Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"And I am not afraid of snakes."

You make a good point, Insanity Wolf.
--from "Adam and Eve," written and performed by Ani Difranco on Dilate (1996)

Life is not fair. Parents and grandparents repeat this old saw whenever we stub a toe or complain about taking out the garbage. Every third commercial reminds us of this, while selling us insurance. Every viewing of "The Princess Bride" hammers the quotation home.

I've been told this my entire life. I get it, at a cellular level. Despite filling young people's heads with stories about retribution and ends justifying means (also known as fairy tales), the world observes no such narrative conventions. That shallow woman who treats everyone poorly and doesn't seem to have any common sense? She's got a cosmetics contract and her own TV show. The priest who never abused children and runs a soup kitchen on his own time? There's a reporter combing through his back records looking for scandal and paying people if he can't find anything. Even Jesus of Nazareth, who was big on providing loaves and Omega-3 fatty acids to the multitudes and tried really hard to make people nice to each other, has people debating whether or not he was "white." [As an aside, Jesus was a Mediterranean Jew. He wasn't from Norway.]

My point is that I have been raised in a time and culture that teaches me to temper my expectations. The good guy does not always win. A white hat does not signify what it did for kids two generations ago. I have learned to be cynical and wary.

And yet...



And yet, in my heart, I burn with a righteous fervor. I have visceral reactions when people are abused and I make damn sure I do the best job I can at treating everyone fairly and with respect. I'm so good at running my life and connections this way that it takes me by surprise when I learn that the world at large has treated a friend poorly - even knowing as I do that the world continues to remain unfair and uninterested.

It's no coincidence that a (non-scientific) internet personality test classified me as "The Reliable Realist." That's me, all right. Consider this sentence from that page: "[The Reliable Realist's] most prominent quality is reliability and they will always make every effort to keep any promise given." I consider many of the bargains of life to be promises, and it bothers me to see them reneged upon. It actually bothers me when friends fall afoul of life, in the sense that it disturbs my sleep, occupies my quiet thoughts, and impairs my ability to focus.

This is about one of those moments.

*** *** ***

I have many friends who are women. I don't know what trick the universe has played on me that I should have so much good fortune finding female friends and so much ill-favor finding female romantic partners, but I confess it's a well-played joke. I attribute this bevvy of platonic beauties to several points: my very egalitarian view on life, my genuine interest in what other people have to say, my detachment from traditional gender stereotypes, and my fervent desire to spy on the enemy camp.

Allow me to introduce Ruth. She's a modern woman. She's bothered by the fact that women make $0.77 of every dollar a man makes. She's bothered by the fact that all the rules about her body get decided by old white men who believe a different moral code than she does. She embraces the fact that society has expectations of her as a woman than she is in no particular hurry to ever fulfill. She also likes baking, doing laundry, and cooking dinner while discussing gender stereotypes - because why not? All of those things need to be done!

She's also likely to consider changing all of the traits I just mentioned, simply because a thing she very much hates is being labelled as ANYTHING. Sorry, Ruth!

In short, she's one of my favorite people. I like people about whom I can say two seemingly-contradictory sentences and have them both be true:

1) I can never, ever predict how she will react.
2) I know her well enough to predict how she will react.

A while ago, she told me a story.

*** *** ***

The story begins in the run-up to one of those giant industry conferences that every profession seems to have at least two of every year. They're in various cities and seem to be about new data and presentations by respected individuals, but are also equally about networking and getting together with old friends in a social setting after dark.

Ruth works in an industry similar to software engineering. She has a bunch of technical knowledge that nobody else has, she uses a bunch of acronyms and jargon that make no sense in normal conversation, she is widely regarded as a wizard and authority because of how she gets her tech to behave, and she's always being called by other people to come and "just make these stupid things work!" As a trombone player (even a doctor!), I have no idea what she does, but I'm pretty sure she'll make more money than I will over the course of my life.

But since she works in such a technical industry, she has to deal with something that a lot of women deal with: there's a lot more men involved. A recent study showed that of the total number of jobs like the one she has, only 6% are held by women. When it comes to a trade conference, that's a LOT of sausage at the festival.

Over the years, she's made her peace with that. She knows that - like many other fields - she has to work twice as hard to be thought 75% as effective in her job as her male counterparts. But she loves what she does, she understands it better than practically anyone, and she primarily cares about getting things done, not waving around a lot of signs. [The rest of my good friends are similarly pragmatic, which says a fair amount about me.]

Last summer, there was one of these insider conferences held in Baltimore. As usual, Ruth made plans to attend, but found that as hotel rooms were filling up in the vicinity, she couldn't find any roommates. Her usual housing buddies were all not going or had found other arrangements. She was in danger of not having a place to stay.

Enter a working acquaintance from a different state. He is someone she's known for years and has regularly kept in contact with for professional exchange of ideas. It come to light in a back-and-forth chat session that he has a suite (an upgrade due to a more demanding travel schedule generating more reward points). He'd be happy to allow her to use one of the bedrooms (at the attractive cost of $0, because of the aforementioned points). And it's in walking distance of the convention center, which is a plus because Ruth prefers to wear heels. [And my brain thinks, "smart to consider height advantage in a field dominated by men" but she didn't explain her reason.]

All this sounds great! Success taken from jaws of defeat! Less chance to walk with sore feet! Fantastic.

And his instant message says, "And what happens at the convention, stays at the convention."

[At this point in telling me this story, I think, "Oh, it's too bad her friend turned out to be a creep."]

"Well," thinks Ruth, "he's married and I know he's cheated on his wife before, so maybe he's worried I'm going to rat him out if he finds a booth babe and brings her up to the suite. Or maybe it has to do with the drinking."

She proceeds to reassure him that she's not going to be paying attention to what he does or doesn't do with other people.

[ANDY thinks: "Sur...surely my friend isn't *this* naive!?"]

He responds that he wasn't thinking about other people.

Ruth's face makes that astonished expression where the eyebrows vault up the forehead and the only sound that can be made is "Uhh...."

*** *** ***

She extricates herself from the situation deftly. As much as she has an impulse to laugh and point, she can't get into that situation publicly. So she bunks with some other ladies, rather than climbing onto her car hood and shouting through a megaphone.

But the damage has been done, in a different way. She's now forced to reconsider all the interactions she's ever had with him. When he offered that assistance in a crisis years ago? When he let her borrow a pen in October? Was he just sitting there the entire time, just thinking about when he'd have the opportunity?

And Ruth is married. So is the guy. Has he so little respect for Ruth's husband (to say nothing of Ruth) that he'd attempt his chance while he could?

And what about educationally? This guy teaches courses on his particular field. Does Ruth need to be concerned if she recommends his program to ladies who are interested in entering a field that is already grossly underrepresented by women? Is that doing a disservice to women and the field?

And then the conference will roll around next year, and everything comes back to the surface.

I don't envy the state she finds herself in.

*** *** ***

This is the world that women live in. Tellingly, it is not the world I live in.

I'm sure Ruth has other stories like this.

I don't have any. Not a one.

I cannot say for certain that I have never been the object of someone else's discriminating gaze, but if I have been, it has manifested in such a way as to be completely invisible to me. If the Latin teacher in high school thought I was cute, it never manifested itself beyond a few hedged numbers in the score book. If the training manager at Panera thought I was a ripe specimen of manhood, she never offered to take me into the cooler and dance the Bacon-Turkey Bravo. [Oof, I made myself feel unwell that time.]

Rather infamously, I'm not regarded as a terribly perceptive person. I pay attention to earrings and the number of nervous taps of fingers in a minute, but the more parochial aspects of seduction are often lost on me. So it's possible that whatever was happening to me was just too subtle for me to regard it as an affront to my person. But I would have noticed anything like what happened to Ruth, and her situation could only have been LESS subtle if he'd handed her a card printed with "I want to have an affair right now with you," while a marching band played "Makin' Whoopee" in the background.

Maybe that's an advantage of being a man? I'm sure this sort of thing happens less often to men, just based on odds (here's that 6% number, back again). Or maybe it's an attractiveness thing. I have noticed I get more attention now from the general public than I have at any time previous - which is still not very much. Maybe I was just not worth jeopardizing a career or sabotaging good working relationships for in earlier years. That's rather humbling! Ha.

But I haven't told you what Ruth looks like! She's super-attractive, like a model or a medical advertisement actress. Oops, actually, I forgot who I was talking about (stupid fake names!): Ruth is oooooogly. I'm talking like dog's behind-ugly. Or like "spray-tan until she looks like a leather glove" ugly. Or maybe she's just middle-of-road plain, in a way that would make you say, "well, sure, I'll have an affair with her, but she has to buy her own breakfast."

It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter.

It wouldn't matter if she looked like John Madden or the Virgin Mary - it still wouldn't mean that the reasons were any better or worse. I hate the excuse that if women dress in a particular way, or meet a particular standard of attractiveness, they're inviting more attention. I don't find that to be true unless they're wearing something that has boob-windows or allows easy determination of the color of their underwear. Even then, it's no excuse for offensive behavior.

I used to worry and wonder at my inability to account for the harassment I saw from guys directed at women. Didn't they see that nobody seemed to like it? Didn't they remember the lessons about fairness and equality and keeping thy penis to thyself? Did their mothers run out of soap for mouth-washing when they were children?

Now I know that they don't care. To a certain type of man, women are just things. They are not worthy of respect, compassion, tenderness, or shared experiences. Women are lamps. Women are chairs. Women are end tables. If a woman doesn't want you, they're frozen and don't know what they're missing. If a woman does want you, they're not as virtuous as they want everyone to believe, so who cares if you use a slut?

Perhaps I'm doing men a disservice. Maybe the guy from today's story has a decade-long unrequited longing for someone who's as intelligent and challenging as women can be. Or maybe he just recognizes that particular woman is different from the woman he already has, so it's important to have sex at her.

I don't particularly care to know. All that matters to me is the disappointment. I still have to temper my expectations, but this time it's for everyone else who shares my gender. It is a common saying with me (though I can't say it's a fond one): it is embarrassingly easy to be even a halfway-decent man. And I resent my share of the stigma being forced on me.

I have troubles enough with how I live my life, without having to defend myself against a perfectly reasonable assumption that tends to chill the early stages of a relationship. I know for a fact there are occasions I've been brushed along with every other guy for precisely these reasons. And there's a reason why I have to think how a rapist would behave and not follow a woman alone into a parking garage tunnel at night, opting instead to walk to the ground floor and across.

And I can't blame the women for a single second in jumping to conclusions.

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