As I tell my students every term: for some of us writing is a labor of love, and for others dreaded labor. What I neglect to tell them is that for many of us, it is both. Since I was a kid, writing has been a constant in my life. It has been an outlet, at various moments, for my childhood imagination, my adolescent angst, my collegiate sexual drama, and my second adolescent angst (also known as my twenties). It has been a craft, a distraction, a tool for self-exploration, and a quicksand of self-indulgence.
Writing is where I have gone to make sense of that which does not make sense. Somehow, once written, there’s a way that the inexplicable and the incomprehensible become objects we can hold. They may still devastate and infuriate us, but we can own them, name them, describe their shape and sound. Once you’ve written about it, pain begins to serve another purpose: art (or your sorry attempt at it, anyway).
Still, while writing itself may feel natural and fluid at times, the practice of writing has never come easily to me. Like so many other jaded-20-something-self-proclaimed-writers I know, I struggle with making writing a regular practice in my life. Instead, I find myself caught in the cycle of complaining: complaining about missing the structure that a workshop once provided; complaining about the struggle to find energy in the wake of my full-time job; complaining about the futility of trying to write something new when you live in Brooklyn and even the jokes about Brooklyn clichés have long since become clichés.
Finding that elusive moment when inspiration, energy and time converge is difficult. But it has become too easy, I think, for me to dismiss that moment as impossible, and therefore not worth pursuing. A writer who has been somewhat of a mentor to me, Naomi Rand, wrote this in an email to me, about the time when she first dedicated herself to her writing:
The one thing I did was force myself to work. I didn’t expect to write a lot, just something every day. Not hours. An hour would suffice. Even a half hour. Just something really. By the end of a year I think my brain must have rewired.
I have attempted to kick-start this blog twice so far, both times with the intention of writing regularly, and both times abandoning it. This is my third try, and I hope it sticks.
On a related note, I’ve just heard from the editors of Pisgah Review that they did indeed publish my essay, “My Midwestern Love Affair,” in their most recent issue. I wrote it three years ago, and it’s almost embarrassingly irrelevant to my life now. But it’s an honor to be published, and exciting to have my work out in the ether, even if no one reads it. Here’s to the next one.
I was around fourteen years old when I decided to stop wearing clothes with visible brand logos. I was becoming more politicized, and I was beginning to extend my critique of capitalism, consumerism, and the general creepiness of corporate advertising to the personal choices I made – the things I bought, the food I ate, and the clothes I wore. It was an easy decision to make, and there were many reasons to make it.
For starters, I realized that when I wore a piece of clothing with a brand logo on it, I was a walking commercial. I was basically like one of those world-famous tennis players who gets paid millions to wear Nike or Adidas or Lacoste every time they step on the court – minus the getting paid millions part. Instead, I was advertising for free. In fact, it was worse – I was giving the company my money, for the opportunity to advertise for them, and thus earn them even more money…pretty messed up, no?
The realization that I didn’t want to be a human billboard was pretty simple. But as I thought more about my clothes, what felt even more profound for me – especially as someone concerned with the politics of class and culture – was the way that I was playing into a deeply oppressive hierarchy of wealth and status. When we wear sweatshirts that say “Polo,” “American Eagle,” “Nautica,” or “Old Navy,” we’re not just advertising the brands. We’re also advertising ourselves as people who wear those brands. We’re saying, “I spent a certain amount of money on this sweatshirt.” And implicit in that message is also, “I can afford to buy this sweatshirt – and I want you to know that.” And implicit in that message is, “What sweatshirt can you afford to buy?”
Consumer culture in the U.S. instills in us, or attempts to instill in us, a sense of shame/pride based on what we consume. And because of the way class functions in our culture, when we participate in conspicuous consumption, we’re not just affecting ourselves – we’re taking part in a larger system that assigns shame/pride (not to mention value) to other people, too.
I’m 24 years old now, so my decision to drop logos on my clothes is just about ten years old. And for the last ten years, other than a couple of concessions here or there to a thrifted sweatshirt or jacket, I’ve been pretty consistent. But recently I realized that for the last year and a half, I’ve been doing extensive amounts of free advertising for a multinational, multibillion-dollar company…
See, I have an iPhone, and I’m not gonna lie, I do love the thing. But every time I send an email from it – which is almost every day – my phone does me the favor of appending a neat little signature to the end of my email: “Sent from my iPhone.”
I don’t know why it took me so long to realize this, but when I did, I was pretty thrown. To me, the “Sent from my iPhone” signature is basically like sealing the virtual envelope of every email I send with a huge Apple logo. It’s like adding a consumer identity onto my resume – “Naomi Gordon-Loebl: writer, educator, organizer, Apple user.” Yuck.
And what is the point, really? Oh sure, Applephiles claim the signature has utilitarian purposes – “It’s an explanation for brevity/typos in my email!” is a popular rationale. But then why doesn’t it say, “. Please excuse any brevity and/or typos”? The answer is, of course, because then people wouldn’t know that you are using not just any mobile device, but an Apple iPhone.
Smartphones in particular have launched a cult of brand identification. People talk about being “a Blackberry person” or “an iPhone person,” and the idea that your smartphone says something about you is disturbingly pervasive. But what does it mean that I am “an iPhone person”? What does it mean that we are essentially waving our cellphone bills around in our email signatures, like expensive watches, country club membership cards, or, yes – big POLO logos emblazoned across our chests?
I don’t know – but I do know that I’m done with feeling like my emails are being sent straight from Apple’s marketing division. As of today, I’ve removed the “Sent from my iPhone” signature from my phone. If someone really needs to know why I’m being brief, or why a run of the mill compliment seems to have been replaced with the name of everyone’s favorite 90s boy band, I’ll just tell them – “By the way, sorry to be brief – writing this email from my phone.”
Want to remove the “Sent from my iPhone” signature from your email, too? Here’s how…
1. From your iPhone’s home screen, go to “Settings.”
2. Tap “Mail, Contacts, Calendars.”
3. Scroll down and tap “Signature.”
4. The default signature is “Sent from my iPhone,” so if you’ve never changed it, that’s what it will say. Tap “Clear” to erase it – then either replace it with something else or just hit the “Home” button to return home. Congratulations – your emails will still be sent from your iPhone, but now the whole world doesn’t have to know.
For my first blog post here on my new site, it seems all too appropriate that the topic is one of the first that ever led me to write.
To begin with, a bit of storytelling.
Two weeks ago, my boo, S, and I headed out for a drink in her neighborhood. It was about 10 pm, and we were walking up her block holding hands. We were absorbed in conversation, and didn’t notice the scene ahead of us until it was too late to avoid it. We looked up to see three guys, standing on either side of the sidewalk and catcalling a woman as she walked quickly by.
I don’t know about S, but I know what I was thinking: “Here we go.”
Sure enough, what I knew was about to happen, happened. As we walked, holding hands, through what felt eerily similar to a gauntlet, one of the men began to shout at us, over and over again, “Challenge! Challenge!”
After a few such shouts, S turned to him and raised her eyebrow, smirking at him in the dim light.
“Really?” she said.
Later, she told me that she regretted saying anything at all. The accepted wisdom is that the best response to street harassment is no response – that any acknowledgement only encourages the behavior. But I think in the moment, she didn’t want to just ignore them and pretend they weren’t there. The truth is, there is something de-humanizing about pretending that someone who is talking to you is not there – for them and for us.
But, of course, getting a response only egged them on, and they got more aggressive. “Oh, she said ‘really’! Challenge! Challenge! Hey! Where you going? Why you walking away? Come on, challenge!” And they began to follow us down the street.
Up until this moment, I’d been silent. As a feminist and a masculine person with a femme partner, I am wary of ever giving the impression – to my partner or to anyone else – that I think she needs my “protection.” I never want to be perceived as macho, protective, or aggro. S can take care of herself, and my role is not protector, but ally – just as it would be if I were femme.
But at a certain point, I began to worry that she felt alone and unsupported. Even though they were harassing both of us, the harassment was clearly sexual and directed at her: her body, her gender. I wanted her to know that we were in it together. I wanted her to know that I was there, beyond the presence of my hand in hers. So as the dudes trailed down the sidewalk after us, talking shit, I said the best, least engaging, firmest thing I could think to say.
Over my shoulder, without turning around, I said, “Sorry, man – good night.”
And even as the words left my mouth, I knew what was coming. Because while I experience only a tiny, tiny fraction of the street harassment that many women face, I’ve had my share of it – my own special brand of genderqueer street harassment. I’m familiar with this brand, and I can see it coming from a block away.
And I was right.
“‘Sorry, dude?!’” came the voice, incredulous, back over my shoulder. “‘Sorry?’ No, I don’t think so, man…see, I think if we had a challenge, you would lose…dude. Or girl. Or whatever the fuck you are.”
The words came exactly as I knew they would: raw, stinging, and plain. We kept walking, kept holding hands, said nothing. They said nothing more, either…done, they fell away behind us.
When we got to the bar, I thought I was fine. I consider myself beyond well-adjusted when it comes to my gender identity. I was blessed beyond all blessings to be raised by a family who always loved me for exactly who I was, and never once forced me into a dress. I’ve been wearing boys’ clothes since I was old enough to say “boy.” My childhood toys were a tomboy’s dream – Ken dolls, Batman, and baseball bats galore (though no toy guns and no G.I. Joe, since my parents are radicals and were not interested in promoting violence or militarism). All my life, I’ve had my gender affirmed by the vast majority of people I’ve come into contact with.
I pretty much believe that it doesn’t get any better than I’ve had it. I am insanely lucky.
But about five minutes after we got to the bar, I started crying, and I just couldn’t stop.
I went to the bathroom. I splashed water on my face. I forced myself to take ten deep breaths. But at the end of my ten breaths, I was crying just as hard, and I couldn’t understand why.
I’m proud of being genderqueer. Under normal circumstances, I might even describe myself, with a laugh, as, “dude, or girl, or whatever I am.” I think it’s cool how I have a handsome, chiseled jaw and smooth, soft cheeks. I like that my hands are small but strong. I am lucky in that I have received much affirmation in my life that in fact, “whatever” I am is attractive and striking.
So why did I care what three dudes on the street (who had nothing better to do than harass women – whereas I was on a date with my sexy and brilliant boo) thought about my gender?
In that bathroom, there were two people. There was me – present-day, 24-year-old me. And then there was me – 18-year-old me, five months into college, and sitting on the steps of my Michigan dorm with my then-girlfriend. We were drinking red wine out of a Tropicana bottle and laughing – buzzed and in love, as freshmen in college often are.
A car full of dudes rolled up. I couldn’t see the man in the passenger seat, because he was shining a flashlight directly in our eyes, hiding his face. But I could hear him.
“Leave her alone, broooooo,” he slurred, obviously having dipped into his own Tropicana bottle that night. “Can’t you see she doesn’t want you? She wants a real man, not a faggot like you.” He and the other guys in the car laughed. “Leave her alone, faggot.”
Then they addressed her.
“Hey baby,” came the voices from the car. “Want to see what a real man is like? Come over here and see what a real man does.”
“FUCK YOU!” we both yelled back. “GO FUCK YOURSELF!” But they were done. They drove off, laughing.
We were left stunned, instantly sober. We were close in that moment, in some ways, but distant, too. This was a real part of our relationship, our queerness: violence. And mixed in with all that buzzy first love, here was something else that neither of us wanted to feel: fear.
Back in the bathroom of the Brooklyn bar, I got myself together and came back to my girlfriend. She kissed my cheeks and hugged me until we could both laugh. And I was fine.
What is there to say, really, about these moments? What is there to say that is not cliche, kitschy or trite? What is there to write that is not pedantic, or played-out, or hasn’t been immortalized in an Ani song? Why am I even writing this blog post?
In the weeks since this experience, I’ve felt a strong pull in two seemingly opposite directions. One is compassion. We’re all born into a broken world, I want to say, and people don’t act oppressively in a vacuum. People are born into power and privilege, and indoctrinated accordingly, before they are old enough to speak. If we want to make change, we have to sit down and talk.
This part of me wants to go back to that corner and find those guys and sit down with them. This part of me wants to have an honest conversation about why they do what they do, and how it makes me feel, and to try to understand each other. This part of me feels so preachy that I want to throw up.
And there’s the other direction, which is honestly…anger. I’m pissed. I’m so over street harassment and I’m so over patriarchy. And I want to throw all the humanity crap out the window, because honestly? It’s bad enough that I have to walk around knowing that who I am – who I am at my core, who I’ve been since I was born – makes people wish I were dead. It’s not my job to explain to them why that’s fucked up. It’s not the job of oppressed people to educate our oppressors. This part of me wants to say, “Fuck you, asshole dudes. Deal with your shit.” This part of me feels tired and one-dimensional in its own way.
This blog post has been saved as a draft on my computer, unfinished, for nearly two weeks. It’s stayed that way because I haven’t known how to reconcile these two parts of me; I haven’t known what to say. But I think that’s because they can’t be reconciled in a neat or succinct way; and sometimes, there’s just nothing to say.
So I’m putting this post out there as it is – with questions, and without many answers. If I’m really lucky, it’ll be the beginning of a conversation. And if not – well, at the very least, it’s the beginning of my blog. Welcome, guys.