I’m a Bitch, I Looked it Up

As a middle-aged woman, I’ve ninety percent stopped smiling. It’s not that I’m not happy. I don’t even know why I should have to explain that. I just don’t see the connection between, say, living my life and walking around with a grin painted on my face.

I’ve never really worn makeup. Maybe that’s what a smile is, another decoration for your face. Which makes us Christmas trees?

I went to Paris years ago and the guidebooks said don’t walk around smiling all the time or they’ll know you’re American. It being the age of Freedom Fries I wanted to, one, reflect well on the United States and, two, pretend I wasn’t from there.

I remember how weird it felt not to smile. Like my muscles were going backwards. My face kept making the motions and I’d have to stop myself. At ease, face. Do something else. Like see Paris, Bombay, Antarctica. The moon. Even though I stopped smiling in order to conform to yet another culture, it became an open door.

In Seattle I walked with my best friend a couple weeks after she’d experienced something horrifically painful. I couldn’t even believe she’d left the house. As we made our way through the crowd a young man barked “Smile!” My friend walked on. I looked at this man and I wanted to yell that he had no idea, no idea at all. I still hate myself for doing nothing. Meanwhile, this man has no memory. To him it wasn’t an event, a moment, it wasn’t anything.

What if my friends and I shouted out helpful suggestions to the men around us? Smile! Stand up straight! Try some hair plugs! Loosen your belt and your belly won’t so dramatically cascade over your crotch region! We’d chuckle and then pound some more mini Snickers.

For my trouble, I’ll expect a smile back. Recognition, from you, that I’m charming. Acknowledgement, from you, that I’m witty.  I will need reassurance, from you, whatever it takes you to provide it, that I am allowed to lob my thoughts at you, and that you will have to drop all your parcels and grocery sacks to catch them.

Or you’re a bitch.

You know who doesn’t smile? Babies. You smile at them for months and they don’t smile back. They don’t have resting bitch face. They have resting genuine true self human being face. The face created by their Creator.

I don’t think bitchy is a look. Bitchy is merely the absence of what you were expecting from my face. Your expectations are not my concern.

Though even in my 30s, I thought I had to answer to those expectations. I couldn’t let you down. I thought I had to respond to every inane comment that came my way. Do you know you have the complete option to look blankly at people who make inane comments? About you, your children, your choices. You can let them hang. Sure it’s awkward. But they can stew in it. You don’t have to think up a way to make them feel less awkward. You don’t have to toss them a lifeline. You don’t have to save anyone or fix anything. Walk on.

There is a school of thought about Christian kindness. I am not able to address this.

I’ve stopping using exclamation points in emails to try to seem more fun and less serious. Serious leads to cold. Cold leads to bitchy. I think this is where people can stop liking you, also a deadly fear for a woman. I’m stepping off the ledge. I will sit at home alone with no friends, not smiling at myself in the mirror.

I guess I’m taking the chance. It’s starting to feel worse not to.

I looked up bitch in the online Oxford Dictionary. I wondered if they’d actually list the word but of course they do.

Bitchy as an adjective had one meaning. Malicious or spitefully critical. Malicious means the desire to harm someone. Which is weird because the crime stats show the ones harming others tend to be the dudes. What’s the word for how a man’s face looks before he harms someone? Does the witness say, yeah I knew he was going to kill his neighbor, he had a total bitch face.

What’s the antonym of bitchy? There is none listed.

There are synonyms for bitch: vixen, she-devil, and hellcat. I was surprised when I read the synonyms because my first reaction was that those words didn’t seem negative. Maybe I’m way off but she-devil and hellcat I can almost picture on sports jerseys.

The second meaning of bitch is “a spiteful or unpleasant woman”. This is the second reference to spite. What’s all this fear of being spited? This meaning is marked informal so that you know only to call a woman a bitch in casual settings like a barbecue.

Here’s where I truly was surprised. And lost some wind in my sails. Under meaning 2 point A– marked as offensive so you know you’re about to be offended– bitch means “a woman”.

A woman. Just, a woman. Any woman. All women. Cheerful or spiteful. This takes all the impetus out of the smiling then doesn’t it? Because I lose either way. So does your mother. And your grandmother. Your favorite auntie who sent you tins of oatmeal cookies in college. Your kids’ 3rd grade teacher. The principal with the little duckie collection. The doctor who delivered your babies. The surgeon who knit your heart back together, scowling over your gaping wound. Your senator.

It’s not easy to stop smiling.

Oh wait.

It is.

 

From PO to LO: Is There Life After Portland?

Link

Is there life after Portland, home of the weird? This week we move to Lake Oswego, Oregon, home of the…?

Stereotypes work both ways. In many ways, Portland’s hip weird alternative reputation is just another stereotype. I mean, I live here, I seemingly fit in. And I can attest on a stack of compost that I am nowhere close to hip.

I know this, I always felt at home in Portland. Over the years I wandered, searching for home in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. Waiting for home to hit me in the face. When I moved back from the East Coast for the third and final time, and I came up over the Marquam Bridge from the airport, where Tom McCall Park and the waterfront first rise into view, it was like the hole inside me was healed. And I thought, maybe home doesn’t hit you in the face. Maybe home hugs you in the gut.

The forests, the Willamette, the bridges, Mount Hood. The glowing articles in the New York Times talk about Portland’s cupcakes and whiskey bars. It’s true, there are a lot of nice blocks with a lot of nice places. But when you live your life here, you know where Portland is. To see Portland, you look up and around. To see Portland, you see the clouds, ten feet over your head. And they remind you that here, things are close to you.

So now the moving truck heads ten miles south. When we tell our Portland friends we found a house they are excited! “Where is it?” Expecting the old Portland neighborhoods – Laurelhurst, Sellwood, Eastmoreland. We say Lake Oswego and they say:

“Oh.”

This past year alone we have met families from Chicago, New York, Ohio, Michigan, another from New York, another from Michigan, southern California, Arizona, central California, another from central California, and more I’m forgetting. Portland has become a meet-up spot. These people didn’t pack up their lives and move two thousand miles to come to an off-shoot, a shadow, a little sister of Portland. They came for what was promised in the ad.

To Portlanders, I believe, Lake Oswego is:

a bunch of rich white people

conformist

homogenous

without culture

without sidewalks

a foodie wasteland

Or maybe these are my own fears.

I know this, crime is lower, schools are smaller, and you can hear birds. It is my feeling that I will be able to let my children play in our front yard. I also know this: in Portland I almost never ride my bike, I repeatedly drive the car when I could have walked, and I’ve never been to organic ocean-sustainable Bamboo Sushi but buy the eight pack in the plastic tray from Trader Joe’s. (Which I drive to.)

Maybe Portland was the possibility. That I might one day put on an ironic cowboy hat and direct an art film in my driveway.  That I might tear up the front lawn and grow a one-loaf-a-summer patch of wheat. That I one day might loosen the shackles that weld me to safety and conformity. That I might be everything I am free to be. Marlo Thomas. There is a land that I see, take my hand and we’ll run, it’s right out the window. In Portland the best was yet to come.

In Portland you never grow old.

In ways then, our move to the suburbs feels like a door closing. That we are going there to build the final nest, our children’s base camp as they age and launch into adulthood. This move is for them, not us.

Moving to Lake Oswego feels like getting married. Not that I was a crazy single person -but the options were there. In the suburbs it seems there is an expectation, a commitment to the stable. There may be nights spent downtown in a hotel after a night of turtle soup and Afghani film, but I will never again live here. I will never be: from Portland, for seventeen years the coolest thing, by far, that could be said about me. I have no idea why at this age I still give any credence to anything as shallow and immature as the word “cool”.

I tried to make it work. Raising kids in the city. The diversity, as we say. Sure everyone was actually white like us, but there were different KINDS of white people. There were white people on homemade unicycles, white people with beards down to their high tops, there were white people dressed up as kitty cats. What better place to teach the children that there is a place for you here in this world, whatever you are.

It got harder to explain the man who stormed down our sidewalk as we unlocked our front door. “DON’T GO IN THERE! DON’T YOU DARE GO IN THERE!!!” he shouted at us, high on meth.

And now that my son can read, free-speech redolent Portland offers a highway lined with darkened parlors full of naked dancers. There’s not a route to the dentist that doesn’t pass a strip joint. I did okay explaining “Lucky Devil”. It got harder to explain Hot Hot Hot Girls. And why they were so sweaty.

I’m scared to move to Lake Oswego. I’m excited to move to Lake Oswego. The truck comes Saturday. Have we hidden our treasures in faceless cardboard? How will we arrange this new life? Will there be a place for everything we’re bringing? What will be missing?

The road goes south. In geologic time, it’s a blip. In the context of the globe and the millions of people and what people struggle through, this is nothing. We’re heading down the road, to see what we find there.

Is Your Hair Talking to You (Too)?

My hair talks to me. I didn’t realize it until this year. They said when I was born I had thick black hair. “Like a man” said my dad. Even in his sixties he couldn’t shake the memory.

At some point my bear fur fell out and was replaced by fine blonde hair. As a toddler, the photos show that I somehow came into some reddish curls or maybe it’s just the light. It’s hard to pinpoint when all these changes took place. People didn’t used to take pictures of their kids every six minutes. And if my hair was talking to me then, I couldn’t hear it over the mass confusion of everyday life.

For most of my life, brown hair has been one of the few body parts I didn’t have a problem with, my Slavic nose, small chest and big hips (the hyperextended deflated hour glass). I could write a book about my feet, perfectly proportioned to someone who’s five foot ten, except I’m five four and a half. Also with the feet: flat as a duck’s.

But I’d long resigned myself to my brown hair, to the fact that the brown-haired women in movies did often get the guy, but only after going the whole story being taken for granted, until somewhere in Act 3 he hits his head on the sink and realizes, Oh my god, you’ve been there all the time. Having brown hair was like being a perpetual Jane Austen heroine. But brown hair also had its benefits. In the movies, the blondes are much more likely to get kidnapped, while the brown-haired gals in their flak jackets are the ones who solve the kidnapping. Very big of us to save our fair sisters. Such it is, I thought. Brown hair solidified my standing as attractive but not beautiful, smart but not a genius, competent but not excelling at anything in particular. Brown hair seemed to say: you’re not exceptional, but you’ll do. You’ll never be on the cover of a magazine, but you might edit one.

So what is this new color? I thought we had the message down pat – I thought brown and I had an understanding. Now what are these wiry strands springing from my scalp, that could only have sprouted accompanied by a Dr. Seuss-type boing. Gray hair, what are you trying to tell me?

On a good day, my gray hair says, look at you, you’ve lasted. You’re still here! Post-cancer, post-divorce, post-getting my dream job and then losing it — I survived. Triumph! The gray hairs my little flying flags.

On a good day, my gray hair says, hey, you’ve learned a few things. Remember navigating the labyrinth of Lower B Hall at Canby High School, zigzagging through the maddening crowd, dodging fights, vomit, girls pressed against walls with boyfriends penetrating them through their denim, small frosh getting strangled. Clutching my math book, avoiding eye contact with anyone, which could only lead to death. These were brown-haired days.

Remember strapping on my college backpack like I knew where I was going, the beginning of pretending. Graduating somehow by virtue of having shown up for four years not because I’d mastered anything. More like a certificate of attendance. Remember post-graduation, years of wandering, accepting jobs, boyfriends, as they floated, pretending they were what I wanted. Bailing water from sinking boats. These were brown-haired days.  So much time wasted.

And if you waste enough of it, and you don’t get asphyxiated, there you are brushing your hair and seeing a new glint. A long silver strand. It’s to your shoulders. The gray has assimilated. Gray is part of you. To pluck it out, what does that mean? That I deny my own experience? Isn’t maturity a good thing? I had cancer at twenty-five, didn’t I pray to live this long. Isn’t this the answer to that prayer? Aren’t I deep here, aging so gracefully. Do you see how deep I am? Do you see it?

Pluck.