Aesop and Street Harassment

In September 2011, while sitting at the bus stop on the corner of Aurora and University in Midway, a middle-aged woman walked up to where I was sitting and propositioned me for sex. I was dressed well that day: I was wearing a pink checked shirt, a royal-blue polka dot tie – half-Windsor knot, of course – and a dark-gray cardigan with black toggles. I liked dressing up before work those days, when I worked as a cook. One thing a lot of people don’t consider about cooks is that it’s a physically-demanding job, one that requires working around and above hot surfaces and lifting heavy loads, all at a brisk pace and for hours at a time. Cooks are always sweaty and gross at the end of their shift. If they want to feel comfortable and confident in their appearance it has to come at the start of the day.

To be clear, she didn’t seem out of the ordinary as she approached. She was about 5’4, I’d say, wore gaudy turquoise sunglasses and carried herself in a distinctly hen-like fashion, but none of that struck me as peculiar. (When I’ve told this story in the past, people often ask me if she was a drug addict. I have no way of knowing, but she didn’t conform to my stereotype of such a person.) She gazed down from my face to my feet and back up and said, “Mmm!” in a nasally alto. “I could use you.”
“Uhm… for what?”

“Sex. Do you live around here?”

I’m not used to dealing with people who are being so direct. Even the Mormons that I meet ask for my name before they wax on about Joseph Smith. “And to think I just got dressed.”

She chuckled and changed the subject to the weather.

This who exchange has been on my mind as I’ve been thinking about the ongoing discussion of catcalling, street harassment, and how men and women think about these issues. I have plenty of thoughts about those things, and about how threatened and uncomfortable some women are made to feel by complete strangers. It just occurs to me that it’s almost impossible for me to relate, despite having multiple experiences that could be defined as street harassment. And that’s because I don’t feel threatened. When it happens to me, I think it’s funny.

I’m not saying it’s funny in general. I worry sometimes for certain friends when they have to walk alone in downtown Minneapolis. And I certainly don’t laugh when the women in my life share their experiences with me. It’s not funny that it happens to other people. It’s funny when it happens to me.

Every time I think I’ve come to an informed opinion on these things, I have to stop and remember that I can’t really empathize. I’ve never felt afraid or vulnerable out in public, and I’ve never thought that I could be in danger (even though there have been times that I really, really should have felt like I was in danger). I’m a tall, stocky, physically-imposing dude. I have the luxury of being snarky when someone walks up to me and asks for sex. And I never have to fear physical reprisal for doing so. Even men tend to give me a wide berth when they see my lumberjack beard.

That’s not to say I feel my opinion has no merit. I may even end up sharing it soon. It’s necessary, though, to contextualize my experience and acknowledge how it differs from what women experience. Having an opinion is all well and good. But any opinion that feels alien to what people actually experience on a day-to-day level is worthless at best.


Suicide is Selfish, But Also it Isn’t

Ten years ago, I was planning my suicide and it’s sort of amazing to me that I can no longer remember why I was depressed. I realize, of course, that depression doesn’t require a reason – in fact, any narrative we give to it is a post hoc rationalization, like some primitive person blaming himself for the snows of winter. I guess it would be more accurate to say that I don’t remember the story I constructed to make sense of my feelings. Did I convince myself of the hopelessness of living by being a college dropout? Did I perceive an historic, all-consuming romantic rejection? Even though the story was a lie, it bothers me to not be able to remember it, if for no other reason than because killing myself was the next act in that story. Chapter 5: He retrieves the Remington shells from the tattered box, the appropriately blood-red folded tubes with the copper end caps, from the ceiling shelf above the dusty lathe. He prays, “Please don’t let my grandma find my body. Please.”

These days, in the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic and surprising self-asphyxiation, I’ve grown weary of the simplifications about depression and suicide coming from all around me. “Suicide is selfish: think of all the people he’s leaving behind, grieving, having to clean up his mess and pay off his debts.” Katie Hurley, writing for the Huffington Post, has a harsh rebuke for that line of thinking. “People who say that suicide is selfish always reference the survivors,” she notes. “It’s selfish to leave children, spouses and other family members behind, so they say. They’re not thinking about the survivors, or so they would have us believe. What they don’t know is that those very loved ones are the reason many people hang on for just one more day. They do think about the survivors, probably up until the very last moment in many cases.”

That’s a fair point, but then Hurley swings too far in the other direction. “Suicide is a lot of things, but selfish isn’t one of them.” She continues, “Suicide is a decision made out of desperation, hopelessness, isolation and loneliness. The black hole that is clinical depression is all-consuming. Feeling like a burden to loved ones, feeling like there is no way out, feeling trapped and feeling isolated are all common among people who suffer from depression.”

Every year in the United States, 30,000 people kill themselves. Take any population of 30,000 people, one that extends over every age, race, socioeconomic class, religion, and sexual orientation, and you have a group that will likewise span the selfishness/selflessness spectrum. Out of that many self-killings, I can guarantee you statistically that a significant percentage of them end their lives for selfish reasons. I can also guarantee you that another significant percentage honestly, whole-heartedly believe that their families, friends, and the world at large would be better off without them.

Suicide is not a one-size-fits-all problem. It is not monolithic. (And it may come as a surprise that not everyone who commits suicide is depressed, at least by the clinical definition. Compare it to murder: not all murderers are sociopaths, even though many are.) The gamut of motives runs far and wide. It can be a way to escape intense, chronic physical pain. It can be a momentary, impulsive reaction to intense grief, or financial loss, or bullying. It can be a political statement against oppression, like the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc. Suicides occur as acts of religious faith. They can even be the result of what is known as the Werther Effect: a highly-publicized suicide will produce many copycat suicides (and, incidentally, one-car traffic accidents).

Selfishness and selflessness can play a simultaneous role, or they can play no role at all. It is thought that victims of suicide leave a note only 25% of the time. Even in those times, how much can we really trust that person to understand their motivations? We can’t even trust ourselves to know why we buy certain brands of mustard.

We want to simplify and categorize these things. Then we can pretend that what amounts epidemic is actually a small problem with a neat and easy solution. It is overwhelming to acknowledge that there are myriad root causes at work. We want a miracle cure, like with cancer. But, as with cancer, we cannot make any real progress towards a cure without first acknowledging that there are many forms: some with discrete and unrelated causes, others with a surprising amount of overlap yet still unique to itself. To sit back and judge someone for being selfish – or to absolve them by suggesting that selfishness played no role at all – is, if you’ll permit me to mix metaphors, arguing about the interior decorating of a home engulfed in flames.

I had picked a night to kill myself. My grandparents were away from home that night, so I wouldn’t have any interruptions …or startle them with the gunshot. That night, I was coming home late from work, driving north on Highway 61. The radio was off. I was driving the speed limit. As I approached Country Road C, I had the impulse to turn right and drive by my church, Maplewood Evangelical Free. “If no one’s there, I will go home and do this.”

I took the left down Hazlewood and turned into the parking lot. There was a single light on. I approached the door and found it locked, so I picked up a handful of gravel and walked to the window and started throwing stones at it, each making a high-pitched thwack as it bounced off the glass. It took six or seven hits until someone came out. It was the college-group pastor, a shorter man in his early thirties with a military haircut and a perpetual smile on his face. He recognized me. “You look like you need someone to talk to.” It was an answered prayer: Your grandma won’t find your body. You will outlive her.


Glass Cases

“The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to miss the train before.”
– G.K. Chesterton

I hope you’ll bear with me as a craft a dubious distinction. I want to differentiate between “value” on the one hand and “worth” on the other. Whether or not such wordplay survives past the end of this blog post doesn’t much matter to me; I just can’t think of another way to express what’s on my mind. If it strikes you as the literary equivalent of building sandcastles at low tide, so be it. But let me have my fun.

I’m not sure I can tease out this nuance without giving a relatable example and abstracting from there. Think of a custom-built acoustic guitar made by a famous luthier, one with a Brazilian rosewood body, the finish so perfect and lustrous you can see your reflection in it. Its value would be easy to identify: it’s whatever one would pay for such an instrument, likely several thousand dollars. Its worth, though, is somewhat harder to pin down. If a person buys such an instrument only to lock it in a glass case – to see but not to touch – if it is only used for its image, then its worth is the same as a photograph of the same guitar. A guitar is often made to be beautiful, yes, but more than that it is supposed to generate beauty and captivating vibrations. It’s designed to convey a beauty that is independent of its own existence. Its worth is in how it is used: it can play a song that will tickle your ears for the rest of your life, or it can be trapped behind glass – or worse, never taken out of its case.

This distinction came to mind when I was thinking about my mom’s recovery from cancer. As I prayed for her remission and recovery, I found myself oddly uncomfortable with finding relief in that. It’s easy to recognize as an abstract truth that we will all die someday, and my mother is no exception. Any recovery is only temporary. Whether cancer is her ultimate undoing or it’s something else entirely, dying will always be part of life. The value of  my mother’s life is defined by being alive, but her worth is separate from that definition. Her worth comes from how she touches and inspires the people around her. Her worth comes in how well she functions in the role God’s given her: to point to God and give Him praise.

Three nights ago was the first time I’ve ever laid awake in bed worrying about the future. A case could be made, of course, that the two tequila palomas and the can of Day Tripper played a role in my insomnia, but it seems to me that a milligram of worry is more discomforting than a stone slab of a bed. And worry is what I felt. Worry that the cycle of debt and repayment will be the only state I’ll know. Worry like I’m squandering my life and my talents. Worry that ten years from now everything will be the way it is now. It felt like being harnessed to a wall and told to run away from it.

Though it’s common and even natural to yearn for comfort and ease, it’s also the equivalent of a guitar asking to be forever locked in its case. There’s a famous quote from Lou Holtz: “Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.” I think he’s onto something, although I would amend it slightly. My worth doesn’t come from avoiding challenges or adversity. Nor does my worth come from overcoming adversity. My worth comes from how I handle those trials. Difficulties, setbacks, adversity… those are just words for the opportunity to play a captivating tune, and to point to God while doing so.


I See Fire

When I say the coupe was on fire, I don’t mean that there was a little smoke slipping out from under the hood. I mean it was blazing: the flames climbed four or five feet above the car’s roof, its gun-metal gray smoke billowed in a cylinder as thick as the trunk of a redwood. It was a flicker of dystopia – or the somber news footage I remember from the war-torn Balkans. Flaming cars do not belong in the parking lot of the Midway Rainbow Foods. It was a sight equal parts astonishing and captivating, one impossible to reconcile from my seat in the glistening new Green Line cabin.

Even before the fire, the train ride had been eventful. The Hennepin Avenue station where I boarded is positioned awkwardly in front of both Sneaky Pete’s and a strip club. (After just a few minutes of watching the rope line and pedestrians from the station platform, it becomes obvious which men would make the sharp, swift bank into the doors of the latter. They have the tendency to grimace when they notice the line blocking their path.) Despite the throng of club-goers and night owls, the only other person waiting on the platform was a young, slender brunette woman. She was wearing workout gear: yoga pants, a track jacket, Reebok cross trainers with hot pink highlights. And she was crying.

We boarded the train together and sat across from each other in an otherwise-empty cabin. I glanced over at her. Her arms were crossed tightly across her chest, almost like she was hugging herself, and her lips were pressed together as if to quarantine her voice. I opened my mouth almost as a reflex. I wanted to say something – I don’t know if the “damsel in distress” thing is hardwired into men in general, or if it’s just me, but few things swell my sympathy like a woman crying. Call me sexist if you must. But I couldn’t think of anything of any value to say.

As luck would have it, we were afforded a timely interruption. Another woman, slightly older than the first, came aboard on the next stop. She was wearing a leopard-print top underneath a faded denim vest. Her perfume preceded her by three paces. She sat in the seat immediately in front of me, tapping her half-inch long fingernails on the handrail and muttering, “That was the worst date of my life.”

That was too much for me to resist. “Excuse me,” I said. She swung her head around. “What made your date so bad?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see our fellow passenger riveted while awaiting her answer. Apparently, her date was more interested in getting high than he was in the date. “He ask me if he could use the drugs!” she groaned. “When I said no, he got drunk on the liquor!”

“Yikes,” said track jacket, breaking her quarantine.

“It was awful. I didn’t even wait for him to pay. I just left.”

I let out a chuckle. “On the bright side, though,” I offered, “your next date can’t possibly go so badly!”

She didn’t appreciate the joke. “No. I am never going out with him again.”

At that point, I looked back over at track jacket. She was smiling slightly, but her cerulean irises looked luminous in contrast to the bloodshot whites. I must have been frowning myself: the second she made eye contact, her lower lip quivered, her inner eyebrows shot up, and she turned away. Ack. I finally tried to ask, like a shy toddler requesting a cookie, “What’s wrong?”

She inhaled and sighed. “I can’t really explain – it would take too long. It’s just… some people just jump to conclusions. They don’t even try to understand.” As though it were scripted, at that exact moment her phone buzzed in her hand and her whole body clenched from the surprise. She hoisted her knees to her chest, embracing them in a seated fetal position, and began texting with the speed and fury of a court reporter tracking an auctioneer.

By and large, that’s how it stayed until we spotted the fire. Denim was the first to notice it. “Oh my goodness,” she gasped. “Like this night needed any more weirdness.”

The people waiting on the platform didn’t seem quite as interested in the blaze. In fact, none of them were even watching it. When a group of three teens – two girls and a boy, sharing a pound bag of Skittles – boarded our car, they seemed practically oblivious. Denim asked them, “Guys, what happened to that car?” The three of us watched them in anticipation of an answer.

The question went unnoticed. What was noticed, however, was the fact that I was looking at them. The male of the group made eye contact with me and held it, waiting for me to look away. I held the eye contact, waiting for him to give me more information about the riot scene playing out in the parking lot. “Dude, stop looking at me!” He dropped some Skittles on the floor and smashed them with his foot. “I’m not gay.”

The girls immediately stood up and boxed me into my seat. “Yeah! My boyfriend’s not gay! Stop looking at him.”

I laughed derisively.

“We will fight you.”

I laughed harder. The thought of two teenage girls furiously slapping at me while I covered my face with my forearm was just too much to hold in. “Wait. You want to fight ME?” Denim started laughing too. The girls huffed and went back to their seats. I considered asking for a handful of Skittles, but thought better of it. I tend to have a hard time putting out fires I didn’t start, but I am slowly learning to not throw gas on them.