Personal Essay

“Me Too” Stories and Thoughts on “Vulnerability”

The “Me Too” campaign is about abuses of power in the workplace, but it brought an episode from my past to mind.

In France they have a word for a man who takes sexual pleasure in rubbing against people in public places. He’s called a frotteur. I didn’t know that when I was sixteen.

I was an exchange student in high school. I lived in a village outside of Paris. It was a short train ride and a metro line or two to get to my favorite place, an English-language bookstore on the Rue de Rivoli. I often went into the city on my own, and bought Smash Hits Magazine to look at pictures of Simon Le Bon and INXS.

One day I was in the metro, riding back to the train station, when a man took the handrail beside my seat. He stood close, and it seemed odd because the car was not that crowded. There was someone in the seat beside me, and I inched closer to him to make room for the standing stranger. As the car began to move, I felt him rubbing against me. My first thought was that it was the motion of the train that was causing him to bump me, and I scooted closer to my neighbor’s lap. The man in the aisle continued to rub against me, and I soon realized it had nothing to do with the motion of the train. He moved in waves, emphasizing the motion of his pelvis. I had never had sex, but I understood the motion was sexual. I curled inward towards the man on my other side, catching a glimpse of the stranger out of the corner of my eye. He had a sickening, satisfied grin on his face.

My stop was a ways down the line, but as soon as the car stopped moving I bolted for the door and ran to another line. I didn’t know where I was going– just away. As the next train arrived at the platform, the man came around the corner. I got onto one of the cars, hoping he had not seen me, but he followed, still grinning. I took a seat and began to cry. The man looked at me, surprised. He seems to have believed that I was enjoying his game. When he saw my tears, thankfully, he got off the train and left me to find my way back to my route in peace.

I never told anyone about the incident, but not for the reasons you might think. It was shocking, upsetting and gross but I did not feel humiliated or ashamed. I knew the pervert was the one with the problem, not me. I was just taking my train home. The reason I kept it secret was that I was afraid that if I told anyone I would not be allowed to go to the city by myself any more, which was something I liked doing.  I was afraid that because I had been treated in an abusive manner I would lose my freedom.

“In our society, we socialize women to be aware of threats, especially from strangers,” wrote Sally Raskoff in the Everyday Sociology blog. “Girls are kept closer than boys when they are playing outside. Women don’t tend to go out alone at night, and there are a host of other protective behaviors that constrain what they do on a daily basis. We are taught these things to stay safe. In general, men don’t learn these things and they don’t grow up thinking about how safe they are at any given moment.”

How often have we heard the expression “vulnerable women and children.”  We’re trained to think of ourselves as at risk, and that it is our primary duty to stay safe.

When we are victims, we are often blamed for not doing enough to protect ourselves. Why were you in that neighborhood? Why did you go with him after midnight? Why were you wearing that dress?

I once told a boyfriend about an unwanted advance I had received after having a couple of drinks with some friends and he said, “You silly girl.” (I didn’t stay with him long.)

These questions are posed by people who want to believe that if they do the right things violence will never happen to them. Avoid drinking with male friends. Avoid drinking. Avoid going out on your own. Avoid being out at night.

School authorities think they have to train girls to dress modestly. Girls are vulnerable and boys cannot be controlled.

Jennifer Drew had this to say on the British feminist site The F Word:

There is a buzzword circulating the legal, media and societal systems, and it is being used to deflect attention away from male accountability and responsibility for men’s violence against women and girls. What is this word? Why ‘vulnerability’, and we increasingly hear this word being used by judges when sentencing men convicted of raping or murdering women and girls. Prosecution council too depicts female victims of male violence as ‘vulnerable’ creatures. The media, politicians and society in general are all claiming acts of male violence are ones perpetrated upon vulnerable women or girls. But rarely have I heard or read male victims of male portrayed as vulnerable victims…women survivors of male violence are victims of the crimes these misogynist males commit. Therein lies the difference – not powerless victims but victims of crimes men commit against them…

This is something different from how we treat men and risk. If, for example, a young man decided to take a year off after high school and drive around South America on his own, he would be taking a risk. If something bad happened to him on that trip, it would be seen as unfortunate, maybe tragic, but it would be much less likely that he would be asked in an accusatory tone “Well, why did you go to that South American village anyway?”

Young men are encouraged to go on adventures, and the stories of some of their foolhardy and ill-fated adventures become dramas. Women, on the other hand, in the same period of life when men are being encouraged to take risks and experience the world, are constantly reminded of our vulnerability. The orientation at my college dorm was almost entirely about not getting raped.

This is all a great advantage to men when it comes to careers and life experience. They work on fishing trawlers, hitchhike across Europe, go mountain climbing. They have great stories to tell and our culture values them as more interesting people. They’re the subject of most of our fiction. They’re who we think of when we imagine people who do things.

You may be interested to learn that men are more likely than women to be victims in every category except for sexual assault. So you could say that with the exception of one particular category of violence, men are more vulnerable than women.

Sally Raskoff analyzed the threat of sexual violence and she concluded:

…Adult males are much more likely to be raped or assaulted by strangers while women’s threat comes primarily from their intimate partners. Considering this data, do we socialize men and women appropriately?

If we socialize girls and women to suspect strangers and people outside their families, does that work effectively to protect them since most of the real threat comes from people they know?

If we socialize boys and men to assume they are safe from outside threats, are they adequately prepared to protect themselves in childhood and adolescence from people they know and from strangers when they are adults?

 

I kept my secret. I’m sorry that I felt I had to stay silent to protect my own freedom, but I am glad that I didn’t miss out on more afternoons in Paris.

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What Do You Expect Me to Do With Your Disapproval?

AngelLargeSquareToday I attended a books and authors event at Leon & Lulu, a great shop in Clarkston. There were 30 writers there showcasing their books and I met some wonderful people.

I brought along only one book, my first novel Angel.  (The cover image here is actually the one for the audio version.)

Angel, of course, is the story of a minister whose sense of identity, his worldview and his relationship to his community are challenged when he becomes attracted to a young man.

Most of the people I talked to about the book were positive and friendly even if it was not something they thought they would like to read.

Towards the end of the event, however, there was one woman who asked me about my book. I told her its theme and she set the book down quickly and said, “I’m certainly not reading this one. I don’t approve of that.”

I was not upset by her reaction. You would have to live under a rock to be unaware that there are people who feel that way. I was, instead, interested in why she felt it important to share her disapproval with me. What exactly did she want me to do with that information?

Feel ashamed? Not likely. Think more highly of her? Also not likely.  Change my point of view in deference to a stranger?

There are a lot of things that characters do in books that one might disapprove of. In fact, there are few books that contain characters that do nothing worthy of disapproval or there would be no drama. But imagine if I had said, “My book is about a corrupt politician.”

You would not expect someone to respond by saying, “I am certainly not going to read that. I don’t approve of that.”

Imagine a conversation that went like this:

“What is your book about?”

“It’s a romance novel.”

“I’m certainly not going to read that. I don’t approve of romance novels.”

This would come across as inappropriate and obviously rude, would it not?

I have to assume that my visitor was not really trying to tell me anything about homosexuality. She was trying to tell me something about herself. “I am the kind of person who does not approve of that.” Not approving of homosexuality is part of her sense of identity.

Some time ago I wrote an article here called The Lifestyle.  It dealt with some of my thoughts after a similar conversation with a friend.

Disapproving is more than not liking or opting out.  It assumes, in essence, that your opinion matters.  It assumes that you get a vote.  You can really only “disapprove” from a position of power and security and the assumption that society is on your side.

In general, we do not welcome the views of others when it comes to our “lifestyle choices.”  How would you feel about someone who said she disapproved of your choice of religion or how many children you had or what you did on the weekends or how many hours you worked or what kind of career you had or how you spent your money?  These are all “lifestyle choices.”

Would you thank such a person for her thoughtfulness and concern for your well-being or would you instead reply with something along the lines of “well who asked you?”

I did not reply with “well who asked you?”

Unlike the stranger, I did not feel compelled to voice my disapproval. But I have been giving a lot of thought as to why.

Davy Jones: My Imaginary Friend

This post was written in response to a writing prompt from The Daily Post. The prompt suggests writing about your childhood “imaginary friend.”

davy-jones-the-monkeesMy imaginary friend when I was a girl was a real person and yet he was not a real person. Already half himself, a fictional creation bearing his own name, he was transformed in my child’s mind into something even more magical. He was my own creation. A figure I could weave into my own stories.

I don’t remember the stories in which Davy Jones starred. I know the Monkees album played on my Winnie the Pooh record player in the background and that I cast stuffed animals in the other roles. There was a lot of dancing involved.

Later, during the 1980s Monkees revival, when I was in high school, I would discover an affinity for Peter Tork as I grew into an attraction for the 1960s counterculture. In case you’re of the mind that knowing a person’s favorite Monkee or Beatle tells you all you need to know about her, these are my answers: Peter Tork, John Lennon.

As a little girl, though, I somehow knew (from fairly tales probably) that being in love was the most powerful force in the world and the most transformative thing that could happen to a woman was to “fall into” it.

Davy was “the cute one.” He was presented as the one girls were to love, and dutifully I did. This is not to say that my affection was not real. It was very real. I remember coming upstairs (my playroom was in the basement) and announcing to my parents that I had something serious to tell them. I was in love. With Davy Jones.

My father laughed. I was crushed.

I have a diary that I wrote at this time. I filled every page with hearts and variants on “I love Davy Jones” and “LL + DJ.” This, I assumed, was what people in love did.

As I fell in love with the comic mop-tops the Monkees sang about “creature comfort goals” in “status symbol land” and how decisions were no longer easy there were “only shades of gray.” They even sang about suicide (see below) all topics that went over my 7-year-old head.

Incidentally, the one time I met Micky Dolenz, singing autographs at an auto show, I asked him to clarify some of the lyrics to this song, which I hadn’t caught. (This was before you could look up lyrics on the internet)  He said it was “I’ll give you three, I’ve been down nine, I’m going down just one more time goin’ down.” I looked at him with a blank expression. “You know,” he said. “Nine lives. A cat.” I said, “Oh,” and thanked him. His hand was so tired by that point that his signature read “Wing Dog.”

I also managed to get an autograph from Davy Jones too, although I seem to have lost it. I had the chance to see Davy in concert in the 1970s during what I would subsequently learn he called his “alimony tour.” It was a very small bar with tables and I was there with my parents and a couple of girlfriends. We went and stood by the door next to the stage waiting for the Monkee appearance. When he came out on stage we ran to our table. I screamed. I thought that was what you were supposed to do at a Monkees concert– it’s what they did on TV. A woman in the club said, “Calm down girls.” I think I might have cried seeing him in real life. Yet even as a child, I somehow sensed that something wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t quite as joyful as it was supposed to be. This tiny hole in the wall was a huge comedown for the boy whose 16 Magazine image had graced a million lockers. During the performance while dancing and holding up a piece of toast (his backing band was called Toast) he split his trousers. Looking back, this had to have been a low point in the life of the real Davy Jones.

After the show my friends and I waited by that same door and the “calm down, girls” woman took paper for us so Davy could autograph them. She asked my name. She must not have heard it right. The autograph came back “To Nora. David Jones.” I treasured it– until I lost it.

Davy Jones, and all of the Monkees, represented layers upon layers of illusion. Somewhere behind the masks were four real performers. They played comic characters who had only the most superficial relationships to the actors and musicians they were, and yet confusingly they had the same names. Peter Tork, who was an intelligent and sensitive musician seeped in the excesses of the 60s counterculture played the character of Peter Tork, also a musician, but an innocent and ingenuous dimwit.

They had been cast to play the roles of musicians not necessarily to be musicians. The two actors, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, had little trouble with that. The two musicians had identity crises putting their own names on other people’s music and becoming famous for it. Like all artists the four wanted to be taken seriously and they found the loveable-mop-top image constraining.

I have since read quite a bit about these men in various articles and biographies. I get the impression that these four might not have gotten along all that well and that perhaps charming, cute Davy was the most difficult to get along with. In life the cute boys are often the most assertive and strong-willed as they overcompensate for the child-like impression created by their faces.

I am not sure my life was improved by reading the biographies. The real men who made up the Monkees were not my Monkees. The real Monkees were the imaginary friends they created on television. They were the best of friends, each member distinct in his own way, but they operated always as a unit. They were always struggling to get a gig and pay the rent but their money woes had no real-world consequences except for occasionally triggering a Monkees romp. The real Monkees were the ones who lived in a “groovy pad” with a mannequin named Mr. Schneider who spouted aphorisms when you pulled a cord. I think my idea of a dream home is still the Monkees groovy pad.

(Davy Jones’s idea of a dream home is for sale apparently.)

Performers are magical. They create new beings. The Davy Jones I loved was not the actor David Jones who married and divorced and re-married, who was forced to go on the road at the low point of his fame in order to pay the alimony. That man was connected to my Davy Jones in some way, but my Davy Jones was real and he was his own person. He was born from the images the actor David Jones created and the way the character was received in my mind.

It is common to dismiss these fantasies of childhood, to laugh at the puppy love and to pack it all away, but I believe my ability to take fictional people seriously is something important that I carry with me to this day. It is part of what makes me a writer.

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While I have you here, I would like to invite you to learn a bit about my forthcoming novel Identity Theft. It explores the theme of celebrity infatuation and fantasy. There is only one week to go in the Pubslush crowdfunding campaign to make this title a reality. Your advance order of $15 for the print book or $10 for the ebook will help make its publication a reality, not a dream. Thank you for your support.

Promote What You Love Instead of Bashing What You Hate

I was in something of a discouraged mood when this post from Soulseeds came across my twitter feed. I decided to follow this advice and put together a list of ten things I love– big and small. (It’s not all inclusive, so if you’re a person and I didn’t list you– you know I still love you!) It has cheered me up quite a bit, perhaps not quite to the point that I want to dance around my room like Julie Andrews singing about whiskers on kittens, but quite a bit.* I hope you will join me and make a list of five or ten things you love on your own blog. Spread the love, man!

1. Valery Lantratov

DSC06952Valery is the real deal. When I first saw him on stage, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He has that thing. We met for the first time in 2002 and have been partners for about ten years touring America teaching teaching ballet. When we were first on tour together, with another company, he didn’t have much English but whenever a problem arose he would say, “Don’t worry, easy.” He has much more English now, but he continues to help me not to worry. When he is here and we’re touring we are together 24 hours a day and we only occasionally (when very tired) get on one another’s nerves. I can’t imagine wanting to spend that much time with pretty much anyone else.

2. Being on the Road

IMG_1741Yes, touring is exhausting. I don’t think we could hold up for more than the three months we do in the summer (and two in the winter) without taking a break. It’s a new city each day most of the time, lots of travel, lots of logistics, too much time in the car but sometimes you get to see crazy things like this storm out west that arched over the highway like a door.  We get to meet people everywhere we go. Few people have the chance to experience so much of America, and even though we don’t do much sight seeing, we really do get a feel for the country. I feel most myself when we’re on the road. I don’t know what day of the week it is, I am focused on the thing in front of me, and time passes at a different pace. You measure time in unique experiences, and when we look back at our time on the road, one week is so packed with novelty that it feels like one month. I think being on the road means we experience a longer life.

3. Writing in Flow

I don’t have a picture of this. When you write in flow, the world falls away and you’re focused entirely on what you are doing. You’re not over-thinking it or worrying about it, you’re just doing it. Most writers lives are divided into two kinds of time, writing in flow (not a lot of time) and fretting over not being in a state of flow (most of the time). Another one of these experiences is when you have been working on a novel or proposal and you’ve given up on it and then suddenly, two years later, your subconscious delivers up the solution to your writing dilemma and you finish the thing in a mad dash and wonder where that came from. That’s how my novel Angel got made (except it was ten years).

4. John K King Books in Detroit

JohnKKing-3John K. King Books is one of my favorite places in the world. Four floors of shelves like this, and book smell and the joy of discovery. Heavenly. I used to go with my late father, and we would leave with armloads. So not only do I love the shop, it has memories of love inside. My favorite spot used to be the third floor reference shelf where I’d look for trivia books. Now I would haunt different floors. Tastes change over time.

5. Will Hoppey

If you haven’t heard him, you should. Full disclosure: He’s a friend, and I used to help him with some bookings years ago, but that is because I am a fan. So press play and see what you think.

6. Edinburgh, Scotland

06.08.2005Edinburgh is the most beautiful city I have lived in. With all of the news lately about Scotland, I have been nostalgic for it. I lived in a shared flat above a bakery on West Maitland Street and worked in a Wimpy (fast food restaurant.)  I was young and at my most beautiful. I had international friends who I met my first days there in the youth hostel. I was open for adventure. I remember it very fondly although in truth I think I was miserable a lot of the time, as I was often miserable in the “best years of my life.” Edinburgh is home to some really wonderful, warm people.

7. Birmingham Unitarian Church Rummage Sales

rummageYou will notice a trend– I love places where you can find treasures. I also like hard work. I love coming in on Monday and seeing piles and piles of unsorted stuff, feeling like it can’t be done, and knowing that it will. I like having a particular task to accomplish. I love the camaraderie. It is amazing how much can be done with teamwork. It’s a great thing. This year’s sale is October 2-4.

8. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Tunnels

IMG_2780I especially like the double tunnels of Blue and Kittatinny Mountains.  When I was a girl, we used to drive from Michigan to my grandparent’s house in New Jersey on the turnpike, stopping at Howard Johnson’s at the rest stops to get pistachio ice cream on the way. I have a certain fascination for the bypassed tunnels of the turnpike. At one time I did some digging into newspaper archives to read about the accident at the now bypassed Laurel Hill Tunnel. Eleven men gave their lives to complete the marvel of modern engineering, but it outlived its usefulness after only 24 years.  I wanted to know who the men were.

9. The Michigan Hand Map

5Nmcn7MFFWJxIf you ask someone from Michigan where he lives he will instinctively raise his right hand, hold it as if it were in a mitten and point to a spot on the palm. This amuses people from outside the state, but it is actually useful. The other day, I was watching Orange is the New Black with my mother and a character was supposed to be from Michigan. “Where are you from?” “Muskegon.” “Where is that?” She did the hand thing, pointing to the center of the hand. My mother and I both turned to each other and said, “That’s not Muskegon.” Michiganders know where they live on the hand. They also know where other cities are on the hand. You can’t just point at random. It’s a real map. If you dig the mittens pictured to the left, by the way, they’re from a company called Michigan Mittens.

10. Melcat

Mel is the Michigan Electronic Library and Mel Cat is their online catalog where you can order books from a network of all of the libraries in Michigan. Thanks to Mel, there is rarely a book that I want to read, no matter how obscure, that I can not have in my hands in a few days. I think it’s amazing.

So there you go. I have promoted some things I love. What’s your list?

*The Sound of Music is a thing I love. Julie Andrews is cool.

When the School Does the Shaming

ImageI don’t often post personal stories on this blog. I prefer to talk about ideas than to talk about myself. There was a story today, however, that brought an event from my past back into view.  According to Raw Story, a public school in Utah has photoshopped yearbook pictures of female students so they will be dressed more modestly. “There have been no reports of male students having their photos altered,” the article said. The action was in keeping with the school’s dress code, a school official said, “In that sense we can help kids better prepare for their future by knowing how to dress appropriately for things.”

How to dress appropriately for things…

There are not many days in my 45 years of life when I can recall exactly what I was wearing. There was the day I graduated from High School in a gold cap and gown, there was the poofy, shiny blue dress I wore to prom, and the sleeveless, floor-length gown I wore to my brother’s wedding, and then there was the outfit I was wearing in January 1991 when a school administrator called me to the office in the middle of a video editing class.

I was wearing a white turtleneck paired with a black skirt of a floaty layered material.  (I’ve never been much of a fashionista so excuse me that I do not have a better description of the fabric.) I wore nylons and a pair of black flats. My hair was styled, and held on top with a barrette with gold-colored baubles. I didn’t think of the outfit as particularly sexy or provocative. I was not on my way to seduce anyone or attract special attention. The pieces and accessories came from the clothing store where I worked part-time as a sales associate. I was heading there straight from school and my job required me to dress in the merchandise. I thought I was wearing something generally flattering, youthful and up-to-date but serious and respectable. That is how thought I was presenting myself, how I wanted to be seen by the world.

I should also point out that I was not in high school. I was a 22 year-old college graduate. After earning my B.A. in theater, and finding that the major theater corporations were not lining up to offer me jobs with great dental plans, I had decided to get some additional technical training in order to pursue a career in radio. It was a six-month course, if I remember correctly (there are so many details I remember much less clearly than what I was wearing that day). Most of the students entered the program straight from high school. The school catered more to these students than to adult students with college degrees. It took a stance similar to a high school– it felt it had to offer a certain amount of remedial education in behavior and how to present oneself professionally.  They had a dress code, and they explained in orientation, in a joking way, that if students came to class in something that was not up to code they would be “sweatsuited.” That is, they would be given a sweatsuit with the school logo on it to wear for the rest of the day.

I didn’t think anything of this. I was a shy kid. The sort who does not get much notice socially. I had graduated from my high school with commendation. I earned advance placement scores that allowed me to graduate from college early. My senior year of college I had worked five different part time jobs around my class schedule in order to pay for a post-college trip to the UK. (I traveled there on a student work visa.)  I had never been given any cause to think of myself as anything but respectable.

Not until that day.

I had no idea why the administrator was pulling me out of class. When I got to the office, she had a sweatsuit waiting for me. She told me that she had seen me on the video monitor (we were doing some news reading or something for the video class) and that my skirt was too short, not up to code, and I would have to wear the sweat pants or leave the building.

I felt my face go red and the tears welling up in my eyes. I did my best to fight them back. I became aware of my body, my physical presence, in a way I never had before. I was being judged sexually, and I had never intended to invite the administrator to look at me that way.  I felt humiliated, diminished and infantilized. She was telling me that I did not know how to dress myself, and that I was presenting myself as a slut. The way I was dressed was shaming the school.

I refused to go back to my classroom and face the stares and laughter of my peers in the scarlet letter of those sweat pants. I chose, instead, to give up my perfect attendance record and leave the building– to take my shameful self far from view.

I don’t know if the girl who found her yearbook image censored felt any of that; if the girl who donned her favorite tank top to look nice in her picture felt a twinge when she realized someone had viewed her as an object of lust and implied that she had intended to present herself that way all along.

The events I just recounted must have been no more than 10 minutes of my life. I am sure the administrator who was defending the dress code has no memory of it at all. I can’t say that this event changed my life’s trajectory. I finished the course, went on to work in radio (usually wearing jeans), and then to publish 15 books, tour the country with an international artist and to write for corporate CEOs and foreign heads of state. I have no reason to think of myself as anything but respectable. And yet, 23 years later, when I remember that moment, I can still feel the shame.

 

 

 

On Being Condemned to Someone Else’s Hell

While we were on tour, a woman we know from our travels gave my Russian partner a gift, a copy of The Book of Mormon in the Russian language. He was confused by it. “I have my religion. I am Orthodox,” he said. He had not encountered evangelists before. Although Russia has large populations of different religions: Jewish, Muslim, Russian Orthodox, the religions are considered to be a part of cultural identity, not a lifestyle choice. So there are not a lot of people going around asking anyone to change.

I told him that when someone evangelizes to me, I try to take it this way: She has discovered something meaningful to her and she wants to share it with you. Accept it in that spirit.

Being a Unitarian Universalist born and bred, I fall into a category that Christians are especially prone to want to save. If you are not from one of the non-Christian biggies: Judiasm, Hinduism, Islam, you must not have a religion at all, and somehow you failed to get the memo on the whole Christianity thing.

Of course, UUs do have a religion, community and traditions of our own that we do not feel any particular need to be “saved” from. It’s an understandable mistake though. UUs often describe themselves as agnostic, a word that means “not knowing.”

I am firmly of the belief that 90% of the time when people call themselves “agnostic” it does not mean that they do not know what they believe, it means that they believe something that is not so easily summarized and they don’t want to get into a heavy conversation about it right now.

(As in, “Tell me what you mean by the word ‘God’ and I’ll tell you if I believe in that or not” or “Why are you assuming that belief or non-belief in God is the central spiritual question?”)

I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood before moving to a smallish Ohio town with a mostly Evangelical population. I had many friends who felt they had a duty to save me. Surrounded by Christians, it was the only time in my life when I have felt so harshly judged. One of the stand-out moments was when a neighbor told a friend of mine that she would never have me babysit for her children because I was not Christian, as if “not Christian” were some kind of contagious disease.One evening, she must have been desperate because she called and asked if I would watch the kids. She instructed me that when I put them to bed I should say a prayer with them and sing “Jesus loves me.” I had no problem with that. When I told my friend, who also sat for them, about it later she said, “They never have me do that.”

Another stand-out moment was when I mentioned to a friend’s mother that I did not like hot dogs and she gave me a 10 minute lecture about how when the Rapture came I would have to eat whatever there was, so I had better get used to it. Then she put a plate of hot dogs down in front of me.

For many years after this experience, any time I saw a picture of Jesus, a cross or a Bible verse on someone’s wall, it seemed to scream at me: “You are an outsider. You are not one of us. You are not welcome. We know you are dangerous and immoral. We think we’re better than you.”

I was hardly devil spawn, just a shy, bookish kid.

It is a shame that I developed this aversion. For the past few years I have become fascinated with the New Testament. It took many years before I could stop feeling a bit threatened by the Christian text and fully claim that interest as my own.

It’s a strange thing being damned to someone else’s Hell.

As I recently explained to a Baptist friend of mine, Universalists (that’s the second U in UU) believe in universal salvation. That’s where the word comes from. It’s a contradiction for a Universalist to be afraid of Hell.

My friend was shocked by this because she’d been fairly certain that both of the Us in UU stood for “Believe whatever you want.”

In any case, when someone condemns you to a Hell you don’t believe in, it tells you much more about the person doing the damning than it does about the future of your immortal soul.  If a Christian friend admits that she thinks I will go to Hell after I die, it is not a big problem because that’s not a reality for me. But it does hurt my feelings that she would be fine with the idea that I would spend all of eternity enduring the most foul and painful torture she could imagine for the sin of failing to hold the same opinion she does.

(There was an odd moment in Inside Man on CNN the other night in which Morgan Spurlock quizzed a mega-church pastor on the idea that non-Christians were damned. Spurlock asked the pastor whether Gandhi was in Heaven or Hell. This is a non-sequitur when speaking about a Hindu whose cosmology is based on and endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.)

Not being Christian, a friend once assured me, “doesn’t make you a bad person.”

Why on Earth would I think it did? If I thought what I believed made me a bad person I would believe something else.

(I was reading the first Epistle of Peter the other day and it struck me that Peter’s community was responding to just such a situation. The Gentiles mistrusted these strange Jesus worshippers. “How do we know you’re moral if you don’t worship our gods or join in our rituals?” Peter’s response was that they had to be the most moral, upstanding people around so no one could have any doubt. It is a position modern Christians rarely find themselves in any more.)

This was the confusing message I got from a lot of my Christian friends growing up, “I think you’re a good person. I love you. And you’re going to burn in Hell.”

Although I love the Bible and think it’s important for a lot of reasons, I do not take it as literal, infallible or as a divine instruction manual for life. I don’t think it works all that well when you try to read it as a rule book. What is the moral of the story of Lot and his wife supposed to be?  There are a lot of people who consider themselves to be Christians who agree with this notion.

A Christian friend who does not recently asked me “How can you know right from wrong if you don’t follow the Bible?”

I knew better than to go into the rather long history of people using the Bible itself as justification for all manner of foul deeds. I didn’t even want to get into the “how to interpret the book” discussion. Instead I asked this: “Are you saying that if it weren’t for the ten commandments, you would not know not to kill people?”

I was a bit shocked when she said, “Yes.”

I said something like, “Really? Huh.”  What I was thinking was, “I hope you never convert, then.”

I can’t agree that Christians have cornered the market on wisdom and morality and that only their book contains the true rules for life.

I do not think all religions are essentially one in different forms, but I do believe that they point to universals. Can you imagine a religion that made a virtue of non-compassion over compassion or a lack of love over love?

Here’s the thing, in my experience the big moral problem is not actually that people don’t know right from wrong. The problem is that they do know and they fail to do it anyway.

Skinny Legs and All

I drove nine hours to see the American ballet dancer David Hallberg  not dance at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. The event was streamed live on the internet, so I could have watched it from my living room.  (If you don’t know who he is, see these previous posts: The Joys of Failure and David Hallberg, Random Penguins…)

This is not the kind of thing I generally do. Or that one does in general, when you get down to it.

Last week I saw a rock star…  Perform rock music… Without driving very far at all.  This is the kind of thing people do.

David Hallberg is skinny.  “All arms and legs trying desperately to control them,” was the ungraceful way he described himself– I am paraphrasing from memory.  (All of the quotes in this post will be from memory even though the event is archived and can be viewed on the Kennedy Center site.)  He was talking about his form at age 16, but he also said or inferred that his self-image had not changed all that much.  He was still frequently frustrated in his desire to control those long limbs.

I’m not a dancer, I’m a writer.  This is what I am trained to do: spot metaphors. “All arms and legs and trying to maintain control” has the ring of a great metaphor.

I was trying to control all my moving parts a couple of months ago.  I was managing a ballet educational tour which involved, among other things, sitting in dance studios in 26 different states (not all at once) and pushing the play and pause buttons on the CD players for 112 classical ballet classes.  The play-pushing part of my job is the most relaxing.  The rest of the time I am driving, planning, booking hotels, finding meals, communicating with schools and dozens of other small, un-sexy details. (Also juggling my publishing career.)  In class, the dancer does the bulk of the work and I have time after firing up a track marked “rond de jambe par terre” to check my smart phone.  This is how I learned about the event at the Kennedy Center. Tickets were free.  (Hotel was $200)

From my friend Michelle’s dance studio in Charleston, WV I fired off a message to my friend Jenny.  (The same Jenny mentioned in my Adam Ant post.)  I sent her the link because she knew I was on a bit of a Hallberg kick at the moment and she is kind enough to indulge me in whatever catches my attention.

“Would be nice to go to this,” I said. I did not need to add the reasons I could not– too far to walk, too soon after driving through 26 states on my own tour to contemplate a road trip.

All arms and legs trying desperately to maintain control.

“I wish I could go with you,” Jenny wrote back.

“It would be nice.”

Driving six hours (Jenny lives in Cleveland) to see a ballet dancer not dancing– when you’re not even much of a ballet fan– is not the kind of thing Jenny usually does.

“So,” she wrote. “Let’s do it.”

After pressing play on a track labeled “Grand Battement” I navigated to the Kennedy Center site and reserved tickets.   There was nothing to lose.  The tickets were free. (Did I mention the hotel cost $200?)  We had begun to lose control of our limbs.

(I just had a mental image of myself at a ballet barre, sweating as I work to stretch this metaphor.)

Before I left for Washington D.C., I posted this Facebook status: “I am actually going to take a weekend off. That is so weird.” 

Even though we had occasional days off on our tour, I never took a full day of rest and I can’t remember the last time I did. A day off meant we did not have a master class, but I took them as opportunities to handle those aforementioned un-sexy details of touring, to book the next tours, and to send out queries to publishers and agents, go back and forth with my editor on an article I was writing and so on.  When I came back to Michigan after the tour I started to work obsessively on a new novel, a task which has had me at the computer until 4 AM most days.

When I packed for my weekend adventure, I put all of the notes for the novel in my suitcase.  (Can we agree, going forward, that I can imply the whole “limbs and control” metaphor without actually saying it? I’m fairly certain I am on the verge of stretching to the point that I pull something, if I haven’t already.)

When I told my friend Michelle, a talented dance teacher, that I was going on an adventure to see a ballet dancer not dance for an hour in Washington D.C. she thought it sounded excellent.  She said, “I wish I could go on an adventure.”

“Why wish?” I said. “The tickets are free.” (The Hotel on the other hand…)

If there had not been three of us going, the whole adventure might not have happened. Children (in the case of my two companions), work, financial questions… Each of us, at one point or another, decided that dropping everything and driving cross country to see a ballet dancer not dance for an hour in Washington D.C. might not be an entirely practical fit with our busy lifestyles.  Having two others counting on you for their adventure is a great motivator.  I think they call this peer pressure.

David Hallberg seems to prefer to wax philosophically about art in general than to get down to brass tacks and he even called himself out on it at one point. This is not to say that his musings were uninteresting.  As a non-dancer, musings about the nature of the artistic calling are more interesting than shop talk about cabrioles.  He said something about risk that I recall I related to very strongly as a writer and artist. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what it was exactly.

Here is why I remember so little: about five minutes into the event I realized I had to pee.  By the time we’d reached the half way mark I was suffering from  kid-in-the-backsteat-of-the-car-sixty-miles-from- the-next-rest-stop kind of  pain.

Handy Hint! If you plan to go to see a ballet dancer not dancing for an hour, try to avoid consuming large amounts of liquid in the two hours leading up to it.  (You can trust my advice. I am a professional How To author.  See my Reader’s Digest book Don’t Screw It Up)

From that point on, my overriding thought was “Do I have to leave the theater now, or can I make it through to the end without wetting the Kennedy Center seats?” This stamped out any deeper reflections the discussion of a dancer’s art might have inspired.  (I was mentally engaged enough to grab up that metaphor about control and long limbs, though.)

After the show, Michelle turned left in a quest for Milk Duds. (We hadn’t eaten all day) Jenny and I turned right in a quest for plumbing.  We passed the men’s room– no line– and arrived at the women’s room– long line.   I had made it through the show but had not budgeted any extra energy for a long rest room line. (“He was so cute,” a woman in a glittery blouse gushed. She was standing between me and the exquisite relief of the stalls.)

Fortunately I discovered, in a quiet corner, a family restroom with a sign on the door that indicated it was only to be used when circumstances warranted.  Not sure what that meant, but I felt that my situation qualified.  Let me just say that being physically comfortable is one of the small, under-appreicated pleasures of life.  I came out of the restroom, waited for Jenny to take her turn, and then we both stood waiting for some people down the hall beyond us to take pictures of each other so we could pass.

That’s when we noticed David Hallberg, the man himself, coming out of the back stage area.  We stood there as he passed. He was texting something on his smart phone. We later joked that it was probably “Two middle-aged women making goofy smiles at me, must not look up.”

Pointe Magazine described Hallberg as “Tall, with a full head of wispy blond hair and a long forehead ending in a strong brow, David Hallberg has prominent, attentive eyes that possess a melancholic, preternatural maturity. He is, in a word, regal.”

I’m guessing he looks more “regal” without the cell phone, but he is strikingly tall and slim.

Anyway, I am glad that the program was taped so that I can watch what I missed by being there in person to see it. In the moment, I am certain I responded to much of what was said. I’m looking forward to hearing it again for the first time.

Now that I am on the subject, I do remember one other part of the interview.  The dancer spoke about recovering from an injury and all of the things he had to wipe off his schedule at that time.  He took the time to see the Grand Canyon.  On crutches.

When I was thinking about taking this trip and planning what it would be like, I mainly thought about the interview.  I thought we would spend a low key day taking in the monuments and then being intellectually engaged with a lecture before settling in for an evening of conversation at the hotel.  That is the kind of vacation we would have had if we’d controlled our limbs. (Sorry, I did have to bring it back. I couldn’t help myself.)

Instead we decided to just move and see what would happen.  We spent hours in the car listening to songs from our youth and talking about every subject under the sun. We had a chance to stay in a stylish “boutique” hotel with complimentary yoga mats and zebra print robes that cost $90 if you decide you must take them with you.   We, through a twist of fate, ended up at the Rosslyn Jazz Festival.  (Michelle had stage managed The Soul Rebels once, and discovered they would be in the city at the same time.)  We (the ones who hadn’t) met the drummer and had a great long conversation in the hotel lounge.  I hasten to add, we thoroughly enjoyed the free interview/lecture, in case my description of it might not convey this.  We spent an hour getting recommendations for a great restaurant and choosing where to go only to get there 15 minutes after it closed.  We (four of us now, including our new musician friend)  found ourselves eating pizza on an outdoor terrace and bantering with a charming Italian waiter. We got lost trying to walk back to our stylish boutique hotel and found ourselves back at the Kennedy Center. We enjoyed company all the way.  We did people watching. We laughed until eyes streamed, debated until people got annoyed, and then laughed again until sides hurt.

So what is the moral of this story? Don’t be so haunted by your quest for an unobtainable perfection that you forget to enjoy the accidents along the way.

Also–and my Adam Ant post will bear this out– I am terrible at writing reviews.