Stories in the news this week: A young man kills a group of people, but before doing so he leaves a misogyny-laden Youtube video explaining why he’s going to do what he does. A forest fire burns 183,000 acres on the Kenai Peninsula. And Maya Angelou dies, leaving me to ponder her fearlessly lived life.
These things are unrelated, but I’m a writer and what that means is that these things are winding through my brain, and I’m trying to order them up, make some sort of sense and connection out of them. And ultimately they’re all converging into a story I’ve been meaning to tell, and waiting for the right time to tell it.
A regular hangout space that students of the UAA MFA creative writing program frequent during our summer residency in Anchorage is the Blue Fox Lounge. It’s within walking distance from the dorms and it’s a great place to unwind after long days of literary talks, workshops and readings. On this particular night, a band was playing—a band we’ve made a point of going out for over the last few years. I sat with my friends right in the front, just feet from the trumpet and trombone. The music was fantastic and I was fully enjoying the break from my day-to-day life of working in the library, household responsibilities and going to bed by 10:30pm. For a couple of hours I laughed with my friends, enjoyed a couple of beers and lost myself in the music. A rare, memorable night.
Then, after the band finished playing, we decided to go out for breakfast. In front of the bar while we waited for a cab, we made small talk with the band members as they smoked and packed up their gear. We made a point of thanking them for the music, and for maintaining such a high energy level for so many hours. At that point, the keyboard player, the one who kept the witty banter going throughout the night, asked me my name. Teresa, I told him.
“You know what you are, Teresa?” He said. “You’re a cougar.”
The smoke from the Funny River Horse Trail Fire was dark brown and snaking its way from somewhere up the peninsula down to the head of Kachemak Bay where it hovered over the water and moved toward town last week. As is the case with every fire, it started small. But an unconventionally long stretch of dry weather, a beetle-killed spruce forest, dry grasses and wind conspired to allow one spark to grow and consume a total of 183,000 acres over the next several days. Over the Memorial Day weekend, a fire ban was put in place, which meant no outdoor fires were allowed. No campfires, no cooking fires, no burn barrels. Not even on the beach, not even with a bucket of water and a shovel nearby. Families closer to the fire spent their weekend cutting down trees, making defensible space around their homes.
As a writer, words are my job. I realize they have power. I try to choose them carefully. I want to understand their connotations.
I wasn’t sure how to take that at first. Mostly I was stunned. I mean, who was this guy, and what was he saying about me? As is often the case in uncomfortable situations, I laughed it off. But it didn’t take long for me to start adding up the number of things he was saying about me with that one word.
Before the word was directed toward me that evening last summer, I was hardly aware of the ages of my friends. They were my MFA buddies, people who had read my writing, critiqued it and understood it in a way that few other people had. And I’d read their work. One great thing that happens when you share your work with people is that you connect with them on a deeper lever. Suddenly with this word, I was aware of my age, and of theirs. This one word, at least for a moment, lessened the real relationship I have with my MFA friends, a few of whom are men younger than me.
Before the word was directed toward me, I didn’t feel self-conscious. But in an instant these thoughts went through my head: Should I color my gray hair? Do I look like I’m out to hook up with someone? Should I have gone home early? Maybe I shouldn’t have gone out at all. Eventually, I rationalized my way through these thoughts, but that one word made me doubt myself for a moment.
And then there were the inconsistencies. A few members of the group were women who are younger than me, and men who are older than me. But the keyboard player didn’t feel inclined to shame the older men for hanging out with younger women. And while calling me a cougar was hardly a crime, it was an insult, an insult that was gender specific. What are the insults directed toward women that don’t have a male equivalent? Old maid, hag, slut, whore, tease… cougar. I could make the list longer, I’m sure.
Most baffling of all to me was this: what gave that man the sense that he had to right to define me with that term? He’s a total stranger. All he saw of me that night was that I was out late, I was laughing, I was enjoying a beer or two with my friends, I was tapping my foot to the music. That’s it. And yet he felt entitled—compelled somehow—to belittle my existence in that space in time. I’m sure had he been in line in front of me at the grocery store or had I met him in a more formal setting, he would have made polite conversation. But being out, late at night, with people not my age, gave him license to call me a derogatory name.
And people think that women are too sensitive—that we are uptight about language and names and subtle jokes about our sexuality. But those words are like sparks. They have potential to grow into full-blown misogyny. They have to be extinguished and called out and we have to make people understand their power. It’s not just about being politically correct, it’s about taking preventative action. When we point out an inconsistency or a sexist remark, we’re making defensible space. We’re making sure you understand that we’re not going to allow you to burn us. When we don’t tolerate names or insults at all—even in the context of a joke—we’re banning those campfires, those cooking fires, those burn barrels. It may seem like an extreme measure, but all it takes is reading the news to see that extreme measures are in order. And wouldn’t it be nice if we could move beyond making defensible space? Wouldn’t it be nice to somehow send everyone the message that power and oppression are not mutually exclusive? The band that night had power over its audience in a good way. Everyone in the Blue Fox was smitten with their sound. Too bad the keyboard player didn’t feel that that was enough.