When I was a teen, Mom began talking to me about boys. She spoke in the veiled words of her culture and her generation, yet managed to say the blunt things that only parents and usually mothers can say to their daughters. Things like, “Don’t lean on your boyfriend at the party. He gets bothered, and then he’s embarrassed.” But also things like, “Don’t ever allow yourself to be alone with a boy you don’t know well.” She didn’t elaborate on why, but added, “I want you to be a lady, to behave like a lady. There is a way of being, of even holding yourself that discourages a lot of bad behavior. I know this from many years of working in restaurants.” She demonstrated a very upright, almost rigid posture and a serene, no-nonsense expression. She had brusque efficiency to her manner. “But if bad behavior happens, you must nip it in the bud right away.”
I had enjoyed a sunny, sheltered childhood and had only one boyfriend in high school who had been sweet to me to the point of chivalry. This bad behavior that she alluded to felt removed from me, mysterious … well, intriguing even.
When I went to college, I was one evening invited to a boy’s room purportedly to listen to a new song by a band that we both liked. I knew that we both liked this band based on a single conversation that we had in a dorm elevator ride, in which, unusually, we happened to be alone.
He was a surfer sort of fellow, and I was a bit of a book nerd, so in my youthful limited world-view I had never thought we had anything in common. However, he mentioned his being on his way to the record store, and it came out that we both loved the band, Heart. It was the only time that we spoke to each other beyond the occasional “hi” in the hallway.
So some months later, we were at a party. He said that he had just got Heart’s new album and asked if I’d like to hear some of it. His room was next door, so I agreed. In his room, he put on the record while I examined the album cover. There was a moment when I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise, and suddenly I was picked up, slammed against the wall with a kiss, then thrown on the bed. Honestly, my first thought was “Oh. My. Gosh. Mom was right!” I was excited, shocked, strangely flattered, scared.
He was a good looking, well-built boy. Faded color images from vintage films came to mind. These were films I had watched on lazy summer days of television, the sort where beautiful starlets were impetuously ravished by handsome leading men and loved it. Recall, for instance, Scarlett O’Hara being carried away by Rhett Butler to their bedroom kicking and fighting but waking in the morning with a smile.
Glamour, however, and even attraction pretty quickly receded, and I realized that I didn’t want this to happen. Seizing a moment of his being distracted by a sound outside the door, I managed to throw him off, shakily said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this” and escaped.
Back at my room, my room-mate looked up from her book, gasped on seeing me distraught, and said “What’s the matter? What happened?” I stuttered out my story. She rolled her eyes, laughed a little ruefully, and said, “Oh. John. What a creep.” She thought about it more, gave me a big hug, then to cheer me up, started singing Janet Jackson’s “Nasty Boys” which caused me to bust out in nervous laughter and join her in singing and dancing around the room. I was shaken, but not angry. I thought only, “So. This is how things are, just as Mom tried to warn me… Well, now I know.”
I had also a great curiosity and confusion about this beast that lurks in the hearts of men. For a man’s passion is very beautiful. It can also be quite scary.
It was about this time that my artistic outlets diminished. High school had been filled with creative writing, musical theater, and dance, but my parents now urged me to be more practical and apply all thought and energy to how I would make a living. Their concern was valid, but giving up or diminishing so many of the things I loved at once left me anxious and tortured, though I continued to do well in school.
We do art for the sake of passion, to experience beauty and the joy of creation, to go a little crazy, to learn empathy, to plumb our soul. Witness little ones who draw on the walls, bang on pots and pans, dance their hearts out, sing at the top of the their lungs, make up stories and enact mono-dramas. They do this not because they are being paid or because they are skilled and trained, but to be whole and happy.
Even now it is hard for me to explain to myself, but I suppose it was some combination of my curiosity and confusion, my not feeling fully adequate without a man, and my diminished artistic expression, that then led me into a bad relationship, which became a toxic marriage. I was seeking a life filled with passion in the wrong way. The only good thing was that the marriage was so bad that I left after just two years. I emerged devastated, but fortunately still young enough to recover my life. I am always sad that this time of my life when I otherwise had health, employment, education and youth all to my advantage should have been so dark.
When I entered the professional world, I started in the hazardous materials abatement industry. Hazardous materials abatement is glorified construction work. That is, to “abate hazardous materials” typically means using heavy equipment to dig up contaminated soil for treatment or disposal or perhaps to use drill rigs to drill wells for pumping and treatment of ground water. Or it might mean to remove asbestos or lead paint from buildings, a type of work not uncommonly done by men with a minor criminal background desperate to do work that pays decently given their past record. Add in some science, law and safety professionals, and that’s where I fit in.
I entered this field out of genuine concern for the well-being of our environment, but this meant working with men who kept Snap-On Tool, Ridgid, or Makita pin up calendars in their offices. There was a drill rig operator who wore a “Your Hole is My Goal” t-shirt to work. One time I had to meet with a maintenance worker in his basement office about the asbestos in his facility and found that he had shellacked pornography all over his desk, apparently never expecting a woman to enter his domain.
Once, when I questioned the propriety of pin-up calendars in the workplace, a male colleague vigorously defended them as being a personal item in his own office. I took this all with some sense of humor, but mostly it felt uncomfortable. I have no objection to pin-ups, but we were there to work, and how were we to focus on the task at hand with Miss June buxomly beckoning from the wall above?
One supervisor tried to protect me. When it was suggested that I do air and site monitoring for a particular crew of asbestos abatement workers, he objected, saying, “No, let’s *not* throw Karin into that den.” I appreciated his protection even while knowing that my work was being limited.
However, on another occasion, an executive of my company asked me to help him recruit a potential senior employee by taking him out to dinner and showing him around town at the company’s expense, which was obviously odd because I was an entry level employee and not even working in his department. I was too green and young to know how best to respond. I didn’t say yes, but I didn’t say no. I felt uncomfortable and said nothing.
When the appointed day came for me to meet this potential recruit, I wore my boxiest clothing, was coldly professional, and excused myself from the meeting as quickly as possible. The gentleman in question appeared puzzled as to why he was even being introduced to me. He didn’t take the job.
When I transferred to government work, all of this changed. Suddenly, there was “sexual harassment” training and clear policies explaining acceptable behavior and décor in the work place. Say what you will about bureaucracy, but I welcomed this. City government is where I remained to the end of my professional career.
When my youngest was in preschool, I quit professional work and took part-time work close to home as a children’s ballet instructor and later as a ballroom instructor for adults. Spiritually, it is easier to work as a dance instructor. I am expected to be feminine. There is nothing about myself to diminish. To be gloriously oneself all day and everyday is a great privilege. Girls today are encouraged to enter STEM fields and to break glass barriers. I am proud of my friends who have done so. I salute you. However, even in this time of national transformation, I harbor no delusion as to the challenge of working in male dominated settings. I hope no one holds it against me that in the end, I have found myself happiest in a traditional role.
With regard to feminism, I hope to convey to my daughters some of the lessons that my mother taught me: 1) Get a good education. The more you learn, the more you can enjoy, the more you can think critically, and usually, the more you can earn. 2) Be able to earn your own money. It’s okay to be financially dependent during parts of your life, but have the ability to be financially independent if you need to be. 3) Keep your own emergency fund. If a job or a relationship goes bad, you don’t want to be financially locked in. 4) Don’t have kids until you can afford them. If this seems overly focused on money, I can only say that feeling secure in my ability to earn, invest, and manage my own money has given me self-confidence and allowed me to recover from or shrug off a lot of the small and large insults of the world.
Nonetheless I will add from my own experience: 5) Avoid looking to money, sex, and power as ultimate sources of happiness. Look instead to value, intimacy, and the spiritual and creative spark. 6) Know that you are valuable and worthwhile just as you are even if you feel flawed. Avoid those who make you feel otherwise. Also, we’ll soon have a talk about how to “nip bad behavior in the bud” with some greater detail than my mother was able to muster.