, you can occasionally get through, say, “How would you feel if someone said that to your sister?”

That even in the few minutes one has before boarding a bus, one might be able to impart…something.

And then I started thinking I should write about this, because for a silly, catty interaction at a bus stop, maybe I, The Writer, Christen McCurdy, might have something to say that might be useful to other people.

Because maybe this sort of thing isn’t that uncommon. Especially if you’re something other than a white, thinnish, cisgendered woman with a pretty feminine (perhaps TOO FEMININE! I mean APPARENTLY!) presentation.

Trans chicks and fat chicks and butch chicks probably all have a lot more to say about this than I do, as a matter of fact, I thought! And some of them already DO, on the INTERNET.

My friend Garann wrote this thing years ago that she’s probably forgotten about and might rather I not link you to, but this one line has remained in my head and on my tongue for years: “It’s amazing that those poor thin prom queens managed to wield two whips – one to flog themselves, one to punish the heathens.”

And that’s it; that’s why getting angry why the wrong thing to do. That’s why telling this girl not to talk to adults that way was totally fucking missing the point.

Because my telling her she doesn’t have the “right” to tell me what I should and should not wear, or that I have the “right” to wear whatever I choose, misses the point that this whole thing women and girls do to regulate each others’ appearance…it’s this ugly thing that doesn’t end until you say, Finito. I’m not going to look at myself this way. I’m not going to look at other people this way.

But that’s not the point either.

Because why even talk to a stranger that way? Why be hostile or fake-concerned about somebody else’s outfit?

Because to be a teenage girl is to constantly being monitored in terms of your own relative sluttery or prudery. It’s to be branded a slut or a prude (for there is no in between) for reasons that have little to do with what you are or are not doing in bed. It’s not just having sex that counts against you. Nor is it just being female.

Being young counts against you, gets you branded a slut in the eyes of perfect strangers. Being poor counts against you.

And oh yeah. There’s this other thing that counts against you, hard, in the slut-shaming game: Being black.

Be young, black and female in the wrong place, and you’re a slut in the eyes of everyone who looks at you – no matter your actual behavior. And the one and only thing you can do to control this impression is to consider, carefully, what you wear.

Need I point out that this young woman was wearing jeans, a modest but flattering T-shirt, and Converse? Need I consider what might have been said to her had she visited certain neighborhoods wearing what I was wearing, with the same lack of supportive undergarments?

And imagine you are that girl, and you know that, maybe not on a conscious level, maybe race doesn’t enter into it; you just know what you’d hear if you went out looking like that, and you decide to tell her.

Because when you’re trapped, because of the body and the circumstances you were born in, into playing a losing game, the sight of someone who refuses to play that game is either enraging or inspiring. And if the rules are different, if she’s less bound by the game anyway, simply because of the body and the circumstances she was born into, perhaps (perhaps) you’re more likely to be enraged.

I mean, maybe the question isn’t, Who is she to tell me not(THANKS FOR THE EDIT DOLAN) to play the game? Maybe it’s, Who am I to refuse to play it?

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But AT LEAST this post has way fewer references to early-’90s hair rock videos in which supermodels get murdered (PROBABLY).

So, here is the more awful and terrible version of the same sort of thing I was writing about last time I wrote here, and it’s JUST IN TIME FOR MOTHER’S DAY. Which is to say, a day late. Which, believe you me!, Mom would NOT MIND, I never once got a birthday package on time as an adult, it’s FINE.

Anyway, a year ago I posted something to my Facebook about how I never used to understand the thing about single people who bitched about Valentine’s Day or felt horrible about themselves, because even though I have been single a staggering majority of the Valentine’s Days I have been alive, I have never really been bitter about Valentine’s Day very much. Being a motherless child on Mother’s Day makes me want to open fire on every popular brunch restaurant in town, however. Which REST ASSURED I would never acquire enough ammunition to do, given the number of popular brunch places in MY NEIGHBORHOOD ALONE, and which is also stupid because I feel quite certain I never once took my mom out to brunch while she was alive. Or really did anything cool for Mother’s Day. Actually, once in grade school we did some project we made cards that were shaped like tea pots and taped bags of tea, and the tea was Constant Comment. I didn’t drink tea at that point, even herbal tea, but I must have had some of that tea, because I remember it.

This story happens to be about a completely different elementary school thing. Which is that in I think second grade, my teacher at the time read me a story about someone called the Lupine Lady, who planted lupines everywhere she went, because her grandfather told her to make the world more beautiful while she was out there enjoying it and doing badass things, and she was all, all right! But HOW? And finally as an old woman she scattered lupine seeds everywhere.

It had a profound effect on me, that story! So profound that I never remembered the name of it. Actually, I thought I remembered the name of it. And I looked for it everywhere: libraries, book stores, for YEARS I would go in and ask for the book called “The Lupine Lady.” Only because, or at least 75 percent because, I had been telling my mom about this book for so many years and I wanted her to finally see it. Because my mom was such a lunatic about flowers that we joked that she would die by driving herself straight off a cliff admiring somebody’s garden. She didn’t, as it turned out. But LO, the number of times she NEARLY FUCKING KILLED US ALL with her, “Look at those hydrangeas!”

Now apparently most women worry about Turning Into Their Mothers in some way. I was never one of those because it was pretty OBVIOUS that was going to happen, but as a kid who could never really be bothered to lift a thumb in the garden, and certainly did not care about such things as FLOWERS, that I would find myself, as a (non-driving) adult, walking into street signs admiring people’s hydrangeas. Laugh all you want, but we didn’t HAVE blue hydrangeas where I grew up; in fact blue flowers of any kind were quite rare, and so when I see them (undoubtedly, too, because my mother’s favorite color was blue), I get this really strong compulsive tendency to gawk, partly because it’s beautiful, partly because blue in nature still seems wildly and wonderfully inappropriate, like someone running down the street naked or something. Yeah, blue flowers are to me what boobs are to everyone else.

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY.

ANYWAY. So, a little over a year ago I FIND MYSELF inside Powell’s Home and Garden, alien abduction-style, and hey, here is this children’s book! With a beautiful gray-haired lady on the cover! Surrounded by purple flowers! (Not blue! PHEW. IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN AWKWARD.) Say, I’m thinking. This looks familiar. Could it be…? And I pick it up. And it is. It IS the book about the woman who planted lupines everywhere, who implores her niece to make the world more beautiful, as her grandfather had implored her.

And because, you know, one forgets, I’m initially really very excited! Because I finally found it! And then I’m not so excited, and grateful that by this time I have become sort of an expert at crying, discreetly, in public places.

Anyway. The book is called Miss Rumphius. And I finally found it. And the funny thing is, 20 or more years later my memory of it is staggeringly clear, but it’s also better than I imagined, and more inspriring, and more beautiful, and more concise, and my mom can’t read it now, but you can, and you should. Go out and get it.

And by the same token, call her if you can.

One of the worst things, maybe the worst thing, for me, about losing somebody you love is that all the inside jokes die with them. Not just inside jokes, but ongoing arguments and half-finished conversations.

Even the idea of an afterlife, or our fantasies of ghosts, don’t satisfy this problem for me, and not just because I don’t (think I) believe in either one. All our projections of ghosts and angels, they stay the same forever, and with a few exceptions, the conversations they’re always having with their living loved ones are so big and so profound. The idea that my mother may still love me and still be watching over me is some comfort, of course, but this does not satisfy my desire to call her up and tell her that I just figured out it’s the baby from Growing Pains who’s ranting about the Holocause in The Pity Card. (Shut up! This is an actress we saw in some other movie one time and went half-insane in the PRE-INTERNET ERA going through movie reference books trying to figure out who she was!) (As for “The Pity Card,” that I never really got to share Zach Galifianakis’ genius with my mother is one of my greater regrets in life. Does that make me a bad person? Should I just imagine that when I saw The Hangover last fall, she was looking down on me and laughing so hard she wet herself, except GUARDIAN ANGELS DON’T PEE THEIR PANTS?)

It’s probably this sort of useless pop culture ephemera that is the very most likely to get lodged in my brain, the very category of half-finished conversation that is likely to drive me nuts for years and years. Because I’m nuts and maybe a tad shallow, of course, but maybe also because first off, these sorts of conversations are much more concrete than others. Also, these sorts of arguments are the sort that are just so easily settled now that I live in the AGE OF THE INTERNET and can just whip out the iPhone.

Here is where I share with you that years ago, I was Internet-and-phone-best-friends (OK, and briefly, boyfriend-and-girlfriend) with a dude who was a few years older than me and lived in Florida, and the only reason the latter fact is important is it means he had MTV and I didn’t. Yes! Now, we had cable when I was growing up. We always had cable. But until we got a satellite dish when I was 16 or so, there was just our local cable provider, which did not carry MTV. As a 12-year-old I was so incensed about this that I seriously considered circulating a petition among my peers to change this, except that that probably would not have gotten anywhere, because teenagers living in conservative small towns are basically NOTHING LIKE THE MOVIE FOOTLOOSE. By the time I was 16 I was really opposed to MTV for reasons having to do with my having discovered “REAL independent music” and “principles” in the intervening years, so I never watched it. Except of course for “Daria.” I also didn’t even mind that everyone at school CALLED me “Daria” for some reason.

But back to me at 12, having a cool older guy friend who was clearly cool because he had MTV! And watched it! There were certain videos he talked about a lot. One of them was the video for Gun & Roses’ “November Rain.” He found it sort of mysterious and fascinating.

For a couple of years, whenever VH1 would do a History of Rock Video A to Z, I would try to make a point to watch the “N” videos to see if I could catch this apparently fascinating, but also possibly very horrible and mysoginistic, video. I never did, and in the back of my mind, I ALWAYS WONDERED. In the meantime, my friend went to college, took a couple of women’s studies classes and, like all of us, got sort of a sense of humor about the things he’d liked when he was younger. But then he up and died on me.

And it was only a couple of months ago that it occurred to me I could look up this video on the YouTube. Oh Roger, if you’re out there somewhere, I really hope you can see me laughing at how fucking deliciously tacky Slash looks during the wedding scene, and what a dork your 16-your-old self must have been to find this video so damned intriguing and cool.