Secret

Be A Secret Feminist

At some point in the last 50 years, some marketing genius in the vein of Don Draper came up with one of the greatest advertising schemes ever: They claimed that if you use the same soap on your face that you use on your body, you will die an ugly, unloved spinster.

And we bought it. Not just women, men, too. One of my roommates currently has upwards of 7 different bottles of bizarre scented chemicals standing in our shared shower. I’m sure each and every one of them does something magical for every individual part of his body, from the tips of his hair to the calloused skin of the feet. There is probably a taint softener somewhere in there.

I have two items in the shower: A combination shampoo/conditioner and a bar of soap.

I assure you, I am a hideous, unlovable troll. But I think that’s just a coincidence.

What Kind of Feminist Are You?

Feminism is all the rage these days. And by “all the rage,” I mean, the mention of the ‘f-word’ makes people want to Joe Pesci someone’s neck. There’s a civil war erupting right now between 40-something feminists and 30-something feminists and 20-something feminists and then the (mostly) teenagers who are #womenagainstfeminism.

I suppose this kind of rift was inevitable. Every group will splinter, every religion develops sects. Feminism has existed long enough for it to go from a political movement with easily definable goals to an ideology with nebulous theories on ‘equality.’ It’s not so much that the ideology is flawed or wrong, it’s that the message isn’t being conveyed very elegantly.

The speech that Emma Watson recently gave at the U.N. for the #HeForShe movement (and that movement itself) is precisely the kind of feminism I signed up for when I was in college and first being exposed to the cause. It’s a movement of inclusion, not exclusion. It’s a movement that says, We lift women up, not by knocking men down, but by helping each reach a higher level.

As Emma said in her speech, “It seems uncomplicated to me.”

So it is.

But there are a lot of future women (and men) growing up today that, while they would agree with the individual checkmarks of feminist equality (equal pay for equal work; women’s right to choose; anti-discriminatory policies; etc.), don’t want to be saddled with the Feminist tag. And I get it.

I’ve been a feminist for over a decade, but waking up to a Twitter feed that is positively exploding with abusive rhetoric (on all sides) makes me want nothing to do with the label. Whether it’s about “rape culture,” “gamergate,” “misogynistic atheists” or some other hot button topic, I find myself compelled by the arguments. Compelled to turn off my computer and run away.

I’ve never been one to shy away from giving my opinion, but the ferocity of the debates has encouraged me to stay back. I don’t engage, I don’t respond. If I see an article that makes some interesting points (even if I don’t agree wholeheartedly with it), I’ll surreptitiously retweet it, but otherwise I keep my mouth shut.

I have become a Secret Feminist.

Be A Secret Feminist

For the young girls and boys growing up today that think gender equality is a no-brainer but have only ever known the term “feminist” to come with scare quotes, it can be hard to feel like there is a movement that represents them. This is especially true for white teens who for all intents and purposes are living in the utopian future that feminists of the 19th and early 20th century envisioned.

(Keep in mind: Equality doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen to a girl. Life is still life, shit happens.)

The thing is, sexism is not as overt as it used to be. The Mad Men office environment would never fly today, and there are laws intended to make sure that’s the case. But that doesn’t mean sexism in the workplace has been eliminated, and it certainly doesn’t mean that feminism has won the fight and can now be put back in the closet next to your Sexy Snowman Halloween costume.

But for a large subset of the younger generation, there is a huge disconnect between the rhetoric of Feminism’s most outspoken members and the world they actually live in. Activists tend to believe that people will fall into complacency if they let off the gas at all, but that sort of gung-ho advocacy can be repellent to people who aren’t confronted with inequality in their daily lives.*

So, how does Feminism rehabilitate its image? That’s a tough question, and something that isn’t going to be answered in a 1500 word essay. I do know, though, that it’s possible to be a feminist and stand up equality without wearing pins and starting every conversation with, “Well, I’m a feminist, so…”

It’s okay to be a Secret Feminist.

I grew up in an excitable Christian community that would have had a term for that kind of devotion to the cause: Luke warm. Well, who asked them?

The world needs activists. It needs proud, outspoken proponents for causes. Without them, important issues would fall between the cracks and change would never happen. But the world also needs regular people who don’t fight over every little detail and live in relative harmony with their fellow humans, even when they have fundamentally different worldviews.

What was the biggest boon to the equal rights campaign for homosexuality in America? Not marches or parades, not politicians or scientists. It was Ellen on television every weekday afternoon. It was Neil Patrick Harris charming the (figurative) pants off of Middle America. Ellen Degeneres, the Lesbian sitcom character, disappeared from TV in a scandalized flash, but Ellen the flamboyant TV host is the new Oprah.

So, how does your average, mellow citizen live as a feminist without turning into a caricature? The easiest thing I can think of is finding the little nuggets of sexism in your life and pushing them out. For instance? you ask.

Stop buying into the beauty lies of an industry that insists every natural part of you is an abomination. And I mean that literally: stop buying their products. Yes, when these companies came up with these marketing tricks, they were just making up things for us to be insecure about. They were fake problems. Now, though, society has embraced those standards of beauty and they are ‘real’ (as real as any cultural standard can be).

It’s nice to say, “You’re beautiful just the way you are,” but that’s a bunch of greeting card horseshit, and while you’re embracing your inner beauty, someone else is getting made up and winning the heart of the guy/gal you wanted. It’s a brutal world out there. Sometimes you really do have to fight for what you want.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t hit back at the industry that birthed this monstrous culture. The easiest way is pretty obvious: Stop buying those stupid fucking magazines. Women’s magazines are more pornographic than Maxim. Why are you buying them? (I mean, I get it if you’re a teenage boy and you can’t get your hands on Playboy, but even then, have you not heard of the internet??)

If you really must have those beauty tips, may I suggest doing what housewives have done for decades: Get in the longest line at the grocery store and read it there. Those magazines are 90% ads and about 6 pages of content, so you should be able to get through 3 or 4 different issues by the time Widow Henderson finds her $.50 coupon for that 30-pack of toilet paper.

For crissake, cancel that damn subscription (may I suggest getting something else instead).

There are a lot of insidious ways that sexism has seeped into all of our lives, but none of them is more pervasive than these beauty standards. Some might see the new impossible beauty standards for men to be a step in the right direction; after all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. But that’s the poisonous mentality that is hurting feminism. We shouldn’t be hoping for a worse world for men, we should be hoping for a better world for everyone.**

It’s not easy to push back against the tide of mass culture and the multi-billion dollar beauty industry, but a million individuals making a small change in their life is more impactful than an angry Twitter feud or a dozen articulate blog screeds (of which this is attempting not to be). Enough small steps become massive marches.

The beauty industry’s profits rely on you hating yourself. I’m not saying that the answer is to just “Love yourself.” I’m saying the answer is to hate them back. If you must participate in the zero sum game that is  Cosmetic Beauty, do it without feeding their coffers. Self-esteem is hard; spite is easy.

(Now, I would never suggest that you steal beauty supplies, but…)

jaimelondonboy on Flickr

*Some feminists would argue that we are all, daily, living in a world that is shaped by inequality and sexism. While this is likely true, it’s in ways so subtle that an innocent bystander can’t be blamed for not necessary seeing everything through those lenses.

**Standards of beauty aren’t all inherently bad. It’s part of our very biology to seek them out and I’m not going to pretend that I don’t find some people more attractive than others. There comes a time, though, when those standards grow so unrealistic that they cross over to the level of satire.

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beat on

An Expert on Nothing

I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing 2 weeks before I began 10 Cities / 10 Years. There are probably degrees that have less value than mine, but I can’t think of 1 funny enough to complete this setup. As you can see, I’ve clearly put my education to good work.

My other major areas of study in school were psychology and history. If we voyage back a few years, before I discovered my love of writing, I was a young math nerd, convinced that I would some day grow up to work in the fields of mathematics or engineering (not that little Lyttleton understood what that would entail).

While traveling the country, when I’ve reached for non-fiction books, they have predominantly been focused on biology, physics, sociology and cultural studies, or some mix therein. In particular, I’m fascinated by the concept of emergence as it pertains both to biological and artificial entities.

Rather than suggesting that I am a Da Vinci-esque polymath, though, these varied intellectual pursuits are actually more damning than laudable. Instead of delving deeply into any one area and gaining an expertise, I flit from one interest to another, gaining a perfunctory understanding of a wide swath of subjects, but never truly mastering any single field.

That includes writing.

Since becoming obsessed with the written word (and girls) in the sixth grade, I haven’t stopped trying to improve as a writer. From my early detective short stories to numerous church plays, from my terrible high school poetry to my terrible college poetry, I was always attempting to expand my skill sets. The first time I read my poetry in front of a crowded poetry slam, I was 18 in a 21+ only bar. I had invited the (first) love of my life, and from the audience she watched as I shuffled up to the mic, was immediately heckled (“Hey, Hanson!” one astute drunk commented on my long, blond hair) and then attempted to read my shitty free verse.

Spoiler Alert: She didn’t fall in love with me.

I didn’t tackle a BS in Creative Writing because I thought it would make me a better writer. Quite the opposite, I felt that writing was something you did, not something you were taught, so I was very skeptical of my writing courses. I had so little interest in “continuing my education” when I went to college that I lazily picked the most obvious major and stuck with it, even though I probably would have been better suited majoring in psych or Ultimate Frisbee.

It’s remarkable to me that in those college courses, my professors almost uniformly praised my writing ability (whether it was in short stories, screenplays or, to a much lesser degree, poetry), because I look back on everything I produced back then and I can’t see even a glimmer of redeemable work in the whole lot. I like to believe that I’ve grown exponentially since those days, yet like any writer, I yo-yo back and forth from loving my work to hating it, sometimes within the same hour.

Then I look at those writers who went on with their education and attained MFAs from NYU or some other acronym-affiliated institution, and I can’t help but notice that they have developed the most important writerly skill that I’m missing: Connections.

Okay, that’s sort of cynical, while being completely true. Artistic success has almost nothing to do with skill. Artistic failure, though, is entirely about skill. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. As a rule, those writers who are being published are talented (E.L. James, excepted). They might not be the most talented writers out there, but contrary to the beliefs of every frustrated unpublished writer out there, the world isn’t filled with undiscovered geniuses. Having connections helps, and following the ‘legitimate’ writer path of advanced degrees is the best way to make those connections. But just because that’s a safe, predictable life path, that doesn’t mean those writers who succeed along the way are not talented. Au contraire.

Most of the living writers I enjoy are of the advanced degree variety, and it’s because they have mastered (as much as such things can be ‘mastered’) the technical and poetic skills to be truly transcendent authors. They devoted years of their lives to that development and their reward has been a proficient and elegant use of language. They have been resilient students of the form.

I have not. Don’t get me wrong, I read a lot and I write prolifically. I do not, however, study ‘how-to’ guides by the masters or go to writing workshops, nor do I defer to the guidance of mentors or gurus. I write, I submit, I receive rejections and then I move on to the next piece, all along dissecting my past work to attempt to understand the flaws. It’s a largely solitary endeavor, and for that reason it is a slow and aimless trek. Is my art improving, or am I merely circling a drain?

It has occurred to me lately that I will never be a critical darling as a writer. This is a mighty hit to my pride because there has always been a part of me that considered myself an intellectual, a ‘serious writer.’ But just as I’ve had to accept that my shallow dives into all variety of topics doesn’t make me an expert in any of them, I’ve come to the realization that my writing lacks the technical merits to ever earn the critical fellatio of top critics. If I ever managed to squeak out some literary success, it will be by pure force of will. The same stubbornness that brought me to the end of this project.

I suppose that’s fitting for a guy who lists both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac as major influences, as both authors were the recipients of considerable negative critical reviews in their lifetimes.* History has a way of giving artists a second appraisal, but both of those authors died young and as alcoholic failures. I’m not saying that’s a goal or something I’m trying to emulate. No, it just seems when I fell in love with their beautiful prose, I backed the wrong literary horses. I should have been worshiping at the altars of critically superior Authors.

If there is any solace to be taken from this recognition, it comes in the form of a quote from, who else, Fitzgerald:

“An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterwards.”

(I don’t mean to suggest that my goal is to write young adult fiction. Far from it. I have no interest in the genre, neither as a writer or as a reader. I actually find it quite dismaying that rather than teenagers attempting to read literature above their head in order to stretch themselves intellectually, adults are reading books aimed at teenagers because they’re “actually really well-written.”

Dr. Seuss is ‘really well-written’, too, that doesn’t mean you should only read about cats in hats. But I digress.)

My point is to say that as a writer, I may never achieve a level of expertise worthy of the living legends. It will still always be my goal. We should all aim for things that are outside our reach, if for no other reason than because actually achieving a dream is pretty depressing once reality sets in.

I’m going to write. I’m going to try to improve, day by day, year by year. And I am going to get pummeled by critics, professional and amateur alike. And the best thing I can do is to keep going. I have no interest in being a critic. Or a professor. Or even an agent. I want to be a writer. That and only that.

If that ambition leaves me penniless, unknown and critically ravaged, so be it. Que sera, sera. Or, whatever.

We Beat On

*Obviously both of these writers also had positive reviews in their lifetime, but they both managed to squander a lot of their critical goodwill by the time of their respective deaths.

Brooklyn Clouds Pana

Slow Living

Brooklyn Clouds Pana

Everything is slowing down.

In the city that doesn’t sleep, in the land of the 24-hour anything and unrelenting hordes, my life has eased to a crawl.

I’m not working yet, though I have been hired. I was cut from my first shift because it’s the High Holy Days in these parts and the clientele was expected to be sparse. I’m exploring some, but with savings dwindling (because of the aforementioned lack of profitable shifts), my adventures are necessarily relegated to the peripatetic sort. I’ve walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, traversed miles and miles of Brooklyn’s diverse neighborhoods and even stumbled across an indeterminate movie set in Greenpoint just the other day.

This has been the norm over the last 10 years of my life (11, actually): The arrival in a new city, the patient search for employment and the forced-austerity in the interim. Life in my new cities always has a way of ramping up as the year progresses.

It’s not as if I’ve been living the life of a monk, though. I’ve been to 3 different concerts this month alone, 1 each in Manhattan, Brooklyn and good ol’ D.C. I’ve drank whiskey on my rooftop with the residents of my apartment building, chatting with foreign exchange students from all over Europe late into the night. I’ve had family dinner with my roommates while sitting on the floor of our furniture-less living room (okay, that sounds kind of Monkish). Heck, I’ve even been on a couple of dates, which is certainly not the norm for me.

Yet, still, these first four weeks in New York City have felt incredibly prolonged and I think it’s because, more than any other reason, for the first time in 10 years I’m not living with a deadline. For a decade, my life has been measured in rigid year increments, with monthly mile markers to remind me of the passage of time. These weren’t birthdays or New Years which are generally nothing more than symbolic signposts, but definitive endings and new beginnings. Yearly rebirth.

September 1st, 2015 will be an ending, certainly. It will be the day that 10 Cities / 10 Years crosses over from the project I’m living to a project I lived, from doing to done. And like some sort of personal holiday, it will transform from being a real day for change to a historical symbol of past change, something I’ll celebrate by drinking alone in a bar and raising a toast to my reflection in the cloudy mirror.

Because in a year, I’ll still be here.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve been able to say that. This is life in slow motion.

I wonder how long I can maintain this orbit before I spin off and drift away…

Stair Aerial

Sunset on 911

Still?

Are you still outlining the course of your dreams
or did you wake up in another man’s arms
and settle in for winter?
It still snows in Chicago,
it still burns in California,
it still hurts to wake up alone,
but who’s touching your cheek
like a ghost?
Did your father leave you
or let you down;
did your daddy issue you
an inferiority complex;
did you think I’d be him?

I’m still out here where you last saw me,
only grayer and thicker,
like a blizzard husk,
a mound of the discarded slush,
compacted:
Stronger than a wall of cement.

I am New York, and you are not.
I am New York, and you are anywhere else;
easy.
I am New York; hardened, cruel, untouchable,
invincible,
and you are
still.

Sunset on 911

Stormy Weather Pana

Writing the Final Chapter

City 10

If you want to be a writer, you have to be in New York.

That’s what I believed when I was in high school. So nebulous was my idea of what it meant to be a writer and what the city of New York was like, that when I applied for colleges, I didn’t even bother to look into specific writing programs, I just applied to whatever universities were in the state that I thought would get me closer to my dream.

The 2 schools that accepted me (and probably the only 2 schools I actually finished my applications to) were Bard and Houghton, neither of which are anywhere near NYC and neither one of which I could afford. I didn’t really care about college (despite being an A student, I had no great affection for the process of being schooled), I just saw it as means of getting out of Kansas, like a rocket breaking from the Earth’s gravitational pull. Learning that I wouldn’t be able to afford either school (even with copious scholarship money) was the sound of my pod crashing back into the ocean.

It was also probably the best thing that could have happened to me.

It doesn’t serve anyone well to achieve your dreams at a young age. The high school quarterback, the child actor, the prodigy that burns out by 30, these are the familiar tropes of the star that burns out bright and fast. Are there people who succeed early and keep on achieving greater successes throughout their life? Absolutely, but they’re so rare that they don’t fit into our familiar narratives, like, say, Lindsay Lohan publicly losing her shit.

Am I saying that I’m glad to be in my thirties and still mostly unknown as a writer? Of course not. If I had made it to New York before I was 20, though, I very well would have never left. I might have gone to grad school, gotten into an influential writing circle, pooped out a couple of novels and been very professional about it all. It might have been a very nice life (or I might have been a colossal flop). But what it most certainly would not have been is unique. I would have been like the millions of other midwest kids with dreams of literary fame (or infamy) who hit all the right steps on their way to their 30s so that the New Yorker will publish their version of middle class ennui.

Instead…

Stormy Weather Pana

Year 10

I haven’t accomplished anything. I’ve made it to my 10th year, yes, and I’ve leaped some major hurdles to make it here. But I’m still at the beginning of this year, still in the last turn before the finish line. And when September 1st, 2015 comes around, what will I have accomplished?

I guess it depends on how we measure success. I certainly won’t be rich, so right there, for 50% of the world I’ll be a failure. I also won’t be famous, so that’s another 25% of the population who won’t be impressed. It’s unlikely I’ll have published a novel in the next year (mostly because I’m only now just beginning a new project). I might have a couple more stories or poems find publication, but those will go largely unnoticed. So the 10% who cares about literary success won’t care. The remaining 15% are fellow artists and creative types, as well as friends and family, the ones who are just happy to see this project reach fruition.

Except, I alienate a lot of people with my political/social/religious/artistic views, so a pretty big chunk of that 15% probably kind of secretly hopes I’ll fail.

Such a pessimistic assessment isn’t meant to elicit sympathy. It’s illustrating a fundamental truth: When pursuing a dream that’s central goal isn’t money, fame or power, not only will it be a lonely journey, but the destination will likely be an uninhabited land.

I don’t know anyone in New York. I’ve met some people since being here, and there are a few acquaintances from over the years who are out here. But like every year, this is just one more move to a place where I’m a stranger. The reset button has been hit, the bank account is hanging on for dear life, and the world spins indifferently on.

stranger

10 in 10

This is chapter 10. Like most things I’ve written, I’ve got no idea how it’s going to end until I actually make it to the end. I’m making it up as I go, so you’ll have to excuse me if half the time it doesn’t make any sense and the other half it seems like I’m simply treading water. You’ll just have to have  some faith that when it’s all said in done, this whole journey will make sense.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

~L

            the road is life

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