Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Man in the Elevator

A few days ago, on what was already a particularly stressful day, I was in the elevator at work on my way to lunch. (It's relevant to note that I work on the 15th floor, and the elevator that I take runs express between the first floor and the 14th floor, so there's a fairly long period of time during which it is impossible to exit the elevator.)

On the 14th floor, a man stepped into the elevator. I moved to the side to give myself more space, and looked straight ahead toward the elevator buttons. I never really saw what he looked like, except that he could have been middle-aged and white -- but I could see, out of the corner of my eye, that he was staring at me. The elevator began its descent, and I started to get nervous.

Then he started making kissing noises at me -- and I realized, that no matter what happened in approximately the next 90 seconds, I was trapped. I could feel my hands start to sweat, and I pointedly kept my gaze away and my body as far away as possible. I reached down to check my phone with faux nonchalance. He continued to stare at me and make kissing noises until the elevator reached the ground floor.

But rather than feeling relieved when I stepped out of the elevator, I was angry. I was angry at myself for not saying anything. I was angry at myself for feeling threatened -- after all, nothing happened. I stood in an elevator with a creepy dude. No big deal, right. Again: nothing happened.

But it could have. And I know that if it had, I would have had to make the choice to say nothing or to enter into a situation during which everything I have ever done or haven't done would be brought against me as "evidence".

And then, walking down the street to the pizza place, another man caught my eye and told me to smile. I ignored him and walked a little faster.

I just cannot understand how we can live in a society in which it's perfectly acceptable to have half of the population trained to be afraid -- and if they lack the necessary fear, then whatever happens to them is their own fault. I'm not blaming men -- just like women (and anyone anywhere else on the gender spectrum), they're breathing in messages that are healthy for no one. The system is broken -- and I know I'm not immune to perpetuating it, even inside my own mind. When I've been harassed, I'm ashamed to admit that one of my first thoughts is if I might have done anything to provoke it, and how I was dressed at the time (answer: it doesn't matter). And yet -- both of these thoughts can end up as courtroom "evidence".

And the men on the street who've told me to smile? (This one was not the first, and I'm sure he won't be the last.) My face is not here for your enjoyment. My body isn't, either. By telling me what I should do with them, you're telling me that body isn't mine. You're telling me that I'm public property. And as hard as I try to fight it -- sometimes public property is exactly what I feel like.

And I'm sick of it. And I'm tired of violence against women being treated as something to laugh about. I'm sick of rape jokes in the mainstream -- on network television, in movies, even in Broadway musicals. (Melissa McEwan at Shakesville sums it up far better than I can.)

So, that's part of what's been on my mind.

I went to a Sarah Lawrence alumni seminar yesterday about how post-modern art influenced the work of John Cage. I would like to find more opportunities in the city to go to lectures, because in addition to learning being awesome, they always put me in a great mind-space creatively. Plus, I can look super-academic and intellectual when I furiously scrounge for a notebook and a pen, when the real reason is I just thought of a poem or story idea. (Oh, and there was classy food! I have decided that one of my goals for the New Year is to learn how to identify different kinds of cheese. My first new one -- taught to me by my friend Monica, who was also at the seminar, and apparently knows things about cheese -- who knew? -- that I can identify is Gruyere.)

Anyway, the topic of the modern dance world in the 1950s came up, and the professor mentioned Merce Cunningham's interest in departing from the "tyranny of narrative". While I think it is definitely possible to go too far in that direction, I started thinking about how, out of all the art forms, the only one that I haven't heard people complain that they didn't know what it was "about" was instrumental music. If Bach Sonatas don't have to be "about" anything, why does modern art? Why does poetry? Why does it bother some people so intensely to watch a dance performance and not know what it is "about"? I would argue that beauty should be enough of something to be "about" -- although I suppose the problem there is that no one can decide what beauty is, and it's frustrating to encounter a piece of art that not only do you feel like you don't understand, but you don't think it's beautiful. (I had this experience when I was assigned to read Recyclopedia by Harryette Mullen for a poetry workshop. I got that she was doing stuff with wordplay and sound -- but when I wasn't particularly interested in what she did with wordplay or sound, I found myself struggling more with the feeling of "not getting it".)

And then I started thinking about how, even if a work of art is "about" something, it can easily be misunderstood -- and then subjectivity comes into play, where each individual person experiencing the work of art will inherently get something different out of it, based on their own life experience, preferences, mood, and biases. And maybe it's not necessarily a wrong interpretation, so long as somebody gets something they think is beautiful. (I'm going somewhere with this, I promise.)

So, then, if wrong interpretations can also be right in terms of attaining the goal of providing beauty -- how can we, as a community of artists, use miscommunication as a form of art? And I returned to an idea that I had several months ago, about writing a poem in two columns that is intended to be read by two voices simultaneously. When I finally got to my laptop, I remembered that I had already started to write a poem based on this idea back in October or November (and the working title, GIRLBOY, made me laugh a lot because it reminded me of MOTHERBOY). As the name suggests, I originally wrote it for two speaking voices, one male and one female (though maybe a bit older than one would think from GIRLBOY -- I imagine early 30-something). I don't usually like to post poetry, for a number of reasons, one of which being that when you're submitting to literary journals, you're supposed to give them most of them the first publication, which technically includes online self-publication if you're being totally honest. But since this one is so far from what it's going to be when it's done, and I really wanted to talk about the ideas behind it to see if anyone else is similarly inspired so we can start an awesome cycle (you know, as opposed to a vicious cycle).

So when I got home late from the lecture and my roommates were asleep, I very quietly recorded myself speaking each part individually into Garage Band. Then I played them back together.

What I think is interesting is the way that the two parts end up lining up. I like the moments in which you hear one voice say one word, and then you hear the other voice responding with the same word in a different context. I like the part where it seems like the two voices breathe together, which is a total coincidence since they were recorded separately (obviously, since I can't do multiphonics with my voice -- but oh how cool would that be?!). I'm interested in new ways to experience poetry other than visually (why are visuals more important than say, smell? how would it affect your experience if a poem smelled like lemons?). It's also interesting to me how confessional this ends up sounding, simply because I was speaking quietly so as not to wake anybody, and how because both voices are me, it's easy to let the voices conflict until neither of them make any sense. (If somebody wants to lend their voice to help me experiment -- that could be pretty cool. And if you have a Mac with Garage Band, it'd be easy to record the tracks separately.)

What I think isn't working: Well, I actually hate each part on its own, and a lot of the lines individually. Each part alone sounds melodramatic to my ear, and trying a bit too hard to get wherever they're going. I would be a bit embarrassed to see this in print. Oh, and clearly I need to think of a title other than GIRLBOY, at some point. And if I wanted it to be put this on the page, how would I print it so that a reader had close to the same experience as it would be to hear it aurally performed by two people? This may not be possible -- but how would one even approximate? And how do I fix all of the problems while keeping the parts I think are interesting (the way the words line up together, the fugue-like quality to the repetition)?

GIRLBOY by littlemissdictionary

In other news: it is still winter, and there are few things more oppressively grown-up than being at work while kids are off from school and sledding in front of your office.

In other other news: people still think it is okay to lick their hands while handling papers or money. This is gross.

That is all.


  1. Coupla things: Your encounter with the kiss-making man sounds profoundly disturbing. It's unbelievable that a random person gets to make you feel creepy. I get you, sister. Reminds me of the hollaback video, ""My plans are done for the night. I'm escorting you to the police station. Oh, yes. Oh, f*ck*ng yes." I'm so sorry you were alone, but then again, that's not the kind of thing that happens when you aren't alone.

    As for being asked to smile, your Aunt R(piano teacher) used to tell people she had an accident wherein her facial muscles were cut and so she couldn't smile. Kind of a long explanation to give when you just want to be invisible or bolt, but...

    Anyhoo, kudos on Gruyere and GIRLBOY. I really think it sounds kewl.

    And congratulations on all the snow. As you probably know, this completely negates the global warming theory. ;)

  2. 1) I understand what you mean: being angry at the fact that it occurred to you to confront the man and his perverted ways afterwards, but only being able to respond with quiet anxiety while it’s happening. It’s that kind of situation (amongst other much more dire ones) that move strong feminists to struggle and fight for empowerment. It was a learning experience. Sit with it, and think about how to respond the next time you are in a situation that is uncomfortable and fearful.

    But wasn’t there a camera in the elevator? Perhaps you can still do something about it.

    2) Art usually has to be going somewhere if it wants to keep people’s interest or have any sort of relevance (objectively). Beauty can be the point of a dance, but the authors have to explain this (in some way) or at least hint at it in the context of the dance. And beauty is a generic and overwrought subject; the authors have to be saying something about beauty. Looking at something and saying “oh, this is pretty” is an entertainment that can last for, at the most, half of a minute, before one begins to question what the point of all this is.

    3) The answers to your revisionist questions about your poem are things only you can really come up with, since it’s only you who would actually know what the poem is ultimately supposed to be. But it sounds like the kind of situation that requires someone to sit down with you and discuss in person if you really desired others’ input.

    4) No, this winter does not negate Global Warming in the least. One season’s weather does not negate a common-sense theory that concerns itself with years worth of damage to the ecology and the state of the atmosphere in its present and future manifestations after that damage. But if it helps any, the kids may play, but they aren’t earning the money the working adults are.

  3. Hey, C-Sam,

    my comment about global warming was made in jest. Hence, the winky emoticon.

  4. Hey Abby,

    Sorry to hear about your creepy encounter--that sucks. I understand that you, as a woman, get way more attention (including bad attention) than I do on the street. Still, it seems roughly analogous with that story I told you about almost getting into a fight on the subway. I agree that the male/female dynamic comes with its own issues, but what I'm trying to say is, I FEEL YOUR PAIN.


  5. Rebecca,

    I apologize, then. Sorry =/